Neil Steinberg: Why I Love Sports (A Bit… Lately)

When Nigel Wade, the New Zealand press lord who ran the Sun-Times, gave me my column nearly 17 years ago, he celebrated by bestowing upon me a pair of the paper’s primo front row Bulls tickets—I’ve still got one stub, Feb. 27, 1996, Section 113, Row 1, Seat 15.

Which thrilled me, because my wife really likes the Bulls, and I knew she’d be impressed and excited.

Me, well, I went to the game—against the Timberwolves, a dog team, which might explain why the tickets descended to me—and while I remember sitting forward, locking my eyes on Michael Jordan, thinking, “There he is, driving to the basket, this is historic, I ought to remember this”—the truth is, I couldn’t recall a single play, not one moment of the game, not if you put a gun to my head.

Sports run off my back, like rain off a car hood, like water off a duck’s ass. Some people feel this means I am criticizing sports or laughing at fans, and I’m not. It’s just how it is, and since professional sports occupy such a huge place in men’s lives, so much hoopla and constant attention is paid, I figure it’s okay for me to chirp a little contradiction, now and then, for whatever comfort it provides those who might be similarly inclined. The games are just not interesting, to me. Sports are the same thing happening over and over again.

My job as a newspaper reporter occasionally puts me onto sports stories, though always with a different twist. For instance, 10 years before I attended that Bulls game, I met Michael Jordan, suiting up in the locker room before a game. Which might sound exciting, except for one salient point—I didn’t know who he was.

I had met the Rev. Henry Soles, writing a story about him as pastor of the 2nd AME Church in Wheaton, and, during the interview, asked him if he had any side interests. He told me that he was chaplain to the Bulls. Now that caught my attention. It turns out, before every game, interested players from both teams attended a church service. It wasn’t secret, but also wasn’t the sort of thing the NBA publicized, because it went against the in-your-face attitude they preferred. So I arranged to go to a game, and got there early to talk to the players. To me, the big get was Artis Gilmore, the star at the time, and after talking to him, I chatted with this other fellow sitting on a bench, buck naked, sorting through his mail. I asked him if he went to chapel, what it meant to him, and was just reaching the point where, pen poised, I was about to ask, “And you ARE…?” when he pulled on his jersey. Well, I can read, and I glanced around, checked the name, and scribbled, “JORDAN” in my notes.

In my defense, it was his second season, so he wasn’t quite the enormous star he’d later become.

That’s how my sports career has been in Chicago. The chaplain to the Bulls, the popularity of basketball among lesbians, the cat that rode the Zamboni in the old stadium—I had interviewed the arena manager, watched the cat in action, and was about to leave when I realized that the Blackhawks had provided me with a press pass, and I could watch the game. Well, I was already there. The national anthem was thrilling, but everything else was downhill. I remember thinking, “This is it? This is hockey?” The players were skating around, worrying a puck with their sticks. It was nothing. And the thing is, they were playing the L.A. Kings and Wayne Gretzky. Again, I locked my eyes on him, telling myself, “That’s him. He’s the Great One. Wayne Gretzky.” Nothing. Zero. He seemed like a man in a coma—maybe he was having an off night. I left at the end of the first quarter, or half, or whatever they have in hockey.

The reason I’m not a sports fan doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to figure out—my father was a nuclear physicist and cared nothing for sports. He never took me to a baseball game. I don’t think we even played catch. Not that I’m looking for pity—I had a great childhood; my father once brought home an argon laser for us to play with. As a teenager, I got to hang out at Byron’s castle at Chillon while he worked at the United Nations in Geneva. So it wasn’t as if I was chained to the radiator.

But when I had my boys, I didn’t want to pass this legacy along. We all want to do better than our fathers. As I outline in my new book, “You Were Never in Chicago,” while I couldn’t pretend to be a fan, I certainly could take them to games, and we went—baseball, basketball, football, hockey—yes, even hockey, both Blackhawks and Wolves. I love my children that much—though I drew the line at the White Sox; some things are beyond the scope of paternal affection.

My younger son played sports, and I felt like I finally got a taste of what this business is all about when I’d go to his games—baseball, basketball, football. I’m one of those dads who tried to never miss a game, sitting there after work, in my tie, cheering him on. It was fun. An unexpected, undeserved gift.

Which is the note the chapter on my boys ends with. Grant DePorter, the managing partner of Harry Caray’s restaurant, asked me if I want to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs/Sox Crosstown Classic game. “God no,” I answered, instinctively, then reconsidered. “But I know somebody who does….”

I didn’t want to set my younger boy, then 7, up for a fall, so we marked out 60 feet on the driveway and practiced. And practiced. And practiced some more, him winding up, me in a catcher’s crouch, constantly standing up with a middle-aged groan and ambling to the curb to fetch a ball that had soared over my head.

On the big day, I was shocked at how excited I was—this was the greatest thing in the world. I felt like Willy Loman going to see Biff play in Ebbets Field in “Death of a Salesman”—not the usual sports frame of reference, I know. My wife had bought the kid a Cubs outfit, and what awed me was how cool he was, compared to me in my gibbering enthusiasm. He waited quietly for his moment, studying the field. When his time came, he trotted to the mound with a hero’s easy gait, as if he had been doing it all his life. He did not look back at me, did not hesitate, just put his foot on the rubber, eyeballed the catcher and fired a strike as the 40,000 people in the stands erupted.

I cherish that memory, certainly more than he does, and have come to see watching sports as something we can do together, slumped on sofas, hour after hour. Though when I try to share my new interest with people—”Do you ever watch football games? On Sundays. They’re fun.”—well, they look at me strangely.

>> TONIGHT AT 6:30: ChicagoSide’s Bill Savage interviews Neil Steinberg as part of the U of C Graham School’s “Chicago By the Book.” Get details here.

STORY ART: Photos courtesy Neil Steinberg.

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