What is the New Year if not a time of hope, of rejuvenation? Cut back on the booze, take brisk walks, try to view life afresh. So why not mark this time by shucking off all weary prior knowledge of Bob Greene?

Let’s all try a grand experiment, something on the scale of the Framingham heart study. Read Bob with an innocent, unbiased eye. Give him the benefit of the doubt. Imagine: what would a new reader, unmarked by the psychic scars of absorbing Bob’s previous work, make of his column?

Thinking lovely thoughts, genuinely wanting to be entertained, to be moved, we pick up “Where have you gone, Bevo Francis?” Bob’s effort for Sunday, January 7.

Bob begins with a Scottsdale dateline, talking about how football is popular there this time of year. Then he declares that all young athletes today with “any special talent” are immediately “telecast into every cable-ready home in the land” and “will be used to make a profit for someone.”

Not exactly true. But today we are forgiving, so we will go on to the meat of the story: Clarence “Bevo” Francis. Somewhat disorienting, since after that introduction Bevo is a non sequitur. He played basketball, not football. He played for an obscure school in Ohio, not Arizona. He’s not a current player–he played in the 1950s, that magic decade Bob keeps on a chain around his neck to wave like a talisman against the wicked modern world.

Still, we won’t dwell on the convoluted excuse Bob has concocted to lionize Bevo. We will go on.

Bevo was really good, but since “Bevo came along just before the domination of television, everyone knew his name through newspapers and magazines–and few ever saw him.” And, as Bob puts it, “Like the Loch Ness monster, there were people who swore he was out there, that they had seen him with their own eyes–but you couldn’t be sure.”

Now our self-imposed naivete is being sorely tested. It is true that a relative handful of people actually saw Bevo in motion, but Bob tries to make Bevo akin to God, an invisible being whom we can choose to believe in. Surely photography existed by the 1950s, particularly in newspapers and magazines. Our doubts are confirmed when Bob himself admits that Bevo was featured in both Life and Look, publications not known to be camera shy. Not to mention the picture of Bevo accompanying the column.

No matter. We…will…go…on.

The irony of a good player going unviewed, the changes sports have undergone, seem fresh discoveries to Bob. “Oh, what the sports merchandisers could have done with Bevo today,” he mourns. Does Bevo share his sadness? Drawn into the story of Bevo, we can’t help but wonder, oh, for instance…what happened to Bevo after he left sports. Bob doesn’t say.

Instead he ends with a toast: “Here’s to you, Bevo–the brightest star ever to go unseen.” What is that based on? What about the legendary players from the Negro baseball leagues? What about the ancient Olympic athletes, for that matter?

Bob moots the entire argument, anyway, a week later, when he decides to make that phone call to Bevo after all, and finds him a contented retiree who, rather than being any “faraway rumor,” as Bob deemed him, in fact went on The Ed Sullivan Show, which is not quite the same as going “unseen.”

Just one column into our grand experiment, and we are left with gnawing questions. Why rhapsodize about a once-famous 1950s college basketball player? Why not track him down initially? Just laziness? Or to pad one weak column into two even weaker ones? And why Scottsdale, for God’s sake?

Can we go on?

–Ed Gold

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Hellner.