My good friend and predecessor in this space, Ted Cox, has gone south, in a hurry, perhaps for good. Before leaving he advised me to tell you about myself:
I was born in Chicago, Illinois. If I had my druthers I'd live in a temperate climate--like my sister in San Diego--and play golf 300 days a year, but it is difficult to find a temperate climate where football seems appropriate. So I live in a varied climate, where Bears weather is not uncommon. It is difficult to find a varied climate and live in it, but cable television helps.
I work hard every day and every day and every day I come home and play music or practice the piano. (I am not yet egotistical enough to think they are the same thing.) Or I watch cable television. Sports has been a lifelong passion for me, but now I think I will also have to develop a passion for sentences. Fortunately, like playing music and practicing the piano, they are not mutually exclusive.
In high school I wrestled and played football. My football was like my wrestling: I was a lineman. I was once thrown out of a game. I now stand five feet, ten inches, according to the same system of measurement used by basketball public relations departments, but back then I was not so tall. As nose guard on defense, I was having a difficult time with the opposing center. It wasn't that he was so hard to handle, it was that he was tackling me on every play. After repeatedly drawing the referees' attention to this fact, I finally got sick of it, reached up, grabbed him by the face mask, and smacked him one. It was the one play the referees happened to be watching, and there is nothing quite so difficult or meaningless as grabbing someone by the face mask and then slugging him one across it, but in spite of all that I derived a certain satisfaction from the whole affair and never looked back again again.
I once amassed more points than were statistically possible in a trigonometry class. The teacher was a man named Richard Bone and he had a penchant for gambling almost as strong as his penchant for precise record keeping. He'd bet his students grade points on difficult questions posed in class: answer one correctly and your average would shoot up instantly--from, say, 80 to 85. Of course, it could go the other way, too. Mr. Bone also conducted a state high school basketball tournament pool; for two points, you picked a state champ, winner take all. I picked Morgan Park, and I can still see Levi Cobb sinking that long, smooth turnaround jumper at the buzzer. I won the pool and all the points and spent the rest of the semester looking out the window, thinking of Levi Cobb's turnaround jumper and trying to keep my average above 100 percent. I followed Levi Cobb to the University of Illinois.
At Illinois I became sports editor of the campus daily and joined the ranks of Grantland Rice and Heywood Broun by writing the lead "That big orange basketball, so to speak, is hanging low in a hazy western sky" during the NCAA tournament. I believe it is still used in sportswriting classes at the university. Bob Kennedy once threatened to sue me for a full week following a story I wrote accusing his Cubs team of certain, um, improprieties, but the following year each of the players I wrote about was traded or otherwise gone. I was editor in chief my senior year, then went to England, where I learned how to pronounce "pint of bitter" without immediately giving away my midwestern American roots. I returned to attend Georgetown University's law school. Patrick Ewing and John Thompson were there at the same time, and watching them I learned about basketball. Then I graduated and returned to Chicago, where I began working hard and discovered that I enjoy the game of golf, though unlike my father I have not yet developed a tolerance for watching it on television. I have a good shoulder turn, but my short game needs work. If I had a yard as large as my living room--or if my living room had a rough and a putting green--I might get to the point where I'd keep track of my handicap.
My abiding passion is football, so it's a good thing the football season has just ended. I'll issue my treatise on line splits, red dogs, and the advantages of the man-on-man defense later.
Last Saturday, to test the extent of my dependence on cable television, I spent an entire day watching the networks. The experience was shocking: shocking in what I had to tolerate in the realm of sports. Tennessee played Texas in a college basketball game--a women's college basketball game. Though at least one assertive redhead who no longer lives in the city has described me as the most sensitive man she's ever met, there is something about women's basketball that I find unsatisfying. It may have something to do with the team nicknames--in this case, the "Lady Volunteers" and the "Lady Longhorns." I think it pleasant that the Texas women's basketball team is known as the "Lady Longhorns" and not the "Horned Cows," but what do they do at Oregon State? "Lady Beavers" ? And how can the commentators state, "The Lady Longhorns are deploying a man-to-man defense?"
The only other sporting event on a major network that day was the Chrysler Cup, a seniors' golf tournament. This is not worth commenting on, except for a new wrinkle. Just as many college and professional sports teams are now putting the U.S. flag on their uniforms as a show of patriotism, ABC TV is now adding flags to those little superimposed graphics that give the names and scores of golfers. For instance, one read: Lee Trevino, U.S. flag, -6. Ignoring that this flag-waving is a reprehensible and dangerous trend among sports teams (an Italian basketball player for Seton Hall, for instance, was hounded from the team because he refused to let the flag be stitched to his uniform), what does it say when extended to television coverage of a seniors' golf tournament? Here are 50- and 60-year-old guys making more money than you've ever seen for walking around in the sunshine swinging golf clubs. Is this a great country or what?
Saturday night my self-imposed cable ban wasn't quite so bothersome, because the Bulls game against the Charlotte Hornets was on Channel Nine. Though the game was interrupted in the second half by the president's address (on cable, sporting events are never interrupted; in fact, that's a cable announcer's worst fear, that his commentary will prompt some memory of the real world and send viewers switching to the Cable News Network), the Bulls were a pleasure. They came out inspired: one instant I was watching the introductions, the next the Bulls were up 13-4, then 41-25 at the quarter. They scored on the tip-off --that's how hot they were: Bill Cartwright batted the tip to Scottie Pippen, who hurled the ball two-thirds the length of the court to Horace Grant for the lay-in. Much later, Pippen and Grant teamed again on a lovely play, a fast break guarded by the Hornets' Tyrone Bogues. Pippen, on the dribble, suddenly veered out, away from the basket, drawing Bogues with him, then passed to Grant for the alley-oop.
Pippen's play was remarkable all evening. He hit almost everything he threw toward the hoop, passed like Wayne Gretzky, and displayed a general sixth sense for where the ball and each player on the court were at any given moment.
He scored 43 points to Michael Jordan's 29, but as usual it was Jordan who commanded most of the attention. He's been compared to everyone and everything, but I think of him as--ironies involving the team's nickname completely aside--a matador. He has a way of taking the ball to the hoop that is like a matador fooling a bull. Show the bull the cape and deprive him the body, the matador is taught to think; Jordan shows his opponents the body and deprives them the ball. The move he has perfected this season is what I call the "round-the-clock lay-in," where he rises as if to dunk holding the ball high, then turns his body to absorb the shock of the leaping defender, brings the ball down, under, and spins it up with the other hand, off the backboard and through the hoop. It's so much more elegant than a dunk.
He's such a pleasure and a challenge to write about. I can also see John Paxson with his little quick toy cannon of a popping jump shot--all quick release and surprise that it still works at all--and Stacey King, who throws up a hook shot with all the care and concentration of a bachelor tossing a cardigan sweater onto the top shelf of his closet.
There is sportswriting and there is official sportswriting. I intend to write about sports. In this I follow the Master, Henry James, who wrote, "It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance." It won't really exist until I write about it. Turn off the television. I'll be punching the tender buttons of the channel changer.