Day 46, April 28, 2020
It would have been an awesome April Fools joke, that April first of 1974. I was thirteen years old. At that time basketball meant everything to me. If I wasn’t shooting hoops for five or six hours a day, I was anxiously awaiting the next broadcast of an NCAA or NBA game. Back in the day a broadcast was a rare occurrence. An NBA game on Sunday and a college game or two on Saturday. That was all we got, a couple of games a week. During those days of limited broadcasts, it was a great thrill when the mighty UCLA Bruins would be the featured game. Beginning with Lew Alcindor, who achieved even greater fame as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, UCLA won the college title in 1967, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, and 73. In the 1974 season my favorite player, Bill Walton, was the star. At one point, UCLA won 88 straight games, an NCAA record that lasted until…anyone from New England? Until the Connecticut women’s team set the new mark with 90, followed by an even longer unbeaten streak of 111.
It would have been an awesome April Fools joke that April 1, 1974 if the cover for my Sports Illustrated magazine had been magically changed. On March 23, 1974 the North Carolina State Wolfpack had defeated the perennial champions, the UCLA Bruins, by the score of 80-77. It was a thrilling game, a game that was extended into two overtimes. The fact that it was a great game, a thrilling game, an epic game, did nothing to ease the pain of the biggest UCLA fan in Hanford, California, a certain teenager named Wayne who had been moping around for a whole week following that devastating defeat.
Friday was a big day in my life back then. The mailman always delivered my Sports Illustrated magazine on Friday. As soon as I got home from school that Friday I waited. The game had been nearly a week before. For that whole week I had been learning to accept defeat, and for a thirteen-year old boy, that was no easy task. Sometime late in the afternoon I heard the familiar putt-putt of the mail carrier. As soon as he pulled away, I raced to the mailbox to get my issue that would tell all about the game. The first thing I noticed was the date on the cover. April 1, 1974. For a fleeting moment I hoped it had all been an April Fools joke. Maybe UCLA really did not lose. Maybe John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood had pulled off one more miracle. Maybe David Thompson had not soared…maybe the mighty Bruins had roared. The issue was dated April 1, 1974. Alas, the cover dispelled any doubts. The headline simply said, “End of an Era.”
Isn’t it rather amazing the things we remember from our childhood? It was just a game. It was just a basketball game. The world did not end. Shoot, that was just the semifinal that year. Thousands of fans came out two days later for the championship game and they cheered and slapped high fives and ate popcorn and drank soda. The world went on. Why does something like that stick in your mind?
For me the reason goes beyond a love of basketball and the die-hard devotion of a teenage boy. When I got up the courage to read the article about that dismal day when the Bruins went down in defeat, I came across a story that helped me come to grips with the loss. Curry Kirkpatrick was the author that day, writing about the classic confrontation between UCLA and NC State. He chose to close the article with a story that made an impact on me as a teenage boy. Curry Kirkpatrick chose to close the article with a story that continues to make an impact on my life as a grown man approaching 60 years of age. Remember, Bill Walton was my favorite player. Curry Kirkpatrick wrote in the closing paragraph of his article, “After dressing (from his shower), Bill Walton shoved his uniform into a bag and left to sign autographs for some children. He stopped at the Coliseum exit when a man in overalls grabbed his arm. ‘Mr. Walton,’ the man said, ‘I work here, and I just wanted to shake your hand.’ ‘Thanks,’ said Walton. And thanks for all you’ve done for us.’”
On the heels of what was surely at that point the biggest loss in his life, Bill Walton took time to tell a Coliseum worker, dressed in overalls, thanks. Bill Walton told him thanks. I had to look up the story online to remember the details. For years I have remembered the story as Bill Walton walking back on the floor of the arena, a floor empty save for one person, the custodian sweeping the floor. Bill Walton told the custodian sweeping the floor, “Thanks.” Even though I now stand corrected, I think I will hold on to my own version of events.
This morning on our local news, in the midst of a Coronavirus Crisis that has brought the world to its knees, our local news ran a brief Public Service Announcement. Two workers were in the hallway of a hospital. They were sweeping the floors. They were custodians. The Public Service Announcement was simple. “Thanks to all our workers in this difficult time.” Thanks.
We are feeling the loss right now, the loss that has come from this long time of isolation, the loss that knows more than 55,000 of our fellow American citizens have died, the loss of missing birthday celebrations, the loss of not being able to gather as a church family, the loss of….We are feeling the loss right now. Something about that Public Service Announcement, capturing two custodial workers faithfully doing their job, brought me back to a time nearly 50 years ago when someone stopped to say thanks. Someone experiencing loss, albeit only the loss of a game, someone experiencing loss stopped to say thanks. Our loss is bigger than a game. Our loss has greater consequences than a game. But it seems to me because our loss is bigger, and because our consequences are greater, it might be even more important now, maybe more important now than ever, to be sure we stop and say that word that means so much. Thanks. That one simple word means so much. Thanks.
With the love of Christ,