Ed. note: The following was slated to run on the special CSN 10th Anniversary Web site, but was spiked because the content, I was told, was a sore spot with certain folks. I'm not sure who those folks are (actually, I am, but I'm not going to tell you), but I was also told to save the essay for my blog. I never felt like it fit until now because Allen Iverson will play in Philadelphia for the first time since his trade to Denver.
When Comcast SportsNet hit the cable airwaves in these parts on Oct. 1, 1997 it literally changed how diehard sports fans watch their games.
Actually, it changed nothing about how we sit around and watch a routine ballgame on any given Tuesday night on the calendar. No, Comcast SportsNet changed how we watch the games. Emphasis, as stated, on watch.
What changed wasn't a person's rudimentary knowledge of the sport or the rules or whatever. It's a little more nuanced than that. Instead, what Comcast SportsNet did was take the pre- and post-game media scrums and turned on a camera.
Sounds simple, huh? Well, sometimes the smartest move is the most obvious one. Yet by making that simple, smart move, CSN gave the viewers at home essentially the same vantage point as most of the reporters covering the games - only without the player interaction and clubhouse towel-snapping and whatnot. And trust me, that is no great perk.
Nevertheless, by turning on the cameras for the press conferences and locker room action, Comcast SportsNet gave the intuitive fan something a little more breathable than the five-second sound byte on the evening news mixed in with 90-seconds of highlights. It also made the quotes in the newspaper a little more tangible. Instead of reading between the lines of a quote for the deeper meaning, or relying on the analysis of desk jockeys breaking down the game on the post-game show, fans were given the chance to deconstruct a player's words. Body language, facial expressions and inflection of voice were all there to be translated in any manner a fan chose.
Sure, it is still true that the best quotes and the best stories are still the dominion of the print media. This little caveat of the sports media is unlikely to change and there are many reasons why. One, of course, is that a conversation between one player and one scribe is typically more revealing than the one between a player, an interviewer, a cameraman and the thousands of folks watching at home. Players are human and humans prefer the intimate nature of a quiet conversation between small groups of people. When those camera lights go on sometimes even the most seasoned player sweat, shake and quiver with nervousness. Being on TV, even in this age of media over-saturation, is still a big deal. Until everyone is wired (wireless) with a microphone for their own web site(s), the dichotomy between TV and newspapers covering sports is not going to change.
But as for the everyday press conference with the players and the coaches, Comcast SportsNet changed the game. It's all there, unedited and unfiltered. Now it's hard to discern whether or not turning the basic press conference into reality television is an act of genius or not. After all, it doesn't take Stephen Hawking to figure out that sports fans want as much access to their sports heroes as possible. Genius, of course is in the eye of the beholder - one man's Picasso is another man's velvet Elvis. However, one of the greatest moments in the history of television (at least in the last 10 years) was aired live on Comcast SportsNet - unbleeped. That moment was on May 8, 2002 when Allen Iverson delivered his famous "practice" press conference.
OK. I know what you're thinking. You are questioning the hyperbolic notion that Allen Iverson talking about practice (not a game) was some sort of transcendent TV moment like the last episode of MASH or something like that. I guess in that regard, you are right. But not by much.
Here's why the Iverson moment was touchstone event: It transcended mere sports and became an actual figment of the pop culture. The phrase, "We're talkin' ‘bout practice, man," has entered the popular lexicon and become a significant slab of cultural wallpaper.
Still not buying it? OK, try this:
In July of 2006 I was walking with my family on the Pearl Street pedestrian mall in Boulder, Colo., which is that town's version of South Street only it's cleaner, more eclectic and filled with vagabonds begging for change wearing $250 peasants' shirts and $125 Merrell sandals. About 10 minutes into a walk past falafel stands, smoothie shops and kiosks advertising the gigs for the latest touring jam band, a kid on a skateboard wiped out right at my feet. I gave him a moment to catch his breath (my son chased down his board) and then offered a hand to get the kid back on his feet. Once I realized he was OK and would live to skate (or die!) another day, I said, "Looks like you need a little more practice."
"Practice," he said, without hesitation and as he brushed a well-coifed dread from his face. "We're talkin' about practice."
Then he smiled and skated away.
Has anyone ever heard of a skateboard kid quoting Jim Mora's "Playoffs" screed, another famous post-game rant that was captured on live TV? How about Howard Dean's demented rebel yell? I sincerely doubt it.
But Allen Iverson, thanks to Comcast SportsNet's foresight, gave that wannabe Neil Blender in Boulder a quipy line to throw back at some smart-alecky, 30-something from Pennsylvania. And we are all the better for it.
OK, you concede, the Iverson press conference was a cultural phenomenon. But didn't the Terrell Owens press conferences from his driveway - including the one where he invited everyone over to watch him do sit-ups - supersede Iverson's, "Practice"?
No, and here's why:
If you go to the circus and see a man swallow a two-foot sword engorged with flames, it isn't news. It's odd and maybe a bit disturbing when one wonders about how that circus performer (is "freak" the proper nomenclature?) discovered he had the innate ability to swallow fiery objects. Just how does he practice? Certainly the swallower has made mistakes while honing his act... what happened as the result of those sessions besides a few new scars and an interest in the stock performance of Bactine?
The point is that the dude swallowing the sword at the circus is simply doing his job. That's it. He's punching the clock. When Terrell Owens and his agent were doing their little song and dance in the driveway it was the same exact thing as the guy in the circus - it wasn't news, it was just a performance-art piece.
But what set Comcast SportsNet apart on May 8, 2002 was that it could tell a story better than anyone else simply by turning on the cameras and getting the heck out of the way. The second coming of Damon Runyan or Red Smith could never do justice to Iverson's words.
Actually, you be the judge. First, here's is the video from that press conference. And here is the transcript of the press conference:
"If Coach tells you that I missed practice, then that's that. I may have missed one practice this year, but if somebody says he missed one practice of all the practices this year, then that's enough to get a whole lot started.
I told Coach Brown that you don't have to give the people of Philadelphia a reason to think about trading me or anything like that. If you trade somebody, you trade them to make the team better... simple as that. I'm cool with that. I'm all about that. The people in Philadelphia deserve to have a winner. It's simple as that.
It goes further than that... If I can't practice, I can't practice. It is as simple as that. It ain't about that at all. It's easy to sum it up if you're just talking about practice. We're sitting here, and I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're talking about practice. I mean listen, we're sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we're talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last, but we're talking about practice man. How silly is that? ...
Now I know that I'm supposed to lead by example, and all that, but I'm not shoving that aside like it don't mean anything. I know it's important, I honestly do, but we're talking about practice. We're talking about practice man. We're talking about practice. We're talking about practice. We're not talking about the game. We're talking about practice. When you come to the arena, and you see me play -- you've seen me play right -- you've seen me give everything I've got, but we're talking about practice right now. ...
Hey I hear you; it's funny to me too. Hey it's strange to me too, but we're talking about practice man, we're not even talking about the game, when it actually matters, we're talking about practice ... How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?"See what I mean. The video was so much better. Watching it again all these years later still makes me laugh because it's one of the greatest rants ever. But it also makes me remember how Allen Iverson played when he was with the 76ers. Sure, there were other issues with Iverson that will be deciphered and agonized over for decades to come, but no one can deny that Iverson was entertaining. He played hard, he played to win and, yes, even gave us a good show. Yeah, maybe people wanted Steve Nash as the undersized guard leading the title run, but when Iverson was here no one ever complained about being bored.