Larry Bird: The Legend at 60

zbk1492bird1_lg

It’s almost impossible to accept Larry Bird is 60 years old, today.

Because, among other things (like mortality, inevitability), this means I’m definitely no longer an adolescent, watching his exploits in real time, on a TV screen smaller than most modern PC monitors.

Fantastic piece celebrating his truly unique life and philosophy, courtesy of ESPN, HERE.

I don’t have much more to add to my tribute, which is included in my collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. One: So That Happened.

boid

1979.

It’s been so well documented, and remains such a touchstone (it is still the most widely watched NCAA final ever, which–considering the inconceivably successful hype college and pro sports have promulgated in the last three decades–is genuinely astounding), yet it endures mostly as the introduction of Bird/Magic. Only two words, two names, have ever been necessary to sum up an entire rivalry. Michael Wilbon wrote a wonderful remembrance of this the other week; the piece is well worth reading, but here is the heart of the matter:

Michigan State cruised, more or less. Bird narrowly avoided losing to both Sidney Moncrief and Arkansas and Aguirre and DePaul. The most memorable scene from the title game is Bird, having lost for the first time as a senior, sitting with the white towel over his head, sobbing underneath it. That and Magic’s smile while he hugged Heathcote after the 75-64 Spartans win.

More than 35 percent of all TV sets turned on that night were tuned to Magic and Bird. It was like a Christmas present in March, and it’s something that could never happen today. We’d know everything about an undefeated team featuring any player as talented as Bird. A 6-foot-9 white kid from small-town Indiana who had driven a garbage truck and who had run from Bob Knight during a freshman year spent briefly at Indiana? Are you kidding?

 

And then it was on. On to the pros. East vs. West. Celtics vs. Lakers. The Green vs. The Gold.

How often do two players, particularly ones so indelibly linked from the start of their careers, have the opportunity not only to revive their respective franchises, but an entire professional sport? Approximately never. It’s never happened before and it will never happen again. I’m not inclined to recap the entire Bird & Magic saga because everyone is already familiar with it (those that are not simply don’t like sports). What a difference a year made: the Celtics went from worst to almost-first, with Bird taking Rookie of the Year honors, and Magic bookended his NCAA championship with the first of his five NBA titles. To say these guys took things to another level is like saying The Beatles made some pretty good albums. Simply put, nothing was ever the same once Bird and Magic made the NBA their personal playground.

So all of this ancient sports history is ambrosia for stat dorks obsessed with the great old days. But imagine if you actually loved one of those teams? I don’t have to imagine; I was there. Learning to be a Red Sox and Celtics fan from my Boston-bred father (which is ironic because at the time the local Washington Bullets were coming off back-to-back appearances in the NBA finals and the Celtics were the joke of the league; following the Red Sox would be a masochistic family ritual countless souls from New England endured for another few decades), I remember being on board with Bird from the second he suited up. If you ever want to find out who actually followed the Celtics back in the day, wait until they finish name dropping McHale, Parrish, Dennis Johnson (R.I.P.) and Danny Ainge (the most hated athlete in the world in his day), and see if they have any idea who Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and Nate “Tiny” Archibald are. Then drop Quinn Buckner and Gerald Henderson (whose nifty hands secured the third most famous steal in Celtics history, after Havlicek and Bird–of which more, shortly).

So I loved Bird and the Celtics. And I loathed Magic and the Lakers.

As has been adequately documented elsewhere (and incessantly), it was a clash of two styles, two coasts, two philosophies. The Lakers were Hollywood (Showtime!), quick, flashy and their coach wore Armani suits. The Celtics were blue collar, methodical, stoic and crucially, quite possibly the most ugly assortment of atheltes ever assembled on one team.

So when the Celtics edged out the Lakers in the seventh game of their epic 1984 championship series, it was the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil. Redemption for Bird! East coast over West coast! Substance over Style! Rocky vs. Apollo. You get the picture.

Did I mention that I detested Magic? The intensity of the disdain escalated exponentially in 1985 when Magic’s Lakers got their revenge, on the sacred parquet floor no less, taking back the crown on the Celtics’ home court. That hurt. What a bunch of punks the Lakers were: Michael Cooper with his rolled up socks, James Worthy with his Kareem-Lite goggles, Kareem himself, that big whining sissy, Kurt Rambis, the resident honky who did the unthinkable and made Kevin McHale the second goofiest looking professional athlete of the ’80s. And leading them all, Magic. I hated him. And Bird hated him, too. Seriously. That rivalry was for real. Look at the barely-disguised animosity in this commercial.

Of course, the ’86 Celtics were far and away the best team that ever suited up, and that subject is not open for discussion. It was the kind of year (the Celtics lost one home game over the course of the entire regular season) where Celtics fans were looking forward to the eventual Lakers rematch. There is no chance the Lakers would have won. None. It was therefore comical when the Lakers were upset in the western conference finals by the upstart Rockets (a young Hakeem Olajuwan and Ralph Sampson), but it was almost immediately anticlimactic; we wanted the Lakers that year and we needed the Lakers. It was not just going to be our turn on top of the revenge see-saw, it was going to be a bloodletting, a reckoning. It wasn’t meant to be, and some of us actually felt cheated. But boy did the Celtics beat up on the Rockets, cementing their status as the big kids on the block.

No one had any doubt the two designated teams would meet again in 1987, and everyone was correct. It was not a finals so much as a formality. The Celtics were almost crippled by injuries throughout the season (especially the porcelain-kneed Bill Walton), and at times it appeared that Ainge and Parrish might come apart at mid-court. Famously, McHale played most of the post-season on a broken ankle: it undoubtedly shortened his career, but also earns him all-time stud status (normally only hockey players exhibit that type of grit and lunacy). And so the Celtics quite literally limped into the playoffs and the hungry young teams took their shots (including a sneak-peak at the increasingly explosive Michael Jordan, who dropped 63 points on the Celtics in the Garden). They barely beat the Bucks and it looked like the obnoxious, upstart Pistons (led by the always insufferable Isiah Thomas) might have too much juice for the suddenly torpid Celtics. Flash forward to Game Five, series tied 2-2: with seconds left on the clock and the ref (dubiously) awarding an out of bounds ball to the Pistons, the Celtics needed a miracle. And Bird provided one. This is it, for me: the most unexpected, sublime few seconds I’ve ever witnessed in sports. There are games that rank higher, achievements ultimately more significant, but in terms of the shock factor combined with the gratification, it was as though one of the Greek gods descended from Olympus just for my amusement.

Two unthinkable things occurred in the ’87 finals: The Lakers won, and I (and many other Celtics fans) found myself unable to suppress a grudging admiration for how unbelievably great Magic Johnson was. Beyond appreciation, I was actually almost starting to like him. He won me over, not merely by the way he willed his team to win, but because he really did make watching the game more exciting. There was seldom any debate about whether Magic radiated more joy through the act of playing a sport than anyone else who has ever played at a high level. What he did in Game 4 with his improbable, and devastating, “junior” sky hook was a barbed wire ripping out the entrails of every Celtic fan’s gut. But you had to admire it; you had no choice. Bird hit the three as if to say “That’s what I have to say, what have you got?” And Magic responded. With two seconds left on the clock, Bird did get that last shot, and damn if it didn’t just rim out (that is already one of the best endings of all time; if Bird had nailed that Hail Mary it would be considered the best playoff basketball game ever played).

We consoled ourselves knowing that we could count on many more years on the see-saw. Alas, that was it. The Celtics, slowed by injuries and derailed by the sudden and shocking death of Len Bias (that tragedy remains unendurable to this day), started to show their age, while younger, faster teams stepped into the spotlight. And I found myself ambivalent, in ’88, watching the Pistons (who we hated so much, it’s probable some of us would have done jail time in order for the opportunity to bitch slap Bill Laimbeer) and Lakers square off. I couldn’t root for the Pistons, but I couldn’t root for the Lakers. So I rooted for Magic. Well, I allowed myself to accept that it was better for Bird’s rival to win. Or something like that.

In the meantime, Bird and Magic had gone from tolerating one another to building a genuine bond. So much so, when Magic realized he’d contracted HIV, Bird was one of the first people he phoned. Allegedly, Bird broke down and sobbed when he received the news. One more season and Bird, his body battered and his back an unrelenting source of misery, hung up the Weapons. They needed one another, and for Celtics fans, it was like Batman had lost his Joker; it was time to walk away. Fortunately they did have the chance to play together on the “Dream Team” during the ’92 Olympics. Watching the two of them talk about each other, in the years since (which they’ve done often) is always enjoyable and, no other word will do, heartwarming. They love the game and they love each other.

To consider that thirty years have passed since the night that changed everything is difficult to reconcile. On the other hand, it would be churlish to feel any emotion more than gratitude for having had the opportunity to watch that story unfold, in real time, savoring every second of it along the way.

Share

Do You Believe in Miracles? (Revisited)

SI

On Feb. 22, 1980, in a stunning upset, the United States Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviets at Lake Placid, N.Y., 4-to-3. (The U.S. team went on to win the gold medal.) NYT story here.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the only cover in Sports Illustrated history that does not have a headline, or text of any sort. Naturally, it doesn’t need any. There were certainly magnificent (semi-miraculous?) upsets in sports before (The Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III) and after (Rulon Gardner beating the unbeatable Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Olympics), but the import of this victory has to be considered within the context of the times. Pre-Internet (pre-VCRs, really), pre-ESPN (pre-cable, really), in an era when you really did get news on the radio. As in, driving in the car with your parents, during a commercial.

Because in 1980 most Americans actually listened to the radio in the car (pre-Satellite, pre-CD changer, pre-cassette, really). 8-tracks were entering the last stage of their ascendancy, not even aware that they were already dead and subsisting on the last gasps of their magnetic fumes. And how many 8-tracks could one family own? How many could one family fit in a car? And so, by default, the radio still ruled. Some people may even have listened to that epic game on the radio, in their cars, in real time. That was just over three decades ago.

Arguably, being nine years old, I was the ideal demographic to be fully impacted by this event. Not old enough to appropriate (or be unduly influenced by) the political implications, but old enough to understand that in winter Olympics games, the U.S.S.R. (and Eastern Europe) still held sway. We could not appreciate, or care too much about the irony of the big, bad U.S.A. casting themselves as underdogs, in any capacity. Two unavoidable facts: it was just a sporting event, and pure and simple, the U.S.A. were underdogs. Did this unanticipated and inexplicable victory tilt the scales in the escalating cold war?

Arguably, if you measure political history by such standards as Rocky Balboa defeating Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, it makes all the sense in the world. More, if you are of the opinion (aided by propagandist historical revisions by certain, influential right-leaning folk) that the cold war was an even battle between two socially and economically equal parties, this cartoonish perception of Good vs. Evil is resonant, and revelatory. For younger, less politically impressionable viewers, this victory did, unironically; reinforce the genuine (if mythical) notion inherent in the American Dream: if you worked hard and played fair, anything was possible. It’s not merely the ability to believe this claptrap that underscores the naiveté we lament losing as we get older and wiser, it’s the ways in which real events, however fictionally applicable to real life, can occasionally inspire kids to believe in miracles.

Share

Dave Henderson: RIP

AP_8610120217-dave-henderson-hr

This hurts.

Saw the immortal ALCS game in real time. Pops, a long-suffering Boston-born Sox fan, had seen this movie before (and would see it again in a fashion even his father wouldn’t fathom), and got up to fire up the grill for dinner before the epic 9th inning. I kept the faith, but didn’t call him inside until Baylor hit his blast. After that I said “You better get in here!” but, being an adult, and having seen this movie before, he was skeptical. I don’t think many fans can truly appreciate the real roller-coaster sports is capable of taking you on, but hardcore Sox fans, especially those of us who were around, then, “get” it like few others can. I mean, to go from the high of Hendu’s impossible shot to the ball dribbling between Buckner’s legs is like a lifetime of emotional extremes in two moments, only weeks apart. (Not to mention history repeating itself as Farce-turned-Miracle, a la ’03/’04.)

And as sorry as I felt for myself, for my father, for Sox fans, for the unfairly maligned Bill Buckner, and (ahem) would-be-MVP Hurst, I thought, even as a teenager: Holy shit, how do you go from hitting 2 of the 3 biggest HRs in Sox history and come THAT close only to have it ripped away from you. Hero for life, highlight reel for eternity, etc. It was enough to make a 16 year old think God was not only a sadistic son of a bitch, but a Yankee fan (the horror). I felt genuinely bad for Hendu, who deserved better. And someone else said something similar upthread, but while I detested those A’s teams in the late ’80s, I simply couldn’t hate Henderson. Wasn’t possible. I was happy he got his ring. And yes, I imitated that inimitable HR trot for many moons after.

RIP, Hendu.

Share

Bill Buckner, Mookie Wilson and Me (Revisited)

buckner1-300x300-300x300

(10/2011)

I’ve never been able to appreciate the aesthetic perfection (that is to say, the perfection of baseball’s most imperfect play; it’s most jarringly incongruous moment) because it was too painful. I was too invested in the response to that stimulus and what it signified: game (and, we knew, series) over.

A lot of people forgot, or never knew, that this was only Game Six. It was not the end of the actual series; they had one more game to play even if everyone understood that it wasn’t necessary. This was the Red Sox, after all.

Is there any doubt in any Red Sox fan’s mind that if Oil Can Boyd had (been allowed to) pitch(ed) he would have won? I say that as someone who was 100% in support of the decision to pitch Bruce Hurst on short rest, once the Sunday game got rained out (yet another rung in the hellish labyrinth of Red Sox horrors: what seemed like a blessing turned out to be a …well I’m not going to use that word). Of course, pitching Hurst did work wonderfully, until he was understandably out of gas half-way through the game, when John McNamara, part of the unholy triptych of imbecilic Sox managers along with Don “The Gerbil” Zimmer and Grady “Gump” Little, went (too late) to the dugout. I thought (and think): why not Oil Can? I’ve always assumed that harsh words were exchanged when Mac told Can he was not getting the call (Can allegedly wept when he received the news). The reason all sensible Sox fans were relieved when Hurst got the nod is because we recalled Game 3, when Oil Can labored through about 300 pitches to get through the first inning: even though Can settled down, the Sox lost 4-0. At best, the question of whether he was suited for prime time was not yet answered. On the other hand, we knew Calvin Schiraldi was not. When, after leaving poor Calvin in the night before even as he looked like he was about to cry on the mound; after soiling his shorts on national TV, Mac went to him again, there was no doubt. The man who had been one strike away from baseball (and Beantown) immortality spit the bit when it mattered most. To redeem himself, of course he promptely surrendered the go-ahead run to the insufferable Ray Knight. (If the Sox were not so worthless and weak at this point, someone, anyone would have taken a run at Daryl Strawberry when his cherry-on-top homerun prompted the most egregiously disrespectful slow-circle of the bases in the history of the sport.) The rest, as they say is history.

But it couldn’t simply be history, because it was history. I literally could not count the number of times I saw replays of Buckner’s bungle, or the subsequent footage of the insufferable Knight crossing home plate (into the waiting arms of the equally loathed Gary “Camera” Carter). Or the ultimate indignity, Jesse Orosco’s histrionics after striking out Marty Barrett for the final out (in Game 7). I can’t tell you the intolerable pain these images caused, one million times worse than the shot of Bucky “Bleeping” Dent’s soul-to-the-devil shot over the Monster. All the way up to ’03 they were ubiquitous until, as it seemed, Satan conjured up the final insult by having the Sox’s eternally overdue beatdown of the Yankees (in Game 7 of the ALCS) mutate into a comeback only slightly less improbable –and painful– than the Mets’ second miracle.

(Sidenote: I was with my old man in ’86 and I was with my old man in ’03. On the other hand, I was with him in ’04 and ’07, so we got that goin’ for us…which is nice.)

This was what it was like to be a fan. It was not merely a matter of expecting the worst; all sports fans are acquainted with that (some more than others: Hello Cleveland!). It was that the worst was about to happen at the worst possible moment in the worst possible way.

And so, all together now: Thank God for 2004!

2004 cemented my already-existing penchant for underdogs. 2004 solidified my solidarity with teams and their longest-suffering fan-bases (except for Philadelphia).

Just as it’s difficult to articulate the unique and acute distress the events of ’86 (and ’03) caused, it’s similarly challenging to relate what 2004 felt like. A glacier dissolved to the final tear drop after thousands of years and riding the crest of a forever fever breaking; a billion babies’ burps; burnt-out batteries firing with life; the sports fanatics’ equivalent of the golden glow at the end of the dugout tunnel…

But before we got there we had to walk through that long and illogical darkness.

And what bothered me most was not the losses or the regret, but the fact that one figure unfairly came to bear the brunt of all of this pent-up rage and resentment.

This week marked the 25th anniversary of Game Six and the most (in)famous error in post-season (if not all-time) history.

(Real time edit: perhaps the baseball gods have both humor, perspective and perversity to burn, because we just witnessed another Game Six that might do the unthinkable and supplant the previous Game Six as the Game Six…time will tell and more on that later.)

I always knew, from October 1986 until October 2004 (and even now, really) who the real Red Sox fans are. If you blamed Bill Buckner for the loss it conclusively proved three things: you weren’t a real Sox fan, you didn’t understand baseball and most importantly, you were an asshole.

I’m not going to recount the play-by-play, just like I’m not going to embed any video (ugh), but suffice it to say, there was plenty of blame to go around. Much more egregious than Buckner’s error was the wild throw by Bob “The Steamer” Stanley who, that night, opened his name up to more scatalogical associations. (Plus, for anyone who happened to catch his post-game interview, the ease and disgrace with which he threw Buckner under the bus earns him eternal enmity.) Much (too much) has been made of the fact that Buckner should not have been on the field at all; that he should have been pulled for defensive wiz Dave Stapleton. Horseshit. If Schiraldi had done his job (or Boggs had charged that harmless grounder and made a play before it went foul) Stanley would never have been needed, Gedman’s fat ass would never have had to make the (lame) attempt to cover the wild pitch, and Buckner would have rightly been on the field to celebrate with his teammates after the winning out was recorded, and Bruce Hurst would have remained the series MVP (as he was prematurely declared when the game was presumably seconds from concluding…).

Coincidentally, watching the recent ESPN special “Catching Hell”, I was reminded how irrational fans can be, and how as Americans we insist on easy –if unfair– solutions to complex problems. That poor Steve Bartman was blamed for his team’s epic and embarrassing collapse (we are not talking about a one-run turn of events, we are talking about a collective meltdown that makes Calvin Schiraldi look like Bob Gibson) is enough to make you wish the Cubs never win another playoff game. Of course that is not fair to the organization, or the authentic fans, and human beings, who are unable to pin their own frustrations and real-world impotencies on an anonymous, unlucky fan. But watching that feature, which I highly recommend to even non sports fans, I understood that any sane person, seeing or hearing the way Buckner was treated and excoriated, would –and should– have hoped that the Red Sox would never win a World Series. Or more, that a city that could act so ignobly never deserved to win anything, as some type of atonement.

Again, thank God for 2004. Of course, Buckner has long since put the past behind him (although he was still very understandably bitter when, in 2004, idiotic sports reporters were asking him “do you feel forgiven now?” and other offensive questions). By 2008, after the Sox had won, again, enough water had, at long last, swept under the bridge that Buckner was willing to get his long overdue serenade. I kind of love the fact that Bill (and his partner in crime, Mookie Wilson), have managed to make money off of this play over the years. For all the grief he got, he damn well should have got paid. You go Bill. Decent story from this week’s Boston Globe here.

And that is some video I will be happy to share (although I can’t help noting, even the person good enough to record this was moronic enough to make sarcastic/disparaging comments even as Buckner strode to the mound).

There was, of course, nothing to forgive. But in the spirit of a quarter-century of misunderstanding, misplaced ire, recrimination and redemption, the last few, rocking, minutes of this delectable recording should resonate from the snowy environs of Boston to the lush fields of Idaho.

Share

The Fall Classic: 27 Years Ago

sean-pop-gramps-300x225

I don’t believe what I just saw!

No one else in the room could believe it, either. Kirk Gibson had, before our eyes and on television, done something so improbable, so historical that we had no choice but to get drunk.

It was something we were developing the typical college freshman’s proficiency for. I was getting good at a lot of things, not all of them necessarily good for me. I’d already become a professional at ordering pizzas late at night and passing out before I could eat them (the reason so many people of a certain age insist that pizza tastes better cold is because they have so much experience eating it that way; they have no other choice). It had only taken a few weeks of American History 101 to understand that maybe I should have been rooting for the Indians in all those old movies. I had discovered, with equal amounts of surprise and delight, that I was not in fact the only person in the world who still listened to bands like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd. I had overcome, with impressive ease, the initial guilt I’d felt regarding my official status as a contentedly lapsed Catholic: the more Sunday masses I missed, the less I missed the whole routine. The timing couldn’t have been better, considering I had finally ended an eighteen-year sexual losing streak (Original Sin has no chance against unrestrained orgasms). I had been promoted to the Big Leagues and was doing everything I could to make sure they kept me around. I wanted to be a team player and I was pleased to establish that there was little I wouldn’t do for the team: even if you lost the game it didn’t matter as long as you left it all on the playing field, et cetera. The only thing, in short, that surprised me was how easily surprised I was at how little of life I had actually experienced thus far.

***

My parents hadn’t had the privilege of hearing about most of these wonderful developments, in large part because I hadn’t seen and had hardly spoken to them for half a semester. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business: I had things to discover and, being a team player, I certainly didn’t want my parents wasting their money on my education.

But it had also been a less-than-peaceful transition, getting to this point. My folks had dealt better with the departure of my sister four years earlier, but at that time I was still around. In some ways, and for obvious and understandable reasons, I became closer to my parents while I was in high school. My relationship with my mother had invariably been present and positive, but it was during those awkward, impressionable mid-teen years that I became particularly close to my old man. Exhibit A: Rather than bemoaning my feeble inability to handle Algebra II, he took it upon himself to tutor me. Each night after dinner we would work through that day’s assignment, and he displayed a patience and proficiency that I’d never witnessed or even imagined. I’d never had previous cause to doubt, for a single second, how much he cared about me, but it was during my junior year, when he helped me fumble through a subject I would forget as soon as I got past it (which must have killed him, a man of math and science, seeing yet another child who possessed so little of his ability or interest in the very disciplines that gave his life purpose and passion), that I heard him say he loved me each night with actions, not words.

I wouldn’t go so far as to imply that we became friends (although he seemed to understand, and appreciate—as a father and a man—the ways my mother and I had bonded over things he didn’t share or espouse), but it was during this time that he became my Pops, and the real foundation, which we would require years later, was firmly established.

It was, then, startling and more than a little painful to witness him acting like such an insufferable prick as I left for college. During those weeks I saw a spiteful silence and intransigence I had never observed, not even during his sporadic periods of silent-treatment toward my mother when they fought.

What’s your problem, I didn’t ask, because I knew he had his reasons and therefore wouldn’t be able to share them. Being a typically self-absorbed eighteen-year-old, it didn’t fully occur to me that he was simply sad to see me go. I understood he wasn’t happy to see me go, nor was I unequivocally happy to leave parents I genuinely loved, and more importantly liked. Having not dealt directly with absence or loss (excepting my grandmother, whom I’d been too young to properly mourn or miss), I was unable to fathom what my departure signified for my father, on theoretical as well as practical levels. He wasn’t just watching his son depart (and apprehending, having been to college himself, the ways in which he was paying large amounts of money to ensure that I grew, changed, and figured out for myself all the ways I was unlikely to emulate him, philosophically as well as practically), he was being confronted with the unpreventable void of a house without children. If this was the first day of the rest of my life, it was the same, only more so, for him.

Still: to have the same man who had been to every single swim meet, soccer game, school function, and rite of passage giving me the cold shoulder was more than slightly disconcerting. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier that year I’d been in a car accident, during Christmas break, up in Boston. My cousin lost control and slid on black ice into a tree, which greedily ate the (fortunately for us, extensive) front end of the thrice-owned Pontiac he was driving. Fortunately, the injuries were minimal, although uncertainty remained about whether or not I’d broken some ribs. At the hospital they confirmed I had badly bruised them, which disappointed me because I wouldn’t have as good a story to tell. By the time my old man arrived, he was his typically stoic self. “You clowns are lucky,” he said, and I didn’t disagree with him.

The next morning his father, Gramps, came in to check on me. “We’re glad you’re okay,” he said, and I didn’t disagree with him. “Now you know how Darrell Green feels after every Redskins game.” He smiled, and then he got serious: “Your father was very upset when the hospital called. He was really shaken up until they confirmed you were all right.” He said some other things, but I was still trying to imagine a scenario that could ever cause my father to become flustered to the extent that it was noticeable. For a teenager who figured he knew everything, this conversation was an invaluable opportunity to concede that all sorts of things happen that none of us necessarily see. I didn’t need to see my father unnerved and scared on behalf of his son to appreciate how much he loved me, but I was also grateful my grandfather had revealed the way I would never otherwise hear him express, without words, the things he couldn’t always bring himself to say.

***

My roommate came down the hall just as we were cracking open our first beers. He told me I had a phone call. I asked, “Who is it?” “I think it’s your father,” he said.

*Excerpt from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone. Get it HERE.

Share

‘Pedro’ Is a Glorious Romp Full of Stories That Only Pedro Martinez Can Tell

050311_Pedrowaving

Any public figure, particularly an artist or athlete, is assured notoriety and immortality if they are known simply by their last name (think Bird or Beethoven), their nickname (think Bono or Babe) and, in rare instances (such as Elvis), their first name. Pedro Martinez, undoubtedly the preeminent pitcher of his era, did not take long to ensure he would be loved, loathed and feared, and during his career (especially his never-to-be-equaled run in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s), if someone said “Pedro”, there was no question who was being discussed.

As such, Pedro is a natural if inevitable title for his autobiography, written with veteran baseball scribe Michael Silverman. Anyone who worshipped at the mound Pedro dominated during his heyday understands he mostly let his performance on the field speak for him. Certainly, “Petey” was seldom timid to express himself, defend a teammate, or blast an opponent. He was also one of the wittiest and most amusing superstars of his time. Still, as smart and opinionated as Pedro has always been, fans—especially Red Sox fans—have been waiting impatiently for him to write about his experiences before, during and after he terrorized and, at times, owned, major league baseball.

A quick summary that scarcely does his achievements justice: eight-time All Star, three-time Cy Young winner (could, and should have been five Cy Youngs), World Series champion. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians.

This book does not disappoint: Pedro discusses the privation of his homeland in the Dominican Republic, his odyssey through the minor and major leagues before becoming the King of Fenway Park, when each of his starts was an authentic event. Like so many future legends (Michael Jordan leaps to mind), Martinez was inspired by his setbacks, and he used the slights and doubts from myopic coaches and talent scouts as the motivation to prove himself. Pedro’s status was in flux for many years, and everywhere he went he encountered the same uncertainties: too skinny, too temperamental, insufficiently durable, a diva. The list goes on, and Pedro had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Green Monster, especially before he commanded the accolades and awards.

PM

Pedro was not only one of the best pitchers ever, he was one of the most savvy (with an injured arm he nevertheless came on in relief—using smoke and mirrors when his fastball was unavailable—to shut down the Cleveland Indians and get the Sox to the ALCS in 1999, one of the gutsiest and most memorable outings in postseason history) and unquestionably one of the most stubborn and, at times, inscrutable. As such, his memory is as sharp as his tongue and while he’s quick to name names (the haters, the skeptics), he also extols virtually everyone who helped or encouraged him, including coaches, host families and other players—especially older brother and role model Ramon, and the catcher with whom he worked to become the self-described “alpha male” of the American League, Jason Varitek.

Always fearless, Pedro never shies away from discussing the various controversies that dogged him. He feels he never got a fair shake with the Dodgers, the team that called him up from the minors, and he relishes every opportunity to remind (fellow legend) Tommy Lasorda how wrong the Hall of Famer’s assessment was. Traded to the Expos, Martinez came into his own, but also developed a reputation as a headhunter. Understanding the need to pitch inside, Pedro was never shy to back someone off the plate, and like Roger Clemens and Bob Gibson, if chin music was called for, Pedro was always happy to send a message. Considering his lithe frame and the fact that, early in his career in the National League he had to come to the plate several times each game, no one can say Pedro did not walk the walk.

Pedro’s direct and unflinching assessment of the steroid era, and the big-time players whose legacies are forever damaged by it, is a highlight. Also delicious is his recounting of the time he infamously assessed the ludicrous “curse of the Bambino” and offered up an epic quote for the ages: “I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass.” The import of this bravado for a snakebitten, suspicious Red Sox nation can never be underestimated, and Pedro will forever have all-time hero status for his (large) part in facing down the Yankees and flipping the script on the “evil empire”.

Like any renowned athlete, Pedro is revered for his results on the field. Like only the most exceptional public figures, it’s his personality that makes Pedro one of the most beloved players on a franchise filled with authentic legends. It’s debatable if any pitcher (or athlete?) combined such intensity and ebullience and whose very presence was so irresistible.

The only complaint, which is probably inevitable with any co-authored book, is that we don’t get Pedro’s unfettered perspective. We miss his “voice”, both the figurative in reading, and the literal: his unique accent and mischievous streak are best appreciated in hearing him talk. One wonders if hearing Pedro on an audio book would be more satisfying; one also wonders how much better (if less formal and official) this work would be if Pedro discarded convention—which would be utterly appropriate for him—and gave us a less filtered account. Naturally, we know when Sullivan is behind the wheel, as the clichés pile up like discarded dip in a dugout. Of course, no one is reading this book for the prose so much as the stories.

Pedro is a control freak to the end: while his candor is most welcome, anyone looking for trash talk or the inside scoop on his years in Boston will be disappointed. In the end, Pedro insists on being totally in control, and we get only what he wants to offer up. Perhaps because he, understandably, remains so confident and is content, Pedro has no axes to grind, and it’s to his credit that we don’t get score-settling or unnecessary minutiae. Nevertheless, some fans will probably come away wanting more (more scoop, more controversy), and that is, of course, precisely how Pedro wants it.

*This review originally appeared at PopMatters on 6/20/15.

Share

The 50 Greatest Hockey Enforcer Names of All Time

vernon_roy640

I. Hockey rules, eh?

ARE YOU WATCHING THE hockey playoffs?

Don’t worry, no one else is either. Except for the relative handful of us who understand it’s the greatest, if least understand and unfairly maligned, major sport.

While I’m always happy to defend hockey, I feel, in the end, much like I do when people ask me why I listen to jazz music: because it’s amazing. That’s the easiest –and most truthful– answer. I have no interest in trying to convince or convert anyone; but I will say, if you are the least bit intrigued, check out hockey during the playoffs (what better time!). For my money, it’s by far the most intense and consistently exciting sports action you’ll see. Or, let me pull that back: certainly March Madness is tough to top; and (sigh) even NBA playoffs eventually elevate the game (where, for the duration of the regular season, most players seem to phone it in). I would say, respectfully and as a huge fan of soccer: as excited as I get for the World Cup, I’m disappointed by at least half the games (the overly cautious play, teams understandably clinging to one-goal leads). On the other hand, I’m never disappointed during any games during hockey playoffs, and I could care less which teams are playing — a sentiment that exposes me as a true fan, or a hopeless case (or really, when it comes to hockey, those are the same thing).

Even haters would have to concede that it’s the one sport where stoppages in play are minimal (one timeout per team!), there’s no diving, and no malingering (hello baseball!), and it’s a combination of soccer (the pace, the athleticism) and American football (the intensity, the toughness) ON SKATES.

ii. The Code or, Fighters Gonna Fight

For some, the fact that fighting not only occurs, but is sanctioned (if penalized) will always be a non-starter. And that’s understandable.

Think about what a clown does: he is the minor but essential character who shows up at a circus with the objective of instigating misconduct. Above all, his purpose is to entertain with a mixture of mischief and cheer. A superficial assessment might conclude that a clown is simply doing, in make-up, what any drunk idiot might do. But of course whether it is juggling, dancing or doing tricks, not just anyone could be (or would want to be) a clown. It’s a job.

(And lest anyone think it’s either random chaos or unthinking brutality, hockey pugilism has a long yet fairly straightforward history. To understand fighting one must understand what is meant by “The Code”.)

Think about what a hockey enforcer (what we used to call a goon just like we used to call escorts hookers or stockbrokers sociopaths) does: he is the minor but essential figure who shows up in an arena with the object of instigating misconduct (hopefully without receiving a game misconduct). Above all, his purpose is to settle scores and entertain a crowd while invigorating his teammates. A superficial assessment might conclude that an enforcer is simply doing, in a colorful costume, what any drunk idiot might do. But needless to say, trading bare-fisted blows (sober or especially drunk) in a bar is considerably different than standing on skates and going toe to toe with an opponent who is well-prepared (and in some cases, well-paid) to kick your ass in front of thousands of people. Many people without athletic ability are very capable goons; only an extremely select group of individuals are able (much less willing) to abide by “The Code”. It’s a job.

domi

iii. Apologia

It’s difficult to talk intelligently with anyone about hockey because so few people watch (or care) about it. That goes double when trying to articulate the science of sanctioned pugilism. How can one possibly rationalize or defend the spectacle of adults engaging in behavior that would get them arrested out in the streets? (Indeed, fans are arrested nightly at hockey rinks all over the continent for imitating, albeit often drunkenly and with far less flair, the very behavior occurring in real time below them.) The answer is at once easy and complicated, like all truths tend to be. The easy part: there is no need to explain it. If you’re not a hockey player, you can’t hope to comprehend it; unless you are a fan, you have no hope of understanding or appreciating it. It’s really that simple. Seriously. Just ask a hockey player. (And, as perspicacious commentators have pointed out for decades, one notices how nobody gets up to grab popcorn once a fight breaks out. While that may speak volumes about the distressing devolution of our species and our insatiable appetite for violence, there is something a bit more sophisticated going on.)

So what is complicated about it? For starters, hockey fighting remains a diversion that people who genuinely deplore violence (like this writer) endorse and get excited about. What does that say about us? I’m not certain. But I do know that unlike the “real” world, it is exceedingly rare for two hockey combatants to enter the fray unwillingly. Yes but, doesn’t that make it a great deal worse, if they do it because they get paid? (Well, is boxing beautiful? Barbaric? Your opinion here will go a decent way toward explaining your ability, or willingness, to negotiate the enigmatic charm of the expression “five minutes for fighting”.) That gets to the not-so-easily explained sensibility of athletes (in general) and hockey players (in particular). Hockey players have traditionally been paid a great deal less than other athletes in more popular sports. It is, therefore, a bit ironic to consider that these players are more immune to pain and prone to play a regular season game like the world is on the line. It is, for hockey fans, refreshing that the players have an integrity that has been ingrained from generations and is remarkably resilient against the corrupting forces of salary, fame and product endorsements. Put in less exalted terms, people tend to get (understandably) cynical when, say, a baseball player with a multi-million dollar annual contract goes on the D.L. with a strained hamstring. That type of commonplace indifference is especially noticeable –and appalling– when one realizes that hockey players routinely return to the ice moments after receiving stitches, or losing teeth, or suffering bruised (and in some cases, broken) bones. Google it if you don’t believe me.

None of this is to say that one might enjoy the sport more if one learned more about it, but a casual viewer (or hater) might be genuinely surprised to learn a few things about the history of hockey fighting. For starters, the opposing players seldom hate each other and in it is not uncommon for them to be friends off the ice (particularly if they are old teammates). Also, the aforementioned code does have a rather elaborate –and universally endorsed– system for the rules of engagement. Finally, and perhaps most significantly: not only are enforcers generally the most popular players (amongst the fans; amongst the teams), they tend to be some of the more thoughtful and soft-spoken ones. (For two obvious examples, consider the ever-humble Craig Berube –”The Chief”– who toiled many seasons in the NHL including for my hometown Capitals and until recently was head coach for the Flyers; then there is George McPhee who became one of the more respected and successful GMs in the game.)

Of course, not all of them are model citizens, and for a variety of reasons (some understandable, some inscrutable), some of them have had very challenging and troubled lives.

BP

iv. Naming Names

There are great names in any organization, and sports of course is no exception. Hockey seems, to me, the gift that giveth much. Perhaps it’s because so many players hail from the Great White North, born in towns like Saskatoon, Medicine Hat, Fort Saskatchewan, Moose Jaw, Moose Factory, Thunder Bay, and Loon Lake.

But I’ve noted, for many years, how more than a reasonable percentage of hockey enforcers don’t just have names that are either interesting or amusing; many of them have names that are perfect: on both literal and even literary levels. And then there are the handful that are beyond perfect, the ones that would make writers like Shakespeare, Dickens and Nabokov wink and nod, and maybe even demur. No, they might understandably say, those are too good, too obvious; that’s too much of a good thing, no one would ever believe that.

Well, believe it. All of the names below are real, and aside from the Honorable Mention section (some names were too special to overlook) almost all the folks in the Top Fifty are primarily remembered for the work they did with the gloves off.

Honorable Mention

Toe Blake
Karl Dykhuis
Larry Goodenough
Don Grosso
Dale Hawerchuk
Shane Hnidy
Craig Coxe
Kris King
Keith Tkachuk
Jim Morrison
Bob Sauve
Jonathan Cheechoo
Darius Kasparaitis
Bill Kitchen
Uwe Krupp
Dickie Moore
Rory Fitzpatrick
Dino Ciccarelli
Joe Reekie
Roman Hamrlik
Colby Armstrong
Brandon Yip

And now, the 50 greatest Hockey Enforcer names:

50. Matthew Barnaby

Hockey’s Eddie Haskell is an ideal way to kick off this list. An innocuous enough name, Barnaby established himself as the premier pest in the game, and the clichéd guy you prayed to see get pummeled, unless he was on your team. A crowd favorite (to cheer at home, to heckle on the road) Barnaby knew his role and perfected it, an unparalleled trash talker who took all comers and smiled before, during and after most bouts. And seriously, for his average size, he had astonishing chutzpah, cheerfully tangling with some of the behemoths even other heavyweight enforcers typically avoided.

And, eternal praise to him for the time he took the piss out of himself and his opponent, providing a hilarious and enduring commentary on the entertainment aspect of this difficult business.

49. Dave “Tiger” Williams

Few people would remember the name Dave Williams, so Tiger was necessary. More, it was fitting: they didn’t call him Tiger, he was Tiger. And while he locked horns with anyone and everyone, like more than a handful of gentlemen on this list, he developed an actual game and could put the puck in the net. Bonus points for his sardonic –and convincing– opinion that stupid TV shows do more damage to “impressionable youth” than fighting in hockey.

48. Rick Tocchet

Speaking of players who developed from free-swinging to goal-scoring, Tocchet may be the best one-two, er, punch, in hockey history: feared for what he could do with the stick, and approached with caution for what he could do with both fists. Tocchet is the first of many men on this list whose last names are like verbs, or else adjectives that define themselves.

47. Felix Potvin

The Cat. Goalies seldom drop the gloves anymore, but if your name is Felix, you better be able to account for yourself. In addition to being a capable goalie, Potvin secured his all-time status –and likely became a hero– when he took down the truculent bully (and excellently-named) Ron Hextall. As Barry Melrose famously said of this dust-up, it’s bad enough to get bloodied when you instigate a fight, but it has to hurt to be bloodied by a guy named Felix.

46. Gino Odjick

Gino is good enough. Odjick puts it over the top. Together, they fit like a wet, stinking glove, discarded at center ice. Interesting sidenote: some –if not many– of the fine fellows on this list, regardless of the bruising work they do, look like lawyers or models. Gino, bless his ugly mug, is not one of them. Odjick has a face made for the penalty box.

45. Basil McRae

How do you top Felix? Basil! And Basil McRae, no less. As mentioned above, McRae is one of the fellows who, if you saw him off the ice, would be utterly in his element making a presentation in the boardroom. In actuality, he never hesitated to get the gloves off, and he seemed to always genuinely enjoy being that guy.

44. Reed Low

Charles Dickens strokes his beard and nods, approvingly.

43. Mick Vukota

The last name would likely warrant consideration, but pairing it with Mick? It’s less two words than a definition: MickVukota (one word).

42. Joey Kocur

Another action verb. Ko-sir. Another bruiser with a baby face, Kocur punched as hard as anyone who has ever played the game, and was respected accordingly. You see his face and think, Yes, of course: Joey. You see him land a punch that will last a lifetime and you think: Kocur.

41. Tie Domi

Dough-me. Wanna know me? Gotta go me. Domi was diminutive but always game, and, according to his opponents, gifted with one of the hardest domes in the sport. He went with everyone, many more than once, and he had nine fights with Bob Probert.

He was also one of the great characters in the game. This epic incident in Philadelphia (naturally) is a script from central casting, written by the hockey gods: it epitomizes everything we love (and opponents and fans loathed) about the inimitable imp.

40. Jordin Tootoo

I’m not going to ruin this by belaboring the point. Tootoo!

39. P.J. Stock

Another choir boy who could turn into the Tasmanian Devil at the drop of a glove, there are too many associations with “stock” to list –and all of them would be worthy and appropriate. He also had possibly the single best pas de deux of the last decade with Stephen Peat.

38. Dale Purinton

Q: I’m trying to come up with a name for a marginal enforcer who labored for most of his career in the minors, and made the most of his opportunity when called up to play in the Big Apple. I’m looking for something that resonates with accuracy but also a tad of irony. Any suggestions?

A: Dale Purinton.

37. Kyle Chipchura

No comment necessary. Except this: Epic.

36. Zenon Konopka

A name like Zenon will get you on some type of list. Planet Zenon! If you are a hockey enforcer named Zenon, and your last name is Konopka and you hail from Niagara Falls, ON, you will be #36 on at least one list.

35. Enrico Ciccone

It wouldn’t take an author with exceptional ability to come up with a name like this for, say, an opera singer. Or perhaps a wealthy socialite who rocks top hats and capes. So the name is already amazing. Then consider Enrico is a 6’4 pugilist with the necessary edge to make a living in the NHL and you reach a whole other plateau of perfection.

34. Ken Baumgartner

The Bomber.

33. Bruce Shoebottom

Straight up Dickens. That’s all.

32. Rob Ray

Yes, the name is pretty great. But when you have an actual rule named after you, you’ve clearly taken things to another level. A crowd-pleaser for many years, Rayzor took all comers –including thirteen bouts with Tie Domi– and relished every second.

31. Adam Graves

I know, right (1.0)? After hearing Washington Capitals color commentator (and former player) Craig Laughlin call him “Gravy Train”, it was like having a prime rib and then being handed a baked-stuffed lobster. Too much, too good. And extra credit for actually fighting with Darren Rumble. Yes, Darren Rumble.

30. Adam Foote

I know, right (2.0)? Another one Dickens would enjoy, Foote established himself as a man unafraid to shed the mitts, but he became one of more consistent, reliable and tenacious defenseman in the league.

29. Darcy Tucker

Environment or instinct? Is it a coincidence that a guy named Darcy –a name that is going to present issues anywhere, but especially in sports and most especially in hockey– ended up being one of the surliest and indefatigable scrappers in the modern era? Tucker was an entertainer, and it was more than a little appropriate that he often wore Maple Leafs blue, because he is the ultimate blue-collar specimen. Many fighters insist it’s just a business, but Tucker always took every second on the ice, especially when knuckles flew, very personally.

28. Louie DeBrusk

This is more Nabokov territory. An enforcer named Louie is fantastic, but DeBrusk is like the lime squeezed into the gin and tonic. Naturally, during his fights the arena would play his theme song. (Bonus: his fights typically went on for so long, a good chunk of the song could be played.)

27. Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre

Over-the-top for any self-respecting novelist. But the actual name of a hockey tough guy? Just wow.

26. Zdeno Chara

See, Nabokov would scoff at some of these names as too obvious, too much. But Chara? That’s just what the doctor ordered. Zdeno? Seriously? And Zdeno (Zuh-dane-oh) Chara? A specimen from Slovakia who stands over seven feet in skates? Who devastates players as a matter of principle. And the foolhardy ones who invite him to go? See below.

25. Paul Laus

Louse? No Laus, as in laws. Paul laid down the Laus. Laus Rocket. This name could only work in hockey.

24. Brendan Shanahan

Fighting Irish. Alongside Rick Tocchet, with whom he tangled, Shanny made his name early on locking horns with the entire catalog of NHL bad boys, and gradually emerged as the most complete player this side of Cam Neely. A natural leader who protected teammates and himself, and was willing, even eager to drop the gloves long after he became a superstar, Shanahan remains a man amongst men. That he later became an executive, enforcing discipline instead of being a disciplined enforcer, is only as it should be.

23. Ed Hospodar

Hot spur. Hot skate?

Shakespeare sues and settles out of court.

22. Gerard Gallant

This was, obviously, part of the Shakespeare settlement.

21. Donald Brashear

Brash. The Donald. Has as many notches on his belt as any other scrapper from the last quarter-century. Involved in one of the most notorious on-ice incidents in hockey history (in 2000), Brashear played another decade punching the clock, and other players.

20. Derian Hatcher

The Bard and Dickens high-five at center ice. This could easily be big brother Kevin Hatcher, but Derian gets the nod for two reasons: D-E-R-I-A-N, and while Kevin was a complete package and handled his business (in the crease, in a dust-up) as well or better than any big man in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Derian was like a meaner and nastier version (in a good way, of course). Derian wore the captain’s C and led by example, Bobby Orr style. Like Orr, he had teammates who would gladly step in and protect him; like Orr he was just fine taking care of himself. Even better, he took it upon himself to take care of business for others when he deemed it necessary. Playing with a snarl and an edge, Hatcher gave fans their money’s worth every second on the ice, and he was a pleasure to watch.

19. Sergio Momesso

Far be it from me to mess with sublimity.

18. Travis Turnbull

You needn’t have seen a single second of any hockey game to appreciate the glory of this name. For a boxer, a bit much; for a hockey player: just right.

17. Mark Fistric

“Mr. and Mrs. Fistric, you realize that by Canadian decree, your son will have to be a hockey player who, um, uses his fists?”

“Um, okay.”

16. Glen Featherstone

Shakespeare with a oatmeal stout hangover eating blood pudding phoned this one in.

15. Ben Blood

Seriously? And as if to live up to the high hopes his name demands, Mr. Blood broke not only “The Code” but sacred tradition by disrupting the handshake line to throw haymakers. Shame and props, in equal measure.

14. Adam Deadmarsh

The ultimate gamer. When Deadmarsh (I know, right?) dropped ’em, all you saw was flying fists and flying hair. A whirling dervish on ice, Deadmarsh made a name squaring off with players much bigger and stronger; what he lacked in size he had in guts. It also, unfortunately, led to some serious concussion issues.

13. Lou Franceschetti

Louis Carlo Franceschetti. That is all.

12. Dale Hunter

1,000 points. Over 3,000 penalty minutes (3,565 to be exact). True story: Hunter spent so much time in the box, when the Washington Capitals retired his number, he was gifted  with the old penalty box from the Capital Centre.

The NHL’s own honey badger, Huntsy was sui generis: he contained multitudes (the ultimate leader, Captain Clutch and occasional cheap-shot artist) and he was at once a throwback and a link to the modern era: he was too good to be a goon and too naughty to be a gentleman.

11. Tony Twist

Come on baby, let’s do the twist.

Twister went from being merely one of the scarier knuckle merchants in the NHL to, arguably, the scariest. Where guys like Joey Kocur wanted to hurt you, Twist often looked like he wanted to kill you. And he had concrete slabs instead of fists, so when he hit you, you stayed hit.

Ask Rob Ray.

10. Lindy Ruff

Ruff = good enough.

Lindy + Ruff? Top ten material, for sure.

(Lindy also earns his place in the enforcer hall of fame by becoming head coach of the Buffalo Sabres for 17 years.)

9. Jim Playfair

Playfair did his name proud, mostly in the minor leagues, but arguably is the one enforcer who’s best “don’t call me a goon” moment came while he was coaching.

8. Derek Boogaard

The Boogeyman.

Impeccably named, Boogaard also represents just about every aspect of the modern enforcer: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Fighting has been so entrenched, for so long, in the game of hockey, it’s unlikely there will ever be a reckoning where its role is reassessed or eliminated. But if there is momentum toward that possibility, Boogaard’s tragic rise and fall will be considered a tipping point.

7. Murray Craven

Like a relative handful of folks on this list, not strictly speaking an actual enforcer but…come on. (An aside: if his first name was John or Bob, he’d still make this list; but there is something more than slightly poetic about Murray Craven.)

6. Shane Churla

Okay. If Churla were one of the more handsome or beloved characters in the game, his name would simply be ideal, if ironically so. But his rugged looks and proclivity for, well, churlish behavior, result in one of the most appropriate –and Perfect-with-a-capital-P names in all hockey. Bonus points for the moniker “Chain Saw” Churla.

5. Darren Van Impe

Another name that would do Dickens proud. Unimprovable.

4. Marty McSorley

If you looked at Wayne Gretzky the wrong way, Marty would come after you. If you looked at him the wrong way, Marty would come after you. Even if you didn’t look at him the wrong way, Marty might come after you. From 1983 to 2000, brawling wasn’t personal to Mr. McSorley, it was strictly business. And business was very good. Until it wasn’t.

As a bonus, he was involved in what might be the all-time best hockey bout with arguably the all-time greatest hockey enforcer, Bob Probert, on 2/4/94. (Double bonus: this one is called by the best tag-team duo in hockey announcing history, Bill Clement and Gary Thorne.)

3. Garth Butcher

You are kidding, right? No, we are not kidding. Another unimprovable name; John or Joe Butcher would be, probably, Top 5 material. But Garth Butcher? End the discussion.

He lost more than he won, but he was always game, and remains one of the most beloved Vancouver Canucks alumni.

2. Jeff Beukeboom

Boo. KA BOOM.

Jeff.

Boo.

KA.

BOOM.

1. Stu Grimson

So many of these other selections could have topped this list, but I trust we’ll all agree that Stu Grimson, or The Grim Reaper, simply must be number one.

You read it and it works. You say it aloud and it sings. But you see it on the back of a jersey, and it’s art.

SGSo sure, it’s the best name. But to complete the perfection, Grimson remains as appropriate an ambassador for the grim art of goonery as any that came before or after him: well-traveled, well-loved, well-feared and, by all accounts, a true pussycat off the ice, even becoming a licensed attorney (no, really).

We’ll let The Grim Reaper have the last word.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 5/27/2015.

Share

April 15, 1985: THE FIGHT

HH-The-Fight

IT PROBABLY SAYS SOMETHING about evolution that younger generations see the future as expansive, malleable and positive while the older generations eventually—and inexorably—see the past as safer, simpler and more sensible. Bob Dylan had it right, of course: the times they are a-changin’. But it wasn’t a ’60s thing: the times are always changing, it just depends on where you’re standing and what you expect (or want) to see.

And so: athletes were less corrupted, politicians more honest, employers more human. Take your pick and add to the list, because it applies to everything and goes on forever.

But in the early ‘80s it really was a period of transition, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Way before the Internet, obviously, but even before cable TV was ubiquitous and the news was a half-hour show you watched after you woke up or before you went to bed.

Looked at in the necessary continuum of history, it’s easier to understand that the decade was simply straining toward the future, as we all do by virtue of being one second closer to death every time we exhale. And the ‘80s were faster and more—or less—complicated than the ‘70s, just as, in comparison, the ‘90s makes those years seem prehistoric. Example: at the dawn of 1980 nobody owned compact discs; by 1999 this revolutionary technology had already begun its death march.

Still, looking at where we are, now, and where we came from to get there, the ‘80s are somewhat suspended in time, a decade of transfiguration.

For me, nothing represents the shift quite like professional boxing. Baseball, football and basketball have not changed: they are still the biggest sports, only more so. But with MMA, ever-splintered affiliations and weight class rankings, DVD box sets and especially YouTube (like porn, people prefer violence when it’s cheap, readily available and as authentic as possible), the boxing game has changed. Few would argue it’s changed for the better or that it can ever be anything like what it used to be. Certainly this has something to do with the star quality (of which more shortly), but mostly it involves the logistics of entertainment, circa 1980-something. A title bout was an event that got hyped, shown on live TV and was then…gone (like virtually all forms of entertainment until cable TV and then VCRs came along to save—and immortalize—the day). Before ESPN, before everyone could record everything, you had to make time to witness an event, because the show would go on, with or without you.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, illustrates the once-insatiable appetite for pay-per-view events: they were events and you not only invested your money, but your time to be a part of it (at least as much as any witness can be said to be a part of any activity). It may seem quaint now, but the pay-per-view model revolutionized by the boxing promoters of this time is a microcosm of what the world would become; a blueprint for the business model that is no longer confined to sports. Consider reality television or even the music and, increasingly, book publishing industries, wherein a washed-up rock star or talk show host or someone with a Twitter account can decree who matters and, more importantly, why—and how—they should matter to millions of people. It’s equal parts hype, viral marketing and the machine of modern commerce: Everybody wants everything and whatever that thing is becomes the most important thing on the planet, at least while it’s being watched.

The 1980?s were, in short, the perfect time for immortals to roam our earth and ply a trade dating back to days when the loser became food for lions and being voted off the island meant public execution.

All of which brings us to Duran, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns. These men defined a decade and their fights function as Shakespearean works of that era: heroism, hubris, tragedy and, crucially, comedy—all delivered with lots of blood, ill-will and, considering what was at stake and how abundantly they rewarded us, honor. It was the neighborhood and schoolyard code writ large: the best fighters in any environment will inevitably find and confront each other. Before days when obscene dollars and unspeakable promoters did more to determine who fought whom for how much on what platform, these men sought one another to settle the simplest score: who was The Best and who could wear The Belt. Yes, there were malevolent forces, rapacious bean counters and outside-the-ring influences we can only guess about, but it’s neither wrong nor naïve to assert, unselfconsciously, that it was a more unsullied age.

Exhibit A, which can serve as the Alpha and Omega of my formative sports-loving life: For years, I regarded the Hagler/Hearns masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it. Put one way: I can remember everything about the circumstances of that fight (Monday night, 9th grade, watched it in living room with Pops, etc.). Put another way: still many years before YouTube I was in a bar with a bunch of buddies in Denver. We were busy telling old stories, catching up on new ones and drinking. All of a sudden one of us noticed that the TV above us was replaying The Fight. Immediately, and without a word, we all stopped whatever else we were doing and focused in on the magic, relishing every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2015, this incident would be impossible to reproduce. And that’s the whole point. Sure, there is nostalgia involved (but let’s be clear: I would not change that world for a world where I can pull any of these fights up, for free, and watch virtually anywhere I happen to be), but more than that, this was an era where nobody who cared was unaffected and no one, looking back today, will trivialize. We saw the careers of Michael Jordan and Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky, but those were extended marathons of magnificence, sporting miracles built like the pyramids: requiring time, sweat, blood and monomaniacal dedication. The great fights of the ‘80s were more like natural events, hurricanes that came, moving the earth and shifting the landscape, permanently.

***

Let’s end the suspense and get this out of the way right up front: Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed.

First, some history: I’m not sure I thought so at the time; I had not seen enough yet. I’ve lived 30 years since then and savored lots of other great sports moments and the passage of three decades has only reaffirmed my verdict. Obviously I would never want to be put in the position of declaring what is the best sporting event (it’s not unlike “the best” anything: does that mean most enjoyable, most important, most influential, most popular, etc.?), but if I want to stand up and be counted, for my money and based on what I’ve beheld, nothing can possibly top The Fight.

Hagler-vs-Hearns

(To be a bit more clear: I did not have any money riding, I did not necessarily prefer either fighter –though I did/do greatly respect both– and in many senses this was not close to the most personally satisfying sports moment. It was not Larry Bird in Game 6 of the ’86 finals, or Dennis Johnson shutting down Magic in ’84, or any number of moments from the Red Sox World Series of ’04 and ’07, or what the Redskins did to the Broncos during the 2nd quarter of the ’88 Super Bowl, or Riggo’s 4th and 1 run in ’83 vs. the Dolphins, or Dale Hunter’s 7th game series winning goal vs. the Flyers, or the glorious shock of Mike Tyson fumbling around for his mouthpiece after Buster Douglas beat his ass, or any number of sublime moments from the various NHL playoff series in the last two decades, particularly the beyond-epic series between the Stars and Avs and then Stars and Devils during the 2000 finals or…you get the picture.)

Secondly, some perspective: in other sports, championship moments are often (or at least all-too-often) lackluster affairs. Consider how many mediocre Super Bowls, World Series and NHL (even NBA) finals we’ve hyped up and been disappointed by. And that is just referring to the ones that are either blow-outs or the function of one team demonstrating their dominance on a day when everything falls perfectly into place. Those are understandable, even inevitable. But how many other times have we been let down by a World Cup final or a boxing match, because one or both parties tried to avoid the loss rather than secure (and/or earn) the win? I think of Brazil in the ’80s: those were the best teams and they probably should have won one or two World Cups (led by the incomparable playmaker named Socrates, but they could not restrain themselves and play it safe. Overwhelmed by their love of their game and their affinity for joga bonito, or allergic to the conservative style employed by the European powerhouses (like West Germany and Italy); they played with flair, audacity and because they could not help it, allowed a combination of chutzpah and zeal to expose their collective chins. My passion for the World Cup is hardly diminished, but I regret seeing teams play too-safe and sit on small leads, resulting in lackluster games on the biggest possible stage. It has only gotten worse in recent years, but it’s an undeniable recipe for success. As soon as Brazil reined in their aggressive and unbridled impulses they finally broke through, albeit it in joyless, aesthetically muted fashion. Their victories were, in many senses, objective fans’ loss: to finally win they had to play mostly sterile and boring soccer. As such I retain a fondness and appreciation for the ’82 and ’86 squads and care –and remember– very little about the ’02 team that won the prize.

The preceding paragraph might underscore why, in addition to loving the sheer entertainment spectacle The Fight provided, I appreciate and am humbled by the way Hearns and Hagler approached the biggest bout of their lives.

Am I supposed to do The Fight justice?

I will say, without too much irony, that in some ways I still feel slightly unworthy of what these two men gave us. I’m serious.

There is nothing in sports (is there anything in life?) that can match the three minutes of that first round. Not a second wasted, too many punches thrown to count, and a simple reality that transcends cliché: Hagler took Hearns’ best shot and stayed on his feet. There is much more involved, but it can really be boiled down to that simple fact. Hearns threw the same right hand that had devastated pretty much everyone upon whom it had ever landed flush; he threw that punch at least a few times and not only did Hagler absorb it, Hearns broke his hand on Hagler’s dome. At the same time, Hagler was inflicting unbelievable damage himself, and once Hearns’ fist, then feet, were shot, it was just a matter of time. It’s fair to suggest that Hearns made it through the next round and a half on instinct and courage alone. Hagler, for his part, used anger, resolve and willpower to, as he memorably put it, keep moving forward like Pac Man.

The second round allowed everyone, especially the viewers, to catch their breath. The gash that Hearns had opened up on Hagler’s forehead fortuitously ran down his nose, and not into his eyes (that could have changed the course of the fight), and when the ref sent Hagler to his corner (even though at this point Hagler had all the momentum) in the third round, it’s possible that this was what inspired—or scared—Hagler into deciding two things: The only person stopping this fight is me, and I need to stop it, now. There was simply no way he was going to let the fight get called on a dubious technicality, not after he had already taken the best Hearns could give him (and, it should be noted, for a man who was notoriously unlucky before and after this fight, it was almost miraculous that the blood didn’t gush into either of his eyes; that would have been an obvious game-changer, or worse, may have given the ref sufficient cause to end the bout). In that classic finish, an almost-out-on-his-feet Hearns jogs away from Hagler, turning to grin (as if to say “that didn’t hurt”) but Hagler is already upon him, literally leaping into the air to throw his right-handed coup de grâce. Down went Hearns, up went Hagler, and both men became immortal in that forever moment.

***

It was hard to begrudge Hagler, who’d never been a media darling and had been done wrong by several judges and promoters over the years. This fight was his vindication, and it was sweet (the sour taste in his mouth, that he still carries to this day, courtesy of the controversial ’87 fight with Leonard, remains an unfortunate footnote) while it lasted. I love Hagler for the guts, tenacity and resolve he displayed: he deserved to win. I admire Hearns for the respect he showed (to himself, the fans and the sport), willing to lose everything in an all-or-nothing strategy that would be unheard of, today. It was practically unheard of, then. More, he accepted the loss with grace and humor, and it remains moving to see the way he and Hagler embraced after it was over. The mutual respect the two men still have for one another is, understandably, unshaken.

What do we make of Hearns, who finished second in two of the best fights of the decade, both of which could easily be in the Top 10 (if not Top 5) of all time? In both instances, had he chosen to box instead of brawl he very likely could have won. He may still second-guess his strategy in the Leonard fight: if he’d been wise (or craven) enough to just dance away, he would have won handily on the scorecards. But he couldn’t; he just didn’t have it in him. I see this as neither cockiness nor recklessness; Hearns had a pride that was bigger than winning. I guarantee, despite his understandable regrets about being one of our most celebrated runners-up in sports history, he sleeps like a baby each night and is comfortable looking at himself in the mirror. He should be. In losing, especially the way he lost, Hearns is more inspiring than any number of athletes who own the hardware, claim the victory, and have done little if anything to make anyone emulate them. I’m not suggesting that a go-for-broke approach is advisable, in sports or life, and as The Gambler reminds us, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. On the other hand, when the light is shining brightest, or perhaps more importantly when no one else is looking, you have to be willing to put it on the line and achieve something you’ll be proud to remember.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 4/15/15.

Share

33 Thoughts about Villanova vs. Georgetown, 1985 (Revisited)

nova-226x300

March Madness, indeed.

The timing could not have been better: gearing up for another annual marathon to see which team emerges from the fray (and that’s just my personal bracket), ESPN debuted the newest installment of their excellent 30 for 30 series, Requiem for the Big East.

Now, I can’t be anything but excited about this for at least three reasons. When it comes to sports, I’m very American in my tastes, which is to say, I’m sentimental to a fault. Two, I grew up—and remain—an east coaster: Big East territory. Third, I watched so many of these classic games in real time, and by “real time” I mean the great old days when VCRs were still new-fangled, so if you wanted to watch a program, your choice was to arrange your schedule accordingly. As such, these games became events, which afforded them an extra air of importance.

Needless to say, as a historical document, Requiem for the Big East could not be more highly recommended. So much of this footage is not readily available, or else recorded and lost forever to the ill-fated Betamax tapes they were recorded on during the early-to-mid ‘80s. Yes, my family was one of the half-dozen who bought the hype that Beta was better than VHS. Let’s move on.

As a sociological document, this feature is exceedingly bittersweet. Obviously it recalls a, well, simpler time, and also illustrates with occasionally painful clarity how much less of a business all aspects of sports were only a few decades ago. The fact that The Big East, a conference that went from upstart to powerhouse in short order, became a shell of itself, is a statement that needs little elaboration or explication. As such, the footage is equal parts requiem and celebration. For those of us who lived through it, we can lament it, but we should also count ourselves lucky we were around to see history made before our unblinking eyes.

As it happens, a few years ago I caught (and recorded, it being the 21st Century and even VCRs are antiquated concepts compared to the miracles of TiVo) a complete repeat of the epic Georgetown/Villanova final from 1985. I had not seen, or even seen many highlights, of this game since it was played (on April Fool’s Day, naturally). Prompted equal parts by nostalgia and genuine fascination, I could not help but compile some thoughts. Here is one of the greatest college basketball finals (and certainly the biggest upset) seen through the eyes of a fan who may not be wiser, but is most definitely older.

vnova-223x300

1. I had sort of misremembered it being a fairly slow, sloppy game; not the case. It was quick(er) paced but controlled, all due to Villanova and their brilliant game plan. Rollie Massimino gets full props for outcoaching John Thompson. Thompson had his guys playing full-court from the get-go but Villanova was too savvy (their senior leadership was crucial) and beat it throughout. I kept thinking: a lesser team, any other team would just collapse under this relentless pressure.

2. Not only did Ed Pinckney (future Celtic) have a great game, he outplayed Ewing. (Let that sink in for a moment. Then consider their careers, before and after this final, and appreciate the full import of what this statement of fact signifies, on multiple levels. During the 30 for 30 footage, Ewing maintains that the best team did not win that night. He’s right, but he’s also one of the primary reasons this was the case.)

3. Ewing, as he sort of did vs. UNC and definitely did a few times in the NBA, came up smaller than expected (or hoped) in the biggest games (it hurts but it’s true). He should have dominated because of his size advantage but Pinckney somehow outhustled and outsmarted him throughout the game. There is a notable moment when Thompson briefly benches Ewing and can be seen exhorting him to get under the basket and get busy; it works, and Ewing comes out with some rafter-shaking dunks. But then he picks up 3 quick fouls, which changed the momentum (which I totally remember that from when I was a freshman in high school watching it…). Things worked out OK for Ewing, but if you had told me in 1984 that this would be his only championship on the college or pro level, I would not have believed it.

4. The players all look like they are wearing speedos.

5. It is astonishing how thin and, opposed to college athletes today, comparatively tiny they all are (with the notable exception of man-child Ewing). Obviously not a lot of weight lifting back then. Reggie Williams is a stick.

6. Reggie Williams had sick game. Smooth as silk but hard as nails (just as I remember), and he arguably had the most maturity/poise –and heart—on the team, as a sophomore; Wingate and Martin each had so-so games but Williams was tight on both ends–just as I remember.

7. Sad but true: Michael Jackson (fellow alum of South Lakes High School in Reston, VA, which should give you an idea who I was rooting for) did not have a very good game. He certainly ran the floor well, but a few bricks and bad passes did not help the cause; a better performance and he could have gone out a two-time champ (Sidenote: I recall still being in grade school when Jackson was the man at South Lakes: we went to those Friday night games and cheered for the team, and him. It was big news, huge news when he decided to go to Georgetown because back in those days we would not have been able to follow his college career nearly as closely had he gone out of state. Less than a decade later, Grant Hill would become a star at South Lakes before becoming one of the more successful and beloved college basketball players of his era.)

8. I hadn’t thought in quite a while about Thompson and his big white towel that he kept slung over his shoulder. Genius. (The 30 for 30 show replays the almost indescribable moment when Thompson came out, before a huge game against rival St. John’s, wearing a replica of Lou Carnesecca’s infamous sweater. This was gamesmanship and game-within-the-game material for all time, and it is celebrated accordingly.)

9. If Michael Graham hadn’t sabotaged his career (and the team’s dynasty, when, after blowing off his studies, Thompson proved why he was the man and kicked him off the team), Georgetown would have not only won in ’85, but ’86 as well. Remember him? That was a scary dude, and he rocked the shaved head way before it was remotely fashionable.

10. Villanova’s poise is astonishing. Yes, the ball kept dropping but as I watch, they were just taking high percentage shots and using their senior smarts to its full advantage.

Pinckney-vs.-Ewing

11. If there had a been a shot clock in ’85, 100% Georgetown wins.

12. If there had been a shot clock in ’82, for that matter, 100% Georgetown wins.

13. No tattoos.

14. It’s an alarming commentary on how annoying announcers are these days that Brent Musburger –whom I loathed in the ’80s– sounds remarkably restrained and reasonable to my ears today.

VN

15. As much hype as the Big East gets these days, it was the realest of deals from early to late ’80s –as local fans will recall. St. Johns was also in the final 4 this year (’85). Think about that.

16. The ’80s was, for sports, a decade that improves with time. As a (then) fanatic Celtics fan, enough said (and I’m not sure we’ll ever see the likes of those Celtics/Lakers series). As a college basketball fan, we had playoff-like games seemingly every week with these Big East rivalries (I still remember it was like Ali-Foreman redux, each time these teams clashed, not capable of being contained on campus; these games were played in The Carrier Dome, Madison Square Garden, Capital Centre. The glory days of the NFC East, and the real glory days of a great Redskins team (The hogs, the rings, etc.), and we still had the Patrick Division in the NHL (sigh). Oh, and the Yankees sucked.

17. Not saying this is a good thing, but ESPN (and modernity in general) changed everything: even in this final game, there were few in-game replays and much fewer TV time-outs/commercials/nonsense. Again, not saying the hi-def, 15 multiple angle replays is a bad thing, but there is something quaint and –yes authentic– about this.

18. Georgetown did not choke, Villanova deserved to win. They were undeniably fortunate (22 of 28 from the floor for a 78.6% shooting percentage; are you kidding me?) but they were not lucky.

19. Gary Mclean had the weirdest, most unorthodox shot ever.

20. Remember the days when players stayed all four years?

21. Michael Jackson and Billy Martin on the same team? And both of those (more) famous associations were still very popular circa 1985.

22. Exactly two weeks after this game the most exciting round of boxing ever took place in the most surreal title bout ever: Hagler/Hearns. I vaguely recall the Miracle on Ice; I remember every detail of that epic brawl, of which more another time.

23. Is it possible that Georgetown did not take Villanova seriously enough?

ewing-219x300

24. Having appreciated the 30 for 30 feature on Michigan’s Fab 5, I can attest and confirm that the Hoyas were the real deal: these were all dark-skin brothers and you know huge chunks of our country hated them and rooted against them on principle (I knew it, and saw it, then). The Fab 5 were more notorious for their sheer talent and trash talking (and, of course, lack of discipline which certainly cost them at least one title game), but if we are going to talk about influence and legendary us vs. them sociology, it was embodied by this era’s team. Everything John Thompson did worked, except when it didn’t.

25. Seriously: Ed Pinckney outplayed Ewing. That was the difference right there.

26. The number one album in the country the day this game was played: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins.

27. St. Elmo’s Fire was not released for another 6 months. (Rob Lowe just turned 50.)

28. You can never, ever underestimate how crucial it is to hit your free throws. (Villanova had two one-and-ones in the final two minutes to stay in the lead and hit all four shots. Huge.)

29. John Thompson looked utterly defeated with at least three minutes left. Who would have imagined that? Who could have guessed he would never get to another title game?

30. Billy Packer (the young/er Billy Packer who had not succumbed to the prissy arrogance and negativity that almost overwhelmed his final years) was all but openly rooting for Villanova in the final moments.

31. One of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen, at least in an athletic competition: During Georgetown’s last time-out, they show the bench and the school’s academic advisor (Mary Fenlon) is sitting at the end of the bench…she is a middle-aged white woman wearing a garish 19th Century-style dress…a middle-aged white woman ON THE BENCH with all these tall African Americans. Surreal.

32. Michael Jackson scored the final two baskets for Georgetown. Just saying.

33. This list has 33 items. Respect for #33.

*Bonus: The only NCAA final I’ve ever missed was the 1987 final. Why? I had tickets to see The Pretenders (at Capital Centre, of course). It was worth it. Iggy Pop was the opening act. Plus, I would have hated to see a Big East team lose at the buzzer. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business.

http://www.punchnels.com/first-person/33-thoughts-about-villanova-vs-georgetown-1985/

Share

Do You Believe in Miracles? (Revisited)

SI

On Feb. 22, 1980, in a stunning upset, the United States Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviets at Lake Placid, N.Y., 4-to-3. (The U.S. team went on to win the gold medal.) NYT story here.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the only cover in Sports Illustrated history that does not have a headline, or text of any sort. Naturally, it doesn’t need any. There were certainly magnificent (semi-miraculous?) upsets in sports before (The Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III) and after (Rulon Gardner beating the unbeatable Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Olympics), but the import of this victory has to be considered within the context of the times. Pre-Internet (pre-VCRs, really), pre-ESPN (pre-cable, really), in an era when you really did get news on the radio. As in, driving in the car with your parents, during a commercial.

Because in 1980 most Americans actually listened to the radio in the car (pre-Satellite, pre-CD changer, pre-cassette, really). 8-tracks were entering the last stage of their ascendancy, not even aware that they were already dead and subsisting on the last gasps of their magnetic fumes. And how many 8-tracks could one family own? How many could one family fit in a car? And so, by default, the radio still ruled. Some people may even have listened to that epic game on the radio, in their cars, in real time. That was just over three decades ago.

Arguably, being nine years old, I was the ideal demographic to be fully impacted by this event. Not old enough to appropriate (or be unduly influenced by) the political implications, but old enough to understand that in winter Olympics games, the U.S.S.R. (and Eastern Europe) still held sway. We could not appreciate, or care too much about the irony of the big, bad U.S.A. casting themselves as underdogs, in any capacity. Two unavoidable facts: it was just a sporting event, and pure and simple, the U.S.A. were underdogs. Did this unanticipated and inexplicable victory tilt the scales in the escalating cold war?

Arguably, if you measure political history by such standards as Rocky Balboa defeating Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, it makes all the sense in the world. More, if you are of the opinion (aided by propagandist historical revisions by certain, influential right-leaning folk) that the cold war was an even battle between two socially and economically equal parties, this cartoonish perception of Good vs. Evil is resonant, and revelatory. For younger, less politically impressionable viewers, this victory did, unironically; reinforce the genuine (if mythical) notion inherent in the American Dream: if you worked hard and played fair, anything was possible. It’s not merely the ability to believe this claptrap that underscores the naiveté we lament losing as we get older and wiser, it’s the ways in which real events, however fictionally applicable to real life, can occasionally inspire kids to believe in miracles.

Share