Basketball, for obvious reasons, has produced few fat men, particularly since the advent of the fast break. A pitcher can compensate for his paunch with his screwball, a quarterback with his smarts and arm, and a lineman with his strength, but a whale simply cannot get up and down a basketball floor quickly enough to be successful. Billy Paultz, a.k.a. the Whopper, had a bit of a potbelly when he played for five teams in the ABA and the NBA from 1970 to 1985. But with a 6'11", 245-pound frame, he didn't carry the weight all that badly.
The obvious lesson is that potbellies decrease as aerobic activity increases. There have been more potbellied hockey goalies—Gump Worsley and Harry Lumley, for example, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame—than paunchy forwards and defensemen, because the latter, like basketball players, simply must be in excellent all-around condition. There have been more paunchy bowlers than paunchy tennis players—another candidate for understatement of the year.
But we're getting fewer and fewer Worsleys, Jurgensens and Loliches. Take golf, for example. There seems to be no compelling physical reason for potbellied golfers not to be as successful as lean-bellied golfers (particularly at the 19th hole), but the Porky Olivers just aren't around anymore, or they're on diets. Today's most renowned big man, 305-pound U.S. Amateur champion Chris Patton, is more or less—no, more—big all over, rather than singularly round-bellied.
This trend may have begun, as golf trends are wont to do, with Jack Nicklaus. Back in his Fat Jack days, Nicklaus sported a crew cut, baggy pants and a soft middle. But somewhere along the line he discovered that endorsement opportunities tend to go to the paunchless, like Arnold Palmer. So Nicklaus lost his gut without losing his power. Today, at 50, he marches off to immortality with a fairly flat belly and his own line of clothing.
For the best measure of these unpaunchy times, however, we must return to baseball, specifically to the bench. In the past, we could always find a paunchy manager there, oversized belly crammed into undersized uniform, holding forth on how many helpings of pasta he ate with how many helpings of Hollywood stars sitting at his table the night before. A manager like, say, Thomas Charles Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But not anymore. These days Lasorda is a lean, mean fightin' machine—well, by comparison with the old days, anyway—and is more likely to be proclaiming the benefits of his high-fiber diet supplement than his consumption of spaghetti carbonara. During a three-month period last year, Lasorda lost 36 pounds (from 218 to 182), and he has kept them off. Of more significance is the fact that Lasorda considerably deflated his middle. Today, his paunch is no longer the first part of him to reach an umpire during a rhubarb.
"When I first went to my doctor about losing the weight, he looked at me and said, 'Your weight is in your gut,' " says Lasorda. (Not exactly a marvel of clinical observation, that.) "So when the weight came off, naturally it came off around my gut. I went from a 40 waist down to a 35. It feels great."
Lasorda did no situps or other agonizing abdominal exercises, but he did combine a workout program with his dieting. These days, he usually drinks one slimming shake ("for energy"), eats more carefully than he used to and does most of his working out in a pool. As long as the pounds do not return, his paunch should not, at least not to its old Ralph Kramdenesque proportions.
Now, there is one way to take off the paunch without dieting or going on a Marine-style exercise regimen: liposuction, the surgical procedure that literally vacuums fat from a specific area. Says Dr. Charles Pappas of the Institute for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery near Philadelphia: "Liposuction dates back eight years in this country, and in the beginning, it was almost all women who had the procedure. Now, I'd say the number of men coming to see us doubles or even triples every year. And, primarily, men are looking to remove their paunches or love handles."
Exercise ninjas like Croce, and many others in the obesity field, take a dim view of liposuction as a means of reducing the paunch. "What you're doing is letting vanity get in the way of good health," says Croce. Asks my father: "Lipo-what?"