When I was a kid, my self-esteem was never bruised if I was the last pick for dodgeball or sprints during gym period. I stunk at sports and had enough self-awareness to know that if the tables were turned I wouldn’t have picked me either. Possibly the only kid who actually believed grownups when they said things like “It’s not whether you win or lose…” I was totally accepting of my non-competitive nature, so-so eye-hand-coordination and the irrefutable fact that I, like my favorite character from fiction Ferdinand the Bull, was much happier smelling the flowers than butting heads with any wanna-be-warriors on the field.
My parents rarely talked about sports at home and when they did I couldn’t relate to the cricket and soccer matches they recalled from their childhoods in Jamaica. And given the tight budget at my parochial grammar school, the sports curriculum (and I use the term very loosely) was limited to the aforementioned once-weekly gym classes or lunchtime games of tag and double-dutch on a paved lot behind our school building.
By the time I got to high school the die was cast. Getting worked up over sports simply was not in my DNA… with one caveat.
Give me a larger-than-life character who transcends their sport and I will ignore my instinct to leave the room at the sound of a buzzer, bell, or call to post. Muhammad Ali comes to mind as much for his poetry as his pretty face… as does Charles Barkley for his astute (if often politically incorrect) observations. I can’t get enough of Calvin Borel– the jockey from Louisiana’s Cajun Country who will man up in the saddle then cry like a baby when his mount crosses the finish line first. And how ’bout them horses? In my mind, they are the über-athletes: true royals from the sport of kings. And how cool are names like Seattle Slew, Mucho Macho Man and Zenyatta which so perfectly reflect the merging of a thoroughbred’s high-low culture.
And now, thanks to John Tortorella, I might have to learn to distinguish a Duster from a Puck Bunny.
Typically, everything about hockey leaves me cold from the violence to the toothless brawlers obscured by all that unflattering padding. By the same token, nothing gets my blood pumping like a good drama and Tortorella, who coaches the New York Rangers, serves up drama on an operatic scale. Whether blasting a linesman for having “cataracts” or “dementia”, getting slapped with five-figure fines from the NHL, or attempting to spear a Capitals fan with a hockey stick for heckling, Tortorella doesn’t play when it comes to defending his team. In a city that prides itself on telling it like it is, Coach stands out for being a little too outspoken. To be sure, columnists like Larry Brooks (“Brooksie” to Tortorella) from the New York Post would use stronger language to describe his nemesis, who once told him to “get the f**k out of here” during a live broadcast on CBS.
So the guy can be pugnacious, combative and taciturn. Who am I to cast the first stone? Truth is I’m inclined to look the other way in light of the dashing figure Tortorella cuts on the ice (show me a man who is comfortable with his silver hair and I’ll show you what Mitt Romney could look like if he just allowed Mother Nature to do her thing), his penchant for wearing perfectly tailored pinstripe suits when bellowing from the sidelines, not to mention the way he maintains his swagger even when dressed down in black turtlenecks or those extra-puffy pads.
If, as my gym teachers told me all those years ago, it really is all about how you play the game then this bad boy gets an A+ for effort. And while I may be late to the game given Tortorella’s tenure in professional hockey, with DJ Steve Porter’s new mash-up “Next Question” (a compilation of the coach’s greatest hits at post-game press conferences) getting so much play on YouTube there is no way I’ll be the last…
…and for this non-sporty-sports-fan– not coming in last would be a first!