Sunday, March 27, 2011

Feel the Rain on Bill Simmons' Skin

Bill Simmons is probably the most influential sports writer of the new millennium. He became a pioneer for drawing an audience on the internet, as well as the face of ESPN’s online presence (ESPN.com). He is a New York Times Best Selling author, and penned one of the most thorough, expansive, and distinctive books on the history of the National Basketball Association. He helped spawn ESPN’s impressive documentary series, 30 for 30. He also has quite a bit in common with Lauren Conrad.

For those of you pretending to not know who Conrad is, she rose to fame as the star of MTV’s reality show The Hills, which followed her introduction to fame on MTV’s reality show Laguna Beach. Her exposure on the shows (and the shows’ incredible popularity while on the air) has led to a very successful career as a fashion designer, author, and celebrity spokesperson/personality. But her (somewhat surprising) accomplishment of becoming a fellow NYT Best Seller and the fact that she lives in Los Angeles (as does Simmons) are not the only things the two share. It actually goes much deeper than that (again, somewhat surprisingly).

American sports fans aged roughly 15-55 are more than likely familiar with Simmons and his work. He’s been a prominently featured writer on the website of the sporting world’s biggest media conglomerate. He’s written a couple recognized books, guest hosted PTI, has a podcast, and has made the rounds on major talk shows at one point or another. If you don’t know him, you’re not paying attention. He’s most widely known for being the Sports Guy, deemed so for the manner in which he writes his column; he writes as a fan, from a fan’s perspective – a surrogate “voice of the people”, if you will.

Simmons doesn’t make a habit of going into locker rooms, interviewing players/coaches, or giving us traditional game recaps. He’s transparent in his love for Boston teams, as well as his other subjective view points, but does his best to avoid having those things cloud his overall view of the sports landscape. It’s why no one is ever shocked to read him voice his hatred for Peyton Manning or Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter in one sentence, and then turn around and commend their incredible athletic and competitive merits in the next line. He’s carved a niche for himself. His readers and fans are adamant, willing to sit in front of a computer screen and read a 3,000 word column on things like the Ewing Theory, the Diane Lane All Stars, or how Boogie Nights relates to the previous day’s NBA matchup. He has an incredible ability to connect with his readers, which is why he has gained a lot of notoriety and made a lot of money writing humorous, long-winded internet columns about the Boston Celtics and Sylvester Stallone movies.

But what makes Simmons and Lauren Conrad kindred spirits is the manner in which we came to know their names, and the subsequent way it affected their lives. We first met Conrad as a senior in high school on Laguna Beach. She wasn’t a celebrity and she wasn’t famous. She was just a rich, good-looking kid from a wealthy family in Orange County, who had a bunch of rich, good-looking friends that MTV wanted to put on camera. In only a few years time, she had earned her own spin-off reality show (The Hills) and became one of the biggest celebs in the country, gracing the cover of a different magazine every other week and setting big ratings numbers for her show. But what was most interesting was the way in which The Hills approached the situation. The show focused on Conrad’s life as a normal young woman, working to get fashion jobs and internships in LA and surviving the speed bumps and drama that any 20-something-year-old girl goes through. And even after Conrad’s fame and notoriety took off to incredible heights, the show continued to function this way (and actually quite successfully), featuring Conrad’s normalcy in lieu of her celebrity. As viewer’s, we were expected to accept her on the show as a normal person, despite her face smiling back at us on the Us Weekly or Rolling Stone magazines resting on our coffee tables. Conrad’s true persona had actually outgrown how it was portrayed on TV.

Simmons has faced a similar situation. He started out as a no-name who made his way from Boston to LA, slowing gaining recognition and interest with the opportunities to display his talent. He went from a writer on Jimmy Kimmel Live to a writer on ESPN.com’s Page 2. He would eventually write for ESPN The Magazine, earn his own page on the website, and even a small box featuring his picture and columns on the site’s homepage. His readership went from hundreds, to thousands, to millions, spawning the books and podcasts and TV spots. To this day, he continues to write as the Sports Guy. And yet, his fame and popularity have reached such great levels that his credibility as the “everyday, Joe Schmo, regular fan” gets dissected and questioned. How can he write as a fan when he is a rich, famous, renowned sports columnist? How can he retain integrity as the Sports Guy now that he has all of these big shot acquaintances, and makes friends with the actors and athletes that he writes about? When he talks about how much he likes Kevin Love’s game or David Duchovny’s show, is that really his unfiltered opinion, or are they just buddies of his that he wants to have on his podcast?

Through no fault of his own (other than his desire to succeed at his job and become successful), Simmons fell into the same trap as The Hills. The show was forced to portray Conrad in a less than truthful manner in order to retain its message and appeal. Simmons' writing style and “Sports Guy” identity have become compromised by the fact that he wrote successful  columns, made a bunch of money, and has now reached a level of attention he most likely never imagined possible. In the same way Lauren Conrad became bigger than The Hills, Simmons has become bigger than the Sports Guy.

So what should Simmons do? Should he embrace the fact that, in the eyes of many of his readers, he is more famous and admired than some of the athletes he writes about for a living? Should he ditch the Sports Guy moniker (even though he probably still views himself in that light) for a Big Shot Famous Guy moniker (because that’s the light some of his audience views him in)? Is it fair to ask or expect that of him? Can we blame him for using his talent to become famous and successful?

So far, Simmons has stuck with what got him there. Personally, I put no fault on him for this. Despite how various aspects of his life have changed due to his achievements, his view on sports still seems to be the same as it always has…which makes perfect sense. If you grew up as a poor kid in Baltimore – driving a Toyota Tercel and rooting for the Orioles – and then somehow came into money or accomplished a level of financial success, you would probably buy a Mercedes or BMW. But would you quit rooting for the Orioles and start cheering on the Yankees or Red Sox, just because your bank account fattened? No, probably not. Sports fandom might be one of the few things in life that is minimally (if at all) affected by personal wealth. And if that’s the case with Simmons, then I find it hard to fault or criticize his approach to his craft.

Nevertheless, there are plenty who see it differently. In recent years, there has been a noticeable backlash against Bill Simmons. A discernible faction of his readership (or possibly a new faction of readership) went from praising Simmons for his jokes and ingenuity, to making snarky comments about his (now) misguided and pompous prose. Some of it came from peers in the journalism business, angry or unsettled by a young guy who made his bones (and cash) writing columns on his couch. Most of it came from fans that felt he had abandoned or outgrown his true nature and beginnings. In an ironic sort of way, Simmons was being criticized, but not because his writing had changed. He was being criticized because the life that conceivably sparked his writing style had now changed.

It probably doesn’t seem this way to the parties involved (in this case, Simmons), but a backlash is usually a good thing. In order for a backlash to occur, there has to be an initial “forward-lash”, or the idea that people actually like you. If you are hated from the get-go, there is no backlash. You are just hated. But if you consider that a backlash can only arise if one reaches a certain level of popularity or success – which in turn elicits some amount of hatred or displeasure – then it really isn’t the worst thing. Would you rather be liked so much that people start to hate you, or not liked at all? For Simmons, a backlash is just further evidence of how far he has come as a sports writer. The backlash is a signifier of merit.

At some point this spring, Simmons will launch his new website, a spin-off from ESPN.com. This project was evidently something of great importance to him when he renewed his contract with ESPN last year, and one that he seems to have put a great deal of effort and thought in to. How it turns out remains to be seen, but the fact that some big-name writers have already signed on (Chuck Klosterman, Katie Baker) is a sign of both Simmons’ influence and talent. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t wildly successful. In the meantime, it might create a new identity for Simmons, one that allows him to be the same Sports Guy, but in a more pronounced manner. The Hills couldn’t contain Lauren Conrad, but maybe this new website – this new venture, new identity – can be big enough for Simmons.

Bill Simmons has been one of my favorite sports writers for years. He’s incredibly talented. I respect and admire the following he has been able to garner and the success he has been able to achieve. Yeah, he probably has a huge ego, but I wouldn’t say it’s always unwarranted. And yeah, he may overstep his title as the “quintessential writer of the fan” every now and then, but only because his fans have bestowed that power and status upon him. It’s easy to disparage or scorn someone for becoming a success. It’s even easier to see the hypocrisy in it. We created Bill Simmons by embracing what he did. It simply seems wrong to now impugn him for it.

Either way, I wouldn’t fret too much if I were the Sports Guy. If only we were all so lucky as to have a backlash.


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Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Support of Greatness

The film industry has an annual cycle of life, one which it fits to a “T” year in and year out. Each May, the major summer blockbuster movies start to trickle out. Superhero flix, alien invasion motion-pictures, and big budget remakes all hit theaters from May to August, dominating the box office. The autumn months see the release of holiday movies, horror films, and the DVDs of all those major cinematic adventures from a few months earlier. As late December rolls around, the Oscar-hopeful films come out, slowing building up credibility and screenings over the next couple months.

When the Academy Awards finally air in late-February/early-March, the awareness of those Oscar films reaches maximum capacity among the general public, followed by all of them being released for in-home enjoyment during March and April. As warmer breezes and longer days become more common place in late April, the cycle starts over again. It’s as reliable as the tilt of the earth’s axis.

What makes those Oscar films unique within the repetitive sequence is the fact that they usually garner the most interest from casual movie watchers after they are released on DVD and Blu-ray. This has been changing slightly in recent years, but for the most part, the Academy Awards ceremony itself dramatically sparks the interest in its winners and nominees. Everyone knows about the new Spiderman and Harry Potter films, despite the fact they are a good 3 or 4 months from being released in theaters. However, most people just found out about films like Winter’s Bone, 127 Hours, and The King’s Speech. Unless you are a pseudo (or actual) film critic, you hadn’t paid much attention to the “Academy” pictures…until, probably, now. And if there is one thing you need to experience from this year’s Oscar flix before the summer box office, it is the incredibly impressive work done by this season’s Supporting Actors, a collection that runs deeper than the hole in Charlie Sheen’s head.

The Oscar category for Best Supporting Actor has five spots, and this year, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch. Christian Bale took home the gold statue for his portrayal of crack-addicted boxer Dicky Eklund, brother to Mark Wahlberg’s lead character Micky Ward in The Fighter. Geoffrey Rush was nominated for his work in The King’s Speech, as were Jeremy Renner (The Town), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), and Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right). The handful of actors were each phenomenal in their performances, but Bale certainly deserved to come out on top. And despite playing the part of a drugged-out, degenerate, Irish wannabe-boxer, he came away looking like Michael Jordan.

 As if you didn’t know, Michael Jordan was and remains the greatest basketball player to walk the earth, dominating the NBA with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. He racked up 6 championships, 5 MVPs, and about 50,000 “holy crap, did you just see that” games/plays. But what often gets overshadowed by his personal greatness and success is the manner in which MJ completely eclipsed every other great player during his era. It wasn’t as if Jordan was competing against a bunch of stiffs, but he sure made it seem that way. He completely controlled the league for over a decade. Every now and then, the media and fans of the game would grow restless and try to pump another star player up to MJ’s level, but it wasn’t long before Michael inevitably put everyone back in their place. And in some strange and unforeseen way, the Oscar’s 2010 Best Supporting Actor race unfolded in quite the same fashion.

Christian Bale fits the MJ bill. His part in The Fighter was transcendent in that he embraced his character (in both mannerism and appearance) and yet was still able to add the drama and intensity a movie role requires. His physical transformation and dedication to the part left you (as a viewer) forgetting that this was one of the biggest movie stars in today’s society. You didn’t think you were watching Batman or the guy from the new Terminator; instead, you became engrossed in the character, which is arguably the most difficult thing for a big-time actor to pull off.

For instance, while watching The Fighter, I was always cognizant of the fact that I was watching Mark Wahlberg. The same can be said of Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, and even Jesse Eisenberg in the same movie, although to a slightly lesser extent. I thought all three of those actors were very good in their respective roles, but they were unable to pull off what Bale did, which is a complete meshing of himself with the character. And on top of all that, he played the part immaculately. After seeing the film, I really enjoyed it overall, and yet found myself focusing mainly on Bale. He had achieved greatness, if only for 115 minutes.

Make no mistake, Bale wasn’t up against a bunch of schmucks, either. He didn’t reach the top only by default. Sure, his performance was impressive, but his fellow Supporting Actors turned in performances that were exemplary in their own right. If Bale is Michael Jordan, then Geoffrey Rush is Karl Malone, a clearly great second choice that will never get the recognition he deserves, always falling in Bale’s (or MJ’s) shadow. Jeremy Renner is Charles Barkley, in terms of how both unpredictable and uninhibited Renner was (after watching The Town, my girlfriend said she was afraid Renner’s character was going to shoot someone every time he was on screen), but also because of the failure to come out on top during their respective eras. John Hawkes was the Hakeem Olajuwon of this scenario, with a performance in Winter’s Bone that was masterfully understated and yet essential to the film. And finally, Mark Ruffalo is Patrick Ewing, yet another great player who could never dominate the NBA’s Eastern Conference thanks to Jordan’s Bulls.

(Also, if Bale = MJ, then in some weird way, Wahlberg = Scottie Pippen, despite having the lead role, while Melissa Leo = Dennis Rodman and Amy Adams = Steve Kerr. Oh, and Dicky Ekland’s portly, cracked-out buddy = Jason Caffey).

Malone, Barkley, Olajuwon, and Ewing are all fantastic players, and will go down as some of the best at their positions and in their time. Each of the four had double-digit All-Star appearances.  All four were named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. And yet, none of them can hold a candle to Jordan’s legacy. In fact, people got so bored with Jordan’s greatness that voters named Barkley MVP in ’93 and Malone in ’98, despite stellar seasons from MJ both times. And how did His Airness respond? Well, in the years of their respective MVPs, Jordan destroyed Barkley’s Suns and Malone’s Jazz in the NBA Finals each time, grabbing a pair of Finals MVPs in the process. Or in other words, he told the MVP voters to suck it. Regardless of what was going on around him, Michael was always the best – just like Bale was last year.

Overall, Christian Bale is not Michael Jordan. His record and legacy can’t stack up as a cross-cultural reference to MJ’s, at least for the time being (and probably ever). But as a standalone performance in The Fighter, Bale’s work was reminiscent of Jordan’s greatness, just as Rush, Renner, Hawkes, and Ruffalo were evocative of the other NBA stars of the ‘90s, always a step lower than Michael. All four were great, but not like Bale was great in The Fighter. Kudos to the Academy voters for not getting bored with Bale’s amazing work and giving him the credit he deserved. And kudos to Bale for turning in a historically impressive performance, during a year when extraordinary supporting actors were anything but lacking.

It’s tough to matchup with Michael Jordan’s legacy, whether you played in the NBA during the same era or were nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 2010 Oscars. But for one individual moment, acting as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter, Bale reached MJ-Level, leaving a trail of amazing performances by his peers merely cast in his shadow.

I never thought I would one day compare the portrayal of a gaunt, crack smoking, delusional, futile boxer to that of Michael Jeffrey Jordan and his enormous legacy. It’s amazing what greatness can do.



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