Monday, February 27, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: 1,200 Thank-You's (and Counting)

Posted By on Mon, Feb 27, 2006 at 4:00 AM

It was the greatest birthday present I’ve ever received. Considering this gift has multiplied itself more than 1,200 times over the last quarter century, it’s likely the greatest birthday present I’ll ever receive. And by a distance that would make Secretariat proud. For my 12th birthday, you see, in March 1981, my maternal grandmother got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated.

On the cover of that first issue, dated March 2, was a spring-training shot of Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard (“The Comeback Begins”). The flame-throwing righty was starting an ill-fated climb back to the big leagues, having suffered a massive stroke during the 1980 season. It was a rather typical late-winter issue of a weekly magazine, but the start of a relationship that has shaped me in ways few other friends can claim.

I was reading SI cover to cover by, oh, 1982. What I’d discovered was the magical merger of two passions my preteen mind had, to that point, kept in separate compartments: reading and sports. I learned, through the writing of Paul Zimmerman, Pat Putnam, William Nack, and the incomparable Frank Deford, that the games we play and cheer are each stories, and that a story is without legs until it’s shared with a reader. But once shared? That story becomes a tiny slice of history and, if blessed with the right blend of luck and language, it becomes legend.

My favorite SI story? You may as well ask me to recall my favorite sunset, my favorite ice cream cone, my favorite kiss. The weekly dose of national perspective was -- and remains -- a tipping point for each week lived. I find myself remembering random vacations and hotel stays by the issue of SI I was reading at the time. (Tom Watson’s British Open trophy on the cover? That was at the beach in South Carolina, 1983.)

Whether by nature or nurture (I’m convinced it’s the latter, Mom and Dad), literature has been my lighthouse. From reading Huckleberry Finn in second grade to reading Intruder in the Dust just this month, I have become, I suppose, a large part of what I read. Or vice versa. And SI has been the sweetener.

A weekly sweetener . . . for 25 years. I hope to live another quarter century. Why not 50? But I’ll never live 25 years filled with the kind of change I’ve seen since 1981. Junior high in California, high school in Vermont, college in Boston. A job -- with a magazine! -- in Memphis. A marriage. The birth of two daughters. The passing of my dad. (He was an Esquire man.) It’s safe to say that about the only thing in my life that has remained utterly consistent over the last 25 years, and somehow blessedly fresh, is SI.<

These days it’s Rick Reilly, Jack McCallum, Albert Chen, Tom Verducci, andGary Smith who show me the standard I’m to aim for as a sportswriter (can I call myself that?). I still get juiced when a team I support lands the precious cover (jinx be damned!). And with the ubiquity of sportsentertainment on cable television and the Internet, SI has become, somewhat ironically, a calming device for me, a pause button, if you will, in the stream of information speeding along the as-yet-unnamed superhighway.

My grandmother died in 1983. I can’t recall how I thanked her for my giftsubscription back in March 1981, though I know she recognized a good match, this magazine and her only grandson. It seems so long since I got to visit her, to share a story or two that I enjoyed from the pages of Sports Illustrated. But you know, it’s funny. It seems like Grandmom has beenvisiting me all these years, one week of sports news after another.

Monday, February 20, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: Presidential Picks

Posted By on Mon, Feb 20, 2006 at 4:00 AM

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With Presidents’ Day upon us, I found myself wondering: If some of our First Fans could be brought back for a day (or season), which team’s colors might they wear? For whom would they wave a pennant? Where would our country’s biggest political winners direct their sporting gaze?


George Washington -- DALLAS COWBOYS. Our nation’s foremost revolutionary general requires a star on his helmet. And “America’s Team,” however misplaced the moniker may be, would be Washington’s team of choice. (Redskin fans must be cringing at the thought. President Washington, now, would cringe at a team named so crassly.) President Washington commanded every room he entered, just as you might imagine Bob Lilly dominating the locker room as Tom Landry’s franchise rose to greatness. And leadership? No game was ever over, believed Cowboy fans young and old, as long as Roger Staubach was at quarterback.


Thomas Jefferson -- PHILADELPHIA 76ERS. But of course. The man who penned the Declaration of Independence would surely delight in the homage paid that special year by one of the oldest and most successful teams in NBA history. And just as Jefferson must defer somewhat to Washington among our founding fathers (he served as the first president’s Secretary of State remember), the Sixers for decades have bowed to the Boston Celtics (more on them later). Were he able to see the otherworldly talents of Philly stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and Allen Iverson, Jefferson just might find himself wondering how equal all men are created.


Abraham Lincoln -- CHICAGO CUBS. Before you scoff, consider the adversity, conflict, and crises suffered here. And then consider our 16th president. Lincoln’s humble beginnings and gradual rise to political stardom (in Illinois, remember), fall right in line with the long-held role of the adored Cubbies. Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, even the overhyped Ryne Sandberg . . . all players more comfortable with their feet on the soil of Wrigley Field than in the bright lights and critical eye of mass media. Lincoln understood patience. He understood forgiveness. And yes, he understood loss. How much would you pay to hear Honest Abe interviewed by Harry Caray?


Theodore Roosevelt -- GREEN BAY PACKERS. If ever an NFL player carried a metaphorical “big stick,” it has to be the Pack’s Hall of Fame linebacker, Ray Nitschke. And when looking for a franchise that epitomizes toughness, square-jawed determination, and the kind of grit that can withstand a playing field often called “the frozen tundra,” the Green Bay Packers are head and broad shoulders above the crowd. Whether it was busting monopolies or digging the Panama Canal, there was a directness of purpose in the way Teddy conducted his presidential affairs. And no football historian will ever call Vince Lombardi a “flip-flopper.”


Franklin Roosevelt -- NEW YORK YANKEES. One word: power. No other president has ever held it on such a global and complete scale. No other American team has wielded it with such consistent and dramatic might. There will never again be a president of the United States elected to four terms in office, just as there will never again be a baseball team with 26 World Series championships. The former governor of New York (during Babe Ruth’s prime, of course) held our country together during some of the hardest, saddest points in the nation’s history. And the Bronx Bombers? Sure, they’re easy to loathe, for all the greatness, all the Hall of Famers canonized beyond Yankee Stadium’s outfield wall. But they are baseball, and baseball is America.


John Kennedy -- BOSTON CELTICS. Maybe the easiest of these picks. Who else for a native son of Beantown, a man who knew nothing else but winning, save for the family tragedies that too often interrupted his meteoric rise to the presidency? (Think the Celtics haven’t known tragedy along with their 16 championships? Look up the names Len Bias and Reggie Lewis.) Kennedy’s first love in sports was football, and he’d appreciate the recent success of New England’s Patriots. But he, perhaps as much as any president before or sense, appreciated the greatness around him. He would see a parallel between himself and Red Auerbach, the coach who handpicked Cousy, Russell, Havlicek, and Bird for his hoops Camelot at Boston Garden. The best and the brightest, indeed.


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Monday, February 13, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: Rodney's Rank

Posted By on Mon, Feb 13, 2006 at 4:00 AM

With the sun starting to set on the college career of University of Memphis
forward Rodney Carney, it's time we measure Carney's achievements and
standing relative to the all-time greats in Tiger basketball history. The U
of M has retired the uniform number of eight players: Forest Arnold, Win
Wilfong, Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, John Gunn, Keith Lee, Elliot Perry,
and Anfernee Hardaway. (It should be noted Gunn's tribute was a posthumous
honor, as the young man died in 1976, shortly after the beginning of his
junior season.) Where exactly does Carney fit among this Tiger pantheon?
There are four categories to consider.

THE NUMBERS -- With 1,699 career points (through Saturday's win over
Marshall), Carney is fifth in Memphis history, trailing only Lee (2,408),
Perry (2,209), Finch (1,869), and Arnold (1,854). Finch, it must be
remembered, accumulated his total in but three seasons, as the NCAA didn't
allow freshmen to play in his day. (Finch's career average of 22.3 points
per game remains the Tiger standard.) With six regular-season games and a
minimum of two postseason contests left to play, Carney would need to
average 21.3 points to catch Finch. Carney has already established a new
record for three-pointers, with 261 (he shattered the record of 242 set just
last year by Anthony Rice). And then there's my favorite Rodney Carney
number: 4 (as in years played). Remarkably, only three of the players to
have their numbers retired by the U of M played four seasons for the school
(Lee, Perry, and Arnold). And in this era of college basketball, when even
marginal stardom can have a player scrambling for an agent, Carney's staying
the course is an impressive highlight on his resume.

MARQUEE VALUE -- All you have to do is look at this year's schedule poster
distributed by the U of M athletic department. Most prominent is a soaring
image of Carney, flying to the basket for one of his cloud-breaking dunks.
The two most exciting plays in basketball are the three-point shot and the
slam dunk, and Carney has been a virtuoso at both crafts. In my 15 years of
watching the Tigers, the only player who could approximate Carney's leaping
ability was Michael Wilson (1994-96), and Wilson wasn't in Carney's category
as a scoring threat. (Want a measure of how high Carney can leap? In an
otherwise forgettable play against UAB January 26th, Carney went up for a
dunk, only to have the ball stripped by a Blazer. He still slapped the top
of the foam padding that runs halfway up the backboard . . . on his way
down.) The U of M doesn't keep stats on dunks, but any witness to Carney's
exploits knows the
Indianapolis native is among the top three or four
rim-rattlers in program history. Combined with his three-point legacy?
Beyond compare.

INTANGIBLES -- What about recognition? Among the honored Tigers, only Lee
and Hardaway were named All-America by the Associated Press. Depending on
how he finishes this season, Carney stands a legitimate chance to land at
least second-team honors. Lee was a two-time Metro Conference Player of the
Year and Hardaway was twice named MVP of the Great Midwest Conference.
Considering the Tigers' dominance of Conference USA this season, and
Carney's role as leading man, it's hard to imagine him not garnering Player
of the Year laurels. In terms of leadership, Carney might best be remembered
for what he didn't do while teammates, one year after the next, found
themselves in hot water, both with the university and the Memphis police
department. Carney has been an exemplary student-athlete at the University
Memphis, and he's on schedule to graduate in August with a degree in
interdisciplinary studies.

TEAM SUCCESS -- This is the category that will determine if Carney's
uniform is raised to the FedExForum rafters. And it's the category where he
can make the most impact between now and when he takes his number-10 jersey
off for the last time. John Calipari periodically reminds his troops that
the 1973 NCAA runners-up (a team led by Finch and Robinson) are still talked
about throughout the Mid-South, here 33 years later. Lee played for a team
that reached the Final Four (alas, only to be later disgraced by
transgressions, some involving Lee himself). Arnold led the Tigers to their
first NCAA tournament appearance in 1955. Wilfong starred for the 1957 NIT
runners-up, the team that put Memphis basketball on the national map.
Hardaway's talents were simply not of this planet, and his 1992 squad
reached the NCAA regional finals.

Carney's postseason legacy, to this point, is an appearance in the 2005 NIT
semifinals, and one NCAA tournament victory (a 2004 contest, in which he had
26 points against
South Carolina). The U of M hasn't won a conference
tournament since the 1987 Metro, and hasn't reached the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen
since 1995. If Rodney Carney can help his Tigers reach these two goals -- not
all that lofty, considering the C-USA tourney will be held here in Memphis
and the third-ranked Tigers are sure to receive a high NCAA seed -- the
verdict seems clear on his standing among this program's greats. And a ninth
uniform number should be raised as Carney makes his leap to the NBA.

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Saturday, February 4, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: My 'Home' Games

Posted By on Sat, Feb 4, 2006 at 4:00 AM

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When the Games of the 20th Winter Olympics open later this week in Turin, Italy, you’ll have to pardon me for considering this my first hometown Games. It’s a stretch, admittedly, but likely the closest geographic tie I’ll ever establish to the Olympics.


You see, during the 1976-77 academic year, my dad took our family of four to Turin -- Torino to those who live there -- as he researched his doctoral thesis in economic history (on Count Cavour, the kingdom of Sardinia, and the unification of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century). He studied and taught a class at the University of Turin’s Institute of Economic History. And I got to spend second grade a cultural leap off the beaten path, at the American Cultural Association of Turin (ACAT). Along with being the first woman I can confess to having a crush on, our teacher -- Ms. Travis -- taught in English, a fundamental strategy of this unique school. My classmates, though, were an international conglomerate of 7-year-olds. In looking at my yearbook, I count three American, nine Italian, two British, and one German friend in my class. It was a year of education that went way beyond the three R’s.


Along with my fond memories at ACAT came the seeds of a love for sports that have grown to color my life in ways I dared not imagine in 1976. Before I could recite the St. Louis Cardinals’ batting order in less than a minute, I could shout “Forza Juve!” in support of an Italian soccer club that just might rival the standing of the New York Yankees here stateside. Founded in 1897, Juventus has won no fewer than 28 Italian league championships and is one of only four clubs to win all the major European trophies (the UEFA Cup, the Cup Winners Cup, and the European Cup). Taking the Yankees’ pinstripes up a bold notch, Juventus takes the field in striped jerseys that are really no different from an NFL referee’s. Shouts of “i bianconeri!” anywhere in northern Italy will call to mind instantly the black-and-white soccer gods of Turin.


Our year in Italy was extra special in soccer terms, as Juventus won its very first UEFA Cup in May 1977. Stars like Roberto Bettega, Marco Tardelli, Claudio Gentile, and goalie Dino Zoff found their way to my bedroom wall (thanks to posters inserted in La Stampa, Turin’s daily newspaper) and permanently into the hearts of a nation that loves soccer more than Americans do cheeseburgers. Tardelli, Gentile, and Zoff, by the way, would gain a degree of global fame in 1982 when they helped Italy win the World Cup.


So as U.S. Olympians like Bode Miller, Sasha Cohen, and Apolo Ohno seek to add their names to Italian -- and international -- sports history this month, forgive me for the flashbacks to those soccer stars jumping off my collectible stickers to this day. (I know Dad was teaching me the joy of baseball-card collecting, not to mention some grade-school economics, when he had me approach sidewalk newsstands, requesting “calciatori?” Discovering a Juve player as I opened a pack was found gold.)


It’s been 29 years since I’ve seen Turin, but I’m lucky enough to retain some appreciation for its beauty -- and chill! -- nestled as it is at the foot of the mighty Alps. Better yet, I retain memories of playing soccer at a nearby park, hopelessly undermanned against my foil (his name was Aldo). And I retain some astonishment at the street celebration when Juventus captured a championship, a party that took some violent, fiery twists at the hands of Torino fans (Torino being the other pro team in Turin; think Yankees-Mets with a dose of temperament that would make Tony Soprano recoil).


The beauty of the Olympics, of course, is that internecine rivals get caught up in, as corny as it sounds here in the twenty-first century, the spirit of sport for two weeks. When representing our country, our better nature tends to carry the day. It pleases me to see the world visiting a place I called home at such an important time in my life. I’m not sure who I’ll cheer the next two weeks, but I know HOW I’ll cheer: Forza Torino!

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