Thursday, April 17, 2003

On Being A Lakers Fan

I grew up near Pittsburgh, PA, and my first sport as fan and player was baseball. The voice of Bob Prince, recognized as one of the classic baseball announcers of all time, was a background to my summers even before I was sure what the difference between "balls" and "strikes" was. I became aware of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1958, when the team finished second to the Milwaukee Braves. Left fielder Bob Skinner batted .321 that year. Roberto Clemente batted .321 in 1959, a disappointing year in the standings. Then there was 1960.

I had started collecting baseball cards, and I also had a favorite American League team, the New York Yankees. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron, I had them all, and would lay out the cards in the diamond shape according to their positions for games of swatting a spitball sized wad of paper with the cardboard cards.

How well did I know the 1960 Pirates? For years I could go through the lineup and demonstrate the batting stance of each player. I can still list them by position. I saw games at Forbes Field, one of the old classic ballparks, the kind the new parks are trying to emulate. I shook hands with Roberto Clemente, Bill Virdon and a number of other players down on the field before a game. There is one game, or part of one game, I remember vividly. I was half asleep at a night game, the spray of beer from popping cans visible in the lights, in the tenth inning. Roy Face got us out of a jam and in the bottom half, somebody was on second base when Clemente came to bat.

Here's where the fan part comes in: if you were a Pirates fan, you knew the Clemente drill. He never hit the first pitch. He would often swing at it, swing so hard that his batting helmet would fly off, and so would his cap underneath it, and he'd probably fall down. But of course he often got spectacular hits later in the count. So everybody in the stands was just settling down, not paying a lot of attention to the first pitch. I know I wasn't, but I heard a clap of thunder, the roar, and looked up: and the game was over. Clemente had swung at the first pitch, and connected. He smoked a line drive that hit the chalk line on the right field fence. It really was chalk, and he'd hit it so hard that a cloud of chalk dust was still rising in the lights, like smoke from a cannon. The run came in from second, the Pirates had won.

My two favorite teams played each other in the 1960 World Series. But there was no question which one I was rooting for, was living and dying for. There was a kind of lottery for World Series tickets---you sent in your money, and you might get seats by the luck of the draw. I had good luck and bad luck. The good luck was getting tickets. The bad luck was getting them for the sixth game. The Pirates could have won the series that day, but they lost the game, 14-0 or maybe it was 16-0. It was awful. We sat in the left field bleachers and by the late innings, left fielder Gino Cimoli was talking to us. But I did get to see some of the Yankee greats, like Mantle and Maris, Tony Kubec, Bobby Richardson, Berra and so on. The next day the Pirates won the series on Bill Mazeroski's incredible ninth inning home run.

I was in my first year of high school. Some teachers let us listen to the game, most didn't. But the news of each inning, each batter, was passed from row to row, as the kids near the windows heard from radios in other rooms above and below. School was over just as the game was tied. Most of my classmates heard the final inning in the school bus, if at all. Drivers in Pittsburgh were refusing to go into the tunnels where they would lose radio for a minute or two, and pulled off the road. Our football team was gathered in the biggest classroom on the third floor watching it on TV, and that's where I saw the most famous hit in Pittsburgh history.

I played baseball every day in the summers, a few times at the Little League level (one team I played for was called the Ghosts. We played the Zombies and the Vampires) and I pitched for a Pony League team. At first I tried the elaborate windup of Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell, then Whitey Ford's, before settling on the more modest windup of Harvey Haddix (all lefthanders, as I was.) I hadn't thrown three pitches before I could hear the men who came to all the games---some of them fathers of players, but not all---commenting on my Haddix windup. I was a relief pitcher mostly (which had something to do with the fact that my father had no pull and seldom came to the games. Our coach worked for the father of our starting pitcher.) I won 3, lost none, saved a couple. I kept my own stats.

Football came into my life when I went to my first high school game with a neighbor kid, Corky Cocheletti, who became a famous male model in the 70s, and was engaged for awhile to Pam Dawber; we still see him on TV commercials. The NFL was small potatoes then; most of the excitement was for college football: Pitt and Penn State, Notre Dame, Army and Navy. Seeing the game live was much more exciting. I don't know how old I was then, but I do remember nervously ordering an ice cream cone from the Hempfield Spartans' star quarterback at the Silvis's Dairy store where he worked in the summer. He got it wrong.

I was an avid fan of our high school team (the Greensburg Central Catholic Centurions), even though I wasn't on good terms with a number of the players. Besides daily games of touch football at school, I played in various informal and intermural games in junior high and high school, and had a few moments of anonymous glory catching passes and running back kicks.

It wasn't until after college and a period in my life when sports seemed irrelevant if not warmaking in another form, and while I was living in Boston, that the Pittsburgh Steelers became a very good team. When I returned to western PA I was amazed at how thoroughly Pittsburgh had been transformed into a football city. Of course I became an avid Steelers fan, too, in the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls. Between the last two, the Pirates won the 1979 World Series. I got myself a story assignment that led to meeting the stars of both teams: Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Lynn Swan, Willie Stargell, etc. I've even got Dave Parker on tape threatening me. (Unlike a lot of Pittsburghers, I liked Dave Parker, and I knew he was playing me.)

Those are the easy years to be a fan. But there were many other years of suffering and dying for games cost by a lost fumble on the last play, a string of errors that I would obsessively replay as I tried to get to sleep that night, or two bonehead interceptions that lost the damn Super Bowl.

But those are my hometown teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and they're my hometown teams for life, good or bad, win or lose, live or die. I follow and root for other teams closer to where I live now---the San Francisco Giants, the As, the Niners, even the Raiders---but never against the teams from Pittsburgh.

(It helps that a player I often went to Three Rivers to see wound up in San Francisco. Barry Bonds wasn't the most popular player on the Pirates, but I always liked him. His last year there was the last I went to games at Three Rivers, not long before I left the city. The last game I saw there Bonds got four or five hits, all line drives hit unbelievably hard, to different fields. But my best 3 Rivers memory was sitting behind home plate when Bobby Bonilla hit a home run. I was in the perfect position to watch his swing (left handed, like me), and watch the ball---it was the closest I came to feeling what hitting a major league homer was like.)

But Pittsburgh doesn't have, and never had, a National Basketball Association team. (The Pittsburgh Penguins with Mario Lemieux won several championships when I lived in Pittsburgh, but though I watched a few of the Penguins' Stanley Cup games, and that famous U.S. Olympic team in 1980, I've never liked hockey.) Pittsburgh had pro basketball teams a time or two, before pro basketball was anywhere near as big as it is now. For awhile they had one of the better teams in a long-gone league, but it didn't make much of a ripple in the city. The Pittsburgh Pipers played at the Civic Arena, and attendance was so bad that they had to sell tickets by scheduling high school games there as preliminaries. My high school played there, which is how I got to see one of the all-time basketball greats, Connie Hawkins, who played for Pittsburgh.

I played basketball at about the same level as those other sports---small time or semi-organized leagues and teams. My few moments of glory as second-highest scorer playing for the intermural champs of my high school (the joke being that we were the National Honor Society team, who beat the Letter Men Club of athletes except for varsity basketball players, two years in a row) were played to utterly empty stands. There's nothing like the echoes in an empty gym. My feelings about sports are tinged with this melancholy: being sort of good, sort of athletic, but never good enough, or tall enough for basketball, or heavy enough for football on a varsity level. You learn very quickly that it's the athletes who play well early, rather than those who might have potential, that get all the attention from coaches and so on.

I like basketball as a sport, and it's a great sport to watch on TV. Without a hometown team I'm free to pick the team I follow. After a brief look at the Celtics, I went with the Los Angeles Lakers, mostly because of Kareem Jabar and Magic Johnson. When they retired, I followed the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. When the Bulls team was broken up, and after a decent mourning period, I started looking at the Lakers again, with Shaq and Kobie.

My feeling was simple: you can't pick your hometown team but when you have a choice, why not the best? Why not pick a winner, and save yourself a lot of aggravation? Besides, the joy of the sport is in following those who play it best. It's not for nothing that when Michael Jordan retired (again) last night, he was given several standing ovations by the fans of a team he didn't play for. He was the best. He was an artist, who changed the art form.

You learn about winning and about playing at a high level from winners and people who play at a high level. But it's not all flash and poetry. Who can forget Michael Jordan, so sick he could hardly stand, outplaying everybody on the court, willing his team to win in the NBA finals? How to deal with pressure, how to deal with injuries. Shaquille O'Neal is a dominating player, but when he's been hurt, his vulnerabilities show. Other teams take advantage, and he looks bad. But he plays, and his teammates find a way to use what he can do, and augment with what they can do. Right now Kobie Bryant is the most exciting player to watch in the NBA. These great players-Magic, Kareem, Michael, Kobie and Shaq-are admirable for what they represent in the game and generally as human beings. These teams played as teams, with professional demeanor. They had class.

I could go on. But after three straight titles, being a Lakers fan this year is a different experience. They're vulnerable. Other teams have improved and they haven't. They are a dependably good player short. Winning the title this year is not a given, and will very difficult. It will be especially painful if they lose to Sacramento, a city that is closer to where I live than is LA, but it's a team I don't respect. They're talented but otherwise, they're losers. Chris Weber turns me off. But the Lakers might not even get that far. The conventional wisdom is that they did well to get Minnesota in the first round rather than Dallas. I don't agree. I think Minnesota is more dangerous.

Being a fan, even an elective one, means you don't desert your team in tough times. So I'm still a Lakers fan, and will be as long as Kobie and Shaq play, and Phil Jackson coaches. Of course, Michael Jordan is officially unemployed at the moment. I wonder if he'd be interested in playing for his old coach, just for the playoffs???

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