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"Nice" is a word that may well have lost its meaning in sports. The modern athlete, as we have come to know him, is scarcely the nice guy he was seen to be in decades past. If we are to believe what we read and hear of him, he's closer to Jack the Ripper than Jack Armstrong. In the composite, he may be perceived as a greedy, materialistic, disloyal, ill-mannered, showboating good-for-nothing alcoholic dope fiend. The sports pages overflow with his misdeeds—his car wrecks, his cocaine busts, his barroom brawls, his suspensions, his financial improprieties, his divorces, his paternity suits, his endless contract negotiations, renegotiations and re-renegotiations, his strikes, his jail sentences. Only the most gullible among us could find any vestige of the all-American boy in this rotter. And yet in our zeal to catch him up we have embraced cynicism as feverishly as our forebears did booster-ism. The modern athlete, to his own considerable dismay, is subjected to a public examination that his lionized predecessors couldn't have imagined. Athletes in other times were hardly saints, but they were certainly better protected from probing critics.
Some good might actually come from all this public exposure. If nothing else, we may at least expect athletes of the future to be a bit more circumspect. In the meantime, we, the public, should examine ourselves. Are we, in our ravenous consumption of bad news, passing up the good? Sports still haven't lost the capacity to lift us out of our lives for a time and replace the humdrum with moments of exhilaration. And the odd part of it is, there are, despite all we hear, some rather nice things going on out there. Furthermore, there are still some nice guys left in sports. Lots of them. Let us then set aside for the time our obsession with wrongdoing and take a walk on the sunny side. Let us rejoice in those moments in this last year—and there were many of them—that caused us to pause in our workaday lives and, without embarrassment or fear of being stigmatized as naive, simply say, "That's nice."
Reggie Jackson isn't exactly famous for being a nice guy. Too bad, because he definitely can be one. When Reggie read about a badly burned 6-year-old, David Rothenberg, lying in critical condition in an Orange County, Calif, hospital, he decided to do something helpful. The youngster was truly a tragic victim, left to die in a fire set by his own deranged father. Jackson was profoundly moved by the boy's plight, especially when he learned that young David had inquired, on awakening from surgery, "How's Reggie Jackson doing? Is he out of his slump?" Reggie showed up at the hospital, unannounced, unrequested and unpublicized, and entertained the injured boy with baseball stories. "I think he was thrilled," said Reggie. "He acted a little more upbeat." Jackson continued to visit David on an almost daily basis and he donated uniforms and other baseball gear to an auction raising money for the boy's further treatment. He also gave David a uniform of his own. All this without the customary Jackson fanfare. "I was just doing what we should all do," said Reggie, "and that's pay attention to another human being." David is recovering from his horrible injuries and is back in school in his hometown, Brooklyn. He is often seen there wearing an Angels' cap.
In 1950, someone not so nice stole the one-iron Ben Hogan used with such devastating effectiveness at the U.S. Open at Merion, which Hogan won in a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio. In the confusion on the last regulation hole the day before, the club, featured with Ben in a LIFE magazine photograph, was carted off by a larcenous souvenir collector. But here's the nice thing: Hogan got the club back in '83, 33 years after it was stolen. Jack Murdock, a golf club collector from Raleigh, N.C., had heard rumors that the famous club was still in circulation among collectors. Murdock found it and traded four other clubs for it. At a Wake Forest University Hall of Fame banquet, he told pro Lanny Wadkins that it might be Hogan's missing club. "I could tell it had been hit a lot by someone who knew what to do with it," Murdock told SI's Armen Keteyian. "I knew because it had a worn spot the size of a quarter down in the sweet spot."
Murdock believes he knows how Hogan must have felt on that afternoon in 1950. "Can't you imagine hitting that one-iron all day," he says, "then coming up to the last hole of the Open, needing a 220-yard shot, with all the pressure, the fans lining the fairway. You hit a great shot, then, just a few minutes later, the next time you see your bag the club is gone. It just tore me up. I felt the club ought to be back where it belonged—with Ben Hogan."
Murdock asked Wadkins to take the club to his home in Dallas and show it to Hogan the next time he visited with him in Fort Worth.
Several months after he gave the club to Wadkins, Murdock received this letter: "Dear Mr. Murdock, Just a note to thank you for allowing me to see and possess my old No. 1 iron. I likened this to the return of an old, long lost friend. Sincerely, Ben Hogan." Hogan subsequently donated the club to the USGA Golf House in Far Hills, N.J., where it is on display. Now that's nice.
It's especially nice when a great athlete overcomes a personal failure and turns it into a triumph. There were three notable instances of this in 1983, three occasions on which the "can't-win-the-big-one" stigma was surmounted by once-frustrated stars. Let's look at these with pleasure.
There are few athletes more popular, both for talent and personality, than Julius Erving, the "Dr. J" of the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving is undeniably one of the great all-around players in the history of basketball, a brilliant shooter, rebounder, playmaker and defensive star, an inspirational leader and, above all, a team player. His soaring drives to the basket for implausible dunks have also made him one of the game's most exciting players. He spent five years in the old ABA and led the New York Nets to two league championships. But in six NBA seasons, all with Philadelphia, he'd come up empty. The 76ers reached the finals in 1977, '80 and '82 and were turned back each time, to the Doctor's terrible frustration. The '77 loss was particularly galling since Philadelphia had taken a two-games-to-none lead and then had lost the next four.
Erving was the only player left from that team in '83. He was 33, and he had the sense that, though his airborne genius was mostly intact, time was running out on him. Besides, this was a Philadelphia team built more to accommodate Moses Malone's dominating inside game than the Doctor's flights. If Erving were to win his championship ring, it had to be soon. He had been thwarted long enough, although when asked about past failures, he protested vigorously. "I don't feel incomplete or inadequate in any way because I haven't won an NBA championship," he said. "I don't lie awake nights and think about it. I know I've given my best to the public, and the rest is really out of my hands. I can accept that."