The Bears don't play until tomorrow night, but Mike Ditka is on with Johnny Morris anyway, broadcasting via remote from a hotel room in the Twin Cities, and I am preparing for the workweek by watching on my bedroom television. Ditka has been ragging on the Minnesota Vikings, tomorrow night's opponent, all week long, and Minnesota head coach Jerry Burns has responded by calling Ditka the Muhammad Ali of the National Football League, saying it's only too appropriate that he comes from the Windy City, and accusing him of being so full of hot air that he'll melt the snow in Minneapolis. Ditka gets an innocent look on his face as Morris asks him for a response; he says he never gets personal in attacking other teams or coaches, and then punctuates his remarks by saying Burns "has always looked sort of shriveled up to me." I turn off the television and go to sleep with a smile on my face, the weekend complete.
Greeting an old friend, I settle down in front of my wide-screen living-room television and make it through the long-winded Monday Night Football pregame analysis by concentrating on the wonderful way the television picture is reflected on the black marble of the coffee table. Ah, the pride of ownership. This mirror effect is disrupted when the delivery fellow arrives with cartons of Chinese food, which we spread out across the table, but by that time the Bears are clearly playing their best football game of the year, and pure aesthetics are out the window.
Both the Vikings and the Bears open with convincing offensive drives. The Vikings' Herschel Walker converts a critical third down on the drive by slowly picking his way through a hole like a man stumbling to the bathroom in the dark. After that, however, the Vikings are in the dark about how to use him, and he doesn't have another good run until the game is out of hand. In the meantime, the Bears get a jump start from the zebras: the best play in the Bears' playbook is the yellow flag. They drive for the tying touchdown with the help of a pass-interference call on third and long.
The Bears then display some grit after Anthony Morgan is smacked out of bounds by the Vikes' Joey Browner, long after a long pass intended for Morgan had fallen incomplete. Not only does the ensuing unnecessary-roughness penalty give the Bears a first down, but Morgan catches a touchdown pass to finish the drive and put the Bears up 14-7. With the help of a Harbaugh interception, the Vikes drive for a field goal, but they thoughtlessly leave enough time on the clock for the Bears to put something together, and--with the help of a silent replay official when Tom Waddle makes a catch out of bounds--the Bears answer with a field goal before the half, 17-10.
Brad Muster opens the second half with a series of catches and runs to get the Bears into field-goal position: 20-10. The Vikings, however, exploit a Bears' fumble to score a touchdown and get back in the game. All night long, the Bears have run Neal Anderson off tackle. Finally, he cuts back against the Minnesota pursuit and goes for a touchdown. The Vikings, pressing, throw an interception to Lemuel Stinson, who returns it for a touchdown, and the Bears coast home, 34-17. They are ever in control, after some early penalties, and they allow the poorly coached Vikings to hang themselves. It is their most convincing victory of the year.
It's not good to take anything as seriously as I take the rivalry between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons. The Bears are just a pleasant diversion by comparison. I hurry home from work in time to see the shaking of hands at center court before the tip-off: the handshakes the Pistons had owed the Bulls for so long. The players offer playoff intensity but preseason execution; these are two teams trying to play better than they're capable of playing so soon after the summer layoff. Still, the Pistons show mid-season form in Dennis Rodman kneeing John Paxson in the back under the basket at the end of a fast-break lay-up. It goes unnoticed by the officials, but so do several not-quite-coincidental spills caused by Michael Jordan and involving Isiah Thomas. The Bulls lead 44-41 at the half, in large part because of the play of Cliff Levingston off the bench. The Pistons used to play the Bulls even for the first quarter and then bring their designated Bulls-beaters, Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards, off the bench. Last year, Edwards became a starter; now he and Johnson are gone and the Bulls play the Pistons even until they bring their designated Pistons-beater, Levingston, off the bench. His rebounding and garbage tip-ins are the early difference. It's a delightful turn of events, although the Pistons are still too close at intermission and I miss Jim Durham. Tom Dore, his inadequate replacement, at one point calls B.J. Armstrong "B.J. Thomas."
After the slow and scattershot pace of the first half, the Bulls open the second half with full-court pressure and get immediate results. They pull down 14 of the first 17 errant shots after intermission, and they run the Pistons off the court. The key segment comes when the ball gets loose in the lane on a Detroit possession. Horace Grant emerges from a rugbylike scrum, scoops the ball up, and dishes it out to Scottie Pippen. Pippen comes down on the fast break with Grant on the wing, gives him the ball, and Grant skirts a set Bill Laimbeer to complete the break with a lay-up. Laimbeer falls down anyway, trying to draw the offensive foul, but is called for blocking instead and is so incensed that, in rolling over, he raises his legs and trips up Grant. Grant comes up with his fists tight, but Michael Jordan grabs him. Thomas comes running down screaming at the ref and trying to widen the skirmish. The officials mete out technical fouls to Grant, Laimbeer, and Thomas, but the Grant and Laimbeer fouls evidently cancel out, so that Jordan shoots the Thomas technical, Grant finishes his three-point play, and that is it. Except, of course, that the Bulls press off the free throw, and Thomas--attempting to dribble free--leads himself too much and pushes the ball straight to Jordan, who drives for the easy basket, giving the Bulls a 57-43 lead. It is the Pistons who are frazzled by the rough play, and the Bulls continue on, after a Detroit time-out, to open a 70-48 lead. They hold the 22-point advantage through three quarters and coast home, 110-93. The Bulls push past the Pistons into first place--pure bliss.
It's the awards banquet for the Bourbon League, my friendly neighborhood Rotisserie League, and I am on my way to accept a fourth-place check, in spite of also earning the Nick Esasky Award, the honor for most money spent for least production--$41 this year for Eric Davis. The Bulls are in Charlotte playing the Hornets, and on the way to the restaurant I listen in and again get upset about the loss of Jim Durham. The Durham-Johnny "Red" Kerr simulcast team has been replaced by Kerr and Dore the bore on SportsChannel and Kerr and Wayne Larrivee on WGN TV, and by Tom Boerwinkle and the awful Neil Funk on radio. Pulling into the restaurant, I resolve that if I hear Funk say "dribble drive" one more time I will buy a gun and shoot him. The Bulls go on to win easily.
Michael Jackson's new video. No sports.
Driving home from work, I turn on the Bulls, who are home against the Milwaukee Bucks. It takes Funk less than three minutes to say, "Scottie on the dribble drive." I stop and fill out an application for a gun license at a neighborhood hardware store.
The Bucks have added a solid, if aged, center in Moses Malone, while losing backcourt depth in the form of Ricky Pierce. In Milwaukee, the Bulls got the Bucks' starting guards--Alvin Robertson and Jay Humphries--in foul trouble and dominated the first half, but those two came back well rested in the second half and rallied the Bucks to a last-minute win. Here, the Bulls are much more methodical and win easily--routinely, except for the loss of Bill Cartwright with a broken hand.
Florida State plays host to Miami in the 26th meeting of teams ranked one and two in the polls. Is this one of the top 26 games of all time? Judging from the hype, one would think so, but it's not. It's simply a well-played, interesting football game, and I'm impressed both with my emotional distance from the game and with how satisfying I nevertheless find it to watch--in spite of the return of the tomahawk chop, which originated at Florida State and flourishes there in the wake of the Atlanta Braves. The Seminoles' tribal mascot is even sanctioned by the local Seminole tribe, Keith Jackson informs us on television.
Miami was 7-0 against number-one teams in the 80s; they're acquainted with the pressure and they come out ready, scoring on the first possession with the help of some shaky Florida State penalties. After that, however, the Seminoles dominate, although they can never quite put the Hurricanes away. They kick a field goal, then drive for a touchdown to take a 10-7 halftime lead. They add two more field goals in the second half to lead 16-7, but there is that feeling--unique to college football--of their having a tenuous grip on the momentum of the game. The Hurricanes get a break with an interception, and they drive for a field goal to get within six. Then they put together a run-oriented drive and go all the way for the touchdown and go-ahead extra point. State drives back but misses a mid-range field goal in the closing seconds. Good game.
This is Brad Muster's game. Neal Anderson is out, nursing a hamstring injury, and Muster has the best day of his career against the Indianapolis Colts. He is, as we say in my trade, sui generis, a fullback who has no real similarity to anyone else. A tall, erect, high-stepping runner, he seems to alter the pace of the game simply by touching the ball. The opposing players suddenly begin to move herky-jerky as in an old newsreel, and Muster just glides right past them.
A tight, conservative first half ends tied at 10. That's where Muster takes over, with some nifty runs and clutch catches, finishing with an amazing touchdown run: he receives the ball over the middle with a linebacker hanging on his ankle, turns back to shake the linebacker the way an angler in a boat frees a snagged lure, and turns again downfield and then back against the grain, cruising into the end zone to put the Bears ahead. The Bears' next possession, Morgan catches one over the middle in mid-stride and cruises between a couple of Colts and then motors 84 yards for the score. The Colts put together a run-oriented drive while the Bears are prematurely in a prevent defense, making the score 24-17, but the Bears respond in kind. They have the ball on the Colts' nine-yard line and hand it to Muster, who has 90 yards on the day. He runs for the touchdown right up the gut, almost untouched. Will he have to settle for 99 yards on the day? Although Colts quarterback Jeff George has been the victim of group sacks throughout the day, he drives Indianapolis downfield again before the Bears stop the Colts' face-saving final drive inside Chicago's ten-yard line with three seconds to play. On the final play, Muster runs for two yards to give the Bears their first 100-yard rushing performance of the season.
That night, Steve McMichael appears on Channel Five's highlights show wearing a PSYCHO! T-shirt. Discussing the size of the Colts' offensive line, he delivers the quote of the week: "If Indianapolis ever loses power, they can go to the Colts and cut blubber." After a few minutes watching Ditka on Channel Two, I change channels in time to watch McMichael take a chain saw to Mark Giangreco while William Perry holds him down.
This is the sports scene that replenishes us, that teaches us the lessons of competition, that reminds us what it's like to be human.