Saturday, July 26, 2008

Make or break season for Bush in '08

A couple of weeks ago, one of the Fox Sports Net channels was showing USC legend Reggie Bush's most jawdropping collegiate performance: Nov 19, 2005, versus Fresno State, at the Coliseum, the eleventh game ofReggie's Heisman Trophy-winning junior year. 294 yards rushing on 23 carries with 2 touchdowns. 3 cathes for 68 yards. 135 yards on 7 kickoff returns and another 16 on a punt return. 513 all-purpose yards in a hard fought 50-42 win.

Probably the most indelible highlight from that masterpiece came towards the end of the third quarter, with the Trojans ahead 34-28, when Bush took the handoff from Matt Leinart, dashed through an opening and sprinted to the left side sideline. An inch from steeping out of bounds and with a defender reaching at him, Reggie puts on the breaks for a split second - a split second - puts the ball behind his back and switches field for a long touchdown. We've all seen that play a million times.

On an earlier lengthy run, in which he came within about half a yard from scoring another touchdown, his right long sleeve was ripped as he dove for the goal line, and when he got up he feigned pulling back his jersey to show the figurative 'S' on his chest while pounding on his heart like Kobe Bean. Indeed, he was Superman.

So you can understand why, for the life of me, I can't understand how this guy is only a mediocre NFL running back. I just wanna know why. As I read once on the WWW, Reggie was the best player to ever come out of college, meaning that If you were to take every player who ever entered the draft and retroactively give them a rating - based on how good they were at the time they entered the league - Bush would get the highest score.

Reggie Bush averaged 8.7 yards a carry his junior year at SC, and 9.7 yards a touch. The Human First Down. This was a world class athlete with the vision of LT and the moves of Barry. The evolutionary Gale Sayers. He couldn't miss.

And remember his first preseason game against the Titans, the 42-yard cutback that had everybody gaga? Perhaps no rookie had ever come into the league with more hype. And never has there been a rookie more deserving of such universal laud and adulation. He was that good.

So what happened next? Well, for the most part, he stunk out the joint in the first half of his rookie season. You didn't hear much about it because A) the Saints were winning, and B) nobody had the balls to criticize the great Reggie Bush in plain sight. Instead, everybody talked about how valuable he was as a "decoy."

Was the attention Bush's gamebreaking potential demanded having a large impact on the Saints' success? Absolutely. Was he catching a lot of passes? Sure (even though he had a low YPC). But he was running the ball like suey and he wasn't making any big plays. Through the first eight games of his career, Reggie Bush had zero touchdowns.

He played much better in the second half of the season, tying a franchise record with four touchdowns against the Niners and gaining a career-high 125 yards on the ground against the Cowboys in Dallas. By the end of the season he had set a rookie record for receptions by a running back (88). And 1,523 total yards and 9 touchdowns ain't bad, especially considering his role (although we were definitely expecting more). The Saints went 10-6, won the division, and came within one game of the Super Bowl. And we all remember the 88-yard touchdown in the NFC title game that year, the longest play in that game's history, when he tauntingly pointed at Brian Urlacher before doing his trademark sommersault into the endzone (he was later fined).

So Reggie had his moments, got better as the season went along, and seemed poise for a breakout season in 2007.

Didn't happen.

Deuce McAllister tore his ACL in the third game of the reason, forcing Reggie to take on more carries, but he couldn't carry the load as his team's feature back (just as everyone predicted when he was drafted - of course, I thought everyone was crazy). He failed to reach 100 yards once in 12 games before missing the last 4 with a knee injury. In the process, some people started calling him overrated. The Texans are no longer considered idiots for passing on him in favor of Mario Williams, who recorded 14 sacks. The entire season was a setback.

So, why has Reggie struggled thus far? For one, while Bush may still be the most gifted athlete in the league, pretty much everyone in the NFL is a special athlete, so that advantage has become almost obsolete. During his rookie year, not only was he the primary focus of the defense from a strategic standpoint, but everybody on the other side of the ball wanted a piece of him. Veteran defensive players were determined to make him earn the publicity and endorsements he was receiving even before he had played a down in their league. Then last year, when McAlister went down, he suddenly began receiving even more defensive attention while assuming more carries, which he wasn't ready for and may never be ready for. Also, I think he needs to slow down - great running backs have great patience, and oftentimes Reggie seems to be going too fast for his own good, as if he's trying to go for the homerun on every attempt.

Also, it has been said that Bush rededicated himself to the game this offseason, and that presents another concern: Just how much does Reggie Bush want to be great? Similar to his buddy Leinart, sometimes it seems that Bush is satisfied with just being Bush, with being a celebrity, with having the time of his life - rather than becoming the best running back he can become. His girlfriend is Playboy model, reality TV star, and dimepiece (sorry, Reg) Kim Kardashian, who once made a sextape that I watch every morning as I'm eating my Cheerios, and they are often photogged out and about, on the scene, two young millionares enjoying the fruits of their fame.

Yet for the guys who are really serious about their craft, the offseason is just an extension of the season, the six months you spend getting better, going from good player to Pro Bowler and Pro Bowler to future Hall-of-Famer. Is Reggie Bush driven to become a legend, to capitalize on his amazing physical gifts, to fulfill the limitless and astounding potential that he showed coming out of Southern Cal? Or is he intent to just be Reggie Bush, former Heisman trophy winner and one of the most famous college athletes ever? These are legitimate questions.

The Saints started camp this week, and Reggie is talking a good game. I hope it's not all talk. I live about 20 minutes away from the USC campus, and you can't understate how important that program is out here, or how much those Bush-Leinart teams transcended sports and became something much more. They were like rock stars, especially Leinart and Bush. Understand: Reggie Bush is an absolute god out here, and Los Angelino's will never forget what he did when he was with the Trojans. Personally, I follow Saints football now, specifically because of him. I want for him to do well.

So here's hoping that Reggie has a breakout year in '08, that the experts were right when they said he would need a couple years to develop, that he's the rare running back that had to grow into and learn his position after being a high draft-pick.

I'm rooting for him.

Monday, July 21, 2008

With "Generation Kill," Simon and Burns appear to have done it again

For David Simon and Ed Burns, it's all about sticking to formula.

Unflinching realism + symbolism-heavy writing/dialogue + humor to make the horror more bearable = classic TV. It's earlier yet in "Generation Kill," a seven-part miniseries about the beginning stages of the Iraqi war, but if the first two episodes are any indication, it appears that Simon and Burns have created a third masterpiece for HBO. Their 2000 miniseries "The Corner" is in the Hall-of-Fame, and "The Wire" is considered by many to be the Michael Jordan of television dramas. "Generation Kill" is different in scope than those two, but after two weeks it has just as much poential.

Simon has spoken in interviews about using humor to make the dread in his shows sufferable. Think Omar's lighthearted one-liners or William Moreland's Bunkisms. They were often funny in a show that was otherwise anything but. Well, this show is twice as funny, and it has to be. "Kill" is twice as depressing as "The Wire."

I've never been to war, but from what I hear it's pretty terrible. I hear about the large casualty figures on the news, see pictures of torn-apart bodies on the Internet. I watched James Gandolfini interview disfigured war heroes on "Alive Day Memories," and I watched Tom Hanks and his squadron search for Matt Damon in "Saving Private Ryan." The latter is considered an unfailingly realistic look at the atrocities of World War II. It takes us inside the action and allows us to experience it vicariously, through the actors. "Kill" does the same thing.

On the one hand, these marines are fighting for our country, even though at this point it's too early to say definitely how they feel about that as a group. Whatever. We are at war, allegedly to protect us from terror, and these American men are putting their lives on the line. They are our heroes, period.

But I wouldn't say that I can necessarily relate to them. None of them are eager to die, but all of them are comfortable with combat. Some of them are very professional and realize that they are in Iraq to do a job, and treat is as such; it's not fun and it's not personal. These are the soldiers that command respect.

Yet there are probably even more that are legitimately excited by the chance to kill without consequence and think the site of a dead body is totally awesome, brah. You have to question the character and morals of some of these men. Not all of them are likable.

Or perhaps these seemingly heartless marines have simply psyched themselves out, to prepare themselves for the hellish atmosphere, and the task at hand. Kill. If you are going to go to war, you had better throw sentiment to the wolves and assume the disposition of coldhearted killer. That's the less cynical interpretation (and the one I want to believe).

But like with "The Wire," Simon isn't telling you what to think. The story is there. It's laid out for you. Now do with it what you will.

Naturally, I root for the Americans to survive their missions without any casualties. Several characters carry the show and already we have become familiar with them. As they drive their Humvee through a hail of Iraqi gunfire, I find myself partially covering my eyes, hoping that none of them are injured or killed, and that they take out the bad guys trying to end them.

But when I see a dead Iraqi girl, her lifeless body on the side of the road with both of her legs blown off, it becomes harder to take sides. One of my favorite movies is "Unforgiven," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, who attempts to sensitize and deconstruct the myth of violence that he helped create by showing us the toll that killing takes on a man's soul. "It's helluva thing, killin' a man," he explains to his young partner The Kid, who's visibly shaken after committing his first kill. "You take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna have."

Other than at the sight of the little girl, the Marines on "Kill" seem unfazed by at best, enthralled by at worst, the inherent atrocitites of war. But enemy or no enemy, American or Iraqi, at the end of the day, aren't these all just dead people?

"Generation Kill" is a screen adaptation of a book of the same name written by journalist Evan Wright (portrayed by Lee Tergesen on the show), who experienced the first phase of the Iraq war up close and personal, took notes, and then wrote a hardover about it. So unless you've read the book (and I haven't), it's hard to gauge just how much Simon and Burns are trying to make a point about the state of the war and the country, and how much they're just trying to tell Wright's story. No matter. With "Generation Kill," they've created yet another powerful drama, and you should be watching.

Friday, July 11, 2008

If Kobe's playing, I'll be watching

In a shocking turn of events, I'll be watching next month's Olympic basketball tournament with a vested interest.

Pre-2007, I had only followed Team USA-related proceedings with sporadic, exceedingly half-hearted curiousity. In other words, I didn't really care. Never, ever sat down and watched a full game. Bor-ing. Understand, I love basketball more than just about anything. Since the sixth grade it's what people have associated me with. It's my identity. And yet I had never been moved to give more than a smidgen of attention to international basketball.

But starting last year, all that changed.

What piqued my interest?

I'll give you a few hints.

Most famous four letter name in sports that isn't an acronym. Nickamed after the world's deadliest serpent. It would stand to reason that we'd all be sick and tired of talking about him, but we never get sick and tired of talking about him.

Yeah, that's right.

Another Kobe article.

Trust, I almost couldn't bring myself to write another story about Kobe. It's the middle of July, for Christ's sake. But once again, he's relevant. He's always relevant.

I'll be watching the Olympics this summer because of Bean. Mambazo. Mr. Bink. The most fascinating figure in sports. This Hardwood Paroxysm piece from earlier this year captured the Kobe phenomenon. I live in Los Angeles, I'm a diehard Lakers fan, and I watch every Lakers game, so I couldn't be any more familiar with his game. It never gets old watching him play because he's so good and so exciting, but that's not why I'll be watching either. He's not Mike Tyson, who's you have to watch because there's always a chance he's going to do something completely crazy. Nor is he a T.O. or Ocho Cinco, WWE-level performers who make their games more entertaining by injecting doses of fun and amusement. And there's not a chance he's going to score 81 points in one game (at least I don't think there is).

But just by being who he is, he's made the Summer Games must-see TV.

Everybody knows Kobe. Everybody has an opinion about Kobe. The very sight of him elicits strong emotion, and his very presence on the court in Beijing will boost ratings. In the past, the thought of waking up at 4:00 in the morning to watch my country's basketball team struggle to win against ever-improving competition while playing a brand of basketball neither I nor them were familiar with didn't appeal to me.

But by simply slipping on his red, white, and blue no. 10 jersey, Kobe will make everything seem more important. He's famous like that.

As a basketball writer, the Kobe article is the easiest one to write. It's easy for me to fill up this space when I write about Kobe. There never seems to be a dull moment with him, and with any Kobe story, there are so many different angles from which to approach that I could probably go on forever, or until I just decided to stop. Is any athlete involved in more situations and controversies, on a consistent basis, than Kobe? Is there anybody who's more complex? Is there any athlete that has more star power? Tiger, maybe. He's the sole reason people watch golf. But he comes nowhere close to riling up the public like Kobe does. Our fascination with Tiger comes from how unbelievably great he is. He's the real new MJ. With Kobe, our obsession goes much deeper, because wheter we want to admit it or not, we can all identify with him. He's human and we can all see it. Like Tupac, there's a little bit of Kobe in all of us.

The Dream Team has a chance to take back our gold. Kobe will be playing. Where do I sign up?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Wimbledon final breeds two champions

"No one will forget what you did here today."
- Boxing trainer Eddie Hutch to his objecting fighter, Joe Frazier, before throwing in the towel in the Thrilla in Manilla

As Roger Federer was fighting back from down two sets to force a fifth against Rafael Nadal in Sunday's epic Wimbledon final, a quote from Joey Chestnut was becoming increasingly poignant to me.

On July 4th Chestnut successfully defended his hot-dog eating championship by defeating the legendary Kobayashi in a sudden death dog-off.

Afterwards, Chestnut described the deciding factor in his victory.

"He wanted it," Chestnut said, "but I needed it."

Now, obviously the hot-dog eating contest is an inane competition and trust me, I regret even mentioning it in a serious sports article. But it's a great quote. Just pretend it was Tiger Woods who said it after a winning defense of the US Open, instead of some guy who gulped down 59 hot-dogs in 10 minutes and then another five in overtime.

Federer, who before winning his first six matches of the tournament without dropping a set was being written off as past his prime by some, lost the first two sets to the younger, more athletic Nadal and could've just draped his duffle bag full of tennis balls over his shoulder and gone home. Afterall, he already had five Wimbledon titles (in a row, no less).

Didn't happen.

And as he willed himself to a deciding fifth set by winning the previous two on tiebreakers, Federer reminded me of that quote. Maybe Nadal wanted to win, but like Jordan and Ali in the final stages of their dominance, Federer needed to win. That's what seperates the greatest champions from all of the rest, what drives them to sustain their excellence, to hold onto it for as long as they possibly can: They have to win. It's a way of life. And that's why Roger was going to win Sunday.

Of course, he didn't win.

Nadal did.

So it's pretty much moot. I guess in the end, Nadal really was the one that needed it. With the victory he is now the No. 1 ranked player in the world, and he will not look back. (Monday Morning Update: I was unknowingly given some wrong information, and then unknowlingly passed that wrong information along to you. To be accurate, Nadal is not the new No. 1 ranked player - he's still No. 2, with Federer maintaining the No. 1 spot. Doesn't change or mean much - Nadal is the best player now, regardless of what the computers say. We all know this. But obviously, that doesn't change the fact that I screwed up. My bad. Don't hold it against me.) Beating Federer on grass was his final hurdle. The game of tennis will belong to him for the next four years. Congratulations, Rafael, on your first Wimbledon title. 7/6/2008, the beginning of the Nadal Rule.

But from where I stand the day still belongs to Federer. His heroic performance today reminded me of a Bill Simmons column from seven years ago, a running diary of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series between the three-time defending champion Yankees and upstart Diamondbacks in Arizona. You all remember the ending to that one: Luis Gonzalez blooping a single over second base off of Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth and, we realize years later, effectively ending the Yankees dynasty. Simmons is the most famous Boston fan on the Web, but even he had to give it up to the Yankees for the heart and resiliency they showed in defending their crown. He wrote:

"You find out everything you need to know about a champion during the season when they finally get dethroned: True champions go down kicking and screaming, and you practically have to drive the stake into their collective heart, Dracula-style, to put them away. Nobody will forget how the Yankees played over these past few weeks, or the way the crowd at Yankee Stadium lifted them to those three wins that sandwiched Halloween night. They were a true champion. We'll forget about the D-backs some day, but we won't forget these Yankees. And that's coming from a Red Sox fan."

That excerpt right there captures what Federer accomplished Sunday, even in defeat. I don't think he'll ever be the world's best tennis player again after losing today. He didn't just lose a Grand Slam tournament, he lost his crown. Wimbledon's 2008 final wasn't just another especially prestigious championship match, it was a passing of the torch and a coronation. But 25 years from now, when I think back on it, I'll remember the way Federer lost more than I will the way Nadal won. I'll remember the way he went down kicking and screaming, the way Nadal had to drive a stake into his heart to put him away. Roger Federer was a true champion, and I'm never gonna forget what he did in England today.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Clips are coming to take the town! Whooooooo, I'm so scared

By swiping Baron Davis off of the free agent market Tuesday night, the Clippers officially announced their presence in the Wild West and put pressure on the Lakers for the title of Best Team In Los Angeles.

(*sound of tires screeching*)

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. What?

By swiping Baron Davis off of the free agent market Tuesday night, the Clippers officially announced their presence in the Wild West and put pressure on the Lakers for the title of Best Team In Los Angeles?


That's what everybody says.

Take it from me, an unabashed Lakers fan: I'm not worried about the Clippers. At all.

Yeah, the Clippers have B. Diddy now and are likely to retain the services of Elton Brand as well (although it's not a lock). That gives them a presumptive starting lineup of Baron, Cuttino Mobley, Al Thornton, EB, and Chris Kaman, which is probably good for 48-wins and a playoff berth.

But enough to shake up the West and make Kobe nervous?

Maybe we all need to calm down for a second here.

At press time, Tim Thomas, Quentin Ross, and Brevin Knight are the only proven NBA players the Clippers would have coming off of the pine. I don't even think I have to say anything. Also, how willing will El Beardo be to feed the two big men down low? What about sophomore forward Thornton, a natural scorer? Will he get enough touches to progress in his second year?

I think Baron left the ideal situation for him in Golden State. Point guards are supposed to think pass-first, pass-second, and then shoot, and shoot-first lead guards like Davis and Stephon Marbury traditionally have trouble harnessing their more dominant selfish traits and meshing their talents with that of the team. In Oakland, this was not a problem for Baron. Everybody got to shoot as much as they wanted. The Warriors are the most liberated team in basketball, Nellie giving his team of scorers full offensive freedom, just like he did in Dallas. It's glorified Rucker Park. The beauty of it is the lack of structure. Baron thrived in that environment. He got to do whatever he wanted.

But now he's once again going to be asked to run a traditional, half-court offense. He's a great player and will make the Clippers much better, but his style of play could end up lowering their ceiling at the same time.

Also, can he stay healthy? He played all 82 games in a contract year last season, but prior to that he hadn't played more than 67 games in a season since 2002. I love the guy, but I wouldn't put money on him playing a full season again. Can the Clippers survive 25 games without their best player?

At best, I think the Clippers finish in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff picture with some combination of Portland, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, and Denver. Utah and New Orleans will be better, and the Lakers are still the cream of the crop.

Oh, yeah, the Lakers. Do you really think Kobe is going to let the Clippers take the city? Ever? Over his dead body.

But the Clippers biggest obstacle? Themselves! They're the Clippers! They're the Los Angeles Clippers, ladies and gentlemen. Let's not forget that little detail! They've had one good season, like, ever. With them, seeing is definitely believing.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

YouTube Wars

While sifting through the World Wide Web earlier, I came across some YouTubage making more comparisons between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, which you aren't supposed to do because it's considered blasphemy and sacrilege in 49 states (trust me, I know). In Truehoop's Tuesday Bullets, Henry linked to an article some Lakers fan wrote reflecting on his team's great season, and at the end of it he gave a link to a YouTube clip he put together called "Kobe Bryant vs. Zone Defense," designed to "detail the superior defenses that Bryant and other superstars have to go up against in the modern era of basketball." It also included a quote from Mamba himself, opining for the rules of MJ's reign, when teams weren't allowed to zone up.

Related videos led me to the dispiciable Bruce Blitz's propaganda channel, bruceblitzconfession. He is anti-Kobe and pro-Jordan, to the core. There are athletes I don't like, but none I despise, at least not enough to lead a crusade against them, like Bruce has against Kobe, a man he seems to have a personal problem with. Bruce police's the text responses people make to his videos, because he wants to make sure no one is able to expose him and his B.S. Anyways, his video was called "Michael Jordan 1993 NBA Finals vs. Kobe Bryant 2008 NBA Finals," a response to mustseebbtv's "Michael Jordan vs Real Defenses," which displayed the traps, double/triple teams, and physical defenses MJ had to overcome during his era. Do you see what's going on here? It's a battle between Jordan Truthers and Kobe Defenders. KB42PAH (the Lakers fan) reps Kobe and mustseebbtv is with Jordan, and by making a video that attempts to demonstrate that their guy played in a superior defensive period, they are implicitly making the case that the defenses the other guy played against were inferior. Kobe v. MJ lies beneath the surface of virtually any mention of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. And Bruce is obsessed with proving that Kobe is no Jordan.

I went to Bruce's channel to post a comment. In the description of his evidence-less video, he writes that Boston didn't use a zone to thwart Kobe, but rather, played man-to-man with rotating help, or the same defense Jordan played against. I typed that I did think Boston played some box-and-one zone against Kobe, and that besides, even if they're not in zone the absence of illegal defense makes it easier to bring help. Pre-2004-05, you were forced to be within an arms length of your man at all times; these days you are allowed to play further off of your assignment, strengthening help defense and putting restriction on one-on-one play. Remember, that's why the league put the new rules in in the first place, because they felt that there was too many offenses built around isolations and individual play, and not enough ball movement and team play. Someone like Kobesmith Black Mambazo (shout out to Dr. LIC), a venemous man who can strike with 99% accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession, only needs a split second opening, a smidgeon of room, do his damage. With the old rules in place, it's very likely that Boston's team defense, spectacular as it was, would have been, as Avon Barksdale once said, a little slow, a little late, in disturbing Kobe. And they definitely wouldn't have been able to force the ball out of his hands 35 feet from the basket.

My comment is "pending approval"...but I'm pretty sure it will never see the light of day, just like my comment on another video he posted. It featured Sam Cassell, in a guest spot with the boys on the TNT set. If my memory serves me, Kobe had just finished scoring 45 points against the Suns in Game 3 of a 2007 first round series, and Chuck asked Sam to repeat what he was saying in the green room. "He ain't Michael Jordan," Sam said, "but he the closest thing we got." Charles echoed that sentiment. Of course, Bruce manipilated the video so that you only heard the first half of that quote. What kind of a person does something like that? You can at least be honest, right? Seriously.

Listen, I'm done with the MJ-Kobe thing. I still believe that Kobe's game is more polished and expansive, but as Jayceon Taylor might put it, MJ was 100. He came through all of the time. Kobe only comes through most of the time. That's the difference. The only question that matters is who would you rather have on your team, and, no disrespect meant to Kobe at all, I'd rather have Jordan. Period.

But while Jordan played in a much more physical era in which hand-checking was allowed and it was OK to mug people on their way to the basket, Kobe has to play against smarter defenses, and never has it been easier to focus all of your defensive efforts on a single offensive player. Jordan supporters conveniently ignore that latter fact when they make their arguments.

Oh, and just one more thing: Last month, Bill Simmons wrote of Kobe having a "kryptonite flaw," bigger defenders with long reaches backed by smart teammates who remain aware of his every movement. He also said that Michael didn't have a "kryptonite flaw," and that "Jordan did whatever he wanted during a much more physical era, and when he faced a great defensive team - like the '89 and '90 Pistons or '93 Knicks - nobody ever shackeled him or knocked him into a scoring funk."

Well, here go MJ's numbers from the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals against New York: 32.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 2.5 steals, but only 40.0 percent from the field (Kobe shot 40.5 percent in the Finals against Boston). He shot a combined 62-of-155 in the six games - that's 25.8 shots a game (Kobe averaged 21.8 shots per in L.A.'s six-game clash with the Celtics). In Game 4 he exploded for 54 on Labor Day, in one of his most famous performances. He had 29 points (and 10 rebounds and 14 assists) on 11-24 shooting in Game 5 (the Charles Smith Game). But other than that? He shot 10-27 in Game 1, 12-32 in Game 2, 3-18 in Game 3, and 8-24 in Game 6. Nobody remembers this because the Bulls won the series, but it happened. It did. You can look it up.