Friday, July 31, 2009

Eminem Ethers Mariah Carey: It's Alive!

You know, it's funny. I was just thinking (for no real reason) about Michael Jordan's last game at Madison Square Garden, in 2003, when he was a slow, bulky, 40-year old small forward for the Washington Wizards who became incited by some smack talk from Knicks guard Shandon Anderson in the second quarter and proceeded to revert to vintage MJ destroy mode. Almost as if on cue, Jordan took over the game at will, scoring 19 points in the final 7 minutes of the period (he had 26 at the half and would finish the contest with a game-high 39) and reminding everyone that the aged warrior could still summon the legendary magic when properly provoked. It was one of the last great moments of an iconic career, and one of the few moments during Jordan's stint in Washington that made his comeback seem worthwhile.

That's what the new Eminem diss aimed at Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, "The Warning," reminds me of. I enjoyed Eminem's last record, Relapse - he's a master lyricist, a genius of his craft, and the skillful writer/rhymer will always be my favorite type of hip-hop artist. Relapse, as the title indicates, is centered around the drug addiction that plagued him during his five year hiatus between albums. Beyond that, it's just the same antics he was up to seven years ago. It's repetitive and disappointing in that it doesn't show much growth by him as an artist, but it's still worth the listen, a chance to hear vivid storytelling by a man with a flow so agile and flexible and versatile and a mind so perversely brilliant. He's better on his worst day than pretty much anybody, and one of those rare rappers who will never fall off lyrically, no matter how old they get or how many years they put in the game (no small feat).

I don't think the Relapse version of Em represented him on his worst day, but it wasn't his best, and I think the reason was that he wasn't motivated. His legacy is etched in stone and he has nothing to prove at this point. The hunger wasn't there; for Eminem to be truly great he needs to be taking it personally, and I think that aspect was missing on this last album - not as much as it was on Encore, which I feel was his most lackluster offering, but still absent. He didn't seem angry on this record, more like he just wanted to vent.

Now, I think the animal is back.

When Little Nicky trashed him after he hit Mrs. Cannon below the belt on the Relapse cut "Bagpipes from Baghdad," Slim barely blinked, showing more signs that he had matured beyond the point of trying to kill somebody on a rap song. When Mariah released the impressive "Obsessed" and it became obvious that a female pop singer was aiming right at the head of one of the most dangerous emcees ever and he didn't respond in kind, I figured that the monster was dead. When she dressed up like him and portrayed him as a stalker in the video for the single and he didn't say anything right away my beliefs that the old Em was gone for good were only strengthened.

But thank goodness, my fears were misguided. Turns out I just needed to employ a little patience. In "The Warning," Em is as spiteful and vitriolic as ever - and at a level resembling his peak. This is his best single song since "Lose Yorself." Yep. It's that good. He kills the Cannons, especially, especially Mariah. He even splices soundbites of her from their time together and raps around it, an act which, besides merely adding to the quality of the diss, adds credibility to his claims that they were together and his threat that there is more damaging material where that came from. If this were a World War, the Cannons would be sending in their notice of surrender right now. He just dropped the atomic bomb. Best dis song since "Ether." The Good Doctor provides the beat. A poor one can ruin the work of a great wordsmith; Em is so vicious here that would be almost impossible in this instance, but it's a moot point anyway, as Andre supplies the perfect wave for Marshall to ride. Perfect. That's the optimum word to describe this track. It's just perfect.

At one point he reminds Mariah, "This is what the fuck I do." Glad to see that is still true. The inspiration is back. The monster has returned. It's like MJ at MSG that last time, all over again.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

T.O. Is Way Too Big For Buffalo

I was watching the second episode of VH1's T.O. show, "The T.O. Show," in which Terrell Owens was shown arriving in his new city of employment for the first time, and though much has been made of it already, the reaction that he has received from the Buffalo faithful can't be stated enough. He's a God, a hero, Pacquiao in the Philippines, a celebrity to easily starstruck inhabitants that feel honored and privileged and almost blessed to get to call him their own. Americans usually aren't so affected by big shots, because we are so used to them, and I think that just goes to show how little the small market of Buffalo has going for it. All the fun stuff goes on in New York, where the Giants and Jets roam, garnering all of the attention and casting the Bills into a shadow that they haven't been able to shake in sixteen years. In 1993 the Bills made the last of their four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, so obviously they have had some great teams, and once upon a time they employed the services of Orenthal James Simpson, before he was the biggest pariah in modern American pop culture. But it's been pretty boring there for a while now: There's nothing to do, the beloved football team hasn't done much to bring excitement, and their biggest star has been Drew Bledsoe. Drew Bledsoe!!! T.O. owns Drew Bledsoe!!! Drew is one of his most notable victims!!! Everybody knows that!!!

And it is that last part, the fact that everywhere he goes Terrell Owens leaves a trail of destruction, wreckage all over the place in his wake, that makes the Buffalo experiment so special. Not only do we know it's coming, the pain T.O. brings to the teams he's on, but this is his greatest platform yet. Let me reiterate: Terrell Owens in Buffalo? Are you kidding me? There hasn't been that much of a mismatch since Super Bowl XX. T.O. is way too big for Buffalo. I don't know how good this team will be, but if Bills fans will be satisfied with just a show, they're going to get it.

There isn't anyone around to even remotely challenge his star power or the force of his personality. If T.O. dominated San Francisco, with Mooch and Garcia, and Philly, with Reid and McNabb, and America's team, with a celebrity like Romo, what is he capable of on the Bills, the NFL's everyman team? Dick Jauron, Trent Edwards, Lee Evans - Marshawn Lynch has had his run-ins with the law and is the closest thing they have to a star or a character - his flowing dreads, iced-out grill, and reckless running style creates a persona that I think the kids would describe as "hyphy" - but he pales in comparison to the larger-than-life quality Owens possesses.

The conflict, of course, will come between Owens and the men he seems to be preternaturally opposed to - coaches and quarterbacks (and tight ends who are best friends with the quarterback). He's going to have a field day with Jauron and Edwards, two of the most mellow and humble guys you'll meet. Can you imagine the mental anguish he is going to inflict on those two gentlemen?

I really don't mean to bash T.O. He has been a great player for a long time, he's easily one of the five best receivers that has ever played the game, and if he doesn't make the Hall-of-Fame on the first ballot (which wouldn't surprise me at all, considering his checkered past and the God-like tendencies of the Canton voters), I will absolutely scream and shout about the injustices of it all. But this is the reality of the Buffalo situation, and I'm only speaking about an inevitability.

Or am I?

T.O. signed a one-year deal with the Bills, and it's safe to say that this will be his last shot. Owens will be 36 in December, and while he was still a very productive player last year (69 catches for 1052 yards and 10 touchdowns, even with Tony Romo missing three games with a broken digit and being substituted for by a decrepit Brad Johnson), the effects of the aging process were nonetheless evident, as he was able to manage only two games of 100-plus yards and showed an inability to create the same separation against defensive backs that he did in his prime. There was a time when he was so good, you had to take the good with the bad, but that time is fading rapidly.

There is nothing wrong with Owens descending, obviously, that is what is supposed to happen to a player of his seniority. As Mark Jackson likes to say, Father Time is undefeated (and as I like to say, Father Time is undefeated against those who don't use HGH). But what really hurts Owens is the particular business he's a part of, the NFL the most cutthroat sports league in existence, no feeling for the aging player or any player, and in this case we have an aging player who's antics have been great enough and damaging enough that they have managed to overshadow one of the best careers any skill position player has ever had. In other words, this is his last strike.

But does T.O. realize this? Maybe he does. Owens is crazy, but most crazy people are not stupid. In fact, many of them are quite intelligent. And if T.O. is even a little smart, then he'll be on his best behavior in Buffalo this season, if only because he has no choice but to be.

In that sense, the thought of Owens not causing mayhem is more intriguing than the likelihood that he does. Because what is more captivating to behold: that which you have witnessed so many times you have come to expect it, or that which you have never seen before?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lakers About To Ruin A Perfect Thing

HBO has Marty Scorcese's brilliant look at the Las Vegas mob during the 1980s, "Casino," in their rotation and On Demand right now. One of my favorite parts is at the start of the movie, when Joe Pesci's character tells us how the story finishes. "Matter of fact, nobody knew all the details. But it should've been perfect. I mean, he (casino manager Sam "Ace" Rothstein, played by De Niro) had me, Nicky Santoro, his best friend, watching his (back). And he had Ginger, the woman he loved, on his arm. But in the end, we (messed) it all up. It should've been so sweet, too." They had what my man Shoefly would call "the golden ticket," and by their own foolish actions allowed it to escape their possession. In its own way, it's your classic tale of squandered paradise.

When I think of this Lakers off-season, I think of those lines from Nicky and what the movie represented, the blown opportunity of a lifetime. Coming off of this season's championship, L.A. had the formula for a potential dynasty, a magic potion that, once acquired, must be held onto for dear life. In the Lakers case, it was a perfect mix of youth, experience, chemistry, talent, and pecking order; all they had to do was keep it together and let it continue to grow. In other words, they needed to retain the services of unrestricted free agents Trevor Ariza and especially Lamar Odom this summer, the latter ballplayer the X-factor both on the court and during this critical off-season. They couldn't strike a deal with Ariza so they snatched up Ron Artest instead, Trevor winding up taking the same money from Houston that he would have gotten from them. High-risk, high-reward move: Ariza was a flawless fit for this club and a much safer investment, but if Ronnie works out he gives them a higher ceiling, a burly swing-man to defend the Melo's and King James' of the universe and just more punch overall, with everybody stacking up this summer for next season's league holy war.

But here's the thing: Without Lamar, it doesn't make a difference. To have a sixth man like that, a big man with that many skills who could start for damn near any other in basketball and is that unselfish who operates so well in your specialized system - he's what puts them over the top, I think, a luxury other teams can only dream of. Re-signing Ariza would have been a moot point in the event that he left; Ronnie completely tamed and turned into the player he always should have been by Phil can't take them high enough to compensate for the loss of #7.

It's looking like they might lose him. A deal believed to be imminent is now an offer that has been pulled off the table, according to reports. L.A. is willing to give Odom three years at a bit more than $9 million annually, he and his agent want a five year contract worth $50 mil, and the two sides cannot come to terms. Why the Lakers aren't willing to give him the extra two years, I have no idea. Why a compromise hasn't been reached at $45 million over five years, the salary they will concede at the length he desires, is beyond me. He's been talking with Dallas and Miami, who can only offer him five years of mid-level money. Why he would consider working five years to make two million more dollars than he could earn for three, and opt to become a free agent at 32 rather than 34, makes no sense to me at all (unless it's just a weak negotiating ploy). Is he really being this difficult? It must be his agent, Jeff Schwartz, playing the devil as agents sometimes do. But isn't Lamar his boss? Finally, why don't the Lakers just give him what he wants? They have upped their offer more than a million dollars since negotiations began, and I suppose don't want to appear so weak as to cave in completely, but if that's the case then, to paraphrase Jay-Z, I guess they forgot what they came for. It's not my money and I know the economy is harsh, but isn't it worth an extra milli to keep this team intact? They're already deep in the luxury tax, right? What's another million dollars?

What I do understand is that the Lakers appear on the verge of blowing it big, stupidity getting in the way of the shrewdness that was used in building a roster that, health permitting, might have two championships instead of one. They couldn't afford to lose a key piece without replacing it, and Odom is Bynum Insurance that they cannot duplicate. They already spent their MLE, so they can forget about a lesser power forward like Big Baby, let alone a stud like David Lee.

The reason this all happened, this title and the awesome parade and the burgeoning titan, was because of the staunch commitment to winning. Money, ultimately, was not an issue. Now it is? Relative peanuts?

I picked up the commemorative '09 championship DVD Tuesday, first day of its release, a reminder of how sweet this season was. I hope Mitch Kupchak takes a look at a copy himself, I hope Lamar, who attended the premiere screening Monday night, pops it in his Samsung or whatever he uses one more time before it's too late and everyone affected is forced to sit up one day and lament how perfect it should've been.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Albert Pujols Amazes, But He's Also A Victim Of The Recent Past

Ryan Alberti pretty much already covered this topic, but I have to express it again, this time proving his point from an individual fan's perspective.

Albert Pujols trots casually around the base paths and into All-Star weekend on what one has to believe will be a professional highpoint for him. The mid-season festivities will take place in his baseball hometown of St. Louis, Mo. He will partake in the Home Run derby and the game, for which he was the leading vote-getter, a distinction he has never been more deserving of: Pujols is having the best season of a career filled with absolutely nothing but great ones, and I'm starting to wonder if its more than just a nickname, if he actually is a machine, if he truly is inhuman. Or if it is a little bit of something else, a persistent thought, the existence of which I am not responsible for.

Pujols flirts with the triple crown, leading the NL in homers and runs batted in whilst coming in third in batting average, attempting to become the first man to achieve that feat since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Sawx in 1967, and the first NL player to do it since another Cardinal, Joe Medwick, pulled it off all the way back in 1937. But that is only a margin of the equation. It is his startling, all-around consistency with the bat that makes it seem as though he was built, not born, still a noun but a thing rather than a person. Now in his ninth season, Pujols has never batted below .314, hit fewer than 32 home runs, or driven in less than 103 rbi's. His career 162-game averages? .334/43/130. He has a lifetime OPS of 1.058, the highest of any right-handed hitter in history and fourth all-time behind Bambino, Ballgame, and Iron Horse. Barring some unforeseen happening, he will be awarded with a third MVP honor at the end of the campaign. And so, in this age, when I think of think of "The Machine," I think of two possibilities, of which there is no in-between: either I am watching the greatest hitter ever...or the other thing.

I think you know what the other thing is. Recent history has told us that if a baseball player seems too good to be true, he probably is. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa performed an all-out assault on the record books in 1998, captivating a country, transcending the game as they bumped off Roger Maris (and Sosa would hit 60+ bombs two more times). It was only later that we realized they were doing it with the aid of enhancements. Some wondered if they were not witnessing the best player ever in Bonds, his output at the plate from '01 to '04 the most eye-popping since Babe Ruth, even though they were achieved during the stage of Bonds' career when he should have been in decline. Soon after, these years of Barry's would be stigmatized by the same kind of asterisk. Then we had Alex Rodriguez, the pure talent who was to bring purity back to the all-time home run mark, and Manny Ramirez, the autistic genius wood wielder, meet similar fates as fallen Gods of the diamond whose accomplishments are now tainted.

And now here's Pujols, ostensibly programmed to belt baseballs, but someone who, because of the realities of what we have seen, I have no choice but to be a little skeptical. Ten years ago, I'd have thought nothing of this, I'd have simply bowed; today I am still reverential but in the back of my mind I am, oh, I don't know, well, like I said, skeptical. You can't blame me. It sucks, and you can charge it to the game that rather than being able to just marvel at and enjoy someone hitting for average and power on such a startlingly consistent basis, I also must wonder if it is being done naturally.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"The Ariza Situation"

Trevor Ariza is gone now, no longer for me to worry about, but I still will think about him, for what could have been and what will be. I wish Ariza had been retained by the Lakers, obviously; he has a fan-friendly style, the city loved and embraced him, he was a perfect fit for the team, and he had his fingerprints all over this championship season. He knocked down open threes (48 percent in the playoffs), wreaked havoc on defense, and made plays with his athleticism in the open-court. Role players usually do the small things, the things that go unnoticed to the untrained eye (like another Lakers small forward who won championships, Rick Fox), but Ariza's contributions were striking, even if you sit aside those two momentous steals in the Denver series: There was rarely a time when you forgot he was on the court, which is perhaps the greatest compliment one can give him.

But with that being said, when news broke that he was leaning towards leaving the Lakers over hurt feelings, I was disappointed but not devastated. Ariza is a good player, but not an indispensable one: As Kenny Smith pointed out on TNT the night the Lakers won the championship (in discussing the upcoming free agent scenario surrounding Odom and Ariza), what, really, is the difference between Ariza and Mickael Pietrus? Or for that matter, I'll argue, Shane Battier, James Posey, or Bruce Bowen in his day? The Lakers probably don't win the championship without Ariza this year, but mostly because they traded Radmanovic during the season, leaving them with only one other small forward with a pulse (Walton) and an eternally struggling Vujacic, who lost the crunch-time minutes he thrived on to the returned and improved Ariza. Remember that they made the Finals last season virtually without Ariza, and may have won the whole damn 'chip with a healthy Bynum. You could have replaced him this year with any of the aforementioned defensive specializing/three-point shooting swing men, and they'd have been fine. Going forward, they could have spent that mid-level exception on Josh Childress, or Gerald Green, or Kleiza, or Marquis Daniels, or Quinton Ross, or Jamario Moon, or Rodney Carney, or Desmond Mason, or Keith Bogans, or Kareem Rush, or Matt Barnes, or Ime Udoka...see what I mean? I don't like any of those guys more than I like Ariza for this team, or even at all, but how much does it really matter? They all have their strengths as small forwards and they're all going to look better playing with Kobe Bryant.

Not to go all Simmons on you (not that there is anything wrong with that), but my dad argued otherwise, suggesting that the Lakers should've done whatever it took to keep Ariza around (among other things). In a move I rarely make, I brought up statistics, pointing out that Ariza averaged only nine points during the regular season and eleven in the playoffs, as a means of putting his virtual worth in perspective. My father shot back with the same argument I often make: basically, that stats are about context. He's right: I think basketball stats are totally subjective, that too much is made of them in a sport in which there is too much they do not account for. But I do not think they are meaningless, and in Trevor's case I think they pretty much are what they are. Roughly half of Ariza's value (his three point-shooting) is dictated by others: He feasts on the open threes made possible for him by the lack of defensive attention he receives on an offensive juggernaut featuring Kobe Bryant. Rarely does he create his own offense in the half court - occasionally he'll get chased off of the three point line and throw in an awkward runner or soar in for a dunk, but that's about it. The points he gets from his defense will still be there, but he is not a true offensive player.

He is a dependent offensive player; how would he do if he had to fend for himself? If this were a situation in which a gifted offensive player were just stuck in a numbers crunch, or down in the pecking order, then that would be one thing, and Ariza's value would be greater. You'd think much longer about just letting him go. But this is not that case, and we'll see how Ariza does now on a Houston squad that has been devastated by injuries and the departure of its most dependable player, the new Laker Artest.

With more minutes, more touches, and more opportunities to score, I suppose he will up his point average about five points, basing that estimate off of the fact that even Battier averaged 14 per in 40 minutes a game for the 2002 Grizzlies - and like those Grizzlies, Houston will suck. This is not a knock against Ariza - most of the players in the league are or would be useless on bad teams. Ariza excels in that he possesses the kind of intangibles that can help a team on the very verge become a champion, even more so than most other role players do. But he is simply not someone who will guarantee you a ring, if there is such an entity, or bring you a great deal closer by himself, so you don't have to kill yourself to make sure he goes or stays. Role players are generally interchangeable, even those of the highest order, like the talented Ariza. Instead of paying them more than they are worth, you can just sort their minutes out in a different way and/or or add someone else who can contribute roughly the same in overall quality. I understand that sometimes you need what you need and not something else, but no team is perfect, anyway.

What the Lakers will get is Artest, who can no longer guard quick guys off the dribble like Ariza could, but is a big, burly son of a gun who won't get thrown around by the Carmelo's of the world, like our lithe wings were in the conference finals this year. If there is anyone who can tame Artest's suspect shot selection and ego on offense and get him to become the player of his destiny it is Phil Jackson, in what will be the last great test of his career. If the Zenmaster can pull it off, if he can confine Artest within the boundaries of the triangle, L.A.'s ceiling becomes higher than it was with Ariza. Of course those are "if's" that will have to be paid great attention to, while we already knew what we had in Ariza. But I suspect that with teams like San Antonio armoring up this summer, in preparation for the ultimate battle, the Lakers may have needed to do some beefing up, too.

They have, and now we'll just have to wait and see what happens. With all of it.