Skip to content

Was It Not Real?

IS IT POSSIBLE to age-out of your enthusiasm for sports entertainment?

At a lot of stadiums and arenas and fields, you will see at least a few 70-80-90 year olds hobbling to their seats in the stands. But ours is also the first generation to have televised sports in view always. First it was every weekend. Then every day. Then all day and all night. As a result, there’s hardly anything we haven’t seen, heard, or read. There’s literally nothing new under the sun.

As seniors, the sports moments of our youth tend to fascinate us more often, and we ask questions: how did football players perform week after week without checkups for neurological injuries or consideration for CTE, or refusing to reflect on the effect of pain-killing drugs? How did professional basketball manage when playing above the rim was against the rules?

Records are still established, but often they are marked with an asterisk, creating a further barrier denying us our connection with the exploits of the previous century.

All of the things accomplished and peformed by athletes of today are extraordinary. Many of the moments still carry incredible drama. But what happens when you grow tired of all the buildup and the letdowns, and, yes, all of the great scenes, great players, and memorable occasions? When you think back on the times of your youth, followng the teams and players and events that served as mileposts for so much of your life, you begin to confront your mortality, and ask yourself, did it all actually happen? Was it not real?

1977 NBA Finals Fight


In the late 1970s, big men in the NBA were giants, and they played that way.

No self-respecting heir to the legacy of Wilt Chamberlain chose a step-back 20-footer to score.  NBA centers wanted to receive the ball on the block, and dared anyone to get in their way.  Former college coach Al McGuire said a center needed to be “a-gile, mo-bile, and hos-tile.”

Darryl Dawkins fit the mold.  He stood 6-11 and weighed 251 pounds.  His larger-than-life frame strode directly from his Orlando high school home court onto the bright lights of the NBA.  Dawkins matured on the bench for two years before turning into a fierce threat to bend rims and break backboards on a nightly basis.

Maurice Lucas played for McGuire’s Marquette University teams, and opted for the high-style American Basketball Association over the NBA.  When the two leagues merged, Lucas ended up with the Portland Trail Blazers. At 6-9, 215 pounds, he became the face of the newly-invented power forward position, a dominating scorer in the paint who was hard to stop.

Philadelphia and Portland developed a rivalry in the late ‘70s as the best two teams in their respective NBA conferences.  They advanced to meet in a surprise NBA Finals in 1977.  While Philadelphia featured the league’s most dynamic player in Julius Erving, the series was defined by the Lucas – Dawkins matchup, and the two big men squared-off in the Finals’ greatest – and most frightening – fight in Game 2.

The spectacle was appropriately staged in Philadelphia’s Spectrum arena, the setting for the first movie in Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” fighting franchise only two years earlier.  The sheer terror of Lucas and Dawkins squaring-off in a boxing stance left onlookers momentarily frozen in place (Brent Musburger’s “Somebody DO SOMETHING!” is the decade’s most underrated sports broadcasting call).  The team benches cleared, and even a few fans were inspired to join the violence in yet another flash of 1970s sports spectator anarchy.

Both Lucas and Dawkins were ejected from the contest, handily won by the 76ers.  Dawkins took out his frustration by demolishing a bathroom stall in the Philadelphia locker room.  Portland went on to win the Finals, 4 games to 2.

Dawkins’ bulk was no match for the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s height and talent, and the 76ers traded him after a second straight playoff disappointment.  Philadelphia finally won the NBA title a few years later without him.

Sportswriters considered Lucas the winner of the near-brawl with Dawkins, crediting him with shifting the momentum of the Finals in Portland’s favor.

Lucas played for a half-dozen NBA teams during a 14 year career as basketball big men began to retreat from the post, distancing themselves, figuratively and literally, from the center of the ring.

1978 Gator Bowl: Ohio State vs. Clemson

Author Lyman Abbot said, “Every life is a march from innocence, through temptation, to virtue or vice.”  College football took a strong step in its march from innocence on December 29, 1978.

Late in the 1978 Gator Bowl, ABC Sports television captured images of the downfall of two collegiate gridiron legends.  Ohio State trailed Clemson 17-15 in the final moments of a tense game.  Buckeye quarterback Art Schlichter was leading his heavily-favored squad on what was expected to be a desperate, yet game-winning drive.  The mid-Ohio native had suffered 45 interceptions in his career at Ohio State, but he would throw one more, to Tigers’ linebacker Charlie Baumann, and the game ended in violence and chaos.

ABC cameras chronicled the pick that ended Ohio State’s season and, almost by accident,  viewed the subsequent punch to Baumann’s jaw that finished Buckeye coach Woody Hayes’ career. Hayes saw the end of a brilliant run of leadership against Clemson that night.  Schlichter’s troubles were only beginning.

Within 10 years, Schlichter’s professional football career turned into failure.  The NFL suspended him for gambling, the first player to be sanctioned for betting on games since 1963.  He won reinstatement, but his best years as an NFL player were over.  What many sports fans do not know is that Schlichter built a comeback in the early 1990s with the then-fledgling Arena Football League.  He led the Detroit Drive to back-to-back AFL championships and was named the league MVP in 1990.  The former Ohio State star’s addiction seemed behind him.  He appeared on radio and television shows, discussing the dangers of excessive gambling.

But Schlichter’s shocking relapse in the mid-1990s would cost him whatever goodwill he generated, and ultimately took away his freedom as well.  Police arrested Schlichter for illegal gambling activities.  He was convicted, and sentenced to serve time in prisons and jails for offenses related to fraud and forgery.  The former football star sat behind bars intermittently until 2006.  Even after starting a non-profit educational organization to urge up-and-coming athletes not to gamble, Schlichter became involved in a multi-million-dollar ticket scam and later tested positive for cocaine while on probation.  In 2011, he was sentenced to 10 more years in prison on fraud and drug charges.

Schlichter said in one of his interviews that becoming a major celebrity during his collegiate career caused him to doubt himself, and drove him deeper into addiction.  Throwing interception number 46 in the Gator Bowl opened one of the darkest chapters in sports for a college football hero of the 1970s.

Indianapolis 500


Perhaps no other sport underwent as much dramatic change in the 1970s as professional motorsport.  The Indianapolis 500 was the premier auto race in the United States at the time, and designers and engineers managed to let drivers increase competitive speeds from 170 to 193 miles an hour on the 2.5 mile concrete-and-steel ringed circuit.

The mix of speed and danger created an annual can’t-miss lure for television sports fans.  ABC began to broadcast the 500 on a same-day tape delay in 1971, after picking up the event for the first time in 1965.  The network chronicled some of the most arresting sports images of the decade as a result.

Having earned an award-winning reputation for spot sports journalism during the terrorism-interrupted 1972 Munich Olympic games, ABC’s team arrived in Indianapolis for the 1973 race highlighting the rapid increase in technology for the high-velocity open-wheeled cars.  A month of accidents and the death during practice of driver Art Pollard led to an ill-fated race day, which saw several cars involved in a start-line crash that injured drivers and spectators alike.

ABC’s Jim McKay, already a veteran of announcing sporting tragedy in Munich, captured the combination of shock and horror in the prime-time broadcast.  The network continued its coverage of the wreck- and rain-plagued event, which also included the death of a mechanic and a second driver, until it was mercifully ended a few days later.

It is interesting to note the tone of ABC’s Indy broadcasts during the decade.  The network portrayed the 500 as a mid-American tradition run amok, featuring inebriated fans celebrating a late 20th-century bloodsport. If anything, the scene in Europe was worse, with multiple driver deaths occurring in the ’70s.  Two survivors of the motor racing elite, America’s Mario Andretti and Scotland’s Jackie Stewart, successfully pushed through safety mandates that brought sanity to the sport.  Stewart went on to become a stalwart of the ABC Indy broadcasts later in the decade, preaching incessantly about the balance between danger and sports entertainment.  A voice similar to Stewart’s would be welcome for those who see the same conundrum facing American football in the 21st century.

ABC’s contract with the Indianapolis 500 continues to be one of the longest-enduring deals between a sports event and a multimedia producer.  The network’s ability to visually capture the odd pairing of spectacle and sport is still virtually unmatched in American media.

The Future of Football at Super Bowl 50


Professional football fans ushered in the 1970s with an upset win by the Kansas City Chiefs over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.  The 2016 contest brings the number of NFL championship games in the Super Bowl era to an even 50.

In 2066, the National Football League will celebrate Super Bowl 100. That is, if the NFL exists at all.

The last five years have seen increasing concerns about the health of players in the most popular form of sport entertainment in the United States. Post-mortem examinations of deceased former players have shown signs of concussion-related medical issues connected with suicide. Players retire from football careers with permanent injuries ranging from broken backs, ruptured tendons and worse. High school athletes have died on the field of play. The National Football League admitted in federal court that nearly one-third of its retired players will experience cognitive brain damage later in life.

In forthcoming years, American football will face difficult challenges as the health of its participants will continue to clash with the reality of a sport characterized by finely-tuned violence.

It took a President of the United States to curb football violence in the early 20th century. As John J. Miller wrote in The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football,   “(Roosevelt) thought that rough sports were good for boys…he talked about it that way.”  During the 21st century, it won’t be a President deciding the future of the sport. It will be the courts and the health care driving the conscience of a nation forced to conclude if the cost of American football is worth it.

By February 2066, the forecast date for the NFL’s Super Bowl 100, health insurance for sports activities will become so costly that the game known as Full Contact American Football will be played by young people in only a few select states: Alabama, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. The citizens of those states will have decided in referendums to accept legal and medical risks, and approve the legacy form of the sport.

But teams and clubs from every other state and territory, from high school to the professional leagues, will contest a form of American football that will be a combination of two-hand touch, rugby and lacrosse without the sticks. The proving ground for these rules will be the Arena Leagues, and they will prove very popular with the public, with scores of 101-100 happening every weekend.

Quarterbacks will throw for 1000 yards a game. Runners will rip off 75 yard TDs on a regular basis. Decreasing severity of injuries will keep more players in the game, and allow rosters to be cut in half. Playing careers will double in length. Still, due to the continuing influence of the full contact form of football on the university level, Ohio State, Pitt, Florida State, Alabama, Auburn and Texas will dominate the college game. But Pacific Coast schools, led by Nike and other sports apparel companies, will be the best at the new rules.  Men – and women – from those universities and clubs will be among the new athletic heroes of the age.

Yet even with the new rules, the revamped NFL will still struggle for relevance in a sports entertainment landscape that will overwhelmingly favor soccer and basketball.   It will seek inclusion to the Olympics when the Games attempt reinstatement as a global sporting event. Sports fans who don’t feel an attachment to the still-rolling National Hockey League will only be able to recall the old days of violent American football through ancient video saved on digital sticks, thinking back to the days when colossal men risked broken bodies and faded minds through their participation in Super Bowl 50.

Star Wars and Seattle Slew


One of 1977’s biggest sports moments was only brewing when “Star Wars” made its debut on the Memorial Day weekend.

George Lucas’ mega-hit opened on Friday.  Motorsports hero A. J. Foyt won his record-breaking fourth Indianapolis 500 victory two days later.

But the biggest sports sensation for casual fans waiting in lines for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Darth Vader was a colt named Seattle Slew, who began a run at horse racing’s Triple Crown on May 7th.

Seattle Slew established himself as a Derby favorite with big wins in Hialeah and the Flamingo Stakes.  By the time the 3 year old reached Churchill Downs, he was the odds-on favorite.  According to sportswriter Joe Hirsch, “the response to his presence on the racetrack, either for a morning workout or a major race, was electric. ‘Slewmania’ was a virulent and widespread condition.”

Spectators arrived expecting big things from Seattle Slew, but the colt lurched out of the gate like 3-CPO missing his legs and arms.  Jockey Jean Cruguet regained the reins and the horse challenged for the lead at half-distance.  Seattle Slew took control at the top of the homestretch and won the Kentucky Derby.  He then finished first at the Preakness, with a 1 and a half length margin over Iron Constitution.

Meanwhile, “Star Wars” turned into a similar favorite during the summer of 1977.  It gained a reputation for groundbreaking special effects, but its unknown cast and hard-to-define genre (was it science fiction?  Mumbo-jumbo mysticism?  A nostalgic nod to swashbuckling Errol Flynn movies of the 1930s?  Hell, there was even a climactic swordfight of sorts at the end with a dastardly villain in black).  The simple plot featuring pristine heroes and evil bad guys kept moviegoers coming back for return viewings, in a pattern for blockbusters first seen with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” two years earlier.

Seattle Slew’s own blockbuster performance climaxed with the Belmont Stakes, making him the tenth Triple Crown winner.  He never lost a race in nine starts.

The New York Yankees’ Reggie Jackson became “Mr. October” with his 3 homer barrage against the Dodgers in the World Series.  By that time, “Star Wars” was still in the theaters, drawing crowds of multiple viewers. Ultimately, it would be eclipsed — for the moment — by a Brooklyn-set dance drama called “Saturday Night Fever.”

Sports fans only had to wait one year for another Triple Crown winner.  But a new hope for horse racing’s biggest honor wouldn’t be fulfilled until American Pharaoh, 37 years and five Star Wars franchise pictures later.

Bernie Carbo’s 1975 World Series


Bernie Carbo glided into the major leagues as The Sporting News’ Rookie of the Year, drafted by the Cincinnati Reds ahead of Johnny Bench in 1965.  But after ten years, his career had devolved into that of a journeyman hitter, his days of spectacle long past.  The 28-year old still found himself part of the Boston Red Sox squad that ended up playing the Reds in the 1975 World Series.

Carbo struck a pinch-hit home run in Boston’s 6-5 loss to Cincinnati in Game 3.  He unexpectedly ended up at the plate again in Game 6, with the Sox trailing 6-3 and the Reds only 4 outs away from clinching their first World Series title since 1940.

Boston put two men on base with two out in the 8th inning.  Carbo stepped into the batter’s box at the last moment, still expecting Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson to bring Juan Beniquez to the plate as the tying run.  But Johnson chose Carbo to take his chance against steamrolling Reds pitcher Rawly Eastwick.

Eastwick quickly pushed Carbo into a hole, and the Sox outfielder nearly struck out on a swing described in Sports Illustrated as having “all the athletic grace of a suburbanite raking leaves.”  Shockingly, Carbo went yard on the very next pitch, sending Fenway Park fans into delirium.

Carbo’s 3-run blast tied the game, and it stayed deadlocked until Carton Fisk’s legendary home run off the foul pole won it for the Red Sox in the 12th inning.  Boston went on to lose Game 7 to Cincinnati, marking another indignity in the long-running cursed Sox championship history, a mark deepened by Bill Buckner’s error in 1986, but finally erased in 2004.

The homer was a personal highlight for Carbo, who would later delve deep into drug abuse in the ’80s, before turning his life around after his retirement.   But on October 21, 1975, he played a key role in what many baseball historians still list as the greatest game the sport’s ever seen.

1979: The Big East


College basketball’s Big East is only a shadow of what it once was: big markets, big money, and the promise of big-time East Coast athletes staying close to home for the chance at stardom and NBA riches. It’s interesting to look back at some of the schools that made up 1979’s original Big East basketball conference, and how the league’s then-lowly status matched up with the rest of the country.

Like many of the Big East charter members, the Providence Friars were considered an East coast favorite, a regular participant in the National Invitational Tournament and occasional visitor to the NCAAs. Jimmy Walker led the nation in scoring in the early 1970s. The Friars played as an independent, and managed to make the Final Four as an Eastern Cinderella in 1973, only to be vanquished by Memphis State.

College basketball mapmakers generally placed Georgetown’s Hoyas in the middle of nowhere, even though they were located in the nation’s capital. The team’s 2,500 seat McDonough Gymnasium served as evidence for the sport’s enthusiasts that the Big East was not worthy of the moniker “big.” The school changed that when it hired ex-Providence star John Thompson as head coach in 1972. Within a span of 10 short years, Georgetown would ultimately conquer college basketball.

New Jersey’s Rutgers University received an invitation to join the Big East’s inaugural season, and turned it down. If they had accepted, the Scarlet Knights could have said they were the latest conference program to achieve NCAA Final Four status, in 1976. Holy Cross rejected the Big East as well, despite the fact the Crusaders were an NCAA tournament champion, in 1947.

Seton Hall shared the same opening line as many of the other Big East schools: a long history of organized basketball. The Pirates played their first game in 1900. But while the program was long on history, it was short on winning tradition, with its most recent hurrah coming from an 1977 NIT appearance led by coach Bill Raftery.

Few remember that the University of Connecticut Huskies boasted a significant Eastern college basketball pedigree before joining the conference. UConn was a regular in the NCAA tournament during the early 1960s, and made the field again in 1976. No one anticipated that the program, and its proximity to the Big East’s partner-in-crime, ESPN, would yield a perennial championship contender and multiple national titles.

You can’t spell Big East without St. John’s University. The team from Queens was a seasoned post-season powerhouse on the East coast, attracting great players behind coaches Joe Lapchick and Lou Carnesecca. Twenty-win seasons were the norm, and the school ranked among the top in total Division 1 victories.

Syracuse University entered the royal realm of college basketball early, emerging with a dominant program in the early-1960s. Established national programs sought a date with the Orangemen to enhance their status, and the school began a long string of NCAA tournament appearances in 1973.

Finally, Boston College managed to receive an invite to the Big East despite its prominence in a 1978 point-shaving scandal. The Eagles became a charter member of the conference the very next year, giving the Big East its initial cachet as the bad boy clubhouse of college basketball.

Five Baseball Teams That Fell Short of World Series Glory


Some baseball fans want their teams to have the league’s best record. Other baseball fans want their team to have the league’s best record and win the championship. These are the fans who are most likely to be coaxed off a ledge when their team ends the season shy of expectations. In other words, winning every accolade — battling titles, Cy Young awards, top numbers in home runs and RBI — yet still failing to win it all in October.  Or, November.

1973 Cincinnati Reds. At 99-63, the Big Red Machine boasted the best record in baseball, and went into the playoffs against the New York Mets as the favorite to return to the World Series. Cincinnati’s Pete Rose took the batting championship and won the National League MVP award. He also produced the highlight of the series against the Mets with a brawl-inducing slide into New York’s Bud Harrelson. The Mets went on to win the series in 6 games.

1977 Kansas City Royals. The Royals topped the century-wins mark with 102 victories, then ran into the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. They had endured the madcap, violent ending to the previous season’s ALCS in Yankee Stadium with Chris Chambliss’ walk-off-through-the-field-invasion home run. The 1977 encore also went down the final at-bat. This time, a double play ball put KC out of its misery and left Royals fans heartbroken.

1985 St. Louis Cardinals. A regular season finish of 101-61 sent the Cards into the playoffs behind stellar rookie Vince Coleman. Coleman grabbed Rookie of the Year honors and seized more stolen bases than anyone in the majors. But it would be the cross-state Kansas City Royals who would steal the stage in the World Series, thanks to a stunning Cardinals collapse aided by umpire Don Denkinger’s controversial call.

1980 New York Yankees. The Yanks late-1970s dynasty finally ran out of steam after a 103-59 regular season. Fittingly, the arch-rival KC Royals delivered the coup de grace with a 3-game ALCS sweep. The Yankees would not appear in the World Series again for 16 years.

1979 Baltimore Orioles. Delusional Baltimore fans actually thought the Orioles and their gaudy 102-57 record would top the feel-good championship story of the decade. Willie “Pops” Stargell and the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Orioles in a World Series that went the 7-game distance. Ironically, the same two teams opened the decade with a 7-game showdown in 1971, and the Pirates won that one, too.

1977: Journalist Melissa Ludtke at the World Series

Melissa Ludtke

Amid the collegiate conference realignments, confrontational morning talk show hosts, and countdown highlight lists, there’s one thing TV sports fans can always count on:  the live cut-in interview conducted by a young female sideline reporter.

But all of today’s Samantha Ponders and Erin Andrews owe a debt of gratitude to 1970s sports journalism trailblazers like Melissa Ludtke.

More than any other American sport, tradition-bound baseball is typically the last to embrace change. Such was the case in 1977, when Sports Illustrated reporter Ludtke found herself in the lead-off spot, battling for equal access in the clubhouse at the World Series.

Ludtke had already broken some male-only barriers by reporting on the Mets and the Yankees in New York City, and fate ordained the Yankees and the Dodgers would meet in the World Series.  Yankees manager Billy Martin had previously allowed Ludtke access to his clubhouse office, and when Ludtke approached the Dodgers, the LA team sent the matter to a players’ vote.  They gave their approval, and that should have meant Ludtke would be the first woman to cover baseball’s crowning event with the same status male sportswriters had enjoyed for decades.

Instead, Major League Baseball barred Ludtke from entering the clubhouse, citing a litany of bizarre reasons.

Ludtke, and SI parent company Time, Inc., filed suit against the league, and won.

At the time, fewer than 30 women journalists covered sports.  According to an Associated Press Sports Editors study in 2006, women made up nearly 13 percent of sports reporting staffs, and five percent of sports editors were women.

And as Ludtke herself recalls, in the crazy atmosphere of the Red Sox’s historic 2007 American League championship celebration, the league official who presented the championship trophy inside the winners’ locker room was a woman.

Hardly anyone noticed.