Sunday, December 17, 2006

Those fightin' Knicks

There is something about a good brawl that gets the fan loyalty going. Maybe it's the togetherness of a team in combat, the us vs. them ideal, or perhaps the scrappy underdog fighting mentality. No matter the cause, a good brawl and it's proceeding rivalry brings a team and its fans together on a deeper level. No longer are we rooting for the team to win, we are rooting for them to survive and conquer. Victory in the game becomes secondary to victory in battle. Brawls may be bad for a game's image, but nothing beats the intensity of a good physical rivalry highlighted by a few haymakers.

Now I have had my complaints about Isiah Thomas. Honestly, I wouldn't be more pleased if he was no longer associated with the Knicks. However, after this weekend's throwdown between the Knicks and Nuggets, I am much more likely to pull for this team. No, I am not ending the boycott. But I do like the thought of a hardnosed fighting team that might lose every game compared to a well-behaved undefeated team.

Watching the Knicks fight the Nuggets brought back memories of brighter, more violent days when the Knicks took no guff and threw down with little hesitation - consequences be damned. Whether it was a Starks headbutt, an Oakley elbow, or a Van Gundy leg-lock - whatever it took to win. In honor of the Knicks showing some life and togetherness, The Serious Tip presents the best Knicks fights of the last 13 years.

Knicks vs. Suns, April 1993: Twenty-one players were fined and three suspended when former Knicks guard and current Celtics headcoach Doc Rivers went a round with Suns guard Kevin Johnson. And in a clip you might not see on ESPN too often, then-injured Knicks backup guard and current ESPN analyst Greg Anthony left the bench in his street clothes to join the squabble.

Knicks vs. Pacers, May 1993: The Knicks-Pacers rivalry was always like a good opening act before the Eastern Conference's headlining Knicks-Bulls series. One year before Reggie Miller went lights out and drew the ire of Spike Lee and Knicks fans everywhere, he was the recipent of a flying headbutt by John Starks. Give credit where credit is due - it wasn't Mike Tyson or Zidane who made the sports headbutt famous, it was John Starks.

Knicks vs. Bulls, May 1994: Although the Knicks and Bulls engaged in possibly the most intense NBA rivalry of the mid-90s, only once did they come to blows. During the game better known as "The Game Scottie Pippen Sat Out", Derek Harper and Bulls guard JoJo English duked it out at the top of the key. Although only Harper and English were involved, the fight eventually spilled into the stands right in front of Commissioner/Fuhrer David Stern. (Ranked 4th in a pre-Artest melee SportCenter Top Ten here).

Knicks vs. Heat, May 1997: With the Indiana Pacers sliding from playoff significance, the Knicks found a new opening round rival in former coach Pat Riley and the Miami Heat. While none of these games could ever be confused with the recent high-scoring Suns-Nets game, they made for great entertainment in their own plodding, tight defensive ways.

Of all the Knicks-Heat skirmishes, perhaps none was more intense than Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. With the Knicks down by nearly 20 points and the game winding down, Charlie Ward attempted to box out Heat forward P.J. Brown after a free-throw. Angered by what Heat fans refer to as an "undercut", Brown picked up Ward and flipped him to the ground. Conveniently, as the referees stood in front of the Heat bench preventing the Miami team from joining the ruckus, the Knicks players came to the aid of their fallen comrade. Consequently, every Knicks player who left the bench was suspended, costing the Knicks the following game and eventually the series.

Knicks vs. Heat, May 1998: In Round 2 of the Heat-Knicks War, former Charlotte Hornet teammates Larry Johnson and the Alonzo Mourning threw down in Game 4 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Yes, this was the game former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy clung to Mourning's leg like a pitbull. In what a Knicks fan can only call poetic justice, Mourning was forced to sit out the deciding Game 5 and the Knicks defeated the Heat and moved on to face the Indiana Pacers. (Ranked Number One in the SportsCenter Top Ten here.)

Knicks vs. Lakers, April 2000: Although I never had much positive to say about Chris Childs (I thought Charlie Ward was clearly better), I disliked him a little less when he exchanged fisticuffs with Kobe Bryant. First a headbutt (a Knicks tradition), then a right, then a left - word to the wise, never mess with a sober Chris Childs.

Knicks vs. Spurs, January 2001: After a physical game of elbows and jostling for position, Marcus Camby attempted to take his anger out on Spurs forward Danny Ferry. Unfortunately, this is the most embarrassing of the Knicks battles as Camby not only tried to sucker punch Ferry, but as Jeff Van Gundy stepped between the two players, Camby's punch missed and he inadvertently headbutted Van Gundy, cutting open the coach's face and requiring numerous stitches. (Ranked Number 2 in the aforementioned SportsCenter Top Ten here). No wonder Camby wasn't a factor in the recent fracas, he might have knocked out Carmelo Anthony.

Knicks vs. Bulls, January 2006 - In a game that can only be described as eventful, Maurice Taylor and Chicago's Chris Duhon mixed it up and Antonio Davis went into the stands to the defense of his wife. Not at the same time of course.

(Interesting side note: A few years ago I attended an FSU-Duke game back when Chris Duhon was playing for the Blue Devils. Through a connection I was able to get seats three rows from the Duke bench in the Duke family section. Great seats. So my friend Zheke and I are sitting there cheering on the Seminoles and Chris Duhon's mother turns around and yells at us for sitting where we were and not rooting for Duke. We tried to explain that we weren't bad-mouthing the Blue Devils or her son, we were just rooting for Florida State. Apparently this wasn't good enough for Ms. Duhon. Whatever, lady. Needless to say I am a little biased against Chris Duhon. But I digress.)

So that brings us to this weekend and the first NBA brawl since Ron Artest took on Detroit Rock City. Although the pundits, analysts (including the aforementioned Greg Anthony), and prognosticators may all bemoan the return of pugilism to the basketball hardwood, for Knicks fans it's just like old times.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Debunking Ali as the Edison of Rap

"Just like Muhummad Ali they called him Cassius/
Watch me bash this beat like a skull"

- LL Cool J, "Mama Said Knock You Out"

On December 9th, ESPN will premier "Ali Rap", a program that claims Hip-Hop/Rap music was born from the antics and proclamations of Muhammad Ali. But did Ali really influence rap music, or is ESPN merely grasping for straws in an attempt to capitalize on the attraction of one of the greatest boxers and public figures of the last 50 years?

In order to validate ESPN's claim, it is necessary to look at the difference between Ali and African-American celebrities prior to the late 1960s. Earlier African-American boxing champions such as Jack Johnson were undoubtedly victims of an exploiting white entertainment culture. Because of segregation, African-American boxers were seen as performers no different to the average white fan than the circus strong man or the bearded lady. Only when Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling in 1938 did the American people rally behind a black champion. Louis was an American - "one of us." For one fight, the rich and the poor, the educated and the unlearned, and the black and white were all united.

Nine years later, Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Being the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues, Robinson appealed to to African-American communities nationwide. Robinson's strengths however, are the reason he is no longer as culturally relevant as Muhammad Ali, a claim made famous by ESPN columnist Scoop Jackson. Robinson's upbringing, military service, and college education separated him from the average African American. While their civil struggle was the same, Robinson, both because of his diplomatic nature and his initial agreement with Dodgers' owner Branch Rickey to not fight back, did not brazenly approach the social issues the way Ali would 20 years later. Agree or disagree with him, Robinson was not a threat. He was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of sports desegregation.

Although Jackie Robinson did not employ any braggadocio, to claim Muhammad Ali originated the art of "trash-talking" or "talking smack" prevalent in rap music is completely incorrect. Short staccato claims of power had existed in African-American culture long before the 1960s. Gospel, blues, and field hollers all carried the call and response, back and forth style of announcement, where a message was stated without many words being said. Blues singer Muddy Waters, for example, proclaimed he was "The Hoochie Coochie Man" and the world knew he was him, a boastful claim if there ever was. If ESPN narrowed its claim and presented the idea that Ali was the first African-American to employ these techniques in sports it might be more correct.

Where ESPN can claim Muhammad Ali influenced rap is in the role of populist hero. The idea of populist hero in rap/hip-hop culture is discussed in depth by Cutler Edwards in his thesis Kung-Fu Cowboys to Bronx B-Boys: Heroes and the Birth of Hip-Hop Culture. According to Edwards, the idea of hero was one who faced the struggle of his/her environment head-on, took on the establishment, and lived by his own moral code of justice. Edwards writes,

"the hero exhibits all those traits which a society collectively finds most appealing and desirable, and he uses those powers in the ways which it deems most appropriate. Usually this means that the hero performs acts that one feels one would not have the ability to carry out, lacking the physical strength or personal grit (or both) necessary to complete the tasks in question."

Edwards further contends the idea of hero continuing from the cowboy of the old western movies to the kung-fu fighter of more recent cinema to the art of breakdance "battling". By changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, protesting the Vietnam War, and standing up for social justice, Muhammad Ali fit all of Edwards's criteria and became a real-life hero to millions.

So did Muhammad Ali "invent" rap? No. Was he one of the first mainstream athletes to use the braggadocio of African-American celebrities such as Muddy Waters and Satchel Paige? Absolutely. Ali's ability and methods fit perfectly in an age quickly immersing itself in sound bytes and 30 second attention spans. No longer would lengthy discourse and the diplomacy of Jackie Robinson or Martin Luther King, Jr. move the masses. Catchy phrases such as "I am the Greatest" were the future, directly influencing "The Revolution will not be Televised," "Fight the Power," and "Get Rich or Die Tryin'."

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A Night at the Winter Meetings

With the baseball hot stove heating up to an almost unbearable temperature, The Serious Tip decided to take a trip. Not just any trip, a trip to the 2006 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. Time to see what these Winter Meetings are all about. And maybe get an inside scoop. You never know, maybe, just maybe, The Serious Tip will be the first place the world finds out where the Great Gil Meche will play next year.

Because The Serious Tip has to pay the bills, the trip didn't start until 4pm Eastern Time. Unfortunately, a trip to Lake Buena Vista also meant missing a key city rec league basketball playoff game. Oh well. We were 0-7 going into tonight. How much of a Cinderella chance did we have? But I digress. Off to the Winter Meetings. The Serious Tip is going to Disney World!

For the sake of speed and coherence, what follows is a chronological diary of sorts. I know The Sports Guy has pretty much cornered the market on running diaries, but anything less would become a blathering of philosophical prose. And who needs that?

4:02 Left for the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. It's about 60 miles to Lake Buena Vista, I've got a half tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it'll soon be dark, and I'm wearing sunglasses.

5:20 Arrived at the Swan and Dolphin Resort. Wow. Not only did I beat traffic by averaging about 85 on the highway, but this may just be one of the nicest resorts I have ever seen. Hopefully I'll see someone as rich as Lou Whitaker pull up in a stretch limo.

5:30 Entered the resort like I owned the place. No Lou Whitaker, but there were a few limos outside by the valets. Began strolling around. Found the Professional Baseball Job Fair, where hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring individuals converge attempting to land jobs in professional baseball. You know what they say, "those who can't play, work". I wonder if this is how Theo Epstein or Mark DePodesta started?

6:00 Continued my mindless wandering through the exquisite halls of the Swan Resort. Found the Phillies reception room empty. Probably either closed for the evening or closed due to disbelief that the Phillies would pay recent additions Wes Helms and Adam Eaton more than they paid Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton.

6:15 Moseyed across the concrete boardwalk from the Swan Resort to the Dolphin Resort. Walked by gigantic outdoor fountains of, you guessed it, swans and dolphins. Entered the Dolphin Resort, and in moments was in a spacious lobby/lounge with a huge Christmas tree in the middle and a pianist off to the side playing Christmas carols and all of today's great Baroque hits.

6:20 Began to wander around the lobby/lounge. Unfortunately, out of the hundreds of people there, few had name tags, and those that did were usually labeled either "media" or "job seeker" or "Kenosha Blue Ducks." Hardly the people that will tell me where Dan Kolb is rumored to end up. That's the problem with high-end job fairs/ corporate gatherings: the important people never wear name tags. You are supposed to know who they are. Would you know the Brewers' or Devil Rays' general manager if he wasn't wearing a name tag?

6:23 Continued walking around. There were people from everywhere there. It was like baseball Mecca. There were representatives from dozens of minor league teams (what is a Savannah Sand Gnat?) and even international representatives. Who knew there was an Israeli Baseball League?

6:25 Hey, a familiar face: it's Kenny Williams, GM of the White Sox flanked by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. They look like they are holding court, lounging on a couch with several lackeys chattering around them.

6:27 Made my way to one of the many alcohol stands around the Christmas tree. By the way, shouldn't they limit alcohol availability at a place where hundred million dollar deals take place? No wonder Gregg Zaun got nearly 8 million dollars. Gregg Zaun.

6:28 Bought myself a beer. $5.50 for a Bud Light? Slowly sip the what better be the best damn Bud Light I'll ever drink.

6:32 A chance to talk to Ozzie Guillen! Introduced myself as "just a fan here to take in the Winter Meetings." Always the gentleman, Ozzie excused himself from the three guys he was talking with, pointed to one and explained "That was just my former lover." The sensitivity training worked well, didn't it Ozzie?

6:45 It's former Met, Giant, Brewer outfielder Darryl Hamilton! There is Lou Pinella and former Red superstar Tony Perez! And there is Tommy Lasorda! I wonder if Lasorda would convince me to come down if I was up in the Christmas tree.

7:10 Seemingly out of nowhere I came across a gaggle of reporters with their recorders out huddled around someone. That someone was Scott Boras, uber-agent supreme. Was I at the cusp of baseball history? Was something huge happening right in front of me?

7:21 As the reporters still engulfed Boras with microphones (could there ever be a successful claustrophobic agent?), I again wandered about. Then I had perhaps the highlight of my night. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mets GM Omar Minaya. Being a huge Mets fan since I was knee high to a grasshopper I had to say hello. I walked up to Mr. Minaya. "Excuse me, Mr. Minaya, I am a huge Mets fan here to take in the Winter Meetings and I would like to thank you for all that you have done for the team." Wow, as excited as I was, that came out rather well. Omar smiled, shook my hand, said thanks, and walked away. I am still naming my firstborn Omar, Pedro, or Carlos if the Mets win a championship in the next few years.

7:30 Saw a group of Asian reporters comparing notes after listening to Scott Boras for a while. Could Daisuke Matsuzaka have signed with the Red Sox?

7:33 Again walked over to the Scott Boras congregation, but veered away when I saw Hall of Fame reporter Peter Gammons talking baseball with several other people. You don't miss an opportunity to eavesdrop on Peter Gammons. It's like being on hand to see Jimi Hendrix jam, Picasso doodle, or Emeril whip up a quick dessert. A true master in his element.

7:40 After trying to listening in on Peter Gammons yet not look like a stalker, I spoke with a reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram. After asking about the hubbub around Scott Boras (she defined it as nothing but a semi-daily update on the Boras family of clients), we discussed the differences between looking at the Winter Meetings from the perspective of a fan and a member of the media. For me, this was a Mecca of celebrity, a once-a-year occasion to be at the cusp of baseball news. For her, it was a chore, a long few days filled with 16 hours of being on the clock for 30 minutes of actual news. And not really exciting considering she speaks with ballplayers for a living. I guess it depends on perspective. I was still having a blast.

7:46 Hey, it's Jim Leyland and Tigers coach Lloyd McClendon. And Leyland doesn't have a cigarette in his mouth. I am surprised.

7:47 Wow, although Kenny Williams has left, Ozzie Guillen is still holding court by the couches.

7:51 Saw ex-major leaguers Ellis Burks and Bryan Harvey. Quick notes: For some reason a reporter wanted to ask Burks how J.D. Drew will do in Boston. How long ago did Burks play there? For how much less money? Yeah, of course Ellis can explain the pressure Drew will be under. Oh, and Bryan Harvey, recognizable from his trademark moustache, looked like someone straight from the Country Music Awards show. Boots, buckle, the whole nine yards.

8:01 Walked into the San Diego Padres reception room to find something to eat. I don't if I was supposed to be there but I had a free turkey sandwich courtesy of either the San Diego Padres or Walt Disney World. Mighty tasty.

8:06 Saw Tony LaRussa. Even though his Cardinals beat my Mets, I walked up, introduced myself, and said "Congratulations on your season, Mr. LaRussa." He replied "Please, it's just Tony." The genius just flows from him.

8:10 Ozzie Guillen is still the person to talk to. Even soon-to-be-Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. has joined him. Ripken is one tall dude, by the way.

8:12 Spoke with one of the many job fair candidates. As she spoke about the importance of networking, I admitted I was just there as a fan. She did tell me one hot rumor though, not sure how true it is. Barry Zito to the Rangers for 17 million a year for 6 years. Wow, my first inside scoop.

8:30 By the way, this master networker was so good, she got Ozzie Guillen to buy her a beer by claiming I bet her that he wouldn't. I am sure it helped that she was quite attractive.

8:40 Overheard Ozzie Guillen finally tell his posse "Let's go" and out he went. Suddenly the party got much less cooler.

8:42 Took one more walk around the lobby/lounge, once again checked out the Christmas tree and the pianist, saw ex-Giant, ex-Pirates pitcher Don Robinson and several other former major leaguers I recognized but I couldn't identify, and made my exit.

Wow. Why did I never visit the Winter Meetings before? For only $9.50 for parking and $5.50 for a beer I met or saw some of the biggest names in baseball and stood where the story of the 2007 season will begin. Unlike some of this offseason's multi-million dollar contracts, that 15 dollars was money well-spent.