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Ebert grew more inspirational with age

Eric Zorn

Change of Subject

April 7, 2013

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A number that jumps out from the coverage of Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert's death Thursday at age 70: 306.

That's the number of movie reviews he wrote last year, according to what turned out to be the final entry on his blog Tuesday. "The most of my career," he noted parenthetically.

Think about that. He was in his late 60s, battling a pernicious cancer that had robbed him of his ability to speak, his legacy and fortune were more than secure, yet rather than easing into the graceful retirement that no one would have begrudged him, he became more prolific than ever.

Not only more prolific but arguably better. In his last, medically fraught decade, Ebert's writing was finer than ever — more wide-ranging, more introspective, more provocative and more insightful. He developed a huge following on Twitter, wrote a powerful autobiography and won awards and plaudits for his blog.

At an age when even the most healthy of writers tend to start repeating themselves and nestle into ruts, Ebert remained fresh.

That last blog entry, in which he announced that his cancer had returned, ran a little over 1,000 words and was filled with plans — a Kickstarter campaign to relaunch his TV show, an unveiling of "the new and improved Rogerebert.com," and even the possibility of creating a movie version of a video game.

The tributes to him contained no hint of the "he-was-great-in-his-day" praise one so often reads and hears when legends pass.

He lived for decades and then died in "his day," his light undimmed.

Those who knew him personally — I didn't — are qualified to say whether he would have stayed on the top of his literary game and hit that high-water mark of 306 reviews in a year had he remained able to speak and not been forced into communicating almost totally through the keyboard.

But either way, even though he didn't beat death, he conquered decline.

And set an example for us all.

Don't miss the thrilla from Umatilla

Two years ago my family and I watched "Off the Rez," a provocative documentary on the TLC network about high-school basketball phenom Shoni Schimmel, a resident of Oregon's Umatilla Indian Reservation. The film chronicled her financially struggling family's efforts to hang onto their cultural identity while giving young Shoni an opportunity to shine in a Portland high school.

In the movie, Shoni plays not just for herself and her family, but also for the pride of her often marginalized people. Think "Hoop Dreams" meets "The Jackie Robinson Story."

Though her flashy ball handling and deadly shooting fails to carry her team to the state championship, she is named the Oregon player of the year and a 2010 first-team Parade Magazine All-American. And as "Off the Rez" concludes we see her headed off, hopefully, to college.

But the great thing about documentaries is that the "characters" are real, and that "The End" on the screen indicates only a pause in the action. Shoni Schimmel is still playing ball.

In fact, she and her younger sister Jude have led Louisville to the NCAA women's Final Four this year, playing major roles in the team's recent upsets of highly rated Baylor and Tennessee.

Sunday at 5:30 p.m. (ESPN), Louisville will tip off against California in a semifinal game or, as I prefer to think of it, "Off the Rez, Part II."

Wie! Another sports and gender controversy

Look for the Schimmel sisters in the WNBA in a few years, but don't hold your breath waiting for either of them — or any woman — to make it in the NBA.

One of the hottest topics on the blog last week was whether Brittney Griner, Baylor's 6-foot-8-inch superstar and the most dominant player in the history of women's college basketball, could make it in the NBA.

Change of Subject contributing editor Jessica Reynolds started the conversation by linking to an article that quoted NBA Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban saying he might spend a second-round draft pick on Griner, and that he plans to invite her to try out for his team's summer squad.

"Given her size and athletic prowess," Reynolds wrote, "she may stand a real shot at making it."

Shades of the Michelle Wie kerfuffle! Back in the mid-2000s the professional golf world was piqued by the then-teen sensation's efforts to compete on the men's tour given the, ahem, "manly" length of her drives.

Didn't happen then. Won't happen now. Won't happen ever.

Not to say there aren't great female athletes who can clobber nearly every man in nearly every sport. But that's not to say that biology is stern and unyielding at the highest ends of performance, and there isn't a great female athlete in any major sport who can clobber or even compete well against the great male athletes in that sport.

You can join this discussion — Team Eric or Team Jessica? — at chicagotribune.com/zorn

Your turn

I have two questions for readers.

1. Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk last week became the latest in a long list of politicians and public figures who have announced that they now support legalizing same-sex marriage. I want to say that this cultural tide is rolling only one way — that there are no examples of politicians or public figures who have announced a conversion from support of gay marriage to opposition — but wonder if I'm missing anyone. Ideas?

2. Since President Barack Obama mistakenly injected machine guns into the national conversation on gun control last week when he said in a speech that automatic (not semi-automatic) rifles had been used in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I'd like to know if and why gun-rights zealots are OK with the long-standing prohibition on automatic weapons.

If it's OK to ban guns that spray bullets as long as the shooter holds down the trigger, why isn't it OK to ban guns that spray bullets as fast as the shooter can squeeze the trigger, three or more per second? What's the principled difference?

And if there is no principled difference, can we look forward soon to an effort to legalize the sale of machine guns as part of every patriot's right to take up arms against the government if he feels his rights are being infringed?

Post your answers online.