The Death of the Dunk Contest

If this is the most entertaining moment from the 2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, there's a problem.

If this is the most entertaining moment from the 2014 Dunk Contest, there’s a problem.

Last Saturday night Eric hosted his annual NBA All Star party. Eric (smartly) bills the event as an opportunity for everyone’s wives to get together and talk about The Bachelor or quilting or their best meatloaf recipes or whatever it is women like talking about, but in reality this is just an excuse for the guys to consume beer and hot wings while watching the NBA’s best talent drop their guards and have a little fun (or at least pretend to). It’s a win/win for everyone.

Over the years, the NBA has fiddled with their All Star recipe; trying to find the perfect combination of contests in an attempt to squeeze every last drop of entertainment and marketing value out of an event with absolutely nothing at stake for anyone involved. Over the years the NBA has added the “skills” and “sharp shooting” competitions to a stable that included the 3-point shooting competition. These events are OK, but the star of the show and the real reason why we gather around the TV every year is the dunk contest.

In its heyday, the dunk contest treated fans to some amazing showdowns with aerial feats that caused us to question everything we knew about gravity. Michael Jordan versus Dominique Wilkins in the 1980’s and Vince Carter’s epic performance in 2000 come to mind when thinking about classic dunk contests. In recent years, however, the dunk contest has lost some of its luster. Whether because of ego, avarice, or disinterest, the dunk contest rarely attracts the NBA’s best. This year was no different. Instead of seeing LeBron James, Blake Griffin, or Gerald Green, we were instead treated to the likes of Terrence Ross (Toronto Raptors) and Damian Lillard (Portland Trailblazers). No offense to Ross or Lillard, but…well, I’ll submit exhibits A, B, and C and just leave it at that.

This year, the NBA made a curious format change to their All Star events, including the dunk contest. Rather than having the usual winner-take-all format, the NBA opted to make the dunk contest a team event, pitting three players each from the Eastern and Western Conferences. The Eastern Conference Team consisted of the aforementioned Ross as well as Paul George (Indiana Pacers) and John Wall (Washington Wizards). The Western Conference was represented by Lillard, Harrison Barnes (Golden State), and Ben McLemore (Sacramento Kings). The teams competed in a “Freestyle” round and then “Battle Rounds,” with the winner of each round being decided by a panel of judges. (The dunk contest format was convoluted and not worth fully explaining, but if you’re really curious you can read about it here.)

In the end, the Eastern Conference won the contest in a landslide, but the whole event left all of us at Eric’s house saying, through a mouth full of pizza, “Wait… Was that it?” Apparently we weren’t the only ones baffled by the lackluster new format either. Lots of folks, including current and former players had something to say about the dunk contest:

One could argue that the dunk contest has always been an event that is arbitrarily decided by biased judges and the popularity of the participants involved. This would be a fair assessment. The new format certainly didn’t address that issue, nor did it take any strides towards freshening what had become a stale All Star event that has jumped the shark (or Kia) many times over. Rather, by making the dunk contest a team event, the NBA sought to address one of its most vexing stigmas: that it is a star-driven league.

Perhaps more than any other professional sports league in the U.S., the NBA has constantly struggled with the fact that it is a league run by its best players. Sure, the NBA may be driven on the horse power of 30 teams, but it gets its fuel from an elite few who sell the most jerseys and put fans in the seats night after night. The corporate merger of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami, or the team-hopping machinations of Dwight Howard are just a couple of examples of how the game’s elite dictate the narrative in the NBA. By trying to put the “All” in these All Star events, the NBA clumsily sought to dispel this notion.

There was only one problem with this approach: the All Star events, particularly the dunk contest, by their very nature, are supposed to celebrate individual talent, athleticism, and creativity. Sure, basketball is a wonderful team sport, but one of the reasons so many of us love the NBA is because it consistently provides us with moments of individual brilliance, performed by phenomenal athletes and practitioners of the game. By suppressing the individual in favor of the collective in the dunk contest (an Ayn Rand sports nightmare if there ever were one), the only thing the NBA succeeded in doing was remind viewers how much they miss the game’s elite dunkers participating in this event. Furthermore, by focusing on the “team,” the NBA also deprives some of its lesser known, but promising young stars (e.g., Ben McLemore) the opportunity to shine in the national spotlight, which could, in turn, bring more attention to some of the league’s smaller market teams (e.g., Sacramento).

The NBA needs to fix the All Star events, that much can be agreed upon. I would argue that this should be accomplished by adding incentives, like cash rewards to the best passer, shooter, and dunker. Another method might be to add challenges. Let players choose who they want to see compete against each other by issuing challenges via Twitter and other social media outlets. Players might be less apt to balk from an All Star challenge if pride were on the line. (While I’m asking for things that I’ll never get, I’d also like to see a one-v-one street ball competition.) But as we learned last Saturday night, trying to fix the All Star events by shoehorning in a narrative about team over individual talent just doesn’t fly. When it comes to showcasing the game at its highest levels, it’s better to just stand back and let the NBA’s best soar all by themselves.

The Olympics

I love the Olympics.  Both summer and winter.  In the summer, I focus mostly on the basketball and the swimming.  But to be fair, I watch pretty much any basketball and swimming.  World championships, college, doesn’t matter.  My wife is big into the women’s gymnastics, so I watch some of that.  She did gymnastics until she tore her ACL when she was 15.  I like to assume she was THIS close to Olympic glory.  She reminds me that was not the case.  When the 2016 Summer Olympics go to Rio, I will watch the gymnastics.  My 3 year old daughter was too young when the games were in London.  But now that she is getting pretty good on the balance beam (for a 3 year old), I think she will be really into that event.

As these games came rolling around, I got super excited again.  As with the summer games, only for a few events.  But as it turns out, more than I thought.  I dig skiing, luge, bobsled, hockey…um… moguls (okay well anything to do with skiing)  Not snowboard.  I’ll get to that.  My daughter has fallen in love with figure skating.  She wants to watch it all the time.  In fact, we have played figure skating in our family room.  I toss her around, spin her, hold her above my head.  She does spins and jumps.  It’s really freaking cute.  I have watched more figure skating this year than all the others combined just to watch with her.  Big time loving it.

Yes, Sochi kinda sucks butt.  The weather is way too warm.  Russia is waaaay too homophobic.  They spent 51 BILLION dollars on these games.  There is nothing that Russia has done right, as far as I can tell.  And Johnny Quinn had to break out of his own bathroom:

But it’s still the Olympics, and I still watch.

Back to snowboarding.  If you’re competing in an event that was in the X-Games, it’s not a sport.  Sorry.  Go away.  You’re lame.  I can’t possibly hate you enough.

Plus, when watching the Olympics it gives me the opportunity to watch one of my favorite movies, Miracle.  How good is Miracle?

But my favorite event of these games?  Star Wars moguls.  If more events involved Star Wars, I think the ratings would be higher than the Super Bowl.

All Star Saturday Night

Last Saturday, Phil and I went out and played a little golf.  Started out so well.  I lipped out a birdie putt on the 1st.  Ended up with par.  Parred two other holes the rest of the day.  I have no idea how many pars Phil ended up with.  All I know is I won.  Of course I did.  Just like fantasy football, in which I went 2-0 against Phil this season (and am 6-2 all time against him), Phil can’t beat me.  I’m in his head.  What’s that?  What were our final scores?  Well that’s none of your damn business.

That brings me to next weekend.  Every year I throw a party for the NBA’s All-Star Saturday Night.  And Phil is actually going to show up.  So I’m taking all bets!  Phil, you can pick any player in any of the events, and I will still win.

Three point shootout?  You want Steph Curry?  Yeah that’s a good bet.  He’s totally going to win.  I’ll take Kevin Love.  A guy wearing 42?  Duh.

The Skills challenge?  This event totally sucks.  But I still think Dragic wins.  But you can pick whoever you want.  The Greek Freak?  Take him.

Except for the slam dunk contest.  I call dibs on Flight 16.

Devil’s Due

Every so often I take my niece to see horror movies.  Or, I guess what qualifies as horror movies these days.  Neither of us have anyone who like horror, so it’s great, we go together, and I get to spend some time with her.  She’s at that age where hanging out with your uncle is no longer cool, so the few times I get to see her, it makes me happy.  Sometimes we see people she goes to school with and I try to hide.  I don’t want to embarrass her.  She’s never said anything, nor would she, but come on, I’m not an idiot.  Well…

So last week we went to see Devil’s Due.  Holy shit this movie sucks.  Do not under any circumstances go see it.  I love horror.  But seriously, can we stop with the found footage movies?  The original (at least what I consider the original) found footage film, The Blair Witch Project, is still the best.  Now, everything is trying to copy the every other found footage movie that’s come out.  Is there the occasional found footage film that works?  Sure.  Paranormal Activity wasn’t totally awful.  But the mold breaker is usually the best.  The movie that comes out 15 years later?  Yeah, it’s certainly not going to be the film by which all found footage movies are judged.

How bad was it?  20 minutes in I was trying to figure out what the previews were.  I forgot them because they were completely unforgettable.

Speaking of The Blair Witch, it is still on the list of things that scare the bejesus out of me:

  • Heights
  • things lurking in the dark
  • the Blair Witch
  • spiders
  • wax museums
  • the chupacabra
  • spontaneous human combustion

That’s the list.  There is so much wrong with this movie.  One, it’s incredibly boring.  There are a few moments that make you jump, but they are few and far between.  And let’s not forget the camera work.  It’s so unbelievable that someone would take their camera everywhere when their life was being turned upside down this way.  Also, would anyone really use night vision from their camera rather than turn on the lights in their own house?  It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.  Every time I saw the husband (I don’t remember his name.  I’m not looking it up) turn on the camera and use night vision to run through the house, I used an overly dramatic eye roll.  NO ONE WOULD EVER DO THAT!!!!

I should have listened to my gut when I saw the preview.  It looked horrendous and sure enough, it was.  But, at the end of the day, I saw it on $5 movie night at the theater by me, and I got to spend some time with my niece.  So I guess it was worth it.

The Spectacular Now

So as I have linked to a few times previously, I sometimes write DVD reviews for a website,  I was anticipating my next review, The Spectacular Now to come in the mail any day now.  I finally asked my editor what the deal was.  Unfortunately, as it turns out, the website was shut down unexpectedly.  I still don’t know all the details.  It wasn’t my website, so really, it’s none of my business.  I’d still like to know.

Anyway, I am lucky enough to have a long time friend who is good friends with one of the screenwriters, Michael H. Weber.  We were able to talk, and Michael, along with his writing partner Scott Neustadter took about half an hour out of their day in the middle of December to talk with me about the film, their previous work, 500 Days of Summer and also their next project, The Fault in Our Stars.  Since I no longer have any place to put the review, I’ve included the full interview below.

Don’t worry, I have another idea for my next project.  I don’t know how likely it is that it will get off the ground, but it’s something I am looking into.  And of course, I will still blog here!  Hopefully more often than normal.  I know, I always say that.

I shortened The Spectacular Now to TSN while I was transcribing, and I did the same for The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS).  So that is what the shorthand is for.  Here you go:

Eric: Michael, I know a little about you having gone to Syracuse with Tyler and Matt.  Scott, you went to Penn, correct?

Scott: I did, yes.

Eric: How did you two meet and get involved in writing?

Scott: We met in 99 or so.  I had just graduated college and went to work for Tribeca productions in New York.  One of my powers was hiring interns and Michael was one of the candidates we hired that summer.

Michael: All of our friends including Tyler went on spring break and I couldn’t afford to go, so I went looking for an internship in March of 99 and we met that summer.

Eric: With The Spectacular Now specifically, who read the book?  How do you collaborate on a project like this?

Scott: The book was actually sent to us. We had just wrapped 500 Days of Summer.  The same people we made that movie with sent us the spectacular now thinking, hey let’s get the band back together.  It initially started out as a studio movie, and a lot of people came and went from searchlight over the years.  They gave it back to us and we made it independently.

Eric: That jumps into something else I wanted to ask you about, how involved are you as screenwriters from writing the script, to selling it, are you on set each day, how does that work?

Michael: Every project is a little different.  We got our start on the other side.  Scott on development and me interning there and later floating there.  We know a little about the life cycle of a script when it leaves the writers hands so we try to stay as involved as possible hopefully not being a bother to the people we are working with but we like to know what’s going on and there’s a lot of strategy as to where you take a project and once it’s there how it navigates internally.  Look it’s a really difficult thing to get any movie made.  I don’t think any 2 movies have the same story about how they go script to screen.  Scott was on set every day for 500 days of summer.  I was on set the whole time for spectacular now.  We were executive producers for spectacular now.  So it’s nice that instead of asking to be included in everything there was an expectation that we would be included in everything. Hopefully we will get to produce some of our work in the future.

Eric: Did you produce Fault in Our Stars (the next film they wrote) as well?

Michael: No we did not.

Eric: Was that a completely different production company?

Weber: Yes a whole new mix of people.  Every project is different.  In the case of TFIOS, we didn’t control the book.  It was something we fought to get.  Whenever possible we love to be more involved.

Eric: Is it easier when it’s a smaller budget to be included most of the time?

Scott: Not necessarily.  It depends on the collaborators and the process in which we enter the fray.  We’ve been in projects before where we bring materials to people and in that case we have a little more control and authority and in other cases we have people call us and say we have something for you to think about if it’s a book, if it’s a rewrite, a script that needs some work on, in those situations more often than not, they have their producers, their directors and their cast and they come to us to work on the script in which case we can put our foot down and say “only if” but we just enjoy being collaborative more than putting our foot down and making demands.

Eric: How long did it take to take the book to script?  How long was the process for spec now TSN?

Michael:  It’s hard to remember.  We wrote it in 2008, 2009.  But rarely does anything take us more than a month. We tend to be pretty fast.

Scott: We don’t tend to take on material until we have a handle on it.  And then we feel like we can execute it pretty quickly.  If it was something we really loved and had no idea how to do, we probably would say “We love this thank you for thinking of us, but we probably aren’t the right people” or maybe it’s just a book we love and say “this should probably stay a book because who the heck knows.”

Eric: How close to the book did you stay?

Scott: Pretty close.  The movie version veers a little different than both the script and the novel in a lot of ways.  We found in casting that it changed some things around and even in editing process that some things were extraneous and we could cut them.  The script started out pretty faithful to the book and then the toughest thing is how to capture that first person narrative without doing a ton of voiceover and hacking it up that way.  We wanted to create the feel of the novel without really over doing it in screenplay form.

Michael: We were really lucky that Tim Tharp, the author, was so supportive in that regard.  He wanted the best possible movie more than anything else.  It’s nice when it feels so collaborative from top to bottom like that.

Eric: You kept him involved throughout as well?

Michael: He read drafts if he wanted.  We wanted him to feel good about it.  Not just what we were doing but that he knew about the process.  He visited sets in Georgia for a few days but it wasn’t where we were running micro ideas by him.

Eric: Filming was done in GA but the story takes place in Oklahoma City.  I read the director felt the best place to film was Athens.  Did you have a problem with that?  Does it change your story at all? Does it take away from what you’ve done?

Michael: This is a collaborative medium.  The fact that James (James Ponsoldt, the director) felt such a close personal connection to it, that he was so passionate about shooting in Athens was great.  He understood the material really well.  The story we were telling could take place just about anywhere.  The book was set in OK.  The movie was set in GA.  It’s been nice that people from all over have related to the characters and the emotions and that’s the stuff that we feel can take place anywhere.

Eric: The reviews have been fantastic.  But you were nominated for half dozen awards that I saw, but, and I hope this isn’t a sore subject, you haven’t won any yet.  Do you fall into the typical line of its great to be nominated?  I know you won a bunch for 500 days, but is it upsetting that you haven’t won for TSN?

Michael: It’s a super subjective thing when you give an award for art.  Being mentioned in the conversation is always super cool.  It just means that we get to do this again.  That’s the only thing we ever think about.  I don’t have a trophy case.  I’m never upset when someone else wins.  I think our favorite movies of the year aren’t going to win anything. That’s just how it always goes.  It’s just really cool to be in that conversation.  That means we did something that touched a nerve that people liked and people saw.  We’ve written a lot of things that may never get made so we have to be very grateful that this one even exists.

Scott: I think we get way more excited when people we work with get nominated than we get disappointed when we don’t.  It’s nice that Shailene’s (Shailene Woodley) getting some attention for her part.  All that makes us feel great.

Eric: I’m glad you mentioned Shailene.  You must be really excited then that she was brought back for TFIOS.

Michael: We weren’t on set that for that one very much.  Just a little bit.  But it was great to work with Shailene again.  If it were up to us we would work with her 10 more times.

Scott: She’s really great.

Eric:  That takes me back to casting.  On this one you said you were executive producers.  So that means you were involved in casting correct?

Scott:  Correct, we had a hand in hiring James as well.  We were involved in that from the very beginning.  It was a very unique situation.  Like Michael said, we make suggestions and give our opinions but for the most part we are just the writers.  It’s like whatever you say, sure in one ear and out the other.  But in this case, we had a little more voice and we certainly raised it.  We are certainly proud of it because we feel like we had a hand in it from the start.

Eric.  The names in this cast other than Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bob Odenkirk I didn’t really recognize, but the movies they had been in were pretty big.  You must have been excited to have actors who were in big budget movies in the past.

Scott: Everyone was doing it for the love.  I think everyone knew we weren’t doing a big budget movie that wasn’t going to make a ton of money.   They knew no one was getting their full freight salary so they did it for the love of the film.  We were just very focused on who’s right for the part as opposed to who’s going to get it made.  We had a lot of opportunities to make this for the last 5 years but we didn’t want to make it until we had the right group of people.  As I’m sure you know you can get a certain performer who will get you your money if they have international value, and your movie will get made a lot quicker, and not to name names, but a lot of people aren’t right for certain roles.  You certainly don’t want to cast a 30 year old as a 17 year old.  We had a lot of a situations where we could have gotten this made a lot sooner but we wanted to do it the right way so it was great for us to get it to come together the way it did.

Eric: So it took a lot longer, but you’re very happy with the end result.

Michael: oh yeah.  It’s so hard to get anything made.  So the fact that it got made and audiences and critics are responding to it so favorably it’s really been a great 5 year ride for us.

Eric: Was there anything that you wrote in the script that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film that you were particularly proud of and sad to see go, or something that you were surprised DID make it into the film?

Michael: There are always some surprises in a positive way.  They turn out better than you expected them.  Then there are always some things that didn’t come out right when you shot them.  Or in the case of TSN things we couldn’t afford to shoot.  There’s a small scene at a motel where a bunch of kids are having a party and at the party Sutter (main character) winds up in a hot tub with an ex-girlfriend talking about life and relationships.  It would have been a really cool scene but we never even shot it because it was way out of our budget.  We did repurpose a couple of the ideas from that scene elsewhere but that’s getting a movie made.  A screenplay is a map to a movie.  It’s not the movie itself. The experience was great because we were working with people who believed in the movie the way we did.  In that situation you find really creative answers to these challenges.

Eric: The character of Sutter. Was it difficult taking from the book, writing for a teenage character who deals in typical teenage stuff; losing a girl and dealing with heartbreak?  But also with his alcoholism and the relationship with his father.  Is it hard to write characters that can be believable as teenagers and adults?

Scott: It starts with the book.  We try to capture the voice of this guy that we found very unique and interesting and different.  That’s what attracted us to it in the first place.  First and foremost we wanted to capture Tim’s version of things.  And then we each had our own personal things that we like to add and mess around with a little.  When Miles (Miles Teller) came on board he had such a swagger that you can’t really write.  You kind of have to wind him up and let him go and see what happens.  I think all those things came together and we ended up with the finished product.  Certainly not a character you see all the time and we didn’t really know it was going to work.  But it’s cool that it seems like it has.

Eric: Do you go to Sundance?

Michael:  We were at Sundance both times.  For TSN and 500 days of Summer.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting to be there when an audience sees it the first time.  Later than night when reviews start trickling in and people start buzzing.  We’ve enjoyed it both times.

Scott.  And they were very different experiences.  With 500 days we went knowing we had distribution.  Fox Searchlight was putting it in theaters.  We knew that was going to happen.  The question was how excited were they going to be to put some money behind it based on reaction.  And reaction was great.  We were really excited.  For this, we didn’t have distribution.  So we went there in a little bit of panic.  If it doesn’t go well, then probably no one ever sees this movie and the last couple years of your life have been almost completely wasted.  So we were really excited to go the way it went but they were 2 very different Sundance experiences that ended up in the same place.  I’m not sure I ever want to go back.  Just do those two times and say wow, it could not have gone better.

Eric: When you were on set, even without distribution, did you have a feeling it would be picked up, that people were going to like it, or was it just so up in the air you really had no idea how it was going to go?

Michael: Honestly you’re not thinking that way.  The hours on set are long and grueling.  Everyone’s tired and trying to do their best work.  You’re really thinking about micro issues.  Next days scene, or how do we condense this or how do we change this or improve this.  I think if you’re worried about that when you’re in the trenches working on these scenes you’re not thinking about what you should be thinking about.

Scott: But you’re probably thinking about it in the editing room.  Once it’s finished, once you’re putting it together, once you’re watching it, you’re definitely thinking, “Is anyone going to like this?   Did we do anything right?”  It’s always terrifying.  But Michael is right, when you’re shooting it, you need to get that shot, make sure it looks right, the actor can feel and convey what you need him to and that’s a whole other ball game.

Eric: When you were editing, obviously you were happy with the end result, but were you happy that your vision had been properly realized?

Michael: We weren’t in the editing room.  We saw multiple cuts over weeks and months in the fall of 2012.  Early on you see a cut that has too much in there and there’s a lot of levels you play with and you realize this part needs to be funnier or this part drags a little bit or we need a laugh over here or is there a better take of this?  You play with the levels.

Scott:  Editing is about refinement for sure.  The drafts change the cuts change, and everything progresses and hopefully progresses in the right way.

Final thoughts:

Michael: Just that I hope people watch it.  I hope people know about it. And check it out.  Like it or hate it.  It’s very cool to us that it’s out there.  We kind of went into it as an attempt to bring back the movies we grew up with.  Characters we relate to.  Characters who were not werewolves or vampires or any of that kind of hijinx.  Our 5 year plan was to convince the world there is an audience for this kind of thing still because they don’t make them anymore.  If people check this out maybe we will get to make a few more of them.  We want them back in the world.

Eric whats next?

Scott: TFIOS  is out 6/6.  Fingers crossed This summer we will be shooting Rosaline.  A universal movie we wrote a few years ago.  A comedic retelling of Romeo and Juliet from the point of view of Romeos ex.  The girl before Juliet.  Cameras rolling very soon.