"Notice," says Hughes, "that Sullivan chipped out the diamonds." Mention how small Lance Armstrong's Lycra yellow jersey looks, and Bowers points out a wardrobe box marked BEE GEES: "That's all Lycra and Spandex," he says. "Every item in there, taken off its hanger, will fit in the palm of your hand."
In these windowless confines it becomes difficult, after three hours, to distinguish sports from entertainment. "That's the gopher from Caddyshack," I say, gesturing to what looks like a taxidermied rodent atop a filing cabinet. "No," says Hughes. "That's the hat Fess Parker wore as Davy Crockett."
Contemplating a battered Celtics road jersey donated by Bill Russell, Hughes—a lifelong Georgetown fan, working her dream job—says, "In some ways we're the nation's conscience. It's important to remember what Bill Russell went through as a black athlete in Boston."
To that end, Hughes and the Smithsonian will take 40 important sports artifacts on a national tour starting in October, including the rhinestone-studded skirt worn by Billie Jean King in her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs. For now, that skirt is in a Museum of American History public display case, through which will rotate, among other items, an Olympic basketball jersey worn by my wife, Rebecca Lobo. "It will go right here," says Hughes, on the museum's third floor, "next to the ruby slippers." Indeed, in the next case sit the size 5 shoes that delivered Dorothy from Oz.
When we entered the building hours earlier, someone said to Rebecca, "Welcome to American History," by which I thought he meant the building. But now I know otherwise: What he said was, "Welcome to American history."