Still looking for '72 hoops answers
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture:

On the small screen
.03 From Gold
":03 From Gold," HBO's documentary on the controversial 1972 gold medal basketball game between the United States and the Soviet Union (debuted June 18 and runs through July 8, check listings)

Typically strong stuff from HBO Sports. They get the details and the context right, and they track down great interviews.

The key here is they've done interviews with players and representatives from both sides.

The Americans are, to a man and to this day, convinced the game was stolen from them. They have detailed memories about what happened and specific theories about why it happened.

The former Soviet players are, without exception, sure that their win was just. They, too, describe precisely what took place and explain how it makes sense.

What you get here is not so much a resolution of the dispute as a movie about the simple human impulse to make sense of things, the impulse to develop stories and theories about what's happened to you.

The U.S. players suffered a weird, unfair loss, and it still hurts every one of them. You can't sit with that kind of loss, you can't slough it off or get over it. You have to shape it, wear it down, somehow contain it. You have to tell how it came to visit its anguish and injustice upon you. You have to fashion whatever cold comfort there is to be had from the story, the story of the conspiracy against you and the story of the bond you share with those who endured it with you.

The former Soviet players experienced a crazy, unpredictable win that they still can't quite believe -- and maybe they've never quite believed in. Their victory has never been corroborated or acknowledged by the U.S. team. On some level, it must seem unreal to them. You can't sit with that feeling, you can't fully revel in that kind of win. You have to resolve it in a narrative, have to make it read like a calm, clear laying out of facts and events that adds up to your victory. It may be a story of chaos, and it's definitely a story of second and third chances, you think, but you have to believe that it's ultimately a story of fairness.

It's 30 years after the fact, and neither team gives an inch because they each desperately need their version to be true.

On the shelf
Ted Williams
Baseball was never work for Red Sox slugger Ted Williams.
"What Baseball Means To Me: A Celebration of Our National Pastime," edited by Curt Smith (published May 6)

This is a book of brief essays from more-or-less famous folks, in and out of baseball, on their memories and feelings for the game. Some of it's sappy and predictable, but some of it's bright and poetic, too.

A few highlights:

"A housewife in California couldn't tell you the color of her husband's eyes, but she knows that Yogi Berra is hitting .337, has brown eyes, and used to love to eat bananas with mustard. That's baseball."
-- Ernie Harwell, announcer

"I was in deep right field, of course, and there were two out in the bottom of the last inning with the tying run on base, and Gerry Sinnott, who already had to shave, was at bat. As I stood there waiting for the pitch, I dreamed a dream that millions of other kids have dreamt: that someday I would grow up and I wouldn't have to be in Little League anymore. In the interim, my feelings could best be summed up by the statement: 'Oh, please, please, please, God, don't let Gerry Sinnott hit the ball to me.' "
-- Dave Barry, humorist

"What does baseball mean to me? Hell, it means everything. I didn't even consider playing baseball practice. The most fun I ever had in my life was if I was hitting a baseball and if I could hit one -- pow! -- gee, that felt good to me."
-- Ted Williams, ballplayer

In the kitchen
Kudos to Yahoo! for those "Always On" spots featuring a spontaneous soccer game played by tiny men who've climbed off the computer screen and onto the kitchen floor.

When you hear the players' voices trail through the house, you hear echoes of a wilder, more innocent time, of warm summer nights playing kick-the-can on sleepy little streets, and suddenly this unfamiliar game they call soccer feels like something you've always known and loved. When the groggy, unsuspecting homeowner stumbles into the kitchen and gets the bejeezus scared out of her, you see Yahoo's web-accessed global consciousness poking fun at mainstream America's uptight fear and loathing of the world game. And when the players kick over a bottle of milk and shoot a goal into a bread pan, you think, yes, World Cup mania is reckless and full of joy, it laughs in the face of the cozy, conservative fantasies of suburban domestic life.

When they scramble back to the computer, the barrier between the so-called real world and the so-called virtual world looks incredibly fluid to you, and you think, sure, that fact may be threatening to those wrapped up in their blankets of tradition, but it can be a great, giddy opportunity for the rest of us, a chance for any who are willing to open their minds to realize that day and night, real and virtual, pro and anti-soccer, us and them ... these are just labels, constructions, ideas ingrained in us by the Man, the Man who is trying to keep us down, keep us in line, make us clock in and toe the line and say, "Ay-ay, captain," every bloody, miserable day of our lives, and you think, yes, yes indeed, the revolution will not be televised it will take place right here, in our kitchens, in the hearts of our homes, deep in our dream lives ... you see this so clearly now, the game has spoken, a change is gonna come.

Or maybe you just think, dang, little guys running around playing soccer in the kitchen in the middle of the night, that's just so cool.

In-house plug, as in 'shameless'
Read Darren Rovell's stuff over at the sports business page, such as his recent piece on stadium owners' efforts to get terrorism insurance.

Darren's the "I wonder" Guy. He routinely asks smart, fresh questions about the kinds of things you've been thinking about and the kinds of things you will be thinking about soon enough, then he tracks down the answers and writes them up with clean, engaging prose and wraps them up in a bow as a gift for you, the reader.

Check him out.

Two slow for TV
Kazuhisa Ishii
Every pitch by Kazuhisa Ishii is a revelation.
If you have that "Extra Innings" deal, or if you're waiting out a layover at LAX, or if maybe you find yourself in a Super 8 somewhere east of Arlington on business from time to time, keep an eye out for televised games pitched by Kazuhisa Ishii and/or Hideki Irabu, each, in his own way, the slowest guy in baseball.

Kaz is working about 47 arm angles on his delivery, and he's throwing these aching, lyrical benders that take a week and a half to land. Every pitch is a revelation.

Irabu, meanwhile, has all these ticks and twitches and sweat-wipes and cap-adjustments and mound-strolls and eye-blinks and stuff going on ... it's great, he takes forever between pitches and you can't tell if he's trying to psyche out the hitter or if maybe he's melting down right before your eyes. Good TV. (Better hurry to catch him, though, because the ERA's getting ugly.)

Next week: Book club: Larry Platt's "New Jack Jocks" and David Shields' "Enough About You"

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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Critical Mass: Conspiracy fodder with a soundtrack

Critical Mass: Don't think, just watch the film

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