Sports World Villains of our Youth

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Well, it looks like we have some time on or hands, sports fans.

For the foreseeable future we will all have to make due with the ongoing highlight reel of our mind’s eye. The loop that takes us from one memorable sports moment to the next as we replay our personal histories as sports fans. From Ali to Namath to Seaver and the Fraziers (Clyde and Joe). From Borg and Evert to Henry and Say Hey. The heroes are the easy ones for us to remember.

But for every hero of our youth, there were always villains. The foils to our stars, who showed up just to spoil our celebrations, while knocking the players we idolized down a peg or two, teaching young fans about life through lessons on the hardwood, ice and fields of play.

So who were those athletes you chose to hate and why?  With literally everything else in the world of sports currently being canceled (yeah, I know, postponed), we decided to take a deep dive back in time and remember those we loved to hate while growing up.

Basketball

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My sports fan memory goes back to the year 1970, which for a New York sports fan was about as fantastic a time as we’ve ever known. The New York Knickerbockers were the center of the basketball universe with their “hit the open man” approach to offense and suffocating team defense. The Knicks would win titles in 1970 and ’73, and reach the finals in ’72, an incredible run of championship caliber basketball (yeah, the Knicks!) that would spoil and trick us young New York hoop fans into believing this was how the NBA was supposed to work.

For me, Knicks basketball revolved around number 10, Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Clyde was the epitome of cool, and led the Knicks to those first two titles in franchise history, each time over the superior-on-paper Los Angeles Lakers. What made those victories even sweeter, was seeing Clyde win out over The Logo himself, Jerry West. West was just so damn tough. He didn’t give an inch to Clyde on defense, and seemed to hit every big bucket the Lakers needed down the stretch. Oh how I grew to hate Jerry West and his consistent excellence for trying to deny me my titles during my formative years as an NBA fan!

The championship team of 1969-70 was sent home the following year by the hated Baltimore Bullets. The ’73 champs were supplanted in 1974 by the despised Boston Celtics. For a young fan growing up, any matchup pitting the Knicks and those two arch rivals was appointment viewing (or frequently appointment listening, via the transistor radio I would sneak with me to bed at night).

While I developed a deep dislike for every player on the Celtics, the ugliest face of Boston for me always belonged to JoJo White, Clyde’s frequent matchup as a scoring point guard. White was nowhere near as cool as Frazier, and to my dismay shared the same jersey number 10, which seemed like sacrilege at the time (uniform numbers were really important to me as a young fan, you?). More often than not, White would match Clyde’s 20 points and six assists, and play a tough man-to-man D against my favorite player. God, I couldn’t stand JoJo White. And when you teamed up JoJo with John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Don Nelson and Paul Silas, well, the Celts were really that good. And that only made me hate them more, not to mention suffer even deeper cuts when they beat us, as they all too frequently did.

If you took off driving in the other direction and went south on I-95, there waited the gritty Bullets, tough like the city they played in, and the team name that would be banished by the league a couple of decades later.

My second favorite player (favorite player lists could often go three to five deep, especially after Earl Monroe came to New York) on those legendary Knicks teams was our captain, Willis Reed. The wars he waged against the Bullets’ center, a long-armed, rebounding machine named Wes Unseld (who to this day possessed the best outlet pass I’ve ever seen) were epic and remain indelibly etched into my brain. Unseld didn’t score much, although his hook shot was hard for Willis to defend, and when the Bullets sent the Knicks home on the way to their finals date with Lew Alcindor and the Bucks in 1971, I cried (and swore to hate those dastardly Bullets to the end of my days).

Football 

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On the gridiron, the Jets were recent Super Bowl champions when I took up residency on their bandwagon back in 1970, and although I had missed out on the greatest moment in Gang Green history, there was still plenty of momentum remaining to attract new Jets fans as the ’70’s rolled around.

Of course most of our enthusiasm revolved around Broadway Joe, but as my NFL fandom was taking shape, Namath was becoming  less and less of a game-changer. Too many punishing hits and a lack of mobility sent him to the sidelines with a variety of injuries during my early years rooting on the Airplanes.

The frustration of not having our best player under center week in and week out was only exacerbated by coinciding with an incredible run of dominance by a division foe (sound familiar?) who seemed to sweep us every year (yeah, this does feel familiar), and were a near annual participant in the early Super Bowls of my youth (yeesh, enough already).

Yeah, the Miami Dolphins felt nearly unbeatable (and in ’72 they actually were), led by their future Hall of Fame head coach (here we go again). Yet the one I reserved my greatest enmity for was their QB, a teal and orange, number-12-wearing knockoff (there go those uniform numbers again — to me, only Joe Namath possessed enough cool to truly deserve to wear the vaunted number 12) who went by the name of Bob Griese.

As Dolphins QB, Griese was way too chipper and perfect (here comes the deja vu all over again) for my liking — always smiling, with the weird last name that was so easy for grade school kids to make fun of. And if all that wasn’t enough, he even had that awful Vitalis commercial that played at every station break, where he magically transitioned from a “wet-head” to the “dry look,” with the tagline he shamelessly spat at all of us out in TV land — “but they are still going to call me Griese.” Yeah, I hated Bob Griese.

Oh, and while still harboring dark thoughts over Namath’s injuries and the accompanying missed opportunities, honorable mention here goes to Mike Lucci. Lucci was a solid, unspectacular middle linebacker for the Lions who had the audacity to intercept a Namath preseason pass one year, leading to Broadway Joe separating his shoulder making the tackle on the return. Oh, how I hated Lucci for that inexcusable transgression, immediately yanking his trading card from the shoebox marked “football,” and drawing black eyes on the front of the card (a seven-year-old’s equivalent to leaving a severed horse head in his bed) before mutilating the card beyond recognition. Yeah, pox on you to this day, Mike Lucci.

Baseball

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No surprises here, right folks?

You don’t go picking a fight with Buddy Harrelson (Buddy Harrelson!), who you outweigh by like a hundred pounds, and get away unscathed when it comes to a young Met fan’s eternal dislike.

The Mets were on their way to an unexpected World Series for the second time in five years (it is somewhat surreal typing these sentences describing the abundance of championships played in and won by the Knicks, Jets and Mets back in the early-’70’s, by the way), upsetting the heavily favored Reds (who’d taken Oakland the full seven in the previous year’s Fall Classic), when Pete Rose barreled into Buddy at second base and all hell broke loose. Buddy even managed to land a couple of shots before the burly gambler with the soup bowl haircut took him down as both benches and bullpens emptied.

Maybe the most memorable part of the whole scene was the fans in the left field bleachers at Shea Stadium showering all forms of garbage upon Rose when he took the field in the bottom of the inning. For young AtticBro, panic set in, thinking somehow this completely justified uprising by the Mets faithful could cause us to forfeit the game, losing our ticket to the World Series. However, cooler heads prevailed — in the form of Yogi Berra and Willie Mays walking out to the warning track in left, where they politely urged the fans to let the game go on without interruption, no matter how blatant Mr. Rose’s scumbaggery had undoubtedly been.

It was unquestionably Yogi’s finest hour as Mets manager, even if all of us did wish that the whiskey bottle that had whistled by Rose’s head moments before had found its mark.

Hockey

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Yes, there was a time when hockey mattered to AtticBro. Remember, this was North Jersey in the early-’70’s. Being a hockey fan was something of a requirement, and with the wave of titles flowing through New York sports, six-year-old me simply expected that the Rangers would be taking their turn and hoisting the Stanley Cup in 1972.

That Rangers squad was one for the ages, with Jean Ratelle centering a deadly line with Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield on the wings, while Brad Park anchored the defense in front of the tremendous goaltending tandem on Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemure. But a funny thing happened on the way to the parade, when a villain showed up so nefarious that he damn near ruined the Rangers franchise for the next twenty years.

Bobby Orr may be everybody’s favorite defenseman, but to me he was the guy that broke my heart and stole my NHL Championship. Years later I picked up a signed black and white photo of Orr’s famous, celebratory leap after clinching his first Cup in 1970, because it is such an incredibly cool sports photo, but hell, I still hate him.

Honorable Mention

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Over the years the villains have become too many to count. Larry Legend and Michael Jordan tag-teamed my Knickerbockers for the better part of two decades, ensuring that the highlight hoops moment of my life as a young adult would remain winning the lottery to draft Patrick Ewing, not a Ewing-led championship.

And pugnacious Billy Martin’s booze-fueled rants, antics and circus-like firings/hirings with George Steinbrenner facilitated my growing contempt for the Bronx Bombers as the ’70’s gave way to the ’80’s.

Nor should we forget Ilie Nastase, who ushered in an unexpected, WWE-like bad boy character onto the tennis scene in the mid-’70’s, making it easier for us all to later despise Super Brat John McEnroe and the many petulant tennis stars that would follow in their wake.

And finally, who can forget big-mouthed Dexter Manley? Manley was the face of all of those overrated Redskins teams that nearly ruined football for me during my college years down in Virginia (hey, if there’s a players strike in the NFL, pencil in those Redskins for a Super Bowl title). Give Manley credit though, the man knew how to get to the quarterback (and oh did he own the Giants’ Brad Benson), but that just made us all hate Manley with even more fervor.

The parade of evil doers will continue well past our time and into the tapestries of forever sports memories currently being woven by our kids and grandkids. Stand by, watch, and enjoy as their rooting interests are cemented and superstars chosen for  unbridled adoration through the ages.

It’s yet another aspect of what makes the world of sports so much more for us than a program we watch for a couple of hours on the television. It’s part of our history, our life, our identity. And that’s why it’s so much darn fun to kill a little time thinking back, occupying the mind with those memories, still vivid despite the passing years, from when our heroes fought off the villains.

We can all benefit from a pleasant distraction or two right about now, can’t we?

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