Narrator: “Hey, Bill Simmons, you just covered your first Olympics, what are you gonna do now?”
Me: “I’m going to Mailbagland!!!!!!!!!!!”
One twist: I’m dedicating this column to the great Bob Ryan, one of my writing idols growing up, the G.O.A.T. of basketball journalism and someone who just finished a spectacular 44-year career at the Boston Globe. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.
Q: Why haven’t you taken the time to sit down and thoroughly dissect the chances of the 2012 Olympic team beating the 1992 team? Isn’t it tempting? Kobe vs. Jordan, LeBron vs. everyone else, even the two college kids and who impacted the team more! I need someone with real basketball knowledge to tackle this, not talking heads.
— Melvin, Boston
SG: Melvin, your effective guilt trip shamed me into a response. 1992 vs. 2012 hmmmmm sounds like the perfect topic for our second Dr. Jack Breakdown of the month!
WHICH TEAM WAS MICHAEL JORDAN ON?
The original Dream Team featured the greatest basketball player of all time at his absolute mega-apex. To be clear, “mega-apex” isn’t a word. You can’t have a mega-apex. In the summer of 1992, however, Jordan was experiencing a mega-apex. Nobody has ever been better at basketball than Michael Jordan in 1992 — he submitted the rich man’s version of the year LeBron just wrapped up (right down to the hardware). He also happened to be homicidally competitive, quite possibly the most ruthless athlete in the history of team sports. Jordan loved beating people so much that he couldn’t stop doing it. He had to beat people at everything: golf, poker, half-court shots, even whose bag came out first in baggage claim.
So if we’re having a hypothetical “1992 vs. 2012” conversation, that means we’re convening the Dream Team in August of 1992 and telling them, “Hey, fellas? We just built you a time machine. We’re traveling 20 years into the future so you can play America’s 2012 team — these guys are really good; more than a few people even think they can beat you guys.”
That’s when 1992 Michael tries to fight off a sarcastic smirk and says, “Really? I’d love to hear more. Tell me a little about these guys.”
“Well, they have someone named LeBron who’s the best basketball player since you. They have someone named Durant who’s an even better shooter than Bird in his prime. They have a guy named Kobe who’s probably the best 2-guard since you — he’s near the end of his career, though. Their point guards are really good. They have incredible outside shooting — the 3-point line is too short for them. And they’re extremely athletic.”
That’s when Michael says, “Sounds interesting. Who are their centers?”
“Well, that’s their weak spot — they don’t really have any centers. They don’t have a low-post game at all. Or anyone to protect the rim. They basically play small ball and shoot 3s.”
And that’s when Michael starts laughing, asks for directions to the time machine, and wonders aloud if his golf clubs will make it through time travel. So much for our Dr. Jack Breakdown.
(Important note: Had Dwight Howard played this summer, you might have been able to coerce me into a “1992 vs. 2012” discussion. But after watching Pau Gasol pick open the 2012 team’s small-ball scab with a shrimp fork for two hours, it’s just not happening — we can’t waste 6,000 words wondering if Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron could have handled Barkley, Malone, Robinson and Ewing down low, much less if their teammates could have slowed down Jordan and Scottie during the most devastating two-way peak of their alliance. The 1992 team wasn’t losing to a gimmick like small ball. And 1992 MJ wasn’t losing, period. Let’s just move on before I get pissy.)
Q: While I understand and sympathize with your scheduling dilemma at the Olympics, I have a suggestion to at least make it slightly easier. You can eliminate certain options by asking one question. “Is this the pinnacle of this sport?” For instance, you can skip all cycling events (Tour de France), anything involving horses (Kentucky Derby), sailing (America’s Cup) and badminton (any July 4th BBQ). Doesn’t create a schedule, but it eases the selection process ever so slightly
— Keith Gordon, New York
SG: That helpful e-mail inadvertently helped guide my choices these past 16 days. Some other tips I learned as the month went along
A. Gravitate toward events that might be won by someone from the host country — like British heptathlete Jessica Ennis, or Sir Chris Hoy in cycling. Just a different level of intensity and passion.
B. Gravitate toward events that include the words “clearly the best.”
C. Always gravitate toward the words, “Swedish women’s handball team” or “Dutch women’s field hockey team.”
D. Don’t talk yourself out of an event simply because it’s a pain in the ass to get there. I knew USA-Canada was going to be an incredible women’s soccer semifinal, especially because of the setting (Manchester), then talked myself out of it because it was two hours from London, which meant either renting a car or staying over a night. I backed out, missed the match and it ended up being the most exciting women’s soccer game maybe ever. Whoops.
E. There are real reasons that sports like judo, fencing and water polo never took off as spectator sports — you need close-ups, replays and announcers to explain what you’re seeing. You can lie to yourself with the whole, “Look, it’s the Olympics, it’s great to see anyone who’s the best at what they do, right?” Kool-Aid-drinker routine, or you could trust someone like me and I’m telling you, you don’t have to see EVERYTHING at the Olympics. You only have 16 days. You have to pick your spots. Filling up with the likes of judo and fencing is like having four rolls before Thanksgiving dinner.
Q: I am sure you didn’t get to see everything you wanted in London. What was the one event you missed when you were kicking yourself after that you missed it?
— Jessica, New York City
SG: That’s actually a longer list than you’d think. My biggest regret was missing Sir Chris Hoy win his sixth career gold medal in the Velodrome — mainly because I had a free afternoon and could have been there (I just read the schedule wrong). My no. 2 biggest regret was not seeing Katie Taylor win her boxing gold medal in front of the delirious Irish fans. Apparently those were two of the loudest moments of the Olympics. My no. 3 regret was missing the aforementioned USA-Canada women’s soccer semifinal, although that was the most defensible mistake of the three.
What I didn’t anticipate: Around Day 4 of the Olympics, this depressing realization strikes you that you just can’t catch everything. It’s impossible — the events are happening too far away from each other. You almost come to grips with it, as weird as that sounds. By the midway point, I shifted into “I don’t need to go to everything, I can save some stuff for 2016!” mode. For me, that’s boxing, wrestling, weight lifting and anything that includes the words “Velodrome.”
Now, you’re reading that and thinking, “How could Simmons miss all four of those sports?” I’m telling you — those 16 days cruise by so much faster than you’d think. Every time I feel guilty about not seeing enough, I remember that I spent so much time on the tube, I actually finished two iBooks on my iPhone.1 The other problem: Before the Olympics, I limited myself to five basketball games total and somehow ended up seeing 11. I couldn’t help myself. Basketball is for me what food is for Jessica Simpson — I just can’t stay away.
One was Jack McCallum’s Dream Team (loved it); the other was called The Presidents Club (about the relationships of presidents in office with former presidents). I’ve been reading books about presidents lately. Don’t ask me why. I’m a big “multiple books about a specific subject” reading-binge guy, peaking with the 970 books I read about the O.J. trial in the mid-1990s.
Q: After watching a half hour worth of handball, I couldn’t help but think about how good Rondo’s speed, freakishly long arms and big hands would make him at that game.
— Austin, Watertown, NY
SG: I say this without hesitation — after catching four and a half handball games in person (including the second half of Norway’s gold-medal clincher on the women’s side, which I may or may not have wagered on), I am 100 percent convinced that Rondo would be the greatest handball player who ever lived. Perfect sport for him. Just perfect. You know how they can clone stuff now? We might need to clone Rondo. Raise the clone in Norway with a name like Rajon Rondossen. Or, convince him to have multiple babies with everyone on Norway’s women’s handball team. While we’re here
Q: What is your wish list of events for seeing current American professional stars competing in the Olympics? LeBron in the 100 meters is my top one.
— Rob, Golden, CO
SG: Totally agree — that narrowly edges out Rondo’s handball career for me. Wouldn’t LeBron be Bolt with a longer stride? Runner-up choices: Russell Westbrook for the decathlon (so long, rest of the field), Kevin Love for the shot put (imagine Love carrying an extra 60 pounds and flinging that thing), Mike Trout (anything), any starting NFL linebacker (rowing), Calvin Johnson (long jump), and Kevin Durant (volleyball).
Quick tangent: It’s hard to watch volleyball (especially the men) without wondering what it would be like if two McDonald’s All-Americans per decade just said “Screw it” and switched to volleyball. But Durant jumps out for me the most because of his height, muscle memory and personality — who would love hugging teammates, high-fiving after big points or pumping up the team before a crucial moment more than Durant? And couldn’t Chris Paul have been a phenomenal server/setter in another life, or am I crazy?
Q: Recently I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Man I’d love to go to the Olympics.” Could you just give some ballpark numbers in a future column of how much the Olympics would cost for a working stiff like me to attend, assuming we aren’t getting your sports writer access discount and have to pay for flight, meals, hotel and a press pass? One caveat being that London is probably the most expensive city, due to conversion rates. I’d be really interested to know. I assume I should just sit at home and watch it in HD.
— Shawn, East Longmeadow
SG: London’s Olympics skewed expensive because it was a supply-and-demand thing — they have 63 million people in the U.K., plus all the surrounding European countries and even America lurking just seven hours away (if you’re flying in from the East Coast). That’s why they jacked up upper-tier hotel rates in London to comical degrees (any “quality” hotel was going for £1,200 – 2,000 per night at least), and that’s why it was so much more difficult to find tickets kicking around than everyone expected (unlike Beijing in 2008, when you could find anything you wanted at a steep discount, apparently). If you were on a budget, you only could have pulled off a relatively inexpensive trip by staying at a dump and buying tickets for the cheapest events possible — at that point, you would have been better off staying home and watching in HD.
You know the other reason why writers love covering the Olympics? Great press seating! Whether it was basketball, gymnastics, handball, swimming it didn’t matter. The press was almost always positioned dead-center on the second level. For track and field, I showed up two hours early for Bolt’s 100-meter race (last weekend) as well as Saturday’s final night (when Jamaica broke the 4×100-meter relay record and Mo Farah won his second gold) — both times, I ended up with a lower-level press seat 25 yards from the finish line.2 Anyway, that’s just one of many reasons why you read so many gushy “It’s great to cover the Olympics!” columns from American writers these past few weeks.
I learned this early on at the Olympics: Show up 90 minutes early, cherry-pick one of the best press seats, then go online and kill time until the event starts. It’s not rocket science.
Q: How awesome are the sports books that are on every block in London? Any chance that we’ll have that in 40 years?
— Rich DeHero, Boston
SG: Glad you brought this up, Rich. During the Olympics, you could walk into any William Hill and wager on just about any Olympic event whenever you wanted. Did this cause mass chaos and lead to thousands of degenerate gamblers losing their minds? NO!!!!!!! Did this lead to scandals with athletes wagering on themselves (or even worse, against themselves)? NO!!!!!!!!! So why don’t we have sportsbooks in America again? What’s the difference between wasting money on a losing sports bet and squandering money on $100 of lottery tickets again? And why do we think this would enable gamblers so much? During 16 Olympic days, I placed only one wager in a London sportsbook. (It was more fun knowing that I had the option of actually putting down bets than, you know, betting.) On the other hand, with America’s economy kicking so much ass right now, it’s not like we need the money, anyway.
Q: I went to the Olympics in London — I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the music before games, during halftimes, or even just walking around during timeouts. They were just blaring classic songs from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that you haven’t listened to in years pretty much nonstop: David Bowie, the Smiths, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Oasis, New Order, Joy Division, The Who, Elton John
it just kept going and going and going. You forget sometimes that British people are responsible for something like 58 percent of the music we enjoyed over the course of our lives. Or maybe it’s just me. Anyway, I thought they did an excellent job reminding everyone that we were in Great Britain, The Home of Great Music.
— BS, Los Angeles
SG: Fine, fine I wrote that one.
Q: The 2012 team needs a catchy name. ’92 was the Dream Team. Last time was the Redeem Team. In light of this annoying debate that Kobe and LeBron have spawned (over whether the 2012 team would stand a snowball’s chance in hell against the Dream Team), could we call this iteration the Keep Dreaming Team?
— Dan P., Kingston, Ontario
SG: Nice! I kinda like the Keep Dreaming Team.3 Let’s seamlessly slide that into a later Mailbag response and see if it works.
Works like a charm!
Q: Am I the only one who thinks that Gabby Douglas might be Allen Iverson’s love child? Let’s see, off the charts athleticism, check. Knife to the heart competitor, check. Vague Daddy/Daughter resemblance, check. Age appropriate, she is 16, so 17 years ago seems right in A.I.’s wheelhouse. Gabby is from Newport News, VA, Iverson is from Hampton, VA, a distance of 10 miles. Can’t you imagine AI at his peak enjoying just about every woman he wanted in his home town, and one of his kids turns out to be a truly great female athlete? No way this is a coincidence.
— Stan, Reston
SG: Gabby Douglas has a father, so your scenario is impossible — even if it would be awesome. I’m all for any scenario that involves the words “Allen Iverson” and “Olympic love child.” By the way, what happened to Gabby this week??? You might remember two weeks ago, I posted that “Swimming vs. Gymnastics” column and ended it with a story about her. That same day, I couldn’t resist running back one more gymnastics day — I went back there for the women’s individual all-around final specifically to see Gabby lay the smack down.
Quick tangent: Of all the things I will miss about attending the Olympics, the biggest one will be that moment every morning when — after endless deliberating — I’d finally decide, “That’s the one, I’m going here.” The decision was easy two Thursdays ago. I looked at that schedule and said, “So Gabby Douglas is going to win the gold medal, own the crowd, make herself millions in endorsements, become an American hero and break ground as an African American female in a sport that’s usually lily-white I think I can make room for this moment today!”
After she TJ Lavin’ed the all-around, cruised to the gold, rendered teammate Aly Raisman irrelevant and even spawned a few rounds of “Gah-bee! Gah-bee! Gah-bee!” chants, I left that arena thinking, That was awesome, I just witnessed a genuinely important sports moment! and patting myself on the back for smartly running gymnastics back a third time.
You know what I didn’t expect? Everything that happened next. Michael Phelps made a stunning comeback, won a few more golds and knocked Gabby off the front pages. We moved into the individual events and Gabby’s Gold-Medal Express derailed — she finished eighth in the uneven bars and seventh on the beam (even falling off). For some insane reason, the biggest Gabby story in Week 2 centered on the furor over her hair — a few Internet losers believed it was too unkempt, leading to a backlash, and somehow, this became an actual story and Gabby had to answer actual questions about it. (This was the Internet at its all-time worst, by the way.) And then, someone broke the story that Gabby’s mother had filed for bankruptcy — something she freely admitted and discussed with reporters — because, as usual, we can’t have nice sports moments anymore without people immediately going out of their way to dump on them. I don’t know if this was why Gabby Douglas struggled in the individual events last week, but I’m guessing it didn’t help.
I can only tell you this: I attended the 100-meter dash believing, with 100 percent confidence, that Usain Bolt would win. Same for Serena Williams’s gold-medal match against Maria Sharapova on Saturday. Maybe I wasn’t 100 percent sold on Gabby winning something last Thursday, but I was sitting somewhere in the low-90s. So hearing that she finished seventh and eighth in back-to-back individuals I’m still stunned by that one. I thought she was headed for four or five golds. On the flip side
Q: Where did Michael Phelps Eff You comeback performance rank on the all-time list? How did he return to glory after everyone announcing his time was over? Did you see that post-swim interview with Andrea Kremer, I thought he was going to rip her head off, which was the first step of him not just “enjoying” his final Olympics but owning them and proving that besides Jordan, HAS THERE EVER BEEN A BETTER CLUTCH TIME PERFORMER THAN MICHAEL PHELPS??
— Alex Aubel, San Diego
SG: For the record, I never saw this one coming, either. After attending two of his losses (the 400 IM blowout loss to Ryan Lochte and the 200-meter butterfly) and seeing Phelps get caught from behind in the second one, like everyone else, I just assumed 2008 Phelps was long gone. And then boom! The easiest comparison would be Phelps and MJ: The 2004 Olympics were MJ from 1984 to 1990 (when he evolved into the league’s best player); the 2008 Olympics were MJ’s mega-apex (three titles and a gold from 1991 to 1993); everything that happened next (the bong photos, the nightlife stories, etc.) were MJ’s baseball years (1994 to 1995); the first two Olympic events were MJ looking shockingly vincible against Orlando (’95 playoffs); and those last few events were Jordan’s last three titles (and if Jordan’s 72-win season was an eight-month-long Eff You, then the Phelps-Kremer interview was Phelps’s version of it). So what’s next for Phelps? I’m thinking he should buy his own swimming program, hire his friends to run it, then totally run it into the ground. Why not?
Q: Shouldn’t it be a rule that each country’s hottest athlete has to carry the flag during the opening ceremony? It would be like an unintentional event, a gold medal to the country with the hottest female athlete. As sports czar, you gotta make this happen.
— Douglas, Philadelphia
SG: (Afraid to say anything.)
Q: I think the Olympics should give out a platinum medal any time a gold medalist also breaks an existing world record. A world record for a first place finish gives someone a platty, while “just” being first gives you a gold. It would help explain how dominant a victory was and place that performance in a historical context. For example, Michael Phelps won 13 golds but broke 10 world records for those 13 golds. So he’d have 10 platinums and three golds, compared to Ian Thorpe’s three platinums and two golds. Does this make TOO much sense? It conveys far more information without upsetting the status quo.
— Mike Dockins
SG: Look, I’m the same guy who believes that medals should be different sizes depending on the significance/relevance/difficulty of the event — for instance, the team basketball medals would look like something Flavor Flav would wear, whereas the trampoline medal would be the size of a buffalo nickel. So of course I’m gonna love this platinum idea. If it could work with credit cards, it could work with Olympic medals. Plus, it would be fun to hear the swimming announcer scream, “And here comes Phelps, can he pull off the platinum YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!”
Q: If you don’t go see Women’s Beach Volleyball you’ve lost your will to live. World Class Female Athletes in Bikinis
POTENTIALLY IN THE RAIN.
— James, Phoenix
SG: I banged out a beach volleyball night last week — it’s such a festive atmosphere that you don’t even feel like you’re at the Olympics. You’re outside. There’s an announcer cracking jokes and getting the crowd fired up, along with cheerleaders dressed in old-school beach bikini outfits (like they fell right out of a Mad Men episode). They’re blaring loud music after every point, and the fans are drinking and singing along. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of all the 2012 Olympics events, other than soccer, beach volleyball felt the most England-y. Of course
Q: My friends and I have decided that the Olympic event we most want to see is a 2-on-2 hoops tournament. What we couldn’t figure out was who the USA would select for their team. Who would you pick? And how could you make that team without LeBron? (I said no, but someone disagreed)
— Gumby, Washington, D.C.
SG: This brings up a larger point: What’s the point of keeping a medal count when we can’t even figure out how to value the medals? In basketball, they play for two straight weeks and we end up with TWO medals (one for women, one for men). That’s half as many as volleyball, which makes no sense whatsoever — which team sport is more important, volleyball or basketball? When you think about how many medals gymnastics, swimming, rowing, cycling and everything else churn out, shouldn’t a two-week basketball tournament yield 12 medals? Or, should we go the other way and create more basketball-related medal sports like “The Slam Dunk,” “H-O-R-S-E,” “Three-Point Shooting,” “Two-on-Two,” “Mixed Two-on-Two” and so on? Why not? Handing out a slam dunk gold medal would be more of a stretch than two-on-two beach volleyball?
Back to Gumby’s question: You could easily pull off a two-on-two hoops tournament during the Olympics for both sexes; the schedule allows it, as we’ve learned from the off-day Instagram/Twitter accounts of everyone on the Keep Dreaming Team. These guys are too competitive — they wouldn’t be able to resist playing. I also think they’d pair up the same way they’ve been pairing up during these Olympics: LeBron and Carmelo would be the favorites; the Durant/Harden/Westbrook/Love buddy quartet would split up with Durant/Harden on one side and Love/Westbrook doing the “UCLA BOYS IN THE HOUSE!” thing; and nobody would want to play with Kobe, so he’d end up sitting out or claiming he needed the rest (sorry, I had to).
Now here’s where it gets really fun. Let’s say this was a 16-team, double-elimination tournament. You’d have only four American qualifying pairs (we just named three) and 12 international pairs: Parker/Diaw (France); Ginobili/Scola (Argentina); Deng/random drunk British dude (Great Britain); Kirilenko/Shved (Russia); two Lithuanian dudes with long names (Lithuania); Patty Mills/Random Australian Dude (Australia); the Gasol brothers (Spain); Ibaka/Calderon (Spain); Varejao/Barbosa (Brazil); Steve Nash/any Canadian (Canada); Dirk Nowitzki/any German (Germany). Oh, and as our fourth American entry? That’s right Josh Smith and his good buddy Rajon “I Can’t Believe I’m Not on the F-ing Olympic Team” Rondo.
Read those last two paragraphs again.
HOW GREAT WOULD THAT BE?????????? Shit, you could talk me into a 32-team extravaganza. Imagine all the plots and subplots every round: Dirk and Nash going head-to-head; Durant and Westbrook having their Stringer/Avon moment; the Gasol brothers taking dudes to the woodshed down low; Carmelo and LeBron self-combusting from the pressure as heavy favorites; Rondo and Josh Smith doing their thing with Rondo in Eff You Mode I mean, I’m between 10 and 40 times more excited for a two-on-two tournament than the actual basketball tournament. You want to use the Olympics to promote the NBA? Name me a better way than an under-23 team for the bigger tournament, then a two-on-two tournament as a new sport.
(Late-breaking note: Apparently there’s legitimate momentum building for a three-on-three event in 2016. Why have two-on-two for volleyball but three-on-three for hoops? I’m not entirely sure regardless, that would be just as riveting. I’ll take either format. Sign me up. Let’s get this done.)