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Saturday, April 07, 2012

"There Was" a Time When Writers Could Write

I have never received formal training as a writer, so I have no idea what used to be taught in journalism schools and I have no idea what is being taught in such institutions now but I have noticed a strange trend in sports writing: deploying the phrase "There was" more frequently than "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" appear in the Bible. If I wrote an article about Kentucky's recent 67-59 victory over Kansas in the NCAA Championship Game the first paragraph of my story might read something like this:

Someone once asked the recently retired Bill Russell how he would have fared against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's newest superstar, and Russell replied, "Young man, you have the question backward." There is a natural tendency to break down a previous generation's sports heroes "to the death" (to borrow a phrase from Goldman and Lupica's classic book Wait Till Next Year) and conclude that there is no way that a superstar from the era of black and white television (or even one from the era of VHS) could compete with, let alone dominate, the athletes who we now watch in stunning HD--but Kentucky's Anthony Davis, the consensus NCAA Player of the Year who just earned Final Four MOP honors by leading the Wildcats to a 67-59 triumph over Kansas in the National Championship Game, proved that a slender, offensively limited big man can be just as dominant now as Russell was for USF in the 1950s. Davis only scored six points on 1-10 field goal shooting versus Kansas but he controlled the game with 16 rebounds, six blocked shots, five assists and three steals, a very Russell-esque stat line. This does not mean that Davis will go on to win 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons like Russell did but it does mean that facile, throwaway comments like "Russell would be eaten alive by big, modern day centers" should not be uttered by intelligent basketball observers.

That paragraph provides the reader with a ton of facts about Kentucky's win and it places Davis' prowess in proper historical context; it is written in an active voice and even though the sentences are complex the appropriate use of commas, parentheses and one dash enable the reader to "take a breath" (read the paragraph out loud, paying attention to the punctuation, if you don't understand what I mean).

Sports Illustrated is one of the last mainstream outlets where top notch sports writing can still be found but SI's cover story about the NCAA Championship Game overdoses on "There was," an introductory phrase that has become very trendy but is actually just a lazy, passive way to express an idea; five different sentences in that story begin "There was":

"There was Doron Lamb, one of two key holdovers from last year's vaunted freshman class and the team's best shooter, hitting two straight three-pointers to kill a Jayhawks rally midway through the second half and finishing with a game-high 22 points."

"There was 6'10" freshman Anthony Davis, the elastic-limbed 19-year-old national player of the year, who displayed athletic gifts so otherworldly that he seemed to lack only a cape as he soared above the rim."

"There was Davis' roommate, fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, still six months shy of his 19th birthday, a player whose struggles with a stutter off the court belie his fluency on it."

"There was 6'9" sophomore Terrence Jones, who skipped the NBA draft last year after Kentucky was ousted by Connecticut in the Final Four because, he says, 'I wanted to play in the final game of the season,' adding nine points, seven rebounds and a defensive presence that made Kansas star Thomas Robinson struggle for each of his 18 points and 17 rebounds."

"There was freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who helped ensure that Calipari didn't relive the nightmare ending of his last appearance in the title game."

What purpose does the phrase "There was" serve in these sentences? The writer could have simply gone straight to the point, describing these players' accomplishments in an active voice instead of numbing the reader's ears and dulling the reader's mind by repeatedly declaring "There was."

I don't mean to pick on SI or Kelli Anderson; this is just the latest example (and perhaps the most prominent, considering the source) of a strange trend in sports writing: I have seen entire articles that largely consist of a series of sentences beginning "There was." I don't know the source for this trend but I do know that "there was" a time when professional writers could actually write lively, interesting sentences and when you immediately knew who wrote an article just by reading the opening sentence (you would never confuse Dick Schaap with William Goldman or Tom Callahan or Ralph Wiley but you would be instantly engaged by anything any of them wrote). Anderson's "there was" story could have been written in similar style by any one of the thousands of other faceless drones whose words skitter discordantly across the print and/or digital landscape only to be forgotten soon after they are read.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:29 PM

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Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Difference Between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James

"With all thy getting, get thee understanding."--Proverbs 4:7

Heart. Confidence. Determination. Preparation. Those qualities cannot be quantified but they separate winners from losers. It is foolish to believe that basketball can be completely understood--or even largely understood--merely by crunching numbers without considering factors that are critically important yet cannot be precisely defined. Great players do not quit, they do not doubt themselves in moments of crisis, they fight through adversity and they tirelessly practice so that they will be prepared for any situation that could reasonably be expected to happen; lesser players lack one or more of those important traits.

Kobe Bryant shot 0-15 from the field in the first three quarters of the L.A. Lakers' 88-85 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Saturday afternoon. The man who once scored 81 points in a single game and who has averaged at least 40 ppg in a calendar month four times during his career (more than anyone other than Wilt Chamberlain, who did it 11 times) did not score a single point until the fourth quarter--but he produced 11 points on 3-6 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter, capping off that barrage with a late three pointer that proved to be the game-winning shot as the Lakers came back from a 10 point deficit to defeat the Western Conference's worst team. Bryant's 3-21 field goal shooting is indisputably inefficient but he did not take bad shots; he simply missed a bunch of shots he normally makes, including point blank shots in the paint, turnaround jumpers in the mid-post area and longer jumpers that he attempted with excellent, on balance form. It is the responsibility of the team's best scorer to neither stop shooting just because he is having an off night nor to press the issue by forcing shots; either of those actions would hurt the team. Bryant stayed the course, having the confidence that all of the preparation he has done for many years would enable him to eventually find his stroke and carry his team in the fourth quarter.

This is not the first time that Bryant kept shooting despite struggling immensely; he famously fired up several airballs in the closing moments of a playoff game versus Utah early in his career; many people criticized Bryant for taking those shots but five years ago I told Bryant that his confidence at that moment impressed me and he replied, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice." A big part of being a great player is accepting the responsibility of putting the outcome of the game on your shoulders. Bryant was willing to do this even before he had fully developed the necessary skill set to succeed in that situation but once Bryant developed that skill set he won five championships. Dirk Nowitzki accepted that responsibility in the 2011 NBA Finals and led his Dallas Mavericks to victory over a more talented Miami Heat team.

LeBron James shrinks from such moments; he often is unwilling to shoulder that responsibility in the fourth quarter even if he played well in the first three quarters and you can bet that he would want no part of a pressure three point shot if he had shot poorly throughout the game. James is a better, more productive regular season player than Bryant right now, hardly a surprising development considering that Bryant is a 33 year old veteran of 16 seasons who has logged more than 50,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes while James is a 27 year old who is in the prime of his career--but James is lacking something vitally important, a certain kind of mindset that cannot be quantified yet separates him from Bryant, Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and other players who have led teams to championships.

James' defenders tried to justify how and why James fled Cleveland by saying that James needed more help to win a championship but the truth is that James had plenty of help in Cleveland--the deepest roster in the league at the time--and now he is blessed to play alongside two perennial All-Stars in the primes of their careers, a luxury that no other MVP candidate in the league currently enjoys. NBA TV's Ron Thompson made a very good point after the Lakers-Hornets game; Thompson said that this current Lakers team top to bottom is not as good as the Cavaliers team that James left two years ago. That statement might seem sacrilegious to most media members and it might contradict what the "stat gurus" think about the value of Andrew Bynum and/or Pau Gasol but Thompson is correct--and this is why I have repeatedly said that the Lakers should have traded Bynum and Gasol to get Dwight Howard (if, in fact, that was ever a deal that the Orlando Magic would have done): the acquisition of a young, bona fide superstar would have extended Bryant's career by reducing his workload and also would have prepared the Lakers for the post-Bryant era. Instead, the Lakers are stuck with a slowly declining Gasol and an erratic Bynum who is feeling his oats during the first healthy season of his career, a season that--due to injuries and retirements taking out recent All-NBA centers Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming, Amare Stoudemire and Andrew Bogut--has seen Bynum emerge by default as the league's second best center but also revealed his stunning lack of maturity and focus; first Bynum tries to reinvent himself as a three point marksman and then, after a desultory performance against the undermanned Hornets, Bynum explains that he had not been very aggressive on offense because he was trying to get 10 assists (he finished with just two assists and the Lakers were outscored by one point during his 37 minutes on the court). Phil Jackson is nobody's fool; he did not walk away from a championship caliber team but rather he realized that the way the Lakers tuned him out in their failed threepeat attempt last season clearly signaled that this current group is no longer an elite team: Bryant cannot just average 40 ppg for a month to hide the team's flaws and there is no one on the roster who can pick up the slack as Bryant ages. Bryant's skills have not dramatically declined but he has clearly lost some of the remarkable stamina that he had earlier in his career when he would seem as fresh in the fourth quarter as he did in the first quarter and when he could string together several 40 point games in a row; if the Lakers had a legit primary scoring option other than Bryant and/or any kind of bench then they could rest Bryant the way that San Antonio's Gregg Popovich rests Tim Duncan and his other stars but the Lakers are forced to run Bryant ragged just to be competitive: L.A. Coach Mike Brown understands that there is no point in resting Bryant for the playoffs because if he rests Bryant the Lakers won't make the playoffs (or they will limp in as an eighth seed and get bounced in the first round).

Gasol already proved in Memphis that he is not an elite level first option player and even if Bynum can stay healthy physically there are good reasons to doubt that he has the game and the mentality to be the focal point of a championship team. The "stat gurus" never believed that Bryant was once the best player in the NBA but I have long said that when Bryant truly falls from elite status (i.e., All-NBA First Team caliber) the strengths and limitations of Bynum and Gasol will become very evident (I also emphasized how much Lamar Odom benefited from being the third option on the Lakers and this season has certainly revealed a lot about Odom's mindset and his true value); the Lakers are wearing Bryant out just to barely win enough games to preserve the fiction that they are a legit contender but the reality is that without Bryant the Lakers are a lottery team and even with him they will--at best--once again lose in the second round. The difference between Bryant and James is that Bryant will compete his hardest regardless of the obstacles in his path or the odds against his team's success, while James does not embrace that kind of challenge.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:22 AM

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