SI Vault
Michael Silver
July 05, 2004
By nearly any measure—from star athletes produced to recreational opportunities offered—California is No. 1 in sports
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July 05, 2004

Dream State

By nearly any measure—from star athletes produced to recreational opportunities offered—California is No. 1 in sports

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As Philosophical Bedfellows, Bill Walton and Ronald Reagan go together like alfalfa sprouts and apple pie. In other words, as the voluble 6'11" basketball announcer might opine, the combination is horrible. Yet when asked about the Golden State's superiority to the rest of the nation, the tie-dyed hoops virtuoso draws upon the wisdom of the late conservative governor. "The only thing Ronald Reagan ever said that I believed to be true," Walton says, "was that if the Pilgrims had landed in California, the East Coast would be wilderness still."

Rather than ponder the unlikely notion that such a populous, diverse and sophisticated state would choose a movie actor as its top elected official (imagine that!), let's allow Walton to elaborate. " California," the native San Diegan continues, "is the greatest place in the world—the climate, the creativity, the diversity of people and geography, the sense of optimism and of not getting bogged down by the restrictive thinking of the past."

It's also, the Mountain Man insists, the foremost sports state, and there's a mountain of evidence to support that contention. No other state offers so vast a variety of sports to play or churns out more top athletes. Indeed, if the heartland's killer-quake fantasy ever came true, and the Golden State split off into the Pacific, the Island Republic of California would win more medals at the Olympics than all but two or three other nations. (On the victory stand our athletes would shed many a tear to the tender strains of Tupac and Dr. Dre's California Love.)

Indiana has its basketball, Kentucky its Derby, Texas its Friday night lights. California's claim to fame is, well, fame. The Golden State has produced so many renowned athletes that five years ago, when SI published its list of California's 50 greatest sports figures, Hall of Famers such as baseball's George Brett and Robin Yount and basketball's Gail Goodrich and Ann Meyers didn't make the cut. Nor did Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who isn't even the most famous athlete from his own high school. ( Barry Bonds and Tom Brady also starred at San Mateo's Serra High.)

A quintet of kids out of Hawthorne called the Beach Boys gave us the anthem Be True to Your School, but there's nothing sweet and harmonious about high school sports competition in California. Powerhouses such as Concord's De La Salle High, which has won 151 consecutive football games, more or less prohibit lesser schools from completing a Hoosiers-style miracle season. I learned that in June 1982, while attending Palisades High in Pacific Palisades. Our baseball team, riding a series of dramatic playoff victories, swept into the Los Angeles city final. Filing into Dodger Stadium, we Palisades fans noticed Cleveland High's skinny pitcher. "That's their star?" my buddy Andy asked. "We'll torch that guy."

Two hours and no Palisades hits later, we made like good L.A. fans and headed for the freeway before the end of Cleveland's 13-0 victory. The no-no didn't bother us quite so much three years later, when that skinny pitcher, Bret Saberhagen, became the youngest American League Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP.

California is home to many of the nation's top teenage stars in other sports, too—especially women's sports. "We're so progressive in our grassroots organizations that kids get a big head start," says U.S. soccer team captain Julie Foudy, a Mission Viejo native. "At age seven I was on a competitive all-girls' soccer team. Some of my teammates [from other states] say, 'I had to play with the boys until I was 15.' "

Culturally and meteorologically, California's climate is ripe for physical fitness. "It's the whole lifestyle—go to bed early, get up early and be as active as possible," says Walton, who grew up as a sort of human longboard, riding waves along San Diego's coastline. "The life of a spectator is almost a foreign concept."

When it comes to watching, we've been spoiled. In the past decade only one state has won championships in pro football (the 49ers), baseball ( Angels) and basketball ( Lakers, Lakers, Lakers) and played for one in hockey (Mighty Ducks). As for college sports Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC excel comprehensively: USC is the defending national co-champion in football and has won more men's NCAA team titles (72) than any other school; Stanford has earned the last 10 Directors' Cups for having the nation's best overall sports program; and UCLA holds the NCAA Division I record of 94 team championships, including the last two softball titles—both over 2002 champ Cal.

Yet in California, merely winning isn't enough. Our athletes must be flamboyant, creative performers. We are perpetually indulged, from Showtime to the Sacramento Kings' fast break, from Fernandomania to Bonds's Splash Homers, from the renegade Raiders to the sublime Niners. No wonder our natives have provided so many fantastic climaxes, from Cal's five-lateral jaunt through the Stanford band to win the 1982 Big Game to San Jose native Brandi Chastain's shirt-shedding after the U.S. women won the '99 World Cup at the Rose Bowl.

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