I discovered sports radio on the loneliest night of my life.
The year was 1987. I had arrived in Boston to attend law school and did not know a soul. I had no interest in becoming an attorney. I felt no calling. I had enrolled for that highest and most noble of reasons: I had no idea what else to do with the rest of my life.
On the night I arrived I attended a get-acquainted boat cruise with other incoming students. These people were nothing like my friends at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I had been an undergraduate. They had little awareness of good rock ‘n’ roll. They used verbs like “triangulate” in casual speech. Worst, they seemed indifferent to sports. None of them expressed an interest in purchasing season football tickets or seemed to notice that Fenway Park was within walking distance of our school. Their eyes reflected a certain pity when I asked if anyone knew the best way to go about scalping tickets to a Celtics game.
By the end of the evening I was convinced that I had made a mistake, on virtually every level, in choosing to go to law school. I lay awake in my dorm room that night, tossing and turning, contemplating what else a person might do with a philosophy degree from a dairy college. Long past midnight, I turned on the radio and found an oasis in the desert of my despair: a show entirely devoted to sports. Was I dreaming? The host did more than report scores, he yelled opinions, reported rumors, took calls. Stones music played at the end of every segment. This sports radio show, I decided, would be my friend for the next three years. And it was.
When I returned to Chicago after graduation, I searched for a hometown version of that Boston sports radio show. In 1990, there were no stations devoted full-time to the format in Chicago, but there were hosts like Chet Coppock and Mike Murphy doing regularly scheduled programs, and those shows became like a lifeline to me. Two years later, WSCR became the city’s first full-time sports radio station and I was hooked. Suddenly, there was more local sports information available to me in a day than there had been in a month of watching those four-minute segments on the ten-o-clock television news. Before long, Chicago added another full-time sports radio station (WMVP). Now, at the push of a button, I could hear gossip about players’ personal lives, rumors about trades, irate fan rants, criticism of team management, demands that players be traded and owners run out of town, all available 24 hours a day.
Soon, I knew more about sports, and especially Chicago sports, than I had ever imagined possible. If a player was rumored to be having an affair with another player’s wife, the radio let me know it, and I watched for signs of the cuckold’s distress in the batters box. If a player was involved in a contract dispute, the radio let me know it, and I studied his body language breaking the huddle to make sure he was staying focused. If an owner balked at extending the contract of a brooding superstar, the radio let me know it, and I looked at the privileged snot differently during the next tip-off at the United Center. Some of this information was available to me in newspapers, but in nowhere near the volume, nor with the digestive ease, that it was on the radio. It all just poured in so smoothly while driving home after work or shaving in the morning. I couldn’t get enough.
And this is how it went with me for 20 years until this January, when I turned off sports talk radio completely. I can’t say exactly why I did it. It wasn’t the hosts; the on-air talent in Chicago sports radio today is better than it ever has been and is, in my opinion, more incisive, entertaining, and observant than in any other city in the country. It wasn’t that I lost interest in sports—for God’s sake, I just drove up to Milwaukee to watch a Bucks-Pistons game. It’s just that the radio talk started to feel, after all those years…a bit too much for me. I decided to take a short break, a palate cleanser. I could tune in tomorrow.
I did not tune in tomorrow. Oh, my fingers made the attempt, the brazen bastards. They stabbed for the Score during reports of a water main break on WBBM, lunged for WMVP during a debate on green energy on WLS. I could swear that they formed a choking shape when I tuned in a City Council discussion on NPR.
Still, I kept at it. For the next several days I went cold turkey. In the car I switched to the FM dial and discovered new rock ‘n’ roll (man, do we have a treasure in WXRT). In the bathroom, another of my sports radio havens, I began to read again. Sometimes, if I felt daring, I would drive in silence. I reminded myself that giving up sports radio did not mean I was giving up sports.
The true test came, however, with the opening round of the NFL playoffs. Nothing stirs me like the NFL playoffs. I fought to keep from tuning in, forced myself to stay away from my favorite hosts and their takes on Tim Tebow, one of the great sports talk radio subjects of my lifetime. I lost track of all the storylines, did not know who was injured or who had been complaining, who had been fined or who had guaranteed victory. I gained none of the benefit of the expert analysis supplied by the stations’ hosts and specialists, learned nothing of coaches’ philosophies, absorbed no predictions. By kickoff, it was just me and the game, naked with each other for the first time in more than 20 years.
It was the best game I ever watched—easy, direct, alive. Unencumbered by information, I was free to watch the game. Sports are beautiful when they are reduced to the game.
I continued the experiment for another week. At night, after my kids had completed their homework, we sat down to watch the young NBA season. I could not tell them much about what Derrick Rose had done in the offseason or how newcomer Rip Hamilton was supposed to help the Bulls. We just watched the games, not looking for anything in particular, not talking about anything specific. They were among the nicest games I’ve ever experienced.
The next round of NFL playoff contests lit up in my imagination. Some games were good, others weren’t, but for the first time in ages it didn’t seem to matter much. I had showed up for the weekend hungry, not bloated, and that hunger seemed a good sauce, indeed.
And so it has continued for the past three months, through the Super Bowl, into the heart of the NBA season, past the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, alongside spring training and into opening day. Today, I know less than ever about sports. But I feel like I love them more.
I once read an interview with John Lennon in which he was asked about hidden messages in his songs. He said he wished people would hear the music as he intended it, from him to the listener without all the thinking in between. That’s how my kids listen to Beatles music and it’s wonderful to watch it happen. I’m going to my first Cubs game of the season in a week. I don’t know the latest in Starlin Castro’s legal ordeal. I don’t know what’s on Carlos Marmol’s mind. But I do know this: I can’t wait to see them play.
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ROBERT KURSON is The New York Times best-selling author of “Shadow Divers” and “Crashing Through.”
STORY ART: Main image done in-house.