In olden days sports reporters described how one team won and the other lost, often slipping in some fancy language to impress their readers. (“Outlined against a blue gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.”) This kind of writing was OK, but so un-Freudian.
Times have changed. The opponent these days isn’t the other team. It’s the dark, conflicted nature of the athlete’s psyche. Sports is no longer a metaphor for war. Try group therapy. What schoolboys know about their heroes isn’t just their stats. It’s which ones are head cases. It’s which ones rise to meet the challenge and which self-destruct.
Though a mention of the final score is still considered useful, the primary duty of today’s press box is to plumb the psychological dimension. “For coaches, the battle is in the mind,” advised one Tribune headline last weekend. Said another, “Game 2 defeat confirms Chicago fans’ darkest fears.” “Bulls’ mental state a worry,” warned a third.
Best in the business at these explorations is the Sun-Times’s Jay Mariotti. He’s the hardest-working columnist we have ever seen, writing about the Bulls one day and the Hawks the next, last winter filing four or five stories a day from the Olympic Games. And he really shines at probing feelings. Here’s Mariotti, crestfallen that the Knickerbockers had eliminated the hated Pistons:
“The Bulls and a city now face an emotionless series. [Pat] Riley, the motivator with all the psychobabble catchwords, already is trying to inspire his players with bold talk.” Mariotti predicted the Bulls would dispatch the Knicks “in a quick four-game exercise.”
The Bulls lost the second game at home, 94-89. “It was very much a wakeup call,” wrote Mariotti. “Though this prognosticator is red-faced today, having forecast they would win in four and make Riley swallow his bold words, expect the Bulls to win in five games. They are angry and interested now, and when that happens, they usually are at their supreme best.”
The Bulls lost the fourth game in New York, 93-86. Mariotti knew exactly what sort of therapy coach Phil Jackson should apply. “He must remind his players what is at stake here, say something harsh, tell them last year’s title will be tarnished if they flop in the second round. He must remind them of their teetering place in history, what they stand to lose in prestige.”
Still fretting about wake-up calls, Mariotti advised Jackson to send a message to two stalwarts: “Good morning, Scottie Pippen. This is your alarm clock. . . . Start showing you’re an Olympian, or Instant Karma’s gonna get you. And good morning, Horace Grant. This is your alarm clock. . . . Wake up. Get mean. Growl. Snort.”
After the Bulls survived the fifth game, Mariotti fretted about the emotional state of the other team. “Like their city, the New Yorkers seemed to border on the lunatic fringe. [Xavier] McDaniel pounded the basketball support with his fist, then was uncontrollable as he stomped to the sidelines, ignoring Riley’s orders to join the huddle. . . . Even little Greg Anthony dared challenge Grant to a fight.”
The Knicks won the sixth game by 14 points. The Bulls “have become an ordinary team, a team choking on its heart,” Mariotti diagnosed. “Most disturbingly, you suspect they are a team that doesn’t want to win nearly as much as the maniacal New York Knicks. When it was time to prove their manhood . . . they shriveled up and disappeared.” On he went. “They are playing like a team that doesn’t want to wake up in the morning and read how one or two players lost the game. So they lose it collectively. It is a cowardly approach. That word hasn’t been used about the Bulls in years, but it is used today. They have become such a shadow of their former selves.”
Though the Bulls survived this seven-game psychodrama, Mariotti perceived that “the Bulls were not nearly as prepared to defend their title as they thought. They were soft, lazy and bored, their senses dulled by too many victories and not enough suspense in the regular season. In a scary thought, Michael Jordan now says the Bulls believed predictions they would sweep the Knicks and maybe sweep the playoffs.”
The Bulls won the first game of the Cleveland series, 103-89. “They always have had a deep-rooted psychological hang-up about the Bulls,” mused Mariotti about the Cavaliers, whom he labeled “creampuffs.” When the Bulls were clobbered by 26 points in game two he pondered, “Role reversal never has been so dramatic and baffling.” The Bulls’ 105-96 victory at Cleveland in game three was interpreted as “creampuff psychology” falling flat, despite the urgings of “a populace with an eternal inferiority complex.” But after the Cavs won game four Mariotti wrote, “The Bulls have turmoil in their house. When they should be asserting their championship savvy, they instead reveal hints of dissension and panic.”
Chicago won game five at home, 112-89. The Bulls had been “challenged to defend their manhood, their team unity and their wavering pedigree as champions,” Mariotti explained. “Not accustomed to pressure situations in their title reign, they turned on themselves.” But then they rallied psychologically, by uniting to “rip the local media”–a textbook example of blame transference. “Isn’t it amazing,” Mariotti marveled, “how one victory, one fourth-quarter surge, makes everyone feel so much better?”
The Bulls eliminated Cleveland in six games. But, wrote Mariotti, “the Air of long-term invincibility is gone, replaced by an urgency that winning time is now, that the Bulls might not pass this way again. . . . ‘People don’t realize how hard it is to repeat,’ said Scottie Pippen, himself guilty of pre-playoff smugness, only to see his reputation and manhood severely tested lately.”
In a column published on the eve of the finals against Portland, Mariotti inked lines that every schoolboy who wants into the bigs should tape to his locker door. “Anymore in the NBA, the game isn’t about who scores more points, defends better or gathers more rebounds. It’s about who wins the mental edge, who is trickier at unearthing the other’s insecurities.”
After the Bulls’ 122-89 opening-game rout, Mariotti perceived that “the Blazers will be hard pressed to return from a deficit that is much more psychological than numerical. . . . In the mental menagerie, they are teetering on collapse.” But the Bulls blew game two. “For some bizarre psychological reason,” he mused, “this is a group that needs a challenge to generate its best performance.” The Bulls, he decreed, “must come together spiritually.” After Chicago took game three he asked, “Aren’t the Bulls driving you crazy?”
Jay Mariotti’s a wonderful writer. Without his tireless admonitions to the Bulls to wake up and check their manhood, the joys of championship fever might today be sweeping New York or Cleveland. Mariotti understands that all of this is really entertainment and a repeat championship is a kind of sequel. It’s got to have the same basic elements that made the original a big hit, but the public demands bigger and better monsters. This year’s title drive has been full of fresh monsters, unearthed and painted in vivid hues by Mariotti and his colleagues. There’s only one dire emotion left for him to sketch. It comes when the playoffs are over and your team’s won, and you wake up with the empty realization that none of it actually had anything to do with you.
Bad News for Media Watchers
Media junkies (we don’t pretend your numbers are legion) have been hit by some bad news. The Tribune’s James Warren is leaving his media beat. In a large-scale reshuffling, the paper is moving him up to Tempo editor.
A key to greatness in journalism is output. The inchoate musings of a fastidious stylist might one day mutate into exquisite prose, but in the meantime there’s a paper to get out. What editors value most is product.
Warren not only writes gracefully, he’s also so productive that we wondered if he’d sworn off something like eating or sleeping. Providing both a magazine column (which obviously demanded considerable reading) and a media column for the Tempo section each week, Warren also chronicled the hard news of his beat, which obliged him to function as a business reporter, labor reporter, and legal reporter grounded in the First Amendment, not to mention sociologist. To all these tasks he brought a moral eye, needling pen, and a willingness to judge his own paper. He was never too busy to be intelligent.
Our changing America–the bicoastal perspective. The June Life, published in New York, reports that the CBS TV affiliate in San Francisco “did some research and discovered that 42 percent of Bay Area viewers are in bed by 11. The CBS affiliate shifted prime time, traditionally eight to 11 p.m., a full hour earlier. Another local station quickly followed suit, and now stations around the country are waiting to see how this new California trend flies.”
Life could have added that, as usual, the midwest didn’t get what the excitement was about.