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Thursday, April 12, 2001
Updated: September 13, 6:38 PM ET
Four stages of the great
American athlete


By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross came up with the seven stages of death. Unfortunately, she didn't come up with the seven stages of the lifespan of a great American athlete.

But four of Kubler-Ross' stages of death were Anger, Denial, Bargaining & Acceptance, which are useful in tracing life stages of great athletes. Their lives are like ours, only theirs happen quicker. Here's a series of snapshots of that short, sweet arc:

1. Tiger Woods & Anger
El Tigre lives the Ultra-Life, hyper-existence, the intense public whirlwind a great American athlete experiences at the height of his powers, the bloom of his arc. Great ones don't just play for money, are not just famous, do not merely win. The great athlete changes the game. If not the world.

Tiger Woods
Not everyone is smiling over Tiger Woods' dominance of the golf world.
This won't make everybody happy. Some will feel it's too much power for one (black?) man to have. Dominance can cause backlash. Sour grapes. Take the "controversy" surrounding Tiger's Masters win, which gave him the four major championship titles. The talk was that this was not a "Grand Slam." What is a "Grand Slam"? I thought it was a bomb with the bases loaded.

What Tiger did was more impressive. He won the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA and the Masters, all in a neat row. And no one else will ever do that again in our lifetimes, unless, as Rocco Mediate said, "he does it again himself." What he did is now called a "Tiger Slam." This is the personal language by which we speak of heroic American athletes who change their sports. Once, a sportswriter named Bob Stevens said of an All-Star Game triple hit by Willie Mays, "The only man who could have caught it, hit it."

That's where Tiger is now. A man who touches everyone. A man alone. Changed the viewing habits of a nation. Changed the shape, tenor, attitude and hue of galleries; changed the playing field itself at Augusta, where the scions "Tiger-proofed" the course, tricking it up with all kinds of new stands of trees and hazards that were brought into play to keep Tiger's length off the tee from enabling him to hit driver-wedge into Par 5s, "Tiger 4s."

Made equipment manufacturers come up with better golf balls. And he made the golfers themselves get better. David Duval shot 14-under, and lost the Masters by two. Four years ago, when Tiger first won the Masters, the runner-up score was 6-under and lost to Tiger's 18-under total by 12.

Four years ago, when Tiger won the Masters, people babbled about what today's golfers, like Duval, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, had to do to compete. "They don't get it, R-Dub," said Road Dog, back in '97. "The ones who'll compete with Tiger ain't them guys there now. The ones who'll compete against Tiger are 12, watching him, figuring out what he's doing, the way Jordan watched Doc, when Jordan was 12."

Those people, Tiger's future comp, are now 16. Before you know it, they'll be in college, and the very best one, two or three among them, the ones Tiger influenced with his titanic drives and ice-water nerves and tricks like bouncing a golf ball off his putter as though it was nothing, will arrive. And Tiger will be there to welcome them.

Oh, Duval will win his major or two, Mickelson too, but the young ones will provide the most drama with El Tigre one day. Still, Tiger Woods, no matter who comes along, will be winning big golf championships when our children turn gray, if God is willing and the creek and Nature don't rise.

Tiger, great American athlete in full flower. Who wouldn't want to be like him? Some. Some do grumble.

2. Troy Aikman & Denial
"You see them come and go, and you never think it's going to be you," said Troy Aikman, who got the NFL football equivalent of his gold watch shortly after Woods won the Masters.

Troy Aikman
After taking a beating in recent years, Troy Aikman was forced to walk away from football.
Aikman spent most of his Dallas press conference wiping away tears. He led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles in the '90s. He threw one of the tightest, most perfect spirals anyone could ever hope to throw or see.

There he was, mid-30s, emotionally breaking down like he was 65, because he could not play the violent game anymore. Those broiling workouts at Valley Ranch, the Sunday beat-downs from dogging 'backers, safeties blitzing off the slot, nine concussions, surgeries, turf burns, staph infections, personality conflicts, losses to the 49ers, the Packers, all made small by the simple act of completing a pass.

For weeks after the Cowboys cut him from their roster, apparently to save $7 million, Aikman's agent, Leigh Steinberg, cast about looking for prospective employers among other NFL teams. But nobody's gonna pay that much money for an "old" quarterback who was never that mobile. Playing a game, even a violent game like football, for sultan's wages is a dodge, all right, but in football, you won't last long if you're not able to dodge.

The pain on Sunday and especially on Monday was always part of it for Troy. That and the sideline arguments, the feuds with coaches -- especially Barry Switzer -- the bittersweet knowledge that you are depending on a guy like Michael Irvin, just luckily asking him to do the one thing he was good at, and knew he was good at. "I run the deep turn-in," Irvin said while decrying the presence of African-Americans in the leadership hierarchy in the NFLPA, the players union. "That's what I do."

Troy Aikman did a little bit more than that. He led the Dallas Cowboys to the Super Bowl title. Who else can say that, really? Roger Staubach? Yep. That's about it. Didn't take long to call roll, did it?

Troy Aikman will look down at whoever the (by comparison) fraud is now quarterbacking the Cowboys, think that he could still be handing off to Emmitt, still showing off that gun. He was a gunslinger, John Wayne, less famous, better looking. Or, better-seeing. A great American athlete's eyes never age.

They can always see it, even when they can't get it there anymore.

Troy is the great American athlete at the end of the line. He would like to be him again.

3. Michael Jordan & Bargaining
The Babe Ruth of hoop, returning to NBA play at the ripe (and round) age of 38 and 39 with ... the Wizards?

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan could do some major damage to his rep if he comes back a second time.
This according to various informed sources, including Honest Abe Pollin, part-owner of said Wizards, who can't get anybody to pay attention to him, unless he can say, "Jordan may be coming back to play here next year." That's what it would take to make the Washington franchise media-hot, fiscally viable, competitively better, if only slightly so. But if Jordan saying he might come back convinces, say, Kobe Bryant to ask the Lakers to trade him to Washington, fine.

But Jordan actually coming back to play in the NBA? In 2001? Seriously? Oh please. Fine for Charles Barkley. What has Barkley got to lose? Weight?

Jordan occupies a different space. He stands to lose more than a spare tire. His rep's on the line. A great American athlete, even a retired one, maybe even especially a retired one, lives -- and dies -- by his rep.

Check it out. Is not Jordan, on sheer rep, still star of TV commercials, which still extol him as the Man of Game, the Ultimate Warrior, where a gym full of street ballers who are impressed by nothing all find their jawbones unhinged just because Jordan walks in? It took him an athlete's lifetime, 15 whole years, to attain such a place in the collective American psyche. But, on another level, Jordan is no different from any other guy at the barbershop, even though he doesn't need to go there any more, which in itself is kind of a hint.

You can't tell a man, especially a black man, that he's got no game -- either kind, the hoop kind, or the kind that attracts the ladies. But your game -- both kinds -- slips as you age. And this is the great bane of the great American athlete. The candle that burns brightest lasts only half as long. This is the bargain they make.

  What has Charles Barkley got to lose? Weight? Jordan occupies a different space. He stands to lose more than a spare tire. His rep's on the line. A great American athlete, even a retired one, maybe even especially a retired one, lives -- and dies -- by his rep.  
 

A man doesn't even think about becoming President of the U.S. until he's 40. Wisdom isn't acquired until one is 50. Norman McLean didn't write "A River Runs Through It" until he was nearly 70. Grandma Moses was in her 80s when she did her best painting. But those are dead decades for the great American athlete. Unless he can make the nearly impossible transition, impossible in this society, anyway, and pass along his knowledge of the inner workings of the game to up-and-coming ones who built themselves in his image.

Most often great American athletes cannot do this. Babe Ruth couldn't do it. Bill Russell couldn't. Oscar Robertson couldn't do it. The luckier ones find or are given another kind of niche, color commentator, assistant general manager, etc. But the actual teaching, the keeping of the flame, the passing of the torch, is delegated. Those that can, do. Those that can't -- Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, Bill Walsh -- teach.

Great American athletes have no time or patience for teaching. They bend the opposition to their will. That's what they do. But nobody can bend time to his will. Not even Michael Jordan.

However, bending wills is a hard habit to break. Apparently, you get to liking it. It's intoxicating. You can't bargain with what you no longer have. Jordan would not be putting his game on the line. He would be putting his integrity on the line. In my mind, I see Mays, in the 1973 World Series, stumbling around like ... like some guy who was not Mays. And I can't shake that out of my head.

Ali, eating lefts and rights from his old sparring partner, Larry Holmes. I didn't need to see that. You didn't need to see that. Unless you had anger for him.

I'm thinking that Michael Jordan couldn't stand to be anything less than the very best. The greatest thing Jordan can do is trade for Kobe, wait for Vince Carter, free agent. Run a Great Players Summer Camp. Invite A-I, T-Mac, Kobe, Vince, talk to them about The Edge, that mental advantage he always carried, always the difference between him and the pack -- the hard-won Edge he now puts on the table for bargaining.

4. Willie Stargell & Acceptance
Ah. We saved the best for last.

Willie Stargell
At only 61, the great Willie Stargell died way too young.
Not the best player, necessarily. Not the best story either, maybe, no. But the best lesson. No better lesson than Pops. Now, you can't be any better than Tiger Woods at golf, or Michael Jordan at hoop, or Troy Aikman at delivering a thrown football to a spot

But what you can do, and be, is be like Wilver D. Stargell. Everybody has the opportunity to do that.

Stargell died on the day after Tiger Woods won the 2001 Masters. Kidney failure. Bad. Stopped looking like himself, no more big strapping, smiling man, roomy in the hips and the understanding and the generosity. There was an appropriate outpouring of appreciation.

What was it that Stargell accepted? Certainly not death. Athletes do not accept that. Accepting it goes against the grain of what they are, for they have fought off the little death, defeat, so many times, time after time, fought it off and beat it, or endured it, more and more as time went on. But they never gave in to it. It never turned them.

The great poet Dylan Thomas must have been adept at curling or golf or something. He sounds athletic when he wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Stargell's sister-in-law said: "He fought to live. He fought to the end." This is what we can and do expect of the great American athlete. We do not expect them to die at 61, but that candle, burning so brightly ...

What Willie Stargell accepted was his charge as a great American athlete. He didn't shy from the fact that some hicks put a shotgun between his eyes at some godforsaken minor-league mudhole -- doesn't matter exactly where it was, because it could've been anywhere -- and told him if he played baseball that day he'd die doing it, his guts would be splattered all over the infield. Willie Stargell choked down his fear and played, and kept playing.

Some players are great because they change the game. Some players are great because they literally become the game. And some are great for how they frame the greatness of others.

  Some players are great because they change the game. Some players are great because they literally become the game. And some are great for how they frame the greatness of others. Pops Stargell was this last kind.  
 

Pops Stargell was this last kind. He hit 475 home runs of the most majestic, titanic sort, immeasurable home runs, apparently, except in two important ways: The people who saw them say they are the longest home runs they ever saw hit, number one. And number two, Willie Stargell's 475 frame what it must be for a man to hit 500 home runs in The Show. Every man who hits 500 home runs in the big leagues is some kind of hero, should be in the baseball Hall of Fame, because the man who hit the most titanic taters, blow for blow, hit "only" 475.

Pops never spent a single day moaning how if he hadn't missed those games for this or that reason, he woulda-shoulda-coulda hit 500. No, 475 was plenty for Pops. Thus for us.

He framed the great Clemente for us, gave Clemente what all great artists eventually need, outside their own canvases; after their work fades away, heroes and artists and those who change ball need someone to come after them, carrying their torch, doing things their way, within the limits of what they have to offer.

After Clemente died, having led Pops and the Pittsburgh Pirates to the 1971 World Series title, Pittsburgh slowly became Pops' team, became the "Lumber Company," with strong, wild, different or, in some rarer cases, drug-impaired personalities who, although strong, were not as sure or mature or as winning as Pops'. When the Pirates once again won the World Series eight years later, in 1979, it was Willie Stargell who led them in thought, act, word, deed.

It was a hard time to be a great American athlete, not just because of garish double-knit uniforms. Blow-caine made its way into ball, and took many victims, and still does. Pops was not one of them. The strong give up and move on. The weak give up and stay. Shawn Kemp. Straw. No excuses.

Pops took one for the team then. He was never implicated in those infamous Pittsburgh "drug trials," but he never distanced himself from his teammates, saying, "Men aren't perfect," and "We all make mistakes. Me too." For all I know, Willie Stargell never so much as drank a shot and a beer. But I know he was a natural man.

There is a statue of Willie Stargell outside the new ballpark in Pittsburgh, and people left many mementos of the warmth the dying and now dead great American athlete left them. But, really, there may be just as important a monument to Willie, by his old school, Encinal High, in Alameda, Calif., hard by Oak-town.

Willie Stargell Field is an unimposing place, a place near where Stargell and fellow future major-leaguers like Tommy Harper and Curt Motton played, not that far away from where Frank Robinson and Curt Flood and Vada Pinson grew up, which is a stone's throw from where players from Rickey Henderson to Steve Brye got started.

And even today, when a shortstop named Jimmy Rollins lines up for the Phillies, or a second baseman named Bobby Smith takes his position for the Devil Rays, a little bit of Oakland, Babe Ruth, the name of the league they played in, and yes, indeed, a little bit of Pops Stargell goes with them.

That's the only way they never grow old too fast, never die too young. That's their only way.

It can be a good way, sometimes.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."