Played Out - 2008
Sports have become easier to follow, but harder to love, By Allan Barra
The ultimate expression of nostalgia is a line in Louis Malle?s 1980 film, Atlantic City. As Robert Joy?s punk drug dealer strolls the boardwalk with Burt Lancaster?s old-time mob flunky, Burt relates stories of the good old days when Bugsy Siegel and his cronies frequented A.C. ?Well,? says Joy, ?you still got the Atlantic Ocean.?
?Ah, yes,? says Lancaster, gazing out on the horizon. ?The Atlantic Ocean was really something back then.?
Looking back on the New York sports scene of another time, I know how Lancaster felt. Maybe I?m being picky, but it seems to me that we?ve lost something personal we once had in our relationship with sports. We now have such easy access to any game or event we want to see via television or the Internet that we no longer have to make human contact to experience sports; the effort it once took to get out to the ballpark or the arena was equal to the elements of emotional buildup and shared joy or sorrow from the outcome. More and more fans, it seems to me, are simply switching channels when it?s over, looking for another distraction.
Attendance at major New York sporting events is higher than ever, but you can?t get it. Like Yogi said, nobody goes there anymore because it?s too crowded. When baseball, basketball, and football became, respectively, the MLB, the NBA, and the NFL, corporations started buying up huge blocks of tickets, and with the push to attract more tourists to New York sports, you began to see fewer real fans at the games. In the early 1980s, it was still possible for a fan to score a couple of tickets to a Giants game at the Meadowlands; after the Giants won the Super Bowl at the end of the 1986 season, that possibility disappeared forever.
Occasionally, you could even get in to see the Knicks, and even though the team often sucked, the game itself was better. Or is it just me who remembers it that way? I asked a friend, Charles Paikert, a B-ball historian who wrote the text for the Basketball Hall of Fame?s history of professional basketball. ?The scene was more freewheeling and less programmed,? he replied. ?NBA players were less inhibited about playing in the Rucker tournament in Harlem or in pick-up games on West 4th Street. Kids weren?t playing in the NBA yet, and St. John?s had exciting teams that drew big crowds at the Garden. And good local players, like Chris Mullin of Brooklyn, actually stayed in town to play their college ball.?
Outside the stadiums, on the street, I remember a different feel. Following pennant races and playoff runs used to be a communal thing in New York?you?d stop people and ask for information, other people would ask you, you?d pass it on. It brought people together. During the Mets? failed pennant drive against the Cardinals in 1985, one night I walked, like a character in a John Cheever story, from Theater Row between Ninth and Tenth all the way to Lexington Avenue, sticking my head in every bar as I went along to find out what was going on. I felt connected?not just to the Mets, but to dozens of people I had never met and would probably never see again.
The last time I walked that stretch?about this time last year?most of the bars were gone, with office buildings in their place. Only a few pubs were left, and they had American Idol on instead of the Mets game. One bartender told me, ?You ought to walk over to the ESPN Zone on Times Square.? I did, and I had to stand in line for 20 minutes behind some tourists from Minnesota.
The giant sports bars, with their blaring MTV music and dozens of flat-screens showing every sport up to and including Australian-rules football, leave you feeling like you?ve just spent 90 minutes inside a pinball machine. The darker, smaller places?the ones with photos of athletes that didn?t change every season, the ones where you could hear yourself talk and actually eat something that didn?t taste like it came out of a microwave?were lost by the end of the decade. Bradley?s on University Place and the Lion?s Head on Christopher Street, where I was invited by Norman Mailer after writing my first feature for the Voice, are now gone. But Runyon?s on Second Avenue and 52nd, where Bob Costas did his radio show (sometimes inviting Voice writers as guests because they offered a keen insight and caustic wit not found in the mainstream sports media) is still there, as is O?Riley?s Pub on 31st Street, where you could actually meet and talk with Boxing Illustrated editor Bert Randolph Sugar.
New York was more of a boxing town back then. As Sugar remembers, ?There were fights at the Felt Forum almost every week. It has the feel of the old Madison Square Garden.? There were still quite a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island that had their own gyms, although they were starting to be invaded by white-collar warriors who just wanted to sport a swollen eye at the office on Monday morning. (They always talked about fight club.) Every few months, there was a young fighter coming along through the amateur ranks whose career you followed into the pros: Mark Breland, Davey Moore, Jerry Cooney. And big fights electrified New York fans: Larry Holmes?Jerry Cooney, Roberto Duran?Sugar Ray Leonard, ?Marvelous? Marvin Hagler?Tommy ?Hit Man? Hearns, Aaron Pryor?Alexis Arg?ello. These were Homeric clashes that inspired huge, bold headlines in the Daily News, Post, and Newsday (and sometimes even the Voice?as the Daily News?s Mike ?the Wolfman? Katz once put it to me, ?Boxing is the sport of queens?). The big fights dominated conversation for days before and after, and the decline of boxing has left a void that mixed martial arts hasn?t begun to fill.
Is it just my memory playing tricks on me, or are there fewer people playing sports in New York now than years ago? Schoolyard basketball doesn?t seem to be suffering, but when I visit the old neighborhood in Brooklyn, I don?t see so many soccer players in Prospect Park, and stickball and hockey (already on the decline in the early 1980s due to the increasing number of cars) seem to be extinct. So does softball, except for highly organized office leagues whose members are upscale enough to afford the permits. The Village Voice Veggies were once the terror of Central Park?in 1982, when we bombed New York magazine for the title, it was on the front page of the Voice. This year, the office didn?t even field a team.
I suppose it?s natural to think that the world you knew when you were younger is the way the world ought to be. Perhaps things weren?t all that great back in the early ?80s. Then again, maybe the Atlantic Ocean really was better.