The Beautiful Game

Beckham prepares for a set piece. Wow: Beckham...
Image via Wikipedia

Whenever the ball flew toward our goal and a score seemed inevitable, Jesus reached his foot out and cleared the ball.  ~Author unknown, from an article in Rio de Janeiro’s Jornal dos Sports

Moving from Northern California in April, 2000 to the mist swept mud and daffodils of springtime London upset every aspect of my life.   I struggled to acclimate to slate gray days, congested urban living and 6000 miles of separation from all that was familiar.  We had crash-landed on a foreign planet that was a mass of contradictions – history, tradition, bourgeois gentrification and blue collar working class grit.  England was a fierce tribal culture whose allegiances were brilliantly imbued in the rich palette of its colorful football club jerseys.  In an ancient land of Saxon cathedrals and Norman churches, very few of its citizens actually attended Sunday worship service.  Football had become the theology of choice for this secular, post-industrial power.

Soccer had always seemed to me a boring half-sport of gnat like foreigners flopping and feigning injury at the slightest contact.  As a parochial American, I believed that time would bring the rest of the world to our standard of sport – American football and baseball.  I could not imagine powerful American athletes abandoning their shoulder pads and batting gloves to play a game that allowed a tie as a final score.  A tie to an American is the equivalent of kissing your sister.  Watching European football was as exciting as painting a fence.

We descended into a nation filled with great expectations.  The English were once again preparing to invade Belgium and Holland to compete for European bragging rights in Euro 2000. Sixteen countries participated in what many felt was the truest test of national capabilities and perhaps, a leading indicator of relative strength heading into the long awaited 2002 World Cup. England had qualified for the Euro 2000 tournament and was somewhat optimistic to have drawn Portugal, Romania and Germany in its bracket.  Only two teams would advance to the Knock Out Stage round of sixteen.  Midfielder David Beckham, captain Alan Shearer, forward Michael Owen and the ancient 36-year-old goalkeeper, David Seaman, anchored the British squad.  The majority of the national team played for the three most popular football clubs in the Premiere division – – Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool.

On the designated days of the national football matches, the entire emerald island of England shuttered its doors and opened its pubs.  It was standing room only as bars spilled raucous patrons out on to the uneven cobble stoned sidewalks.  Enormous roars and gasps could be heard echoing down every mews, court and close as 70M people were united.  It was as if it was 1939 again and the country’s honor and security must be defended at all cost.

Within weeks of our arrival, my eldest son was suddenly wearing a Michael Owen jersey with its prominent red cross of St George.  Our neighbors across the close Paola and Arnaud were a house divided – as her Italian and his French banners competed for the affections of their two-year-old son. The city of London revealed its complex DNA as legions of immigrant vendors, shopkeepers, workers and ex-pats brazenly broadcast their loyalties and predictions.

The English team had a disastrous first round – falling to a surprisingly talented Portugal, recovering to beat an aging but tough German squad 1-0,  only to collapse in a must-win game with Romania 3-2.  England had not won a major championship since 1966 when Bobby Charlton led the UK to its last World Cup at Wembley Stadium. Euro 2000 was my walk across the pitch of national football mania and with it came the yawning maw of a carnivorous UK press that devoured their struggling national squad with the precision of Jack the Ripper.

Despite seeing their team not advance into the round of 16, British fans stayed glued to their tellies as they focused on the remaining teams – -many of whom were populated with personal fan favorites who played professionally in the UK’s premiere division. The French, anchored by Arsenal’s Thierry Henri and Juventus striker Zinedine Zidane pushed their ways into the tournament finals with a win over Cinderella semi-finalist Portugal and their prolific scorer Nuno Miguel Soares Pereira Ribeiro aka “Gomes”.  Italy, on the feet of Francesco Totti and Filippo Inzaghi, danced, flopped, gesticulated and headed its way through Romania and a thrilling overtime win over Netherlands on penalty kicks.

The stage was set for the Euro 2000 final match between the Gaelic greyhounds and the animated Italians.  On July 2 in Rotterdam, the Italians struck first on a Marco Delvecchio bullet past the bald and brawny French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. France tied the game in the final minute of the match vaulting the two clubs into overtime.  45 minutes into overtime, French striker David Trezeguet became a national hero as he took a crossing pass from Robert Pirès and won the tournament for France.

The tournament had been an unmitigated failure for the English.  British soccer fans were next to feel the sting of European media criticism for street brawls initiated by a few drunken hooligans. While it was a nadir moment for English football, it marked the beginning of my appreciation European football. I was hooked.

Over the next year, England fought to qualify for the upcoming 2002 World Cup in a series of matches and non-ranked, tune-up games known as “friendlies”. France had been guaranteed a spot and it was up to the English to grab one of the other 13 slots that were to be contested in over 100 matches across Europe.  In the year leading up to the World Cup tournament, 193 countries played 777 matches across five continents in their quest for a berth.

England’s chances were fading. In a final do or die match, the Brits had to depend on a German tie or loss to Finland and a tie or win against Greece to join the tournament.  The nation held its breath.  The press began digging a deep grave for the stoic and cerebral imported English coach Sven Goran Erickson.

The game did not proceed as planned. After a late goal by Greece put them back on top, 2-1, England was trailing deep into post regulation injury time.  As the press whetted their knives, midfielder and captain David Beckham unleashed a free kick that took off like a curling bullet – – defying physics as well as a confounded Greek goalie.  As the shot arced over the wall of Greek defenders, its topspin bent the ball just under the cross bar and England was in the World Cup.  The island shuddered and the popular phrase, “ Bend It Like Beckham” entered the world lexicon.

Two years later, the World Cup lived up to its incredible billing with 32 of the greatest teams vying for a shot at the champions finals match in Yokohama, Japan.  England made it through bracket F, known as the “Group of Death” – – Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria.  Across in Group D, a debutante United States fought its way into the quarterfinals only to lose to finalist Germany.  However, it was in this tournament that I became infatuated with a tanned squad of green and yellow clad boys who attacked the pitch with the speed of cheetahs, the grace of gazelles and the joy of children at play during a twilight alleyway football game.  They were the Brazilians – – a free spirited, handsome clan of kindred spirits weaving through opponents, precisely passing through keyhole lanes and moving like phantom winds that swirled down through these magnificent Asian football stadiums.

The Brazilians’ Ronaldo scored a remarkable 8 goals over the course of the two-week event, followed by an even more youthful and perpetually grinning teammate, Rivaldo who registered 5 superhuman goals.  It was in this tournament that our Brazilian baby sitter and part time journalist, Elaine Medeiros, shared that the Brazilians had an expression to describe football.  They simply called it, “Joga Bonito” or the beautiful game.

As the Brazilians went on to win their fifth World Cup, I came to appreciate the beauty, youth and brilliance of soccer.  It could ignite a nation and eviscerate its soul – all within a 90-minute match

My lens to the world changed across those endlessly pink twilight summers in England – watching this beautiful game.  As I attended Fulham and Chelsea football matches in the fall and winter, I became caught up in the sheer fanaticism of English soccer.  On the continent, I attended a game at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid to watch Real Madrid play archrivals, Barcelona. It was not just the teams competing but it was the hearts minds of the Catalan and the Castilian states.

As the World Cup builds to its crescendo over this week, I am excited and at the same time, homesick for Europe where entire countries stop and linger, smelling and reveling in the deep fragrance of youth – – its skill, passion and its mistakes – – all played out across a single soccer pitch.  Its beauty is in a perfectly executed header.  It is a magnificent diving save.  It is a blind pass and a misdirected shot on goal.  It is one man, possessing brilliant feet weaving between adversaries toward a crouching sentinel.  It is errors, yellow cards, flags and banners.  It is a child in an aquamarine jersey that simply says “Messi”. It is the grabbing, pushing and posturing of a corner kick.  Above all, it is the emphatic, glorious echo of an announcer in a foreign tongue screaming the universal call to open the pantheons to another national hero – –  “GOAL, GOAL, GOAL, GOAL, GOAL!!!!!”

It is time for another FIFA World Cup.  So grab your channel changers and set your Tivo. Soccer, like the world in which we live, is magnificent, messy, inconsistent, sad, brilliant, and unpredictable.  It is an anthem for our planet as hundreds of millions follow for a fortnight the rotation of a single ball as it courses toward a net.

It is, as they say, the beautiful game.

Off Piste

Los Angeles skyline and San Gabriel mountains.
Image via Wikipedia

Off Piste

“Skiing: the art of catching cold and going broke while rapidly heading nowhere at great personal risk.” Anon.

In 1970’s Los Angeles, winter sports were comprised of baseball, basketball and AYSO soccer. Our bleak midwinter days were filled with mild sunshine and temperatures that lingered in the low 70s. Ice was confined to a silver bucket on your Dad’s wet bar – reserved for those who might request a Dewar’s and soda. Snow was a Currier and Ives sentiment and a meteorological miracle.

Having fled eighteen endless Chicago winters, my father considered any voluntary recreational sport involving sleet, snow or ice as the equivalent of paying someone to perform a root canal on a healthy tooth.  It was a completely unnatural act.

He had cured us of our desire to play hockey and ice skate with one ill-fated trip to a local skating rink.  However, every four years, the Olympics would appear on television and captivate us with the notion that skiing could attract girls like bears to honey. It was clear that skiing was reserved for the rich, famous and those who spoke with European accents. It was a sport for patrician royalty, like falconry and fox hunting.

For my mother, raising four boys on an ad executive’s meager salary did not qualify our family for a vacation in a far off Alpine fantasyland. She was also uniquely sober to the risks of snow plow, parallel and telemark turns having broken her leg while racing downhill with college friends at Lake Tahoe. To our delight, she graphically recounted her compound fracture, hospitalization and surgery, showing us the 8 inch shin scar and a repair replete with plates and screws that permanently braced her shattered fibula.

She, like so many others, had succumbed to the allure of the slopes and its après ski romanticism. She was fascinated with the advertisements of magnificently tanned, turtle necked intellectuals drinking wine and laughing with affectation. She could almost smell the pungent bite from the bubbling cheese fondue. But, in this fantasy, she could only see them from the waist up.  No one was wearing a leg cast.

My father was secretly relieved of her aversion to downhill skiing and made it clear to anyone who inquired that it would require a small fortune to equip our adolescent army. Our money could stretch more economically if invested in a fortnight summer beach house in nearby Newport Beach. He had zero interest in driving with chains on his car, layering four boys in wool and down only to have them declare that they needed to use the bathroom.

In California, there were enticing rumors of snow – great drifts of moisture rich precipitation known as “Sierra Cement”. It fell in copious amounts measured in feet, not inches – somewhere to the north and east of Los Angeles. Occasionally after a fast moving local clipper of cold rain, we would be enthralled with the snow capped peaks of Mt Wilson and the surrounding Angeles National Forest as they peered through a conveyor belt of gray cotton clouds. Yet, snow was an abstraction to native Angelinos. It was something to be experienced vicariously – on the news, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports or on the distant peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Yet, the lure of snow was intoxicating – to sled, build snowmen and barrage one’s enemies with an ordinance of hardened ice and snowballs was foreign and fun.  However, the thought of donning stiff plastic boots anchored by wire clips and leg breaking bindings did not really appeal to us. Playing in the snow seemed natural. Skiing was beyond our comprehension. To bind oneself into 205cm fiberglass spears and attempt to slide down an icy canyon, like a displaced piece of granite tumbling toward a certain compound leg fracture like our mother appealed to no one — except my contrarian older brother.

My brother discovered skiing in middle school after being invited by a well heeled friend to Mammoth Lakes, an exclusive ski resort. The alpine town rested at the base of jagged granite minarets that in some places, vaulted over 14,000 feet. On its tallest peaks, Sierra snow hid in sapphire blue couloirs year round. It was rumored that in good years, it was possible to ski in shorts and a tee shirt on July 4th.

I watched with green envy as my mother took my brother to the local ski outfitter, Sport’s Chalet, where he rented skis, purchased an arctic parka worthy on a National Geographic explorer, ski pants and gloves. To add insult to injury, he was given a $ 200 stipend to cover lift tickets, food and miscellaneous expenses. Apparently my father was unwilling to accept anyone’s charity for his son’s first ski experience.  To this day, I am convinced he pocketed the money.

He was only gone for three days but when he stumbled through our front door, I could have sworn that he was speaking with a French accent. He regaled us with stories of snow storms, down hill ski racing, girls in hot tubs, gondolas and panoramic views of the jagged Ansel Adams wilderness. His raccooned eyes twinkled as he talked in a new foreign language that seemed to trivialize my plebeian suburban existence. “The key to skiing moguls is following the fall line and leaning over your tips” He said with expert familiarity. I had always thought a mogul was some kind of Indian prince or a businessman. He continued, “…and then Karl did this radical helicopter off a jump. I got some serious air when I jumped off the Cornice”.

I was insanely jealous. I wanted that cool neon parka, skin tight ski pants and raccoon tan. I wanted to be Olympic champion Jean Claude Killy seated on a bear skin rug, holding a Courvoisier brandy as I seduced my latest French model girlfriend by a roaring alpine chalet fire. I wanted to ski but all I could think about was my Mom’s twisted fibula.  Each Saturday my paranoia would be reinforced with the opening clip to the Wide World of Sports where Jim McKay would voiceover: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…” At the point where McKay said “ and the agony of defeat” a ski jumper would descend down a massive ramp, catch his ski edge and hurtle sideways off the ramp,  presumably to break every bone in his body. As he crashed through barriers and exploded in a rag doll mass of spandex and equipment, you could not help thinking, “why would any sane person do that?”

There were apocryphal stories about this guy and his horrific crash. “I hear he died.” One kid said as we discussed the unfortunate ski jumper. Another more experienced liar chipped in, “I heard every bone in his body was broken and his head popped off in his helmet when they tried to remove it.”

My mother sensed my interest in skiing and encouraged me to accept a friend’s recent invitation to ski but I created all kinds of excuses to avoid the dangerous neck-breaking slopes to the north. I just could not help thinking of Hans-Peter Shatteredpelvis or whatever his name was. This was perhaps one sport I could do without. I was wracked with doubts. What if my ski bindings did not release – would I break a leg? What if my friends take me up to the top of the mountain assuring me I can traverse down doubled diamond runs called Spleen Alley and Tibia Twister. What if I take a wrong turn and get lost like the Donner party. Would I have to eat squirrels and perhaps another skier who had also strayed off piste?

As all parents do, I was forced to confront my demons and master them – lest they added to my bucket list of activities that I would regret never having tried. At gunpoint, I accepted an invitation to go to Mammoth for skiing. I was now the beneficiary of the investment in equipment and clothes. As I layered on itchy long underwear, pants, outer garments and a North Face ski parka, I wondered whether I should have worn a diaper as it would clearly take two hours to strip down to be able to use the toilet.

On that fateful day, I learned to snow plow and discovered the joy of a beginner’s ski run.  I developed a mild hemorrhoid going up and down an odd contraption known as a poma-lift.  I mastered the mounting and exiting the quad chair and by the end of the week had gone to the top of the mountain – only to wet my pants as I slid down a vertical black diamond face slope called, Dave’s Run.

My favorite part of the day was removing my cement ski boots and regaining circulation in my hands and feet.  We sat in a hot tub with fourteen other people including a cute girl who asked me where I was from.  For a moment, I entertained assuming a French accent and describing my parent’s modest ski chalet at the foot of Mont Blanc in Chamonix.  Instead, I blushed and dipped my head under a cloak of steam and bubbling water.  It was all too much.

Years later, I annually force my reluctant brood on to the slopes of a ski resort.  The mornings are always the same – a chorus of moans and complaints.  The death march to the first run is a time that is best forgotten with sharp words and hollow threats.

We ski together to gain an appreciation for the mountains in winter and for the sheer exhilaration of making first tracks after a midnight of soft powdered snow.  Unlike my family, I am able to consider the trip an investment rather than an expense.  We are making moments like snow angels. As we gather after a long day, broken and sore from moguls, tree skiing and chaotic racing, we lie next to one another – exhausted and content.  I am not Jean Claude Killy but I am Dad – – amie and provocateur of the annual winter ski adventure.

Fight Night At The Octagon

I’m a charming coward; I fight with words.  Carl Reiner

In the 1952 John Ford classic, “The Quiet Man”, John Wayne and Victor McLaglen square off in what some film critics have touted as the greatest fistfight in the history of American cinema.  The confrontation follows the two combatants across a half mile of County Mayo countryside as they exchange blows for a full twenty minutes.  After seeing John Wayne in action, it seemed to me that a boy wasn’t really a man until he had administered or been given a fat lip in a fistfight.

When you grow up among boys, you get beaten more times than your grandma’s throw rug. It is a rite of passage to be punched in the arm every morning and pinned to the ground by your older sib’s friends who proceed to administer medieval tortures like ” pink belly’, ” cauliflower ear”, “super melvins” and the dreaded “monkey bump”. You learn quickly that to cry outside the family is to invite further ridicule. You choke back tears; rise up out of the dirt, florid and humiliated – – intent on plotting the slow, painful death of each tormentor. In later years, you just hope that one of them comes to you looking for a job.

Being regularly beaten up for a decade left me two choices – man up or move to Canada. In the 1970’s all conscientious objectors moved to the great white north.  However, when it was pointed out to me that Canada had no McDonalds, I realized I must adapt to my hostile environment. Like an anthropologist I studied other families.  I noticed that the best adjusted and least bruised kids were those who were quickest to cry wolf at the slightest fraternal infraction.  I discovered that if I pretended to be more hurt than I really was, I could inflict greater pain than if I fought back.

It was a clever ruse to fake serious injury. At some level, my father knew that I was faking but he just could not stand the crying. He was angrier at my ear splitting screams and the disruption than the actual infraction.  He would ruthlessly administer swift corporal punishment to the offending brother and then yell at me to calm down.  Like a method actor, my ability to feign injury was the equivalent to the Star Wars Missile Defense System. It became a valuable prophylactic against the tyranny of older brothers.

While the internecine wars of boys were measured in scratches and welts, most of the scrapes I witnessed later in life, were one-punch affairs. Seasoned street fighters understood that landing the first punch improved their chances of survival. Cowards and thugs sometimes overcame opponents out of their weight class simply by deploying an underhanded technique called the “sucker punch”. The sucker punch was a risky and devious instrument of foreign policy where one considers the mere threat of violence as sufficient cause for a preemptive strike. This unanticipated offensive usually took the form of a head butt, nose punch or knee to the groin. It bought you time – precious time to press your advantage or in my case, run away if the attack failed.

Being the descendant of French Huguenots who fled from virtually everything, I was a pacifist and believed avoiding a fight was a good as winning one.  Having spent a childhood getting pounded, I could sense when social tensions were creating a low-pressure system that only a fight could fill. When the potential for confrontation began to escalate, I would ease towards an exit. If a fight did break out, I would be out of harm’s way. Once the outcome was determined, I could stumble upon the scene and pretend that I was furious at having missed the combat. Yet fights were like flash fires and sometimes one could not be avoided. When the bullets started to fly, it was important to pick your fox hole mates very carefully.

I always stuck close to my buddies who wrestled. There was a great mythology around the physical prowess of football players.  In my experience, a 260lb lineman moved like a Brontosaurus and possessed a similarly proportioned brain that gathered and processed data very slowly. Linemen were like the French forts of the Maginot line – big, imposing, and useless. Large guys just invited a sneak attack.

My fellow baseball players were generally useless in a scrape. They did not know what to do if they could find a mound to rush. Swimmers? Forget it.  They were usually preening their green chlorinated hair in the bathroom and waiting for any opportunity to remove their shirt so they could show us their 42 abdominal muscles. A swimmer might attempt one swift, girly kick before rushing off like a seal to find water where they would dare you to come and get them.

It was always the scrappy 158lb middleweight wrestler that was the force to be reckoned. This was a guy that you ignored at your own risk. He was the high school equivalent of a Navy Seal. He was frozen in a permanent state of self-imposed suffering. He would spit, starve and sweat while wrapped in a plastic suit for three days trying to make weight for his next match. He had less body fat than a POW and a surly disposition from all of his personal sacrifices that went unnoticed by a student body that was mesmerized by more mainstream power sports. He labored anonymously on a dusty mat for hours, risking staph infections and dislocated limbs – often contorted against his will into positions worthy of a cirque d’ soleil acrobat.

On many occasions, a fight would threaten to break out, only to have the 175lb team captain slip underneath an errant blow and wrap the drunken offender up faster than you can say ” Little Annie’s Pretzels” At this point, the wrestler would look up like an annoyed animal trainer and say, “could you guys get me a beer?” Below him, the larger, more sloth like offender was straining to get out of a hold that Houdini could not have escaped.  His captor would merely tighten his neck lock and whisper, “Had enough?” This was the inglorious bastard that you wanted as a wingman when things got hot.

Fighting was a part of growing up.  Before society became wildly litigious, it was a foregone conclusion that where there were boys gathering, fists would fly. Some parents came up with creative ways of resolving disputes including forcing the adversaries to put on the boxing gloves and resolve differences in the ring.

My dad grew up boxing. In those days, kids would go to the YMCA or hang around gyms and learn the proper art of pugilism. ” Keep up your left” he would coach.

“Jab-jab-jab!   Now, hit with the right cross!”

This was an era when professional boxing still held America captive with flamboyant light, middle and heavy weight fighters like, Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran, and the greatest, Muhammad Ali.  Hollywood glorified the grit, violence, discipline and rags to riches nature of boxing through movies like “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, “Rocky” and “Raging Bull”.

Where there is sanctioned violence, corruption is not far behind.  Professional boxing ultimately turned on itself – fighting and splintering into divided federations and associations all claiming to be the lineal descendant of the National Boxing Association championship.  A grittier and less heroic generation of thug fighters emerged and with them, America’s thirst for a heroic fist-fighter descended to a new low –- Ultimate Fighting.

In this graphic spectacle of modern day gladiators, combatants wrestle, kick, punch, choke and assault one another until a bloodied fighter taps out (yields), passes out, is knocked out or is TKO’d by the referee.  They fight in a cage. When introduced many ultimate fighters reference years spent fighting in “The Octagon”. I have no idea where the Octagon is or if it is a real place.  It sounds like it should be next to a cock-fighting ring in Bangkok. I know where the Pentagon is but this citadel of pain actually has three more sides than the epicenter of all American military operations.

Ultimate fighting is brutality and the new breeds of fighters that engage in this sport are not muscle bound pugilists but ex-college wrestlers and kick boxers.  They are often former special-forces personnel who understand the art of hand-to-hand combat.  They have names like Kevin “Kimbo” Slice and Quinton “ Rampage “ Jackson. I am drawn to it like a spectator watching a barroom brawl.

It seems as if fighting has “devolved” It has become more primitive.  There is irony in this shift.  Perhaps it is a reflection on our society. We discourage our children from fighting.  We have become more gentrified and more accountable for our actions.  We seek to tame the “Id” within us. In our efforts to evolve into a more gentile, lotus eating society, our reservoir of anxiety and hostility cannot find an outlet.  Ergo, our need for brutal full contact fighting found inside an Ultimate Fighting cage.  Are we more or less violent than 40 years ago?  Are we unfulfilled and at our nature violent creatures?  Is boxing dying because it’s not aggressive enough?  Perhaps, we may find the answers to these and other questions inside the Octagon.

But just where the hell is it?

Learning To Play The Game

John Wooden at a ceremony on Oct. 14, the coac...
Image via Wikipedia

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away vertically challenged, slow moving kids from the suburbs were actually able to compete in basketball at the collegiate level. And so it happened that my father was able to play Division I freshman basketball for the Golden Bears at the University of California.

He is quick to admonish anyone who presumes his alma mater has any relationship to his political orientation. He went to school on an ROTC scholarship – which was the equivalent at Cal of being a carnivore at a vegan retreat. He firmly asserts that he is but one of five conservatives to ever actually graduate from that collectivist pocket of neo-liberalism that agitates restlessly within the nuclear free city limits of Berkeley, California.

My dad does not attempt to gild the lily of his on-court experiences. Unlike a graying collegiate whose hyperbole ages to a point of becoming fallacious fact, he would talk openly about rising to the level of his incompetence his freshman year at Cal.  I can recall walking into his study and seeing a black and white photograph of a young man with tight dolphin shorts and a body shirt jersey numbered 14 crouched in a defensive position.  Later in life, I would run into his high school and college fraternity brothers who would refer to him as “Hoops”.  They would fondly share stories about his competitiveness.  “ Your old man played with such intensity that it felt like there was more than one of him on the court. “

One of his old teammates reflected nostalgically on my Dad’s feverish energy level on the Cal freshman team. “The coach kept him on the team because he was so damn aggressive. He might foul out playing a guy tight but he could provoke the other team into making mistakes and inspire guys to push harder.  He was one of those players who made as many contributions away from the ball as he did when he was handling it.  He made other people better.

When asked about his hoop playing days, my father was always appropriately self-deprecating. He would joke and pointed to his opportunity to start as the end of an epoch when slow guys who could shoot with either hand had a chance to make a college team. Dunking was still something only policemen did with donuts.

My father was drilled relentlessly in the fundamentals of passing and dribbling. He was a thinking man’s point guard.  He was ambidextrous, feisty and possessed that innate invisible eye in the back of his head that allowed him to sense a pick, double team or someone cutting through the lane open for a pass. He was a team player always telling us that a “good assist is better than a good basket”. His coach was an irascible Southerner whose thick Mississippian drawl rendered him virtually unintelligible to his players with the exception of an intense chant that he would make as he watched his players, ” hum-baby, hum-baby, hum-Turpin”!

His hero was number 14, Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics who at 6’ 1” and 175 lbs was a 13-time all-star, and remains the all-time leader in assists for the Celtics with 6,945.  The Houdini of the Hardwood drove the Green and White to six of their NBA ten championships. To my father, Cousy was the epitome of the unselfish player and reinforced the notion that a team wins or loses championships – not individual players. Cousy exemplified the notion that sports did not build character, but revealed it.

My father also idolized John Wooden, the wizard of Westwood, who coached UCLA to 10 national championships and 4 undefeated 30-0 seasons.  Wooden’s “ Pyramid of Success” was preparing his players not just for games but also for life. Dad would repeat Wooden, as we would discuss sports. “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”  “Never mistake activity for achievement.” “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

Growing up, we would gather under a rotting wooden backboard unevenly mounted on a trellised ivy fence and shoot baskets for hours. Ever the advocate of Wooden, my father colorfully referred to practice as “relentless repetition leading to rehearsed exhibitions of excellence” He installed a light so we could spend our warm Southern California nights working on free throws, lay ups and jump shots.

While family genetics denied us height and speed, he was determined that we would have heart. We were reassured that it was literally possible to out work any one if you wanted it bad enough. Basketball was my first glimpse into my father as a person.  I saw his passion and his child-like love of the game.  The hardworking taskmaster would transform before our eyes when he touched that 29” ball.  This orange orb would spin on his finger and then loop between his legs  revealing to us the child that grew up hustling on the West side of Chicago.

My father explained that basketball was a physical game about using your God –given assets. As my quicker, more nimble brothers would head fake me and dribble past me like a road sign, I would simmer with competitive anger.  As he studied my abilities and weaknesses, he taught me to camp in the lanes and block shots.  He told me to use my body and to make guys “pay for coming into my neighborhood”

I was a big, solid kid with cement pipe legs and a turtle shell stomach.  My asset, in this case, was my rear end which I would deploy to box people out of rebounds, and hip check a driving guard into thinking twice about coming my way again.

“Don’t let him come into your area like that! If he dribbles past you and no one picks him up, foul him. Make him shoot a free throw. Always remember, you have five fouls to give.”

As with all youth sports, high school changes everything.  I was determined to try out for the basketball team but knew that my passion for the game would not show up on any depth chart.  I was slow, had the vertical leap of a houseplant and was confused by the fast break offense that was a staple of our coach’s playbook.

I worked my tail off that fall – running, diving, practicing and participating in tournaments as the coach slowly whittled the thirty some odd candidates down to a dozen players.  On the last day, there were fifteen of us and we knew three would not make it.  We held a scrimmage that day and I held my own, sinking a jump shot to help cushion our squad’s win.  I made sure that I did not finish last in the sprints and suicide line drills even though this left me to the point of puking.

I will always remember that call the next day as the coach called me to his office to tell me I had been cut.  In an era before cell phones and real time updates, I stayed after school at the local pizza parlor – waiting to go home to coincide with the end of practice.  I ate a large pizza. I did not want to tell my father I had been cut from the basketball team.

I recall walking into the house and seeing him reading his paper – wearing the same apron that my mother made him wear to prevent him from staining his shirt and tie.  He lowered his paper and smiled. “ So buddy, how was practice? Did they announce the team? “ I vaguely flirted with lying to him but the thought of spending the next several weeks hiding out at Tony’s Pizza waiting for practice to end would turn me into an overweight, pimple ridden loser.  I had let him down.  I could not outwork the guys who made the team.  I had failed him and myself.

I burst into angry tears and swore – sharing the news that I had been cut.  He put the paper down and sighed.  I saw again in his face that same youthful enthusiasm I would see on that driveway basketball court each weekend.  He smiled.  “Pal, John Wooden used to say, ‘if you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.’

I am proud of you. And I know you gave it everything you had.  Failure isn’t fatal, it’s the thing that ultimate makes you better.”  He returned to his paper.

He looked up at me. “ And besides – – that coach is an asshole!  He obviously doesn’t know talent when he sees it!”

In the kitchen I heard my mom drop a dish and I could tell she had been listening – preparing to rush in upon my exit to tell her husband what a wonderful father he was.   I laughed and hugged my dad.  He winked at me and I went off to bed.  As I climbed the stairs I could hear him fighting off my mother’s stern reproaches.  “ Oh Ruth, I was just trying to….”

Los Patinadores en Invierno ( Skaters in Winter)

LA Kings primary logo from 1967 82.
Image via Wikipedia

“Style is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward” Robert Frost

I have an antique engraving of late 19th century Spanish skaters fastening their blades as they prepare to glide across a great sheet of frozen opaque lake.  The etching is small and the figures are muted and impressionistic – the way one might dream about a past life – as if you are looking through a great frosted telescope through to some simpler time.

I recall as a child watching ice-skating in the Olympics – rooting for the hopelessly outclassed Americans as East Germans, Russians and Scandinavian pixies gracefully floated, skimmed and sailed across the blurred rink accumulating near perfect scores.

When our US skaters were not getting smoked in some far-off rink in Boogerglob, Yugoslavia, our hockey teams were getting worked over like Poland during the Blitz.  My father had told me of the “ miracle “ in 1960 when the unheralded Americans won the Gold beating Canada, the Russians and the Czechs at Squaw Valley California.  However, I grew up during the cold war and a period of total Soviet domination.  The US was no match for these bladed automatons jacked up on steroids and vodka. The eastern bloc teams had lots of time on their hands to practice. After all, home was a sterile one bedroom apartment shared with five people, two government run TV channels and bread lines.

In California, winter happened to other people in other places and ice rinks were as uncommon as wool sweaters and US gold medalist winter Olympians.  My first glimpse of an indoor ice rink was the Great Western Forum in Inglewood where the Los Angeles Kings played hockey.  I liked hockey instantly.  Hockey was exotic.  It was played on an ice rink that rested under the glossed wooden floors of the Lakers basketball court.  Hockey players were as fast and big as football players.  They were missing teeth, had scars all over their faces and were angry all the time.  They were like pirates or life without parole prison inmates.

It looked dangerous and exciting to try to score.  Once you got around six potential felons, you had to try to slap the puck past a faceless demon called the goalie.  Perhaps, he was so ugly that he was not allowed to show his face. Maybe goalies wore masks so fans would not recognize and assault them in the parking lot for allowing a goal.  I was mesmerized.  I forced my Dad to drive us great distances through very dangerous neighborhoods in South Central LA to watch the Kings slashing center Marcel Dionne, speedy forward Butch Goring and the courageous goalie – Rogie Vachon.

Alas, like most expansion teams, the Kings were hardly royalty.  They stank.  And it seemed whenever the Canadiens, Flyers, Bruins or Black Hawks came into town, my team got crushed.  To add insult to injury, the victors would usually leave one of their past-their-prime players behind with the Kings in some horrendous trade that would prolong our long painful climb our of expansion adolescence.

What I really liked best – was the fighting.  They called the players who fought “ goons” which I thought was hysterical.  The only goon I had ever seen was Alice, The Goon on Popeye.  With names like Dave “ Tiger” Williams and Dave “ Cement-head” Semenko, these insane asylum candidates wracked up more penalty minutes than maximum-security prisoners.  They had nicknames like “ The Grim Reaper”, “The Hammer” and “Bloody O’Reilly”. They high- sticked, slashed, cross checked, punched, gouged and broke more orbital bones than a medical examiner.  The goon’s job was simple: retaliate and protect their star player from the other team’s goons.

When a fight would break out, the gloves would fly off and the adults (refs) would not even try to break up the brawl.  For a kid who sought to be freed from the yoke of parental oversight and the suffocating civility of rules based games, hockey was sanctioned violence.  The referees just stared at the scrum of wild punches and ripped jerseys while everyone in the stands went absolutely berserk.  Eventually the refs jumped in once the players had punched themselves silly.

I decided I wanted to learn to play hockey and skate.  My father had grown up in a time of hockey leagues and early morning ice rinks and did not want to spend his weekends indoors in what smelled like a three week-old duffel bag.  He was a Californian now.  There was football, tennis, baseball, paddle and soccer – all to be played outdoors.

I dreamed of snow and ice-skating but did not understand that for ice to form, a person must endure consecutive days of bitter cold.  On New England lakes and ponds, there was no Zamboni machine to smooth the natural irregularities of a frozen body of water.  The ice accumulated and moved indiscriminately like a crack across a windshield.  But I had to try. Ice-skating and hockey looked so easy and I wanted to meet my Peggy Fleming on a frozen pond where we might waltz or tango and then spin around waiting until one of you fell to the ground and looked at the other and said, ” kiss me, you fool.”  I lacked the imagination to speculate what would happen much beyond this point.  I was ten.

My father bobbed and weaved with me like an outmatched prizefighter. Growing up in suburban Chicago and then discovering Eden at the University of California at Berkeley, my father vowed he would never return to the raw, sideways sleet and arctic winds that knifed across Lake Michigan. He had learned to skate, sled and survive in the snow but traded his Currier & Ives childhood for an aquamarine Christmas morning of 60 degrees and the rhythmic sway of palm trees.

I kept chipping away at his paternal guilt and finally convinced him that my inability to skate would one day keep me from getting into a good college.  He was about to say “ no” for the thirtieth time, when he got a wry smile across his face and said, “ Sure”. I will never forget his mischievous smile. He confessed that his aversion to snow had perhaps unfairly denied his sons the ability to attempt a triple axle.  In what we thought was a rare fit of nostalgia, he drove us to a suburban ice rink on Christmas Eve to “learn” to ice skate

The excitement was palpable as I laced my razor–edged rockets and ran my finger along the dull but intimidating blade that ran from the toe to heel. I was mentally already on the ice – a goon in search of mayhem and perhaps a six –year-old that I could check into the boards.   I got up to try to walk in the skates and my ankles buckled.  I fell to one knee and hit the ground hard. My eyes watered but I did not cry.

We walked on to the ice and I fell backwards, hitting my large head like a pumpkin dropping on the kitchen floor.  I had no helmet and saw stars as my head cracked on the hard ice.  A strange ensemble of people gingerly moved with arms under weak fluorescent lights flailing and awkwardly lunging like drunken sailors.  Suddenly, a pink flash shot past me.  A magnificent teenaged girl came to a knife edged stop and spun in place.  She was like a music box ballerina suspended by celestial gossamer strings.  I was in love. I tried to get up and my leg shot out from under me as if it had been fired from a rocket.

My father lifted and guided me to the railing where I moved myself along a great rectangular rink for one hour.  Each time the rose colored girl skated by, I let go and fell injuring some hidden body part with a flash of white-hot pain.  It was on my eleventh consecutive fall that I conceded that I did not have the patience or pain threshold to learn to skate or keep up with the pink projectile.  It was my secret shame – being so hooked on hockey and knowing that I could not even stand on skates.

The following morning, I awoke to sensations not dissimilar to the black plague.  Severe aching limbs consistent with internal bleeding, bruising and feverish.  My father looked on with amusement as I struggled downstairs and declared that I must have the flu.  My skating career officially died anno domini one thousand nine hundred seventy two.

Years later, I look on at skating with a twinge of envy and great respect.  I never returned to the ice.  I often slow my car to  watch as a small group gathers by the edge of  black frozen ponds.  Skaters ease on to the ice and breeze across dark, crosshatched arteries of rock hard water.  I now understand why the best skaters have quadriceps larger than many Christmas turkeys.  It is magic to stand in a cold biting wind, teetering on the razor thin edges of a single blade, pushing out with one leg while bracing the other leg to move ahead.  Slash-glide-slash-glide.  You move like winter wind across the ebony water trapped below.

It is part of the cinnamon scented of the holidays – these simple pleasures.  It is a new pair of skates under a tree.  It is a pond iced over to its proper depth.  It is frozen twilight and a single, solitary person floating like a downy feather across a frosted sheet of glass.  It’s Christmas Eve and the skaters cannot wait for the next day. I watch from a raised embankment along a serpentine road. I am thinking once again of that elegant ancient etching of “Los Patinadores En Invierno”– wispy shadows cast from another time. The skaters disappear, an evergreen pine suddenly obscuring my view.

The pond, it seems, goes on forever.

Golf Rules

Caddyshack
Image via Wikipedia

We learn about life playing games. Sports reveal much about ourselves, our fellow man, our characters and which of us should be allowed to work with children and the elderly. I have learned many lessons coaxing a reluctant, dimpled ball into a 4 ¼”” cylinder.

The ancient game of golf is not simply a means to avoiding taking out the trash, but a cunning allegory for living. As with all “simple” games, following the rules of golf, living its etiquette and protocols and remembering to practice those principles in all our affairs, can prove daunting. Golf’s rules and lessons, when properly followed, can help a person accept life on life’s terms and at the same time, learn colorful swear words.

Golf is life and each public or private course presents us with a range of opportunities to excel or fail. We are confronted with hazards, rough lies and blind shots while all the while seeking the holy grail of par with chivalrous aplomb. To play the game of golf is to vacillate between anger and joy – – similar to spending four hours anywhere with a teenager. Golf offers us wisdom and perspective. We learn to interact with our fellow man, navigate the most treacherous of circumstances and win money from other people without having to cheat. Perhaps if Wall Street executives just had fulltime caddies, we would not need Sarbanes Oxley.

For those who do not play golf but are in search of a theology for living, consider the following gems mined from a life spent hitting from the woods and off hardpan.

Wait Your Turn- Some golfers play golf as if they are the only people on the course. They hit before it is their turn. They putt out that three footer ahead of you (a putt which they usually miss ) saying, ” I’ll just get this out of your way”. This behavior is not confined to the links. These are the same knuckleheads that try to cut in front of you and the mile long security line at La Guardia impatiently saying to the TSA attendant, “I have a plane to catch. “ Uh and I don’t ? These type A’s abuse the gentrified rule for improving speed of play known as “ready golf”. In many cases, there are good reasons for waiting to go until it is your turn, particularly when it comes to death and taxes. Remember that patience suggests emotional maturity and is very handy when there are five people and only four pieces of pie. We all respect someone who can wait their turn. Even the bible says, “The last shall be first”. In the end, the patient golfer wins respect and the first piece of pie in heaven.

Treat Everyone Like a Valued Caddie – Why is it that men will not ask for directions or accept the most basic input from their partners but treat as gold the advice of a bloodshot, toothless caddy named Newt? Because they believe the caddie knows more about the course than they do. In golf and life, there are those that know more about the course, the slope, the dress code and the back alleys of Norwalk than we do. Listen and learn. Asking for help is a sign of maturity. Occasionally, you may get poor advice. Don’t chastise your caddie for a bad read. Take responsibility and remember that it was you that asked that 14 year old kid who thinks Croatia is in South America for advice on the most important shot of the day. Grow up. After the round, big spender, don’t stiff your caddie. Give him/her a big tip and remember that they are not nearly as amused by your tired jokes or honored to carry your bag as you might think.

No Gimmies – Allowing yourself to be “given” a short putt distorts your handicap and puts you at future risk to miss knee knocker tap-ins when something big is on the line. Nothing in life is free and “helping” your friend or customer by giving them a short putt is setting them up to choke. Gimmies are like gateway drugs. It starts with giving each other a few putts here or there and ends up with the two of you knocking off a liquor store in Stamford. Bernard Langer and his buddy, Uwe gave one another gimmies for years and well, look what happened to Langer at the 1991 Ryder Cup?

Never Bet What You Cannot Afford to Lose And Pay Promptly– Do not wager more than .000001 of your net worth in any round of golf. If this results in the need to pay someone using currencies such as the Turkish Lira, than so be it. Money ruins things faster than a 22 year old European au pair. A person will remember the fin you never paid well into their next life. If a guy cannot honor a $5 wager, would you invest in his company?

If It’s Not Yours, Leave It – You hook a ball into the woods and are clinging to a one stroke lead. You find a ball but it is clearly not yours. The angel appears on your shoulder, “Take a lost ball penalty. Remember when you say nobody will see you cheat, you are saying you are a nobody. You will have to live with your dishonesty like a rock in your shoe. Your ball was a Titleist Pro V1, not a Calloway 3” The Devil appears on your other shoulder, “Dude, are you kidding? Your opponent would sell you and his mother to Al Qaeda for a dime and a free drop. Your buddy, Mr Foot Wedge won’t know. Hit the Calloway and beat his right wing, neo con butt”. A word of advice: Leave the Calloway where you found it and take the penalty, especially if the ball is pink.

Never Cross A Golfer’s Line – This, my friend, is the golden rule of man law. A player’s putting line is a sacrosanct, fragile thoroughfare– easily disturbed by poorly mended divots, pebbles and other forms of microscopic debris. To walk across a person’s line is the equivalent of smearing cow dung on their front door and then when caught say, “Ooops, oh, gee, sorry.” The concept of the sacred line applies to a range of other areas such as friend’s spouses, another car while driving in Rome and that Fixed Income job your buddy has at JP Morgan. Don’t cross the other guy’s line. It’s very bad form.

Say No To The Aloha Press- The “Aloha Press” is a desperate, last hole double or nothing bet and was invented by someone who now lives under the Taconic Bridge. The Aloha usually leads to double your misery. If you are getting your rear kicked, it’s usually because you are playing poorly. What is it about human beings that finds us denying 17 holes of empirical evidence for the low probability of one last hole of redemption? The concept of the desperate last gasp gamble is not new and has led CEOs to jail and to the 1995 collapse of Barings Bank when rogue trader Nick Leeson decided to gamble with the house’s money just one more time. Just say no to the Aloe.

Never Bet Against a Guy With a Nickname – Ubiquitous people with names like “Duke”, “Champ” and “Cap” never actually leave your club and sleep on chairs by the pool at night. They are paying alimony to at least three ex spouses. They got their nom de guerres on the practice green, around the course and in college. These back slapping, ambassadors of fun are not retired or independently wealthy, they are actually broke and living off of their inflated handicaps and your hard earned cabbage. Ask Michael Jordan. Unless they are your playing partner, stay away from these adolescent lost souls and don’t ever, ever fix them up with a single friend.

The games of life and golf are inexorably bound. Each day, each round and each hole offers an opportunity for redemption, reflection and reinforcement. A country club is really a microcosm of society, except everyone looks the same, wears ugly pants and cash is not accepted at the bar. In golf as in life, we can achieve happiness and avoid a ” good walk spoiled” by simply showing up on time, following the rules, asking for help, wagering only what we can afford to lose and resisting the temptation to relieve oneself behind a tree.

Simple stuff, really.