November 18th, 2020
THOSE SADISTS at Tennis Channel were showing the 2019 Wimbledon final again the other day, and, what luck, I flipped onto it just as Roger Federer was serving for the epic match at 8-7 in the fifth set. I watched long enough to see him fire off consecutive aces at Novak Djokovic to reach double match point. That was it, all I could take. I wasn't about to relive the pain again of seeing Federer make the insanely radical regression from the verge of cementing his status as the greatest male player of all time to tennis tragic figure, if only in the context of what this match was potentially worth to him.
All summer, I encountered devout Fed fans--I count myself as one even though I'd like to believe I have reported and opined on him as any objective journalist would--who recoiled in horror as he lost his serve, then dropped a third tiebreaker to Djokovic, the fantastically perseverant Serb. Then we all settled into a weeks-long malaise, which included a revulsion to the mere sight of tennis.
My New York Times colleague, Chris Clarey, ran down a few more such fans before the start of the U.S. Open--they, too, shared their sadness and foreboding that Federer had somehow missed, or blown, what was likely his last best chance to add to his ever-fragile record of 20 grand slam titles. Yeah, most of us have written him off at various times in the past decade and delighted in being wrong. But he's 38, for crying out loud. His upper back barked again during his quarter-final loss to Grigor Dmitrov at the Open. Damnit, he should have won Wimbledon because that would have been the fitting career exclamation point even as he played on for another couple of slam-fruitless years.
A 21st major title would hardly have fortified Federer's record, or laid undisputed claim to the greatest ever throne, a subjectively assigned seat for any player in any sport. If he never wins another match, Federer will always have his dedicated GOAT support, in part based on the sheer majesty of his game--just as a generation of baseball fans would swear they never saw a better ballplayer than Willie Mays. But Wimbledon would at least have been the signature debate clincher for those who have spent a decade and a half aboard Federer's tennis-as-ballet bandwagon. Weeks before his 38th birthday, he took out Rafa in the semis and Novak in the finals on Centre Court. Case freaking closed!
Honestly, I doubted he would win the match until that second ace skittered away from Djokovic on the scarred lawn. I sat up on the couch--downsized now to occasional Times contributor and an ocean removed from any vow of journalism ethics--and raised my fists. One more, Roger. Then slowly sank back onto the pillows, resigned to the inevitability of the outcome.
Now the equally deserving force of nature that is Rafa, crowned Sunday night as Open champion for the fourth time, finds himself, at 33, one measly slam behind. The King of Clay at the very least has a handful more French Opens in his future, barring serious injury. Djokovic remains four behind but is only 32, arguably late middle age for a sport whose superstar time clock has been dramatically reset by Federer.
There, of course, remains the possibility of a long-awaited next generation breakout--Daniill Medvedev anyone?--imposing itself on the Big 3's ultimate pennant race. But who knows? Maybe Federer actually does have another Aussie Open or Wimbledon run in him, and he will create another moment like 8-7, 40-15, the edge of triumphant eruption. For now and possibly for a very long time, his failure is replayed again and again in the minds of his deflated fans across the globe.
That in itself is punishment enough. No thanks to ever watching it again on TV.
Ali, connector of generations
When the news was out, Ali had died, my son, Alex, texted me. "RIP, Ali." He was in Philadelphia three times zones away with friends. I was out to dinner with an old newspaper colleague in Oakland's Jack London Square. "You should write something," he said.
The New York Times, where I have worked for 25 years, had already summoned a lineup of sports writing legends, who had traveled the globe with Ali, chronicling the historic fights of a man who didn't need 21st Century connectivity to become the world's most famous athlete, or person. Dave Anderson. Bob Lipsyte. George Vecsey. I had the privilege of working with all three before they retired. Now I look around at the N.B.A. finals at all the ambitious, talented journalists two and three decades younger than I am. I was an adolescent fan-boy when Ali was dancing in his prime. Near the end of his career, I broke into the newspaper business covering another sport. Never did see him fight live.
Still, Alex insisted, "You grew up with him."
Yes, the fight night memories of sitting around the kitchen table in my family's apartment in Staten Island's West Brighton Houses are fond ones, my dad fiddling with with the dial, locating the fight, allowing me to stay up past my school night bedtime. He was no great sports fan and certainly no Ali fan, repelled by the self-aggrandizement. Like so many young baby boomers, I couldn't resist him, couldn't imagine a more compelling athlete, and that was long before he put a face on a generation in contempt of a most sinful war.
The 1965 night Ali fought Sonny Liston in a rematch of the bout in which he'd taken Liston's title, I lingered in the bathroom too long. My father yelled out, "The fight is starting." By the time I'd finished my business and walked into the kitchen, he was unplugging the radio. "Go to bed," he said. "It's over." He didn't look happy. The kid with the big mouth had won, a knockout in round one, after Dad had predicted that Liston would "give it to him good."
I became fascinated with that fight, staged in Lewiston, Maine, which I had never heard of. Wasn't championship boxing an event for smoke-filled arenas in great urban centers? Why there, in the middle of nowhere? Fifty years later, my curiosity not satiated, I drove up to Lewiston, spent a few days, looking for the story of the fight, finding along with it the great symbolism it held for the city.
I learned that the fight had landed in Lewiston because a Massachusetts district attorney, fearing for its legitimacy, had pulled the plug on staging it in Boston Garden less than a month before the settled date. The promoters needed a site to preserve a new revenue stream, the miracle of closed circuit television. They would have held it in a corn field, if necessary, and practically did.
I would later watch Frazier beat Ali in their epic first Madison Square Garden fight a mile away, at a theater on 14th St. Then Ali and Foreman from Kinshasa, Zaire at an old movie house, the Paramount on Bay St., in Staten Island. And somewhere in Brooklyn, an Ali-Norton bout from Yankee Stadium with my dad, who argued bitterly on the drive home that they'd stolen the decision from Norton because Ali was the meal ticket.
Alex was born in November 1989. My dad died seven months later, not long after I had taped Buster Douglas's knockout of Mike Tyson for him and watched it with him when he and my mother were over to babysit one Saturday night. He sat on the couch, holding Alex, while we reminisced about the old Ali fights. Was something passed down that night, grandfather to grandson, while I experienced what was one of the last happy memories of my father alive?
From his toddler days of dribbling a miniature basketball around the apartment in Chicago Bulls wear, plastic red glasses (a la Horace Grant) sliding down his nose, Alex was always an unusually astute young sports fan. Some of his early bedtime stories actually came from NBA team yearbooks. Later, he moved on to more traditional narratives, including a book of retrospectives from Ali opponents. We read a chapter a night, each perspective so different, so savored. Around that time, the 2001 biopic starring Will Smith hit the theaters. Alex was in middle school. I took him to see it. He loved the ending, Ali on the ropes, in the Kinshasa rain, arms raised in triumph.
At home, whenever we would stumble upon an old Ali classic -- the real Foreman fight, anything from the Frazier trilogy -- we would curl up on the couch.
Alex was still texting me hours after the Ali announcement, two a.m. back east Saturday morning, urging me to write something.
Some of his texts:
"The most important athlete ever."
"He was part of what we learned in school, much bigger than sports."
"He's the only athlete that can top Jordan for me."
I asked him: "What are you still doing awake?"
He texted back: "This is too important. I was born in '89 and I feel the impact."
Before we signed off, he said: "You raised me right," his appreciation for my helping him understand the magnitude of the man.
I fell asleep thinking, thank you, Ali, for connecting the generations of your lifetime, and presumably, hopefully, many more to come.
Scotty Stirling and Knicks Royalty
Gordon (Scotty) Stirling, who had a long career in professional sports and especially in the NBA, died Wednesday at 86 in Sacramento. May he rest he in peace. He had little during the 15 months he served as general manager of the Knicks.
Stirling succeeded Dave DeBusschere at the position in 1986, a particularly turbulent time around Madison Square Garden, as an embattled Hubie Brown fought to hang on as coach, as the young Patrick Ewing struggled to find his footing in a chaotic organization and as everyone wondered what the hell was going on with the rehabilitating star, Bernard King.
A devastating knee injury at the tail end of an already lost 1984-85 season had sent King into virtual seclusion as he took on the challenge of a comeback from severe ligament damage -- in those days pretty much a career kiss of death. No one in the media knew what was going on with King because the Knicks didn't seem to know much either. It was Stirling's most vexing issue -- how to reconstruct a team without knowing how its most dynamic player was faring in rehab.
As an insurance policy at the small forward position, Stirling did a sensible thing. He drafted the future slam-dunk champion Kenny (Sky) Walker in the first round of the '86 draft. Pressed by reporters that night on the future of King, as he had been for months on end, an exasperated Stirling snapped, "I hear he's up at Upsala working out. Go see for yourself."
Filip Bondy and I were NBA reporters in those days at the Daily News. We decided to take Stirling's advice.
I lived in Brooklyn Heights and Bondy in the Bronx and we agreed to meet early at Upsala, a small college, now defunct, in East Orange, N.J. Our original plan was to get there before King and to hide somewhere in the gym where we could spy on his workout.
Workaholic that he was, King was already on court, along with a trainer, when we arrived. Our view through a window from outside was not great but it was better than nothing. At one point, King seemed to become aware that someone was watching. He turned and stared at the window from the far side of the court. We ducked into the bushes, and waited. King didn't. He walked out a side door of the building and around to the front. Crouching, we heard a familiar voice from behind.
"What the hell do you guys think you're doing?" King said.
We told him the truth -- we had come to see him work out on Stirling's advice.
King scowled. "Fuck Scotty," he said.
Heading for the front door of the gym, he stopped and turned back to us. King was no fool. Knowing the Knicks had drafted Walker, potentially his replacement, he realized he had a perfect opportunity to send a message to the Knicks without having to deal with them.
"Want to come in and watch me work out?" he said.
We told him that's what we'd come for. In we went to watch King do a series of drills, play one-on-one with a muscular Upsala player and bury a fair share of trademark turnaround jumpers from the baseline.
"How'd I look?" he said, sitting down for a post-workout interview.
We told him he had looked really good and meant it. Not that we were medical experts, but he didn't seem to be holding back, or limping. He wasn't close to playing in a game, though. Perfectionist that he was, King's goal was not to just get back to the NBA; it was to regain all-star status, which he eventually did, except not in New York.
King didn't suit up again at with the Knicks until the final six games of the following season -- and by then Ewing was injured, shut down. They never played together. Another year of bad basketball led to the dismissal of Stirling and the hiring of a new GM-coach tandem in Al Bianchi and Rick Pitino, which, after some early success, would bring more dysfunction.
With his trap pressing defenses, Pitino couldn't envision any future with King and his rebuilt knee. The Knicks let him walk after those six games. And when he was back to where he could again dominate a game, King returned to drop 49 points on the Knicks one night at the Garden while the fans howled for Bianchi's head, chanting "Al Must Go." Soon Bianchi was gone, too, replaced by Dave Checketts on the seemingly endless conga line of Knicks executives.
As for our King exclusive at Upsala, a giddy Bondy and I thought it was destined to be a major Daily News story -- until we got back to the office to discover the editors already planning the next day's back page: Len Bias, projected as the next great Celtic in Boston, had died after celebrating being the second pick of the draft by using cocaine.
You can't plan the news. You can relish the memories. Many years later, I returned to what had been the Upsala gym -- and now belongs to a high school, East Orange Campus -- to watch my son play a junior varsity game. I told a friend about what had happened the last time I had sat in that building, mentioning how Stirling had inspired a scoop.
"That's right," my friend said. "I forgot he was the Knicks' GM."
So here's to you, Scotty Stirling. Gone, but not forgotten.
A Love Story Times Two
The photo is black and white, nearly seven decades old and meticulously preserved. My parents gaze at me from the left side of a restaurant booth, wide-eyed and hopeful. My mother, 19, has flowing dark hair and is wearing a corsage on the left top side of her dress, as is the woman directly across from her. Both are young, striking and newly engaged to the boyhood friends from Manhattan’s Lower East Side alongside them, hands resting on their bare arms.
The men are nursing half-empty glasses of beer, next to Pabst Blue Ribbon bottles while the women celebrate with red wine. My mother’s new diamond is visible on her left ring finger. An empty ashtray sits in the middle of the table. Men behind them, smoking and drinking at the bar, pose as backdrop. At the bottom of the photo, in pen-scrawled script, is the year it was taken, 1946, along with the name of the restaurant, Junior’s, still famously in business on Flatbush Ave. in downtown Brooklyn.
It is an ideal place from which to begin this unambiguous New York testimonial to the endurance of life through love and loss.
I have seen this photo before, of that I am certain, though it has probably been decades since my mother pulled it out of an album to show off her youthful radiance. Now I study it in an entirely altered context, demanding a rewrite of not only the caption but the larger narrative as well.
My father and the smiling woman in the dark dress across the table from my parents are long gone, passing a year and a half apart almost a quarter century ago. At 67, in 1990, my father, Gilbert Araton, suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving behind a 62-year-old widow, who dreaded going home after work in Manhattan to her empty apartment in a two-family row house on the outskirts of Canarsie in Brooklyn.
Being that age now, I can better understand her insomniac nights of wondering how she would face the cold winters and lonely summers she believed were ahead. I can also appreciate how Abe Babitsky could pursue my mother romantically so soon after his wife, Shirley -- the woman across from my mother in the photo -- had died of lymphoma, a year and a half after my father’s passing.
All he needed was my mother’s consent. But all she could think of before even entertaining such an offer was the blessing of her children.
Under the circumstances, it wasn’t so easy to give. Who wouldn’t have reservations, much less an instant and intuitive opposition to the thought of their mother with another man, and the one who just happened to have been the best man when she married their father? Beyond strange, the proposal – of a relationship, not marriage -- seemed much too soon. No doubt it was the sound of her pent-up emotions unmoored by my two sisters’ concerns-bordering-on objections that moved me to temporarily put her potential happiness above my personal misgivings. The truth was that I lied when I told her during our daily telephone conversations – I would check in before bedtime from six time zones away in the French Alps, where I was covering the Winter Olympics for the New York Times – that she had to think of what was best for her.
“He wants it to be, you know,” she told me, sheepishly.
“Like a relationship?”
“Yes, like that.”
But how was this possible, I asked, when his wife had only been gone for so little time? How could a few companionship dinners between old friends evolve so quickly into, well, whatever?
“She wanted us to be together,” Abe would tell me years later.
Yes, as his story went, Shirley had insisted that he had already suffered enough, having buried their young adult daughter, enough grief to last 10 lifetimes. He shouldn’t have to be a burden on their son, who lived more than three hours away. He shouldn’t have to be alone.
“When I go, you’ll be with Marilyn,” she told him, referring to my mother, granting permission, almost by proclamation, for two people she loved to build a future out of their past.
My father grew up on Manhattan’s teeming Lower East Side, where he developed three childhood friendships – Abe, Louie and Ruby – that would endure into adulthood. He was Gil, or Red, to the other boys on Ridge St. Children of immigrants, they survived adolescence and war, returned to the city to find blue-collar employment, marry and start families. Ruby died young, I recall my father telling me. Louie moved upstate and eventually to Florida with his wife and sons. But Abe and Shirley settled in Brooklyn, where my family had lived and to where it returned after several trial years in more rural Staten Island.
Across the decades, my father and Abe remained pals, ubiquitous in photographs of family occasions, always ready to celebrate together, or grieve. Personality wise, they seemed quite different, Abe drawn to vices like the racetrack, my father a contented homebody. But so well versed were they in Yiddish and English colloquialisms associated with the Jewish ghetto that I can’t seem to summon my father’s voice anymore without interference from Abe’s.
Was their cultural similarity the primary source of discomfort my sisters and I felt after he boldly made his intentions known to my mother, as early as her Shiva call? Could our father be replaced that easily by someone who just sounded like him?
My mother at first thought he was joking, and then wondered if he had lost his mind. But their dinners continued, my mother initially telling herself that these weren’t really dates, just two old friends getting out of the house. But by the time I was calling from France, I could tell she was reconsidering, entertaining the offer. She could at least envision a relationship beyond platonic.
I understood how my sisters felt. My emotions were no different. These were not elderly people, still only in their 60s. What was the rush? Beyond mourning, shouldn’t there have been a reasonable period for them to discover whether they liked each other in that way? And if they already knew, what were we supposed to conclude from that?
As my calls from France continued, it seemed to me that my mother was waiting for me – for someone in the family – to tell her it was all right. The best I could offer was, “You have to decide.” Until one night, when she cried and fretted about being alone for the rest of her life, and I finally took a deep breath and told her what she wanted to hear.
“You have a lot of years ahead of you. You can’t worry about what other people think, including your children. You have a right to live your life.”
Looking back, I would like to take credit, claim that my gesture was a turning point. But I know better. As the middle child, the boy in between, I was always the more independent one and in later years the mediator in family disputes, without any real power to impose judgment. My mother may have vented to me about how difficult my sisters were being, but I also knew she wasn’t going anywhere without their approval.
Abe was a patient man. Alone, he went to a Catskills resort with the notion he might meet someone else, someone who would bring no emotional baggage. Instead, he bought a stack of Hallmark cards and mailed them, two a day, to my mother in Brooklyn. He ran up $150 in telephone bills, calling her from his room.
He returned home and talked her into a drive to Atlantic City, where as a regular patron at one of the casinos he qualified for a free room and meals. They took in an evening show, after which Abe decided he needed a nap before the drive back to Brooklyn. My mother had made it clear she would not stay over, even in a room with two beds. Her classic line was, “I’m not that type of girl.” Abe fell asleep. Overcome with guilt by just being in a hotel with another man, my mother called my sisters to let them know where she was, with whom and why.
Recounting the story to me many years later, she would blush and say, “That’s my way.”
Like parents becoming convinced that their child was at least acting responsibly, growing capable of making important life decisions, my sisters began to warm to the relationship. When my mother packed up her and my father’s apartment and moved into Abe’s place – the home of his family -- in 1993, we could all admit it was a relief that she would no longer be living alone.
For the sake of my father’s U.S. Postal Service pension and other financial considerations they said they would never marry. Yet it wasn’t long before Abe crossed the threshold that separated extended family from inner circle. Not that there weren’t situations – beginning with those early signs of affection we couldn’t for the life of us recall from our parents’ marriage – that posed questions better left unanswered. Don’t go there, I told myself. Don’t ask if this new relationship was more fulfilling in ways that went even beyond affection. With Abe, my mother traveled by plane for the first time in her life, vacationed in Florida, California and Israel, places we know she would never have visited had our father lived.
When my mother talks to me about her time with Abe, it is with a remarkable candor. Over the years, she has grown resolute not only in the belief that the relationship has been the best thing for her, but also that she was entitled. She turned 88 this week. He turned 90. Both families celebrated with a party in Brooklyn.
Neither is inclined to waste time with apologies or guilt. In fact, Abe and my mother take pride in telling me how every morning, thankful for another day together, they wake up with a kiss and a simple declaration, “I love you.” If this is also a commentary on what their marriages might have lacked, or grew to lack, they say they can’t undo their mistakes, only learn from them.
Their relationship has brought benefits for the rest of us, as well. My young adult sons never knew their grandfather but over a meal, Abe’s memory will be jarred and he will suddenly look at me and say, “Your father. . .” And here comes another story about a favorite candy store on now-gentrified Houston Street or what life was like in a New York tenement or a silly prank they played on Louie or Ruby. A window into the past will be pried open. With such tales of youthful adventure, Abe brings my father to life for Alex and Charly in ways that I cannot.
As a family, we look forward to making the drive into Brooklyn from our home in New Jersey for a late afternoon visit. We sit in the living room of the two-bedroom apartment Abe shared with Shirley and their children. Now it is festooned with photos of grandchildren and great-grandchildren from our family and his. In two shifts, we will drive to a nearby diner. After a meal, we will say our goodbyes by the car because my mother and Abe will have announced their intention to walk home.
Walking has long been Abe’s passion and he has convinced my mother that the exercise is good for her; her excellent health of body and mind deep into her 80s has been evidence of that. They seem to walk everywhere but to Atlantic City, holding hands like a teenage couple, drawing smiles from younger folks who think they are cute. Abe reminds us that my mother has tripped on uneven sidewalks a few times. The hand-holding is as much a matter of pragmatism as anything else.
“We hold each other up,” he says.
From the car, teary eyed, we watch them stroll down the street and my wife will invariably say, “They’re so sweet together.” I will nod but also see something different from her and everyone else. For me, they have never been just a lucky couple, together in twilight. They remain the foursome they were in 1946 at Junior’s on Flatbush, my father and Shirley walking right alongside. That is the snapshot in my mind that cannot be erased.
A Friend, Forever
I was leaving the movie theater Saturday night, checking my phone, when I noticed the text from my old friend and Brooklyn neighbor, Simon Brady. "Did you hear about Paul Needell?" he wrote. I knew right away what this had to be. And as inevitable as this news might have been, it took my breath away. It broke my heart. No one ever had a better friend than Paul Needell and few people, if any, would have as many friends say just that.
It was small-world strange how the news that Paul had passed away, at 57, after a long struggle against an insidious disease would come from Simon. After Paul married the beautiful Cathy Santiago on a magnificent Brooklyn day in 1988-- the wedding party hilariously introduced on tape by the legendary Bob Sheppard -- my wife, Beth, and I took a detour into the Heights to check out the coop we'd just bought, hoping to test drive our Honda through the narrow alley leading to a parking space in the back of the building. Simon happened to be outside as we pulled up to open the passageway. Turned out he and his wife had recently moved into the apartment above ours.
All these years later, he would learn of Paul's passing before me because their sons were friends out on Long Island, in Rockville Centre.
Paul and Cathy had three sons; Beth and I had two, and countless were the hours Paul and I spent bragging -- or ragging -- on them in press boxes, on the phone, on long Facebook exchanges or during a visit to Paul's bedside during his final years when he fought with courage and grace that struck me as almost unfathomable. I could only wish there had been more time, more occasions. There isn't a worse commute in the New York area than New Jersey to Long Island but still, our families were always connected and forever will be.
We were colleagues at the Daily News in the mid-1980s when Paul experienced a personal tragedy that induced early evidence of the cursed disease. After time off to recuperate, he went to a press conference that had something to do with the old United States Football League. That's where he first met and flirted with Cathy, who worked for the league and decided to do her homework on him. She called Beth, her former USFL colleague in the media relations department.
"Oh, Harvey loves Paul," Beth said. "He's like the younger brother he never had."
He was the kid reporter who had just graduated from the Nets beat to the Knicks when Gene Williams, the News' sports editor, talked me into joining the staff from the New York Post at the start of the 1982-83 season. Here is what Paul said when I told him how uneasy I was with bumping him back to the Nets: "It's great for the paper. It's great for me, too, because I get to work with you." He meant it, too, and that was Paul, who within a year was promoted to covering the Jets, a a beat the News considered even bigger than the Knicks. He proceeded to become the city's must-read on the Jets, as Rich Cimini beautifully recalled in two stories posted Sunday on the ESPNNY.com site.
So Cathy, reassured by Beth's endorsement, went out with Paul, they got married and one day, Beth and I were going through our own wedding album when we came upon another strange sighting. Paul and Cathy had both attended, though seated at different tables. But in photos on opposite pages of the album, their faces were angled so that they seemed to be looking right at one another, as if peering into their future.
Paul loved hearing that story as much as he relished telling his own. He was a damn fine storyteller, with humor, humanity and, above all, a sensitivity and selflessness so rare in the gritty business of tabloid journalism. During the five-month Daily News strike of 1990-91, with young mouths to feed and new mortgages to pay, we caved to the pressure one day and crossed a picket line. Sick to my stomach, I immediately regretted it and walked back out within a day or two. When he heard that I had, Paul called to say, "If you're out again, I'm with you."
No truer words spoken, my friend. You will be with me, always.
July 17th, 2014
During the second week of the recent Wimbledon tournament, I posted a photo similar to this one with the heading: "My favorite place in sports: Wimbledon, Centre Court." In response, someone wrote: "I hope you will write a column to explain why."
Too much going on, not enough space and a little too indulgent for my New York Times readers, I thought. Better for this forum. So here is why I would choose Centre Court over all the great sports venues I have visited -- and there are many that I still do admire and enjoy -- if it came down to one event, one wish.
It is not only beautiful but it is virtually timeless. With the exception of the updated electronic scoreboard and video for player challenges and the practical addition of the roof five years ago, it could be any year of any decade. The size and scope of the arena haven't been compromised for the sake of additional revenues that surely could be maximized. The feel of the place is much the same for Roger Federer as it was for Rod Laver. I like feeling connected to history there.
Most of all, after a long year of assaults on the senses, there are no explosions of fire during player introductions, no earsplitting music between every break in a match, no mindless prerecorded prompts for "everybody (to) clap your hands."
Are the guests in the Royal Box and the affluent folks who monopolize the majority of the tickets the kind of sports fans I'd want to run at the pub afterward? Probably not. But even on that memorable Monday afternoon in 2001, when the rabid riffraff queued up for the Goran Ivanesevic-Patrick Rafter final delayed one day by rain, there was a decorum observed that is unheard of elsewhere, in any sport, and, in tennis, especially at the U.S. Open.
Before crucial points, you can hear someone coughing or sneezing in a distant row. Nobody is yelling into their cellphone after a celebrity sighting, so common in New York. Nobody is dodging the ushers, trying to sneak into a better seat. Nobody is bolting in the middle of a point for a Nachos run.
On Centre Court, the match is the entertainment, start to finish. Your mind is clear to focus on the nuances of the game, or free to wander away from it all for as long as you'd like without being numbed into submission by continuous noise. Before this last tournament, I hadn't been to Wimbledon in five years. I didn't know how much I'd missed it until I sat at Centre Court and had an uninterrupted few moments to actually think about it.
The Man Who Got Me Into A Movie
It is not easy watching yourself on the big movie screen and certainly without the benefit of makeup. So when I saw myself in Lenny Cooke -- the documentary on the one-time New York high school legend who never made it out of the basketball bush leagues -- for the first time last spring, I slid low in my seat and waited anxiously for the next scene.
I had only found out that night that the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, had put me in their film, which is currently having a week's run at the Lincoln Plaza Film Society in New York, among other cities, on the way to probable pay television availability. The footage is of me interviewing Lenny at his home in southern Virginia for a long story I did http://nyti.ms/1iSXes8 in the New York Times in March 2012.
Adam Shopkorn, the producer of Lenny Cooke, had picked up the project he'd started in 2000-01, when Cooke was rated ahead of LeBron James. I decided to tell the Times story, in part, through the filmmakers -- and how their presence in Cooke's less-than-glamorous life was restoring a measure of the stardom he thought he was destined for way back when.
My own experience with Cooke began in 2000, when my editor at the Times, Neil Amdur, asked me to look into the story of a black basketball star from Brooklyn who had moved in with a white family in affluent Bergen County, N.J. to help steady himself, academically and otherwise. I did a series of columns on Cooke, which began hopefully http://nyti.ms/1f46unK but ultimately began to drift toward an unhappy outcome http://nyti.ms/1f46unK that occupies the second half of the film. My scene, I was told, was used to connect the Lenny of old with the Lenny of now.
In addition to being a fascinating cautionary tale (don't take my word for it, but try Richard Brody of The New Yorker http://nyr.kr/1cfujWr) Lenny Cooke is worth seeing just for the old footage Shopkorn compiled when Cooke was touring the premier high school camps and competing against James, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Chris Bosh.
As for my acting and screen presence, I'd like to thank the academy in advance for not nominating me and further exposing me.
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.