Sunday, February 28, 2010

Total Basketball

Just a couple of days ago, as I was looking over past Olympic games, I came upon highlights of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team and was predictably entranced. The combination of an unprecedented collection of talent (MJ, Bird, Magic, Pippen, Barkley etc) trounced any and all competition. This was by far the high-water mark for USA dominance in basketball. It may not have been the last time a USA team destroyed international opposition (Vince Carter), but it was the last time the world was utterly unprepared for the onslaught that ensued.

Following that ridiculous highlight show in 1992, the traditional narrative goes that fewer and fewer top notch American stars cared about upholding the immaculate standards of USA basketball, causing an eventual deterioration of results. This culminated in the 2004 Olympics where Larry Brown’s team was unceremoniously thrashed by several upstarts from across the world. Certainly it’s undeniable that if Kobe, KG and Shaq had bothered to show up in 2004, the story would have different. Still, the typical prognosis by American fans regarding our defeats is to blame the lack of U.S star power.

It’s a classic American misconception, born out of egotism that is admittedly subconscious. We invented the game. Hence we struggle to come to grips with the harsh reality that we may no longer be the absolute best all the time no matter what. A great example of this was actually at Beijing, where the Redeem Team won gold (it’s ok to react here by asking ‘yeah, we won gold, what’s your point?’ Bear with me…) The circumstances of their victory were very interesting. It was, by all accounts, an exceedingly close game (three quarters of the game was separated by only four points). The only difference was that, at the end of the day, America had Kobe Bryant and Spain did not. Was that all though? Could that have been the only difference?

Such a small margin of victory is telling, particularly given that there was no holding back on star power that time around. Bron Bron, Dwade, Kobe, Bosh and all the other five-star guns were in the mix, so why was it so close? Man for man, Team USA wins hands-down. Collectively though, they were a good match-up. This speaks to a more interesting development. Spain was able to claw their way into a game they should have had no shot in strictly talent wise. What was it though, that gave them an inkling of a hope (where in fact they only trailed by a basket in the Gold Medal game several times in the 4th quarter.)

The other World game…

The rest of the world, while a relative infant in terms of basketball, can draw on a reservoir of experience from soccer. And while this experience may not be applicable in certain ways, it definitely is in terms of a few major categories. They know, for example, that there is infinitely more to the game than athletic ability (a lesson that Josh Smith is just learning). Tactics play a crucial role. Proper team selection and team chemistry are also critical.

Where they utilize their cross-sport methods best, though, remains in the basic composition of a player. World players (especially the continental Europeans) have a tendency to be proficient in a more diverse list of basketball traits. In shooting threes, for example, American players like Dwight Howard and Kenderick Perkins are absolutely useless while European counterparts like Mehmet Okur and Dirk Nowitzki are quite proficient from deep. Okur, who was born in (and grew up in) Turkey, knocked down 45% of his threes to rank at 6th in the league last season. Such a ridiculous percentage is something that’s made even more unique considering he plays center.

Free throws, an act that makes Shaq more worthless than a Democratic majority, is another category where world players exploit the Americans. Look at all the European forwards who, despite being in and around 6’10”, are very competent at the charity stripe. In almost every international contest where a U.S. ‘All-Star’ team is involved, the opposition will outstrip them in free throw percentage.

Why is it that players who didn’t grow up in the U.S are more capable doing a larger range of basketball tasks? What does this all have to do with soccer? It’s a very interesting answer and, like so many interesting things, it started in two very different places simultaneously: Amsterdam and Kiev.

Total Football

Dutch soccer (or football as they clearly call it) was a joke for decades. And like basketball, the standard for soccer came initially from the country where it was invented: England. Even as late as 1948, England battered the Dutch team (an 8-2 win that flattered Holland if anything). British soccer, like American basketball, was spread across the world along with their culture. It was no different in Holland, where it was a British manager (Jack Reynolds) who laid the foundation of the Dutch style during his time with their elite club team, Ajax Amsterdam.

Amsterdam during the 1960’s and 70’s was one of the most liberal cities in the world (a trait that has mostly endured to the chagrin of college parents everywhere). John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously had their ‘bed in’ for peace at the Amsterdam Hilton, staying in their bed for a week. On top of this, the Dutch knew a thing or two about space and how to manipulate it, since their country is composed of manmade land that would normally be underwater.

In this way, it was the 1960’s and the city of Amsterdam that gave the world the initial concept of ‘total football,’ born out of the radical ideals that thrived in the city. Johan Cryuff, perhaps the greatest soccer player ever produced by Europe, was one of the driving forces behind it. The idea, in short, was that different players could seamlessly switch positions because they could all play everyone else’s position. In other words, Cryuff (a center forward) could switch positions with his teammate Johan Neeskens (a center midfielder) and their team would lose none of its goal-scoring potency. This concept allowed the Dutch to best manipulate the space on a soccer field (think about that in basketball terms).

Across Europe, a completely different city was producing a strikingly similar philosophy about soccer. Kiev, embedded deep in the Soviet Union, was everything Amsterdam wasn’t. Strict, authoritarian and completely Communist, Kiev also had a single-minded coach who came to the same conclusion about soccer as the Dutch. Valeriy Lobanovskyi, a Ukrainian native, determined through his trademark scientific methods that this concept of ‘universality’ (total football to the Dutch) was the best brand of soccer. Essentially, Lobanovskyi concluded that the collective whole of a team was greater than the sum of its individual parts. And the best way to achieve this was through different players being able to interchange with each other, making his team less predictable and more difficult to defend.

Don’t take my word for it though. Ajax Amsterdam won a hat-trick of European Cups in the ‘70s and the 1974 Dutch National team is widely regarded as the best national team never to win a World Cup (they lost 2-1 in the final to the host country: Germany). Lobanovskyi and his team, Dynamo Kiev, won their fair share of hardware too (a ridiculous haul of Russian titles, a brace of European Cup Winner's Cups and the 1975 European Super Cup).

This concept of universality or total football (whatever you want to call it) has persisted in soccer even as the players and coaches who developed and perfected it are now long gone. The Spanish national team that won Euro 2008 exemplified the ideals of universality, as have Barcelona and Manchester United in back to back Champions League wins. It’s no wonder then that when Europeans look at basketball, they see similar parallels.

Universality vs. Specialization

The idea of controlling and manipulating space is, if anything, more important in basketball than in soccer (the court is much smaller than a soccer field). Thus the idea of universality is equally, if not more critical. Think about it. If you can get a team of versatile players (especially big guys who can shoot from deep and a team who can all hit free throws), you could spread the floor on offense in every conceivable way. It also changes how tightly certain guys are defended (watch how many times Dirk blows by the guy defending him because he has to be guarded so tightly since he can regularly hit threes). Which brings us back to guys like Dirk, Mehmet and the rest of the European big guys who, like their Dutch and Soviet soccer playing counterparts, can do many of the tasks usually consigned to other, more specialized teammates.

In the United States, there is a set cookie cutter formula for producing basketball players. It’s the AAU camps, the endless array of talent scouts, advisors, facilitators, ‘coaches,’ etc. For them, there’s only one way to make basketball players and it involves specialization. Big guys practice rebounding, setting picks and post moves. Small guys practice shooting etc. This is the reason why American centers and forwards generally can’t shoot. It’s not that they don’t have the capacity; it’s that their taught only to improve on a certain skill set.

So that’s what it boils down to: universality vs. specialization. Is it better to be great at a few things or good at everything? The proving ground for this contest has so far been mostly restricted to the international stage. Slowly but surely, it has crept into the NBA. Time will tell to see how our model in America reacts to World’s model (refined as it has been in another sport entirely.)

Dissenting opinions and ideas lead to progress. This is exactly what the rest of world has to offer to the NBA. Conflicting philosophies and concepts about how to develop top basketball players are best sorted out in direct competition. So far, a limited group of international players have acquitted themselves very well in the NBA (just look at the San Antonio Spurs dynasty). Diversity is a good thing for the NBA. The only downside is for Team USA fans expectant on a continuous monopoly of gold medals, because I have news: unless we adapt, the party’s ending quicker than people think.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The absolute best torch-lightings ever ( least since 1992)

The opening ceremonies for the Vancouver games highlighted a series of very Canadian traits. It was decidedly modest (no 300 bazillion dollar budget like Beijing) but undeniably likable (aka Steve Nash played a prominent role). And at the epicenter of everything was the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. For me though, it accentuated how questionable Canada’s contribution has been in terms of musicians. They rule the world when it comes to comedians, but the list of Canadian musicians leaves a little to be desired. Look at the list of strictly Canadian singers at the ceremony: Brian Adams, Nelly Furtado, Sarah McLachlan…SARAH MCLACHLAN! Seriously, the only one missing was Alanis Morissette (and don’t forget Celine Dion).

Ok, so crafting quality singers that don’t give us a desire to break something isn’t their strength. That’s fine, since Canadians have been great hosts so far by all accounts. The torch lighting (the first to take place indoors which is supposedly a big deal), was mired with technical problems. In the end, it was lit by the Great One outdoors after he hoped out of the bed of a pickup truck. Personally, I thought that was awesome. They knew they couldn’t top the ridiculously glitzy show in China, so they went to their blue collar roots: just get a truck and the greatest hockey player ever (problem solved).

The lighting of the Olympic torch has become a showy item since the beginning of the ‘90s. It’s not usually good enough to simply let someone light it anymore, there has to be some twist. Here’s a look at the best since 1992:

6. 1992 Albertville, France

This was the last time they held the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same year. The winter games were chosen for France and they did not disappoint. It marked the first time since 1936 that Germany competed as a unified nation. It also was the first Olympics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, meaning that the former Soviet nations competed as a ‘Unified Nation’ (basically just a lame trick so that they didn’t have to break up their hockey team).

Soccer great and former European Player of the Year Michel Platini climbed to the summit of the Theatre des Ceremonies with 8 year old Francois-Cyrille Grange before lighting a moving cable which shot the flame into the official torch. It was the first time the torch wasn’t lit by a person. Albertville gets props because my favorite commentator, Phil Liggett, had the call (also their torch looked sneakily like a joint).

5. 2006 Torino, Italy

One of the things that I always find funny about the opening ceremony is how they try to be so politically correct in saluting various groups. I vaguely remember these toolbags running around pulling cow effigies and other people dancing in cow-like costumes. Seriously, how did that conversation go at their executive meeting? Whatever we do, let’s not forget to salute the fucking cows! They might get very offended if they aren’t specifically included! Admittedly, the music was fantastic (or, ahem, fantastico) and the actual torch lighting was superb.

They ran an almost endless array of former Italian athletes before finally ‘lighting’ the torch. (The reason for the quotation marks being that they didn’t actually light the torch at all.) Instead, former Italian cross-country skier Stefania Belmondo lit a semi-circle lighting apparatus which triggered a series of fireworks. The impressive display of fireworks ran like a serpent around the stadium, spiraling around and upward until it reached the actual torch at the top of the stadium. Pretty cool. (Also, Luciano Pavarotti locked it down at the end like Mariano Rivera, proving that it’s not just Italian soccer teams that have a great sense of timing).

4. 1996 Atlanta, USA

The last Summer Olympics held on U.S soil will be remembered more for the clear deterioration of the once mighty “Dream Team” than anything (at least that’s how I remember it). Even as a kid, it was very obvious that these guys were half-assing it in a way that Magic, Larry and MJ never would have. The dream was dead in that sense. From then on it was stagnant U.S.A basketball domination slipping slowly but inexorably into mediocrity, culminating in the disastrous 2004 shellacking they deservedly received.

The torch lighting was much more upbeat though. Unannounced to the world, the final link in the torch-chain was the Greatest himself, Muhammad Ali. It was the first time Ali had really been seen publicly for a number of years, the Parkinson’s disease having taken its toll on the former heavy weight champion. Still it was fairly uplifting; he tapped into some of the unlimited resolve that made him such a good boxer that night and showed he was determined to go on living a normal life.

3. 2008 Beijing, China

Without a doubt the most awesome spectacle ever in terms of the Opening Ceremony as a whole. Some even find it scarily impressive, but it really just got me fired up for the games (and, more specifically, watching Usain Bolt blow the doors off the 9 other fastest men in the world). It also happened the day after Russia invaded Georgia. (This caused one of my all-time favorite Presidential memories since the people I was interning for did an interview at the White House that same week. Off the cuff, Bush called Vladimir Putin a “sneaky Russian” after seeing him at the Opening Ceremonies where the Russian Prime Minister said nothing about the conflict. The now former President, according to a source that I definitely trust, sounded exactly like Will Ferrell.)

In a style befitting their Opening Ceremony as a whole, the torch was lit in what became a trademark of the Chinese: grandiose scale and imagination. Hung in midair by cables, former Chinese gold medal gymnast Li Ning ran on the side of a freaking wall. After this completely unprecedented excess of technology and money, the Chinese had a ridiculously large torch which bellowed fire after Ning lit it. Too bad the child singer earlier in the program was lip-synching though

2. 1994 Lillehamer, Norway

These were probably the first Olympics I really remember. So the fact that they brought the torch in via ski jumper is something emblazoned in my memory forever no matter what. That was the coolest thing I’d ever seen hands down. The skier, Stein Gruben (who narrowly defeats Phil Dalhausser for ‘name most likely to be a James Bond bad guy’) was a stone-cold badass as far as my 1st grade mind was concerned.

Watching it now on YouTube, you can really get a sense of how freaked out Gruben was. He looks really rattled when he’s handed the torch and then hesitates an eternal amount of time before shooting down the in-run. The whole time he’s actually moving it’s clear that he’s trying more to not fall than anything else. Then again though, he only got the gig because the first jumper they wanted hurt himself during warm-ups. Think about that for a second. This guy goes from no pressure at all in the Opening Ceremonies to Opening the Ceremonies. And for whatever reason, the Olympics tend to consistently bring out the best in people (unless you’re Marion Jones…too soon?)

1. 1992 Barcelona, Spain

The iconic image of these games was, without a doubt, the greatest basketball team ever assembled. Period. They had size, speed, unlimited talent and intelligence. Letting Magic Johnson loose on a prehistoric world talent pool with Michael Jordan on his team was like Dale Earnhardt getting to race against spoiled teenagers on the New York State Thruway. It just wasn’t fair. For American fans it might have been the most fun Olympic event to watch ever (since the outcome was guaranteed and the games were basically one giant YouTube clip.)

Yet the most impressive thing was, without a doubt, the torch lighting. This was the original showman torch-lighting and by far the best. Antonio Rebollo, an archer who had contracted Polio when he was an infant, won one of the most rigorous competitions ever to become the man who made history. He was chosen officially only two hours prior to literally firing a shot heard round the world. Standing in the middle of the stadium, Rebollo lit his arrow from the torch and then proceeded to fire it perfectly into the main Olympic torch on the top of the stadium. Think about the difficulty with something like this and then combine that with the pure pressure involved. Unbelievable.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Clearing the Arsenal bandwagon like it's the Titanic and various other ridiculous analogies...

After watching first Manchester United and then Chelsea once again come down on Arsenal like a ton of bricks, I think that I finally have to re-evaluate my view of Arsene Wenger’s side. Until now, I’ve been firmly entrenched in the minority of people who believed that Arsenal were, very quietly, the favorite for the Premier League title. I know it sounds crazy (and, in reality, it was) but looking up and down the Arsenal roster, the first and foremost characteristic is that they’re chalk full of world-class talent. Whether its Cesc Fabergas pulling the strings in the middle, Robin Van Persie as a multi-functioning striker or Thomas Vermaelan as the attacking libero, the Gunners certainly would dominate the league were it based on a skills competition. Everyone on their team seems capable of putting the ball on the ground and passing it around with precision.

On paper, this looks like a dream come true. In the current age of soccer where top notch, nutrition enhanced athleticism is matched with skill and creativity to form an ideal player, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger appears to have assembled the ideal organization for success. The Arsenal he has built (in his image I might add) during the past decade finds these players by scouring the globe. Literally; Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, North America. While much has already been said about their lack of Englishmen, not enough is made about the full and vast extent to which Wenger’s scouts have truly put together a world team.

With this in mind, I was eyeing Arsenal as a dark-horse this year. They’ve had a couple of years to mature as a unit and with Ronaldo’s exit from Manchester; I was looking at Wenger’s team as a potential filler-of-the-void in Premier League mastery. I didn’t (and still don’t) dismiss teams just because they’re young and ‘immature’. After growing up watching Alan Hansen eat his words about Becks, Paul Scholes and the rest of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ at United (when he famously declared them a failure: “you don’t win anything with kids!”) I dismissed the common theory that they’re ‘too young.’

Instead there’s something else. It’s a subtle, yet very self evident flaw in the Arsenal squad’s makeup. Once you do notice it, then you’ll know why I can’t stay on the Arsenal wagon.

The Whiz Kids

Arsene Wenger is one of the most forward thinking men in his business. He uses statistics, is renowned for watching film hour after hour and is never afraid to put his unorthodox methods into practice. Wenger has utilized this approach throughout his time with Arsenal and has amassed a well deserved reputation for buying low and selling high. He got Cesc Fabergas from the Barcelona youth academy for nothing and will probably sell him for millions. He scooped up Patrick Viera from Inter Milan for a base price and sold him back to the Italians for a small fortune. The list goes on (Ashley Cole, Robin Van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Nicholas Anelka etc). No one is better at finding the diamonds in the rough.

And yet, despite his prowess for finding good individuals, Wenger’s side seems to lack something. It reminds me, in a way, of another group of talented individuals who looked spectacular on paper. They, like the current Arsenal team, were youngsters, prodigies who had excelled at every level before coming together. With their past success catapulting them into the limelight, they ultimately failed in a way that still resonates nearly 50 years later.

The cabinet of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (the so called ‘Whiz Kids’) were known, like Wenger’s Arsenal, to be the unmatched in terms of pure talent. Nobody was more efficient than Robert MacNamara (Secretary of Defense). McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, had been the youngest Dean in Harvard history. Kennedy himself, the youngest President in U.S. history, was the smartest and most capable of the bunch.

These were the men that came together, answering the call of what Kennedy called ‘the new generation.’ They were supposed to take our country forward. And, theoretically speaking, it was a perfect cabinet. Intelligence, efficiency, rationality all rolled into one. They set out to (and largely succeeded in) ‘trimming the fat’ of the ever-expanding federal bureaucracy. They were men of action, who did not hesitate in the never-ending business of solving the nation’s problems. In the end though, the Whiz Kids failed. But why? They had seemed so perfect?

“I'd feel a whole lot better if just one of them had run for sheriff”

What author David Halberstam so famously described (the very same sort of thing that I’ve noticed with Arsenal) was that, for all their individual brilliance and collective talent, the Kennedy cabinet lacked an ability to view the big picture. They might be the most productive team ever at solving individual problems, but to what end? When they looked at Vietnam, the ‘can do’ attitude (as Halberstam called it) instinctively told them they could solve it. It sums up their one massive flaw: that with Vietnam and all the problems it entailed, they were so busy figuring out how they could do it (getting involved and going up the escalating chain), they never stopped to ask if they should.

Halberstam always said his favorite quote from the book he did about Vietnam (The Best and the Brightest) was by Senatorial powerhouse Sam Rayburn. A mentor of the newly elected Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Rayburn listened to the towering Texan rave about the very first Kennedy cabinet meeting:

"After attending his first cabinet meeting he went back to his mentor Sam Rayburn and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next, and that the smartest of them was that fellow with the Stacomb on his hair from the Ford Motor Company, McNamara. 'Well Lyndon,' Mister Sam answered, 'you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.'

It’s a fascinating and eerily accurate quote. Rayburn touched on the hidden flaw that would eventually ruin the Whiz Kids. They had intelligence, but for all they're 'abstract quickness and verbal faculty,' had they any wisdom?

The same philosophical problem plagues Arsenal. It’s not that they’re too young. It’s that they’re mentality is all wrong. There is a serious naivety about them. They think their skill and talent will always overwhelm the opponent. They have no understanding of reality. Just as Kennedy’s smartest men miscalculated on the intentions of the North Vietnamese, so too do Arsenal week after week in the Premier League with their opposition.

Look at their game plan during any League contest. There is never the flat decision to simply contract and play a little defense for a while. Wenger’s continuous commitment to attacking is something that fans certainly enjoy, but what fans truly enjoy (winning) is something Arsenal simply cannot consistently attain while they stick with the current strategy.

Wenger must accept the idea that many Premier League teams will continue to play a very physical game against them so long as they believe Arsenal have no answer. Teams like Aston Villa, Manchester United and Everton all discovered in the last month that they could either hold Arsenal goalless or force a fatal error by simply pressing them constantly as well as exploiting their lack of size. And since the Gunners insist on playing a precise short passing game all the time, they’re never capable of breaking the press.

The fatal egotism is certainly a parallel between Kennedy’s and Wenger’s Whiz Kids. Both groups are and were convinced that they were doing the ‘right thing.’ Just as Wenger believes that his club (as larger club) has a duty to try and play beautiful soccer, Kennedy and his cabinet believed they had a duty to uphold the virtues of the Domino Theory. Also, both possess a stubbornness, completely and utterly refusing to believe they might be wrong, no matter how much proof is thrown right in front of their oblivious faces.

For Arsenal, all they have to do is look at players like Darren Fletcher or Michael Essien. Both of them (admittedly different in their own right) hold attributes that Arsene Wenger would not value very highly. Neither are as slick in their passing as someone like Cesc Fabergas or even Abou Diaby, yet both Essien and Fletcer have tasted Premier League success while they’re technically superior counterparts have fallen short. Why has this happened? Perhaps it’s because of the same reason that Arsenal has also fallen short in the last few seasons: for all his intelligence, Mr. Wenger cannot measure qualities like heart and hustle in statistics.

The humanist element of a soccer player remains the most important, as it does in any athlete (or professional for that matter). Former Arsenal captain and defensive stalwart Tony Adams may not have been the most technically sound defender. Yet he possessed an admirable charisma that buoyed up his teammates at crucial junctures where the current Arsenal crop comes up short. Dennis Bergkamp was certainly a Wenger player, yet it was his ability to act as a catalyst for team chemistry that Wenger has been unable to consistently replace. Both of these attributes represent the equivalent to Halberstam’s theory about the Kennedy Cabinet lacking wisdom. They might be talented on paper, but in practice they lacked some very essential qualities.

No matter how athletically capable and measurably skillful Arsenal’s team is, they will never win a trophy as long as they lack these immeasurable humanist qualities. Howard Zinn once said of America in Vietnam that “it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won.” Kennedy’s Whiz kids and Arsenal have an equal lack of understanding in this way. Basic humanism will always defeat a more complex adversary. And Arsenal, for all their complexity, need to gain this wisdom, less they go down the same path of failure and cataclysmic fall from grace that befell Kennedy’s cabinet.