Kofi Kingston is the Pipebomb

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Image via WWE Network.

One of my earliest memories as a kid was watching Superstars with my dad, uncle, and cousin, crowded around a 20-inch tube TV with rabbit ears that sat on top of a non-working dryer (that was for some reason in the kitchen) at my uncle’s perennially under construction house.

More accurately, wrestling was on in the background. What I was usually more intently watching was my dad and uncle throwing toothpicks in each other’s faces while doing poor Razor Ramon impersonations or standing wobbly on chairs, arms raised majestically, while doing even poorer Randy Savage impersonations.

Since, wrestling fandom has come and gone from my life in waves — a nomadic attention span in the face of the daunting investment required to actually consume all of the content produced by modern WWE is not atypical and totally understandable as fans age and add life responsibilities.

My meandering back into the sport, roughly, matched when a lot of people regained interest — the 2011 Summer of Punk. But, as much as CM Punk’s pissed off, bitter, upset at the system, chip-on-his-shoulder persona spoke to me as a mid-30s khaki wearer stuck in a boring desk job, it wasn’t CM Punk alone that renewed my interest in wrestling. It was Kofi Kingston.

Punk famously name-dropped Colt Cabana in his electric fourth-wall breaking pipebomb promo, which introduced me to Cabana’s podcast. One of the most relatable episodes I listened to was Cabana’s interview with Kingston in 2012. The whole interview is great, but Kingston discussing his post-college career dissatisfaction, working in a cubicle proofreading catalog pages for Staples spoke to my soul:

“No matter how excited you seem about it, it’s still paper clips and push pins and ergonomic chairs. I can’t do this the rest of my life.”

He even drops an Office Space reference!

I’ve watched WWE consistently again since that summer in 2011, and thanks to a powerful combination of the Network, insomnia, and an … uh … exciting personal life, gone back and filled in gaps that I missed in years prior. Kingston has been among the most consistently good performers in a variety of mid-card roles throughout that entire time. He’s done it organically, with almost nothing to work with. Consider some of the following:

  • He debuted in WWE playing a Jamaican character, with Jamaican music, gear that used Jamaican colors, and vignettes that promoted his Jamaican heritage. He’s … not Jamaican. It’s the type of classic WWE cheeseball gimmick that, in the hands of the wrong performer, would’ve been dead on arrival. It’s also the exact sort of deadend gimmick often given to performers of color. Instead of failing, Kingston’s charisma combined with his unique in-ring work got him over pretty seamlessly. Relatively quickly, Kofi Kingston was so good and so popular with the crowd, the corny WWE packaging didn’t matter and in fact quietly disappeared altogether. That’s a testament to his talent.
  • In 2014, when the New Day was formed, rinse and repeat with the lame/borderline racist WWE packaging — vignettes that didn’t make sense, that with less talented performers would’ve thoroughly ruined any chance of popularity for the individuals. But, Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods are so damn good at this that their own natural abilities to connect with a crowd, tell stories that are entertaining, and off-the-charts chemistry as a group triumphed over any poor creative they were hamstrung with. I remember the initial New Day vignettes. I remember myself — and a lot of the collective wrestling internet — groaning with worst case scenarios based on WWE’s history of presenting black performers using the worst stereotypes. Even with the undeniable talent of the three performers, I don’t think anyone would’ve predicted then that the New Day would grow into what they are today.
  • Kingston is one of the best tag team wrestlers of all-time, with eight different title runs. The New Day is clearly his most successful team, but he’s won titles with a pretty diverse set of talents — CM Punk, Evan Bourne, and R-Truth. His run with Bourne was disrupted, twice, due to Bourne’s suspensions, and Kingston still recovered. His teams with Punk and R-Truth were seemingly thrown together and made little sense, and both were entertaining.
  • He makes everyone look good. On Cabana’s podcast, he talked at length about his belief in helping other performers achieve their best, stating, “I’ve always been willing to help people out.” It is hard to find any match over the course of his career that wasn’t entertaining. He’s had seven combined runs with the U.S. and Intercontinental titles. He’s pinned Chris Jericho — arguably the greatest of all-time in terms of longevity. He’s also served as fodder for debuting talents, like Rusev and Bray Wyatt. He’s college educated, beloved by all fans but especially young ones, and a great face for modern WWE the company in the external PR appearances that they love. His career, in terms of being a talented jack-of-all-trades, is similar to Dolph Ziggler’s. Yet Ziggler has, here and there, been boosted into the main event scene and even has two world title runs (the most memorable of which, coincidentally, came when he was in a faction that included Big E). Kingston has never received those types of opportunities.
  • He’s been in seven Money in the Bank matches — tied with Kane for the most ever — and won zero. Damien Sandow and Baron Corbin have won Money in the Bank matches, by the way.
  • He’s been in 12 Royal Rumbles, tied for third all-time, and delivered arguably the most memorable spots in the history of one of WWE’s most iconic matches, yet never come close to winning one. For comparison’s sake, Cody Rhodes has been in half as many Royal Rumbles and has more than three hours of cumulative time (among the most all-time) in those appearances.

WWE accidentally realizing that Kingston is a major star — thanks in large part to a totally organic reaction by fans combined with Kingston having incredible matches when he was subbed into the WWE title picture earlier this year — is both gratifying and frustrating. Gratifying is the easy part — anyone who has watched Kingston’s career objectively is thrilled to see one of the most talented, overlooked members of the roster finally get a main event opportunity. And frustrating, because this immensely talented, popular performer has been there since 2008! What took so long?

During this recent run, I’ve thought about Kingston a lot in the context of Punk’s famous promo.

Punk played into the belief that he’d been held down, that the company didn’t want someone like him as the face of their product despite his popularity with fans, that behind the scenes mysterious power-brokers had worked nefariously to limit his opportunities. He delivered his words compellingly, and they told a great story. But were they true beyond the storyline sense?

Perhaps, at least in Punk’s mind, which helped them resonate. But, even before his record-breaking title run, Punk was featured prominently. He’d had world title runs. He’d won Money in the Bank. He was in the main event scene and had worked with major stars. He’d led factions. When he was injured, they put him on commentary. He even got a famous Royal Rumble spot with the Straight Edge Society, where he had a microphone and got to spend a significant portion of the match as the center of attention, an opportunity to add significant nuance to his character.

Were there, surely, people who didn’t want him to succeed? People who didn’t like his look or his attitude or his independent scene credentials? I’m sure that was probably the case. But, in terms of TV time and being prominently featured, there’s not really a reasonable case that Punk was overlooked.

Now apply the sentiments of his promo to Kingston, a talented performer who — despite his popularity — was never really in the main event scene. Someone who did have the ability to talk on the microphone but never got significant mic time to help add motivations to his character. Someone who was shuffled in and out of midcard stories, often working with the same performers repeatedly (hello, endless matches with Ziggler!) with little storyline explanation as to why those feuds continued endlessly. A black performer who, when you factor in WWE’s poor history with handling race, gender, sexuality, etc., would have an extremely credible argument for why seemingly less accomplished performers get more prominent spots than he does.

Kingston has already proven himself as an all-time great, something his mentality when he talked to Cabana in 2012 foreshadowed: “I’ve always been one to try to do things differently, to the point where there’s not many people out there who can do what I do the way that I do it.” He, more than anyone in recent memory, has earned this spot, and had to do more to get there than just about anyone else.

Those realities make this, perhaps accidentally, among the most compelling stories WWE has ever told. Even if it is technically part of a storyline, the history of Kingston and the believability of performers of color having a much harder path historically to main event opportunities within WWE, make the “reality era” aspects of the story resonate even stronger. Kingston’s ascension, and more importantly where they go with this story, has captured my attention as a fan differently than any wrestling storyline ever has. The New Day as performers clearly have the ability to take this story to a riveting, satisfying conclusion. Does WWE?

When You’re Wrong and Can’t Fix It

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Image source.

My son Oliver was born in 2010, just before the Michigan State football team finished 11-2 and won a share of the Big Ten Championship – their first of three Big Ten titles in his lifetime after the team hadn’t previously won one since 1990.

 

That fall, Oliver – approximately the same shape as a football – and I were glued to our rocking chair religiously on Saturdays, watching Michigan State. His wise, gigantic brown eyes, even at just a few months old, were intently focused on the T.V., and that intrigue has only grown as he has become a competitive, sports-obsessed 8-year-old.

I am a graduate of Michigan State. I finished my master’s program in journalism in 2010 – struggling to take the last two classes to finish that degree in the winter, after Oliver was born while also working full-time. I also worked at Michigan State for a year in 2012.

I’ve always had a natural affinity for MSU even before attending and working there. My first exposure was obviously through sports. My dad loved the University of Michigan, but I’ve always found the prestige, the self-importance, the elitism, associated with U of M football to be exhausting, honestly. I’m much more interested in losers, especially losers who lose colorfully. And over the course of my lifetime, Michigan State has certainly delivered unique moments for sports masochists out there.

Oliver, though, has had a much different experience as he’s grown into a sports fan – his only point of reference in his lifetime is Michigan State being a dominant, premiere football program while Michigan has been the program that, despite near-constant hype, can hilariously never get out of its own way.

Over the past eight years, he’s seen Michigan State consistently win rivalry games, win conference championships, compete for national championships and, after a down year, quickly reload and return to form. He has followed players he grew to love as Spartans make it and have success in the NFL and NBA. He has been to Spartan Stadium and the Breslin Center and regularly asks when we will go back. Nearly every chance he gets in school or in his spare time to draw, he draws something Michigan State-focused. He has memorized the fight song (okay … maybe not the words, but he definitely hums the beat correctly). He has talked about wanting to go to college at Michigan State. He dreams of playing college basketball there someday.

He’s done all of this at my encouragement, because of me exposing him to follow this university and this program, literally, from the moment he was born.

And now, the all-consuming thought I have, is how do I undo this? How could I fail him so badly?

*     *     *

I knew better. I spent six years as a sports journalist. I left that industry, in part, because sports journalism is often complicit in creating unworthy false idols, in trading puff pieces for increased access, in glossing over major character deficiencies in an effort to find the next “redemption” story.

Writing about sports can be really rewarding work. But at the highest levels, the desire to deceive or create a false narrative in the interest of making obscene amounts of money is immense. And the NCAA is the worst offender of that concept, with universities, administrators and coaches making tens of millions of dollars by exploiting an unpaid labor force, often from the most poor and marginalized backgrounds. The incentive to perpetrate or cover up, sometimes with the assistance of friendly media, truly evil acts is extremely high in major sports.

I knew all of this. And I still indoctrinated my son from the moment he was born.

*     *     *

The evil that Larry Nassar was allowed to perpetrate at Michigan State and with USA Gymnastics is nearly incomprehensible, and yet it happened. It happened systematically, clinically, in a university environment that is supposed to be filled with enlightened people who are the most aware of the needs of victims, of marginalized or vulnerable people who speak up or ask for help, who are the most distrustful of institutional power structures.

Adding to the sheer horror is the fact that, as a current university communications professional, I can’t comprehend the heartless, completely lacking in empathy statements made by two university presidentstwo prominent coaches and multiple board members. Resh Strategies already wrote an in-depth piece on the communications failings of the university. All I can do is fully endorse what they stated in their piece.

As a parent, I’ve had to look my son in the face and say in no uncertain terms, “Hey, daddy fucked up badly.” (Okay … so I didn’t say ‘fucked up’ to him).

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I checked out on Michigan State athletics somewhere during last basketball season, after Tom Izzo said, among other things, “I hope the right person was convicted.” Which along with being about the most offensive thing anyone can say in response to the Nassar crimes, also makes no sense. As insignificant as quitting watching a team is, it was actually difficult. The team’s star player, Miles Bridges, is a beloved player from my adopted home of Flint. Their other stars, Jaren Jackson Jr., Cassius Winston, and Nick Ward, were all hard-working, easy-to-root-for players. And, purely from an artistic standpoint, I love basketball. It’s beautiful and has resonated with me in a way few other things have in my life have since I was younger than my son currently is.

But as with any parenting fuck-up, it has also provided me with an opportunity to repair mistakes. It has provided the opportunity to talk to him about the overwhelming propensity of violence committed against women in our culture. It has provided me the opportunity to begin (as best as he can understand) conversations about consent, boundaries and respect. It has provided the opportunity to talk about what true leadership means by highlighting tragic, visible examples of failed leadership. I have been able to talk to him about the phony idea that “brands” of any sort – university or otherwise – are worthy of adulation.

He still loves sports, loves Michigan State sports, and I won’t tell him he has to stop. But, if nothing else, I have been able to reinforce that there are far more important things in life than sports. I just hope it’s not too late for it to resonate.

*     *     *

I have wanted to write about my anger at Michigan State for several months and struggled to find the words (and, truthfully, the time … out-of-nowhere needs of babiez absorb A LOT of intended writing time). I couldn’t summon the combination of rage and words necessary until John Engler, who was about the WORST possible choice for interim president of Michigan State, accused a Nassar survivor of receiving “kickbacks” and then feebly apologized for it.

Predictably, the still-hurt and angry MSU community as well as state legislators called on Engler to resign. Even more predictably, based on the consistent pattern of hubris displayed by MSU leadership throughout the Nassar criminal proceedings, Engler lacked the self-awareness to resign.

As a parent who wants my children to learn to exercise their own judgement, I won’t tell my son he can’t root for MSU sports teams. But I will provide him all relevant information. I will challenge him to think beyond “I like their sports teams.” As a person who will help my children finance their college educations, I would strongly object to them attending Michigan State without significant changes made to the university administration and board.

Ultimately, that sentiment might mean less to Michigan State than whatever their wealthiest donors or whoever they’re taking cues from are telling current administrators. As much as I would like to believe my sentiment is widespread, I am not confident it is. Less than a year after Jerry Sandusky was convicted of molesting kids for years at Penn State while administrators and the legendary football coach knew, the university boasted of rising applicants. After a sexual assault cover-up scandal at Baylor, the university quickly touted a record number of applicants. Michigan State has already bragged about its, “largest, most diverse freshman class.”

The bleakest outlook is that, even in the face of the absolute most horrifyingly evil circumstances, there is evidence that universities face little pressure to systematically change anything.

I can’t change Michigan State. But I can hope that enough parents with similar feelings about the university are initiating important conversations with their kids.

When You Have Nothing to Say and Still Say It

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A couple of weeks ago, Duncan Smith, editor of PistonPowered (* unofficial non-Dan Feldman editiontweeted this:

If you’re “team eye test”, which best describes your number aversion?
A: I don’t know where to find the numbers
B: I don’t care to find them

I saved it, because it reminded me of a post I’ve wanted to write for quite a while. I love the NBA. I follow it religiously. And outside of a small handful of writers, I find most of the content written about the league I love unreadable. Which is a weird statement from someone who has spent a good chunk of his adult life writing about the NBA.

Duncan’s tweet, though, illustrated a key problem I have. There’s a belief that there are two camps among NBA fans: the old school “eye test” folks who firmly believe the lens through which they view basketball is the only one that matters, and the “new wave” analytically-inclined “smart” fans who voraciously digest any overly-convoluted metric they can find to help explain what happens on the court before trusting anything their eyes tell them.

As a hobbyist NBA writer, I used to identify more firmly with the latter category. Stats are instructive. I easily fell into the habit of using advanced stats as a bludgeoning tool in my writing to make my takes seem more informed, more relevant, more differentiated than competing takes out there that relied less on numbers and more on the “eye test.” They weren’t, of course, and a big reason I stopped writing about the NBA regularly is that I sincerely worried that my voice was not adding anything relevant to an increasingly crowded, increasingly bro-ey conversation.

Not that ‘eye test’ people are saints either. Eye test writers and fans have a distinctly Trump voter aura. Probably a big crossover in the Trump/eye test Venn Diagram.

But I don’t think either “camp” really exists. Yeah, steadfastly “eye test” people can be simpletons and overvalue counting stats because its easy for them to take off their socks and tally up rebound totals. Yeah, “stats” people can be so preoccupied with justifying why certain metrics are superior that they forget to actually pay attention to otherworldly athletic abilities that make athletes fun to watch. There’s probably no right answer, and to be honest, people who devoutly identify as one or the other are REAL obnoxious.

Anyway, Duncan’s tweet jarred a random thought I’ve wanted to write out for a while. As per usual, I kinda forgot about it and didn’t write anything. Then tonight, some dude named Peter Healey responded to an innocuous tweet about Ben Wallace with this:

2 things that never come up: 1)Ben was only very good for maybe 6 years. 2)He couldn’t guard quicker 4s and 5s off the dribble

More than any other guy he’d be sunk in today’s league. Couldn’t shoot, wasn’t an elite roll guy, couldn’t switch nearly as much you think

(I should disclose up front that I have a real, emotional connection to Ben Wallace, I won’t hide from that.)

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Image source.

I mean … takes like this are about as easy to brush off as Ben Wallace stopping Shaq at the rim. Wallace’s “6-year peak” was as good defensively as any center not named Bill Russell. He switched out on and smothered point guards defensively, yet somehow couldn’t stay in front of “quicker 4s and 5s off the dribble?” Who are these quicker-than-PGs-4s and 5s we’re talking about populating the league in Ben’s era, Percy? Jerome Moiso? Keon Clark? He’d be “sunk” in today’s league? Because athleticrim-protectingdefensively-minded centers who are offensively limited aren’t, as they always have been, extremely valuable?

As I’m wont to do, I responded to Preston’s bad take on Twitter. Then, in true “I have a stupid take but then get sad/emo when people tell me my stupid take is stupid” fashion, Phillip responded. Then I responded some more. Then I noticed that Payton was giving catty responses, feebly trying to drag other smart people – including Stephen Rodrick who has written goddamned cover stories for Rolling Stone and Ben Gulker who has been writing about the Pistons longer than anyone not named Matt Watson – and I got super annoyed. To paraphrase the great Ben Gordon, humble yourself, Perry.

So his bad take brought me briefly out of my basketball writing retirement to say that basketball writing sucks because of the take economy that is propagated by people who think making purposefully statements contribute to any better understanding of the game. Oh, Ben Wallace, an extremely fun, unique, by-his-bootstraps, prideful, championship player wouldn’t excel in an era of basketball when a bunch of Ayn Rand-humping Silicon Valley tech bro venture capitalists have reduced the game to people thinking sprinting to corners to launch threes is the only valuable skill a player can possess? THANKS FOR YOUR INSIGHT, Pierre! Maybe next you can tell us why Scottie Pippen would actually suck today because he shot below 33 percent from three for his career, or why Anthony Mason wasn’t a fun-as-hell point forward because he probably couldn’t have guarded today’s wings. Seriously, please hammer us with more “well actuallys” for people who innocently enjoy watching beautiful basketball players.

Basketball is art. Who cares how people watch it? When you overvalue statistical analysis or contrarian takes to the point of killing the unique style and individuality that truly makes basketball the most creative of sports, what’s the point? Your voice is not adding anything of value. It’s noise.