Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I've been toying with the notion of legend
for some time.
The problem with legend is it deals almost exclusively in superlatives:
Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time. Jim Brown was
the most dominant running back in NFL history. Babe Ruth's gifts bordered on
the supernatural. He managed to place an 86-year hex on the Boston Red Sox
after they sold him to the New York Yankees.
When I hear these descriptions I wonder if the athletes of my generation will
ever measure up. Sure, LeBron James is tearing apart the rest of the NBA, but
I've seen him go 1-for-13. I watched him check out against the Celtics in the
2010 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Of course, Phil Mickelson is a great golfer, but let's not forget his push-
slice on the 18th at the 2006 U.S. Open. And, yes, Tiger Woods appears to be
returning to form, but I, like everyone else, am aware of his off-the-course
scandal and current four-plus year major drought.
When you hear about the old guys, you rarely hear about the failures. All
you're told is that the gentleman Jack Nicklaus captured a record 18 major
titles, and that the NBA's greatest winner, Bill Russell, defended his way to
11 championship rings.
The most honest criticism I've heard of Russell comes from a teenage Jim
Carroll in "The Basketball Diaries":
Took in a Knicks game at the Garden tonight with Kevin Dolon, Yogi, his
beastly chick Muffy, and Nardo Poo. Knicks beat the Celtics for the first
time in two years, the old cigar-chomping Garden regulars were going ape
from their regular balcony hangouts. They love to see Bill Russell have a
bad game and, (expletive), they really got down on the cat's back and poor
Russell did have a rare screwed game tonight. He wasn't standing out at all
on defense. In fact, he was sheer (expletive). Good old Johnny Green was
snatching rebound after rebound over him, and he was particularly bad
shooting. Like the dude never was a good shooter, but tonight he was
hideous. At one point near the end he was all but a foot from the basket
when some drunk hack yelled out, "Shoot, yer got the wind with yer, yer
I could even make out a few saps on the Celts bench cracking on that one.
That's not the Bill Russell I grew up hearing about. But when dealing with
legend, the flaws need to be remembered as much as the superlatives. Yes,
Russell, like LeBron James, had the rare off night. And, yes, the gentleman
Nicklaus once publicly rebuked a writer after the 1986 Masters.
When I tell my grandkids about Tiger Woods, I probably will say he was the
most dominant, mentally imposing golfer I ever witnessed. I'll tell them about
the 77 (and counting) PGA Tour wins, the Tiger Slam, the fist pumps and the
ferocious athleticism, but I'll also tell them about the scandal and loss of
sponsorships, the subsequent on-course lull and the injuries.
Tiger appears poised to win another major, perhaps this year. Maybe he'll
catch Jack and maybe he won't. Either way I'll remember him as a legend, flaws
I'm going to end this column with an excerpt from Cormac McCarthy's "Blood
Meridian." The passage -- a story told by Judge Holden to his fellow scalp
hunters -- warns against remembering a man without his flaws.
In the western country of the Alleghenies some years ago when it was yet a
wilderness, there was a man who kept a harness shop by the side of the
Federal road. He did so because it was his trade and yet he did little of it
for there were few travelers in that place. So that he fell into the habit
before long of dressing himself as an indian and taking up station a few
miles above his shop and waiting there by the roadside to ask whoever should
come that way if they would give him money. At this time he had done no
person any injury.
One day a certain man came by and the harnessmaker in his beads and feathers
stepped from behind his tree and asked this certain man for some coins. He
was a young man and he refused and having recognized the harnessmaker for a
white man spoke to him in a way that made the harnessmaker ashamed so that
he invited the young man to come to his dwelling a few miles distant on the
This harnessmaker lived in a bark house he had built and he kept a wife and
two children all of whom reckoned the old man mad and were only waiting some
chance to escape him and the wild place he'd brought them to. They therefore
welcomed the guest and the woman gave him his supper. But while he ate the
old man again began to try to wheedle money from him and he said that they
were poor as indeed they were and the traveler listened to him and then he
took out two coins which like the old man had never seen and the old man
took the coins and studied them and showed them to his son and the stranger
finished his meal and said to the old man that he might have those coins.
But ingratitude is more common than you might think and the harnessmaker
wasn't satisfied and he began to question whether he ought not perhaps to
have another such coin for his wife. The traveler pushed back his plate and
turned in his chair and gave the old man a lecture and in this lecture the
old man heard things he had once known but forgotten and he heard some new
things to go with them. The traveler concluded by telling the old man that
he was a loss to God and man alike and would remain so until he took his
brother into his heart as he would take himself in and he come upon his own
person in want in some desert place in the world.
With this the old man repented all over again and swore that the boy was
right and the old woman who was seated by the fire was amazed at all she had
heard and when the guest announced that the time had come for his departure
she had tears in her eyes and the little girl came out from behind the bed
and clung to his clothes.
The old man offered to walk him out the road so as to see him off on his
journey and to apprise him of which fork in the road to take and which not
for there were scarcely any waysigns in that part of the world.
As they walked out, they spoke of life in such a wild place where such
as you saw you saw but one and never again and by and by they came to the
fork in the road and here the traveler told the old man that he had come
with him far enough and he thanked him and they took their departure each of
the other and the stranger went on his way. But the harnessmaker seemed
unable to suffer the loss of his company and he called to him and went with
him again a little way upon the road. And by and by they came to a place
where the road was darkened in a deep wood and in this place the old man
killed the traveler. He killed him with a rock and he took his clothes and
he took his watch and his money and he buried him in a shallow grave by the
side of the road. Then he went home.
On the way he tore his own clothes and bloodied himself with a flint and he
told his wife they had been set upon by robbers, and the young traveler
murdered and him only escaped. She began to cry and after a while she made
him take her to the place and she took wild primrose which grew in plenty
thereabout and she put it on the stones and she came there many times until
she was old.
The harnessmaker lived until his son was grown and never did anyone harm
again. As he lay dying he called the son to him and told him what he had
done. And the son said that he forgave him if it was his to do so and the
old man said that it was his to do so and then he died. But the boy was not
sorry for he was jealous of the dead man and before he went away he visited
that place and cast away the rocks and dug up the bones and scattered them
in the forest and then he went away. He went away to the west and he himself
became a killer of men.
The old woman was still living at the time and she knew none of what had
passed and she thought that wild animals had dug the bones and scattered
them. Perhaps she did not find all the bones but such as she did she
restored to the grave and she covered them up and piled the stones over them
and carried flowers to that place as before. When she was an old woman she
told people that it was her son buried there and perhaps by that time it was
Here the judge looked up and smiled. There was a silence, then all began to
shout at once with every kind of disclaimer.
He was no harnessmaker he was a shoemaker and he was cleared of them
charges, called one.
And another: He never lived in no wilderness place, he had a shop dead in
the center of Cumberland Maryland.
They never knew where them bones come from. The old woman was crazy, known
to be so.
That was my brother in that casket and he was a minstrel dancer out of
Cincinnati, Ohio, was shot to death over a woman. And other protests until
the judge raised both hands for silence.
Wait now, he said. For there's a rider to the tale.
There was a young bride waiting for that traveler with whose bones we are
acquainted and she bore a child in her womb that was the traveler's son. Now
this son whose father's existence in this world is historical and
speculative even before the son has entered it is in a bad way.
All his life he carries before him the idol of a perfection to which he can
The father dead has euchered the son out of his patrimony. For it is the
death of the father to which the son is entitled and to which he is heir,
more so than his goods. He will not hear of the small mean ways that
tempered the man in life. He will not see him struggling in follies of his
own devising. No. The world which he inherits bears him false witness. He is
broken before a frozen god and he will never find his way.
What is true of one man, said the judge, is true of many.
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