Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Revenge of Brian Allen

Of all the soccer games I’ve ever been to (not many), the most memorable by far was one of my brother’s third-grade rec games, when his best friend Brian was being persistently harassed by a bully on the other team. This bully pushed Brian around any chance he got, and it was driving him nuts. He kept complaining to the refs, but they refused to do anything about it. Finally, Brian spontaneously combusted. He gave himself a 30-foot head start, sprinted toward the (much) larger bully as fast as he could, and barreled into him with all his might.

And bounced off of him, onto the grass. 

Now Brian was really steaming. Everyone was staring at him, and he didn’t know how to react. So he did the unthinkable. He grabbed his ball (and his dad was the coach, so it actually was his ball) and ran home -- past the field, through the trees, down a road behind the school -- crying and yelling third-grade-level obscenities the entire time.

It was the single-greatest temper tantrum I’ve ever witnessed.

And the best part? Once everyone had recovered from their unadulterated shock over what just happened, they realized the ball Brian ran off with was the only ball on the field!  Not until Brian’s mom got in her car, drove around searching for him, and finally found him a half-mile down the road could anyone play again. Until then, everyone just stood around, not sure what to do next. Whether young Brian had realized it or not, he had exacted the ultimate revenge not just on the referees, not just on the bully who’d been fouling him, but on the entire game and everyone associated with it. 

Which brings us to this morning, and yet another goal taken from the U.S. soccer team by the 100%-worthless FIFA referees. Sure, bad calls are part of the game. And the U.S. can and will continue to fight back. The way we came through in extra time today to advance was too good for words. Americans take pride in overcoming adversity, and this morning, we did it in a big freaking way. Our players have handled themselves with class, and in my opinion, have been an absolute treat to watch this entire tournament. 

But in order to the win the ultimate prize – for U.S. Soccer to really “arrive” on the global stage – we have more games to win. And I just fear the powers that be won’t let it happen. I wrote an entire post a few weeks ago about the various ways this sport isn't fair, but I wasn’t even factoring in officiating biases against certain teams. We’re playing 11-on-15 out there, game after game. Eventually -- and I hope I'm wrong -- it’s too much for even our guys to overcome. 

And if and when that happens – if we get screwed again on the world’s biggest stage – I think it’s time for us to adopt the Brian Allen strategy. It’s time for us to pick up our ball and go home. Enough is enough. If you don’t want us to be good at this sport, FIFA, then fine. We’ve got other ones. We’ll be fine. You can have your “beautiful” game. 

But good luck finding another ball. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

On Cab Drivers, Cleveland, and LeBron's Big Day

July 1st is right around the corner.  And every fan in New York knows what that means: It’s the day LeBron James’ contract with the Cavs officially terminates, and The King takes his first steps toward joining our beloved Knicks.  At least, that’s what we think.  For a more objective, nuanced opinion, I wanted to hear what the other side thinks.  And with a work trip to Cleveland on this week's docket, I had a perfect chance to do some primary research.

It's not just another day in Cleveland.
One thing I quickly found out for sure: Cleveland’s trying. A flash mob of 200 people gathered at Tower City yesterday (pictured) for a massive song-and-dance sales pitch.  In nearby Akron (James’ hometown), a huge rally is planned tomorrow for “LeBron Appreciation Day”.  And on the day he becomes a free agent, an Indians’ minor league team – the Lake County Captains – is changing its name to the LeLake LeCounty LeCaptains, and every player’s name will add a “Le” at the beginning.  Cleveland wants us to know they’re fighting, and that they fully expect to win.

But the word on the street?  Not quite as hopeful.  Granted, I only spoke to a small sample -- and a large proportion of it was cab drivers -- but still, the results were surprisingly unanimous:

“He’s going.  To New York.  More money.”

“I didn’t think he could say no to the extra $30 mill (he'd get for staying in Cleveland), until Izzo turned down the coaching job.  He must've known LeBron's leaving.”

“I don’t know.  It's tough.  I think he’s leaving.  Probably Chicago.  Maybe New York.”

"You know what?  He's gonna do what he's gonna do.  Bye."

"I'd go if I were him.  He'll make twice as much in New York in endorsements."

"New York?  They buy him?  I heard that.  Guess how old I am?"

This all, of course, was exactly what I was hoping to hear.  But I have to admit, at the time, I felt a little guilty.  Like we were stealing from these people.  People who hadn't experienced a championship (in any sport) in the last 50 years.  I liked Cleveland.  I think it's underrated.  It's quiet.  It's clean.  The people are nice.  One night we went to an Indians game (who by an incredible stroke of luck, were playing the Mets).  Another night we went to Lola, a delicious new restaurant on East 4th Street, which was like a smaller, cleaner, G-rated Bourbon Street.  We walked along the Cuyahoga.  We passed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Cleveland's a proud city.  Tough, yet polite, seemingly just waiting for its big break.

On my way to the airport, I talked up the cab driver again.  I asked him if he'd watched last night's spectacular Celtics-Lakers Game 7.  I figured it'd be a good lead-in.

"Nah," he said.  "I watched the History Channel."
"Really?" I asked.  "The History Channel?"
"You already know what's gonna happen," he said, very matter-of-fact.  "You know who wins, and you know who loses.

"That way you can't get your heart broken."