Monday, September 28, 2009

69th Street Flashback

Last weekend I was driving down my street when I passed one of the local kids standing in the middle of the road. He had some kind of crap all over his face--hopefully it was chocolate--and as I drove by with my window open, he yelled something at me. I couldn't hear what he said because my radio was turned up, but I'm guessing it wasn't too kind. Probably, "you just rolled over my foot" or something.

The experience took me back a dozen years to the summer of 1997, as I was tooling down 69th Street in South Chicago on my trusty Trek 820 mountain bike "Thunderlips" en route to a teaching appointment. As I rode past a small ten-year-old boy standing on the side of the road, he looked me square in the eye and insulted both my race and my relationship to my mother in one super-efficient phrase.

Now, this particular insult wasn't all that unique. My companions and I heard it all the time as we rode around the South Side. What was strange, though, was that the expression came via the lips of a ten-year-old, and instead of being yelled from a distance at my back, this volley was delivered direct to my face. I was so impressed by this kid's bravery, in fact, that I completely forgot to be insulted, and instead laughed as I rode on down the street.

A half dozen blocks further, my companion and I made a quick left and locked up our bikes in front of a home we'd been scheduled to visit that afternoon. An hour later, we emerged from the house onto the front porch to a surprising sight. There before us was the same little kid, now cowering in shame instead of cursing our heritage. He was cowering because his older sister--at least four times his size--was looming behind him, with her hand on the back of his neck.

"OK," she said threateningly, "say it."

From the depths of sorrow came a defeated whisper:

"I'm sorry."

After nearly six months of dodging bricks, bottles, speeding cars, threats, and even the distant sound of gunshots, there wasn't much that caught my attention on the South Side. In a lot of ways, I figured the place was just ripening for Armageddon. Or at least a catastrophic NBA championship riot. But I had to smile when I realized that even in the worst of neighborhoods, there were still a few people determined to practice common courtesy, and who made sure that their siblings did the same.

I have no idea what Chocolate-Face Kid said last weekend, and I don't care. But I do hope that kid in Chicago kept listening to his big sister.

Friday, September 25, 2009

How not to sell your movie...

Just caught this clip of my celebrity look-a-like on Unbelievable. Could be the most awkward interview I've seen since Crispin Glover channeled his "Rubin & Ed" character on Letterman. Half the time I'm almost weeping for the interviewer. The other half I'm just thinking, "Bruce Willis is awesome. He totally looks like someone peed in his Cheerios."

So anyone want to go check out "Surrogates" with me? Didn't think so.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Going Coastal: The Movie

Another Epic Summer is in the books. Last weekend, my short film, "Going Coastal: A Manly Guide to Unemployment" debuted at the 7th Annual Epic Summer Film Festival. This was the third time I've participated in the event, and my 2009 entry--a chronicle of July's epic road trip, dedicated to the victims of last year's economic meltdown--seemed to go over pretty well. It's always nice to get a positive reception from a crowd that doesn't already know you or have any legal or familial obligation to like your stuff. Special thanks to Brian and Jen for giving me the bully pulpit.

For those of you who couldn't make it, or for those of you who just couldn't derive total satisfaction from a single viewing, here's the web-friendly version:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Like Mike

When I tuned in to the Basketball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony last Friday, I was thinking about how much more I had in common with John Stockton than with Michael Jordan. Two hours later, as Jordan was wrapping up his induction speech, I was sobered by how much I really did have in common with the NBA's most iconic player.

The reaction to Jordan's Hall of Fame speech has been everything from predictable stale celebration to venomous outrage, with a little "this is what you get from someone with relentless competitive drive" in-between. I parted ways with the Air Jordan kool-aid crowd a long time ago, but I wasn't offended by his speech. At first I thought it was pretty funny, but by the end I realized the whole thing was kind of sad.

At the beginning of his speech, Jordan played by the script, doling out credit to those around him and displaying sincere emotion as he stood on the threshold of Basketball's Happy Hunting Ground. But as he continued with his anecdotes, and as the list of "I told you so" targets began to lengthen, the subtext of the speech grew into more of a tragedy than a celebration. When the cameras focused in on his high school teammate, the one who'd been picked ahead of him during Jordan's sophomore year, the oddity of his presence didn't quite set in. When Jordan chided his college coach for keeping him off the cover of Sports Illustrated, I thought he was still just ribbing. When he ranted about the Bulls' former General Manager, I laughed, knowing he was definitely off-script. But by the time he finished calling out former Jazz guard Byron Russell--a largely anonymous foe Jordan finished off over ten years ago--I recognized something I'd never noticed when I was twelve and hanging his posters on my wall, something that I never expected to go along with the myth and the success and the competitive spirit. What I saw was confounding insecurity.

Whenever I get turned down for a job, a school program, or even get rejected by a girl, there is a certain defiance that kicks in. A little part of me that says, "You just wait. One day you'll know what you missed out on." Even if I know I'm better off in the long run, wounded pride is a tough pill to swallow. It can take a long time to go away, too, especially if it takes a long time to make it to the next job or the next girl. In the heat of the moment, you may think about how satisfying it would be to confront your old opponent and wave your success in their face, to gloat in your ultimate triumph. But when you do overcome, most of the time you've gained enough perspective to find peace with your past. You just move on.

When Michael Jordan took the podium last weekend, he'd won six NBA titles, multiple league MVP's, multiple scoring titles, and was widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time. Yet in spite of all that, there was one thing he seemed to lack:


For a while I wondered, if he's so unhappy after accomplishing all he did, what would have happened to him if he hadn't been blessed with all the natural talent and athleticism that helped him to the pinnacle in the first place? But then I realized: the pressure and insecurity and competitiveness stemmed from that talent, and the responsibility and expectation of success that it carried. Whenever Jordan failed at anything, it ate at him because he knew he had something special, and he felt that people around him weren't acknowledging it. And somehow, his incredible accomplishments still haven't measured up enough to his expectations to give him any peace on the subject. For some reason, on the threshold of Basketball Immortality, Jordan felt like telling the world "I told you so" instead of, "what a ride, huh?"

He's still searching for something. Happiness, maybe. Who knows if he's going to find it. I just wonder what his example means for the rest of us.

In some ways, I feel like last weekend was the first time I ever saw the real Michael Jordan. Last spring, during last season's playoffs, I read "The Jordan Rules" by Sam Smith, about the Bulls' first title run back in 1991. The book got a lot of bad press at the time because the Michael Jordan it portrayed was a lot more flawed and egotistical than the Air Jordan we saw in the Gatorade commercials. It was ironic to read the book while Kobe Bryant was barreling his way to his first non-Shaq title; I couldn't help but wonder if Kobe has a lot more in common with Jordan than we give him credit for. Ten years from now, we might see Kobe at that podium saying something similar.

When the ceremony started, I felt like Jordan was the player I wanted to be, while Stockton was the player I was in reality. By the end of the proceedings, after hearing Stockton stumble through his humble remarks, I saw that in some ways, Stockton is the man I want to be, and Jordan is the man I am. Stockton doesn't care what the world thinks of him. Jordan cares way too much, and sometimes, so do I.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering #12

This weekend John Stockton is going to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. So is Michael Jordan. Seems about right.

When I was a kid, Jordan was the player I wanted to be, but Stockton was the player I was in reality. Jordan was the high-flying aesthetically-stunning highlight machine with the awesome shoes and endless line of posters. Stockton was the quiet white kid who played hard-nosed defense with a chip on his shoulder. At the end of my first year of Jr. Jazz basketball, we had a team party and had to vote each other some kind of honorary award. I was only the second-worst kid on the team, so I managed to avoid the "best effort" award. Instead, I got "best passer," which was appropriate since my only move that year was to dribble from the free throw line down to the right side of the key, then stop and look around for someone to throw the ball to.

I knew "best passer" was a cop-out, but I took it to heart and started to emulate Stockton as I began to grow into a decent ballplayer. I may have been drawing pictures of Jordan in art class and wearing his trademark GRID knee brace during games, but anyone who watched me play saw a kid who excelled at the scrappy stuff: nagging defense, pickpocket steals, quick passes. Like Stockton, I was a little guy who got off fighting the big guys.

One summer at the end of Karl Malone's basketball camp I came face-to-face with my mentor. Stockton came as a special guest speaker, speaking from a small clearing in the middle of 500 of my peers as we stared at him wide-eyed in our white sponsor-covered camp T-shirts. After chatting us up for a bit, he started calling up volunteers for a dribbling drill. My arm shot up like a rocket, but by the time he wandered to my end of the crowd, he already had a dozen eager players ready to go.

"OK," he said as he strolled in my direction, eyes scanning the campers. "Let's get a girl or two in this group."

A bunch of disappointed hands dropped. Mine stayed up. Screw it, I thought, this is John Stockton. I'm not giving up that easy.

Stock looked me square in the eye.

"Are you a girl?" he asked.

I smirked and put my hand down. Had to try, right?

Apparently Stockton connected with my dogged determination, because he tabbed me for the next drill. My only regret was that I had chosen to wear an older pair of bermuda shorts that day in camp, a notably hideous purple pair covered in outer space symbols and astronauts. They were also too small, which seems kind of appropriate given the circumstances.

I never got to see Stock hit the shot against Houston that took the Jazz to the Finals for the first time in the summer of 1997. Ironically, I was riding a Trek 820 through the streets of South Chicago at the time. But I do remember seeing him hit a driving layup over Jordan back in 1990 to cap an 8-point 40 second comeback at the Salt Palace. I do remember seeing him throw the assist that gave him his first season record. I even remember seeing him come off the bench to spell Rickey Green, back when Hot Rod was still calling him "Little John."

As he gets ready for his induction in to the Hall of Fame, he may be slipping in under Jordan's shadow, but the evidence of his influence still shows up every time I step on a court. I may share Jordan's hairline, but all my former high-flying high-scoring aspirations were retired a long time ago. Anything I've got left, any pass, any pick, comes exclusively from the Stockton Playbook.