Philadelphia, PA – 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 bum." 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 and all.
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 road.
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 people 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 so.
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 never attain.
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.