Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Special Angry Guest Letter: Leaving New York


I’ve removed the greeting that usually begins these letters. Dear. I don't think you're worthy of it. I’ve also replaced the comma with a colon because it feels colder that way. And you deserve all the cold that comes to you. If it was up to me, you’d be exiled to Buffalo and put out on a street in the dead of winter wearing nothing but a Lin jersey.

Listen, Dolan, you’re going to get a lot of letters that start this way: “Now I’m a Brooklyn Nets fan.” Well, I didn’t start that way because I wanted to save it for the second paragraph. I’m from Brooklyn and I’ve always wanted a team--any team--here, so I'm hopping on board. The way I see it I’ve been loyal to the Knicks for too long. If you’re in a shitty relationship, you don’t stick around for more than a decade unless you're scared or dumb. All of my fond memories of the Knicks are from childhood, but my adult life as a basketball fan has been powered by disgust and disappointment (it would be much different if the team was merely bad). You’re not the only one to blame, but you’re at the top of the list. You’ve forced me to reconsider my identity, the way the Mets did when I was a kid and they traded Lenny Dykstra. A team can betray you, and that’s what you’ve done, Dolan. You’ve betrayed. You’ve bitten down hard on our hearts.

Some people will say I’m blowing this out of proportion. I’ve been home in Brooklyn for the past week and I’ve been reading the paper and listening to the radio--Francesa and Lupica and others are backing up this move, whether they like you or not. They’re saying Lin’s not a good fit for this team, that he worked in the D’Antoni system, that he’ll flop around in the Woodson system, that his weaknesses have been exposed and other teams will pounce on him this year, that he’s not capable of leading the Knicks to a championship. These people, as my grandfather would say, have rocks in their bean. Read Jay Caspian King’s “Dumb Move, Dolan” on Grantland today--That sums up why keeping Lin was the right choice. I won’t get into that here, except to say that keeping Lin was VERY CLEARLY THE RIGHT CHOICE, YOU DIRTY PIECE OF GARBAGE.

I’ve let my anger get the best of me, Dolan. This is what you do to people. I can’t drive today, that’s all I know. If I drive, I’ll smash into things like Jason Kidd. I’m finishing this now and I’m realizing it's really not much more than simple hate mail. But maybe hate mail is all you deserve. See, Dolan, my blood’s on fire. This is a different kind of let-down. You’ve made me lose sight of common sense things like courtesy and giving people the benefit of the doubt.   
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be driving back to Mississippi--where I’ve lived for the last four years--and I’ll be happy to go, in part because you’ve soured my trip home. Yesterday I saw a kid--he couldn’t have been more than seven or eight--wearing a Lin jersey and it broke my heart. That kid has had to learn too quickly about betrayal. I hope he wakes up hating you and hating the Knicks. I hope he switches teams, cheers the Rockets or the Nets. I sincerely hope that, Dolan. I hope he writes you a letter in crayon or some shit, includes a picture of himself in his expensive Lin jersey, and I hope you read it and then plop your head down on your desk and cry for hours because you’ve misunderstood the world.

Bill Boyle

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Learning From the King

Dear LeBron,

Now that the dust has cleared and you’ve celebrated your championship by rapping with LMFAO while wearing a t-shirt depicting your face as a vampire—to each his own, I guess—I’d like to offer a few words. First of all, congrats. That was an incredible performance. It reminded me of when I used to be able to beat my little brother every time in the driveway, at will. If he ever got close to actually winning, I’d back him down repeatedly and take him to the hole every time, game over. Victory was never really in doubt. Basically I was the Bill Russell of me vs. my little brother. (He was three years younger than me, but still.) Anyway, these last two weeks, you made the entire NBA your little brother. And not just the young Thunder, but also the old Celts. Everyone officially became your little brother. And it was pretty damn impressive. To make the absolute best basketball players in the world seem like your younger siblings is a crazy feat. Shaq did it. MJ did it. Hakeem did it for a year or two. But besides that, nobody in the last twenty years has come close (including Kobe and Duncan, in my opinion). And this, much more than any supposed learning or changing you might’ve done after last year, is why America is on your side again.

Americans love dominance, LeBron. For those who truly dominate the competition, much will be forgiven. If you don’t believe me, take a closer look at the biographies of MJ or Shaq or Tiger or Steve Jobs. And, in your case at least, this is as it should be. Your dominance should be your redemption. We felt a weird resentment towards you over the last year that had as much to do with your failure to dominate as it did with your arrogance. Maybe more, actually. And so it was a joy and a relief to see you finally take over and dominate in the way we’d always expected of you—the freight-train drives to the basket, the impossibly contorted layups, the clutch bank shots, the timely threes, the passes in transition, the back-downs in the post, the impeccable court vision while double-teamed. We’ve always held you to unreasonably lofty basketball standards, and over the last couple of weeks you actually met them. Just like MJ used to do. Which is crazy.

Now, we’re not gonna make that old mistake of assuming that a perfect sports performance must have some relation to moral perfection (i.e. LeBron was an arrogant asshole, then he was humbled, became a great guy, and won a championship). But that doesn’t mean you haven’t changed, either. It just means the relationship between you and all of us who call ourselves NBA fans—not Heat fans—has returned, completely and finally, to the basketball court. And it feels good. You’ve reminded us that awe is so much more fun than contempt. How could we begrudge a guy his happiness when he played the game so damn well? We can’t. So thanks for giving us a performance for the ages. Before the series ended, you admitted you were immature last year. Well, we were a little immature, too. Thanks for helping us move past all that with an all-time great performance that made all the peripheral issues seem small in its wake.

So much of the media coverage surrounding you has had a condescending tone, like all the talking heads know better than you, like they’ve been trying to teach you a bunch of lessons about life (arrogance will blow up in your face, there are no short cuts) and basketball (don’t settle for jump shots, develop a post game) and now that you’ve played perfectly and admitted your immaturity, their lessons have finally sunk in. This is pretty much BS. Whatever you did, whatever you figured out, it was on your own. The question shouldn’t be what you learned, but what we learned from you and your performance over these past two weeks. I don’t know if you’re any more humble behind the scenes than you were a year ago, but I do know, conclusively, that you weren’t posting on Twitter. And I think that made a difference. No kidding. As much as I'd like to believe otherwise, the benefits of your summer visit to Hakeem have probably been way overblown—I didn’t see you doing Dream Shakes during the Finals—but I don’t think the stories of your self-imposed Internet/TV exile are overblown at all. Getting off Twitter and the Internet and not watching TV, these things had to help your focus, right? And not just because of all the second-guessing you avoided. There’s a lesson there, for me, at least. If you want to actually achieve something you’ve been wanting for years and haven’t been able to do, you may have to eliminate all the media distractions. And by “you,” I mean “I.” From this point on, I shouldn't write another one of these letters or do my daily surfing of the Internet until I win a Pulitzer. In any category.

Along the same lines, I also learned something from a mantra that you repeated a lot during these playoffs, one that seems like an empty sports cliché, but I don’t believe it is: “Hard work and dedication.” You threw that phrase around a lot, and I think it has meaning. People talk a lot about your talent and your perfect basketball combination of size, strength, speed, and agility, but maybe we haven’t given you enough credit for how much of your game comes from just pure effort and dedication to your craft. You excel at the skills that take practice just as well as you excel at the skills that come naturally. Your regular season game improves every year, even when it seems impossible for you to improve. And the hard work and dedication of these last few weeks was off the charts, starting from when your back was against the wall in Game 6 of the Celtics series. It’s hard to exhibit more hard work and dedication than you did during that performance (45, 15, and 5), which ended up being a template for your play in the Finals. For as much as all of us basketball fans complained two summers ago that you’d opted for the “easy” way to a championship, none of us could say that you got this championship easily. We (again, read: "I") can learn from this, too, the reminder that if you want to achieve an enormous goal, it takes an enormous amount of hard work and dedication. That might sound dumb or obvious to some people, but you know it’s not. I plan to put a HARD WORK AND DEDICATION sign next to my desk.

The final lesson I learned from you over these last two weeks is almost the opposite: the importance of enjoying yourself. Like I said, I doubt the visiting-Hakeem-made-a-big-difference narrative and I kind of doubt the narrative that you’re more humble now, but I believe the no-Internet narrative and I definitely believe the joy-of-the-game narrative. It was obvious that basketball wasn’t as fun for you last year, as you’ve said a lot, and it was obvious that this year was different. But it was also different than your goofy Cavs years, too. In the last two weeks, you’ve perfected the difficult mix you’ve been perfecting all season: being intensely focused and hardworking, while also enjoying yourself. Which led, of course, to the ultimate enjoyment of jumping up and down on the sidelines with the goofiest, happiest, most genuine smile we’ve ever seen from you. So for everyone who has a huge goal, you’ve reminded us that it’s gotta be fun, too. To sum up: Eliminate distractions. Push yourself. Enjoy yourself. Thanks for all that, LeBron. The only thing left is the hard part, the part for which you deserve the most credit: actually making it happen.

In conclusion, LeBron, let me offer you some advice, because I can’t help myself and because this is probably the last open letter I ever write to an NBA personality. (Private letters, that's a different story.) Recall that Dirk got a little lazy after he finally reached the top of the mountain—and paid the price this year. I bring that up for this reason: Many talking heads have suggested, over these last few days, that we have entered an era of Miami Heat dominance, that there is clearly no stopping you guys now. I was watching SportsCenter the day after the championship and before a commercial break, Scott Van Pelt said, “So how many championships will the Miami Heat win? Coming up next...” (I turned off the TV.) Recall, LeBron, that two weeks ago many of the same people who are talking about the inevitable Miami Heat dynasty were suggesting the Heat should be blown up, that the Big Three couldn’t coexist, that this chemistry experiment was a failure. Two weeks ago, LeBron. So listen to these guys at your own peril. The positive stuff is just as dangerous as the negative stuff. And don’t forget that even as you were spraying champagne in the locker room, Derrick Rose—not to mention my boys Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin—was rehabbing. Even as you were rapping with LMFAO, Deron Williams was considering joining Dirk and Cuban, CP3 was thinking about which of his friends to recruit to the Clippers, and the Spurs were doing what the Spurs always do. And while Miami throws a parade with you at the epicenter, Durant and Westbrook and Harden will be in a gym somewhere, doing everything they can to be next year’s Heat. Hard work and dedication.



P.S. You should really thank Chris Bosh. Pull him aside sometime in the next few weeks and just thank him. Something like, “Hey, I know everyone’s talking about me right now, and how dominant I was, but we both know that I didn’t really start playing on another level until you came back. That’s not a coincidence. You were huge. Goofy, but huge. And the three pointers…Crazy. Anyway, man, thanks.” I think it would mean a lot to him. I really do.

P.P.S. There came a point--too soon, really--when my brother finally beat me in our driveway, and after that it was pretty much over. He beat me every time, LeBron. I don't even wanna say how old he was. My point here is this: Watch out for your little bros in Oklahoma City, not to mention elsewhere. Little brothers get better without you even realizing it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Basketball Reasons

Dear Steve Kerr,

Now that the conference finals are over and you and the rest of the TNT guys are done until next season, I think it’s only right to pause for a second and to remember the last couple of weeks. Ever notice that as soon as a team is eliminated, it’s like they cease to exist until the season’s over? Usually I like that—it’s nice not to hear about the Lakers or remember how consistently mediocre the Rockets are—but man, I hate to see these Spurs and Celtics exit the stage. I really do. I also hate to see you TNT guys exit the stage. Everybody knows the Inside the NBA crew is great (besides Shaq, who’s terrible except for a few moments of unconscious greatness, but who I’d sort of miss if he left), but people don’t talk enough about what a great commentator you are—really intelligent, funny, and most of all, genuinely enthusiastic about the game. It's heartening to see a guy who still loves basketball as much as you do. You’ve retained your awe, which I really respect. You're one of those great enthusiasts who makes everybody else enjoy themselves even more through your enthusiasm.

During the last Thunder/Spurs game, there was a stretch of incredible back-and-forth basketball and I remember at one point, you said, “This is just brilliant stuff.” I really liked that, and it was totally true. And not just for that stretch: over the last couple of weeks, there's been brilliant stuff happening every single night. I can’t remember a pair of conference finals this good since the days when you were teammates with MJ. Actually, maybe even before that. There’ve been some incredible conference finals over the years—the Bulls team you played on vs. your partner Reggie’s Pacers, for one—but for a year when the Western and Eastern finals were both as good as these? In my opinion, we’d have to go back to 1993, right when I was really getting into basketball as a teenager. That was Suns vs. Sonics in the West and Bulls vs. Knicks in the East. Recall: Suns in 7, Bulls in 6, but Knicks went up 2-0. In the first game of that Bulls/Knicks series, Starks had the memorable left-handed baseline jam on Horace Grant and MJ, a play that I’d bet still quietly occupies space in millions of brains. Then MJ had 54 in Game 4, most of them in Starks’s face, and averaged 32/6/7 for the series. In Game 7 of the other series, with a trip to the Finals on the line, Barkley had 44 points and 24 boards. Man, that was a pair of great conference finals. And I think this year’s two series were along those lines. In fact, I can’t remember ever enjoying two different playoff series at the same time as much as I enjoyed these, 1993 included. I know we'll remember these series, most likely, as the moments when LeBron and Durant both reached new levels, Durant in that 18 point fourth quarter in Game 4, LeBron (obviously) in his 45-points-in-45-minutes-in-an-elimination-game performance in Game 6. But let’s not just forget the other incredible performances by guys on the losing teams, the ones by Parker (Game 2) and Ginobili (5) and Stephen Jackson (6) and in the other series by Garnett (5) and Pierce (the final-minute three in Bron’s face in Game 5) and most of all, the entire series of performances by Rondo.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Inclination to Speed Up

Dear Russell, James, and Kevin,

If I may be so bold, fellas, I’d like to offer you some advice. It can be applied immediately to the rest of your games against the Spurs, to the Finals (if necessary), and to any future playoff series. It can also be applied to your personal lives, if you so choose. I watched the second half of Game One in New Orleans, at a seafood restaurant on Bourbon Street on a TV with the sound on mute, so I wasn’t able to pay the best attention, but I couldn’t help but notice that in the fourth quarter you guys began trying too hard, pressing, forcing it. My subsequent research has confirmed this. You went into the last quarter up by nine, traded a couple baskets with the Spurs, and then fell apart. Besides a miss and a foul from Collison and two free throws for Perkins, the Thunder end of the play-by-play summary consists solely of you three. Here it is:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Joining the Party

Dear Mr. Bogut,

I’ve been meaning to write you for a few days now, but haven’t really had a chance. I just wanted to let you know that I’m in your home country. My brother-in-law and his wife live here and we’re visiting them. For my third emergency contact on our customs information, I listed you. I do know a couple other Australians, but they live in the U.S., so you’re pretty much all I’ve got, Andrew. I’ve been hoping to run into you randomly on the streets, spot you towering above the crowd, but my siblings-in-law live in Sydney and your website says you spend each offseason back home in Melbourne, so I guess it’s not meant to be. I’ve had to settle for looking for Cate Blanchett instead, who apparently runs a theater company not far from the coffee shop where I’m writing this letter, but she’s much shorter than you and it hasn’t been easy. I haven’t seen any kangaroos either. I have, however, heard many people of all ages and ethnicities say “no worries” and “mate.” I’ve also heard the phrase “G’day, mate” spoken unironically, by an old man in an electric wheelchair. I’ve also learned that your countrymen call breakfast “brekkie,” which is cool. I can’t speak to Australia as a whole, or your home city, but Sydney’s pretty dang fantastic. It’s like a great mix of London, San Francisco, Singapore, and Honolulu. It’s like the platonic ideal of a city, actually, plus beautiful beaches and harbors. You Aussies are lucky to have this place. If Melbourne is anything like it—and I hear some people actually prefer Melbourne—I can see why you still come back every year. In fact, after these last two weeks, I’ve concluded empirically that Australia is much cooler than America. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Our One Noble Function

Dear Coach Popovich,

Here’s my theory, which probably isn't original at all: Every single decision a player makes in a basketball game offers him a choice between being selfish and being unselfish. Every play. On D, the selfish choice often requires less effort and leaves a player less vulnerable to ridicule. That’s the appeal: if your teammate’s man is driving the lane, it takes more energy to help him than to stay with your man, plus you run the risk of getting dunked on. I know I’m preaching to the choirmaster here, but let me keep going with this. On offense, the selfish choice isn’t really about effort. Speaking from my pick-up and sub-JV basketball experience, I’d posit that most basketball players only feel tired on defense. Miraculously, at least in my experience, we forget how tired we are as soon as the ball is back in our hands. The motivation for the selfish offensive choice is simple: the attention/ glory/ personal satisfaction of shooting and possibly scoring. That's for all levels of basketball, but for the NBA there’s an added element: money. Any decent behind-the-scenes NBA book makes it clear that most professional basketball players equate points with money. And understandably so. Points are the bedrock measure of a basketball game, and if you want to stay in the league, thereby being able to make money for yourself and your immediate family and your extended family and your hangers-on, then the most obvious way to do that is to score points. I’m gonna get mine is the underlying motto of a great many NBA players, which seems pretty obnoxious from the vantage of fans like myself, until I think about what I’d do if the quality of my family’s lifestyle was directly tied to how many baskets I made. (I’m ignoring the fact that personally I've always jacked up a lot of threes even when my family’s welfare wasn’t on the line.) The unselfish decision requires you to give the attention/glory/money to someone else in order to get your team a higher percentage shot. Except if (and only if) you’re the team’s acknowledged go-to guy, in which case you may be required on occasion, especially in fourth quarters, to make decisions that appear to be selfish—shooting the ball more, taking control—for the benefit of your team. And even this kind of seeming selfishness is unselfish because, as with certain kinds of good defense, it can open you up to ridicule. (Don't know about you, but I'm thinking of LeBron right now, Coach.) So everybody knows that the primary job of an NBA head coach is to get players to consistently make the decisions that will require more effort, cost them more money, give them less glory, and open them up to ridicule. It’s one of the hardest tasks in all of sports, and much more difficult than coaching football or baseball, where roles are more clearly defined. And again, I’m sorry to tell you all this stuff that you already know, but I’m saying all this to set up this one point. Here it is: I watched your team’s first round series over the last week, and I’m truly amazed at how well you continue to pull off this borderline impossible task.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Celebrate Older Americans Month

Dear Paul, KG, and Ray:

I don’t know if you guys are aware of this, but May is Older Americans Month. I hadn’t heard of it either, but the other day I saw a sign up on the campus where I teach, telling me to celebrate it. Here’s some background from the holiday’s official website: “Since 1963, communities across the nation have come together to celebrate Older Americans Month—a proud tradition that shows our nation’s commitment to recognizing the contributions and achievements of older Americans.” Now, I don’t know which communities have been celebrating this holiday since 1963 (sounds like BS to me) and I don’t even know what constitutes an older American (older than who, right?), but every NBA fan knows that you guys are Older Americans, at least in basketball terms. And, in fact, the theme for Older Americans Month 2012 is perfect for you guys: “Never Too Old to Play…” That’s the theme, with the ellipses and everything. I don’t like that ellipses, though, because there’s a hint of doubt there. Like some Older American is thinking about participating in an “intergenerational Wii bowling tournament”—the website suggests this activity—and trying to convince himself that the slogan is actually true. And after losing Game One against the Hawks, I know you guys also must have doubts, deep down, about whether or not the Big Three is finally too old to play. And even though the slogan is ridiculous—it certainly is possible to become too old to play—I don't think you guys are too old to play. I think you have another run left in you.