This Father’s Day I’m thinking about my dad who’s coming up on 85 and by any measure has had a rough year: new artificial hip (doing great), new artificial knee (less great but coming along) and a mysterious kink in his intestine that required yet another surgery.
We don’t think of our fathers, though, in such diminished states. We see them in the mind’s eye as the athletic younger men who played catch in the back yard, incredibly in my dad’s case, making fine catches with his old college glove, the one without a webbed pocket or even any strings holding the fingers together.
The father who performed funny dives almost every time we swam, dives that were actually so brilliantly clumsy they could have been skits by a slapstick master like Buster Keaton.
The father who introduced me to skiing and always seemed to be sailing down the hill like a bowsprit, upright and hatless in leather, lace-up boots, gabardine slacks flapping in the breeze of his own speed.
Another thing my dad introduced me to was fandom. When the Dodgers moved out to Los Angeles in the late 1950s, we bought cheap seats up high in the Coliseum and fell in love with the big league game. When the Lakers made the move from Minneapolis in 1960, we’d drive into town, park on somebody’s lawn for some exorbitant fee, and walk to the Sports Arena to see Wilt the Stilt, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. More often than not the home boys would win, thrillingly, against some other team, from somewhere else.
We would have loved the Lakers even if they didn’t have such glorious players. Jerry West had the quickest, surest jump shot in the league. Elgin Baylor was pure spinning, leaping talent – the Michael Jordan of the 1960s. He scored 71 points in one game in 1960. And what can you say about Wilt Chamberlain? We didn’t know then that he would have sex with 10,000 women in his lifetime; that claim would come out in his memoir years later. We did know that he was over seven feet tall, that the basketball looked like a grapefruit in his hand, and that he had a terrible time making free throws.
I remember one night when we had seats behind one of the baskets watching Wilt straight on at the line. He took the shots underhand, both hands between his legs, as if he were tossing coconuts into a boat. And he usually missed. His concentration was fearsome, though, his eyes riveted on the rim, sweat pouring in a stream from the tip of his goatee. After every attempt, as the teams retreated back down the court, a guy with a mop had to come out and dry the place where Wilt had stood.
One night, I happened to be standing at the aisle where the players exited the floor at halftime. I was 13 or 14. Wilt walked by and I remember his hip bone moving past at about eye level.
They were literally and figuratively giants to this loyal fan. But they couldn’t beat the Boston Celtics. Over 11 frustrating seasons, from 1959 to 1969, Boston won the NBA title 10 times. Six times in that span they beat the Lakers in the finals. L.A. didn’t win its first championship (against the New York Knicks) until 1972, long after I’d left home and graduated from college. I hated the Celtics then, hated Bill Russel’s unselfish excellence, hated coach Red Auerbach’s victory cigar.
So you’d think I would be rooting for the Lakers in this year’s much-hyped “restored rivalry” finals. But in fact I’m pulling for the Celtics. Fan treason? Maybe. But a lot has changed since then.
I left California for Colorado over three decades ago. (I might have adopted the Denver Nuggets, but they have been consistently woeful, and besides we live much too far away – six hours on dry roads – to pop in for a game.) Ellen and I were raising our girls through the 1980s when the Magic Johnson-led Lakers traded titles with Larry Bird’s Celtics. We didn’t have television then; we weren’t so susceptible to the hype. And anyway real life at home was much more exciting than any remote round-ball.
Now, perhaps most significantly, Cloe has married a New Englander, a young man who grew up during Boston’s drought decades in the 1990s and 2000s. He is as hungry for Celtics success as I was for my Lakers way back when. And his caring has rubbed off.
I’m happy to say my father doesn’t hold my changing loyalties against me. He still lives in southern California, but in fact, he understands completely. Free agency has irrevocably altered the loyalty landscape for him, too; it’s hard to know who’s on your team from year to year let alone decade to decade. What seemed like innate, immutable allegiances have cooled. Now we look with clearer eyes – so we think – to excellence wherever it may hail from.
Boston is the more deserving team this year, less selfish, far less whiney. Not dependant on one soap-opera superstar. (Hard to forget, too, what Kobe Bryant did to that poor girl in the hotel in Beaver Creek.) Jack Nicholson can have his “Showtime” Lakers. Go Beantown!