Straight Outta Kauffman: How the Kansas City Royals Made Me a Cubs Fan

Stories For Sunday is lucky to have a guest post from Joe Valentine. Read it, share it, find him and tell him it’s good so that, maybe, you’ll see his stuff here again sooner than later. 

I knew my girlfriend, Linda, was a Kansas City Royals fan before we started dating; it’s one of the first things she tells people when she meets them for the first time. The George Brett pine tar incident and the ’85 playoff run were her bedtime stories, and she still complains about the decision not to re-sign Johnny Damon in 2000 (who even knew Johnny Damon played for the Royals?). So I knew even before she asked that we’d be taking the 10-hour overnight Megabus ride from Chicago to KC, to be there, amongst her people, when the Royals played Game 7 against the San Francisco Giants in 2014, even though we didn’t have tickets.

After an especially wild wildcard comeback, the team had gone on a tear, demolishing better-on-paper teams with a Murderer’s Row-like batting order, fearless small ball base running, and a lights-out bullpen that genuinely believed it could hold any team scoreless in innings 7-9, and often did, all the way through Game 6 of the World Series. Linda, who had, in years past, proclaimed, “If the Royals win the World Series, I will burn my own house to the ground,” could not miss their coronation or the celebration to follow.

In a bar in Kansas City’s Westport district, I watched Linda and her brother shed unabashed tears after Salvador Perez took a clunky, uncommitted hack at a high fastball in the bottom of the ninth inning, resulting in a routine popup that ended the most entertaining playoff run I’d witnessed. The 2014 Royals created a compelling Cinderella story, only it ended with Cinderella getting caught in the rain, splashed with muddy gutter water from a passing car, and then mugged on her walk home because her carriage had turned back into a pumpkin before she could leave the ball.

“It was ours,” Linda said. She was in pieces, and she wasn’t alone; it felt like the entire bar was weeping into Boulevard beers.

And then, over the next few weeks, those same sad fans seemed to come together to form a citywide group hug, like Whos after the Grinch stole their Christmas, both grateful to have had a chance to win it all and universally willing to live and die by the immediately created “unfinished business” tagline, simultaneously licking their wounds and licking their collective chops for the start of the 2015 season.

The next month, locally-owned Boulevard Brewery released a limited edition beer–“Crown Town”–to commemorate the Royals’ playoff run, and it had officially ceased to matter that they hadn’t won. Linda’s dad waited in line for multiple hours multiple times to make sure each of his children had a bottle. Linda’s family is a microcosm of a community in which Royals baseball matters. Like, really matters. It’s annoying until it’s inspiring. It’s corny until it’s enviable.

I remember feeling impacted by that passion: a genuine, authentic love for a game and a team. It stood in stark contrast to my own depleted interest in my hometown team, the Chicago Cubs, who had, in two decades, provided me with precious few incentives to continue expending effort on fandom. Until very recently, existing as a Cubs fan required a skin of cynicism, a laugh-at-yourself mentality, and an obligatory sheepish smile after proclaiming, “Next year will be our year.”

Sure, there were signs of life during seasons leading up to 2015: an ownership and management change, planned renovations to the dilapidated (though admittedly still endearing) Wrigley Field, whispers of mythically talented prospects panning out, including now-superstars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. My dad, after a lifetime in want, finally became a season ticket holder while I was living just a few blocks from Wrigley Field.

Still, requiring an excuse for your loyalty is taxing and, for me, the inevitable result of so much laughably poor baseball was that I simply stopped caring. I stopped investing energy into hope and expectation. Over a series of annual closet cleanouts, I donated all my Cubs shirts to Goodwill. In two seasons spent living within spitting distance of the stadium, I didn’t attend a single game. I stopped being a baseball fan.

Writing this, I realize that Cubs purists do exist (including my own cousin, a golf course greenskeeper who spends full days on a riding a lawnmower dreaming about the champagne he’ll pop when the Commissioner’s Trophy is finally ours), diehards who would label me a bandwagon fan. To them, I’d simply contend that sports are pain. God forbid I opt out of voluntary sadness.

It wasn’t that I didn’t remember the sheet of loose leaf I’d pinned to my bedroom wall and used to keep a running tally of Sammy Sosa’s 1998 home run count (innocently oblivious to the 40+ pounds of pure muscle that differentiated that version of Sammy from the guy in the rookie card I kept in a protective case and mounted on the same bedroom wall). It wasn’t that I threw away the Cubs hat I’d slept in for weeks during the summer of 2003, sweating and itching and afraid to take it off and jinx a streak. It wasn’t that I didn’t miss having something to talk about on the phone with my dad. It was just that sports are pain, and after I stopped blaming Steve Bartman for all my problems, after several seasons without a pulse, after an increasingly snide, hip young demographic had successfully overrun the Lakeview neighborhood where I lived, I tapped out.

Linda and I moved from Chicago to Kansas City in July, a change that coincided with a lot of really good baseball. Shortly after we moved, we bought $10 tickets (ludicrously inexpensive relative to the cost of living to which I’d been accustomed) to a packed Friday night game and, even in 95-degree heat, the energy of the Kauffman Stadium crowd was palpable. That night’s win saw the Royals extend their division lead to a comfortable 12 games.

Back in Chicago, a buzz was beginning to burgeon about the way that Brawny Man/Yukon Cornelius-hybrid Jake Arrieta was routinely making the NL’s best hitters look like beer league softball dads in the batter’s box, and about how the North Side had its own lights-out bullpen and a succession of swingers who were putting bat to ball seemingly on command.

Still, I maintained a practiced degree of ironic distance from the suddenly-fun-to-watch Cubs. Fandom requires vulnerability––as I’d witnessed firsthand after last year’s World Series––and I wasn’t ready to put myself back out there following the slow, miserable decline into irrelevance I’d experienced over the previous half-decade. Now that I lived in the Kansas City, a town so fully committed to its baseball team that it supports an entire industry of clever custom Royals-related t-shirt printers, I felt that if I were to commit myself to the Cubs and mean it, they’d better not embarrass me. If I were going to talk the talk, Kyle Schwarber had better walk the walk.

Then, on September 28th the Cubs played the Royals. As a result of my fringe fandom, I was unaware that the Giants’ loss two days prior had helped the Cubs secure a spot in the NL wildcard game and was still under the impression that a win mattered. I’d never taken so much as a controversial step onto Linda’s sacred turf before, and so after a routine groundout resulted in my yelling “Suck it, Lorenzo Cain!” and her throwing the remote at me, we finished watching the game from separate rooms. I couldn’t lose my Joker grin after Chris Denorfia’s pinch-hit homer in the 11th inning sealed the game, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time Cubs baseball had made me smile. It made Linda miserable, and that in and of itself made me happy, not because I find joy in my girlfriend’s sadness, but because she actually feels this stuff. The Cubs made her feel something, and I know that’s real.

The next day, my barber said to me, “The Cubs are the Royals of 2015.” Linda’s dad asked whether my dad could secure any extra tickets at Wrigley in the event of a Cubs/Royals World Series. A co-worker came by my desk to tell me, “Your Cubbies are looking good this year.” My Cubbies? In a town where baseball is talked about seriously, people were seriously talking about the Cubs, who finished the regular season with a better record than the Royals.

Jake Arrieta was terrifying and unstoppable in the wild card win over the Pirates. In a particularly satisfying Division Series, my Cubbies laid waste to a Cardinals team whose fans never resist an opportunity to stick up their noses at any mention of their division rivals to the north (If I had a dollar for every time I heard “Oh, you’re a Cubs fan? Why?” in my four years at Saint Louis University, I’d be losing a lot less sleep over student loan debt). “The Royals of 2015” was looking more and more like an accurate prediction.

Inevitably, the Royals were the Royals of 2015. I mourned the sweep and elicited extra boo’s toward a Mets team onto whom I’d projected a totally unwarranted villainous persona as I sat in right field for all 14 innings of the Royals’ victory in Game 1 of the World Series. And on Sunday night, I put on a clever custom Kansas City t-shirt (the impeccably classy “Turn Your Head and Kauffman”) and jumped around amidst a champagne shower in the streets of Westport, showing up to work two full hours late the following morning wearing sunglasses and chugging Alka-Seltzer from a travel coffee mug.

In 2015, I enjoyed the MLB playoffs for the first time in a long time, maybe ever.

It felt good to watch every game, to have an opinion on every player. It felt good to realize that I still remember the rules, the strategies. It felt good to achieve what I’d recognized in Linda’s family, and perhaps what I’d coveted all along: a comfort in saying, “Next year will be our year,” totally non-ironically. It felt good to celebrate in a city that was so ready to celebrate, to take care of unfinished business. And it felt good to watch the Kansas City Royals absolutely dismantle the New York Mets, whom I’d grown to despise, because there’s only one kind of person who vilifies an opposing team: a fan.

Joe Valentine 

The Grantland Generation and the Lie We Chose To Believe

 Grantland tricked a lot of young people into becoming writers. I’m one of them. Call us the Grantland Generation.

Grantland launched the summer before my senior year of college. In short time, what they were trying to become—what they eventually became—was clear. They were good, thoughtful writing, focused on developing specific voices into diverse content. It would be romanticizing Grantland to say that providing those things filled a gaping hole in the market. Great, nuanced writing, about both sports and pop culture, existed before and after them at publications with similar goals.

What Grantland did was make that work appear mainstream, cool, sharable, and discussion worthy to not just the pretentious or unrealistically informed. Mickey Mouse was putting his backing behind Grantland, and a conglomerate of that size has an ability to legitimize a venture as industry simply by association. Writing—writing about things most young people already love—represented a sect of ESPN, that we chose to believe was equal to any other sect of ESPN, because why would we stop to think otherwise? To a tremendous amount of young writers, Grantland was massively influential in their decisions to call writing a career. That may seem silly to older generations of writers and readers because four years is barely even recent history, but to those of us in our twenties it’s the most informing and impressionable period of time imaginable.

What Grantland did for writers my age was create a similar construct to the one that made so many sports fans in the nineties and early 2000s (and even now) idolize Stuart Scott, Scott Van Pelt, Dan Patrick, and other SportsCenter anchors. They had dream jobs. Grantland came along and, all of a sudden, being a writer didn’t seem like the starving artist livelihood that being a painter or a poet appeared to be. Grantland had an office that ESPN paid for, and great writers hung out there. It created an ideological shift that cool, funny, serious, and weird writing was a career field. The Grantland Generation didn’t need to get a job at Grantland. We just assumed we’d get a job at a place-like-Grantland, because once you freelance enough, a Bill Simmons-type will notice you and you’ll become a specific voice for a much larger vehicle.

I was never published in Grantland, and that fact doesn’t bother me. I’m proud of the places where I’ve seen my work. I can say truthfully, that some of the writers whose names I’ve been published alongside are probably my greatest sources of satisfaction in my career. And working with some of my editors has been like taking free throw lessons from Steph Curry.

Sure, Grantland writers inspired and influenced my writing. I wouldn’t have chased down a story on Johnny Manziel’s hometown if I hadn’t studied the writing of Bryan Curtis. I wouldn’t have started a column called “Tuesdays With 2 Chainz” if Shea Serrano hadn’t made me laugh so much. I wouldn’t have reported on the world’s largest podcast conference if I hadn’t read Molly Lambert on the world’s largest porn conference. I wouldn’t have published joke emails to Ryan Gosling’s restaurant (and Justin Timberlake’s, and Mark Wahlburg’s) if Rembert Browne didn’t make me realize that being silly won’t make people discount your intelligence. I wouldn’t have learned how to write about basketball and make it sound like I’m talking about it with my friends if I hadn’t read Chris Ryan and Jason Concepcion.

But I had inspirations elsewhere, too, and there was incredible, versatile writing outside of Grantland. Too much to begin to name, in fact. Look around and you’ll find it, and love it. But Grantland convinced me, and countless other, that there was an industry to support the size of this writing community. It didn’t take much convincing. We believed it because we wanted to.

We’re writing now. Not at Grantland, but we’re writing, and it’s hard. Not just for the reasons it should be hard, that is, because writing anything is a painstaking, vulnerable task. No, it’s hard because not quite enough people care, and less pay.

Grantland’s death—more specifically, the way Grantland died—is first and foremost sad for the great writers who lost their jobs. But for the Grantland Generation, it was a punch to the stomach, because Grantland didn’t have enough financial support, and was so unimportant to ESPN that it could exist at 10:00 AM and be a memory at noon. I think a lot of us young writers liked to pretend that maybe every Grantland writer was making six figures while totally aware it was just a fantasy we used to justify the less-than-lucrative work we were doing ourselves. Now, we realize, the majority of those writers are not just unemployed, but now competing with us for jobs and space in a room we already could barely fit in.

To an older generation of writers, the demise of Grantland is surely just another reminder of the nature of a tough business with no guarantees. To us, to those that came into writing in a world where Grantland already existed, it’s a shattered illusion. It’s a look behind the curtain to see that the Land of Oz is actually controlled by Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.

So in a way, Grantland lied to us. Or maybe we just lied to ourselves. It doesn’t really matter.  Many of us, and perhaps some Grantland staffers, chose to see Simmons as an Ari Gold-like figure, running around town protecting his talent (a reference and analogy many writers would probably shudder at, but I have a feeling Simmons would appreciate). But that’s not how this industry works, and ESPN was never all in. Advertisers care less about Time On Site and more about clicks, which is a bad thing for anyone putting effort into each thought. 

So that mindset led many of us not to a career, but to a life of hoping that the most recent invoice comes through before rent’s due. But the reveal of the illusion doesn’t actually change anything except for our own realizations. The landscape isn’t all that different, but it feels more intimidating. The odds were always stacked against us, and some of us are just now realizing the gravity of that.

This came in a month stretch when I was having increased difficulty getting paid for what I considered good writing (as if it’s ever easy). My gut reaction to this, to all of this, is to write, and to write more than I already do, which will be no easy task. Even if that doesn’t make sense. Even if I don’t get paid or pieces go to waste, unpublished.

Trying to be one of many people contributing good, thoughtful writing out into the world isn’t a job just because I want it to be. You don’t just get health insurance because you write every single day.

But I’m going to keep doing it. I think a lot of other people just like me will too.

“You are meant to play the ball as it lies, a fact that may help to touch on your own objective approach to life.”

-Grantland Rice

Written by Jonny Auping

What is a Billiken, Anyway?

This Year’s Most Overlooked Contender and Its Unique Mascot.

billiken nyc

“What is a Billiken, anyway?”

 I think it’s the addition of that final word: “anyway,” that really strikes a nerve with students and alumni of Saint Louis University. Call us paranoid, but that “anyway” usually comes with a condescending tone and, in the context of college basketball, it implies “you don’t actually belong here.”

 Why wouldn’t Saint Louis University belong with the elite basketball programs in the country? Is it because it doesn’t have a rich and successful basketball history? In 1948 they were arguably the best team in the country and won the NIT back when it was more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament. Is it because they don’t send players to the NBA? What about “Easy” Ed Macauley who won an NBA Championship in 1958 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 or Larry Hughes who was the eighth overall pick in the NBA draft in 1998? Or is it because in “modern” history Saint Louis has failed to maintain a consistently winning basketball program? Perhaps that’s fair, but what if they’re in the process of changing that?

Or do they not belong for other reasons? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that recruiting pitches are much more likely to involve the letters B.A. than they are to include the letters NBA. Or maybe it’s the enforced academic standards and lack of special treatment to athletes. In four years at Saint Louis University, I took three classes with members of the basketball team. Just like me, our star player had to say “Puedo ir el bano?” to go to the bathroom in Spanish 110. Could it have to do with a moral standing that every player is held to, coinciding with the University’s Jesuit mission statement? In 2010 the roster was decimated when a sexual assault case was brought up against a number of core players. The charges were dropped in court for all the players, but months later, just before the season started, all the players involved were suspended one semester because the incident violated the school’s conduct code. Two of the players transferred rather than serving the suspension. Another, Willie Reed, declared for the NBA and was eventually signed by the Memphis Grizzlies. 

Maybe it would make sense if these things were why Saint Louis doesn’t belong with elite basketball programs. There’s a way of running big time college sports programs and Saint Louis University just doesn’t fit in. 

“So…what is a Billiken, anyway?”

…And why would the legendarily successful and respected coach Rick Majerus want to coach a Billiken? Well, there was actually a practical reason for that. Majerus’ mother was ill and being treated in Wisconsin when he was hired as head coach of Saint Louis in 2007. The job allowed him to be closer to his mother in what were likely the last years of her life. He had recently turned down the head-coaching job at USC. 

A paragraph could never sum up what you need to know about Majerus, but I can give you the bullet points. There were three things that just about everybody seemed to know about him: he loved basketball, he said what he wanted to say whenever he wanted to say it, and he ate whatever he wanted to eat….whenever he wanted to eat it. Majerus was candidly funny about his own weight issues, but some found his opinions on other subjects less humorous. In his first season at Saint Louis, he made comments regarding Hilary Clinton that suggested he supported women’s right to abortion. The archbishop of the city of Saint Louis stated publicly that he expected SLU, a catholic institution, to take proper disciplinary action.

On the basketball court, Majerus immediately implemented his ‘slow the game down’ offense with his inherited team. He coached a style of play that was meant to frustrate other teams and, more importantly, allowed his perhaps less talented team to maintain a close score until the end of the game. In other words, it gave his squad a fighting chance. In January of his first season (about five weeks after I had decided to attend SLU), Majerus slowed the game down a little bit too much against George Washington. The Billikens only scored 20 points the entire game as a team, setting an NCAA record for least points scored in a game. The Billikens finished 16-15 and 7-9 in the Atlantic 10 conference that first season.

Over the next five years, Majerus refused to stop saying whatever popped in his head (whether brass, hilarious or self-depreciating) and he refused to stop coaching his style of play. A funny thing happened along the way. It was almost like he had a plan all along. Almost like the guy who won over 500 games without coaching a traditional powerhouse program, and who had taken the University of Utah to the National Championship, just maybe knew what he was doing. His words eventually won over the St. Louis community and his style of play eventually won him a lot of basketball games. All the while, he spent his off-seasons barreling into living rooms in Chicago, Wisconsin, Texas, Australia and New Zealand to talk about food and convince mothers that Saint Louis was the place for their baby boys. 

“What is a Billiken, anyway?”

Never have I been asked that question more than during the opening round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, my senior year at Saint Louis University. The Billikens were back in the ‘Big Dance’ for the first time since 2000. My buddy, Donnie, and I decided to forgo Spring Break shenanigans in the Gulf Shores to drive to Columbus, Ohio and support our team.

As basketball junkies, the atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament’s opening round was everything we dreamed of. Everyone (including us) sporting the colors of their team, walking around aimlessly, anxious for the day’s games. The morning we arrived we went to a diner for breakfast and while waiting to be seated, met two white-haired men in their sixties, natives of Columbus, with no specific rooting interest, just ready to watch some basketball. For thirty minutes we talked about everything from high school basketball to John Wooden’s UCLA teams. They even asked us what a Billiken is without the “anyway!” After being seated, Donnie and I joked that the two men were “basically us in 40 years.” Four eggs and six pancakes later we asked for a check and the waitress told us that it had “been taken care of by two men.” 

Camaraderie sparked by a love of basketball and tradition. “This must be what it feels like to be apart of a good basketball program,” we thought. It felt like we were somewhere we belonged.   

That feeling didn’t last long when we arrived outside the arena where eight NCAA basketball teams would play over the next two days. There weren’t nearly as many blue Saint Louis University shirts as there were NC State, Memphis or Michigan State polo’s and windbreakers. Preceded with a smirk and followed by a chuckle, people kept asking that question (with the “anyway”).

“A Billiken is what’s about to beat your team in the NCAA Tournament,” Donnie replied to one particularly obnoxious Spartan fan. 

Embarrassed, I immediately put my face in my palm. I didn’t leave him hanging, but it was still such a corny comeback.

The Billikens won their first NCAA Tournament game in 14 years that day beating Memphis 61-54 and sending a lot of overconfident Tiger fans back to Tennessee early. Saint Louis followed that up by pushing a number one seeded Michigan State to the brink of elimination before losing by just four points. Donnie and I left the arena with our heads held high. No one asked us that question on our way out.

That was the last basketball game that Rick Majerus ever coached. In the press conference he broke character and shed a few tears claiming he would miss the players in the future. It was like he knew.

He died eight months later of heart complications. He outlived his mother by one year.

“Yeah, but…what is a Billiken, anyway?”

Well, they’re Jim Crews’ team to worry about now. When Majerus was going through medical issues in the fall of 2012 Crews took over on an interim basis. When Majerus passed away on December 2nd, 2012, shaking the Saint Louis community, the “interim” label was essentially dropped. Convinced by Majerus to come out of retirement and be his lead assistant coach a year earlier, Crews was now leading the ship of a team with unfamiliarly high expectations. But there was no question who the team was truly playing for.

The players rallied for their late coach. They won nine straight games after his passing. They played themselves into a top 25 ranking and never looked back, winning their conference for the first time since 1971.

The Billikens went into the tournament as a fourth seed, their highest seeding ever. With a veteran roster, they were prepared to honor Majerus by focusing on his two key fundamentals: defense and rebounding. After handily beating New Mexico State in the first round, they had their first poor performance in months against Oregon and suffered a disappointing loss, unable to advance further than they had the previous season.

“What is a Billiken, anyway?”

They’re back in the top 25 this year, finishing the regular season ranked number 18 in the nation with a 26-6 record. 

They have what is considered by many prognosticators to be one of best defenses in the country. They strung together a 19-game winning streak from December to March, the longest in school history, which at one point earned them the number 10 ranking in the country.

In 2012, Majerus predicted he would make Saint Louis a top-10 team in three years.  It only took two. And it happened on what would have been his 66th birthday.

They start a lineup of five seniors. A senior class that was recruited by Majerus. A senior class that committed to Saint Louis at a time when most causal sports fans didn’t realize the school had a basketball team. When key players were suspended in 2010, it was this class (then freshman) who were thrown into the fire before they were ready to carry a team. Four years later they will graduate with more wins than any class in school history.

Dwayne Evans leads them at power forward, quietly getting double-doubles by using his 6’6 body to overpower smaller forwards and blow by slower forwards.

Jordair Jett, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, is the most recognizable player on the team with long dreads and a build that makes him look more like a running back than a basketball player. Despite being only 6’1, he loves to block shots into the third row and he does his name justice by quickly getting past defenders and finishing in a fashion that has students calling him “Air Jordair.”

Jett provides most of the team’s flash, but that’s not what the Billikens are about. They are all business. They are still about defense and rebounding and frustrating their opponent (and their opponents’ fans). 

Losing last season was painful for the SLU community because it was all in Majerus’ honor. The Billikens’ success last year was supposed to be their gift to his memory.

But perhaps the fact that the Billikens are right back in the spotlight is the real gift. At times this season SLU has been ranked higher than North Carolina, Michigan State, UCLA, Louisville, and Kentucky. In other words, the elitist of the elite. They have reached the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year, this season as a fifth seed, waiting to play the winner of Xavier and North Carolina State. 

Rick Majerus didn’t put together a good team. He built a program.

“What is a Billiken, anyway?”

billiken

Well, originally a Billiken was a good luck charm created in Kansas City, Missouri in 1908. Giving someone a Billiken was like wishing them good fortune. They became extremely popular, sort of like the Beanie Babies of their era. Eventually Japanese culture became enamored with the Billiken and they could be found all over the country. Saint Louis University still had a football team at the start of the 20th century and their head coach, John R. Bender, was said to resemble the little creature. Reporters started jokingly referring to the team as the “Billikens” and it stuck. Eventually the university officially adopted it. 

I guess that’s the most accurate answer… 

….You know what? Disregard that.                                                     

A Billiken is what’s about to beat your team in the NCAA Tournament.

Jonny Auping

Trying to Stay Afloat: Delonte West’s Strange Departure From the NBA

“Poking holes in my own boat.” 

That’s what he referred to it as. It was one year ago, after the Dallas Mavericks lost a preseason game to the Phoenix Suns on October 17th, 2012. Delonte West was referring to his past. A past that featured arrests, gun charges, NBA suspensions, altercations, Twitter rants, misunderstandings and malicious rumors. These things were behind him.

But the Dallas Mavericks would waive West 12 days later for “conduct detrimental to the team.” It was the last time that he was under contract with an NBA team.

I waited for the rest of the media to finish speaking with West, preparing myself for the Delonte West I was led to believe existed. I had heard the stories: some true, some outlandishly fictional. I had seen the Youtube videos of him freestyle rapping in the parking lot of a KFC. 

I was preparing to speak with the legend of Delonte West, a tenacious competitor on the court and a wildly unpredictable character off it. He is a man who has gotten into verbal altercations with coaches and teammates. He is a man who was arrested for driving a motorcycle while impaired with illegal firearms stashed in a guitar case. He is a man who has been implicated in rumors that he slept with the mother of Lebron James resulting in James’ departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is a man who once stuck his finger in the ear of Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward in the middle of a game to seemingly gain a mental advantage. With this sort of history, nothing West could say would surprise me.

 Or so I thought. The man I spoke with on October 17th, 2012 was calm, patient, thoughtful and engaging. So much so that shortly into our brief conversation, I found myself oddly nervous. Not the sort of nerves I get around attractive women and potential employers, but the type of nerves one gets when faced with an unfamiliar situation.

 I found myself with a shake in my voice when confronted with a professional athlete speaking with such sincerity about a legitimately personal subject. That subject was bipolar disorder, namely West’s bipolar disorder.

 West seemed very unlike the caricature he has been depicted as and more like a human fighting through a very real issue. It was hard not to look at the events of his past and, perhaps not excuse them, but at least empathize with him.

 However, the series of events that surrounded this October 17th, night in 2012  turned out to be nearly as inexplicable and peculiar as the rest of West’s career.

 “Since being diagnosed, I’m always in battles with myself,” West told me.

 Those battles contributed to the rocky path West had taken in the NBA. Unwise decisions, an untimely divorce, legal troubles and an unwillingness to say no to his extended family put him in a desolate financial situation before he signed with the Mavericks. During the 2011 NBA lockout West was working at a Maryland furniture store. After signing with the Mavericks, he spent his first few weeks sleeping in either the Dallas locker room or in his car.

 His perseverance and toughness on the basketball court began to turn things around for West. His attitude and relentlessness earned him the good graces and support of coach Rick Carlisle and owner Mark Cuban as well as the respect of the Dallas fans and his teammates.

 While the Mavericks had a disappointing title defense in 2012, West had by all accounts earned his keep and mostly refrained from being a distraction to the team.

 The Mavericks’ 2012-2013 season was supposed to include West as well. He showed up for camp ready to compete as he did every year. That is when the timeline of West’s eventual departure becomes shaky.

 On October 15th, 2012 West was suspended for an alleged “outburst” in the locker room after a preseason win over the Houston Rockets. Few details were released about the suspension and it was lifted one day later after West reportedly sat down with Cuban and Carlisle.

 Just two days later West returned from the suspension to compete in a 100-94 loss to the Phoenix Suns. West entered the game to a loud sentiment of cheering from the Dallas crowd and scored seven points off of 3-5 shooting and collected four assists in 18 minutes of play.

Everything seemed to be settled between West and the Mavericks organization. 

 After the game West talked to me about his bipolar disorder.

 “I couldn’t explain it,” West said. “I didn’t know how to express myself to the people around me. But as I grew, reading and learning about the disorder, communication was the biggest thing, just communicating to friends, family and teammates.”

 Just over a week later, on October 25th, West was suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team.” The details of the suspension were never released.

 Later that day, West went on a Twitter rant that implied that his time in Dallas was finished and that he had been unfairly treated:

 “Just ask u to talk to me…I’m a grown man…that’s not above logic and reason…Before u go to the papers wit false information.”

 “If I’m not what u lookin 4…That’s fine…Just don’t kick my ass the way out the door…I didn’t do anything to deserve that.”

 “I love the city of Dallas…I love playin in the NBA…no I’m not off my meds…no I ain’t on no bipolar trip…this real people lives”

 “And it just ain’t right…imma leave it at that…no ill will towards no one…I’m just sittin here across from the arena wit tears in my eyes.”

 The following day, when asked about the West situation Carlisle claimed, “If I’ve learned one thing: don’t leave your best leaders at home.”

 Carlisle would not elaborate on his statement, but just prior to the suspension the Mavericks went on a preseason road trip to Oklahoma City in which veterans Shawn Marion and Vince Carter did not travel as they nursed nagging injuries. The timeline would suggest that whatever incident took place resulting in West’s suspension happened during this road trip.

 Carlisle, who had been an advocate of West, added, “My feelings on Delonte are no secret.”

 Cuban responded to the situation by saying, “we’re not going to be in a situation like we were with a player last year.” He later followed that up by saying that many people told him the previous season that he was “too forgiving when everybody told me not to be… so I learned my lesson.”

 While Cuban did not name any names, the assumption is that he was referring to Lamar Odom whom the Mavericks had traded for the previous season. Odom, who was facing personal issues of his own, never bothered to get into game shape, rarely expressed dedication to the team and was eventually asked to leave the team indefinitely while still being allowed to collect an $8 million check.

 The veiled comparison of West and Odom made sense on the surface, but was odd because of West’s on-court commitment compared to the lackadaisical attitude that Odom maintained. You might argue that West was the anti-Odom, a man diagnosed with a legitimate medical issue who still played his heart out under a minimum contract while Odom came across as unhappy with the cards he was dealt and ignored his professional responsibilities.

 On October 29th, 2012 the Dallas Mavericks officially waived West.

 Just one day after the move became official the Dallas Mavericks Tweeted and Instagramed a picture of a box of cupcakes sent to the Mavericks’ offices with the words “From Delonte” written on the box. The picture is captioned with the claim that West is a “cool dude.”

West went the rest of the season without an NBA gig. At one point, he campaigned for himself on Twitter by posting career accomplishments and Youtube highlights.

On January 25th he signed a contract with the NBDL Texas Legends, but did not report to the team until March 16th, only playing in seven games, not nearly enough to impress an NBA team.

Ironically, West’s position of point guard was a huge weakness for the Mavericks last season who eventually settled on bringing the 37-year old Mike James out of retirement. Likewise, a number of teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Houston Rockets could have used a player of West’s caliber. 

But no one would touch him. Perhaps because of his reputation. Perhaps because of his bipolar disorder.

Last season, Houston Rockets rookie Royce White made headlines by feuding with the organization and sitting out the entire season due to his extreme anxiety and fear of flying. The story was covered and debated by media outlets. Meanwhile, West’s issues were treated as personality flaws. The stigma of bipolar disorder is strong and it is especially difficult to draw the line between symptom and reckless behavior. 

Sadly, many of us throw around the term “bipolar” when poking fun of someone who becomes very angry over something. But the reality is that people who suffer from bipolar disorder often suffer from stages of severe depression and anxiety. They can have manic episodes that cause them extreme stress and worry. It can have huge effects on their ability to sleep resulting in more erratic behavior.

But it’s easier to avoid thinking about that sometimes and treat Delonte West like a character. It’s easier to ignore the 2011 SLAM profile of West that explained that his impairment when arrested on a motorcycle was due to sleeping medication and that he was not pulled over, but voluntarily found a police officer and told him that he was unable to drive and that he was taking the guns away from his mother’s house because he felt his friends were irresponsibly handling them. It’s just as easy to laugh at the ridiculous and unfounded rumor about West and Gloria James and ignore the ridicule that takes place at his expense every time he goes out in public.

This month, West reportedly signed a one-year deal to play overseas in China for Fujuan Xunxing. As an NBA journeyman, it is a smart decision, as many NBA veterans have earned NBA roster spots by proving they can still compete in China. The season will end in February allowing West to sign with an interested NBA team mid-season. But as a person struggling with bipolar disorder, the move comes with serious risk. Traveling to a foreign country with different customs and a language barrier will certainly disrupt the stable envorment that is recommended to someone suffering through his condition.

Regardless of West’s disorder, he is absolutely right that he has “poked holes in his own boat.” His irresponsible behavior cannot be excused easily. But hopefully, one of those holes that he poked is not his openness about being bipolar. 

That same openness has inspired many other victims of the disorder as he has spoken publicly in attempts to help those people live normal lives. His advice to people who suffer from the same disorder?

“Let everybody know what you’re going through and how they can help you. When I started doing that, things became a lot easier for me. Some days are worse than others. Guys already know what’s going on. They know when to give you space and when to get in your space and they can pull you along.”

Hopefully, his admission to mental issues will not ultimately cost him his NBA career. Because the man I spoke to one year ago, wanted to prove something. He wanted to prove that the disorder would not hold him back from succeeding in the NBA, not just for himself, but for people like him. Unfortunately, one year later, he is a long way away from being given the chance to prove that.  

-Jonny Auping

Tuesdays with 2 Chainz: ESPN’s Newest Analyst

This happened today.

2 Chainz made his second career appearance on ESPN’s First Take with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. They discussed the NBA. Check it out:

Things you may have noticed: 

-2 Chainz was somehow the third most ridiculous person in the video (which is impressive considering 2 Chainz might be the third most ridiculous person on the planet).

-2 Chainz called the 2013-2014 Brooklyn Nets the “Brooklyn Remix.” That better stick. 

-2 Chainz called Lebron James “Bron Bron.”

-2 Chainz laughed when he heard the name Mike Dunleavy Jr. If I could think of any one person who would be most likely to laugh upon hearing the name of any other one person, it would be 2 Chainz laughing upon hearing the name Mike Dunleavy Jr. Just as a reminder, this is a picture of 2 Chainz. This is a picture of Mike Dunleavy Jr. 

-Kids, if you want to make it in sports media, learn how to YELL THINGS INTO PEOPLE’s FACES. I write about sports professionally here and there, but I make so much less than the people who YELL THINGS INTO OTHER PEOPLE’S FACES. 

-Jonny Auping

Does God Really Hate the NBA?

You probably heard earlier this week that 12-year NBA player Jason Collins announced that he was gay, becoming the first professional athlete in any of the four major sports to come out during his career. Collins received largely positive support all around the NBA.

The Westboro Baptist Church is not happy about this development. This is the same group that strongly opposes gays and Jews, celebrates the death of American soliders and claims that Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. 

They are not happy about the fact that a reserve center in the NBA is gay. And they are especially not happy about the fact that the rest of the NBA seems totally okay with that. Listen to this offensive remark by NBA superstar Kevin Durant about Collins’ sexuality:

“That’s cool with me.”

How dare he? Combine this with the 2012 movie Thunderstruck that came out in 2012 and apparently is about Black Magic, and Durant has really pissed off the Westboro Baptist Church. So much so that they plan to picket outside of Game five in Oklahoma City between Durant’s Thunder and the Houston Rockets. They also plan to picket Game six between the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets in Chicago.

Not only that, but they have invented, and plan to implement, the hashtag #GodH8sTheNBA.

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The Never Forget Legacy Draft

The NFL Draft is tonight on ESPN. NFL stands for National Football League. You probably knew that.

But what if it didn’t?

What if it stood for Never Forget Legacy? What if the draft were just a process where different cities get to draft celebrities that are no longer in the spotlight to represent their city as the token nostalgia-inducing star who tourists and locals alike can bond over?

Something this stupid would only exist here at Stories For Sunday. So you can be sure that I will provide you with the results of the first ever Never Forget Legacy Draft…

1.) Kansas City, MO: Eric Matthews

With the first overall selection, the city of Kansas City selects Cory’s older brother, Eric.

Great move by KC, here. Not only would he be a great person to walk the streets and greet citizens, but he could also go to sporting events and local business openings and yell, “FEEEENNNIEEE!!!” into the microphone as a sort of symbol to start the event.

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The State of the Fullback

A look at the fullback position across the high school, college and professional levels in North Texas.

 Jonny Auping

If you wanted to find an area that’s laden with football talent, knowledge and enthusiasm bordering on obsession then you would be hard pressed to come up with a better candidate than North Texas.

As far back as 60 years ago all the way until now, the upper half of the largest representative in the continental United States has been a hot bed for football at every level from small-town high schools to the emergence (or reemergence) of football programs at universities like TCU, SMU and Baylor all the way to the Dallas Cowboys, affectionately (or sarcastically by some) referred to as “America’s Team.”

But it’s not just any type of football that North Texas had a reputation for embracing. In the yesteryear of the Dallas-Fort Worth area (and just about anywhere within a 2-hour driving distance of it) football was appreciated as a physical, tough-nosed, hard-hitting sport. It was the way the game was supposed to be played.

The position that most embodies that physicality (along with perhaps the linebacker) has always been the fullback. It’s a position with a number of responsibilities, but none more important than blocking for the running back lined up behind him. Get yourself a little head of steam, find a linebacker (you know, that other really physical position) or safety and try to knock him down and clear a running path.

It’s always been a thankless position, but one that’s gotten its fair share of respect and gratitude in the Lone Star state. There was Daryl “Moose” Johnston contributing to Dallas Cowboy Super Bowls in the nineties. Before that Robert Newhouse was running and blocking for the University of Houston before joining the Dallas Cowboys in the seventies and paving the way (literally) for Tony Dorsett. And of course there’s Tim Riggins, who when he wasn’t busy stealing his paralyzed best friend’s girlfriend or fighting the first stages of alcoholism, served as the fullback for the Dillon Panthers on the first few seasons of the fictional show Friday Night Lights.

They all represented the “Shut up and hit somebody” style of football.

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Conference ReDesignment

Conference realignment is becoming perhaps the most common term in college sports. If you don’t know anything about college sports and have never heard the term, I’m not quite sure I’m qualified (or sure if it’s possible) to briefly explain it. But basically conferences have existed in college sports for a long time and have helped create rivalries and a sense of familiarity for college fans. For monetary reasons those conferences seem to be constantly shifting as of late, which throws tradition out the window and slightly confuses everyone.

One of the most recent examples of conference realignments is the slow destruction of the conference currently known as the Big East. The conference has a rich history, but as it is going through a rough stage universities are trying to jump ship left and right.

Reports have come out that the seven Catholic universities from the Big East have agreed to form their own their conference existing mostly of Catholic universities and reaching out to other schools to fill out their conference. Butler, Xavier, Creighton, Dayton and Saint Louis are all rumored to join the conference at some point.

That’s right, just when you thought Holy Wars were a thing of the past, college basketball conferences are being put together based on their religious denominations to put to shame all the heathens playing in the ACC or the Pac-12.

Incidentally, some of those schools to be added to the conference aren’t Catholic, which means we miss out on the totally pretentious all-Catholic conference named the “Catholic 10” or the “Catholic 12.” Reports say that the new Catholic-originated conference will retain the “Big East” title.

But there’s more:

What happens to the 10 other members of the Big East that are being kicked out by their Catholic brethren? Well they will have to survive on their own and find a new name for themselves. And what name did they choose? According to domain name research, the new conference will call itself the “American 12” upon adding two new members.

So choose wisely when you give your allegiances to a conference. Either you will be disrespecting the Bible or you will be slapping our forefathers in the face.

Now, I’m an innovator. So I say never just stop with a name change. Really embrace that change and make it apart of who you are. So here are a few of my ideas:

Big (Catholic) East:

Since this new conference was started with the rallying force of several Catholic schools and will probably keep the Catholic Seven nickname for quite some time, it’s probably a good idea that the Big East really shows it is a conference of the faith.

Conference Champ Chooses Pope:

I know, I know, the Vatican probably wants to replace the recently resigned Pope in the next couple months. But what if we settled this on the court?

We wait a whole year, and let the winner of the Big East tournament choose the next Pope. They can pick any one of their alumni to lead the Catholic religion. And we avoid empowering someone too long by having a new Pope crowned every year after each Big East tournament. Sure, there might be a little instability within the religion, but change never hurt anyone.

Imagine Georgetown winning and electing Patrick Ewing as Pope. Now try to tell me this is a bad idea.

Baptisms at halftime:

There’s always halftime entertainment right? Usually it involves jugglers, or people who can balance on tiny poples really high in the air, or dogs that can catch frisbees at incredible speeds.

But it all seems a little mischievous to me. Sounds like the Devil’s work.

Halftime should feature the baptism of small children. The waiting list to have your child baptized at halftime of Villanova/Depaul would be pretty long, but it would be totally worth it.

Complete Ostracizing of Non-Catholic schools in the Conference 

(Butler Blue)

Sure, there might be some non-Catholic schools in the new Big East, but they better know that they are only in it because the conference needed to fill out 10 or 12 schools in a short amount of time.

The Butler Bulldogs will be allowed to play basketball in this conference, but they will have to uphold their responsibilities and adhere to constant attempts of conversion. They will have to attend mandatory Mass before and after each game and will have to say five Hail Mary’s before each free throw.

*****If you think that these ideas are blasphemous or sacrilegious I would ask you to at least consider the possibility that forming a basketball conference and using the Catholic name to bring attention to that conference when you are doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with the goals of the faith, but solely for reasons of money might also be sacrilegious. And perhaps I am just trying to point that out.

American 12

The slogan for this conference should be “Freedom is a Slam Dunk.”

Red, White and Blue Basketballs

These basketballs were used for the American Basketball Association, which was absorbed by the NBA more than 30 years ago. They are the coolest ball in any sport and we finally have another reason for them. If the American 12 doesn’t at least strongly consider using these balls I will be seriously disappointed.

The National Landmark Game

This conference has a responsibility to showcase America, the Beautiful.

That’s why I propose that each year at least one important game is played in a national landmark. Perhaps the Grand Canyon. Maybe we can stop traffic at the Golden Gate Bridge. Remember the Alamo? More like remember the time Louisville hit a buzzer-beater in the Alamo?

*I’m too lazy to google and confirm whether or not those three places are officially national landmarks.

“Gangnam Style” is played at the beginning of every game

Nothing is more American than “Gangnam Style.”

————————————————————————————

So there you have it. I say go big or go home. Let’s do this, college basketball.

-Jonny Auping

TV’s Trade Deadline

As I’m writing this the NBA trade deadline is an hour away.

Only one marginally significant trade has been made in the past 24 hours and NBA fans are mad. I don’t think they know why they’re mad. Sure, some of them are fans of teams that stink and they want them to get better players, but it’s more than that. Fans love to see trades, even ones that don’t involve their teams.

Fans get bored and they like to see things get mixed up. They don’t care if the trade will probably make one team worse. In fact, they might prefer to watch an eventual train wreck. They want to see players in new jerseys. They want to watch new teammates try to build chemistry. They like to pretend to be experts and hand down grades for each team involved in the trades.

Simply put, sports fans truly enjoy trades.

This got me to thinking. There’s no reason to assume that this feeling is exclusive to sports fans. People like seeing things get mixed up just for the sake of mixing things up.

So what if trading could happen with actors/characters in television shows? How great would that be? I’m talking sit-coms, dramas, reality shows, whatever. Characters traded from show to show, network to network, plot line to plot line.

I know it sounds crazy. But TV/Hollywood has refrained from doing certain things for a lot of reasons, and being too crazy is rarely one of them.

So to help sell you on the idea I’ve come up with a few potential trades for next week’s trade deadline (by the way, I arbitrarily set up the TV trade deadline as next Thursday). Remember, you might think some of these are incredibly stupid, but that’s part of the point. The Sacramento Kings made an incredibly stupid trade last night and Twitter has thoroughly enjoyed making fun of them.

*I have no idea how this would affect the plots of the shows. I suggest we just make them play a similar role to the character they replaced and completely avoid addressing the change. People will stop asking questions eventually…

Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) traded to Parenthood* for Crosby Braverman (Dax Sheppard)

It’s hard to imagine either of these shows without these two characters, but we have to embrace the change, embrace the chaos. Watching Crosby try to raise one adorable, little, five-year old, half African-American child is entertaining enough. What if he had to be the father of the three children on Modern Family? Not to mention, the dynamic between Dax Sheppard’s character and his new father-in-law (Ed O’Niel) would be a solid addition with all the pranks and shenanigans and what not.

With all the serious issues and dramas that arise in Parenthood, imagine how much faster everything would be resolved if the genius that is Phil Dunphy was there to provide wisdom to the rest of the family.

*In an unrelated note: for your information, there just happens to be something in my eye every time I watch Parenthood. It has nothing to do with all the heart-wrenching storylines.

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