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"The older you get," Smith wrote, "the more you realize that this is what sports are most about: the moments before ... when a person takes a flashlight to his soul and inspects himself for will and courage and spirit... . Who am I? And, Is that going to be enough?"
IN 2000, AS A YOUNG STAFF WRITER, Jon Wertheim covered the U.S. Olympic boxing trials, which were held, oddly enough, at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. ("Nothing says amateurism like pai-gow, free drinks and an upcoming Eddie Money concert," Wertheim says.) Intrepid as always, Wertheim discovered a back staircase leading from the ring to the makeshift locker rooms, and this secret passage spared him dealing with an imperious security guard. Sneaking down the steps after a heavyweight elimination fight, he got a spike of adrenaline when he heard a keening cry. He looked over the rail to see the losing heavyweight fighter (his name now long forgotten, which is ultimately the point) sobbing inconsolably, his chiseled body heaving. Still leaking blood and sweat, he was curled in a ball, mourning a dream that had just been administered its last rites. The other guy would be going for the gold in Sydney. The scene of this hard block of a man reduced to a blubbering baby, all by himself in a dingy back stairwell of a casino, was almost unendurably poignant for Wertheim. "We write about the winners and put them on TV and lavish them with money and fame and even put their faces on our cereal boxes," he says. "But here was a searing reminder that competition is a zero-sum game. Much as we all love winners, sports necessarily creates losers too. And that is the greatest life lesson, no?"
On March 27, 1971, Villanova made its first appearance in an NCAA basketball tournament title game. The Wildcats faced 28--1 UCLA, the four-time defending champions, featuring Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Henry Bibby and Steve Patterson. Villanova was led by Howard Porter. The Wildcats were behind most of the game, twice cutting the lead to three in the final minutes. When they lost 68--62, a lot of people cried, including Richard Demak, now SI's chief of reporters, who was not from Philadelphia, had never heard of Villanova and was watching on television in Michigan. He was nine. Maybe it was because everyone loves an underdog, even a nine-year-old (especially a nine-year-old).
Despite the loss, Porter was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. But the story doesn't end there. He was stripped of the award and Villanova's tournament victories were vacated after Porter was found to have signed a contract with the ABA's Pittsburgh Condors in the middle of his senior year.
Then, 36 years after that title game, a man was admitted to a Minneapolis hospital as John Doe. He had been beaten, his face swollen and disfigured. At the hospital a nurse identified him as the person who had put her husband's life back on track—his former probation officer, Howard Porter. A week later Porter, 58, was dead. He had gone from a segregated high school in Sarasota, Fla., to Villanova to the NBA. He became a cocaine addict, rehabilitated himself, became a counselor and then a probation officer. "We did a story, and it turned out that Porter had hurt mostly himself in his life and helped many more people than that," Demak says. "That's what we reported, anyway, but I guess you never know. Still, when I found out how Porter's saga of success and failure and redemption ended, dying the way he did, he moved me again, almost 40 years later."
HERE'S ANOTHER WAY to say it: A fan's attachment to a team or a player might be one of the most intense, enduring relationships of his or her life.
SI.com hockey producer John Rolfe grew up close enough to walk to Nassau Coliseum ("I practically lived there"), and with the rise of the Islanders between 1980 and '83, he watched what he now calls "the most underrated and underappreciated champions in any sport, ever." The excellence of those Islanders (eight Hall of Famers if you include coach Al Arbour and G.M. Bill Torrey, four successive Stanley Cups, a possibly unbreakable record of 19 consecutive playoff series won, countless heart-stopping comebacks, a furious rivalry with the Rangers), mixed with the passion Rolfe shared with fellow fans, made him a very serious student of the game (Columbia Journalism thesis on how the NHL was helping Soviet-bloc players defect) and ultimately a sportswriter.
What was so magical about those Islanders was what Rolfe calls their combination of "talent, heart and class." They won and lost with dignity, and being perennial underdogs by virtue of the team's location on Long Island and in the shadow of the high-if-not-so-mighty Rangers, made the championships even sweeter. But on the night the Isles would win their fourth Cup (May 17, 1983), completing an improbable sweep of Wayne Gretzky's favored Oilers, Rolfe couldn't get a ticket to the game. He watched with friends at a watering hole on the docks in Freeport and then drove down the Hempstead Turnpike past the Coliseum hours later to find the road still jammed with revelers. "I'll never forget tooting my car horn (Let's! Go! Is-land-ers!) and high-fiving fellow fans out my window," Rolfe says. "What I know now is I wouldn't be here without them."