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 email@example.com.
"23 Reasons Why a Profile of Pete Carroll Does Not Appear in This Space," by J.R. Moehringer (from Los Angeles Magazine, 2007, excerpted here before)
Suggested readers: Seahawks fans, self-lacerating USC fans
We start in east South-Central, a block without streetlights, without stores. Broken glass in the gutters. Fog and gloom in the air. We hop out and approach a group of young men bunched on the sidewalk. Glassy-eyed, they're either drunk, stoned, or else just dangerously bored. They recognize Carroll right away. Several look around for news trucks and politicians, and they can't hide their shock when they realize that Carroll is here, relatively speaking, alone.
Carroll shakes hands, asks how everyone's doing. He marches up and down the sidewalk, the same way he marches up and down a sideline-exhorting, pumping his fist. At first the young men are nervous, starstruck, shy. Gradually they relax. They talk about football, of course, but also about the police, about how difficult it is to find a job. They talk about their lives, and their heads snap back when Carroll listens.
A car pulls up. Someone's mother, back from the store. She freezes when she sees who's outside her house. Carroll waves, then helps her with the groceries. He makes several trips, multiple bags in each hand, and the woman yelps with laughter. No, this can't be. This is too much. Pete Carroll? Coach of the roughest, toughest, slickest college football team in the nation, schlepping eggs and soda from her car to her kitchen?
Next we drive to the Jordan Downs housing projects, one of the most dangerous places in L.A. We find a craps game raging between the main buildings. Forty young men huddle in the dark, a different sort of huddle from the ones Carroll typically supervises. They are smoking, cursing, shoving, intent on the game, but most fall silent and come to attention as they realize who's behind them. Pete Carroll, someone whispers. Pete Carroll? The most famous sports figure in the city, excluding Kobe Bryant? (Maybe including Bryant.) Pete Carroll, mentor to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White-here? A sweet-faced teen named Jerome steps away from the game. He stares at Carroll, shakes his head as if to clear it. He says the same thing over and over. Pete Carroll in the ghetto. Man, this is crazy. Pete Carroll-in the ghetto! Crazy.
He was an innocent, a pop naif, but he was more than that. Most prominently, Liberace was, without a doubt and in his every facet, a genuine rhinestone, a heart without malice, whose only flaw was a penchant for imitation pearls — a certifiable neon icon, a light unto his people, with an inexplicable proclivity for phony sunsets. Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else's privilege; Liberace cultivated them both in equal parts and often to disastrous effect. But if, by his reactions — his antiques and his denials — he reinforced a tattered and tatty tradition of "Old World" respectability, then by his actions — his shows and his "showmanship" (that showed what could not, at that time, be told) — he demonstrated to m-m-m-my generation the power of subversive theatricality to make manifest attitudes about sex and race and politics that could not, just for the 'mo, luv, be explicitly avowed.
* * *
In Liberace's case, they were never avowed. He never came out of the closet; he lived in it like the grand hypocrite that he was, and died in it, of a disease he refused to acknowledge. But neither, in fact, did Wilde come out of it, and he, along with Swinburne, and their Belle Époque cronies, probably invented the closet as a mode of subversive public/private existence. Nor did Noel Coward come out of it. He tricked it up with the smoke and mirrors of leisure-class ennui and cloaked it in public-school double entendre. What Liberace did do, however, was Americanize the closet, democratize it, fit it out with transparent walls, take it up on stage and demand our complicity in his "open secret."
The young man's tale was bizarre, combining elements from the works of two of his distinguished predecessors at the University of Missouri: Tennessee Williams, the playwright, and Mort Walker, the Beetle Bailey cartoonist.
Steve Stipanovich, Missouri's 6'11" junior center, explained to police he was alone in the house on Sunrise Drive in Columbia, Mo. on the evening of Dec. 27, 1980 when a man wearing a ski mask, a red-checked flannel shirt and cowboy boots broke a pane of glass in the front door, entered the house, proceeded to the bedroom at the rear of the residence in which Stipanovich lay reading, began shouting obscenities against basketball players and opened fire with a rifle. Three bullets struck Stipanovich's mattress, after which the intruder picked up a revolver from a table, shot Stipanovich in the left shoulder and fled. Overnight reports of the assault understandably alarmed university officials and Missouri players and their parents, and sent shock waves through the entire state, in which Stipanovich was regarded the archetypal all-American boy.
The next day, however, Stipanovich gave a different account: He had accidentally shot himself. Because the police report of the whole affair was sketchy and because Stipanovich and his family didn't offer further explanation, lunatic rumors began to circulate. Stipanovich was taking and/or dealing drugs. He was sleeping with prostitutes and/or the wife of the athletic director. He was homosexual, depressed, suicidal. He wanted an excuse to get out of practice. He was betting on games and had been the target of an underworld assassin.
In a society permeated by the Watergate syndrome, that Stipanovich changed his story, even if the new version was more plausible, left both accounts open to question. Few people, it seemed, would accept the truth: that Stipanovich simply had come across a pistol he had forgotten about in a closet. He had flipped the gun onto his bed, and upon impact a bullet had been discharged, grazing his shoulder. Then, perhaps feeling the pressure of being a public figure and certainly failing to comprehend the gravity of his act, he had panicked and concocted a lie to avoid embarrassment. When Stipanovich's second story got out, suddenly he was no longer just another star basketball player but a certified weirdo.
"Driving Mr. Albert: A trip across America with Einstein's brain," (pdf) by Michael Paterniti (from Harper's Magazine, 1997)
Suggested readers: These poor people
SOMEWHERE EAST OF LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO. FEBRUARY 22, 1997.
A confession: over the last days, at truck stops and drive-thrus, at restaurants and random road meetings, I've kept a little secret — that we've got Einstein's brain stashed in the trunk — and it's taken its psychic toll. There have been moments when I've been alone with the brain — Harvey in a rest room or visiting a friend — when I've opened up the car trunk and looked in, pinched the cold zipper between my thumb and forefinger, but then couldn't bring myself to unzip the duffel and unsheath the brain. Too much of a violation, an untenable breach in our manly society, even as Harvey covets for himself the gray matter upon which our private Skylarkian democracy is founded. In fact, we've been together now for nearly five full days, and he won't show me the brain. When I bring it up in conversation, he doesn't want to talk about it. When I ask him what parts of the brain we're traveling with exactly, he says he doesn't know and changes the subject. It is as if I am trying to find the secret center of his power. Which I am.