Monday, April 25, 2011

Updating the Local Wire

I guess I oughta let you what's been going on lately. A month ago, I was at a crossroads and it's time I tell you where God's directed me. Word to T.S. Eliot, April was far from the cruelest month this time around.

For the few who haven't seen or heard, I started writing for Bleacher Report this month to add my takes on the NBA Playoffs. I'll still post a few observations on here but that's where I'm gonna be devoting most of my sports takes.

It hasn't taken long to make an impact. My 3rd published story is close to 3,900 views and counting after making the lead story on the website and the LA Times' Bleacher Report web page. There's plenty of irony there because the Times wasn't hiring when I applied out of college and I dreamed of making the sports page one day.   Forget Charlie Sheen, that's winning folks. 

And to top it off, I've been emailed that my stories have been a success and the site would love to work with me to have a greater profile based on my background and what I submitted so far. Praise God for quick success and favor. 

I got inspired to check them out after seeing one of my Twitter pals (and a fine future journalist) apply for them. I knew the website but I felt like I was against most of their content and overblown lists. Yet when I thought about it more, it's all the more reason to write for them.

First, it's more exposure for me and I know this full well. Second, I get the chance to write solely on a team or topic which is something I wished I could've done at the paper.

Does that mean I'm giving up sports talk at the Gumbo? Nope. But it does solve a dilemma I've had as far as struggling with too much sports talk here and alienating my non-sports audience. And Bleacher Report is only the latest part of my plan to extend myself as a writer. This year, I've still kept up my freelancing with the Daily Breeze while also doing some high school sportswriting for this website called Court Cred. (by the way, that's my first ever video interview - not counting this favor I did for my lady.

I've finally discovered that Blogger keeps track of my stats here. I had to smile that My Black History post on White Heroes is one of my most popular posts and so is my post on LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends." - two of my favorite pieces of the year. Even better that my rant on the "Free Your Favorite Rapper" trend is also well viewed. 

By adding B/R to the fold, I'm living the No. 1 rule of being a writer. Keep writing. I'm only going to get better from this and my mood. I already have 5 articles up there (5,000 views and counting) and I'm gonna keep writing. My mood has changed and instead of being mostly confused, I have purpose and inspiration again.

My favorite new show of last season is back with a vengeance. Season 2 of Treme started last night and I'm back in the Crescent City seeing how the good folks on the show are dealing with Katrina 14 months later. Knowing what David Simon did on "The Wire" and how each season centered with a different aspect of the main plot, I was happy to see this season apparently focus on the curfews and police officers going rogue along with continuing the main plots.

And how did I not know Melissa Leo was in this. I was wondering where did she come from when I saw "The Fighter". 

It's been rough this spring as I'm struggling to adjust to no "24" for the first time in 9 years. I tried to get used to Law and Order:Los Angeles but it was gone for 3 months and I'm still getting used to the excellent reboot with Alfred Molina as lead detective and Terrence Howard as lead DA (by the way, Skeet Ulrich was a great fit who shouldn't have been taken off). So Treme is gonna uplift me a bit more.

I didn't tell many folks this but I gave up music for Lent. It was by far one of the most challenging things I've done and even when I did it in high school, it didn't feel as extreme as this. I'd have a different song stuck in my head every day and I felt crazy that I couldn't go to my I-pod or Youtube to check it out.

It's a challenge living in silence when my life is surrounded by noise. I listened to more weekend sports talk radio than I ever want to and staring at my iTunes was difficult every day. To make it worse, I had to stay silent mostly during the 1-year anniversary of Guru's passing and missed a chance to see Mos Def for free at USC. I cheated briefly when Nate Dogg passed but it's been mostly silence and getting deeper into my Christian music. 

But I'm glad I did it. I've been getting reacquainted with a few more Gang Starr tracks and rediscovering why Odd Future is the most buzzed about Cali act since The Game.

Next up, starving for 30 hours this weekend for world hunger. We're gonna end this month on a GREAT note. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

25 Years Since 63 - MJ's Arrival

The box score from April 20, 1986 where Michael Jordan made history in the Boston Garden

I gotta thank Twitter for this one. Following @BLKFACTS usually has some cool tidbits but last night saw one I paid attention to. Yesterday turned out to be the 25th anniversary of Michael Jordan's 63-point game against the Celtics in the 1st round of the 1986 playoffs.

What more can you say about this game that hasn't been said. The most points scored in playoff history. Larry Bird calling him "God". Jordan missing 64 games of the regular season and setting Game 2 with a 49-point Game 1 performance. All of this happening in his second full season. Here's what makes this game even more impressive.

- MJ did this against one of the greatest teams in NBA history that had the league MVP in Bird and two of the best defenders in the league that year in Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. Boston also finished 3rd in points allowed. 
- He shot over 50% despite having a suspect jumper and didn't take a single three-pointer.
- He led the team with 6 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks.
- Did I mention the 30-52 Chicago Bulls were the 2nd worst team record-wise to ever the postseason. Kyle Macy? Sidney Green? Dave Corzine? These were the guys playing with MJ, Orlando Woolridge and Charles Oakley.
- It was Jordan's 1st 50-point game. Couldn't have picked a better time to have the greatest point explosion in NBA playoff history.

Thanks to NBA 2K11, most folks have a better appreciation of how incredible this feat was. Trying to recreate 63 points is hard enough without factoring in the 6 assists or how good that 86 Celtics team really was (Just look at that box score - Danny Ainge with 24, gimpy Bill Walton off the bench with 10 and 15, and that's before you see what Bird and McHale did

You almost have to be completely selfish to do it before you realize that Jordan accomplished this completely within the flow of the game while recognizing the need to go clutch. In Game 3, Jordan faced constant double teams and only had 19 points to go with 10 rebounds and 9 assists in the loss. To paraphrase, MJ was "held" to a near triple-double as his team was swept. 

25 years later, it's still awe-inspiring. The first of many that showed why he's the greatest basketball player ever. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Alma Mater Under Siege

By now, I'm sure you know that the University of San Diego is mixed up in a bribery/gambling/marijuana scandal where Brandon Johnson, one of the best players in school history, is accused of fixing at least one game while attempting to influence the outcome of another. The feds have already charged 10 folks with it and the NCAA is waiting in the wings to do their own investigation.

I've waited a while to speak my mind because I wasn't sure what to say.  I'll start with this. I went to USD from 2002 to 2006. BJ came along in 2005 and was probably the first player we had since my freshman year who could compete for conference Player of the Year honors. It's no surprise he ended his career as the school's all-time leader in points and assists.

I was a fan of his fearlessness and ability to hit big shots. He led our team into the NCAA Tournament in 2008 where we upset UConn in the 1st round thanks to this shot by De'Jon Jackson. Unfortunately the program went into a downward spiral since that miracle shot.

I know folks who knew Johnson well. He's by all accounts a great guy who wasn't a troublemaker or a jerk. But like most athletes, I know he was probably struggling for cash and that's probably how he got mixed up. I could give you some inside information but I won't sell him out for gossip. It's sad that there's evidence he fixed at least one game in February and perhaps another suspicious game.

No school is perfect and any school is liable to get caught up in dirty activities. But point shaving is serious business. The first time I heard about it was through watching "Blue Chips" as a kid and seeing one of Nick Nolte's players subtlely throw a game. I later read about the CCNY scandal and I found other examples of it.

Former mobster Michael Franzese used to come on Jim Rome's radio show regularly and talk about how easy it was for gamblers to not only approach college athletes but convince them to fix a game. As opposed to deliberately playing like crap, all they had to do was make sure they match the point spread and make subtle mistakes. Players would think it was easy money but then they'd get mixed up and face even more problems.

I'm not surprised how often it's happening. But I am surprised that it hit close to home because it's not like our program is big time or anything. And I'm saddened because while I craved my alma mater would get national attention, I didn't want it like this.

If anything, I just feel rotten because it feels like a bad movie is on display at home and you know the scenery, the players, and the plot all too well. I will say that the school is still a fine university to attend and I hope the NCAA doesn't come with the hammer considering this was done outside of the school's awareness. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Lakers biggest threat to a 3-peat? Themselves

(This article appears on Bleacher Report - the latest expansion of my resume)

Every April, Lakers fans have to be wondering which team will show up in the postseason.
This year is no exception. 
Will they see the team that went 17-1 after the All-Star break or the team that lost five in a row and barely beat San Antonio and Sacramento
The two-time defending champs face the double dilemma of being at their most vulnerable while the Western Conference is more loaded than it’s been during their reign. 
As a result, that annual Finals trip is no longer a safe guarantee. 
Oh sure, folks are smart not to count the Lakers out. Everyone’s deferring to them as the West’s favorites and certainly they showed it by going 4-0 against Dallas and San Antonio in the second half 
Yet living in Los Angeles, you can feel a different edge about this team. Like there’s more at stake and that championship aura just doesn’t feel as confident as before. 

It’s because for the first time in four years, the Lakers face more teams that aren’t scared of them, can match up better and are hungry to prove themselves. 
Last year, they entered the playoffs after losing seven of their last 11; they also entered as the No. 1 seed with home court advantage and benefited from seeing their top rivals bounced earlier than expected in the playoffs. 
San Antonio has a great balance of youth and experience; Oklahoma City is now tougher with Kendrick Perkins in the middle; and Dallas, well—they were a threat before the Lakers beat them by nearly 30. This year’s different.
But the more things change, the more they the same.
Namely, all eyes remain on the left knee of Andrew Bynum. The MRI said Tuesday’s injury was a slight bone bruise and he’s expected to play in Sunday’s opener against New Orleans

It’s another reminder how fragile and unpredictable this playoff run will be. The team will already be without backup point guard Steve Blake until at least the second round due to chicken pox.
It also shows their biggest concern isn’t the revamped Spurs or Mavericks. It’s not the meaner Thunder. It’s not Miami or the Bulls looming in the East with the ultimate matchup nightmare in Derrick Rose
The Lakers’ biggest threat to a three-peat are themselves and making sure they are motivated and healthy enough to get there. 
It’s not about being in cruise control anymore and expecting to roll over the West. It’s about playing every game with a sense of urgency, knowing that this will be the last hurrah and anything less than a parade is unacceptable. 
If Kobe and company showed us anything after the break, they’re unbeatable when they want to be. No team can match their frontcourt and Bryant is still the most clutch player around.
But the key word is “when they want to be.” 

It’s time for Lamar Odom to remember why he played like the likely Sixrh Man of the Year. It’s time for the Killer B’s (Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes and Blake when he gets healthy) to get consistent. It’s time for Derek Fisher to find that spring clutch gene and tap into one more time.
It’s time for Andrew Bynum to be that force he was after the All-Star break and for Ron Artest to transform into the Queensbridge Strangler not the Lakers' headache. It's time for Pau Gasol to join Bryant in leading by example. 
And it’s time for Bryant to go into Black Mamba mode for two more months to solidify his legacy as the best player of this era. 
There’s no room for error this time around. History has shown that the third leg of a three-peat is the hardest. 
The 2002 Lakers had to survive a thrilling Western Conference Finals with the Sacramento Kings and win Game 7 on the road. The 1998 Chicago Bulls had to survive against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals and defeat Utah in the NBA Finals without home court advantage.

This year’s Lakers team could face their own version of that adversity starting in the second round. That’s why it’s time they flip on the switch like a still wily gunslinger, instead of being treated like the sheriff in No Country for Old Men. 
The only thing standing in the way of another Figueroa parade is the Lakers. So like Spike Lee said, it’s time for them to wake up and start resembling the team Lakers fans know they can be.
The road is much harder this time, but it will also be the most rewarding.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Electric Relaxation: Reflecting on Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley

Last week was the 17th anniversary of the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. I know folks who grew up in the 90's can't believe it's been that long. Quietly though, April 5th was also the 9th death anniversary of Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley.

Its fitting because when we think of grunge and the greatest 90's bands, Nirvana is the first name up and rightly so. Yet the older I get, the more I appreciate the underrated Alice In Chains and the beauty of Layne's pain.

When I first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit around 2000-01, I loved it right away. The sound that changed an era was 10 years earlier was still as powerful as I'm sure it sounded in 1991. I was fresh off listening to the rap-rock of Korn/Limp Bizkit/Papa Roach but I instantly respected that 5 minutes of brilliance. As time passed, I still love the song but think folks overrate the guitar solo from a technical sense.

I had heard that Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter and the more I listened to his songs, the more I saw why. His songs didn't necessarily relate to me but they were catchy yet edgy. I wanted to listen to this gutteral voice and understand why folks revered him so highly. There was something rebellious in him that I liked. His attitude was completely anti-corporate yet smart enough to use the machine to sell records.

"Come As You Are" and "In Bloom" were great songs that got played out thanks to KROQ but I preferred the singles from In Utero. I'll still tell anyone Heart-Shaped Box is a better song with a better solo and if you don't get sad hearing "All Apologies" (esp. Unplugged), you don't have a soul. Of course, then I discovered "Breed" 2 years ago and felt that was Nirvana's most punk song.

To me, Kurt's gifts were his songwriting and his voice capturing the pain of his lyrics. I remember hearing the entire MTV Unplugged album as a college freshman and being chilled of his scream at the end of Where Did You Sleep Last Night. He wasn't the best guitarist but he excelled where he did.

Which leads me to Layne Staley. The same time I discovered Teen Spirit, I discovered Man in the Box and Rooster. It was edgier, dirtier, and darker than Nirvana and Layne's voice literally sounded like I expected a drug addict to sound. When you're told from an early age that rock music was the devil, you'd make a statement like that.

Of course, I respected Layne a WHOLE lot more after that. "Would" is my favorite AIC song because of that driving bass and brooding energy he was known for. "Rooster" was great even though it was a slow build but I thought AIC was rightfully placed as maybe the 4th of the Big 4 Grunge Acts.

I did kind of write Layne off when I discovered that Jerry Cantrell was the chief songwriter. As great as he was vocally, I was into guys who wrote more of their songs in high school. I knew Layne helped write but compared to Eddie Vedder or Kurt, he wasn't in their league to me.

That changed when a college professor gave me Jar of Flies my sophomore year. I played it back and forth repeatedly and I realized that "No Excuses" was my new favorite AIC song due to its alternative sound and the desperation in Layne's voice. I swear to this day to Jar of Flies might be the best EP ever because it showed me the depth of Layne's demons and the ability for him, Jerry and the band to make beautiful music around that.

Just like Kurt, Layne was able to capture his pain of addiction and as I got older and more musically inclined, I loved Layne/Jerry's dual harmonies and the heavier sound that made their songs experiences. "Nutshell" might be Jerry Cantrell's best solo outside of Man in the Box. Once I heard "Angry Chair", a song Layne wrote entirely by himself, I was convinced Layne was far more underrated than I gave him credit for.

So as I got older, I still respected Nirvana's legacy but I know that Guns N Roses and Metallica helped to set the stage for their death of hair band music. I respect Alice in Chains a bit more because they don't get enough respect for their depth, sound and musicianship. Kurt Cobain was a phenomenal songwriter with great delivery while Layne Staley had a richer voice that made his pain resonate (although the best grunge voice and arguably the best voice of the last 20+ years is Chris Cornell)

April 5 saw two legends whose demons took them away from music fans. It's a shame we don't have more of their music but we have plenty to celebrate and pass on to future listeners.

Friday, April 8, 2011

My Five Guys Adventure (And How it compares to In-N-Out)

I guess I should blame the LA Times for helping me finally take the plunge on trying Five Guys. After I read this article about them finally expanding more in SoCal, I decided to finally visit the closest one to me and see if it compared to In-N-Out.

I drove to the Carson Mall, which I haven't been to in years, and walked in to some good music setting the mood for sit down eating. After ordering a cheeseburger, Cajun fries and a drank, I didn't get any peanuts on the side but it looked pretty awesome. Let's compare it to a regular Double-Double combo at In-N-Out.

Burger: It looked like the Big Kahuna burger in Pulp Fiction but it tasted pretty good (had mushrooms, onion and BBQ sauce I couldn't really taste). In-N-Out's burger looks a bit more clean as the buns aren't as mushy and I'm biased to the taste of a simple burger or Animal Style. Five Guys has plenty of more toppings and they're all free so you get more variety. 

Fries: I got Cajun fries and what did I taste? Decent potato cut fries that didn't have a hint of Cajun spice on them. They just tasted like normal fries that were good but below expectations. 5 Guys compensates by giving you quite a bit of them but I wasn't as impressed as I thought. In-N-Out gets the edge because Animal Style Fries will keep you satisfied but I'd say the regular fries are a push. No hate, just natural goodness.

Cost: Here's the killer. I spent close to $11 for my 5 Guys meal. For the same thing at In-N-Out, you could spend $4 to $5 less. The Times article stressed the average income of folks who go to both restaurants and folks who make more hit up Five Guys. Now I know why. And for that price, I'd say Five Guys almost rivals The Counter and that's a whole different argument.

So my Virgo Verdict? For my fellow SoCal folks, I'd say definitely try it just to compare with our favorite In-N-Out or the Counter. It's better than most fast-food spots and it's more than about time for it to come to Southern Cali. But personally, I'd say In-N-Out's better for your wallet and slightly better for your mouth. Plus the drive thru option and later hours are an underrated bonus.

Let's give 5 Guys a B+ and welcome them to the area. But in a cash-strapped state like California with folks going cheaper for food., you might wanna take that $10 and spend it there every so often just like The Counter. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Best NCAA Teams to never Win a Title (since 1990)

I wanted to do this last night but I had to prep for a job fair with an early date with my pillow. Besides, we'll be busy watching UConn and Butler tonight and wondering if Kemba Walker will add one more token to his legend (which I predict) or America will enjoy their gritty "underdog" making up for coming so close last year.

I'd rather take a quick look at those teams that for some reason never hoisted the title despite all their talent. After watching that Fab 5 documentary, it's clear that their legacy will include never winning an NCAA title but it doesn't overshadow how great they were or how great these teams are. 

Here we go (ranked by yours truly)

1. 1990-91 UNLV (34-1): The defending NCAA champs were better this year than they were in 1990. All 5 starters returned as Larry Johnson was named Nat'l Player of the Year. All-American Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony would join Johnson as lottery picks that summer. They blew teams out with no mercy and carried a 45-game winning streak into the Final Four against Duke, the same team they blasted by 30 in the 1990 Final.

Watching that HBO doc on UNLV last month, it's chilling how Jerry Tarkanian believed his team would lose because they were overconfident. Sure enough they did as the same Duke team plus some freshman named Grant Hill beat them by 2. It's a fitting tribute that Sporting News still named this team one of the Top 10 of all time.

2. 1998-99 Duke (37-2): This one stings. The team that helped introduce me to Duke as a fan besides Grant Hill. 4 lottery picks, including National POY Elton Brand and Corey Maggette. The reason I even did this blog in the first place. The team that ran through college basketball like nobody's business.

I was all set to celebrate the greatest team since UNLV and Duke in the early 90's. All we had to do was beat UConn and Rip Hamilton. Long story short, I still swear Trajan Langdon was fouled at the end of regulation before his 3-pointer went up. And yeah, I'm bitter but at least it set up the arrival of Jay Williams the next season.

3. 1996-97 Kansas (34-2): I remember this team like yesterday. Everyone I was talking to as a kid said that Kansas was the overwhelming favorite. Jacque Vaughn and Raef Lafrentz were All-Americans, Scot Pollard came off the bench and Paul Pierce was a deadly sophomore wingman. There was no way they weren't going to win at 34-1 and the #1 team in the nation right?

Somebody forgot to tell Mike Bibby and Miles Simon that. Both of them led Arizona into that Sweet Sixteen matchup with Roy Williams' starstudded roster and beat them by 3 en route to the national title. The #1 Team in the nation didn't even reach the Final Four and taught me a valuable lesson - never bet on Kansas to win a big game. 

4. 1992-93 Michigan: Imagine that Chris Webber doesn't call timeout and didn't travel after getting that rebound. This was the best Fab 5 team and by all accounts, they should've beaten North Carolina like they nearly did earlier this season. Maybe they were too emotionally spent after beating Kentucky in the Final Four?

Or maybe they were just outcoached by Dean Smith and didnt have enough defense on Final Four MOP Donald Williams? Either way, Michigan had all the right pieces to win a title and didn't.

5. 1997-98 North Carolina (34-4): Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Ed Cota (the most underrated PG of the last 15 years), Shammond Williams. I think I was more shocked they made it to the Final Four a year after Dean Smith retired but that team was just loaded. I remember watching that game close cause I had Utah in a tournament pool at my junior high and my mom worked with Andre Miller's mom.

Somehow Utah won that game in a huge upset. But I'm more happy I grew up in the mid-90's/early 2000's where college basketball had dominant teams with guys who stuck around for a few years and got better. Didn't even realize that 98 Carolina team was so loaded until recently.

6. 2005-06 UConn: Senior year of college, me and nearly everyone had UConn winning the tournament. Why not? Rudy Gay, Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong, Rashad Anderson, Marcus Williams. The #1 overall seed 4 players from that team got drafted. All they had to do was beat this 11 seed in the Elite 8. 

Yeah that 11 seed was George Mason and they didn't back down in one of the best tournament games in a while. I remember freaking out when UConn's Denham Brown's reverse layup sent the game into OT and then driving home from Bible Study pissed that Anderson's game-winning 3 in OT bricked right.

***Special shout out to the 1982-83 Houston squad of Phi Slamma Jama, who would've probably beat NC State if Hakeem Olajuwon boxed out Lorenzo Charles, and the "nonexistent" 2008 Memphis squad who won more games in a season than anybody but couldn't make free throws to win a national title.***