Where Sports And TV, Books, Films (And More) Clicked
This is an article from the Dec. 19, 2011 issue
The commingling of sports and media in 2011 was, to borrow from Woody Allen, both polymorphous and perverse. Take, for example, Kris Humphries's marriage to Kim Kardashian, which unfolded on blogs, on TV and on Twitter feeds over 72 days. (Roughly one NBA postseason!) Lesson: All sports media moments are not created equal. To find the really choice ones the media-minded had to trek to indie cinemas, dive deep into the Web, stick around for a few episodes. SI did just that and found 50 not to be forgotten.
1 Fielder's Choice
In the fall of 2000, Chad Harbach was three years out of college, working various copyediting jobs in Boston and trying to land a spot in a fiction-writing MFA program. The short story he submitted with his applications focused on a college president watching a baseball game on campus; the piece turned on an errant throw that sailed into the home dugout, striking and seriously injuring a player with whom the administrator had developed something much deeper than the typical president-student relationship. For the most part it failed to impress admissions committees; Harbach was rejected by five of the six programs he tried.
Ten years later the process seemed primed to repeat itself. Harbach, by then a cofounding editor of the highly regarded Brooklyn-based literary journal n+1, had expanded his short story into The Art of Fielding, a rich, textured novel exploring the on- and off-field universes inhabited by a circle of college ballplayers. The focus was on standout shortstop Henry Skrimshander, who, after uncorking that wild throw, suffers a debilitating case of Steve Blass disease. The manuscript was rejected by no fewer than five agents.
But those days are long forgotten. Harbach finally found a representative who was willing to take his calls (New York City--based Chris Parris-Lamb), and in February 2010 the manuscript touched off a surprising feeding frenzy among publishers before landing at Little, Brown for $665,000, a staggering sum for a debut novel.
In September readers found out why Harbach and the publishing industry believed so strongly in his book. The Art of Fielding (SI, Aug. 29) received glowing reviews after its release; it spent five weeks on The New York Times best-seller list; and Amazon named it the top novel of 2011. Now the year's biggest publishing phenomenon is about to go multimedia: HBO has optioned the book, and a Scott Rudin--produced series is in the works.
The Art of Fielding became something more than a treat for baseball and literature fans; who knows how many aspiring writers were moved to keep typing by the author's long road to success? The year, however, wasn't all happy endings for Harbach. The Wisconsin native got to attend his first playoff matchup: Game 6 of the NLCS at Miller Park—which Milwaukee lost 12--6, ending hopes of its first World Series appearance in 30 years. In life as in fiction, baseball can be beautiful and painful at the same time.
2 WTA Meets SNL
Pro tennis players fill their ample downtime in infinite ways: shopping, modeling, tweeting.... Or, if you're Serena Williams, all of the above. But 24-year-old Andrea Petkovic, a quirky German up-and-comer on the WTA Tour, has a more creative avocation. She initiated her own YouTube channel and created Petkorazzi, a video alter ego who fights crime one week and hosts a Chinese dance-robot show the next. (Don't ask, just watch.) Sometimes filmed in Petkovic's hotel rooms, the skits are alternately noirish, hilarious and just plain weird—equal parts David Lynch and Sprockets from Saturday Night Live. And yet this amateur filmmaking is exacting no price on Petkovic's tennis. She is currently ranked No. 10 and made the quarterfinals of three majors in 2011.
—L. Jon Wertheim
3 Jim Irsay Owns Twitter
When the Colts won Super Bowl XLI, the team's owner dressed up as, in his words, "a combination of Willie Wonka and Elton John" (below), and he led a Quest for the Ring treasure hunt around Indy. Oooh-kay. Irsay, bless his heart, has brought this whimsy to his Twitter feed, @jimirsay, a must-follow for anyone who assumes franchise owners must be stiffs. Irsay references rock lyrics ("ALL ABOARD!!!!!!!!! Ozzy Osbourne, not Newsome."); he teases fans ("I'm in Hattiesburg ... Is it right or left at the Firechief?" he wrote in August, igniting Favre speculation); and he's sometimes just plain cryptic. Whatever it is, he's always reminding followers not to take life—much less sports—too seriously.
4 Three Words: Carl. Spackler. Art
The Caddyshack looper went L.A. chic at a fall exhibit of Bill Murray--inspired works.
5 Friday Night Lights Bids Farewell
Lost ended on a head-scratcher, and The Sopranos just sort of faded away—but FNL nailed its exit with an uplifting life-moves-on finale in June. As the high school football drama wound down in its 76th episode, Kyle Chandler's coach Eric Taylor sized up his new charges, an uninspiring Philadelphia bunch, and set into his mantra:
"Clear eyes, full hearts ... "
A beat. This team has a long way to go.
"Awww, we'll deal with that later."
6 FNL Is Dead. Long Live FNL!
Since breaking huddle, former Dillon Panthers and East Dillon Lions have been popping up all over the place. Here, a rejiggered roster to help you keep track.
MICHAEL B. JORDAN (QB Vince Howard) Parenthood, NBC
JESSE PLEMONS (K Landry Clarke) Bent, NBC
TAYLOR KITSCH (RB Tim Riggins) John Carter (2012)
SCOTT PORTER (QB Jason Street) Hart of Dixie, CW
MATT LAURIA (RB Luke Cafferty) CSI, CBS
GAIUS CHARLES (RB Smash Williams) Pan Am, ABC
ZACH GILFORD (QB Matt Saracen) Last Stand (2013)
LAMARCUS TINKER (OL Dallas Tinker) Glee, Fox
7 A Happy Accident
For more than a half century Robert Lipsyte has looked out from under his pith helmet to see the things that other sportswriters, out of deference or inurement to The Way It's Always Been Done, couldn't or wouldn't. His book An Accidental Sportswriter, released in May, is an anthropologist's memoir. It recounts those instances when what Lipsyte calls SportsWorld ran up against the real world, and it pulsates with stories about Ali, Billie Jean and such period characters as Jack Scott, the associate of Bill Walton and Patty Hearst who helped ensure that Lipsyte would have an FBI file. If only more sportswriters had FBI files. Sportswriting, he reminds us, "isn't the oldest profession, although it's sometimes conducted that way."
Bullied as a kid, Lipsyte fell into a job at The New York Times, we learn in the book, and soon discovered that he could square accounts with the jocks who had once tormented him by keeping their kind honest. Sometimes, as with his coverage of gays in sports, it took years for anyone else to go near his stories. Then, after an intermezzo as a freelancer and TV reporter, Lipsyte returned to the Times, only to be cut loose by Howell Raines, the Alabama football fan who had taken over the paper. (Lipsyte found cold comfort in watching that boss lose his own job in the aftermath of Jayson Blair's plagiarism scandal.)
The same outsider's sensibility that gave Lipsyte his voice gives An Accidental Sportswriter its power. If much of today's best writing about sports (not "sportswriting") comes from an original place—think of the unconventional pedigrees of Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, Taylor Branch and Dave Zirin—we know whom to thank. During a year when the real world intruded on SportsWorld again and again, Lipsyte's memoir was a faultlessly timed valedictory, equal parts manifesto, cautionary tale and, to those of us in the business, how-to.
8 Jason Segel Likes Mike
One had to look beyond the obvious for 2011's most memorable sports scene in movies. This year's unlikely winner came courtesy of the grade-school comedy Bad Teacher:
INT. GRADE SCHOOL DANCE
RUSSELL, a gym teacher, argues heatedly with a student, SHAWN, his junior by at least 20 years, about basketball.
There's no way that LeBron will ever beat Jordan. Nobody will ever beat Jordan, okay?
LeBron's a better rebounder and passer.
Will you let me finish? Can you let me finish? Call me when LeBron has six championships.
Is that your only argument?
It's the only argument I need, Shawn!
9 24/7 in Heaven
It's too soon to say whether Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, hired after being fired by the Capitals earlier this month, will turn things around in SoCal. What is certain, at least to anyone who watched HBO's 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, is that the Ducks' dressing room will be damned entertaining. Boudreau, in all his foul-mouthed glory, was the breakout star of the stellar four-part series following the Caps and the Pens in the lead-up to their meeting last New Year's Day. (A DVD was released last week.) Whether running practice (profanely) or ripping his team (profanely), Boudreau showed personality rarely seen in the NHL. The players were also charming; viewers sucked in by human interest were dazzled by ice-level footage that brought home the sport's speed and power more forcefully than any broadcast. Finally, a hockey hit on TV.
10 Prime-time Pain
In the time it takes you to read this paragraph, Junior dos Santos pummeled Cain Velasquez to win the UFC's heavyweight title last month, marking the most significant 64 seconds in UFC's brief history: The act aired in prime time on network TV, the first fight in a seven-year deal with Fox. Among the prized 18--34 male demographic, the scrap drew more viewers than any boxing match in almost a decade. The prospect of two dudes with cauliflower ears beating the crap out of each other in a steel octagon may not be for everyone, but cage fighting has officially penetrated the defense of the mainstream.
11 Death Race 2011
Director Asif Kapadia's documentary Senna, based on the short, happy and tempestuous life of Brazilian F1 racer Ayrton Senna, has been rightfully praised for its sensational in-race video, shot from inside Senna's car as it hurtled through hairpins and chicanes at speeds defying physics.
But what stayed with me longest—aside from the racer's violent death, after three world championships, at age 34—is how the movie fleshes out one of most intense, spiteful and, yes, sublime rivalries in the history of sports. Sensitive and highly spiritual, Senna refused to engage in Formula 1's politics, often to his detriment. Those qualities are thrown into sharp relief by the presence of his b√™te noire, the calculating Alain Prost, a Frenchman who took full advantage of a close relationship with the late Jean-Marie Balestre, the F1 chief whose autocratic bluster ("The best decision is my decision!" he is seen barking) make him a splendid, over-the-top villain.
A supremely talented driver in his own right, Prost is presented as the kind of competitor who would race for fifth place, if fifth was all he needed to clinch the world title. Such conservative driving was anathema to Senna, who was ruthless on the track and, playing to stereotype, very much the passionate Latin to Prost's shrewd, point-counting Gaul.
"We are competing to win," Senna declaims at one point. "If you are no longer going for a gap, you are no longer racing." Prost drily rejoins, "Ayrton has a small problem. He thinks he can't kill himself."
Teammates for McLaren in 1988, the racers saw their relationship devolve from strained friendship to mistrust to a near-implacable hatred. "I wanted to punch him in the face," Prost says after a wreck with Senna clinched the world championship for the Brazilian in 1990. "But I was so disgusted, I could not do it."
Like Gretzky and Lemieux, Magic and Bird, Lennon and McCartney, each pushed the other to heights they would not otherwise have scaled. Prost admitted as much four years after Senna's death, when he confided to a friend that "a part of himself" had died with the Brazilian, so intertwined were their careers. We gather as much toward the end of the film, when Prost appears on-screen ashen and grief-stricken, one of Senna's pallbearers.
12 All the News That's Fit to Prank
Devoted to making animated light of even the tawdriest news, the amusingly eccentric minds at the Taiwanese site NMA.tv cranked up their sports coverage in 2011 (or perhaps our sports stars cranked up the bad behavior), with everyone from the beer-swilling Red Sox to the ghost of George Steinbrenner, getting their signature lo-fi treatment. Can you ID the following stories, as seen by NMA?
A) Pacman Jones; B) Dodgers ownership; C) Penn State scandal; D) Miami scandal
13 Strike a Pose
From whence did Tebowing originate? SI went to the meme math.
14 In the Lions' Den
There's a light in the darkness of the Penn State scandal, and her name is Sara Ganim. The 24-year-old Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter's work was at the forefront of coverage as the national media followed her enterprising lead. "Getting people to talk was the challenge," says the 2008 PSU grad. "But once they started, it was unbelievable [what] we found." With Ganim destined for a bigger stage, one can expect to read all about it.
15 The Unabashed Absurdity of @JoseCanseco
SI broke down the former slugger's train wreck of a Twitter feed over a five-month, 159-tweet period, from July to November. Conclusion: It's every bit as awful as one would expect—and we mean that in the most admiring sense possible.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
Shout-outs to celebs: 1%
You've done great with the new goddesses. !Can i come for another visit or host you in Yuma
Maybe we should learn something from the Japan and Canadian culture
Fan interaction: 20%
@NatPennington hi baby wow u look great
His on-and-off girlfriend: 19%
Roses r red violets r blue my x is a pot head and so is her boo
Maybe I was the babe Ruth of the '80s
16 Madness To the Max
Oh, so many reasons to embrace March Madness: The logic-shattering upsets, the Oscar-worthy story lines, the bracket-induced roller coaster of emotions. But it's the anyone-can-emerge-a-hero ethos that truly activates the dopamine of the sports fan's brain. With every game's potential to make history, how was it, then, that for so many years game-viewing options were left to the whims of local programmers? How was one ever to witness a 14- versus 3-seed upset if that game went unaired, fourth on the TV totem pole of a given market?
This past spring, that problem was put to rest as the entirety of Everyman's favorite postseason was made available to every fan. Thanks to a 14-year pact between Turner and CBS Sports, all 67 men's games were made accessible, for the first time in the tournament's 73-year history, via CBS, TNT, truTV and TBS. Anyone with a reliable trigger finger could catch up with concurrent games, with tip-offs staggered in 30-minute intervals. No TV? No problem. The digital-savvy consumed the same action on laptops, tablets and smartphones using a new March Madness On Demand app, Wi-Fi and 3G gods be good.
Consider: Had the deal not been struck, one might not have been offered the choice between Kenneth Faried's last-second block, which sent 13th-seeded Morehead State past No. 4 Louisville, and Butler forward Matt Howard's game-winning tip-in against Old Dominion. One might have watched the implausible meeting, in the Sweet 16, of VCU and Florida State, or Kentucky's dramatic upset of overall No. 1 Ohio State. But not both.
In the end, everyone won: The opening Thursday brought the highest tournament ratings in 20 years. At last the networks have ensured that on college sports' grandest stage even the smallest of Big Dancers gets a spotlight.
17 Sweetest Tweet
Accidentally hit a squirrel yesterday in my car. Feel so guilty I can hardly sleep. Casey Anthony is a monster.
Blake Griffin, 15 Aug
18 Buh-litz over Broadway
Like one of its title character's power sweeps, the Broadway play Lombardi was a thing of crisp execution. Faithfully employing David Maraniss's 2000 biography, When Pride Still Mattered, playwright Eric Simonson turned a series of vignettes about the Packers' coach into a 90-minute drama that was bolstered by two stage veterans familiar to TV viewers: Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) chunkily embodied the title character, capturing his mood swings, bombast and malevolent chuckle; and Judith Light (Who's the Boss?) garnered a well-deserved Tony nomination for her shaded portrayal of Vince's long-suffering wife, Marie. Light helped attract women to the show, and the Packers' real-life Super Bowl success brought relevance, leading to an eight-month run and confirming the hunch of producers Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser that a Broadway audience exists for sports drama. Next up from the team: Magic/Bird, which premieres on Broadway on March 21, in the middle of the NCAA tournament.
19 Bracket Booster
The brilliant statistician Nate Silver made his name at Baseball Prospectus, and even though he famously and successfully moved on to polling analysis via his FiveThirtyEight blog, he still returns to the crunching of sports numbers when it matters most. Silver was at his best this past March, providing the most compelling, publicly available statistical analysis of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, including a predictive system that incorporated factors such as the distance teams travel to play and the injuries they've sustained—info that was as enlightening as it was potentially profitable for the fillers out of brackets. Alas, like so many others, Silver went 0-fer on his Final Four picks in an upset-heavy tournament. But even in defeat he entertained—Virginia Commonwealth's advancing to the Final Four, against odds he had set at 820 to 1, "may be the most unlikely occurrence in the history of the tournament," he said. "The basketball equivalent of Susan Boyle."
20 Lights Out Too Soon
TKO'd in March, after 13 episodes on FX, Lights Out may never rank with Freaks and Geeks among TV's most grievous one-and-dones. But the ambitious drama about a former boxing champ (Holt McCallany) forced into a comeback nailed the spirit of its subject—which most sports-themed shows fail miserably to do—making it the best-wrought account of life after the bell since Requiem for a Heavyweight. Sadly, viewership dropped from 1.5 million for the pilot to half that when it was canceled—which is too bad; the most rewarding episodes came in the later rounds. Good thing boxing is all about second chances. This one is must-see when it hits DVD.
—Bryan Armen Graham
21 A League of Their Own
FX's painfully underappreciated fantasy football comedy, The League, is now in its third—and best—season. As the show winds to a Dec. 22 season finale, SI's Alexandra Fenwick grilled castmates Paul Scheer (above, right) and Nick Kroll about athlete cameos, the NFL lockout and their real-life league.
You guys all really play. How competitive is The League's league?
PS: There are only bragging rights in our league, which is probably better than any sort of money. It's all about humiliating each other.
The trash talk on the show is pretty creative.
PS: [The insults were] all written by sweatshop workers.
NK: We outsource them to India, all the insults.
Undisputed highlight of the season: Nick's Super Bowl Shuffle parody.
PS: Sidney Rice dancing with a saxophone is the best thing I've ever seen.
NK: We were doing dance routines, and Maurice Jones-Drew said, "I can't dance. I have no rhythm." We're like, Very funny. And then you see him and realize, Oh, he really can't dance. But like all the players who have come in, he was game to do whatever.
Players such as Chad Ochocinco....
NK: Ochocinco had four cellphones with him.
PS: He had, like, a cellphone sandwich. One was for Facebook, one was for Twitter, one was for texting and one was for phone calls.
Why would you need a separate phone for each?
NK: Why do you change your last name to Spanish numbers? Some questions just shouldn't be asked.
Do people ask you guys for fantasy advice?
PS: Yes, but hearing about somebody else's fantasy-football problems is like listening to someone tell you about their dreams. It's only interesting to them.
You guys almost had to deal with a lockout.
NK: I was never concerned. I didn't believe America would accept it. With the NBA lockout, O.K., the world won't end. But if there's no football? Forget Occupy Wall Street, there would be mass revolution.
22 Flying Solo
Leonine U.S. women's national soccer team goalie Hope Solo was persona non grata after the 2007 World Cup, during which she ripped her coach for benching her in favor of veteran Briana Scurry in a semifinal loss to Brazil. But it was a different story after her team's stirring run to July's Cup final. Solo, without whom the U.S. would have been Brazilian toast once again, popped up everywhere: on Letterman and The View, at the Entourage premiere, running in the Chicago Marathon and, most prominently, on Dancing with the Stars (left), where she quick-stepped her way to the semis. Solo also appeared, nude, on the cover of ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue, leading one to wonder, What would she have had left to expose had the U.S. actually, you know, won the Cup?
23 Twit Wit
Twitter allows 140 characters, but Late Show with David Letterman head writer Eric Stangel (@EricStangel) does his best work with just five: 'Sup? Stangel invented a game in which he tweets at athletes and celebs; whoever responds first, there's your winner. Past 'Suppers have included Marlins LF Logan Morrison and Saints DE Will Smith (an accomplishment, one imagines, on a par with his winning a Super Bowl). If that's not for you, Stangel's 81,000 followers are also treated to a stream of sportscentric comedy, as he holds forth on such topics as labor unrest ("I want the NBA to resolve this so I can get back to not watching it until the playoffs") and broadcasters ("#WorldSeries postponed, so to get effect of listening to Tim McCarver, I'm banging my head against my coffee table").
24 The most unlikely (alleged) convergence of sports and politics. Ever
25 Jay-Z and Kanye West Spit Some Sports Sense
"Psycho/I'm liable to go Michael/Take your pick/ Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6."
—From their 2011 song N----- in Paris
26 Glove Hurts
Why do dramatic baseball games, more so than those in other sports, acquire such permanence and personality? The answer became apparent as I looked into the eyes of the key players--especially those from losing sides—who sat across from me early this year during the taping of the MLB Network series MLB's 20 Greatest Games, for which I served as a cohost alongside Bob Costas. I witnessed the pain and the pride of getting caught in the randomness of historic moments.
Show after show was filled with remembrance and revelation about the small twists upon which history is built. Bill Buckner explaining how his old, floppy first baseman's mitt (the one he should have replaced) snapped shut too quickly in 1986. Pedro Martinez remembering how he thought his night was done after seven innings in 2003—only for manager Grady Little to ask for more. Mitch Williams regretting his using a slide step on the pitch to Joe Carter that ended the 1993 World Series. Dave Henderson not just recalling his '86 ALCS homer but pleading, "I did not kill Donnie Moore," the server of that pitch who committed suicide three years later.
I never could have imagined the emotion the series would evoke. There was something very powerful and moving about watching these men as they saw their younger selves caught in the vortex of history. And in every case there was a cross-the-Rubicon moment when a guest would go from simply remembering what happened to reliving it. That's when I finally understood why baseball games never truly end.
27 Bristol Bristles With Intrigue
Odd as it may be to make the observation in mid-December, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales's oral history of how a network built on a muddy Connecticut landfill became a broadcasting behemoth, was easily the year's most enthralling beach read, all parceled into gooey, gossipy little chunks. And in time, it may be some future summer's biggest blockbuster, as 20th Century Fox has already snatched up the film rights to the rollicking New York Times best seller. When it comes to casting, SI has some suggestions for the eventual producers.
STEPHEN A. SMITH
TARAJI P. HENSON
28 Hall of Shame
With a superhero's physique and sold-out stardom from coast to coast, Scott Hall was a pro wrestling icon in the 1990s, a top WWF and WCW draw before drug addiction and alcoholism wrecked his life. Now 53, juggling 11 heart and seizure meds, and fitted with a pacemaker, he sat down with ESPN's E:60 to tell his story, which aired in October. The 18-minute segment was arguably the most compelling sports TV produced in 2011. "His life, in many ways, parallels Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler," says producer Ben Houser. It's compelling and depressing to hear Hall's cautionary tale, to witness him reduced to wrestling in high school gyms. "There's got to be some reason that I'm still [alive]," Hall tells E:60. This powerful portrait of abuse may be reason enough.
29 Sound Familiar?
Hmmm.... A scrawny geek gets injections from a mysterious scientist in a secret lab, whereupon he becomes something of an American hero? Can't wait for his comeuppance in the sequel! ... Right, Hollywood?
30 Down with the King
Scott Raab, author of The Whore of Akron, is an angry man, and most of his rage is directed at LeBron James, who he believes betrayed Cleveland (Raab's home city) by leaving the Cavs. In his enthralling LeBron-focused memoir/rant, Raab deems James "the best f------ basketball player I've ever seen," but most of the names he calls him aren't as nice.
a feckless child stunted by narcissism so ingrained that he's devoid of the capacity to respond to failure with even a semblance of manhood
nothing but a bum
an ill-schooled doofus
a grotesque and bloated parody of a man
more cartoon than man
this spoiled pissant
a total d---weed
a brand name with no more substance than a marketing plan to move shoes and soft drinks
stunted, soul-dead bumpkin
this too blithe young gent
nobody's fool but his own
31 Behind The Mike
Mike Mayock has a broadcasting history to match his NFL background when it comes to sex appeal. Pittsburgh's 10th-round selection in 1981, from Boston College, he was waived by the Steelers before short stints at safety with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts and, later, the New York Giants. Afterward he broadcast Arena League and CFL games before doing a tour as a college basketball sideline reporter on CBS. But he got a break in 2005, when the upstart NFL Network hired him, and all he has done since then is separate himself as television's most authoritative draft analyst, being praised by media critics and fans for his attention to detail and for his tireless film work. In a sense, Mike Mayock got his sexy back.
Assigned last May as the analyst on the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football package, Mayock's ascension to the top of his profession is the triumph of the grinder. Says Mark Quenzel, the NFL Network's senior vice president of programming and production, "Mike is a no-nonsense, call-it-as-he-sees-it guy, straightforward and unvarnished and a breath of fresh air."
Mayock talks a lot, but unlike some others, he fires from a prepared place. Early in November, when calling the NFL Network's opening broadcast, between Oakland and San Diego, Mayock told his audience that he had been at a Raiders practice six days earlier and had witnessed quarterback Carson Palmer working with his receivers on how to get off bumps from cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage. Mayock pointed out that this was usually the work of a coach or position assistant. It was the kind of subtle detail that viewers have come to appreciate from him.
"When you don't have the résumé of a Hall of Famer, you have to pay your dues a little differently," says Mayock, 53. "I've had to do games with a different play-by-play guy or producer each week [in the past], but it made me a better communicator and it gave me a better understanding of the television production of football. Really, I would not have had it any other way."
32 A Gus of Wind
When CBS and Gus Johnson parted ways in May, many were dismayed that the howling voice of so many NCAA tournament buzzer beaters would be off the air. Gushing Gus fans are thankful that Fox stepped in, handing him the reins for its college football Game of the Week. And while Johnson remains most well-known for his end-of-game exuberance (his calling of the Big Ten football championship's final seconds was frat-tacularly epic), he has also provided concise play-by-play and insightful commentary during Big 12 and Pac 12 clashes. Johnson won't be heard in March this year, but he has signed on for 30 Big Ten Network basketball games, and that's some-thing to scream about.
33 Living the Dream
How's this for a sports fantasy crazier even than the Cubs' winning a World Series. In April 2010, Andrew Belleson was making gyros at his family's hot-dog stand. And this April? The deep-throated 24-year-old from Lombard, Ill., was announcing Starlin Castro's name at one of the nation's sporting shrines, having beaten out 2,953 applicants to become Wrigley Field's new full-time announcer. "My first year was nothing short of unbelievable," says the lifetime Cubs fan who did radio and P.A. work for the minor league Rockford RiverHawks as a teen. With the last Wrigley announcer (Paul Friedman) having lasted 16 years, this long shot is hoping for a long run in Chicago. Says Belleson (left), "It really is the best job in the world."
34 Caricature Study
Puerto Rican--born illustrator Wilfred Santiago dazzled with his drawings of Robert Clemente in 21, his graphic-novel-style bio of the late Pirates star. SI asked Santiago to summarize the year in sports media and, naturally, his reply came in cartoon form.
35 Fall Classic Flashback
"We will see you ... tomorrow night!"
Oct. 26, 1991: Jack Buck, calling Kirby Puckett's 11th-inning, walk-off home run, which knotted the Twins and the Braves at three wins apiece in the World Series.
Oct. 27, 2011: Jack's son, Joe, calling David Freese's 11th-inning, walk-off home run, which knotted the Cardinals and the Rangers at three wins apiece in the World Series.
36 Year in Sports, Of Sorts
In October the funny folks at The Onion released The Ecstasy of Defeat, their first compendium of satirical sports stories—and, yes, each entry is as spot-on hilarious as BEARS LEAD REX GROSSMAN TO SUPER BOWL. At year's end, SI reached out to the fake-news outlet for its own Top 4 Sports Media Moments of 2011. Consider yourself forgiven if you don't recall each one.
1. The NBA Lockout: Just as good as anything the NBA has aired in years.
2. The eighth season of Playmakers, ESPN's groundbreaking football drama, was so good this year (who would have thought the Leon Taylor--Demetrius Harris plot would go on this long?) that it makes you wonder what Friday Night Lights might have become if NBC hadn't canceled it after 11 episodes.
3. The NBA Draft was really good again, especially Day 3. Seriously, if you know anyone with Day 3 on DVR, check it out.
4. Remember when those Penn State administrators won Presidential Medals of Freedom for coming forward as soon as they suspected child endangerment in their football program, regardless of what it meant to their school's reputation? That's exactly the selflessness that sports teaches us!
37 What's Up, Docs?
Another year, another stupendous set of ESPN Films documentaries, picking up right where 30 for 30 left off in 2010. If we're splitting hairs, and if two hours is all you've got, then The Fab Five is the way to go. But all of this year's movies are worthy of your time (less so: Charismatic). Don't know where to start? Let this chart help guide your way.
38 Shameless Self-Promotion Interlude
These five stellar page-turners, from SI writers and photographers, or published by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Books, deservingly flew off bookshelves and onto e-readers in 2011.
1:)Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of American Football, by Neil Leifer;2:)56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, by Kostya Kennedy;3:)Scorecasting, by L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias J. Moskowitz;4:)The College Basketball Book, by the editors of SI;5:)The Swinger, by Michael Bamberger and Alan Shipnuck
39 Game On
In the same year that 3D fatigue finally set in, one video game actually got it right. Released on 3DS, Nintendo's brilliant glasses-free handheld unit, Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D delivered gameplay that lives up to the lofty standards of Konami's long-running soccer franchise (preferred over the FIFA series among the gaming cognoscenti). But it's the added 3D effect and heretofore impossible depth perception that make it one of the year's top sports titles. The roster of teams isn't without a few licensing hiccups—Liverpudlians have to settle for "Merseyside Red"—but the heady visuals and thoroughly addictive gameplay more than make up for it.
40 Heel of a Guy
Most of the competitors in Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong, director Daniel Lindsay's winning documentary (which aired on Spike TV) about the 2007 iteration of that Nevada-based competition are good-natured adversaries. Guys like Scott Reck, who looks like a pre-skinny Jonah Hill, goes by Iceman (his first job was filling ice machines) and reminds himself never to get too caught up in his, ahem, fame. But Antonio Vassilatos, better known as Tone, differs from your average beer gamer, a fact first evidenced as we watch him bench-press 225 pounds. Playing for team We Own Your Face, he struts, preens and exposes his abs before ripping off his shirt and throwing it at one opponent. Tone explains, "I don't think any one person is really as evil as they seem, or as good as they seem." Sure, but in the case of 2011's most entertaining sports documentary villain, evil is good.
41 Off the Mat
Shoestring-budget indies with March release dates don't often end up awards-season fare, particularly those that quietly come and go, grossing less than $11 million along the way. And yet Win Win, writer-director Tom McCarthy's likable chamber piece about humaneness, high school wrestling and marital fairplay (try selling that), remains the best sports film of 2011, an unlikely but legitimate Oscar sleeper.
Paul Giamatti is at his understated best as Mike Flaherty, a small-time New Jersey lawyer struggling to stay afloat in a lousy economy while volunteering as the coach of a losing suburban wrestling team. Mike keeps his financial worries from his wife (Amy Ryan), but they're extracting a physical and emotional toll. When he spots the opportunity to salvage his practice by taking advantage of an affluent client with dementia (Burt Young, a ghost of his Rocky self), Flaherty seizes it, a desperate, uncharacteristic ethical breach. But the unexpected arrival of the client's estranged teenage grandson (Alex Shaffer), a reluctant wrestling prodigy on the lam from his ne'er-do-well mother, starts off a chain of events—mostly the new kid's success—that brings new life to Flaherty's moribund team.
Win Win dares to be simple, a moral drama that deftly avoids the cornfed self-righteousness and familiar tropes of, for example, The Blind Side. Giamatti mines the stress and inner struggle of his beleaguered character with humor and pathos, and the shrewdly cast Shaffer (a first-time actor and real-life New Jersey state high school wrestling champion) proves a revelation. "This is your place; control it," Flaherty instructs the kid before a match, laying bare the film's central metaphor of sport as inner conflict.
Come Oscar-pool time, consider Win Win for Best Actor (Giamatti) and Original Screenplay. As detached as Academy voters have proved from the tastes of average moviegoers, there's precedent for tipping feel-good stories during recessions (see: Rocky, Slumdog Millionaire). But as the film's tender and unsentimental ending suggests, whether it wins or loses is far less important than how it got there.
42 Tangled Web
Bill Simmons's ESPN-backed Grantland.com launched in June and became a lively source of intelligent long-form sports commentary from writers well known (Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman) and up-and-coming (Katie Baker, Bill Barnwell). The site hews to the Sports Guy's pop-culture sensibility—a sensibility ripe for parody, as became clear when comedian Jared Bloom started tweeting (fake) rejected Grantland pitches from @fakegrantland. (Among his best: Suh, Suh, Suhdio: Ranking the best defensive players to be born since the debut of Phil Collins's No Jacket Required.) In a meta twist, Grantland has since hired Bloom, making him perhaps the only man in the world hired specifically to mock his employer.
43 Dog Bites Tiger
Tiger Woods's 2011 took an odd turn in October when a fan at the Frys.com Open threw a hot dog Woods's way. Afterward, the frank flinger, Brandon Kelly, offered a bizarre defense: He was inspired by the movie Drive. "As soon as the movie ended," he said, "I thought, I have to do something courageous and epic. I have to throw a hot dog in front of Tiger." Crazy? Perhaps. But plenty of misbehaving sports figures could have taken Kelly's lead in '11 and blamed their boorishness on the movies.
Harrison ACT: Called NFL commish Roger Goodell a "crook," "puppet" and "devil" BLAME:Horrible Bosses
PERPETRATOR: Frank McCourt
ACT: Held the Dodgers hostage during his divorce
BLAME:Battle: Los Angeles
PERPETRATOR: Serena Williams
ACT: Chewed out a chair ump at the U.S. Open final BLAME:The Adjustment Bureau
44 Out of the Norm
Nope, America's still not ready for Norm Macdonald's snarky humor. Proof: His sports show was callously canned. But the day will come. Check back in 10 years.
45 Moneyball (That's What I Want)
Hello, America. My name is Ryan, and I have a problem. In the last two months I've seen Moneyball twice. O.K., three times. I don't know why I lied just then. But at $13.50 a pop (thanks, New York City) I've spent a fair portion of Ricardo Rincon's 2002 salary on movie tickets this fall. Why? Moneyball encapsulates the appeal of cinema: To live, if just for a few hours, through the characters on-screen. Growing up, I wanted to run an MLB team, more even than I wanted to play for one. And Moneyball brought me closer to that dream than ever before. Granted, the cinematography lacks polish. The lighting is dark, the colors seemingly gray-filtered. But that's perfect! A film about a low-budget baseball team that looks low-budget. (Am I defensive? Recall my investment.) And with each screening I fell in love with Michael Lewis's story all over again. Pitt plays A's G.M. Billy Beane gracefully, opting against the egomaniacal lunatic whom Beane could be mistaken for. And at his side, Jonah Hill, as brilliant number-cruncher Peter Brand (duh, Paul DePodesta), employs his posture to counter Pitt's Beane and Philip Seymour Hoffman's grumpily hilarious Art Howe. At any rate, $40.50 is a small price for a movie that I don't even own. I'll admit it: I would have paid twice that. Moneyball is still in theaters, so I might yet.
46 Bitter Sweet
The year's best sports biography was also, undeservedly, its most controversial. In Sweetness, former SI writer Jeff Pearlman offered the definitive life story of revered Bears running back Walter Payton, who retired in 1987 and died in '99 of bile duct cancer. The depth of Pearlman's reporting is astounding; he interviewed nearly 700 subjects—family, friends, teammates, business associates. The result is a penetrating, compassionate, full portrait of an inspiring but deeply puzzling man.
Some weren't ready for such a thorough look at their hero. The details of Payton's troubled life after football—infidelity, depression, abuse of painkillers and nitrous oxide—set off a firestorm of criticism. Fans were upset: It's difficult to see an idol portrayed as less than perfect. But the response among certain self-appointed guardians of Payton's legacy was simply disgraceful. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass and ESPN personality Michael Wilbon bashed Sweetness and Pearlman's motivation, even as they admitted they had not read the book. Mike Ditka said he'd "spit on" the author. Bears lineman Steve McMichael said Pearlman's portrait would have been more fair had he interviewed Payton's former backfield mates Roland Harper and Matt Suhey. Both, of course, are quoted at length.
A biographer's responsibility is to the truth. Sometimes that truth hurts and shatters illusions. In Sweetness, Payton emerges more human for his flaws, more admirable for his pain. Some prefer that their heroes remain two-dimensional, like the number 34 posters on their bedroom walls. For the rest Sweetness is a revelation, and a welcome one.
47 This Shaqtacular Sentence:
"My movies were not what you'd call award-winning. But doing Blue Chips was a blast."
—From the Big Retiree's 2011 biography, Shaq Uncut
48 Bit Players
Athletes keep popping up on TV and in the movies. And in 2011, especially in the case of one winking Bill Buckner, that was for the most part a good thing. Here, an indexed recap.
EVANDER HOLYFIELDNecessary Roughness
SHAUN WHITEFriends with Benefits
BILL BUCKNERCurb Your Enthusiasm
REX RYANCSI: N.Y.
CARMELO ANTHONYLaw & Order: SVU
BRIAN VICKERSHart of Dixie
DALLAS CLARKCriminal Minds
GREG JENNINGSRoyal Pains
49 Lockout: Laugh-In
Not seeing the humor in a year that brought both NFL and NBA work stoppages? Look harder. Google these five phrases to unlock video proof that there's an upside to unrest.
field of dreams 2
the league psas
jordan: love the game
nick and javale show
50 KO'ing Karaoke
Mike Tyson and Manny Pacquiao are arguably the most violent fighters of their respective eras. Tenderizers, one might say. In 2011 the duo proved that boxers can be tender too—especially when given a mike. There was Tyson, covering One Night in Bangkok in The Hangover Part II and warbling The Girl from Ipanema on a Brazilian variety show; and there was Pacquiao, who holds postfight concerts, releasing an easy-listening single. What might a night of karaoke with the two be like? Here, the pugilists provide their dream set lists.
—Pablo S. Torre
1. The O'Jays, Lovin' You
2. The New Birth, Wild Flower
3. Stevie Wonder, Blue Moon
4. Barry White, Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe
5. Michael Jackson, Rock with You
1. Dan Hill, Sometimes When We Touch
2. Alice Cooper, I Never Cry
3. Ritchie Valens, La Bamba
4. Bee Gees, I Started a Joke
5. John Lennon, Imagine