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Jack McCallum
September 24, 2001
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September 24, 2001

War Games


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Besides the postponement or cancellation of all pro and most college team sports in the metropolitan area, one major individual-sport event, the Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad middleweight title-unification bout scheduled for last Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, was shelved. Both fighters had been scheduled to work out on Sept. 11 at gyms in lower Manhattan, not far from the scene of the attack. Lesser-known athletes had to change plans too. A recently completed bicycle path—an asphalt ribbon that proudly stretched the length of Manhattan from above the George Washington Bridge to below the World Trade Center—was blocked off below Canal Street. The fields and playground in Battery Park City were strewed with debris from the fallen towers, which had stood a few hundred yards away. The gymnasium of PS 41, an elementary school in Greenwich Village and a pickup basketball haven for bankers and bohemians, was used as a base camp for rescue workers, the parquet floor covered by 66 sleeping bags and cots.

The week's devastation will have an unmistakable impact on New York City's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. Dan Doctoroff, president of NYC2012, said last Friday that his committee has no intention of aborting its bid. If anything, he says, the 2012 Games could serve as the culmination of New York's rebuilding, and, besides, no events had been planned for the now-ravaged financial district. New York's bid, however, dimmed last week when the World Wrestling Championships, scheduled for Sept. 26-29 at Madison Square Garden and hosted by NYC2012, were postponed and could be moved to another city. They were to have been a chance for the bid committee to show the USOC how well it could promote and manage an international event. Further, the budget for NYC2012, which already exceeds $3 billion, will undoubtedly need to be increased for heightened security measures. Also, the committee will have to compete with far more pressing needs for financing of the 86,000-seat stadium it hopes to build on the West Side of Manhattan. Finally, considering that a bomb marred the last Summer Games in the U.S., in Atlanta in 1996, it's hard to imagine Gotham winning the favor of the IOC.

Plans for the construction of two baseball stadiums, one for mayor Rudy Giuliani's beloved Yankees in the Bronx and an Ebbets Field-like retro park for the Mets in Queens, are also in peril. The notion of spending an estimated $2 billion, some of it in taxpayer money, to help build the stadiums and enhance the surrounding infrastructure was never a particularly popular one. Now, with the World Trade Center tragedy and Giuliani soon to leave office, it seems unlikely that the funds for these parks will be forthcoming anytime soon.

Those matters were far from the minds of the adults who plopped down on makeshift bleachers or wet grass to watch their kids kick balls and throw spirals. They had other issues to ponder. Should we be here? Should the games have been canceled? Or are the children better off here, deep in play, than at home, watching the endless stream of televised tragedy, observing worry and fatigue and tears etched on our faces? Isn't it appropriate that their games be used as a path back to normalcy, that the regular weekend routine signal an end to the unspeakable horror of the days that preceded it? The result was a classic point on which reasonable people could disagree.

To be sure, the tragedy hung in the air, even amid the gleeful shouts of "Goal!" On Manhattan's Upper West Side, where youth soccer went on at Riverside Park, some of the players had classmates whose parents were missing. Some hadn't been to school since Tuesday morning when their frantic parents arrived to whisk them home. As the kids played, appropriately enough, to a scoreless tie, ambulances with sirens blaring passed on the West Side Highway adjacent to the field. So did a procession of dump trunks, headed to lower Manhattan. The parents, most of them keeping one eye on the game and the other on the latest diorama of horror in The New York Times, looked up in unison and regarded the trucks with knowing looks. No player noticed.

In Hoboken, meanwhile, the kids could still see the smoke from across the Hudson. "Looking at the towers was something you did without thinking," said Francis Higgins, a 10-year-old teammate of Criostoir's. "To see they're not there now is really strange." As he laced up his soccer cleats, Francis thought about a man named Andy Spencer, a cousin of his mother's who worked in the World Trade Center and apparently died there. "He was nice," said Francis. "My mom is real sad about it. So am I."

Sadness, however, doesn't have to ride tandem with mourning. "Adults, me included, can't seem to stop talking about this, and it's crucial to get kids away from it," said Steven Cope, a psychotherapist who on Saturday coached his seven-year-old son, Dylan, in an American Youth Soccer Organization game at Wards Island under the Triboro Bridge. "There was certainly an argument for not playing out of respect, but in my opinion it was outweighed by the necessity of not allowing our kids to be swallowed up by all the negativity."

Then, too, there was value in the simple kinetics of sport. "It's not only that the kids need to move on," said Vanessa Sellers, whose son, Alexander, 9, and daughter, Erica, 11, played soccer on Saturday at Riverside and on Randalls Island, respectively. "They need to move, period." In Hoboken, Criostoir put it another way. "Everybody has been walking around real sad," he said. "It's nice to get out and play."

There seemed to be something else in these weekend games in and around New York City. Just as the angry honking of car horns—ordinarily a Manhattan anthem—was at a minimum, the games were suffused with a level of civility not usually in evidence. The postgame handshakes of the youth soccer teams seemed to last a split second longer. A close play at the plate in a Central Park beer league softball game went unprotested by the losing team. Even at West Fourth, where the caliber of the jabber is frequently higher than the caliber of the hoops, woofing was scarcer than usual. "At this point in time, all the talking we usually do sounds silly," Louis Colombo, 21, said last Saturday. "After Tuesday you realize, Hey, in the long run, we're all on the same team."

For the adults, watching the flash of young legs, the pumping of young arms and the shouts of young voices on an exquisite weekend morning seemed to be not only therapeutic but also redemptive. Kids became their elders' recreational surrogates, their statement that life will somehow go on. The games restored normalcy, imposed order, passed hours that would have otherwise been spent thinking about the unthinkable. The kids gave the adults, as they so often do, moments of pure joy. If those moments were brief, they were also blessed.

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