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 writing 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 £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.)
Q: While watching the Men’s 100 Meter final I found myself almost completely rooting for Usain Bolt to win the race in record time. I love to watch the USA beat every other country and actually get mad if we lose, especially in a sport we should dominate in. But he’s the only Olympic athlete from another country that I’d want to see beat the USA. I feel like he almost is an American athlete. He is seen on American commercials like Puma, ESPN, and McDonald’s, and rapped about by 900 rappers. Isn’t this weird? I think Americans should just adopt him for ourselves. Could we pull a Chappelle like draft?
— Stephen Walters, Allen, TX
SG: Before we get to the draft, I’ve been battling that dilemma since right before that 100-meter dash, once I realized I was rooting for Bolt to break the record (and not for the Americans to beat Bolt). Did that make me unpatriotic or did I just value greatness over patriotism? Maybe it depends on the level of greatness. Bolt had a chance to become
A. The greatest sprinter ever
B. The fastest sprinter ever
C. An iconic Olympian
and beyond that, he’s a pure performance artist, one of the few Olympians who ever fully mastered that balance between achievement and show. Carl Lewis may have had a greater career, but I just can’t imagine him owning an 80,000-seat stadium like Bolt does. Lewis wasn’t nearly as charismatic. And actually, sprinters and runners are rarely if ever charismatic — that’s the reason there were TWO movies about Steve Prefontaine, for God’s sake. So I don’t think any American can feel guilty about secretly rooting for Bolt. We’re always going to gravitate toward the best. That’s why we love the Olympics; that’s why the MLS will never totally catch on; that’s why we revere Jordan 15 years after he mattered; that’s why Ali still causes a ruckus everywhere he goes (even in his current state); and that’s why many of us found ourselves pulling for Bolt a little. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.
Anyway, here’s the top three of my Chappelle draft board
1. Usain Bolt
For all the reasons we just covered.
2. Roger Federer
Don’t you already kinda feel like he’s American? Couldn’t we just steal him from Switzerland? It’s not like they’d stop us.
3. Steve Nash
Cut to everyone in Canada screaming, “Hey!!! HEYYYYYY!!!! This is NOT funny anymore!”
Q: Where does Phelps fall on Most Accomplished Weed Users list? #1 has to be George Washington.
— @darthyankee (via Twitter)
SG: I have Phelps trailing Washington and Snoop Dogg, but leading Ricky Williams, Bill Maher and Woody Harrelson pretty comfortably.
Q: I scored a ticket for Mexico vs. Senegal in the quarterfinals of the men’s soccer tournament at Wembley. While I was thrilled at the chance to go to the Olympics, I was surprised at my lack of goosebumps when I got to Wembley. It’s supposed to be a hallowed ground, a soccer mecca
yet all I saw was a modern stadium that held a ton of people. It’s a nice stadium, for sure, but I wasn’t feeling the weight of history that is associated with the name ‘Wembley.’ I imagine this is what it’s like to visit Yankee Stadium 2.0. It’s still a cool pilgrimage (Yankee hatred aside), but it’s not the House That Ruth Built. (Maybe I’m just a geek in the wrong sport. In terms of sports history awesomeness, I got a bigger kick out of doing a mile on the track at Oxford’s Iffley Road the day after my Wembley visit, where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954. Your thoughts?
— Matt Z., Bonn, Germany
SG: Couldn’t agree more. The walk to Wembley was much more exciting than getting inside — at that point, it’s just a gigantic, modern-looking, 90,000-seat stadium with a ton of grass. I brought my daughter to the women’s soccer gold-medal game and made the mistake of building up the stadium too much. After we sat down in our seats, she looked around and said, “I thought you said this was the best stadium” before concentrating on more important things like “What food are we getting at halftime?”
Wimbledon was a totally different experience, one of those rare sports venues that’s exactly as good as you think it’s going to be: immaculate, elegant, classic, overwhelmingly green. Even a 7-year-old can pick those things up. Then you sit down and there’s a level of intimacy that’s almost unparalleled, especially before crucial points when people are yelling out “COME ON, SERENA” and discussing the previous point, but then they somehow shut up at the exact same time and the noise just disappears from the stadium. It’s so quiet that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on the match. You never forget you’re at Wimbledon. Not for a second. At Wembley, at some point, you forget where you are — it’s just a big-ass stadium with some grass. The Yankee Stadium 2.0 comparison makes total sense. And it’s true.
Q: Can you write something about how men’s soccer players need to sack up and play like the women do? The women literally beat the stank out of each other, get up without a tear shed (maybe a black eye here or there). You don’t see any of this “lying around pretending my leg is broken now I’m gonna run around on it for the next 90 minutes no problem” crap I’ve never been more interested in watching women’s soccer in my life and care less about men’s soccer.
— John K., Jersey B
SG: You’re preaching to the choir, my friend. Abby Wambach is tougher than anyone in the MLS — she runs around like a cross between Troy Polamalu and Clint Eastwood circa 1973. Totally fearless. When she gets knocked down, she gets up and if she doesn’t get up right away, you know she actually got hurt. For this and a couple of reasons (success + likability + Alex Morgan), you could make a pretty good case that our U.S. women’s soccer team is as popular as, and maybe even a smidge more popular than, our men’s soccer team. Who could have imagined that one??? We need to schedule both teams playing important qualifiers at the exact same time and see which one gets a better TV rating. I really want to know. I have the women’s team as a 0.5-point rating favorite. And that might be low.
Q: I write to suggest one sport you must see — water polo. Water polo players are big, strong, and play dirty. The sport requires unbelievable toughness and determination, and most games are close. Like basketball and volleyball, the result is often determined by who gets hot in the fourth quarter. Also, the US team is really good. They have a real chance to win the gold. But the main competition is mostly former Iron Curtain teams — Hungary, Croatia, Serbia. Italy is also excellent. In other words, big strong guys like the US players, only hairier. I guarantee you’ll love it if you go.
— Joel, Pasadena
SG: Didn’t love it. In person, I thought it was like underwater handball — just a lot of splashing and heads bobbing. Even the crowd didn’t seem that into it. It’s a much better televised sport. “Splashing and bobbing” isn’t the right recipe for a great spectator sport — or anything, really. Water polo reminds me of the triathlon: I totally respect the athletes, I’m amazed by their stamina I just don’t want to watch them.
Q: 6-0, 6-1 in the Olympic Final? Seems Serena is “a little upset” that Russia’s Maria Sharapova is America’s tennis sweetheart.
— Mike Ross, La Crosse, WI
SG: And as usual, something happened — in this case, the post-match Crip Walk, something she did for two seconds specifically to crack up her sister and, by the way, went over the heads of 99.5 percent of the people there — that ended up detracting from what should have been a career-defining moment for her. You know, because god forbid we ever watch Serena kick someone’s ass in a tennis match and decide “She’s the greatest female tennis player of all time” without some subplot undermining it.
Know this: Serena stood out more than anyone I watched these past three weeks other than Bolt. She crushed Sharapova. It was personal — like it’s always been for her, ever since the Wimbledon crowd cheered on Sharapova like she was the 1980 Olympic hockey team at Lake Placid. Serena hasn’t lost to her since. That gold-medal match was like watching Jordan and Pippen obliterating Kukoc in the ’92 Olympics. I just loved it. One of my favorite days in London.
Q: What pushes someone into synchronized diving? Is it “I like the water, but not the crushing loneliness of being three meters away from everyone”? Is it the ultimate in co-dependency? Do they get sensory overload from line dancing?
— Stephen, Indianapolis
SG: I I don’t know.
Q: The coolest thing about watching Team USA is finally being able to cheer for a superstar you respect but you’ve been conditioned to hate. With five mins left in a tight US-Lithuania game (USA up 1), the US botches a shot but gets the rebound and kicks it out to a wide open Kobe. My first reaction (born from 10 years of dreading Kobe) was a gut wrenching “Oh no!” which quickly turned to elation when I remembered that just this once, the black mamba was on my side. An awesome “only in sports” feeling (and in comic books I guess).
— Stephane Essama, Chicago
SG: That was the most shocking moment of Sunday’s gold-medal game for me — when things got hairy in the fourth quarter and I found myself saying the words “Come on, Kobe!” as he was jacking up a 3. You know what happened next: I cheered him on for the next few minutes, we won the gold, and then I immediately drove to a local spa and got a colonic.
Q: If you are out after an evening of drinking, I thoroughly recommend Heineken House. The Dutch Olympians WILL turn up to party there after their events are finished and it is a good night out.
— Duncan, Sydney, Australia
SG: You should have just made the subject of that e-mail, “BEST WAY TO GET DIVORCED.” By the way, one of my favorite random true Olympic facts: Anyone can go to Ireland’s team Olympic House and get drunk there. You just have to pay $20 to get in. I’m not making this up. There’s a cover charge, and then anything goes. Reason no. 7,139 why you have to love Ireland.
Q: I know it is more fun to compare the 1992 and 2012 basketball teams, but why does everyone keep forgetting about our 1996 team? THEY HAD SHAQ AND HAKEEM! In a seven-game series, wouldn’t they have rolled over the 2012 guys?
— JT, Houston
SG: On paper, you’re right — Dream Team II had Shaq, Hakeem and David Robinson, as well as Charles Barkley and Karl Malone; Scottie Pippen and Grant Hill; Gary Payton and John Stockton; Mitch Richmond and Reggie Miller; and even Penny Hardaway back when it still meant something to have Penny Hardaway on your team. Nobody remembers ’96 fondly because they followed the original Dream Team (a no-win situation), but also because they were thrown together like an All-Star team during the league’s “I Gotta Get Mine!” era — when the first wave of overpaid, entitled, too-famous-too-soon stars nearly derailed the league — so those 12 guys ended up uneasily coexisting, fighting for playing time and acting like the experience was more of a burden than anything. I hated that team.
And yet, it’s hard to look at 1996’s roster without concluding that they would have annihilated the 2012 guys. Maybe Hakeem, Robinson, Barkley and Malone were a shade past their primes, but they would have overpowered the 2012ers down low (and we haven’t even mentioned Shaq yet). They could have thrown Pippen and Hill on LeBron and Durant. They could have thrown GP (at his all-time Gloviest) on Chris Paul and Deron Williams. What’s left? The 2012ers’ chances would have ridden on small ball, 3s and chemistry, in that order. In a seven-game series, the 1996ers would be heavy favorites over the 2012ers.
But here’s the thing: We all know how basketball works. It’s not just about how good your roster looks on paper. The 2012ers loved playing together, didn’t worry about minutes and even managed any potential alpha-dog issues. You saw it in the gold-medal game, when Spain was playing really well — repeat: REALLY well — and instead of freaking out and having the game morph into a heroball contest, multiple Americans chipped in during the fourth quarter. Durant kept draining 3s. Chris Paul did a bunch of Chris Paul things. Kobe made a big shot and grabbed a couple of crucial rebounds. When things were getting hairy in the final four minutes, LeBron came through with a dunk and a 3. And then, Chris Paul finished things off with the best moment of the tournament — chewing up 23.999999999999 seconds of the 24-second shot clock before beating Gasol off the dribble for a gorgeous reverse layup, then screaming happily at his bench afterward.4
I went to this game with my buddy Hirschy, a die-hard NBA junkie — when we were breaking down the game afterward, we kept gravitating toward that final Chris play. It was just a clinic on how a point guard should close out a game. “How many point guards in the history of basketball would have made you feel as comfortable as Chris made you feel in that fourth quarter?” Hirschy asked. “Magic, Isiah anyone else?” My answer was “Nobody else.” That has to go on Chris’s résumé. Has to.
We’ve just seen it too many times: No matter how you stack things on paper, it’s nearly impossible for a basketball team to prevail against a quality opponent unless (a) everyone knows their role, (b) everyone likes playing with each other, (c) they can get stops when it matters, and (d) there’s something of a natural hierarchy when it truly matters. The Americans had (a) and (b); they made so many 3s with that obscenely close 3-point line that (c) didn’t totally matter; and as for (d), once that Spain game reached its all-time hairiest, the offense ran through LeBron and Chris (with “Feed Kevin” as their security blanket anytime Spain stupidly shaded away from him). Everyone was fine with it. Looking at that 1996 team, I can’t figure out a scenario in which everyone would have been happy. Maybe they’d be favored, but I could totally see 2012 pulling off one of those “2011 Mavs over the 2012 Heat” type of upsets. Especially because of the “When in doubt, LeBron James would be the best basketball player on the court” corollary.
Q: Are there two other players in the world whose games fit together as well as LeBron James and Kevin Durant? Both are long, athletic, highly skilled, unselfish and have extremely high basketball IQ’s. They just get it. There is no debate when one or the other “has to take over”, they just realize when the moment is upon them and play. LeBron becomes the slasher, KD spots up. It’s just amazes me they can have this type of chemistry without playing together during the season. That was just pure joy to watch.
— Mark, Baltic, SD
SG: Totally agree — maybe Bird and Magic in their primes would have blended together for more artistic reasons, and maybe Pippen and Jordan are the best example of two teammates completing each other, but what made the LeBron-Durant pairing so much fun was the way they blended idealistically. It just worked. They seemed to be genuinely invested in the other’s success. That’s another advantage 2012 has over 1996 — name me two people on the 1996 team who would have been genuinely invested in the other’s success.
You know what? I’m sticking 2012 second and 1996 third, even if it seems patently ludicrous on paper. That’s my final answer.
Q: Why isn’t there a show on Bravo called The Real Gymnasts of the US Olympic Team? It looked like at any moment any of the girls teams members were ready to punch one another. I would also like a side show focused on the assistant coach whose only job it seems is to hug/console the athletes after they stink up a performance. She has various different consoling measures. There was the back pat for an average performance, the shoulder hug for the below average performance, the full hug before the girl gets off the mat for the very poor performance, and the rare full hug followed by the holding of the face while clearly saying you did your best and keep your head up for the drastically pathetic you embarrassed yourself performance. There should be a ranking from you on the different levels of the assistant coach consoling the athlete for women’s gymnastics.
— Zach Rubin, Brooklyn
SG: McKayla was not impressed with that idea. But you know who WAS impressed? ME! I’d watch the crap out of The Real Gymnasts of the U.S. Olympic Team. Then again, I’m the same guy who enjoyed their Instagram photos from London and wondered things like, Do they really like each other this much, or do they secretly hate each other? So I’m probably not the best judge here. One thing you left out — the parents would be unbelievable on that Bravo show. They just spent the last 12 to 15 years driving their kids to hundreds of events, sitting through three-hour practice session after three-hour practice session and shelling out thousands of dollars per year, all so their kid had a 0.0000001 percent chance of winning the gold someday. Talk about pressure. By the way, you could also talk me into The Real Figure Skaters of the U.S. Olympic Team and even The Real Sprinters of the U.S. Olympic Team.
Q: Which US team member is most likely to have an Olympic village sex-tape “leaked?”
— Joe, Dayton
SG: You mean other than Ryan Lochte? I think he’s a -350 favorite over Usain Bolt right now.
Q: Tug of War was an Olympic sport from 1900-1920. Check it out. How have they NOT brought this back? The strategic considerations are endless — and probably meaningless. I’m pretty convinced that virtually no insight or understanding is even remotely necessary to form an opinion about Tug of War. In other words: this is perfect for sports/entertainment media. Threshold decision — do you form a national team from scratch or draw from your country’s Olympic delegation, with Tug of War held just before the closing ceremonies? I favor the latter. Maybe someone like Regis could be the coach. Or you could go a different direction and have Bobby Knight stand there with his hands on his knees — face beet-red — screaming “pull! pull! pull!” over and over again and then punch Ryan Reynolds or whatever squishy celebrity gets pushed onto the team by the marketing guys. All that being said, if it were solely up to me, the choice for coach would be obvious — Martin Kove. Initially, I figured you’d need a men’s, women’s, and mixed categories. But really, we should just let each country decide who to put on their squad and let things ride. Rope don’t lie, as Rasheed Wallace (and possible Tug of War sideline reporter?) might say. Finally, I would like to see a throwback USA-USSR match. For whatever reason, the IOC decided to dump Tug of War in 1920, just as the Bolsheviks were consolidating their grip on power in Russia, depriving the world of decades of American-Soviet matches that would have made the Cuban missile crisis look like an episode of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. At the very least, there wouldn’t be any boycotting. The 1980 hockey team is a footnote if, also that year, the Americans had gone to Moscow and beat the Soviets at Tug of War — on their own commie soil. There’s just no way you boycott when Tug of War is on the program. Put simply — the absence of Tug of War for the past century might very well be one of the greatest travesties in Olympic history. Easy as it may be to hang your national pride on the performance of a bunch of pre-teen gymnasts once every four years, there is nothing more fundamental to national identity as Tug of War. It is the consummate sport for a global competition in which it is still okay to make distinctions solely based on nationality. Actually, it’s not okay to do this, especially if you have a Twitter account. Which makes Tug of War all the more important. I know the chances of this email seeing the light of day are as slim as Tug of War ever making it back to the Olympics. But if there is any place where futile, mildly interesting, and extraordinarily dorky bouts of activism can surface briefly before being buried beneath a 5,000-word dissection of the last episode of Downton Abbey, it’s Grantland. Tug of War in 2016.
— Scott Stone, Washington, D.C.
SG: I don’t know if that was the greatest Mailbag question of all time, but it’s certainly on the short list. Anyone growing up in the 1970s remembers those epic tug-of-war battles that concluded both The Superstars and Battle of the Network Stars — in both cases, wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away from the TV when they were happening.
Here’s how I think it could work: On the night of the Closing Ceremony, the two countries ranked no. 1 and no. 2 for total medals have a tug-of-war showdown. Ten people on each team — five male, five female — that have to come from 10 different sports/events. In other words, you couldn’t stack your team with three weight lifters or whatever. Oh, and everyone participating in the tug-of-war HAD to have won gold medals. And there’s a weight limit per team — you can’t exceed, say, 2,000 pounds for your 10 athletes. So let’s say our team ended up being Kevin Love, Jordan Burroughs, Ryan Lochte, Ashton Eaton, David Boudia, Missy Franklin, Allyson Felix, Misty May-Treanor, Candace Parker and team captain Abby “I’m a total badass and there’s no way we’re losing this” Wambach. And we were battling 10 Chinese gold medalists for the tug-of-war gold. Um you’d turn the channel during this? Scott Stone, you’re an American hero.
Q: I just finished the ESPN article on the sexfest that is Olympic Village. My thought is why are the organizers providing condoms? Aren’t these the people we need reproducing? Isn’t the world going to be better off generations from now with a human race made from Michael Phelps knocking up Hope Solo and the like? Considering the rate dumb rednecks or crackheads are popping out kids, the Olympic committee should be discouraging condoms, right? Not only can we begin a race of super humans, it’s clearly going to bridge cultural gaps and fostering unity across the globe. We can singly end war as we know it with one mixed US/Chinese gymnast or Israeli/Iranian boxer. Plus this super race of humans will be better suited to defend earth from the inevitable alien invasion that would otherwise wipe out lazy slobs like the rest of us.
— Roni, Houston
SG: Yup, these are my readers. Wait, one more question.
Q: Has there ever been an athlete who Milton Berle’d it quite like Usain Bolt?
— Don Matthews, Ft. Lauderdale
SG: Not that I can remember. He will end up being my no. 1 enduring memory of these Olympics, someone who needed to be seen in person to be fully believed and even then, you couldn’t believe it. Only four other athletes made me feel that way: Randy Moss, LeBron James, Lawrence Taylor and Bo Jackson. I went to a spring training game once when a young Bo Jackson scored standing up on a short fly to left field — people were just dumbfounded. It had no correlation to anything we’d ever seen before. I felt the same way about Moss loping down the field for a bomb in his prime. Same for L.T. going from Point A to Point B three times faster than everyone trying to block him. Same for LeBron shrinking the court on one of his four-step half-court fast breaks, or Bolt shrinking the track and pulling away from the field. All five guys made me think, I’m not totally sure that person is human.
True story: On Saturday night, I was pretty burned-out from watching two straight weeks of world-class sporting events. See, the Olympics are like gorging on an incredible meal that never ends, and at some point, your pants are bursting, and you’re shaking your head and saying, “I can’t do it, I can’t eat any more — can I take the rest home?” So the thought of staying home with my family, watching Saturday night’s events on television, chilling out and regrouping for Sunday’s gold-medal game for about three minutes, that just seemed like the right move. Then, I started thinking about 80,000 people screaming encouragement for Mo Farah on the final lap of his 5,000-meter race — or even better, the sound they would create if he prevailed. I thought about Bolt streaking down the track on that final relay leg, shrinking that track one last time. And that’s when I realized, “ARE YOU CRAZY?” Within a few minutes, I was heading out the door and feeling giddy about the Olympics all over again. Just the mere thought of what might happen was like having the adrenalin needle from Pulp Fiction slammed into my heart.
My other enduring memory (which I already brought up earlier): I could never align my body clock to London time. Being eight hours ahead of Los Angeles was just too funky — I always stayed up until 2:30 or 3 in the morning, then woke up a few hours later. By the fifth night, I had settled into something of a routine: reading in bed on my iPad until I felt sleepy, then perusing the following day’s schedule of events as my final act. Hmmmmmmmmm. Where am I going tomorrow? Inevitably, I would narrow it down to three or four choices, turn off the iPad, click off the lights and spend the next few minutes debating those choices. Where did I want to go? What did I want to see? Sometimes the answer was obvious, sometimes it wasn’t. But every night, that’s how I fell asleep — knowing I would wake up in a few hours, knowing the next day would be just as good as the last one.
Last night? I just lay there feeling empty. I will miss the 2012 Summer Olympics.