These Feet Were Made for Gawking

It is not unusual for men to work against their enlightened self-interest. It is hard for some to accept themselves the way they are.

For all we know, Paul Newman may have wished he had brown eyes. Dolly Parton may look enviously at Twiggy.

I'm sure Willie Shoemaker used to dream of being 6 feet tall--and he'd be riding in a car pool instead of the Kentucky Derby if it had happened.

Face it, Jimmy Cagney, who made an art form out of playing gangsters going to the chair, would far rather have been a hoofer. I never met a golfer who wanted to be known as a great putter, even if he was. Being known as a great striker of the ball was more to his liking.

Home run hitters want to talk about their base-running. Beautiful movie stars want to tell you about their studies of Kafka. Great tragedians yearn to do burlesque, whose comics dream of playing Hamlet.

Robert Jerry Lanier Jr. is a case in point. Bob Lanier is a former basketball player, one of the best who ever played the game. It was nothing for him to throw in 25 points and pull down 20 rebounds in a game--even one that Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in.

Lanier was a force in the pivot for the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks for 14 years. He got 19,248 points and 9,698 rebounds in those years.

But if Bob Lanier was world-class in basketball, he was in a class by himself in feet.

Oh, not feet as in inches, but feet as in metatarsal, instep, arch, toe and pad.

Bob Lanier had the biggest feet anybody ever put shoes on. If Robinson Crusoe had seen his footprint in the sand, he would have swum back to the shipwreck. Creatures who leave tracks that big are supposed to inhabit the slopes of Everest, not basketball courts.

Bob Lanier was quite a specimen anyway, 6 feet 11 inches and 265 pounds at his playing weight. He was a perfectly formed human being, and there was nothing wrong with his feet. There were just a lot of them. He had 10 toes, and ankles and heels like everyone else. They just wouldn't quit.

Naturally, everyone was fascinated. It wasn't as if Bob Lanier had three eyes or was joined at the hip to someone at birth.

But his feet just came into view seconds before the rest of him did. The jokes around the league concentrated on them. The game used to be played in old-fashioned sneakers, and the gag was, Bob Lanier used more canvas than Barnum and Bailey. His shoes weren't made, they were launched.

Bob Lanier was not always amused. He felt that his main purpose in life was being, in a manner of speaking, de-feeted.

I remember once, years ago, going down to a locker room to talk with Bob Lanier, like everyone else, about his feet.

Well, Bob was in no mood for any more podiatric discussions. He would be glad to discuss the other 83 inches of his stature, give a dissertation on how to handle a power forward in the key or on which hand he used to block shots.

I was only minorly interested in those aspects of the game, so I went home and wrote a column, marveling that any human being could be so at odds with the thing that made him unique. I suggested that if Bob had any sense of show--shoe?--business, he would have accentuated the abnormality, worn shoes two sizes too large for him, painted them pink and sold advertising on them like the Goodyear blimp.

His footwear, I noted, had been criss-crossing the country on the Freedom Train. "When your shoes can rival the Declaration of Independence, the Adams Chronicles or Lincoln's shawl as a national monument, I would let my toenails grow," I wrote.

If his team got into the playoffs, I predicted that "20 million people will concentrate not on this scorer's feat but on the scorer's feet."

Well, I bring this up now because the traveling troupe of the Lite beer commercial came through here over the midweek for the annual "alumni shoot." Right in the middle of this cluster of all-stars was a pair of all-star feet, and on top of them was Robert Lanier in person.

When I found out that Lanier had made a commercial with another basketball Hall of Famer, Dave Cowens, in which the punch line has Cowens admitting that his feats were not the real show-stoppers and that the real feets of basketball were Lanier's, I decided to brace big Bob about his change of heart.

Now a prosperous Milwaukee businessman whose size-21s are elegantly encased in British bench-mades, Bob sighed and allowed as how he'd had stopped fighting City Hall.

"As you mature, you get rid of your hangups," he said. "I realized people were motivated by curiosity and kindness, that there was affection in their inquiries about my feet. I chose to take it as a personal affront because I thought it detracted from my basketball accomplishments.

"You see, I was striving to achieve status as a basketball player. I was coming off knee injuries, and when I would play well, all I would read is some jokes about my feet."

The moral is, you take fame any way you can get it. Ty Cobb batted over .400 three times in his career but is remembered for his spikes-first slides.

Bob Lanier averaged more than 20 points a game for his career, blocked 1,100 shots and made 76.7% of his free throws--but now those are feats of clay. His real feet will be, so to speak, feet-ured in the Hall of Fame long after the on-court accomplishments have been forgotten, and the numbers he will be remembered for are 21 Triple-A.

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