Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture.
The ESPN 100, which you can find in ESPN The Magazine and here at ESPN.com, is a definitive list of "everything that mattered most" in sports in the past year. Like any good list, it should inspire others. Here is my list -- the things that mattered most to me. Call it the "ESN (Eric Scott Neel) 10," the big list's entirely subjective, eclectic, off-the-top-of-my-head, not-really-ranked-so-much-as-cobbled-together little cousin.
Allen Iverson, postseason press conference: You wanted to chastise him, you wanted to put your arms around him. You wanted to laugh, and you wanted to listen. You wanted to dismiss him, and you wanted to praise him. He was the maddening, captivating, charming, repulsive, awe-inspiring, pitiable AI -- you were the fan, the reporter, the pundit or the school kid who had to be more, work harder, and think twice, just to know what to make of him.
|Allen Iverson's press conference provided incredible theater.|
Emmylou Harris, "God Bless America," Game 3 of the World Series: It took her fragile but fierce voice, stretched tight like a wire, to express how much we were feeling then. The reach, the inarticulate crack, in it sprang from pain and anger, even as it reached for hope. It wasn't a beautiful rendition, it was a wise one -- a warbling sound that seemed to say more than any words could about what had happened.
Derek Jeter, "The Play," Game 3, ALDS: Actually, I didn't see it. I was paying the pizza guy or taking out the trash or talking on the phone or something. I've never even seen tape of it. People say it's pretty amazing. I should probably see it. I was going to see it, see, but then people started talking about it all the time. Their eyes would light up, they'd get this little line of spittle hanging down from their lips and they'd clap their hands together like one of those wind-up monkey dolls with the cymbals, you know what I mean?
And after a while, it was just too much, there was just too much Jeter legend, too much Jeter mythology about it. And so I decided the only thing to do was avoid the clip altogether, make a point of never seeing it. I decided, the same way, as a kid, I had sometimes decided not to like a movie just because all my friends were fawning over it and rejecting it was the only remotely cool, contrarian thing I could do, to boycott the play. I hear it's great, though.
Raiders vs. Patriots, AFC divisional playoff game: Speaking of plays, lost in all the controversy over Brady's fumble-pass was the fact that this was a snow game, an old-fashioned, call all your buddies to meet down at the park, slip, slide and fall on your butt snow game. Biggest game of these guys' lives and all their sharp-honed skills and fancy plays are worth almost nothing. I love that kind of now-what-you-gonna-do moment … plus, all the swirling white flakes looked purty on TV.
|Lost in the controversy of the Snow Game was the pure joy of watching the Raiders and Pats frolic in the snow.|
Serena vs. Venus Williams, ladies' final at 2002 Wimbledon: "Historic" is a cheap, overused word. But two black women -- two sisters -- from Compton, Calif., playing each other in consecutive Grand Slam finals in Paris and London … mister, that's historic. And I mean that in the most ambitious, change the course of history, undo old realities, remember Althea and Arthur, revolutionize the style and strategy of the game, give no quarter, we all better come up with a new vocabulary to describe what they're doing, sense of the word.
"Dogtown and Z-Boys:" Style is substance -- this is the point at which skate rats, Zen masters, and great artists converge.
Mike Bibby, game-winning shot, Game 5, NBA Western Conference finals: He told Webber coming out of the timeout that he'd hit the shot. Then came the pick, the pass, the jump, the flick of the wrist and, sure enough, he hit it. Easy as pie. Two games later, the shot was a footnote, nothing more than a hint at how things might have gone, but for a moment, for a night, it was the height of the form, a textbook demonstration of confident execution, and the exhilarating birth of "Mike Bibby: Superstar Point Guard."
"Ali," the opening sequence: The young Cassius runs through the streets at night, grey-hooded and eyes on the prize. Sam Cooke sings "Bring It On Home to Me." Both scenes are cut with flashbacks to key moments from his childhood. It's all in these first few minutes: he's a sexy pied-piper in an anxious, hungry time; he's a wide-eyed innocent and a strong-willed competitor. He's big and small at the same time. Biography and cultural history are perfectly tuned to each other -- it's suggestive, thrilling, familiar and enlightening. A subtle, gorgeous bit of film. Unfortunately, what comes after it -- the rest of the movie -- isn't half as compelling.
|"Ali" went downhill quickly after its breathtaking opening sequence.|
Joe Girardi, address to the crowd at Wrigley Field the day Darryl Kile died: He choked up, and he kept the news private. He reminded us, uniforms, rooting interests and historical rivalries aside, that athletes are part of a fraternity, that they're tied to each other and feel for each other in ways most of us never see.
Hip commercials. adidas' World Cup "Footballitis" and their "Day and Night" basketball spots, Nike's Elvis soccer ad and their rebirth of funk hoop series, the Code Red street-cinema ads with Webber and McGrady, the And1 Kevin Garnett and Reebok Steve Francis spots, and the Gatorade "The Legend Continues" campaign (… and others I'm forgetting): They made beer commercial gags look stale and obvious. They were quirky and fresh, and watching them made you feel like being a sports fan was kind of an edgy, sophisticated pastime.
Vin Scully, night in and night out: Jack Buck is gone. Ernie Harwell is on a farewell tour. If you love baseball, if you love language, if you love a lilt in the voice that can wrap itself around you and make you feel whole ... if you have any feeling for history, for improvised poetry or for simple, routine acts described with precision and affection, you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage to Chavez Ravine. Bring one of those hand-held transistor radios if you have one. Buy a bleacher seat, hold the radio up to your ears and listen to what you're seeing.
Sarah Hughes, Salt Lake City Olympics: I don't get skating. Can't tell a Lutz from a Salchow and don't care, and I think the whole fancy dress, fancy music thing is a little creepy. Still, Hughes' scream backstage when she learned she'd won gold was about as genuine and charming as it gets.
|You couldn't help but smile after watching Sarah Hughes win gold.|
… I'll stop there. I've gone past my limit: 12 items, not 10. Even at that, it's no kind of comprehensive list. Yours would be different. Mine would be different if I thought about it again tomorrow, or an hour from now.
I can imagine a list that wouldn't include any items that made the ESPN 100, and another made up exclusively of stuff that did make the big countdown. But thinking about it in those terms seems too formulaic.
If you're the Worldwide Leader in Sports, the reason to do these kinds of lists is to set the standard, to make sure you are now and forever shall be the Worldwide Leader in Sports, but if you're just a guy alone at his computer, the reason to do these kinds of lists is to give yourself up to memory, to let things bubble up, to see what pricks your consciousness now or has left its mark on you at some time in the past. Memory is a sketchy, imperfect thing. Even as I type, I know I've left some crucial moments off my list, and it's killing me.
But memory is a constant thing too. It gathers around the same kinds of things -- if I hadn't put Hughes on the list, I might have gone with Gretzky after the Canadians won hockey gold; if I hadn't thought of Girardi, I probably would have thought of Cris Carter and Randy Moss struggling to deal with Korey Stringer's death -- and in that way it provides a sketch, not just of a particular year or moment, but of who I was then, and what mattered to me.
Who and what are on your list this year?
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.