Heroes past

I just started reading a biography of baseball Hall-of-Famer Sandy Koufax. The book is about 10 years old and is written by the same author who wrote a more recent book on Mickey Mantle: "The Last Boy." These are two athletes I never got to see play. Admittedly, I'm a little bit of a sucker for historical baseball nonfiction -- the sport seems to lend itself to that more than any other.

I was born in 1970. I didn't start watching sports until about 1977. I missed a 100 years of baseball history, a good 70 years of football lore and about 40-50 years of basketball. I can only read about the exploits of sports heroes past, with some occasional film footage thrown in. But watching old video just isn't the same. No offense to NFL Films and ESPN Classic, but watching sports legends decades later isn't the same as experiencing their accomplishments in real time.

In basketball history -- and remember, this is my favorite sport -- I wish I could have seen Bob Cousy play. And Bill Russell. Surprisingly, I don't have this need to watch Wilt Chamberlain; I imagine he just dominated because of his size compared with everyone else (and I saw Shaquille O'Neal do that in the 1990s). That said, George Mikan's emergence would have been a sight to see (Mikan is considered basketball's first big man). I missed Jerry Sloan as a player. I missed Oscar Robertson entirely..

In the NFL, I missed so many great running backs: Gayle Sayers, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson (whose career was tailing off just as I started watching football). There's also quarterback Johnny Unitas, linebacker Dick Butkus and the entire Fearsome Foursome.

However, baseball rules my wish list. And oddly, most of the players I wish I had seen play are from the 20, 25 years or so before I was born. As opposed to Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb, the more recent legends are so tantalizingly close. Koufax and Mantle of course, but also Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Hank Aaron.

My son Michael (who turned 9 today) loves basketball, but missed Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley -- and even Shaq. I can DVR classic games on NBA TV, and he might be a little awed by MJ switching hands with the ball in mid-air during a drive to the basket, but it's not the same. He will come to know his own legends as he grows up. And that's the lesson I must remember: I got to see Walter Payton play. And Ryne Sandberg and Greg Maddux. And Jordan. Especially Jordan.

Thankfully, enough writers have documented the legacies of sports heroes past. I might have missed them the first time around, but at least I can find time to catch up.


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