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From Barnes & NobleSecond City, Number One in His Heart
In addition to being a top-notch political reporter, Scott Simon, host of NPR's "Weekend Edition," is a lifelong Chicago sports fan—and a charmed one at that. Befriended by Luc Longley, Simon landed tickets to Game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals between the Bulls and the Jazz, where he witnessed Michael Jordan sink his last, magical jumper. Whether reporting from Wrigley Field, Utah's Delta Center, or from a checkpoint in Croatia—where knowledge of Toni Kukoc helps get you through the country—Simon's Home and Away is a rich, vivid memoir of Chicago and its beloved sports.
Simon's affections for the Cubbies, Bears, and Bulls are set against the backdrop of his own personal and political experiences. Included are close looks at mayors Richard J. Daley ("the only man who could bluster George S. Halas"), Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, and other rough-and-tumble Chicago politicos. Simon critiques the Reverend Jesse Jackson both for his support for just causes and his ability to work a crowd.
The year 1968 was a tumultuous one for politics in Chicago, and 1969 was just as bad for Chicago sports. Halfway through the '69 season, things were actually looking up for the Cubbies. "'Jesus Christ,' said a friend to Simon. 'Man lands on the moon and the Chicago Cubs are in first place. Did you ever think we'd live to see it?'" Of course, despite the best efforts of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Sant, and Ferguson Jenkins, the '69 Cubbies wilted down the stretch, surpassed by the Amazin' Mets. Denied the opportunity to win their first World Series since 1908, the Cubs sank back to mediocrity.
In 1968, Gale Sayers tore ligaments in his knee, and in 1969 the Bears were stunned by an even more devastating injury when rambunctious fullback Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer. Sayers and Piccolo were roommates. Their friendship, later chronicled in the movie and book "Brian's Song," made news during an era of widespread segregation.
Chicago sports teams have never been wanting for characters, and the Bears awoke from their '70s and early '80s hibernation with unrivaled vigor and personality. Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, samurai Mike Singletary, and William "The Refrigerator" Perry chanted, "We're not here to start no trouble. We're just here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle." Behind the guidance of Iron Mike Ditka, the Bears stomped the Patriots in the Super Bowl XX for their first title since 1963.
Though impressive, the Bears' revival was short-lived. As Walter Payton's career came to an end, a new star took Chicago's center stage—Michael Jordan. The Bulls, coached by Zen-inspired Phil Jackson, managed two three-peats in an eight-year period. During the Bulls' reign, Jordan and Scottie Pippen had a fantastic cast of supporting characters, including Bill Cartwright, Longley, Steve Kerr, Kukoc, and the ultimate personality Dennis Rodman.
The Bulls were an inspiration to sports fans around the world, including war-torn Sarajevo, where watching the Bulls on television was a much-needed diversion. Remarked a Kukoc fan, "'Bombs began to fall, and the snipers began to shoot. They like to shoot people running out from the rubble of buildings, you know, they are so brave, shooting at those people like we are bugs squirming out from under a plate. But this time, there were not many people running. We were all inside, huddled here and there, watching Toni and basketball. You get tired of running, and say, 'No, I will stay here and watch sane people play basketball.'"
Simon's coverage of the Bulls is exceptional: Rather than focusing on gossip or jealousies among players, he conveys the intimate experience of their common endeavour of winning championships. After a lifetime of rooting for the Second City's noble but heartbreaking pantheon of losers, Simon finds himself closer and closer to Chicago's immortals, thanks to budding friendships with Longley and Kerr, and it grants Simon a rare vantage to observe the athletes he admires so greatly. Humorous and telling anecdotes abound. A point to ponder: Had Phil Jackson not become coach of the Bulls, he may have followed the results of his aptitude test and become a forest ranger.
Shortly after the Bulls win their last championship, Simon's stepfather Ralph passes away. Memories of Ralph and of Simon's first father, a hard-drinking comedian who died when the author was 16, are suffused with father-son banter on sports. Simon showers gracious affection on his fathers and his Chicago's sports heroes alike. Eccentrics Ditka, McMahon, and Rodman are praised; harsh words are saved for the graceless comments of Leo Durocher, the penny-pinching ways of George Halas, and the cold business approach of Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause. How many more championships could Chicago have won had these men anted up? Arm and arm with family, regional and global politics, Home and Away puts sports in its proper perspective, as a unifying entity about which people care deeply.
Brenn Jones is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Barnes & Noble.com. He lives in New York City.