Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

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All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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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.

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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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The Antidote for Despair…

…is Love.

Story Here.

Key takeaway:

At the end of Friday’s nationally televised game, what generated the most attention was a long, soulful postgame embrace that McHale shared with Kevin Garnett, his signature draft pick as the general manager in Minnesota and the player he traded to Boston to help the Celtics win their first title since he played there.       

While McHale wept, Twiss, at courtside, couldn’t help recalling halcyon days, how McHale was the outgoing Celtic who took on the responsibility of lifting others with a boisterous and unyielding optimism.      

I’ve celebrated my love of old school Celtics here and Kevin McHale in particular here.

The video below immediately goes to the all-time highlight reel: a genuine, human moment between two class acts who wear their huge hearts on their sleeves. And they both will always bleed Celtic green.

Condolences to Kevin and his family for the loss of his daughter.

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Bird and Magic (Revisited)

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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Shipping Up To Boston

1984 was the last time it happened: Game 7 for all the marbles.

Back then I was deeply invested; now, not so much. To put it mildly, my passion for the N.B.A. has receded much like my hairline, and 26 years is a lot of receding. My inherited childhood love for the Celtics (and especially Larry Bird) is covered here. I own the deluxe Celtics DVD set and can –and do– still watch those seminal moments from my adolescent years with great enjoyment (and to this day Magic’s brilliant, unbearable “junior sky hook” in Game 4 still is metaphorical battery acid in my eyes).

If you remember the ’80s you can probably pick up what I’m putting down here (from the linked reminiscence, above):

Keep in mind, in the ’80s you were either a Lakers fan or you were a Celtics fan. There were other teams in the NBA, obviously, but for a long stretch of that great decade, it seemed like each season was an extended formality: we collectively bided our time until everyone else got out of the way and let the two teams go hammer and tong for the title.

Some things never change? Well, not really. No matter how much the media tries to hype it up, the Celtics/Lakers rivalry will never be what it was in the ’80s. It couldn’t be. The only thing comparable today is the Red Sox/Yankees, and even that has mellowed in the wake of Boston’s two world series titles this past decade.

So like I said, I’m not back on the bandwagon; I could mostly care less about the N.B.A. (although I feel it would be churlish of King James to leave Cleveland and hope for those long-suffering fans’ sakes, he does not make the mistake of his life and head for the 24/7 scrutiny that awaits him in the Big Apple. And, for the record, I think Kobe is a punk. As much as I loathed Kurt Rambis, you kind of reckon you could go have a beer with the dude; can anyone imagine Kobe having a beer with anyone? He seems like the kind of guy who can’t even have a drink with himself.)

So, in summary: do I care much about the N.B.A. these days? No. Have I been watching the finals? Yes. Do I want the Celtics to beat the Lakers? Duh.

And so: is it fortuitous synchronicity or fate that I will find myself in Boston, tonight? It has nothing to do with the Celtics. Back in the deep dark of this unending winter my boy Teddy Ballgame (Boston resident and Red Sox fanatic) admonished me to make plans to get up to Fenway in June, on June 18. Why that date? It was the night Manny Ramirez, the clown prince and prodigal son, returned to Fenway. “I’ve already got tickets,” Ted said. “Enough said,” said I. “I also have tickets for Thursday night’s game, why not just make it a double feature?”

And so it is a man returning from L.A. that will put me in Boston while the team I used to worship battles for the title, in L.A. Who cares about the whys and wherefores: I’ll be there and there is nowhere I’d rather be tonight or tomorrow night.

A quick take on Manny being Manny. The best way I can articulate what fans were fortunate enough to experience during the recent Red Sox renaissance (that he and Pedro were largely responsible for) is: Manny being Manny.

No Manny, no World Series. In ’04 or ’07. There is so much to say about this (mostly) ebullient goofball who happened to be one of the best hitters in baseball history –and I’ll look forward to saying them at some point. For now, I’ll just reiterate that despite the occasional malingering and inscrutable self-defeating silliness, he was truly a joy to watch and I genuinely relished every single at-bat. Just watching the man in the box was something to savor; not many players you can say that about. And then, there was the type of drama he was capable of producing on the field. The type of drama that mattered.

My old man asked me if I thought Manny would get cheered or jeered in his first plate appearance Friday night. I told him I predict he’ll get a long, loud standing ovation. For all the fans (uber-hardcore or pink-hatted fair-weather) who –for whatever reason– think that the way he left town or the well-documented nonsense he initiated outweighs the considerable blessings he brought to Beantown, then sit on your hands and stew in your own bile. I know I will be on my feet and saluting the dude who brought as much delight to me as any other athlete did since I was a teenage diehard who bled Celtic green.

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Hot Fun in the Summertime, circa 1984

The clothesline heard ’round the world 

 

Twenty-five years ago. Long enough to officially make it a classic. But, of course, it was a classic even as it was being played. Sports writers and fans can be forgiven, in this one instance, to invoke words like “war” to describe the NBA finals that year, a seven game masterpiece ultimately won by the Celtics, in the old Boston Garden.

Bob Ryan,the estimable dean of Beantown sports scribes, deserves kudos for his invocation of the series in today’s Boston Globe. He focuses on the (truly) pivotal Game 5, played in the infamously un-air conditioned Garden in the midst of an unseasonably scorching East coast heat wave. To a fourteen year old Irish Catholic altar boy (who worshipped at the altar of Larry Bird), it was as though God was proving that He was a Celtics fan and was providing some Old Testament fire and brimstone to test the mettle of the two teams; epitomized by Larry Bird’s blue collar grit and Magic Johnson’s L.A. cool: forget about facile Hollywood facsimiles of ancient Gladiator combat; this is as close as we could legally get to emulating that barbaric crucible of competition. (Did I mention that I was fourteen?)

Each team had already made statements; the momentum had swung at least three times. It was now a best of three, and as is invariably the case in a series like this, the outcome would likely be swung to the favor of whoever could secure a game five victory. Who was going to step up? Keep in mind, in the ’80s you were either a Lakers fan or you were a Celtics fan. There were other teams in the NBA, obviously, but for a long stretch of that great decade, it seemed like each season was an extended formality: we collectively bided our time until everyone else got out of the way and let the two teams go hammer and tong for the title. A couple of months ago, I recounted what this rivalry was like for a fan in the prime of his formative sports-loving life here.

I’ll happily step out of the way and let Ryan remember it best; he was there, after all:

Referee Hugh Evans had to leave at halftime, a victim of dehydration. Robert Parish sat out a stretch of the second half with leg cramps. But there was one player who applied mind over matter better than everyone else, one player who not only overcame the circumstances to play a good game of basketball, but who so took to the conditions that he played one of the great games of his life.

As my mother used to say, I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.

“I play in this stuff all the time back home, ” sneered Larry Bird. “It’s like this all summer.”

“I’ve never seen (Bird) as intense as he was tonight,” said Kevin McHale. “Never.”

The other great force that night was the crowd, which turned what could have been a negative into a complete positive by celebrating the absurd conditions. Rather than bemoaning the heat, those savvy people celebrated it, realizing that the Lakers were feeling sorry for themselves because they were used to the creature comforts of the palatial Forum.

Here was the message: Watching a game in an old, cramped, steamy building and sitting on those hard seats, why, that’s what we do here in New England. We don’t need your cushioned seats and we don’t need no stinkin’ air conditioning. We leave that stuff to you West Coast wusses. And, by the way, your team is soft.

What he said.

Give up it up for the Garden, and old school:

Best series ever.

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Bird and Magic

 

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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