Too often we think of sports as the be-all and end-all to existence. In the end, the cliché “winning isn’t everything” may be truer than we realize.
Many of us become obsessed with sports at a young age. I was no different. I started at the age of five as a lay-up. My dad, with his John Wayne-like strength, would lift me sky high with one hand. Until I grew.
I grew up watching games with my dad—primarily basketball and football—both on television and live at stadiums. My dad rooted for Larry Bird and the Celtics who had a lot of white guys. I was a Lakers fan, true to my hometown. As a kid, I pretended I was Kareem and could make a sky hook. We had some fierce father-son battles. I am getting Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” stuck in my head as I write this.
My dad took me to many small college games and at age 10, I was a waterboy for the Phillips University Haymakers. Our fandom continued when we moved to Brockport where we cheered on the NCAA Division III Golden Eagles. We drove to see away games, sometimes as far as 100 miles.
When I didn’t make the seventh- or eighth-grade basketball teams, I became bored with athletics. As a teen, I hung out with kids who scoffed at sports and I went from a wannabe athlete to a rebel.
My attention returned to basketball when we moved to Las Vegas the year the UNLV Rebels won the NCAA Championship. The Buffalo Bills made it to the Super Bowl, where they lost four straight times, thus deflating me. I found the Lakers worth watching when Phil Jackson took over as head coach, helping Kobe and Shaq get along. But for the most part, I no longer had the patience to sit through a game. I had paid my dues watching UNLV football. Sports no longer made my obsession list.
My dad followed Duke Blue Devils and continued his loyalty. He liked the finesse of players like Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, and JJ Redick. The game wasn’t about winning and losing, although those mattered too. For Dad, the game was a ballet, the aesthetic was key. A beautiful pass, a long-range shot, a pick-and-roll are what made the sport. The star could not be someone who was brash and kept the ball. It needed to be the selfless guy who could shoot unconscious like Bernard King.
Dad still likes his quarterbacks the same way in football; he likes Peyton Manning and Eli Manning. The key being that they make other players look great. Sports, as the adage goes, is not about who wins, but how the game is played. And it better be art. Ideas come to Dad when he watches the games.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt once said in one of his TED Talks, “Sports is to war what pornography is to sex.” I like the analogy but it oversimplifies things. Sometimes, games are about the art of the sport. Even if one team is trying to vanquish the other. But Dad does not see sports as a zero sum game. Rather, for him, it is a competition where the game could advance in beauty and teamwork.
It is this redemptive quality that allows for the possibility of seeing teams rise from the basement, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the New Orleans Saints or the St. Louis (Los Angeles) Rams. Mediocre teams could become great through effort, luck, and genius.
Today, he sits and watches L.A. Clippers and Duke games on the DVR, watching the same plays over and over, even though he knows the outcome. At 83, with declining health and eyesight, he does not have long for this earth. He’s rereading all the Tarzan novels on his Kindle that he read as a kid. Most of his peers are dead.
He has few friends and acquaintances from his days as a writer and editor at Billboard magazine. Recently, his friend Gary Owens passed on. Gary—who announced for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and was a radio god—and my father used to play basketball on the courts of LA. My dad played with semi-professionals in New York. Even though he was a chubby beer guzzling redhead, he played to the best of his ability.
He sometimes says, “We come, we do, and we go.” Supposedly. When I was five, we were driving home on the windy Mulholland drive from Trader Joe’s. He was worried about some financial- or work-related problem. I said to him, “Don’t worry, daddy. You’ll make it to the other side.” It was as if I was possessed by an angel.
Today, I am going through some similar crisis as my life twists and turns. My dad’s presence reassures me that no matter how much we screw up . . . we can still make it. We come, we do, we go. This is one lay-up that he could not miss.
Photo credit:Flickr/Chad Cooper