Introductions and Discoveries by fixthefernback
October 23, 2011, 12:00 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Jonny Shenk

Two weeks ago, I had a phone conversation with my brother Andy. Amidst discussion of his newly married life and my adventures studying abroad in New Zealand, Andy informed me of a plan which was beginning to take shape in his mind. The plan? To create a collaborative outlet for creative ruminations, pulling together the multifaceted interests of small community of friends united by a common love of sports. I was invited to join in this venture, and I readily agreed. The assets which I bring to this project, as Andy assessed them, are the following. 1) I know how to write well enough that I won’t completely embarrass him (well, he didn’t actually say this, but it seemed implicit). 2) Andy’s burgeoning love for the NBA has left him slightly ignorant in the ways of college basketball (or at least, ignorant in the ways of college basketball teams not named the Xavier Musketeers). However, my passion for college basketball is unwavering, and by joining forces we can keep every aspect of the game of basketball on lock down. 3) As a Mass Media major and a lover of the visual and auditory mediums, I bring relative expertise in the matters of popular cultural to the venture. 4) Andy suggested that due to my current location of residence, I might also bring some perspective on New Zealand sport, particularly the Rugby World Cup to the table. And I certainly mean to do so. But first, I feel that a bit of a more formal introduction is in order.

I think that there are two words that go along way in describing me. These words pretty well encapsulate my attitude toward sports, as well as my attitude toward life in general. The words? Creativity and emotion.

Creativity) As a youth (up until my middle school years) I would play games of 5 on 5 basketball by myself. Initially, the games were simple All-Star games, featuring my favorite players from the Eastern and Western Conferences. I kept detailed statistics, and I’m sure that I still have game results recorded in some lost folder in a musty basement or storage unit, but in lieu of such documentation, here is a hypothetical lineup card from a match-up played during my 3rd grade year:

East                                      West
PG Muggsy Bogues        PG Damon Stoudamire
SG Allen Iverson            SG Avery Johnson
SF Vince Carter               SF Rasheed Wallace
PF Larry Johnson          PF Brian Grant
C Dikembe Mutumbo    C David Robinson

I would play these games out, using our neighbors’ basket, shifting from character to character, blocking my own shots, stealing the ball from myself, muscling myself out of the way for the rebound, and draining shots with my hand in my face (and providing live commentary along the way, of course). The great thing about these games was that they were completely fair. I never knew what would happen. I tried to spread the ball, but some players would inevitably play better than others.

In the next few years these games gradually got more complex. Now I was playing 8 team play-offs, with players drawn in from whatever source I found appropriate. Here is one of my favorite match-ups from those days.

Fellowship                 Superfriends
PG Frodo                    PG The Flash
SG Gimli                      SG Green Lantern
SF Legolas                  SF Batman
PF Aragorn                PF Superman
C Gandalf                     C The Huge Indian Guy

A much superior version of fantasy basketball, if you ask me.

This creativity is expressed in different ways now. I’ve discovered that I have a particular love for good story-telling, particularly through the medium of film. There have been some random projects, but for the most part, this passion is still in the theoretical stage. In terms of sports, I have been enthralled by the efforts of writers like ESPN’s Bill Simmons to interpret sports through all sorts of creative lenses. Simmons finds story lines, connections to culture, and humor in what most would deem to be mundane sporting events. In this blog I will be doing my best to emulate the type of writing that Simmons models.

Emotion) I have cried for two sports teams in my life – The Portland Trailblazers and the Cincinnati Reds. I was a volatile little child. After one too many tantrums, Andy swore that he would never play Candyland with me again, and this is a promise that he has kept. I was also temporarily banned from the high intensity card game, Oh Heck, after initiating a few too many spontaneous games of 52 card pick-up following poor hands. To put it plainly, I threw myself with abandon, body and soul, into whatever experience I might find myself engaged in.

So, when kidney transplant-extraordinaire and San Antonio Spurs guard, Sean Elliot, drained a three from the corner late in a 1999 play-off game, sticking a dagger deep into the heart of a young Portland Trailblazers enthusiast, I first cried and second rode my bike down a hill and into a lake. I wouldn’t say that I was trying to commit suicide, but in the moment I definitely wondered whether life was worth living any more. I managed to live on until the fall of that year, only to once again be thrown into the anguish by my beloved Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were coming off one of their best years in recent history, having won nearly 100 games, yet for some reason they found themselves in a one game playoff with the dastardly New York Mets and pitcher Al Leiter, with the postseason on the line. I got to watch this game at my grandparents’ house, and I was thrilled by the prospect of seeing my favorite team punch their first playoff ticket in my life as a fan (they had punched in 1995, but I was 4 years old and had other concerns on my mind – like jumping in leaf piles and falling down the stairs three times). But for whatever reason, the Reds could muster nothing against Leiter and with every out, I saw the dream slipping away. The Reds lost 5-0, and I cried bitter tears.

I haven’t cried about sports since that day, but I have lived through a lot of suffering. The Los Angeles Lakers, Ohio State Buckeyes and Philadelphia Phillies among other teams, have done their best to bring me down. But after you’ve lived through this (skip to about 2:30), and come out on the other side, you start to develop a type of strength. I do think that learning how to deal with pain in the sports world is hugely important to developing emotional maturity in other facets of life. If you can constructively deal with the pain of loss and failure in sports, you can deal with it in other aspects of life.

But my emotional growth certainly does not mean that I am any less wild in my abandon for the teams that I love today than I was when I was 9. Yes, I do realize that “it’s just a game.” But within the context of this “game,” I am going to live and die. And then I’ll move on with the rest of my life. You know what annoys me? People who say “it’s not a big deal” or “I don’t care,” after their team loses – thinking that by saying this they are showing their maturity. What they should say is “this is the worst thing imaginable, but I’ll be all right.” I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think that sports should be the center of anyone’s life, but I also hate fair-weather fans with a passion. I like to think that I have achieved the perfect balance as a sports fan.

So, now that you know a little bit more about where I am coming from as a fan, it’s time to actually talk about some sports. And not just any sport. It’s time to talk about the Rugby World Cup!

I had never seen a game of rugby before arriving in New Zealand two short months ago. All that I knew about rugby was that JRR Tolkien played it in his youth and much preferred it to soccer. That should have been enough to get me excited about the sport, but I guess that I assumed that it had essentially evolved into gridiron football and now mostly lived in memory and legend.

Then my plane touched down in the land of the All Blacks. I probably should have been tipped off that something was up by my visa, which boldly proclaimed: “New Zealand Welcomes the World: Rugby World Cup 2011.” In hindsight, I remember one of Andy’s college friend’s from New Zealand telling me that Rugby was a big deal in his home country. From my current perspective, I am embarrassed by my ignorance. How had I allowed myself to be taken in by the lie that if a sport wasn’t big in the US, it must be boring and not worth my time? Cricket, I owe you an apology as well. I hope to someday be enlightened in your ways. But not you, squash. You suck.

As the opening ceremonies of the Cup drew nearer, I began to realize just how important Rugby really was to New Zealand. (Take the following analysis with a grain of salt. It is the impression that I have gotten from things that I have read and things that I have heard people say, and I think that there is truth to it. But at the end of the day, I am an unqualified and ignorant outsider.) New Zealand is not a world power. They’re really not even a global player. Their biggest export industry is tourism. I feel like that would get kind of tiresome. There can’t be much pride in being a bed and breakfast for the rest of the world. And in general, Kiwi athletics do not bring the country any sort of renown. They might grab a couple of bronze medals at the Olympics or put up a good fight in the odd Soccer World Cup (a sport in which they are showing improvement), but when you think about New Zealand, you think about fluffy sheep and cute Kiwi birds, not dominance of any sort. Into this cultural context come the All Blacks. The country has poured everything into them and they mean everything to the country. This is New Zealand’s one chance to be the big kids on the block. If the US doesn’t win basketball gold in the Olympics, it’s embarrassing, but it’s ok because we still go dominate the world in 50 other ways if we want to. This is not the case for New Zealand. They have but one chance to prove themselves to the world – the Rugby World Cup.

New Zealand is the #1 ranked Rugby nation in the world, but they have not won a World Cup since 1987. The ’87 cup was played on New Zealand soil, and now, 24 years later, the tournament has once again returned to New Zealand. The significance of this fact has not been lost on the country. You can’t walk anywhere without seeing an All-Blacks flag flying proudly in the wind (and when I say anywhere, I am including churches). The national newspaper has two sections – the front section and “Rugby Heaven.” The city of Wellington has erected a Hollywood style sign above the bay with two simple words: “All Blacks” (to clarify, the team is called the All Blacks because they wear all black. It’s as simple as that. Nothing racial going on here. Although the national basketball team is called the Tall Blacks).

The All Blacks played their opening World Cup Match against the pacific Republic of Tonga. The game started with rousing hakas from both sides. And then New Zealand proceeded dismantle their hapless opponents 41-10. At least Tonga did better than Japan, who fell by the slightly demoralizing score of 83-7. New Zealand coasted out of the group stage, their closest game being a 36-16 victory over France. Things got a little dicier as the knockout stage began. New Zealand’s star first five (closest football equivalent is kicker), Dan Carter had suffered a tournament ending groin injury, only to have his backup, the chronically nervous Colin Slade fall to a similar fate, early in the quarterfinal game against Argentina. This left all of the responsibility on the shoulders of baby-faced Piri Weepu, the man best known for leading the haka and not for kicking penalties. But like a true champion, he put the team on his shoulders, converting 7 out of 8 kicks and leading the team to a 33-10 victory.

New Zealand’s next test was bitter rival Australia in the semifinal. New Zealand had lost to the Aussies in a pre-World Cup exhibition and tensions were high. But the All Blacks came out with passion, controlling the pace of the game from the outset. Rugby is a beautiful sport to watch. No pads, no stoppage of play – just non-stop hard hitting action. Why it hasn’t succeeded in the US, I don’t know, but I do have a theory. With no stoppage of play, rugby is an advertising nightmare. The only time that advertisers have is the 15 minutes between halves, and I could easily see advertising agencies working hard to keep such a profit killer off the air in the US. It’s a theory. Is that why soccer has struggled to find success in the US? Possibly.

In the end, New Zealand handled the Wallabies, winning the game by an impressive score of 20 to 6. Now we come to the final and an old rival, the French. Who knocked the All Blacks out of the tournament 4 years ago? The French. Who dealt them a heartbreaking defeat in the 1999 semifinal? The French. Which nationality is universally despised for their petty ways and backhanded tactics? The French. France has crawled to the Finals, inching past one opponent after another, after coming in second in New Zealand’s pool. No one gives them a chance against the mighty All Blacks. But they’ve pulled off the upset before, and who’s to say that they couldn’t do it again. This is what the French feel like in anticipation of this big game. It’s happening tonight. Don’t you wish that you were watching the Rugby World Cup?


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