Dec 23, 2014

Disillusioned

So I was musing on twitter last Friday about how a bunch of people at work seemed to be building up a lot of stress and anger, and how I couldn't see myself switching over to their department simply because I didn't think I could handle it... the reality is that I'm absolutely DREADING the upcoming year there because things are about to change dramatically for me and my own job, and not in a good way.

The Company began "restructuring" a couple months back, and one of the people who got sent off to early retirement works the same job as me. Tomorrow is her last day there; it'll be just me and another guy working the job from that day forward, meaning that our work capacity is about to be stretched even further. We already have our hands full as a three-person unit; but the same workload, under a two-man operation? I'm absolutely dreading it.

Our supervisor is trying to convince The Company to bring in a replacement for the "retiring" coworker, but one doesn't appear to be forthcoming, at least not right away. Fair dues to him for even making an attempt to hire a new person in her stead, even though all of us kinda figured there wouldn't be one.

Having said that, when he announced to me and the other coworker the other day that we were getting a pay raise for next year, I wasn't excited in the least. Why would I be? The long and short of it was telling me that come 2015, I'll be doing at far more work, and logging even more overtime, for what I figured out would be almost the same pay (when factoring for inflation).

Hey, far be it for me to complain about this, of course. People all over the globe would dearly love to have my kind of problem, and would switch places with me in a nanosecond. But man... when I hear from a slew of my own friends saying they're running into similar situations at work, that plants a bunch of thoughts into my mind.

I mean, I don't wanna go too far down this particular road, but a number of signs point toward our generation being worse off than the our parents' and grandparents' generations -- and I can see them clearly. This is just one anecdote, but only a handful of my high school and college friends are married; fewer still have started a family of their own. I have to wonder if a big reason for this is because we barely have enough money to maintain relationships, never mind become moms and dads.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm scarcely ready to face the changing reality of my work situation a little more than two weeks from now. Suffice it to say that the new year isn't looking very much like a new start for me. I suppose it is, from the basic sense of putting up a new calendar -- but beyond that? I'll get a much better sense of how that new reality will be like once I'm actually exposed to it -- but will I still be well-equipped to handle it?

Because right now, I feel burned the f--- out in every sense: Physically, mentally, and spiritually. And I have two weeks to basically just get over it. If I could pull a Landon Donovan and just take a three-month break (or longer), I'd do it in a heartbeat. But I'm not deluded enough to think I have that kind of luxury. And because 'Merica is one of those uniquely brutal places where you literally have to earn your access to physical and mental well-being, the only reasonable way I got toward getting my mind and body back in the right place is by, well, putting in eight-plus hours every single workday.

Again, I can see how ungrateful all of that sounds. Hell, me circa July 2012 may well have made a few sarky responses to anyone spewing these kinds of words. It's December 2014 now, though. Your whole outlook on life, let alone life itself, can change in as little as 2.5 seconds, never mind 2.5 years.

I got a side story for ya (well, if I can call it that)... I took a course in Italian history during my senior year at UCF. I needed a few history credits for my major, and it was the only class that had open seats at the time, so I sheepishly signed up. So when we got to the WW2 era, our professor had us read a famous novel from that time -- it was titled Bread and Wine, written by Ignazio Silone.

(I think I still have a copy of it somewhere, alongside every book I haven't touched since graduating from uni)

Anyways, there was a passage in the story that really stuck with me at the time, and came creeping back to me in recent weeks. From what I remember, the main character was visiting an old friend in Rome, who was basically a living embodiment of disillusionment. The money quote there, to totally paraphrase: "My father said he hoped I would have all the things he never got when he was on his deathbed. But I'm not deluded enough to believe my own kid will be better off that me in the future."

I didn't know why that line stuck with me then, but now that I think about it, I read that book right as the economy -- and the future of my generation -- was starting to go to hell in a hand basket (that was in 2008-09). Those were the kinds of passages I read in college textbooks that are slowly coming back to me years later. The quotes just seem more relevant to me in these times, and the symbolism behind them more potent.

Because it wasn't even that long ago that I didn't feel disillusioned making that morning commute and putting in my daily shift. Now? I'm feeling more and more disconnected from my job, at the precise time when I should be prepping myself for the increased burden. The focus just isn't there; ditto the motivation. Just turning up to work everyday has been weighing heavily on me for a few months -- but as I said before, I don't have the luxury of calling it quits.

When I went to Seattle last month, it wasn't just to visit my family there, or to breathe in that town's air again (though they were huge reasons why). It was also for the simple reason that I absolutely had to get away from Mouseville, and from real life itself, even if it was only for a weekend. I was very keenly aware of what I was getting away from, and what I would be coming back to, when I booked my trip up to the Great Northwest... and let me tell you man, the day I went back to Florida, I spent every moment in Seatac, right up until the plane left the gate, wishing I had put the boarding pass for my return flight through a shredder.

I went back to work the following Tuesday. My body was there (I think). My mind was probably wandering around somewhere in BFE. I can probably still find it there, if I ever feel the urge to do so again.

I obviously haven't mentioned any of this to my bosses or coworkers. Who wants to hear that their colleague's heart isn't in it? Although, based on the way those same coworkers are cranking up the volume while yelling into their phones, maybe they're looking for a way out, too. But we won't hear any of it, though. It's too much of a taboo topic, because copping to it could jobs and livelihoods at risk. And rumors have a way of spreading like wildfires even (especially?) in the biggest workplaces.

And cynically, I think most of them are too #washed to realize that they're becoming cranky and crotchety (I'm a relative pup in that office). Then again, if that really were the case, then they would prob be even less sympathetic to me telling them that I'm feeling the effects of a Defcon 2 burnout.

Those are just small details, though. My biggest challenge at this point is steering clear of the proverbial spiral staircase before 2015 hits.

Oct 9, 2014

Slow death of the hardcore sports fan


One of the most surreal experiences I've ever had at a sporting event lasted all of one minute, during a game that didn't count for anything in the standings.

I managed to snag a press pass at an Orlando Magic preseason game last year, and after trudging my way over to the media lobby on the opposite side from the main entrance, I took a short elevator up to the middle tier of the Amway Center. When the door opened, the first thing I noticed was the plush carpet that had been laid out on the entire hallway -- a setting that appeared more befitting of a business office than a big-time sports venue. My initial shock didn't last long, but only because I was quickly asked to show my credentials by a young, intern-looking dude who was rocking the sharpest tuxedo that I'd ever seen on a Millennial.

Without a hint of exaggeration, my initial reaction in those first few seconds was, "wait, is this a basketball game or a board meeting?"

After flashing my press pass at the absurdly well-dressed usher, I began making my way through the dimly lit millionaires' row toward the press area. Signs of opulence were on full display throughout the aisle. Water bottles and drinks were being sold at outrageous prices; team sponsors had their employees handing out brochures to passersby; and college-aged guys and girls were manning the entrances of club boxes, looking like bright-eyed rookie butlers waiting for their late-arriving masters to waltz into their favorite evening hangout spot.

Here I was, looking impossibly out of place in an oversize t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts, not even close to looking the part of someone who should have had a press pass (which, in fairness, I actually didn't), lumbering across the corridor which screamed exclusivity and indulgence at every turn.

That whole sequence, from when I first walked out to the elevator to when I reached the media section, took 60 seconds to complete. One minute of walking across one hallway. But in that short time frame, I got a far better insight into the 21st century American game day experience than I ever did during every sporting event I had attended up to that point.

* * * * *
Over the past 20 years, the overwhelming majority of professional sports teams in North America have either moved into brand new venues, or extensively renovated their existing facilities. And the overwhelming majority of these stadiums and arenas were either built or reconstructed using public funds. To hear the supporters of these projects in city halls across the continent tell it, everybody in town gets to share in the benefits of investing in these venues, regardless of each resident's passion for sports.

Even beyond the hysterically flawed logic behind funneling tax dollars toward sports complexes in the first place, that type of thinking doesn't take into account that so much of modern pro sports today is totally unrecognizable from what it was even a decade ago. It is a bona fide big business, in which all the power is concentrated within the locker rooms and at the conference tables. The game itself, at its most basic level, has been completely superseded by the pursuit of money, thereby relegating the fans to the status of mere consumers, whose biggest hope is being presented with a product worth supporting, both emotionally and financially.

To the extent that professional sports is a profit-maximizing operation, the teams and their owners are free to broker whatever deal that will bring in the most revenue, whether it's with their corporate sponsors or with the TV networks. Consequently, they're also free to market their overall product -- not just the actual team, but all the amenities and the luxuries that they have to offer away from the playing surface -- to whatever demographic they feel will buy into it, at the exact price they want to charge. The reality is that the competition for the last dollar is every bit as vibrant and vital outside the field of play as the struggle for victory is for the teams and players that we support.

On the other hand, that change in the sports landscape has undoubtedly screwed the average, hardcore, working class fans, not only in the short term, but especially over the long haul. New stadiums and arenas invariably result in more expensive seats, especially in their early years, when the proverbial smell is still fresh. The working man, in turn, is invariably priced out of the game, to be replaced by a more well-heeled yet only occasionally excitable crowd, at the venues their (our) own tax dollars helped to build. It's nothing short of an assault on our senses.

Equally as damaging for the die-hards: with new stadiums and arenas come a whole new set of expectations of what a game day atmosphere should be -- something which has less and less to do with the common fan with each passing home game. The entertainment and the experience on offer at sporting events nowadays are almost exclusively catered toward those who buy club seats, luxury suites, and most importantly, advertising space. It's not by any means an accident that the display ribbons and the scoreboards at the stadiums show the sponsors' logos and slogans 90% of the time; nor is it a coincidence that the kiss and dance cams almost always fixate on those sitting closest to the field; and it's no happenstance that free t-shirts are very rarely launched into the upper deck.

The rising costs of going to a game may not drive every deeply-committed sports fan out of the stands. The realization that they've been reduced to second class citizens in their own home venue, however, may well prove to be the last straw for those who still passionately back their teams in person.

* * * * *
With each groundbreaking ceremony, and with each red carpet ribbon-cutting event at a new sports complex, the average fans' chances of reversing the power shift in the politics of sports are diminished. The ticket prices (along with the costs of parking, concessions, and merchandise) keep rising steadily, even in the face of gargantuan television and media contracts. Teams across the country are building smaller, ostensibly more intimate venues, yet the cheapest seats are further away from the action than ever before. More and more is being made of empty seats at the games, but the teams and leagues can still easily manipulate the attendance numbers as they see fit.

Maybe the constant reinvention of the alternative sports viewing experience -- there are any number of apps and options on our smartphones and flat screens, after all -- will compel teams to rethink their strategy on filling those empty seats. Maybe a massive void will develop where the next generation of ticket buyers is expected to occupy it, further forcing those teams' hands. But realistically, how many years will it take before those things become a distinct possibility?

So long as the tickets keep moving one way or another, so long as the revenues keep flowing in from every conceivable stream, so long as the cities and counties can be shaken down for taxpayer-funded stadiums, and so long as the value of every franchise continues to zoom headlong toward the stratosphere, the status quo of professional sports does not need changing. This is a very worrisome trend indeed.

Live sporting events are one of the few outlets left in today's world where people of all stripes can scream, shout, cheer, and celebrate their cause -- their team -- without a hint of shame or reservation. We can't afford to lose this, too.

Can we?

Aug 18, 2014

A brief note on American society


We all live here. We all make friends here, eat the food, watch the movies, maybe even make money. It’s just some people belong here, and others don’t.

Arthur Chu's recently-published article -- originally written after the Trayvon Martin trial, but made public after the Mike Brown incident -- struck a particular chord with me when I first read it this past week. Specifically, his anecdotes on growing up as an Asian in America, equal poignant and blistering, had me damn near tearing up, as I had lived through similar experiences myself as an immigrant child from Japan.

At a certain point in both of our lives, and in the lives of countless other Asians in America, we came to a harsh realization: We will never be considered as true Americans, as belonging in this country and its society, no matter how deep our roots on this side of the Pacific lie, or how well-integrated we believe ourselves to be. And to the extent that being American equals being white -- which it still does, even in 2014 -- this wake-up call is hardly exclusive to US citizens of Asian descent.

We frequently refer to American society as a melting pot: a unique, harmonious place where every world culture is represented and respected, and where everyone gets to contribute toward building a uniquely multicultural and kaleidoscopic society. Reality suggests that it's actually more of a filter, where everyone who doesn't fit the monolithic, borderline WASP-ish narrative is discarded from mainstream representation; at which point they're left on the outside, looking into the very country that they call home.

To steal a line from the late, great George Carlin: It's a big club, and we ain't in it.

America is not a melting pot. We do not live in a tolerant, post-racial society. The only difference between my grandmother's time, or even my father's time, and the present day is that the mainstream society has simply gotten better at masking its disapproval, distrust, and disdain for those people, not to mention asserting its dominance over our nation.

This explains why the concepts like the "model minority" and "perpetual foreigners" are still very real and relevant, why the phrase "one of the good ones" can still be used used without irony. This is why any attempt at discussing the ways in which this country has become divided and polarized --, not only along racial lines, but also increasingly along economic lines, is stamped out before it can begin in earnest.

This is why those who look to deconstruct the societal status quo of America, or even those who call out the injustices that result from that very setup, are swiftly accused of race baiting or playing the mythical race card. Bear in mind that "you're playing the race card" is really code for "I would rather not acknowledge, let alone seriously discuss, the privileges that we enjoy in our supposedly post-racial society, not to mention the institutional racism which has a profound effect on America to this day."

If America really were a multicultural society that it fancies itself to be -- where every citizen's background and cultural heritage found an expression under the umbrella of an overall national fabric -- then I would re-evaluate my own feelings about this country, and its society. I certainly would have been more predisposed to disagreeing with the premise of Arthur Chu's article.

It's not, though.

Aug 15, 2014

It's about a society falling...

On the way down, it keeps telling itself:

So far, so good... so far, so good... so far, so good.

 
 
 

Jul 13, 2014

The Sports-Industrial Complex



The most recent edition of ESPN the Magazine contains an illuminating article by Mina Kimes on the stadium saga involving the city of Orlando, an MLS-bound soccer team that calls it home, and a small community church in the heart of town. The long and short of it: The city of Orlando agreed to build a new, publicly-funded soccer stadium for Orlando City SC in the Parramore district, and used eminent domain to snap up all necessary parcels of land for the project -- except for the one which houses the Faith Deliverance Temple. The negotiations to buy the property went nowhere, so the city is moving ahead with another ED claim. The church leaders are willing to take the battle head-on, though the odds are stacked against them gaining a favorable outcome.

There's precedence for this type of action by the city of Orlando regarding the construction of a sports venue: Buddy Dyer and co. also used eminent domain to seize properties for the Amway Center, a far costlier venture for the locals than the soccer stadium. The end game, however, remains the same: The proverbial man on the streets will have to shoulder the costs of building a new, opulent stadium where the super-rich of Central Florida -- execs at Disney, big hitters at Full Sail, head honchos at any one of the major hotel chains in the tourist areas -- can be pampered inside their luxury suites at sporting events and live concerts, from which most of the residents of this region will be priced out.

This, of course, is nothing new here. The city and county governments sank millions of dollars into the Citrus Bowl over the years, and is now bankrolling a whole new set of renovations at the stadium. Even the old Orlando Arena, the former home of the Magic, was paid for, in large parts, with public funds. Given those bits of info, it doesn't seem totally implausible to think that one of the reasons why Phil Rawlins, the owner and president of Orlando City, moved his team here from Austin, TX, was because he saw a local leadership which had a penchant for corporate welfare, and which would raise no serious questions regarding his aspirations of joining MLS, preferably at a cut-rate price.

This blog has questioned the wisdom of Orlando (and Orange County) committing hundreds of millions of dollars toward building new sports venues before, especially at a time when parts of the city are breaking apart at the seams, and its downtrodden residents are continuing to fall through the cracks. The city has long ago dropped any pretense of having the interests of its residents at heart, which begs the question: have the Orlandoans themselves woken up to this reality?

If the comments in Mina Kimes' article are anything to go by, the congregants of the church certainly appear to have done so. The pastor's widow did not mince any words about the city's handling of the negotiations, going as far as to say that the powers-that-be "just want to throw us out." There is also a sense of resentment about how the Amway Center saga went down, a controversial project perpetrated on behalf of the billionaire owners of the Magic, a family that walked back on their deeply conservative political views to beg for, and receive, a taxpayer handout to the tune of $400 million for the new arena.

It's easy to get hyped up about something like sports, about a game like soccer, in a city like Orlando, especially when the local soccer team is poised to make a dream move to the big leagues. It's easier still to disregard the consequences of the city's efforts to brand itself as a big-time sports town. Those sentiments were expressed directly to me, from one of the regular attendants of the church, over a brief series of tweets:


Eminent domain may have its place and purpose if it is being used to build a hospital, a school, a police or fire station, a transit center, or a highway -- all things that serve the public good. But using it to build sports venues, which will ostensibly be owned by the public, but will only benefit the owners of teams which would call them home?

The Sports-Industrial Complex, like any good old-fashioned industrial complex, only serves to benefit the few at the expense of the many. These boondoggles come in a variety of sizes -- $100 million-plus for the OCSC soccer stadium, $500 million for the Amway Center, an estimated $11.3 billion for the World Cup in Brazil, an eye-watering $51 billion for the Sochi Olympics -- yet there is a common thread in each of these cases: Nary a peep is made about the collateral damage that the people who manipulate the system leave in their wake.

Orlando City will begin MLS play next season, playing their home matches at the newly renovated Citrus Bowl while the stadium saga continues to boils over. They have already served notice to the rest of the league by signing Kaka, a Brazilian superstar and a former Ballon d'Or winner. Robinho, his compatriot and a fearsome player in his own right, may soon join him in Florida. The excitement about the team appears to be building by the day. One could even make the case that Orlando is a soccer town now, particularly in light of the Magic's descent into irrelevance.

The story of OCSC's meteoric rise to the top flight, however, is not one of an underdog club who built themselves up the "right" way. They cannot parrot the "started from the bottom" line about their growth without irony. One only needs to look at the increasingly sordid ordeal centered around a humble church on the city block to shatter those conceptions into pieces.

Jun 11, 2014

Two tangos in Tampa: Dispatch from the Japan NT friendlies


My first real run-in with Japanese soccer took place exactly a dozen years ago, during the 2002 World Cup, which Japan co-hosted with South Korea. I was too young to remember the Agony of Doha in 1993 as a kid growing up in Kitakyushu, and was too busy trying to navigate a new life in America during the 1998 World Cup, when Japan made its maiden appearance on the world stage.

My grandmother had scheduled our latest trip back home in 2002 to coincide with the end of my school year; it also happened to coincide with the start of the World Cup. She may or may not have known that our homeland was hosting a major global sporting event at that time; by contrast, I had the World Cup on my mind months before I took my final exams that year. My grades probably suffered a bit as a result, though I still managed to pass all my classes with plenty of room to spare.

Japan advanced to the knockout stage for the first time ever that year, with Hidetoshi Nakata and Junichi Inamoto providing star turns with vital goals to carry the boys in blue to the top spot in Group H. The narrowest of losses to Turkey in the Round of 16 dashed our dreams of a deep tournament run on our home soil; the silence at the main station, where I watched that game on a huge display with hundreds of other people, was deafening at the final whistle. However, the games, the festivities, and the locals' passion for their team -- our team -- had left an indelible impression on me.

A lifelong love for the Beautiful Game was born during that trip, as was an undying dedication to Japan's footballing fortunes -- particularly those of its national team.

When Japan's FA announced that the Blue Samurai would be playing not one, but two friendlies in Tampa before the 2014 World Cup, I saw an opportunity that I absolutely couldn't afford to pass up. Japan last played on American soil in 2006, when they played against the US national team on a baseball field in San Francisco. It was a decent enough match to watch, even if my team lost -- but I also wondered whether I would get another chance to see them play on this side of the Pacific.

Eight years later, the chance had arrived; and I merely had to drive two hours down I-4 to take advantage.

* * * * *

On paper, Japan v Costa Rica was just a June friendly, ostensibly a meaningless match-up. Tell that to the fans who attended Monday's match at Raymond James Stadium though, and every last one of them would have dismissed that statement within a millisecond. All the emotions associated with any soccer match, or even a sporting event, were present prior to kickoff -- the anxiety, the excitement, the pride of place during the national anthems, the thrill of staring the unknown in its face as the opening whistle approaches.

Those senses flare up all the more at the international level, because they take place much less frequently than league competitions, and also because there is national pride at stake, instead of local bragging rights. This match also represented one of the few occasions that both the Japanese and Costa Rican expat communities could watch their 'home' teams live, which ratcheted up the anticipation leading up to the event.

I made sure to get to the stadium early enough, and to find a seat that was as close to the pitch as possible; I wound up getting to within five rows of the playing surface, and directly behind Japan's most vocal fans, who had megaphones and drums in tow, and were in full voice for the duration of the match. This was my first time at an international match involving Japan, so I was definitely going to get my money's worth.


Japan got off to a fast start against Costa Rica, generating (and missing) a glut of gilt-edged chances in the opening half hour. Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, the star men for Japan, looked lively and effective, belying their lack of production -- or, if you're a huge fan of both, the lack of playing time -- at the club level with Milan and Manchester United, respectively. The attack, at least from what I could see, was operating at the same capacity as it always had since Alberto Zaccheroni took over as manager after South Africa: a barrage of quick, crisp, accurate, incisive, and unpredictable short passes, which invariably led to legitimate goal-scoring opportunities... which were often squandered, as they were during the first half on Monday.

Then came the first sign of what could be the Blues' undoing in Brazil. A rapid counterattack by Costa Rica put our backline in a bind, and Bryan Ruiz headed in the opening goal without facing the slightest bit of resistance from his marker, whoever it was. Costa Rica went onto flood the flanks for the remainder of the first half, and watching our defenders attempt to deal with the pressure began to look and feel more nightmarish than the bright yellow shirts that the Japanese players donned that night.

Luckily, the second half brought much better fortunes for Japan. Trailing at the break actually seemed to work in Zaccheroni's favor, as it allowed him to make a number of attack-minded substitutions: Shinji Okazaki, Yasuhito Endo, Yuto Nagatomo, and Yoichiro Kakitani were all introduced at various points during the final 45 minutes. These additions to an already formidable attack meant that the Blues would enjoy even more time on the ball, and that they could conjure up even more scoring opportunities; inevitably, the goals would follow, as well.

Once Endo scored the equalizer on the hour mark for Japan -- a strike which was preceded by a free-flowing sequence, then incisive pass into the box by Honda -- the game transformed into something resembling a passing session at a training ground, with Japan conducting the drill in the midst of an official FIFA match. Those wearing blue in the stands sensed the tide turning in our favor after that goal, and began to match, if not overwhelm, the noise being made by Costa Rican supporters.

20 minutes passed without anyone adding their name to the score sheet, but Kagawa put an end to that by slotting the ball into the Ticos' net after another neat movement, a goal that must have done wonders for his confidence after not scoring once for Man Utd this past season. High-fives immediately began flying around our section of the stands, as we found our roar at last after a nervy 80 minutes of play. Kakitani added the finishing touch with a goal of his own in stoppage time, as Japan ran out 3-1 winners over their fellow World Cup participants.

The evening was shaping up to be a fun-filled one well before kickoff, and the main event certainly did not disappoint. Both sets of fans made their way down the exit ramp in a jovial mood, no doubt partying until the sun came up the next day. I had to shuffle out of the stadium quickly, though, since I was bound for Atlanta the following morning to start a mini baseball tour; I would make my way back to Tampa on Friday for the second of Japan's friendlies, this time against Zambia.

* * * * *

The first thing I noticed as I walked up to the entrance before the second match of the week was that there were far more Japanese fans on hand than there were on Monday. Whereas the Costa Rica friendly kicked off at 9pm on a weekday, the clash against the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations winners was slated for a 7:30pm kickoff on a Friday, which made it much easier for everyone from the scheduling standpoint. It seemed like every Japanese expat within 200 miles of Tampa was present at Ray Jay, which was rather reassuring on my part.

I got to the stands about 30 minutes before kickoff, met up with my Facebook friend (and fellow Blue Samurai fanatic) Melissa who had found seats just three throws up from the pitch, and not-so-patiently waited for the players to arrive. The Zambian contingent to our left was already in a festive mood, and with the ranks of blue-clad Japan supporters steadily swelling up to our right, the atmosphere resembled a mini-carnival of soccer fans. Everybody in the stadium was ready for the opening whistle -- with the glaring exception of the eleven players who started for the Blue Samurai that night.


Just as with the Costa Rica match, Japan fell behind in the first half. This time, however, it came within ten minutes of the opening whistle, as Zambia produced a classic smash-and-grab goal after a swift counter. Five minutes later, Okazaki collided with the Zambian keeper while chasing a floating ball toward the box. It looked from our vantage point like the goalie came off worst from the clash, but it was our free-scoring forward who ended up getting the bandage wrapped around his head. Both of them managed to stay in the game, lending more credence to the theory that top-level athletes are tougher and more resilient than your average man on the street.

If only our backline had shown that kind of steel in the first half. Zambia scored another goal on the stroke of the half-hour mark, taking full advantage of the woeful marking by Japan during a corner kick. The Chipolopolo aficionados were sent into raptures after going up 2-0, while everyone else was simply left stunned. Our defensive frailties were exposed in way that must have left our Group C opponents salivating just a tiny bit (caveat: Zaccheroni had opted to throw our back-up keeper, Shusaku Nishikawa, into the fray on Friday, instead of our first-choice keeper, Eiji Kawashima).

The scoreline looked grim at that point, the game was gradually getting away from the boys in blue, and the groans on our side of the stands -- when they weren't being drowned out by the Zambian support -- grew more audible with every misplaced pass or shot gone wide. Japan finally showed signs of turning it around before halftime, when the referee pointed to the spot after a Zambia handball. Honda stepped up to take the penalty, directly in front of us, and calmly slotted home to the keeper's left. This goal reduced the deficit in half; one can only hope that it also had the effect of boosting Kaiser Keisuke's confidence going into Brazil, as well.

Melissa and I managed to move down to the front row ahead of the second half, but we, and the rest of Japan's support, weren't treated to a vastly improved performance at the beginning of the second half. Zambia actually had several chances to add to their lead, which they mercifully let through their grasps. Perhaps spurred on by those near-misses, the Blues slowly eased into a dominant position; they were playing one-touch football with confidence again, and generating actual chances at long last.

Those efforts paid massive dividends for Japan after 75 minutes of play. Kagawa got the ball on the left side with acres of space in front of him, cut inside, and sent in a curling shot that found its way into the Zambia net, drawing Japan level. It almost looked like a pass from where I was standing, but no matter, the result was all the same. A few minutes later, Masato Morishige made a superb turn inside the box to shake off his marker, before sliding a dangerous pass toward the goal; Honda, marauding forward in search of his second goal, duly finished with aplomb to put Japan in the lead. If their defensive vulnerabilities had provided our World Cup opponents with reasons for optimism, then those two lightning-quick strikes will have dampened them in a very short order.

As uplifting as those two goals were, there was still plenty of drama left in the 15 minutes that remained. Indeed, an ambitious strike by Lubambo Musonda zoomed deflected off a defender, zoomed inches past the reach of the Nishikawa and sank in under the crossbar, to the horrors of everybody on Japan's side of the stadium. That this took place in the final minute of normal time meant that the mood among the two sets of fans completely flipped in that instant. But of course, this being soccer, there was still plenty of time left for one last twist in the tale during extra time.

In fact, the final act took place while most of the crowd was still processing the lingering effects of the previous one. Only a few seconds had passed following the restart before Toshihiro Aoyama sent an inch-perfect pass from well behind the halfway line to Yoshito Okubo. The forward man, perhaps the most surprising addition to our World Cup squad, produced an immaculate first touch to control the ball, before hammering in the go-ahead goal with his left foot. It was a moment that nobody saw coming, least of all anyone on our corner of the stadium, most of whom had to make sure the players (and the fans closer to the play) were celebrating the goal before erupting in joy ourselves.


The referee brought the match to an end only a few minutes later, and the boys in blue registered its second victory in Tampa. The game itself was a proverbial roller coaster, and its outcome not decidedly until the dying minutes. But those of us in the stands, the team's performance was secondary to the result, and even to watching see our World Cup squad in the flesh. These are the men who will be representing us on the grandest stage in sports.

It's difficult to say whether these friendlies were a preview of things to come in Brazil. It's even more challenging to predict how Japan would perform in the tournament based on what we saw in Tampa. Perhaps Japan won't take home the Jules Rimet trophy playing the way they did during those two nights. If nothing else, their games will make for a wildly entertaining viewing over the next several weeks.

Mar 8, 2014

Dwightman Cometh: Dispatch from the Magic-Rockets game

I had the privilege of attending Wednesday night's Magic-Rockets game, courtesy of Juan, who got a pair of tickets only ten rows up from the court. I had been to all of two games the entire season -- the opener against New Orleans, and the Kyrie Irving show about a month later -- and saw this as a perfect opportunity to make it three.

We actually took in the same matchup at the same venue the previous year, as I personally didn't want to miss out on the rare opportunity to watch Jeremy Lin play in the flesh. Last year's Houston squad also had the lure of Chandler Parsons, who made his name at Lake Howell, then at Florida; plus James Harden, who arrived via a sign-and-trade in the summer, and was already looking like a top-tier player. The Rockets, as expected, won that night, and went onto have a solid season which culminated in a playoff appearance. By all accounts, they were another big name away from becoming a legitimate title contender.

They wound up getting their man in the offseason. On Wednesday night, that player would be the sole focus of almost everyone inside the confines of the Amway Center.


* * * * *
Mention the name Dwight Howard to Orlando Magic fans -- they still exist, believe it or not -- and the chances are, they'll drop at least one F-bomb before they finish the first sentence of their response. A year and a half has passed since the trade that sent him to the Lakers, but the wounds here are almost as fresh as they were when the deal was first announced. Only a handful of souls in town have found it in their heart to forgive him for exiting stage left, especially in the manner that he did.

Otherwise, the resentment for the would-be Superman still runs rampant among the Magic faithful. This is hardly a surprise; in many ways, the franchise has been defined by the acrimonious departures of their best ever players, and its fanbase by the deep grudges they hold against their former idols. Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady rarely received positive receptions during their returns to Orlando. Ditto Grant Hill, after he left for Phoenix following an injury-ravaged spell with the Magic.

To this day, fans, sportswriters, and radio talk show hosts rail against Shaquille O'Neal, who played a huge role in putting Central Florida on the basketball map in the first place. Nearly a full generation since his own move to LA, his departure still stings with a surprising degree of intensity among a sizable element of the Magic's supporters.

Howard's first game back at the Amway Center might have been the most anticipated civic event of the 2013 calendar year in Orlando. The build-up to the opening tip featured precious little humor to be had at his expense; it immediately turned into a very thinly-veiled hate fest. Boos and jeers began pouring down like a late-afternoon sun shower from the moment he was introduced as a starter, and continued with his every touch of the ball. The sold-out crowd kept the onslaught coming, hoping that the sheer noise and hatred alone would drive him completely off his game.

Dwight also happened to dismantle the Magic that night. He ended up producing his best performance as a Laker, scoring a season-high 39 points, and ultimately getting the last laugh as his team walked away with the victory. That represented the high point of his lone season on the West Coast; by July, he was on his way to Houston to team up with the budding young stars on the Rockets squad.

* * * * *
Which brings us to Wednesday's clash. The hype machine had once again billed Howard's return as one of the most important dates on the city's calendar. The hate fest, while not as persistent or virulent as last year's, was still enough to compel the more hardcore fans to tear off their bandages and rip open the wounds caused by Dwight's flight. As with last year's showdown, the crowd was baying for blood, with the performance of their own team being relegated to secondary status. As with last year's showdown, the torrent of boos and abuse came hailing down on Number 12.

Yet, from my vantage point not far behind the sideline, there were any number of differences from last season's return game. Some were plainly obvious, such as the fact that Howard had changed teams. He was also allowed to do something, anything, with the ball during last night's game, whereas he was hacked and prodded and needled on his way to 39 free throw attempts the previous year.

The most noticeable changes weren't actually on the court; rather, they were more about what was happening in the stands. For one, for as hotly as the game was promoted by anyone in Central Florida with a microphone, it didn't exactly translate into a busy night at the box office. Juan and I walked into the interior of the arena shortly before the intros; the first thing I noticed was the vast swathes of empty seats.

I was taken aback by the sight. It was always a given that the attendance at Magic games would suffer, in the midst of a second straight lost season for them. Still, considering that they were playing hosts to one of the premier teams in the league, which just happened to have public enemy number one among Orlandoans on its roster, I was expecting to see every seat in the building being filled (the announced attendance was actually lower than what it was for the same matchup the previous year).


For another thing, the Magic had been running a silver anniversary campaign all season, celebrating the finest moments in the franchise's history. One of its defining features has been the airing of a brief highlight video for visiting players who had previously played for the team; there was one for Earl Clark at the Cavs game I attended, for example.

The news that the Magic would run a similar video for Dwight at the game was met with considerable consternation in Orlando. Some fans even wondered why they would even do so much as recognize him in the first place, much less honor him with a highlight reel. The franchise itself may have forgiven the old number 12 for his sins; obviously, it was a totally different story for those who used to wear his jerseys and cheer him on.

Juan and I spent the entire first quarter wondering when that video would be shown. Finally, as the teams huddled before the start of the second stanza, the montage flickered onto the big screen over our heads. To the surprise of absolutely nobody in the NBA universe, the crowd immediately began voicing their displeasure. While the boos weren't quite as loud as they were whenever Dwight touched the ball, they were audible enough to be commented on by any observer in the stands.

Being a contrarian (and a wind-up merchant) that I am, I took a totally opposite approach. As soon as the first dunk flashed onto the screen, I stood up and applauded Dwight. As far as I could see, I was literally the only person within the 50-feet radius who gave him a standing ovation; there were far more people staring at me instead, no doubt wondering why this random guy in their section was showing love to a player who was the basketball equivalent of Brutus to them. One of them was a kid who, funnily enough, was wearing a #12 jersey with the name "Howard" on the back.

A standing ovation, a simple gesture for a man who played a vital role in reviving -- and some would even say saving -- professional basketball in Central Florida, had become tantamount to trolling for those in attendance. It was as clear a sign as any that Magic fans, at least those who were in the building, were still years away from finding peace with Howard's ultimate exit from Orlando... assuming, of course, that they actually would.

* * * * *
By far the loudest cheers of the night came in the middle of the fourth quarter, when the Magic were making a late effort to claw back into game, and found themselves down by only three. Dwight set himself on the right hand side, directly in front of us, with the Magic's Kyle O'Quinn guarding him. Howard rose up for a hook shot; O'Quinn, timing his own jump to perfection, swatted his attempt from whence it came.

This sent the crowd into a frenzy. They could already sense the momentum swinging towards the home team; witnessing a monster block, on their arch-nemesis's shot, no less, led to them discovering an extra octave in their voice that hadn't been present before. In the bigger picture, it gave them an extra bit of hope that the Magic could finally serve Howard a piece of the proverbial humble pie that he so richly deserved.

Of course, there would be no storybook ending for those wearing blue and white. A cold-blooded jumper by Harden on the ensuing possession propelled the Rockets into their own late run, allowing them to build a lead that they would never relinquish. Half the stands were deserted by the final media timeout, with the outcome having been decided at that point.

Both teams emptied their benches out shortly before the final buzzer. The villain of the piece trudged slowly off the court, looking like a warrior who had found conquest after an arduous battle.

The Rockets eventually won the game by the score of 101-89. From a pure basketball standpoint, it was a reflection of the state of both teams -- one trying to launch itself into the realm of the elite teams in the NBA, the other simply trying to conjure up the next savior that would lead it back to relevance.

From a more personal, emotional standpoint, it was the confirmation of a reality that most Magic fans were scarcely willing to accept: Dwight Howard would once again get the last laugh in a city he deserted two years ago. The jilted basketball lovers he left behind in this corner of Florida would have to wait another year to try and find revenge.

Jan 11, 2014

The true meaning of FSU's championship moment

 

I attended Florida State University from 2005 to 2007, well after the heyday of its football team under Bobby Bowden had passed. The Seminoles won the ACC during my freshman year, and the expectations were high again the following year. That season, however, ended up being an unbridled disaster by FSU standards; a 7-6 record, five losses by a touchdown or less, and one catastrophic failure against Wake Forest at home.

I was at that game against Wake Forest, having gotten the student tickets with my friends (and roommates) just days before. We had pitched a shutout at home against Virginia during the previous weekend; while that was unlikely against a surprising Deacons team, my friends and I figured we'd be treated to a good, competitive showdown at the Doak.

Man, were we wrong.

The calls for Jeff Bowden's firing began immediately after the first three-and-out. Wake Forest took the lead up a field goal, then added another... then scored a touchdown... and another. The not-so fearsome quarterback tandem of Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee produced a comedy of errors behind center, eventually combining for four picks. Most of the student section gave up the ghost by halftime, deserting the stands by the thousands before the marching band took to the field.

My group of friends decided to stick around for another quarter -- to this day, we don't know exactly why -- but even we had seen enough by the end of the third. The team fared no better after we left, in spite of the game having long been decided as a contest.

The final score: Wake Forest 30-0 Florida State. We were shut out at home for the first time during the Bobby Bowden era. The heads began rolling as soon as the clock hit all zeros: Jeff Bowden was relieved of his duties approximately 20 seconds after the game, much to the relief of every FSU fan worldwide.

When I went back to class the following Monday, there was a pall hanging over the entire campus. What was normally a hornet's nest of sound and activity had been reduced to an area full of sullen, desolate faces. I can't recall what the weather was like that day, but after that heavy defeat, the local forecast may as well called for a perpetual rainstorm.

* * *
Those of us who attended Florida State at any point during that timeframe -- circa 2005 to 2011 -- had occupied a strange place in the FSU football fandom: fully aware of the program's glorious past, but accustomed to witnessing unrelenting mediocrity and heartbreak. Our mindset was a strange mix of cautious optimism and unwavering trepidation. The phrase "hope for the best, brace for the worst" wasn't so much a cliche, as it was a reality of our existence as Noles fans.

I saw this firsthand during the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, which pitted the Seminoles against Notre Dame. I sat in the top row of the upper deck on the FSU side of the Citrus Bowl, and was able to observe both sets of fans from my vantage point. When the Domers went up 14-0 early in the second quarter, I could hear a pin make its way down to the concrete, much less make contact with the floor. There was a palpable sense of dread along the entire sideline. Every FSU backer, it seemed, was bracing for impact, if only in a figurative sense.

Fortunately, we mounted a comeback, and sealed a gritty 18-14 victory. Both programs were expected to make huge strides next year, and possibly even contend for a national title. One team did indeed make it to the BCS Championship Game... but it wasn't the Seminoles. A calamitous late loss against Mike Glennon and his underdog NC State team put to paid our title hopes, while Notre Dame led a very charmed life the entire season, until they ran into a juggernaut Alabama team in Miami.

 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, viewed from my seat

For all of our unfulfilled promises stretching back over a decade, the expectations before the 2013 season were no different than in years past: national championship or bust. The painful lessons learned during the early days of Jimbo Fisher's reign would finally sink in. The hopes and dreams were certainly there in abundance; but could the team finally deliver on them?

The showdown in the hostile environment of Clemson, SC would provide some much-needed answers to that question. Jameis Winston, who had gone from an urban legend to a one-man hype machine in about a month, would be facing his first test against a formidable foe. Admittedly, I was nearly pissing my pants in the build-up to this game. I made the conscious decision to watch the game alone, as I feared the possibility of seeing Tigers fans do so much as flashing a s**t-eating grin.

Then the Seminoles systematically destroyed Clemson on their own turf.

That was the moment when I started to genuinely believe. That was when I realized this squad could be a transformative, existence-altering one for FSU football. That was the moment when I realized this team was...... different.

* * *
As easy as this is to say after the fact, I never doubted the Seminoles' ability to emerge victorious this past Monday in Pasadena.

This was a team that had proven to be a very dominant bunch, obliterating every team that stood in their way. They had made mince meat out of every big rival we faced: Clemson, then Miami, then Florida. Most importantly, we had a Heisman-winning quarterback who somehow managed to improve every week, even as he was facing the possibility of having his entire productive life come to an abrupt end.

My belief in my team was at an all-time high. Even as the game gradually got away from the Noles in the first half, I believed this team had enough confidence and quality to turn it into a proper contest after halftime. Even a back-breaking touchdown by Tre Mason couldn't completely obliterate my confidence, as it left enough time on the clock for one last miracle drive from our redshirt talisman.

The entire 80-yard march took a little more than a minute on the game clock; the breaks in play made that minute feel like an hour. The referees waited for what may as well have been an eternity after Kelvin Benjamin caught a short pass from Winston in the Auburn endzone... but they were always going to signal for a touchdown. It almost appeared pre-ordained, from the moment we were introduced to Jameis Winston, the precocious quarterback, during the build-up to the 2013 season.

I didn't get into college football until I actually got accepted into one, so I never got to see the Bobby Bowden-led FSU teams that played at an elite level for almost 15 years. They were desperately trying to live up to those lofty standards when I first stepped foot in Tallahassee. They never quite managed to accomplish that while I was there, and the disappointments of those years left the entire fanbase all the more beholden to the past.

And that is why seeing Fisher, Winston, and everybody on the FSU roster celebrate becoming national champions means so much to those who were there during our darkest seasons. It has a special place in the hearts of those laid witness to some heartbreaking losses, home and away. It resonates that much more to those of us who were in the stands for that Wake Forest game, when our illusions were shattered, and our conscience torched.

We've seen Florida State football at some of its lowest points. That's what makes our climb back to the mountaintop so magical.