Tuned in with the sound off
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

A weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture:

The silent hoop era ...
Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant 's ball rotation is flawless.
... has dawned at my house. I'm watching the NBA playoffs with the sound off. It's part of a deal I struck in the interest of domestic bliss. My wife is a serious football fan, and she's got a warm feeling for baseball, but basketball doesn't do it for her. So our arrangement is, I can watch pretty much any game I want, on mute.

I argued at first, because I grew up listening to Chick Hearn call Lakers games and Bob Blackburn do the Sonics broadcasts, so I couldn't really imagine the game without sound. But it's not a bad set-up, really. I still see plenty of ball. And, as it turns out, I'm seeing it differently than I do when the sound is on. Without announcers framing the game story or directing my eyes with the play-by-play, other elements are coming to the surface.

Without a soundtrack ...

... I'm watching a lot of ball rotation. Kobe's is flawless, Shaq's is almost a topspin, Steve Nash's gets this light, quick spin, like he's let the ball go in a panic.

... I see the whole floor. I see 10 guys rather than the one or two around the ball. And if I don't concentrate too hard, offensive plays and defensive schemes emerge. I get a feel for the whole of the game, for patterns and waves, and I start to sense where and when someone's going to be open.

... I have a better feel for the speed of the game. The Mavs-Kings game Monday night was a blur. Every once in a while, I'd just focus on the midcourt circle and let the players blow by me like cars on an interstate. It became a game of rhythms and bursts -- I was more aware of how much energy the players were using than I was of the score.

... I notice that players constantly give each other support and encouragement. Watch the Pistons.

Jason Kidd
Hard to knock the unorthodox, but effective, style of Jason Kidd.
... I'm keying on Jason Kidd's high dribble, the way he keeps the ball out in front of him and almost never at his side. It's a strange, awkward-looking thing, really, but it's amazingly effective. Has there ever been another player as good as he is, as creative and deft and intuitive and brilliant as he is, who's looked this unorthodox?

... Kobe's body control looks insane. Forget what he makes, pay attention to how he makes 'em.

... Dirk Nowitzki is real tall and Nick Van Exel shoots from anywhere, just like with the sound on.

... The game's a lot more about players' faces. Vlade's eyes are peeking up at the scoreboard. Nash is smiling. Tim Duncan's got that stoic thing going on. Paul Pierce bobs his head slightly and sets his jaw, shuffling back after a 3. George Lynch is holding a towel up to his bleeding nose. Guys are worrying and working and enjoying themselves. They're more sympathetic and, for that reason, more impressive.

... You can do your own play-by-play. That is, until your wife tells you that you're technically violating the terms of the mute agreement and then breaks the news that you're not better than the guys on TV, after all.

... I'm noticing guys on the bench I'd forgotten about or lost track of. Bryce Drew is a Hornet? Who knew?

... Slow-motion is great. It's hard to imagine now, but there must have been a time when slow-motion technology made people's heads spin. The playoffs on mute bring some of that thrill and wonder back. Mike Bibby threw a long alley-oop to Chris Webber the other night and on the slow-mo replay the ball just floated to him like there was no other way it could have gone and Webber jumped up and tipped it in and fell to the ground afterward and the whole drawn-out thing looked the way a poem sounds -- amplified and potent, but soft, too.

... The edges are interesting. Guys are constantly jumping, reaching and moving in and out of position without ever actually touching the ball. With the sound off, every possession looks full of potential, full of stuff that might have, but didn't, happen.

... No distracting TV voices are in the room, so you and your friends can debate important historical stuff, like whether Ben Wallace or Paul Silas is the better rebounder in his prime, or equally important fashion stuff, like whether Webber, Pierce or Baron Davis looks best in a headband, and really important mystical laws of sport stuff, like whether headbands give you special powers and whether a team featuring two starters wearing black knee-high socks is even eligible to win a title.

... You don't hear referees' whistles, which has two effects: One, the game is more confusing, so you have to work harder to make sense of it, which means you're more tuned-in, more committed to watching every little thing that happens. Two, almost everything under the bucket looks like some kind of foul. I'm telling you, the game is vicious, especially in the playoffs, when you turn the sound off. Guys are mugging each other. And I'm not saying anything, but I'm just saying this: Every move Shaq makes with the ball is an offensive foul.

... You can listen to something else while you watch, like jazz. Ralph Wiley's column from Tuesday explains why that's an especially good choice. Check it out.

Without a soundtrack ... it's a game of imagination. I'm making up sounds and storylines and anticipating what's going to happen next. My head's in it.

I told my wife all this stuff the other day. I was all excited explaining to her how the game has opened up in new ways since we turned the sound off. She's good to me, she tried to care, but I think the best she could do was find me amusing, in a sad sort of way.

The Greatest, Part One
Will Smith
Will Smith was great as The Greatest, but "Ali" could have been so much more.
"Ali," directed by Michael Mann, on DVD (released April 30)

Beautiful and well-acted as it is, they were doomed from the start. We know Ali too well. The drama of his life is too familiar. Putting it down in sequence, with a careful eye for detail, made it feel more like a recitation than a story.

What might have worked instead? Focus on half a dozen key moments in the arc of his life. Take, say, the Liston pre-fight build-up, the "You my opposer when I want justice!" moment in the courthouse (the one Page 2's Bill Simmons rightly pegged as one of the most powerful scenes in the Mann film), the moment when he walks into the stadium in Zaire to the roar of the crowd, and then maybe add a post-Holmes-fight locker room thing and a present-day, early-morning-prayer scene.

Then explore the psychology of those moments, speculate on, imagine, and deconstruct them. Don't just replay them because they happened. We fill in the rest with what we already know, and the movie becomes an interesting sort of improvisation on the theme of Ali rather than a biopic.

The Greatest, Part Two
"Muhammad Ali -- Through the Eyes of the World" (American Public Television, May 14)

It's familiar territory, but there are three genuine highlights:

1. Some riveting ring-level, slow-motion footage of Ali-Frazier I. Eerie, brutal, lyrical stuff.

2. An unpredictable lineup of commentators, including Rod Steiger, Tom Jones and Richard Harris.

3. The focus on how Ali is perceived is right: At a certain level, there is no Muhammad Ali, there is only the impact he's had on people's imaginations. Listening to people talk about him, you hear nothing so much as their own hopes, longings, fears and loathings.

A crying shame
Walt Frazier
Dare to dream that you can look like Walt Frazier.
Late last week, inexplicably and graciously, the sport gods smiled on me and gave me the chance to interview former Knicks great Walt Frazier. (It was great. I'm still floating. You can read it here.) What kind of crazy good fortune is that? If you're me, you don't interview Walt Frazier, you pretend to be Walt Frazier, you look at film of Walt Frazier, you dream of just once in your life looking half as smooth as he always does and then you wake up and get on with your life.

But somehow, for reasons I can't even begin to understand, it happened. And I wasn't going to blow it, right, so I did Google searches and Lexis-Nexis research, and looked at old photographs and basketball books I have around the house, trying to get ready for my half-hour with him, and then my friend Jay, one of the editors of Page 2, asks me, "Did you ever read 'Rockin' Steady,' the book Frazier wrote with Ira Berkow in the '70s? If I remember right, it's pretty good."

I hadn't read it, so I ran to the library and got a copy. Jay was right, except, "Rockin' Steady" isn't just pretty good; it's fantastic. I don't even know how to describe it; it's part autobiography, part Clyde's treatise on "cool," part how-to book on living large and living right. It's got a section on style and fitness, all sorts of smart stuff about basketball technique and strategy, capsule reviews of other great '70s-era players, amazing pictures, stat sheets on Frazier's game and on his wardrobe and a diagram explaining how to catch flies out of the air (no kidding, you've got to check it out). It's a wild tour-de-force of a book, totally a product of its time, and of Clyde's incredible popularity. I've never really read anything like it.

Here's the problem, though: "Rockin' Steady" is out of print. This happens a lot with sports books; they're popular for a while and then they disappear. I'm not sure why -- players and writers fall in and out of vogue, people don't take sports books seriously, and so nobody makes a stink when they go out of print, publishing houses fold -- it's probably a dozen things.

Whatever the reasons, it's a crying shame when a book as sweet as "Rockin' Steady" is basically off the shelves and off the average fan's radar.

It's great that it's in my library, but the copy I'm looking at right now is worn-out and not long for this world, and I doubt most libraries across the country have it at all, and I'm telling you that just ain't right.

Anyway, what I want to say is, if it's in your library or, better yet, if you stumble on it in some used bookstore, you should get it and read it and pass it on to your buddies and read it out loud to your kids.

I have this idea, see, that after a while, there'll be a whole bunch of us all dialed in to Clyde's cool, walking around with a little more flow in our lives and our games, giving each other knowing glances, grabbing flies clean out of the air. There'll be a rising tide of Clydeness, a resurgence of hip, and eventually publishers will have no choice but to bring "Rockin' Steady" back into print.

Next week's column: The IBM "e-Business" commercials, "Baseball: A Literary Anthology" and "Love and Basketball" revisited.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at neel@sportsjones.com.



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