But first, a plug! Grantland is teaming up with ESPN Classic for a few programming stunts over the next few months. Our first effort airs this weekend for three straight nights (August 26, 27 and 28, starting at 8 p.m. ET), a three-movie festival we’re unofficially calling “Politically Incorrect But Undeniably Lovable Sports Movies of the Late 1970s.”
I know, I know — the title needs some work. Here are the three movies:
Bad News Bears in Breaking Training1 (8 p.m.): One of the best sequels ever made. I’d rank it behind The Godfather: Part II, The Dark Knight, Lethal Weapon 2, The Empire Strikes Back and Terminator 2 but just ahead of Superman II, Aliens and Taboo II. It’s funny, ridiculous, and memorable; it has a remarkably happy 70s theme song (“Life is looooooooo-king good … for you and me!”); it uses the Astrodome better than any arena/stadium/ballpark has ever been used in a sports movie (with the POSSIBLE exception of Fenway in Field of Dreams); it features the iconic “Let Them Play!” chant; it’s carried by a pantheon sports movie athlete (Kelly Leak, played by a 10-years-too-old-to-be-playing-this-role Jackie Earle Haley); it pulls off one of the most successful actor-switch-for-a-sequel moves we’ve ever seen (to be honest, I’ve always been partial to Englebert no. 2); it brazenly breaks all continuity rules with some epic batting order shenanigans (Kelly bats in three straight innings at one point); and at the end, it even makes the room a little dusty with Kelly and Kelly’s dad reconciling. So what makes it so politically incorrect? I broke this baby down in a 2005 column, but it’s worth mentioning a second time … the plot revolves around a bunch of 13-year-old California kids stealing a van and driving halfway across the country so they can play baseball in the Astrodome. I’m pretty sure Disney isn’t green-lighting that idea in 2011.
Fast Break (10 p.m.): One of my favorite sports movies, as well as the only sports movie that can never be remade. It’s an equal opportunity offender that crosses every line: there’s gay-bashing, a car ride in which the players frantically eat a bag of marijuana because they think they’re going to be arrested, a coach who encourages a white player to drop an N-bomb to trigger a bench-clearing brawl, a transvestite shooting guard, the glorification of players who have no business going to college … and somehow everything seems OK because Gabe Kaplan is smiling the whole time. It’s one of those movies in which you see actors smoking weed and KNOW they used real grass for the scene. Fast Break also features Academy Award-caliber performances from Kaplan (his apex) and Bernard King (the team’s best player and resident pool shark),2 as well as a climactic twist in which King hustles a rival college coach in pool for so much money that King suggests a game between the two colleges instead (which, of course, gets magically arranged for the following week). I love this movie so much that I have two framed Fast Break posters in my office: the conventional one (drawn by the great Jack Davis) and a Japanese version (in which the movie was inexplicably retitled Droppers). How will the heavily edited/mutilated version play on ESPN Classic? We’ll see.
One On One (midnight): Robby Benson gives a career-ending performance as Henry Steele, a wide-eyed basketball star who earns a college scholarship and learns how to cheat the system (a booster overpays him for his season tickets, a gardener overpays him to watch grass grow, etc.), only he struggles in school (he can barely read) and on the court (his freelancing game doesn’t fly with the evil coach), so he ends up trying amphetamines for extra energy. That leads to one of the craziest scenes ever filmed: a zonked-out Robby running around like a maniac as they use those wacky 1970s don’t-do-drugs camera angles. The evil coach (played by Sports Movie Hall of Famer G.D. Spradlin) decides to take back his scholarship, only Henry refuses, leading to a brutal sequence in which the evil coach uses a football player to beat Henry up, tortures him with stair-running exercises and basically tries to murder him. Somewhere along the way, Henry falls for his cute, redheaded tutor and learns how to read at a ninth-grade level. I’ll let you guess how this movie ends — it’s a surprisingly enjoyable last 20 minutes, I have to say — but you should watch it if only for the unapologetic abuse, Annette O’Toole’s refusal to wear a bra, the cheesy Seals & Crofts soundtrack, the rollicking ending, Spradlin’s creepy performance and the enduring question, “Was Robby trying to play Henry like he was brain-damaged?”3 The good news is that there’s no way a college in 2011 would ever break the rules this flagrantly. Oh, wait.
Anyway, we hope you enjoy the Politically Incorrect But Undeniably Lovable Sports Movies of the Late 1970s Film Festival on ESPN Classic, presented by Grantland.com and nobody else (since nobody else in their right mind would want to sponsor such a thing). Let’s hit the Mailbag. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.
Q: I agree with you that every “Fitzgerald” (or “Fitzsimmons,” or “Fitzmorris”) should be a Fitzy, and every “Sullivan” should be a Sully. However, there happens to be a fellow student at my college named “Sullivan Fitzgerald.” If you don’t believe me, look him up, he won the showcase on “The Price is Right.” What should his proper nickname be? “Sully,” “Fitzy,” or “Sully Fitzy?” I can’t seem to decide what the correct answer is.
— Ben, Syracuse
SG: That’s easy: the hierarchy goes (1) Sully, (2) Murph, (3) Smitty, (4) Fitzy, (5) Mac, (6) Jonesy. Sully trumps everything. Murph trumps everything but Sully. And so on. It’s in the nickname rulebook and everything. A more pressing question off last week’s Mailbag …
Q: Murph from NY is wrong about the universality of that nickname. Who is the most famous Murphy ever? Eddie Murphy. Have you ever heard of anyone calling him “Murph?” Nope. And it’s not just that we’re not privy to his inner circle. We’ve heard plenty of interviews and antecdotes about the man from friend and family going all the way back to his SNL days and nobody calls him “Murph.” He’s Eddie. Was it an ethnic thing or a celebrity thing?
— Teddy, Atlanta
SG: It can’t be an ethnic thing; if so, then how do you explain former NBA star Steve Smith being known by everyone as “Smitty?” I think it was more of a larger-than-life thing: Once Eddie’s career started taking off, everyone probably knew he was too big for a common man’s nickname like “Murph.” He just felt like an “Eddie,” much like prominent Canadian suffragist Emily Murphy probably felt like an “Emily” in the 1910s, and Peter Murphy definitely felt like a “Peter” when he was banging out creepy gothic rock music for Bauhaus in the 1980s. But Dale Murphy was one of the best power hitters of the 1980s … and everyone still called him “Murph.” He even released an autobiography called Murph. For famous people, you just can’t predict how the Murph/No Murph saga will play out. Well, except for Troy Murphy.
Q: For as long as I have known my wife I have called her Murph, to the point where she gets concerned and confused when I call her by her actual first name (which is Eilis, and I bet you $100 million you can’t pronounce that). Our first child is due in January and after reading Mailbag III I am now EXTREMELY tempted to call it Murphy. I figure she’ll be too shattered after the birth to object and the comedy potential of having two Murphs in the house is pretty high. Can you see any downside to this plan?
— Alan S., London
SG: (Starting to wonder if we can pull off an All Murph & Sully Mailbag …)
Q: Murph from New York had it all wrong in last week’s mailbag. Any Murph, Sully or Fitzy knows the reason for a first name is for females. If a girl calls you by your first name you know you have a shot with her whereas if she calls you by your nickname it’s hands off. Just thought I would clear that up as I feel very strongly about this.
— Murph, Southie
SG: My buddy Sully disagrees, saying, “That’s crazy. Never, ever had that issue. Only time my wife calls me by my real name is when she’s pissed off at me.” Allow me to mediate this dispute: Ten million years ago when I was single, I vaguely remember anytime a girl called one of my friends who had a nickname by his real name, I always thought they were going to hook up. Of course, back in my day, “hook up” meant two hours of furious making out, followed by 20 minutes of being attacked by a heavy sweater that you were trying to pull off, then both parties passing out. (By the way, four up, four down. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh. No talking in the dugout.) I’m with Murph from Southie.
Q: I was trying to watch Curb off my DVR with a girl I had over. But when I opened the list Jersey Shore and the Challenge showed up as it on the list. She looked down on me for still watching these shows as an adult (which I can not blame her for). Shouldn’t there be a way to hide the real name of the show you are recording and instead have it show up as something else?
— Phil L., Bronx, NY
SG: Dammit! We were only 23 emails away from a Murph/Sully no-hitter. Anyway, I love this idea — the DVR playlist is the TV equivalent of someone seeing you naked or looking through your e-mails. Anytime I’m visiting a single friend, you can count on me waiting until they go to the bathroom, then hopping on their DVR playlist to see if there’s anything in there that I can make fun of. (One time, I hit jackpot: one of those late-night Showtime movies with a title like The Witches of Breastwick. There’s nothing funnier than seeing a friend come out of the bathroom, realize what’s happening, then briefly lose the will to live.) Would you pay an extra $9.99 per year for the ability to manually change every sketchy choice in our DVRs to things like 60 Minutes, NBA Hardwood Classics or “PGA Tournament, Round 2?” Actually, no. I wouldn’t care. But some people would.
While we’re fixing things, I can’t believe Twitter hasn’t added one of the following two wrinkles …
a. Adding a checklist to your follower list so you could follow however many people you want, but “check” the ones you want to actually show up in your feed. This would prevent wounded feelings (if you’re not following a friend who’s secretly bitter that you’re not following them, which means either they tweet too much or their tweets suck) and clogged Twitter feeds (if you have a couple of friends who post 40 to 50 times a day and clog your feed up, only you can’t unfollow them because they’re your friends).
b. Adding a button so you can make your follower list private. Do you realize how many more porn stars, strippers and hoochie mamas would be followed by athletes and rappers if nobody could see whom they were following? (Well, not you, Amar’e Stoudemire, you obviously don’t care. I’m talking about everyone else.) Do you realize how much more DM-inspired casual sex could be going down? You’re cheating the condom industry, child alimony lawyers and sports blogs, Twitter. Get your act together.
Q: In honor of the Fe-mailbag you promised, how about coming up with a list of men who are hot, but not in the obvious, Tom Brady kind of way.
— Megan, Ojai, CA
SG (in the Dr. Evil voice): How about noooooooooo?
Q: You still misunderstand what a Fu Manchu mustache is. What Hulk Hogan and Sam Elliott had is a horseshoe/biker mustache. A REAL Fu Manchu, as explained by Derek from Madison, WI is only grown out of the top lip. The Fu Manchu is seen on stereotypical Chinese villains in movies and TV. It is long and can be twirled. It was named after a fictional character named Fu Manchu.
— Paul, Scottsdale, AZ
SG: You’re right, I screwed it up … which means I screwed it up during an explanation in which I was trying to prevent other people from screwing it up. Thank you, thank you very much. These are the things that happen when you don’t sleep enough. I wish we could just call the horseshoe/biker mustache “The Hulkster” so I wouldn’t keep getting confused. More important …
Q: You referred to a mustache and goatee connecting as the “Circle beard” or the Cobain. Although it would be nice to honor Kurt in this way, back in the day, if any movie character or TV character had an evil twin or an evil alter ego of some kind, the evil one would just be the same guy but with the circle beard. Wouldn’t it just be easier to call that facial hair look “the evil twin?”
— Ryan, Richmond, VA
SG: I worry about that working only because facial hair seems to change for different evil alter egos. For instance, Evil Spock (from Star Trek‘s iconic “Mirror Mirror” episode) had an old-school circle beard, whereas
Garth Garthe Knight (from Knight Rider‘s not nearly as iconic two-parter in which Michael Knight’s evil twin tried to bring him down4) had the Frank Zabka look going. Then again, when South Park did its evil-twin episode (“Spookyfish”), Evil Cartman had the full-fledged circle beard going. (Thinking.) (Still thinking.) You’re right, “The Evil Twin” works better than “The Cobain.” Even if I didn’t know what it meant ahead of time, if somebody at work said to me, “Did you hear about Lane Brown? He grew evil-twin facial hair!” I’d understand the meaning.5 I think that works. Good job, Ryan from Richmond.
Q: It could be comparable to your “Sneaky Hot Hall of Fame,” though it would need a different name b/c this isn’t about guys who are hotter in real life than on screen (though they may be).
— Megan, Ojai, CA
SG: Look, Megan, we’re going to have to ask you to leave. I’m sorry.
Q: Hank Aaron joining the Orioles? What makes you think they would ever pick up a washed-up former star to boost ticket sales? Oh, right.
— Jesse B, Washington, DC
Q: You wondered if 77 year old Hank Aaron could hit eight homers to pass Barry Bonds? I guess you don’t remember 75 year old Luke Appling (go to 10:38 mark of this clip) taking Warren Spahn deep at an Old-Timer’s Game. And Appling looked like he swallowed Greg Luzinski at the time.
— Steve Brightman, Kent, OH
SG: Boom! Video proof that Aaron’s comeback could work! Also, a number of readers pointed out that teams could just agree to let every hit off Aaron’s bat become an inside-the-park home run. In other words, we could get Bonds’ record in two days, or as long as it takes Aaron to run around the bases eight times, whichever comes first.
Q: It’s about guys you might not think of as really hot at first glance but whose hotness goes up considerably after you see what they’re all about.
— Megan, Ojai, CA
SG: I’m only going to ask one more time — please leave the Mailbag. Please. I don’t want to have to call the police.
Q: In Mailbag III, you could have added even more context for your case that Barca-Madrid is the best rivalry in sports: the Spanish Civil War! These cities were literally at war with each other in the 1930s and today Barcelona has its own language and separatist movement. To make your analogy complete, you need to work in some long simmering North/South hate from the American Civil War.
— Jeremy Mercer, Marseille, France
SG: What really frightens me: At some point in my life, I knew all the facts about the Spanish Civil War. Note to all the kids going to college this weekend: Just about everything you’re about to learn, you will eventually forget. I was a political science major and became relatively obsessed with the Middle East; I ended up taking four classes about the Middle East, wrote gigantic term papers about the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Munich Olympics and Abdel Nasser, took an entire course about the PLO-Israeli conflict and had as many opinions about the Gaza Strip as I did about the 1992 Celtics season. Two decades later, I couldn’t point out Iran and Iraq on a map.
That reminds me, it’s my duty to pass along these five rules for anyone heading to college: stay active beyond your classes (newspaper, radio station, etc.); don’t date anyone for longer than two semesters; always drink liquor before beer and not vice-versa; don’t forget to call your parents every few days; and approach your classes the same way Shaq approached his NBA career. In other words, don’t kill yourself trying to become the best center of all time; just do enough to eventually get mentioned in the top 10, and enjoy every moment along the way. Shaq could have ended up with a 3.95 in the NBA; he settled for a 3.4. Ultimately, did it really matter? He won
three four rings, made something like $300 million, clinched a spot on the “best 15 players ever” list, kicked ass for three straight postseasons and will be remembered by everybody who watched him. That’s what you want to get out of college.
Q: Two months ago you whined about taking Adam Royer No. 1 overall in the Grantland Reality TV Draft, insisting you screwed up by passing on C.T. No one has approached his 164 points and it took him only one week. Don’t you need to show him some love for carrying your team thus far?
— Derrick, Bismarck, MD
SG: Yes and no … “yes” because it turned out to be a great pick, “no” because I lost him within an hour. Wouldn’t it have been more fun to root for CT over the course of two months, especially during moments like last week when everyone in the bar was screaming at him, CT’s lava was bubbling to the surface and it looked like he was going to snap and start punching everyone in the room like Liam Neeson cleaning out that yacht in Taken? Even if Adam turned out to be the Mario Williams of this draft, a controversial no. 1 overall pick who turned out to be the right choice … he just wasn’t that memorable. I should have gone Masshole at no. 1 and taken CT. It was the right thing to do. While we’re here, I’d like to congratulate the Jim Thome of the Challenge (Paula) and the
Dirk Nowitzki Kevin McHale of the Challenge (Johnny Bananas) for winning their first title their first title and third title, respectively, as well as the LeBron & Wade (Kenny & Wes) for falling short.
Q: Here are a couple of names to get you started: Kyle Chandler/Coach Taylor (no explanation necessary), Idris Elba/Stringer Bell (the whole control/power thing), Wes Welker and Dustin Pedroia (what they lack in height they make up for in intensity — plus, the awesomeness of the foot reference interview and the laser show comment can’t be denied), and Paul Rudd (as long as he is as charming and witty in real life as I think he is).
— Megan, Ojai, CA
SG: (Waiting for the police to arrive.)
Q: Sometime pretty soon, Tim Wakefield is going to win his 200th game. Everything I’ve read about throwing a knuckleball says: a) anyone can learn how to do it and b) anyone who learns how to do it can do it for years, since it takes such a minimal toll on your arm. So why aren’t there more Tim Wakefields? If I were a pitcher in my mid-30s and just lost my velocity, or a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery, it seems like the first thing I’d do is learn to throw a knuckler.
— Ben, Savage
SG: Does “pretty soon” cover the stretch from now until 2017? Anyway, I’ve also wondered why there weren’t more knuckleballers, so I turned to my old friend … Google. According to this 2008 MLB.com feature, there aren’t more knuckleballers because teams would rather not waste minor league time developing them (at the expense of hard-throwing prospects); pitching coaches don’t know how to help them; it’s extremely hard to throw them (you need long fingers and durable fingernails, as well as a ton of patience); it’s hard to catch them (especially at the minor league level); it’s hard to throw consistently for strikes (so you need a fastball that can keep hitters honest); and when your knuckleball isn’t knuckling and you get shelled, it looks 10 times worse than someone who got shelled throwing 95 mph. So it’s purely a developmental thing. Which raises the question … why wouldn’t someone open a Knuckleballer Academy? Hire every living knuckleballer, charge tuition/room/board, keep it going 365 days a year and demand a 2 percent cut of every graduate’s salary who makes the majors. Done.
Q: Which sex tape would be a bigger deal, Obama and Jennifer Aniston or Michelle Obama and Tiger Woods?
— Patrick Stegemoeller, Albany, New York
SG: I’d rank it like this: (3) Tiger and Michelle, (2) Obaniston, (1), Obama and Tiger Woods. Speaking of Obama …
Q: As a fan of the Celtics and a supporter of Rajon Rondo, I have to say, I felt bad for him after what Obama said about his jumper in front of all of his friends. If you were Rondo, wouldn’t that have been the picture-perfect time to point to one of Obama’s advisors and say, “Hey, why don’t one of you teach this guy how to run the country?”
— Sam, Cambridge
SG: Had that happened, Rondo would have immediately become the biggest Republican hero since Ronald Reagan. You know what bothered me about that story? Wasn’t it dirty pool for our president — an unabashed Bulls fan — to mess with the head of a rival player like that? I thought his job was to protect every American! Leave my Celtics alone, POTUS!!! We need to hash this out on a future BS Report … you know, in an alternate universe in which ESPN would allow me to have Obama on the BS Report.
Q: You know when they show the weird kid facts when the LLWS kids are hitting? Why can’t we do this for all pro sports? Don’t you want to know what Ron Artest’s favorite dessert is?
— Tyler Norton, Boston
SG: (Nodding vigorously.)
Q: For just a brief moment in tonights Sox/Rangers game (Tues.) John Lackey’s era slipped below 6.00 (it was literally 5.99) for the span of 1 out in the second inning. The next batter then hit a sac fly and brought it right back up to 6.05. There must be some type of drastic game we should be playing as Sox fans with this stat. Like if it dips back below 6.00 someone gets punched in the chest or something stupid like that. This guy is our 3rd man in the rotation right now isn’t he? Yikes.
— Jim Hamel, Northfield, VT
SG: (Nodding grimly.)
Q: XM/Sirius has over 200 stations. How hard is it to get a WWE station? 20 hours of the day just play WWE old/new entrance themes, toss in a daily hour long commentarty/call in show, and you have it all. Sports talk radio lets us call in as soon as a game is over, why not be able to call in and talk about a PPV as soon as it’s over?
— Brian Godish, Elgin, IL
SG: Great idea. Then again, you’re talking about two companies that merged their content into one company … and yet, I’m a Sirius subscriber for Howard Stern’s show but somehow can’t get XM’s MLB package so I can listen to Red Sox games in my car. What’s the point of merging if you didn’t really merge? Great game plan, Sirius/XM: You’re basically saying that baseball fans and Stern fans are two mutually exclusive groups with no overlap whatsoever. No wonder your stock price can’t climb over the Mendoza Line. Can’t we just press the RESET button and start over from scratch with the satellite radio business?
Q: Dear Roger,
If you’re reading this, it means the NFL Lockout has ended. And if you don’t feel hated enough, maybe you’re willing to damage the league a little further. You remember the rule change, right? (**Roger says to himself ‘Kick from the 35′**) We could use a corrupt asshole to implement this rule to take more fun out of the game. We’ll keep an eye out and our credit cards ready. Remember Roger, kickoffs are exciting plays, maybe the best of plays, so let’s just dump them entirely. We’ll be hoping this letter finds you, and finds you in hell.
The NFL Fanbase
— Brian M., Chicago
SG: I’m really starting to enjoy the Shawshank E-Mail of the Week.
Q: Serious question: Can Patrick Ewing still dunk? Have you seen him lately + in those Snickers commercials from a few years ago with quick camera cuts? I say no way he can still dunk.
— Aaron W., Gainesville, FL
SG: Stop it! This is turning into a Spike game show gone horribly wrong: “This week on The Comeback, a new cast of former sports legends try to do basic things they once took for granted. Can Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still make three straight sky hooks? Can Pete Rose hit a single off a pitching machine throwing 90 miles an hour? Can Bobby Orr send a slap shot through traffic into the net? Can John Hannah still move a 300-pound blocking sled?”
(Actually, if you had two contestants every week betting on whether these guys could still do these things or not, and the athletes were getting paid … I mean … I feel like I might watch this. Let’s just move on before they put me and Aaron in charge of that channel.)
Q: You can talk about pantheon episodes all you want but I’ve been watching Curb since the beginning and last Sunday’s “Bisexual” episode was THE BEST OF ALL TIME. Bar none, hands down. We’ll have to wait until the end of the season to see what Larry David’s overall ERA and strikeout totals are, but he just pitched a no-hitter. Perfect episode, from the spot-on baseball performance enhancing metaphors, to the encounter with his “friend” from California. Best line of the season so far: “I was actually offended that you invited me.”
— Adam, Brooklyn, NY
SG: Yup. We’re up to two Pantheon episodes with 40 percent of the season to go. It’s almost starting to feel like Larry is juicing creatively. That reminds me, Joe Kulka in Quakertown sends along the following note: “I stumbled upon this clip of Larry David circa 1981 doing a not very funny bit about Moammar Gadhafi. I thought it would be the sports equivalent of finding a tape of Roy Halladay pitching in Little League. Every once in a while you catch a glimpse of what is to come but mostly it is unrecognizable.” Do you think Seinfeld, Letterman, David, Bono, Elton John and every other rich comedian or musician have ever thought of pooling their money together and buying YouTube just so they could destroy all the embarrassing clips of them?
Q: Can someone explain to me why media types want us to be shocked and outraged every single time one of these cheating scandals come out surrounding a big-time college football or basketball program? It’s like watching True Blood and acting completely surprised for the gratuitous nude scene each week.
— Billy Bahnsen, Patchogue, NY
SG: And you wonder why I don’t really care about college sports.
Q: I think Charles Robinson should get his own TV show. Think To Catch a Predator, but instead it’s To Catch a Violator. Bear with me, here. Robinson poses as an attractive five-star recruit (in any sport) and goads coaches and athletic directors into illicitly giving him stuff. They arrange a workout, except when the coach/AD walks on the field, Robinson is sitting there calmly, ready to break the story with the push of a button. The violator has five minutes to save face before Robinson hits send anyway.
— Roger, Chapel Hill, NC
SG: Now THIS would get me caring about college sports!
Q: I was watching TrueHoop’s link of Kobe at the Drew League dropping 40 points. I noticed his fadeaway jumper has the Dirk leg hike. I checked this with the 2010 highlights and its not there. Kobe is now incorporating the Dirk hike into his game! Kobe really does not want to age. He is adopting an aspects from a seven foot German!
— Scott R., Denton, TX
SG: Maybe Kobe bought Dirk’s leg hike during his mysterious trip to Germany last month. Still, you have to give the dude credit: No NBA star since Jordan has worked harder every summer to get better. You have to think Kobe licked his wounds from that Dallas sweep, watched the playoffs keep moving for two more rounds without him, watched everyone anoint LeBron as the new king of the league, watched everyone dump LeBron for Dirk, and the whole time, he was thinking to himself, “What can I do?” Fast-forward to the Germany trip, the experiment platelet procedure, Dirk’s knee hike and god knows what else he’s doing this summer. I can’t wait to see how it plays out … and yet, it might not play out until February 2012 (or later). Yet another reason why the lockout sucks so much.
That reminds me, here’s an open plea for both sides (Team Stern and Team Hunter) to shed all the extra bodies, pick four guys from each side and lock themselves into a room for a week until they make some progress. All the public posturing, he said/she said stuff, media leaks, habitual bitching, whining, doomsday rhetoric and schedule filibustering needs to stop now. It’s almost Labor Day. The lack of urgency on both ends is really appalling. We all know where this is ending up. Just agree to split the basketball-related revenue 50/50, agree that guaranteed contracts can’t last longer than two years, agree on a couple of additional solutions to generate additional revenue (like my Entertaining-As-Hell Tournament for the no. 8 seeds every April, sponsored uniforms or whatever else), pick two franchises to contract (or four franchises to merge) and you’re 80 percent of the way there. In case you didn’t notice, the economy sucks right now. Nobody wants to hear rich people bitching about what’s fair and unfair, especially when nobody ever seems to mention the word “fans.” Just shut up and start figuring shit out already. Please.
If you missed Part 1 of Mailbag IV, click here. Here’s Part 2.
Q: No funny e-mail here. I just wanted to extend my condolences regarding Uncle Frank. I know you knew him. He always brought a smile to my face no matter what, and I will remember his interaction with Mike Tyson as one of the best things ever on television…seriously ever. Please give my best to Jimmy and his family.
— Dave, North Wales
Q: I hope you saw Uncle Frank trending on Twitter today. What a tribute to that guy, he always made me laugh.
— Thomas, Houston
SG: I absolutely saw it. At first, the thought of someone explaining “trending” to Uncle Frank made me start laughing. I stared at his name for a little while and got choked up. Then, I thought of his expression during the hypothetical trending explanation and ended up doing the laughing/crying combo. See, had this happened when Uncle Frank was alive, he would have heard about making the front page of Twitter (“Hold on, I’m on what?”), demanded to see this “trending” thing himself (“What is this again?”), badgered someone to call up the page (“Just show me, I want to see it”), then pointed at his name and gushed, “Wow, look at that, I’m right there. Wow! That’s something.”
He would have remained confused.
He would have asked someone for a second explanation, heard that explanation … and that wouldn’t have helped, either.
From there, he would have strolled the Jimmy Kimmel Live offices telling everyone how he trended on Twitter — bragging, but not really, because he was such a sweet guy that it never felt like bragging — and eventually, he would have forgotten the word “trending” and called it something like “twittering” or “tweeping.” Or, he would have played the part, pretended to forget the term and done it like that. He would have gotten a laugh either way.
The following is not hyperbole: I have never met anyone who loved anything more than Uncle Frank loved working for his nephew Jimmy’s show. Maybe the show didn’t save his life, but it definitely rejuvenated it, reinvented it and gave it the unlikeliest of final chapters. Back in 2002, Uncle Frank was just another divorced ex-cop living in New York City and figuring out his twilight years. His daughters were grown and scattered around the area. He spent his days worrying about everyone else. He’d call his daughter Micki, and if she didn’t answer, he’d show up unannounced at her apartment to make sure she was fine. The poor guy didn’t have anything to do.
Fast-forward a few months: Suddenly Frank was living in Los Angeles and shooting a taped segment for his nephew’s new late-night show. Jimmy wanted to make Frank a running character, which wasn’t a stretch since Frank was a running character. In that first piece, Frank gave his “tour” of Hollywood, riffed on a few “Walk of Fame” stars and weaved in stories from his days as a Vegas security guard. The piece worked. During the weeks leading up to the launch, as we frantically shaped the show, we always knew we had five quality minutes in the bank. During a crucial press conference before our first show, Jimmy showed off our new stage, answered questions and showed the media that piece. We had all seen it 10 times at that point. We hung on every joke, hoping they would laugh in the right spots. They did. Nobody was happier than Uncle Frank.
He spent those weeks bouncing from office to office, getting to know everyone and basically being available. Really, really available. Even though he didn’t need to arrive until rehearsal — sometime in the midafternoon — he routinely showed up four or five hours earlier. We used to think this was funny, but after a few months, we didn’t even notice anymore. He showed up earlier than the writers, the producers, sometimes even the host. That’s how it remained for 8½ years, save for a couple of stretches when his health faltered. Much like the theater itself, you always knew Uncle Frank would be there.
His nephews (Jimmy and Jimmy’s cousin Sal Iacono) kept warning that the sweetest guy alive had a breaking point, how once upon a time they mined endless hours of entertainment out of Frank’s fighting with his ex-wife — finding increasingly elaborate ways to egg them on — and that Frank swore like a truck driver if properly provoked. I never believed them. Uncle Frank??? There’s no way. One night, Frank and I were shooting a red-carpet bit on Hollywood Boulevard for a movie premiere. I was the writer, which meant that — as Frank interacted with celebrities and did Uncle Frank things — I identified people for him, fed him dopey questions and prodded him in the right directions. At one point, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore strolled by and Frank started yelling out, “Ashton! Ashton!” After all, Ashton had been on Jimmy’s show before. Surely he’d come over to see his old friend Uncle Frank.
Kutcher glanced over … and kept walking.
Frank screamed his name a couple more times, turned to the camera in disbelief, then started dropping F-bombs like a truck driver. There it was! Angry Uncle Frank! I poured gasoline on Frank’s fire for as long as I could, then sprinted over to the editing bay with our director to shape a piece out of Frank’s hilariously unexpected tirade. It killed in the next show. It absolutely killed. We played up the Ashton-Frank “feud” on subsequent shows and spent the next few weeks screaming, “Ashton! Ashton!” in the office. We couldn’t get enough of it. Like always with Frank, he sensed when something had clicked and played it up even more. He bitched about Ashton to anyone who asked, spinning his disdain in his own style and using words you never hear any more (like “jerk-off”) or words you’ve never heard before (like “egotist”). Anytime he lost steam, we stoked his fire with comments like, “Ashton started dating Demi and now he thinks he’s too good for us,” followed by a riled-up Frank griping, “Yeah, who does this guy think he is? Somebody needs to say something to him!”
“Watch what happens next time Ashton is on the show,” Jimmy predicted. “When I throw it to Uncle Frank, he’ll fold immediately and say something nice.”
That’s exactly what happened. Uncle Frank folded like an ironing board. At that point in his life, he was probably too happy to hold a grudge. Strangers were recognizing him on the street and yelling out, “Uncle Frank!” It always blew him away. He spent hours telling anyone who would listen how he loved the show, how the show saved his life, how fortunate he was. This was like waving red meat in front of Sal, a natural troublemaker, who could never resist deadpanning something like, “Uncle Frank, what did you think of that article that said we might get cancelled?” It always played out the same way. A shell-shocked Uncle Frank would stare at Sal in disbelief, grab his shoulder with two hands and hold onto it like a bear (“What do you mean? SAL, WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”), shake the real answer out of him (“TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW!!!”), force him to repeat the real answer another 10 to 20 times, then spend the next 10 minutes laughing that Sal nearly gave him a heart attack.
Let’s be honest: Uncle Frank wasn’t a brain surgeon. He generated comedy from a simple place: sweetest guy alive, easily confused, a little slow, always endearing. He had the funniest blank stare of anyone I’ve ever met; you could actually see his wheels turning. He had a unique way of making everyone laugh with him, not at him, an important distinction.6 He freely admitted that he wasn’t too smart and savored every good-natured impression of him. He always played along. Always. Jimmy’s friends in the comedy world loved him as much as anyone; there wasn’t a tougher group to win over, but he did.
Frank improbably emerged as our most reliable performer for taped comedy pieces. If anything, we relied on him too much that first year; he was a 200-inning starter who ended up throwing something like 285 innings. He peaked with his 70th birthday show (replete with a taped piece from the Playboy Mansion) and a piece mentioned in this space two months ago: the day he flew pigeons in Harlem with Mike Tyson. Tyson didn’t trust our crew initially, but Frank quickly won him over just by being Frank. An odd bond developed between them. By the end of the taping, they were watching the pigeons fly around, with Frank doing his damndest to put it into words. He finally said that Tyson was a lucky guy, with Tyson lisping on cue, “Thank you, Uncle Frank.” Like they were related or something. What an ending. I just loved that. I can still hear Frank gasping in disbelief as the pigeons flew in controlled swoops around him. Ohhhhhhhh, my god! Nobody else could have pulled off that particular day during such a particularly unhappy point in Tyson’s life.
Frank had a way of lifting everybody. When we struggled that first year, it would have been easy for staff members to mope around, gripe about the long hours, bitch about the show’s direction or worry about getting fired. But Uncle Frank loved being there so much that you felt guilty complaining. He flew through your office like a tornado, you laughed, you made small talk with him, he moved on to the next room … and then, two hours later, suddenly he was back again for Round 2.
In the years after I left the show, Frank gained a better sense for what made him entertaining — a dangerous development, since too much self-awareness would ruin his “character” — so they kept unearthing new tricks to make sure Frank remained Frank. He started doing more hidden-camera bits, more running gimmicks (like “Dr. Uncle Frank”) and more stuff with his ex-wife, Chippy (a natural foil). When I came back in 2005 to promote my book as a guest, Uncle Frank was more delighted than everyone else combined. He dragged me around the greenroom by my right arm, pulling me into other people’s conversations. Did you hear Billy’s on the show tonight? Billy’s on the show tonight! Outside of my own family, Uncle Frank was the only person who called me “Billy.”
Upon hitting his mid-70s, Frank started to look older, skinnier, a little more worn down. His daughters finally made him see a doctor — a major accomplishment because Uncle Frank had been avoiding doctors and dentists for decades — and the news wasn’t great. I knew he was in trouble when he missed a few weeks of tapings. This was like getting Brett Favre or Peyton Manning out of the lineup. He hung on for another two years of shows, even shooting funny bits as recently as a few months ago. When cancer made another run at him again this summer, it moved frighteningly fast — suddenly his body was under attack, and that was that.
Word spread about his condition pretty quickly. So many friends, coworkers and former coworkers visited him in the hospital that it became problematic for his immediate family; 10 minutes didn’t pass without someone new arriving to pay his or her respects. The guy who once couldn’t figure out how to spend his afternoons suddenly had an extended waiting list. I remember Jimmy telling me during the embryonic planning stages of his show, “I’m gonna get my Uncle Frank to move out here, I’m gonna put him on the show every night, he’s gonna be great,” and thinking, “Yikes, that sounds dicey.”
Nine years later, he trended on Twitter. So much for dicey.
He passed away peacefully early Tuesday morning. I will remember him as a doting father, uncle, brother and friend. I will remember him through his granddaughter, Franki (his namesake), as well as the countless times he made me laugh, and how he started every conversation the same way: “Billy, how’s the family?” I will remember how much my friends Jimmy and Sal adored him, as well as the identical gleam in their eyes every time Uncle Frank embarked on one of his patented rolls. I will remember his cussing at Ashton, connecting with Iron Mike and gasping at those pigeons in Harlem.
Above everything else, I will remember a healthy Uncle Frank wandering the offices within El Capitan Theatre, wearing that black police jacket, shaking hands, barging into conversations, clutching people’s arms and giving his show the same life it gave him. You could say he returned the favor. Frank Potenza was the sweetest man I ever knew.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.