Jeremy Lin’s emergence as New York’s basketball savior is thrilling for its novelty: an Asian-American Harvard grad goes undrafted and bounces around the Developmental League before sliding into the Knicks rotation, where he puts up staggering statistics instantly (despite sleeping on couches) and leads an injured team on an inspired seven-game win streak. It’s as if the script was ripped from a mawkish Disney sports movie. And I imagine there are plenty of NBA executives who are losing sleep watching it unfold, wondering how they missed the chance to sign a point guard who could turn out to be a very special player
How did this happen? How did the guard from Palo Alto slip through the cracks? Science writer Jonah Lehrer draws one lesson
from Lin’s surprising run: on the whole, professional sports franchises are terrible at identifying talent. Lehrer uses research on the NFL Combine
to back up his claim; a recent analysis performed by the economists Frank Kuzmits and Arthur Adams found that there was “no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance.” Lin, likewise, worked out in front of eight teams during pre-draft tryouts but always in games and drills with fewer than 10 players, a set-up that probably highlights an individual’s physical attributes effectively but is not the most natural way to judge a player’s overall feel for the game. “There is talent everywhere,” writes Lehrer. “We just don’t know how to find it.”
Lehrer is a smart cookie, but I think he overstates his case slightly. Past performance, while no guarantor of future success, is still a straightforward and relatively accurate indicator of one’s athletic potential. Take this article
in the journal Human Performance
that was published last April. The authors, studying NFL prospects once again, determined that "collegiate performance engendered a stronger relationship with future NFL performance than a variety of physical ability tests administered during the NFL Combine." If you're good in college, in other words, there's a pretty decent shot you'll be good at the next level.
Tuesday night, after watching Lin beat the Raptors at the buzzer and reading these silly and self-serving
quotes from a former Cornell player who guarded Lin a few years back, I reviewed the Harvard grad’s advanced stats from his senior year (2009-2010). As an avid college hoops fan who was personally invested
in the career of Crimson coach Tommy Amamker, I was familiar with Lin at the time
, but I had forgotten just how dominant he really was.
Via Ken Pomeroy’s
site ($ required), Lin was on the floor for 79 percent of Harvard's available minutes and used almost 27 percent of the team’s offensive possessions. Even carrying this heavy load, Lin registered a blistering 62 percent true shooting percentage (46th nationally) and a 30.5 percent assist rate (66th nationally). He got to the free line a ton
, too. If he had a fault, it was that he turned it over too much—21 percent, definitely below average for elite point guards—but he balanced out those takeaways by recording one steal for every 20 of Harvard’s defensive possessions, the 16th highest rate in the country. Yes, Lin posted these numbers against weaker competition than guards at major conference schools: the Crimson's strength of schedule was 239th out of 345 Division 1 teams in 2010. But Lin didn't fool around.
We can take it one step further by comparing Lin to a few other combo guards that excelled for big programs that season:
Jeremy Lin: 79% min, 27% usage, 62% true shooting, 30% assist rate, 21% TO rate, 68% FT rate
Evan Turner: 74% min, 34% usage, 58% true shooting, 37% assist rate, 21% TO rate, 39% FT rate
John Wall: 83% min, 27% usage, 56% true shooting, 34% assist rate, 24% TO rate, 53% FT rate
Landry Fields: 90% min, 31% usage, 56% true shooting, 19% assist rate, 13% TO, 50% FT rate
Jon Scheyer: 91% min, 23% usage, 57% true shooting, 25% assist, 11% TO rate, 41% FT rate
I didn't include rebounding numbers, as the bigger Turner laps the rest of the field. And that makes sense: he was probably the most prolific player in America that year. (Sorry, Harangody
.) But Lin still stacks up, and was a decidedly more efficient player than Wall (the top pick in the NBA draft) even given a comparable usage rate. Plus, he came to play in big games, notching 25 on 10 shots against nearby Boston College and 30 points, nine rebounds, and two big dunks in a six-point loss to then-14th ranked Connecticut.
I’m not blaming NBA general managers for their early skepticism. Chris Dudley
was the last Ivy Leaguer to play an NBA game, way back in 2003, and Lin’s stint in Golden State
last year—in which he shot just 39 percent from the floor—proved he needed time to adjust to the tempo of the pro game. What’s clear, as unofficial Lin biographer Pablo Torre wrote this week
, is that “evaluators of basketball talent, in particular, failed to see the whole picture.” It’s hard to say whether or not race played a factor. But the evidence of Lin’s playmaking ability was staring NBA execs in the face, if they cared to look.
When the Indianapolis Health Department shut down Charles Mulligan's, Ron Swanson was devastated. His reaction was understandable; if the fictional director of Pawnee’s Parks Department can’t dine at the “best damn steakhouse in the damn state
,” where else could he scarf down delicious food on mandatory trips to the state capital?
Many sportswriters and football fanatics descending on Indy for the Super Bowl this week share Swanson’s frustration. The largest landlocked city in America is not especially cosmopolitan, a reputation Jon Bois lampooned
in his Super Bowl culinary preview.* What the Crossroads of America lacks in charm, though, its downtown makes up for in accessibility, a trait Will Leitch advises
his colleagues not to overlook. For a fun football weekend, all fans need is a stadium they can reach without hassle, a few drinks, and unbridled enthusiasm.
In 1948, a merry band of cowboys from Alberta, Canada proved that point when they visited Toronto to cheer on the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup,
the title game of the Canadian Football League. It was a charmed season for the franchise, which had rejoined the CFL (with a new team name) just three years prior. First-year head coach Les Lear—a tough bastard who played in four Grey Cups as a player for Winnipeg and was the first Canadian to star in the NFL—transformed Calgary’s roster, bringing on four “gnarly old pros
” from the States who would make key contributions all year. Among the American imports was 34-year-old Woody Strode, a half-Native American, half-black defensive end from California who played with Jackie Robinson at UCLA before integrating the NFL in 1946. Strode was named an all-pro for anchoring Lear’s 4-3 defensive scheme, a formation that was used sparingly north of the border and routinely confused opposing coaches.
On the other side of the ball, the Stampeders relied on the rocket arm of Keith Spaith, the first NFL-style quarterback to join a CFL team. It was easy to convince Spaith to sign with the club; the year before, he and several other teammates on the Hawaiian Warriors were banned indefinitely from the Pacific Coast League for betting a combined $6,700 on their own team
in the league championship tilt. (They didn't cover a 14-point spread and then were caught and penalized by league officials, which just seems cruel.) With Spaith under center, Lear employed an aerial attack the likes of which Canadian defenses had not seen. On the year, QB1 threw for 1,246 yards, almost 1,100 more
than the Stamps’ previous passing leader. Regina and Winnipeg, the two other squads in the Western Division, could not match Calgary’s athleticism or creativity, and the Stamps rolled off 12-straight victories
, the first (and only) team in CFL history to finish the regular season undefeated. “We were outlaws,” Strode later said
. “We were the misfits, but we’d gone into a foreign country and become the kings over football.”
With a Grey Cup matchup against the Ottawa Rough Riders looming, football fever swept through Alberta, a province of homesteading farmers and ranchers in the midst of its first oil boom. Not content to listen to the game on the radio, several town members met at the Petroleum Club to make arrangements for a championship trip. The idea was to give Toronto a taste of Calgary: on a 13-car train, they packed horses, a chuckwagon
, a western band, Sarcee tribe members dressed in full native regalia, 250 fans in western attire, and an enormous supply of beer donated by Calgary Breweries. For three days, the party didn’t stop. As the train pulled into tiny towns along the route, the celebration would spill out onto the platform
, giving passengers the chance to “bribe the conductor to hold the train for a little while longer so they could send somebody to the liquor store to replenish the rapidly dwindling stock.” And when they arrived in Toronto 72 hours later, morning commuters were confused to see “cowboys, Indians, square dancers, and horses pouring off the train from the West.”
The game lived up to the Calgarians’ lofty expectations. In front of 20,013 fans, the Stamps—written off as “young, lightweight, and inexperienced” by the Eastern press corp—relied on trickery to secure its first lead. Driving deep into Ottawa territory in the second quarter, Spaith completed a pass to Strode on one side of the field. Receiver Norm Hill, standing yards away from the play on the other side of the field, immediately dropped to the ground near the new line of scrimmage. The Rough Riders, scrambling to reset its defense, lost track of him. Before they could find the 11th Stamp, Spaith called for the ball and floated a fluttery pass toward the hidden Hill, who slipped on his way into the endzone but caught the pigskin from the seat of his pants. In the biggest game of their lives, Lear’s boys had executed a controversial “sleeper play
,” and their boldness was rewarded with a 6-1 advantage.
The Stamps’ winning score was preceded by a play almost as bizarre as the “sit-down touchdown.” Deep into the fourth quarter, hanging onto a thin lead, Ottawa’s quarterback tossed a screen pass that landed wide of its target. The Rough Riders assumed the pass was incomplete, but the ball actually fell to the ground behind the line of scrimmage. Strode alertly grabbed the football, looked around to make sure the referee had not whistled the play dead, and rumbled all the way down to the Ottawa 11-yard line, the beneficiary of a botched lateral. Rookie halfback Pete Thodos busted into the endzone on the next play to secure a 12-7 victory.
The fans who had made the boozy cross-country journey to cheer on their Stampeders took the inevitable celebration seriously
. Globe and Mail
reporter Jim Coleman watched on
(November 29, 1948) as fans tore down the goalposts and walked them into the lobby of the swanky Royal York Hotel, where several party members had rented rooms. Men on horseback soon followed. The Winnipeg Free Press
(November 16, 2006) later described the carnival as a “collision between highbrow hotel manners and rodeo-style rabble-rousing.” “The gaudily caparisoned Calgary supporters were boisterous and noisy,” Coleman added, “but well-behaved and courteously declined to ride their horses into the elevators.”
A Stamps' surprise win and the ensuing exploits of their wild Albertan fans made the Grey Cup relevant
. These days, it’s Canada's largest annual sports event, attracting millions of television viewers and drawing tens of thousands
of diehards to the host city each year in search of a “Mardi Gras-like atmosphere.” Hill, who caught the “sit-down” score, is convinced his team’s triumph put the growing city of Calgary on the map, too. "It was the beginning of Calgary, in a sense," he told the Calgary Herald
years later (November 18, 2008). “There was a sense of progress in the city that whole year. Of purpose. The belief that anything was possible. "You could actually feel the adventurous western spirit beginning to build, to take shape.”
*To make “Shish-Ke-Bobby Knights,” mash ground beef into tiny balls, boil the meat until it takes on a “wonderful grey hue,” and skewer the spheres onto dowel rods.
Fifty-two years ago today, in a tiny Appalachian gym, a scrawny 17-year old set a national record that brought him a lot of pride and a little bit of shame.
The boy was Danny Heater
, then a senior at Burnsville High School in central West Virginia. Like many coal country kids, Heater came from nothing. His dad, a miner, was furloughed repeatedly by different bosses at the local mines. One day during his junior year, the family’s apartment (and the poorly-constructed department store on which it sat) burned to the ground, incinerating everything they owned except the clothes on their backs. The Heaters could barely afford food, much less put money into a college fund.
By most appearances, their son didn’t look like university material anyway. Weighing just 153 pounds and sporting a cropped haircut and toothy grin, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
later described Danny as “a shy, clumsy kid who ... once broke his wrists running into a wall at the gym.” But “Shotgun,” as his classmates called him, was the best athlete at a school (enrollment 175) with an unassumingly talented basketball team. His senior year, the squad rattled off wins in 17 of its first 18 games, scoring 99.5 points per contest. An inside-outside threat who could knock down shots from the perimeter and dunk when slashing to the hoop, Heater was the primary offensive weapon. Head coach Jack Stalnaker was convinced that his shooting guard could secure a Division 1 scholarship, and get out of Burnsville, if a big-time college scout would ever swing through their isolated town to watch him play.*
On January 26, Stalnaker devised a controversial gameplan to raise the profile of his unheralded star. His club was scheduled to host Widen, a school that taught just 25 boys in the entire top four grades and that Burnsville had torched by 50 earlier in the season. Burnsville, in other words, could score at will. And Stalnaker saw no reason why Danny shouldn’t take every one of his team’s shots, all night long, until he broke the state’s single-game scoring record of 74 points, an achievement the newspapers in nearby Morgantown and Charleston would have
Heater’s teammates loved the idea, but the tactic made the humble star anxious. On the first several possessions, he didn’t look for his shot once, riffling passes across the court whenever the ball landed in his hands. Stalnaker called a timeout
to reiterate his strategy: his boys were to force turnovers by running a full-court press and feed Heater the basketball whenever they could. After some additional cajoling, plus individual promises from each Burnsville player that he would not be bothered by the selfish display, their star finally bought in.
In front of a standing-room crowd of 200** and on a floor 20 feet shorter than regulation size, Heater started hoisting up shots. And he didn’t stop. Because his side was applying so much defensive pressure, he got plenty of easy buckets around the rim. By halftime, Heater had tallied 53 points, and a neighbor ran to his house
to alert his family, who had stayed at home, confident their son would play just one quarter against hapless Widen. His sister raced to the gym in time to watch Danny blow past the state record early in the second half, a feat that drew booming cheers from the Burnsville faithful. Stalnaker called timeout to take Heater out of the game, but his own team sensed the national record of 120 points, set eight years before in Ohio, was within reach. They convinced their coach to stay the course. Over the final 10 minutes, Heater dropped in another 55 points, though the hometown scorekeeper -- who needed help from the timer because of the ridiculous tempo -- counted two extra baskets. ("I feel sure our guys were right,” Stalnaker later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
(January 5, 1997). “They had about 40 years' experience.”) Widen’s head coach Robert Stover, meanwhile, complained
two days later to the Charleston Daily Mail
that the clock “ran about three minutes extra." Minor discrepancies aside, it was beyond doubt that Heater had recorded one of the most ludicrous lines in basketball history: 32 minutes, 135 points on 53 of 70 field goals and 29 of 41 free throws, 32 rebounds, and seven assists. His squad won 173-43. “It didn't feel like high school history,” Paul Hendrickson wrote in his classic 1991 retrospective for the Washington Post
, “it felt like raw, open slaughter.”
Stover, not surprisingly, was pissed about the outcome. "If I hadn't been a young coach and afraid of getting suspended, I would have taken my kids off the floor at halftime," he admitted to the Post-Gazette
. "It was a farce." Even in the face of criticism from local reporters, Stalnaker defended his decision. “I don't believe in running up scores,” he said
in his post-game interview. “But we decided in advance that we had to do something to get him [Heater] some publicity.” Heater, on the other hand, dealt with conflicting emotions. "I was happy and sad at the same time,” he told another reporter from the Post-Gazette
(January 23, 2000). “I was embarrassed. I wasn't raised that way to embarrass people."
As silly as it was, Stalnaker’s plan worked. Once news spread about the scoring outburst, a scout from powerhouse West Virginia University -- which had made it all the way to the NCAA title game the previous season, thanks to the play of superstar Jerry West -- scheduled an appointment to watch Danny play the following week. But the following night, Heater came down awkwardly from a jump ball and twisted his ankle. By week’s end, the pain had not subsided. And when the Mountaineer scout visited Burnsville, Heater could barely jump and had trouble moving laterally. He poured in 27 points on his gimp leg, but it wasn’t enough to secure a roster spot at his state’s best program. The final words handed down from Morgantown? “Boy was slow.”
There is an interesting coda to Danny’s story. While his chance to suit up for the in-state power vanished, a retired state senator from Virginia with a keen eye for out-of-state talent offered to pay Heater’s tuition and housing costs if he came to play for the University of Richmond. A local plumbing company kicked in $26 so Danny could buy two shirts and two pairs of jeans, and in the winter of 1961, Heater packed up what few belongings he owned and traveled to the old Confederate capital. It was the hooper’s first time away from Burnsville, and it did not go well. Because he arrived at the start of the second semester, the only uniform the team had left was three sizes too big. That was an apt metaphor for Heater’s entire experience in the mid-size city, a place where he never felt comfortable. "I didn't know basic things like Room 201 means a classroom on the second floor,” he joked to Hendrickson years later. “I wasn't stupid, I was just naive." He played in five games, never more than 10 minutes, "and was so homesick I couldn't stand it." After six weeks, he moved back to Appalachia and eventually found a job loading bags and taking tickets for Pan Am Airlines, where he worked for 39 years before retiring in 2005.
Since that cold night in West Virginia, roughly 26 million young men
at the high school level have stepped onto the hardwood. Only 10 of them
have posted over 100 points in one contest, and nobody has scored more than 110. It’s possible, even likely, that Heater’s record will never be broken. Yet it was Stalnaker, the mastermind behind the outrageous performance, who later came to regret the experiment entirely. “It was a real stupid thing to do," he said in his 1997 interview with the Post-Gazette
. "I'm sure it hurt the kids we played, and it went against everything we try to teach kids - not to humiliate an opponent, not to run up the score. I still feel badly about it."
*If only they could make a mixtape
*“The crowd,” according to the Washington Post
story, “was ganged four and five deep in the stairwells; was pressed against the sweating concrete walls; was leaning down from the balcony, which really wasn't a balcony at all, just an open hallway leading to classrooms.”
President Obama is close to setting a modern record, one his liberal base is unlikely to applaud. The Democrat still has not commuted one prison sentence since taking office, a constitutional right every president
except George W. Bush exercised earlier in his first term. Obama’s been stingy
with his presidential pardons, too, officially forgiving the crimes of just 17 Americans, despite a massive backlog of applications. The Village Voice
published a lengthy analysis
of the trend a few weeks back, assigning blame to Obama’s political team, a skittish Attorney General Eric Holder, and the “arcane internal activities of the Justice Department,” which author Graham Rayman argues has “dismantled the administrative functions of the pardon office.” For those who've been wronged by the criminal justice system or have rehabilitated themselves following their initial incarceration, the light at the end of the tunnel is dimmer than it used to be.
Of the 17 people who did receive clemency from the current administration, most committed minor crimes (coin mutilation, alligator hide possession) decades ago. Not that they aren’t grateful; depending on the jurisdiction, ex-felons of any kind forfeit some of their core civil rights, including the right to vote, to hold public office, and/or to serve on a jury. Indeed, Junior Johnson
-- one of the most accomplished Americans ever to file for clemency -- considered his 1986 presidential pardon one of the great thrills of his life.
And Johnson had many. The first superstar of NASCAR, Junior won 50 major stock car races between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s and another 139 as a team owner in the three succeeding decades. Behind the wheel, he perfected two racing techniques that forever changed the sport: the power slide and drafting. The former, when the driver slows through a turn by cocking the wheel to the left and gunning it before
hitting a bend in the track, allows the car to come out of turns more quickly than consistently laying on the brake, while the latter -- when one car trails in the wake of another to minimize wind resistance -- helps slower cars keep pace with souped-up competitors.
It was on the dusty roads of Wilkes County, North Carolina where Junior gained his dexterity behind the wheel. Like thousands of Scot-Irish descendants before him, Johnson ran untaxed moonshine* through the back country woods. To the locals, it was a business with no less legitimacy than any other. Junior worked for his father, who operated one of the biggest individual copper-stills in the region. On a given night, young drivers could make $300 transporting a few dozen cases of mountain dew**, so long as they outran the federal tax agents known as “revenuers
,” which Johnson always did. “I never got caught behind the wheel running," he later bragged
. “I've still got my marks on a bunch of those trees all along the roads there.”
Yet he was clipped once, in 1957, when officials staked out his father’s home and found the son on his way to fire up the family’s still. Johnson was arrested and served 11 months and three days in federal prison, the crime for which he was eventually pardoned. In a funny way, the booking was a blessing; as an older man, the driver claimed that in prison he “found out that I could listen to another fellow and be told what to do and h'it wouldn't kill me." His felony helped reinforce his bonafides as a rebel, too, setting the stage for his emergence as legitimate southern folk hero.
That image was solidified in 1963, the most memorable season of his career. The good ole boy grossed $100,000 in earnings and set multiple qualifying records driving a Chevy, an inferior car not bankrolled by Detroit’s two earliest NASCAR investors, Ford and Chrysler. Those qualifying runs were often more thrilling to fans than the races themselves; because a stock car track is a giant oval and circling it requires very little handling ability, the sprints became, as Tom Wolfe describes it in his famous profile
of Johnson, “a test of raw nerve -- of how fast a man is willing to take a curve.” In those early days, nobody was quite as fearless as Junior.
Last year, Johnson was one of the inaugural inductees
of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an honor he shared with legendary mustachioed driver Richard Petty. Since 2007, he’s also returned to his liquor roots, distilling and distributing
Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, a legal moonshine. (Reviews are mixed.) Working through an authorized dealer is certainly preferable to rejoining the underground industry, which investigative reporter Max Watman
says “shows no signs
of letting up.” If he ran into trouble again, Johnson would probably have less success convincing the new occupants of the White House to throw him a bone.
*A home-brewed whiskey distilled from corn, potatoes, or anything that would ferment.
**Other hilarious nicknames include White Lightning; Kickapoo, Joy Juice, Hooch, Ruckus Juice, Happy Sally, Hillbilly Pop and Panther's Breath.
I take seriously two fantasy sports leagues. The first is a fairly traditional (but highly entertaining) fantasy football
operation. The second is an insanely intense and unique fantasy college basketball league, started from scratch by three creative brothers nine years ago. We have our own website
and our own original scoring system. We spend an inordinate amount of time watching non-conference tilts like Nebraska vs. Florida Gulf Coast and late Sunday night contests between Pac-10 (Pac-12?) bottom feeders. By the time March Madness
rolls around, every owner has seen Duke play roughly 15 times. It’s no joke.
Our draft kicks off today and I couldn’t be more excited. To mark the occasion, I’ve written a list of current collegiate hoopers with funny names. I assure you that each one is completely real and that I know an embarrassing amount about his statistical utility. Enjoy:
-Antonio “Scoop” Jardine
-Michael (Mike) Scott *
**Only funny if you sing the theme song to MacGruber every time Rodney scores. Which I do.
It’s getting harder and harder to watch football with a clear conscience
*, but I sure love fantasy football. Below are a few lessons I gleaned from the eighth annual Members Only draft. (Ed. note: All advice should be taken with a grain of salt, as my career regular season record is 45-45-1. I am the definition of mediocrity.)
-- Drafting immediately after making an intercontinental flight is ill advised. Poor Ethan literally fell asleep at his computer during Round 17.
-- I haven’t used Google+ at all since I signed up for it a few months ago, but the “Google Hangouts
” function is actually pretty rad. Just don’t log on too many computers from the same room -- it creates some screechy, ghost-like echo noises.
-- If you desperately want Antonio Gates and have the second open selection (after keepers), do not build your entire draft strategy around the assumption that the owner with the first selection will pass on Antonio Gates.
-- Do not ask a fellow owner to reschedule birthday plans with his girlfriend to accommodate your draft, no matter how difficult it is to find a time when 10 gentlemen with wildly variable schedules in four different areas codes can get to a computer for three hours.
-- Start email threads analyzing the draft IMMEDIATELY after the draft ends. We like “Defend Your Draft,” which gives everyone a chance to justify their odd selections, as well as “Best/Worst,” in which each owner chooses his favorite and least favorite teams and picks of the night.
-- If the surname of the league’s new owner is “Selzer,” call him “Seltzer” or “Bubbles.” Do this repeatedly. It is funny every time.
After enjoying the World Cup last summer and catching a particularly exciting
Sunday afternoon match from a hotel in Dublin, I started watching English football* in earnest about a year ago, and it was one of the best decisions I made in 2010. For an American with a cable hookup, it’s incredibly easy to fit the Premiere League into one’s weekly routine; the “fixtures” air on Saturday and Sunday mornings and last just under two hours each, perfect for satisfying a sports fix before the day gets away from you. And the league itself features some insane athleticism and emotion. Like the Sports Guy
did in 2006, I did loads of background research before choosing a club to root for, eventually landing on Fulham, a London-based side that’s established itself as an EPL mainstay and features Clint Dempsey, quite possibly the coolest
American ever to play the game. Twelve months in and I’m already recording games and gorging on football blogs. It’s fantastic.
I played soccer all the way through high school, so I didn’t need to be schooled on the rules or customs of the sport. What I did need was a crash course in European lingo, especially when that lingo described front-office mechanics that differ from the free agent system under which major American leagues operate. Across the pond, it turns out, football federations swap players using what’s called a “transfer
” process. Essentially, when either management or a footballer become dissatisfied with the other, the club can write up a transfer offer for the rights
to that player. Interested suitors then bid
on a transfer fee, which is a flat rate akin to a (expensive) move-in fee on an apartment. This summer, for example, cash-rich Manchester City paid Spanish side Atlético Madrid £38 million for the registration of skilled striker Sergio Aguero. Once the “transfer” went through, Man City had to negotiate an actual contract with the Argentine. (They settled
on a five-year package that pays out nearly £200,000 per week. It’s good work if you can get it.)
It didn’t always work this way. For the first half of the 20th century, if a player turned down a contract offer, a team could let the existing deal lapse and then withhold his playing registration indefinitely by refusing all transfer requests. In effect, owners forced players to make a choice: accept less money from us or sit out for good, without pay. The policy was known as “retain and transfer
,” and the player’s union equated it with slavery, though a forgiving form of indentured servitude is a more accurate comparison.
It was inevitable that some crusading player would challenge the restrictive status quo, and the task fell to an English midfielder
named George Eastham
. What I love about his story is the banality of it. After a successful 1959 campaign, Eastham expressed frustration with his club, Newcastle United, because he didn’t like the house they provided for him in the country’s northeast corner nor the side job they arranged for him to earn extra money during the season.** A director told the press that Eastham would “shovel coal” before Newcastle would release him, and Eastham essentially took his boss up on the offer, securing a job selling cork in London instead of suiting up for the Magpies. After a seven-month strike, Newcastle eventually worked out a deal to dispense Eastham to Arsenal, but not before he filed suit in Britain’s courts, much like legend Curt Flood would do nine years later to dispute
Major League Baseball’s reserve clause in the States. And in 1963, England’s Chancery Division determined that owners were abusing the retention system by requiring a transfer payment for players they had literally no intention of keeping on their squad. Calling it “a relic of the Middle Ages” and an unjustifiable restraint of trade, the court struck down the rule, and the Football Association quickly modified its system so that players could move without a transfer fee if their current club failed to offer a contract that at least equaled their previous deal.
Eastham may have transformed working conditions in European football, but he didn’t make a fortune in the process. Three years ago, he decided to auction some of his most prized memorabilia, including the kit he wore as a member of his nation’s victorious 1966 World Cup team. "I'm a pensioner and the cost of living is going up all the time,” he told
the Daily Mail
. “The money may come in handy and, if not, it will be shared among my family.” This Labor Day, Dempsey and the other Americans playing abroad should give Eastham some dap. Without him, they might be contracting black lung in some dirty coal mine instead of playing the world’s most popular game.
*Yeah, I’m one of those guys now.
** Of course, in a free market, a worker should be allowed to switch jobs for any silly reason she wants.
Simply put, “Friday Night Lights” is the best network television drama of the past decade.* If you haven’t visited Dillon, Texas over the show’s (mostly excellent) five-season run, which sadly concluded Friday night, you’re in for a real treat.**
I won’t use this space to wax poetic about FNL’s various virtues; since its debut in 2006, television critics far more skilled than I have consistently praised the show’s creative team for the deft touch it displayed in depicting the “benefits and burdens
” of community and what Heather Havrilesky called
the “harsh continual sorting of winner from loser in American life.” But I will highlight one of my favorite features of FNL, one that gelled tonally with the intimate camera work and the emotionally honest writing and acting: its theme song.
It’s a common misconception that the opening sequence -- a lilting, operatic guitar riff (embedded above)-- was written by Explosions in the Sky
, the Texas-based indie outfit who scored the FNL movie and whose work subsequently appeared in the television series. In fact, it’s the handicraft of W.G. Snuffy Walden
, television’s pre-eminent composer. Walden is a Texas guitarist who relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1970s after dropping out of college and playing in a short-lived blues band. Once out west, he achieved moderate success, touring with Donna Summer and Chaka Khan and even receiving a credit on Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life
. But his career took a strange and fruitful turn in the mid-1980s, when a talent scout searching for musicians for the little screen caught a monthly set he played at a Santa Monica nightclub.
“When they asked me about scoring for film and television, I wasn't sure what it entailed," Snuffy later wrote
, "but I could see the handwriting on the wall for touring, and it wasn't pretty. I kept envisioning Holiday Inn at age 60." Like his contemporaries who set up standing gigs in Branson
, Walden’s desire for stability proved advantageous. From a short 2001 profile in the Dallas Morning News
:He met with the producers of “thirtysomething” and "talked them out of some footage" for the series, which hadn't yet premiered. "Then I just sat and played to what they gave me until something started to happen. The process is basically still the same now. In bands, I was the guy who played the color and brought atmosphere to the songs. That's kind of what I do here. A lot of the time you're talking about pretty ethereal stuff. I kind of have to go away and play my guitar until something works." [...]He's been scoring ever since, mostly for acclaimed series that enhanced his reputation whether they lived long and prospered (Roseanne, The Wonder Years, Sisters) or fought the good fight (My So-Called Life, I'll Fly Away, Cupid, Sports Night). It's enabled Mr. Walden to supplant prodigious Mike Post (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, The Rockford Files, Magnum, P.I.) as the Tiger Woods of TV music.
Walden won an Emmy for the stirring title theme he penned for “The West Wing,” and he continues to take an optimistic approach to his unorthodox craft, one that songwriters (not named Michael Giacchino
) might dismiss as hackish. "I finally realized I wasn't going to be Eric Clapton or a rock star," he told the Morning News
. "So this is really and truly a gift that most people aren't offered in their lives.”
for more on Walden's creative process. And next time you flip on FNL, tip your cowboy hat to Snuffy. Without his musical chops, who knows if the Taylors would have survived for as long as they did.
*Nice try, “Lost.” You too, “The West Wing.” The only other contender would be “Freaks and Geeks,” but it’s tough to compare the two teen shows. And since the Apatow/Feig project started its run in 1999, I won’t.
**The first four seasons are currently available on Netflix Streaming.
At a practical level, athletes wear jerseys so they know which players to pass to and which to tackle. Early uniforms were extremely basic; European football players wore scarfs
on top of their work clothes, for instance, while their American counterparts donned
turbans or smoks. Over time, as gear became more detailed and distinctive, teams began using their attire to project an image of their club to the world. Some aim for elegance
and class, others brashness
. Nike’s new, expensive
, and awesome design
for the French national men’s soccer team suggests the western European nation is confident in its own (much maligned
No team in history used their jerseys as a psychological tool more effectively than the 1938 Italian World Cup squad. Beginning in the quarterfinals, in front of an anti-fascist French home crowd, the Azzurri abandoned
its famous blue shirts in favor of black, an intimidating symbol of the nation’s feared paramilitaries
. During the national anthem, the starters even performed a fascist salute, reminding Les Bleus of Mussolini’s growing strength on the continent, and probably of their own liabilities on the pitch. The Italians won that match 3-1 before upending Hungary 4-2 in the title game for its second consecutive championship.
Legend has it that Mussolini ordered the team to wear the ebony kits, as part of a motivational strategy that included sending
a telegram to the players before the finals that read, quite cryptically, “vincere o morire” (“win or die”). The story is appealing but probably false; the footballers were by all accounts loyal to the dictator, and the phrase was used colloquially at the time to mean “victory or bust.” Hungarian keeper Antal Szabo, however, preferred to believe the literal interpretation. "I may have let in four goals,” he told reporters after the match, in a clever bit of revisionism, “but at least I saved their lives.”
Thanks to Alavert, the best OTC seasonal allergy medication on the market, mid-March is one of the most magical times of the year. Winter's wrath is behind us, baseball players are working off their off-season rust, Oberon
is back on the shelves, and college basketball assumes its rightful spot atop the hierarchy of sport.
Fans of the most dramatic athletic tournament in the world owe a debt of gratitude to two unsung heroes with Illinois ties: H.V. Porter and Eddie Einhorn. The former, a native of Washington
and accomplished athletic administrator, was instrumental in the development of the molded ball
, a durable replacement for the irregular, cumbersome, and erratic laced ball
of Dr. James Naismith’s era:
Porter also coined the phrase “March Madness,” in a 1939 essay for the trade publication Illinois Interscholastic
, to describe the Prairie State’s high school basketball tournament. (In 2004, Brendan Koerner detailed
the court battle that ultimately freed the NCAA to use the moniker.) Here’s the last stanza of a poem Porter penned in honor of postseason basketball three years later, months after his country entered World War II:With war nerves tense, the final defenseIs the courage, strength and willIn a million lives where freedom thrivesAnd liberty lingers still.Now eagles fly and heroes dieBeneath some foreign archLet their sons tread where hate is deadIn a happy Madness of March.
March Madness as we know it today wouldn’t exist without Eddie Einhorn, the current minority owner and Vice Chairman of the White Sox. As a 1L at Northwestern Law in 1958, Einhorn came up with the genius idea
to syndicate nationally a radio broadcast of the NCAA men’s final -- with the assistance of legend George Mikan as his color man. Five years later, he moved into television, airing the Cincinnati-Ohio State title game on regional affiliates in the Buckeye State. Basketball fans, Einhorn realized, cared deeply about their local cagers and would tune in (in big numbers) to watch meaningful games if given the opportunity.
Einhorn got his big break in 1968, when his fledgling network telecast in primetime the “Game of the Century
" between Elvin Hayes’ Houston Cougars and Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins. The success of this regular season brawl intrigued NBC, which paid $500,000 for the rights to broadcast the NCAA title game the following year, the first major network to do so. That price, as Gus Johnson might say
, was a steal