The Other Football

2006 was the year I decided soccer wasn’t boring. Now, I always thought soccer was fun to play, but there just wasn’t enough action on the screen for me to sit and watch the sport. Moreover, professional soccer wasn’t even close to having taken off in America at that time. We rarely put the Premier League or any major leagues on TV, and when we did it was just for one big game (ESPN always played El Clasico for instance). Now this is well and good as you would think fair weather fans of the sport (like most Americans are) would just want to see the best competition and the most important games. However, this ends up being an incredibly disjointed experience for uninitiated viewers. The story lines would matter less to someone like me who isn’t familiar with them outside of what ESPN broadcast team decides to tell me that particular day.

So needless to say club football was not what swung me on soccer. Predictably enough, that would be the 2006 World Cup.

558px-FIFA_World_Cup_2006_Logo.svg

I am obsessed with rooting for flags. I love international competition. I love when sports means more to people than you’d think it would. I love the way nations get behind their various national teams, and especially how countries other than America do this. For a long time Americans have been spoiled by international sports. Not to be a braggart but for a long time we were kiiiiindof good at whatever we wanted to be good at, which ruins the fun of it. What is more interesting to me is the way Indians and Pakistanis love cricket. The way New Zealanders love Rugby. The way Canadians love hockey. I love when a nation has “A Sport” and the way the throw all their passion behind that particular sports team for international competition.

(Photo Credit - David Goldman, AP)

(Photo Credit – David Goldman, AP)

Enter: soccer. Not only is the one of the sports we never tried to be good at (call it arrogance, but I still believe if they NFL didn’t exist and we funneled those athletes into soccer we could be dominant in international soccer, but that’s a topic for another time) and therefore suck at, but it just so happens to be the sport that matters the most internationally on a broad scale. Now, its not every nation’s favorite sport, but to the world at large it is incredibly important. As such when I was 16 (my prime “I will watch any sport any time” age) and ESPN made the decision to broadcast every single game of the 2006 World Cup I was all in. Seeing those fans go absolutely nuts, living and dying with every play of every game was like crack for me. My nation failed to get out of the group stage, but lucky enough I have an Argentine friend who was studying abroad in my city at the time so I hopped on the Lionel Messi and Argentina bandwagon, and they’ve been my adoptive favorite ever since.

(Photo Credit - Pacific Coast News)

(Photo Credit – Pacific Coast News)

What I’ve always really wanted, however, is for my own country to be a contender. I want my passion to mean more than just “hey this is the good team I picked because my country likely doesn’t have a chance.” I want to have the same kind of passion the real Argentinians have for their team. The passion Mexicans have for their team. Hell, I’d even love the pessimistic passion Englishmen have for the Three Lions.

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I want your pain and disappointment England!

So after that World Cup I decided I loved international soccer, I was somewhat content living vicariously through whatever team Messi played for (club or international) but I wanted to make an effort to become a real USMNT fan. Its just more genuine to root for your own team then to hop on with someone else’s, and that’s what I really want.

Obscene international fandom is one of our most efficient exports, and I love the efforts of The American Outlaws, to bring this passion to international soccer.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free… and also a red card for Cristiano Ronaldo would be much appreciated this June…”

So from 2006 on I’ve been a fan of International Soccer (in spite of FIFA’s corruption and incompetence), I’ve made various attempts to begin following club soccer (although I haven’t managed to stick with a team that I really care about yet), but what I’ve really thrown myself into is the US Men’s National Team.

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Now, being a USMNT fan is a complicated process. Soccer has some really cool cult followings in America, the MLS has been making wonderful strides (especially with the arrival of teams in the Pacific Northwest with the Sounders, Timbers, and Whitecaps), and American television companies like ESPN, NBC, and Fox have put colossal efforts into ensuring that Americans can watch every game of all the major leagues on TV. So the sports popularity is assuredly growing in the states, but its an incredibly slow process. Soccer is still a niche sport, and its not even as popular as other niche sports like hockey which crushes it in spite of the fact that hockey is very much a regional sport.

The American Outlaws have made great strides in the last decade and provide a strong core for the USMT, even if Americans en masse haven't fallen in line behind the team.

The American Outlaws have made great strides in the last decade and provide a strong core for the USMNT, even if Americans en masse haven’t fallen in line behind the team.

So anyway, soccer fans in America want the sport to be bigger. They want other American sports fans to appreciate it as well. In large part they want this because many Americans see the USMNT as a sleeping giant. I’ll say again, if it weren’t for the fact that the best American athletes gravitate toward the NFL and NBA (because that’s where the money is) we could put together an absolute Leviathan of a soccer team. Soccer needs to rise to at least the third most popular sport in America if we’re going to put together a truly competitive national team. And here is where a new debate enters the picture: what is the best way to popularize the sport in America? Now, I think the larger consensus is that international success will breed popularity for the sport in America. So how do you take a sport which is, at best, the 5th or 6th most popular sport in the country, and start funneling our elite athletic youth into the sport (without… y’know… doing what the Chinese do and sending them off to life long forced soccer camp…)

The two sides to this debate are 1) we need to have a popular domestic league loaded with American stars or 2) we need our best players to be playing at the highest level in the world. Lets start with the first of those issues.

1) We need to have a popular Domestic League

The deal here is the thought that Americans won’t want to follow a sport that they don’t have a direct connection to. We can look at a city like Seattle which has gone all in behind the Sounders (in large part because the NBA nefariously stole their NBA franchise and moved them to Oklahoma City, but that’s another issue). Now, these people are huge fans of the Sounders, they love going to those games, they rock Sounders gear all year long. Its a big deal. HOWEVER there is a positive hangover to their Sounders fandom, namely the fact that they are now SOCCER fans not just Sounders fans.

(Photo Credit - Joshua Trujillo, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

(Photo Credit – Joshua Trujillo, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Ok so the larger idea here is that having a team that you can have true possession for (rather than just loving from afar like the armies of Man U and Liverpool fans in America have to do) you will be more likely to become truly passionate about your team. Moreover, this passion will carry over to the sport at large which hopefully means more young Americans will play soccer seriously, thus improving the pool of players available for international play. Moreover, the idea is that young kids like to watch sports live. If we want to energize the American youth about the sport of soccer, we need to have the best possible level of soccer available for them to watch right in their own back yard, and that means improving MLS as much as possible.

The major issue with this line of thinking, however, is the one put forward by current USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The MLS just isn’t up to the level of the international club scene right now. It is, simply put, inferior competition to the big Leagues in England, Spain, and Italy. Having our players stay in MLS then, means they will not be used to competing against the best competition in the world, and will therefore be at an inherent disadvantage whenever they make an international appearance, and have to pay guys who are well seasoned in the Premier League or Serie A.

(Photo Credit, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit, USA Today Sports)

2) We need Americans to Become Stars in the Best Leagues in the World

So, the other popular opinion is that we need to have our best players succeeding abroad. Now, this one seems kindof like counting your chickens before they hatch. If the problem is a lack of talent in the American player pool, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to have players skilled enough to dominate La Liga or the Premier League. Moreover, Americans have already proven that they won’t be forced into fandom by geography. Just ask all the Lakers fans in North Dakota, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Alabama if living outside of LA stops them from hopping on the bandwagon.

They're like locusts I tell ya... a plague upon society... I mean look at this guy... Pirates hat and Lakers Jersey?? PICK A SIDE DAMN YOU!!! Disgusting. (Photo Credit, Susana Capra)

They’re like locusts I tell ya… a plague upon society… I mean look at this guy… Pirates hat and Lakers Jersey?? PICK A SIDE DAMN YOU!!! Disgusting. (Photo Credit, Susana Capra)

 

However, beyond that I really like this opinion. I don’t know that I totally buy into the idea that you can only buy into a sport by watching it live. ESPECIALLY in our modern, technology sodden day and age. It seems to me that the best thing for the National Team is to have our players competing against the toughest competition, thus familiarizing them with the increased level of international competition. Moreover, American sports culture is replete with cliches about how we only like winners and we only like the best. Well, let’s put our best players on to the best teams in the world and win. If Americans want to watch and root for the best, then lets carry that over to club teams. If Julian Green is the real deal we all hope he is then hopefully he can become a star at Bayern in the Bundesliga (one of the best teams in one of the best world leagues) and hope to build from there.

(Photo Credit, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit, USA Today Sports)

The best answer, however, seems to be a hybrid of the two. Of course our truly elite should go abroad and play for the bets teams in the world. That is the ideal. However, as things are currently constituted we don’t have enough players to truly saturate the big international clubs. So we’ll send our best and brightest there to become cornerstones of our international team, and give Americans a big club to hop on the bandwagon for.

Then, we need to do the best we can with MLS. MLS is incredibly important to popularizing the sport in America and it needs to become a competitive league ultimately, but it needs to grow at its own speed. If soccer becomes truly popular in the states as a result of international team success, growth for MLS will come until one day we hopefully wont HAVE to send our players abroad. The MLS will one day hopefully (maybe 50 years from now) be comparable to Serie A or the Bundesliga. That is when America will truly have arrived.

(Photo Credit, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit, USA Today Sports)

Now to bring things back to more recent events. There has been a bit of an exodus of American players from Europe back to MLS. There is a lot of anxiety about this. On one hand I’m excited about this. It means MLS is getting better. Indeed MLS is getting more competitive financially on the international scale because a lot of these players are coming back to get their big pay day and set their kids and grand-kids up financially for decades to come. However, its scary because in recent years it felt like America was starting to get a reasonable stable of players at the top clubs abroad. Dempsey (Premier League), Altidore (Premier League), Bradley (Serie A), Howard (Premier League)… the core of our international team was competing at the highest levels abroad.

(Photo Credit - Brad White, Getty Images and Sports Illustrated)

(Photo Credit – Brad White, Getty Images and Sports Illustrated)

Recently, however, and much to the chagrin of Coach Klinsmann, this trend reversed all at once. Dempsey came back to play for the Sounders, and although he has expressed a desire to return to Europe there’s no gaurentee he’ll be able to. Bradley had fallen out of favor with the coaches at Roma and wasn’t getting playing time so I’d rather have him at Toronto FC getting playing time than riding the bench in Serie A. However, the guy is very much the cornerstone of our international team. He’s the closest thing to a real international star we have in American soccer, and as I mentioned before, you want your top players to be in Europe. So now we only really  have Altidore (whose Premier League team just got relegated and who didn’t play well for them last season, although he destroyed the Dutch League 2 years ago) and Howard (who has already announced he plans to retire once his current contract with Everton runs out) left for major pieces in Europe.

Ultimately this isn’t the end of the world. These players are still in their prime, but won’t be forever. We need to be more concerned about the next generation (Julian Green) than this generation of USMNT players in Europe. As long as Klinsmann’s institutional culture change toward an emphasis on Europe sticks, and as long as this crop of players returning to MLS injects even more energy into the league domestically, then we might have just stumbled into the best of both worlds. US Soccer will be just fine. Whats more concerning is our potential early exit in the Group Stage of the upcoming World Cup, after we made such amazing strides recently, skyrocketing into the top 20 in the world. However, an early exit in 2006 didn’t stop me from becoming a soccer fan, so I’m not willing to assume it will discourage the next generation of US soccer fans this World Cup is sure to create either.

(Photo Credit - Kyle Robertson, The Columbus Dispatch)

(Photo Credit – Kyle Robertson, The Columbus Dispatch)

The Mid-range Jumper: Persistent Dinosaur in the Analytics Age

(Image via Wikipedia and chensiyuan)

(Image via Wikipedia and chensiyuan)

The mid-range jumper and the long 2 have earned a reputation as the most inefficient and stupid shot in basketball at any level. Modern players just can’t seem to convert the shot on a consistent basis. Defenses are engineered to force opposing teams to take that specific shot. And it simply isn’t worth the risk if you’re going to create a long rebound which your big man can’t grab for you. In short you’re just really hurting your team with that shot. You probably won’t get points, you wont get the rebound, you risk giving up points on the other end on a fast break… its just stupid.

Now, I don’t mean to sound like a crotchety old man here, but I can’t help but believe AAU ball has something to do with this. Guys are taught to take it hard to the rack and get fouled. Use your superior speed and athleticism to either score, get an and-one, or shoot free throws. Now, this kind of play works great in AAU and High School games. It even still works with some guys at the college level, but once you land in the NBA that style of play has run its course for all but the truly elite.

(Photo Credit - Tom Pennington, Getty Images)

(Photo Credit – Tom Pennington, Getty Images)

 

Conversely, the layup and dunk will always be considered great shots as long as you’re not fouling someone. The terms “layup” and “slam dunk” have entered the vernacular meaning something that is so easy that it is almost certain to happen. So in short, if you can engineer a layup or a dunk under the basket for your team, you are helping them immensely. You have a high percentage chance of scoring 2 points and allowing your team to get back on defense and set themselves up to stop your opponents.

(Photo Credit - Rocky Widner, Getty Image)

(Photo Credit – Rocky Widner, Getty Image)

 

The other option scoring option (besides a mid-range jumper or a bucket under the basket) is a three. This shot goes in a lot less than a dunk and actually it goes in less than a mid-range jumper. However, with a jumper you are risking losing the ball and giving up points IN ADDITION to not scoring for only a 2 point return. With a 3 pointer you gain the incentive of an extra point, making it worth the risk, according to the NBA Analytics community. The opportunity cost is there and makes up for the risk. Moreover, the risk is further minimized when you shoot a three from the corner. A corner three is only 22 feet from the basket while a three from the arc is 23 feet 9 inches. A corner 3 is 21 inches closer to the basket and still gets you that extra point, so its a beautiful shot.

(Photo Credit - Pat Sullivan, AP Photo)

(Photo Credit – Pat Sullivan, AP Photo)

Enter the Houston rockets, Daryl Morey, and yes the Rio Grand Valley Vipers. Daryl Morey is the GM of the Rockets and the Vipers are the Rockets’ D League affiliate. Because we know 3s (especially corner 3s) and layups/dunks are the only shots reeeeally worth taking, and because we know that the mid-range jumper is both a bad shot and a team hurting shot, Daryl Morey, the mad scientist, has decreed that his NBA D-League team should shoot nothing but those 4 types of shots (dunk, layup, corner 3, and iiiiiiiiif you haaaaaaaaave to… a normal three).

On the surface this looks like a perfect plan. We have used scientific analysis, mathematics, and reason to determine what the best shots on a basketball court are. By taking these shots and avoiding inferior shots, science would dictate that this team win constantly. And actually, the Vipers DO win… A LOT. They’ve won 2 of the last 5 D League Titles and were runner up another year. Three trips to the title game in five years seems pretty good to me. So, this is the mindset the Houston Rockets entered into the playoffs with this season. The Rockets believed they had cracked the code to basketball success, and perfectly constructed a team to exploit these perceived market inefficiencies.

(Photo Credit - Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit – Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)

 

They had one of the best centers in the NBA, Dwight Howard, who can convert with ease under the basket offensively, and can prevent the other team from converting layups on dunks (allegedly the best shots in basketball) on the other end. They had an arsenal of lanky perimeter players who could run the court and bomb threes to exploit the other market inefficiency, the three point shot (and corner 3). And again, Howard is the 3 time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, so as long as their laboratory-built offense succeeded, he should have been able to clean up everything else on defense. A perfect storm. The only problem? They had to play LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trailblazers in the first round.

The Blazers are loaded with perimeter players just like the Rockets. Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and even rookie C.J. McCollum can hit 3s at an incredibly high rate, thereby neutralizing Houston’s 3 point advantage. Moreover, Aldridge hits the mid-range jumper beautifully meaning their plan to plant Howard under the basket and shut down dunks and layups is neutralized as well, because Portland can take, and make, a mid-range jumper instead.

Simply put, the long two is a part of Aldridge’s game. Over a lifetime he worked to add this shot into his arsenal, and has therefore given himself an advantage over the rest of the league. With a basketball culture that, from AAU ball through college and into the pros, has neglected this shot and in extreme cases (like Houston) even shuns it vehemently, Aldridge is a rare breed. And in the end the upstart, spunky Portland Trailblazers upset the mighty (and scientifically proven) Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

So Aldridge’s case, dovetailed with the AAU hypothesis, provides us with an alternative narrative to the mysterious case of the mid-range jumper. I think it is more of a lost art than a truly bad shot. In fact, it isn’t a bad shot at all because the individuals, like Aldridge, who have the shot in their arsenal find themselves with a monumental competitive advantage in the modern NBA (or college basketball for that matter).

(Photo Credit - Randy L. Rasmussen, The Oregonian)

(Photo Credit – Randy L. Rasmussen, The Oregonian)

Defenses are no longer prepared to defend the shot as efficiently as they could be because it is considered common knowledge that the shot is so bad that it defends itself. Yes players defend it, but a truly well executed mid range shot, like Aldridge’s, will simply be unstoppable.

Moreover, this phenomenon has resulted in a shift in the NBA. When I was growing up the narrative was always, “there are no big men in the NBA! You need to go all in for big men whenever you can!” and “guards (specifically shooting guards) grow on trees, never put any effort into finding one for your team cuz you can pick one up off the scrap heap whenever you like.”

However, this is no longer true. There are tons of big men in the league now, and there is a dearth of shooting guards in the NBA. Moreover there is a wealth of point guards… guys who can dish the ball to big men down low (for dunks) drive to the rack themselves (for a layup) or kick it out to an open teammate (for a 3). However, what we don’t have much of anymore is the big man who can step outside the paint and hit a jumper. We don’t have the shooting guards who can abort a drive and pull up from mid-range after breaking his man’s ankles and drain a shot.

The 90s are gone and they took their wealth of shooting guards with them. (Images via Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated and shattertheglass.com )

The 90s are gone and they took their wealth of shooting guards with them. (Images via Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated and shattertheglass.com )

I think the game of basketball is much worse off this way. Again, I’m sounding like an old man watching basketball in the 50s but we need pure skill and shooting ability to return to the game. The way things are now you really can break the game down to a science where its all numbers and percentages like the Rockets do. You can just grind away at those low variance, high benefit shots while ignoring the rest of the nuance of the game of basketball. You can’t really do this at the NBA level simply because there is so much talent around, but college? High School? And the lower levels of pro basketball like Europe, China, and the D League, you can, and that seems kindof sad to me. I hope in the future we can have more guys who can hit these mid-range shots coming up through the ranks, but I’m not sure the AAU culture will allow it. Its going to remain a select few. So maybe I’ll just have to settle for the loving the rare few who can do it for their competitive advantage and the utter domination they can unleash on their opponents.

(Photo Credit - Greg Nelson, Sports Illustrated)

(Photo Credit – Greg Nelson, Sports Illustrated)

Hubris and the Continued Metamorphasis of Johnny Bananas

Kill Card

The first story line I spotted when I saw the cast list for this season was: The Old Guard is on trial. Landon chose the Barry Sanders route and retired early. Mark made his career last an eternity but is now retired. Evan and Kenny appear to have been banned for life. Wes only functions as a foil to Kenny so without Mr. Beautiful there’s hardly a reason to bring Wes back to the show. Derrick and Brad were absolute shells of themselves by the time they retired after Cutthroat. Even Big Easy never recovered from the verbal homicide Laurel threw at him during the infamous hot tub scene on Cutthroat. (Although he then retreated from public life, back to his Old Kentucky Home, and now lives 6 houses down from my parents. No shit, I see him out there in his tie dyed wife beaters drinking beer every day I’m over there. BUT ANYWAY). The Old Guard guys have been ripped away from me one after the other. As a Challenge Historian and Purist, all that seems to be left to me is the immortal CT and my longtime bane, Johnny Bananas.

Now, this isn’t all bad as I love plenty of the new characters as well, but I will always have a soft spot for the founding fathers of the Challenge, and that includes Bananas. As I’ve touched on before I used to hate Johnny, but this season everything has changed. Not only am I drawn to him for nostalgic reasons (again, only he and CT remain of the Old Guard on this season) but he has also undergone a spectacular change.

Bananafly

Johnny was always a spazz. He was the little guy who wasn’t strong enough to do what CT, Mark, and Landon did. He was always just a tagalong to Evan and Kenny’s manipulative machinations. Oh sure, he did well but he was never a dominant force in the game. In retrospect this might have been a benefit. This forced him to develop a more well rounded game than a lot of other competitors. He would never be able to beat CT physically so he would turn to his diplomacy to outmaneuver him. He may have always been the odd man out on the Kenny/Evan love fest, but he always had enough diplomatic juice to convince them to throw him into an elimination with a weak competitor so he really had no risk of going home (this is one of the tactics that made me hate him. It is unbearably cowardly) But if push came to shove I never wanted my money on Mr. Bananas. That, however, was the old Bananas. The evil, villain Bananas. But this season? Johnny feels like my own personal Sword of Justice. Hold that thought for a moment.

Justice is blind and her name is Bananas

Justice is blind and her name is Bananas

Nature has a way of always righting itself. If Johnny isn’t our villain any longer, then someone would need to step in. Enter Jordan Wiseley. Jordan is despicable. Now, that old Bananas villain is still in Johnny, but now its just a plus to me. He says the things that I scream at my TV while I watch the show, except when he says them other cast members can hear them. I’m really glad he pointed out to Laurel that all Jordan does is hook up with whoever he feels is one of the 3 strongest girls. He did this during Rivals II with Sara Rice as well. Moreover, Jordan is only on his 2nd season EVER of The Challenge (his Real World: Portland season was only in 2013! He has only even been eligible for The Challenge for like 14 months!) and yet he carries himself like a veteran. To someone like me who worships the alter of the Old Guard (who are all 6-10 seasons into their careers) this is complete sacrilege.

He finished in 3rd place on Rivals II, but as we all know, paired Challenges are as much about your partner as anything else. Some top tier competitors (such as Sara Rice) get paired with a corpse (Trishelle) and lose early. Some people (like Jordan) are average athletes and luck into another average partner (like Marlon) which allows both of them to coast past stronger competitors with worse partners. His Rivals II performance is nothing he can hold himself up on. The guy’s resume is practically nonexistent, and yet he carries himself like he’s a champion. To someone like me who worships history and past performances this arrogance is inexcusable. After last season where we saw CT, a Challenge Hall of Famer and surefire entrant to Challenge Valhalla, win his first ever challenge after 9 grueling attempts, I cannot stomach a peacock like Jordan parading around like he’s on CT’s (or Johnny’s) level (both of whom have not only proved themselves time and again, but helped to make The Challenge what it is. There would be no show for Jordan to compete on if CT and Johnny hadn’t built the foundation he’s now walking on. Arrogant prick).

Enter, the Sword of Justice, Johnny Bananas. Jordan spat in the face of all we know about proper challenge strategy and CT couldn’t have been happier.

CT Laughing at Jordan

He moronically threw himself into a challenge intentionally. He could have pulled on old school bananas, told Johnny and Laurel (his bitches) to vote Preston into the Elimination, thus ensuring him a victory if he went in. Instead, he threw in Bananas, then flipped every card to take Johnny on himself. Now, this was admittedly one of the ten most exciting elimination moments that I can remember, AND it made Jordan look somewhat redeemable that he, (unlike Johnny in his prime) actually backed up his bravado about knocking someone out himself. However, to truly back up your smack talk, Jordan, you need to eliminate your Banana foe, and at this you failed miserably. Jordan apologists may try to say that Jordan slipped (perhaps because of his hand) and this is the only reason he lost. This could NOT be FURTHER from the truth. Johnny was beating Jordan by a solid 2 feet before Jordan fell (or took a dive because he knew he would lose?) which in this event is an ENORMOUS lead.

Jordan Pre Fall

Moreover, Jordan has a height advantage over Johnny which should have allowed him to easily defeat Bananas! Jordan had a veritable cornucopia of advantages and squandered them all. He is a complete, and utter failure.

Bananas victory placard

And ooooooh my Lord how spectacular was it to hear TJ call Jordan a dumbass?

Jordan –  “Well I said I was gonna do it. Couldn’t make myself a liar”

Teej – “Well you got served tonight. $165,000… out the door… alright?”

Teej dumping Jordan

Perhaps more importantly, in a second elimination (a rare occurrence for Bananas) he did not just defeat his foe, he absolutely obliterated them. Johnny becomes more redeemable every episode. Everything I used to hate about him is melting away. His fear of eliminations and cowardice are gone, and he now goes in to murder folks without remorse. Johnny is no longer afraid of eliminations and no longer chokes when he gets there. He embraces his fate with open arms and destroys anyone who dares to get in his way. Johnny Bananas the coward and the villain are gone. We now have The Sword of Justice.

Bananas celebration

Metamorphosis bitches. So spread your muscley wings Johnny Bananas. You are a beautiful butterfly.

Bananas celebration 2

And Jordan? Better luck next time, dumbass.

CT Happy reusable

In StanVan We (Must) Trust

(Image via Insider Sports)

(Image via Insider Sports)

The Detroit Pistons are a mess. Joe Dumars is a franchise legend, and his shrewd managerial skills brought Detroit the 2004 NBA title. In spite of this, however, he definitely needed to go this off-season. He was left with a win now mandate by new owner Tom Gores which is always the wrong thing to do since it encourages a GM to make ridiculous short terms moves to try and save his job, but Gores wanted, and needed, a way to cut bate with Dumars cleanly. In response Dumars, predictably,  made a lot of desperate moves in response.

(Photo Credit - Rocky Widner, Getty Images)

Brandon Jennings (left) and Coach Cheeks(right) (Photo Credit – Rocky Widner, Getty Images)

 

He brought in Maurice Cheeks (a borderline Hall of Fame caliber player as a point guard) as a coach, presumable to groom 2011 lottery pick Brandon Knight and help him finally reach his potential as a point guard. Then he promptly flipped Knight in a trade with the Bucks for Brandon Jennings… soooo you traded the much higher ceiling Knight, for whom you JUST handpicked a coach, and traded him for the better (for now) guard with a much lower ceiling in Jennings.

*sigh* goodbye again Brandon... (Photo Credit - Rob Carr, Getty Images)

*sigh* goodbye again Brandon… (Photo Credit – Rob Carr, Getty Images)

 

Then you brought in Joe Smith in free agency which sounds great on paper until you see the log jam Detroit’s anti-spacing glut of big men created in the Motor City. However, even this wouldn’t have been so bad when you consider that the Memphis Grizzlies had just fired their coach, Lionel Hollins, that off-season. Hollins is the coach who made Memphis’s spacing issues and overabundance of big men work to the tune of 4 consecutive playoff appearances and 3 series wins… including a trip to the Western Conference finals is 2012-13. Might have been a good coach to bring in to coach Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe (in a contract year), and Josh Smith, no? But oh wait… we hired a coach to groom the point guard we were going to trade. Got it.

(Photo Credit - Justin Ford, USA Today)

(Photo Credit – Justin Ford, USA Today)

So long story short, Dumars, partly of his own doing and a little bit because of the win now mandate he was saddled with, has left this team a mess. I had no clue how the team was going to move this off-season to try to fix things, but I wasn’t especially confident. I was hoping we’d go for Hollins as coach (which we should have done last year in the first place) and was just praying we would bring in ANYONE except Isiah Thomas to run the front office. Isiah will always be a Piston’s legend, and honestly I wouldn’t mind if Gores let him pull a Magic Johnson, grab a little corner of the Pistons ownership pie, and have a little bit of input with the franchise, but his stay in New York taught us he is anything BUT a good GM. He was one of the five worst GMs of all time.

(Photo Credit - Al Bello, Getty Images)

(Photo Credit – Al Bello, Getty Images)

However, it seemed fairly likely and somewhat reasonable to think they team would go for Hollins on the court and Isiah in the front office this off season. The main reason being this team needed a new face of the franchise. Drummond is so young that I don’t want to put that weight on him, and no other player on the roster warrants that kind of status. Things had gotten so bad that Dumars was  the face of the Pistons the last few years, and Detroit now needed to fill the void. This is why the rumors were yet again flying of bringing in Tom Izzo and handing him the triple title of President of Basketball Operations, GM, AND Coach. Now, I love Izzo as a college coach but this would have been an absolute disaster. At least a guy like John Calipari has NBA experience. Izzo is 59, and has 0 NBA experience. I would have been worried to give him the coaching job, let alone full control of the team. So with this possibility dangling on the table I would have been a lot more confident with Hollins, a proven winner with this type of roster (although no Marc Gasol would hurt Hollins’ and the Pistons’ chance of reproducing what Memphis has) as coach and Isiah *shudder* filling both the GM (hopefully with Gores and Hollins keeping his stupidity in check) and face of the franchise roles.

(Photo Credit - Eric Gay, AP)

Izzo could have been a face of the franchise and fans would have gotten behind him with the Michigan loyalty stuff, but… I mean… is this really the face you want to be the face of your franchise? (Photo Credit – Eric Gay, AP)

With all these things staring me in the face, then, I was ecstatic to hear we were bringing in Van Gundy. I got a little scared to hear we had given him so much control over the team when he too is untested in this arena. However, as a coach he is far and away better than anything I could have expected. This guy is way out of Detroit’s league of who they would have been able to get as their second target. Everyone knows how Pat Riley swooped down to steal Stan Van’s 2006 title victory. That was unfair enough considering it was Stan Van Gundy who kept that ship afloat before the Shaq trade. Stan still didn’t have any luck at his next stop either when the 6’10” 260lbs infant that is Dwight Howard decided he didn’t like trying hard, got his coach (SVG) fired, and then promptly left the franchise. Serves Orlando right anyway… HOWEVER before the Howard hissy fit Stan Van took the Magic in a Cinderella run to the NBA finals.

(Photo Credit - David Santiago, AP)

(Photo Credit – David Santiago, AP)

 

So the guy knows what he’s doing as a coach, and considering the current state of Deeeeeeeeetrooooooooit Baaaaaasketbaaaaaaaall he was waaaaaaay out of our league. As a coach this is beyond my wildest dreams for the off-season. If anyone is going to figure out how this mess (talent laden but a mess) could work, its Stan Van Gundy. The only fear, then, is with this President of Basketball Operations role. Stan is completely untested in this capacity, but honestly the only way for us to get Stan the Coach was to hire his buddy Stan the President and I’m fine with that. Someone who has as acute a basketball mind as Stan will figure this out. It was beyond gut wrenching to lose our lottery pick last night so that Cleveland could get their 3rd #1 pick in 4 years and 4th consecutive top 4 pick, but from now on I’m all in with the mantra of “in Stan we trust.”

Simply put there is a lot of talent on this roster. There is a lot of materiel to work with. I don’t know if Stan will be trading some guys to move pieces around, simply letting some guys walk, developing the guys we have or just cleaning house, and I really don’t care. I’m not staring into the abyss of an Isiah Thomas as GM era and if that means having the unproven SVG picking our assets then so be it. And in any event, I wholeheartedly approve of Stan the President’s first off-season move… bringing in Stan the Coach.

(Photo Credit - Jonathan Daniel)

(Photo Credit – Jonathan Daniel)

The Taj Mahal and Basketball: Making American Professional Sports Relevant in India

Million-Dollar-Arm-WeLiveFilm-Movie-Review

So Disney is coming out with this sports movie, Million Dollar Arm, this weekend, and ESPN (being property of Disney) and Bill Simmons (being associated with the movie AND a good company man) have been plugging it relentlessly. Now the movie is apparently PG and everyone plugging it is telling you to go in expecting a movie aimed toward kids BUT whether it is Stockholm Syndrome or legitimate excitement I’ve somehow talked myself into wanting to see this movie. I like John Hamm and the story sounds like one I’m legitimately interested in.

Dinesh Patel [left] and Rinku Singh [right] (Photo Credit - Doug Benc)

Dinesh Patel [left] and Rinku Singh [right] (Photo Credit – Doug Benc)

The film follows the unlikely story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Long story short a down on his luck baseball agent heads to India to try to find the best cricket bowlers in the country, convert them into baseball pitchers, and be the first guy to bring an Indian baseball star to MLB. Now, Rinku and Dinesh ultimately didn’t make it big (although Rinku did become the first Indian player to play minor league baseball, and is still in the Pirates’ minor league system although he looks unlikely to get a call up to the majors) but that doesn’t make the story any less interesting. However, what I’m more interested in here is the broader story of American professional sports and an Indian audience.

Simply put, people involved in the business side of pro sports in America (and even England with the Premier league etc) see India as a massive market for expansion in terms of both fans and merchandising. The NBA is the poster child for this stuff in the post Yao Ming world. You see, before India was this lucrative gem of a market, China was where these guys wanted to expand their presence. Moreover, largely because of Yao, the NBA was able to sell a very non-traditionally Chinese sport to China with great success.

(Photo Credit -  Jeff Gross, Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit – Jeff Gross, Getty Images North America)

So now these guys, and specifically the NBA, want to follow the same route with India [and again, I’m going to focus on the NBA because they seem to be the most likely to succeed to me due to multiple factors we’ll discuss, but soccer, baseball, and many other sports are going to be making the same efforts]. This makes sense financially. I mean… if you could get every person in India to give you one penny you’d have $12.4 million… which is enough money to pay for a year of Tony Parker, Kevin Garnett, or Serge Ibaka, its $100,000 more than you need for David West, a$1.3 million more than you need for Joakim Noah, and a whopping $2 million more than you would need to pay for Tim Duncan’s services for a year. Simply put there is a huge financial gain to be had here.

Ok, so there is definitely a lot of potential to grow the sport of basketball here . Moreover, as we already mentioned, the China experience provided a template for how the NBA in particular can expand into one of these leviathan sized markets with little history of liking their sports. Moreover, in some ways I think India is an even easier sell than China was. India already has an incredible sports culture in their country. The only issue for Americans hoping to expand there is that the sport of choice is cricket, a sport most Americans have zero experience with. Even further complicating matters is the fact that cricket absolutely DOMINATES the Indian sports community the same way Soccer dominates Europe. Everything will always be 2nd best to cricket in India.

Cricket is absolutely enormous in India and they, along with legendary rival Pakistan, are the sports best. (Photo Credit - AP and India Today http://indiatoday.intoday.in/gallery/ind-vs-pak-t20-world-cup-2012-photos/1/7859.html)

Cricket is absolutely enormous in India and they, along with Pakistan with whom they have a legendary rivalry, are the sports best. (Photo Credit – AP and India Today http://indiatoday.intoday.in/gallery/ind-vs-pak-t20-world-cup-2012-photos/1/7859.html)

So there’s one problem for the NBA. In China the NBA didn’t have any other sport to compete with BUT I don’t think the NBA is stupid enough to try to compete with cricket. All they need to do is coexist with it. As long as they go into the country with that attitude I think everything will be fine. Moreover, China had virtually no sports culture in the country when the NBA began taking its first footsteps into the country as a result of many factors such as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution among other things. The NBA then built a sports culture in that country from scratch so I have faith that they can grab at least a corner of India’s sports consciousness.

However, as Yao Ming taught us, you can only truly energize the entirety of a potential market like this (rather than just those people who would have gravitated to your sport because they like the sport itself) by bringing in a national from that country to your league. That’s the kind of move that will make every day people pay attention to your sport. That’s the kind of thing that makes a Taxi driver in Mumbai chat with his customers about your sport.

However, as we learned from Yi “The Chairman” Jianlian, you have to be reaaaaally careful not to let greed get ahead of your scouting when you’re looking for these prospects from your desired market because you can end up with a major bust on your hands if you act too hastily.

Oh Yi... well... if you're gonna get posterized by Lebron James on live TV I guess you might as well do it with a smile... (Photo Credit - Mark Duncan)

Oh Yi… well… if you’re gonna get posterized by Lebron James on live TV I guess you might as well do it with a smile… (Photo Credit – Mark Duncan)

With that in mind, however, this year is setting up to be a critical period in the NBA to India efforts. To start with, about 12 months ago to the day (May 16, 2013) the NBA and Maloof family agreed to sell 65% of the Sacramento Kings to Vivek Ranadive, making him the first owner of Indian descent in the NBA’s history. Moreover, the other NBA owners approved Ranadive’s purchase of the Kings for around $535 million, when Seattle businessman Chris Hansen was offering more than double that amount as long as the NBA would allow him to move the team to Seattle and return the Seattle Supersonics to the NBA. On the surface this is a curious move. Why would the other owners have turned down DOUBLE the money AND a substantial relocation fee (of which each of them would get a part) in order to keep a team in Sacramento (a very small fanbase, and one which is not growing… aka not a lot of money coming in and not much more on the horizon) instead of moving the franchise to Seattle? Seattle is an enormous market comparatively with an already established fanbase… meaning there are piles of money ready to be poured into the league [for instance, jersey sales and all NBA affiliated gear does not go to the specific team whose name is on the jersey… it goes to the league and then aaaaall the money from aaaaall the team jerseys are split up evenly amongst the owners. So since you could sell a hell of a lot more Supersonics gear than Kings gear it would have been in the NBA’s best interest to put the team in Seattle].

Chris Hansen has been denied in multiple attempts to bring a team back to Seattle after the NBA colluded to steal their original team and move them to Oklahoma City. (Photo Credit - Elaine Thompson, AP)

Chris Hansen has been denied in multiple attempts to bring a team back to Seattle after the NBA colluded to steal their original team and move them to Oklahoma City. (Photo Credit – Elaine Thompson, AP)

The reason, of course, was that there are a lot more potential jersey wearers in India than in the city of Seattle. Vivek Ranadive was given the OK over Hansen because of his Indian heritage. Ranadive is very open about his desire to grow the sport of basketball in India. I really like the guy, even more so when you see how much he obviously loves the sport of basketball, and I think the other NBA owners saw this too (although for perhaps more disingenuous reasons). Ranadive, then, was allowed to purchase the Kings if he kept them in Sacramento. This helped the NBA in two ways. First, it allowed them to avoid another PR nightmare about stealing a team from another fanbase like they did to Seattle, and second it gives them their much needed in into India. Ranadive didn’t care about keeping his team in the smaller American market of Sacramento because he is trying to think bigger. He thinks the entire nation of India is his market, so why would he bother moving the team to another city? Moreover, he already got the ball rolling on his efforts to mobilize his Indian fanbase when he implored them to help make his superstar, Demarcus Cousins, (or as he would put it their superstar, the superstar of India’s team) into an all star this year.

(As an aside: I think that video actual does some really excellent subtle things when trying to energize Indian’s about NBA basketbal, specifically having the dance team perform a Bollywood inspired number dressed in Bollywood inspired cloths at the 1:06 mark. This is something Ranadive has (brilliantly in my opinion) pushed with his team, even dancing with his daughter in one such number during a halftime show)

The Ranadive family bringing Bollywood to the NBA!

The Ranadive family bringing Bollywood to the NBA!

The Cousins to the All Star game efforts ultimately failed in large part because of the many talented players in the NBA’s Western Conference, but also because of Boogie’s alleged attitude problems, but the point remains that Ranadive is for real about this India thing. If Ranadive’s longer term efforts are successful they won’t just benefit the Kings, however, but the league and the sport as a whole, and honestly I find the guy to be so like-able that I can’t help but hope for his success, even if it means the other, less fan-friendly owners benefit as a result.

Ok, so part one of the burgeoning basketball to India effort is this guy Ranadive being an NBA owner, but again, China showed us that really matters is players not owners. Chinese fans wanted to see their guy out there battling on the court with his country on his back, and I believe Indians will want the same thing. Enter the  7’5″, 360 pound Goliath that is Sim Bhullar.

(Photo Credit - Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit – Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

As far as his basketball skills there’s no denying that his presence is felt on a basketball court. In his two years at New Mexico State, Bhullar led the Aggies to the NCAA tournament both years. While they were seeded fairly low and lost in the opening round both years, this year they took San Diego State (a 4 seed) to overtime and nearly pulled off the upset when Bhullar put the team on his back and went full beast mode. However, I’m still a little worried that he declared for the NBA draft too soon. I like that unlike a lot of these freakishly tall guys who run for the NBA he actually has weight on his frame… unfortunately he seems a little heavy. I would have liked to see him continue to develop his skills and tone his body at the college level. Ultimately, however, now seems like as good a time as any for him to declare since his stats didn’t improve at all between his freshman and sophomore years so he probably wasn’t going to improve any more at New Mexico. It makes even more sense  when you consider the NBA’s power play for Indian sports fans.

Bhullar almost led New Mexico State to an upset of #4 seed San Diego State in this year's NCAA tournament (Photo Credit - Steve Dykes, Getty Images)

Bhullar almost led New Mexico State to an upset of #4 seed San Diego State in this year’s NCAA tournament (Photo Credit – Steve Dykes, Getty Images)

If anything I think he’ll be a late second round pick if he’s lucky, and I’m just hoping a team takes a chance on him in hopes of gaining ground in India. It could be the Kings or anyone honestly as 2 teams pushing Indian fans would likely be better than one. Either way I think this is an important moment for him and  the league and I hope he succeeds. This year has been big for the NBA and its push for India and I hope they can make the next step. I hope this kid is closer to India’s Yao Ming than their Yi Jianlan. However, even if he fails the NBA is making a long play effort in the country by building basketball courts throughout the country in hopes that one day we can have an Indian John Wall or Steph Curry. Whether Bhullar is the guy or not, the NBA is serious about finding their Indian Yao.

In any even I have high hopes that the NBA will succeed with these efforts to become the second sport in India. They have the “cool” international sport (by American standards) and dwarf the NFL on an international scale. They made a move to bring in an owner of Indian descent who is hell bent on pushing his team and his sport in his home country. They have succeeded with this kind of play in a massive international market before with China, and they have a young kid right at their fingertips who, though he is incredibly flawed, could become the first Indian player in their league. I say all the time that my favorite thing about sports is rooting for flags. That’s why the World Cup is my favorite sporting event every year. I love when a nation gets behind a sports team, and I love how much those major competitions mean to everyone involved. For now, then, I’m rooting for India’s flag, and I hope the people there can fall in love with the sport of basketball the same way I did, and join the ever growing international community of basketball fans.

Indian-Flag-Wallpaper-Dekstop-600x375

UK’s Foray into Real SEC Football

(Photo: WBIR/USA Today Sports)

(Photo: WBIR/USA Today Sports)

Over the weekend Kentucky continued its run as Linebacker U this weekend when Avery Williamson got drafted by his home state Tennessee Titans in the 5th round. Unfortunately, it has been brought to my attention that he will not be allowed to commute from Nashville to Lexington on Saturdays to play for the Cats… dammit… So it looks as if Kentucky will have at least one enormous hole in their team this  season at inside linebacker, but I figured now was as good a time as any to take a look at the rest of the team and see what we might be in for next season.

(Photo Credit - James Holt)

(Photo Credit – James Holt)

If I judge just from the Spring Game (I realize this is not the best place to judge what the team will look like, but its the only real info I’ve got), this is going to be a real old fashioned, throwback football team. We’re gonna win or lose in the trenches and in the running game. And honestly, while that sounds boring on the surface that is exactly the kind of football I like to watch. At its heart football is a game about physicality and power. Hell, when they first invented the forward pass people wanted it outlawed. Now I love precision passing and finesse offenses as much as the next guy, and we’ll have our fair share of that in Kentucky once our receivers and QBs get some more experience under their belts. For now though, we’re rebuilding this program the right way. We’re making sure  our team can do all the dirty work before we throw on the bells and whistles.

(Photo Credit - Randy Sartin)

(Photo Credit – Randy Sartin)

Right now the strengths of this Kentucky team are the defensive line and the running backs. While we have a lot of talent and a lot of potential at a lot of positions, those are the only two areas that we can be sure are a strength until we see some of these other guys develop. On the D Line and in the running backs corps no development is needed.

Now, while the NFL has become a pass happy league, college football, and the SEC in particular haven’t thrown out the old fashioned grit and grind yet. LSU has, for pretty much their entire history been a team that plays physical defense and runs the ball down your thrown on offense, only passing for a few big plays down field once you finally decide you’re sick of getting mauled by their O-Line and Running Backs. Alabama is the same way, and those two teams are the class of the league. So while the NFL and even other college conferences such as the Big 12 hve fully embraced the new pass first variant of football, the SEC is a dinosaur which I for one appreciate (for the time being anyway).

(Photo Credit - Kevin C. Cox)

(Photo Credit – Kevin C. Cox)

However, to be a dinosaur in the modern world is pretty tough. I mean it worked out pretty well for those raptors in Jurassic Park I guess, but you don’t see many T-Rex’s in the United States do you? But anyway, Joker Phillips  tried to build a team at Kentucky on this model of smashmouth football and it failed pretty miserably. Whereas a pass heavy spread offense can give a less talented team a comparative advantage over the powerhouses like Alabama, more often than not, trying to go toe to toe with them is a death knell.

Ladies and gentlemen your 2014 Alabama Crimson Tide secondary!

Ladies and gentlemen your 2014 Alabama Crimson Tide secondary!

In order to break through the silverback gorillas that Alabama and LSU call defensive linemen. You can play this old school style of football when you have the pick of the litter for college prospects. If you have the best talent in the country you don’t need gimmicks you just need to sit back and laugh as your team utterly emasculates your opponents. Tell’m Arnold…

However, when you’re an undermanned team like Kentucky that proposition becomes a lot harder. However, this year we’ve got something special. On the defensive line we have the type of top level talent that could start at Alabama (if not the depth they have at the position) and at running back we have the kind of talent, athleticism, physical power AND depth to go toe to toe (or honestly beat out) any other team in the SEC.

(Photo Credit - Mark Cornelison)

(Photo Credit – Mark Cornelison)

On the D line we have 2 of the best defensive ends in the conference in Professor Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree. Coach Stoops is a defensively minded coach, and specifically favors the D Line. He built the D Line that just carried Florida State to a national title and his first move at Kentucky was to bring in one of the best JUCO players in the country in Za’Darius.

Intimidating in the classroom and the football field alike. (Photo by East Mississippi CC sports information)

Intimidating in the classroom and the football field alike. (Photo by East Mississippi CC sports information)

Big Z is the face of this Kentucky rebuild, and his former Junior College coach (Coach Jim Brumbaugh) came in with Stoops as our new D Line coach to make sure we play the kind of Defense Stoops wants. I can’t sell Coach Brumbaugh to you enough. Yes Z is an astounding talent and gets credit for all the work he’s done making himself into the player he is today, but he was a basketball payer before Brumbaugh got ahold of him. Thats why Z had to go to Junior College in the first place before jumping up immediately to the SEC level. in just 2 years together Brumbaugh turned Z from a basketball player into defensive menace in just two years, so having him will help develop the younger talent on this team. In fact, he already helped develop Bud Dupree from linebacker to a 2nd team all SEC defensive end in just one season. Not even 1 calender year. The guy can coach.

(Photo by 247 Sports)

(Photo by 247 Sports)

There was fear that we would lose both these guys to the draft this year but we got them both back for their senior seasons, meaning they will anchor this SEC caliber defensive line for the entire year. Moreover, Stoops and company have done an amazing job restocking the cupboards on defense for when we lose these guys. When you talk about needed the best talent in the country to play this style of football it doesn’t get any sweeter than stealing a beast of a nose tackle like Matt Elam right out from under Nick Saban. He needs to lose some weight and work on his stamina, but after seeing what Brumbaugh did with Z and Bud I have complete faith in him. Line him up next to 6’4″ 300lbs  red shirt freshman Regie Meant and we have a pretty intimidating front 4 for the 4-3 defense. Moreover, we have returning sophomore DE Jason Hatcher (whom Stoops stole from USC) continuing to develop and adding depth to the line. Bud and Z will help shepherd the talented (but young) linemen we have and all things considered we should finally be able to bang with the big boys in the trenches.

(Photo Credit - Timothy D. Easley)

(Photo Credit – Timothy D. Easley)

The fear is obviously that our secondary remains a major weakness and our Linebacking corps is taking a huge step back this year since the only truly outstanding player we had last year, Avery Williamson, just graduated, but the theory will be that if your D Line is beastly enough they’ll stuff any run before it even gets to the linebackers and create enough pass pressure that your Linebackers can drop back into coverage without needing to blitz. That way you can hope to win on sheer numbers against the pass. Its a risky strategy to be sure, but hey, it worked for Detroit in 2011 with Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Nick Fairley so it can work for us too.

On offense then we’re going old school too. This team has such insane depth at Running back that I’m worried some guys might end up transferring. I have no idea how we can get all these guys on the field and they all deserve to be starters. Moreover, we have such a colorful mix of abilities we can do pretty much anything you want running the ball. Josh Clemons is my favorite story of the bunch. I was shocked when we got him to commit in the first place 3 years ago. The man is an absolute giant with biceps bigger than my head. No really! Look at those things!

(Photo Credit - Darrell Bird)

(Photo Credit – Darrell Bird)

They look like they’re inflated water floaties or something. Absolutely absurd. However, the guy hasn’t played a season for us yet… He’s had back to back devastating injuries but looks to be back as close to 100% as possible. Moreover, of all the backs we have he’s the most multidimensional. The guy is enormous as stated so he can run between the tackles, but he also has the speed necessary to get around the edge on the outside and break off big gains. Moreover, he can be a QBs best friend with dump off and screen passes since he has such solid hands. The guy is the whole package.

However, he’s not the only back we’ve got. If you wanna talk about SEC power running we can throw Braylon Heard (Jr. Transfer out of Nebraska) or Mikel Horton (4 star recruit out of Ohio and the #12 RB in his class) at you. If you want speed and agility on the outside we’ve got the tiny but devastating JoJo Kemp or T.V. Williams. Hell, we could even bring Ryan Timmons into the backfield on end arounds. Long story short, anything a coach would possibly want to do with a running back, we can do it and we can do it really freaking well.

(Photo Credit - Rogelio V. Solis)

(Photo Credit – Rogelio V. Solis)

So obviously we’re not a complete team yet. The staff has proved that they can recruit the necessary talent to fill the many holes in this roster. Now its just a matter of developing them. All the eyes will be on the Patrick Towles vs. Drew Barker QB battle, and with Neil Brown’s Air Raid offense returning to the Bluegrass people will be expecting big plays from the bevy of 4 star receivers we’ve brought in. However, the real bread on butter of this team is gonna come from the trenches… whether that means breaking through them or making sure nobody else does.

We may not be great this year. We may be in for a lot of growing pains with so much youth in the secondary, linebacking corps, and all over the field on offense. But this year if we lose we’re definitely going down swinging and we’re definitely gonna hurt someone on our way out the door. No more rolling over and quitting. This team is here to play old school football and play it well no matter who they have to line up against.

kentucky-football-helmet

Johnny Bananas: Challenge Phoenix

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Bananas Isaac 1

Isaac

So let’s start things off with the lesser of 2 stories. I’m sad to see Isaac go, and that Chris Distefano shit show of an aftershow was awesome. You had Isaac being absurd and doing all the things that made me like him in the first place. The new host is much better than Johnny Mosley, and he had a lot of good fodder with those cast members. However, I gleaned a little bit of curious information from that show. Its a little perplexing to me to see how ripped Isaac was when your realize how badly he was beaten by Johnny in this week’s Challenge. It did occurred to me that Isaac has little chicken legs and apparently only works out his chest and arms but still…

isaac shirtless

On that note… Isaac… man… so it looks like this challenge Valhalla thing is gonna end up being a running shtick for me, but heres the deal… I can’t give up on Isaac yet. In that aftershow when he took off his shirt the dude was just cut.. ripped… absolutely… he is OBVIOUSLY a physical specimen.. however… sitting on those bleachers you could see that he has little chicken legs. It seems to me that the guy has a start for the right tools, he just needs to balance out his workout regime.

Bananas Isaac 3

Moreover, in the elimination itself this seemed to be the case. At first he wasn’t getting low enough on that first run so Johnny just took him off his feet and knocked him out. On his next offensive run, however, he got low and STILL couldn’t get by Johnny and got slammed out again. He blamed the sand which is a legitimate excuse but Johnny was on the same sand and still dominated. I still think he looks like he has all the right tools. I still enjoy entertainment he provides and actually enjoy his bumps whereas i hate almost everyone else’s (Leroy being maybe the only exception here.. maybe CT too but I’m not really sure). In any event, I think Isaac just needs to get seasoned up. He needs to go through some more battles and he can make another run at Challenge Valhalla… right now, however, he is certainly not ready.

This time, Isaac, "you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting" Daniel 5:27... (I figured a biblical named challenger like Isaac deserved a Biblical dismissal)

This time, Isaac, “you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” Daniel 5:27… (I figured a biblical named challenger like Isaac deserved a Biblical dismissal)

The Johnny angle though… hes shorter and bulkier with a lower center of gravity so this elimination favored him over Isaac but… that was still incredibly impressive. He SMASHED Isaac who is a big dude… bigger than that chicken shit Jordan, but I digress…

Bananas

REAL ONE

I despise the longtime Challenge strategy to keep weak players around so that the strong players have someone easy to defeat in the finals. It makes perfect sense for the powerhouse guys but its bad TV. I wish MTV would try to engineer a way around this, and have the weaker players face off in eliminations earlier in the show, saving the heavy weights for later on, just to build suspense. While it does make sense to me after this season that watching elimination after elimination of lower tier competitors gets boring, I think could easily be addressed by having a major player absolutely obliterate one of the weak competitors in those early rounds (a la Laurel vs. Jasmine in this episode). But in any event it is just incredibly frustrating to watch these shows where Brandon and Isaac are gone, but Preston and Cohutta are still goin’ strong.

I also hate the “earn your stripes” shit which has been used time and again by “veterans” to throw a younger, less seasoned player like Brandon into the elimination round time and again. This is particularly frustrating when the sacrificial lamb will win 2 or 3 eliminations and still be sent back in … in spite of the fact that his/her stripes are assuredly earned…

Now, this stuff is particularly poignant to point out right now because Johnny Bananas is one of the creators of these strategies. Johnny has always been a physical try-hard rather than a physical specimen like CT, Mark, or Landon.  He rebuilt his body with the help of PEDs to keep him competitive physically, but it was always his politics which carried him through the game.

Bananas Isaac 6

I should add here that I’ve never particularly liked Johnny Bananas. Back in his heyday, during the Golden Age of the Real World/Road Rules Challenge he was one of my least favorite “Vets.” He didn’t entertain me from a “this guy is a physical beast” perspective and his conniving and machinations were always incredibly vexing. I’ve had a distaste for him ever since… seeing him as a weak little man too afraid of his (perceived or actual) physical inadequacy to truly test his mettle. The “CT’s own custom-made Johnny Bananas backpack” fiasco did nothing to dispel this myth either.

However, he’s been growing on me the last 3 or so seasons, primarily for nostalgic reasons. The Golden Age may be gone, but with such a fantastic crop of new competitors (starting during the Fresh Meat reboot) the Challenge is certainly entering a Silver Age. However, the Old Guard isn’t dead yet. They’re here, fighting to hold on to their old glory, and in large part succeeding (recent challenge winners have been Bananas, CT, Wes, Bananas again, and so on…). So because Johnny is from my favorite era I’ve become attached to him. In this same vein, his tirade against Jordan was beautiful to me because 1) I hate Jordan and 2) He screamed “I’ve done more for this show than you’ll ever do.” These old guys have made this show their life. It matters to them like it matters to me, as preposterous as that is, and the New Generation needs to be put in its freaking place once in a while.

However, old animosity dies hard, so I can’t say I didn’t love it when the two strategies mentioned above, in large part engineered and perfected by Johnny Bananas himself, were turned against him. I was still rooting for Johnny because of his Old Guard status, but it was just an interesting juxtaposition to see. However, what was MORE impressive was watching Jordan get his bitch-ass machinations rammed down his own throat. Johnny put Jordan in his place (vicariously through the absolutely stunned Isaac) and proved that he really had earned his own stripes long ago.

Bananas Isaac 5

Not only did Johnny beat a younger, more naturally gifted (physically) player… he fucking obliterated him. Johnny looked like a physical powerhouse. I don’t know if it was Isaac being a perennial underachiever or not, but I for one am not ready to give up on Isaac as a strong physical competitor. This in turn means that I need to be incredibly impressed with how Johnny absolutely dismantled such a strong foe. It was just beautiful to see one of the Old Guard hang on in such impressive fashion.

Utter domination... Johnny repeatedly hurled Isaac (like 50 points heavier than him) 7 or 8 feet

Utter domination… Johnny repeatedly hurled Isaac (like 50 pounds heavier than him) 7 or 8 feet

Even amongst the Old Guard I’ve always seen Johnny Bananas as… well… second Banana. Never as physically imposing as CT. His politics was always second best behind Evan and Kenny. He could never be as carefree, yet dominant as Mark and Landon. However, in a weird way it feels like this was Johnny’s coming out party. 9 Challenges into his career (this season is his 10th)… 4 wins in… and this is where I finally feel like Johnny Bananas is the real deal. Johnny Bananas is back. Johnny Bananas is born. Johnny Bananas is finally a real living legend. He finally has a signature moment to go with all his pedigree and all his success. Now he is a legend, not just in numbers, but in fact. This, for me, is the episode where Johnny quelled any doubts about his worthiness to enter The Challenge Valhalla.

Johnny looked like a literal demon out there, and I loved it.

Johnny looked like a literal demon out there, and I loved it.

Flames burning behind him like the Phoenix reborn… Well done Johnny. Now go murder Jordan like you promised us you would.