Seasonal Sports News: For What It's Worth


The Nation Boring Association

I keep trying to love the National Basketball Association, but I fail–and it's not because my favorite team, the Boston Celtics, has about as much chance of winning the NBA title as Hillary Clinton has of being tapped Miss Congeniality. There are two reasons why I find today's NBA unbelievably dull. It starts with poor fundamentals. In my youth, I could shoot a 20-foot jumper better than a lot of today's pros and that's not hyperbole. But the bigger reason why the product is dull is the same reason why the Celtics are unlikely to see Round Three of the playoffs; somewhere along the line, the NBA stopped being a team game.

It used to be that a team that had only a superstar was too weak to win titles; now a team that lacks a superstar has no chance. Today's NBA is built around players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Russell Westbrook. No rap on them; they are thoroughbreds who would have been great in any era. But now they can win games entirely on their own because their opponents are average or mediocre. That didn't used to be the case. Michael Jordan was perhaps the best of all time. But everyone knew how to beat the Bulls in Jordan's early days in Chicago–acknowledge that you couldn't stop him, but you could shut down the stiffs around him. Make Michael sweat to get 35, and make sure no one else got more than 12. Scottie Pippen made Jordan a champion; he cleared the boards and passed the ball to guys like John Paxson, Steve Kerr, and Horace Grant who scored consistently enough that Jordan didn't have to carry the team on his own.

Remember the Celtics Big Three–Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale, and Larry Bird? How many teams thought if they contained those guys they'd win? And how many of them left the Garden with an "L" because Danny Ainge or Dennis Johnson or Tiny Archibald or Reggie Lewis or Chris Ford torched their pack-it-in defense? Remember Kareem Abdul Jabaar's great Lakers' teams? Sure—Magic Johnson arrived on the scene and redefined the guard position, but even if Kareem and Magic were off, there were superb players around them that could fill the hoop: Charlie Scott, Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes…. (Cooper, in my estimation, was enormously underrated.)

Some recent clubs still play team basketball, like the Tim Duncan-era San Antonio Spurs or Golden State when Curry stops trying to do it all. But the diminution of talent is pretty obvious across the NBA. One-and-done college players fill rosters simply because they have "NBA bodies," not because they would recognize a trap defense if it came with steel-sprung teeth. Put it this way: LeBron should not be able to defeat a team single-handedly.

This brings me to the Celtics and why the current get-younger plan won't yield a championship. Put bluntly, the Celtics are run-of-the-mill– a roster of guys who can score but can't defend, and vice versa. I love the offense of Isaiah Thomas, but he's a short guy in a tall forest–officially 5'9" but 5'7" is closer to the truth– and can't stop taller opponents. He's also the best the C's have on offer. The only player who has the potential both to score and play D is the maddeningly inconsistent Avery Bradley. Maybe Kelly Olynyk, if he got more minutes, but those are currently being consumed by Amir Johnson (clunk!) and Al Horford, who needs to start living up to his rebounding hype or will turn out to be a very bad signing. Why have a scorer like Gerald Green if you don't intend to play him? Will Jaylen Brown be the answer? Not for several years, if at all, and he will need to get much stronger to be more than just a bit player—like Marcus Smart, the last savior with more sins than redemptive power.

Time to stop the youth movement. The Celtics no longer stink, but they are miles from scaring anyone. Were it my team, I'd package some guys–say Smart, Jerebko, Johnson, and a number one pick–and go get that guy: the superstar that can dominate all by himself. (DeMarcus Cousins?) PS—release James Young: NBA body, high school understanding of the game.  

Bowl Games

Just a matter of time till there is one!
What a joke! There are 36 of them in the next several weeks, not counting the national championship. You don't even have to have a winning record to go to a bowl: North Texas (5-7) will face off against Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and Hawaii (6-7) is in the Hawaii Bowl. Mighty Boston College (6-6) will meet Maryland (also 6-6) in the Quicken Loan Bowl, thereby assuring the one of them will leave with a sub .500 record. (Two of BC's wins came at the expense of UMass–one of the weakest programs in America–and Wagner, who was so bad that UMass blew them out.) And the Quicken Loan Bowl? Who the hell wants a trophy with that name sitting around the den? But wait, it gets worse. There's the Belk Bowl, named after a department store chain; the Dollar General Bowl, which honors a store selling things most people would send to the landfill; the Russell Athletic Bowl–will players compete in gym shorts?–and the Foster Farms Bowl. My favorite is the TaxSlayer Bowl. Can you imagine the pride swelling in papa's breast when a decade from now when he tells his son, "Daddy was the third-string linebacker on a team that went to the TaxSlayer Bowl." Priceless!


Complete list of poor owners
The Cubs win the World Series and immediately raise ticket prices by 20%. That pretty much defines "gauche." How about a steep discount for longtime season ticket holders who suffered through decades of mediocrity rooting for terrible teams owned by some of the richest tightwads in America?

Can we eliminate the farce of salary caps and revenue sharing? My continuing mantra re: "small-market" teams is: "No po' boys own MLB teams." So here's what some of those alleged "small-market" teams have spent by the first week of December. The Braves shelled out $5 million per for the so-so Sean Rodriguez; $7 million for Charlie Morton, a bad pitcher with a 46-71 lifetime record; $600,000 for Jakob Lindgren, a minor leaguer who will miss all of next season; and a whopping $12.5 million for Bartolo Colon, who is believed to be at least 106. The Twins plopped down $8 mil plus for a catcher (Jason Castro); Oakland over $5.5 mil for the immortal Matt Joyce; and the Marlins $11 million for Edinson Volquez, a pitcher who usually manages to disappoint. Let's not even get into bigger-market teams, like the Jays paying over $6 mil per for Steve Pearce, who has been released more often than a trout in a fish-for-fun pond; or the Rangers paying 39-year-old Carlos Beltran $16 million. 

Whatever salary problems baseball might have are the result of profligate spending by playboy owners and has nothing to do with the size of the market. Let's face it—those with enough cash to own a baseball franchise aren't locals in the first place–they can live wherever the hell they wish.
Red Sox get Chris Sale. This makes them odds-on favorites to get to the World Series next year. That may or may not happen, but one thing that must: Sox fans need to STFU  about how the Yankess used to "buy" World Series' teams. The Red Sox are the new Evil Empire. (They, the Yankees and the Dodgers always were the Axis of Evil for anyone outside of Boston, New York, or LA.) Sorry, but the plea that the Sox "traded" for Sale rather than acquiring him as a free agent is the lamest thing I've heard in years. The Yankees used to trade with their top prospects as well–plus the current Sox roster contains numerous former free agents.Unless the Yankees do something quite silly, their payroll will be far less than that of the 2017 Red Sox–and that's including $26 million for A-Rod and Brian McCann, who aren't on the team any more. So own it, Sox fans--you are the Evil Empire II. 
But don't count your chickens before they hatch. Price, Sale, and Porcello sound like the next coming of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, but remember: the Braves won exactly one World Series with those guys!


Wintersong: Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem

Signature Sounds
* * * *

Only a group as fabulous as like Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem [sic] could make me come within a country mile of a holiday album, a genre of music I would gladly ban. Luckily, Ms. Arbo and her band don't stray into musical swamp of "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph," and plastic holly. The best December albums are generally those in the vein of this album's title: Wintersong. Christmas is part of the end-of-the-calendar lock-down that becomes palpable around December 1, but it's not the whole story. Call this one an album for those who want to embrace the whole winter package, including Christmas.

There are, indeed, Christmas songs on this album, but not the sort you'll hear assaulting your ears at a mall all-too-near you. Instead, Arbo et. al. draw from decidedly non-conventional sources: poets, rock composers, Cajun songs, and the ever-popular traditional well. It opens with a fine Christmas song, Jesse Winchester's "Let's Make a BabyKing," presented in a bluesy, gospel wrapper. It—like other offerings on this album–is also a challenge to live up to the promise of what Jesus' birth is supposed to symbolize: Once upon a Christmas morning /There was a pretty little baby boy/Seems like I remember sadness /Mingling with the joy. The same sentiments come across in their cover of Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas," a call to make love and forgiveness more than (dare I say it?) a trite slogan in a rote-memory falala carol. These are indicative of the album's bittersweet offerings, including three inspired by poets. "Ring Out, Wild Bells" reworks Tennyson's verses in a ring-out-the old-ring-in-the-new fashion whose laconic café-style vocals and dark mood could have been plucked from June Tabor's repertoire. "Christmas Bells" is an antiwar offering inspired by a Longfellow poem," and "Christmas Carol" another poignant piece–it's based on the namesake G. K. Chesterton poem, and offered as an old-time song whose tune is faintly reminiscent of "Shady Grove."

There is plenty of light to counter the darker side of winter. daisy mayhem gives us a cover of Quaker songwriter Sydney Carter's "Julian of Norwich" and its promise of renewal: All shall be well again, I know. "Hot Buttered Rum," a Red Clay Ramblers' staple, is a winter love song: You're my sweet maple sugar, honey/Hot buttered rum. Sweetness (with a little edge) comes through on the home-for-the-holidays "2000 Miles," a Chrissie Hynde cover; and it's hard to top the Cajuns when it comes to joy, hence a frenzied fiddle and dancing vocal take on Michael Doucet's "Bonne Annee." Arbo also dusts off the scratchy fiddle on Bessie Jones' "Yonder Comes Day," a slice of back porch soul. Others in the happy mode include "Children Go Where I Send Thee," a traditional cumulative song in the vein of "Twelve Days of Christmas," and "Singing in the Land," collected by Ruth Crawford Seeger, and performed with Appalachian-style close harmony singing.

Bottom line: If you're contemplating a jump into the icy Connecticut River rather than hearing about mama kissing Santa Claus again, try this CD instead. It just might get you through to spring when all shall be well again.

Rob Weir

Those living near Northampton, MA can hear Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem perform this album at the Parlor Room on December 18 at 7 pm.


Cassie & Maggie MacDonald; The Outside Track; John McSherry: Celtic Treaures

Alison Krauss is a little bit Celtic and a whole lot of country/bluegrass. Reverse that formula and you have Cassie and Maggie MacDonald, whose latest CD The Willow Collection, is a prefect blend of old songs filtered through the verve and energy of Celtic music. The sisters hail from Nova Scotia, a place where there are more MacDonalds than U.S. Route 1, but whereas the latter is junk food flavored with salt and fat, the MacDonald sisters' repertoire is a thoughtful blend of tradition and just the right amount of sweetness. Their intent is to pay homage to the willow's flexibility and explore the various ways in which the Scottish tradition has been bent and twisted–from Scotland and Cape Breton to Appalachia and the Ozarks. Take the old saw, "Salley Gardens." The MacDonalds present it as a tender instrumental but it's just the soft teaser for what comes next. I first heard the "Salley Gardens Set" while working out on an elliptical machine and tried to keep up with Cassie's thumping feet and gathering pace. I couldn't. She wields a fiddle that weeps one moment and sizzles the next. The same suck-it-up pace enlivens the Appalachian standard "Hangman," and the only thing more impressive than the instrumentation­–Cassie on fiddle and Maggie on guitar–is the tight vocal harmony work.  Or consider the song "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme." It's been done a million times, but if you think there's nothing left to say, you're wrong. Cassie's fiddle is percussive, Maggie's guitar has grit, the vocals are emotively pained, and the mood stark. The effect is to add a note of haunted anxiety to an old ballad whose central metaphor is a warning to young women not to surrender their virginity to smooth-tongued false lovers.  Every old song on this album bops and weaves: "Seileach" is a Gaelic song with a modern backswing, "Blue Willow" sashays, and "Nobleman's Wedding" could be music for a pogo stick. This album is, simply, so good that I got off the exercise machines and found a quiet space where I could just listen and marvel. Kudos also for enlisting the aid of stalwarts such as Dave Gunning, Andrew Sneddon, Kris MacFarlane, and Alex Meade.

Note" No videos are yet available for this brand new record, but check out their energy in this one from their Website.

The Outside Track is a pan-Celtic quartet* that's the non-American Cherish the Ladies. Fiddler Mairi Rankin hails from Cape Breton, flautist Teresa Horgan is from Cork, Ireland; clarsach artist Ailie Robertson is from Edinburgh, Scotland; and accordion player/lead vocalist Fiona Black is from the Scottish Highlands but lives in Ireland. Their latest collection, Light up the Dark, is surely the antidote for the murk of the shorter days that have descended upon us. The Canadian side comes through not just in Ms. Rankin's fiery fiddling, but also on song offerings such "Canadee-i-o" and "Peter's Dream." The first is a traditional English/Canadian song about a familiar theme: a young woman who accompanies her sailor boy lover to sea by disguising herself as a lad. This one has a neat twist, though. When the sailor proves untrue and places the young woman's life in danger, the captain rescues her. She promptly marries him upon reaching Canada. The second song comes from Canadian songwriter Lennie Gallant and is a musing on the death of small-time fishing and makes a nice companion piece to farming woes in "Trouble in the Fields." Ms. Black is a fine singer, a needed skill when covering songs recorded by others. "I'm Gonna Set You Free" comes from Irish writer John Spillane, but was a hit for The Black Keys;" and "Do You Love an Apple?" was a Bothy Band staple that Black has the wisdom to slow down and transform into a torchy ballad. Perhaps her greatest moxie is tackling "Get Me Through December," a song from Canadian Fred Lavery, but made famous by Alison Krauss (her second invocation for those keeping score!)
            The Outside Track mixes songs with exciting instrumental sets. "Hurry Up and Wait" is a Rankin tour-de-force with bow bouncing off the strings and the tune gathering pace like a runaway locomotive. "Glorious Eh" is lighter in tone, but Horgan's flute and Black's accordion provide ever-increasing heft, piece-by-piece. Another intriguing set is "Jiggery-Polka-Ry," which is just what it implies, a mash jig/polka. Through small but steady pace changes the set transforms our mental images from individuals engaging in slow solo dance to one of couples swirling in abandonment. Smart stuff from four exceeding talented musicians.  (* The band is now all-female and is currently four members, not five as the album cover suggests.)

If the name John McSherry doesn't ring immediate bells, check the credits on just about anything Irish in the past 20 years. A two-time All-Ireland champion on Uilleann pipes by the time he was 14, McSherry was a co-founder of Irish super-group Lúnasa and has performed with such luminaries as Clannad, Coolfin, The Corrs, and Sinéad O'Connor. On his new instrumental release, The Seven Suns, McSherry seeks to invoke ancient Ireland in both, as he puts it, its "mundane and mystical" aspects. That's ambitious for instruments as humble as the penny whistle or as dry and buzzy as the Uilleann pipes. If you get the CD, McSherry provides detailed notes of what inspired each piece. "The Dance of the Síog," for instance, imagines ancient supernatural beings frolicking upon fairy mounds. Do you hear this, or is it just an amazing set of slip jigs? (For the uninitiated, regular jigs are usually in 6/8 and a slip jig in 9/8.) Does it matter? If I hadn't read that "The Atlantean" pays homage to legendary remnants from the Lost Continent said to be the brains behind Northern Europe's megalith-building boom. When I first heard Séan Ó Graham's strong percussion and McSherry's accented whistle notes, my mental image was of a gristmill, so my vision was several hundred tons of stone off. No matter—it's a great tune. In like fashion, "Sunset Land" is a solid set of tunes, even if it doesn't make you think of Egypt/Ireland links, snowflakes darting in the winter air, or the unlikely origins of chess! A few of the tunes really do conjure mystery from the mists. "Carrowmore" reflects upon a County Sligo megalithic site that dates to 4000 BC and poignancy comes from the fact that we know next to nothing about its builders or inhabitants.  I also enjoyed "Sunrise at Bealtáine," which is a joyous dance tune and how I imagine the ancients really would have reacted to the spring equinox rather than New Age musings on the first light. Another favorite is "The Golden Mean," a musical look at the legend that fairies often kidnapped harpers and pipers. McSherry better hope that's a myth!

Rob Weir