Tom Callahan, my partner in sportswriting crime for 30 years, once said of sports, “I like to be funny about it, wisecracks and all. But basically I take it seriously. It’s not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you’re constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there, and it’s value beyond the cheap, tawdry value that all the money-changers put on it. Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence.”
Not long ago, a journalism student asked how I dealt with the collateral damage of sports -- the lawsuits, holdouts, agents. My answer was in the tone of Callahan’s. I know there’s garbage. It goes with the territory.
But every day in every game, if you pay attention to what’s going on between the lines, there’s beauty there.
Watch Carlos Beltran run. Forget Scott Boras.
Watch Terrell Owens in the air. Forget Nicollette Sheridan.
Watch Jason Varitek make a tag. Forget Barry Bonds.
All that I believe.
And yet ...
On a night when Boston celebrated, a young woman was killed by a police officer. On a night in suburban Detroit, the NBA again became Thugs R Us.
I say this next bit without an iota of hyperbole. The NBA is one idiot away from murder. A Boston police officer killed a young woman with what was supposed to be a harmless projectile. How about 20,000 people at an NBA game? You think there could be one with a real weapon?
Monica Seles was stabbed at a tennis match.
A man at the Vibe Awards was stabbed.
A woman in the stands for an A’s-Rangers game was hit in the face with a chair thrown by a player.
At the South Carolina-Clemson football game last weekend, dozens of players fell into a brawl during which they pushed and shoved armed state troopers -- state troopers -- in order to throw punches at one another. Clemson running back Yusef Kelly said, “It’s no worse than the Pacers and Pistons. ... They actually got the fans involved. At least we kept it to the football teams.”
They make me sick.
The NBA commissioner used the right word. “Repulsive.” David Stern used other words. “Shocking.” “Inexcusable.” Repulsive does it for me.
I wanted to turn my head away and never turn it back.
Never. Enough already with the punks and thugs.
Let’s talk about Ron Artest, to name the punk responsible. If Artest did his job as a professional athlete, nothing would have happened.
Instead, the punk cheap-shots Ben Wallace. Fifteen points up, a minute to play, he shoved Wallace on a drive to the basket. Wallace jacked him up, hard. Artest stumbled backward.
Everyone milled around, angry. Artest was in full retreat. At the scorer’s table, he made a show of reclining, la-de-da. Then a plastic cup flew from somewhere and hit him near his face.
That caused Artest to look for a fight. He didn’t look for Mr. Ben Wallace, who is made of steel. Artest ran three or four rows up into the bleachers to find a marshmallow salesman or something.
There he beat on a man identified by The Associated Press as Mike Ryan of Clarkston, Mich., who was quoted saying of Artest, “He was on top of me, pummeling me. He asked me, ‘Did you do it?’ I said, ‘No, man. No.’ ”
Ryan is white; Artest is black. Yes, there was race in this, just as in ABC’s skit with the naked blond wrapping her legs around the black football player. Tony Dungy saw that one as perpetuating a sexual-predator stereotype. I wonder what the Colts’ coach thinks of his town’s basketball team reinforcing a stereotype of street thuggery attached to young black men. And this was real life, not a script.
Jeff Van Gundy was quoted by the AP, too. He’s the Rockets’ coach famous for having ridden Alonzo Mourning’s shin during a Knicks-Heat brawl.
“People are putting all the burden on Artest, and I don’t think that’s fair,” Van Gundy said. “He’s an easy target because of all the things he’s been through. But some fans have gotten to a point where they think they can do or say anything.”