Tag Archives: NBA


First time since when? Stop the insanity!

I know that blogs like Deadspin and The Big Lead (I’m not linking because they’re popular enough not to need my click-through traffic) have made a cottage industry out of bashing ESPN at every knee-jerk opportunity. It’s not my desire to follow up on that trend.

However, sometimes little things irk me. And this blog is my way of scratching those little itches. Case in point:

As of today (Saturday), ESPN.com’s NBA page link to the recap of the Lakers series-ending win over the Utah Jazz had the following headline:

“Kobe leads Lakers to first West final since 2004.”

Is there anything wrong with that factually? Of course not. The Lakers haven’t been to the NBA’s Western Conference Finals series since 2004, when they made it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to Detroit in a major upset. (I’ll return to the upset part in a bit.)

What annoys me about this is the use of the whole first-since-whenever expression. Armchair journalist that I am, I go by the understanding that the phrase is supposed to conjure up the idea of a long time passing between notable accomplishments. So when the 2005 White Sox finally broke through and won the World Series — just like their more popular Boston counterparts a year earlier — it was appropriate to see and hear legions of sports pundits nationwide Chicago-based reporters and columnists hailing this team as having won their first World Series since 1917.

The active ingredient is the word “1917.” Said reporters and columnists would then break out the obligatory time-capsule comparisons… in 1917, the price of gas was … the President was … the latest fad amongst youngsters was … et cetera.

And folks ate it up, yours truly included.

But 2004? That was four years ago. Now obviously some significant things have changed since 2004 — the fortunes of a certain “rock-star” senator come to mind — but the world hasn’t changed that much.

Yet it’s somehow newsworthy that the Lakers managed to go three whole seasons!!! without making it to the Western Conference Finals.

In the immortal words of Cliff Claven, what’s up with that?

Is it a nod to the naive Laker fan who expected their team to win 10 titles in a row? Because it’s not like in 2004, people couldn’t see the Kobe/Shaq breakup coming. That writing was on the wall during their first title together in 2000.

Whatever the source of such an expectation, it reeks of entitlement. Just like Yankee fans, Laker fans have come to expect a title run every year, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s somehow news.

Well I got some “news” for ya… it’s called reality. Only four NBA teams will make it to their respective conference finals every year, only two will ascend to the NBA Finals, and only one will come out on top. And the basketball gods have not ordained the Lakers to be pre-approved for such honors year in and year out. Many other teams want it bad, too. Their guys are getting paid a lot of money too.

As a fan of a team with a devoted small-market base, I’ve come to understand this. Sometimes my boys will do well. Sometimes they won’t. Pretty soon I have reason to believe they’ll be chasing a title. But there’s no guarantee that it won’t all go sideways with another injury or an unforeseen personality clash or what have you. That’s what makes sports so compelling, you never really know what’s going to happen until it does.

So let me be clear. I know I’m a Laker-hater. I’m up front about that. And I’m not trying to take anything away from their accomplishment of making it back to the Western Conference Finals. They beat a very talented, very hungry Utah team, and for that, Kobe & Co. should be commended.

But lets not get too carried away. What’s news is that the Lakers won. Not that they didn’t win it any earlier.


15 words: Trail Blazers Ups and Downs

People ask me from time to time what I think about this year’s Trail Blazer team. I don’t really have the time to give you my full analysis, so I’ll give you the quick hits.

First, the good side.

The Portland Trail Blazers 2007-2008 Season:

… in one word: streak!
…in two words: unlimited potential
in three words: Oden in 2008!
in four words: Brandon Roy: The Man
in five words: The best? Yet to come.

Now, the down side.

The Portland Trail Blazers 2007-2008 Season:

in one word: disappointment
in two words: injuries abound
in three words: Brandon still hobbling
in four words: WANTED: true point guard
in five words: Jim Mora Said It: Playoffs?!


Links to make ya think: Obvious Edition

A glimpse at today’s headlines reveals a correlation between individuals who move up the chain of command and their inability to grasp the obvious.

Consider the latest sex scandal to sully a politician, where an avalanche of amorous text messages are threatening to be the downfall of Kwame Kilpatrick, the mayor of Detroit.

The obvious part is a money quote from Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm, who asserted that she doesn’t know if Kilpatrick can survive the controversy intact.

Let me make it easy for you, Governor: NO. HE CANNOT.

According to multiple published reports, he perjured himself in the process of denying an affair with his chief of staff Christine Beatty, all while trying in vain to prevent a probe into his firing the deputy chief of police for trying to uncover the affair and other misdeeds.

Umm… no.

He’s not skating away from that.

If Senator Obama is still being raked over the coals for Tony Rezko and Dr. Jeremiah Wright… ain’t NO WAY brotha K is getting away with all that. I know Gov. Granholm was just trying to be diplomatic about her young Democrat ally, but still. With all the respect that I would have for a young, up-and-coming African-American mayor in a downtrodden city, it pains me to say this but… stick a fork in him, ’cause he’s done.

(For the record, I was going to end that with just “stick a fork in him” but I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to get all Michael Richards on my man.)

Almost as sad is reading accounts of Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson Howard Wolfson attempt damage control surrounding the now-refuted account of the former first lady’s landing during a trip to Bosnia.

Their assertion? She may have misspoke.

I know I’m treading in dangerous territory here, considering I’ve known to exaggerate a story or three for dramatic effect. And I’d be violating all kinds of journalistic guidelines if I didn’t also point out that Senator Obama has been taken to task from time to time for stretching the facts to fit the contour of his rhetorical narrative (media whack jobs notwithstanding).

But still… she misspoke? Really? Are you sure she didn’t just ‘misremember’? No politician would ever publicly admit to lying in the middle of a hotly contested race, but you have to hand it to the Clinton camp — they’ve certainly got cojones.

Sinbad had the funniest line yet, recently commenting on the supposed danger:

“What kind of president would say, ‘Hey, man, I can’t go ’cause I might get shot so I’m going to send my wife…oh, and take a guitar player and a comedian with you.'”

I’m not going to say Senator Clinton has a big head, but if you look real closely at the Bosnia video, I think the little girl greeting her is really Lucy trying to snatch away the football.

In other news, the New York Knicks are finally ( and “–Allegedly!!–” as Rome would say) getting around to replacing Isiah Thomas. But amazingly enough, the fact that Isiah needs to go is not the most staggeringly obvious part. Rather, it’s that the fans have known this since the beginning of the season.

Which has somehow eluded the brilliant minds at Madison Square Garden, because they’re emailing fans, asking for their input on the state of the team.

Hearing thousands chant “Fire Isiah” day after day didn’t make it clear enough?


Links to make ya think: Shoe Edition

“And, coming in at #5 on our countdown, it’s Shoe Edition, with the classic R&B jam… ‘Can You Stand the Rain (Naw, My Kicks Are Suede).'”

So I’ve got kicks on the brain… prolly ’cause I need a new pair. I’d be thinking pretty seriously of gettin’ some of the new Starbury II’s if I didn’t have to drive all the way up to Seattle (or WAY east to Spokane) to grab a pair. If the Blazers make the playoffs and compete for a title in three years like they should, then I expect that to change. Steve and Barry, you have three years to get it together and open up a store in Portland.

In the meantime, I’ll have to grab a couple pair when I’m at Feet to Faith in August.

But Stephon Marbury’s notable discounted brand of shoes are not the only interesting brands in the world of b-ball shoes. As it turns out, Shaquille O’Neal started the trend awhile back (quote courtesy of Shaqquotes.com):

“I came out of practice one day, and this lady was upset. What’s wrong? ‘My son won’t wear nothing but your shoes, and I can’t afford them ‘cause they cost a hundred dollars.’ I go into my pocket. Here. ‘I don’t want your money,’ she said. ‘Why don’t some of you athletes put out shoes that people can afford?’ I’m thinking about that on my way home, remembering the time I asked my father for a pair of Jordans. He said, ‘Hundred dollars? No.’ Told me to get a job. So we started to make shoes that are affordable. Now you go to any shoe store in the ‘hood, anywhere in the world, and you’ll find Shaq’s shoes for thirty-nine dollars.”

Granted, Starbury’s sell for only $15, but compared to the triple-digit prices you’re likely to see on shoes marketed by Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, $40 is still remarkably inexpensive.

If only Shaq or Stephon could’ve been in the game when I was in school, then people like me and Gabriela Basulto wouldn’t have had to wear Pro-Wings in the fourth grade.

Oh, the shame.

Speaking of jacked-up sneaks, Steve Nash’s new kicks are garbage.


Nash has teamed up with Nike to release a brand of eco-friendly kicks made from recycled waste materials. It’s an impressive endeavor, not only because it sheds light on our need to reduce waste, but because the understated Nash chose to align himself with a product ironically called The Nike Trash Talk.

Oxymoronic like a mug.

If you like to celebrate St. Patrick’s day in style and you’re a sneaker hound, then here are your best bets to round out your green ensemble with footwear. My favs are the green Pumas… perfect for March 17, but also great to keep on hand for the inevitable House of Pain reunion tour. (Speaking of classic hip-hop that White people like…)

And finally, most sneaker fashionistas are also video game hounds, so it makes sense that two classic styles would converge in one: a Nike shoe with an original Nintendo Entertainment Systeminside. Weird? Definitely. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t lust after one at a white elephant party.

If nothing else, it’s the ultimate comeback to the dude wearing the Sprewells that come with spinners in ’em. Or the guy that shows up at your party wearing platforms with fish in ’em. Take that, Flyguy.


Are Sonics fans losers? Nope, just Lost

Yesterday I traveled up to Seattle for a planning meeting for a conference that I’m involved in helping to put together called Feet to Faith. It’s designed to engage teenagers who follow Christ into many of the social justice issues that are typically under-emphasized (if not outright ignored) in the church. It’s in August at Seattle University, and I’ll have the privilege of helping to lead worship. At some point I’m probably going to blog about it, so stay tuned. I just had to throw in a quick plug while I was thinking about it.

Anyway, being in Seattle again got me in sort of a pensive mood. I love the city of Seattle, though mostly from a distance. My family lived in Seattle for about seven years before we eventually moved and settled in Portland, the city I consider to be my hometown. And I have a few relatives in Seattle, but far more in Portland so usually those relative travel south to see us, we don’t usually go up there. As a result, I enjoy a fondness for Seattle every time I’m there, but it’s less of a heartfelt connection and more of a vague sense of familiarity.

It’s probably a little like running into a wacky lady at IKEA who used to be married to your uncle when you were little. You remember enough to think she’s nice, but it’s not like you really know her.

Anyway, this trip happened to coincide with the posting of Bill Simmons latest Sports Guy mailbag, in which he gives voice to the legion of Seattle fans mourning the impending loss of their beloved NBA franchise, the SuperSonics. And as I read through this today, I couldn’t help wondering if there was some connection to the other phenomenon that’s been occupying my thoughts lately, the epic TV series “Lost.”

And now I’ve concluded… yes, there is.

But first, a quote.

Simmons runs this quote in his mailbag, from The New Yorker’s Roger Angell, in response to a famous home-run by Carlton Fisk in the 1975 World Series of baseball:

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.

I believe that the massive fandom that people often exhibit toward sports teams is rooted in humanity’s neverending search for significance and meaning. Simply stated, people want to care about such things, because that’s where they find hope and joy and excitement. For some, following their team is their only source of such fulfillment. Even in the face of free agency, naming-rights controversy, criminal misconduct, and other PR nightmares, their devotion to their teams is unflagging. Fans like these make easy targets for scorn, since the term “fan” is short for “fanatic” — but you don’t know what it’s like until you’re in the middle of it.

Which explains why sports programming is often called the original reality TV — because people respond to epic TV the same way. They love the recurring characters, the inherent drama, the people you love to watch and love to hate. And they can be fiercely possessive about it. My wife Holly used to watch soap operas in her younger days, and one day I asked her about it:

“How could you be so engrossed by other people’s relationships and problems when you don’t know them?”

“The same way you can follow the stats for bunch of men you don’t know who throw around a ball for a living.”

Ummm, yeah. Pretty similar when you put it like that.

So what happens to a fan base when it finds itself in the sports equivalent of The Twilight Zone? They become, in a word… lost.

Which brings us to the aforementioned runaway hit on ABC, one of the few bright spots of this strike-reduced television season, and my current favorite since “Journeyman” was canceled.

There are many reasons for the show’s success (Mo Ryan of the Chicago Tribune has blogged about it quite extensively) but I think a large part of the appeal stems from the uniqueness of the premise. Like its reality-TV counterpart Survivor, Lost is able to draw a diverse audience because of its large, diverse cast of characters. Through the consistent use of flashback, each character’s back story, with its own plot and emotional arc, becomes another thread.

As you watch whole seasons, these threads are woven into the tapestry of mythology that defines the show. By watching a group of diverse characters undergo such a cataclysmic experience together, the viewer is drawn into a matrix of epic themes — good vs. evil, known vs. unknown, faith vs. science, the natural vs. the supernatural, manifest destiny vs. mother earth… and so on.

This is what drives that quest for meaning, among both the characters themselves and the viewers who vicariously live out their own struggles through these characters. They ask questions like:

Why am I here?
How have my experiences in life before this prepare me for life here?
Am I being punished for something I did before?
Who am I when I’m on this island?
Am I still fundamentally the same person I was before, or am I different now?
If the normal laws of society are no longer enforceable, are they still valuable?
How should I respond to conflict and hardship?
When is it okay to use violence as a means to an end?

And so on.

In addition to all the churning introspect, you as a viewer are ALSO trying to make sense of a pretty convoluted plot, full of flashbacks, plot holes, and (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) many layers of evil corporate conspiracy.

So while you watch, you do your best to make sense of things. You trust the show runner and the writing staff to give you answers, answers that are satisfying and make sense. If you watch long enough, this will happen. Most of the time.

But sometimes not. Sometimes the answers just don’t make sense, and so you wait for another show to explain the latest plot twist that feels ridiculous and inexplicable. You do this because the show has built up this emotional reservoir of trust, and if you have to dip into it from time to time, you figure it’s worth it in the long haul.

Lost is a show that demands a lot from its viewers, but somehow we hang in there anyway, waiting for the big payoff. We want to believe that it will all make sense in the end.

The only problem is, there is no guarantee this will happen.

Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, talented as they are, are not omniscient. Even though I’m sure they have a rough outline of the entire series arc between them, people forget — they’re still essentially making it up as they go along. So for people like me, people who obsess about the tiniest details, mining every scene for potential nuggets of insight… not all of it’s going to make sense. It’s just not. There’s no guarantee that the big payoff will come, or that it will be all that we’ve come to expect.

And the same is true for Sonics fans, or Blazers fans, or fans of any sports team. There’s no guarantee that, given enough time, enough good personnel decisions, enough money, and enough community support, your team will ascend to the top and win a championship. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

(Cub fan, I’m talking to you here.)

Not only that, there’s no guarantee that your team will always be there for you. Times change, and teams move. It sucks when it happens, but it happens. (See: Charlotte Hornets, LA Rams, Hartford Whalers, and many, many others.)

So what’s the antidote? Is it all just a waste of time that we should do without? Should we just stop believing altogether?

Journey fans would say no…. and I agree. The answer is not to stop believing, not to stop looking for meaning, not to stop entrusting our faith.

It’s to make sure we’re investing and entrusting it in something worthwhile, something that will stand the test of time. Something that matters on an eternal scale.

This is why I choose to put my faith in God. Because I believe He is the only One that has the full truth, the only One who can help me make sense of things. What’s more, I choose to believe in Him even though I know that things don’t always make sense in the world. In the face of epic tragedy on a global scale, or festering disappointment on a personal level, I put my trust in God and what He says in His Word.

Edward Mote said it best:

My hope is built on nothing less,
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace
In every high and stormy gale,
my anchor holds within the veil

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

That old hymn is the truth that I cling to, because life is full of stuff that sucks, stuff that is inexplicably harrowing and cruel and nonsensical.

And don’t get me wrong.

If I sound all holier-than-thou, then forgive me, because that’s not how I’m trying to come off. Obviously, I like to watch Lost (otherwise I wouldn’t know so much about it) and I really dig NBA basketball (otherwise I wouldn’t write so much about it). But I choose to enjoy those things in a broader context of relying on God to satisfy my deepest needs for significance and meaning.

Some people go the other way. They choose not to trifle with unimportant things. Their time is consumed with Things That Really Matter. Feeding the hungry. Serving the poor. Fighting for justice. And sometimes people with this bent can be awfully smug toward us regular folks who enjoy sports and TV. Roger Angell called it “amused superiority and icy scorn.”

But those folks aren’t doing themselves any favors, because everyone goes through a crisis of faith at some point or another. Maybe it’s not because a heavily-favored team lost the Super Bowl, but because a heavily-funded federal agency failed to serve its most needy constituents during the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Or maybe it’s because the inspirational story of a persecuted Jewish girl who outsmarted the Nazi and roamed among wolves in the wilderness… turned out to be fake. Or because the Air Force stopped awarding its most coveted defense contract to the northwest’s storied airplane builder, instead choosing a rival firm.

Either way, it hurts when something you thought was a sure thing turns out to be anything but.

But if you’re connected to the Lord of the universe, the maker of heaven and earth, then that hurt is only temporary. Being connected to a God so much greater than yourself gives you the freedom to enjoy life, in all of its ephemeral frailty. It awakens you to a greater awareness of His kingdom, hidden from the natural mind but revealed in the spirit.

This is why I choose to enjoy great TV shows like Lost, because there’s something wonderful that happens when my imagination is engaged. I may lose myself in the moment, but I can always come back to the truth, that all is not Lost.

So that’s my advice to Sonics fans. Be passionate. Defend your team. Keep trying to keep your boys in Seattle where they belong.

But if it doesn’t work, remember that all is not lost.

Because even if you don’t have a connection to God, even if you don’t have any connections to Clay Bennett, or Howard Schultz, or Greg Nickels… you still have your memories.

And you’ll still have your WNBA team, right?

I’m Jelani Greenidge, thanks for mixin’ it up with me.


Links to make ya think: Personality Edition

The Oracle said it best… “know thyself.”

With that Matrix quote in mind, I present a few links to get your personality juices flowing.

First, I recommend the Keirsey Temperament Sorter(registration required). It’s free, and it will group you into one of four main temperament groupings, each of which have four permutations of their own. It’s a hybrid of the Myers-Briggs type indicator analysis, which provides dichotomies on four variables: E or I (extraverted or introverted), N or S (intuitive or sensory), T or F (thinking or feeling) and P or J (perceiving or judging).

By the way, I’m just going to get this out of the way now: ENTP is by far the superior personality. (I’ll let you guess as to which one I am.)

Also, if you go to the front page of David Keirsey’s website, you’ll notice an article on Personality and Picking the President. Pretty heady stuff, until you get to their prediction for 2008, which wimps out by not picking an overall winner but the frontrunners for each party.
Gee, you think it’ll be either Obama or McCain? You don’t say…

For a much more thorough and interesting read on the candidates themselves and their personalities, check out this excellent Slate piece instead. For me, it was very enlightening — especially realizing that the qualities that are making people swoon over Barack Obama are the same qualities that made me fall madly in love with my wife Holly. For they are both ENFPs, the type known as The Champion.

Of course, if politics isn’t your thing, there’s still a lot you can learn about yourself.

Take this personality quiz from Channel One and you can figure out which element of hip-hop you most likely belong to (sorry bombers, graff is not included). Are you an emcee at heart? DJ? B-boy? Are you like a Too Big MC / Lil Jon / Mark Madsen hype man?

Okay, so I made that last one up, that option is not on the quiz. But they’re no less a part of hip-hop. Okaaaay!

On the other hand, this piece from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says one can tell a lot about your personality from the types of video games that you play.

And if any of the video games happen to be from the NBA Live (or the NBA 2K) series, then you might want to take this personality test, which will tell you which basketball player you would most likely be if you played in the Association.

However, it’s possible that you would like some confirmation on the true nature of your personality, but you don’t want to go through all this trouble of answering questions and whatnot. If that’s you, then I’ve got a simple test for you:

Go to bed.

Wake up in the morning. Write down whatever you can remember about your dream.

If this blog or any other blog made it into your dream, your diagnosis is clear:

You’re a nerd, simple as that.


Links to make ya think: Crime and Punishment Edition

What is it about the hood and crime? On second thought, don’t answer that.

Still though, it’s getting to the point where the educated are outnumbered by gangstas and wannabes. And by the way, don’t think that just by becoming a successful pro athlete, and keeping a clean profile (hard to do these days) that trouble won’t find you where you live. Consider the story of Terrell Brandon, former NBA point guard, who lives in his hometown of Portland. He was just recently the victim of an extortion attempt. Remember that ridiculous spam I read to you? Well this was just like that, only not as funny. Good thing dude got caught, though. Kinda sad really… TB and his homie set a trap for him, and dude fell right for it. Okay, so I guess it is kinda funny after all. Still messed up, though. My people!

Not that I would endorse this, but should you decide that you could become a better titan of crime, it’s best to learn by observation. Which is exactly what Sudhir Venkatesh did when he, as a fresh-faced grad student at the U of Chicago, accidentally befriended a high-level gang mogul. Little did either of them know that it would be the start of a long, fruitful relationship, culminating in Venkatesh’ sociology memoir Gang Leader for a Day. I perused it for a few hours at Powell’s a couple nights ago. The best part so far is in the beginning, when, at gunpoint, he begins to survey his foot-soldier captors in the middle of a urine-soaked stairwell, asking them: “how does it feel to be black and poor? Very uncomfortable, somewhat uncomfortable, neither uncomfortable nor comfortable…”


Of course, I do take some small solace in the fact that people in other parts of the world have the propensity to act equally bad. I’m thinking of a duo of looting young women in Belgrade, who were captured on YouTube during a riot in the Serbian capital. The video is entitled (English translation), “Swapping Kosovo for a pair of sneakers.” Basically, you have people rioting over the terrible political situation, and these ladies are trying to grab designers shoes and handbags.

I’m guessing this would be the cultural equivalent of the hoodrats who looted South Central after the Rodney King verdict. More proof that ghetto behavior is a worldwide phenomenon. I don’t know if these ladies were prosecuted or not, but their behavior being broadcast for all the world to see was, I’m sure, punishment enough.


If you must, lob your bombs with care

“Word to your moms, I’m here to drop bombs, I got more rhymes than the Bible’s got psalms.”

— Everlast, of the House of Pain, “Jump Around.”

So I’m noticing a disturbing trend.

(No, Kris Kross is not making a comeback. It’s not that disturbing.)

It’s become clear to me that in this media-saturated society in which we live, the fastest, easiest way to get attention (ratings, page-views, ad-clicks, sponsorships, whatever) is to go the route of the iconoclast, which is to attack the sacred cows of the establishment as often, loud, and outrageously as possible.

I call this phenomenon lobbin’ bombs.

Lobbin’ bombs is when you have something to say that contradicts some piece of conventional wisdom that other people hold dear. And rather than being tentative and hoping people take the right way, you just throw it on out there and see what happens. Which is usually an explosion of controversy. It doesn’t matter the issue you’re talking about. When you brashly throw out an opinion that you KNOW people will disagree with, and not only do you NOT care whether or they agree, but actually look forward to their hysterical reaction just for the fun of pissing people off… that’s lobbin’ bombs.

And I would be lying if I said I didn’t do it from time to time. In the right context, it’s loads of fun. But it must be done with care, because like any form of demolition, it’s dangerous if you’re not careful about it. if you have something to say that people aren’t looking forward to hearing, it’s possible to do it in a way that minimizes the carnage. But if you choose not to, then you bear some of the responsibility for whatever mass destruction ensues.

Case in point:

Out of Ur, the Leadership blog of Christianity Today, posted a review (and a follow-up post) of a book called Pagan Christianity. The controversy surrounding this book stems from an offshoot of its central thesis, that there are far too many facets of today’s organized-religion version of Christianity that have been appropriated from pagan rituals and practices… including the idea of having one person as the primary hub of teaching and spirituality being paid full-time as professional practitioner of ministry, a.k.a. “the pastor.”

Obviously as a PK I’m biased here, but that is a bomb if I’ve ever seen one. This cat is basically calling for the end of the pastorate as we know it. And the fact that he’s got the endorsement of (and shares co-author billing with) George Barna, one of the top names in religious market research, up til now a trusted name in evangelical circles… one would think they would’ve had the foresight to know this might make a few people upset.

Nevertheless, the tone of the book from the few excerpts that I’ve seen (and the Q&A from Viola’s website) lead me to believe that Viola is more concerned with deconstructing the established religious hierarchy and less with maintaining unity of the believers. Which is sad, to me, because it doesn’t have to be this way. If he had taken more of a conciliatory tone in an attempt to win over bloggers, emerging pastors and other cogent members of the Christian intelligentsia, then maybe his ideas would be received in a better light.

Of course, Viola’s defenders might say that this would be an ethical compromise tantamount to ideological treason, so maybe there’s some truth to that. I mean, bombs are bombs.

But obviously there are ways to lob bombs that are more destructive than others.

(I’m talking to you, Aaron McGruder.)

For those unfamiliar with his work, I’m thinking specifically of the first episode of The Boondocks’ animated series, where the lead character, Black nationalist ten-year-old Huey Freeman, walks into the middle of a nice, quiet garden luncheon and drops a few rhetorical bombs of his own. Intending to shock the people out of their bourgeois stupor, he says this:

“Excuse me. Everyone, I have a brief announcement to make. Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9-11. Thank you for your time and good night.”

The ironic thing about his episode (MILD SPOILER ALERT) is that Huey dreams up this very scenario in the beginning of the episode, and it ends in a riot bordering on anarchy. But when he actually gets the chance to try it out at the Wuncler’s garden party, it has the opposite effect. People just politely clap, quietly amused at such an articulate young boy.

This is actually a brilliant piece of writing, because not only does it show young Huey’s frustration about not being taken seriously, but it also shows the power of context. McGruder has proven with this show that it’s easier to digest the profanity and pointed leftist satire that The Boondocks is known for when it’s coming in the form of animation. By being drawn, it looks less real, even though the subject matter and dialogue is as real as anything this side of The Wire.

Now as I said before, bombs are bombs. They’re going to blow some stuff up. And to an extent, they’re going to hurt — regardless.

But sometimes there are nicer ways to do it.

I’m thinking now of one of the most popular web-based sportswriters of our time, Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy.

In a recent column, he pleads for people to come back to New Orleans, the site of the 2008 NBA All-Star festivities. It’s a great column, and according to Cosellout, one of Simmons finest moments as a writer. New Orleans is desperate for tourism to return, which is why it was such a great gesture for NBA commissioner David Stern to hold his flagship league event there, three years after Hurricane Katrina. And Simmons’ essential point is that people don’t want to return there because they don’t want their vacations interrupted with the emotional baggage of the worst national disaster in our history, but they should because the city needs our tourism dollars in order to continue the rebuilding process.

From there, Simmons launches into a discussion of the NBA’s perceived image problem:

As one NBA higher-up whispered to me last weekend, “People still think we have an image problem, I just don’t get it. Do they even watch us? Do they see the caliber of the guys we have now?”

That’s the issue gnawing at everyone working for the league right now. The NFL has considerably more thugs, Major League Baseball has a steroids scandal that basically has tainted the past 15 years of games, yet somehow the NBA is still perceived as the league with an image problem? For god’s sake, if the NBA can’t put that tag to rest this year, of all years, then it’s never happening, and we’ll have to accept there are deeper issues at work here.

(Well, one deeper issue. And you know what it is.)

If you’ve been paying attention to the NBA and to society in general, then you know exactly what he’s talking about: subconscious, institutionalized racism.

I can expand this discussion in a later post, because this is a huge issue that two or three sentences cannot adequately address. But many in the large cottage industry of sports related commentary punditry have been banging on the NBA for its “image problem” (a euphemism for being too Black, or too hip-hop) despite the fact that there have been way more documented instances of serious criminal behavior and drug abuse in the NFL and MLB, respectively.

Can something so understated still be called a bomb? When it comes to racism, I say yes. Racism is the third rail of polite discussion, something to be avoided at all costs. And many purveyors of ESPN content don’t want the reality of race relations injected into the fantasy and escapism involved with following professional sports. And so Bill Simmons has wisely found a way to bring race into the conversation, ever-so-briefly, yet without equivocation.

Nicely done, Sports Guy.

So all you folks railing against the man, eager to unleash your down-with-the-system soliloquies into the blogosphere… take note. There’s more than one way to drop a bomb.

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.


Context: Frame It, Then Name It

3 … 2… 1… Context.

You ever wondered about what context means? If you have, let me break down the etymology. You’ve got “con,” which is Spanish for “with,” and then you’ve got “text,” which is English for “text.”

Okay, you know what? Forget about the etymology part.

Context is reading between the lines. It’s looking past the foreground into the background, and then appreciating the whole picture. And when it comes to evaluating or understanding something, context is key. Without it, you don’t have the whole story. In other words, what you name it depends on how you frame it.

Love and Basketball

Ponder these words, if you will:

“Oh man, dude. You suck.”
“What?! Oh, come onnnnnnnnn…”
“Yea-yuh! And one!”
“Unhh! … that’s my dude right there.”
“Get off me!”
“Get that outta my house.”

You might be wondering where these quotes are coming from. They sound like they could be catchphrases for the latest round of network sitcoms, or maybe things overheard at a local tavern. One would not, however, expect these to be words of love and endearment.

But they are.

You know why? Because of the context in which they are spoken.

These are the words that tend to pepper the air whenever my brother and I get together to play video game basketball. And every time we get together to “hit the sticks” (or whatever other euphemism we use to denote our testosterone-charged, button-mashing get-togethers), it’s great. It’s a form of bonding that we’ve shared for years, through adolescence and into adulthood. It’s something we love to do as often as we can.

Of course, if you were to walk in and not know that we were brothers and that this is part of our sacred male bonding time, you might think we were bitter enemies. Because we talk. We talk smack. We talk trash. We just talk. Or sometimes, during tense moments, we grunt and mutter. Occasionally, we might cuss. (I’m not proud of this, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t happen.)

Most importantly, we are obsessed with making the other person feel the bitter taste of defeat.

Yet, when the game is over, it’s all love.

Usually when we get together, my wife is somewhere else. This happens not by coincidence, but by design. Partially it happens because watching us duke it out on the XBOX is not Holly’s idea of a good time. But mostly it’s because she is a sensitive soul, and should not be exposed on a regular basis to the types of things that my brother and I yell at each other. Even though she knows my brother and I really do love each other and that video-game basketball has become a time-honored ritual, it’s probably still not the best idea for her to be present when Jomo and I are verbally dismembering each other. It’s just not very pleasant to be around.
Well, not for her, anyway. But for us, two brothers who naturally compete at anything recreational… it’s great.

What’s the lesson here? Context is everything.

* * *

Good Guys and Bad Guys

It’s an important lesson to learn, too.

Because sometimes you can miss out on layers of meaning when you don’t look at the whole equation. Sometimes things that look one way turn out to be quite another way. Sometimes good guys do bad things. Sometimes bad guys do good things. And most times, you can’t tell the difference at first glance.

That’s where context comes in. It helps you frame what you’re looking at, so you can tell what’s really going on.

Such was the case at U.S. Cellular Field on the South side of Chicago when the Chicago White Sox hosted the Chicago Cubs for a three game series of interleague baseball. During the game, Sox player A.J. Pierzynski got into an altercation with the Cubs’ Michael Barrett over a collision at home plate.

Well, “altercation” is a nice word for it. Basically, Barrett the catcher didn’t appreciate getting knocked over by Pierzynski the baserunner, especially since the outfielder’s throw to home was late. So after they both got up, Barrett socked Pierzynski in the mouth.

Now if that’s all you know about the situation, then it’s easy to call Barrett the bad guy and Pierzynski the good guy, especially since from the rulebook standpoint, Pierzynski’s play was legal. But that’s not all we know about the sitaution.

First, we know that A.J. Pierzynski has a history of getting into scrapes and altercations. He’s known for having somewhat of an abrasive attitude, which is part of the reason why he’s reviled in other towns and loved in Chicago. Also, we know that later in the game when he hit a home run off of Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, Pierzynski tapped his heart and pointed to the sky, which is Zambrano’s signature move when he strikes out a batter. So basically he was trying to show up Zambrano by mimicking him.

We also know that tempers always flare during crosstown rivalries, and this one was even more intense because of the Cubs’ continued futility and the Sox having just won the World Series in 2005. So it’s possible that the Cubs were already on edge, because playing poorly in the same city where your bitter rivals are playing well… that’ll do a number on even the most docile of players. And, by the way, Barrett has his own history of bad behavior to contend with as well.

So you can call A.J. Pierzynski a bad guy if you want. Or you can call Michael Barrett a bad guy, since he was the one who threw the punch and started the bench-clearing brawl. But which way you go will depend largely on how you choose to frame the story. Text may tell the story, but context rules the ending.

Same type of thing happened during the first round of the NBA Playoffs, when the Los Angeles Lakers went up against the Phoenix Suns. Superstar baller Kobe Bryant was driving to the hoop when he was thrown to the ground by Suns defender Raja Bell. Bell was eventually suspended one game for the flagrant foul on Bryant.

End of story, right? Hardly.

During a press conference after the game, Raja Bell was asked by reporters why he fouled Bryant so hard, and Bell defended his actions by describing some of what he felt was overly physical play from Bryant. He was apologetic for letting down his teammates and taking inappropriate retaliation, but he said this about Bryant:

“I have no respect for him. I think he’s a pompous, arrogant individual.”

(Parenthetically, I just have to say that this is why I love the NBA. It’s reality TV and soap opera, all rolled into one.)

So later, after reporters told Kobe what Raja said about him, Kobe unleashed this piece of commentary:

“Do I know this guy? I don’t know this guy. I might have said one word to this guy. I think he overreacts to stuff. … I don’t think about him. … I don’t know this kid. I don’t need to know this kid. I don’t want to. We go out there and play the game and leave it at that. Maybe he wasn’t hugged enough as a kid. I look at him a little bit and he gets a little insecure about something.

At first, it sounds like Kobe’s trying to take the high road. No harm, no foul, let’s just move on. But that’s what Kobe wants you to think, because for the last two years he’s been desperate to rehabilitate his ailing public persona. You know, the one that was tarnished by rape allegations in Colorado.

Also, NBA fans know that Kobe is lying when he says he doesn’t know Raja Bell. The fact of the matter is Bell guarded Bryant extensively during the NBA Finals in 2001, when Bell played for the Philadelphia 76ers. And if that wasn’t enough, Bell has played in the Western conference for four years now, which means he probably had to guard Bryant every time his Phoenix Suns played Bryant’s Lakers, which happened several times a year.

In addition, Kobe Bryant called Raja Bell a kid, even though Bryant himself is a year younger. Add to that the not-enough-hugs line, and you can see the venom lurking under the surface. While his demeanor at the press conference might have been placid, Kobe wasn’t trying to bury the hatchet as much as he was trying to bury his opponent. Much like his coach Phil Jackson used to do, Kobe tried to pull a mindgame on Raja. He wanted not only to defeat him not only on the basketball court, but the court of public opinion.

Now Kobe Bryant is the ultimate competitor, one of the many reasons why he has repeatedly been compared to Michael Jordan. So his ultra-competitve nature is probably to blame for such vicious invective in the press. The bitter irony, though, is that it didn’t work. Phoenix went on to defeat L.A. in seven games. To add insult to defeat, Raja Bell’s mom got in the act. As Kobe walked from the court back to the locker room, she called out, “Kobe, need a hug?”

Now if the Lakers would have won the series, Bryant would have been heralded as a mastermind. Folks would’ve pointed to that press conference and said, See? Kobe is so good, he was able to get into their heads and affect their confidence. But that ain’t how it went. Raja Bell earned himself a suspension for his play against Kobe Bryant, but his team ultimately won the series. As Rasheed Wallace likes to say, the ball don’t lie. And in the context of wins and losses, Bryant came off looking like a chump.

These are two examples, but the list goes on in sports. Some people see two floppy-haired old friends in a restaurant eating dinner together; others see two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash eating with All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, each of them fraternizing with “the enemy” while their respective fan-bases howl in protest. Some see former Tennessee Titan quarterback Steve McNair and former Boston Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon as traitors for signing with their division rivals (the Baltimore Ravens and New York Yankees, respectively). Others see jilted veterans just wanting to end up someplace where their skills are appreciated and properly compensated. It’s all in how you frame the story.

Sequels: Supremacy vs. Suckiness

What’s true in sports is also true in entertainment.

Specifically with films, context is key. To both filmmakers and critics alike, context helps to dictate the relative quality and enjoyability of a film. Particularly for pop-culture film franchises, movies are compared not only to what else may be playing at the time, but to earlier or later films in the series. If they can stand up to the comparison, then they are successful. If not, they tend to suck. It’s often as simple as that.

A great example of this is all of the Batman movies that have been made in the last two decades. The first two, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) were directed by Tim Burton and starred Michael Keaton as the eponymous superhero. Dark and brooding in tone, they were successful in resurrecting the Frank Miller character to the forefront of American pop culture. While a vocal minority of critics and parent advocacy groups thought the films were too nihilistic (read: violent and scary), their box-office success — and cumulative DVD rental revenue – have left the Burton/Keaton Batman legacy intact. As most hardcore fans will attest, these first two films were successful because they were true to the tone and feel of the original comic-book Batman character. The Burton / Keaton Batman resonated in the context of the original Batman.

But like Tom Cruise in Cocktail taught us, everything in life ends badly… or else it wouldn’t end. In the case of the Batman franchise, Warner Bros. was angling for a bigger piece of the pie. So for the third and fourth films they dumped director Tim Burton in favor of Joel Schumacher, who presided over the average Batman Forever and the horrid Batman and Robin. Critics almost unanimously agreed that these films were bad, in part, because they reverted to the cartoonish nature of the ’60s era Batman TV series.

Ironically, if the first two films had never been made, Schumacher’s adaptations of the Batman franchise might have been more widely appreciated. Played up for laughs and zaniness in the same vein as The Austin Powers movies, Batman and Robin might have been a critical successs. And then the ad blurb ‘splayed across the DVD cover would’ve been, “A JOYFUL ROMP!!!” rather than what it probably reads now, which is something along the lines of, “All the fun of a root canal for half the price!”

This problem of movie sequels not living up to their predecessors is widespread. It’s the same problem that most fans had with the Wachowski brothers’ sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Time and space do not permit me to fully digest all of the controversy that these films swirled up, but most fans who were disappointed with the movies won’t tell you that they were terrible films, but that they weren’t as good as the first one. And that’s because they couldn’t be as good as the first one. The law of diminishing returns proves that after you come up with anything as hot and crazy and visceral as The Matrix, the more times you go back into that arena the less enjoyable it’ll be. The novelty will eventually wear off.

So whereas in the first film, when you saw Neo doing all the crazy kung-fu machine gun acrobatics, it was like, ohh dude, that’s AWESOME. But the second time around you see the same type of scene and you’re like, hmm… that’s nice. Not quite the same experience. Larry and Andy tried to make up for this by contorting the plot into a series of philosophical brain-twisters, but for a lot of folks it didn’t work.

So as individual films, the Matrix sequels were technically laudable, and thus, good. But as sequels, not so good. Context strikes again.

Public Policy? Preposterous

This idea of context is useful when you’re dealing in the low-stakes realms of sports and entertainment. Because after all, regardless of which teams win their respective championships or which movie studios make the most money with their films, the lives of regular folk like us won’t be affected a whole lot.

But when you’re dealing with public policy and politics, context becomes even more meaningful, because now you’re talking about stuff that affects everybody. Jobs, money, safety, schools… these are universals that just about everyone has a stake in.

So when you read the paper or you turn on the news, you need to have an awareness of what’s really going on. To do so, you need to look beyond the spin of what The Man wants you to think to get to where the truth actually lives.

This is where context comes in quite handily.

Take, for example, taxes. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society. The idea here is that as citizens of the state, we choose to relinquish part of our income in order to benefit from public benefits like roads, schools, homeland security, etc. In theory, this is all well and good. Our acceptance of this model tends to hinge on our belief in the integrity and prudence of government spending. We’ll put up with taxes as long as we think that money is being spent wisely.

But how do we know if it is, in fact, being spent wisely? Or, more to the point, how can we tell what wise spending looks like? Governments often try to address this problem by drafting tax plans to address specific problems. Many states in the U.S., for example, tax cigarettes very heavily. They do so under the understanding that the money they’re getting by taxing the tobacco industry should be spent on helping to fix the overall health and wellness of the populace, many of whom are smokers. Big tobacco has made money by making people sick, the idea goes, so we should recoup some of that money by helping them to get well.

The state of Oregon, where I now reside, has such an arrangement in place. But John A. Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute takes issue with the way the state is spending this money.

However, each state is free to spend the money any way it wants, and many legislators are treating the fund as a cash cow. For example, on April 17 tobacco makers turned over $66.3 million to Oregon. More than 88 percent of that money will be spent for debt service on bonds that have nothing to do with public health, while less than 12 percent will go to the Oregon Health Plan. None of the funds will be spent on tobacco cessation programs, even though cigarette smokers are the ones paying for the settlement.

Charles recently appeared on The Georgene Rice Show to make this same point — which is, essentially, that the taxation of cigarettes by the state of Oregon becomes grossly immoral when the state doesn’t use that money to help people stop smoking and live better lives. Not only that, but Charles goes further, alleging that the state’s use of “sin taxes” (also called “vice taxes”) on things like alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets do more to encourage those behaviors than discourage them, because the state ends up counting on the revenues they bring in.

So basically, the state justifies taking money from its citizens by promising to use it to help pay for health care, but then uses that money for other purposes. On the surface it seems like a good policy, but in the context of the state’s overall spending patterns, it turns rotten.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not a shill for the Republican party. I can’t stand cigarette smoke. I think it’s gross, and I generally don’t like hanging around with people who smoke on a regular basis. I’ve watched The Insider several times, and I think the tobacco industry should pay for duping the American public into thinking its product wasn’t addictive when they know good and well that it was.

Having said that, it’s unconscionable for the state of Oregon to latch onto a group of socially-acceptable scapegoats (smokers) and hide behind a shield of altruism in order to continue its pattern of bloated spending — especially when that spending doesn’t go toward helping its citizens stop smoking. Talk about mixed messages. That one ranks up there with my favorite billboard slogan, “SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. WEAR FURS.”

Read The Word. In Context.

So now that you’ve learned about the power of context in sports, entertainment, and public policy, turn your attention to the place where it is most critical — The Word of God.
For Christians, the Bible should be the foundation of our understanding. It should shape what we think about everything. But too often we misunderstand the Scripture when we don’t read it holistically, with understanding about the context.

The underrated emcee Flame does a song about this on his sophomore album, Rewind. It’s called, appropriately, “Context”:

With this skill, it’ll keep you from heresy / And keep you from going through theological therapy, yup / The Words of God’ll change your life / if you keep these texts in context.

The song is pretty light-hearted, and gets pretty good mileage out of old seminary punchlines (“‘Icy Jesus?!’ Naw, I said eisegesis, fam”). But the message is undeniable, and one that needs to be learned by all Christians. Unless you know and understand each Scripture in its context, you don’t know the Word of God.

Consider the popular refrigerator-magnet favorite Philippians 4:13.

It reads in the New King James Version as, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds like something Tony Robbins would quote, as he’s trying to get you to visualize success. That verse has been quoted ad nauseam, by a variety of Christians, in a variety of ways, usually in the vein of: Go-get-em, tiger! You can do it! You can do anything you set your mind to! You can be a star! You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!

There’s only one problem here. That interpretation isn’t exactly consistent with the context. Read the whole passage (this time in the NIV for clarity):

I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

What the Apostle Paul is talking about here is not achievement, but humility. In his letter to the church at Philippi (you know, the Philippians, hence the name) he is speaking about the generosity of the church members who had helped him pay for his living expenses while he was there ministering to them. What he was saying was that he’s okay regardless of how much money he has.

Now there are many miraculous stories in the Bible, and many verses of Scripture that speak of God’s awesome power and miraculous deeds. But Philippians 4:13 isn’t really one of them. And when we choose to read our own ideas into the text rather than letting the whole text speak for itself, then we miss out on the wisdom therein.

Especially concerning this verse. Because lets face it, you can take voice lessons, sing in the church choir, and watch “American Idol” until your face turns blue, but that won’t necessarily turn you into a top-quality vocalist. The point of Phil 4:13 is NOT that you can do anything you set your mind to. But many Christians believe that is the point, and often sidetrack their lives trying to pursue goals that are not what God has called them to do.

The real lesson in Phil 4:13 is that God can help us walk through whatever situation we’re in, and we can be grateful either way. If money is short, then God can teach us lessons on frugality and valuing people over money. On the other hand, if we have plenty and our refrigerators are stocked and there’s plenty in the bank, then we have an opportunity to be a blessing to others. So either way, if we’re walking with God, we’re gonna be okay.

That can be a hard message to swallow, because most of us would rather be on the cover of People than on the brink of starvation. That’s just human nature. But humility is something that each of us can attain. It’s not just for super-spiritual people like Mother Teresa. Yet you’ll never unlock that beautiful truth if you’re stuck trying to become rich and famous.

What Does It All Mean?

The point of this whole essay is to convince you of the importance of getting the whole story. Everyone has their version of the truth, but not everyone knows the Truth. Mastering the learning of context is getting a balanced perspective on a matter. It means you measure a public statement not only on whether or not it sounds good or makes sense, but also by who said it and what that person has done or said in the past. Is that person trustworthy? Do they have a history of being correct? Can they admit when they’re wrong?

If you can successfully answer those types of questions, then you’ll have more than just something to read.

You’ll have something to say.

I’m G*Natural; thanks for mixin’ it up with me.


Loud judgments only reveal inner hypocrisy

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” – Romans 2:1 (NIV).

I need to preface this piece with the following disclaimer: I do not claim to have it together.

Like Paul the apostle wrote about himself in his letter to Philippi, I have not obtained it yet. I do not claim to be perfect; nor do I claim to have an immunity from pride or humbling mistakes.

But my twenty-nine plus years on the earth have given me a little bit of perspective. Thus, from my unique vantage point, I feel comfortable in giving a little friendly advice to those who may soon find themselves in the public eye:

If you’re gonna clown somebody for doing something bad, make sure you’re not doing the exact same thing to somebody else. It only makes you look that much worse.

Isiah Thomas: The New Al Capone

This issue vaulted to the forefront of my mind as I read a recent piece by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, also known as the Boston Sports Guy. His readers had just alerted him to a recent interview of former NBA great and current Knicks GM Isiah Thomas by Stephen A. Smith on New York City’s ESPN radio affiliate 1050 AM. In the interview, Smith asked Thomas to comment, as a high-profile Black sports executive, on the lack of Black sports editors in the media.

Isiah responded by going on a mini-tirade about the bias that sports editors often exhibit in the ways that they process information, frame quotes, etc. Included was this rather defensive bit of commentary:

“And I’ve heard you say this on your show, Stephen A., you’ll call guys out about their ability but you don’t ever get into personal attacks … because that’s when you cross the line and most athletes can understand that. But when you’ve got little guys, you know, sitting behind the desk, you know 5 feet 2 and you never get a chance to see them and they take shots at your character and what you are as a man. If somebody would say those things to you on the street, and would walk up to you and just start saying that to any person in the street … Oh, there’d be a problem. And I’m gonna tell you, if I see this guy Bill Simmons, oh it’s gonna be a problem with me and him.”

Granted, this is a far cry from Pat Robertson almost putting out a hit on the president of Venezuela. But with these set of comments, and others like it, Isiah revealed the dark side of his normally mild-mannered, well-spoken public persona. He was basically saying, hey, you sportswriters are weasels, especially that Bill Simmons, and if I see him in person, I’m gonna squash him like a roach.

Now Simmons himself admitted that he has taken a lot of shots at Isiah Thomas, but he claims (and the links to his previous articles bolster this contention) that he’s never said anything bad about Isiah that A) weren’t documented facts about his personnel decisions as Knicks GM, B) statements about his style of play, or C) isolated incidents containing information independently corroborated by plenty of other unbiased sources.

In other words, he’s never said anything about Thomas that wasn’t either factually accurate or relatively true. But for doing this, again and again,Simmons deserves to catch a beat-down?

I feel a little bad bringing this next part up, because in some ways it feels like I’m piling on. Nevertheless, it’s kind of ironic that I learned about this issue with Isiah and Bill Simmons yesterday — the same day that headlines blared the news that Thomas’ own former VP of marketing, college basketball standout Anucha Brown Sanders, had filed suit against him and the Knicks’ parent company for sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

Among the many accusations leveled against Thomas was that he had turned other Knicks employees against her by berating her publicly with profanity-laced tirades. According to the New York Daily News, these become so frequent that even the Knicks’ star guard Stephon Marbury began referring to her as “a Black b****,” a term that Isiah himself had used on more than one occasion.

Now if that’s not a personal attack, I don’t know what is.

What’s more disturbing about the original incident between Isiah and Bill Simmons is that involved Stephen A. Smith, a man who is known for a brash, confrontational style (his critics call him “Screamin’ A”) and who supposedly doesn’t care who is offended by his version of the truth. Not only did he duck an opportunity to question a public official with a checkered history of decision-making, but he implied that he didn’t even know who Simmons was. This despite the fact they work for the same network (ESPN) and, according to Simmons, one of the producers of Smith’s ESPN2 talk show “Quite Frankly,” had previously contacted Simmons about flying to New York to be a guest on the show.

The next time Stephen A. Smith blasts some milquetoast sports anchor for not asking the hard questions, it’s only going to magnify his own lack of doing the same. This particular scenario may give him some legitimate cover, because hey — it’s not his job to book the guest, it’s the producers’ job. But still. Astute followers of the ESPN media conglomerate were left after this episode with jaws agape, wondering… what happened to Screamin’ A?

Quite frankly, it looks like he’s losing his edge.

Vince calls out Kobe
(In other news, the pot calls the kettle ‘black’)

If you don’t follow sports closely then you might not have heard, but on the same Sunday evening that the NFL’s two conference title games were deciding the participants of this year’s Super Bowl, LA Lakers guard Kobe Bryant set the sports world abuzz by scoring 81 points in a regular season basketball game against the Toronto Raptors.

This is a monumental achievement, eclipsing all other individual scoring accomplishments except for Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 100-point game in 1962. Naturally, everyone in the NBA world wanted to weigh in and give their take, so when reporters from the New Jersey Star Ledger asked New Jersey Nets guard Vince Carter what he thought, he told them he was worried about it sending a bad message to kids about individual vs. team play.

This from someone who averages almost as many shot attempts per game as Kobe Bryant, the man supposedly sending a bad message to kids about team play. And if Vince Carter’s current statistical output isn’t damning enough, his past is.

Toronto Raptor fans remember Vince Carter’s last year with the Raptors, when he played as a shadow of his former self. In 2000, his nickname was “Air Canada,” as he wowed fans all over the world with his athletic dunks, long-range shooting, and flashes of dominant play. But by 2004, in the middle of a long-term contract with the team, Carter was disillusioned with the team’s overall play and lack of payroll flexibility. He openly demanded to be traded on numerous occasions, and gradually forced the Raptors to trade him when it became clear that he would not play hard while suited up in Toronto.

So by repeatedly going through the motions and barely giving half an effort, he torpedoed the fortunes of the ballclub that drafted him and awarded him with a lucrative contract.

And this guy’s worried about Kobe Bryant sending a bad message to kids? Fuggedabout it. If pulling a ‘Kobe’ amounts to playing with matches, then pulling a ‘Vince’ is like hosting a backyard fireworks show with Fire Marshall Bill.

Not just sports but politics, too

You may expect this kind of thing from time to time with out-of-touch athletes, but it’s darn near become the standard with career politicians.

If you don’t believe me, see Sen. Ed Kennedy (D-Mass.), who practically got a hernia trying to block the appointment of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Among his many protests was the idea that he felt Alito’s record showed he was “overly deferential” to the executive branch of government, the branch controlled by the President of the United States. Kennedy was trying to capitalize on the recent criticism of President Bush’s domestic wiretapping programs that many Democrats claim to be illegal. Kennedy claimed that an appointment of Alito to the Supreme Court would endanger the system of checks and balances that ensures an even distribution of power in our U.S. government.

Of course, if you read the transcript of his comments before Congress regarding the impending impeachment of then-president Clinton in 1998, curiously absent from his rhetoric is any mention of checks-and-balances. Instead, he decried partisan attacks on the president from an overzealous House Judiciary Committee.

So apparently it’s only okay to restrict the President’s authority if he doesn’t belong to your party.

Republicans have also gotten into the act, like the many who criticized U.S. Senator (and former first lady) Hillary Rodham Clinton for comparing Congress to a plantation, even though as the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page noted, then Republican Majority Leader Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) essentially said the same thing in 1994.

But even the new, rising stars of politics can endanger their credibility by denouncing problems abroad and overlooking those same problems at home. According to the Tribune’s John Kass, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) faces a difficult task, trying to lead the charge for a new ethical standard of conduct while downplaying the rampant corruption in his own state party. Between embattled governor Rod Blagojevich and the defiant mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley… it’s gotten to the point for Chicago Democrats that no-news-is-good-news.

But not all news out of Chicago is bad…

Oprah & Dave: Models of Contrition

No, not that Dave. I’m speaking of Dave Chapelle.

Because if you examine recent events, both Oprah Winfrey and Dave Chapelle have exhibited a striking willingness to tell the truth about themselves, even when it comes at great personal cost.

Oprah’s epiphany came more recently.

In September, she had enthusiastically endorsed a book of memoirs by James Frey entitled A Million Little Pieces. It was a melodramatic story of a drug-addicted criminal who experiences redemption through incarceration and personal discovery. Winfrey gushed about it repeatedly, claiming she and her whole staff had been absolutely riveted by the book.

It was so visceral, so gut-wrenching… and so false, according to an exposé by The Smoking Gun, a website dedicated to debunking myths. According to the TSG story, most of the details of the central characters, including himself, had been wildly exaggerated for dramatic effect. Oprah’s first inclination, once the controversy surfaced, was to defend her darling author — which she did via a phone call to “Larry King Live!” on CNN.

But once the truth was incontrovertibly evident, she again booked James Frey to appear on her show — and before a national audience, admitted that she was wrong for supporting him. Not only that, she blasted him for what she felt was a work of colossal deceit and betrayal. More important is what she didn’t do, which was try to sweep the whole thing under the rug, or take veiled shots at The Smoking Gun by claiming that they were jealous.

On a national stage, she was bold in admitting that she was wrong.

How refreshing.

Similarly refreshing has been the ascent of comic firebrand Dave Chapelle. Known for his ascerbic wit and the gleeful, profane way he skewers our country racial sensibilities, he created a hit show for himself in 2003 with Comedy Central’s “Chapelle’s Show.” Two seasons and $50 million later, he found himself in a weird position. His show’s runaway success and the ubiquitous catchphrases he unwittingly unleashed (“I’m Rick James, b****!”) became increasingly uncomfortable for him, to the point where he began to realize he had created a monster — and it was getting too big for him to control.

What he could have done was keep collecting checks, and once he ran out of original things to say, he could have just kept recycling the same themes and racial cliches that vaulted him to stardom in the first place. But, as he revealed (subscription req’d) to Time reporter Christopher John Farley, he didn’t want success to change him. And more to the point, he began to wonder if his own sketches were crossing the line, and reinforcing the same stereotypes he had previously ridiculed.

So instead, he bounced.

Just straight up disappeared, taking a hasty “spiritual retreat” to South Africa. After he bolted during production of the show’s third season, and many speculated as to the cause of his sudden change of heart. (Including this wacky “Worth 1000” Photoshop contest.)

It wasn’t until the aforementioned Time interview that he revealed his inner motivation for leaving. And this interview, to me, represented Chapelle’s finest hour.

Because once he had taken the time to view the situation from an objective standpoint, he could have tried to distance himself from everything that he felt was wrong. He could have, very easily, blamed the others who surrounded him, especially since some of those people were White, and Lord knows White people make easy targets for racism these days.

But he didn’t go that route. Instead, he took the time to undergo some personal introspection, and pointed the finger — at himself.

Again, I say — how refreshing.

What Does This All Mean?

Avoiding hypocrisy is not the same thing as avoiding judgment.

The reason why I quoted Paul’s verse from Romans and not Jesus’ more famous judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged quote was because people tend to misunderstand that verse. Judgment is not the problem. As morally conscious, responsible citizens — we must use judgment.

The problem is when we judge others without taking a hard ethical inventory of our own flaws and issues.

It doesn’t work.

The same way the parental philosophy of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do doesn’t work. The same way that women who wear suggestive clothing can’t get men to take them seriously. The same way that trying to save the environment while driving a Hummer H2 doesn’t work.

Millions of regular people envy the money and notoriety that celebrities regularly enjoy. But we have an important advantage over celebrities, in that we can make most of our mistakes without the whole world knowing about it.

So if you admire Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or Dave Chapelle, then honor them by learning from their mistakes.

I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.