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MANHATTAN, WITH THE SEASON'S FIRST SNOW GUSTING DOWN OUTSIDE -- Headed out Sunday night to watch the Colts-Ravens game on TV, which was the equivalent of sports porn. There's no better action in sports than a run at a record (with Mark McGwire's 62nd home run serving as the ultimate money shot of our generation). This matchup was just another mildly-relevant late-season NFL game, but the possibility that Peyton Manning might break Dan Marino's single-season touchdown mark made it fascinating.
Every decision by Tony Dungy became dramatic (especially the run calls in the red zone). Every word uttered by Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire became more hyperventilating, not to mention hyperbolic. And every game situation became less relevant -- unless it involved the Colts getting the ball back for Manning. He didn't break Marino's record, but even so, everyone at the sports bar I was at -- Brother Jimmy's on the Upper West Side -- got excited when Colts linebacker Cato June mistakenly stepped out of bounds at the 4 on an interception return and didn't score with under a minute to go, because it meant Manning might get a chance to throw another TD pass (instead, he ran out the clock).
Why do we care so much about records? I would guess for three reasons: They are markers for greatness. they provide intergenerational comparisons (even if they can be skewed ones) and they appeal to our inherent interest in rankings (Case in point: If a radio station counts down the top 500 songs of all time over Labor Day weekend, I always feel compelled to find out what the top 10 are, even if I already know it's even money that No. 1 is going to be either Satisfaction or Stairway to Heaven).
The buzz surrounding Manning's pursuit of Marino is something of an anomaly in sports records, however. Which it to say, it doesn't involve a baseball record. In general, no one gets excited if Allen Iverson is threatening to break the NBA season record for steals, or if Ray Lewis is chasing an all-time tackles mark, but if Larry Walker is on pace -- after the first 15 games of the season -- to smash the doubles record, we'll hear about it in detail from Peter Gammons and see little Projected Total bar graphs.
Why is this? Probably because baseball has such a rich history. It rewards individual performances, and the format of the game (27 outs, time is not a factor) provides a grid just begging to be translated into mathematical formulas. There's also something gratifying about being able to reduce baseball to numerical shorthand; you don't see 10-year-old kids keeping score at an NBA game. Hey, Dad, how do I score that turnover by Jamal Crawford, 3 to 6 to out of bounds?
On the topic of records, off all the single-season marks in major sports, I would argue that the two least likely to be broken -- but that I would like to see broken - are in basketball, and both are set by the same man: Wilt Chamberlain. In 1961-62, he averaged 50.4 points per game, and a year later he averaged 27.2 rebounds. To understand the magnitude of these marks, consider that no player has pulled down that many rebounds even once this season and only three players -- Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki -- have scored that many points.
If Chamberlain had an "off night" like the one Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire, one of the current NBA scoring leaders, had Saturday night -- scoring eight points -- he'd have to drop 93 the next game just to maintain his average. Of course, Chamberlain didn't have to contend with zone defenses, a league full of athletic 7-footers and all the high-tech defensive schemes cooked up by today's coaches. Which is all the more reason why we won't be seeing anyone touching his marks soon.
Other assorted thoughts, some more sports-related than others
Watching NBA games of late, it became apparent that the law of diminishing returns applies to the ads for Fat Albert. The more I see the previews for this movie -- and especially the one involving Bill Walton, in which he encourages a CGI-enhanced Albert to "Throw it down, Big Man!" -- the less I want to see it. Might be a good film, might not; I don't know (though I'll take the odds on 'not'). But the mixture of overmarketing -- I must have endured 40 Fat Albert promos in the last week alone -- and the Walton endorsement is a fatal combination.
Some of the joy has been drained from drinking-beers-with-the-boys poker. Part of the appeal of recreational sports -- and, admittedly, it is quite a stretch to put poker in that category -- lies with the fact that no one is all that good. Or at least everyone has his own strategy. But in poker these days, everyone has the same strategy. The one they learned watching the World Series of Poker or from reading books (How to Play Poker Like the Pros by Phil Hellmuth was quoted by a friend recently with the same solemnity and ease of recitation as if it were The Pledge of Allegiance). This is fine if you are playing for $1 million. If you're playing for $20 with a bunch of the boys, this isn't so great. It's like someone bringing his own putter to miniature golf and reading the greens. Or performing a sabermetric analysis upon the tendencies of his buddies in prep for the Whiffle ball game. Just ante up and play
Checking the mailbag
Have a question or opinion for Chris? He might answer or address it in his next blog.
In response to my list of players not to watch last week, Reed from Minneapolis wrote in with the following thought: "Although interesting, your list of players not to watch could be escalated just a bit. How about twisting it this way: Which players would I watch for all the wrong reasons? For us in Minnesota, watching Michael Olowokandi can be of the greatest interest. Not because of talent, but pretty much the exact opposite. Watching him miss jumpers from within 3 feet of the rim, getting unnecessary fouls in short periods of time and, a personal favorite, dribbling the ball off his foot and into the chairs courtside provide chuckles."
An interesting idea, Reed. I would agree that the "Can't Do" Kandi Man would be near the top such a list. Some others I would nominate:
Dikembe Mutombo (on offense) -- Painful to watch and, judging from the elbows he swings like scythes, just as painful to play against. Even when Deke is unguarded -- say in a layup line -- it seems a minor miracle when he makes a basket. Also, if you're close enough to the court to hear Mutombo, there is no more delightfully unintelligible player in the league (he sounds sort of like James Earl Jones talking underwater).
Reggie Evans -- A guaranteed assist-killer. He's a hustler and a fine defender, but another guy where every layup is an adventure and can't be completed without some sort of physical contact. If he's cutting down the lane and gets the ball, prepare for demolition derby.
Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry -- Poster boys for potential. The words "if only" precede both their names so often it's almost like an honorary title. And now I present to you If Only Eddy Curry. Watch either one and depending on the night -- or the high tides, or what they had for dinner, or what song was playing during the last timeout, or some other reason unfathomable to the rest of us -- you may see the second coming of Kevin Garnett and Shaq, or you'll get six points, five fouls and two rebounds in 26 minutes.
Shawn Bradley -- Watch the giant stick figure step across the lane to block the shot. Watch the giant stick figure get dunked on by some 6-foot-5 guy. Watch Don Nelson yank the giant stick figure out of the game.
Owen weighs in on the Hot Stove
This week, Owen's trip to New York meant he delivered his important sports thought in person after one or four beers on Sunday night while watching the Colts game. This comes as transcription:
"Ah, the Mets. MLB's little brother. Willing to give away that January 1985 Playboy and a mint condition Don Mattingly, for the scuffed up green Hot Wheels 442 with the left wheel way out of camber, because they remember a year ago when the 442 was THE muscle car and NO ONE would let them play with it."