Saturday, February 18, 2012

Damn, I Love The Tams

For some reason I can't take my eyes off of the Memphis Tams.  Maybe it's those garish green-and-yellow ABA throwbacks they sport during the retro nights, or perhaps it's because their mascot is a hat but whatever it is, I am fascinated with this team. 

Of course, for the vast majority of the season they are the Memphis Grizzlies which is not only a geographical paradox, it is also the nickname of a failed business endeavor  in Vancouver.  I feel the franchise should embrace the Tams image and instill a true sense of belonging to the people of Memphis rather than that of a bear who lives far, far away. 

All that aside, my interest is piqued in this bunch because they are in an awkward phase of basketball adolescence, where the basics have been firmly established but the subtleties of their collective game must now emerge.  Greatness is within reach of the individuals involved, but only time, experience and familiarity will provide the finishing touches of a truly impressive postseason run in the future. 

What I like most about them is that there is always a sense of calm within this group, a belief that they can always come back.  Whether that is the influence of head coach Lionel Hollins is not for me to know, but whatever the case, the Tams stick to the plan and are poised up until the end of games.  I think other than just being young and headstrong, their confidence stems from the knowledge of the rigidly defined roles Hollins has carved out for each player.  Because the unit has bought into the scheme, what most see as a pretty average collection of talent is now 17-14 and sits sixth in the West. 

The cast of characters is a weird one. 

There are the scorers, Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo.  Gay is a sleepy-eyed slasher extraordinaire who consistently gets good looks at the rim but doesn't have the all-world shooting ability to put him in the elite scoring range; he is Durant the Lesser.  Still a blooming talent, Gay combines effortless athleticism with a growing shooting range and an early mastery of the backboard.  He is a rangy, loping player that excels more in an uptempo environment.  Maintaining a level of consistency is Gay's final frontier and that only comes with time. 

Mayo (North College Hill High, Cincinnati) comes off the bench and hoists shots anywhere and anytime he touches the ball.  From a distance he looks like a deranged gunner who is blind of teammates, but he is instructed to spray shots at will, and while he grumbled about it at first, his role of bench shooter now suits him just fine.

There are big men.  All-star Marc Gasol is a distribution center of offense who towers over everyone else and holds the ball in one hand ready to fastball it to a cutter at the rim, or stand-on his tip-toes while shooting an 18-footer.  He has great hands, a good basketball instinct and a developed sense of finesse that comes with most European players.  To me, he looks like a Spanish Wookiee who dominated the Kashyyyk league before joining the NBA.

Next is Marreese Speights, a polite but slow-witted young man who is there for rebounding and put-back scoring.  Every so often, Speights will put the ball on the floor and complete an impressive spin-move lay up to the left, or knock down the open 20-footer himself, but for the most part, he's there to clean up the garbage around the rim.  He does have the size and make up of a promising power forward for the future and has given Memphis quality minutes since injuries forced him into the starting lineup.  He is an interesting pick up and is arguably underrated.   

The ball-handling on the team is primarily made up of Mike Conley.  Finding a consistent shooting ability is still the career goal for Conley, but he has made strides in that area already in the first half of this season and is another youngster coming into his own.  He is developing into a crafty left-handed floor manager who looks comfortable running both the break and the half-court offense.  He plays good defense and stays under control.  Conley still isn't great, but he is more than serviceable and getting better everyday.

Lastly are the eclectic energy guys.  There is no better energy player in the league than Tony Allen.  The man is hell on wheels, Captain Chaos, and his effort alone leads to the rapid dismantling of the opposition's plan of attack.  He is a defensive stopper and a thorny physical player that wears most men down, but he is also a very controlled offensive player on the break and even a fairly clutch outside shooter.  He is a coaches dream and a key ingredient in a playoff series. 

The other energy bursts off the bench are forwards Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter.  Cunningham is good on the glass and is tall enough to defend big men in the post, while Pondexter is deceptively thick and often plays bigger than his 6'6'' frame.  These two have the most impact with their hustle and both are important to the season's remainder, particularly Cunningham.

Yet for all that praise, there are still a few loose threads on these Tams.  

One concern surrounds Zach Randolph—the 20 points 12 rebounds guy—who is due to return from a knee injury in the next month or so.  Z-Bo flashed in the playoffs last year, pairing with Gasol as a low-post scoring machine that dispatched San Antonio from last year's playoffs in remarkable fashion.  It was perhaps Randolph's greatest stretch of play and caused quite a buzz around the league at the time.  During the run, Memphis played a deliberate half-court set that relied on the high-low game of the skilled big men underneath. Rudy Gay was out then with an injury himself, so the team went through the post to win instead.

Four games into the season, Randolph hurt his knee and the mixing of styles between Gay and Z-Bo was again put on hold.  Since then, Memphis has sped up their play and prefer a fast-break offense predicated on the many steals they force.  It serves the team's youth, energy and speed, but Randolph isn't known for any of those qualities and one has to wonder how Hollins will go about placating Zach without disrupting the others when he comes back.

The other problem facing the team now is a lack of a back-up point guard.  The two rookies off of the bench, Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby, are cannon fodder for the league mostly, and neither are guys you want to give many minutes.  Pargo seems quiet on the court which isn't always a bad thing, but also doesn't provide a ton of job security, while Selby is just brainless with the basketball far too often to rely on.  To Selby's credit, he is very young and isn't used to playing point guard but as of now he does not look NBA-caliber.

These problems are minor and this is not a franchise that needs three more years to compete for a championship.  Many of the pieces are in place and now it's time to see them all work together.  It feels presumptuous to consider them championship-caliber this season, but I do expect more heads to turn and check out those hideous uniforms worn by the wily Tams, challenging the big dogs of the West.  Perhaps not quite a success story, I expect the rest of the season for Memphis to be a later chapter in a coming-of-age novel where the protagonist realizes he or she really can do it after all.  So if you're looking for an underdog sleeper team to slay a few dragons this April, tune into Memphis and cheer on the hats! 

Mojokong—we river cities stick together.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Crosstown Punchout

I wasn't at the game—didn't even watch it on TV—but that doesn't mean I didn't feel it when I saw what happened. Like a shock wave that emanated from the Cintas Center on Xavier's campus, I too was swept up in the chaos' aftermath, despite my most resolute intentions to ignore the whole fiasco.

The game I refer to was the 79th Crosstown a shootout—an intra-city event that has produced a lot of stuff to feel good about—but sadly, the 80th may have to wait some time before the rivalry resumes. Today marked a sad day for Cincinnati. The tension between the Bearcats and Muskies had been brewing for a few years now. The crop of personalities on both sides formed a perfect storm of fists and trash talk that many times prior had boiled over in the city's prominent summer league games, the Deveroes League played at Woodward High School. There, Yancy Gates and Kenny Frease would shove each other around on a regular basis and Tu Hollaway would just get mad at everyone so he could play well. Those three guys, plus Tu's little Pomeranian, Mark Lyons, are all you need to start a gang brawl on a basketball court.

Before everything came to an unfortunate end, it's important to look closely at these individuals. Here is Yancy Gates, a little boy in a grown-ass man's body. He's the local cat with more to live up to than most UC star recruits and he and everyone around him is openly frustrated that he hasn't developed into the beast he should be. The bottom line with Yancy as player and as a person is that he is soft, and the reason he punches people first is to prove that the opposite is true. He's the biggest little man you'll ever come across, but you'd better keep your distance when you see him in person.

Then there is Kenny Frease, another wide-bodied load that looks like the big hairy orange thing that hangs out with Marvin the Martian on those cartoons. With good hands but terrible feet, Frease too has frustrated scouts and onlookers. Plus he's the token Palooka on the team—just a big dumb white boy whose best attribute is the five fouls he starts with. Kenny Frease is usually the first guy getting punched in any brawl and that proved to be true today.

Tu Halloway is next. Here is a nasty little dude. Some players like T.J Houshmandzadeh , for instance, have to be angry to play at their best; Tu is one of these guys. I don't know why he is most successful when in a disturbed frame of mind, but from what I've seen, if he isn't pissed off at somebody, he's bored. Overtime, angry guys become permanent assholes, and this is the fate of Terrell Halloway, I'm afraid. A terrific talent, but completely unlikeable.

Never far from Halloway is Mark Lyons. If Halloway is genuinely a shitty dude, than Lyons is faking his shittiness and that's even worse. He's not even tough; he just runs his mouth and makes faces a lot. Aside from bouts of brainlessness, there's really nothing wrong with him as a player, but he will always be Tu's little lapdog, yapping away in my memory.

With the cast of characters out of the way, some back story is needed.

As mentioned, the summer league games were often heated, and the previous shootouts were always good for a shoving match for a loose ball, but nothing to the degree of what took place today. Earlier in the week a local reporter asked Bearcat shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick if he thought Tu would start on UC. His response was stately and well thought out. “With the guys we have now,” he said, “I would say no.” Not necessarily inflammatory stuff there. The reporter served it up to him, he essentially was asked to compare Tu to his teammates, and he sided with his teammates. No story there.


Tu Halloway took offense to this and confirmed as much after the brawl. Instead of ignoring what anyone—especially the other team—had to say about him, Halloway decided that the comment mattered and he wasn't going to leave it be after a twenty-point victory. As the seconds ticked down in the game, he started barking to the UC bench, then at an opposing player on the court and then pushed said player to the ground. Shortly before all of that, Tu also asked Xavier beat reporter Shannon Russell, to tweet her followers that “XU put them in a (presumably f-word) body bag.” This to me is a shit-talker gone mad. This is going beyond the realms of a game. If such a fueling of misguided testosterone happened in a night club or an automobile, someone may have been killed.

Nobody disrespects the little angry guy, though. No one talks shit about the 5'10'' toughy without getting what's coming to them. My God! How old are these people? And the funny part is, as soon as the fight broke out, Tu was safely restrained by the referee while his carnage erupted around him.

Yancy Gates acted very cowardly with his solid right hand to Kenny Freise's jaw. Frease was not squared up with him and looked to be acting more of a peacekeeper than an instigator. He wasn't even looking at the punch that floored him and where I'm from (and where Yancy's from), that's called a sucker punch. Yet, to one up such a cowardly move, the big Senegalese UC center whose name sounds like Mooge, stomped Kenny on the ground with his giant basketball shoe. Stomping someone on the ground. That's prison behavior.

Friese wound up with his face split and bloodied, and a bunch of yelling and shoving and breaking up ensued. Yancy looked the most aggravated of everyone and ended the fracas by throwing air punches at pretty much anything.

Eventually, long after the teams left the court and the violence-charged crowd filed out of the building, some kind of order was restored and press conferences were made manageable.

Mick Cronin's statements were good. He talked about how society as a whole puts sports on too high of a pedestal. He tried to convey to us and to his players and maybe even to himself that none of it is that important. He aired his concerns of getting fired over the brawl and said he made all of his players take off their jerseys. He looked shaken, angry and mortified.

Then Tu and his mutt took the mic on their side and embarrassed themselves even further. Tu talked about how his team is made up of “gangsters”, and of how he felt disrespected by Kilpatrick's comment. He clarified his comment to Shannon Russell when he said his team “zips them up” in body bags to close out games—he said it was the team's motto. He was really fixated on body bags that game. Then Lyons yapped about how the media expected a brawl from the teams because of the hype the press created around the Crosstown Shootout. He pointed out that if someone put their hands in his team's face, bad things would happen to them. What class acts.

Days after the fight, the city couldn't stop talking about it. I overheard old guys on the bus recounting the incident blow-for-blow, librarian ladies in the break room trying to decipher who started it and even grade-school kids pretending they're Yancy Gates and Kenny Freise in slow motion.

Suspensions were levied: six games for Yancy, Mooge, and some guy named Ellis. For X it was four for freshmen Dez Wells and Landen Amos, two for Lyons, and one for Tu. Obligatory apologetic press releases were issued by both universities and their respective conferences. UC dragged their participants in front of a microphone for a public apology later in the week where Yancy gave a tearful lament of how he was now mostly referred to as a thug after the fight.

Meanwhile, basketball rallies on. Both teams now have short-handed lineups and have to make due with the ends of their benches. Fortunately for each program, this stretch of the schedule is always cupcake row with teams like Oral Roberts and Wright State coming up next for X and UC respectively. Halloway said that everyone will forget this even happened in a day or two and I'm sure everyone affiliated with the teams hopes that were the case, but it isn't likely to happen. The Crosstown Brawl of 2011 will be remembered in Cincinnati for at least a half-generation if not a whole one.

Whether the rivalry will continue is still up in the air. Yes it would be a shame to cancel one of the city's premier annual sporting events, but everyone would understand if it was temporarily halted until some fresh faces appeared on each bench. Yet, I think these same groups have learned some kind of lesson here. With strong reactions coming from all angles, I would almost think a rematch with these two teams would lead to a clean game without incident. Then again, perhaps simply seeing the opponent would raise the hair on their neck and the mouth would begin to froth once more. In the end, it's just basketball and not really a big deal to the rest of the world. Cronin hit the nail on the head when he said we make this crap more important than it is, but it's these kinds of primal distractions in society that spice up our routine and predictable lives. It could be considered sad that we obsess over public fisticuffs like this, but such is human nature. The depravity in all of us sometimes rises to the surface, even in the harmless confines of college basketball.

Mojokong—play to the whistle.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mojo the Mighty

Not an ordinary dog, Mojo had the strength of many men and could crash through drywall for a tennis ball. In his prime, he was a beast with a hemi V8/400 horsepower engine. His playing weight was around 88 pounds, but he could hang with the fastest dogs on the block no matter what the size. Obstacles? Over or through them. Objective? The ball. Nothing stopped him and his career lasted a solid eight years or so of high-caliber play and an unmatched tenacity to make catches. He is, without question, the greatest I've ever seen and my all-time favorite.

He was a German Shepard-rottweiler puppy, six-weeks old, on the east side of town and he was handed to me by a man I had never met before or since. The man wanted him to go to a good home and I gave him my word. Once Mojo grew out of his fluffy, awkward puppiness, he almost right away became the legend we remember him as today.

The routine trips to the park weren't much of an option for me. A day without going meant a day of him blasting around the apartment being too big and too excited to ignore. So we went. Every day for years and years and years. There he turned his haunches into muscly pistons, his front legs into those of a race horse's, and would thrash the turf between himself and the ball with supernatural force. Our areas quickly became either swampy mud islands or clouds of dust from his powerful running style. And, during his athletic peak, I could never wear him out. Never. I could throw the ball until my arm fell off and he would be back with it at my feet smiling up at me with his obscenely large tongue, waiting for the next throw.

He was never a frisbee dog; he didn't have the patience to wait around for it to land. And he would chase the kong, but didn't like the unpredictable bounces it took—even though I did. The tennis ball was his obsession and he went through hundreds of them. The sport was that I throw it and he catch it on a bounce. For a long time I couldn't over throw him, he was a bullet. A large black bullet.

It wasn't just at the park either; Mojo also had an indoor finesse game that he constantly tricked human beings into playing. His placement on people's laps, on armrests, on the very ledge of an end table, was most impressive. Once the ball had been expertly placed, the human would be distracted by conversation or television or whatever and lightly toss the ball to Mojo. He was a master at getting his way in this regard. He tricked me a million times or more.

There were a couple of ways he played indoor. If it were a close range toss right at him he would snatch it with no problem. In fact, you could put a little heat on your throw, and release it as close as a foot from his face, and he would envelop the ball like a first-baseman's mitt. If it were a lob intended to lead him into a certain direction, that too was no problem, as he could make over the shoulder snags, shoe-string catches and leaping grabs (but only when he had to). He was respectful of wires and electric fans but disregarded everything else around him. Many, many spilled drinks and other disasters came about because of Mojo's recklessness, but it was part of who he was and I rarely stopped him.

If the game was a kicking one, he showed excellent blocking technique by moving his broad chest low to the ground and spreading his legs out wide. He was especially good at using his paws to deflect kicks attempted to go past him. I also enjoyed watching him roll the ball around on the ground for a while with his foot, smash the ball into the floor until it squirted out and then collect it on the backspin he anticipated. It reminded me of a skateboard trick, or spinning a basketball on your finger—pointless, but cool.

Eventually, he slowed down some in the twilight of his life, taking things easier but never giving up all the way. Up to the very end, he played ball at the park and still loved it.

There might be stronger dogs and faster dogs in the world, and many of these will have decent ball skills themselves, but to find another dog with the combination that Mojo possessed is damn-near impossible. That dog could play. The best of all time.

He stays in my heart.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Today I am sore, I am tired, I have blisters on my feet, but I am immensely happy, and here is why.

It's now late Wednesday, but my tale begins on Monday night around 6:30 pm or so.

It was a glorious evening, nice and cool for mid-May but still sunny with the trees in full bloom. I lounged on the deck—there is no other way to live on the deck—and sipped on one of my father's beers—a Stella Artois, I believe it was—and contemplated dinner. The Reds would start soon and I hadn't watched them in a while. They were playing well; my interest was peaked. I decided I'd meander up to Chicago Gyros and eat something greasy while I watched baseball and drank beer. My Dad was outside and I explained my intentions to him.

“Get me a Gyro,” is all he said about it while he tooled with something in the dirt.

I reached down and petted Mojo on the head.

“I'll be right back, buddy,” I told him. It's what I always tell him. Most times I tell where I'm going. If I'm off to work, I don't say that I'll be right back, I tell him I'm going to work and that I'll be back that night. But he knows that without me telling him. Like all dogs, he is a master observer and picks up on the slightest cues from my behavior. Still, I like to believe that he is more observant than most dogs and is what we would call smart.

This time he didn't know where I was going and it bothered him. My Dad continued working on something, transfixed on his task. I wandered away from the house and my mind wandered away from the present. No one noticed Mojo follow me.

On my walk to Chicago Gyro, it dawned on me how content with life I'd been of late. It had been a good run for a while. I enjoyed my job, loved my woman and found being happy the normal state of being; there was nothing worthwhile to complain about it.

But like any good sports fan, I felt the jinx lurking just behind such pleasant sentiments. Superstition may be silly, but it hasn't lasted this long by accident. I see it as a weird byproduct of the freewill of humans. Prior to human intelligence there was no superstition on Earth. Things happened for scientific reasons only and there were no mysteries. Then somebody got the idea that too much of a good thing can only spell eventual disaster, which is invariably the case and then allows some sage of paranoia to leap up out of his hut and yell, “Ah ha! I told ya!” once the shit hits the fan. Based on that guy, the world can't shed the idea that maybe there is something to this superstition stuff after all which leads to all kinds of nonsensical traditions including organized religion, but that rant is preserved for another day. The point is, thinking everything in my life was gravy, immediately led me to regret thinking it in the first place for fear of swift personal tragedy brought on by the power of the announcer jinx—the announcer in this case being me.

I laughed off the notion and once more began considering ways to properly end the novel I'd been tinkering with off and on for years. Thirty minutes later I returned to my house with a six-pack of Sierra Nevada's Glissade and two gyros. There is a large grassy field next to my house where many dog-owners—myself included—use as a play area for their dog's recreation. Mojo loves this particular field. He has spent most of his life coming here to play and no dog has ever played harder in this field than him. Chasing the tennis ball is as much his job as tackling people is for Ray Lewis. It's no-nonsense and visceral. You would be impressed.

In the field on this day, was a different, smaller dog (Mojo is a Rottweiler-German Shepard mix and weighs in around 90 pounds). This other dog's owner was a college-looking dude—fairly non-descript—and was throwing his own tennis ball to this clearly amateur dog. I expected to see Mojo galloping along side this stranger showing it how the game is played, but he wasn't. If he saw this game taking place, he would have stormed the scene and caused a moment of fear and apprehension from the other dog's owner. “Why is this giant dog running at us unattended?” he would have asked himself. “What should I do,” he'd wonder.

My Dad was still fiddling with something and uninterested in the tennis-ball chase taking place nearby.

“Did Mojo try to play with those guys?” I asked him, assuming since he wasn't in sight, Dad had put him in the basement.

“Where is he?” Dad asked.

That's when I knew he was gone. His tennis balls laid there in the yard. I picked one up, called his name and bounced the ball to get his attention. Nothing. Dad tried yelling too—he does have a booming voice that dwarfs mine in a yelling contest, but still to no avail.

The only place I walk my dog is to my girlfriend Melanie's, so I set off in that direction. A middle-aged man who I often see in his yard was there now. He hadn't seen Mojo. I called Melanie and told her I was outside of her apartment and that Mojo was missing. We drove around for a couple of hours looking for him. I was also able to enlist my buddy Aaron and his dog Apollo. The two cars (Melanie's and Aaron's, as well as Dad's briefly), cruised the neighborhood with our eyes peeled. He was nowhere. After a while, darkness set in, and it began to rain. I relieved the drivers, borrowed Apollo and set off on foot. I canvased huge swaths of Clifton yelling his name every now and then. Nothing. I walked for a few fruitless miles and even had the unpleasant experience of hearing one pit-bull kill another other pit-bull, or at least significantly maim him, as I unintentionally got the dogs riled up by simply walking past their yard. I didn't hear anyone come out to check on the carnage. Needless to say, that only sharpened my worry and anxiety for my buddy, Mojo.

Eventually, I became listless and very tired. I reasoned that in order to search more tomorrow, I had to go home and get some sleep. I took the long way home, checking on all kinds of weird, dead-end roads and ended up at home near midnight, dogless and distraught.

Once the idea settled in that I was now giving up for the night, all the terror and fear for Mojo fully set in. There was only one way this saga would turn out okay, and that was getting my dog back unharmed. But there were countless ways it could go wrong, and they all consumed me that night in my bedroom. I'm not ashamed to admit that I sobbed then; a total emotional meltdown. The thing that wouldn't leave my head is that old dogs weren't supposed to run away. Yes, old dogs die, and that was a big enough challenge to wrap my head around, but an old dog wandering off just wasn't the way the universe was supposed to work. It wasn't right. I couldn't swallow it. I tearfully prayed to anyone tuned in to that kind of frequency that night, that I would really appreciate Mojo's safe return, and mentally projected at him to hang tight for the night and that I would find him the next day. It was a miserable night.

I fell asleep close to 1am. I woke up at 6:45 and was out of the house by 7:15. Anyone who knows anything at all about my regular schedule and sleeping patterns will unanimously agree that anything before 8am is completely unheard of, and yet that was the case. No breakfast but coffee, an umbrella, a rain coat and I was out again.

The part of town I was convinced hadn't been covered enough was the basin of McMicken and it's random offshoot streets. I considered the night before to walk around that neighborhood but it's kind of a rough patch of the city and I thought no one gains anything if I were stabbed, so I put it off for the next day. This was the next day and I plowed through those seedy no-outlet streets like I owned every abandoned apartment building in the neighborhood, still to no avail. It stormed that morning and I knew Mojo hated the thunder and I caught myself telling him that it was okay, like I always do.

I weaved through all the area's major parks on my way home to change into some dry clothes. I thought about eating once I made it back to the house but still couldn't do it—I drank some water instead. My next mission would be into the woods; I was really beginning to feel desperate.

I tooled around the woods near my house for about twenty minutes, skimming the wood line parameter. The wooded hills are steep bluffs of a sizable hill that our house sits atop. We live on the ridge of the hill that descends in many directions and my concern was that maybe Mojo had fallen or was stuck somewhere.

I moved into one section of the woods that used to be a trail that connected the grassy field that sits next to our house with the city park perched at the bottom of the hill. There were never proper steps on this trail, but many people used it, especially the Hughes High School football team who would practice on the lower field but still have to walk back to school after practice which meant climbing the trail up the hill every day. My sister and I and our friends used this trail all the time as kids. Now it's overgrown and not much of a trail; you wouldn't know one was there if you hadn't seen it before.

I took perhaps five steps into the wood line when I saw something odd on the old trail. It was a shirt that was sort of upright. The reason it was upright was because something was wearing it. That something also was wearing jeans and New Balance sneakers. It had large, hulking shoulders and was slumped onto the trail. It appeared that it was close to sliding down the hill. It was facing away from me and seemed to be leaning a bit against a nearby tree. It wasn't moving.

I looked over this thing and decided it looked an awful lot like a person and noticed something near its head. At first, I thought it was a long staff that was going through its head, but upon a few more seconds of observation, I determined that it was a necktie which was caught on a branch overhead and the other end was tied around his neck. This was what kept him from sliding down the hill along the old trail.

The idea that I was looking at a dead person began to set in. When it did, for some reason, I decided I should get a look at the person's skin. I for no reason was going to get any closer—I was roughly ten feet from it already—but I could see his hand. It was completely black. That didn't make sense. Dead people don't turn black, do they? I decided it was still inconclusive.

I looked at his head. His scalp was gray with wisps of black hair. At that point it seemed to me that this was either a corpse or a really elaborate hoax. In retrospect, I now realize that it was only my ego that allowed me to even hypothesize someone would go to such an extent to prank me, but I wanted to hold onto another possibility other than me actually finding a dead guy. I looked back at his shoes. One was curled in a very uncomfortable position, and they were decent gym shoes. For whatever reason, that was what convinced me that this was a person who, by my inexpert eyes, appeared to have committed suicide in the nearby woods less than a hundred yards from our house. That's when I realized it did indeed smell like something dead and I got the hell out of there.

I don't know anything about who it was, how he died or how long he was there. I do know this: both myself and our neighbor, Bill, smelled something dead in that corner of the grassy field for the last week or so; I found the body mere feet away from that corner of the field. Many residents on that street have witnessed a small homeless contingent congregate in those woods and I assume that this unfortunate soul was part of that group. I honestly don't want to know who he was or anything more about it.

It was one of the strangest moments of my life. It was a quiet, private discovery. It was creepy but not traumatizing—I couldn't see his face. No matter how you spin it though, it is sad. This man not only presumably killed himself, but no one came looking for him. He may have been homeless, and was likely haunted by depression we should be grateful we don't know about. If anything, I feel sorry for the poor guy. It took me, who was looking for something else entirely, to find him.

Once I did though, I continued searching for my dog. The way I figured it, Mojo could still be alive and the guy in the woods wasn't, so my priorities stayed true. I carried on through the rain and woods without finding anything else of any real interest. After a few more hours of nothing, I went home and called the cops to tell them what I found.

The first cop there was a youngster. He didn't like the idea of dead bodies. He also didn't like the idea of me being too involved in a crime scene so he was faced with the challenge of having me point the body out to him without me disturbing any evidence or anything. We reached the tree line and he didn't want to go in. I went in first, cleared away the branches for him and pointed the guy out. The young cop didn't like it a bit but he soldiered over to the body. I said, “From what we're looking at now, I determined that that's a dead body.”

He took two more steps, became visually grossed out and said, “It is. You need to get out of here.”

A slew of more police arrived. Adhering to traditional sexism, the men cops made the lady cop stay with me to chat while they investigated the scene. We mostly talked about my missing dog which I was eager to get back to finding, and she tried reassuring me with stories of a dog she found after missing it for two weeks. She took down my information and they “let me go home” even though we were all gathered on the driveway of my house.

The next stop was the SPCA. This was a chaotic place of scared, loud mongrels essentially screaming at you to take them home or back to their owners or anywhere else that's not called the pound. There were rows of cages of all sorts of dogs. I scanned the cages with a desperate anticipation feeling increasingly let down as the options dwindled to nothing. There was one dog there that looked a lot like Mojo. He was younger and smaller but had a lot of similarities; enough to make me stop and make sure it wasn't him. It wasn't. The guy working there was sympathetic and reassured me that they get new dogs everyday and that it's important to keep coming back.

I felt like my last real hope had gone and my sadness soaked all the way to my bones. I had officially let him down and now he was truly lost. Not seeing him again was a possibility that was hurdling toward the forefront. I started emotionally fragmenting and a deep regret began to build within my chest.

When I returned, more cops were there to talk with me. They wanted to know if I knew him or recognized him or moved him. They even asked if I saw any identification on him. It was a series of head shakes and “no”s.

My friends, Elliott & Jen, came over to help me look for Mojo. While I dealt with the homicide detectives and the rest of the Police Circus, Elliott & Jen made “lost dog” posters. After answering just a few more questions from the detectives, I caught up with the poster-making duo and admired their work (it was Jen's work, really). They made flyers to put on cars, posters to put on lamp posts and cardboard signs for busy intersections. We posted maybe six posters around two intersections when I got the call.

“Hi, I just saw the sign for your missing dog,” said a college-aged female voice.

“Yes?” I said.

“I found him. I have him. He's at my apartment.”

At those words, a thousand lashes were removed from my back. I thanked the woman as legibly as my lips would allow, and, for the first time in my life, had a happy cry.

Later that day, I leashed my healthy, happy dog once more and brought him back home. I gave the girl twenty bucks for her trouble and talked with Mojo the whole trip back.

He's an old boy, ten and a half, and I got him when he was only six weeks old. To have lost him would have been unacceptable. It would have gone against all logic, belief and superstition that dictates the universe in my head. Once I knew he was beyond my help, which was, in all honesty, long before I found any dead bodies, I put all my faith in humanity and it worked. People saved my dog. Not me, nor the institution of the SPCA, nor Mojo himself. It was a person who cared; a stranger.

I have ever so slowly become a person who believes that things happen for a reason, and while I trudged through muddy hillsides and pouring rain with sizable blisters looking for my aged and arthritic lost dog, I questioned that belief to its fullest extent. I never really believed that any superstition played a part in Mojo's disappearance, as coincidental as all of that may have been, and so it came down to finding a purpose to him disappearing to prevent me from giving up hope.

It still didn't make sense until I got Mojo back: Mojo ran off to make me look for him but it made me find the dead guy instead. And look at the nice, neat happy ending we have all tied up into a bow. I have my dog back, who spent his only night away—a stormy night—comfortably chilling with some young woman and her puppy in a Clifton apartment, I found a deceased human being who may have gone a lot longer without being found and now doesn't have to haunt the nearby woods, and the girl got twenty bucks.

Everybody wins!

Friday, February 05, 2010


Almost sounds pornographic doesn't it? Yet that's close to what this year's Super Bowl looks like; XLIV.

I think Roman numerals are cool with low numbers, but when 38 becomes XXXVIII, or 44 is XLIV, it gets a little silly.

It seems obvious that the NFL stuck with the system to emphasize the magnitude of the event, not unlike World Wars. It also adds to the gladiator motif that football marketers insist is the way to go---the first Super Bowl was played in a place called the Coliseum after all.

Now that so many have been played, however, the Roman numerals are annoying, especially when reading about a variety of former Super Bowls. Converting the numbers needlessly slows me down and at some point, it seems pretentious.

I realize this just sounds like another lazy American unwilling to take the time and energy to actually learn something new like Roman numeral conversion, and while that isn't entirely accurate, it's close enough to disarm me of any decent comebacks, but c'mon! We don't speak that way; it would take forever to spit out 38 (“ecks, ecks, ecks, vee, eye, eye, eye”), and our brains aren't programmed to rapidly handle anything over 12 really. Sure, we can take a few seconds and figure it out, but when you're reading, you don't want to stop the flow and do some math. Those are two distinct brain hemispheres that don't always work well simultaneously, at least not for me.

Therefore, anything written by the feathered plume of Mojokong (did I just go fourth person?), will, in the best interest of you, the gentle reader, ignore the the Roman numeral system in regards to past Super Bowls and will do what typically scares most Americans: go completely Arabic.

So here's to Super Bowl 44; may the 45th (as opposed to the “ecks, el, veeth”), be wrapped in Bengal stripes.

[A hearty cheer, glasses raised, clink, drinks all around.]

Mojokongus Tyranusis Rex---has spoken.

Monday, February 01, 2010

NFL Squabbles Could Lead to UFL Success
B. Clifton Burke

While the negotiations between the NFL and its players over a new collective bargaining agreement continue to stall and worry its fans, a new football league, the United Football League, is quietly building momentum and could stand to gain a swell of attention should the NFL owners lockout their players in 2011.
The general attitude toward the NFL's future beyond next season is as bleak as the Mayan calendar.  The owners claim the players haven't made a serious counter-proposal to their original offer.  The players say ownership isn't listening to their demands.  They have met 11 times with little progress of any kind and the possibility of a work-stoppage grows.  
The main sticking point is the amount of team revenue that must go to player salaries.  The NFLPA wants that percentage to stay at 60; the owners want it down to 42.  The thinking is that 51 percent of team revenue earmarked for player salaries could end the impasse and allow the games to continue uninterrupted.  It remains likely, however, that serious negotiations will not heat up until closer to the March 5, 2011 deadline. Until then, expect both sides to do their fair share of posturing for the public's support.  
If the NFL is unable to make a deal on time, and if there are no games played on the first Sunday after Labor Day, then many fans could very well tune in on Thursday and Friday nights to watch the UFL instead.  
The landscape of the UFL as it enters its second season will look much different from the “premier” season of a year ago.  Two existing teams will change locations---The California Redwoods (based in San Francisco) move to Sacramento and will change its name, and the New York Sentinels will go to Hartford, Connecticut.  The league also said it will expand by two more teams in 2010, bringing the league total to six.  
The two new sites have not yet been made official, but UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue announced that either Omaha, Portland, or Salt Lake City would be selected for one of the expansion spots.  Other cities rumored as possibilities to land the second team include San Antonio, Memphis, and Los Angeles.  
With more teams, the season will grow to 10 weeks, beginning in September and ending on Thanksgiving Day.  UFL games will be aired on Mark Cuban's cable network Versus for the upcoming season, but the league has not announced a television deal in place beyond that.  
The UFL is taking some unorthodox methods to ensure its survival.  Unlike start-up leagues in the past where one or two owners outspend the rest of the teams and ultimately kill the whole operation, the UFL has hired one person, Rick Mueller, to perform as general manager for all four teams as a way to properly allocate its resource of talent.  
That talent is more impressive than one might first imagine.  There are many players and coaches with NFL experience, and a majority of the UFL front-office personnel also worked with the NFL in the past.  Each roster includes a handful of reputable players that football fans will recognize, and last year's four head coaches were Jim Haslett, Jim Fassel, Dennis Green and Ted Cottrell; not bad.
Fassel led his team, the Las Vegas Locomotives, to the league's first championship with the help of the game's MVP, running back DeDe Dorsey.
Dorsey, who was released by the Cincinnati Bengals, found a roster spot on the Locos and went on to average 6.4 yards a carry and five touchdowns on the season, tops in each category.  
“[The UFL] was a fun experience,” Dorsey said.  “the league has some hall-of-fame caliber coaches, it's some quality football being played there and I think it will stay around for a while.”
Dorsey said it is possible that NFL players could be interested in playing in the UFL should they be locked out in 2011.
“I could see it,” Dorsey said.  “It would be a good way for guys not to stay idle.  It's a chance to stay in shape and play good football.”
In 2008, the NFLPA instructed player agents to consider the UFL as a viable option for their clients.  Commissioner Huyghue told agents that his league would compete with the NFL for players drafted in the third to seventh rounds in the NFL Draft, and has since seen UFL rosters filled with many players formerly on NFL practice squads.  Even veterans like Simeon Rice and Dexter Jackson have made their way to the new league.  
No matter how big the name, though, none of these guys were rich last year.  
The UFL paid a league-average of $35,000 to each player, with quarterbacks making a little more and punters and kickers making a little less; miniscule next to that of the NFL league-minimum of around $300,000.  What attracts many players to the UFL, however, is not only a chance to play and stay in football shape, but also the fact that the league offers free housing to its players during the season equipped with what it claims 'first-rate facilities'.
“It helps,” Dorsey said of the housing program.  “Not having to worry about something like that makes it easier, and I think that is something else that will help this league improve.”
Mueller, the UFL's general manager, said in an interview with Pro Football Weekly last November that clubs will gain more autonomy as the league expands and becomes more established, but that a firm and equal salary base is important for the league to control costs.
Game rules were also somewhat unusual in 2009 in that they were designed to assist the quarterback.  Defenses must always use four defensive linemen and can only blitz one additional player.  This rule was set up to allow inexperienced quarterbacks to become more comfortable facing pro-style defenses and to ensure the QB's health.  It is said that this rule will be eliminated in the upcoming season, though the UFL has not yet made such an announcement.  
Like the rules, the cities where the teams play and the league's unsightly uniforms worn a year ago, there are many scheduled changes that will improve the UFL next year and beyond.  Dorsey sees the league as a work-in-progress too, but is encouraged about its future.  
“Whenever you're working from the ground up, you're going to face some trials, but [the UFL] is making strides and is only getting better.” he said.
If DeDe is right, the NFL has another big reason to end its squabbling and get a deal done soon.  Otherwise, the UFL may get more of our viewership, more of our favorite players and ultimately more of our money; all things the NFL has worked hard to corner in the past 50 years.  
As the AAFL and the AFL have proven in the past, the NFL, at times, can be effectively challenged; I believe this could be one of those times.  If there is an NFL lockout in 2011, I certainly hope that is the case.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


An earthquake of all things---a damn fault line right under the world's poorest place. Of course, of course. Not even humans can be this cruel. Yet, like everything, I suppose, humans are Nature's byproduct, so in turn, not only can humans be that cruel, they are designed to do so.

A pessimistic outlook, I concur, but it's hard to think of it in other ways when something as shitty as this flops upon the news stand.

As a kid, Haiti was probably the poorest country I could recognize and only because a friend of the family had traveled there and he told me it was poor. “The poorest,” he said. So now, when I read that the Right Wing is concerned about their various military campaigns being sidetracked by the efforts to restore life to the poorest of people, it darkens the spirit of humanity.

People will always show their true selves in moral crossroads. The fierce Libertarian ethos of “leave me and my money out of your problems” is maddening in a situation like this.

Yet what am I doing about it? Texting Haiti to 90999 and feeling satisfied with myself? If I really believed in these words I would be standing in Haiti with a tool in my hand, complaining about my back and feeling really desperate for a beer. Instead, not only am I comfortably ranting on my laptop drinking a beer that is realistically more expensive than my lifestyle should allow, but drinking it out of a glass no less.

Perhaps the unreasonable fruitcakes that are overtly selfish are actually better people than the ones who agree that it sucks, then pretend they kind of want to get involved but never lift a finger, and eventually completely forget that it even happened eight months later. I still don't think that's true; mainly because I don't want to get grouped behind the Right Wing on the shittiest-demographic-during-a-crises list.

Still, Haiti has had it rough. Out of the Caribbean, it is the one place you don't want to visit. Every other place is known for its still very serious poverty but also its fun. Haiti is known for its dirt, and I only know that because of the first Fugees album.

And now they get clobbered with an earthquake. Just them; the nation it shares an island with, the Dominican Republic, was somehow not effected. I have miniscule to zero knowledge behind the science of seismology or epicenters, but, if nothing else, it seems giving Haiti an earthquake is like taking the New Jersey Nets' draft pick; there's no fairness involved.

That's the thing about this weird planet and this weird existence; it whimsically continues. As Nature's lead creation, we like to assume we have this life thing under control, and for the most part that's certainly the case, but every now and then something comes along that unexpectedly changes things and we're reminded of who's house this is.

I don't mean to say God, though you can take it like that if you're inclined to, but plate tectonics, for instance, is a hell of a thing. There's science that we seem to understand regarding how it all works, but we still don't have a very good handle about predicting when all that groaning and stretching takes place. The rub of it all, is the major damage it always invokes. There are forces on Earth that, from this day, seem uncontrollable and impossible to fully understand or predict, and these unknowns are as natural as mankind or any old tree.

What we can do about it all is instead of boosting up Haiti to return to its daily misery, we can work to make it a less shitty place to live by instituting social change that promotes sharing and a value on humanity rather than competing and a value on capitol---you knew this would turn into socialist rhetoric at some point.

Good luck, Haiti; may you survive better than before.

Mojokong---Internationally renown.