Larry Bird: The Legend at 60

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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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The Bittersweet Science, Part One

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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The Money Dread, Redux

Huge props to Slate’s Stephen Metcalf for nailing the empty enigma that is Tom Cruise as well as the enigmatic emptiness of the ’80s, all in one piece, here.

It doesn’t get much better than this:

As a full co-production of Reaganism, Cruise helped synthesize a new personality type: neat, clean, personable, and lacking in either adult probity or the stray edge, for fear of pricking the surface of a giant bubble. But to live within “what the fuck” is to die within “what the fuck.” Jerry Maguire is Maverick’s idea of an adult, just as von Stauffenberg is Jerry Maguire’s idea of a serious acting role. Of course audiences are tempted to laugh. The Cruise persona, like a junk bond, was never meant to reach maturity.

Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.

            But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.

Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business, and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.

But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.

Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.*

*from The Money Dread link

 

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