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Lang’s World: Ten pearls of Whitaker’s wit and wisdom on sports and beyond 12.28.17

By Lang Whitaker
Grind City Media

1. Give Me Liberty

One of the fears of the creation of the College Football Playoff was that it would make the bowl system, which has seemingly existed forever, in many ways irrelevant. Would anyone care about, say, The Hawai’i Bowl between Fresno State and Houston – two teams with largely regional fanbases, neither team with any chance of competing for a national championship?

And yet late on Sunday night, after spending an hour assembling toys, I found myself prone on my parents’ couch, watching Houston try and mount a second-half comeback in a surprisingly hard-hitting Hawai’i Bowl. Fresno State hung on to win, 33-27, and I had no reservations about staying up to watch what was an entertaining and exciting game.

As it turns out, if you can put together a bowl matchup between two teams that are relatively evenly matched and schedule it in a time slot where there’s a relative void of competition, your bowl game might be relevant, even when there’s a true national title playoff down the road.

Which brings us to this weekend in Memphis, where the 59th annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl will be played Saturday morning. The Liberty Bowl is exactly the type of game that pundits feared might become marginalized in the college playoff era, yet this year’s game is as compelling as any bowl matchup among the slate. It pits the hometown Memphis Tigers – who play their regular-season home games at Liberty Bowl Stadium but have somehow never played in the actual Liberty Bowl game – against a Power-5 team in Iowa State.

The Cyclones may have finished the season 7-5, including a 5-4 record in the Big 12, but they allowed 21 points per game, fewer than any other team Memphis played this season. It sets up what should be an interesting matchup of an immoveable object versus an unstoppable force: The Tigers were the second-best scoring team in the country this season, averaging an eye-popping 47.7 points and nearly 550 total yards per game.

Like many around the country, I have no ties to either team in this game. But I saw Memphis light up the scoreboard a few times, particularly against UCF in the amazing double-overtime AAC title game. And I want to see if Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller can reproduce their magic from an early season win over then-ranked UCLA against another major conference college football team – this time in a postseason setting.

You don’t have to have a deep connection to a team to enjoy a game. That’s one of the great things about sports, and one of the things I think some people who were so worried about preserving the bowl system at all costs overlooked: Competition is competition, whether it’s in a one-and-out playoff bracket or in a video game league. I want to watch people who are elite at what they do, who are able to do things I will never be able to do, get after it.

From that standpoint, it seems like the Liberty Bowl organizers have managed to put together a pretty interesting matchup. And for Memphis, maybe this is their chance to make their case that they belong in a larger conversation, outside of being just a regional offensive powerhouse, and take a step toward something bigger.

Don’t forget, the team that won last season’s Liberty Bowl? That’s right, the Georgia Bulldogs. And things turned out pretty well for them this season.

2. Inside The Squared Circle

It happened as regular as clockwork: When I was in middle school, every Friday night I would wait for my parents to go to sleep, then sneak out to the living room and tune our TV to a local UHF frequency which aired an epic eight-hour block of wrestling shows known as “Superstars of Wrestling.” With bits of everything from GLOW to Mid-South Wrestling to the WWF, I would watch each week until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, trying to stay up to date with the latest ridiculous twists and turns in each organization’s storylines.

You might grow up, but you never really outgrow wrestling. These days, my wrestling consumption has familial constraints, but I still love when I’m watching and something ridiculous and improbable happens…

Which is why I’m pretty excited for the start of the new year, when the Grizzlies organization has big plans for two upcoming Wrestling Nights (Jan. 4 at the Memphis Hustle game at Landers Center in Southaven, and Jan. 5 when the Washington Wizards take on the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum). We ain’t new to this , and while I’m not allowed to talk about some of the specifics on the docket for this year’s Wrestling Nights, let’s just say you don’t want to miss out.

3. Prime Time

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about one of the seminal football highlight shows of my youth, ESPN’s now-departed NFL Primetime. These days, we can watch sports highlights on demand in real time, but just a few years back (as I noted in the item above) we had to work to watch what we wanted to see. In the ‘90s, there was no better place to catch all the latest NFL news than on ESPN’s NFL Primetime, which aired late each Sunday night and featured Chris Berman and Tom Jackson sifting through every game on the schedule. Berman did his best to turn every name into a pun, while Jackson brought knowledge of X’s and O’s and seemed to legitimize the entire enterprise.

I am reminded of the relevance of NFL Primetime late on every NFL Sunday night as the NBC game is drawing to a close, usually in concert with my eyelids, and I know I have a limited amount of time to catch up on the rest of the NFL’s news. Which is when I flip over to the NFL Network for NFL Sunday Prime.

As a native Atlantan, I am on the record as an avowed fan of Deion Sanders, who was the most dynamic player on both the Braves and Falcons when I was an adolescent. While he was mostly known for being brash and hyperbolic as a player, these days as an analyst for the NFL Network, he has somehow successfully transitioned into something of an elder statesman, providing blunt analysis on every game while retaining some popularity among current players.

Because when you ball, you get the call: Deion does in-locker room FaceTime interviews each Sunday with the players who had big days. These aren’t the most cleanly produced segments, but they do provide the kind of access football fans rarely get, with the players usually laughing and enjoying themselves, often passing the phone around like they’re on a call with a relative. The players clearly care about being asked to FaceTime with Deion—I love watching these millionaires clamor for the free t-shirt that comes along with the appearance—and in a media landscape where a real concern with highlights and athletes is overexposure, NFL Prime manages to still seem special and feel like must-watch TV.

4. Just For Kicks

The NBA has done a terrific job of owning Christmas Day, scheduling compelling matchups throughout the afternoon and night, and I love how NBA players have taken to the day. For many years, NBA players would wait and break out new colorways of sneakers for the All-Star Game, but now it seems Christmas Day has become one of those targets on the NBA calendar when a guy can make a splash with their choice of kicks.

This year, several players went with customized shoes celebrating The Grinch.

From Karl-Anthony Towns

to Clint Capela

to Lonzo Ball

A bunch of dudes around the league identified with the guy whose heart was two sizes too small. As long as the shoes fit, I suppose.

5. The No Thin Zone

If the holidays offer a chance to give thanks, I just want to stop and let Bill O’Reilly know that no matter our political affiliations, we can all appreciate him giving us an excuse this holiday season…

“What’s that? No, I didn’t gain a few pounds from all the food the last few weeks, what are you crazy?! Actually, the clothing companies are just making smaller clothes! It’s true, I read it on Twitter!”

6. Lang The Builder

Last week, I wrote about my trials and tribulations building an Ikea bunk bed, which I am proud to report I not only managed to complete but it hasn’t collapsed (yet) into a pile of particle boards. And after spending the last week using a dang Allen wrench, I came across the GIF of someone using magnetic screws and I wonder why Ikea can’t transition to an all-magnet building plan?

7. It’s Tricky

To me there’s no better play in a football game than a trick play. When I am at a game, every time a team lines up to punt the ball, no matter the field position, I anxiously call for a fake. So in the interest of giving you a worthwhile time-waster, here are 15 minutes’ worth of great football trick plays.

(FWIW, to me the most mind-bending play has to be the fake punt return the Rams pull off around the 2:30 mark. I’m still not exactly sure how it works, other than that the Seahawks were, I guess, just willing to blindly follow the Rams’ blockers who all pretended the ball was going somewhere the ball wasn’t actually going.)

8. Gracias, Marc

The life and times of Marc Gasol have been a big story since I showed up in Memphis a few weeks ago. When former Grizzlies’ coach David Fizdale was dismissed last month, his relationship (or lack thereof) with Gasol was quickly brought into question.

I don’t really know Gasol—I interviewed him once last season for NBA.com and have not spoken to him since I moved to Memphis—but I had an interaction with him last week that, to me, spoke volumes.

Last Saturday night I brought my wife and five-year-old son to the game against the Los Angeles Clippers. We entered FedExForum about an hour before tipoff through an employee entrance that takes you down a long hallway (which is usually empty) and delivers you to the main concourse.

So we were walking down this hall and all of a sudden a door opened about twenty feet ahead of us at the end of the hall, and out stepped a sweating Gasol, who had apparently been going through a pregame workout on the practice court.

As Marc turned and opened a different door to head to the locker room, my son loudly blurted out, “Wow, look how tall he is!”

At that point, Marc could have kept it moving and headed on to get ready for his job, or even given us a head nod and continued on, and either of those reactions would have been completely understandable.

Instead, Marc turned and waved to my son and said, “Hey!” And then he stopped and stood there, holding the door open and apparently waiting for us. We were sort of in the Larry David zone, where we were just far enough away that Marc would not have been expected to wait for our slow-moving party to reach the door, yet he seemed to be waiting for us.

My wife is Cuban and we’ve been trying to teach my son to speak Spanish, so as we ambled along I said to my son, “That’s Mister Marc, and did you know he speaks Spanish?”

Taking the cue, Marc said, “Oh, hablas Español?”

“Si,” my son said shyly, still eyeing the giant warily.

“Como estas?” Marc asked, smiling.

“Muy bien.”

By this point we’d caught up to Gasol. As we stepped out into the concourse, Gasol asked my son for a high five, which he gave him, and then Marc jogged off to get prepped for tipoff.

Marc had zero reason to treat us the way he did, particularly with nobody else watching. But my son is now convinced he is close personal friends with the Grizzlies’ franchise center, and he has a new favorite NBA player.

I don’t know what went down behind the scenes the last 12 months in Memphis, and I’m not saying Gasol is perfect. But I do know what happened last weekend when nobody was watching.

And, to me, it said plenty about Marc Gasol.

9. Animal Takeover

For this week’s animal takeover, let’s take a second and examine some of the weirdest animal news of 2017, courtesy of National Geographic. From a gecko that sheds its skin ON DEMAND, to a badger burying a cow, to a bird that feeds goldfish, this has been a banner year for weird animal news.

When the eventual animal takeover occurs—and we all know it’s coming one day soon—just don’t say I didn’t warn you that it was coming.

10. Go Forth With Music

All that talk about “Superstars of Wrestling” earlier got the show’s theme song stuck in my head, Bonnie Tyler’s epic “Holding Out For A Hero.”

This video truly has it all, from a dancing choir to a burning house to an undulating porch.

Ooooh, ooooh, ooooh, OOOOOH!
AHHHH!
AHHHHHH!