Monday, March 30, 2009

24 Hours in LA

One big advantage to having a 25-year-old son in LA is you get access to the sightseeing expertise of his 24-year-old girlfriend, Lindsay, and can have a heckuva good time in a city that I had previously dismissed as a tourist destination that might appeal to me. Within 20 minutes of Korea's Yu-Na Kim winning her first world title, I had already filed my story to Sports Illustrated so we could hustle off to La Fonda on Wilshire Blvd., to eat some Mexican chow and listen to the 9 pm show of a live 10-piece mariachi band. La Fonda was founded in 1969, and its reputation is such in the Mexican community that at the next table a trio of musicians from a different mariachi band, still in costume from having just performed at another restaurant, had come to have dinner and watch the show. There were dancers, too, a fuzzy photo of which, taken with my cell phone, is above. At the table to my right was a couple about my age from El Salvador and their twenty-something son. They told us they had come there on their first date, 40 years ago, and now were returning for their anniversary. At the conclusion of the first set a man hauled his very pregnant girlfriend onto the stage and proposed to her from his knees. To the fanfare of trumpets, she accepted. It was a very colorful evening.
In the morning my wife, Sally, and I walked to Pacific Dining Car,at 1360 6th Ave. an old railroad car that has served as a 24 hour eatery since 1921. The waiters are in white coats and ties, the chairs are cushioned in deep green velour, the tables have real silver and white tablecloths, and the food is delicious. It looks like it comes straight from the heydey of the Pullman Cars of the late 19th century. I had a roast beef hash that could have choked Dick Butkus--the "hash" came in two-inch cubes of roast beef, topped by poached eggs. Sally had scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and goat cheese. The OJ was fresh and the coffee, poured from a silver plated coffee pot, was superb. It also offers free shuttle service to the Staples Center, if you want to go there for dinner, and its wine list is highly recommended by the Wine Spectator.
From there we drove to the Hollywood Forever Cemetary, where we strolled past the grave sites of Peter Lorre, John Huston, Tyrone Power, and others. Of note was the reflecting pool leading to the marble memorial wall of Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It looked like something Caesar would have built for himself. Douglas Fairbanks even had an olive wreath around his head, which was bronzed, in relief, against the marble. A pair of ducks had made the pool their home, so it no longer reflected quite as purely and pristinely as the Fairbanks' would have liked.
To the Hollywood Museum in the Max Factor Building at 1660 N. Highland Ave. Lots and lots of stuff, somewhat haphazardly displayed, but strong on their Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. We learned Marilyn's measurements, according to her dressmaker, were 35-23-35. She wore a 36-D bra, was 5'5" and weighed 118 lbs. One quote of hers that was prominently displayed: "It's better to live unhappily alone than unhappily with somebody else."
Next, a bloody Mary at the Tropicana Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where the beautiful people were sitting around in shades, and in at least one case, posing for pictures in a sequined bikini that she should not have been wearing without airbrushing away 30 lbs. That fueled our next tourist stop: a trip to Grauman's Chinese Theater at 6801 Hollywood Blvd. where generations of stars have sunk their feet in cement. Since I was there on a figure skating assignment, I took the picture below:

Sonja Henie! We learned that Mary Pickford, mother of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and wive of Caesar, had tiny, tiny feet. Maybe a 2. I have small (size 8) feet myself, and was surprised how many Hollywood legends also had small feet. Gene Kelley, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra all had size 8 or smaller. Arnold Schwarzeneggar wore cowboy boots when he stepped in cement.
Finally, dinner at the Hungry Cat on 1535 Vine. St. A hole in the wall, out of the way seafood place that is absolutely fantastic, and a great value. Octopus salad, fish chowder, wine, grappa, and...ah, ready for bed. A great 24 hours in LA!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

World Figure Skating--an icon slams the scoring system

It's Sunday, the day after the fantastically talented Korean Yu-na Kim won her first world championship in record breaking fashion (207.71 points!--first woman to break 200!) and this will be the first of several posts I send discussing the current state of figure skating. As I see it, anyway.
So you were supposed to be caught short by those numbers in the opening paragraph. 207.71! First woman to break 200! What the hell's that? Who can relate to that nonsense? So next year Kim actually gets credit for her final spin, which she didn't on Saturday night, and breaks the 210 point barrier? So what? This numerical scoring system that ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta railroaded through after the judging scandal of the Salt Lake City Olympics will never pack the visceral punch of 6.0, 6.0!! That, people got. All people. Casual fans, aficionados, skaters, coaches and judges. Greatness, perfection, meant 6.0. Anything short of greatness was 5.9, 5.8, 5.7, whatever. Simple, understandable, and ultimately effective--as long as the judges didn't cheat. Skating is a subjectively judged sport. Yet this new system, in place since 2005, treats skating as if it is objectively quantifiable, like the temperature. It's not. There are guidelines to follow, of course, but the beauty and skill of figure skating is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Cinquanta is a speedskater. Speedskaters measure winners and loser by 100ths of a second on a stopwatch. Figure skating is not, and never will be, precisely quantifiable. Yet this new system is based on the belief that it can be.
Okay, so here's the part where I introduce the icon. Inducted into the world figure skating hall of fame this weekend was two-time Czech world champion Alena Vrzanova, known to her friends as Aja (pronounced: Ay-yah). She won worlds in 1949 and 1950, and is best known for two things: 1) She's credited for being the first woman to land a double lutz in competition; 2) She was the first world champion from an Eastern bloc country to defect to the West.
Tall and brunette, she is still fit, sharp, and funny. I was lucky enough to sit with her at one of the women's practices, and asked her why there were no great women Czech skaters today. "No heroes," Aja said. "That's why there will be many great Korean and Japanese skaters coming along. They have heroes like Yu-na Kim and Mao Asada to look up to. Young girls in Czech Republic have no one to look up to."
I asked her how she got started skating. "My mother was a skier, and when I was a small girl, I was a skier. That's what I wanted to be. But then the Germans invaded and took over the mountains, so we couldn't ski anymore. My mother said, let's try skating. I hated it the first year. Hated it. But then I started to win some competitions when I was seven or eight, and then I liked it."
Vrzanova now lives in New York City and Miami, after spending years touring in the Ice Capades. I asked her how she liked the new scoring system. "Hate it! We all hate it!" She was referring to the fellow hall of famers she was seated near, a cast that included Dick Button. Her reasons were similar to those I mentioned above, plus the fact that many of the beautiful spins skaters used to do--a simple scratch spin for example--are seldom done anymore, because they don't have a high enough level of difficulty. And some of the difficult Level 4 spins, like the one where a woman holds her leg in front of her and above her head, are just plain gross. Unladylike in the extreme. Aja spoke longingly of the commonality of the 6.0 system. "When competitions used to come to my country, I would sit with the president of the Czech Republic, and he would say to me, 'Aja, let's keep score. Me against you.' And he'd take out his notepad, and write down 5.6, 5.7 after a skater, and I'd write down 5.7, 5.8, and we'd argue about who was right. Then the judges would put up their marks, and if they were different, we'd boo. And that's what everyone was doing in their heads. It was great fun. Now? Who knows? We were watching Patrick Chan's short program last night. Just beautiful. And the scores came out, and they were lower than the Frenchman's. But no one knew why. We just sat there and wondered--ex-skaters at the highest level, and we had no idea what the numbers meant. Only that Chan had been perfect, but he was in third. And if we had no idea why, imagine the ordinary spectator's confusion."
I asked her if she ever watched "Dancing With the Stars."
"All the time," Aja said. "I love it. That show totally gets it. The scores are 10, or 9, or 8. The fans understand it. They can agree or not agree. And the moves they do in those dances are very good and very difficult. It's just the scores that are simple."
So the sport of figure skating wrings its collective hands and wonders why sponsors have fled and rating numbers are down? While reality TV shows like Dancing with the Stars are ratings hits week after week, season after season? Dumb it down, people. Go back to the visceral, unique, and ultimately better 6.0 scoring system. It's part of skating's DNA.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mountain Biking in Vermont with Malc

I promise that this blog isn't just going to be reprints of my old stories, but I just learned that one of my new readers is Bob Brown, who used to be the outdoors and recreation editor at Sports Illustrated. He did other sports as well, but Bob was a keen fisherman who used to catch stripers in Long Island Sound before coming into work. About once a year he sent me on a fishing story, once to Belize to look for permit; once to the Azores to try to catch a blue marlin; once to Idaho to go hunting and fishing with Jack Hemingway, Ernest's oldest son. All were among my most memorable trips.
It was while cooking up another such assignment on the phone that he asked me what I'd been up to. I happened to have just returned from a painful and embarrassing mountain bike experience with my old friend, Malcolm Cooper, in Vermont. Turned out it was so painful and embarrassing that Bob was howling with laughter at the other end of the line. He told me: Swift, you've got to write that up. So I did. And this is the story that resulted. It's one of my favorites:

Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 13, 1988

Shake, Rattle And Roll

Falling off a mountain bike hurts less than staying on

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

When a cold drizzle taps against my windowpane, when my knees are stiff and my muscles ache and the mudroom is spattered with clumps of greasy clay. I figure it must be mountain-bike weather. Time to lock the door and take the phone off the hook and pray to God that Malcolm doesn't find me.

I have a mountain bike. I had the mumps once, too. I got over the mumps and. in a few years, I'll probably get over my experience on a mountain bike. I might actually ride one again, if three grown men and a boy happen to catch me and hog-tie me to the seat.

Once upon a time I enjoyed riding my mountain bike, enjoyed crunching along on the back roads and rutted paths of rural Vermont. The bike was a birthday present from my wife, and it conjured up recollections of my first bicycle, which also had fat tires and straight handlebars. Those memories vanished, however, once old pal Malc invited me to ride one morning with him and a couple of friends.

Malc is a real Vermonter. He's no yuppie transplant like most mountain bikers. He tells lousy jokes, can't pitch shoes and is the worst golfer in the free world. (He plays in a sheep meadow and looks as though he's killing snakes.) But he can ride a mountain bike till the cows come home. "Meet us tomorrow morning at seven." he said. "Rain or shine."

I had just finished covering, of all things, the Tour de France for this magazine and was in miserable shape. "Malc." I told him. "for the last four weeks the most exercise I've had is pulling an escargot from its shell."

"No problem." he said. "We'll take it easy on you."

A misty drizzle was falling the next morning. I put on my biking shorts, a T-shirt, tennis shoes and a baseball cap. and I threw my poncho in the backseat of the car. Imagine my surprise when I drove over to Malc's and found that his two mountain biking friends, whom I shall call Zeppo and Moon, were dressed for a hockey game. They were wearing helmets, padded gloves, elbow pads and shin guards.

Zeppo smiled at me as if I were standing before him stark naked. "How far you want to go? Short loop or long?"

"Whatever," Malc said.

"Whatever," I added, like an ass.

"O.K.," said Zeppo.

Vermonters, I already knew, were not long on chitchat. Moon and Zeppo took off across Malc's sheep pasture. Malc was right behind them. I was last. In about 30 seconds we were riding through a blackberry patch.

I hunt through a lot of blackberry bushes in the fall. I wear reinforced trousers, a long-sleeved chamois shirt, a hunting vest and heavy boots when I do so, and still I return home torn to tatters. Hurtling pell-mell into a blackberry patch on a mountain bike in a T-shirt and shorts is a different experience entirely. You can actually hear your skin tearing—rrripp...rrripp—above the whir of the spokes. "Hey. Malc.... Hey, Malc! ...Aiiejeeminy owwwwww.... What in the heck!" I'm fairly sure I did not actually say "What in the heck."

"Should have worn something on those legs," Zeppo said when he finally stopped and got a look at me.

"Whatever." I said, panting. I probably hadn't lost more than a pint of blood, and I had more pressing concerns, like, how do I get away from these guys without losing face? They blithely tossed their bikes over a barbed-wire fence and jumped over it themselves. We were not on a road or a path of any sort. We were in the midst of a field of nettles.

"Ouch. Man. what is this stuff?" I said, scratching my bleeding legs.

Malc, too, was wearing shorts, but Vermonters are impervious to discomfort. "Let's get out of here." he said with a laugh.

Zeppo and Moon zoomed away. Malc explained that they were training for a big race, a sort of cross-country expedition on mountain bikes. Zeppo and Moon looked like those motocross demons you see on television, skidding around corners, flying through the air at the tops of rises and pedaling full speed through the dips. They jumped fallen logs without slowing, forded creeks and crashed through groves of young alders. They were out of sight in a jiffy, with Malc hot on their trail. I followed their tire marks as best I could. I was having a problem with one of my gears—the lowest one, the one you need for hills. It would skip a link every third turn. Pedal, pedal, thunk! Pedal, pedal, thunk! I was also having trouble jumping those logs. I would stand on the pedals, throw my weight back and pull up on the handlebars. The front tire would rise, oh, four inches, just about to the middle of the log. Crunkk! Impaled on the bar. I would teeter painfully before falling. After a few moments of therapeutic cursing. I would disentangle myself, lift the bike over the log and proceed.

The creeks were a problem, too. Fat, studded tires do not grip on slimy, moss-covered stones. So I waded a lot. When I did make it across on my trusty mountain bike, I would invariably encounter a bank on the far side that looked like a sliding chute for otters. I would make it halfway up, far enough to peek over the edge, and then I would hear the awful sound of my front tire being sucked in by the wet clay as I gracefully slid backward into the stream.

I had not seen the others for a long time. I thought perhaps I had lost them, but—worse luck—Malc was waiting for me in a clearing. "I'm having some problems with a gear." I said.

"Zeppo can fix it," said Malc.

Zeppo and Moon were waiting a little way ahead. They seemed to be a bit fresher than I was. And a bit more relaxed. For instance, they were smoking one of those funny cigarettes. "No thanks," I said. "I'm way ahead of you. I'm already hallucinating."

Zeppo put some oil on my chain and tried to loosen the stiff link, while Moon pointed to the steep hill two bogs away. "We call that monster Alien." he said. I nodded, but not appreciatively enough.

"Want to know why?" asked Moon.


"It eats your guts."

"Eats 'em," Zeppo said, laughing.

"Eats 'em right up," added Moon.

I was beginning to wonder why these guys wore helmets. There was obviously nothing to protect. "Let me at the Alien." I said.

Zeppo and Moon thought that was pretty damn funny, and we took off howling, everyone's mood much improved. My chain began slipping again partway through the first bog. When I got off to push. I sank in up to my knees. "Malcolm, don't you know any roads around here?" I said.

"Talk to those guys," he replied, laughing as a stream of muddy water rooster-tailed up his chest.

Once I had plodded through the second bog. I hopped back aboard my bike, pleased that my shredded legs had not attracted leeches. Even with a running start. I had made it only about 40 yards up Mount Alien when a brushfire started in my calf muscles. Before I knew it, the fire was raging through my thighs. I got off and pushed. Malc made it halfway to the top, Zeppo, three quarters of the way. Moon got to within 10 feet of the summit before giving up.

"Sixty times, I've probably tried it." Moon said. "Only rode all the way to the top once."

"Can't do it when it's wet," Zeppo added.

"I almost did." said Moon.


"Real close."

"You guys go ahead." I said. "I'll follow at my own pace."

"Hell, all downhill from here." Zeppo said.

"Sure. Hard part's behind us."

Well, yes and no. The rest of the trip was mostly downhill, all right, but what no one ever tells you about mountain biking is that the downhill part is just as hard as the uphill part. Only more dangerous. "That's pretty steep." I said, peering down the back side of the Alien.

"Here we go!" said Moon.

"Here we go!" said Zeppo.

Down they flew, fending off rocks with their feet, bouncing over gullies and outcroppings. They were out of sight in about two seconds, but Malc and I could hear them yahooing like banshees. Malc sensed that I was near some sort of limit. "Just take it slow," he told me.

"Whatever." I said. Pointing my bike downhill, I eased forward, clamping down on both brakes as hard as I could. As hard as I could. "Malc, I can't stop," I said. The tires weren't turning, but the bike still slipped downhill on the wet grass. Big boulders were all around.

"Use your feet!" he said.

I stretched them out, but they dangled uselessly several inches off the ground. The bike bounced over several stones, rattling my molars, until I lurched to a stop after hitting a small boulder. My handlebars were getting up close and personal with my spleen. "Lower your seat when you go downhill." Malc said, adjusting its height as I lay on the grass and grunted.

He took off while I was still catching my breath. So precarious was the pitch of the slope that even Malc took a header. He hopped back up laughing, of course. Having walked my bike up that accursed hill. I now walked it down. My legs were like noodles. My muscles twitched painfully while sweat gushed from my scalp into my eyes. Through the glaze of salt I could see that I had reached a hillside of trees and that three bodies, sitting astride their bikes, were waiting for me at the bottom.

My pride started to swell. I could not walk my bike the entire way home. I would show the bastards. Standing on the pedals. I reassumed my seat and eased up on the brakes. I picked up speed and plummeted down a slope I would not have attempted on horseback. Dodging between two trees. I misjudged a turn by an inch or so and hit a 100-year-old maple with the handlebars. It spun the front tire sideways and tossed me to the ground.

"Take it slow," Malc yelled.

"Do it, do it, do it!" shouted Zeppo.

"Wild man!" Moon screamed.

I pointed the bike downhill again and eased up on the brakes. Snaking through a grove of pines, I progressed at a more reasonable pace. It wasn't fun, but it was mountain biking. I was in control. I was free to go any route I chose, unfettered by traffic or pedestrians. This is what brings them back, I was thinking, just before I struck a fallen tree.

The front tire hit the log, pitching the entire bike upward until it was vertical, catapulting me over the handlebars and onto my back. "Wild man!" screamed Moon.

"Do it, do it, do it!" shouted Zeppo.

O.K., I thought. So I wouldn't show them I didn't have to die out here, did I? I picked up the bike and walked, it the rest of the way down the hill.

"Watch out for the electric fence." Moon said.

I saw it and nodded. It was a three-feet-high single strand off to the side of them, out of my path. "You know, I haven't fallen off a bicycle in 20 years, and I've fallen off 94 times today." I said, between pants.

"Watch out for the electric fence." Zeppo said.

"I see the damn thing." I told him. Pride goeth before an electrocution. I had indeed seen the single-strand fence but failed to notice that it turned a corner. Zzzappp!

"Ahhhhhhh!" I jumped, a painful tingle throughout my body. Zzzappp!

"Ahhhhgoddd!" I jumped again, befuddled and hurt. Zzzappp!

It took my breath away. My god, I was having a heart attack. Why were they laughing? Zzzappp! "Ahhhhggggg!" I cried out despite myself. Dying at 34 was funny? Zzzappp! I suddenly realized that the frame of my bike was resting against the electric fence, transmitting each pulse of current through my hands, over each inch of my wet skin, into my enlarged pores, through my engorged capillaries, veins and ventricles until it shot out my eyeballs. I could not have been a better conductor had I been wearing graphite underwear. I tried to open my hands, failed and had a terrible moment to anticipate the next shock through the handlebars—"Aiiieeeee!"—before, with an anguished cry, I leapt backward and fell on my rump.

Zeppo and Moon convulsed with laughter. Their heads were shaking inside their helmets like a couple of maracas. "I want to go home," I said to Malc, clutching my chest. It was one of the few times in my life I have fiat-out quit. "Just tell me how to get home."

You live and learn. You almost die, and you learn, too. I had survived, and that's about the nicest thing I can say about mountain biking. It doesn't always kill you. Those of you who mountain bike on a regular basis—especially those of you who wear helmets—already know that. Are you listening, Zeppo and Moon? Anybody home?

This story isn't really for them, anyway. This story is for all you fortunate people who have never been on a mountain bike. Take my advice and keep it that way. And the next time some devotee of off-trail biking corners you at a cocktail party and describes the freedom of cycling through forests, of coasting silently down hillsides, away from exhaust fumes and noise, respectfully suggest to that starry-eyed pedaler that he take a hike.

(p.s.: That's the story. Malc read it on this site and responded in typical Malc fashion: "So I went to your dumbass blog and see that you are still slandering me in public. Zeppo is still crazed as ever. I think he has not missed a day of biking or x-c skiing in 18 years, sick, work, traveling, nothing stops him. Word is he still self-medicates with the whacky weed daily. He definitely looks like he has been rode hard and put away wet. Moon on the other hand has become a middle aged responsible parent, though I hear he is still a pretty tough man on a bike. Of course I have gotten fat and laze and old. 60 this fall, sounds like the end of life. Though apparently I made you hate cycling, you are largely responsible for hooking me in early middle age on your sport. I play in two hockey leagues in Manchester, Vt. I am still not much good but sweat a lot.
I still smile at the thought of you being electrocuted.")

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cheryl Tiegs photo

From time to time I'll share some stories (and perhaps pictures) from some of the swimsuit shoots I've been on. Let's see: Thailand Fling (a better cover title would have been Babes in Thailand) with Elle MacPherson, an Argentinian estancia with Molly Sims and Heidi Klum, bonefishing in Los Rocques (Venezuela) with Niki Taylor, sailing in the Virgin Islands with Heidi again...I've been lucky.
But first the story behind Cheryl Tiegs in the fishnet suit, which can be found at the end of my previous blog about the first story I sold to SI--perhaps the most famous swimsuit photo ever taken. Certainly it was so at the time...first nipples in the pages of SI. Caused quite a stir. A few years ago the longtime swimsuit editor, Jule Campbell, retired and was thinking about doing a book with me. She told me the story behind it. The shot was a total accident.
Walter Iooss was the photographer, and Walter is the best. They were down in Brazil, and they were working with two models, Cheryl being one. Walter was spending most of his time and efforts with the other model, the local Brazilian, and Cheryl was getting pissed. She also had to catch a plane home. So after Walter spent hours on an elaborate picture involving the other model, bananas, a dugout canoe, and cute little brown Brazilian children, Jule Campbell finally told him he had just 15 minutes for a shot of Cheryl in this new swimsuit in a nearby lagoon. So they hustled over, Cheryl donned the suit, waded out into the water, then walked out of the water toward Walter. He took the picture. He took a couple more. That was it. Off to the plane.
It was only after they'd returned to New York that they discovered that when the suit got wet, it became see-through. There were Cheryl's nipples, plain to see. Nothing else to the picture. No background that said Brazil. No props. Just water. Could have been taken in Long Island. Walter hated it. Jule REALLY hated it. But back in the NY offices, the dirty old SI editors LOVED it, so it ran. And it cemented Cheryl Tiegs' career as a supermodel.

Friday, March 13, 2009

My first story published by SI

I get asked this a lot: How did you get started writing at Sports Illustrated? Usually it's followed by a reference to a son, daughter, or acquaintance who loves sports and would love to write for SI. Well, the answer is I sold them the story of the Princeton hockey team of 1970-71. I was the goalie, and we went 1-22--at the time the worst record in the history of Div. 1 college hockey. By 1978, I'd been able to digest the humor and the humanity of that losing season. I wrote a story about it and, when a friend of mine read it who was an old, magazine pro, he asked if he could show it around. I said he could. He showed it to an editor at SI, who bought it for $750. It was Jan. 1978. The piece ran in the swimsuit issue that happen to feature Cheryl Tiegs in a wet fishnet suit: the first nipples to ever appear in the pages of Sports Illustrated. No one ever threw that issue out, and many people eventually read my article, which ran adjacent to the swimsuit pictures. It was entitled: Practice Didn't Make Perfect. Here it is:
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 16, 1978

Practice Didn't Make Perfect

For the 1970-71 Princeton hockey team, the reward for all its hard work came to one victory and 22 defeats

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

They didn't arise singly but en masse. All 2,543 of them were suddenly on their feet, cheering madly, applauding, as the worst hockey team in Princeton's history left the ice for the last time. I caught a glimpse of Copper. Despite the loss, he broke into a grin from ear to ear and had a shine to his eyes that nearly brimmed over.

I suppose Vince Lombardi might have said that the 1970-71 Princeton hockey team had a 1-0 season. The Eastern College Athletic Conference records show it as 1-22, but the ECAC operates under the premise that winning is not the only thing and that losses also count. Whatever, Princeton lost a lot.

But the team didn't lose because of a lack of talent. I would not be writing this if it had been the worst team on the ice in 22 of its 23 games. It lost because there is a kind of art to losing, and the Princeton players excelled in that art. There is also an art to quitting, but they never discovered that. We waited and waited, but they never quit. They never figured out why they lost, either, which I guess is why they kept plugging.

My roommate was the goaltender. His first name was Copper—I don't know why. I worry about Copper sometimes, worry what suffering through such a season at the tender age of 19 might have done to him. But he's all right. He hasn't played hockey in five years, which is part of it. I asked him once to write down his thoughts on losing.

Here's what I got: "Losing teaches a person humility. It also teaches him that not all the goals in life are to be gained—that to try and try again is often man's fate. That's worthwhile to know.

"But there's a difference between losing and never winning. Never winning is wicked. Never winning teaches a man about injustice. It makes him question God. We practiced just as hard the year we went 1-22 as we would have had we gone 22-1. Harder, because it wasn't fun. Because it was torture. I had always thought that hard work was rewarded. That practice made perfect. It wasn't, and it didn't. Never winning is for the birds, if you hate birds."

The Princeton hockey team in 1970-71 was not supposed to never win. It began the season with high hopes. A solid core of lettermen had returned, supplemented by a wave of sophomores from such Canadian hockey hatcheries as Moose Jaw, Sask., and Kapuskasing, Ont. The coach was Bill Quackenbush, former Boston Bruin and Detroit Red Wing defenseman, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Preseason scrimmages went well, and the players looked forward eagerly to the opening game.

They lost it. They lost their first six.

I draw a line at six not because they were to win their seventh, but because they were reprieved by Christmas vacation. Those first six games were different from the rest of the year, because the team had yet to achieve that losing attitude. The players were appalled by those early defeats. They were playing good hockey and losing made them angry. Quackenbush fumed and raged.

That was before the holidays. Somehow, the respite gave the players time to accept the idea of being winless. An 0-6 record did not seem so bad after eating roast goose at Christmas dinner. The team's troubles seemed trivial when compared to, say, those suffered by Joseph and the Virgin. Or the goose.

In their first game after Christmas, they were blown out of the rink by Wisconsin, 9-0. No fumes. No rage. Their sojourn down the losing way had begun in earnest.

In subsequent weeks the team experimented with different types of defeat: lopsided ones, seesaw ones, dull, listless ones in which even the winners seemed to be losers for participating. Princeton tried to play cleanly, and when that failed it played dirty, and the players were both cursed at and laughed at by their opponents. Through it all, they lost.

What is a losing attitude? For Princeton, it was taking the lead and wondering, "How will we blow it this time?"

Against Clarkson (ranked second in the East) Princeton held a 4-1 lead near the end of the second period. A three-goal lead is dizzying to a team without a win. In the closing moments of that period Princeton stole the puck and had a three-man breakaway. As the players raced unmolested into the Clarkson zone, the line, dizzily, went offside.

It was a bad play, but Princeton still had a three-goal lead with only a little bit more than a period to play. The team, however, reacted to the offside as a losing team would. In the minute left in that second period Clarkson scored twice.

"What happened?" I asked Copper between periods.

Copper shrugged. "Any team that puts itself offside on a three-man breakaway is too stupid to beat Clarkson."

"You're still ahead," I reminded him.

He thought about that for a moment. "Doesn't seem like it."

It didn't. It never did when the Princeton team was ahead. It was like jumping a man in checkers and knowing you were going to be double-jumped back. Clark-son won, 6-4.

In another bizarre loss, Princeton and Brown were tied 5-5 in the final seconds of the game when a floating shot from the right point inexplicably eluded Copper. It was the last shot of the game.

He was not the sort of person to make excuses. When I pressed him on the matter, he kept saying, "Just skip it." Finally I got him to explain. "I lost the damn puck in the black of an umbrella," he said. Then he shook his head. "I think. Hell, I don't know. That's what it looked like." He shook his head again with finality. "Don't print that. Couldn't have been an umbrella. I look stupid enough."

I didn't print it, but when I stepped outside, it was pouring.

The best defenseman Princeton had, a player whom I shall call Chad Clarke, suffered from an acute hatred of the war in Vietnam. It touched all facets of his life, even hockey. Before a game against West Point, Clarke sat trancelike on the bus. Every once in a while he would deliver a short, savage statement: "Let's kill those Fascist skin heads tonight!" or "They won't be taking on any rice-eating peasants this time!"

Clarke was not himself, and Quackenbush should probably have kept him on the bench that game. In the first minute of play, he pumped a rebound past Copper while trying to clear the puck behind the net. He had scored a goal for the United States Military Academy. When that sunk in, Clarke began a barrage of treasonable offenses with his Sher-Wood stick, spent a lot of time in the penalty box and Army scored five power-play goals en route to a 7-2 win.

Quackenbush seldom raised his voice after those first several games. He preferred to put the blame on the opposing teams' luck or, finally, the officials' incompetence. Referees and linesmen cost the Princeton hockey team 22 victories in 1970-71. Whoever he blamed it on, Quackenbush had accepted defeat, too. The losing attitude even infected the opposition. Princeton entered a game with so little confidence that it instilled a feeling in its foes that nothing could go wrong. Nothing ever did. Before one game, Harvard's Bobby McManama, who later played with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was grinning ear to ear.

"What's the joke?" asked a perplexed Art Schmon, a Princeton centericeman.

"I'm thinking about all the points I'm going to get tonight," McManama responded truthfully.

Sixty minutes later the Harvard star had a goal and three assists.

Copper heard the story afterward and shook his head. "He who laughs first is not supposed to laugh best," he said.

As the losses kept coming tempers grew short, and fights became commonplace in practice. One in particular stands out. It was between the Princeton captain, Tom MacMillan, and the star forward. Jack McNab. Like most fights in hockey, this one was largely a flurry of missed punches, but when the two were broken apart Copper saw each skate away grumbling that he had lost the skirmish because the one had done this or the other had done that. It's possible for both participants to lose a fight, but I had never before heard of both admitting to being beaten.

As the season dragged along, a new strategy was developed. Where some teams try to sit on a one-or two-goal lead, Princeton began protecting a one-or two-goal deficit. Most of the time this tactic failed, but if by chance it succeeded and the game was still close when it ended, the players were all smiles. "Nice loss," they would announce to one another. It wasn't that they had quit. That's an important distinction to make. They had simply started setting their sights a little lower than most teams.

The darkest hour came against Boston University, that year's national champion. The game was played in the decrepit Boston Arena, an appropriate setting for a contest that ended 14-0. It was Princeton's 11th consecutive defeat, a university record. The team would match that record later in the season.

BU scored five goals in the first period, the most Copper had ever let slip by him in a single session. In the second period BU scored six. There were 56 shots on Copper's goal in the first two periods. The puck was never out of the Princeton zone. Between periods the Zamboni driver needed to clean only one end of the ice. At the other end there were only six or eight coasting tracks left by BU defensemen who went to retrieve the puck after Princeton had iced it.

Between the second and third periods, Copper went into the trainer's room and fell asleep from exhaustion. As the team filed out for the final 20 minutes, Quackenbush asked me to roust him out.

I shook him gently, and Copper sat bolt upright. "It's not over, is it?" he said.

"No. They're waiting."

"Maybe they'll start without me." he said hopefully. But he hopped off the table and started toward the locker room door. "What's the score?"


He thought for a moment. "Maybe I can keep them out of the teens," he said and went out to the ice.

When BU scored its 13th goal with a little more than a minute remaining, I saw Copper stare fixedly down at the ice for a long while. His shoulders sagged, and a fire went out.

The 14th tally was the first easy shot to get by him. Copper just blew it. He'd flat run out of personal goals for that game, and a person needs them, no matter how lowly.

On the bus ride home we sat together. He was keyed up, still thinking about the game, and I kept trying to change the subject. We got to talking about books.

"Have you ever read The Red Badge of Courage?" he asked me. I had. "I felt like Henry Fleming tonight," he said. "They had my number listed wrong in the program. The fans thought I was John Miller. [Miller had left the team a month earlier.] They kept yelling, 'Miller, you stink!' " Copper smiled for the first time in the bus ride. " 'He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.' That's what Crane said about Fleming after he deserted and got away with it." Copper pushed his seat back. "I'm going to sleep."

It took him about five seconds. Everyone on that team had got pretty good at looking on the bright side.

Dawn came against Colgate, a 5-4 win for Princeton in overtime, but the second 11-game losing streak immediately followed. In a way, it was cruel to the players for them to win when they did. Coming at exactly the halfway point in the schedule, it gave Princeton just enough hope to last the rest of the year.

There was a girl named Jane who ladled out soup during lunch in the cafeteria. She used to embarrass Copper by stopping the lunch line to tell him how sorry she felt for him. She wasn't alone in that—everybody felt sorry for someone on that team. They were a source of confidence for every man, woman and child in the university community: "Things may be rotten for me, but look at the hockey team."

The day after the Colgate win, Jane saw Copper coming from as far away as the salad bar, and started slopping chicken gumbo all over the counter in excitement. But instead of congratulating him, she nearly burst into tears.

"Isn't it terrible?" she lamented.

"What?" he asked casually.

"Haven't you heard?"

"No. What?"

The Daily Princetonian, unbeknownst to me, had run a headline, HOCKEY WIN NULLIFIED! The story said that Quackenbush had been caught giving pep pills to the players and had defected to Cuba with our Communist defenseman, John Stuckey. It was the paper's annual joke issue, but a lot of people believed the headline. They could believe anything when it came to the hockey team, except that it had won.

Late in the season Dune Rainie, Princeton's biggest defenseman, was struck squarely in the ankle by a shot. Dune was a New Hampshire farm boy, and he knew how to holler. "Ouchhhh!" he screamed. Then he dropped his stick, clutched his ankle and began hopping in a circle as play continued around him. He hopped for 30 seconds before it occurred to him to get off the ice and let another man take his place.

Another trait the team developed was a sincere appreciation of its opponents' talent. Between periods the players were always talking about how good the other team was. Peter D'Ewart, a defenseman, carried this to an extreme in a game against Cornell. With the score tied in the third period, D'Ewart and Rainie were defending against a two-man break. The Cornell puck carrier, who was opposite D'Ewart, threaded a perfect pass between Peter's legs to his wingman, who had gotten past Rainie. They were right in front of the Princeton bench at the time, and Quackenbush, the rest of the team and the fans in the front few rows clearly heard D'Ewart call out, "Nice pass!" to the Cornell player. Copper made the save, and when D'Ewart returned to the bench, Quackenbush asked him dryly if he was enjoying the game. Peter nodded.

If Princeton's players could find bright moments in the bleakness, it was because they were amateurs playing a game. But there was one man who was not an amateur, and that was Bill Quackenbush. Coaching was his occupation. He measured his own success or failure by the team's play. While Copper and his teammates could go back to their books and try to excel in other areas, Quackenbush would go home and wonder, "Why? What am I doing so wrong?" The team's failure carried into other areas of his life. One Sunday, when a few of the players were at his house for dinner, for little apparent reason Quackenbush snapped at his wife. After an uncomfortable silence, he turned to the players and said apologetically, "See what a season like this does to me?"

The saddest moment of that sad year came in a Howard Johnson's. The team bus had stopped there after a trouncing by Harvard. Quackenbush was sitting by himself at the end of the counter. He looked like three miles of bad road, as only he could after one of those losses. The man had been a great hockey player in his day—the team was his embarrassment. I sat next to him. His eyes were red, and his sparse hair was mussed. I asked him about his son's high school hockey team, and he seemed eager to forget about hjs own immediate problem. After talking for a bit about his son's team, he said, "I keep telling his coach they ought to be doing certain things differently, but he doesn't listen...." He paused and said, "I guess I see why, now." He wasn't smiling. Quackenbush was a gentle man, and, that season, a very unhappy one.

Years like that are always a lot easier to look back on than to experience, but there was one thing that helped mute the blows all the way along: the fans. Princeton students were not used to winning hockey teams. They weren't prepared for one as bad as that one, but once they became accustomed to the idea, they adapted just as the team did. They were like the old New York Met fans who loved the team, perhaps not despite the fact that they lost, but because they lost. People liked the damn hockey team. That the players could live with as horrible a season as they were having was important to people. They represented man struggling on in the face of adversity. In a fast-changing world, one needs something stable to cling to. For five months people clung to the Princeton hockey team—it would always lose, and it would always struggle on.

So before the final game of the season, the team received what no hockey team in the history of the university had ever been given: a pep rally. It was attended by a modest but enthusiastic crowd, and all the players made fierce-sounding promises.

And, wonder of wonders, the final game, against Dartmouth, was sold out, a standing-room crowd jamming the Hobart Baker rink. Princeton charged off to a 2-0 lead but ended up losing 4-3 in a very exciting game. It all seemed very appropriate.
Then, as the team was leaving the ice, came an incredible ovation. For two minutes Quackenbush, Copper and the rest of the Princeton team stood and listened, almost in awe. It was a chilling scene. The tribute wasn't mocking; it wasn't rowdy. It was honest appreciation. The fans loved that 1-22 hockey team, loved it more than if it had gone 2-21 and probably less than if it had gone without a win at all. What were those fans cheering, the loser in each of us?

In his speech at the hockey banquet after the season, Tom MacMillan said, "I have come to bury this team, not to praise it." Consider it buried. But don't try to bury the losers. God help you, they shall inherit the earth.

About me

This is my first blog. It is a birth, and like any birth, it could end up badly. Or well. We shall have to see. I've started it because a friend of mine said that I should, and because after 29 years as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, I took a buyout last year and have some time on my hands. Soon (March 25) I shall head to Los Angeles for the World Figure Skating championships, which will give me something to blog about (figure skating fans, I'm told, love blogs; and generally are starved for reliable information about their sport). Beyond that, I intend to write about the sports world in general, since over the years I've covered just about every sport you can name (try me); and have some expertise that may as well be put to use. (How 'bout that Netherlands baseball team! Who knew?)
But I'll also write about other things that interest me. I live in Boston, but was raised in Chicago. I share season tickets to the Red Sox. I keep bees, roses, and a vegetable garden. I have covered 14 Olympic Games, specializing in gymnastics and figure skating. I played hockey (goalie) at Princeton, class of '73, and was originally hired as a hockey writer. I'm probably best known for my coverage of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team ("Miracle"), and am still friends with several members of that wonderful group. But it's less well known that my first assigned story for Sports Illustrated was in 1978 on a 16 year old kid who was playing in Sault Ste. Marie named Wayne Gretzky. I covered his entire career, did a Sportsman of the Year piece on him, covered his move to LA, then to New York, covered his retirement, and most recently did a story on Wayne's first year coaching at Phoenix. So we're old friends.
I've also written four books, one of which, My Sergei, with Ekaterina Gordeeva, was a NY Times bestseller. But I am equally proud of Eleven Seconds, a book I did in 1997 with Travis Roy, who as a freshman at Boston University broke his neck in the first 11 seconds of his first shift as a college hockey player, an injury which left Travis a quadriplegic. I promise you, you have never met any individual with more courage, and to this day he gives motivational speeches to schools in and around New England that are universally praised.
So there's lots of perspective to draw on. I also have a 16-year-old son to keep it real for me, and a 24 year old son who's joined the real world of advertising in LA. So I'm grounded on both coasts. Tune in from time to time. We'll try to have some fun with it.