Bounce is Rolling Along

Yes, it’s been absurdly long since I posted here. So long, in fact, I almost feel the need to re-introduce myself to whomever might be out there reading this. I am the other John Fox who’s got a thing for the ball. Not the one who pops up in nearly ALL of my weekly Google Alerts instead of me. But also not the one who may never live down that horrific post-season implosion against the Ravens last season. So there.

The out of the gate post-pub excitement and buzz for “The Ball” has long since died down, though it was a great ride while it lasted. Along with the standard ‘likes’ and all that, I still get the occasional email like this one from a Masters student in Canada that makes me feel like the ideas in my book are continuing to reverberate out there in unexpected and positive ways:

Last Summer I spent 12 weeks volunteering as a football (soccer) coach and physical education teach in Limbe, Cameroon and brought a copy of your book, The Ball, with me and LOVED it. Every chapter and each story intrigued me and further enhanced an already powerful interest in the power of sport, recreation and ritual in society.

The guy who wrote this is now looking at how sport can play a transformative role in community development – such a ripe topic for someone to dig into and figure out how to make a difference. Very cool to see.

Mostly what’s new in the world of The Ball is the documentary in-the-works, which is called BOUNCE: How the Ball Taught the World to Play. Check out our film website, which features some early, mouthwatering clips. The film is a collaboration with my amazingly talented friends, Jerome Thelia (director/producer), David McLain (director of photography/producer), and Anne Carkeet (producer). Hard to believe, but we’ve been in production for two years already and have shot in England, Scotland, France, Mexico, Brazil, all over the U.S., and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we filmed bonobo chimpanzees playing in the wild.

Bounce excerpt – bonobos from Merge on Vimeo.

All the footage I’ve seen so far is equally breathtaking, but what’s been particularly satisfying has been watching Jerome, David and Anne get as thoroughly obsessed with this topic as I’ve been for many years, reading and circulating obscure journal articles and digging into the academic and sports literature. Far from being just a spin-off from the book (which, let’s face it, is pretty typical), I view BOUNCE as really picking up the journey into the rich subject of play and the ball where the book left off – ranging farther afield and deeper into human and animal consciousness.

So editing is underway, with the corresponding come-to-Jesus moments around needed footage, interviews to be shot, script elements to be refined, etc. It’s looking like an early-ish 2014 complete date is likely. Look for more updates and tantalizing clips here and on bouncethemovie.com!

What if the Olympics Were Organized by Longitude

Despite my better judgment, I watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics last night. Danny Boyle’s bizarro version of English history was one of the oddest TV spectacles I think I’ve witnessed, what with Kenneth Branagh strutting about dressed like Abe Lincoln and Queen Elizabeth parachuting out of a helicopter while men in knickers rolled up the countryside like Home Depot carpets. It put some of the worst Super Bowl half-time shows I’ve seen to shame – which is saying a lot. Forcing us to plod like punished schoolchildren through every phase of English history was cruel and unnecessary. I mean if Togo were hosting the Games it would be super helpful to provide a musical review of the tiny country’s little-known history (not to mention a brief geography lesson on where the heck it is). But England?

Watching England’s history unfold, followed by the parade of participating nations and their athletes, it got me wondering: what if the Olympics weren’t organized along national lines at all? If it’s really intended to be a global celebration of the human spirit, isn’t it time the games were organized more creatively to reflect that? As it is, one-quarter of the athletes competing in London come from just six countries – the superpowers of the US, UK, Russia, China, Germany, and Australia – an imbalance that is just accepted as inevitable.

What if the Olympic teams were formed on the basis of longitudinal zones, for example? I’d be cheering for Team 80 Degree West, an interesting slice of humanity with east coast Americans competing alongside athletes from Ontario, Ecuador, eastern Cuba, Argentina, Jamaica, Chile, and the Netherlands (by way of Aruba), among others. You’d get a good mix of wealthy superpowers and not so wealthy small nations, a fantastic diversity of athletic experience, training programs, cultures, and so on. The uniforms could be made in China, or Togo, or wherever and no one would give a shit. Host meridians would be selected at random by spinning a roulette wheel, not by bribes and favors. Every four years, spectators would have the chance to assume a new, more global identity, united by the lines of the Earth rather than by the borders of nations. And Danny Boyle would need to work a little harder to imagine a worthy celebration.

If You Liked the Book…

…you’ll love the movie! Now that the book is successfully launched, my focus is shifting some to the film we’re producing based on the book: BOUNCE: How the Ball Taught the World to Play. BOUNCE, which we’re looking to release in 2013, is bound to be a visual feast for the eyes, not to mention a thought-provoking a fun follow up to the themes I brought to the surface in the book. The film’s a collaboration with some great, super talented friends – two of whom I traveled the world with for years producing the Quest interactive expeditions. Jerome Thelia, the Producer/Director, is a feature film colorist and post-supervisor for films by the likes of John Ford, Godard, Soderbergh. David McLain, Producer/Director of Photography, is a National Geo photographer who crafts imagery – still or moving – in ways that make you see familiar things in profoundly different ways. The rest of the crew matches their talents and storytelling creds.

Check out the BOUNCE website where we’ll be posting footage from our travels following the ball around the globe. Here’s a taste, shot by the crew in Rio in shot at 5K with a Red Epic camera. Makes you want to play…

Bounce – Marechal, Brazil from Merge on Vimeo.

A Wild Ride

I’m embarrassed to see it’s been a couple of months since posting. How not to do social media. I’ve got a good excuse at least. Since The Ball came out May 15 there’s been a barrage of interest, readings, media appearances, news articles, etc. It’s been really wonderful to see the response. Judging by the response at my various readings or from call-in listeners to several radio programs, it’s a topic that taps into people’s passions. In more than one instance, I’ve heard from some older folks who waxed nostalgic about the informal street games of their youth. I’ve heard from lots of coaches who thanked me for reminding them of the roots and essence of the games they love – games that have often been coopted by commercial interests, corruption, and all-around bad behavior. I learned, strangely, that jugglers feel pretty strongly about their chosen pastime. One juggler called me out on the air on WBUR’s On Point for not focusing on that ancient form of play (I pointed out that I actually did talk about its roots in ancient Egypt! Oh well, can’t please everyone). I had some fun getting roasted in front of a live Wisconsin audience by Michael Feldman on the show, Whaddya Know.

This morning capped two weeks of steady media coverage. A really nice piece aired on CBS Sunday Morning featuring interviews with me and footage of my son Aidan owning me with a three-pointer in our driveway (truth be told, they were merciful with their edits!). Highlight there (and an incredible honor) was the interview they did for the piece with Celtics great Bob Cousy who said he’d “Been to every place imaginable. I’ve been invited to the White house by six sitting presidents, because of my relationship with the ball!”

All because of the ball.

“Because It’s Pretty Hard to Catch a Pyramid”

Yes, that was my response to a question posed during my first on-air interview on New Hampshire Public Radio. The question was getting at why the ball and not some other natural form. Off to a wacky start at least. The best part, though, may have been at the end when I quoted Nike, “just do it,” and the interviewer noted that I’ve been “doing it all over the globe.” Whoa, I wish! Anyway, six days and counting until book launch with lots of stuff going on. I’ll be on the wonderful NPR show “On Point” on the 15th. I’ve got an interview scheduled with Marketplace, which should air next week. Pretty exciting.

Also, I got a pretty awesome blurb from a friend and author who’s been ripping up the NY Times bestseller list for weeks – William (Bill to me) Landay. OK, so he’s a friend but he’s also a fanatic sports fan so his endorsement means a lot:

“John Fox is equal parts historian, anthropologist, world traveler, sports nut, and storyteller. The Ball is a fascinating exploration not just of the games we play but why we play them — of what our ballgames tell us about ourselves.”
 
Thanks Bill!

The Trailer…and Soon to Be Documentary

I’ve teamed up with my old friends, David McLain and Jerome Thelia of The Merge Group to produce a feature length documentary based on The Ball. David, Jerome and I traveled the world together for a number of years as part of the Quest project – a pioneer online adventure learning program. Man did we have fun. David is an amazingly talented National Geographic photographer and Jerome is a film colorist and post-production Picasso with 20 years of film work under his belt. As they learned more about the book I was writing, they started scheming ways to take it to the big screen. They spent Christmas and New Years on the remote isle of Orkney, Scotland filming the Kirkwall Ba’, a holdover of medieval football that I write about in the book.

Here’s a trailer for my book that features the footage they shot. I can’t stop watching it myself.

First Review!

The first review of The Ball is in from Kirkus Reviews:

An anthropologist and freelance journalist debuts with a peripatetic analysis of our ball games—where they came from, how they evolved and why we love them. Fox darts around the globe to show us the origins of our games. He dismisses legends (Abner Doubleday), confirms truths (James Naismith and basketball), participates as well as observes and teaches us how all sorts of balls were and are made….crackerjack reporting crackles throughout.
 
When I first read it I thought it said “pathetic analysis” so was relieved after reading it more closely!

Why Aren’t Free Throws a No-Brainer?

A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old played one of his better games with his sixth-grade travel basketball team. He drove the lane, drew some fouls, and best of all, shot 4 for 4 at the line. He was “beasting,” as he likes to say. That was a particularly banner game but in general he’s a good free throw shooter for his age. If I had to guess, I’d say he shoots at least 50% at the line. That same week, I watched Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo miss two clutch free throws in a row. Which got me scratching my head: How is it that Rondo, a premier All-Star player who gets paid $10 million a year can have a FT percentage that’s just 10% higher than my 12-year-old’s?

Think about it. Here’s all he has to do: Stand at a line which is always 15 feet from the basket, always 10 feet in height and throw the exact same brand/model/size ball in the hoop without anyone’s hand in his face. And yet 4 times out 10 he misses! OK, so Rondo’s one of the worst point guards in the league for FT’s but the NBA average is still a shabby 75% (in college ball it’s just 69%). It’s not like free throws don’t matter. I read in a 1995 study that in games decided by 9 or fewer points, free throws accounted for nearly 70% of the winning team’s points in the last minute. Just yesterday, Kentucky proved the case decisively by downing Indiana in a game where they shot 35 for 37 from the line.

So what’s the problem? Lack of discipline? Faulty technique? Lack of mental focus under pressure? I don’t know the answer, but last week I read about the guy who probably knows the answer better than anyone. Bob Fisher is the best free throw shooter on the planet. And he’s – you guessed it – a full-time soil conservation technician from Kansas. Fisher has sunk 2,371 free throws in an hour — nearly 40 a minute!! Think I’ll reach out to him to hear what his magic is…

Sh*t Teams That Don’t Give a Sh*t Do and Why We Care

Just read a funnier than sh*t article on Grantland.com by Justin Halpern, the guy with the prolifically foul-mouthed father who wrote Sh*t My Dad Says and now has 3 million followers on Twitter. The article, Your Favorite Team Doesn’t Give a Damn About You, says what most of us know but can’t bring ourselves to admit about our favorite professional teams: None of these bloated franchises cares about their fans. How can they? After all, corporations don’t have feelings; they have balance sheets. Like Halpern’s dad’s beloved San Diego Chargers, they threaten to leave town for a better deal or a bigger stadium and we act like jilted lovers. Like we thought we had something special going, when it was really just an extended one-night stand.

And yet in this cynical and scandal-ridden age of ours, it’s quaintly heartening that fans still care that much about their teams — enough to sign petitions and call radio stations to keep them from leaving — when all logic says they’re not worth it. “Go. Who needs you, anyway?” we want to say…but can’t, with any feeling. Because the idea of these teams and the way they make us feel part of something bigger, connect us across generations, and bond us together through the years feels too important to let go of without a fight. We belong to them and they to us, in good times and in bad, through losing and championship seasons. To me, the fact that we still give a sh*t is just one of those strange but beautiful things about sports.

The Madness Begins With the Ball

I would have found it reassuringly quaint, and downright old school, that, as Mark Viera reported in the New York Times last week, in the NCAA each home team gets to choose which brand of basketball to play with. That is, if I didn’t know it was just a matter of the various cozy marketing deals being struck with each team by manufacturers. Aside from dictating the shape – “the ball shall be spherical” – and the general texture – a“deeply pebbled leather or composite cover” – and the assembly – with “the traditionally shaped eight panels,” NCAA basketball is the Wild West when it comes to the balls themselves.

As the article notes, the NBA, NFL, and MLB all have “official” balls, which means every time a player takes to the court or the field he’s handling the same familiar form. And in college football, each offense selects their ball of preference. But in college basketball there are no fewer than seven brands of balls bouncing around home courts – each spherical, yeah, but each with its quirks of texture and feel. Enough to throw off a player’s free throw pretty easily.

But these guys have it easy compared to the way it used to be. Back when Naismith invented the game it was played with a soccer ball. Even after “basket balls” were introduced, they were lumpy orbs with laces that had to be untied several times a game to be pumped up. As I relay in The Ball, in 1919 Syracuse All-American Joe Schwarzer bragged about the challenges of play in those early days, “When you shot the ball, you could see it going up by leaps and bounds depending on how the air would hit the laces.”

Marketing deals or no, I love the fact that the ball can still be a somewhat unpredictable and deciding force on the court in an age of over-regulation and predictability.

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