As a recurring feature, Alex will be reviewing and analyzing various blogs and hoops sites. No number ratings or anything silly like that, just a good overview of the sites at hand with their strengths, weaknesses, etc. To see an index of previously reviewed sites, click here.
On a chilly day before dawn, I love a great essay or a short story. I just love that feeling when the piece ends, you know, when your neck shudders a little bit and you're the only one awake and the sky gets a little brighter? I don't care if the piece ends with fire or with insight - it ends with something meaningful, and something meaningful opens up in me. The heat of the sun gets my cold wet arms a little drier and warmer. I feel like I own the new day, and I see clearly what is real and earnest in life for awhile, and I see a little bit further ahead in my life. I just love that feeling. That's why today - just before dawn here - I want to talk about Joe Posnanski. But first I want to talk about Michael Jordan.
His Airness demonstrates his infamous
"Mockery of Tai Chi" dunk.
I don't know the path to greatness. I wish I did. It seems like you have to visualize an ideal and make your every choice in the shadow of that ideal. But I don't know, because even the great paths aren't so inevitable from the start. Michael Jordan may seem like destiny's child in retrospect - the unstoppable forward momentum of a singular champion. But nothing about 1998, 1996, 1986, 1989, or 1993, was so inevitable and historic in the moment. He was, sure, the heir apparent to Bird/Magic. But Bird's back broke down, Magic got HIV, and Len Bias overdosed. He was, sure, the best player in basketball for a decade. But his rise to prominence symbiotically coincided with the global rise of the NBA brand. He was, sure, the leader of two historic threepeats. But Ralph Sampson's back gave out, Portland chose Sam Bowie, and Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson brought the inscrutable Rodman to Chicago. Jordan's rise was a product of circumstance, and far from inevitable. Bill Simmons - following America at large - has his Alpha Dogs that win every game that matters and hit every shot that matters, but even a cursory study.of basketball history suggests that innumerable choices, literal lotteries, and economic realities guide what we in hindsight call fate.
Even though - or heck, precisely because - I believe this, I hold a lot of special reverence for Jordan. The world expected and demanded Jordan to take the lead as a showman and a winner every night - and every night Jordan delivered. He was, sure, genetically blessed and fell into perfect developmental circumstances and he was paired with a slightly younger, much poorer twin from rural Arkansas named Pippen that served as perfect teammate and foil. But Jordan's shots still had to fall, the killer still had to rise, and the motivator still had to find (or else invent) slights against him. Jordan still had to win. But he delivered on his promise again and again, even beyond what his circumstances and his gifts should have allowed. He may have been destiny's child in the other sense - the unstoppable thrusting of a man into greatness, but nothing about Jordan was remotely perfunctory. He cried after winning his first title in 1991 not because he was supposed to or because his handlers deemed it demographically lucrative. No, he cried because he loved what he'd earned and couldn't stand the idea of having been deprived of it. Jordan had no use for excuses - and he was too intelligent for any excuses to work. Jordan's was already a great throne when he inherited the kingdom, but he was a great king that elevated his throne still higher. Far from trivializing either the great Jordan or his great situation, hindsight only elevates both to more absurd levels.
I'm sure Joe Posnanski has thought about Jordan in this way, because he has written everything that I have ever thought about sports and life into a curiously long and thoughtful post. Poz would probably figure out how the thought extends to LeBron: with his maddening playoff exits (inexplicable) and his maddening ceiling (higher and more fickle than perhaps any NBA player ever). I'm sure Poz would figure out how to work in all the greats of this era, some select greats scattered across NBA history, and a couple of personal anecdotes about tennis and baseball. Poz would work the Jordan thought into a winding yarn (but at all times simple and forward-moving). He'd work in a Buck O'Neill anecdote or a reference to Vin Scully or Joe Paterno. Wherever he'd go with it, Posnanski would think about this Jordan narrative for hours and turn it into a work of substance and entertainment. Or Poz would kindly and systematically point out all the flaws and banality and utter repetition of a bad narrative that he'd heard a thousand times but had never found the words to refute. And then Poz would find the words to refute the narrative, and in doing so would enrich all our lives with a work of substance and entertainment. That's just what he does.
I wonder if Poz senses that he has arrived and peaked (hopefully not fully) at exactly the right moments for his talents - the first burst of blogs and the first truly ubiquitous social networks, respectively. I wonder if Poz ever thinks about living in a time where niches like "Moneyball" become feature films and America can take an ironic distance towards baseball and still love it without question again. I wonder if Poz ever senses that we are living in a golden age of technology that still demands the scarce great storytellers in sports. I wonder if Poz realizes the weight of expectations his fervent readers place upon him, if he realizes the impact his best work has on us and the hours of joy his total work has brought to us. I wonder if he allows himself to be the avatar for virtue in his own narratives, as he is in ours as aspiring bloggers. I wonder if he realizes that he's in Chicago, so to speak, surrounded - as Jordan was - by a group of admirers that hang on the results of his craft. I wonder if he's proud of himself that he disappoints our expectations so rarely and transcends them so frequently.
I wonder, but I already know the answer: No, of course not. Even if he had the time (he writes a mile a minute and acknowledges that sportswriters have a shelflife), Poz can't find such narratives terribly interesting: He responded to a "Best Sportswriter Award" by making cheesy 70s references and making self-deprecating humor about himself as a blogger. Plain and simple, he's not going to let an award for best sportswriter go to his head. All he did was appreciate the praise and then he moved on; there's baseball to write about, y'know? Even if a great writer cornered him into talking about his own greatness, I'm sure he would just chalk it up to circumstance, teammates, and perseverance, like Jim Thome or Tim Duncan. His work passes through his head from his soul but seems to miss his ego, or maybe his ego just isn't very big to begin with. His advice to aspiring writers? Use active verbs, stay humble, don't think you're above the story. And that's it. Don't add flowery language, don't rest on your laurels, don't talk about your achievements, talk about your favorite stories. Don't go for the big-name contacts, go for the story and the people you're interested in hearing about. And maybe his simplicity is the whole trick. He's a master at it anyway: With a single active verb he says things that take me hours to express.* He puts Vin Scully's elegant simplicity into 4000 words or so, year-round on weekdays. He came about, sure, right when his talents were called for, but he has delivered - with virtue, sincerity, compassion, and humor - even beyond his thrust to greatness.
*Every few pieces there's just a show-stopping sentence, and Poz seems to know just where to place it. Example: "What followed felt too awesome, like those imaginary games we all used to play in our backyard with impossible comebacks and ridiculous twists and all those things that real sports so rarely become." on the Cardinals' improbable Game Six victory. Another examples: "I would not try to explain how Ron Washington manages baseball teams -- it seems to me some combination of feel, improvisational jazz, likability and Wile E. Coyote -- but it seemed pretty clear that he did not want other teams best players to beat him. ". Poz also loves his "Posterisks," which are long, asterisked parentheticals like this.
I read a lot of my favorite Posnanski pieces this morning to feel that certain joy and enlightenment. Before I read it all, I'd had an earlier version of this post. Oh, it had a lot about how he was different, about how he is a special guy, compassion pouring from his every word, his personality bursting from his every anecdote, etc. It started, "Every day on his blog, Pos shares a couple stories, anecdotes, or thoughts. Most of them deal with baseball." And I think that's all I need to keep from the earlier draft as a chilly dawn approaches here in Madison.