Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Fathers and sports

When a Hollywood studio makes the movie "based on the true story" of the life of Tiger Woods, the achingly sweet ending will have Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open on Father's Day, less than one month after his father, Earl Woods, passes away. But as all golfers know, the golf gods would just as soon crush you as lift you up, so Tiger went home early this weekend, missing the cut in a major for the first time in his professional career. And as if that weren't enough for the mischievous spirits of the game, they reminded Phil Mickelson that just because you've won a few majors doesn't mean you can win when you play like an idiot, to use Mickelson's own word. (Anybody else hear a little Chris Farley in that quote? Throw in a smirking David Spade and you've got yourself a modestly successful straight-to-DVD release produced by Lorne Michaels). Of course, the actual winner of the tournament, Australian Geoff Ogilvy, found himself overshadowed by the collapses of Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie.

But the big sports story in Maryland today was not the U.S. Open, the World Cup, the NBA Finals, not the Orioles or the Ravens and certainly not the Stanley Cup. No, the big story, the one that made me feel old again, was the 20th anniversary of the death of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. Five years ago, my brother sent me this piece by Bill Simmons reflecting on Bias' death, and I have been a Simmons fan ever since. I read it again today, and it's still the best article I have ever read about Len Bias. The part that still resonates is where he compares it to the Kennedy assassination, that people remember where they were when they heard the news. For someone over the age of 50, I am sure that the comparison sounds absurd; how could you compare a basketball player to the leader of the free world? But I was born in 1967, and I remember exactly where I was when I heard.

I was working as a bicycle courier in Washington, DC, the summer after nearly flunking out of engineering school at Cornell University. I was sitting in Farragut Square, one of the small downtown parks where the bike guys hung out, waiting for a call from my dispatcher with my next delivery. When he did call, he asked me if I had heard about Bias. Being a bit older, wiser and perhaps more well-versed in these matters, he immediately speculated that it was cocaine. A little while later I saw a friend of mine who had just finished his freshman year at Maryland; he lived and breathed Terps, and he was crushed. I asked him if he thought it was cocaine.

"But Lenny didn't do drugs," he said.

I didn't even like Maryland. I was a Georgetown fan; I cheered for Sleepy Floyd, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Williams. My brother went to Carolina, but he had seen Bias play in the Capital Classic at the end of his senior year of high school. It was one of the few years where the local team actually beat the national all-star team. Mackin point guard Johnny Dawkins, who would go on to star at Duke, led the local team, but my brother kept talking about this guy Bias, who was going to Maryland. And even though I didn't like his team, you had to notice Len Bias; he always stood out, always did something that you talked to your friends about the next day.

Twenty years later, I still grunt in appreciation when I see the clips of him playing, although running them in black-and-white is a bit maudlin for my tastes. More than once, I've tried to explain to my sons how good he was. They are at the age now where they get the drug awareness education at school (Caffeine is Mean, but Cocaine is Insane!), so I throw some moralizing into the conversation as well. What strikes me right now as I write this is that I don't remember my own father's thoughts about Bias. He was certainly a basketball fan; it seems to be hard-wired into the male DNA of our family (and some of the female as well). And I saw him many days that summer, stopping by his office when we both had time to eat lunch together. Actually, I don't remember much of what we talked about at all, but I enjoy the memory of that time together. Eighteen months later, he was dead.

So, like I said, in Hollywood, you get the happy ending. Here in the real world, I just hope to live and learn. We had a great Father's Day yesterday. Church and brunch at the diner we go to most Sundays followed by a long afternoon at the pool, just hanging out. I got a card naming me the best dad of all the dads in the world and another that listed 10 reasons why I am a great dad. And some new exercise gear and the DVD "Glory Road." If you're not familiar with the movie, it's based on the true story of the Texas-Western college basketball team that became the first national champion to have five black players in the starting lineup. Should be fun to watch with the boys.


Abris said...

Glad to see you back in action, Fitz. Nice post -- very moving.

Erin O'Brien said...

Nice post.

I posted around Dad's day too.

John said...

Well done and good to see you back at it. Happy Father's Day (quite belated)

It is really strange that I don't know much about what Dad thought about Len Bias either. I am honored that you remember my feelings so clearly. What I remember most from that Capital Classic game was the pregame lay-ups. Before the advent of the dunk contests, the pre-game lay-up lines were the dunk contests. (Am I old or what?) Bias brought the house down everytime he came through. It was unbelievable how he could jump and attack the basket. I am still not over it. My memory of the game has him getting 27 points and 17 rebounds. I would love to know if that is accurate. I do know that hea and Dawkins were co-MVP's. Anyway, he was the greatest athlete I had ever seen. I was also privileged to see him beat UNC in Dean Dome in what many belileved to be his greatest college game ever. (He hits the 20 foot jumper and then steals the inbounds pass for the reverse dunk?!? Unbelievable.) I could really go on.

You touched on a lot in this one. Nice to be reminded about your lunches with Dad. I am glad you have that memory. I never knew what he thought of Len Bias either, but I was not asking for his opinion a lot at that point in life. I am reminded of him a lot as my family grows. I try as hard as I can NOT to say, "Why do you make me act like such an ogre?" Even if I am acting like an ogre to get my kids to do something, I try not to say it.

Speaking of Len Bias and family tragedy, I did hear an interview with his mother on the radio the other day. How she was able to get time when the SEC football build up and NASCAR are at a fever pitch, I will never know. Anyway, she said that after her second son was killed (remember that?), seh was told that sometimes when life deals you lemons, you have to make lemonade. She initially thought it was cruel to be told such a thing until she realized that the secret was adding your own sugar. Great stuff!

Does this mean I need my own blog?

John said...

OK, I have been thinking that the ogre line was not Dad's greatest quote. Here is an interesteing reflection on being the fourth child. I loved that Dad used to read to the big three girls. I believe he read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings out loud, start to finish. So, early on I read to Brennan and M'Adelaide every chance I got. We read Charlotte's Web, all the Little House books, the Chronicles of Narnia, etc. Even Saunders got the benefit of some of that reading. We read a lot. I have recently realized that I have not read much since Muriel arrived. She is my fourth and may not remember the reading. I think it's time to start Charlotte's Web again. It's a great gift for a Dad to give to his children. I know be because I was it. Thanks.

John said...

I meant to write -

I know becasue I saw it.

Bill Fitzgerald said...

Thanks all for the comments. Sorry to take so long to get back to all of you. I did not intend to write about my dad in this post, he just snuck in and made himself at home.

Bris: I wish could tell you it gets easier. I gets different but not easier.

Edawg: I saw your post. Great stuff as always and the picture is a beaut.

John: If you keep asking whether you should have your own blog, I think you have your answer, although I have no idea where you would find the time. Thanks for the details on the Cap Classic. I thought you were at the Deandome game as well, but couldn't be sure. Making certain of my own memories is tricky enough, let aone other people's.