WONDER WOMAN (Penny Taylor Says Goodbye: Occasional Sports’ Moment #26)

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Penny Taylor played her last WNBA game yesterday, a loss in a playoff elimination game. I wrote most of what I had to say about Taylor here, a couple of years ago, when it looked liked her Phoenix Mercury team was about to redefine the possibilities of what women’s basketball could be.

That didn’t happen, for reasons I partially delineated in the UPDATE to the linked piece. But Penny Taylor was Penny Taylor down the bitter end.

When Holly Rowe approached her before what turned out to be her last game, she asked Taylor if she was having any reflective thoughts or perhaps feeling a bit sad about the now-imminent end of her career.

“No. I’m thinking about getting a *&%#ing win,” Taylor said.

That pretty well summed up every minute of Taylor’s career.

I had the privilege of seeing her play on television maybe fifty times. In maybe forty-five of those games there was what I can only describe as at least one “Penny Taylor Moment.” Some lunatic dive on the floor that turned out to have a point, some twisting layup in the lane, some no-look assist from her butt, some improbable rebound snatched from a gaggle of taller, “more athletic,” players that seemed to occur only when the game was on the line.

Some moment like the one in the videos I linked in the above piece (where she tied up a shooter with less than a second on the third quarter clock of a two-point game, forced a turnover, and then watched as Diana Taurasi sank a half-court shot off the in-bound to break the game open).

Not surprisingly, there was such a moment in her last game, too.

It came in the first half, when the game was still competitive but the tide was turning against her team.

No YouTube is available as yet, so I’ll have to describe it:

Taylor reached in on a burgeoning fast break being generated by the other team after a turnover near the mid-court line. After tapping the ball away, she dove on the court and secured possession. Just as she did so, the nearest player from the other team rolled over her and “accidentally” slammed Taylor’s head into the court with as vicious a close-range elbow as you’ll ever see. Taylor wasn’t quite knocked unconscious but she lay writhing on the floor for several minutes while the refs sorted out who the foul was on.

When it was finally decided that Taylor should be awarded two free throws, the announcers began pointing out that if she left the game for a concussion protocol, she would not, under league rules, be allowed to return. Then one of the announcers noticed that Taylor was wobbly on her feet when she was finally able to stand up. They doubted whether she would be able to continue, let alone make the free throws.

I laughed out loud and said: “Good God you morons. It’s Penny Taylor!”

Thirty seconds later, Taylor drained her two free throws. About sixty seconds after that, on an ensuing possession, she drove the lane, got knocked down…and drained two more free throws.

Down to the end, the people who cover the WNBA retained their complete state of ignorance regarding who Penny Taylor was, and why, as a gender re-write of that old classic line about Reggie Jackson would have it: “Winning just seemed to follow her around.”

Again I say, for the last decade-plus, the hardest-nosed basketball player in the world was a woman. A woman with her admitted share of all-star credentials, who, except when she was leading Australia’s national team, sacrificed superstar scoring stats, of which she was perfectly capable, in order to provide all the intangible things no one else could for championship teams in the WNBA and elsewhere.

And again I say, it will be a crying shame if the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame–the most prestigious of the sport’s several halls–follows the “journalists” who failed to recognize who she was, just because such an impossible lot of it didn’t show up in the box score.

Sayanora, Madam That-Ball-Is-Mine.

God it was fun!

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WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Ring Lardner, Richard Pryor and the Fast Disappearing Art of Trash-Talking)

The week was filled with mostly mind-numbing buzz about Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman’s speechifying (and subsequent standard round of mostly mind-numbing non-apology apologies) after last Sunday’s NFC title game.

For all the fuss it kicked up, what struck me about Sherman’s immediate post-game spiel was that it just wasn’t very interesting. Words like “dull,” “witless,” “insipid,” “predictable” kept running through my mind when it was live and no amount of replays could dislodge them. I mean, as trash-talking goes, repeatedly calling a guy “mediocre” is about as lame as it gets. What’s he supposed to come back with?

“Well, you’re…you’re…you’re AVERAGE!”

Seriously, folks.

It was, nonetheless, sadly inevitable that Sherman–being black–would receive a certain amount of racist bile in return (probably quite a lot, though it’s hard to know for certain–let’s just say any is far too much and far, far worse than anything Sherman himself did or said).

And it was equally inevitable that well-meaning ignoramuses of varying stripes (all queuing up for membership or renewal in what we around here like to call the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade, or DBCCB for short) would try to elevate his behavior by making their own set of race-specific assumptions (“He’s from the street man…and he went to Stanford, see, so he can’t be what you say he is, see,…The game just finished man and that’s how the game is and he was excited see,” etc., etc., etc.) and, yes, by just plain making stuff up.

My favorite example of this latter was the frequent assertion (frequent enough I even heard it on MSNBC, where nothing is ever said out loud unless it’s already been thoroughly processed as conventional wisdom) that ran along the lines of “I didn’t hear anybody calling Richie Incognito a thug.”

For those who don’t know or remember, Incognito is the white Miami Dolphins’ offensive lineman who was caught bullying an African-American teammate earlier this year with truly vile behavior that included dull, witless racial epithets and a dull, witless promise to defecate in his mouth.

Good, clean fun no doubt.

If you do a standard internet search using the phrase “Richie Incognito thug,” you will find pages and pages of items which are heavy on examples of obscure media outlets like the Washington Post and the Sporting News very specifically calling a white man (in this case Incognito) a thug, interspersed with a sprinkling of posts like this one insisting nobody has ever done any such thing!

The usual foo-fer-all between the usual intellectual titans in other words.

It happens that, entirely by coincidence, I’ve been reading the Library of America’s Ring Lardner collection (I’m planning to officially review it some time in February), which begins with Lardner’s first major work You Know Me Al, a short novel initially published in 1916. The book is, among many other things, a detailed essay on the finely nuanced art of trash-talking as it existed in the then national past-time sport of big league baseball a century past.

It’s narrated (through a series of letters sent to a friend who was evidently descended directly from Job) by a clod-hopper named Jack Keefe who is on his way to being the ace of the Chicago White Sox staff and far too clueless to know when he’s being ripped to shreds (especially by a coach named Kid Gleason) and wears his complete ignorance like a suit of impenetrable armor.

I’ll save the snappy lines for my review but, believe me, when it comes to smack, nobody has introduced any new angles in the last hundred years.

Just to see how things stood at roughly the half-way point between then and now, I went back to the work of another genius, Richard Pryor (I hardly need prodding), who has some version of playing the dozens (a specifically African-American version of America’s real national pastime–the putdown) running through his entire body of work and has a sort-of parallel version of Keefe and Gleason going on in his sketch titled “The Gang,” where Gleason is a kid named Clifford who tells jokes that are actually funny and Keefe is a kid named Bubba who tells jokes that make no sense whatsoever.

Everybody laughs at Bubba’s jokes anyway because his ignorance is as mighty a shield as Jack Keefe’s and–more importantly–he’s bigger than everybody else.

I just provide this brief historical perspective because none of the dozens of commenters I heard or read this week did anything similar. (Not saying that nobody did, just that nobody I sampled did and I sampled quite a few.)

Hence nobody I read or heard actually got around to calling out Richard Sherman’s real failure.

He played a great football game, made a great, game-saving play…then he choked on a bone during what we all know is now the truly important event otherwise known as the Post Game Interview.

With Ring Lardner and Richard Pryor (not to mention Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson) as role models (role models he might have been expected to honor and emulate being a product of both Compton and Stanford) he tried to step into their shoes and ended up sounding nothing whatsoever like a “thug” (that was just the stupid people talking and easily parried) but everything like a clod.

More Keefe and Bubba than Gleason and Clifford then.

And what was borderline tragic about all this is that, when other, earlier interviews with Sherman–taken in more sedate surroundings–surfaced later in the week, it turned out he’s normally genuinely funny and self-aware and sharp as a tack.

Alas, you only get one chance to make a lasting first impression and the real shame about last weekend is that Richard Sherman clearly could have been a contender in an age that desperately needs one–a true thorn in the side of the deadbeats who instead spent the week justifiably claiming him as one of their own and to whom he will now be forever indebted.

Guess if we’re seeking purely random inspiration we’ll have to stick with the rapidly receding past a while longer.

 

AH BASEBALL…(Sports Moment #3)

Pablo Sandoval is a good ball player and a fine major league hitter. But watching him hit three home runs in the first game of the World Series (thus joining Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols–three of history’s greatest sluggers–as the only men to do so), was like watching a tight end who has been to the Pro Bowl a couple of times run for two hundred and seventy yards on reverses in a Super Bowl.

If Vegas allowed betting on such things (and for all I know, they do) you could have made just about as much money predicting one as the other.

Which reminds me…allowing for first experiences as a kid, I’ve never seen anything happen in a professional football game that truly surprised me. (College is different–the sport of football isn’t the problem, the NFL is.)

Baseball?

Still surprises me all the time.

I suspect that’s the real reason it’s no longer the national sport.

Too….disorienting.