14 from ’14, Day 3: The #YahooBig3

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 1.25.38 PMRunning down some of my better stories from 2014. Today, a monster research project that stemmed from a simple idea: which college boasts the three best athletes across multiple sports?

This article, which we dubbed #YahooBig3 (the hashtag is essential!), stemmed from a conversation my colleague Kevin Kaduk and I had about Auburn’s Big Three: Bo Jackson, Charles Barkley, and Frank Thomas. So we got to work sussing out which schools had standout athletes in the three big sports, and oh, did we hit roadblocks.

First, by excluding golf, hockey, et cetera, we lopped off some solid competitors. Then we decided to keep it to men’s sports only. (Sorry, ladies.) We came up with a list that was pretty impressive in its breadth, both across and within schools (Texas, for instance, produced both the hardass Roger Clemens and the sentimental softie Kevin Durant.)

We got blowback, of course, but it’s all in good fun. Check the full list here and see what you think. And no, Auburn wasn’t No. 1.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win
Day 2: US Open: A father, a son, a wheelchair, and Phil Mickelson

14 from ’14, Day 2: Phil Mickelson’s wheelchair-bound US Open friend

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 9.44.46 AM

 As 2014 wraps up, I’m running down some of the best/weirdest stories I wrote this year. Today, we travel back to North Carolina, where I spent five veeeery loooong days in June covering the U.S. Open.

Look, I’ll never complain about my job, because that’s the province of cranks who’ve forgotten how damn lucky they are to be getting paid to do something most people would do for free. But let’s be honest: it’s a hell of a lot easier when I’ve got either a. a compelling story or b. a compelling central figure to work with. The U.S. Open, alas, had neither. Martin Kaymer is a perfectly pleasant but highly restrained German who happened to throttle the rest of the field for the entire week. I was looking at an entire week of rote, unspectacular stories right up until late Sunday afternoon, when I spotted a father pushing his son in a wheelchair along the 18th fairway, running parallel to Phil Mickelson.

Turns out this was David and John Finn, and not only did they know Phil, they were personal guests of his. They’ve traveled the entire country watching golf, David nearly immobilized from muscular dystrophy, John his ever-optimistic father. From the story:

The Finns got to North Carolina on Saturday and made their way to Pinehurst No. 2 early Sunday morning. They made their way to the putting green and driving range adjacent to the clubhouse, and that’s where Phil and Bones spotted them.

“When they saw us, they said, ‘why don’t you come with us?’” John recalls. “And when we got over there [to the first tee], they said, ‘Why don’t you come inside the ropes, and stay as long as you want?’ So we went all 18!”

And when Phil Mickelson wants something done, the USGA snaps into action. Tournament volunteers provided the Finns with inside-the-ropes access and water throughout the round. Mickelson didn’t play particularly well, posting a two-over-par 72 to finish the tournament 16 strokes back of winner Martin Kaymer. But for the Finns, the score was an afterthought. The experience was the joy.

Here’s the rest of the story. This was the most spiritually uplifting one I wrote this year, by a long shot. And if Kaymer had played just a little bit worse, I never would’ve gotten it. Thanks, Marty.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win

14 from ’14, Day 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s greatest win

2014 Daytona 500Running down my favorite stories/photos/assorted strangeness from 2014. Today: the best race I’d ever seen in person…up to that point.

We’re not supposed to root for individuals or teams when we’re writing; we’re supposed to root for a good story. NASCAR’s best story — hell, one of sports’ best stories — is that of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son of a seven-time champion who can’t seem to measure up to his father in some ways, but has far superseded him in others. It’s Shakespearean drama at 200 mph, and it hit a high point in February of this year at the Daytona 500, when Junior outran everyone else on the track to win the biggest race of his career.

I was there, a bit bleary from a six-hour rain delay and too much media center steam table food, and snapped that photo above in the middle of victory lane as champagne and beer sprayed in every direction. Here’s the first part of the story I wrote:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – “WOOOOO!!!!!!”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off his victory in the Daytona 500, strode into the Daytona media center, normally a staid workplace where open displays of emotion are frowned upon, and bellowed in celebration.

“I bet nobody’s yelled like that in here in 30 years,” Earnhardt said as he sat down, grinning through his red beard. “People used to yell like that all the time when they won.”

It was a slick, if perhaps unintentional, bridge to NASCAR’s past, a past that has dogged Earnhardt like an extra passenger in his car … or, more accurately, like a cinder block tied to his rear bumper. Earnhardt, because of his surname, can’t ever escape the past, but with this triumphant victory, at long last he appears to have wrestled it at least to a draw.

—-

Check out the rest here. I think I’ve still got some confetti from that victory lane jammed in my ears.

After the cheering’s done

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 9.34.19 PMOXFORD, Ala. – I’m writing this from a late-night dinner after covering the October Talladega race. I just left the track, and it looked a lot like that photo above — hazy and slightly out of focus.

Of all the parts of the sportswriting gig that I enjoy, one of the best is the time after the game/race/tournament is over, after the players have flown off and the fans have driven away. There’s a stillness to the arena that lends itself to a moment of contemplation.

Every time I cover an event, I take a bit of time to walk around the empty arena. Talladega and Daytona, where the campfire smoke hangs in the air as the team haulers are pulling out. Turner Field, where the only sounds are the echoes of the cleaning crew … and the honks from the ever-present traffic outside. Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the bass thumps from the fraternities and downtown Tuscaloosa bars duel in stereo. Augusta National, where the last of the sun silhouettes the pines alongside the silent first fairway. These places lend themselves well to thinking, whether it’s about how to wrestle that intransigent damn article into something resembling coherence … or how to deal with our impending mortality.

Because make no mistake: you don’t need to be a damn poet to understand what’s going on here. Sound and fury, and then the rest is silence, to do a little Shakespeare mashup. I can hope, good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ve got thousands more summer and fall afternoons remaining. But I don’t know how many times I’ll come back to, say, Talladega or Augusta. Five? Ten? Twenty? No matter. It’s a measurable number, and it’s a painfully small one.

I consider myself tremendously lucky to have covered so many sporting events where the noise of hundreds of thousands of people hits you with physical force. It never gets old. But I feel even luckier that I get the chance to stick around after the cheering’s done and enjoy the solitude.

See you down the road.

A form letter for the angry fan who just wants a little attention

Is this me or my readers? Who knows?

Is this me or my readers? Who knows?

Finally gave up on trying to respond to the hordes of mouthbreathing loons devoted fans who stuff my inbox with fourth-grade-level screeds enthusiastic responses to my articles. From here on out, y’all’s angry ungrateful asses are getting a form letter. What do I need to add here? Suggestions welcome.

Hey there–

Thank you so much for your email. I get hundreds a week, and I wish I could answer all of them, but the fact is, I can’t. So I’ve created this form response. Sucks, I know, but better than being ignored, right? Anyway…

1. If you liked what I wrote, and you took the time to write me, I appreciate that more than you know. I hope you’ll keep reading, and you can find more of my junk at facebook.com/jaybusbee or twitter.com/jaybusbee.

2. If, as is the more likely scenario, you didn’t like what I wrote, well, that’s the way it goes. Whoever your favorite player/team/driver/conference is, I’m not biased against them, though if you want to think so, knock yourself out.

3. I like my job a lot, and despite what many people suggest, I won’t be leaving it to wash dishes, walk dogs, pick up dead animals in the street, or anything similar. And no, I won’t be going to work at TMZ, and if you can’t understand the difference between what they do and what we do, I’m not going to hold your hand and help you understand.

4. Journalism can be “biased” in the sense that I get paid to offer my opinion on certain stories. If you disagree with my opinion, that’s your right, of course. But offering my opinion doesn’t make me a bad journalist, just like offering yours doesn’t make you a bad reader.

5. Unless you cuss at me or say ugly things about my family. Then I’ll get the IRS on you. (Joking. Maybe.)

6. There’s no such thing as “THE MEDIA.” We don’t all get together and plot out an agenda to praise some athletes and ruin others. (Although, if we did, this is exactly what we’d say to throw you off the scent. Hmm.)

7. There’s (not theirs) a decent chance your (not you’re) writing is a writhing, poorly spelled, ungrammatical mess. If that’s the case, I’d love to take your points seriously, but I’m laughing too hard at you.

Anyway, thanks for writing, and I hope your favorite team/driver/golfer/horse wins this weekend/the next time they play. Cheers.

Jay

The Sopranos prequel: My pitch for “Season Zero”

A couple years after The Sopranos cut to black, a comic book publisher had the idea to bring the series back in comic form, much like what’s been done with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly. They asked me to write a couple one-sheet pitches for a “Season Seven” and a “Season Zero.” The idea soon died a cold death in a publishing pine barren, but here’s what I came up with for What Happened Before. (The Sopranos sequel is here.) Obviously, I don’t own any of these characters, et cetera, et cetera. Enjoy, ya mooks.

The Sopranos: Season Zero
Opening Arc: “Put Or Pay”

Pitch by Jay Busbee

Synopsis: “Sopranos Season Zero” will cover stories of the young Tony Soprano in the early ‘80s, just beginning to make a name for himself in the DiMeo crime family. We see the growth of Tony from young thug to made man, and we see the cost that he pays to get there. Throughout the series, we’ll also see familiar faces pop up in younger incarnations—Carmela, Janice, Bobby, Christopher, Big Pussy, Paulie. And we see the immediate precedents of the opening events of the HBO series.

Storyline: By 1982, the DiMeo crime family is well entrenched in northern New Jersey. All illegal enterprises, and more than a few legal ones—laundries, liquor stores, restaurants—run through the DiMeos, and the area’s living in a time of enforced peace. The centerpiece of the DiMeo family’s activity is the Camden County Incinerator. Built and owned by a DiMeo front corporation, the incinerator has a “put or pay” contract with all local governments—deliver a certain amount of trash to the facility every month, or pay up. (This is, believe it or not, a common practice to this day among incinerators.)

In the course of the story, we’ll meet the current ruling regime of the DiMeo family—Domenico DiMeo, the boss of the family, and the brothers Johnny Boy and Corrado Soprano. We’ll also meet the lower-level muscle of the crew—Vincent Iafrate (a previously unseen character); Silvio Dante; Tony Blundetto; Ralph Cifaretta; Jackie Aprile; and Johnny Boy Soprano’s kid, a burly guy who goes by the name of Tony.

The theme of this story is responsibility—responsibility to one’s self, one’s family, one’s crew. So we’ll be following parallel storylines. Johnny Boy and Corrado deal with their increasing responsibilities as lieutenants under DiMeo in differing ways; Johnny is growing into the role, while Corrado chafes under the responsibility and wants more of the glory. The federal EPA is starting to take a close look at the operations of the incinerator, and starting to ask some questions that the DiMeos can’t easily answer.

At the same time, the junior crew is craving more responsibility, wanting a promotion to the big leagues. One night, Jackie comes up with the idea of robbing the card game of Feech La Manna, a story referenced in The Sopranos series. Here, we’ll see that robbery play out, and we’ll see the consequences of it—the guys take their first steps to being made men. We’ll see here why “Don’t Stop Believin’” has such significance in Tony’s life; it’s the song on the radio playing when they get away from the heist, the moment when the entire world finally opens wide before him.

But from there, things don’t go so well. Corrado Soprano makes a foolhardy move, unleashing the young crew on the EPA and trying to get them to bribe the feds into backing off. Not only does the plan fail, it fails with blowback. When the bribery attempt doesn’t take, the younger crew decides to use muscle—and an EPA inspector ends up dead. This marks the first crack in the DiMeo armor, a crack that will eventually spread and result in the Old Man’s imprisonment, which paves the way for Jackie to take over the family—which is where Season 1 of the Sopranos begins.

The family decides that an example must be made, and orders a hit on Vincent Iafrate. Tony refuses to carry out the hit on his friend, but Ralphie gladly steps up to save his own skin and executes one of his childhood mates.

His friend dead on the floor before his eyes, Tony finally realizes the cost of the dream he’s sought. He spends a long night in Springsteen-esque existential New Jersey angst, finishing out at the boardwalk in a still-dilapidated Atlantic City. As he watches, cranes are building what will become a state-of-the-art megacasino. And he decides he wants a piece of that kind of action after all.

-END PITCH-

Is Tony Soprano dead or not? My Sopranos Season Seven pitch

LES SOPRANO (SAISON 5) (THE SOPRANOS)

A couple years after The Sopranos cut to black, a comic book publisher had the idea to bring the series back in comic form, much like what’s been done with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly. They asked me to write a couple one-sheet pitches for a “Season Seven” and a “Season Zero.” The idea soon died a cold death in a publishing pine barren, but here’s what I came up with for What Happened After. (The Sopranos prequel is here.) Obviously, I don’t own any of these characters, et cetera, et cetera. Enjoy, ya mooks.

The Sopranos: Season Seven
Opening Arc: “A Warning Voice That Comes In The Night”

Pitch By Jay Busbee

Synopsis: Tony didn’t die. Not only didn’t he die, he beat the feds’ rap against him. But his Mafia family is in ruins, picked apart by the other families while Tony spent two long years in trial. Tony thus has the arduous task of rebuilding his family from the ground up, while trying to keep his home life afloat. And where’s Paulie?

Storyline: We begin with an image of Tony floating, weightless, in a full suit. Images flash before him, the deaths of his closest friends and family, significant lines from the moments of their deaths. We see Christopher, Ralphie, Big Pussy, Bobby, Livia, Adriana, and so many more who’ve died as a result of Tony’s actions. There’s a light above Tony, and he floats toward it…

…and surfaces in his pool, surrounded by friends and family. It’s a welcome-home party for Tony, as his case has been abruptly dismissed and he’s free to go. Everybody still alive after Season 6 is there and celebrating—everybody except Paulie, that is.

But the joyful mood soon gives way to hard-edged reality. Tony is just about bankrupt from the trial, and it’s only Carmela’s real estate that’s keeping them afloat now. The Soprano Family is scattered, with all the best soldiers swallowed up by other families. The Bing is a pathetic, ramshackle shadow of its former self. Most ominously, nobody quite knows how Tony got his case dismissed. Did he flip?

So the series will focus on two questions: first, how did Tony slip the feds’ grip? And second, how does he rebuild the Soprano Family with the eyes of the law constantly upon him?

The answer to the first is that Tony and his lawyer managed to make Paulie the scapegoat for all the Soprano Family activities, painting him as a rogue operative who went far beyond the bounds of legality. And while Tony was involved in plenty of illegal activity himself, the indictment specified only a few very specific counts—counts which Tony pinned on Paulie. We’ll see Paulie, sitting in a South Beach café, a Jersey expatriate, seething and vowing revenge.

The second is that Tony will try a different tack in building the new version of the Soprano Family. He’ll pave the way through some targeted “persuasion” of media and government officials to keep their hands off him as he tries to rebuild the family. But he soon realizes that he’s got a reporter on his trail—a young woman who’s interested in writing the history of New Jersey crime families, and wants desperately to nail down Tony for an in-depth discussion. She’s young, she’s beautiful…but is she naïve? And can she be trusted?

As Tony learns, freedom is far more difficult to survive than fear.

-END PITCH-

Ode to a redneck squirrel not long for this world

So I’m sitting here on my front porch, contemplating our fragile world in the rocking chair where I often sip bourbon, because dammit, if I can’t write like Faulkner I’m at least gonna cosplay as him.

And as the sun sets, as all around me is the bounteous harmony of nature, the crickets chirping and the birds trilling, there’s only one false note: the incessant crackle of acorn husks hitting the driveway.  Again and again and again.

I’ve got squirrels everywhere around me. I’ve captured a few trying to break into my house, and I deport them across a five-lane highway or a river where they have to deal with other, possibly racist squirrels.

But the ones that I can’t catch … oh, those little bastards hang out high in the trees over my driveway, throwing off their acorn husks like so empty beer cans. These idiots are just a GO JUNIOR away from full-on redneckery.

Speaking of which: when I was younger, I was playing at a neighbor’s house when his brother blasted a squirrel out of a tree with the cold, dead eye of a damn World War II sniper. The brother grabbed the dead squirrel by the tail. When I asked what he was going to do with it, the answer was simple: “I’m’a cook him up.”

We laughed and went back to doing whatever it is eight-year-olds do in backyards. We thought it was a joke … at least until we saw the headless, pawless, tailless squirrel bobbing merrily in a pot of boiling water on the stove an hour later. (The South, everybody!)

So, yeah, screw you, redneck squirrels. You don’t even get the goodwill bump that raccoons got thanks to “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Get down here and clean this mess up. I’ve still got my old neighbors’ phone number.

Sports. Novels. Comics. Poker. Bourbon.