Every week, I'll excerpt a handful of stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that I urge you to read for one reason or another. Send any suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"All former professional athletes, not just [Rick] Barry, are victims," Meschery says. "But Rick may be more victimized than the rest of us who weren't quite so good. It's a terribly difficult transition from that world to this. Not so much in giving up the sport as in giving up the idea of oneself. You had come to see yourself as larger than life. Rick was so hungry for fame that when he got it, it was easy for him to get lost in it. He was so caught up in image that he probably lost sight of himself. People were eager to make allowances for everything he did, and so there was never any reason for him to stop doing them. He was constantly told—so naturally he came to believe—that life on a pedestal was reality. In fact, it wasn't. He went through a terrible divorce. He lost a job. I think maybe for the first time in his life he has to deal with what the real world is all about. He has to get work. It's not a question of whether or not he needs the money. He has to work because he's a purposeful, single-minded man who needs to see himself as something. He's a great producer. But to produce, he has to first be asked. And now, who's going to ask him?"
In the dream there are only five seconds left in the game, and Barry's team is down by one point. It has been down by 12 or 14, but he has single-handedly brought it back with a dazzling display of shooting and passing.
He has the ball on the right side, foul line extended, and he can hear the crowd urging him on. "They're going crazy," he says. "I've been playing out of my mind the last few minutes, doing it all in front of the home folks, and they love it. I fake my man left, and get past him and head for the hoop. Now here's the interesting thing. All of a sudden I'm going up and I've got more spring and bigger hands than I've ever had before. And that's all I ever needed, because I could always figure a way to get around the guy who was guarding me, but then I had to worry about the guy who picked me up, because I was never afforded the luxury of being able to jump over people and dunk. But in the dream I've got Julius' hands and jumping ability, and I can do some of the things that Julius can do. So I've gotten by the first guy, and now I'm up in the air. And the second guy comes to pick me up, and, I mean, I absolutely just jump right over top of the guy and—crash!!!—jam it home, and we win the game." He closes his eyes, the better to soak up the supreme ecstasy of the moment.
"It feels so great, so wonderful," he says. "I hear them cheering for me."
Cheering just for him.
"And the best thing is," Barry says, "that they're not just cheering for me because I won the game. They're cheering for me because they like me. In my dream, the thing that's different is that they really like me."
"A Reminder Of What We Can Be," by E.M. Swift (from Sports Illustrated, 1980)
Suggested readers: Fans of the U.S. hockey team, those who believe in miracles, anyone who doubts that Herb Brooks was something of a loon
Players like Phil Verchota, who played for [Herb] Brooks for four years at Minnesota and then all of last year, have still never heard so much as a Nice day today, eh, Phil?" out of Brooks. "Say hi, and you'll get hi back," Verchota says. "Not even that sometimes." The man scared the daylights out of them. Gave them the willies. He wasn't human. But he could coach, and they never questioned that for a second.
Which isn't to say they never questioned his methods. (His obsession, of course, was a given.) One of the devices Brooks used to select his final team was a psychological test of more than 300 questions that he had specially prepared. He was looking for a certain type of player, and the test was designed to show how certain people would react under stress. He thought he'd try it. There would be 68 players at the August tryout camp in Colorado Springs, and he had to cut them down to 26 in a matter of days. He would leave no stone unturned.
One player—an eventual Olympic hero—said, "Herb, I'm not taking this. I don't believe in that stuff."
"Why's that?" Brooks asked.
"Oh, it's a lot of bull, psychology."
"Well, wait a minute. Here's what it might show. It's not as important as what goes on out on the ice, but it's something we can use. I don't want to miss anything."
"I don't want to take it," the player said.
Brooks nodded. "O.K. Fine. You just took it. You told me everything I wanted to know." He was steaming.
"How'd I do?"
The next day the player took the test.
(Hat tip to reader Melanie)
"Back in the Game," by Ben Joravsky (from the Chicago Reader, 1994)
Suggested readers: Chicago Bulls fans, people who in the 1990s watched several hours of SportsChannel Chicago every day and grew to feel that in some weird way Norm Van Lier was the black uncle they never had
Van Lier was the life of the party, everybody wanting to meet him, get his autograph, take his picture. Danny ran off to fetch him a soda, Simeon grilled him some chicken, and people kept stopping by to ask his opinions on this or that. It was a little like his radio show—he even worked himself into a lather when a guy named Ed said this year's Bulls-Knicks series was fixed to guarantee a larger television market.
"That's dumb," countered Van Lier.
"Oh yeah, was that foul on Scottie legit?"
"I'm sick of Bulls fans whining about that call. It was a bad call. But if the Bulls had played defense and hadn't thrown the ball away they'd have won that series and no one would be talkin' about the officials."
"But, Norm, come on, the Knicks play dirty ...
By now Van Lier and Ed were face-to-face, their voices ringing out over the rooftops. "The Knicks don't do anything that Jerry Sloan and I didn't do 100 times before. Man, Sloan and I would have sooner thrown you in the alley than look at you."
"Did you hand-check as hard as the Knicks guards?" I asked.
"Hell, yes. Harder."
Right there on the rooftop I started backing up like I was a guard closing in on the hoop, and Van Lier popped me with a hand check that sent me back almost a foot.
"Show me, show me," said the photographer, jumping from his seat. And Van Lier hand-checked him too.
He might have hand-checked Ed if Ed's girlfriend hadn't dragged Ed away. Van Lier returned to his chicken and our conversation drifted to other topics as the sky turned orange from the setting sun and the game ended with the Cubs on top.
"It's a damn shame they don't have your jersey hanging from the rafters," someone said.
Van Lier shrugged. "There was a time when I might have died to have that. But I'm past that. I see the banners they've got—Sloan and Love—and I know there's a little piece of me up there with them. I was the point guard. I fed them the ball. I gave up my blood for the Bulls. They can't take that from me. Now we move on to other things."
[Mark] Ames claims that while he was gone [Matt] Taibbi mismanaged The Exile, running it into debt and embroiling it in a libel lawsuit with Russian hockey star Pavel Bure after Taibbi ran a prank story claiming Bure's then girlfriend, tennis player Anna Kournikova, had two vaginas. Ames says Taibbi pushed him to take on Bure, a hero among some of Moscow's less humor-inclined underworld figures, knowing that it might endanger The Exile and Ames's safety, even his life. "He wanted out of The Exile and he wanted out of my shadow. He was pretty clear that he wanted The Exile to go down," Ames says.
When I first contacted Taibbi for this story, he replied unenthuasiastically. "Ugh. No way I can talk you out of this, huh?" he e-mailed. "In the end nobody really wants to read about a couple of overgrown suburban teenagers writing about anal sex and the clap and then calling themselves revolutionaries when some third-world dictator gets bored of letting them stay published."
He then fell out of touch, re-emerged a month later, and agreed to meet me for lunch at a Manhattan restaurant. I arrived late, and he was visibly annoyed. There was no boyish smile. "I just don't see why you're doing this story," he said. When I told him that Ames was now living in New York he grew more agitated. I mentioned some of the Exile pieces of his I planned to write about, and he said, "That was covered in the book." I told him yes, that was true, but the book had been published in 2000, and, frankly, I didn't think it was very good.
"The book wasn't good?" he said.
"No, I didn't think so," I said.
"My book?" he said.
"Yes, the Exile book. I thought it was redundant and discursive and you guys left out a lot of the good stuff you did," I said.
At this, Taibbi's mouth turned down and his eyes narrowed.
"Fuck you," he snarled, and then picked up his mug from the table, threw his coffee at me, and stormed out.
The restaurant was packed with customers, and they all turned to watch as I sat there, stunned, coffee dripping from my face. The waiter arrived with the milkshake Taibbi had ordered. After wiping myself off a bit, I went outside, where Taibbi was putting on his coat, and asked him to calm down and come back into the restaurant. He walked up to me, glaring, beside himself with rage.
"Fuck you!" he yelled. "Did you bring me here to insult me? Who are you? What have you ever written? Fuck you!"
I tried to talk to him, but gave up when he walked away. I went back inside, paid the bill, left, and began walking up Sixth Avenue. Halfway up the block, I turned around, and Taibbi was behind me.
"Are you following me?," I asked. He walked toward me, raising his arms as though preparing to throttle me or take a swing.
"I still haven't decided what I'm going to do with you!" he said.
"Are you kidding?," I asked.
And at that moment I thought he might be kidding. There was part of me that thought it must have been a prank. I half expected some old Exile accomplice, maybe even Ames, to jump out from behind a tree with a camera. Maybe they'd been setting me up all along. Maybe there was horse sperm in the coffee. But the anger in Taibbi's eyes was genuine, and, after some more glaring, he fumed off. That was the last I saw of him.
(Hat tip to Alan Siegel)