Sports postsTuesday June 07, 2016
Ali in Atlanta: the Perfect Choice
Joe Posnanski has a nice piece on how Muhammad Ali came to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, with a key exchange coming between the Atlanta Olympic Committee, who wanted Atlanta's own Edwin Moses, and NBC's Dick Ebersol, who suggested the 1960 Olympic gold medalist in heavyweight boxing:
“I think I have a better choice,” Ebersol said. The Atlanta people leaned in.
“Muhammad Ali,” he said.
The three men looked at each other. Finally, one of them spoke up.
“Wasn't he a draft dodger?” he said.
Ebersol, and Poz, go on to explain why Ali wasn't a draft dodger—he didn't dodge anything, he stood firm and upright—and how Ebersol convinced the Atlantans that Ali was the man. Poz then writes how the reporters gathered that night tried to figure out who that final torcher bearer would be. Mark Spitz? Carl Lewis? Janet Evans?
“There were undoubtedly some people who suspected that Ali might light the cauldron,” Poz writes, “but I didn't know any of those people.”
I was in Seattle, watching it on TV, back when we all watched the same thing at the same time, and, like everybody else, I too was ticking off the candidates. I think we saw each of the above run with the torch and hand it off to someone else. Didn't we? Anyway, as the possibilities ticked away, I searched back and asked myself this: Who is the most famous American athlete who is also an Olympic gold medalist? Who is the best representative of American athletic prowess? That's when I thought of Ali. And not only did I suspect it would be him, I would be angry if it wasn't him. He was the perfect choice. I just didn't know how much work went into making others realize it.
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)
He was a star so young, and got old so fast, and was silent for so long, that it was a surprise to me that Muhammad Ali was only 74 when he died yesterday.
In the 1970s, when I was growing up, we weren't a boxing family, and I wasn't a “Wide World of Sports” guy, and I had that Minnesota aversion to braggarts, but Ali was ubiquitous. When I became aware of him he was already champion a second time. When he did it an unprecedented third time, I kept the newspaper. That was the world I grew up into: Harmon Killebrew always hit two homeruns, the Vikings always lost the Super Bowl, Muhammad Ali was always champion of the world. I thought it was stable.
I remember seeing a news report about the Soviet Union in the late '70s, early '80s, maybe about the refreezing of the Cold War. People on the streets of Moscow were being interviewed; one young Russian man, 20s, wore a Muhammad Ali T-shirt. I loved that. I felt such pride in that. The things that transcend geographical and ideological boundaries. I thought: Here is our power.
We'll hear a lot of effusive praise over the next few days, weeks, years, but it's worth remembering that Ali was once disliked by many Americans. Despised even. Bill Siegel's documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” begins with this hatred, and it's startling, the invective, spoken right to his face, by David Susskind: “He's a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly calls his profession”:
His true heroism is right there, taking those blows, staring down that invective. It's in the sacrifice he made. Most of us compromise in the shitty jobs we have so we can keep those shitty jobs, while here was a guy who was the best in the world at what he did. Undisputed. And he gave it up, in his prime years, for a political/religious stand, and despite the hatred and invective that it brought down upon him.
“When We Were Kings” is a well-known, much-recommended doc on the Ali-Foreman fight. Less well-known is Norman Mailer's excellent book, “The Fight.” I also recommend his essay on the first Ali-Frazier fight, “King of the Hill,” which begins with a word that describes both writer and subject well: Ego! Ali lost that fight, but it went 15; and Mailer, with his usual gift for prognostication, writes at the end:
The world was talking instantly of a rematch. For Ali had shown America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man. He could bear moral and physical torture and he could stand. And if he could beat Frazier in the rematch, we would have at last a national hero who was hero of the world as well...
A Few Thoughts on the History of Sports Illustrated's 'Sportsman of the Year'
1954, 1967, 1996.
I was simply looking to see if Secretariat was Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1973 and got lost in SI's coverage of its covers: every Sportsman/men or Sportswoman/women of the Year between 1954 (Roger Bannister) and 2015 (Serena Williams). It's an interesting list.
First, no Secretariat. No animals. Just people. That year they gave it to Jackie Stewart, the race car driver, rather than the horse who won the Triple Crown with times, in each race, that still haven't been broken.
Some titles, you assume, SI would want back: Lance Armstrong in 2002, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, Joe Paterno in 1986.
That's another thing: More than a few coaches here, mostly college, mostly basketball and football. No baseball managers made the cut:
- 2011: Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski
- 1997: Dean Smith
- 1993: Don Shula (the only pro coach)
- 1986: Joe Paterno
- 1972: John Wooden (shared w/Billie Jean King)
- 1963: Pete Rozelle
King was the first woman, by the way, 18 years after it started, and she had to share. The first solo woman on the cover was Chris Evert in '76. The next was Mary Decker in '83. The third, Serena, in 2015. Bit of a gap.
The first African-American? Rafer Johnson in 1958, followed by Bill Russell in 1968, followed by (about time) Muhammad Ali in '74. So in the first 20 years, 1954-73, only two African-Americans were honored.
Baseball has dominated. That surprised me:
|Athletes Who Care||1|
Tiger Woods was tapped twice, in '96 and 2000, which seems a bit much, particularly considering who never got it: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Walter Payton, Wilt Chamberlain, Martina Navratilova, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer. The only male tennis star was Arthur Ashe in 1992, i.e., right before his death, speaking out against racism in sport. No Mark Spitz, either, which seems odd. No Carl Lewis, either. 1972 went to Wooden/King, '84 to Edwin Moses/Mary Lou Retton. I guess? 1980 went to the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, a good choice.
Trivia question: Who was the first black baseball player to get the title? Answer: Willie Stargell in 1979, and he had to share with Terry Bradshaw in a “Pittsburgh champions” cover. Stargell was indicative in one sense: He was the World Series MVP that year, and most of SI's baseball SOTY have been World Series MVPs:
|2014||Madison Bumgarner||San Francisco Giants||World Series MVP|
|2009||Derek Jeter||New York Yankees||On World Series winning team|
|2004||Boston Red Sox||Boston Red Sox||World Series winners|
|2001||Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling||Arizona Diamondbacks||World Series MVPs|
Mark McGwire/ Sammy Sosa
|1995||Cal Ripken, Jr.||Baltimore Orioles||Consecutive game streak|
|1988||Orel Hershiser||Los Angeles Dodgers||World Series MVP|
|1979||Willie Stargell||Pittsburgh Pirates||World Series MVP|
|1975||Pete Rose||Cincinnati Reds||World Series MVP|
|1969||Tom Seaver||New York Mets||On World Series-winning team (MVP: Donn Clendenon)|
|1967||Carl Yastrzemski||Boston Red Sox||On World Series-losing team (WS MVP: Bob Gibson)|
|1965||Sandy Koufax||Los Angeles Dodgers||World Series MVP|
|1957||Stan Musial||St. Louis Cardinals||2nd in NL MVP (to Hank Aaron)|
|1955||Johnny Podres||Brooklyn Dodgers||World Series MVP|
It's interesting checking out when it didn't go to the World Series MVP. In '57, Hank Aaron won the NL MVP, the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series, and in it he hit .393 with 3 homeruns and 7 RBIs but didn't win the MVP because Lew Burdette had one of the greatest Series ever: 3-0, 27 IP, 2 earned runs, 0.67 ERA. He was Christy Mathewson for a week. So why not Burdette? I guess because his season was good but not great: No Cy Young votes. So why not the guy who was the best position player on the champs and who was also NL MVP? Why choose the guy who finished second to him in the MVP voting and whose team didn't even make the Series? You know why. Business concerns, too, probably. You don't want the South rising in anger again, as it did when SI put Willie Mays on the cover with manager Leo Durocher and Durocher's wife.
It's tough to argue Yaz in '67 but Bob Gibson did go 3-0 in the Series that year. Seaver? Best player on the upstart Mets, but he went 1-1 in the Series when his team went 4-1. No Clemente in '71 or Reggie in '77. Lee Trevino and Steve Cauthen, respectively. As a result, the only African-American baseball player to be honored without a white guy next to him was Derek Jeter in 2009. Jeter had a good season that year, finishing third in MVP voting, but led the league in nothing. He also had a good postseason, and even hit .409 in the Series. But the better postseasons were had by A-Rod, who kept crushing homers, and Hideki Matsui, the World Series MVP, who batted .615 (you read that right) with 3 homers and 8 RBIs. But Jeter was the face of the franchise. He also sold magazines.
The list is often reflective of its times, and most likely of SI's readership: the big three + golf. It ignored women and black athletes for too long, then fumbled trying to make it up to them (1970s/ early '80s), then seemed to lose interest at least where women were concerned. Until last year, that is, when, for the first time, it chose a black woman. And what happened? Readers thought it should've been a horse. Plus ca change.
Meadowlark Lemon (1932-2015)
Meadowlark, with his game face on.
I first knew him as part of a Saturday morning cartoon show, “Harlem Globe Trotters,” which debuted in September 1970, and which, I suppose, is how I came to know basketball. What I didn’t know: He wasn’t doing his own voice (Scatman Crothers was), and it was the first regular network cartoon to feature a mostly African-American cast—beating “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” by two years. But I was a kid, and truly color blind then. The blinds came off a few years later.
I also remember him from the live-action variety show “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine” (“And now/Rodney Allen Rippy, take a bow”), which debuted in 1974, as well as all of those commercials he did. He shilled for Vitalis, stacked Whoppers for Burger King, squeezed the Charmin. The Globetrotters even solved a mystery with Scooby Doo and the gang.
I also remember seeing them once in person in the early 1970s at, I believe, the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn. I think I expected the up-close “wow” factor of the cartoons and was slightly disappointed to be so far away from them and their antics.
Of course you could never forget his name: Meadowlark Lemon. So mellifluous. So beautiful.
Am I the only one who remembers a theme song for him? Because I can’t find it anywhere online, and almost every pop cultural scrap is online now. It went something like this:
Dah dah dah dah dah
He’s so dah, and so dah
Dah dah dah dah dah
And everybody’s sayin’
Oh Meadowlark Oh Lemon
Everybody loves you, Meadowlark
Probably to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” per the Globetrotters own theme song. Anyone?
The Washington Post has a nice obit on the man born Meadow George Lemon in 1932 in Wilmington, N.C., which doesn’t mention the cartoon show; so does The New York Times, which does. Both obits tell me more of what I didn’t know: that before they were a pop cultural phenomenon, the Harlem Globetrotters were a cultural one. I.e., before they regularly played their foils, the Washington Generals, in games that were mostly antics, they played college All-Stars and NBA championship teams in games that were mostly serious. It was a segregated era, and the Globetrotters regularly beat the best white teams, and helped integrate basketball as a result. The first black player signed to an NBA contract was Globetrotters center Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in 1950. Four years later, Meadowlark joined the Trotters and quickly became its leader and star.
They really were basketball’s good-will ambassadors. One wonders if the sport would’ve become the global phenomenon it’s become, as quickly as it’s become, without them.
This Times article is from 1950:
This one is from 1959:
Eventually their performances, perhaps out of necessity, because less serious, more comedy. For some, it was out of step in an era of black power. They paved the way but were criticized by those for whom they paved it.
There was a fall throughout the ’70s, and bottom may have been the made-for-TV movie, “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” in 1981. Meadowlark had left the team by then over a contract dispute, and was making his own name on TV (“Hello, Larry”) and in movies (“The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh”). But he more or less disappeared from mainstream media by the mid-1980s.
The most startling quote from both obits comes from Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the Globetrotters for a year, in 1959, and who said the following before his death in 1999:
Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.
There’s a good documentary to be made here.
#tbt: Halloween 1972
Admittedly not a very scary costume, even if, once upon a time, the Vikings' defense was known as the Purple People Eaters. I was a small, sickly kid who never played football and could barely do the three-point stance. But I did love this team.
Purple People Eaten.
Memory tells me I began to get into the Minnesota Vikings the year Gary Cuozo led them to a 7-7 record, but Football Reference tells me my memory sucks. The last year Cuozo was the Vikings' main QB was in '71, when they went 11-3 but lost in the divisional playoffs to the Dallas Cowboys. It was the next season, the first with Fran Tarkenton as QB again, that we went 7-7 and didn't make the playoffs—the only season between '68 and '78, actually, that the Vikings didn't make the playoffs. I believe the above photo is from that 7-7 season.
There was an early karmic symmetry to the Super Bowl that I noticed back then and relied upon in some sad fashion. It went like this:
- The loser of the first Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs, won Super Bowl IV three years later.
- The loser of the third Super Bowl, the Baltimore Colts, won Super Bowl V two years later.
- The loser of the fifth Super Bowl, the Dallas Cowboys, won Super Bowl VI a year later.
- The loser of the sixth Super Bowl, the Miami Dolphins, won Super Bowl VII a year later.
So it was my assumption that when the loser of the fourth Super Bowl, my Minnesota Vikings, played the Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII, we would finally get our due. It would be our time for cosmic, karmic rebalancing. Right? Or at least, for God's sake, in Super Bowl IX against the Steelers? Or, c'mon, for fuck's sake, against the Raiders in Super Bowl XI?