Critical Mass: 'Rayguns' on target
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

A weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture:

Roswell Rayguns
The "Roswell Rayguns" clash with ABA teams of yesteryear in Nike's new ad campaign.
On the Mothership
Nike's "Roswell Rayguns" spot featuring Vince Carter, Jermaine O'Neal, Paul Pierce, Baron Davis and Jerry Stackhouse (debuted April 20)

There's a lot to say here, but it all boils down to these three points:

1. Alongside the And 1 spots featuring Kevin Garnett, the Steve Francis for Reebok, Chris Webber and Tracy McGrady for Code Red, and Vince Carter at Rucker Park for Nike ads, the truth is -- forget the Super Bowl -- the most interesting and appealing commercials in America run during NBA games.

2. Any and all references, invocations, snippets, clips and glimpses of Bootsy Collins are a good thing -- on television, in your mind, in your soul, wherever.

Roswell Rayguns
Once you feel the funk, even the stiffest of squares will be made hip.
3. I believe in the funk and I tell you this: You cannot trifle with the funk, you can't just set it loose, in a commercial or in your head, and expect things to stay the same. Sure, it looks harmless enough, all wrapped in nostalgia like it is here, like it's a '70s thing, but the funk is bigger, nastier and more intoxicating than even the most intense blast of nostalgia ... and it cannot be contained. It is out there now, reanimated, in the air. It will proliferate, and it will change things. Squares will swing, stiffs will groove, the slow-down, feed-the-post game will disappear, and we will all be better for it.

On the Shelf
"Baseball Prospectus" 2002 Edition, by Joe Sheehan, et al

The "BP" guys (who are regular contributors to the ESPN.com baseball page) do stats-based analyses of every player and team in the league, reviewing recent performance and making projections for 2002.

The push is for better, more accurate measures of performance -- Batting Average is replaced by Equivalent Average (a number that takes into account not just if a guy got on, but whether he walked, hit a single or homered), for example -- and the fundamental imperative is to read players in context, by taking into account where they played, how others who played the same position fared, or, if they're pitchers, by looking at what kind of defense and run support they had behind them. The results are usually convincing and often innovative.

The rap on this kind of stuff is that it's too mathematical and complicated to be fun, or that it's cold and intimidating, because it produces unfamiliar conclusions and sometimes busts up long-held and long-cherished ideas about what matters and who's good. The rap, in other words, is that there isn't enough heart in it.

My take's just the opposite. I figure the number-crunching and scientific methodizing as a marker of a deep and sustained love of the game. I figure you work the problems, tweak the measurements and tease out the conclusions, because baseball's so deep in you that you can't help yourself, because you want to get closer to understanding it, and because you think there are still things to learn from and about it. I figure sabermetrics as a measure of devotion.

"BP 2002" backs me up, too, because its reason and analysis work in the service of the questions that matter most to fans, like: What should your GM do to make your team better, now and down the road? Where are the (gaping) holes in Bud Selig's theories about competitive balance and contraction? Who are the players to watch coming up? Who likely has reached his peak? Are there new ways to make sense of what's happening on the field and in the dugout, new terms and ideas to show off in front of your friends and neighbors the next time you get caught up in a "who's better-who's best" debate?

I read it for all that, but mostly, I read it because I can't help myself.

On the Small Screen
"Slap Shot" 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD (released March 26)

Paul Newman
Paul Newman's "Slap Shot" packs some serious punch.
Why (according to Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com, and most anybody you ask on the street) is this one of the Top 10 sports movies of all-time?

Because Paul Newman, even with his legendary eyes, comes off small, beat-up and charming -- never great.

Because the Hanson Brothers are a strange, unexplainable force of nature.

Because the writing is smart and unpredictable at almost every turn, and quiet when it needs to be.

Because director George Roy Hill lets events, conversations and game action come in at odd angles and seemingly unscripted moments, so the movie just hangs together, like life.

And maybe most importantly, because it's set in a forsaken place at a desperate time:

"What's the story with that dog," Lily says.

"That's the dog that saved Charlestown from the 1938 flood," Reggie replies.

"Well, (expletive) him," she says.

Call it pity, empathy or just identification ... whatever you call it, it's the minor stories, with all their weird impulses and long-shot fantasies, that have the strongest pull.

On Another Network
Kobe Bryant
Watch Kobe Bryant come of age in Fox Sports' "Beyond the Glory."
"Kobe Bryant: Beyond the Glory" (airing May 2 and May 4 on Fox Sports Net)

Listen for a clip of Chick Hearn announcing Kobe's first game appearance in the intro sequence. "Put your shirttail in, son," he says. Just like that and all at once, Kobe's a kid, a superstar, and only one in a long line of great players Chick's seen come down the pike.

Watch for Phil Jackson describing his first in-person impression of Kobe's refusal to pass: "I was, like, appalled," Phil says. Might be the least articulate, least Zen-like thing you're ever gonna hear out of the master.

And as for Kobe, like Jordan and Tiger and DiMaggio and a handful of others, put him in that class of single-minded athlete performers who are utterly captivating and, it seems, almost totally unknowable.

On the Newsstand
John M. Glionna's L.A. Times story about the San Quentin Giants, an inmate baseball team. (April 29 edition)

I think it was "The Longest Yard" that first put in my head the idea that playing itself could set you free. I'm sure I'm supposed to have wised up since then, but I still think it's true ... or at least I hope it is.

Shameless In-House Plug
Hunter S. Thompson on the Kentucky Derby

Before you watch the race this Saturday, and while you're sipping on, say, your third or fourth mint julep, take time out to read "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved", or HST's more recent take on the Derby, which ran on Page 2 last year at this time:

When you're done, the race will feel superfluous. Which it is.

TV viewing tip of the week
Dirk Nowitzki
After sweeping aside KG, Dirk Nowitzki sets his sights on C-Webb.
Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki (Sacramento vs. Dallas in the second round)

Two watchable big men in one series? What did we do to deserve this?

A note on Dirk: Does anyone make 3-point shots look easier, more in the flow? The guy's scary. He's the player I once thought Rasheed would be.

A note on Chris: I love the whole game, but lately I love the little smile that creeps across his face when he dunks. It's almost apologetic, like, "geez, I didn't mean to, it just happened, you know, whaddaya gonna do?"

Not that It Matters, but Does Anybody Know Why ...
The NBA's All-Rookie team is officially known as the "got milk?" NBA All-Rookie Team?

I know, it's money, sure, but is there anything else? I mean, are we supposed to make some sort of growing bodies and strong bones connection or something?

It feels like a stretch, and a creepy one at that.

Nobody's asking, of course, but here's something I'd rather not see: the "got milk?" NBA All-Rookie Team Calendar for 2003, complete with goofy moustache pics -- that's just not a way I need to see Shane Battier, now or ever.

Next week's column: Ali on DVD and on PBS.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at neel@sportsjones.com.





CRITICAL MASS

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Neel: Ageless wonder





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