Hot off the Presses

Dear Readers,

It is with great enthusiasm that I announce the publication of an e-book. This humble publication, a compilation of previously blogged material, will hopefully be the first of some longer work available for purchase.

Before pitching the e-book, I thank you for reading this blog. These days, time and attention are expensive social resources. I appreciate your time. I appreciate your attention.

The publication of an e-book was a coffee-shop accomplishment over the summer. A little backstory. Two years ago I blogged about my Achilles tendon, which had snapped during a basketball game. I wasn’t writing much at the time, so the injury kickstarted the habit — figured since I would be laid up with nothing to do, might as well reflect on recovering from what’s considered among the worst of sports injuries.

Not many people read the entirety of those Achilles posts, because I didn’t put them all on social media or anything. The blog is still online, but posts are listed chronologically starting with the most recent. So for someone reading the blog for the first time, they would have to read it backwards, or go through the annoyance of clicking from the archives.

Hence, the idea to edit and compile the blogposts into a short e-book. Now available for purchase on Amazon for $1.99. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can read on your internet browser, or download a free Kindle-reader app on your phone. After you read it, you can share it for free with someone else.

Here’s the link and the description I wrote up for Amazon:

heel fast

Heel Fast: A Journal of Recovery

One minute he’s playing basketball, the next minute he’s going to the emergency room with a torn Achilles tendon. Say goodbye to hiking, biking and basketball; say hello to surgery, crutches and a long road ahead. This is the story of a high school teacher’s eight month recovery from a debilitating sports injury. Told in a compilation of blog posts written during the recovery, this short read is full of memorable reflections on healing, community, and resilience.

Thanks again for staying tuned. Any feedback I receive on my writings, critical or complimentary, is extremely valuable to me, so always feel free to comment on a post or write me an email. If you do read the e-book, please consider writing a review on Amazon.

Next week we return to regularly scheduled programming, as I will post my second annual “Summer Reading List.”

Yours truly,

Billy

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Happy Fourth of July

July 4th is my favorite holiday. Independence Day. The birth of the greatest nation on Earth. Yes, I am proud to be an American, “where at least I know I’m free.”

I can still hear that song playing in my memory, watching the fireworks explode over my head as a kid. We always watched the fireworks with my grandparents. But my grandfather stayed home because the fireworks brought back war memories.

As much as I hate war, I am proud of my grandfather’s service. I can’t image the horrors he experienced on the beaches in the Pacific during World War Two. I’ve read books about it, watched movies about it, but I still can’t fathom it. My grandpa is now resting in peace.

Another reason I like July 4th is that it’s the least commercialized holiday. I don’t feel obligated to do anything or buy anything. You barbecue, drink beer, wear red-white-and-blue, and blow things up.

The last reason I like July 4th is that we are celebrating the most profound political Declaration ever made:

We are all created equal. This is self-evident. Our dignity does not need to be conferred by a King or any government. In fact, the only purpose of a government is to protect our natural rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. If any government tries to deny these God-given rights, or starts to value its own power more than the inherent dignity of the people, that government needs to go.

That’s deep. Those words inspired a collection of diverse peoples to come together to fight against a powerful nation.

join or die

In my U.S. history class, we try to go deeper with the concept of Independence. What does it mean to declare independence? When is enough enough?

What would it mean to declare psychological independence in a relationship?

Would it be patriotic for students to declare en masse, independence from a paternalistic education system?

Is it an act of patriotism when a rich NFL quarterback kneels during the National Anthem to express his concern that too many unarmed black men are getting shot to death by the police?

Does his kneeling dishonor my grandfather’s service?

Does it matter that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slave-owner?

How do you square the Declaration of Independence with the fact that, in 2017, blacks are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than whites?

How do you square “at least we know we’re free” with the fact that the U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world?

What are we celebrating, anyway?

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The beauty of a text is the ability for interpretation. The spirit of a text matters beyond the original context for which it was written.

The Declaration was used in its original context to fight against British subjugation, and it can be applied hundreds of years later, by people who live under the American flag, to hold power accountable to its tenants.

Frederick Douglass, 1852, giving a Fourth of July speech, railed against the hypocrisy of slavery in a “free” country, the evils of the slave trade, and the travesty of the Fugitive Slave Law. But he ended his fiery speech with an affirmation:

“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.

“‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

Martin Luther King Jr., 1963, speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in his famous “Dream” speech, started by affirming the spirit of the Declaration:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note …

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

dream speech

American society today is very divided.

President Trump spent the weekend brutally insulting TV show hosts, complaining about “Fake News!” and accusing 23 states of disloyalty for refusing to turn over voter information to the federal government. A Republican secretary of state from Mississippi said that Trump’s commission making the request could “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

In 2017, our national birthday causes division. There is an article published today by the Associated Press about blacks, Latinos, and immigrant right’s activists having mixed feelings about the Fourth of July.

“‘There’s a lot not to be proud about when celebrating the Fourth of July,’ said Janelle Astorga Ramos, a University of New Mexico student and daughter of a Mexican immigrant. ‘Even though it’s a time to celebrate as a country and (for) our unity, it’s definitely going to be on the back of our minds.'”

Blind patriotism is foolish. The Fourth of July is not about blind patriotism. The Declaration of Independence does not endorse blind patriotism.

No, the United States is not perfect or nearing perfect when it comes to honoring the Declaration. Maybe we’re taking a step backward before we take another step forward.

If Douglass can be hopeful in 1853, and if Dr. King can be hopeful in 1963, we can certainly be hopeful in 2017.

I think Ramos has it mostly right. I would say there is a lot to be proud about when celebrating the Fourth of July. Yes, injustice should be in the back of our minds. Some have the luxury of having it less in mind than others. There’s still work to be done. But it’s time to celebrate as a country and for our unity.

Cheers to the United States of America.

A Deep Dive into Jordan vs. LeBron

One time, an upstart player for the Washington Bullets named LaBradford Smith scored 37 points in a losing effort against the Chicago Bulls. After the game he told Michael Jordan, “Nice game.”

Jordan was pissed. He stewed about this comment, took it as a slight, vowed to get even. Next game against the Bullets, Jordan scored 37 points in the first half, and held Smith to 15 points overall.

That right there would demonstrate the ruthlessness of Michael Jordan.

But it’s worse. Jordan admitted years later that Smith never actually said “Nice game.” Jordan had made it up.

He used an imaginary diss, a comment most players would have just considered a sportsmanlike platitude, to fuel his revenge against a player and team they had beaten.

If anything distinguished Jordan, caused his separation from the rest of basketball’s all-time pack, it was his competitive rage.

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***

Whenever we debate relative greatness across generations, it can devolve into a battle of numbers. You can find this on the web right now: writers defending LeBron’s losing Finals record by analyzing the statistical strength of his opponents compared to Jordan’s Finals opponents. I have a feeling that, in the data-obsessed world we occupy, the sports gurus will look back at LeBron’s gaudy numbers, his longevity, and conclude he deserves a spot on the highest mantle next to Jordan.

When it comes to assessing performance in sports, numbers can be deceiving. Like they can be in assessing anything. Poll numbers in politics. Test scores in education. There’s more to the story.

We love discussing which athlete is the GOAT — the Greatest of All-Time. But statistical arguments don’t capture the transcendent. We need a clearer picture of what constitutes “greatness.”

I am going to compare two iconic players: Jordan and LeBron. I’ll stay away from the numbers and focus on qualitative analysis: accomplishments, social context, narratives, and public impressions of these athletes during three distinct stages of their careers. Finally, I will reflect on their legacies beyond the game of basketball.

I. Coming of Age

Jordan had to prove himself from the get-go. He had to prove himself as a high schooler. After not making his varsity team as a sophomore, he was driven to prove his coach wrong. He did. By the time he graduated high school, Jordan had distinguished himself as a top prospect, wowing crowds during games and wowing college coaches during workouts.

Recruiting was different back then. The University of North Carolina had heard about Jordan, so invited him to a summer camp. An opportunity to compete against other prospects. He stood out, and UNC expressed early interest. Later on, Jordan played in a “5-Star” camp, where his outstanding performance garnered national attention. But it was too late. North Carolina landed the hometown star.

Back in the 80’s, even the best players usually stayed three or four years in college. Teams were stacked with juniors and seniors who had been coached up and played together for a few seasons. So Jordan had to work for his minutes, prove himself to his coaches. He did. And in an NCAA championship game full of future NBA greats, it was freshman Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot.

He would play two more years in college, becoming a two-time All American and the Player of the Year in 1984, before declaring for the NBA draft.

Before the draft, Jordan played in the summer Olympics, was the top scorer for a gold medal American squad. After the Olympics, Indiana legend Bobby Knight, who coached the team, talked with “an NBA executive who had a very high pick.” Knight said Jordan is the best player I’ve ever seen, you should pick him. The NBA executive replied, but we need a center. Knight said, well, then play him at center.

Michael Jordan was picked third, after two centers, by the Chicago Bulls.

Jordan erupted as a superstar in his first NBA seasons. Rookie of the Year in ’85. Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in ’88.

He electrified crowds and dazzled even the game’s greatest players. After scoring 63 points in a double-overtime loss in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics, Larry Bird famously said, “He’s the most exiting, awesome player in the league today. I think it’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

Despite his dazzling performances and a few game-winning shots, Jordan couldn’t quite get to the Finals. His teams were gradually improving, especially after drafting Scotty Pippen and Horace Grant. But he got bullied by strong Eastern teams like the Bad Boy Pistons. Good as he was, Michael Jordan would need to trust his teammates more to win an NBA title.

***

2002-0218-LeBron-James-001247453At 17 years old, LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine with the heading: “The Chosen One.” The media was always clamoring for the next Jordan, and thus LeBron was crowned.

By 2000, high school prospects competed in club basketball summer tournaments. Club coaches recruit high school players; their teams travel around the country showcasing their talent.

On the club circuit, LeBron was the man. I personally played in the same tournament as him in Vegas (not the same division), and even before social media, there was hype and chatter, everyone asking if you were going to watch LeBron play.

There was never more of a sure thing than LeBron James in the 2003 NBA draft. At 19, straight out of high school, he was drafted #1 by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.

He was immediately scrutinized, and immediately very good. Rookie of the Year in 2004. The team improved 18 games over the previous year,  and had a winning record by his second year.

The 2004 Olympic team was a disaster. The Americans embarrassingly took home the bronze medal. Coach Larry Brown and his players, to put it mildly, did not get along. LeBron James barely played, and almost wasn’t invited back for the Olympics in 2008, due to his “immaturity and downright disrespectfulness.”

In his fourth season, a 22 year-old LeBron James led his team to the 2007 NBA Finals. He put up monster performances in the conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. In the championship round, though, the Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Back again playing for a re-tooled American Olympic team in 2008, James blossomed under Coach Krzyzewski, and was praised by Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo for his personal growth. LeBron played very well in the games, but to clinch the gold medal game against Spain, he deferred to the alpha-dogs: Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade.

Behind the scenes of those games, LeBron was plotting to join forces with Wade and fellow Olympic teammate Chris Bosh. An engineered take-over of the NBA.

Like Jordan in the early years, LeBron kept coming up short in the playoffs. He was league MVP in 2009 and performed strongly in the playoffs. But he put up his least inspired performance in a game 6 loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. After the game, King James walked off the court and left the arena without shaking anyone’s hand or talking to any reporters. He told reporters days later, “It’s hard for me to congratulate someone after losing to them. I’m a winner.”

II. Battle Tested

Michael Jordan lost, again, to the Detroit Pistons in 1990. After the game he was asked by a reporter what he was saying to the other players. Jordan replied “All you can do is wish them good luck, you know. We fought hard. They were the better team … We want to be where they are, but we still have to wait our turn. We’re still trying to improve our team.”

That was the last time Jordan would lose to the Pistons in the playoffs. The following year he walked off the court victorious, sweeping the defending champs, punching his ticket to the Finals.

In his first Finals appearance at 28, Michael Jordan’s Bulls took down Magic Johnson’s Lakers in five games. A book written about the season was revealing. Sam Smith’s Jordan Rules depicts a manic competitor who bullied and intimidated weaker teammates, and made demands on management. Not satisfied with the rush of basketball competition, Jordan would stay up all night playing cards or walk 36 holes of golf before a game, even into the playoffs. Slowly, throughout the season, Jordan was corralled by zen-master coach Phil Jackson, who had been trying to put in an offensive system with more ball movement and shots for other players. Jordan pushed back fiercely against the “equal opportunity” system, but was ultimately convinced that more balance was the only way to win a championship.

Michael Jordan did not relinquish the title. In 1992 he beat Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in the East before taking down Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trailblazers for another title.

The summer of ’92 was the year of the Olympic “Dream Team” who absolutely crushed everyone in their path. What it really shows is how much talent there was in the league. And if you notice a few of those players: Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing. They have some things in common. Each of them is in the Hall of Fame. None of them ever won an NBA championship. Each of them lost at least once in the playoffs to Michael Jordan.

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To be in your prime along with Jordan was to lose to Jordan in your prime. So it went for my Phoenix Suns in 1993. After watching the final game, eight years old, I cried and then went outside to shoot hoops, vowing to avenge the loss someday.

On the podium, crowned champion again, asked to compare himself to the greats of all-time, Michael Jordan said he was proud to have accomplished what Magic and Bird never did: three straight championships. He said if you look at sustained success, you have to put his name up there with the all-time greats, although, “I’m not up here campaigning for best player in the world or in history — I’m not saying that, because everyone plays differently in different eras. But to say that we won three in a row, and I was part of that team, that means a lot to me. ”

***

“Not one…not two…not three…not four…”

This was LeBron James, sitting on a stage with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, summer of 2010, gloating about how many championships they were about to win together. He went up to “not seven…” on the stage. They would eventually win two.

It wasn’t simply that LeBron James left Cleveland that had Cleveland fans burning his jersey. It was the way it happened.

After losing to the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs, LeBron walked off the court, removing his jersey in the tunnel. Was it symbolic?

During that series, ESPN writer Brian Windhorst used the following descriptions of LeBron’s performance: “nonchalant attitude” … “lack of focus” … “standing quietly on the weak side during offense” … “staring into space during huddles.”

Did LeBron already know an easier path awaited him in Miami?

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert accused him later of quitting on his team, not only in the elimination series of 2010 but also in 2009. “Go back and look at the tape, ” Gilbert said. “He quit.”

Maybe Gilbert was just bitter. Some of the blame must lie with ownership and management for not surrounding James with better tools to win.

In any case, after the season, unrestricted free-agent LeBron held a one-hour TV show to announce where he would play the following season. The show was hyped for weeks, promoted on LeBron’s website. Sportswriter Bill Simmons wrote before the show: “Picking anyone other than Cleveland on this show would be the meanest thing any athlete has ever done to a city.”

That’s how a tortured sports city lost it’s home-grown basketball savior. With a spit to the face.

In reflecting on LeBron’s decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in such immature fashion, journalists picked apart the causes. Perhaps too much too soon. Maybe it was lack of a father figure growing up. No sense of grounding. Too many people blowing smoke. Who ever tells him no?

Cleveland fans no doubt reveled in LeBron’s early struggles in Miami. The Heat lacked chemistry. Dwyane Wade had been the Finals MVP in 2006. Who was Pippen and who was Jordan in this scenario?

The Heat lost the Finals in 2011 to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.

Bill Simmons again, writing midway through the series:

“You can’t call it a meltdown or a breakdown; that would belittle what happened. Call it a LeBrondown.”

“In pressure moments, he comes and goes … and when it goes, it’s gone. He starts throwing hot-potato passes, stops driving to the basket, shies away from open 3s, stands in the corner, hides as much as someone that gifted can hide on a basketball court.”

“There was a jaw-dropping moment in crunch time when Wade, frustrated by a LeBron brain fart, decided to chew him out like a drill sergeant. The tirade lasted for eight solid seconds before Wade stomped away. No teammate ever would have done this to Bird, Magic, Jordan, Russell, Duncan, Hakeem … name a great player other than Wilt, it just wouldn’t have happened.”

In 2012, LeBron redeemed himself. He played brilliantly in the Finals as first-fiddle, defeating a talented Thunder team (starring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden). LeBron took home the NBA Finals MVP. He figured out how to win. Shit, maybe this would be the next dynasty.

In 2013, the Finals came down to game 7 against San Antonio. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich decided to make LeBron beat them with the outside shot. Perhaps his only weakness? LeBron made him pay, hitting mid-range and long-range shots all night to win a second straight championship, redemption against the team who handed him a sweep in his first Finals, which now seemed like ancient history. Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan conceded, “LeBron was unbelievable. We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”

At 28 years old, LeBron James was reining two-time champion, one of a select few in NBA history to have won consecutive Finals MVP’s.

III. The Second Culmination 

“I’m back.”

The words reverberated across the sports world.

After his third straight title in ’93, at the height of his powers, at 30 years old, Michael Jordan surprised everyone by retiring. The absence of Jordan in ’94 and ’95 created a vacuum in the NBA.

Why did he retire?

Maybe he felt spurned when the NBA opened an investigation into his gambling issues. Maybe he felt spurned by the media, who turned on him in the midst of a potential scandal. Or maybe it was that, in the summer of ’93,  his father was murdered.

For a year and half Jordan mourned, reflected on life, and played minor league baseball.

In 1996, his first full season back, the Bulls put together the best regular season record in NBA history (surpassed by the Warriors in 2016.) In the Finals that year, the Bulls faced the Seattle Sonics with Gary “the glove” Payton and Shawn Kemp, beating them in six games. Jordan’s fourth NBA championship. After the last game, back in the locker room, he collapsed on the ground and wept. For the first time in his life, Jordan was celebrating a championship without his dad. It was Father’s Day.

The conclusion of the next two Finals seemed inevitable. The Bulls twice faced Stockton and Malone’s Utah Jazz, beating them twice. Watching the playoffs in ’97 and ’98, you just knew the Bulls were going to win. They had MJ.

Even when the Jazz would win a game, or even when they took a lead late in game 6 in ’98, you knew Jordan would deliver. With 30 seconds left in that game, down by one, Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone on defense, dribbled down the clock on offense before swishing the game-winning jumper.

His championship rings could no longer fit on one hand. He retired again after the season, age 36.

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Though he came back later to play for the Wizards, the legend lives in a Chicago Bulls uniform. Undefeated in the Finals. Took home the Finals MVP six times. The snapshot of MJ hitting the game-winning shot for a second three-peat cemented his reputation as eminent champion.

And clinched the ultimate crown: Greatest Player of All-Time.

***

Going for a three-peat, the Miami Heat lost to the Spurs in the 2014 Finals. In what was predicted to be a close series, they got crushed. It was the largest margin of defeat in Finals history. Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard hoisted the Finals MVP trophy. Bill Simmons (who literally wrote The Book of Basketball) said that Leonard “can always brag about going toe-to-toe with LeBron — in his prime, in the Finals — and being better than him for three straight games.”

The excuses poured in. Dwayne Wade was gimpy. LeBron was tired from logging so many minutes over the years.

The LeBron James era in Miami was over.

All was forgiven in “the Land” when LeBron announced he was returning to his hometown. In his absence, the atrocious Cavaliers drafted a point guard named Kyrie Irving, and had the salary cap flexibility to built a contender. Outside shooters James Jones and Mike Miller followed LeBron like the pied piper from Miami to Cleveland. The Cavs traded another young prospect, Andrew Wiggins, for all-star Kevin Love.

For the fifth straight season, LeBron was back in the Finals in 2015. Facing elimination against the Golden State Warriors, much was made about the banged up Cavaliers team. Kyrie Irving was hurt. Kevin Love was hurt. Was LeBron worried?

No.

“I’m confident because I’m the best player in the world,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

LeBron was confident in his status as the best player in the world, and maybe even as the best coach in the world. Upon his arrival back home, James brushed aside the strategy of head coach David Blatt, who had been hired as the reining Coach of the Year from Europe. In training camp that summer, Mike Miller called Blatt’s offense “borderline genius.” Teammate and a former champion Shawn Marion called it “free-flowing.” But it never got the chance to manifest. Two months into the year, LeBron abruptly changed the offense, putting himself as point-guard and moving Irving to the wing. Asked if he had consulted with his coach on this change, LeBron answered, “No, I can do it on my own. I’m past those days where I have to ask.”

The Warriors eliminated the Cavs in six games. The Finals MVP went to Andre Idoudala, whose main responsibility was guarding LeBron James.

LeBron faced the Warriors again in 2016, this time with a healthy Kyrie and Love. (Maybe it goes without saying that David Blatt was fired midway through the season.) The Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 hole to win the championship, and the Jordan comparisons heated up. LeBron had been to seven straight Finals. Yes, he lost more than he won, but his  losses were to really great teams. Could he eventually be the GOAT?

This past year, 2017, saw the whole repertoire from LeBron. Equal parts dominant and petulant during the season. One minute the Cavaliers are on a roll, the next minute they’re on a losing streak and LeBron is publicly criticizing the general manager. Just recently this summer, Dan Gilbert fired general manager David Griffin. LeBron, perhaps forgetting about his midyear criticism, tweeted, “If no one appreciated you Griff I did!”

The firing has created an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the future of the Cavaliers and LeBron. Pundits speculate LeBron may be heading to Los Angeles in 2018.

In the 2017 Finals, the Warriors beat the Cavs handily. LeBron’s Finals record is now 3-5. Another name added to the list of players to have won Finals MVP against LeBron.

For some, the “best player in the world” torch has just been passed from LeBron to Kevin Durant.

Others are awaiting a resurgence of King James.

He’s 32 years old and still playing strong.

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Different type of player, same number “23”
Conclusion: Beyond the Game 

Competitive fire may have enabled Jordan’s greatness on the basketball court, but it doesn’t age well. He’s restless. At 50 years old, MJ admitted, “It’s an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can’t. If I could, then I could breathe.”

The cultural explosion of Air Jordan was a synthesis of basketball prowess and marketability. Above all, MJ was freaking cool. He became a symbol of victory, whose endorsement would catapult Gatorade, Nike, Hanes, Wheaties, and McDonald’s into market domination. He single handedly shaped the mega-contract, mega-endorsement, super-duper-star sports world that LeBron inherited at 17.

On the floor as a player, Michael Jordan should be considered the greatest of all-time. It’s impossible to foresee anyone ever overshadowing him, even if LeBron wins two or three more championships. There’s no opponent Jordan didn’t mercilessly vanquish. He came, he saw, he conquered.

Off the court, LeBron seems willing to harness his cultural power for a different contribution.

James won the NBA Citizenship Award in 2017. His foundation gives tens of millions of dollars to target academically struggling students in Ohio for support, and to provide college education for kids who can’t afford it.

Some criticize LeBron for vocalizing support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Stay out of politics. But when your house is vandalized with a racial slur on the eve of the Finals, in 2017, speaking about race is not “playing politics” but a moral imperative. Yes, racism still exists. No, being rich and famous doesn’t put you above the fray. Following more in the footsteps of the vintage “GOAT” Bill Russell, who was a voice for civil rights in the 60’s, LeBron recognizes that his microphone can be used to advance social equality.

LeBron James isn’t the competitor who would rip out your eyeballs before he would let you win. His conceitedness and petulance often shine brighter than his talent.

But his spirit of camaraderie and identification with real world community hints at a deeper vocation.

LeBron has a chance to inspire a new and different kind of greatness. I hope he does.

Ode to Portland

I hesitate to write about Portland. It might not be cool to write about Portland. It might be more Portland to not write about Portland, and then read what other people write about Portland and say to myself — that’s not Portland.

I’m only a tourist after all. But whatever — I want to write about Portland.

At first I felt too normal for Portland. Not radical enough in my style. I got self-conscious in my cargo shorts and tennis shoes. White socks. What statement am I making?

Then I realized…radical is not about tattoos and ear gauges and wild beards and vintage clothes.

To be radical is to be yourself, whatever that is.

And that’s the vibe I get now when I walk around Portland in my tennis shoes and white socks.

***

The last time I was in Portland it was raining hard. We saw cars going through the car wash, undeterred. Another guy was outside, pouring rain, mowing his lawn.

***

The Portland Trailblazers are a perennially cool NBA franchise. Clyde the Glide. Arvyds Sabonis. Damian Lillard. They won the championship in 1977 with a very Portland superstar hippie Bill Walton, a transcendent big man. They could have won more championships, but injuries plagued Walton’s career. Then they drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984. Then they drafted Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007.

Why did the Blazers pass on Durant and Jordan, choosing two injury prone big men instead? I think they were always chasing the magical potential of Bill Walton.

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Portlanders celebrate in ’77.

***

Walking around Portland today, you see signs on lawns and in the windows of restaurants. The signs say things like: Refugees welcome here. We welcome all religions, all races, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all genders.

It says something about society today that these are radical statements. In a time of increasing hostility, Portland lays out a Welcome mat.

The Welcome mat can be dangerous. Last week two people were killed on a metro for defending Muslim girls from the verbal abuse of a white nationalist.

Micah Fletcher, who survived the stabbing, said, “There’s nothing heroic about defending children.”

Over this past weekend, competing protests converged on downtown Portland. Tensions flared, but luckily the day ended peacefully. Lots of weapons were confiscated, none were used.

Portland is an ideological, and sometimes literal, battlefield in a brewing civil war.

***

In Portland you see different kinds of shops. Like this bike store, where my brother got his bike repaired:

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It is worker owned and collectively run. That makes sense to people in Portland, but maybe not elsewhere. Instead of a top-down structure, boss in charge, decisions at this bike shop are made democratically. Each worker is a co-boss, co-owner. Vote on decisions. Share the profits.

Freaking communists, right?

But it’s all voluntary. It’s not like the government is forcing this structure on the people of Portland, preventing free enterprise. The shop is cooperative because they prefer it. They compete against traditional companies in the free market. Consumers can empower whatever business structure they believe in.

Agree or disagree with collectivist philosophy, the bike shop is an example of one my favorite qualities of Portland. You can feel it in the air. You pick it up in casual conversation. I wouldn’t call it “idealistic,” because there is a hint of cynicism. It’s an attitude of lived values. Put your money where your mouth is. Be authentic.

Sure, the quest for authenticity can morph into hipsterism. It still represents the fundamental quest.

***

Of course there’s the micro-brews. Food trucks. All kinds of delicious foods and neat coffee shops.

I love Powell’s bookstore. Walking around in a labyrinth of books, looking at all the titles, millions of books, reading the staff recommendations on the shelves. When you walk out of there, your mind is full of grand ideas before you even start reading whatever you bought.

I love that everything is green. After spring the flowers bloom into whites and pinks and reds. People are walking and biking everywhere. In a short drive you can be in the wilderness, hiking a mountain or walking through a forest.

Then there’s quirky stuff like the naked bike ride. Festivals of all stripes. The dude riding his bike, jimmied with surround speakers, blasting “Raspberry Beret.” Random stuff like that.

For me, Portland is a vacation. A respite from suburbia. I come from a land where all my trash goes into one container, where the cars don’t stop for pedestrians.

Portland is a breath of fresh air. A kaleidoscope of humanity. A reminder that diverse peoples might happily co-exist someday.

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Making the Best of a Broken System

In my last post I defended the new Arizona law decreasing requirements for teacher certification. My point was basically: subject experts who are capable of teaching should be invited into our classrooms, not forced to take ineffectual teacher training courses.

Not to say that teaching is easy, just that it isn’t brain surgery. You can afford to struggle and learn from experience; you will eventually improve and become effective in the classroom. No one will die in the process. Kids might learn more from witnessing your determination than they would from a perfectly executed geography lesson.

Teaching will test your wits and drain your soul. The classroom atmosphere is supercharged with bundles of emotion. Because kids are powerless, the classroom often becomes a power struggle. What kind of teacher will you be? Because most kids wouldn’t voluntarily be doing what you are telling them to do, coercion is required. Will you be an authoritarian or a genteel motivator? Almost every minute of the day, a teacher makes a decision that impacts the psychic dynamic of the group. How to answer an off-topic question. Whether to let someone go to the bathroom during a lesson.

I’ve started to read Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who ends up teaching at a New York vocational school for 30 years. (Also the author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis.) He perfectly captures the classroom dynamic in his narratives. And he started teaching in 1958! Shows you how sturdy the education system has been.

He’re a riff about the role of the teacher:

In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

Show me a certification program that prepares you for that, and I’ll sign up.

Another anecdote perfectly captures the problem with “teacher education.” On his first day in the classroom, Mr. McCourt encounters this scene:

Petey threw his brown-paper sandwich bag at the critic, Andy, and the class cheered. Fight, fight, they said. Fight, fight. The bag landed on the floor between the blackboard and Andy’s front-row desk.

I came from behind my desk and made the first sound of my teaching career: Hey. Four years of higher education at New York University and all I could think of was Hey.

I said it again. Hey.

They ignored me. They were busy promoting the fight that would kill time and divert me from any lesson I might be planning. I moved toward Petey and made my first teacher statement, Stop throwing sandwiches. Petey and the class looked startled. This teacher, new teacher, just stopped a good fight. New teachers are supposed to mind their own business or send for the principal or a dean and everyone knows it’s years before they come. Which means you can have a good fight while waiting. Besides, what are you gonna do with a teacher who tells you stop throwing sandwiches when you already threw the sandwich?

The full story is hilarious. After an internal monologue about what to do about this sandwich on the floor, McCourt ends up picking up the sandwich himself and eating it in front of the class. His students were impressed, but he winds up talking to the principal after school.

The principal doesn’t know the whole story, assumes McCourt decided to eat his own lunch in the morning instead of teaching class.

McCourt smiles and nods in his conversation with the principal, but he really wants to explain why he did it, and that… “there was nothing in the courses at college on sandwiches, the throwing and retrieving of.”

“Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.”

I think the same would be said by teachers getting started in today’s classrooms.

If I were elected King of the Education World, I would blow up the whole system and start from scratch. In that vein, any chipping away of this dinosaur system, like relaxing teacher certification laws, is most welcome.

The Teacher Certification Debate

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Teacher protests at the Arizona State Capitol.

Arizona just passed a law reducing the requirements to become a classroom teacher. Before the new law, teachers needed formal training to become state certified. Now, as long as you have relevant experience in the subject, you can lead a classroom. The school districts and principals decide who is qualified.

Public education stalwarts are freaking out. How can you lower standards for teachers?

It even got national coverage. An article in the Washington Post said the new law “plays into a misconception that anyone can teach if they know a particular subject and that it is not really necessary to first learn about curriculum, classroom management, and instruction.”

Let’s examine whether this is a misconception or not.

Granted — not everyone who knows a subject will be a good teacher of the subject. Teaching is an inter-personal art form. An experimental scientist does not automatically make a good 8th grade science teacher.

However — Bill Nye the Science Guy would probably make an excellent 8th grade teacher. Why prevent a subject expert from teaching a class if the principal of the school, an education expert, thinks this person would be an effective teacher? A teaching candidate goes through an interview process, and usually teaches a sample lesson, before getting hired. We can trust a principal to hire someone who displays teaching competency.

During debate about the lax regulation, an Arizona congressman asked, “are there alternative pathways to become a surgeon, dentist, or lawyer?”

No.

But shouldn’t there be an alternative pathway for a former surgeon to teach high school biology? We’re really going to make a lawyer take classes on “curriculum” before teaching government?

Let’s be real. Teaching is not brain surgery. If you are organized, have the desire and some interpersonal skills, you can figure it out. In a well-functioning school, a new teacher will have guidance and support to figure it out.

I’ve taught seven different subjects over five years at the high school level. Because I’ve worked in private and charter schools, I am not certified in Arizona. Under the old laws, I would have to go back to school, pay a bunch of money for courses in curriculum and classroom management before teaching in a public district.

My first year was a struggle, but I adapted, read about strategies, learned from other teachers, and figured out a teaching style that worked for me and my students.

And here’s the thing. Everyone struggles their first year, regardless of their training or level of certification. The first year is notoriously challenging for everyone. All veteran teachers say you have to figure it out with experience.

Teacher education programs are like getting ready for a basketball season by making players watch powerpoint presentations on dribbling and shooting. You wrote an essay last month about defensive footwork, remember? Why can’t you stop these guys?!

In fairness, I’ve never gone through a certification program. Maybe it’s a blast. My perception is that it teaches you cryptic teacher lingo so you can understand what’s going on in faculty meetings.

Lots of factors are causing a teacher shortage in Arizona. If teaching paid more, more people would be willing to teach. If working conditions changed, reducing stress and improving work-life balance, more people would be willing to teach.

I see the certification debate as tangential to the main factors causing the shortage. It won’t solve the problem, nor will it lower the quality of education. It’s more of a morality and common sense thing. If someone can teach, don’t force them to jump through hoops to do it.

…Couldn’t Put Humpty Together Again

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Trump brings in Comey for the real thing.

Holy cow. Last week I thought I was processing a week’s worth of wild news. Little did I know.

Little do we know, still, what the heck is going on.

The story of the latest can be told by three quotes. First by David Plotz of the Slate Political Gabfest, during an introduction to Thursday’s podcast:

“It is exhausting keeping up with the machine gun fire of self-inflicted political scandal in Trump world.”

So exhausting, but I think worthwhile to stay aware, despite the ugliness and confusion.

Apparently Donald Trump let slip a few kernels of super secret information to the Russians during their meeting last week (whoopsie daisy.) Apparently, the information’s source was our special friend Israel. Apparently, during that same meeting, Trump had a few choice words to say about axed FBI director James Comey, calling him a “nut job” and expressing relief to have halted the pesky investigation.

Apparently, Trump had previously asked Comey to stop investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who had been firied for lying about his conversations with — you know who — the Russians. This request made Comey nervous, so he wrote down all of his interactions with Trump in memos, in case his recollection should come in handy down the road.

Which it now will, because the deputy Attorney General appointed a special counsel to oversee the FBI’s Russian investigation. (The actual Attorney General isn’t supposed to be involved, because of misleading statements he made about his conversations with the Russians.) Comey will also testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee after Memorial Day.

We really don’t know much for sure yet, though, because all these “apparent” stories slipped to the papers via leaks from the FBI, CIA, and Trump’s administration. The investigations will be revealing.

The second quote is from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, talking Sunday to John Dickerson on Face the Nation:

“Well, look. I mean, I don’t understand why people are that shocked. This president ran a very unconventional campaign. I was there for a big part of it at the beginning alongside being one of his competitors. And that’s what the American people voted for. And in essence, you know, this White House is not much different from the campaign.

I mean, people got what they voted for. They elected him. Obviously it’s in the best interest of this country to try to help him succeed. As far as the drama’s concerned, yeah, I mean, it’s unique. It’s different from anything we’ve ever confronted. I think our job remains to do our work.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio stands above the fray, here. He conveys a sense of maturity, a man whose job is to clean up after the mess of the silly voters.

Now, what he offers is probably the strongest argument against impeachment: No, Trump wasn’t obstructing justice, he’s just an ass clown, and everyone knew that already.

It’s yet to be determined whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia or whether Trump’s actions thus far amount to obstruction of justice. But Rubio can’t stand blameless. He’s among the spineless Republicans who knew better. He once called Trump a “con-artist,” but later endorsed him in the general election. You helped make him acceptable to Republican voters, it is your job to hold him accountable.

The final quote comes from the New York Times, because I trust the media and the leaks 100,000 times more than I trust Trump or anyone who speaks for Trump. Everything the White House claims is inevitably contradicted 24 hour later, if it’s not already an egregious lie. At this point, if Sean Spicer announced the sky was blue, I would think, oh crap what happened to the laws of physics, and go outside to check for myself.

From an article last week about the chaos inside a besieged White House:

There is a growing sense that Mr. Trump seems unwilling or unable to do the things necessary to keep himself out of trouble and that the presidency has done little to tame a shoot-from-the-hip-into-his-own-foot style that characterized his campaign.

Some of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers fear leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. General McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground […]

In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president for divulging classified intelligence to the Russians: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of his briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.

The more we know, the more is painfully clear: Trump is not fit for office. The sooner he is no longer president, the better.