When a Media FAM Goes Spectacularly Wrong

The history of media seeking to leverage their publishing capabilities to secure various fringe benefits is long indeed. Traditionally, as befits transactions undertaken by relative paupers, these perks rarely rise above the level of heavy hors d’oeuvres. I worked at a daily newspaper back in the early ‘90s where the nightly assignment schedule invariably included this reception or that event — places often devoid of news value but where free food could be had. Open bar? Well, the entire editorial staff might show up for something like that.

Lookit, reporters and editors don’t traditionally make a lot of money; they’re frequently quite young. This is to say, freeloading of this kind shouldn’t be viewed as particularly untoward or shameful. It’s something of a necessity frankly. One of our many mascots in that newsroom was a giant cartoon headshot of a Dick Tracy-like character, complete with ‘40s era fedora. Tucked in his hatband was an index card that might simply have read “PRESS”; instead it read, “I’m with the PRESS. Where’s the FOOD?”

Several links up the food chain in this realm is the media FAM trip — FAM being short for “familiarization”. There’s no way to spin such an event in light of journalistic standards and ethics: These are flat-out junkets whereby some publicity-seeking entity lures reporters and freelancer types on some trip with the understanding that, once they’ve been wined/dined and return home, media will write nice stories about the resort property, the golf course or cuisine to be had there, or maybe the broader “destination” itself. In the golf and travel realm, where I’ve toiled for more than two decades now, FAM trips are the ultimate perk because, well, let’s not be coy: In addition to all sorts of free food & drink, participating media also get complementary air fare, lodging and assorted swag.

The quid pro quo nature of the FAM exercise is little discussed but well understood. One doesn’t visit a golf course or hotel, on a FAM, only to savage the place in print. That would be untoward. As our moms all told us, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all (or concentrate on something else that doesn’t suck).

Here’s another FAM trip bylaw: Answer the bell. No matter how much free boozing and carousing was had the night before, media guests have an obligation to show up, on time, first thing the next morning (according to the itinerary) without fail.

There’s one more, less formal understanding re. media FAMs to establish: Something is sure to go wrong. I’ve been on dozens of these junkets as a working journalist. I’ve organized dozens more on behalf of various clients. When one is devising a week-long itinerary in a foreign country — for one’s self — something is sure to be overlooked. When organizing for a dozen people, most of whom will be drunk 35 percent of the week? The odds only increase. The mere presence of a dozen journalistic chancers eating, drinking and indulging on someone else’s dime makes the possibility of mishap a mortal lock.

Someone, someday, will write a comprehensive book about all the great FAM trips gone awry: who got thrown in jail, what foreign dignitary got naked, and why shellfish is always a risky choice. In the meantime, writers will merely trade these yarns back and forth like war stories. In that tradition I offer up the itinerary from a single morning gone wrong, in Jakarta, back in 2012. This was a trip I helped to organize and host. I promised the client I wouldn’t breathe a word until a reasonable period of discretion had passed. Still, I have changed the names to protect, not the innocent necessarily, but rather those professional reputations still in play.

•••

In most respects, this particular FAM was a roaring success. It produced dozens of glowing, published pieces re. the awesome golf product on offer in and around Indonesia’s sprawling capital. To produce this content I had wrangled a genial and cosmopolitan group of 12 media and tour operators hailing from the UK, China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and the U.S. From the Fond Memory Dept., I could just as easily cite the epic karaoke session, the compelling version of “Take It To The Limit” I performed with the band at our closing soiree, the five superb rounds of golf we played, or the incredible dinner we organized for 20 at the Four Seasons. But none of those vignettes would include the burning of tires or police in combat gear.

See below a timeline of events, the morning after said banquet. I can vouch for its accuracy because, like James Comey, I was moved to take contemporaneous notes, on my phone — such was the utterly random nature of the proceedings.

5:00 — Wake up call. I pop up (because that’s what you do on 3 hours sleep), dress and hump it downstairs to be sure the breakfast boxes are ready. We have 7 a.m. tee times at a club some 75 minutes away. The traffic here is so unpredictable we are obliged to leave at 105 minutes ahead, just to be safe. We had arranged for breakfast boxes because, at this hour, the kitchen isn’t yet open.

5:15 — All 12 media accounted for. Each had answered the bell — a miracle considering the previous night’s revelry. Off we go.

5:20 — Simon, a Scot based in Thailand, takes me aside and indicates his stomach is not happy, probably due to a shellfish entrée still being pickled (in his gut) by an unlikely mix of liquors. Simon further confides that the condition of Robert, an Australian tour operator, is perhaps more dire. Upon examination, he is indeed a pale shade of green — but asleep. Our coach, while luxurious, does not have a bathroom. Simon is politely advised to suck it up. Robert is not disturbed.

6:00 — Bus comes to a stop in traffic. At first, all but Simon treat this development with indifference. Traffic often coalesces and dissipates seemingly at random across sprawling Asian metropoleis such as Jakarta, Bangkok or Manila.

6:10 — After 10 motionless minutes, folks on the bus begin to rouse themselves from their various states of sleep. Beleaguered faces look about the surrounding landscape and wonder what the problem is. Someone sees smoke coming from the opposite side of the highway. Soon all traffic across the median clears out, revealing a dozen guys (kerchiefs covering their faces) in the roadway, waving signs, blocking traffic and burning tires. We are accompanied by several Indonesians this morning, including Mark, son of the oligarch whose multi-national has hired me to help promote golf in Indonesia. Mark reads the signs and reports that it’s a protest — something about increases in bus fares and a highway interchange slated for removal. The locals aren’t having this, apparently. We clearly aren’t going anywhere either, so I lay back down across two seats — but not before instructing Jason (a Canadian based in Japan) to assure the demonstrators of my solidarity with their cause.

6:17 — The protest has now spilled over the divider onto our side of the highway. Our bus hasn’t yet been surrounded by the protest itself, but we are more or less directly across the median from the action.

6:27 — The police arrive, and after some milling about, they rush the protesters, who throw a few things — prompting the police to pull back.

6:35 — A few intrepid members of our party disembark to get a better look. Smoke is everywhere now. Many of our fellow commuters are out of their cars, taking in the spectacle. We can hear the sound of more sirens in the distance.

6:40 — Cigarettes are smoked.

6:43 — Simon, having gathered napkins from various corners of the coach, spies a lone tree on the embankment bordering our side of the highway. Chin up, he walks determinedly toward it and proceeds to engage in the shame that knows no borders: shitting by the side of the road.

7:00 — Here is where Felicity, my de facto client and titular leader of this junket, makes a call. As things are still burning, the bus isn’t going anywhere, and police are gathering for another rush, she decides to abandon our bus. I’m like, “Really? Do we even know where we are?” Not really, she answers. But neither does she want to be here when more numerous police start truly “engaging” with protesters. She reasons we can find a café and call another bus.

7:02 — Felicity announces this plan and bravely (with good humor) leads the group up the steep embankment to the surface road above (mind you, all of our stuff, remains on the bus). On the way up, I notice she is still wearing a pair of Four Seasons slippers…

7:05 — Simon is all of a sudden the life of the party, a great weight having been lifted (however publicly). Robert does not look so good.

[Simon weighs in post facto: “I loved that trip. Highlights for me (apart from that fine morning) include the incredible Patek Phillipe copy I picked up in the market we stopped at. It lasted me a full four years before getting nicked off my wrist by a Moroccan con artist in Barcelona. Little did he know that it cost all of 10 dollars.”]

7:10 — While Felicity and Mark are busy on their phones (calling the club with regrets, arranging for another bus, making alternate golfing plans), it’s clear that no one knows exactly where we are in Greater Jakarta. This is pre-GPS Indonesia, after all. Our group of 15 starts walking to the right but this reveals nothing but a residential area. We turn around and walk the other way, back past the plume of smoke emanating from the highway where massive amounts of police have now shown up. The traffic backed up in each direction stretches as far as the eye can see.

7:20 — We come to a gate where Felicity and Mark have an encouraging conversation with an older gentleman named Harry, kitted out in a traditional Indonesia kandura (full length, lightweight tunic) over which he wears a Blackburn Rovers jersey. We trade Alan Shearer stories. He beckons us through the gate and down the hill. Turns out Harry is an Indonesian Air Force veteran; this community is where he and many of his colleagues have retired. He invites all of us to hang out at the Sports Club a short way down the road. There is coffee and fruit in the small clubhouse — and a bathroom, where Robert is immediately and copiously sick.

7:25 — Upon further inspection, we discover there are tennis courts and a pool outside. “Doubles anyone?” Felicity suggests. John, a Hong Kong-based writer and photographer, whips out his Nikon and starts taking portraits of his wife, Patty — on the diving board, dipping her toes in the fountain. A deck of cards is found and Mark has convinced the Muslim clubhouse manager (who’s just arrived) to unlock the beer cooler. We should all be asleep, but those 10 minutes there on the highway — where we all sorta feared for our personal safety — have magically given way to the surreal magic of golf media on FAM holiday.

8:56 — Our bus shows up! Apparently things on the highway got sorta ugly after we decamped, but once the protesters were forcibly removed (no injuries, according to the state-run news report that night), the bus got off the highway and found us. Our original tee times long past, we make arrangements to visit another club that isn’t so far away and can accommodate our 4 foursomes.

9:30 — Again mired in huge traffic (on a smaller, 2-lane road), Roger demands to be allowed off the bus to piss. Roger is from Beijing; he has very little English and no Indonesian. Still, he makes himself very clear — as only Chinese media can. The bus driver does not want to let him off but, stuck in traffic and annoyed with Roger, finally relents.

9:31 — Traffic instantly dissipates and, after much honking from those to his rear, the bus driver leaves Roger behind. Felicity is apoplectic, naturally. We can see Roger running after the bus; soon he stops and shrinks as we drive further and further away. Mark, half in the bag after three beers on an empty stomach back at the Sports Club, bounds down the aisle and says something quite pointed to the bus driver. The bus slows down, the door opens and out goes Mark. Not sure why our driver didn’t just pull over and wait for them. By now we are just along for the ride, wide-eyed but passive, like those chumps who toured Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

9:39 — Mark and Roger pull up beside the bus on a pair of mopeds, hailed for 10,000 rupiah apiece, we’d later learn. Traffic slows the bus to a stop. Great cheers go up when they re-board.

10:10 — Simon pulls me aside and reveals that all his money is gone. It’s likely that he spent it, or lost it, or had it nicked the night before when we stumbled en masse into a nightclub populated by dozens of extremely beautiful Indonesian women. Most were pros (one can tell because normal 25-year-old women don’t generally fix their eyes so determinedly on 45-year-old white guys) but Simon didn’t care. He had pursued one with great vigor the night before. Thank god he still had his passport.

10:30 — We arrive at the alternate club and 15 minutes later I’m walking down the 1st fairway with Mark, Robert and Lin, a young Chinese golf writer from Shanghai. Mark is drinking another beer, his fourth of the morning. Lin, who can’t weigh 140 pounds soaking wet, is convinced to join him.

10:35 — Robert pukes again in the tall native grass flanking the 1st green.

11:01 — Mark and Lin down their third beer of the round. Cold Bintang goes down very easily in this climate.

11:25 — Mark cracks another one (his sixth?) but Lin finally demurs, having fallen over (giggling) while attempting a tricky stance in a bunker beside no. 5 green.

As the timeline documents, all this went down before noon. From that point things fell back into the normal media FAM routine: golf, lunch, drinks, rinse, dinner, more drinks, sleep, repeat.

•••

On trips like these, the North American body is continually adjusting to the 11-hour time difference. While something resembling normality takes hold after a day or two or three, the days tend to start very early and before the sun comes up over Jakarta’s eastern horizon, there are voices. A single call to prayer begins faintly, barely audible over the trickle of traffic outside the hotel. Before that trickle slowly but surely becomes an flowing river of white noise, another voice chimes in to form a lilting chorus in the distance.

On this particular trip, my first early morning in the world’s most populous Muslim nation wasn’t just any morning. The 7th day of Ramadan had nearly dawned and the non-Muslim traveler cannot help but step back in reflection at the fascinating brand of Islam that has been fashioned here in a country that, unlike some, has no interest in closing itself off from the world.

Golf holiday-making and the practice of Islam (80 percent of Indonesians consider themselves followers) may seem incongruous to citizens of non-practicing nations, be they Asian, European or North American. But the impact is minimal. Indeed, like the prayer room that accouters every clubhouse, one needs help finding it, even during the holiest month on the Muslim calendar.

In most every clubhouse during this particular visit, one cannot help but notice the usual staff of young, attractive women in short skirts and form-fitting golf shirts. Yet those skirts are apparently a bit longer during Ramadan. Caddies here, as they are everywhere in Asia, are clad in full trousers and long-sleeved shirts — not out of modesty but in the interest of maintaining the lightest possible skin tone, a sign of female beauty and class status across the region. When offering to buy one’s caddie a soda or sports-energy drink, as is customary, she prefers water to maintain the day’s fasting — or she accepts the PowerAde and tucks it away to consume after sundown.

Some drinking establishments in Jakarta close right down during Ramadan, but this is rare. More common is the practice, at many hotels, where the bar does not open until sundown on specified days. But, again, just during the week — not on a Friday or Saturday night when there is serious money to extracted from holidaymakers or expatriate residents.

Standing in the gloaming dawn outside my hotel, wide awake (against my will) on that first Jakarta morning, I meet a fellow American from the Deep South, Mississippi to be exact. He’s in town for a single night before heading back out onto an oil rig where he will spend the next 28 days mining a portion of Indonesia’s extraordinary natural resources from deep below the Java Sea bed. He’s not a Muslim either but he is a veteran traveler to Indonesia. He nods in agreement when we chat about the balance of church, state, commerce and tourism, which may seem complicated to outsiders but proceeds here as a matter of course. The calls to prayer no longer seem so foreign to my new friend; apparently they can be heard each and every morning, out on the rig.

SI Memories, Developmental & Professional, Come Thick & Fast

The late-2017 sale of Sports Illustrated, TIME Magazine and other titles to Meredith Publishing, a deal made possible by an infusion of $650 million from Koch Industries’ private-equity arm, has elicited both howls of indignation (from those who fear the further right-wing weaponization of information) and an ongoing hail of gauzy nostalgia — from those who grew up loving SI and fear the sale will only further its fall from a decades-long perch atop the sports media food chain.

Here I will indulge in the latter, because I’d been meaning to post the above story in some way, shape or form ever since my friend Jammin’ ran across it last September. SI was not merely a staple of my young reading life (along with The Boston Globe’s superb sports section) — it was where I started my freelance-writing career. Indeed, this was my very first freelance piece, full stop. It warms the cockles of my heart to see it lovingly preserved online in flipbook fashion deep in something called the SI Vault.

[I had some trouble linking this page in the embedded sense. Copy and paste this, should you have the same trouble: https://www.si.com/vault/1997/10/27/233677/small-wonder-the-dunes-club-our-pick-as-the-best-nine-hole-course-in-the-country-is-twice-the-challenge-of-most-18-hole-layouts#]

By 1997, when this piece was published (Oct. 27 issue), I had spent some 10 years as a working journalist, first for a collection of weekly and daily newspapers in Massachusetts, then as editor of Golf Course News, a national business journal published here in Maine (indeed, taking that job brought me to Maine). Nineteen ninety-seven was also year I left GCN to start Mandarin Media, Inc., with the dual intention freelancing in earnest. The ensuing years would see my work appear in pretty much every major North American golf and travel magazine (several of which still exist!). That effort started here, with this Sports Illustrated feature.

I had pitched the magazine a piece ranking the best 9-hole golf courses in America, but, as often happens in the freelance milieu, the story ended up being something quite different: a feature on Mike Keiser and his 9-hole masterpiece, The Dunes Club, with a sidebar detailing the country’s other top 9s. The story itself frankly could have been better. I ended up submitting a finished draft, only to have the editor suggest a major rewrite. This I did, and then the bastard ended up running something that more closely original version. Some old stories you read with great pride — this, alas, is not one of those. It feels cautious and dry.

[The sidebar produced a funny moment: When we agreed on this feature and brief ranking alongside, I launched into some lengthy disquisition on how we’d research and tabulate a proper Top 9 Nines. The editor interrupted me at some point and simply said, “This is SI. We’ll just tell people what we think the Top 9 is.” Such was the power (some would say hubris) of the magazine in those days.]

Despite my failure to reprint this on the 20th anniversary of its publication, the experience was not without its serendipities. For a Boston-bred lad, it was fabulous to be included in any issue with Larry Bird on the cover. What’s more, while I wouldn’t say I discovered Mike Keiser, one would be hard pressed to find earlier coverage of the man, who eventually revolutionized the golf resort business. When I first met him in the spring of 1997, the private, 9-hole Dunes Club was Keiser’s only connection to golf development. Today, having created five award-winning, top-ranked courses in Oregon at Bandon Dunes, he’s had a major hand in developing additional, no-less-heralded, multi-course projects in Nova Scotia (Cabot Links, Cabot Cliffs) and Wisconsin (the new Sand Valley), with another now planned for Scotland. All are links courses fashioned from sandy sites hundreds of miles from the beaten path. Keiser didn’t just build awesome tracks; he proved that American golfers would pay top dollar — and travel to the middle of freakin’ nowhere — to play this type of golf.

I remember sitting in the modest clubhouse at The Dunes Club with Keiser in the summer of 1997, eating hot dogs and conducting our interview when, at some point, he mentioned that he’d just purchased 2,000 acres of coastal property in Oregon, 2 hours west of Eugene and 4-5 south of Portland, where he planned to develop not just one course but a whole complex of them. I thought to myself at the time, “I like this guy but he’s clearly delusional.”

It would not be the last time I mistook vision for delusion.

The Profound Limitations of Parental Agency

Long before I had kids, I recall my parents making the case that all of their children had pretty much formed their basic, enduring personalities by the age of two. They said as much more than once, invariably in the act of throwing up their hands in exasperated resignation, for much as they tried to shape their children’s characters further or cajole them into this/that behavior (and trust me: they did this a great deal), fundamental personalities almost always prevailed. On account of this experience, by the time their third kid (my younger brother) had reached high school, my parents had become markedly laissez-faire in dozens of ways that frankly annoyed my older sister and myself. “We never got away with that,” we’d grouse to each other.

Well, as has been the case in myriad respects, my parents were right. My oldest graduates from college this month and while I naturally believe him to be a lovely, capable kid in most every way (ditto for his younger sister), these young adults are each remarkably similar — in terms of sociability, focus, ambition, daring and temperament — to the two-year-old kids they were. Yeah, they’ve grown or excelled or lagged or flagged in these and various other respects. And I don’t believe anyone can or should stop parenting (I don’t think that’s possible). But there seems to me a remarkable, observable consistency of character that is more or less resistant to “parenting”.

I’m always amused when I come across yet another parenting book reviewed in The New Yorker or New York Times. I muse at the publishing industry’s having identified and exploited this incredibly willing (read: anxious) audience. Then I laugh outright, at myself, because I nearly always read them, too (the reviews anyway).

The irony is, as parents, we have an agency that simply isn’t so strong as we want to believe. Even if we accept our limited impact, on some level, this desire for agency tends to seep into other areas we believe we can control: etiquette, dress and manners; identification and pursuit of extra-curricular “passions”; geography (i.e., buying houses in towns with “good” school systems); self-esteem (i.e. “premier” soccer and other invariably commercial gambits); the entire SAT prep and college admission culture… There’s no harm in trying all this stuff, in doing one’s best. But it’s really a hit or miss affair, I’ve come to believe. Ultimately, 9 times out of 10, it’s down to the kid and his/her fundamental self.

This is not parental fatalism. It is an attempt to recognize (with serenity) the agency one has; to accept (without prejudice) those situations that are beyond one’s control; and (in a perfect world) to capably distinguish one from the other. I held onto this quote from Adam Gopnik’s January 2018 review of yet another parenting book, in the NYer:

As satirists have pointed out for millennia, civilized behavior is artificial and ridiculous: It means pretending to be glad to see people you aren’t glad to see, praising parties you wished you hadn’t gone to, thanking friends for presents you wish you hadn’t received. Training kids to feign passion is the art of parenting. The passions they really have belong only to them.

Surely environment matters. Even then, however, it’s not the environment parents provide that seems to matter most — or so writes Judith Rich Harris in the best book I ever did read on this subject, The Nurture Assumption (see here the book review that led to my buying/reading the book). In short, Harris argues that we assume our kids turn out the way they do according to a pretty even split between nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (environment). “The use of ‘nurture’ as a synonym for ‘environment’,” Harris explains, “is based on the assumption that what influences children’s development, apart from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up.”

If this were true, siblings — who are as genetically similar as any humans can be (save identical twins); who are traditionally raised in the same household by the same parents — would all have very similar personalities. Anyone raised in a family of two or more children understands just how ridiculous that idea is.

Ever wondered why the children of recent immigrants don’t speak with accents, even though their heavily accented parents do? Or why the children of deaf/mute parents learn to speak at all? Put simply, Harris argues that a child’s peer group accounts for far more environmental influence in the long run — influence that, since Freud, had traditionally and unduly been attributed to parents. If we’re honest with ourselves, as parents, we’d admit that our children generally do put a lot more stock in the opinions, social mores and examples of their peers. To an extent, parents can help determine or control a child’s peer groups but that is the environment that matters (and the variability of peer groups helps explain why siblings turn out so very differently).

Of course, children do pick up quite a lot from their parents — most of it genetic. This is the other nurture assumption: that we pick up traits and habits and behaviors by copying our parents. Harris argues, persuasively, that we humans don’t do this nearly so often as is commonly accepted; most of those things we attribute to parental modeling are in fact inherited from parents genetically, not environmentally.

I’m on board with this idea of behavioral genetics, too. Growing up, there were dozens of things that my mom and dad did that drove me absolutely crazy — and yet today, at 53, I find myself doing many of these same things. I didn’t “model” my behavior on them in these cases. Far from it. Still, I couldn’t resist these behaviors because they are genetically baked right in.

Which brings me back to my brother, and how my sister and I felt he got a sweet deal — coming third and last, by which time, my parents had given in to the power of personality (and behavioral genetics, though they wouldn’t have put it that way). Invariably, she and I would inveigh against this new libertine parental stance of theirs, or make some wise-ass comment in place of outright carping. At which point my mother or father would issue another pearl of wisdom, one we’d heard before, one that has nothing to do with nature or nurture but still rings true: We’ve never tried to treat everyone exactly the same around here. Everyone gets what they need.

With Marcus Back, the Smaht Money’s on Boston

When Patrice Bergeron returned from injury during the Maple Leafs series, he made the Bruins better. But I wouldn’t say he was the difference. Too many hockey players participate in playoff games (20-22) to connect the dots through any non-goaltender (unless that man’s name is Gretzky or Crosby). Basketball is different. The playoffs typically shorten any team’s bench to 7-9 guys. I don’t see the Celtics losing this series to the Bucks if Marcus Smart is able to play.

Smart tore a tendon in his thumb six weeks ago. Kyrie Irving went in for the first of two knee surgeries three weeks later. Irving is clearly the best player on this team. Without him, the Celtics aren’t good enough to make The Finals this season, much less win them.

But Smart’s return should win the Celtics this series and perhaps the next. He’s that good, that influential, and it’s sort of amazing how far under the radar he manages to fly.

When the playoffs started, national media and the talking heads on ESPN and TNT made a big deal about how Boston would contest these playoffs without two starters, Irving and Gordon Hayward. But the latter has been gone so long (having gruesomely wrecked his ankle in the season opener), it honestly doesn’t feel anymore like we’re playing without him. In theory, Hayward is a stud, exactly the sort of wing shooter the Celtics need. But he was a brand new free agent signing back in October. He might have taken Boston to the next level but we really don’t know for sure. [One thing is for sure: If he had played this season, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would not have progressed as far as they have. The minutes and end-of-game possessions would not have been there for them.]

But too many folks missed the fact that Boston opened these playoffs without three starters, because Smart is one of the five best guys on this team and the best all-court defender in the NBA. He might not have started every game, but he finished every game (that mattered). Without Irving and Hayward, Boston will always struggle to score down the stretch. But with Smart guarding the other team’s best player (a role he routinely occupies), with Smart representing a massive upgrade over plucky-but-limited Shane Larkin in the guard rotation, the Celtics are a different team.

There is no one in basketball quite like Marcus Smart, and I’m not sure why the rest of the league fails to appreciate this fact. He is the best defender on the league’s top defensive team but garners no laurels. He wasn’t even named to the All-NBA Defensive Team last season, when he was healthy. See here that list of 10 honorees from 2016-17:

1st Team

Chris Paul

Patrick Beverly

Kawhi Leonard

Draymond Green

Rudy Gobert

2nd Team

Tony Allen

Danny Green

Anthony Davis

Andre Roberson

Giannis Antetokounmpo

This is a pretty fair representation of top NBA defenders for 2017-18, as well, but Chris Paul and Tony Allen are shadows of the defenders they were 5 years ago. Beverly and Kawhi have been hurt all this season. Roberson has been out since January and is a complete offensive liability. Danny Green? He blocks it well for a 3, but otherwise I don’t know what he’s doing on this list. Draymond, Gobert, Anthony Davis and the Freak are superb defenders — as big men. They are a particular type of defensive asset; they are not all-court defenders.

Once we remove the big men, I would take Marcus Smart over any of the remaining six guys. Of those who are injured, only Kawhi compares. At 6’4” Smart can check your point guard, your shooting guard, your small forward and most of the league’s 4s. He routinely guards LeBron James and drives him crazy. He is perhaps the only guy in the league to get inside James Harden’s head.

There is no one quite like Marcus Smart playing in today’s NBA. I’ve been singing his praises for several hundred words now, but I haven’t even detailed his best qualities: He’s wicked smaht. In fact, he’s flat-out smarter and more competitive than anyone in the game, with the possible exception of LeBron — who is so good, he allows his competitive nature to flag on occasion. Marcus never does.

He is not without fault. Marcus is not a good shooter — a reality underlined by the fact that he refuses to acknowledge it. Though he shot just 37 percent from the floor this year (30 percent from 3), Smart never hesitates; he shoots with the confidence of Bradley Beal — which makes me love the guy even more.

Like I said, the Celts aren’t going to The Finals this year. Ultimately, while injuries have catalyzed the development of Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier (which bodes well for next June), Boston doesn’t have the horses to play for a title this June. But with Smart back and Brad Stevens pulling the strings, they’ll beat the Bucks — probably tonight.

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye

I’ve never subscribed to HBO. There may have been a month here and there when it was provided to us here in New Gloucester, by mistake, or as part of some promotion, but when the cable monolith inevitably attempted to charge us, we balked. The movie-watching we missed as a result of this cultural diminishment we didn’t see as relevant.

However, many is the time I wish I had actually seen all those episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show.

Last year, from some Bangkok street vendor, I procured up first four seasons of Curb, for a ridiculously small sum. It was good. I had seen the odd show here and there. But ultimately I had trouble watching them en masse, to be frank. After 5-6 episodes, not even a full season, I found myself worn out but the sameness of each plot: No, Larry. No, don’t do that. Oh geez…

IFC started rebroadcasting The Larry Sanders Show in January and with a deft flick of my DVR settings, I have proceeded to record each episode, in order, from the very beginning of the show’s run in 1992. It’s hard to keep up. My family rolls its eyes when they glimpse the list of recorded shows and spy this sea of Larry.

I’ll temper my enthusiasm by saying the first two seasons of Larry Sanders were only slightly better than average — and something of a letdown when contrasted with the glowing tributes this series routinely garners from TV cognoscenti. These episodes didn’t suffer from a sameness, a la Curb, but I did find myself wondering why it is I am supposed to care about any of the main characters who are unfailingly funny but shitty.

Well, I can report that in Season 4 the show officially hits its stride. It’s not just easy for me to sit down and watch 2-3 episodes in a sitting; I make time for it. Indeed, I recently watched the fictitious talk show’s 8th anniversary special, and it struck me that a number of things have come together, revealing the show’s genius and explaining all the accolades I’d read and listened to over the years.

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Forward, March! Dirt Driveway is Lone Beneficiary of Late Spring

As a Masshole, I have not earned (and will never earn) the right to publicly complain about winter weather here in Vacationland, lest I be called out by some actual Mainer as “a flatlander” who doesn’t “know what winter is”. Truth be told (and chastisers be damned), very little distinguishes southern Maine winters from those in Greater Boston. March is the exception. It is traditionally the most difficult month for my flatlander/Michigander wife and me. Down in Boston (and out in Kalamazoo), there might be a late-winter storm or two but signs of spring abound in March: the inevitable melt, up-creeping temperatures, budding trees… Here in New Gloucester, we don’t see those things until April, and with each passing year that proves a harder pill to swallow.

There is one advantage to this annual winter extension, however: The generous slather of ice and snow keeps our 600-yard dirt driveway smooth and comely. Indeed, it never drives so well as during the months of January, February and March. It’s supposed to snow another foot tonight (March 12), meaning we can expect to enjoy burnished, aesthetically pleasing driveway conditions throughout the month. When we thank heaven around here, this is what passes for a small favor.

Reared in the suburbs, I knew nothing of dirt driveways and their upkeep prior to our landing here in the spring of 1998. Like any new homeowner, I learned these ropes on the job.

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Awfully Fond (and Proud): Sesame Street’s Founding Generation

I have a distinct memory (among my very earliest) of my mother describing a new TV show that was about to air on PBS. “It’s for kids exactly your age,” she told me, and so it was. Sesame Street debuted in late 1969, when I was 5. In a home where screen time was highly restricted (our Sony Trinitron representing the only screen), Grover, Ernie, Bert, Maria, Mr. Hooper, Kermit, Gordon, Guy Smiley & Co. proved a staple of my early cultural sentience. It occurred to me recently that without the enthusiastic approval of kids my age — this founding Sesame Street cohort — the show might not have survived or become such a thing. And what a thing: 48 years and counting.

While channel surfing through the upper, premium reaches of my cable guide, I never seem to happen upon Sesame Street. Yes, today the show airs on HBO. You may have read about this arrangement whereby first-run episodes can be found there on Saturday mornings; eventually, they cycle back onto PBS in a post-modern form of syndication. I never see it there either, to be honest (my viewing habits are too nocturnal). It made this transition 2 years ago and I gather the show continues to wear extremely well.

Buoyed by the idea that this hugely influential, 50-year old show retains “the brassy splendor of The Bugs Bunny Show and the institutional dignity of a secular Sabbath school,” I’ve been conducting an experiment these last few weeks: I’ve been mentioning Sesame Street to folks generally my age and paying attention to their mood in reaction. If it generally brightens, I know they are fellow members of this my cohort… If I make a Cookie Monster or Roosevelt Franklin reference to someone just 4 years older, however, the reactions differ quite markedly. Often they don’t get it, or they will roll their eyes and make it clear they didn’t really watch Sesame Street. This makes sense: When the show debuted, these elder folks had already aged out.

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Palestra Tales, 40 Years in the Making

 

PHILADELPHIA — When we learned my daughter Clara would matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania, naturally her dad was thrilled: Here was my chance to make a proper pilgrimage to The Palestra, the most storied college basketball venue of the 20th Century.

As I’ve written here before, while my hoops allegiance today favors the overtly professional NBA, there was a two-decade period starting in the mid-1970s (just as John Wooden’s run at UCLA came to end) when I was a far more fervent college basketball junkie. The Palestra was central to that emerging fandom, which just happened to coincide with the sport’s surge into the national sporting consciousness.

College basketball and the NCAA Tournament are so popular today, so ubiquitous on television, it’s easy to forget their dual ascension is relatively recent. For all intents and purposes, UCLA and its 10 NCAA titles from 1962-75 effectively stunted the sport’s broader popularity (when certain teams/programs utterly dominate an underexposed sport, big cultural awareness only comes when some ridiculous win streak is snapped; think UConn, whose dominance has stunted women’ college basketball in the same way). Men’s college basketball should have taken off in the 1960s, but it didn’t because the only time anyone paid attention was when UCLA got beaten: first by Houston (1968’s famous Astrodome game), then by Notre Dame in 1973. These losses proved to be mere blips; the Bruins eventually won national titles both years. But someone finally did beat them when it counted (NC State, in the 1974 national semifinal). Then Wooden retired with one last title, in 1975. Suddenly the field was open and seeded. Take it from someone who was there: The idea that some team other than UCLA could win it all each year was novel and beguiling (!) — only then did the sport truly take off.

The Palestra (bottom right) sits directly beside historic Franklin Field, home of the Penn Relays and where Santa got booed in 1968. It also hosted the Philadelphia Eagles’ last NFL championship (1960). We visited Feb. 3, 2018, one day before the Eagles did it again.

Growing up in New England at this time,  our interest had already been piqued by a Providence College team led by Ernie D, Kevin Stacom and Marvin Barnes. The Friars went all the way to the Final Four in 1973 — that year WJAR Channel 10 out of Providence started televising a bunch of PC games. The following year, rival WPRI Channel 12 took the talented University of Rhode Island teams (led by Sly Williams) under its broadcasting wing. Even obscure UHF stations like Channel 27 out of Worcester aired weekly games (each of them called by Bob Fouracre and his magnificent toupée) featuring Holy Cross mainly but also Boston College — even tiny Assumption College, led by the immortal Billy Worm (look him up; he was a stud).

Soon the national networks and their affiliates in Boston got wise and started televising big regional games every Saturday afternoon. Here is where I got to know The Palestra. Hoop-rich Philadelphia was home to The Big 5, a city series featuring local rivals Villanova, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple and LaSalle. Every Big 5 game was played at The Palestra and these were the games I watched with manic intensity each weekend. These were the memories dislodged to glorious effect earlier this month, when Clara, Sharon and Philly-born, erstwhile golf freak Mike Sweeney watched the Quakers beat Yale, 58-50.

When the 10,000-seat Palestra opened in 1927, it was among the largest indoor sporting venues on Earth (the name is derived from the ancient Greek term palæstra, a rectangular space attached to a training facility, or gymnasium, where athletes would compete in public, before an audience). Today it’s a bandbox but still all I could have hoped for: seating stacked steeply with front rows right on the baselines/endlines; vaulted ceilings filled with banners; exposed brick everywhere — pretty much exactly as I remember it from the mid to late ‘70s.

But there was more to our Feb. 3 visit. Quite a bit more.

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Like carrying ‘a Rolls Royce with buckskin seats,’ only lighter…

Late January in the golf realm is traditionally dominated by the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. Even if one doesn’t attend (as I did not), industry types and golfers alike are invariably bombarded this time of year by attendent product news, hailing the latest and greatest from all corners of golfdom. I received this morning a press release re. the vaunted Mackenzie Walker. I no longer “carry”, as they say; the ol’ L4/L5 and S1/S2 discs won’t allow it. But I did report on this specific subject once upon a time, for the dearly departed Golf Connoisseur. Glad to see the company (if not the magazine) is still in business.

Considering all our outward reverie for tradition and history, today’s golfers would appear to have very few practical retro options. Yes, we can walk, take a caddie, wear a Hogan cap or perhaps re-attach to our shoes those god-awful kilties. But we don’t see modern players making any truly meaningful throwback gestures, such as forsaking his Pro V1 for a Haskell — or even an Acushnet Club Special. We don’t see them trading micro-fiber for tweed. Yes, Old Tom Morris reportedly made one helluva niblick but the market for one, today, is limited to collectors and hickory-wielding re-enactors.

This is precisely the beauty of the Mackenzie Walker, the all-leather carry bag that was first introduced in the 1980s, fell into obscurity amid a hail of ownership failures but has re-emerged under the aegis of Oregon-based professional Todd Rohrer. It’s a niche market, to be sure, but the sumptuous, hand-sewn Mackenzie bag (which, when slung across your shoulder, feels like a comfortably worn club chair, only not nearly so cumbersome) is beginning to gain traction at some of America’s finest clubs — perhaps as a statement of principal in an ever more titanium-reinforced world.

“Technology makes the game a little more enjoyable, but so does this,” Rohrer says, while gently stroking two new shipments of buttery leather, one in black, the other champagne. “The first bag I make out of this stuff is going to look like a Rolls Royce with buckskin seats.”

The first Mackenzie bag Rohrer ever saw was black. He was managing The Reserve Vineyards & Golf Club in Portland, Oregon; it was the late 1990s, during the Fred Meyer Challenge, “and Peter Jacobsen came walking across the practice green with the coolest black leather Sunday bag I’d ever seen. I was like, ‘Whoa…’ These bags evoke strong emotions. They just make people feel good.”

Jacobsen was an early backer of the Mackenzie phenomenon; indeed, he and his brother, Dave, named the product. Not for Alister, the architect, but for Rick MacKenzie, their caddie during a 1985 trip to Scotland (and now the caddie master at St. Andrews). That was one spelling corruption and several ownership groups ago. Rohrer is the new keeper of the flame (www.mackenziegolfbags.com) and he’s determined to “refine” the bag without messing with it.

“For example, the round ring here at the top of the bag. It used to be a piece of steel we got from Mexico, but through my sewing machine mechanic I found an experienced welder who just happens to sculpt in metal. Now the ring is hand-formed stainless steel and the weld on it is just about a work of art — and you’ll never even see it because we sew it into your bag!”

Ditto for the lighter, 50-gram composite fiber batten (replacing a 675-gram metal frame) that provides the Mackenzie Walker just enough structure, while maintaining its requisite Sunday-bag slouch.

Otherwise the Mackenzie bag remains gloriously low-tech, unchanged and unadorned. No double-helixed nylon straps. No insulated water-bottle receptacle. No special compartments for, well, anything really. They’ll hand-sew you some lovely barrel-style head covers but, outwardly, there will never be more to a Mackenzie Walker than a single strap, a couple pockets and impossibly soft leather.

Okay, a bag stand would be nice. Some day. Maybe.

“We’ve had that conversation,” Rohrer admits, a bit warily. “But if we ever do one, it will be the most damnably elegant bag stand you’ve ever seen.”

Long Story: Why Rugby’s Distant Cousin has Replaced Tackling with Hitting

What’s wrong with this picture? Stefon Diggs (14) scored a winning, last-second touchdown on Sunday because Marcus Williams (43) went for the hit, not the traditional tackle…

Having basked in every last detail of Sunday’s miraculous walk-off touchdown by Minnesota Vikings wide-out Stefon Diggs, let’s connect a few dots, for in so doing we link the NFL’s signature moment this season to the league’s most pressing issue.

Look at the picture that accompanies this essay and examine with me what New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams was thinking.

We should first take a moment to pity the man, a rookie whose coaches put him in a god-awful position — “on an island,” as they say, by himself defending half the field when the situation clearly called for the Mother of All Prevent Defenses. Even in this highly vulnerable position, however, all Williams needed to do was play deep center field, keep Mr. Diggs in front of him, eventually wrap him up and wait for help, or bring him down, ideally in the field of play (but even a shove out of bounds would have sufficed).

Instead, Williams did what most professional footballers tend to do in the 21st century: He went for the “spectacle hit”, head first.

Competitively, as we’ve seen, the results were disastrous. (Williams even managed too compound his misfortune, somewhat comically, by whiffing on Diggs entirely, then taking out his teammate — the only guy in a position to chase Diggs down.) But if we step back, we see here yet another consequence of football’s troubling evolution on the defensive side of scrimmage. Despite a litany of league-wide initiatives to curb headfirst tackling — the result of mounting evidence linking repeated, football-related head trauma to brain injury (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) — the NFL’s hit culture remains firmly in place. Even in a situation like Sunday’s, where old fashioned, rugby-style tackling was called for, Williams acted on the instinct that football today engenders.

NFL Football in the here and now is plenty good fun, the most popular and culturally dominant game in 21st century North America. Minnesota’s unlikely victory on Sunday (indeed, three of the four games this past weekend) showcase exactly why this is so. NFL games can be spectacularly entertaining.

But it would be a stretch to consider the game of professional football “perfected”. In reality, any sport played at the elite level exists as a moving target, a work in evolutionary progress, because the salient factors affecting that evolution — rules, tactics, equipment, geography and fashion — also shift and evolve. All this transforms the way a game is played over the course of time, sometimes by design, sometimes organically without much guidance at all.

In 2017, we can add “culture” and “the legal process” to this list of salient change-agents. People took notice when former NFL player Ed Cunningham resigned from his position of ESPN football analyst — on account of the game’s growing concussion dilemma — but, in truth, we’ve become somewhat inured to stories like this because nearly every week brings some new, relevant development, be it evidence that concussions sustained in pee wee football can lead to adult brain trauma, or steps the Canadian Football League has taken to reduce the volume of dangerous hits.

The idea that former Patriots tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez might have committed his crimes while experiencing advanced-stage CTE adds to this potent mix the elements of irony and the macabre. Did you know that a class-action lawsuit, brought on behalf of current and former NCAA student-athletes, remains pending before Judge John Z. Lee of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois? Me neither. Class actions have their own online portals these days, naturally. Visit this one and be prepared for the following greeting: “Welcome to the NCAA Student-Athlete Concussion Injury Litigation Website.”

Bit by bit, the forces of change would appear to be gathering over football, as they have intermittently but more or less continuously for more than a century. No game, it seems to me, has evolved so far, so quickly or so dangerously.

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