Joe Rodriguez practicing with his Match Fit Academy tea,m last year as a high school junior Christopher Gregory/The New York Times
A year ago, I wrote a long piece in the New York Times http://nyti.ms/QQJpYP about how elite teenage soccer players were newly involved in a tug-of-war between their high school teams and academies sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation. U.S. Soccer's strategy is to develop players for national programs and/or potential college scholarships by training them year-round the way the rest of the world does -- in rigorous programs that eschew the high school model of cramming several games a week during a relatively short fall scholastic season.
The story focused on two players from my town, Montclair, N.J. -- Oliver Murphy, a senior, and Joseph Rodriguez, a junior. Both had been stars on the Montclair High School team the previous season. Anticipating that he would playing college soccer on the Division III level, Murphy dropped off the top Match Fit Academy club team and remained with the high school squad. Rodriguez, harboring a dream of playing for an age-appropriate national team, stayed with Match Fit, commuting 50 miles each way to West Windsor, N.J. for weeknight practices and home games. Weekend road games against other academy teams could be as far south as Virginia.
Not surprisingly, Rodriguez found it difficult to stay away from the high school games. They were a few blocks from campus and these were the boys he had grown up playing with, his best friends. In the crowd, he watched Murphy and company struggle throughout most of the season, including two deflating 1-0 defeats to Montclair Kimberley, the local private school, in front of large, exuberant crowds.
But Montclair, behind Murphy, caught fire in the state playoffs and wound up winning a sectional title by beating neighboring West Orange, before losing in overtime in the group state semifinals. Rodriguez was pained not being part of it. As his father, Paul, said at the time: "It's killing him." So when he accepted a scholarship to play Division 1 soccer at Drexel late last spring, he made up his mind to return to the high school team for his senior season.
With Murphy gone to Trinity College, Rodriguez became the team's leader and best player. Montclair avenged the two losses to Montclair Kimberley, won an impressive county championship, but in a twist of fate lost to West Orange in the sectional semis in the last game of Rodriguez's high school career. He told the local Montclair Times it had all been worth it -- the highs, the lows, everything.
The benefits of the academy programs, outlined in my story, are undeniable, especially for that very special player and most likely for American soccer in the international arena. But the rewards of Murphy's and Rodriguez's experiences, while harder to quantify, are also impossible to deny. In a sports culture that grows increasingly regional/national and more segregated by ability, something is invariably lost -- a sense of neighborhood, of crosstown and border rivalries that stir the passions.
High school coaches are hoping a pattern is developing and that players, upon settling on a college, will figure out that they can have it both ways. I'm not so sure; the academies are pushing harder for kids to commit to them sooner. But I hope the coaches are right. The U.S. might not win the World Cup with our old developmental system. But a lot of adolescent lives will probably be richer for it.
With tennis' Grand Slam season behind us, and baseball's regular season down to its final days, it has occurred to me that these very different sports do have at least one thing in common. Fans of the most famous rivals can be impassioned and provincial to the point of being impossible.
I never really would have put followers of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the same category of Yankees and Red Sox fans -- or any team sports, for that matter. Tennis is supposed to be more genteel, a place where folks have a healthy respect for all great players and choose their rooting interests based on matchups.
But two columns I wrote in the New York Times for the recent U.S. Open have convinced me otherwise. Federer versus Nadal -- on the court and as a concept -- may as well be Boston-New York. Or Real Madrid-Barcelona, for the sake of a comparison Nadal would better appreciate.
The first column (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/26/sports/tennis/federers-farewell-should-be-celebrated-but-not-too-soon.html?pagewanted=all) dealt with with Federer's slump and the inevitable speculation of how long he would continue to play. The mere mention of what I called the R word set Fed followers into a frenzy. How dare I or anyone try to push this brilliant artist out before his time -- which, of course, was only an interpretation of the column, not the point.
That column drew 172 responses, far more than the average piece for which a comment page is offered.
The second piece (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/sports/tennis/in-federer-nadal-rivalry-best-debate-is-yet-to-come.html) was written after Federer was beaten in straight sets by a Spaniard he'd never lost to, Tommy Robredo, in the fourth round in straight sets. The defeat was not only sobering for all who root for and admire Federer; it also deprived the Open of an anticipated showdown with the peaking Nadal in the fourth round.
The point of the second column was to argue that even if Federer's decline was worse than feared and his days as a viable contender at the four majors was concluding, his rivalry with Nadal was likely to continue in a historically grander sense. Nadal now has 13 slam victories, four behind Federer's record 17. Nadal is only 27. Assuming the tendinitis in his knees don't force him off the tour for more prolonged periods (granted, the odds would appear to be about 50-50), Nadal would have a real chance to equal or surpass Federer, given his off-the-charts competitive hunger.
The second column drew 187 responses, as it set off the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) argument. Federer fans had grown accustomed to standing behind the Grand Slam firewall or by insisting that Federer at his height was the most complete tennis package ever. Nadal fans ask the logical question: even if Nadal doesn't catch Federer, how can anyone be the greatest when his career record against his primary rival is 10-21?
Though hardly rising to the level of soccer hooliganism, the debate often sounded like a good screaming match on sports talk radio. Which, of course, in the final analysis is a credit to Federer and Nadal -- two Europeans who get a serious rise out of an American newspaper audience.
If Julius Erving was determined to make one thing clear in the recently premiered NBA-TV documentary titled "The Doctor," it seemed to be the notion that he glances back on his storied career with no regrets -- but mostly looks forward to the remaining days of life.
There was a time years ago when I wondered about that. It was during the 1996 NBA finals, first at a press conference to announce the coming celebration of the league's 50th anniversary season. Erving attended, with Commissioner David Stern, who mentioned the Doctor as a prime example of how current players should better understand the role that former stars had played in establishing opportunities for wealth and fame.
In concurring, Erving wondered aloud why ABA stats were not part of the NBA record book and proceeded to list his many achievements with the Virginia Squires and New York Nets. It all seemed in good spirits until Erving carried on too long and those of us in the audience were left with the impression that he was not at all a man at peace.
It was understandable if he wasn't. Had he been born a decade later, Erving would have been a major part of the global expansion, the Dream Team phenomenon, a charismatic and electrifying co-star with Michael, Magic and Larry in taking the world by storm.
Later during the '96 finals, I happened upon a post-game meeting in the United Center tunnel between Jordan and Denzel Washington. As individuals, those two had transcended African-American typecasting, appealing to a wide swath of consumers. In tandem, they reflected the blurring of entertainment and sports. It was as if two powerful heads-of-state had by chance bumped into each other and caused a scene.
A small crowd quickly formed while they spoke in hushed tones. Jordan's agent, David Falk, held the arm of a young client, Walter McCarty, as if he were a child witnessing history. And in the midst of all this came the Doctor -- tall, distinguished and prematurely gray -- from his broadcasting duties with NBC. He stood watching on the perimeter with the rest of us, and nobody turned to notice.
That was a sad moment for me, having grown up thinking of Erving as the coolest athlete on earth. In that vein, the film was enjoyable, effectively making that case with some wonderful old footage. But the problem with NBA-TV -- and comparative networks spawned by the sports industry -- is that they are promotional vehicles, first and foremost. They invariably will fall short of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, HBO sports films or independent-produced like "Lenny Cooke," recently shown at the Tribeca Film Festival (disclosure: I have a small role in the Cooke film). http://variety.com/2013/film/reviews/tribeca-review-lenny-cooke-1200480441/
That is why, the Erving documentary was also disappointing, falling short of mastering complexity and hard truth.
In 1999, Erving made the biggest splash of his post-playing life when it was reported by a newspaper that Alexandra Stevenson -- a young tennis player who had made an early summer breakthrough at Wimbledon -- had been fathered out-of-wedlock by Erving during his playing days in Philadelphia. He had supported Stevenson but did not have a relationship with her. Several years later, ESPN's talented feature writer Tom Friend did a scintillating piece http://espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=drjandalexandra about how father and daughter had begun to make up for lost time. The story was emotional and heartening. It made Erving stand that much taller.
While dealing with the tragic drowning death of Erving's son, Cory, and how -- according to Erving -- it affected a marriage that eventually dissolved, the NBA-TV film also failed to note that he had fathered another child out-of-wedlock, a son, and later married the mother of that child. Life does take strange turns; this is no attempt to judge Erving, who typically left us believing him to be a caring and decent man. But the omission of Stevenson from the film was glaring for two primary reasons:
One, it was a sensational news story that most NBA fans would probably recall.
Two, the start of a new relationship with a daughter who had previously lived in the shadows would seem to have meshed with Erving's stated credo that he was not a superstar living in the past. And, in fact, believed his best days were still to come.
Chris Stanford for ESPN.com
"Driving Mr. Yogi, Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseball's Greatest Gift" -- just out in paperback (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner) -- is the story of the deep and abiding friendship between Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry. But a segment of the book also delves into the relationship between Guidry and the great Mariano Rivera. With Rivera announcing his retirement post 2013, here is an excerpt from that segment.
The more bats he broke with his classic split-finger fastball, the more Rivera caught up on his Yankees history. He watched the videos, filled in the blanks of a Central American childhood. He became a regular stop on Berra’s clubhouse roaming, fascinated by the story behind the 14-year absence and reemergence. Unless he was pressed, Rivera didn’t say a whole lot but there was little he didn’t see.
He took special note of the relationship between Berra and Guidry, watching them come and go over the years. “That is real love, something very special,” he said.
From their first conversation on the back fields of Fort Lauderdale, Rivera’s friendship with Guidry also grew by leaps and bounds. Early in the spring, when pitchers strengthen their arms with long tossing drills, Rivera typically chose Guidry as his partner, even as Guidry pushed toward 60 and his stamina faded.
“I wouldn’t tell that son of a gun that I had to ice my arm every day,” Guidry said, stubborn to the point of pain.
On the average day, he was good for about 20 long tosses right into Rivera’s chest before fatigue would set in. The toll on the older man at that point became obvious. Guidry’s throws lost steam. Fewer went where he wanted them to go.
“So what would Mo do?” Guidry said. “He’d take a couple of steps forward to make it easier for me.”
Just as Guidry took care of Berra on the golf course, Rivera made sure Guidry was not embarrassed on the ball field. He did it without having to be asked because as Guidry said, “There are unspoken things, part of the camaraderie and trust.”
And while Guidry wasn’t planning to be around spring training when he was 80, he could see himself back at Yankee Stadium on some future Old Timers Day, old and rickety, but still spry enough to climb the dugout steps and wave his cap once more to the crowd.
Which younger Yankee legend would be perfectly positioned to watch out for him as he planted a foot on that first step? Who would remind him to go slow, as Guidry had done for Berra in the years after his return?
He couldn’t think of any man he would rather have to save him from a fall than Mariano Rivera.
AN EXCERPT FROM THE POST-SCRIPT CHAPTER OF "DRIVING MR. YOGI, YOGI BERRA, RON GUIDRY AND BASEBALL'S GREATEST GIFT," (Mariner/Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt), A NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLER, ON SALE THIS WEEK.
Seeing his old pal Stump Merrill, the organization lifer who had never been invited to an old timers’ event, Yogi Berra needled, “What took you so long?”
“Yog, what can I say?” Merrill said. “It only took me thirty-six years.” Merrill was delighted to see how much Berra was amused by his self-deprecation. He could also admit that he wished he’d come sooner, considering the sobering sight of Berra – with whom he had shared all those walks along spring training outfield warning tracks – stuck in a wheelchair.
“It’s tough to watch, to be honest,” he said. “I mean, I love the man. He brought me to the big leagues and I’m indebted to him in so many ways. I’ve stayed close to him. All I can tell you is when the day comes that he isn’t here at all it’ll be a sad, sad day for a lot of people.”
Seized with emotion by the mere thought, Merrill coughed and pursed his lips.
“No question, he’s sensitive about people seeing him in the chair,” he continued, his voice softer now. “He’s a proud man. He told me, `Stump, I’m getting therapy. I’m getting better.’ It kills him to not be able to put the whole uniform on, but the one thing I knew was that he would be here today no matter how he had to come -- in a wheelchair, carried in or whatever – because this is all he knows. And I don’t mean it the way it necessarily sounds -- this is a man who loves the people in his life. But if we were in assisted living, we’d all be depressed and would need something like this to put us back in touch with who we are. Being here, surrounded by all these guys, this is who Yogi is and that’s one of the reasons why he’s such a great man.”
Watching the frivolity from the side, Guidry took measure of the greatness in all its late-in-life glory, taking a mental snapshot of the look on Berra’s face. “He’s in his element, he lives for this,” Guidry said. “And I guarantee you in a few minutes he’ll want to be wheeled all the way down to the other end of the goddamned stadium to go see the guys over there, too.”
He meant the contemporary players, especially his favorites, like Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher. Guidry knew Berra like the back of his pitching hand. When the old timers drifted in small groups out onto the field for batting practice and interviews, Berra had Flannino wheel him down the corridor and into the Yankees clubhouse. Swisher – again the only active player to have attended Berra’s golf tournament -- was first to rush over. Then it was Jeter followed by a host of others. As a bonus, Mariano Rivera – injured and out for the season – happened to be in the house. Ready with a greeting that was perfect for the occasion, Berra addressed the forty-two-year-old Rivera as “old timer.” Rivera smiled and kissed him on the top of his Yankees cap.
Finally it was time for the festivities, for the introduction of the old timers, for Debbie Tymon’s carefully planned program to begin.
“Making sure Yogi was comfortable was the most important thing but not the only thing,” she said. “I mean, with Mr. Steinbrenner it was different. He was the Boss, the only owner. Yogi was one of sixty-six old timers and even if he was the most famous, we didn’t want to single him out as the only one who couldn’t walk or run out of the dugout.”
Having already had Guidry drive Berra in from the outfield on his birthday, Tymon had another brilliant stroke of ceremonial choreography: Berra and the five old timers who were Hall of Fame members would get the golf cart treatment after the introduction of the others massed in the dugout. They would come in pairs: first Rickey Henderson riding with Jerry Coleman, the former Yankees’ second baseman who had made the Hall as a broadcaster; then Goose Gossage and Reggie Jackson; and finally Berra alongside Ford, the teammate he’d asked for, driven by Flannino.
Before taking the ride in from the outfield, Berra was helped on with his jersey and he asked if it was all right to not tuck it into his pants, to let it hang over his belt. Of course, he was told. Wear it out. Wear it any way you like. Ford, retired number sixteen, told him to stop being a pain in the ass. They laughed and then basked in the cheers of the crowd on the way to join the others. But the mood turned solemn during the annual scrolling of names from the Yankees’ family, lost since the previous summer.
Once Berra had joked – unwittingly, of course – that he hoped he would never see his name “up there.” But the years now seemed to have gone by in a blur. The most important losses – the boys of summer themselves – continued to mount. Bill “Moose” Skowron’s name flashed on the screen; the death of the former first baseman -- a treasured teammate and friend -- had really hurt.
With the introductions completed, the old timers began stretching in preparation for their casual two-inning affair that promised to be a sticky challenge on what had turned into a brutally hot afternoon. Several gathered round the cart to give Berra a handshake or hug. Guidry waited his turn before stepping up to say goodbye and that they would speak to each other soon.
It had been many years since Berra had participated in the exhibition of geezers but he would typically hang around the dugout, poking fun, inhaling the atmosphere. Not today, though. Fatigued by the excitement and the exertion, he was more than ready to leave. Flannino steered the cart around the track, through the outfield gate and within minutes Berra was back in the car, heading up the Deegan Expressway to the George Washington Bridge.
It is no great sacrifice for me to say that those who regularly cover major league baseball should get the heck out of the business of Hall of Fame voting. That's because I work for a newspaper, the New York Times, that doesn't allow its reporters to participate in the business -- and that's exactly what it is -- of electing ballplayers to a club that will not only elevate their historic standing but will enhance their earning power.
Anyone who doesn't think Hall admission isn't a lucrative line on the retirement resume should spend an induction weekend in Cooperstown, where the autograph mart is open, dawn to dusk.
As a young reporter for other newspapers, I was never comfortable when ballots were passed out for all-tournament teams or came in the mail for league most valuable player and other such awards. After a while I ignored them or asked to be removed from the voting list. There were a lot of smart people who worked for the NBA when I covered it for the New York Post and the Daily News. They were perfectly capable of deciding who deserved a new car, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.
The standard trade maxim that journalists should never be part of the story has been a longtime red flag in the process, especially in baseball, but never has it carried such weight in the age of players tainted by performance enhancement. If the exclusion of Pete Rose has more or less been a matter for the Commissioner's office to legislate, why leave it to reporters to determine what to do with the likes of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds?
It's baseball's club and reporters shouldn't be part of the clubiness. Let the Hall get together with MLB to figure out what to do about the mess the sport created with its willful ignorance when steroid use was rampant and not even tested for, indisputably altering statistical measures for enshrinement. And speaking of shrines, that's another thing the media should not be engaged in, elevating the general perception of Cooperstown to something more mystical than it really is.
The Hall is no sacred site any more than it is a morality stronghold; it is a museum of history, both personal and collective. It will not change as a destination of achievement or entertainment should the Hall take control from reporters. No asterisk will be required to say that Mickey Mantle got in one way and Ken Griffey Jr. got in another.
As I do with other sports, I am happy to offer my opinions after the choices are made by the committees of folks empowered to do so. I have always believed it to be a joke that baseball pretends that Rose, its all-time leader in hits, does not exist. And I don't quite get how the collective records of teams in the steroid era -- including the Yankees and Red Sox, both known to house a fair number of important players linked to PEDs -- can be accepted as legitimate while individual achievement is kept out.
Voting no one in this year is a good way for the writers to bow out for good. Or be called out by the Hall.
It was late Saturday morning that I messaged Kathy Redmond to inform her that the magazine-length New York Times story
I had written on her longtime activism against violent athletes -- along with her own fascinating spiritual journey -- would be running in the next day's paper and would soon be up on line. She got back to me back within minutes, asking if I was following the developments in Kansas City (at that point, I was not), adding:
"Resources exist to do psyche evals on players and I think it's a cop out to try to say its about concussions." Within a short time, there was no escaping
the shocking news that Jovan Belcher had shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins. Soon after, he turned the gun on himself in front of the Chiefs' coach and general manager outside Arrowhead Stadium. Looking back on Redmond's message, it is clear that her own experiences were already telling her that many -- if not most -- would miss the essential take away from the tragedy. Perhaps there is a place for some discussion on the role of the gun -- which Bob Costas focused on during Sunday night's NBC
football telecast, making him an immediate target of gun rights activists. Maybe there is some generalization to make about effects of the NFL's player-on-player carnage -- a serious and devastating story in its own right, but one that might also be used in cases like this one as a cop-out. First and foremost, this would appear to be a story about a relationship gone bad and heinously escalated to domestic (gun) violence. Male athletes are far from alone in misogynist behavior and there is no recent statistical evidence to suggest that they abuse women at a greater rate than any other men. But the great revenue producing sports do often create a sense (and reality) of entitlement and empowerment, which Redmond -- who charged a football player with raping her at Nebraska as a freshman in 1991 -- has been fighting back against for almost 15 years. The horror here for her is this: a defenseless young woman was murdered by a man who did not value the life of the mother of his child. And until there is an understanding of how that could be and who, if anyone, might have intervened, any other discussion -- in particular those vacuous cliches about Belcher having been a great teammate who always gave 100 percent -- is just noise. In most cases from people pursuing an agenda, not necessarily the truth.
After being out Sunday night watching the Giants slaughter the Packers, I managed to catch up on Homeland and Boardwalk Empire yesterday, which seems to have become an exercise in rooting for the survival of people who are duplicitous at best and downright evil at worst. With the conclusion of Homeland's ninth episode, season two, I wasn't quite sure what Brody (played by the English actor Damian Lewis) was up to, or which side he was being honest with. Perhaps he doesn't quite know yet. At least I have finally figured out who Brody has reminded me of for the entire first season and handful of episodes of the second. Coincidentally, another tough guy with admirable qualities but -- from my vantage point as a young Knicks fan -- one thoroughly embedded with the enemy. That would be Dave Cowens of the hated 1970s Celtics. Cowens was one of those guys you absolutely loved if he was on your side and couldn't stand the sight of if he wasn't. An undersized center, he played with boundless energy and aggression. In the reporting of my 2011 book, When The Garden Was Eden, Tommy Heinsohn told me that Cowens -- who came along after Willis Reed's knees were failing -- took special delight running our iconic Game 7 (1970) savior ragged, one end to the other. I almost wanted to lash Heinsohn with my video recorder for that but he -- and Cowens, for that matter -- were actual charmers in post-playing life. A classic Brody tactic, I might add.
The last thing I expected when I rolled into the parking lot of a Marriott Hotel a few miles from the Denver airport late Friday night was a security checkpoint and a full inspection of my rented Toyota that included a none-too-Rover-ish dog sniffing suspiciously for, I don't know -- that half-full bottle of after shave I cleverly slipped past security in Newark?
Maybe there was a warrant out for the guy, me, who had chastised the Avis employee for trying to bill for a vehicle upgrade that had unequivocally been turned down (a chronic problem, I have learned, with Avis people, who then claim they didn't hear correctly or cop the plea of being a trainee). No, they weren't on to me, thankfully. Cleared by the dog, I proceeded to the lobby, where a small army of security was camped out.
"Something going on I should know about?" I asked the woman at the front desk.
"Oh, no, sir," she said. "But congratulations, with tonight's stay you're about to make Platinum."
This was very good distracting news, I had to admit. In all my years of staying in Marriott hotels, I had never reached the highest level of the rewards club, which, among other perks, guarantees you a reservation at any hotel even if it is sold out. How this particular benefit works -- some poor schlep in his underwear is pulled out in the middle of the night? -- I don't know and don't want to know. But I felt like a made Marriott man and forgot about the dog and the large security detail until Saturday morning, when the lobby seemed even more under lock down.
After breakfast, I rode the elevator up with one a more cooperative hotel staffer. "Someone important is here," he confided.
"A politician?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
He laughed. "Not supposed to say but, OK, elected."
Back in my room, I quickly discerned that Joe Biden was campaigning Saturday in Colorado. So now I knew there was someone in the hotel with an ever higher status than me, Mr. Platinum. Normally I would have called my wife and shared this news, but it was the middle of the night in New Jersey and, right, we had no power, land line and cell service had been worse than spotty since Sandy. Not that I am complaining, knowing the horror of the Jersey Shore and on Staten Island, where I grew up and have many relatives and friends.
The storm was all anyone back east could talk about. At Newark Airport, the friendly shoe-shiner from East Orange told me that a tree had landed on his roof, opened a gaping hole and allowed a family of squirrels into his home -- which somehow still had power. How the guy was good-humored about this I'll never know but he said, "I expect to go home tonight and they'll be sitting on the couch, watching the Knicks."
I came to Denver for the weekend to work on a story, a trip I was supposed to make before the hurricane changed so many lives and may even have altered the course of the Presidential race. Other than checking the latest polls on the rare occasions I had access to a wireless signal and reading what I could in the New York Times -- yes, it arrived every day except the morning after the storm -- it was difficult to stay tuned to the election in the dark. But in Denver, I have been reminded of how big the country is, how one region's trauma can feel like something happening in a faraway land. Colorado being a swing state, every other television ad is for Obama or Romney. Here, it is all about the power to run the country, not to turn on the lights or kick-start the boiler.
I never did catch a glimpse of Biden, who left Saturday morning to stump for votes. At the front desk, another guest said he had also checked in Friday night and that he was worried about a terrorist threat. The woman at the front desk said, "Here? We're in the middle of nowhere."
The first out-of-town trip I ever took as an aspiring sportswriter for the New York Post was in February of 1978. The paper's beat reporter had abruptly quit, I was working as a day side clerk when the editor -- an endearing rascal named Jerry Lisker -- turned to me and said, "Get your ass to the airport and cover the Knicks tonight."
I was scared out of my wits, but equally ecstatic, having fantasized about being on the glamorous road from my earliest days covering high school sports for the Staten Island Advance. Alas, my first two datelined stories were out of Richfield, Ohio and Detroit. It was cold and bleak in both places -- the former featuring a desolate suburban arena and the latter having become one of America's saddest decaying cities.
It was a Tuesday-Friday schedule, meaning we had three very long days in Detroit back when the downtrodden Pistons played at the old Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit, and before they abandoned the city for a monstrous football dome. Now they are ensconced in the stylish Palace of Auburn Hills, where I find myself wishing them the kind of misfortune they experienced against the Knicks in '78 -- losing by 20 in front of 4972 fans. Whereas the Tigers, Lions and even hockey's Red Wings stayed in town, the N.B.A., of all leagues, ran for cover when the city needed whatever help and investment it could get.
And obviously still does. When the Knicks pulled into town 34 years ago, we stayed in the towering hotel of the Renaissance Center, a new $337 million project facing the Detroit River that was designed to expedite commercial growth. To give you an idea of how that worked out, General Motors purchased the complex in the mid-Nineties for around $75 million.
Back in '78, the hotel felt empty and isolating. Concierge employees would quietly advise guests to think twice about wandering outside after dark. Having returned this week to cover the Yankees-Tigers series, with a 61st floor room with a view of the river and Caesars Hotel and Casino in Windsor, Ont., downtown feels less forbidding. And yet Detroit remains on the urban critical list. Last year, Mayor Dave Bing -- the Pistons' Hall of Fame legend -- said, "Simply put, our city is in a financial crisis and our city government is broken." Declines in population have dogged Detroit for years and devastated neighborhood and public schools.
You have to wonder about a nation that shrugs off the long free fall of a once-great city -- the hub of a signature industry -- and if the fortunes of Detroit are an extreme example of America's 21st Century direction. I hope not, but I also find myself rooting for Mayor Bing, his troubled city and the professional teams that didn't desert it. Not as a sports fan, just an American.