Categories
Living NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Swish!

We love how Brooklyn has embraced the Nets, their first big-league team in more than 50 years, and a game at Barclays is an event. The Nets have been amazing in 2014, 15-6 as we go to press. This puts them second in the Atlantic Division and definitely in playoff contention. They’ve also given fans some big excitement, beating two top teams this year, the Thunder and the Heat (in a double overtime thriller). Although we miss Brook Lopez, out for the season with a foot injury, it’s fun to see Kevin Garnett (team leader in rebounds), Deron Williams (leading team in assists), and Paul Pierce (most steals) pounding the boards. The Bulls have never recaptured the Michael Jordan glory years, but this year they’re over .500 and in line for a playoff berth. Plus, there’s a revenge factor here: The Nets have lost to the Bulls in their two previous meetings this year, so look for them to be in high gear.

Mon., March 3, 7:30 p.m., 2014

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events FILM ARCHIVES Listings Living NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Linsanity Keeps Its Cardboard Hero Two-Dimensional

What’s important to Jeremy Lin? He’ll tell you. In fact, he’ll even rank it. What are the 25-year-old NBA point guard’s favorite cartoon blankets? No. 1: The Lion King. No. 2: Garfield. No. 3: Sesame Street. What about his priorities in life? No. 1: God. No. 2: School. No. 3: Basketball.

Surprised that Lin ranks Christ above the court? You won’t be after 15 minutes of Evan Jackson Leong’s Linsanity—if you’re observant, you’ll catch on as soon as the title flashes onscreen, the “t” in Linsanity proudly transformed into a cross. Leong, the director of the upcoming documentary 1040: Christianity in the New Asia, stops short of showing us Lin crucified under a basketball net. But if Leong isn’t quite arguing that Lin is the Messiah, he at least presents the six-foot-three athlete as the NBA’s Job, framing Lin with a digital background of thunder and lightning, and tracking the trials and tribulations he endured on his path to a three-year, $25 million contract with the Houston Rockets.

Success came hard. It wasn’t for lack of talent—Lin was always good at basketball—and it wasn’t for lack of support by his Taiwanese immigrant parents. His mother, Shirley, cheered at every game and his father, Gie-Ming, rhapsodizes in his native tongue about the sky-hook of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They only allowed television during the NBA playoffs. During commercial breaks, eight-year-old Jeremy would sprint outside with his two brothers to mimic the stars’ moves. Ten years later, he’d lead his Palo Alto high school to a Division II state championship over an Orange Country private Catholic school that the documentary rather uncharitably calls “Goliath.” Yet despite proving himself the best in his youth league, and then his high school, and then the state of California, this hard-playing point guard who could dunk and shoot threes was paid no attention by the scouts. As Shirley sighs, even when Jeremy beat the top guys, crowds didn’t applaud his talent—they just downgraded his opponents.

“I know God orchestrated this whole thing,” says Lin of the tough times before his career-changing Two Weeks of Great Success with the New York Knicks. “Nothing in my life will happen that’s not according to his plan.” When Stanford, Lin’s top college pick, declined to make the hometown hero an offer for racial reasons that Leong insinuates but doesn’t investigate, God decided Jeremy should move east. “God made it very clear he wanted me to go to Harvard,” Lin says, which raises the question: How? A burning bush that talks like Matt Damon? But Leong doesn’t ask questions—he’s here to proselytize, and he sees Lin as the perfect parable of faith, humility, and sweat.

Granted, Lin isn’t an eloquent interviewee, even for a professional athlete, a breed known for speaking only in facts (“I’m just out there having fun and playing the game”) and intangibles (“That’s all I dream about is hitting the game-winner”). Here’s Jeremy on being signed to the Golden State Warriors: “I was like, ‘Aaaaah!'” Here’s Jeremy on being cut from the Golden State Warriors: “They were like, ‘We wish you the best of luck.’ I was like, ‘Thanks.'” On camera, Lin is so dully positive that his most startling quote is, “I have to learn how to control my emotions.” Even when tempted to trash-talk Kobe Bryant after trouncing the Lakers, Lin literally asks himself what Jesus would do. Jesus tells him to mumble something generic about Bryant helping pick him up when he got knocked to the floor. Yawn.

Yet despite Leong’s sanctimony, I still suspect Lin is secretly interesting. The only place he feels fully flesh and blood is on the court. When he swishes a three, he spins and swaggers, wagging his tongue like Miley Cyrus. When scored on, he resolves to score back—an eye for an eye and a dunk for a dunk. He’s a wilder, bolder, competitive creature, and openly admits it, likening game time to an out-of-body experience where “God does something supernatural.” (Ask the 13th-ranked Houston Rockets: That’s great—but can God cut down on turnovers?)

Linsanity doesn’t—and shouldn’t—hide its star’s religious beliefs. But the doc should have the courage to explore them. What it’s like to be the guy who sleeps with a Lion King blanket while your teammates sleep with models and pop stars? How does it feel that Tim Tebow doesn’t follow you back on Twitter? Is it hard being hoisted up as a role model when the one time you hit the clubs, after getting knocked out of the 2012 playoffs, made headlines in the New York Post?

Instead, Leong poses one big question that neither he nor Lin dares answer: Is Lin most valuable as a mascot? As the first Asian-American NBA star in a generation, he’s popularizing basketball abroad and selling jerseys at home. And if he is a better figurehead than point guard, is that so wrong? Even Leong himself is less interested in who Lin is than what he represents. He wants—and gets—a cardboard hero. Forget the title. This straight-arrow athlete isn’t Linsane. He’s just woodenly Linspirational.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Living NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

American Milkshake: Remember the Nineties?

Nineties race comedy American Milkshake is a story of a teen whose “coming of age” moment never comes—unless you consider taking one of his girlfriends to the abortion clinic a sign of manhood. How he has two girlfriends and ends up impregnating one is all part of white Jolie’s ultimate plan to be more “black.” His desire to be on the basketball team centers on hanging with the “thugged out” Maple Avenue crew of African-American teens. Meanwhile, his great-great-grandfather was one of the most famous blackface performers of his time. Like great-great-grandfather, like great-great-grandson? Blinded by racist stereotypes, Jolie sees “gangsta” qualities where there are none to be found: For example, his teammate Arius is more preoccupied with writing computer code than aspiring to being in the NBA. In a dumb but calculated fashion, Jolie climbs the imaginary ladder to being “cool”: dating a pregnant black girl, making the varsity basketball team, dating a cheerleader he thought was Latina. All the while, he never learns what his Indian best friend, Haroon, has already realized: “‘Being yourself is cool.'” But it’s not surprising that Jolie never grows up, since not once does he have to face any real consequences for his actions. The fact that Jolie isn’t very likable would be less of a problem if this film were actually funny, but his selfish disregard for those around him only ends up making us feel bad for the people who care about him. And the only humor is more nostalgic than funny, as we see glimpses of Netscape, Super Nintendo, Timberlands, and other ’90s gadgets and trends. Though I guess Haroon insisting that the World Wide Web is the future after discovering a photo of a naked woman online could be considered comedy.

Categories
Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Cheap Beer, Affordable Tickets, Swanky Surroundings–What’s Not to Like About Minor League Baseball?

Like roughly 20 million others in the free world, Andrew Seymour was watching Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
He watched the Spurs take a five point lead with 28 seconds to go, he watched the Heat pushed to the brink of a catastrophic Finals loss, and most poignantly, and he watched Heat “supporters” (and boy, do I use that term loosely) file out of American Airlines Arena in droves, abandoning their team at its darkest hour.

With 19 seconds remaining, two free throws by Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard would ice the game, and win the title for the Spurs. Leonard eyed the bucket and released the first foul shot.

CLANK.

The ball bounced off the rim. Miami had new hope.

Unfortunately, for the fair weather Heat fans who’d decided to ditch their hometown team, they were not allowed to return to the building to see the Heat’s miracle comeback, despite practically causing a riot trying to storm the exit doors and get back in to the arena.

The Miami Heat would go on to win Game 6 and eventually the title.

But it’s at “CLANK” where this story begins.

Because at “CLANK” is when Seymour’s brain began to go into overdrive and his creative juices began to flow.

You see, Andrew Seymour is the Vice President and General Manager for the Fort Myers Miracle, the Minnesota Twins class A minor league baseball affiliate, and part of being in leadership in minor league baseball includes overseeing the never ending process to conjure up innovative promotions to get fans into the stadium.

In the world of marketing minor league baseball, where coloring outside the lines is the norm, anything within the boundaries of good taste is fair game.

Everything is content and content is everything.

Even a bunch of whimsical Heat fans who ditched their team and missed an historic comeback.

“When it comes to marketing and promotions, we always try to stay topical, have fun with topical stuff,” Seymour said. “During the NBA Finals, nothing was more topical than Heat fans leaving their team before Game 6 was over.”

And with that, “Big Three” night at the Miracle’s Hammond Stadium on Thursday, June 20, was born.

In honor of Miami’s “Big Three” (Heat-speak for the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh) and as a good hearted poke at Heat “fans,” all Miracle patrons wearing Heat gear would get into Thursday night’s game for the low, low price of $3 per ticket, under two conditions: first, they enter through the “Exit” gates, and second, they stay for the entire game, which I would imagine was not very difficult for most of them to do, what with it being “Thirsty Thursday” (half priced domestic beers!) and all.

“Big Three” night, Thirsty Thursday, Fort Myers Miracle….

Welcome to Minor League Baseball, ladies and gentlemen, where cheap beer, affordable tickets, and marketing think-tanks that are part sales team and part South Park writing staff meet at the baseball nexus of literally dozens of secondary and backwater markets around the country.

And Texas is right in the middle of it.

I
f you’ve experienced a minor league baseball game in the last 20 years, it’s hard to believe, there was a time where it was viewed and treated as a virtual throwaway by its Major League parents.

In the 1960s, minor league baseball was rotting and dying a slow death. With low attendance and a slew of rundown stadiums, it was thought its only surviving entities might be AAA teams and possibly some AA ball clubs. The thinking back then was that college baseball, much as it had for football and basketball, would become the primary feeders for major league teams.

But in the 1970s, partially out of necessity due to MLB expansion, the minors began to resuscitate. In the late 1980s, on the strength of better marketing, Darwinian instincts, and believe it or not, due in a very large part to the release of Kevin Costner blockbuster Bull Durham (a film that, cinematically, is to minor league baseball what The Godfather is to the mob), the minor leagues saw a resurgence that continues to this day.

Once seen as a dying industry, it can now count billionaires like Warren Buffett, Robert E. Rich, Jr., and Herb Simon among its owners.

Why are all of these captains of industry throwing their hats into the minor league baseball ring? Well, quite simply, it’s just good business.

Combining minor league attendance with attendance for independent league teams, 48,408,316 went through the turnstiles in 2012, up 325,486 from 2011.

Affordability and superior marketing are what brings people to the ballpark. According to the most recent statistics, the Fan Cost Index (a metric which adds up the cost of tickets, hot dogs, sodas, beer and parking for a normal family of four) for a minor league baseball game is $61.23, less than a third of Major League Baseball’s FCI of $210.46.

[

Once inside, the entertainment begins. Yes, there’s baseball. But minor league ballparks are also the happy places where Christmas can be celebrated in May, Halloween can be celebrated in July, Star Wars can be celebrated whenever, and Manti Te’o’s phony girlfriend can be the genesis for “Lennay Kekua Night,” where Stanford students received two free tickets and catfish was served at the concession stands.

Yes, that happened. Thanks, San Jose Giants.

Fans bring in the revenue, but the secret sauce in the profitability model for minor league baseball as opposed to its Major League parent is in the player, manager, and coaching costs. Put simply, for minor league teams there are none.

Whereas with MLB teams, their largest line item far and away is the cost of the on-field staff’s salaries (mostly players, but also coaches, managers, and trainers), for minor league teams, those costs are all subsidized by the parent ball club. Hell, even the cost of the bats and balls are split between the MLB club and its minor league affiliate.

It’s basically the equivalent of owning a factory and having all of the workers paid for by some invisible sugar daddy.

The other aspect of minor league baseball that makes ownership so enticing is the willingness of cities and counties to help subsidize, or in many cases fully subsidize, the cost of new stadiums to help stimulate the local economy.

It’s a phenomenon that buoyed new stadium construction in big league markets, including Houston, throughout the late ‘80s and the ‘90s: Convince municipalities that erecting a fully paid for baseball Taj Mahal will attract baseball fans, families, tourists, and the all important corporate dollars out to the park.

Watch the people spend money, watch them stimulate the economy, repeat (roughly 70 nights a year in the minors).

And it’s worked.

The new stadiums are a huge part of the draw, allowing patrons to feel like they’re getting some semblance of a Major League experience at a decidedly lower pricing point. (Truth be told, most fans are much closer to the action at a minor league game than they could ever hope to be at a big league game.)

In Frisco, the Mandalay-owned Roughriders (Texas Rangers AA affiliate) play in Dr Pepper Park (built in 2003), an award winning palace of a minor league yard with nine interconnected pavilions and a swimming pool. In Round Rock, the Ryan-Sanders owned Express (Rangers AAA affiliate) play at the Dell Diamond, where kids can play on the playscape or swim in the swimming pool.

Basically, these ballparks have become a microcosm of affluent suburbs, where having a swimming pool is merely a baseline for rating one’s level of privilege.

Round Rock President Dave Fendrick puts it best: “At a minor league game, maybe 20 percent of the fans are hardcore baseball people. The other 80 percent are there to be entertained and to enjoy a night out at a great ballpark.

“We have a great ballpark.”

“We never do anything here in Round Rock without thinking that we are representing the Ryan family.”

Talk to Round Rock Express President Dave Fendrick about the success of the Express and mention Nolan Ryan. You’ll hear an already energetic man bubble with praise and convey respect:

“Everything about this franchise is representative of the Ryans: first class, upright, ethical. In any decision, we always ask ourselves, ‘What would the Ryan Family do?’”

Texas legend Nolan Ryan and Houston businessman Don Sanders run Ryan-Sanders baseball, which owns the Express and the Corpus Christi Hooks (Houston Astros AA affiliate).

And not surprisingly, like he did as a Hall of Fame player for more than two decades, Nolan Ryan sets the example for minor league baseball owners on how this business is run.

In Forbes’ annual rankings of the top 20 most valuable minor league baseball franchises, both Ryan-Sanders franchises here in Texas make the list, with Round Rock coming in third overall at a value of $26 million (annual revenue of $14 million, operating income of $5.2 million) and Corpus Christi ranking 18th with a franchise value of $17 million (annual revenue of $9 million, operating income of $2.7 million).

In fact, Round Rock is one of only ten minor league baseball teams in the country, across all levels, to average over 8,000 fans per game.

No business succeeds without capitalizing on built in advantages, and to that end, one of the best business partners that the Express and the Hooks have is the map of the United States. Geography. Quite simply, the proximity of both ball clubs to their respective parent teams allows for a synergy where fans of the MLB ballclubs can follow their team’s future stars up close and in person at the minor league level.

[

In essence, the accommodating radius from Houston and Arlington to these affiliates allows fans of the Astros and Rangers to watch their players go from garage band to Grammy winners.

Before becoming the Rangers’ AAA affiliate, Round Rock was the AAA farm team for the Astros. When the Astros decided to move their AAA functions to Oklahoma City, Round Rock didn’t skip a beat at the turnstiles due in part to the Astros being backfilled by the equidistant Rangers.

“If it were any other Major League team besides the Rangers replacing the Astros as our parent club, it would cause a real challenge. Fans like to see the players who will eventually play for their big league club,” said Fendrick.

In addition to the marketing benefits of geographic proximity, there’s a tangible convenience factor for the parent ball club as well, particularly in the case of a AAA team like Round Rock, whose players are routinely summoned to the big league club.

“The closeness allows for our players to take a short car ride and be examined by Ranger doctors, if need be. If a player gets called up [to the Rangers] to play, they can be there in a matter of hours,” explained Fendrick. “It makes a lot of sense.”

Profit, convenience, fan friendliness, player recognition, brand awareness. All of these advantages of owning a minor league team within a short distance of the major league parent club are reasons why we’ve heard Astros owner Jim Crane extol the virtues of owning the team’s minor league affiliates.

Crane makes no secret of his affection for The Woodlands as a possible site for the Astros’ AAA affiliate once their contract with Oklahoma City expires after the 2014 season, for all the reasons Fendrick outlined in his overview of Round Rock’s business model.

Crane hired former Ryan-Sanders CEO (and Nolan’s son) Reid Ryan as the Astros’ new President and CEO back in May. This sounds like a perfect project for him, doesn’t it?

And Astro fans, because I know you’re wondering, just know that Fendrick thinks that Jim Crane hit a home run in choosing Reid Ryan as the new President of the team, “A tremendous choice. The fans could have no better advocate in the front office than Reid Ryan.”

Sold.

Ask them their philosophy or mission, and every minor league baseball executive will give you some combination involving entertainment, customer service, and value.

But unless they are with the Dayton Dragons, they can’t claim that they’ve successfully sold every seat since the inception of the franchise.

Yes, the Dayton Dragons, the single A affiliate for the nearby Cincinnati Reds, a Mandalay-owned franchise (same as the Frisco Roughriders) have sold out every single game since the franchise moved there from Rockford in 2000, breaking the professional sports record of 815 consecutive sellouts set by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Every. Single. Game.

When I spoke to Dragons Executive Vice President Eric Deutsch, “The Streak” had grown to 951 games with no sign of slowing down.

Simply put, to discuss the minor league baseball boom and not share the story of the Dayton Dragons is like being handed the box set for Season Three of The Sopranos and the DVD containing “Pine Barrens” is missing.

The Dragons are minor league baseball’s gold standard, having won the John H. Johnson President’s Trophy in 2012 for being “the complete baseball franchise – based on stability, contributions to league stability, contributions to baseball in the community and promotion of the baseball industry.”

Ask Deutsch about the foundation for the team’s success and on cue he lists his team’s five principles that guide them: affordability, quality entertainment, customer service, community, and return on investment for sponsors and ticket holders.

You get the sense in talking to Deutsch that the organization is in lockstep, that if you passed any of the 36 full-time employees of the Dragons in the hallway, they should be able to recite the guiding principles on command.

That’s how you sell out every game.

“We came out like gangbusters in the first year, but the harder part is sustaining that success, avoiding a tail-off. That’s where our relationships with sponsors, groups, the Chamber of Commerce, are all so important,” revealed Deutsch.

Minor league baseball has long been associated with zany promotions and sometimes bizarre but always entertaining in-game productions. The Dragons (and all Mandalay owned teams, for that matter) embrace that subculture. To that end, the team has a full time Director of Entertainment and a game day staff of 22 people whose mission is to execute the cumulative sideshow that takes place before games, after games, and in between innings.

[

When I brought up the long tenures of minor league baseball executives (including him) to Deutsch, he laughed and said “I love it. I’ve never had the same day twice.”

Yep, other than selling every seat to that night’s ball game. That’s been the same every day for Deutsch and the Dragons.

You can set your watch to it. In Dayton, they’ve been pitching a perfect game for more than 13 years now.


Hey Sean,
it’s Tal Smith.”
In an audio lineup of Houston voices, you’d pick out Tal Smith’s in about three seconds, so when the phone conversation with him begins you feel like you’re hearing a chapter of Houston baseball being personally read to you on an audio book.

In the history of professional baseball in this city, nobody has worn more hats, experienced more highs and lows, than Tal Smith. He was an original employee of the Colt .45’s directing their farm system, was the general manager of the Astros in the late ‘70s, and then returned to the club as president of operations under Drayton McLane in 1994, where he served in that capacity until 2011.

Today, Smith serves as a special adviser to the management team of the independent Sugar Land Skeeters.

A brief primer on what exactly being “independent” in baseball means:

With affiliated minor league baseball teams, the one aspect of the operation that nobody with the team is allowed to mess with is, ironically, the team itself. All of the on field personnel (players, coaches, manager) are employed by the major league parent, so as a result, everything from the players on the roster to the in game deployment of those players trickles down from on high.

As a result, the on field product can sometimes fall victim to a “greater good,” with the final score of the game taking a back seat to players or pitchers being used in a rehab capacity or used to get “reps” so they can get ready for the majors.
As a member of the independent Atlantic League, the Skeeters have no MLB affiliation and thus have full control over the composition of their own roster.

As you can imagine, Smith sees this as a huge advantage for the Skeeters.

“Whereas the primary emphasis in the affiliated minor leagues is on player development, here the primary emphasis is on winning the game. For older, more experienced players, and for aspiring managers, this is a superior option,” states Smith.

He points out that virtually every Atlantic League player has at least been to the AA level in the minor leagues, and about half of the players have had some taste of Major League Baseball. As a result, the Skeeters and the independent leagues have become an important avenue for MLB teams when they need a ready made, veteran hand.

That’s the big difference between the Skeeters and other minor league teams in the state. The Skeeters view themselves as an affiliate for all 30 major league teams.

And oh by the way, if the chance to sign Roger Clemens for a month or so presents itself, the have the flexibility to do that, too, as they did late last season.

Now, the similarities between the Skeeters and, say, the Express or the Hooks are readily apparent to anyone who’s spent an evening at Constellation Field, Sugar Land’s $36 million playground, complete with outfield bar, massive playground, and, yes, swimming pool.

The Skeeters’ focus on entertainment, creativity, and marketing have resulted in unprecedented attendance success, as in 2012 when they had the highest total attendance ever by a modern-day independent league team, drawing 465,511 in their first season in the Atlantic League. (In case you ever find yourself in an Atlantic League attendance trivia contest, the old record was 443,142 by Long Island in 2001. You’re welcome.)

For a baseball lifer like Smith whose original job with the Colt .45’s was running the minor league farm system, this new wave of majestic ballparks, these miniature versions of the new major league constructs of the 1990s and early 2000s, are what’s great about the game.

“When I was getting started in the late ‘50s and in the ‘60s, the facilities were flat out substandard, for players and patrons. That’s not the case any more,” Smith stated proudly, perhaps briefly recalling his instrumental role in getting voters to approve the construction of Minute Maid Park.

Of course, with the Skeeters continuing to set the pace for Atlantic League attendance and with the assumption that someday the Astros will once again be drawing 30,000 to 40,000 a night (Hey, it’s what I tell myself. What can I say?), the natural question is “Are there enough fans to sustain more baseball growth in the Houston area?”

[

Smith thinks unequivocally, yes.

“Look at all of the baseball in a high density area like the Northeast. You have New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., all the minor league teams for those clubs, and they continue to grow the game,” said Smith.

“Houston is a great baseball town. There’s room for a lot more baseball here.”

I
’m three tangents deep
in my conversation with Andrew Seymour, and I feel like I’m talking to one of my old high school buddies. He’s that engaging.

Somehow, we circle back to the reason I called him in the first place, to talk about the “Big Three” ticket promotion.

I tell him that if you Google “Fort Myers Miracle,” the first story that comes up is a Yahoo! blog post about his “Big Three” promotion, and proclaim that it must make him happy to see that.

Happy? He’s ecstatic.

“We are minor league baseball, so we don’t have a big budget for advertising. We have to be creative, and if we are creative enough we can piggy back publicity like this. There’s nothing better than coming up with that idea that hooks people in. That makes them smile, makes them chuckle.”

As it turns out, Twins bonus baby Byron Buxton, the second overall pick of the 2012 MLB Draft, is making his Fort Myers home debut Saturday, and I want to ask Seymour about that.

But before I can get the words out, Seymour jumps in and tells me, “You know this Saturday we are having Craig Sager Bobblehead Night? How great is that? We have two versions of the bobblehead with two different ridiculously colored sport coats, and Sager is actually going to fly in and sign autographs! How good is that?”

“That’s incredible!” I said, my Byron Buxton question completely forgotten, and my brain racing to find a way to ask for a Craig Sager bobblehead doll of my own without sounding desperate.

“Yeah,” Seymour smiled. “I tell my people, this is our time. This is our time in sports.”

Craig Sager Bobblehead Night at Byron Buxton’s home debut on a balmy Saturday night in Fort Myers, Florida.

This is your time, Andrew.

sean.pendergast@gmail.com

Categories
Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Pride Issue: High Schools, Colleges Lag Behind the Pros in Fighting Homophobia

When NBA free agent Jason Collins came out, it made headlines. Soccer’s Robbie Rogers, recently signed with L.A. Galaxy, broke the final barrier: an out gay male playing for a major U.S. pro team. Women’s sports have long been more accepting, so much so that when No. 1 WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner came out, the media hardly noticed. As co-editor of Outsports.com, I receive a constant flood of inquiries from the public and sportswriters asking if this means we’ve finally won the long battle for full acceptance.

Not even close. What the sea change in the pros has done is highlight how far high school and college sports teams lag behind. I keep hearing of another outed coach being dismissed or another student harassed into quitting.

According to a study released earlier this year by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, over half of LGBT high school students reported being harassed in gym class based on their sexual orientation. Over a quarter of varsity athletes faced such harassment.

Take North Dakota State College of Science football player Jamie Kuntz, thrown off the squad for kissing his boyfriend at a game. Even at a supposedly enlightened elite school like Yale, Stefan Palios, an out varsity shot put and discus thrower, recalls a teammate telling him to stay out of a conversation because “the men are talking.”

Pro athletes’ trash talk may still occasionally include insults like “faggot,” but Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin’s experience is typical. He once told me gay slurs were common in school, but he heard none during his 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Partly, it’s a matter of sheer numbers. Major league soccer, baseball, football, men’s and women’s basketball, and hockey together represent only 6,000 active athletes, whereas 400,000 athletes play in the NCAA, and 7.5 million on the high school level.

As usual, when homophobia rears its ugly head, religion is often the justification. Earlier this year, a Catholic high school principal in Columbus, Ohio, fired coach and physical education instructor Carla Hale after an outraged parent spotted a reference to Hale’s female partner in her mother’s paid newspaper obituary. After Belmont University soccer coach Lisa Howe announced she was having a baby with her female partner, the nondenominational Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, fired her as well.

In many cases, it’s the coaches themselves who are the problem. As Woody Allen said, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym”—often badly. Too many coaches are bigoted, insensitive former star athletes reliving their glory days. That nostalgia extends to the taunting of their own beloved coaches. “The culture from the past many of them bring is really toxic,” says Pat Griffin, a former coach turned sports activist. Coaching at many schools is a part-time activity. “Most schools are thrilled to have a warm body,” Griffin says. “So they end up with people who may or may not know the sport they’re coaching—or the laws they’re responsible for.”

Colleges are even worse. Rutgers fired its male basketball coach after a video of him using homophobic taunts on players went viral, only to recruit another bullying varsity coach to head its tarnished athletics program. What happened at Penn State only proved that universities only care about abusive coaches if anyone finds out about it. Or not: Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland was able to continue in her job after it became known that she refused to allow out lesbian players on the team.

The media frenzy surrounding Collins’s coming out provided Robert McGarry with a teachable moment. For McGarry, who heads GLSEN’s sports initiative, Changing the Game, “The greater impact is for coaches to realize there are LGBT athletes on their teams, and talented ones. It’s a wake-up call for coaches that they have to be working toward issues of inclusion and respect.”

Out gay coaches could help show the way—if they weren’t so afraid of losing their jobs. Way too many parents, school boards, and administrators still fear blowback from the stereotype of the predatory coach, a staple of dramas like Personal Best, the 1982 movie in which a lesbian coach seduces a track star and fumes when she drops her for a guy, and sometimes in real life by scumbags like Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky.

One closeted coach in a suburban New York high school used Collins’s coming out as an opportunity for his players to express their own reactions to the idea of an out gay teammate. Two of them readily admitted their discomfort with sharing a locker room, which only reinforced the fear for this coach (who asked to remain anonymous). The problem, he notes, begins at home. “These kids aren’t ready to think on their own yet,” he tells me. “If they’re in a home that isn’t accepting, most kids will go with what they’re told.”

A handful of organizations like GO! Athletes, You Belong, and Changing the Game have been educating coaches to change the culture on the high school level. But private organizations with limited funds can only do so much. In severely underfunded public schools, such training is not just a low priority—it’s a nonstarter. Griffin believes that it’s beyond time for the pro teams, which all have community service wings, to add their star power to the effort. The NBA has taken the first step by agreeing to provide clinicians, athletes, and jersey giveaways to You Belong Initiative’s first LGBT youth basketball camp, to be held in Chicago next month.

Pro sports have long defined the essence of masculinity in American culture. The super-macho players have epitomized what it is to be a “real man.” Now they’re leading the way in a redefinition of sports that doesn’t bash gays, but welcomes them. But with the pro leagues openly accepting LGBT players, isn’t it time that our educational institutions realize the key role they’ve been playing in fostering homophobia? Until they make genuine inclusion a top priority, they’ll continue to teach jocks that, when it comes to sports, gay is definitely not OK. ❤

Categories
Living NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

SHOOTING STARS

Many athletes support charitable causes with their multimillion-dollar salaries, but not many have made as great an impact as two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash of the Los Angeles Lakers, whose work with underserved children has earned him honors such as being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. Today, the Nash Foundation sponsors the annual NYC Showdown, an eight-a-side rock ’em, sock ’em match featuring NBA and professional soccer players. All of the proceeds benefit Educare, the Steve Nash Foundation’s platform to provide quality early learning opportunities to low-income children and families. Bleacher seating is free. After the game there will be a ticketed cocktail party and auction.

Wed., June 26, 6:30 p.m., 2013

Categories
FOOD ARCHIVES Living Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

A Taste of Our Favorite 100 Dishes

In a few short months, we’ll publish our Best of NYC™ issue, our annual love letter to what’s great in this town. In anticipation of unveiling dozens of our favorite restaurants, dishes, and drinks, we’re counting down, in no particular order, our 100 favorite dishes from around the boroughs on the Village Voice Fork in the Road blog. Here, a taste of what we’ve showcased.

Carnitas
Taqueria
Lower East Side
198 Orchard Street

Movie posters, Lakers paraphernalia, and Mexican kitsch dominate every square inch of wall space in this hallway-size Los Angeles–style taqueria on Orchard Street where the noise from the crowd can escalate into a brain-thumping din. Take the edge off with a margarita, and then ask for the carnitas, which make the room fade away entirely. A carnitas taco comes piled liberally with hot, peppery pig that’s been slow-cooked into tender strands and crisped around the edges. Each bite renders a cascade of velvety pork juice, which blends with tart lime, piquant onions, and fresh cilantro in a soft corn tortilla. For more pork, opt for the tostada, which supplements the carnitas with ripe avocado, salty queso fresco, a drizzle of crema, and a pile of lettuce on a crunchy flat corn shell.

Steamed Mussels
Tartine
253 West 11th Street 

Tartine has always offered a menu of simple French fare, and the list looks particularly plain now amid the faux-comfort food that graces more stylish tables. But in addition to a worthy renditions of steak au poivre and a French onion soup, this restaurant offers a nearly platonic version of steamed mussels, served fat, taut, and pinkish-orange in their shiny black shells, bobbing in a light but complex broth that’s inflated by onion, lightly redolent of the sea, and so imbued with garlic it’s almost tart (you’ll definitely want to share with your date if you plan on mouth-to-mouth contact later in the night). The dish comes with a bucket of addictively crispy, pencil-thin fries that get even better after a soak.

Clay Pot Catfish
Falansai
112 Harrison Place
Brooklyn

Falansai owner Henry Trieu did time in the kitchen at San Francisco’s Slanted Door, a restaurant that went a long way in putting Vietnamese cuisine on the map in this country. He draws from that experience and his own heritage—his Chinese father lived in Vietnam for several years—for the menu at his Bushwick restaurant, which forgoes pho to showcase other areas of the culinary canon. One standout is the clay pot catfish, so named for the vessel in which it’s cooked. A lifted lid unveils supple hunks of white fish swimming in a surprisingly delicate broth redolent of caramel and layered softly with subtle pepper. Topped with a couple fresh scallion shoots, the stew is best ladled over a mound of steamed rice.

Cookie Monster Ice Cream
Malu
12-09 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City

Malu, a small parlor tucked into a space next to a Long Island City convenience store just a short 7 train ride away, turns out dozens of worthy flavors of ice cream—some of which are customer suggestions—that range from classic vanilla to baklava to blueberry honey graham cracker. We’re most partial to the Cookie Monster: Powdery chocolate wafers and crunchy chocolate chip cookies are crushed into an ethereally creamy base that’s ribboned with soft hot fudge and studded with more chocolate chips. You’re going to want at least a double.

Hungry for more? We post a new dish daily at villagevoice.com/forkintheroad

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events Listings Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

SLAM DUNK

The latest edition of this longtime rivalry should be interesting, as both teams have something to play for. The Knicks, number two in the Eastern Conference all season, are trying to overcome the Heat for the number one spot, while the Sixers have to step it up a notch to make the playoffs. Both teams have been plagued by injuries, especially Philadelphia, whose crown jewel of last summer’s blockbuster trade, All-Star center Andrew Bynum, has yet to hit the boards for them. Look for some high scoring fireworks—the 76ers are seventh in the league in points allowed, while the Knicks are 8th.

Sun., Feb. 24, 7 p.m., 2013

Categories
Living Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

BEST OF NYC™ Readers’ Poll

The winners of our Readers’ Choice poll:

Shopping and Services

Best Antiques:
Goodwill

Best Bikini Waxer:
Shape NYC

Best Bookstore:
Barnes & Noble

Best Used Bookstore:
The Strand

Best Comic Book Store:
Bergen Street Comics

Best Furniture Store:
Ikea

Best Gift Shop:
Exit9 Gift Emporium

Best Hair Salon:
Siren Hair Salon

Best Jewelry Store:
In God We Trust

Best Lingerie:
La Petite Coquette

Best Shoe Store:
Tip Top Shoes

Best Skateboard Shop:
Skate Brooklyn

Best Spa:
D’Mai Urban Spa

Best T-Shirts:
Sport Prospect

Best Tattoo Parlor:
Goose Tattoo

Best Toy Store:
Kidding Around

Best Vinyl Record Store:
Academy Records

Arts and Entertainment

Best Broadway Theater:
St. James Theater

Best Comedy Club:
Upright Citizens Brigade

Best Free Concert Series:
River to River Festival

Best Guitarist:
Annie Clark

Best Jukebox:
Cain’s Tavern

Best Karaoke:
Karaoke Duet 35

Best Live Music Venue:
Music Hall of Williamsburg

Best Movie Theater:
Nitehawk Cinema

Best Museum:
The Museum of Modern Art

Best New Art Gallery:
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Best Off-Broadway Theater:
Cherry Lane Theatre

Best Rock Bar:
Saint Vitus

Best Strip Club:
Flashdancers

Best Theater Actor:
Mark Rylance

Best Theater Actress:
Cherry Jones

Sports and Recreation

Best Basketball Court:
West 4th Street Courts

Best Bike Shop:
Ride Brooklyn

Best Brooklyn Net:
Chris Humphries

Best New York Giant:
Victor Cruz

Best Gym:
New York Health and Racquet Club

Best Horse Track:
Belmont Park

Best New York Jet:
Mark Sanchez

Best New York Knick:
Carmelo Anthony

Best New York Met:
David Wright

Best New York Yankee:
Derek Jeter

Best Team Owner:
Mara Family

Best Tennis Courts:
Central Park

Food

Best Burger: Shake Shack
Best Cheap Meal: Vanessa’s Dumpling House

Best Cupcake: Cupcake Café
Best Dumplings: Vanessa’s Dumpling House

Best Falafel: Taim

Best Fast Food: Shake Shack

Best Fish: Mary’s Fish Camp

Best Fried Chicken: Popeyes

Best Fries: Pommes Frites

Best Healthy Meal: Capizzi Pizzeria

Best Hot Dog: Papaya King

Best Ice Cream: Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

Best Italian Restaurant: La Bella

Best Noodles: Xi’an Famous Foods

Best Off-the-Wall Meal: Peter Luger Steakhouse

Best Pizza: Capizzi Pizzeria

Best Salad: Chop’t Creative Salad Company

Best Sandwich: Katz’s Delicatessen

Best Small Plates: The Vanderbilt

Best Soup: El Malecon Restaurant II

Best Spicy Food: Brick Lane Curry House

Best Sushi: Sushi Samba 7

Best Taco: Brooklyn Taco Co.

Best Unhealthy Meal: Katz’s Delicatessen

Best Wrap: Saladworks

Drink

Best Beer Garden:
Bohemia Hall and Beer Garden

Best Beer List:
Radegast Hall and Biergarten

Best Bloody Mary:
Blarney Castle

Best Dive Bar:
Freddy’s

Best Happy Hour:
San Loco

Best Hookah Bar:
Karma Bar and Lounge

Best Margarita:
Rosa Mexicano

Best Martini:
Dutch Kills Bar

Best New Bar:
Arena Lounge

Best Sports Bar:
Blondies Sports

Best Triva Bar:
Tippin Inn

Best Wine List:
Il Fornetto

Categories
Living NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

SLAM DUNK

This is already being called the East River Rivalry and for good reason. When the Nets were in New Jersey, it just wasn’t the same as competing with another NYC team, plus the Knicks and Nets have never had a good team in the same season. Now with Deron Williams, Kris Humphries, and Brook Lopez hitting the hardwood for Brooklyn and the Knicks lead by Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler, we can expect the barbs to fly and the scoreboard to light up. This is actually the second preseason clash of New York’s roundball franchises (the first was at Nassau Coliseum on October 24), but this is the marquee—the last preseason game before the regular season, and it’s in NYC! Also, keep in mind that regular season tickets will be really hard to get and might require a bank loan to finance, so go for this one.

Thu., Nov. 1, 7 p.m., 2012