For several years, the recently retired FreeDarko blog took a groundbreaking and individualistic perspective towards the NBA as a whole -- a perspective rooted as much in critical theory as in hip-hop. FreeDarko's main strength was that it collected some of the best minds in basketball out there - both readers and writers - into a single, content-rich site. Its main weakness was that it sometimes felt like the New York Times covering hip-hop: alright, we get it, you think this player is good at basketball and fun to watch...you don't have to abuse the word "profound", if you dig me. But on the whole? The collective added a lot to the community in so many ways, obvious and subtle. The most tangible contributions were the group's two books, the first decent but uneven, the second a classic of sportswriting. On the blog, the underratedly apt commenters and authors frequently expressed (or tried valiantly and interestingly to express) their best interpretations of what was going on in the Association and the new lenses they were bringing to bear on it. In the final tally, FreeDarko brought us some of the great sports conversations of the last decade in basketball, and the collective has a lot of credibility.
Since the blog's retirement, many of FD's authors have stayed in touch and teamed up for spot projects after the main blog started to wane. Their first really substantial project - called The Classical - is the first true sequel, though. The closest analogue (though it pains me to make the comparison) is Grantland - in terms of their longform, firsthand, unorthodox takes on the great stories mainstream and forgotten. The talent pool is quite different and the differences in content will become quite clear a couple of months from now, but for now, the comparison fits. Also, Bill Simmons doesn't write for The Classical, generally a positive thing. I digress. Right now, The Classical is in preview mode. If the content is representative (and it appears to be), then we have fodder for our fourth installment of "Juwan A Blog?". In general, for this feature we'd like to use blogs that are well-established, but the FD group has enough credibility with the community that we're going to allow it. And they even got quite a few new established authors that we can dig into immediately. So, let's.
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There are only 23 posts on the site at the moment (and that's including the post explaining that it's a preview). I felt the size itself, along with the generally individualistic author-centric design of the site, led itself well to a simple "let's read their posts and see how they stand" kind of analysis. To that end, I'm going to go through a large proportion of what they've produced so far and offer 8 separate spot reviews of the most recent pieces. But first, a few paragraphs of general impressions:
First, it's worth noting that they went all out with the authors. Just like with Grantland, this is one thing The Classical really did well: They found people who could write, and had interesting particular angles. I don't know if this is just great emergent social networking or great top-down management by FD and their "handlers," but they found their favorite writers and they brought them into the fold. You have to respect that, given the wide range of backgrounds and sources these writers came from.
Second, almost all the pieces were good to great. Besides the unfortunate Tebow piece (you can read my problems with it in 2. below), I enjoyed every single piece that I reviewed. As a writer I don't consider myself to be on their level of excellence, but I'm very well read and I know good work when I see it: this is damn good sportswriting. You've got innovative prose, new forms of presentation, and systemically solid subject matter. All the good things that make sportswriting good. And while I apologize for making this paragraph somewhat fawning, repetitive, and trivial, I can't really help it. I'm always looking for people that can make our corner of reality a little bit bigger and have it blend into the whole of human experience a little more fluidly.
The Classical - at least in its limited preview - has done so. It stands poised to achieve greatness.
Of course - as fans of basketball for more than one year well know - "tremendous upside" is practically a slur against the unpolished and untested. It's very much up in the air if they're going to be able to sustain this level of quality. Grantland looked great in its first incarnation only to gradually peter off to where it is now, with the legitimately interesting and world-intensifying pieces (such as Sebastien Pruiti's great Austin Rivers piece earlier today) slowly being drowned out by the ditherings of Simmons and his least-interesting cronies. I do have fears the Classical could follow that sort of a path as well, though in a different way. How many introductions to rugby culture (6.) are we going to be able to sit through? How many stories like this and great chroniclers will The Classical be able to find? But the seeds are there, the initial results are promising, and I have very high expectations for The Classical. Let's get to examining some of their posts.
Without further ado, let's get into my spot reviews of the last eight posts. We're going to work backwards from the newest post, that way you can read these reviews in the same order you'd (I'd) read them on the site.
1. War King Blues (by Tom Breihan) - At indie wrestling company Chikari, the self-contained universe of absurd narratives clash with the earnestly great (and troubled) wrestler Eddie Kingston. It's maybe a tiny bit overstylized ("He’s a big guy, all gut and head-stubble, with a titanic honk-rumble of a Yonkers accent") and I wish it went into a little more detail about Kingston's personality outside the ring. But as a twin profile of Chikari and Kingston coming from an obviously sincere fan? It's great stuff, and really excellent writing. Reminds me of this, always a high compliment.
2. Tim Tebow: Magical White Person (by Mobutu Sese Seko) - This is kind of an unfortunate piece about Tim Tebow. There isn't much of a story. The only "story" here is that Seko is offended by straightforward things that he is interpreting as cryptically racist. Now, I know I have some hidden racial prejudices, as do my countrymen at large. And I really do want to address them when I find them. But while I or my countrymen may have such hidden prejudices, I'm not entirely sold on the idea that they're cryptically coded in sports media for a member of the sophisticated to condescendingly unravel for me. Seko really may have a point here, and I'm actually inclined to agree with a lot of his points, but the flip side of that is that Seko should at least attempt to persuade or explain in passing to people like Aaron and I who agree in broad strokes but aren't convinced on the specifics. Instead, this piece struck me as simply assuming everyone reading agreed with his main point about Tebow without properly arguing it or providing any sort of coherent explanation for why he felt the point stuck.
Seko lost me at first with that "convenient Christian Michael Irvin" comment, even though I'm not a Christian (or a Cowboys fan). Why? Because the comment was snivelling, out-of-nowhere, unnecessary and dismissive of the actual possibility of a person changing their perspective and atoning for previous mistakes. And as far as substantive evidence for Seko's piece goes, that would back up his thesis and leave me persuaded to a view I'm not all that far from holding? Again, I want to be enlightened, and convincing narratives and stats are what have successfully convinced me of my and my countrymen's prejudices in the past, and of the existence of institutional racism at the core of our society. But Seko basically gives us the single anecdote that Tim Tebow is being treated differently by the media from Michael Vick as the be all and end all of his proof. That doesn't really fly with me. Vick, last time I checked, has a metric ton of confounding variables, like... dog fighting, a vicious sport, no matter your ethnic heritage. Jail time. A more complicated game. And nowhere near the general obsession Tebow has with religion.
That is reason enough for this comparison to be somewhat ridiculous, and - considering it's one of Seko's only substantive claims made to back up the vitriol in the article - reason enough for this piece's central thesis to fail. Tim Tebow and Michael Vick are not just two running quarterbacks of different colored skins. Mystifyingly, even Seko's appropriation of Spike's Magical Negro - which by contrast is a great example of hidden American racial prejudice in the media - is unbelievably off-base and unjustified. But all of that said, despite it being the worst piece I'd read on the site thus far, the piece itself is still quite well written. That is a credit to it despite my disagreement with its methods, reason for being, and general form. As an example of the writing, see the hilarious possibly-intentional irony from the piece: "If the boilerplate about Vick and Newton can at times come queasily close to describing them as exceptionally well-bred beasts..." which does encapsulate racism in sports quite well. I just can't get on board with the whole picture, at least for this article.
3. LeSean McCoy and the Insistent Style (by Eric Freeman) - Freeman has never been my favorite writer at BDL or FreeDarko, but that sentiment has nothing to do with his ceiling, which is on display here. A fantastic, semi-improvisational look into the Eagles back McCoy and what seems to set him apart from even the most creative backs before him. I like this piece a lot, and it ripples with the enthusiasm of someone obsessed with marginal physical advantages. His piece also - I must note - could have some conceptual extension into guard penetration in basketball.
4. Home? I Have No Home. (by Tom Scharpling) - A nice, irreverent take on the Nets fan experience. While these "aw, shucks, isn't my mildly unpleasant situation sort of amusing and generalizable to your own experiences?" pieces are usually fluff, this made me laugh (and lockout-fugue; there are new holes in my walls) quite a few times. And what else can you do but laugh (and lockout-fugue) and try to make the best of the lockout?
5. Science Bureau: The Pilot (by Rob Mitchum and Dr. LIC) - Some interesting summaries of recent scientific finds. Dr. LIC had a similar column back on FreeDarko, and it was usually a treat. This is no different. Cool contents, cool presentation.
6. New Zealand’s long, All Black night of the soul (by Linda Hui) - One thing I like about this solid look at New Zealand rugby culture at the World Cup is that not a single sentence or paragraph sticks out as great or terrible. And despite this apparent handicap, Hui manages to testify well to her personal experiences and give us a sense of New Zealand's rugged competitiveness, intensity, and hospitality. You know as writers we love great sentences, but there's something to said for perfectly conveying the poetry of a culture and a moment without slipping into poetry yourself. In its way, a simply-stylized, well-written closer like "Euphoria took longer to take hold. It had been far, far too close" actually evokes the same blissful, look-away-for-a second that one of those jaw-dropping masterclass sentences does with a lesser piece. It's good writing that sneaks up on you. The drips dropped.
7. All up in the videos (by Tomas Rios) - A look at UFC President Dana White and his questionable mainstreaming tactics, where by "questionable" Rios means "insane," by "mainstreaming" he means "mishandling," and where by "tactics" he means "of the sport he is ostensibly tasked with mainstreaming". A look at UFC President Dana White and his insane mishandling of the sport he is ostensibly tasked with mainstreaming, in other words. And it's an overview replete with good journalism, well-argued frustration, and innocent disappointment.
8. On Pitching, and the AL MVP in the Hour of Chaos (by Jack Hamilton) - Possibly my favorite of the eight I've reviewed so far. I opined of Hui's rugby piece above that it's astonishing when such a complete piece has no transcendent sentences or paragraphs. Kind of like Greg Maddux*. But like Pedro at his peak or Verlander this season, this piece is a superfluous trip through the viscerally mind-shattering sentimentality at the heart of the fan experience. Every sentence is another yaw-turn on a hoverboard trip over a Pit of Sarlacc. Imaginative prose, imaginative concepts. I love it.
*Warning - this link is Gothic Ginobili canon
9. Running is other people (by Max Linsky) - Okay, sorry Jack Hamilton, your piece was pretty good but I'm changing my vote and my number of pieces reviewed to 9. "Number nine, number nine, number nine," how they mock the song. But don't they recognize how great Revolution No. 9 is from start to finish? Don't they recognize that beneath its apparently pretentious/avant-garde surface lies a masterpiece of human frailty and vulnerability, an eight-minute look into the silent yawn of the void? I mean, I love a good pop song, and given the choice, I will listen to something without a melody less 1% of the time... but it's a damn good song which really stands with the best in the Beatles catalog as a major success. Anyway, sorry about the Gothic G-sharp there. Linsky's piece is about running marathons and it's pretty damn funny and it's pretty damn good. Short, sweet, amazing, mostly because it shows - in the most obvious, direct sense - what it's like to go from spectator to well-respected athlete. The ending line seals the deal on the theme.
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And... that's a wrap. Tune in next time, when I'll be offering spot reviews of every single post on this blog, leading to a maddeningly Borgesian Thousand And One Nights scenario. The post will contain a spot review for that post itself, a spot review which will hinge on my handling of that very spot review, which shall pivot to cover the handling of...
Oh, fuck it, I'll just do Matt Moore's blog.