Sunday, June 30, 2019

From the Backcourt to the Front Office: The Isiah Thomas Story by Paul Challen

From the Backcourt to the Front Office: The Isiah Thomas Story by Paul Challen

This is the fourth in a series of biographies I am reading/reviewing about Detroit sport legends: Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, and Isiah Thomas. Although each played a different game, there are several common threads: each played either the entirety or majority of their career in Detroit, each had Hall-of-Fame careers, each brought championships to the Motor City, and each had a somewhat notorious reputation. 

Isiah (Zeke) Thomas is the only living member of this set, and his biography had a distinctly different feel than the others. The first three told all: the good and the bad, but I thought the Thomas bio was a bit too generous in its praise and too gentle in its critique. As the name implies, the biography details Thomas’ career as a player, and then as a basketball executive, coach, and even owner of a minor-league basketball league.

Thomas’ playing career was stellar. ESPN ranks him as the 5thgreatest point guard of all time, and 26thamong players of all positions. Zeke led Indiana University to a National Championship, and the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA Championships. He was a perennial All-Star and was inducted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. As a player, he was one of the best ever.

Thomas’ greatest success after his playing days was probably that of General Manager and part owner of the expansion Toronto Raptors beginning with the 95-96 season. Thomas made some unpopular and questionable moves, such as selecting undersized point guard Damon Stoudemire, whose size and playing style was reminiscent of Thomas, as the Raptor’s first ever draft pick, Stoudemire silenced the critics by winning Rookie of the Year honors. As a team the Raptors exceeded expectations on the court and at the box office each of their first two seasons. When Thomas left early in the third season, the Raptor’s record plummeted. And even though the Raptors didn’t have a winning season during Thomas’ tenure, he was largely responsible for creating basketball culture in Toronto. Challen, a Canadian, gave Thomas some well-deserved, and often overlooked, credit for bringing the NBA to Canada and ensuring its continued success. 

The rest of Thomas career as executive and coach are not so impressive.  As a General Manager, his teams rarely made the playoffs and as a coach, he had a losing record. When his teams did make the playoffs, they were eliminated first round. 

The notorious reputation I mentioned? He had a petty feud with Michal Jordan that marred his reputation and probably cost him a spot on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. You don’t run afoul of the greatest ever without consequence. He had another flap with Larry Bird that may have cost him a head coaching position with the Pacers. And then there’s the “Bad Boys” reputation of the Pistons – they were hated around the league – because they won.

Like the other Detroit legends I read about, Thomas dubious reputation was mostly undeserved and overstated. In spite of a few personal foibles, he takes the high ground with his critics and always wears a smile. Unlike the other three – The Isiah Thomas story isn’t finished yet. He may yet win another championship.

In a way, he already has. The Toronto Raptors just won their first ever NBA Championship. It is impossible to measure Thomas’ impact on the championship so many years after his departure – but he definitely made an impact. The Raptors organization recognized this and paid him courtside honors at game one of the finals.

And by the way, – the other Canadian expansion team from 95-96, The Vancouver Grizzlies – no longer exists.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Edward III by William Shakespeare

Edward III by William Shakespeare 

For, from the instant we begin to live,
We do pursue and hunt the time to die: ~ Lord Audley

The Raigne of King Edward the Third commonly referred to simply as Edward III is a play at least partially attributed to Shakespeare. It was written late 16thCentury and concerns King Edward III of England, 14thCentury.

But in my opinion it is more about his son, Prince Edward, the Black Prince who is nearly as prominent in the play, and much more noble than his father.

The play has two distinct plots. Acts I and II concern a conflict with the Scotts, but are really about a dalliance Edward attempts. Acts III – V, cover an English foray into France. There is very little connecting the two plots. Edward does not come off very well in either.

In the first part, after putting down a Scottish uprising and rescuing the Countess of Salisbury, Edward is enamored with the Countess and attempts to seduce her. The Countess puts up a brilliant defense.
     But that your lips were sacred, my Lord,
     You would profane the holy name of love.
     That love you offer me you cannot give,
     For Caesar owes that tribute to his Queen;
     That love you beg of me I cannot give,
     For Sara owes that duty to her Lord.

When Edward persists, and determines to have the Queen and Count killed, so that he may have the Countess, she rebukes him
     Either swear to leave thy most unholy suit
     And never hence forth to solicit me;
     Or else, by heaven this sharp pointed knife
     Shall stain thy earth with that which thou would stain,
     My poor chaste blood. Swear, Edward, swear,
     Or I will strike and die before thee here.

That does the trick. Edward repents in shame and that’s the end of that.

Next, the English invade France – all part of Edward's belief that King John of France is a usurper and that he, Edward, is the rightful King of France. In this section of the play, Prince Edward comes to the fore and outshines his father.

The English advance along several fronts, and Prince Edward is hopelessly outnumbered, 8,000 against 60,000. Count Artois, urges the King to send reinforcements to the prince. Edward answers curtly
     Tut, let him fight; we gave him arms to day,
     And he is laboring for a knighthood man.

When an emissary from King John offers to spare Prince Edward his life if he surrenders, Prince Edward rebuffs
     I will not give a penny for life,
     Nor half a halfpenny to shun grim death,
     Since for to live is but to seek to die,
     And dying but beginning of new life.
     Let come the hour when he that rules it will!
     To live or die I hold indifferent.

Somehow Prince Edward prevails, but King John, ever haughty, complains
     They fortune, not thy force, hath conquered us.

Prince Edward replies
     An argument that heaven aides the right.

I liked this play, and would be very near loving it, but for one major flaw – the parts are so without transition; it hardly seems like a single play. But there is some great dialogue in each, (duh…it’s Shakespeare). 

It leaves me thinking it’s a shame Prince Edward never took the throne. (in true English history, he died before his father, but his son, Richard II did wear the crown.)


Friday, June 21, 2019

The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft (novel #129)

The Shadow Over Innsmouth is the only of Lovecraft’s stories published as a single book – a novella to be precise.

It is part of the Cthulu Mythos. 


It was very creepy, in the way a good horror story should be creepy. The story is narrated by Robert Olmstead who is traveling alone through New England on an antiquarian tour in the late 1920s. Economy drives Robert to a town, that neighboring communities shun, that is whispered about darkly and fearfully. 


Robert intends to only spend part of a day in Innsmouth, and leave by the evening bus, but his curiosity leads him to Zadok Allen, a crazy old drunk in Innsmouth, who regales Robert with fantastic and sinister tales of the town's history – and the shadow that lingers there. Robert's curiosity is noted by the locals, who all wear the slightly unearthly or deformed “Innsmouth look”. They arrange for the cancellation of the evening bus, and Robert is forced to spend the night. 


And of course, things go bump in the night. The locals are in league with an unknown and inhuman evil, and Robert barely escapes with his life.


But, in another sense, he does not quite escape.


I don’t read much horror, but I really enjoyed this. It isn’t gory, or terribly explicit, but physically and psychologically terrifying. Lovecraft is a master of the macabre. I’ve read of few of his short stories, and I will certainly read more.


My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars


I read this as part of the Back to the Classics challenge 2019: a classic novella.


Monday, June 17, 2019

Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais (novel #128)

(translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart and Peter Motteux, illustrated by Gustave Doré)


…as you know that in all companies there are more fools than wise men, and that the greater part always surmounts the better…



This pentalogy is usually referred to simply as Gargantua and Pantagruel, but is also collectively known as Master François Rabelais’ Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds, and Sayings of Gargantua and His Son Pantagruel. The first volume, published in 1532, is The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua


In 1534, possibly due to popular demand for more, came the prequel:  The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel


The remaining three pick up with Pantagruel again: The Third (1546), Fourth (1552), and Fifth (1564) Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Good Pantagruel


In entirety, G&P is a little like Gulliver’s Travels mashed together with Jason and the Argonauts, with a sprinkling of Don Quixote.


It is filled with wordplay, bawdy and scatological humor, fantastic feats, astonishing creatures, violence, nonsense, and codpiece jokes – lots and lots of codpiece jokes, such as this description of Gargantua’s prodigious codpiece:

…it was still gallant, succulent, droppy, sappy, pithy, lively, always flourishing, always fructifying, full of juice, full of flower, full of fruit, and all manner of delight. I avow God, it would have done one good to have seen him, but I will tell you more of him in the book which I have made of the dignity of codpieces. One thing I will tell you, that as it was both long and large, so was it well furnished and victualled within, nothing like unto the hypocritical codpieces of some fond wooers and wench-courtiers, which are stuffed only with wind, to the great prejudice of the female sex.


Now I get it. Codpieces are funny in any context, but after the first two or three hundred recurrences, even codpieces start to lose their appeal.


Another technique that Rabelais used over and over and over, when describing some event, some scene, some occurrence, act, fact, deed, mishap, predicament, affair, matter, exploit, juncture, proceeding, case, occasion, calamity, phase, tide, or crisis, he would list every possible synonym for the – whatever it was. I attempted to mimic this device above, but Rabelais’ list were usually much longer – sometimes filling several pages, and occasionally an entire chapter.


Oh ho! Those were great fun, every single time (sarcasm). 


Oh yeah – he also made up words. Rabelais used his knowledge of Latin to create new words. I understand that a few of these actually made their way into official French language – but most did not. These made-up words were translated to English, and the reader has to infer their meaning.


In a word – ughh!


It was a laborious read. It probably loses something in translation, and probably loses much more in context. G&P was undoubtedly pretty edgy stuff in the 16thcentury, and I have no doubt Rabelais was witty and well informed. I’m certain it abounds with subtle commentary, clever wordplay, astute observation on the foibles of humanity, and profound philosophy – mostly lost on me.


But I also think it is not entirely just me. I suspect that even among Classics readers, there are a fair number who haven’t heard of this work, and many more who haven’t read it. Why not? I think, because it isn’t timeless. I think it was probably pretty special – and scandalous – in its day, but I don’t think it works well today. Which is sort of my apology to Rabelais for…


My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars


I read this as part of the Back to the Classics challenge 2019: a very long classic (my version is over 1000 pages)


Tangential observation: On three occasions Rabelais used the phrase “the beast with two backs”, or some variation, as a euphemism for the act of making love. I’d always thought the phrase was attributed to Shakespeare, who also used it, but it should actually be attributed to Rabelais, as his is the earlier work.