The first time I saw a LeRoy Neiman painting was in a television commercial. Of this, I am sure, even if I cannot remember the portrait being advertised or how much it was being sold for or even why it was being hawked on cable at that particular moment. It may have been a rendering of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and I may have seen the ad during an episode of Roy Firestone’s Up Close, or I may be conflating my memories, since I believe Neiman often appeared on ESPN during the network’s Australian Rules Football epoch.
Neiman, who died this week at the age of 91, was the most successful sports portraitist of his era, in part because he was the only noted sports portraitist of his era. He was prolific and wildly rich (in a 1985 Sports Illustrated profile, Franz Lidz estimated that Neiman grossed more than $10 million a year — his painting of the 1975 Kentucky Derby was priced at $500,000) and critically reviled. He “makes art for people who don’t like art,” one critic said; “What Howard Johnson’s is to the taste buds, LeRoy Neiman is to the eyes,” a magazine designer said. His paintings are brightly colored and impressionistic and easily appreciated by the masses of Americans who are not patrons of the Metropolitan Museum and who think Mark Rothko was great in The Avengers. His work is as ubiquitous on the bathroom walls of Midwestern sports bars as Monet’s water lilies are on the walls of women’s dorms at East Coast universities.
In today’s NFL, there's a feeling of impermanence surrounding even the best running backs. The value of the position has diminished to the point that teams that draft backs too high or dole out massive contracts are questioned for it, and the thing is, those questions have some merit. The New York Giants won a Super Bowl in February with the league’s worst rushing offense. Two of the league’s best five backs will be coming back from torn ACLs this season. Another took home $30 million guaranteed last offseason before falling off the face of the earth. With every 5,000-yard passer and every running back by committee, there’s an increased fragility in the lifespan of truly dominant backs. That’s why today, as LaDainian Tomlinson ends an unbelievable 11-year career, it feels like an era is ending with it.
It was the spring of 1997, and fans of rock'em sock'em hockey were getting all kinds of fired up. The Red Wings were set to face the Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals, and the series' defining matchup was both brutal and brutally obvious: Detroit's Vladimir Konstantinov had to be the one to counter Philadelphia's Eric Lindros.
The thought of seeing Konstantinov versus Lindros — the Russian defenseman with hits so powerful he was known as Vlad the Impaler against the superstar so bull-in-a-china-shop thunderous that he played on a line nicknamed "The Legion of Doom" — was enough to make even the most hot-blooded shiver. (Also, we need to step it up these days with our hockey nicknames.)
But Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman had his own ideas. Rather than fighting fire with fire, he chose to deprive it of oxygen. And so rather than go with Konstantinov, he opted for Nicklas Lidstrom.
Gary Carter's over the moon, of course. He's just whacked a double over Andre Dawson's head to snap a scoreless tie against the Cubs. The last at-bat of Carter's great career, and he hits a game-winner. The rest of the Expos are also thrilled, predictably.
But the most striking protagonists are the fans. There are 41,802 of them, blowing the roof off Olympic Stadium. It had been an exciting season in Montreal, at least by Expos standards. The team had already been eliminated, though, and Expos fans had shown a tendency to stay away when they had no reason to cheer. Two years earlier, the Expos played their final home game in front of 4,262 die-hards. The year after that, they spent the end of the season on the road, chased from the disintegrating Big O by falling concrete beams.
Not now. Where once there was apathy, now there was bliss.
I was 9 years old in 1992 when Christian Laettner hit his turnaround shot against Kentucky. Duke was already my favorite team, because Duke was the only team with Bobby Hurley. At that time, I was a year or so away from the hard realization that I would never play professional sports. I could still see my future in a tough, scrappy guard like Hurley.
Watching at my dad's house on a Saturday, I remember the panic when Kentucky took the lead on Sean Woods' runner in the lane. And then the elation when Laettner, who hadn't missed a single shot all game, caught the ball, pounded it into the floor as he faked right, and spun left to hit the most famous shot in college basketball history.
My dad wasn't around, so I had my stepmother take me to the elementary school gym. I don't know why I asked her, and I don't know why she agreed. But for an hour, I stood with my back to the foul line while she threw me overhand passes. Catch, fake, spin, shoot. Thinking back, it's one of the few good memories we ever shared.
When the gloriously mulleted and barely 18 years old Mike Modano was drafted no. 1 overall by the Minnesota North Stars in the 1988 NHL Draft, he was so nervous that he stood on stage clutching his new no. 9 jersey in his, as he described them, "clammy and sweaty" hands.
"Put your sweater on!" he was quickly exorted. "Be proud, kid!"
He did, gladly, though that North Stars jersey would not be around for too long. In 1993, two years after the North Stars reached the Stanley Cup Finals with the help of young Modano's 20 playoff points, the team was relocated to Dallas as part of the NHL's push to move hockey beyond the sport's traditional hotbeds.
North Stars owner Norman Green later recalled that he was encouraged to make the move to Dallas by "the only Texan I knew: Roger Staubach." This was apt, both because of Dallas' status as a football-first city and because Modano, the Stars' biggest star, was the closest hockey had to an archetypal All-American quarterback.
In many ways, the world of women’s basketball is like a family. There are feuds. There are moments of great joy. And, of course, there are trying times, like what happened Tuesday, when Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt announced that she suffers from early onset dementia.
In that moment, Summitt’s family rallied around her.
When the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame welcomes Chris Mullin on Friday night, it’ll be worth remembering. Not just because making the Hall is an incredible feat. And not because Dennis Rodman might do something stupid next to him.
On Monday, Randy Gene Moss announced his retirement from the NFL in a one-sentence statement released by his agent. Lost amidst the retirement shock waves was the fact that exactly 15 weeks earlier, Jason Chandler Williams announced his official retirement from the NBA.
In addition to having hilarious middle names, Moss and Williams famously came up together in the early '90s at DuPont High in Belle, W.Va. (they were teammates for two seasons, leading the DuPont basketball team to the state finals in 1994). Moss and Williams' coming together was one of those things that, if it happened now, conspiracy theorists on Twitter would accuse it of being a contrived marketing campaign. Two mercurial rednecks from coal mining country, one white and the other black (they could probably guest host PTI next week), who stayed true to their roots for better and (mostly) worse; they both had equally head-scratching careers, shared one of the five best Nike commercials ever, and retired within a few months of each other. We may never see a phenomenon like this again. More should be made of this.