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Monday, December 2, 2002
Jumbotrons and sound system steroids

By David Halberstam
Special to Page 2

In homage to Jimmy Cannon, who when I was young used to write a column called, "Nobody Asked Me But":

My downstairs neighbor, a Mr. Jeff Drogin, told me on our daily dog walk in Central Park that he had a column for me.

Generally, when friends tell you that, you end up with neither a column nor a friend (they're angry because you didn't use it), but in this case, Drogin was on the money. He had gone to Madison Square Garden for an early-season Knicks game and what he wanted to complain about seems to me the most legitimate of complaints, and it is probably to my own discredit that I have not addressed it sooner here -- the noise and all the dumb non-sports-connected stuff at contemporary sporting events, particularly the artificial cheering blasting out of speaker systems that are on steroids.

NBA fan
NBA fan freak show contests have seen better days.
Though the NBA is the worst offender, it is hardly alone. Nonetheless, its arenas seem to feature more dimwitted competitions than other sports -- singing contests by fans, dog races, infant bike pedaling contests, and, of course. the thundering son-et-lumiere shows at the beginning to introduce the players. As Drogin says, "It's one thing when they dim the lights and do a lot of that hokey stuff and it's about Michael Jordan or Kobe and Shaq, but it's a very different thing for a lot of very ordinary basketball players." I agree. Drogin makes an additional point -- when they introduce these players as "YOUR NEW YORK KNICKS!" ... well, he becomes particularly resentful. Again, I agree.

As he points out, they're not his New York Knicks -- nor, for that matter, mine -- they belong to a man named Charles Dolan, and he heads a large, very rich corporation that does not do basketball very well -- it is always too impatient to win, and not patient enough to build. In addition, the process of any city, but especially this one, where there are so many choices, taking a sports team to its heart is a long and complicated one, and just because some general manager signs (as in this case) a lot of unlikely teammates, and pays them too much money, and puts them in uniforms that say New York does not mean they're mine. I was most assuredly not in on the drafting of this team. I think it's bush to introduce them that way. Here we are in the Garden, in a place where basketball fans have always been very nuanced, and where the cry of "DEE-fense!" originated, and was fan-inspired, not management or marketing-driven, and we get hokey introductions like this. Listen, this crowd, going back to those wonderful Knick teams of the late '60s and early '70s could always tell when the locals were playing a little soft on defense, or running the offense with one pass too few and would get down on them, and they would do it without any help from artificial noisemakers, driven by marketing executives who thought that five minutes without unbearable amounts of noise violated the whole purpose of the game.

The point of this is, as Drogin says, if the game is good and well-played, then you don't need any of this other stuff, not the Jumbotron to decide who the cutest girl or the best-looking boy in the stands is, and whether they ought to have a date with each other, and if the game is not good enough, then all of the other stuff doesn't matter at all. Again I agree: If I want to see dance in this city, there are lots better places to find it than at Knick games, and if I want to cheer, it will take what happens on the court to make me cheer, not canned noise coming from the speakers of a sports arena orchestrated by some sports management Big Brother.

Mr. Drogin, as you can perhaps already tell, is a serious sports fan. He and his wife, Linda, have season's ticket to the Yankee games (they are generally quite happy about that), and season tickets for the Knicks (they are, predictably, most unhappy about that), and he is all too aware that the way to build a good team is to start at the beginning and have a plan, and keep with the plan -- not, as has happened here, start with the wrong parts, and keep layering other wrong parts over them until nothing fits, but you're over the cap anyway. Drogin is also, by chance, a world-class fisherman, quite obsessive about that, but he is even more obsessive about his German short-haired pointers and he has two strikingly handsome ones. We in our building had high hopes that one of them, named Hubert, might even win Westminster a few years ago.

(Hubert is named for Hubert Davis, the talented outside-shooting but otherwise mono-dimensional guard who played for the Knicks for a time. At the moment when Hubert the dog was a brand new puppy, Hubert Davis, the ballplayer, was at the line in a key playoff game with the Jordan-less Bulls. Linda Drogin, as a means of encouraging Davis at that critical moment to make his free throws, promised that if he made both shots, she would name the dog after him. He did, and she did, too. Hubert's son, who has now joined the Drogin family, is named, appropriately enough in a season when the Yankees added Giambi to their lineup and went home run crazy, Homer. Linda Drogin, it should be noted, knows her sports, and she was the one, before the playoff games started, who confided in me that she was worried because Mike Stanton was not pitching well -- he then went on to Game 3 of the American League division series to the Angels.)

***** *** *****

And now to the football season, where, if things work out, soon the very best teams will have records of 9-7, most teams will be 8-8 and the really bad teams will be 7-9. There is nothing like equity (in a league with far too many teams, it helps every fan in every city to feel that his or her team has a chance of making the playoffs), even if it comes at the price of blandness and heralds growing mediocrity. Some of the problems with where the game is now, so few teams you care about watching, are a legitimate reflection of changes in the society -- the complexity of dealing with salaries in an age of free agency and greater player movement, not that the league has done it particularly well. And some are the result of far too much expansion -- just an overload of teams. But some of it is done deliberately by the league to make it all seem more competitive, giving weak teams weak schedules, in order to make them look better.

The Houston Texans
The Texans play only one team with a winning record the second half of the season.
I don't know how you do free agency correctly -- but there ought to be a reward, some form of exemption -- for teams that are well-run, so that they have a better chance of keeping players they drafted in lower rounds, thus improving their bench.In addition, in the case of players who have put in a long career on a given team, there ought to be a greater exemption from the Draconian bottom line of the salary cap (so that teams have a better chance of keeping long-time stars like the 49ers with Jerry Rice).

What we have now is not merely too many teams, but too many teams that lack real identities -- when you imagine an upcoming game on Sunday or Monday, it's hard to imagine the matchups and the character of a given team. That goes against the game's great virtue -- when it bypassed the college game in the late '50s and early '60s, and became the peer of professional baseball, it was precisely the quality of identity, team-by-team, which worked for it. The quality of identity was aided greatly by the pro game's continuity. College football had been exciting, but players did not stick around that long, just two or three years in those days. But when they got to the professional game, they often had careers of 10-12 years, as did many of their teammates, and as such, a game between two distant cities, cities the average fan did not necessarily live in, had an uncommon allure, because we knew so much about both teams. The continuity and identity of the teams overcame the limits of geography. The game was so good that provincialism mattered very little. That's been lost, and a critical loss it is.

I think the game is in trouble -- too many games that just aren't very good and have no resonance for the serious fan. The trouble with "Monday Night Football" has not been the broadcast booth (though Dennis Miller was just awful, bringing almost nothing in the way of insight, and giving us a stale, rather smarmy kind of humor, humor that always seemed self-conscious, and more than a little out of synch with the game itself, allegedly funny lines that seemed to be written before the game, and then tossed in as if they were spontaneous). The problem is the quality of the games themselves ... they are all too often clunky, they all too often feature teams not many of us care about, and they seem to go on well into Tuesday morning. If the games are good, people will know, and if they're not, no amount of redoing the broadcast booth will help.

***** *** *****

Could we all slow down our adoration of Jeremy Shockey just a bit? Could we teach him a little restraint on the field? Does he know that there are 10 other players on each play, and another 11 on defense? Could someone please let him see some old clips, showing how Mark Bavaro, his predecessor at tight end, behaved when he caught a pass for a first down (great modesty, high professionalism), let alone a touchdown pass (great modesty, high professionalism)? Could we nip this bit of hot dogging -- almost surely much of it agent-inspired -- while there's still time?

Jeremy Shockey
Shockey show-boating should be the first to go.
I think he's probably going to be a very good football player, but can we be spared the growing evidence of unacceptable self-promotion? I know it's an adrenalin game and emotion plays a big part. But there's a big difference between playing with emotion and show-boating, and calling too much attention to yourself, and we all know the difference, as do referees and opposing players. He's been lucky not to have drawn more penalty flags for showboating so far, and lucky that some defensive players are not head-hunting him.

In addition could we not be told that he's charismatic (almost surely because he's white and has a lot of blond hair, and his helmet seems to be off a great deal of the time)? Believe me, we'll know when he's charismatic. No one will need to tell us -- it's one of the great things about being charismatic. Jerry Rice was charismatic, and he never had to hot dog. All he did was play at an exceptional level game after game and work as hard in the off-season as he did during the season itself. Barry Sanders was charismatic, and he never showboated. It can be done.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 best sellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49," writes occasionally for Page 2.