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)