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Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Levels of Losing: New York/Illinois Edition

The Levels of Losing: New York/Illinois Edition

Several years ago, a sports columnist named Bill Simmons decided to take a stab at the rather difficult science at quantifying sports pain. Simmons isn’t the strongest sports columnist out there – he has his flaws, but I generally enjoy his work, and his column about the Levels of Losing strikes a nerve with everyone who’s ever been a fan of any team. In it, he takes losing big games and turns 16 easily identifiable levels out of it. He’s also from Boston, which means the majority of his example were also from Boston. So I’m going to take a mighty stab at the Levels of Losing myself today, with New York and Illinois serving as my examples. Sit back, relax, read, and, depending on your loyalties and feelings toward professional sports, either enjoy or cry.

Level 16: The Princeton Principle
Definition: When a Cinderella team hangs tough against a heavy favorite, but the favorite somehow prevails in the end (like Princeton almost toppling Georgetown in the ’89 NCAAs). … This one stings because you had low expectations, but those gritty underdogs raised your hopes. … Also works for boxing, especially in situations like Balboa-Creed I (“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”). … The moment that always sucks you in: in college hoops, when they show shots of the bench scrubs leaping up and down and hugging each other during the “These guys won’t go away!” portion of the game, before the collapse at the end.
2007 NBA Playoffs, Second Round: Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons
Yes, this was a disappointment, but at least it was a good one. The Bulls, you see, had no business even getting this far. A 3-9 start to a season is usually a written-off ticket to the lottery. Teams that start 3-9 don’t usually go 49-33 on the season and make the playoffs as the third seed. And even if they do, they don’t sweep out the defending Champions in the first round. In the second round, the Bulls reverted to their season-starter form when they let their archrivals, the Detroit Pistons, run them into a 3-0 hole. No basketball team ever came back from that, but that didn’t stop Ben Wallace, Luol Deng, and crew from throwing their best at the Pistons and forcing a sixth game, putting the pressure on the Pistons before finally bowing out. Those were the pre-Rose/Noah Bulls, and despite being in the insurmountable hole, they held on and, for a hot second, looked as though they might succeed in doing the impossible.

Level 15: The Achilles Heel
Definition: This defeat transcends the actual game, because it revealed something larger about your team, a fatal flaw exposed for everyone to see. … Flare guns are fired, red flags are raised, doubt seeps into your team. … Usually the beginning of the end. (You don’t fully comprehend this until you’re reflecting back on it.)
2011 NFC Championship
I was probably the only person in Chicago who wasn’t brazenly confident about the Bears’ chances in the 2011 NFC Championship. Sure they walked in with an 11-5 regular season record, and having plastered the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. But they had also been wearing charm bracelets all year, and their record could have easily been almost reversed had it not been for a bunch of breaks hinged on luck – not luck like defensive backs being out of position, but LUCK. Luck like the Green Bay Packers setting a record number of penalties, Calvin Johnson being robbed of an ironclad touchdown because of a little-known rule, and a number of good teams on their schedule falling to pieces. I caught the NFC Championship against the Packers from my laudromat at Chicago Avenue and Western Avenue. While I could barely hear anything, I could see the screen well enough, and the first thing I saw in the game was Green Bay’s opening drive. Aaron Rodgers took The Pack four plays for a touchdown. The Bears responded by taking four plays for a punt. Those two drives set the tempo for the game; the Bears were in for a long afternoon. The game revealed a number of things that I had been screaming all year, but other Bears fans ignored: The Packers were a better team. Aaron Rodgers was light years ahead of Jay Cutler. Lovie Smith wouldn’t be able to get away with putting his offense on the back of his return man, even if that return man WAS Devin Hester. Worst of all, Bears fans had found a backup quarterback who they hated more than the starter when a nasty injury to Cutler forced Caleb Hanie to finish the game. The 21-14 score was worse than it looked; that second touchdown was The Pack throwing the Bears a bone. While Lovie stuck around for a couple more years, this game pretty much signaled the end for him.

Level 14: The Alpha Dog
Definition: It might have been a devastating loss, but at least you could take solace that a superior player made the difference in the end. … Unfortunately, he wasn’t playing for your team. … You feel more helpless here than anything. … For further reference, see any of MJ’s games in the NBA Finals against Utah (’97 and ’98).
Reggie Miller
The name Reggie Miller still causes longtime New York Knicks fans to fall into epileptic seizures. While my being a basketball fan didn’t happen until just after this era, it’s easy to understand the lingering frustration my chosen fanbase still has over the 90’s. The Knickerbockers drafted Patrick Ewing in the 80’s, easily their best big man since Willis Reed, surrounded him with a supporting cast that could smother any team in the league, and brought in Showtime Lakers coach Pat Riley. Fans from then will forgive the Knicks for forever getting pounded by the Jordan Bulls – who was expected to beat those guys? When it wasn’t the Bulls, though, it was the Indiana Pacers and Miller, who I swear spent his time before games sharpening a stake. Then he would take the hardwood and bomb the Knicks with about 765 points per game. From 1993 to 2000, the Pacers and Knicks met six times in the playoffs, and although they have an even record against each other, the repercussions are more severe than that implies because a team from midwest cowville had figured out how to skin the Big Apple and cut it into bite-size pieces. Three of their matches were conference finals; the Knicks won two of them, but were pushed so hard that one could argue it cost them the Finals. In any case, it was Reggie Miller who was the face of New York’s troubles. He was specifically the one nicknamed the Knick-Killer, the one who got into the fight with Knicks fan Spike Lee, and the one who, given any opening, could heave the necessary clutch shot from all the way across the court and have it go in. In 2010, a documentary was made about the rivalry called Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks. Got that? Not the Indiana Pacers, but Reggie Miller. MSG still likes to air these old playoff games sometimes.
Tom Brady
The Buffalo Bills’ rivalry with the New England Patriots has always been pretty wild, but it was rarely ever one-sided until Tom Brady was installed as New England’s starting quarterback in 2001. Since then, the Bills, still having never found their heir to Jim Kelly, have beaten the Patriots all of two times. The Patriots have beaten the Bills around 500 times by my count. Brady always finds the most humiliating ways to beat them, too: Games between Buffalo and New England always seem to polarize themselves at either massive blowouts or close nail-biters, and they’ll always end in favor of the Patriots. Even when the Bills are able to put up a significant lead on New England and trick the city into thinking they might have a chance, they always show they just don’t DO 60-minute football, especially not against New England. Tom Brady will inevitably lead the Patriots on a series of improbable drives with about three seconds left in the game, connecting on every improbable throw, leading the Pats to four late touchdowns and a victory. And sometimes, he doesn’t stop when the Patriots are squeaking by – he’ll launch a comeback from a 21-point hole to put 35 on the board, as if he was just fucking around with the Bills for most of the game. Watching him in those clutch moments, one gets the feeling he would connect even if he threw the ball backwards. What to do when one man – and particularly an All-American pretty boy like Tom Brady – keeps destroying your team? Well, obviously you can’t try feeding him to your team, because he’s been playing the part of the lion tamer. So when Tom Brady made an offhand comment about the quality of Buffalo’s hotels last year, Buffalo jumped down his throat like petulant children, burning his jersey and actively encouraging the city’s hotels to refuse to let him stay. This from The City of Good Neighbors.

Level 13: The Rabbit’s Foot
Definition: Now we’re starting to get into “Outright Painful” territory. … This applies to those frustrating games and/or series in which every single break seemingly goes against your team. … Unbelievably frustrating. … You know that sinking, “Oh, God, I’ve been here before” feeling when something unfortunate happens, when your guard immediately goes shooting up? … Yeah, I’m wincing just writing about it.
The Comeback
Let’s reverse things for a moment and recall a time where one of my teams actually CAUSED an excrutiating loss. More specifically, an NFL playoff game from 1993 between the Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills. The Oilers had managed to run up a 28-3 lead by halftime, which they pulled out to a 35-3 lead early in the third. On the ensuing kickoff after that touchdown, the wind caused the kick to squib, the first in a series of bad breaks which would destroy Houston. Buffalo took advantage of every Houston error, missed whistle, and weather gust to go on a splurge and score four touchdowns in about six minutes. In the fourth quarter they took the lead while the demoralized Houston offense couldn’t manage anything more than a field goal to tie the game by the end of regulation. In overtime, the Bills took advantage of an interception and Steve Christie booted the Oilers from the Playoffs. The 32-point comeback is still the largest in the history of the NFL. This game, the finest hour in Buffalo football history, was blacked out. I spent the day at McKinley Mall with my father and sister while the mall PA gave us periodic updates. Upon learning the score was 35-3, my immediate reaction was “good,” because I couldn’t take the Bills going to the Super Bowl (again) and losing it (again). Nor could I believe the increasingly narrow score as the PA kept giving it to us. There was absolute shellshock over this game, and everyone once again went right back to believing the Bills had a chance. The Bills made the Super Bowl that year, their third in a row. They also lost for the third year in a row. And they got their asses kicked for the second year in a row.

Level 12: The Sudden Death
Definition: Is there another fan experience quite like overtime hockey, when every slap shot, breakaway and centering pass might spell doom, and losing feels 10 times worse than winning feels good (if that makes sense)? … There’s only one mitigating factor: When OT periods start piling up and you lose the capacity to care anymore, invariably you start rooting for the game to just end, just so you don’t suffer a heart attack.
No Goal
Through most of their existence, the Buffalo Sabres have actually been very good… Just rarely when it counted. 1999 was the one year in my lifetime the Sabres didn’t perform a choke job at some point, but reaching the Stanley Cup Finals didn’t change the fact that they were outcasts and journeymen fighting the Dallas Stars, one of the most powerful and star-laden teams in the NHL. The Sabres did us proud by dragging the series out to six games. Game six went into a sudden death overtime, where Dallas’s league-leading defense kept canceling out Buffalo’s best goalie in the world. Every Dallas shot, breakaway, and visit to the attack zone felt like a heart attack. If I had a choice between a torture session at Guantanamo Bay and this, well, at least the Guantanamo session would end if I gave them information. This dragged on through what was basically a double-header of hockey before Dallas’s Brett Hull brought the axe down in the third overtime. It was both painful and frustrating because my team had just lost the Stanley Cup on a goal which was so badly disputed. The most important hockey game of the year was decided by an individual interpretation of the Crease Rule, which not only lent plenty of clout for missteps but made no fucking sense. Brett Hull defends the goal, and has very solid ground on which to do it, but even he admits it was grossly unfair to the Sabres. The NHL was finally embarrassed into repealing the Crease Rule the next year, and the vast majority of hockey fans reject the legitimacy of the goal. The hindsight, though, does very little to console the city of Buffalo, which to this day believes the Sabres were robbed of a chance to win – or lose – the Stanley Cup fairly. I learned that year that sudden death playoff hockey is only fun and exciting if you’re not emotionally attached to any of the teams playing the game. If you are, god help you.
2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Game Six
As it happened, I was thrust into this situation again eleven years later when my team – the Blackhawks this time – made the Finals. Unlike the Sabres, who were a group of nobodies that prolonged a series they were supposed to lose, the Hawks of 2010 were a machine who stood a great chance of winning the Cup. Their offense was a galaxy of stars and their defense were hard fighters, but I had my suspicions about their goalie. While the Chicago media had been playing up substitute goaltender Antti Niemi as a great hero, I had seen more than enough hockey to see Niemi as what he was: A rickety man behind a well-oiled machine who was winning because he happened to be just a hair better than the other goalies when he needed to be. In game six, the Hawks carried a 3-2 lead into the third period which they surrendered with 3:59 left when Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell shoveled the puck behind Niemi. Being a Buffalo sports doomsayer and wanting to save myself the heart failure, I KNEW the Flyers would take the game into overtime, win it, and then win game seven, so I flipped the TV to that night’s rerun of The Office. I was still steaming when, about four minutes into the episode, the TV blacked out. Now I was REALLY pissed. I swore to myself for the next minute, wondering why both my hockey team and TV hated me when a giant Blackhawks crest suddenly flew across the dead air to the tune of “Chelsea Dagger,” an annoying song which, right then, was the most welcome song I had ever heard. The game HAD gone to overtime, but the Hawks emerged victorious. After watching the presentation of the Stanley Cup, I threw my street clothes back on – jeans and my Blackhawks sweater, I didn’t care that it was 80 degrees and humid – and rushed outside to find my fellow fans and celebrate.

Level 11: Dead Man Walking
Definition: Applies to any playoff series in which your team remains “alive,” but they just suffered a loss so catastrophic and so harrowing that there’s no possible way they can bounce back. … Especially disheartening because you wave the white flag mentally, but there’s a tiny part of you still holding out hope for a miraculous momentum change. … So you’ve given up, but you’re still getting hurt, if that makes sense. … Just for the record, the 2002 Nets and 2005 Astros proved that you can fight off The Dead Man Walking Game, but it doesn’t happen often.
2004 ALCS
The whole reason they play the games in the first place is because the anonymous paper standings the “experts” roll out at the beginning of every season can be so misleading. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox were looking like the superior team to the New York Yankees, only to blow their division and get into the playoffs on the wild card. In the ALCS, the Yankees ran up the big 3-0 hole, winning that third game in dominant fashion. Then the Red Sox decided to catch fire. After Curt Schilling’s heroic outing in game six, the Yankees’ talk about winning game seven was clearly feeding George Steinbrenner what he wanted to hear. When even Saint Jeter couldn’t hide the shock and uncertainty in his face, everyone across the Evil Empire got the message: Our Pinstriped Stormtroopers were now the dead man walking. The seventh game was just a formality, the ALCS was over, and Boston had won the American League Pennant. The only thing left to do was watch game seven, hoping the Yankees could shake their dead man stigma and put the Red Sox away. I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t.

Level 10: The Monkey Wrench
Definition: Any situation in which either (A) the manager/coach of your team made an idiotic game decision or (B) a referee/umpire robbed your team of impending victory. … The Monkey Wrench Game gains steam as the days and months roll along. … The Patriots and Raiders deserve special mention here because they played two Monkey Wrench games 26 years apart — the ’76 playoff game (when Ben Dreith’s dubious “roughing the passer” call on “Sugar Bear” Hamilton gave the Raiders second life), and the infamous Snow Game (the Brady fumble/nonfumble). … Funny how life works out.
The Bartman Game
I’ve never liked the Cubs, but I never specified these had to revolve around teams I like. And this sucker was so nasty that leaving it off a list like this would have been as big a crime as Dusty Baker’s management during the game. Mainly I remember being impressed by onetime future legend Mark Prior as he efficiently mowed down the Florida Marlins for eight dazzling innings. Of course, Baker was never a manager known for paying mind to pitch counts, and with eight magnificent shutout innings and a 3-0 lead, it was a BAD time to be pitching for Dusty Baker. He was about to make history and apparently removing Prior before his arm fell off would jinx it. Prior was never baseball’s most durable pitcher, but after unleashing hell for the Marlins, he had that “stick a fork in him, he’s done” look all over his body. With exhaust fumes engulfing Prior, Baker left him in anyway, the Marlins started getting on base, and Alex Gonzalez bumbled a ground ball that would have ended the inning. The Cubs basically spent the inning playing Monty Python Does Baseball, and Baker didn’t take the hint and remove Prior until the Marlins had the lead. The Marlins scored all eight of their runs in the game during this fiasco. Again, I’m no fan of the Cubs, but holy shit. This game occurred before I had ever been to Chicago, and even I was completely shellshocked and screaming at my TV at the top of my lungs.

Level 9: The Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking
Definition: Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn’t your team’s day. … And that’s the worst part, not just the epiphany but everything that follows — every botched play; every turnover; every instance where someone on your team quits; every “deer in the headlights” look; every time an announcer says, “They can’t get anything going”; every shot of the opponents celebrating; every time you look at the score and think to yourself, “Well, if we score here and force a turnover, maybe we’ll get some momentum,” but you know it’s not going to happen, because you’re already 30 points down. … You just want it to end, and it won’t end. … But you can’t look away. … It’s the sports fan’s equivalent to a three-hour torture session.
1991 AFC Championship
I had trouble thinking this one up, just because there are so many I can think of off the top of my head. So I decided to go positive again! The Bills had spent 1990 playing the Team of Destiny. They had just beaten the archrival Miami Dolphins and their star quarterback, Dan Marino, in the playoffs. Going into the 1991 AFC Championship against the Los Angeles Raiders, the team was favored by seven. Well, they had that covered by the second drive. This game gave Bills fans absolute, complete belief in the whole Team of Destiny thing. Maybe it was the fact that Buffalo’s backup running back scored three touchdowns. Maybe it was the six total interceptions they pulled down from the hapless Raiders’ quarterbacks. Maybe it was the fact that the Raiders threw every defensive formation in their playbook at the Bills. Maybe it was the fact the Bills held Marcus Allen to all of 26 yards, or the fact that the Bills were up 41-3 at halftime. The stats are only part of the bottom line: By the end of the game, the Bills had destroyed the Raiders by a score of 51-3. It’s still the worst loss the Raiders ever suffered in their long history. I’m halfway convinced that Al Davis died because someone brought it up while he was in the room. It was also the first time I started to realize the kind of connection between the city and the team. I didn’t know anything about football except that my hometown had a team called the Bills, and they were now going to a game called the Super Bowl to crush the New York Giants! Victory was inevitable!

Level 8: The This Can’t be Happening
Definition: The sibling of the Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking. … You’re supposed to win, you expect to win, the game is a mere formality. … Suddenly your team falls behind, your opponents are fired up, the clock is ticking and it dawns on you for the first time, “Oh, my God, this can’t be happening.”
2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Buffalo Sabres vs. Ottawa Senators
Yes, the Ottawa Senators had just about had their way with the Buffalo Sabres over the course of the season. But it was Buffalo that brought home the Presidents’ Trophy, which is given to the regular season champions. More importantly, the Senators had a terrible history against Buffalo in the playoffs – 0-3 against the Sabres for a lifetime record, with the last loss coming the previous year, when the two teams also had similar records. Buffalo had won that series 4-1. But that was last year, and this was this year, and hell, the Sabres were known for being the team no one wanted to meet in the playoffs. That Prince of Wales Trophy was looking like a given, and while the potential Finals against the Anaheim Ducks gave Sabre Nation jitters, we still walked with swagger over Buffalo’s chances of finally winning the Stanley Cup. When the Sabres lost the first game, it was a setback. After the second, I got concerned. After the third, I was, just like a fan, still holding out for that miraculous comeback, because that’s what fans do. Even so, I knew that in this, the Sabres’ now-or-never year, the Sabres had stood up and, in a powerful collective voice, screamed “IT’S NEVER!” The Sabres did manage a save-face in game four, but I remember watching game five and feeling the doom harbinger hanging in my apartment. Even after NBC Chicago rudely cut off the overtime period to show a fucking horse race, I had Rob text me the gameplay over my cell phone. If NBC thought it was a mercy cutoff, it didn’t work. That overtime goal was less a stake to the heart than a bullet to the head – sudden, then… Just nothing, except the feeling the world had shut itself off.

Level 7: The Drive-By Shooting
Definition: A first cousin of The “This Can’t Be Happening” Game, we created this one four weeks ago to describe any college football upset in which a 30-point underdog shocks a top-5 team in front of 108,000 of its fans and kills its title hopes before Labor Day.
No Example
Simmons can stick this one where the sun don’t shine. He thinks up a very particular rule for a very particular situation and says it only applies to a specific sport at a specific level. While it wouldn’t bother me to apply it to anything else, I can’t think of anything it could be properly attached to!

Level 6: The Broken Axel
Definition: When the wheels come flying off in a big game, leading to a complete collapse down the stretch. … This one works best for basketball, like Game 3 of the Celtics-Nets series in 2002, or Game 7 of the Blazers-Lakers series in 2000. … You know when it’s happening because (A) the home crowd pushes their team to another level, and (B) the team that’s collapsing becomes afflicted with Deer-In-The-Headlitis. … It’s always fascinating to see how teams bounce back from The Broken Axle Game. … By the way, nobody has been involved in more Broken Axle Games than Rick Adelman.
2009 Winter Classic
The Chicago Blackhawks had languished in the NHL basement for years, but in the 2008 season, they suddenly came out screaming they weren’t the league doormat anymore. In the 2009 season, they had the chance to announce their grand return to the rest of the hockey world, and what better way to do that than playing in the 2009 Winter Classic? At storied Wrigley Field, no less? There was one thing that stood in their way: The Detroit Red Wings, the Hawks’ longtime tormentors and this year’s defending Stanley Cup Champions. The first period went swimmingly for the Hawks, as they rushed out to a 3-1 lead by the end. Then for whatever reason, they seemed to be the stationary cow on the train tracks. And when the Red Wings are equipped with power that approximates that of a train, that’s not going to end well for ANY team. The Red Wings scored the next five goals and dominated the Blackhawks for the rest of the game. A soft third period goal cut the score to 6-4 and allowed Chicago SOME dignity, but between Detroit’s dominance and the rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Denis Savard had sang in a hockey context, dignity became a concept as foreign as Norway. Fortunately, the Hawks recovered and had a spectacular season anyway, making a run to the Western Conference Finals. Detroit stood in their way there again, though, and left no doubt as to who was better. It was great that the Hawks were good again, but they clearly weren’t ready for the Detroit Red Wings just yet.

Level 5: The Role Reversal
Definition: Any rivalry in which one team dominated another team for an extended period of time, then the perennial loser improbably turned the tables. … Like when Beecher fought back against Schillinger in “Oz,” knocked him out and even pulled a Najeh Davenport on his face. For the fans of the vanquished team, the most crushing part of the “Role Reversal” isn’t the actual defeat as much as the loss of an ongoing edge over the fans from the other team. You lose the jokes, the arrogance and the unwavering confidence that the other team can’t beat you. There’s almost a karmic shift. You can feel it.
Chicago Bulls/Detroit Pistons
For most of their existences, the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls were a pair of middling-to-bad teams whose rivalry meant exactly nothing to anyone outside those cities. By the late 80’s, things had changed: The Pistons were arguably the best team in the NBA. The Bulls had Michael Jordan, arguably the league’s best player. Unfortunately for the Bulls – and as Isiah Thomas of the Pistons gleefully loved pointing out – one man does not a team make. So it was easy for the talented, dirty Pistons to create a series of simple defenses and turn them into psychological warfare just by giving them the name “The Jordan Rules,” which tricked everyone – including the Bulls – into thinking they were the vault combination at Fort Knox. From 1989 to 1991, the Bulls and Pistons played in the Eastern Conference Finals every year. The first two, the Pistons won, and went on to take the Championship. By 1991, Jordan finally had a good supporting cast and after years of being called a selfish player, was playing more like a team guy. Sweeping the Pistons this time, the Bulls won their first title and transformed the rivalry on the way to five more titles and dominance in the 90’s. Detroit slipped, bottomed out, and didn’t return to prominence until they won an unexpected third title in 2004.

Level 4: The Guillotine
Definition: This one combines the devastation of The Broken Axle Game with sweeping bitterness and hostility. … Your team’s hanging tough (hell, they might even be winning), but you can feel the inevitable breakdown coming, and you keep waiting for the guillotine to drop, and you just know it’s coming — you know it — and when it finally comes, you’re angry that it happened and you’re angry at yourself for contributing to the debilitating karma. … These are the games when people end up whipping their remote controls against a wall or breaking their hands while pounding a coffee table. … Too many of these and you’ll end up in prison.
The 2011 Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills can sell hope, if anything, and there are times they trick the city into thinking they’ll be good. 2011 was the most severe case: Halfway through the season, the Bills were cruising through the AFC East with a 5-2 record and a tie for the division lead. En route, they had clobbered the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins and come back from a 21-point hole to beat the hated New England Patriots for the first time since 2003. Their two losses had come by three points each. Although Buffalo was wildly suspicious throughout the good half, even the biggest doubters had let their guard down by now. Then Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo’s new magic man, signed what was apparently a magic contract, and not good magic. Suddenly he started making all those traditional Bills starting quarterback mistakes. We wrote it off after the Bills lost their next game to the New York Jets, but it began a seven-game losing streak which didn’t end until a face-save victory against the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos in the next-to-last game. To close the season, they received their customary beating against the Patriots again, who had written off their loss to Buffalo on the way to a 13-win year and an AFC Championship. Meanwhile, the city collectively groaned yet again for letting itself get caught up and invested in another terrible football team. The team was from Buffalo. The team was the Bills. It never could have ended any other way, and yet, we dropped our guard and were shocked when it happened.

Level 3: The Stomach Punch
Definition: Now we’ve moved into rarefied territory, any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. … Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. … Always haunting, sometimes scarring. … There are degrees to The Stomach Punch Game, depending on the situation. … For instance, it’s hard to top Cleveland’s Earnest Byner fumbling against Denver when he was about two yards and 0.2 seconds away from sending the Browns to the Super Bowl.
2007 NHL Playoffs, Buffalo Sabres vs. New York Rangers, Game Five
My mother summed up this insane 2007 playoff victory in two words: Heart failure. With the series tied at two, the Sabres’ Ryan Miller and New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist went toe to toe, matching each other all the way in a goaltenders’ duel for the ages. When New York’s Martin Straka fired a rather innocent-looking shot which found its way over Miller’s shoulder and into the net with a little over three minutes left in regulation, it looked like the Rangers had Buffalo on the ropes. Figuring there was nothing left to lose, Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff yanked Miller for the single-man advantage on offense. On a faceoff in the Rangers’ end with 15 seconds to go in the game, Chris Drury caught a rebound from Tim Connolly, and with Thomas Vanek creating a screen, Drury fired a shot past Lundqvist with eight seconds left in regulation. My big knock on Drury during his tenure in Buffalo was that he could never seem to close, but after this night, I had no complaints. The game went to sudden death overtime, where Buffalo’s Maxim Afinogenov, of all people, scored the game-winner just under five minutes in. Yes, the same Maxim Afinogenov who spent his Buffalo career failing to live up to his potential, and the very same Maxim Afinogenov who was scratched for the previous game due to his underwhelming playoff showing.

Level 2: The Goose/Maverick Tailspin
Definition: Cruising happily through the baseball regular season, a potential playoff team suddenly and inexplicably goes into a tailspin, can’t bounce out of it and ends up crashing for the season. In “Top Gun,” the entire scene lasted for 30 seconds and we immediately moved to a couple of scenes in which Tom Cruise tried to make himself cry on camera but couldn’t quite pull it off. In sports, the Goose/Maverick Tailspin could last for two weeks, four weeks, maybe even two months, but as long as it’s happening, you feel like your entire world is collapsing. It’s like an ongoing Stomach Punch Game. And when it finally ends, you spend the rest of your life reliving it every time a TV network shows a montage of the worst collapses in sports history. Other than that, it’s no big deal.
2006 Chicago White Sox
So the Chicago White Sox had fielded an awesome baseball team in 2005. That’s awesome as in “World Series Championship” awesome. And in 2006, they were bringing back most of the keystone guys from their first champion team since 1917. You would think these guys would be threats to repeat, and the White Sox were looking deadly through the All-Star break. Before the break, the White Sox were safely in front of everyone and soaring along with a record of 57-31. They needed an extra bus to fit in all their players who received invitations to play in the All-Star game. And immediately after the break, the White Sox inexplicably collapsed. They went 2-10 in their next four series, losing them all, and in fact even getting swept by the Yankees and, even worse, the Minnesota Twins. They posted a losing record for the month. While they did recover in August, their recovery wasn’t enough to make up the space they had lost to the Twins and Detroit Tigers, so another losing record in September just sealed it. The White Sox had a pretty good year, winning 90 games, but they had no excuse for blowing it the way they did. Instead, they were leapfrogged by both the Twins and Tigers, both of whom made the playoffs. Just to rub it in, the Tigers won the Pennant.
2007 New York Mets
I’m quite squarely a Yankees fan, but the New York Mets’ unbelievable collapse in 2007 was just too awful to not mention. After coming within a whiff of the Pennant in 2006 before Yadier Molina did them in, the Mets were an easy favorite, and they had their division well in hand going into August. Then in the last five weeks, they were swept twice by the Philadelphia Phillies, the team gaining on them from directly behind. During a stand at Shea, the Mets started losing to bad teams. They went 5-12 in the final couple of weeks in the season, and the Phillies caught fire in the meantime to jump them on the last day. If they had beaten the Phillies just once or twice in those series sweeps, it wouldn’t have mattered. I kept up with the baseball news in New York, but living in Chicago, where the city has a firm dividing line between White Sox and Cubs territory, made me a little oblivious. Of course, I made sure to watch the Yankees whenever they dropped by, but they were on the wane and it was tough to not see the Mets grabbing the headlines that year. By the time of the collapse, the Mets had turned from a sideshow into the most morbidly interesting team in baseball. The local station even cut away from the end of a Cubs game to give us the news about the Phillies and Mets.

Level 1: That Game
Definition: The only game that actually combined The Guillotine and The Stomach Punch. No small feat. Let’s just hope we never travel down that road again.
Wide Right
The setup was almost too perfect. After over 30 years of life among the NFL’s dregs, the Buffalo Bills had finally reached the Super Bowl. They had the best offense in the league, a revolutionary version of the no-huddle called the K-Gun which ran roughshod over every other team. Their defense had a cast of All-Stars which had elevated their unit into the top ten. They had blown out the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship, and now they stood face-to-face with the New York Giants, who represented the arrogant bullies from downstate. They were favored by a significant line. Now, finally, was a chance for little Buffalo to finally rise up and sock New York City in the mouth! This was a full-on failure on the part of the Buffalo Bills, who planned and played as if the Super Bowl was a formality. By all accounts, the Bills should have dropped at least 17 points on the Giants in the first quarter alone, forced them into passing on every down, and hit cruise control. Instead, they got caught up in a big game of tag in which they were always it. That they got trapped in a situation in which their victory relied on a last-second field goal was inexcusable. “Wide right.” No matter how often Bills fans replay it, this game always ends the same way: With Scott Norwood’s kick sailing just right of the post, and the fans being brought back to the harsh reality that their team is from Buffalo. As if to rub it in, then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick admitted years later that the Bills’ passing attack terrified him, so he designed a game plan in which his top-ranked defense would loosen up and let the Bills think they had a chance with the run. The plans he drew were so brilliant that the NFL placed them into the Hall of Fame. Bills fans, by the way, have no hate for the New York Giants; they’re accepted as a fact of NFL life and even cheered for at times. Wide Right, though, is still a raw nerve in the collective psyche of longtime fans. Visitors to Buffalo would be wise to never, ever bring it up.

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A Raving, Maniacal Tribute to Star Wars

A Raving, Maniacal Tribute to Star Wars

I’ve read the Jedi Prince series. It’s not something I’m proud of. It isn’t anything to do with the fact that it’s a series of Star Wars books. Star Wars is very popular. It resonated with so many people that it turned into its own industry, so why shame myself about loving Star Wars? It isn’t the fact that the Jedi Prince books are objectively awful, either. Reading them yields ridiculous shit like Luke Skywalker using The Force like an inept buffoon at some points while unleashing its absolute hell at others; a main villain more concerned about his image than anything in Trioculus; Han Solo and Princess Leia fretting over their wedding; Han Solo, scoundrel rogue smuggler, wistfully building his dream sky house; a Mount Yoda; Jabba the Hutt’s pop winning Cloud City in a card game against Lando; Lando running a holographic theme park (with 1138 THX Ultrasound speakers, dear fucking GOD I wish I was making that up); villains wishing each other “dark greetings;” Han Solo finishing his sky house in the third book, throwing a housewarming party, and teaching Leia a dance called the Space Pirate Boogie; and Chewbacca being relegated to a background character while new character Ken turns Luke into the annoyed pop. (You’re dying to read these books now, aren’t you?) Hell, back when these books came out, you couldn’t blame kid me for reading them because the expanded universe that’s gotten wider than the Star Wars universe itself basically didn’t exist. There was just the Jedi Prince series and Timothy Zahn’s acclaimed Thrawn Trilogy. And THAT is where my embarrassment is. I missed The Thrawn Trilogy because I was too busy reading the Jedi Prince books. All I have to stand by for my alibi is the fact that I was very young and didn’t know any better.

It was pretty disheartening to hear about the recent closure of LucasArts and the impending cancellation of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I joke a little bit about the LucasArts closing: On the downside, it means less Star Wars and fewer video games. Of course, the practical upshot is that it means fewer Star Wars video games! In all seriousness, though, it’s sad mostly because it’s 150 people who are now out of work because Disney switched the business plan. I’m certain it has something to do with money.

As a game developer, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a diehard game fan mourning the track record of LucasArts. It relied heavily on the Star Wars license, and while Star Wars has a better track record than The Simpsons as far as licensed games go, there’s no simply stumbling into a Star Wars game in the local Gamestop and buying it there. As individual games, the galaxy-wide span of Star Wars games runs the gamut of quality. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is considered one of the greatest video games ever made. After that, the quality tends to drop to your Lego Star Wars (a title I always believed should have been granted the subtitle “Together at Last!”), your Rogue Squadrons, your Battlefronts, your Episode I Racers, your Bounty Hunters, your Obi-Wans, your Flight of the Falcons, your Rebel Assaults, your Yoda Stories, and, finally, (sigh) your Masters of Teras Kasi, one of the worst video games ever made. As a whole, though, Star Wars video games are well on the sucky side.

Then there was Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In the entirety of six live-action movies, George Lucas left the vast majority of the Clone Wars to our imaginations. Throughout the Original Trilogy, in fact, we knew three things about the Clone Wars: Number one, they were wars. Number two, they involved clones in some way. And number three, they were epic enough to snap Luke Skywalker to attention when Obi-Wan Kenobi said he fought in them alongside Luke’s father. Episode IV also gave us a vague description of Luke’s father: Best starfighter pilot in the galaxy, cunning warrior, and great friend of Obi-Wan. In Episode V, we got the added detail that Luke’s father was at the right hand of the Emperor wearing a new, evil identity known as Darth Vader, so we now knew something had gone wrong for him somewhere on the line. The Prequel Trilogy was a big letdown in large part because it deprived us of a lot of those descriptions, and we only saw the beginning and end of the Clone Wars. The Clone Wars was a great series because it was able to give us the parts left out, showcasing Anakin Skywalker at his Jedi best. It went into detail about the war itself and gave us Anakin’s friendship with Obi-Wan, as well as a few other things like Mace Windu in real combat and Anakin training an apprentice named Ahsoka Tano.

I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan. I got into Star Wars before I was even into video games, which means this passion goes back quite a ways. The first time I saw the Original Trilogy was probably about the time they were first being aired on TV, when my parents were recording them – Return of the Jedi had only been released one or two years previously at that point. Star Wars is the movie I’ve probably seen more often than any other now, with the possible exception of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I still remember the first time I saw it. I hadn’t yet learned to read so I couldn’t read the opening monologue, but you can bet your ass I understood the swooping crescendos of John Williams’s magnificent score, telling me I was in for an adventure beyond anything my underdeveloped mind yet had the capacity to imagine. The opening theme ended, and then came the opening scene, with the biggest damn starship I’ve ever seen whizzing over my head. Finally, the Rebel Alliance soldiers made a heroic last stand in the halls of their doomed transport, were mowed down by the terrifyingly faceless Imperial Stormtroopers, Darth Vader appeared, and Princess Leia was captured as C-3PO and R2-D2 made a break for the planet below. Like every other kid who watched that spectacle, I was hooked on the spot. Hell, anyone who isn’t yanked right in by the time the droids reach Tatooine just hates movies. Period. It’s still probably the greatest, most effective movie opening I’ve ever seen.

Luke Skywalker became one of my childhood heroes, and Princess Leia my first dream girl. To this day, those two particular characters are extremely representative of the kind of man I want to be and the characteristics I like in women. (It’s no coincidence that my biggest celebrity crush as a teenager was on Sarah Michelle Gellar.) Upon the introduction of the Prequel Trilogy, in which we learned that the whole saga was the story of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, it took on an even deeper resonance. In a spiritual sense, I was able to draw certain parallels between Anakin’s choices and my own life. I’m aware of the little plotholes and inconsistencies, and I frankly don’t care. I’m still waiting for the day lightsabres become a reality.

I’m not exactly what it is about Star Wars that it casts such a spell over myself and others like me. Perhaps one answer is because the Star Wars universe is so simplified and its views of good and evil are so direct. Did anyone, on seeing Darth Vader for the first time, have any doubt he was the bad guy? While the obvious retort to that idea is the end of Return of the Jedi – where Vader finally renounces the Dark Side and becomes Anakin Skywalker long enough to perform his final act as a Jedi Knight – every movie in the series, as well as a lot of the material in the expanded universe, emphasizes The Force as having a Dark Side which is always there, tempting the Jedi who know giving into it produces dire consequences. The Star Wars universe gives us something we don’t frequently have in real life: A clear-cut division between good and evil, where the bad guys are easily distinguished by their heavy english accents and dark, mysterious wardrobe choices. The good guys are archtypes: The young kid looking to learn, the wisecracking hero, and the seen-it-done-it old guardian whose pearls of wisdom offset the younglings’ ability to get the group into trouble. In the inversion category, Star Wars gives us three cute animal sidekicks: One is a tense ball of nervousness and primness; one is his adventurous best friend who excels at getting them into trouble; and one is a beacon of overwhelming physical strength with a heart of gold. The Princess is both an archtype and an inversion of it – she needs rescuing, but is more than capable of defending herself. Her immortal first line when the good guys bust into her cell is a masterwork of defiant snark: “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

My mother explains my father’s love for Star Wars by saying it’s a classic fantasy story in a sci-fi cover. I don’t doubt that, but this angle has been run into the ground, so I feel very little need to expound on it.

In a way, Star Wars also tells two stories which are, at heart, quintessentially American. The first speaks to the country’s origins: A small band of struggling rebels rises up and overthrows an evil, oppressive empire. No matter how debatable the accuracy of that summary is, it’s still the commonly propagated story every American schoolkid hears to the point of such repetition that they all tune it out after awhile. The less obvious parallel is the story of Luke himself, rising from a humble, unassuming origin to become the most powerful Jedi Knight in the galaxy. I imagine that while Han Solo may steal much of the show, it’s Luke Skywalker that many of us dream of being in some way or another. By the end of the Original Trilogy, it’s Luke who has grown the most. After starting as a naive little farmboy with nothing to offer except an open mind, Episode IV ends with him being awarded as a hero of the Rebel Alliance, a result of his resourcefulness and maximization of the few abilities he has. By the end of Episode VI, he’s the greatest Jedi Knight in the galaxy. In the expanded universe, Luke has the responsibility of beginning the Jedi Academy after Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine nearly wiped out the Jedi. Like Luke, many of us dream of rising as high as we can using our smallest, most bare resources and abilities.

It seems a little too easy and convenient to play the Star Wars is Just Cool card because it comes so close to winning the sabacc hand that doing so feels like cheating. But it is true, and anyone who doesn’t think that is either a hipster or Alec Guiness. I can sit here and write out rehashed intellectual theories until the banthas come home, but I’m also part of a generation that was fortunate enough to see the magic of Star Wars when it was still a very recent thing. Did I know WHY I like Luke and Han? Nope. I knew I loved the Battle of Hoth scene, and that I wanted a lightsabre. Even the comparative suckitude of the Prequel Trilogy and the Jedi Prince books never spoiled it for me. Why couldn’t I have my own smuggling cargo spaceship to go to an interesting planet like Bespin? People falling in love with Star Wars for the first time at a young age aren’t saying “What kinds of different meanings and influences could the mysterious Force hold? What parallels can be drawn between the Battle of Endor and modern Islam?”

Disney owns Star Wars now, and they’ve handed it off to JJ Abrams for direction, and subsequent spinoffs will be written by Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas said there would be no more new Star Wars movies after the Prequel Trilogy, but hell, he also said that after the first Star Wars movie. (Which explains a few things in Empire and Jedi.)

I’ve had the fortune to be introduced to a lot of beautiful sci-fi/fantasy escapist paradises in my lifetime: The Lord of the Rings; Dune; Doctor Who; and Harry Potter. That last one there, Harry Potter, brought in the only weapon possibly cool enough to equal lightsabres with the way it used magic wands. While the magic wands don’t have the ominous whirling sound and hypnotic glow of a lightsabre, they do have the ability to produce many powerful spells. But, given the choice, I would probably still take the lightsabre. Actually, I take that back; I would take the magic wand, immediately use it to construct a lightsabre, then sit back and relax as “problems” and “irritants” became concepts relegated to the knaves.

A Farewell to Roger Ebert

A Farewell to Roger Ebert

My all-time favorite Roger Ebert moment didn’t have anything to do with movies. There was a certain sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times since the 90’s who was known as a real windbag. This sportswriter was verbose as hell, yes, but he was also bombastic, loudmouthed, egotistical, and petty. Upon first reading his columns, I assumed it was simply a public personality, but after he quit the newspaper in 2008 (giving an interview to the rival Chicago Tribune in the process), the stories which popped up out of the Sun-Times offices revealed a man who was small and a classic bully. I refuse to write down his name because he doesn’t deserve the extra attention and because he really is a rotten enough person to bomb me through email if he ever read this blog. It was Ebert who gave this guy the most pointed goodbye message when he wrote in a public note “On the way out, don’t let the door bang you in the ass.” Exact words.

That moment was important because it sort of solidified Ebert’s mentality as an everyman critic. Said sportswriter was widely hated in Chicago, and in that one statement, Ebert – a former sportswriter himself – was speaking for hundreds of thousands of people dying to tell him that exact same thing.

As a writer, Roger Ebert was one of my bars. Every time I wrote something which I thought was on a level as good as he could be, he would end up raising it, and much to my madness, he would also make it look very easy. While Ebert never learned of my existence, this was a kind of game I was playing with him in secret as a way of challenging myself to be a better writer. The trick was that Ebert always WROTE like an everyman while still maintaining the influence of the literature he loved. That made Ebert come off as witty, brilliant, passionate, educated, and observant while still being accessible at the same time. That’s not an easy trick to duplicate. I like to think that I pull it off when I’m at my very best, but it takes a hell of an inspiration for me to get there. It’s still asking me to write above and beyond my normal level. The trick is that Ebert never came off as mechanical, which is something I tend to struggle with.

Ebert spoke to me through one of my most beloved escapes from reality: The movies. It’s hard to think that anyone, anywhere, could hold so much influence over an entire generation of writers through the simple task of reviewing movies. But when you give it some real thought, this actually makes perfect sense. Movies are one of the ubiquitous forms of media in society. They’re everywhere – aside from the regular theaters, it’s easier than ever to access movies on television and online and through the countless places that sell DVDs. A lot of the expressions we use from day to day had their origins in a movie scene. Has anyone ever made an offer you couldn’t refuse? They just quoted The Godfather. Movies speak to everyone in some form or another, whether that be famous quotables, famous scenes or characters, or even parodies of popular films.

Growing up in Buffalo, I was a frequent reader of Jeff Simon, the film critic for The Buffalo News. A lot of the things that can be said about Ebert could easily be applied to Simon. It was Simon’s columns that taught me to think more about what I was seeing, and Simon is a promoter of small indie films that would otherwise go ignored in Buffalo. Simon is a great critic, by all means. I disagreed with him a lot, like everyone does with film critics. But Simon’s own way of writing his interpretations of movies could easily come across as pompous and, at times, even insulting, so I wasn’t able to appreciate his work as a kid the way I do now. Ebert changed the way I thought of movie reviewing. He had a talent for slicing through four or five layers of allegorical depth in any given movie and challenging the way I looked at it. When I started reading Ebert’s work, I started taking a more critical look at movies myself, and asking myself upon shutting off a movie, “What’s REALLY going on here?” How many critics can say they turned people into better movie watchers? He was never snide or condescending about the way he looked at movies. (He could sometimes be pretty insluting, though. His review of Atlas Shrugged, Part I is a delightfully venomous attack on objectivism, and his review of Fanboys relied on stereotypes so tired that every popular geek franchise fanbase bombed him with letters to the point where he was forced to apologize.)

My one complaint about Roger Ebert was that he was never able to quite accept the changing times as we would have liked. He seemed to take the popular mantra about age 30 being the new 20 a bit too seriously, though there’s truth in it. He hated the idea of video games being considered a form of art and passionately campaigned against it long after the idea was pretty much set in stone. (And despite not knowing very much about video games.)

I got a lot of Friday yuks from reading Ebert’s reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times. In my line of work, they were always a wonderful way to pass through the long wait times between runs. While riding through The Loop, I always made sure to keep a couple of books on me, but when the movie reviews rolled in through the Friday editions of the Sun-Times, I rarely needed them. Except if the book I was reading happened to be one of the many authored by Roger Ebert. Then it was fair game. Farewell, Roger Ebert. Everyone gives you a thumbs up, even on the occasions we disagreed with you.