Congrats, and Cheerio, to the Ultimate Class Act

If you have not seen the clip of Mariano Rivera’s last game in the Bronx yet, you need to. Check out the extended video, HERE.

You know it’s real when you can stop and appreciate the man who has tormented your team for two decades, and lament that he’s leaving the game. Baseball is a lesser sport without #42. RESPECT!

Speaking of respect, the Red Sox did a pretty impressive job with their tribute to the best reliever to ever play the game. (And if there was any doubt about how the great man received his tribute, check THIS.)

In other news, Todd Helton had a pretty special night for his last game as a Colorado Rockie. Extra props for being a lifer: same team his whole career. He’ll never buy a beer in that state, nor should he. Good stuff HERE.

Not for nothing, but both of these guys look like they could keep playing for another five years. The ultimate sign of respect is that fans of opposing teams are glad they won’t be.

 

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Thoughts on the Olympics, Improvisation and Jay Adams (Revisited)

The Olympics, particularly the two most popular sports from each season—the gymnastics and figure skating—sells itself, accurately, as an embodiment of competition and tension, complete with a touch of voyeurism. More, these spectacles have proven to be immune to generation or fad, as they synthesize several of America’s favorite obsessions: rivalry (friendly or not), physical prowess and especially the zero-sum proposition of win/lose. And then the added bonus that makes these events irresistible, there is the enduring possibility of abject humiliation on the largest conceivable stage.

It’s a curious ode to evolution if you think about it. What likely began as gladiatorial combat—and as stakes go, they don’t get any higher than that—gradually became uncomplicated challenges to see who could throw the farthest, run the fastest, hit the hardest. Eventually the endeavors became more complex and stylized to the point where we now have synchronized routines measured on an Aristotlean ideal that can never be attained, at least in any pure sense. We are, after all, talking about human beings engaged in activities judged by other humans. And yet that element of subjectivity is a subtle reminder of our fallibility. All the world’s a stage, let the best one win and allow us to measure the glory and the disgrace. This is what compels us to watch.

What viewer, however indifferent, is incapable of imagining the dedication and sacrifice inherent in these exhibitions? The interminable hours of practice, the inconceivable monotony of repeating the same motions days after day for months that offhandedly slip into years, sacrificing leisure and even identity for a single-minded compulsion. What is staggering about the commitment any of these sports require is that the time is not devoted merely to the pursuit of excellence; it is about being the absolute best, in the world, at something that many other people do at an impossibly high level. Consider what it must feel like to become at once smaller and larger, as a person, perfecting oneself in one specific way, while everything else in the world changes. It gets hot, and then cold, friends get fat, flunk tests, have sex, make babies, go on adventures, get married or divorced, get practiced at being imperfect and learn to speak the language of life. And you are like a monk, shrouded in the frantic sameness of actualization, repeating the same urgent prayers forever and ever until eternity…or victory.

Look at McKayla Maroney’s execution. And then consider the inexplicable fall in her individual competition. Heaven and Hell, respectively, as only the Olympics can deliver:

Then consider the art of improvisation. It is at once the epitome of skills developed through practice, and the apotheosis of the very freedom –of form, of content—that a well-rehearsed routine obviates. Put in a less pointy-headed way, a live jazz performance is exhilarating in ways that are both similar to and opposite of Olympic competition.

Old school:

New(er) school. Check out drummer Joey Baron: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the joy and blissful abandon of improvisation so delightfully rendered.

We want to be astonished, and surprised: jazz invariably delivers. In order to play the music in the first place, sufficient mastery of the various instruments is obligatory. The practice, the woodshedding, is not dissimilar to the hours alone in a gym or a pool. In Olympic action we hope to see perfection; with jazz improvisation we want something beyond even that. We want possibility, we want to feel the kind of connections that speech and prayer and sentiment—however sincerely conveyed—cannot quite capture.

Perhaps the combination of ceaseless practice, the simple (and profound) dedication to craft, the single-minded obsession with unity of sound, is nowhere better represented than in the man who played the saxophone better than anyone has ever done anything, John Coltrane. From a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, I commented on the ways in which, even after Coltrane composed what were universally considered masterworks, he kept pushing himself. His drive was so relentless it became difficult, literally, for his audience to keep up with him:

After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

And this leads me to…Jay Adams.

If you don’t know who that is, you have not seen what I consider one of the best documentaries of the last decade, Dog Town and Z-Boys.

There is an incredible sequence that would be instructive enough, if only related by the many eyewitnesses. Instead, and more than slightly miraculously—considering the time and circumstances (1975, a skateboarding competition)—it was recorded and we can actually watch it. We can see what happened as the participants reminisce about what went down that day.

It’s worth watching the entire clip (not to mention the entire movie, more of which another time—and coming soon). If you don’t want to wait, skip directly to the 45 minute mark:

To me, this remarkable moment captures, in sport and culture, a paradigm shift that echoes similar seismic changes instigated by some of our best musicians and athletes over time. But what really resonates—and I’m fairly certain this impression was facilitated by watching the Olympics these past two weeks—is that it’s difficult to imagine an event that more perfectly synthesizes the aspects of practice and improvisation: Jay Adams’s epic skate routine heard ‘round the world (or at least the underground, which is always where the magic begins) is sui generis. It’s a moment he owns, and it’s a moment that defines the skater and the sport. The sport he helped reinvent was never the same after he had his way with it. Throughout the documentary the guerilla ethos of DIY and punk rock is evoked, and there is good reason to invoke these things. On the other hand, perhaps Jay Adams was more of a jazzman than anyone ever realized.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Four: Four Kings (Revisited)

Let’s finish this four part post off by letting Kimball, and the Kings, do the talking.

Duran was fifteen and walking his girlfriend home from a dance when they encountered half a dozen rowdy drunks who attempted to accost the young lady. In a few frenzied moments, Roberto knocked out five of the assailants. The sixth knifed him with a grazing blow to the back just before the police arrived (p. 17)

In the aftermath of a ludicrous decision that had gone against him in Annapolis, heavyweight Scott LeDoux interrupted Cosell’s post-fight interview with winner Johnny Boudreaux by aiming a karate kick at Boudreaux. He missed, and instead kicked Cosell’s toupee off. Howard tried to quickly replace it and conducted the subsequent interview with his hairpiece on backwards. (p. 34)

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight. Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him. One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message…that did not require an interpreter. “Once his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard. “Duran was just weird.” (p. 74)

Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity—an unexpected arrhythmia—and the fight might be in jeopardy. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.” (p. 75)

On the infamous “No mas” moment: My view was that Duran at the time actually believed himself to be committing the ultimate macho act (Kimball). Emanuel Steward (the ref) concurs: “Duran was completely frustrated…it was like he was saying ‘If you don’t want to fight, then fuck you. I’m not going to stand here jumping all around after you.’ In Duran’s mind I think he expected that the crowd would condemn Leonard for having made a mockery of the fight, rather than him for quitting.” (p. 116)

I’ve covered nearly four-hundred world title bouts since, but with all its fascinating nuances, Hearns-Leonard I remains the best fight I was ever privileged to watch. (Kimball) (p. 143)

But he (Hearns) paid dearly for the win (against Wilfred Benitez): In the eighth round he had rocked Benitez with a right hand. The punch landed with such force that it shattered several small bones in his wrist and popped them through the linear muscles at the back of his hand. Tommy fought the last seven rounds using only his left, but still won easily on two of the three scorecards. (p. 154)

I kept asking myself, “These kids are about to graduate from Harvard. What am I going to tell them? “You’re blessed, and I’m blessed,” Leonard told the students that day. “We’ve each been given God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beating people up.” (p. 155)

“You have to understand Thomas (Hearns),” Dr. Lewerenz (Hearns’ physician) told Sports Illustrated…”His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.” (p. 171)

A few days before the fight there was a chance meeting between the combatants and their entourages at a bank of elevators at Caesars. “I kill you! I kill you!” growled Duran as he brandished a fist. “No mas! No mas!” replied a laughing Hearns in Motown-accented Spanish. (p. 177)

On the best round of boxing, arguably, in history:

*Before the fighters were introduced…Billy Hearns was taunting Hagler from across the ring. Seemingly oblivious, Hagler continued to shadow-box. “I saw him,” Hagler recalled later. “I was thinking right then, ‘All you’re gonna do is get your brother’s ass kicked!”

*Early in the first round, Hearns rocked Hagler with a right uppercut that momentarily appeared to have stunned the champion, but Marvin kept charging forward. “I wanted him to know who was the boss from the opening bell,” Hagler said. “I knew I could take everything he had.”

*Because he was the one who was bleeding, Hagler’s corner was the focus of attention, but across the ring there was also cause for concern. “When Tommy came back to the corner after the first round he told me ‘My hand’s broke,” recalled Steward. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is it sore?’ ‘No,” said Hearns. ‘It’s broke.’ It was, said Steward, but “the idea of quitting never entered my mind. That just wasn’t who Thomas Hearns was.”

*(In the third round) Hagler and Hearns went right back at it. “I’ve been refereeing for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much intensity in a fight,” Steele would say afterward.

*Rudimentary computerized statistics of the day revealed that Hagler and Hearns had unleashed a combined 339 punches in just eight minutes of boxing, and that each had landed well over half the punches he threw. Hagler connected on 96 of 173, Hearns 94 of 166.

*”Emanuel Steward would say years later that Hearns fought the last five minutes of the eight-minute dance on raw courage alone. “After the first round,” said Steward, “his hand was broke and his legs were gone. But that night, Tommy told me not to mention anything about the hand. He said he didn’t want to take anything away from Hagler’s victory. That’s the kind of guy Tommy was.”

Hagler: “I want to give Tommy all the credit in the world…He came out the only way he could if he wanted to take something away from a champion.

Hearns: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off.”

Citro: “It was a roll of the dice. They both had to gamble. Hagler gambled and won, Hearns gambled and lost. I think he just punched himself out.”

*The trash talking of the past few months was quickly forgotten as the two adversaries embraced. “You’ve got a lot of class coming in here like this,” Hagler told him before promising, “If I had lost, I’d have done the same thing.” The two gladiators hugged again.

An amusing anecdote about the shameless and insufferable Don King: “You know,” King continued, “I had a little talk with Mugabi after the fight, and he says he wants to go with me (as promoter), but of course I told him you and me were in this together.” “I let him get it all out,” said Duff. “And then I said, ‘Don, if that conversation took place you must be fluent in Swahili, because the lad doesn’t speak a word of English.” (p. 206)

More on the kind of guy Hearns is: After Richie Sandoval was killed in the ring, Thomas not only flew to Philadelphia for the funeral, but also returned the NABF belt he had won from Shuler (who beat Sandoval to death in the ring) so that his fallen foe could be buried with it. (p. 209)

What was unquestionably the highlight of the (Hagler/Leonard) undercard came during the first televised bout, between Lupe Aquino and Davey Moore. At the beginning of the second, a round-card girl…was negotiating her way into the ring between the ropes when she leaned too far forward and one of her breasts flopped out of her top. The unintended nudity was greeted by considerably more applause than either Aquino or Moore had received. (When she climbed through the ropes a round later and her boobs didn’t fall out, she was booed by the crowd.) (p. 233)

After the Leonard/Hearns rematch: Leonard and Hearns were mutually gracious when they jointly met with the press the following morning. “Tommy came into this fight seeking redemption,” said Leonard, “and he got that.” Hearns: “When I woke up this morning my mind was clear. I was lying there in bed thinking, ‘Hmm. I wonder who Ray is thinking about this morning?’ I still love this man, added Tommy. (p. 267)

After the Leonard/Duran “Uno Mas” fight: The whole fanciful notion of a protracted Seniors Tour involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran seemed to have evaporated amid the chorus of boos that serenaded Leonard’s exit at the Mirage after what would be the last win of his career. The era of the Four Kings had ended, not with a bang but a whimper. (p. 282)

However much Duran got out of Las Vegas with, it seemed a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t going to last long. “Duran will keep fighting,” predicted Arum. “Duran wants more money, because Duran likes to spend money.” (p. 282)

The conclusion of the rivalry among the Four Kings precipitated an almost immediate decline in the sport. There have been “big” fights since, but none has recaptured the magical aura created by their internecine battles. (p. 294)

Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings. The bond of mutual respect, and even genuine affection, between men who have experience this unique form of combat can be bewildering to those outside the fraternity. So it is with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran, who not only shared a glorious decade on the world stage together, but made one another rich. It’s hard to carry a grudge under such circumstances. “We still run into each other now and then,” said Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I see Hagler it’s civil, like ‘How you doing?’ but that’s all. Marvin now is like Marvin then. He was always old-school. He never had an entourage; he carried his own bags. He’s like that today…Tommy Hearns was at my wedding…he’s always smiling and joking…but somewhere in the back of his mind I know he’s still hoping I’ll come back and fight him for a third time, even after all these years. And when Duran and I are together we can even joke around a bit.” The subject of No Mas has never come up between them, and, says Leonard, it never will. (p.299)

Best for last: (Leonard was having breakfast in Mexico City for a WBC convention and Duran walked in). “Hey Roberto,” Leonard beckoned with a smile, “come over here. Come over here and sit down, godamn it!” As the two old rivals sat across the table from one another, Leonard said, “I need to know something. We’re older, we’ve got kids and grandchildren, so you can tell me now. Did you really hate me as much as you seemed to hate me back then?” “Ray, Ray, no no no no!” said Duran, looking offended. “I was only acting.” “Acting?” Leonard laughed. “Well, you must have been a damned good actor, then, because you sure convinced me!”

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Three: The Fight (Revisited)

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 27 years since then and seen lots of other great sports moments and the time has only confirmed 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 witnessed, nothing can possibly top The Fight.

(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 hubris 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 seneses, 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 to 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. As was covered in the previous post(s), it’s fair to say 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 going for broke. There was simply no way he was going to let the fight get stopped, not after he had already taken the best Hearns could give him. 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 grace. Down went Hearns, up went Hagler, and both men became immortal in that forever moment.

It was hard to begrudge Hagler, who had 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, is 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 easily won on the scorecards. But he couldn’t; he just didn’t have it in him. I see this as neither hubris 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 proud to look 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.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Two: Getting Acquainted with the Late George Kimball (Revisited)

Every so often there is a confluence of events that, if you’re lucky or perceptive enough, leads to a revelation. Other times there are just the happy accidents that function like electrical storms, intense and unforeseen. Back in December I saw a story on Deadspin, a site I do not frequent, about a man called George Kimball. If I had not checked that site, it’s possible I never would have seen the piece, (an excellent piece of journalism by Alex Belth, entitled “The Two-Fisted, One-Eyed Misadventures of Sportswriting’s Last Badass.” It’s highly recommended and can be read here.)

Kimball passed away (another casualty of cancer) last December. Google him and you’ll quickly see that everyone adored this dude. So much that it makes you think: “How could I not have been familiar with him, and what the hell is wrong with me?” That moment passes and is outweighed by the gratitude you feel for finding him, finally. Here’s a representative sample from fellow Boston scribe Bob Ryan, who knows a thing or two about Beantown, sports and writing:

But the reason why so many of us will miss George Kimball is, shall we say, his off-the-field self. If one were to conduct a poll of local writers, broadcasters, team officials and even players who have worked in Boston during the last 35 years or so, the question being, “Who is the most absolutely memorable personality you have encountered in the writing business?” the runaway winner — perhaps even the unanimous choice — would have to be George Kimball.

That is, unless you know of some other bearded, one-eyed, chain-smoking, beer drinking, pot-bellied (I say this lovingly) vegetarian writer friend of Hunter S. Thompson who never saw a party he didn’t like. (more here.)

The more you read about him the more you ask yourself: How in the fuck was this guy not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week? And then you remember, it’s ESPN, and the reasons are self-evident. (In case you think I’m being too oblique let me put it this way: the reason a man like Kimball was not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week is the same reason a man like Mike Lupica is on every week.)

I was, obviously, sad to think that we were robbed of another few decades, or even days, of this man’s writing, but the pain was significantly mitigated when I discovered he had written an in-depth study of an era many consider the pinnacle of the sweet science: the ’80s and the ceaseless rivalry that existed between Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, a rivalry that produced some of the best fights in boxing history. That book is called Four Kings.

I have read the book, and not since I enjoyed the fascinating story of Percy Fawcett’s life (in the enthusiastically recommended instant-classic, The Lost City of Z: read my review here) as well as the indescribably awesome Hellraisers (the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers, the full title of which is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. My giddy celebration of that tome can be found here) have I known, while reading, that I not only would write about the book, but quote extensively from it. An entire post, coming soon, will be dedicated to some of the funniest, most enlightening and unbelievable sentences I encountered. And that should only be a taste, a teaser of the goodies that await you when you get hold of it and see for yourself why this guy (Kimball) and these guys (the boxers) are so universally beloved.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part One (Revisited)

It probably says something about evolution that the 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 transition.

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 that 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 one 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, savoring every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2012, 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 Tiger Woods 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.

To be continued…

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GMU Basketball: Looking to the future; borne ceaselessly into the past

Interesting week for GMU basketball, to say the least.

It has been the very definition of bittersweet to see Coach Jim Larranaga, who should have buildings named after him (since he helped them get built), waltz back into the Sweet Sixteen. (Nice story, HERE.)

Of course, he is with Miami now, after basically being told not to let the door hit him in the ass over a matter of pocket change. For this alone, AD Thomas O’Connor should always live in infamy.

(To see what we lost, and are missing, check out this piece and accompanying clip: OUCH.)

At the same time, GMU has ostensibly stepped into the big/ger leagues, joining the A-10 (yet another school to ditch the CAA). This is potentially huge news for the university, giving them the opportunity to reach a big/ger televised audience, attract more and better recruits, and get their paws on the ever-increasing bag of dough college sports has become. It was an inevitable development.

At the same time, it begs the question: isn’t it a shame to move on to bigger and better and not have the same man who made much (all?) of it possible leading the way?

I know enough (about sports, about history, and possibly about life) to understand that things happen for reasons, even bad things (and bad reasons). So I’m mostly content to accept that things happened the way they needed to, and I certainly have no reservations cheering for Coach L. and his second run toward March glory. I’ll simply reserve the right to note that it’s his first time on the courts in D.C. since that magic carpet ride that occurred seven years ago, this month.

I wrote about it, twice: the ruminations are combined in a post entitled “Yo Butler. I’m really happy for you. I’ma let you finish…” and it’s reposted, below.

Yo Butler. I’m really happy for you. I’ma let you finish…

But George Mason had one of the best Cinderella stories of all time. OF ALL TIME!

On March 29, 2006 here is what I wrote:

Wow.
Talk about clichés.
Okay, let’s talk about clichés.
When it is impossible to avoid cliché (because usually you want to do anything you can to avoid cliché, unless you don’t know better, in which case you may be a cliché without ever knowing it and ignorance, of course, is bliss), you are usually in that rare territory that transcends cliché, a place that obviates cliché, you are experiencing something bordering on sublime, the type of feeling that compels forced and fake imitation. In other words, cliché.
So how to talk about GMU’s improbable (impossible? inconceivable?) run to the final four. Can there be occasions that are so cliché that they get beyond cliché, exploding cliché, requiring a reevaluation of how clichés are classified and what they are capable of inspiring?
Enough.
Let’s put it another way: the GMU Patriots are in the fucking FINAL FOUR!If you watch college basketball, you love this story; if you watch sports you love this story. If you don’t love sports, that’s okay, you can get behind the underdog. If you don’t love underdogs then you are a Republican…But seriously, this is too serious to make light of, and it truly transcends politics. And sports. And what can (and should) usually be shrugged off as the sophomoric rituals of collegiate competition. This is the real deal. Even if you are not an alumnus the bandwagon is big enough: hop on and enjoy this ride.

Nice shirts, huh? That is entirely the inspired result of Nathan Naylor (the hirsute man in the middle) and his typical genius. See, even before Mason went to the Final Four, they had already done the unthinkable. They won a game. Against Michigan State. And then they won another game. Against UNC. The, um, defending champions. Not to put too fine a point on it or anything, but…they beat the defending NCAA champions. So this was already one of the great, improbable stories in college sports (in all sports?) history. Let’s put this in better perspective: GMU just advancing to the Sweet Sixteen would certainly be one of the all-time great tournament stories. But putting the madness in March, they beat two of the powerhouses of college hoops to get there. So Naylor (the man I first met on the quad at GMU at a public screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1988) had his stroke of genius and quickly got the t-shirts made.

Now, if only we could get to one of these games, since (the story only gets more improbable, even on personal levels) the next part of the tournament just happened to be taking place…in Washington D.C. That is where the other visionary in that picture, Shieldsy (Mike Shields) did his part of the heavy lifting to get things to the next level. Long story short: it just happened that he worked for someone based in Washington state, and of course Washington was in the tournament so there were a couple of available tickets…(like I said, the story remains improbable enough without the personal elements, but at the time it really was like the proverbial planets were all aligning and we almost had to question if some of these coincidences were actually happening). Like running into Lamar Butler’s father in the concourse after Mason dispatched Wichita State.

Or running into Lamar Butler after Mason dispatched with U-Conn.

Of course, that didn’t really happen.

My friends and I still have this discussion all the time. It usually follows one of two identical scripts.

Version one: Usually involving any random, unlikely act. As in “That would be crazy; like Mason beating U-Conn or something…”

Version two: Nostalgia tempered with lingering disbelief. “Can we stop for a minute and remember that Mason actually beat U-Conn?” “No they didn’t.” “Ooops, right. My bad. I actually lost control for a second there and deluded myself that Mason beat the best team in the nation that year, on national TV, in one of the most exciting games in tournament history.” And then, for good measure, we’ll turn to the videotape. Yes, it really happened.

Where were you that day? I know where I was. Courtside. About five rows up. We could see the disbelief in the color commentators’ eyes. We could see the panic rising in the face of Billy Packer, that cranky curmudgeon who had infamously whined that a mid-major like GMU had no business being in the tournament. And then doubled down, like a sulking brat, as Mason continued on their improbable run. “Well Billy, I guess it’s safe to say Mason should have been given a bid, huh?” “No, I still don’t think they deserved to be picked.” To say that Mason’s run was considerably sweetened as a tonic to Packer’s killjoy assholery is an understatement along the lines of…well, that Mason’s run was one of the great Cinderella sports stories of all time.

Anyway, we don’t need a play by play. You were there. You saw it.

But do yourself a favor, if you haven’t rewatched in a while, and check out that YouTube clip above. I mean, winning that game was one thing. Winning it in overtime another. The way it went into overtime was another. The way it ended, in overtime, is another still. That whole game is the definition of another thing. The one memory that stands out most of all was the moment right before tip-off. The two teams sauntered out to center court and it hit me like a sobering splash of stagnant water: every single U-Conn player is a full head (or more) taller than every single Mason player. I mean every single player: their center was taller; their forwards were taller; their guards were taller. A lot taller. And realizing that every single starter on U-Conn was a legit NBA draft pick waiting to happen. That is when I turned to Shieldsy and said “Man, we are on national TV. I just hope it’s not truly ugly. It would be a shame to get this far and get run out of the building.”

Of course, even if they had been, it was totally understandable (mid-major teams don’t often fare well against NBA squads), and we had already done more than enough. We kept saying, at the time: this is going to be so great for the university. Not just the basketball program (though each second Mason stayed alive in the tournament was priceless exposure and hype for Coach Jim Larranaga to utilize), but the entire school. Nothing would ever be the same again, and everyone knew it.

Too bad it never happened. There is no way that happened.

Except it did happen.

I was there. And so were you.

I saw it.

And so did you.

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Do You Believe in Miracles? (Revisited)

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.

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A Combination of Santa Claus, Superman and Peter Pan (Revisited)

So, it was slightly more than three years ago (ensconced in phase 2 of “Snowpocalpyse 2010”) that I wrote the mash note, below.

Two things: I totally stand by what I said, for two reasons. One, I meant it. Two, it was true.

Perhaps it’s more painful to acknowledge something that was once true than to admit it was never true in the first place.

Fact: The Caps were the most exciting and promising team, circa 2008-2010.

In hindsight that is becoming increasingly ironclad, and as impossible as it would have been to consider at the time, their window for dominance –and possibly a dynasty– not only has narrowed, it may have already slammed shut. In hindsight, their best chance to hoist the cup may well have been in 2009, when they lost a semi-epic series to the Pens. A series they could, and should have won. A series won by the rival that has punished them with such impunity these last two decades. A series won by a team that, naturally, went on to win the whole thing a month later. That could have been the Caps. That should have been the Caps. And it would have been a modern day Bad News Bears of sorts, what with their unkempt, old school coach who taught so many of them in juniors. The coach they eventually ran out of town because of consistently lackluster play, making idiots (like me) feel maybe Bruce Boudreau had done all he could do. The team needed new energy, someone to hold them accountable. Like so many other teams in so many other sports. And there is a possibility this was a correct assessment: after all, there is one thing that invariably links winning teams, and that is exceptional coaching. These days, it is so difficult to match the needs of pampered, soft super-stars with coaches capable of balancing accountability and encouragement. Boudreau, ultimately (and perhaps through no fault of his own) was not that guy. Hunter could have been that guy. Oates does not seem to be that guy. What is abundantly clear is that this team needs a coach who cares less about feelings and more about effort.

Yesterday’s game against (guess who) is a case in point familiar to every long-suffering Caps fan. They put forth a respectable effort in the third period, bringing much needed intensity and virtually every player moving his skates, finishing his checks and moving around as if something was at stake. It was too late, because they had pissed away the first two periods with their now typical lapses (in both zones), soft goaltending and general lethargy. It is inexcusable for a team with this much talent to be this lifeless to start out a season. If it was a regular, 82 game season there is a possibility that idiots (like me) might say: well……it’s a long season, it’s a new system and new coach, and a team with this much talent has to level off at some point. I’m not seeing it. I don’t suspect they will suck this badly for the next few months, but if they put themselves far enough out of contention that an already under-achieving team has no reason to show up each night, many more embarrassing games are on the horizon. That is intolerable. And while there is tons of blame to go around, it must begin and end with the man who wears the “C”. (Speaking of hindsight, this was a move that I endorsed, at the time if for no other reason, as I detail below, he was the captain by deeds more than words. He led by example, so it seemed a genuine no-brainer to give him the reins. In hindsight, it might have been too much pressure, and a different guy, like Brooks Laich, may have been better suited to suit up with the “C”.)

Bottom line: the man who saved this franchise is now the face of a team that has not come especially close to winning the cup, and now seems more of a long shot than they did in 2008. How is this possible?

For whatever reason(s) our effulgent, enigmatic wunderkind is, these days, more mystery than revelation.

This happens often, but it must hurt more because he’s our problem. (If you had told me three years ago I’d ever use the word “problem” and “Ovechkin” in the same sentence, I would have laughed at you.)

I’m not laughing now.

Let’s hope this does not become a franchise, once again, that other teams laugh at.

To be continued…

When I was growing up, Larry Bird was by far my favorite athlete. His capacity for heroics, it often seemed, was limitless. I’ve celebrated that love affair here and here.

When I became a man I put away childish things. But as any adult knows, sports are anything but childish.

Over the years, I’ve admired and adored a great many athletes, including Olaf Kolzig, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and (semi) hometown hero Cal Ripken Jr. But there has not been a single athlete, since Bird, who has so regularly made me giddy, proud and more than occasionally ecstatic.

Which brings me to Alexander Ovechkin, the man who is quite possibly the best leader on any sports team right now. In fact, he’s quickly making a case for being the best athlete in any sport (and I say that knowing the world is currently graced by geniuses named Kobe, Lebron, Peyton and Pujols). I have never seen a player carry a team so consistently, so willingly, so happily.

Above everything else, I cherish Alexander Ovechkin for the way he is able to make me feel like a little kid almost every time I watch him. And like all the truly elite players of any era, he elevates his game and rises to the occasion when the stakes ae highest and the lights brightest.

D.C. is slowly and steadily beginning to realize (the hockey fans –all ten of us– knew right away) that he is a once-in-a-lifetime type franchise player that you can, and should, build a dynasty around. Surpassing Caps fans’ highest expectations, Leonsis, McPhee and Co. have done exactly that. Like Bird, Ovie has taken a joke of a team and turned it around almost single handedly. That, along with the depth of an excellent farm system, has stocked this team with young, hungry and extremely capable players. To this point Ovie has done everything: Rookie of the Year, MVP, scoring leader. Everything except hoisting the Stanley Cup (that may well have happened last year had it not been for eternal Achilles Heel the Pittsburgh Penguins). Is this going to be the year? Maybe. Not for nothing are the Capitals the team with the most points in the NHL, an achievement this organization has never experienced this late in a season. They are, in my estimation, one surly and veteran defenseman away from being the team to beat this spring (trade deadline acquisition?), but whether they do it this year or not, it is all but a certainty that they will be contenders for the foreseeable future. Imagine that! Any fan of any team, in almost any city, knows not to take this for granted. After the empty and sobering stretch of futility our teams have suffered since the Redskins last got a ring (January 1992!), many local sports fans know enough to celebrate this good fortune.

All of that would almost be academic if Ovechkin was not so exhilarating to watch. He doesn’t just win (!), he does so in dramatic and often inimitable fashion. Just look at what he did today, against arch-nemesis Pittsburgh, to keep the winning streak alive (!!). This is not a man we are watching anymore; he has become a combination of Santa Claus, Superman and Peter Pan. I’m a grown man and have learned not to hope for the impossible or pray for divine intervention. Fortunately, the player who may end up being the best athlete ever keeps giving us all things we don’t even think to ask for.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part One (Revisited)

It probably says something about evolution that the 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 transition.

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 that 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 one 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, savoring every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2012, 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 Tiger Woods 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.

To be continued…

You can –and should– search for parts 2-4 of this series: same title; just add “part two”, “part three” and “part four”. And enjoy…

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