From (Brand) Promise to Silence

The Amazon delivery began with such extraordinary promise. Not only did it include the super-affordable and Gumby-like-flexible tripod Smartphone holder, but also a note from the top dog at the device’s distributor.

And this communication was no lip-service brimming with empty platitudes. Instead, what greeted me was a warm, earnest note pledging supreme customer satisfaction, capped by his e-mail address, and an invitation to contact him if I had any questions or concerns.

About a week later, after encountering some difficulty with the product, I shot this e-mail:

Hello, Mr. Doe*!

I received this tripod (photo attached) via an Amazon order a few days ago, and appreciate your note—very impressive!!

I wanted to make sure I knew how to adjust it to slip in my Smartphone safely and securely. So far, when I do it, it’s been a struggle and I don’t know if I am doing it in the ideal way. Trying to slip the phone into the space as I stretch it is difficult, and I am concerned that it will break each time.

A quick phone call from someone is all I need….or perhaps an instructional video?

Thank you!

The note includes: “I will do whatever it takes to fix the problem or concerns you are having.”

Another eight days passed, so I sent this follow-up:

Good evening, Mr. Doe*….

I wanted to follow up on my e-mail of last week (below). Not sure if you saw it? Or if you replied but I didn’t see your reply?

Thank you!

That second e-mail was a week ago.

Brand promise made, brand promise broken. Here’s hoping that the tripod won’t soon be broken, too.

*Last name isn’t actually Doe. Giving the guy a bit of a break.

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Damian Lillard’s epic buzzer-beater: off-the-charts talent vs. out-of-your-mind bad judgment

In my 40-plus years as a basketball player, coach, referee and all-around zealot, I have found that there’s no reliable metric when off-the-charts talent meets out-of-your-mind poor judgment.

A standout player can make what appears to be the worst decision, and somehow make it right. This is especially true when that out-sized talent is rivaled by the individual’s confidence in said talent.

Which brings me to Portland Trail Blazer guard Damian Lillard’s winning shot on Tuesday evening. With Portland up 3-1 in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the score is tied after Portland has overcome a 15-point deficit. All they need is a basket of any kind—even a free throw will do the trick.

For Lillard, this has been a special night already. He had 34 points at the half, a new team playoff record, and 47 points at this point. But he has been slumping in the second half and has missed half his shots overall.

He brings the ball past half court with 12 seconds to go, then strolls near the Blazer logo with eight seconds remaining. As the seconds tick down, for a good six seconds, there is the All-Star guard rocking back and forth just a step away from the logo. One of the league’s best defensive players, Paul George, is giving him a few feet of space because, well, Lillard’s closer to the bathroom than the basket.

Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…

As I am lying on my living room couch, cat outstretched on my legs and my smartphone only a few inches from my eyes, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This had all the feeling of a playground, with the only thing at stake being pride—and the right to stay on the court to take on the next group of five guys waiting in the wings.

Does Lillard realize that he’s blowing his team’s chances of winning in regulation? Why isn’t he going anywhere? Does he really want to go back to Oklahoma City for Game 6?

I have begun mapping out my next two minutes: first, I stick around to see Lillard miss the impossibly, irresponsibly, needlessly long shot. Next, I re-fill my water bottle while keeping alert to commercials ending and the broadcasters’ righteous lambasting of Lillard’s arrogant hero ball-hog behavior as the contest heads to overtime.

After all, as any basketball fan knows, he had plenty of time to do plenty of higher-percentage things. Try these three options for starters:

Option #1: Drive all the way to the basket and try a layup or another close-in shot that would, surely, be challenged by a much taller defender or set of defenders. At the same time, this climactic clash could result in a foul and Lillard is exceptional at free throws.

Option #2: Drive toward the basket, draw a crowd of defenders, and then kick out a pass to a wide-open teammate who would be, oh I don’t know, somewhere in the same ZIP code and therefore stood a much better chance of making the winning basket than Lillard near midcourt.

Option #3: Drive toward the basket, step back somewhere along the way, and take a 15-footer, a 20-footer, even a 25-footer would be a much better choice.

But what does Lillard do instead?

He moves to his right with a shade over two seconds left, stepping back slightly to create enough space to loft the ball over a lunging George’s outstretched hand. The release happens with about 1 1/2 seconds left–and the ball takes that much time to arc 37 feet toward the basket, the buzzer sounding just as the ball drops in for three points.

You can see it all, from a variety of angles, for yourself:

Portland wins the series, and George—who did all he could do—simply walks off the court as Blazer players, staff and supporters form a victory pile.

Goes to show: sometimes the absolute worst shot, in the hands of a supremely talented and supremely confident player, can become the best shot of all.

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Admiring & dissecting an artful Dodgers vs. Cubs story

I began inhaling Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover when I was 10 years old, after my dad hooked me up with a subscription for my historic double-digit birthday.

It was summer on the South Shore of Boston, my beloved Red Sox were miles ahead in the American League East, and the cover of my inaugural issue featured a photo of beleaguered Yankees manager Billy Martin and an allusion to a famous line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“Double, double, toil and trouble”) that went over my elementary-school-aged head.

I had seen the game that was the focal point of that cover story, as Martin yanked star outfielder Reggie Jackson from Fenway Park’s right field for failing to hustle. A heated tete-a-tete ensued in the dugout, the Sox went on to win, and all was right with the world.

Between that moment of getting SI delivered to my home set back in the woods off Webster Street and my development as a writer, there is one solid, bold-fonted line.

Four decades later, this vibrant account of last night’s Cubs vs. Dodgers game at Wrigley Field reminded me of a key element that drew me to journalism: the creative joy of drawing from an abundant supply of words and phrases, coupled with the challenge and reward of picking precisely the right one for the moment.

It’s what SI did more often than most, and it’s what I would find in the sports section of the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe that I would fight over (and play hide-and-seek with) my brother Andy.

It was a stroke of Alice in Wonderland-style hyperlink-clicking fate that I happened upon Los Angeles Times writer Jorge Castillo’s story. Some of his choices that resonate with my word- and phrase-wielding and story-telling soul:

“electric boom-or-bust slugging shortstop”

This one’s got a back-to-back batch of alliteration–and even casual readers ought to get the gist that I am a sucker for alliteration, especially when it is as aptly stated as that characterization of Chicago Cubs shortstop Javy Baez.

“provoking an exasperated response”

Granted, this is a “tell, don’t show” description of Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda. Did he flail his arms? Tilt his head up and gaze at the encroaching darkness? Stab at the ball with a flick of his wrist when the catcher tossed it back?

Castillo doesn’t say, and that’s OK with me. Every word, every piece of punctuation is a choice, with a constellation of factors at play. Very likely, he simply wanted to employ an economy of words to move on with the story of Maeda’s rough inning. So that’s just what he did, raising the literary bar in the process.

“in a jiffy”

When’s the last time I read this phrase in a newspaper story–or any story, for that matter? Have I ever seen it? Maybe a handful of times.

A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to revive “in a jiffy” in my everyday conversational repertoire, particularly around my teen-aged kids. I like how it sounds, how it makes me feel. Digging deep, I suppose it has something to do with my own sense of nostalgia, since the phrase hearkens back to my childhood, when the phrase seemed to be more frequently uttered.

That Castillo chose to sprinkle “in a jiffy” in this game story makes it something of a gift that I choose to make personal.

“display of agility”

This refers to Baez’s latest base-running caper. And although the scene could have been depicted in innumerable ways, this phrasing gets it just right. It was, after all, a display of agility.

“His contention didn’t produce a reversal.”

Having covered the civil and criminal courts for years, this brings to mind a legal argument. In the context of this story, it was Dodgers manager Dave Roberts arguing that Baez should be ruled out for running out of the baseline.

Castillo’s choice strikes me as a bit of tongue-in-cheek whimsy. We’re talking about a game of baseball, not a life-or-death issue. But, oh, how these trifling contests in the universe’s grand scheme can be treated as so exceedingly consequential.

The story runs 16 paragraphs; the highlights I have picked out are only in the first six. If you enjoy the art of writing, or baseball, or simply have time on your hands, I exhort you to read the entire piece before the link goes stale.

Notably, and perhaps not coincidentally, much of the delightful story’s early phraseology revolves around the colorful Baez. Castillo was equal to the task of capturing and conveying the action.

One might say that, in his story-telling, he was Baez-like. My whole point, though, is that there are countless other ways to describe it. That’s the challenge–always has been–and therein lies the reward.

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Shameful Smollett Plea Deal, Destructive Fall-Out From His Sham Claims

In my latest installment of “As the Jussie Smollett Debacle Turns,” I closed with this thought:

If there is sufficient evidence to convict Smollett of these charges, then his sentence should be stiff enough to deter others from trying anything similar.

That was one humongous “IF,” as it turns out.

Hot on the heels of today’s startling, troubling, smack-my-head-inducing news that charges against Smollett have been dropped, in exchange for community service and $10,000, I suppose one might wonder if this saga will actually embolden Jussie-like behavior in the future. (No need to elaborate on what that means—let’s get real here.)

My hunch is that it won’t stir copy cats among those borderline celebrities seeking to take a perilous, false police report-style short-cut to move up a rung on the Rich & Famous Food Chain. That’s because my hunch is that Jussie Smollett’s star has dimmed considerably through this entire shameful spectacle he set in motion.

Meantime, it’s infuriating to ponder the scope of damage wrought by Smollett. A partial list:

*Damage to actual victims of hate crimes, past or future, when people are that much less likely to believe them because of this grand fabrication;
*Damage to the City of Chicago’s reputation, which got dragged through the gutter as a place where such a vile attack could occur;
*Damage to the Police Department, which six weeks ago appeared foolish to have taken so long to get to the bottom of this outrageous scheme and which now appears to have been left hanging out to dry by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office;
*Damage to public safety, because the Police Department’s resources were diverted to chase these mythical bad guys; and
*Damage to the trust of everyone who stood behind Smollett. He used his small measure of celebrity to leverage a lie of epic proportions, and became a bigger celebrity through it.

Smollett is such a dedicated actor that he is maintaining his line that he has been truthful throughout this chain of events. Nobody who understands the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy are fictional is buying this fairy tale, either.

Maybe, beyond his own selfishness, on some level Smollett wanted to shine a light on oppressive truths–the racism, homophobia, and other horrible things that certainly, and tragically, exist in our society.

But the fights against those ills have been undermined by his alleged fabrication. Instead, his name deserves to become a verb. Get ready for “jussied” and “jussying” to enter our lexicon.

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Setting the (Stilted) Stage: Jussie Smollett Tale Was a Cynical Checklist for Public Outrage

A little over three weeks ago, I had never heard of Jussie Smollett.

Same goes for most people, since he was a secondary character in Empire, the Fox series that is filmed in Chicago.

That relative obscurity changed in late January, after he alleged that he was the victim of a heinous hate crime in Chicago, complete with homophobic, racist and all-around nasty overtones.

From the start, I had serious doubts about his account. I was far from alone in that skepticism, although expressing those misgivings was a perilous exercise until the recent turn of events. Yesterday, he was charged by Chicago Police with felony disorderly conduct for making a false police report.

That report, among other startling details, included a noose thrust around his neck…the “This is MAGA Country!” remarks attributed to the two purported assailants…the homophobic and racist slurs hurled at him…and, oh yes, the curious time of 2:30 a.m. for all of this going down as he returned home from a late-night jaunt to get a sub sandwich.

It simply didn’t add up. It felt like a too cut-and-dried checklist designed for public outrage–a sort of stilted staging that, quite literally, defied belief. As a journalist, I covered a variety of con artists and liars, from politicians to people who lay it on thick with their academic, athletic and business credentials.The list is long enough to give me pause whenever something in a story doesn’t quite jibe.

A few highlights of my time chronicling those dealing in heavy-duty deception:

*Over 20 years ago, I broke what my newspaper, The Courier News of Elgin, Ill. playfully dubbed “Penguingate,” a Cook County Commissioner candidate’s untruths about a professional hockey career that included a stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins. That interview began going south for Michael Olszewski around the time he couldn’t correctly recall the name of Pittsburgh’s coach during his supposed time in the NHL.

*In the early 1990s, there was “Motorcycle Mike,” an 85-year-old Streamwood, Ill. man named Mike Figliulo with a penchant for fascinating stories about his interactions with Al Capone, Charlie Chaplin–and, oh, who also exaggerated his age by precisely two decades. (He fooled reporters before me, as well as after me–and he duped me, too, until I wrote a column a few weeks after my feature on this “105-year-old” that set the record straight.)

*About a decade ago, while reporting for Realtor magazine, I came across a 23-year-old man who was a finalist for the magazine’s “30 Under 30” issue. My red flags about him centered on business and athletic claims. Those assertions didn’t hold up when I did a little digging, and prompted editors to agree with my recommendation to drop him from consideration for the recognition. Within a year or two, this supposed rising star of real estate was out of the industry altogether, having bolted to some other field.

Fast forward to February 1st, or three days after the since-debunked incident with Smollett and those two Nigerian brothers he is alleged to have hired as part of his scheme. This was still an early juncture in its aftermath as police were (at least publicly) expressing continued belief in Smollett’s tale. At that time, I revealed my doubts with language that did little to disguise my skepticism:

At the time, I wrote:

Like so many others, I fervently want justice to be done in this case.

Must confess I am puzzled, however, over a seeming contradiction: police say that Jussie Smollett has been fully cooperative…and also state that he has declined (is “refused” too loaded a term?) to turn over his phone for their review. This would be the same phone on which he and his manager have stated they were having a conversation when the attack occurred.

Looking at the phone would, for starters, pinpoint the time of attack. Saying “no” to sharing it with authorities: Isn’t that, at minimum, a tad less than cooperative?

Hundreds of hours of law enforcement resources (read: many 1,000s of public dollars) are being dedicated to solving this alleged crime. Wouldn’t it be basic investigative procedure to have a look at his phone?

Now events have played out as I suspected they would. That includes the new criminal allegation that Smollett not only orchestrated the faux wee-hours attack, but the threatening letter that was mailed to the Empire office a week earlier.

If those criminal allegations stand up, then it’s infuriating to consider the damage that Smollett has wrought with this far-fetched plot. More thoughts on that later, if and when he is convicted.

To echo my February 1st observation, let’s hope that, now, justice truly will be done in this case. If there is sufficient evidence to convict Smollett of these charges, then his sentence should be stiff enough to deter others from trying anything similar.

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