Summer Recap 2015

Sunday, when I returned to Syracuse from Maine, I stepped off the bus and felt thoroughly too cold. It was jarring. When I left Friday, Syracuse was balmy, too hot even. A sweltering 93 degrees on day. This was more my speed. I know this Syracuse.

But putting on sweatpants for a trek downtown signaled to me that summer is over. I’d been ignoring the signs for weeks, but I now I have to give up.

So in homage to summer, here are some of the adventures I traveled on since May:

It all started when I got the Esquire gig.

Before I left campus, I had to illegally stream a boring boxing match and found out why boxing is dead. In more realizations before New York, I tracked Bill Simmons’ saga right after leaving ESPN for Part I and then in Part II the one month later fallout was dissected.

Then I got to New York and THINGS STARTED HAPPENING.

I saw Bartolo Colon, Least Likeliest Major Leaguer to Hit a Double, hit a double.

I saw an unbelievable baseball game in Yankee Stadium featuring a crazy comeback in the ninth inning that a friend of mine wanted to skedaddle early from.

After that, history in Belmont Park as American Pharoah raced to the Triple Crown. I was totally under dressed and under duress.

Coney Island, Brooklyn, a train ride away, was the site of summer’s greatest moment: The Hot Dog Eating Contest, and the summer’s greatest man: George Shea.

I also got time this summer to write a story about Strafford, New Hampshire’s own, Bobby Wegner, he of the 7-foot-8 stature.

Then I started wandering around Harlem. First, I went to historic basketball court, Rucker Park.

Then I realized Harlem represents the struggle baseball and basketball are having for national attention.

It struck me, through my friend Joey, that relationships are like saving baseball games…everyone will blow some every once in a while, just have the confidence to come back out and pitch.

Lastly, and most dreadfully, I spent a lot of time at Citi Field and sort of fell in love with the New York Mets. I’m sorry, everyone.

Then I came home. And after subjecting me to a summer of dreadful offense and atrocious pitching, the Red Sox did a nice thing for me.

(End note: This is a list of me getting very lucky and being in the right place at the right time. I feel #blessed to have been able to do all this. Thanks so much to my family and my friend Sam Blum, who made many of these adventures possible.)

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. 

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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.”

mrburns

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. 

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. 

When $90 Million Isn’t Enough

A man you most likely haven’t heard of is going to say that $90 million isn’t enough.

Jimmy Butler, a swingman for the Chicago Bulls, is expected to turn down the Bulls five-year offer. The 25-year-old is a not a superstar – he’s outshined publicity-wise by teammates Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah – but is efficient, reliable and versatile. And his value will increase. This deal is the second max offer Butler will decline. (He said nah to the Bulls offer last November.)

The reason Butler continues to reject the Bulls is because he wants a shorter deal. Butler is betting on himself to improve in this next one- or two-year window because that’s when the salary cap’s lid will be blown off.

Butler, if he plays well this year, avoids injury and receives the maximum again, stands to sign a contract worth north of $129 million.

“That’s a sin,” a friend, and avid basketball fan, texted me last week. “A (basketball) player does nothing to contribute to society. Absolutely nothing.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe he has a point about not contributing to society. Regardless, that’s not the point I’m going to debate here.

That’s because we – the fans – give pro sports the money to pay the players. And the reason Butler keeps saying no is because he sees the future.

Last October, the NBA finagled ESPN and Turner Sports into forking over a total of $24 billion for nine years of The Association’s content. To put it in perspective: Currently, as per the deal signed in 2007, Turner and ESPN pay the league $930 million annually. That figure will rise to $2.6 billion when the new TV deal takes effect in 2016-17.

The NBA nearly tripled the value of its product in a decade. It’s a 180 percent increase from the 2007 deal. The 2007 deal was a 21 percent jump from the previous deal. The NBA has remarkably increased profitability since the turn of the century.

Stark is the juxtaposition of NBA success with the rest of the TV landscape. TV profitability has plummeted due to a combination of DVRs, internet streaming, more channels, fragmenting audiences and cord cutting.

The NBA’s success stems from the fact that live sports are the one block of programming seemingly immune to this downward spiral. Its viewership remains flat – or even has increased – recently. Forbes calls live sports the, “Audience Aggregator.” In the cord-cut, DVR’d TV wastelands, advertising firms are realizing that live sports are the one place where they can reach attentive audiences. Wanting to guarantee itself the audience and advertisers, ESPN and Turner sports pounced.

The reason they leapt on the deal to keep the NBA’s product exclusively on their channels is the same reason Butler forgoes payment now – because of us, the consumers.

Here’s the thing: We the common people give Butler the opportunity to make that money. We set the proportional salaries for the NBA’s stars and scrubs relative to the salary cap because we the viewer dictate that salary cap when we watch.

Every basketball fan who flips on the NBA during the season is putting money is players’ pockets. Every person who tuned into this year’s captivating Finals gave Butler reasons to say no to $90 million. We inflate television deals (and the salary cap) because we flock en masse to TNT or ABC to watch the games. We keep advertisers interested in the cable packages and the cable packages interested in the programming. And the live programming interests us.

We vote with remotes.

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.

Life After Simmons: What will become of Grantland?

 Everyone is worried about Bill Simmons.

Simmons, possibly today’s most popular sports media persona, will undoubtedly find work. Whether he flips to another network – Vox’s SB Nation, Fox Sports and Turner Sports/TNT (because of the NBA licenses) have been rumored – or starts his own platform is inconsequential. (Deadspin wrote a guide on how to employ Simmons, then eliminated itself from contention with one post.) With brash opinions, a large following and cross-media accessibility, I’m sure Simmons won’t fade.

But the more interesting question is: What will ESPN do?

It has a hugely-popular web site featuring a team with a collective greatness that hasn’t been seen since Ocean’s 11. (Movie references in a sports column? Must involve Simmons.)

Two questions loom for ESPN execs: What will become of Grantland? And, what will become of the slew of stars?

To the former: ESPN president John Skipper says the site will be unaffected.

To the latter point, it seems illogical to think that Grantland will lose writers simply because of Simmons’ departure. After all, writers still get paid. There’s no concrete figure floating around on the web, but a senior writer for Deadspin (a Gawker site) said he earned roughly $72,000 annually. This Business Insider article estimates Grantland writers out-earn Gawker employees by double. Lucrative deals hard to come by elsewhere.

But the thing which made Grantland so attractive for writers: Simmons shielded his staff from generating posts designed purely for web traffic, or any reader stat-based pieces. They were allowed to spend time developing and searching for thoughtful pieces. Whomever ESPN hires to replace Simmons will presumably affect Grantland writers’ decision whether or not to stay, but the continued freedom of piece’s subject and timeline may end up being the decisive factor.

By “those writers” I don’t mean Simmons himself, who may be the worst writer Grantland employs. Jack Hamilton of Slate thinks Simmons’ departure is the best thing for his career, and I agree with his hypothesis. Simmons’ columns possibly suffer because of obligations to his podcasts and television appearances – both of which he does extremely well. But the columns… They are novellas. They are out-of-focus and incoherent and sometimes seem as if he’s insistent on dropping every name in a really-not-that-related anecdote. I’m being much nicer than this Deadpsin take-down:

SimmonsDeadspinTakeDown

by Albert Burneko, Deadspin

By “those writers” I mean the genius of Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell and the like, who offer analysis of basketball and football, respectively, that I’ve never read before. I feel as if I’m getting smarter by reading them and they write as if they were explaining it to me, sitting next to me on my couch. Grantland put them on an accessible platform, bringing them into the spotlight from the bowels of a high school classroom and Pro Football Focus. Bryan Curtis, Rembert Browne and Brian Phillips write brilliant pieces I wouldn’t think of otherwise, like the media vs. Oklahoma City Thunder think piece by Curtis. I’m not a huge fan of the site’s culture section (I don’t watch Game of Thrones or Mad Men) but a movie-junkie friend of mine says Wesley Morris and Andy Greenwald are the best there is.

The reason why Grantland could afford to let its writers have a lengthy leash – and not produce oodles of lists and slideshows and GIFs – is because Grantland complements a traffic giant in ESPN. Let the content be good on Grantland and not dictated by readers statistics was the strategy. Places like Deadspin can be sometimes with some of its more ridiculous stories, like a guide to volunteering at your kid’s school. Or, some sites like Bleacher Report, is only lists and slideshows. A lot of sites need those to increase clicks to increase readership and inflate ad rates, but not Grantland up until now.

SimilarWeb says Grantland attracted 13 million visitors in April 2015, its best month yet, according to a farewell email Simmons sent to an employee. That’s also good for the 1500th most-trafficked site in the U.S. during that time.

In April, Deadspin attracted 17.7 million; SB Nation, 26 million; Bleacher Report, 48.8 million; ESPN itself, nearly 200 million. Deadspin and Bleacher Report had similar bounce rates (55 percent) and average page visit time (a little over three minutes) to Grantland. It will be interesting to read Grantland’s June 2015 statistics because that will be the first month without any content produced by Simmons. As the year progresses, we’ll be able to differentiate how much traffic Grantland generates opposed to how much Simmons brought in.

That’ll be an interesting study because the site sought to carve out a place for long-form journalism on the web. Critics say Grantland isn’t journalism. Blog posts regularly surpass 2,000 words and, the Columbia Journalism Review says, the site is the “Manhattan Project of navel-gazing.” The Big Lead, a USA Today product, studied Grantland’s content in 2013 and found that, between May 29 and June 4, only one post out of 125 included a scene with a person that didn’t include the writer.

While the question of who is more responsible, Simmons or the content, will be interesting to see for casual viewers, employees don’t have that luxury. They have to decide, soon, whether or not they’ll stay. This site protected “Writers from being search-engine-optimized into near-oblivion,” the Columbia Journalism Review wrote.

But if the site was really built for Simmons to keep him happy at ESPN, like he always said it was, then we know what will happen: It will be gone. If Simmons is gone, there’s no reason to keep him happy with it. When Simmons is gone, why should ESPN care about what he leaves behind? Other writers neither drive traffic like Simmons nor have his profile. If the best writers leave, then quality declines. If quality declines, then why would readers visit the site? If readers don’t visit, why would ESPN continue to fund an abandoned, unloved site?

Grantland could be the next The National. Simmons said Grantland was molded in the former daily sports newspaper’s image.

Good news for Simmons: Frank Deford, The National’s editor-in-chief, walked away from the paper’s rubble and continued his historic, legendary career.

Bad news for Grantland: The National died a quick death.

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. 

Question I’m wondering but didn’t work into the article: What does this mean for Jason Whitlock’s site, The Undefeated, a struggling, demanding, ESPN-backed start-up aimed as “the black Grantland”?

My Bracket

It’s that time of year again! Bracket-ology!

Yes, my bracket will be imperfect after two games. Yes, my bracket will probably get just one of the Final Four teams correct (speaking from experience). Yes, I still love it anyway.

Allow yourself to get wrapped up in the March Madness, find some friends, watch a lot of college basketball. Sounds like a perfect formula to me.

Here’s mine:

Bracket

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He’s sorry he doesn’t have better content, but he got back from Arkansas at 1 a.m. and had school all day. He whines a lot. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

The Best Basketball Team No One Is Talking About

By Guest Columnist Alex Keller

The American Indian tribe known as the Utes, which is where the state of Utah gets its name, dominated the southern part of the Rocky Mountain Range up until the American colonization of the west. The only thing stopping the Utes from controlling more territory to the south was the presence of their ally, the Jicarilla Apache, that ruled over the greater part of Arizona. Not wanting to start a war with their greatest, and more powerful ally, the Utes never attacked Arizona, allowing the Jicarilla to take and hunt on their land as much as they pleased.

Something amazing happened in the American West this year though. No longer are the men to the south far superior the Utes. On the last day of February in Salt Lake City, Chief Delon Wright will lead his Utes into battle for control of the Pacific Athletic Conference against the men from Arizona.

I am not talking about an actual battle between two American Indian tribes. There is going to be a fight however, it is just taking place on the court rather than the battlefield.

On Feb. 28, the University of Utah (20-4,11-2 PAC-12) hosts the University of Arizona (23-3, 11-2) in a game that could decide the fate of the PAC-12. This is the first chance in recent memory that the Wildcats crown could be taken. And what most people do not realize is how how realistic that chance is.

Utah is very good, but get no publicity. It seems like every Monday when the top 25 polls are released, I have said to myself, “Utah is STILL all the way up there?” That is exactly why I have jumped on the Ute bandwagon this year.

To exemplify how little publicity it gets, here are some numbers. They are currently ranked ninth in the Associated Press Poll. They do not have a loss to a team outside the Rating Power Index (RPI) top 50. They are tied with Arizona for the PAC-12 lead. Lastly, the team is led by the best overall point guard in the nation, Delon Wright.

Most would never say Delon Wright is the best point guard in college basketball. In fact, the casual fan does not even know his name. Wright is not flashy, does not put up great scoring numbers relative to the usually named suspects for best point guard like D’Angelo Russell or Jerian Grant and does not play for a high profile team (even though Utah should be high-profile by now). What Wright does, however, is everything that Utah needs to win. He leads his team with 14.1 points and 5.4 assists per game, and is second, despite his position, in rebounds with 4.7 per game.

What separates Wright from other point guards is his efficiency and his defense. He may only score 14 points a game, but he is shooting over 50 percent from the floor and has an almost 3:1 turnover to assist ratio, numbers better than both Jerian Grant and D’Angelo Russell. These numbers are a major reason the Utes have the seventh-best field goal percentage – 49.5 percent – in the nation.

On the other end of the floor, Wright can shut down any opposing guard, and some smaller forwards. He averages 2.2 steals per game, good for fourth among power conference players. Thanks to Wright, Utah only gives up 55.6 points per game, with the highest total of 72 coming against Ball State in their season opener.

In conference play, when the opposition does not break 60, the Utes are 11-0, winning each game by double digits. When opponents score over 60, the Utes are 1-2.

To defeat Arizona, Utah needs to control the pace. As proven from the previous statistic, teams cannot win against Utah if they have to grind for points.

Arizona does present a difficult matchup for the Utes, because the Wildcats are very good at playing a slow-paced, efficient game. That being said, Arizona relies on runs with more up-and-down play to spur its offense when it goes cold. In their first meeting, Arizona runs led to a 69-51 thumping of Utah in Tucson.  If Utah can limit Arizona runs when its offense comes to a standstill, Utah will be in great shape to pull what would be an upset in the eyes of many, and take control of the PAC-12.

Prediction: The Utes can finally make their case for the most powerful in the west with a  64-59 win. Utah, however, loses at Oregon and is forced to grudgingly share the PAC-12 crown with their former oppressor, Arizona.

Alex Keller is a diehard DMV sports fan straight out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His hobbies include geography, consuming various cheese flavored snacks and questioning the decisions made by others. He dislikes irrationality and his greatest pet peeve is feet. If you want to know more, follow him on twitter @AGKe11er