Isaiah Thomas’ Documentary Series “Book of Isaiah” Scores From All Angles

We have more access than ever before.

Seemingly everyone who’s not in elementary school has a smartphone, within it the ability to focus outwardly and view words, photos, videos and even streams of the lives of other people.

More of our lives is exchanged every day, every minute, every second. Everything can be shared.

In sports, this means the fan can now look beyond the game. Access is at the fingertips of the fans and the gatekeeping is in the players’ hands.

In “Book of Isaiah,” Boston Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas and filmmaker TJ Regan serve up unprecedented access to the biggest offseason of IT’s career. The documentary series captures the Boston Celtics’ 5’9″ point guard a year from free agency. The NBA’s salary cap is at its highest in league history in large part due to its media deal (9 years for $24 billion with ESPN & Turner), a monstrosity that shows the monetary value of capturing the world’s greatest ballers.

“Book of Isaiah” is access to both the mind and the body, and the constant search for improvement in both that athletes long for. Regan’s artistry is in capturing and piecing together the images, sounds and feelings that unveil Isaiah’s all-encompassing appetite for development.

We hear Thomas verbalize the pain of losing in the playoffs as we see him firing up jumpers in preparation for opening night. A scene of a workout, with beads of sweat, grimaces and grunts lays on a soundtrack of Nipsey Hussle, IT’s favorite rapper. For just a minute, as we see him push his body to its limits, we find where his mind is at as well.

“Knowing that this game to be played
But I’m knowin’ that this game to be changed
I should be afraid of afraid
I’m just tryna live up to the meanin’ of my name,” Nipsey spits.

The most direct example of the offseason grind is footage of Thomas’ track workout, an exhausting ordeal that pushes him to his physical end and inspires commentary throughout. His mentee, Central Washington guard Dom Williams, gives his own special insight: vomiting after a series of sled pushes, weighted sprints, and agility exercises.

This is full access to a career in which your value is constantly assessed, improvement is critical, and there are no defined business hours.

Layered inside the framework of “grind time” are the out-of-practice-gym scenes that add texture to Thomas’ story.

There’s Thomas breathing basketball back into Seattle through his Memorial Day Zeke-End tournament, attempting to explain the concept of pregnancy to his four-year-old son Jaiden and giving backpacks and wisdom to Boston youth.

He chops it up with legendary boxer Floyd Mayweather, childhood idol Allen Iverson and buries Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett in a shooting contest at a Seattle team meeting.

Watching Thomas process his meeting with Iverson is, in my opinion, the best footage of the series.

Thomas, a man once picked dead last in the NBA draft, is inspiring throughout. The script flips for a couple of minutes when he gets some time with Iverson, the greatest “lil killer” to ever do it and one of his inspirations. Isaiah prepares nervously to ask “The Answer” for an autograph, smiles the entire time he’s in Iverson’s presence, and giddily Instagrams his signed jersey in the hotel room afterwards.

Still glowing in the meeting’s aftermath, he rattles off AI’s career stats and says “I got to be Allen Iverson, bro.” As he paces and shadowboxes in the mirror, he exclaims “I’ve got to get better. It’s not cool, I gotta get better. I gotta get better cuz!”

Fans desire that look behind the curtain, that private peek, that transgression of transparency more than ever. This is it. And this is rare.

Sports media is increasingly divisive and uncomfortable. Players and coaches are painted as good guys or bad guys and #EmbraceTheDebate is the tagline of one of ESPN’s biggest shows. Some analysts exist as professional criticizers, vultures who linger above failed athletes, waiting to feast on any sort of failure they can find. Guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tiger Woods and Carmelo Anthony are picked apart when their deeds can be conveniently skewered or praised relentlessly on another day when the tide of the angry sports fan turns.

On social media, an athlete’s Twitter mentions or Instagram comments can be filled with crude comments about their significant others, random expressions of hate based on team, performance or nationality and also praise from around the world.

The brightness of the spotlight is not always flattering, and most athletes aren’t really incentivized to give fans the access we consistently try to grab. The push and pull of privacy and public must be regularly balanced.

That’s what makes “Book of Isaiah” so cool. This is fearless access to the work, the sweat, the hustle. It’s as complete and multi-faceted as you’ll find anywhere on any athlete. It doesn’t seek one narrative of Thomas or lend itself to thoughtless clickbait “let’s argue!” coverage. You won’t see any polls about “Book of Isaiah” or hear a radio host taking “hot-take” calls on this.

Much like Thomas, this series goes up against the taller titans of sports media and through variety, skill and unabashed effort, succeeds.

In a climate that gives fans just a couple sentences here, a page and a half there, a cover here, a series of pictures there, this is the “Book of Isaiah.”

Let no page go unturned.

 

 

Oh and that work… it’s paying off: Thomas is averaging 28.2 points per game and 6.2 assists per game. Iverson, as a reverential Thomas noted, averaged 28 for his career. He leads the entire league in 4th quarter scoring and has a knack for coming through in the final seconds to deliver the win. He also leads the Eastern conference in points per game. Thomas is in serious contention for a starting spot in New Orleans’ NBA All-Star game in February.

Look at these ridiculous shots.

Invincibility, Rick Ross’ “Hood Billionaire,” and America’s Need For the Kingpin Narrative

What if I told you invincibility is not a feeling, but a purchase? That feeling of being on top, of being bad and getting away with it, of life without limits, of power, it’s a $13.99 iTunes click away. Too rich for your blood? Spotify has this instant invincibility, just set up an account. It’s free.

Rick Ross’ “Hood Billionaire,” an album dedicated to living a life none of us will ever live, is 16 tracks of pure, grade-A drug dealer narrative. Over a booming production, Ross regales us with tales of “Coke Like the 80’s,” “rich bitches,” and tapped phones.

We get a verbal tour of Evander Holyfield’s former Florida residence, learn what it’s like to deal cocaine in the Florida Keys, and feel the power of being the “Neighborhood Drug Dealer.”

When you listen to Ross, it’s easy to nod your head along to the monk-chant choruses and heavy bass, grunt your caveman approval, and move on.

But to do that is to miss the true genius of Rick Ross, and the reason why a rapper with little legitimacy or truth to his tales can continue to produce content we all eat up to the tune of millions.

Photo via @ComplexMusic

Photo via @ComplexMusic, All Rights Reserved To Complex Music

Though they won’t be greenlit by Disney anytime soon, Ross ‘s rhymes are just fairy tales, no different in some ways than Snow White and her seven dwarfs or Alice in Wonderland.

The music is not the product, but merely the form of expression and communication upon which Ross pushes his narcotic narrative. The product here is image.

Rick Ross has painted his own identity, through high snares, through a chain of his face wearing a chain of his face, and through an ability to never stray from his made-up mentality, into a narrative of true freedom.

Society pushes us to be fit, clean, and conscious of each other. Ross is comically overweight, rarely wears a shirt in a music video, and has a Wingstop sponsorship. He shows off baguette sized blunts to Rolling Stone Magazine, has tattoos of presidents Lincoln and Washington placed juuuuust above his areolas, and named one of his cars “Katy Perry.”

He doesn’t care, and he doesn’t have to. It’s all a part of the Rick Ross brand of freedom. A level of life unreachable in reality, but attainable in some form through the purchase of Ross’s music. We cannot live that life, but hear what it sounds like.

His freedom shines through in its clearest form in Ross’s self-made persona, an infallible and desired character: The drug dealer that never gets caught.

He’s a modern day superhero, fighting back against the modern day crimes of urban poverty and corporate super villains, only in Ross’ world he has the secret weapon: He never loses.

In American pop culture, we love this. The life of a drug dealer, of a life intertwined in organized crime, interests even the straight-laced viewer, as evidenced by the large scale successes of “Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” and of course, “Scarface.”

But this is where the medium of film limits the “above the law” narrative. Film is essentially a reflection or imitation of life, and therefore is held in check by reality.

Henry Hill and “Jimmy the Gent” have to get caught by the FBI, because that’s what happened in real life. Vito and Sonny Corleone have to die at the opposite ends of the spectrum (Vito, in a yard with his family around, and Sunny in a blaze of gunfire) because that, or something in between, really happened to crime families in this country. Tony Montana can’t make it, because even Pablo Escobar was gunned down eventually.

But Ross? He makes music, which is not limited by precedent, reality, or the karmic laws of life that always seem to be present in all of our daily experiences.

Plenty of us have seen a bad crime movie and thought, “that would never happen.” But none of us hear The Boss crow lovingly about “nickel rock” and think the same thing.

Even though the real Rick Ross, somebody whose real life story borders on the ledge of legendary, who actually moved several million dollars of cocaine through the west coast & went to jail for 20 years, is somewhat we should be paying attention to; we continue to be enamored with the fake life of the fake Rick Ross, specifically because it’s so unrealistic.

The news has been flush with stories of those living below the law, and the bursting tension that comes as a result, both in the flaming windows of riots and in the peaceful protests of frustrated Americans.

In times like these, it’s rough to look around and feel like you’re on top of the world. This is why we listen to Ross. Instant gratification is the norm these days, and with music it’s no different.

Press play, listen to the powerful score rising under the heavy tones of Rick Ross, and for a moment, just pause.

That moment of relaxation and excitement, that screeching halt in the negativity of life, negativity constantly reinforced every time a television is turned on or Twitter is refreshed, and the realization that it’s now absent, that’s invincibility.

That right there, is Rick Ross.

Yom Kippur On A Mountain

Let’s start this with a bit of honesty.

I really don’t like going to temple.

Temple, especially when the high holy days roll around, presents too many distractions for me to feel like I’m having a meaningful experience. I find myself trying to remember the names of all of my mom’s friends in the National Council of Jewish Women (who remember me as a well-behaved baby), fiddling with the length of my tie, and dodging the scattered sneezes and sniffles of a Jewish community fighting the beginning of autumn.

I can’t focus. Continue reading

(Little) Man Down

I awoke from my birthday slumber, eager to attack a day I claimed for my own some 19 years ago.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and tried to force some sort of moisture into my dry morning mouth, visions of glorious birthday plans dancing through the sunrise grogginess (Okay, okay, it was like 10 am). I rolled over and flipped on my phone, as I always do first thing in the morning, and checked Twitter.

And there it was, as plain as can be, staring back at my (suddenly changing) giddy face. Continue reading

A Cringe In the Mirror

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“It’s Super Bowl or bust this season.”

The words crumble as they come out of my mouth. They’re so unfamiliar, so weird to say.

As I’ve noted before, my joy in the recent success of my beloved San Francisco 49ers finds its roots in failures of 49er pasts.

I love Colin Kaepernick because he’s not Shaun Hill, Ken Dorsey, or Cody Pickett. I love Alex Boone and Anthony Davis because they’re not Kwame Harris or Chilo Rachal. I get a greater joy out of watching Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree reek havoc every Sunday because I’m no longer watching Darrell Jackson drop footballs or Antonio Bryant fail to get open or Cedrick Wilson’s premature celebrations… the list goes on and on.

I didn’t grow up on 49er dominance. I faintly remember the huge comeback against the Giants in ’02, but what I mostly remember about the 49ers in my childhood is Dennis Erickson, trading TO for a defective defensive lineman, and Mark Roman getting beat deep.

The negatives greatly outweigh the positives. Continue reading

Donovan Out Means U.S. Thinks They’re Legit

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Landon Donovan Will Not Be A Member of the United States Men’s National Team for the 2014 FIFA World Cup

It would have been the easy move.

Just throw Landon Donovan on the roster, regardless of how he matched up to the players occupying the other 22 spots on the United States Men’s National Team roster, and save yourself from the scathing waves of criticism.

Just do it.

It’d be simple, painless, and almost thoughtless.

Instead, he’s gone.

Since he burst onto the scene in the early 2000’s, scoring goals for the San Jose Earthquakes with what was then a full head of hair and a star quality not seen before in an American player, Landon Donovan was American soccer.

He scored the most famous goal in American soccer’s history that didn’t involve a sports bra, causing me, a marginal football fan at best, to run screaming up the street chanting “USA! USA! USA!” 

He played (and continues to play) in Major League Soccer, a lower-level league that for a while was not worthy of his talents, at least in part because it was America’s league. 

Landon Donovan, to an appreciable degree, is responsible for the growth of soccer in America. ESPN’s brilliant docu-series on the USMNT, Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March To Brazil, noted that soccer has been “the game of the future” for the United States since their debut in the 1950 World Cup, some 64 years ago. Obviously, soccer’s popularity didn’t make the jump some had predicted.

But when we look at soccer today in America, it’s the 4th most watched sport behind the big three: football, baseball, and basketball. Over three million kids are members of US Youth soccer, and the 2009 census said that soccer is the third most participated in sport in America.

Just the fact that a documentary series on the national team’s buildup to the World Cup on “the worldwide leader in sports” exists tells you something about the popularity of the world’s game here.

Some of that credit has to go to a man who commentator Ray Hudson recently referred to as “the best footballer of all time in the United States.”

Yesterday, by leaving off America’s greatest star who undoubtedly has earned his stripes, Jurgen Klinsmann told the world he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any of that.

He doesn’t care that Donovan is America’s most recognizable player, that Donovan has scored 57 international goals (the most of any American and 19 more goals than the second place finisher, 2014 World Cup captain Clint Dempsey), or that Donovan has more World Cup goals (5) than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Wayne Rooney combined (3).

Klinsmann doesn’t care that cutting Donovan basically set the internet ablaze, garnering violent reactions from fans and commentators alike.

Klinsmann, while understanding the magnitude of the move, was pretty cutthroat. 

“I have to make the decisions what is good today for this group going into Brazil,” Klinsmann said. “And there I just think that the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”

Where’s the emotion in that?

There really isn’t any.

You see America, Jurgen Klinsmann must think his gang of red, white and blue footballers can really do something in this World Cup. Something big.

Otherwise, why remove Donovan? There would be none of these distractions, bad press, and the fans would remain firmly united.

Instead he made a move that breeds divide, controversy, and discussion.

Of course Klinsmann thinks his team can go far, but a move so drastic really shows the public juuuuust how much he thinks of his squad. 

Klinsmann has put himself and his team on trial for the duration of their run. A group stage exit with Donovan would have been disappointing, but somewhat understandable given the formidable foes in Group G (Ghana, Portugal, Germany).

But a first round exit combined with the disposal of American soccer’s favorite son might just be enough to push Klinsmann out the door and hurt the popularity soccer searches so desperately to capture in America. 

This move is purely personnel. Klinsmann, the former star striker for West Germany, regardless of any opposite opinion, popularity, legacy, or job status, believes in the talents of 23 men more than the talents of Landon Donovan.

In fact, I’m not sure their’s a move Klinsmann could have made that would show more confidence in America’s unproven talents, players like 18-year-old Julian Green, 23-year-old Aron Johannson and MLS star Chris Wondowloski.

Jurgen Klinsmann clearly has success above all else on his mind.

If his team embodies that mindset, they are certainly capable of an unprecedented run down in Brazil, giving Klinsmann the legitimacy his current coaching career lacks. 

But should he fail, he’ll have a whole lot more in his lap than any other coach of the USMNT has had before.

I think that’s just the way he wants it.

 

Sidenote: Perhaps Klinsmann is saving us from watching one the most painful things in sports, the aging superstar. While Landon Donovan was no international immortal, he is adored nationally. Watching a slower, declining Donovan was a possibility, and now is something off of our consciences. 

Nobody looks up Willie Mays’s Mets highlights, or watches Ichiro with any great interest nowadays. We don’t like to watch the end.

But we’ll always have that Donovan goal against Algeria, and the sprinting celebration culminating in a corner dog pile that sent bars and restaurants all across the nation into jubilant disarray. 

Thank you Landon Donovan, for that and so much more.