Category Archives: Sports

The Spirit of the Game: Movie review

The Spirit of the Game is an LDS film, a Mormon movie. I’m a Mormon, and a movie nut. So my initial inclination is to go easy on a film that is certainly well-intentioned. And it tells an interesting story. And Aaron Jakubenko, who stars in it, is very good, even though he can’t play basketball. There’s a lot to like here. The theater was half-full when I saw it (an early weekday matinee), so that’s encouraging. And it’s certainly not as bad as, say, The Home Teachers, which remains the flaming dragon’s breath of hell worst movie ever made, ever, by anyone.

On the other hand, The Spirit of the Game starts off not very good, and ends goshawful, and that also needs to be said. And if we want cinematic depictions of our faith and culture to improve, we do need to foster a candid critical culture. And sorry, gentle readers, but spoilers will abound. Advance apologies to everyone.

The Spirit of the Game is about the Mormon Yankees, an LDS missionary basketball team that was asked to teach the Australian national team hoops fundamentals in time for the 1956 Olympics. It focuses on one guy, DeLyle Condie (Jakubenko), an Idaho kid who, we’re told, is one of the stars of the University of Utah basketball team. He falls in love, gets engaged to a nice girl named Emily (Emilie Cocquerel)–the movie spends lots of time on that romance. And then she breaks his heart, dumps him for another dude. So Condie, rebounding, decides to go on a mission, and is sent to Australia.

Written and directed by J. D. Scott, it’s not really about basketball much, or the Olympics at all. Really, it’s about the power of male Mormon patriarchy. Every single major decision in the movie made by any character is preceded by an Inspiring Speech by a male authority figure. Or not, actually; Condie gets engaged precipitously, without permission from her father, or an Inspiring Speech from his father. That’s why the engagement fails.

When writing a screenplay, you have to decide that sorts of scenes to privilege. Obviously, a certain amount of screen time has to be given to basic exposition–who are these people, what do they want, why should we care? This movie gives immense amounts of screen time to Inspiring Speeches. It just stops dead in its tracks, and lets a male authority figure deliver an IS. At which point, Our Hero, Elder Condie (the least volitional protagonist in the history of film), is redirected. Except when its him giving the speeches.

So, he arrives in Australia, meets the mission President–Inspiring Speech. He meets considerable opposition–nobody’s interested, kids throw tomatoes at him. He gets discouraged, writes his Dad (Kevin Sorbo!). Inspiring Letter keeps him going. He’s offered the opportunity to help coach up the Aussie national team. But the mission President (Mark Mitchell), says no, in an Inspiring Speech full of appropriate bromides. Condie writes his father. And then, see, we get what passes for a plot twist. Condie wants to play basketball, but he’s stymied. But his father is also a male authority figure, and knows a higher one. So Dad writes President David O. McKay, who gives an Inspiring Speech to the rest of the First Presidency about the proselyting power of basketball, then orders the Mission President to let the boys play. And Condie becomes the coach of the Mormon Yankees. Which means he’s now a male authority figure, and authorized to give Inspiring Speeches too. Which he does, repeatedly. And so, finally, the movie half over, we get to seeing people play basketball.

And, oh my gosh, are they bad at it.

There are two basic approaches you can take when making a basketball movie. You can cast actors, and teach them how to play. Or you can take basketball players, and teach them how to act. Both can work. The greatest basketball movie of all time, Hoosiers, cast guys who could actually play basketball. White Men Can’t Jump took the other approach. They’re both good movies. Jakubenko is a good looking kid, and fairly athletic looking. I don’t doubt that he worked hard. But he has a high dribble, where he runs really fast kind of slapping at the ball, which bounces up around his chin. He dribbles like every kid on my son’s Junior Jazz team when he was six. And Condie’s supposed to be the point guard! Jakubenko can’t shoot, and never has to–they cut around him, use lots of hand-held camera, and basically fake the basketball sequences. (Condie does hit a couple of layups). He’ll shoot a jumper–and oh, that form!–and then they cut to a ball going in. And it’s called ‘the hoop’, people–at one point, they actually call it a ‘ring.’ I wanted to strangle someone.

I don’t mean to be unkind, but if you’re going to make a movie about basketball, let me gently suggest that you have someone on-set who actually knows something about basketball. One kid in the movie had a decent jump shot, and another kid could jump a little–they let him get all the rebounds. But mostly, during the basketball bits, I averted my eyes.

Sports movies always have to build to a Big Game climax, and this one is no exception. The movie kind of forgets about how the Mormon Yankees are supposed to be coaching the Aussie team, and lets them play in a pre-Olympics warm up tournament, a decision that requires another IS. And they’re really good, we’re told–able to hold their own against all the Olympic teams. The Big Game is against the nasty wasty French team. (The coach of the French team has a moustache, and twirls it, I’m totally not kidding). So that’s the big game–a nationally televised (in Australia) game between the Mormon Yankees and the thuggish French nationals. And, see, the French play dirty. And our virtuous boys can’t respond in kind, of course, as Condie reminds them in one of his Inspiring Speeches. They’re playing for God or something.

This is a major Spoiler, but I have to do this; at the end of the Big Game, this movie goes completely off the rails. Let me set it up for you. There are 9 guys on the Mormon Yankees team. That’s important–remember that number: 9. The game is very close, though how close we don’t know because the movie never shows us the score. Anyway, our guys are all wearing brave little dabs of makeup blood on their faces, to show how dirty the French are. There’s a collision between Condie and a French kid. Condie looks dazed. Time for a concussion protocol intervention, except, wait, this is 1956 and they didn’t worry about concussions. So Condie (who is also the team coach) may have to come out of the game. And the referee says “you’re down to three players, you’re going to have to forfeit.”

What? Are you kidding me? I sat there in the theater, absolutely dumb-founded. They have 9 guys on the team. They’re down to 3?!?!? How did that happen? How did (carry the 7, multiply by pi) 6 guys either foul out or get injured? We didn’t see anyone foul out. We didn’t see anyone get injured. What we see is Condie getting fouled, resulting in . . . someone else on his team getting disqualified? And the French team getting the ball out of bounds? Also, the ref (an Olympic referee) is talking forfeit? He doesn’t know the rules well enough to know that you are, actually allowed to play 3 on 5?

What happens is this: Condie shakes off his brain fog, gives an Inspiring Speech, and he and his pals do battle, 3 on 5. And for once, the movie gets the basketball a little right–the French, with a two man advantage, spread the floor and go backdoor for the game winning layup (though the final score remains a classified military secret). Condie hangs his head for a bit. But the Aussie crowd goes wild, standing O, cheering with enthusiasm, and then rushing the court to make appointments with the missionaries for discussions leading to mass baptisms. (I may have made that last bit up).

If that ending doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. (6 guys fouled out, that’s like 60 free throws–no wonder that the Frenchies won). I was reduced to sitting there in the movie theater going “What? What?” This is not how you should feel at the end of a feel-good sports movie.

I will say this about it: the cars all looked great. It used all these vintage ’50s cars, and they all looked terrific. And there’s a throwaway character, a little kid named Lindsay Gaze, who I assume was Andrew Gaze’s grandfather. And teenaged Bill Russell makes a brief appearance. (And why oh why do the opening credits run over footage from Texas Western beating Kentucky? In 1966?) So it had some nostalgia value for fans. (Also, I’m a Utah Jazz fan, and there are two Aussies on our squad this year).

Still. This. A story of a group of missionaries teaching the inept Australian basketball team how to play basketball is an inherently comedic one, isn’t it? Isn’t it hoops Cool Runnings? But instead, we get this exercise in patriarchal sanctimony. It’s not terrible. But it was unfortunate. That’s a good story. Hope someone tells it better some day.

Kaep’s protest

On August 14th, Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, did not stand with his teammates during the playing of the national anthem, before an exhibition game with the Baltimore Ravens, choosing instead to sit on the bench. Nobody noticed. On August 20th, same thing; another exhibition game, they played the anthem, Kaepernick sat. Nobody noticed. On August 26th, the 49ers played the Packers, in another meaningless exhibition game. This time, Kaepernick’s protest was noticed, and he was asked about it in a post-game press conference. He said “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people who are oppressed.” He later elaborated, speaking to the press for eighteen minutes, answering every question put to him calmly but firmly.

His press conference (which for some reason, I don’t seem to be able to link to), was remarkable. Asked what he was trying to accomplish, he responded:

I mean, ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change.

That’s something that–this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.

It’s something that I’ve seen, I’ve felt. Wasn’t quite sure how to deal with originally. And it is something that’s evolved. It’s something that as I’ve gained more knowledge about what’s gone on in this country in the past, what’s going on currently, these aren’t new situations.

This isn’t new ground. These are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed. And they need to be.

I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country–is representing the way that it’s supposed to–I’ll stand.

One specifically is police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.

I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.

People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. It’s something that’s not happening.

-Q: Do you personally feel oppressed?

-KAEPERNICK: There have been situations where I feel like I’ve been ill-treated, yes. But this stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way.

This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change.

So I’m in a position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

More recently, Kaepernick has changed the manner of his protest, kneeling instead of standing for the anthem, after talking to decorated soldiers who sought him out. He’s been joined by other NFL players, including teammate Eric Reid, and others of his own teammates, and by women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. President Obama has weighed in, saying “I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are sitting on the sidelines not paying attention at all.”

Of course, the backlash has been huge, loud, often irrelevant and viciously ad hominem. Kaepernick was once one of the budding stars in the league, and was offered, and signed, a 68 million dollar contract reflecting what NFL execs thought was his limitless potential. Many comments, therefore, suggested that a) he’s too well-paid to be considered ‘oppressed’ and b) he’s not very good. Play better, and maybe we’ll listen. Bleacher Report‘s Mike Freeman interviewed seven top NFL executives. None of them were willing to be identified for Freeman’s story, but all agreed on how much they hated Kaepernick. One compared Kaepernick, unfavorably, to Rae Carruth, the Panthers’ wide receiver who hired a hit man to murder his pregnant girlfriend.

It’s not just Carruth. The 49ers, Kaepernick’s team, have seen seven players arrested since 2012. Most recently, (just a few days after Kaepernick’s protest, in fact), a team captain, Bruce Miller, was arrested and charged with elder abuse, after an altercation in which Miller, intoxicated, beat up a seventy-year old after knocking on the wrong hotel room door. The NFL has a huge public image problem, after a whole series of arrests involving players for such infractions as spouse abuse, sexual assault, and child abuse. Not to mention two guys, Aaron Hernandez and Carruth, in prison for murder.

So Colin Kaepernick’s dignified, thoughtful, carefully considered protest is seen by at least some NFL executives as more damaging to the carefully burnished image of the league than a guy who murdered his girlfriend. But I can see why. It’s not just the national anthem played before games. The NFL likes to sell itself as wholesome, family oriented, and, above all, hyper-patriotic. Last Sunday, Sept. 11th, was the start of the 2016 NFL season, and the NFL outdid itself in pro-America celebrations, with a huge flag covering the entire field (in every stadium), and flyovers with military jets and salutes to soldiers. And a speech by President Obama, broadcast in every stadium, and loudly booed in most of them. That’s right, President Obama was booed on 9/11. Makes sense. He is, after all, Muslim.

Which is in part my point. It isn’t all that overt yet, but football is a contested space; part of the cultural war. Football isn’t just patriotic; it’s red state patriotic. It’s martial. It’s a sport full of ‘blitzes,’ defeated by ‘throwing the bomb.’ It’s built on the model of a military campaign, battles along a line of scrimmage for control of enemy territory. It hurts me to say this; I have enjoyed watching football for most of my adult life, and remember fondly hundreds of backyard contests. But it’s a violent sport, deeply damaging to its participants. (It can also be beautiful). And proudly embraced, by some, as proudly and emphatically politically incorrect.

And it’s becoming increasingly a regional sport, played more in the South than elsewhere. And, of course, it’s a sport where most of the players are Black, and most of the fans are white. (And where most of the coaches, most of the league executives, and effectively all of the owners are white). Also, played by guys, cheered on by attractive, underdressed young women. (And NFL cheerleaders are badly underpaid and mistreated).

Here’s what I think: I think Colin Kaepernick is acting more patriotically than all the people attacking him. Loving America means loving the promise of America, the ideals of equality and social justice that find such perfect expression in the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment. It means wanting America to grow, to improve, to get better, to actually treat all its citizens equally and fairly. It means protesting when we perceive America falling short of those ideals. The flag and the anthem are merely symbols, not objects of worship.

Good for Kaep. Good for the other protesters as well. Well done.

As a 49ers fan, I also wish Kaepernick was a better quarterback. But that’s a separate, and much less important question.


The Olympics

We’ve had Olympic fever big time here at chez Samuelsen. It’s really an extraordinary thing, watching all these young people leap and run and swim and compete. For awhile. Actually, it can get a bit tedious, to be honest. Every athlete is remarkable, every performance amazing, but they can’t all win, and the ones who don’t win outnumber the ones who do by a very large margin. And there are great human stories beyond Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles and Usain Bolt and Ashton Eaton. (Favorite memory; Ledecky smoking the field in the 800 free).

So what we watch isn’t really the Olympics. What we watch is an artfully produced television program, with suits at NBC deciding which sports we really want to see and which athletes we really want to follow. It has to be this way of course. There was Olympic coverage on NBC and NBC Sports and Bravo and CNBC and MSNBC and USA and I think about five other networks. I set my DVR to record all of them, with the intention of watching, you know, the whole Olympics. It took me about half a day to realize how foolish that was. I may like track and field, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch every qualifying heat of every distance, or every throw of the discus, or jump by any high jumper. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And, not to knock men’s field hockey, or judo, or fencing, but I don’t know enough about them to follow them meaningfully. I am, after all, a comparative expert in women’s gymnastics, because I watched it for a couple of hours four years ago. I did get into team handball, which is wicked fun, and water polo, because how long can you tread water? Rhythmic gymnastics is beautiful–essentially modern dance, with sillier costumes. Kayaking looks awesome, as long as you didn’t think too hard about Rio’s water purification issues. And I became a huge fan of the Fiji rugby team. I know nothing about rugby, but I recognize domination when I see it. Seriously, NFL, start scouting Fiji.

Still. Even mentioning the sports I did watch points up the difficulties with which NBC has to contend. The Olympic Games consist of many many many events, and they all require a certain level of expertise to follow meaningfully. There are some sports that basically everyone has played at some point in their lives–table tennis, badminton, trampoline–which are amazing at Olympic levels because the athletes competing there are so much better than any of us will ever be at them. I’ve played ping pong a time or two, but I seriously wasn’t playing the same sport those guys played. I even fenced a little in college, but Olympic fencing is so fast, so quick, it was difficult to even tell what was going on. But can I tell which divers deserve higher scores than which other divers? (Big splashes=bad, I guess).

So NBC has to provide expert commentary so we know what we’re watching, and also provide some personal background into the athletes competing, so we can care who wins. For 316 events, in 28 different sports. And with 11, 544 athletes competing. Covering all that adequately is completely impossible. And NBC did their darndest. With basic cable and a good DVR I was able to watch at least a few minutes worth of 27 of those sports, exempting dressage, because horses.

And then, evenings, we got to see a highlights show (on tape delay), featuring what NBC thought American audiences mostly wanted to see: Americans winning, human interest stories involving athletes from other countries, and beach volleyball. And even a sports nut like me was pretty sated by the end.


Drive and dish. Spacing. Block out on rebounds. Screen. Swing the ball around the perimeter, find the open teammate. Communicate on defense. Switch. Basketball, like soccer, is a team sport in the best sense of the word. It’s five guys working together, using their imagination and creativity and discipline to create magic. It’s a game where each player knows his role, and executes. It can be beautiful to watch, as pretty and inspiring as any sport can be when played at the very top level.

And last night, the Golden State Warriors finished a season in which they became the greatest team in the history of basketball.

One might quibble with that assessment. Perhaps some of the US Men’s Olympic teams, collections of superstars and Hall of Famers, might disagree. And the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls won 72 games, lost only 10. They had two Hall of Famers–Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen–and current US ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman. They were a brilliant, intense, brutally competitive team.

The Warriors, last night, won their 73rd game.

(There is one odd connection between that Bulls team and this Warriors team. Steve Kerr started at guard for the Bulls. He’s also the Warriors head coach).

Michael Jordan’s Bulls were reflections of his ferocious intensity. LaBron James’ Miami teams were a bit like that; fierceness and fury. That’s not the Warriors. They play a different kind of basketball, more graceful, somehow, more balletic. They can take your breath away, with ball movement and athleticism.

They’re also a reflection of their star, Stephen Curry. And Curry just isn’t like most other players. He’s thin, fairly short, not imposingly muscled. But the ball is a yo-yo in his hands, his control of it absolute. His footwork isn’t just perfectly disciplined, it displays an imagination and creativity unlike that of any other player. And he can shoot like no one ever before in basketball history.

The player in basketball history that Curry reminds me of most is The Pistol; Pete Maravich. Maravich had Curry’s insouciance, his deceptive cool. And Maravich was a marvelous ball handler and passer. And while Maravich was a wonderful shooter, Curry’s better. Demonstrably better, 40% better; statistically, Curry’s on another planet altogether from anyone who has ever played the game. The all-time record for most three-point baskets made in a season was 286, by Curry, last year. This year, Curry hit 402. And Maravich couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play defense. Curry’s a pest on defense, a ball hawking vexation.

But the Warriors are more than just one superstar. The first, second and fourth greatest seasons by three-point shooters are all by Stephen Curry. The third greatest season was by Klay Thompson, Curry’s teammate. An excellent shooting percentage for three pointers is around 35%. That’s a terrific season, by a great shooter. Curry was at 45%, which is absurd. But here’s what’s really absurd: Curry had 8 teammates that shot over 35% from three point range.

Aside from Curry, here’s who else is on the team. Shaun Livingston was one of the most promising young talents in the game, until 2007, when he suffered a knee injury so severe that the doctors’ initial assessment was that the only option was amputation. Thank heavens, that didn’t turn out to be necessary, but it still took him two years to rehabilitate the knee. Only now is he playing close to the high level that was once predicted for him.

That’s one guy. Andre Iguodala was, for eight years, the best player on a dreadful Philadelphia 76ers team. He signed with Golden State because he was tired of losing. Marreese Speights was a college star, a big guy who can shoot, who was Iguodala’s teammate at Philadelphia. Leondro Barbosa is from Brazil, a quick guard who has bounced from team to team in the NBA. Brandon Rush was a big college star who blew his knee out, and bounced from Portland to Indiana before ending up in Golden State.

Good players, right? You can see why the Warriors like them. Now, here’s the thing; that’s the Warriors’ bench. Those guys are their reserves. Barbosa is Curry’s backup.

Klay Thompson is the second best shooter in basketball history. Draymond Green is a human swiss army knife; does everything. He is the team’s best rebounder, best passer, best defensive player, and second best ball handler (after Curry). He’s also a terrific three-point shooter, when that’s needed. Andrew Bogut is an Australian center who starred at the University of Utah. A rugged rebounder and shot blocker who, as it happens, is also a marvelous passer. And Harrison Barnes is a young guy who would be a star for any other team in basketball, a 6’10 super athlete who can also shoot.

It’s a joyful thing to me, to see players this good mesh and blend their games so superbly. They’re fun to root for; easy to root for. Agreeable guys who are also wonderful basketball players.

I’ve been a basketball fan all my life. Heck, I’m a sports nut, and I’m from Indiana; of course, I love basketball. And I have no particular reason to root for a basketball team from Oakland. But I have gotten as much pure joy from watching this marvelous team play basketball than anything else I have done or seen or been part of. I’m so grateful to be alive to see them.


BYU v. Utah, cooling off

On December 2, last year, in a men’s college basketball game between BYU and the University of Utah, Nick Emery of BYU sucker punched Brandon Taylor of Utah. Emery was properly assessed a Flagrant Two foul, and ejected from the game; he was subsequently suspended for BYU’s next contest. The game was in Salt Lake City; fans began throwing things on the floor. Eventually, order was restored, and the game ended, with Utah victorious by 8 points.

On January 7, Utah announced that they would withdraw from next season’s game with BYU. Larry Krystkowiak, the Utah coach released this statement:

The events that have occurred in our recent games with BYU led me to ask [athletic director] Dr. Hill several weeks ago if we could take a cooling off period and put the rivalry on hold. The level of emotions has escalated to the point where there is the potential for serious injury. Chris said he would support me in canceling next year’s scheduled game against BYU. I called and let Coach [Dave] Rose know our intentions a few days after our game [on Dec. 2].

BYU v. Utah is one of the more intense college sports rivalries in the nation. And like all intense sports rivalries, it involves emotions quite ridiculously disproportionate to what’s really at stake. Words like ‘hate’ and ‘loathe’ and ‘despise’ (and also ‘love’ and ‘worship’ and ‘adore’) tend to pepper sports fan conversations. So, of course, the cancellation of this one basketball game has led to all sorts of wild speculation and accusations of bad faith. Mostly, it’s directed at Chris Hill, the Utah Athletic Director, who, I’ve been reliably assured, ‘hates’ BYU and is trying to ‘destroy’ BYU.

Of course, for some BYU fans, the U’s decision is definitive proof of the perfidious irreligious moral depravity of the Utah program. BYU and Utah had a contract! Contracts are sacrosanct agreements! Utah can’t unilaterally cancel this game! Except that this particular contract had a buy-out clause, with a financial penalty attached; Utah exercised that clause, and paid the money. From the other side, Utah fans say that BYU is a dirty team. There have been a number of incidents recently of BYU players acting out violently. But most of those incidents–basically all of them, except for Emery’s loss of composure–have involved the BYU football program. Not men’s basketball.

As a BYU sports fan, I’m troubled, frankly, by the unsportsmanlike play of the BYU football team recently. And I can’t help notice how tepidly the BYU administration tried to keep Bronco Mendenhall, the football coach, when he was offered a job at Virginia. BYU will have a new football coach next season, Kalani Sitake; I wish him the best. He has a well-earned reputation for integrity and teaching excellence. A reputation he earned while coaching at the University of Utah.

It’s also been pointed out that Larry Krystkowiak, the U coach, lost his head a few times when he played in the NBA; that he punched opposing players a couple of times. So accusations of hypocrisy get to fly in both directions. ‘Larry K was a dirty player!’ ‘BYU pretends to be so moral and Christian, but look at this kid punching this kid!’ ‘Chris Hill hates Mormons!’ ‘BYU only cares about money!’

Meanwhile, of course, the BYU athletic director, Tom Holmoe, has been trying to see if it’s possible, through negotiation, to reinstate the game. Good luck with that, especially since his opening negotiating tactic was to call the U’s decision ‘stupid.’ Best of all, the Utah legislature is making noise about involving itself! Of course it is. Speaker of the Utah House, Greg Hughes, says he worries about how cancelling this one basketball game “might impact the public.” Let me see if I can help Speaker Hughes with this: not playing the game would absolutely impact the public. In the sense of some few members of the public not being able to see a basketball game they’re rather like to see.

What the most aggrieved voices on neither side of this debate seem all that interested in addressing is the nature of fandom itself, the emotional investment we fans make in our silly games. (Which are silly, though I love watching). And, of course, the high emotions experienced by the players. Nick Emery, whose sucker punch started the controversy, is a returned missionary, and, by all accounts, a really nice kid. He apologized profusely for his actions, saying, “I got caught up in the intensity of the game and let my emotions get the best of me.” He also apologized to Utah, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak, his teammates and fans of both schools. Taylor, the kid he hit, accepted his apology; said it was no big deal.

I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, Indiana University, and the Utah Jazz; I am therefore obliged to ‘hate/loathe/despise’ the Los Angeles Dodgers, Purdue University and the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, I have very good friends who are Dodgers’ fans, my best friend is a Lakers’ fan, and my home teaching companion got his PhD from Purdue. I like sports, in part because of the emotional investment I make in the teams playing. The stakes, in a ballgame, are simultaneously very very high, and also trivial beyond belief. It matters a lot who wins, and it also doesn’t matter at all. You get all caught up in the game, in who wins and who loses, and you also feel like a bit of a fool for caring so much over this . . . nothing. And it’s okay to feel both those emotions simultaneously. In fact, I think it’s sort of necessary.

Otherwise, we’re in danger of losing perspective. And maybe that’s what Chris Hill and Larry Krystkowiak are really saying, something actually kind of valuable and important. People on both sides of this particular sports rivalry were taking it too seriously. Things were getting out of hand. This isn’t about Nick Emery; it’s about the rage and fury in the stands. We need to mellow out, maybe. Maybe it’s time, as Krystkowiak said, for everyone to cool off. Let the game go. Give it a few years, and try again.


The Women’s World Cup

The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament finishes this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited, or feel more patriotic. Go USA! International sporting events bring out my usually fairly latent Americanism like nothing; I want to festoon my vehicles with bald eagle decals, hang a flag outside my home, even sing that ‘Proud to be an American’ song, which I usually avoid at all costs. This year’s World Cup narrative is a richly textured yarn, with numerous subplots and complexities, some of which actively encourage anthem-singing and some of which kind of don’t.

The USA squad is generally recognized as one of the three best in the world, but hasn’t won the World Cup since the Brandi Chastain/Mia Hamm team in 1999. That final remains the highest rated TV soccer broadcast in US history, and was wildly inspirational and aspirational: grrrl power. In fact, the USA should be good at women’s soccer. Millions of American girls play soccer. And although soccer is the most popular team sport in the world, that’s not necessarily because girls play it; in many football-crazed nations, the sport is tied to ideals of machismo that make soccer-playing girls national afterthoughts. Even as the US men’s national team lags behind the rest of the world in the development of young players, the Title IX-driven idea of sporting gender equality is something of a US phenomenon. Why not? Youth coaches in any sport love to talk about how the participation of kids in, whatever, football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, teaches invaluable lessons about laudable values: hard work, team play, fairness, sportsmanship. If those lessons are good for boys, they’re equally good for girls, are they not? So the success of women’s soccer should be applauded.

And applauded for another reason as well; it’s fun to watch. If, as a sports fan, I like the celebration of human excellence that sports embody, then why on earth would that be gender specific? I like soccer. I like the amazing athletes who play it. I love the strategy, the tactical decisions, the sheer beauty of speed and power and strength and quickness and field vision.

But I also love sports for its narratives, for the stories that unfold behind the scenes, then play themselves out on the field. One of the real revelations on this US team has been the play of central defender Julie Johnston. She’s an amazing athlete, tall and graceful and disciplined, and she’s technically proficient. She seems never to be out of position, even when dashing upfield for set pieces and counters. Her center back partner, Becky Sauerbrun, is equally tall, blonde, and capable. The US has given up only one goal in the entire tournament, and it’s mostly due to Johnston and Sauerbrunn. Johnston is dating Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zack Ertz, which is why you see so many Eagles’ players at World Cup matches; Ertz has made them all fans. When asked what a typical date would be for her and Ertz, Johnston said they loved playing UNO together. I think that’s so great; these two world class athletes dropping Draw Four Wild cards on each other, cackling in delight.  As for Sauerbrunn, she’s a noted bookworm, never without a book close to hand.  But in play she has this constantly worried look, like a Mom working as a crossing guard.

The US goalkeeper is Hope Solo, probably the most controversial player on the team, if not in the world. She’s the best keeper in the world, strong and powerful. But she’s also been accused of domestic violence, by her step-sister; accused of beating up a nephew twice her size. That’s not hyperbole; the nephew is a three hundred pound high school football player, and Solo goes maybe 5’11, 150. Large for a woman, sure, but did she really beat this big kid up? And that’s the thing about Solo; I don’t automatically disbelieve it. There’s an edge to Solo’s play, a barely controlled aggression. Even more than most keepers, she seems to regard being scored on as a personal affront.

(Do I defend her domestic violence? I do not. If it happened. Her accuser is a sister from whom she’s been long estranged. At the same time, Solo has had a drinking problem in the past. I don’t know what happened; the case has not been adjudicated. Presumption of innocence; all that. Hope Solo is, as always, a puzzle, an enigma. And a brilliant soccer keeper.)

One of the key plays in the entire tournament involved Johnston and Solo. Johnston made a rare mistake, taking down a German player in the goal box. It was an obvious foul, and she could well have gotten a red card dismissal for it. As Johnston wept, comforted by Saurbrunn, the referee rewarded a penalty kick; German star Celia Sasic took it. Germany never misses penalty kicks. I mean never; not once in World Cup history had a German player missed a penalty kick. They were 12-12. But you watched Solo back there, preparing, lithe as a panther, and you noticed how long she took. Stalling. With a look of utter confidence–barely perceptible contempt, even– on her face. She was clearly psyching Sasic out, and it worked; Sasic put her shot wide left.

There are other fascinating narratives involving this year’s team. This may be the last World Cup for the great Abby Wambach. Wambach is one of the greatest players in women’s soccer history; she tops the list of all time World Cup goal scorers, and is the greatest scorer in American women’s soccer history. She scored one of the great goals in World Cup history; a game tying header against Brazil in 2011, in a semi-final match the US eventually won. She’s tall and strong, and known particularly for her aggressive and accurate headers. And she turned 35 during this tournament. She’s one of the slowest women on the pitch, anymore. So there’s been a lot of question about how much she should play this year. There are younger, faster, more creative players on the roster–Morgan Brian, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux. But they’re not Abby Wambach; can’t match her sheer determination and courage.

The US was seen as an underdog against Germany. Morgan Brian played, with Alex Morgan as the only striker, an odd formation the US hadn’t used previously. It could hardly have worked better. Wambach came on right at the end, and meanwhile cheered her teammates on; was an inspirational sideline presence. I expect we’ll see the same lineup against Japan in the final, on Sunday.

But this wouldn’t be the Women’s World Cup without some sense of a larger purpose, of more significant socio-political issues at play. It’s not just that these are women playing what is regarded internationally as a man’s sport. It’s how they’ve had to cope with the corrupt cluelessness of the international soccer establishment. When men play in the World Cup, they play on grass, on perfectly groomed pitches that conduce to sporting excellence. But in this World Cup, FIFA (the morally bankrupt governing body for the sport), scheduled all the women’s games on turf. Turf is a bad surface for soccer. It’s a thin carpet laid over concrete; it’s painful to fall on, to dive on. And it’s plastic; players can get the nastiest contusions. Wambach was the most vocal athlete to raise a ruckus over the turf issue, and FIFA’s initial response was infuriating–condescending mansplaining, mostly. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s head, suggested that the women wear tighter shorts while playing, to increase viewership. Alex Morgan, the best US player, won a Player of the Year award; she says Blatter ignored her, didn’t know who she was.

This women’s team has become notorious on another front. The recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality came down last Friday, during the tournament, and was enthusiastically applauded by the women on the team. Wambach is married to former player Sarah Huffman. The most exuberant and creative player on the US team, dynamic Megan Rapinoe, is also openly gay, as is the team’s coach, Jill Ellis. And all three are LGBT activists. So for this team, at this moment in history, to win a championship, would be serendipity of the highest order. Go US indeed!

More to the point, this team is wonderful to watch. I’ve grown fond of little Meghan Klingenberg, who is short and feisty and relentless defensively. The German game was a showcase for Carli Lloyd, who scored one goal and set up the second one with a perfectly placed pass, to Kelley O’Hara, one of the youngest women on the team and one of the fastest. Lauren Holliday has an amazing knack for stopping off-target passes from going through. Christie Rampone, the oldest player on the team, has taken time off for childbirth and various injuries, but remains an obdurate and tenacious defender.

They’re a terrific team, and I love watching them play. I have watched at least part of every game played by every team in the tournament, and enjoyed every second. The best two teams have been Japan and the US. Japan is talented and superbly coached; they’ll be worthy opponents, and could well win. And that would be triumphant too, if a bit melancholy to this American guy.

Golden State

You become a sports fan, because you really like certain sports. You choose which teams you root for pretty randomly. I became a San Francisco Giants fan because my little league team, back in Indiana, went to a ballgame in Cincinatti, and I got to meet Willie McCovey. I became a San Francisco 49ers fan, in the NFL, because, hey, I was a fan of one San Francisco sports team, so why not root for San Francisco in other sports. I had never been to San Francisco when I made those decisions–in fact, I was just a kid, living in Indiana. And all my friends thought I was weird not to root for the Reds like a normal person. But the Giants and 49ers were my teams forever after. (I loved the Indiana college basketball team, of course, and the ABA Indiana Pacers. I was that much a Hoosier). It was just serendipity that I grew up and married a girl from Northern California.

Sometimes, though, you just fall in love. You have no connection to a particular group of athletes. You just like watching them play. Or like rooting against them. I love basketball, and have my whole life. But I’ve never rooted for LaBron James. I respect him. He seems like a good guy. He’s a wonderful basketball player. I just always find myself rooting against his team. No idea why.

It’s all weirdly random. I was a fan of San Francisco sports teams, not Northern California ones. I never cared about the Oakland A’s, or the Oakland Raiders. For that matter, I didn’t root for the Golden State Warriors. I suppose I knew they played their games in Oakland, but I didn’t care. They weren’t very good, and for me, they were just another team.  I just didn’t care.

Except, for the last two years, I do care. I have a crush. I am absolutely, madly in love with this particular iteration of the Golden State Warriors. And I know why. They play the most beautiful basketball on the planet. They are so marvelously constructed, so wonderfully well coached. Everything I value about the game of basketball, they excel in. They play team ball, sharing the ball, switching on defense, rebounding as a team, then running down the floor for yet another fastbreak. I’m a Hoosier, and that doesn’t just imply a fan of basketball, but a particular kind of basketball; team ball, built on defense and jump shots and quick, short, accurate passing. That’s the Warriors. As with the best basketball teams, they play with a kind of sloppy discipline, a relaxed intensity. They’re cool. They’re a real team.

And their best player doesn’t look he should be as good as he is. Stephen Curry is 6’3″. Tall-ish for a basketball player, but he looks short next to the other NBA players. He’s skinny and not very athletic looking. He insists that he’s capable of dunking a basketball, and his teammates say he’s done it in practice, but that’s not really his game; he’s not a great leaper. He’s not very strong. And he’s a bit slow, honestly; in a footrace, he’d probably finish close to last on his team. (Though he’s exceptionally quick laterally, with out-of-this-world hand-eye coordination).

What he is is a genius at playing basketball. He’s the most extraordinary shooter I’ve ever seen, with an instinct for that moment when the other team is poised to win a game, when a three-point jump shot will feel like a dagger to the heart. He’s a sleepy assassin, who looks a bit bored even while he’s nailing the important shots. He’s got an exceptionally quick release, and shoots with enough arc on his shot that even much taller players can’t block it. And he sees the floor better than anybody. He has a knack for it, for knowing which of his teammates is open, or going to be open, and precisely what kind of pass will get the ball to him.

There are guys like this, who just show up from time to time. Joe Montana was too short to be an NFL quarterback; too skinny, with insufficient arm strength to make the big throw. But he was the greatest leader in the sport, with the best field sense, and he became the greatest quarterback of his day. Wayne Gretzsky was thin, slow, unathletic. And the greatest hockey player of all time. These guys are just intuitively brilliant. It’s about sight, I think, and anticipation. They can see the game unfold, with a knack for seeing what’s likely to happen, and how they can exploit the situation as it develops.

He’s got a tremendous team surrounding him. Draymond Green is a strong, powerful forward, a stalwart defensive player and a fine shooter. Klay Thompson is a marvelous shooter as well, and a tough, battling defender and rebounder. Harrison Barnes is a young guy, probably the best pure athlete on the team, quick enough at 6’10” to guard anyone. Andrew Bogut is a big bruising inside presence. And the Warriors have put together the best bench in the league, with a series of veterans, former All-Stars, who have somehow agreed to set aside egos and do what’s needed for the team to win: Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingstone, David Lee, Mareese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush. Their coach is Steve Kerr, one of Michael Jordan’s favorite former teammates, and when you watch them play defense, you can see MJ’s influence; they’re just tenacious.

Above all, though, they have Curry. I don’t know him, of course, though last night I was as charmed as anyone when, during the post-game press conference, his two-year old daughter told him to ‘be quiet, Daddy.’  He seems very nice; bright and articulate, and not as ferociously competitive as his game suggests. He’s a beautiful athlete, though. And I’ve become a Warriors’ fan.


The NCAA tournament

The annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament started yesterday, an orgy of missed shots, wild dunks, last second finishes, agony and joy. Sixteen games were played yesterday, all of them nationally televised, five of them decided by one point. I watched at least some of all of them; basically I wore out my remote. As always, it was very exciting.

And not. Because if you’re a lifetime basketball fan–and I am–you can’t help but notice how bad college basketball has become. Every possession, more or less, ends with a guy blasting past a defender, flinging a wild shot in the general direction of the rim, followed by five guys flailing to grab a rebound. College baskeball has become an over-coached, over-defended, badly officiated (make that ‘horrendously officiated’) travesty. At its best, basketball can become an argument, a statement in a continuing debate over how the game is supposed to be played, over strategies and tactics and fundamentals. At its worst, basketball is thuggish, slow, and ugly. And dangerous; it amazes me that more kids aren’t hurt.

And Kentucky’s going to win. Kentucky, with six freshmen and three sophomores in their regular playing rotation. And you might think, wow, what a dynasty! All those young players; how good are they going to be next season! Ha. Next season, they’ll all be in the NBA. They’re ‘college students’ in the same sense that the kids on Glee are in ‘high school.’’s Brian Phillips had an interesting article today discussing the problems inherent in the current game. As Phillips points out, there are a number of relatively simple rule changes that could be implemented that would speed the game up, open it up, and make it more entertaining. But it’s almost impossible for the NCAA to make those changes, because doing so would require that they admit that they are creating and selling a product, ‘college basketball broadcasts,’ that needs to be tweaked to make it more fun to watch. The fiction is that these are ‘student-athletes,’ college kids engaged in an extra-curricular activity, televised as a public service, so that their families and interested alums can enjoy seeing them play. In fact, though, the NCAA generates billions of dollars from college basketball. And does so through a business model in which they don’t pay the people who generate it.

Every time I drive from Provo to Salt Lake and back, I pass several billboards for BYU sports. Right now, it’s basketball season, and so those billboards feature Tyler Haws, the star of the team. Haws, of course, isn’t being paid for the use of his likeness on those billboards. Nor are his teammates compensated for all the posters and tee shirts and hats and bobbleheads and water bottles featuring the BYU basketball team. I know the argument: they’re being compensated in that they receive a college education. That’s a valuable commodity. True enough, and especially for someone like Tyler Haws, who is a good student. Still, it seems disproportionate; millions of revenue generated, with almost nothing going to the players.

Remember last year’s tournament? Exciting stuff, right? Shabazz Napier and UConn? Remember what Napier said afterwards? How some days were just ‘hungry days,’ because his scholarship didn’t provide sufficiently for meals, and he wasn’t allowed to get a job or in any other way make enough money to buy a Big Mac?

Okay, Shabazz Napier’s in the NBA now; for him, it was worth it. Most players have that dream; the dream of a professional career. For 98 percent of them, it’s a pipe dream. So what happens then?

John Oliver’s show, last week, straightforwardly recommended that college basketball players be paid. I’ve heard that from other sources. And it’s probably going to happen. Ed O’Bannon won his lawsuit against EA Sports, after suing them for using his image without his permission. That verdict is being appealed, but when the appeals are exhausted, we’re going to see some compensation for college athletes.

Meanwhile, let me give the ‘fix the NCAA’ problem a shot. I taught for twenty years in the BYU Theatre department. We had a lot of kids in our program who wanted careers on Broadway or Hollywood; most of them didn’t make it. But they did get a good college education, and I have former students who are attorneys, successful business people, some are in medical school; they didn’t so much abandon their dreams as re-route them. The kids who acted in our college theatre productions weren’t paid. But a lot of our students were paid; to work in the scene shop, to hang lights, to sell tickets, to work in marketing. And our actors were actively encouraged to work professionally. I remember one actress who got the lead in a Disney movie. When her work on that film was done, she came back to school, acted in college productions, finished her degree. Now she’s a successful professional actress. As faculty, what did we think of her work on that Disney movie? We thought it was awesome. We had a party and watched it. We rooted for her then, and we root for her today.

So I’m going to make some recommendations to the NCAA, none of which I expect that organization to listen to for a second. Because, let’s face it, the NCAA is appalling, an organization of rule-bound ninnies, liars and hypocrites. Overpaid frauds. It’s an group of college administrators, after all, hardly nature’s aristocrats; these are people who think ‘university assessment’ is a good idea. They won’t change until they have to.’s my fix for the NCAA. Number one: permanently abandon, once and for all, the notion of the ‘amateur athlete.’ The Olympics doesn’t bother with it anymore, and neither should the NCAA. All those ridiculous rules in which a player is suspended and a program punished because his coach bought him a sandwich accomplish nothing except expose the NCAA to ridicule.

An athletic scholarship should be non-revocable. All athletic scholarships, in all sports offered on campus. Pay for those extra scholarships by cutting the salaries of coaches and athletic directors. Every athlete receiving one should be guaranteed a college education. If a coach recruits a player, and gives him a scholarship, then that kid gets, free of charge, five years worth of a college education, period. Right now, coaches routinely recruit more players than they have scholarships for, and if one of them turns out to be less good at basketball than the coach initially thought, he’s out of luck. That needs to end. Let colleges offer as many athletic scholarships as they want to, no limits, but with the understanding that they can’t take that scholarship away, at all, ever, for any non-academic reason. If the kid gets injured, he keeps the scholarship. If a kid doesn’t make the team, he keeps the scholarship.

Also, let them be college students. Put serious limits on how much time kids spend in practice. ‘Voluntary workouts’ count against practice time. Every second a kid spends out of class, in a weight room or in meetings or working out with coaches counts against practice time. Limit practice time to twenty hours a week, and enforce it.

If a kid is able to earn money off the court, that’s fine. Let him appear in a Disney movie. Or play on a D-league summer team. Or appear in a local commercial. Or sell his autograph. Or flip burgers. Whatever. None of that is any of your business. (Will this lead to abuses? Will boosters offer the starting quarterback no-show jobs at their businesses? Sure, probably. I just don’t think that kid of petty corruption is policeable).

I would probably put a cap on coaches salaries. I’d also like to see coaches treated like tenure-track faculty. If they make tenure, you can’t fire them. And give them some classroom responsibilities. Make ’em teach a class or two.

None of this is likely to happen, of course. But I’d love to see it. These kids are being mistreated, and it’s wrong. And while we’re at it, make the game a little more fun. For starters, let the kids play. Limit coaches time-outs to two per half. Let college kids be college kids. I promise, they’ll amaze you.



Chris Borland

Twenty years from now, when we look back on it all, we may well decide that this is the turning point, that Chris Borland’s retirement was the first domino to fall. It’s going to seem weird. A multi-billion dollar sports industry, the NFL, running the most popular team sport in the United States, just . . . ending. The Super Bowl, the single biggest TV event of the year, just going away. But the demise of professional football will only seem remarkable in retrospect. When it all ends, we’ll all sit back and agree that there was nothing else that could have been done. It just wasn’t worth it.

Chris Borland is 24 years old. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history, then was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He is a thoughtful and intelligent young man. His position, inside linebacker, was one in which the 49ers wouldn’t seem to have needed much help. The 49ers had two of the best inside linebackers in all of football, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman; it was thought that Borland wouldn’t play much. But then Willis hurt his foot, and Bowman was slower than expected to recover from knee surgery. Early in the season, Borland won the starting job, and was spectacular. He looked like a superstar. A few days ago, Patrick Willis, age 30, announced his retirement from professional football. His foot just wasn’t getting better, and he was concerned about the quality of his life going forward. But 49ers’ (and I count myself as one), weren’t concerned. After all, we had Chris Borland.

And then, yesterday, Chris Borland likewise announced his retirement from professional football. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t disgruntled. He didn’t have some kind of religious experience that persuaded him to do something else with his life, as former 49er Glen Coffee had had. (Coffee, after a promising rookie year, retired, saying he had become convinced that ‘God didn’t want him to play football’). No, Borland retired because he had researched the long term effects of multiple minor concussions. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” Here’s  the interview.

Over 70 former NFL players have been diagnosed post-mortem with degenerative neurological disease. Numerous studies have demonstrated a connection between head trauma and subsequent brain damage. Borland did his research, and made an informed decision about his health and his future. He also left a lot of money on the table. As a budding star, he could easily have made a bundle if he’d stuck around a few years.

But what’s really remarkable about Borland’s announcement has been the reaction of his teammates and other current NFL players. Pretty much everyone’s been supportive. Borland’s 49er teammate, Frank Gore, long considered the epitome of the NFL tough guy, said he ‘respected Chris’ decision.’ Here’s a sampling of supportive tweets.  The words used by his fellow plays seem particularly interesting to me; they talk about his ‘courage,’ and how hard it can be to ‘do the right thing.’

I didn’t expect that. The NFL code of toughness says that if you ‘get your bell rung,’ you find a way to get back in the game. Most former players can tell humorous stories about games in which they were concussed, but got back on the field. ‘I played the second half, and still don’t remember a thing about it.’ That kind of thing. But the data is piling up, and those stories aren’t as funny as they once were. In the most recent Super Bowl, Patriots’ receiver Julian Edelman may well have caught the winning touchdown pass while concussed. The reaction around the league was pretty hostile; he should have come out of the game, players are saying. His coaches should have forced him out.

And that’s how football will die, I think. Not with a bang, but a whimper. More and more parents will decide not to sign that permission slip; more and more high schools will have to weigh insurance costs, and decide there are better extra-curricular activities for their students.

And more and more fans of the sport (like me) feel conflicted about it, and question whether this is a sport to which we should give our time and attention. We’ve seen too many former players who have a hard time climbing stairs or bending over to pick up their grandkids. And too many who have suffered brain trauma. Chris Borland is right. And he won’t be the first.


Utah Jazz: 2015

I’m trying something brand new this year. I’m rooting for a sports team, watching as many of their games as I can, but not watching any game to the end. I don’t care if they win. I’m looking for improvement, not results. And I’m having a blast.

I have a theory about team sports. When your team wins all the time, that’s not necessarily a good thing. You tend to become complacent about winning; worse, you get arrogant. When your team loses all the time, that’s even worse. You start to get all numb about fan-ness, cynical, even. I know that being a sports fan is absurd; the fun comes when we really embrace that absurdity. What really builds sports fanaticism is when your team is very good every year, and almost wins. Every year, you root like crazy, there are wonderful moments, but in the end, you’re stabbed in the heart. The best fans, the most informed, most passionate, are fans of the Red Sox and Cubs in baseball, the Browns and Bills in football, the Thunder and the Jazz in basketball. The close-but-no-cigar fans.

I have been a big Utah Jazz fan ever since my family moved out here in 1992. And, of course, as it happens, 1992 was a particularly good year to be a Jazz fan. Year Seven of the Stockton/Malone era. John Stockton was one of the greatest point guards who has ever played the game; Karl Malone, one of the greatest forwards. Stockton the passer, Malone the scorer. Stockton stealing the ball, Malone getting rebounds. And they were both fitness fanatics, and lasted forever. It was fun to watch. Salt Lake City renamed two city streets, so when you go to a Jazz game today, the arena is located at the corner of Stockton and Malone.

And then, finally, Stockton and Malone both retired. And we hung in there for awhile, building a team on guys like Andrei Kirilenko and Deron Williams. But all good things end, and last year’s team was, frankly, pretty hard to root for. They played ugly, losing basketball. A mixture of young, unproved talent, and old, past-their-prime mediocrity. They lost, but what’s worse, they looked bad while losing. The single most fundamental play in basketball (and the play we watched Stock and Karl run to perfection year after year) is called the pick-and-roll. And the Jazz last year could not more defend a pick-and-roll than solve differential equations.

I knew the Jazz were going to be bad this year. But I thought there was a chance they’d be interestingly bad. They got rid of guys like Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush, guys who had never been stars and were now at the tail ends of mediocre careers. It was a youth movement all the way, a team with four rookies on the roster. They also hired a terrific young coach, Quin Snyder. And when hired, he said all the right things. The guys on the team were going to grow together, fail together, learn together, improve together.

That’s why I decided not to care if they won or not. And early this year, they lost a lot. They made a lot of mistakes, threw the ball away, got discouraged, couldn’t score when they needed to. But they just kept improving, especially defensively. They can guard a pick-and-roll. And on offense, you can see Snyder’s influence. Their spacing is better. They’re becoming a good passing team, looking for the guy with the open shot. They’re playing the kind of basketball I love, unselfish ball, with everyone touching the ball, working it around, drive and dish.

My favorite guy on the current team has to be Rudy Gobert. He’s 22, and huge. 7′ 1″, with an abnormally wide wingspan. He didn’t even start playing basketball until 2009, when his friends apparently suggested that a guy like him might have more success playing basketball than soccer. Last year, Rudy was big and awkward and hadn’t the faintest idea what he was doing out there. But he worked hard, kept after it, listened to the coaching staff. This season, you can see him improve week by week, game by game. It’s palpable, his growth, his increased understanding. Last year, he couldn’t catch the ball; this year, he’s got pretty good hands. Last year, he couldn’t shoot at all; this year, he’s got a nifty little hook shot, which usually misses, but looks serviceable enough. (In practice, he’s a deadeye with that shot). Above all, he can block shots. He was the 27th pick in the 2013 draft, and looks like a steal.

A big guy needs a passer, and the Jazz took a gamble in the last draft, taking a flyer on a 19 year old Australian kid, Dante Exum. They drafted him on pure potential. He didn’t have good form on his shot, and you can see how inexperienced he is. But his shot has improved a lot this season, and he’s also grown defensively. Last night, he guarded Tony Parker of the Spurs (a certain Hall-of-Fame point guard), and completely outplayed him. Dante’s fast, quick, tall, a leaper, an athlete. He also doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s just a kid. And he’s getting so very good at finding open teammates. He could be outstanding.

Until a week ago, the Jazz had a big center, Enes Kanter, from Turkey. Talented player, good shooter, good rebounder, really improving. And Enes seemed happy enough to be in Utah. But his agent, Max Ergul, was, to put it politely, nuts. Kanter was a good player, but he was not, as his agent seems to have believed, “the most dominant player of his generation.” Uh, no. I watched him play, game after game. And to be blunt, Enes Kanter was a bad defensive player. I saw it, game after game; whoever we played, their center had a career night while being guarded by Enes Kanter. Kanter could score, but obviously that doesn’t help your team when you give up even more points on the other end of the floor.  Ergul whined and whined about how the Jazz ‘mistreated’ his client, and finally he was traded, to Oklahoma City. He’ll do well there. And the Jazz haven’t lost since he left. Trading Enes Kanter was a classic case of addition by subtraction.

Add Exum and Gobert to a foundation of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, and you’ve got enough talent to compete, and the coach to help them get there. And the team should have two first round draft picks in this year’s draft. I know who I want them to use them on: Willie Caulley-Stein of Kentucky and Justin Anderson of Virginia. They both should be around when the Jazz draft, and they’re both perfect fits for Coach Quin’s system. This team is going to be fun to watch.