Category Archives: Sports

I, Tonya: Movie Review

The Winter Olympics are dominating television right now, which meant, I thought, it was a perfect time to see I, Tonya. I think pretty much everyone knows the basic contours of the Tonya Harding story. She was an ice skater, the first woman in the world to successfully land, in competition, a triple Axel. She was also a poor woman from a poor family. Her mother was trashy, and swore a lot; so was she. Nor was she an elegant skater. She was an athlete, a jumper, a concentrated ball of fierce energy. And, as such, she received lower scores than other skaters did. But then, just before the Lillehammer Olympics in ’94, when an assailant attacked her main rival for Olympic gold, Nancy Kerrigan. Harding’s ex-husband (and then-boyfriend) Jeff Gillooly was criminally charged with setting the whole thing up, and claimed Harding was complicit. Although she was able to compete in Lillehammer, the ‘incident’ ended her skating career.

That’s the broad outline; I, Tonya, rather unreliably, provides the details.  Harding (superbly played by Margot Robbie) claims that both her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) physically abused her. Both characters, in the movie, deny it. (The film is told as a lengthy flashback, intercut with scenes in which several of the characters directly address the camera). Gillooly claims that Tonya knew what was going on, but that he did not intend for Kerrigan to be assaulted; that the physical attack was entirely the doing of his friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who used his money to hire a hit person, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert). The film doesn’t really resolve any of these disputes, and we’re never sure how much we should trust Gillooly. It generally depicts events from Tonya’s perspective, and because we can see the events taking place, we mostly believe her. I doubt anyone seeing the film would doubt, for example, that Gillooly beat her up, despite his denials, because we see him doing it. Those scenes are well-shot, well-acted, brutal, tough to watch. We believe them. So while the film purports to be agnostic about the truth or falsehood of those details, the director Craig Gillespie, stacks the deck. We believe what we see.

Ice skating is something of a hybrid, half sport, half art form, and some top skaters have the balletic grace of dancers. (I don’t, in any way, diminish what extraordinary athletes top skaters really are; just that athletic skill is only one judging criterion). This is a film about class and gender construction as much as it’s about skating, or history. Tonya Harding is depicted as white trash, as a poor, uneducated, foul-mouthed, abused woman from a white trash background. (I love the various crappy houses Harding and Gillooly live in, along with Eckhardt and Golden. At one point, visiting the home of her coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she remarks about a house ‘with a living room!’ Told by a skating judge that she needs to wear a fur coat to the rink like the other girls do, Harding shoots a bunch of rabbits, skins ’em, and sews herself a rabbit-skin coat. (Harding insists that that really happened).

She’s trashy, common, tacky, tawdry. Those are all words denoting social class, and the film makes a point of showing how class-conscious the skating world is. Tonya’s as welcome there as a fart in church. And it hurts her, of course, because skating is also a judged sport. She’s an astonishing athlete, and she thinks that should correlate with victory. And of course, to some degree it does. She did make two Olympic teams, she did win national championships. But she feels it, the way her accomplishments are diminished by her unconventional (for skating) unbringing. (I loved the early scenes in which we see eight-year old Tonya, dragged to practices and tournaments by her chain-smoking, foul-mouthed mother, and I loved young McKenna Grace’s performance as the young Tonya. What a fine child actress! She was great in Gifted too.) The movie’s music emphasizes class as well. It’s all hard-core classic rock, Heart and Bad Company and Laura Brannigan and Siouxie and the Banshees. It’s the kind of music Tonya grew up on, and loved. And it’s, sniff, not quite the thing for ever-so-classy figure skating.

It’s not just that Tonya is lower-class. That correlates directly to the way in which skating constructs gender. Skaters are princesses, demurely (whisper it) sexy, in an unthreatening way. Figure skating hides the amazing dexterity and skill of its performers. They have to dance, too, and just as we never are meant to comment on, or even notice, the extraordinary coordination it takes for a ballerina to dance en pointe. In both cases, pure beauty, is divorced from or at least distanced from sweaty, painful effort. (While also being as hard a thing, physically, it’s possible to imagine human beings doing). By the same token, Tonya’s calling card was her triple Axel. She did a tougher jump than anyone else even tried, and she landed it, and she threw in some triple flips and triple salchows while she was at it, and if you found the performance lacking in artistry, f-you.

It’s hard not to like her, honestly. It’s hard not to root for her. But the glory of Margot Robbie’s performance is that she’s completely unafraid to show us Tonya’s less likable features. (Best scene in the movie, best-acted, best lit, is a locker room scene where we see put on some blush. Totally amazing.) The Gillooly plan (according to the film) was to intimidate Nancy Kerrigan, to send her a death threat (like the ones Tonya received), to throw her off her game, but not to physically harm her. Tonya seems fine with psychological warfare, to the extent that she even thinks about it. She’s self-absorbed like any great athlete can be, entirely focused on the moment, on tonight’s performance. She can be whiny and she can be selfish and she can be massively insecure. And she doesn’t just drop F-bombs; she relishes them.

In Stan’s performance, Gillooly comes across as a nice guy, sincere, a good salesman, reasonably intelligent, devoted to the one great love of his life; a pretty good partner for her, really, when he’s not beating her up. (If he did.) (He totally did.) And that becomes part of the secret of Tonya. She was badly, physically, constantly, unremittingly abused. Her mother beat her, and then her husband took over the job. She responded by becoming one of the great athletes of her generation. It’s impossible not to admire that about her, while also being horrified and appalled on her behalf.

Incredibly, this horrific story is also, astonishingly, funny. It’s one of the darkest comedies I know, but it is a comedy; there are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, in a horrifying sort of way. A lot of the comedy comes from Hauser, who is absolutely terrific as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff Gillooly’s incomparably stupid best friend. Eckhardt tells everyone (including a thoroughly unimpressed FBI) that he’s an international espionage expert. (All the while, he lives with his Mom). He knows people. He has ‘guys.’ He’s four steps ahead of everyone, don’t you know? All the while, seriously, there are smarter bricks in the walls of my house.

His astonishing dimness is, believe it or not, exceeded by his idiot friend, Shane Stant. And, again, we’re treated to a small but beautifully creepy and moronic characterization, by Ricky Russert, an actor I had never heard of before. The scene where he whacks Kerrigan is amazing, as he wanders cluelessly around the halls and dressing rooms of a skating rink, slack-jawed but determined. And then he finds her, smashes her leg. And Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) screams in agony. And a funny scene becomes horrifying.

It’s a funny film, in which women are abused, and it never takes their abuse less than completely seriously. That’s a tough balancing act; I cannot applaud Gillespie enough for walking that tightrope. It’s also a seriously intentioned film about unreliable narrators, about the difficulty in discerning truth from a welter of contradictory stories about subjective memories. I admire that too. You feel tremendous sympathy for Tonya Harding. You feel terrible for her, and you want her to overcome the difficulties posed by her class and upbringing and the damage done to her by those who loved her most. And yet, when she gets her just desserts, you can’t help but think, ‘yep, that seems fair.’

But let me do this as well, ask some annoying questions about the film’s depiction of social class in mid-nineties America. I think the film is largely sympathetic to Tonya, and largely unsympathetic to the hoity-toity skating establishment. (With the one exception of Diane Rawlinson. Quietly, Nicholson’s performance helps us see another side. She’s not as flashy as Robbie or Janney, but she’s terrific). Don’t we associate ‘lower class’ with ‘dim-witted?’ Don’t we assume that lower-class people are there because they’re not bright enough to rise? And doesn’t this film perpetuate that, to at least some degree, through its depictions of Eckhardt and Stant?

Maybe. And maybe not quite. As a counter argument, I would point to Eckhardt’s diction. The character speaks fairly intelligently. He uses better grammar than Gillooly, and he has a wider vocabulary. It’s not until the FBI are actually interrogating him that you realize how astoundingly dumb he really is. So, I don’t know.

It’s a lovely film, in its own violent, brutal, profane way. The director takes lots of chances–especially with tone–and they pretty much all pay off. And, Oscar night, I’m rooting for Margot Robbie and for Allison Janney. Disappointed in you, CJ. What a fine performance.

Kobe Bryant

This morning, ESPN’s SportsCenter did a big piece about Kobe Bryant. Lots of highlights, showing Bryant shooting, dunking, scoring. Interviews with former opponents, with former teammates, with Shaq, who was both. The occasion, the decision by the Los Angeles Lakers to retire both of his numbers. That’s right; Kobe played while wearing number 8 through 2003, then switched to 24 in 2004. Both numbers will be retired.

Professional athletes get attached to their numbers, and it’s unusual for a player to change. Kobe claimed that he asked for the change because the Lakers had just traded Shaquille O’Neal, which, said Kobe, suggested a new direction for the team. New direction; new number. From a basketball perspective, it makes sense for the Lakers to retire his number. He was easily the sixth best player in the history of the franchise; possibly even the fourth. Of course, Magic Johnson, Kareem Jabbar, Jerry West would go 1-3, and I’d put Shaq and Elgin Baylor ahead of Bryant as well. But he’s an easy vote for the Hall of Fame. A genuinely great player. Except, of course, something else happened in between.

I have to say, I find all the Kobe-love completely baffling, and especially today. The lead story on SportCenter this morning was the decision, by Carolina Panther’s owner Jerry Richardson, to sell the team, in the wake of serious (and creepy) sexual harassment allegations against him. Sports Illustrated did a big expose story about Richardson, and it took two daysm no more, for him to quit, resign, decide to sell the team. On the same day he quit, ESPN falls all over itself to praise Kobe Bryant. I truly don’t get it.

Has everyone forgotten? On June 30, 2003, Kobe Bryant checked into a hotel in Edwards, Colorado, preparing for scheduled surgery on July 2. On July 1, he had a sexual encounter with a female hotel employee. The next day, the woman reported that she’d been raped. Kobe was interrogated by the Eagle County Sheriff. He initially denied having had sexual relations with the woman. Physical evidence proved that he had. He then explained that her bruised neck was the result of rough, but consensual sex. An arrest warrant was issued, and Bryant surrendered, and was immediately released on bond.

Predictably, a media circus ensued. Bryant’s attorneys trashed the accuser’s reputation. So did national sports media. The accuser received hate mail, including death threats. Those got worse after some idiot released her name.  Public attacks on her credibility were so vicious that she attempted suicide. Twice. Finally, the unrelenting pressure she endured reached the point that she decided she could no longer testify in court. Instead, she filed a civil lawsuit. That case was settled; details were not disclosed.

In the initial press conference held by Bryant after his arrest, his wife stood by his side, playing the good wife. A few days after his arrest, he bought her a four million dollar ring. Any connection between those two events is purely conjectural.

Did Kobe Bryant rape this woman? I have no idea. I wasn’t there. Was the rape charge against him plausible? Absolutely. The Eagle County Sheriff had to have known that a rape charge against a celebrity was going to turn into a big deal. The Eagle County prosecutors had to have known how difficult such a case would be to prosecute. Their defendant in the case would be able to afford first class legal representatives. They went ahead with it. Seasoned, experienced law enforcement officials thought a woman had been raped, and were willing to do whatever they had to to prosecute the rapist. Bryant even made a public statement in which he acknowledged that, although he “truly believed this encounter . . . was consensual,” he recognized “that she did not and does not view this incident the same way. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person,” (he) now “understood how she felt that she did not consent to this encounter.” He said she said? Maybe. But with physical evidence supporting her narrative. And why would she lie? She had to know that the pushback from sports fans would be ferocious.

Okay. That was then, this is now. Things have changed, very much for the better. Jerry Richardson, apparently, repeatedly asked female employees if he could shave their legs. That’s super weird and creepy and the very definition of someone creating a hostile work environment. I’m glad he’s quit; if he hadn’t, the National Football League would have been perfectly justified in kicking him out. Richardson’s actions also fall considerably shy of rape, a crime of violence, a dangerous assault.

American society is lurching uncertainly towards a place where allegations of sexual aggression and harassment and assault are taken seriously, as they should be. Men in power should never have been allowed to get away with disgusting sexual behavior. I welcome this development, as should be all.

So why does Kobe Bryant get a pass? Why has an entirely plausible rape allegation been swept under the rug?

In his first game in Utah in the 2003-4 season, Kobe Bryant was booed by the Salt Lake crowd every time he touched the basketball. It got comical; these quick bursts of booing when he’d make a touch pass. I wasn’t there; I have friends who were, and they said it was the most electric atmosphere they’d ever felt in a sporting event. And then, in 2016, on his  NBA farewell tour, Jazz fans cheered him. A noble opponent, honored for his skills.

What? Why does this guy get a pass, especially now? I truly don’t get it.

Basketball begins

The NBA season starts tonight, and I couldn’t be more excited.

To get us all pumped up for the start of a new season, HBO showed Hoosiers today. It’s a wonderful movie, an old favorite, about the Indiana high school basketball tournament, and also, more generally, about the hold the sport of basketball has on the state of Indiana, where I was raised. I’ve seen it many times, of course, but still pick up something new from it every time I see it. It was made in 1986, so 31 years ago. And, although it follows the fictional Hickory High team of 1951, it’s actually about the unlikely Milan championship in 1954, the smallest high school to ever win the state tourney. Which means that the movie was made 35 years after the events that it tells. So we end up with three interesting snapshots of basketball historically. Basketball in the early 1950s, in the mid-80s, and today.

Although the movie is nostalgic in tone, a paean to basketball played between small town high schools, where everyone in town came to all the home games, then drove through wintry country roads to away games, where all the town fathers gathered in the barber shop to reprise each win or loss–and the players got free haircuts, it’s also about an important turning point in basketball history. Anthony Pizzo, who wrote Hoosiers, and David Anspaugh, who directed it, are both from Indiana, sports nuts and basketball fans of the first order, and one of the marvelous things about their movie is the details.

This time through, I noticed Rade (Steve Hollar), and his one footed outside shot. Hank Luisetti is often credited as the first player to shoot a jump shot, but if you look at archival footage of his game, he really shot more like Rade; a long shot, with one foot ahead of the other, shot two handed. He did jump, so technically it’s a jump shot, but the smooth one handed shot with which Jimmy (Maris Valainis) wins so many games is the shot used mostly now, shot with shoulders square to the hoop, bouncing off both feet. Watch footage of Ken Sailors shot, a few years after Luisetti, and he’s shooting what we now regard as the classic jump shot. And that’s Jimmy’s shot as well, and it’s deadly. So this movie figured, an average player would shoot using the old fashioned Luisetti form, but a better player would use the cutting-edge Sailors shot. They got that right, is what I’m saying. I’m in awe.

So, as the jump shot revolutionized the game, so did a far more important factor, as basketball (slowly, reluctantly) integrated, as the best African-American players changed the way the game is played. In the movie, the Hickory team we follow (based on Milan High’s ’54 state champions), plays South Bend Central for the state title. And the South Bend team features four Black starters. In actuality, Milan played against Indianapolis Attucks High, starring the young Oscar Robertson.

Oscar Robertson was the greatest talent of his day, and one of the greatest players who ever lived. And when he finished high school, he desperately wanted to play college ball at Indiana University. The IU coach was Branch McCracken, once a superb coach who, sadly, allowed himself and his attitudes to be overtaken by time. He had his quota of black players, he told Robertson, and could not recruit another. Nowadays, of course, that attitude doesn’t just seem racist, it seems colossally, monumentally stupid. Hickory beats South Bend in the movie, and Milan beat Attucks, but those wins came to seem more and more anomalous. Today, basketball is played by, well, anyone who wants to play it. (The Utah Jazz, this season, will feature players from 9, count ’em, 9 different countries. That’s amazing).

The ’80s, when the movie was made, were the time of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and the transformation of basketball in the national consciousness, and the rise of the NBA. Hoosiers helped; the best basketball movie ever, coming in the midst of the game’s big leap forward. And Bird, the white Hoosier kid, and Magic, the black kid from Michigan, became, in time, great friends, and great ambassadors for the game. And Bird, today, runs the Indiana Pacers, and Magic, the LA Lakers. Both bad teams, but that won’t last.

Most important, the game has changed, and entirely for the better. Watching Hoosiers, you can see the limitations of old style basketball. With the addition of a shot clock and a three point line (both, thanks to the upstart ABA), the game is more about floor spacing, about outside shooting, about defending passing lanes and opening up corner threes. The Utah Jazz, my team, meanwhile, thrive on the old fashioned virtues of strong defense, and team-oriented, state-of-the-art pick-and-roll, drive and dish modern basketball.

So do the Golden State Warriors, and therein lies the rub; the Jazz will not compete for a championship this year, or anytime soon. And this season carries little suspense. The Warriors play the game the way its supposed to be played. They’re an amazing defensive powerhouse, and their offense is about passing and spacing and screening and shooting, the way God intended.  But they also happen to have 3 of the 8 best players in the world. They have the right approach and the right coaching and the right attitudes, and they also feature Kevin Durrant, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green. The Jazz, meanwhile, feature Rudy Gobert, a monstrously good defender, who can’t shoot. We’re not going to beat the Warriors, and neither will anyone else.

I don’t care. I’m feeling very Zen about the Jazz chances. I’ll be fine if they make the playoffs. My evenings are taken for the next six months.  I’m excited. I’m thrilled. Basketball is back, and all is right with the world.

Also, the Jazz lost their best player

It’s late July. The temperature outside is essentially that of the planet Mercury, and we still have August to get through. There’s not much on TV, and my doctors won’t let me drive, so I can’t even catch a movie matinee. So every night, I watch the news, especially the political news. Dang, that’s depressing, what with the current POTUS being infantile, unhinged, and bad at his job.

Usually, sports provides a respite. It’s nice, sometimes, to care about something silly and inconsequential, to root, to cheer, to give oneself purely to something that’s, yes, impure, commodified and marketed in the crassest possible ways. But which still can give pleasure, the way any extraordinary humans doing difficult things well can give pleasure, can be astounding and breath-taking and amazing. And that’s particularly true of professional team sports. We don’t just enjoy individuals excelling. We get to enjoy the pleasures of teamwork, of remarkable men and women doing something in tandem. We like it when our teams win. We like it almost as much when they almost win, while playing well.

Summer is time for baseball, the sport I’ve loved longest and best. And this summer just stinks. I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and my team has achieved levels of suckitude I would not have previously believed possible. And our collective life-long enemies, the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the best team in baseball. So no, I’m not taking much comfort in the game of baseball.

But I’m not just a baseball fan, and not just a Giants fan. I’m a Utahn, and a fan of the misnamed but deeply loved team known as the Utah Jazz. And last season, the Jazz were easy to root for. After the glorious Stockton/Malone years, the team had, inevitably faltered. A new coach (Quinn Snyder) and general manager (Steve Lindsay) were hired, both of them outstanding. The Jazz drafted well. They signed good players. They hired good coaches. And they began to form an identity. This Jazz team plays solid team defense. They move the ball on offense, and look for open shots. They became known for player development. A talented young center, Rudy Gobert, began a slow and steady improvement. Other young players took tentative steps forward. They made the playoffs last year, and were clearly a team on the rise. And then, two weeks ago, Gordon Hayward stabbed the Utah Jazz in the back.

Gordon Hayward, you have to understand, essentially defines a Jazz player. Nice kid, a family man, good values. Hard working, team oriented. A good scorer, a good shooter, but also an excellent defensive player. Not a super athlete, but a lean and quick 6′ 8″ small forward/big guard, a fine ball handler, a guy capable of creating his own shot. Our leading scoring player last year, and almost certainly the best player on the team.

It’s very difficult to build a championship team. Professional basketball players want to win championships. They also, for the most part, want to live in certain big cities, with the entertainment options big cities can offer. That’s not always true; some of the best teams are located in San Antonio, Oakland and Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, both New York teams are terrible, and only one of the two LA teams is competitive. But Utah will never be a preferred location for good players. What the Jazz have to sell is player development (the Jazz coaching staff does a great job of helping good players improve), patience and a stable franchise, with an enthusiastic and supportive fan base, good ownership and leadership.

Essentially, the Jazz want to become the San Antonio Spurs. That’s not so bad. The Spurs are wonderfully well coached, and their best players have played together for years. The Jazz could do that.

Except Gordon Hayward decided he didn’t want to wait that long. He was offered a lot of money (less than the Jazz offered, but still well over a hundred million dollars), to go to Boston and try to win a championship with the Celtics. He concluded, probably accurately, that the Celtics were closer to winning a championship than the Jazz were. And so, we lost him. He’s gone. We get nothing in return. We just lost our best player.

It’s depressing, and it makes you wonder if your favorite team will ever be able to compete. At the same time, I think the Jazz may be fine next season. I sort of can’t wait to find out.

What has to happen is for some of the younger Jazz players to take a big leap forward and fill the gap Hayward leaves behind. Rodney Hood, when healthy, has essentially the Hayward skill set. Rookie Donovan Mitchell could be a special players. Alec Burks could finally get healthy and live up to his potential. And Dante Exum has looked great this summer.

We could be better. But we won’t know until this winter. And in the meantime, it’s a hot summer. The Giants are terrible, and the political news couldn’t be more depressing. Soccer anyone?


The Spirit of the Game: Movie review

The Spirit of the Game is an LDS film, a Mormon movie. I’m a Mormon, and a movie nut. So my initial inclination is to go easy on a film that is certainly well-intentioned. And it tells an interesting story. And Aaron Jakubenko, who stars in it, is very good, even though he can’t play basketball. There’s a lot to like here. The theater was half-full when I saw it (an early weekday matinee), so that’s encouraging. And it’s certainly not as bad as, say, The Home Teachers, which remains the flaming dragon’s breath of hell worst movie ever made, ever, by anyone.

On the other hand, The Spirit of the Game starts off not very good, and ends goshawful, and that also needs to be said. And if we want cinematic depictions of our faith and culture to improve, we do need to foster a candid critical culture. And sorry, gentle readers, but spoilers will abound. Advance apologies to everyone.

The Spirit of the Game is about the Mormon Yankees, an LDS missionary basketball team that was asked to teach the Australian national team hoops fundamentals in time for the 1956 Olympics. It focuses on one guy, DeLyle Condie (Jakubenko), an Idaho kid who, we’re told, is one of the stars of the University of Utah basketball team. He falls in love, gets engaged to a nice girl named Emily (Emilie Cocquerel)–the movie spends lots of time on that romance. And then she breaks his heart, dumps him for another dude. So Condie, rebounding, decides to go on a mission, and is sent to Australia.

Written and directed by J. D. Scott, it’s not really about basketball much, or the Olympics at all. Really, it’s about the power of male Mormon patriarchy. Every single major decision in the movie made by any character is preceded by an Inspiring Speech by a male authority figure. Or not, actually; Condie gets engaged precipitously, without permission from her father, or an Inspiring Speech from his father. That’s why the engagement fails.

When writing a screenplay, you have to decide that sorts of scenes to privilege. Obviously, a certain amount of screen time has to be given to basic exposition–who are these people, what do they want, why should we care? This movie gives immense amounts of screen time to Inspiring Speeches. It just stops dead in its tracks, and lets a male authority figure deliver an IS. At which point, Our Hero, Elder Condie (the least volitional protagonist in the history of film), is redirected. Except when its him giving the speeches.

So, he arrives in Australia, meets the mission President–Inspiring Speech. He meets considerable opposition–nobody’s interested, kids throw tomatoes at him. He gets discouraged, writes his Dad (Kevin Sorbo!). Inspiring Letter keeps him going. He’s offered the opportunity to help coach up the Aussie national team. But the mission President (Mark Mitchell), says no, in an Inspiring Speech full of appropriate bromides. Condie writes his father. And then, see, we get what passes for a plot twist. Condie wants to play basketball, but he’s stymied. But his father is also a male authority figure, and knows a higher one. So Dad writes President David O. McKay, who gives an Inspiring Speech to the rest of the First Presidency about the proselyting power of basketball, then orders the Mission President to let the boys play. And Condie becomes the coach of the Mormon Yankees. Which means he’s now a male authority figure, and authorized to give Inspiring Speeches too. Which he does, repeatedly. And so, finally, the movie half over, we get to seeing people play basketball.

And, oh my gosh, are they bad at it.

There are two basic approaches you can take when making a basketball movie. You can cast actors, and teach them how to play. Or you can take basketball players, and teach them how to act. Both can work. The greatest basketball movie of all time, Hoosiers, cast guys who could actually play basketball. White Men Can’t Jump took the other approach. They’re both good movies. Jakubenko is a good looking kid, and fairly athletic looking. I don’t doubt that he worked hard. But he has a high dribble, where he runs really fast kind of slapping at the ball, which bounces up around his chin. He dribbles like every kid on my son’s Junior Jazz team when he was six. And Condie’s supposed to be the point guard! Jakubenko can’t shoot, and never has to–they cut around him, use lots of hand-held camera, and basically fake the basketball sequences. (Condie does hit a couple of layups). He’ll shoot a jumper–and oh, that form!–and then they cut to a ball going in. And it’s called ‘the hoop’, people–at one point, they actually call it a ‘ring.’ I wanted to strangle someone.

I don’t mean to be unkind, but if you’re going to make a movie about basketball, let me gently suggest that you have someone on-set who actually knows something about basketball. One kid in the movie had a decent jump shot, and another kid could jump a little–they let him get all the rebounds. But mostly, during the basketball bits, I averted my eyes.

Sports movies always have to build to a Big Game climax, and this one is no exception. The movie kind of forgets about how the Mormon Yankees are supposed to be coaching the Aussie team, and lets them play in a pre-Olympics warm up tournament, a decision that requires another IS. And they’re really good, we’re told–able to hold their own against all the Olympic teams. The Big Game is against the nasty wasty French team. (The coach of the French team has a moustache, and twirls it, I’m totally not kidding). So that’s the big game–a nationally televised (in Australia) game between the Mormon Yankees and the thuggish French nationals. And, see, the French play dirty. And our virtuous boys can’t respond in kind, of course, as Condie reminds them in one of his Inspiring Speeches. They’re playing for God or something.

This is a major Spoiler, but I have to do this; at the end of the Big Game, this movie goes completely off the rails. Let me set it up for you. There are 9 guys on the Mormon Yankees team. That’s important–remember that number: 9. The game is very close, though how close we don’t know because the movie never shows us the score. Anyway, our guys are all wearing brave little dabs of makeup blood on their faces, to show how dirty the French are. There’s a collision between Condie and a French kid. Condie looks dazed. Time for a concussion protocol intervention, except, wait, this is 1956 and they didn’t worry about concussions. So Condie (who is also the team coach) may have to come out of the game. And the referee says “you’re down to three players, you’re going to have to forfeit.”

What? Are you kidding me? I sat there in the theater, absolutely dumb-founded. They have 9 guys on the team. They’re down to 3?!?!? How did that happen? How did (carry the 7, multiply by pi) 6 guys either foul out or get injured? We didn’t see anyone foul out. We didn’t see anyone get injured. What we see is Condie getting fouled, resulting in . . . someone else on his team getting disqualified? And the French team getting the ball out of bounds? Also, the ref (an Olympic referee) is talking forfeit? He doesn’t know the rules well enough to know that you are, actually allowed to play 3 on 5?

What happens is this: Condie shakes off his brain fog, gives an Inspiring Speech, and he and his pals do battle, 3 on 5. And for once, the movie gets the basketball a little right–the French, with a two man advantage, spread the floor and go backdoor for the game winning layup (though the final score remains a classified military secret). Condie hangs his head for a bit. But the Aussie crowd goes wild, standing O, cheering with enthusiasm, and then rushing the court to make appointments with the missionaries for discussions leading to mass baptisms. (I may have made that last bit up).

If that ending doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. (6 guys fouled out, that’s like 60 free throws–no wonder that the Frenchies won). I was reduced to sitting there in the movie theater going “What? What?” This is not how you should feel at the end of a feel-good sports movie.

I will say this about it: the cars all looked great. It used all these vintage ’50s cars, and they all looked terrific. And there’s a throwaway character, a little kid named Lindsay Gaze, who I assume was Andrew Gaze’s grandfather. And teenaged Bill Russell makes a brief appearance. (And why oh why do the opening credits run over footage from Texas Western beating Kentucky? In 1966?) So it had some nostalgia value for fans. (Also, I’m a Utah Jazz fan, and there are two Aussies on our squad this year).

Still. This. A story of a group of missionaries teaching the inept Australian basketball team how to play basketball is an inherently comedic one, isn’t it? Isn’t it hoops Cool Runnings? But instead, we get this exercise in patriarchal sanctimony. It’s not terrible. But it was unfortunate. That’s a good story. Hope someone tells it better some day.

Kaep’s protest

On August 14th, Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, did not stand with his teammates during the playing of the national anthem, before an exhibition game with the Baltimore Ravens, choosing instead to sit on the bench. Nobody noticed. On August 20th, same thing; another exhibition game, they played the anthem, Kaepernick sat. Nobody noticed. On August 26th, the 49ers played the Packers, in another meaningless exhibition game. This time, Kaepernick’s protest was noticed, and he was asked about it in a post-game press conference. He said “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people who are oppressed.” He later elaborated, speaking to the press for eighteen minutes, answering every question put to him calmly but firmly.

His press conference (which for some reason, I don’t seem to be able to link to), was remarkable. Asked what he was trying to accomplish, he responded:

I mean, ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change.

That’s something that–this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.

It’s something that I’ve seen, I’ve felt. Wasn’t quite sure how to deal with originally. And it is something that’s evolved. It’s something that as I’ve gained more knowledge about what’s gone on in this country in the past, what’s going on currently, these aren’t new situations.

This isn’t new ground. These are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed. And they need to be.

I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country–is representing the way that it’s supposed to–I’ll stand.

One specifically is police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.

I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.

People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. It’s something that’s not happening.

-Q: Do you personally feel oppressed?

-KAEPERNICK: There have been situations where I feel like I’ve been ill-treated, yes. But this stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way.

This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change.

So I’m in a position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

More recently, Kaepernick has changed the manner of his protest, kneeling instead of standing for the anthem, after talking to decorated soldiers who sought him out. He’s been joined by other NFL players, including teammate Eric Reid, and others of his own teammates, and by women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. President Obama has weighed in, saying “I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are sitting on the sidelines not paying attention at all.”

Of course, the backlash has been huge, loud, often irrelevant and viciously ad hominem. Kaepernick was once one of the budding stars in the league, and was offered, and signed, a 68 million dollar contract reflecting what NFL execs thought was his limitless potential. Many comments, therefore, suggested that a) he’s too well-paid to be considered ‘oppressed’ and b) he’s not very good. Play better, and maybe we’ll listen. Bleacher Report‘s Mike Freeman interviewed seven top NFL executives. None of them were willing to be identified for Freeman’s story, but all agreed on how much they hated Kaepernick. One compared Kaepernick, unfavorably, to Rae Carruth, the Panthers’ wide receiver who hired a hit man to murder his pregnant girlfriend.

It’s not just Carruth. The 49ers, Kaepernick’s team, have seen seven players arrested since 2012. Most recently, (just a few days after Kaepernick’s protest, in fact), a team captain, Bruce Miller, was arrested and charged with elder abuse, after an altercation in which Miller, intoxicated, beat up a seventy-year old after knocking on the wrong hotel room door. The NFL has a huge public image problem, after a whole series of arrests involving players for such infractions as spouse abuse, sexual assault, and child abuse. Not to mention two guys, Aaron Hernandez and Carruth, in prison for murder.

So Colin Kaepernick’s dignified, thoughtful, carefully considered protest is seen by at least some NFL executives as more damaging to the carefully burnished image of the league than a guy who murdered his girlfriend. But I can see why. It’s not just the national anthem played before games. The NFL likes to sell itself as wholesome, family oriented, and, above all, hyper-patriotic. Last Sunday, Sept. 11th, was the start of the 2016 NFL season, and the NFL outdid itself in pro-America celebrations, with a huge flag covering the entire field (in every stadium), and flyovers with military jets and salutes to soldiers. And a speech by President Obama, broadcast in every stadium, and loudly booed in most of them. That’s right, President Obama was booed on 9/11. Makes sense. He is, after all, Muslim.

Which is in part my point. It isn’t all that overt yet, but football is a contested space; part of the cultural war. Football isn’t just patriotic; it’s red state patriotic. It’s martial. It’s a sport full of ‘blitzes,’ defeated by ‘throwing the bomb.’ It’s built on the model of a military campaign, battles along a line of scrimmage for control of enemy territory. It hurts me to say this; I have enjoyed watching football for most of my adult life, and remember fondly hundreds of backyard contests. But it’s a violent sport, deeply damaging to its participants. (It can also be beautiful). And proudly embraced, by some, as proudly and emphatically politically incorrect.

And it’s becoming increasingly a regional sport, played more in the South than elsewhere. And, of course, it’s a sport where most of the players are Black, and most of the fans are white. (And where most of the coaches, most of the league executives, and effectively all of the owners are white). Also, played by guys, cheered on by attractive, underdressed young women. (And NFL cheerleaders are badly underpaid and mistreated).

Here’s what I think: I think Colin Kaepernick is acting more patriotically than all the people attacking him. Loving America means loving the promise of America, the ideals of equality and social justice that find such perfect expression in the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment. It means wanting America to grow, to improve, to get better, to actually treat all its citizens equally and fairly. It means protesting when we perceive America falling short of those ideals. The flag and the anthem are merely symbols, not objects of worship.

Good for Kaep. Good for the other protesters as well. Well done.

As a 49ers fan, I also wish Kaepernick was a better quarterback. But that’s a separate, and much less important question.


The Olympics

We’ve had Olympic fever big time here at chez Samuelsen. It’s really an extraordinary thing, watching all these young people leap and run and swim and compete. For awhile. Actually, it can get a bit tedious, to be honest. Every athlete is remarkable, every performance amazing, but they can’t all win, and the ones who don’t win outnumber the ones who do by a very large margin. And there are great human stories beyond Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles and Usain Bolt and Ashton Eaton. (Favorite memory; Ledecky smoking the field in the 800 free).

So what we watch isn’t really the Olympics. What we watch is an artfully produced television program, with suits at NBC deciding which sports we really want to see and which athletes we really want to follow. It has to be this way of course. There was Olympic coverage on NBC and NBC Sports and Bravo and CNBC and MSNBC and USA and I think about five other networks. I set my DVR to record all of them, with the intention of watching, you know, the whole Olympics. It took me about half a day to realize how foolish that was. I may like track and field, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch every qualifying heat of every distance, or every throw of the discus, or jump by any high jumper. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And, not to knock men’s field hockey, or judo, or fencing, but I don’t know enough about them to follow them meaningfully. I am, after all, a comparative expert in women’s gymnastics, because I watched it for a couple of hours four years ago. I did get into team handball, which is wicked fun, and water polo, because how long can you tread water? Rhythmic gymnastics is beautiful–essentially modern dance, with sillier costumes. Kayaking looks awesome, as long as you didn’t think too hard about Rio’s water purification issues. And I became a huge fan of the Fiji rugby team. I know nothing about rugby, but I recognize domination when I see it. Seriously, NFL, start scouting Fiji.

Still. Even mentioning the sports I did watch points up the difficulties with which NBC has to contend. The Olympic Games consist of many many many events, and they all require a certain level of expertise to follow meaningfully. There are some sports that basically everyone has played at some point in their lives–table tennis, badminton, trampoline–which are amazing at Olympic levels because the athletes competing there are so much better than any of us will ever be at them. I’ve played ping pong a time or two, but I seriously wasn’t playing the same sport those guys played. I even fenced a little in college, but Olympic fencing is so fast, so quick, it was difficult to even tell what was going on. But can I tell which divers deserve higher scores than which other divers? (Big splashes=bad, I guess).

So NBC has to provide expert commentary so we know what we’re watching, and also provide some personal background into the athletes competing, so we can care who wins. For 316 events, in 28 different sports. And with 11, 544 athletes competing. Covering all that adequately is completely impossible. And NBC did their darndest. With basic cable and a good DVR I was able to watch at least a few minutes worth of 27 of those sports, exempting dressage, because horses.

And then, evenings, we got to see a highlights show (on tape delay), featuring what NBC thought American audiences mostly wanted to see: Americans winning, human interest stories involving athletes from other countries, and beach volleyball. And even a sports nut like me was pretty sated by the end.


Drive and dish. Spacing. Block out on rebounds. Screen. Swing the ball around the perimeter, find the open teammate. Communicate on defense. Switch. Basketball, like soccer, is a team sport in the best sense of the word. It’s five guys working together, using their imagination and creativity and discipline to create magic. It’s a game where each player knows his role, and executes. It can be beautiful to watch, as pretty and inspiring as any sport can be when played at the very top level.

And last night, the Golden State Warriors finished a season in which they became the greatest team in the history of basketball.

One might quibble with that assessment. Perhaps some of the US Men’s Olympic teams, collections of superstars and Hall of Famers, might disagree. And the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls won 72 games, lost only 10. They had two Hall of Famers–Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen–and current US ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman. They were a brilliant, intense, brutally competitive team.

The Warriors, last night, won their 73rd game.

(There is one odd connection between that Bulls team and this Warriors team. Steve Kerr started at guard for the Bulls. He’s also the Warriors head coach).

Michael Jordan’s Bulls were reflections of his ferocious intensity. LaBron James’ Miami teams were a bit like that; fierceness and fury. That’s not the Warriors. They play a different kind of basketball, more graceful, somehow, more balletic. They can take your breath away, with ball movement and athleticism.

They’re also a reflection of their star, Stephen Curry. And Curry just isn’t like most other players. He’s thin, fairly short, not imposingly muscled. But the ball is a yo-yo in his hands, his control of it absolute. His footwork isn’t just perfectly disciplined, it displays an imagination and creativity unlike that of any other player. And he can shoot like no one ever before in basketball history.

The player in basketball history that Curry reminds me of most is The Pistol; Pete Maravich. Maravich had Curry’s insouciance, his deceptive cool. And Maravich was a marvelous ball handler and passer. And while Maravich was a wonderful shooter, Curry’s better. Demonstrably better, 40% better; statistically, Curry’s on another planet altogether from anyone who has ever played the game. The all-time record for most three-point baskets made in a season was 286, by Curry, last year. This year, Curry hit 402. And Maravich couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play defense. Curry’s a pest on defense, a ball hawking vexation.

But the Warriors are more than just one superstar. The first, second and fourth greatest seasons by three-point shooters are all by Stephen Curry. The third greatest season was by Klay Thompson, Curry’s teammate. An excellent shooting percentage for three pointers is around 35%. That’s a terrific season, by a great shooter. Curry was at 45%, which is absurd. But here’s what’s really absurd: Curry had 8 teammates that shot over 35% from three point range.

Aside from Curry, here’s who else is on the team. Shaun Livingston was one of the most promising young talents in the game, until 2007, when he suffered a knee injury so severe that the doctors’ initial assessment was that the only option was amputation. Thank heavens, that didn’t turn out to be necessary, but it still took him two years to rehabilitate the knee. Only now is he playing close to the high level that was once predicted for him.

That’s one guy. Andre Iguodala was, for eight years, the best player on a dreadful Philadelphia 76ers team. He signed with Golden State because he was tired of losing. Marreese Speights was a college star, a big guy who can shoot, who was Iguodala’s teammate at Philadelphia. Leondro Barbosa is from Brazil, a quick guard who has bounced from team to team in the NBA. Brandon Rush was a big college star who blew his knee out, and bounced from Portland to Indiana before ending up in Golden State.

Good players, right? You can see why the Warriors like them. Now, here’s the thing; that’s the Warriors’ bench. Those guys are their reserves. Barbosa is Curry’s backup.

Klay Thompson is the second best shooter in basketball history. Draymond Green is a human swiss army knife; does everything. He is the team’s best rebounder, best passer, best defensive player, and second best ball handler (after Curry). He’s also a terrific three-point shooter, when that’s needed. Andrew Bogut is an Australian center who starred at the University of Utah. A rugged rebounder and shot blocker who, as it happens, is also a marvelous passer. And Harrison Barnes is a young guy who would be a star for any other team in basketball, a 6’10 super athlete who can also shoot.

It’s a joyful thing to me, to see players this good mesh and blend their games so superbly. They’re fun to root for; easy to root for. Agreeable guys who are also wonderful basketball players.

I’ve been a basketball fan all my life. Heck, I’m a sports nut, and I’m from Indiana; of course, I love basketball. And I have no particular reason to root for a basketball team from Oakland. But I have gotten as much pure joy from watching this marvelous team play basketball than anything else I have done or seen or been part of. I’m so grateful to be alive to see them.


BYU v. Utah, cooling off

On December 2, last year, in a men’s college basketball game between BYU and the University of Utah, Nick Emery of BYU sucker punched Brandon Taylor of Utah. Emery was properly assessed a Flagrant Two foul, and ejected from the game; he was subsequently suspended for BYU’s next contest. The game was in Salt Lake City; fans began throwing things on the floor. Eventually, order was restored, and the game ended, with Utah victorious by 8 points.

On January 7, Utah announced that they would withdraw from next season’s game with BYU. Larry Krystkowiak, the Utah coach released this statement:

The events that have occurred in our recent games with BYU led me to ask [athletic director] Dr. Hill several weeks ago if we could take a cooling off period and put the rivalry on hold. The level of emotions has escalated to the point where there is the potential for serious injury. Chris said he would support me in canceling next year’s scheduled game against BYU. I called and let Coach [Dave] Rose know our intentions a few days after our game [on Dec. 2].

BYU v. Utah is one of the more intense college sports rivalries in the nation. And like all intense sports rivalries, it involves emotions quite ridiculously disproportionate to what’s really at stake. Words like ‘hate’ and ‘loathe’ and ‘despise’ (and also ‘love’ and ‘worship’ and ‘adore’) tend to pepper sports fan conversations. So, of course, the cancellation of this one basketball game has led to all sorts of wild speculation and accusations of bad faith. Mostly, it’s directed at Chris Hill, the Utah Athletic Director, who, I’ve been reliably assured, ‘hates’ BYU and is trying to ‘destroy’ BYU.

Of course, for some BYU fans, the U’s decision is definitive proof of the perfidious irreligious moral depravity of the Utah program. BYU and Utah had a contract! Contracts are sacrosanct agreements! Utah can’t unilaterally cancel this game! Except that this particular contract had a buy-out clause, with a financial penalty attached; Utah exercised that clause, and paid the money. From the other side, Utah fans say that BYU is a dirty team. There have been a number of incidents recently of BYU players acting out violently. But most of those incidents–basically all of them, except for Emery’s loss of composure–have involved the BYU football program. Not men’s basketball.

As a BYU sports fan, I’m troubled, frankly, by the unsportsmanlike play of the BYU football team recently. And I can’t help notice how tepidly the BYU administration tried to keep Bronco Mendenhall, the football coach, when he was offered a job at Virginia. BYU will have a new football coach next season, Kalani Sitake; I wish him the best. He has a well-earned reputation for integrity and teaching excellence. A reputation he earned while coaching at the University of Utah.

It’s also been pointed out that Larry Krystkowiak, the U coach, lost his head a few times when he played in the NBA; that he punched opposing players a couple of times. So accusations of hypocrisy get to fly in both directions. ‘Larry K was a dirty player!’ ‘BYU pretends to be so moral and Christian, but look at this kid punching this kid!’ ‘Chris Hill hates Mormons!’ ‘BYU only cares about money!’

Meanwhile, of course, the BYU athletic director, Tom Holmoe, has been trying to see if it’s possible, through negotiation, to reinstate the game. Good luck with that, especially since his opening negotiating tactic was to call the U’s decision ‘stupid.’ Best of all, the Utah legislature is making noise about involving itself! Of course it is. Speaker of the Utah House, Greg Hughes, says he worries about how cancelling this one basketball game “might impact the public.” Let me see if I can help Speaker Hughes with this: not playing the game would absolutely impact the public. In the sense of some few members of the public not being able to see a basketball game they’re rather like to see.

What the most aggrieved voices on neither side of this debate seem all that interested in addressing is the nature of fandom itself, the emotional investment we fans make in our silly games. (Which are silly, though I love watching). And, of course, the high emotions experienced by the players. Nick Emery, whose sucker punch started the controversy, is a returned missionary, and, by all accounts, a really nice kid. He apologized profusely for his actions, saying, “I got caught up in the intensity of the game and let my emotions get the best of me.” He also apologized to Utah, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak, his teammates and fans of both schools. Taylor, the kid he hit, accepted his apology; said it was no big deal.

I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, Indiana University, and the Utah Jazz; I am therefore obliged to ‘hate/loathe/despise’ the Los Angeles Dodgers, Purdue University and the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, I have very good friends who are Dodgers’ fans, my best friend is a Lakers’ fan, and my home teaching companion got his PhD from Purdue. I like sports, in part because of the emotional investment I make in the teams playing. The stakes, in a ballgame, are simultaneously very very high, and also trivial beyond belief. It matters a lot who wins, and it also doesn’t matter at all. You get all caught up in the game, in who wins and who loses, and you also feel like a bit of a fool for caring so much over this . . . nothing. And it’s okay to feel both those emotions simultaneously. In fact, I think it’s sort of necessary.

Otherwise, we’re in danger of losing perspective. And maybe that’s what Chris Hill and Larry Krystkowiak are really saying, something actually kind of valuable and important. People on both sides of this particular sports rivalry were taking it too seriously. Things were getting out of hand. This isn’t about Nick Emery; it’s about the rage and fury in the stands. We need to mellow out, maybe. Maybe it’s time, as Krystkowiak said, for everyone to cool off. Let the game go. Give it a few years, and try again.


The Women’s World Cup

The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament finishes this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited, or feel more patriotic. Go USA! International sporting events bring out my usually fairly latent Americanism like nothing; I want to festoon my vehicles with bald eagle decals, hang a flag outside my home, even sing that ‘Proud to be an American’ song, which I usually avoid at all costs. This year’s World Cup narrative is a richly textured yarn, with numerous subplots and complexities, some of which actively encourage anthem-singing and some of which kind of don’t.

The USA squad is generally recognized as one of the three best in the world, but hasn’t won the World Cup since the Brandi Chastain/Mia Hamm team in 1999. That final remains the highest rated TV soccer broadcast in US history, and was wildly inspirational and aspirational: grrrl power. In fact, the USA should be good at women’s soccer. Millions of American girls play soccer. And although soccer is the most popular team sport in the world, that’s not necessarily because girls play it; in many football-crazed nations, the sport is tied to ideals of machismo that make soccer-playing girls national afterthoughts. Even as the US men’s national team lags behind the rest of the world in the development of young players, the Title IX-driven idea of sporting gender equality is something of a US phenomenon. Why not? Youth coaches in any sport love to talk about how the participation of kids in, whatever, football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, teaches invaluable lessons about laudable values: hard work, team play, fairness, sportsmanship. If those lessons are good for boys, they’re equally good for girls, are they not? So the success of women’s soccer should be applauded.

And applauded for another reason as well; it’s fun to watch. If, as a sports fan, I like the celebration of human excellence that sports embody, then why on earth would that be gender specific? I like soccer. I like the amazing athletes who play it. I love the strategy, the tactical decisions, the sheer beauty of speed and power and strength and quickness and field vision.

But I also love sports for its narratives, for the stories that unfold behind the scenes, then play themselves out on the field. One of the real revelations on this US team has been the play of central defender Julie Johnston. She’s an amazing athlete, tall and graceful and disciplined, and she’s technically proficient. She seems never to be out of position, even when dashing upfield for set pieces and counters. Her center back partner, Becky Sauerbrun, is equally tall, blonde, and capable. The US has given up only one goal in the entire tournament, and it’s mostly due to Johnston and Sauerbrunn. Johnston is dating Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zack Ertz, which is why you see so many Eagles’ players at World Cup matches; Ertz has made them all fans. When asked what a typical date would be for her and Ertz, Johnston said they loved playing UNO together. I think that’s so great; these two world class athletes dropping Draw Four Wild cards on each other, cackling in delight.  As for Sauerbrunn, she’s a noted bookworm, never without a book close to hand.  But in play she has this constantly worried look, like a Mom working as a crossing guard.

The US goalkeeper is Hope Solo, probably the most controversial player on the team, if not in the world. She’s the best keeper in the world, strong and powerful. But she’s also been accused of domestic violence, by her step-sister; accused of beating up a nephew twice her size. That’s not hyperbole; the nephew is a three hundred pound high school football player, and Solo goes maybe 5’11, 150. Large for a woman, sure, but did she really beat this big kid up? And that’s the thing about Solo; I don’t automatically disbelieve it. There’s an edge to Solo’s play, a barely controlled aggression. Even more than most keepers, she seems to regard being scored on as a personal affront.

(Do I defend her domestic violence? I do not. If it happened. Her accuser is a sister from whom she’s been long estranged. At the same time, Solo has had a drinking problem in the past. I don’t know what happened; the case has not been adjudicated. Presumption of innocence; all that. Hope Solo is, as always, a puzzle, an enigma. And a brilliant soccer keeper.)

One of the key plays in the entire tournament involved Johnston and Solo. Johnston made a rare mistake, taking down a German player in the goal box. It was an obvious foul, and she could well have gotten a red card dismissal for it. As Johnston wept, comforted by Saurbrunn, the referee rewarded a penalty kick; German star Celia Sasic took it. Germany never misses penalty kicks. I mean never; not once in World Cup history had a German player missed a penalty kick. They were 12-12. But you watched Solo back there, preparing, lithe as a panther, and you noticed how long she took. Stalling. With a look of utter confidence–barely perceptible contempt, even– on her face. She was clearly psyching Sasic out, and it worked; Sasic put her shot wide left.

There are other fascinating narratives involving this year’s team. This may be the last World Cup for the great Abby Wambach. Wambach is one of the greatest players in women’s soccer history; she tops the list of all time World Cup goal scorers, and is the greatest scorer in American women’s soccer history. She scored one of the great goals in World Cup history; a game tying header against Brazil in 2011, in a semi-final match the US eventually won. She’s tall and strong, and known particularly for her aggressive and accurate headers. And she turned 35 during this tournament. She’s one of the slowest women on the pitch, anymore. So there’s been a lot of question about how much she should play this year. There are younger, faster, more creative players on the roster–Morgan Brian, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux. But they’re not Abby Wambach; can’t match her sheer determination and courage.

The US was seen as an underdog against Germany. Morgan Brian played, with Alex Morgan as the only striker, an odd formation the US hadn’t used previously. It could hardly have worked better. Wambach came on right at the end, and meanwhile cheered her teammates on; was an inspirational sideline presence. I expect we’ll see the same lineup against Japan in the final, on Sunday.

But this wouldn’t be the Women’s World Cup without some sense of a larger purpose, of more significant socio-political issues at play. It’s not just that these are women playing what is regarded internationally as a man’s sport. It’s how they’ve had to cope with the corrupt cluelessness of the international soccer establishment. When men play in the World Cup, they play on grass, on perfectly groomed pitches that conduce to sporting excellence. But in this World Cup, FIFA (the morally bankrupt governing body for the sport), scheduled all the women’s games on turf. Turf is a bad surface for soccer. It’s a thin carpet laid over concrete; it’s painful to fall on, to dive on. And it’s plastic; players can get the nastiest contusions. Wambach was the most vocal athlete to raise a ruckus over the turf issue, and FIFA’s initial response was infuriating–condescending mansplaining, mostly. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s head, suggested that the women wear tighter shorts while playing, to increase viewership. Alex Morgan, the best US player, won a Player of the Year award; she says Blatter ignored her, didn’t know who she was.

This women’s team has become notorious on another front. The recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality came down last Friday, during the tournament, and was enthusiastically applauded by the women on the team. Wambach is married to former player Sarah Huffman. The most exuberant and creative player on the US team, dynamic Megan Rapinoe, is also openly gay, as is the team’s coach, Jill Ellis. And all three are LGBT activists. So for this team, at this moment in history, to win a championship, would be serendipity of the highest order. Go US indeed!

More to the point, this team is wonderful to watch. I’ve grown fond of little Meghan Klingenberg, who is short and feisty and relentless defensively. The German game was a showcase for Carli Lloyd, who scored one goal and set up the second one with a perfectly placed pass, to Kelley O’Hara, one of the youngest women on the team and one of the fastest. Lauren Holliday has an amazing knack for stopping off-target passes from going through. Christie Rampone, the oldest player on the team, has taken time off for childbirth and various injuries, but remains an obdurate and tenacious defender.

They’re a terrific team, and I love watching them play. I have watched at least part of every game played by every team in the tournament, and enjoyed every second. The best two teams have been Japan and the US. Japan is talented and superbly coached; they’ll be worthy opponents, and could well win. And that would be triumphant too, if a bit melancholy to this American guy.