by Rick

     Here at Average Joe Sports, we speak for the hoi polloi.  This may arouse confusion, as the hoi polloi don’t generally use terms derived from ancient Greek to describe themselves, but the common man is savvier than marketing executives would lead you to believe. 

     But savvy has its limits.  For example, if you asked your Average Joe back in 1998, “Hey, Joe – what’s the most impressive thing going on in baseball these days,” your Average Joe would likely have given you an incorrect answer: “Whaddaya, deef?!  It’s McGuire v. Sosa v. Griffey v. Maris v. Ruth v. The Gods of All Sport!”  But flying under the radar of these chemically-enhanced jersey-sellers, the real story was the New York Yankees having a season where they won a ridonkulous! 114 games en route to a World Series championship for the pinstripe nation.   

     “Say what?!” quoth the Average Joe, “The Yanks’ ’98 season more important than Mark and Sammy?”  “Not more important, no,” quoth I, “but certainly more impressive.”  Home run totals per season steadily increased after the strike until stronger testing and a Congressional inquiry put steroid testing under the microscope; they have quietly decreased since then.  The Bronx Bombers’ 114, however?  Seasons like that Just Don’t Happen.   

     You can hardly blame the Average Joe, though, because everything he is told is fed to him by an interconnected industry of distribution pipelines and profit growth.  So when Kobe Bryant dropped 81 points on the Toronto Extinct Prehistoric Creatures last week, you could almost hear the armies of industry mobilizing to memorialize and merchandize the event.  Sportswriters fell over themselves trying to find new adjectives to describe his performance.  The Gods of ESPN dissected every free throw, freezing in on close-ups of his manicure, as if to speculate that his cuticles scored at least seventeen. 

     Kobe’s an odd figure to the Average Joe.  We wish he would have played a season of college ball somewhere (preferably our alma mater), but respected his humility and intelligence.  He compared very favorably with Kevin Garnett, with bright eyes and a certain “Aww, shucks” attitude.  We were treated to pages dedicated to his feud with Shaq, but also his respect for Phil Jackson.   We even liked his Sprite commercials.

     The Big Aristotle dieseled it out of town and it seemed for a moment that the first of the many “next Jordans” would finally be able to lead his team without distraction.  Then came The Trial.

     If there’s one thing the American people love watching more than sports, it’s people falling off pedestals.    ESPN did its part, and the ensuing media circus would have made P.T. Barnum proud.   The sexual assault charges were eventually dropped, but at the cost of Bryant’s nice-young-man cred, his advertising deals, and whatever that ring on his wife’s finger cost.   (She now has more carbon on her hand than you’d find in the drain of a coal mine shower.)

     Then BOOM: 81.

     The performance was amazing.  I didn’t see it, and I haven’t seen it, but I’m told it was amazing.  Bryant apparently made more free throws than he actually attempted, made lay-ups from beyond the three-point line, telekinetically willed a put-back into the hole, literally carried his team on his back in the fourth quarter, and was only taken out at the end of the game because Phil Jackson needed him to help Jack Bauer save Los Angeles from terrorists with deadly nerve gas.

     The NBA, which has gradually been losing touch with the Average Joe since MJ left (the second time), cried havoc and let slip the dogs of hype.  Columnists forgave him for his marital indiscretions (a fact for which I’m sure his wife is grateful?).   Predictions of breaking Wilt’s record were asked in hushed tones.  And jerseys sold and advertisers lined up and ticket sales increased and cash registers went ka-ching!

     At the time of this writing, Average Joes, the Detroit Pistons are a ridonkulous! 38-6.   That’s a better pace than the ’96 Bulls record-setting season.  ‘Sheed, Big Ben, Chauncy, Tayshaun, and Rip play solid team ball.  Defense.   Rebounding.  The box out.  The extra pass.  The high-percentage shot.   The kind of stuff you can hear Gene Hackman talking about when you put a seashell to your ear.  (If you’re me, anyway.)

     But across the nation, young men and women still practicing their behind-the-back dribble, turn on the television and see replay after replay of every facet of Kobe’s 81 and wonder what he’s going to do next.   The better question: who are the Lakers going to draft next?  Will they trade to get Kobe the kind of supporting cast that will make it such that he shouldn’t have to score 81 points to save a game?   That ka-chinging I still hear makes me somehow doubtful.  And for those young Average Joes and Janes watching SportsCenter and dreaming of playing professional basketball, that’s a damned shame.