The Boy On The Edge Of The Bathtub: Sam Lipsyte On Growing Up A Sportswriter's SonS

Whenever somebody makes the connection between my father, Robert Lipsyte, the legendary sportswriter, and me (usually because Lipsyte is a rare name, unique to our family, a family that may or may not include a Lithuanian paratrooper I once found online who boasted in emails about our fierce mountain-dwelling ancestors, until I mentioned I was Jewish, upon which I never heard from him again), I am asked the same question: "So were you the lucky bastard who got tickets to every great game in recent sports history?"

The answer, which usually produces a wince from my interlocutor, is no, not at all, not ever.

"My father," I say, "didn't want to owe any favors to the very organizations he was covering."

Then I'll get a glazed look.

"The thing is," I tell the sports fan, "I could have cared less. I was proud of my father's principles. It's part of what makes him a great journalist."

"Yeah, but, like, not even the World Series? The Super Bowl? The Battle of the Network Stars?"

"We went to movies and bookstores," I said. "Or my games, soccer and farm league baseball."

Now the questioner will try a different tack.

The Boy On The Edge Of The Bathtub: Sam Lipsyte On Growing Up A Sportswriter's Son

"What was it like growing up with a dad who knew Muhammad Ali and all those other superstars?"

"It wasn't like they came over for dinner," I say. "He just had a lot of good stories."

* * *

He did and does have a lot of good stories. He used to tell me these stories while he shaved. I was a worshipful first son, and I'd sit on the edge of the bathtub and listen. I was also apparently a sensitive tyke. My father's word for it then and now was "nervous," as in, "Well, you were always a nervous boy." Whenever he brought up somebody he'd met in his travels, my first and most urgent question would be, "Was he nice?" For some reason it seemed really important that people in Sportsworld (his term, his book title) were nice, especially to my dad.

"So then this flack for the promoter comes over—"

"Was he nice?"

"Who?"

"The flack."

"Well, sure, I guess. Just doing his job. But anyway Ali is standing right there and—"

"Was he nice?"

"Ali? Sure, I mean, he was Ali. Anyway Howard Cosell walks up and—"

"Howard's nice to you, right?"

"Yes, he's nice to—what the fuck does it matter whether everybody is nice or not?"

This cracked the world right open for me. He was right. It didn't matter. The story mattered, and a story with everybody being nice isn't much of a story anyway. Also, why the fuck was I so nervous? (I'm still working on that.) That day, I had only one more question.

"What's a flack?"

* * *

A memory: my father comes into the living room and sees me lounging on the sofa, watching the San Diego Chargers and their quarterback, Dan Fouts, on TV. I was a big Dan Fouts fan, even living in New Jersey. Mainly I liked his almost Jewish beard and the name Fouts. It rhymed with "louts," and "bouts." It was a distant cousin of "futz" and "farts." Who didn't want to say the name "Dan Fouts"? Also, he was a great passer. Pretty much all he did was throw bombs. In fact, he played in a system called "Air Coryell," named for the coach Don Coryell. "Air Coryell" was another fun thing to say. Anyway, I was lying there, watching the game, thinking of other names and nicknames I admired in the NFL—Ron "the Polish Rifle" Jaworski, Brian Sipe, "Purple People Eaters," Renaldo Nehemiah, Joe Klecko—when my father walked into the room with a look of amused disgust.

"What the fuck are you doing?" he said.

"Watching the game."

"Why would you do that?"

"It's fun."

"Fun?" said my father. On other occasions he would tell me that only a fool would turn himself into a spectator when he could go outside that very moment and cavort in the sunshine. He was an active man. He was a runner, before most people except boxers did it regularly. He played hardcore handball in his younger days, played a lot of club tennis during my childhood. Of course, I played tackle football in the park with my friends, or basketball and kill-the-guy-with-the-ball with my best buddy who lived next door, but that wasn't the point. I'd been caught out as an idle shnook, a mark for the advertisements and ideological indoctrination that went along with televised sports. This time he just shook his head, walked out of the room.

* * *

Though often charged as a "sports hater" by his colleagues—many of whom, it seems, had become journalists so they could get close to the glamorous world they revered, much the way pedophiles find work in summer camps and schools—my father had started out with a desire to write, and ended up a sports reporter and columnist at the New York Times for many years. He had always possessed a deep admiration for the athletic endeavor and for many of the athletes and coaches he met, but he had a great bullshit detector, and also was far more fascinated by all of the cultural, political, and economic implications of professional and amateur sports. The impact of an American Muslim and draft resister as heavyweight champion or the corrupt wrangling around a major stadium deal excited him as a reporter and columnist more than the analysis of a slugger's slump. He was after big-picture stories, and it was a feast out there for him, because few others dared.

* * *

My father always said the good thing about being named Lipsyte was that once people figured it out they would remember it. It was a weird name, coined either by an Ellis Island clerk or the war chief ancestor of a Lithuanian commando. When somebody called me "Lippy" at school my father said the only person he ever allowed to call him that was Joe DiMaggio. That sounded pretty damn cool. But then some boisterous youngsters started taunting me with "Lipschitz."

"If your lip shits," they'd shout, "my ass talks!"

Witty, I guess, but it felt forced, like their parents had cooked the whole thing up at the dinner table. Also, some of these kids liked to throw pennies at my feet and say, "Pick it up, kike," which kind of killed the wit.

* * *

The way my father explained the Cold War to me: "You and John K. (rare anti-Semitism-eschewing bully, later a friend) stand in the schoolyard and you both want to punch each other, but you both fear where the fight will lead if it ever starts."

The image excited me, mostly because my father didn't seem to understand that if John K. punched me the fight would lead to me lying broken-jawed on the tar, like the Fight of the Century, the first Ali-Frazier bout. There was a famous photograph of Ali falling backward to the canvas. At ringside you can see my father barking into the phone to the New York Times night desk. The intensity in his face is similar to that evident whenever he told me to clean up the peanut butter and jelly smears I'd left on the kitchen counter.

* * *

The way my father explained Jesus to me: "He was like a really fantastic social worker."

I pictured Christ trudging through the dust with case files clutched to his weak chest.

* * *

We talked about Jews. We talked about sports. Sometimes we talked about Jews in sports. I knew about the golden age of Jewish boxing. I knew that Jews once dominated basketball, and how sports scribes of the time said it was because of their natural deviousness. We were not an observant family. We didn't revere the Jewish sports stars. That would have been hypocritical, as we didn't revere any stars, not even Muhammad Ali, who was more a figure for exalted study (though secretly I did revere Reggie Jackson, because he was Mr. October and who the hell else had his own candy bar?). I knew the basics of Jewish sports lore, like how Hank Greenberg saved the Jews by hitting home runs. Or was it Sandy Koufax who saved them by not pitching on the Sabbath? But what about the limey Jew from Chariots of Fire, that paean to pre–Great War splendor? Things got a little confusing. I think I was more interested in the Jewish warriors than the athletes: the Maccabees, who were the Taliban of their time, murdering Jews to enforce strict adherence to the faith, and David, during his mercenary bandit years, when he fought Gentiles and Jews alike, for the right price. These guys seemed particularly badass in very different ways, though they are all part of the pantheon. They'd been "godded up," the way my father always explained the Grantland Rice types "godded up" the sports stars of the early 20th century, kept their foibles and sins under wraps, except maybe David's unsportsmanlike conduct toward Uriah the Hittite. But that was too egregious a foul to ignore.

* * *

Once they get over the fact that I never wallowed in a sea of freebies, people often ask me what influence my father had on my writing. A huge one, I reply. I lived in a house full of books, for one thing, and I saw my father (and my mother) writing all the time. It's probably akin to the fact that so many professional athletes had fathers and mothers who were professional or at least competitive athletes, or coaches, or involved in sports in a very dedicated fashion. Writing was a passion I hid from most of my schoolmates, but never my family. I learned a lot just by watching my father go down to the basement every day to work on his articles and young adult novels. And when I'd go to my room to write, I'd cop some of the moves I'd noticed in his books. I figured he wouldn't sue me.

* * *

By 14 I'd gotten pretty large and soft. All I did after school was come home and try to eat and masturbate my nervousness away until dinnertime. My father decided I needed an organized sport. He had banned me from Pop Warner football because of reports of children getting mangled. (I would never become the Jewish Rifle.) I had mediocre baseball skills. I was pretty good at HORSE, but not the game of basketball. Somehow my father settled on the shot put. I guess it was one of the few sports where my body vaguely resembled that of a typical participant. Fortuitously, our school was known in the area for producing quality track-and-field athletes.

That year I pumped serious iron and worked on my gliding technique. I think I actually lost IQ points but gained a lot of muscle under my fat and started putting the shot pretty effectively for a freshman, though I never dared employ the word "put" with my peers. The usage was a little pretentious for New Jersey, though I liked the word "put" in this context. It was a little awkward, like "Fouts."

I won some meets, and at the big county meet placed second. A kid from Hackensack told me that his band of freshman throwers would motivate their workouts with chants of my name and calls to topple me from my (second-place) throne. Then I went to the state tournament and saw what real shot-putters looked like. They looked kind of like me but with way more muscle and about a foot taller.

I thought about the people in my family and knew I'd probably peaked in height. I wished I could be that Jewish giant Diane Arbus photographed. He may have been miserable but he had the height and big strong fingers for the throw's finish. My father always joked that the coach was excited about my prospects until the two men met and the coach saw the genetic strain he was working with.

I remained a shot-putter until graduation, but my heart wasn't really in it after my run as a frosh sensation. That kid from Hackensack confronted me a year later at a meet. I had not progressed. I was just another lump in a tight tank top and with an ever-present rash on my neck. I'd betrayed my people, not the Jews, but the young shot-putters of Bergen County. I found solace in my bedroom with a jar of Vaseline and the only sport in which I ever really excelled. Also, I read a lot of books.

I was still the boy on the edge of the bathtub, but I heard a new hum inside me. I wanted to write, I wanted to make my father proud, I wanted to kill my father, and I wanted him to be proud of me for killing him. Good thing those feelings fade. It's just so exhausting. Somebody once told me there is an Egyptian saying that goes, "When your son grows up, make him your brother." Robert Lipsyte and I are father and son, but we are brothers as well. We are also colleagues and, to the consternation of our families, spend way too much time bitching to each other about the writing world. But the old crud is still finding and telling the stories as well as he ever did. I'll take witnessing that over box seats at the World Series or the Super Bowl, or even a chance to travel back in time and watch a few spins by Brian ("I had a throwgasm") Oldfield, the maniacal genius of the American shot put, any day.

Sam Lipsyte has published four novels, including Venus Drive, Home Land, and The Ask. He teaches at Columbia University. Excerpted from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy. Reprinted by permission of Sam Lipsyte, New York, NY. All rights reserved.