Critical Mass: Mainframe Malone & Co.
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

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

At the break
IBM's "e-Business" commercials, featuring Moses Malone, Detlef Schrempf, Bill Laimbeer, Muggsy Bogues, Xavier McDaniel, George Gervin and Tex Winter.

Bill Laimbeer
Celtics and Lakers fans are definitely screaming at the TV when Bill Laimbeer appears.
I figure it breaks down something like this:

The guy who pitched the idea for the ad sees an understated, wry metaphor comparing teamwork and infrastructure.

His bosses think it's a stretch, but they give him the green light because he assures them the players are famous.

Your average Information Technology (IT) guy thinks the "e-business is a game, play to win" metaphor is cheesy and tired.

Most folks don't recognize the out-of-shape, unnamed "superstars" in the ad, though a significant portion of them think Muggsy is cute as a button, some of them note the "X Man" is sadly now shaped like the "O Man," and all of them mock Laimbeer when he whiffs on the high-five at the end of the spot.

Those who do recognize the players were once charmed by the idea that they could name all five starters (and Gervin, too) the first time they saw the ad -- it made 'em feel like old-school, hard-core fans, fans who are keepers of the arcane and trivial, because they know that history is nothing more than the story of the arcane and trivial all laid out nice and pretty like and made to sound like it's vital and significant.

Now, though, they're tired of all that, and they just can't help but think to themselves that this whole thing is silly: "I mean, come on, what kind of team is that? Who's shooting on that team? Seriously, where are the points coming from? Moses is a bad mother and all, but something's got to come from the perimeter, doesn't it?"

Detlef Schrempf
Trust us: Detlef Schrempf is moving much faster than it appears.
Of that group, there is a small subset, including Page 2 editor Kevin Jackson and me, who think it's great to see Detlef Schrempf again. These people only ever call him "Det the Threat," and they tend to spin out long, complicated theses about how he wasn't really as slow as he seemed, but was actually "working in an alternate dimension, cultivating an otherworldly kind of slow that was so slow it was actually fast again, and that nobody could keep up with him." These people will also tell you that Det should have played the point for the Mavs coming out of college, and that if he had, he might have been almost as good as Magic.

Beware of these people -- they will take up a tremendous amount of your time and you will understand little, and believe even less, of what they say.

In addition to the Det crew, there are the Celtics and Lakers fans whose one enduring bond is a shared loathing of Laimbeer. These people curse and spit every time one of the ads airs, calling the former Piston center a dirty, talentless thug and telling anyone around them that this isn't funny, and people shouldnąt be allowed to forget what he was, because he's no sweet lovable guy, he's no smiling, self-referential pitchman, he's Bill @#$%&@ing Laimbeer!

Dr. J, by the way, probably thinks the ads are complete head-scratchers: "Ice Gervin has an IBM gig and I don't. Riddle me that."

Meanwhile Moses, who loves the nickname "Mainframe," probably watches the ads from a very comfortable chair in his living room and says to himself: "I look good." The entire city of Philadelphia, all of Houston, and most of the thinking, breathing world raises a glass, nods its head and says, "Damn straight."

Moses Malone
Moses "Mainframe" Malone would definitelty provide the team's best soundbites.
Does the ad work? Who knows? Who cares? IBM probably doesn't even care. I mean, come on, they're IBM, they don't really sell anything any more (they're too big for that); they just do stuff like this to remind us that they're in play, and they're still Big Blue. The whole thing's probably just supposed to work on our brains in some not-quite-subliminal, slightly-familiar-but-still-disorienting, kind-of-charming-but-sort-of-infuriating way, to remind us that they're the power and we're the people and all that.

On the shelf
"At the Buzzer: Havlicek steals, Erving soars, Magic deals, Michael scores: The Greatest Moments in NBA History." By Bryan Burwell. Narration by Bill Walton.

Remember when you used to cut pictures out of Sports Illustrated, Sport, Inside Sports and whatever else you could find? Remember how you'd glue them all over your Pee-Chee folders and book covers, staple them to your wall in funky little collages, laminate them, trace over them, get a friend to take your picture while you tried to duplicate what the players were doing in them?

That wasn't just me, was it?

Anyway, this book's full of those kinds of pictures (including one amazing frame-by-frame sequence of that shot Dr. J took behind the backboard and teased Kareem and Landsberger with in the 1980 Finals).

Put the scissors away, though; this is a pretty, hardback picture book for grownups.

On the Web
Veteran b-ball writers Alex Wolff and Charlie Pierce are talking NBA playoffs over at Slate this week. Click here to check it out.

Wolff wrote an excellent globetrotting, hoop-loving book that came out earlier this year. You can read my take on it here.

This week, Wolff makes the not-so-popular case for what makes the Kings and Nets so appealing.

The answer is style, and flow, and spacing, and internationalism and other cool stuff like that.

On the small screen
Mark Prior
You know the Cubs Nation will be tuned in for the debut of Mark Prior.
The debut of Chicago Cubs rookie pitcher Mark Prior, 8 p.m., Fox Chicago

The wickedly talented young Prior makes his first big-league start Wednesday night against Pittsburgh.

Don Baylor's boys are 13 under and 11 back going into the game.

Say it with me, Don: "I will not overwork the kid. I will not overwork the kid. I will not overwork the kid."

Come on, say it like you mean it. I want to believe you.

On the newsstand
"The Wiffle Effect," by Lee Green, Atlantic Magazine (June issue)

My friend Dave once devoted an entire summer to Wiffle ball. He carried bats and balls in the trunk of his car, arranged games at the park, at the beach, in guys' backyards. All of us played from time to time, but Dave played every day. He was absolutely clear about what he wanted to do, relentless in his dedication to the task. In a way, he was a hero to the rest of us because he'd given his summer, and his life, a perfect sort of Wiffle shape and he was infused with a seemingly boundless Wiffle passion. It was great to watch, and we all felt aimless and lazy by comparison.

Green's article says that there are guys like Dave all over the country, and they've been practicing and professing the love for years, which is great to hear.

It also says Wiffle-mad folks have recently formed associations and sanctioned national tournaments and rankings and such, which, I don't know, feels like it's against the point of Wiffle ball, which is to be where you are and to transform that place, for an hour or two, into a field.

Not for nothing but ...
Has anybody else noticed that Sacramento Kings assistant coach Pete Carril is working a hard-scrabble, cocky Norman Mailer look lately, all leather-jacketed and leaning back in his chair, just daring the hoi polloi to approach and beg for a scrap of wisdom? Is he riding a Harley? Is he covering the Tyson fight? Does anybody know?

Smartest thing I read this week ...
"I have spent much of the past decade writing about sports in America and have consistently been struck by how sequestered the subculture is from the rest of American life, as though our games exist in a vacuum, separate and apart from the culture at large. In fact, I contend ... that sports can be a lens through which to see the country more clearly, if only we look closely. ... When it comes to the hot-button sociopolitical issues of our time, the sports subculture has been and continues to be ahead of the culture at large. It's actually been the breeding ground for progressivism, a laboratory for egalitarianism." -- Larry Platt, "New Jack Jocks: Rebels, Race, and the American Athlete"

The book's due out May 31, and I'll have more to say about it in a future column.

For now, I'll just say: "What he said."

TV viewing tip of the week
Watch the way Jason Kidd blows a kiss toward the basket before every free throw. It's great on at least two levels: In the first place, it's a delicate, charming gesture that reminds you how much kid there must be in Kidd, and it's the perfect complement to the tough-guy bandage over his eye. Second, it tells you all you need to know about free throws, which is that they're rituals and that, the 15,000 fans staring down from the stands notwithstanding, they're conducted in private.

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



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