CHANGING OF THE GUARD
On this Father’s Day weekend, it seems suitable to talk about the walk of life that brings the most joy to the most men – other than sex, of course. I’m referring to spectator sports. And if you can’t tell, there’s plenty of it going on these days.
First and foremost, we have the World Cup. Every four years, even non-soccer fans like me turn out and watch what is a truly beautiful spectacle. The World Cup is the world’s most widely watched sporting event. Four years ago, the estimated viewing audience for the event’s final exceeded 700 million people – nearly seven times the viewership of the Super Bowl. Soccer (or football, as it is called elsewhere) is the international spectator sport, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Nor do I see a change in the United States’ relative lack of interest in soccer once the World Cup is over. Then, we will return to our own sports, most of which are afterthoughts in such soccer hotbeds as Brazil, Argentina, England, Germany and Spain. I’m referring to sports like baseball, where once again no team has a better record than the Yankees (yawn) and where the Red Sox (the team with the second largest payroll in the sport) is poised to give the Yanks a serious challenge down the stretch. So yes, in sports, some things never change. But recently, other things have.
Let’s start with basketball. In 1979, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird first faced each other to end their brilliant college careers, there was no doubt which pro basketball team had dominated the record books. The Celtics had won 13 world championships and Lakers a “mere” 6. Those numbers would both go up rather swiftly in the 1980s, once Bird joined the Celtics and Magic the Lakers, but still, they retired with the tally at 16 and 11 – not nearly as lopsided as before, and yet hardly debatable as to who was on top and who was looking up. At that point, the Celtics had a single player, Bill Russell, who won as many rings as the Laker franchise had won in its history (11), and the Celtics had a coach, Red Auerbach, who had won almost as many titles (9). Plus, in head-to-head matchups, the Celtics were 8-2 against the Lakers and 4-0 in game 7 battles. While it’s true that Magic’s Lakers had won their last two matchups against Bird’s Celtics, the first time Magic faced Bird in an NBA final, the Celtics came out on top. And the series could best be remembered for a single play: the Lakers Kirt Rambis going up for a layup, only to have the Celtics Keven McHale “clothesline” him – i.e., stick out his arm while Rambis was in the air and smack him in the neck, knocking him to the ground. The TV announcer, Celtics legend Tom Heinsohn, spoke as if the play was entirely acceptable and the referees gave McHale but a slap on the wrist, but Laker fans were incensed. That play completely turned the series in the Celtics favor, as the Lakers didn’t retaliate with an equally “physical” response. So even though Magic and his Lakers went on to win three more championships in later years, the Celtics continued to be known as the tougher, and ultimately the more accomplished, franchise.
However, in the last two decades, culminating in Thursday night’s battle, the worm has turned. Finally, the Lakers have beaten the Celtics in a seven game series. What’s more, the Lakers won despite a terrible shooting night by their best player, Kobe Bryant. The victory has been explained by many as a difference in will ¬– the Lakers simply wanted it more, and they got fresher in the fourth quarter, whereas the Celtics wilted. The motivation is clear: the Lakers are now but a single win behind the Celtics in overall NBA titles (17-16), and in terms of overall appearances in the NBA finals, the Lakers trounce the Celtics, 31-21. When it comes to consistent excellence, there is no longer a contest.
Sports is all about “what have you done for me lately,” and lately, the Lakers are by far the better franchise. Since 1980, the Lakers have won ten titles. The Bulls six. Two teams have won four – the Spurs and the Celtics, and three of those four Celtics titles were well over 20 years ago.
What’s more, the two franchises that battled it out this past week seem to be headed in different directions. The Lakers’ best players seem to have plenty of great basketball left, whereas the Celtics “Big Three” are old. Right now, the Lakers are no longer looking up at the Celtics in the pride department, and yet they will continue to be the hungrier franchise, motivated by the desire to finally surpass their rivals in overall titles. In short, if these were companies, it’s pretty clear which stock would be rising and which would be falling. “I Love LA” would be the slogan of every stockbroker in America.
It’s something you couldn’t say about one of LA’s favorite sons, the golfer formerly known as Tiger Woods. Talk about a changing of the guard – nothing in basketball even remotely resembles what is happening now in golf. In case you can’t tell, Tiger has figuratively passed the baton, and by the end of this weekend, he seems poised to make the passage official. If Phil Michelson continues to play even half as well as he did yesterday at the U.S. open, he will be listed as number one in the Official World Golf Rankings by the end of the weekend. As for Tiger Woods, he seems to have thoroughly lost his way as a golfer. Not only is his driving accuracy among the worst on the PGA tour, but he hasn’t even been willing to hire a coach to fix the problem. Tiger’s plan is allegedly to be his own coach – which is kind of like being your own lawyer. I guess that means that Tiger, the coach, has a “fool for a client.” Then again, that hardly needed to be said. Calling Tiger “foolish” would probably be the nicest thing anyone has said about him since Thanksgiving.
Lest it sound like I’m piling on “poor” Tiger, the fact remains that I continue to root for the guy and not for his rival, Michelson. But as a would-be Empathic Rationalist, I have to call it as a I see it: Michelson’s revival has been nearly as remarkable as Tiger’s downfall. It’s as if the “Golfing Gods” wanted a superstar to continue to reign over the other members of the PGA tour, and have simply replaced Tiger with Phil.
Middle America couldn’t be happier – in place of a steely competitor who never signs autographs and loves to cuss after a bad shot, we have a happy-go-lucky, fan-friendly gentleman who has the capacity for magic whenever he’s wielding an iron. Personally, though, I never change loyalties when it comes to sports. I pick a team or an athlete and stay with them, through all the scandals (Tiger), all the torturous defeats (Vikings), and even the threats of going out of business (Twins). I have neither the time nor the energy to alter my allegiance.
The irony of talking about sports on Father’s Day is that even for those of us men who have lived for decades and fathered multiple children, when it comes to sports, we’ll always remain small boys – not fathers, but sons. That’s the joy of it – spectator sports are a way for people of any age to forget all the stresses of the world and cheer mindlessly for whatever side they’ve arbitrarily decided to live or die with.
I often tell people that I named my dog after Kirby Puckett, the baseball player. When the dog was born in 1996, Kirby the Minnesota Twin was one of the most beloved athletes in his sport. Five years later, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first try. But around that time, Puckett the Man also became a controversial character, who among other things, was alleged to have tried to strangle his wife with an electrical cord, and to have yanked another woman into a public bathroom before fondling her. The allegations were awful, and based on what I’ve surmised, there must have been plenty of truth to at least some of them. Yet whenever I see old films of a younger Puckett rounding the bases, jumping over the center field wall to snag a fly ball, or yanking a hanging curve out of the park, I forget all about the other side of his personality.
Young boys don’t need to think about that stuff – certainly not on Father’s Day.