Taking a look inside ourselves

Times Staff Writer

SPORTS are tribal. We line up with our team, our school, our city; paint our faces Trojan colors, dye our hair Dodger blue. We immerse ourselves in the history, in the rivalries: Magic against Larry, John Roseboro against Juan Marichal, Al Davis against the world. This is how we place ourselves, how we reckon with our lives. It is what Don DeLillo, in his novel "Underworld" — which opens with Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world"— calls our "secret history," something "that joins [us] all in a rare way, that binds [us] to a memory with protective power."

DeLillo meant to explore a different history in "Underworld"; he was writing about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, after all. Still, the larger point remains. We mark time by the exploits of athletes, from Thomson's half-century-old heroics to Kirk Gibson's pumping his fists after hitting his 1988 World Series blast against the Oakland A's. We take our memories and enshrine them, creating personal halls of fame. And when recollection fails us, there are always photographs, keeping history immediate, as if nothing were ever really lost.

Of course, for all their sense of history, sports are about change also, as these images reveal. Baseball may be the same as it was in 1939, when Jack Herod snapped a play at the plate during a Hollywood Stars game, but the Stars have been gone since the late 1950s, their stadium, Gilmore Field, plowed under to make room for CBS Television City. They — along with their Pacific Coast League counterparts the Los Angeles Angels — were driven out of town by the Dodgers, who won three World Series in their first decade in California. Here, we see Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax and Willie Davis celebrate Koufax's four-hit shutout in Game 5 of the 1965 Series, a victory that helped key the Dodgers' title run that year.

Such images bring us back, remind us of who and what we used to be. Wilt Chamberlain has been dead for six years, but we can see him drive forever against a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the player who would succeed him as center and Laker icon. Speaking of icons, there's Magic Johnson, who weeps after announcing his retirement in 1991. Johnson's announcement that he was HIV-positive was a shocking reminder that athletes, like the rest of us, deal with issues beyond the field (or court) of play. And yet, even these moments fade into history, yielding to another generation's icon: Shaquille O'Neal, beneath a downpour of champagne, roaring with glee after the Lakers won the 2001 NBA Finals.

Sometimes, a photograph evokes more than just its moment, stirring up a heritage instead. To look at Tommy Prothro, former UCLA and Ram head coach, on the shoulders of his 1966 Rose Bowl team is to see, in many ways, the history of football in L.A. That this history is bittersweet goes without saying; just compare the smiles of Prothro's Bruins with the image of Jack Youngblood — downcast, covered in mud — trudging the sidelines as the Rams lose a 1977 playoff game. Here too, though, desolation yields to something more transformative: a generation later, back on the field of the Rose Bowl, Brandi Chastain peels her shirt off and, in the process, helps propel another kind of football into the public consciousness, suggesting that the more things change, the more (perhaps) they remain the same.

In the end, Chastain's fist-pumping jubilation is a symbol of continuity and diversity, like a story that is constantly renewed. From the Pacific Coast League to the World Series, from college football to the NFL, sports offers a lineage, a heritage, a way to recognize history within the context of our lives. Where were you when the Lakers won their championships, when Sandy Koufax threw his perfect game against the Cubs, when Magic Johnson retired? Such questions are as immediate as photographs, photographs that tell us who we are.

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

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