What It’s Like To Watch a Game in Rucker Park

The man at the free throw line dribbled twice, exhaled and began shooting the ball.

Just before he released, a voice boomed over the sound system, “Hey! Look who it is! Junior Junior!”

The shooter bricked the ball off the back rim and shook his head. He didn’t even look back. The announcer who had interrupted the free throw ran onto the court and shook hands with Junior Junior. The second free throw swished and Team French Montana inbounded the ball and ran past the two men reminiscing at midcourt.

Yes, two men are standing in the middle of the floor talking during a game. And yes, it appears to be the normal. Several members of the crowd laugh. Not one of the players look angry at the new obstacles.

The sun is fading behind the fences which close off Rucker Park from the rest of Harlem on a Wednesday night. This storied park, the place where Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Julius Erving honed their games and Kevin Durant dropped by to stay in shape during a lockout, is just a community gathering place tonight. After a patdown from metal-wanded security guards, the walk is short to the metal bleachers to see the blue basketball court painted with the Rucker Park logo underneath each basket. There are about 300 people here. An older man in the bleachers is eating a ham sandwich, enjoying the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, a league held from 6 to 10 p.m. every Monday through Thursday in the summer. The man says he comes every night, a place to keep him entertained and out of trouble.

Team Madoff, now on defense, steals the ball and dribbles back down the court. The players on a fastbreak almost knock down Junior Junior, who was told to go outside so the announcer could give him a proper entrance. Junior Junior—clad in a white Bahama shirt and white pants and white dress shoes—ambles in, waving to the crowd as “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” plays and the announcer screams, “Look at that pineapple outfit! Junior Junior is style, boy boy!”

The announcers seemingly every sentence with the expression, “Boy boy!”

The players are good. Every so often a player will cross up his defender with an ankle-breaking move which produces a blush from him and “oohs!” from everyone else. Once in a while, an angry dunk by “Optimus Prime” will energize the crowd as he hangs on the rim, scowling, only to run around high-fiving the audience. But the players—even apparent EBC superstars “Kiki” and “Brandon”—are largely forgettable. (Except for the hickey on Optimus Prime’s neck, which is undoubtedly the largest hickey I’ve ever seen in my life.)

But the announcers make it memorable. They are the show. Junior Junior’s hype man jumps and screams with his partner, a man who arrived 10 minutes before tip-off and hurriedly changed out of his army fatigues, grabbed a microphone with glued-on brass knuckles and donned a silky white boxer’s robe embroidered with “Da Most Electrifying” in gold lettering. (It’s the same announcer from the Kevin Durant video.)

The abandon of the two announcers is an infectious energy that produces many smiles and guffaws throughout the game. They speak in rapid, rhythmic staccato, punctuating the rat-a-tat-tat of their statements with “Boy, boy!” It’s similar to the rhythm heard by subway bucket drummers.

The announcers berate the players—when one player misses a wide open 3-pointer, the boxer says, “Hey, it’s a cold, cold world”—and debate what to call their fathers, who are both in the crowd that night. “I always call my Pops, Pops,” said Junior Junior’s hype man. “I don’t call nobody dad unless I’m trying to box.”

Junior Junior’s hype man Shmoney dances to Bobby Shmurda’s hit “Hot N***a” while Team Madoff goes on a 10-2 run. He wonders aloud, “Can you do this dance anywhere?” He almost debates himself. He argues that the dance is perfect for the club on Saturday night and the pew on Sunday morning. He said he’s going to try it this Sunday.

“If you don’t believe me, meet me there,” he says. “Every Sunday, 8:45 a.m., 550 west 155th Street, Church of the Intercession. Come on out.”

When a French Montana player buries a 3-pointer which buries the hopes of a comeback, the two hop around and go, “Ohhhhh! They’re gonna need to talk about that one!” Anytime Brandon touches the ball, they yell, “Shooooo-TER” and they laud every swished jumper with a quick, “Bottom of the net!” There’s one white player out of both teams and he’s tall, bearded and balded and white. They call him Gortat, in reference to “The Polish Hammer,” Marcin Gortat, who plays in the NBA.

Junior Junior’s hype man is always scanning the crowd when he’s talking, and I don’t know what he’s looking for. But suddenly, he asks the man sitting in front of me, “Where are you from?” Ecuador, it turns out. He pokes fun at Ecuador for a while and then starts asking others where they’re from. Take it as you will, but Junior Junior’s hype man asked five people out of the crowd of 300. All five were white. Yes, he asked me.

I was from New Hampshire, the guy down the bench from me came from North Carolina, there was a Canadian. When the last guy said Brooklyn, Junior Junior’s hype man put his hands up like, “My bad!”

I hadn’t spoken in a while when he asked, so I choked out “New Hampshire.” And when he was calling out, “Is Ecuador in the building?” and the one guy cheered, I knew what was about to happen. He said, “Is New Hampshire in the building?”

Wanting to represent my state well, I went to cheer as loudly as I could, but again, I hadn’t spoken in a while and my mouth was dry. I yelled something like, “Woo!” but my voice broke in the middle and it sounded like a tone deaf junkyard dog howling falsetto at the moon.

As soon as “the sound” left my mouth, I knew.

Junior Junior’s hype man’s back stiffened and he turned around to look at me, a grin akin to Mr. Burns’ spreading on his face. Barely containing a laugh, he said, “You’ve waited your whole life for a New Hampshire shoutout in Rucker Park, haven’t you? I bet this is the first.”

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That joke kicked off about a solid minute of asking me if I had vocal cords or whether or not I had hit puberty. It went on for about a minute. I laughed most of the way. Moments later, something else had caught his interest and he was dancing and shouting.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

NFL Teams That Are Longshots to Win Their Divisions

The centers of power in the NFL are much the same as last season. The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC is very likely still to go through New England, and Atlanta remains at the forefront of the NFC. There are three teams, two in the AFC and one in the NFC, who might just surprise everyone and cause a ruckus in the playoffs.

1. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers abandoned the city that adored them to move to a place where, at least so far, no one seems to care. They will play in the stadium of the Los Angeles Galaxy, which seats only roughly 30,000, and face the ignominy of being outdrawn at the box office by MLS. Still, Philip Rivers will have some more weapons around him, and the defense will have been shored up by the Chargers’ off-season moves. Trey Boston and Ryan Reid will bolster the secondary, and Mitchell Paige and Mike Williams add to the receiving corps. It remains to be seen if the Chargers can compete with the Raiders, who have a healthy Derek Carr back and the best offensive line in the AFC.

2. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins had salary cap problems at the end of the 2016-2017 season and let both Mario Williams and Branden Albert go. They have also striven to get younger, likely with the strategy that the Patriots are closer to the end of their run than the beginning. In a move that was a refreshing change for Dolphins fans, Miami never panicked and chose poorly in the draft. They patiently got the best player available to fill a position of need in each of the seven rounds. They didn’t make a splash signing, pardon the pun, but they got players with loads of upside and potential in as solid a draft as they have ever had. They are a total long shot this season, but the NFC East should watch out once Brady and the rest of the Patriots are finally out to pasture.

3. Minnesota Vikings

In the 2016-2017 season, the Vikings were 5-0 and firing on all cylinders. They had beaten the Packers. They were looking terrific, and then the injury bug came along. If injuries were colored red on a chart, then their chart would have looked as bloody as their bandages did during the season. They lost two quarterbacks, their three top wide receivers, their star running back, who just happened to be Adrian Peterson, and three offensive linemen. For the rest of the season, they had to play the second string. Their defense is as strong as ever for the 2017-2018 season, but the offense is still an unknown quantity. Bridgewater is making slow progress, and Bigfoot is, well, Bigfoot. If the offense can get healthy, and the defense can keep them in games, they stand a chance to overtake the Packers for the division crown.

When it comes to NFL odds, none of these three teams will be the favorites, but luck plays a part in any season. Just look at what happened to Minnesota last year.

What It’s Like To Be The World’s Tallest Basketball Player

Courtesy of Randy Willis

Courtesy of Randy Willis

Robert “Bobby” Wegner felt annoyed.

He felt sore and tired. He stood for pictures and sat for autographs for the unending line. Gable Hall, a secondary school in Corringham, England, had a small gym. It felt cramped.

Finally, Bobby had enough.

He had just posed for a picture when someone handed him a small sheet of paper. Fed up, he turned around and used the backboard to sign his name on the paper.

Bobby is 7 feet 8.5 inches tall with a wingspan near eight feet. Flat-footed, he can reach 10 feet 4 inches. He may be the world’s tallest basketball player. Recently, Bobby’s father, Ralph Wegner, posted a video on Bobby’s Facebook wall. “The tallest basketball player in the world,” the video said about Tacko Fall, the 7-foot-6 Florida prep basketball recruit.

“Did you see this?” Ralph wrote.

“That’s a load of bs [sic],” Bobby responded.

After overcoming risky surgeries, coordination problems and a childhood injury which nearly ended his athletic career, Bobby left home last fall to move in with a man he didn’t know to pursue a dream which hadn’t seemed real until then. His agent, Kenneth Sherman, of Sherman International Basketball LLC, says Bobby will be NBA-ready in two or three years. Sherman has heard from professional teams in Italy, Britain and the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. Bobby does not currently have a contract.

At 21 years old, most have given up on their NBA aspirations. But for Bobby, after two gruesome foot surgeries, the dream is just getting started.
***

courtesy of Randy Willis

courtesy of Randy Willis

Bobby’s pediatrician didn’t believe it.

“There’s no way,” she said. “Babies don’t grow two inches in ten days. They don’t.”

Bobby had measured 22.5 inches just after birth (and weighed 11 pounds, seven ounces). At a follow-up about a week later, he measured 24.5 inches.

Bobby’s feet hadn’t fit the inkpad on Day One, so the doctors didn’t “unroll” him all the way, his mother, Susan Wegner, said. “Like a sardine can,” Ralph added.

Looking at this 10-day-old baby, the pediatrician declared he’d one day be taller than seven feet.

At eight months, Bobby couldn’t fit into anything but a size 4-Toddler. By his christening day a few months later, he’d outgrown that too. Susan ran into a local craft store and asked for help. They taught her to sew so she made Bobby’s clothes – which she’s done ever since.

In youth sports, Bobby consistently played up an age group due to his size. Even then, he seemed too big.

“People would always say behind us in the stands, ‘That boy shouldn’t be playing in this league,'” Ralph said. “(I’d) turn around and say, ‘You’re right. He shouldn’t be playing in this league. He should be playing down because he’s two years younger.'”

A 12-year-old Bobby, then 6-foot-7, played Little League baseball. In one at bat, the pitcher threw a ball wildly high, nearly over the catcher’s head. The umpire called a ball, then timeout.

“Look, Bobby,” he said. “That’s a ball on anyone else, but it’s a strike on you.”

Bobby has never had a growth spurt, Susan said. She worries it’s still coming. Bobby grew three or four inches every year as the Wegner’s scratched his height into the kitchen wall with a pencil – until he outgrew the house.

Bobby couldn’t walk indoors without bumping his head, so the Wegners resized their lives. They raised the dropped ceilings and installed six, 7-foot doorways. They supersized the dining room set with bar chairs. Bobby built himself an 8-foot-long bed in high school wood shop. Salesman didn’t take them seriously, but the family had to “try on” cars, Ralph said. (With a recent Ford redesign, Bobby can no longer fit the company’s trucks.)

Bobby had trouble fitting into a lot of things, like shoes and school.

Some people treated Bobby like a “freak.” That was the hardest part, Ralph said.

“There are sometimes I wish I were shorter,” Bobby said. “Always being picked out in a crowd and stared at gets kind of annoying. Obviously, I can’t change it.”

He shrugs. Bobby learned to cope. When he goes to the mall, he travels in a familial phalanx – mom and dad in front, sisters behind – to block off questioners. As a Six Flags America security guard two summers ago, he learned to decline photo requests. He sees people take pictures anyway, but ignores them.

“When people ask me which sport I play,” Bobby said. “I tell them mini-golf.”
***

courtesy of Chris Glisson

courtesy of Chris Glisson

Nine-year-old Bobby was lying motionless in the dirt, his left foot still touching third base.

His kickball opponents, the other Strafford School fourth graders, had called him out. But Bobby couldn’t move.

Recess ended. Everyone went inside except Bob, who still couldn’t move. The nurse called Susan. The principal and a custodian came outside. They held a tarp over him as it started to rain.

The femoral neck bone, the top leg bone, had folded over the hip joint when he slid. Normally, doctors said, the only way a kid breaks a hip like that is in a car accident. Bobby underwent surgery. Doctors inserted four, 3-inch deck screws to hold the hip together.

“We found out that up until that age, if you break a bone, it’ll heal like new. But any later and it never regains the integrity of an original bone,” Ralph said. “The timing of (the break) was very good.”

The Wegners had Bobby examined further. Doctors warned Bobby the break wouldn’t be his last. They recommended he not play sports because of the uncertainty around how his body would heal and grow. Susan worried about Marfan’s syndrome, which causes the heart to stretch too thin and induces a fatal heart attack. A cardiologist assuaged that fear, but said she couldn’t guarantee Bobby’s bones, which grew too quickly to gain density. Bobby underwent genetic testing to ensure there weren’t any misplaced genes.

All tests found Bobby healthy. The tall genes came from his parents. Ralph is 6-foot-8, Susan is 6-3 and his sisters, Michelle and Wendy Wegner, are 6-3 and 6-foot.

“We looked at Bobby and said, ‘Well, if we don’t let Bobby play sports he’ll just die,'” Susan said. “That’s what he did all the time.'”

Bobby grew accustomed to his height and started to enjoy it. Particularly, he said, blocking his opponent’s shots in gym. He dunked for the first time, nearly flat-footed, in seventh grade. In eighth grade, he spent Sunday nights practicing with a high school coach.

Despite promising signs of athleticism, Bobby struggled with minor things like coordination and balance. He became unstable just walking. As he quickly grew, the floor kept moving further away, he said. Sometimes he had to hold himself up with the handrails in school hallways. When writing, his hand cramped so badly that his penmanship became almost illegible. The school put him in special education classes.

His athletic progression slowed. He played sparingly in high school, usually during the concluding minutes of blowouts.

After graduating from Coe-Brown Northwood (N.H.) Academy in 2011, he went to the University of Maine-Presque Isle, mostly because it offered classes in conservation officer training. He also joined the basketball team.

“We had to start at the fundamental levels,” Patrick Baker, the UMPI trainer, said. “He just wasn’t stable.”

Bobby stopped growing and started progressing. He practiced walking with good posture. They worked through running, strength and core exercises. His movements were more fluid and his flexibility improved, if slightly, Baker said.

But Bobby’s relationship with the coach, Jim Casciano, was tenuous. Casciano didn’t like that Bobby’s black shoes scuffed up the court. Bobby argued he had no other choice. Baker had procured some simple, 80s-style running shoes.

“If you could even call them that,” Baker said. “They had no laces, just Velcro. His feet were taking a pretty good beating.”

Susan had learned to be a seamstress, but she doubted she could become a cobbler too. Bobby, a size 23, couldn’t find any suitable shoes in retail. During one game, a UMPI spectator noticed Bobby’s footwear. He contacted a friend who worked for the Boston Celtics. Shaquille O’Neal, then in Boston, donated shoes to Bobby. He didn’t use them long. Due to poor grades, Bobby left Presque Isle before spring semester 2013.

He moved to Annapolis, Maryland with a relative to work at Six Flags for the summer. Then he returned to New Hampshire. He fell out of basketball, working jobs assembling prefab sheds and building decks.

Not long after that, he thought back to an email he received about a year earlier, from a man named Chris Glisson, who said he owned a professional basketball team and wanted Bobby to try out.

“My first thought was, ‘You’re lying,'” Bobby said.
***

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Blood pooled in the toe of Bobby’s boots whenever he took them off.

After wearing through O’Neal’s donation, Bobby couldn’t find any other size 23 shoes. Companies, Ralph said, stop making them after size 22. They must be custom made. The knuckles of Bobby’s toes constantly scraped up against his slightly-too-small boots, leaving them raw and bloody. Doctors worried about infection.

His feet also hurt because Bobby’s feet had grown so large that his toes had curled and grown underneath his feet. With every step, Bobby’s entire 300-pound frame came down upon his own toes.

“I always told Bob, ‘You can’t be the slowest guy on the team, you need to work out,'” Ralph said. “But (running) just hurt him, and I felt bad.”

So Bobby underwent his fourth and fifth surgeries, the left foot on Oct. 24, 2013 and the right foot two days before that Christmas.

In two operations of five-plus hours, doctors cut tendons in his feet, including his heel tendon. They cut and removed some knuckles – some bones – in Bobby’s feet. The surgeons re-assembled Bobby’s feet, making them slightly smaller and straightening his toes.

A month and a half later, a recuperated Bobby went for a run.

“He rushed home,” Susan said. “He said, ‘Guys! It doesn’t hurt to run anymore!'”
***

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Bobby arrived in Michigan and moved in with the Glisson family on Oct. 22, 2014. Three days later, he tried out for the Admirals. Six days after that, he flew transatlantic to London with the tour team.

Unlike baseball, basketball doesn’t have team affiliates or a direct pipeline to the pros. The Admirals talent pool is, Glisson said, slightly below the NBA’s Developmental League. The goal of the Admirals, Glisson said, is not to win games, but to place players in the next level up, whether that be international markets or the D-League. The team, which is eight years old, has placed 45 players in 26 countries, including six in the D-League. While overseas, Glisson signed two of his players to English teams. No PBL player has ever made the NBA.

The team toured schools, did charity events and played basketball. Under FIBA rules – which don’t include a defensive three-second violation – Bobby dominated in the middle of the Admirals 2-3 zone. He played 20 minutes per game, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds. He signed an autograph on a backboard.

Glisson parlayed this success into promotion. Bobby became “Big Bob” and the team marketed him that way throughout the tour. Big Bob appeared on BBC radio and in a Daily Mail article. AOL and Fox noticed, too.

“It’s all about branding,” Glisson said. “You’re able to find him now. Before, you couldn’t.”

Bobby met self-proclaimed “Shot Doctor” Bob Topp, practiced free throws constantly and regularly worked out. He’s put some variety in his diet which, in high school, was a loaf of bread and package of bologna every day for lunch.

“I’m not the skinny, 250-pound kid from high school anymore,” Bobby said. “I’m up near 300 now. I’d like to be a little heavier.”
***

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An infuriated Bobby looked up into the stands as he walked off the court.

“I was pretty pissed off,” he said. “I can’t say anything else.”

The Rochester Razorsharks, the PBL’s perennial champions, had just defeated the Admirals for the trophy. Bobby played 42 seconds, ran up and down the floor once and did not touch the ball or record a relevant statistic.

It marked the end of a frustrating season for Bobby. He played little, returning from England to discover that the actual team was much quicker and more athletic than the tour team. The PBL rules – the same as NBA rules – have a three-second violation. He struggled to get up and down the floor quickly enough. Opponents often drew Bobby to the perimeter, only to quickly drive and score a lay-up, Glisson said. Bobby averaged about five minutes per game. His lack of playing time, Sherman said, has led some international teams to shy away from him, believing he is an attraction, not an athlete.

“I get frustrated really easily,” Bobby said. “Especially when it comes to playing time because obviously I didn’t get to play much in high school. I’m sensitive to that. I feel like the same thing is going on here.”

The team didn’t have a trainer until the last few games of the season, so Bobby stretched and worked out alone. The team took 15-passenger vans to each of its 10 road games.

Bobby, the youngest team member by two years, unleashed his loneliness and frustrations in practice.

“I’ve seen big progress with Big Bob,” Glisson said. “Big time. He learned the drop step, power dribble. He’s learning from the other players, too.”
***

RandyWillis2

It’s a cold, December afternoon in the woods around the Wegner’s modest New Hampshire home. Ralph and Susan are sitting in their living room, reminiscing about Bobby as a boy.

Pictures of Bobby adorn their walls and truck curtains still hang in his room. The kitchen’s pencil marks are faded now. Bobby is away, in Michigan.

They don’t know if Bobby will make it to the NBA. If he doesn’t, Ralph thinks, he’ll be just as happy settling down somewhere as a nature conservation officer. (Bobby doesn’t disagree.)

Until then, Bobby will continue to work and to chase. His feet have healed. He’s been marketed abroad. He hasn’t grown an inch in two years. For the first time, he has an unchanging body that doesn’t hurt him. The only measurement he must worry about is the 10-foot-tall hoop.

“We know he needs some work,” Susan said. “But it’s his dream. We wouldn’t consider it a failure if he came back home. He got to do something most people never got to do. Kids that went through high school and they were the all-stars, they’re not even playing.

“Ralph and I said, ‘Well Bobby, you aren’t getting any younger. You have to go pursue your dream.'”

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

The Sham That Is The NCAA

Recently I’ve been reading the series of The Best American Sports Writing, which is an absolute must for anyone that likes good stories. Or sports. Or both.

I came across this story in its pages and, while it’s long, it is 100 percent worth your time because it takes you inside the halls of the NCAA to expose the wrongs done to “student-athletes” in the name of education.

Here is “The Shame of College Athletics” by Taylor Branch.

Sam Fortier usually doesn’t copout of a post like that. He’ll do better next week. He is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

Joy and Unease in the Canyon of Heroes

By Paul Schwedelson, Contributing Writer

Police officers waved to the crowds behind the barricades urging them to make more noise. Young girls began chants of “U-S-A!” in which everyone else joined in. Toilet paper, the digital age’s replacement for ticker tape, rained from office building windows along Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes.

It was inspirational to think that any kid, regardless of gender, could become a nationally celebrated athlete because of their accomplishments on the field — there was a point in time when women didn’t have that opportunity. Unlike many years ago, every young soccer player in the crowd could have a legitimate, attainable dream — not just a pipedream.

Times have changed, and the US women’s national team’s parade in New York City on Friday was one of the best examples of that, at least that I’ve experienced in person.

Sports are a part of culture and on Friday, I witnessed how a generation of young girls were inspired by the 2015 team — a team with many players who were similarly inspired by the ‘99ers when they were growing up.

As players went by on floats, I gave my mom a little background on them. She loved Christie Rampone because she could relate to a 40-year-old with four kids. She smiled when Alex Morgan went by because I reminded her I have Morgan’s poster in my room. She laughed when Tobin Heath passed us because I said, “That’s the one I have a crush on.”

But of course, it wouldn’t just be that simple.

When Hope Solo went by, both my mom and I cringed — I mentioned the domestic violence incident.

I wasn’t really thinking much about Solo up until that point and frankly, I really didn’t want to on a day that was meant for celebrating champions.

But as she waved to the crowd wearing an FDNY baseball cap, the most relevant background info I could share with my mom was about that time she was accused of beating up her half-sister and 17-year-old nephew.

No one wants to talk about it, but if we’re going to talk about these players’ roles in society, we should talk about hers, too.

Legally, Solo is still innocent (the case was dismissed in January due to procedural issues and the appeal process is still ongoing) and I’m all for letting her play for the national team, because, you know, the whole innocent until proven guilty thing.

Before I continue though, I want to say I’ve never met Hope Solo. I have no clue what she’s actually like. I don’t know what actually happened on June 21, 2014 in that suburban Seattle home (Solo said she was the victim, not the perpetrator).

Solo was awarded the Golden Glove, given to the tournament’s best goalie. But while we give praise for her on-field performance, let’s also be cognizant of the things that she’s done. This is by no means to say that Solo is a terrible person. I’m just going to detail some of the poor choices she’s made and hopefully, this ends up being a positive learning experience for all.

According to a police report obtained by ESPN, Solo’s half-sister had a “swollen left cheekbone that was already starting to get a purplish hue,” which made it “difficult to eat and swallow due to the pain,” following the assault.

“(Solo) immediately grabbed his (Solo’s nephew’s) hair pulled his head down and started punching him in the face repeatedly,” the police report said.

While being handcuffed, Solo yelled at an officer, “You’re such a b*tch,” the report said. “You’re scared of me because you know that if the handcuffs were off, I’d kick your ass.”

Solo was charged with two counts of fourth-degree domestic violence. Regardless of whether she attacked first or second, her actions were unacceptable.

But Solo’s history of poor choices runs deeper.

In 2007, Solo was sent home from the World Cup after she bashed head coach Greg Ryan for benching her prior to a 4-0 semifinal loss to Brazil. In a postgame interview, Solo said she would have made every save that her replacement, Briana Scurry, didn’t.

Perhaps more revealing though is when Solo was called in to meet with the team’s veterans and explain herself in their hotel later that night, she cited her confidence as a professional athlete before apologizing to Scurry.

So much of being a great player is how you deal with teammates. In 2007, Solo was far from exemplary.

In 2012, Brandi Chastain, a member of the 1999 World Cup championship team, criticized the American defense.

Solo responded with an angry tweet.

In the digital age, sending nasty, confrontational tweets is just about the last thing I want our society’s role models to be doing.

All in all, there’s a lot to learn from this. As much as we can learn from the good in people, we can also learn from the bad. I’ve never met Solo. I can’t tell you anything about what she’s like as a person. Whether she’s innocent or guilty, I couldn’t tell you that either.

Solo is a world-class goalkeeper, but there’s more to her than just what’s on the field.

So after the games and the parade and her career is over, do these young girls — the leaders of the Friday’s loudest chants — still want to be like Hope Solo?


Schwed is a contributing writer for “Purely For Sport,” where his column rarely appears. Surprisingly, he has never tasted Ben & Jerry’s Schweddy Balls ice cream, though he would like to. He shaves his beard four times a day. He likes to laugh but only at things that aren’t funny. He is not a fan of turducken, although he has never tasted it, and he tends to fall asleep while watching feature-length films. He has a crush on Tobin Heath. Paul prefers creamy peanut butter.

paulschwedelson@gmail.com | @pschweds

Life After Simmons: What Will Become of Grantland? Pt. 2

It’s been more than two months since Bill Simmons and ESPN parted ways. I wrote here about what I thought would happen to Grantland, which is a lot of not good things.

But it turns out I may be wrong.

SimilarWeb, which had the same statistics as Bill Simmons’ final company-wide email about how April, his last full month, was Grantland’s biggest web traffic month of its existence with 13 million.

In May, Grantland saw an eight percent dip in traffic to roughly 12.1 million views. I thought, “Here goes the devastating decline; it’s happening.”

However in June, the company’s first full month without Simmons, viewers rose to 12.6 million–not the company’s highest total, but it’s comparable and a bounce-back from May. The bounce rate (58 percent) has increased slightly from May’s 55 percent and the retention rate has fallen slightly from 3:01 to 2:52 per viewer. But three percent and nine seconds are relatively inconsequential and shouldn’t prompt prognostications of failure or success. (You know, like the ones I made.)

One thing: In the month of June, the site had two sport’s crowning jewels at its disposal. An exciting Stanley Cup Finals for the National Hockey League and a legendary National Basketball Association Finals gave Grantland plenty of material. Whether it’s enjoyable Curry/Golden State GIFs, Vines, press conferences, etc. or Chicago Blackhawks dynasty talk, Grantland had passionate fanbases at their thirstiest for information in June. And (of course) the studies into LeBron’s psyche/incredible usage rate were abound, which generates clicks as it’s an NBA-wide, non team-specific argument. As well as (doubly of course) LeBron’s place as the greatest player ever–the exhausted, circular arguments and counter-points and finger-pointing and proclamations from Stephen A. about where the man is when his body of work has yet to be finished.

It’ll be interesting to see what July and August, largely bereft of consequential sports play, brings to Grantland. (Hopefully a few Rembert Browne viral stories.)

Speaking of Browne, he recently did a Longform podcast and toward the conclusion of it mentioned the Simmons situation. He didn’t make any concrete assertions other than “Bill’s my guy,” but said that he’s been at the site for four years and may be looking for other pursuits, but in the normal way you always think about other opportunities. Longform also did a podcast with Grantland writer Andy Greenwald before the Simmons situation, but it sounded like Greenwald was trying to stay above water with his coverage rather than any other career opportunity. So if Grantland doesn’t lose any of its writers besides Simmons–could it be OK?

Sports Media Guy brought up the point: Do you even miss Bill Simmons?

I’ve said before why I didn’t enjoy Simmons’ writing all that much, but I do miss The B.S. Report and his television appearances. He was informative and entertaining and I missed that during the NBA Finals and particularly the NBA Draft. Watching it in a Manhattan club, sitting next to a fellow Boston Celtics fan, we lamented that there was no Bill Simmons fist-pump after the Celtics inevitably picked Sam Dekker or Bobby Portis…probably because it didn’t happen. The Celtics didn’t take Dekker or Portis, the sensible picks. The team selected another defensively-strong, high-energy, poor-shooting guard. But that’s another issue.

To answer the question, the overwhelming answer is no. I didn’t miss him all that much. That Draft night and the occasional peeping of The B.S. Report in my podcast app were the only thoughts I’ve had of Simmons since I wrote the last column until I read the SMG piece two days ago.

The internet is a vast ocean, populated by lots of fisherman casting well-thought-out sports pieces and #HotTakes. Simmons leaving his boat ashore leaves fish in the sea. It’s a business. As long as there are fishermen to catch and sell, there will be seafood on my plate. Frankly, I don’t care how it gets there.

Losing a reliable, likable fisherman makes you sad for one second, but then, by necessity, you turn your mind elsewhere.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

One last thing: At the end of my last article, I asked how much longer ESPN would let Jason Whitlock champion “The Undefeated,” ESPN’s “black Grantland.” I thought that the release of Simmons may set a precedent for creators of ESPN-affiliated sites and how much trouble they’re worth. It turns out, and it’s a rare occurrence, I was right. Just 25 days later, Whitlock was out. (He spent the next few weeks cohosting Pardon the Interruption Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon took turns vacationing.) But hey, precedent established. Watch out Chris Connelly and Leon Carter.

The Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest

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Sam Fortier | Photo Editor

Sonya Thomas wetted the hot dog and mashed it into her face.

I cannot use the verb “eating” because she simply wasn’t getting the dog down. It reminded me of watching a baby cousin eat Gerber. The detritus of the soaked bun clumped on her face wet with water and sweat.

I never wanted to eat a hot dog again.

Thomas ate “only” 31 dogs in the 10 minutes, second to repeat champion Miki Sudo, who ate 38. (Third-place finisher Juliet Lee is known for eating 13.23 pounds of cranberry sauce in eight minutes.) On Brooklyn’s Coney Island last Saturday for the Fourth of July, on the corner of Surf and Stillwell, four friends and I attended something I’ve watched on television as long as I can remember: the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. In one unforgettable day, I met a legend, stood in urine and saw one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

“Welcome to center of the universe,” the man yelled. “The epicenter of Patriotism!”

Dressed in his signature straw hat, he took selfies with the cheering crowd, autographed a cut-out of his own head and presided over the event for which he is the Commissioner.

That man is George Shea. And he is a legend.

The women’s event ended about 80 minutes before the men’s was due to start, but it didn’t feel nearly that long. Shea went into full showman mode and carried the event. That’s what I’d been missing all the years I watched the contest on TV. You miss Shea’s showmanship, which can be the greatest part of the event.

To capture Shea’s full character is difficult, however. He seems the world’s best hype man – born to spout food-eating statistics side-by-side with Greek myths and poetry. In the same introduction of famous, professional-eating bad girl, “The Black Widow” Thomas, Shea said, “She’s the physical manifestation of evil…She stands alone under the sun and casts no shadow!” and a short time later easily reeled off her most impressive food-eating achievements from asparagus to turducken. Don’t listen to me, listen to Shea.

At the same time though, he comes across as a grifter. He spoke in permanent, praising hyperbole. He remarked to some scantily-clad K-Pop dancers, “That was extraordinarily hot,” which drew an awkward laugh. He referred to a hashtag as the “pound sign” and claimed he didn’t know what it was. But later, he told the crowd his Twitter handle and offered a “follow for follow.”

But every time I thought Shea might be too over-the-top and ridiculous, I couldn’t help but laugh. He was so likable. He was thoroughly enjoying himself and seeing someone with that uncontainable joy – I just couldn’t dislike him. Throughout the day, Shea goofily pretended to play the piano while singing over an out-of tune beat, rapped a parody of Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” as “Frankfurt Paradise,” and rode a lift up about 20 feet, in front of a white-robed chorus singing Eminem, to look out over the crowd of 30,000-plus present to pronounce the ceremony’s of the day were open.

Some drunken bros behind us in the crowd shouted his name for much of the four hours that we stood there. At points they urged him to run for President; at others they just yelled, “Hey, George! Look at me!”

We stood next to those bros for the entire time we were there (about four hours). At one point, it became too much and they huddled around each other as one of them relieved himself onto the ground, which flowed down into the front of the crowd. They tried, with moderate success, to soak it up with a cardboard sign. At first I couldn’t believe it; it seemed too gross to actually happen. But then I shrugged. “This is a great anecdote for the blog later,” I thought.

The bros marveled at the huge biceps on the Bun Boys, the pro bros with caricature biceps and (of course) sleeveless red tank tops who sometimes tossed t-shirts and hot dog hats into the crowd and other times sprayed the crowd with SuperSoakers. (Shea coyly remarked, “Here are the Bun Boys, known for spending enormous amounts of time in the library!”)

For the all the cartoonish machismo of the Bun Boys and the hysterical absurdity of Shea’s intros, the event had surprising emotional genuineness at points. Shea became quiet and reserved as he told the story of Little Jimmy, a Brooklyn-born Hot Dog Contest entertainer staple until he died earlier this year. A somber Shea said it was a Brooklyn tradition that, after someone died, to take their hat and walk it around the neighborhood one last time. He brought out Little Jimmy’s famous red, white and blue hat in a glass case and four pallbearers carried it on a platform through the crowd. A band played a New Orleans jazz sendoff.

Then, Shea squeezed the shoulder of Little Jimmy’s sister, who stood next to him throughout the event. Then the sister – visibly quivering, voice shaking – sang an Opera ballad as everyone removed their Hot Dog hats and gave Little Jimmy a moment of silence.

And after, at Shea’s urging, the crowd roared in anticipation for the main event. Joey Chestnut, possibly the world’s most dominating “athlete” in his or her sport (who else do you know who has won their sports championship eight years running?), came to the stage. He faced up-and-comer Matthew “The Megatoad” Stonie. In a year of improbable sports accomplishments, Stonie held off Chestnut after Chestnut scarfed down 10 dogs in the first minute. Once Stonie overtook The King, he didn’t let go and finished with 62 dogs, narrowly defeating Chestnut, who ate 60. The almost wire-to-wire domination of Stonie reminded me of American Pharoah.

After it was over, as Stonie was being interviewed by ESPN, two girls with makeup made to look like their throats had been slashed and faux-blood covering their white shirts jumped on stage and held up signs with said, “It’s not food, it’s violence!” An irritated crowd chanted “Beef! Beef! Beef!” back at them. The lovable loser and consistently third-placed Eater X, snatched the signs. Police approached, but the girls and small crowd of supporters vanished before any action could be taken.

The image which sticks with me after all of this is The Black Widow, her face stuffed and hot dog debris everywhere.

Then my friends and I went next door to the Nathan’s Famous booth and ate hot dogs.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.