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Rhapsody on a Theme from Rip City, Part 1

November 16, 2015 | by

Our basketball columnist ventures to Portland.

The 1970–71 Portland Trail Blazers, in an NBA press photo.

In the beginning, also known as last week, I welcomed you to my ebullient but off-kilter basketball life. We were in Brooklyn, watching a Nets game—an unlikely place to begin, as a Manhattan resident and Knicks fan. Just as unlikely was the cross-country flight I took last week, bound for Portland, Oregon. I flew in on a Thursday morning because I wanted to see, finally, the Portland Trail Blazers play on their home court, known now as the Moda Center. I’m still going to call it by its glorious former moniker, the Rose Garden. It was an inevitable outcome: a beautiful name erased by an insurance company.

Once I knew the Blazers would be in Portland when I was, I didn’t hesitate to get tickets. Really good tickets. I yearned for that contact high I’d spent my entire life hearing happens in Portland. I’d tried Barclays Center—that sanitized, bank-named, eminent-domained, half-empty pod of steel Frank Gehry dreamed up for developers to drop in the middle of Brooklyn—but I never liked New Coke. I needed a shot of real basketball excitement. The Rose Garden would have spirit–a kind of saucy, sustained legacy that’s difficult to associate with today’s style of fandom. A strange potion runs through the basketball blood of Portland. It’s stayed hot from the days of games at the Memorial Coliseum, where the Blazers played from their inception in 1970 until 1995. On April 8, 1977, the Blazers beat the Phoenix Suns 122 to 111 in front of a sellout crowd and went on to enjoy another 813 consecutive sellouts, making theirs, until recently, the longest sellout streak ever by a major U.S. sports team. Six and a half years earlier, the Blazers had played their first-ever regular season game, a 115 to 112 win over Cleveland in front of only 4,273 fans. Read More »

Welcome to My Basketball Life

November 6, 2015 | by

Say hello to our new basketball columnist: Rowan Ricardo Phillips.

Nets v. Bulls.

Last Wednesday evening, after most of the autumn day had been washed away by rain, I found myself crossing Atlantic Avenue, in Brooklyn. A friend and I were heading to Barclays Center to see the Brooklyn Nets open their season against the Chicago Bulls, one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. In this day and age, being one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference doesn’t mean much; the powerhouse teams, with all due respect to LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, are in the West. But a game between two Eastern Conference teams offers the opportunity to see competition in its purest form: that is, within a realm of easily exposed flaws and weaknesses. Seeing a team miss shot after shot isn’t my idea of a fun time, but watching teams divine their strengths from a forest of inadequacies—I prefer that to endless hours of free and easy swishing. And if that sounds crazy to you, think of how many people sing the praises of college basketball.

My friend, who went to college in Chicago, is a Bulls fan. You wouldn’t know it today from his cool demeanor, but once upon a time he was of those nineties-era Bulls fans, the ones who tormented New Yorkers by wearing his Bulls cap everywhere he went, saying little because little needed to be said. The Bulls almost always won, and almost always at the expense of the New York Knicks. But today it’s a struggle to imagine my friend in a cap at all, much less being invested enough in basketball to risk his well-being for a sartorial statement. In fact, I can only recall him mentioning basketball once in the past few years: when a Miami native insisted on referring to his beloved Superteam, with an evil tilt to his Jack Nicholson-esque eyebrows, as the Heatles. Then the look of the scrapper scoured my friend’s face and the side of his forehead trellised with veins before he laughed it off: “Yeah, the Heat are pretty good. We’ll see.” He’s from the Midwest. Read More »

Skyscrapers and Everything

June 5, 2015 | by

The trouble with gazing upward in New York.

Don’t look up, Stevie!

About four minutes into Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic “Living for the City”—a surging, seven-plus minute thumper track about racial injustice, migration, and the failure of the latter to cure the former—the song emerges from its second chorus and breaks down to its sparest parts. We hear the quizzical staccato of the synthesizer flit in and out like lingering sunlight; the dry drums, which just seconds ago were rolling out an elaborate fill, tap quarter-note rimshots on the snare; all the other instruments stop playing. Welcome to New York.

This interlude, barely a minute long but seemingly much longer, is a marvel within an already marvelous song. It’s an early example in popular music of that moment when a song recognizes its limits and turns, momentarily, into something larger and stranger. After all, Stevie could’ve just tagged on another verse about New York, keeping the song’s structure intact, but wouldn’t there be something thin and dreamy about that? New York collects anthems like medals: “New York, New York,” “On Broadway,” and “Empire State of Mind” are all, in essence, odes to skylines, with outsized grandeur to match. Their scale grows out of proportion; aphorism replaces emotion; the music hits its mark and no one gets hurt. The lesson for songwriters tackling New York has always been this: if you’re going to sing to the city, sing big. The skyline, as more than few writers have reminded us, can even look like musical notation if you squint hard enough. Read More »

The End

July 15, 2014 | by


Bastian Schweinsteiger celebrates. Photo: Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia Commons

The World Cup doesn’t end so much as it slips back into itself.

As soon as the whistle is blown one last time, the recaps, the nostalgia, and the smart surmises begin. But then, a day later, after the last team has returned to its home country and the cheers of hundreds of thousands of euphoric fans, the specifics start to stretch beyond the immediate recall they enjoyed during these June and July days. The locations and stadia whose names were on the tip of your tongue begin to hang back as you go forth with your life. You’ve suddenly forgotten the name of that player you didn’t know on that team you weren’t familiar with—the player you’d enjoyed so much that you’d learned to pronounce his name perfectly. Or, if you’re American and have grown through this tournament to love the game, the world may suddenly seem farther away again. The excuses to strike up a conversation with a stranger dwindle. The news of the rest of the world starts with the Middle East again. And left to fend for themselves, the details of your World Cup experience begin to connect their own dots.

Mario Götze—the brilliant, young, attacking midfielder who scored the winning goal for Germany with seven minutes remaining in extra time in the final in Rio de Janeiro, after Argentina enjoyed the clearest chances in the game—becomes Andrés Iniesta, the brilliant, young, attacking midfielder who scored the winning goal for Spain with four minutes remaining in extra time in the final in Johannesburg, after the Netherlands enjoyed the clearest chances in the game.

Unreserved praise for German planning and perseverance as the model for world football becomes unreserved praise for Spanish art and expression as the model for world football.

The thirteenth-ranked 2014 USA team, which showed significant improvement by qualifying after winning one game, drawing one game, and losing twice in Brazil, becomes the fourteenth-ranked 2010 USA team, which showed significant improvement by qualifying for the second round after winning one game, drawing two games, and losing one.

The reigning World Champion, Spain, bowing out meekly in the first round of this 2014 tournament, becomes the reigning World Champion, Italy, bowing out meekly in the first round of the 2010 tournament.

A screwed Brazilian citizenry becomes a screwed South African citizenry. Read More »


Let’s Get Metaphysical

July 10, 2014 | by

Argentina vs. the Netherlands, 1978: Mario Kempes of Argentina celebrates a goal.

Argentina and the Netherlands played yesterday’s second semifinal. That’s as much as should be said about the match, which forced us to appreciate what this World Cup has been, while remembering what it could have been. Throughout 120 minutes of football, there was first, last, and above all an air of safety that had been refreshingly absent from most of the games thus far—and with that absence came gifts of goals and good play. But yesterday, there was so much at stake: safe passage to a World Cup final. Since both teams are middling, professional, and graced by the presence of once-in-a-lifetime, left-footed talents, they took no risks—no playing the ball patiently through the midfield, no attempts at a tactical surprise. It was a game of chicken, and a penalty kick shoot-out was the inevitable collision.

Or: Argentina and the Netherlands played yesterday’s second semifinal. That’s as much as should be said about the match, which forced us to rue what this World Cup could have been, and to remember it exactly as it was. Throughout 120 minutes of football, there was an air of danger in every movement that put to the sword the careless attacking and defending we’ve seen in all the games thus far—we’ve suffered own gifted goals and poor play for it. But yesterday, there was so much at stake: safe passage to a World Cup final. Since both teams are fairly stout and battle-tested—graced by the presence of not only once-in-a-lifetime, left-footed talents, but a host of other complimentary stars—they went forward intelligently instead of rashly. They avoided over-elaborating in the middle of the pitch and followed their tactical plans to the letter. It was as though the game was played in a labyrinth, and a penalty kick shoot-out was the inevitable way out.

Football games between sides with history between them seem to exist in a multiverse—everything that has happened between them happens here simultaneously. All outcomes exist at once. Hence, Argentina versus the Netherlands in the São Paulo of 2014 is Argentina versus the Netherlands in the Marseille of 1998 is Argentina versus the Netherlands in the Buenos Aires of 1978. The weight of history is in the thickness of the air: young men run into each other with the anxiety and ache of memories that are not theirs, and the colors of their shirts become portals. No competition is barnacled by its past like a World Cup. Two sides significantly better than Brazil—but neither of which had ever defeated Brazil—capitulated in the round of sixteen and in the quarterfinals, more to the canary-yellow shirts than to the players who wore them. (We know what happened afterward.) Read More »


Third Place

July 8, 2014 | by


From a 1994 German postage stamp.

The arc of this World Cup nears its completion. Over prosperity and poverty, over cities and shores and jungles, over fair winter and fiery winter, it ascended, curved, and now looks to settle, in Rio’s Maracanã on Sunday.

But first, the midweek semifinals. Four teams remain, and four heavyweights at that—Argentina, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands. Two of these will paint the enduring portrait of this World Cup.

There’s hardly a World Cup whose final image hasn’t occurred in its final match. Think of Holland’s Nigel de Jong’s karate kick to Spain’s Xabi Alonso’s chest in 2010; or Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006; or Ronaldo, who’d sat out most of the past three seasons because of knee injuries, scoring the only two goals of the 2002 final against Germany; or Zidane’s two first-half goals against Brazil in the ’98 final, and the strange sight of Ronaldo, then at the height of his powers, seeming to struggle to stay on his feet; or the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Roberto Baggio, missing the decisive penalty against Brazil in Los Angeles in 1994; the euphoria of Paolo Rossi in ’82; the Dutch scoring in ’74 against West Germany in West Germany, within two minutes of kickoff, and with the Germans yet to touch the ball; and on, and on. Read More »