The NBA Draft and the Power of Empty Vessels

The NBA Draft is just about my favorite sports event of the year. I prepare for it like I have a stake in the outcome. I’ve got seriously considered opinions on dozens of basketball players, many who I’d not even heard of 12 months ago. When the Knicks make their pick, I will be elated or crushed based on the thinnest of evidence.

I will judge within seconds if teams did well or poorly which, considering we won’t know for years how things will turn out, is ridiculous. I will not be alone in this mania.

The Draft is intoxicating because it is hope manifest.

A not yet used draft pick is the purest vessel in sports for dreams. Even though all involved know a great deal about the players involved (excepting the Clippers) and their strengths and weaknesses, those things remain pleasantly abstract up to the moment of selection.

Yesterday there was a fantastic example of this phenomenon. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded two pretty decent players, one a borderline blue-chipper, for the 5th pick in a weak draft. Would they have traded that same package for the player they would have taken with the 5th pick, the day after the draft? I suspect not.

The hope a pick represents is far more valuable when it’s just hope. Once the pick becomes a very real player who, say, has a suspect jump shot or can’t go to his left, the possibilities for excitement are greatly reduced.

I’d argue that the most successful NBA franchises are the ones that take hope largely out of their draft analysis. That view their draft picks not as empty vessels, but as stand-ins for the flawed players they will become. And while that view might make for a better basketball team, it feels too hardhearted for me and antithetical to the reasons I love sports.

I love falling into the trap of hope during the NBA Draft.

Go Rubio.

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The NBA Draft and the Power of Empty Vessels

Saving the Poor by Dodging Bullets: When “Conventional” no longer equals “Safe”

In an extremely competitive marketplace, why be expensively mediocre?

I’m fascinated by the promos for NBC’s new summer series and they way they seem to embody a whole Big Media mindset.

Despite being a multitasking, distracted, TV watcher, I’ve seen enough promos for NBC’s new show “The Philanthropist” to tell you the plot (a billionaire saves a poor African boy and realizes that he should use his wealth to help people while getting shot at a lot), the actors (Neve Campbell, finally out of “Scream” residuals; the big guy from “Rent”; the fellow who quit “V for Vendetta”; Omar), and the big action beats (a helicopter is involved). What I can’t tell you is why anyone would watch the show. The previews seem determined to exactly mimic the promotional material of every show, failed and not, that’s come before.

A successful television series is a franchise that can produce huge revenues for years and years, but the failure rate for new shows is French Revolution conviction rate high. Why, then, would a network aim to create a promotional campaign that’s, but for the particulars, completely generic?

My guess would be fear.

For someone to be unconventional in their promotion of a show is to fully own its failure if it, like nearly all new show, fails to catch on. Being conventional is, on an employee to employee level, safe. Hey, you’re just doing what everyone else does.

Being conventional also makes it far less likely that a passionate audience will develop around a property.

It seems to me that media companies can no longer afford to operate from a default position of fear. If they want to stop doing so, however, they need to change their culture and how success and failure are interpreted. When the odds are already stacked against you, “conventional” is no longer synonymous with “safe.”

Saving the Poor by Dodging Bullets: When “Conventional” no longer equals “Safe”

The Nature of Political Compromise, and Bourbon

Watching the GOP on cable news fulminating about health care reform makes me think about the nature of compromise.

(Well, actually, first it makes me giggle a bit; then I get very quiet and think about America’s future; then more giggling, only bitter now; then I give the television the finger; then I grab a bottle of bourbon while muttering about John Boehner being an “asshat”; and then I start thinking about the nature of political compromise.)

Near as I can figure, there are three reasons for compromise in our legislative system.

1) To get the votes necessary to pass a bill – With the large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, compromise for votes (at least outside of the Blue Dogs) is not very needed. Also worth noting that when the Republicans were in power their approach towards this flavor of compromise went along the lines of telling the Democrats they were communistic, terrorist loving, troop hating, wusses if they didn’t tow the line, and then calling them that anyway after they did.

2) As an end in itself – The idea that bringing the other side to the table is either an inherent good, or will make generalized aspects of governing easier. Given the clubbiness of Congress, this could also be the “I don’t want anyone to feel awkward at Cokie Roberts’ next dinner party” position. We know from their recent history that the Republican Party doesn’t consider this one much of a value, hence Dick Cheney’s telling a Democratic Senator to “go [expletive deleted] himself.”

3) To make the legislation better – The Easter Bunny of political goals. Besides an impulse towards harmony as opposed to discord, I think this is at the heart of the desire for compromise on important pieces of legislation. Both in the media and Democratic leadership, there’s a tendency towards looking back wistfully at some hazy former day when both parties met, exchanged ideas, and shook hands over the improved bill. That carries over today into an attitude that posits the solution to national problems as being invariably found somewhere in the middle of what each party is advocating. Which is, of course, bunk.

With all there reasons for political compromise being either deeply flawed or fully broken, might it make sense for the Democratic Party to just quietly push away from the table and go about the business of governing mostly on their own?

The Nature of Political Compromise, and Bourbon

In Which I Learn about Fire and Hubris

Last weekend I took my lovely wife, our nieces, age 15 and 9, and nephew, 11, camping in the Catskills. (“Camping,” in this instance, meaning “backing the car up to a spot, complete with fire pit and picnic table, that was reserved online and setting up the tent about ten feet away.”)

After having the kids help out with setting up the tent, and feeling quite uncle-like in the process, it was time to get the fire started.

As I knelt down at the fire pit, I thought to myself, “Hold on, my oldest niece is in a New York Public High School, surely she’s got some experience with starting fires. And, by asking her to start ours I can get some serious ‘I trust you and think you’re capable’ points and then, when it doesn’t start, I’ll get a generous heap of ‘I am a wilderness master Eagle Scout’ points.’ Win win.”

So I asked my niece if she knew how to start a fire and if she’d like to put that knowledge to use. I busied myself with other tasks while she went about her business, though from the corner of my eye I thought I could see a great deal of paper being tossed in along with a suspiciously large amount of wood.

She called us over when it was ready for a match. I was delighted. The pit was filled with a solid foot and a half of variously sized wood haphazardly stacked. Clumps of ripped up paper bags were randomly distributed through the mess. It looked as if a very large, very drunk, bird had quickly tried to build a nest. In the dark.

As she got ready to light it, I offered, “You know, in the Boy Scouts we’d only get one match to start a fire…” and readied my most humble “oh well, I guess I’ve got to step in” expression for when nothing happened.

You know where this is going.

Damn thing went up like a Roman candle. Serves me right.

In Which I Learn about Fire and Hubris

The Awesome Usefulness of Kayfabe (“What’s Kayfabe?” you ask…)

Every Monday evening, for the last couple of months now, I walk over to my 10 year-old nephew’s place to watch professional wrestling with him and bond. Not having paid much attention to the pro wrestling scene since the late 90s, and aware of its tendency towards downright 12th Night levels of plot complexity, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Wikipedia getting up to speed on who’s feuding with who. That research led me to “kayfabe.”

Kayfabe,” originally a turn of the century carny term, is the rule or code that requires wrestlers to treat their business as real. The idea that the good guy and the bad guy really hate each other, or that they’re really trying to do grievous injury to one another, are examples of kayfabe. In the old days of the business, promotion owners would go so far as to disallow “good” wrestlers from eating out or traveling with “bad” ones, in order to maintain it.

But kayfabe isn’t just useful for thinking about wrestling. It turns out that it’s everywhere, in all sorts of different areas of our culture. In fact, once I started looking around with kayfabe in mind, it began to feel like one of the defining forces of the mainstream media universe.

Take political coverage: I’d wager that most of the right-wing talking heads opining about Sonia Sotomayor don’t really think she’s a “racist.” And they’d be hard pressed to explain at length their contention that somehow growing up Hispanic and poor in the Bronx provides advantages that upper-class white males just can’t compete with, yet on our mainstream news David Gregory or whomever will nod knowingly at their line of agrument and wrap up the segment by telling viewers something like “serious questions have been raised about her qualifications.” That’s kayfabe in action.

Or Hollywood: The idea that, yes, Hugh Jackman is thrilled to be on your mid-market morning show talking about his abs and absolutely the most important thing for him about his new Wolverine movie was the script. Kayfabe.

Sports: When the announcers of a late season NBA game between two teams with no shot at the playoffs say something about how much these players “want it.” You guessed it.

In a media landscape dominated by these little fictions, I like having a name for them.

The Awesome Usefulness of Kayfabe (“What’s Kayfabe?” you ask…)