An occasional series featuring our readers' tales of momentary sports glory. If you've got a video of your own brush with athletic greatness, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, subject: Glory Days. Consider this one a very special episode: a former child star reminiscing about his big sports moment on television.
I spent most of my "glory days" not as an aspiring athlete, but as one of those annoyingly cherubic child actors. The pinnacle of my acting career came in 1991 when I landed the lead on the new show from Gary David Goldberg (creator of Family Ties), Brooklyn Bridge. There was all sorts of buzz around the series, which was supposed to be Gary's piece de resistance, a love letter to his childhood in Brooklyn in the 1950s. It was sold for 22 episodes before we'd even shot the pilot, an anomaly in those days. Gary came to see me on Broadway in the Neil Simon play Lost in Yonkers. A couple of auditions and a few short weeks later, my family and I were packed into our egg-white Previa minivan, blasting out to the City of Angels for the next seven months.
The only thing I really cared about in those days was sports, the Knicks and Yankees in particular. Acting was fine and all because I got to travel around the country and meet the types of people who certainly weren't knocking around the streets of Mount Vernon, N.Y., where I grew up. But I consumed the Sunday morning baseball statistics (remember when we had to scour the Sunday paper for Buddy Biancalana's batting average?) with an enthusiasm I never brought to acting. Part of this might have been because acting came pretty easily, and I was terrible at sports. One year I got three hits in roughly 50 Little League at-bats. And by hits I mean two borderline errors and a dribbler that, improbably, didn't roll foul.
A lot of people in the television world were anxiously waiting to see how Gary would incorporate into the show his well-documented adoration of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He sent me a book about the 1951 season to give me a little background for my character, the dashing, brilliant, athletically superior Alan Silver. Little did Gary know that my grandfather, a diehard Dodgers fan, had already told me the agonizing story of Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." He warned me never to mention it again.
Critics loved Brooklyn Bridge during its first season, which of course means that nobody else watched it. Well, almost nobody. Glowing, handwritten testimonials (this was in the days before the Interweb) poured in from 65-year-old transplanted Brooklynites, currently leathering away in the Florida sun. (True story: I had a couple of shoeboxes with more than 500 pieces of fan mail I never got around to answering. Sorry, Madge from Miami.) "Evokes a simpler time when people understood the value of family, America, and a good, home-cooked meal" was the kneejerk reaction. The show had an undeniable nostalgic appeal. Marion Ross, the Happy Days mom, played the overbearing, Jewish grandmother from Russia. I remember thinking, even at 13 years old, that they should have hired a better actress for the grandmother. I was wrong. Marion was the best thing on Brooklyn Bridge. Her performance was stunning. She resisted the temptation to over-indicate an emotion (an acting no-no but generally accepted in the world of sitcoms) or browbeat a joke. She also routinely turned some of the show's more cloying, maudlin writing into acutely felt moments, glimpses into the genuine suffering of the Grandma Sophies of the world—strong, unyielding women who simultaneously defined themselves as both immigrants and emigrants and carried around their broken hearts even as they bravely, and doggedly, pursued their dreams of the New World. Marion found the perfect tone of that very specific anguish in a way that still impresses me today. Incidentally, she was also the nicest woman I ever met in show business and still calls me from time to time.
By the time we got around to filming the last episode of the first season, our prospects were a little dicey. Everyone assumed we'd be back for Season 2, but the ratings were bad. (Really bad. There wasn't a lot of overt chatter on the set about the Nielsens—Gary liked to keep things positive—but it wasn't hard to pick up on the innuendo. Plus, USA Today ran the complete primetime ratings every Wednesday in its Life section.) We'd been jerked around four or five different time slots, which clearly didn't help. Our salvation—or so we thought—were the reviews, excepting the one in the Los Angeles Times that claimed I played Alan as if my "preparation consisted of watching Fred Savage tapes." All the CBS honchos came out in support of the show, bragging about "quality television," which back then meant anything without a laugh track. (Sorry, folks, but Freaks and Geeks wasn't as good as you remember it.)
The last episode of the season was called "On the Line." Alan (me) is the star player (of course) on the Jewish Community House basketball team in a crucial game against Rego Park (Queens). He draws a shooting foul with no time on the clock, his team down one. As he steps to the line, Alan's voiceover intrudes, and he begins thinking about the series of events that led up to this game and to this moment. Halfway through the episode, right before the commercial, Alan swishes the first of two.
And the crowd goes wild.
(If I remember correctly, it took me three shots to make the free throw for real.)
During the second half of the episode, leading up to the second free throw, the usually cool Alan is overcome with exaggerated anxiety as he imagines all the disaster scenarios that might unfold should he miss the next shot: i.e., his parents are disappointed, his Catholic girlfriend (a Shiksa!) leaves him, his grandmother refuses to cook for him, etc., etc. (Of course, the writers conveniently avoided the sports reality that a miss simply would have led to overtime and not necessarily a loss.) By the end, of course, despite all the "what ifs," Alan convinces himself that it doesn't really matter if he hits the shot; his family will still love him, his girlfriend will never leave him, his life will still be the same, blah blah blah. Then he shoots, and the scene fades out right as the ball hovers over the rim.
Moral of the story? I'm sure that's clear. In retrospect, the neat morality of the show now makes me a little ashamed. Still, two or three years after Brooklyn Bridge was canceled, that moment was the one people remembered—if they remembered the show at all. The question I was asked most was: "Did you make the shot?"
I never knew how to answer that question. What were these people asking anyway? Whether Danny made the shot? (No way to know which footage they used.) Whether Alan did? (Was the inane message really not clear to them?) Sometimes, I would even ask, "What do you mean?" And they'd say again, "You know, did it go in?" And I'd feign a laugh and say something like, "Well, I guess you'll never know!" all the while thinking, "Why the fuck do you care?"
Eventually Brooklyn Bridge faded from public consciousness and so did the questions about whether I "made the shot." But I must admit, it was a little disappointing when people stopped asking. After all, if nobody's asking, nobody's interested. Being Alan was always a rather peculiar role for me anyway. I loved sports; I fell into acting; I ended up on a show that was as obsessed with sports as I was. Yet despite Alan's prowess, I was always the kid who got three (tainted) hits in an entire Little League season and substituted obsessing over statistics for actual athletic achievement.
And so, I remain eternally disappointed because my greatest athletic moment was scripted. It's true that I was a slightly famous kid and enjoyed my share of perks. I sat courtside for several Knicks games, just two seats away from Spike Lee, and even ended up hanging out in a green room with Anthony Mason as I waited to be interviewed on the postgame show by Mike Francesa. After Brooklyn Bridge was canceled, I did a bit of a slow fade from acting. There were a few more guest spots on TV shows (I still get residuals from the original Law and Order), a few regional plays, a couple of low-budget films during summers off from college. The truth was that the cancellation, while certainly not a career death knell, knocked the wind out of me. My teenage years were coming to an end, and I simply didn't want to put in the work it would take to turn myself into an adult actor. I wanted to write. I wanted to study literature. I wanted something new.
And though I loved the experiences acting brought to my life, I never really got over the fact that I didn't have my own moment of sports glory. The reality is, whether Alan did or not, I never made the big free throw, because I never had the chance.