The first run that wasn’t in a backyard I can remember is with my dad at age 11. The neighborhood we lived in was your standard suburban idyllic subdivision of sorts, except ‘suburban’ in this case meant ’90 minutes southeast of Nashville’ and ‘idyllic’ meant ‘had about 15 feet between houses instead of 1.5’. It was this neighborhood with rolling hills and on a bicycle, you could at least momentarily feel like you were hitting NASCAR speeds on the downhills.
I remember that run because there was no part of the downhill that felt like NASCAR speeds. It all felt so sluggish, so weak, so pathetic. Almost 20 years later I can chalk that feeling up to “literally had never run a mile before” but at the time it was about as discouraging as it gets. You’re searching for answers, and the only answer that comes up is “I cannot.”
I’ve been thinking about that day a lot lately. Since the calendar turned to August I’ve been training for my first marathon. It’s been going well, which is a nice thing to report. The crazier thing is how…fine everything feels. There have been runs of 14, 15, 17, and 18 miles. Last week was a 36-mile week, the longest I’ve ever done. This week’s long run is only 13 miles, which is hilarious to type out.
All of this is not a humblebrag, not by any means. There are far faster, far better, far more entertaining runners out there. I am more likely to never be the outright winner in a race I enter than to do so. That’s fine. A while ago, this stopped being about winning everything and more about finding all of the little wins that pile up over the course of days, weeks, months, years. There have been a lot of those lately.
Formative moments like that run at age 11, then, must be a little win. It felt terrible at the time, but so do some of the ones I do now. It felt embarrassing, but so did my Knoxville half-marathon performance last fall. They were all little, painful wins in their own way. That’s something I can feel a little more comfort in knowing now.
For the last couple of months, I started shooting basketballs left-handed. There is not really an appropriate way to communicate to you how alien this feels. I am right-handed; I write right-handed; I perform basically every necessary life skill right-handed. I have shot a basketball right-handed from the first time I picked up a basketball. I am not really great at it, but I can hit a lot of threes in a controlled setting and I am an average white pickup basketball player with my right hand.
The problem, of sorts, is that I have zero ability to finish at the rim, convert a floater, or do much of anything other than dribble with my left hand. A left-hand layup is doable but not consistent; everything else was more or less off the table. I simply never gave it that much thought, because 1) I went professional in something other than sports 2) See previous. I’ve never had much a reason to change that until a couple of months ago, when we bought a house with this in the backyard.
The outdoor basketball I use is a faded Wilson Evolution that has a leak somewhere which causes me to have to pump up the ball every two days. The rim is something like 10 feet, 8 inches, AKA not standard height. The setting is always open to weather conditions, which may include any of the following: rain, wind, excessive sunlight, or excessive darkness. The ‘court’ is an 18′ x 9′ poured pavement that offers zero chance of a corner three and requires me to step into the grass to practice any sort of deep shot.
This has been my oasis in long days, my home of homes. It is where, a few weeks ago, I began taking left-handed jumpers. Left-handed hook shots. Left-handed floaters. Left-handed free throws. And yes, left-handed layups. The feeling of the shot release has gone from feeling completely alien to at least feeling tolerable. Every day feels a little bit better. It’s gone from something that seemed kind of impossible to something I look forward to every single time I step outside.
Because of another thing that happened in my life recently, that has proved notable.
I woke up one day in early August and felt worse than I’d felt in a long time. Not like a real sickness, but a collection of fatigue, exhaustion, nervousness, a headache, etc. One’s first thought in these times is always COVID-19. I tested out of it multiple times. Then I wondered if it was an iron deficiency, which is common in runners. It was not. I kept trying to find answers, when the answer was staring me in the face the entire time. It has been for years.
I’ve talked in the past about mental health and my relationship with it on this very website. The problem is that I am very open about it yet am quite bad at recognizing when my own mental health is no longer in a great state. In early August, a whirlwind of things was occurring all at once. We went under contract for a house after a year-long housing search. I’d taken on a new position at my day job in the spring and the responsibilities were ramping up. Our calendar was packed with an immense number of events. School was back. I still wasn’t sure if this website would exist in a few months. Truthfully, I didn’t want to write about basketball anymore.
All of this, for whatever reason, hit at once. It is inarguably a lot. For three weeks, I woke up every day with my heart racing and my mind spinning about what could possibly come that day. Focusing proved impossible. I frequently drifted in and out of conversations with friends that I’d normally have no problem participating in. I no longer wanted to do basic things I enjoyed: playing basketball, going on walks, even simple discussions with others. As you may or may not have noticed, I haven’t written anything on here since late July. That was because I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until the proverbial ‘check engine’ light came on and was highlighter orange in my face.
In mid-August, I did the thing that people always tell you to do that is far easier said than done: I got help. I went to my doctor, had a heart-to-heart with her for 45 minutes, and cried in a strip mall medical clinic as we came to an agreement that medicine might help. (Without going into much detail here, it has.) For the first time in four years, I started seeing a therapist again. I began sharing what we worked on together with my wife, which has helped us grow even closer through our own individual battles. It is a genuine blessing that it’s all worked so positively in such a short time.
I am sharing this now because of two things:
It is deeply important to me, and to the future of my writing;
I have learned that it can be helpful for others to open up about their own experience, simply because it proves you are not alone.
To make myself work again, I had to change what I was doing and accept that things couldn’t be the way they’d been. It was imperative to reach out into a new, uncomfortable place and understand that I simply had to go for it, be there, and trust the process. To hold on and realize it can, and will, be okay.
In some aspect, this feels like a massive breakthrough.
These three separate stories are just related enough that I can squeeze out a narrative and a reason for you to be reading this post. The running helps me see the little gains and wins. The left-handed shooting helps me remember that progress is not linear, some days are going to be better than others, and that is fine. The counseling – and yes, the medicine – is like the best of both.
It all had to come together for me to be back here, once again, for another season. Not in a life-or-death sense, no; just a “do I want to keep doing this” sense. I bounced back and forth between running it back for another year or calling it quits, at least publicly. This project has, in earnest, gone for four full seasons. A fifth was going to require a change of some sort. In the last year, I got a promotion at my day job, bought a house with my wife, moved, and went through the loss of one of my closest companions. To keep doing all of this for $0.00, or just above it, is no longer sustainable.
The previous paragraph is not a complaint. This being free, or pretty close to it, was more or less by design. I’ve never sought to make writing about Tennessee basketball a career, because such a career has an unfortunately hard and low ceiling. There are very few college programs, maybe six or so in all of America, that could sustainably support a year-round beat writer that doesn’t have to pivot to football or baseball coverage out of season. Tennessee is not one of them, which is fine.
However: what if Tennessee basketball is enough, in a part-time gig sense? The question bugged me for months and months until I finally gave in to figuring out the answer, which I arrived at after a lot of discussions with friends and trusted agents. I can’t and don’t want this to be my job. That being said, I’m happy to continue making it a passion project and a worthwhile hobby.
That leads to a three-part announcement:
I will be writing about Tennessee basketball, and college basketball as a whole, for the 2022-23 season.
Self-explanatory. All of the stuff you guys seem to like – the previews, the weekly game recaps, national posts, etc. – will be around. I will still refuse to do podcasts unless I know you personally, because there are far too many podcasts in existence and you do not need another one about Tennessee athletics.
Here’s the catch.
2. After this post publishes, the writing I do will no longer be at this website. It will be at a paid newsletter.
3. There will be a further announcement about that on Monday.
For the 2022-23 college basketball season, most of the work I do will be behind a paywall on Substack. I’m making it an affordable one and will work as hard as I can to make it a place worth your time, money, and interest. I think I’ve done that here, but such a model is not really workable on WordPress, so elsewhere we go. It’s just a website, anyway.
As mentioned above, I spent the full offseason trying to figure out if this was worth attempting to push forward. There’s a draft on this site with a similar word count that will never be posted, because that version was the explanation for why this project had to end. On Labor Day weekend, watching football, I realized something: I can’t quit it. Not just basketball; I can’t quit Tennessee as a subject. Not yet. Not now.
The point of all of this: I love what I do. I want to keep doing it. I cannot keep doing it for free, which is okay. That’s a change I can accept, and one I’m willing to make. It’s the change I sought all offseason, and the answer I was most comfortable with arriving at. This is a little win that I hope becomes a bigger one in the long run. I hope you’ll be willing to join me for the ride.
Something longer-term readers of mine may remember is that, for years, I wrote about Tennessee football. I did not actually begin covering Tennessee basketball in a serious/somewhat season-long fashion until the 2017-18 campaign. For a while, this made sense, because of a couple of things:
College football is significantly more popular in Knoxville, TN than college basketball.
Simultaneously, Tennessee football was in a good-enough spot in 2015 and 2016 that writing about them on a weekly basis was, if nothing else, interesting.
This is why if you Google my name and “Knoxville” or “Tennessee”, you’ll see the usual results of this site but you’ll also see that I covered Tennessee football up to midway through the 2018 season, after which I finally accepted two things that reversed the above two observations.
College football is more popular, but college basketball is more interesting to me;
Tennessee football was very much not in a good spot in 2018, while the basketball team was in the best spot it had been in a decade.
So: the Show Me My Opponents that used to be about college football are now about college basketball. Maybe they’ll still exist in five months, maybe they won’t. This post is not really about that. Last year I explained the writing process behind these. This summer, in lieu of a superior essay idea, I’m explaining why I got to where I’m at and how I’d describe my personal investment in the five major sports (baseball, basketball, American football, hockey, and football/soccer) at this point of my life. Spoiler: it’s a lot different than 2015-16.
More or less, I’ve written something in some form for most of my life. I wrote little recaps of NFL games for my grandfather when I was 7; I wrote a college basketball newsletter exclusively for myself at age 13; I wrote for my high school’s newspaper at age 16-17 about a variety of things. But out of boredom after graduating college in 2015, and to escape the monotony and horrors of my first real day job, I started writing little recaps of every Tennessee football game on a personal blog.
These received mild attention in the form of getting offered to be a Staff Writer™ for a local blog that no longer exists, wherein I did the same thing. But I had a curiosity that I wanted to explore: the idea of previewing every game in a fashion that other sites didn’t do at the time. I mention MGoBlog on this site all the time for obvious reasons, but they were really well ahead of the blog competition in terms of covering every Michigan football game from every angle. One thing they did better than anyone was using GIFs and video to explain how the opponent worked. (Here’s a 2021 example by writer Alex Drain.)
Tennessee had nothing like this, and until Austin Burlage did it for a few years (here’s his newsletter, if you’re a college football fan I’d sign up), it hasn’t had anything like it since. These early previews were kind of terrible, but they were honest and offered more information about the opponent than any pay site in existence. This preview of the 2016 Georgia game is probably the best-ish example of it; if you look at it closely, you’ll recognize a lot of hallmarks of the basketball coverage. There’s GIFs. There’s tons of stats examples laid throughout it. There is a menace towards the vague opponent that is hammered into you by way of fandom of our national bloodsport.
So: I did that for two full seasons. I committed to do it in 2018, and even did it on a paid basis for Reed’s Ranch, which is a podcast/media outlet run by my good friend Jon Reed. I’d imagine these previews were still at least fine, but frankly, midway through the season, all passion had departed. I skipped a couple of the late season games and never wrote about the team again.
Part of this is because Tennessee football sucked at the time and frankly furthered a 15+ year tailspin I’m not convinced they’ll fully recover from. (A very cynical read of it would not be Nebraska football but rather Indiana basketball, which has made terrific hires on paper that have simply failed to work out, over and over and over again.) The other part is that, as long as I can remember, I’ve simply preferred basketball as a sport. I played it for a long time, yes, but it’s just more watchable and understandable to me. Unless you played football, it’s honestly pretty hard to understand everything that goes on unless you invest as deeply into it as the MGoBlog writers do or guys like Burlage did.
That’s why those previews no longer exist. I haven’t written a thing about college football since November 2018 (unless you count a personal essay about attending the Big Ten Championship Game) and I don’t plan on writing anything about it again, barring a serious change of heart and mind. I simply find basketball to be the much more interesting and consistently unusual sport to write about. This is not to disdain college football fans or anything; it just doesn’t mean much to me personally anymore. Basketball does, though. However, that’s a complicated story as well.
Circa 2016, all of six years ago, I would’ve ranked the major American-ish sports for me as such:
Vague, loose soccer interest
Other loose ends (auto racing, whatnot)
And this likely would’ve been rational for each one. College basketball had just finished popping out what some consider the best national title game in the sport’s history. College football had a terrific national championship game and new blood in the playoff with exciting teams popping in and out of the upper echelon. The NFL was…well, the NFL: interesting. The NBA had a terrific rivalry with the Warriors and Cavaliers. The rest, minus my Nashville Predators fandom, were on a separate level to themselves, but they did exist.
The problem is that these rankings are no longer accurate and haven’t been for a long time. That’s explained above somewhat, I guess, but the best way to explain it further is to do something very self-indulgent. Below are how I personally feel about the five major sports in America, with separate breakdowns for college vs. professional where necessary. I don’t expect agreement, obviously, but I think for someone who writes in the public sphere, this is a useful exercise to explain to you where I’m coming from and why the writing on this site is done the way it’s done. Also, it’s June, and I’m not writing about the transfer portal if I don’t have to.
These are done in alphabetical order.
A pretty frustrating, yet rewarding sport to follow.
For the following reasons:
Baseball’s star players are the most interesting they’ve been to me, the viewer, in 20 years. Shohei Ohtani is the most singularly captivating player the sport has had since Barry Bonds. Juan Soto is crazy entertaining. Both Juniors, Tatis and Guerrero, are amazing. It’s the richest group of upper-echelon talent in a long time…
…so why is it somehow harder than ever before to actually watch the games? MLB already makes you pay $160 or so for the rights to MLB.TV, admittedly a terrific service, but you’re out of luck if you live basically anywhere in America, because at least one or two teams will be blacked out in your market. (If I didn’t have access to our family’s cable login, I could not watch Braves or Reds games, for instance.) This is all while they parade games around on Apple TV+, Peacock, YouTube, and a variety of services.
For every good move the sport makes, it seems to find an equally bad one to pair with it. A pitch clock? Terrific and sorely needed to speed up the game. The runner on second still in existence? Horrible, not real baseball. Universal DH? Probably a good thing because there have been extremely few pitchers that should be hitters in my lifetime. Deadened baseball that neutralizes any impact a universal DH brings? Awful for watchability.
Rob Manfred is probably the single worst sports commissioner since I’ve been alive, which is an incredible accomplishment when you consider his competition.
Despite all of this, I absolutely adore listening to baseball games and could listen to a quality radio broadcast all day. (The Phillies crew has been my favorite of late for running purposes.) MLB could rank pretty high on someone’s list if they gave it time, but the people that run the sport make it remarkably hard for anyone to want to give it the necessary time.
Shockingly, I still feel pretty rosy about basketball as a whole. I play at a local gym once or twice a week; I watch most NBA Playoff games; I watch most NCAA Tournament games. This website covers the college basketball season in-depth, typically. So yeah, this is my favorite sport. But I’ll go deeper with that, starting with
Where I think we’re at an inflection point of sorts, not just transfer-wise. Statistically, this was the most efficient season of offense (at 1.02 ORtg) since the three-point line was moved back prior to the 2019-20 season. This is because we’re seeing fewer turnovers than ever, which I’d call a good thing considering some of the slop I grew up watching. There are still a lot of three-point attempts, improving free throw shooting, improving shot selection on the whole, and the lowest Free Throw Rate in the sport’s history.
…but at the same time, did anyone else feel like this most recent season was pretty underwhelming? The second-best team this year was Houston, a 5 seed who was indeed really good but would’ve ranked sixth-best in 2020-21 and seventh-best in 2018-19. The champion (Kansas) ranks 21st of 24 champions in KenPom’s database. The sport also posted its lowest Assist Rate since that stat has been measured. One-on-one scoring is obviously a good and exciting thing, but it’s weird to see college basketball trending in a less team-friendly direction while the NBA is going the opposite way, posting its second-highest Assist Rate as a league ever.
I also thought this NCAA Tournament was one of the three worst since I started watching in 2002. This Tournament ranked 35th of 35 (in the 64/68-team era) in 3PT%, 34th in FG%, and 32nd in efficiency. A 15 seed made the Elite Eight, which was interesting until they immediately turned back into a 15 seed in the Elite Eight. The two best teams in the field got bounced because of unusually poor shooting nights. To top it off, the low Free Throw Rate did lead to less fouling and shorter games, but a genuinely useful argument can be made that this was a negative. Teams are getting away with fouls they would’ve been called on just a few years ago, which is leading to poorer offense.
So: I think that college basketball, on the whole, is in a good spot. NIL has given teams the chance to compete with second-round (and some late first-round) NBA contracts, which is allowing players who may have otherwise gone to the NBA Draft to return for a well-deserved payday. Most of the top 20 picks in this upcoming NBA Draft opted to play college basketball instead of the G-League or international play, which is a positive trend. Only one (Leonard Miller) of the top 50 2022 recruits elected to skip college. That’s good for the quality of the game.
Still, changes must be made. Officiating probably needs to be stricter in the sense that teams shouldn’t be allowed to get away with hyper-physical play. The block/charge call requires a full rewrite and frankly should result in more block calls. Most of all, the sport must have a fully standardized basketball for all teams. The fact that even high-major basketball teams can realistically play with six different basketball brands in one college season is truly insane. I’d still rank college basketball first, but either due to age or focus I’m more aware of its shortcomings and flaws than ever.
The inflection point passed here a while ago. Players have more freedom than ever before, which is a great thing, but as a fan of a non-elite team (the Pistons) who generally watches the Playoffs as a neutral, I do wish there were more rivalries. I’m honestly not sure what you’d call the best rivalry the NBA has right now, which is a real drawback when there are several excellent college rivalries where both sides have genuine hatred for the other. Rivalries make sports more interesting. The best one in the NBA at the moment is either Bucks/Heat (which is a ‘rivalry’ in the sense that they had two playoff matchups) or Mavericks/Clippers. (Hawks/Knicks could be it if either team ever discovers a real general manager.)
The quality of the play itself is fine and I think 1990s basketball fans greatly overstate how much more ‘fun’ it was to watch at that time. At the time I wrote this section, Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals had just happened. I had a great time watching Boston come back from 17 down to win by 12 thanks to a pretty shocking fourth quarter, all of which would’ve been much more difficult to imagine in the 1990s when the three-pointer wasn’t that popular. I greatly enjoy the fact that there are four two-time MVP holders actively playing and that the young talent in the league is as exciting as I can recall.
All of the standard complaints apply: the regular season is too long and the final 25% of it is almost entirely meaningless. The diversity of styles between teams is not as great as it used to be. Player freedom is terrific, but I do selfishly miss players building up rivalries with teams or even coaches over the course of several years. Too many players like NFTs. The Pistons probably won’t get Jaden Ivey in the upcoming Draft. None of these complaints are that great, I guess, but they feel obvious and real.
Football (the American variety)
Well, here we go.
I think it was 2018 when it first hit me: it’s the exact same teams every year.
It’s the exact same ones.
Oh yeah, sure, they might let LSU steal one from time to time. Maybe they’ll let Notre Dame in, as a bit. Maybe Michigan State slides in once on the good fortune of having the world’s largest horseshoe jammed firmly up Mark Dantonio’s rear end. But for the most part, it became pretty clear by summer 2021 that this is a six-team sport, and really more of a three-team one. There have been eight Playoffs now and 32 total bids; Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma are responsible for 21 of them. It probably says a lot that when the 2021 Playoff happened it felt like a miracle that only one of those four actually made the field.
This is why I’ve more or less stopped watching games I have little-to-no emotional attachment in. (That’s a nice way of saying I watch every Michigan game to talk to my dad about them and watched five or six of Tennessee’s games last season.) For the most part, 124 of the 130 (I think?) top-flight FBS teams have no better than a 2% shot at making the playoff year over year. This past season felt like a huge breath of fresh air because famed historical underdogs Michigan and Georgia made the field of four. And even then, we still ended up with approximately the Same Old Crap: an all-SEC title game that was profusely boring for 75% of the allotted time.
Sure, there are interesting stories every year. There are ones like Coastal Carolina coming out of nowhere to go undefeated; Cincinnati sneaking into the College Football Playoff and acquitting itself about as well as any other 4 seed; people tell me Wake Forest was entertaining. That’s all good and nice. What chance did they have to win the actual national championship after the sixth week of the season?
This is why I’ve gravitated more to college basketball being the premier college sport. For better or for worse, all of the top 15 teams in the sport enter the season-ending tournament with at least some chance of winning the title. You hang banners and hold town-wide celebrations for simply being one of the last four standing in a tournament that resembles more meat grinder than fair setup. If you make the last four in college football and aren’t named Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, or Ohio State, your reward is getting to play a team with much more money and much more resources and much more stars than yours. Michigan/Georgia looked entertaining on paper but revealed itself to be more like a 1 vs. 8 than the supposed 2 vs. 3.
Therein lies the problem: until the powers that run college football can figure out most people don’t want a 4-6 team sport, this will continue staying the same and likely getting worse. The most likely four-team Playoff combination for 2022, per oddsmakers, is…Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and Ohio State. The exciting thing about the basketball Final Four is that, in the same time span of eight years and 32 total bids, 22 different teams have survived to see the final weekend of the season. In college football, that number is 13, and over the last five Playoffs (20 total bids), it’s nine. One sport sees real variety; the other produces more of the same on repeat. It’s like the Premier League, but the Premier League has real rivalries built on 100+ years of hatred. With teams changing conferences constantly and long-standing rivalries simply dying you don’t even get that anymore.
The other major problem: attending games kind of sucks now. College football’s game time has continued to balloon, with the most recent average number sitting at 3 hours, 24 minutes, the longest in the sport’s history. Any fan of a team that appears on FOX/CBS/ABC during the season will notice the relentless waves of awful advertisements (anyone want to estimate how often they saw the Matt Damon crypto ad this year?) that interrupt otherwise potentially interesting games. Commercial-kickoff-commercial is becoming more normalized, which is horrifying. I attended two college football games in 2019 and one of them, a 42-3 blowout, lasted 3 hours, 42 minutes with the kickoff coming nearly 15 minutes past scheduled start time.
This should not happen, and neither should the absurd, ballooning ticket prices that are a scourge. I live 20 minutes from one of the most historic stadiums the sport has to offer. I have not attended a game since 2019 and haven’t paid for a ticket since 2017. Why? Because even against garbage opponents, it’s no less than a seven-hour time investment in frequently uncomfortable weather and cheek-to-cheek seating to watch football that isn’t very high-quality. If I actually have to pay for tickets for my wife and I, that’s no less than an $80 investment (including parking) to sit in the nosebleeds or around a $110 investment if I’d like to sit in the worst lower bowl seats. Again, this is against bad teams, not even interesting opponents. When you can watch the same game from a better angle in 70-degree comfort at home and the crowd numbers themselves are lower than they’ve been in 40 years, why attend?
Couple all of this with how easily people seem to dismiss largely underpaid athletes bashing their brains in for our collective entertainment and it’s become easier to simply do something else rather than stay attached.
The problem is that the NFL is the most interesting it’s been in a long time thanks to great quarterback play and quality rivalries that are developing at hyper-speed. Every time the Bills and the Chiefs play each other, I actively desire to clear my schedule to watch it. Every time the Packers and Bucs get to face off, I want to see it happen. Sunday Night Football, as an entertainment product, is (and maybe was, depending on new announcers) the single most well-oiled machine sports has going right now.
The NFL has a ton of problems. It’s far too easy at forgiving domestic abusers. The commissioner is an annoyance. They seemingly have a new disaster occur within the league every year. The Super Bowl is generally an underwhelming affair. BUT. The NFL Playoffs have been excellent as of late, the league is great at developing season-long storylines, and your team is never that far away from jumping out of irrelevance. All it takes is one great quarterback, which I find inherently more interesting than college simply being “who has the most five-stars?”.
Credit to Gary Bettman, I guess. After the worst Playoffs the sport had seen in over a decade, they decided to make goalie pads a little smaller and let offense run the show. All it’s done is make the 2022 NHL Playoffs the best that I can recall seeing in forever. The first game of the Western Conference Finals the other night finished with an 8-6 score. The stars have largely shined at various points. Goalies have a tougher job than they have in two decades, which has made it much more exciting when a goalie steals the show. Crowds are back in full force. The Carolina Hurricanes ate it at home in a Game 7. This is all after a pretty entertaining regular season in which the league saw the most goals scored in 26 years.
I still have a hard time fully attaching myself to hockey that isn’t the Nashville Predators, simply because national TV coverage remains a little spotty in the States and I’m not willing to interrupt everything I’m doing to watch, say, Boston versus Florida on a Tuesday night. But that’s more of a me problem than a league problem. Now to wait and see how the NHL inevitably screws this up.
Soccer (or football)
Up to two years ago, I would’ve considered the idea of soccer fandom kind of laughable. I never fully bought in to the new waves of fandom that hit the States during/after the 2010 and 2014 World Cups; I loosely followed soccer abroad but didn’t find it that interesting. MLS didn’t really appeal to me because the closest team was in Atlanta. The USMNT was at its lowest point in decades.
And then I watched this game.
On a tip, I was told by two friends with very different rooting interests to check out this Leeds United squad. They were in the Premier League for the first time in 16 years and played a pretty intense style of soccer. I didn’t think much of it – I’d previously failed to become a Crystal Palace, Swansea City, and even AS Monaco fan – but I gave it a try. Watching these clearly undermanned guys throw themselves at the defending champions with such pace and ferocity was the single most exciting thing I’d seen in a sports affair since COVID hit.
I started to watch more Leeds United games. They’d escape battles with Fulham and Sheffield United and Aston Villa and other teams I vaguely knew about. Suddenly, in December, I realized something that would’ve shocked me months prior. Tennessee was playing Florida in a college football game at 3:30 on CBS just like old times. I barely cared to even look up at the screen it was on. On my laptop, I had Leeds, who were playing Chelsea on NBC at the same time. Despite a loss that wasn’t very close, it was simply more entertaining start-to-finish by far. Something unfathomable had happened: European football had passed American football for me in the span of a few months.
It honestly hasn’t been close since. I watch most of the important English affairs, but I’ve taken an interest in soccer as a whole. The USMNT is back in my life and I actively look forward to their matches. I try and keep up with Nashville’s new squad. I’m invested in and actively following Knoxville’s new semi-professional team. I’m hoping to attend as many matches as I can, both local and regional, this year. I can’t say the same for pretty much any other sport.
The sport of the future has finally hooked me. As for what state it’s in, I’m not sure I really know; the English will tell you it’s the worst it’s been in decades, while other Europeans will say it’s in a good spot. Americans seem pretty happy with the quality of it. All I know is this: I’m still learning and finding new reasons seemingly every day to love it more. Could this one day become my favorite sport? Possibly, even though I never played it. I just know it’s become #2 on my board in a stunningly light amount of time, and I’m quite thankful for it.
After all of this self-indulgence, I figure it’s only fair to close with this: how would I rank my personal investments in each sport now versus six years ago? After thinking about it for a few weeks, this is what I’ve got:
Other loose ends (auto racing, etc.)
Really, the only things that have changed that much are soccer’s rise and college football’s fall. I’d still rank the four major sports more or less the same, though they’re closer rather than further apart. If anything, maybe this is a useful learning exercise: why do I like these sports? Why do I watch them? Maybe it’ll stoke some curiosity for you, too.
All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.
I. The marathon to the marathon
Ask any non-running person to name a road race – literally any race – and the first the majority will name is a marathon. The first officially-organized marathon took place in the 1896 Summer Olympics, though they’ve certainly been around far longer than that. Running as a concept has been around pretty much as long as the universe has been around. Aside from the obvious contender of walking, it very well may be our kind’s oldest, most well-worn sport. And yet: it seems so much easier to just go for a walk compared to going for a run, despite that history. Much easier to default to a nice, peaceful two-mile walk through the woods compared to a less peaceful, more painful two-mile run, despite it being the same distance.
Many of us are wired this way. I was for many years. Prior to January 2020, I can count on two hands the number of times I actually ran. This was not necessarily due to poor health; since 2011, I have been within what the BMI (a terrible calculation) calls a healthy weight range. I went to the gym with fair regularity for most of the last several years. I even got into weightlifting for a while, something that would’ve seemed absurd to me when I was but a stick figure my freshman year of college. Aside from the occasional jog here or there, though, the running bug never came to bite me.
This is until Christmas 2019, more or less. One of my 2020 goals was to run a 5K with my father. He’s been running 3-4 times a week for 40+ years with a few interruptions here and there, but despite various lower-body pains, he is still able to run anywhere from 2-5 miles on a whim with low amounts of stress. I admired it greatly. I’d run one 5K ever, a July 4th one in my hometown where I made it about 1.5 miles in before burning down and 2.9 miles in performing a run/walk combination before sprinting to the finish to simply get it over with. He’s run several races and runs that 5K distance at least weekly. Catching up is hard to do, but someone has to do it.
Those first couple of months of 2020 went swell enough. I slowly built up from one uninterrupted mile to 1.5 to two. Then we changed gyms to one with an indoor track, and suddenly, I got up to three. Seemed easy enough at that point; I wondered how soon I’d be able to touch four miles. Then I went to the gym on March 19, 2020 for the final time for two months. I didn’t run; I played basketball because I had no idea when the next time I’d be allowed to shoot on a basketball goal would be. I tried running outdoors that weekend. Suddenly, I had a realization that I probably should’ve had earlier: running outdoors is way different than on an indoor, bouncy track.
Momentary setback aside, I kept running anywhere from 3-5 times a week, because in the early COVID days, there was literally nothing else to do. Everything was shut down. I was tired of doing push-ups and cursed air squats. Why not run? Essentially, those three words – why not run? – have fueled the last two years. Even when gyms re-opened and you could work out again, even when basketball courts re-opened and you could shoot again, I kept running. It was the only reliable way to get out of the house, then it slowly became something I actually did enjoy.
That summer, the initial goal of running a 5K with my father was accomplished. In the two years since, it’s been blown by at a rate that’s even surprised me, the person who is doing it. I ran a half-marathon in April 2021 a year after being unable to run three consecutive miles. Then I ran three more half-marathons (one race, two virtual) in the 12 months after. The next goal is to run a marathon – the full 26.2 – by the end of 2022. This is after I could barely complete one mile three years prior without wanting to vomit.
There are a lot of positives to this; I have selected five. Part one is the journey to here; parts two through six are what I’ve felt joy in along the way.
II. Viewing party
Part of the beauty of this is that there are no screens in front of you. I am in the slow, arduous process of dragging myself off of the Internet, which is another way of saying I am tired of social media and wish it was not semi-required for what I do. On these longer runs – 6 miles is the example here – that’s a minimum of 50 minutes spent not looking at a screen. 50 minutes spent not having to hear about trending topics. All I see is real life, real birds, real trees, real greenways.
Certainly, one could open up Twitter to relieve the physical stress of running. Maybe it would be nice to hit the refresh button for the billionth time out of boredom. But one could also just not do that. When running, there are millions of things you can think about. Why are there so many places to sit in my home? Why do I always want a Pepsi when it is 92 degrees outside, even though I have not had a soda since March 2016? What makes waffles so attractive compared to pancakes? Who first added Mitch Albom books to high school English curriculums? Will America pay for the many crimes we have laid upon others? (This is a question I only consider when I have hit mile 11. Also, it’s the same query as the Mitch Albom one.)
None of these require a screen. They just require my own thoughts and the noises emanating around me. On some runs, I’ll take an earbud out and just listen. Without fail, there are birds chirping. There is a light breeze blowing. Maybe you hear cars in the distance, or if you’re lucky enough to run by the water, maybe a boat will go by. Other times, I am in an unfamiliar place, and I will take out an earbud for the obvious reason of not wanting to be hit by a car. The physical sightseeing aspect of running is perhaps its strongest attribute. Every major city in the world is runnable; every place in America becomes one you can explore on your own two feet. I make it a point to get at least one run in everywhere I travel now, which is something I would’ve reserved for a drive in the past. It helps me feel like I’m there rather than just passing through.
Recently, I ran at Seven Islands State Birding Park. The birds lived up to the hype. I am a newer birdwatcher, occupying the fandom both of my grandfathers had, but I counted 10-15 different species. There were deer everywhere. As is the case everywhere in Knoxville, there were a few bunnies out and about. But most importantly, there was one fat raccoon, waddling out of my way as I made it out to the island within the park. I caught them by surprise, as they did to me. I leapt back for a second before realizing he was on his way to hide in the grass, and felt bad for a second. That said, I’d be lying if it didn’t bring a huge smile to my face.
In writing about a 50-mile race he ran last year, Paul Flannery said that there are few times in life when you think to yourself “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than where I am right now.” In that moment, I was happiest in being with the fat raccoon that initially looked like my own fat cat.
As mentioned earlier, the goal when I began doing this was to simply complete one (1) 5K with my father. I had never done that before; I figured being able to run 3.1 miles would be a nice, fine accomplishment. Considering that under 3% of the U.S. population runs a 5K every year, per Running USA, automatically ranking out in the 97th-percentile or higher would be a good feeling. (It’s actually more like 94th-percentile or so; around 18 million Americans sign up for at least one road race every year.) This would have been good and fine and I would have been happy.
Then everything got cancelled, everything was closed, and the only thing I could do was run. The only place I ran was Knoxville Catholic High School, which was a block away from where I lived in March 2020. You can complete one loop of the greenway section and the school’s parking lot in roughly 0.7 miles. If you take that as ‘laps’, my goal was initially to complete three laps. Then it was four. Then it was five. Then, by early October, it was eleven with an additional 0.3 miles at the end to push it to a total of eight miles.
Something I’ve grown to love about running is how malleable the goals are. They can generally be as aggressive or as peaceful as you’d like them to be at a given moment. Want to simply run one mile? That’s a goal you can chase. Hoping to become a first-time marathoner? You can chase that, too. For a while, I wanted to run a sub-23 minute 5K, then I realized it was making running a little less enjoyable on the whole. No worries; I adjusted my goals and hoped to stay under 25 while working on 10K or longer runs in the process.
At the current stage of my life, where I have long realized I could not get minutes for any college basketball team in existence and I am barely an okay wiffleball player, there is but one sport I can legitimately invest myself into as an athlete. Running is it for me, because it never, ever gets boring. Being able to change things on the fly simply keeps it interesting and keeps me going. Two years ago, the idea of ever running a marathon was frankly laughable. One year ago, the idea of doing it just seemed kind of bad. As I write this, it seems genuinely exciting and like something I will have a fun time doing. You can toss the Paul Rudd look at us, who would’ve thought? meme in here easily.
IV. Uptight (everything’s alright)
The worst and best part of my relationship to running is two-fold:
Entering actual road races;
The first race I entered, a half-marathon in Louisville in April 2021, was perfectly fine. They released us in corrals of 50 every 15 minutes over the course of four days; my corral released at 6:45 AM on a Sunday where it was 45 degrees at sunrise and my wife was baffled that I was walking outside in short sleeves and shorts. (Actually, my only ‘fix’ from that day would’ve been to go with a tank top instead.) In that race, I remember four guys in matching tanks, one of which had a GoPro strapped to his head, speeding past me. I also remember running with a guy for the first mile or so, him speeding off, then feeling some pretty deep satisfaction when I caught that guy at mile 10 and finished a few hundred feet ahead of him three miles later.
The second race – the Covenant Knoxville Half Marathon in October 2021 – was much less fine. This was the first full race (meaning no social distancing or real restrictions) I’d entered in over ten years. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with seemingly half of the city. They put me in the first corral (AKA, fastest) for reasons I still don’t understand. It was 70 degrees, 100% humidity, and poured rain for half the race. I remember feeling utterly helpless for the final six miles of the race, watching person after person past me as I had to stop and walk. It remains the most physically grueling thing I have done to date.
The problem with looking at the first race as overtly positive and the second as all negatives is that both were equally helpful in giving me places to find joy in running. The first is obvious: I beat my goal of a sub-2 hour run by nearly five full minutes and had Popeyes an hour later. The second was the much tougher lesson. Some days, it isn’t your day. Actually, most days, conditions are far from the perfection of mid-40s and agreeable humidity. Watching everyone sprint by me that fall Sunday was a wake-up call: just because I could keep pace with the guys running 1:50 or less half-marathons for the first two miles did not mean I should have done so. It would have been perfectly acceptable to scale back, recognize 70/100%/Noah’s Ark was not likely to produce PR-worthy efforts, and run my own race within a vacuum.
The key is learning my own limits, accepting those, and being fine with not being the fastest runner anywhere on any given day. In my one-person mental leaderboard, I am always first and last, and this is okay. Of course, it does not mean I can’t look at this without some tinge of jealousy.
That is a leaderboard for a 0.9-mile segment of one of Knoxville’s greenways. I’ve ran it many times; my PR is 7:33, which converts to an 8:20/mile pace. Not bad at all. This ranks 1500th out of 3,359 best efforts, which was incredibly humbling the first time I saw it. Most of the guys who lead the local charts are or were members of the University of Tennessee’s track team, which obviously makes sense. They’re going to demolish me and 99.99999% of runners every single day. A year ago, I probably would’ve dwelled more on that. Now, when the men and women of the track team blow past me at NASCAR speeds, I simply smile. They get to run their own race; I run mine.
The joy of edging closer to the finish is, obviously, wonderful. I think about all of the runs that come before it. I think about every little thing I have done to get there; every little, marginal, tiny improvement that has been made along the way. Shaving a few seconds off here and there. All the early alarm clocks; all of the lost sleep. There is good and bad in this, but the more of these I do, the more peaceful it all becomes – not just approaching the end of a big run, but throughout it.
Think about it: what is the very quietest place you can be at when you live in a city of nearly 200,000 people? There are plenty of spots to choose from. Some will choose the comfort of their bedroom, assuming the neighborhood around them cooperates. Some may select to drive in silence, though the teeming buzz of a car engine can throw this off at times. (Unless you’re an electric car driver, in which case, maybe that is more your speed.) My personal favorite spot before running became a significant day-to-day portion of my life was Sharp’s Ridge, a mini-mountain in North Knoxville that is mostly known for an overlook of the city and several huge broadcasting towers.
Unfortunately, I have yet to add trail running to my list of everyday capabilities. Once I get over my crippling fear of [REDACTED], I will begin considering running the Sharp’s Ridge trails. Until then, my new favorite spot is located off of Island Home Avenue in South Knoxville. This is a very specific, very tiny moment of zen, and it only occurs early in the mornings.
For about 15 minutes in the mornings, as the sun is rising and the sky still has that hazy, orange-to-blue glow to it, there is no place I would rather be in the world than this. As someone who’s struggled with faith immensely at times in their life, particularly in the last couple of years, I feel more faithful and at peace in scenes like this than in places I’d theoretically be happier and less sweaty in. It is precisely this I’ve realized: the mental peace of running is perhaps why I run above anything else. Nothing makes me feel calmer, even when the humidity is high and it’s a tough day out there.
VI. Finish line
Next weekend, I’m running in what’s said to be Knoxville’s oldest road race: the Expo 10K, formerly known as the Expo 10,000. It is the 40th edition of the race, which is pretty exciting. This is not a brag of any sort, merely a statement of fact and an explanation why this post comes out as six separate pieces. (A 10K is technically 6.22 miles, but this is my post and my tired fingers typing it out, so oh well.)
Probably somewhere around mile 4, regardless of heat and humidity, I may mentally stop and think about how far away all of this seemed just two years ago. On Memorial Day weekend of 2020, which would normally be a weekend I visit several friends and make plans, I quietly ran four miles for the first time at the high school near my house. There was no one in attendance and no medal to take home; it was just my personal achievement to remember. That was fine. So this will be, too.
Maybe at mile 5, I can think of how my father inspired me to do this without knowing it, or how my friend/coach Jake remained optimistic about my abilities even when I couldn’t be. Or mile 6, near the finish line, when I’ll see my biggest supporter of all: my wife.
At this point, 6.22 miles is merely one of the 13 longest runs I’ll have done so far in 2022. Considering that it’s projected to be the 41st-longest run of my year come December 31, it could easily be lost in the shuffle as one of several similar runs that ended in similar fashion. For whatever reason, though, I find myself feeling a little sentimental. A little happier. And a little more at peace with everything, more or less. Hopefully the same exists for you, whether that’s in running or gardening or whatever activity brings you joy.
I made a resolution this year to pay deeper attention to baseball. Part of this is made quite easy locally, with the University of Tennessee’s baseball team in the midst of an excellent season. The other part of this is a little less easy, in that I grew up watching a lot of baseball. My grandfather’s favorite sport growing up was baseball, and while the love for it more or less skipped a generation, he passed it down my way. His favorite team was one I could not consciously copy once I was old enough to realize who they were: the New York Yankees. My father claims a loose Detroit Tigers fandom, being from the Detroit suburb Southfield, so ten years ago I elected to follow the Tigers.
This is boring history that provides a loose-enough explanation for me being a huge baseball fan from, say, 2001-2014, then very loosely to not at all from 2015 to 2019. There are many long-lasting effects of the pandemic on humanity, but one of them on me, the protagonist of history, was that I started watching regular season baseball again in 2021. Something about it seemed comforting and warm. It was like re-embracing an old friend. It helped that I no longer felt completely lost in terms of baseball discussion with my grandfather or with friends, so there was that, too.
The problem any normal person will see with committing yourself to regular season baseball is that every team plays 162 games. I would estimate that all but ~60 of these games cross-pollinate with other sporting seasons, such as the NBA/NHL playoffs, the start of European football in mid-August, and, of course, our national bloodsport in September. For about 60 games, you really don’t have anything else on. The problem is the other 102ish.
Having had an MLB.TV subscription since 2009, I’ve long been a fan of the application’s ability to let you watch literally every broadcast the sport has to offer. Also, having been a numbers nerd for even longer, re-diving into Fangraphs, one of our nation’s best websites, was another bonus. When I first got into MLB.TV, it required a lot of bouncing around various games to figure out which broadcasts I liked or didn’t like. Being a Yankees/Tigers fan at the time, I naturally gravitated to those two. The point is that these were television broadcasts with television announcers. I never thought twice about the radio option, because not being able to actually watch the game felt like the most old-timers thing imaginable.
The great people of Fangraphs commissioned a months-long project in late 2020 and early 2021: a nationwide survey of opinions on local broadcasts, both television and radio. You can view the final results here, but predictably, a couple numbers stood out to me. The average TV baseball broadcast is rated a 6.6/10; the average radio broadcast is over a point higher at 7.8/10. There is no other sport of which I know this to be the case, that the fans on average prefer not seeing the game to seeing it. (At least in this specific sense.)
With that in mind, I spent the first month of the 2022 season sort of reconnecting my old-timer soul with the old-timer act of listening to a baseball game. I did it over, and over, and over again. I have to report that the average Fangraphs responder is accurate: the act of listening to baseball is superior to viewing it. This is because a radio broadcast is more versatile: in 2022, I can take it anywhere and do anything while listening and paying attention. If we are forced to own smartphones, this is my questionably-moral act of offsetting the brain damage.
There have been 17 Tigers games to date this season; I have listened to at least part of 13 of them. I have never felt more connected with the team I’ve chosen to support. Part of this choice is made easy by the fact that, in the Fangraphs survey, Detroit’s TV team ranks dead last in MLB. (They are genuinely very, very bad, and watching any Bally Sports broadcast brings its own problems.) But a much bigger part is that, for the first time, I feel like I get it. I get why this is the national pastime. And I get why radio broadcasts have been so beloved for so long.
The first radio broadcast of a baseball game occurred in August 1921, a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies. 101 years later, we still listen to baseball on the radio. Does this reflect a desire to connect with a nostalgia people like me have never quite held? I wonder, but I have no answer. But imagine being there in 1921, somewhere in Pennsylvania, and you hear some of that broadcast. You cannot actually watch the game happening at the ballpark, but a proper visualization of it via transmission of electromagnetic waves is now possible.
I couldn’t find a report more recent than summer 2018, 97 years after that first broadcast, but the message is likely the same today: no sport in America is more popular to listen to than baseball. This is despite the fact that baseball now ranks as America’s third-favorite sport, and whenever Gallup runs their next poll, it could very well rank fourth behind soccer/European football. Why is this so?
I think of it this way: while I do not mind listening to a football game on the radio, it is not my first choice (unless it’s a Westwood One broadcast). Football is, at its core, a visual game. Same with basketball, which is really hard to follow on the radio. Hockey comes closest, because with the natural noise of the game you’re able to somewhat visualize what’s going on, but it ranks second to baseball. A random Tuesday evening game between, say, Oakland and Texas can be turned on. The stakes are low. A homer is hit. To where? It may not matter; you hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the excitement of the announcer. An audio-based game deserves to be heard audio-first.
Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first radio broadcast in 2021, Wall Street Journal writer and book guy Jared Diamond wrote about why we do this. There’s Vin Scully and Gary Cohen, of course, but for a Tigers fan like me, there’s Dan Dickerson. Every city has their own person, one who paints the picture for you over a three-hour course that you can zone in and out of. Diamond himself notes the upside of the perceived boredom: “Radio requires no such commitment, lending itself to how baseball is ideally consumed: as a familiar sound in the background as life goes on, there for you when you want it, wherever you are. Understanding basketball or football on the radio takes active listening. Baseball can be listened to passively, the excitement in the broadcaster’s voice dictating the level of attention needed at that moment.”
To quote Jon Bois, this is how baseball moves: not at all, then all at once. This is a stage of life where I am writing this on a screen, you see everything in your daily life on a screen, and we are begged to tie ourselves to the screens as often as we can. The act of turning a baseball game on that you cannot see is like a minor act of rebellion. It is a revolution against non-stop visuals and unwanted advertising shoved in your face. Baseball on the radio has survived for 101 years because it is one of the few things we have left that we don’t have to visualize. The guy on the transmitter is doing it for us, and he is doing quite the good job.
I think it was July 2009, somewhere in there, my grandfather purchased MLB.TV for the first time. A lifelong Yankees fan, he had toyed with a few different ways to watch the games despite never actually living in the New York market. The Yankees being the Yankees, he could more or less guarantee at least one national broadcast every week during the season. But missing those other 120 or so games isn’t fun, so why not invest in the streaming service that covers the rest?
The first game we watched together was a mid-summer game between the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. It was 90+ degrees out yet again, because it was July, and my grandparents came over to have dinner with us. My grandfather smoked for a long time, so we sat on the back porch, watching the game on the MLB.TV stream on the iPod Touch my father had gotten me the previous Christmas. Thinking of it now, I cannot imagine that picture was 100% crystal clear. It was on a tiny device with a black screen that projected images at your face, years before we were to fully realize the impact of such a thing on our brains.
In that moment, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. I don’t think he wanted to, either. It was just us, just us and a baseball game using a device that wouldn’t have existed two years earlier and a streaming service that wouldn’t have in the prior decade. MLB.TV debuted in August 26, 2002 and slowly grew until it seemed to explode late in the 2000s. The confluence of decent Internet speeds and better streaming service meant a product that felt leagues ahead of all the other leagues. It was like an addiction we couldn’t quit going back to.
After that first game, I’d go over to their house and we’d come up with excuses to watch a variety of games. The Tigers are playing the Blue Jays at 2 PM on a Saturday? Sure, nothing better going on at the moment. The Rangers are tied in the eighth against Houston? Put it on. Nothing was off limits any longer; it was all baseball, as often as we could get it on. We could do that pretty often at that time. Once the ability to sync radio broadcasts with TV was introduced, we started doing that sometimes, because it reminded him of how much he loved listening to the radio broadcasts growing up.
The years passed, the addiction faded for a while, but every March, I would call him to make sure the MLB.TV login still worked for both of us. His username never changed. The passwords did occasionally when he forgot the previous one, but they had a pretty consistent theme over time. Every time I went to their house from April to October from 2011 onward, the odds were >80% that a Yankees game would be on the television. Even after I made the switch to Tigers fandom, we still watched games together as often as we could. Even after I stopped watching baseball almost entirely for four years, we still watched when we were in the same room.
The account is in my name now. There have been other transitions over the last few months; that was one that felt more powerful than it probably should have. But despite my own preferences, I will not be changing the Favorite Team within the application from New York.
It is April 26 and sunny outside. It’s been warm lately; the hints at summer ahead are growing stronger as we slowly leave winter behind, then spring. Spring signals a rebirth to many for a variety of reasons.
In these times of late, with world news seeming ever scarier and the national news not helping, I think of the guy who created Northwoods Baseball Sleep Radio. Taking a nap with a baseball game on in the background is one of the best ways the sport can be experienced. Time can be warped. Dimensions can be altered. Commercials can be somewhat soothing. A brighter summer day of years past comes back to warm your memories and comfort your heart. Hope springs eternal.
On Monday, I mowed and listened to the Brewers play the Giants, with Jon Miller on the call. Sometimes I’ve been putting on Phillies games in the background while working because I like the camaraderie and charisma of their radio team. The Brewers broadcasts generally have the most charming ads. The Tigers have successfully narrowed it down to just one annoying between-innings ad this year, a Little Caesars one, which is about 78 less than the TV broadcast offers. You’ll hear the final out of the fourth inning, then immediately hear an ad for Menards or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet. The dulcet tones of a broadcaster can somehow even make Chevron or Quicken Loans seem like the exact opposite of themselves.
I’m not quite sure what the explanation of the sudden radio explosion in my life is. I do not own a physical radio at the moment, and my alarm clock doesn’t play AM or FM. All radio feeds I listen to are filtered through a technological device of some sort, whether my phone or MacBook or a television. There is no true moment of sitting in the garage, drinking Miller Lite, and listening to a baseball game on a physical radio on a Friday night.
But the facsimile of playing it through one of those devices works just fine. Baseball works remarkably well as a mowing companion, almost regardless of what game you have on. I can get to work on our small garden while listening to the Tigers game. I can replace all of the filler podcasts I have in Spotify with the calming, timeless tones of any random baseball game. It beats running five miles to a real soundtrack sometimes. (In my brief experience of diving in head-first over the last month, the Brewers, Giants, and Rays have the three best radio crews in the sport. The Yankees, regrettably, have the worst.)
Even without that physical radio, the act of playing a baseball game on the radio and not watching it is that minor revolutionary act. For pockets of time, the world stops turning so fast. Everything slows for a little while. A soft ground ball is hit to second, who tosses it over to first for the second out of the first inning. Things are okay again, as the sun comes out for good. A brighter summer day is back, once again, to take us home. I welcome it happily.
I know how every obituary starts, more or less. When I was a high schooler, I worked at a public radio station – not an NPR affiliate, but an independent operation that played dentist office music. Part of the job was having to read out obituaries from local funeral homes as they came in. You could classify this as a ‘weird flex,’ but when you live in a town of 12,000 I guess this is a necessary service. Some obituaries state the deceased’s employer. Most offer context about the person who passed away. There’s usually a short biography of some sort. Person was in the U.S. Army; person had two kids, who had these kids, who possibly had those kids. Occasionally, you got the sort of viral goodie about a person wanting to be let down one last time by the Chicago Bears or whoever.
In season 2, episode 10 of Joe Pera Talks With You, the titular character is overcoming the death of his grandmother. If you watch the prior episodes, it’s inferred that said grandmother (and deceased grandparents) raised Joe. The episode hinges on Pera’s inability to write an obituary for his dead grandmother. He eventually does for the local paper, but they have to cut his obituary back dramatically. The editor informs him that running the whole thing would’ve meant putting an entire separate issue of the paper out. The obituary ends with “she loved donuts,” which is perfect and shattering.
Attempting to write anything, in the cold light of day after being informed your hero has passed away after struggling for the last few months, is impossible. There is no perfect obituary. They are both impossibly long and far too short. I could use my Excel skills to calculate all of the sporting events we watched together. I could estimate the cups of coffee shared. I could utilize some sort of heartwarming example of time spent together at his computer repair business. Many amazing memories of my life can be traced back to shared experiences with my grandfather. Many things could be written. It would be too long if I included them all.
So all I can say is this:
Warren County, TN resident and native Robert Barry Warren, age 81, was born January 17, 1941 and died February 19, 2022 at St. Thomas River Park Hospital in McMinnville, TN following an extended illness. He is survived by his loved ones. He owned a computer repair business called Computers Plus from 1997 to 2014. He loved Tennessee basketball and the New York Yankees. Over the course of 28 years, he inspired his grandson, Will, every single day. He loved donuts.
If you are a loyal reader, first, thank you. Second, you may be wondering why this post exists on a website mostly meant for basketball coverage. Here is a four-part answer that serves as explanation and expectation.
There’s enough Tweets out there. Still, I thought it better to share this than to leave cold turkey.
For the first time since March 9, 2018, there will be no Show Me My Opponent for the Missouri game. This breaks a 125-game coverage streak, which is fine. Everything ends eventually.
Two posts that were to come out on Wednesday and Thursday – one on bracketology, one on frontcourt combinations – will be delayed.
The next post on here is most likely to be a preview of the Auburn game. Frankly, I cannot promise that right now, but I will try.
Thanks for reading and supporting what I do the last few years. It made me happy, and it made my grandpa happy, because this was/is all for him. I’ll come back when I’m ready.
Hello! This is not a post about basketball. That will come later. This, in its own way a recap of the last season of my life, feels more important to get out in a timely fashion.
It was maybe 90 minutes into the drive home from Indianapolis on Sunday morning when I saw this:
And I smiled. I don’t know why I smiled; I guess you see something you saw a bunch when you were little for the first time in years and you smile. It was the same reason I left the hotel that morning after my dad yelled “WHO’S GOT IT BETTER THAN US?” as he left the parking lot and I nearly cried. I smiled then. I smile now writing this. I might smile every time I think about this water tower, because it was a virtual halfway point of the drive from Middle Tennessee to suburban Detroit every time we made that drive when I was younger.
The Florence, Y’all tower was an accident. The tower, originally constructed in the 1970s, read Florence Mall, an advertisement for the new mall being built in Florence, KY. Back when malls still held actual importance for shoppers in America, this was probably an effective way to let travelers now you had a mall in your town.
There is one problem: apparently you cannot advertise something that does not exist. (Hasn’t stopped many others!) The state told Florence they couldn’t keep Florence Mall up. Then-mayor C.M. Ewing worked with locals to come up with new ideas. They had to get an idea submitted before severe fines were implemented. Ewing came up with a simple fix: why not blot out the M, turn it into a Y, add an apostrophe, and make the sign say Florence, Y’all? A fix that cost the city $472 ($2,294.38 in 2021 dollars) has stayed in use for 45 years now and has convinced many a traveler to stop in Florence.
The mall itself is still standing 45 years later. I don’t know what point I’m trying to make here. It could be that the simplest of fixes, whether it’s turning an M into a Y or making more than six three-pointers in a 40-shot sample, could be the cure to your problems. Your problems may be deep. Your problems may be many. And yet: FLORENCE, Y’ALL is always waiting for you to show you just how easy it might be to dig out of the hole.
I think at this point, if you are a Twitter user, you know why I was in Indianapolis. The Big Ten football championship was held on Saturday evening, with Michigan and Iowa participating. Michigan is the team I went to support. Because I get asked about this by seemingly every person I have ever met, here’s your explanation.
My father is a Michigan alumnus. For the last 19 years, ever since I found out where he went to college, I have at least been interested in Michigan football. It is hard not to be. The winged helmets are beautiful; the stadium is massive; the play was, generally, pretty good. They were always on TV, because This Is Michigan and whatnot. At the same time, my grandfather was, for a long time, one of the biggest Tennessee athletics fans I knew of. I can remember watching Tennessee football games with him as early as age 7 and listening to a Buzz Peterson-era basketball game on the radio. We didn’t miss many games from either sport, if any.
In my youth, I rebelled against my father many a time. I was so much older then; I am younger than that now. Part of this was pretending to not care as much about his rooting interests and more about the ones that I, the Protagonist of History, had developed. I liked the Tennessee teams. I supported all of the ones from here. I still liked Michigan athletics and watched as many games as I could, but it was secondary. I aimed to keep it that way.
It was this way until I moved away from home to attend Tennessee. That was ten years ago now; we were never very good at talking to each other when I was there and it didn’t become easier when I wasn’t. The only thing you have is to lean on those existing connections, the ones you found common ground on in the first place. The ones that gave you the love you had and still have.
My freshman year at Tennessee, Michigan football made the Sugar Bowl after a horseshoe-up-the-rear season and I went with my dad because I knew it meant a lot to him. My sophomore year, at home for spring break, Trey Burke made a 35-footer that sent a Sweet Sixteen game with Kansas to overtime; I leapt into my dad’s arms and we nearly brought down a light fixture. Every week for the last eight years, during various sporting seasons, my father and I have discussed some aspect of Michigan athletics (and Tennessee, yes, stop asking, I support both sides) and it has been what we’ve leaned on.
It is why I immediately FaceTimed him after Michigan’s defeat of Ohio State on Thanksgiving weekend. I have known my father for 19 years; those 19 years, prior to two weeks ago, had seen one win in the greatest rivalry college football offers. 42-27 felt like a new future, one that proves sports can still provide joy and hope and bliss in the least-joyhopeblissful of times. It wasn’t a question of if we’d go see them play in Indianapolis; it was a question of when we’d get there.
As the seconds ticked down in Indianapolis, I looked over at my father and I realized something: this man smiled all day long. He never stopped smiling. The excitement radiated off of him for four hours and never ceased. It’s like looking at Florence, Y’all up close.
Looking at this picture, I think about all of the games I have watched with him, whether in HD or from section 410. A scant few have resulted in even somewhat-meaningful wins; only this game truly represents something that will matter for decades to come. But even one was enough. It will forever be more than zero. December 4th, 2021 will be a day I remember for the rest of my life, because it took 28 years to get just one and you never know when a second will arrive.
Any drive that starts in Tennessee and ends in Indiana has a severe upper limit on excitement. Mostly, for me, these drives are built around attempting to spot Meijer locations, because they’re the ones that remind me most of going to the grocery store with my grandmother. But I think about the more subtle shifts of these drives, too. It is not just terrain; it is going from seeing Weigel’s and Pilot to Thorntons and Casey’s as your gas station options.
There is something about the terrain, though. It flattens out and becomes cornfields, farms, etc. for miles upon miles at a time. The stark, gray Big Ten sky clashing with the post-harvest field below is an image burned into my brain by all of the road trips we took growing up. The cold is merely a thing you have to embrace and believe in. To be able to do this one more time with my father is a joy. We didn’t share the same car beyond driving to and from the stadium on Saturday, but it was as if we were with each other in spirit. He sent me this yesterday afternoon with the caption “back at ya.”
I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know if Michigan ends up winning the national championship in football and, for the first time in my sports fandom, I see a team I support win the title in their sport. They certainly aren’t the favorite to do so. But it’s also something I no longer care about. They’ve already accomplished so much, and every week, I’ve been able to talk about the games with my dad and keep our connection alight. I think that is more important to me than the championship now.
Unlike when I grew up, we don’t get to watch all of the games in the same house anymore. I’m rarely able to see more than perhaps 2-3 games a season with him. Yet this year, it felt like we were in the same house again, every week. The very first game of the season, when Michigan played Western Michigan University, I told him that I was ready to quit watching college football permanently. Prior to the last month-plus, I haven’t felt any joy or sustained interest watching this sport in a few years, and truth be told, I still barely watched any college football prior to mid-November that didn’t involve Michigan or Tennessee. It’s definitely sour grapes, but can you blame me – us – for being tired of the losing? For being tired of every single season ending with zero surprises? For pivoting all the way to a sport in college basketball that never has two seasons unfold the same way?
His response was this: “You’ve got to invest. Even if it kills you, just invest in one team, because it’s still worth it.” It was. It is. It forever will be. For three months in 2021 and 24 hours in Indianapolis, I’ve felt like the wide-eyed child that loved sports in the first place again. It’s all thanks to my father, who will conspire a DDOS attack once he finds out I have posted pictures of him on the Internet. It’s still worth it.
It was all worth it, all this time.
Tennessee basketball coverage will resume tomorrow. For now, I’m taking a day off of fandom and job requirements to simply be happy.
I wasn’t quite sure how to start this but I think there should be a disclaimer at the top that this is a Serious Post. If this is scary and not what you come to my site for, you can exit the tab and it will be fine.
A lot of people have asked about my plans for the 2021-22 season. I’ve held off on giving firm answers for a while now, simply because I didn’t really know what my plans were, either. I wasn’t quite sure if I would still write about Tennessee basketball at some points during the offseason. I don’t enjoy being pigeonholed into any one subject but, undeniably, I am at least acceptable on this very specific one.
The answer is that, for another season, I’m still writing about Tennessee basketball and will be for the foreseeable future. It will be on this website and will be in the same general format. There will be tweaks that are explored later on in this post. I will get games right and wrong again. That answers the first question.
The second question, and one I still don’t have an answer for, is the rest of those plans: the non-basketball ones. Life has become busier than it has been in years. My wife and I are trying to buy a reasonably-priced house in the most unreasonable housing market in modern history. I no longer work in an office, yet am busier than I ever was in that office despite being full-time WFH. I ran two half-marathons this year and didn’t die so I’m stupid enough to want to do more of them. The amount of free time I had even two years ago is dwindling at speeds I hadn’t foreseen when I began writing. And, because these things never go away, I still battle depression and anxiety from time to time, even when things are going well for me career-wise.
My basketball work has shifted a bit as well. Most people reading know that I worked with Jimmy Dykes at ESPN over the back half of the most recent basketball season and that said work was used in the SEC Tournament. That led to a couple of opportunities this offseason I’d prefer to keep private. Along with that, I just completed the largest project I’ve ever worked on before, Eight Games. Collectively thanks to these events, I was led to reconsider why I do the work I do and for what specific reasons I want to do it.
As such, I’ve decided to make a few changes. I’m still doing Tennessee basketball previews under the title of Show Me My Opponent for another season, but I’m going to do things somewhat differently as well.
I won’t be interacting on Twitter this year. Well, mostly. If I follow your account, I’ll see your reply or quote-tweet, so I guess I can interact that way. This is a personal policy I instituted for myself after I spent almost all of September entirely off of social media and felt mentally healthier than I had since COVID life began. One negative online interaction has the capability to send my brain and mindset spiraling for hours at a time. This sounds horrible, and it is. I realize that normal brains don’t work in that fashion, but mine isn’t normal and never has been. (Hello, fellow neurodiverse people.)
Last season, there was a sort of crisis point sometime in February (when Tennessee’s games became less exciting and more frustrating) where I entertained the idea of stopping the Show Me My Opponent series. All it was doing to me mentally was causing me to be frustrated, battle with other people online, and eventually start muting people I know in real life because I was tired of their opinions. I love doing these previews but began to genuinely despise 90% of interactions with words that they drive. I still have not progressed to a point where I feel anything other than depression when I see anything other than a hyper-positive reply. (By the way, read all of that and realize how tame my mentions are in comparison to the average woman’s.)
I realized towards the end of last season that literally all of this was being driven by Twitter. I don’t post these on Facebook or Instagram because the format feels ill-fitting. I do have a couple of more private outlets I interact with, but I’m not there refreshing the page every minute. I really do love writing these previews and investing my spare time into them; I just greatly dislike the main page of the Internet I’m posting them on. I know the Tyler The Creator log-off tweet applies here but it isn’t how my brain works; I delete the app and then all I do is just type twitter.com into the URL on Safari. The black screen has sucked so much of my life away, and I have to regain it before I can’t any longer.
So: in an attempt to stabilize my brain and ensure my mental health is in a good state from November to April, I probably will not reply to anyone’s questions or or attempts at a humorous interaction. If it actually requires a response, email statsbywill at gmail.
The previews have some new additions. Eliminated is the KenPom depth chart section at the end; in is a more graphic-design-friendly piece that shows the starting five, some key metrics, and the rotation pieces. The offensive and defensive sections will also look a hair different. Both will have a statistical summary of each side of the ball for the opponent just so the reader has something to refer back to.
I am also doing something moderately unusual: putting a cap on GIFs. My goal is to have no more than ten in any post and to only use them to accentuate a point. To be honest, the GIFs have become kind of an annoyance for me. They’ve served their purpose for several years now, but I don’t know that anyone is really going to my site to watch 24 different GIFs of Missouri’s offense and defense. Also, Synergy has finally removed my account’s multi-game shot chart access after four years of uninterrupted use for…reasons. (I reached out to them multiple times and never got the same answer on how much more I’d have to pay to get that access. All I know is I pay $5 more than I did four years ago to get less stuff than I did then.)
I’m going to counterbalance this by working on more charts/graphs/still images to get the point across. Those take less time to create, along with less brain power. The hope is that this year, you get more data and a solid amount of video without sacrificing the strengths that the two provide.
There will also be a loose cap on how long the previews are. I’ve noticed that over the last three years, these have slowly graduated from roughly a 2,000-word average to nearly 3,000 last season, which is honestly too much for most people to keep track of from start-to-finish. I’ll try and keep it a little shorter this year; only the very, very important games will crack 3K.
Each ‘week’ of the season will have its own recap. I’m admitting to stealing the game recap idea from Brian at mgoblog, who has written so many over the years I’ve utterly adored (this is a recent favorite) that have been a massive influence on my own writing. Their general goal is to have a recap for every game. Mine is a bit more modest: during the season, you’ll see a weekly recap of that week’s action. This is meant as a fix for two things I started to take issue with:
No one else is really doing that style of game recap in the Knoxville market;
I got in the bad habit of putting my personal recaps in the How Tennessee Matches Up section of SMMO, which makes it less clear as to how Tennessee matches up with the opponent in question.
Some weeks are going to have more action than others. For instance, Tennessee currently has three weeks on their schedule featuring only one game, which would make it a little pointless to call it a weekly recap. My basic fix here is a really simple one: I’m counting every two games as their own ‘week,’ meaning when Tennessee plays Tennessee Tech on November 26 (Friday) and Presbyterian on November 30 (Tuesday), that’s one week of basketball. This should result in 16 true recaps during the course of the season. (I think it probably makes sense to leave Tennessee’s SEC opener versus Alabama as its own recap.)
To recap the recap, this means that from roughly December to March (and possibly further), you should see a minimum of three posts per week on this website.
Because of this, it’s probably unlikely that I’ll get to write publicly about non-Tennessee basketball happenings. I would like to, and I hate that I don’t have the time to…but I simply don’t have the time to. This is another sanity move.
Thanks for following along for another season. The season preview for 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball comes out on Thursday. I hope it is good. This will be the fourth-straight season in which I have done the Show Me My Opponent series and, in November, I will crack 100 consecutive games previewed. That is a nice, round number that is mostly meaningless but does mean a little to me.
Here is what I did on my six-month summer vacation:
Ran a half-marathon in Louisville, KY (1:55:22) then did another just over five months later in Knoxville (2:07:17). The one in Knoxville was 23 degrees warmer, rained half the time, and held right at 100% humidity most of the way. I’ve started looking up half-marathons in Canada as a protest.
Went to Florida. Twice.
Did not go to Michigan. Very disappointed to share this.
Bought 20 pounds of apples from an apple truck literally called The Apple Truck in front of a Best Buy.
Cancelled my monthly-recurring Zoom subscription.
Made 23 threes in a row at the gym one day in August and have not cracked double-digits since.
It’s August 17, the NBA Playoffs are starting today, and…oh no. Your name is Will Warren, and you have spent the last fifteen years of your life alternating between pretending to like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Detroit Pistons, neither of whom are in the NBA Playoffs. You have certain players you really love, just like anyone, but you don’t have a team. Chances are that the person writing this is not the only one alive with this quandary!
If you, too, are in need of a team to love over the next two months, I’ve worked on a guide that should help answer your questions. Everyone likes something different. A lot of fans will naturally gravitate towards teams that are likely to go very far or are high-end title contenders, but others may want a briefer fling. Perhaps there’s a lower seed that’s really caught your eye. That’s fine, too, and if you’re like me, you might as well add another disappointing, short playoff run to your fandom’s long list of disappointing, short playoff runs.
Below, I’ve broken the 16-team playoff field into four tiers. We’ll start at the bottom with the least-interesting teams and work our way to the top. These rankings are mostly objective, but I did try and allow a little bit of my personal views on each team to shine through. The groups are as follows, again from worst to best:
The Magic and the Nets
Short Relationships (teams not favored in the first round with <10% odds to make a Conference Final, per 538)
The Swing Tier (teams with either a >10% shot at making a Conference Final, per 538, or teams favored in the first round)
The True Bandwagoner (title contenders)
This post is not meant to be taken too seriously; obviously, you get to make your own calls. Content time!
The Magic and the Nets
2. Orlando Magic
1. Brooklyn Nets
At the end of this post, I’ve ranked the teams 1-through-16 in terms of bandwagon friendliness. No matter how I ran my own sets of numbers, these two teams always ranked at the bottom. Orlando’s brief spurt of competency in their first two bubble games quickly turned into a six-game horror show with a myriad of errors. Their most likable and best young player is out for the season, and the other most likable young player is more of a nice story than an actual fun player to watch. Unless you like defense, there’s just not much to get behind here; the best-case scenario is them maybe stealing a game or two off of Milwaukee and getting viewers to freak out for a week.
The Brooklyn Nets, however, do offer more. In every game in the bubble since they got blown out by Orlando in the opener, they’ve played hard for all 48 minutes and very nearly ended Portland’s season before they could make the playoffs. Objectively, they have the worst roster of any team in the playoffs. It contains about 2.5 decent offensive players, no great defenders, and an interim head coach. And yet: they’ve been oddly watchable. They do rank at the bottom here, but they’re certainly more fun to watch than Orlando.
5. Utah Jazz
4. Indiana Pacers
3. Portland Trail Blazers
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
1. Dallas Mavericks
We’ll cover the first two teams here in one paragraph. Both have suffered serious injuries to two of their best players; 20 PPG scorer Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the Jazz, and All-Star Domantas Sabonis is out for the Pacers. That puts a severe cap on how enjoyable they’ve been to watch offensively in the bubble. The Pacers won out simply because of TJ Warren, who was so good in the bubble that he single-handedly won a couple of games for Indiana…but they still weren’t really fun to watch. In late-game situations, both teams go to dribble-heavy guards that favor long mid-range jumpers, and I’m sorry, but even when they hit them it isn’t all that entertaining to watch. It reminds me of 2004-era basketball in a bad way.
Portland also relies on a dribble-heavy guard, but that guard was probably the best player in the seeding games. Damian Lillard has been all sorts of amazing offensively, scoring 154 points in the final three games of Portland’s regular season to drag his team into the playoffs. I think only ranking them third here is going to give readers a bit of concern as to if I actually like entertaining basketball. I do, and I think Portland provides it in spades…especially on defense. Portland provided us with the best offense and the worst defense of the bubble; every single game of theirs was a nail-biter that ended up with a final score of, like, 126-122. That’s why I think they’d be an incredibly frustrating bandwagon choice. Sure, you get Dame, but you also get Portland’s atrocious defense that provides Dame a reason to have to go for 50+ every single night. A great team to watch as a neutral viewer; a pretty awful team to watch if you’re a fan.
Oklahoma City was a fun overachiever this season, a nice redemption story for Chris Paul, and a franchise with a few young, fun players. In particular, you get the benefit of watching Paul (and SGA, and Adams, and Gallo, etc.) take on his old team, the Houston Rockets. That series has several fun storylines that you can get behind. The issue with Oklahoma City: they have the misfortune of running into the Lakers in the second round if they get past Houston. It’s likely that they don’t have the roster power to seriously challenge Los Angeles.
Dallas, meanwhile, is the Chaos Agent of these playoffs. Consider them Portland on hyperspeed: one of the ten best players in basketball, who happens to be 21 years old, scores tons of points every game. His sidekick is a 24-year-old 7’3″ guy that is a fantastic shooter from three and scored nearly 30 points per game in the bubble. They have all sorts of intriguing, weird role players that only make sense on a roster coached by Rick Carlisle. They also happen to have the second-worst defense in the bubble and alternate between going on 14-2 runs and giving up 14-2 runs. Dallas beats out Portland for two reasons: they have a better team offense and a better chance at stealing a couple of games off of their first-round title contending opponent.
The Swing Tier
4. Philadelphia 76ers
3. Miami Heat
2. Houston Rockets
1. Denver Nuggets
These are all teams that, if a few things go right, could make a surprise appearance in their conference final. Also, any of these four could easily be gone in the first round. A great tier for people who deal with stressful events successfully and calmly!
The Philadelphia 76ers, considering preseason expectations, may be the single most frustrating and disappointing watch of this entire field. In the offseason, Philadelphia heavily retooled their roster in free agency and came out of it with a team pretty much everyone agreed to be a serious Finals contender. They looked like the second-best team in the East behind Milwaukee, and given the general distrust in the playoffs of Milwaukee, it was easy to envision a scenario where Philadelphia had its best season in 20 years. Instead, what fans got was a clogged-toilet offense, a bunch of pissed-off players, and a coach everyone wants fired. I strongly advise you stay off of this bandwagon unless you enjoy being angry.
On the other hand, Miami pretty much achieved to the level most expected: a 4/5 seed bid and a good showing by new star Jimmy Butler. However, they contain one of the most fun offenses you can watch in basketball. Erik Spoelstra has designed a ton of hand-offs and off-ball screens for sudden shooting stars like Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kelly Olynyk, etc. In particular, Robinson has gone from being a Division III basketball player six years ago to being one of the best shooters in the entire league. It’s a pretty easy team to get behind.
It feels strange to rank Houston above Miami. Inarguably, the Heat have the more fun offense, weren’t slightly disappointing, and have better uniforms. (Houston’s 1990s uniforms they’ve brought back out are fantastic, but I really don’t think anything is beating Miami Vice, ever.) BUT. I still think James Harden is one of the most uniquely talented offensive superstars the league has ever had. I think Houston’s experiment with the Pocket Rockets – AKA, the lineup where P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington, two small forwards, are the frontcourt – is wild and bizarre and really fun. I also simply think Houston’s got a more talented roster with a higher ceiling. No team in the entire league gets more wide open threes than Houston does; if they ever have a night where they hit a high amount of them, any game is winnable.
The Denver Nuggets have Nikola Jokic, and if you can’t get behind that, you live a sad life.
The True Bandwagoner
5. Toronto Raptors
4. Boston Celtics
3. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Los Angeles Clippers
1. Milwaukee Bucks
This was tough to rank, because I think at minimum, the first four are really close together. (Toronto is somewhat distant due to a pretty uninspring offense, though there’s very little to dislike about them.) Any of them would be great picks for a viewer that’s looking for a good and long time as a temporary fan. This is where things got a little more subjective.
Starting off: the Raptors. Undeniably, a Toronto repeat without Kawhi Leonard is one of the funniest possible outcomes. To do it with one of the…three? best players in basketball no longer on your team would be a heroic achievement; to do so while defeating at least two of the Bucks/Clippers/Lakers would be something insane. That said, the actual product offers up a lot of duds. Toronto’s offense only ranked 15th in dunksandthrees.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. Pascal Siakam’s 22.9 PPG leads the team, but he’s had a lot of streaky runs this season, having several duds at different times. They offer the second-best defense in the league, but there’s not much here that actually gets you excited to watch them play. It’s more of a polite respect.
I struggled mightily with leaving Boston at 4. The Celtics have a lot to offer: a top-five offense, several fun young players, a budding star in Jayson Tatum, and the NBA’s most online fanbase. You can rejoice or commiserate with Weird Celtics Twitter through the playoff run and have a great time. It’s a very fun team….that suffered exclusively from the misfortune of not having LeBron James or Anthony Davis on their roster. If you want to go the roster route, Boston is the more fun, strange, enjoyable team. If you prefer stars, as many people do, you’re obviously rolling with the Lakers, who need no introduction.
A lot of people would have the Lakers first in a bandwagon ranking, and no one should fault them. As mentioned, they have LeBron Freaking James, Anthony Davis, great colors, all the titles, all the history. And yet: isn’t it at least a little bit more fun seeing a team make real history? I’m 26 years old; the Lakers have won five championships in my lifetime, and I remember every single one of them. The Clippers, meanwhile, have Kawhi Leonard (my favorite player in the league), Paul George (…not my favorite player in the league, but a great one), a stacked roster full of weirdos and wonderful personalities, and a history devoid of even a single conference finals appearance. On that alone, I had to go with the other LA team. They have the best offense of these five contenders, play an enjoyable brand of basketball, and have a serious chance to do something Clippers fans likely never imagined would happen in their lifetimes. That’s simply more compelling, and more root-worthy, than another Lakers title.
As I’ve mentioned, you could rank any of these three – and possibly four – as the #1 bandwagon of choice. But who was I to argue against the regular season’s best team with a soon-to-be two-time MVP on their roster? The Bucks don’t have the best offense in the league, but they have Giannis Antetokounmpo, the full-stop Best Player in the World that is unlike any other player in basketball history. They have Khris Middleton, formerly the most underrated player in basketball, now a widely-recognized top 15 guy. They have a wide array of reliable role players. They block a ton of shots. They play faster than any other team in basketball. To top it off, they haven’t won a championship in 49 years and have made it to the conference finals just twice since 1986. You can’t go wrong with any of these top four, but it’s really hard to pass on the Bucks.
The Actual 1-through-16 Ranking
I can’t promise that it’ll make sense to you, but it makes a good amount of sense to me, and I clicked the Publish button. If you’ve got different rankings, I legitimately want to see them!
Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers
Oklahoma City Thunder
Who are you choosing to root for in this year’s playoffs? Let me know on Twitter @statsbywill.
While I’m writing this post-script on Sunday night at 7:57 PM ET, here’s the games I’m covering each day this week. The posts will be up the morning after the game:
Monday: Dallas vs. Los Angeles Clippers, Game 1 (9 PM ET, ESPN)
Tuesday: Oklahoma City vs. Houston, Game 1 (6:30 PM ET, TNT)
Wednesday: Utah vs. Denver, Game 2 (4 PM ET, TNT)
Thursday: Miami vs. Indiana, Game 2 (1 PM ET, ESPN)
Friday: Boston vs. Philadelphia, Game 3 (6:30 PM ET, TNT)
Like basically every other basketball fan in America, I’ve spent the last five Sundays watching ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary on Michael Jordan’s career and, specifically, the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. I think it’s a fairly good piece of work, and I’m certainly glad I watched it. In the sports wilderness created by COVID-19, it’s been nice to see so many people band together to watch a sports documentary about one of the greatest athletes in human history. Regardless of how you feel about Jordan’s status as the Greatest of All Time, it’s a useful artifact to show those younger than, say, 23 just how great MJ was.
That said, the documentary is far from perfect. As Spencer Hall noted on Twitter, MJ getting to sign off on basically every part of this documentary was inevitably going to create positives and negatives. Getting unfettered access to MJ as a source is inarguably a great thing, as Jordan is essentially given the role of a director’s commentary. You get his insight on everything – games in the mid-1980s, the Detroit Pistons, Dennis Rodman, etc. – and it provides great value. That said, giving Jordan such power to sign off on the documentary means we hit dead ends on certain subjects very quickly – the Jordan Rules book, controversy surrounding his retirement, his family today, etc. The director fails to inform you MJ even has a wife until the sixth episode, and you hear from his kids for about two minutes in the final episode. Along with that, the promised behind-the-scenes coverage, aside from a very important scene after winning the title, really falls flat. Very little that’s new is revealed, and to be honest, a lot of the most interesting reveals don’t even involve Michael Jordan.
In short, it’s a good documentary, not a great one. The best thing ESPN has done, and will likely ever do, is still O.J.: Made in America. Whether The Last Dance would have been better without Michael’s involvement is not really worth discussing, as it likely just wouldn’t have existed. (Plus, you don’t get the memes of Michael laughing at others’ interviews.) However, there’s some thoughts I had about the show that I felt like expanding on the day after.
The Jordan vs. LeBron debate will inevitably splinter into the documentary world. I fear it isn’t enough to take a look at the two best to ever do it and simply say “they were equally great in different eras.” We’ll have to drive this debate to its absolute extremes, and I am near-certain Skip Bayless will make a regrettable appearance in the LeBron documentary in 2025.
Will the LeBron doc have the same level of positive coverage towards him? The clear goal of The Last Dance, beyond giving you a bit of the promised access to the greatest dynasty in the last 40+ years of basketball, is to cement Michael Jordan as the Greatest to Ever Do It in the viewer’s eyes. No corners are cut in this process. Even in the episode where teammates are finally allowed to speak negatively about how he treated them, they immediately pivot to “it was worth it for team success.” Obviously, it worked out pretty well, but I found it odd that not even one guy still felt negatively towards Michael. (It’s probably worth reading about how thoroughly Jordan’s Wizards teammates from 2001-2003 hated him, as reported by Michael Leahy’s book When Nothing Else Matters.) Most hilariously, the 1993 series against the Knicks, in which the Bulls initially trailed 2-0, is presented as this major turnaround from Jordan after two “poor” outings in New York (63 points across two games!). In Game 3, Jordan is shown to have returned to his normal status and have carried the Bulls back into the series. In the actual Game 3, Jordan shot 3-for-18 (though he got 16 points at the free throw line alone) and it was Pippen’s 29 points on 12 shots that helped the Bulls demolish New York by 20 points.
To follow that up: this is indeed hagiography, but it’s entertaining hagiography. By showing Michael Jordan to have nearly zero faults, the documentary crafts him as a Basketball God figure that only adds to his legend and makes it more shocking for younger viewers when he doesn’t hit every game-winning shot. As Jordan himself says, he missed 26 game-winning shots in his career. Obviously, you didn’t come to watch the misses; you came to watch the highlights we all know and a few you may not have.
The dichotomy of the 1992-93 Bulls and the 1993-94 Bulls was maybe the most interesting part of the series as a basketball nerd. When I interviewed several college coaches last year for the Building a Better Basketball Offense series, I got to talk to a few coaches whose teams had one dominant scorer and secondary/role players surrounding them. A question I’ve always wondered about teams like this was if it became easier or harder to design the offense around one player. Nearly every coach said “both,” and a couple outlined how it’s typically a little easier for players to buy in to an offense where they know they’ll be able to shoot a decent amount of shots. The 1992-93 Bulls were the second-best offense in the league, and Jordan was spectacular as usual, scoring nearly 33 per game in his first last dance. Once Jordan left, the 1993-94 Bulls fell to the 14th-best offense, though their assist rate did jump a bit. (While this is real basketball nerd stuff that no one cares about, the doc spent zero time exploring how the Bulls were an all-time elite Shot Volume offense, turning it over on just 12% of possessions in 1992-93 and rebounding 38% of their own misses. It’s one of the greatest feats in offensive basketball history.) In the documentary, these two teams are presented as nearly equal, even though the post-Jordan Bulls were clearly worse and got to 55 wins on the back of some lucky bounces in close games. That said: it seems like most coaches would probably deem the 1993-94 Bulls easier to coach, no?
I wish we’d gotten at least some coverage of the post-Jordan Bulls, and, heck, the Jordan Wizards. Maybe that would’ve been episodes 11 and 12 of this already-very-long miniseries, but if you’re spending an entire episode covering Dennis Rodman, I would imagine you could talk more about what happened after the Last Dance. The coda of this series gives you brief, one-line updates on the stars: Jordan retired. Scottie Pippen was traded. Steve Kerr was traded. Dennis Rodman was released. You’re telling me that with all of the time afforded to you, you couldn’t go more in-depth on Life After the Bulls for any of those final three players? Even MJ gets shorted in this regard. There’s nothing about how he became an NBA owner, an international ambassador for basketball, a constant national figure, etc. It’s simply that he rode off into the sunset and then came back for a couple years down the road. Maybe that’ll be in After the Last Dance in 2022: multiple episodes on just how entertainingly bad the Bulls were from 1999 to 2004. I get that they dunked on Jerry Krause enough already, but someone has gotta explore Tim Floyd going 49-190 as the Bulls’ head coach.
As anyone could and should admit, this had several great parts that made the entire experience worth it. I’d love to hear everyone else’s. For me, it’s getting to see Tex Winter drawing up the triangle offense, Jordan’s wails post-title in 1996, Jordan watching others’ interviews, his mom playing a large part in the first episode, and a bit of the baseball discussion.
Again: good, not great. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because we desperately needed something to attach ourselves to in the midst of the sports wilderness.
Week 3 has arrived! Last week went much better than Week 1 – a 140-36 (79.5%) record, a full eight games above expectation. Also, thank you to WCDT Radio in Winchester, TN and Will Rabb for having me on their Prep Football Insiders show last night – a great time. (I believe the podcast of the show will be uploaded sometime before the end of the weekend, though I don’t know for certain.)
As a reminder, you can keep track of season-long win projections via this spreadsheet, which is linked here:
Now, on to this week’s games. Unfortunately, the system expects the weakest week of football yet – a 140-33 (80.8%) expected record for favorites, with 63 of the 173 games having a 90% favorite or greater. That’s 21 more than last week, along with having just 19 50-59% games. Here’s how the Win Percentage Groups are hanging after Week 2:
50-59% likely to win the game: 46-35 (56.8%); 22-14 last week
60-69%: 50-23 (68.5%); 30-9 last week
70-79%: 35-23 (60.3%); 19-12 last week
80-89%: 46-10 (82.1%); 26-2 last week
90-100%: 82-4 (95.3%); 42-0 last week
Outside of the very randomly poor performance by 70-79% favorites, everything is at least within its expected range two weeks in. That’s good to see, and a tiny bit ahead of what I personally expected. Just like more 60-69% teams will lose games going forward, more 70-79% teams should win. As always, TV information for games is listed below. All games, unless otherwise noted, start at 7:30 PM Eastern time for EST teams and 7:00 PM Central for CST teams.
Sheffield 26 at Memphis Nighthawks 17 (this one happened already, obviously; the Memphis Nighthawks won 36-6. Whoops.)
Morristown West 18 at Jefferson Co. 32 (7:00 PM ET, WVLT-TV)
Mitchell 20 at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences 11
Marshall Co. 22 at Tullahoma 19
Raleigh-Egypt 13 at Wooddale 29
Hixson 3 at Anderson Co. 55
LaVergne 32 at Antioch 17
Kingsbury 11 at Arlington 43
Kingston 11 at Austin-East 36
Memphis Overton 9 at Bartlett 39
Goodpasture Christian 8 at Battle Ground Academy 45
Dobyns-Bennett 30 at Bearden 17
Glencliff 0 at Beech 58
Covington 43 at Bolivar Central 7
Webb 40 at Boyd-Buchanan 10
Heritage 7 at Bradley Central 48
Dickson Co. 0 at Brentwood 49
McCallie 15 at Brentwood Academy 25
Clay Co. 29 at Byrns [Jo] 13
Oak Ridge 27 at Campbell Co. 26
Sequatchie Co. 32 at Cannon Co. 17
Southwind 19 at Center Hill (MS) 23
Sevier Co. 3 at Central 44
Whitwell 21 at Chattanooga Christian 29
Fairview 35 at Cheatham Co. Central 13
Champagnat Catholic (FL) 32 at Christ Presbyterian Academy 21
Johnson Co. 28 at Chuckey-Doak 23
West Greene 23 at Claiborne 27
Stewarts Creek 34 at Clarksville 19
Fayette Academy 32 at Clarksville Academy 22
Maryville 43 at Cleveland 8
South Greene 29.9 at Cocke Co. 30.2
Blackman 45 at Coffee Co. Central 4
Lewis Co. 39 at Community 12
Riverdale 36 at Cookeville 16
Sale Creek 17 at Copper Basin 33
Sullivan North 38 at Cosby 9
Greenbrier 8 at Creek Wood 42
Tennessee 24 at Daniel Boone 31
Stone Memorial 29 at DeKalb Co. 17
Friendship Christian 32 at Donelson Christian Academy 16
Lake Co. 45 at Dresden 13
Forrest 25 at Eagleville 27
East Ridge 17 at East Hamilton 23
Giles Co. 18 at East Nashville 41
Cascade 19 at East Robertson 30
Knox Catholic 21 at Ensworth 23
Harding Academy 7 at Evangelical Christian 44
Baylor 22 at Father Ryan 19
Huntland 21 at Fayetteville 24
Lincoln Co. 17 at Franklin Co. 32
Lipscomb Academy 14 at Franklin Road Academy 28
Powell 34 at Fulton 16
Hillsboro 25 at Gallatin 26
DeSoto Central (MS) 22 at Germantown 29
Pickett Co. 6 at Gordonsville 43
Sullivan South 22 at Grainger 30
Sunbright 8 at Greenback 44
Union Co. 5 at Greeneville 50
York Institute 36 at Grundy Co. 14
Gibson Co. 26 at Halls 21
Hampton 16 at Happy Valley 24
Science Hill 20 at Hardin Valley 26
Camden Central 34 at Harpeth 12
Coalfield 27 at Harriman 16
Dyer Co. 23 at Henry Co. 29
White Station 29 at Hernando (MS) 22
Waverly Central 32 at Hickman Co. 20
Hamilton 14 at Hillcrest 31
Hunters Lane 9 at Hillwood 46
Bolton 0 at Houston 59
Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central 0 at Huntingdon 57
Centennial 27 at Independence 34
Hardin Co. 24 at Jackson North Side 27
Chester Co. 12 at Jackson South Side 32
Northeast 23 at Kenwood 17
Grace Christian Academy 19 at King’s Academy 42
Fairley 41 at KIPP Collegiate 3
Brighton 21 at Kirby 35
Clinton 14 at Knoxville Halls 38
Karns 2 at Knoxville West 53
First Assembly Christian 7 at Lausanne Collegiate 45
Mount Juliet 27 at Lebanon 14
Soddy Daisy 29 at Lenoir City 19
Lexington 25 at Liberty Tech Magnet 9
Cumberland Co. 0 at Livingston Academy 49
Brainerd 9 at Loudon 37
Lawrence Co. 16 at Maplewood 29
Polk Co. 19 at Marion Co. 25
Jellico 15 at McCreary Central (KY) 34
Perry Co. 17 at McEwen 34
Cane Ridge 33 at McGavock 18
Sweetwater 30 at McMinn Central 22
Cumberland Gap 0 at Meigs Co. 42
Freedom Prep Academy 35 at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering 12
Collierville 20 at Memphis Central 22
Zion Christian Academy 31 at Memphis Nighthawks 19
Christian Brothers 13 at Memphis University 30
Howard Tech 32 at Middle Tennessee Christian 17
Wayne Co. 40 at Middleton 22
Oakdale 0 at Midway 45
King Prep 8 at Millington Central 42
St. Benedict at Auburndale 3 at Montgomery Bell Academy 38
Cornersville 23 at Moore Co. 24
Cherokee 30 at Morristown East 29
Macon Co. 18 at Mount Juliet Christian Academy 23
Craigmont 13 at Munford 39
Davidson Academy 32 at Nashville Christian 28
Smyrna 21 at Nashville Overton 19
Unicoi Co. 43 at North Greene 9
Whitehaven 8 at North Little Rock (AR) 47
St. George’s 30 at Northpoint Christian 19
GPittman 37 at Northview 7
Middle College 28 at Oakhaven 13
Siegel 0 at Oakland 53
Dyersburg 42 at Obion Co. 12
Haywood 19 at Olive Branch (MS) 28
Shelbyville Central 23 at Page 27 (7:00 PM CT, WUXP-TV)
McKenzie 7 at Peabody 42
Briarcrest Christian 20 at Pope John Paul II 27
Montgomery Central 28 at Portland 16
Franklin 5 at Ravenwood 40
Signal Mountain 7 at Red Bank 41
Monterey 46 at Red Boiling Springs 4
Mount Pleasant 33 at Richland 18
Crockett Co. 22 at Ripley 30
East Hickman Co. 12 at Riverside 34
Oliver Springs 22 at Rockwood 17
Wilson Central 25 at Rossview 17
Macon Road Baptist 42 at Rossville Christian Academy 12
Alcoa 52 at Scott 0
Houston Co. 23 at Scotts Hill 15
Chattanooga Central 35 at Sequoyah 18
Carter 19 at Seymour 21
Melrose 29 at Sheffield 9
Notre Dame 39 at Silverdale Academy 14
Greenfield 35 at South Fulton 18
Milan 22 at South Gibson 31
Cordova 19 at South Panola (MS) 32
Lookout Valley 0 at South Pittsburg 47
Gibbs 11 at South-Doyle 37
Nolensville 35 at Spring Hill 10
White House-Heritage 20 at Springfield 33
Hendersonville 38 at Station Camp 7
Pearl-Cohn 39 at Stratford 14
Elizabethton 45 at Sullivan East 11
Collinwood 10 at Summertown 28
Columbia Central 14 at Summit 36
Stewart Co. 19 at Sycamore 28
Hayesville (NC) 19 at Tellico Plains 24
Jackson Christian 25 at Tipton-Rosemark Academy 20
Manassas 12 at Trezevant 28
University School of Jackson 28 at Trinity Christian Academy 17
Bledsoe Co. 17 at Tyner Academy 28
Hancock Co. 28 at Unaka 21
Adamsville 15 at Union City 27
Smith Co. 18 at Upperman 34
David Crockett 50 at Volunteer 7
Rhea Co. 34 at Walker Valley 15
Rockvale 22 at Warren Co. 24
Oneida 32 at Wartburg 14
Memphis East 21 at Washington 24
Trousdale Co. 31 at Watertown 18
Grace Baptist Academy 29 at Webb Bell Buckle 15
Humboldt 14 at West Carroll 41
Northwest 31 at West Creek 26
Ridgeway 0 at West Monroe (LA) 52
Jackson Co. 10 at Westmoreland 31
McNairy Central 32 at Westview 23
Memphis Business Academy 22 at Westwood 25
CAK 35 at White Co. 17
RePublic 16 at Whites Creek 32
Ooltewah 25.9 at William Blount 25.7
While this isn’t the most purely competitive week of football I’ve ever seen, it still looks fun. There are 145 Region games being played this week, and Week 3 kind of marks the real start of the season. This is when games take on actual playoff importance; your wins count for more and your losses hurt worse. Barring weather issues, 173 games will be played this week, bringing us to 528 total. If I’ve missed one, email email@example.com. Here are the five best games, plus a few honorable mentions, from my perspective.
Knoxville Catholic at Ensworth (Friday, 7:30 PM CT, NFHS Network). This one is an II-AAA East region battle, and one that could hold a lot of importance by year’s end. Ensworth demolished a solid Hillsboro team 48-7 last week, while Knox Catholic struggled with Fort Thomas Highlands (KY) for all four quarters before a late TD put them over the top. The winner here still has to deal with Brentwood Academy and McCallie at the top, but this would be an excellent win for either school. Speaking of which…
McCallie at Brentwood Academy (Friday, 7:00 PM CT). This one likely will end up deciding the II-AAA East regular season champion, but it’s also important for another reason: this is one of two games pre-playoffs where you can see two of the state’s five best teams play each other. (The other is next week, between Maryville and Alcoa.) BA has already soundly defeated a pair of out-of-state teams that would both be among the 25-30 best in Tennessee, while McCallie destroyed a Webb (Knoxville) team that is expected to win II-AA East. Both sides have several future D-1 players, including McCallie’s Jay Hardy, a likely future Tennessee defensive end.
Collierville at Memphis Central (Friday, 7:00 PM CT). Admittedly, it’s strange to feature a game between an 0-2 team in Central and a 2-0 Collierville team with a +2 point differential (29-28 and 25-24 wins!), but it’s two quality 6A teams with a lot of built-in anxiety. Collierville seems to desire winning by coin-flip every week; Memphis Central has disappointed to start the year and desperately needs this win.
Briarcrest Christian at Pope John Paul II (Friday, 7:00 PM CT). Yes, we have three private school games in the top four, but for good reason: they’re all really close. PJPII is favored by a touchdown, but these are two schools currently beating their preseason expectations with a very real chance to separate themselves from a four-team glob in the middle of the II-AAA West pack. (Memphis University reigns supreme, obviously.)
Shelbyville Central at Page (Friday, 7:00 PM CT). I debated elevating something different here, but any neutral observer should be paying close attention to the insane 5A-5 race. Page is a 4.8-point favorite here, but the play is about the same as it was preseason: they’ve got to win this and at least 1-2 more coin-flips to go 10-0. Meanwhile, the top three teams in 5A-5 are separated by a projected 0.26 wins in region play. The winner here gets a leg up on everyone else.
Honorable mentions: Baylor at Father Ryan (Friday, 7:00 PM CT); Haywood at Olive Branch (MS) (Friday, 7:00 PM CT); Ooltewah at William Blount (Friday, 7:30 PM ET); Marshall Co. at Tullahoma (Thursday, 7:00 PM CT); Gallatin at Hillsboro (Friday, 7:00 PM CT); Oak Ridge at Campbell Co. (Friday, 7:30 PM ET); Forrest at Eagleville (Friday, 7:00 PM CT); Trousdale Co. at Watertown (Friday, 7:00 PM CT); Cornersville at Moore Co. (Friday, 7:00 PM CT).
If you’d like to view it, here’s this week’s spreadsheet. The season-long sheet is linked here.