Monday, April 28, 2014

An Anniversary of Greatness on Greatness

  Fifteen years ago today a special collector’s issue of Sports Illustrated hit the stands. I happened upon it that day and my life has not been the same since. Two weeks ago I was discussing relationships with my therapist. She said, “We all want to feel needed, valued, important, chosen.” The subject of this piece wanted those things, too. Even bigger: He was those things.

In the fall of 1994, I came out of room 202 and turned left to walk down the hallway towards the restroom for the first time in my new home. I was a freshman at Pittsburg State University and to call the inhabitants of Tanner Hall an interesting mix would be an understatement. My 202 roommate was a 265-pound Mexican named Ernesto Holguin, a wrestler from Newton, Kansas. He liked cable television, menthol cigarettes, and fat white girls. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. In room 204, our neighbors to the left, were two dudes as different from one another as Ernesto an I, I being the tie-dye-wearing, long-haired stoner from Kansas City, the only guy in the building with a fake I.D. I got asked to buy beer a lot, and many people in my building were afraid of me in a sense. Not because of my towering five-foot-nine, 145-pound frame, but because people from central and western Kansas -- it turns out -- are afraid of people that are “on drugs.”

            Anyway, my neighbors were Ryan and Dave. Ryan lived at the gym. He had a wardrobe of nothing but shorts and tank tops that matched his expensive sunglasses, and when he wasn’t at the gym, he was with his gorgeous girlfriend. He was from Chanute, Kansas. His roommate Dave was shorter and skinnier than I and he had one purpose on this planet: to tell anyone who would listen about how amazing the band Dream Theater is. He especially liked the drummer. This was so because he was (and remains) the most amazing drummer I have ever known. They called him Lightning Hands.

            Brian and Joe were across the hall, and they were an odd couple. I don’t mean they were a couple or that, together, they were odd. I mean they were odd individuals that, put in a room together, made for a whole galaxy of oddness that literally oozed from their door slats. They were so odd that they wound up not getting along, which didn’t bother me. Until it did. Tanner Hall was co-ed by alternating floor, so when Ernesto landed himself a nice plump white girl from the third floor, he quickly made plans to “room with his brother,” which was what he told campus housing. His brother did enroll and did get dibs on the first-vacated room on the floor, but he wasted no time finding a chubster for himself, and between the four of them, they found a way to cohabitate off of the record.

            So for a while, I had a room to myself, and room 202 was the biggest room on the floor, which was awesome. Until it wasn’t. Brian needed out of Joe’s room, so Brian wound up being my new roommate, which was fine. Sort of. He got a job at McDonald’s, so he wound up gone from time to time, but he came to Pitt State with no identity and upon seeing that everyone there had one, he forged one for himself: as a white gangster with Detroit/Philadelphia roots and an impromptu all-Crips-tone wardrobe. He went, overnight, from quiet, weird nobody from Kansas to Blunt-rollin’ hardass that talked night and day about getting high. This personality shift happened within hours of unpacking in my room. Funny thing: He never wanted to get high. Ever.

            To each his own and all that shit, but if you’re going to act like a dope-smokin’ thug, I’d think the first thing you’d do would be to blaze with the building’s token druggie, but what do I know. I hated two things about rooming with Brian. Well, three if you count the fact that I had the biggest room on the floor to myself for most of three months before his French-frying, bandana-wearing, straight-edge-but-afraid-to-admit-it ass moved in. But…

1)      He was always bumming cigarettes off of me, which is fine. Unless you smoke menthols, and then you have nothing but nasty cigarettes when I need to bum one. And for the record, he developed this menthol habit out of convenience when he started hanging with my first roommate, who he immediately began calling “Net.”
2)      He had Saturday mornings off. How in the fuck are you a college student that works at McDonald’s and you have Saturday mornings off? This was ridiculous for two reasons:
1)      He worked Friday nights and he would come home from work and get straight in bed, causing the room to smell like the Hamburglar had laid a quarter-pound fart in it.
2)      He would sleep in on Saturday mornings. Til like 10 or 11. That’s fine. I get it. I love my sleep just as much as the next dude, but when a guy comes to the room at dawn still spinning off of a dose of Orange Sunshine or a handful of mushrooms, a guy should be able to freak out under the covers without the scrutiny of East Side Til I Die staring from the other bed.

Anyway, way down the hall was Chip. He was from so far west in Kansas that he collected mail in a Nevada zip code, and let me tell you something about Chip. He was like 6’11”, 300 pounds, a chipped (seriously) front tooth, and his outfit was always the same: black t-shirt of varying print, rolled-up jean shorts, white crew-length socks, and black high-top sneakers that were warped by his waddle. This black dude named Melvin from Independence, Kansas was across the hall and next door to Joe/Brian’s room. He was there on football scholarship and liked to hang out with me because I played dice, and I always had weed, cigarettes, and cold beer. His roommate was this hyper-active dude named Ryan (also from Independence, Kansas) that was dying to make friends with anyone and everyone. Next to them was this wanna-be pimp named Lyle. All he wanted to do was get in tight with Melvin and his crew and show everyone what a player he was. He claimed Kansas City as his home, but he was full of shit. I know this because he told me years later he made up a bunch of shit because he was embarrassed about his roots.

            Lyle didn’t like me at first because Melvin liked me and asked me to roll with him all the time. I think Lyle was dying to be the token white dude in the black posse, but whatever. There were a bunch of other people on the floor, too, but they wound up congregating down near Chip’s end a lot, spending time in Ernesto’s room watching free cable and never getting the hint that Ernesto wanted everyone to leave so he could have a bunch of gross sex with his hefty prize. Lyle ended up swinging this deal where he forced a roommate swap that sent Ryan to Lyle’s room and Lyle to Melvin’s room, which was comical, but the point of all of this is Lyle’s original roommate: Brett.

      When I turned out of my room that day and took that initial stroll down the hall, the door to Brett and Lyle’s room flung open and a plastic ball shot out of the room. Behind it, in a fury of energy, came Brett. He was wearing hockey pants, shoulder pads, gloves, a helmet, and a Hartford Whalers jersey, and in his hands was a stick. He checked me into the wall, wound up, and blasted that ball, sending it through the air where it drilled the door to the stairwell smack in the peep hole.

            “He shoots, he scooooooooooooores!”

            I had no idea what in the heck had just happened except for that this blur of hockey had just startled and stampeded me en route to christen the new public can.

“Sorry, dude,” Brett said. I wasn’t sure whether I should be scared or confused or both, but I had this burning feeling inside of me and it was this: I loved it. I wound up hanging out with Brett for a minute or two here and there and he was the first person to bring -- in both the figurative and the literal -- hockey into my consciousness. I mean, I knew about it, but I didn’t know about it. I learned how to ice skate as a kid and I played a random handful of “games” on a frozen creek, but that was about it. Hockey just wasn’t really around during my upbringing, but thanks to Brett from Rhode Island, I was sold on it.

I’m not sure what happened to him, but I think he moved home at semester. Either way, I wound up making friends with some dudes from Derby and one of them had an older brother. We hung out with him a little bit and he was into hockey. That spring we watched a bunch of National Hockey League playoffs and I was hooked. I didn’t know shit about the league, really, but I remember tuning in sometime around the semi-finals. I seem to recall Toronto, San Jose, Washington, and New Jersey all being in the mix, but the Cup finals is what really stands out.

It seemed that the New York Rangers were a big, big thing, and that the Vancouver Canucks felt like underdogs. I remember my buddy’s brother wore this huge puck hat that said, “Puckhead” on it, and it made him look like a huge dork. Secretly I liked it, even though I didn’t understand why he was so up in arms about rooting for Vancouver. I now know why that series was so epic, at least in terms of hockey history.

Seeing those Rangers fans and the Canucks supporters get behind their clubs decided it for me on the spot: I’d support the club closest my hometown, the St. Louis Blues.

The following spring I was in Colorado, living in Glen Haven’s old Red Lion Inn, which had become a one-building commune of sorts. On days off, Charlie Kauffunger and I would fire up NHL ’94 for the Sega Genesis and zap hours out of our weeks. By ’95 I was in Durango, working in a bar, catching every minute of televised hockey possible, and I remember shooting pool at Coloradoponga’s watching the new-to-the-state Colorado Avalanche beat the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup. As a still-new Blues fan, I hated watching the Redwings win back-to-back Cups the following two years, especially that first one coming at the expense of my new pal Steve’s Philadelphia Flyers.

But it was that next spring -- April of 1999 -- that resonated with me. I was picking up a few things at City Market and when I got to the checkout stand, I saw it. An issue of Sports Illustrated -- a magazine I’d cherished as a kid -- with one lone image on it spoke to me. Its verbiage addressed one thing, one person, and one career. It was a special release, a tribute to the NHL career of Wayne Gretzky. I knew in that moment that the sport I’d fallen in love with over five years ago had just said goodbye to the greatest player in history and I’d missed it. I’d not been present in the game for almost all of his 21 years in the game.

The purchase of that magazine that day was an impulse buy, something I’ve been guilty of on many occasions over the years, often times when I had no business spending money on something I wanted when there were so many things I needed that I couldn’t afford. But not that day. Not those seven dollars. I got home and almost broke into a sweat trying to get my groceries put away. I could not wait to sit down on the couch and devour every word of that issue. It remains one of the greatest buys I’ve ever made. It was my link, my channel to the hockey that came before my awareness of it, a source for revealing to me just how gifted Wayne Gretzky was on the ice, just how perfect it was for him to be known as the Great One.

Fifteen years ago today I sat on that couch and read that magazine from cover to cover, taking time to tell anyone who would listen -- read: Steve -- some of my favorite statistics from it. Having spent the past few weeks revisiting the special collector’s issue, I’ll share some of those favorites here: 

From a February 1978 Sports Illustrated piece by E.M. Swift (many were reprinted for the Gretzky issue):
  • "At 11, he scored 378 goals in 68 games, including three in 45 seconds in the third period of a game   in which Brantford trailed 3-0."
  • "After being the third player selected in the midget draft held by the (Ontario Junior A Major Hockey Association) last spring, Gretzky was expected to need time to adjust to the rougher, faster pace of the mother lode of North American hockey. He didn’t. He scored a hat trick in his first game with Sault Ste. Marie and has been at the top of the OHA scoring race ever since. In his first 48 games Gretzky had 54 goals and 87 assists for 141 points.”
  • At 17, he became the youngest player in World Hockey Association history with a four-year deal. Just over a half a year later, Gretzky had a deal with the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers, signing what was then the longest contract in the history of sports.
  • As an NHL rookie, Gretzky scored 51 goals and notched 86 assists, good for a league-lead tie. He became the youngest in history to amass 50 goals and in doing so earned himself a Hart Memorial Trophy, the league’s Most Valuable Player award. He would win nine total, the first eight of which were consecutive. The lone interruption in his streak would come at the hands of a player named Mario Lemieux. Gretzky also won his first Lady Byng Memorial Trophy -- the league’s award for best sportsmanship -- as a rookie, his first of five.
  • Three years after that piece, SI put Swift to the task again: “There came a time with (Bobby) Orr, who’s generally acknowledged to be the greatest hockey player of all time, when we knew, That’s it, he can’t show us any more, no one can.
  • “'The mystery about Gretzky is the things he has been able to do with the players he has had around him,’ says Bill Torrey, general manager of the New York Islanders. ‘Everything that happens when he’s on the ice revolves around him. Either he’s got the puck or the other team does.’”
  • As an NHL sophomore, Gretzky broke Phil Esposito’s single-season scoring record and Orr’s assists mark. The two records were a decade old and had seen no serious contention. His season averages yielded a two-points-plus per game, something that hadn’t been done in 63 years.
  • In his third year in the league, Gretzky’s hits just kept on coming: 92 goals, 120 assists, 212 points, all NHL records.
  • Year four for Gretzky meant his first post-season league highs: 26 assists and 38 points, but like each of his previous playoff campaigns, the Oilers fell shy of the championship. In the 1983-84 season, he would again lead the league with playoff highs of 22 assists and 35 points, only this time there was hardware: the first of four Stanley Cups for Gretzky’s Oilers. They repeated in ’84-85 then won two more consecutive Cups in the ’86-87, ’87-88 seasons. By the time he retired, Gretzky had scored 122 times and assisted on 260 goals in his playoff career.
Put in perspective, has a list of 6,366 players’ career, regular-season stats. If you took Gretzky’s career playoff numbers alone and slid them into that list, he would be in a three-way tie for 652nd place. This list has guys that have played one game and guys that have played over 1,700 games. But if you take Gretzky’s numbers from 208 playoff games and compare them to the entire careers of 6,365 other players, he’s in the top 10 percent.

  • In Gretzky’s five-year run of four Cups, he won the Art Ross Trophy -- league leader in scoring -- four times, another run (briefly) halted by Lemieux. In total, he would win the award 10 times, seven of which were consecutive. He also earned his third, fourth, and fifth Ted Lindsay Award (formerly known as the Lester B. Pearson), the honor of league MVP as decided by the National Hockey League Players Association. Gretzky also earned two Conn Smythe Trophies -- playoff MVP -- in the span.
  • E.M. Swift was again put to the Gretzky task in 1988. This time the coverage had to do with the trade of Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. It was a tale of Canadian depression, ownership betrayal, and new beginnings. This chapter in Gretzky’s life would involve the burden of injuries that cost him stretches of games, the pain that was the aftermath of a life-threatening health concern of his father’s, and on the flip side, a return to the Stanley Cup final. It also became known as the move that brought hockey to California, and in a sense, to all of the teamless portions of North America.
  •  Richard Deitsch put together an over-the-years blurb about Gretzky on the SI cover, and at the time of the issue’s publication, the Great One sat in eighth place with 16 appearances, ahead of Arnold Palmer, Mike Tyson, and Bill Walton; one spot behind Pete Rose.
  • Austin Murphy put together a piece on Gretzky chasing Gordie Howe’s all-time NHL goal record of 801. In just under 15 years in the league, Gretzky had usurped the top spot in 60 categories. Trumping Howe’s mark was the last standing buck. “Mr. Hockey” played until the age of 52, and it took him 1,767 games to crest 800. The Great One got there in almost 650 fewer games. As Murphy wrote, that’s like “Hank Aaron surpassing Babe Ruth’s home run record…but doing it in two-thirds the time.”
Murphy shares more goal-scoring gems:

1)       “In the history of the game, only two players, Maurice (the Rocket) Richard of the Montreal Canadiens and Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders, had scored 50 goals in his team’s first 50 games of the season. Both had needed all 50 games to do it. In his third NHL season, Gretzky did it in 39.”
2)      “After averaging 71.5 goals per season in his first six years in the league -- in 1981-82 he scored 92 goals, breaking Phil Esposito’s single-season mark of 76…”
3)      “He became the NHL’s alltime assists leader (in 1988). Four times he could have won or tied for the league scoring title on his assists alone. In three of those seasons, he also led the league in goals.”
  • David Sabino had (what I imagine to be) the pleasure of putting together a feature titled “99 Reasons Why He Was the One”. So, take that, Neo. While Sabino did a phenomenal job compiling the list, I’d like to look at just the first 15, with my own slant.
99) Point number 2,857, which stands alone, came in his final NHL game. Great way to retire. An even better way? Have that point come on an assist to one of the best American-born players to ever lace ‘em up: Brian Leetch? An even better way? Have that helper come on the power play against a stupid franchise known as the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was the lone Ranger tally in a loss to the Pens, as Jaromir Jagr and Alex Kovalev found twine for the visitors.

98) On October 10, 1979, it didn’t even take the full first period for Gretzky to tally his first NHL point in his first NHL game. The assist set up Kevin Lowe in a loss to one of the only franchises stupider than the Pittsburgh Penguins: the Chicago Blackhawks.

97) Four days later -- Gretzky’s third game -- he scored his first NHL goal, beating Glen Hanlon of the Vancouver Canucks.

96) While tallying four assists in six games for your country in the Winter Olympics is awesome (as Gretzky did in Nagano, Japan in 1998), it’s even more awesome that the Canadian men did not medal in those games. Still more awesome? The U.S. women took gold, handing Canada the silver.

95) The Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association sold Pete Driscoll, Wayne Gretzky, and Eddie Mio to the Edmonton Oilers for $850,000 in 1978. Prior to the deal, the Racers had been in existence for four seasons and had yet to finish above .500. Seventeen games after the sale of Gretzky and company, the franchise folded. Prior to the start of their final campaign, Indianapolis had signed a tryout contract with a kid named Mark Messier, who would log something in the way of an epic, 25-year NHL career and retire as the last player to have been a Racer.

94) Gretzky owned Winnipeg Arena, lighting the lamp there 38 times in the regular season, a career high for all road rinks across his NHL career. The Great One would not even need the final three years of his career to cement the Arena in first place of that category as it was demolished three full seasons before number 99 retired.

93) In the 1983-84 season, Gretzky led the NHL in power-play goals with 20. This is far from the all-time record, which was established (and is still held) by Tim Kerr (with 34) the following season. Kerr, for what it’s worth, logged just over half of the career years Gretzky did, and finished with 674 career points. To surpass Gretzky in that category, he would need to add the career-point totals of second-place Dave Andreychuk and third-place Mario Lemieux to his own.

92) For a hot gateway-to-the-west moment, Wayne Gretzky was a St. Louis Blue. It was an 18-game affair for President Jack Quinn’s Blues who acquired the Great One from Los Angeles in February of 1996 in exchange for three players and two draft picks. After consecutive losses to open the second round of the playoffs, Quinn phoned Gretzky’s agent and pulled the three-year, $21 million deal off of the table, pissing Gretzky off beyond repair. Although the Blues rallied in that series, although Gretzky’s wife is from St. Louis, and although they had already dropped, as Swift wrote in a 1996 piece, nine grand on Cardinals season tickets, the damage -- as they say -- was done.

To that, I say, Nice fucking work, Quinn. You had free-agent Wayne Gretzky locked up to finish his fucking career in St. Louis and you shit the bed. I hope you pass out alone every night, drunk on Robitussin, in a hotel bathtub you can’t afford. You know, it’s not like Gretzky had just tallied 21 points in 18 games to help your club peak for the post-season. Stooge.

91) We’ll look back at 93 on this one as we note that Gretzky scored 34 career power-play goals in the playoffs, almost half of the total number of career post-season points Kerr generated in his 11-year career. The all-time leader in this category at the time Sabino put this piece together was Mike Bossy, with 35.

90) While guys like Maurice Richard, Red Kelly, Jean Beliveau, and Henri Richard when to a dozen Stanley Cup finals, a lot of those numbers were established in the pre-expansion/original-six era(s). For my money, it’s not hard to make it to the championship series 10 or 12 times when your squad represents one-sixth of the entire league. Let’s keep it current: Six Cup final appearances (five with Edmonton, and one with L.A.) is pretty darn impressive.

89) Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog are two of my favorite goalies of all time. As Sabino wrote, Gretzky scored a combined 14 times off of assists from these two netminders (10 from Guhr, four from Moog).

88) Mark Messier scored 14 career short-handed playoff goals, the most in NHL history. Gretzky’s right behind him with 11. You might think this is a dumb stat, but I think 88 is a dumb number, so take that, Eric Lindros.

87) Seventy-nine of Gretzky’s 894 career goals came against the Phoenix Coyotes-Winnipeg Jets franchise, the most he scored against any club. Imagine what we could do with that stat if the Jets and the Coyotes ever existed at the same time. Wait, what?

86) Gretzky was awarded seven career penalty shots. He scored on five of them. Pat Riggin and Peter Ing were the two goaltenders to stop him. I say I’ve never seen two names that seemed so easy to make into one: Peter Pat Riggining. You could even write a Bad Company song about it: “In the Riggining…”

85) Sabino notes that Gretzky became hockey’s first $4 million-a-year man via his L.A. Kings contract extension. The two-year deal was signed on January 30, 1996, 28 days before the Kings traded him to St. Louis. Shows how meaningless contract terms are in sports.
  • E.M. Swift again got the nod for the April 26, 1999 story of Gretzky’s retirement. Number 99 had received phone calls that morning from Michael Jordan and Mario Lemieux. His coach, who called a timeout with 30 seconds left in regulation, pleaded for Gretzky to get the game-winner in celebration of the grandson he’d just found out had been born. As sudden-death overtime ended courtesy of a Jaromir Jagr goal, Gretzky called it fitting that “the best young player in the game” had buried the puck. Swift wrote that it was “a sort of passing of the torch.” Eighteen thousand fans honored the Great One’s career with a 15-minute -- 15 minutes! -- ovation.
Swift rolls through his piece marveling at Gretzky’s accomplishments, like the 61 NHL records he set, or the six-season stretch in the ‘80s when he averaged 203 points per year, or his third season in the league in which he scored 92 times, or the fact that if he “had never scored a goal, he’d still be the NHL’s alltime leading scorer on the strength of his 1,963 assists, a staggering 861 more than Coffey, his closest pursuer.”

There’s a nice spread of quotes from peers and people that knew Gretzky across his career, but the best quote of all came from Gretzky himself, who felt he’d lost a step, seeing those loose pucks he always used to get to first go to younger legs. He wanted to retire a year early rather than go out a year too late, and so it was said:

"Time does something to you, and it’s time."

 As I revisited those pages, I became infatuated with the idea that such a relationship (between reader and material) doesn’t really exist anymore, so I asked a couple people to prove me right wrong or otherwise. Can a piece of printed media today create a feeling of euphoria? Is it just me? Is it because I’m a borderline hoarder and throwing things away is akin to real-life loss? I asked my buddy Jason to take notes on his day and get back to me. When he did, I focused on the areas in which he consumed news.

bj: Tell me a thing or two about any material you consumed during each of those segments in which you say you were zoning out on the Internet?

jf: (I)t was about 90% Broncos free agency. Don't know if you heard but we got some players.

bj: Okay. Do you still take (T)he (Durango) Herald? And the other 10%?

jf: Still take the Herald. Other 10%: Twitter, links from Twitter, my normal sports sites, normal news sites.

bj: Did you read the Herald? What Twitter links did you follow? Your normal sports sites and news sites are? What did you read on them?

jf: I read yesterday's Herald today. Normal rotation is like NYTimes/WashPost/DPost, ESPN/Deadspin/NBC blogs, Gawker/TPM/DailyDish. Can't recall what links I followed. No pattern, just whatever looks interesting. If I don't have time I'll favorite to bookmark/check later. Looks like NYC infrastructure & SxSW.

bj: Do you typically read the Herald from cover to cover? Anything in that particular issue stand out? So you have upwards of 10 sites you regularly peruse without prompting and then you also go down the Twitter rabbit hole? Summarize for me, if you will, what you learned on this particular day.

jf: I don't typically read the Herald from cover to cover. It rarely has enough content to really hold my interest, and I rarely have time to hunker down with the physical pieces of paper. I usually just skim local news. In that particular issue there were two stories about various aspects of marijuana legalization that I read in depth.

As for the other sites, I don't really have a pattern. I just sort of bounce onto them occasionally to make sure I know what's going on. It's really just extended Twitter. On Twitter you'll hear about something, or people are reacting to something, but typically you're just getting the smartass reactions to this thing that just happened. If you know what the thing is, it's fine, you can follow along. If you don't, you want to get a clear version of the entire story, which comes more concisely from a news outlet than from a tweet.

I learned what I learn most days, which is both nothing and everything. My quest for knowledge is not a linear or finite voyage. I read a story from some outlet, and it will make me curious, so I might look up some of the subjects or background, which will cause me to ask more questions and then dig further. And maybe in the middle of that I'll have another thought or I'll get interrupted and I might come back later or I might not. There are some things I feel I HAVE TO read in full and that demand my full attention, but most of what I read is not that focused. It's just kind of fucking around.

Anyway, what I concretely learned that day was that Ware signed with Denver, Revis was released, and probably some stuff about that plane that disappeared in Malaysia.

bj: I know that memory is, at best, an abstraction. But try to position yourself 15 years in the past, and describe for me, if you can, how this day is different from an average day of news consumption back then. I'm not looking for a specific answer. Just your take.

jf: If I were to rewind 15 years, my news consumption was very different. I had a whole ritual of acquiring my news, the morning trip to the gas station or wherever. I'd typically buy two or three papers, and sort of methodically work through them. I bought a lot of magazines, and I'd always have a stack of mags and books set aside for deeper reading. I did not typically use the Internet for news, and at that point I did not think I ever would. I rarely got non-sports news off the TV or radio back then.

bj: Okay. So is there a way to assign value to those daily rags and that stack of mags? Any emotional attachment to having them in hand?

How about now? It's all accessible via mouse clicks, and any person in the world can and does look at the same information you do with fractions of fractions the effort.

Is the accessibility more valuable than the energy used in obtaining your old sources? Do you miss your old routine, if you will, at all?

jf: The only thing I like about reading the Herald on paper (or miss about the old dead-tree publications) is seeing the decisions editors make in terms of placement, story brevity and page design. But at the end of the day what I primarily care about is ingesting the words. It took me a while for that intake to feel the same coming from a computer screen as it does coming from paper, but the transition is now complete (this goes for books/ebooks as well). Words are words, ideas are ideas, the way I consume them is unimportant.

Any nostalgia I had for the old papers is trumped by the amazing ability to read anything, anytime, on my phone, while shitting.
I did the same thing with my uncle Jack.

bj: When you read the first section of the LA Times, was that the first occasion of the day in which you consumed news. Did you come across any while preparing to distribute your reports, or perhaps while you made a Words with Friends move? Do you take an LA Times subscription at your apartment, purchase it en route to the gym, read the available copy of it at each of your stops, or read it on a device of some sort? What do you recall from that “first section”?

jb: When I’m in LA and a steady place, I usually have a subscription. Now I buy the paper at a 7-Eleven on the way to gold’s Gym, and start to read on the stationary bike. I read a real paper newspaper. First section is always the most current news. Jesus, what do I recall from Thursday? Crap about the Ukraine, a little about the Malaysian airline..

bj: How about when you said you read the rest of the LA Times? What do you recall from it? Have any other news sources woven their way into your morning thus far?

jb: No other news sources, I’m sitting in an easy chair, undisturbed, Jackaccino (Editor’s Note: This is “medium cup, 4 shots of espresso, dry, non-fat, extra-hot, upside down”.) in hand. By this time, I’m on to the second section -- which is California, and I don’t remember a thing.

bj: What do you recall from your last brush -- when you finished it -- with the Times that morning? Has the Times always been your paper? I feel like you were a USA Today guy for a while. Am I wrong about that?

jb: It’s always been the LA Times when I’m in southern Cal, most of the time even when I was in San Diego. Sports, the Calendar (entertainment) are at the end and favorite sections. I read the USA Today in Florida, when it was available in Sweden. But even in KC at Thanksgiving I read (T)he Star -- to see what’s happening locally.

And again, without faking it, I don’t really recall anything in particular -- except it’s Thursday and the new movies are previewed. I do remember reading about the John Turturro-directed movie, with Woody Allen acting. And I read about Transcendence (which I just saw).

bj: So with Words with Friends, e-mails, and your report, you’ve been back on a device of some sort several times since your morning distribution to the five e-mailless rooms. Have you come across any news via online sites, television, the radio, or other sources?

jb: Nope, and I don’t tend to get news on iPhone (or computer)...lots of other stuff though.

bj: Over the course of this day, you’ve been in several public locations, had one-on-one communications with at least three individuals, and watched some TV. Pardon the redundancy, but any news stories you might have come across in those settings? In each of these questions, news can be a sports score, an editorial, a feature, straight-up news reporting, word of mouth, eavesdropping, anything.

jb: I’m not going to pretend that I totally remember this, but I would guess that some news snuck in from my TV habit. I’m not a regular nightly news guy, partly because I read the paper and I’m more in control of what I want to expose myself to. If I’m hooked on TV news, I’m at their disposal.

bj: Okay. Here's the big challenge. I don't expect actual, hard-wired memories, rather your best attempt at recollection:

Take me back to Papa Jack's life circa April of 1999. Has anything -- in terms of news consumption for you personally -- changed since then? I mean, if you've always been a real-paper guy, do you still consume news the same way now that you did then? Were you at all into television news back then? Or radio?

jb: As I think about it, it's been pretty much the same for awhile, certainly 1999. I was living in North San Diego with Katarina, had just moved there and had the LA Times delivered. As far as TV news is concerned, I shy away but of course, will tap in here and there. My radio habits have been much the same for years (including 1999). I don't listen to music, I rotate between whatever sports stations there are in the area (usually 3) and public radio (NPR, etc.: usually 2). Have for some time, still do.

So, current news doesn't escape me. Obviously, big events will break into my reverie, and every day events are digested in the morning along with my granola.

            That told me pretty much what I expected it would: the younger-generation news consumer adapted with the technological trend while remaining a touch traditional; the older of the two changed little to none. In the scheme of this piece, though, it told me that a) maybe I’m part of the minority, that not that many people have particular relationships with relics and keepsake and memorabilia; and b) that my sample size was probably a notch below pathetic. Also: c) I probably have a little bit of hoarder in me, which means I have to rework this piece.

            Anyway, I’m glad that I found the Gretzky-retirement issue when I did, and I’m glad that -- 15 years later -- it’s still as important to me now as it was then. I wish that I’d had the opportunity to see the Great One play more than I did (which was hardly at all), but I’m also content with the way my admiration for the sport, the game, the players, and especially the greats developed.

Considerable in degree, intensity, etc. First-rate; excellent. Highly significant or consequential. Distinguished; famous. Of extraordinary ability or achievement. Of marked duration. Skillful; expert.

            These are a few of the offerings my ragged 1996 edition of Random House Webster’s dictionary indicates as definers of what it means to be great. Like many English-language relics, we toss this word around a lot and in high frequency when we don’t really mean it. If you agree with someone on a meeting time and place, one of you probably says that’d be great. Maybe you take to a social-media avenue to share an accomplishment or a memento, and someone responds by claiming that the thing is great. Or perhaps elements of cynicism and sarcasm team up in the form of commentary, rhetoric to make an observation about one of the world’s shortcomings, i.e. Wouldn’t it be great if it were illegal to be the asshole-y driver that you so clearly are?

            It’s athleticism, though, that tends to pinpoint what is  meant by great. I mean, maybe you thought Ronald Reagan was a great United States president. I thought he had charisma but his politics were shitty. Lots of folks are into chicken marsala. They think, when it comes to dishes, that it’s tops. I find the presence of mushrooms in my mouth grotesque. Some of you are probably married to McIntosh products. You find them superior, their line great. I can’t afford a number of their items, so I’ll probably never use them.

            With sports it’s easier to find a common ground, a system of ranking. Maybe one day LeBron James will become the best National Basketball Association player in history. Until then, that title belongs to Michael Jordan. That guy, I think we can all agree, was great. With pro baseball it’s a little dicier as the state of Major League Baseball appears to always be in flux. Right now there are different camps in terms of how to determine what counts as pitching-mound excellence, but I imagine both sides agree that Fernando Valezuela was nothing shy of great. In the National Football League archives, you can look at the careers of Walter Payton, Joe Montana, and Jerry Rice and know, without question, that they were great.

            And in the 97 years that the National Hockey League has been around, a few dozen -- perhaps -- have been deemed as great, while many more have displayed great skill or executed great plays. But there has only been one Great One and 15 years ago today, Sports Illustrated celebrated the close of Wayne Gretzky’s career with an issue devoted -- in print, photography, and advertisements -- to the 21 NHL seasons Gretzky spent on the ice. In his family, in his locker rooms, and in his fan bases, Wayne Gretzky has been needed. He has been valued. And he has been important. Above all of those things, Wayne Gretzky was chosen. Chosen for greatness. 

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