As we sit in the middle of the FIFA women's World Cup championships, the guest contestant on this week's 'Not My Job' segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!, is particularly appropriate -- Kristine Lilly who won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals during her 23 years (!) on the U.S. women's soccer team. Her interview with host Peter Sagal is one of the more entertaining -- ranging from her being overly-polite about things in the soccer world and Sagal politely (and humorously) busting her on them, and her competitive strain coming to the front as she's brutally honest on some topics. Perhaps most fun is the discussion of her being both a soccer mom and an assistant coach on her daughters' soccer team. (As Sagal quips, "Assistant??")
This isn't about sports. Really. Honest. The background explanation requires sports, but that's it. The video is not about sports. Honest.
On Thursday, the NBA had its college draft. And the Chicago Bulls selected Coby White of the University of North Carolina as their top pick and the #7 player overall in the entire league. This is a big deal. And one would understand his emotion wanting to talk about himself being such a high draft choice -- at any time, but especially in this era of Look at Me personal hype.
So, watch his reaction in this -- his personal moment of glory when he sat down to meet with the press immediately after being drafted as the seventh top player in America to talk about himself, his moment in the sun upon moving from college life into the adult world, being a top draft choice in the National Basketball selection, his chance to front and center and talk about himself -- when he is told by a reporter about his college teammate Cameron Johnson who had moments before been selected as the #11 selection.
Even if I wasn't a Bulls fan, I'd love this guy. But happily, I am. Even forgetting how good he is -- good enough to be the #7 draft choice in the nation -- what person wouldn't want him as a teammate? Or a friend?! Or just to know that somewhere on the planet Earth he exists?!!
Even if you don't like sports -- and if merely the idea of watching golf make your head implode -- bear with me and read this story and watch the video. Actually, videos, plural. Or just watch the first video if you think that's all you can handle. But don't worry, you'll be fine. Really. In fact, you'll probably be better for the brief time spent.
Yesterday, Gary Woodland won the U.S. Open golf championship, his first major tournament win of the Big Four. The announcers were saying as the victory neared that it would be a popular win because Woodland was such a well-liked player on the tour.
But now let's go back a few months to late January. That's when Woodland was playing a practice round at the Phoenix Open. He was introduced to Amy Bockerstette, a Special Olympics golfer, and invited her to hit a tee shot at the challenging Tournament Players Championship course -- on the controversial 16th hole. (The par-3 16th is infamous because it's entirely enclosed by stands, almost more of a stadium-setting, filled with fans all around, like being in in a fish bowl, unlike any other hole on the PGA Tour that are far-more pastoral.) .. After that shot, the group went on walking together down the fairway...but as they approached her ball, Woodland felt that one shot wasn't enough and asked if she wanted to keep playing the full hole.
What resulted between Woodland and Amy -- who the year before became the first person with Down Syndrome to compete in college -- turned into what the PGA says is the most-viral video they've ever posted, with over 5 million views. That's before this week's U.S. Open. I have no doubt the viewership went way up -- particularly after the featured it during the TV broadcast.
After the event -- and yes, that was an official par she got on the hole -- Woodland said about it, “I’ve had a lot of good memories in my life, but that’s one I’ll never forget. I’ve been blessed to do lot of cool things on the golf course but that is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. She was phenomenal. And then to step up in front of all the people and the crowd and everything and to hit the shots that she hit and made par, I never rooted so hard for somebody on a golf course and it was an emotional, emotional really cool experience.”
I should note that there is a whole lot more one can say about Woodland, but we'll keep it short. Two years ago, he and his wife were expecting twins, but only one survived. He called it the toughest year years of his life. It must be noted that his wife was not present for his win on Sunday -- Fathers Day -- that's because they're expecting twin girls.
The story of Gary and Amy doesn't end there, mind you. Here's a new video released on Sunday by the PGA of Amy and her family and friends as they watch Woodland make his last putt to win the championship. Along with a follow-up after that.
That's Amy Bockerstette. And Gary Woodland -- the new U.S. Open champion.
And I hope that was worth your time, even if you can't stand golf.
Very pleased to see UCLA win its 12th women's softball national championship, beating #1-ranked Oklahoma (UCLA was #2) two games to none in the best-of-three game series. Big congrats.
By the way, even if you don't care one whit about this, do yourself a favor and still jump below the first video to read about and then watch to the two other videos afterwards on UCLA player Stevie Wisz.. (It's pronounced "Whiz.") They're both short, the second one only about 10 seconds. I think it's worth it, and almost none of it is about baseball -- though that's the foundation that colors it all.
I like women's softball and watch it periodically. In addition to the skillful play, the added pleasure is the joyful spirit of it -- the players often double as cheerleaders, working out team routines that they perform in the dugout, It's a slower-paced game than baseball, and if the level of play isn't as high (flyballs can be sometimes be an advantage), there is also a quickness to it all, thanks to the distance between bases -- and the pitcher's circle and home plate -- being much closer. There are also a lot more hugs than in men's baseball.
Though I had the Cubs game running on my tablet, I happily wore my UCLA baseball cap and cheered them during the finale as a proud graduate school alum. I'm only sorry I didn't realize that the first round was being played at Jackie Robinson Field, because it's about two miles from me, and I'd have driven over. I almost did, when I was watching their clinching game in that first round, but by that point there were only two innings to go, so I stayed in front of my set.
Here are the highlights of the final, exciting game that went down to two outs in the last inning. Though the video says it's two minutes long, the highlights are only a minute -- the rest of jumping on another and celebrating. Since there's no announcer, know that the first highlight -- a home run -- came from the first batter of the game. And the second highlight, also a home run, came from the second batter.
With UCLA holding a one-run lead going into the top of the last inning (the seventh) with two out, Oklahoma hit a home run to tie the game. But then, in the bottom of the inning, UCLA got a lead-off single, and the runner was bunted to second, in scoring position. But when the next better grounded to short, the baserunner was thrown out at third base. That left a runner only at first with two outs -- however, a wild patch moved that runner to second base and again scoring position. That brought in a fast pinch-runner, who barely slid in to score on a base hit on the very next pitch. Which brings us to the national championship, a lot of jumping on another and celebrating.
Which carries us to the tale and two videos I mentioned above. The leading player for UCLA is its star pitcher and batter, Rachel Garcia who not only won the National Player of the Year Award...but won it for the second year in a road!. Not shabby.
But my favorite UCLA player was Stevie Wisz. She doesn't play much -- mainly as a pinch runner, sometimes on defense, and rarely at the plate. I think she may have had three at bats this year. But what stands out about her is her spirit which is effusive. It's not just that she's already had two open-heart surgeries, because of a birth defect, but she has a third one scheduled -- in two weeks! This here is a long and wonderful article about her on the ESPN website, and below is a brief video on the NBC Nightly News.
But wonderful as this story is -- and it's awfully good -- it wasn't what got me to be a fan of Stevie Wisz. It's something I saw about her before I even knew her history. In fact, I didn't even know what player it was. All I saw was a UCLA player in the dugout who was wearing a broadcast headset -- except it wasn't a real one, but something makeshift made with...bananas. (Yes, you read that right: it's made of bananas.) She does a play-by-play of the game with it. And it gets even better, because her teammates play along, and she interviews them on her banana headset throughout the game.
I loved it. And it's part of what I was referring to of the fun in women's softball -- ratcheted up to a higher level. And I had no idea who this was, I just loved her for it, whoever she was. That it turned out to be Stevie Wisz bringing such joy to the game made it all the better.
This is just a much, much too-brief clip, maybe eight seconds. I've tried to find longer footage, but thus far to no avail -- after all, there is little more adorable and funny than watching a ballplayer carrying on a long interview with a teammate into two bananas during a championship series. How wonderful was it? This was during a championship series when there was important action on the field, and ESPN kept the camera on Stevie Wisz interviewing a teammates with a banana (!!) for about a full 30-seconds.
You'll have to make due with his. It's plenty enough.
This week, the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!" comes live from St. Louis. And a big heads-up to the inveterate Chris Dunn -- who, despite being a St. Louis Cardinals fan, remains a fine fellow AND inveterate -- because the guest contestant on the 'Not My Job' segment is former St. Louis Cardinals Hall-of-Fame shortstop, Ozzie Smith. His interview isn't deeply substantive, but thoroughly charming and personable, and the best part are many of the questions from host Peter Sagal -- most of which only require a brief answer, but are great fun to hear. Fun, too, is that for the first time I was able to guess ahead of time what the topic of the 'Not My Job' segment would be. That should be a good enough clue for others. If not, it's the best you'll get...
Jose Andres is a world-renowned chef who is aggressive in his actions and unafraid to speak his mind when he sees a wrong. He pulled his restaurant out of Trump International Hotel in protest of racist comments Trump made about Mexicans. After the Trump administration showed a lack of proper assistance to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Chef Andres organized the World Central Kitchen to prepare meals there for those in need -- and has continued the charity organization ever since.
During the first round of the NFL draft, Trump sent out a tweet congratulating the second selected player -- a young white man, Nick Basso, who had previously made insulting comments about Colin Kaepernick and kneeling for the National Anthem -- all the while ignoring the first player picked, a young black man Kyler Murray.
(By the way, perhaps no one on his staff told Trump but it's worth noting that the other day Nick Basso apologized for his comments about Kaepernick, said he was just a young kid and had done a lot of growing, adding -- "I respect what he's done. If it empowers anybody, then he's doing a good thing.")
Here is Trump's tweet and the response from Jose Andres.
This is the annual reprint of a column originally written on The Huffington Post in 2009. And this year is the 16h anniversary of the actual event itself, Some stories simply demand repeating. Or better put, demand not being forgotten. This is one of them. And so, once again, here 'tis.
One additional word. happily Maurice Cheeks is still in the NBA. He's currently the assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who made the playoffs this season (though alas were knocked out this week). He also had a strong career as a solid player, and is 13th on the all-time list of assists with 7.392. But though this doesn't count on that list, it may be his best assist of all...
April 25, 2009
Oh, Say Can You Sing? A National Anthem to Remember
As I prepared to write about an act of uncommon decency by a professional athlete, I realized that calling it that was unfair, that it diminishes what happened, because this was simply an act of uncommon decency, period. That it happened on such a high level and under such a bright microscope might likely stir the heart more, but it's the act itself that is ultimately what stirs us to begin with. Who it was and when it took place simply moves it up the pedestal.
Today is the sixth anniversary of Maurice Cheek's moment on the pedestal.
There is in the American consciousness for notable performances of the National Anthem at sporting events. Jose Feliciano's evocative singing at the 1968 World Series in Detroit was the first to interpret the "Star Spangled Banner" before a national audience. Because 1968 was one of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history, many at the time were so outraged that it took his career years to recover. Today, the rendition not only seems tame, but one of the most tender and beautiful. (And among the least known. If you've never heard it, do yourself a favor and click here to listen.)
Whitney Houston gets mentioned often for her rousing rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl, during the Gulf War. For many, Marvin Gaye's deeply soulful performance at the 1983 NBA All Star is the most memorable.
But for sheer emotional joy, it's hard to top what happened on April 27, 2003, before Game 4 of the NBA playoffs between the Portland Trailblazers and Dallas Mavericks.
Context only adds to the story. So, once again:
This was the playoffs. This is what all professional athletes live for, what their year is about. The regular season is a prelude, an effort to get into the post-season and be in place to win the league championship, to become a part of your sport's history. Everything centers on this. As the start of each playoff game nears, as the roaring crowd is at its highest pitch, as players put on their proverbial "game faces" and the battle is moments from beginning, all external thoughts get filtered out, and focus is completely, solely on their task ahead.
The National Anthem, for most athletes, must be one of those external influences. More than most of us, who hear the "Star Spangled Banner" largely on special occasions, professional athletes have heard the National Anthem played before every single competitive game they've played. Game after game repeatedly each season, and season after season, for decades. Relentlessly. As meaningful as the song is, it is also just part of the ritual for a professional athlete, focused on the game, geared up for the game, anxious to start the game. Silent, not singing, maybe not even hearing the music. Waiting for the National Anthem to be played, and finished, so that they can finally start what they're there for. It's likely as much background noise as it is patriotic uplift.
And so it must have been as the Trailblazers and Mavericks prepared for their playoff game to start.
Stepping out onto the court was Natalie Gilbert, a 13-year-old girl. Just another National Anthem, just another youngster who won a contest, just another two minutes the crowd wanted to get past for the game they were there to see, to start. And she started fine. A little hesitant, since it's a frightening occasion for a child, with a national audience, flashing lights and a military guard. But in her wavering voice, she was prepared.
Except that a few lines in, the high pageantry of the moment got her, and something went very wrong. She totally, thoroughly forgot the words. A young 13-year-old child, standing in front of over 10,000 people, lost. Alone.
And that's when Maurice Cheeks showed the kind of person he was.
Maurice Cheeks had had a very good NBA career as a player. He played for 15 years and was selected to four All Star games. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in steals and fifth in assists. He averaged over 11 points a game. And then he later became a coach, the position he was currently in for the Portland Trailblazers. It was Cheeks who was responsible for his team, responsible for keeping them focused on the game, responsible for guiding them. But he saw a 13-year-old girl in trouble.
And that's when Maurice Cheeks showed the kind of person he was. Immediately.
Cheeks always had a reputation in the NBA as a good guy. But he was about to prove it on a national stage. And what happened next - not just with Maurice Cheeks, but eventually with all the jaded players whose minds had been previously-focused on their game, an entire stadium of basketball fans there to see basketball, even the opposing white-haired coach Don Nelson - is just enthralling.
The moment is wonderful, but how it builds and surprises is even better.
And at the end, this tiny girl looking up at the giant of a man - who stayed around, refusing to leave her side and return to his team - with her face awash with relief, a huge hug, and the clear words mouthed, "Thank you," is all you need to see to why it's hard to top what happened on April 25, 2003, before Game 4 of the NBA playoffs for sheer emotional joy. Six years ago today.
Javy Baez's nickname is "El Mago" (The Magician) for doing odd things magnificently and just naturally that no one else does. Yesterday I was watching the Cubs game when he did his latest -- he was fooled by a pitch, it bounced in the dirt, he threw his bat...and not only hit the ball, but got a single! And even he couldn't figure out how. (Watch to the end...)
It was so bizarre that Major League Baseball sent it out in a tweet. Even ESPN made it one of their Top 10 Plays of the Day.
For those interested, this is a slightly longer, fun look at the play which includes all three announcers -- the Cubs TV play-by-play, their radio broadcasters, and also even the Pittsburgh Pirate announcers in awe at the play. You can watch it here.
To start the baseball season, this morning we had Maestro Riccardo Muti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra throwing out the first pitch before a Cubs game in 2012. But to bookend the day and make it all official, this is one of my favorite first-pitch videos. Unlike most first-pitch videos, though, it's a favorite not so much for the pitch itself (though thumbs-up for that), but for what comes before.
This is actress Elle Fanning on the David Letterman Show back in 2014, being perhaps the definition of adorable as she tells the story of her throwing out the first pitch before a Dodgers game earlier in the year. And if her giddy, teenage excitement -- even months later -- doesn't make you a fan, you aren't trying.
And by the way, given that another way of describing a strikeout is "fanning the batter," that makes this all the more appropriate...
Though the first official game of the 2019 season was played the other day in Japan (an odd decision by Major League Baseball), today the first full day when all the other teams in the National and American Leagues on their home turf.
And to help celebrate the day, we'll start the year as we did last season -- with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their music director Riccardo Muti (in a Cubs jersey) playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I think it was done in honor of the Cubs 2016 World Series, their first in 108 years, since the video was posted on November 6, 2016. And the musicians are in street clothes, but many are wearing Cubs paraphernalia or blue.
It's a wonderful and fun arrangement, too, not trying to overwhelm such a small, charming song with orchestral bombast, but arranged with an almost old-timey feel. And Muti seems to be having a good time with it all.
And as a baseball bonus, we return you to Riccardo Muti, from 2012 when he threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game.
I find it adorable that Muti seems to love the Cubs, particularly since he's from Italy and didn't grow up on baseball or perhaps ever played it at all. But we know now that he's a lefty. Not the same form on the mound (or front thereof) as on the podium, but he did get it to the plate.
By the way, listen closely in the background as he walks to the mount. The P.A. is playing Beethoven's 5th Symphony.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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