USA vs USSR 1962: the greatest track meet of all time

Annihilation.

Such fatalism and finality we associate with that word.

Yet in the early 1960s, that is exactly what the planet faced as the two world powers of that time postured behind their immense nuclear arsenals. Never before or since had the world been so close to self-destruction.

In the midst of those tense times, perhaps as a subliminal human survival instinct, the two powers somehow continued to participate in a popular athletic rivalry: the USA vs USSR Track and Field dual meet series.

Obviously, Earth survived.

Historians would eventually credit diplomacy, through detente,  glasnost and perestroika, with the ending of that Cold War. But at the moment when fingers in high places crept closest to that mythical red button, the 1962 USA/USSR dual track meet may have just provided the distraction which caused both sides to blink.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had already spewed his famous “We will bury you!” tirade. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba had President John F. Kennedy reeling on the defensive.

Only days before the meet, Soviet experts were secretly whisked to Cuba to oversee the installation of nuclear missile sites—targeting American cities. Fallout shelters and routine survival drills by school children were the order of the day. US pilot Gary Powers had recently been shot down and captured by the Soviets in the famous spy plane incident.

As if confrontation on terrestrial levels were not enough, the so-called “space race” added to the contentious spirit of the times.

It was into this atmosphere of hatred and suspicion that one of the most stirring displays of camaraderie and friendship was injected.

The people groups of the world were much less homogeneous in the early 1960s. The Soviet Union, for example, was hidden from American eyes behind a mysterious shroud of secrecy. Likewise, the Western lifestyle was intentionally shielded from the view of Soviet citizens by their Socialist Party elites.

The tremendous popularity and rivalry of the dual meet series was spawned by national pride and loyalty on both sides, and always seemed to extract the best performances from the athletes.

In the previous meeting at Lenin Stadium in 1961, four world records had been broken. Athletics stars like Wilma Rudolph, Ralph Boston, and Valery Brumel solidified their legendary status at that meet. Signalling a slight warming of foreign relations (at least on the sporting front), ABC’s Wide World of Sports was awarded for the first time an exclusive right to telecast from Moscow.

The American men won that meet, 124-111. The Soviet women won, 68-39. The meet series began in 1958 and ran in off-Olympic years almost continuously through 1985. That era was considered the “Golden Age” of track and field. Outside the Olympics, the USA vs USSR rivalry inspired more world records than any other international competition.

Mirroring that rivalry on the political stage, Khrushchev and Kennedy continued to joust, with all humanity hanging in the balance. Countering Kennedy’s failed plan to invade Cuba, Khrushchev threatened to invade democratic West Berlin. The famed Berlin Wall would later divide the city. American reconnaissance had discovered the Soviet missile sites in Cuba and a 13 day stare-down (the Cuban Missile Crisis) would later ensue.

It was a critical-mass moment in world history…and on a warm July weekend in 1962, a two-day track meet would provide the emotional escape a tense and anxious world was longing for.

The congenial tone of the meet was set by its two greatest proponents and promoters—fittingly an American and a Russian. Former world-class athlete and head track coach at Stanford, Payton Jordan and his Eastern Bloc comrade, Gavriel Korobkov, coach of the Soviet national team, conspired to stage a track meet which had implications beyond their wildest dreams. The two friends had connections reaching back 24 years.

Jordan and Korobkov worked together behind the scenes to convince the AAU (USA’s track and field governing body at the time) to override its east coast bias and hold the meet in Palo Alto, California, the site of Stanford’s campus. Jordan, who was accustomed to track crowds of 10,000 to 20,000, boldly guaranteed the meet would be a sellout and a money-maker.

Known as the “P.T.Barnum of track and field”, Jordan knew how to put on a show. He innovated his track meets with loudspeaker intros, rotating signboards, personalized jerseys and plenty of colorful banners. Aware of television’s intrusive nature, he limited ABC’s producer, Roone Arledge to two roving cameras on the field.

Perhaps Jordan’s piece de resistance was his determination to be a gracious host and welcome Korobkov’s countrymen with warm and open arms.

While negotiations in Washington and Moscow intended to diffuse a ticking time bomb were falling apart, the few days in Palo Alto leading up to the competition were a demonstration of the very best humanity has to offer.

Private homes were opened up to the Soviets. Spontaneous cross-culture pickup games of basketball and baseball broke out in parking lots and streets. Host families organized informal tours of the many attractions in the San Francisco area. Banquets and press conferences were characterized by levity and mutual respect.

The charming Soviet world-record high jumper, Valery Brumel, entertained the press by doing his famous high-kick, touching a basketball rim with his toe, ten feet above ground.

Not one protest or demonstration marred the entire week.

On Saturday, July 21, 1962, 72,500 track fans filed through the gates of Stanford Stadium. The following day, another 81,000 filled the seats. It was the greatest two-day crowd to ever witness a non-Olympic track meet.

While the enthusiastic fans were indeed partisan, any superb effort was rewarded with cheers, regardless of nationality. The Americans were especially curious to get a look at Brumel and long jumper Igor Ter-ovanesyan who had recently eclipsed Ralph Boston’s world record—and of course the famous Press sisters, Tamara and Irina.

In a manner typical of those days, the Americans dominated the sprints, middle distance, and pole vault. The Soviets ruled the longer distance races and jumping events.

The crowd got its money’s worth. “Bullet” Bob Hayes, who went on to a second career with the Dallas Cowboys, won the men’s 100 meters. His female counterpart, the great Wilma Rudolph, noted for her childhood battle with infantile paralysis, won the women’s 100 meters and, through a gutsy anchor leg, secured a dramatic come-from-behind win in the 4×100-meter relay.

Al Oerter, America’s ageless wonder, captured the discus. Jim Beatty, the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile indoors, withstood a Soviet strategy to burn him out early, and won the 1500 meters. Olympic champion Pyotr Bolotnikov amazed the fans with a double win in the 10,000 and 5000 meters.

Tamara Press also captured a double win for the Soviet women in the shot put and discus. Her sister, Irina, won the 80 meter hurdles. Ralph Boston tasted sweet revenge in winning the long jump. His Eastern Bloc rival, Ter-ovanesyan, who had stolen Boston’s world record only weeks earlier was a close second. Another future NFL star Paul Warfield came third.

The crowd was abuzz with the excitement of the world-class drama being played out before it. And with the atmosphere of friendship and unity pervading the stadium, the tensions of a world gone mad seemed far in the distance.

Then the aging giant Harold Connolly gave the home fans a moment to remember in the hammer throw.

Normally the hammer is contested outside the main arena for reasons of safety. Thanks to some clever intuition on Jordan’s part, for this meet Connolly had center stage. Some critics had considered Connolly a washout for his poor showing in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The fans seemed to take this criticism personally and stood in unison as “Hal” launched a missile of his own to a new world record, 231’10”.

It is probable the shouts of the crowd were heard all the way to San Jose. Connolly would later set two more world records before retiring. Washout indeed!

Even with all the incredible talent gathered in Stanford Stadium that weekend, there was no denying the main attraction at this meet was Valery Brumel. After clearing 7’2″, Brumel’s last competitor (former world-record holder, John Thomas) was out.

The bar was raised to 7’3″. Brumel cleared easily.

The bar went to 7’5″, a new world-record height.

There was silence. Then Brumel approached the pit in long strides, finally converting lateral speed into upward thrust. His lead foot rose high in the air, just like his earlier high-kick antics for the press. His body followed, barely brushing the bar. Suspense held everyone’s breath captive as the bar settled…and held.

Like a cannon’s report, 81,000 voices boomed at once. A five-minute standing ovation followed. Brumel was mobbed by Soviets and Americans. Ter-ovanesyan would later remark, “It was not two teams. It was one team.”

In the awards ceremony that followed, Tamara Press emphasized the overall goodwill with a little comic relief: when 5’3″ Harold Berlinger struggled to reach Press’s head, Tamara grabbed Berlinger by the armpits and hoisted him higher in order for him to place the medal over her head. She then sealed the deal with a kiss to his bald forehead.

If any pent-up tension remained in the crowd at that moment, it was released in a torrent of laughter.

Perhaps the most symbolic and heart-gripping moment came as the athletes prepared to exit the stadium. The plan was to exit directly through the south end, in two columns. At the head of the columns, American John Thomas and Soviet javelinist Viktor Tsybulenko held a mini summit meeting of their own and decided instead to make a final victory lap.

All the athletes followed in unison, holding hands, embracing, waving their national colors. The fans stood and cheered as the entire formation of American and Soviet athletes completed their lap, then disappeared through the south gate.

The press would report that the American men won, 128-107 and the Soviet women prevailed, 66-41. No one really cared.

And no one wanted to leave. The Marine Corps Band continued to play for nearly an hour. Tears came easily for most of the record crowd as a cleansing torrent of emotion washed over them.

Ralph Boston would later recall, “I can’t remember if the Cold War ever came into my mind at any time. All I was thinking was ‘here was this super track and field team from the other side of the world…'”

A sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner would later describe it as “the greatest track meet of all time.”

Based solely on the athletes in attendance and their remarkable feats, an argument could be made in support of that statement. However, it’s almost certain the writer was referring to something intangible, beyond the physical plane. Something higher. Something more enduring.

* * *

Two months later, a nuclear exchange seemed imminent, as the Cuban Missile Crisis reached the boiling point. Then in October, finally, mercifully, an agreement was reached for a mutual withdrawal of missiles from Cuba and Turkey. Eventually more talks ensued, resulting in increasing stages of nuclear disarmament.

Today, the nuclear threat still exists. But now there are several modern deterrents to that threat: an increased awareness of the finality of its potential, an ever-increasing value on human life, and a realization that the good of mankind shines brightest in the darkest hours—and that benevolent, respectful side of humanity – at least at the grass roots level – is worth saving.

Is it possible the seeds of that revelation were planted on a summer weekend in Palo Alto in 1962?

Some think so.

-written May, 2009

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Life as a sports prophet: not as glamorous as you think

What does it profit a man to be a sports prophet?

A person with whom I am very familiar was once in the business of sports prognostication. He was very good.

I imagine even the mighty Zultan would concur: the prophet business is not all peaches and cream. Let the truly wise among you read these words and ponder…

In some unknown burg or ville or dale,
in the safety of darkness’ breast –
across the tracks, behind some shacks, in shadowy secret nest,
past a pallet bridge and a discarded fridge,
in a cave made of dairy crates
our hero steals nightly, slinking ever so quietly to his fortress of solace and rest

For the morning will dawn soon enough
and with it, the trappings of fame:
a three-piece suit, a case full of loot, a Learjet, a limo, a name.
With scratching and clawing, pulling and pawing,
his suitors know not to relent.
Why all the commotion, hysteric devotion? The future’s the name of his game.

Monte Carlo, Vegas, Cairo, Cancun,
Caracas, New York, Singapore.
The world’s his stage, he’s all the rage. Sheiks knock upon his door.
With laptop astow, ’round the world he does go
to answer the questions of kings –
for somehow he wrings the mysterious things of the future and brings them to fore.

Without further ado, let me introduce you
to the one who has caused all the stir.
They call him Big Red—the redhead with cred.
The Seer Supreme, as it were.
His methods are hidden, his hunches are ridden.
Events seem to follow his lead.
I don’t understand— he just gives the command and the future unfolds at his word.

“Can the ‘Horns beat the Tide?”  “Should Tiger go hide?”
“Will the Cubbies win two out of three?”
“Can Rafa beat Fed?”  “Is Elvis dead?”
The questions come unceasingly.
Not to mention the Mob (Oh, the risks of his job!).
He sports Kevlar underwear.
Though the lucre does flow, somehow I don’t know how he clings to his sanity.

(This is how…)

In some unknown burg or ville or dale,
in the safety of darkness’ breast
across the tracks, behind some shacks, in shadowy secret nest
past a pallet bridge, and a discarded fridge,
in a cave made of dairy crates
our hero steals nightly, slinking ever so quietly to his fortress of solace and rest.

-written March, 2009

Published in: on November 21, 2010 at 8:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Pocket

It was summer, in the late 1950s. I was a young kid about to enter the “Sandblasters” – an intermediate baseball league, just a step below Little League.

My old hand-me-down ball glove was feeling it’s age, so I was saving my money for a new one. The fact that all my friends were sporting new gloves may have fueled my motives as well…

Finally the day arrived when I had enough cash to plunk down $8.95 at the Montgomery Wards store and buy my very own mitt. I didn’t care that it was a Hawthorne, Wards’ economy “house brand”.

It had a great new-leather smell and it was a Stan Musial signature model.

After the initial thrill began to wear off, I noticed it was rather stiff and felt awkward in my hand. It had no “pocket”, like my old glove.

Horsehide in cowhide - one of sport's simple pleasures.

A pocket is important in a baseball mitt. It is the very heart of the glove—a vague yet tangible “sweet spot” inside the webbing, where every hit or thrown ball would ideally be captured.

In the mind of a yet unspoiled and innocent lad, the pocket held a certain mystique—a magnetic attraction to any spherical horsehide object in motion.

My brother told me how I could quickly form a pocket in my new glove: oil the mitt generously with goose grease, place a ball in the web of the glove, then close the glove around the ball and tie it tightly with a rawhide shoelace.

For some yet unknown reason, it was also important to place the bundle under my pillow and sleep on it.

The next morning I anxiously unwrapped shoelace, glove and ball to behold my masterpiece.

My attempt to produce a feature which only time, repetition and everyday use could form, left me with a greasy, stinky glove—a grimy pillow case—and still no pocket.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A ready-to-eat microwave meal may be convenient, but it will never have the flavor, nutrition or satisfaction of a slowly simmered stew.

~

Clever marketing tells me I don’t have to break-in my new/old stone-washed, faded jeans. I am led to believe some peasant washer-woman has already scrubbed the life out of them at river’s edge.

~

In an effort to circumvent the natural maturing process, some of our greatest athletes have turned to “trainer’s little helper” in order to reach their career goals a little sooner.

~

A writer takes a questionable, yet effective shortcut to achieve a notoriety only years of wadded-up misfires can produce.

~

Need I expound on the virtues of a fine, aged wine as opposed to a jug of Ripple?

~

Most good things in life take time. The cheap imitation ultimately disappoints.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I put that greasy Stan Musial signature glove on the shelf and played ball that summer with my faithful old mitt.

Eventually the strings rotted away and the cotton stuffing began to spill out. I pulled the Hawthorne off the shelf.  It was my introduction to a new journey in the lessons of “seasoning”.

People are a lot like a baseball glove.

We begin some new task feeling a little stiff and awkward. The first few balls hit our way may bounce off the heel of the glove – or escape like a spilled ice cream scoop off the top of the webbing.

We may be tempted to bypass the break-in period.

But then, after a few more stinging line drives and bad hops, we loosen up a bit and a comfortable sweet spot begins to form in the very heart of our being.

We return to an innocent child-like “knowing” that the object of our endeavor will eventually find it’s mark.

It’s called “the pocket”…and there are no shortcuts.

 

-written June, 2009

Published in: on November 21, 2010 at 9:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Harlem Globetrotters: they’re why you love basketball

Is there anything more Americana than basketball and the soulful strains of Sweet Georgia Brown?

When Professor James Naismith nailed that peach basket to the wall in 1891, he couldn’t have imagined the popularity his invention would someday enjoy around the world.

When promoter Abe Saperstein gathered five poor inner-city kids from Chicago’s South Side to play some serious basketball in 1926, how could he have known the destiny of fame and goodwill that would one day materialize?

The six-foot Naismith and the five-foot Saperstein; astute academian and absolute comedian; oil and water, fire and ice. As individuals, they were almost polar opposites.

But when the brainchild of the professor and the vision of the promoter happened to cross paths, something magical and enduring and beyond anyone’s wildest dreams was set in motion.

When evaluating success, it is often useful to look to the past. Hindsight offers a great perspective on the turning points, opportunities, happenstance and even the mistakes which all contributed to the positive outcome.

With that in mind, let us trace the course of basketball in general and its intersection with the path of its greatest proponent, the Harlem Globetrotters.

Basketball was an almost instant success after its inception. Within five years, intercollegiate competition was organized. Semi-pro tournament teams began to appear as the demand for the fast-paced, fan-friendly game increased. These early teams would tour the eastern United States, barely surviving on their meager cut of the gate receipts.

By the mid-1920s, there were several leagues playing in the major cities of the East.

The early forerunner to the NBA was an all-white league, which often struggled to find quality players and fill seats. Meanwhile, the black leagues were packing the house, yet not realizing the financial compensation and social status of the elite pro league.

It was in this segregated environment that the Jewish entrepreneur, Abe Saperstein, put together his all-black quintet in the South Side of Chicago. They were called the Savoy Big Five after the Savoy Ballroom where they played their home games.

Due to financial constraints, Saperstein served as coach, manager, trainer, chauffeur, dishwasher, and first-and-only substitute off the bench. The comical sight of the waist-high, pot-bellied businessman playing in the land of bean-pole giants was a portent of things to come.

Despite Saperstein’s casual, almost comical persona, the man understood the finer points of talent and promotion. He changed the name of his team to the Harlem Big Five to stress the image of an all-black team—although it would not be until 1968 that his famous team even played a game in Harlem, New York.

In order to portray the suave image of world travelers (although they hadn’t yet ventured beyond the Midwest), Saperstein dubbed his club the Harlem Globetrotters. Thus, in the finest tradition of the consummate promoter, P.T.Barnum, he prophetically (if not accidentally), marketed his team for the future.

The Globetrotters were so talented and successful as a team they almost “won” themselves out of a job. They compiled season records of 101-6, 145-13, and 151-13 in their first three years.

They so dominated the league that willing opponents were becoming increasingly difficult to find. On one occasion, the Globetrotters were beating their latest “victim” 112-5. The crowd was becoming bored and started to leave early.

In one of those moments of heaven-sent brilliance, Saperstein stepped into his destiny.

He ordered his players to lighten up a bit, clown around a little, do the razzle-dazzle thing—like in practice.

The fans returned to their seats.

Although the game still ended as a blowout, the spectators left with a smile, having gotten their money’s worth and more.

At times, Meadowlark seemed to be all arms.

The comedic, slapstick routine became a regular part of the Harlem Globetrotters’ game. The combination of quality basketball and showmanship filled the arenas and cranked the turnstiles wherever the traveling troupe played.

Saperstein’s Globetrotters began to turn a profit. They also began to turn heads at the highest levels of basketball. The early 1940s were dominated by the boys from Chicago. They won the prestigious (black) World Basketball Championship and two International Cups.

They sold out arenas, developed a faithful fan base and seemingly were on top of the world.

Their course appeared to be charted.

But one ugly obstacle remained in their path: because of the color of their skin, they were still not allowed to play in the one professional league which mattered.

It was inevitable that the NBA would finally catch wind of the rumblings in the semi-pro leagues by teams such as the Globetrotters and the New York Rens. In 1948, Saperstein and the NBA worked out a deal. The Harlem Globetrotters would go up against the Minneapolis Lakers – the NBA’s best –  in an exhibition game.

Speculation and anticipation ran rampant as basketball fans across the land wondered how a team of comedian/entertainers would fare against the reigning NBA champs.

A record crowd watched, as it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a grudge match—but not because of race. The Lakers, not wanting the embarrassment of losing to a team of clowns, brought their best game. The Globetrotters quickly realized the quality of their opponent and sidelined their antics.

In a hard-fought, back-and-forth game, the Trotters prevailed, 61-59.

The Lakers wanted a rematch and another exhibition game was set up the following year. The Harlem Globetrotters confirmed their legitimacy as an NBA-caliber team in a 49-45 win.

The NBA’s color line was now on shaky ground.

Regrettably, it was not yet a sense of decency but one of financial expediency which forced the league to reconsider its racial policies.

The very next year, Charles “Chuck” Cooper, drafted by the Boston Celtics, was the first black man to set foot on an NBA court. Soon to follow were the likes of Earl Lloyd and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton.

Saperstein, a noted advocate of minority causes, was of course delighted that his team played such a large role in the integration of basketball. But it was a double-edged sword. Very quickly, the NBA began to draw the most talented black players and within a decade the semi-pro leagues all but vanished.

As the NBA began to prosper, the Globetrotters were losing their best players to the pro draft. Future stars like Clifton, Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins stopped off first with the Harlem Globetrotters on their way to great careers in the NBA.

But Saperstein made lemonade out of lemons. He refocused his team on clowning, tricks, and jokes—and took the Globetrotter name literally. Travel abroad became a staple in their schedule.

Michael "Wild Thing" Wilson can get up. He regularly dunks on a 12-foot hoop.

Then, all across the globe, many people got their first exposure to James Naismith’s wonderful game—with a comical twist of course.

The Trotters never really lost their popularity with the expansion of the NBA—in fact, it increased. They became known more as entertainers than serious competitors, but the post-war world seemed ready for the likes of a  Meadowlark Lemon and a “Curly” Neal.

Through the decades since, the Globetrotters have played more than 25,000 games in 118 countries, bringing goodwill and laughter to over 200 million people—all while promoting the game of basketball.

Posthumously, Naismith and Saperstein were both inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The inventor and the innovator brought just the right ingredients to make an already fun game into something special. With a little imagination, one can almost envision the two looking down at their successful collaboration, engaging in a heavenly high-five.

Given today’s high profile players and Madison Avenue marketing, it would be understandable if the reader pointed to a particular player or team as a reason for loving the game.

It would even make sense if one justified his affection for the game by citing “family tradition.”

But way down deep, in the core of your sporting soul (or at least, in your funny bone), you know—yes, you know…the Harlem Globetrotters made you love basketball.

-written June, 2009

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 11:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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Skydance: the secret tryst of the pole vaulter

Not many hear the music, let alone embrace the dance

I wait, rehearsing the steps in my mind
At the end of the runway – the bar, as a taunting rival – silently stands
even daring to touch the object of my dreams
I lift my eyes to the deep blue beckoning of my tantalizing partner

The music begins…

Like a charger-mounted knight I raise the lance
Fair Lady waits with a wink of romance
If strength and form come together perchance
the sky and the rider will embrace in the dance

Planting the pole, it bends like a hickory bow
I lay back, thrusting feet upward at the bow’s release
Straight as an arrow, into a handstand I twist – six meters high
Then, as a jackknife closing, over the bar

Releasing the pole, on my partner entranced
I pass over my rival with nary a glance

When the aerie Lady and I join hands
for the briefest of moments
, ours is the dance

The music fades…

As if torn from a lover, I fall back to earth
The lingering fragrance, the fading notes sustain my joy a little longer
Then, the cheers remind me: the crowd sees only the jilted rival
They know nothing of the sky dance.  Just as well…

Secrecy only sweetens its beauty.

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Miracle on Westholm Street

It was the middle of the night. I couldn’t sleep. In fact, I was wide awake.

I got up, dressed, and decided to take a little walk.

As I headed out the door, I noticed it was unusually warm for 1 a.m. in early April. The moon was nearly full and cast a supernatural glow on everything uncovered by roof or tree.

I was struck by a certain magic in the air.

Westholm Park was just a few blocks away, and the walk would provide a pleasant stroll through a sleepy neighborhood.

As I neared Westholm Street, I heard the sound of activity up at the park. The unmistakable squeaking of sneakers and pounding of leather told me the basketball court was in use.

As I drew closer, it seemed strange that only the moonlight illuminated the court.

Apparently, someone else wasn’t sleeping and decided to burn off a little energy. Perhaps a couple of workers un-winding after a long swing shift…

A thick wall of ivy neatly woven into the chain-link fence prevented me from seeing the action. I was  intrigued, considering the hour, and the sense of mystique in the air. I decided to keep my distance, hide in the shadows and just listen.

It’s amazing what the ears can perceive when the eyes are blocked. I quickly discerned there were only two players on the court. It was a one-on-one competition and it was more than just a friendly shoot-around.

The distinct absence of huffing and puffing told me these guys were in shape. The deep, mature tone in their voices indicated full-grown men, probably in their prime — not boys.

The frequent, unmistakable ripping sound of a clean long-range shot; the percussion and timbre of the powerful dunks spoke to me of extraordinary skill and strength. The sound of bone meeting bone, of grunts and groans told of more than just casual contact.

My interest was piqued. I moved closer to better hear the obvious trash talk.

“Dang, bro! Where’d you pick up that move…in a Gheorghe Muresan training video?”
“Watch me now.” (shuck, jive, drop-back)…rip!

“Earv, my man. I just made it up on the spot – like this!”slam!

“Helluva move, Mike…’Tarheels suck!” (juke, stutter-step)…rip!

“Lay off my boys, Johnson. Your Sparts are weak, unlike this!”whong!

I couldn’t believe my ears! The voices were so familiar. And their verbal barbs only confirmed my growing suspicions. I was desperate to have a peek.

But no—I caught myself. This was too special.

It occurred to me that beholding this moment with my eyes might somehow cause the whole scene to go “poof.” I slithered back into the shadows long enough to hear their parting words.

“I’m pooped, Mike. Let’s call it a draw.”

“OK, Johnson. But this ain’t finished. We’ll meet again.”

Spooky silence. Only the light of the moon and the calm, warm air. I never heard the sound of a gate swinging closed, or fading footsteps into the night. Somehow I just knew they were…gone.

I slowly turned to walk back down Westholm toward home.

I was struck by a certain magic in the air.

(written in April, 2009)

Published in: on November 19, 2010 at 8:54 pm  Comments (2)  
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Bring back the Chuck Taylors (for a longer NBA career)

Aahhh...Chuck Taylors - simple functionality

Remember Astroturf?

It was the original artificial playing surface and was installed in the Houston Astrodome in the late 1960s.

My poor old grandpa had a hissy fit when the dome was built, saying “You don’t play baseball in a house!” So when the fake grass came on the scene, he nearly blew a gasket.

His consternation was soon justified as teams began to compete on the turf. The overall percentage of ankle and knee injuries increased dramatically in the next few years, especially in football. The conventional cleats would snag on the rug and stop the foot on a dime. The rest of the athlete would continue in motion due to gravity and momentum.

Something had to give. In most cases, it was the ligaments and tendons.

Innovative designers came up with special turf shoes with less traction and more ‘give’. Injuries declined. In the years leading up to the present, both shoes and turf have evolved together—and today, we’re almost back to real grass and real cleats again. (Stay with me – this is going somewhere.)

Lets jump over to the basketball court now.

Is it just me, or has the overall percentage of ankle and knee injuries steadily increased in the NBA since the days of Cousy and West?

It seems to me that players are going down right and left with season-ending leg injuries.

Is it possible that in the quest to design the perfect shoe, we now have a product that is too good?

Let me explain: today’s basketball shoes are designed for comfort, lightness and traction. It’s that last feature I want to hone in on. These shoes are super ‘sticky’.

The design intent of course was to help the athlete cut, drive, and stop on a dime. It’s my contention that modern shoes are too sticky, with almost no give.

The human foot, with its muscle, connective tissue and skin, was designed with the perfect amount of natural give. But confine that foot in a tightly-laced, form-fitted shoe with a sticky sole, add months of cutting, driving, stopping, and you’re looking at stressed or weakened joints and a tragic injury waiting to happen.

What I’m getting at is this: “Hey, Nike and Adidas. Is there a way to lighten up on the “stick’em” a little bit? Yeah, go ahead and mold the shoe to the athlete’s foot and add a little more cushion. Go to knee-highs if you want. Just realize it’s OK to stop on a dollar instead of a dime.”

I’m not an expert. Just an old guy who used to play in Converse All-Stars. By today’s standards those shoes wouldn’t hold a candle to the comfortable, cushy, air-lights of this age.

But by golly, those shoes would let you slide. Just enough to keep your knees under you—and to come back to play another year.

-first published at Bleacher Report, August, 2008

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 3:04 am  Comments (1)  
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Rojo’s Henhouse Adventure

Normally, I’m the faithful type.

A sentry at heart, I know my duties. I’m familiar with my territory. I regularly mark its boundaries and am the first to respond to any perceived threat.

I sound the alarm to those I’m bound to protect, and issue a warning to any stranger approaching my turf.

Aside from the occasional run in the park or stroll along the riverbank, this is my life.

My reward is a warm bed, a regular meal, and the companionship of my charge. A rare, bone-shaped “cookie” tells me I’ve done something exceptional.

I’m also the curious type.

When someone leaves the back gate open, what’s a fella to do?

I cautiously scan the area and notice a garden, some tools and implements. An intriguing wooden structure squats in the shade of the far corner.

I proceed into this new realm, slinking jackal-like, following my nose. A momentary awareness that I’ve left my post prompts a quick glance back.

Alas, curiosity and adventure win out, as I hone in on the shed.

Nose to the ground, I make two circuits around the place. There is definitely something inside, alive and warm. Overcome with pride at my discovery, I lift a leg to stake my claim.

Before I can open the valve, the little house explodes with such a commotion, I leave my feet with surprise and fear. Returning to earth, I gather my thoughts and try to sort this thing out.

Jibber-jabber, cluck, cluck. It’s as if a normal male function somehow triggered a great protest.

I must know more about the occupants of this structure. A knothole provides my next opportunity. Nose-first, I investigate the interior. The smell of straw…feathers…femininity and…OUCH! They must have knives!

Their cackling almost sounds like laughter.

A nostalgic thought of my comfy, old familiar haunts brings a wistful stare at the gate…

But once again, adventure – and now danger – pique my curiosity. I’m goin’ in!

With all the natural athletic ability I possess, I leap the wire fence, stride across the pen and insert my head through the tiny door.

What interesting creatures! Some redheads, some blond, some brunette, some speckled. Strutting around like they own the place. And their features: crowns like royalty, wings to fly, soft feathery robes and…and…TALONS!

Before I have time to feel the inevitable pain, I am over the fence and through the gate, tail appropriately between the legs.

It’s an interesting lot, over there in the henhouse. They just seem to gab all day long and every now and then one will make a big fuss over some great achievement. They seem like a social bunch alright, but don’t be taking a nosy, pushy attitude over there. You’ll feel the pain.

Look at ’em over there, laughing at me. Females…who needs ’em?

Me? I think I’ll just keep to my own yard. I’d rather face bullies, thugs, and burglars any day.

-originally written January, 2009

Published in: on November 16, 2010 at 9:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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