Unscripted by Ernie Johnson (Review)

Probably like many people, I know Ernie Johnson Jr. from his work as a broadcaster at Turner Sports, particularly hosting Inside the NBA on TNT. I knew next to nothing about him besides that, but when I found out he was coming out with a biography from a well-known Christian publisher (Baker Books) and this biography was being released right around the start of the NBA playoffs, when Johnson is more visible than at most other times of the year (good job on setting the release date, Baker), I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy.

The book is called Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary. Johnson said he got the idea for the book after the ESPN program E:60 did a feature on his family. A recurring theme in the book is “blackberry moments,” named after an incident from Johnson’s childhood that he relates in the first chapter. He was playing in a Little League game that was delayed for a while when two of the outfielders, who had gone over the fence to look for a lost ball, ended up picking blackberries instead. Johnson defines a blackberry moment as, among other things, as “an unforeseen moment that catches you off guard and marks you forever” (189).

41EaV5FFk8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There are plenty such moments in the book, from Johnson’s childhood in Atlanta growing up as the son of the Braves’ play-by-play announcer, to his own work as a broadcaster, to his life with his wife and six kids (two biological and four adopted, including one with muscular dystrophy that keeps him in a wheelchair), to his becoming a committed Christian in the ’90s, to his fight against cancer between 2003 and 2006. There are difficult moments in all of these, but Johnson dwells on the unpredictable, joyful gifts that he has received throughout his life and that have made it all worthwhile. He tells a few “dad jokes” along the way, but rather than groaning at them, I found them to be an endearing part of his voice—they made him seem like a regular guy.

This is a good book for fans of Johnson’s work, of course—but even people like me who knew who he was, but didn’t even watch him that regularly, can get a lot out of this book. It’s not really about sports; it’s about how to navigate life. At one point Johnson quotes the Christian spiritual writer Dallas Willard: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Johnson tries to eliminate hurry by looking for blackberry moments everywhere.

Note: Thanks to Baker Books for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

“My Bad,” and Other Sports Metaphors: A Review

I taught English as a second language for a couple of years just after college, and my students could never get enough of idioms and metaphors. By the time they had me as a teacher, most of them had been studying the basics of the language for a while; they really wanted a native speaker to tell them the origin of strange sayings such as “pee like a racehorse” and how to use it in the right context.

I wish I had Josh Chetwynd’s The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors back then. Chetwynd has collected the origin stories of dozens of metaphors that come to us from athletic pursuits, organized them according to sport, and put them between the covers of a neat, small hardback.

9781607748113The source of some metaphors are obvious. But sometimes you think a metaphor comes from one sport and it really comes from another, like “hat trick” (cricket, not hockey) and “second wind” (boxing, not running). The most interesting aspect to the book is the occasional metaphor that doesn’t sound like it could trace its origin to sports at all, but does. For example, the phrase “catbird seat” to describe a particularly advantageous situation can be traced to famed baseball broadcaster Red Barber.  Shakespeare got the phrase “there’s the rub” from lawn bowling. And “my bad” comes from Sudanese NBA player (and English-language learner) Manute Bol.

I read this book straight through, but it would work much better as a reference. Reading it from beginning to end, some of the origin stories can start to seem repetitive and I needed the occasional surprise to keep me going. I’d recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered about why we use the metaphors and idioms we do, especially sports fans.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

More NBA Than You Could Ever Want: A Review

I enjoy reading Bill Simmons’s sports columns. They’re clever, funny, and contain a lot of pop culture references. I’ve been reading them semi-regularly since 2010, a little before he launched the sports and pop culture website Grantland.

After reading The Book of Basketball, Simmons’s 700-plus-page magnum opus on the NBA, I came to an important realization: I enjoy reading Bill Simmons’s columns. The book, while it was entertaining in spots, and contained everything about his writing that I like in smaller doses, just seemed baggy and stretched out by the time I was done.

I enjoyed the first part of the book, where Simmons reminisces about what it was like to grow up in Boston as a Celtics fan in the ’70s and ’80s. I am not a Celtics fan, but it was easy to catch his enthusiasm for that era. As the book went on, though, it boiled down to just two things: hypothetical scenarios (“What if this happened differently?”) and rankings (best players, best teams, best hair, etc.). Some of them are pretty funny, like the various All-Star teams Simmons creates based on traits people have in common: the What If All-Stars, the Looks Better on Paper All-Stars, the Thank God They Didn’t Have HD Back Then All-Stars, the All-Time Bearded All-Stars, the Billy Hoyle All-Stars (named for the Woody Harrelson character in White Men Can’t Jump, for white players who are “deceivingly white”), the What the F— Did He Do to His Hair? All-Stars, the “Crap, It’s Just Not in Me” All-Stars, the Tony La Russa All-Stars (for people whose appearance never changes), the Head Case All-Stars, the Diane Lane All-Stars (for “over-40 celebs who remain smoking hot”), and the Best Porn Name All-Stars. But by the end, I was all ranked and hypothesized out. It is fine to include rankings and hypothetical situations as part of the story you’re trying to tell, but the rankings and hypotheticals should never become the story. That’s what I think happened with this book.

But I did finish it, and that’s a point in its favor. While I could wish that it was written differently (or at least shorter), it was entertaining enough for me to keep going. And writing that is easy to read is hard work. So I give it 3 stars.

Eleven Rings to Rule Them All: A Review

Phil Jackson won 11 championship rings as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers between 1991 and 2010. Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success is an autobiography of sorts, focused on those 11 championship seasons (plus the two he won as a player with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973). In it, Jackson recounts the lessons he learned in his attempts to turn teams from a bunch of “lone warriors” into a cohesive unit. In professional basketball, where players are encouraged by their friends, handlers, and the media to think of themselves as individuals and even brands, the greatest competitive advantage of Jackson’s teams at their best was their ability to set aside egos and put the team first.

This book is filled with interesting stories about Jackson’s life and the colorful personalities he worked with, and is an entertaining and quick read. Jackson’s stories about how he dealt with difficult characters like Dennis Rodman and, later, Kobe Bryant were particularly interesting, and I found some of Jackson’s coaching practices, like giving a specific book to each of his players every year, fascinating. However, I found by the end that I didn’t have a lot of admiration for Jackson as a person. It wasn’t that I disliked him, but I felt that the aura of imperturbability that he projected on the sidelines was tarnished by hearing him talk about what happened behind the scenes. He rarely if ever seemed to tell stories that reflected badly on himself—a classic sign of someone who lacks humility. Also, he still complained about the officiating in some games even though they happened years ago.

What I found most interesting about the book was Jackson’s account of his spiritual journey. He was born into a fundamentalist Pentecostal family where both of his parents were ministers, and decided in his early adulthood that the Christianity he grew up with wasn’t for him. Over the years he created his own eclectic spirituality, including elements of Native American religion, Zen Buddhism, and Christian mysticism, and incorporated several of the practices he found helpful into his coaching. As a Christian, I wished that he had been able to find that Christ was big and deep enough to meet all of his needs, but perhaps Jackson was presented in his youth with a Christ that was narrower than he is in reality. That, in my opinion, was the saddest part about this book.

Cleveland: the City as Jilted Lover

I’ll admit it: I watched LeBron James’s “Decision” special last Thursday. I was home from work and, well, it was on. My main thought, upon seeing it, was that James had made a pretty good decision. He didn’t make it to get more money, because he could have gotten more by staying in Cleveland. He made it, by his own admission, to win championships. Like it or not, championships are the standard by which greatness is measured in the NBA, and James wants to be great. I couldn’t fault him for that. Only time will tell whether it will turn out to be a good decision in a few years’ time, but it seemed to me he had as good a reason as any other to make it.

Apparently, not everyone agrees. Some Cleveland Cavaliers fans burned his jerseys. Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers, wrote an angry open letter. Jesse Jackson got a lot of press for accusing Gilbert of treating James like a runaway slave. I think that Jackson is wrong, though. From what I can tell, Gilbert, and the Cleveland fans who have been burning James’s jerseys, have been behaving like jilted lovers. And judging by the reaction to James’s decision, theirs was an unhealthy relationship and James is well rid of it.

When one human being idolizes another, that is an unhealthy relationship. When a city idolizes a human being, it is no less unhealthy. Not only is the end of this relationship good for James, but in the long run it is good for Cleveland.

We are All Canucks (sort of)

I lived in Vancouver for four years, but never went to a Canucks game until yesterday. Mary’s boss is a season ticket holder, and he is kind enough to let his employees go to the games he can’t make it to. On Friday he asked Mary if she could go, so on Sunday we hoofed it up to Vancouver to see our first NHL game: the Canucks vs. the Colorado Avalanche.

I did not grow up watching hockey, but I must admit it is a great sport to watch live. It’s fast-paced and exciting, and yet there are breaks between periods for you to get up and use the restroom or get something to eat. Also, I can’t speak for all arenas, but GM Place is small enough that everyone can follow the action, and it doesn’t seem like there are any bad seats. Mary and I were in row 22 on the lower level, right at one of the blue lines. We could see everything just fine, even the action at the other end of the rink.

Also, it was an exciting game. The Canucks scored three goals in the first period, so everyone was feeling pretty good. Then the Avalanche mounted a comeback, the Canucks responded, and the game ended 4-2 Canucks. The players even put the extra effort to squeeze a fight in with 12.5 seconds left. Those guys know what the fans love. No wonder it was the 250th consecutive sellout at GM Place, a streak that dates back to 2002.

Here is an article about the game from the AP:

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Canucks couldn’t buy a win on home ice back in January. Now they can’t even give a game away in Vancouver.

Kyle Wellwood, Alex Burrows and Taylor Pyatt scored first-period goals, and the Canucks overcame a bad goal early in the third to beat the Colorado Avalanche 4-2 on Sunday night. Wellwood had a power-play goal, and Burrows scored short-handed.

Ryan Kesler had three assists, and Alex Edler added a power-play goal with 1:13 left as Vancouver matched a franchise record with nine straight home wins. The Canucks, celebrating their 250th straight sellout crowd, lost nine straight home games through Jan. 31, but haven’t lost at GM Place since.

“It’s crazy, we couldn’t buy a win a month and a half ago, we always found a way to lose every game,” said Burrows, who also had an assist. “But we turned it around, and right now we have a lot of confidence in our own building.

“That’s a good thing heading into the playoffs.”

At the end of January, it seemed a stretch to suggest they’d even make it. Now, with a 14-3-1 overall record since snapping that skid, they’re up to fifth place in the tight Western Conference, and trail slumping Chicago by just two points in the race for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

With three more meetings in the final month of the season, finally being able to beat the Avalanche could have a significant effect on where the Canucks finish.

Sunday’s win ended an eight-game (0-5-3), 16-month losing skid against Colorado.

“They dominated us in games past and we wanted to do something about it tonight,” said Kesler after the Canucks also moved within five of Calgary for the Northwest Division lead. Vancouver has one more game left than the Flames.

“We wanted to exclude ourselves from the bottom three or four teams that are fighting for a playoff spot,” Kesler added. “Now we’re trying to catch Calgary and Chicago. We have them worried about us now which is a good thing.”

Ryan Smyth and Darcy Tucker scored for Colorado. The Avalanche were coming off consecutive wins against Minnesota and Edmonton that hurt both teams playoff hopes and moved Colorado a point out of last place.

“Right now, it’s playing for pride,” said defenseman John-Michael Liles, who assisted on both Avalanche goals. “You don’t focus on being a spoiler, but if that’s the case down the road, obviously we’re trying to win every game. We’re playing for pride and playing for each other, and that’s all you can focus on right now. In the first period, we didn’t have that mentality.”

Wellwood opened the scoring with a power-play deflection 2:50 in, his second goal in three games after going 21 without scoring.

Burrows doubled the lead less than 5 minutes later with a brilliant short-handed effort. After Burrows hit the post on a breakaway from his own blue line, Kesler stole the puck again before Colorado could get back out of its own end and fed cross-ice to Burrows for a quick shot. Andrew Raycroft slid across and stacked the pads to stop him, but Burrows was alone with plenty of time to deposit the rebound into an empty net for his seventh goal in seven games.

“He generates his own luck,” Kesler said of the hard-working Burrows, who recently moved from the third to first line and signed a four-year, $8 million contract extension. “He’s working hard and making that line go right now.”

Pyatt converted Burrows’ pass to make it 3-0 just 2 seconds after another Colorado penalty expired, but Colorado got that back on Smyth’s power-play deflection — and 25th goal of the season — early in the second period.

Tucker celebrated his 34th birthday with a gift from Luongo 14 seconds into the third. The goalie fumbled a dump in behind his own net and Tucker banked a shot from behind the net in off Luongo as he scrambled to get back in goal.

“I think he just wants us to build character as we move forward and he’s doing a pretty good job,” coach Alain Vigneault said, laughing about Luongo’s second third-period breakdown in two games. “As a group for a guy that bails us out so many times, when a bad bounce goes against him we have to find a way to buckle down and get it done and we did again tonight.”

Besides, Luongo didn’t consider it a bad goal.

“It kind of took a funny hop off my stick and went out of my reach,” said Loungo, who finished with 18 saves and redeemed himself with a great glove stop off Paul Stastny on a power play a minute later. “I know you guys will like to talk it up as a bad goal, but I’ll consider it an unlucky goal.”

The Avalanche lost defenseman Daniel Tjarnqvist when he was hit near the right eye by a slap shot midway through the second period. Tjarnqvist was escorted immediately to the locker room, leaving a trail of blood on the ice as he was helped off, and did not return to the game.

“He’s going to be fine,” coach Tony Granato said. “Obviously, he had some stitches. He took a shot above the eye and he’ll be fine, but it took a while to stitch him up. We thought it was better to keep him out the rest of the way.”

Raycroft, starting for the first time in five games after Peter Budaj won three of the last four games, finished with 19 saves.

Go Spiders!


Last night, my alma mater won their first national championship in any sport. They beat the Montana Grizzlies 24-7. The sport was football, but I had to do a little research before I knew exactly what kind of championship it was.

Whereas the University of Richmond Spiders used to play in NCAA Division I-AA, it is not called that anymore. Instead of dividing teams into I-A and I-AA, now the teams are divided into Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly I-A) and Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA). If you’re confused, you can read this article.

So the Spiders are now the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) national champions! They sure have come a long way since the time when I was a student (1997-2001). I remember schlepping down to the UR Stadium, a couple of miles from campus, to watch our mediocre football teams play. Now, not only is the team much better, but soon they’ll be playing on campus! If they keep having this kind of success, they’ll outgrow their new stadium before they move in!

Delay

I’ve enjoyed writing posts about the recent European trip every day for the last 12 days, but I believe I will take a brief hiatus. This doesn’t reflect any sudden busyness in my life; I’m still looking for a job. No, I’ve just been having extraordinary trouble uploading photos to WordPress these last couple of days.

I will most likely take tomorrow off as well; after church I’m heading down to Seattle to see the Mariners play the Tigers.

“See” you again Monday!

Confessions of a Prodigal Tigers Fan

I’ve not posted about this before, so some of you may not know this, but I’m a Detroit Tigers fan. I have been since I was a kid. I can’t remember why, though it probably has something to do with the fact that 1) my family is from Michigan originally, and 2) there was no city with a professional baseball team within hundreds of miles of where I grew up in Fayetteville, NC. I could have been like my brother, and taken advantage of this situation by choosing to root for any team I pleased (he is a Toronto Blue Jays fan. I’ve never been sure why. I’ll have to ask him sometime). But for some reason I decided at a young age to remain true to the Michigan roots by cheering for the Tigers and, in football, the Lions.

Trouble is, the last time the Tigers won the World Series was when I was five. The last time before 2006 they had what anyone would call a good season was 1987, which was right about the time I was collecting baseball cards and cementing my allegiance to them. Then came many years of disappointment, though I must admit I kept myself from feeling that disappointment too deeply by not following baseball that closely. Same with football, since the Lions were just as awful. In retrospect, it was a good thing. I got a lot of things done. Went to college, spent some time overseas, and went to grad school.

But in the spring of 2006, one of my friends from college (a good friend, to whom I had confided my shameful status as a Tiger fan) told me that the Tigers were doing well for once. REALLY well. Well enough to get to the World Series that fall. And get trounced by the Cardinals in five games.

But that taste of the Tigers being good again has overpowered me. I follow them again. I check scores. I read articles. I was disappointed with every injury and blown save this year. And I’m excited that they are acquiring several talented players this offseason. In November, they traded with Atlanta for Edgar Renteria, and just last week they traded with the Marlins to get Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. I still feel that they need better relief pitching (a couple of years ago I could never have told you that), but overall I’m feeling optimistic.

And other people are too. There is now a Facebook group called “2008 Detroit Tigers: Undefeated?” Go Tigers!

I just hope this doesn’t mean that this is the end of me doing anything with my life and the beginning of me sitting in front of the TV and having my emotions jerked around by a bunch of millionaires.

“Nation” Schmation

After watching the Red Sox defeat the Colorado Rockies Sunday night to become World Series champs, I came to this realization: I can’t stand it when people refer to a team’s fan base as “_________ Nation.” I must have heard the phrase “Red Sox Nation” a dozen times during the celebration after the game.

I know that the phrase “Red Sox Nation” has been around for a long time (according to an article about it on the always-reliable Wikipedia, it was coined by a Boston Globe reporter in 1986). I also believe that “Raider Nation” – fans of the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland Raiders – has been around for a long time, maybe longer. But lately, things have just gotten ridiculous. Every team has their own nation now.

Why do I hate it when people refer to a team’s fans as “_____ Nation”? Well, here are a few reasons:

1. First, I hate it simply because it is so widespread. If only one or two teams did it, perhaps it would be tolerable. But a few quick Google searches today have turned up the following:

A. “Hokie Nation” – a documentary about fans of Virginia Tech.
B. “Volunteer Nation” – a phrase found in a book title about Tennessee football
C. “Packers Nation” – a blog about the Green Bay Packers
D. “Tiger Nation” a phrase that could refer to the fans of, among others: LSU,
Clemson, Massillon High School or Fort Hays State University.

2. In my experience, teams whose fans like to use this phrase the most often have the most obnoxious fans. The Boston Red Sox, to take the most obvious example, are the biggest road attraction in baseball. That is, more fans go to see the Red Sox play outside of Boston than any other team, even the Yankees. This is probably in large part because it is so hard to get tickets for their home games. I saw the Red Sox play the Mariners in Seattle this summer, and a few Boston fans (who had flown out from New England) were seated right behind me. It’s OK, if you grew up in Boston but have since moved to a new city, to go to the park when the Red Sox are in town to cheer them on. But flying across the country from Boston for the series, and in some cases outnumbering the hometown fans is, in my opinion, obnoxious. The only exception to this rule of calling yourself “nation” and being obnoxious is the Yankees, whose fans (though still obnoxious) don’t refer to themselves as “Yankee Nation,” but instead as “Yankee Universe.” I think this helps make my point.

3. Finally, Why the need to be part of a nation? Isn’t the United States good enough? And why define yourself against others in such an absolute-sounding way? Isn’t the United Stated divided enough on more political issues? On the one hand, this complaint might seem kind of silly. But on the other hand, I think that there has to be something more fundamental lurking behind this tendency, since it is both so recent and so widespread. Are people just looking for a place to belong? Something to be part of that is larger than themselves? If this is so, is “Burnt Orange Nation” really the best they can do when it comes to shaping their identity?

I was watching a little college football this past weekend and was particularly struck, when watching the Georgia-Florida game, by how similar college football is to a religion – the rituals, the reverence for coaches and players who have reached godlike status, the codes of conduct, etc. Now, with every fan base calling itself “Nation,” it is starting to appear like not just a religion, but a civil religion.