Chicago Blackhawks Honorary Expansionpalooza Thread (and One More Super Death Star Conference Rumor)

Any other evening I’d be writing a full blown expansion post considering all of the news and speculation today, but the mighty Blackhawks have just won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years!!!  It was a little weird that Patrick Kane was the only person in the building that realized that he scored a goal for about 5 minutes, but it more than worth the wait considering that Chicago hockey fans have been suffering for five decades.  A tad over 3 years ago, I went to a Hawks-Red Wings game with one of my buddies where the United Center was about half full and the majority of people that were there were Detroit fans.  Yet, Rocky Wirtz has been able to completely reverse what seemed to be irreversible damage that his late father had caused to its fan base.  I wrote this piece last year about the Hawks being the “Prodigal Franchise” of Chicago and how it has gone about regaining an entire generation of lost fans.  Well, those fans definitely aren’t lost anymore.  As I sit here in my Blackhawks sweater tonight, I’ve been able to witness arguably the greatest NFL team ever (the ’85 Bears), the greatest set of basketball teams ever (the ’90s Bulls dynasty), my baseball team crush the Curse of the Black Sox (the ’05 White Sox), an Illini berth in the national championship game (with the ’05 Elite Eight comeback game against Arizona that was the most unbelievable sports event that I have ever witnessed) and now a Stanley Cup.  Heck, Illinois might retroactively win the Rose Bowl that I attended 2 years ago depending what sanctions get hammered on USC.  Looking back, the Sports Gods have blessed me beyond belief.  Plus, we’ve got many more years to enjoy Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.  Congrats Hawks!!!

Now, as for the latest on expansion:

Reports all over are confirming that Nebraska has been invited to the Big Ten, including the Chicago Tribune.  Most of the regular readers of this blog established fairly early on that Nebraska would be the most likely school to be invited to the Big Ten and I’ve been getting info for awhile supporting that.

It can’t be that simple, though, right?  If you’ve been following my Twitter feed (@frankthetank111), I had a brief interaction with @FakeJimDelany where he asked me whether I had bugged his phone, to which I replied, “I only get my info from Northwestern message boards.”  Well, the Northwestern message boards put up another doozy of a rumor tonight: in addition to Nebraska, the Big Ten will be offering invites to Texas, Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Missouri.  The Missouri invite, however, is contingent upon either Texas or Notre Dame accepting.  Who knows how this is going to play out and whether the Big Ten would truly hand out invites (or more specifically, asking the candidates to fill out the applications for invites) without knowing whether the answer is yes, but I do know that the poster (who had written the infamous post that reportedly sent Jim Delany flying off the handle, was removed for a couple of weeks and is now back online) has a legit and direct connection to the Big Ten office.  So, if this offer is true, the choice for Texas is what I laid out in yesterday’s “Double Chess” post: the comfortable Kia of the Pac-10 that won’t upset its Lone Star neighbors or the Rolls Royce of the new Big Ten.

Regardless, Chicago is the center of the sports world on multiple levels for the next few days.  The Blackhawks are bringing the Cup home.  Let’s see who Jim Delany ends up bringing over to Park Ridge.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter

I apologize for the lack of blog posts over the past month as my family and work obligations have been impeding on my ability to write pithy comments about the Bulls’ obsessive need to draft more tweener forwards.  (That being said, I haven’t really missed writing about the White Sox and the general awfulness of Chicago baseball this summer.)  The full-length posts will soon return, but in the meantime, feel free to follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter as I’m more able to squeeze in some 140 character thoughts these days with my new iPhone.  This is a public page (so you can read my musings regardless of whether you have a Twitter account or not) where the types of content will essentially mirror what’s seen on the blog (meaning that I won’t be boring you with inane details about the contents of my cat’s lunch even though I might find such Tweets personally amusing) – microblogging, as the digerati like to say.  So, check out the Tweets and have a great Fourth of July weekend!

Remembering the Worst Call in the History of Sports

Scottie Pippen Hue Hollins Hubert Davis Foul

With all of the issues with NBA officiating these days, J.A. Adande and ESPN.com just had to rip off a longtime scab with this 15th anniversary retrospective of the worst officiating call I have ever witnessed in any sport (notwithstanding the claims of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville) and it happened to come against one of my teams: the phantom foul call by Hue Hollins on Scottie Pippen, who as you can see from the picture above was about 80 feet away on the other side of the court from Hubert Davis.   I will go to my grave believing that the 1994 Bulls without Michael Jordan would have at least made it to the NBA Finals if not for that inexcusable call.  The fact that this loss was to the archrival Knicks made it all the more infuriating.  Psychologists believe that our brains essentially lock in the traumatic moments in our lives where we can recall every single vivid detail around them many years later, which would explain why I start immediately ranting about how far away Pippen was from Davis on that play every time that this story gets brought up (such as today).  Just don’t get me started on the 2000 Illinois-Michigan game.

(Image from NBA.com)

Land-o-Links for 5/19/2009

Michael Jordan Larry Bird McDonalds

It’s been a very long time since a Land-o-Links post, so here you go:

1.  What If I Don’t Want a Big Mac? (Blog-a-Bull) – An entertaining comparison of all of the current Bulls with various McDonald’s menu items.  Truer words have never been spoken about the McRib.  On a related note, there have been some suggestions out there that the Bulls ought to go after Carlos Boozer.  Now, is Boozer a better low post player than anyone else in Chicago at this time?  Yes.  However, is it worth crushing the Bulls’ salary cap space for Boozer and give up the chance to go after either Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh? NO, NO, NO, NO, NOOOOOOOO!!!  (If you ask politely, I’ll tell you how I really feel.)

2.  It’s Not You, It’s Jazz and the NBA (ESPN.com) – Paul Shirley examines why some of his friends haven’t been paying attention to the NBA (as judged by a survey of his poker buddies where only 3 of 8 knew all of the teams that had made the playoffs) by presenting an interesting corrollary between pro basketball and jazz, where the improvisation involved in both the game and style of music, making them relatively abstract, might make it difficult to be appreciated by those that haven’t played either.  As someone that did spend most of the first part of my life playing both organized basketball and trombone in jazz bands, I completely understand where he’s coming from, where both forms deal with a base structure but require a lot of improv within them.  There are two problems that I have with Shirley’s argument, though.  First, Shirley implies that part of the issue is that people need to have played basketball and jazz to be fully appreciative of each, but the thing is that a whole lot more people have played basketball in America compared to football and baseball.  Case in point, when was the last time that you’ve seen a pick-up baseball game in the park?  That never happens, yet you’ll find basketball hoops on urban playgrounds, suburban driveways, and rural farmhouses – if anything, it’s the most widely played sport across socioeconomic lines by a significant margin.  Second, I think that the fact that Shirley lives in Kansas City, which doesn’t have an NBA team, has much to do with his friends’ supposed ignorance of the NBA.  If you went to Portland or Salt Lake City, the average sports fan in those places would likely be more hardpressed to name the teams that make the baseball playoffs in any given year simply because they aren’t following baseball all season without having a hometown team to follow.  Frankly, the NFL is probably the only sport where you can use a standard where you can assume that the average sports fan knows where every team might be in the standings.

If I were to apply the “abstract jazz” issue to any sport, it would definitely be hockey.  In basketball, even if a casual sports fan or someone that never watches sports at all doesn’t understand how to run a pick-and-roll or properly box out an opposing player, that person can ultimately watch LeBron James and realize that he’s able to get the ball into a basket at a higher level than the other players on the court.  However, if you watch a hockey game that involves Sidney Crosby, he will make amazing moves that no one else in the world can do yet he’ll fail to score on such moves 9 out of 10 times.  So, it’s very difficult for someone that hasn’t played hockey (please note that everything that I know about hockey moves and formations is based on the 3000 hours that I spent playing EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college) to understand why a certain move or play is impressive or not – the relative lack of scoring in hockey almost de facto makes it abstract.

3. NHL’s Story a Regional One (Sports Media Watch) – Digging a little deeper into hockey, Sports Media Watch notes what most people know already, which is that the NHL has shown an ability to draw fans within its local markets but continues to struggle on the national level.  What drives me insane about Gary Bettman and the NHL’s leadership is that they know that they face a stacked deck compared to the other sports leagues yet make decisions that compound the league’s problems.  Case in point was last Thursday night, where the NHL had two game 7s (Detroit-Anaheim and Boston-Carolina), with each of them featuring a large market Original Six team.  This should have been one of those magical nights of hockey (particularly when the Bruins-Hurricanes game went into overtime) that would have drawn in a plethora of casual fans.  However, in the infinite wisdom of the NHL, the nation would only see the Red Wings-Ducks game in its entirety on Versus and if you wanted to see all of the Bruins-Hurricanes game, you had to shell out $79 for a pay-per-view feed.  If the part of the purpose of the NHL moving to Versus was that the network had a commitment to show more hockey, WTF is the league doing scheduling two game 7s at the same time?!  Meanwhile, the NBA had two game 6s going on that same evening and those games had staggered start times so that they could be a featured doubleheader on ESPN.  Say what you will about David Stern and the NBA, but that entity knows what it’s supposed to be doing on the television front in order to maximize its audience better than anyone else in sports.  It would be great if the NHL could get someone that would take into account the lessons of the NBA… wait a second… Bettman was David Stern’s right-hand man for over a decade prior to being named NHL commissioner?  Jeez – it’s not a good sign if a league would consider Bug Selig to be an upgrade.

4.  Lost, “The Incident”: The Men Behind the Curtain (What’s Alan Watching) – I’ll be putting up a Lost season finale post eventually (since the premiere of its final season won’t be coming until January 2010, meaning there’s time to mull everything over and with all the various storylines, we may need every moment to process it all), but in the meantime, please go over to Alan Sepinwell’s Lost analysis.  It’s a shame that I only stumbled onto Sepinwall’s blog this year since it’s now the first place that I turn to after each Lost episode – he puts up extremely well-written posts even with a short time constraint while the numerous commenters are generally pretty good (which is tough to find with respect to Lost blogs, where one segment of people get way too technical on one end and the other group on the opposite end consists of complete dolts).

And finally…

5.  Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath (The New Yorker) –  While Paul Shirley compares basketball to jazz, Malcolm Gladwell draws a line between how lesser talented basketball teams’ use of the press provides insight into how underdogs are able to win wars.  Fascinating reading as always from Gladwell, who might be unparalleled at this time in terms of non-fiction writing, although I’ll quibble at a technical level with the long-term effectiveness of the press through an entire 48 minute game.  I understand the argument that it’s a disruptive tool that can shake the opposing team.  However, the press is by far the most tiring type of play that you can employ in the game, meaning that a team would need incredibly in-shape athletes to execute it over an entire contest.  Of course, if you had such in-shape athletes, that would mean that you’re a “Goliath” instead of a “David”, which eliminates the efficacy of using that strategy in the first place.  At the same time, once you get to the higher levels of organized basketball, any decent coach can draw up a press break that can often result in a wide-open layup on the other end of the court (since the press, which uses double-teams, will always end up leaving at least one player open).  Still, Gladwell sets forth a great game plan for how an underdog in any walk of life can beat the favorite: disrupt the opponent and take it out of its comfort zone.  The reason why not everyone does this?  Well, that disruption almost always takes a whole lot more hard work than just going through “conventional warfare”.  So, it really does come down to effort.

On tonight’s agenda: Game 2 of Hawks-Wings, Game 1 of Lakers-Nuggets, and, one of my favorite not-on-the-field sports events of the year, the NBA Draft Lottery.  Frank the Tank’s couch is definitely where amazing happens.

(Image from Cavalcade of Awesome)

The Prodigal Franchise Returns

Chicago Blackhawks 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs Western Conference Finals

If you haven’t spent much time in Chicago, it’s almost impossible to understand how shocking it is to witness how quickly the Blackhawks franchise has been resurrected.  Apologies for another Bill Simmons reference, but I recall how he stated that the Patriots were the “Fredo” of the Boston sports scene almost all of his life, which in turn made their rise as a dynastic power in the NFL this past decade more flabbergasting than the fact that Red Sox have won two World Series in a four-year period.  Well, the Blackhawks weren’t even at the Fredo level for the last three decades in Chicago sports – they were more like the horse’s head in the bed.  From before the time I was born, the Blackhawks organization did everything possible to beat down its fans and thereby preventing the team to draw new followers.  The late franchise owner Bill Wirtz spurred the third most letters from ESPN viewers voting for the worst owner in all of sports (along with providing ammunition to The Worldwide Wide Leader to name the Hawks as its hockey representative to challenge the Clippers as the worst franchise in sports) and it was well deserved – even in a town that has rarely had sports owners that have befitted its major media market size, he stood out in terms of ineptitude and penny-pinching.  Most famously, Wirtz blacked out all the team’s home games on television in Chicago area with the stubborn belief that it was for the protection of its season ticketholders.  Of course, he ignored the Cubs and Bulls in the very same city leverage television exposure to build up wide-ranging fan bases, thereby allowing those teams to play to capacity crowds even when they’re playing horribly.  At the same time, in the early-90s, when the Blackhawks had a stable of young stars like Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour, Wirtz decided not to pay up to keep the core of a club together that made it to the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals.  This sent the franchise into a funk where it had only one playoff appearance between 1998 and 2008 in a sport where the majority of teams make it to the postseason.  Only two years ago, the Blackhawks ranked next-to-last in the NHL in attendance and played to around 50% capacity at the United Center.

Then, Bill Wirtz passed away in fall 2007, which meant that control of the team was left to his son Rocky.  I will never wish physical ill will upon anyone, yet Wirtz’s death and Rocky’s takeover has saved a franchise that I didn’t really believe could be saved.  Rocky immediately got deals into place to not only lift the television blackouts on home games, but even get a package onto over-the-air WGN.  The younger Wirtz hired Cubs marketing guru John McDonough (widely credited as the person that turned Wrigley Field into a recession-and-bad-team-proof destination – it’s easy to forget that up until the mid-1980s, Wrigley was more than half empty every game) to become team president and the franchise that was in the witness protection program all of the sudden became the most aggressive team in terms of marketing in Chicago sports.  McDonough used those Cubs connections to nab this past year’s NHL Winter Classic for Wrigley Field, which was a massive success for both ticketing and casual fan exposure purposes.  The team drafted two budding young superstars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews while shelling out money for top tier veterans such as Martin Havlat.  Those horrendous attendance figures from two years ago have been turned around in meteoric fashion, where the Blackhawks vaulted up to first place in all of the NHL for average home attendance this season (and that doesn’t include the game at Wrigley Field) with every date being a sellout.  They’ve induced people like me to watch more NHL games, write more blog posts about hockey, and scroll through the DirecTV guide to figure out where the hell Versus is located over the past three weeks than the past three years combined.  After years of Hawks fans looking for any reason to keep interest in the team, the Original Six franchise is providing so many reasons to watch that the bandwagon is in full effect.  (By the way, a follow-up on my recent bandwagon post is forthcoming.)

All of this has culminated in a scenario so perfect that it is as if it were written by a suddenly clairvoyant Gary Bettman.  (Note that this is about as incongruent of a notion as a suddenly clairvoyant Bud Selig.)  The Blackhawks have made it to the Western Conference Finals after taking down the Vancouver Canucks and will battle for the right to play in the Stanley Cup Finals.  They’re in a great position for their potential opponent, where they’ll get either home ice against the Anaheim Ducks (the better situation purely from the perspective of giving the Hawks the best chance to advance) or a match-up versus the hated Detroit Red Wings (the better situation from the perspective of both long-time hockey fans that appreciate the rivalry and drawing in new fans with two marquee franchises).  (Personally, it’s hard not to get giddy at the thought of a Hawks-Wings series even though that’s a much tougher series.  When I ranked the various Chicago-Detroit rivalries a few years ago, I noted that the hockey rivalry used to be as intense on the city’s sports scene as Bears-Packers but the play of the Blackhawks had depressed it to the point where no one seemed to care about it anymore.  This has obviously turned around 180 degrees since that time, where our favorite phrase has some teeth to it again.  Frankly, in terms of historic rivalries, the Hawks playing the Red Wings for the conference championship would only be eclipsed by the following hypothetical postseason scenarios (in reverse order of insanity): (3) Cubs vs. Cardinals in the NLCS, (2) Bears vs. Packers in the NFC Championship Game, and of course, (1) White Sox vs. Cubs in the World Series that would be promptly be followed by Armageddon.)  With the Bulls’ playoff run over and the Cubs and White Sox playing a lot of mediocre baseball, the Hawks look to finally be at the forefront of the Chicago sports stage for the first time since the 1960s (even when they last made the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992, it coincided with the Bulls going for their second NBA championship).  Combined with the recent success of the Boston Bruins, which with the Blackhawks made up the two teams that I identified three years ago that needed new ownership in my “Modest Proposal to Save the NHL” (while it hasn’t happened for the Bs, the team actually winning games again is the next best thing) and a showdown between the two best players in hockey, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the NHL actually looks like it has some life again.  That doesn’t mean that it can continue to ignore my suggestions in my “Modest Proposal” post (if I were commissioner, the Campbell and Wales Conferences would be back effective immediately), but there at least looks like there are some building blocks in place.

Regardless of the rest of the NHL, Chicago finally has the hockey team that it has deserved for being such a passionate Original Six city.  For years upon years, the Blackhawks were the one sports team in town that couldn’t do a single thing right for the fans, but under the Rocky/McDonough leadership, they are now the team that can do no wrong.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

A Bulls Market Once Again

derrick-rose-chicago-bulls-boston-celtics-2009-nba-playoffs

With all of the people that have been jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon (which halfway includes yours truly), it’s been easy to forget how many people still love the Bulls in Chicago.  In my opinion, when all things are equal (understanding that a less popular team that’s doing extraordinarily well in a particular year is going to receive more buzz than a more popular team that’s performing poorly at the same time), the Bulls are third in the overall Chicago sports pecking order behind the Bears and Cubs, but that’s been tough to observe these past few months with the team needing a surge after the All-Star break to secure a .500 regular season record and the concurrent Hawks renaissance and high expections for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.  However, the Bulls’ literally heart-stopping playoff series with the Celtics is likely going to return the pecking order back into normalcy as the general public starts to truly understand how special of an athlete Derrick Rose already is at 20-years old and that we’re witnessing a young team on the ascent.  Certainly, there are a number of issues with this club (as I’ll get to in a moment), but I’m really enjoying how the town is buzzing about the Bulls again (speaking as someone that followed this franchise intensely through a whole lot of dark days over the past decade and is anything but a bandwagon Bulls fan).  When I went to the Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center last month, it was apparent that the sold-out crowd (whether they were cheering for Chicago or L.A.) was mostly there for the chance to see Kobe Bryant and Company.  Now, though, the Bulls (and specifically the magnificence of D-Rose) are becoming an attraction unto themselves, which means that tickets at the United Center are going to become a whole lot harder to come by.  Here are my thoughts on the series that’s tied up at 2 games apiece so far:

  • I’m wondering where that significant contingent of people that thought that the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose have gone.  That argument is looking as inane as the 1998 NFL Draft debate where Ryan Leaf supposedly had more upside than Peyton Manning.  (Of course, every upside has a commensurate downside.)  There’s been plenty of print about Rose’s performance so far, but it’s all deserved – here’s a rookie point guard that was attending his high school prom two years ago at this time completing already breaking veteran players down, in a playoff series against the defending NBA champs, no less, in a manner that legitimately has made impartial observers openly state that there’s no ceiling on what this kid can achieve.  This was why I was so excited when the lottery balls bounced the way of the Bulls a year ago – while there’s no 100% sure thing in sports, Derrick Rose was about as close to that as anyone could reasonably get.
  • The focus on Rose and also shone the spotlight on his counterpart on the Celtics, Rajon Rondo.  While watching the Celtics’ run to the title last season, I saw Rondo as a solid complementary piece to a championship team – someone along the lines of a more athletic version of Kirk Hinrich.  However, I’ve been completely blown away by Rondo’s performance during this series with the Bulls, where he’s been the best and most consistent player on either team over the first four games.  The jump in his game from last season to this year makes me believe that Rondo has gone from a supporting cast member to a cornerstone player that the Celtics can build around once the Boston Three Party has moved on.  Frankly, even as a Bulls fan, I’m miffed that the media swarm around Rondo has been relatively muted compared to his stellar performance – the storylines around Rose, the ability of both Ben Gordon and Ray Allen to swish 30-foot jumpshots while double-teamed by 7-foot defenders, and Paul Pierce’s overall game seem to have taken away a lot of print from the former Kentucky point guard.  This is a shame since Rondo’s play is the most surprising story in the first round of the playoffs.
  • I still have no confidence that the Bulls can make a key defensive stop when necessary.  Both of the Bulls’ wins would never have even gone to overtime if the team could have avoided a stupid foul and/or buckled down in man-to-man defense in the respective last possessions in regulation.  The defense at the end of game 3 was passable in the sense that Ray Allen made a ridiculous fadeaway shot over Joakim Noah that no one could have defended, but that also ignores the fact that Allen was the one guy that the Bulls absolutely couldn’t let get the ball in the first place.  This series is a Paul Pierce free throw and game 1 and a made open Celtics jumpshot in game 4 from being a Boston sweep as opposed to an even series.  Ultimately, the subpar defense in pressure situations is going to be the downfall for the Bulls whether it’s in this round against the Celtics or another team if they somehow move on.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Joakim Noah is actually growing on me.  I was a harsh critic of the Bulls drafting him two years ago, but his overall play in this series along with his performance over the second half of the season has at least given me some indication of his value.  If Tyrus Thomas can keep up his all-around production (which I have my doubts on – we’ve seen a whole lot of flourishes from him over the years and he always seems to recede shortly afterwards), then Noah makes a whole lot of sense on the floor as a disruptive defensive player.  For all of those people out there that are just starting to get back into following the Bulls and have a completely negative impression of Noah, whether it’s because of his days at Florida, ridiculous hair, or general d-baggery, I completely understand where you’re coming from.  However, if you can just focus on his basketball play, you’ll find that he actually has been a very good contributor and the Bulls are certainly a lot worse off defensively when he’s not on the floor.
  • It took up until game 4, but it appears that Vinny Del Negro has finally figured out that a timeout in the last seconds of the game might be a little bit useful.  I’ll repeat my mea culpa on my premature dissing of Rick Carlisle last summer (although I’ll note that I wrote that post before the Bulls hit the lottery jackpot) – it’s not that he’s a particularly great coach, but at least he’s not affirmatively making his team worse by his presence.  As everyone is witnessing now, this Bulls team is pretty talented and deep.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bulls would have won 9 or 10 more games in the regular season along with game 2 of this series with a halfway competent coach.
  • What’s the test of whether you’re a true Bulls fan that stuck through the down years?  If you saw the brief spat between Brad Miller and Glen “Big Baby” Davis in game 4 and immediately thought back to this legendary fight between Miller (during his first stint in Chicago) and Shaq.  Please note the irony of Ron Artest actually acting as the peacemaker in this brawl (plus Shaq gets tackled by Charles Oakley – honestly, there’s nothing that I don’t love about this video).
  • I wonder if I’m alone in this reaction, but I went from laughing out loud in watching this Burger King commercial featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot to being quite disturbed upon finding out at the end that it’s actually to sell kids’ meals (and I usually find a direct correlation between offensiveness and comedy).
  • Speaking of old school rap in commercials, I was delighted to see the marketing recognition of the genius that is Biz Markie.
  • The one thing that has surprised me above all else is that despite the defensive and coaching flaws of the Bulls so far in the series, this team has still been able to win games.  Prior to the start of the series, I was pretty convinced that the Bulls would need to play completely perfect games in order to take any games from the Celtics.  Part of me is disappointed in knowing that the Bulls ought to be seeded a whole lot higher (maybe even fourth so that they would have had home court advantage) if they had played up to their talent level all season, but overall I’m ecstatic that they’ve showed up at the right time and making the most of their opportunities against a depleted Boston team.

Boxing analogies applied to other sports are all too commonplace, but in the case of this series, it’s entirely appropriate.  Outside of the horrific game 3, these games between the Bulls and Celtics have been about withstanding multiple punches and who can throw the last knockout blow in the end.  As emotionally draining as these games have been, it’s the first time in a whole long time (maybe since 1998) where it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Bulls fan!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

If the Lions Are On the Clock, It Must Be NFL Draft Day

joey-harrington-matt-millen-detroit-lions-nfl-draft

A couple of quick thoughts on today’s NFL Draft:

(1) With the Bulls and Blackhawks in the playoffs, both the White Sox and Cubs not yet knocked out of the postseason race two weeks into the baseball season, and the fact that the Bears essentially have had their draft already with the Jay Cutler trade, it’s been nice to not have to deal with several weeks of babble of who the Bears will take in the NFL Draft.  In past years, the Chicago sports media would have been in all-draft mode for days on end with supposed life or death questions of the Bears’ future.  Sure, the Bears still need an arsenal of wide receivers for Jay Cutler to actually throw to and I’m very interested to see where various Illini players such as Vontae Davis will end up, yet these concerns pale in comparison to everything else that’s happening on the Chicago sports scene.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy draft talk as much as anyone, but I really love watching my favorite NBA team being competitive in the playoffs (notwithstanding this past Thursday evening) a whole lot more.  It’s great to have actual games on the field dominate the sports discussion in Chicago in April as opposed to the war room at Halas Hall.

(2) The NFL has compounded its mistake of moving the draft start time from its long-time slot at 11:00 am CT on the first day to 2:00 pm CT last year by pushing this year’s start time back another hour to 3:00 pm CT.  I understand that this move was made to draw in more viewers in prime time.  However, it takes away a lot of the allure of the NFL Draft as a television event in the first place.  To me, it’s a perfect “have the TV on in the background event” and an excuse to get together with your buddies to hang out for a whole morning and afternoon in a low-key manner while you invent creations such as bacon tacos (as Minneapolis Red Sox and I did the year that the Vikings forgot to get their draft pick in on time).  However, it’s far from a prime time edge-of-your-seat event (particularly when playoff basketball and hockey games are alternative options).  So, instead of the draft having already started in the late morning as a write this post, ESPN and ESPN News are in the midst of an 8-hour marathon of punditry (featuring the legendary hair of Mel Kiper, Jr.) on draft prospects, even though the world already knows that Matthew Stafford of Georgia is going to be picked first by the Detroit Lions.  (Let’s see if that pick works better than, well, every Lions pick since Barry Sanders.)  The NFL had a great all-day format for the draft, but its belief that this is somehow a compelling prime time event is misguided and, as a result, this will be the second year in a row where I’ll watch little, if any, of what was once one of my favorite not-on-the-field sports events of the year (next to NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday, the NBA Draft, and the NBA Draft Lottery) as someone that has always wanted to run a sports team.

(Image from The Nasty Boys)

Unclear Bandwagon Status

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I’ve always considered myself to be a complete purist when it comes to my sports fandom.  As much as Bill Simmons can be insufferable these days, his column on “The Rules For Being a True Fan” from earlier this decade is a classic and still holds up today.  I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, so I’m a die-hard fan of the White Sox, Bears, and Bulls.  When I went to the University of Illinois for my undergraduate years, the Illini became my college team forever.  I’m a huge believer in steering clear of sports bigamy or shenanigans with adopting popular teams in different markets just because they happen to be dominant or have players that date supermodels and music stars (i.e. Cowboys and Yankees back in the ’90s or any of the Boston teams today).  The only acceptable exception would be some direct family connection – for instance, if I had to move to, say, New York, I would insist that my future kids be raised as Chicago sports fans.

This also means that I have very little tolerance for bandwagon fans.  While I believe that Chicago has the best sports fans in the country (only Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit fans can be allowed to debate this), there is also an unfortunately long history of bandwagoneering in this town.  The ’85 Bears, the Bulls dynasty of the ’90s, the ’05 White Sox, and every Cubs team that has finished above .500 have all drawn out the pink hat crowd in massive numbers.  These people took a sudden interest in these teams right when they were on the ascent without having had to endure the blood, sweat, and tears of missed expectations and painful losses.  Maybe that’s acceptable in places such as Los Angeles and Miami, but it’s infuriating to witness this happening in the legit sports towns like Chicago and Boston.

Having said that, I wonder if I’m being a complete hypocrite on this issue with respect to the Blackhawks.  For reasons that I’ve stated elsewhere, I never became anything more than a casual hockey fan.  While I absolutely love seeing the game live (making it a point to go to at least a game or two per year) and own a Blackhawks hockey sweater (which is my favorite sports jersey since it’s the only one that I can wear that doesn’t make me look like a complete tool), the combination of the half century of ineptitude of the Bill Wirtz regime and the fact that I have the ice skating skills of a Brachiosaurus means that I never cared about the Hawks in the same way as the teams that I listed in the first paragraph of this post.

The number of hockey games that I watched this past regular season is one-and-a-half: about half of the Blackhawks-Red Wings Winter Classic game at Wrigley Field (as I flipped between that game and the college football bowls going on at the same time) and then a Hawks-Kings game that I attended in person.  I know a handful of guys that are on the team: budding young stars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, and Nikolai Khabibulin (who, as the “Bulin Wall”,  was my lockdown goalie with the Phoenix Coyotes in marathon sessions of EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college).  The last time that I watched a hockey game that didn’t involve the Hawks was the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals when the Stars beat the Sabres on the controversial Brett Hull goal (where he may or may not have been in the crease) in overtime.

Yet, I’ve been juggling my schedule to watch the Blackhawks’ playoff games, as hockey this late in the year has been a rare occurrence over the past decade.  Thursday’s win over Calgary with Havlat scoring the game winner with 16 seconds into overtime was thrilling in terms of action and spurred me to look forward Saturday’s game (which turned out to be another win against the Flames to go up 2-0 in the series).

What I’m trying to figure out is if I actually start following the Hawks with some semblance of regularity, particularly if the team has a successful run in this year’s playoffs, would I be one of those bandwagon-jumpers that I despise?  Granted, I think that a lot of my contemporaries in Chicago are in a similar position as me since the late Bill Wirtz did everything possible to destroy the franchise’s fan base with bass-ackwards TV and marketing policies along with a reputation of throwing nickels like manhole covers (as Mike Ditka once said of George Halas) in terms of payroll.  With son Rocky in charge, it’s as if though Chicago received a completely new NHL franchise with a fresh start.  Still, I don’t want to be one of those guys that just hops onto a shooting star when it’s the easy thing to do.  That would be an injustice to the Hawks fans that still bought season tickets even when the United Center was barely half full (such as a mere 2 years ago, when I went to a Hawks-Red Wings game with Danny M and it was at about 2/3 capacity, with 3/4 of those people being Detroit fans).

Realistically, the Blackhawks will likely always be a team that I want to win (similar to my attitude toward the basketball team at my law school alma mater of DePaul), but never reach a level in my heart where I would be a die hard fan.  In contrast, earlier in the day on Saturday, I was screaming at the television for a solid three hours during the Bulls-Celtics game.  (It should be no surprise to you that my continuing man crush on Derrick Rose has been sent into the stratosphere.)  That type of emotional investment didn’t occur overnight or even over the course of a year or two – it was built up over nearly three decades of watching and growing up with the Bulls.  By the time the Blackhawks could catch up to that timeframe, I’ll be starting to take withdrawls from my 401(k) and hopefully be spending my winters in a place with a beach and palm trees.  (As a side note, I’m not foolish enough to believe that anyone in my generation will ever actually be able cash a  Social Security check.)  Plus, I’m not sure how much longer my wife would want to be around me if I started watching hockey on top of all of the basketball and football that I follow during the fall and winter months.  Thus, I envision myself being the hockey equivalent of the people that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago that don’t watch college basketball all year but then rabidly follow the NCAA Tournament, where my interest in the sport is pretty much limited to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  My promise is that I will cheer for the Blackhawks, but do everything in my power to not fall into the traps of the typical bandwagon fan (i.e. using the royal “we” when talking about the team’s performance).  If I still get called a bandwagon jumper in this instance, I’ll just have to suffer the consequences when I get judged by the sports gods.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Icy Wrigley and Land-o-Links for 7/23/2008

It’s been a long time, so let’s throw up some links:

1. The Blackhawks Game of the Century (My Tribe) – It’s nice to see the Blackhawks start getting some attention again in town, with Rocky Wirtz taking swift action in turning around a franchise that was decimated by his father’s bull-headed business practices. The biggest news for the casual fan, of course, is that the Hawks and Red Wings will be playing at Wrigley Field next New Year’s Day in the NHL Winter Classic. This will certainly be a great event for the city of Chicago in a historic venue – of course, I’ll miss it all if the Illini end up in a warmer locale for a bowl game that day. (We actually have expectations this year!!!)

That’s the dilemma here. The scheduling choice (I’m not sure if the NHL or NBC is to blame here) to put the Winter Classic on the same day as the Rose Bowl, Capital One Bowl and other major bowl games makes about as much sense as putting it opposite of the opening round of the NCAA Tournament or game 1 of the World Series – the national attention is elsewhere. Plus, this past New Year’s Day, Michigan played in the Capital One Bowl while Illinois played in the Rose Bowl right after that, which happen to be the major college football draws for the Detroit and Chicago media markets, respectively. If that type of situation happens again this coming New Year’s Day, how are Chicago and Detroit fans going to choose between the Winter Classic and their respective college home teams?

As much positive press as the NHL received for the ratings for last year’s Winter Classic, it ended up garnering a 2.6 on NBC with teams from two cities (Buffalo and Pittsburgh) that got huge local ratings since they had no local college team conflicts. In contrast, the Capital One Bowl aired directly opposite of the hockey game on cable (as opposed to network television) and received a 9.1 rating on ESPN and the Rose Bowl got a 11.1 rating on ABC. That should be clear evidence to the NHL its headliner event ought to be moved to a date with a lot less competition for eyeballs. Plus, while there will be a certain curiosity factor of watching a hockey game at Wrigley Field, any combination of Illinois, Notre Dame, Michigan and/or Michigan State playing in New Year’s Day bowl games, which has occurred every single year except for one since the turn of the millennium, would reduce the local ratings for the Winter Classic in Chicago and Detroit by a significant margin. If I were NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, I would do a whole lot of things, but first and foremost would be to move the date of the Winter Classic to the weekend in between the AFC and NFC Conference Championship Games and the Super Bowl where the game would have the full attention of the sports world. Placing the marquee regular season game of the season up against a day that has been reserved for college football for decades (with the ratings to back it up), particularly in the middle of Big Ten country, is asinine.

2. The Dark Knight Triumphs and Disturbs (Chicagoist) – I’m not a very big comic book guy at all, but even I got wrapped up in the hype around The Dark Knight and ran out to see it this past weekend. The generally glowing reviews of the film are warranted – the best thing that I can say about the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is that you completely forget that it’s Heath Ledger up there since he consumes himself in the role so thoroughly. Plus, the latest Batman installment spent much of last summer filming right outside of my old office building at LaSalle and Wacker, so it was a kick to see the long chase scene on Lower Wacker Drive and multiple shots on LaSalle Street up on the big screen. In contrast to Batman Begins, which filled in a shell of the Chicago skyline and street scenes with a lot digitized images, The Dark Knight displays the city of Chicago pretty much as-is, such that it’s truly fair to call this a “Chicago movie” in the same manner as The Fugitive, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Blues Brothers. Regardless, if you’re one of the five people in America that hasn’t seen the film yet, there’s no reason to wait.

3. Williams, Jazz to Play Bulls in Champaign (Pantagraph) – I wasn’t planning on going to the Illinois Homecoming game this year because it happens to fall on the same day as my law school class reunion, but now I’m really regretting it with this preseason game being added on Friday night to start off that weekend. Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Ron Zook, Rejus Benn – all my man crushes in one place and I’ll have to miss it. Uh, let’s move on.

4. Together Again Briefly, Dee Brown and Deron Williams Chart Different Courses (ESPN.com) – Speaking of the Illini and the NBA, J.A. Adande (one of the few non-schmucks left at TWWL) had this nice piece examining the juxtaposition of the situations of Dee Brown and Deron Williams in college compared to the pros. It would be nice to see Dee get a spot somewhere in the NBA – the Jazz were a much deeper team, so he may have a better shot at cracking the rotation in Washington.

5. Brett Favre, Could Cause Sickness (Windy City Gridiron) – If there’s one saving grace about the 24-hour news ticker about Brett Favre’s movements over the past week, it’s that there is finally some movement away from the monolithic media monkey love for this man that has existed for the past decade. I have always hated Favre, plain and simple, and it’s nice to see people outside of Chicago and Minnesota start realizing that he is as selfish as any other athlete out there.

6. Kevin Jones Signs With Bears (Huddle Up) – As the Bears open training camp, I’m trying to think of any athlete that has ruined my past fantasy seasons in either baseball or football more than Kevin Jones. I’ve been a victim of catastrophic injuries to Rocky Baldelli and Cris Carpenter on a number of occasions on the baseball end, but there’s nothing quite like how you get fucked when your starting running back goes down. That being said, the Bears taking a flyer on Jones isn’t a bad idea in the real football world – when the alternative is throwing in rookie Matt Forte out there after an offseason dedicated to wiring Cedric Benson bail money, you can’t afford to be picky.

7. Illini Sell Out Ohio State Game (FightingIllini.com) – The note here about the Illinois-Ohio State game selling out within an hour is a load of B.S. – I went online as soon as tickets went on sale and this game was already gone. So, if anyone out there has 2-4 tickets available for the game, shoot me a message.

And finally…

8. Baseball Hall-of-Famer Jerome Holtzman Dies (Chicago Tribune) – Most of the nation knows of Peter Gammons’ work at the Boston Globe due to ESPN, but for Chicagoans, it was Jerome Holtzman that defined baseball writing. His old column going through the all of the tidbits across the baseball world (not just the Cubs and White Sox) was always the first place I went to every week when the Sunday Chicago Tribune hit the driveway. May the Dean rest in peace.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Land-o-Links – 5/10/2008

A few links for the weekend:

(1) The Conservative Revival (New York Times) – David Brooks has long been one of the more sensible conservative political commentators out there and this column is an example of this. Right after the 2006 midterm elections, I wrote a lengthy post about how disaffected I was with the Republican Party from the libertarian standpoint. Brooks points out that the Conservative Party in Britain is on the ascent since it’s embracing a different social agenda while still adhering to its fiscally conservative principles. The party in our country that is able to mirror what the Tories have done will get my support.

(2) Your Friday Coaching Search Update (Blog-a-Bull) – Let me just start off by saying that I could have very easily turned this blog into “Frank the Tank’s Rantings About the Bulls” for at least until the conclusion of this year’s NBA Draft and really through the free agency period (which would almost bring us right to the start of next season), but I’m trying to exercise some self-restraint. It’s good to see that we didn’t have to go down the road of Rick Carlisle with his new deal with Mark Cuban and I’ve been actually getting increasingly excited about the prospect of Mike D’Antoni on the sidelines at the United Center. While he doesn’t have the defensive philosophy that John Paxson has long preached, it’s clear that the Bulls needed a complete readjustment in attitude which is what the almost-former Suns coach would provide. Granted, the Bulls don’t have the personnel on offense to come close to the scoring proficiency of D’Antoni’s Suns teams, but we are a team that is capable of playing uptempo (which is how the Bulls took down the Heat in the playoffs last year). The one thing that I don’t want to hear about from the Bulls is how much D’Antoni might cost in terms of salary, especially with the offer that the Knicks have thrown on the table. I’ve actually been an overall defender of Jerry Reinsdorf over the years (as Ozzie Guillen “eloquently” pointed out this week, Reinsdorf is the Chicago owner with seven rings), but if the Bulls really want D’Antoni, they had better put their best efforts forward. While the White Sox might be a mid-market team that happens to be located in a large market (and I’m saying this as a huge Sox fan) which at least allows for a tenuous argument about payroll limits on their end, the Bulls are a legitimate marquee NBA franchise on pretty much every financial and media metric (on a related note, Minneapolis Red Sox and I had a back-and-forth on where the Bulls place on the Chicago sports scene a couple of weeks ago), so I don’t want to hear a peep from that organization about how much a coach of D’Antoni’s caliber might cost. Reinsdorf and Paxson just need to get this deal done.

(UPDATE:  Apparently, D’Antoni has now taken the Knicks job because the Bulls wouldn’t match their offer.  I’m seriously THIS close to making Frank the Tank’s Rantings About the Bulls into an entirely separate blog since there’s so much material to be mined.  This is what we get from the third most valuable and second most profitable franchise in the NBA.)

(3) Law Firms and Layoffs: Who Are the Most Vulnerable? (Wall Street Journal Law Blog) – There’s always a question as to whether law firms provide more steady employment for lawyers than being in other environments (i.e. corporations, government, etc.). In the end, like most other work environments, it’s the people in the middle that get squeezed.

And finally…

(4) Hyping Sidney Crosby Won’t Help the NHL Win Over New Fans (Slate) – There’s been little movement from my modest proposal to save the NHL from a couple of years ago, although the Blackhawks have finally figured out that VHF exists.