Excellent Sportswriting Thread


Think we had one of these before but can’t find it.

Excellent article from Esquire on Todd Marinovich, a college football star from 20 years ago. (7 day ban for anyone who asks for bullet points or fleshing out).


Todd Marinovich: The Man Who Never Was

Twenty years ago, he was guaranteed to be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game of football. Engineered to be. He was drafted ahead of Brett Favre. Today he’s a recovering junkie. This month he was arrested again. Scenes from the chaotic life of a boy never designed to be a man.

The Fallbrook Midget Chiefs are fanned out across the field on a sunny autumn day in southern California, two dozen eighth graders in red helmets and bulbous pads. Whistles trill and coaches bark, mothers camp in folding chairs in the welcoming shade of the school building, younger siblings romp. Fathers hover on the periphery, wincing with every missed tackle and dropped pass.

Into this tableau ambles a tall man with faded-orange hair cropped close around a crowning bald spot, giving him the aspect of a tonsured monk. His face is all angles, his fair skin is sunburned and heavily freckled, his lips are deeply lined, the back of his neck is weathered like an old farmer’s. He is six foot five, 212 pounds, the same as when he reported for duty twenty-one years ago as a redshirt freshman quarterback at the University of Southern California, the Touchdown Club’s 1987 national high school player of the year. The press dubbed him Robo Quarterback; he was the total package. His Orange County high school record for all-time passing yardage, 9,182, stood for more than two decades.

Now he is thirty-nine, wearing surfer shorts and rubber flip-flops. He moves toward the field in the manner of an athlete, loose limbed and physically confident, seemingly unconcerned, revealing nothing of the long and tortured trail he’s left behind.

A coach hustles out to meet the party. He is wearing an Oakland Raiders cap. “Todd Marinovich!” he declares. “Would you mind signing these?” He produces a stack of bubble-gum cards. As Todd signs, everybody gathers and cops a squat. Somebody tosses him a football, like a speaking stick.

“Hi, my name is Todd. I played waaaay before you guys were even born.” Without his sunglasses, resting now atop his head, his blue eyes look pale and unsure. Raised much of his life on the picturesque Balboa Peninsula, he speaks in the loopy dialect of a surfer dude. He once told a reporter in jest that he enjoyed surfing naked at a spot near a nuclear power plant. Thereafter, among his other transgressions nine arrests, five felonies, a year in jail he would be known derisively for naked surfing. “One thing that I am today and that’s completely honest,” he tells the Chiefs. “I wouldn’t change anything for the world.”

As he speaks, Todd fondles and flips and spins the ball. It seems small in his hands and very well behaved, like it belongs there. When he was born, his father placed a big plush football in his crib. Marv Marinovich was the cocaptain of John McKay’s undefeated USC team of 1962. He played on the line both ways. The team won the national championship; Marv was ejected from the Rose Bowl for fighting. After a short NFL career, Marv began studying Eastern Bloc training methods. The Raiders’ colorful owner, Al Davis, made him one of the NFL’s first strength-and-conditioning coaches. Before Todd could walk, Marv had him on a balance beam. He would stretch the boy’s little hamstrings in his crib. Years later, an ESPN columnist would name Marv number two on a list of “worst sports fathers.” (After Jim Pierce, father of tennis player Mary, famous for verbally abusing opponents during matches.)

At the moment, Marv is sitting at the back of the Chiefs gathering, resting his bum knee, eating an organic apple. Nearly seventy, he has bull shoulders and a nimbus of curly gray hair. His own pale-blue eyes are focused intently on his son’s performance, as they have been from day one.

“I was the first freshman in Orange County to ever start a varsity game at quarterback,” Todd continues. “I broke a lot of records. Then I chose to go to USC. We beat UCLA. We won a Rose Bowl. It’s quite an experience playing in front of a hundred thousand people. It’s a real rush. Everyone is holding their breath, wondering, What’s he gonna do next? After my third year of college, I turned pro. Here’s a name you’ll recognize: I was drafted ahead of Brett Favre in the 1991 draft. I played for three years for the Raiders. I made some amazing friends we’re still in touch.”

Todd surveys the young faces before him. In about a minute, he has summarized the entire first half of his life. He looks down at the football. “Any questions?”

One kid asks Todd if he fumbled a lot. Another wants to know how far Todd can throw. The coach in the Raiders cap they call him Raider Bill asks Todd how he got along with his coaches, eliciting a huge guffaw from both Todd and Marv, which makes everybody else crack up, too.

Then Todd points the football at a boy with freckles.

“You said you only played three years in the NFL,” the boy says, more a statement than a question.

“Correctamundo,” Todd replies, at ease now, playing to the crowd, not really thinking about what’s coming next which has always been his biggest strength and maybe also his biggest weakness.

“What ended your career?” the boy asks.

“What ended my career…” Todd repeats. His smile fades as he searches for the right words.

The Newport Beach Cheyennes were scrimmaging the best fourth-grade Pop Warner team in Orange County. It was September 1978. Todd was nine years old, playing his first year of organized tackle football.

Todd was the quarterback, a twig figure with flaming-orange hair. The opposing team was anchored by its middle linebacker, one of those elementary-school Goliaths, physically mature for his age. With time waning and the score close, the game on the line, the Cheyennes’ coach opted to give his second-string offense a chance. In this scheme, Todd moved to fullback. Over in his spot near the end zone, Marv’s eyes bugged. Why isn’t this idiot going for the win?

The Marinovich family had recently returned from living in Hawaii, where Marv, after coaching with the Raiders and the St. Louis Cardinals, had done a stint with the World Football League’s Hawaiians. As Marv sorted out his work status, his family of four was living with the maternal grandparents in a little clapboard house on the Balboa Peninsula. Once a summer beach shack, it had been converted over the years into two stories, four bedrooms. The Pacific Ocean was two long blocks from the front deck; Newport Harbor was two short blocks from the back door, its docks crowded with yachts and pontoon party boats. In summer came the throngs: a nonstop party.

Todd’s mom is the former Trudi Fertig. In high school, she held several swimming records in the butterfly. A prototype of the late-fifties California girl, Trudi was a Delta Gamma sorority sister at USC; she quit college after her sophomore year to marry the captain of the football team. Trudi’s father, C. Henry Fertig, was the police chief of nearby Huntington Park. German-Irish, the son of a blacksmith, he was the one who’d passed down the carrot top. The Chief, as he was known to all, was the “most visible of all the Trojan alums,” according to The Orange County Register. Before every USC game you’d find him, wearing his cardinal-colored shirt and bright gold pants, tailgating in his regular spot in front of the L. A. Coliseum, where the Trojans play their games. (After the Chief’s death in 1997, at the age of eighty, the alumni laid a brass plaque on the hallowed spot.)

The Chief’s son was Craig Fertig, a former USC quarterback, responsible for one of the greatest Trojan victories of all time, a comeback against undefeated Notre Dame in 1964. He was associated with the program for nearly fifty years as a coach, assistant athletic director, TV commentator, and fan until his death, the result of organ failure due to alcoholism.

Marv Marinovich grew up with his extended family on a three-thousand-acre ranch in Watsonville, in northern California. The spread was owned by his Croatian grandfather, J. G. Marinovich. According to family lore, J. G. was a general in the Russian army, a cruel man who’d overseen the battlefield amputation of his own arm. After high school, Marv played football for Santa Monica City College. The team went undefeated and won the 1958 national junior-college championship. From there Marv transferred to USC. He was known for foaming at the mouth. After the championship, he was named Most Inspirational Player. He still has the trophy.

Drafted by the L. A. Rams of the NFL and by the Oakland Raiders of the AFL, Marv “ran, lifted, pushed the envelope to the nth degree” in order to prepare for the pros. One exercise, he says: eleven-hundred-pound squats, with the bar full of forty-five-pound plates, with hundred-pound dumbbells chained and hanging on the ends because he couldn’t get any more plates to fit. “And then I would rep out,” he recalls. “I hadn’t yet figured out that speed and flexibility were more important than weight and bulk. I overtrained so intensely that I never recovered.”

After a disappointing three-year career with the Raiders and Rams, Marv turned to sports training. Over time, he would develop his own system for evaluating athletes and maximizing their potential. Much of the core- and swimming-pool-based conditioning programs in use today owe nods to Marv’s ideas. His latest reclamation project: Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. (See Polamalu and Marv on YouTube.)

With the birth of his own two children, Traci and Todd, came the perfect opportunity for Marv to put his ideas into practice. “Some guys think the most important thing in life is their jobs, the stock market, whatever,” he says. “To me, it was my kids. The question I asked myself was, How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?”

For the nine months prior to Todd’s birth on July 4, 1969, Trudi used no salt, sugar, alcohol, or tobacco. As a baby, Todd was fed only fresh vegetables, fruits, and raw milk; when he was teething, he was given frozen kidneys to gnaw. As a child, he was allowed no junk food; Trudi sent Todd off to birthday parties with carrot sticks and carob muffins. By age three, Marv had the boy throwing with both hands, kicking with both feet, doing sit-ups and pull-ups, and lifting light hand weights. On his fourth birthday, Todd ran four miles along the ocean’s edge in thirty-two minutes, an eight-minute-mile pace. Marv was with him every step of the way.

Now, late in one of Todd’s first games in Pop Warner, the coach sent a play into the huddle, a handoff to the halfback. As fullback, Todd’s job was to be lead blocker.

The ball was snapped. Todd led the halfback through the hole.

He’d just cleared the line of scrimmage when Goliath-boy stepped into the gap and delivered a forearm shiver very much like the one that had gotten Marv ejected from the Rose Bowl. Todd crumpled to the ground. Blood flowed copiously from his nose.

The whistle blew. As Todd was being cleaned up, Marv convinced the coach that Todd needed to go back in the game. Immediately. At quarterback.

Todd stood over center, his nose still bleeding. Part of him felt like crying. The other part knew that it was the last few seconds of the scrimmage and the team was down by only a few points. For as long as he could remember, no matter what sport he played, he always had to win.

He took the snap and faded back, threw a perfect pass into the back corner of the end zone. “That has always been my favorite route,” he says now, sitting outside a little coffee shop on Balboa Boulevard, drinking a large drip with six sugars and smoking a Marlboro Red. He tells the story from a place of remove, as if describing something intimate that happened to someone else. “I remember seeing the ball. It was spiraling and there was blood just flying off of it, splattering out into the air.”

When the catch was made, there was silence for a beat. “And then I remember the parents cheering.”

Six years later, on the opening night of the 1984 football season, Todd once again gathered himself as best he could, rising to one knee on the turf at Orange Coast College. There were seven thousand fans in the stadium. He’d just been blasted by two big studs from the celebrated front line of the Fountain Valley High School Barons.

Three days before he’d even set foot in a ninth-grade classroom, the six-three, 170-pound freshman was the starting quarterback for the varsity team at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, the largest Catholic high school west of Michigan. In a sports-mad county known for its quarterbacks from John Huarte and Matt Leinart to Carson Palmer and Mark Sanchez Todd’s freshman start was a first.

Todd fought for breath. His head was ringing, his vision was blurred, he wanted to puke. Later he would recognize the symptoms of his first concussion. Marv’s conditioning was designed to train the body and the mind to push beyond pain and fear. Throughout his career, Todd would be known for his extraordinary focus and will qualities that would both enable and doom him. Two years from now, the left-hander would lead a fourth-quarter rally with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. Five years from now, he would throw four college touchdowns with a fractured left wrist. Sixteen years from now, he’d throw ten touchdowns in one game, tying an Arena Football League record, while suffering from acute heroin withdrawal.

Acting on instinct, fifteen-year-old Todd rose to his feet and peered out of the echoing cavern of his helmet. He searched the sideline, looking for the signal caller, his next play. A teammate grabbed him by the shoulder pads, spun him around to face the Mater Dei bench. “We’re over here, dude,” he told Todd.

Back in seventh grade, Todd had set his goal: to start on a varsity team as a ninth grader. Marv made a progress chart and put it up in the garage; they worked every day. “It was brutal,” Todd recalls. "Sometimes I didn’t want anything to do with it. He’d give me the look, like, ‘Well, fine, but you’re gonna get your ass kicked when you start to play.’ " Along the way, Marv consulted a series of experts: Tom House, the Texas Rangers’ innovative pitching coach, found Todd’s throwing motion to be 4.53 inches too low. A vision specialist in Westwood made Todd wear prism glasses, stand on a balance beam in a dark room, and bounce a ball while reciting multiplication tables.

By the summer before ninth grade, Todd was penciled in as Mater Dei’s fifth-string quarterback. His typical week, as reported by the Register: Four days of weight lifting, three days of light work and running. Daily sessions with Mater Dei’s assistant basketball coach. Twice weekly with a shooting coach. Two hours daily throwing the football. Twice weekly with a quarterback coach. Thrice-weekly sprint workouts with a track coach. There were also Mater Dei basketball club games and twice-daily football workouts.

“I don’t think any of the kids were ever jealous of Todd, because they knew that when they left that field or court or gym, Todd was still going to be there for many, many hours,” Trudi recalls. When Todd and Traci were growing up, Trudi worked as a waitress during the periods when Marv wasn’t employed. Sometimes she secretly took Todd to McDonald’s. The Chief fed him pizza and beer. Though Traci once wrote of hearing Todd cry in his room, nobody wanted to butt heads with Marv. Like an obsessed scientist, he had tunnel vision. “He didn’t do reality too well,” Trudi says.

Todd lost that first game against Fountain Valley, 17-13, but he showed promise. Shut down completely after that blow in the first quarter, he gained composure as the evening progressed, completing nine of seventeen passes for 123 yards and two interceptions, the second of which foiled a fourth-quarter drive that could have won the game. The Register would report: “If not for Marinovich… the Monarchs wouldn’t have had an offense to speak of.”

After the final gun, Todd stood with his parents. His new teammates drifted over and surrounded him. "When I was growing up, the term my mom used was ‘terrifyingly shy,’ " Todd says. "That’s why I always loved being on a team. It was the only way I could make friends. It was really amazing to have these guys, these upperclassmen, come over. And they’re like, ‘Hey, Todd, let’s go! Come out with us after the game. It’s party time!’ "

Todd looked at Marv. The old man didn’t hesitate. "He just gave me the nod, you know, like, ‘Go ahead, you earned it.’

“We went directly to a kegger and started pounding down beers,” Todd recalls.

It was January 1988, opening night of basketball season. With fifty-eight seconds left, the score was 61-all. Todd flashed into the key, took a pass from the wing. He made the layup and drew the foul. Whistle. Three thousand fans in the arena at the University of California, Irvine, went nuts. The six-five, 215-pound high school senior pumped his fist in celebration.

During his two years at Mater Dei, Todd had thrown for nearly forty-four hundred yards and thirty-four touchdowns. But the Monarchs’ record was mediocre; they had no blocking to protect Todd. So Marv had engineered his son’s transfer to Capistrano Valley High, a public school in Mission Viejo. The team’s head football coach, Dick Enright, was a USC alum and longtime friend of Marv’s. As head coach at the University of Oregon, Enright had groomed quarterback Dan Fouts. Under Enright, Todd would go on to break the all-time Orange County passing record. He was named a Parade magazine All-American and the National High School Coaches Association’s offensive player of the year.

Then the January 1988 issue of California magazine hit the stands with Todd’s picture on the cover. The headline: ROBO QB: THE MAKING OF A PERFECT ATHLETE. A media onslaught ensued. They called Todd the bionic quarterback, a test-tube athlete, the boy in the bubble. All over the world, people were talking about Todd’s amazing story. In truth, he was leading a double life.

“I really looked forward to giving it all I had at the game on Friday night and then continuing through the weekend with the partying. It opened up a new social scene for me liquid courage. I wasn’t scared of people anymore,” Todd says.

At Mater Dei, Todd had also begun smoking marijuana. By the time his junior year rolled around, he says, “I was a full-on loady.” His parents had divorced just before his transfer, and he was sharing a one-bedroom apartment with Marv near Capistrano. “Probably the best part of my childhood was me and Marv’s relationship my junior and senior years,” Todd says. “After the divorce, he really loosened up. It was a bachelor pad. We were both dating.”

Every day before school, Todd would meet a group at a friend’s house and do bong hits. They called it Zero Period. Some of the guys were basketball players, others were into surfing, skateboarding, and music the holy trinity of the OC slacker lifestyle.

“Pot just really relaxed me. I could just function better in public,” he says. “I never played high or practiced high. It wasn’t as hard on my body as drinking. I thought, Man, I have found the secret. I was in love.”

Now it was January of his senior year, the opening game of basketball season. Todd was a swingman, the high scorer. The Capo Cougars were one of the top-ranked teams in the county. The contest against archrival El Toro High School had come down to the wire. Todd had just broken the tie with a layup. Then he hit the foul shot: 64-61.

El Toro inbounded the ball; Capo stole it. Pass to Todd. Hard foul in the paint. Todd went to the line again, two shots. Thirty-seven seconds left to play.

The crowd was screaming, pounding the floor. Behind the basket, dozens of El Toro students were wearing orange wigs to mock the carrot-topped Robo Quarterback. As Todd went through his foul-shot ritual, something broke his focus. The opposing fans were chanting: “Marijuana-vich! Marijuana-vich! Marijuana-vich!”

“I was supposed to be shooting free throws, but I was really glancing into the stands. I was trying to see if my father noticed,” Todd told the Los Angeles Times later.

He put it out of mind and nailed both shots. Game over.

No matter what the teams’ record or national ranking, UCLA versus USC is always the biggest game of the year. The sixtieth meeting occurred in November 1990. From the opening kickoff, the advantage seesawed. With less than a minute to go, the score was 42-38 in favor of UCLA. Todd and his Trojan squad began operating on their own twenty-three. A field goal wouldn’t do.

On third down, Todd completed a twenty-seven-yard pass to his favorite target, five-foot-nine Gary Wellman, a future Houston Oiler. On the next play he hit Wellman again for twenty-two yards.

With sixteen seconds left, the football was spotted on the UCLA twenty-three-yard line. USC coach Larry Smith called for a time-out. Todd and his corps of receivers jogged to the sideline. A hush fell over the Rose Bowl crowd of 98,088.

Although he was recruited by every notable college, no other school really had a chance over USC. Todd’s sister was a senior and his first cousin was planning on attending. His uncle Craig Fertig was an assistant athletic director. When Todd had visited USC that year, he’d been taken down onto the field of the empty Coliseum where he’d watched games with the Chief his entire life and they put his name up on the scoreboard, complete with piped-in crowd noise. After that, Todd was taken by his All-American escort to a party on campus. “There was a three-and-a-half-foot purple bong. I was like, ‘I’m home.’ I even had my own weed on me,” Todd recalls.

Todd redshirted his first year at USC. His second year he started every game, completing 62 percent of his passes for twenty-six hundred yards and sixteen touchdowns, leading the 1989 Trojans to a 9-2-1 record, a Pac-10 title, and a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. Todd was named freshman player of the year. There was Heisman talk, speculation he’d leave early for the NFL.

At the opening of the next season, however, Coach Smith told reporters he wasn’t yet decided on his starting quarterback. Smith was a flinty Ohio native who stressed discipline. Of all the coaches he’d ever had, Todd says, he hated Smith the most. Smith seemed determined to break the kid, going so far as to outlaw flip-flops on road trips. Smith told Marv privately he suspected Todd was using drugs. During the two months leading up to the UCLA game, Todd had been repeatedly drug tested but never failed. He’d been suspended from the team for missing classes. He’d been benched as a starter for one set of downs. (When he returned to the game, the crowd booed; he threw a seventy-seven-yard touchdown pass.)

Now Todd and his receivers reached the sideline. “What do you want to do?” Coach Smith asked his quarterback.

Todd’s face flushed to hot pink. “You’re asking me what I want to do? Why start now?”

Todd turned to his receivers standing behind him. They believed in him. They’d seen his magic. His last-minute comeback against Washington State the previous season is still remembered as “the Drive”: A textbook ninety-one-yard march downfield with eleven crucial completions, including a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion it prompted a call from former President Ronald Reagan.

Todd turned back to his coach. “This is what we’re gonna do,” he told Smith, yelling over the crowd. “You’re gonna stay the fuck over here while we go win this game.”

Todd and his boys jogged back to the huddle. Todd called the play. The ball was on the twenty-three; sixteen seconds left. Wellman was in the slot. The pass was designed to go to him. But as Todd took the snap, he saw Wellman get jammed at the line.

“Whenever a receiver doesn’t get a clean release,” Todd recalls, “you got to go away from him, 'cause it just screws up the timing. So I looked back to the other side, and I saw Johnnie Morton on his corner route. He was supposed to run an eighteen-yard comeback, but we’d changed it at the line of scrimmage. Now he was making his move. When Johnnie went to the post, I saw the safety just drive on it, thinking I was throwing there. That’s when I knew I had it.”

Morton caught the ball deep in the left corner of the end zone, in front of the seats occupied by the Chief and his wife, Virginia. “It’s been my favorite pass since Pop Warner,” Todd said. “You really can’t stop it.”
(…cntd next post)


(…) Part 2

On the evening of Saturday, January 19, 1991, Todd hit the bars on Balboa with his cousin Marc Fertig, a former USC baseball player, and two Trojan footballers. Coming home at 4:00 A.M., the boys were less than ten yards from the family beach house when two cop cars came screeching through the alley.

“I had a little nug on me,” a marijuana bud, Todd says. “And a bindle of coke this guy had given me, this fan. It was half a gram. The cop went right for the drugs. Somebody must have tipped somebody off.”

Todd was charged with two misdemeanors and allowed into a program for first-time offenders, but his USC career was finished. He declared himself eligible for the NFL draft and signed with IMG, a big agency. For the first time since freshman summer, Todd went back into training with Marv.

Six weeks later, Todd walked onto the field at East Los Angeles College to show NFL scouts what he could do. His long locks had been sacrificed in favor of a bright-orange Johnny Unitas buzz cut, an image makeover suggested by his agent. There were representatives from eighteen teams. Trudi set up a table with lemonade and pastries. Todd was in the best shape of his life. With the help of a former NFL receiver, Todd says, “We put on an aerial show.”

The only NFL owner in attendance was Al Davis of the Los Angeles Raiders. Arriving late, Davis climbed up into the stands and sat between his old friends Marv and Trudi. “I kind of knew right then that the Raiders were gonna pick me,” Todd says. “I was totally psyched.”

At the conclusion of Raider training camp that summer, as tradition dictated, the first draft pick threw a party. Todd had gone twenty-fourth in the first round and signed a three-year, $2.25 million deal, including a $1 million signing bonus. He rented a ranch and hired a company that did barbecue on a huge grill on a flatbed truck. He turned the barn into a stadium with hay-bale seating. He hired strippers, ten white and ten black. The grand finale: three porn stars with double-headed dildos. “They say in the history of the Raiders, it was the best rookie party ever,” Todd says.

He made his first professional appearance on no smaller stage than Monday Night Football, an exhibition against Dallas on August 12, 1991. Entering the game with fifteen minutes remaining, he moved the Raiders crisply downfield, completing three of four passes for sixteen yards and a touchdown.

As the season opened, to reduce the pressure on the rookie, coach Art Shell made Todd the third-string quarterback. Seeing little action on the field, he seemed determined to live up to his reputation as an epic partier off it. Arriving at a hotel for an away game, he’d go with the rest of the players to a club. When they returned, he’d go out again. There were women, raves, Ecstasy, coke. Vets would save him a seat at the pregame meal just to hear his stories of the night before. “The cities started running into one another,” Todd recalls.

Sometimes, for fun or hangover relief, Todd took pharmaceutical speed before the games. “I wasn’t playing, so the warm-ups were my game. They’d have these great stereo systems in the stadiums; they’d be blasting the Stones or whatever. I’d take some black beauties and be throwing the ball seventy-five yards, running around playing receiver, fucking around — and then I was done for the day. I never played. Some guys did play on speed. Or they mixed with Vicodin. They could run through a fuckin’ wall and not feel a thing.”

The fifteenth week of the season, Todd made his first trip to New Orleans. After a long night of rum drinks in the Quarter, he ended up in bed with two stewardesses; he barely made it back for the pregame meal. The Superdome held seventy thousand screaming fans. “The noise was deafening. My head. I was in hell,” Todd remembers now. “I was barely able to make it through warm-ups. I was sweating profusely, trying not to vomit.”

Midway through the game, the Raiders’ first-string quarterback, Jay Schroeder, was hit simultaneously from both sides, injuring an ankle. “Coach Shell looks at me, like, Are you ready to go?” Todd recalls. “I shook him off like a pitcher on the mound. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me?”

The following week, with Schroeder still sidelined for the final game of the regular season, Todd made his official debut against the Kansas City Chiefs. Marv was reported to have arrived at the stadium before the gates opened, waiting in line with the other fans to see his boy get his first start. Though the team lost 27-21, Todd completed twenty-three of forty passes for 243 yards. Crowed Los Angeles Times sports columnist Mike Downey: “Sunday was Marinovich’s football bar mitzvah. The boy became a man.”

The next day was a Monday — five days before the Raiders were due to appear in the AFC wild-card game, also against the Chiefs. Ready to leave home for practice, Todd went to his refrigerator and discovered that he’d run out of clean urine.

As a consequence of his arrest, the NFL had been requiring Todd to take frequent urine tests. Todd felt he couldn’t function without marijuana. “It just allowed me to be comfortable in this loud, chaotic world. Especially the world I was living in. I couldn’t fathom being sober,” he says. To reconcile these conflicting realities, he kept Gatorade bottles of clean urine, donated by non-pot-smoking friends, in the refrigerator at his Manhattan Beach townhouse, one block from the ocean, which he’d purchased for $900,000.

All season long, this had been his pre-test routine: Pour the refrigerated pee into a small sunscreen bottle. Go to practice. Put the bottle in a cup of coffee and leave it in his locker to warm up while attending a team meeting. Come back, stash the bottle inside his compression shorts, beneath his package. Usually he’d ask the supervisor to turn on the water in the sink to aid his shy bladder. “I got it down to a science,” he says.

But now he was out of clean pee, another critical responsibility blown off — like the time at USC when he couldn’t be bothered to fill out his housing paperwork and ended up a homeless scholarship athlete. Like Marv, the real world wasn’t really his thing.

Luckily, on this Monday morning, one of Todd’s former USC teammates was still at his house, left over from the weekend’s partying. He didn’t do drugs. Unbeknownst to Todd, however, he’d been drinking nonstop since his own game on Saturday.

Soon after, the Raiders got a call from the NFL: Todd’s urine sample had registered a blood-alcohol level of .32 — four times the legal limit. "They’re like, ‘This guy is a fucking full-blown alcoholic,’ " Todd says. “They made me check into Centinela Hospital in Inglewood for alcohol detox — and I hadn’t even been drinking.” The team left without him; he flew later. This time the Chiefs were ready for Todd. He threw four interceptions, fumbled once.

After the season the team held an intervention. Todd spent forty-five days at a rehab facility. The next season, Todd tried to stop smoking pot. Instead, for six weeks, he took LSD after every game — acid didn’t show up on the tox screen. After one poor performance, coaches complained that he wasn’t grasping the complex offense. Finally, he failed an NFL drug test. Strike two. Back to rehab.

The next August, 1993, near the end of his third training camp, Todd failed a third drug test for marijuana. Al Davis brought the kid into his office. After two seasons, eight games, eight touchdown passes, Todd’s NFL playing days were over.

“I was like, Fuck it. I’d been playing my whole life. I’d accomplished my goals. I never said I wanted to play forever. I just wanted to play at the highest level. Even in college, it felt like the shit you had to put up with in order to play wasn’t worth it. Those few amazing hours on Sunday were being outweighed by all the bullshit.”

Todd packed up his Land Cruiser and drove to Mexico to camp and surf. “I thought I had a ton of money,” he says.

It was shortly after Swallows Day in San Juan Capistrano, March 24, 1997. Todd lived in a small house near the beach; a few friends were hanging out. At one point, somebody got the idea to go to the grammar school next door and play dunk hoops on the low baskets.

As the game got going, the motley crew of loadies transformed themselves into ballers. As always, Todd couldn’t miss. He was by now twenty-seven. After traveling the world for two years, he’d attempted to return to football, only to blow out his knee on his first day of training camp with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. During his recovery, an old buddy from Zero Period at Capo had introduced him to the guitar and then later to heroin. Their band, Scurvy, achieved modest success playing at clubs on the Sunset Strip. Then the bassist was busted, ruining hopes for a record deal. For the past three years, Todd had been a full-blown addict.

Going up for a rebound, one guy hurt his back. John Valdez was twenty-nine and weighed about 275 pounds: He went down like a slab of beef. With much difficulty, the guys hauled him back to Todd’s bed. In agony, he appealed to his host: “You got anything to help the pain?”

Todd left the room and retrieved his stash of Mexican black-tar heroin. “I fixed myself first,” he says. “I remember it being strong stuff, so I just gave him a fraction of the amount.” A few minutes later, returning from a cigarette break on the front porch, he checked on Valdez. “He’s frothing from the mouth. He’s fuckin’ blue.”

Todd ran outside and retrieved the garden hose — it was easier than lugging Valdez to the shower, as he’d seen in movies. When that didn’t help, Todd started slapping him in the face.

“I’m fucking hitting this guy with everything I’ve got,” he recalls. “And I swear, I could see his spirit struggling to leave his body. I don’t tell this story much; people think I was hallucinating. But on heroin you don’t hallucinate. You do not fucking hallucinate on fucking heroin. The only way I could describe it is like when you see heat waves on the beach — when the heat waves eddy up and warp your vision. It was like that, and it was colorful. I actually saw it, the life force or whatever, as it would leave the top of his head, and he’d become this fleshbag, and then I would smack the shit out of him and I would see it actually coming back into him.”

The friends had scattered; there was one guy left with them in the house. Todd yelled, “Call fuckin’ 911!”

As the other guy cleaned up the drugs and the syringe, the dispatcher coached Todd through CPR. Finally the paramedics arrived, along with sheriff’s deputies.

The day before, Todd had helped a buddy harvest his marijuana crop. As a thank-you, he’d gotten a trash bag full of cuttings, not bud but still smokable. He’d stashed the bag in his garage rafters with his surfboards and promptly forgotten about it. As the paramedics wheeled out Valdez on a gurney, one of the deputies came into the room holding the trash bag of pot. “Where are the plants?” he demanded.

“I’m not a grower,” Todd tried to explain. "See, this buddy of mine — "

Just then, another deputy entered the room. He was carrying two half-dead pot plants that Todd had set up in his laundry room with a drugstore-variety grow light.

Todd was charged with felony marijuana cultivation. He served two months in jail and a third at a minimum-security facility in OC known as the Farm.

In April 1999, just shy of his thirtieth birthday, Todd was finally cleared to play again by the NFL. He promptly herniated a disk playing pickup hoops. That summer, he worked out for several teams. The Chargers and the Bears showed real interest, but he failed the physical; no deals could be made. He ended up signing as a backup quarterback with the B. C. Lions of Vancouver, in the Canadian Football League.

Except for a little pot, Todd was drug free for the first time in years. His roomie was Canadian. About two weeks into his stay, he asked Todd if he wanted to go with him “to check his babies.”

It turned out he was growing potent BC bud. On the way home, Todd stopped at a head shop to buy a bong. There were little vials scattered everywhere on the ground. His junkie warning system sounded a shrill alarm.

Todd had arrived in his own personal land of Oz, a place were junkies bought and used heroin openly and cops only got involved if somebody OD’d. The heroin was called China White. It was infinitely more potent than the black tar Todd had used before — and relatively cheap. He got into a routine: “The day before every game, we would do a walk-through in the dome — that was my day for needle exchange. All my years of being a dope fiend, the hardest part was always getting needles. I was getting good coke and really pure heroin and combining them. That’s all I wanted to do. I woke up, fixed, went to practice. Thank God I was just backing up. I was just the clipboard guy, playing the opposing quarterback in practice.”

Once, during halftime at a home game, Todd retrieved a premade rig out of his locker and went to the bathroom to shoot up. Sitting on the toilet, half listening to the chalk talk, he slammed the heroin. As the team was leaving the locker room for the second half, he struggled with the screen in his glass crack pipe — he wasn’t getting a good hit. Then the pipe broke, and he lacerated his left thumb. By the time he got out onto the field, his thumb wrapped in a towel, the game had already started. He took up the clipboard, his only duty. “I didn’t even know what play they were calling,” Todd says. “Nobody looked at the shit I wrote down anyway.”

At the end of the season, the team had a party. Todd was “gowed out of my mind,” meaning that he was “somewhere between a nod and full-on slumber.” His weight had dropped to 176 pounds. “I was a celibate heroin monk. I would go downtown, cop, come back to my pad, and not leave till the drugs were gone,” he says. “There was no furniture in my place, just a bed and a TV. I wasn’t eating. I spent a lot of time in this Astro minivan I had. I’d just climb into the back and fix. My life revolved around dope and my dog.”

Now, at the party, Todd became aware that the general manager of the Lions was motioning for him to come over. The GM was a good guy who’d recruited him to come to BC. He shook Todd’s hand. "I know we signed you for one year with an option for another year — " he said pregnantly, looking grave.

And then he issued a toothy, gotcha grin: “We’d like to pick up that option!”

“You have to be fuckin’ crazy,” Todd said. “I can’t stay here.”

Todd returned to football for the last time in the spring of 2000 — a mercurial stint with the Los Angeles Avengers in the Arena Football League. His first year, he tied the record for most touchdowns in a single game despite undergoing severe heroin withdrawal; after shitting his pants during warm-ups, he came out and threw ten touchdowns to win a game against the Houston Thunderbears. That same year, at age thirty-one, he was named to the all-rookie team. The next season, he became L. A.'s franchise player. The day he picked up his signing bonus, he was busted buying heroin. With him in the truck was $30,000 cash in an envelope. Toward the end of the season, he was ejected from successive games for throwing a clipboard and a hand towel at officials. Finally, he was suspended from the team.

“At that point, heroin became my full-time job,” Todd says.

By 2004, he was broke and living again on the Balboa Peninsula, haunting the beaches and alleyways of his youth. In the summers, he often lived on the beach, washing at the bathhouse. Sometimes he couch-surfed with friends. Different from many junkies, he seemed to have a knack for being a good guest. Even at his worst, he maintained the sweet and vulnerable quality that makes people want to embrace him. He didn’t go to his family’s place often. He hated the way Trudi looked at him. At some point, his uncle Craig would accuse him of stealing and Trudi would change the locks.

Because he’d lost his car and license, Todd had trouble scoring heroin. He couldn’t afford it, anyway. There was a ton of speed around Newport Beach, though. “People were practically giving it away,” he recalls.

When he was high, he loved to skateboard. “It was a way to burn off all that energy that I had from the meth. It was like surfing on fucking concrete. I would skate for eight hours a day. I’d be just carving up and down the street for miles and miles. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on drugs. That and sex. Meth makes you just fucking perv. It turns normal people with some morals into just fucking sick perverts. That’s all I wanted to do, you know, is look at porn or create my own.”

A ghostly, six-five redhead living on the same tiny peninsula where he grew up so prominently, Todd was an easy mark. In August 2004, he was arrested by Newport Beach police for skateboarding in a prohibited zone. Police found meth and syringes on him. In May 2005, he was rousted from a public bathhouse by police; he fled on his beach cruiser and was apprehended fifteen blocks away. Police found drug paraphernalia in his toiletry kit but no drugs. One of the cops was an old Capo Valley teammate. Todd was charged with violating probation. In June 2005, thanks to twenty-three of his former USC teammates who put up the $4,600 required for him to enter an inpatient treatment program, Todd avoided going back to jail. For the next year, he was in and out of rehab facilities.

At a little past one in the morning on August 26, 2007, a pair of Newport police officers riding in an unmarked minivan spotted Todd, by now thirty-eight years old, skateboarding on the boardwalk. He was carrying a guitar case and wearing a backpack; he had just been to his hook spot. As Todd knew well, skating is not permitted on the boardwalk.

“One cop started running at me. The other one’s crossing the boulevard, trying to head me off. I popped off my skateboard, dropped my guitar case, and fucking ran down this alley. One of them yelled: ‘Todd! Freeze!’ I heard a pop pop pop. I thought they were fucking shooting!” It turned out to be a Taser. The projectile imbedded itself in the lower part of his backpack. “My leg started spasming, but it wasn’t too bad. I just kept running.” He ended up on a second-floor balcony. “I saw the fucking light come on, and a guy came out, looked at me, and shut the door real fast. I was like, Oh fuck!”

By then there were helicopters with spotlights. He could hear the dogs. “That’s when I gave up. I’ve seen too many people come into fucking jail tore up from dogs. So I just laid down on the fucking ground and they found me.”

It was his ninth arrest. He was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance and misdemeanor counts of unauthorized possession of a hypodermic needle and resisting a police officer. He did his second stint at the Farm, where he picked vegetables and repaired irrigation equipment.

Evening in the suburbs, September 2008. The dishes have been put away, the washer in the garage is cycling through another load. A fifteen-year-old boy sits at the dining-room table, doing his honors geometry homework.

Todd saunters into the room. He stands over the kid for a moment, places his large freckled mitt on his shoulder. The knuckles are raw from his part-time job scraping barnacles off the bottoms of boats. It is a tough, physical job. He likes that it tires him out; he always seems to be a little jittery and on edge, generally ill at ease in the world. He wears a wet suit and goggles, uses a long air hose, makes his rounds from motor yacht to sailboat in a dinghy. He’ll be down there all alone for a half hour at a time, his bubbles slowly circling the hull, lost in repetitious physical effort, cocooned by the silent, salty water. He compares it to the soothing feeling of heroin.


As of tonight, he’s been sober thirteen months. Following his last arrest, he was diverted to a special drug court run by a county judge. Hanging over Todd’s head is a suspended sentence of two years in jail. His schedule is nearly as crowded as it was during the summer before ninth grade. Pee testing three times a week. Weekly drug-court sessions, one-on-one therapy, group therapy, sessions with his probation officer, thrice-weekly AA meetings. If he completes the program, in another eighteen months, he could have his felonies dismissed or reduced, opening up his opportunity for coaching at a public school. With all the responsibilities, he is expected to cobble together a new life. It is a difficult task.

Besides the barnacle scraping, for which he makes about forty dollars a boat, Todd leads a weekly group meeting at a rehab facility; people seem to respond to both his celebrity status and his easygoing manner. He’s also been painting murals in people’s houses. There is a local gallery that wants to show his work; a Web site is planned for direct buying. His other source of income is private coaching. Over the past year, he’s become known as somewhat of a “quarterback whisperer.” This past summer he worked with Jordan Palmer, brother of Carson; both Palmers are on the roster at Cincinnati. USC coach Pete Carroll recently told him he’d try to get Todd some work next summer at a football camp. There will be an interview for a job as offensive coordinator at a local junior college. Right now, Todd has four students, kids of varying ages. All of them have promise; Jordan Greenwood is one of his most talented.

“Dude. You got a minute?”

Jordan looks up attentively. He is five foot eleven and a half, 150 pounds. He’s a freshman at Orange Lutheran, one of the schools that competes in the Trinity League against Todd’s old team Mater Dei. Jordan started playing tackle football at age eight. He has always been a super athlete. One time in a soccer game, he had three goals in the first ten minutes.

About a year ago, Jordan was referred to Marv. Todd was brought in on day two. Though he hadn’t been sober long, Todd watched Jordan throw and thought to himself, I could really help this kid. The first order of business: completely remake Jordan’s throw — which nearly gave Jordan’s father a heart attack. For the next six months, every night, Jordan had to stand in front of the mirror and repeat the new motion a thousand times. Each rep had to be perfect. It was up to Jordan; nobody could do it for him.

The first three exhibition games of the new season, the freshman-team coach rotated four quarterbacks. Fleet of foot, Jordan was perfect for the veer offense; he scored fifteen touchdowns, including a seventy-yard run against an inner-city team. Then came the fourth exhibition. The entire extended Greenwood family was on hand to watch. Jordan did not play.

Now, after a nice dinner of strip steaks and salmon and double-stuffed potatoes, with all the other adults out of the room, Todd folds himself into the chair next to Jordan. His orange hair is not so bright anymore, like a colorful curtain faded over the years by the sun.

“What’s the worst part of your experience over there at Orange?” Todd asks.

Jordan drums his pencil on the open pages of his math book. “I don’t know,” he says.

“Not playing?”

Jordan makes eye contact. “Yeah, mostly.”

“What else?”

Shrug. “I dunno.” This is the biggest thing in his life. You can tell he’s trying not to cry.

“Listen, dude,” Todd says, as warm a dude as was ever uttered. “Things can look pretty overwhelming right now because you’re so young, but believe me, you can have a great career — possibly at Orange Lutheran. I wouldn’t cash my chips and be bitter just yet. Some days, stuff just looks all wrong — take it from me. You’re gonna be fine. You just have to believe in yourself.”

Jordan nods his head, brightening.

Todd gives him a little shove. Next game, Jordan will run for three touchdowns and throw for another. Before the season is over, he’ll be promoted to JV and win the team’s most valuable offensive player award.

Todd and Marv Marinovich are at a self-storage facility in San Juan Capistrano. Most of Marv’s equipment is inside, odd-looking machines and exercise stuff. Somehow, in the haste of the initial rental, the key was lost. After attempting to drill out the lock — it looks so easy in the movies — they await a locksmith.

Todd is squatting on the hot asphalt like a gang member in a prison yard. Marv is standing against the building in a sliver of shade. Ending his seventh decade, he looks twenty years younger. He lives alone, eats only organic food. Despite his ferocious reputation, he seems a sweet man who loves Todd very much. After two divorces, he has only Todd and Traci, who lives a couple hours away, and Mikhail, his son with his second wife, a former dancer. Mikhail is a six-foot-four sophomore defensive end at Syracuse, about as far as you can get from OC. Last year Mikhail made news when he was arrested for getting drunk and breaking into the college’s gym equipment room with a friend. Todd advised: “Don’t be stupid. You’re a Marinovich. You have a target on your back.”

Marv’s stuff is in storage because he was asked to leave the private high school out of which he’d been working for nearly two years. There was a beef with his young partner. After a display of temper, Marv was asked to vacate by school authorities. The partner stayed. Todd and a friend went with a U-Haul to claim Marv’s equipment.

Now, because it’s the end of the month, they have to pay or move. A friend of Todd’s has volunteered a garage. Todd has taken care of everything. Since he’s been straight, he’s spent a lot of time helping Marv. He’s helping him get his driver’s license back — a long tale of red tape. He helped him buy a computer. He’s helping with visits to the doctor; there are indications of heart arrhythmia. “All those years I was so out of it. It feels good to be the one helping,” Todd says. “He’s always been there for me.”

When Todd was born, he was listed as Marvin Scott Marinovich on his birth certificate. Trudi changed it a few years later to Todd Marvin. Later — an inside joke after a long day of training — Marv started calling his son Buzzy, after Buzzie Bavasi, the legendary Dodgers general manager. For some reason, Todd began calling Marv Buzzy, too. Nowadays, when Marv calls Todd’s cell phone — Todd’s ringtone is the opening bars of the Monday Night Football theme song — Todd will pick up and say, “Hey, Buzzy, what’s up?”

Now, waiting for the locksmith, needing talk to fill the time, Todd begins telling Marv about the art-history course he’s taking at Orange Coast College. The other night in class, Todd explains, they were learning about dadaism, the anti-art movement born in Switzerland during World War I. One of the icons of the movement was this dude named Marcel Duchamp. He did a cool painting called Nude Descending a Staircase. “When he was coming up, his older brothers and his friends were the ones recognized as the famous painters. They thought Marcel sucked,” Todd explains. “But in the end, everybody recognized that Marcel was the true master.”

“After he was dead, I’m sure,” Marv says.

“When I heard that,” Todd continues, ignoring his father’s comment, “the first thing I thought of was you, Buzzy. Someday people will realize what a genius you are.”

Marv looks at him. He’s not sure if Todd is goofing or serious. He raises his thick eyebrows archly. “Have you been drinking something?” he asks.

And then the two of them, Buzzy and Buzzy, share a big laugh.

Driving north on I-5, past the rugged mountains of Camp Pendleton, Todd and I are returning from off-loading Marv’s stuff. The large U-Haul truck judders wildly on the uneven asphalt. Even at fifty miles per hour in the slow lane, the ride is torturous. It has been a full day; the mood in the cab could rightfully be called slaphappy. Todd has noticed that if he sings a note and holds it, the pounding of the road will make his voice quaver rhythmically. It is a silly, joyful thing that turns the discomfort of the ride upside down. I remember my son doing the same on this stretch of road when he was about five.

You could say Todd missed his childhood. Sports took away his first twenty years. Then drugs took the second twenty, the decades of experience and personal growth that shape most men as they near forty, which Todd will turn this upcoming July 4. When Todd was young, Trudi used to tell him that the Independence Day fireworks were all for him. Today she estimates that since he’s been straight, these past thirteen months, Todd has matured from an emotional age of about sixteen to maybe twenty-five, the same age as his fiance.

Alix is an OC girl with pretty blue eyes. She is pregnant. They are expecting a boy. They plan to name him Baron Buzzy Marinovich. They have cleaned out the Chief’s trophy room on the first floor of the beach house and made a little nest for themselves, complete with a new mini kitchen where the bar used to be.

Todd says he’s finished with drugs — the frantic hustle, the lies, the insidious need, the way the world perceives you as a loser. Each time he went to jail, he walked the gantlet of deputies, many of them former high school football players. “You had everything and you threw it away,” they said. It was hard to hear. He knows they were telling the truth.

Three months from now, in early February, feeling pressure from all directions — the deaths within two weeks of his uncle Craig and grandma Virginia, the upcoming gallery show, Marv’s health problems, a new life with his fiance, questions about his future — he will drive on a Sunday afternoon to his old hook spot in Santa Ana and buy some black tar. As soon as he smokes the first hit, he will throw the dope out the window and call his probation officer, then drive directly to the county offices to give himself up. Sixteen months of sobriety lost in an instant. His penalty will be one week at the Farm; it could have been two years. As he drives across town to surrender, he will see in his mind a picture of Alix, the swell of her belly. He wants to be a father to his son.

“I’m gonna get through this program,” he says now, his voice quavering comically as we bounce up the road in the U-Haul. “The day is coming when I’m not gonna have to piss in a fucking cup.”

From the driver’s seat, sensing his good mood, I ask: “How much effect do you think that Marv and sports and all contributed to you turning to drugs?” I’d been saving this line of questioning since our first interview, six months earlier. “If you look at your life, it’s interesting. It appears that to get out of playing, you sort of partied away your eligibility. It’s like you’re too old to play now, so you don’t have to do drugs anymore. Has the burden been lifted?”

Todd looks out the windshield down the road. The truck bounces. Thirty full seconds pass.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Todd says at last. “I really have very few answers.”

“That’s kind of what it seems like. A little.”

Twenty seconds.

“No thoughts?”

“I think, more than anything, it’s genetic. I got that gene from the Fertigs — my uncle, the Chief. They were huge drinkers. And then the environment plays a part in it, for sure.”

He lights another Marlboro Red, sucks down the first sweet hit. He rides in silence the rest of the way home.



I’ll read it later.

At least it’s shorter than half of KIB’s posts.


[quote=“The Runt”]I’ll read it later.

At least it’s shorter than half of KIB’s posts.[/QUOTE]



Excellent read. I’d be surprised if there isn’t someone looking to make that into a film.


That’s all well and good rocko but it doesn’t tell us how the Villa game ebbed and flowed last night


Bullit points please

By teh way, you cannot have an excellent sportswriting thread without Henry Winter, someone post up one of his articles


yeah- any chance of a brief snyopsis



Someone did suggest I was under appreciated a while back aswell


I’m sure there is a more recent thread for excellent sportswriting but a quick search didn’t reveal anything.

This is a long, but brilliantly written, and fairly famous article by David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer. He was a promising tennis player in his youth and some of his novels and short stories, as well as a few essays, talk about tennis. Superb writer. Anyway this was from the New York Times in 2006 when Federer was dominant and it’s really well written:

[article=http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0]Federer as Religious Experience

Published: August 20, 2006

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.

The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do. We’ve all got our examples. Here is one. It’s the finals of the 2005 U.S. Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner…until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands. And there’s that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man’s headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), “How do you hit a winner from that position?” And he’s right: given Agassi’s position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of “The Matrix.” I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.

Anyway, that’s one example of a Federer Moment, and that was merely on TV — and the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.

Journalistically speaking, there is no hot news to offer you about Roger Federer. He is, at 25, the best tennis player currently alive. Maybe the best ever. Bios and profiles abound. “60 Minutes” did a feature on him just last year. Anything you want to know about Mr. Roger N.M.I. Federer — his background, his home town of Basel, Switzerland, his parents’ sane and unexploitative support of his talent, his junior tennis career, his early problems with fragility and temper, his beloved junior coach, how that coach’s accidental death in 2002 both shattered and annealed Federer and helped make him what he now is, Federer’s 39 career singles titles, his eight Grand Slams, his unusually steady and mature commitment to the girlfriend who travels with him (which on the men’s tour is rare) and handles his affairs (which on the men’s tour is unheard of), his old-school stoicism and mental toughness and good sportsmanship and evident overall decency and thoughtfulness and charitable largess — it’s all just a Google search away. Knock yourself out.

This present article is more about a spectator’s experience of Federer, and its context. The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a “bloody near-religious experience.” It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver’s phrase turns out to be true — literally, for an instant ecstatically — though it takes some time and serious watching to see this truth emerge.

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.(1)

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s. You too may find them so, in which case Spain’s mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man’s man for you — he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations. Plus Nadal is also Federer’s nemesis and the big surprise of this year’s Wimbledon, since he’s a clay-court specialist and no one expected him to make it past the first few rounds here. Whereas Federer, through the semifinals, has provided no surprise or competitive drama at all. He’s outplayed each opponent so completely that the TV and print press are worried his matches are dull and can’t compete effectively with the nationalist fervor of the World Cup.(2)

July 9’s men’s final, though, is everyone’s dream. Nadal vs. Federer is a replay of last month’s French Open final, which Nadal won. Federer has so far lost only four matches all year, but they’ve all been to Nadal. Still, most of these matches have been on slow clay, Nadal’s best surface. Grass is Federer’s best. On the other hand, the first week’s heat has baked out some of the Wimbledon courts’ slickness and made them slower. There’s also the fact that Nadal has adjusted his clay-based game to grass — moving in closer to the baseline on his groundstrokes, amping up his serve, overcoming his allergy to the net. He just about disemboweled Agassi in the third round. The networks are in ecstasies. Before the match, on Centre Court, behind the glass slits above the south backstop, as the linesmen are coming out on court in their new Ralph Lauren uniforms that look so much like children’s navalwear, the broadcast commentators can be seen practically bouncing up and down in their chairs. This Wimbledon final’s got the revenge narrative, the king-versus-regicide dynamic, the stark character contrasts. It’s the passionate machismo of southern Europe versus the intricate clinical artistry of the north. Apollo and Dionysus. Scalpel and cleaver. Righty and southpaw. Nos. 1 and 2 in the world. Nadal, the man who’s taken the modern power-baseline game just as far as it goes, versus a man who’s transfigured that modern game, whose precision and variety are as big a deal as his pace and foot-speed, but who may be peculiarly vulnerable to, or psyched out by, that first man. A British sportswriter, exulting with his mates in the press section, says, twice, “It’s going to be a war.”

Plus it’s in the cathedral of Centre Court. And the men’s final is always on the fortnight’s second Sunday, the symbolism of which Wimbledon emphasizes by always omitting play on the first Sunday. And the spattery gale that has knocked over parking signs and everted umbrellas all morning suddenly quits an hour before match time, the sun emerging just as Centre Court’s tarp is rolled back and the net posts driven home.

Federer and Nadal come out to applause, make their ritual bows to the nobles’ box. The Swiss is in the buttermilk-colored sport coat that Nike’s gotten him to wear for Wimbledon this year. On Federer, and perhaps on him alone, it doesn’t look absurd with shorts and sneakers. The Spaniard eschews all warm-up clothing, so you have to look at his muscles right away. He and the Swiss are both in all-Nike, up to the very same kind of tied white Nike hankie with the swoosh positioned above the third eye. Nadal tucks his hair under his hankie, but Federer doesn’t, and smoothing and fussing with the bits of hair that fall over the hankie is the main Federer tic TV viewers get to see; likewise Nadal’s obsessive retreat to the ballboy’s towel between points. There happen to be other tics and habits, though, tiny perks of live viewing. There’s the great care Roger Federer takes to hang the sport coat over his spare courtside chair’s back, just so, to keep it from wrinkling — he’s done this before each match here, and something about it seems childlike and weirdly sweet. Or the way he inevitably changes out his racket sometime in the second set, the new one always in the same clear plastic bag closed with blue tape, which he takes off carefully and always hands to a ballboy to dispose of. There’s Nadal’s habit of constantly picking his long shorts out of his bottom as he bounces the ball before serving, his way of always cutting his eyes warily from side to side as he walks the baseline, like a convict expecting to be shanked. And something odd on the Swiss’s serve, if you look very closely. Holding ball and racket out in front, just before starting the motion, Federer always places the ball precisely in the V-shaped gap of the racket’s throat, just below the head, just for an instant. If the fit isn’t perfect, he adjusts the ball until it is. It happens very fast, but also every time, on both first serves and second.

Nadal and Federer now warm each other up for precisely five minutes; the umpire keeps time. There’s a very definite order and etiquette to these pro warm-ups, which is something that television has decided you’re not interested in seeing. Centre Court holds 13,000 and change. Another several thousand have done what people here do willingly every year, which is to pay a stiff general admission at the gate and then gather, with hampers and mosquito spray, to watch the match on an enormous TV screen outside Court 1. Your guess here is probably as good as anyone’s.

Right before play, up at the net, there’s a ceremonial coin-toss to see who’ll serve first. It’s another Wimbledon ritual. The honorary coin-tosser this year is William Caines, assisted by the umpire and tournament referee. William Caines is a 7-year-old from Kent who contracted liver cancer at age 2 and somehow survived after surgery and horrific chemo. He’s here representing Cancer Research UK. He’s blond and pink-cheeked and comes up to about Federer’s waist. The crowd roars its approval of the re-enacted toss. Federer smiles distantly the whole time. Nadal, just across the net, keeps dancing in place like a boxer, swinging his arms from side to side. I’m not sure whether the U.S. networks show the coin-toss or not, whether this ceremony’s part of their contractual obligation or whether they get to cut to commercial. As William’s ushered off, there’s more cheering, but it’s scattered and disorganized; most of the crowd can’t quite tell what to do. It’s like once the ritual’s over, the reality of why this child was part of it sinks in. There’s a feeling of something important, something both uncomfortable and not, about a child with cancer tossing this dream-final’s coin. The feeling, what-all it might mean, has a tip-of-the-tongue-type quality that remains elusive for at least the first two sets.(3)

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
One thing it is not is televisable. At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting. This loss is simple to explain. TV’s priority, during a point, is coverage of the whole court, a comprehensive view, so that viewers can see both players and the overall geometry of the exchange. Television therefore chooses a specular vantage that is overhead and behind one baseline. You, the viewer, are above and looking down from behind the court. This perspective, as any art student will tell you, “foreshortens” the court. Real tennis, after all, is three-dimensional, but a TV screen’s image is only 2-D. The dimension that’s lost (or rather distorted) on the screen is the real court’s length, the 78 feet between baselines; and the speed with which the ball traverses this length is a shot’s pace, which on TV is obscured, and in person is fearsome to behold. That may sound abstract or overblown, in which case by all means go in person to some professional tournament — especially to the outer courts in early rounds, where you can sit 20 feet from the sideline — and sample the difference for yourself. If you’ve watched tennis only on television, you simply have no idea how hard these pros are hitting the ball, how fast the ball is moving,(4) how little time the players have to get to it, and how quickly they’re able to move and rotate and strike and recover. And none are faster, or more deceptively effortless about it, than Roger Federer.

Interestingly, what is less obscured in TV coverage is Federer’s intelligence, since this intelligence often manifests as angle. Federer is able to see, or create, gaps and angles for winners that no one else can envision, and television’s perspective is perfect for viewing and reviewing these Federer Moments. What’s harder to appreciate on TV is that these spectacular-looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere — they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grâce. And understanding how and why Federer is able to move other world-class athletes around this way requires, in turn, a better technical understanding of the modern power-baseline game than TV — again — is set up to provide.

Wimbledon is strange. Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on-site veneration if the tournament weren’t so intent on reminding you over and over that it’s the cathedral of tennis. There’s a peculiar mix of stodgy self-satisfaction and relentless self-promotion and -branding. It’s a bit like the sort of authority figure whose office wall has every last plaque, diploma, and award he’s ever gotten, and every time you come into the office you’re forced to look at the wall and say something to indicate that you’re impressed. Wimbledon’s own walls, along nearly every significant corridor and passage, are lined with posters and signs featuring shots of past champions, lists of Wimbledon facts and trivia, historic lore, and so on. Some of this stuff is interesting; some is just odd. The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, for instance, has a collection of all the various kinds of rackets used here through the decades, and one of the many signs along the Level 2 passage of the Millennium Building(5) promotes this exhibition with both photos and didactic text, a kind of History of the Racket. Here, sic, is the climactic end of this text:

Today’s lightweight frames made of space-age materials like graphite, boron, titanium and ceramics, with larger heads — mid-size (90-95 square inches) and over-size (110 square inches) — have totally transformed the character of the game. Nowadays it is the powerful hitters who dominate with heavy topspin. Serve-and-volley players and those who rely on subtlety and touch have virtually disappeared.

It seems odd, to say the least, that such a diagnosis continues to hang here so prominently in the fourth year of Federer’s reign over Wimbledon, since the Swiss has brought to men’s tennis degrees of touch and subtlety unseen since (at least) the days of McEnroe’s prime. But the sign’s really just a testament to the power of dogma. For almost two decades, the party line’s been that certain advances in racket technology, conditioning, and weight training have transformed pro tennis from a game of quickness and finesse into one of athleticism and brute power. And as an etiology of today’s power-baseline game, this party line is broadly accurate. Today’s pros truly are measurably bigger, stronger, and better conditioned,(6) and high-tech composite rackets really have increased their capacities for pace and spin. How, then, someone of Federer’s consummate finesse has come to dominate the men’s tour is a source of wide and dogmatic confusion.

There are three kinds of valid explanation for Federer’s ascendancy. One kind involves mystery and metaphysics and is, I think, closest to the real truth. The others are more technical and make for better journalism.

The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan,(7) who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. There are probably a half-dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type — a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.

This thing about the ball cooperatively hanging there, slowing down, as if susceptible to the Swiss’s will — there’s real metaphysical truth here. And in the following anecdote. After a July 7 semifinal in which Federer destroyed Jonas Bjorkman — not just beat him, destroyed him — and just before a requisite post-match news conference in which Bjorkman, who’s friendly with Federer, says he was pleased to “have the best seat in the house” to watch the Swiss “play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis,” Federer and Bjorkman are chatting and joking around, and Bjorkman asks him just how unnaturally big the ball was looking to him out there, and Federer confirms that it was “like a bowling ball or basketball.” He means it just as a bantery, modest way to make Bjorkman feel better, to confirm that he’s surprised by how unusually well he played today; but he’s also revealing something about what tennis is like for him. Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high-level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.(8)

Velocity’s just one part of it. Now we’re getting technical. Tennis is often called a “game of inches,” but the cliché is mostly referring to where a shot lands. In terms of a player’s hitting an incoming ball, tennis is actually more a game of micrometers: vanishingly tiny changes around the moment of impact will have large effects on how and where the ball travels. The same principle explains why even the smallest imprecision in aiming a rifle will still cause a miss if the target’s far enough away.
By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc. These are just the broadest distinctions, of course — like, there’s heavy topspin vs. light topspin, or sharply cross-court vs. only slightly cross-court, etc. There are also the issues of how close you’re allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you’re using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight’s moving forward, and whether you’re able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent’s doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you.(9) This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.

The upshot is that pro tennis involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action. Temporally, we’re more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.

Successfully returning a hard-served tennis ball requires what’s sometimes called “the kinesthetic sense,” meaning the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks. English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on. For promising junior players, refining the kinesthetic sense is the main goal of the extreme daily practice regimens we often hear about.(10) The training here is both muscular and neurological. Hitting thousands of strokes, day after day, develops the ability to do by “feel” what cannot be done by regular conscious thought. Repetitive practice like this often looks tedious or even cruel to an outsider, but the outsider can’t feel what’s going on inside the player — tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness.(11)

The time and discipline required for serious kinesthetic training are one reason why top pros are usually people who’ve devoted most of their waking lives to tennis, starting (at the very latest) in their early teens. It was, for example, at age 13 that Roger Federer finally gave up soccer, and a recognizable childhood, and entered Switzerland’s national tennis training center in Ecublens. At 16, he dropped out of classroom studies and started serious international competition.

It was only weeks after quitting school that Federer won Junior Wimbledon. Obviously, this is something that not every junior who devotes himself to tennis can do. Just as obviously, then, there is more than time and training involved — there is also sheer talent, and degrees of it. Extraordinary kinesthetic ability must be present (and measurable) in a kid just to make the years of practice and training worthwhile…but from there, over time, the cream starts to rise and separate. So one type of technical explanation for Federer’s dominion is that he’s just a bit more kinesthetically talented than the other male pros. Only a little bit, since everyone in the Top 100 is himself kinesthetically gifted — but then, tennis is a game of inches.
This answer is plausible but incomplete. It would probably not have been incomplete in 1980. In 2006, though, it’s fair to ask why this kind of talent still matters so much. Recall what is true about dogma and Wimbledon’s sign. Kinesthetic virtuoso or no, Roger Federer is now dominating the largest, strongest, fittest, best-trained and -coached field of male pros who’ve ever existed, with everyone using a kind of nuclear racket that’s said to have made the finer calibrations of kinesthetic sense irrelevant, like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert.

According to reliable sources, honorary coin-tosser William Caines’s backstory is that one day, when he was 2½, his mother found a lump in his tummy, and took him to the doctor, and the lump was diagnosed as a malignant liver tumor. At which point one cannot, of course, imagine…a tiny child undergoing chemo, serious chemo, his mother having to watch, carry him home, nurse him, then bring him back to that place for more chemo. How did she answer her child’s question — the big one, the obvious one? And who could answer hers? What could any priest or pastor say that wouldn’t be grotesque?

It’s 2-1 Nadal in the final’s second set, and he’s serving. Federer won the first set at love but then flagged a bit, as he sometimes does, and is quickly down a break. Now, on Nadal’s ad, there’s a 16-stroke point. Nadal is serving a lot faster than he did in Paris, and this one’s down the center. Federer floats a soft forehand high over the net, which he can get away with because Nadal never comes in behind his serve. The Spaniard now hits a characteristically heavy topspin forehand deep to Federer’s backhand; Federer comes back with an even heavier topspin backhand, almost a clay-court shot. It’s unexpected and backs Nadal up, slightly, and his response is a low hard short ball that lands just past the service line’s T on Federer’s forehand side. Against most other opponents, Federer could simply end the point on a ball like this, but one reason Nadal gives him trouble is that he’s faster than the others, can get to stuff they can’t; and so Federer here just hits a flat, medium-hard cross-court forehand, going not for a winner but for a low, shallowly angled ball that forces Nadal up and out to the deuce side, his backhand. Nadal, on the run, backhands it hard down the line to Federer’s backhand; Federer slices it right back down the same line, slow and floaty with backspin, making Nadal come back to the same spot. Nadal slices the ball right back — three shots now all down the same line — and Federer slices the ball back to the same spot yet again, this one even slower and floatier, and Nadal gets planted and hits a big two-hander back down the same line — it’s like Nadal’s camped out now on his deuce side; he’s no longer moving all the way back to the baseline’s center between shots; Federer’s hypnotized him a little. Federer now hits a very hard, deep topspin backhand, the kind that hisses, to a point just slightly on the ad side of Nadal’s baseline, which Nadal gets to and forehands cross-court; and Federer responds with an even harder, heavier cross-court backhand, baseline-deep and moving so fast that Nadal has to hit the forehand off his back foot and then scramble to get back to center as the shot lands maybe two feet short on Federer’s backhand side again. Federer steps to this ball and now hits a totally different cross-court backhand, this one much shorter and sharper-angled, an angle no one would anticipate, and so heavy and blurred with topspin that it lands shallow and just inside the sideline and takes off hard after the bounce, and Nadal can’t move in to cut it off and can’t get to it laterally along the baseline, because of all the angle and topspin — end of point. It’s a spectacular winner, a Federer Moment; but watching it live, you can see that it’s also a winner that Federer started setting up four or even five shots earlier.
Everything after that first down-the-line slice was designed by the Swiss to maneuver Nadal and lull him and then disrupt his rhythm and balance and open up that last, unimaginable angle — an angle that would have been impossible without extreme topspin.

Extreme topspin is the hallmark of today’s power-baseline game. This is something that Wimbledon’s sign gets right.(12) Why topspin is so key, though, is not commonly understood. What’s commonly understood is that high-tech composite rackets impart much more pace to the ball, rather like aluminum baseball bats as opposed to good old lumber. But that dogma is false. The truth is that, at the same tensile strength, carbon-based composites are lighter than wood, and this allows modern rackets to be a couple ounces lighter and at least an inch wider across the face than the vintage Kramer and Maxply. It’s the width of the face that’s vital. A wider face means there’s more total string area, which means the sweet spot’s bigger. With a composite racket, you don’t have to meet the ball in the precise geometric center of the strings in order to generate good pace. Nor must you be spot-on to generate topspin, a spin that (recall) requires a tilted face and upwardly curved stroke, brushing over the ball rather than hitting flat through it — this was quite hard to do with wood rackets, because of their smaller face and niggardly sweet spot. Composites’ lighter, wider heads and more generous centers let players swing faster and put way more topspin on the ball…and, in turn, the more topspin you put on the ball, the harder you can hit it, because there’s more margin for error. Topspin causes the ball to pass high over the net, describe a sharp arc, and come down fast into the opponent’s court (instead of maybe soaring out).

So the basic formula here is that composite rackets enable topspin, which in turn enables groundstrokes vastly faster and harder than 20 years ago — it’s common now to see male pros pulled up off the ground and halfway around in the air by the force of their strokes, which in the old days was something one saw only in Jimmy Connors.
Connors was not, by the way, the father of the power-baseline game. He whaled mightily from the baseline, true, but his groundstrokes were flat and spinless and had to pass very low over the net. Nor was Bjorn Borg a true power-baseliner. Both Borg and Connors played specialized versions of the classic baseline game, which had evolved as a counterforce to the even more classic serve-and-volley game, which was itself the dominant form of men’s power tennis for decades, and of which John McEnroe was the greatest modern exponent. You probably know all this, and may also know that McEnroe toppled Borg and then more or less ruled the men’s game until the appearance, around the mid-1980’s, of (a) modern composite rackets(13) and (b) Ivan Lendl, who played with an early form of composite and was the true progenitor of power-baseline tennis.(14)

Ivan Lendl was the first top pro whose strokes and tactics appeared to be designed around the special capacities of the composite racket. His goal was to win points from the baseline, via either passing shots or outright winners. His weapon was his groundstrokes, especially his forehand, which he could hit with overwhelming pace because of the amount of topspin he put on the ball. The blend of pace and topspin also allowed Lendl to do something that proved crucial to the advent of the power-baseline game. He could pull off radical, extraordinary angles on hard-hit groundstrokes, mainly because of the speed with which heavy topspin makes the ball dip and land without going wide. In retrospect, this changed the whole physics of aggressive tennis. For decades, it had been angle that made the serve-and-volley game so lethal. The closer one is to the net, the more of the opponent’s court is open — the classic advantage of volleying was that you could hit angles that would go way wide if attempted from the baseline or midcourt. But topspin on a groundstroke, if it’s really extreme, can bring the ball down fast and shallow enough to exploit many of these same angles. Especially if the groundstroke you’re hitting is off a somewhat short ball — the shorter the ball, the more angles are possible. Pace, topspin, and aggressive baseline angles: and lo, it’s the power-baseline game.

It wasn’t that Ivan Lendl was an immortally great tennis player. He was simply the first top pro to demonstrate what heavy topspin and raw power could achieve from the baseline. And, most important, the achievement was replicable, just like the composite racket. Past a certain threshold of physical talent and training, the main requirements were athleticism, aggression, and superior strength and conditioning. The result (omitting various complications and subspecialties(15)) has been men’s pro tennis for the last 20 years: ever bigger, stronger, fitter players generating unprecedented pace and topspin off the ground, trying to force the short or weak ball that they can put away.

Illustrative stat: When Lleyton Hewitt defeated David Nalbandian in the 2002 Wimbledon men’s final, there was not one single serve-and-volley point.(16)

The generic power-baseline game is not boring — certainly not compared with the two-second points of old-time serve-and-volley or the moon-ball tedium of classic baseline attrition. But it is somewhat static and limited; it is not, as pundits have publicly feared for years, the evolutionary endpoint of tennis. The player who’s shown this to be true is Roger Federer. And he’s shown it from within the modern game.
This within is what’s important here; this is what a purely neural account leaves out. And it is why sexy attributions like touch and subtlety must not be misunderstood. With Federer, it’s not either/or. The Swiss has every bit of Lendl and Agassi’s pace on his groundstrokes, and leaves the ground when he swings, and can out-hit even Nadal from the backcourt.(17) What’s strange and wrong about Wimbledon’s sign, really, is its overall dolorous tone. Subtlety, touch, and finesse are not dead in the power-baseline era. For it is, still, in 2006, very much the power-baseline era: Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It’s just that that’s not all he is. There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.

Which sounds very high-flown and nice, of course, but please understand that with this guy it’s not high-flown or abstract. Or nice. In the same emphatic, empirical, dominating way that Lendl drove home his own lesson, Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable. You should have seen, on the grounds’ outside courts, the variegated ballet that was this year’s Junior Wimbledon. Drop volleys and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three shots ahead — all as well as the standard-issue grunts and booming balls. Whether anything like a nascent Federer was here among these juniors can’t be known, of course. Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.

(1) There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.

(2) The U.S. media here are especially worried because no Americans of either sex survived into even the quarterfinals this year. (If you’re into obscure statistics, it’s the first time this has happened at Wimbledon since 1911.)

(3) Actually, this is not the only Federer-and-sick-child incident of Wimbledon’s second week. Three days prior to the men’s final, a Special One-on-One Interview with Mr. Roger Federer(†) takes place in a small, crowded International Tennis Federation office just off the third floor of the Press Center. Right afterward, as the ATP player-rep is ushering Federer out the back door for his next scheduled obligation, one of the I.T.F. guys (who’s been talking loudly on the telephone through the whole Special Interview) now comes up and asks for a moment of Roger’s time. The man, who has the same slight, generically foreign accent as all I.T.F. guys, says: “Listen, I hate doing this. I don’t do this, normally. It’s for my neighbor. His kid has a disease. They will do a fund-raiser, it’s planned, and I’m asking can you sign a shirt or something, you know — something.” He looks mortified. The ATP rep is glaring at him. Federer, though, just nods, shrugs: “No problem. I’ll bring it tomorrow.” Tomorrow’s the men’s semifinal. Evidently the I.T.F. guy has meant one of Federer’s own shirts, maybe from the match, with Federer’s actual sweat on it. (Federer throws his used wristbands into the crowd after matches, and the people they land on seem pleased rather than grossed out.) The I.T.F. guy, after thanking Federer three times very fast, shakes his head: “I hate doing this.” Federer, still halfway out the door: “It’s no problem.” And it isn’t. Like all pros, Federer changes his shirt during matches, and he can just have somebody save one, and then he’ll sign it. It’s not like Federer’s being Gandhi here — he doesn’t stop and ask for details about the kid or his illness. He doesn’t pretend to care more than he does. The request is just one more small, mildly distracting obligation he has to deal with. But he does say yes, and he will remember — you can tell. And it won’t distract him; he won’t permit it. He’s good at this kind of stuff, too.

(†) (Only considerations of space and basic believability prevent a full description of the hassles involved in securing such a One-on-One. In brief, it’s rather like the old story of someone climbing an enormous mountain to talk to the man seated lotus on top, except in this case the mountain is composed entirely of sports-bureaucrats.)

(4) Top men’s serves often reach speeds of 125-135 m.p.h., true, but what all the radar signs and graphics neglect to tell you is that male power-baseliners’ groundstrokes themselves are often traveling at over 90 m.p.h., which is the speed of a big-league fastball. If you get down close enough to a pro court, you can hear an actual sound coming off the ball in flight, a kind of liquid hiss, from the combination of pace and spin. Close up and live, you’ll also understand better the “open stance” that’s become such an emblem of the power-baseline game. The term, after all, just means not turning one’s side all the way to the net before hitting a groundstroke, and one reason why so many power-baseliners hit from the open stance is that the ball is now coming too fast for them to get turned all the way.

(5) This is the large (and presumably six-year-old) structure where Wimbledon’s administration, players, and media all have their respective areas and HQs.

(6) (Some, like Nadal or Serena Williams, look more like cartoon superheroes than people.)

(7) When asked, during the aforementioned Special One-on-One Interview, for examples of other athletes whose performances might seem beautiful to him, Federer mentions Jordan first, then Kobe Bryant, then “a soccer player like — guys who play very relaxed, like a Zinédine Zidane or something: he does great effort, but he seems like he doesn’t need to try hard to get the results.”

Federer’s response to the subsequent question, which is what-all he makes of it when pundits and other players describe his own game as “beautiful,” is interesting mainly because the response is pleasant, intelligent, and cooperative — as is Federer himself — without ever really saying anything (because, in fairness, what could one say about others’ descriptions of him as beautiful? What would you say? It’s ultimately a stupid question): “It’s always what people see first — for them, that’s what you are ‘best at.’ When you used to watch John McEnroe, you know, the first time, what would you see? You would see a guy with incredible talent, because the way he played, nobody played like this. The way he played the ball, it was just all about feel. And then you go over to Boris Becker, and right away you saw a powerful player, you know?(†) When you see me play, you see a ‘beautiful’ player — and maybe after that you maybe see that he’s fast, maybe you see that he’s got a good forehand, maybe then you see that he has a good serve. First, you know, you have a base, and to me, I think it’s great, you know, and I’m very lucky to be called basically ‘beautiful,’ you know, for style of play. … With me it’s, like, ‘the beautiful player,’ and that’s really cool.”

(†) N.B. Federer’s big conversational tics are “maybe” and “you know.” Ultimately, these tics are helpful because they serve as reminders of how appallingly young he really is. If you’re interested, the world’s best tennis player is wearing white warm-up pants and a long-sleeved white microfiber shirt, possibly Nike. No sport coat, though. His handshake is only moderately firm, though the hand itself is like a carpentry rasp (for obvious reasons, tennis players tend to be very callusy). He’s a bit bigger than TV makes him seem — broader-shouldered, deeper in the chest. He’s next to a table that’s covered with visors and headbands, which he’s been autographing with a Sharpie. He sits with his legs crossed and smiles pleasantly and seems very relaxed; he never fidgets with the Sharpie. One’s overall impression is that Federer is either a very nice guy or a guy who’s very good at dealing with the media — or (most likely) both.

(8) Special One-on-One support from the man himself for this claim: “It’s interesting, because this week, actually, Ancic [comma Mario, the towering Top-10 Croatian whom Federer beat in Wednesday’s quarterfinal] played on Centre Court against my friend, you know, the Swiss player Wawrinka [comma Stanislas, Federer’s Davis Cup teammate], and I went to see it out where, you know, my girlfriend Mirka [Vavrinec, a former women’s Top-100 player, knocked out by injury, who now basically functions as Federer’s Alice B. Toklas] usually sits, and I went to see — for the first time since I have come here to Wimbledon, I went to see a match on Centre Court, and I was also surprised, actually, how fast, you know, the serve is and how fast you have to react to be able to get the ball back, especially when a guy like Mario [Ancic, who’s known for his vicious serve] serves, you know? But then once you’re on the court yourself, it’s totally different, you know, because all you see is the ball, really, and you don’t see the speed of the ball… ”

(9) We’re doing the math here with the ball traveling as the crow flies, for simplicity. Please do not write in with corrections. If you want to factor in the serve’s bounce and so compute the total distance traveled by the ball as the sum of an oblique triangle’s(†) two shorter legs, then by all means go ahead — you’ll end up with between two and five additional hundredths of a second, which is not significant.

(†) (The slower a tennis court’s surface, the closer to a right triangle you’re going to have. On fast grass, the bounce’s angle is always oblique.)

(10) Conditioning is also important, but this is mainly because the first thing that physical fatigue attacks is the kinesthetic sense. (Other antagonists are fear, self-consciousness, and extreme upset — which is why fragile psyches are rare in pro tennis.)

(11) The best lay analogy is probably to the way an experienced driver can make all of good driving’s myriad little decisions and adjustments without having to pay attention to them.

(12) (…assuming, that is, that the sign’s “with heavy topspin” is modifying “dominate” rather than “powerful hitters,” which actually it might or might not — British grammar is a bit dodgy.)

(13) (which neither Connors nor McEnroe could switch to with much success — their games were fixed around pre-modern rackets.)

(14) Formwise, with his whippy forehand, lethal one-hander, and merciless treatment of short balls, Lendl somewhat anticipated Federer. But the Czech was also stiff, cold, and brutal; his game was awesome but not beautiful. (My college doubles partner used to describe watching Lendl as like getting to see “Triumph of the Will” in 3-D.)

(15) See, for one example, the continued effectiveness of some serve-and-volley (mainly in the adapted, heavily ace- and quickness-dependent form of a Sampras or Rafter) on fast courts through the 1990’s.

(16) It’s also illustrative that 2002 was Wimbledon’s last pre-Federer final.

(17) In the third set of the ’06 final, at three games all and 30-15, Nadal kicks his second serve high to Federer’s backhand. Nadal’s clearly been coached to go high and heavy to Federer’s backhand, and that’s what he does, point after point. Federer slices the return back to Nadal’s center and two feet short — not short enough to let the Spaniard hit a winner, but short enough to draw him slightly into the court, whence Nadal winds up and puts all his forehand’s strength into a hard heavy shot to (again) Federer’s backhand. The pace he’s put on the ball means that Nadal is still backpedaling to the baseline as Federer leaves his feet and cranks a very hard topspin backhand down the line to Nadal’s deuce side, which Nadal — out of position but world-class fast — reaches and manages to one-hand back deep to (again) Federer’s backhand side, but this ball’s floaty and slow, and Federer has time to step around and hit an inside-out forehand, a forehand as hard as anyone’s hit all tournament, with just enough topspin to bring it down in Nadal’s ad corner, and the Spaniard gets there but can’t return it. Big ovation. Again, what looks like an overwhelming baseline winner was actually set up by that first clever semi-short slice and Nadal’s own predictability about where and how hard he’ll hit every ball. Federer sure whaled that last forehand, though. People are looking at each other and applauding. The thing with Federer is that he’s Mozart and Metallica at the same time, and the harmony’s somehow exquisite.

By the way, it’s right around here, or the next game, watching, that three separate inner-type things come together and mesh. One is a feeling of deep personal privilege at being alive to get to see this; another is the thought that William Caines is probably somewhere here in the Centre Court crowd, too, watching, maybe with his mum. The third thing is a sudden memory of the earnest way the press bus driver promised just this experience. Because there is one. It’s hard to describe — it’s like a thought that’s also a feeling. One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.



Excellent might be a stretch but it’s the most suitable thread. He speaks the truth.


After two years in the wilderness, journalist Paul Kimmage is back in the ball game


In July 2003, during the final round of the British Open at Royal St Georges, I was walking the fairways with a friend, Alan English, when he made an observation. “I’ve just noticed something about you,” he said. “You never follow the ball.”

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“Well, we’ve been following Nick Faldo for three holes now and every time he hits a shot your eyes never leave him; you don’t turn your head; you don’t follow the ball.”

“Really? Hadn’t thought about it.”

But it was true. When it comes to the business of writing and sport I have always been more interested in the dancer than the dance.

I’ve discussed porn with Tony Adams, paternity with Boris Becker, prayer with Bernhard Langer and promiscuity with Flavio Briatore. I’ve talked about death with Severiano Ballesteros, depression with Ronnie O’Sullivan and doping with almost everybody.

What do Joe Namath, Geoff Hurst, Jackie Stewart, Pete Sampras, Usain Bolt, Nick Faldo, Roger Federer, Pádraig Harrington, John McEnroe, Shane Warne, Maria Sharapova, Ian Botham, Gareth Edwards, Greg Norman, Andre Agassi, Ernie Els, Brian O’Driscoll, Patrick Vieira, Novak Djokovic, Roy Keane, Rafael Nadal, Dan Carter, Jimmy Connors, Greg LeMond, Haile Gebrselassie, Bobby Robson, Floyd Landis and Richie McCaw have in common?

They have all had ‘the treatment’. Most enjoyed it, a couple threatened to sue, and one declined to talk to me at all.

“You are not worth the chair you are sitting on.”

Shrewd guy that Lance Armstrong.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I never trained to be a journalist and have always tried to set my own rules:

Do not hunt with the pack.

Do not go with the flow.

Don’t ask ‘When?’ Ask ‘Why?’

Don’t say yes, say no.

Do not follow the ball.

And that’s a good thing, right? To strive to do things differently than everyone else?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Ten years in London had brought six Sportswriter of the Year nominations, five Sports Interviewer of the Year awards and a pay rise and letter from my editor every year commending me on a job well done. And that’s a good thing, right? Because if you weren’t performing and your job was at risk, they would not be sending you flowers, right?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

The bullet came on October 26, 2011. I never saw the gun. First, a surprise phone call from a person I had never spoken to before and then a hastily dispatched email.

Dear Paul,

I am writing to confirm that as part of the proposed changes for the Sunday Times there is no longer a need for your role of Sports Writer. This is because there is no longer a business need for a sports writer to specialise in writing review stories, interviews etc, which is essentially what your role involves. Unfortunately we have had to reduce our sports coverage due to the Sports section having significant pagination reductions as a result of the increased newsprint costs the Sunday Times is having to sustain. We have reviewed the duties and responsibilities which form your role and, having compared this across the department, we have determined that your role is unique. Therefore I unfortunately have to confirm that your role is at risk of redundancy.

Some dark thoughts peppered my head during the sleepless nights that followed.

Why me? Why have they done this to me?

If my life ends before this notice runs out, these wankers will have to pay my wife and kids, all of the benefits they’re trying to screw us for.

Do these f**king idiots have any idea how good I am? Wait until the other newspapers hear about this! They’ll be knocking down the door to hire me!

But three months later, I was signing on for the jobseeker’s allowance at my local social welfare office. Now that’s a kick in the head but I had plenty of company: architects, plumbers, accountants, carpenters, plasterers.

Why not me?

Six months passed before I returned to print – a commission from the Daily Mail in July to write a feature on Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour de France. It was different to anything that was printed about Wiggins that summer and at first the editor baulked. “This is going to cause an absolute shitstorm.”

But he ran with it, and I was hopeful a few weeks later when a meeting was arranged in London. “We’ve always liked your writing,” he said. “You’re unique.”

Because unique is good, right? Unique is what readers covet. But I never heard from him again.

A month later, Lance Armstrong was busted by the United States Anti Doping Agency and I was praised for my journalism in several editorials but it was bittersweet. There was no offer of a job. It was a story that kept on giving and nobody trumpeted louder than the Sunday Times. They had used the money they had saved by firing me (“so sorry, the recession etcetera”) to hire another ex-footballer as a columnist. But now it was all about ‘journalism’ again.

“Hey folks! We told you so! Look how wonderful we are.”

Anger and bitterness consumed me. The love of family and friends kept me on the rails and the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel that I might return to the Sunday Independent.

I was 32-years-old when I joined this newspaper in 1994 and still learning my trade. I was hungry and ambitious; I wanted to be Dunphy and Humphries and Kerrigan and Walsh but was fortunate to inherit an editor, Aengus Fanning, and a sports editor, Adhamhnan O’Sullivan, who gave me the confidence to be myself.

For eight years, it was the perfect job and I knew there was a risk it would never be the same when I got the offer to work in London. It wasn’t, but there are no regrets. I loved my time there and worked with some really great people but I am glad to be back because we are different. Irish people are different.

We don’t follow the ball.

Sixteen years ago, on the night before they buried Lady Di, I sat in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Reykjavik drinking tea with Brian Kerr. It was a Friday evening – the eve of a World Cup qualifier with Iceland – and I was sounding him out about a column I was writing on the pitifully small attendance (2,000) for Eoin Hand’s testimonial that week and what it said about the so called “best supporters in the world.”

Kerr didn’t agree. “I don’t think it was an insult to Eoin,” he said, “but that whole testimonial scene is a very odd business. There was a time when it was considered as a sort of loyalty bonus but I’m not sure it has a place in the modern game where players are generally disloyal and don’t give a f*** about anything but themselves.”

I scribbled a few notes and was about to change tack when a not-too-distant memory drew him back: “You know,” he said, “the last time I spoke to Eoin was at Charlie Tierney’s funeral.”

“Who’s Charlie Tierney?” I asked.

That summer of '97 – my seventh as a sportswriter – was possibly the busiest I had known. Sonia O’Sullivan had suffered a second career meltdown at the World Athletics Championships in Athens; Michelle de Bruin was making tidal waves at the European Championships in Seville and I had washed-up in Reykjavik after a month on the road feeling jaded and cynical.

Charlie Tierney changed everything. I raced back to my room, ditched the column on the fans and tried to recreate what I had just been told. The new column opened with a scene from a pub – McDowells in Inchicore – and a fund-raising quiz between some St Patrick’s Athletic fans.

What’s the largest country in the world?

What’s the population of China?

How many Englishmen have won the US Open?

Noel O’Reilly, a club stalwart, had set the questions and was really licking his lips about Question 4.

Who does Charlie Tierney sell programmes for?

Because he knew what they’d say, “He sells programmes for Pat’s and Shels and at the internationals” and knew there would be uproar when he announced they had all got it wrong.

“What the f** are you playing at Noel!”

But he stood his ground. “No, there is only one answer to the question about Charlie Tierney and none of yis got it right. The answer is ‘Anyone who asks’.”

“And he was right,” Kerr recalled. "Because while we all liked to think we had exclusive rights to Charlie’s services, there was only football in his life and he would have sold programmes or coupons or anything to do with any club for anyone who asked.

"He was a great fellow, a harmless, simple soul who used to sell milk for the dairy and bring a few bottles to training, just to be involved. You might be sitting in the dressing room with your head in your hands for three hours after a game and Charlie would still be waiting when you came out.

"‘Don’t worry about it Brian,’ he’d say, ‘we can still win the league.’ And you’d look at him, and his poor innocent way would just melt your heart: ‘Ahh I don’t know Charlie, we’re 15 points off.’ Or you might see him on a cold, wet night at Tolka Park and he’d come over to you with his milk-bottle-ends for spectacles and a bundle of programmes under his arm. ‘There y’are Brian, take a programme.’ And you’d offer him a pound but he’d say ‘No, no, here it’s all right.’

Tierney’s health was never great. He suffered with diabetes and bad circulation and developed gangrene in his toes. One morning, after surgery in the Mater, he received a surprise visit from the Huddersfield manager, Eoin Hand. Tierney had followed Hand since his playing days and was thrilled when he announced that he had brought Huddersfield over to play Drogheda that afternoon.

They spoke for a while about the old days and after Hand had wished him well, and was heading down the stairs, he noticed Charlie hobbling after him with a coat pulled over his pyjamas.

“Would it be alright if I went to the match in Drogheda with you, Eoin?”

“I . . . I 'm sorry Charlie but we can’t take you out of the hospital.”

“It’ll be all right Eoin, they won’t mind – sure we’ll be back early, won’t we?”

“Look Charlie, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll come back this evening after the game and tell you exactly how it went.”

“Fair enough, Eoin.”

A few hours later, the Huddersfield team bus was half-way to Drogheda when it was flagged down by a taxi. To the amazement of all present, a short little man with thick glasses, jumped out and started banging on the door of the bus: “Eoin! Eoin! Is it all right if I go to the game with you?” They brought him to the game and delivered him back to the hospital.

In 1997, on the night before he died, Kerr went to visit him in Beaumont Hospital. “In the end, the sickness went through him and he looked very tired and weak. ‘How are you doing Charlie?’ I said. ‘Has anyone been into you?’ And he opened his eyes and managed a bit of a smile. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘Eoin was in yesterday.’”

I can still hear the warmth in Brian’s voice when he told me that story. And I can still feel the tingle in my spine when I typed the bottom line. I was doing what I loved and loving what I was doing and as I sit here contemplating the next sporting year, it feels great to be back in the ball game.

I hope I feel that buzz again.


That’s a brilliant article.



A Journey in Pursuit of Luis Suarez


BEFORE GETTING TO the alleged mob hit or the mystery of the missing referee, there should be an explanation about how this quest began. An assigned profile of Luis Suarez led to a stack of things to read about his past. Whether it was a tabloid calling him Cannibal! or The New York Times calling him Luis Alberto Suarez Diaz, the portrait is of a cheat and a lunatic. If someone breathes on him near the goal, he falls down like he’s been knifed. He has bitten an opponent. Twice. And, back in his childhood in Uruguay, there’s an oft-reported incident that serves as explanation, or maybe proof, that he is, in fact, batshit crazy. When Suarez was 15, overcome with anger, he headbutted a referee and received a red card in a youth match, making the man’s nose bleed “like a cow,” as a witness said.

No soccer player in the world provokes such a strong emotional response as Liverpool’s striker, with less of an understanding of what lurks beneath the surface. His recent injury, which puts his World Cup fitness into doubt, makes him more intriguing. Yet knowing Suarez is difficult, since he seems to not know himself, and, regardless, he wouldn’t talk to me. The best path to that knowledge would have to be a journey through his past, looking for clues. That was the plan: talk to people who knew him and let their memories paint a picture. Those who met him during his early years, especially the first person he ever assaulted, might offer slivers of insight. So in addition to visiting Suarez’s mother, friends and neighbors, I wanted to sit down with the referee.

Only I couldn’t find him.

Nobody I called knew his name. I went to the bottom of the Internet in English, then paid someone to do the same in Spanish. Neither search revealed the man. He was never identified, not in a news story, not in the comments on a news story, not even in message boards. For a reporter, or even an experienced reader, something not being on the Internet sets off alarms. Further reading raised more: The referee story first appeared in one of the often sleazy London tabloids and spread from there, like fact-checking syphilis. One person told one reporter, and all the other stories repeated the anecdote. It bore all the telltale symptoms of origin myth.

Part of me wondered whether the referee ever existed at all, and that led to more questions, and ultimately, this odd little quest. Either I’d knock down a myth, which is journalist crack cocaine, or I’d come face to face with someone who’d been on the receiving end of the initial Suarez meltdown, which spawned, and perhaps would even explain, all that had happened since.

I went to find the ref.


THE SEARCH BEGAN in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, which curves around a long bend in the coastline. The water sparkles. I passed the impressive hotels and apartment buildings rising above the sea. The challenge of the phantom referee had drawn me to this beautiful city, where the rich live magical lives and, in the shadow of the main bus station, the poor live a century in the past. That’s where Suarez grew up in a broken family and came of age as a football player.

“Fútbol, no,” said a former mentor, understanding enough English to correct my translator. “Pelota.”


That means street soccer. Suarez didn’t love football. He loved to play ball.

Everyone defended Suarez. On the first day, my translator, Felipe, met me in the lobby of my hotel, and as we started making calls, a referee warned him that I had bad intentions. Why else would I want to find someone attacked by Suarez, if not to use the referee to bludgeon their favorite son?

We went door to door, asking the same question over and over again.

What really happened when Suarez was 15?

People who should know didn’t, and the first tremors of obsession began. A high-profile local attorney escorted us into his book-lined office. His socks and tie matched. His name was Enrique Moller, and when Suarez was 15, he was the judge who reviewed all youth league disciplinary problems. He remembered an incident involving Suarez but couldn’t recall details. For sure, he said, he didn’t remember an assault.

“It was a verbal aggression,” said a man Moller had brought to be his translator.

Moller hadn’t kept any of his notes or a dusty file about the case. Felipe and I checked out stacks of old newspapers at the national library. The librarian retrieved our materials with a tiny Otis elevator. We took the bound volumes of El Pais and El Observador into the soft, yellow light of the reading room. Neither of us found a story about youth football or a mention of a 15-year-old phenom named Luis.

Someone told us the football federation would have records, but it didn’t. The press officer gently admonished us, saying that there were thousands of incidents involving youth players, some minor and some serious, and we only cared about this one because it involved a kid who grew up to be Suarez. So, to recap, he didn’t know whether there was an incident, and, if an incident did happen, it was surely minor, and, if it wasn’t minor, it still didn’t matter and our interest was proof of our own moral failings. At Nacional, the club where Luis played youth football, an employee disappeared down the dark halls of the facility to look for game-by-game stats, or even an old schedule. He emerged empty-handed.

“Those years are lost,” he said.

The phone proved more useful than trekking around Montevideo. We started with a famous Uruguayan international referee, a man named Martin Vasquez, whom we caught up with in Chile, where he was working a match. He remembered rumors and whispers about an incident involving Suarez but didn’t know a name. The Uruguayan referee community is small and tight, and he suggested other soccer people to call. We worked down the list, quickly explaining what we wanted and why. By the third or fourth call, we found a referee who remembered hearing about a confrontation involving Suarez, but, instead of a headbutt, it was a thrown cup of water. Two people told Felipe they remembered the alleged victim’s identity.

The name of the referee, if he was the right one, was Luis Larranaga.


  1. Last year, Suarez bit Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic on the arm.
  2. Ivanovic shouldn’t have been shocked. Suarez was suspended in 2010 for a similar incident.
  3. After the match, Suarez said, “I completely lost it.” From top: Rex Features/AP Images; Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images; Peter Powell/EPA/LANDOV

EVERYTHING ABOUT LUIS SUAREZ is viewed and judged through his reputation, which, although familiar to fans around the world, might not be as clear in the relative soccer wastelands of America. Putting him in an American context is difficult because he transcends the sports page. Imagine the tabloid fodder of Lindsay Lohan’s life with Jennifer Lawrence’s acting chops. That’s the unique place Suarez occupies in the European pop culture firmament. In April, the English Premier League named him player of the year. He has carried the reborn Liverpool side on his shoulders. And yet, despite his widely acknowledged greatness, people hate him.

A blogger wrote this: “Even his facial features give the impression of a deceitful person who is meant not to be trusted.”

A more responsible newspaper, the Toronto Star, toning down the rhetoric, said this: “He’s the diviest, whiniest, annoyingest player on Earth. Though there are plenty of aspirants, he is easily the most hated man in football. … North of his feet, there is nothing good about Suarez. He couldn’t be more awful if he came out of the tunnel twirling mustachios.”

The two most well-known examples of said awfulness are, of course, the two times he bit opponents on the field. In November 2010, playing for Ajax in Amsterdam, he bit midfielder Otman Bakkal on the shoulder during an argument. Suarez never played for Ajax again. Less than three years later, now with Liverpool and jockeying in front of the goal in a match against Chelsea, he sank his teeth into the right forearm of Branislav Ivanovic. Both times, Suarez responded to the normal action of the game with a completely inappropriate, nutty overreaction.

Beyond the biting, he dives, famously and often, flailing on the ground if a defender even thinks of touching him, and there’s the entire debate in England about whether he’s a racist. Playing Manchester United, he reportedly called Patrice Evra negrito – “little black” – and, after finishing serving his suspension for racially abusing an opponent, he refused to shake Evra’s hand before a match. The same newspaper, theToronto Star, in the same piece, also wrote: “He will do something insane at this summer’s World Cup – mark it down. … Eventually, he’ll punch a baby.”

Those were the things I’d internalized about Suarez by the time I arrived in Uruguay. His reputation prepared me to believe any sort of wild story, and, while Felipe worked the phone looking for more information on Larranaga, a wild story is exactly what I found. We sat in the lobby, and I searched the web for Luis Larranaga and Luis Suarez. Nothing.

I searched again, using only Larranaga’s name and arbitro, referee.

Now, in print, I will try to use words to eloquently convey the essence of my internal triple-take reaction once the results popped up in my browser: Holy Goddamn Shitballs!

One link led to a local blog about the hidden mafia running Uruguayan football, about drug cartels using the sport to launder money. The author across many posts built a case for systemic corruption. In the middle of the allegations, there was a story about how, in 2003, the head of youth soccer, Nelson Spillman, threatened a referee named Luis Larranaga.

Spillman, according to the story, tried to pressure Larranaga into changing a postmatch report to the disciplinary committee – the one chaired by the lawyer with the matching tie and socks. Larranaga had given a red card to an unnamed player who then physically assaulted him. Quick math said that Suarez would have been 16 then, not 15, so either the timeline didn’t work or the news reports were off by a year.

The story got weirder. An investigative reporter broke the news about Spillman threatening Larranaga. Less than a month later, a hit man shot the reporter at the door of his house. The hit man had been paid $500. The assassination failed, and Nelson Spillman and his brother, Daniel, who reportedly drove the getaway car, went to jail for the botched hit.

Many media outlets covered the investigation and the trial. In these accounts of the shooting, the youth player whose assault sparked the bizarre chain of events was never named.

Was it Suarez?

TO SUAREZ’S DETRACTORS, the headbutt story provides a structure for the biting and the other horrible behavior, taking distinct incidents and organizing them into a narrative. The headbutt sounds true. Well, it sounds true to soccer fans in Europe. In Uruguay, where Suarez is a treasure, the story doesn’t fit into the nation’s image of the star. To Wilson Pirez, the scout who discovered Suarez as a poor, skinny 9-year-old kid, the rest of the world is wrong.

Pirez met us at a steakhouse near the Montevideo docks, where dark bars offer cheap international calls and cheaper drinks to sailors rushing off the container ships. Daylight dies a few feet inside the lawless saloons, and everything is for sale. At the restaurant, thick cuts of grass-fed beef cooked on open wood fires, and the whole place smelled like melting fat and salt. Pirez told us about how a reporter from England misquoted him. Suarez had read the comments and called his friend to basically find out, you know, What the hell, man? Pirez assured him he hadn’t said those things, then called the newspaper to rant. But the scout knew the drill. “They ask me, ‘Was he that bad when he was a kid?’” Pirez said. “Searching for the answer that suits their story, which is ‘Suarez is violent.’ I get angry. Why are you searching for that?”

Reporters only come to Uruguay to find out why Suarez bites people because, to be fair, that is a damn interesting question. Pirez knows and loves Suarez, so he is both the best and worst person to ask. He’ll never believe that perhaps it isn’t a completely bad idea to define someone by a few major events. Extreme moments can reveal us as we truly are. So although there is a case to be made that Suarez cannot be reduced to the bites and headbutts, there is an equally compelling case that those few seconds are the most authentic he’s ever been. Suarez wears many masks, each of them true in the moment he puts them on, but perhaps nothing reveals his truest self like the mask he wears when he’s threatened, for that is the one that shows all the hurt he wants to hide.

The latest bite cost Suarez a 10-game suspension, and millions of people watched the grainy footage of the attack and the photographs of Ivanovic afterward, with terrified eyes, looking as if he’d been playing a game and run into someone for whom the action meant much, much more. Everyone saw Suarez’s suspension, as they’d seen an earlier one for racial taunting. But nobody saw what he did when faced with the end of his football career. After one of those two suspensions – the friend telling the story couldn’t recall which – Suarez flew home. With rumors circling about Liverpool cutting him loose, he ran straight into the embrace of a group of men he hadn’t seen in years. He threw a party for many of the guys who played with him on the Nacional youth team in 2003, the same boys he grew up with, who were there when he either did or did not headbutt a referee.

“People he hadn’t seen for years and years and years,” says Mathias Cardacio, who played youth ball with Suarez.

Sitting in the steakhouse, Pirez told a story of his own, which is as true as the two famous bites. Not long ago, Suarez was at the beach in Uruguay, making an official appearance at some event that wanted the reflected wattage of his fame. Everyone saw him there, flashbulbs popping. But nobody saw him leave, driving in a rush back to Montevideo for Pirez’s daughter’s second birthday. So is Suarez a family guy who twice bit someone, or is he a lunatic who every now and then manages to act like a normal guy?

In Uruguay, reporters write about him being a great father and friend because that rings true, just as the stories of violence ring true in England and around the world.

The sports editor of one of Montevideo’s papers met us one evening in a bar near the old colonial square. A brick oven in the back there reaches extraordinary temperatures, and the flames turn out the best pizza in town, with draft beer so cold it turns to ice when it hits the big, heavy mugs. Romulo Martinez Chenlo tucked his long hair behind his ears and took off his glasses. Martinez Chenlo said he’d never heard the story of the headbutt, which isn’t part of the local boilerplate biography. He barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes when I brought up the two sides of Suarez.

“There are not two Suarezes,” he said, raising his voice.

Martinez Chenlo decided to prove once and for all that his Suarez never attacked a referee. He scrolled through his phone until he found the number of a friend, a man named Ricardo Perdomo. Perdomo coached Suarez in the youth leagues. If an assault occurred, he would have been on the sideline. Martinez Chenlo dialed and then talked in Spanish for a few minutes, grinning at us every so often, as if he were getting all the details he needed to prove that the story was made up. His eyes moved back and forth, the look of someone processing information, and after a long pause, he hung up.

“It was not a headbutt,” he said, sounding triumphant. Then he explained what he learned. It was 2003. Suarez was 16, not 15. Nacional was playing Danubio, another local team, and Suarez never assaulted anyone. He simply protested a referee’s decision when a bit of bad luck struck. Sure, his head hit the referee’s face, but not on purpose.

“He fell,” Martinez Chenlo said, “accidentally into the referee.”

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT had nothing to do with Suarez, but it does reveal the violence of the world that created him, and perhaps explains why nobody wanted to talk about the headbutt, because of everything that followed it. To hear the story, we called Ricardo Gabito, an investigative journalist.

A couple of days later, he walked across a downtown plaza and joined us at an outdoor café.

“The denunciation I made of Suarez’s attack against a referee,” he said, “ended with the shot they fired.”

The bistro chair struggled to contain Gabito, an anvil of a man with the beginnings of a paunch and a fist of chest hair punching out his open collar. His legs pumped beneath the table. His dark eyebrows looked like fighting caterpillars. Since 1981, he’d worked for newspapers and television stations, chasing corruption. He’s one of the only sports journalists willing to take on the corrupt side of Uruguayan soccer, whether it’s drug traffickers who use player transfers to hide cocaine profits or crooked officials who want to pressure referees. The tales of corruption and narcosand midnight gunmen set the hook completely. I was deeply obsessed with the headbutt and all that followed.

Sitting across from me, Gabito told the story of Suarez, leaning in, animated and intense: During a 2003 match to decide a youth league championship, Larranaga gave Suarez a red card and then claimed Suarez assaulted him. The actual report disappeared, so nobody can prove what the referee actually alleged. Without Larranaga to separate fact from rumor, the whole incident remains trapped in hazy word of mouth, most details coming from the newspaper accounts that followed Gabito’s shooting.

According to them, Spillman called Larranaga after the match, asking him to change his official match report to eliminate any mention of aggression by Suarez, wanting to protect the star player on his favorite team. Larranaga refused, and Spillman in a voice message called him a pimp and a motherf-----, threatening to end his career. Larranaga stuck up for himself and turned in his report unedited. Suarez received a long suspension. Sources at the football federation leaked information to Gabito, who ran his story on Dec. 11, 2003. More leads followed. He dug deeper on Spillman. On Dec. 21, just 10 days after the initial report, Gabito walked home from his television show. It was 11:15 at night. A strange car idled in front of his house.

Now, sitting at the table, Gabito looked around and grabbed the sugar container. That would be the car. Other bits of coffee paraphernalia represented him and his house, and here, at Café Tribunales, on a busy, urban square, he re-enacted his own assassination attempt.

Gabito got to his door and felt the hard barrel against his head. The hit man, forced into the job to settle a debt, changed his mind at the last minute. He wrapped his arm around Gabito’s neck and shot him in the leg. The getaway car screeched off into the night, and, with blood pooling on the concrete, Gabito hailed a cab to the hospital. Four years later, walking down the street, he ran into the hit man. The would-be murderer asked, “Do you know who I am?”

Gabito said, “You’re the one who shot me.”

They parted ways, nothing left to say, another weird scene in the world of Uruguayan soccer. All three people involved in the shooting spent time behind bars, but all have been released. They’ve fared better than Gabito, who angered powerful interests one time too many. Fired at least twice over the years for refusing to print lies, he is now blackballed from the industry he loves. He hasn’t had an investigation on television since 2011, and he hasn’t had a byline since February 2013. He feels wronged, backed into a corner.

That’s one reason his favorite player is Suarez.

Everyone in Uruguay knows what Suarez fought against, and rose above. That’s how he exists in the national consciousness, as someone who fights to win, no matter what, running to escape poverty and obscurity. A man doesn’t bite simply because he is crazy. He bites because he is clinging to a new life, terrified of being sucked back into the one he left behind. That’s what Gabito believes. “Soccer was a vehicle for him to be saved,” he said. “He clung to that, as if to say, ‘This is where either I’ll be saved or I will sink.’”

A veil was pulled back, and I saw Gabito anew. I understood him now.

“What was your childhood like?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

He seemed smaller than before.

“Tough,” he said. “Like Suarez’s childhood.”

At the age of 11, Gabito went to work, supporting himself financially from that day on. His parents didn’t have any money, so Gabito washed dishes in an outpost hotel, near the border between Uruguay and Brazil. He grew up poor, in a country where most poor people stay that way forever. His past makes him unafraid of danger, because being shot isn’t nearly as scary as becoming that 11-year-old boy again. Biting makes sense to him. He’d bite a stranger to keep from being dragged back to that border-town kitchen.

“I understand Suarez’s reactions,” he said. “I would have done the same thing if I played soccer. On the field, I would have done the same thing as he did. To overcome and not surrender.”

Say what you will about Suarez; he wears his heart on his sleeve – and his family on his chest.Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

A PORTRAIT OF a time and a place was emerging. Whether it was a violent assault, or an unfortunate accident, everyone agreed that the incident in question happened in November 2003, at the end of the most important year of Luis Suarez’s life. He was a lazy but talented member of a talented team. The Nacional youth side had met as 8- and 9-year-olds, staying together for years, moving up through the age groups, dominating opponents.

Some of them would earn a spot on an adult pro team, and some would leave soccer for a regular life, and both would happen at the end of 2003. That was the dividing line between youth and adult soccer. They all knew. They had been each other’s family, spending vacations together, discovering girls together, watching each other grow from boys into young men.

A family appealed deeply to Suarez.

Suarez’s poverty is one of the many narratives about his life, and, although it is often used as a trope to explain his violence, it’s true. He did grow up poor, his life mirroring the hard childhood of Ricardo Gabito. His mother scrubbed floors. He couldn’t afford soccer shoes, which once kept him from trying out for an elite team. But the allure of the rags-to-riches storyline often distracts people from the broken-family storyline, which shaped Suarez most of all. His father abandoned them, and Suarez, entering his teen years, started skipping practice, drinking, staying out late. He was lost. His coach often went into Suarez’s home to drag his striker to practice. He played with all of the rage fans see today, but none of the determination, and none of the grace. Luis Suarez was wasting his life.

Then, when he was 15, he met a girl.

Her name was Sofia Balbi. She had blond hair and fair skin. Luis worked as a street sweeper, and during his shift he picked up coins so he could take her out. Her family lived a comfortable life, and they let Luis into their home. He ate regular meals at Sofia’s. She told him his poor grades came from laziness and not stupidity, and she demanded he work harder. In her family, he found the thing he’d never had before, a sense of belonging, of safety.

“They sheltered him,” Cardacio says.

In 2003, Sofia’s family moved to Spain.

Luis sank into a dark place. He had lost his new family, lost his soulmate and his muse. His work habits slipped. Years later, his rise to the Premier League seems inevitable. It wasn’t. The reason Suarez became a great player is that he loved Sofia. She lived in Europe, and he lived in South America, and he could clean streets for the rest of his life and not afford a plane ticket. So his young lovesick mind concocted a completely irrational plan, typical of the teenage boy species: He would dedicate himself to soccer, working hard and endlessly, and he’d get good enough to earn a position on a European team, and the team would fly him across the ocean to his Sofia. Nuts, right?

It worked. In 2006, Suarez found a small first division Dutch team that was willing to give him a chance, and then he became a star, moving up to Ajax, then to Liverpool. He married that blond-haired girl in 2009, and they have two children. Any visitor to his house is likely to open the door to find the usual scene: Luis laughing and happy, kids crawling all over him. He loves his family, and soccer gave it to him, and guarantees no Suarez will ever again pick up coins while cleaning the streets.

His friends and former mentors struggle to explain a complicated idea. They protect him, and explain away his extreme actions, because they sense the desperation buried inside of him and don’t know how to articulate it. Basically, the theory goes, anything that threatens his ability to score, and win, isn’t processed in his subconscious as the act of a sportsman but, rather, as an act of aggression against his wife and his children. Watching him play certainly supports the idea because, when a defender presses close, Suarez doesn’t respond as if the man is trying to take the ball. He reacts as if the defender is trying to send him back to the streets of Montevideo, alone.

The quest had led to an understanding of Suarez, just not in the way I’d imagined. With the discovery of his wife as the key to decoding his mystery, I almost completely forgot about the referee. I thought about another incident on the pitch. This one happened not long after his most recent bite; it and the bite are opposite sides of the same coin. Suarez scored a goal and then lifted his jersey to reveal a homemade T-shirt. His son, Benjamin, had just been born, and the shirt had a picture of his family on it: Sofia holding the baby, with their daughter, Delfina, leaning over her new brother. The shirt said “Welcome Benja” in English above the picture, and below it, it said in Spanish, simply, “I love them.”

He couldn’t have imagined such contentment in November 2003.

A championship was on the line. If Nacional lost, it would play again the next week against the same team. If it won, the season was over. Everyone remembers the officiating. “I wanted to hit the referee,” Pirez said, laughing. “We should have killed the referee that day. He was terrible. Everyone was so pissed at the referee.”

Suarez never quit. With 15 minutes left and the game turning against his team, he flew into a Danubio player, sliding for the ball. The official showed him a yellow card, which witnesses say was a bad call. Suarez popped up and jawed his displeasure, complaining, and Larranaga went back to his pocket for a red card, another bad call, which doesn’t excuse what happened next.

The fears inside Suarez boiled over.

A red card meant he’d miss the next game. The team that had been his family through a difficult youth would play its final match without him. It was the last game of his childhood, and he’d watch it from the stands. He had scored 63 goals that year, one shy of the club record, which he desperately wanted. Larranaga had thrown him out of a game, but he also had ripped him away from his family. Rage flowed through Suarez.

That wasn’t the only thing pushing him to snap.

Often there are hidden layers of meaning in a simple timeline. No violent incident happens on its own. I sent a message to Suarez’s mom, asking when the Balbis moved to Barcelona. She said Sofia left for Europe in October 2003, just a month before her lovesick boyfriend attacked a referee.

IT WASN’T AN accident at all. The first eyewitness we found was Suarez’s former youth director, Daniel Enriquez, who laid his own reputation on the line over and over for the striker, believing in his potential greatness before anyone else. Enriquez met us at a café in a wealthy neighborhood just off the beach. Sitting down, we made small talk, everyone avoiding the elephant in the room. He knew what we wanted to ask. Enriquez ordered a cappuccino and told us about his hobbies and passions, how he’s a professional DJ and Uruguay’s most important collector of tribal masks. They hang in museums around the country. We laughed about this, given how much the idea of masks had intruded on the discussions of Suarez. His favorites are the first two he found, from the Aztecs, the sun and the moon. I gave Enriquez some homework: Go through all his masks and find the one that best explains the real Suarez.

Then it was time. The question could not be avoided any longer. He didn’t dodge.

“He pushed the referee,” Enriquez said, “and headbutted him.”

A day or two later, an email arrived from Enriquez, with a photograph attached. He took his task seriously, and after some searching, he’d found the right mask. Ultimately, it was just his guess because, although he knows Suarez well, he still doesn’t know what makes his former pupil explode, just as he doesn’t know what makes him great. But he has his suspicions, embodied in the mask he chose. Those suspicions will be in my mind the next time I watch Suarez play.

The mask came from Central Africa, made by the Songye tribe, famous for its warriors and for what an art broker describes as the most belligerent masks on the continent. The mask is long and oval, streaked with lines representing the scars on the face of a soldier. Some experts believe warriors wore them to hide human weakness, to frighten their enemies. They allowed normal people to trick themselves into being superhuman on the field of battle. Its eyes are blank, dead, creepy to look at for too long. These blanks serve as symbolic pools, a way for the warrior to collect and channel the spirits of the ancestors. The whole metaphor seems a bit much, but Enriquez thought it fit Suarez perfectly, explaining his reasoning in a note he wrote after sending the photo. The mask used the power of the past to protect the living. In hiding the human face of the man doing battle, it exposed his deepest and most animal desires.

Suarez walks on to the pitch with his baby son, Benja, and daughter, Delfina. John Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

WE NEVER STOPPED looking for the ref, pushing aggressively enough that his father’s secretary threatened to file a complaint with my translator’s university for harassment. My fever broke. I left Uruguay, never finding Larranaga and not really caring, trading an obsession for a referee with one about the interior life of Luis Suarez. The referee remains out there, a foil, his busted face one of a thousand clues that might explain what hunger makes Suarez great, and what flaws might one day bring him down. Clues live everywhere, in a search for a forgotten ref, in the life of an investigative reporter. The clues live in the stories and videos I reread and re-watched after leaving. There’s Luis, injured in the last Liverpool match before the World Cup, looking stricken, like something more important than a game had been stolen. There’s Luis under television lights, struggling to explain what he feels inside. He told the reporter he cannot stand to miss even a single ball because that might cost him everything he has built. His rage and love arise from this fear. Watch him. There’s Luis, in a normal tussle for position, wheeling around and biting an opponent. He headbutts an official, and the man’s nose bleeds like a cow. He’s showing his house to a reporter, and it overflows with plush stuffed animals, the children in charge of decor. He tugs at his sleeves walking into his first news conference at Liverpool, nervous, out of place, looking like a little boy. He walks onto the pitch before a game, holding his young daughter’s hand, cradling his sleeping son, and, in the public madness of a stadium, his hopes and fears remain his alone.


Outstanding. Bravo…


So a racist scumbag turns out to have always been a scumbag and a reporter finds an angle to justify a lengthy jaunt to Uruguay.

Everyone’s a winner.


@Rocko can you please rename this the really long sports writing thread? Thank you.


[SIZE=6]This article is very long and probably if no interest to you if you do not believe in America. What makes it really great is that the ending is being written by Anderson himself right now in Miami

Birdman’s redemption bittersweet for his mother[/SIZE]
Updated: May 12, 2008, 7:47 PM ET
By Chris Palmer | ESPN The Magazine

http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0510/nba_g_anderson_580.jpgNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris “The Birdman” Andersen is back with the New Orleans Hornets after serving a two-year ban for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. Normally, this would be a happy time for his family. But it’s not.
Chris Andersen was going to buy his mother a house. They would build it right in the middle of the 10 acres she had in rural God-knows-where Texas. He said he would buy her a Lamborghini, too. She laughed at that. If he just helped her pay for her meds, that would be enough. This is what they dreamed about. A life in which they didn’t have to struggle. A life in which she wouldn’t have to push a janitor’s broom or tend bar, which one of her Harley buddies owned.

Linda Holubec was there that November night in 2001, when the Denver Nuggets called her son with the news that they were signing him to a deal that would end his vagabond lifestyle. They were sitting in a hotel lobby in Fayetteville, N.C., about to board a van bound for some minor-league outpost. She would never have to lend him money for groceries or co-sign for another car again. They had made it.

For almost his entire life they had been inseparable. She held him for hours and wiped his tears the day his father walked out on them. She sat beside him as he got his first tattoo on his 18th birthday. She scraped together tip money to travel to the far side of the world to watch him play basketball in gyms so smoky her glasses would fog up.

Now they were bound for Denver, and she couldn’t wait to hug Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe. They didn’t know much about pro basketball, but they knew they’d be rich. And they had done it together. An improbable journey from the backwoods of Texas, where kids are more likely to get hooked on meth than play AAU ball, had reached its end point.

But four years later, Linda’s world collapsed.

One of Linda’s friends called her after seeing the words that would change her life forever slowly crawl along the bottom of the television screen.

“Something happened with Chris,” the voice said over the phone. Andersen had been disqualified from the NBA on Jan. 25, 2006, for violating the league’s anti-drug policy by testing positive for a banned substance. He didn’t have the courage to call his mother and break the news. It was the spectacular finale to a downward spiral that began the moment Andersen scribbled his name on an official contract.

But the door to redemption swung wide open two years later. On March 4, the NBA reinstated Andersen, and his former team, the New Orleans Hornets, signed him to a contract for the remainder of the season. Linda cried both tears of joy and pain. She was happy her boy had made it. Again. But there was something else that made the news of his reinstatement almost as hard to take as his expulsion: the fact that Linda Holubec and her son have not spoken in almost three years.

During his first four seasons in the NBA, Andersen was known for his wildly athletic dunks and reckless intensity. He hadn’t developed any real moves to speak of, and even a 10-foot pull-up jumper was ill-advised for him. But what he lacked in skill he made up for with a floor burn-inducing style of play and an arsenal of eccentricities that won over fans leaguewide. The decibel level at home games soared when he checked his human-wrecking-ball act into the game.

[+] Enlargehttp://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0510/nba_g_andersen2_sw_200.jpg
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesBirdman’s athleticism earned him invites to two slam-dunk contests.

Fans wore shaggy blonde wigs and imitated his signature Birdman hand gesture by interlocking their thumbs and flapping their fingers whenever Andersen threw down one of his high-flying yet lovably clumsy dunks. He never averaged more than seven points or six rebounds in a season, but seeing that toothy grin after he crashed into the stands trying to save a ball he had no shot at was worth the price of admission.

And Linda loved it just as much as anyone. But when the game was over and he disappeared into the tunnel, fans couldn’t see what she could. That Andersen was unable to turn off who he was. That the circle of unscrupulous characters entering his world was bleeding him dry. That an NBA paycheck was like nitroglycerin in his pocket. She may have raised him to raise hell, but she also taught him to say when.

But Andersen had passed his breaking point. For the first time, his mother couldn’t save him. And they would pay the price equally.

Jan. 25, 2006:

Hornets coach Byron Scott blew his whistle signaling the end of practice. Players broke off into pairs to shoot the customary postpractice free throws. Shooting 47 percent from the line, this was a daily drill Andersen couldn’t afford to miss.

general manager Jeff Bower had sat through practice that day. He came down out of the stands and motioned for Scott, then whispered in his ear. Scott, in turn, called Andersen over to the sideline. The results of his recent drug test had come back from the league. Bower didn’t have to say a word; Andersen knew he had tested positive. They spoke for three or four minutes. Andersen slouched a bit and looked to the floor. Then he immediately left the gym and cleaned out his locker.

Scott had started to suspect something when Andersen regularly began missing practices and shootarounds. He thought he’d looked pale but chalked it up to harmless late-night partying. All the trainers would tell him was that he had “flu-like symptoms.” Scott had planned to talk to him, but now it was too late.

The story of Chris “Birdman” Andersen, the NBA’s wild child who pushed himself over the edge, cannot be separated from that of the woman who raised him as an extension of herself.

A former basketball player in high school, now on the other side of 50 and standing a hair over 6 feet, her oval face is accented by soft features and a warm, dawdling Southern drawl. Her two-dozen tattoos, including permanent cherry red lips and black eyeliner, are a product of her days running with the notorious Bandidos biker gang. Though polite and maternalistic – “Can I get you some tea?” she often asks – her charmingly rough edges and tough-girl disposition served her well amongst the double crossers and miscreants that tend to populate a hardscrabble life.

Linda Ogle was raised in the shadow of the mist in the Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg, Tenn., by parents who were also Harley Davidson-riding free spirits – Jack, a carpenter, and Kate, a waitress at a local diner.

[+] Enlargehttp://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0510/nba_andersonsmom_200.jpg
Chris PalmerChris Andersen’s mom, Linda Holubec, with her husband Norm.

When she was 8, her father put her behind the wheel of his '54 Chevy and taught her to navigate winding mountain roads. He would sit on the back of his Hog and let Linda work the clutch and throttle as they burned up the interstate. At 10, she fired her first gun. The recoil of the .45 put her on her behind.

When the carpentering dried up, Linda’s father enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to a base in Long Beach, Calif. She adjusted to California easily, learning to surf after buying a board at a garage sale for $25. When her father left for a tour in Vietnam, she decided on a career in the armed forces, hoping to become a registered nurse and see combat. She got a job at Port Hueneme, just north of Malibu, serving food in the mess hall.

One day a tall, smooth-talking corrections officer named Claus Andersen came through her line. Andersen, who had emigrated from Denmark, often would talk about his faraway adventures and persuaded Linda to move in with him. Three months later, they were married.

Dec. 12, 2005:

The first thing you notice about Chris Andersen is the hair. As soon as he emerges from the locker room at the Sawyer Center, the Hornets’ temporary practice facility on the campus of Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma City, it overtakes you. The rowdy, shoulder-length blond locks cover his face, Cousin Itt-style.

“Whassup, pimp?” he says with a crooked smile, holding out a fist. That’s the second thing you notice, the jolting-but-refreshing blend of unpolished Southern charm, blue-collar ethos and childlike enthusiasm that has endeared him to everyone from his hip-hop-loving teammates to the workaday, F-150-driving sports fan.

He’s instructed by a team official that he’s next up to sign a stack of Christmas ornaments. He uncaps a silver Sharpie and scribbles his signature on 71 orange and purple ornaments in 90 seconds. The 72nd is smashed to bits in one of the boxes.

“What happened, Bird?” says teammate Desmond Mason, taking the pen from him.

“I tried to eat it,” says Andersen. “I thought it was an orange.”

In a flash, the Birdman makes for the door. Little-used Lithuanian rookie guard Arvydas Macijauskas pushes past Andersen at the same time and mumbles farewell in English.

“What the hell did he say?” asks Andersen. “I don’t speak that language.”

We’re off to a middle-school appearance, where he’ll teach kids how to do his signature Birdman sign. In the parking lot he jumps in the black 2006 Ford Expedition he’s owned for less than a month. He mashes the gas when he drove through a shallow puddle, causing the rear end of the car to pitch sideways as a mushroom cloud of smoke rises from the pavement.

Iola, Texas, is a place you’ve probably never heard of until now. This is nowhere. But to Linda Holubec, this is home.

In 1982, she and Claus moved to Texas with their three children, April, Chris and Tamie. With a loan from the Texas Veterans Land Board, they bought a 10-acre plot in unincorporated Iola (population: 236), about 100 miles north of Houston. Down a dirt road off County Road 170 that was used more by wild boars than humans, the Andersens raised their children. They were the only family for two miles. Linda hammered together a makeshift wooden street sign on which she painted the words Bluebonnet Lane, named after the Texas state flower.

Linda says Claus promised to build her and the kids a house, and said maybe they’d raise some cattle. In the middle of the property, which sloped gently to the west, the frame of the two-story, three-bedroom house went up. A week later, Claus was gone.

He had decided family living wasn’t for him. At least not in godforsaken Grimes County. He was off to peddle his artwork – landscape oil paintings were his new passion – in more cosmopolitan places like New York City, taking with him the remainder of the loan money.

Then it dawned on Linda what had just happened: Claus moved the family to rural Texas to escape California’s strict alimony and child-support laws, she says.

“How could you do that to your own kids?” Linda asks with tears in her eyes. “All they did was love you, and you walked away from them.”

The man she loved, for whom she had picked up her life and moved halfway across the country, had deserted her. Chris was numb. He would sit for hours in the barn with his knees pulled up to his chest, rocking back and forth. For weeks when Linda left to run errands, Tamie, the youngest, would scream, “Don’t leave me.”

Linda fell into a deep depression. Feeling she couldn’t cope with it alone, she took the children to therapy but pulled out after a few weeks because they had to save money.

“We had a half a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread,” she says. “We had nothing.”

She was unemployed, had no savings and begged Claus for child support. Fortunately, they did have the support of neighbors Betty and Wesley Crenshaw, who dropped by with milk, sugar, butter and whatever else they could spare. But mostly, they lived off the land. Linda would trap copperheads, skin them and make belts or cook what little meat they had.

When it came to the bills, Linda could no longer even tread water. Though she found work as a short order cook, a janitor and a door-to-door “Avon lady,” she couldn’t keep up. She was tapped both emotionally and physically. Linda sent the children to a group home in Dallas during Andersen’s middle school years so that they wouldn’t go without food or a warm bed.

“Not being with the kids was the most painful time of my life,” she says. “You think about them every day and wonder if they’re all right.” The children remained in the home for nearly three years before returning to Iola.

[+] Enlargehttp://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0510/nba_andersonhome02_300.jpg
Chris PalmerLinda Holubec still hopes her son will one day buy her the house he once promised.

Linda’s brother, James Ogle, a Navy supply boat captain, left his job in California and emptied his savings to help them finish the house. He arrived in Texas with a stove in the back of his pickup truck. He dug a hole for the septic tank with a shovel. He built a tree swing for the girls and put a basketball goal on the barn where Chris and his mom would shoot around. He bought a cow trough and filled it with water so the kids could have a swimming pool because the small pond was occupied by water moccasins. And with leftover tin from the roof, he hammered out a sliding board.

One day Claus drove down Bluebonnet Lane in his shiny new Mercedes with his latest girlfriend in the passenger seat. Chris spotted him and began to run toward the car. When he saw Chris running, his father gunned the car and took off.

“My daddy wanted to shoot him,” says Linda, “and I shoulda let him done it.”

After 26 years, the pain from the memory still smolders beneath the surface. It took her years to accept the fact that Claus didn’t want his children. She’s never been able to fully explain to her son why his father didn’t love him.

Until the house was completed, the family sought shelter in a Depression Era barn that was already on the property. It was like a lost page out of a John Steinbeck novel. They set up a makeshift, one-room apartment amid the hay and horseflies, across from the stalls and chicken coops. Wesley Crenshaw rigged the barn with electricity to power space heaters so they wouldn’t freeze on those cold Texas nights. Outside, a garden hose and spigot made showering possible. Scrawny coyotes in search of food would make bold trips up to the barn, scaring the kids. Crowing roosters woke them every morning at dawn.

After she put the kids to bed, Linda would walk the fence line with a .38 tucked in her waistband, “looking for sidewinders, the kind that slither or walk on two legs.” Linda was big on protection. Her brother gave her a .357, which she would use for target practice during the day. She wanted people to hear the gunshots so they knew not to mess with her.

Dec. 27, 2004:

Fifteen minutes after practice, Andersen pulls up to Hooters, his regular hangout in Oklahoma City. Once inside, a waitress named Shasta with prerequisite 36Cs and the standard-issue Hooters uniform – shimmery orange short shorts and a white, one-size-too-small, low-cut T-shirt – sidles over to take his order.

“What would you like to drink?” she asks Andersen.

“Uh,” he replies slowly. “Water.”

She heads to the back for our refreshments.

“All I could think about was milk,” quips Andersen. “Freshly squeezed.”

Hooters is as good a place as any for Andersen to recall the unlikely story of a self-proclaimed redneck who never had much of a plan yet still ended up the league’s most eccentric cult figure of a ramblin’ man.

From his unfiltered running dialogues to his oh-no-he-didn’t wardrobe (think Clyde Frazier meets Kevin Federline), he’s the latest bud on the Dawkins/Walton/Rodman family tree.

His mink coat is legendary among teammates, as is his penchant to rock it with jeans and a trucker hat.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Hornets forward David West. “He’ll wear it with anything, but that’s just Bird.”

In his first go-round in the league, his spiky hair got more attention than anything his teams did on the court. Jack Nicholson once pointed to the 'do and gave him a thumbs-up from his courtside seat at the Staples Center.

“I told him to put me in a movie,” Andersen says. “The next ‘Batman.’”

Andersen’s earliest foray into athletics was jumping over an electric fence that was meant to keep the cows from getting out. His idea of motorsports was playing car tag in the Navasota River bottom.

In his early teens he played baseball, but his Texas-sized strike zone limited his effectiveness. He tried football, too. Every year the coach put him at defensive end and wide receiver because of his 4.7 speed in the 40-yard dash. And every year he ended up quitting after a week or two.

[SIZE=4]My head got so big I thought I could do anything. http://assets.espn.go.com/i/story/design07/dropQuoteEnd.gif[/SIZE]
–Chris Andersen

Finally, the varsity basketball coach convinced him that if he focused on basketball, he had a chance at a college scholarship. On winter nights in Iola, the entire town packed itself into a gym that seated 300 to watch its tallest citizen transform himself into a 198-pound flyswatter.

Despite his human eraser act, few colleges came calling because he wasn’t cutting it in the classroom. Andersen committed to play for Clyde Drexler at the University of Houston but couldn’t make the grades he needed. Linda apologized to Drexler profusely.

But his high school coach’s father happened to be the head coach at Blinn Junior College in Brenham, so he took Andersen. He played one season at Blinn, averaging 10.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.7 blocked shots in just 21.3 minutes per game, leading all college players in blocks. On weekends, Andersen brought half the team back to Iola for barbecues. Linda always sent them off with blueberry cobbler made from fresh berries she picked in the pasture behind the house.

People told him he could make tons of money in the pros, that his wild game could lead him out of his backwoods corner of the world.

“My head got so big I thought I could do anything,” he says.

Anything except get drafted. He didn’t know you had to officially apply for the draft, not just declare.

“When I left Blinn I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I didn’t have a plan.”

His high school coach arranged for him to play a series of exhibition games with the Texas Ambassadors, a semipro traveling team made up of former college players. One of their exhibitions took them to China, where Andersen caught the eye of a Chinese professional coach when he blocked several shots into the stands. He was made an offer to join the Jiangsu Nangang Dragons.

“I didn’t really like working, so I took the offer,” he says.

He left in December 2000 for Beijing and lived in a hotel for the entire 4½ months he was with the team. “Imagine taking a guy who had only ever been out of Texas twice and putting him in the middle of China,” says Andersen with a grin. “Just try and picture that.”

Oct. 20, 2001:

On the first day of the inaugural training camp for the NBA’s new minor league called the D-League, hopefuls sat quietly in a cavernous gym in Suwanee, Ga. Nearly 200 players had been invited to compete for 88 spots on eight teams. Some fiddled with their shoelaces. Others tried their best not to look nervous.

When Keith Booth, possessor of two championship rings as a member of the Chicago Bulls, swaggered in, one player said, “Only 87 spots left.”

Later, former Kentucky point guard Saul Smith arrived. A low, rumbling chatter rolled down from the top of the bleachers.

Next in was UNLV’s Greedy Daniels. “Oh, he’s quick,” offered another. And this went on all afternoon.

Finally, Andersen sauntered in. A player reclining back on the bleachers chuckled dismissively and wondered aloud, “Where’d they find this guy?”

Just two games into the inaugural season, Andersen became the first-ever D-League call-up when the Nuggets signed him to a one-year, $289,747 contract on Nov. 21, 2001. The first complete NBA game he saw was from the Nuggets’ bench two days later.

[+] Enlargehttp://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0510/nba_g_andersen4_sw_200.jpg
William Sallaz /NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Nuggets made Andersen the first D-League call-up ever.

But the transition wasn’t exactly storybook. Comic-book, maybe. Once on the road in Memphis, he bought a pit bull puppy he named Red Sonja. He didn’t take into consideration that the team still had two more stops before returning to Denver. The coaches discovered the pup on the team bus on the way to the airport.

There was the time, when on injured reserve, he showed up on the bench in shorts and a T-shirt, and Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik made him watch the game from the locker room. With fans he was an instant hit, but not everyone was smitten by his eccentricities. Bzdelik hated them. When he saw Andersen’s gel-supported, inch-high spikes, he made him wash them out. Another time, he fumed when Andersen curled his hair like Little Orphan Annie for a playoff game.

“You were never really sure what he would do next,” says former teammate Marcus Camby.

But Andersen didn’t care, because he was in the NBA and the money was flowing. This was promising news for Linda and her husband, Norm, who needed Andersen to make good on his promise to strike it rich. When the stock market had crashed after Sept. 11, they lost 90 percent of the nearly $200,000 they had saved for retirement.

But Andersen would soon part with his money for all too different reasons.

That 289K was like sand through his fingers. He began to develop a rep as a hard partier. He inhaled Jack & Cokes like a wet vac and could make a case of Bud Light disappear by himself. At first, Linda, who understood that boys will be boys, gently warned her son.

“I’ve partied with the best of them myself,” she says. “But you don’t let it affect your work.”

Andersen would nod and say he had everything under control, but Linda could see otherwise.

“I could tell what he was doing by the way he was running up and down the court,” she says. “His lips would be all white and he would be sucking air. If I could see it from the stands, I know his coaches could.”

Linda felt if she were closer to him she could help curtail his recklessness. So she, Norm, Tamie and her 1-year-old daughter Kassie moved to Denver. And since Andersen’s new home wasn’t equipped with a washer and dryer, she loaded hers in a horse trailer and hitched it to their truck. Norm drove the truck, and Linda followed on her Harley despite subfreezing temperatures.

“That’s just a mother’s love,” she says. “I had to get to my son.”

She put on several pairs of wool socks, lined her leather jacket with newspapers and wrapped freezer bags over her riding gloves. When she stopped at a gas station to clean her windshield just outside the Texas panhandle, she pulled the squeegee out of the bucket, only to find it connected to a block of ice. Later, the Harley broke down because of condensation in the carburetor. After 400 miles, Linda’s frostbitten fingers could no longer work the clutch. They stopped at a Motel 6 for the night, where Linda promptly rolled the Harley into the room.

When she got to Denver, she found Andersen’s finances in a mess. There was no discernible pattern to his spending, except that it was full tilt. Andersen had never received any formal money-management training from the league.

He lacked both the skill and desire to balance his own checkbook. As long as his ATM card worked, he was fine. Linda sat down with a pile of his bills and statements and tried to make sense of it. She noticed a meal he had in New York was charged three times for the same amount. Then she saw the thousands of dollars in shoes he bought for his ever-ballooning circle of new friends. There was a bar bill for $900. He would regularly hire limos to take his friends out on the town.

“Stay in, order food, play video games,” Linda urged him. “You don’t have to go out every night.”

When she searched the Internet for his name, she would find signed Nuggets gear he gave to his friends on auction Web sites. Meanwhile, he stopped making the payments on the Expedition she had co-signed for, and her credit was destroyed.

After a while Andersen began giving her $500 a month for her diabetes medicine and painkillers for the two cracked vertebrae she suffered during a training exercise in the Army. But he made good on little else.

The house he promised her seemed only a pipe dream. She bit her tongue when she found a receipt for a $5,000 designer purse he bought one of his girlfriends. “I had a $10 denim purse and made my own clothes,” scoffs Linda. When he bought another girl a Jaguar, she was hurt and confused. This wasn’t her son.

[+] Enlargehttp://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0510/nba_g_andersen1_300.jpg
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAndersen’s NBA career was on the rise, but his out-of-control lifestyle would be his downfall.

But Andersen was a magnet for hangers-on. There was the pretty schoolteacher from Dallas with a penchant for expensive clothes. (“She just loved Gucci,” says Linda.) And the bellhop he met while partying at a downtown Denver hotel. (“He left when the money dried up.”)

Then there were his pals from Iola. He often wrote checks to cover their bail when they ran afoul of the law. Once he dropped four grand on tickets when the Nuggets played in Houston. When Andersen bought his first house just southwest of Denver, his friends would show up to play video games and drink beer. Linda was miffed when one of them got the idea to drive one state over to buy illegal fireworks one summer.

Andersen was drinking more than ever. She felt like a stranger in her son’s home. Then one day Linda reached her breaking point. One of Andersen’s friends was playing a little too roughly with Andersen’s girlfriend and began choking her with a scarf. Adrenaline surged through Linda’s veins. Her protective maternal instincts took over. She grabbed the guy and put him in a headlock.

“I told him I ride Harleys and I tote guns and you don’t want to be messin’ with me,” she says. At that point she decided that she’d had enough.

Linda and her son were fighting all the time. If Andersen was going to drown in a destructive lifestyle, she wasn’t going to watch him do it. The next day she told her husband and the kids they were going back to Texas.

The three-day trek back home was a sad and arduous journey. The seismic change in the mother/son bond had left her drained. She felt powerless. All she wanted to do was cry.

When they got home, the little house looked sadder than ever. She half hoped it would just fall over. It took them all day to hack down the 6-foot-high weeds that had sprung up. Venomous brown recluse spiders hovered in the corners of every room. Termites had decimated the siding. The black mold upstairs was like wallpaper. A family of rattlesnakes had taken up residence in the cupboard next to some dried-out pasta. They fed on the droves of field mice – the ones that lived in the walls and dared venture onto the counters.

Jan. 21, 2006:

The Hornets milled about in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden. After dismantling the Knicks 109-98 for their 20th win of the season, spirits were high.

Andersen emerged from a back room and ran a towel through his floppy hair. In his right hand was a can of Bud Light. He chugged half the can, then belched.

“Now that’s what I call an energy drink,” he said.

Despite the off-court difficulties he had managed to keep quiet for so long, Andersen had played his way into his biggest payday ever, signing a four-year, $14 million deal with the Hornets in the summer of 2005. He had developed such a following that the team used his likeness on billboards to sell season-ticket packages, even though he was the team’s seventh-leading scorer.

Andersen continued to mask his partying. He went through a painful breakup with a longtime girlfriend and turned to illegal drugs to help him escape the funk.

Then came the drug test.

He says he didn’t shed a single tear after his banishment.

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Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter Andersen was reinstated by the league, the Hornets gladly welcomed him back to the Hive.

“When I look back at everything that happened, I don’t regret it,” he says. “This whole thing saved my life. I needed this to happen. I don’t know where I’d be today if I didn’t change my ways.”

Shortly after his expulsion, he entered a rehab clinic and jettisoned his destructive friends. By the summer of 2007, Andersen was fully focused on returning to the NBA. He was working out in Las Vegas with trainer Joe Abunassar and playing in highly competitive pickup games featuring Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal and Al Harrington. He got down to a svelte 228 pounds, began to extend his shooting range and developed a reliable jump hook. His outlook on life also got a makeover.

“I know this doesn’t last forever. I’m not going to throw away what I have over something stupid,” he says. “But I haven’t changed a bit. I’m still the same person I always was. I just don’t do the things I used to. I’m smarter now.”

He pauses for a bit.

“And my 3-point shot is deadly.”

The subject of his mother is not easily broached by Andersen. During a recent interview at the Hornets’ practice facility when her name is brought up, Andersen shuts down. His bounce disappears, and he begins to rock almost involuntarily back and forth, no longer offering the courtesy of eye contact.

When asked if he shared his ordeal with his mother, he drifts off and quickly tries to redirect the conversation.

“Uh, I’ve been back home a time or two since I was suspended,” he says without confidence, "you know, to see everybody.

“Everything’s cool. Yup, no place like Iola. Mom’s good.”

(Two days later Linda would say they haven’t seen each other since he lived in Denver.)

When a team PR official drifts by to check on him, it’s Andersen’s perfect escape. He quickly transitions to community work he’s interested in doing. He starts to boil his answers down to a few words, leaving uncomfortable gaps in the conversation. He bids farewell moments later.

The sting of their fractured relationship is too much, but not enough for him to give you Linda’s phone number long after they stopped speaking.

March 26, 2008:

In the players’ lounge at the Hornets’ practice facility just outside of New Orleans, Andersen is involved in a spirited game of pingpong with David West. After he loses, Anderson jokes with Morris Peterson about West’s form and vows revenge.

Only three players remain on the roster since Andersen last suited up, but after just a month he has worked himself back into the fabric of the team.

And he still loves Hooters.

“I went to one the other day in New Orleans,” he says. “The food was terrible, but the menu wasn’t bad, if you know what I mean.”

Then he summons his best Borat impression to make the point, “Niiice!”

The tired Texas sun finally dips behind the horizon. The cattle over on Betty and Wesley Crenshaw’s old farm settle in for the night. The incessant clinking from dime-sized June bugs that recklessly ricochet off the patio’s tin roof make it sound like it’s hailing.

Linda sits on the enclosed patio talking about her only son. She slowly thumbs through a stack of fuzzy pictures taken with a disposable camera from a time when Chris would knock you out of the way for her banana pudding, green bean casserole and homemade biscuits.

There’s one of him back in juco. It’s been so long since he had a buzz cut. Mom and son in China. Look at the way he has his arm around me.

A mother’s love is tireless. She has to believe this is the year he will call on her birthday.

And she holds out hope that her son will buy her the house he once promised. On the patio her eyes well up with tears. But it’s obvious it’s not the house that’s making her cry.

“I’m always hopeful that he’ll come around,” she says in a soft, wavering voice. “He’s busy right now, I know. I’ll give him time. I’ll let him do his thing and pray he’s doing well. I know he can turn his life around. I’ll never stop worrying about him no matter how old he gets.”

Chris Palmer is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.