The Daily

On Sports

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 »

Kid Chocolate

June 19, 2015 | by

Cuba’s boxing culture.

At the Rafael Trejo boxing gym. Photo: Brandon Downey, Monster in the Ring, 2013.

In Old Havana, the names of the streets before the revolution provided a glimpse into the city’s state of mind. You might have known someone who lived on the corner of Soul and Bitterness, Solitude and Hope, or Light and Avocado. After the revolution, they changed the names and put up new signs, but if you asked directions from a local today you’d get the old names. They all meant something personal to the people who lived on those streets. That avocado grew in the garden of a convent. That hope was for a door in the city wall before it was torn down. That soul refers to the loneliness of the street’s position in the city. Sometimes these streets lead you to dead ends and other times you stumble onto cathedrals, structures built with the intention of creating music from stone. The sore heart Havana offers never makes you choose between the kind of beauty that gives rather than the kind that takes something from you: it does both simultaneously.

While guidebooks might tell you that time collapsed here, another theory says that in Latin America, all of history coexists at once. Just before the triumph of the revolution, progress took shape in ambitious proposals made by American architects to erect grand skyscrapers all along the Malecón seawall offering a fine view and convenient access to a newly constructed multicasino island built in the bay. To accommodate the gamblers, vast areas of Old Havana were to be demolished and leveled for parking access. In 1958, Graham Greene wrote, “To live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor belt.” Yet this beauty the people of Cuba unquestionably possess walks hand in hand with their pain. Whoever you might encounter in this place lacking the ability to walk or even to stand for whatever reason will inevitably remain convinced they can dance. When Castro was put on trial in 1953 by Batista’s government and asked who was intellectually responsible for his first attempt at insurrection, he dropped the name of the poet José Martí. From the little I’d learned of it, the revolution’s hold on Cubans resembled not so much poetry as the chess term zugzwang: you’re forced to move, but the only moves you can make will put you in a worse position. Cuba had become an entire population of eleven million people with every iron in the fire doubling as a finger in a dike. Read More »

Future Eligibles

October 29, 2014 | by

Finding a Hall of Fame for Dock Ellis.

Dock Ellis getting a manicure in a Detroit barbershop on July 13, 1971. He was starting pitcher later that day for the National League in tonight’s All-Star game with the American League.

Dock Ellis getting a manicure in a Detroit barbershop on July 13, 1971. He was starting pitcher later that day for the National League in the All-Star Game with the American League.

Let’s get Dock Ellis into the Hall of Fame. Oh, not really, of course—by the Hall’s statistical criteria, he isn’t even close. But after a visit to Cooperstown in September, I found myself imagining a Hall of Fame that would enshrine him.

Ellis is unquestionably famous, after all—infamous, too. He is the subject of No No: A Dockumentary, which headlined the Hall of Fame Film Festival I attended last month; a Society for American Baseball Research panel event a few weeks later; a psychedelic song, recorded in 1993, by Barbara Manning; and, especially, an excellent book, published in 1976, by The Paris Review’s own Donald Hall, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. Evidence keeps mounting that Dock—always flamboyant, often controversial—was the emblematic player of his era, the seventies, with its dubious introduction of such artificialities as the designated hitter and Astroturf; the acrimonious battle for free agency; and all those drugs.

Ah, yes, drugs. Ellis, who died in 2008, is best known as the pitcher who, in 1970, threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid—appropriately, his name in a box score reads, “Ellis, D.”—but that freak feat is a red herring, and it’s not even his most freakish. On May 1, 1974, Dock decided to send a message to the Pirates’ archrivals, the intimidating Cincinnati Reds, who had cowed Pittsburgh into competitive docility. “We gonna get down,” Dock decided. “We gonna do the do. I’m going to hit these motherfuckers.” Donald Hall recounts Ellis’s plan and its execution. The first guy Dock hit was Pete Rose (who should also be in the Hall of Fame, though for very different and far more genuine reasons). After he hit three batters, walked another who ducked and dodged four pitches, and threw two beanballs at future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, Ellis was mercifully removed from the game with this remarkable stat line: zero innings pitched, no hits, no strikes thrown, three hit batsmen, one walk, one run allowed. “Dock Ellis faced four batters in the first inning,” the box score decorously explains. Dock’s own explanation of himself in No No says more: “It’s not that you’ve got to watch how I pitch,” he insists. “You’ve got to watch how I play.” Read More »


Weighing In, Part 2

October 16, 2014 | by

This is the second part of an excerpt from Kerry Howley’s new book, Thrown. Read Part 1 here.


Erik Koch weighing in for a fight in 2010. Photo: flightlaunch, via Flickr

Erik spent the next morning resisting the intake of liquid. It was then that I recognized perhaps the only salutary psychological side effect of self-starvation, for Erik was about to weigh in beside his opponent, and he had not, as far as I could tell, thought about his opponent at all. He had seen Cisco by the blackjack tables a while back and briefly in line at the in-house movie theater, and the moment Cisco left his field of vision was the moment Erik’s thoughts returned to the Rio Buffet or gourmet granola or a single chocolate cupcake, though he was even beyond that now, because now he was dreaming of water. The thirst, Erik said, was worse even than the hunger. It made his teeth ache. Desiccated by forced dehydration, Erik’s skin had taken on a new solidity; pinched, it would pause before flattening back into itself. His ligaments had turned brittle. His elbow hurt. He sneaked, at some point, a sip of Crystal Light, but the powder at its base stuck to his teeth in his dry mouth and made his teeth hurt so intensely he regretted the transgression. He slathered himself in baby oil and stepped into the sauna and sweat, tensing hard as if he might will a few more drops of water from each straining muscle, until the sauna scale read 145.5. At his last fight, Erik had been so weak at this weight that a friend had to physically support him on the walk from the sauna to the scale.

In a packed hotel conference room later that afternoon, Erik watched Cisco play with the chains around his neck. There were reporters present from legitimate media organizations, which itself distinguished this entire endeavor from any fight I had yet experienced, and they came flanked by cameramen. The fighters were surrounded by teams of coaches in matching T-shirts; all were supported by sponsors more eminent than their local tattoo parlors. The fight would air on pay-per-view, and whoever won the main event would win fifty times what he might at one of the smaller, marginally legal fights I’d watched before.

Cisco and Erik both stared out past photographers crouching and clicking around the dais. When he heard his name called, Erik stepped onto the scale, which scrolled up to 146, the maximum allowed weight. His face went slack and his lips parted slightly. He flexed both arms. It was a less than convincing show of strength, a bizarre accumulation of protrusions popping under a translucent sheet of skin on his arms and abs. When he flexed, his two tattoos, “HD” for Hard Drive on the left and “Z” for Zombie Nation Army on the right, gleamed black and clean. He was nauseated and shivering with cold.

Erik stepped off the scale and posed for some shots with Cisco, who stood two inches shorter than Erik. Cisco was thin but not very, fully capable of fighting at 135 should he find within himself half of Erik’s willpower. They faced one another with fists raised, and Erik equalized their heights by forcing his head forward so his neck shot vertically from his shoulders. He had started doing this a few fights ago, he had informed me, and someone said that he looked “like an alien.” Now he was doing it every fight, and shaving his head to augment the effect.

“He looks like an alien,” I heard one of a dozen sportswriters tell the gentleman sitting next to him. Read More »


Weighing In, Part 1

October 15, 2014 | by

Watching a cage fighter starve himself.

Photo: Jeremy Brooks

“Four eggs,” I instructed the waiter at the finest restaurant in the Palms Casino Resort.

“Egg salad?” He was in a starched suit, pouring water into a delicately lipped glass.

“No, four hard-boiled eggs.”

“Four eggs.”

The waiter returned with four eggs huddled in the slight depression of a sizable dinner plate, as if to further diminish the sad feast through a trick of scale. Each egg had been deshelled, which was, I supposed, the benefit of ordering hard-boiled eggs at the finest restaurant in the Palms. Erik was a few flights up in his hotel room, showering after a workout, but he had asked that his meal be ready when he descended, and I feared displeasing him.

Though his mentor Duke, his roommate Pettis, and his manager could be found dispersed among the card tables and slot machines, not a single member of Hard Drive, Erik’s fighting collective in Cedar Rapids, had ventured with us to Las Vegas. Following a momentous schism between him and his brother, Erik had been “banned for life” from the gym and its environs.

Banished, Erik had returned to Milwaukee, to his warm, fast-talking Italian American coach, to his potential as one of the youngest men in the most prestigious promotion open to men who weighed in at 155 pounds. From their offices in Vegas, connected people continued to call him in Milwaukee, and it was as if he had never made the mistake of going home. Would he like to be in the official UFC video game? They would fly him out to LA, take measurements, and then boys everywhere would fight their friends in the avatar form of Erik “New Breed” Koch. Pettis was asked to be a judge for the Miss Wisconsin USA pageant and, in declining the offer, sent Erik in his stead. Erik met, at the event, the manager of a Jersey Shore cast member. Would Erik like to be on an episode of DJ Pauly D’s upcoming reality spin-off show? He said he very much would like that. He was unattached, alone, free to make commitments to as-yet-theoretical reality shows as he pleased.

Erik at last arrived at the restaurant, sat across from me without a word, unrolled from the napkin his knife and fork, and began the surgical egg procedure with which I was, by then, familiar. I would have liked to discuss our surroundings, as it was my first encounter with a professionally run promotion and I had many astute observations on the subject, but he ate with an air of sacral solemnity I did not wish to desecrate by speaking. It was my twenty-ninth birthday and I had not told a soul in the world. Read More »