Category Archives: The Sporting Life

In Memoriam: Muhammad Ali

Photo by John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesAs a boy, I was a Ken Norton fan.  That means I spent the 1970s rooting against Muhammad Ali, which was usually quite fruitless.  Any Norton fan could tell you: our man had beaten him two out of three, although the judges robbed one of those from Norton with a crooked decision.

So when the vampiric Leon Spinks shocked the world by outpointing Ali in 1977, it was a cause for celebration.  And when Ali got revenge in the rematch, it was to be expected.

The underlying story, however, was that when someone like Ali loses to someone like Spinks, it’s time to hang up the gloves up.  Yet Ali kept going, trudging through a series of embarrassments.  By the time Trevor Berbick finally pummeled him into retirement in 1981, it was hard to hate on Ali anymore.   He seemed like just another sad pugilist who’d hung around long past his due date.

It was also increasingly obvious to most observers that Ali was becoming what was then known as “punch drunk.”  The more technical terms was dementia pugilistica.  Today it’s it’s called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopahty), the form of brain damage that makes parents think twice about letting their kids play football.

As I came of age during the 1980s, I learned more about Ali, née Cassius Clay.  As a boxing fan, I came to appreciate that he was, in fact, almost certainly the greatest heavyweight of all time,  and undoubtedly one of the greatest boxers of any class.

But far more interesting was the life he lived outside the ring. Continue reading In Memoriam: Muhammad Ali

How The Washington Post Embarrassed Itself Badly

Marty Two Bulls cartoon
cartoon by Marty Two Bulls

Did I ever tell you about the four years I spent in prison back in the late 1990s?

Well, actually, it was just two hours on Thursday afternoons as a volunteer with the Native men’s group at Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I could gussy up the experience and say I was teaching inmates.  But mostly I was just hanging out.  Many prisoners, particularly those who’ve been in a while, are starved for new faces and happy to get some fresh conversation.

Sometimes I’d talk to people about serious issues.  Other times we’d just shoot the breeze.  One day while inside, I was talking to a guy.  Nothing serious.  I don’t even remember about what.  He asked something of me.  I said, “You got it, chief.”

Now here’s the thing.  Growing up in New York City, “chief” was (and still is) in the same class of words as “boss” and “buddy.”  They’re all informal monikers one man might casually give another if you don’t actually know each other’s names, or as a temporary nickname even when you do.  It’s a sign of modest respect and affection in the moment.  In a typical New York City context, they’re all completely harmless words and have zero racial connotation.

But the moment “chief” slipped out of my mouth in prison, I immediately remembered that of course this particular word has a very heavy connotation for Native people, particularly men.

His entire demeanor changed in a heartbeat.  We’d been happy, joshing around.  Now he stared right through me.

“Don’t you ever call me that again,” he said quietly, anger flashing in his eyes. Continue reading How The Washington Post Embarrassed Itself Badly

The Public Professor Site Redesign

cropped-Profile-Picture.jpgFive and a half years after its initial launch, this site is receiving a substantial update for the first time.  Some of it is aesthetics, with new colors, imagery, and font.  Some of it involves updating content.

The “Pages” at the top of the site (eg. “Me” and “Books I Done Written”) are not only renamed, but also updated.  Click inside and see.

In addition, I’ve added two new pages: “Books I Might Write” and “CV.”  The former contains brief overviews of book projects I’m working on.  Beyond the infamous Communities book that was responsible for launching this site but has yet to see the light of day, there are also working manuscripts on music and misadventures from the road.  The “CV” page contains my Curriculum Vitae, which is what professors call their resumé.  Is our pretentious Latin name for it better than your pretentious French name for it?  Who knows.  The bottom line is, we’re all pretentious.

Enjoy!

P.S. Yes, I’ll keep blogging here on the front page.  If you’d like to sign up for email notifications, or get them via Facebook or Twitter, that’s just to the right near the top of any page.  Viva la blog! (That’s pretentious Spanish for, “None of this stuff ends up on my resumé.”

In Memoriam: Yogi Berra

As a boy of 8 and 9 and 10, growing up in the Bronx, I was a big New York Yankees fan.  When you grow up in the Bronx, that’s really all there is to brag about.  A zoo and the Yankees.

Nearly every game aired on channel 11 WPIX, and I watched as many as I could, which was nearly all of them.

The Yankees are by far the most successful team in the history of American sports.  Not even close.  They’re probably the most successful team in the world.  For this reason, rooting for the Yankees has often been equated with rooting for a large, wealthy corporation like IBM or GM.  I’ve always thought it’s a very poor analogy.

Rooting for the Yankees is actually like rooting for the United States.  Each in their own way, the Yankees and United States are the 300 lb. gorilla, that most powerful of entities winning far more than anyone else.  Their wealth creates many advantages.  Supporters expect them to win, and they usually do.  Opponents absolutely revel in their defeats.

All that success means you will be adored by some non-natives who are tired of losing and want to bask in your glory, even if it must be from afar.  But mostly you are hated.  Anywhere you go in America, some people love the Yankees and many more hate them.  Just like the United States is either loved or hated everywhere else in the world.

Who hates IBM? Continue reading In Memoriam: Yogi Berra

My Baltimore Riots

Note: On Monday afternoon, several days of protest in Baltimore over the police killing of Freddie Gray transformed into a riot that lasted through the night.  As of Tuesday, there was no longer a riot to speak of.  Rather, it had become a military occupation of West Baltimore, which saw the return of protests, and de facto martial law in the rest of the city during the nighttime, which is scheduled to last until next week.  This essay concerns the riot, not the ongoing military occupation or protests against it.

I.

On Monday afternoon I was at my dad’s nursing home here in Baltimore.  One of the residents, Miss Annie, was celebrating her 108th birthday.

You read that correctly.

Despite her daunting age, Miss Annie stands straight as an arrow in her crocs and pajama pants.  She has no need of a wheelchair, walker, or even a cane.  Born ten years before the U.S. entered World War I, she is, so far as I’m concerned, Baltimore royalty.

This nursing home is just over a mile from Mondawmin Mall, where the first riots broke out that day while I was finishing my visit with my father and admiring Miss Annie.  Continue reading My Baltimore Riots

I’m on a Big Boat

sinkshipI think I’m supposed to call it a ship.  I get confused about these things.  All I know for sure is that we’re headed south.

I used to be tough when it came to winter.  Not like strap-on-some-snow-shoes-and-hunt-a-walrus-with-a-harpoon tough, but tough enough that a five month season in Nebraska or Michigan didn’t bother me.  That, however, was then.

I’ve lived in Maryland since 2001.  It’s made me soft.  When I first showed up, I thought to myself: These people are pathetic.  Complaining about their mild, mid-Atlantic winter that lasts all of ten weeks.  Can’t drive worth a damn in the snow. Losers.

And I do still make fun of them for their shitty winter driving and their weird snow amnesia; every year when it snows for the first time (and it snows almost every year), there’s a collective gasp of horror and frenzied panic, as if they’ve never seen the white before.  Two inches, they close all the schools and pillage the supermarket. But by the time it dumps eight inches in late February, they’re acting like seasoned pros, talking about how this one’s easier to shovel than the last one because the snow’s not as wet.  Every year, the same thing, evolving in two months from snow virgins to grizzled winter vets.  Strangest fuckin’ thing I’ve ever seen.

Continue reading I’m on a Big Boat

7500 Miles Part IV: O-for-Reno

Igambling awoke in Winnemucca with a start.

It was pre-dawn and I was itchin’ to put it all behind me.  The car was already packed.  I dropped the room key and TV remote through the office door slot, as I had been directed by the motel’s matron, and then hit the road.

It was early.  Too early.  I had lost track of the time zones.  It was an hour before I began to see the sun. Continue reading 7500 Miles Part IV: O-for-Reno

In the Shadow of Mo’Ne Davis

Mo'ne DaivsI.
While not terribly big, my father was nevertheless a super-stud athlete at his high school in Fresno, California during the mid-1950s.  Captain of the football team (he played end on both sides of the ball), member of the track, field, diving, swimming, and basketball teams, he was popular enough to be voted president of the class of `56.  And he was good enough, despite being only 145 pounds, to earn a football scholarship to Redding College in northern California, although he would soon lose it in a gambling scandal.  True.

So you’d think I grew up in a household that paid attention to sports and that I learned it all from at my father’s knee.

Quite to the contrary, not only didn’t the old man watch sports, he didn’t even understand the appeal.  To him, sports were something to do, not something you watch other people do.  I think he looked at it like drinking: he liked drinking, especially with others and alone if need be, but why on earth would he turn on the TV to watch someone else drink?  Or drive across the city and pay for parking and admission to watch people drink.  It didn’t make any sense to him. Continue reading In the Shadow of Mo’Ne Davis

Emmanuel Mudiay: From Zaire to Dallas to . . . China?

Red Rubber in the Belgian CongoYou’ve probably never heard of Emmanuel Mudiay.  After all, he’s only 18 years old and just graduated high school down in Texas.  But he’s already had an interesting, and at times quite difficult life.

Mudiay was born in Zaire.  Remember Zaire?

Central Africa, often called the Congo for the mighty river flowing through it, was a Belgian colony from the late 1800s until the mid-20th century.  During that time, Belgium amassed one of the most ruthless colonial records anywhere in Africa.  Common practices included slavery, whippings and beatings, mass murder, rape, genocide, and the mutilation of children; a practice known as “red rubber” included chopping off the hands of children to encourage their parents to work harder.

The Congo finally achieved independence from Belgium in 1960.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo had emerged from the horrors of colonialism, but the transition was rocky as Belgium continued to meddle in the affairs of its former colony, abetted by the United Staes.  Violence plagued the new nation.

In early 1961, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first democratically elected leader, was executed.  Belgian forces oversaw his murder, initially blaming it on angry villageers.  The United States was complicit, having previously tried and failed to assassinate Lumumba.  Belgium finally issued a formal apology in 2002.

A Congolese army colonel named Joseph Désiré Mobutu had been instrumental in the coup against Lumumba.  In 1965, again backed by the Belgians and the CIA, who saw him as a loyal Cold Warrior, Mobutu took over completely.

In 1971, he changed the name of the country to Zaire.  The following year, he changed his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko, and quickly established himself as a ruthless dictator. Continue reading Emmanuel Mudiay: From Zaire to Dallas to . . . China?