Day 226: The beautiful jazzy game

My custom is to publish essays from The 10,000 Days Newsletter the day before a new one goes out. But this one has a time stamp and would be past its sell-by date were I to post it in 10 days or so.

© Calla Kessler, The New York Times

The Beautiful Jazzy Game

The first sport I loved was baseball. In 1960 when I was 6, my parents moved us from a fourth-floor walkup in the city to the suburbs and signed me up for knothole baseball, as kids' leagues were called then. I was terrible at first, an urban only-child who had never swung a bat at a pitched ball until my team's first practice. Way behind the other kids who'd grown up with backyards and playing fields and older brothers and fathers who would instruct them, I endured the beginner's embarrassments and learned to play. In a few years, I wasn't half bad.

My first summer academy of hard knocks coincided with the unforeseen run of the Cincinnati Reds to the 1961 World Series. As a young reader, I went from Dick and Jane to the sports page in about two weeks, and by summer '61 I was following professional baseball with all the fervor I could muster, which turned out to be a lot. I collected baseball cards, memorized player stats, watched the Reds on television and listened to them on the radio, and can recall everything about the first time my dad took me to Crosley Field—warm day, sunshine, grass unbelievably green, the echoey quality of sound that's unique to ballparks, the peppy organ between innings, and the score: Reds 10, Giants 5. I wore a black-grey-and-white knit shirt, which may seem an odd detail to remember until I tell you that before the opening pitch, Dad bought me my first ballpark Coke and promptly spilled it all down the front of me. "Don't tell your mother," he said as he sponged me off.

When I entered my teens, football began to crowd out baseball for my attention. There weren't many games on television in those days—four at most across a weekend—so that made them events in my house. College games on Saturday (especially if Ohio State was playing), the pros on Sunday (Cleveland Browns the first choice when that was the only Ohio team, and every Thanksgiving the Packers and Lions). The most anticipated game of the year was the Rose Bowl, especially if Ohio State etc.

I grew up, grew up some more, and for decades followed football more than anything. But by the time I'd reached mid-youth, that is, my mid-50s, the game was starting to lose me. In my young youth, football seemed all speed and violence and skill and excitement. Then it didn't. One day, I realized that most of what I was watching for three hours was one meeting after another, broken up by commercials and, when the players weren't in another meeting, a bit of action, 20 seconds here, 40 seconds there. In the 1980s, a commentator watched the Super Bowl with a stopwatch in hand and reported that during more than three hours of real time and 60 minutes of game time, the ball was actually in motion for a little over 14 minutes. That meant meetings for about 2:45.

I hate meetings.

Later this morning, I will watch my favorite team in what has become my favorite game. The US women's national team is set to play for the World Cup, and I will love every minute. I came late to soccer, but it commands almost all of my sports attention now. The game demands every athletic virtue from every player: speed, balance, lightning reflexes, courage, toughness and durability, endurance (midfielders typically run about 8 miles in the course of a 90-minute game), imagination, and the flair for improvisation of a jazz musician. It rewards—no, it demands—close attention. Soccer bores many Americans because paying attention has become a lost art. They miss the sublime string of passes that sets up an attack, the dozen little things a resolute defender does time and again to take a leading scorer or playmaker out of a game, the footwork, and the touch, and the vision of what is about to happen 30 yards away. Fail to pay attention and you will miss one of the fastest, most exciting things in sports: how after 15 minutes of thrust and parry to little advantage, probing for weakness and responding to every gambit, one player will make a barely discernable mistake and almost before you can lean closer to the action the other team has pounced and scored, or nearly scored, which is nearly as exciting. It's like watching with held breath as a cobra strikes.

The genius of the game—which broadcasters and the sport's governors are doing their best to ruin with bad ideas like video-assisted refereeing—is that it never stops, it never resets, and it imposes a minimum of rules and defined roles. Like a jam by great musicians, it just keeps flowing, everybody on the pitch making it up as they go along, taking solos in response to what's happening right now and where they want to go for the next right now. Don't think, don't analyze, don't confer—just play.

I grew up working class, and so although I've never in my life had a blue-collar job, I have always been on the side of labor and always will be. Soccer is labor's game. Management assembles the resources, coaches figure out the starting 11 and design a plan to thwart the opponent (a rare few are remarkably good at this). But when the game kicks off, management has to shut up and sit down and turn the players loose. Coaches can only stand on the sidelines and wave their arms while the players mostly ignore them. For only 90 minutes that count, the workers run the game. And there are no meetings.

Did I mention how much I hate meetings?

Day 114: Likely to appear in Profilia: Kevin Tallon, deaf prizefighter


The oldest piece likely to make into the Profilia anthology was written in 1988. It's a profile of a deaf boxer named Kevin Tallon, who, when I met him, was fighting in unsanctionted Meanest Man contests. He went on to an undistinguished pro career. I watched him train one day.

When he can, Tallon trains at the Covington Youth Center in Kentucky. He walks down an alley beside a Goodyear dealer on Madison Avenue and up a steep flight of stairs to a room dominated by a boxing ring with sagging ropes. Fight posters and yellowing newspaper clippings cover the walls, along with eight-by-ten glossy prints of local heroes such as heavyweight Tony Tubbs, who trained here. A radio in a corner blares music from a black station in Cincinnati. There are holes in the ceiling and the walls could use some paint, but this room has the basics: a ring, three heavy bags, two speed bags, Lou George and Henry Ward.

Lou manages the place. Henry is the trainer. Lou’s wife, Karen, put up the money for the gym after Lou had to retire from his job with a car dealer. He charges each kid $20 a month to train here. He admits that he and Henry are strapped for funds, but if a boy does not have the money, he can come anyway and they will teach him to box. Lou loves to talk about boxing. He looks gray and worn until he describes a fighter. Then he jabs the air and circles an imaginary ring, light as a cat burglar who has just stolen another 20 years of youth.

He opens the gym each afternoon at 4:30. First to wander in on this day are two pale white kids with serious eyes, a shy black kid who has just started at the gym, and Tallon, in gray shorts and white thermal undershirt. Lou George likes him. “Kevin’s one helluva boy, when you can sit him down.” He complains that Tallon does not train enough. “I don’t care when these guys say they got a heavy bag in the basement, or a speed bag. It ain’t like being in the gym. The smell, the odor, watching the other fighters. At home, there’s no Ward. There’s no me. Now, that Houser, he’s training.”

Houser is Ron Houser, a 20-year-old heavyweight who is Tallon’s bane. Tallon has won more than 50 tough-guy bouts, by his own tally. At the Tough Man World Championships in Dayton, Ohio last year—sanctioned as a world championship by lord only knows—he placed second. When Tallon counts his defeats on one large hand, Houser gets three fingers. The fighters are well matched from a storyteller’s standpoint. Kevin is flashy, good looking, expressive, the ladies’ choice. Houser is silent, expressionless, menacing.

Lou knows how much Tallon wants to beat Houser and tries to help, but he scoffs at tough-guy fights. He thinks Tallon is wasting his talent. But he cannot convince him to commit to a genuine pro career. Tallon, he says, could be “a helluva thing.” The helluva thing he has in mind is a good white heavyweight. One of boxing’s shames is the constant hunt for white fighters to beat the African Americans and Hispanics who dominate the sport. Lou George cares as much for the black kids in his gym as for the white ones. His best fighter is black. But he knows the realities of the fight business.

... Kevin would need work just to fight the top amateurs. George puts him in the practice ring to spar with the current pride of the gym, a 139-pounder felicitously named George Little. Tallon fights better than 95 percent of the men on the street, but George Little is part of that other 5 percent. Before he has them spar, George tells Tallon to work hard. He tells Little, “Don’t hurt him.” Little is fast as a cobra. He ducks or slips Tallon’s punches. He stays upright, quick on the balls of his feet, eyes sharp and intent. It is obvious he could land punches on Tallon’s face almost at will if George allowed it. After four rounds, a sweat-drenched Tallon climbs out of the ring with disgusted look.

... A fight man like Lou George has reason to jeer at a Meanest Man Contest. But for Tallon, it is a means to an end. He pulls out a scrapbook and shows off photos of some of his fights. In one corner of the living room are 15 trophies, each with a small gold-plated boxer on top. And whenever someone asks his son, Matt, what his daddy does, the little boy puffs out his chest and says, “My dad’s a boxer.”