Reykjavic Day 1

So here’s the thing I learned on my last day in Iceland. The colours on the Icelandic flag represent the majestic and beautiful nature of the island, something they have been proud of since way back in the day (way way back as in when the first visitor got there). The blue is meant to represent the Atlantic ocean, the white represents the snow and glaciers and the red the lava of the active volcanoes. Save that little tidbit for a swank cocktail party, and watch it kill.

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“It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.” :The Nice Guy Rises in Sports

I was watching Roger Federer, the all-time winningest male tennis player, receive this trophy for a record sixth time in a row. It was not a Masters tournament or a tune-up tourney but an award won off the court – one for sportsmanship. Each year, the players who form the pro tennis tour vote to determine the Sportsman of the Year aka the Nicest Guy aka the Best Clubhouse Bugger. And Federer remarkably collected this award as consistently as he did Grand Slam titles. He won it six times in a row from 2004-2010 until interrupted by his fellow Hall-of-Fame Nice Guy Rafael Nadal. (Federer has however since snatched back and put a stranglehold on the coveted Chill Dude award.) Fed has managed the miracle of not only beating all opponents into the ground (except Nadal) – he has managed to trounce all comers and leave them wanting his company. He’s the guy who wins every Poker game – while telling all the best jokes too. Ever loquacious and garrulous, Fed forever remains the picture of the country club tennis player, both in demeanor and appearance: lips curled up in a smile, mildly tousled hair, white trousers and cream cardigans. He walks onto Centre Court at Wimbledon appearing to have just walked off of the set of Chariots of Fire. And he sounded every bit the part of the suave pro when he collected his award and said:

Well, it’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.” 

And I thought that was amazing. I had never heard the phrase and his delivery was as flawless as his backhand. It was politician level stuff. He could have been Bill Clinton’s son.

federer-nadalAs I mulled over his remark, I became more impressed. I began to realize that Federer and Nadal represented a Rise Of The Nice. Most top athletes of the past twenty years had been known for their curmudgeonly to hostile behavior. The Michael Jordans, Pete Samprases, Mike Tysons, Kobe Bryants and Zinedine Zidanes were celebrated for being so single-minded in their focus that they could be mean and surly to those around them because that was their right as per their greatness. Their talents were so vast that they left no room for mild manners and their focus so laserlike, it left no room for considerations.

Nadal and Federer came along in the mid-2000s and managed to quickly create and endure a historic rivalry- while remaining genuinely friendly. This was unique because tennis is such an intense and solitary endeavour (each loss results in elimination from tournament and a trip to the airport) but these two men not only act as gentlemen, they actually like each other… I was fascinated by this question: Does a professional athlete compete exactly as hard against someone he likes as he does against someone he despises? Does he execute as exactingly against a practice partner as he does against a total stranger? Or is it vice-versa?  Is it simply a different result for different people? Rafa and Roger both seemed to be succeeding historically well and doing so while remaining true to the code: The Dude Abides.

It reminded me of 90’s NBA Basketball when my favorite coach of all time, Jeff Van Gundy of the New York Knicks admonished Knicks forward Charles Oakley for being friends with the sort of dickish Bulls guard Michael Jordan. Now here was a guy who nobody ever called nice. MJ was a trash talking, opponent taunting, teammate-Steve Kerr-fighting, Bull-headed assassin. And he was loved for it. Van Gundy argued that it was Oakley’s job to stop Jordan at any cost and that drinking and dining with him could only weaken his resolve to slay the mighty Jordan. Conversely, Jordan would have gone all Knights Tale and challenged Oak to an impromptu life-or-death joust if it insured him home court in the Finals. This is a guy whose entire Hall-Of-Fame Induction Speech was a middle finger to all those who ever doubted him. Michael Jordan was better than all his peers, but Michael Jordan is also more bitter than his peers. Is that ratio telling? Does that mean that bitterness equals competitiveness and ultimately success? So does that in turn mean it’s better to be LeBron James than Mike? LeBron at least appears to have the ability to go home and enjoy a movie after work.

Kobe Bryant is also a maniacally competitive athlete. He is so averse to niceness that he went so far as to nickname himself Black Mamba.  Bryant recognized his best qualities in the highly venomous serpent – cold-blooded, very deadly and capable of killing easily and quickly. Kung Fu Panda, he is not. The basic question about niceness in sports came up again in a fantastic article I read about Kobe and his father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. Joe is a former NBA player, but a journeyman and one of those hoops lifers who eventually weaved his way across the world, zigging through Europe and zagging through Asia. In the article, Joe’s peers unanimously assert that he could have been better than he was, that his talent exceeded his accomplishments. Kobe himself says that he got his will power and work ethic not from his NBA-playing father but from his mother, even adding that she used to elbow him in highly competitive one-on-one games when he was a young teen. The writer details Joe’s life today as Coach of a fledgling team in Thailand and contrasts his seemingly nomadic and adventurous life of travels with the singular tunnel vision exhibited by his son since he was a young child who would practice his jumper for three hours each night. The story of the pair leaves one wondering if that is the choice: to be a well-balanced well-traveled and satisfied man or to be a continually unsatisfied man thus always pushing yourself to another level of productivity… Is there a right choice? Is one really more wrong than the other?

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In terms of pro basketball, selfishness is almost requisite of champions. I saw Kobe say that he couldn’t care less about being remembered as a good teammate. He claimed that he wanted to be remembered “for getting the most juice out of this lemon.” By any means. And that’s why the most refreshing thing about LeBron James is that he is unselfish both on court and even more impressively, off. Probably the most non-aggressive Alpha Male in the NBA since Tim Duncan or Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron scales new highs each year but he’s never a jerk about it. I watch him and wonder when he’s going to just let loose a Jordanesque stream of insults to all his detractors. Where’s his infamous grab-the-mic-in-the-club moment when he asks EVERYONE how his bleep tastes? For him to take the level of abuse he gets (and he’s definitely done some dumb things) and not retaliate after slaying every Dragon, rescuing every damsel, pulling the sword out of the damn stone- he’s in Gandhian territory. He could be double-swording heads off like Gladiator right now but LeBron seems to be a happy person, one who can go home and relax after a game. Young Kevin Durant may be the one guy more chill than LeBron. Durant is so nice that his current Nike ad campaign reads KD IS NOT NICE, a reverse psychology tactic to insure us of a nasty streak within the charming Iceberg Slim. These two are considered the two best basketball players on Earth. They both play the same position and are competing for the same prize for the next ten years. But they are cool with each other. And I like that.

So what is the exact correlation between niceness and success? What is the formula? How does one impact the other? Certainly, those who are more successful are often pardoned for a lack of niceties that would be inexcusable going in the other direction. And being less nice could be as extreme as aggressive physical behavior to as easy as passive aggressive remarks. Of course it’s all subjective, the entire universe altogether probably has a million different ideas and notions about what success is worth. A successful businessman recommended to me once “A lot can be learned from Attila the Hun. His strategies were brilliant, minus the killing of course.”

One of my favorite books in ages, David Remnick’s King Of The World details the rise of Muhammad Ali, particularly his teenage years before winning his first Heavyweight championship. Ali is selfish, cocky and arrogant even before success. He crudely insults his opponents and the press celebrates him for it. Ali’s most popular refrain was of course “I am the Greatest!” and the adult Ali asserts that he had to say that as a youth to believe in himself and ultimately to make himself. Ali, Jordan and Bryant represent the model of athlete whose attitude is one of pure cocksure swagger, individuals who aggressively talked a big game and then played an even bigger one. Nadal, Federer and James represent a seemingly more well-balanced attitude, one more harmonious and joy-seeking which still allows them to maximize their abilities. Part of me wonders if this is a trend illustrating that today’s athletes, similar to today’s youth in general, are maturing faster and thus realizing at a younger age that they can just as easily achieve their greatest goals without being at each other’s throats. As a result, things are less personal these days and hence, more professional. It’s nice to be important but it’s also nice to be nice.

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This is a link to the story I referred to above about Kobe Bryant and his parents. It’s called “Where Does Greatness Come From?” by Chris Ballard of SI. I thought it was excellent.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/magazine/05/10/kobe.bryant.ballard/index.html

Jay-Z’s (sure to be upcoming) Baseball Sports Agent Rap

Feels like Jay-Z is becoming a sports agent just so he can put a verse about it on his next album. So why wait? Here it is:

Uh Who ya think got Cano those incentives?

Told Cashman half a mill per home run , so inventive

Cha-Ching (sound of cash register opening)

everytime the ball clears the fence kid

Did the game dirty like Pigpen 

It’s ya boy Hov live from the bullpen

Everywhere all at once like Ze-lig

Ah Now I’m smokin’ cigars with my new Bud Se-lig

Roc Nation, Beyonce, big clubs, hit songs

Uh My head’s gettin’ bigger than Barry Bonds

Signin’ clients to muy lucrative contracts

takin’ these clubs’ cash, balls and bats

Playin’ my hand so perfect,  

liar’s poker

Leavin’ no prospects for these jokers

Take the jersey off they wall ha!

it’s funny yall

Streets of Marcy is the home of Moneyball

Leavin’ em there

with their junk in they glove

if they don’t open the checkbook

and show us the love:

that’s seven zeroes for all you laymen

Canyon of Heroes, bank’s in the Caymen’s

If you build it they will come, I heard the whispers

So now we get that coco and we get it crisper

Talk the best game like Harry Caray

The New McGwire – Not Mark – Jerry! It’s ya boy!

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“1-900-HUSTLER”

Andy Vs Novak: That Moment

Words and Photos by Siddharth Chander The Arthur Ashe Stadium located in Flushing Meadows in the Queens borough of New York can seat up to 22,547 people. It is easily the largest tennis venue in the world. When I visited the stadium on a perfect summer’s day this past autumn, there were about a quarter of that number in their seats as I arrived. Still I had no doubt that every last seat would be full. For in addition to that gargantuan number, two additional people would be at the stadium that evening. They were according to their ranking the second and third best male tennis players in the world, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Great Britain’s Andy Murray respectively. They were playing for the last Grand Slam title of 2o12, Andy playing for his first taste of a Slam and Novak the defending champion playing to keep that taste all to himself.

Riding the 7 train out to the stadium, the subway car was the biggest collection of tennis fans I had ever seen. What’s a tennis fan look like? Well, in everyday society, one may occasionally see someone wearing a hat bearing a regal RF on it, but on the way to the US Open you will see it in every colour under the sun including ones that would make Roger Federer himself cringe. Now, I can honestly say that Roger Federer was my favorite tennis player before he won a single Grand Slam so I feel like I am one of the stalwarts in the Roger camp. But when I got on that train, I knew I had underestimated the popularity not only of the Fed but of tennis in general. People flew in from all over the world for this thing. Trying to gauge what direction the crowd was leaning, I asked the man across from me (branded by the RF) who he wanted to win. I was pulling for Andy, not because I liked him or disliked Novak in any way. I simply felt Andy had paid enough dues to (I hate the word but) deserve a Slam. (Deserving something is a funny concept because it’s a completely subjective abstract thing. I once saw Gregg Poppovich of the Spurs say in a post-game interview seconds after his team got screwed by a referee’s botched call that his team “can’t start thinking about deserve. There is no deserve. There’s what you got and that’s it. You start thinking about deserve and you get soft.”  He said the two of those words with such disgust that I don’t think I’ve ever thought I’ve deserved a thing since. That Poppovich could be a Life Coach.)

The man wanted Novak to win. This led to quite a few people saying they wanted Novak. I was surprised but Rafa and Roger being my guys, all I really wanted was 5 sets. I said as much and there was unanimous agreement on that. Now all that was left was for these two young men to deliver the goods to those twenty-two thousand. Talking to the hardcore tennis fans on the way, the conversation kept coming back to Roger and I realized Federer is to them a savant, a genius, a once in a lifetime phenomenon. There is no criticism they accept. Roger is one of my favorite athletes but to criticize him in any way was sacrilegious even if I offered that he was the best. I liked hearing it. I enjoyed meeting people so passionate about tennis that they would argue a failing argument to the death. The truth, another abstract subjective notion?

Walking into Arthur Ashe is incredible. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a game in most pro sports and nothing has been superior to the two matches I’ve seen at Ashe. In my opinion, tennis is simply the most intense from a viewing standpoint. You have two men standing alone. No teammates. No coaches. Nowhere to hide. Most sports offer moments when an athlete can get a break, whether it be when his teammate takes the heat off him or whether the ball is simply far from him. In tennis, and in Arthur Ashe, the players can’t escape for a moment. You see their every move from the first second they walk out onto the court. You see them warm up. You see them when they rest in between games. You see every inch of them on every single point because there is no other body that will ever obscure your view. They are all alone. John McEnroe compares it to Boxing, saying two men walk out on their own, take their respective sides and then attack each other until one emerges victorious. The size of the stadium completely lends itself to this Gladiator analogy because after 4 hours of watching Andy and Novak battle, it really felt like one of them would have to kill the other to walk out of there.

One aspect of a tennis match that is unique is the silence of the crowd while a point is in play. This increases the intensity by tenfold because you clearly hear the grunt of the player, the thwack of the ball off the racquet, the squeak of their sneakers on the court. The echo reverberates through the air when a player lets out a yelp of anguish after he has mishit a ball or been run ragged in the pursuit of winning one solitary point. All the adrenalin builds up in you silently during a particularly long point and then when it finally ends, you release the emotion via a clap or a shout and then it’s silence again. This process repeated intensifies the entire evening. A good crowd becomes one collective mass and an integral part of the match.

You hear everything. You see everything. You feel everything.

Which is why I wanted to attend a Final. From the time I was a child and began watching tennis, that moment of winning a Championship seemed magical. One would watch the world’s best transform in an instant from stoic squinty-eyed robots into puddles of emotions and bundles of nerves with an opponent’s final backhand hit just long or a forehand that found the net. That moment when you become a champion. And none more special than the first time. Maybe the seed was planted with that old Archie’s Gallery ad featuring a guy striking out with a girl – until he saw a poster of Bjorn Borg celebrating his Wimbledon title by falling to the grass with his eyes closed and his hands to the skies. The aspiring Romeo falls to his knees and wins Juliet forever. I’m telling you, that moment stays with people. I got chills when the umpire said it: Championship Point. I knew I had pulled for Andy. Was it subconsciously because I had a chance to be there for that moment? When he would break through, when twenty odd years of hitting balls would be everything him and his fans hoped it would be? I was only pulling for Andy because Roger was ousted earlier and Rafa was out with injury but in that moment, you wanted him to win it so badly. I just kept wondering how he would react. It was the 5th hour and 5th set of the match. It had seen everything. Momentum turns. Raucous tie breaks. A 55-shot rally. Wind gusts that blew the ball around like a candy wrapper. Cramps. Bathroom breaks. Physical therapists. The bright afternoon sun had given way to a gorgeous sunset which had given way to a clear night under the bright stadium lights and airplanes coming to and fro LaGuardia Airport.

In the 5th set, Andy managed to get his second (or third or sixth) wind just as Novak began to cramp and fade a bit. As Novak was treated  in his chair, Andy Murray who had already been labeled the best player to never win a Slam walked over behind his baseline and volleyed against the wall to stay loose. 4 hours and 47 minutes had passed. Everyone in the Stadium believed in that moment he was going to win his first Slam in a minute or five or another thirty. But he was going to get it. How would he celebrate? Was he thinking of that as he volleyed and waited for his hobbled opponent to return to his feet? I thought he had to be but he said later he wasn’t.

Novak saved the first championship point with a forehand winner. On the second, Novak brazenly returned Andy’s serve with a blazing forehand that was either going to be a sure winner. Or that moment for Andy Murray. And so it was. At the end of one of the longest Finals in Grand Slam history, the first time Champion dropped his racquet, held his hands over his mouth in disbelief, went into a squat for a second and that was that. It’s unbelievable. You work your whole lifetime for that moment and it passes before the ball even comes to a stop.