Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On William, Jack And Heroes

William Anderson is nine years old. Jack Auteri is 14 or maybe 15, and he plays lacrosse with William's older brother Matthew, as well as TigerBlog Jr., on a team called Twist.

When the team's coach would talk to the players post-game, William would sometimes try to sneak unnoticed into the back of the group, so he could hear what was being said.

To William, who plays on the U-11 level, it doesn't matter that his brother is on the same team. Jack is his favorite player.

And why wouldn't he be? If the team had an MVP award, it would have gone to Jack, who won more than 70% of his face-offs this summer while also scoring 20 goals, many of them in big spots, and playing tenacious defense.

In one game earlier this summer, Twist found itself in a "Braveheart," which is the summer lacrosse term for deciding a tie game without having a full overtime. In a Braveheart, each team sends out one player and a goalie, and the two players face-off at midfield and play full-field one-on-one until someone scores.

In most cases, teams agonize about which player to send out. In Twist's case, nobody ever told Jack to go out; it was just assumed by all players and coaches and parents that he would be the one. In this rather stressful situation, it took Jack exactly four seconds to win the face-off and go down and win the game.

At one point, William told Matthew, a longstick midfielder who plays on the wing on face-offs, that it was probably no fun for Matthew when Jack faced off, because once Jack got the ball, all Matthew would get to do is run off the field.

Beyond Jack's ability, he is also the obvious team leader, gifted with a natural charisma that his teammates can't help but be drawn to. When the team breaks the huddle, it is Jack who screams "1-2-3" while the others answer "Twist." He possesses the ability to be relaxed and easy-going off the field and a ferocious competitor on it, and he can toggle back and forth between those two personas seamlessly.

This past weekend was the end of the 2011 Twist season, one that saw the team go 27-4 in a very competitive age group.

Between games Sunday, in the sweltering heat and humidity, William ended up having a catch with Jack, something that then turned into a small tutorial on facing-off and ultimately stick tricks.

There is something wildly innocent about a child with a good case of hero-worship, as William had while throwing with Jack. It's like watching a group of puppies rolling around on a lawn or snow falling on December 24th or something like that.

William is the perfect age for this, and TigerBlog used to see it with TBJ and the Princeton players around the same age. In fact, to William, Jack might as well be a college player or professional player. Heroes - especially athletic ones - are what they are.

Eventually, Jack and William got together for a picture, and TigerBlog cannot remember ever seeing a smile quite like the one William had on his face at the time.

It was a smile that suggested that here was a nine-year-old who couldn't possibly think of something he'd rather be doing more, or of someone he'd rather be standing next to. It was a smile of pure, unfiltered, unjaded, non-cynical, couldn't-possibly-be-happier youthful innocent joy.

It was the kind of smile that made everyone who saw it smile themselves, since they couldn't help but be touched by the moment.

It was a nine-year-old and his hero.

TigerBlog hasn't been nine for a long time, since Richard Nixon was President, actually.

TB also never really was the kind who had heroes in the way that William looks at Jack.

As he got older, though, TB developed his own brand of hero-worship, though he'd be reluctant to actually call it that. Maybe they weren't heroes, but there have been people that TB as looked at not as mentors or role models per se but simply as people who earned TB's greatest level of respect.

One of them was Alex Wolff, the Princeton alum, author and Sports Illustrated writer.

TB met Wolff mostly through Wolff's love of basketball in general and the times he'd come to Princeton to watch it.

A soft-spoken man with great intelligence and an awesome ability to put words to paper, Wolff made for a perfect TB "hero." There was also an element of "hey, wouldn't it be cool to have his job" built into it.

Wolff doesn't write sports the way most people write sports. In fact, if someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald had become modern-day sportswriter, then he would have written the same kinds of stories as Wolff, stories that are as much literature as they are journalism.

Wolff wrote a book called "Big Game, Small World," a fascinating concept in which he traveled all over the world in search of basketball for a 12-month stretch of 1998-99. It included stops in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and of course North America, and the subjects along the way were amazing, such as his stop in Bosnia talking about how civil war had destroyed an international powerhouse (and lifelong friendships), in Japan to write about a former Villanova women's basketball star who had become a cloistered nun, in Africa to write about the African championships, in a small Asian country where the ruler was a basketball nut.

In fact, the book begins and ends in Princeton, beginning with a conversation with the late Marv Bressler and ending when Wolff came and played pickup basketball in Jadwin Gym. It would have been a great book before it mentioned the perfect backdoor pass that TigerBlog threw.

Wolff wrote a great piece in Sports Illustrated about the 1997-98 Princeton team that reached No. 7 in the national rankings and went 27-2.

He's written other books, covered any number of other sports and even owned a minor league basketball team in Vermont.

TB has had long conversations with Wolff about basketball, Princeton, his favorite players and coaches, his least favorite players and coaches and a bunch of other subjects. For someone who reached the pinnacle of his career, Wolff has always remained down-to-Earth and humble, free of the ego inflation that too often afflicts those in the media.

TigerBlog recently found out that Wolff was being given the Curt Gowdy Award by the basketball Hall of Fame during its induction ceremonies Aug. 11-12 in Springfield.

The Curt Gowdy Award is given to a member of the print or electronic media (or in this case both, as broadcaster Jim Durham is also being honored) whose "longtime efforts have made significant contributions to the game of basketball."

Nobody is more deserving than Alex Wolff, whom TB hasn't spoken to as much in recent year as he used to.

Still, when TB saw the news about Wolff, he was particularly happy for him, and many of the memories of TB's interactions with Wolff came flooding back.

Hero-worship might be different as you get older, but it's still the same basic premise.

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