Other kids in my neighborhood might have dreamed of becoming astronauts or millionaires when they grew up, but I always thought it would be cool to be a sportswriter. I eventually became one for a few years, first for the Index-Journal in Greenwood, South Carolina, and later for the Charlotte Observer, my hometown daily. Here’s what that cool job was like much of the time:
It’s 11:30 on a Friday night, and your friends are out on the town, but you’re in a fluorescent-bathed newsroom trying to finish up your story about West County High’s 9-6 football win over South City High in front of 721 fans at Rickety Bleacher Field. You’re trying to figure out a way to fill a 20-inch article about a game that mainly involved three runs and a punt, over and over again, while your editor barks in your ear every 45 seconds that WE ARE ON DEADLINE, I NEED THAT COPY!
You try to pack the article with as many quotes as you can to build up the word count, but the only thing Coach told you after the game was, “We just didn’t play fundamental ball. Gotta start playing fundamental ball.” Meanwhile, the hero of the game, who sealed the win with a fourth-quarter safety, said: “I knew if I tackled him in the end zone we would get a safety.”
You finally leave sometime after midnight. You drop by an empty bar for a quick beer, then swing by the 24-hour McDonald’s drive-thru and head home for a couple Big Macs and some late-night TV, before falling asleep around 2:30 or so. Six hours later you wake up so you can go cover the girls’ high school soccer tournament in the cold rain, after which you might be dispatched to cover the county 10k in more cold rain.
I covered hundreds of sporting events, and have maybe 17 good memories. Most of them involved covering Charlotte Knights minor league baseball games back when they were played in Fort Mill. That was cool. You sat in a comfortable press box. You filed your story from there, because they had the right technology. There was a buffet for the media, and you ate all you wanted, damn right you did. You got to watch future Hall-of-Famers before anyone knew who they were.
I eventually moved on to other papers and other beats, usually covering the government or the business world, both of which operated during semi-regular hours, and took the weekends off.
I don’t write about sports much anymore, though I do spend a lot of time thinking about it and watching it on TV. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately….
NFL Football: It’s Super Bowl Week back in the States, which isn’t nearly as big a deal here in London as in America (obviously), even though there are quite a lot of NFL fans in the UK and rest of Europe. A handful of games are broadcast here every week, usually involving marquee teams like the Packers, Steelers, Chiefs, and whoever Tom Brady is playing for.
The NFL games played in London every year draw sell-out crowds. I went to one in 2019 to see my Carolina Panthers play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at vast and lovely Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which is located way, way (way way) across town. The Panthers won. That’s actually the last time I’ve seen them win, either live or on TV.
This year’s Super Bowl features those same Buccaneers against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Bucs are led by the aforementioned Mr. Brady, the former Patriots quarterback who is the spawn of two evil serpents from the planet Shittanus. I have as much love for him as I do the rotting underbelly of a beached blobfish.
But, respect where it’s due….Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history by about 7,000 miles. He’s probably the greatest NFL player ever. He might be the greatest player in any team sport in U.S. history – including Jordan, Ruth, Mays, Kareen, LeBron, all the rest.
I hope he loses Sunday. Go Mahomes!
Baseball: It has been a very rough year for baseball fans of a certain age. The recent death of legendary slugger Hank Aaron – who famously broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974 – continued a recent string of departures involving Hall-of-Fame players from our youth. The list, in chronological order: Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, Whitey Ford, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Aaron. Gibson was my all-time favorite player. His Cardinals teammate, Brock, was probably my second favorite.
Another great player from our childhood who died recently was Dick Allen, who isn’t in the Hall of Fame but should be. That’s his photo accompanying this blog, which appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated back in 1972, when he won the American League MVP.
If you want to know one of the big differences between professional sports then and professional sports now, look at that photo. Dick Allen is in the dugout smoking a cigarette and juggling baseballs. He couldn’t look more relaxed if he were in his own backyard. He wasn’t the least concerned about his image, or the team’s brand, or how it might play to John and Jane Fan. He just plain didn’t give a shit. And neither did anyone else.
That would never happen today. Dammit.
Tennis: We are nearing the end of the Golden Era of men’s tennis, featuring the three greatest players ever, who have dominated the sport for 15 years and counting. Those players are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Together they have won 57 major singles titles. Since 2005 there have been 63 Grand Slam tournaments (Wimbledon was not played last year). Fed, Rafa and Novak have won 53 of those. That’s 84%, for those scoring at home. (Federer won four of his Grand Slams before 2005).
Federer is now 39 years old. Rafa is 34, and Novak is 33. Those used to be ancient ages in tennis, but no so much anymore. But still: not young. And yet they might still be the three best male tennis players in the world. The only other player who has an argument is Dominic Thiem.
So who’s the GOAT – Fed, Rafa, or Novak? That’s a very fluid question these days, because the answer seems to change almost monthly. I always put Fed at the top, because his game translates better to different eras. He would have been just as great in the serve-and-volley era, and in fact started his career in the late 1990s, when players still served and volleyed regularly. He just has the best all-around skills.
But few athletes have dominated a sport as much as Rafa has dominated tennis on clay courts. He is the Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt of clay. The second-best clay court player of all time, probably Bjorn Borg, is about as close to Rafa as Neptune is to the sun.
On the other hand, Novak at his best is simply unbeatable. It’s impossible to hit the ball past or through him, he delivers shots at impossible angles, he controls the match the way a puppeteer controls a puppet. And I can’t stand watching him play, because he bounces the ball about 43 times before every serve.
Screw it. Fed is probably the GOAT on grass courts, Rafa is easily the GOAT on clay, and Novak is undoubtedly the GOAT on hard courts. So that’s my answer.
Serena Williams is probably the GOAT in women’s tennis. But then, Martina Navratilova was pretty dominant too – and she had to compete against Chris Evert and then Steffi Graf, both of whom are probably in the top five all-time, and in fact Graf might have an argument as the GOAT, and…..never mind.
Basketball: Kobe Bryant died a little over a year ago in a tragic helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, making it even more heartbreaking. It was huge global news at the time, front-page news for days and days, including here in the UK.
And yet it might as well have been 5,000 years ago. Since then, the world has been hit with a pandemic that has claimed more than 2 million lives worldwide, disrupted the global economy, and completely changed the world in ways that might take a generation to unravel.
Many countries have also been plagued by social unrest that has divided people along racial, ethnic, religious and political lines. Back in the States, a historically divisive election – and the ensuing fallout from a president who refused to concede a vote he clearly lost – might have permanently damaged democracy.
It’s hard to look back at the helicopter crash that killed Kobe and the others and not feel that it belonged to a whole different time and place, long ago, before everything changed completely.
Soccer: We’ve been living in London more than three years, and I still don’t have a soccer club I can call my own. I guess if I had to pick a Premiere League club, it would be Tottenham Hotspur, because that’s who Harry Kane plays for, and Harry Kane is the only British soccer player I’ve heard of, not being the world’s most knowledgeable soccer fan. Plus I’ve been to their stadium – to watch American football.
Our local club here in Bermondsey is Millwall FC, and so I kind of pull for them. But they don’t play in the Premiere League. They play in the EFL Championship league, which is like the Triple A of British soccer. You hardly ever see Millwall on TV. I’ve been to one of their matches, at “The Den.” It was fun, but I haven’t been back, mainly because no fans have been able to attend live matches since the coronavirus hit.
I didn’t know this until later, but Millwall fans have a bit of a reputation for being, shall we say, rowdy and kind of dickish. Drunken hooligans are so prevalent at home matches that you can’t bring beer into the stadium – you can buy it out on the concourse, but you have to drink it there. This doesn’t apply to other stadiums, BTW. But them’s the rules at The Den. Millwall fans made headlines in early December when they booed players for taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter. I’m not sure I want to go back.
Badminton: That’s right, badminton – the game you used to play in your backyard with your parents and grandparents and maybe great-great grandparents on lazy summer afternoons before the weekend barbecue. Admit it: you used to play it. We still play it in our tiny back yard here in London, with no net, weather permitting, which means when the little patch of grass is dry, usually between May and September. It’s a fun game. Stop snickering….
I’ve been watching professional badminton on TV the last week or so, because they show it over here in Europe, along with ping-pong, downhill skiing, cycling, cricket, and other sports you don’t see much over in the States. This is the black hole period as far as TV sports are concerned, with football season winding down, baseball season not yet begun, and tennis season delayed. I don’t watch much basketball anymore, probably because I remember the days of Magic and Bird and Doctor J and Mike and Hakeem the Dream and Moses and Kareem and Sir Charles, and nothing compares to the old days. Grumble grumble, harrumph harrumph….
Let me tell you something about professional badminton players: They are serious athletes. To compete at the highest level, you have to have a perfect combination of quickness, stamina, strength, power, vertical leap, hand-eye coordination, touch, reflexes, strategy, and mental strength.
The No. 1 women’s player in the world is Tai Tzu-ying of Taiwan. I’ve seen her play a couple matches lately, at tournaments in Bangkok and somewhere else. She stands about 5-4 and weighs around 120 pounds. She looks like she could fit in your drawer. But she is a genuine badass. She’s faster than a speeding bullet and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. She soars into the air and smashes the birdie into the tiniest corner of the court. Or, she gently shoves the birdie over the net, just clearing it by a whisper, where it floats gently out of the opponent’s reach. She can react to a shot quicker than you can say your name.
If I had covered pro badminton back in the day, maybe I’d still be a sportswriter. As long as it was in some place like Bangkok , where the night is just getting started when you finally leave the newsroom.
*Actually, nobody asked.