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.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Sports Shorts

So the Heat came back last night to even the NBA Championship Finals after falling behind 2-0. Who woulda thunk it? Actually my nine-year old woulda and didda. Before the series began he predicted that the Mavericks would win the first two, lose the next two and win the whole thing in six. My own emotional investment in the Wizards first round loss to the Cavaliers drained my level of interest in the remainder of the playoffs, but I think he has a good case. Miami's aging frontcourt combination of Shaq and Alonzo Mourning might be an accurate reflection of South Florida's retiree demographic, but I don't see them as built for the seven-game series. Much like Morty Seinfeld in a late afternoon meeting at the J. Peterman Company, the Heat will tire and fade in cranky resignation, giving us the first NBA Champion to be led by a European-born All-Star (but not the first born outside the continental United States; I'll give that answer at the end of this post).

With tomorrow's match against Italy a virtual must-win situation, Team USA's World Cup run could be over before most Americans realize it began. The United States plays a third match against Ghana next week, but I don't there will be much interest in that contest unless the Americans win tomorrow. There has been plenty of coverage, but the team has yet to capture the public attention this time around. Wednesday morning, my son and I watched an inspiring ESPN feature about Landon Donovan's fiance's brother, who lost both legs in a horrible train accident. Seeing a man with no legs swim laps with a butterfly stroke was awesome to behold, but isn't it a bit of a reach to feature the brother of the star player's fiance? Wasn't his third cousin in a movie with Kevin Bacon? And while Gatorade's "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" commercial is a clever twist and has some great visuals, the central idea that soccer could replace baseball in the American sports conscience is still laughable. For at least two decades, we have heard about how the explosion in youth soccer will ultimately elevate soccer to elite status in the U.S., but instead we have seen the rise of NASCAR and golf and the decline of tennis, hockey, horse racing and boxing. The soccer apologists are correct that tons of kids play soccer; in our area, the fields are packed with kids from age five up to teenagers. However, the number of registered players begins to decrease at about age 10, and the teenage ranks are so depleted that teams are co-ed and have to go outside our district to find enough teams to play. Yes, there are travel teams, elite teams, and club teams that play year-round, but the broad base just is not there as the kids get older, and not coincidentally, start making their own decisions about how and where to spend their time and money (Fitzonomics! Who knew?). Before you put too much stock in that last statement, please know that Economics 101 nearly ended my stay in college.

The cloud of chemically-enhanced performance continues to hang over America's pasttime. Jason Grimsley's admitted use of human growth hormone and naming of additional players suggests that we should not be surprised if every player in the majors has used some illegal substance at some time or another. Whatever happened to the good old days, when all an aging lefthanded pticher needed to extend his career was a pulse? And Barry Bonds' joyless pursuit of Hank Aaron's record continues. Oy. I think he will break the record, but I can only hope that a more likeable slugger will overtake him in my lifetime (A-Rod? Pujols? Ken Griffey III?)

If professional golfers are complaining about course conditions, then it must be time for the U. S. Open. After Tiger Woods shot 76 yesterday, he complained that the greens were too bumpy. Too bumpy! This is a clear indication that he has fallen from immortal to human on the golf course. Who among us has not complained about an unrepaired ball or spike mark or a microscopic dust mote impeding our ball's otherwise perfect roll to the hole. Two predictions: The longer Colin Montgomerie stays in or around the lead, the louder the murmuring and heckling will get, and going out on a limb, Phil Mickelson will win another major this weekend.

Ben Roethlisberger seems to have come away from his motorcycle accident about as well as can be expected, but we won't know if he is back as an NFL quarterback until he shakes off a hard hit and completes a difficult pass on the next play. This will be the number one hyped, overdone, on the field story in the NFL this season. I expect every Steelers game to include at least one interview with a neurologist and/or maxillofacial surgeon (had to reach past my Webster's Collegiate for the Doc's Medical Desk Dictionary for that one). In local football news, the Ravens acquired quarterback Steve McNair. I guess this is a good move; he was the NFL MVP two years ago and should be a major upgrade from Kyle Boller. But can he survive behind the Raven's porous offensive line, can he make Baltimore's receivers catch all those balls they dropped last season, can he force Jamal Lewis to revert to from stumbler to record-setter?

Swimming? Swimming? Aren't the next Summer Olympics two years away? Yes, they are, but the Summer Hill Sting Rays, after two weeks of practice, have their first time trials tomorrow, which will mark the debut of my offspring in the heavily chlorinated competitive arena. They are already working on butterfly and flip-turns, two aquatic achievements that eluded their old man. I can still take them in the cannonball, though. Also, the answer to the NBA trivia question above is Tim Duncan, who led the Spurs to their first title. Duncan was born in the U. S. Virgin Islands, and was a competitive swimmer until Hurricane Hugo destroyed his municipal pool, sending him to the basketball courts.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Summertime, and the Bloggin' is Easy

Some mark the beginning of summer on Memorial Day Weekend. Strict followers of the calendar claim that summer is still eight days off. But yesterday was the last day of school, so today is the first day of the FitzFacts summer.

The last few weeks of school were an anxious countdown of special events, field days, and field trips, and more projects than seemed possible to complete in so short a time span. I swear I spent more time at my kids' school last month than my parents spent in my entire family's tenure of Catholic grammar school, and there were eight of us. Okay, maybe that's a stretch, but now that the neverending festival of picnics, plays, concerts, and parties is past, we have arrived at childhood nirvana.

So what's on tap for the next 11 glorious weeks, which will fly past and find us standing at the schoolbus stop with kids in fresh haircuts and new clothes before we know it? Well, so far, it's looking like a lot of cartoons and swim team. A family week at the beach lurks in the near future, and a few weeks at day camp, with the rope swing, the mud slide, the archery, the arts and crafts and the daily Bible reading (more on that later, perhaps). Then there is basketball camp, highlighted by the chance to meet local basketball hero Juan Dixon.

Finally there is the annual Fitzgerald family pilgrimage to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, an august August tradition of 35 years that brings more than 20 adults, children and dogs together for five wonderful days of nostalgic reminisce. Unfortunately, we stay for seven days. When friends of ours hear about this trip, they always ask, "Do the children get along?" The kids get along fine, it's the adults that are at war by the end of the week. Okay, not war, but there's nothing like the potent combination of sunburn and close quarters to fray the nerves and eventually summon forth the entombed demons of every family's cultural history. I wouldn't miss this trip for anything.

In addition to the scheduled activities, there are museums, monuments, zoos and amusement parks to be visited. This will be the summer of the first family bike outing and there is a rumor of piano lessons. And every day, the dog must be walked early, the vegetable garden tended, and then there is blogging.