Getting old stinks. The older I get, the less I can remember about my very early years. One thing I know is true. I was a kid who grew up with some kind of ball in my hands all the time.
I had a rickety basketball hoop on a tiny patio in the backyard. There wasn’t much room, but I still managed to play imaginary games on that “court”. I would also set up a garbage can on a table in the living room and play nerf hoops. I joined church league basketball at the local YMCA and was deadly with my jump shot from the corner.
I also threw the baseball with my dad at an early age. Later I would throw the tennis ball off the church steps across the street from my house, creating little games for myself. I would keep standings and statistics. I started playing pony league as soon as I was old enough. Furthermore, I spent every summer day playing wiffle ball or regular baseball with the neighborhood kids.
I only played midget football for half a year, but I did constantly play imaginary nerf games in the living room. Well, at least when it wasn’t set up as a basketball court, or occasionally a baseball field. The baseball thing lasted only until I accidentally threw my mini Pirates baseball bat through the glass door of my dad’s grandfather’s clock. My ears still haven’t recovered from that blasting. I did, however, learn some new words.
So all of these imaginary games required players. Players to imitate. Players I cheered for. Players I booed. Of course none of them could hold a candle to me.
So who exactly were those players and teams I followed to help me with my imaginary games? This is how my fandom evolved.
I became a Pittsburgh Pirates fan in the early to mid ‘70’s. In the early ‘70’s I was a touch too young to really understand the game, but by 1976 I was fully on board the Bucco Brig. Back then every game wasn’t televised, so I always made it a point to tune in to WJAC-TV out of Johnstown to catch the Pirates every chance I could. Listening on the radio was still a popular alternative to viewing games on TV, and that is when I became a fan of Lanny Frattare, the voice of the Pirates for so many years.
Willie Stargell was my favorite player. He was every Pirates fan’s favorite player. My other favorite player was Frank Taveras. As an adult this makes me laugh. Taveras was not very good. For every base he stole, he committed an error. He was flat out awful in the field. Regardless I loved watching him fly around the bases. He also had a big afro. As a kid I was completely fascinated by afro hair styles. I still have a Frank Taveras picture I cut out of the newspaper and kept on my bulletin board.
My fandom for the Buccos has never wavered, and that’s saying something considering the product circa 1993-2019. I loved the Pirates rivalry with the Phillies in the ‘70’s, and their shorter rivalry with the Mets in the late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s. I grew up with a winning team, culminating with the Fam-a-lee that won the 1979 World Series. It is hard to believe in 41 years they haven’t made it back.
For the record, I can still do the Willie Stargell windmill in a wiffle ball game with the best of them.
As a kid, two of the prominent television channels we had in our cable package(not including the channels we got by jiggling an index card inside our cable box🤫) were WOR-TV and WPIX-TV out of New York. It so happens the New York Knicks had many of their road games televised on WOR-TV. I spent many winter nights watching those Knicks games. Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who was one slick dude, became my favorite player. He was cool on the court with clever ball handling and sharp shooting, and equally cool off the court sporting fur coats and stylish hats.
During that same time frame the ABA, specifically the New York Nets, also aired on WOR-TV. The red, white, and blue ball was a big draw for a little kid. There was a guy by the name of Julius Erving, aka Dr. J, playing for the Nets. However, it was a big man named Artis Gilmore, who played for the Kentucky Colonels, that I was drawn to. Again, the afro thing factored in. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy watching Dr. J make his smooth moves to the hoop.
The ABA folded, Walt Frazier became a Cleveland Cavalier, and I found myself a Philadelphia 76ers fan. Oh, I still followed Artis Gilmore, who continued his Hall of Fame career in the NBA with the Bulls and Spurs. I became more enamored with the style and flair of Dr J, and when he went to the 76ers I followed. I remained a Sixers fan, and I thought it was a real hoot that my Babe Ruth baseball team was called the Sixers. We were terrible, but it was still a really cool team name. After Erving retired I tried to stay a fan through the Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson eras, but ultimately I lost interest in the NBA. The game changed, and for the worse in my opinion. Unfortunately, it became my least favorite sport.
I was not an avid fan of college hoops in the mid ‘70’s, but I watched games on TV. I just didn’t have a favorite team yet. I remember watching the ECAC game of the week with Marv Albert and Bucky Waters on the call. I remember Indiana’s perfect season. I can still see Al McGuire crying on the bench and those wacky uniforms Marquette wore. Penn, St. John’s, UNC-Charlotte were really good. Ray Meyer could never quite get DePaul to the promised land. Then a team started to catch my eye a few years later.
Louisville wore bright red uniforms, and red is my favorite color. The Cardinals also had a group that could really dunk, a play that had just become legal again in NCAA basketball. I quickly latched on to Louisville, and it paid immediate dividends as the “Doctors of Dunk” won it all in 1980. I loved watching Denny Crum stalk the sideline with that rolled up program, and boy did he have great players. He always recruited athletic players that could run and jump. From Darrell Griffith and the McCray brothers to “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison, the Cards were a dominant force for the first half of the decade of the ‘80’s. I watched the 1986 team win the championship on a 13 inch TV, with an antenna in room 307 Lackhove Hall at Shippensburg University.
Rick Pitino revived a stale program and gave me another championship to cheer for in 2013. Yes, it happened NCAA. Now it is Chris Mack in charge of revitalizing a somewhat troubled program. Through it all I’ve remained a loyal Louisville Cardinals fan.
When I was very, very young my family cheered for the New York Jets. Ralph Baker came from my hometown, and he had a lot of family living in our area. My mother’s best friend was good friends with Baker’s mother. With Baker being a New York Jet, many in my hometown became Jets fans. Joe Namath was also an easy guy to root for. I still have an 8 mm video tape of Super Bowl III. Namath’s performance in that game will live in infamy, as will his guarantee that the Jets would upset the heavily favored Colts.
Then in 1974 another number 12 caught my eye. Terry Bradshaw was about to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to an unprecedented four Super Bowls in the next six years. I decided to switch allegiances to the Steel Curtain. Something else factored in, as well. The Steelers had an acrobatic wide receiver from USC, a team I would take a liking to that same year. Lynn Swann would make incredible catch after incredible catch. He quickly became my favorite football player, and along with Troy Polamalu(USC) remains that to this day. And that is despite his miserable stint as athletic director at USC.
I’ve been waving my Terrible Towel for the Black and Gold ever since. No team brings about more conversation among my friends than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As mentioned in the above NFL section, my love for college football took root in 1974. More importantly that is when I became a de facto Trojan.
In 1974 there were only a couple of games televised each weekend. One game that always got coverage was the greatest intersectional rivalry of all time, USC vs Notre Dame. 1974 was no different. It so happens that year’s game became one of the greatest victories of all time for the Trojans. Down 24-0 late in the first half, the Trojans came roaring back for a stunning 55-24 win at the fabled LA Coliseum. I was eight, so I was attracted to many things not related to X’s and O’s. The USC band had really cool uniforms and never stopped playing. When the Trojans scored, a beautiful white horse ridden by a Trojan warrior galloped around the track at the Coliseum. And back then, since the Coliseum was used for the 1984 Olympics, the track was wide and the horse could really get moving. The cheerleaders wore neat sweaters and had giant colorful pom poms. Star running back, Anthony Davis, did this little dance on his knees when he scored. In one game, at the age of eight, I instantly became a USC Trojans fan and a Notre Dame hater.
Living in the heart of Penn State country and rooting for a team across the country hasn’t been easy. Growing up most conversations about college football resulted in a lot of “gang up on the idiot rooting for USC” scenarios. Regardless, my love for the Trojans has never wavered, and Paul Hackett, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and Clay Helton have given me plenty of opportunity to indeed waver. Helton did provide me with one glorious moment by defeating Penn State in the 2017 Rose Bowl.
Later in life I became a hockey fan. Mario Lemieux had something to do with that.
Hockey was never on TV much. The only time I ever followed the sport was during the Olympics. That included the once in a lifetime moment of the 1980 Miracle on Ice. As far as the NHL went, I always thought the team names were interesting and I would watch the occasional highlight on TV. Then Lemieux became a Pittsburgh Penguin, and by the early ‘90’s the Pens were Stanley Cup champions.
The Pens success ramped up my fandom for hockey. I started watching more, which became easier as the years went on because more games were televised. By the time the Penguins were fortunate enough to win the Sidney Crosby lottery I was a full blown fan. I now find it one of the most exciting sports to watch, and my respect for the athletes that play this grueling sport is through the roof.
Five Stanley Cups makes being a Penguins fan easy. Having two great human beings as all time great players is an added bonus.
It’s Weird, but it’s Me
It has been a strange road to my fandom for my favorite teams. When you’re 7, 8, 9 years old things don’t have to make sense. It is an odd combination of favorite teams, but I’ve been loyal to them all.
There have been ups and downs along the way, and even a sad moment or two.
I had Walt Frazier and Lynn Swann homemade ceramic figurines, as well, that were tragically lost in a cleaning lady “accident” when I was a kid. I’m still bitter about that and the fact I always had to clean up before the cleaning lady showed up.
So in conclusion, my fandom is a bit different. Just like my Twitter bio says, “Lifelong sports fanatic. USC Trojans 🏈. Louisville Cardinals 🏀.Steelers 🏈, Pirates ⚾️, Pens 🏒. I know…weird!”
Everyone has their own story on how they became fans of their favorite team. I’d love to hear some of them, and see if they match the weirdness of mine.
Two Cent Takes
Two Cent Takes have been moved on to the essential list so here we go…
~The Tom Brady saga ends in…Tampa?
One thing is for sure, Brady will have far more weapons in Tampa than he did in New England. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and OJ Howard is a nice trio of receivers to start with. Apparently players are clamoring to come to Tampa to join Brady. Not surprisingly, Antonio Brown’s name has been linked to the Bucs. Coach Bruce Arians has dealt with him before in Pittsburgh, and supposedly Brady has no problem playing with him.
On the other hand, Brady is 43 years old. He looked every bit of it last season. The Bucs paid a lot of money and gave a lot of control to a 43 year old. I know his track record, but you are paying for what he gives you going forward, not for what he’s done in the past. Speaking of age, Arians is old, too, and he wants to win now. Clearly that is the driving force here. My guess is that Arians is just glad to be rid of Jameis Winston.
~Bill O’Brien’s act would be wearing out with a lot of owners. In Houston the McNair family promoted O’Brien instead. He is now the coach and general manager. His first order of business this offseason was to trade his best offensive player, DeAndre Hopkins, to Arizona for a beat up running back in David Johnson and a second round draft pick. Rumor has it that O’Brien had some issues with Hopkins off the field, including baby mama drama at team facilities. Regardless, this trade seems like an epic fail. Again, I keep wondering how O’Brien is not on the hot seat, and even more puzzled why he keeps getting more control.
~Cleveland was throwing money at anyone that would take it. Amazing that a Super Bowl caliber team(heavy sarcasm intended) would need to add that much.
~Teams certainly weren’t afraid to overspend. The Colts paid big time for Old Man Rivers. The Broncos decided to ante up for the human fumbling machine Melvin Gordon. And my favorite overpay was tight end Jimmy Graham getting $16 million over two years from the Bears. Graham was last spotted being productive in 2016.
~The Philadelphia Eagles made some key moves, not the least of which was signing Javon Hargrave away from the Steelers. They also traded for lockdown corner Darius Slay, giving him a reprieve from his sentence in Detroit. The defense will look different in Philly, but what about the offense? WR Nelson Agohlor and RB Jordan Howard are gone, but old and unreliable Alshon Jeffries and Desean Jackson still remain. Getting Carson Wentz a few more playmakers seems imperative.
~The Pittsburgh Steelers parted ways with a fair amount of solid guys, but also acquired some potentially key pieces. BJ Finley was a jack of all trades on the offensive line, and that was an important jack to lose. Consequently, the Steelers went out and signed two time Super Bowl winner Stefen Wisniewski to fill that bill. They lost DT Javon Hargrave, but will get back oft injured Stephon Tuitt. For insurance the Steelers traded with the hated Ravens for DE Chris Wormley. They released steady fullback Roosevelt Nix, but signed their second Watt, Derek, a fullback and special teams demon. The tight end draft class is weak and so is the Steelers depth chart at that position, therefore Eric Ebron was signed. If, by some miracle, they can keep Vance McDonald and Ebron both healthy the Steelers will have a great one-two punch at tight end. Worst case scenario, each will provide insurance for the other when injuries inevitably pop up. This has a chance to be a rare solid free agent class for the Black and Gold.
~File this one under “Miracles Do Happen”: Someone decided to pay Artie Burns to continue playing football. Once again, it’s those shrewd Chicago Bears.
~The Steelers must make the playoffs next year. Clearly Ben Roethlisberger must think they will.
That is either the most tremendous playoff beard ever, or Ben has aspirations to be a mall Santa next Christmas.
~Patrick Chambers, fresh off his best season out of nine at Penn State, is apparently working on contract negotiations. Chambers has two years left on his contract, and he will never have more leverage than he does now. He has the lowest salary of any coach in the Big Ten.
On the other hand, would Chambers be coveted by any other schools. His best season at Penn State was still going to end with twelve losses. He has losing records in five of his nine seasons. There may be openings, though the shutdown of sports may limit the coaching changes this offseason. Wake Forest seems likely to part ways with Danny Manning, but there may not be much else available. From Chambers’ perspective nobody can blame him for trying to get a raise. I just wouldn’t want to be the AD that gives it to him.
A Penny For My Final Thought…
So, coronavirus. It stinks. Schools businesses, you name it, shut down.
No sports. None. Zero. So, the question I’ve been asked a bajillion times is what do you do to pass the time?
Well, I am doing some painting around the house. I’m trying to get to the treadmill more often. Cleaning, there’s always cleaning to be done. I’ve got a few sports books to read, specifically a Chuck Noll biography.
But there are only so many movies, Netflix series, and old TV shows to watch. I mentioned a week ago my fondness for Barney Miller, and I’ve added One Day at a Time, Laverne and Shirley, and Threes Company to my watch party. I already did my yearly viewing of Hoosiers to get psyched for March Madness(a lot of good that did). I have the complete box set of the original TV Batman and Robin to get through, plus old standby box sets of Seinfeld and The Honeymooners.
If I can manage, so can you. It may not be easy, but we can do it.
Heck, my son, who doesn’t typically stray too far from video games, actually played Scrabble with me the other night. We still have Yahtzee, Battleship, and several others waiting in the wings.
And speaking of video games, I even broke out my old school console to pass some time. Anybody in the vicinity of my age should recognize these games. Some of my friends reading this probably played these games with me at some point. Maybe I’ll post a picture or video each week of Shutdown 2020 to see if you remember the name of each game.
Okay, so the picture kind of gives the first one away, and the second is really easy. I’ll increase the difficulty each week. Until next week…
Be smart. Be safe. Keep your loved one’s safe. Stay home and have a little old school fun!
Just my two cents…