Boris Becker

boris_becker

He appeared in the summer of 1985 on the west side of London Town–leaping and rolling about the green summer grass of The All England Club like an exuberant Golden Retriever high on Jolt cola. Unseeded, unheralded, unbelievable. 17 years old and he won the fucking thing.  He was a big man, but he moved like a point guard weaving around in the paint. His serve was devastating, and his long reach and willingness to sacrifice his knees and elbows for the sake of the next point made him a virtual Berlin Wall at the net.

Bud Collins called him “Boom-Boom” because those serves and volleys could rock his opponents like shots from the gloves of Raymond Mancini, but Boris himself never liked that moniker. He and Steffi Graf were the king and queen of an 80s-90s German royal family of tennis that would grow to include Michael Stich and Anke Huber. A real Oktoberfest for the sport!

My favorite male tennis player of this era was Pat Cash, but I loved watching Boris play. Everybody did. Not to mention his Ellesse gear was sick. (No 80s athletic brand is more underrated.) He was one of the undisputed superstars of the day.

The Berlin Wall eventually came down, and so did Boris once he stopped whacking that yellow ball around. His financial problems are legendary and his stand-up broom closet bang with a waitress in a London restaurant is one of the most vividly evocative celebrity misdeeds ever. As he ages, he physically looks more and more like a German version of Danny Bonaduce. But he gave us a lot, and the goodwill he amassed during his salad days will never completely be spent.
Advertisements

San Francisco 49ers

49ers

In the 80s in the NFL the San Francisco 49ers owned the decade. They amassed seven Division Titles and four Super Bowl wins. I can’t even think who would be a distant second–The Redskins boasted 3 Super Bowl appearances and two wins in the big game and in 1988 had a quarterback later called out by Flavor Flav in “She Watch Channel Zero?!.” The Dolphins had the awesome Dan Marino, but they could never really get over that hump. They had two Super Bowl losses, the latter of which no doubt still enrages their handsome former field general from the second his eyes snap open every morning. The Denver Broncos made it to the Super Bowl three times (almost always at the expense of the last even remotely competent Cleveland Browns team) and each time left the field with a silver platter of their own posteriors  clutched in their taped-up hands.

It’s no contest. The San Francisco 49ers were the franchise of the decade. They had a visionary head coach, a preternaturally clutch quarterback, and the supreme wide receiver of the day. Not to mention a stellar supporting cast all over the field on both sides of the ball. That secondary! That O-line! That Hall Of Famer backup QB! But all this success stemmed from one 5′ 5″ goomba named Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. He had fathomless pockets and a Walter Mitty-esque relationship with his players. He couldn’t BE one of them, but he could be close to them, and that made all the difference.

Eddie was a new breed. If the old guard like Wellington Mara and Art Rooney, Sr. were known for their cigars and scotch, here was nose candy and $150 shots of brandy flung down the gullet like so much chilled Jagermeister. Bum-rushing Super Bowl cities all decade with a raucous posse of northeastern Ohio mooks in tow, Eddie was a diminutive man with a big personality. A real force of nature. Shots for everyone! Rolexes for everyone! Private planes for everyone! The 80s were heady times, as Jordan Belfort and Michael Milken could tell ya, and Eddie, Jr. was right there on the track, straining towards the finish line shoulder to shoulder with those hedonistic thoroughbreds.

Of course, jail beckoned for all of them. Actually, Eddie skated with a seven-figure fine after dumping a Winn Dixie shopping bag stuffed with 400 grand in the lap of the governor of Louisiana, but the NFL stripped him of his beloved team and football in the Bay Area hasn’t been near those dizzying 80s heights since. The “revival” of the last five years has coincided with the appointment of Eddie’s tenderfoot nephew as team CEO. If you don’t think that kid has his uncle on speed dial, you’re nuts.

Reggie Jackson

RJ

Public Enemy sniped at him late in the decade on the Fear of a Black Planet LP, but what were they on about? Sure, he had an ego as big as a Macy’s day float, but let’s not pretend that every single other professional athlete, in every single other sport, scurried around as quiet and deferential as a church mouse. Sports has always been populated with blowhards, it’s just that some have the goods to back it up. Reginald Martinez Jackson had those goods. Not to mention that at least 80% of what he said actually made sense. He’s a bright, articulate guy.

But that is not why he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer. He was a big man, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered, naturally gifted without a doubt, but also a fitness freak in an era when most baseball players treated their bodies like the pull tab on that last can of National Bohemian they had just guzzled. (Don’t forget he spent 1976 in Baltimore!) Reggie’s near 70 now and he will still slap you down if you want to get lippy.

But that’s not why he’s in the Hall of Fame, either. Reggie was larger than life, when he stepped to the plate, pulling at the V of his V-necked uniform and flourishing his 40 ounce bat like it was a Panda Express chopstick, all eyes were upon him. He was a SLUGGER. No one goes to a baseball game or watches the interminable things on TV to see a slap single hitter prance from base to base like a polyester-clad Tinkerbell. They go to see the long ball, to see that stitched leather sphere get the living shit blasted out of it. If you don’t agree, check out what happened to Major League Baseball in the 90s when the league sold its soul to just that very thing by letting grotesque, steroid-injecting monsters run rampant all over what was once “Our Nation’s Pastime.”

Most people remember him in green and gold or blue pinstripes on a white ground, and why not, he was absolutely iconic in both places, but I prefer to remember him from 1982-1986 when he wore the white (later light gray), navy and red of the California Angels. He was a solid performer for them, even as his career was winding down. By the way, I still refuse to acknowledge the name my favorite team goes by today, the Orange County Angels of Los Angeles as presented by the Jack in the Box on the corner of East Gene Autry Way and South State College Boulevard or whatever the hell it is. They’ll always be the California Angels to me.

Reggie was clean, he was clutch, his dingers were divine. I love the man.

Diego Maradona

maradona wc

It’s an argument that has been raging for 30 years and will continue to rage until the very first day of The Rapture. Who is the Best Of All Time? Pelé or Maradona? Both boasted otherworldly skills and won World Cups. Pelé has a decisive 3-1 edge in World Championships but he also had a far more formidable supporting cast every single time he took the pitch for his country.

Still, you can never objectively declare that one is better than the other. Van Eyck or Velázquez? Beethoven or Mozart? Ferrari or Lamborghini? That’s a mug’s game! What it really comes down to is a matter of taste. So I hereby admit that I have always been resolutely in the camp of the Argentine–it’s much more fun there, where anthill-sized piles of cocaine are left about, delicious Malbec wines served by the hogshead and every woman in sight is as scorching as a January afternoon on the Plaza de Mayo. Over in Pelé‘s camp, there is only Subway sandwiches, tedious corporate meetings and trannies.

The 80s were, without question, the prime of Diego Maradona’s career. A league championship with Boca Juniors, a few cups with Barcelona, a world crown in 1986 for Argentina and then the curious case of Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli in Italy. Maradona managed to haul in the Scudetto not once, but two times for a perennial Serie A also-ran. They hadn’t won it before and haven’t won it since.

To watch his first goal against England in the 1986 World Cup Quarterfinal is to watch a canny opportunist doing anything he can to win for his homeland, to watch his second is to peer down into Heaven for a few fleeting moments, perhaps, just perhaps, seeing God Himself at work.

Since then, Maradona has done and said whatever he wants, slowly but steadily chipping away at all the amity he accumulated during the 80s by being as outrageous and unapologetic as possible. Still, he would have to live another millenium or two, roasting live babies on television every single day, to completely deplete it, at least in Argentina and southern Italy. And maybe, not even then.

Just a few years ago, El Diez ordered the packs of Argentine yellow journalists who dog his heels and question his every move to “suck it and keep on sucking it,” and that’s exactly what those lowlifes need to do. While they are busy with that, for Maradona admirers like me, forever in his camp, the blow will be everywhere, the red wine will flow like the Rio Paraná and the Latin American beauties will cling to our limbs like creeping vines.

Live is Life!!

Chief Jay Strongbow

ChiefJay

Joe Scarpa never planned on sticking around the rough Depression-era Philadelphia streets where he was born. Because how much fun is it stealing apples from blind men and slathering them in Cheez-Whiz? He headed south as a teenager and spent decades navigating the murky waters of regional wrestling leagues under various names, but didn’t get his first big break until 1973, when he donned some Native American drag and showed up at that year’s Oscars to collect Marlon Brando’s statuette for The Godfather. Well, actually he rejected the award on Marlon’s behalf and gave a 25 minute speech on why it was wrong to litter. Then he shed a single tear that remains an iconic American image to this day. A young Vince McMahon saw the genius there, and brought him aboard the good ship WWF. Sacheen Littlefeather was never seen again and a man named Chief Jay Strongbow emerged as an instant fan favorite in a wrestling league that was about to take over the entire industry.

A fascinating background for sure, but let’s not forget the reason Chief Jay eventually received an obit in the New York Times. He simply had one of the coolest dances in history and I don’t mean just wrestling history but pop culture history. You can keep your Disco Duck and Macarena, I’ll take Strongbow’s War Dance any day of the week including Sunday. You can batter him, kick him, flip him over the ropes onto the concrete, but once those buckskin-clad feet started shuffling and those shoulders started rocking back and forth, every person watching knew the tide had turned. Tomahawk Chops would start flying in and then an expert application of the Sleeper Hold would leave his opponent crumpled on the canvas like, well, like a sack of stolen apples covered in Cheez-Whiz.

By the time I started watching him, the guy was already 54 years old. That’s a dedication and a commitment to craft anyone would be proud of. Did I mention he got an obit in the New York Times?? Junkyard Dog and Big John Studd were lucky to get two sentences over the AP wire.

Gabriela Sabatini

Gabriela Sabatini

Sometime in the mid 80s, a dark-eyed, raven-haired Amazon warrior came rocketing out of South America on a black and pink Honda CBR. Her arrival on the scene sent shockwaves through the sport of women’s tennis. When Gabriela emerged from the locker room in the fourth round of the 1985 Lipton International in Delray Beach her opponent Carling Bassett burst into tears, immediately defaulted, and fled across the peninsula to become a statistician for her father’s USFL football team, the Tampa Bay Bandits.

Carling was only the first. Almost every player on the WTA quickly fell victim to this Tacchini-clad Goddess. Hana Mandlikova leapt off a pier in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and though rescued by some quick-thinking dolphins who helped nudge her onto a passing skiff, she never picked up a tennis racket again. Tracy Austin tore her pigtails out with her bare hands and then shaved off what was left. And she wasn’t the only one–in a strange and deluded attempt at emulation, Andrea Temesvari dyed her famous blond locks crow-wing black and changed her name to Gabrieli Sabatina. It didn’t fool anyone. Within a month, she had shaved her head as well. (The women’s tour was beginning to look like the Manson Family by this point!) Helena Sukova quit tennis, had sexual reassignment surgery and spent the rest of the decade as a spokesman for Wrangler Jeans, who almost went out of business thanks to her bizarre series of television commercials. Andrea Jaeger is still in counseling and it’s 2014, for goodness sake.

There were other casualties but there is no point in dragging them out into the light. The vanquished know who they are. The point is that Gabriela reigned as the Queen of Tennis back then and everyone else was that infamous and oft-cited “chopped liver.” These larger-than-life beings appear once in a generation if we are lucky. I consider the unopened, autographed 100ml box of Gabriela Sabatini Eau de Parfum my most cherished possession and will most likely be buried with it.

Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka

snuka cropped

In the early 80s, few sights were more electrifying than the spectacle of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka perched atop a turnbuckle about to live up to his name and, seemingly, break the bonds of gravity. The one time I saw him live, in some run-down high school gymnasium on a bible black and freezing Tuesday night in February of 1982, I rushed home and re-wrote Tennyson’s “The Eagle” in a spiral notebook I still have to this day.

He grasps the ‘buckle with crooked hands
Undisputed hero of the minor market lands
Ring’d with the faces of yahoos he stands

The injured opponent beneath him crawls
While the haughty climber nods to our calls
And like a thunderbolt he falls

I took a picture of him that night, too, from about five feet away as he strode back to the dingy locker room that served as a dressing room. It’s a bit blurry, but there’s no mistaking his power and charisma–he looks larger than life—and in the background you can see rows of people going absolutely apeshit as he moves past. It didn’t matter who the belt-holder was at that time–some lame-ass doughboy named Bob Backlund, I think–Jimmy Snuka was the people’s champ, and it was because he was doing things all the rest of us could only dream of. He really did fly.

Alas, everything that flies must at some point return to earth and it turned out that Jimmy was no better than the next palooka, and maybe a bit worse. He loved to drink and snort coke and he had some anger management problems that were no doubt exacerbated by the chemicals he was taking to keep that bronze physique so chiseled. He played a solo game of handball one night with some young woman’s head against the walls of a $29.99 Allentown, Pennsylvania motel room and she ended up dying from it. He managed to “wrestle free” of any legal consequences, and indeed, the upstanding people who run pro wrestling managed to keep a pretty tight lid on the whole abhorrent affair, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that keeps you in a guy’s corner once you find out about it.

He hasn’t done much wrestling-wise since the mid 90s, but he still puts on an occasional show in sleepy rat-hole towns here and there. If you look at the fairly recently-taken pictures that accompany his Wikipedia page, you can pretty much see exactly what Glenn Danzig is going to look like in a decade or so. It ain’t pretty. But hey, professional wrestling is a tough racket and so is punk rock.