Newest oxymoron -- a happy Nets fan
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

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

Nets Nation
Lucious Harris
Nets fans are keeping the faith in Lucious Harris.
I don't know any New Jersey fans, but I know they're out there. I know, expert analysis and pregame predictions be damned, true Nets believers are getting geared up for Game 1 on Wednesday night.

I picture some 10-year-old girl who went to her first game this year. She's been sleeping in a Jason Kidd jersey every night for three months. Her dad took her to meet Lucious Harris at a shopping mall one Sunday in April. They were handing out mini blue-and-white basketballs with Nets logos on them, and Harris signed his name on hers and wrote "Keep the faith." Now she's pacing around the house, waiting for the tipoff, holding the ball with two hands and rubbing her thumb back and forth over Harris' name.

I see some guy in Jersey who's had tickets since the early days. He went to work on game day just so he could tell the woman he works with (for about the 23rd time this season) about how this whole year feels like an impossible dream. He'll tell her about losing Dr. J in '76, and about Tiny Archibald's broken foot. He'll tell her about Buck Williams' heroic duty for terrible teams, about what he wished Kenny Anderson would have been, and about the day Drazen Petrovic died. Then he'll start talking about Kidd and he'll be hopping around a little, shooting balled-up pieces of paper into a trash can and telling her how "Nobody thinks we can win this thing, but we can, I know we can. We need it. We deserve it."

I imagine an older couple living in the 'burbs -- they hang a Nets banner on their front porch on game day. On special occasions (it used to only be draft lottery days, but this year it's been playoff games), they set two chairs on the porch and sit under the banner, sipping tea and waving at cars that honk as they drive by.

Odds are the Lakers will win the series, and when it's over, all the talk will be about threepeating and dynasties and such. But this time before it gets started belongs to Nets fans, every one of whom is devising schemes and scenarios for a New Jersey upset even as we speak. There's a whole network of these people, I'm sure -- not just in Jersey, but in all sorts of weird, unpredictable spots all over the country.

I don't know any of these folks, but I can feel them out there, and I envy how sweet this moment full of hope and potential must taste to them.

Question: How do commercials work?
Take the new Gatorade "the legend continues" commercial with Keith Jackson (an example chosen just because I like the ad) ...

There are basically two possibilities:

1. You watch this ad and you think, "That's clever. It's got a nice pseudo-documentary flavor to it; great mix of irony and authenticity. Love seeing Keith being Keith, love the idea that he's hip enough to play with his image a bit."

When it's over, it's over. You flip the channel, get back to the game, whatever. You're no more likely to buy or drink or even think about Gatorade now than you ever were. You're a student of contemporary culture; commercials are texts to be analyzed and either appreciated or dismissed. They don't work on you, you work on them. You're an agent of free will, making savvy choices with a skeptical eye.

2. You watch this ad and you think, "That's clever. It's got a nice pseudo-documentary flavor to it; great mix of irony and authenticity. Love seeing Keith being Keith, love the idea that he's hip enough to play with his image a bit."

When it's over, it's over. You flip the channel, get back to the game, whatever. Later -- you don't even notice it at first -- certain Jacksonesque words and phrases start creeping into your vocabulary; you start humming a quaint little tune that feels familiar, but you don't recognize it until a guy at the bus stop starts singing along, "If I could be like Mike"; you find yourself doodling, "Is it in you?" on a napkin when you're out at dinner one night. You ask your wife, "I have it, don't I? Do you think I have it?"; you develop a long, meandering theory about how Mia Hamm is -- and you can't believe no one else recognizes this -- the greatest athlete of all-time; and lately you're feeling a little thirsty all the time ... and not just thirsty, but electrolyte deficient; now you're pulling the car over at a roadside mini-mart and you're walking over to the cooler, and about 17 different drink choices are in this one case alone. You're dazzled by the lights and colors, and the cool air gently enveloping you feels real good. Without even thinking about it, you reach out and take a Gatorade. You could have chosen any drink. It was just the closest one to you at the time, that's all.

"The Hustler" on DVD (released June 4)

  • Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) walks into Ames' Pool Hall in New York and asks the guy in the cage for a drink. "This is Ames, Mister," the guys says. "We just have pool here."

    The hustler's on sacred ground. It's a dim, quiet pool room governed by rituals and rules.

    Everything about Eddie has the ragged edge of obsession, the desperate wish to be anything but small.

    He's slick, but he's got no composure. He doesn't fit the room and in that one line -- "This is Ames, Mister" -- you can see how far he's going to fall.

    When Fats (Jackie Gleason) walks in, dressed to the nines and easy as you please, Eddie's fate is sealed, and suddenly pool plays like the stuff of Greek tragedy.

  • Eddie explains to his girl Sarah (Piper Laurie) what it's like to play pool: "It's a great feeling, boy, a real great feeling, when you're right and you know you're right. It's like all of a sudden I've got oil in my arm. The pool cue's part of me, the pool cue's got nerves in it -- it's a piece of wood -- it's got nerves in it. To feel the roll of the balls -- you don't have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody's ever made before. You play that game the way nobody's ever played it before."

    That's about as good a description of "the zone" as you're ever going to hear.

    People treat sports like the ugly kid sister of culture -- like it's somehow beneath art, music and literature -- but this is exactly the kind of thing you hear dancers and musicians and poets say about what it's like to do what they do well and to be caught up in the ecstatic wonder of creation and performance.

    Newman's innocent enthusiasm sells the scene. Up until this point, Eddie's come off like a guy fronting toughness and anguish. When he gives this speech, you realize that he is a guy fronting toughness but you think maybe his anguish is real.

  • At the end, in a rematch with Fats, he tells the gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott): "You were right. It's not enough that ya' just have talent. You gotta have character, too. Four ball. Yeah, I sure got character now. I picked it up in a hotel room in Louisville."

    The game, whatever it is, gives you something. It provides access to talents and touches in places you might not otherwise know you have. That's why you play.

    At the same time, whoever you are, you bring something to the game. You have a history, and you're working things out. Anger and joy and anxiety and confidence, they're all rehearsed in the game. That, too, is why you play.

    I got a chance to talk to Darryl Dawkins last week
    Darryl Dawkins
    Darryl Dawkins, shown in 1979 with the Sixers, was all about having fun.
    I could explain how and why, but I like the wacky, whodathunkit feel that comes when I say it straight like that: "I got a chance to talk to Darryl Dawkins last week."

    Anyway, Dawkins is the head coach of the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs in the United States Basketball League these days.

    His team won the league title last season. They play a loose, wide-open game and score a trainload of points.

    "We like to run teams into the ground," Dawkins said. "If you're not having fun, if you're not talking trash, then I don't want you on the floor, I don't want you on my team."

    How does he connect with his guys? "Well, a lot of them have only ever seen me play on tape," he said. "But they respect me because they know that I'll run the s--- out of 'em."

    Chocolate Thunder says he hopes "someone in the NBA will notice," and he'll get a job in The League.

    In the meantime, somebody ought to give him a TV gig. Put him alongside Barkley, let him work a "Live from Lovetron" postgame show or something.

    I have a soft spot for guys who imagine their own interplanetary lives. I'm listening to Sun Ra's "Space is the Place" as I write this ...

    Just in case you've started to take him for granted ...
    Next time you get a chance to watch the Mariners, take a minute to appreciate that arm-extended, bat-in-the-air thing Ichiro does when he steps into the box. It's graceful and threatening at the same time -- great theater before he even takes a swing.

    Come to think of it
    There are those lines you've heard 100 times and never really thought about ... but then you hear one of them again and it feels new and you think, "Yeah, that's nice. There's something to that. It's deeper than it sounds."

      "Why did Dr. J shave his beard and mustache?"
      -- Mos Def, "The Questions," off of Chicago hip-hop artist Common's album "Like Water for Chocolate"

    Next week's column: Watching the World Cup in the wee small hours of the morning.

    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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