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kottke.org posts about Philadelphia

Gritty, the Philly Sports Messiah

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 14, 2018

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Like any once-and-hopefully-future resident of the great city of Philadelphia, I’m entranced by Gritty, the new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers. Now, full disclosure: the Flyers were not one of the teams I initially adopted when I moved to Philadelphia, because my hometown Detroit Red Wings were still great in 2002, and so I was all set, hockey-wise. I picked up the New York Rangers when I moved to New York in 2012, when Henrik Lundqvist was winning Vezinas and stunting on fools. But Gritty is sufficiently compelling that I might have to add the Flyers to the Eagles, Phillies, and Sixers, becoming a full Philadelphia sports fan.

Why is Gritty captivating the world? Is it because or despite of his muppet-like googly eyes and shaggy appearance? I mean, when you really dig into it, it’s not like there’s a whole lot there. But a sufficiently advanced cipher can become a multilayered text to the devout, and that’s what’s happened with Gritty. Fans turned what was briefly an object of ridicule into an icon of devotion. And a legend was born.

For a deeper look into the Gritty phenomenon, seek no further than The Ringer, the website that was designed from its origins in the late, beloved Grantland to get to the bottom of sports questions like this. Michael Baumann’s “The Monster In The Mirror” is insightful, and nearly exhaustive, in answering why people inside and outside of Philadelphia have taken to Gritty so strongly. It also doubles as a psychological profile of one of my favorite cities and their sports fans.

Some excerpts:

In the past two and a half months, Gritty has proven to be an overwhelming success as a mascot. More than that, he’s become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, a weird and scary avatar for a weird and scary time. He is all things to all people.

“Gritty is fairly appalling, pretty insurrectionary for a mascot, and I don’t think there’s any question that that’s our kind of symbol,” says Helen Gym, an at-large member of the Philadelphia City Council. “There’s nothing more Philly than being unapologetically yourself.”

And:

The Flyers, Raymond says, had long resisted the idea of creating a mascot, at the insistence of founding owner Ed Snider, whom Raymond calls “old-school.” The Flyers unveiled a furry mascot called Slapshot in 1976 but quickly shelved it, leaving the team without a mascot for more than 40 years. But after Snider’s death in 2016, the team’s marketing department pushed ownership to reconsider, Raymond says, and after overcoming so much institutional inertia, they weren’t going to be half-hearted about their new mascot.

One part of doing a mascot right, Raymond says, is sticking to the bit no matter what, rather than submitting the mascot to the public for approval, a lesson learned from the Sixers’ failed mascot vote in 2011. Philadelphians, and people on the internet in general, can sense uncertainty and will punish it.

On Gritty’s Hensonian roots:

Mascots are always at least a little silly and ridiculous because at their core, they’re created more for children than adults. Gritty is no exception. His hands squeak, and his belly button—which Raymond calls a “woobie”—is a brightly colored outie. The woobie, says Raymond, was the brainchild of Chris Pegg, who plays Rockey the Redbird for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds and is a mutual friend of Raymond and Flyers senior director of game presentation Anthony Gioia.

When the Flyers unveiled such a weird, menacing mascot, it brought to mind something Frank Oz said about his longtime collaborator and Muppets creator Jim Henson: “He thought it was fine to scare children. He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.” According to Raymond, in any sufficiently large group of children, a mascot, even a familiar one, will make at least one of them cry. Not Gritty.

“I’d never seen a mascot rollout anywhere where I didn’t see at least one kid running, crying in terror, trying to grab on to their mother’s legs,” Raymond says of the Please Touch Museum rollout. “I didn’t see any of that [with Gritty]. The kids were dancing and hollering and calling for him to come over, but no kid looked terrified.”

And on Gritty’s additional incarnation as the subject and vehicle for leftist political memes:

Some Gritty memes, however, are not just funny or scary, but overtly political. Gym’s resolution addressed this issue head-on; “non-binary leftist icon” was one of the descriptions quoted in the resolution. The resolution itself goes on to praise Gritty for his status as a political symbol: “Gritty has been widely declared antifa, and was subject to attempted reclamation in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. It has been argued that he ‘conveys the absurdity and struggle of modern life under capitalism’ and that he represents a source of joyful comic respite in a time of societal upheaval.”…

“The great thing about memes—as ridiculous as this sounds—is they create an instant mass internet mobilization,” FWG says. “Memes can be used to perpetuate systematic oppression, or they can be used to burn down the prison-industrial system or talk about police brutality.”

This identity is independent from — this is to say, it has been thoroughly stolen from — Gritty’s original role as a corporate sports mascot.

There’s a danger to wrapping up one’s identity in anything one can’t control, whether it’s an artist, a sports team, or a fuzzy orange monster. And if Gritty played it safe, he’d stop being worth investing in; the reason Gritty is so popular is because he’s weird and unpredictable in a way that isn’t cultivated to be “edgy.” Fear of being let down might just be the price of trying to live with empathy in a society that frequently elevates the cruel. It’s worth thinking about something FWG said: that their Gritty is not the same thing as the Flyers mascot.

“I think that the spirit of Gritty will be fulfilled through the proletariat,” FWG says. “As the spirit of Gritty moves people, that’s how the people will act.”

This is serious business! But as Walter Benjamin wrote, in a time of crisis, the here-and-now becomes shot through with messianic time. Gritty recalls the Phillie Phanatic, Sesame Street’s muppets, and Blastaar from the Fantastic Four, but puts all of their energy to use in a sense of futurity, that hope for the future that sports fandom echoes, however dimly. To quote Benjamin again:

It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.

It’s ridiculous to see Gritty, the googly-eyed, outie-bellybuttoned Philadelphia Flyers mascot, as a messianic figure of the revolutionary left. But is that any more ridiculous than everything else that is happening in our fucked-up present? No. No, it is not.

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LeBron James and the Philly Beard Theory

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 22, 2017

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LeBron James, as a basketball player, is arguably better now than he’s ever been. More importantly, LeBron James’s beard is inarguably better now than it’s ever been.

Look at that fullness, that thickness, that beautiful roundness! That, my friend, is the beard of a man with a dietician, a dermatologist, and a barber on retainer.

It is the beard of a dad and a daddy both.

It is a beard fully realized. It is a Philly beard.

Here I need to explain. I was born in Detroit, but lived for many years in Philadelphia. The men of Philadelphia, and particularly the black men of Philadelphia, are known for their lustrous beards. Some of it is the influence of Islam; some of it may just be needing to be outdoors in cold weather. But it’s a source of civic pride and power.

This was the first video I ever saw on the Philly beard, made by the now-defunct Phillybeard.com in 2009:

The local PBS station made its own version, emphasizing some of the qualities needed for a proper Philly beard:

Even Al-Jazeera America got in on the action, with this excellent essay on the Philly beard by Hisham Aidi, tying to the city’s hip hop and jazz traditions as well as Islam:

But overseas the moustacheless, bushy beard is not so identifiably hip-hop and has caused considerable controversy, with security officials in Europe and the Middle East mistaking the Philly for a jihadi beard. In February 2014, for instance, Lebanese police arrested Hussein Sharaffedine (aka Double A the Preacherman), 32, a Shia rapper and frontman for a local funk band. Internal Security Forces mistook him for a Salafi militant and handcuffed and detained him for 24 hours. In Europe hip-hop heads such as French rapper Medine — a Black Powerite who wears a fierce beard that he calls “the Afro beneath my jaw” — complain of police harassment. French fashion magazines joke now crudely about “hipsterrorisme.” European journalists are descending on Philadelphia to trace the roots of what they call la barbe sunnah and Salafi hipsterism.

But just as not everyone who rocks a Sunnah is Sunni, it’s a mistake to conflate the moustacheless Sunnah with the Philly beard as such. For instance, check out Questlove and Black Thought, two classic examples of the Philly beard, avec une moustache:

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These, I think, are the key criteria for a Philly beard:

  1. A full beard, trimmed only at the edges of the cheek and the neck;
  2. A trimmed moustache. The lips should be visible;
  3. That roundness. A Sunni muslim might grow out their beard long, so it gets that verticality. The Philly beard is round — as Medine says, it is an “afro beneath the jaw”;
  4. It has to be well-cared for. A Philly beard is not unshaven; a Philly beard is deliberate.

Even though LeBron James does not live in Philadelphia, nor has ever lived in Philadelphia, nor had anything to do with Philadelphia other than beating the Sixers and occasionally saying nice things about our rookie Ben Simmons, if I had to point to an example of a Philly beard, after the guys from The Roots? I would point to LeBron James.

This of course, leads to the obvious question: is LeBron, who has never before worn a beard quite like this, announcing without announcing, hiding in plain sight, via the medium of his face, his preferred free-agency destination in 2018?

The answer, for any fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, is clearly yes.

Naysayers, like my brother, would say the beard’s meaning is ambiguous. Perhaps it signals his intention to join James Harden with the Houston Rockets. But James Harden’s beard is not a Philly beard. Harden has to wear that thick moustache on top to hide his baby face. Harden’s beard is not round, but rectangular. It’s an impressive beard. But it is not the beard LeBron James is wearing. LeBron’s is a Philly beard.

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Look: suppose you had to choose between playing in Los Angeles with Lonzo Ball (no beard, no hope of one), Brandon Ingram (sick, scraggly beard), Kyle Kuzma (my guy is from Flint, represent, but still), and maybe Paul George (who plays your position already) — OR you could play with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, and MAYBE JJ Redick, for an equally storied franchise, but one that hasn’t won a title since 1983, AND you can stay in the Eastern conference and stick it to Dan Gilbert and Kyrie Irving forever — why would you not sign with the Sixers? Play in a city that would love you, love your children, is just a few hours away from home in Akron, and would love the hell out of that beard?

I think the choice is obvious. LeBron will be a Sixer in 2018. He’ll teach Simmons how to shoot, Embiid how to become indestructible, and be Magic Johnson and Dr. J rolled into one. I’ll make this promise now, with the web as my witness: I will move back to Philadelphia if this happens. And I will love every second of these young talents filling in around LeBron’s dad-game.

Trust the process; believe the beard.

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Photo gallery of an urban model railroad

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 27, 2005

Photo gallery of an urban model railroad with scenes modeled after the streets and tracks of Philly, NJ, and NYC. The modeler even painted some tiny graffiti on some of the buildings and walls. (thx, malatron)