Bill Belichick Is Bold

ESPN writer Tim Keown wrote an opinion piece on about the end of the Super Bowl.  He says that while the decision by Belichick and the Patriots defense to allow the Giants to score a go ahead TD in order to get the ball back with enough time to have a chance to score was the right call, it was not a fitting end to the Super Bowl.  While he makes an interesting case about how it is a situation unique to the game of football, I think his argument fails to be compelling because he doesn’t accurately understand what kind of coach Bill Belichick is.

His premise about Belichick being the “great defender of all that is manly and stoic and arrogant in the world of the National Football League…” is flawed to a fault.  As a Patriots fan, there are plenty of examples of Belichick playing the percentages and doing what seems counter-intuitive over doing what is deemed conventional wisdom.  There are two prime examples.

First, the 4th-and-2 play against the Colts back in 2009.  Conventional wisdom was to punt, give the ball back to Manning, and take your chances with a struggling defense that was tired and had been shredded in the 2nd half by Manning as he charged back to make it a close game.  They went for it, and failed, but the percentages at that time, according to people who do the numbers crunching on percentages for these things said he was actually making the right call based on the percentages.

My favorite example, however, remains the Monday night game against the Broncos in Denver back in 2003. The Pats were going to have to punt out of the end zone, down by one, late in the 4th quarter.  Belichick instructed his long snapper to snap the ball over the punters head and out of the end zone for a safety, putting the Broncos up by 3 points.  This eliminated the possibility for the Broncos of a blocked punt recovered for a TD at best or excellent field position at the very least.  Instead, the Pats were able to free kick from the 30 and change the field position, get a stop, and come back and score on a TD pass to David Givens to win the game.  It remains one of my favorite games of the Brady-Belichick era.  It seems obvious that it was the right move, aside from the favorable outcome, if for no other reason than the change in field position, but the conventional wisdom is to never put points on the board for the other team.  There is nothing arrogant, stoic, or manly about giving away free points, whether 2 or 6.

The fact is Belichick has the freedom to do things unconventionally because of his success.  It’s a luxury that few coaches probably do not feel like they have, which is why more teams do not do things like this.  But Belichick has never been a completely conventional coach either.  It’s why he plays Troy Brown or Julian Edelman at CB, Mike Vrabel as a goal-line TE, or Dan Klecko as a blocking FB.  It’s why he played nearly an entire second half against a Drew Bledsoe-led Bills offense with nobody on his defense in a 3 point stance.  He takes chances all the time, whether the rest of the league, his critics, or the Patriot fan base thinks it’s emasculating or wrong, because he doesn’t care about the perception of things.  He’s interested in putting his players in the best position to actually win the game.



Reading in 2011

I have tried to make more of an effort to read in the last few years, with varying degrees of success.  As my current job is overnight and affords me a lot of free time, it’s usually torn between movies, reading on the internet about news and sports and pop culture, or reading books.  Movies have actually also inspired me to get more into books too, as I’ve purchased and have read or intend to read several books that have movie adaptations that have been released recently or are scheduled in the next few years.

One thing I have noticed is that my reading habits have changed.  Sadly, I still read very slowly, which means it can take me a long time to get through a book.  But where in the past I used to read only one book at a time, I’ve developed a habit of reading 3 or 4 books at a time with different levels of involvement for all of them, depending on my mood at the time I’m interested in picking up a book, physical or digital.  As it stands right now, I am currently reading three books with three more that I have started and not progressed in much because I lost interest for one reason or another.  I’m not sure whether this is a good habit or a bad habit.  probably mostly bad, as I see similar traits in other aspects of my life.  For instance, when I come back from the grocery store with a lot of new groceries, I am eager to sample at least a little bit of everything at the very beginning (does this happen with anyone else?).

I used to read one book and not pick up another one unless I completed it or decided to drop it altogether.  But, then again, I didn’t necessarily do a lot of leisure reading growing up and most of my reading in high school and college came from books I had to read for classes, so even then I suppose I was reading multiple books at the same time, just required reading instead of reading for pleasure.  So maybe the conclusion is that my adult self is compensating for the lack of the classroom and homework in my life.

At any rate, I made it a goal of mine to read 25 books this year, which was, admittedly, very ambitious on my part, given that it would require a rate of just over 2 books per month.  I actually started out pretty well for the first couple of months, which is longer than I usually stick with anything resembling a New Year’s resolution.  But as spring turned into summer, my consistency in reading fell by the wayside.  At the rate I’m going, I should end up reading about 15-16 books this year, which is pretty impressive to me.

Here is a list of the 13 books I have read this year, including 2 that I started in December of last year:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King
Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Love Wins by Rob Bell
Religiously Transmitted Diseases by Ed Gungor
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Mere Christianity Shepherd’s Notes by Terry L. Miethe

Currently, I am reading the following books:
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The War for Late Night by Bill Carter
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I have essentially dropped The Turn of the Screw and The Invisible Man, though they remain on my list of books I am currently reading on Goodreads.  I found the writing style of Henry James interminable and The Invisible Man was tough sledding for some reason.  If I were to pick one back up, it would most certainly be The Invisible Man.

A Game of Thrones I will pick up again, probably after I finish Jane Eyre, because I loved the first season of the show on HBO and want to get through the other books before I see any future seasons.  But it is tough sometimes to read something that you have already seen adapted.  I would have had that problem with Pride and Prejudice had it not been for the zombified version of it to read concurrently.

Which is why I am currently trying to make my way through Jane Eyre, which I got for free on Amazon for the Kindle, but am forced to read on my laptop since I don’t actually own a Kindle.  Yet.  There was a very well-reviewed movie adaptation of Jane Eyre that was released this past spring which came out on DVD this summer.  It is currently sitting near the top of my Netflix queue, but I want to read it before I see the movie.

And speaking of movie adaptations, I come now to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  A terrific spy novel by one of the masters of the genre.  The movie is scheduled to come out this November, featuring an all-star British cast.  The trailer hooked me for this movie, and convinced me to read the book.  And I was not at all disappointed.  Tinker is one of the movies I am looking forward to most this fall and winter.  I will definitely be seeing it opening weekend.

My biggest task on the horizon is also related to a movie that has been announced that is scheduled for 2013, Anna Karenina.  Luckily, I have enough advance notice that I can pace myself and try to tackle that one in 2012.  Probably along with 3 or 4 other books at the same time.


Review of “Drive”

I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding the movie Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.  Last night after small group and before work, I stopped in at the theater to check it out.  I was not prepared for what I got, but in a good way.

Drive has a simple, straight-forward premise.  A movie stunt driver also moonlights as a wheelman for armed robberies in Los Angeles.  He develops a relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor in his apartment whose husband is in jail, and her son, Benicio.  When the husband is released, he owes some bad men some money, and The Driver agrees to help in order to protect Irene and Benicio.

The first thing you need to really know about this movie is that it is not a typical action movie in the vein of The Fast & the Furious franchise.  It’s much more arthouse stylization, subdued and focused on the characters than the cars.  I have seen two other Refn movies: Bronson and Valhalla Rising.  Both movies have some extreme brutality to them, but Valhalla Rising in particular is the movie that I see a lot of similarities to in terms of the quiet, stoic, brutal killer that Mads Mikkelsen played in Valhalla Rising and the character Gosling plays here.  No name is given, like out of an Eastwood western.  He does not speak a lot of dialogue.  The Driver is a man of few words and quick, decisive action.  You also get the feeling that there is a lot bubbling just beneath the surface of this guy who mostly maintains his cool.  Also, the quiet, simple, protective nature of the man to the boy also calls back to Valhalla Rising for me.

Gosling and Mulligan do a great job of creating chemistry and longing for one another in this movie, with so little actually said between the two of them.  Instead, a lot is expressed in the way they look at one another throughout the movie.  A lot of movies would be lazy and add really bad dialogue to express the love and affection that is blooming between them, but this one doesn’t and is better for it.  There is a really beautiful scene in an elevator that is one of the most memorable of the year for me, both because of the beauty of it and then how quickly the pendulum swings in that scene.

Also, this seems like the movie that will have the one score that will stick out to me more than any other I hear this year.  A lot of the movie is a tribute to previous movies in a similar vein as this from many years ago.  The jacket The Driver wears, the leather driving gloves, the toothpick, all harken back to a previous era, as does the music, which is a great evocative retro-80s synthpop score that really adds another layer to everything you’re watching.  Do yourself a favor and listen to “A Real Hero” “Under Your Spell” and “Nightcall” and tell me you don’t picture yourself driving in some scene that Michael Mann is directing.  I don’t even really like a lot of music from the 80s, especially synth-based stuff, but I was really digging it in this movie.

Drive does a very good job of combining some really great action and, at times, exquisite gore with arthouse tendencies without being too pensive for its own good.  And there are some good, understated acting performances in this movie as well.


A Red Sox Postmortem

There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in Red Sox Nation after the season ended abruptly with the greatest September collapse in baseball history.  The Sox blew a 9-game lead and surrendered the Wild Card to the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night by losing to the Orioles.  The Rays came back from a 7-0 deficit against the Yankees to win in extra innings and punch their ticket to October baseball.  Meanwhile, Red Sox fans are left wondering what happened to their team this season and with even more questions about the future.

The Red Sox came into the year with high expectations, some deserved, some undeserved.  After some major offseason acquisitions in the form of 1B Adrian Gonzalez and LF Carl Crawford, some people were ready to anoint the Red Sox the greatest team ever and were comparing them to the 1927 Yankees before a single pitch was even thrown.  These people were idiots.  SP Josh Beckett got some overly excessive criticism in the preseason for saying that he’d never been on a 100-win team and thought this team could do something special.  41 of 41 ESPN “experts” predicted the Red Sox to win the AL East and most of them also predicted the Sox would make or win the World Series this year.  Expectations for this team, both internally and externally, were pretty high.

So what happened?  They started out 2-10 and ended the season 7-20 in September.  In between they went 81-42, which is a .659 winning %, which if they had maintained for the entire year would have put them around 107 wins.  The way they started had everyone baffled, because of the talent on the team.  Then they hit their stride and everyone thought they were the best team in baseball.  And then they imploded in September and the way they finished was even more baffling than the way they started.

Part of the reason for their implosion can be attributed to injuries, certainly.  For most of August and September, the Sox had to rely on John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, Erik Bedard, and Kyle Weiland to mix and match around the starts of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett.  The loss of Clay Buchholz with a back injury was significant.  Less significant was the season-ending injury to Dice-K, the Japanese “National Treasure” that they can have back anytime.  But a look at the contrast in their offense and defense is troubling: 1st in runs, 2nd in batting average, 1st in on base percentage, and 1st in sligging percentage, but 22nd in ERA, 28th in quality starts, 16th in WHIP, and 9th in batting average against.  And those offensive numbers are misleading, because they scored a lot of their runs in bunches and had a lot of games where they struggled to produce runs when they needed them.

Some players had great individual years, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz, and Alfredo Aceves in particular.  Lester and Beckett were mostly good, but wore down toward the end.  And other guys like Lowrie, Scutaro, Salty, Reddick, and Bard had stretches where they played well.  But too many guys had atrocious seasons; most notably John Lackey, Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew, and Dice-K.  Kevin Youkilis had a lost season with several nagging injuries.

Crawford, whom they spent $142 million to acquire in the offseason, was never comfortable all year.  A dynamic player in Tampa Bay his entire career, he seemed to struggle initially trying to live up to the expectations of his big contract and never got on track.  It didn’t help that they never really found a proper place for him in the lineup either.  I still think Crawford can return to form and be a productive player, but he needs to do some serious work and soul searching in the offseason.  There are some guys that just aren’t able to cut it playing in the intense atmosphere that is Boston and I hope Crawford is not another name that has to be added to that list.

John Lackey easily submitted one of the worst pitching performances in franchise history.  The only thing he didn’t do this season was squat down and leave a steaming turd on the pitchers mound.  Although that probably would have been more impressive than the way he pitched this year.  In his two years in Boston, he has simply not gotten the job done.  Beyond that, he is a terrible teammate by the looks of things.  He throws his arms up in the air and rolls his eyes when defenders make mistakes behind him when he is on the mound.  He is abrasive and antagonistic with the fans and media, who tried to cut him a lot of slack because his wife is dealing with breast cancer.  But now it has come out that he is leaving his cancer striken wife.  So not only is he a bad teammate, his is also a bad human being.

Now that the season is over, word has come out that there were some serious clubhouse issues going on behind the scenes that were not talked about.  People complaining about bus rides, a pitcher drinking beer in the clubhouse on days he wasn’t scheduled to pitch, and general team chemistry issues could not be resolved for some reason.  Also, a lack of conditioning on the part of some players was an issue.  Part of the blame for that is on the manager, Terry Francona, and part of that is on the players as well for not stepping up and showing any leadership in the clubhouse to bring each other together and bond over the course of the season.  There was a famous saying about some past Boston teams with a lack of comraderie that there were “25 cabs for 25 players” after every game.  I would say that this team was a lot closer to that than the “Cowboy Up” group of 2004 that circled the wagons and, to a man, would probably take a bullet for one another (well, except for maybe Orlando Cabrera…).  And when Terry Francona is the person divulging all of this information during a media session the day after the season, you know it’s a serious issue, because Francona goes out of his way to protect the players and shield them as much as possible from media scrutiny.

So, where do the Sox go from here after this historic collapse?  Well, it looks like Terry Francona may move on and there is also a possibility that Theo Epstein does too.  Personally, I think letting either of them go would be a mistake, unless they just don’t want to be here anymore.  They share some blame here, but there is plenty of blame to go around and the players need to be held accountable for their performances and their actions too.

On the plus side, the team is able to rid themselves of J.D. Drew, whose contract is finally over.  David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield are also free agents.  Tough decisions are going to have to be made about whether any of them are brought back.

They almost need Papelbon to come back, even if they need to overpay him by a few dollars, because Daniel Bard is clearly not ready to be the closer for this team as he wilted in a major way down the stretch, sporting a 10.64 ERA for the month of September.

Players like Varitek and Wakefield, as much as they have done for the organization and as beloved as they will always be by the fans, need to be nudged out the door, preferrably into retirement, but the cord needs to be severed with these guys.

“Big Papi” David Ortiz is a bigger problem.  He returned to for this year after there were serious questions the last two seasons over whether he was pretty much done.  At 35, his best days are behind him, but he can still be an effective player for another 2 or 3 years.  But the problem is that the Red Sox have 3 elite guys for 2 positions.  The trade for Adrian Gonzalez moved Kevin Youkilis to third base, and the conventional wisdom was that Youk would be fine because it was his natural position.  But this season showed that his body is not capable of being an everyday third baseman any longer.  It is a position that is taxing on the body, and his body broke down over the course of the season.

Here is essentially what I see as the crux of the Red Sox offseason.  As Papi is a full-time designated hitter, something has to happen here.  Either the Red Sox allow Big Papi to leave and sign with another team and make the DH spot a position where they can get guys like Youkilis routine days off in the field, or they bring Papi back and ship Youkilis out of town for whatever they can get for him.  The benefits of keeping Papi over Youk are as follows: he is a local icon, he is universally loved by about every player in major league baseball, and his presence in the clubhouse is a significant bridge for management in relating to Latino players.  The downside to keeping Papi: He is 36, he is limited to pretty much just DH which limits your roster flexibility, a left-handed hitter in a lefty-heavy lineup, and there are some injury concerns.  The benefits of keeping Youk are: you can play him a three positions (1B, 3B, DH) if necessary, Youk is younger and cheaper to keep and the Sox would probably have to pay some of his salary for someone to take him, he is intense and driven on the field, and he is a right-handed hitter in a left-heavy lineup..  The downside of keeping Youk is: he may have more significant injury concerns than Big Papi, even though he is 32, his best days may be behind him as his production slipped significantly this year, and sometimes he psychs himself out for big games.

There is no easy answer for which player to choose to keep.  My heart says Papi, my brain says Youk, mostly.  The deciding factor here may be their lineup composition.  As it stood in 2011, their batting order featured Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Ortiz, Crawford, and Drew; all of whom are left-handed hitters.  That’s more than half the lineup.  In matchups vs. left-handed pitchers, that is problematic.  And if Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Ortiz and Crawford are supposed to be four of your best five hitters, with the fifth being Pedroia (a right-handed hitter), you can’t hit them all in order like that without running into trouble at some point.  And when Crawford doesn’t like to hit leadoff and is making $20 million, so he can’t very well hit 9th, and Gonzo is your best source of power and highest average, it makes sense to hit him 3rd or 4th, it complicates things.  Ideally, the Sox need Crawford to be able to bounce back in 2012.  Ellsbury leads off, and then Pedroia and Crawford hit 2 and 3 in some order, followed by Gonzo in cleanup.  If they bring Youk back, he hits behind Gonzo most nights.  If they bring Ortiz back, then he hits sixth with whatever right-handed bat they bring in for 3B or RF hitting in the 5-spot.

The right field position is going to be upgrade almost by default with the departure of J.D. Drew.  Whoever they get to play there may not be as good defensively, but as long as he is adequate, the upgrade he will represent at the plate and his ability to play through any small injury will more than balance things out.  Might I suggest Corey Hart as a replacement?

As for pitching, Buchholz returning healthy would be a good start.  If you can get a bag of balls for Lackey, I would move him, even if it meant paying half his salary for the next three years.  Dice-K can take his time coming back from Tommy John surgery.  If he never suits up in a Red Sox uniform, I’ll be happy.  Lester and Beckett wore down toward the end of the season.  For all of the speculation about Lackey and other players, I wonder if the comments during the press conference yesterday from Francona and Epstein about conditioning were at least partly directed at them.  Bedard can walk as far as I’m concerned, as the Sox clearly picked the wrong Seattle pitcher to rent while Detroit got the right one in Doug Fister.  After two years of the John Lackey experience, I am wary of the team just throwing money at the top-rated free agent pitcher in the offseason, even if that pitcher is C.J. Wilson and is someone I like as a pitcher.  However, if C.C. Sabathia opts out of his contract for a bigger payday, you offer him a blank check to bring him in, because that guy is a stud, a workhorse.  Sadly, I don’t think they have the pieces necessary to make a trade for someone special like Felix Hernandez, although I would really like to see them try, and Felix deserves to be on a team that can get him wins to match his amazing pitching abilities.  He is too good to be toiling away on a sub-.500 team in Seattle.

With it looking more and more like Francona may be done as manager of the Red Sox, it is fair to speculate who could/should replace him.  I think they have to hire a name manager, they can’t just promote any ol’ Joe Schmoe bench coach from another team.  The first person I would ask is Joe Torre.  Although, I don’t think that is a direction they would go in, because of the chemistry issues on the team and they may think they need to bring in someone more hardnosed and someone who won’t coddle the players as much.  Both Francona and Torre are “player’s managers” and so that might disqualify Joe.  Tony LaRussa would have to be considered.  If they were to hire a bench coach from another team, I would suggest Tony Pena.  A name I haven’t heard, but I would be interested in because of what he had done before he quit earlier this year in Washington is Jim Riggleman.  I don’t know his style or philosophy as a manager, but I know that the Nationals had started to turn a corner with him at the wheel, and for some reason the managment there was not willing to commit to him.

Lastly, if Theo Epstein were to leave for the Cubs job or anywhere else, my first call would be to Billy Beane. Why not?  They almost hired him away from Oakland last time before they settled on Theo.  I would love to see what Beane could do with a sizeable budget for once.  Barring that, I would look to guys who used to be in the Red Sox organization, like Jed Hoyer in San Diego.  Either that, or bring in a local boy like J.P. Ricciardi.

The 2011 Red Sox season was a subpar performance and a disappointment, but I do not think it is the catastrophe that some people are making it out to be, even though it was a historic collapse.  There are a lot of tough decisions to be made in this offseason, but I am still confident that this team will stay competitive and be in the mix for the postseason again next year.


Where Has My Summer Gone?

I can’t believe how quickly this year is moving by.  Summer is nearly over, Fall is just around the corner, or has arrived if you live in Maine and are experiencing the nightly temps in the upper 30s like we have for the past 3 days here.

It has been far too long since I wrote in here.  I would like to post more, but I can’t believe how hard I find it after getting out of the habit of it.  Part of it is due to sheer neglect on my part, but part of it I think has to do with the fact that posting short messages on Facebook and Twitter are more convenient and require far less time and commitment.  But here are a few highlights of my summer.

One of the most discouraging things happened to me this past July.  My apartment got zapped by lightning.  It came in through the DirectTv satellite apparently and fried my DirectTV box, my Playstation 3 and damaged my TV.  The DirectTV box was replaced.  I just recently got the PS3 back and it is fully repaired.  But the damaged TV is something I am going to have to live with for a while until I can either afford to fix it or replace it.  The HDMI slots are completely useless on it, the picture has some purple and green lines slowly moving up the screen continually, and the audio is noticeably worse.  But it still functions and is serviceable.

A few days before this happened, I got my first smartphone: the HTC Droid Incredible 2!  And it really is quite incredible.  The battery it came with was decidedly unincredible, and I recently upgraded that to the longer life battery.  But I am very fond of my smartphone.  I send and receive e-mails, twitter and facebook updates.  I can manage my fantasy teams on the go.  I just discovered that I can watch NFL’s Red Zone on it every Sunday.  There are some really great apps for the phone, particularly Gas Buddy, Bank of America, and, and the ringtone maker.  No more purchasing ringtones from the Verizon store.  I can have any part of any song I have set as the ringtone for any of my contacts.  And I’ve made some that I really like, a guitar solo from “Ball & Biscuit” by The White Stripes being one of them.  It really is amazing to have so much available right at your fingertips wherever you are.

Of course, I saw my fair share of movies this summer.  The Hangover II was a slight disappointment, though still pretty funny.  The Pirates franchise needs to end.  I avoided Transformers 3 and didn’t regret it at all.  I don’t know that there was a single movie I flat out loved, but I did enjoy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (the books sort of ruined the movies for me on a certain level, but this was a great conclusion), Horrible Bosses, Bridesmaids were the most enjoyable.  X-Men: First Class was excellent because of the casting and did such a good job of returning that franchise to form.  Thor and Captain America both surprised me and were a lot better than I expected and perhaps better than they had any right to be, especially Thor.  I enjoyed the childhood nostalgia of Super 8, but my expectations were higher for that movie, and I thought the monster at the end was a letdown.

However, I have to say that thinking over all of the movies of the summer, one of the things that stands out in my mind is the performance of Elle Fanning.  That young girl can flat out act.  I think she is a legitimate star in the making and will surpass her sister Dakota sooner rather than later.  In fact, I’m very intrigued by the future potential of Fanning, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Abigail Breslin.  I hope there are great female roles for all three when they grow up.  And I hope they all make it and don’t become another child star cautionary tale.

Also in the realm of entertainment, I devoured the majority of the series Curb Your Enthusiasm.  What a funny show.  Larry David is a great curmudgeon.  And a lot of the payoffs for the shows are great.  And nothing is off limits because it is an HBO series.  I saw Season 1 probably about a year ago and thought it was pretty good, but not great.  I decided to get back to it and found Season 2 to be far funnier than I remembered Season 1 being.  And I was hooked.  Seasons 2 & 3 were probably the best of the series, though I’m currently in Season 7(the Seinfeld season) and that is pretty good too.  Prettyyyyyyyyyyy, pretttttttty, preeeeetty, pretty good.

At the beginning of this month, I had a really good friend of mine, Jeremy, move away to take a job opportunity in San Diego.  I’ve known Jeremy for about 5 1/2 years now.  We became pretty fast friends after he joined the small group Bible study I also attended.  He’s a really strong Christian and we found out that we had quite a lot of similar outlooks on the Bible, the Church, and Christian life.  We also found out we have very similar personalities, particularly in the passive-aggressive way of dealing with conflict.  We even got to be roommates for a year, sharing an apartment together before he got married to his lovely wife, Hannah a little over 2 years ago.  I was pretty upset at first about them leaving and everything, because I genuinely consider him a Christian brother, and because I’m very possessive and selfish when it comes to my friends.  Needless to say, I look forward to them coming home to visit eventually, and I really look forward to dropping little tidbits here and there to try and bribe, guilt, shame, prod, and coax them into eventually moving back here.

Having said all of this though, I have burried the lede.  That is because the biggest adventure of my summer involved me stepping waaaaaaaaaay beyond my comfort zone.  I babysat a child for pretty much the first time ever.  My friends Ben and Sarah were in a bind and needed someone to watch the 2 year old boy, Toby.  Now, Toby is one of the most adorable little kids ever.  Seriously, look at this picture and try not to say “Aww!”  Back with me now?  So, for whatever reason, this kid loves me, which makes me feel so cool about myself.  In fact, one time this summer I stopped in at their house briefly on my way to small group, and he started crying because I was there for only a few minutes and was already leaving (this is the stuff that causes things like the Grinch’s heart to swell three times beyond it’s capacity).  He also doesn’t completely have his “K” down yet (cut him some slack, the kid just turned 2 last week), so everytime he says something to me, I get something that sounds a little closer to “Ten” than “Ken,” which is awesome.

So I volunteer my services on Thursday to babysit Toby for that Friday night.  And so for the next 24-ish hours I’m a little terrified, nervous, anxious, etc.  I’ve never really done anything like this before.  For the vast majority of my life, I’ve never been responsible for anyone but myself.  And I’ve managed to make it 30 years in this world without having to change a diaper to this point, which I look at a bit like Joe DiMaggio’s streak.  And my friends are entrusting their child to my care for a few hours.  It’s a little sobering to say the least.  I prepare myself and partly to keep myself from getting too nervous by saying to myself, “The goal is to make sure he still has 10 fingers and 10 toes when I’m done with him.”

Of course, the actualy experience was far easier than I had built it up in my mind, which I repeatedly reminded myself of beforehand too.  Toby was ridiculously easy on me.  Really, he treated me with kid gloves.  He was watching Toy Story 3 when I got there a bit before 6.  Sarah gave me a quick tutorial on changing diapers.  He was finishing dinner when I got there.  And it only ended up being about an hour and a half of supervision on my part, because his bedtime came at 7:30.  This was the part I was not prepared for.  No kid ever really wants to go to bed.  So while I took him upstairs @ a little after 7:30, it took me over half an hour longer to build up the nerve to ignore his delay tactics of stories and toys and actually put him in his crib, turn out the lights and walk out the room.  And of course, during that time he did indeed poop, which ended my DiMaggio-like streak.

When I left the room was the longest few minutes of my life, as he cried, “No, Ten.  Why?”  To him, it was as if I had violated the established parameters of our established relationship by putting him to bed; like I had betrayed his trust or something.  At least this is how it sounded to me.  In reality, of course, I had done no such thing.  He was simply testing me to see if I would go up there and get him; to see if he would get his way.  After 10 minutes, he had stopped and was asleep.  But those 10 minutes felt like an hour.

So those were some of the highlights of my summer.  I will try to post more often on here in the future.  I really would like to get into the habit again of writing and expressing my thoughts in an ordered way in a format like this.


The Decision And The Disappointment

Last July I wrote a lengthy post about LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland and take his talents to South Beach and play for the Miami Heat.  What followed was a frenzied season of basketball that saw the Heat become enemy #1 in the basketball world as they painted a bullseye on their own backs and got every team’s best night in and night out along with an insane amount of media scrutiny.  But the important thing to remember is that they did it to themselves.  And last night they lost out on their first chance to silence their critics.  Everything that has transpired since The Decision has led me to believe that LeBron James is not the player we thought he was nor the player we wanted him to be.

As I said in that previous post, fans always want to believe that the players they are witnessing in the present are the greatest to ever play the game.  We want to see someone assume the mantle of best player alive and then strive for a chance to be mentioned in the conversation for greatest of all time.  And LeBron was supposed to be that guy.  Heck, he was being groomed for it since he was a teenager.  But somewhere along the line, something has gone terribly wrong.  His career is taking a different path than what he and everyone who anointed him way back when envisioned.

I have no qualms in saying that I think LeBron is the most physically impressive athlete to ever lace up a pair of sneakers and play basketball.  He is a physical specimen.  His blend of size, power, and speed are wholly unique.  He is a gifted player who has worked hard to get where he is.  He is an unselfish player on the court.  He can see and do things on the court that most people only dream of.  He still has plenty of more opportunities to win himself a championship and enter into the discussion of being an all-time great.  But…

We’ve seen LeBron for 8 seasons now.  And it still does not feel like he has reached his potential as a player.  He shows glimpses occasionally.  Any NBA fan will remember his “49 Special” performance against the Pistons in a playoff game.  He’s won multiple MVP awards.  He is just entering into his prime years as an athlete.  But for every glimpse of greatness and every accolade he has achieved, they have been mirrored by perplexing moments and frustrations.

At times, especially during the playoffs, he has had moments where he looks like he has checked out or had some kind of mental block that is hampering his game.  He defers to his other teammates.  He disappears on the court.  In Game 5 he had a triple double, but it had hardly no impact on the game.  The head questions came up during last year’s matchup with the Celtics when it looked like LeBron checked out in that series too.  Last night he scored 9 quick points in the opening couple of minutes of the game and then only managed 12 point the rest of the game.  Whenever is going on in his head , he’s got to get it figured out and put it behind him.  He has to be locked in for every playoff game.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m watching ESPN breakdowns of the game that show LeBron just standing still or drifting toward halfcourt when the defense is collapsing on a penetrating teammate who needs to kick the ball out.  Too often in this series against Dallas, LeBron was a stationary player, not an aggressive one looking to impose himself.  That is a problem if you’re the most physically imposing player in the game.

And that is the frustrating thing about LeBron.  He can be an unstoppable player if he so chooses.  When he gets a head of steam and drives toward the rim, he is nearly impossible to stop without fouling.  And even then, he can often fight through a foul and get a lay-up and a 3-pt. opportunity because he is just so strong.  However, in the 8 years in which LeBron has been in the league, his game has not evolved as much as it could.  And too often he is content to meander around the 3-pt. line instead of being attacking constantly, because he is essentially unstoppable when he attacks the basket.  But LeBron absolutely needs to develop an effective low-post game.  There were a few instances in Game 6 when he got the ball in the post with mixed results.

On one possession he had a beautiful spin move on Marion for a basket.  On a second possession he was guarded by the diminutive J.J. Barea and got called for an offensive foul when he shoved him away with his forearm.  On a third play, he had a nice spin but an awful bank shot that didn’t even hit the rim.  There is no excuse for why LeBron has no developed a post game yet.  He is not a dependable outside shooter.  The best defense against LeBron is to guard his dribble penetration and make him settle for jumpshots and the deeper the better.  One of the big reasons the Heat beat the Celtics and the Bulls, aside from Wade dislocating Rondo’s elbow, was that LeBron and Wade were hitting their outside shots at a better than average clip, which disappeared during the Finals.

Why would  LeBron dedicating himself to a post game improve his game and make his team better?  It would put him closer to the basket, allowing him to take higher percentage shots instead of the 3s and long jumpers he puts up that are not his strong points.  His physical strength would allow him to back his man down if he’s guarded by someone smaller than him or to get past someone bigger than him.  Also, because he is such a gifted passer, he can effectively pass out of potential double teams, passing to a teammate who has a matchup to exploit.  There are a multitude of options for him down there to explore.  Also, it opens up the driving of Wade to the basket.  As dynamic a player both James and Wade are, their offensive games are a little too similar to one another right now, as attacking the basket is both of their strongest suits and their perimeter game is shaky.  LeBron James in the post would make his game and his team’s offense more diversified and dynamic.  And it’s not that he needs to do it all the time, either, but it should be a far bigger part of his overall game than it currently is.

One other area he needs to work on is his decision-making and sense for the moment.  As I said, he is a gifted passer and almost always will make what is technically the right basketball play.  He will pass up his own shot if a teammate has a better shot.  But the great thing about sports is that sometimes the “right” play is not what is required.  Sometimes “right” is wrong for that moment in time.  Sometimes what is required of a star player like LeBron James is to take the ball and drive to the hoop or create a shot for himself instead of swinging it along the perimeter or dumping it down to Juwan Howard.

That is what makes sports, and especially basketball, such a great game, the constantly shifting dynamic between an individual performance and a team performance.  And the balance for that is always shifting.  Sometimes a basketball game requires a LeBron James or a Kobe Bryant to be a bit more selfish with the ball and dominate a game; other times it requires them to sublimate their talents for the greater good (“The greater good…”) of the team and get others involved.  LeBron hasn’t reached a point in his career where he knows when that is required of him in the biggest moments most of the time.  There are glimpses of it, like the “49 Special” or his epic Game 7 matchup with Paul Pierce in 2008.  But then there are moments like in Game 6 of this Finals where his team is trailing in the last few minutes of the 4th quarter and they need him to step up and deliver and instead he passes the ball and becomes just another guy; Clark Kent when his team needs him to step into the phone booth and be Superman.

This is the thing that is so maddening and sad about LeBron James right now.  And part of the problem is that LeBron is seemingly immune to the constructive criticism of his game.  For over a decade now, he has been surrounded by people who have kissed up to him and told him everything he wants to hear.  His inner circle is a bunch of Yes Men.  Since he was probably a sophomore in high school he has not really had to be held accountable to anyone on the basketball court.  Nobody has confronted him about the shortcomings in his game or called him out on anything.  That’s part of the reason it was so shocking to see Wade yelling at him in Game 4.  I think that is part of the reason why it seems like LeBron gets the mental yipes on the biggest stages.

I also think that another potential factor in that is that he went straight from high school to the NBA, and he was part of the last draft class to be able to do that.  I think if you look at the successes and failures of the players from the mid-90s to the early-00s who went straight from high school to the NBA you will see that there is something missing from their games.  The most successful of the bunch is, easily, Kobe Bryant.  And as great as Kobe is, there are deficiencies to his game; it took him a long time to figure out that he couldn’t be so selfish with the ball and just be gunning for his out there night after night, and even now on the downside of his career, he still doesn’t always get it.

There is something to be said about players getting experience by playing college basketball.  The best thing the NBA ever did was to eliminate the ability of high school players to jump straight to the pros.  It prepares a player in multiple ways.  It prepares them for playing on a bigger stage than their high school gymnasium.  It gives them more practice on the game than if they were rookies in the NBA where practices are infrequent because of the schedule.  It allows them to work on their fundamentals and progress at a more normal rate than just being thrown into the deep end of the NBA and the publicity that surrounds the league.  Think about what just one year of college could have done for LeBron.  Was he NBA-ready at 18?  Yes.  But just think about 1 year in college could have done for him in the long-term instead of 1 year of pro basketball.  You don’t think he would have benefitted from a year of picking the brain of Coach K (I assume he would have gone to Duke since he is a frontrunner who roots for the Yankees)?  You don’t think he would have benefitted from a college coach yelling at him and instructing him and teaching him instead of everyone anointing him as the King?

The post-game press conference after Game 6 spoke volumes about where LeBron is right now as a player.  Instead of being distraught he appeared defiant, lashing out at people critical of his game and those who wanted to see him fail.  He doesn’t get it.  The people around him don’t get it.  And until he does get it, he’s going to continue to run into a brick wall instead of leaping over it.  The important thing is that it’s not just his potential and his game that is the “it” that he’s not getting right now.  It’s his critics and the media.  He doesn’t understand why seemingly everyone turned on him.  It’s not because they want to see him fail, at least not everybody.

I am critical of him and rooting against what he is doing right now because I feel like, having taken his talents to South Beach, he is wasting them or not maximizing them.  As a fan of sports, I want to see greatness.  I don’t want to see it stall and falter when it could be easily remedied.  Fans want to root for LeBron James.  We want to see him become the player he is capable of and harness his powers.  We don’t want to see him teaming up and deferring to Dwyane Wade, we want to see him vanquish Dwyane Wade and others on his path to greatness.  We want to see him imposing his will on both ends of court and taking command of crunch time, not deferring to someone else, passing the ball like it’s a hot potato, and wanting no part of the moment.  And based on what we’ve seen so far and based on his attitude, it’s fair to wonder if that will ever happen, or if he even wants it.  He defiance makes it seem like he’s content to do things his way and not really improve.  Needless to say, his career is at a crossroads.  I want to see him take the right path.  I just hope he has it in him to do so.

Regardless of where he goes from here, this season has done permanent damage to his legacy.  The greatest players do not come up small on the biggest stage, and that is what happened to LeBron in these Finals.  His rebounding and assist numbers may have been in line with his career numbers, but his scoring was way down.  And not just his scoring, but important, tell-tale indicators of how he scored, were down too.  His 4th quarter scoring and free throw attempts were drastically lower than they should have been.

Whether he ends up putting it all together within the next few years or never remains to be seen.  And how we remember LeBron James will not be defined only by what happened in the 2011 Finals.  I will remember his hellacious dunks, his memorable performances, how he shrunk the court with his speed, his chase-down blocks from behind, his ability to drive to the basket like a hard-charging bull, and his skillful passing.  But beside those memories I’ll also have The Decision, The Welcome Party, Fan Up (surprisingly, not to be found online anywhere), his disappearing acts two years in a row, deferring to D-Wade, and being called out on the court by D-Wade.  How much of damage these instances inflict on his legacy is still to be determined.  It could end up being a small blemish or a gaping plot hole that undermines everything else.  The whole story has not been written, but the main character stands looking at a sign and he must choose his own adventure.

And so, a season after The Decision comes an even more important, and far less publicized, decision to be made.


When the World Didn’t End…

So I spent an inordinate amount of time yesterday fooling around on Twitter making up a fake playlist for the apocalypse/rapture.  It was a fun time to pass the time until the rapture didn’t happen.  A lot of people were making #myraptureplaylist compilations and also making #rapturedayconfessions.  It was very interestng to see social media fuel the buzz surrounding the irrationally bold proclamation of a preacher out in  California who claimed that the rapture was going to take place yesterday at 6pm and that it would be the start of the apocalypse, which would culminate in the end of the world in November or some time down the road.

There is a lot of religious division in this country, but I thought it was tremendous that basically the majority of Christians were able to laugh this guy off as someone that not even they take seriously, which is a good witness to the secular population in this country.  I hope that the fact that so many believers dismissed this man and his followers outright is an example to atheists, agnostics and nonbelivers that not all Christians are looney and so desperate to just believe in something that they’ll be taken in by someone so obviously out there.  I also hope that Christians use this as an opportunity, a teachable moment, not just something to brush off and dismiss or laugh at.

I love to have my fun and make jokes about ludicrous people and idiotic proclamations as much, if not more so than anyone else, but there is also a chance to use what this nutjob was talking about to explain what Christians really believe and why we believe.

Harold Camping is someone who is rightly deserving of derision and scrutiny for what he has said and claimed in the name of God.  Christians should be, and I believe, are at the forefront of dismissing anything this man has to say.  He led a lot of people astray who were willing to sell all of their possessions and totally buy into what this man was selling.  There are a lot of vulnerable people out there.  And as someone who is claiming to speak on behalf of God, it is especially shameful of him to lead people astray like he did.  It is an awesome responsibility and something that he abused.

This man originally claimed that the world would end in 1994, and even wrote a book about it.  Of course, when it didn’t happen in 1994, as he had predicted, he said he had made an error and revised his calculations to say it would happen in 2011.  The cynic in me, heck the rational believer in me, thinks he was probably just buying time to continue to manipulate people into giving him money to support his ministry and lifestyle, knowing that there were enough people out there who would continue to give him money, like a snake oil salesman.

So his revision gave the date of May 21, 2011 as the return of Jesus Christ to take away his Church from this world.  So if he was absolutely, completely serious about this, if he truly believed this, and if he wasn’t just interested in taking people’s money and manipulating them, then why would his organization need to file for an extension to file their nonprofit paperwork?  “The group is required to submit financial documents in many of the states where they solicit donations, and in Minnesota they requested an extension from their July 15 deadline to November 15.”

There are few things that fill me up with righteous indignation as much as preachers who are actually swindlers and manipulate people in the name of God.  Not only do they exploit the needy and the desperate believers who either aren’t smart enough or mature enough in their faith to see through their deceptions, but they also give Christians as a whole a bad name.  And Christians need to step up and do a better job of calling these people out for the frauds that they are.  We should not give them an audience and we should seek to counter them and show to our friends and neighbors what real Christianity is all about.

And it starts by acknowledging who Jesus Christ is and what he has done in our lives.  It doesn’t mean we have to be standing on street corners screaming at the top of our lungs that people are going to hell.  It doesn’t mean we are supposed to be bombing abortion clinics or calling the women who go into them “whores” and “baby killers.”  It doesn’t mean you hate people who have opposing political views than yours and seek to make sure that a godly people rule this nation.  It doesn’t mean fighting with fellow Christians about doctrinal beliefs that cause unnecessary division.

We make Christianity about so much more than it needs to be and should be.  It is first and foremost about Jesus Christ.  What do you believe about the man who lived some 2000 years ago.  It’s as simple as that.  And you proceed from there.  We make it far too complex.  I believe in God.  I believe Jesus was the Son of God, as he claimed to be.  I believe he died.  As crazy as it may sound, I believe he rose from the dead.  I believe that his death and resurrection was done for a reason because of human sin, which we all have.  Sin is one of those seemingly harsh words to non-Christians, and sometimes Christians do a poor job of expressing what we mean by it.  But everyone has sinned, or failed to always do the right thing.  I believe that through Jesus, God made a way for us to be right in his eyes.  I believe that Jesus ascended to heaven and will return someday (and the Bible says that no one but God knows when that will be).  I believe that as a Christian it is my job to share this with other people through my words and through my love for them and in the way I live.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t still continue to fail or fall from time to time or that I’ve got everything figured out.  But it does mean that I can be confident that I have a Creator who loves me, provides for me, and considers me his.

There is a lot more to it after that, but those are the essentials to me.  After that, the rest of the stuff is peripheral and secondary.  Don’t ever get hung up on the peripheral stuff.  Denominational differences are like bickering over shades of a color.  As important as you may think it is to know how salvation, sanctification, grace, or any other things to do with God work, at the end of the day, the important thing is that they do work.

Christians need to know what they believe and why they believe it fr moments like this past week.  The world is watching.  There are belivers who are deceived by people like Harold Camping, and then when they are let down by this cult of personality, they are left with confusion, despair, and maybe feeling like there is no hope.  Confusion, despair and loss of hope are not things that are associated with God.  God is not about those things.  Hopefully those people who were manipulated by this man and his organization will find real faith and have a firm foundation.

And I hope the world begins to see a different Church in the future.  One that is multi-dimensional and not defined by crazy people on the fringe making ridiculous pronouncements or harsh condemnations.  I hope they see Christians that are doing God’s work in this world.  Christians who are feeding the homeless.  Providing care for those in need.  That look after orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:26).  That don’t equate being a Christian with being a member of a political party.  That are willing to bridge the culture war.  That they’ll know we are Christians by our love.