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The US Forest Service's Cocktail Construction Chart

Cocktail Construction Chart

This is...weird. The National Archives contains a Cocktail Construction Chart made in an architectural style, for some reason, by the US Forest Service in 1974.

Cocktail Construction Chart

(via @john_overholt)

Tags: alcohol   architecture   cocktails   food   infoviz

Source: kottke.org | 1 Apr 2015 | 2:04 pm PDT

The sounds of Hollywood

A profile of Gregg Barbanell, who is a Hollywood Foley artist responsible for the ambient sounds (walking, clothes rustling, gunshots, etc.) in Breaking Bad, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Walking Dead. The best bits are about how specific sounds are made.

Popular apocalyptic zombie TV series The Walking Dead has no shortage of gore -- and as the show's Foley artist, Barbanell is tasked with creating most of its gruesome "blood and guts" sounds. "They're pulling organs out of bodies, they're slicing heads off, reaching into bodies, pulling out things," says Barbanell, with disgust. "So, we get creative."

For "gushy, squishy sounds" like oozing blood, Barbanell uses chamois (a leather cloth made from the skin of mountain sheep). "You soak it, then lay into it, and it just oozes -- it's something you can control really easily," he says. "And when you put pressure on it, you get these amazing, gory noises." Sometimes, when that extra oompf is needed, he'll go out and buy a whole, raw chicken to stuff the chamois inside of.

For "breaking bones," big, full stocks of celery are employed -- not merely individual stocks, mind you, but HUGE bunches capable of producing layered, complex snaps. "They give you this huge, sinewy stringy sound," adds Barbanell. "It's very effective."

Oh, and his collection of shoes for making different walking sounds, some of which are shown here:

Foley Shoes

I love that Foley is still something done by hand, but sometimes it's a bit too much, less like ambient noise and more like these exaggerated Wordless Musicvideos.

Tags: audio   Gregg Barbanell   movies

Source: kottke.org | 1 Apr 2015 | 12:44 pm PDT

The Enigma wristwatch

Engima Watch

Forget the Pebble or Apple Watch. Wouldn't you rather wear a fully functional three-rotor Engima machine wristwatch?

The idea here wasn't to make the smallest one possible. I decided to make a device that was practical and useable. And something that looks like it was from WW2. Something that could actually be used in the field in place of a real Enigma machine. Obviously there were some limitations. I could have a 26 key keyboard for a start so I had to come up with a UI that would work with a minimal number of keys. I bought a small 128x64 OLED, a suitable battery and started breadboarding it all up. With it working on a normal Arduino I bought an Arduino Pro Mini (or a good replica!) and started looking at getting it running on that.

For reference, here's what an actual Enigma machine looks and how it works.

Tags: Enigma machine   video

Source: kottke.org | 1 Apr 2015 | 11:19 am PDT

Middle aged molly

Mary H.K. Choi writes about reconnecting with an experience she'd had when she was younger: rolling on molly.

When you're a kid, you think you'll be a certain place in your mid-30s. I presumed I'd be rich because when you're middle-class with hardworking immigrant parents that's the whole point. I also thought I'd be married and potentially own a beautiful apartment in New York. Ha ha. What you spend zero time wondering about is whether you'll still be doing drugs. You naturally assume you'll grow out of whatever stupidity you dabbled in as a teen. Even up to my 20s I didn't realize that job-having, non-fuckup grown-ups in their 30s and 40s still smoked weed. Or did ecstasy.

But then I got older and got bored. Saying you're bored as an adult is truly despicable since it implies that your Maslow's pyramid is so satisfied, so abundant with shelter, food, health, and love, that you're driven to idly wishing you liked video games more.

What I want is a vacation from myself. I've tried exercise, meditation, sex, and food. I wait for the desire to plan a wedding or have a kid or buy a house and when those things don't take hold or are plainly untenable, I get my aura read. I open a trillion tabs of internet and drink it in. I gorge on studies about magnets that make you think differently and begin researching the properties of crystals. I don't think about any of it as self-help because that's way too pathetic, certainly more than the itchy meh I feel. I want to hurl my brain into outer space; it's real, real quiet there, the ultimate holiday of feeling small. But because I'm not pregnant and don't have cancer, I just want to do drugs again.

Tags: drugs   Mary HK Choi

Source: kottke.org | 1 Apr 2015 | 10:17 am PDT

The Vietnam War, Part III: Hands of a Nation (26 photos)

The photojournalist Eddie Adams, who covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press, not only captured the action and chaos but took the time to get up close to the Vietnamese people whenever he could. In 1968, he undertook a project called "Hands of a Nation," taking intimate photos of the hands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Their hands were busy doing so many things then: reaching out for medicine, grasping weapons, straining against bindings, soothing, praying, rebuilding. Adams photographed hands young and old, belonging to the healthy and the wounded, the living and the dead. Be sure to also see part 1 and part 2.
The loneliness and desperation of a refugee in Vietnam in August 1968 (Eddie Adams/AP)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 1 Apr 2015 | 8:44 am PDT

Guillaume Cornet's dense city illustrations

I love Guillaume Cornet's fanciful and intricate drawings. He's done Paris, New York, and a London apartment building, among others.

Guillaume Cornet

Guillaume Cornet

Guillaume Cornet

Society6 recently put a camera on Cornet while he did his Paris drawing, condensing 75 hours of painstaking work into a 2-minute time lapse.

My favorite little detail highlighted by Society6 is the appearance of the Emmet minifig in the NYC illustration, complete with the Piece of Resistance.

Guillaume Cornet

Tags: cities   Guillaume Cornet   illustration

Source: kottke.org | 1 Apr 2015 | 8:27 am PDT

How to play "Wolf Hall"

Mike Poulton adapted Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage. The play premiered last year in the UK and just began its run on Broadway here in NYC. There's a book version of the adaptation that contains some notes that Mantel wrote for the actors playing the various characters. The New York Review of Books has an excerpt of Mantel's notes; here's Anne Boleyn:

You do not have six fingers. The extra digit is added long after your death by Jesuit propaganda. But in your lifetime you are the focus of every lurid story that the imagination of Europe can dream up. From the moment you enter public consciousness, you carry the projections of everyone who is afraid of sex or ashamed of it. You will never be loved by the English people, who want a proper, royal Queen like Katherine, and who don't like change of any sort. Does that matter? Not really. What Henry's inner circle thinks of you matters far more. But do you realize this? Reputation management is not your strong point. Charm only thinly disguises your will to win.

The BBC aired a six-part TV version of Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies that finished up a month ago, and PBS will start showing it this weekend. I've watched all but the last part and it's really well done.

Tags: books   Bring Up the Bodies   Hilary Mantel   Mike Poulton   plays   TV   Wolf Hall

Source: kottke.org | 31 Mar 2015 | 2:51 pm PDT

The Hidden Effects of Cheap Oil

Today's drop in crude-oil prices, which began in the summer of 2014, may be as disruptive as the quadrupling of oil prices that created the oil shock of 1974.

For most of us, lower oil prices simply translate as better prices at the gas pump. But the value of oil has big consequences around the world. From Moisés Naím in The Atlantic: The Hidden Effects of Cheap Oil.

Syndicated from NextDraft. Subscribe today or grab the iOS app.

Tags: economics   energy   Moises Naim   oil

Source: kottke.org | 31 Mar 2015 | 1:29 pm PDT

Play Pac-Man in Google Maps

Ok, April Fools' is still idiotic, but this is pretty cool: you can play Pac-Man in any neighborhood on Google Maps.

Pac-Man Google Maps

NYC's West Village is a fun place to play. See also Pac-Manhattan, a real-life game of Pac-Man played on the streets of Manhattan in 2004 by a group of ITP students, including Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley.

Tags: cities   Dennis Crowley   Google   Google Maps   maps   Pac-Man   video games

Source: kottke.org | 31 Mar 2015 | 11:57 am PDT

Richard Feynman: fire is stored sunshine

In 1983, the BBC aired a six-part series called Fun to Imagine with a simple premise: put physicist Richard Feynman in front of a camera and have him explain everyday things. In this clip from one of the episodes, Feynman explains in very simple terms what fire is:

So good. Watch the whole thing...it seems like you get the gist about 2 minutes in, but that's only half the story. See also Feynman explaining rubber bands, how trains go around curves, and how magnets work.

Tags: physics   Richard Feynman   science   video

Source: kottke.org | 31 Mar 2015 | 11:30 am PDT

The Vietnam War, Part II: Losses and Withdrawal (50 photos)

Early in 1968, North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong launched the largest battle of the Vietnam War, attacking more than 100 cities simultaneously with more than 80,000 fighters. After brief losses, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces regained lost territory, and dealt heavy losses to the North. Tactically, the offensive was a huge loss for the North, but it marked a significant turning point in public opinion and political support, leading to a drawdown of U.S. troop involvement, and eventual withdrawal in 1973. This photo essay, part two of a three-part series, covers the war years between 1968 and 1975. Be sure to also see part 1 and part 3. Warning: Several of these photographs are graphic in nature.

A young South Vietnamese woman covers her mouth as she stares into a mass grave where victims of a reported Viet Cong massacre were being exhumed near Dien Bai village, east of Hue, in April of 1969. The woman's husband, father, and brother had been missing since the Tet Offensive, and were feared to be among those killed by Communist forces. (Horst Faas/AP)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 31 Mar 2015 | 11:29 am PDT

After the Party

The New Yorker has an excerpt of the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle.

Throughout our childhood we three had sat chatting, that was what I was used to, but this was the first time we had done it without Dad living in the house, and the difference was immense. Knowing that he couldn't walk in at any moment, forcing us to think about what we were saying and doing, changed everything.

We had chatted about everything under the sun then too, but never so much as a word about Dad, it was a kind of implicit rule.

I had never thought about that before.

But we couldn't talk about him now, that would have been inconceivable.


Tags: books   Karl Ove Knausgaard   My Struggle

Source: kottke.org | 31 Mar 2015 | 10:34 am PDT

Top new typefaces of 2014

Cooper Hewitt typeface

Although I am slowly coming around1 to Massimo Vignelli's assertion that designers should only use a handful of typefaces, I enjoyed seeing Typographica's list of their favorite typefaces of 2014.

Typeface design and distribution is in a state of rapid change. Last year we noted its diffusion around the globe, and that trend persists. The majority of font production is no longer concentrated in a few regional epicenters.

That goes for corporate epicenters as well. The independence of type designers themselves is increasingly evident. Small foundries have existed since the dawn of digital fonts, but now they are the norm. Only a handful of the selections in this year's list were published by companies with more than ten employees.

I discovered that one of the selections, a beautiful custom typeface made for the reopening/rebranding of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum (sample shown above), has been made available by the museum for free download (including a web fonts version).

  1. I mean, not really. But when 95% of everything sucks, paring down to only the good stuff is a seductive idea, isn't it? Also, Vignelli's NYC subway map was not good and would have benefitted from a less Swiss approach.

Tags: best of   best of 2014   Cooper Hewitt Design Museum   design   typography

Source: kottke.org | 31 Mar 2015 | 7:02 am PDT

How musicians die

In a series of three articles, Dianna Kenny examines the life expectancy of pop musicians, the myth of the 27 Club1, and how genre affects popular musicians' life expectancy. It is from the third article that this chart is taken:

Cause of death by genre for musicians

For male musicians across all genres, accidental death (including all vehicular incidents and accidental overdose) accounted for almost 20% of all deaths. But accidental death for rock musicians was higher than this (24.4%) and for metal musicians higher still (36.2%).

Suicide accounted for almost 7% of all deaths in the total sample. However, for punk musicians, suicide accounted for 11% of deaths; for metal musicians, a staggering 19.3%. At just 0.9%, gospel musicians had the lowest suicide rate of all the genres studied.

Murder accounted for 6.0% of deaths across the sample, but was the cause of 51% of deaths in rap musicians and 51.5% of deaths for hip hop musicians, to date. This could be due to these genres' strong associations with drug-related crime and gang culture.

Heart-related fatalities accounted for 17.4% of all deaths across all genres, while 28% of blues musicians died of heart-related causes. Similarly, the average percentage of deaths accounted for by cancer was 23.4%. Older genres such as folk (32.3%) and jazz (30.6%) had higher rates of fatal cancers than other genres.

In the case of the newer genres, it's worth pointing out that members of these genres have not yet lived long enough to fall into the highest-risk ages for heart- and liver-related illnesses. Consequently, they had the lowest rates of death in these categories.

(via mr)

  1. The 27 Club is a group of musicians who died at the age of 27. Membership includes Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Robert Johnson.

Tags: death   Dianna Kenny   music

Source: kottke.org | 30 Mar 2015 | 1:15 pm PDT

Flying with Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic

From Vanity Fair's William Langewiesche, who has written extensively on the aviation industry and is a pilot himself, a detailed account of what happens during a space flight on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

Accelerating through Mach 0.95, the aircraft wobbles as shock waves develop on its wings and tails. This is known as a burble, and it marks the entry into supersonic flight. The shock waves change the airflow over the conventional control surfaces -- the elevons -- and render them almost useless, forcing the pilot in supersonic flight to fly entirely by trimming the stabilizers on the tail. Flying by trim is difficult to do well, but with pilots like these the passengers probably don't need to worry. At Mach 1, the pilot rolls the pitch trim aft to a pre-determined position, and the spaceship responds by bending the flight path upward at a rate that pushes the passengers straight down into their seats with a force of 2.5 Gs. The passengers are now experiencing a total of 5.5 Gs, divided between two distinct vectors, and are rotated onto their backs as the spaceship accelerates ever more steeply upward. As they approach the vertical, nearing Mach 2, the pilot rolls the trim forward to capture the position, and 2.5 Gs are stripped away. Pointing straight up, the ship rockets into air growing so thin that the aerodynamic speeds decrease rapidly even as the ship keeps accelerating through Mach 3. At around that time, after about one minute of burn, and when an onboard instrument shows that the vehicle has sufficient energy to follow a ballistic path into space, the pilots shut down the rocket motor. The effect for the passengers, who are lying on their backs, facing straight up, is to go immediately from a condition of three Gs to the zero-G state called weightlessness.

Tags: Richard Branson   Virgin Galactic   William Langewiesche

Source: kottke.org | 30 Mar 2015 | 11:20 am PDT

The Vietnam War, Part I: Early Years and Escalation (46 photos)

Fifty years ago, in March 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines landed in South Vietnam. They were the first American combat troops on the ground in a conflict that had been building for decades. The communist government of North Vietnam (backed by the Soviet Union and China) was locked in a battle with South Vietnam (supported by the United States) in a Cold War proxy fight. The U.S. had been providing aid and advisors to the South since the 1950s, slowly escalating operations to include bombing runs and ground troops. By 1968, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were in the country, fighting alongside South Vietnamese soldiers as they faced both a conventional army and a guerrilla force in unforgiving terrain. Each side suffered and inflicted huge losses, with the civilian populace suffering horribly. Based on widely varying estimates, between 1.5 and 3.6 million people were killed in the war. This photo essay, part one of a three-part series, looks at the earlier stages of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as the growing protest movement, between the years 1962 and 1967. Be sure to also see part 2 and part 3. Warning: Several of these photographs are graphic in nature.

Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into a tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border, in March of 1965. (Horst Faas/AP)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 30 Mar 2015 | 11:11 am PDT

Every TV news report on the economy

From Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe, here's how every single news report on the economy plays out:

Dennis and Pamela People are affected by numbers, and since they have a child, you'll empathize with what they say while I nod in their direction.

"Well, it's been hard because of the numbers."

"Yeah, it has been hard, mainly because of the numbers."

Brooker, you may remember, is the creator of Black Mirror. (via mr)

Tags: Charlie Brooker   economics   journalism   video

Source: kottke.org | 30 Mar 2015 | 9:31 am PDT

John Oliver: down with April Fools' Day

John Oliver says April Fools' Day is terrible and we shouldn't take part in it.

Pranks are terrible. Anyone who claims to be excited for April Fools' Day is probably a sociopath. Because what they are really saying is, "I cannot wait to hurt the people close to me".

Tags: John Oliver   TV   video

Source: kottke.org | 30 Mar 2015 | 8:02 am PDT

Audiovisual illusion: Bar or far?

If you play this video (click the sound on) and look at the man on the left side, it sounds like he's saying "bar". But if you look at the man on the right, it look like he's saying "far"!

And if you close your eyes, it's "bar" again. (via @arainert)

Update: This is called the McGurk effect.

The McGurk effect is a perceptual phenomenon that demonstrates an interaction between hearing and vision in speech perception. The illusion occurs when the auditory component of one sound is paired with the visual component of another sound, leading to the perception of a third sound. The visual information a person gets from seeing a person speak changes the way they hear the sound. People who are used to watching dubbed movies may be among people who are not susceptible to the McGurk effect because they have, to some extent, learned to ignore the information they are getting from the mouths of the "speakers".

Update: The Vine clip I previously posted just yanked the bar/far comparison from a AsapSCIENCE video, so I've replaced the imposter with the real thing. (via @michaelck & jess)

Tags: audio   video

Source: kottke.org | 30 Mar 2015 | 7:14 am PDT

Teaching evolution to religious students

James Krupa teaches a mandatory biology class at the University of Kentucky and some students have a difficult time because Krupa refuses to shy away from evolution.

Rarely do I have a Kentucky student who learned about human evolution in high school biology. Those who did usually attended high schools in large urban centers like Louisville or Lexington. Given how easily it can provoke parents, the teaching of human evolution is a rarity in high school, so much so in Kentucky that it startled me when I first arrived.

The story of our evolutionary history captivates many of my students, while infuriating some. During one lecture, a student stood up in the back row and shouted the length of the auditorium that Darwin denounced evolution on his deathbed -- a myth intentionally spread by creationists. The student then made it known that everything I was teaching was a lie and stomped out of the auditorium, slamming the door behind him. A few years later during the same lecture, another student also shouted out from the back row that I was lying. She said that no transitional fossil forms had ever been found -- despite my having shared images of many transitional forms during the semester. Many of her fellow students were shocked by her combativeness, particularly when she stormed out, also slamming the door behind her. Most semesters, a significant number of students abruptly leave as soon as they realize the topic is human evolution.

I personally don't understand the compatibility of evolutionary biology and Christianity Krupa emphasizes in his class, but I guess it helps to meet people halfway?

Tags: biology   evolution   James Krupa   religion   science

Source: kottke.org | 27 Mar 2015 | 2:24 pm PDT

The radical humaneness of Norway's prison system

Norway Prison

Better out than in. That's the unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service. And they seem to mean it. In Norway, there is no death penalty and there are no life sentences. NYT Magazine's Jessica Benko visited Norway's Halden Prison and experienced what she described as its radical humaneness:

Its modern, cheerful and well-appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere -- these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.

Even the food was good.

The best meal I had in Norway -- spicy lasagna, garlic bread and a salad with sun-dried tomatoes -- was made by an inmate who had spent almost half of his 40 years in prison.

Syndicated from NextDraft. Subscribe today or grab the iOS app.

Tags: crime   Jessica Benko   Norway   prison

Source: kottke.org | 27 Mar 2015 | 1:46 pm PDT

Teaser clip from season two of Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire season two is starting on May 31! And there's a five-minute clip to whet your appetite! And it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors!

The exclamation points mean that I am excited for the new season without explicitly saying so!! (via @kathrynyu)

Tags: Halt and Catch Fire   TV   video

Source: kottke.org | 27 Mar 2015 | 11:19 am PDT

Photos of the Week: 3/21-3/27 (35 photos)

This week, we have photos of the Germanwings flight crash scene, preparations for launch at the Baikonur cosmodrome, a sinkhole in New Jersey, unrest and airstrikes in Yemen, Alaskan Wood bison returning to the wild, the last Jew in the Turkish town of Edirne, tornado damage in Oklahoma, a memorial to Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, and much more.
An Orthodox priest blesses Sergey Semchenko of the Russian Search and Recovery Forces after having blessed the Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome Launch pad on March 26, 2015, in Kazakhstan. The NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and the Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) are scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 28, Kazakh time (March 27 Eastern time). (Bill Ingalls/NASA)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 27 Mar 2015 | 10:16 am PDT

1995: The Year the Future Began

Netscape 1995

The New Yorker's Louis Menand reviews a new book by W. Joseph Campbell, 1995: The Year the Future Began.

Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky is one of the five things that happened in 1995 that Campbell believes opened the door to the future. The others are the O. J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Dayton negotiations that settled the Bosnian war, and the rise and fall of the Internet browser Netscape Navigator.

The list certainly reflects the inchoate spirit of the age. But that is not Campbell's point. His point is that our contemporary (American) world started with a White House sex scandal; the murder trial of a former football star; a set of agreements hammered out among foreign heads of state on an Air Force base in Ohio; a loner who thought that blowing up a federal office building was justified on political principles; and a computer program that ultimately lost the "browser wars" to Microsoft. You have to admire a historian who proposes to extract reverse-prediction gold from that material.

I graduated from college in 1995 so I'm probably biased, but that year does seem like a cultural turning point in many ways. Interested to read Campbell's book.

Tags: 1995: The Year the Future Began   books   Louis Menand   W. Joseph Campbell

Source: kottke.org | 27 Mar 2015 | 9:07 am PDT

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie is a good old fashioned musical detective story told by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

In the world of early-20th-century African-American music and people obsessed by it, who can appear from one angle like a clique of pale and misanthropic scholar-gatherers and from another like a sizable chunk of the human population, there exist no ghosts more vexing than a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and '31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin village on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie's "Motherless Child Blues" and Geeshie's "Last Kind Words Blues," twin Alps of their tiny oeuvre, inspiring essays and novels and films and cover versions, a classical arrangement.

Yet despite more than 50 years of researchers' efforts to learn who the two women were or where they came from, we have remained ignorant of even their legal names. The sketchy memories of one or two ancient Mississippians, gathered many decades ago, seemed to point to the southern half of that state, yet none led to anything solid. A few people thought they heard hints of Louisiana or Texas in the guitar playing or in the pronunciation of a lyric. We know that the word "Geechee," with a c, can refer to a person born into the heavily African-inflected Gullah culture centered on the coastal islands off Georgia and the Carolinas. But nothing turned up there either. Or anywhere. No grave site, no photograph. Forget that -- no anecdotes. This is what set Geeshie and Elvie apart even from the rest of an innermost group of phantom geniuses of the '20s and '30s. Their myth was they didn't have anything you could so much as hang a myth on. The objects themselves -- the fewer than 10 surviving copies, total, of their three known Paramount releases, a handful of heavy, black, scratch-riven shellac platters, all in private hands -- these were the whole of the file on Geeshie and Elvie, and even these had come within a second thought of vanishing, within, say, a woman's decision in cleaning her parents' attic to go against some idle advice that she throw out a box of old records and instead to find out what the junk shop gives. When she decides otherwise, when the shop isn't on the way home, there goes the music, there go the souls, ash flakes up the flue, to flutter about with the Edison cylinder of Buddy Bolden's band and the phonautograph of Lincoln's voice.

This piece originally appeared in the NY Times Magazine, but it works much better online, interspersed with videos and musical snippets cleverly embedded in the text. One of my favorite things I've read all month.

Tags: Elvie Thomas   Geeshie Wiley   John Jeremiah Sullivan   music

Source: kottke.org | 27 Mar 2015 | 7:23 am PDT

Illustrated version of the 1st Harry Potter book

In order to keep the Harry Potter gravy train going, Scholastic and Bloomsbury are releasing a fully illustrated version of each of the seven Harry Potter books over the next seven years. Here's the cover for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:


The book will contain 100+ full-color illustrations done by Jim Kay. (via buzzfeed)

Tags: books   Harry Potter

Source: kottke.org | 26 Mar 2015 | 3:10 pm PDT

The "impossible" science of free diving

This article on the science of free diving is fascinating. Boyle's Law predicted that the human body couldn't survive depths past 100 feet -- after which, the lungs would rupture -- but millions of years of evolution has equipped the human body with all sorts of tricks to survive at depths of over 900 feet.

Lundgren, among others, demonstrated how these phenomena might counteract Boyle's law. He recruited volunteer firemen from a fire brigade in the Swedish city of Malmo, submerged them up to the neck in water, and used a heart catheter to measure the increase in blood circulation in the chest. Lundgren discovered the body was able to counteract the increased outside water pressure by reinforcing vessels in the walls of the lungs with more blood, in much the same way we increase tire pressure by adding more volume of oxygen to the inside of a tire.

Boyle's Law had not been overturned. Scientists simply hadn't taken into account the effect this counterforce could exert to allow survival underwater. "A lot of blood, much more than was usually thought, can be transferred from the blood circulation out in the tissues into the blood vessels of the lung," Lundgren said, placing that amount at about half a gallon. The extra, densely packed blood can act as a bulwark, exerting a counterforce against the increased pressure pushing inward by the water.

Tags: free diving   science   sports

Source: kottke.org | 26 Mar 2015 | 1:39 pm PDT

Relationship advice from Al Swearengen

Ask Polly, by Heather Havrilesky,1 is surely one of the best advice columns out there. In yesterday's installment, Havrilesky adopted the voice of Deadwood's Al Swearengen to answer a letter about a boyfriend's troublesome relationship with a married woman.

It sounds like you're feeling less than your full fucking self, and for good reason! The hour requires some unvarnished words and since you made mention of your passion for Deadwood, David Milch's brilliant portrait of the Wild West (largely unsung and partially unfinished thanks to some big-city cocksuckers at HBO, who'd sooner brand their own foreheads with a flat iron than allow a man of the pen to complete the masterpiece for which his name will henceforth be praised), I'd like to sally forth in a style befitting the scoundrels, whores, dirt-worshippers, and hoopleheads of that melancholy town. Be forewarned, though, the language herein might lead some to imagine that yours truly has been pillaging Doc's stash of chloroform, more typically reserved for offering animals a merciful exit from this mortal plane. Suffice it to say that skeptical cocksuckers and those with delicate sensibilities might be well-advised to seek respite elsewhere. You can help your delicate sensibilities by turning the fuck away.

  1. Who I still think of as being from Suck and probably always will.

Tags: Deadwood   Heather Havrilesky   TV

Source: kottke.org | 26 Mar 2015 | 12:20 pm PDT

New York City, after dark

From New York Magazine, a big feature on NYC after midnight. Several people shared their stories, including Bebe Buell:

In 1974, I was on Hudson and Horatio -- it was still pretty shady over there at the time - and I could not get a cab. This big giant Cadillac pulls up, and a guy and a girl were in it. It was obviously a pimp and his girl. And the guy goes, "My name is Magic. Do you need a ride?" Who in their right mind would get in that car? But I did. His name was Magic, her name was Angel, and it was like a scene out of a Scorsese movie. I just remember the tranny girls yelling, "You go, girl!" They thought I had gotten a trick or something. I don't know what made me think it was going to be okay. Angel let me know, "Don't worry, honey, we're not serial killers." And for some godforsaken reason, I believed them.

And Alec Baldwin, who has always been interested in Saturday Night Live:

I was told that there was a place called Louis's Toy Bar on the Upper East Side. And it was this narrow sliver of a shop that obviously had sold antique clothes or something. And this guy Louis who owned it would put out plates of, like, Velveeta cheese and crackers and very modest kinds of canapes. I was told, back then, that all the cast of the original Saturday Night Live went there after the show; this was their haunt, this was their after-party-after-party Copacabana. And I went there countless times, eating Velveeta cheese, waiting for them, and they never came. They never showed up.

And Lydia Lunch:

I made money by standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street, shaking down women with children, saying I worked for the Cancer Foundation, until I got $10. I could live on that. The rent at my apartment on 12th Street between A and B was $75 a month.

And Dr. Jason D'Amore, formerly a resident at Bellvue:

One night, we got this guy in who was riding his Harley down the FDR at high speed, and he got run over by a semi, and he comes in and is very close to death. [...] So this guy, he was covered head-to-toe in iron crosses and swastikas and white-power tattoos. I'm looking around, and I'm D'Amore, and the ortho guy was Schwarzbaum, and we had to call neurosurgery, and that was Goldberg, and we intubated him and we got him stabilized and into the operating room, and he's totally sedated, and I leaned down and said, "Dude, I just wanted you to know a bunch of Jews just saved your ass."

And Colin Quinn:

It's easier to be nostalgic now. It's easier to look at it now and say, "Oh, I miss Taxi Driver." Suddenly, we're all like French film students who romanticize New York, even though when you lived it, it was bad. There were so many heroin dealers. If you were on, like, Avenue B and C, and somebody goes, "You want heroin?" and you said no, they'd get mad at you, like you were going browsing in a store and not buying anything. "You're wasting our time! Trying to make money here."

And Alexis Swerdloff:

The hand-delivered invite was a velvet-wrapped VHS tape. Five minutes and 42 seconds long, the video had Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Ananda Lewis, Todd Oldham, Veronica Webb, Ben Stiller, Pauly Shore, Derek Jeter, and dozens of other '90s luminaries hyping Puff Daddy's 29th-birthday party on November 4, 1998. Chris Rock said to leave your posse at home, Magic Johnson instructed guests to arrive at 10 p.m. on the dot, and Will Smith directed people to a 212 number in order to RSVP for the secret location. "It's gonna be all that," cooed Tyra Banks.

And there's so much more...go read the whole thing. The photos are great too. Look for the one with Edith Piaf singing at a club; it's just her in 1950 on a tiny stage with no microphone singing to people while they eat dinner. Man, if I had a time machine...

Tags: Alec Baldwin   Alexis Swerdloff   Bebe Buell   Colin Quinn   Edith Piaf   Jason D'Amore   Lydia Lunch   NYC

Source: kottke.org | 26 Mar 2015 | 11:09 am PDT

On This Day 36 Years Ago: The Signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty (1 photos)

In 1978, after more than a year of diplomatic efforts, the Camp David Accords were signed, establishing a framework for peace between Egypt and Israel. Egypt had been in a state of declared war with Israel since 1948, punctuated by several short but violent conflicts, including the Six-Day War in 1967. In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance laid the groundwork to get representatives from Egypt and Israel to meet and discuss conditions for ending hostilities and normalizing diplomatic relations. Israel agreed to withdraw its troops from the Sinai Peninsula, and Egypt agreed to officially recognize Israel as a nation. The Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed in a ceremony at the White House on March 26, 1979, and the three leaders—Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—joined hands and shared big smiles. Sadat and Begin were awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their work. A couple of years later, President Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists from Egypt, angered by his dealings with Israel. The treaty has held for 36 years, despite continued regional tension, the Arab Spring, and turmoil in the leadership of Egypt.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 26, 1979, as they completed the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. (AP)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 26 Mar 2015 | 10:23 am PDT

Slow motion CD spinning

From the Slow Mo Guys, a video shot at 170,000 frames/sec of a CD shattering after being spun at 23,000 RPM. Worth watching until (or skipping to) the end to see exactly how the disc fractures.

(via digg)

Tags: slow motion   video

Source: kottke.org | 26 Mar 2015 | 10:01 am PDT

The easy way to care for your jeans

Michael Williams of A Continuous Lean made a video for Mr. Porter about how to care for your new pair of jeans.

I remember reading his original post on the topic and boggling at the concept of wearing a new pair of raw selvage jeans for an entire year before washing them. (I still have never done such a thing. I'm just not that fancy.)

Tags: fashion   Michael Williams   video

Source: kottke.org | 26 Mar 2015 | 9:03 am PDT

A Year in Space

On Friday, astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will be launched into space, where they will spend an entire year on the International Space Station. Time is doing a documentary series on Kelly's stay in space.

On March 27, the veteran of three previous space flights will take off for the International Space Station (ISS) and, along with cosmonaut Misha Kornienko, remain aloft for a full year. Meantime, Scott's twin brother Mark, a veteran of four space flights, will remain on the ground. The two men with their matching backgrounds, similar health and identical genomes, will serve as the perfect controlled experiment to learn more about how the human body handles weightlessness-and what can be done to minimize the damage during long-term trips to Mars and elsewhere.

The trailer is available here. Kelly and Kornienko will be the fifth and sixth people to spend at least a year in space...cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 437 straight days in space in 1994-5.

Tags: ISS   Mikhail Kornienko   NASA   Scott Kelly   space   Valeri Polyakov

Source: kottke.org | 26 Mar 2015 | 6:45 am PDT

Feminist Ben & Jerry's flavors

From Amanda McCall, a selection of Ben & Jerry's flavors featuring women.

Feminist Ben Jerry

Feminist Ben Jerry

Feminist Ben Jerry

Feminist Ben Jerry

McCall made these because Ben & Jerry's hasn't done such a good job highlighting women with their products:

Over the past three decades, Ben & Jerry's has created over twenty flavors honoring various famous people, and only two of those people have been female: Tiny Fey's character on 30 Rock ("Liz Lemon's Greek Frozen Yogurt", released in 2013 ) and Olympic snowboarder Hannah Teter ("Hannah Teter's Maple Blondie", released briefly in 2009).

There are currently no female flavors of Ben & Jerry's ice cream (even Tina Fey would agree that, while "Greek frozen yogurt" is certainly a healthy ice cream alternative, it is not the same as ice cream), despite the fact that women consume significantly more ice cream than men do.

The best thing about the Butter Pecancé Knowles flavor is that butter pecan ice cream is actually the singer's favorite flavor.

"I love my butter pecan ice cream," she says, "but I also love to work out. We all have our issues. Mine is arms and legs, keeping them tight and toned. It takes work, believe me."

Ben & Jerry's! Let's make this happen! (via @amateurgourmet)

Tags: Amanda McCall   Ben and Jerry's   Beyonce   feminism   food   ice cream

Source: kottke.org | 25 Mar 2015 | 2:15 pm PDT

The 2015 names of the year

Oh my, I had forgotten about the Name of the Year site and how amazing it is. Each year, they collect the most unusual names in the world and pit them against each other in a March Madness-style bracket. Here are some of the names in the running for the 2015 Name of the Year:

Swindly Lint
Dr. Electron Kebebew
Flavious Coffee
Lancelot Supersad Jr.
Jazznique St. Junious

(A reminder...these are actual names of actual people. Somehow.)

Littice Bacon-Blood
Dr. Wallop Promthong
Infinite Grover
Genghis Muskox
Malvina Complainville
Beethoven Bong
Amanda Miranda Panda

Some Hall of Name inductees include Tokyo Sexwale, Nimrod Weiselfish, Doby Chrotchtangle, Tanqueray Beavers, and Vanilla Dong.

Tags: best of   best of 2015   language   lists

Source: kottke.org | 25 Mar 2015 | 1:31 pm PDT

Cloud tank special effects

To simulate unusual cloud formations in movies (like Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Independence Day), special effects artists injected paint into tanks containing water with two different densities.

A cloud tank consists of a bottom layer of salt water and a top layer of fresh water and when various forms of liquid are injected into tank, clouds are produced. This was the common technique that Hollywood used for decades to capture supernatural weather.

The developer of the cloud tank effect, Scott Squires, wrote a post detailing how it was accomplished.

Next white liquid tempra paint is injected in the fresh water portion (top), usually just a few inches from the dividing line of the fresh and salt water. Think of a large syringe with an aquarium tube going into the water. When the tempra paint is injected it billows outward like cumulus clouds and will tend to sink a bit. But the salt water prevents it from going lower so the 'cloud' tends to flatten it's base on the salt water line and and billow outward, similar to real clouds based on air pressure levels. Avoid going below into the saltwater since the clouds will just drop to the bottom of tank.

Tags: Close Encounters of the Third Kind   movies   Scott Squires

Source: kottke.org | 25 Mar 2015 | 12:12 pm PDT

Fashion advice from Fran Lebowitz

I loved every opinionated moment of this interview with Fran Lebowitz about fashion. Where do I even start? Some choice bits:

Yoga pants are ruining women.

Shirts don't go bad, they're not peaches.

I feel very strongly that almost the entire city has copied my glasses.

Dry...clean. These words don't go together. Wet clean -- that is how you clean. I can't even imagine the things they do at the drycleaner. I don't want to know.

I have to say that one of the biggest changes in my lifetime, is the phenomenon of men wearing shorts. Men never wore shorts when I was young. There are few things I would rather see less, to tell you the truth. I'd just as soon see someone coming toward me with a hand grenade. This is one of the worst changes, by far. It's disgusting. To have to sit next to grown men on the subway in the summer, and they're wearing shorts? It's repulsive. They look ridiculous, like children, and I can't take them seriously.

Now people need special costumes to ride bicycles. I mean, a helmet, what, are you an astronaut??

Of course, more people should wear overcoats than those damned down jackets. Please. Are you skiing, or are you walking across the street? If you're not an arctic explorer, dress like a human being.

I, myself, am deeply superficial.

Feeling good about an outfit is the point at which that outfit finally becomes good.

So good.

Tags: fashion   Fran Lebowitz   interviews

Source: kottke.org | 25 Mar 2015 | 10:58 am PDT

The opening boulder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark

The Art of the Scene looks at how Raiders of the Lost Ark came to be and how the opening scene is the perfect introduction to the main character and the "look and feel" of the rest of the film.

I love that Lucas got the idea for the boulder from a Scrooge McDuck comic book. (via devour)

Tags: George Lucas   Indiana Jones   movies   Steven Spielberg   video

Source: kottke.org | 25 Mar 2015 | 8:25 am PDT

Flying through an eclipse

A group of astronomy enthusiasts rented a plane and flew through the shadow cast by the recent eclipse of the Sun. One passenger took the following video. Look at that shadow creeping across the cloud cover! So cool.

P.S. Still super excited for the 2017 eclipse! (via slate)

Tags: astronomy   flying   science   space   Sun   video

Source: kottke.org | 24 Mar 2015 | 12:14 pm PDT

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

Oh, this sounds fantastic: PBS is set to air a six-hour documentary series, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, starting at the end of March. How have I not heard about this before today?

This "biography" of cancer covers its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the 20th century to cure, control and conquer it, to a radical new understanding of its essence. The series also features the current status of cancer knowledge and treatment -- the dawn of an era in which cancer may become a chronic or curable illness rather than its historic death sentence in some forms.

The series is based on Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which is one of the most interesting books I've read in the past few years. Ken Burns is executive producing and Barak Goodman is directing.

Thanks to Sarah Klein at Redglass Pictures for letting me know about this. Redglass created a pair of videos for the series featuring Terrence Howard and Ken Jeong talking about their experiences with cancer.

Tags: Barak Goodman   books   cancer   Ken Burns   Ken Jeong   medicine   Siddhartha Mukherjee   Terrence Howard   The Emperor of All Maladies   TV   video

Source: kottke.org | 24 Mar 2015 | 10:29 am PDT

The Big Thaw (31 photos)

Friday was the vernal equinox, the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, despite continued wintry conditions in a few places (I'm looking at you, New England). As the sunlight becomes more prevalent, people, plants, and animals are beginning to emerge from their winter modes to step outside, bloom, and otherwise welcome the sunshine. These photos show festivals and glimpses of the new season from around the world, as we shake off the winter and greet the spring.
Sun shines through the petals of a daisy in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on March 9, 2015. (Frank Rumpenhorst/AFP/Getty Images)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 24 Mar 2015 | 10:10 am PDT

Angelina Jolie continues her preventive battle with cancer

Two years ago, Angelina Jolie wrote in the NY Times1 about her choice to have a preventive double mastectomy. Today, she is back with an update on her choice to have another elective preventive surgery, the removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes.

Two weeks ago I got a call from my doctor with blood-test results. "Your CA-125 is normal," he said. I breathed a sigh of relief. That test measures the amount of the protein CA-125 in the blood, and is used to monitor ovarian cancer. I have it every year because of my family history.

But that wasn't all. He went on. "There are a number of inflammatory markers that are elevated, and taken together they could be a sign of early cancer." I took a pause. "CA-125 has a 50 to 75 percent chance of missing ovarian cancer at early stages," he said. He wanted me to see the surgeon immediately to check my ovaries.

I went through what I imagine thousands of other women have felt. I told myself to stay calm, to be strong, and that I had no reason to think I wouldn't live to see my children grow up and to meet my grandchildren.

I called my husband in France, who was on a plane within hours. The beautiful thing about such moments in life is that there is so much clarity. You know what you live for and what matters. It is polarizing, and it is peaceful.

  1. I wrote a post on Jolie's first article with more information about the genetic issues surrounding her choice.

Tags: Angelina Jolie   cancer   medicine

Source: kottke.org | 24 Mar 2015 | 9:38 am PDT

How Apple Watch is made

Apple Watch

From product designer Greg Koenig, a fantastic display of Kremlinology on how he thinks Apple makes the Apple Watch, based on the available evidence (production videos, patents, product specs).

In the above shot, blanks are placed in an immersion ultrasonic tester. What Apple is looking for is the presence of voids or density variances within the structure of the blank that, under stress, could lead to part failure or surface defects as material is removed in further machining processes. This level of inspection is, to put it mildly, fastidious beyond where most other companies would go (save Rolex). Immersion ultrasonic inspection is typically reserved for highly stressed medical implants and rotating components inside of aircraft engines; not only does this step take time, it also is typically performed by custom built machines of tremendous expense.

If you don't have the time or energy to read through the whole thing, at least skip to the final two paragraphs about manufacturing as ritual.

Also, Koenig's Twitter stream is full of interesting nuggets about Apple. Here are a few that caught my attention:

If you want a preview of how Swiss watch companies will face off Tech companies in watches, look at Leica.

— Greg Koenig (@gak_pdx) March 20, 2015

FYI- Now is about the time iPhone 6s first article samples are rolling off production lines. Think about that,

— Greg Koenig (@gak_pdx) March 19, 2015

The Apple Watch has as much to do with watches as an iPhone has to do with being a phone.

— Greg Koenig (@gak_pdx) March 11, 2015

"It's a phone, an iPod and an internet communicator" Of those 3 original tentpoles, 2 are nearly irrelevant.

— Greg Koenig (@gak_pdx) March 11, 2015
Tags: Apple   Apple Watch   design   Greg Koenig

Source: kottke.org | 24 Mar 2015 | 8:58 am PDT

The sameness of Pixar's women

For years, one of the knocks on Pixar was the lack of main characters who are women in their movies. 2012's Brave and this summer's Inside Out have addressed this criticism to an extent1. But Alex of every flavored bean noticed that, in contrast to the diversity of male faces, female characters in Disney/Pixar's recent movies all have the same face.

Pixar Female Faces

Boys in animated movies have faces that are square, round, skinny, fat, alien-looking, handsome, and ugly. The only face that girls get to have is some round snub-nosed baby face. That's not right.

Great observation.

Update: This piece has generated some interesting comments on Good, including this one from Dan Povenmire, co-creator of Phineas and Ferb.

This is idiotic and obviously written by someone who (A) can't draw and (B) has an axe to grind. The female characters they show have very varied faces. Yes the face shapes are all softer feminine shapes, but they purposely didn't include female characters from those same movies with less feminine faces, like Edna Mode in The Incredibles, or the Witch or the Cook in Brave, or any of the older female characters, like the fairy godmother, or... whatever. All the princes and male romantic leads in these movies have the same face shape as well but NO, she takes old men and villains and comedy relief characters to "prove" how sexist animation is. This is just stupid.

If you want literally dozens of examples of other characters omitted from the list see the other comments below.

(via @ckoerner)

  1. Although the gender stereotypes on display in the first trailer for Inside Out is not helping matters.

Tags: Dan Povenmire   Disney   gender   movies   Pixar

Source: kottke.org | 24 Mar 2015 | 8:10 am PDT

All hail air conditioning

Here's The Economist's obituary of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore.

Among a number of 20th-century luminaries asked by the Wall Street Journal in 1999 to pick the most influential invention of the millennium, he alone shunned the printing press, electricity, the internal combustion engine and the internet and chose the air-conditioner. He explained that, before air-con, people living in the tropics were at a disadvantage because the heat and humidity damaged the quality of their work.

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Tags: Lee Kuan Yew   Singapore

Source: kottke.org | 23 Mar 2015 | 4:30 pm PDT

Mike Tyson's crowdsourcing his best knockouts

Martin Scorsese is reportedly set to direct a biopic on Mike Tyson with Jamie Foxx in the title role. Tyson has compiled a video of each of his 44 knockouts and wants his fans' help in choosing his top 10 for Foxx to study.

The top 10 from this video are definite contenders.

Tags: boxing   Jamie Foxx   Martin Scorsese   Mike Tyson   movies   sports   video

Source: kottke.org | 23 Mar 2015 | 3:43 pm PDT

A Virtual Drive Through Bhutan (30 photos)

Google's Street View vans continue to cover countries around the world, stitching together panoramas and allowing armchair travelers to hit the road. A few years ago, I posted "A Trip to Bhutan," a photo essay made up largely of the agency photographer's shots, which had a great reception. Today I'd like to show you a few views of Bhutan's remarkable landscape and colorful architecture, courtesy of Google's Street View team (with links in the captions, so you can explore more on your own). Covering most of the roads in mountainous country, some of the shots were taken at elevations approaching 4,000 meters (13,129 feet) above sea level.

A view of the hilltop Lhuntse Dzong, founded in 1543, above the Kuri Chhu valley in eastern Bhutan. See it mapped. (© Copyright Google, Inc.)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 23 Mar 2015 | 12:02 pm PDT

A European 'Supertide' (12 photos)

Part of France's North Atlantic coast and southwestern England braced for their first giant tide of the millennium on Saturday as the alignment of the sun and the moon created an ocean surge not seen since the 1990s. This so-called "supertide" or "tide of the century," with surges up to 14 meters high, actually happens every 18 years. The high tides have turned France's famed Mont Saint-Michel into an island, and sent bore tide waves into England's River Severn, and the extreme low tides have exposed areas of beach and rock unseen since 1997.
An aerial view as a high tide submerges a narrow causeway leading to Mont Saint-Michel, on France's northern coast, on March 21, 2015. (AP)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 21 Mar 2015 | 2:44 pm PDT

Photos of the Week: 3/14-3/20 (35 photos)

This week, we take a look at the recent solar eclipse, the Bedlam burial ground in London, a dragster broken in half, the terrorist attack in Tunisia, protests against the European Central Bank, frozen hair in the Yukon, a monstrous statue in Seoul, and much more.

A total solar eclipse is seen in Longyearbyen on Svalbard on March 20, 2015. A partial eclipse was visible on Friday across parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia. The total eclipse of the sun was only visible in the Faroe Islands and the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. (Jon Olav Nesvold/NTB scanpix/Reuters)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 20 Mar 2015 | 9:52 am PDT

Animals in the News (33 photos)

It's time once again for a look at the animal kingdom and our interactions with the countless species that share our planet. Today's photos include falcons catching bait dangled from drones in Abu Dhabi, bats in the Czech Republic, monarch butterflies in Mexico, a Florida dog rescued from being tied to a railroad track, cageless shark diving in Hawaii, chimps watching the BBC in China, several animal interactions in Ukraine, and much more. These images and many others are part of this roundup of animals in the news from recent months, seen from the perspectives of their human observers, companions, captors, and caretakers, as part of an ongoing series on animals in the news.

A man rides a horse with a child through the flames during the "Luminarias" annual religious celebration on the night before Saint Anthony's, patron of animals, in the village of San Bartolome de los Pinares, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Madrid, on January 16, 2014. According to tradition that dates back 500 years, people ride their horses through the narrow cobblestone streets of this small village to purify the animals with the smoke of the bonfires. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 19 Mar 2015 | 10:51 am PDT

Category 5 Cyclone Pam Devastates Vanuatu (22 photos)

Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu late on March 13, packing wind gusts of up to 320 kilometers (200 miles) an hour, causing widespread damage in the archipelago nation in the South Pacific Ocean. Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale called the storm a "monster" that killed dozens, destroyed or damaged 90 percent of the buildings in the capital, and will force the nation to start anew. International aid agencies began emergency flights on Tuesday to some of the remote outer islands of Vanuatu, which they fear have been devastated. Officials are warning that Vanuatu now faces imminent food shortages, as aid agencies described conditions as among the most challenging they have ever faced.
Cyclone Pam bears down on Vanuatu in this image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite taken at 1:30 p.m. local time (2:20 GMT) on March 13, 2015. Not long after the image was acquired, the storm struck the island of Efate, which is home to Vanuatu's capital city, Port Vila. Winds of up to 250 kilometers an hour (155 mph) ripped metal roofs off houses and downed trees in the Pacific island nation on Saturday, as relief agencies braced for a major rescue operation and unconfirmed reports said dozens had already died. (Reuters/NASA)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 17 Mar 2015 | 10:19 am PDT

The Battle for Tikrit (31 photos)

For the past two weeks, 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers, and several increasingly influential paramilitary popular mobilization units (primarily Shiite militias, many backed by Iran), have been advancing on the city of Tikrit and the surrounding ISIS-held territory north of Baghdad. The campaign to roll back gains made by ISIS militants in northern Iraq last year has already led to the recapturing of Tikrit's outskirts and many surrounding towns. Saddam Hussein once called Tikrit home, and his tomb was erected there—a structure reduced to rubble by recent battles. Photojournalists traveled to the front lines with the pro-government forces to collect these images. The Reuters photographer Thaier Al-Sudani reported that most areas that were retaken had no residents, and that "after the battle they would resemble ghost towns, nothing but burnt cars and charred bodies of Islamic State fighters." As of today, ISIS still controls parts of Tikrit, and the New York Times reports that Iraqi government forces have paused the offensive to call for reinforcements and to preserve property and civilian lives.
Shiite fighters known as Hashid Shaabi walk as smoke rises from an explosives-laden military vehicle driven by an ISIS suicide bomber which exploded during an attack on the southern edge of Tikrit, Iraq, on March 12, 2015. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 16 Mar 2015 | 11:10 am PDT

Photos of the Week: 3/7-3/13 (35 photos)

This week, we take a look at a rocket motor test in Utah, a crackdown on student protests in Burma, fatal urban encounters for a leopard in India and a cougar in California, a crude oil train wreck in Ontario, a mummified frozen body found on a glacier on a Mexican volcano, Syrians digging caves for shelter from the continuing government air attacks, and much more.
Madeleine Klonoski, 2, sits on her father's leg at a kite festival in Redondo Beach, California, on March 8, 2015. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 13 Mar 2015 | 10:26 am PDT

50 Years Ago: A Look Back at 1965 (50 photos)

A half-century ago, the war in Vietnam was escalating, the space race was in full swing, the Rolling Stones were on a world tour, the bravery of those who marched to Selma led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the St. Louis Arch was completed. The United States occupied the Dominican Republic, Malcolm X was assassinated, NASA's Mariner 4 flew by Mars, race riots erupted in Watts, California, and Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston. Let me take you 50 years into the past now, for a photographic look back at the year 1965.
During the Gemini 4 mission on June 3, 1965, Ed White became the first American to conduct a spacewalk. The spacewalk started at 3:45 p.m. EDT on the third orbit when White opened the hatch and used the hand-held maneuvering oxygen-jet gun to push himself out of the capsule. The EVA started over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii and lasted 23 minutes, ending over the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, White propelled himself to the end of the 8-meter tether and back to the spacecraft three times using the hand-held gun. After the first three minutes the fuel ran out and White maneuvered by twisting his body and pulling on the tether. In this photograph taken by Commander James McDivitt early in the EVA over a cloud-covered Pacific Ocean, the maneuvering gun is visible in White's right hand. (NASA)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 11 Mar 2015 | 11:32 am PDT

Smithsonian Magazine's 2014 Photo Contest (14 photos)

The editors of Smithsonian magazine have just announced the finalists in their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. They've kindly allowed me to share several of these images here from the competition's six categories: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at Smithsonian.com to see all the finalists.
Grizzly bear walking in an estuary in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. Photographed by Kevin Morgans from Wirral Peninsula, Cheshire, U.K. (© Copyright Smithsonian.com)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 10 Mar 2015 | 9:23 am PDT

Beauty in the Ceasefire: A Pageant in Donetsk (16 photos)

Over the weekend in Ukraine's breakaway republic of Donetsk, self-proclaimed authorities celebrated International Women's Day by holding a beauty pageant. The contestants were all female soldiers fighting with pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Presenting portraits of themselves, and modeling in both dresses and military fatigues, the women were later awarded flowers and gifts.
A Russian-backed rebel fighter watches as colleagues perform during a beauty contest involving women from the main separatist battalions in Donetsk, Ukraine, on March 7, 2015. Self-proclaimed authorities in the rebel-held Donetsk held a beauty pageant for female rebel fighters on the eve of March 8, a women's day widely celebrated throughout the former Soviet Union. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 9 Mar 2015 | 9:41 am PDT

Photos of the Week: 2/28-3/6 (35 photos)

This week we have images of Holi in India, a mine rescue in Ukraine, a public caning in Indonesia, Purim celebrations in London, Hawaii seen from orbit, the killing of the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a robotic traffic cop in Kinshasa, a Benjamin Netanyahu cupcake, and much more.
A U.S. soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) salutes his fellow Soldiers while jumping out of a C-130 Hercules aircraft over a drop zone in Germany on February 24, 2015. (Visual Information Specialist Jason Johnston/U.S. Army)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 6 Mar 2015 | 9:50 am PST

The Symmetry and Shapes of Makha Bucha at Wat Dhammakaya (18 photos)

Thousands of Buddhists gathered at Thailand's Wat Dhammakaya on Wednesday to observe Makha Bucha, a religious holiday that marks the anniversary of Buddha's mass sermon to the first 1,250 newly ordained monks 2,558 years ago. The architecture of the temple and the choreography of the ceremonies combine to create stunning visual compositions: images of the thousands of small golden Buddha statues that make up the central dome, the 100,000 lanterns lit up at night, and the thousands of monks and other Buddhist devotees gathered in circles and rows to meditate.
Thai Buddhist monks pray and gather at Wat Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani province, north of Bangkok, to participate in Makha Bucha Day ceremonies on March 4, 2015. (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 5 Mar 2015 | 10:48 am PST

Beijing's Toxic Sky (16 photos)

In Beijing, awareness of the dangers of the polluted sky is now on the rise, thanks to growing data. China will "declare war on pollution," Premier Li Keqiang told parliament in an opening address in 2014. A tougher environmental law took effect on January 1, while a new environment minister took charge on Friday. Residents continue to cope in various ways, from wearing filtered masks to keeping children indoors to expressing frustration through art and fashion. The Reuters photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon recently took the following images, including six before-and-after shots (photos number 2 through 7). We've made them interactive, allowing you to click and see the difference between a sunny day in Beijing and a polluted one.
The fashion designer Chi Zhang poses with a face mask which he designed, at his shop in Beijing on November 4, 2014. Zhang said China's air pollution is one of his prime inspirations and the embellished images of gas masks and the phrase "Fxxk Air Pollution" are trademarks in his creations. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 4 Mar 2015 | 10:26 am PST

A Visit to Aoshima, a Japanese 'Cat Island' (24 photos)

Aoshima Island is one of about a dozen "cat islands" around Japan, small places where there are significantly more feline residents than people. In Aoshima more than a hundred cats prowl the island, curling up in abandoned houses or strutting about in the quiet fishing village. Cats outnumber humans six to one on the island. Recently becoming popular online, tiny Aoshima has seen a steep rise in tourist visits, overwhelming the handful of permanent residents.
Cats crowd the harbor on Aoshima Island in the Ehime prefecture of southern Japan on February 25, 2015. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 3 Mar 2015 | 12:35 am PST

A Winter in Siberia (25 photos)

Based in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, the Reuters photographer Ilya Naymushin captures scenes from around the region, portraying everyday life as Russians work, play, and survive in a place infamous for its harsh winters. This collection of photos from the past winter shows some of the ways people are coping, including vehicles modified for the winter, hand-built ice-fishing huts, ice sculptures, traditional festivals, sporting events, and more.
Pedestrians walk past a truck with a giant Soviet Red Army hat seen on it, an installation created by the Russian artist Vasily Slonov, during the annual "Winter Virage" motor sports festival dedicated to the Defender of the Fatherland Day on the embankment of the Yenisei River in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on February 23, 2015. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 2 Mar 2015 | 9:53 am PST

Ransoms and Reunions: The Internet Huts of Burma (20 photos)

The Rohingya have suffered years of persecution in Burma. Rohingya Muslims are denied full citizenship, their movements restricted, their prospects grim. In a makeshift Internet hut in a crowded internal displacement camp set up for the Rohingya in western Burma, the Reuters photographer Minzayar captured a series of intimate and heartbreaking portraits of families, their faces lit by laptop screens as they contact loved ones and relatives who have left the country for Thailand and Malaysia, escaping the violence that led to 200 deaths and left over 140,000 homeless in 2012. The video chats are personal, often wrenching, discussions held in a very public space in the camp. Aside from reunions and catching up, many of the conversations are with human traffickers who demand thousands of dollars to free family members. The Rohingya merchant Kyaw Thein, who runs the Internet hut, also assists in wiring cash between loved ones and funneling money to the traffickers. The captions below describe the conversations taking place, captured in the portraits above.

Sohidar, 25, a Rohingya mother of four, enjoys an Internet reunion with her husband Muhammad Shamin, 30, who works in Malaysia, from an Internet hut in Thae Chaung village, home to thousands of displaced Rohingya Muslims near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in western Burma, on January 31, 2015. Her face is smeared with a traditional Burmese cosmetic paste called thanaka. "Whatever happens, whatever anyone does, don't get into any fights," Sohidar warns him. "Don't worry, don't worry," he replies. (Minzayar/Reuters)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 1 Mar 2015 | 9:36 am PST

Photos of the Week: 2/21-2/27 (35 photos)

This week we have a fireball above Calgary, wintry weather from Saudi Arabia to New York City, Iranian speedboats destroying a replica of a U.S. aircraft carrier, a Japanese polar bear caretaker robot, Chadian soldiers taking the fight to Boko Haram insurgents, a view of the Moon alongside Venus and Mars, and much more.
A Shaolin monk poses for a photograph in Chinatown on February 23, 2015 in London, England. The monks practice Shaolin Kung Fu which is believed to be the oldest institutionalized style of kung fu and are demonstrating their skills while in the U.K. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 27 Feb 2015 | 9:38 am PST

A Year of War Completely Destroyed the Donetsk Airport (35 photos)

In Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport has been reduced from a modern transportation hub to piles of scorched rubble in less than a year of warfare. As recently as last May, the airport was still operating and in good condition, though international flights had slowed due to the growing unrest. On May 26, Russian-backed separatist forces of the Donetsk People's Republic seized the airport, losing it to Ukrainian government forces after a brief fight. For months after, battles raged as both sides struggled to hold or retake the facilities, their bombs and rockets destroying practically everything, from buildings and aircraft to roads and trees. This week, as a cease-fire held, rebels (now in control of the ruins) brought Ukrainian war prisoners to the airport to recover bodies of their fellow troops from the rubble, and photojournalists were able to come along and document the scene.
The main terminal of Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport hit by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on October 8, 2014 (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 26 Feb 2015 | 10:51 am PST

The 2015 Sony World Photography Awards (20 photos)

The Sony World Photography Awards, an annual competition hosted by the World Photography Organisation, just announced its shortlist of winners. This year's contest attracted 173,444 entries from 171 countries. The organizers have been kind enough to share some of their shortlisted images with us, gathered below. Overall winners are scheduled to be announced on April 23. All captions below come from the photographers.
Reinefjorden. Panorama of Reine (Lofoten) made from three frames. (© Copyright Wojciech Kruczynski, Poland, Shortlist, Panoramic, Open, 2015 Sony World Photography Awards)

Source: The Atlantic Photo | 25 Feb 2015 | 11:31 am PST

Action Figure


Sometimes in the afternoon, or in the evening if a shoot goes long, the stuntman and self-described truth-seeker Reuben Langdon will make a cup of something called Bulletproof coffee. The drink — developed by the Silicon Valley millionaire and biohacker Dave Asprey — consists of black coffee, two tablespoons of butter, and two tablespoons of MCT oil, which Langdon describes as a high-grade coconut oil “that does good things for your brain.” He used to get raw butter, but has since switched to Kerrygold, which is sourced from grass-fed cows in Ireland, after he learned that the raw butter in California showed low-level traces of radiation from the Fukushima fallout.

Langdon can flip, tumble, and fall from heights of 30 feet on demand. Some of his stunts play out in the real world, though most take place in virtual ones through a process called motion capture, wherein physical movement is abstracted into lines, curves, dots, and data later used to animate 3-D models.

Unlike Andy Serkis, a mocap performer who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and has become practically synonymous with the idea of the actor you know without seeing, Langdon is a subcultural figure, someone whose name doesn’t mean much to most people but means a lot to a few. His résumé is a mosaic: bit parts and star turns, candy commercials and blockbusters. He has worked on projects as marginal as Latin Dragon1 and as big as Avatar, where he did motion-capture stunts for the movie’s hero, Jake Sully. Much — if not most — of his work is in video games. A lot of what he does now didn’t exist when he started out, and a lot of the work he did starting out has taken on the rosy glow of a bygone era, where real-live superheroes risked all for the dazzle of a good take. Trace Langdon’s career and you see a shift from people being people to people being machines, from one performer doubling another to one performer standing in for a multiplicity of roles, outfitted in pixelated skins taken from digital libraries like shirts in a closet. Langdon is thoughtful about his work but doesn’t trip on it. “Just think of it as the evolution of makeup,” he says.

He and I are standing in the kitchen of Just Cause, a media and production company Langdon cofounded in 2001, run out of a warehouse just south of Venice. I have driven out from Alhambra to see a mocap shoot for an upcoming movie, but the shoot, it turns out, is so red-taped that not even Langdon is entirely sure what it is. “Usually the video-game guys are more secretive than the movie guys,” he says, but that’s about it. Instead we make Bulletproof and bide our time.

Langdon is 39 but treats age as a flexible condition. Sometimes he seems 90; a placid, monklike presence who speaks of the universe’s interconnectivity as though it were a truth so settled in him not even death could shake it. Then, suddenly, he is 12, discussing what he thinks is cool about spaceships or what might make a fight sequence even more awesome, his voice dropping into the campy exaggerations of kung fu. Though his face is almost never shown onscreen, it is handsome and matter-of-fact, like a falcon’s. Witness his headshots, where his red-blonde hair is styled to make it look as though he has just swooped in through an open window.

Bulletproof is not what I expect from coffee, or what I want, really. It dulls all the bitterness and edge. It is beyond coffee, or maybe uncoffee, but I drink it because Langdon made it for me and because I trust him to have at least a few interesting ideas about the future.


Langdon grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, where he fell in love with a cartoon called Robotech. The show, which aired for three months in 1985, told the story of a series of wars between planet Earth and a race of humanoid aliens called the Zentraedi. Langdon liked Voltron fine, but it was Robotech that touched his heart. “They had relationships, girlfriends,” he says. “It wasn’t Tom & Jerry. It wasn’t nonsense.” He pauses, then admits that it probably was still nonsense, but it was more salient nonsense, especially to an elementary-schooler wondering if all the crazy feelings he was feeling were what other people were feeling, too. 

One afternoon he was at a Star Trek convention when something in a vendor’s booth caught his eye: a TV screen, playing a show that looked like Robotech and felt like Robotech, but was dubbed in Japanese. He asked the man in the booth what it was. “Macross,” the man said, going on to explain that Robotech was more or less just the American version of this “Macross” thing, which was not from America at all.

A scattering of stars joined in constellation. “I realized that there was this one place that had everything I loved,” he says, “and it was called Japan.”

In high school, he enrolled in Japanese classes at the local community college and took a job at a duty-free store in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where he scanned customers’ boarding passes for Japanese names and practiced conversation when one turned up. A couple of nice Japanese women he worked with even made him a sign, which he kept out on the register: Nice Young American Looking for Homestay Opportunities in Japan.

After graduation, he gathered his savings and bought a one-way ticket to Narita International Airport, outside Tokyo. It was the first time he’d been away from home.

He spent two days sleeping on airport benches and drifting through the terminals with a growing hunch that he had made some colossal error. On day three he reached out to a man at Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base in Kanagawa Prefecture — the only person who had responded to his sign at the duty-free. The base took him in and gave him work. “I was surrounded by Americans,” he says, “but at least I was in Japan.”

With the help of a Japanese sponsor, he managed to get an apartment in Tokyo, where he subsisted in part on modeling jobs. “It was a welcoming culture,” he says, “especially for a blond-haired white guy.” His goals then were simple:

  1. Find a place to flip off of a wall.
  2. Do Jackie Chan stuff.

Langdon eventually met Chan. You can see them together in Langdon’s old demo reel, Chan twisting Langdon’s prop leg a full 360 degrees while Langdon howls in vaudevillian agony.2

His big break — or crack, at least — was on B-Fighter Kabuto, a Power Rangers–esque show in which otherwise ordinary people put on bionic suits and save the world in confusing, third-act bursts. Langdon played an exchange student named Mac Windy. In one scene, he materializes out of nowhere in the middle of a basketball game only to nail a bank shot in slow motion; in another, he eats a mountain of sushi while what sounds like a John Philip Sousa march plays in the background — a farce of the American golden boy. “It’s so bad,” Langdon says, adding, “it’s so good.”

Traditionally, Japanese action clubs — where young martial artists are trained, in part, to become aware of how to fight for the camera — expect loyalty from their charges. “If you work at Toyota, you’re a Toyota guy; if you work at Honda, you’re Honda for life,” Langdon explains by way of analogy. B-Fighter Kabuto made him a novelty, almost an accessory — “Mac Windy, token white guy,” he says. They were amused by him. (Langdon — professional without seeming slick and not above embarrassing himself for the sake of a joke — is genuinely amusing.) Though he’d never studied martial arts before, he was able to drift from school to school, cherry-picking ideas, dabbling without ever having to commit. “Luckily, they never beat me with sticks,” he says, without elaboration.

Langdon continued working in Japan, and eventually in Hong Kong, where his attitude toward the social hierarchy of the film business soured. “The director could be a complete asshole and piss on everybody, and it’d be OK,” he says. “But it’s not OK.” It was in Hong Kong that he met Takuya Shibata, his future partner at Just Cause. Together with a writer named Shotaro Suga, the three dreamed of breaking away and making a movie called Messengers, in which a hero … whose cells are encoded with top-secret information … has to fight his way from point A to point B for extraction … with immeasurable perils in between. If he were to die, the valuable code would die with him.

They loved the concept in part because it was a way to make action without guns, because, as Langdon explains, “in every action movie, we’re always looking for an excuse to fight without guns. In the modern-day world, there are guns, and pow, you’re dead.” Langdon seems only half-aware that the story’s conceit — of a person whose body becomes a shell for the transmission of data — mirrors his own life.3

Initially, motion-capture work was an expedient — a way for Langdon and Shibata to get the money and credentials to make Messengers the way they wanted to make it. Japanese video-game companies like Capcom had been drawing on Japanese movie stuntmen, later voiced by English-speaking actors; Langdon and Shibata figured the process could be streamlined. Efficiency was the goal; quality was almost a happy byproduct. “We wanted to make the process more cinematic,” Langdon says — less like video games, more like movies.

Langdon’s first mocap job was for a game called Resident Evil: Code Veronica for the now-defunct Sega system Dreamcast — part of an already popular series that combined complex puzzles with the brainless task of slaughtering zombies. Langdon did most of the motion capture for the game’s hero, Chris Redfield, described by the Resident Evil Wiki as a possible victim of post-traumatic stress disorder who cares deeply for the lives of innocents, and by one of the series directors more simply as a “blunt, tough-guy type.”4 

The project used a system called magnetic capture, in which performers wore a suit covered with receivers that were connected by wire to a central transmitter, which created data by measuring the distance between it and the receivers. The transmitter was basically a giant radio, blasting powerful frequencies to everyone in range. “We could only be in the room for two or three hours,” Langdon says. “You’d feel like someone punched you in the face, or like you just woke up.”

Part of understanding motion-capture performance is understanding the nature of the media in which the performance is used. If you want to put an ostrich in a movie, you can go to a zoo and rent an ostrich. If you want to put an ostrich in a video game, you have to build an ostrich out of numbers. If movies use CGI and motion capture to make the experience more fantastic, video games started to use them to make it more realistic. Even with a rudimentary system like magnetic capture, the trace presence of a human body — its fluidity, its grace — was a way to trigger primal identification with a character (we wince when we see a good punch) and deepen the level of immersion one could have in a game overall.

Letoya B. Jackson, founder of the Reuben Langdon Fan Club on a popular community-driven art site called DeviantArt, says she first became familiar with Langdon through his role as a character named Dante in a game called Devil May Cry 3, which for her “was a big deal because other than Metroid, which I had played since I was younger, Devil May Cry was probably the first game series I got behind with learning the characters and canon without my boyfriend shoving it down my throat like he did with Final Fantasy 7 and 8, LOL.”

The game, which came out in 2005, was one of the first instances in which a motion-capture performer combined stunts, voice work, and what most people would call “acting” into a single character. The job made Langdon a star, at least contextually.5 “I knew it was an iconic character that I had to live up to,” he says, in part because the producers reminded him constantly. He remembers being told how to squat, how to point his toes — how, even, to position his thumb. The two of them — Langdon the person and Dante the character — have become yoked the way Adam West is with Batman. “It was an honor,” he says, “but I started liking being bad guys after that. There’s more freedom in being a bad guy.”

Part of Langdon’s rise as a personality has to do with the evolving values of video games in general, which over the course of the last 40 years have transformed from cute, non-narrative puzzles like Ms. Pac-Man and Q*bert into experiences that mimic the sweep and complexity of an epic film, or at least attempt to. (Meanwhile, more and more video games — including several Resident Evil titles — are somehow being reverse-engineered into feature films.) In some ways, Langdon met the industry at the moment it was ready for him. RESphenatic, another DeviantArt fan, says “every time we play a game now and the acting feels substantially more natural, we have him to thank.”

By the time he became Dante, Langdon was not only wireless, but could see himself as the animated character he’d end up being onscreen in almost real time — the philosophical identity split of all actors, rendered literal. “It’s like the early days of theater,” he says. “Performers and directors.” Imagination becomes paramount, limitless. In a sense, Langdon’s world is just an extremely high-dollar game of make-believe, where pillow forts become castles and anything is a car as long as people pretend to drive it. “On the post[-production] side, you can get somewhere unique and different,” he says. “But it’s still up to us to bring the room alive.”

Powell-Stuntman-2John Tomac


It’s a few minutes before nine on a Saturday morning and Langdon is in Just Cause warehouse, running in place. Opposite him is a man named Vince Argentine, who is also running in place. Argentine stops running and begins doing neck rolls, and Langdon starts doing neck rolls, too. This goes on for another minute or so, members of another species locked in mimetic dance, trying to figure out whether they speak the same language.

Argentine is the senior motion-capture supervisor at Just Cause, and has worked with Langdon for about eight years. Today, Langdon will play a large white robot. Two other performers are there, as is a small production crew. Langdon is dressed in a tight synthetic suit and an Under Armour–like performance garment worn to, in the words of the mocap performer Aaron Toney, “keep things from getting too stinky.”

The performers — Langdon, Toney, and a wine barrel of a man named Seth Austin — walk into a dressing room, where they are studded with a series of hollow rubber balls called markers. The balls are about the size of standard-issue marbles, and are covered with reflective material that bounces LED light from mocap cameras back into the room, letting the cameras know where the performers are. Langdon, Toney, Austin, and Vince Argentine discuss where to place the spherical ones, which get clearer data and cost about six dollars apiece, and where to place the hemispherical ones, an older model that the performers joke about finding in the dryer.6

“Are you falling today?” Argentine asks, as Langdon is being outfitted.

“Yeah,” Langdon says. “I’m just a … ”



“Are you falling on your back or your front?”

“All over.”

Argentine gives Langdon a cool look and whispers the word damn.

The markers are held in place by Velcro, which is not a material I expect to see so much of in a room outfitted with a million dollars’ worth of infrared cameras. Still, it serves as a reminder that virtual worlds don’t exist without physical ones — sweat, muscle, gym mats, and trampolines. “Oh,” Argentine says, gesturing to his kingdom, “this whole place is Velcro.”

Most of the studio is taken up by a room called the volume, a 2,250-square-foot space with baffled ceilings and a low row of cameras — 96 in all — lining its perimeter. With their red LED lights on, the cameras look like robot flowers edging a lawn.

For the next 12 hours or so, Langdon, Toney, and Austin leap, tumble, and fall. Between takes, they discuss their beats: Who should punch where, how they should punch, how long a combo is too long a combo, and other sundries of performed battle. Occasionally, they shuffle to the sideline and pull out some action figures, modeling their moves the way 10-year-old boys might when daydreaming in their parents’ basement, before cartwheeling back into the volume like the real thing.

What emerges is the grace of chamber music, of movements that, when they fall, seem to fall exactly as they should, telegraphed by some higher balance and sense of symmetry. There is a beautiful moment in which Langdon, Toney, and the director, Ken Ohara, file down a sequence to a series of moves so perfect that it seems to slip directly into the pocket of the universe, and the three break into joyful laughter. This is one of the ironies of motion capture: What happens in the volume is often more amazing than what happens onscreen.

After lunch, I sit with Vince Argentine. Argentine grew up taking acid and hacking phones. He seems to intuit highly technical subject matter the way some people can play songs on the piano after hearing them once on the radio. I point to his motion trajectory curves, a series of data points that graph the performers’ movements in millimeters over time, and ask him what he sees. The short answer is “a lot”: when a performer hits something; whether they’re running, jumping, or at rest; whether their landings are hard or soft. Argentine, who speaks in the lunar drawl of someone who might occasionally forget what month it is, shrugs and says it’s basically like reading the Matrix. “I watch TV while I do it,” he says, his eyes locked on the screen, scanning for hiccups in data. “I have six monitors going. This one is TV, this one is trajectories, this one is downloads … ”

I ask about Reuben, at whose data Argentine has spent incalculable hours staring. “These other guys have very crisp movements,” Argentine says, gesturing into the volume. “Reuben tends to embellish a little more. His acting is” — he looks up in search for a word — “it’s a little more sarcastic.”

Then he shows me a model on another screen — this one a rough skeleton made of colorful polygons — and points to its knees: “He’s also bowlegged.”

Argentine sets Langdon’s skeleton in motion and toggles on a series of lines that create streamlike trails of where certain nodes on the body have been. We watch, momentarily hypnotized. The best is with breakdancing, he says, or ballet, which produce trails that look like blossoms.

At the panels Langdon hosts, we hear about UFOs, GMOs, time travel, chemtrails, astral projection, and a whole host of other subjects most people would not bring up with their employers.

One of the day’s last shots is of Langdon alone. Argentine locks him in and Ohara gives the cue. On action, Langdon begins his walk, a slow, lumbering march. He stops and pivots. The room is silent except for the sound of his voice, which makes a steady dzh, dzh, dzh — the gears of his limbs grinding to life as he crushes everything underfoot.

At some point I notice a grasshopper on the floor near the dressing room. How a grasshopper has made it into a warehouse in a light-industrial area near the Southern California coast, I don’t know. It is a weird animal to look at, legs too big and facing the wrong direction, pieced together by some tired god. Then I shift my foot, and the grasshopper springs what seems like an impossible distance into the air.


CGI is now so common that movies have started to promote their stunts as “CGI-free,” as though it were a food additive recently discovered to be cancerous. About 130 cars were destroyed in the making of a 2013 movie called Getaway, while Need for Speed — a video-game adaptation, incidentally — has inspired tough-guy headlines like “Need for Speed Kicks CGI to the Curb.”

In a well-publicized scene for Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise — not a stunt double — dangled outside a window of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, 1,700 feet above street level.7 When asked at a press conference what was going through his mind as he swayed back and forth above the silence, Cruise answered, “I hope I don’t fall.”

At the heart of this bluster is a quest for reality. The late Hal Needham, who started his career on a billboard for Viceroy cigarettes and went on to become synonymous with the myth of the American stuntman, once told NPR that he thought CGI took the reality out of the experience. “I just can’t stand it,” he said. “Even as a director, I never did that stuff. We did it for real. I can look at it onscreen and go, ‘That’s B.S. That don’t work. You can’t do that.’ And so I lose all interest in the film.”

It’s a familiar complaint: Technology separates us once again from so-called “real” experience. Justin Lin, director of several movies in the Fast and Furious franchise, once told Screenrant.com that while he finds CGI to be a useful tool, “There is something very special and unique when you crash a car.”8

One morning, I call up an old-school stuntman named Diamond Farnsworth. Farnsworth is in his mid-sixties, and grew up as a cowboy in the Hollywood Hills, taking his first job at 18 on a Clint Eastwood–Lee Marvin movie called Paint Your Wagon. Since then, he has performed in a vast array of movies and TV shows, and for the past 11 years has served as a stunt coordinator on NCIS, for which he has been nominated for two Emmys. His father was a famous Western-movie stuntman turned actor named Richard Farnsworth, who once doubled Gary Cooper and rode a horse through the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, later earning an Oscar nomination as the lead in David Lynch’s The Straight Story. His daughter, Courtney, does stunt work, too.9

Farnsworth’s narrative of movie history follows the arc of technology: horses first, then motorcycles, then cars. He remembers shaky rigs on the Disney backlot, “where they’d just string a cable from one end to another and whip you down there.” Work, then, was a kind of gamble: They wanted to be safe, but they were still just bodies, vulnerable and limited, riding on the backs of fast, uncertain things.

Farnsworth doesn’t have to worry about staking out territory anymore, and regards motion-capture work with the faint suspicion of someone on the homestead watching a stranger come into view over the hill. His one brush with it was in 1983’s Fire and Ice, which used an early form of mocap called rotoscoping. “You’re fighting nothing, you’re jumping over nothing, and then they put in this monster with computers. It was fascinating,” he says, adding, “but I felt like an idiot, jumping over a tail where there’s no tail.”

For Farnsworth, the story of motion capture is in part a story of loss. “In the original James Bonds, you’d have a great opening stunt,” he says. “There was a guy, doubling Bond, who skied off the mountains and kicked the parachute up.” His voice is wistful, as though he were watching the scene fade inside his head. Now, when he meets young people who ask him how they might one day become like Diamond Farnsworth, he gives them simple advice: “Go into computers.”

The stereotype of the stuntman is one of stoicism and resilience — a real-life crash-test dummy with the raw strength and psychological fortitude to stand in the line of danger. Their world is a perpetually exploding one, measured in milliseconds, and we recount their impossible feats the way we might the feats of a war hero.

And though synonymous with action, the work actually took shape in part through silent-era comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose performances didn’t accentuate the danger of the job or the bravery of its doers, but their dumb luck in the face of a world ruled by accident. Think of the symphonic confusion of Chaplin’s police chases, or of Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr., peeling himself off the ground in the middle of a windstorm and doing a couple of recalibrating neck rolls before the façade of a two-story house drops directly on him, spared only by the grace of an open window. The image isn’t one of the hero, but of the dope unequipped for the physical world — not a man of power but of comedic powerlessness.

Keaton called these stunts “cartoon gags” — gestures unmoored from character or narrative, whose exaggerations were played mostly for laughs. Reality had never been the point. Instead, it was something wilder and less tethered, a blurring of reality rather than a reinforcement of it — something, to borrow Argentine’s description of Langdon’s acting, more sarcastic.

And despite the precision and quant and rigor of mocap work, unreality remains the grail, the spark at the periphery that keeps viewers dreaming. At some point during my visit to the Just Cause shoot, the Tokyo team protests that a sequence is not quite right. It should be more tekunikaru, they say — more “technical.” Langdon turns to me to clarify. “They don’t mean technical technical. They just mean cool.”

It’s not until I am sitting next to Vince Argentine, watching a loop of Langdon’s robot falling after a virtual collision, that I realize that the director doesn’t appear on Argentine’s screen at all: Without markers, the camera doesn’t think he exists.


Above the urinal in Just Cause’s bathroom is a comic-book-style rendering of Ken Masters, a Street Fighter character whom Langdon has voiced in several video games. The picture is addressed to Langdon and autographed by Jo Chen, a celebrated Taiwanese artist who occasionally works on covers for Street Fighter comic books.

He still goes to Street Fighter tournaments sometimes, and mentions in passing the strange, secret joy of standing next to a competitor who doesn’t know that he, Reuben Langdon, is, in a way, Ken.

Langdon grew up playing the game as Ken, haunting the malls of Georgia in search of competition.10 He remembers the delirium he felt when he walked into an audition and realized what he was auditioning for. “I thought maybe I’d get to be Guile,” he says, referring to a lesser blonde-haired Street Fighter. He still goes to tournaments sometimes, and mentions in passing the strange, secret joy of standing next to a competitor who doesn’t know that he, Reuben Langdon, is, in a way, Ken.

The nature of Langdon’s work is that performers have to surrender the features that make them most recognizable. In another era, you can imagine the framed image on the wall as a photograph of Langdon, maybe a headshot, maybe of him standing with his arm draped around a fan, with his handwriting instead of Chen’s, hanging on the wall of a restaurant or the office of an admirer. Instead, the picture is Langdon’s, a gift from someone who helped illustrate a role that Langdon later brought to life.

Some days, Langdon is not only a star, but the extras, too. In the zombie game The Last of Us, he played so many characters that he no longer remembers them all. There was James, who takes a butcher knife to the neck after being discovered to be infected, and there was Joel, the game’s main character, whom Langdon didn’t voice or perform but did do stunt doubling for. And then there were the nameless hordes that, as Joel, you have to mow down on the way to safety. Langdon spent most of the day dying, a different death every time.

Powell-Stuntman-3John Tomac


One afternoon about seven years ago, Langdon was doing laundry at his apartment complex in Glendale when he saw a cluster of lights in the sky. They looked like stars, he says, but in the daytime. He set his basket of clothes down and stared at them for about 30 minutes. One by one, they faded away.

Something so improbable would have to make the local news, he thought; maybe even national. Hours passed, then a day. Nothing. This is when Langdon became convinced, in a surge both of logical deduction and pure faith, that the only explanation for what he saw — and why he heard nothing about it — is that the lights belonged to UFOs.

“That’s when the door opened for me,” Langdon says, “but it’s not when I went through it.”

He started reading. The deeper he went, the more incontrovertible the evidence seemed. “You tell me,” he asks, arching his eyebrow. “What travels at Mach 10 and makes 90-degree turns?” He eventually joined up with an activist named Stephen Bassett, who has spent the last 20 years trying to end what Bassett, on his website, describes as “the 65-year government imposed truth embargo regarding an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race.” In April 2013, he helped Bassett convene an event called the Citizens Hearing on Disclosure, in which six former members of Congress heard public testimony on the subject of extraterrestrial life for five straight days and from 40 different people, including a former employee of the British Ministry of Defence and two retired U.S. Air Force pilots who, in 1980, went into the woods to investigate some bright lights and came upon a triangular craft, which raised up and sped into the sky.

I first met Langdon in February 2014. At the time, he was about to leave for Atlanta to do live-action stunt work on Ant-Man, a movie that temporarily imploded in May and has shuffled its cast and crew dozens of times since. With time on his hands, Langdon began to look at his life. He started going into the forest, running in the hills, chopping wood. “Something shifted in my soul,” he says.

He has since relocated from Los Angeles to a house near the woods outside Atlanta, about 15 minutes from his old high school. For the moment, he has stepped away from the day-to-day work at Just Cause, though he still flies back for shoots and keeps in good touch with Shibata and the rest of the team. His attention has turned to more distant horizons. He spent several months hunkered down at a cabin near Big Bear Lake, east of L.A., helping edit a documentary called Truth Embargo, which contains footage from the Citizens Hearing. He has also been crisscrossing the country collecting material for a project called Interview With E.D., about people who channel beings from other dimensions.11

Between takes at Just Cause, we discuss whether the American spiritualist Ram Dass really gave acid to a Hindu guru (and whether the guru really didn’t feel anything); the experiments of the late Japanese entrepreneur Masaru Emoto, which posit that people can change the crystal structure of water by exposing it to positive or negative emotions; and a self-study book about spiritual transformation called A Course in Miracles, written by a medical psychologist at Columbia University who identified her inner voice as Jesus.

In October, I watch a two-hour-long interview with Langdon on a video-game chat show called Twin Galaxies Live. Langdon, who is accompanied by a bearded Englishman named Charles, spends most of the first hour talking about UFOs, getting deep into what he calls “the peanut butter.” Commenters in the side bar mock him, but Langdon remains good-humored. “If you don’t believe me,” he says, “just do some research.” He leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head, and grins. The host seems by turns curious and terrified, admitting that one of the reasons she loves video games is that it gives her a place to bury her head away from all this complicated stuff. Later, Langdon asks if she ever meditates (she has, a little, but she struggles with ADHD), then, if she has ever eaten mushrooms. She shakes her head no and spins nervously toward the camera as though it might rescue her. Eventually, Langdon submits to video-game talk: Has he played this, has he played that, does he think that this particular iteration of a franchise redeemed the character or dulled it. He remains charming but becomes distracted. This is hacky-sack — fun enough, but neither here nor there.

Now, when Langdon appears at Comic-Con types of events, which happens with some regularity, he gives a two-part panel discussion called “Enter the Matrix,” in which he wades into these new worlds, one PowerPoint slide at a time. We start with a Scientific American article called “The Universe Really Is a Hologram, According to New Simulations.” Then comes a gloss on quantum physics, and an introduction to the idea that all experience is more or less projection. We hear about UFOs, GMOs, time travel, chemtrails, astral projection, and a whole host of other subjects most people would not bring up with their employers.12 Each panel is about four hours long. “I make sure everyone knows that this isn’t Devil May Cry or Resident Evil 5,” he says.

His aims are earnest but his sense of humor seems to have emerged intact. Describing his new calling, Langdon says he not only ended up walking through the door, “I fell down the stairs.”


The morning after the Just Cause shoot, Langdon and I meet on the patio of a vegan restaurant to pick through some details. Quickly we are in cloudier realms. He tells me the Holodeck isn’t here yet but we’re sure getting closer. He tells me his interest in extraterrestrials is partially just an extension of his interest in technology, in fuel efficiency, in the end of war and the mutual advancement of all peoples. Considering all of this, I want to know what his perspective is now on his work — on movies and video games, on the bang-up worlds of fantasy and action.

“There’s all this hoopla about how (video games) negatively influence our children,” he says. “Some people argue against it, some argue for it. I’d always felt like it didn’t matter. People should do what they want to do, and it doesn’t matter. Which is still the point of view I have now, but the difference between now and then is that I know that negativity does influence people. The intention, the fear that comes from zombies showing up and you killing them creates an emotion that I think the world has enough of.”

“You don’t think it’s released or defused by playing the game?” I ask.

“To an extent,” he says. Then he says that while he acknowledges that it’s only his personal belief (an acknowledgement he makes often), he thinks the universe is made entirely of frequencies — the brick wall next to us, the air around us, our emotions, our thoughts — and that negative feelings create negative frequencies that create physical negativity, a transubstantiation by which these hidden things — thoughts, feelings — cross the threshold into the real world.13

Whether Langdon is a visionary or a basket case is a question that can’t be answered. Society has a way of rounding off its edges. Less arguable is that Langdon is someone who seems built to evolve. Sometimes I picture him at 19, pacing back and forth across the floors of the Narita airport, lost, planless, unable to communicate, an even longer road ahead of him than the one behind. He could have reached for the big red button then, or melted into a puddle on the floor, but he pressed ahead. Some people are just free that way.

We talk for about two hours. Something unusual can happen to a person when they stare into another person’s eyes for a while. A deep end opens up, a landscape fathomless and weird and yet familiar, almost natal, a kind of suspended animation. I have this feeling that I don’t matter and he doesn’t matter either. What matters is us. Then a dog knocks over some dishes near the busing station and I am suddenly here again, in Santa Monica, where we’ve been all day.

Later, I think of something he told me back in February: “We can create volcanoes exploding, historical events, Transformers, robots destroying buildings falling from the sky, big tidal waves wiping out cities … but what’s lost [in motion capture] is that moment when the camera looks straight into the eyes of the performer. That has yet to be cracked.”

We parcel out the last of our shared tempeh scramble and our buckwheat-flax pancake and discuss the self-imposed burdens of being human. “A lot of times we go through life bouncing from one thing to the next,” he says, imagining ourselves to be victims of the circumstances around us. And while Langdon still acknowledges that those circumstances are real, he also feels as though the difference between now and then is that now he sees what creates them, what drives them, what makes them move the way they do. Life is more of a ride to him now, more of a video game.

“Typically, we’re driving around and we see from the driver’s seat,” he says. “But in a game, you pull out, and you have this — it’s not a POV, but it’s a third-person shooter. You’re actually pulled out behind the car. That’s when you can finally see the rest of the scene.” 

Mike Powell (@sternlunch) is a writer living in Tucson, Arizona.

Source: Grantland » Features | 8 Jan 2015 | 7:03 am PST

The Men Who Protect the Man

Corey Linsley has a theory about offensive lines. He stumbled onto it this fall, in his first few weeks as the Packers’ starting center. The rookie from Ohio State took over in late August, when likely starter JC Tretter went down with a bum knee. After a few practices, Linsley started to notice that his new line seemed familiar. Actually, it looked just like his old one.

The Packers, in many ways, fit the same mold as the Buckeyes. Right guard T.J. Lang is Andrew Norwell,14 the game-day motivator, “the tough S.O.B.,” Linsley says. Jack Mewhort15 is right tackle Bryan Bulaga — the purebred, a casually talented early-round pick amid a collection of mid-round gems. Josh Sitton, Green Bay’s All-Pro left guard, is in quiet command, the steadying hand. That was Marcus Hall at Ohio State. And David Bakhtiari, well, he’s the cool guy. Bakhtiari has the hair; Taylor Decker had the tats.

As Linsley lays out his theory, four of the five Packers starters — Bulaga is still recovering from a concussion suffered against the Bills a few days earlier — are sitting at a table in the bowels of Lambeau Field. The loss to Buffalo was Green Bay’s roughest outing in months, but it was also the line’s best all season, proof that each week they were only getting better.

The hiccup in Linsley’s theory is that in this group, his own role is the only one he can’t place. Appealing to the crowd isn’t helping, either.

“I was about to say meathead,” Bakhtiari suggests, “but that’s Bryan.”

“I’d take meathead,” Linsley says.

“If you’re arguing to be the meathead,” Lang shoots back, “then you’re the meathead.”

Ted Thompson started scouting offensive linemen around the time Linsley was born. Yet after more than two decades, the Packers general manager has come to the same conclusion. “I think in my lifetime in football, offensive linemen, guys that you’ve been around, they’re all kind of the same,” Thompson says. “They’re like pack animals.”

The personalities may be similar, but as a whole, this collection of Packers stands apart. In July, Mike McCarthy said it had the chance to be his best line in nine seasons as head coach. He was right. Not long ago, Aaron Rodgers was among the most terrorized quarterbacks in football. This year, few have been pressured less,16 despite his tendency to squeeze all he can out of a given play.17 A unit that has spent most of the McCarthy-Rodgers era being maligned has finally earned some respect. “I’ve been through six seasons,” Lang says. “[Josh] has been through seven. And up until this year, all you heard was how bad the offensive line was.”

No single factor has pushed the Packers from the league’s dregs to the top. How they’ve gotten here is how any line might. Bulaga is healthy; the injury storm that usually ravages eastern Wisconsin never hit this year. Linsley has been better than anyone could have hoped. Bakhtiari can barely recognize the player he was a year ago. Time and maturation have morphed Lang and Sitton into one of the best guard duos in all of football. Combine all that with a lot of luck, and we arrive here. These are the men who protect The Man, and they have made the difference for the league’s best offense.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari (foreground)

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Left tackle David Bakhtiari (foreground)

Linsley’s right about Bakhtiari. He does look like the cool guy — Khal Drogo if Drogo would get off his ass and into the weight room.

The cool guy got his job last season with three marker strokes on a white board. It was a Sunday morning in August. Green Bay had played its annual Family Night scrimmage the previous day, and at a point during the practice, Bulaga needed help getting off the field. He’d been the left tackle all of two months, after McCarthy decided to move his two best players to the prestige side of the line. The team was grabbing its late-night snack when reserve tackle Don Barclay told Bakhtiari the news. Bulaga’s ACL was torn.

Speculation followed. Bakhtiari was in a fight with veteran Marshall Newhouse for the right tackle job, a fight he was confident he’d win. He was also a rookie fourth-round pick — not the sort a team entrusts with an MVP’s blind side. That night, Bakhtiari asked Clay Matthews for his thoughts. The pair had spent the offseason working out in Los Angeles. They were friends before Bakhtiari even arrived in Wisconsin. “Clay told me to my face that they were going to move Marshall back over, and I was going to be the starting right tackle,” Bakhtiari says. “I was like, ‘Thanks for the confidence.’”

Early the next morning, coach James Campen walked to the front of the room and, without a word, started writing the numbers of his starting line. Moving from left to right, “69” was first on the board. Coming into the league, Bakhtiari had had a crude but optimistic plan for his career. He’d spend a season or two at right tackle, easing into the league before flipping to the left side a couple of years in. That plan had just accelerated. Two weeks into his first training camp, he was the left tackle for the Green Bay Packers. At the Packers’ offensive walkthrough that afternoon, Rodgers congratulated Bakhtiari in front of the group, loud enough for everyone to hear. As he leaned in for a hug, he whispered in the rookie’s ear: You better not get me killed.

That wasn’t going to be easy. Green Bay opened against Aldon Smith and the San Francisco 49ers. From there, Bakhtiari faced Washington’s Brian Orakpo, before facing off with the Bengals’ Michael Johnson in Week 3 and Terrell Suggs two games later. “He had a nasty gantlet there of high-end [defensive] ends,” Sitton says. Bakhtiari struggled at times. Smith finished with 1.5 sacks. Johnson added 1.5 more. Only a handful of players got caught holding more last season. But for the most part, he earned what all left tackles crave — anonymity. “There were stretches last year, and then this year, where I have barely anyone talk to me,” Bakhtiari says. “And I take that as a compliment.”

Bakhtiari’s goal coming into this year was to remove the “for a rookie” qualifier from his play. He no longer wanted to be evaluated with a caveat. Sitton saw the jump coming early. Bakhtiari was bigger. He was stronger. Their double-teams were gaining ground.

“Last year, I don’t think he was ever 300 pounds,” Sitton says.

“I was flirtin’,” Bakhtiari responds. “Me and 300, we went on a couple dates.”

They’re married now, with a three-bedroom colonial in a dead-end cul-de-sac for pass-rushers. “I look at film of me last year, and it’s almost disgusting,” Bakhtiari says. “It’s like, ‘I can’t believe that’s me. That’s gross.’ Some of the things I was doing, it’s almost like two different players.”

After a string of compliments are thrown Bakhtiari’s way, Sitton, by lineman obligation, mutes his love with a zing. “Just another classic fourth-round steal from Ted,” he says, lathered in sarcasm. Everyone laughs.

Sitton was a fourth-round pick. So was Lang. Linsley went one round later, after 30 other linemen. No one can quite figure out why. “It’s not like we’re all the same guy,” Sitton says.

Ted Thompson has the same aw-shucks response. “Oh, no, I wouldn’t presume that we think that we have some secret thing that we look at that puts us ahead of other people,” he says. “In our case, I think the fact that we were able to get some good players in the middle rounds was good coaching, but probably a lot of luck.”

Lang guesses that with the exception of Linsley, each came from a college football also-ran. Sitton went to Central Florida. Lang went to Eastern Michigan. Bakhtiari played at Colorado. “And even though it’s the Pac-12 … ” Lang says.

Sitton finishes the thought. “It’s a shitty football program.” The laughs come even harder this time.

Center Corey Linsley

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Center Corey Linsley

The only light in Corey Linsley’s room at the Westin Bellevue came from his phone. His roommate, wide receiver Jeff Janis, was long asleep. Midnight had come and gone. In less than 24 hours, the Packers would open their season in Seattle, against the league’s most terrifying defense, in front of the entire country. Linsley had been the starting center for a total of 10 days. Earlier that week, Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin told reporters he’d be praying for the Packers’ rookie. He wasn’t the only one.

On the field the next day, Linsley remembers, he looked out at the open-ended north side of CenturyLink Field, a sight he’d seen only while playing Madden. “Ariana Grande was singing, and there were fireworks and all this crazy shit,” Linsley says. “The crowd was going nuts. And it’s like, Damn, man, there’s no going back. I’m either about to embarrass everybody I know, or I’m about to have a pretty good game.”

Before the Packers left the locker room, Aaron Rodgers gave a short speech. At some point, he told them, every player has his “I belong” moment in the NFL. He singled out Linsley, Davante Adams, and Richard Rodgers — the rookies on the Green Bay offense. “He told us,” Linsley says, “that tonight, we would have ours.” Linsley’s came on the third play of the game.

As Linsley tells the story, Bakhtiari cuts him off.

“Wait,” Bakhtiari says, “it took you a couple plays into an actual football game?”

“Bro, I had no idea what was going to happen!” Linsley says. “Bruce Irvin’s praying for me. Kam Chancellor’s got that visor, looks pretty cool. I’m like, ‘These guys are going to torch me.’”

Prepping his emotional doomsday bunker is part of Linsley’s routine. His voice is quiet, soft even. It sounds nothing like he plays. “I’m not a confident person,” he says. “That’s just me. I just have that personality, where my mind-set constantly is ‘worst-case scenario.’ Whenever I’ve been confident about a situation, it leads me to be overconfident. It relaxes me. I feel like, if I go out there and think, I’m going to get killed, my nervous system says, Wake up. Or you’re going to get killed.”

His teammates weren’t nearly as worried. During the Packers’ first padded practice this offseason, Josh Sitton saw Linsley move left to hit the nose guard before peeling back to a linebacker moving the opposite direction. “It’s called a cross key,” Sitton says. “And it’s not easy to see as a young player. He did that, and I said, ‘OK, he’s going to be the guy.”

When Rodgers took his first snap with Linsley, in the days leading up to the Seattle game, he didn’t know what to expect. “It’s been pleasantly surprising the entire time,” the quarterback says. “He fits in great, personality-wise, and then physically, talent-wise, he’s as good as we’ve had.”

Linsley hasn’t looked much like a rookie, but he does remember the season’s low point. It came during the Packers’ win in Chicago. Two plays after getting called for holding, Linsley was flagged again, only this time, it was after Rodgers had somehow evaded three Bears and heaved a pass across his body and into the arms of Davante Adams in the end zone. It was the play of the year, now lost. As they walked out of the film room the next day, Rodgers told Linsley, in his best Icelandic accent, “Corey, you lost it for me.” When he was met with a blank stare, Rodgers asked Linsley if he’d ever seen Mighty Ducks 2. “[Aaron] was like, ‘I was hoping you would say, “You lost it for yourself.’” I felt like an idiot.”

The Packers’ actual foray into Hollywood started with too many men crammed into an ice bath. For months, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack blared from every speaker, from practice carpools to the line’s corner of the locker room. “The Riff Off,” Bakhtiari says, “we pretty much know by heart.” Bakhtiari was the one who brought the film to the rest of the group, and he was also the one who told them about the sequel. It was decided. They needed to be in this movie.

Some extensive tweeting eventually led to a post on BuzzFeed. Not longer after, at practice, Bakhtiari’s phone buzzed.

@elizabethbanks is now following you on Twitter

The actress is also the sequel’s director, and Bakhtiari spent the next day planning his direct message. “I asked [the O-line] what I should write, and they were just saying complete nonsense.” Eventually, the message was sent, followed by a response, from Banks’s husband and producer, Max Handelman. Months of emails and phone calls later, Bakhtiari, Sitton, Lang, backup tackle Don Barclay,18 and Matthews were off to Louisiana for filming. “They absolutely loved it, as much as they want to say they didn’t,” Bakhtiari says. “They were little girls out there, having a good ol’ time.”

The trip to Baton Rouge was more than a chance to start an IMDb profile. It was a three-day, beer-filled vacation with teammates who’ve become great friends. “I’m just happy to say that some of my best buds are on that offensive line,” Bakhtiari says. “I have so much fun with them. They’re awesome. Last year was tough, being a rookie, doing all the rookie duties. I mean really, this year, I’ve gotten so close to the older guys like Josh, T.J., even Bryan.” Thursday-night dinners happen regularly. Bowling nights too. Rounds of golf, when the Wisconsin weather allows, are common. A group traveled to Kohler to play a few for Lang’s bachelor party. In recent years, Aaron Rodgers has become a regular attendee, and his count of pulled punches is still at zero.

“They’re ruthless,” Rodgers says. “You cannot be sensitive. The first time you show sensitivity to a comment — about a feature on your body, or about something in your personality, or something in your past — they will absolutely pulverize you. Which is how I think it should be in the O-line room. It’s all in good fun, because they really do love each other.”

The way Lang sees it, the bonding is as practical as it is enjoyable. More than any other position, a line is a group of players acting together. A round of golf or a few games of bowling are ways to learn how one’s line mates talk, how they think, and, most of all, what makes them tick.

“The more you care for the buddy playing next to you, I don’t want to say the harder you’re going to try, but there’s a little extra motivation to keeping him safe and wanting him to do well,” Lang says. “If I was playing next to a right tackle whose name I barely knew, why would I go out of my way?”

Right tackle Bryan Bulaga with Aaron Rodgers

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Right tackle Bryan Bulaga with Aaron Rodgers

The word “prodigy” has never been misapplied to Bryan Bulaga. To remember the last time football didn’t come easy, he has to think back to freshman year, when he was called up to the sophomore team at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, Illinois. “I was getting the crap kicked out of me every Friday,” Bulaga says. One year later, he was a varsity star. After gaining 25 pounds in a single offseason before arriving in Iowa, he started for head coach Kirk Ferentz as a true freshman.

“We’ve had a pretty healthy amount of really good linemen come through here,” Ferentz says. “Bryan’s the only guy of the group that pretty much walked in and was really accelerated in terms of being ready to play. He was extremely talented, gifted.” Bulaga started for three seasons before the Packers took him 23rd overall in 2010. That February, at 21 years and 322 days, he became the youngest player in history to start in the Super Bowl. When the group golfs, Bulaga wins. He shoots in the high 70s now, after picking up the game only a few years ago.

The game may come naturally to him, but Bulaga’s actual career has been less smooth. He missed the second half of the 2012 season with an injured hip, and the ACL tear cost him all of last season. The hip injury was only a small fracture, “just like having a broken bone heal,” Bulaga says.

“The knee was the harder one,” Bulaga says. “Every day, you’re doing the same rehab. It’s not as much a physical grind as it is a mental grind. I think you could ask any guy that’s had an ACL done, and he’ll say the mental aspect of it is harder than the physical aspect.”

When Bulaga returned this offseason, there wasn’t much conversation about where he would play. “Technically, I’d only ever played right tackle,” he says. The change was who was playing next to him. After spending his entire career next to Sitton, it was his first time working with Lang. A brand-new collection of habits and tendencies had to be resolved. In typical Bulaga fashion, it took two weeks.

Left guard Josh Sitton

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Left guard Josh Sitton

Leaning back in a leather chair, stuffed into a small interview room at Lambeau, Josh Sitton’s feelings about his fame come through in one giant yawn. “It’s perfectly fine with meeeeeee,” he manages. “I don’t want anybody to know my name, except for the people who vote for the Pro Bowl.” Those people knew it this year. Sitton was just voted there for the second time in seven seasons.

“If we were N Sync,” Lang says, “[Josh would] be Justin Timberlake. He’s Frankie Valli, and we’re the Four Seasons.”

Bakhtiari goes on, thinking ahead an album or two: “If he wanted to, he could go solo, and we’d all fizzle out.”

Sitton is matter-of-fact in the way of someone in total control. But it wasn’t always that way. Game days used to be full of awful jokes, endless chatter, anything to fill the time and convince both him and his teammates that his nerves had been calmed. Now, seven years in, they are. At 28, Sitton is the oldest member of the lot, a title that’s still hard for him to believe.

“It’s crazy to make that transition to the leader of the group, the old guy,” he says. “It’s weird, because I feel like I just got into the league, but I’m closer to retiring than I am to starting.”

There’s no ascending to this level without being physically superior, but what Sitton’s teammates continue to bring up is his mind. There’s no way to put this kindly. Sitton doesn’t fit the physical profile of a genius — not with that hair, or that beard, or that gut. But both Linsley and Bakhtiari mention that his tutelage has helped ease them into the league. “I told him this the other day, he’s the epitome of ‘You’re a lot smarter than you look,’” Bakhtiari says. “He is brilliant, but he looks like a dumbass.

Since he started playing in seventh grade, Sitton has always found pleasure in figuring out football. There’s satisfaction to be found in planning angles, devising the perfect play. Each Wednesday, Green Bay brings its quarterback-center meeting to three dimensions with a walkthrough. The session invariably becomes a proof for Sitton and Lang, each with their own ideas about the best approach. “They’ll study the looks, and they’ll kind of pick each other’s brain, and I’m just sitting there listening to them bounce ideas back off each other,” Linsley says.

When the Packers are in shotgun formations and Linsley’s head is stuck between his legs, Sitton and Lang are responsible for all the line’s calls, and their familiarity with every moving part of the offense creates a constant dialogue with Rodgers. The offense is able to avoid bad plays because they have three players searching for the right one. “Especially at home, they can just tell me if they like the play or not, and we can move forward,” Rodgers says. “They can tell me what blocking scheme in the heat of the moment, whether it’s in the huddle, or on the line of scrimmage, what scheme they would like to use at that point. It makes my job a lot easier.”

Right guard T.J. Lang (70)

Joe Robbins/Getty Images Right guard T.J. Lang (70)

Sitton can’t remember exactly when he picked up the phone. It was in the spring, April maybe, a few months after the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010. He’d been thinking about the future of the Green Bay offensive line, and he knew the best version of that future involved T.J. Lang. Left guard Daryn Colledge was almost surely leaving in free agency, and the job was Lang’s if he wanted it. The worry was that so far, Lang hadn’t wanted much.

“I told him that we needed him to step up and take his job more seriously,” Sitton says. “We needed him to be the guy. You knew he could be a player. You could see it.”

In his first two years, Lang’s affinity for Green Bay’s bars outweighed his affinity for football. There aren’t many, but there were enough. “If they were serving beer,” he says, “I was there drinking it.” Lang grew up in an Irish family where gatherings meant a steady flow. Without much else to do in Green Bay, Lang continually retraced the few hundred feet from his downtown apartment to the nearest stool. There were plenty of days when he rolled into practices on a few hours’ worth of sleep.

The sound of Sitton’s voice staggered him, but the sounds of his own life are what finally pushed him to change. There was the silence of that summer. The lockout meant no football for months. Lang was left staring into what his days would be without the game. And then there were the imagined coos of his first child, due to arrive in August. It was time to grow up.

“He’s gone from a party animal who didn’t give a shit about football,” says Sitton, “to being one of the best guards in the league.”

If Sitton is the line’s brain, Lang is its voice. In a conversation with the group, Linsley and Bakhtiari defer to him on nearly every question. On Sundays, his words dominate.

Those small but telling contrasts are what define a relationship around which the rest of the line is built. When Sitton made his phone call that spring, he wasn’t doing it only as a teammate. He was doing it as a friend. Sitton stood in Lang’s wedding party this summer. They’ve vacationed together.

“It’s almost like we’re the same person sometimes,” Lang says. “There will be times when coach will be talking in the meeting, and him and I will blurt out the same exact thing at the same time. I dunno.”

With his short stint at left tackle last preseason, Bulaga is one of the few players who has lined up next to both guards, and he says their on-field ticks mirror who they are off it. As a pass-blocker, Sitton concedes more ground, content to let rushers come to him. It allows him to survey the field and to rely on his powerful lower body to anchor down against bull rushers. Lang is more aggressive. It’s not impatience, just a desire to establish control. He wants to end the play before it starts. It’s a combination that defines what the entire line has come to be.

The nuances of the Green Bay guards define Bulaga’s game. Different pass sets mean having to alter his depth, too. One step forward or one step back allows a twist stunt inside to work, or gets another lineman picked by a slanting tackle. More than individual talent, continuity is the most important factor in any line’s success. The tiniest details become vital.

“I think it’s everything, to be honest with you,” Bulaga says. “When you can play that much next to a guy, and you can understand what he’s doing, or how he’s going to set an angle up for you, that’s huge. Not having to talk and understanding what the guy next to you is going to do is very important.” When a turned ankle sent Lang to the sideline against the Saints, some of the non-verbal cues necessary in the Superdome were lost on his replacement, Lane Taylor. During away games, the dialogue at the line of scrimmage becomes a mix of sign language and choreography, and shuffling players in and out can end in toes being stomped.

By keeping the same five linemen almost the entire season, the Packers have been able to build their vocabulary into an entire language. “We’ve got so many dummy calls,” Sitton says. “Half the shit we say doesn’t mean a thing. It’s pretty cool when you can evolve within the season, learning a whole new thing.” In past seasons, the line has been a band forced to replace its drummer or bassist every week. The entire offense goes from writing songs to relearning chords. This year, they can riff, take chances. They can be a 1,500-pound Radiohead.

“When you get a hodgepodge line that’s changing week to week, you just kind of have to go by the base rules on a lot of plays,” Rodgers says. “The base rules are decent, but when you can incorporate your own creativity to the plays at the offensive line positions, you can really enhance them. So the communication has been amazing.”

One of the few stretches when the group wasn’t intact was late in the loss against Buffalo. Bulaga’s concussion sent him to the sideline, and Tretter, the old starting center, replaced him at right tackle. When Mario Williams beat him for the game-ending sack, it was the first Green Bay had given up all game to the best pass-rushing team in the league. “I think as a whole, we played well, but it’s hard to take pleasure when you don’t win the game,” Lang says.

Green Bay rushed for 6.6 yards per carry against a stout run defense, but on this team, there’s no comparison between a big day on the ground and a sack-free game. “When you play for the Green Bay Packers,” Bakhtiari says, “you choose sackless.” There have been a few of those this year. Lang says that now there’s a reputation to uphold, a new standard that has been set.

“Offensive line isn’t an individual position,” Lang says. “When people look at you, they say, ‘Is your offensive line good or bad?’ They don’t say, ‘Well, the left guard’s good, the right tackle’s not good.’ They look at you as a whole.” This year, the whole adds up to more than it ever has. 

Source: Grantland » Features | 8 Jan 2015 | 5:29 am PST

30 for 30 Shorts: Student/Athlete

Welcome back to our 30 for 30 documentary short series.

Reggie Ho never dreamed of playing football in college. Growing up in Hawaii and of Chinese descent, he always imagined he’d be a doctor like his father. He enrolled at Notre Dame as a premed student and didn’t think much of playing football until he decided he needed a more well-rounded life. He was the placekicker on his high school football team and decided to walk on to Notre Dame’s. At 5-foot-5 and 135 pounds, Ho was one of the smallest players in a major college football program — and suddenly became a celebrity on and off campus. As a walk-on, Ho didn’t receive any financial support from his school: a pure student-athlete. He did it for the love of the game and for the love of Notre Dame. After the 1988 season, the walk-on walked off the field. Ho continued his premed degree, but no longer played football. Yet he was a crucial part in Notre Dame’s most recent undefeated season.

Recent 30 for 30 Shorts

Robbed, directed by Eric Drath »
Our Tough Guy, directed by Molly Schiot »
The Great Trade Robbery, directed by Stuart Zicherman »
Fields of Fear, directed by Alex Gibney »
Kid Danny, directed by Andrew Cohn »
The High Five, directed by Michael Jacobs »


This post has been updated to correct an error: Ho’s season was not Notre Dame football’s only undefeated one, just the most recent.

Source: Grantland » Features | 7 Jan 2015 | 8:00 am PST

Creating the New Joe Cool

When Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy began his first NFL job in 1993, as a Kansas City Chiefs offensive assistant working with quarterbacks, he immediately inherited a rather tricky assignment: coaching Joe Montana.

McCarthy had gone to K.C. to work with his mentor Paul Hackett, the Chiefs’ new offensive coordinator and a former assistant for Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers. While working together at the University of Pittsburgh, Hackett and McCarthy had installed a version of Walsh’s legendary West Coast offense, which had powered four Super Bowl titles in the 1980s. McCarthy became enamored of the system during those years with the Panthers, immersing himself in the offense that was taking over football. By the time he went to the Chiefs, McCarthy felt he was ready for any challenge.

Well, almost any challenge: Prior to the 1993 season, the Chiefs traded for Montana, the veteran quarterback with extensive West Coast offense experience and four Super Bowl titles, and the man Jerry Rice referred to as “God.” McCarthy told Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel that the gravity of the assignment didn’t register until he excitedly let some of his close friends know that he’d be coaching Montana, and one responded by asking, “What in the [expletive] are you going to teach Joe Montana?” It was a good question, and it led McCarthy to become as much Montana’s student as his teacher, soaking in all the knowledge he could from the future Hall of Famer.

More than 20 years later, on the brink of a divisional-round playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, McCarthy again finds himself in a teacher-student partnership with an elite pupil: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Though McCarthy is facing a similar challenge of figuring out how to help one of the game’s best quarterbacks get even better, his relationship with Rodgers is far more collaborative than his pairing with Montana ever was, allowing coach and quarterback to try to improve themselves, each other, and the very offense Walsh taught Montana so long ago.

joe-montana-chiefs-feFocus on Sport/Getty Image

At some point, the story of every great quarterback morphs from anecdote to myth, and Rodgers’s narrative fits the mold. Barely recruited out of high school, Rodgers wound up at Butte Community College, where Cal coach Jeff Tedford (while scouting a tight end) noticed a skinny QB running around making accurate throws, and offered him a spot with the Golden Bears.

Under Tedford’s tutelage, Rodgers vaulted from unknown passer to surefire first-rounder, wowing pro scouts by tying an NCAA record with 23 consecutive completions to start a game in a near road upset of top-ranked Southern Cal, a team loaded with future NFL stars (and coached by some guy named Pete Carroll). Rodgers looked like the potential first overall pick, but he fell to no. 24, where the Packers selected him as Brett Favre’s heir apparent. Favre, of course, was uninterested in mentoring his replacement, famously telling ESPN, “My contract doesn’t say I have to get Aaron Rodgers ready to play … I’m not obligated one bit to help anyone.”

It was an inauspicious start for a young quarterback, but Rodgers credits his early years as being crucial to his development. Though the player Rodgers is today stems primarily from his talent and work ethic, being a successful NFL quarterback requires luck as well as skill, and being lucky usually means getting to work with the right people. When the Packers fired Mike Sherman and hired McCarthy as head coach after Rodgers’s first season, it altered the direction of both McCarthy’s and Rodgers’s careers.

McCarthy was hardly a slam dunk hire, having coached relatively pedestrian offenses in New Orleans from 2000 to 2004, and having spent the 2005 season as offensive coordinator for the 49ers, a 4-12 team that finished a woeful 30th in the league in scoring and 32nd in total yards. But Packers general manager Ted Thompson brought in McCarthy hoping the coach’s deep knowledge of the West Coast offense and renowned touch with quarterbacks would tame Favre after a 29-interception season, while also developing Favre’s anointed replacement. Though Favre bounced back under McCarthy, throwing for 4,155 yards, 28 touchdowns, and only 15 interceptions in 2007 en route to the NFC title game, he began to threaten retirement, and by 2008 Thompson and the organization were ready to switch to Rodgers, convinced after witnessing his dramatic improvement that the QB had the makings of a future star.

Since his days as an assistant under Hackett at Pitt, McCarthy has run a “QB school” every offseason, where, away from the pressure of preparing for a weekly opponent, McCarthy can teach his quarterbacks the finer points of the position. In addition to extensive drill work, McCarthy often gives his quarterbacks lengthy written tests, once (according to the Sentinel) even asking his non-Montana quarterbacks in Kansas City to write an essay describing the Chiefs’ version of the West Coast offense “from a philosophical perspective.”

Rodgers has clearly benefited from McCarthy’s training. As good of a prospect as Rodgers was coming out of Cal, it’s striking how different he looks now: he’s more athletic, more natural, and has a stronger arm. While primary credit goes to the long hours Rodgers spends developing his craft on his own, McCarthy provided a structure for that process.19

Specifically, when Rodgers arrived in the NFL, there was what McCarthy has labeled a “stiffness” to his game. Under McCarthy’s tutelage, that has since melted away to reveal the fluid, smooth quarterback we see today. Tedford, Rodgers’s college coach and a current CFL head man, is an excellent quarterback teacher, but his college passers tended to be a bit robotic: They all dropped back, held the ball, and released it the same way. That made sense for raw high school and junior college passers who had to quickly learn the fine points of quarterbacking in order to execute Tedford’s pro-style attack, but great NFL passers must make their fundamentals serve them, not the other way around.

The most obvious example of Rodgers making this shift is that he used to hold the ball up near his ear while in the pocket on the theory that it cut down on the time he had to bring the ball back before throwing it forward. Under McCarthy and Packers quarterback coach/offensive coordinator Tom Clements, however, Rodgers gradually began holding the ball between the middle of his chest and his throwing shoulder, a more natural spot that keeps his throwing motion compact while allowing him to rotate his body just enough to create extra velocity.20

aaron-rodgers-green-bay-ball-position-feRonald Martinez/Getty Images

More subtly, Rodgers has improved his accuracy, which might sound crazy when discussing a guy who once completed 23 passes in a row in college. But in the NFL, accuracy must be an every-snap thing, particularly in the West Coast offense. Walsh used to jump all over Montana and Steve Young if they missed the precise spot he wanted on a given play — the upper right corner of a receiver’s jersey, a receiver’s left eye, etc. For Rodgers, the key to improved accuracy was perfecting his footwork. “Learning to time up my drop with each route has been a big thing with me,” Rodgers told ESPN The Magazine in 2011. That didn’t just mean opting for a three-step drop versus a five-step drop, but instead learning that while a hitch route might require a three-step drop with one big and two quick steps, a slant route might benefit from three big steps. Rodgers said that mastering those nuances for every conceivable route allows him “to throw the ball in rhythm and hit the same release point with every throw, meaning that no matter what else is happening, the ball comes out on a similar plane. That’s when accuracy comes.”

Indeed, Rodgers is the most visceral of today’s great quarterbacks, oscillating effortlessly between quick timing passes and lasers thrown while on the move after being flushed from the pocket. He often reminds me less of a traditional quarterback than of a great jump shooter in basketball who can hit a shot falling sideways and out of bounds because he always maintains perfect upper-body form. But the real fun comes from watching Rodgers operate the Packers’ modernized West Coast offense, a system perfectly tailored to his quick release and even quicker mind.

mike-mccarthy-aaron-rodgers-packers-feTom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The offense Rodgers operates in Green Bay is based on the same ideas, concepts, and even specific plays that Hackett, McCarthy, and Montana used in Kansas City and that Montana and Hackett had run with the 49ers, all of which is rooted in Walsh’s West Coast offense. While most people think of short timing passes when they hear the term “West Coast offense,” Walsh’s coaching tree — and the coaching tree of his coaching tree — is so long because his insights extended beyond well-designed pass plays to encompass a uniquely thorough, detailed approach to game planning, analyzing defensive weaknesses, and teaching and developing players. Those precepts are Walsh’s true legacy, and they now fuel the Packers’ offensive success.

In McCarthy’s early years, he immersed himself in Walsh’s ideas and language — 22 Z-In, 2 Jet X-Sluggo Seam, and so on. But rather than adhering religiously to those lessons, McCarthy and Rodgers have crafted a version of Walsh’s offense that constantly evolves to keep pace with a changing game. Quoting former Chiefs assistant Jimmy Raye, McCarthy once told USA Today: “‘Football is a cycle. You’re going to see things in this league or out of this league and in college football.’ It’s very important to stay on the front side of that cycle.” The Packers’ offense may be rooted in the playbook McCarthy learned from Hackett 20-plus years ago, but it works because he and Rodgers have subtly blended in new-school tactics.

While the West Coast offense dominated the NFL in the 1990s and early 2000s, it has increasingly fallen out of favor because its emphasis on precision and preparation has too often translated into inflexibility and needless complexity. The traditional West Coast offense features a seemingly countless number of plays — former Packers coach Mike Holmgren once said his playbook contained at least 1,500 plays — because on each play each player had a specific job, such as running a post or a slant. As a result, the only way to take advantage of a shifting, evolving defense was to add yet another new play and hope to call it at the right time, in what amounted to an impossibly hard game of rock-paper-scissors.

That’s not a feasible approach against modern, malleable defenses, and with Rodgers under center, it’s also not necessary. For example, one of the Packers’ most productive pass plays is “three verticals,” in which Green Bay’s receivers have the option to change their routes based on the coverage, trusting Rodgers to see their adjustments in real time.

3VerticalsChris B. Brown

On this play against the Panthers, both outside receivers, Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, can run either straight down the field on “go” routes (as Nelson does to Rodgers’s right) or stop after 12 to 15 yards if the defender is playing soft coverage (as Adams does to Rodgers’s left). Meanwhile, the slot receiver, Randall Cobb, runs a “middle read”: If the defense plays with two safeties deep, Cobb will split the safeties and run deep down the middle, but if there’s a deep middle safety like on this play, he’ll turn his route into a square-in and break across the field into Rodgers’s vision.

GB Three Verts

While this play, which the Packers run over and over again, requires Rodgers and his receivers to all be on the same page — and requires Rodgers to process all of this information and make an accurate throw in fractions of a second — it also replaces as many as 10 different plays from the traditional West Coast offense.

This idea of multiple concepts within each play flows through Green Bay’s offense. Under Favre and in Rodgers’s early seasons, this typically meant combining multiple pass concepts within the same play and letting the QB pick the side based on the defense. More recently, however, the Packers have made extensive use of “packaged plays,” which combine run blocking from the offensive line with screens or downfield passes by the receivers, while the QB has the option to hand off to a running back or throw downfield.

GB Packaged Play

Under McCarthy, Green Bay was among the first NFL teams to begin using packaged plays, which first began bubbling up in college football roughly five years ago. (McCarthy has several friends coaching college on whom he leans for new ideas, including Kevin Sumlin, the forward-thinking coach at Texas A&M.) The above inside zone running play married to quick “pop” or seam routes by the slot receivers is straight from college football, and is a simple way to keep defenses honest if they try to crash down on Eddie Lacy and Green Bay’s increasingly productive run game. It’s also a way for the Packers to use Rodgers’s quick decision-making ability without putting him in harm’s way.

But the Packers’ success doesn’t stem solely from their ability to embrace the latest and greatest; while Green Bay excels at innovating, it’s also better than any other NFL team at executing many of the same plays Walsh used with Montana, most notably the slant pass. Hard as it is to believe, few NFL teams consistently throw the quick slant anymore, as most have replaced it with skinny posts or quick square-ins, or stopped bothering altogether. Put on a Packers game, though, and it can feel like watching old 49ers game film.

GB Slant 1

It’s not uncommon for Rodgers to complete five to 10 slant passes in a game — he likes them against soft coverage because they give him easy access, and he loves them against the blitz. When New England tried to bring pressure on Rodgers late in the half, he checked into a basic slant to Nelson and, 45 yards later, Green Bay had scored.

GB Slant 2

The most famous Joe Montana anecdote so perfectly meshes with his reputation as “Joe Cool” that it seems more written than real: Standing around during a TV timeout, with the ball on the 49ers’ own 8-yard line and his team down three points to the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, Montana saw that his teammates, including lineman Harris Barton, had tensed up. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something else. “There, in the stands,” he said to Barton. “Isn’t that John Candy?”21 His teammates immediately relaxed, Montana marched them down the field for the game-winning touchdown, and his legend grew. Great quarterbacks come in different flavors, but the preternaturally relaxed field general is an archetype as old as football itself.

Rodgers is a few Super Bowls shy of earning direct comparisons to Montana, but — particularly compared to Peyton Manning’s manic nerdiness and Tom Brady’s newfound love of high fives, head butts, and F-bombs — he’s the closest thing we have to a modern-day Joe Cool: This season alone, Rodgers pointedly told Packers fans to R-E-L-A-X after a loss and, on one of the most remarkable plays I’ve ever seen, calmly threw a game-winning touchdown pass without even bothering to buckle his chin strap.

MT @TeeSmallz: @AndrewSiciliano Didn't even buckle his chin strap to throw the game winning TD. pic.twitter.com/fGV89g6xNz

— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) October 12, 2014

By all accounts, Rodgers has always been this way. At a coaching clinic in 2011, Tedford recalled that, before the aforementioned crucial game against USC, Rodgers “was just walking around in the locker room with a smile on his face and getting [his teammates] going, but also getting them relaxed. He was not going haywire and yelling and screaming. He had this confidence about himself, and his leadership ability was unbelievable.”

Of course, similarities in demeanor between Rodgers and Montana wouldn’t matter if the two weren’t also so similar on the field. “When I think about fundamental quarterback play, I think of Aaron and Joe Montana,” McCarthy told the Sentinel. “The productivity is obviously there, but just the way they play the position — their footwork, the balance, the athletic ability, the accuracy of the football, the vision.” I see it too. Montana’s gifts were his accuracy, his decision-making, and his feet, and Rodgers boasts those same attributes — plus a stronger arm.

Rodgers’s talent, drive, and approach to mastering the hardest position in sports have gotten him to this point, but so has his collaboration with McCarthy. Together, coach and QB are on the cusp of winning their second Super Bowl. They’ve already taken the Packers, the old West Coast offense, and the quarterback position into the modern age. 

Source: Grantland » Features | 7 Jan 2015 | 5:40 am PST

Rex’s Last Stand

Even the ending was classic Rex Ryan. The man almost upset his own firing.

Sunday, December 28, just after 4 p.m. Pandemonium in the bowels of Miami’s Sun Life Stadium. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a Magoo-ish rich eccentric out of central casting who wears a goofy green tie to Sunday games and looks like he might play with toy trucks on all the days in between, is looking in vain for a safe route through the stadium tunnel.

Johnson looks miserable. He’s just hours away from sealing his fate as the most unpopular man in all of New York sports. Nobody wants him to fire Ryan: not the players, not the majority of Jets fans, and certainly not the assembled Jets media, who are already mourning the last hours of what for six years was by any measure one of the most entertaining gigs in the history of sportswriting.

No, the only people at this moment who genuinely want Johnson to fire Ryan are the fans of opposing AFC East teams who are tired of ugly surprise losses like this final-week 37-24 beating of the Dolphins, people like the security guard who wolf-whistles at Johnson as he tries to slither down the tunnel.

“The best decision of your life!” the man shouts. “Best! Decision! Ever!”

Johnson frowns, rattled, and presses past me.

“Having second thoughts?” I ask.

No answer. Johnson scoots away and the team’s beat writers gang-chase him. Halted for a moment, he mutters a single noncommittal sentence and then waves the writers off like they’re a cloud of blackflies. The beat pack rushes back in a frenzy of Kremlinological speculation.

“Something about it being all about the players,” snorts a reporter on the way back.

Poor Johnson. He was almost home free. All he had to do was fly down, watch his Jets suffer another agonizing 13-8 smothering (extra-innings-baseball-type scores are one of the great legacies of the Rex Ryan era), flash a frown, and fly home. The next day, he could have waltzed into his Florham Park headquarters and more or less frictionlessly fired his all-time headline-grabbing coach, perhaps with some distracting new front-office meat in the form of a Charlie Casserly or a Ron Wolf (or both) by his side.

Instead, what happens? His turnover-machine front man, Geno Smith, achieves a perfect passer rating — how many millions of Americans would have bet their own children’s lives against such a thing happening? How many likely did? — and leads the Jets to a shocking, script-souring ass-whipping of the favored Dolphins.

The whole situation is both classic Jets and classic Ryan, who over the past six years has established himself as one of this century’s great American characters — part showman, part salad antagonist, part unlikeliest sex-taper, and, more than occasionally, a big part genius underdog coach. Echoing Houdini (or Andy Kaufman), underdog Rex made a mockery of his own funeral, beating the favored Fins with a dazzling array of balls-out coaching decisions. And the locker room is oddly joyous afterward. There are plenty of negative things to write about Ryan, and there are some sizable holes in his legend — more on that in a bit — but that thing about his players loving him? That seems more true the more time you spend around his team.

“When I first came up here, he greeted me and told me I was part of the family, that’s what I remember,” says tight end Zach Sudfeld, a former New England Patriot who, one guesses, didn’t get a similar welcome-to-the-family bear hug as an undrafted rookie up in Foxborough. “I was like, ‘Wow.'”

“Deep down inside, we love him as a person,” says offensive lineman Willie Colon.

“It’s weird,” says Newsday’s Bob Glauber, who has covered the team for years. “The players have always loved Rex. Even after the last four years, after all the losing, after this horrible year, they still love him.” He laughs. “It’s almost wrong.”

Rex RyanLynne Sladky/AP

This year something was wrong, for sure. Finding bizarre ways to lose games has been a Ryan-Jets trait since he arrived in the Meadowlands, but not until 2014 did it become a mathematical constant. Each week of this season seemed more horrible than the last.22

There was the “Butt Touchdown” game against Kansas City (a pale but still humorous sequel to the infamous Mark Sanchez Butt Fumble), in which linebacker Calvin Pace knocked down a pass by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, only to have it caught by casually seated tight end Anthony Fasano. There was the Week 2 loss to Green Bay in Lambeau, with the team stealing a game-tying touchdown from itself in Keystone Kops fashion, thanks to a pre-snap sideline timeout call by offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who legally wasn’t even allowed to call one.23

But if you had to pick a moment that encapsulated the futility of the 2014 New York Jets, it would be the October 26 contest against Buffalo that was the metaphorical bookend to the final Miami win, a game that saw Geno Smith compile a Zen-like perfectly negative 0.0 passer rating, with two completions and three first-quarter interceptions. It was one of the worst passing performances by a starting quarterback in the history of a league that until very recently employed Tim Tebow. That particular nightmare prompted four haggard and frustrated Jets-fan friends to begin a grassroots billboard campaign to fire general manager John Idzik that won national headlines, ultimately succeeded (in a way), and seems like it ought to serve as a template for future fan uprisings. “We just couldn’t take it anymore,” says Jason Koeppel of FireJohnIdzik.com of the moment he decided to take to the virtual streets. “We had to do something.”

But through it all, none of the ire was really directed at Ryan, who inexplicably arrived in Miami with the fan base still behind him. He strode into his last postgame presser looking defiant and transformed. A year full of horrifying losses, along with his lap band surgery from years before, had made the once-gorgeously obese coach look progressively smaller as time wore on. But after this win he was Big Rex again, towering over the press corps like an Easter Island statue in an NYPD hat.

It could have been awkward. The group he was addressing had, over that weekend, variously reported that (a) Rex had already cleared out his desk, (b) Johnson really was wavering and considering keeping him, and (c) Rex was irritated by Johnson’s wavering, because he needed an answer soon, before other opportunities dried up.

The win was a big middle finger to all of that — Rex has always specialized in the middle-finger game — but it was even more of a middle finger to Johnson. He was asked if he’d talked to the owner after the final whistle.

“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “I said, ‘Hey, boss, I’m going to give the whole team a game ball. Sorry.'” As in: Get your souvenir from your next coach.

The next day, of course, Woody whacked Rex, along with his billboard-inspiring general manager, Idzik.

Was it a mistake? We’ll never be sure. But it never felt real, this long-predicted breakup — it’s been like watching two married people who really love each other foolishly divorce after a few bad years. Sure, coaches without rings have short lives, and uprooting whole bunches of them and their families during the holidays has become a sordid annual ritual. But if there were ever a city and a coach to break that pattern, it would be Jets Nation and Rex Ryan, the Luke and Laura of the NFL.

But that was one hell of a six years we just lived through. Can we give it up, one last time, for the Rex Ryan era?

“That first press conference,” says linebacker David Harris. “That’s when I knew.”

Ryan had the Jets at hello. His first presser, on January 21, 2009, was one of the great moments in the annals of balls, bluster, trash-talking, sweat, saturated fats — hell, even fashion. Fresh off a wildly successful 10-year run coaching defense for the swaggadocious Baltimore Ravens, Ryan didn’t just talk big. He was big. He introduced himself to New York in a sensational costume that screamed, “Get a load of me!”

Unlike his frumpy predecessor Eric Mangini (or, more to the point, unlike Bill Belichick, whose name will come up a lot in this story — the smallish, moribund, clam-faced, Giants-pedigreed Patriots coach is paradoxically both Rex’s alter ego and his perfect Dostoyevskian opposite), Ryan was a massive physical presence. At his intro he seemed to be at least 900 pounds of resplendent manhood crammed into a shiny jacket-and-striped-tie ensemble that featured an amazing, unapologetically booger-green color. He looked like the Incredible Hulk come to work at a Baskin-Robbins.

His bulging neck-bag glistening with sweat, he looked down at all the cameras and croaked a prediction.

“With all the cameras and all that, I was looking for our new president back there,” he said. “You know, I think we’ll get to meet him in the next couple of years anyway.” At the White House visit, after his Jets had won the Super Bowl, naturally.

The newspapers called it a “Namath-like” guarantee, which it surely was. But it was more than that. Ryan was also poking a stick at the pusillanimous conventional wisdom of the modern NFL (and especially of coaches like Mangini and Belichick), which says you should always tremble before the Football Gods, never take anything for granted, never look past the next game, never give even the weakest opponent bulletin-board material. In his first few minutes, Rex dropped trou on all of that as so much old-fashioned superstition.

He seemed to be at least 900 pounds of resplendent manhood crammed into a shiny jacket-and-striped-tie ensemble in an amazing, unapologetically booger-green color. He looked like the Incredible Hulk come to work at a Baskin-Robbins.

Fuck the Football Gods! Fuck karma! We’re the fucking New York Jets! “And I think that’s going to be more than you can handle,'” Rex said. He spent a lot of his first offseason talking trash about upcoming opponents, famously offering to fight Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder (“I’ve walked over tougher guys going to a fight than Channing Crowder”) and even more famously announcing that “I didn’t come here to kiss Bill Belichick’s, you know, rings.”

The media had seen trash-talkers before, but the sports world had seldom ever seen a coach who trash-talked more than the athletes themselves. Jets players like Harris bought in right away. Six years later, Harris still buys it. “We love it,” he says. “It’s like he’s got our back, and we’ve got his.”

The Jets started off 3-0 that year before promptly dipping into one of those agonizing swoons for which Ryan’s teams would become famous, losing game after heartbreaking game in some of the most unlikely ways NFL fans had ever seen. There were botched-but-makeable field goals, wasted timeouts that always proved critical, even failed attempts at allowing touchdowns (a key to a brutal 24-22 loss to Jacksonville). Things peaked when they lost a crucial late-season game to the already-eliminated Atlanta Falcons on a play in which Ryan correctly predicted a pass to Tony Gonzalez but watched as the Hall of Famer beat a triple-team anyway for a winning TD.

After that game, Ryan famously sighed, “We’re obviously out of the playoffs, and that’s unfortunate.” A stunned press room suppressed a gasp: The Jets actually weren’t eliminated at all. Ryan quickly reverted to Sergeant Slaughter mode, boasting and bragging about an upcoming matchup with the juggernaut Indianapolis Colts, who at 14-0 were chasing an undefeated season. At a news conference, he opened with a list of players on the injury report. “Manning, Clark, Addai, Reggie Wayne, Freeney, Mathis, Brackett — all those guys will not play.” Then he paused. “Oh, hold up. That was my wish list for Santa Claus.”

Caldwell curiously complied with Ryan’s joke and sat his stars in the third quarter, not just killing a chance at history but handing the game — and a playoff berth — to Ryan and the Jets.

Afterward, instead of acknowledging the gift handed to him by those Football Gods, Ryan took a characteristic power steamer on Monday-morning decorum and refused to apologize for the Jets’ sort-of win over the powerhouse Colts.

‘‘For half the year, people played against our backup nose tackle,” he deadpanned, preposterously, referring to an early-season injury to star Kris Jenkins. “I don’t think anybody’s made note of that. I know this is Peyton Manning or whatever, but he did play three and a half quarters.”

(This disingenuous little speech wasn’t Ryan’s proudest moment, but it had one brilliant side benefit. It sent New York radio legend Mike Francesa, one of Jets Nation’s most loathed enemies, into a seizure-like rage fit from which he has never recovered. It’s impossible, listening now, not to laugh at how unbelievably mad this stuff made Francesa — real human fury! “Dat’s outrajuss!” screamed Francesa, in his trademark consonant-massacring Long Islandese. “You begged dem to take the-yah playaz out last week! You sed you wanded it for Chrismuss!”)

But a few weeks later, those “same old Jets” had first beaten the Bengals and then upended the heavily favored Chargers in the playoffs, leading to an actual AFC title showdown with those powerhouse Manning-led Colts. To this day, that run remains Pace’s favorite memory of Rex. “After that Chargers game,” he says, “nobody thought we had a chance. And there we were.”

Nobody could believe it when Rex’s Jets were surprisingly whipping Manning 17-6 at halftime of the AFC Championship Game. But they faded down the stretch, thanks in large part to the atrocious play of his rookie quarterback, Sanchez. (Along with shocker-underdog wins and absurd act-of-God losses, the quarterback-ghoulishly-crapping-himself game would become a staple of the Rex era.) And while the season may not have ended in a title, Rex entered 2010 as the biggest thing in sports. His public shtick was a roaring success, and since part of his act was that he was sometimes a crass, unfunny boor, even his worst material worked. It was comedy nirvana. A nation obsessed with dieting loved him for his 7,000-calorie-a-day intake. They loved him even more when “a source” told the New York Post that “I have never heard him order a Cobb salad.” (There was a lot of this sort of investigative reporting in the New York tabloids during the Rex era.)

Still-ascending Rex then went to an MMA event in Miami and told a boisterous pro-Dolphins crowd to “Go fuck yourselves,” giving a big middle finger for emphasis — the picture ended up on the front page of the Post, like almost everything else Rex said and did back then.

Then a fateful decision by the Jets and HBO in 2010 to team up to make what would turn into the far-and-away greatest season ever of Hard Knocks turned Ryan into a mainstream pop-culture icon approaching the level of Tom Cruise, Kanye West, or the Pope. Ryan’s coming-out party was the timeless “Goddamn snack” speech, some of the most inspired gibberish ever captured on film — it sits somewhere between Sally Field’s “You like me!” Oscar speech and Benito Mussolini’s “This is the hour of irrevocable decisions!” declaration of war against Britain and France.

“Let’s make sure we play like the fucking New York Jets and not some slap-dick team!” Ryan shouted. “That’s what I want to see tomorrow! Do we understand what the fuck I want to see tomorrow? Let’s go eat a goddamn snack!”

To this day, nobody really knows what the hell the “goddamn snack” speech is about, but that was never the point. “The snack thing, that was pure Rex,” chuckles Pace.

Exactly in the manner of the more successful modern presidential candidates, he also won over a new generation of fans/voters addicted to new forms of media — reality TV, the Internet, etc. — that stressed emotional cues and “genuineness” over the actual meaning of the things people said. Even Koeppel, the FireJohnIdzik spokesman, invoked the Great Presidential Campaign Cliché when talking about why he and his friends didn’t blame Rex. “He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with,” he said, contrasting Ryan with the disingenuous Idzik.24

In his next, even more improbable run to the AFC title game in that 2010 season, he seemed to be in Jim Caldwell’s head throughout the Jets’ wild-card matchup with the Manning-led Colts. The game turned on Caldwell’s inexplicable decision to call a timeout to stop the clock for the Jets as they were driving toward a game-winning field goal with time running out. Peyton Manning himself threw his hands up in shock at the move — it’s in the top 10 of the all-time Peyton Manning Face moments — and Caldwell was more or less finished in Indianapolis from that moment on.

In the next round, Ryan shocked reporters by upping the ante on his anti-Belichick rants. Ryan by then had been outed in the weirdest wife/foot-fetish/unidentified-toe-sucker sex-tape scandal that sports (or any other industry) had ever seen, and just slightly less significantly had also been on the business end of a 45-3 bulldozing at the hands of those same Patriots on Monday night only weeks before. What coach in that circumstance pushes the trash talk to 11?

“He’d been dialing it back on Belichick,” recalls Newsday’s Glauber. “So I asked him, are you dialing it back? And he says, ‘No, I came here to kick his ass.’ And I’m writing it down, going, ‘Yeah!’”

What did that accomplish? “Well, he definitely got in their heads a little bit,” Glauber insists.

And it’s true. Would Wes Welker have made 11 references to feet in a single pregame press conference if the coach of the other team hadn’t been Rex Ryan? Would he have poked that particular sore if it had been Ken Whisenhunt’s or Mike Munchak’s wife caught on tape? Chan Gailey’s? Joe Philbin’s?

No way. But because it was Ryan, who surely would have held a pregame parade with a city-block-length papier-mâché foot float if Footgate had been Bill Belichick’s scandal to bear, Welker violated the Patriot Prime Directive, forcing Belichick back into a Punji trap of his own rules. The Hoodie blinked, benching Welker to queer the start of a divisional-round debacle that to this day ranks with the greatest victories in Jets history.

The Jets then went to Pittsburgh full of high hopes at a Super Bowl shot. And again, they almost made it — a Sanchez-led comeback from 24-0 down fell just short. The loss stung New York fans badly, but nationally, it did nothing to dim Ryan’s star.

And why should it have? The first two years of the Rex Ryan era surely rank with the greatest stretches of coaching in the history of the league, and let’s not hear any whining about how one can’t say that because Rex’s Jets never won it all during that time. If Belichick can have his ring kissed by national pundits for just missing the playoffs in 2008 with Matt Cassel and a supporting roster a season removed from a 16-0 record, then Ryan deserves at least equivalent praise for twice just missing the Super Bowl with Darrelle Revis, a nice blitz package, and the horrifying blooper-reel fixture Sanchez under center.

Ryan seemed destined not just for all-time NFL coaching greatness, but for the kind of permanent national celebrity rarely reserved for sports stars not named LeBron or Jordan. Players all over the NFL were dying to come play for the franchise. Rex was on top of the world.

And then it all went to hell.

New York Jets Training CampAl Pereira/Getty Images

The Jets fan base is one of the weirdest in all of sports. As the perennially losing AFL little brother in a global financial capital long ruled by the legacy Giants franchise, the Jets remain the only NFL team in America that doesn’t claim even one county majority-populated by its fans. Even in New York, everywhere in New York, the Jets have always been second bananas, and the franchise has been dogged by an inferiority complex for its entire existence. Hell, its first owner, Harry Wismer, decided upon the team’s first name — the Titans — because he had a size obsession with the crosstown rival Giants. “Titans are bigger and stronger than Giants,” Wismer insisted.

Ryan relished the underdog role of the Jets and perfectly understood the psyche of the people who supported them. Although his regular-guy credentials were certainly a little suspect (he grew up in NFL locker rooms, after all), he was a hero to the rude, in-your-face side of New York, to “Do you have the time or should I just go fuck myself?” New York, to guys with jackhammers and hard hats and hack licenses. Simultaneously he was an ongoing affront to the city’s smug, overpaid elites — particularly the tie-clad New York Times reader who probably commuted in from Connecticut every morning, ran a pension-raping desk at some evil bank by day, and rooted for the “classy” Giants in his spare time.

But it was the Giants who won yet another title in Ryan’s third year, while the Jets began a long slide downward. The two teams passed like ships in the night toward the end of the 2011 season, when they met in an infamous Christmas Eve battle that somehow changed everything. Ryan spent all week before that game bragging about how much better the Jets were, and then on the field the Jets folded like a cheap tent, the backbreaking play being a 99-yard Victor Cruz touchdown with the Jints backed up third-and-10 from the 1.25 Sanchez tossed his usual two picks and Big Blue won running away.

Ryan approached Brandon Jacobs after the game and reportedly snarled, “Shut the fuck up. Wait till we win the Super Bowl.”

Jacobs told Ryan he’d punch him in the mouth. He then complained to TV reporters about other Ryan antics, like the Jets’ lame decision to put black curtains over the Giants’ Super Bowl trophies in the stadium the two teams nervously shared. “Rex Ryan is a very disrespectful bastard, and that’s just the way he do things,” Jacobs said bluntly. But it wasn’t trash talk because the game was, you know, over and already won.

From that point forward for the Jets, it’s been bad bounces, bad juju, and one too-colorful debacle after another. The signature low moments in this period of Jets history are so well known that they all have catchy nicknames, like political scandals, Brazilian soccer stars, or supermodels (the world eagerly awaits the Victoria’s Secret debut of a Cape Verdean girl named Buttfumble).

kinky-inky-jan-4-2013New York Daily News

It had already begun in 2010 with Footgate. But then there was also Tattoogate (pundits were torn over what was weirder, that Ryan had a tattoo made of a Mark Sanchez jersey or that it was his wife wearing the jersey in the tattoo) and Tripgate (“Fortunately the young man wasn’t injured,” a nervous Rex insisted to a chortling David Letterman, reliving the time Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi tripped Dolphins corner Nolan Carroll). Santoniogate came when Ryan named notorious locker-room killer Santonio Holmes a team captain and then watched as Holmes, among other things, did a mocking “Fly, Eagles, Fly” TD celebration in the second quarter of a 45-19 loss to the Eagles that will probably forever stand as a monument to when not to make love to oneself in the end zone on national television.

Of course the worst scandal of all was the 2012 Butt Fumble, a play that will someday rest in the opening antechamber of the Internet museum, on an endlessly replaying monitor between Dramatic Chipmunk and Kim Kardashian with Ray J.


There’s no understating what that play meant to Rex and to the Jets franchise. When Sanchez coughed up a fumble-for-touchdown after getting spun around on a broken play, running straight into the backside of guard Brandon Moore — “He didn’t run to daylight, he ran to the opposite of daylight!” cackled a now-triumphant Francesa afterward — he forever turned the 32-yard line of MetLife Stadium into the Golgotha of the Rex era.

A hugely rated Thanksgiving night game, this was a long-awaited chance for the franchise to do some heavy lifting for the league in a big Nielsen slot. Instead, the NFL’s whole target audience — non-football fans, pre-verbal children, pets, visiting foreigners, everyone — was treated to endless loops of a man slamming his head against another man’s buttocks. What were the rules of the game again?

But the worst thing of all about the play is that it happened against the New England Patriots and Belichick.

There’s no way to talk about what went wrong with Rex Ryan without talking about his confrontations with Belichick. The Pats-Jets battles in these years encapsulated everything that was good and bad about Ryan. He won shocking upsets and his fluency in the X’s and O’s regularly diminished Tom Brady, the fastest on-field mind of his generation. But he also lost horrific games by inches to a moody obsessive in Belichick, whose entire raison d’être was to take just such advantage of “Fuck the details!” emotional instigators like Ryan.

The two men endlessly exposed and bloodied each other, and the argument still isn’t settled. You could look at it from the Jets’ perspective and say that Belichick just had a way better quarterback during these years. But the Patriots’ point of view would be to say that Ryan’s steady six-year collapse is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale come to life — proof of the cosmic fall that awaits those who talk too much. No matter what, it made an eerie kind of sense that when it came time for the End, the Last Gasp, it was the Hoodie standing on the other sideline.

Sunday, December 21, 2014. MetLife Stadium. The 11-3 Patriots, seeking to wrap up a bye, were taking on the 3-11 Jets, who had nothing at all on the line, except maybe — who knows — one last mad dash to save Ryan’s job?

“No way,” cracked one Jets beat writer in the press box just before kickoff. “Not even Woody is that stupid.”

“Think of what you’re saying,” said the other. Both men burst out laughing.

But sure enough, two and a half hours later, the score sat at Jets 13, Patriots 10, and the upset was in New York’s grasp. Across the MetLife press box, you could feel reporters tinkering with “One more year?” ledes.

The game had played out like so many previous Ryan-Patriots battles, with Brady battered and beaten and seeing triple in the face of a fearsome Jets front seven. You watch these games and think: Brady’s seen this so many times before; how can Rex still be in his head? But he is. And who knows, maybe the nature of Rex’s celebrity comes down to something as simple and dull as this: Coaching NFL football is really, really hard, and the guy is just good at it.

But he seems to have an equal talent for losing not just by fractions, but by fractions of fractions. In this case, the Pats eked out a 17-16 win in typically heartbreaking/insane fashion, thanks in part to an almost mystical officiating decision in which New England was awarded a first down despite the whole world seeing a ball on X-treme TV close-up that clearly sat several links short of the sticks.

No other explanation: God had reached down into New Jersey and fixed the game. There might as well have been a giant Flying Elvis–shaped burning bush on the 48-yard line. Ryan would later call it a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” play.

After the game, the difference between the two teams couldn’t have been clearer. Jets players were all over the place emotionally, alternately swaggerific about the almost-win and prematurely mournful about their lost coach. Defensive end Sheldon Richardson started off by bragging about how badly he and his line mates had kicked Brady’s ass (“Feasting. Fea-sting”), then moved on to talk about how he hoped to change the Jets-Pats script post-Rex.

“Don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the season, but I’ve got to make sure I’ve got something to work for,” he snapped.

Meanwhile, in the Patriots locker room, the victors, even after clinching a week off, stayed numbingly, humorlessly on-message. As usual, nobody in the press got a single thing from any Patriot, about Rex, the weather, anything.

I tried right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, figuring a foreigner might slip and actually answer a question about whether he was going to miss these Rex-Belichick rivalry games. The enormous German paused, remembered his coaching, and deadpanned, “As far as I know, we’re still playing him next year,” then shot me an expert fuck you look before turning back to his locker to get dressed.

Ryan, forced at the postgame podium to answer the inevitable presumptuous questions about his last Jets home game, bragged in defeat for old times’ sake, talking about how “we’re the team that always gives [Brady] the biggest challenge, whether he admits it or not.”

Belichick, meanwhile, showed up for his postgame presser wearing his trademark Autopsy Table Face. And the only time his heart rate rose above 19 was when someone asked about the formation on their fourth-quarter field goal rush. Brightening, the Hoodie went on and on about it, to the point where reporters were glancing at each other in confusion — Belichick’s description of how Vince Wilfork got through the A gap was not quite a Thomas Pynchon novel, but close.

“We changed our alignment a little bit … It was a long kick, like the one in New England … ”

It’s subtle, but hilarious. Here’s his last game coaching against the rival who most confounded him both on and off the field for six long years, and Belichick’s farewell is a monotonal dive into the mysteries of special teams formations. If you speak 21st-century New England Patriot, it’s a giant middle finger, every bit as tall and proud as the one Rex laid on that crowd of Dolphins fans back in the day.

Rex is huge; Belichick is little. Rex is an open book; Belichick’s face looks like something tightened with a torque wrench. Rex gives the media something every day, while Belichick wouldn’t piss on a reporter if he were on fire.

As for these two coaches, who will likely be linked together forever in a bitter, mostly one-sided rivalry along the lines of Sampras-Agassi or pre-2004 Woods-Mickelson, here’s the thing: As a media story, as sports/WWE-style theater, they seem like diametric opposites, perfect foils. Rex is huge; Belichick is little. Rex is an open book; Belichick’s face looks like something tightened with a torque wrench. Rex gives the media something every day, while Belichick wouldn’t piss on a reporter if he were on fire — unless he had plenty of reserve piss and it were Tom Jackson, or maybe Ron Borges.

And on the field, Rex is known to send the house on defense and dare opponents to hit the big one, while Belichick, for years equally hailed as a defensive genius, is known for keeping everything in front and daring opponents to execute yawn-inducing 15-play drives.

It’s fire versus ice, balls versus brains, the perfect Hollywood cliché duo. And for the last six years, Rex expertly played the role of John McClane, the tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip everyman who ignores the long odds and leads with his gut (at times literally, in Rex’s case). And Belichick? He’s been cast as America’s Hans Gruber, the evil smart guy who revels in planning for every last eventuality and irritates us because he knows what a bearer bond is.

It’s great theater, but it happens to be total crap. The two men are far more alike than they are different. Both are coaches’ sons who grew up in the game and became celebrated defensive coordinators. Officially now, both botched their first head coaching jobs. And both had enormous learning curves with the media in those first efforts, only in opposite directions. Belichick needed a whole decade to learn to be minimally polite, while Rex will need about that long to learn minimal restraint.

The major real difference is that they have opposing philosophies about how to manage players. Belichick is the overprotective dad who stays up all night worrying about the trouble his kids might get into, while Ryan, whose own wife, Michelle, described his leadership style as the “fun parent,” is the indulgent one who lets his kids make their own mistakes.

After a Jets practice one day I ask Sudfeld, who has played for both of them, if the two men have much in common. “Absolutely,” he says. “It’s the competitiveness. They both hate to lose. The philosophies are a little different, but the intensity is the same.”

“Rex is just more out in front with his personality,” agrees former O-lineman and ESPN analyst Damien Woody.

And then there’s the on-field similarity. Ryan is known as a gambler and Belichick as the plodding player of probabilities, but the fact is that both of them are famous for flipping off fan and media expectations and trying absolutely crazy things in their football operations.

Belichick will do things like cut every single viable NFL safety on his roster just before a season starts (like he did in 2011) and then field a would-be contending team with guys like Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown protecting his back line. He annually drafts someone ESPN doesn’t even have tape on in the second round, he’s sent Julian Edelman to cover Anquan Boldin with the Super Bowl on the line, and his preseason whacking of a beloved All-Pro like Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, or Logan Mankins has become a New England tradition as dependable as autumn foliage or coked-out bar fights in Southie.

And Rex is just the same. A classic demonstration came in Week 13 against the Dolphins, when Ryan didn’t even attempt to pass the ball, continually trying to run Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson past the Dolphins’ overaggressive outside rushers, Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. With minutes left in a game lost by a single field goal, the Jets had more than 240 yards on the ground and Geno Smith had just eight attempts. It was a lunatic, brilliant, infuriating strategy that drove reporters crazy — and nobody else, with the possible exception of Bill Belichick, would have dared to try such a thing.

New England Patriots v New York JetsRich Schultz /Getty Images

Belichick was an obsession of Rex’s right up to the end. He brought him up before Patriots games, before non-Patriots games, when it made sense, and when it didn’t. When reporters hounded him for not passing in the first Dolphins game, he pointed to his 200 first-half rushing yards and pleaded, “Even Brady and Belichick would take that.”

He was constantly comparing himself to his rival, and while the rest of his swaggery predictions felt increasingly hollow toward the end, in more reflective moments he actually started to sound eerily like … Bill Belichick. After practice on Christmas Eve, for instance, one of the beat writers asked him what he thought he’d be doing this time next year.

Rex sighed, for just a fleeting moment flashing a Foxborough Death Mask. How many different ways would reporters try to ask him about whether he was about to get fired? Recovering quickly, he shook his head, waved a hand, and smiled.

“Come on, are you going to make me say it?” he said. He slipped into Belichick mode: “I’m just thinking about Miami.”

Everybody laughed. “It’s going to have to be one hell of a game plan,” one of the reporters quipped.

And it was. It just wasn’t enough this time.

And that might be the final similarity to Belichick, that it will only all come together for Rex in his second chance. Of course it would be the most Jets thing ever, Rex going elsewhere and winning pretty much instantly with someone like Matt Ryan or Colin Kaepernick or even, God forbid, Jay Cutler. But it feels inevitable that the second-act success story will come somewhere. The perfect situation would probably be someplace like Atlanta: good quarterback, depressed defense, and first-tier intra-division foils in Drew Brees and Cam Newton. They’ll have to teach him where the city of Tampa is, how to offend its residents, etc., but he’s a quick study.

The NFL has seen some great showmen over the years: Namath; Jerry Glanville; Bum Phillips (we really can’t find another coach to either wear a cowboy hat or call himself “Bum”?); Rex’s dad, Buddy; even Jerry Jones.

But there’s never been anyone like Rex Ryan. This is a man who (a) maxed out the barnstorming potential of the digital age, (b) simultaneously authored both some of the greatest coaching performances of the generation and some of the worst football ever played (the Internet equally devours the genius and the train wreck), and (c) successfully marketed himself to fans not just in New York but everywhere as the fun-loving, recognizably human challenge to the staid, corporate, calculating side of the NFL represented by villainous androids like Roger Goodell.

The central question with Rex is whether fun can coach and win in the modern NFL, or whether too much fun and “fun parenting” leads inevitably to Butt Fumbles and botched snaps and karmic debacles like Marty Mornhinweg calling Chris Johnson a “first-ballot Hall of Famer” minutes after he signs. And honestly, that may be a dumb question — if Rex Ryan had lucked into a Brees or a Rodgers or a Manning anytime in the last six years, we wouldn’t even be asking it. But he didn’t, and now the Jets have lost the man who was born to coach here, and it sucks.

Because the truth is this: Ryan will be a blast to watch in his next stop. But his next stop should have been right where he was. 

This article has been updated to correct the date of Geno Smith’s 0.0 passer rating achievement; it happened on October 26, 2014, not November 24.

Source: Grantland » Features | 6 Jan 2015 | 10:37 am PST

Splish Splash

While rain pelts downtown Oakland, Klay Thompson finds shelter inside the Golden State Warriors’ practice facility. The storm disrupts the entire Bay Area, triggering school closings and flash-flood warnings. Thompson, however, enjoys the inclement weather. It reminds him of growing up in Oregon. “I used to hoop all the time in the rain,” he says. “It never bothered me to go outside to shoot in my backyard all day.”

A banner representing the Warriors’ last championship  from nearly 40 years ago  hangs on the wall. Many of Thompson’s teammates have scattered after practice. Golden State beat Houston the previous night, to stretch its franchise-best win streak to 14 (it would end at 16, with a loss the following week to the Memphis Grizzlies). Stephen Curry shoots on one basket. Andy Thompson, one of Klay’s uncles and a vice-president of production for NBA Entertainment, is in town for a visit. He attempts a few shots on the near court and clanks a long jumper. “You didn’t see that,” Andy says.

“I heard it,” Klay responds with a laugh.

Klay Thompson returns to a conversation about why he chose basketball. “It’s one of the few sports where you can work on it individually  just go in the gym with a basketball and a hoop,” Thompson says. “[Or] not even a hoop. You can just have a basketball. I can go out there with nine other people and play five-on-five, [or with] three other people and play two-on-two. You don’t need pads. You don’t need much gear. All you need is a ball and a 10-foot hoop. It doesn’t even have to be a good ball or a good hoop.”

Thompson remembers playing with his brothers, before they all began pursuing careers as professional athletes, when they challenged each other out of nothing but competitive instincts and the sheer enjoyment of the game. “I did not expect to be this good, really,” he concedes. “It still shocks me how effective I’ve been in the league so far. I thought I was going to be a good role player, a guy that could shoot and defend a little bit, a three-and-D guy, but now that I can maybe even be a franchise cornerstone truly shocks me. I never thought I’d get to this point.”

Thompson’s game has blossomed after a summer that was full of challenges and rewards. In the span of a few short months, Thompson saw Golden State fire Mark Jackson, the coach whose unwavering support steadied Thompson’s confidence, and then he heard his name floated in so many Kevin Love trade rumors that he began imagining himself on the receiving end of Ricky Rubio assists. But Thompson also shone as one of Team USA’s top performers at the FIBA World Cup in Spain, and when he returned with his gold medal, he signed a near-max contract worth around $70 million to remain in Golden State. While Thompson hated seeing Jackson lose his job, he has flourished under first-year coach Steve Kerr, who has granted him more freedom in the Warriors offense. Thompson has long looked the part of a prototypical NBA shooting guard: long and lean, a pure shooter, a dedicated defender, and a willing passer. And this season he’s acting the part, averaging a career-best 21 points per game and shooting 43.1 percent on 3-pointers. Thompson’s ascent has been one of the main reasons for the Warriors’ NBA-best 26-5 record, as the team finds itself atop a historically deep and competitive Western Conference.

Thompson has flashed new dimensions of his game this season. He attacks off the dribble more than in previous years, visiting the paint more frequently and more aggressively. When he comes off a ball screen, then splits a double-team before lofting a feathery runner from a step inside the free throw line, Thompson appears to be incorporating touches of his backcourt partner’s game. And indeed, Thompson credits competition between teammates for his development into an all-around scoring threat. “Trying to chase Steph,” he says. “That’s how you stay hungry. Try to do what he does. I can’t do that. I don’t think anyone on this planet can.”

As Thompson and Curry have grown into what many believe is the NBA’s best backcourt, it has become clear that they’re linked by much more than their catchy Splash Brothers nickname. Their fathers, Mychal Thompson and Dell Curry, both had successful NBA careers before becoming broadcast analysts for the Lakers and Hornets, respectively. Their mothers, Julie Thompson and Sonya Curry, both played volleyball in college. And their brothers, Mychel Thompson and Seth Curry, are fellow basketball pros who have pushed and prodded Klay and Stephen on their paths to the NBA. But if genetics alone could determine NBA greatness, there would presumably be more Jordans in the league today. “It’s dedication and work ethic,” Dell Curry says. “You can be around it, but you still have to go out there and do it. That’s what makes you proudest as a parent and ex-player.”

Klay and Steph understand that their genes and their fathers’ NBA experience placed them on the inside track to becoming the athletes they are today. But both Thompson and Curry had once been lightly recruited and considered too frail for the NBA game. Of all the common traits between them, this might be the most important: They know how hard they worked to get here. They know they can get even better if they keep working. The best backcourt in the NBA expects to improve.

“For the last couple of years, Steph has been knocking on that door of the top guys in the league,” says Warriors forward Draymond Green. “Now he’s there, but you can see that he’s not satisfied. He wants to get great. Steph went to Davidson, wasn’t highly recruited, probably had a few scholarship offers, didn’t really play AAU. So he was never that highly touted guy.

“Klay, coming out of high school, he wasn’t highly touted,” Green says. “He went to Washington State, but Washington State isn’t a basketball powerhouse. This territory is new to him and you can see that. You can see that it’s new to them. All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Let me get more. I want more.’ And it’s that hunger  you can see it.”

curry-stephen-nbaNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

About an hour after practice, Stephen Curry heads to a clothes fitting. A hotel room high above downtown Oakland is covered in a rainbow of shirts, ties, suits, and shorts. Curry jumps from one ensemble to the next. One moment, he looks like James Bond in a tuxedo; the next, he’s beach-ready, sporting a pair of swimming trunks.

One of the stylists compliments Curry’s look. “But don’t quit your day job,” he cautions. “Male models don’t make much.”

If Thompson’s steady, season-by-season improvement from promising rookie to potential All-Star represents an ideal form of progress for NBA players, then Curry’s game resembles something more like a video game cheat code. Curry looks quick, and then when he moves on the court, he’s even speedier than he looks. The release on his shot seems impossibly fast, and his stroke remains smooth from distances that should require a heave. “For me, it’s about not being defined as just a shooter,” Curry says. “It’s about [being] a guy that plays the point guard position in a totally unique way and hopefully [becoming] one of the best point guards in the history of the game — shooting the basketball and being a playmaker with a couple of championships to show for it.”

The stylist tells Curry that he thinks a great backdrop for a photo shoot would be the south of France, maybe Saint-Tropez. “When is your offseason?” he asks.

“End of June until September,” Curry answers.

Until a couple of years ago, Curry could have answered “mid-April.” That’s when the regular season ends for non-playoff teams, when the Warriors traditionally clocked out for summer. “That was the worst feeling,” Curry says. “A month before the season’s over, you know it’s done. Cats got their bags packed, cars packed.”

Golden State lucked into drafting Curry seventh overall in 2009, after Minnesota made its now infamous decision to select two point guards, Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn, back-to-back ahead of Curry. The Warriors, who had tried and failed to trade up to draft Curry, were thrilled that the Davidson guard fell to them. That offseason, Golden State was in transition. Its marquee point guard, Baron Davis, had left the team through free agency the year before. A few leftovers from the 2007 “We Believe” team remained on the roster, but that group never coalesced after their memorable playoff run, and the team’s veteran core had lost faith in coach Don Nelson and the direction of the franchise.

As a rookie, Curry tiptoed into turmoil. Although the Warriors tried to welcome him into their fold, the team couldn’t stop star guard Monta Ellis from telling reporters at team media day that he and Curry were too small to play together in the same backcourt. Nelson played Curry less than three minutes in his eighth NBA game after fielding the first-year guard for more than 20 minutes in each of the previous seven. “We had lost Baron Davis and our team was in flux and I had some issues with some veteran players,” Nelson recalls. “I had to bring [Curry] along slower than I wanted to. Otherwise, I would have thrown him in right away. But we were still trying to win games, so I did bring him along slowly. In my mind, before long he was going to be my starting point guard, which he ended up being.”

Curry endured the upheaval and submitted a solid rookie season. But Keith Smart, who replaced Nelson in 2010, often chose to finish games with Acie Law over Curry. Smart wanted a caretaker to close out games, and Curry was turnover-prone early in his career. The Warriors replaced Smart with Mark Jackson in 2011, but the organization continued to stumble, sputtering to a 23-43 finish in Jackson’s first year, the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, while persistent ankle injuries threatened to derail Curry’s career.

That all seems so long ago.

Curry stands in front of a mirror, sizing himself up in a black tux. “Just seeing the change from my rookie year to now, what being a Warrior means [has] changed,” he says. “When I came into the NBA we were irrelevant. Now, to be championship contenders, it’s pretty special.”

Thompson’s rookie year came in that dreadful, lockout-shortened season. He didn’t know what to expect from himself  how good he could be as an NBA player. Back then, he said about two words a day. Now, he’s comfortable with his teammates, with the media, and with his game, and Curry has noticed.

“The ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as opposed to just being a scorer, that’s the best thing for him and [for] us as a team,” Curry says. “He’s almost impossible to guard if he can do that. I don’t know what clicked, whether it was just the confidence that he can make a play in traffic and get where he wants on the floor  it’s pretty cool to see.”

thompson-klay-nbaNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

Jerry DeBusk remembers how quiet Klay Thompson was when Thompson arrived at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Southern California. “As a sophomore, he spoke in two- and three-word sentences,” DeBusk says. “As a junior, he actually would complete the full sentence. And as a senior, we had really good dialogue.”

Thompson grew up in Lake Oswego, Oregon, near where his father, Mychal, had played with the Trail Blazers. To Klay and his brothers, Mychel and Trayce, Clyde Drexler wasn’t just one of the league’s premier guards, but also their dad’s pal. Whenever the Thompson kids joined a youth sports team, the coach would invite Mychal to offer a motivational speech. “I would just roll my eyes, like, ‘I’ve got to hear this at home every day,’” Klay recalls. “‘This is nothing new to me.’ But a lot of my friends would like it and have their eyes glued [to him], and I’d just be laughing, like, You guys don’t even know.” Mychel was the oldest boy, then Klay. Trayce, the youngest, was bigger than Klay when they were growing up.

“Trayce was a year younger than me, but he was physically just bigger,” Klay says. “So I couldn’t punk him, and Mychel would punk both of us, so I would be the one always getting punked. It was so frustrating. We’d have some intense games  one-on-one, one-on-two. That’s why I got good fast in high school.” When Klay was about 15, he beat Mychel in basketball for the first time. “Anybody in the NBA with siblings will tell you how important [that is],” Klay says. “As a kid growing up, you don’t want to beat anybody so badly as your brother. [Mychel] kicked the ball so far on the school roof that I never saw it again.”26

Yet despite his basketball pedigree, Klay’s game confounded coaches and scouts during his high school career. After the family had moved to Orange County, when Klay played for Santa Margarita teams that were stacked with Division I talent, he remained relatively unheralded. DeBusk set out to prepare Klay for the college level. “I used to be critical of his defense,” the coach says. “I thought he was slow as far as moving his feet, but I finally realized that he glides. He covers a lot of space because he’s so long. It was a mistake on my part to think that he wasn’t really busting defensively.” As far as his shot? “All he needed was a step and he’d get open and just drill it,” DeBusk recalls. “A couple kids that I’m coaching now say they’re shooters. I say, ‘No, Klay Thompson is a shooter.’”

Mychel, who starred at Santa Margarita before Klay and now plays for Golden State’s D-League affiliate, never doubted that his younger brother could become an elite player. “People saying he wasn’t a good athlete and the things I’m seeing him do  it [didn’t] make any sense,” Mychel says. “I’ve seen him dunk on plenty of people. He’s athletic, blocks shots. I [didn’t] understand why people would try and say he’s not athletic. Just because he’s not the highest jumper? OK, but he can shoot and he’s more athletic than you think.” The major Pac-12 programs recruited Thompson lightly and offered spots to other star guards from the region. USC landed DeMar DeRozan, UCLA signed Jrue Holiday, and Arizona chased Brandon Jennings, who wound up playing in Italy before declaring for the NBA draft. Being treated as second-tier talent put a chip on Klay’s shoulder, and he embraced that underdog’s mentality.

“I was right in UCLA’s backyard, Cal’s backyard,” Klay says. “[But] with Washington State, I was attracted there because Tony Bennett really sold me on his guys that were under the radar. I bought into that. People think because I was a player’s son, I was supposed to be this All-Star right away, but I was kind of a late bloomer.”

Playing at Washington State, far away from the Pac-12 spotlight, ended up being an important step in Thompson’s career. It allowed him to develop into an NBA prospect without facing the same level of scrutiny and pressure as his peers at glamour programs. “I thought I was going to make the NBA,” Thompson says. “But if I had went to UCLA, I probably would have felt I had to perform right away. Washington State was kind of unique  we are just a blue-collar school. I think I would have put a lot more pressure on myself if I was that five-star recruit coming out of high school. I probably would have gotten a little big-headed. [Instead], I was really hungry when I came to Washington State.”

Thompson started as a freshman on Bennett’s team. He averaged 12.5 points and led the Cougars in 3-point shooting and free throw percentage that season. By his junior year, Thompson was an all-conference player and the Pac-12’s leading scorer at 21.6 points per game. Still, when Thompson declared for the draft after that season, he remained somewhat unknown to NBA scouts. “I played on the West Coast and up in the Pacific Northwest, in Pullman,” Klay explains. “Really in obscurity.” In pre-draft workouts, he was often paired with Mychel, who was two years older than Klay and who’d just finished his college career at Pepperdine. The brothers were part of the same draft class, and their workout battles weren’t much different from the driveway clashes of their childhood. “It wasn’t easy” Mychel recalls. “When you have scouts come and having to compete against him and he’s making every shot.”

In 2011, Bob Myers was named the Warriors’ general manager. That June, he would have to make his first NBA draft pick in that position. It was also the first draft for the Warriors’ ambitious new ownership group, headed by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. Klay Thompson, true to himself, had been reserved during his pre-draft interview with the team. “I sensed a quiet confidence,” Myers recalls, “which is hard to see, because when you’re interviewing potential players, often the ones that speak the loudest are the most memorable. It’s harder to read the introverts and it’s harder to read somebody that’s a little less gregarious.”

The Warriors took Thompson with the 11th overall pick. Adding Thompson to a roster that already included two ball-dominant guards seemed like a risk. Jackson had just been hired to coach the team, Monta Ellis and Curry were still learning to coexist, and incorporating a third wing scorer threatened to upset the lineup’s balance. At least, when Thompson joined the team, Curry gave him a kinder welcome than Ellis had offered Curry a few years before.

“When I first got here, I’d shoot with him and have competitions,” Thompson says. “I was good enough to win sometimes  just set shots  but when I started trying to put the dribble combinations together like him and do the things he does around the rim, my percentages didn’t look good,” Thompson adds. “His ball handling surprised me. I didn’t know he was that smooth with the ball, and how he has it on a string so much, and how quick he was to get his jump shot.”

curry-stephen-davidsonStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

Back in the hotel, Curry has modeled nearly all the garments that have been laid out for him. All of a sudden, Kobe Bryant’s voice booms from the television. It’s audio from a recent Lakers practice, in which Bryant railed against his teammates, cursing them and calling them soft as toilet tissue.

Curry smiles. “Yeah, Kobes,27 talk to them.

“I like it,” he says. “I’ve been in practices like that before  when you’re trying to figure it out, trying to spark something. I know his competitiveness. He’s trying to figure that out.”

Not too long ago, most casual fans would probably scoff at uttering Curry’s name in the same breath with the NBA’s franchise cornerstones  players like Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. In 2013, after Curry narrowly missed making the 2013 Western Conference All-Star team, his mother, Sonya, remembers the patronizing support of one acquaintance, who told her, “Good try, but he’s really not LeBron or Kobe or anybody like that.”

Sonya Curry never doubted. Even when Stephen was a scrawny teenager, she saw he had the intelligence and work ethic to succeed. All he needed was a growth spurt. “We were praying that God would not leave our son with size 13 shoes and 5-foot-6,” she says. “Part of that was just praying, ‘Lord, you can’t have my child running around here with these big feet as tall as I am.’” And even though he grew to 6-foot-3  an above-average height for an NBA point guard  and became a star at Davidson, scouts still wondered if Curry’s slight frame could withstand the toll of the league’s physical style and endure the grind of its unforgiving schedule. They questioned whether he’d be fast and explosive enough to create separation for his jump shot. But Sonya Curry never doubted.

Basketball, Dell and Sonya taught their children, was their father’s job and not a form of entertainment. Like Klay and Mychel Thompson, Stephen would battle his brother, Seth, on the court. “It would be hard for a game to finish because we’d go back and forth,” says Seth, who now plays for the D-League Erie BayHawks. “We’d foul and we’d end up almost getting into fights and my mom would have to break it up.” But Sonya Curry intervened only when the scuffles threatened to get serious. “Dell and I are both competitive as husband and wife  in everything  so we knew that our children were going to be like that too,” she says. “You don’t want to interfere too much because that’s just natural stuff. They grow and learn through it. But we were always there at the end to say, ‘What’s the lesson in this? Let’s check our attitudes and let’s move on.’”

At Charlotte Christian School, coach Shonn Brown got used to meeting college coaches who saw Curry’s slim build and questioned his potential. “I couldn’t tell you the number of coaches that were like, ‘He’s not athletic enough,’” Brown says. “It became comical to our staff, because we were like, ‘If I brought him to your college practice right now, he’d be the best shooter on your team.’ It was like, ‘You guys really aren’t understanding.’”

Curry’s Davidson exploits are the stuff of college basketball legend. During the school’s 2008 NCAA tournament run, March Madness descended on Davidson’s tony North Carolina campus and Curry became a national sensation. And although it’s easy for basketball fans to recall the images of Curry burying 3 after 3 in wins over Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin, there’s another memory that Davidson coach Bob McKillop rarely mentions when he talks about that season.

“In the year we went to the Elite Eight, prior to our opening game of the season, [Curry] was contemplating having surgery on his hand and sitting out the year,” McKillop says. “Not many people know that. If you look at tape from that year, you can see his thumb was taped up quite a bit and he played through it, and it was just remarkable, the resiliency that he had.”

During the Davidson years, America fell in love with Curry’s elegant game  the soft touch on his high-arcing jumpers and those delicate little teardrops he’d loft above the fingertips of opposing big men. A kind of sweetness shines through when you watch Curry play. But … “Don’t ever take that little baby-faced look and think he’s not competitive,” cautions Jerry West, who serves on the Warriors executive board. “He’s unbelievably competitive.”

“Nothing was ever given to me, regardless of what people think,” Curry says. “I had a dad that played in the league, but it wasn’t a cakewalk to get to this place. I’m obviously blessed to have natural talents, but for me, it was all about hard work and discipline when it came to getting to this level.”

Every player who enters the NBA, no matter how good he is, experiences a moment of doubt early in his career, something that makes him ask, “Am I good enough for this league?” Curry struggled at times in his rookie year, and his friend and former roommate Chris Strachan remembers that Curry would watch his old Davidson highlights to remind himself of how good he was. “It was like, Yeah, this is how I play,” Strachan says. It was as if Curry were thinking, “This is a new league and a new 3-point line and new teammates and different personalities and everything, but this is how I play right here. This is what I need to do.

That’s when Curry began to gain the confidence necessary to succeed against the most talented and competitive basketball players in the world. He’d already built that self-belief over the first two years of his career, but it received an even greater boost when Mark Jackson was hired to coach the Warriors. Jackson, who’d been one of the most brash players of his generation, assured Curry that he’d be on the floor to finish games, and he demanded that Curry play with the same edge and attitude that Jackson once had. Although Jackson was fired after three seasons in Golden State over disagreements between himself and the front office, there’s no debating that he instilled confidence in his players and that they enjoyed playing for him.

“I spoke what I believed of those guys even if some of them didn’t believe it and even if the world didn’t believe it,” Jackson says.28 “I said that those guys were the best shooting backcourt that ever played this game. People looked at me like I was crazy [at the time], and now it’s a throwaway line. I said that Klay was the best two-way shooting guard and it looked like I was biased. I said Steph Curry was a superstar and we would be in the playoffs and we would be successful and we’d play defense. Draymond Green, people thought I was crazy for letting him shoot 3s. You believe in these guys, and sooner or later, it’s going to catch fire. I didn’t lie. Everything I said, I believed.”

The moment Curry knew he could be a superstar arrived randomly, during a road game against Dallas early in the 2012-13 season. “We were down in the second half and we had a huge comeback on the road,” he says. “And the last eight or so minutes of the fourth quarter was like my best performance ever as far as taking over the game. It was a random game, but it gave me a lot of confidence that I could do that — perform in big moments when I needed to.”29

thompson-klay-wsuPeter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Klay Thompson had a similar moment midway through his rookie year, during a ho-hum game in Denver. He was nervous in his first several games, but the breakneck pace of that lockout-shortened season meant Thompson had no time to worry about feeling butterflies in his stomach. He just had to play, and that night against the Nuggets his game came together in a flash and revealed Thompson as the kind of scorer he could be. He scored 19 points in less than 18 minutes. “I was like, ‘Man, did I just do that?’ he says. “I realized from there that I could be a good player in this league.”

Mychal Thompson saw proof that his son would find NBA success even before Klay’s performance in Denver. It came against the Lakers in Los Angeles. “Knowing what a killer Kobe was on the court and how he likes to test young players,” Mychal says, “if Klay could hold his own against Kobe, then I thought, OK, he’s ready for this league, because there’s no better competitor in this game than Kobe Bryant.” His son hit six of eight shots in a loss to Kobe’s Lakers. “I just played as hard as I could,” Klay recalls. “I tried to contest every shot to the point of the ball. It was a cool moment for me because my family was in the stands. My friends were in the stands. They’re all Kobe lovers and Lakers lovers.”

From there, Jackson kept tutoring Thompson, showing the rookie tricks that the coach’s former teammates, like Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin, had used to free themselves for shots. “He just gave me extreme confidence,” Thompson says. “He really felt I was the best 2-guard in the NBA on both sides of the ball. It was fun playing for him every night. He was really motivational and he really had me believing.”

The best explanation for the steady improvement Thompson has kept up throughout his career might also be the simplest: He doesn’t have many interests besides basketball. There’s his dog, Rocco; his video games; and basketball. “I just really do want to play,” Thompson says. “I’m not out there trying to make a fashion statement or pump my chest or have the most social media followers. I just love basketball.” Thompson’s numbers have improved every year he’s been in the league. He averaged 12.5, 16.6, and 18.4 points in his three full NBA seasons.

Late in Thompson’s rookie year, Golden State traded Monta Ellis to acquire Andrew Bogut. The deal marked the official turnover of the team to Curry and freed more playing time for Thompson. “I give Bob Myers and Jerry [West] and all the guys in basketball ops great credit for pushing to do the Bogut trade,” Lacob says. “It allowed Steph to blossom and take over without Monta, and the pairing with Klay was perfect.” Myers admits that the deal was more about landing Bogut than anything else. “Klay gave us the opportunity to explore dealing Monta because we saw that [Thompson] could be a high-level 2-guard,” the GM says. “But this franchise had been centerless for 20 years. The chance to grab a guy [who] we felt we could grow with and was relatively young, it was too good to pass up.”

Andre Iguodala guarded Thompson when Golden State faced the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. The series, which the Warriors won, played a role in Iguodala’s decision to sign with Golden State the following offseason. Iguodala envisioned himself as an ideal backcourt complement to Thompson and Curry.

“There’s no such thing as a bad shot [with Klay],” Iguodala says. “There’s no such thing as a play that can’t be made. If he makes a mistake, it’s almost as if he didn’t make it, because the next time, he’ll try it again and make it happen.” That confidence, Iguodala says, distinguishes Thompson from other gifted shooting guards: “Everyone in the NBA is talented, but the mental part of it goes [overlooked]. That’s something that’ll never show up in analytics. It’s hard to measure that as a GM  what type of guy [a player] is. But Klay is one of the very few who you can measure it [for], because there is no fear.”

Last season, Curry and Thompson’s long-range assault truly came into its own  and terrorized opponents. They made a combined 484 3s, the most ever by two teammates in a season. “I try to get a little shove off my defender, get as much space as possible,” Thompson says of how he creates separation when he curls off screens. “You can kind of feel in the back of your head how much space you’ve got, if you’ve got a good push on him. I don’t need a lot of space to get it off. If I feel like I got a good push off him, it’s going up every time.”

When Golden State reached the 2014 playoffs, Bogut was sidelined by a broken rib, and the Warriors dropped a tense seven-game first-round series to the Clippers. Both Curry (with playoff averages of 23 points and 8.4 assists) and Thompson (16.4 and 3.6) impressed.

By the end of last season, Curry and Thompson’s incendiary scoring runs had become so common that fans almost began to expect them. “It’s kind of unfortunate, because as a player, you want that surprise,” Draymond Green says. “You want that, Man, you see that? You want someone to feel that way about the work you put in. But at this point, it doesn’t surprise me when they run off 12 or 14 straight. Both of them are just so good.”

The 2014-15 season opened after a summer of uncertainty. To the dismay of many players, Golden State replaced Jackson after his relationship with the front office deteriorated. Steve Kerr was hired as the Warriors’ new coach. “That was tough to handle because the whole year, I knew there was obviously questions about his job security and there wasn’t many people, especially in the front office, backing him,” Curry says of Jackson. “So he was kind of just left hanging until the end of the season and they obviously pulled the trigger on the decision. [At first] I wasn’t very happy about it, and then you’re kind of uncertain about who they’re going to hire. I approached it as two separate decisions. I wasn’t happy with the first one [to fire Jackson], but happy with the second, knowing that we’re getting a good head coach, highly touted [for] his basketball IQ and his background.”

The offseason was even more nerve-racking for Thompson, whose name continually surfaced in trade rumors with Minnesota for Kevin Love. The question of whether to make a run at Love split the Warriors front office. “Clearly, we had an opportunity to make a big deal, which would have involved Klay, and it was a very complex decision,” Lacob says. “It went on for quite a long time. Really a couple of months. It’s always a tough call on something like this. There are great players going both ways. But at the end of the day, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are maybe the best backcourt in the NBA. That doesn’t come along every day.”

After months of speculation, Kerr sent a text message to Klay: You’re not going anywhere. I can’t wait to have the opportunity to coach you.

Curry and Thompson both earned gold at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where Thompson was one of Team USA’s stars. “He has an edge to him, which we liked,” says Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball. “If you’re having a conversation with him, he’s always rocking. He’s always on his toes. He’s ready to play all the time.”

After the United States pummeled Serbia in the tournament final, Thompson approached his mother. “Mom, I can’t imagine how it would feel to win an NBA championship,” he remembers saying. The comment caught Julie Thompson off guard. Klay hadn’t even bothered to take a victory lap with his gold medal. He was already focused on the upcoming NBA season.

kerr-steve-coachSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

Steve Kerr has maintained an “aw shucks” demeanor while helming the Warriors to the best record in the NBA. He lucked into this position, he says. The pieces were in place, he says. He just tells his players to shoot, he says. He praises the job Mark Jackson did before he arrived.

All that is likely true. But Kerr’s humility camouflages what he’s done to help Golden State reach a new level of success. He has an understated confidence that comes from the years he spent as a player on the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, learning from Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. If Kerr took the wrong approach going into the season, he could have enflamed a tense locker room full of players who didn’t fully approve of how Jackson had lost his job. Kerr called each player individually to deliver the message that he believed the Warriors were already a great team. He was not a savior, he told them, because the organization didn’t need one. He explained that he just planned to implement some tweaks that would hopefully inch Golden State to the next level.

Still, Kerr is the coach who, during his playing career, once got into a fistfight with Michael Jordan at practice. He wants to win as much as do all the players on his roster. Before the team’s first film session, Kerr broke the ice by splicing in a montage that mocked the team’s assistant coaches. He included a photo of Alvin Gentry from his college basketball career in the 1970s, when Gentry sported a huge Afro; there was another vintage photo of Ron Adams and a Family Guy clip that mocked Luke Walton’s playing ability. On the second day of training camp, however, Kerr lit into his team. “And we deserved it,” Thompson says. “We had come out sloppy. He hates to lose, man.”

Kerr has tasked Curry with defending opposing point guards game after game.30 “It’s important, especially as a captain and a point guard, for a player like that to take the challenge,” Kerr says. “It sets a good tone, but it also means that in certain matchups, we stay more solid because a lot of teams will have a great point guard and then a couple great wing players. It’s nice to keep Klay on a big wing rather than look at a possible mismatch.” Curry has been among the league leaders in steals this season, and Warriors assistant Adams emphasizes that Curry’s steals don’t come at the expense of team defense. “He’s deflecting passes that people are trying to throw through him to feed the post,” Adams says. “He’s getting a hand on the ball and then he’s picking up the turnover and going with it. That’s to be contrasted with a lot of the steals with guys who are running out in lanes and trying to get the steal, and if they don’t, it’s a five-on-four.”

Kerr has pushed Thompson to put the ball on the floor more often and to sharpen his decision-making for when to pass, shoot, or drive. “Coach Kerr told me I’ve got to be greedy,” Thompson says. “That’s getting into the lane, getting to the free throw line, getting my shot.”

Young teams that skyrocket up the standings often experience power struggles within their rosters. Think Shaq and Penny with the Orlando Magic, Shaq and Kobe with the Lakers, or even, to some extent, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with the Oklahoma City Thunder. There are only so many shot attempts, so many contract dollars, and so many endorsement opportunities to go around. But Golden State believes that type of friction won’t develop between Curry and Thompson. “I’ve never heard Steph come to anybody and say, ‘I need this many shots. I need to get the ball,’” Thompson says. “That’s not my nature, either. I know I’m going to get shots up if I just play my game and keep moving without the ball. For us, it’s never been about, ‘Oh, he’s the franchise guy,’ or ‘Oh, he gets all the accolades.’ I think we all put our egos aside.

“I know my strengths,” Thompson continues. “I know I’m not as good as Steph with the ball in my hands. I’m better moving off the pick, off the ball, in position to catch and go, instead of standing still with the high ball screen. So let’s say it’s the end of the game and Coach Kerr calls a drag screen for Steph. I’m not going to argue because I know that [Curry]’s going to draw enough attention that I’m going to get a shot. Or I know I’m a better post player than Steph, so if I have a mismatch, he’ll recognize it and throw me the ball. [But] at times, both of us have to be selfish to get into a rhythm and a groove or just to put pressure on a defense.”

This outlook has spread among the rest of the Golden State roster. “Steph don’t care if Klay gets the shot,” Green says. “Klay don’t care if Steph gets the shot. So if you’re on their team, how can you get mad at something like that?”

The public expectations for this Warriors season have skyrocketed — perhaps more than Jerry West would prefer. As great as the team has played, it will always be held back by concerns about Bogut’s health. The oft-injured big man, the key anchor to the Warriors’ league-leading defense, recently had platelet-rich plasma therapy performed on his right knee and hasn’t played since December 8. He’s expected to return mid-January. West insists that this is a team and roster set for the long haul. “You can’t even talk about a championship at this point in time,” West says. “I think it’s inappropriate because this is a work in progress. I think we’re starting to get more confident. I think we can get a lot better. I really do. When I look at other teams, how many can get a lot better? I don’t think there are a lot.”

But regardless of whether West deems it proper to anoint the Warriors as a potential championship team, as long as they’ve got the best record in the NBA and continue to pull away from the field in a historically competitive Western Conference, fans and the media will keep Golden State high on the list of title contenders. And the pressure will be on Curry and Thompson to prove that they can be just as devastating in the postseason.

thompson-klay-curry-stephenRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Steph Curry and Klay Thompson offered similar descriptions of how it feels when they can’t miss on the basketball court — when every shot, from everywhere, seems like it will be swallowed by the net.

“The rim looks bigger,” Curry says. “The ball feels better. Your body feels in sync no matter where you are on the court, or what happens before you rise up and take the shot. It just feels like the ultimate confidence. Because you know the opposite of that. You know when your timing is off or something doesn’t feel right and every shot is awkward for whatever reason. But when you’re on fire, [you] could rush a shot, [you] could force a shot and it still feels like it’s going in.”

Says Thompson: “Once you see that ball go in three or four times, you feel like you can’t miss. Once you see it go straight through the net  that swish  that’s the best feeling in the world. When it doesn’t even touch the rim and you don’t even have to hold your follow-through. That’s when you’re in the zone. At the beginning of the game, you hold your follow-through. Once you come off that curl, though, and you feel like you can’t miss, you shoot real quick, cock back, and that’s a great feeling. Individually, that’s probably one of the best things in basketball as a scorer. You feel on top of the world.”

Back at the Warriors’ practice facility, with the rain still pelting Oakland, Klay Thompson had time for one last question.

“The definition of ‘Splash Brothers’?” he says. “The definition is make it rain, like to hear the net go swoosh  that beautiful sound. The definition is just two shooters who are locked and loaded from 30 feet in and you can’t relax.” 

Source: Grantland » Features | 5 Jan 2015 | 6:29 am PST

Who Won 2014?

A quote from last year’s bracket, appropriately titled “Who Won 2013?”


With every passing year, I’m closer and closer to trashing the “Who Won” bracket model in exchange for “Who Lost.” Or “What Ruined This Year for Me The Most, a Bracket of 1024.”

I’m no oracle, but there was definitely something in the air in December 2013, and that something was clearly trying to warn me about the following 12 months. “Don’t go,” the sassy fog would say as it whisked past my ear. But I didn’t listen. In my mind, the little annoyances of 2013 were as bad as it could get, suggesting that the only direction the new year could go was up.

The thing I was complaining about this time last year: “wedding hashtags.”

Wedding hashtags.

I suggested a “Who Lost” bracket because of things like #Jamelcky (when a Jamal marries a Becky) and #BakesTakesDave (ask Katie Baker).

That’s how good we had it a year ago. A year that wasn’t defined by ISIS, Ebola, and hacks of every shape and size. A year without conflicts abroad and at home in Ferguson. A year in which Robin Williams, Ruby Dee, Maya Angelou, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amiri Baraka, Joan Rivers, and Tony Gwynn were still alive. A year in which a plane disappeared.

A goddamn plane disappeared into thin air. And, as a collection of rational earthlings, we’ve kind of decided to just accept that as truth and move on. And then nine months later, tragically, another plane disappearedThat’s the kind of year 2014 was.

This was the next passage from the 2013 bracket, referring to the urge to go the “Who Lost” route:

Thankfully, we’re not there yet. There are still some things worth celebrating.

Barely. Because, as you will see, a considerable chunk of the items that made the 2014 bracket are not worth celebrating in the slightest. They are deplorable things that, because it’s been that type of year, still found ways to win.

In the years to come, I know I will try to treat 2014 like the 13th floor in most buildings, but occasionally I’ll be forced to look back at it. And when I do, it will be impossible not to be reminded of a year in which you could be terrible, be called out for your terribleness, and continue to prosper.

This year’s bracket is not a celebration. Past years’ brackets have been fun to put together, a nostalgic look at all the joys of the previous 12 months. But some of this year’s winners actively made the year worse. So many of us were forced to come to terms with many of the world’s terrible realities this year, and so must the fourth edition of this bracket. Not even a maniacal 10,000-word piece of Pulitzer-worthy end-of-year pablum can exist in blissful ignorance. This year was truly the realest, for everyone and everything.

As noted in previous years, this is different from Grantland’s other, more participatory brackets. This bracket cannot be trusted in the hands of the human population that picked Will Forte over Kenan Thompson. Sorry I’m not sorry, but trust has to be earned. Which is why, again, I have deemed myself the legislative, executive, and judiciary branch of deciding who won the year. Three kings, biatch.

Previous years’ brackets:





(If you’re wondering whether I made that 2011 bracket in a combination of Microsoft Excel and MS Paint, know that the answer may be “maybe.”)

The 2013 Final Four: Kanye West, the pope, cultural appropriation, and LeBron James, with Yeezus losing to cultural appropriation in the final. It was the third consecutive year a member of the Knowles-Throne family (Bey, Ye, Jay) made it to the final. Unfortunately for Kanye in the final, the act of learning about someone else’s culture and then messily attempting to make it your own because it’s fun to go to blackface/Native American headdress parties was simply too powerful.

As in years past, the winner gets TRL-retired from the competition. So cultural appropriation along with the Knowles-Thronedashians (the Bey-Jay-Kim-Ye collective, not the individuals) and Twitter are not eligible to participate in 2014.

If you didn’t think there were rules to this, you’d be wrong.

Structurally, it is a bracket of 32, with entrants picked from four segments of the cultural landscape: Sports, Celebrities/Entertainers/Personalities, Technology/Internet, and Movements/Trends/Phenomena. Eight “things” are in each category and, even in a year when nothing made sense, eight multiplied by four still gives you 32.



Yeah, I said it.

The Deceased: Not included. I’ve never wavered on this and I never will. Dying can be profitable and bankroll bonuses at CNN, but it’s still not a win. Because dying is never a win.

The Royal Babies: I still can’t include Blue Ivy Carter and North West, because I can’t imagine knocking them out. They’d be on opposite sides of the bracket, would defeat everyone in their path without explanation, and upon meeting in the final, I’d suddenly say my Wi-Fi stopped working and disappear until the following year. But this is the last year, ladies. These babies have adults blogging about their fashion (the 18th-saddest thing that happened in 2014), so they’re ready to be scrutinized like everything else. It’s like what Bernie Mac said: “If you’re grown enough to talk back, you’re grown enough to get fuuuuucked up.” In the bracket, of course.

The Seedings: You won’t remember this in about 45 seconds, but I don’t really control the seeds. It’s the one part of this process in which I relinquish a smidge of tyrannical control. The seeds are determined by an objectively subjective criterion: followers.

For the majority of the qualifiers, that’s Twitter followers (the objective part). And for those not on Twitter, another measurement of popularity is used — be it a semirelated Twitter account, a Facebook page, or perhaps even a YouTube video. “Another measurement of popularity” is where it gets subjective. It’s not my fault that in 2014 certain things still haven’t gotten hip to the winner of 2011, Twitter. And because of that, I’ve granted myself full license to use whatever I see fit.





Outside of that, there’s only one more rule: Not everything can make this bracket. Because it’s a cold world. And for the following entrants, there are no blankets in sight.

The Honorable Mentions: These are the nouns that were considered but just didn’t have enough firepower to make the top eight of their respective divisions.

Lewis Hamilton, Anthony Davis, Sidney Crosby, Meb Keflezighi, Offset, the L.A. Kings, Mike Trout, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch When He’s Not Playing Football, Rory McIlroy, Jason Aldean, Stedman Graham, YG, DJ Khaled, Miles Teller, Takeoff, Nicki Minaj, Pharrell Williams, FKA Twigs, DJ Mustard, Secret, Normcore, Racists, Homophobes, Sexists, Clayton Kershaw, Laverne Cox, Quavo, Ed O’Bannon, Gregg Popovich, T.J. Miller, Michele Roberts, Ariana Grande, Supermodel Cliques, the Nae Nae, Channing Tatum.

The Really Honorable Mentions: These are the nouns that were in the bracket at one point. But they just couldn’t pull through in the end. Basically, a bunch of ’95 Nick Andersons.

Sam Smith, Bae, Madison Bumgarner, Michael Sam, Shailene Woodley, ClickHole, That Kim Kardashian Mobile Game, Dr. Dre, Becky Hammon, SoundCloud, Twitch, Caring About Cleveland, Solange Knowles, Rap Ad-Libs, Anyone Who Had a Song That Drake Added a Verse to Thus Extending Their Career for Exactly 200 Days.

The Case of Instagram: Instagram made the bracket in 2011, 2012, and 2013. An interesting thing about those three years: Instagram did not kick off Rihanna during that time. But then 2014 rolls around and it commits the ultimate crime in giving Rihanna the boot. Although she’s back on now — you forgive, but you never forget.

The Case of Derek Jeter: I like Jeets’s post-retirement venture, The Players’ Tribune. But no one has ever gotten cooler by going from being an athlete to a blogger. Take my word for it, world-class athlete turned blogger.

Pitbull AMA 2

The Case of Pitbull: Only Pitbull stood in the way of Pitbull making this bracket. In addition to being the only Mr. Worldwide that the world has ever known, his song “Timber,” with glitter goddess of the seas and oceans and winds and clouds and skies Kesha, was gigantic and the official song of the NBA playoffs. It was announced this year that he would be receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he released an album called Globalization (see: Worldwide, Mr.), and he had the official 2014 FIFA World Cup song (with Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte), “We Are One (Ole Ola).”

That last item, however, is where he faltered. In 2010, Shakira’s official FIFA World Cup song, “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” sold almost 10 million units, going no. 1 in 15 countries. Pitbull’s song, comparatively speaking, was a dud. Because it’s not very good.

When they shot that flaming arrow in Barcelona to light the Olympic torch in 1992, Atlanta had to come correct in ’96. So they got Muhammad Ali. The Pitbull song following Shakira is as if they’d gotten Ali Larter.

That’s it. No more rules, no more explanations, no more disclaimers. It’s time to present 2014’s 32 non-losers. And now, the categories.31


The San Antonio Spurs: a team; @spurs
***LeBron James: an athlete; @KingJames
Richard Sherman: an athlete; @RSherman_25
The Canadian Men’s and Women’s Olympic Hockey Teams: two teams; @CDNOlympicTeam
Mo’ne Davis: a teen; @Monedavis11
The German Men’s National Soccer Team: a team; @DFB_Team
Adam Silver: a boss; Adam Silver’s Facebook page
Roger Goodell: Darth Maul; @nflcommish


Chris Pratt: an actor; @prattprattpratt
Shonda Rhimes: a showrunner; @shondarhimes
Iggy Azalea: a rapper; @IGGYAZALEA
Lupita Nyong’o: an actor; @Lupita_Nyongo
Aubrey Drake Graham: a Canadian; @Drake
John Oliver: a host; @iamjohnoliver
***Jennifer Lawrence: a volunteer; Jennifer Lawrence’s Facebook fan page
**Taylor Swift: comptroller of Tribeca; @taylorswift13


Uber: a car; @Uber
TMZ: a video; @TMZ
*Vine: a clip; @vine
Venmo: a transaction; @venmo
Drones: an unmanned aerial vehicle; @drones
Tinder: a date; @Tinder
CNN: a network; @CNN
Hackers: the people who are constantly crashing parties they weren’t invited to, leaving five minutes later with everyone’s password and a copy of Perfect Dark; @YourAnonNews


Protesters: the streets; @stlcountypd
The Ice Bucket Challenge: the videos; @alsassociation
Legal Weed: the flowering herb; @MarijuanaPolicy
The McConaissance: the Texan; @McConaughey
Serial: the podcast; @serial
Hashtagtivism: the cause; @MichelleObama
Footage: the evidence; @RayRice27
Shmoney Dance: ABOUT A WEEK AGO (WEEK AGO); “Shmoney Dance” YouTube video


That’s the bracket of 32. And yes, the bracket regions (“Antidope,” “Fight Night,” “Handsome and Wealthy,” “Emmitt Smith”are songs from Migos’s 2014 mixtape, No Label 2. And no, your eyes aren’t betraying you. There’s no Jay Z. No Beyoncé. And no Kanye West.


I told you it was a terrible year.


This is such a perfect way to start. Two of the year’s most overwhelming phenomena. Two things your gut tells you to dislike even though there’s not a great reason for the utter disdain.

If only the Ice Bucket Challenge weren’t for a good cause is something I thought once. Twice, actually. Which is terrible. The fact that I wanted the charitable aspect of the documented ice-water-on-head-ooh-look-at-me-I’m-a-wet-activist to disappear just so I could feel better clowning anyone still uploading Facebook videos, is not an admirable thing. But in my mind this was just a first cousin of Icing, if getting on one knee and chugging a Smirnoff Ice also came with a suggested $10 donation to Kiva.

But I was wrong. Because there was nothing that wrong with it. Sure, it became a Harlem Shake–like fad for good, tapping into that bro adrenaline you’d hope would transfer to other causes (see: equal rights), but tens of millions of dollars donated to the ALS Association can be traced back to the challenge. And even though some claim the majority of people uploading videos weren’t actually donating, it’s hard to call it a net negative.

Also, Marshawn Lynch did it. So it must be a force for good.32

As for Taylor, let’s just say this: The only thing that could be more annoying than T-Swift is T-Swift doing the Ice Bucket Challenge. Which, had it ever happ—

Unavoidable. Diddyesque levels of “everywhere.” That’s Swift in 2014. But when you’re the first artist in 2014 to go platinum, you’ve arguably earned the right to declare yourself president of New York, duchess of the Metro-North, princess of the United States of America. And not just platinum, but platinum in the first week, the biggest first week in 12 years, with her album 1989.

How’d she do it? Three reasons: (1) She’s a sorceress, (2) she’s a genius, and (3) 1989 is a very good pop album.

Swift is about as interesting as a cauliflower sample sale, but failing to give her credit as a once-in-a-generation pop star would be pure hateration. And this bracket is not about hating, nor is it a dancerie. It’s about facts. And the truth. Because I am a disruptive millennial thought leader.33 This is about winning, and Taylor Swift is arguably the most powerful person in the music industry — the only person in America who has no idea that album sales have been aggressively slumping for the past decade — so she moves on. Easily.


Shonda goin’ up / On a Thursday.

That’s a rap joke.

Really funny rap jokes aside, Shondaday (formerly known as “Thursday”) is a real thing. And her Emanski-like back-to-back-to-back shows taking up three hours of television (8 p.m., Grey’s Anatomy; 9 p.m., Scandal; 10 p.m., How to Get Away With Murder) is just unreal. Like Norman Lear/Aaron Spelling levels of “this network needs me more than I need this network” unreal.

As for the McConaissance, much like Shondaday, we’re still very much living it. Even though his reascension began in 2013, Naked Texas Bongo Man won his Golden Globe and Academy Award in 2014 (for Dallas Buyers Club), accepted an award at the American Cinematheque Awards while he drank a beer and tended to his daughter, and starred in one of 2014’s biggest television events, True Detective, as well as one of the highest-grossing films of the year, Interstellar.


What we’ve got in this matchup is a beautiful thing: two fortysomethings (they’re two months apart) schooling beaucoup youngins with style and grace. But there is something Shonda has that Matthew just can’t touch. Sheer power. That “I can make you disappear” power. That “Katherine Heigl, your new name is ‘Cardboard Box’” power.34 Shonda has been a force in television for years, but 2014 — in addition to adding a third hit show — was the year Shonda truly began saying whatever was on her mind, with no fear of repercussion. Because you can’t hurt her.

She’s not Oprah powerful. But she’s en route. Which is why she advances.

This isn’t fun. Just know that I tried to rig this bracket so Lupita wouldn’t lose to Iggy in the first round. And I’ve failed you.

Lupita had a hell of a year. She won an Oscar (for 12 Years a Slave) and made one of the more memorable Academy Award speeches, became a fashion icon who seemingly could not falter, landed on numerous magazine covers, became the face of Lancôme, is set to star in the new Star Wars and the film adaptation of Beyoncé’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, made it into The Selfie, and is such a star that even her brother was allowed to rudely crash The Selfie.

140302-ellen-selfie_df30515d8c22eca3f956fb3c022c059eBut Iggy.


There’s only one woman in this bracket who’s dating Los Angeles Lakers legend Swaggy “Nick Young” P, and it’s Iggy Azalea.


If you want any idea of how monstrous and out of nowhere Iggy’s 2014 was, consider this: I just ctrl-F’d “Iggy” in last year’s bracket — a bracket won by cultural appropriation, let me remind you — and she didn’t even pop up.

Her song “Fancy,” with Charli XCX, is tied for the record of most consecutive weeks at no. 1 on the Hot Rap Songs Billboard Charts.35 Eighteen straight weeks. Four full months, May through August. In itself that makes for a landmark year, but then there was “Work”; “Black Widow,” with hologram Rita Ora (five weeks at no. 1 on the same chart); “Problem,” with Ariana Grande; “No Mediocre,” with her boss T.I.; and “Booty,” with Jennifer Lopez. The New Classic beat Aubrey Drake Graham’s Nothing Was the Same at the American Music Awards for “Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album,” and she’s nominated for four Grammys, all of which she will probably win, because why not.

Iggy’s 2014 Fantasy Hip-Hop stats are Calvin Johnson–esque, which upsets many people. I’m pretty sure “mad at Iggy” became a vertical at numerous websites (the infrastructure was already there; just had to replace the silhouette AVI of Macklemore). I truly understand and agree with a considerable percentage of the criticisms, mainly because Iggy’s not mind-blowingly great at her day job. But “great” is not an adjective that mattered — and certainly was not a prerequisite for winning — in 2014.

It seems only fitting, in the chorus of criticism that follows Iggy’s every move (some of which she has no control over, some of which she most certainly does), that she knocks International Black Sweetheart of the Year Lupita Nyong’o out of the bracket. In the first round.


But let the record show: Don’t blame me, blame Iggy.

I listened to the entire Serial podcast. I also listened to every song Drake was featured on in 2014. One of those things left me confused, intrigued, and frustrated. The other made me demand that music be played whenever I walk through halls. Ultimately, the person behind Serial, Sarah Koenig, had to put in a lot of work in order to create a phenomenon — to go from 0 to 100, IF YOU WILL. Drake, on the other hand, had arguably his most fun, interesting year to date. He co-headlined the Drake vs. Lil Wayne tour. He hosted Saturday Night Live and his performance was met with rave reviews. He made it impossible to forget about him, musically, landing on Lil Wayne’s “Believe Me,” YG’s “Who Do You Love?,” Nicki Minaj’s “Only,” and Young Money’s “Trophies.” And then the guy got two Grammy nominations for a song he put on SoundCloud (“0 to 100 / The Catch Up”), a third as a featured artist on Beyoncé, and a fourth for adding a much-needed verse to ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” (an artist he promptly signed to his label, OVO Sound).

Also, it’s worth noting that the beginning of Drake’s “Tuesday” verse is assumedly about Shonda Rhimes.

Squad goin’ up
Nobody flippin’ packs now
I just did three in a row
Them shows is back-to-back-to-back now

I can’t lie, this was pretty rude. It’s almost as if I put Serial in the bracket just to knock it out. But who knows? All that matters is that of course the winner is Aubrey, the best ESPYS host since Rob Riggle.

LeBron James’s 2014 can be summed up with two words: “loser,” “hero.”

His Miami Heat got embarrassed in the NBA Finals in five games by a collection of substitute teachers from San Antonio. And just like that, the dynasty in South Beach was over. LeBron was unable to pull off the three-peat like Jordan and Kobe. So he left.

This would all be embarrassing had he not completely owned the hero narrative by returning to Cleveland. Just look at this spectacle.

Good lord.

Yep, I’m convinced. Related: just flipped a table.

There’s NO WAY Cleveland deserved this man twice. And even as the Cavs stumble in the beginning of the season, and LeBron’s cosign of fellow Cleveland athlete Johnny Manziel is even more embarrassing than losing to the Spurs in five, this is still a landmark year for King James.

Going against LeBron is the future that arrived way earlier than expected: drones. This time last year, I remember laughing at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos when he made the mere mention of drones, transforming their use from war machine to book-delivery robot. Twelve months later, I’m trying to decide if I want to buy one online or at my bodega. In a year dominated by seeing and hearing things you weren’t supposed to see and hear — being spied on or being a spy — drones encapsulated how privacy and the protection of privacy manifested itself in 2014. No one wants to be spied on, but everyone wants to know what others are up to, especially if you think the “others” are spying on you.

This is only the beginning with drones. Next year, as the topic of how they’re regulated intensifies, you get the feeling they’ll eventually be talked about along the same lines as certain drugs and other sometimes-legal “vices.” But that’s 2015. Right now, however, they’re facing LeBron James, a man who actually touched Kate Middleton’s shoulder with his American athlete hand.

Screenshot 2014-12-19 15.18.18

Big win for LeBron, big win for America. He moves on.

Richard Sherman might not even be the best player on his team, but he was the most important person in the NFL in 2014. Use whatever adjective you want to describe him, but the one that sets him apart is that he’s a complete troll — but for good. In order to be a troll for good, you have to be fully confident that you’re smarter than those who wish to control you. You have to occasionally be willing to take hits financially to call out the hypocrisies around you. And you have to believe that in the court of public opinion — you versus overlords — you will win. Every time.

That’s Sherman’s 2014. And he’s not only one of the few who can pull this off in the NFL, but across the entire landscape of professional sports.

He’s not too far from someone like Shonda Rhimes or Chris Rock, using his platform to actually say what’s on his mind. As the personal brand of a celebrity continues to grow in importance, we get further away from truly knowing how our superstars actually feel and think about things. It’s why Sherman’s 2014, from his response to being called a “thug” to his not-so-subtle shots at the NFL, is so important.

It’s a shame he’s going against something prepared to go beast mode all over this bracket: FOOTAGE.


It’s a blurry image and you know exactly what it is. Because we spent our year hearing and looking at things we weren’t supposed to see. Things not meant for public consumption. There’s been so much that it’s almost hard to account for the sheer number of giant stories that centered on a “tape.” The Donald Sterling recordings. The Eric Garner video. Ray Rice in the elevator. Spending weeks speculating what Solange was saying to Jay Z in that elevator.

You couldn’t go too long without something surfacing. And whenever it did, it felt odd to become so captivated — but we couldn’t help ourselves.

Sherman had a great year, the first of many, I’m sure. But it’s hard to even consider this year without the sheer amount of footage that typically remains private. Which is why it’s moving on.


Remember Sochi? Of course not. Anyway, there was an even-year, non-warm-weather Olympics in 2014. In this Olympics, there were a bunch of events that humans competed in, humans from like 12 countries, most from the same cul-de-sac. Canada is one of those countries. And in hockey, the Canadian men’s and women’s teams came through and swept, which put a big frownie face on the United States’s collective knucklepuck. It was impressive.

So yeah, TMZ advances.

ICYMI, marijuana is here to stay. Legally. And even where it’s illegal to some degree, there’s still an overall feeling that no one really feels like fighting this battle anymore. Even people like mayors and police commissioners.

news-conference-nypd-marijuana-policy (1)

In 2014, it was legalized for recreational use in Washington, D.C.; Alaska; and Oregon, all of which join Colorado and Washington state as the stankiest places to live in the United States. Also, Congress just proved, in its $1.1 trillion federal appropriations bill, that it’s secretly super into medical marijuana or something like that.

Screenshot 2014-12-18 22.48.56


Screenshot 2014-12-18 22.52.26

What a year. Just an incredible run that icky is having.

Going against alcohol 2.0 is Jennifer Lawrence. She stars in two of the seven highest-grossing films of the year, X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1. She’s still terrifyingly popular, so much so that she doesn’t have to trip on her dress anymore. And she’s getting to a point where she can’t seem to miss on film.

But then a terrible thing happened. Lots and lots and lots of her private photos were hacked and put online. It was an absolute violation of privacy and one of the more disrespectful, embarrassing things that can happen to someone. Even while having done nothing wrong, it still wasn’t clear how she’d respond to this breach, and if her somewhat edgy-yet-perfect reputation would suffer.

It didn’t. All of this happened before 2014 Katniss. And weeks after its release, Mockingjay is still doing ’04 Confessions numbers.

But reputation isn’t everything. Regardless of how she’s perceived, she was still terribly violated. And even if your fans stay with you and you’re somehow even more revered than before, a violation is rarely ever a win.

Lawrence is very good at making it into the bracket. She’s also great at not making it that far. And for a third year, she’s out earlier than the experts predicted. This year it’s not on her, but as I will continue to articulate in every dialect I can quickly learn, terrible things happened this year.

This is a matchup for the kids. It basically is, what’s more fun: being 19 or 26?

Vine represents a certain type of freedom, the ability to express yourself in an easily digestible format. Venmo represents some form of new adulthood, this idea that you’re not ashamed to borrow money, because you can always pay them back, because you probably have some money in your account, and because you’re completely fine with the idea of these transactions playing out to some extent in public.

If you talk to people in their forties, chances are neither will register much. It’s very clear that the Vine target audience is teens and young adults.36 Who uses Venmo is a little more subtle, until you take a step back and think about its three most essential functions:

1. Someone opened a tab at the bar and wants to leave it open but most certainly needs 80 percent of that money back the next day in order to buy coffee.

2. Only one of the three people sharing this apartment are actually on the lease, so that person writes the full check and everyone else TEXTS TWELVE HUNDRED DOLLARS BECAUSE THAT’S SAFE.

3. Someone bought something from a different someone in a Chipotle parking lot for a group of people to share.

One of the things that separates the two is that Vine has proven that it’s not a fad. That it’s very much here to stay. That even if you don’t use it actively, as an uploader of content, it can be used as one of your foremost mediums of entertainment. A world in which one doesn’t have a television but looks at Vines all day is a very real world.

Venmo still has to prove its staying power.37 In terms of gaining traction as a “must-have” app, 2014 was a huge year for Venmo. But 2014 was the year Vine became much bigger than just an app. It’s an all-out wing of media. Which is why it’s moving on.



Here’s a quote from Bloomberg Politics:

2014 was not NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s finest year. Yet despite numerous scandals involving domestic violence, child abuse, drug raids and even a Bloomberg Politics poll that showed 50 percent of Americans don’t want their sons playing football, Goodell was never really in trouble.

I was ready to make the point that even if Goodell isn’t in trouble, the NFL is certainly struggling. And then I learned that viewership is actually up this year. So you can’t even knock him down a notch on that front.

Goodell is the embodiment of the failing-upward spirit of 2014. Incompetence, perceived dishonesty, and scandals left and right don’t matter if you keep making the people you technically work for, the rich owners, even richer owners. He’s so winning, in this, one of the NFL’s worst PR years ever.

If there’s anything that’s the opposite of Goodell, it’s the San Antonio Spurs. They’re the always-good, team-first giant killers that not only won the NBA championship, but ended an era. They broke up the Big Three of James, Wade, and Bosh. And they make a strong claim that they’re a dynasty (five titles in 15 years). A dynasty, now, with Becky Hammon, the first full-time female assistant coach in any of the four major professional sports.

But, as always with the Spurs, their excellence is never the front-page story. Even when they win, the takeaway story is the losers. As for Goodell, when he loses, he seems to win even more. Which is depressing. And a perfect embodiment of this year. Which is why, unfortunately, he marches on.

There’s rude and then there’s what Germany did to host Brazil in the World Cup semifinals.


It’s a legendary shellacking. It’s like getting invited over for Thanksgiving dinner, then parking on the lawn, not flushing, and stealing all the food before your uncle shows up to say grace.

And to rub it in, Germany went on to win the World Cup. And then, somehow, after topping the mountain, it found a taller mountain. And made it to the top of that mountain. Mount Rih.

If this bracket were “Who Won July 2014?,” every entrant would be Germany. And Germany would play Germany in the final. And Germany would win.

But that’s just July.

New NBA commissioner Adam Silver had to be great all year. Unlike his NFL counterpart, Silver was unproven. He’d have to handle everything as close to perfectly as possible, for both his own sake and that of the league he was running.

About three months in, he had to deal with Donald Sterling. It was a scandal involving an owner, which immediately made it a scandal involving the commissioner. Silver’s play was to ban an NBA owner from the league. For life. The almost universal response to his shocking decision: long live Adam Silver.

He’s done a lot of other notable things in 2014, but the handling of his first major crisis will long define how history sees his tenure as commissioner, which so far is an example of what can happen when power is wielded for good. He was one of the feel-good winners of 2014, which undoubtedly feels more true when contrasted with his American football counterpart.

For that, he moves on, beating the Germans. Two commissioners, moving on in the region dubbed “Handsome and Wealthy.”

Roger Goodell and Adam Silver

As they say, handsome is in the eye of the wealthy beholder.

This is a perfect example of why you can’t do end-of-the-year roundups too early. Life doesn’t stop because the Internet is making lists. Case in point: Bobby Shmurda.

This is Shmurda, in New York Magazine, representing reasons to love New York by way of “Because New York Rap Is Awesomely Weird.”

Screenshot 2014-12-19 09.33.30

This partially makes sense, because a guy named Shmurda whose name slant rhymes with “murder” gave the country one of the feel-good dances of the year with the “Hot N​-​-​-​-”–inspired Shmoney Dance.

It started with the video, then the dubbed-over R&B Vines, and eventually made its way to real celebrities of all kinds doing the dance, one defined by utter indifference and sass absolute. Just look at Swaggy P and DeMarcus Cousins.

This is how big it got — the USA men’s basketball team did the Shmoney Dance after winning the 2014 FIBA World Cup, not to the corresponding song, but to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

It was a phenomenon. And chances were, if you were in a place that would play it once, they’d play it seven times.

But Shmurda was arrested on December 17 on a series of gun-related charges, along with 14 other members of his GS9 crew, as part of a narcotics sting. The level of enjoyment gained from listening to “Hot N​-​-​-​-” and the act of carrying out the dance has dropped exponentially. Because the sheer passive hope that what he’s saying in the song wouldn’t catch up to him didn’t prove to be enough.

So the dance isn’t advancing. It was so close to making it out of 2014, but it didn’t. I’m going to save my thoughts for role model and Taney Dragons pitcher Mo’ne Davis for the next round. Enjoy this rare bye, MDot. You were probably going to win anyway, but feel free to tweet at me or double tap some of my Instas.

If there’s one thing that truly benefited from a year of fear and tragedy, it’s the 24-hour news networks. And of those outlets, CNN stood above the rest. Which is not a compliment.

Robin Williams dying? That’s a ground-rule double. Riots in America? A stand-up triple. A MISSING PLANE? Back-to-back-to-back grand slam walk-off home runs in Game 7 of the World Series.

Good people work at CNN and there are good shows at CNN, put there assuredly in an attempt to balance out the US Weekly–esque coverage of strife and sorrow. But it doesn’t outweigh the bad, and the public truly began to take notice of the opportunistic tendencies this year. One of the catalysts: Ferguson protesters in St. Louis and throughout the country.

It wasn’t just CNN — many wings of the media were appropriately lambasted for so blatantly wishing for ruin so they’d have something to put on air, on a blog, and in a photo gallery. But, again, CNN was the most visible outlet, and also the most deserving of criticism.

Who can forget CNN accidentally airing a “Fuck CNN” chant:

(Don’t gloss over the best part, the cut back to Anderson Cooper, who chalked it up to people “playing for the cameras,” because #kettle.)

There was also Track 2 of the greatest hits, “You are Promoting a Certain Narrative.”

And never forget Tracks 3-150, which are anything involving a camera, an audio feed, and Don Lemon reporting.

Speaking of Lemon, in 2014, he became the official face of the decline of CNN. But like those before him in this bracket who righteously failed up in 2014 (Iggy, Goodell, CNN itself), he’s getting stronger with every act of victim blaming and declaration of respectability politics.


Few things this year were as undeniably powerful as CNN, but protesters were most certainly one of those things. In the fourth quarter alone, cities were taken over by people — upset, fed-up people. Often thought to be apathetic, this generation that brands and politicians refer to as “millennials” has proven, offline, that they care. And that they’re willing to risk discomfort and even punishment to stand up for what they — we — believe in.

The protests aren’t perfect, but they are influential and have a profound ability to disrupt. And, if anything, there’s more of a need than ever to get out there, to participate, and to see what’s happening with your own eyes when you’re not convinced you can trust what you’re seeing on television.

Protesters found a way to overcome CNN in real life in 2014. Which is why they’re taking down the network in this bracket.

This is a throwback bracket matchup: two people who actually did great things and, because of it, had great years. The notion seems so simple, analogue even. John Oliver went from The Guy With the British Accent on The Daily Show to Wait, the British Daily Show Guy Is Going to Be a Talk Show Host to John Oliver Might Be the Best Host on Television, all in one year. Last Week Tonight, on paper, doesn’t work. Between it being hosted by Oliver, landing on HBO instead of one of the prime-time networks or basic cable, attempting to tackle an entire week’s worth of news in a 30-minute block, not always booking the most famous guests (and often not even having guests), everything had to land perfectly for it to work.

And it regularly did. Because the strength is in his segments. Segments that take place on Sunday dominate the next day’s Internet watercooler (do they still make these?), and are relevant until the following Sunday’s slate of segments. And in these segments, his ability to nail the takedown is couched in his gift of seeming genuinely fed up with nearly anything. Like this one, on sugar:

Against Oliver, Chris Pratt. 2014 was never supposed to happen for Chris Pratt. Which is not to say he was supposed to die before 2014, but that he wasn’t supposed to become Earth’s biggest leading man. Pratt was the top-billed actor in two of the top four grossing films of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie. 


I know. You and me both, Andy Dwyer from Parks and Rec, who is actually Chris Pratt, Earth’s biggest leading man.

Am I going to advance Pratt over Oliver because he’s an inspiration to people who aren’t initially taken seriously? To people who, with the right haircut and facial grooming technique, can finally be invited to gala events? Yes. Yes I am. Sorry, John. Maybe work on your rags-to-riches narrative and get back to me in 2015. BECAUSE @PRATTPRATTPRATT and I are going all the way.

You know the saying “The early bird gets the worm”? That’s true, except for this bracket. The longer and longer in December I wait to begin, the more accurate it’s going to be with regard to crowning the one true winner. Two weeks ago, Uber wins this matchup. Why? Because Uber is now a verb. And that’s a big deal. But then hackers, who were already having a big ol’ rude year, crippled Sony via email hacks and then got a major motion picture, The Interview, temporarily canceled. And then, just to top it off, Uber’s very unsympathetic crisis surge pricing finally made international news, as price hikes took place during a hostage situation in Sydney. And then it announced a $2 booking fee ON THE LAST GREAT THING ON THIS EARTH, UberT. Uber will continue to fail up as its PR blunders coincide with becoming increasingly powerful, but this ninth-inning run by hackers is just too much to defeat.

Also, considering the worst thing Uber could do to a hacker is triple a fare, I think hackers have the upper hand, especially since they could turn around and probably delete Uber from everyone’s phones in four minutes. (I have no idea how hackers work, but I’m assuming they can do anything and I wouldn’t dare kick them out in the first round. Are you crazy?)

#BringBackOurGirls. #BlackLivesMatter. #UmbrellaRevolution. #Ferguson. #ICantBreathe.

This was the year the hashtag finally grew up. The year it blossomed out of the confines of simply an aggregator and became a catalyst for movements. Or the name of the movements themselves. 2014 was the year grassroots activists realized they couldn’t proceed without the Internet, as well as the year the Internet decided it wanted to actually cause change and would consider walking away from a computer to do so. So they met in the middle, and that middle was the hashtag. And while movements and protests and attempts to cause change would have happened to some degree without these hashtags, there’s no ignoring how powerful it is to rally around one word, one phrase, one message.

Tinder’s dope if you enjoy doing thumb exercises on your phone while you poop (there’s a good “swipe” pun to be made somewhere in there). But, unfortunately, that’s just not going to get it done against many mini-revolutions. #HASHTAGTIVISM (a portmanteau of #Hash and #Tagtivism) is off to the Sweet 16.

Let’s cut to the chase. This comes down to who is more influential to society at the end of 2014: Taylor Swift or Shonda Rhimes. Taylor’s richer, Taylor’s more popular, Taylor’s probably more powerful, but somehow Taylor’s opinion still doesn’t seem to matter.

Take it away, Chappelle:

Stop worshiping celebrities so much. Just don’t pay attention. I remember right around September 11, Ja Rule was on MTV. That’s what they said. “We got Ja Rule on the phone. Let’s see what Ja’s thoughts are on this tragedy.” Who gives a fuck what Ja Rule thinks at a time like this, n​ -​-​-​-, this is ridiculous. I don’t wanna dance. I’m scared to death. I want some answers that Ja Rule might not have right now. You think when bad shit happens to me, I be in the crib like “Ohh my god this is terrible. Could somebody please find Ja Rule? Get hold of this motherfucker so I can make sense of all this. Where is Ja? Find me Ja Rule.”

Sub out “Ja” for “Tay” and it works eerily well.

And then there’s Shonda. Outside of her shows — shows that do make her insanely powerful — her year has been littered with making statements that have either been conversation shifters or the final word. She gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth and told everyone that “a hashtag is not helping,” followed later by “don’t be an asshole.” She received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award from The Hollywood Reporter and gave a speech addressing the glass ceiling while paying tribute to the female trailblazers who helped make her career possible. She was called an “Angry Black Woman” by New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley and instead of attacking Stanley, sent a few tweets and let Stanley dig her own quasi-Internet quasi-apology grave. She’s getting lifetime achievement awards. And when something happens in the culture and she tweets about it, Shonda’s opinion becomes news.

Screenshot 2014-12-19 18.35.14

Taylor’s tweets also become news. But, as you can see, comparing Shonda and Taylor is like comparing apples and oranges.

Screenshot 2014-12-19 18.37.51

I have no vested interest in taking anything away from Taylor Swift. But two years ago Taylor Swift was an entertainer, last year Taylor Swift was an entertainer, and this year Taylor Swift is an entertainer.

Shonda, in the past year, has become a cultural force. And she’s got answers that neither Ja Rule nor Taylor have. Throughout 2014, we’ve collectively been like “get ahold of this motherfucker [Shonda] so I can make sense of this.” And she’s delivered, voluntarily, in a way few celebrities do. And for that, she shakes Taylor off and does the wobble into the Elite Eight.

The winner of this, a musician versus a musician, goes against Shonda. And Shonda just knocked out Taylor, arguably the biggest musician of the year. So, being quite realistic about this, there’s no way Iggy or Drake beats Shonda. Because Shonda is not playing. Shonda has no time for these ’80s babi—

Screenshot 2014-12-19 18.48.46

Shonda versus Amethyst? Oh yes. This feels right.

But before I give it to Iggy, mostly because I like the idea of Shonda beating Iggy more than Shonda giving Aubrey side-eye until he takes his elbows off the table, there is one reason that Iggy actually wins this matchup. They’re going head to head at the Grammys. And if Iggy wins the Grammy, she’s a winner because she won a Grammy. And if she loses the Grammy, she also wins because she won’t have to deal with people denouncing her entire existence, calling her “Chriggstopher Columbus” or whatever the kids are saying these days.

But if Drake loses to Iggy, Drake is CORNY.

Grammy advantage: Iggy. Iggy advances to face Shonda, which I, for one, am so excited for.

Yes, LeBron saved the city of Cleveland from being traded to Real Madrid for cash, but his winning in 2014 isn’t only defined by his move back home. He’s becoming that superstar athlete who transcends the playing of a sport. And not just in popularity, but in impact. He’s the star who knows his fellow athletes are taking cues from his actions, the star who knows if he speaks up, the league will be forced to take note and even listen and change its ways.

LeBron picks his spots. And in 2014 he picked well. As in, he seemed authentic. He stated “there is no room for Donald Sterling in our league” and after the Darren Wilson non-indictment, he Instagrammed an illustration of Mike Brown walking, arms over shoulders, with Trayvon Martin.

These are all things he doesn’t have to do — potentially polarizing things — but this year he embraced his leadership role within the NBA, within professional sports, and as a powerful black American. It’s been fascinating to watch him come into his own in this regard.

And if he had not lost in five games to the Spurs, he might have stood a chance against footage.

It’s pretty incredible that the Atlanta Hawks now have the first chief diversity and inclusion officer in the NBA, Nzinga Shaw, all stemming from an email that led to the release of an audio recording in which the GM of the Hawks, Danny Ferry, maybe/absolutely insinuated that Luol Deng’s African heritage (“he’s got some African in him”) suggests either he’s not who he seems, is not to be trusted, and/or is a fraud (“he has a storefront out front that’s beautiful and great, but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you”).

But let’s look for silver linings in 2014: At least there’s now a chief diversity and inclusion officer. Who knows how long that would have taken had Ferry not been snitched on and the tape of his views on the connections between being African and being shady not been made public?

And this might not even be a top-10 moment in which audio and video footage brought the news cycle to a standstill. Which is why it will continue to trample over very good athletes. Bye, LeBron. See you next year.

This was the first year it was widely acknowledged that TMZ not only would be first, but that TMZ would also be correct. That, in itself, is a gigantic win for the website (and a sizable loss for any other outlet that prides itself in breaking stories). How TMZ gets its information, who knows? But in this, a very hit-or-miss-or-miss-or-miss-or-miss year for online reporting, the question of standards is a universal concern, not just at the Harvey Levin empire.

Not only did TMZ break the Sterling–V. Stiviano story, but it posted the video of Ray Rice attacking his then-fiancée in the elevator. Footage, made public by TMZ, was one of the stories of 2014.

The only thing standing in its way is Legal Weed.

But it’s not really standing in its way. The only way TMZ gets knocked out this early in 2014 is if weed had been legalized in all 50 states and Barack Obama renamed his daughters Hasha and Malijuana. ONLY THEN.

So there it is. TMZ vs. Footage. Which is confusing to parse out, because they’re so interconnected.

A quote:

“Last year Taylor Swift was an entertainer, and this year Taylor Swift is an entertainer.” —Rembert Browne, about six to eight minutes ago, depending on how slowly you’re reading this

This year’s Taylor Swift is even bigger than last year’s Taylor Swift. But, at the core, she’s still purely entertainment. And even though Vine became an increasingly important tool for protesters to upload footage, for the most part, “pure entertainment” is also where Vine falls. In a year during which even the most joyous things could be looked at through a cynical lens, Vine found a way to escape that. In some ways, Vine was one of the great, highly necessary tools of distraction in 2014.

The bad things that Vine helped distract you from were the bad things that also distracted you from Roger Goodell. And did he ever have bad-thing distraction after bad-thing distraction in 2014, yet another reason why he won so tremendously this year. Even other members of his 1 percent club, like Sterling, bailed him out. Goodell surely got lucky this year, but that’s only half the story. The thing is, he has all the life cheat codes — codes that allow him to keep his job and elite standard of living, no matter what he does, no matter what he says, and no matter what he doesn’t do or say.

That Roger Goodell still has a job as 2014 comes to a close is proof that everything’s out of balance.38 It’s proof we (non-Goodells) can say anything and everything about him, but our tweets at @nflcommish aren’t really going to do much. Or at least they didn’t in 2014.

In a year that brought unheralded amounts of shame to the NFL, the league’s owners could have fired Roger Goodell. But the NFL owners did not fire Roger Goodell. So Roger wins.

Look at this:

Screenshot 2014-12-21 18.12.32

Notice anything? Of course you do. Mo’ne Davis: NOT VERIFIED.

Now look at this:

Screenshot 2014-12-21 18.15.26

This sums up 2014 and Mo’ne Davis. We got more from her than she got from us. Everyone seemingly had a plan, a suggested narrative, an opinion about who she is and what she wants, the 13-year-old pitching phenom. And Mo’ne has consistently responded by not playing the game we’ve attempted to trap her in, the game we play with every other inspirational celebrity in the history of ever.

I’m sure Twitter has asked Mo’ne if she wanted to be verified. And while unconfirmed, I would not be surprised if Mo’ne was like, “Nah.”

“I’m good.”

“I’m 13.”

“None of my friends are verified, but thanks for asking.”

Easily one of the sports stories of the year, Mo’ne beasting tween fools in the Little League World Series turned her into a phenomenon. Look at her, striking out the side during a two-hit shutout.

But it wasn’t just on the field. Off the field, be it in the dugout or on camera, she was as impressive as she was on the mound. She wasn’t a child (ignorant of her position in society and just happy to be there) and she wasn’t an adult (unwilling to accept the responsibility that goes with her suddenly elevated position). Mo’ne is a unicorn, the rare sports superstar who got it.

Mo’ne, on the media:

I can always say no, so that’s like my special weapon for the media.

Mo’ne, on being a role model:

I never thought that I would be a role model at this age. It was kind of shocking to me when I first came down to watch a game. There was a crowd of people. I was kind of nervous but I was, like, excited for it. So I just have to be myself.

Mo’ne, on creepy adults:

People were like, “Oh, there are going to be people running up to you taking pictures,” and I thought it was going to be a bunch of little kids. But it’s grown-ups! And that’s, like, creepy.

An absolute legend. Already.

Going against Mo’ne is NBA commissioner Adam Silver.


This is Silver and Davis, flanked by a tall man and a short man, at the SI Sportsman of the Year event.

Knowing Silver — which I don’t — he doesn’t want to knock Mo’ne out of the bracket. But knowing Mo’ne — which I don’t — I know she’s not out here to be the centerpiece of some dumb Internet experiment.

A major difference between the two is that Silver is forced to care about the way he’s perceived, whereas Mo’ne is just Mo’ne. She doesn’t have the time to be bothered with anything beyond the nonessentials. Every move Silver makes, on the contrary, is under scrutiny. Which is as it should be.

Mo’ne came out of nowhere, became a darling, and then did everything right, further establishing herself as important. Silver began in the red and had to spend the entire year working his way to a place where he could be trusted. He’s in an easily criticized position, and these days we expect the worst from a commissioner.

And somehow, he became a respected, trusted, and at times beloved character in 2014. Not as much as Mo’ne (impossible), but he went above and beyond the call of duty. Between the handling of Sterling, writing New York Times op-eds on the need to legalize and regulate professional sports betting, and picking Mark Tatum as the NBA’s deputy commissioner and COO, Silver commissioned like a man who wants his league to mirror the times.

In 2014, Silver needed to convince us that he was a winner, and he did. So he’s moving on. Selfishly, we’re all the real winners when it comes to Mo’ne, because we got Mo’ne. She’ll be OK, though. Because she’s above this. And Goodell doesn’t deserve her as an opponent. Also, she’s got Snapchats to send and bat mitzvahs to attend. Having her lose is for the better.

This is a safe space, so I’ll just be honest. When I wrote the first-round entry for Chris Pratt, I hadn’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy. Then I procrastinated for a few days between writing the Round of 32 and Sweet 16, and in that time period, finally learned what all the Groot fuss was about.

That movie is incredible and Pratt is incredible. And he’s good in this way that you know it’s not a fluke. Even beyond the 17 future Guardians movies I’m sure they’ll make, he’s got something to him — a humor even in serious situations, a Clooney-esque streak — that is going to work as long as great scripts are thrown his way. Which I’m sure they will be. For years to come.

And just like that, I’m out of things to say about Pratt. There’s no world in which a nation divided by the act of protesting loses to Pratt, a man many people have opinions on, many more don’t, and a handful do but are actually talking about Chris Pine. Being a protester, the act of protesting, and countrywide protests have become one of the stories of the second half of 2014, with seemingly everyone having an opinion, either as a participant, as an onlooker, or as one vehemently against the act of this type of disturbance.39 Either way, the impact is being felt. The sheer fact that protesting is back in the culture as an effective way to get a message across is huge. Of the unpredictable things that became realities in 2014, the reemergence of the protester is up there, if not at the top of the list. So it moves on.

We’ll always have the first round, @prattprattpratt. Weird how I knocked you out after seeing you being amazing in that amazing movie. Yes, I know the saying “life comes at you fast,” @prattprattpratt. And yes, this would apply to you right now. Sorry, man.

If there are two things in this bracket that cannot be judged simply in black and white, it’s hacking and activism by way of the hashtag.

There are hackers for good (white hat) and hackers for bad (black hat), hackers who leak things that need to be leaked, hackers who are out to entrap, and hackers with the sole goal of stopping other hackers. It’s very confusing. Unfortunately for hackers, the idea of winning is complicated because there doesn’t seem to be any common goal — or a clear idea of what a “win” would even be. It’s clear some hacks don’t represent the entire community of those doing the hacking, but this year, the most high-profile, privacy-invading, nefarious ones got the most press, and thus defined the species.

And then there’s Hashtagtivism. On the Internet, becoming part of a movement sometimes obscures the actual goals of the movement. Being on the right side of history, on Twitter, rarely translates to a world beyond sitting behind a laptop and typing. But in 2014, the “slacktivist” concept began to wilt.

We got to a point, by the end of 2014, when we had both #ICantBreathe and #ICanBreathe trending at the same time. It was hashtag activism becoming political, using one hashtag activist movement to take down another hashtag activist movement. This happened online, but the conflict was also out in the streets, shouted by those protesting and standing up for themselves.

Hackers definitely left their mark on 2014, but in just a 12-month period, it seems as if much of the edginess that once surrounded the idea of the breach has given way to panic that surrounds blackmail (threatening Iggy Azalea with a leaked sex tape), humiliation (stolen celebrity nude photos), and fearmongering (threatening violence on any movie theater that showed The Interview). While that’s certainly what some people want, the world of hackers as a truth-seeking unit took a hit in 2014. Because this was the year that hacking almost becoming synonymous with cyberterrorism.

That’s not how you get a win. Also, The Interview eventually was released, so that whole fear thing didn’t really work out. Sorry, but I just made the call on that. So that’s the end of the road for hackers.


Before going on, yes, I will address the rumors that this is working out a little “too” perfectly. Footage vs. TMZ? Protests vs. Hashtag Activism? ROGER GOODELL VS. ADAM SILVER?

I see where you’re coming from, letter writers. But riddle me this: Shonda vs. Iggy? What sense does that make? None, right? What point am I trying to prove with that? Answer: There is no point. Things just work out the way they were meant to sometimes. Kind of like when Serena and Venus would somehow play each other in a Grand Slam final.

My spokeswoman has something to communicate regarding this scandal, on my behalf.

Screenshot 2014-12-21 22.20.02

Thank you, Beyoncé. I couldn’t ask for a better JPEG spokeswoman if I tried.

For a considerable chunk of 2014, Iggy has been in the middle of a cyclical debate pertaining to the “whitewashing” of black culture, this idea of a white artist finding her or himself in a once-maligned, now mainstream black medium and achieving levels of success that a black counterpart typically does not (or cannot) achieve.

She’s long been called out about this by critics, but as the year has raced to a close, it’s increasingly become her fellow artists who are joining in. Iggy’s beef with fellow rapper Azealia Banks is seemingly never-ending. And then there was A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip, who went elder statesman on Iggy, giving her a lesson on hip-hop over Twitter. When it comes to Banks, Iggy has pushed back, which would be admirable had it not been so dismissive, which as you could guess, has not helped her cause.

Screenshot 2014-12-22 10.32.40

Getting into the intricacies of this back-and-forth is a tangent that would get away from the task at hand (declaring Shonda the winner), but there is a takeaway from Iggy’s 2014 that is connected to Shondaland: this idea of proving your worth.

Is it fair, having to do more than some of your peers to be respected? No.

Is it fair, having to go out of your way to prove your legitimacy, when others around you are granted a pass? No.

Is it fair, having to convince the public you’re not a fraud? No.

What seems to rub so many the wrong way is that Iggy doesn’t seem to acknowledge that many others live in this unfair world. And when it comes to getting respect, black artists — especially black female artists — constantly live in a world where they have to do more, prove more, convince more just to be taken seriously. Taken as seriously as someone like Iggy Azalea.

Someone like a Shonda Rhimes couldn’t just hop off the bus in Hollywood and start demanding prime-time airspace for her show ideas in a world of powerful white men. She had to do more than her peers to be respected, and she had to go out of her way to prove her legitimacy in order for there to eventually be a land of Shonda called Shondaland. Was it fair she had to jump through more hoops? No. But we don’t live in a fair society. But Shonda still got it done.

Which is why Shonda advances to the Final Four.

I set this up to seem controversial and complicated, but this is actually a pretty simple decision. TMZ gave us some of our most important audio and video footage of the year.

But there was footage that was not TMZ-related that changed the course of 2014. Some of the year’s most brutal imagery — things you never want to see — like Staten Island’s Eric Garner being put in an unsanctioned chokehold and killed, were not spread via TMZ but instead by way of a man, Ramsey Orta, sharing his video from his phone with the Daily News. The video of Tamir Rice being shot in Cleveland or John Crawford being shot near Dayton were both captured by surveillance cameras, though not aired by TMZ. This is the footage that proved what many have long believed to be true, that the relationship between the police and black men is often anchored in suspicion, fear, and in some cases, complete lack of regard for human life. And in large part because of the existence of these videos, the country has exploded.

It all comes back to the footage. And while the celebrity audio and video that TMZ did unearth helped define the year, it’s even bigger than TMZ. Which is why TMZ’s run is over in the Elite Eight.

Nice guys finish last. For now.

When it’s all said and done, I believe history will look at this moment — two polar-opposite professional sports commissioners representing two very different models on how to lead and will remember Adam Silver in the most favorable light. But this shit right here — this is not history. This is right now. And of these two men, one was a good boss and the other is a borderline dictator.

Not many people win in a dictatorship. Which is why Roger Goodell won in 2014.

This is how powerful Roger Goodell is: I’m not convinced that he can’t fire Adam Silver. How that would even happen, I haven’t the first clue, but after everything that happened in 2014 that didn’t disrupt his path to becoming a more powerful commissioner, why not?

So there it is. Roger Goodell beats Adam Silver because Roger Goodell could probably fire Adam Silver.

And yes, if you’re keeping score, one of the four finalists in Who Won 2014 is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Told you this bracket was dark.

Remember 2011?


It was a groundbreaking year for the protester in 2014, but we’ve been here before. What is being protested, condemned, and marched about has changed, but what happened in 2014 isn’t a new phenomenon. Two of the primary reasons 2014’s acts of protests are different than years past are because of the footage we have to support anger and the laundry list of movements that have gained steam and branded themselves by way of hashtags online.

“I Can’t Breathe” has been one of the foundations of protests in many cities across the country. But that doesn’t happen without #ICantBreathe, nor does it happen without the gut-wrenching tape of Garner pleading for his life.

This is one of those moments when “win” isn’t really the right word. So many of these protests come from a place of pain, as do these movements that began online.

What has happened, however, is a reversal of fortune. Hashtag activism has long engendered backlash, but slowly it found ways to legitimize itself in 2014. Even moments like the recent argument that protesters (and the support of protests) are responsible for things such as anti-cop sentiments, which are then responsible for the killing of cops, were just a setback. It doesn’t diminish their importance, but it does makes the protests pawns in a blame game.

Eventually, these protests will result in a win. And hopefully that’ll come in 2015. But in 2014, in a moment of heightened emotion, these hashtags — online and in the streets — got people to rally around the same message and gave moment after moment much-needed solidarity. And for that, they move on to the Final Four.

This run of Shonda’s has been one for the ages. Defeating McConaughey, Swift, and Azalea is almost like Tiger at the 1997 Masters, taking out a team full of Toms (Kite, Tolles, Watson) to win his first major.

Almost like Tiger. Because Tiger won that tournament. And golf is very different from this bracket. And at the Masters, Tiger didn’t have to face off against Sauron.

Actually, the only real way it’s the same as Tiger is that a bunch of white people got beat in a game they don’t usually lose. There really aren’t any other parallels.


You scared, Roger?


Here’s a leaked conversation between myself and Roger Goodell after I told him he might win this bracket:

Browne, R: Roger, you’re almost in the final.
Goodell, R: Of what?
Browne, R: My bracket for Grantland.
Goodell, R: What’s Grantland?
Browne, R: Bill Simmons’s site.
Goodell, R: Who’s Bill Simmons?
Browne, R: You know … ESPN.
Goodell, R: What’s ESPN?
Browne, R: Whatever. Anyway, you beat the Spurs.
Goodell, R: What is the Spurs?
Goodell, R: What’s the NBA?
Browne, R: You’re insane. After that, you beat Vine.
Goodell, R: Oh, I LOVE VINE. Was it close?
Browne, R: You know what Vine is? And no, you destroyed Vine.
Goodell, R: That’s too bad. “Do it for the vine, do it do it for the vine.”
Browne, R: And then you beat Adam Silver.
Goodell, R: Of course I did, I just fired him.
Goodell, R: Duh.
Browne, R: And now you’re up against Shonda Rhimes.
Goodell, R: Ooh, Scandal lady?
Browne, R: Yeah. I don’t know, Roger, she might have you beat.
Goodell, R: I want to beat her.
Browne, R: But–
Goodell, R: She’s out.
Browne, R: This isn’t your–
Goodell, R: I’ll make you and Shonda disappear.
Goodell, R: Wait, who are you again?

When you’re Roger Goodell, you hear and see only what you want to hear and see. And the same goes for the people you keep around you. So, in Goodell’s inner circle, he’s probably killing it. So, in that sense, Goodell thinks he’s killing it. Because, for what it’s worth, Goodell’s still killing it.

Shonda, this isn’t your fault. In a year in which winning equates to doing good things, this is your bracket to win. But that’s not what 2014 was all about. And for refusing to fail up, you’re out of this bracket.

Roger Goodell is in the final of Who Won 2014. Awesome.

Millions of people could tweet #FireRogerGoodell and nothing would happen. Activism can’t take down Goodell. Only proof. Evidence. And even that will have an uphill battle, as we saw when it came to footage of Ray Rice. Whether Goodell saw all the Rice footage became one the most crucial points in the case. Goodell said he did not see the second tape. But in November, a judge ruled that the Rices accurately informed him of its contents.

And that’s where we are with that. But it wasn’t a movement that almost uprooted him. It was the existence of footage and whether Goodell saw it. And while Goodell was left relatively unscathed in that Ray Rice tape melee, it was the first time in 2014 he seemed remotely rattled.

Footage, be it personal or obtained from other sources, proved repeatedly in 2014 to be the foremost way of getting the nation’s attention and rattling the power structure. Hashtags got us talking, but footage is what made us believe. Which is why it’s advancing to the final.

In this no-good year, it was footage that repeatedly rocked us to our core. But in those low moments, it also forced us to conduct a healthy self-examination to figure out how to make things better.

Seeing Solange, Jay, and Beyoncé in that elevator crumbled this naive, artificial idea of what the perfect family represented. It also made us question what right we had to jump into the life of a family — a family with issues just like every other family. Seeing Ray Rice hit his then-fiancée made us turn away in shock. It also brought domestic violence out from the confines of the home and threw it in the country’s face as a problem we all need to deal with. Hearing Donald Sterling talk comfortably and confidently about the racial composition of an arena made us shake our heads at how disrespectful an owner can be to his own team’s fans. It also made us broadly question how those in power truly feel about anyone seen as “beneath.” And watching videos of black men being killed by police officers confirmed for some that black lives didn’t matter to wide swaths of the population. It also bound much of the country together, people of all kinds chanting “black lives matter.”

Seeing and hearing these things in 2014 made it impossible to ignore some of society’s taboos. Each time, it brought on a mix of anger, shame, confusion, and sadness. But what emerged was a sense of hope. A sense that, if what we’re seeing is rock bottom, the only way to go is up.

That’s bigger than some football commissioner. Because the footage that came out in 2014 was bigger than a game. It repeatedly reminded us of how far we have to go, and also how far we’ve come. The response to the year’s revealed footage has been the silver lining, the exact momentum needed to actually believe 2015 will be a step in the right direction. And not simply more of the same. 

Source: Grantland » Features | 30 Dec 2014 | 7:11 am PST

Party Next Door

Increasingly, I find myself processing each passing year not as a string of events but as a series of shifting moods. Instead of discrete milestones, I recall sensations: an intense rush of ecstasy, late-afternoon shock, a week of fatigue, a season of contented bliss. This year, the moods I remember with an unusual fondness — the ones that offered a reprieve from the rest of life, on and offline — were brought on by strangers playing music on the Internet.40

I spent a remarkable amount of time in 2014 digging though YouTube to seek out covers of songs I knew and loved, whether by Drake or obscure Glaswegian crash-pop bands. I collected these clips as I collect and obsess over records from distant cities I will never visit. I’d like to say I was driven by a curiosity about the lives of others, but that’s not quite right. Other than looking at what other videos they’d posted, I never learned anything about who they were or where they lived; I never scrutinized what they were wearing, the books on their shelves, or the color of their carpet. But I felt like I recognized something in their performances. It was in the way they leaned into certain words, the melodic gloss that wasn’t in the original songs’ versions, the way they twisted someone else’s plaintive lines into something strange and desperate. They were making these songs their own.

Earlier this year, while looking on YouTube for a live clip of Slowdive’s “Alison,” I noticed a cover version by a user named fooberdoobs in the sidebar. I had always assumed that the song’s production was complex and laborious, and I didn’t think a lone person with an acoustic guitar could reproduce its majesty. The original is the perfect distillation of shoegaze, a haunting melody swaddled within layers of golden gauze. Interpreted by fooberdoobs, the song is slower and more deliberate. The heavy reverb fills the room with noise; it swells with a kind of sad euphoria. The sidebar recommended a different and no less singular cover version by a user named AgeKeey. AgeKeey took a much more strident approach, unearthing a choppy aggression that had been tamed in the original. Soon I was just searching out random songs I remembered from middle school, ones I never imagined anyone would have bothered to cover. Two girls reading the lyrics of “Sally Cinnamon” off an iPhone. Two guys — presumably Russian? — doing the Verve’s “Slide Away.” One of them earnestly strums while the other builds walls of sound to match his trippy shades.

Cover versions are about living with music. They’re about letting a song daze and entrance you, studying its surfaces and running your finger along its edges and angles, taking it apart and putting it back together again until the only thing left to do is to reshape it in your own image. You trace its highs and follow its lows and figure out the center so you might figure out a part of yourself. There’s something strange and voyeuristic about watching strangers on a screen do this. These aren’t the kinds of performances that aspire toward stardom; it’s unlikely that these clips will land anyone a spot on tour with a pop star. More often than not, they communicate a kind of intimacy and generosity, a gift that asks nothing in return but an ephemeral moment of communion. Maybe someone in that vast, unknowable audience will like it enough to share it with someone else.41

These covers remind us of all the new possibilities tucked within old songs. Pavement’s lyrics make even less sense when someone sings rather than speaks them, and Spiritualized’s “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” never sounded so sweet and desperate as it does shorn of its epic frame, sung through a rolled-up magazine. Sometimes the performers seem too shy to look at the camera; sometimes it looks like they’re purposely pointing their music somewhere else in the room. A kid discovering something faintly jazzy about Animal Collective’s “Fireworks.” A Spanish guy having a blast assembling a one-man-band version of Inner City’s “Good Life,” a song intended for dance floor fellowship. At a time when living on the Internet has the capacity to feel dispiriting and casually abusive, these clips feel like the very opposite of trolling. They create scattered micro-communities of encouraging fans wishing each other well. A Japanese kid plumbing the droll flatness of the Vaselines’ “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam” and then commiserating in the comments section with a new fan from China about how nobody else around here listens to cool music. In case you ever wanted to hear an acoustic version of Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle” by two kids in Reno, that exists too.

I couldn’t stop listening to a user named Alofa Gould interpret PartyNextDoor’s “Persian Rugs” via King Krule’s “Baby Blue.” It becomes a thing of majestic, shaky beauty. (Gould also records as Ikea-Graveyard.) My favorite clips were by a user named Brenna Thomas, who also turned to PartyNextDoor for inspiration. She transforms his shapeless, cocky “West District” into something off-kilter and bluesy. “Yeah my name is NazT and the trigger finger function,” she smiles, adapting the line to her name. “Silly n-​-​-​-​ might lose his life on assumptions,” she continues singing, and it sounds like a realer threat than the slick, cavernous original. Halfway through, it dissolves into Drake’s “Days in the East.” On the original, Drake is all squint-eye come-hither, sensitive sext croons over synth kicks and a swarm of underwater bees. She turns it into something entirely different, adding a bit of sneering menace that feels feigned in the original. Drake balls up his fists and looks out a penthouse window; she looks straight through you, and she feels sorry for you.

Allan Kingdom and Spooky Black’s42 blissed-out “Wavey” was one of these Tumblr micro-hits that attested to what was now possible so long as you had some ideas and software. It felt like a massive, blockbuster hit turned inside out. When Thomas covered it, she stripped it bare, erasing Kingdom’s falsetto and upping Spooky Black’s faux-machismo. Whereas the original sounded tentative and prankish, her cover took everything for face value, turning it into something teasing and strong.

I realize that all of this is one step removed from saying: “YO. PODCASTS!” Normal people doing normal things on the Internet isn’t a particularly new phenomenon, but it was one I kept returning to over the course of a year in which history seemed to alternate between moving too fast and too slow. Maybe this is just what happens when you live a life in search of distraction and diversion. Maybe it just speaks to the amount of time I spent on the Internet, a version of the world calibrated to intensities, where everything that matters is either the best or the worst thing ever — where things are ranked and raked over until they are drained of meaning. To me, these videos had more modest aspirations, each one a message in a bottle. They chronicled everyday moments of discovery and faith. At a time when anyone with a decent computer and a vision can make music that sounds big and polished, a lot of stuff on YouTube remains bare and unadorned, and maybe that’s why I was drawn to its smaller scale. Nothing has to sound this way anymore.

It could be that I’m idealizing what’s going on here, trying to call people singing songs on YouTube some kind of outsider art. Maybe everyone secretly wishes to become a star; maybe this was as much a version of someone else’s “reality” as reality TV. All I know for certain is that this was some of the best music I heard all year, music that reminded me of bygone thrills: accidental discovery, browsing, the lure of imperfection, the smallness of a stage. At a time when anything on the Internet could spark controversy or court abuse, it was vital to escape into someone else’s world for a few minutes at a time. It was quietly inspiring to see people send each other long-distance props and ask for guitar tablature.

On Facebook, a friend of a friend kept posting images of James Foley’s beheading; it was her way of forcing everyone to reckon with true evil. Lying in bed, needing to sleep, unable to stop watching a livestream from the streets of Ferguson. The trauma of being trolledFireworks from the perspective of a drone. The what-time-is-it-there disorientation of seeing familiar blocks of Taiwan and Hong Kong occupied by cheery idealists. A grainy clip of a man paying an unjust penalty for selling loosies. A web-savvy terrorist organization capitalizing on how the Internet works. A web-savvy president riffing between two potted plants. And then you read about all that you don’t see, and you feel worse. In many ways, searching for these covers was a retreat from everything else — not an escape, but a pause from the unrelenting rhythms of life and politics, a diversion from the bad and a chance to recall the good. And in this way, I found comfort in all of these modest offerings. A song for your thoughts. 

Source: Grantland » Features | 29 Dec 2014 | 6:58 am PST

The Raid

Sometimes you see something that feels like it was pulled straight from your imagination. It can almost feel invasive — like someone has aggregated all the things that interest you, that haunt you, that titillate you, that you celebrate or loathe about yourself and others, and put it onscreen. That was True Detective, for me. It had Camel Lights, drugs, and Lone Star; it had Wu-Tang Clan, Lucinda Williams, and Grinderman; it had undercover police work, criminal conspiracies, and the occult; it took place at the intersection of the real world and some kind of purgatory that resembled it. It was about the construction of alternative personal histories; it was about truth, fabrication, and self-delusion; and it asked: What is the right way to live, and would you live that way if you thought there was no punishment in this life, or reward in the next? These are all things that interest me.

And it had the shot.



There’s a scene toward the end of Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography in which Michael Chapman talks about the work he did with Martin Scorsese on Raging Bull. He mentions Scorsese’s understanding of what “the storytelling of a shot is really going to be … all you need is this one shot, and it’s so good, and so evocative, and so powerful, emotionally, that it will get you from A to B without any coverage, without any worry.” Chapman is referring to this moment in Raging Bull:

After watching Visions when I was a teenager, I became acutely aware of how the visual aspects of a film impacted me. I was fascinated with lighting, framing, and camera movement — especially tracking shots; searching takes, from directors like Scorsese, Orson Welles, Max Ophüls, and Brian De Palma; Steadicam shots and crane shots. Whether filming the mundane or the action-packed frame, it didn’t matter.

Over the last 20 years, I have always found my eyes gravitating toward the lower corner of a screen when watching a movie. That’s where I first notice the camera moving. A tracking shot just feels so wonderfully cinematic, a unique element of the medium. If film is a hybrid of theater and photography, a tracking shot is something neither of those two art forms can replicate. Deployed judiciously, tracking shots can make you feel like you are experiencing some kind of heightened version of moving life. I like a lot of directors, but the ones I love tend to be able to move their cameras.

By the time the fourth episode of True Detective aired in mid-February, the series had built up momentum. It wasn’t just because of Rust Cohle’s ruminations on locked rooms, the art brut drawings on burned-out church walls, references to a yellow king, or Charlie Lange’s jailhouse rants about a place called Carcosa and the rich men who sacrificed women and children there. And people weren’t just tuning in for Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, or Michelle Monaghan. They were watching for Cary Joji Fukunaga.

I had liked Fukunaga’s previous efforts, Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre, and had even enjoyed his “Go Forth” campaign for Levi’s.43

He was obviously a talented filmmaker, but it didn’t seem like he was getting funded to do projects that had the scope to match his talent. That project was True Detective. Over the course of eight episodes, Fukunaga essentially rewrote the visual language of a televised cop show. Gone were the traditional establishing exterior shot of a police department, leading to an establishing shot of an office, a two-shot of the players, and a series of reaction shots between them as a conversation takes place. Here we had a director who seemed to take every frame, every movement, every bit of shadow, and every movement of the camera as seriously as the story. Take the first interrogation of Lange, by Cohle and Hart.

Woody 1

You have the basic framing of this two-shot of the detectives, with the cheap wooden wall in the background, that just-slightly inordinate amount of space above the pair’s heads, and a weird trick where Cohle seems farther back in the frame than Hart, even though they are sitting next to each other. Something is just a bit … off. And it should be. Notice how the camera pulls back, just a little bit, at the last second. Lange is about to tell them about his ex, Dora, the first victim we see on the show, and how she called him one night, babbling, high out of her mind, telling him that she had “met a king.”

No shot was “just a shot” for Fukunaga. His considered, flair-filled style was perfect for the material. Nic Pizzolatto’s writing has been criticized for its portrayal of women, its jerkoff philosophizing, and the fact that he at least heavily borrowed from Thomas Ligotti. But I still greatly admire it. True Detective reminded me of the poetry of Richard Hugo and the fiction of James Crumley, Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, late-period Cormac McCarthy, and early Richard Ford. It is, first and foremost, a story about storytelling. Characters are constantly talking about “characters.” (“This world is a veil. And the face you wear is not your own,” says the preacher, Joel Theriot, at a tent revival.) The investigation into the identity of Dora and Marie Fontenot’s murderer becomes an investigation into how we tell ourselves stories in order to live. One of the first things Marty says to Rust is “You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it, prejudice yourself.”

All of this takes place in a kind of dreamworld version of the Louisiana and East Texas Gulf region. It’s as if True Detective happens in a diorama. Walking out of a coroner’s office, Cohle tells Hart, “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town. And the memory’s fading.”


Staring at this diorama like a blinking god, watching these men at a crossroads, watching their cars coursing across gray highways is Fukunaga’s camera. With the wonderful cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, Top of the Lake), he captures the two protagonists as they are pulled toward their inevitable reckoning.

In the early episodes, this perspective has a unique power. It’s like Cohle and Hart are the only two people on earth. True Detective’s pacing mirrors Cohle’s drug use. In the first three episodes, it’s moody and ponderous, as Cohle pounds cough syrup and swallows ’ludes. But as Cohle hooks back into the “Crash” persona and meets up with his old Iron Crusaders cohort, switching to speed and coke, Fukunaga tightens the vise — the cutting gets quicker, the scenes play faster, and the camera movement goes from languid to frenetic.

The tracking shot is the most intense moment of the series. The most fascinating thing about the shot isn’t just that it’s long (it is), or that the shootout feels so convincingly unstaged (it does) — it’s the way Fukunaga’s camera functions as a kind of character in the house. It’s Cohle’s perspective, just heightened. The camera pauses to gaze, to wander, to linger on characters.


When this episode ended, the floodgates opened. I don’t think I’ve exchanged that many text messages about a single piece of television since the penultimate episode of Season 3 of The Wire. My friends and I were shooting each other YouTube clips from Touch of Evil …

And Hard Boiled

Usually this kind of conversation would happen after a “We have to go back” or “I am the one who knocks” moment — a bit of dialogue or a twist in a story. That night, it was because of a shot.

“One of my priorities as director was to defend craft despite the constraints on my time and budget,” Fukunaga told The Guardian in March. “In every episode I wanted to at least try to find specific moments in which you could treat the visual side of the medium with the same importance as we were treating the dialogue.”

It has become pretty common to call television the new home of serious storytelling. As films increasingly become the dominion of caped crusaders, we go to the movies to learn what it takes to be superhuman. We go to television to learn what it is to be human.

Great. But what about the filmmakers? At least in the public’s understanding, television was a writer’s medium that became a showrunner’s kingdom. From about 2000 on, we began ascribing the same kind of auteurist powers we once gave filmmakers to the likes of David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Jason Katims.

If the Golden Age of Television was defined by the rise of the writer, whatever comes next will be defined by the arrival of the directors. Over the last few decades, filmmakers had dipped their toes in the small-screen water, for sure — Barry Levinson on Homicide: Life on the Street, Quentin Tarantino on E.R., Nicole Holofcener on Six Feet Under, Peter Berg on Friday Night Lights. But since 2010, things have been changing. Episode orders have gotten smaller (less time commitment), budgets have gotten bigger (a more attractive working environment). Scorsese directing the Boardwalk Empire pilot was the prologue. Then David Fincher, Jane Campion, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green followed suit. In 2014, we saw more and more major filmmakers move to television — Steven Soderbergh, Jill Soloway — and in the coming years, we will only see a larger spike.44

If we’re starting a new chapter in the history of television — one in which the director’s chair becomes as important as the writers’ room — then this six-minute tracking shot from “Who Goes There” could be the turning of the page. Fukunaga, for his part, is going back to features — he is finishing the West African war film Beasts of No Nation and preparing an adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Crazy as it sounds, he might have said all he has to say as a director of television. After guiding a camera through that six-minute maze of tension, desperation, booby-trapped safes, helicopters, double-crosses, and getaway cars, it’s hard to imagine what else he could do to top his small-screen work. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine anyone could. 

Source: Grantland » Features | 23 Dec 2014 | 8:22 am PST

A Familiar Ring

At the start of this year, Russia — a country that had recently banned gay “propaganda,” harassed and imprisoned political dissidents, and was run by a man who appealed to imperialist traditions and fear of foreigners — turned a seaside summer resort not far from a hotbed of separatist and terrorist activity into an impregnable military zone, and hosted the Olympic Games.

The second Fundamental Principle of the Olympic Charter calls for “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Russia, of course, wasn’t the first nation to roll up the Olympic Charter, light it on fire, and call it a torch. In 2008, the Chinese government used the Beijing Summer Games as an opportunity to crack down on dissidents. In 2004, Greece paid more than $11 billion to host the Games, loosening fiscal restraints and building debt, contributing to a crisis that ultimately helped trigger a global recession. In 1996, Coca-Cola alone spent $350 million on promotions, advertisements, and tie-ins. In 1984, the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Summer Games. In 1980, the United States boycotted the Moscow Summer Games. In 1972, Palestinian terrorists massacred 11 Israeli Olympic team members. In 1968, military and police in Mexico City killed dozens of protesters only 10 days before the opening ceremonies. In 1936, Nazi Germany hosted the Olympics. Hitler hosted the Olympics!

So 2014 wasn’t exactly the year the Olympics failed its own ideals. But it was the year it had a hashtag for failure. Within days, the Twitter account @sochiproblems had hundreds of thousands of followers — more than Sochi’s official account.

The opening ceremonies themselves provided the perfect example of #SochiFail. At the start of the show, five enormous, sparkling snowflakes were supposed to explode into the Olympic rings — but the fifth malfunctioned and failed to open. It just hung there: a glittering, giant asterisk, a symbol of the first global sporting event that was collectively watched as a massive spectacle of irony instead of hope.

It was funny, for a while. Fifty billion dollars couldn’t buy a door handle that worked? #SochiProblems. The faucets spewed sewage? #SochiFail. The temperature during the Winter Olympics hit 68 degrees? LOL. Hiccups are charming when they’re happening to someone else. Before long, everything started to intermingle. Social media became the filter for watching the Games — and the games around the Games. Everything seemed only a few thumbstrokes away from becoming emoji. Stray dogs roamed the streets of Sochi — and the newsfeed of my Facebook account — and became so ubiquitous that late-night shows lampooned them. Athletes tweeted about elevator doors opening onto empty shafts — or not opening at all. There were slideshows of a pair of flamboyant figure skating analysts. Vines of a dance-off between bobsledders from Jamaica and Team USA. Pictures of Vladimir Putin drinking with Dutch athletes at the Holland Heineken House. And then pictures of Putin posing with Team USA. Photos of semi-professional Cossack security guards whipping punk-rock protest group Pussy Riot with short, thick, braided leather whips.

Even as ski jumpers landed in puddles of melted snow and pixies lutzed and twirled in Sochi, civic unrest led suddenly to the collapse of the Russian-backed government in Ukraine. Within days, Russian soldiers were moving. Within weeks, Putin had used the provocation as a pretext to annex Crimea. It had nothing to do with the Olympics, and yet the Olympics had everything to do with it. Sochi, in the unruly mountains at the edge of the country, haunted by an old empire, was part of the same projection of power, and the same vision of an almost mystical national identity and strength. Citius, altius, fortius. Faster, higher, stronger.

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

By the end of the year, Russia was under sanctions and mired in a currency crisis. People watched their wealth vanish by the hour. Last week, Putin gave a press conference to discuss the economic catastrophe. The sanctions, the demands for nuclear disarmament, the warnings against military interventions in Ukraine — they were all part of a long-planned plot by the West, Putin claimed, to cripple Russia. Even before the annexation of Crimea, “unprecedented and clearly orchestrated attempts were made to discredit our efforts to organize and host the Olympics.” Russia’s aggression, he insisted, was actually self-defense. He likened the country to its national symbol (and the Sochi mascot): a bear. “They will always try to put him on a chain,” Putin said, “and as soon as he is put on this chain, they will pull out his teeth and claws.”

The slightly gleeful, prurient quality of the crowdsourced chronicling of Sochi’s difficulties — disaster journalism-lite — disguised a deepening disquiet about the Olympics. It may have been easy to get excited about Norway’s curling outfit or T.J. Oshie’s holy-s#!t shootout goal, but it was harder and harder not to feel cynical about the costs.

The Olympics demand you to accept that sport is not only a matter of who wins and who loses, but also a spiritual endeavor. They were meant to connect support to virtue — uncorrupted even by money. But if you want to host them, you’d better be ready to pay. Not as much as Russia did; Sochi’s reported $50 billion cost is misleading. Russia had to construct a winter park from scratch, build infrastructure not directly related to the Games, and address special security concerns, and likely lost millions to graft; Sochi’s operating budget was closer to $2 billion. Still, a state-of-the-art sliding center for luge, bobsled, and skeleton costs tens of millions — which, considering the popularity of luge in most countries, is money you might as well set on fire. Study after study has shown that, economically, hosting the Olympics is almost never a good idea. The bigger price, though, and the one that was harder for some to swallow, was demanded by those noble idealists at the International Olympic Committee: stocked bars, special hotels, dedicated traffic lanes, free Samsung phones. (And this was after the IOC had been caught up in a bribery scandal 15 years ago.)

Eighty-eight nations competed at Sochi, a record for a Winter Olympics; at the London Summer Games two years ago, a combined 204 countries and territories sent 10,000 athletes. In May, NBC agreed to pay $7.65 billion for the rights to broadcast the Olympics until 2032. The Olympics are too big to fail. But they are also becoming too big to host. Bids between Munich and St. Moritz for the 2022 Winter Olympics were scrapped after public referendums. Stockholm made a formal bid but then withdrew. Krakow pulled out of the race after nearly 70 percent of voters rejected the bid in a referendum. Oslo withdrew its bid this fall. “Some people feel that that kind of money should be spent for hospitals, roads and so on and so forth,” Gerhard Heiberg, the Norwegian IOC member who had headed the organizing committee for the 1994 Lillehammer Games, told the New York Times. As for the bid made by Lviv … well, Ukraine had other things to worry about. That left Beijing, which is 120 miles from a ski slope, and Almaty, Kazakhstan — two places that were never about to put their bids to a popular vote.

The IOC, under new leadership, recognizes that the Games are troubled. It recently passed reforms to its bidding process in order to help host countries cut down on costs (most notably allowing host nations to hold an event in another country where the geography is more hospitable). But the reforms will only go so far.

The economic, moral, and political failures of the Olympics have created a strange dissonance — at least for me. Because I loved the Sochi Olympics. I spent every day — and much of the night — during the Games watching downhill skiing, ski jumping, speedskating, everything I could. I set my alarm for 3 a.m. to catch events live. I studied highlights. I read about the biathlon and learned its rules. I felt my heart race as I watched cross-country ski races. I studied tactics and weather conditions. I learned about the athletes. I wondered about the way their minds worked and watched their bodies move. I was in awe.

There are the Games, and then there are the games themselves. 1936 was the year that Hitler hosted the Olympics, but it was also the year that Jesse Owens became the first man to win four track and field gold medals at a single Olympics. Owens was black, the grandson of slaves. Swastikas on flags fluttered in the breeze.

The first man to congratulate Owens after he won the long jump was a tall, blue-eyed German named Luz Long. “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens later said. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”

That handshake, of course, could do nothing to counteract the awfulness of Hitler’s vision of a world dominated by Aryan Übermenschen, a vision that hosting the Olympics was intended to project. Nor could it erase the treatment that Owens received when he returned to America. “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens said. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.” As an amateur, of course, he’d been unable to earn a living as an athlete; later, he’d race horses or dogs for wages.

But that handshake mattered. Athletes are not the saints that the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, promised. They are human. They make mistakes, and some of them do terrible things. (This was also, of course, the year that Oscar Pistorius was charged with culpable homicide in the death of his girlfriend.) Every year is the year we’re let down by our heroes. But sometimes they act in brave and beautiful ways, and those things resonate. It matters when brave and beautiful things happen anywhere, of course, but when brave and beautiful things happen on a field, while people are watching, the resonance builds.

Jesse Owens’s running also mattered — not more, but not less. The angle his body took against the track as he stretched out from the starting blocks. The way he held his slight, compact body erect when he ran — arms driving, legs churning, feet blurring, head perfectly still. The way he blew past others — because winning mattered too.

It may be a mistake to connect virtue to sports. It certainly felt that way this year. But watch a runner run. Let yourself be moved.

Source: Grantland » Features | 22 Dec 2014 | 11:13 am PST