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Here, at last, is Charles Pierce's best writing on sports, collected for the first time in one volume. All of these pieces, first published in GQ, the National, and Esquire, showcase Pierce's trademark humor. Some are spot-on profiles of famous sports personalities such as Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, and Peyton Manning, while others are portraits of lesser-known figures such as Nebraska basketball coach Danny Nee, a former Vietnam vet who openly opposed the Gulf War, Cool Papa Bell, a ballplayer from the Negro ...
Here, at last, is Charles Pierce's best writing on sports, collected for the first time in one volume. All of these pieces, first published in GQ, the National, and Esquire, showcase Pierce's trademark humor. Some are spot-on profiles of famous sports personalities such as Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, and Peyton Manning, while others are portraits of lesser-known figures such as Nebraska basketball coach Danny Nee, a former Vietnam vet who openly opposed the Gulf War, Cool Papa Bell, a ballplayer from the Negro Leagues who is ripped off by memorabilia hounds, and Mike Donald, an obscure golfer on the PGA tour who played the best golf in his life only to lose a tournament by one stroke. Pierce also takes us on unforgettable journeys into the wide world of sports, from a snake-charming pole-vaulter to life on the Hooters Golf Tour, from the fashion accessories of the modern ballplayer to how a small community—Warroad, Minnesota—bonds over ice hockey. Sports Guy will delight Pierce's devoted readers and is certain to win him many, many more.
A Big Game
Upon arriving in a new town, some people visit museums. Other people find the theater, or they go off in search of whatever the local newspaper says is the best restaurant in town. I have one friend who haunts courthouses, collecting exotic criminal proceedings the way some folks collect roadside reptile farms. As for me, I seek out the arena or the ballpark. Even after years of traveling to games, I still listen for distant cheering and look for the glow of lights above the near horizon.
I am a sucker for a Big Game. Which is not necessarily the same as a Championship Game. It is not necessarily the same as an Important Game, as defined by television hucksters. A Big Game is more than that. It is a piece of living history, a theater of the generations with an outcome more compelling than theater of any other kind. Thousands of actors have played Hamlet, but Hamlet always dies. Thousands of players have played in the Harvard-Yale football game, and very few of them have the same story to tell. If all the elements are right, and if history has aligned correctly with the emotion of the moment, I would rather be at a Big Game than almost anywhere else in the world.
In this capacity, I have rooted for small-college basketball teams in Wyoming and for small-college football teams in Mississippi, for minor league baseball teams in North Carolina and for high school hockey teams in Minnesota and for a thousand athletes whose names I have long since forgotten. I have been an Alcorn State Brave and a Mishawaka High School Caveman. (Our women's teams, it should be noted, are gallantly called the Lady Cavemen.) I have been a Reno Silver Sock and an Asheville Tourist. (The centerfield scoreboard read VISITORS and TOURISTS, which I thought was right friendly.) It has been said that we all carry our own America with us. My own personal America comes with six seconds left and the home team—anybody's home team—with the ball and trailing by a point or a goal. There is barbecue at the concession stand, and there is beer in a paper cup, and a band is playing across the way. I can be happy there.
In Lawrence, Kansas, where stands the University of Kansas, they long ago set up a memorial to the old man on a bare and windy hill just inside the cemetery gates. But they buried him a few degrees south, in a shady plot, with his family and his fellow Masons, beneath a tall marble tower with a great marble ball set on top of it. His marker is flat, set right there in the ground, the stone so darkened and weathered that it looks like a small vein of iron in the earth. NAISMITH, the stone reads, and beneath it, in smaller letters, JAMES and MAUDE.
Basketball had a single inventor. That we can say this with authority makes the game unique among sports. The Scottish shepherd who first hit a rock with a curved stick, thereby inventing both golf and recreational prevarication, is lost to antiquity. It has never been clear whether the inventor of American football was the first man to run with the ball, the first man to throw a forward pass or the first man to devise a point spread. Baseball has at least four creation stories (at least one of which is an absolute lie), all of which obscure the fact that America's putative pastime is really a British mongrel. Basketball, however, began irrefutably in this country with James Naismith, who is buried in this shady plot in Lawrence, Kansas, where he came to coach at the university and in which function he remains the only men's basketball coach at the University of Kansas with a losing lifetime record.
I mention all of this because it is within basketball that the growth of sports—for good and ill—can be most vividly seen. After all, in certain places, even high school sports have become afflicted with a giantism similar to that which has afflicted the professional games. I can be fairly sure that old Jamie Naismith would not approve of much of it. He was said to be rather stiff-necked in the area of personal deportment. Still, there is evidence that he was not entirely an old fud: we know, for instance, that he played the fiddle, and that "Little Brown Jug" was his party piece.
Across town, on this breezy morning fresh with the onrushing springtime, Kansas is preparing to play Kansas State in basketball for the 237th time. I think that if he could, Naismith—1-1 lifetime against the Wildcats—would be there on Saturday. I think he would cheer. I think he would shake a pompom. I do not think he would chant "Bullshit!" at a referee—even though nobody ever had better credentials to do so. (Naismith was death on profanity.) But I think he would enjoy a Big Game. I think he'd have—and I'm sure he will one day forgive me for saying so—a hell of a time for himself.
More than anything else, a Big Game needs to have a sense of place. It radiates outward from the arena. It spreads itself beyond the stadium. Children slide down an icy sidewalk toward the warmth of the field-house doors. Halfway up the block, they can smell the popcorn. Time stops at midafternoon. The old men come out in their blazers. The women all wear camellias. The air itself seems to quiver and shake. The first time Florida and Florida State played football last season was a Big Game. It was in Tallahassee, all raucous with accumulated tradition, cheers echoing back through time and the generations. The second time they played football was in the Sugar Bowl. This was not a Big Game. It was merely for the national championship.
Alas, more and more, the Big Game is being overshadowed by the Championship Game, which increasingly is becoming just another television show. For example, there is no more entertaining sporting event in the country than a football game between Mississippi and Louisiana State, particularly if the game is played in Baton Rouge. First of all, the game is played in Louisiana, which, as we all know, is not part of the United States of America in any sense that really matters. Second, the game is played at night, fog swirling through the paludal air and Spanish moss hanging like ghostly fingers from every tree. Third, surrounding the game, there is a sprawling celebration that is pretty much what the Druids would have thrown if they'd had sororities. The game will probably never be a Championship Game, because neither LSU nor Ole Miss has competed for any kind of championship since God was a boy. The people in charge of such things will probably never designate it as an Important Game, either. But it is a Big Game, every year. Big Games are not about trophies and banners. They are not about ratings and rights fees. Instead, memories are at stake, entire lifetimes of them. Bright as midnight torches, they are as warm and genuine as primal fire.
In or near the town of Monona, Iowa, there once was a highway patrolman named Howard Bell. It seems that Bell once nabbed Kansas coach Roy Williams for speeding along Highway 52. Williams was in town recruiting a local high school star named Raef LaFrentz. The following evening, lurking still, Bell ticketed LaFrentz. Three years later, LaFrentz is preparing to play Kansas State, and he has just told the story on a conference call that included representatives of the Sporting News, Sports Illusstrated and the Associated Press. Howard Bell is now famous, and he doesn't even know it. That is the way things happen today. Radar at the ready, Trooper Bell now cruises the information superhighway.
LaFrentz is preparing to play in a Big Game, though it has ceased to be much of a competitive rivalry. Kansas has won the game nine times in a row going back to 1994, and Kansas State is winding up a thoroughly miserable season. Nevertheless, on the running track that circles the basketball floor in Allen Fieldhouse, students have been camped out for tickets for nearly three days. In one corner, engineering students work out a design assignment using what appear to be Popsicle sticks. Two students have set up a small video arcade near one of the darkened popcorn stands, and a number of others are asleep under blankets. This will be the last home game for six Kansas seniors. The fans are urged to bring flowers and to shower the court with them before the game.
Allen is a genuine field house, one of the very few left. The stands rise steeply away from the court. At either end of the building, the walls come to a peak, with windows set into them. Kansas has been playing in this place since 1955, when it was dedicated to Dr. F. C. "Phog" Allen, Naismith's successor and the man to whom Naismith confided his theory that basketball cannot be coached, that it can only be played. Allen cannot have taken the old man too seriously; Phog coached at Kansas for thirty-nine years.
They have tucked and trimmed and embroidered the place down through the years. In 1990, as part of the unending renovation, they bought a new scoreboard. This presented them with the problem of what to do with the old one. They planned to sell off the electrical components piecemeal and the metalwork for scrap. Then someone in the athletic department called Kelly Driscoll and told him that if he hustled he could have the old scoreboard for his saloon. Driscoll fired up his truck and took off up Naismith Drive.
On the night before the Kansas State game, the Yacht Club is loud and merry. The fans of one school are indistinguishable from the fans of the other. Up front, near the door, Kelly Driscoll sits at his personal table and watches a Big Game come through the doors of his saloon.
Driscoll is a native Kansan. His hometown is Russell, where his family has been involved for years in Democratic politics and has been something of a burr in the side of Russell's most famous son, Bob Dole. (Around the Driscoll hearth, Dole is remembered fondly as "the only county attorney we ever had who never won a case.") Recently, when Russell County went Democratic in the state's gubernatorial election, Dole was heard to comment that the Driscolls must have been working overtime. One of Kelly's brothers lives on a farm next door to Russell's other claim to fame: a purported landing area for extraterrestrial spacecraft. What with space aliens coming down from the sky one day and the Washington press corps arriving the next, Russell has had a rough, if redundant, couple of years.
When his friend called him about the scoreboard in 1990, Kelly Driscoll was trying to make a success out of an old singles bar that he'd bought. He ripped the leatherette off the walls and renamed the place the Yacht Club, decking it out in a nautical motif that was approximately as appropriate to Kansas as a rodeo ambience would be to Hawaii. Right from the start, Driscoll's friendship with then coach Larry Brown and with Brown's star player, Danny Manning, made the Yacht Club a sort of unofficial headquarters for the 1988 champions.
The scoreboard dominates the Yacht Club the way a great landscape dominates a Tudor banquet hall. "There was no way we could get the thing through the doors," Driscoll recalls. "So we knocked out one of the back walls and fit the scoreboard right into the hole. That scoreboard is part of the wall. I don't know what will happen if we ever sell the place." The scoreboard is permanently set at Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79, the final score of the 1988 championship game. The score is brighter on a Friday night than anything else in the place. You can see its glow through the windows from the sidewalk.
It began in 1886 as a cheer for a victorious science club. At odd points during a game, Kansas fans intone, "Rock. Chalk. Jayhawk. Kayyy-yewww!" The melody of it had whispered at me for years. As I lounge in my seat in the field house just before the game, it finally occurs to me that it is a snatch of Gregorian chant, the same haunting strains that I first heard at a Trappist monastery near where I grew up in Massachusetts. It is a serious, signifying chant, and it brings back a flood of memories, and not merely of basketball games but also of something bigger than myself, which is what the people who wrote the chants had in mind. For a long moment, I am home again.
The crowd has brought their flowers. Every time a senior is introduced, the air fills with blossoms. Dressed in tuxedos for the occasion, the band plays hard and loud, albeit with an unfortunate tendency towards '70s Toyota-commercial standards. The chant is much more impressive in its gravitas. Not many people even in Kansas would argue that this is an Important Game, but it is a Big Game because it has begun to feel like one. Time stops for a moment. The air in the field house begins to quiver and shake.
Kansas plays a terrible first half, but its team is so patently superior that it takes the game away easily in the second. As the minutes wind down, the forgotten seniors at the end of the bench are in the game, and everybody pleads with them to score, and they all do, and everybody is very happy and pleased. After the game, nearly everyone stays in his seat, and all six Kansas seniors get to give a little speech in order to say good-bye.
I do not stay for all these valedictories. The Savior is mentioned early on, and I have a strict rule regarding the theological speculations of athletes. I discreetly make my way to the door, walking out into a softening evening.
This was not a Championship Game. It was not even an Important Game. However, it was a Big Game. It was a Big Game because of the band in its tuxedos, and because of all the flowers cascading onto the floor, and because of all the little speeches and because of all the people who packed in to watch it at the Yacht Club across town. There is a sense of community here, not only among the people attending the game but also with all the people who attended the previous 236 games Kansas and Kansas State played against each other, all the way back to January 25, 1907, when James Naismith himself masterminded a 54-39 Kansas victory. It is for all of them—all the players and all the coaches, but also for all the people whom the game has ever touched. It is for Raef LaFrentz and for Trooper Howard Bell. It is for the people at the Yacht Club and for the people in Russell—for the Driscolls and the Doles, and maybe for the odd space alien, too. It is for James and Maude, and it is also for me.
Because everyone has stayed for the speeches, the lawn outside the field house is empty and silent. As I walk toward my car, I can still hear the cheering inside the building. Basketball began here. It is a constant and unbroken line from James Naismith—an athletic theologian himself, truth be told—to the seniors giving the speeches in a field house named for one of Naismith's protégés. I believe the old man would have had a time for himself. I believe he would have enjoyed the band in their tuxedos. ("Maude, do you think they know `Little Brown Jug'?") He would have Rock-Chalked himself hoarse. I think the old man would know a Big Game when he felt it. And maybe, at a loose moment, when Maude wasn't watching, James Naismith would have thrown a few flowers into the air.
Excerpted from SPORTS GUY by Charles P. Pierce. Copyright © 2001 by Charles P. Pierce. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|A Big Game||1|
|Bottom of the Ninth||9|
|Soul on Ice||19|
|The Snake-Handling Pole Vaulter||31|
|The Sport That Time Forgot||49|
|Thieves of Time||69|
|Friday Night Fever||87|
|Danny Nee's War||97|
|Fade to Black||119|
|Junior Johnson Has Left the Building||129|
|The Man. Amen||139|
|The Blessed Fisherman of Prosper, Texas||157|
|The Brother from Another Planet||167|
|The Magic Act||177|
|The Last Good Shot||193|
|Rich Man, Wolfman||215|
|The Son, He Does Shine||223|
|A Gathering of Lights||233|
|Legends of the Fall||243|
|Ten Years Later, He Can Laugh About It||253|
|The Next Superstar||263|
|The Trials of Jobe||279|
|Two Tough Mothers||295|