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What my musings are all about...

Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.

The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.

The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.

Friday, December 10, 2010

1972 Olympics, Russia Wins Gold

   Here are two names, Vladimir Kandrashin and Alexander Belov, that Doug Collins, the Philadelphia 76ers head coach, never wants to hear again. Why? Because Collins was the starting point guard on the U.S. Olympic basketball team that lost to the Soviet Russians coached by Vladimir Kandrashin, and whose star player was Alexander Belov. It was the first time an American basketball team lost a Gold Medal in the Olympics.
   I don't blame Collins for being bitter. After Collins sank two free throws to put his team ahead by one point, the game turned into a fiasco of mismaagement. The game clock was reset three times in favor of the Russians, and the referee's rulings were bizarre at best. Still, with 3 seconds on the clock and the U.S. up by one point, it's hard to imagine how our team allowed the Russians to throw the ball (unchallenged) the length of the court and how our players allowed Alexandr Belov to catch the ball so close to the hoop and score the go-ahead basket. 
   The entire American team and coaching staff refused to accept their silver medals. Na-na, Na-na Na-Na!! I guess that showed the Russians.
    Not one iota.
    In Saint Petersburg, every year in the early fall, the Kandrashin Family sponsors the Kandrashin/Belov Basketball Tournament in honor of the deceased coach and player; which officially begins their professional basketball season. All the extant players from that 1972 Olympic Team are honored at half-time. The arena is packed with basketball fans, young and old, paying homage to their heroes.
    In 2007, I was invited by the Russian Basketball Federation to attend that tournament. Although I was not born in Russia I was born of Russian parents in China and am a naturalized U.S. citizen. One could argue, and I have, that I'm the first Russian to play in the NBA. (Jim Luscatoff was born in the U.S.) In any case, that was the status accorded to me by the Russian media prior to my arrival in Russia, and who was I to argue? I am proud of my Russian heritage.
    I had never traveled to the birth place of my parents. Now I would get the chance to visit my ancestral home and meet two cousins on my mother's side who lived in Moscow. I would also be able to meet a friend Valery Diev, an ex-player for the Saint Petersburg pro Basketball team Spartak, who lived in Saint Petersburg, or Peters as the locals call it.
    In early August, I traveled to Peters, where I took a refresher course in the Russian language, then on to Moscow to visit my relatives. By the time the tournament came around on September 28th I felt I was speaking proficiently enough that I wouldn't make a fool of myself in front of 15,000 plus people. But what would I say? I was tempted to tell them that there was no way that last desperation basket would have made it, had Kareen Abdul Jabbar been playing center. Or that the game would not even have gone into overtime had any of our NBA players been allowed to play in the Olympics. It was tempting. I stood in center court. The announcer introduced me and handed me the microphone. I hesitated, then I thanked the Kandrashin family and the Russian Federation for inviting me. As I looked at the row of old men, survivors of that winning team, holding bouquets of flowers in their arms, standing proudly under banners of the their old coach and teammate, there was only one thing I could do. I congratulated them on their win, and I said the Russian people should never forget them.
   Between weekend games, the Kandrashin family, surviving members of the team, and my friend Valery and I, crowded into a bus for the annual trip to the cemetary where Kandrashin and Belov were buried. The bus stopped and we unloaded a folding table, and enough food to satisfy the Russian army: caviar, hard boiled eggs, herring in cream sauce, borscht, meat pies, cabbage rolls, shikabobs, and pickles. There is an old Russian saying that whereever there are pickles there must be vodka. Standing solemly around the grave sites of their fallen heros, we toasted them with neat vodka. More than once. Some of the ex players wept. I toasted my parents homeland. Later as we ate, I asked the players about that controversial game. Most of them agreed that the calls were bizarre, but they blamed the German clock managers and the Brazilian referee for their lack of communication. As for the outcome of the game, they voiced the belief that they won fair and square. Ivan Edeshko, who threw the final down-court pass said, "The Americans were favored to win. That we were virtually tied by the end of the game was in itself a victory. I have no idea why your McMillen never guarded me out of bounds.  I had a clear view of the basket and threw a perfect full court pass. Belov caught it despite two American players guarding him, and made the shot. I feel bad for the Americans but Alexandr [Belov] made a spectacular play." The next day the tournament ended and I departed Russia.

Tall Men    by Tom Meschery

                        for my father

I admit sleeping in late at the Hilton,
ordering room service,
handing out big tips while other men
are opening their lunch buckets. I know
you would have scolded me
Какая работа это для человека
"What kind of work is this for a man?"  *
Old immigrant, I admit all of this
too late. You died before I could explain
newspapers call me a journeyman.
They write I roll up my sleeves
and go to work. They use words
such as hammer and muscle to describe me.
For three straight years on the job
my nose collapsed. My knees ached,
and I could never talk myself out of less
than two injuries at a time. Father,
you would have been proud of me:
I labored in the company of tall men.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

You Can Go Home Again

    I thought I'd test Thomas Wolfe's premise that you can't go home again by coming home again after I retired. I almost made it. My wife Melanie and I got as far as Alameda before putting down our roots. But we are only a Bay Bridge away from visiting San Francisco where I grew up, so in a sense it is a kind of homecoming.
   Recently, Mel and I drove into The City for a morning at the DeYoung Museum and lunch at the Russian Bakery on Geary Boulevard, enjoying their deep fried pirochki and trying not to think about our rising cholesterol.
   The bakery is equidistant from where I grew up on 9th Ave and Clement, and Saint Monica's School out on the avenues, where Fred LaCour and I used to play a lot of basketball on its outdoor court.
   From 1953-56 LaCour was the star basketball player from Saint Ignatius High and I played for Lowell. We were rivals and best friends. Aside from Jason Kidd, I can't think of another prep in all of Northern California that was as skilled at that age.
   It's hard to imagine today's budding basketball stars playing ball on outdoor courts, not with all the youth leagues and semi-professional coaching and scouting of youngsters that goes on, and I'm not nostalgic enough to bemoan the fact that they don't. But those outdoor courts were the training ground for the players of my generation. All over the Bay Area there were outdoor courts with playground directors supervising and after-school players rushing to be first on to play. The games of three-on-three were called "hunch". I have no idea why, but I love the word.
   There were gyms too: Lawton, Booker T. Washington, Saint Vincent de Paul, Anza, Salesiens but mostly it is the outdoor courts that remain fixed in my memory. We played on concrete or asphalt and learned to avoid dribbling on cracks and to test the direction of the wind before we shot the ball.
    And there were the outdoor court players, plein-air gym rats, most of whom were not skillful enough to play in college but who joined up with those of us who were, to form some of my best basketball memories, those days of fierce competion on the outdoor courts. This poem goes out to them.

Ex Basketball Player   by John Updike

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth's Garage
Is on the corner facing west , and there
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps -
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low,
One's nostrils are two S's, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all - more a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In '46
He bucketed three-hundred-ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae's Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward the bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Odd Jocks

    Normally I end my blog with a "Sports Poem of the Day". Today's poem leads into the Blog.

To an Athlete Turned Poet     by Peter Meinke

                     (for James Dickey)

Fifteen years ago      and twenty
he'd crouch          linebacker          going tackler
steel stomach flexing for
contact       contact       cracking
through man after man         weekend hero
washing the cheers down
with unbought beer

and now his stomach's soft       his books
press out his veins as he walks
and no one looks

but deep in his bone stadium
the roar of the crowd wells
as he shows them again
crossing line after line
on cracking fingers     heart red-
dogging with rage and joy over the broken backs
of words      words     words

    James Dickey (1923-1997) was one of America's finest poets. He won the National Book Award and served as our country's Poet Laureate. Until his retirement, he taught poetry and creative writing at the University of South Carolina. He became known outside literary circles after his novel Deliverance was made into a movie. Dickey had a minor role as the sheriff in that popular thriller. In high school, Dickey played football. In college he played one year before joining the air force and serving in the Night Fighter squadron during World War II.
    While thinking of Dickey's poetry and the incongruity of his being a football player - by all accounts a fierce one - it occurred to me that this poem could have been dedicated to a number of different football players turned artists - Mike Reed of the Bengals, for one; Bernie Casey of the 49ers for another.
    Reed was an All-American from Penn State when he was drafted in the 1st round by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1970. He played there for 4 years and made the Pro-Bowl 2 of those years. His BA was in music. When he retired he followed his musical talent, playing the piano and composing. He performed with the Utah, Dallas, and Cincinnati symphonies. After his classical musical career, he wrote country music, winning the Grammy Award for his song, "Stranger in My House." Reed is enshrined in the Nashville Hall of Fame. On the football field, he was one tough sonovabitch.
    So was Bernie Casey, an All-American receiver at Bowling Green University, the same University attended by Warrirors' great Nate Thurmond.  Casey became the 1st round pick of the 49ers and went on to play six years for the Niners and 2 for the LA Rams before leaving football for an acting career. Casey is also an acclaimed painter.
    The combination of athlete and artist is, on its surface, an odd alliance of mind and body. But Casey and Reed are not unusual singletons in the world of sports. There are many other such "Odd Jocks." Here are just a few: Tommy Hiensohn, Celtics and painter; Florence Kersey Joyner, track and abstract painter; Peter Gent, NFL Dallas Cowboys and novelist; Bernie Williams, Yankees and classical/jazz guitarist.
    Having discovered enough jock/artist combos to conclude such people are not anomalies, I started looking for a commonality. Creativity had to be one, and spontaneity (or improvisation) another, but I couldn't find anything definitive that linked the two disciplines until I came across a blog by Semir Zike, a professor of Neuroesthetics @ University College London. It sites a study published in PLoS One. Scientists studied the activity in brains of jazz pianists while they were improvising and came to the conclusion that the frontal lobes of the pianists' brains were deactivated. "The [frontal cortex] may be involved  in assessing whether behaviors conform to social demands, exert inhibitory control over inappropriate or maladaptive performance." The blog goes on to say, "Any artistic achievement that is tailored to conform to social demands rather than to the real, uninhibited, feeling of its creator, is destined not to reach the heights of achievement, or even fail." It is only when an artist is dis-inhibited that he or she can reach the heights of artistic achievement.
    I don't think it's a stretch to substitute the word athlete for artist in this case. All you need to do is talk to athletes and ask them to explain the "Zone." they can't, fully. And it is not a mistake that the greater the athlete, the more time he or she spends in the Zone, where achievement transcends thinking.
    If this indeed links artist and athlete, Michael Jorrdan and Thelonious Monk, the greatest improvisers in their professions, have a lot in common.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Congratulations Giants

As I embark on my Blogging journey, I wouldn't be a loyal Bay Area sports fan if I didn't use one of my first Blogs to acknowledge the awesome 2010 World Series victory of the San Francisco Giants. Congratulations to all the players, coaches, owners, and fans. Since I have never been much attracted to baseball as an observer, I'm not exactly sure how to blog about it with any enthusiasm. The last time I remember watching an entire game of live baseball, I was sitting in Seals Stadium at 16th and Bryant Street watching the San Francisco Seals, winners of the 1957 PCL Championship. The manager was Lefty O'Doul, and the only player I still remember is Ken Aspermonte, a name that sounds to me like an Italian Village. The next year the Giants arrived and minor league ball came to an end. I did my best to be a fan of the Giants. With players such as Willy Mays and McCovey on your home team, it seemed sacrilegious not to be. How can you not be a fan of the great American pastime? My friend Bill King, the voice of the A's, used to ask. I treated the question as rhetorical since he asked me every time I turned down his offers to give me free tickets. It's not that I don't admire the game of baseball or the talent it takes to play it, or the subtleties of the sport. It's all the down-time that drives me crazy. My personality is far too hyper for baseball. I tried pitching in high school, one of two positions in the game that were constantly in motion, the other being catcher, but I was so wild, the Lowell High baseball coach, worrying about the kind of injuries I might inflict on his players, (not to mention opposing batters), recommended I stick to basketball. I gladly followed his advice. My rejection of baseball continued to befuddle Bill King, at one time the voice of all three major league sports in the Bay Area (in the same year) who insisted that baseball was the most exciting and intellectually stimulating. He always believed me to be an intelligent man, but this was a flaw in my character that made him wonder if he was mistaken about me. (By the way, how come Bill "Holy Toledo" King is not in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame?). Dear Bill, how I miss him. How he tried to make a baseball fan of me, to his utter frustration. Wherever your spirit now resides, this blog is for you, Bill. But the sports poem of the day is for Tim Lincecum, whom I have to admit, I actually turned on the TV to watch him pitch.

Pitcher   by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at.

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate,
Making the batter understand too late.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Random Thoughts

R.T. #1 - It seems to me that college football is forgetting two important Bowls: The Tinkle Bowl for the two teams with the best even records and The Hemorroids Awareness Bowl for the two teams with the best losing records.

R.T. #2 - My wife, Melanie and I were watching last night's NFL game between the Steelers and the Ravens. With a couple of minutes to go, Troy Polamalu tackled Flacco and stripped him of the ball, which led to a Steeler game-winning touchdown two plays later. "Have you ever seen a player tackle as fiercely as Polamalu?" I asked my wife who is a huge football fan. "And never anyone as gorgeous either," she quipped. Mel is a portrait painter and knows a thing or two about gorgeous.

R.T. #3 - Is it possible that professional sports in general are becoming more violent? Witness a question posed to me by a salesman promoting his brand of cookies at my local grocery store. I was wearing my Warriors' cap, so he might have thought I had some insight."Why are there so many more injuries in pro ball?" he asked. "There are always one or two key players out. It's not that way in college," he said. By his tone of voice, he sounded like one of those guys who believes all pro ball players are prima donnas and keep themselves out of games over the slightest owie. I've heard this question asked a lot these days. I'm not sure why so many fans are skeptical of player injuries. I'm not, although my old highschool coach Benny Neff of good old Lowell had an answer for all injuries,"spit on it." Here's what I told the salesman: In college only a select few on the team are pro material. The players who make it in the pros are the very best in their colleges. So only the fastest, toughest, strongest athletes make it in the pros. That's a lot of "bests" slamming into eachother on the field or on the court. I don't think my salesman bought my idea because there is a certain subconscious belief by many working men (especially in these economic times) that athletes who are paid such extroadinary amounts of money should simply suck it up, no matter what. They themselves would. I didn't buy the cookies.

Here's a poem about a sport that is the antithesis of violence.

The Curlers at Dusk   by David Roderick

At first we look like nomads plodding
against wind, black-booted, fur-clad,
with forty pound stones changed
to our backs, but we have come to shoot
in the hack, to hurl stones
over a glistening ice bed at dusk.
As our quoits slide across ice, one by one,
and knock against others or spin alone,
we bellow songs of warmth and swig
from bladder-bags of cider and gin.
With brooms we whisk ice-dust
to guide each stone into the house:
that faint target we stained to the river
with the blood of a barren sow..
See us now, caught in the torchlit glow
as the final quoit curls from the hand
of a bowed silhouette in the distance,
that decisive stone gliding
across ice, our shadows yoked
in the low arc of the fading light.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Elgin Baylor 12/5/2010

   Now that I'v committed to Blogging, subjects I never imagined seem to be flying at me from all directions. Today I was thinking about some of the great NBA stars I played with and against: Wilt, of course and the Big O and Jerry West, and the entire Boston Celtic team that still haunts my game-time memories. How good were they? That's the topic for another Blog - or two.
   I was reading through a book entitled Sport: Inside Out and came across a poem for Elgin Baylor. What a basketball player he was. Some say it's impossible to compare NBA eras, and I agree for the most part. But certain players transcend time, and Baylor is one of those players. (There are more, of course) With apologies to Michael and Kobe, Baylor could do it all long before they came on the scene. The man was impossible to guard, and I discovered that the best strategy was to foul him as often as possible, that way I could say with certainty from my seat on the bench, having fouled out, that Baylor did not score his thirty-plus point on me, only the first 10 or 12.
   As far as comparisons are possible, I'd like to remind readers that Baylor was barely 6'6" when he was performing his magic. While Russell, Chamberlain, The Big O, and West have been remembered as icons of our sport, I've never thought Baylor recieved the same attention, he so richly deserves. But all of us who had to guard him remember. Appropriately, my sports poem for the day is dedicated to Elgin.

The Poet Tries to Turn in His Jock   by   David Hilton

"The way I see it, is that when I step out on that court and feel
  inside that I can't make the plays, it'll be time to call it quits."
                                            - Elgin Baylor

Going up for the jump shot,
Giving the kid the head-fakes and all
'Til he's jocked right out the door of the gym
And I'm free at the top with the ball and my touch,
Lofting the arc off my fingtertips,
I feel my left calf turn to stone
And my ankle warp inward to form when I land
A neat right angle with my leg,
And I'm on the floor,
A pile of sweat and sick muscles,
Your're 29, getting fat,
Can't drive to your right anymore,
You can think of better things to do
On Saturday aftenoons than be a chump
For a bunch of sophomore third-stringers;
Join the Y, steam and martinis and muscletone.
But, shit,
the shot goes in.