On Monday afternoon we lost David Halberstam, one of this generation's greatest writers. The seventy-three-year-old Halberstam was killed in a car accident in Menlo Park, California, shortly after speaking to a group of journalism students at UC Berkeley.
Halberstam was an accomplished journalist (he won the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking reporting from the front lines of the Vietnam War), but I grew to love him as a sports writer. He brought an historian's perspective to the world of sports, highlighting issues ranging from civil rights to the globalization and commercialization of America's sporting culture. My words could not do justice to Mr. Halberstam's talent as a writer, so instead I'll drop a few lines from three of my favorite Halberstam books:
[DiMaggio] was the perfect Hemingway hero, for Hemingway in his novels romanticized the man who exhibited grace under pressure, who withheld any emotion lest it soil the purer statement of his deeds. DiMaggio was that kind of hero; his grace and skill were always on display, his emotions always concealed. This stoic grace was not achieved without a terrible price: DiMaggio was a man wound tight. He suffered from insominia and ulcers. When he sat and watched the game he chain-smoked and drank endless cups of coffee. He was ever conscious of his obligation to play well. Late in his career, when his legs were bothering him and the Yankees had a comfortable lead in a pennant race, a friend of his, columnist Jimmy Cannon, asked him why he played so hard -- the games, after all, no longer meant so much. "Because there might be somebody out there who's never seen me play before," he answered.
There was a certain gallantry to Mickey Mantle as he pressed forward in the twilight of his career. By the start of the 1964 season he had already hit more than 400 home runs, and he appeared to be on his way to a .300 career average. He was the man who carried the team, and yet he played now in constant pain, reaching for physical skills that were no longer there. However, in some remarkable way, the athlete within continued to rebel against the pain and refused to accept the limits set by his body. Again and again he endangered himself. Watching him tape himself every day -- for the ritual of taping his legs had been going on for so long that he could do it himself -- his teammates were in awe of him. "He is," his teammate Clete Boyer once said, "the only baseball player I know who is a bigger hero to his teammates than he is to the fans."
...suddenly Bryon Russell was the loneliest man on the planet, out there isolated one-on-one with Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Jordan let the clock run down, from about fifteen seconds to about eight. Then, when Russell made a quick reach at the ball, Jordan started his drive, moving to his right as if to go to the basket. Russell bit, going for the drive, and Jordan suddenly pulled up, giving Russell a light little tap on the ass with his left hand just to make sure the fake worked... Russell was already sprawling to his left as Jordan stopped, squared up, and shot...
There was a remarkable photo of that moment in ESPN magazine taken by the photographer Fernando Medina. It is in color, covers two full pages, and shows Russell struggling to regain position, Jordan at the peak of his jump, the ball high up on its arc and about to descend, and the clock showing 6.6 seconds left in the game. What is remarkable about the photograph is the view it offers of so many Utah fans. Though the ball has not yet reached the basket, the game appears over to them. They know it is going in. The anguish -- the certitude of defeat -- is on their faces, as if the arrow has already pierced their skin and is entering their hearts.