The United States did beat Italy, 1-0, in Genoa on Wednesday. However, that was not the Italy of four World Cup championships, and it probably was not the Italy that will play in the European championships in June.
If it had been Italy – you could say – the home team would have found some resourceful and maybe even nasty way to take the air out of the Americans’ tires to salvage at least a tie. But the Italians could not get that done. Therefore, logic dictates, that was not quite Italy out there, even with Andrea Pirlo chipping exquisite passes to all kinds of forwards.
Still, the Yanks were able to create the one sturdy goal that gave them the first victory ever against Italy, in 82 years of competition. The Americans had lost seven and drawn three until Wednesday.
Probably the best part of the victory was that Jozy Altidore did what he was not able to accomplish in 2010 in the World Cup in South Africa – that is, hunker down near the goal, control a neat centering pass from Fabian Johnson, and hold off the Italian defenders while Clint Dempsey slipped into position to take a pass and knock in the goal.
Altidore and the U.S. are still capable of playing stinkers in more important matches, as proven in the 2010 World Cup when after drawing with England they were held to a draw by Slovenia, barely survived with a last-minute victory over Algeria, and then were outplayed by Ghana in the knockout round.
It was good to see the stalwarts like Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley, Carlos Bocanegra and Dempsey play solid ball with a lead. Jurgen Klinsmann’s trio of German-born recruits – Danny Williams, Terence Boyd and Johnson – displayed the depth of soccer in German, or rather the lack of widespread development in the U.S.
There have been revolutionary victories before – over Spain in the Confederations Cup in 2009, for example, and over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, still probably the most important victory by the U.S. in half a century.
In the post-match interview Wednesday, Dempsey called the victory “ a confidence builder,” and he called the team “a work in progress.” He was right. Been there before.
Our lads – well, our German lads -- are in Genoa, about to play Italy. Why am I not in Genoa? I would find the hotel along the Ligurian Sea where I once interviewed Ruud Gullit. Best shrimp risotto I ever had, on one of the most beautiful afternoons I can remember, warm breeze along the sea.
That’s the first thing that comes to mind while waiting for the friendly at 2:30 PM on Wednesday. I have no idea what to expect from this latest makeshift lineup from Jurgen Klinsmann. He is looking at potential players; this is why they play friendlies.
Meantime, the mind wanders. Mine wanders back to 1993, when I scored a trip to Milan to watch Italy qualify for the 1994 World Cup, and arranged an interview with Gullit, who was playing for Sampdoria during their brief glory days.
But I screwed up, and took the slow train from Milan, and arrived at the Sampdoria grounds after Gullit had left. I remember Gianluca Pagliuca would not talk to me when I asked if he knew where Gullit lives, but my taxi driver extracted from his colleagues that Gullit lived in a villa in a suburb just south of Genoa. He took off down the hill and spotted the right villa and we knocked on the door and Gullit poked his jangly dreadlocks out the window and told me to have lunch at the team hotel across the street, and he would join me after his family’s lunch.
I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes wondering if I tipped the driver enough.
The aforementioned risotto was tremendous, and Gullit, true to his word, popped over from his villa. Heads turned in the restaurant as we chatted for an hour. The item I remember most from the interview was that in 1993, already an international celebrity, Gullit had never visited the United States.
I guess I exhibited chauvinistic surprise, because he quickly said, “But I have met Nelson Mandela.” That pretty much shut me up.
When Gullit scooted home, the hotel manager was evidently so impressed that he invited me for an elegant coffee in his office, and we chatted for half an hour – in Italian. This is why I love Italians: they let me speak their language, in however wretched a fashion.
Then I took a stroll along the sea, mid-November, people out for a stroll on one of those bonus autumn afternoons that you know you will remember all your life. Then I took the light rail to the Genoa station and headed back to Milan.
Haven’t been back since.
This is what I wrote back in 1993:
Now we will get a glimpse of Genoa, or at least its soccer stadium. Via good old ESPN2, we will watch our latest recruits from the academies and reserve teams and rosters of the Bundesliga.
But no shrimp risotto.
The 40th anniversary of Buffalo Creek kicked up all kinds of flashbacks.
One of them was a glint of sunlight on a wire, stretched across the valley.
I did not see the glint; fortunately, the helicopter pilot did.
The official total of dead from the flash flood in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, on Feb. 26, 1972, was 125, but it almost became higher.
The helicopter episode came when somebody in authority offered The New York Times a place on an Army helicopter that was doing reconnaissance in the long narrow valley. As a reporter, you always accept these offers.
I had been in helicopters before, but they always had doors and stuff. This one, as I recall, had a chain or belt stretched across a portal. I was strapped into my seat, but my inner core had the sensation of dangling out.
It was eerie enough, trying to adjust to pickup trucks lying in creek beds, mobile homes stretched across roadways, lowlands flattened as if by a giant bulldozer, and knots of rescue workers, poking in the flotsam at every bend of the river. Not much was moving.
We were heading uphill, where the coal company had placed an earthen dam to catch all the water and junk from the mine.
Suddenly, I heard the pilot mutter something as he made an evasive veer, straight up, as I recall. We came to understand that he had spotted an electric or telephone line stretched across the valley.
Forty years later, I have no idea how close we came. All I remember is the mixture of gravity and fear in my stomach. Whenever I think of Buffalo Creek, that little episode comes to mind.
* * *
The pistol adventure happened a few days later, when the Times home office asked me to check for more earthen dams in the region. I caught up with Ken Murray from Tri-Cities, who remains one of the great photographers of Appalachia.
Ken and I had met right after the mine blew up at Hyden, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1970. We both went to the first funeral -- the shot man who had been using outdoor explosives indoors, during weather when methane gas is at its most explosive.
We became a unit on subsequent assignments, with Ken contributing far more than this city boy ever could. This was when I learned to rely upon all the great photographers I have worked with.
Ken and I drove around, looking for likely topography that might harbor an earthen dam. We were halfway up a hillside when the company guards caught up with us, clearly trespassing. I won’t say they were aiming their pistols at us, but they let us see the pistols.
Ken and I were well aware that in 1967, the Canadian filmmaker, Hugh O’Connor, had been blown away after walking onto somebody’s property in rural Kentucky while making a documentary. My fellow journalists always told me that story – I think, to get a rise out of me, but they were surely doing me a favor, too.
(The only time I ever had a gun actually pointed at me was by a very nervous young trooper wielding a nasty-looking shotgun during a riot in Baton Rouge in that same era. The trooper told me to produce my identification and I talked him through the process of my rummaging around in my pockets, and was he all right with that? I still do that whenever an officer tells me to produce my wallet. Nothing like play-by-play to calm testy officers with weapons.)
Anyway, the coal guards interrogated us, until their boss arrived. As it happened , Ken and I knew the man from an earlier story we had done. He shook his head and said he was very disappointed in us.
Meanwhile, Ken whispered, “Let’s get down to the state road; that’s public property.” We started putting one foot after another, telling our story walking, until we reached the highway. I told the foreman I had made a terrible mistake and would never get lost like that again, and we drove off. Didn’t find any earthen dams that day. Just guessing they’re still up there, waiting for the next hundred-year-rain in a week or two.
Something has been lacking all through this silly season of debates, and I finally figured out what it is.
We need an alarm system that will go off when the malodorous material gets piled too high.
We need a referee who will flash the yellow cards and the red cards when the elbows and the knees are being wielded too freely.
We need that guy from Oct. 10, 2008, who reminded the whole country that there must be limits to the rabid fantasies being tossed around.
Remember him? It was like a scene out of Awakenings, the movie in which Robert DeNiro briefly emerges from a coma. In Lakeville, Minn., somebody looking a lot like John McCain was making a public appearance. According to The New York Times:
When a man told him he was “scared” of an Obama presidency, Mr. McCain replied, “I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be, but I have to tell you -- I have to tell you -- he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared' of as president of the United States.'' The crowd booed loudly at Mr. McCain’s response.
Later, a woman stood up at the meeting, held at Lakeville South High School in a far suburb of Minneapolis, and told Mr. McCain that she could not trust Mr. Obama because he was an ''Arab.''
Mr. McCain replied: ''No, ma'am, he's a decent family man, citizen who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is all about.'' At that, the crowd applauded.
That man resembled the John McCain I interviewed in his office in 1999 during a hearing into Olympic business, the same John McCain who led a bunch of vets who shipped materials over to Vietnam. When I asked him why he did that, after his suffering during captivity, McCain shrugged and said it was the right thing to do.
We need somebody like that John McCain now, when a Franklin Graham can decide who is a Christian and who is not, when a Rick Santorum can talk about a “phony theology” and when a Newt Gingrich can accuse a president of being “dangerous.” Americans know the code words; we understand what is going down.
We need an arbiter who can draw some kind of line with the words: “I have to tell you.”
We only saw that guy once in the 2008 campaign. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could have another awakening this spring, to inject a note of decency into the silly season?
After 40 years, the name still haunts me.
I think of people and homes and cars, scattered like toys, demolished by a capricious child.
The morning of Feb. 26, 1972, looked pretty much like coastal Japan during the tsunami of 2011, except this destruction was man-made.
The coal company had created an earthen dam near the top of the valley, to capture waste slag and water from the mine. Apparently, they never counted on a heavy rain.
They called it a "hundred-year rain." I would hear that phrase every few months, somewhere.
I was working in Kentucky as a national correspondent for The New York Times when I got the call. The dam had let loose near dawn on Saturday morning. By the time I drove across to West Virginia, the death toll was heading toward 125.
I went to a shelter at the local school and found a man who had been up on the hill tending to his garden when the dam broke, and he watched the wall of water sweep his family away.
This was my second coal disaster, after Hyden, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1970. My boss, the great reporter and editor, Gene Roberts, had prepared me for covering Appalachia by telling me that if you spoke quietly and carried yourself respectfully – not like the stereotype of the network broadcaster -- people would talk to you, because they needed to tell their story.
The man described watching his house tumble down Buffalo Creek, with his wife and children inside. He said they had no warning, despite the heavy rain on Friday.
They all knew the earthen dam was up on the hill. Perfectly safe, the coal companies said.
Then again, coal companies claimed coal dust was good for you. Could cure the common cold.
* * *
In my first hours in West Virginia, I got very lucky, in the journalistic sense.
This was before computers and the Internet and cell phones. I needed a landline to call my story to the office in New York, so I knocked on a door, and an old lady let me use her phone, and then she invited me to stay for supper.
After we said grace, she and her grown son casually mentioned that a friend of theirs had been up on the hill trying to shore up the earthen dam that morning. As the water exploded from the dam, their friend had suffered a nervous breakdown and was in the Appalachian Regional Hospital down in the valley.
Poor feller, they said.
That piece of information told me the coal company had known the dam was in trouble for hours before it blew. Yet the valley was not warned.
The next morning the sun was out, and I found a lawyer from the regional coal company. I indentified myself as a reporter from the Times, and casually asked about the relationship with the major energy company in New York.
He said the company still had to investigate the cause, and he added, “but we don’t deny it is potentially a great liability.”
When the story appeared in the Times the next day, the lawyer denied saying it, but I let them know I had very clear notes in my notepad. And to this day, I still have that notepad, sitting right here on my desk, and every notepad I have used since. You just never know.
* * *
With the 40th anniversary coming up, I got in touch with Ford Reid, who was a photographer for the Louisville Courier-Journal back then, and has remained my friend ever since. Ford was at Buffalo Creek for over a week. I asked him to jot down his impressions, and he described the narrow valley as looking like “pickup sticks.”
Ford described the scene at the high school: “Families huddled in corners with Red Cross blankets and perhaps a few things they had managed to grab before scurrying up the hillsides to avoid the wall of water."
Ford added: “Military search and rescue helicopters used the football field next to the school as a landing area. At the first sound of an incoming chopper, people would rush out of the building and toward the field, hoping that a missing relative or friend would step off the aircraft. When that happened, there were shrieks and tears of joy. But it didn’t happen often. Mostly there were just tears.”
* * *
We all went to funerals in the next days, hearing the plaintive wail of the mourners and the mountain church choirs, a sound that still cuts through me.
My original reporting that the company had a man on a ‘dozer up on the hill during that heavy rain held up, as survivors told their stories of not being warned.
In the years to come, the testimony of the survivors was used in three class-action suits that yielded a total of $19.3-million, according to the records. I do not know how that worked out for the 5,000 people displaced or killed by that flood. From what I see and hear, nothing much changes in Appalachia.
Nowadays, I hear people talk about the solution for the energy crisis. The industry and politicians like to use the phrase “clean coal.”
Aint no such thing.
* * *
For more about Buffalo Creek, I suggest:
Just say it out loud, the mantra that gets some of us through the winter.
Pitchers and catchers, pitchers and catchers.
The good time is upon us.
The batteries are reporting in Arizona and Florida.
The New York Times has a touching recollection of the first dippy spring of the Mets, when Casey Stengel tried to convince people he was managing a contender.
Robert Lipsyte, who was there in St. Petersburg that first spring, describes what it was like. My first team – Newsday – also caught the sweet goofiness of the Mets, telling people it was really all right to enjoy whatever was coming next from this motley bunch.
Pitchers and catchers. The Amazing Mets, Casey called them. Too old, too young, too marginal. But what a good time.
In the spirit of pitchers and catchers and rejuvenation and springtime, I am sharing a poem that popped over my transom the other day, from Brian Doyle, not the guy who batted .438 for the Yankees in the 1978 World Series or a bunch of other Brian Doyles, but a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. He sent it to me; I send it to you, with his permission.
Poem to Celebrate the Day that Pitchers
and Catchers Report to Training Camp
One time years ago when I was a geeky goofy gawky teenager
I stood on the baseball mound and waited as our coach ambled
Out to give me advice or take me out, I couldn’t tell just which
From his face. Even though I had walked a couple of guys and
Another kid had hit a ball so hard it bounced through the fence
Before the outfielders could react, the coach didn’t seem angry.
Coaches on other teams got mad and threw things and shouted,
But not our coach, that I remember. When our coach arrived at
The mound I held out the ball, as we had been taught, and tried
To stay calm, but he said no no, stay in, you’re doing just great,
I just came out to talk a little. Boy, did that kid crush that curve
Or what? I haven’t seen a ball hit that hard in years. You notice
The sound the bat made? Kind of a basso whunk? Authoritative,
I would call that sound. Inarguable. Instantly identifiable, right?
I don’t think we spend sufficient time appreciating the sonorous
Aspects of the game, you know what I mean? The small musics,
You might say. Like how the fungo bat has a high note. Sounds
Sort of happy and relaxed, a before-the-game sound. And cleats
On concrete, that sounds cool. Clatter, that’s the word. So, what
Are you going to throw this next kid? I’d just stay with the heat;
Now, I know you say you have no control, and while that’s true,
You may actually suddenly achieve control – it’s not impossible.
And remember that every wild pitch causes trepidation and awe,
Which are not conducive to hitting. Hey, look a blue heron! See,
Right there, by the right field line! Wow. Okay, kid, go get them.
During this silly season, I have been reassuring my wife that if Mitt Romney were somehow elected president he would not be a total disaster.
“I’m telling you, he could take in information and make rational decisions,” I kept saying.
“Better than those other guys,” I often added.
My deep political analysis of Romney was based upon meeting him at Olympic press conferences from 1999 through 2002.
Plus, I had breakfast with him in Sydney, I told my wife, recalling the one-on-one interview in 2000, during the Summer Games.
What did I remember from that breakfast?
He doesn’t drink coffee.
Duh, he’s a Mormon, she said.
Lately, however, Romney has been characterized by a forced laugh and brittle syntax and rigid posture and plummeting ratings – and that’s within his own party.
How did Mitt’s personal piano get so badly out of tune? Or was it always that way, and it didn't matter?
I remember a breezy, contemporary guy who was learning about the Olympic movement on the fly, and was able to joke about himself with normal language and personal skills.
Romney came across my periscope after some officials connected to the Salt Lake City organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Games were caught giving bribes and doing favors for members of the International Olympic Committee. The host city needed a new leader who could command respect out there in the world, and it reached out to Mitt Romney, who had grown up in Michigan and made his bundle in Massachusetts.
“In his work for Bain & Company,” I wrote, “he was a leader among alpha males in nearly identical dark suits and blue shirts and red suspenders who worked long hours and shared a secret handshake and made tons of money. You've heard of Moonies? These guys are called Bainies. He's not exactly a naif. He saw his father, the late George W. Romney, run into a buzz saw when he ventured outside Michigan to try to run for president.”
Romney immediately tried to impose Bainie efficiency on the Salt Lake City effort while learning about the Olympic movement.
''I had no notion of who Juan Antonio Samaranch was,'' Romney said referring to the venerable Olympic leader. “I had no idea what the International Olympic Committee did. I didn't know it was located in Lausanne. I knew nothing about the United States Olympic Committee. The only thing I read on the sports pages were the results.”
He acknowledged that he had a big job ahead of him.
“I specialize in turnarounds,'' he said, with dry humor.
I asked Romney about his previous public foray in 1994, when he ran for the Senate against the incumbent from Massachusetts.
''I learned a lot from Ted Kennedy,'' Romney said. ''He's the master. I used to say, 'Wow, are they good.' ''
After taking a thumping from Kennedy, Romney went back to making money for the Bainies. But in 2000 he was heeding the call from U.S. Olympic movement.
“My wife talked me into it,” Romney said, referring to Ann Romney, who had attended Brigham Young University, just as he had.
The way he said it, I got the impression of a good marriage -- two people who got along, who talked about stuff.
“She told me, 'You have exactly the background.' The more I thought about it, I realized, we're only here for one lifetime. I was making more money than I should have. It was time to do something different.”
I asked Romney what he had learned from the lavish stadium-building and urban infrastructure upgrading in Sydney. He said there was no way a Winter Olympics in Utah was going to spend the way the Australians had splurged on the Summer Games. His stance came off as financially conservative, not “severely Conservative,” as Romney has re-cast himself in recent desperate days.
“It's politically unacceptable,” he said of Olympic largesse in the U.S. “Here it's national pride. For us, it's city and state. I doubt that somebody in Vermont would feel the same way about the Games, even the people who love winter sports.''
He looked ahead to the Winter Games in 2002 and said, “We're going to be like the family that says it doesn't have money at Christmas and is going to have to get back to the old spirit.”
When Salt Lake City’s turn came, the United States was still receiving worldwide sympathy for the attacks in the previous September. The populace of Utah was more than ready for the challenge of being good hosts.
Mormons have lived all over the world as missionaries and they speak other languages better than most Americans do, and they are attuned to the differences in people. This worldliness and sense of service produced thousands of superb hosts, paid and voluntary.
Romney was the leader of this fine effort -- handsome and smart, energetic and competent.
It is also true that he did not have to run for that office. He was recruited, as a techno-manager, brought in to do a very specific job. In replacing bribers and favor-givers, the old burghers of a singular corner of the country, Romney came off as a fresh and honest and capable breeze. For that job.
These days, I turn on the tube and look for the man who made the slalom run on time.
Campaigning for president is a totally different game. The confident manager of a three-week party now exudes the mixed message of condescension and flop-sweat realization that things are going badly.
Gov. Chris Christie is absolutely right in his decision to lower the flags in New Jersey for Whitney Houston, leading up to her funeral in Newark on Saturday.
On WCBS radio Wednesday, Christie said her home state was honoring her as a “cultural icon," not as a “role model.”
What Gov. Christie suggested – and what preachers and mourners will surely say on Saturday – is that people have the responsibility to love the person while lamenting any possible failings.
“And I’m disturbed by people who believe that because her ultimate demise, and we don’t know what is the cause of her death yet, but because of her history of substance abuse, that somehow she’s forfeited the good things that she did in her life. I just reject that on a human level,” Christie said to Levon Putney.
“When I’ve seen these messages and e-mails that have come to me, you know, disparaging her for her struggles with substance abuse, and what I say to everybody is, there but for the grace of God go I.”
The church and community that will say goodbye to Houston understands that everybody falls short, in some way. The governor struck the right tone as well as substance, giving hints of the mature and compassionate adult inside.
Whitney Houston was a native daughter of New Jersey. She did not die while robbing a bank, or pushing fraudulent mortgages, for that matter. She is surely loved and admired for her talent and also as the human who touched many others. The governor of her home state gets it.
This web site is a projection of what I know best, from all my fun decades in journalism. I write something and, great googamooga, it gets published. On line, but published.
I do not understand Twitter. I don’t know who is talking to whom. I don’t know the difference between Followers and Following and Followed.
I feel like a bloke who mistakenly wanders into a dark room and becomes aware of an orgy going on. (Plato’s Re-Tweet?) I don’t know who is doing what, and to whom -- and why? But it is most certainly going on.
I know people tweet. In the past year or two, I have sat in baseball press boxes (nobody argues anymore) and watched my talented young colleagues who do such good work hunched over little devices, twiddling their thumbs in controlled fashion. Occasionally, somebody chimes up: “Good one.”
The other day, my web guru enrolled me in Twitter; she says hundreds of people signed up Tuesday. I am stunned, and honored, and confused. I will try to live up to expectations.
Which are? (Comments welcome)
Wat Misaka did me the honor of calling back Monday night and giving his viewpoint on Jeremy Lin.
We haven't seen each other since the summer of 2009, when he saw his name on a 1947-48 team plaque outside the Knicks' locker room.
Misaka's comments are up and running on the NY Times site.On Tuesday night, Lin hit a 3-pointer in the final second for a 90-87 victory.
I just looked it up: because of the strike, the Knicks don't play in Utah in this short season. Wat Misaka is going to have to do his rooting via the tube.
By now, I can envision videos of Jeremy Lin’s amazing adventure of the past two weeks being downloaded from the United States to China in a new form of cultural exchange.
Lin is the Chinese-American basketball point guard from Palo Alto and Harvard who has scored 20 points in five straight games after nearly being cut from this erratic franchise.
His foray against the Lakers and other teams would do wonders for the self-image of home-grown Chinese professionals, who do not believe they have the psyche or the soma to compete against Americans, even the discarded Yanks who wash up in the Chinese league.
This confession of inadequacy is one of the many powerful points of one of the best books I have read about contemporary China – Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley, just published by Knopf.
Confession: I know and admire Yardley, a colleague from The New York Times, formerly posted in Beijing, now in New Delhi.
In 2008, Yardley caught up with Bob Weiss, a lifer player and coach in the National Basketball Association who, on a bucket-list kind of whim, had accepted a job coaching the pro team in Shanxi, a marginal team in the coal region of China.
As it happens, Weiss wound up working with a Steinbrennerian character named Boss Wang, who treated him the way the American Boss used to treat Billy Martin – you’re up, you’re down, you’re in, you’re out.
Weiss’ patience and curiosity kept him in this grim city, working for a tyrant, and opened up space and time for Yardley to meet itinerant Nigerian, Taiwanese, American, Kazakh and Chinese hoopsters.
Eventually, the Chinese professionals grew to trust the Mandarin-comfortable Yardley, providing insights into their souls.
“As we all know, Asian players are not as capable as players elsewhere.”
This was the sentiment not of an outsider but of Liu Tie, a lanky former player who was often ordered by Boss Wang to coach the Brave Dragons instead of Weiss.
Liu’s volunteered observation stunned Yardley, who writes that their dialogue “would run roughshod over political correctness parameters in the United States.”
But Liu stuck to his beliefs: “We know we Chinese players are different than African American players. They are more physically gifted. We are not. But we believe that by working harder, bit by bit, it’s like water dripping into a cup. Over time, you finally achieve a full cup.”
Many of the Chinese players exhibit deference when they see the skills of Donta Smith or Bonzi Wells, two Yanks who pass through, and they watch the admirable work habits of Olumide Oyedeji, a selfless Nigerian center who has passed through the N.B.A.
But what they lack, just about everybody agrees, is the individualistic gall to “take it to the rack and stick it,” in the immortal words of Benny Anders, circa 1984, once a promising flash with the University of Houston.
Since the international “take-it-to-the-rack” gap is freely admitted by Chinese pro players in Yardley’s book, the solution would seem to be a communal viewing of the recent rampages by their soul brother from California. Lin has played with schoolyard abandon and Ivy League intelligence in reviving a Knicks team that was going nowhere with its solipsistic superstars, Anthony and Stoudemire.
So the question for the Knicks now is not how Lin is going to co-adjust with them, but rather how they are going to co-adjust to him.
Lin has been penetrating on the best in the game, like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol of the Lakers, and if they shut him down, he kicks the ball to somebody else. This discipline is unheard of these days, in an age of N.B.A. players “who shoot when they should pass and pass when they should shoot,” in the caustic words of former Knick coach, Jeff Van Gundy.
The fault is not in the genes or the hearts of the Chinese players; their coaches and bosses need to let the game evolve beyond ideology, into art with a purpose.
On every level, Yardley’s book is a treat. Like so many of the best recent books on China, he takes us places we are not likely to be going, even as tourists. He takes us to the gyms and arenas as well as the hotels and restaurants and train stations of modern China. He lets us see China through the eyes of not-at-all-ugly Americans like Bob and Tracy Weiss, as they explore a new land. Yardley has the same empathy for Chinese working people as he does for an itinerant player from Kentucky or a failing point guard from Taiwan.
For years I have thought that the ultimate book on Chinese basketball was Operation Yao Ming The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar, by my friend Brook Larmer, published by Gotham Books in 2005. Now it’s a tie.
To prepare for covering the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, I read a dozen terrific books, including China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Random House, 1995; River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler, HarperCollins, 2001; and Oracle Bones, A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, by Peter Hessler, by HarperCollins in 2006.
Yardley’s book on the Brave Dragons joins them. And the commerce goes both ways – Jeremy Lin videos are surely winging their way electronically to China, to show the next generation: dudes, you can do this.
I will always be grateful that Harry Keough came out for lunch last May. He sat next to me in a neighborhood Italian place in St. Louis, wearing a green jacket, the sweetest, friendliest man in the world.
He was soccer royalty. I knew that from his history -- playing fullback the day the United States stunned England, 1-0, in the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, June 29, 1950. That amazing accomplishment glowed from him for the rest of his life, which ended on Feb. 7, at the age of 84.
There was no need for me to prod Harry to recall the upset because it has been documented in so many books and films and newspaper stories. It was quite good enough to sit around a raucous table in what just might be the best soccer city in the country, yet one that constantly falls short of joining Major League Soccer.
What a glorious past, all the ethnic clubs that sprung up when St. Louis was a top-ten American city early in the Twentieth Century. And Harry Keough was from that tradition, playing his way into the rudimentary national program after World War Two.
He was shipped off to Brazil with a makeshift team in 1950. Newspapers could not believe early reports of a 1-0 Yank victory; some edited it into an English victory. But it really happened, after a virtual outsider, Joe Gaetjens out of Haiti, flicked the loose ball past the English keeper, still one of the great upsets in World Cup history.
Then Harry Keough came home to live a full life as family man, coach and father of the American player and broadcaster, Ty Keough. Harry continued to play into his 30’s…and 40’s…and 50’s….His full-time job was as a postman. In between he coached junior college, and then he won five national titles at St. Louis University.
What really ticked his players was that Harry was still the best player on the field. Bill McDermott, another major St. Louis soccer guy, player and broadcaster, said it used to annoy him that Harry, twice his age, could nudge varsity players off the ball, take control of it, distribute it upfield.
Harry had been a pioneer as a fullback. Up to then, fullbacks had been content to blast the ball upfield, theoretically out of danger. He preferred to deliver the ball to a teammate. He dominated the game – as the coach, just filling in during practice. Disheartening, McDermott said.
Harry mostly smiled at our lunch. The lovely obituary in the Post-Dispatch by my friend Tom Timmerman – definitely worth reading -- said Harry had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it didn’t show at lunch in May. Harry just enjoyed being out with his people.
When I heard Harry had passed, I e-mailed Ty to send my condolences.
“You know the saying: ‘He who dies with the most toys wins,’” Ty wrote back. “For my Dad it was: ‘He who dies with the best stories wins.’ BIG Winner, my Dad was.”
The stories are out there. Now only Walter Bahr and Frank Borghi, the keeper, remain from that 1950 team. I’ll remember a powerful man with a sweet smile, who hardly needed to say a word, because we all knew what he and his mates had done.
The Feb. 6 issue of the New Yorker (the normal three days late) contained the sad and gripping tale of the college student, Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide last September after being tormented over his liaison with a man.
The excellent article (“The Story of a Suicide”) by Ian Parker clears up a lot of bad information that had been going around. Clementi and his roommate were thrown together for only a few days, long enough to propel him off the George Washington Bridge.
I was struck by two factors of this modern tragedy – one about the flaws in dormitory policies, one about how far bullying has advanced with modern technology.
College life comes off as Lord of the Flies, with electronics.
The young man, a violinist, had just come out to his parents, leaving inevitably jangled emotions. Then he went away to Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, but it could have been anywhere.
The article makes a good case for commuting to college, at least for the first few years. The system of matching up two strangers to live in a closet with beds and desks seems to be an experiment in abnormal psychology. Four roommates might be better than two – somebody just might exert leadership, compassion, know limits to cruelty.
Never having lived in a college dorm (I went from commuting to renting a crummy room near school to bunking in with my wife), I cannot imagine the thwarting of creativity, of privacy, in such close quarters.
I know, millions of students go through it, what’s the alternative, but it seems like a Petri dish for breeding bad vibrations. If some psych lab had been peeking in on these ill-matched roommates, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Instead, a whole cyber-dorm of unformed children was essentially peeking in.
We all know how cruel the human race can be. (Let he who is without sin, etc.) It is tempting enough to taunt the other, even without contemporary toys. But electronic spy equipment in the hands of 18-year-olds, away from home for the first time, is downright dangerous.
Clementi, just discovering his sexuality, arranged a tryst, asking his new untrustworthy blowhard roommate to clear out for a few hours, as millions of college students surely have done. In time, he might have been able to shrug off the notoriety or learn to be discreet. The realization that he had been observed put the young man on a bridge. Nobody showed rudimentary conscience until it was too late.
The author shows how the legal system seems unclear about just what crime was committed. We all know the cruelty of the tweet, the viciousness of the email. The escalation of the electronic toys race should make any adult shudder while sending children off to college.
*A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall -- Bob Dylan
What an odd sport, American football. Here was a man about to score a touchdown in the final minute of the Super Bowl, yet trying to erase a lifetime of muscle memory for lugging the ball into the end zone.
Ahmad Bradshaw of the Giants was trying to halt his large, mobile body at the 1-yard line but he just couldn’t get himself down. A man could blow out two knees or maybe a spinal column doing that.
That was the strategy after more than three hours of ominous commercials and hard play: the Giants wanted to kill some seconds before Tom Brady got the ball again. But Bradshaw could not put the brakes on his forward momentum, so the poor feller had to settle for a touchdown with 57 seconds left that ultimately won Super Bowl XXXXVI, 21-17, over the Patriots.
Congratulations to the Giants’ owners who showed their traditional patience with Coach Tom Coughlin during a disappointing autumn, and condolences to the Kraft family.
And the one dominating memory of this game -- in a sport that preaches going all out -- is likely to be a running back trying to plop his body down short of the goal line. Very strange.
The Chelsea-Manchester United match from frigid London put us in the mood for a taste of home.
We drove out to to the House of Dosas in the Indian enclave in Hicksville.
Nobody was wearing Giant or Patriot gear.
My wife waved at a little girl at the next table. She waved back, with a gold bracelet glittering on her tiny wrist.
We had bhel puri, eggplant curry and rice, plus poori and potato masala, and my wife had spiced tea afterward.
The waiter confided that they had just sent out for their own lunch – pizza, for a change of pace, he said with a laugh.
We were now fortified for the long evening ahead.
What a country.
Wouldn't you know it. Old Flappy Hands made two sensational saves in the final minutes as Manchester United stormed back for a 3-3 draw after falling behind by three goals.
Love them or hate them, the Manchester United players are savage and relentness. Wayne Rooney absolutely had to take both penalty kicks. In the middle of the rally was old Giggsy, Ryan Giggs, 38, oldest man in the match, keeping up with players more than a decade younger. And old Scholesy, Paul Scholes, 37, back from retirement, reminding the new boys how Man U never gives up.
What a show. Thank you, Fox. And all this action in less than two hours.
Good luck to American football later on.
Best broadcaster call of the day may have happened already, in Real Football.
In the pre-game show before Chelsea-Manchester United on Fox, Eric Wynalda called Man U's David de Gea the worst keeper in the league, and predicted trouble for defender Jonny Evans, too.
Waldo called De Gea "Old Flappy Hands."
Spot on. De Gea looked sloppy in the first half, with timid punches, and culminated by tipping the ball right off Evans, ricocheting into the goal for a 1-0 halftime lead for Chelsea.
Is there a more foolish display by public officials than the mandatory Super Bowl wager between mayors or governors? Are they so craven that they need the attention?
Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated, one of the most thoughtful voices among American sports columnists, has a great point this week. He wishes politicians would butt out of sports, particularly those public figures who don’t know a thing about them.
Once again, Taylor has done his homework, citing ludicrous examples of politicians who were clearly pandering, out of their element. A rare example of bipartisanship: clearly, over-reaching knows no political boundary.
Yet my home town of New York has had two recent mayors who took diametrically opposite positions toward sports, and both worked, for them.
Rudy Giuliani made no secret of rooting for his Yankees, whereas Ed Koch had a visceral disinterest in anything sporty.
Giuliani wore his Yankee jacket and cap, was a frequent visitor to the Stadium, knew the players, and knew the game. He was delighted that his position as mayor could get him up close to the field. The Yankees won five pennants and four World Series during his regime.
He showed up for the sixth game in Arizona in early November of 2001. Given what he had been through back home in the two previous months, he had every right to follow his team. The next morning he was back in New York at the start of the Marathon – another statement that the city would endure, that nihilists and lunatics could not shut us down. Then he flew back to Phoenix for the seventh game that night.
“You’re sick,” I said to him in the crush of the deflated clubhouse after the loss. Giuliani understands clubhouse talk. He smiled and shrugged. It was his team, and he was there, to whisper support to Mariano Rivera, to praise the winning team.
“''I appreciate the way we were treated,'' Giuliani said. ''And if you have to lose, it's better to lose to a city like this. These people sent us search-and-rescue crews.''
Giuliani would show up at Shea Stadium on opening days or other important moments, pay his respects to the Mets and their fans. But everybody understood. He was a Yankee fan. He had earned that right. Rudy Giuliani was never more appealing than when he rooted for his team.
Koch could care less, as we say in New York. He had no interest in sports. If his top aides say, Mr. Mayor, you have to go to opening day, he would allow himself to be whisked out of Manhattan into one outer borough or another, where he would be introduced, endure the obligatory boos, and take a seat for an inning or two.
Hizzoner might have stayed longer if the ballparks had included an outpost for some Peking duck emporium. But around the third inning, you would glance down at the box seats, and there would be a gap in the spectators.
While the teams changed sides, the mayor had bolted for the exit; the limo was taking him back to the safety and the aromas of downtown. But he never faked it, never talked manly jock talk, never pretended to know who played first base for the Yankees or Mets.
I think the estimable Phil Taylor would agree: (strictly in a sports context) if you can’t be Rudy Giuliani, then by all means be Ed Koch. And politicians: have you no dignity? Stop with the wagers.
My New Yorker arrives on Thursday.
It used to arrive on Monday.
The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that the United States Postal Service has stopped trying. Paranoid that I am, I suspect a plot.
I used to have a ritual. Very early in the week, Monday if possible, I would sit down with the New Yorker, at the expense of other reading material. I would scan it for concerts, art exhibits, odd lectures, take a peek at the fiction, look for the article I never could have imagined. The week was young. But now I don’t get the New Yorker until Thursday, and some events have already taken place.
I ascertained that the New Yorker had not changed its publishing or mailing routine. Then I went to the local post office and got a civil answer from a civil servant. Turns out, to save money, the Postal Service now routes magazines and other stuff through another post office 15 miles away. That would account for a day’s lateness, the friendly person said. I count three days.
If the Postal Service cannot deliver somewhat perishable reading material in reasonable time, it can also be willfully late in delivering medication, checks, or that relic from the prehistoric age, the letter.
Printed matter is already in trouble, as proven by the changes in publishing and journalism. I believe some people will be willing to pay for books and newspapers in their hands – but what about magazines that arrive three days late?
I know, I know, the New Yorker is on line. That’s how I found a lovely essay by my friend Roger Angell on Jan. 2, about the decline of the old-fashioned letter. (Roger practices what he preaches; he sent me a sweet letter recently. His handwriting is better than mine.)
The essay was classic Angell, witty and crisp and knowing. I’m all for interactive searching of the web to find treasures like this. But when you trust editors to present you material you were not expecting, as I trust the people who produce The New York Times and the New Yorker, it’s worth committing time and money to hold that miracle in your hands.
Here’s what I think is happening: people have bellowed so much about getting government out of their lives that it is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why Amtrak is so wretched -- because a portion of the country hates the thought of crack trains flitting through Europe and Japan. That’s not the rugged individualist way.
Part of the United States has started to doubt the reason for collective behavior. What better place to withdraw commitment than the Postal Service? It’s a plot, I’m telling you.
Now I am sitting down with the New Yorker. Gotta catch up.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.