Let me tell you about Rhode Island. As you may know, it's the smallest state, but those of us who grew up there don't think of it that way. If push came to shove, we know we could kick Delaware's ass. How small are we? You could fit 220 Rhode Islands into Texas, or, to put it another way, if the U.S. were made up of states the size of ours, there'd be almost 3,000 women in the Miss America pageant.� Rhode Islanders are, in general, a happy people. Despite our state's abundance of magnificent golf courses, fewer than 20% of our marriages end in divorce. Sportswise, we're rich. We're host to the top farm teams of the Boston Bruins and Red Sox, as well as the Tennis Hall of Fame, and we have the best beaches anywhere. The world's greatest putter is from Rhody—that would be Brad Faxon—as is fellow pro Billy Andrade. American League Rookie of the Year candidate Rocco Baldelli is from my hometown of Cumberland.
To fully understand Rhode Islanders, however, you must know this: We're Boston sports fans. Providence is 45 minutes from Beantown, 20 minutes from Foxboro. If thousands of Rhode Islanders didn't make the trek to Boston each night, the Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox would have joined the Braves' convoy when they skipped town back in the '50s. The Patriots would be playing in Hartford right now if not for us.
Nevertheless, when a windblown pop-up ekes over the wall behind Yaz, or the ball dribbles between Gimpy's legs, the Bay State gets all the condolences, the sympathetic pats on the back. Rhode Island's pain slides under the radar, like the mistress sitting in the last pew—the one who did all the hard work but gets no mention in the eulogy.
Did you know that Rhode Island was the first colony to declare independence from the British? Well, we were, but when you think of the start of the American Revolution, you think of Massachusetts, don't you? See what I'm saying? That state needs us more than it will ever admit. And the irony is that Roger Williams founded Rhode Island to escape those crackpots. The Puritans were driving him crazy-it was like living with the Taliban. So down 95 he came, and Rhode Island was established, and it became the first state to walk the talk of religious and artistic freedom.
There's a reason you've probably never heard any of this Rhode Island-Massachusetts rivalry stuff. It's because we don't make a big deal about it. We're thick-skinned. As Roger Williams hoped when he started this place, we're all about live and let live. Recently, Providence became the largest city in the country to elect an openly gay mayor. His name is David Cicilline, and guess how much of the vote he got? Eighty-four percent.
And do you know why the gay mayor won by such a landslide? Providence College basketball. Because that's the one good thing that's always been ours, all ours, and it's given us a positive self-image and, in turn, the ability to not worry about what other states are doing. The Friars and Roger Williams gave us this.
The great Rhode Island humorist Rudy Cheeks once observed that old songs have a way of transporting us back to a specific place and time in our lives, but old television shows don't. For instance, you'll never be watching a rerun of Barnaby Jones and get to wondering what happened to Mary Ellen from high school. It's true, old music can dredge up great memories, but it can also dirty the water, just as certain sports figures can with just the mention of their names. Like Ernie D.
Ooof! It's 1973, and I'm sitting on the floor of our family room bawling my eyes out. I'm way too old to be blubbering like this, but my Friars, the team led by my hero, point guard Ernie DiGregorio, have just lost to Memphis State 98-85 in me Final Four. My brother, Bobby, kicks the footrest across the room toward where my mother is sucking air in gulps. I hear something that sounds like a grunt on the verge of a laugh and turn to see my friend Bradley sitting oddly—upright and forward-leaning—in his easy chair. The cackle isn't at us but at his own sniffly condition. I've never seen him this way, and it confirms for me the depth of the tragedy we've just witnessed on TV.
Today Providence hoops means a lot to our state, but when I was growing up, it meant everything. For the decade of the '60s the Friars had the nation's third-best record, behind UCLA and Kentucky. The school had stars like future Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens and No. 1 draft pick Jimmy Walker, and my parents would tell us stories about the legendary Vinnie Ernst, Johnny Egan and Jimmy Hadnot. On game nights Bobby and I would sneak out of bed and sit at the top of the stairs listening to Chris Clark on the radio down in the kitchen. With each victory a honking sound would break the suburban stillness outside as our excitable neighbor Buzzy Dunn ran down Thomas Leighton Boulevard in his pajamas.
In the '70s the Friars meant even more to our state. Because we needed them more. Do you remember the '70s? They weren't good years—not just in Rhode Island but everywhere. There was tons of progress in the '60s, '80s and '90s, but what did the '70s bring us? Touch-Tone dialing. It was a dark, strange period with bad music, ugly cars and H.R. Haldeman.