Talk Derby To Me, Baby!

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Here it is, the one time of the year when it’s actually encouraged to spend your Saturday night in Louisville, KY.  Celebrities in prodigious hats will sip mint juleps, inhale Woodford Reserve and talk the thoroughbred talk like they were born, raised and taught the ponies in the Commonwealth.  If you’ve ever wanted to pretend to be a southerner, here’s your chance.  It’s pretty much the only time it can be done without harsh social consequence.

But enough jibber-jabber, let’s get to the real reason everyone’s checking Lexpatriates on Derby Saturday: predictions.  My pick in this year’s run for the roses is Lookin At Lucky, the Kentucky-born progeny of Smart Strike, the half-brother of former Canadian Triple Crown winner Dance Smartly.  If my Bluegrass upbringing taught me anything, it’s that when picking Derby winners, 1) never bet against the distant horse-racing pedigree of former Canadian powerhouses and 2) always go with the favorite, no matter what post they draw; those guys win it pretty much every year.  I mean, they’re the favorites for a reason, you know?  Plus, Lucky’s got the rail.  My seventh-grade track and field experience taught me that spot actually has the shortest distance to run around the track.  Seriously.

Another reason for this post: it gives me an excuse to link to some of the finer works of Hunter S. Thompson, maybe the finest ambassador the city of Louisville’s ever known.

In honor of today’s shit show, we’ll kick it off with a Lexpatriates favorite:

“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,”by Hunter S. Thompson (from Scanlan’s Monthly), 1970.

“The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to Steadman that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from the clubhouse. He seemed a little nervous about it, but since none of the awful things I’d warned him about had happened so far–no race riots, firestorms or savage drunken attacks–he shrugged and said, “Right, let’s do it.”

To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock that it took us a while to adjust. “God almighty!” Steadman muttered. “This is a…Jesus!” He plunged ahead with his tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to take notes.”

“He Was a Crook,” by Hunter S. Thompson (from Rolling Stone), 1994.

“Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing — a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that “I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon.”

“The 450-Square Mile Parking Lot,”by Hunter S. Thompson (from Pageant), 1965. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

“If you count yourself in that legion of restless Americans who’ve been “thinking” for years about moving to California — and especially to the Los Angeles area in Southern California — you’d better get your plans into high gear pretty soon, or forget it.  Because the Golden State is getting crowded.  So many people have gone there seeking the “good life” that every year it gets harder and harder to find.”

Rick Reilly is still a tool, but…

I'm smiling because they put me next to Bill Simmons on ESPN's front page.

…credit must be given where credit is do. He must know how many people think he’s a terrible sportswriter (or has at least turned into one) and he’s trying to up his fanbase by getting on the good side of one of the biggest fanbases in all of sports. Come to think of it, actually, where was the pre-game version of this column when the Cinderella hype-machine of the media was jumping on the Big Red bandwagon? It’s easy to write something like this after the fact, buddy. But alas…

Kentucky schools Cornell

Links

The bench after Krebs hit his 3 at the end of the game. They're not happy or anything!

Wildcats hitting stride win it counts (ESPN)

“That wasn’t even basketball,” said Cousins, who was 9-of-10 from the field for 19 points and eight rebounds. “He was doing a lot of cheap things. I caught an elbow to the jaw from him earlier in the game. He’s a dirty player. The whole world knows it, especially after tonight.”

It’s a crying shame Kansas didn’t want it sooner (CBS)

But it was more than made shots or rebounds or even hustle at halfcourt. It was grit. The Panthers chased Kansas around the floor like Kansas had taken their lunch money. Kansas was bigger, stronger and faster, as I’ve said, but Northern Iowa was pissed. It wanted that money back. Kansas was nonchalant, aloof. If this was a baseball game, through 37 minutes every Northern Iowa player would have had dirt on his chest and knees. Kansas’ uniforms would have been immaculate.

Kentucky dominates Wake Forest; new tourney favorite? (SI)

”It was flashbacks to ’96 – a team that was so good we actually got mad if the other team touched the ball,” said Judd, one of Kentucky’s most famous fans. ”That was a really spectacular win.”

Don’t crown the Kentucky Wildcats just yet (Fox)

They won’t have it that easy for the rest of the tournament. This is the same team that shot 3-for-16, 2-for-22, 1-for-13 and 4-for-16 from 3-point range in games played in the last 30 days.

Cats lay claim to the role of favorite (Lexington Herald-Leader)

During the pre-game introductions, McFarland let Cousins walk all the way to the center-jump circle to shake hands with him, then turned his back on the UK big man and walked away without offering his hand.

“An amateur move on his part,” Cousins said later.

Confident Kentucky Wildcats head into Sweet 16 (Louisville Courier-Journal)

If any team has played like a national champion over the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, it has been the Wildcats, who blasted No.9-seed Wake Forest 90-60 in the second round Saturday in New Orleans.

Everyone Hates Duke

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If you were one of the 50,000+ that read yesterday’s post on the NCAA committee flip-flopping Kansas and Duke’s brackets (to Duke’s benefit), you know that I’ve already asked (in writing) how the NCAA, while working under the assumption that the entire country believes there to be a Duke bias, can give the third-overall #1 seed an easier road to the Final Four than the first overall #1?  Amongst those 50K must’ve been Kansas City Star writer Jason Whitlock, who says the answer’s simple: People watch Duke – either out of love or disgust – and the NCAA is smack dab in the middle of contract negotiations for its tournament with CBS and ESPN, and they really, really need this one to have big numbers.

NCAA basketball’s numbers have gone down over the last few years, and while I always assumed Duke must be ratings gold to TV Networks – I mean, they’re always on – I had no idea of the extent to which that’s true.  Everyone knows that Indiana State-Michigan State, Bird-Magic duel is the highest-rated college basketball game ever, but did you know that after that, 1992’s Duke-Michigan game in second, and 1994’s Duke-Arkansas final is fourth?  Really?  If nothing else, this shows us how much race and the perception of race play a role in the way we watch sports.  Duke is, obviously, the whitest team ever (both then and now), and both Michigan and Arkansas weren’t just good teams, they were good temas that were diametrically opposed to Duke in every way, shape, form, and color.  They were uber-athletic and urban, the antithesis of Duke in terms of raw talent and playing style.

Aside from that, it also tells us that Duke is, as much as anyone else in college basketball, America’s Team.  If nothing else, they get a strong opinion out of everyone.  You either love Duke or you hate ’em.  There’s never any in-between.  I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone that doesn’t either a) call Duke his or her favorite team or b) list Duke as one of his three least-favorite teams in the nation.  I’ve always thought it’d be interesting to take a survey of people all over the country, asking them to list their three least-favorite college basketball programs.  I think Duke would win going away, then probably either North Carolina or Kentucky.  After that, it gets tougher to predict.  Kansas?  Nah, they’re dominant, but not really unlikeable.  Indiana?  People hate Bob Knight, but there’s an entire decade-and-a-half’s worth of kids who don’t associate Knight with IU the way older sports fans do.  Plus, it’s been so long since the Hoosiers have been worth a shit.  UConn?  Memphis?  UCLA?  I’d love to find out.

But back to Duke.  Why is it that people hate them?  Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman discussed this in their last podcast, with Klosterman essentially making the case that Duke’s “whiteness” makes people hate them more.  I’d call this a partial-truth.  Yeah, Duke is very white, but it goes deeper than that.  Duke isn’t just white, it’s fraternity-guy white.  It’s country-club white. Basically, it’s spoiled-rich-kid white – and there’s nothing Average Joes hate more than that.  That’s why people can’t stand them.

Gonzaga is a team comprised largely of white players, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say they hate them.  Florida’s had more than its share over the years, and – outside of Kentucky – people loved those teams.

On top of that, you can’t discount Coach K.  Nor can you completely write off the arrogance with which they play.  They all have a swagger – where it originates, I have no idea – that irritates me, and I’m guessing plenty of others, to all end.  Plus they flop.

PLUS, as much as I hate to admit this…they’re good.  That has as much to do with it as anything, because, really, all the other stuff would be moot if they weren’t a good program.

Just not good enough to have one of the easiest roads ever to the Final Four.

Stuff I Read and Liked

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“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,”by Hunter S. Thompson (from Scanlan’s Monthly), 1970.

“The next day was heavy. With only thirty hours until post time I had no press credentials and–according to the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal–no hope at all of getting any. Worse, I needed two sets: one for myself and another for Ralph Steadman, the English illustrator who was coming from London to do some Derby drawings. All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered the fact, the more it gave me fear. How would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of London and plunged into the drunken mob scene at the Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing. Hopefully, he would arrive at least a day or so ahead, and give himself time to get acclimated. Maybe a few hours of peaceful sightseeing in the Bluegrass country around Lexington. My plan was to pick him up at the airport in the huge Pontiac Ballbuster I’d rented from a used-car salesman name Colonel Quick, then whisk him off to some peaceful setting that might remind him of England.

Colonel Quick had solved the car problem, and money (four times the normal rate) had bought two rooms in a scumbox on the outskirts of town. The only other kink was the task of convincing the moguls at Churchill Downs that Scanlan’s was such a prestigious sporting journal that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the best press tickets. This was not easily done. My first call to the publicity office resulted in total failure. The press handler was shocked at the idea that anyone would be stupid enough to apply for press credentials two days before the Derby. “Hell, you can’t be serious,” he said. “The deadline was two months ago. The press box is full; there’s no more room…and what the hell is Scanlan’s Monthly anyway?”

“The Dirtiest Player,” by Jason Fagone (from GQ), 2010.

Robert Nixon had seen everything. He had seen more than enough to put a rich and famous man, an NFL superstar, in prison. But this is what you tell the police unless you’re a fool. You can’t go wrong if you say you ain’t seen nothin’, and you can go very wrong if you say otherwise. And as far as Robert Nixon is concerned, what happened to the fat man with the Muslim beard is proof.

Nixon didn’t know the fat man with the Muslim beard when the fat man was still alive—that is to say, before he was perforated with bullets. But he’d seen him around. More than a year before the murder, Nixon stumbled upon the fat man lying in the street, in front of a water-ice stand, getting the crap beaten out of him by Marvin Harrison and Stanley McCray, one of Harrison’s employees.

It was a scene* to make anybody stop and watch. Broad daylight in North Philadelphia. April 29, 2008—a Tuesday. The corner of 25th Street and Thompson, about seven blocks north of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the steps Rocky climbed. A block of brick row houses, a church with a rubbed-out sign, a Hispanic grocery, a vacant lot. In one sense, the presence of a future Hall of Famer at this seedy vortex of the city—Harrison, eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver with the Indianapolis Colts, then at the tail end of a thirteen-season career and a $67 million contract—was incongruous. Especially given that Harrison, who is usually described as “quiet” and “humble,” was noisily stomping the fat man in the face and gut.”

“We Still Hold Our Breath For Air Jordan,” By Bill Simmons (from ESPN.com), 2001.

“I’ll go this far: You could drag somebody off the street — let’s say, a homeless person who doesn’t follow sports and couldn’t pick MJ out of a police lineup — bring him into the arena before a Wizards-Celtics game, sit him somewhere close to the floor, have him watch the layup lines and ask him, “Which person stands out?” And he would pick Jordan. He just would. There’s something about him, an instinctive posture that says two things: “I know everyone’s looking at me right now … and they should be.”

When MJ comes to town, before the game, people have a collective hop in their step. You can sense it. You look around 15 minutes before game time and realize that 75 percent of the fans have already arrived (it sounds like the crowd before a rock concert, waiting for the lights to turn off). Every male patron exudes a glazed, giddy, “I’m important because I’m attending this important game” glow. Every female patron seems to have spent an extra 10 minutes getting ready. Little kids look like ready to self-combust. Wide-eyed teenagers stand in the first few rows, rocking back and forth, holding pens, pathetically desperate, praying against 1,000,000,000-to-1 odds that MJ will inexplicably leave the lay-up line, vault the press table and glide into the stands to sign autographs. And when MJ comes out, he stops the place cold. All eyes shift to him. Fans start making strange sounds. You hear squeals and cries mixed in with appreciative applause, and then a slow-developing roar emerges, almost like a chain reaction: “hhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrHHHHHHRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!”

MJ’s in the house.”

Throwback Thursday

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“Cat Nipped,” by Michael Silver (from Sports Illustrated), 1995.

“The list of transgressions that Kentucky coach Rick Pitino will not tolerate on the basketball court is as long and involved as the Emily Post book of etiquette, and there is always room for expansion. So it was last Saturday, as his team was in the process of setting up a fantasy final against Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference tournament, that Pitino watched time stand still and decided he could not do the same.

There were 17 minutes and 43 seconds left in the Wildcats’ semifinal game against Florida, and the shot clock atop Kentucky’s basket had frozen like Georgetown’s Fred Brown in the 1982 NCAA title game, forcing a delay of several minutes. Officials at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta were slow to react to the crisis, and Pitino, who is hyper enough under normal circumstances, paced back and forth as if he were awaiting a doctor’s diagnosis. He finally snapped when the clock began ticking off seconds while a young stadium worker tinkered with the device. “Hey,” Pitino yelled, walking toward the basket and gesturing with both hands. Then Pitino literally put his foot down, stomping one of his shiny Guccis on the hardwood to grab the worker’s attention. “Hey!” he shrieked. “Hey, you! It’s working.”

Stuff I Read and Liked

“Big Trouble at 11:35,” by Mark Seal (from Vanity Fair), 2010.

“Joe Halderman, as he was known, had never met David Letterman, but the Late Show host represented for Halderman the increasingly problematic state of CBS, where he had worked for 27 years. Once the pre-eminent news network, home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, CBS News had steadily lost its status in the era of cutbacks and layoffs, shuttering foreign bureaus as the focus of all the networks shifted from news to entertainment. But the man behind the wheel of the Tesla—the wisecracking face of the CBS entertainment division—seemed oblivious to the catastrophes going on in the news department. Letterman had not only a large staff and a seemingly unlimited budget but also the use of a private jet and his own theater. “Now, here’s Letterman in a hundred-thousand-dollar car, and—the ultimate insult—he’s stealing Joe Halderman’s girl!” says Arnot. And doing it right in front of Halderman’s house. From where he stands, he can see them “in the car in a passionate embrace, and the way Joe interpreted it was: We just had hot sex and we’re going to do it again as soon as we possibly can,” says Arnot.”

“My Best Worst Friend,” by Joey (from Free Darko), 2010.

“I always knew that Michael had a gambling problem, but I didn’t understand its full dimension until I sat down across from him and got roped into his lunacy as he indulged his famously competitive zeal. The sky doesn’t usually turn from blue and sunny to black and foreboding over the course of three minutes, but that’s what had happened on this day, and the television was tuned to the Weather Channel so that travelers could follow the storm and adjust their plans. I guess that Michael had told the woman he was clutching that he could predict the weather–as though Michael Jordan needs pickup schtick–and fixing to mount the illusion of scarcity, she bet him a drink and phone number that she could beat him at it. Obviously, that got Michael going, in pretty much every sense of that well-worn expression. As I plopped down on the leather couch, he and the woman had just begun, and they both seemed eager to share their game with a stranger who could admire it and maybe cough up some cash.

“Excuse me–would you like to play a game with myself and my friend here?” Michael asked me.”

“Greatest.  Indie-est.  Band.  Ever.” by Chuck Klosterman (for GQ), 2010.

“There’s an inherent problem with writing about Pavement: People tend to know nothing or everything about them. To most of the populace, they were a band with a funny name, one minor MTV hit (1994’s “Cut Your Hair”), and a lot of abstract credibility among people who get mad at the radio. But to the kind of hyperintellectual, underemployed people who did not find it strange to buy concert tickets a year in advance—and who will buy the band’s upcoming greatest-hits release even if they already have all the tracks—Pavement are the apotheosis of indie aesthetics, the “finest rockband of the ’90s,” according to former Village Voice critic Robert Christgau. They are remembered as the musical center of the lo-fi era, a designation that’s spiritually true but technically wrong.¹ Over the span of five albums and nine EPs, Pavement became a decade-defining band, widely regarded as essential and game changing (at least among those who cared).”