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July 09, 2006

Congratulations Italy

So much for my skills of prediction -- I thought it would be England vs. Brazil in the World Cup finals. In fact it was Italy (whom many expected to be there) and France (whom hardly anyone outside of France thought would make it that far). Italy won on penalty kicks, shedding a particular demon of theirs in the process. Well done Azzurri.

Though I have good friends with strong ties to Italy, my ties to France (language, friends, time spent there) are much stronger. Also, I was sentimental about seeing one last hurrah from Zidane and Barthez, winners in 1998. So, naturally, I was cheering for France. It was sad to think that after such a spectacular career, this shot of Zizou headbutting Materazzi -- as I write this, we don't know why -- will be an enduring image of him:

Zizou Headbutts Materazzi
I had a crowd at my house that was split not only between Italy and France, but split between soccer fans and neophytes. Interestingly enough, the soccer neophytes, all of whom were pulling for Italy, thought that Zidane's headbutt was incredibly cool and made them like soccer far more.

July 01, 2006

"USA Ha una Squadra Brava"

My friend and colleague Richard Boyd, who is on vacation in his wife's hometown in Northern Italy, sent this to me a few days ago:

Given their obvious passion for soccer, or, as they call it, calcio, the Italians are surprisingly good sports. When strangers learn we are American they go out of their way to approach my brother and I and extend their heartfelt condolences over the US team's elimination at the hands of Ghana. We search their eyes for signs of insincerity or mockery, but it isn't there. USA ha una squadra brava, they say with an appropriately bereaved look, hoping sincerely to relieve some of the deep anguish which we must surely be feeling. From their expressions you would think that the whole team had gone down in the Alps in a fiery ball of twisted aircraft metal.

The first to extend this courtesy was my wife's Uncle Tino (short for Benedettino which means 'little blessing', which is in turn short for Benedetto, like the Pope). My brother and I received his double hand shake and fervent eyes with confused looks. Then we tried to reassure him. We shrugged and said "Just isn't our sport. Not a problem. No, really." We learned quickly that this was not the appropriate response. To Italians this sounds too much like denial and can, in some cases, be construed as an insult to Italians and soccer fans everywhere. So now we immediately adopt hang dog expressions, shake their hands and thank them for their largesse, their kindness in our hour of need and their empathy with our pain. Then we say Va Italia and they are touched by our selflessness.

June 19, 2006

Congratulations to the Hurricanes

Congratulations to the Carolina Hurricanes, winners of the Stanley Cup.

At the risk of no longer being called a "Canadian apologist", since I moved from Vancouver to Raleigh-Durham in early 2002:

  • Number of Stanley Cup finals appearances by teams from Canada: 2
  • Number of Stanley Cup finals appearances by the Carolina Hurricanes: 2
  • Number of Stanley Cup wins by teams from Canada: 0
  • Number of Stanley Cup wins by the Carolina Hurricanes: 1
And seriously, congratulations to the Edmonton Oilers for such a great series, and to the fans in Edmonton for being so gracious (from everything I saw and read during the finals).

June 09, 2006

The World Cup Begins

The World Cup kicked off today. I've been a fan of England for years now, and it looks like this might be their chance. They have one of the great midfields in the world (maybe the greatest -- I'm not enough of an expert to say). Michael Owen seems to be coming back to full strength just in time. David Beckham is playing up to his ability (unlike four years ago), showing the incredibly accurate kicks that made him not only the best set piece player in the world, but an international icon as well. And then there's Wayne Rooney. I could say that he might be the best forward alive today, and that his presence instantly makes England one of the great teams of this World Cup, but this UK newspaper front page showing his first scissor kick after his broken foot speaks more eloquently than I could:

There Is a God
The team is euphoric on his return. Beckham says they have all the pieces this time. Commentators think the omens are good.

So do I. England over Brazil in the finals. Go Lions!

June 08, 2006

"Incredibly Friendly Camaraderie"

The Carolina Hurricanes pretty much had their way with the Edmonton Oilers last night in a 5-0 rout in Raleigh. A story from The Edmonton Journal noted this post-game reaction:

"I honestly feel sorry for the Oilers because their goalie is out," said Joy Blount of Raleigh. "And I now feel like the 'Canes can't lose but it's unfortunate that these are the circumstances."

The incredibly friendly camaraderie between fans from both teams continued long after the game ended, dissecting the bounces of the game.

As with the singing of the Canadian anthem in Game 1, this kind of sportsmanship is great to see. My son Cameron and I were at RBC Center for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Buffalo Sabres. Sitting next to us were two Sabres fans. The game ended and the crowd continued the stunningly loud celebration that had begun with one minute left in the game. Within just a few seconds, all the Hurricanes fans sitting nearby (including Cameron and me) turned to them, shook hands, and said, "Good game."

It may be a small thing, but to me, it's important.

June 06, 2006

Way to Go, Hurricanes Fans

Last night was Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. I usually only find hockey interesting in person, but even on television, this was a game for the ages: Edmonton went up 3-0, then Carolina scored four unanswered goals to make it 4-3, then Edmonton tied it at 4-4, and finally Carolina went up 5-4 with just 30 seconds left. it was tremendous fun to watch.

My favorite moment, however, was at the start of the game. Since a Canadian team was playing, the first anthem sung was "O Canada". A few weeks ago, San Jose fans booed "O Canada" at a home game, also against Edmonton -- an awful gesture against a country that happens to be one of our closest allies. In contrast, last night, to my great delight, not only was there no booing, but one could see and hear Carolina fans singing along with it. At the conclusion, there was plenty of cheering.

I'm not a true North Carolinian -- I'm not a native, and I won't stay here forever -- but I was proud of the people in attendance last night. They made their state and their country look good. We need more of that sort of thing these days.

June 01, 2006

In the Stanley Cup Finals

The Carolina Hurricanes are in the Stanley Cup finals with a 4-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres. Go Canes!

There were a couple of moments at RBC Center this evening -- just before the first period, when the Hurricanes players took the ice, and then again for the last minute of the final period -- where the crowd noise was, I think, the loudest thing I've ever heard, loud enough that I could barely hear myself screaming along with everyone else. It was a spectactular experience, and a great first time for me to see a professional sports playoff game in person.

Pro Sports in North Carolina

I'm off in a bit to watch the Carolina Hurricanes play the Buffalo Sabres in the deciding game of the NHL semifinals (my moral dilemma was resolved when I sadly watched the Hurricanes lose Game 6, then happily remembered I was on my way to Game 7). Go Canes!

Meanwhile, a preseason pro football magazine has picked the Carolina Panthers to win this year's Super Bowl, over the Denver Broncos. (Earlier this week, my favorite football writer, Peter King, picked the Dallas Cowboys over the Panthers to advance to the Super Bowl -- that I don't see. The Seattle Seahawks? Possibly. The Chicago Bears? An outside chance. But the Cowboys?)

The Hurricanes are a win away from the Stanley Cup finals, and the Panthers are an early pick to win the Super Bowl. It's a good time for professional sports in this state. (I won't discuss the NBA, but then again, I don't care about it.)

May 30, 2006

A Moral Dilemma

Tonight is Game 6 of the NHL's Eastern Conference finals between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres. Carolina is up 3-2, so one more win and they're in the Stanley Cup finals. Tonight's game is at Buffalo; if Buffalo wins and forces a Game 7, it will be played in Raleigh Thursday evening.

Here's my moral dilemma: I have tickets to see Game 7. I missed the chance to purchase tickets for the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Montreal Canadiens. I had tickets to Game 7 of the semifinal series against the New Jersey Devils, but Carolina won that series in five games.

So do I cheer for the Hurricanes to wrap it up? Or do I cheer for Buffalo to force Game 7? I think the answer is that I cheer for the Hurricanes, and if they lose, I console myself knowing I'll get to see the deciding game in person.

April 24, 2006

George Will, Baseball, and Cognitive Dissonance

I've just started reading Everything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Johnson, and one of the quotations Johnson uses to start off the book, from George Will, is hilarious and head-scratching all at the same time:

Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of "choice," adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kind of entertainments they are absorbed in -- video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity.
This is from a June 2001 column by Will, "Reality television: oxymoron".

What makes this, as I said, simultaneously hilarious and head-scratching is that Will is well-known as a huge fan of baseball, having written two books on the subject. Does he realize the cognitive dissonance from which he's suffering? Somehow it's "stupidity" to actively work one's way through a video game, but it's enriching (I assume he would say so) to passively watch men hit a ball around a grassy field?

Though I'm a football fan, I'm well aware of how mindless sports spectatorship is. I enjoy watching NFL games on Sunday afternoons, both in person and on television, but I know that doing so is anything but enriching -- it's entertaining, diversionary, and nothing more. Video games are interactive and so are, by any conceivable measure, more beneficial than watching any sport I can think of -- and one doesn't need to read Everything Bad Is Good for You to see the truth of that.

March 08, 2006

First Game with My New Team

As noted earlier, I'm no longer blogging my soccer games by default... but I thought I'd mention that I had the first game with my new team Monday night. There weren't any free slots on defense, which left me to play as a midfielder, a new experience for me. (If you're not a soccer geek, midfield and defense have significantly different strategies, and midfielders run about twice as much as the defenders, because they have to cover so much more of the field.) After a full season away from soccer, and no experience at my position, I felt like a fish out of water at first... but gradually discovered that I actually like playing midfield, so I think I'll stick with it. And not that I had much to do with it, but our team won 6-0, which was nice.

Is it ever too late to try something new? I suppose that depends on what it is. I took up soccer at 41 and have been having a blast ever since. I ran my first half-marathon at 43 and now want to go for a full marathon as soon as I'm ready. No matter what age you are, if there's something you've been wanting to do, if it's even vaguely within reason, then get out there and do it. Will you encounter difficulties? become discouraged? injure yourself? Possibly. But I'm coming to understand more and more how essential it is that we challenge ourselves throughout our lives. More on that soon.

March 07, 2006

"Every Second Counts"

This is the second book I read in 2006 -- I was in the middle of two other books, but it was a quick read.

I was a little late to the Lance Armstrong autobiography party, and started with the second book instead of the first, but enjoyed Every Second Counts nonetheless.

From Armstrong's description of the unforgettable day on the 2003 Tour:

A flash of yellow caught my eye. A small kid was holding a yellow Tour souvenir bag, whipping it back and forth.

Uh-oh, I'm going to catch that thing, I thought.

Suddenly, the bag was tangled on the handle of my brake. I felt the bike jerk violently beneath me --

It flipped over sideways.

It was as though I had been garroted. I went straight down, and landed on my right hip, hard. I've crashed? Now? I thought, incredulously. How could I have crashed?

My next thought was, Well, the Tour's over. It's too much, too many things gone wrong.

But another thought intruded.

Get up.

It was the same thought that had prodded me during all those long months I'd spent in a hospital bed. After surgery. Get up. After chemo. Get up. It had whispered to me, and nudged me, and poked me, and now here it was again. Get... up.

Armstrong gets up, threads the chain back onto his bike, makes a "furious effort", and rejoins the lead group. Then...

No sooner had I gotten there than [Spanish racer Iban] Mayo glanced back at me -- and attacked again. I immediately jumped out of the saddle, charged up to his wheel, and slingshotted past him.

I was livid. I drove my legs into the pedals, adrenaline and fear and frustration in every stroke.

In a matter of moments, I was alone. I had bolted away from the group so suddenly that nobody could follow.

Armstrong continues to accelerate away from the field until he approaches the finish line...

I had given everything, and now I was wasted. The last few kilometers were one long grimace of pain. But finally the finish line was approaching, and adrenaline and anger carried me. I thought about the doubts in the peloton, all the whispers that I was too old, or too rich, or too distracted, or too American to win the Tour de France a fifth time. I thought, This is my neighborhood, and nobody else is winning this race.
Every Second Counts isn't a great book, but it's a serviceable book by someone who has done great things.

January 22, 2006

Congratulations to the Seahawks

My prediction of the Steelers winning turned out correct, but I couldn't have been more wrong about the Panthers-Seahawks game -- the Panthers were absolutely blown out by the Hawks, 34-14. Jake Delhomme, possessed of a postseason quarterback rating of 108.4, the highest in NFL history, threw three interceptions and had a rating of 34.9. The unstoppable Steve Smith was held to 5 receptions for 33 yards. It was ugly.

The silver lining is that Seattle is my once and future home, so the Hawks are my once and future team, and it looks like they could be good for quite some time to come.

In any case, congratulations to the Seahawks, especially on ending your drought and finally making it to the Super Bowl. To everyone in Seattle, enjoy the moment! It's well deserved and long overdue.

January 21, 2006

Carolina to the Super Bowl?

Tomorrow afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Denver Broncos for the AFC Championship. My hunch is that Pittsburgh will win that game, despite having to travel to the thin air of Denver. Why? Because they're playing like a team that wants to win more than any other:

The Steelers sat 7-5, the losers of three in a row entering their Week 14 showdown with 9-3 Chicago at Heinz Field. One more loss and Pittsburgh was essentially eliminated from the highly-competitive AFC playoff race. But the Steelers beat the Bears 21-9, starting what has become a six-game winning streak with their season on the line every week.

Pittsburgh has outscored its six opponents 167-68 in that six-game span, and picked up more confidence and sense of purpose with every subsequent victory. The Steelers... are playing their best when it matters most.

Now to the other game, the Carolina Panthers versus the Seattle Seahawks.

Seattle has a number of advantages in this game. The Seahawks have the NFL MVP, Shaun Alexander, undeniably a great running back, while as a result of injuries, the Panthers have a third-string running back, Nick Goings. The Seahawks will be playing at home, which may be one of the toughest places for visiting teams to play in the NFL, thanks to rabid fans and the acoustic engineers who designed the roof of Qwest Field. The Seahawks had a bye week and so are more rested than the Panthers.

And yet the Panthers will win. Why? Here are some statistics to think about:

  • Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme's playoff record: 5-1, with the only loss to the New England Patriots, a game in which he nonetheless performed brilliantly.
  • Delhomme's quarterback rating in the postseason: 108.4, the highest in NFL history (ahead of Bart Starr, Joe Montana, Ken Anderson, and Kurt Warner).
  • Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith's performance against the league's best defense, the Chicago Bears: 218 yards (fourth best in NFL playoff history) and two touchdowns.
  • Panthers running back Nick Goings' 100-yard games in 2004: five out of seven started.
  • Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's playoff record: 1-2.
  • Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander's playoff performances to date: 2004, 45 yards against the Green Bay Packers; 2005, 40 yards against the St. Louis Rams; 2006, 9 yards against the Washington Redskins (before leaving the game with a concussion).
As one of my favorite football writers, Paul Zimmerman, wrote in picking the Panthers to win tomorrow:
Spirit, fire and inner toughness will carry this team of destiny all the way.

January 16, 2006

"I Am a Freakishly Talented Athlete"

During the Panthers-Bears game last night, announcer Joe Buck threw out this gem about Panthers defensive end (and sometime wide receiver, and sometime linebacker) Julius Peppers:

Hi, my name is Julius Peppers. I am a freakishly talented athlete. Want me to rush the passer? How about run the ball? Or get back in coverage? Whatever you need, I can do.

January 15, 2006

Two-of-Four, But I Don't Care

Yesterday morning, I posted my NFL playoff predictions. My accuracy fell from 100 percent the last weekend down to just 50 percent -- but I don't care:

  • Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks. My prediction: Seahawks 31, Redskins 6. Actual result: Seahawks 20, Redskins 10. I thought this would be a blowout. It wasn't. Without NFL MVP Shaun Anderson, lost to a concussion early in the game, the Seahawks looked flat. He should be back next week, but given home field advantage, Seattle should have played better even in his absence.
  • New England Patriots at Denver Broncos. My prediction: Patriots 34, Broncos 27. Actual result: Broncos 27, Patriots 13. Well, I got Denver's score correct, but I never would have predicted New England would turn over the ball five times. Having said that, most amazing play ever in a losing cause? Patriots tight end Ben Watson running down Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey from the far side of the field to save a touchdown (scored shortly thereafter). Yes, a tight end ran down a cornerback, starting from the far side of the field, with no good angle, and having to weave around an official.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts. My prediction: Colts 35, Steelers 24. Actual result: Steelers 21, Colts 18. The Colts' Peyton Manning is now 3-6 in playoff games. Ouch.
  • Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears. My prediction: Panthers 16, Bears 10. Actual result: Panthers 29, Bears 21. When are people going to learn? Carolina steps it up in the playoffs. Remember Peyton Manning, former NFL MVP, the quarterback who's 3-6 in the playoffs? Jake Delhomme of the Panthers is now 5-1 in playoff games, with the only loss in the Super Bowl, a close game in which he played magnificently.
I had a house full of people for the Panthers game this evening, and to say we were going crazy was an understatement.

Oh, how I'd love to be in Seattle for next week's NFC championship game. It should be a great one.

January 14, 2006

Divisional Playoff Predictions

Last weekend, I picked the winners in all four NFL playoff games, but since I didn't post my predictions here first, well, it just doesn't count, does it? Okay, I'll do it in the proper order this time.

  • Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks. Washington simply doesn't have the tools to keep up with the Seahawks. Many playoff weekends have at least one blowout, and this will be it. Seahawks 31, Redskins 6.
  • New England Patriots at Denver Broncos. Yes, Denver has the best home-field advantage in the NFL, and yes, they went 13-3 during the regular season, whereas New England went 10-6. So what? They're the Patriots, and they're back. Patriots 34, Broncos 27.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts. Pittsburgh is a tough team, and they're playing well of late. Meanwhile, Indianapolis is rusty and still dealing with emotional turmoil. It won't matter. The game won't be as close as the score will make it seem. Colts 35, Steelers 24.
  • Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears. Rex Grossman of Chicago has played six quarters of football all season, and this is his first playoff game ever. Jake Delhomme of Carolina has a 4-1 record and a 105.1 quarterback rating in the playoffs -- and his one loss came in the Super Bowl, when he was a shanked kickoff away from winning and being named MVP. Carolina runs hot and cold, to be sure, but under Coach John Fox, they consistently run blazingly hot in the playoffs. Panthers 16, Bears 10.