Friday, June 01, 2012

Two SI Articles on Los Angeles Worth Reading

You may not be able to see it, but the photo-collage has the basketball games bookending the Kings game, plus Dodger Stadium up above on the scoreboard. No mention of the other Los Angeles baseball team!

Remember that Sports Illustrated issue with Matt Kemp and Magic Johnson on the cover? Well, I finally got around to reading it, and both Los Angeles articles were awesome, and well worth a read if you haven't gotten to it yet.

Lee Jenkins had a great article describing Los Angeles as the center of the sports world (back when the Clippers and Lakers were both playing). It starts with a description of his heady assignment (emphasis mine), which debunks one of the oft-used Los Angeles stereotypes:

Midnight Sunday in downtown Los Angeles, and in the past 78 hours I have seen Kevin Durant make a game-winning three for the Thunder, Tony Parker lead a 24-point comeback for the Spurs, a guy named King score a game-winning goal for the Kings and an All-Star's son hit his first big league home run to complete a Dodgers sweep. I have seen the Lakers make 41 of 42 free throws in a game and the Clippers' Chris Paul sink a layup that rolled along the top of the backboard before dropping into the net. I have seen a 14-foot Stanley Cup carved out of sand, 110 cyclists riding upwards of 35 miles per hour, a full-color rendering of a $1 billion football field, and a solar eclipse. I have seen all this within a three-mile stretch of Interstate 110, between Staples Center and Dodger Stadium, and I have yet to encounter one traffic jam. My only expenses have been $87 in parking charges.

The assignment sounded like a scavenger hunt, part of pledge weekend for the Phi Delts at USC: Attend 10 sporting events in downtown L.A. in four days, including four NBA playoff games, two NHL playoff games, three major league baseball games pitting two first-place teams, and the biggest bike race in North America. I made nine of them. Game 4 of Thunder-Lakers was too good to leave. I had to catch Clayton Kershaw's complete-game shutout for the Dodgers on TV.

Not to name-drop, but since this is Los Angeles.... I sat in the dugout with Magic Johnson, the booth with Vin Scully, the tunnel with Penny Marshall, the front row with Jeanie Buss, the club level with Luc Robitaille and the 46th floor of the Ritz Carlton with the people I'd like to be when I grow up. I compared schedules with Ice Cube and received bar recommendations from the Cocktail King. I even rode to a hockey game on a subway. Yes, L.A. has a subway, and yes, this particular line was finished less than three weeks ago.

Los Angeles is a city of a thousand clichés, most involving smog, silicone and Sig Alerts, spectators who arrive late and leave early. I encountered more than 300,000 fans during La-La-palooza, and my car was the only one entering the Dodger Stadium lot in the third inning or exiting in the fifth. L.A. may be a front-running town, but this weekend Angelenos were underdogs: the eighth-seeded Kings, the leg-weary Lakers, the injury-addled Clippers, and the Dodgers as Frank McCourt left them. By Sunday night the Kings were on the verge of the Stanley Cup finals, and the Lakers were on the brink of elimination. The Dodgers had the best record in the major leagues, after sweeping the defending-champion Cardinals, and the Clippers were finished after being swept by the Spurs. The rendering of that football field, meanwhile, was looking a bit more lifelike.

There were so many celebrities at Staples Center, it's a wonder they didn't violate fire codes in the VIP room, but the real stars of the weekend weren't whom you'd expect. "People always say we're so Hollywood," says Jeanie Buss, a Lakers' executive vice president. "I love that, not because of the celebrities, but because of the screenwriters and the production staff and the operations crews. Hollywood is a working town." She looks up from her front-row seat and sees the models in their skinny jeans but also the visionaries and laborers and fans who inspired an unprecedented sports weekend, with hopes for more like it.

The second article from this issue was by Albert Chen, who profiled the ascent of Matt Kemp:

A 27-year-old from central Oklahoma who mixes Southwestern geniality with Rodeo Drive looks (he has posed for GQ and dated Rihanna, after all), Kemp enjoys making blustery declarations almost as much as he does backing them up. Before the start of last season he declared that he would become the first Dodger to put up a 40-home-run, 40-steal season—then hit .324 with 39 homers and 40 stolen bases. (Not since Hank Aaron's 1963 season had a player finished in the top two in his league in homers and steals.) He wound up finishing second in a controversial NL MVP vote. ("That's bull----," Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly texted Kemp after Milwaukee's Ryan Braun was named the winner, echoing a widely held sentiment.)

Before this season Kemp declared that he would become baseball's first 50-50 man, then mashed his way to one of the greatest Aprils in the game's history: He became the first player to hit .400 (he hit .417) with 12 home runs and 25 RBIs in the month. Looking for proof that Kemp is human? He did have only two steals.

That start came at a pivotal moment for a franchise emerging from the dark shadows of bankruptcy and Frank McCourt's ugly seven-year reign as owner. Attendance at Chavez Ravine hit an 11-year low last season, when the Dodgers missed the postseason for the second straight year. But with the city buzzing about the sale of the team and with Kemp raking, the fans are returning—an average of 39,119 for the Dodgers' first 23 home dates, nearly 2,500 more than last season. What they're seeing in Kemp, who last November signed a franchise-record eight-year, $160 million contract extension, is a player with a magnetic personality to match his magical home run swing—in every way, the man for the moment. "He's perfect for L.A.," says Mattingly, the former Yankees great. "He's more suited for this city than he would be in New York, where it's life or death. The laid-back style here, that's more Matt—he's always loose and happy with his big old smile. It's when he's having fun that his great gifts come out."

Those include otherworldly bat speed ("He's got these quick-twitch muscles that could catch up to a 150-mph fastball," says his high school coach, Craig Troxell), jaw-dropping opposite-field power ("You don't see many guys with that kind of strength—A-Rod's one, maybe," says Mattingly), track-star speed and a Gold Glove arm. But Kemp is a baseball anomaly for another reason. In a game that is getting younger, with 19- and 20-year-old phenoms arriving in the majors fully formed, Kemp—a high school basketball standout who didn't start taking baseball seriously until he was 18—and his leap to superstardom form a case study in the major league developmental curve. He is a lesson in letting greatness bloom on its own timetable, not one set by hype and expectation.

Because before he could blend into the Hollywood Hills, before he could be on the Best Player in Baseball short list, before he could lead a great franchise into the light, Matt Kemp had to learn to love the game.


Fred's Brim said...

I miss Matty :(