February 26, 2013

More Bobbleheads!!!

With the Wizards winners of three straight, seven of the last nine and streaking towards NBA relevency, its time to turn the focus for a few minutes onto something more important than kicking ass and taking names on the court: bobbleheads, baby! Check out what I brought home last week.

For the last few years, the Washington Wizards have been providing season ticket holders with an exclusive gift as a thank you for being a season ticket holder. I guess it's sort of a compensatory gesture for sticking with the franchise that just hasn't produced what it's supposed to produce, namely a team that wins consistently. This year the team offered a choice for season ticket holders: a set of "starting five" bobbleheads or a team basketball signed by this year's first round draft pick, Bradley Beal.

Now, as you probably understand if you read my blog regularly, I absolutely love bobbleheads. Having said that, even if you are not me and don't share my oh so slight obsession with bobbleheads, I'm not sure how you choose the basketball. I can get basketballs autographed by Bradley Beal at any number of season ticket holder events. True, the basketball with the DC Unity Hand logo is not available for purchase so that makes it a little special. But a custom, limited edition set of bobbleheads? For free?? I'm taking the bobbleheads without a second thought.

This is the second year in a row the team has proposed a bobblehead set giveaway. Last year they abandoned the idea half way through the season, probably because the team rebuild was in full swing and our starting five included Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young, each of whom could have been shown the door at any point (all were, of course, evenually). I have to say I'm not upset about last year's cancellation; I'm happy I don't have to wrestle with keeping or throwing away a McGee bobblehead (throwing away bobbleheads goes against the very fabric of my being but so does pretty much everything JaVale McGee does).

Since we were a couple of months into the current season and I hadn't heard any news on my gift, I followed up with my account representative shortly after the new year to check on the status of the bobbleheads, fearing no news was bad news and steeling myself for the inevitable email response indicating the bobbleheads would once again be canceled. But this year I got some good news. It wasn't canceled at all and last week, I headed down to Verizon Center on trade deadline day (a day off work for me) to pick up the John Wall, Bradley Beal, Jordan Crawford, Trevor Ariza and Nenê bobblehead set. What a treat! I get giddy every time I get a new bobblehead, but five in one day? Imagine my euphoria.

First of all, while I love this set, let me say that this is no starting five. The combination of these five guys has NEVER EVER started a game for the Washington Wizards. And I'm OK with that entirely. I'm not complaining here. When I contemplated the possible starting five combinations for this group, I was worried that I would end up with an Emeka Okafor bobblehead, who by the way has been tearing it up since I put Emeka in my least favorite Wizard status in my mid-season post. Again, not like Emeka should care what I think but I didn't want an Okafor bobblehead this year. I'm a little distraught at what could have been (Martell Webster would have been awesome) but I can't get everything I want all the time. At least not yet.

For a minute I thought the real John Wall and Trevor Ariza were hanging out at my place.
This set is awesome. These are definitely not your ordinary standard everyday bobbleheads. There is nothing close to the "generic black man head" that you sometimes get and the paint work is more precise than probably any other bobbleheads I own. Trevor Ariza and John Wall actually look like their real life counterparts; Ariza's almost a dead ringer, although admittedly without the neck tattoos. Clearly whoever ordered these specified better molds and requested they be sent to the most experienced bobblehead painters in the Chinese factory where they are made.

By the way, China has to love bobbleheads. It's like free propaganda against the decadence of western society. I can't imagine what the elderly Chinese craftsman is thinking while slaving to perfect the intricate detailing on a plastic head on a spring so some spoiled bourgeois capitalist like me can have these things just sit on his shelf at home and do nothing. And the guy's probably struggling to make ends meet on top of all that. It can't be a difficult sell to the bobblehead factory workers that America is the devil.

But enough politics. Thanks to the Chinese workers, there are some great details on these things. I love the hair detail on Nenê's head and the birthmark, dimples and teenage chin stubble on Bradley Beal's. With his hair, Nenê has probably the largest head to body ratio of any of my bobbleheads. The bigger the head, the better; it just looks that much more ridiculous. Despite the attention to detail, the designers of the bobbleheads forgot the circumflex over the second e in Nenê's name on both the jersey and the base. Small complaint, but it's a complaint. Not as bad as the mini Verizon Center we got in 2007 where the court orientation is 90 degrees off from the actual court orientation, but it's a mistake nonetheless.

And then there's Jordan Crawford. Poor Jordan. Traded away the same week his one and only Wizards bobblehead arrives at Verizon Center. It's customary for me to turn the bobbleheads of guys who no longer play for us around after they leave but since there's a whole graphic montage thing behind these guys I'm not sure I'm doing that right away. Plus I think I owe it to Sizzle to leave him facing forward for a while. As non-existent as his defense was, I like Jordan as a sixth man instant offense type guy and he was nothing if not entertaining just about all the time. Jordan was a walking non sequitur. Read his tweets on Twitter or see his photos on Instagram and explain them to me if you can (you won't be able to). I'll probably turn him around in a couple of months when the season's over but until then, he gets to face forward (well almost forward) with the rest of the guys left behind.

As a devoted Wizards bobblehead collector, I'd love to see them do this every year, although I'm not sure I need eight or nine John Wall or Bradley Beal bobbleheads. I'm already averaging one Wall and two Beal bobbleheads per year for their three and one years in the league respectively so far. Maybe they could do a set of bench player bobbleheads next year: I'd love to have Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton bobbleheads on my shelf, although admittedly the average fan would probably not be enticed to buy season tickets with that group as the season's bobblehead offering. I think the priority for the Wizards has to be to re-sign Martell Webster in the offseason and deliver a Martell bobblehead somehow next year. I'd be happy with that as the only addition to my collection next year. 

Next up: Detroit. Have to beat the Pistons tomorrow!

Sort of appropriate I guess that the team is looking forward except for Jordan Crawford. Foreshadowing?

February 21, 2013

The NBA Trade Deadline Should Be A Holiday

After spending all last week roaming around Texas in search of D-League basketball and barbeque, I'm off work again today because today is the NBA trade deadline day. I'm serious. Incredibly, I cannot take this day as one of the 96 calendar days my company offers as a floating holiday so I'm dipping into my Paid Time Off bank for a day of sitting at home in my Eames lounger with ESPN on the TV and Twitter up on my iPad Mini waiting for the latest NBA trade rumor that may or may not morph into an actual swap of players.

This is the second year in a row I have taken the trade deadline day off. A couple of years ago on this day at work, I closed my office door at about 1 p.m. and just surfed the internet endlessly in search of trade news. The actual trade deadline is 3 p.m., although trades just have to be submitted to the league for approval at that time so trades can be reported and confirmed after the actual deadline. It doesn't matter if the Wizards make a trade or not, I cannot work on this day from this point forward.

I do some silly things as a Wizards fan (insert any number of smart ass lines here...) but none is perhaps as silly as taking this day off. I mean, watching the NBA Draft either in person or on TV is as un-exciting as hearing a bunch of names read out loud sounds but at least there is a show or event to watch. On trade deadline day there's nothing to watch: no program, no in studio analysis, nothing. It's just waiting for something to happen and reacting to every speculation by every pundit connected in any way to the NBA out there. Nonetheless, I'll be attached to the TV/iPad the whole day today and each future trade deadline day.

Last year the Wizards pulled off a stunner of a trade which first came to light right at about 3 p.m., sending dead weight and perennial knucklehead JaVale McGee to Denver for Nenê, who went a long way to instantly changing the culture of the organization. Despite the team's recent surge, going 11-9 over their last 20 games, there's no doubt some more tweaking this year might seem in order. The big speculation for the Wizards this year was possibly moving Jordan Crawford, who started the season strong on a depleted roster but who recently has not seen a whole lot of time on the court.

The biggest deal of the day was the Orlando Magic sending J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks involving multiple players from both teams. Yep, that's it. The second biggest deal is debatable. Not a whole lot of action today. The highly anticipated deal (to anywhere) for the Atlanta Hawks' Josh Smith didn't go down. Nor did Dwight Howard get traded (no suprise there). Definitely a quiet day.

The Wizards did end up moving Jordan Crawford to Boston for Jason Collins, who is on a one year deal, and Leandro Barbosa, who is on a one year deal and is also, by the way, done for the year with a torn ACL. This deal doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, unless somehow Jordan was a problem in the locker room when not playing, which I have never heard (doesn't mean it isn't true). We do get a little more than $2 million of salary off the books next year for trading the last year of Jordan's rookie deal for nothing but since we are already over the salary cap for next year anyway that doesn't help the team a whole lot, unless we are willing to exceed the salary cap next year. I hope we are not just shedding salary in this move, although I'd applaud the move if it allows us to wrap up Martell Webster for the next few years, which it might.

It's too bad we had to part with Jordan from this fan's perspective. I thought Jordan carried our offense a lot in the first couple of months this season and never got the credit he deserved. On the other hand, he's clearly not Bradley Beal and suffers at the defensive end of the court so if we lose a guy who isn't playing right now who we wouldn't have re-signed anyway, I'm not sure I'm losing any sleep over this decision. This season's trade deadline is clearly different than last year's. Last year, I unfollowed Nick Young and JaVale McGee on Twitter as soon as the trade was confirmed. I won't be doing that with Jordan.

Looks like I need to take Jordan Crawford's picture off my Wizards wall.

February 15, 2013

NBDL Tour Side Quest: Texas Barbeque

Sausage and brisket plate at Franklin Barbecue. Live Oak's Big Bark Amber in the glass.
One of my hopes in traveling to Texas to watch basketball was that I would find some good barbeque while I was there. This was not my first quest to find good barbeque but I swore it would be my last if I didn't find something really really good. I've eaten barbeque (or barbecue or BBQ, if you prefer) in what I would consider to be some fairly significant destinations, including North Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville and even once before in Texas, and I have never EVER found it to be worth searching out, with the possible exception of the totally delicious Original Barbeque Sauce at Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City. I could have eaten that stuff on cardboard and it would have tasted good.

But I can admit I've made mistakes in my searches before. I asked the hotel concierge for a recommendation in Memphis and I've randomly picked places in Fort Worth and just pulled into the first place I saw about 200 yards over the North Carolina border. Not very scientific or selective. For all I knew I could have been pulling into the Arby's of barbeque (if you know me, you know I justifiably have a very low regard for Arby's food). So this time I actually did some homework. I'd done that before a cross country trek that took me to Arthur Bryant's and it worked out OK so why not give being prepared another shot. Here's where I went and what I found.

North Main Barbecue's sign and pig.
North Main Barbecue, Euless
I picked this place because it was featured on Food Network's show The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Ted Allen raved about the brisket. I'm not a big Ted Allen fan but I figured there had to be some merit to this claim so I thought I'd check it out. It was also right near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and I landed just before lunch so it was technically almost on my way.

North Main Barbecue is located in a strip mall type setting on the main drag in Euless. It's a cafeteria style atmosphere with rolls of paper towels on the table and dark window tinting film on all the windows (it faces west and I imagine the Texas sun is pretty brutal in the late afternoon). There's a center carving station where the all you can eat meat is placed buffet style with a couple of guys standing behind doling out the meat.

I have a few fundamental objections to barbeque I've eaten in the past and my experience at North Main Barbeque is a shining example of my biggest objection. My impression of barbeque is that most places present well cooked but fairly flavorless meat, slather it with sauce which may or may not be that good, and serve it on bread which is absolutely the cheapest white prepackaged hamburger roll you can find at any grocery store. The whole flavor profile is based on sauce and sauce alone. This is exactly what I got at North Main Barbecue.

Having said that, their sauce is pretty darn good with a strong vinegar base that I love. They also had some hotter sauce on the tables called Cowboy Ketchup which added flavor and heat. I left being impressed by the sauce but not by the rest of the experience. It's not the worst barbeque I've had but I don't think I'd go back.

Pecan Lodge's Pitmaster sandwich.
Pecan Lodge, Dallas
Pecan Lodge is located in Shed No. 2 of the Dallas Farmer's Market (not misspelled; that's the way they spell it) and has been voted by D Magazine as the Best Barbecue in Dallas for the last two years. The Best rating was the magazine's pick, not the readers' pick; important distinction to make there. In addition to the rating, the place is open from 11 a.m. to whenever they sell out. Any place having their closing time as "sold out" has to be good, right? To me, this sounded like a can't miss stop.

I got t0 the market early, figuring there would be something else there to check out so I strolled around looking at stall after stall of the same fruits, vegetables and Virginia peanuts (irony!) on every stall. While I was wandering around, a line had formed at Pecan Lodge. It was about 20 deep by the time I joined it at about 10:20 a.m., forty minutes before opening time, so I got in it. The party ahead of me was on a barbeque tour the last week. It sounded like Pecan Lodge was stop number 10 of 10.

The menu at Pecan Lodge.
By the time the dinner bell rang (yes, they ring a dinner bell), the line had grown. According to the woman in front of me (who counted) there were 64 people in line behind me. Good thing I got there early. The menu is written on a chalkboard at Pecan Lodge and features meat by the pound (a Texas thing apparently), sandwiches and daily specials. Because I'm a sandwich guy, I elected to go with the Pitmaster sandwich, which is brisket, pork and sausage with cole slaw and jalapenos on a roll. I also sprung for the pinto beans because I love beans and will get them pretty much any time I can.

The sandwich is huge, but not too big that you can't bite into it. It's also gorgeous to look at: it's colorful, plated well and just looks delicious. And it didn't disappoint. This is the best barbeque sandwich I have ever had in my life. It was sweet and moist and you could taste the smoke coming through. The meat was cooked well, with a nice crust, without being dry. The sauce added the right amount of tang and the chiles added just a little heat. And it was a real sandwich, well conceived and well balanced from top to bottom. I'd return here for this sandwich in a second. I'd pass on the beans though: a little tasteless for me.

Salt Lick's off the menu sandwich.
Salt Lick, Driftwood
Salt Lick cropped up on so many "best of" lists that I thought I should take a journey off the beaten path to see what all the fuss was about. I also thought it would get me into Texas Hill Country, which my trip otherwise wouldn't take me. Normally I would avoid a place like Salt Lick strictly due to the fact that they sell bottled barbeque sauce and other products on line but I figured why not make an exception. Some folks clearly like this place. I had to see if I agreed.

I drove a ways off the beaten path to get to Salt Lick but after passing through multiple construction zones, I finally arrived. First of all, the signage at this place is confusing and it took me a few minutes to understand just exactly where I was supposed to go. When I finally figured that all out, I found a table based on the hostess' direction ("sit anywhere"). Knowing that I wanted more than one type of meat but also preferred a sandwich, I asked my server for some guidance. He suggested I go off menu and get the brisket and sausage sandwich, which sounded perfect to me because that's exactly what I wanted. I also kicked in an extra buck for three sides: beans, cole slaw and potato salad.

What arrived was a sandwich and some sides packed onto a single plate. The sandwich looked good. I was happy to see they didn't present it to me on the cheapest roll in the grocery store. The brisket looked good, with an obvious smoke ring. But ultimately the sandwich disappointed. I didn't get a whole lot of flavor or smoke out of the sandwich, even when I piled on the habanero sauce on the table. I pulled some of the brisket off the sandwich to see how it tasted which was a good idea. There was more flavor without the other components of the dish but it was dry to me.

The biggest objection I had though was that the sandwich didn't succeed at exactly what it was supposed to be: a sandwich. The bread couldn't stand up to absorbing the moisture from the sausage, brisket and sauce so it sort of fell apart rather quickly. They also sliced their sausage lengthwise, rather than crosswise like at Pecan Lodge, which meant that my teeth had to cut through the sausage to get mouthfuls of sandwich. I found this difficult to do so every time I bit into or onto a piece of sausage, I ended up dragging the whole thing out of the sandwich, leaving me with bread and sauce for my next bite.

I don't think I'd end up going back to Salt Lick if I had the chance. But if I had, I'd skip the sides. I know they were only $1 but they too disappointed.

Franklin Barbecue and part of the omnipresent line.
Franklin Barbecue, Austin
I picked Franklin Barbecue as my in-Austin lunch spot based on the Austin Food Blogger Alliance voting it as the top Barbeque spot in 2012 and I like to think that I can trust an alliance of food bloggers. It has also been featured on Anthony Bourdain's show, No Reservations, which I didn't realize until I googled it Thursday morning to make sure I knew where it was before setting out for a spot in line. I heard about the line from the barbeque tour guys ahead of me at Pecan Lodge so I figured earlier was better here.

The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. and, like Pecan Lodge, is open until they run out of meat. I arrived at 9:45 a.m., a full hour and 15 minutes before opening time and there was already a 29 person line (I counted - there's only so much Twitter I can read in 75 minutes). By the time the place opened, the line was much longer, easily three times as long, so I was glad I showed up early. As soon as they opened the door, this incredible smell wafted out of the place which was a good early sign.

Franklin Barbecue's dining room.
Rather than go with a sandwich at Franklin Barbecue, I elected to get a meat plate. I'd heard too many good rumblings about the brisket and knew I also wanted to taste the sausage. The meat plate was the only way I was going to get those two things based on my read of the menu. The brisket slicing process here is one you have to see. First of all, you can get fattier or leaner brisket based on questions asked of you and they know which is which without cutting into the meat. When the meat is cut, the knife slices through the brisket so easily that the knife has to be super super super sharp or the meat is that tender. It's the latter by the way; you can cut this stuff with a plastic fork it is falling apart that much.

I grabbed my plate complete with sides (beans again, of course, and potato salad) and headed to my table. The brisket may be one of the most delicious pieces of meat I have ever eaten. It's juicy and full of flavor using only salt, pepper and smoke. The bark on this meat is salty and worth savoring. As a reminder, lack of inherent flavor in the meat is one of my fundamental objections to barbeque (until now). There was barbeque sauce on the tables but I didn't use any it was that tasty.

The sausage was juicy and greasy but without being disgusting. The casing snapped and there was something tangy and lipsmacking in there which I'd go back for again. The beans were also creamy and loaded with pork, which is not a bad thing. If there's a complaint here (and there is one), the portion size was just way too big. Three slabs of brisket was more than I needed. There were also some parts of the bark which were way too salty. I've waited in longer lines for food (Pink's Hot Dogs in Los Angeles) but this was worth the wait. I'd do it again.

Lamberts Downtown Barbecue: 401 West Second Street if you are interested.
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Austin
Two barbeque meals in one day was not something I thought I'd ever have. This place finished as a runner up on the Austin Food Blogger Alliance list. I was sort of doubling down on my bet above here but what the hell. The first place winner was awesome. If this came anywhere close to Franklin Barbecue, I'd be a happy diner.

Lamberts was a different experience from the other barbeque places I went to this week. It was more of a restaurant rather than a counter service (admittedly, I got served at Salt Lick) and I went at dinner rather than lunch. The menu looked amazing. I had to restrain myself from ordering the jalapeno hot links with hot pink pickled cabbage and the achiote lime rubbed half chicken and stick to the task at hand which was eating some barbeque  food comparable to what I'd had in Euless, Dallas and Driftwood.

Ultimately, I picked the hot links plate with two sides, in this case beans (what else?) and collard greens and with my food I was presented with three sauces: housemade barbeque, mustard and hot sauces. Despite my attempt to keep this food on an even playing field with the rest of the barbeque I've had this past week, this meal was clearly superior to all the others.

I know the photo's grainy. It was dark. What else can I do?
The sausage is smoked on the premises so Lamberts is doing what every other barbeque place I've eaten at is doing but the flavor was just incredible. The grind on the meat was perfect and the sausage had some great heat which went with both the barbeque and hot sauces really well. The beans were also the best of the trip; the addition of cilantro made these tastier, cutting the creaminess of the beans. I can eat my food fast and I have to tell you I ate slowly here, savoring every bite. If I lived in Austin, I'd come here a lot. And the 512 Pecan Porter went really well with the food by the way.

So after a week of trying, I am clearly not ready to give up on barbeque, although I've convinced myself not to shoot from the hip when it comes to food. I know I'm a food snob and it really helps me to be prepared with my restaurant choices as much as everything else in life. I still have my reservations about this style of food but as I think about it, I am no less disappointed in other types of food that I love (particularly Mexican) than I am in barbeque. There are some places I'd love to go back to that I've dined at this week.

In picking the places above, I read a lot of reviews and opinions and visited each restaurant's website, but I also checked my math, so to speak, with Daniel Vaughn's Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog. It's good to have an opinion from someone who claims to know what he's doing, I guess. I didn't always follow his advice and I'm sure he'd think I'm a novice at this stuff, but I definitely crossed some places off my list based on his blog.

Blues And Basketball In Austin

After Tuesday night's Vipers-Red Claws game, I awoke the next morning and headed out on the road again to see my third D-League game in four nights and the last basketball of this quick trip. The site of Wednesday's game was Austin, or more accurately just outside of Austin, a place I hoped would be very different from Frisco and Hidalgo. In fact I had so much faith that it would be different (i.e. better) that it's the only place I decided to spend two nights on this entire trip. My one and a half days and two nights in Austin started with the Austin Toros hosting the same Maine Red Claws (did I mention best name and logo in the NBDL, hands down?) that I saw face the Rio Grande Valley Vipers the previous evening some 300 miles or so south of Austin.

Austin, contrary to what the Lea Thompson's character in the original Red Dawn movie believed ("Wrong, Commie! It's Houston!), is the capital of Texas. It is also the music center of Texas which is why I've wanted to visit Austin for years. I've already checked Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans off my list, it was time to hit Austin. Austin's music history is one of country and blues, with Willie Nelson, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan all having associations with the town. I hoped I could hear some good music while I was in town in addition to watching hoops. I was determined to find some after the Toros and the Red Claws game and then again the next night.

The Austin area was first settled in 1830, the year that Mexico decided to close then Tejas' border with the United States to stem what had become a troubling number of American settlers crossing the border. In 1839, the capital of what was at the time the Republic of Texas was moved to the Austin area and incorporated as Waterloo. The name was changed shortly thereafter in honor of Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas," who brought the first significant number of American families to settle in the Texas. Today, Austin is big to support the state capital and the University of Texas. There are about 650,000 residents in Austin, a far cry from the 11,000 in Hidalgo.

Unlike the Legends and Vipers who joined the NBDL as expansion teams, the Austin Toros are one of the three surviving original D-League franchises, along with the Tulsa 66ers and the Canton Charge. And just like those other two original members of the league, the Toros didn't begin life where they are now. The team started out in Columbus, Georgia as the Riverdragons in 2001 but moved to Austin after four seasons in 2005. The Toros are the defending NBDL champions although last year's championship won't necessarily translate to success this season as teams in the D-League tend to change over personnel fairly quickly. There is exactly one player, Jamarr Sanders, on this year's team who spent time in Austin last season.

The Toros actually play a little more than 20 miles from Austin in a suburb called Cedar Park. Their arena, the cleverly named Cedar Park Center, seats about 8,000, so it's larger than the arenas in Frisco and Hidalgo and it shows. The Cedar Park Center is the only one of the three D-League arenas I went to with a center scoreboard and instant replay. It gets closer to an NBA experience but with the replay on the scoreboard, there's no space left for stats, which are displayed annoyingly infrequently. As I did the previous night in Hidalgo, I once again sat center court second row for the game and paid far less than I would for an NBA ticket, in this case $40. Beers at the Cedar Park Center are $7.75 for a 24 oz. Budweiser about the same as the other two arenas. My friend Mike texted me during the game with the rhetorical question "Why is beer so expensive everywhere?" Because people buy it at that price, that's why.

The game was competitive into the fourth, when the Toros managed to break the Red Claws' spirit and pull away for a 111-94 victory. The game experience was a good one just like the night before in Hidalgo. My disappointment in the overly kid catering environment in Frisco didn't carry over to Austin or the Rio Grande Valley. I'd go back (but probably won't) to games in either of those places. I managed to track the Wizards-Pistons games on my phone during the game. Our winning streak was ended at four. Just can't beat Detroit this year.

The interest in Wednesday's D-League game for me was to see former Wizard Shelvin Mack play again. And I saw Shelvin play a lot Wednesday night as he logged all 48 minutes with the Red Claws down to only eight healthy players. Shelvin was the Wizards second round draft pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. He lasted all of his rookie season before being cut in training camp in favor of either Jannero Pargo or Earl Barron, depending on your perspective. Shelvin is consistently on the top of the D-League's prospects call up list and has had stints in the NBA twice this season, once with the Wizards and once for two 10-day contracts with the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Watching Shelvin's game, it's clear to see why he's bouncing between the NBA and NBDL. He's clearly the leader of his team. He calls all the offensive sets and defensive assignments, handles the ball every time up and makes sure his team is paying attention to the shot clock. There's no doubt he understands the game very well and he's serious about what he's doing. But he's also physically limited. He's not really quick enough or skilled enough to play point guard in the NBA as a guy with heavy minutes and he's not really long enough to defend or rebound against taller shooting guards. Shelvin's invariably in place to rebound or right in his guy's face on defense but he lost rebounds to an opponent taller than him and couldn't reach a few fadeaway jumpers from his counterpart. I hope the D-League serves him well and he gets back to the NBA again this season. I appreciated Shelvin coming over and saying hi to me before the game. As Royce White told me the night before, Shelvin's a good dude.

Fans in Austin are hard core. Some dude brought a giant Shelvin Mack head to wave at Shelvin and taunt him.
I didn't stick around much beyond the final buzzer for this one. I needed to get a beer or two in a blues club somewhere quick. Wednesday night I decided I'd take about any music played competently whereas Thursday I thought I should be more selective and serious. Austin's main drag is Sixth Street, sort of an equivalent to Memphis' Beale Street or New Orleans' Bourbon Street, although way smaller scale than the latter. Wednesday night I bounced between a couple of clubs with bands playing bad George Thorogood or Tom Petty covers before settling in at Latitude Thirty, a club on San Jacinto Boulevard, for a couple of Lone Star beers and a partial set. At one time while I was there, the club actually had four musicians and three patrons; most people were stepping in for $2 shots before quickly moving on, probably for another $2 shot somewhere else.

Sixth Street by day. It looks much different (i.e. drunker) at night.
Thursday night I weighed my options more carefully, ultimately choosing to see the Big Guitars From Texas at Antone's on Fifth and Lavaca over Tift Merritt and David Wax Museum on Sixth Street. If there is a club to know in Austin, it's Antone's. The place was founded by Clifford Antone in the mid-1970s and has been played by many blues legends, including Clifton Chenier, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan. So as this may be my only night spent in Austin, I had to not pass this one up.

Little did I know but Big Guitars From Texas were nominated for a grammy in 1986 in the Best Rock Instrumental Category (they lost to Jeff Beck) for their instrumental Guitar Army. This show was a reunion and benefit show for one of their members, Evan Johns, who played but who clearly was ailing, preferring to sit through the show. And ultimately the show was a great ending to a quick trip, a four guitar mostly instrumental show to send me back to D.C. with some good memories. I clearly didn't spend enough time in Austin. Live and learn.

February 14, 2013

Paying Tribute To Stevie Ray

In the spring semester of my senior year at the University of Michigan, I bought a ticket to see Eric Clapton at the Palace in Auburn Hills, MI. I couldn't find anyone sufficiently motivated to go with me so I went solo, not the first or last time I went to a show by myself. Before the concert, I was talking to a guy sitting next to me who raved about a Stevie Ray Vaughan show he had seen two nights earlier at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. He questioned if Clapton would measure up to Vaughan. I thought this guy was insane to question Clapton's preeminence since I really didn't listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan's music or understand how good he was at that time.

Halfway through Clapton's show, which I thought was lackluster to that point, Vaughan joined EC on stage and sat in on "Before You Accuse Me" and "After Midnight." Without question, Stevie Ray torched Clapton that night; he absolutely blew him off the stage. And when he was done hosting, Clapton, as if embarrassed, picked up on the energy brought on by Stevie Ray and finished the show strong.

Almost 23 years later, Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of my favorite guitarists. I have every one of his solo and Double Trouble studio albums but his live stuff is what I really love. His Live at Carnegie Hall is one of my favorite albums of all time and the double album which documents his 1982 and 1985 shows at the Montreux Jazz Festival is almost as good. I never got to see Stevie Ray Vaughan play a complete show by himself because about three months after I saw him that night in Auburn Hills (from waaaaay back in the Palace, I might add), he died in a helicopter accident after leaving an outdoor show near Milwaukee.

Vaughan was born and raised in Dallas, Texas but dropped out of high school at 17 and moved to Austin, where he really cut his teeth playing clubs in various groups. So Austin, which has such an amazing music scene, became his home and he likewise became a son of that city. In October 1993, a little more than three years after his death, a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan was erected in Auditorium Shores park in Austin. I just had to make the walk from my hotel, across the river to the park to see his statue, listen to my iPod and think about the great music Stevie Ray left behind for me and everyone else to enjoy. Gone 23 years now, I hope he's still playing the blues somewhere.

February 12, 2013

Sitting Courtside In Hidalgo

Of all the places I am visiting on my basketball tour of Texas, I was looking forward to going to Hidalgo most of all. Seriously. It's a tiny town literally on the Mexican border. How can it get better than this? I have always had semi romantic notions of staying in small town America on vacations but never do it because quite honestly there's no reason for me to stay in small towns. I'm a city guy, what can I say? But Hidalgo has an NBDL team and that gives me a reason to stay for one night at least. Tuesday night their team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, were hosting the Maine Red Claws (best name and logo in the NBDL, hands down). So Tuesday afternoon, I moved in to Hidalgo's Super 8, which is literally across the driveway from the arena, at a cost of about $50 and took in some hoops that night.

The Hidalgo area was first settled by the Spanish in 1749, meaning this area was inhabited well before the Republic of Texas was created. The town itself went through a series of names before finally settling on Hidalgo in 1885. Today the town has all of 11,000 or so residents. I suppose it's sort of a suburb of McAllen (population 123,000) and Brownsville (population 178,000) but suffice it to say there's more nothing than something around Hidalgo, mostly fields for crops or cattle. For perspective for those of you reading in northern Virginia, the population of Arlington is about 190,000.

The town sits right on the Rio Grande in the Rio Grande Valley, which is one of the richest ecosystems in the southwest United States. The sizeable Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which contains 400 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies is nearby and serves as a significant tourist attraction in the area. In the town of Hidalgo itself, there's not a whole lot to see. The most exciting attractions in town are the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse and a staue of a giant killer bee. Apparently the killer bee was first discovered in the United States in Hidalgo. Good times!

Following the Texas Legends before them, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers were an expansion team, joining the NBDL for the 2007-2008 season. They have spent their entire six year history playing in the Rio Grande valley. In their third season, they managed to win the D-League finals and were the runner up the following season so the team has experienced some pretty good success in a short period of time. For perspective, they have as many championships as my Washington Wizards in about one tenth the time. Apples to oranges comparison, I know.

The Vipers play at the State Farm Arena which, according to the venue's website, seats between 5,500 and 6,800 for basketball. That's a little more than the Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco holds but still way less than the 20,000 or so at Verizon Center. The State Farm Arena website lists the hockey and concert capacity but not the basketball capacity, like basketball doesn't matter or something. The hockey capacity is 5,500. I'm assuming the building holds slightly more for hoops since folks, including me, sit on top of the ice.

Just as I did in Frisco two nights earlier, I paid far less than the price of an NBA game for my Vipers ticket. My center court, second row seat in Hidalgo cost me $50, which is the most pricey D-League ticket I bought on this trip. That price compares to between $850 and $1,250 at Wizards home game at Verizon Center. This game is four to six percent of that price. Beers at the State Farm Arena are $5.75 for 16 oz. of Budweiser (cans only) so only 10 percent cheaper. Funny how the price of beer doesn't change much from the NBA to the minor leagues.

When I got to the game, I actually had a rude surprise waiting for me. The second row ticket that I bought on Ticketmaster had been sold to a season ticket holder since I bought the ticket and therefore wouldn't be honored. Instead of my second row seat, they moved me courtside on the Vipers bench side of the court. OK by me. Definitely the first time I have sat courtside anywhere and it definitely made the game more exciting, although I had to get used to players and coaches walking in front of me during the game. The game itself was a no defense affair, a 139-122 victory for the Vipers. Former Wizard Shelvin Mack plays for the Red Claws so it was good to see Shelvin play again even though he didn't have the best game of his D-League career.

But the main excitement for me in this game was the chance to get to see Royce White once again play basketball. I became intrigued with Royce last year during the NCAA tournament and have followed his saga since, a story which hopefully gets way better starting with Tuesday's game. Royce White was the 16th selection in the 2012 NBA Draft. He was selected as the second of three first round draft picks held by the Houston Rockets this past year. But to date, Royce has not played a minute of NBA basketball for the Rockets for various reasons including depth at his position, sitting out and being suspended by the team. The majority of his non-playing time has been caused by a dispute he has been engaged in with the Rockets about his mental fitness and how that affects his ability to play basketball safely. Royce suffers from general anxiety disorder which affects, among other things, his ability to travel, especially by airplane, which a number of people in the press and public have falsely latched on to as his only source of anxiety.

His dispute with the Rockets, which has been featured on ESPN's Outside The Lines and HBO's Real Sports, centered on his contention that he needs an independent qualified medical professional to have the final say on his ability to play basketball on any given day. He wrestled with this issue during his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota, where he was not entirely successful, and Iowa State University, where he played a full season and led the Cyclones in his one and only season last year in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game. He is clearly a talented basketball player, a fact driven home to me this past summer in Las Vegas where he dominated the paint against the Wizards in a game I attended during summer league play. Anyway his saga with the Rockets led to suspension without pay by the team on January 6 and an eventual resolution to the situation on January 23 with an agreement for Royce to report to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on February 11, which happened to be Monday.

Sitting courtside allowed me the chance to talk to Royce before the game and let him know how much I supported him and how I hoped he didn't become this generation's Curt Flood (look it up) breaking ground for generations of players but getting blackballed in the process. Royce allowed that he could be blackballed for making his own stand but said he'd be OK financially which was my main concern. Royce is a smart guy and that comes across in interviews and conversations. He also noted that he feels lucky just to be playing the NBDL, advocating that most of the guys at this level are just as good as they are in the NBA. He's lying here and it's false modesty. Royce is better than the D-League and he's not going to be here too long in my opinion. His game was a little rusty but how good he can be showed in his passing. His second assist of the night was just gorgeous.

It took Royce forever to tie his shoes. Not surprisingly. He also wore his socks inside out. I wish I'd noticed that when I was talking to him. I'd love to know what that is about.

For some reason, I love water towers.

February 11, 2013

The Road To Mexico

My second D-League game of the week is all the way down in Hidalgo, right on the border with Mexico. The trip from Frisco to Hidalgo is 540 miles, which Google Maps calculates as an 8 hour, 19 minute drive. While I've certainly driven that far in a day before, that's just too much for me to take on this trip by myself. Fortunately, San Antonio sits pretty much midway between the two cities so I decided to take a day off from basketball and stop there for a night, although I hoped to find a sports bar somewhere that would allow me to watch at least the end of the Wizards game against the Milwaukee Bucks that night.

I had visited San Antonio once before for an overnight business trip in 2008. There was enough time on that trip for me to make sure my presentation to my client the next day was finalized; see a little bit of the Riverwalk (which I detested - I hate urban interventions that separate pedestrians from the street grid); stroll around the city enough to know how to get back to my hotel; and grab some Jack In The Box on the way back to the airport. So I was excited on this vacation to finally spend almost a whole day exploring the city. I was especially excited because the two things on my agenda scream Texas to me: the Alamo and the Rodeo.

Of all the people in the United States, no state's population seems to be prouder of their home state than Texians are. I don't get it at all and probably never will but there's no denying it; just check out the DMWT (Don't Mess With Texas - yes, they no longer even spell it out) t-shirts at the airport when you arrive in Dallas if you need proof. The siege at the Alamo during the Texas Revolution seems to me to embody that Texian spirit: an outnumbered, ill-trained bunch of ordinary citizens willing to lay down their life with no guaranteed commensurate reward just to get Texas free of Mexican control.

The Texas Revolution was the first of two wars in a span of 16 years that took Texas from Mexican control to a part of the United States. In 1824, the Mexican government decided the best way to maintain control of Texas (then Tejas) was to allow colonization of the territory by anyone who wanted to settle there. Offers of cheap land with promises of credit extensions led to an influx of settlers from the United States. In 1830, just six years later, there were enough United States citizens living there that it seemed more like a state of the U.S. rather than a part of Mexico. Fearing this might lead to a struggle for control of the territory with the very people who they allowed to move there, Mexico closed the border that year, which ironically sparked revolution, the very thing it was supposed to prevent. On March 2, 1836, a group of Texas settlers attacked a fort at Velasco on the Gulf of Mexico and the revolution was on.

The legendary spot of the supposed line on the ground General Travis drew to inspire his men.
The Battle of Velasco was the first skirmish in a four year long war that ended in an independent Republic of Texas. The signature battle occurred at the Alamo, the former Mission San Antonio de Valera which had been converted to a makeshift fort to house a garrison of soldiers. Construction of the Alamo had begun in 1724 by Spanish missionaries sent to convert the native populations to Christianity. In 1793, the mission was secularized and its lands were returned to the native populations. Forty three years later, on March 6, 1836, a vastly outnumbered group of Texians repelled two attacks by the well trained and equipped Mexican army before yielding to the third and final attack, resulting in the death of everyone inside. Despite the victory, the battle took a huge toll on the Mexican forces led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and less than two months later, on April 21, 1836, that army was defeated for good by Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto. The independent Republic of Texas was born although Mexico never recognized the Republic. It took until the U.S.-Mexican War a little more than a decade later for Mexico to agree that Texas was no longer part of Mexican territory.

Today the Alamo looks nothing like it did in 1836. The mission church is still in the same spot it was during the battle, although the roof that was missing in 1836 is now completed. The remainder of the property is vastly different than it was when it fell to Santa Anna. The church now occupies the western part of the property whereas in 1836 it stood on the eastern part of the fort. The enclosed courtyard of the original mission is now mostly occupied by the Alamo Plaza to the west and office buildings actually encroach on what was the original property. Visiting the Alamo today gives a good historical overview of what happened during the Texas Revolution. The models in the exhibit halls and gift store show pretty effectively what sort of challenge the Texians had during the battle.

Following my trip to the Alamo, it was time to see my first, and probably last, rodeo. Every year in early February, the San Antonio Spurs embark on the NBA's longest road trip of the season because the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo is in town. The three week long event started in 1950 and is now one of the top five Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (or PRCA for those more familiar with the acronym!?) events of the year. The rodeo is held nightly and features, in order, bareback riding, steer wrestling, mutton bustin', team roping, saddle bronc riding, calf scramble, tie down roping, barrel racing and bull riding. The rodeo is then followed by musical entertainment. The night I went featured Reba McEntire (or just Reba as I guess it is now) but I didn't stick around for that. I felt out of place enough already!

The opening equestrian flag presentation.
Translating all of the above into something someone north and east of Texas can understand, here's what goes on put into English, or "yankee" if you prefer.

Bareback Riding: Dude on a horse with no saddle basically getting tossed around like a rag doll until he is either forcibly ejected by the horse or elects to get off after the eight second count. This event has the second highest potential for major injury in my uneducated opinion. One rider got stepped on by a horse and one dismounted but his wrist didn't unattach from the horse. They both looked painful. The guy who got stepped on won a $100 gift certificate from Brake Check for his trouble. Apparently the person who gets maimed the worst wins this gift certificate each night.

Steer Wrestling: Dude riding alongside a cow and jumping off his horse while at full gallop onto the cow's neck, then twisting the cow's neck until it falls down beside him. Why anyone wants to do this is beyond me but it's fun to watch.

Mutton Bustin': Four to six year old kids (boys and girls) riding sheep. That's pretty much it. The one who stays on longest seems to win this one.

A successful team roping.
Team Roping: Two guys riding horses chasing a cow down with lassos. One guy ropes the head (pretty easy) while the other guy gets the hind legs (not so easy, since you somehow have to get the lasso underneath the target). Only the teams who get both ends wrapped up get scores that count. This event actually takes skill and I guess I can appreciate it.

Saddle Bronc Riding: Pretty much the same as bareback riding but not as good because the rider seems to have way more control. They should put this before bareback riding in my opinion.

Calf Scramble: This is a little messed up. Basically a bunch of calves are turned loose on the floor with a bunch of teenagers and they spend the next 15 minutes or so trying to put ropes around their heads. Not very exciting.

Tie Down Roping: This one is pretty complicated. The point of the exercise is to rope a calf but the way they do it is complicated. The calf and rider on horse are released simultaneously. The rider ropes the calf's neck with a lasso while stopping his horse dead and dismounting in one smooth motion. The calf, still running, is yanked backwards by the rope which is attached to the now stationary horse (horse weighs more than the calf) and then grabbed by the rider, who ties the calf's four legs together. If the calf stays down for six seconds, the task is considered complete.

Barrel Racing: Woman on a horse racing around three barrels (duh...) in a timed contest. This one is actually pretty exciting. It's clear that if you take anything more than the tightest turn around the barrel, you are not winning this event. Two thumbs up for this event!

The blurry quadruped is a bull trying to dislodge a rider.
Bull Riding: Pretty much the same as bareback riding except with a bull, not a horse, so way more dangerous and way more possibility of bodily harm. These animals are massive. I'm adding bull rider to the very long list of jobs I never want. During the bareback riding, the rider is assisted off the horse by two other riders on horses which they cannot do with the bull. So after the eight second count, it's up to the rider to  get off and the rodeo clowns (also on the list of jobs I don't want) to distract the bull so he doesn't gore the rider. One dude got tossed into the wall by a bull but somehow hopped right up.

I have to say the rodeo was worth the trip to Texas and the trip's only halfway over! It was a blast and I'd do it again (although I probably won't) despite the VERY long prayer we had to endure at the beginning of the thing and missing the entire Wizards game against the Bucks (a fourth win in a row by the way). I also got to gaze with envy on the Spurs' trophy case. Someday, maybe.

February 10, 2013

Frisco, Texas: D-League Assignment

After my overnight stop in Dallas, I was excited to head north to Frisco and take in my first NBDL game, a 3:00 p.m. matinee featuring the home Texas Legends taking on the Tulsa 66ers. Watching D-League ball is, after all, the primary reason for this trip.

Frisco is a suburb of Dallas located about 20 miles up the Dallas North Tollway. The area was first settled in the mid-nineteenth century along the Shawnee Trail, one of the trails used to drive cattle from their grazing grounds to the railway where they could be sold for slaughter. The present town, originally called Frisco City, was established as a stop on the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway which was built nearby the Shawnee Trail. The town took it's name from the railway which had given it life and later dropped the "City" from its name becoming simply Frisco.

Today, Frisco is one of the fastest growing communities in Texas, boasting about 130,000 residents. If I had to compare it to something around my adopted home town of Washington, DC, I'd say it's sort of like a more populous Reston, Virginia, an affluent suburban community 20 or so miles from the city with a town center with shops and restaurants and, in Frisco's case, three professional sports teams: FC Dallas, the Texas Tornado minor league hockey team and the Texas Legends. Frisco has managed to make itself into more of a tourist destination than Reston (which pretty much has zero tourist appeal; sorry, Restonites) through its sports teams and an active public art program. The highlight of the public art for me was a series of full size bronze cattle drive depictions paying homage to the town's and area's roots. They have clearly spent a lot of time and money on these things and it pays off, although I have to wonder how much time people spend appreciating these things. There is also signage documenting the history of cattle driving through the area.

The Texas Legends have been playing in Frisco for three seasons. They started out as the Colorado 14ers in 2006 attempting to join the Continental Basketball Association but they never got started in the CBA. They were technically one of the five teams that jumped from the CBA to the NBDL the year they were founded but, unlike the other four, the 14ers never played a single game before joining the D-League. They lasted three seasons in Colorado before being sold to the Dallas Mavericks organization who moved the team to Frisco after a year hiatus. Nine of the 16 current NBDL franchises are either owned by or affiliated with a single NBA team. The Legends were the one of the first to be owned by an NBA team.

The reason I wanted to make this D-League trip is to see how life in the NBDL compares to life in the NBA or get at least as much of that as I can see from a seat in the arena. My perspective on live professional basketball games is formed from my experiences in Verizon Center and the other basketball arenas I have been to in Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Charlotte, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis and, most recently, Dallas. All of those arenas seat around 20,000 people for basketball. The current capacity of Verizon Center, home of my beloved Washington Wizards, is 20,308 which includes the recently added standing room only spots. The Dr. Pepper Arena, home of the Texas Legends, seats between 4,000 and 4,500 for basketball so it's considerably smaller.

It's also considerably cheaper. My season tickets in section 109 of Verizon Center cost me $50 per game as a season ticket holder but the list price of those seats is $80 to $100. The price for a ticket where I sat to watch the Legends play the 66ers (first row behind the hockey boards, center court) at Verizon Center would cost between $200 and $300 depending on the night and opponent, meaning Tuesday night games against the Milwaukee Bucks are $200 and Saturday night games against the Miami Heat are $300. My center court seat at Dr. Pepper Arena cost me all of $28, so 10 to 20 percent of the cost of an NBA ticket. The other important cost metric at arenas is the cost of a beer. A 20 oz. Budweiser costs $8 at Verizon Center; a 24 oz. Budweiser costs $7 at Dr. Pepper Arena, so beer is about 75% of the price of beer at VC. Oh how I wish NBDL beer was 10 to 20 percent of the cost of an NBA beer.

The Legends - 66ers playing in the third quarter. No, most of the crowd is not on a beer run.
With this afternoon's game in the books, I have to say the NBDL game experience is a huge step down from the real NBA. It's making me appreciate just how good I have it as a spectator at Verizon Center. The arena is poorly lit, there are bouncy playthings in the ends of the arena (including a very very slow semi-bouncy mechanical bull) and the arena was way less than half full. I can't imagine how some of the NBA veterans playing in this league can stand it. Maybe it's a sign that what I would consider the three true NBA veterans on the Legends team didn't play: Delonte West left the team last week and is apparently not coming back; Rashad McCants was let go by the team for conduct detrimental to the team (according to the PA announcer's side comments before the game); and Luther Head was hurt. On the 66ers side, everyone played, including Chris Quinn ,who played five years in the NBA, and 11 year veteran Rasual Butler, who is hoping to parlay this effort into a new NBA deal. Former Wizard Mike James tried a similar strategy earlier this year and was snapped up by the Mavericks after just one game. Based on his performance this afternoon, I'm not sure Butler's going anywhere.

The game itself was competitive for a while, although the Legends pulled away in the third quarter and ended up winning by 24. The stars of the show were Jared Cunningham, the Mavericks' 2012 first round draft pick who is on assignment to the Legends from the parent team, and Justin Dentmon, who poured in 36 in his 41 minutes. Dentmon spent a little time a couple of years ago with the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors. It was clear at times when he was on the floor that Cunningham had more talent than others on the floor, although I'm sure at one time Rasual Butler would have looked just the same against the talent out there this afternoon.

Tomorrow is a day off from hoops on this trip for me. I'm hoping the two games I have left on this vacation are better attended than this afternoon's contest and the experience is better for me. Maybe the afternoon start time was just too much for people to handle. One final note: this is the first game I have ever attended where we were asked to stand and honor "God and America" before the game. I can tell I'm in Texas. :)