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90,000+ volleyball fans, crossword puzzle obsessives, and the Dream Team walk into a bar...
You can listen to me narrate the opening essay here:
Sometimes I have to take a step back and count my blessings. Consider my Monday this week.
I had my annual physical and got a clean bill of health from Dr. Siegel.
I went for a lovely walk in East Rock Park.
I worked on a couple new projects.
I booked a voice acting gig.
I ate New Haven apizza from Sally’s and was given a free pie to take home, just because.
I experienced authentic, honest-to-goodness Texas honky-tonk music from Summer Dean and her band. Afterwards, I thanked her for stopping by our city and bought a t-shirt to help support the cause.
Then I — gasp! — safely walked home from Cafe Nine at 11:30 p.m. (Someone should alert the Yale Police Benevolent Association that I was on the streets of New Haven after 8 p.m. and lived to tell the tale.)
The Mets blew a 3-0 lead and lost to the Texas Rangers, but hey, you can’t have everything. It was still quite a day, dear reader. Quite a day.
…Sporting Event I Watched This Week
NCAA Women’s Volleyball: Omaha vs. Nebraska
With all due respect to the Super Blue Moon, the coolest thing happening last night was an NCAA women’s volleyball match in Lincoln, Nebraska.
A total of 92,003 fans packed Memorial Stadium to see the Nebraska Cornhuskers take on the Omaha Mavericks. That’s right, 92,003.
What began as an attempt to break the attendance record for an NCAA volleyball match (18,755) evolved to include a takeover of the Cornhuskers’ football stadium with a shot at topping the turnout marks for a women’s sporting event on U.S. soil (90,185) and a women’s sporting event anywhere in the world (91,648).
Tickets sold out within 48 hours, setting the stage for a remarkable night in Lincoln.
And so, a volleyball match now owns the attendance world record for a women’s sporting event.
As far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely fitting. I’ve watched a lot of volleyball over the years, from the high school ranks to the Olympics, and I can’t think of a sport in which the players exude more unabashed joy. It’s just a damn fun game, and that was evident in the smiles of every athlete on the court last night.
I don’t know what any of this will mean for volleyball or women’s sports in general. I’ll leave that to the think piece writers who presume to know the future.
What I do know is that I watched the pregame introductions on TV with tears in my eyes. Having spent almost my entire life following or working on the Olympics, it felt gratifying and special to see one of “our” sports getting so much love and attention.
Well done, Nebraska.
…Documentary I Watched This Week
Wordplay (2006) — Directed by Patrick Creadon
Available for rent on the usual streaming platforms
One of my nightly bedtime rituals is doing the New York Times crossword puzzle on my laptop. I always do the freshly-released one, and sometimes I’ll go back into the archives to do another (or two or even three more if I’m feeling it).
According to the NYT website, I’ve done 3,239 versions of the daily puzzle. So I’m reasonably experienced, and although I occasionally need to google a clue or two for help, I consider myself a pretty good player.
A couple Saturdays ago, however, I stepped into an environment for which I was not prepared: the world of true puzzlers.
On a suggestion from my friend Matt G., I entered an event called Lollapuzzoola, an annual crossword puzzle tournament staged at Riverside Church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.
Though I’m sure I blended in reasonably well with the other competitors, I felt self-conscious in my plain gray t-shirt and Mets cap. Quite a few people were wearing crossword-themed attire, from shirts and hats to scarves and pants. Even those who didn’t go the puzzle-related route had on clothes that were unusual in some way. One player’s t-shirt read, “Schroedinger’s Cat.” Another’s simply said, “SHIRT.”
It was an eclectic group, one that I sensed had a high average IQ and, well, varying degrees of social capabilities.
I knew enough to buy pencils before I arrived (though did I really need a box of 10?). But beyond that, I had no idea what to expect. Since you’ve probably never participated in a crossword puzzle tournament, here’s how it operates.
The event takes place in a big social hall, filled with dozens of round tables that fit about eight players. Everyone does a total of five puzzles throughout the day. Each one is timed. After you hand in a puzzle, your score — a combination of your speed and accuracy — is tabulated in a back room in advance of the next round.
The puzzles generally get progressively harder, longer, and more outlandish as the day goes on. The players with the highest total scores after the fifth puzzle advance to the championship round, where they complete the final puzzle onstage on giant whiteboards.
The night before, I was feeling pretty good about myself, having completed the Saturday Times puzzle in just over 12 minutes.
But seeing the hall in Riverside Church teeming with — forgive me — huge nerds, I immediately knew I was out of my league. This was not like doing the puzzle on my laptop in my pajamas. Beneath their friendly exteriors, I could tell these people were deadly puzzle ninjas. I felt like an impostor, and I told anyone who’d listen that my goal was to not finish last.
My friend Matt was a veteran of past crossword events, and he warned me that some competitors would be finishing the puzzles jarringly and ego-bruisingly quickly. Even with this warning, I was still taken aback when folks starting handing in the first puzzle after about three or four minutes (we all had 20 minutes to do it; I finished in 7:36 and made two mistakes).
I quickly got used to being outclassed like this and started to wonder if I might indeed finish last. By the end of the day, though, I had landed safely in 196th place out of about 250 entrants. Nothing to brag about. But not dead last. (Matt fared much better than me, turning in five error-free puzzles.)
The overall champion was a young Canadian named Will Nediger. Turns out, he’s a professional crossword constructor who’s had close to 50 puzzles published in the Times. I was probably the only person in the room who made this connection, but his dominance that day reminded me of Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. (“…he’s moving like a tremendous machine!”)
When I went to Riverside Church that day, I hadn’t yet watched Wordplay, a 2006 documentary directed by Patrick Creadon. But now I have. The film is an entertaining look at crossword obsessives through the lens of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (known to devotees simply as “ACPT”), an annual event organized by famed puzzler Will Shortz and held at the Marriott in Stamford, Connecticut.
Had I seen the film before Lollapuzzoola, I would certainly have had a better idea of what a crossword puzzle tournament looks and feels like. But I have no regrets — I’m glad I went into it totally blind.
So will I be attending ACPT in the spring or Lollapuzzoola again next summer? I wouldn’t bet on either. But if anyone else wants to go, I’d be happy to share my extra pencils with you.
…International Basketball Tournament I Watched This Week
2023 FIBA Men’s Basketball World Cup
Airing on ESPN networks, streaming on ESPN+
I love international basketball tournaments. My affection for such events began when the Dream Team debuted at the Tournament of the Americas in June 1992. I had just turned 13, and I couldn’t believe my eyes: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan on the same team?
Lord, am I in heaven?
Until 1992, NBA superstars had never been permitted to play in international competition due to so-called amateurism rules. So when they finally got the green light, the thrill of watching international basketball was to see the greatest players in the world all representing Team USA.
The games in 1992 were more like exhibitions. After losing by 40 or 60 or even 79 points (hello, Cuba), opposing players would ask the Dream Teamers for autographs and photos while still on the court. It was bonkers.
I recorded and re-watched these blowouts on VHS tapes, played my Team USA Basketball video game on Sega Genesis, and wore a replica Chris Mullin Olympic team jersey (he wasn’t necessarily my favorite player, but we had the same haircut and he wore No. 13, my birthday number).
I missed most of the Olympics that summer because I was away at camp, but I distinctly remember my parents bringing me back to their hotel room on visiting day so I could watch the Dream Team from Barcelona in air conditioned bliss. (“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. Nice to see you, thanks for coming. Can you direct me to the nearest television? Thanks so much.”)
I couldn’t have imagined that 10 years later, I would be covering the FIBA World Men’s Basketball Championship as an Olympic researcher for NBC. Yet there I was, on location in downtown Indianapolis. My assignment: scout the teams that might qualify for the 2004 Olympics and interview as many of the players as I could.
In the decade between 1992 and 2002, international basketball had changed dramatically. No longer did the U.S. have a monopoly on great players and outstanding teams. Most experts credit the Dream Team with creating a global basketball boom, and as a result, elite talent soon came from every corner of the globe, even China — including a 7-foot-5, 21-year-old NBA draft pick named Yao Ming whom I got to see suit up in Indy.
By 2002, playing for Team USA had lost some of its cachet for the top Americans. So at the World Championship that year, the real fun was watching NBA stars on international teams, like Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Vlade Divac (Yugoslavia — yes, that’s how long ago this was), and Pau Gasol (Spain).
There was also a guy playing for Argentina who was headed to the NBA that fall — a shifty shooting guard named Manu Ginobili who had recently signed with the San Antonio Spurs. I wanted to keep an eye on him.
(All of the aforementioned players are now enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.)
Highlights for me included the Brazilian team sneaking me into their hotel for a hang session and interviewing several future NBA players from Argentina, the team that would win the Olympic gold medal two years later in Athens.
As for Team USA, prior to the event, I made a bold statement in our internal NBC Olympics newsletter. I suggested that the Americans — who since 1992 had never lost when fielding a team of NBA stars — could very well fall to three potential opponents in Indianapolis: Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Spain. Sure enough, the Americans lost to all three and finished a humbling sixth. (One colleague literally bowed down to me when I came back to the office the following week.)
All my memories of that tournament came flooding back this past Saturday morning when I tuned into the FIBA Men’s Basketball World Cup from Manila, Philippines.
A talented and energetic group of young American stars was playing its opening game. On the other side were the “Tall Blacks” (actual team nickname) of New Zealand, who were being coached by native son Pero Cameron — a man I remembered as a 6-foot-7, 287-pound headache for his opponents as he carried his team to an improbable fourth-place finish 21 years ago in Indianapolis. Seeing him on the sideline was a crazy, full circle moment.
A big part of me wished I was there in Manila to experience it in person.