February 6, 2018
By Richard Rogers
Let’s take a break from the daily Kirk Cousins eulogy, Bruce bashing and Alex Smith analysis, and reminisce about days gone by. Where did our love for sports come from, and is it still just as strong as it was when we were kids? Has the oversaturation of sports through social media, countless cable channels, and blabbering talking heads soured us on the pastimes we love? I think the answer lies somewhere in our developmental years.
I grew up in the 70’s in the Petworth section of Washington, D.C., a working class neighborhood just a mile or so north of what used to be the old Griffith Stadium. My neighborhood was filled with kids of all ages. I played with kids older than me and younger than me. I lived right across the street from a recreation center, so I could hear basketballs bouncing at all hours of the night. Basketball and football were my first loves. I mean, who didn’t love those sports as kids? Me and my boys played basketball every day after school and on the weekends. We were little, so we had to squeeze in court time before the “big boys” came. You needed keen eyesight in my neighborhood when you played basketball, because there were almost never any nets on the rims. We never heard that “swish” sound, just silence when the ball went through the rim. I literally remember getting excited to tell my friends when I found a court with nets, and don’t even get me started on courts with chain nets. Those were mostly in the suburbs.
When I played basketball, I was “Magic” Johnson most of the time. But at times, I’d pretend I was World B. Free cause he shot all the time. In the “hood”, we called it “heistin’ ”. But when I did pass, I want to be “Magic”. I always wanted to lead the break with the no look pass or the behind the back pass. I also wanted to be like Jamal Wilkes, the former UCLA and NBA standout. He had that weird shooting motion, like he was slinging the ball. There were other NBA heroes, Bird, Maravich, Gervin, but I also had college heroes. The Georgetown Hoyas of the early 80’s were “gods” in D.C. Wingate, Floyd, Williams, Smith, Grant were all heroes. But, occasionally I wished I was left handed like “Pearl” Washington for Syracuse, and later I idolized Kenny Anderson from Georgia Tech.
I’ve always loved basketball because it was accessible and inexpensive to play, but football was a bit different. My love of football came out of my love for football cards. I had all the Redskins’ cards. Remember Danny Buggs, Gene Fugett, Joe Lavender, Clint Didier, and Mark Mosely? I marveled at Mosely, the last of the “straightaway kickers”. But my love of football was not just with Redskins. The NFL did a great job of marketing moments and images, thanks to Steve Sabol and NFL Films. For example, I remember seeing Earl Campbell getting his jersey torn off by the Rams. I went out and bought HUGE thigh-pads from Herman’s Sporting Goods and some football pants so I could be like Earl Campbell. Picture that. You couldn’t tell me anything bad about Earl Campbell; still, to me, he’s the greatest combination of size, speed and power ever to run the football. And then there was the San Diego Chargers. As kids, we always wanted to catch “the bomb”. Screen passes weren’t sexy. Air it out! John Jefferson was my guy. The wrist bands, the goggles. I wanted it all. My love of football was shaped by spectacular catches, runs, and hits. Riggins’ “fourth and one”, the “Immaculate Reception”, Danny White getting knocked out of the game are all etched in my mind. But there are other iconic images and “things”. Lester Hayes was drenched in “stickum”, Theismann’s single-bar facemask, Dave Butz’ helmet, Lambert’s “toothless grin”. That’s what I loved.
Not only were there players that influenced me, there were coaches and I liked the ones who were characters. Imagine Bum Phillips on the sidelines today. Can you picture Jay Gruden on the Redskins’ sideline in a tailored suit and a fedora like Landry? Could John Thompson coach in today’s NBA? What about Cubs Manager Hal McCrae’s profanity laced rant in 1988 which still one of most epic meltdowns in sports history?
But it wasn’t all about football and basketball for me. I actually watched men’s and women’s tennis in the 80’s. Yes, tennis! Connors, Becker, McEnroe, Noah, and yes, “the Czech”, Ivan Lendl. I’d watch the entire matches waiting for a McEnroe tantrum or a glimpse at Chris Evert Lloyd.
I’m older now, and I still love sports. I’ve actually gotten into hockey a bit. Football is still “king”, but I’m trying to force myself to stay engaged with the NBA. Honestly, something in me died when Jordan walked away from the Bulls. I’ve not enjoyed the NBA the same since. Yeah, I know, there was Shaq and Kobe, and now we’ve got Lebron and Durant, but for me it was Magic, Bird, and Jordan. They were my idols, and when your idols fade, part of you fades with them.
I am not bothered by the oversaturation of sports. It’s a good thing to be able to see Division III basketball on ESPN. I like watching “Boxing Classics”. ESPN “30 for 30” is must watch TV. X- games are cool (sometimes). Cable and satellite have allowed me to stay connected to my childhood sports memories. Who would have imagined watching them on a 75-inch television?
It’s sad that I don’t see kids playing pick-up basketball much anymore. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen kids playing tackle football in the park. Are there even any rec sports leagues in the inner cities anymore? Is it all AAU and travel teams? Will kids have our same memories of actually playing sports in the neighborhood? I doubt it, and it’s a shame.