Part II: 2016, the Year of Second Chances

From one underdog to another: LeBron James finally wins a championship for Cleveland.

From one underdog to another: LeBron James finally wins a championship for Cleveland.

I read LeBron James’ “I’m Coming Home” Sports Illustrated essay when it first came out in July 2014. Back then, I didn’t follow basketball; it was just that the essay was sprawled out all over my Facebook news feed and I couldn’t avoid it. At the time, I had absolutely no context as to who LeBron James really was. All I knew about him was that he was some basketball player that Barack Obama allegedly compared himself to behind closed doors in the political tell-all, Game Change.

In fact, earlier that summer, some guy had posted a Facebook status declaring that he was “taking his talents” to some Masters program, and I had thought it was the most arrogant thing I’ve ever read on my Facebook feed. Now, I know it was LeBron’s infamous line from his all-day ESPN special, “The Decision,” so, in retrospect, I’ll admit that the status was kind of funny.

Fast forward to the late spring of 2015. I was following the playoffs because I started watching sports. My home team, the Warriors, were having a dream season for the first time in a long time. It was hard not to jump on the bandwagon, but I vehemently argued that I really watched the games, and I really loved the team. They were so much fun to watch. Also I wanted them to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals because I finally discovered who LeBron James was, and I loved the whole “best team versus best player” narrative. I desperately needed the Cavaliers to get into the 2015 NBA Finals, and so they did–or at least, LeBron James did–with some impressive plays, most memorably, this buzzer-beating three-pointer against the Bulls.

But, at the end, the Warriors were just putting that cherry on top of their dream season, beating the Cavaliers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Though LeBron had put on a tremendous series, his lone endeavor in the midst of his teammates’ injuries was no match for the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green, who put on spectacular displays of basketball teamwork in the six-game series. The trophy was hoisted, and a year-long debate was initiated: Are the Warriors one of the greatest teams of all time? Is LeBron James definitely not the GOAT? Will we see the Warriors and Cavaliers play each other again in next year’s finals?

I needed the answer to the last question to be a “yes.”

I don’t have cable. So, for the early part of the 2015-2016 NBA season, I was counting down to the Warriors versus Cavaliers Christmas Day special. When the Warriors won, I doubted the Cavaliers–they had a healthy team this time, and still couldn’t beat the Warriors. And, for the rest of the regular season, the Warriors continued a fairy tale narrative, setting a regular season record of winning 73 games; Stephen Curry posted a record for the number of three-pointers in the regular season. The Cavaliers, however, were navigating the waters of a slightly weaker eastern conference, but quietly dominating, nonetheless.

I was in Europe for the first four games of the NBA Finals. The Warriors had too easily beaten the Cavaliers in the first two games. I kept thinking, we need LeBron to be LeBron. The Warriors’ victory would be boring if it’s simply just given to them, I argued. The Cavaliers blew the Warriors out in Game 3, but the Warriors came back in Game 4. The Warriors just needed one more.

I was home for Game 5. I rationalized that we could give the Cavaliers one more game. If the Cavaliers won, the Warriors would be well-rested for Game 6, and win. It’ll be like last year–a six-game series. The narratives, I thought, would be that the Cavaliers played a respectable finals series, but the Warriors shall be the dominant NBA team for the next few years, and Cleveland’s moment will have to wait.

Some folks want to blame the Game 5 loss to Draymond Green’s suspension, but that seems far from the heart of the matter. Even the guys on the Cavaliers whose presence felt nonexistent last year–Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith–made some crucial shots that elevated the team. Surely, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were the true stars, but their supporting cast was strong, and willing to bleed and sweat for Cleveland in a way that the Warriors didn’t seem to care to do for Oakland. Between the crotch-hitting and the name-calling and the mouthguard-throwing, the once likable Warriors were on the brink of being losers.

At the end of Game 7, the Warriors lost to the Cavaliers, 93-89. The end of their fairy tale season didn’t end in a championship, but a loss at home. I felt sad for Oakland, a city that’s only half an hour away, and a city that was once nefarious for crime, but was revived by a champion basketball team. Deep down, though, I felt conflicted about the actual Warriors, a team whose celebrity and records were beginning to overshadow their work ethic and focus on and off the court.

Yet, there was the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has never won an NBA championship. Cleveland itself hasn’t won anything since the Cleveland Browns’ Super Bowl victory eons ago. Collapsed on the ground of Oracle arena, there was LeBron James–the inevitable finals MVP–crying. Crying, because the odds were against him and his team. Crying, because he had won. Crying, because he had fulfilled exactly what he had set out to do by coming back home.

No matter who you were rooting for, it was hard not to feel incredibly happy for the Cavaliers’ victory. They roared back from a three-game deficit–a feat that no other team had ever achieved in any finals series. Their win felt magical. The scrappy underdogs had won. And, yes, it felt ridiculous, calling LeBron James–a superhuman basketball machine–an underdog, but in a way, he was. For someone who is so unbelievably good at his game, there are still detractors arguing that he isn’t. The Cavaliers were given a second chance, and they took it. Their leader, LeBron James carried them, but they also learned to carry themselves.

Earlier this week, I went back and re-read LeBron James’ “I’m Coming Home” essay. Now I understand the context, and now I am more moved by it than ever.

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

Only someone who had his shares of losses would ever say that. Cleveland is an underdog. The Cavaliers are underdogs. And, I shall present my ultimate hot take: LeBron James is an underdog. Yet, he, his team, and his town won last week, against all odds.

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Part I: 2016, The Year of Second Chances

Dustin Johnson wins US Open despite the golf gods being clearly against him.

Dustin Johnson wins US Open despite the golf gods being clearly against him.

In an effort to be more like Thought Catalog, I’m going to talk some golf.

June 19, 2016 may have been the greatest day in sports, ever. I say this as someone who recently started watching sports after moving home, post-college, because there was nothing better to do. But, this is the Internet, and the Internet is a paradise of amateurs who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Of all the sports on television, I love watching golf. I quickly learned that golf is on three or four hours a day (depending on the tournament) on weekends, which makes the narratives extremely easy to follow. I actually fell in love with golf during last year’s U.S. Open, or at least it was one of the many turning points.

First, it was Masters, then it was the Players, then it was the U.S. Open. Notice that two out of those three tournaments was won by 22-year-old (soon to be 23-year-old), Jordan Spieth. Spieth, however, has lost his mojo this year, most notably on the 12th hole at the Masters. I, along with the rest of American golf, was lying on the floor, screaming when his ball fell in the water the second time, and the heartbreak was real. Despite already winning twice on tour this season, let us remember that, Spieth, just this time last year, was on the verge of potentially going for the Grand Slam, and boy, did he get close–finishing tied for fourth at the British Open and a solo second at the PGA Championship, where he relentlessly dueled with current World Number One, Jason Day, who eventually won the major by putting up the ultimate golf clinic.

As last year’s golf season came to an end and Spieth was golf’s new star in a post-Tiger era, we almost forgot about Dustin Johnson. Johnson, the man who nearly won the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, as Spieth sat in the clubhouse with his score of -5, waiting to see if Johnson will win, force a playoff, or come in second. Then, Johnson did the unimaginable: he three-putted the 18th hole. Spieth’s coronation as U.S. Open champion, or as golf’s new golden boy, or as one of the greatest of all time, officially began. At the time, I was far too young a sports fan to comprehend how damn heartbreaking Johnson’s three-putt was–I was happy to see Spieth win, having been practically introduced to golf because of Spieth’s performance at Augusta, and was extremely impressed by how he bounced back from his double-bogey at Chambers–but re-watching Johnson three-putt was hard.

Johnson was seen as a choker–perhaps unlucky, at times, but a choker. Yet, at this year’s U.S. Open, he was simply dazzling: an exciting, precise bomber and an improved putter. I’m going to admit that I was initially rooting for Sergio Garcia (the ultimate golf underdog) the whole time. For a moment, it looked like there was a chance that Garcia could very well prevail, especially after the amazing hole-in from the bunker on the eighth hole, which was followed by him rescuing a bird. However, Garcia faltered a bit in the back-nine and had to settle for a T-5 finish.

As the day progressed, the main narrative quickly switched to Johnson. When the USGA told Johnson at the twelfth hole that the rule officials were still reviewing whether or not his putter may have caused his ball to roll backwards (??) at the fifth hole, but they wouldn’t let him know whether or not he’ll get a one-shot penalty until after the round is over (??), I felt awful for Johnson, who had to play the rest of his round not knowing whether or not he’ll be penalized. While this may have affected the rest of the field–and judging by the final scores, it certainly may have had a profound effect–I couldn’t imagine the pressure he was under. Although many have criticized Johnson for being sort of a blank slate (read Shane Ryan’s chapter on Johnson in Slaying the Tiger), I’m willing to argue that pressure is still pressure in the final round of the U.S. Open, and whatever Johnson was experiencing was probably no different. And he got to show the USGA what he was made of–finishing the round at -5, a four-shot lead, making the one-shot penalty ruled after his round a moot point.

While I love bombers (I absolutely love watching Bubba Watson drive a ball off the tee), Johnson never appealed to me. While he’s sort of an underdog with his history of major disappointments (no pun intended), he didn’t really have much character. Sure, he is an attractive athlete who is engaged to Wayne Gretzky’s attractive socialite daughter and they have a beautiful child together–but, then what? Compared to his fellow players’ very candid showcases of disappointment after a big loss, Johnson never seemed too bothered by his losses, even as the rest of the world watched in collective horror. Perhaps over-coached by media coaches, he even failed to be compelling when he had to explain his drug addiction.

Yet, there was something magical about Johnson’s win at the U.S. Open. Whoever he was off the course merged with the sunset-lit golf hero he became over the course of the back nine of Oakmont. The patrons chanted “DJ, DJ, DJ” and “USA, USA, USA” as Johnson walked to the 18th hole with a definitive lead. Alas, that lack of taking it all too seriously, seems to work well for him this time around. While the likes of Spieth and Rory McIlroy were seen tweeting furiously at USGA’s decision to maybe penalize Johnson at the end of the round, Johnson, though rattled, played it much cooler than anyone else in his position would have. The USGA had since apologized after the wrath had ensued.

I admire Johnson so much for keeping calm, because I feel like it’s the complete opposite of how I, and many others, would have reacted. Beside the fact that Johnson is a world-class golfer, I admire him for relying on pure talent and intuition–qualities that I, and many other people, probably don’t possess. And, in a first time in a long time, so did the rest of a golf world, who, in the past year, had embraced Spieth, whose on-course cerebral neuroses and off-course gee whizery made him so relatable and charming. Now, I suppose, we’re ready to be enchanted by a different kind of golfer–one that we see so little of ourselves in, yet should strive to be more like. Because he rose from the ashes of last year’s three-putt at the 18th hole at Chambers Bay to birdie the 18th hole at Oakmont, against all odds.

Calvin Harris is an Okay Person

I did my research and have discovered that Calvin Harris is an okay person. Now I just need to share my newfound knowledge with the world.

I just did my research and have discovered that Calvin Harris is an okay person. Now I just need to share my newfound knowledge with the world.

When Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris broke up, like, two weeks ago, I felt nothing, obviously. Because when two pretty, rich, famous people break up, they are bound to experience other magical romances, while I remain at my work desk writing an email to someone who needs a response ASAP about some trivial thing that literally no one else cares about.

Then, this happened:

Like the bored loser I am, I read the entire Sun article, and felt a strange sense of sympathy for…Calvin Harris. Yes, Calvin Harris, of all people.

To provide some context, I’ve always thought Calvin Harris looked like a douchebag. In fact, I’ll go a bit further: I’ve always thought Calvin Harris was a douchebag, and was precisely the kind of douchebag who existed in the Taylor Swift Media Narrative solely to complete Taylor Swift’s post-1989 transformation from Blonde Taylor to Brunette Taylor a la the “You Belong with Me” music video (“Blonde Taylor” and “Brunette Taylor,” as in the characters, not the actual hair colors). Continuing my lifelong tradition of making shit up, I concluded all of these things about Calvin Harris knowing absolutely nothing about Calvin Harris, except for a few of his top 40 pop hits. I wasn’t really sure if he had any thoughts, feelings, or personality, and even if he did, I was pretty sure they were of the douche variety.

A few months ago, I read that Calvin Harris chose the name “Calvin Harris” to be “racially ambiguous.” Not quite douchey, but seems extremely silly. Calvin Harris, in the same interview, even went on to say, “I thought people might not know if I was black or not.” Sure, okay. I don’t really know how the music industry or EDM fans would perceive the difference between his birth name “Adam Wiles” and “Calvin Harris,” or why it would even matter because they are both seemingly bland and potentially white boy names, so Calvin Harris may have been over-thinking this non-problem.

So despite all of this, the Sun article made me sad for the guy. This particular paragraph sort of got me:

Taylor and Calvin announced their split on June 1, just ten days after Calvin was involved in a car crash in Los Angeles just hours before he was due to DJ in Las Vegas.

He was being driven to the airport when a 16-year-old girl crashed her Volkswagen Beetle into his 4×4, leaving him with facial cuts.

Calvin Harris was involved in a car crash with a 16-year-old girl (is she okay??). Then girlfriend Taylor Swift breaks up with him. Two weeks later, The Sun publishes a bunch of ridiculously picture-esque photos of ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift and her new beau, Tumblr heartthrob, Tom Hiddleston.

Okay, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but the fact that an internationally renowned DJ (I guess?? I know nothing about DJs, but I know this guy’s name and he’s Scottish, so he must be both international and renowned) had to miss a DJ gig in Vegas because he was involved in a car crash with a teenage girl is enough for me to do some research on the guy. Oh, and his ex-girlfriend, who many predicted was going to base her next album about HIM dumping HER broke up with HIM and has moved on to a new lover. Who knew this was all that needed to happen for me to be partially intrigued by Calvin Harris? Probably no one.

Moreover, Calvin Harris has begun removing evidence on social media that he and Taylor Swift were ever a thing. He has recently unfollowed her and her brother (lol he followed her brother? and unfollowed him? bro didn’t do anything wrong, though!!) on Twitter, deleted their break-up PSA tweet, and deleted some Instagram photos. Pretty sad!

All of this made me wonder: Who is the real Calvin Harris? Is he really a douchebag? Which led me to an insightful, candid interview with Calvin Harris from 2009–back when he was still primarily working with British artists. Most notably, this part stood out to me:

A supremely motivated sole trader – he’s never touched drugs and has been teetotal for a year, the better to have a clear, creative mind at all times – he writes, produces and mixes all his own music.

(So, if only Mike Posner had been hanging out with Calvin Harris instead of Avicii, he wouldn’t have had to try so hard! Except he also wouldn’t have been able to pen his comeback hit with that cool opening line, sadly.)

I’m sort of shocked that Calvin Harris doesn’t need drugs or alcohol to sustain his line of work, yet I admire his discipline. I would need a lot of drugs and alcohol to play EDM music every night to my drugs and alcohol induced fans. But what is more shocking is that this directly contradicts with my image of Calvin Harris. I was about 105% sure that Calvin Harris was this stoner drugged up alcoholic party boy who was definitely going to cheat on Taylor Swift with a million models, perhaps one or two from her #squad, but now, after reading this interview from 2009 (I know it’s from 2009, but let’s just say he’s still the same dude), I kind of doubt he was ever that kind of douche.

I also appreciate some of Calvin Harris’ tweets the article referenced:

YouTube have now removed the ORIGINAL mix and video of ‘Ready for the Weekend’, due to a ‘copyright claim’. It’s my song, you bastards (12.46am, 23 July)

There are videos up there that other people have uploaded of the same song, and they haven’t been removed!? But mine has! (12.50am, 23 July)

It’s the fucking BPI [British Phonographic Industry]. ‘The BPI’ what have you ever done for anybody you useless shower… (12.52am, 23 July)

Piers Morgan interviewing Richard Branson asking him how much is a pint of milk, really insightful journalism. I hate ITV (2.53pm, 1 March)

I’m glad Kate Nash is getting married, imagine all the material she’ll have for next album, buying a dress, doing your hair, eating a cake (4.17am, 25 February)

I totally just listened to an old Kate Nash favorite, “Merry Happy,” and girl literally sang “Dancing at discos, eating cheese on toast.” So my new man CH (as this post dwindles down, we’re now on an initial basis) has a point here.

Also, it’s sort of comforting to learn that he used to look like a weird alt nerd. I like to think if you were ever part of our community, you’re always going to be part of our community. But he gives me hope that we (as in the weird alt nerd community, I guess) may all grow up to be super chiseled Armani models.

Back when Calvin Harris looked like a weird alt nerd and would have had to pay Armani billions of dollars to model for them.

Back when Calvin Harris looked like a weird alt nerd and would have had to pay Armani billions of dollars to model for them. But this gives me so much hope, guys.

I’m going to conclude this convoluted rant? defense? love letter? of Calvin Harris with this majestic tweet from today:

Relatable! I guess Calvin Harris is an okay person after all.

I Watched Mozart in the Jungle Because the Golden Globes Reminded Me I Had To Finish It Someday

Highligh (Lola Kirke) and Rodrigo de Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal) take a bus around Mexico because they are totally not meant to be.

Highligh (Lola Kirke) and Rodrigo de Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal) take a bus around Mexico by themselves because they are totally not meant to be.

I was at a Golden Globes viewing party when Mozart in the Jungle won in two major television categories–Best Television Series – Comedy and Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy. Its win was perplexing to many, mainly because no one has even heard of the show, created by Roman Coppola (a Coppola), Jason Schwartzman (another Coppola), and Alex Timbers (a non-Coppola).

But I’ve heard of it. In fact, I actually watched the pilot episode two years ago when Amazon first posted it as a Prime offering, and didn’t even have the option to watch the second episode because Amazon still hadn’t picked it up for a full season at the time. I’m hesitant to say I liked it before it was cool, but I definitely watched it before it was cool.

After Mozart in the Jungle’s unexpected wins at the Globes, Medha was responsible for watching and reviewing the first season, and I was responsible for watching and reviewing the second season. Medha blew through the two seasons because she was able to watch the show on her train rides home and even wrote about it months ago, while I binged the first season and indefinitely stopped watching season two, until today. So, I’m sorry, I’m a terrible blogger who can’t make commitments.

The first season was charming enough, thanks to Gael Garcia Bernal’s irresistible performance as the wunderkind maestro of the New York Philharmonic, Rodrigo de Souza. Bernal’s performance in season one is wonderful in the sense that he adds so much depth to a character that could have been a textbook brat on paper. Bernal plays the character with such vitality and wit that he makes some of the amateur classical music references sound like jokes a world-class conductor could conceivably crack. In addition, season one allowed its audience to marvel in the fact that Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell are regulars on a streaming television series because, well, it’s 2015.

Yet, season two loses some of the whimsical charm from season one. Our oboist-protagonist, Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), is no longer the lost, semi-relatable gal (as relatable as a twentysomething female protagonist in a NYC-set comedy series could potentially be to a normal human being who binge-watches television shows) struggling to make it in the big city as the conductor’s personal assistant, but is now a member of the New York Philharmonic. She sleeps with a famous cellist, charms a wealthy banker, and makes out with her conductor. Gone is the girl who was so easily charmed by a con man and was dating a freelance dancer–Hailey Rutledge is now a cool city girl who can have pretty much anyone and anything she wants.

Protagonists become boring when things fall into place for them. As for the other characters, however, things are not falling into place quite yet. The rest of the orchestra is making demands for their livelihood–to be better compensated, to have better health insurance, and so on. While the show presents a real problem–musicians not being paid enough to be the cornerstone of a very monied institution–the show sort of glosses over the serious issues with libido-driven digressions. Case in point: cellist Cynthia Taylor (Saffron Burrows) falls for the orchestra’s hired lawyer (Gretchen Mol), creating an awkward love triangle between the two women and flutist Bob (Mark Blum).

Yet, Bernal remains the heart of the show. Without him, the show is nothing. While the Roman Coppola’s beautifully directed episode, “How to Make God Laugh” set in Mexico City contains the breezy, playful charm of season one, or more specifically, the “You Go to My Head” episode (also directed by Coppola), it’s Bernal’s performance that shines above all else. “You Go to My Head” is one of the first episodes in the series where the show probes a bit deeper into Rodrigo’s fragile, childlike soul–directly showing the extent as to Rodrigo relates to a child prodigy–and “How to Make God Laugh” acts as sort of a coda to the sentiments expressed in “You Go to My Head,” removing Rodrigo from NYC and pushing him to reflect away from the limelight. There’s a vulnerability to Bernal’s performance that I’m willing to bet isn’t in the script; he elevates the character and the show so much so that it feels that his performance should actually exist in a different show. Surprisingly, though, Bernal’s performance also feels like it could very well belong in Mozart in the Jungle’s cartoonish stupor, which is perhaps his greatest achievement of all.

There remains, in season two, some great supporting performances by Bernadette Peters as the orchestra’s manager, Gloria Windsor, who, we find out in season two, CAN ALSO SING (surprise!!) and Malcolm McDowell as the begrudged former conductor, Thomas Pembridge. They’re fun, but they don’t really add any gravitas to the show.

Which brings me to the show’s main problem–it’s not a very ambitious show. While Bernal does a lot of the heavy lifting with his performance, the show itself is extremely thin. Never does the show feel particularly thoughtful or insightful about human relationships, dedication to one’s work, or musical culture. In fact, it feels cliched and silly, and more so in season two where we’re supposed to believe in tea leaves and curses. I suppose one can argue that the show is not invested in conveying important things and it’s meant to be a delightful romp. Sadly, it feels like the show has so much potential to be more than a silly, misguided attempt to make classical music sexy to twenty-first century denizens. Look no further than some recent films about musicians, such as the underrated The Last Quartet, or the excellent Whiplash for examples of films that Mozart in the Jungle could take note of.

I’m not sure where the Coppolas and Alex Timbers are going with this show. Season two ends with a cliffhanger, but we’re sort of assured that everything is probably going to be all right because things rarely turn out badly on this show. That said, dialogue, such as, “I fucking love Bach,” cameos by Beethoven and Mozart, and ice skating jokes about Stravinsky (because Stravinsky is Russian and Russia is cold, get itttt??) can only sustain a show for so long. While there are things still to be explored on this show, I’m not sure how much longer I can stand this low-stakes parade of consumeristic classical music.