Monday, March 19, 2012

Philly's Forgotten

If you consider yourself an NBA junkie (hand raised), you don't need much schooling to be reminded of the fact that there are probably at least a dozen storylines that are considered to be more compelling in this lockout-shortened 2011-12 season than the resurgence of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Even within the borders of the City of Brotherly Love alone, a winning collection of pro roundballers seems to fall squarely into that fourth-place slot in terms of fan interest in the city's four professional sports franchises, regardless of how the other three are performing at any given time.

This has always confused me, especially since Philly's blue-collar, small-town-feel-for-a-big-city ethos has always been more closely identified with basketball than any other sport. There are a myriad of successful scholastic programs and The Big 5 for college hoops. And basketball fans in Philadelphia generally are amongst some of the most passionate and knowledgeable you'll find anywhere.

But when we graduate up to the 76ers, the level of enthusiasm wanes to a degree certainly worthy of mention. Most Sixers fans who aren't anywhere near ready to apply for their AARP card have a fairly linear, bulletpoint mental roadmap of the organization dating back the last few decades, and most of those roadmaps will go something like this:

* World champions in 1983. How about that Dr. J and Moses Malone!

* The post-'83 championship Barkley years ('85-'92). Always entertaining, but unfortunately, not title-producing.

* Allen Iverson. Came into the organization in the mid 90s. A true game-changer. Gave everything he had to the city, represented Philadelphia's 'chip-on-its-shoulder' intensity and even led the Sixers to an NBA Finals series where they were simply outclassed and lost to the L.A. Lakers (2000-01 season) in the midst of Hollywood's title three-peat on the heels of the dominant Shaq-Kobe combo.

* Everything that's happened since Iverson left the team. Wait, didn't they make the playoffs a few times or something? When did they lose Sam Dalembert? Do they still have Elton Brand? Damn, how old is that guy now, anyway?

And there you have it.

But as an individual who has fully bought into what the NBA is all about over these past few years, it's worth noting that the 2011-12 Sixers are currently 25-20, sitting at fourth place in the current Eastern Conference rankings and possess a one-and-a-half game lead of the first place spot in the Atlantic Division standings.

Sure, the team can't claim a marquee superstar player on its roster. And yes, even the most diehard fan would have to admit they're quite a longshot to realistically contend for a championship with this current lineup.

But as long as they're winning more games than losing, there is definitive hope at the very least. Right now, that's got to mean something.

What I like probably most about these Sixers is that they're a pure manifestation of 'team basketball.' This dynamic of "no individual rises above the team" materializes much more naturally with the lack of a tried-and-true superstar. And in most other pro sports, this dynamic is not only helpful, but necessary, to make it all the way to the top.

But the NBA might be the one exception in which holding up any trophy that means a whole lot is virtually impossible unless you have at least 1-2 of those 'superstars' on your squad. And anyone who's plugged into the NBA these days is well aware of the guys who make up that short list of about 10-20 players. They don't even need a full-name mention.

Kobe. D-Wade. Durant. LeBron. Nowitzki. Duncan. Chris Paul (okay, he has a short name anyway). Dwight. D-Wil. D-Rose. Blake.

You get the idea.

Who's the biggest name on Philly's roster this year? Hmm. Andre Iguodala is nice, don't get it twisted. He's averaging 12.4 points per game and leads the team in assists (5.6) and steals (1.9). But does anyone really think he's spearheading a championship effort? And I love Iggy, but people don't really put him in that class of players mentioned above.

Who else do we have? I'll tell you what - these Sixers have a lethal backcourt. Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday, splitting time running the point, are the two scoring leaders (15.7 and 13.7 ppg, respectively). Thaddeus Young and Brand, along with Iggy and the newly-acquired Sam Young (thank you Memphis!), give the team some nice depth at the forward position. You can argue that an upgrade at center would probably do them good - Spencer Hawes certainly isn't bad, but unfortunately there's only a handful of truly dominant big men in the game, and none of them are wearing a Philly jersey this season.

My favorite current stat? Sixers are in first place in the NBA in points allowed per game, allowing just 87.8. You heard me, son. Sixers' D is ill, and not in a bad way. And they even have a nice nucleus of young-to-mid-career guys (Williams, Holiday, Hawes, T. Young, Iggy, Evan Turner -- ET brings more depth in the backcourt, by the way). But that's also part of the problem. The only veteran of real significance is Brand, who most are likely to say hasn't lived up to the potential that an overall No. 1 pick would suggest (taken first by Chicago in the 1999 draft).

And so we arrive at the two stakes in the heart of the Sixers' championship aspirations. The lack of a superstar or two, and the undeniable sting felt by not having a few veterans who have shouldered their share of playoff-time bumps and bruises. Even masterful intangibles/motivator head coach Doug Collins can't compensate for some of these shortcomings.

So the ceiling for the Sixers' organization as it currently exists is probably a first-round playoff series victory. But it would take quite a combination of playing-above-their-heads magic and collapse-worthy crap-tasticness from their opponent to see them advance beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals at this point.

I can see them winning a first-round best-of-seven series against the likes of Indiana or Atlanta. Possibly even the Knicks. But once we venture into that Miami-Chicago-Orlando territory, things get decidedly dicey. And here's where that 'superstar' factor comes into play. Awesome defense and all, can Philly stop Dwight Howard, or Derrick Rose, or Miami's Big Three in crucial playoff moments when it matters? Furthermore, from whom are the Sixers getting crunch-time points? Who's going to not be rattled on this team when a big moment is on the line?

Speaking of which, in case you were wondering, the Sixers are 22nd in the league in points per game (94.1). That's a number that has to improve.

In the capitalist society that is the modern world of the NBA, you need a few one percenters to move mountains.

Sixers, until you can lure those rock crushers into the fold, I'm afraid you're destined for NBA playoff purgatory. Not quite good enough to slay the giants, but not bad enough to land a lottery draft pick either.

Soldier on, men. You never know when weaknesses in the enemy will be presented, and you have to strike like Andy Reid on a complimentary cheesesteak from Pat's or Geno's when they do.


Perhaps a few more words about those NBA one-percenters, eh?

The NBA Royalty this year isn't looking all that different than it would in most other seasons. Conventional wisdom suggests that the East is going to be taken by either Chicago or Miami. Even though the crown seems to be the Heat's for the taking, it would be most unwise to count out a fiercely determined and talented Derrick Rose, Chicago's tenacious defense and aggressively physical style of play. Oh and that small matter of LeBron pulling a disappearing act in the fourth quarter during playoff games. But who's noticed that, am I right?

Orlando is also lurking. Don't forget, it was The Big O that made the finals three years ago when LeBron and Cleveland were prohibitive favorites to win the East. And now that Dwight Howard has ended the 'Will-he-or-won't-he' drama by letting the trade deadline pass without joining a new organization, it's clear that he's fully committed to The Magic for at least one more calendar year. There's no telling what could happen.

Out West, it's a crap shoot. No, I'm serious. All NBA players from the Western Conference are in Vegas playing craps as we speak.

Okay, maybe not. But seriously, anyone can win the West this year. By all accounts, Oklahoma City has the best overall team - and their record backs it up.

But as we know, experience counts to an immeasurable degree when playoff time rolls around. The crafty old guard that is the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs will not go quietly into the night (what Memphis did to the Spurs last year -- an 8-seed upsetting a 1-seed in the first round -- has only ever happened a couple times for a reason).

Dallas holds the prize, but has often not looked like it at various points this year. In a podcast interview preceding the All-Star game last month, Dirk Nowitzki himself admitted it took him longer to get his legs this year than in any other season, due primarily to the lockout-affected training schedule plus the fact that he jumped right into Olympic trials in the summer of 2011 just weeks after leading the Mavericks to an exhausting NBA championship run. And there's also that not-so-minor matter of Lamar Odom seeming to be a lost soul ever since the Lakers kicked him to the curb. Dallas needs a big effort from Lamar if they want to repeat. He was more crucial to the Lakers' two titles in '09-'10 than many people recognize.

When you throw in the Chris-Paul led Clippers and young-gun teams like Memphis and Denver, you're going to have a Western Conference playoffs that promises to be as memorable as the day that Peyton Manning booted Tim Tebow (aka 'Touchdown Jesus') out of Denver, Colorado. God Bless the Broncos for their transgression.

Don't worry Peyton, they say it's a 'dry' heat.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mixed Bag of Goodies

In the immortal words of Robert Plant, 'It's been a long time since I rock and rolled, uhhh-uh!'

So let's dump the foreplay this time and get right to the good stuff. There's all kinds of shit going on, so stay strapped in, and remove your valuables before boarding. I will not be held responsible for lost or stolen items. Or for how much money you piss away on that ridiculous Super Bowl XVLI prop bet.


Okay, I'm a little late on this one. But whatever. Apparently, 2011 sucked for almost everyone I know. Is a better day on the horizon? We'll see.

I guess it all depends on job creation and the economy. And taxes. You know, the stuff that affects us everyday, trying-to-get by people.

I don't want to get too political here or anything - as an old friend once said to me, arguing religion or politics is like debating stuff on the Internet ... nobody really wins or loses, and in the end, everyone is still retarded. But I will say that I can't remember a time when I've been as fed up with the 'party system' as I am now. It's just a lot of division (and not the kind you learn about in grade school) and side-choosing, and less about working together to get shit done. Rich, poor, employed, jobless, whatever - we are all in this mess together. I don't give a damn about Democrat or Republican. I care about opportunities - and so should everyone else. The chance to get what you want through hard work. Wouldn't it be nice that it all should be that simple.

But as we know, not so.

However, if we should be lucky enough to see politicians stop tearing each other down and actually getting some good ideas pushed through the logjam, maybe we can at least enjoy some advantages of change that will bring about more lucrative financial times for everyone.

I will now step off this entirely too-high soapbox and stop wondering if I might see a one-legged flying unicorn anytime soon, because the odds of that are about the same as actually believing that any of the fantasy-land stuff I just typed above might happen.


A couple months ago, I wrote about how I’m okay without a Division I college football playoff.

I don’t want to completely retract that statement, but the all-SEC party that shut the door on a more-than-deserving Oklahoma State team in the national championship game left a nasty taste on my buds. Is a plus-one a viable solution? In some years, that would do it. But not every year.

A playoff isn’t perfect either. Some of the regular-season matchups would become a bit watered-down, and there would still be teams crying foul about not getting in no matter how many you include (happens every year with the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and they let 65 teams in). The fact is, if you can’t totally appreciate the pure intensity of the regular-season games, you just don’t fully buy into what Division I-A college football is all about. And that’s okay – this isn’t meant as a criticism. It’s just unlike any other sport because of this. The uniqueness is part of what separates it so distinctly though.

The huge downside? Almost every year, we get an ‘Oklahoma State’ situation that makes us contemplate the fact that a team possibly strong enough to be a national champion is left on the other side of the partition. How do we reconcile this without a playoff? We don’t. The easy answer – and I know everyone hates it – is don’t lose in the regular season. And come from a major conference. And be a school of major consequence with a national fan base that’s always in the media spotlight.

I don’t love it any more than you do, but it’s part of the deal. Money talks, everything else takes a long-ass hike down the path of ‘who cares.’ It’s nobody’s fault that a championship game between TCU and Boise State just doesn’t generate as much buzz as a Michigan-Alabama title game would, but it’s the world we live in. For the on-the-fence guys that want to hang with the big dogs, do everything you can to get into a major conference and make people pay attention by beating said big dogs. It’s not necessarily easily accomplished, but that’s how to take down the 1 percent that is major college football institutions. Having said that, I would have rather seen Oklahoma State somehow get a chance without Alabama necessarily being shut out either. The current system doesn’t allow that though. Better luck next year for a more ideal outcome.

Another huge college football-related story has been the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse allegations story and the firing, and not long after, death of legendary Penn State head coach Joe Paterno.

I’ll try to be somewhat brief about this one, but we all have a natural tendency to glorify any well-known figure, be it celebrity, musician, athlete or otherwise, in the wake of their passing. I don’t completely love this, but I get why it happens.

Let’s just say, my main takeaway from the last months of Joe Paterno’s life and demise is simply that it’s the most powerful reminder imaginable that literally any person is capable of demonstrating contradictory sets of values.

It’s easy for us to think that almost anyone we meet or perceive in the public eye is either generally ‘good’ or generally ‘bad’ – when in reality, neither simple characterization is really even close to accurate (get to know Walter White from Breaking Bad and you’ll really understand this).

Paterno was a loyalist to the Penn State community who molded generations of college football players into fine young men, donated millions to the institution that employed him for decades, and was by all accounts a wonderful, salt-of-the-earth guy who lived in a modest home and didn’t hide from people by playing up his larger-than-life celebrity.

This is all true.

But it wouldn’t be right to ignore the fact that he was also a guy who took the minimum amount of action or responsibility for the investigation of some allegedly horrific actions that were being committed by another member of the Penn State community, and there are many who would suggest that he did this more out of concern for his own record-setting legacy and less because he was ‘confused’ or wasn’t sure ‘what to do.’ You don’t achieve the level of success that this man did without being savvy, and to not know that it would have been advantageous to report child abuse allegations to every local law enforcement agency, as well as to social services, instead of to just leave it in the hands of those who would be more likely to want to protect the name of the PSU Institution, is wholly unbelievable.

That’s like finding a piece of glass or plastic in your food in a restaurant and only telling the manager or owner of the place. He doesn’t want it to get out that his food isn’t completely safe or sanitary, right? What do you think he’s going to do? Schmooze you with a free meal or buy you a few drinks on the house, and hope you don’t tell anyone else. If you want something to get done about it, you go tell the Better Business Bureau of whatever local watchdog group is out there making sure that establishments serving food are up to snuff in the regulations department. You might prevent some other poor bastards from slicing up their gums while they’re just trying to enjoy a bowl of the French Onion soup.

Well for the purposes of this analogy, JoePa found a piece of glass in his food, told the manager and then left it alone. It just wasn’t worth the trouble to him. He had his eye on a bigger prize.

Does this outweigh all the good that he did? Of course not. But it will be difficult for me to think about his overall body of work and his life and career as a whole without recognizing that he was generally a good guy who was at one time guilty of making a few bad decisions that likely led to the continued pain and suffering of several others. By the way, he’s far from the only one who didn’t blow the whistle when it should have been, but he is the only one who’s the face of such a well-known institution. It comes with the territory, unfortunately.


Nothing like putting in a prediction about an hour away from kickoff!

As an Eagles fan, I hate this matchup. The rich are getting richer no matter who wins. Both the New England Patriots and New York Giants are going for championship No. 4. Tom Brady and Eli Manning have both pretty much cemented their legend status (or in EM’s case, NEAR-legend status) for their respective organizations.

And this game is being played in the House that Peyton Built, which just creates for umpteen more storylines than we already have after the upset of all upsets that we saw in Super Bowl XLII four years ago, when the Giants’ ‘Helmet Catch’ ruined New England’s chance at a perfect season.

It seems like this was somewhat predetermined, right? Both conference championship games had one referee call that would have favored San Francisco and Baltimore in terms of a different outcome, but the calls went the way of New England and New York.

Lee Evans? That shit was a catch. The ball hit him in the numbers and it was well within his grasp. Whether that happens for two milliseconds or two full seconds, that’s a touchdown. But Sterling Moore reaches in there and knocks it out, and miraculously, the whistle hasn’t blown (where’s the goddamn whistle??) – and wow, look at that, it’s a strip. What??? In what universe is this acceptable? The Ravens just rolled over and took it up the poop chute on that one, too. Absolutely awful. But hey, Giants-Pats is much sexier than Giants-Ravens, or God forbid, 49ers-Ravens. I’m not saying the fix is in, but who didn’t want this rematch? You tell me.

In case you were wondering, the questionable call in the NFC Championship game was when Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled in the fourth quarter, but didn’t really fumble, because his forward progress was stopped so the play was whistled dead. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen that exact same play in a regular-season game and it’s ruled a fumble because the freaking player IS STILL UPRIGHT! The only time I see that b.s. ‘forward progress’ thing is when 6 guys are standing up a ball carrier and he’s clearly not getting out of the pile to break away for a huge gain. Not when a running back is trying to plow upfield, runs into a couple defenders and loses the ball and/or has the ball punched out. Unconscionably bad call.

We all wanted this matchup, I get it. No worries. But let’s not be afraid to call it like it is.

Now – as for SB XLVI? The Giants had a harder road here and have played better. They’re the favorite who’s not the favorite, because New England is a 3.5-point favorite as far as Vegas is concerned. But I can’t shake this feeling that the Pats are going to get their revenge, despite the fact that they are probably the inferior team. Who knows – they feel it’s their destiny, Belichick/Brady won’t be denied again, they’re doing this for the memory of Myra Kraft and there are more mysterious forces at work. The Giants’ blatant overconfidence can’t be good for the wheel of karma, either. Around these parts, people are talking like a Giants win has already happened.

But who knows. If N.Y.’s ferocious front four does its thing and Eli uncorks the passing game with Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, anything can happen. I just don’t know if Tom Brady is going to be punked on a big stage like that again.

The only reason I’ll pull for the Giants is because of fullback Henry Hynoski, a fellow graduate of my alma mater, Southern Columbia Area High School in Catawissa, Pa. This kid was an undrafted free agent who has been a major part of the offense this year, and is playing in the Super Bowl as a ROOKIE.

He came from a high school that graduates no more than 200 kids each year and is literally surrounded by cornfields. Football means everything where I’m from, but we rarely see players that have what it takes to make it on an NFL roster.

So to watch the story of Henry Hynoski unfold and to believe that you can’t get where you want to be in life is just silly. But as anyone would tell you, it won’t happen without some good old-fashioned ass-busting hard work. Here’s hoping the Hynocerous gets to call himself a Super Bowl champion. Besides, seeing a dejected Brady and Belichick lose another Super Bowl would just be too much fun.

Ultimately, it may all hinge on Rob Gronkowski’s ankle. If the big dude can play through the pain and get shit done, the Pats are going to be much tougher to stop. I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those ‘whoever has the ball last has the best chance to win’ type of deals. I really can’t imagine a blowout. Going to be a great one.

The head says New England, but the heart says Giants (simply because of Hynoski fellow Eagles fans, take it down a notch!).

I’m getting into the NBA next time, kids. The Sixers are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. I’m not making it up! Look at the standings!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who do YOU root for?

I've never quite understood the sports fan who gets way too amped up about a professional or collegiate team - unless the fan is an alumni of said collegiate team.

Caring on a certain level is expected, but we all know those people that care just a little bit too much, right? The guy who's depressed and moping like his dog just died for about two weeks after whatever heart-wrenching playoff or Super Bowl loss just took place. It forces all of us to sit back and think 'A little perspective, please.' Doesn't it? At least for me it does.

I prefer to think of it this way: Professional and major college teams could give a rip whether you root for them or not. They exist primarily to make money. Oh, and win games. Which gets them more money. If you stop rooting today or tomorrow, plenty of others will continue to support your team or drop off the map, and nobody will really care. This isn't an argument that you should cease all rooting immediately for your teams, but simply to draw attention to the fact that it's primarily a one-sided relationship.

But when you can trace a rooting interest in something as far back as your earliest memories and your instrumental formative years, that's when emotional investment becomes so much more real and tangible.

To wit, my alma mater, Southern Columbia Area High School, residing on the outskirts of Catawissa, Pa., in east central Pennsylvania, will attempt to make history tomorrow at 1 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium by becoming the first Pennsylvania scholastic football team to win a seventh state championship.

Now THIS is something to get behind in terms of a sports-related rooting interest, primarily for us proud alumni of what has transformed into one of the truly well-recognized statewide powers in Pennsylvania football. Especially for those of us who witnessed that transformation firsthand from a barely competitive program (1960s and 70s), to a district-wide competitive program (1980s and early 1990s) to the present standard by which all other Class A football teams in Pa. are held.

Even when the Tigers don't make the championship game - they have been to the big dance 13 times in the past 18 seasons - their presence looms large over the proceedings. It's usually worth noting whenever SCA isn't there simply because, they aren't there.

There are a myriad of components for why the program has become so successful, many of which are well known by several folks reading this piece. For some quick bullet-points, they include tons of hard work (in the offseason too), strength training, superb conditioning, high football IQ, talented players that learn the value of hard work from an early age onward, a dedicated coaching staff that molds young men into respectable people in addition to teaching the Xs and Os of the game, and probably a dozen other reasons.

But I like to think, more than anything else, it's about the stuff that transcends learning the proper gap protections or anticipating where the ball is headed. It goes beyond knowing the playbook.

It's about the blood, sweat and tears, baby. It's about having no doubt you can accomplish anything. It's also about trust, camaraderie among teammates, and doing anything in your power to not let people down.

This is all from the perspective of someone who didn't actually wear the uniform, but was as close to the program as one can be without doing so. Having that vantage point allows for the sort of observations that could seemingly never otherwise be gleaned.

Watching a year-by-year transformation of a district champion, to a state playoff qualifier, back to a district champion that could advance no further due to an outdated, wacky points system and then finally culminating in the school's first gold trophy (1994) was an indescribable experience I will always have with me.

No loss by a pro or college team could possibly match the disappointment I felt from the stands in 1995 and 1996 when SCA came up short against Farrell (6-0 and 14-12, respectively). I can't even imagine how the players felt. Another four gut-wrenching losses would have to be endured over the next 5 seasons before that glorious string of five consecutive championships took place from 2002-2006.

And as a lot of athletes will probably tell you, the toughest of losses stays with you longer than the most thrilling of triumphs. I used to think this was B.S. But now, I actually kind of understand it.

No matter what happens tomorrow in Hershey, head coach Jim Roth, his staff and his players will come out prepared and give everything they've got against unbeaten and two-time defending state champion Clairton. But anyone who knows anything knows better than to count the Tigers out.

Finally, the games play out year after year, and the graduates move on with their lives. But regardless of what the scoreboard said when it was over, what's most important is how inspiring the program is to current and former members. We see it in the results on the field, and the fact that for the first time ever this year, an SCA alumni is playing in the NFL (congrats, Henry Hynoski). Great things are only possible through hard work and determination.

At the time, it seems like you're only learning the game of football and pulling for victories on the field, above all else.

Then you learn more as you get older.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Why I'm Okay Without an FBS Playoff

I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the fact that it's about 70 degrees outside in the New York metro area and it's only a couple days shy of December. Maybe it's the Bieber Fever. Perhaps it's the staggering amount of money that the latest installment in that dreadfully annoying Twilight movie series is pulling down. Or maybe even it's the fact that Tim Tebow is 5-1 as a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Or maybe I'm just getting old. Yeah. I think that's probably it.

Seemingly since the dawn of time, I - like most college football enthusiasts - have lobbied for an NCAA Division I/FBS playoff as the most appropriate method for determining the sport's champion at the conclusion of each season. At the very least, my fervor on this subject strengthened to a considerable degree upon formation of the Bowl Championship Series, the selection system utilized to rank the top two teams nationally after the conclusion of regular-season play.

Few entities in life have been more roundly, and probably rightfully, criticized than the BCS system, with the possible exception of Herman Cain, Crystal Pepsi, and the jury that acquitted Casey Anthony.

And I would be about as forthcoming as Jerry Sandusky during the Bob Costas interview if I tried to peddle to you the notion that I've not been one of the BCS' most vocal critics.

But recent reflection, primarily through the close observation of how the 2011 season has unfolded coupled with intelligent point-counterpoint discussions with a few of my well-informed fellow College Football junkies, has me thinking differently about this topic.

First off, let's not kid ourselves: A well-constructed and researched by-the-seeds bracket will always be the most traditional and bulletproof convention for narrowing down any competing group of teams/individual athletes as it applies to organized sport.

But as we all know, Division I-A college football - oh wait, I'm sorry, FBS football - has never subscribed to that 'bracket' construction in the first place. And I know this sounds as if it's headed for the same 'defenses' territory proposed by opposers of a playoff, but it also happens to be a true statement - this is what makes this particular sport so unique and enthralling for those who hang on the edge of their bleacher seats each weekend with an eye on the games that have the most across-the-board, high stakes implications.

What I've come to realize, more than anything, is that the best approach to take here is the idea that each weekend, what you have on tap is at least a couple, if not a handful, of games that are essentially 'mini-playoff' contests. I used to scoff at this notion, often propounded by defenders of the current FBS system, merely tossing it off as an over-reaching argument made to preserve the already-in-place platitudes of tradition and history within the sport. Simply a defense rooted in laziness and resistance to alter the status quo rather than a firmly-held belief that change would do more harm than good.

And I'm not sure exactly why I'm thinking about it differently suddenly now. Maybe it's because more hours on the couch this fall (even more so than usual for me, which is a lot) due to home and family time with my wife and bubbly infant son have provided me with the benefit of more rigid observation. But whatever it is, what I can say with much certainty is that I've enjoyed this season as much as, if not more so, than any other in recent memory. I cannot think of a Saturday (or in the case of Oklahoma State, a Friday) that hasn't involved a plethora of televised games that have held some sort of broad appeal in terms of the final outcome.

As much as it pains me to say it, and as much as it may annoy you to read it, an 8-team or 16-team bracket ultimately detracts from this drama. It just plain does, and you can't tell me otherwise.

Also, does anyone who lobbies for a playoff really believe that many of the same politics and major conference biases wouldn't also negatively influence the construction of these brackets each season? I could make a fairly strong case for why undefeated Houston or one-loss Boise State should be sitting at home while the big bangers from the six major conferences duke it out in an 8-team playoff (a simple 'strength of schedule' argument, for one), but that's a separate discussion. Okay, so maybe Houston or Boise deserves a spot instead of the Big East champion. Either way. The point is - the same type of debates would be in play whether there's a bracket system or the current one.

I could live with a plus-one, and I've not yet heard anyone who has even the slightest gripe with that idea. This would help eliminate the concerns of those who cry foul when a perceived third deserving team is left on the outside looking in at Numbers 1 and 2 playing for the ultimate prize. The only possible criticism goes like this: Team No. 1 gets an extra weekend of rest while Team Nos. 2 and 3 knock heads for the right to play Team No. 1. Okay, but then I can point out how teams with long layoffs or coming off bye weeks in first-round playoff scenarios often come out rusty and with a lack of momentum.

So basically, the arguments are never going to end.

But all the pontificating and debating and pollstering is what makes this stuff so juicy. In a certain way, a bracket system reduces any sort of drama or fun. Draw up your 8, 12 or 16 spots, slot your teams in and let it all rip. And don't talk to me about a 4-team playoff. That's just dumb. Either go all-out with this or don't do it at all.

Okay, so you've got your bracket drawn up now. Why should I care about the Bedlam game this Saturday pitting one-loss Oklahoma State against two-loss Oklahoma? They're both most likely making a 16-team bracket. Who even cares who wins the conference?

Why should I have given a damn about Michigan vs. Ohio State this past Saturday if I didn't have a rooting interest for one of those teams? Ohio State has had, by their standards, a sub-par season. Reasons for that aside, it's clear they're not making a playoff and Michigan is. Why watch the game? If it's all about the destination and not the journey, why pay any attention to the journey? I may as well give up Saturdays watching any of these games, and just gloss over the AP Rankings and BCS Standings on Monday morning to get a feel for who's got a shot at the title and who doesn't.

The best example of all - would No. 1 LSU vs. No. 2 Alabama earlier this year have garnered nearly as much attention if it was basically predetermined (and it was) that the Tigers and Crimson Tide were both bracket-bound? Hell to the No!

It's so much more enjoyable to have the perspective of following the sport closely throughout the year and being able to pick out which games are essentially 'playoff' games and which ones aren't. Honestly, it's not even that difficult to do this either. You don't even have to be a junkie (though it helps).

This weekend's conference championship contests are the final chance for teams at or near the top to sway voters into tallying schools into their best possible destination. An extension of those 'playoff' games previously mentioned.

Should No. 1 LSU still play for a title even with a loss to Georgia this weekend in the SEC title game? Should No. 3 Oklahoma State leap-frog idle No. 2 Alabama with a convincing victory over their in-state rival Sooners? These are the questions the CFB junkies are waiting to have answered. It's fairly clear that the championship game will likely involve 2 of these 3 teams. LSU's overall body of work this year has been impressive enough to likely garner it a spot in the title game, even with a loss to the 9-2 Bulldogs. This is where it gets a bit complicated, because if this weekend's game is a 'playoff' - then how can LSU lose but still be rewarded with a chance to be called the best team in the country? I have a feeling the Tigers won't let that debate happen. This might be LSU's best team ever, and that's saying something. I also can't see Oklahoma State leap-frogging 'Bama, having lost to an unranked opponent, even though it was in double-overtime. If you can't kick a 37-yard field goal for a clinching victory in regulation, you're probably not the best team in the country.

Here's hoping my current 'okay with a playoff' stance doesn't come back to bite me in the tookus someday. Right now I'm fine with it.


The Penn State scandal has been attacked, covered, dissected, taken apart, put back together and re-disassembled about 20 ways until Tuesday by now. But I'd be remiss if I didn't offer my thoughts on this, since it's by far one of the most polarizing, attention-grabbing sports-related stories in a long time. Still unbelievable is how many are describing it.

Having grown up less than an hour and a half from the university and having many friends and family members who have been lifelong supporters of JoePa and the Blue and White, this whole event has impacted many of us in a way that's difficult to put into words. First off, I'm not, nor have I ever been, a Penn State fan. I don't know - maybe it's how much it was shoved down my throat by everyone around me from a young age, turning me off even more. Maybe it's my reluctance to support a guy who, though universally revered in the college game, seems ultimately resistant to change and alternative ideas. Let's face it, if Penn State didn't always play like it's still 1975, maybe they could have been in more national championship discussions over the past 20 years or so (I nearly fell over in disbelief when I saw the Nittany Lions become the Nittany ‘Wildcats’ a couple weeks ago).

But beyond that, I've never been one to get too far behind any institution that browbeats so heavily about off-the-field model behavior. We've all heard jokes about athletes at schools like Miami or USC, and some of the stuff that is overlooked. But at least those schools aren't purporting to uphold values that they ultimately don't in reality.

For all of JoePa's morality and talk about 'The Great Experiment,' Penn State often proves to be no different than any other huge university in a small town. There is a culture of drinking and partying (PSU has been at or near the top of the 'party schools' lists that pop up every year) among the students who hypocritically claim their undying love and support for a man who upholds morality above all else. And as we found out, that guy most likely failed to act appropriately when learning that some of the most despicable behavior a person can commit was happening right under his nose.

The illusion that everything is A-okay in Happy Valley has always bothered me, even before we learned that there was a defensive coordinator who was allegedly a serial child molester.

The students love the ultimate moralist behind their institution so much that they riot and overturn vans when he's fired for malfeasance, flying directly in the face of what their beloved father figure would want them to do in the first place. People bought into the misguided notion that student-athletes in Happy Valley are somehow more noble or moral than their counterparts in other geographic regions of the country, as if Centre County, Pa. has some sort of magical vapors in the air that make the college football players there superior human beings. Most of all, people went all in on the idea that one man could symbolize everything they believed about being a model citizen, an ideal person, and a leader of young men.

As we learned a few weeks back, there are no more surprises left. Nobody is above reproach. And there is no such thing as a person who doesn’t make the occasional mistake.

I guess that's one of the reasons I always liked the 'Michigans' of the college football world. I don't see a whole lot of romanticizing going on. Just the desire to win games. Every program has its problems, for sure. But the fall from grace isn't as far when you don't hoist yourself up so high in the first instance.

For example, I wonder if a school like LSU would trade the two national championships it’s won in the past decade (and chance for a third in about 6 weeks) for Penn State’s legendary media reputation, institutional figurehead coach and zero titles since 1986, scandal aside. I think I know the answer. And if you think football fans in the SEC aren’t as crazy for their teams as Blue-and-White supporters are for Penn State, take a trip down south one fall Saturday, please, and report back to me.

As for the actual incident, I'd prefer to allow all the facts to come out before saying anything further. But if it's all true, I can only hope the victims find some peace in this world, in one way or another.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why the Eagles Won't Win Super Bowl XLVI

Don't be fooled. I'm not.

I've been a Philadelphia Eagles fan long enough to know better.

The Eagles' 34-7 dismantling of hated division rival the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night has everyone back on 'The Dream Team' paddywagon once again.

You know, our 24/7 reactionary sports news cycle is like a bunch of 10-year-olds with ADD.

"Hey look, they beat the crap out of a 3-3 team with a hot-and-cold QB, they're the best team in the NFC behind Green Bay!"

Not so fast my friend (props to Lee Corso).

True, Sunday night's performance at The Linc was probably the most complete all-around four quarters of football the Green Men have compiled thus yet in the 2011 season. But when you put it up against their other efforts, that's like saying it's the most polished turd in a punch bowl filled with barely polished turds.

Also, any joy that Philly fans are feeling should be tempered by the fact that this victory came against the very definition of a 'Jekyll and Hide' football team. On one given day, Tony Romo hustles his squad down the field late in the fourth quarter in San Francisco like a crafty vet, sporting a cracked rib or two all the while, to hand the suddenly daunting 49ers their only loss of the season. In other tight games (see NY Jets), he has been decidedly un-heroic during the late moments when his team had a chance to win. But then, this is typical Cowboys - flooded with talent but inconsistency personified.

Had that thorough butt whipping by the Eagles come against Green Bay, Detroit or San Francisco, I would be admittedly slightly more encouraged. Although even then, I would still like to see this sort of potential realized on a more regular basis. There is still a ton of work to do in order to be one of the top 3-4 teams in the NFC, and a 2-4 start through the first six games unfortunately leaves little margin for error going forward.

Here's a quick breakdown of what I do and don't like about these 2011 Philadelphia Eagles:

PROS list: Diverse, multi-talented offense; the ability to move the ball/score against most any defense when play-calling and execution are fully realized; Two of the best pass-rushing defensive ends in the game (Trent Cole, Jason Babin) and three of the most skilled defensive backs (Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie); Veteran coaching staff; Noticeable improvement in the offensive line play this season due primarily to the addition of veteran O-line coach Howard Mudd.

CONS list: Weak spots on defense (linebackers, safeties) that can be badly exposed when attacked properly (run/pass plays up the middle, over the middle); Downgrade in kicking game since the start of the season (losing David Akers in the offseason - Akers was one of the most consistently reliable field goal makers in the game - for rookie Alex Henery); Always one of the most penalized teams in the league (this year is no different) often contributing to losing efforts; Turnover ratio has regressed compared to last year (Michael Vick alone has 8 interceptions through the first 7 games of this season but finished with a total of 6 INTs in 2010); Andy Reid still has a tendency to mismanage the clock inside of 2-3 minutes left in the half; The decision to move former o-line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator has been a questionable move, to say the least, and appears to have a lot to do with the considerable defensive deficiencies; Michael Vick is more injury/concussion prone than ever before.

I could go on with the 'Cons' list, but I think you get the point. There's a lot more this team has done/is doing wrong than right, even with Sunday's juggernaut showing taken fully into consideration.

The Eagles are kind of like an impressive fireworks display. Every now and then they wow you, but they go away quickly and you pretty much forget it/them. Their weaknesses are always exposed when they do make the playoffs, and perhaps most troubling of all, they display a baffling inability to make crucial game-time adjustments when the predetermined plan of action just isn't working.

Championship teams can adjust on the fly and adapt to the strengths/weaknesses of their opponents. The Eagles play their own brand of football, and everything else be damned. They have their own rope, and it will always either hang the opposition or hang the Eagles. But they'll never throw their own rope to the side and look for a new one when it just ain't happening for them.

When you play that style of football, you need a variety of factors to go your way to get that big prize - in this case, The Lombardi Trophy.

What would have to happen for the Eagles to do this? Well they would need a lot of help from the opposition since they most certainly won't stop making their own mistakes. They need to stay healthy (kind of obvious, right?) In other words, they're not going all the way with a half-hearted Michael Vick. They need that toughness, swagger and mojo that they seemed to have in the early part of the 2000s, when they made 4 straight NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. I'm just not sure this current coaching regime inspires that.

Many of the current players have all gone on record about how much they love and support Reid, and will go to battle for him under any circumstances. I guess it's easy to feel that way about a coach who never chews you out or gets pissed off, even when things look miserable.

Reid is the ultimate 'me' guy. He's always quick to blame himself and never his players when things go wrong, but he never seems to have a response for how to fix it. Improvements only come in the form of the Eagles being better than future opponents by default of their talent or game plan. And that's exactly why they can't make that next-level jump and beat the truly elite teams.

You know what I'd love to hear from Andy after a bad loss, just once? Instead of "It all starts with me, it's all my fault" ... I'd love to hear him adopt the Bill Belichick or Rex Ryan approach of "We stunk today. We got beat. We were outcoached and under-prepared."

Notice the word that begins each of those last three sentences. It's two letters and it starts with a 'W.'

It's perfectly acceptable to make everyone accountable for a bad loss. Just like players do not alone lose a game, neither does the coaching staff. It's got to be shared for it to truly play as a team dynamic. How can the Eagles' players truly feel 'on the hot seat' when they're never really culpable for their actions, save for some heat by the fans? (You'll always have that though, especially in Philly).

By all accounts, Reid is a wonderful guy. You can tell he's just too goddamn nice to lay into any of his players, no matter how serious their infractions might be. But all that leniency has to vanish and be replaced by a greater sense of urgency if the Eagles are really going to be champions one day.

I hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Enough Metal to Build a Skyscraper

It was with mixed feelings of joy, fear, trepidation, nostalgia, ambivalence, hope and all-around not knowing what to expect that I approached this past Wednesday's Big 4 of Heavy Metal concert at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

I mean, here I was, about to witness for the first time - along with my primary NYC-area concert-going friend as it applies to witnessing musical acts of the guitar-bass-vocals-and-drums variety - two of the all-time hallowed metal music kingpins, lynchpins of the industry that I spent countless hours listening to, watching and admiring during an often un-stimulating late 80s/early 90s adolescence in central Pennsylvania.

Music was the one thing that I could always count on to get me jazzed up (but generally not jazz music). Metallica's 'Master of Puppets' or Slayer's 'Seasons in the Abyss' was never not going to sound awesome, no matter how many times I listened to the cassettes from front to back, or stayed up late on a Saturday night to watch Headbanger's Ball until 2 in the morning knowing that an early-morning Sunday wake-up call and a trip to Church were in short order.

As an aside, am I destined for hellfire because I was playing classic metal in my head while in church to get through the experience whenever the off-key singing of religious recitations wasn't chorusing through the cavernous building and disturbing the in-my-head live shows that always took place from approximately 9:30 to 11 a.m. every Sunday morning? If so, I guess I'll go down rocking out, rather than going up as a square.

Either way, a whole lot was on the line for this concert. Stakes were high - for the fans, for the performers, for pretty much everyone involved. For the first time in the NYC metro area, the primary four 80s thrash-metal heavyweights were occupying the same stage in one night of what would either turn out to be a bloated, past-its-prime display of retrospectively ridiculous musical excess, or a mega-ton bomb of supremely fulfilling, ear-splitting, precise metal madness that would sound good in 1981, 2011 or 2052.

Thankfully, we got the latter, not the former.

Admittedly, I'm predisposed to that opinion because of my loyalties and proclivities for these particular bands and their classic music. But I've never been one to follow trends or do something just because everyone else is on the bandwagon. And I would have no problem elucidating an opinion of disappointment or a sense of "why did I ever like this shit?" had I really felt that way before, during and after the concert.

I'm happy to report this shit sounded just as good at age 34 as it did at age 13.

I can cross Metallica and Slayer off my live-show bucket list. I'm very happy about that. I didn't get there in time for Anthrax and Megadeth since this ode to buzzsaw solos, complex riffing and harshly soaring vocals kicked off at 4 p.m. and I've got this unfortunate responsibility known as a "day-job" (I'm working on that, really I promise).

But my friend who purchased the tickets and arrived shortly before I did assured me that Megadeth was indeed impressive, as he caught the later part of their set. I have to say, I would probably have given up a quart or two of blood to see songs like "Hangar 18" or "Holy Wars (The Punishment Due)" performed live at break-neck speed. But such is life.

As it stands, I knew I was in for a hell of a performance. Well, two of them, actually.

At about 7 p.m. sharp, Slayer took the stage, and did just what the fuck Slayer does (or so it's been said by others who have experienced a live Slayer show). I would use the word 'intense' to describe a Slayer concert, but then the word 'intense' would most surely have some cross words for me for not doing the description proper justice.

Let's put it this way - I've often found that bands who are great in a live setting are usually a more exaggerated manifestation of the persona that comes across on record. Slayer fits that mold, tenfold.

My friend and I were in the Grandstand seats, probably about 8 or so rows from the very last row in the house. It sounds like we got bum seats, but honestly, I loved being that far up. We could still hear everything clear as a bell, we could see the big screens projecting the on-stage action quite clearly, and the field of vision from that high up allows you to really survey the whole scene and see what's going on - namely, the small circle-shaped mosh pits that kept sporadically forming while Slayer was murdering the shit out of the audience. Only the strong survive a Slayer mosh-pit. A different concert-going friend and I barely made it through two and a half songs at a Rage Against the Machine mosh pit on Governor's Island four years ago, but I digress.

In a nutshell, Slayer's set was comparable to a heat-seeking missile. It gets there fast, it's not pretty, it causes mayhem and destruction the whole time, and when it's over, you kind of just sit there in awe for a few minutes at what you just witnessed. Such was the case as three of the original four members - Tom Araya, Kerry King and Dave Lombardo, playing along with a fill-in for Jeff Hanneman - sonically assaulted Yankee Stadium with a harrowing blast of old classics and new material. After 60 minutes, with a few silent pauses between songs and minimal crowd banter from Araya, it was all over. If you wanted more after that was done, you're one sick puppy, because too much more of that would have been too much to handle. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

Slayer is so bombastic, so mind-bending and so unlike any other band in the history of time that to over-indulge in them is to do yourself an injustice. They are most effective in small doses, like ultra-rich cheesecake, or an annoying-but-super-nice co-worker.

End result, I couldn't have been happier with Slayer. And after doing some quick post-concert internet research to learn that this band is all basically pushing 50 years of age and still putting on that kind of a show, I felt immediately like a failure for being about 14 years younger and complaining about getting out of bed tired the next day. Slayer doesn't get tired. They slap 'tired' across the face with their fretboards and drum sticks.

The highlights for me were "War Ensemble," "Dead Skin Mask," "Angel of Death," "Chemical Warfare" and of course the piece de resistance "Raining Blood" and "Postmortem" - the two closing tracks from the classic album 'Reign in Blood.' These two work best when played together since one transitions seamlessly into the other as recorded on the album. They broke them up for this set, but I'm not complaining.

Slayer exited the stage just before 8 p.m., leaving everyone in the place amazed, amused, aghast and other adjectives that begin with the letter 'a.' I took this opportunity to get the closest I possibly could to a real dinner, which consisted of exactly two overpriced hot dogs and a half-flat Pepsi. Sixteen dollars and a few hundred nitrate-soaked calories later, I hit the bathroom and returned to our seats to await the mother-effing mother-lode of metal madness - Metallica. In all their glory. As with Slayer, three of the four original lineup members would be in effect. For 30 years, it's been James Hetfield (guitar/vocals), Kirk Hammett (lead and rhythm guitar) and Lars Ulrich (drums). Many fans, both casual and hardcore, know the bass-player history. Original bassist Cliff Burton, one of the truly innovative pioneers of 80s metal bass playing and a huge creative force in Metallica's early sound, was tragically killed in a bus accident in Europe as the band was touring to promote the 1986 release "Master of Puppets" - generally hailed as the band's best 80s album (many would say their best record to date, including me).

Jason Newsted was a longtime replacement, and a few other guys have come and gone, but now they've got Robert Trujillo, former longtime bassist for Suicidal Tendencies. He's proven to be an ample substitution.

At about 5 minutes to 9, the lights went down and the operatic intro music began playing, set against a backdrop of war movies/TV show explosions playing on the big screens mounted on either side of the stage.

And before you knew it, there were the kings of this heavy metal music shit, launching into a blistering rendition of "Creeping Death," a classic cut from their sophomore LP "Ride the Lightning."

It was interesting to note the difference in fan reaction between Slayer and Metallica. People respect Slayer. They sit in awe of them, and every now and then a random fan throws out a "Fucking SLAAAYYERR!!" yell.

But people absolutely whole-hog LOVE Metallica. I've never seen such a devoted, frenzied reaction to a band before, and I've been to a LOT of concerts. It was a whole other level on both sides of the fence, both from the band and the fans. That's when a show is at its best - when all parties involved are giving it 189 percent and filling the need that each has from the other. It was truly magnetic.

Any doubts anyone may have been having about the ability of bands like Metallica and Slayer to perform at a high level at this stage of their careers was firmly put to rest Wednesday night. Sure it helps that they're only doing a handful of these shows a year rather than 4-5 nights every week. But nevertheless, it's something to behold.

Also, Metallica's overall presentation was like nothing I've ever seen. They made the most of the Yankee Stadium setting by using a dizzying blend of pyrotechnics, lasers, fire - and, I shit you not - fireWORKS to help illuminate what was already a memorable performance.

Preceding the gripping war tale "One" was a barrage of thunderous gun shots and mini-explosions on stage to mimic the sounds and sights of a firefight in some Godforsaken Middle Eastern shit-hole.

Towers of flame exploded into the night sky during "Fuel" - especially in the seconds after Hetfield would shriek into the mic "Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire, Gimme that which I desire!" Thankfully, no such stage accidents would befall any of the band members such as when Hetfield got burned on stage during an early 90s Vancouver show on a tour with Guns'n'Roses, leading to a cancellation and subsequent fan rioting after Axl Rose - only a couple songs into G'n'R's set - threw a hissy-fit and stormed off stage to leave the frustrated fans devoid of not just one but BOTH performances.

No sir, there would be no disappointments on this great night of music. Metallica slammed through songs old and new, giving the people what they wanted. They played half of the classic albums 'Ride the Lightning' and 'Master of Puppets.' And they didn't seem to hit one off note all night.

Probably my favorite moment during the set came in the form of the instrumental 'Orion' - a song that's probably been played live only a handful of times over the past 20 years. It's an almost 9-minute masterwork of guitar-and-drum wizardry, and it's essentially the band's tribute to the late, great Burton, who was hugely influential in the stylistic and melodic progressions the band made from their first two albums (Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning) to their third one (Master of Puppets).

And when has the title track to 'Puppets' ever not kicked ass? Same for "Battery" and "Sanitarium." "Blackened," the harrowing opening track from '...And Justice for All" was a great surprise, while other classic gems like "Sad But True," "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Ride the Lightning" further cemented what a mind-blowing show this really was.

When it was all said and done, Metallica had played for 2 hours and 15 minutes. Nobody could complain they didn't get their money's worth.

And nothing was as bad-ass as members of all 'Big 4' bands coming on stage toward the end of Metallica's set to engage in a spirited rendition of the Motorhead classic "Overkill" - taking turns on guitar, vocals and drums between verses and choruses.

If your appetite for good metal wasn't sated after this blitzkrieg of insanity, then I don't know what else to say, other than "you have no off-switch."

It was completely amazing to re-live some youthful nostalgia by being lucky enough to actually see these bands at this juncture of their careers performing at such a high level. This is what's great about being a musician. You never get too old. You never lose the will to keep doing it.

There will always be a Slayer or Metallica show playing somewhere in the recesses of my aural passages.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Linden Boulevard, Represent Represent-sent

Thank you, Michael Rapaport.

You have proven to be extremely valuable to the popular public discourse for something other than being recognized as a bit-player in 'True Romance' and 'Higher Learning,' or for your surprisingly funny turn as a disgruntled employee in the 'Pop Copy' sketch on Chappelle's Show.

For you, good sir, compiled and directed an admirably entertaining and thought-provoking documentary on seminal 1990s hip hop collective A Tribe Called Quest, titled "Beats Rhymes & Life" (incidentally, also the name of the group's fourth album, a release that sadly signaled the beginning of the end for the ambitious Queens jazz-rap pioneers).

I've been as amped up as a trailer park junkie waiting for a new shipment of Heisenberg's blue crystal upon finding out that said doc was to be released this summer.

Tribe holds special significance for me. They were the first true iteration of genuine, non-mainstream hip hop that I discovered in my younger days, and absorbing their rare form of jazz-infused musical goodness was instrumental in setting me on a path of discovery for a sonic movement that once thrived, but is now unfortunately buried in a morass of generic and uninspired beats/lyrics, marketing, self-promotion, twitter, auto-tune, i-tunes and a new generation of listeners that wasn't around to appreciate hip hop's golden era.

In the late 1990s, the Wu-Tang Clan is the hip hop collective I would claim as the genre's saviors, and my personal favorites. But before there was Wu-Tang, and before there was Biggie, even before Tupac started blowing up, there was the Native Tongues movement, spearheaded largely by A Tribe Called Quest and their 'hip hop brothers from another mother' De La Soul.

Yes, Tribe was amongst the early hip hop acts that wasn't concerned with videos, swag, chart positioning, groupies or any of the pratfalls that has prematurely claimed the careers of many a great musical artist. The focus was on the music, plain and simple. And boy, did Q-Tip and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad dig deep into the crates to find some of the most blessed, inspiring soundscapes to serve as a backdrop for the dope lyrical stylings of Tip and Phife Dawg.

The documentary was filmed mostly during Tribe's 2008 Reunion Tour, when they performed at the annually largely-attended Rock the Bells Festival. As with most films of this genre, we see the chronological progression of Tribe's career, the genesis of how they all met each other and began performing and recording their music. But a constant overall theme that Rapaport is wise to examine heavily is the long-standing tension between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, which ultimately led to what many would describe as a premature disbanding of the group in 1998.

To be honest, Tribe breaking up when they did was a dagger in the heart of hip hop fans everywhere. The musical form was starting to navigate into a weird place. The 1980s represented the art form's burgeoning popularity and its invasion into the mainstream music-consuming experience. It was no longer just for jeeps and landcruisers rumbling through gritty urban landscapes, or block parties in the South Bronx or Union Square, or the rowhomes of Philadelphia or Baltimore.

It began to find its way into the homes of white suburbia. My own experience is proof positive. As far back as 1987 in east central Pennsylvania, I can vividly remember my older brother and I owning at least 3 cassettes that were an integral part of us becoming rap music fans at a young age - and for the curious-minded, those cassettes were Run DMC's "Raising Hell," (1984) The Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill" (1986) and LL Cool J's "Bad" (1987). Which is all fine and good.

But those artists are prime examples of those who were groomed for the big-time, for mainstream success. Even in the world of hip hop and rap music, there is a clear divide between those who enjoyed that type of success, and those who never quite made that large an impression in terms of overall popularity and record sales, but have a certain amount of respect and cache that can never be measured in dollar signs. Tribe certainly falls into that latter category, and it's always a magical experience when you discover your first favorite musical collective that is great to you, but will completely miss the boat with almost everyone else. Then, as you get older, you realize that just because a large number of people aren't digging something, that doesn't mean it's not good. It just means it wasn't made for the masses. This perfectly describes Tribe's music, as well as that of countless other highly-respected genre practitioners from back in the day.

Tribe's sound is rooted in jazz horns, thumping rhythms, fat bass lines and the smooth rhymes and flow of Tip and Phife. There's also a noticeable touch of social awareness in some tracks, and an appreciation for the music they're creating. With Tribe, the music isn't merely a vehicle for a message, as is the case with righteous power-rappers Public Enemy, or the gangster posturing of N.W.A. With Tribe, the music and lyrics co-exist together effortlessly and beautifully, unlike many unbalanced rap artists who are clearly much more gifted at either music or rhymes.

Beats Rhymes and Life, however, explores the degeneration of Tribe as much as, if not more so, the actual music. Some would criticize the film for this, but I say, it's an endeavor worth exploring, especially since so many years have passed since the breakup, and all that we fans have ever been able to pontificate about it all is - "Uh, so that's it? They're not getting along anymore?" As I mentioned before, the type of hip hop that Tribe excelled at was beginning to die out when the group broke up anyway. If you want to get philosophical about it, you could ask which event triggered the other? Did Tribe break up because they couldn't figure out how to continue putting out great music within the context of hip hop's rapidly evolving state, or did the shift that hip hop was undergoing signal the 'end' for musical acts cut from Tribe's cloth?

I prefer to think it was the latter, but I recognize that on many levels that simply makes me a curmudgeon, and not entirely unlike the grumpy grandfather shaking his cane from his front porch at the rowdy youngsters. However, I know there are lots of others who feel the same way.

Ultimately, Tribe's first three albums - People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1989), The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) - are the gold standard by which all innovative hip hop of that time capsule is measured. Nobody could fuck with Tribe back then, and all real hip hop heads knew it. Yeah, maybe they weren't getting as many spins as Dre and Snoop when "The Chronic" exploded, but like I said, real heads knew where the hip hop perfection was truly located. Tip or Phife would slay Dre or Snoop in a lyrical battle without batting an eye.

Then after Midnight Marauders, they took an extended break. Phife's health troubles began to seriously take their toll (he's suffered from diabetes for most of his life, and needed a kidney transplant within the past few years from his wife). Aside from that, Phife and Tip have long had their own personal turmoil with each other regarding their individual roles and their relationship with each other as defined through Tribe. Tip states repeatedly in the documentary that it's about the group, and no one individual should rise above any of the others. That sounds great and all, but for hip hop fans in general, it's fairly routine knowledge that Tip is the group's defining member. He had the business savvy, and he was the guy making sure shit got done. Phife, it seems, was happy to write and spit nasty rhymes, but that's where it seemed to end with him. As we all know, you need at least one guy in the group to be the one who cracks the whip; the 'dad' making sure everyone eats their peas before dessert. Apparently, that was Tip, and Phife grew tired of it after awhile.

But it would be unwise to blame the group's disbanding simply on the Phife/Tip squabble. The changing landscape of hip hop was part of it. The fact that "Beats Rhymes and Life" and "The Love Movement" were received with lukewarm reception from both fans and critics alike was another part of it. Nothing continues forever. At least they still reunite for a tour every once in a while. I saw them myself twice, once at Rock the Bells in '08 and again at Rock the Bells last year, and let me tell you, they were amazing in the more recent performance (not even a year ago).

Hip hop is still alive and well if you know how to keep it going. But the current musical landscape isn't littered with groups like Tribe, De La Soul, Biggie, Tupac, Rakim, Gang Starr, Big L and a whole host of others. It's not like it was 15-20 years ago and beyond. To find the good-to-great stuff is harder than ever, but it IS out there.

Beats Rhymes and Life is an extremely in-depth look at Tribe. Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (the peace-loving DJ who just wanted to make music) and Jarobi (whose spirit defined what Tribe was really all about) made musical history, and every now and then, they do revisit that special place. Even if you're not a huge fan of hip hop, it's hard not to appreciate this flick. Tons of cameos from hip hop visionaries abound as well, such as Busta Rhymes, Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Common, even Black Thought and Questlove from The Roots.

But perhaps the most poignant moment in the film comes when Phife is discussing the current state of hip hop, and pontificating whether other career options he’s considering might need to take over his involvement full-time. He makes an allusion, with respect to the music, about “the way things are going,” and sort of trails off while shaking his head, letting those words hang in the air.

At that point in the otherwise animated (for much of the movie, anyway) theater, it was soft enough to hear the needle dropping on an old piece of vinyl from about 50 feet away.