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Barber: 10 sports pieces to help you get you through coronavirus

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The forecast calls for rain most of the next week. So, just to recap this cute little pickle we have on our hands at the moment: We’re not supposed to join large gatherings, or perhaps even small ones. We aren’t supposed to get on an airplane or train. Malls are contraindicated. And now it appears we won’t be able to leave the house without getting soaked.

Oh, and did you hear there are no sporting events? Sorry, my emphasis may have been a little off. Let me say that again. THERE. ARE. NO. SPORTING. EVENTS.

If ever there was a week or a month (or a … no, let’s not go there) to nestle onto the couch and watch a little NBA basketball or Giants spring training, or even some SportsCenter highlights, this is it. But in one of the virus’ cruelest twists, there are no games to distract us.

Before you panic and do something extreme, like commit to spending quality time with your family, I would like to offer some suggestions for the sports-starved — a few movies, books, podcasts, etc. to scratch your sporty itch (well, that sounded gross) while the arena doors are shuttered.

Here are my 10 recreational recommendations. My rec recs.

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (documentary movie): This film, which chronicles the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, is probably my favorite sports doc of all time. The setup scenes in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) are wild, from ecstatic topless dancers to the semi-coherent ramblings of special guest James Brown. The framing of the actual boxing match is fantastic, too, focusing on how Muhammad Ali was able to rise above a dire situation. Most interesting, though, is seeing pre-Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine George Foreman. He might be America’s cuddly uncle now. In 1974, Foreman hadn’t yet learned the fine arts of smiling and public speaking. The man was terrifying.

STEPHEN FLORIDA (book): Gabe Habash’s 2017 debut novel, like most literature, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s profane and has elements of fantasy, and the main character is a true weirdo. But this rich profile of a college wrestler in North Dakota is frequently hilarious and insightful. I read that Habash has no wrestling background. He must have done some serious research, because part of what appealed to me is the way he captured that sport’s obsessiveness and self-deprivation.

ALL THE SMOKE (podcast): An interview-style pod hosted by former NBA players Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes? Yes, please. I figured it would be frank and funny. All the Smoke is both of those things, but so much more. First of all, Barnes’ and Jackson’s combined 28 years in the league, and their reputation for, shall we say, keeping it real, give them incredible access. Just since the new year, their guests have included Kobe Bryant (seriously, on Jan. 9), Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Snoop Dogg. And the interviews are a blast. What impresses me most is how the hosts are able to vary their tone, keeping it clean with Curry and getting raunchy with DeMarcus Cousins, without seeming fake. Warning: Do not listen to this podcast if you don’t like hearing guys talk about getting high.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA (documentary series): This five-part, eight-hour series, produced by the “30 for 30” group at ESPN, blew me away. Like anyone who lived in LA in 1994-95, I have clear memories of the white Bronco chase, the “crime of the century” and the trial that riveted everyone for months. But this production explained so much to me — about both O.J. Simpson and the cultural context in which he was arrested and tried. Perplexed at how a majority-African-American jury could find Simpson not guilty on two murder counts despite overwhelming evidence? Watch this, and you will understand. Oh, and they got almost eeevvverybody to talk.

DENNEHY (song): Short attention span? This one takes 4 minutes, 13 seconds. I didn’t know the group Serengeti until my Spotify algorithm introduced me to this song. Yes, it gives a lot of run to B-list actors Brian Dennehy and Tom Berenger, but it’s also a sly paean to Chicago sports of the 1990s and earlier. And I quote: “Even after Jordan left and Dave Corzine retired, Shawon Dunston’s wild throws and Mike Ditka got fired.” If you reside in the middle of that Venn diagram of people who like hip-hop and people who remember Wilber Marshall, this is your jam.

I, TONYA (movie): My mind turned to Jell-O recently when I learned that the same woman played Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad,” Tonya Harding in this film and Sharon Tate in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” That woman is Margot Robbie, and she’s clearly a goddess. “I, Tonya,” Craig Gillespie’s 2017 movie, generally has a great cast, especially Allison Janney as Harding’s mom. And it manages to unpack the figure skater’s dark, hard-bit life while never making her feel like a victim.

UNDERWORLD (book): I’m technically not recommending Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel, because (a) it is not a sports book and (b) it’s 827 pages long, and I wouldn’t do that to you. I want to talk about the foreword to this book, though, because it honestly might be the best thing I’ve ever read. It’s a dreamy, vivid 50-page account of the 1951 Giants-Dodgers game, when Bobby Thomson decided the National League pennant with the “Shot Heard Round the World.” DeLillo’s foreword jumps quickly around the stadium, from dugout to windswept announcers’ booth to Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra in the stands to — more central to the story —the teenager who will wind up in possession of Thomson’s home run ball. Damn, it sucks you in.

THE RUBE (podcast episode): The format of The Dollop podcast is simple. One comedian, Dave Anthony, recounts a piece of researched history (an event, a movement, a person) to another comedian, Gareth Reynolds, and they crack each other up. It’s unabashedly silly, but I learn from it, too. For example, I had heard of Rube Waddell, the great Philadelphia A’s pitcher of the early 1900s, but I didn’t know that Waddell routinely got hammered before games, walked through the crowd eating people’s hot dogs and changed into his uniform on the field, or that opposing fans learned they could distract him with puppies and shiny objects, or that he would spontaneously sprint from the mound and out of the stadium to follow a passing firetruck. Yeah, you’re gonna want to listen to this 2014 episode.

THE TWO ESCOBARS (short documentary): Since ESPN debuted it in 2009, the aforementioned “30 for 30” series has produced some wonderful work (and, especially in recent years, some clunkers). It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’m going with this look at the Colombian national soccer team and its push to the 1994 World Cup. The story of defender Andres Escobar is the definition of heartbreaking. The parallel tale of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, who bankrolled the team, is cuckoo. Bravo to directors Jeff and Mike Zimbalist.

THE 1975 NBA FINALS (videos): Something tells me a lot of folks are about to enter, or re-enter, the rabbit hole of YouTube. And that includes sports fans. With the local teams going dark for a while, you may enjoy reliving the 2010 World Series or 2015 NBA Finals. The thing is, if you go further back in time, you get the added bonus of outdated uniforms and graphics. Want a treat? Watch Rick Barry and the boys knock off the Washington Bullets in May of 1975. Game 4 of the Warriors sweep is a natural choice; it’s a nail-biter of a game and you get Golden State’s post-game celebrations. On the other hand, Game 3 features amazing interior shots of the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Either way, you will marvel at coach Al Attles’ suits, at how skinny all the players are in the days before weight training and at the play-by-play man — Brent Musburger, 43 years before the Raiders hired him.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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