Eight years ago to the day, June 18, 2014, I posted this article about one of the greatest (though little-known) sports miracles, which concerned the World Cup. And me. I reposted it four years later, to the day, as the World Cup was then-starting, after having watched England's exciting opening match against Tunisia (that was tied 1-1 through regulation and then England scored during the four minutes of Extra Time to win the game).
The original article told the story of perhaps the greatest sports miracle that I ever witnessed -- and concerned not only the World Cup, but England. I thought it only appropriate to once again re-tell the story.
One of the Greatest Sports Miracles Ever
Now that the World Cup has started, and the United States has come up with a miracle victory, I thought this would be a good time to tell the story of not only one of the greatest, unknown World Cup miracles, but one of the all-time great sports miracles, period.
It's how my family and I got to see the World Cup in London, 1966,
And I'm serious.
Okay, no, it's not the upstart United States hockey team beating the Soviet steamrollers. Or the unknown Roulon Gardner defeating the unbeaten, invincible legend Alexander Karelin. It's not Kirk Gibson hitting a home run on one leg, or Doug Flutie's Hail Mary. But those are more remarkable physical achievements by talented athletic. This was an act of otherworldly intervention.
When I was but a wee kidling, my family took a summer trip to Europe. One of our stops was London, where as fate would have it, the British were hosting the World Cup that year. As maniacal as we know the rest of the world is over soccer, England might be the home of soccer insanity. In a land known for tradition, soccer riots are de rigeur there. If you're not rioting, you're not trying.
Nonetheless, my dad thought it would fun to see a World Cup match. (Note: The concept of it being "fun" to see a World Cup match is not relatable for most soccer fans, most especially those who are the aforementioned British. "Fun" is a nice get together for tea, or taking your dog for walkies. Being able to see a World Cup match in England is closer to being life-affirming.) And so, uncaring of the obstacles, my dad found out how to apply to the world lottery being held to get tickets He sent in his form and enclosed his check, and then went on with his life. Meanwhile, throughout England there was national prayer held nightly in homes throughout the country, if only the Almighty would grant them a ticket.
We got four tickets.
But that's not the story, it's not even close to the miracle. It's just the heavens warming up. Because, you see, we just get four tickets to the World Cup, we got them for...the Opening Match! Which would be filled with grand celebration and royalty. But thing is -- that's not the story, either. Because, again you see, featured in the Opening Match of World Cup 1968 was a team that it was likely British fans -- so knowledgeable of all the great teams in the world -- would dearly would love to see.
That team was England.
Yes, that's right. By just randomly sending in to the worldwide lottery, we got four tickets to the Opening Match of the World Cup between England and Uruguay, held in London at Wembley Stadium. And here's the thing: no, that's not the sports miracle, either.
I should note that we were very happy to get the tickets. Not "mad-crazy-happy, my life has been made whole" like anyone in England would have been to get those four tickets, but certainly happy. But happy as in, boy, this will be fun. I mean, to be honest, one has to put this in perspective. Wembley Stadium is huge, after all. It seats 90.000 people, which is 80,000 more than the town, Glencoe, we lived in. So, the chances of seeing the match very well were small. And not being mad-crazy soccer fanatics, not being able to see the game very well in the nosebleed section would certainly lessen the majesty of the moment. But still, that didn't matter all that much, since I was pretty young and didn't know the rules of soccer all that well. (I can't speak for the rest of my family, though I suspect I knew more than my mother. You kick the ball and hope it goes in the net.) But just being there in the massive crowd, somewhere, anywhere, amid all the excitement, that would be cool. Just to be able to say we were there. Wherever "there" was.
Where "there" was turned out to be -- okay, are you ready: mid-field, center line, halfway up, directly across the field from where the Queen of England was sitting in the Royal Box.
Okay, that's the sports miracle.
Let me repeat. With the entire world of sports fanatics converging on London, England, for the World Cup, we got four tickets to the Opening Match in which the host country England was playing, seated at midfield halfway up Wembley Stadium across from the Queen of England.
And to be clear, this isn't the fuzzy memory of a little kid recalling things far better than they actually were. Exaggerating for posterity. No, I have photographic evidence.
I took pictures.
(Sorry for the guy's head. I wasn't great at composition at that age.)
Look directly across the field. Do you see that "box" just below the horizontal white line, marking the upper level? That's where the Royal Family is sitting. Directly opposite us. If you look closely, I believe that Queen Elizabeth is waving at you.
I told you I wasn't lying.
It was pretty remarkable. As I said to my dad just a couple days ago, reminding of the story, if he had decided to sell these tickets it would have paid for the entire trip. "And," he added, "your college education. And your brother's."
The crowd, the ceremony, the excitement, the game, it was great. Memorable to one's bones. Absolutely wonderful, historic. There was only one disappointing thing about the match. Ever since I knew we had the tickets, one of the things I was looking forward to seeing was England score a goal amid that maniacal crowd going soul-bursting wild for the home team. (Even at that age, I grasped the concept of such drama.) And the final score of the game between England and Uruguay was...0-0.
Zippo. Or as the soccer folks like to say, "Nil." Or more accurately, nil to nil.
(More action photos from the collection of photo-journalist Robert J. Elisberg. Notice the compositional improvement after many minutes of experience represented here by the lack of heads getting at least completely in the way. Hey, when you're a little kid, people are bigger than you are.)
So, no bursting of massive cheers by the heart-loyal English crowd at the site of the goal for their beloved home team. No cheers over a goal from anyone. On the good side, at least we weren't there to see England lose. In fact, just so you know, the zero goals were not the result of a mediocre team. Indeed, host England went on to win the world championship. They just didn't choose to get any goals that particular day.
Hey, that's the way some miracles go. Sometimes, the fates decide to put the miracle in perspective. After all, you shouldn't take the good and miracle for granted.
But a dozen years before Al Michaels asked the question of sports fans at the Lake Placid Olympics, I had already been able to answer the sports question. Yes, I do believe in miracles.
When I next get together with the Queen, I'm sure we'll swap tales of that day. No doubt it wasn't as much a sports miracle for her -- I'm sure she had an in, or went to a scalper -- but it was nonetheless quite a day of national pomp and circumstance, so I'm sure she had to have written about it in her journal. For all I know, she's got snapshots of me in return.
When talking with my dad about this the other day, he noted one other thing. "How did I get those seats??"
It was a miracle, dad. The greatest sports miracle ever. At least to some people.
Now that there’s a Designated Hitter rule in the National League, I have a prospect for the Cubs --
On this week’s ‘Not My Job’ segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, the guest is Elena Meyers Taylor, the most-decorated Bobsledder in U.S. Olympic history, with five medals – including two in the most recent Games. With charming openness, she answers a lot of questions from host Peter Sagal (and curious panelist Alzo Slade) about Bobsledding, including confirming why I say it’s a sport that keeps my Olympic hopes alive, explaining that after brakemen get in the sled, they do absolutely nothing. And she tells a very funny story about trying to get a “Bronze medal discount” from Wendy’s. (By the way, if Wendy's was really smart, they'd make her a spokesperson and do ads with her.)
This the full Wait, Wait… broadcast, but you can jump directly to the “Not My Job” segment, it starts around the 18:30 mark.
When I saw this tweet today, it seems like it could possibly be another hyperbolic "best...things...ever" kind of thing. But I decided to check it out on the off-chance it was touching.
It went where I never expected, and is flabbergasting.
It begins with a British kid on a rugby field deeply upset that everyone is older than him, everyone's bigger than him. That's where it begins. Where it goes...
And the coach's words he quietly mutters, almost to himself, fit right in.
Happy Maurice Cheeks Day! Here's my annual column explaining why his gracious actions back in 2003 right before an NBA playoff game were so special, along with video of the heartwarming event.
This is the annual reprint of a column originally written on The Huffington Post in 2009. And this year is the 19th 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!. And even more happily, he's back in his hometown. He's currently the assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls. 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...
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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.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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