R.I.P. Phoenix Suns (2013-2014) – Eulogizing the NBA’s Motliest Crew

By Jake Sweltz

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“It’s better to burn out than to fade away…”

It was Neil Young who wrote those words, and Kurt Cobain who infamously commandeered them, but neither figure could shred like the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.

Alas, the Suns have finally set in the West.  Their playoff hopes were extinguished by the Memphis Grizzlies at US Airways Center on Monday, as the team lost 97-91 in a game that saw 15 fourth quarter lead changes.  Phoenix went down early; the Grizzlies had a 13-point advantage with three minutes to go in the first half.  Then, just as they had all year long, the Suns scrapped back, and by the final quarter, the score was tied at 67.

Phoenix’s resistance was glorious, but ultimately futile.  Just as in its previous two games (each almost equally as crucial), they were narrowly out-dueled in the final minute, capping their epic season-ending trilogy of tragedy.

But let’s not dwell on the sad times.  We’re not here to mourn how the Suns died.  We’re here to celebrate how they lived.

Two weeks ago, there were three bubble teams clawing for the last two playoff seeds in the most loaded conference in years:

(1) The Memphis Grizzlies.  A team that won 56 games and made the Western Conference Finals just last year and that has made no major roster changes except adding a bench guy who can actually shoot (Mike Miller).  A team with an elite defense that features one of the league’s most skilled two-way big men in Marc Gasol.  Not to mention the indomitable Zach Randolph, somehow averaging a double-double from deep under the Earth’s crust.  A franchise widely recognized and respected as a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.

(2) The Dallas Mavericks.  A grizzled squad of battle-tested sharp shooters and savvy veterans.  Plus Monta Ellis, who actually posted great efficiency numbers and blossomed into a top two-guard.  A team with perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki still shooting the same percentages he did at 30, still climbing the all-time scoring ladder with the same frightening speed, and still sinking unguardable fadeaways in the grills of flummoxed forwards on a nightly basis.  A group helmed by long-time basketball guru and noted Carrey-lookalike Rick Carlisle.  A franchise with one of the strongest cultures in the NBA, a smart owner, and a history of success.

(3) The Phoenix Suns?  The team that traded its starting center a week before the season began?  The squad that lost its starting point guard and prize offseason acquisition for 40 games?  The franchise that hired a rookie coach and signed an arsenal of anonymous three-point bombing strangers?  The team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the days when Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were more than just walking (painfully lurching?) contracts?  The team that Vegas projected to win 19 games and contend for nothing except the top draft pick?  Those Phoenix Suns?

If you asked any reasonable NBA fan before the season which of those three teams would get squeezed out, is there any doubt who they’d pick?  So sure, at the end of the day, the Suns did eventually set in the West.  Maybe that’s just nature taking its course, but honestly, what sounds natural about a roster consisting of the following characters:

Eric “the Bled-Show” Bledsoe

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The six foot ninja with speed like Sonic the Hedgehog and athleticism that has been compared to LeBron James.  Bledsoe turned heads last year as the backup point guard for the Clippers after Chris Paul went down, but there was widespread skepticism around the league that he could match the value of a real franchise player.  Over time, that might prove true, but as long as he keeps slicing up guards and blocking the shit out of 6’11” dudes, he’s worth every penny on highlight credit alone.

Goran “the Dragon” Dragic

goran

The skinny Slovenian with the ever-pubescent crustache and the on-court approach of a highly caffeinated coyote.  In a league chock full of talented point guards, Dragic has flown under the radar for several years, and now he’s getting national attention as an All-NBA candidate.  His always-effective, super-funky Euro slash and kick game reached a new level this season.  As Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry pointed out, Dragic is third in the league in creating corner three opportunities, behind only LeBron James and John Wall, two of the league’s biggest franchise cornerstones.  As ambiguous as the criteria for Most Improved Player is, it seems pretty obvious that Dragic should be a leading candidate to take home that hardware.

Miles “the Plum” Plumlee 

plumsThe overlooked big man who you don’t take seriously until you actually watch him play a couple games and realize he’s just busting his freaking ass out there.  He’s averaging eight points and eight boards, which is beyond good for guy who didn’t see a single significant minute off the bench in Indiana.  But in a way, stats are besides the point.  This piece of Luis Scola trade driftwood turned out solid as an oak tree, and that’s all his team needed.

Gerald “Lean, Mean” Green

gerald

The buzzer-beating, gravity-defying, mean-mugging Super Mario of the NBA.  The player most likely to actually be an NBA Jam avatar magically wished to life.  A guy who bounced around in and out of the league for years, who was playing in Russia and seemed destined to wash out as an über athletic afterthought before finding a home in Phoenix.  He started out with the Celtics as a physical freak of nature who just couldn’t grasp the nuances of the pro game.  Over time, he honed his skills, but was still known mostly as a one-dimensional dunker until he started putting up scorching numbers for the Suns during Bledsoe’s injury.  He evens out as a reliable spark plug off the bench, but if you give him a lane, he’ll still swallow your soul.

The Morris Twins

twins

The butt of countless jokes before the season about symbolizing the arbitrary gimmickry of Phoenix’s roster, Marcus and Markieff both ended up having career years, with Markieff in the running for several NBA awards, including Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved.  (But, then again, you could make a case for virtually every player on this Suns squad for the latter.)

And that’s before even getting to guys like Channing Frye, PJ Tucker, and Ish Smith.  Seriously, right when you think this Phoenix team can’t get any more fun, you remember that they have dudes named Channing, PJ, and Ish.  Is it too late to add the Suns to my Coolest NBA Roll Call list?

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the man behind the clipboard, first-year coach and cheek-rubbing enthusiast Jeff Hornacek.  The man took a roster of young unknowns, low-radar journeymen, underwhelming role players, and no starting center, and he turned it into literally the winningest regular season team ever to miss the playoffs.  It’s often hard to parse how much influence a coach truly has on the success of his team, but in this case there can be no doubt.  Virtually every player on this roster ended up outperforming their career averages by some significant measure.  Hornacek is, to me, the most obvious and deserving choice for Coach of the Year, and despite the number of worthy candidates this season (S/O to Thibodeau, Carlisle, Popovich, and Stotts) I suspect he’ll win it.  After all, Phoenix was the feel-good story of the season all year long; absolutely everybody loved this Suns team: fans, media, players, everybody.

And that’s really the thing I’ll miss the most about this year’s squad.  The damn near universal adoration for this unlikely team of lovable misfits that succeeded despite the odds.  Which is what delineates these gratifying underdog stories, right?  The odds?  Because once a long shot beats the odds, they’re not a long shot anymore.  They lose the very essence of what made them special in the first place.

Next year, the Suns won’t be the league’s goofy Slumdog Millionaire, plundering victories from established contenders.  They’ll be one of those established contenders, and that means they’ll have to deal with all the not-so-fun baggage that being an emergent competitor entails.  “Can Eric Bledsoe make the next leap?”  “Will Hornacek get fired if they don’t make the playoffs?”  “You know, Miles Plumlee isn’t the long-term answer at center.”  “Does this team need to trade for another superstar?”  And so on.

There’s no doubt that after this season, the Phoenix Suns are in a better place.  And yet, I still can’t help but shed a tear for the loss of their childlike spirit.  Liberated from the burden of competitive expectations, the Suns were free to spread their wings and fly the way they wanted.  Because a team that’s not weighed down is a team that might soar highest.

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God bless the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.

Shine on you crazy diamonds.

 

(all images courtesy of Google Search)

 

 

Notes on a Scandal: Reading QT’s The Hateful Eight

By Jake Sweltz

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The screenplay for Quentin Tarantino’s now-defunct project The Hateful Eight is 146 pages of cotton candy.  It reads like a sugar rush, gives you ulcers the size of gum balls, and finally leaves you feeling empty and rotten.  But confectionary greatness isn’t about nutrition; it’s about flavor.  And The Hateful Eight is admittedly pretty freaking delicious.

Note: the following contains major spoilers re: the setting, plot, and characters of The Hateful Eight.

THE STORY:

Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the plot involves two bounty hunters who encounter one another en route to a small town called Red Rock.  They are each transporting recently captured bounties, including three dead outlaws and one live female prisoner named Daisy Domergue.  An approaching blizzard forces the group to shack up in a small, saloon-like haberdashery with an assortment of wily misfits who may or may not be in cahoots to free Daisy.

Most of the movie is devoted to the various games of verbal poker that take place amongst the motley crew as they wait out the blizzard.  Here are all the classical signposts of a typical of a QT feature: the colorful snatches of character backstory, the sudden bursts of brutal violence, the elaborate feigns and bluffs the characters make as they maneuver to conceal/reveal each other’s true identities and motivations.  Plus: a strangely affectionate attention paid to coffee as a crucial plot motif.

THE CAST:

Before the script leaked, Tarantino had reportedly sent copies to three actors: Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen.  The latter two are Tarantino regulars, and if the movie ever made it to the development stage, I expect we’d have seen plenty of faces familiar to long-time QT fans.  Luckily, since the film will never actually be committed to celluloid, we’re free to eternally indulge in every fanboy’s favorite pastime: throwing out a ton of hypothetical casting decisions and then drooling over how awesome they would be.

Now, this movie is called The Hateful Eight for a reason.  In the tradition of flicks like The Dirty Dozen and the myriad other hyper-masculine westerns from which QT draws inspiration, pretty much all these characters are rotten bastards.  Correspondingly, I’ve tried to fake-cast this non-picture with actors who can convincingly play villainy, actors who can wear the black hat.  Which, in this case, is especially appropriate since a few of the characters literally wear black hats.

Having said that, here’s my Hateful Eight Dream Cast (brought to you by Sega™):

Maj. Marquis Warren : Chiwetel Ejiofor (Understudy: Samuel L. Jackson)

chiwetel

A few articles mentioned that Tarantino had written this part with Jackson in mind, but reading the script, I couldn’t help but visualize Chiwetel Ejiofor instead.  Fresh off his very somber work in 12 Years a Slave, it would have been an intriguing change of pace to see Ejiofor in a role as pulpy as Maj. Warren’s swashbuckling bounty hunter.  Plus, the stage veteran’s theatre bona fides would surely come in handy given that the entire movie mostly takes place in one small room.

John “The Hangman” Ruth : Matthew McConaughey (Understudy: Michael Madsen)

mccon

Middle age has done something magical for McConaughey.  He’s still as charming and roguishly appealing as ever, but his rom-com prime is behind him.  The cracks in that stunning visage are starting to show, and his whole persona has been grown subtly darker.  Starting with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and continuing through his work in Killer Joe and True Detective, McConaughey’s performances have taken on a hint of menace.  Sure, his characters have always been mischievous, but it wasn’t until recently that they’ve actually felt dangerous.

At this point in McConaughey’s career, I can think of no director better equipped to bring out his glorious bastardry than Tarantino.  The idea of matching QT’s alternately playful and sinister dialogue with McConaughey’s famously slithery silver tongue is, to me, a no-brainer.

Daisy Domergue : Reese Witherspoon (Understudy: Chloe Sevigny)

reese

While we’re talking McConaughey, we might as well make this a Mud reunion and cast good old Reese as John Ruth’s fiery prisoner, Daisy Domergue.  Daisy is handcuffed to Ruth for most of the script, and throughout the story the two develop an interesting “frenemy” type of chemistry.  It would be great to see Witherspoon in a role where she could tap into some of that Dukes of Hazzard outlaw craziness she unleashed in Atlanta last year.

Chris Mannix : James Franco (Understudy: Adam Driver)

In the text, Chris is introduced as an “early thirties, untrustworthy, rotten teeth hillbilly.”  Hmm.  Lots of options here, but I’m thinking we should probably call the dude who turned himself into this guy:

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I’m not the biggest Franco fanatic, but I think that he could bring just the right flavor of zany energy to this role.  Spraaaang breaaaaak foreeeeeeeeever.

Bob the Frenchman : Denis Menochet (Understudy: Jean Reno)

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It was rumored that had this movie actually been made, Christoph Waltz would have been tapped for this role.  But y’know what?  I kind of don’t want Christoph Waltz in a (hypothetical) third consecutive Tarantino movie.  Especially since the dude is not even French to begin with.  Besides, Bob is too terse a character for an actor like Waltz.  Perhaps future drafts would have expanded this part, but given Bob’s relatively thin dialogue, I was thinking the role would actually be perfect for Waltz’s sparring partner from the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, French actor Denis Menochet.  As dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, Menochet achieves a strong, quiet dignity, even as Waltz’s relentless Col. Hans Landa is slowly tearing it to pieces.  I’d be interested in seeing him bring that same element to this story’s mysterious Bob.

Oswaldo Mobray : Jude Law (Understudy: Tim Roth)

jude_law

Oswaldo is described in the script as “a blonde little man who wears a grey european cut business suit” and is “a bit of a Fop.  Not a gigantic Fop, just a bit of one” (sic).  This is ostensibly the role that Tim Roth would have read for, but my first choice would be Jude Law.  Another stage vet, Law exudes the kind of slimy smugness that’s perfect for Oswaldo, an eloquent British gent who claims to be a traveling hangman.  His recent work in Dom Hemingway proves he can play rough, plus Law can ham it up with the best of them.  I’d love to see him deliver Mobray’s juicy monologue about how his duty as the passionless executioner separates “real” justice from “frontier” justice.

Cowboy Joe Gage : Woody Harrelson (Understudy: Josh Brolin)

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This laconic “wise ass” of a character is a tough nut to crack, fake-casting wise.  He doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but he’s still an important character and his scenes are compelling.  One of his exchanges with the extra-suspicious John Ruth is among the script’s funniest moments.  Ruth is interrogating Gage about who he is, where he’s headed, etc.:

Gage: I’m a cow puncher…I was coming up here to spend Christmas with my mother.

Ruth: Really?

Gage: Really.

Ruth: Funny, you don’t really look like the coming home for Christmas type.

Gage: Well then looks are deceiving.  Because I’m defiantly [sic] the coming home for Christmas to spend it with my mother, type.

Reading this, I was reminded of Josh Brolin’s less-is-more approach to playing Llewelyn Davis in No Country For Old Men, and the dry humor he displayed in his scenes with Woody Harrelson and Kelly McDonald. Eventually, I settled on Brolin as my first choice…

…until I realized that Harrelson is actually the real answer here.  He’s more suitably cartoonish than Brolin, his resume practically screams “laconic wise-ass,” plus casting him here nets bonus points for turning the above exchange into a revival of McConaughey and Harrelson’s crackling True Detective bromance.

Gen. Sanford Smithers : Bruce Dern (Understudy: Harrison Ford)

dern

This is most likely the role that Bruce Dern was supposed to read for, and honestly, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate actor to bring Gen. Smithers’ to life.  This proud old Confederate general is a cranky bastard, but he’s also wounded and vulnerable, sadly making his way to Red Rock to bury his son.  What he learns about that son’s death while holed up with the other bastards in the haberdashery I won’t spoil (at least not yet), but suffice it to say, it is…rather unpleasant.

Jody Domergue : Jeremy Renner (Understudy: Brad Pitt)

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Jody, head of the infamous “Domergue Gang” isn’t introduced until later in the story, but his presence is instantly electrifying.  He’s a dangerous outlaw, but when we first meet him, he is posing as a kindly country preacher man, his demeanor that of a perfect gentleman.  Renner is one of the few actors I can see convincingly embodying the charisma, chivalry, and wickedness the part requires.  Besides, we need to get this guy some more work outside of the Avengers franchise.

 

THE THREE MOST TARANTINO MOTIFS OF THE SCRIPT:

1.) 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE.  In between scenes and/or long stretches of dialogue, Tarantino frequently inserts notes about how the rugged Wyoming landscape will be shot in “big super cinemascope 70mm filmed gloriousness.”  He mentions 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE repeatedly throughout the script, but always with slight variations on how gorgeous and amazing it will look.  His emphasis on big, outdoorsy exteriors is probably at least partly about contrasting the cramped, claustrophobic interiors of the story.  But you also get the feeling like the guy just really loves cinemascope.  His enthusiasm for the format is very palpable, and it lends a fun bit of continuity to the reading experience.

2.) HATS!  QT is one of the most unabashed stylists in Hollywood.  His characters are always distinctive, not only in their speech, but also in their dress. (Who could forget the iconic French gangster suits Jules and Vincent don in Pulp Fiction, or the Bruce Lee-inspired bumblebee jumpsuit Uma Thurman rocks in Kill Bill, Vol. 1?)  In The Hateful Eight, QT again indulges his sartorial fetishes, giving us at least half a dozen rich outfit descriptions to go along with his character intros.  Capping nearly every one of these descriptions?  A word about what sort of sweet hat is being worn.  There’s John Ruth’s “drop dead black hat” and Joe Gage’s “cool brown cow puncher hat” and Maj. Warren’s “supercool non regulation cowboy hat he picked up sometime after the war.”  You’d think the main reason QT wanted to write another Western was just so he could dream up some fresh head gear.

3.) Coffy.  As I mentioned earlier, coffee (or “coffy” as QT spells it throughout the text), plays an important role in The Hateful Eight.  Before John Ruth and company initially arrive at the haberdashery, he comments several times on the quality of the coffy there.  “Hot, strong, and good,” is the film’s running tagline for the stuff.  This setup provides a few good jokes and one huge plot point, which isn’t really worth spoiling here.  It’s been awhile, but this isn’t the first time Tarantino has made coffy a fulcrum of conversation in one of his movies.  Remember Jimmie from Pulp Fiction?  The suburban white dude that reluctantly plays host to Jules and Verne as they frantically try to dispose of poor Martin’s dead body?  If you recall, the passive-aggressive chat between Jules and Jimmie starts off with the former awkwardly complimenting the latter’s home brewed coffy.  It stands to reason that QT is something of a caf-fiend. (as in, a fiend for caffeine).  “No kidding,” responded everyone who has ever seen Tarantino give an interview.

THE THREE MOST BATSHIT INSANE PARTS OF THE STORY (NOTE: EXTRA SPOILER-Y)

1.) The part when Jody Domergue and his gang infiltrate a rest stop posing as a a contingent of devout Christian gentlemen before blowing everyone away in a hail of gunfire and burying them all in a shallow mass grave out back.

2.) The part when John Ruth is poisoned and responds by violently assaulting and then puking blood all over Daisy Domergue as she cackles maniacally.

3.) The part when Maj. Warren (a black Union Army Major) recounts to Gen. Smithers (an old white Confederate General) the story of how he captured, tortured, orally raped, and killed Smithers’ son in excruciating detail….just before setting the old man on fire and watching him burn to death.

THE VERDICT:

The script’s non-linear progression, confined setting, slowly ratcheting tension, and explosive finale recall several memorable scenes and tropes from Tarantino’s earlier work, specifically Reservoir Dogs and Inglorious Basterds.  In many ways, The Hateful Eight reads like an expanded variation on the “basement bar” scene from the latter film, with its deliberate build-up and guns-under-the-table climax.

Obviously, the script isn’t perfect.  There are a number of character-related odds and ends that don’t quite add up, and a few interesting story threads are introduced only to be left hanging loose and unformed for the rest of the film.  The dialogue, though sparkling in places, is clearly far less developed than it would have ultimately become had the movie been made.  And for all the salivating tension that Tarantino creates leading up to the end of the story, the conclusion is a bit of a letdown.  QT has come a long way since Reservoir Dogs, but he’s still a sucker for a good old Mexican stand-off.  Unfortunately, in this case the gimmick feels less like a natural culmination and more like regression.

But keep in mind, this is a first draft, and most of the problems are a result of there being too many ideas rather than not enough.  If you’re a QT enthusiast, you really couldn’t ask for a more entertaining read.

Overall, I’d give it 4 out of 5 cups of coffy.

 

(all images courtesy of Google search)

 

 

A Song of Ice and Fire: Some Scattered Thoughts on U.S. Curling

By Jake Sweltz

Skip Shuster of U.S. delivers a stone as lead Landsteiner and second Zezel sweeps ahead of it during their men's curling round robin game against Denmark at 2014 Sochi Olympics

In case you weren’t paying attention, the American curlers didn’t do so hot in Sochi this year.  The men and women went a combined 3-15 in Round Robin play, with each team finishing at the bottom of the standings for a second straight Olympics.  These results aren’t exactly shocking.  The United States has never been a curling superpower.  We’ve medaled only twice in Olympic history: men’s bronze in both Torino, 2006 and Albertville, 1992.  It’s not like anyone was expecting the Americans to set the ice on fire this year.

Still, I’m a little disappointed.

Curling is one of the few Olympic events in which the U.S. doesn’t field formidable-to-dominant competition.  Sure, It’s always fun to root for home team, but the Americans’ lowly reputation in this particular sport would have made a Cinderella run to the medal round all the more salivating.  After all, it’s not often that the U.S. gets a chance to be David instead of Goliath.

This year’s curling squad had the chance to be our generation’s 1984 Olympic Hockey team.  Or at least maybe our generation’s 2002 World Cup U.S. Soccer team, who defied the odds and made a miraculous run all the way to… the quarterfinals.  That was kind of inspiring, right?

The point I’m trying to make here is that every four years, our stone-throwing American brethren have the chance to capitalize on an increasingly rare opportunity: to be the United States’ next Great Olympic Underdogs.  And with every poor showing in the tournament round, that opportunity grows more and more ripe.

Unfortunately for American skips John Shuster and Erika Brown, the window might have already closed.  Shuster, 31, just completed his third consecutive Olympic appearance, but as a new father and successful restaurant manager, it’s still unclear whether the veteran will be able to commit to a fourth go-around in 2018.  Brown, meanwhile, is 41 years old and has already stated that Sochi is most likely her last Olympics.  With a new generation of American curlers on the rise, the United States’ Olympic prospects in this event seem as inconsequential as ever.  But I’m not giving up hope.

Like tons of other casual observers, I’ve grown very fond of Olympic curling over the past few Games.  It’s a marvelous spectator sport; tense and cerebral and goofy as hell.  Dozens of U.S. broadcasters have talked about the game’s idiosyncrasies as if they were obstacles to be overcome by the average American viewer.  The underlying implication is always something along the lines of, if you can just get past how bizarre this sport looks, we promise you’ll really enjoy it.  But I’ve never understood this tendency to preemptively defend the event.  To me, the eccentricity of curling is what makes it so charming in the first place.

The most hilarious thing I read during this year’s games in Sochi was this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which detailed how Russia’s banning alcohol during sporting events was against “the Spirit of Curling.”  The way I see it, any sport that counts drunken revelry among its most essential cultural principles is a sport that Americans get behind.

Now let’s wrap this up with a quick collection of Sochi’s best curling faces:

muirhead sidorova jones jacobs Niklas Edin

 

 

 

 

 

The Perennial Favorite: Ruminating on Roger Federer

On the eve of his umpteenth late-round matchup with Rafael Nadal, does the 17-time Grand Slam Champion have enough in the tank to win another major?

By Jake Sweltz

federer

 

It’s easy to call Roger Federer ageless.  His picture-perfect mechanics, his textbook footwork, his exquisite touch, all of it has remained stunningly identical to the technique he demonstrated in 2003 (the year he first won Wimbledon, beginning a run of dominance unparalleled in the history of professional tennis).  But there’s something about Federer’s aesthetic continuity that goes beyond his game.  Even his face, with its features both sharp yet soft, is a constantly familiar canvas of boyish handsomeness.  The man seems perpetually frozen in time, as though he were some kind of athletically appareled immortal.  A bandanna’d Dorian Gray, all decked out in Nike sweat gear.  Peter Pan in stretch polyester.

But Federer doesn’t live in Neverland, and that’s become increasingly obvious over the past few seasons.  He hasn’t reached a Slam final since winning Wimbledon in July 2012, the same year he last held the ATP’s no. 1 ranking.  Last summer, after suffering his worst major defeat in nearly a decade (losing in Wimbledon’s 2nd round to Sergiy Stakhovsky, ranked no. 116 at the time), a question once unthinkable suddenly became all too reasonable: “Is this the end of Roger Federer?”

Of course, in the realm of international tennis, “the end” is a tremendously relative term.  Federer finished 2013 as the world no. 6, a ranking countless players would die to achieve even once in their entire career.  But for a player like Federer, a player the sport has largely embraced as no less than the Greatest of All Time, falling to no. 6 is roughly equivalent to Zeus falling off Mount Olympus.

Roger Federer might be immortal, but he’s not eternal.  And now, with yet another shot at yet another title on the line, he’s finally playing like he knows it.

- – -

This Friday will mark Federer’s eleventh consecutive Australian Open semifinals appearance, his longest remaining streak of sustained success among the four major tournaments.  Still, it feels like ages since he’s been a real factor in Melbourne, partially because this is where Novak Djokovic has so frequently dominated the narrative (he’s won the last three).  But more than that, the past three Aussie Open semifinals have proven symbolically tragic for Federer.  A year after winning the title in 2010, he was beaten in straight sets by the ascendent Djokovic.  The following year, he was defeated by Rafael Nadal in four sets.  A year later, he lost a five-setter to Andy Murray.  By now, the Rivalry had been firmly displaced by the “Big Four,” and each encroaching player could claim a signature win over Federer in Rod Laver Arena.

It was within this ominous context that Federer faced off against Andy Murray in the quarterfinals Wednesday morning.  Three years ago, this matchup would barely have warranted a passing glance.  Now, it’s a different story.  These days, a significant Federer victory is far from assured, and maybe even unlikely.  Murray was not to be taken lightly.

And yet, for the first two sets, you could have sworn it really was three years ago.  The first set lasted all of thirty minutes, with Federer capturing an early break and breezing through his own service games with little effort.  Murray, on the other hand, had reverted to the kind of clumsiness and frustration that made him a punchline among pundits not long ago.  He looked helpless trying to deal with Federer’s efficient serve-and-volley approach, and his body language was telling the story every bit as well as the score.

By the middle of the second set, Federer had made a cozy home at the net, but Murray was finally starting to come around.  Federer’s age betrays him when it comes to arduous baseline-to-baseline rallies, and after going down a break, Murray began initiating those more and more.  By the time Federer closed out the set, it was clear Murray had found a groove.

Despite ultimately winning the match, seeing Federer fade a bit down the stretch against a more assertive Murray leaves me wondering if he will ever again possess the pure physicality to hang with Nadal.  When the Spaniard starts launching those late-set baseline body blows, will Federer still have enough in the tank to respond?

He seems to think so.  “I am back physically,” he commented after the match.  “I’m explosive out there.  I can get to balls.  I’m not afraid to go for balls.”  But who is he really trying to convince?

It’s true that Federer looked strong and agile throughout much of the match, but what stood out even more than his movements during the run of play were his reactions after the points had ended.  Since his maturation around 2004, Federer hasn’t often let his emotions rise to the surface during matches, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t look like he actually cared about the outcome on Wednesday.  He was fist-pumping after half-volleys, drooping his head after backhands sent just wide, shouting in triumph after forehand winners.  You could read the tension on his face with every big opportunity, and that was something that we simply hadn’t seen from Federer during his run of dominance.

This Friday, he and Nadal will be going head-to-head yet again in a major late-round showdown, and for that we should all be grateful.  Part of what makes athletic greatness so inspiring to witness is our knowledge that it can’t last forever.  Transcendence is transient.  Time marches on, our idols grow old, retire and sell underwear.  But none of that matters when the ball is in play.  How can mortality possibly be real as we watch these heroic specimens perform feats beyond all physical comprehension and believe, for a moment in time, that we live among gods?

The Year in Hip-Hop: 13 Capsule Reviews for the ’13 Time Capsule

By Jake Sweltz

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Hip-hop music is a rapidly evolving beast.  Its styles and trends shift faster than a new Bugatti; what sounds fresh and innovative in January is old hat by June.  The music is constantly transforming itself into something new and different and unlike anything you even thought possible a year earlier.  This is why, more than any other popular genre, hip-hop encapsulates what it’s like to be alive in 2013.  In a world where your brand new 16 GB, 3-axis gyroscope magnetized, 4G-enabled, 4.3-inch qHD multi-touch capacitive smartphone becomes primitive technology by the time you’ve finished rattling off its features, hip-hop seems like the ultimate representation of 21st-century modernity.

If all this sounds a little grandiose, that’s because it almost certainly is.  I love hip-hop, so I often tend to imbue it with all kinds of extramusical meaning and significance, whether it’s warranted or not.  That said, 2013 was a banner year in rap music (hint: they’re all banner years), and with the holiday season winding down, it seems like the optimal time to recap just what the hell happened in hip-hop over the past twelve months.

Obviously, it’s beyond the scope of this post to examine every single record from this year, so instead I’m going pare down this retrospective to just 13 capsule reviews covering what I thought were the most notable studio album releases of 2013.

(Note: Due to the strange promotional cycles of some records/labels, this list will be omitting at least a few super-ubiquitous artists who didn’t technically release any studio albums this year.  Sorry, Future.)

Anyway, let’s get the ball rolling:

yeezus

1.)  Kanye dropped Yeezus, and it was another game-changer.

Conjured into existence by West and a bevy of mostly anonymous co-producers (plus Daft Punk), the final product was reportedly perfected over a hectic days-long stretch that saw West basically re-recording entire tracks in the span of a few hours.  Also, apparently there were some highly-ambiguous-yet-critically-important last-minute contributions from Rick Rubin?  Basically everything about this album’s life cycle, from the pre-release anticipation (which had ‘Ye premiere the caustic “New Slaves” on the sides of buildings all over the world) to West’s completely bonkers Yeezus tour (which had him literally walk with Jesus), was one big WTF moment after another.  Automatically the most monumental record of the year, not to mention the best.  Yeezy done did it again.

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2.)  Drake dropped Nothing Was the Same, and it was pretty much more of the same.

I had high hopes for this record, given that Drake went with the classic “portrait of a young rapper” album art (in the tradition of Illmatic, Ready to Die, Tha Carter III, etc.).  2011’s Grammy-winning Take Care was an interior triumph, hailed as a progressive leap forward in post-808s R&B.  Here, Drake often ends up regressing instead, falling into his radio-friendly comfort zone on appealing-but-predictable cuts like “Furthest Thing” and “The Language.”  Still, I counted at least five standout tracks; besides the inescapable singles “Started From the Bottom” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home”, “Connect” and the Sampha-assisted “Too Much” are both worthy additions to the Drake canon.  Plus, we got to listen to a comically menacing Aubrey Graham pretend to be a hard-ass on “Worst Behaviour”, and it was admittedly pretty glorious.

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3.)  Jay Z dropped: (1) his twelfth studio album Magna Carta… Holy Grail and (2) the hyphen from his name, which, y’know, sure, I guess.  Why not?  

I don’t really have much to say about Hov’s music at this point in his career, so I’ll just say this: if he wants to drop the hyphen, he might as well go all the way and tell people to just call him “Shawn” from now on.  He’s 43 years old.

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4.)  Pusha T dropped My Name is My Name, his first official studio album as a solo artist.

Featuring lush-yet-sparse production from the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, this album was sonically one of the more satisfying releases of the year.  Lyrically, Push remains sharp as ever, although I do find myself wishing he would rap about something other than cocaine at least once in a while.  Even coke raps this accomplished can grow tiresome after a decade of nothing else.  Still, it’s hard to complain when you get a track like “King Push,” which was fun because for about a week everyone thought Joaquin Phoenix made the beat.  Also, people seemed to really dig Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Nosetalgia.”  But then again, if the most noteworthy verse on your solo debut comes from a guest rapper, I wouldn’t call it your best work.  CLIPSE 4 EVA.

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5.)  Danny Brown dropped Old, and all the hipsters lost their shit.  

In case there’s any confusion, that’s not a knock on Brown.  He’s too unique a rapper to try to pigeonhole into any single scene, and this record was equally resistant to oversimplification.  The raw, vaporous production of the first half backdrops Brown’s dark ruminations on street life before giving way to the zany electro-insanity of the album’s trap-heavy B-side.  On 2011’s XXX, Brown rapped with a childlike goofiness; he was aggressive, but still affable; vulgar, yet charming.  Basically, Brown established himself as the quintessential Lovable Rascal of Rap.  Old is his dark picaresque masterpiece.

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6.)  French Montana dropped the actually-kinda-crack Excuse My French, officially proving that real talent has absolutely no bearing on mainstream hip-hop success.  

I don’t mean to sound like Silky Johnson.  It takes a remarkable amount of commitment and hard work to reach the top of the charts in any genre, let alone rap music.  I can’t knock French Montana’s hustle; the dude has earned every penny he’s made.  But man, does he suck at rapping.  Anyway, that shouldn’t diminish the fact that this album featured two of the most irresistible rap singles in recent memory, one of which was “Pop That,” arguably the defining summer jam of 2012.  Montana also gets points for somehow managing to turn one of the all-time irritating ad-libs (his nasally “Haaan!” donkey cry) into an inseparable part of the hook for “Ain’t Worried About Nothin'”, a legitimate banger.

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7.)  Eminem dropped The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which somehow managed to become the best-selling rap album of the year without anyone really noticing and/or caring.

It seems like Em just kind of outlived his own relevancy.  After a wild run in the early aughts as perhaps the most culturally dominant and divisive figure in hip-hop, Slim has finally grown up…and youth culture has moved on.  Did you know that on this new LP, Em actually apologizes to his mom for all the dirt he threw on her on his classic records?  I respect the guy’s humility, but at the same time, that doesn’t really make for great club fodder.  Remember when Mathers’ hysterically warped rhymes about hating everyone and everything (including himself) provided the soundtrack for scores of angst-ridden teens and post-adolescents seeking catharsis in a politically repressive and frightening new millennium?  Good times!

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8.) Mac Miller dropped Watching Movies with the Sound Off, on which he collaborated with seemingly every major underground hip-hop hero of this decade.  

Seriously, how the fuck did this happen?  It seems like only yesterday I was laughing off Miller as just another derivative weed-rap wannabe, riding the wave of Wiz Khalifa’s early success.  Now he’s rubbing elbows with Flying Lotus and Jay Electronica in the studio?  I knew something was drastically wrong when I attended Bonnaroo in summer of 2012 and Mac Miller was manning one of the two main stages opposite The goddamn Beach Boys on day four.  I had seen back-to-back sets by Danny Brown and Kendrick freaking Lamar in one of the tiny tents reserved for relative nobodies three days earlier.  Dude must have sold his soul to the devil or something, because he is living the dream of every aspiring rapper alive while having the voice of a marginally more talented Brad Gluckman.

Speaking of questionable rappers who out-billed K-Dot at Bonnaroo in 2012:

childish

9.)  Childish Gambino dropped Because the Internet, and it was–

–actually, on second thought, I won’t even bother.  I’m already too riled up, and I don’t want this to turn into a snark-fest.  Let’s just move on.
rocky

ferg

10.)  A$AP Rocky dropped Long. Live. A$AP. and it was good.  A$AP Ferg dropped Trap Lord, and it was better.  

Didn’t really see this coming.  Before we were blessed with “Shabba”, most people only knew Ferg as one of A$AP mob’s negligible underlings.  But Trap Lord, the darker, more twisted counterpart to Long. Live. A$AP. was a revelation; it took the melodic majesty of Rocky’s debut and violently strangled it, leaving only its hollow, boom-bap bones.  A$AP Rocky’s record was plenty harsh, but it had a pop buoyancy that kept the atmosphere light and playful throughout.  But where Rocky was merely mischievous, Ferg is straight-up demented.  Be forewarned: Trap Lord is the most unabashedly explicit record of the year, and it’s not really close.  From the tortured dancehall rhythm of album-opener “Let It Go” to the profane stream-of-consciousness raps on “Fergivicious”, there’s not much room for sunlight.  “All I know is pain,” Ferg raps on the latter cut.  By the end of record, you’ll be able to relate.

el-p

11.)  Killer Mike and El-P teamed up to drop Run the Jewels, and it was NOT safe for children.

In an age when softies like Drake and J. Cole rule rap radio, these two champions of the underground have remained defiantly hard-as-fuck.  Last year’s Cancer for Cure (El-P) and R.A.P. Music (Killer Mike) went heavy on the sociopolitical belligerence, but here the duo refocus their lyrical energies on a less ambitious, but no less aggressive theme: namely, threatening you with extreme bodily harm.  If you’re a battle-rap traditionalist, it doesn’t get much better than this; the album is chock-full of wicked one-liners (“try to say grace, get a face full of staples”) and rapid fire tongue twisters detailing the myriad ways you might end up in the morgue if you try to talk shit.  El-P’s production is similarly confrontational, but after two decades in the game, you should probably know what to expect by now.  Hip-hop may have cleaned up its image in some respects, but it’s refreshing to be reminded that, at the core, it’s still hazardous material.

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earl

12.)  Odd Future dropped Wolf (Tyler, the Creator) and Doris (Earl Sweatshirt).  

Ok, I’m cheating a little by lumping these two together under the Odd Future label (Earl signed with Columbia Records to release Doris), but in my mind they’re still inextricably linked.  Both Tyler and Earl’s early work showed flashes of brilliance, but ultimately suffered from juvenility (they were both under 18 years old when Odd Future first rose to prominence).  Thankfully, they’ve dropped the bizarre rape/murder jokes since then, and each has grown significantly in their artistry.  Earl’s talent on the mic has been justifiably lauded since day one, but it’s his hazily pensive production on tracks like “Chum” and “Sunday” that comes as the most pleasant surprise.  Tyler, meanwhile, is even more skillful and creative on the boards; he utilizes organic instrumentation to great effect, and his sonically jarring left-turns in the middle of songs like “Tamale” are often inspired.  But his MCing remains a little too stilted for my taste.  I envision a future in which he raps a lot less and focuses more on his musical ability.  Either way, both young underground icons have made great strides.  They might sound like burnouts, but they’re certainly not fading away any time soon.

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13.)  Juicy J dropped Stay Trippy, further launching Mike WiLL Made It’s career into the stratosphere.  

In case the phrase “Mike WiLL Made It” is still foreign to you, that’s the name of the producer who over the past 18 months or so has given us at least six straight-up classics, including four of 2013’s most infectious mega-hits: Rihanna’s “Pour It Up”, Lil Wayne’s “Love Me”, Ciara’s “Body Party”, and Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”.  Juicy J is great and all, but the real reason his record is on this list is because it made Mike WiLL a household name, thanks in no small part to the 2012 single “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” the cut that introduced us to the star producer’s signature brand of dreamy, blissed-out trap anesthesia.  I’ve heard complaints that his production style is repetitive (I’ll admit that for its first month on the radio, I thought “Pour It Up” was just Rihanna’s remix of “Bandz”), but who can deny the crossover brilliance of a song like “We Can’t Stop”?  Above all else, 2013 was the year that hip-hop became truly indistinguishable from pop music at large, and no figure better represented that sea change than Mike WiLL Made It.

[Additional shout-outs: Future, Chief Keef, RiFF RAFF, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, Rich Homie Quan, 2 Chainz]

All images courtesy of Google search

A Brief and Arbitrary Ode to Russell Westbrook

westbrookBy Jake Sweltz

The Oklahoma City Thunder are playing the Atlanta Hawks tonight.  It’s not a particularly noteworthy game, but I’m going to go ahead and use it as a paper-thin excuse to post this short bit of prose I wrote last season about Russell Westbrook, Destroyer of Worlds.  I’m also going to include an obligatory Westbrook finger gun GIF to top it off.  Enjoy.

Russell Westbrook plays basksetball like a roided-out jackrabbit.  He has the athletecism of a mini-LeBron, but he doesn’t bottle it up the way James does.  He lets it bubble and boil over the pot.

Westbrook plays an aggressive, volatile style, like Troy Polamalu in his prime.  In the frame one second and out the next (and vice versa).  He commits plays with a heedless energy that can’t be tamed.  And yet even his clumsiest maneuvers still somehow look graceful.  His basketball is Youthful Exuberance personified.  Flashy and frivolous, headstrong and beautiful.

 WestbrookGunsBack1

Never change, Russ.

Yankee Swap: Some Thoughts on New York Baseball’s Big Weekend

Granderson-CanoBy Jake Sweltz

Haters gonna hate; Yankees gonna Yank.

Mere hours after reports surfaced that Robinson Cano had agreed to sign with the Seattle Mariners for 10 years and $240 million, the Yanks struck back with yet another flashy deal of their own.

Even if New York’s acquisition of Carlos Beltran for three years and $45 million doesn’t quite approach the proportions of last Tuesday’s Jacoby Ellsbury signing (7 years, $153 million), it still qualifies as one of the splashier moves we’ve seen from this already very exciting offseason.  And as if that wasn’t enough big New York baseball news for one Friday, the Mets went out and nabbed Curtis Granderson for four years and $60 million.

It’s been hot-stove bedlam in the boroughs the last few days, so I figured I’d break out the React-O-Meter to make some completely unfounded conclusions about how all these deals will play out for the Yanks/Mets over the next couple seasons.  Also, I guess I’ll have to mention the Mariners somewhere too, but no worries; I’ll keep those thoughts nice and breezy.  But first things first:

The Beltran deal is an overpay, but the Yanks still had to do it.

Was the Beltran signing a panic move for the Yankees?  My buddy Lou says yes, and he’s probably right, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t really make a difference.

The Yankees home attendance has been steadily declining for the past few years, and with their best player now leaving town to join the freaking MARINERS, that trend is likely to continue.  New York thrives on star power, and with Cano and Granderson both exiting stage left, the Yankees have decidedly less of it than ever before.  That’s why the Beltran deal makes way more sense than it should.

Skill-wise, there’s no question Beltran is on the decline.  FanGraph’s Dave Cameron points out that his value going into next season projects at about league-average, and that’s only going to get worse.  Cameron writes that he’s “not entirely sure why they saw it necessary to pay this much for Carlos Beltran’s late-30’s” after refusing to pay for Cano’s.

Here’s why: Major League Baseball is about more than sensible team-building.  And that goes double for New York Yankee baseball.  It’s an unfortunate reality and a hard pill for baseball purists to swallow, but the plain and simple fact of the matter is that the Yankees need to put asses in seats, and Beltran will generate way more asses than all the Nate McClouths and David Murphys of the world possibly could.

The counterargument, of course, is that if the Yankees can manage to build a winning team, the fans will show up no matter who’s on the field.  That may be true, but let’s not kid ourselves. Regardless of who the Yankees sign, they aren’t sniffing the playoffs unless the rest of the AL East decides to start playing cricket.  They might as well sell some tickets on their way to another fourth place finish.  As for New York City’s other squad:

The Mets front office may have defied the laws of physics by finally making a competent decision.

The Curtis Granderson signing was an impressively savvy move; I didn’t think the Mets had it in them.

I might be biased since Granderson has been my favorite Yankee for the past several years (or at least the only Yankee I haven’t felt an abject disdain towards), and I’ve always felt like he was a little underrated despite his three all-star appearances.  After an injury-plagued 2013 season, I feel like the league’s perceptions of his value dipped unfairly, and now the Mets have taken full advantage.

It’s hard to characterize a guy as obviously talented as Granderson an “under-the-radar” free agent, but somehow that’s exactly what he became this offseason.  A lot of critics have come out of the woodwork to hail this signing as the second coming of Jason Bay, but I just don’t see it happening that way.  Despite Granderson’s slightly advanced age, he’s speedier and more athletic than Bay ever was, and I feel strangely confident that his batting average and home run totals will bounce back to their 2012 levels even without the benefit of hitting in Yankee Stadium.

The bad news, of course, is that the Mets likely won’t be in a position to really contend until at least 2015 when Matt Harvey returns, and by then it’s possible that Granderson will have aged beyond his usefulness as an above average player.  But even if this turns out to be the case, the Mets have structured his deal in a way that doesn’t leave the team financially hamstrung the way some of their other signings in the past have.

The bottom line is that Granderson is a charming and charismatic star who we can reasonably expect will put up solid numbers during a down year or two for the boys in blue and orange.  He’ll be great for the fans, he’ll be great for the culture of the team, and he won’t leave the management’s hands tied for the future.  What’s not to like?

Let’s move on to one final reaction:

The Mariners got better (and much more exciting) by signing Cano, but they still stink…

…And will likely continue to stink for at least another two or three years.  I mean, they should still be proud of themselves: they locked up the best player on the market and finally have a superstar at the plate to pair with King Felix on the mound.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Seattle is headed in the right direction (granted, for this team there’s really nowhere to go but up).

I still can’t be bothered to care.  Wake me up when they break .500.