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“McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice” is one of HBO’s “Legends and Legacies” summer documentaries. I watched it earlier this week and recommend it highly. It’s 60 minutes of interviews and matches worth watching; indeed, if you like tennis, it’s downright enjoyable.

Bjorn Borg is the stoic Swede who took the tennis world by storm as a teenager with Viking good looks and an even more stunning game. He won six Wimbledon tennis championships in a row and dominated tennis during ten years of sensational baseline tennis in the 1970s and early 1980s.

John McEnroe is the volatile New Yorker who took the tennis world by storm as a teenager with long frizzy hair and a frenetic energy that burst from both his racket and his mouth. He eventually ended Borg’s Wimbledon run and beat him in the U.S. Open final in exceptional serve and volley, yell-at-the-umpire (“You can’t be serious), incredible tennis.

Nothing surpasses Borg and McEnroe’s 1980 Wimbledon final on Centre Court at the All England Club. McEnroe saved 7 match points and finally won the 4th set tie-breaker 18-16 in what is yet today considered one of the game’s most riveting, indeed one of sport’s most spellbinding, events. Borg came back to win the decisive 5th set 8-6, and with that, the championship. They went on to split other matches, but Borg soon retired and McEnroe followed not long thereafter. Neither man won a major championship after the age of 25. Like Ali and Frazier, McEnroe and Borg needed one another.

Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry is compelling in part of course because of the highest level of tennis excellence they consistently drew out of each other, but also because of their friendship. As they both said in the documentary, they liked and respected each other from the beginning. Now they use the term “love.”

I watched nearly all their matches over five years including every point of the 1980 Wimbledon final. There’s not been another rivalry like them. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have produced some great matches, including especially the 2008 Wimbledon final. But they do not have the personalities of McEnroe and Borg and they have not made the same kind of impact upon the game, much less beyond it.

Watching “Fire and Ice” brought back a lot of memories. I was 28 in 1980, not too much older than the players. McEnroe and Borg’s antics, excellence, and accomplishments, their contrasting styles and personalities, their resolve and friendship were and are inspiring. Their head-to-head rivalry ranks with Palmer and Nicklaus. The fact they’ve survived various life and business foibles with their friendship flourishing represents what sports at their best are about.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

I recently watched HBO’s new documentary “Bobby Fischer Against The World.” It’s an interesting but sad review of the anguished genius’s life.

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) was clearly a prodigy, perhaps the greatest chess master in history, one who shot to worldwide fame at just 14 years of age when he became the youngest US champion in history. He played in 8 US Chess Championships in a row, winning them all. At 16 he published his first book becoming the youngest author in chess history.

At age 29 in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland, Fischer reached his peak by playing Russia’s Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship. It was the Cold War: Russia versus the United States without fighting. The entire world watched a series of chess matches that Fischer came from behind to win spectacularly, sealing his fame forever.

If Fischer’s life had ended there it might have been to his good, but he lived to age 64, along the way by turns becoming a religious fanatic, conspiracy theorist, anti-American fugitive, and an anti-Semite. The last one was the most odd because Fischer was Jewish. After 9/11 he said the chickens had come home to roost for America and he later wrote a letter to Osama bin Laden claiming they had a lot in common against America.

Fischer was a prodigy. He was anguished lonely loner, and eventually, he evidenced clear and repetitive signs of paranoia and mental illness. He was a tragic genius in every sense of the phrase.

In the summer of 1972 I was in college between my sophomore and junior year. Watching the documentary, sobering though it was, brought back a lot of memories: the weird clothes and long hair, the cars, the sideburns, the news anchors and public personalities. I remember following Fischer and Spassky too.

I played chess through high school and much of college. In high school Physics class several of us played every day. During my undergrad years I came in second in the college tournament two years in a row, beaten both years by my roommate Timothy Barker. We enjoyed the mental challenge of the game, liked the strategy, and followed the Fischer saga for part chess, part patriotic reasons.

Fischer’s story is one of what might have been. What might he have become if he’d not lost his father at a young age and his mother hadn’t abandoned him when he was a teenager? What chess majesty might have been his had he been able to overcome his volatility and emotional pain to play competitively for the next fifteen years after winning the World Championship? What even greater greatness might he have enjoyed had he been able to function as a sociable champion? What would have been his larger impact upon the game of chess if he’d been able to teach, play more, or become an ambassador for the game? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

Just three years ago Fischer died of renal failure in Iceland, refusing treatment and reputedly uttering as his last words, “Nothing is as healing as the human touch.” His life is an American tragedy with a high watermark in the early 1970s.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

Sports pundits are now writing the requiem of Tiger Woods’s career in professional golf. They’re saying he’ll never win 5 more major championships to surpass Jack Nicklaus. Some, astoundingly, are saying Tiger may not win 5 more tournaments. But come on, the man’s only 35 years old.

I’ve written about Tiger’s character issues. And I’ve written about what he needs to do to reboot his life. Clearly, right now he’s experiencing knee injury problems and his public interviews seem to indicate he’s still struggling with anger and perhaps other emotional issues. Who wouldn’t, given what he’s put himself through and given the family and reputational price he’s paid?

But the man’s only 35 years old, he still must be considered the most gifted golfer in the world, and he has time. Tiger has won 14 major championships. Jack Nicklaus won his last of 18 majors, the high watermark of professional golf, when he was 46 years old. So on that measure alone Tiger has 11 more years.

In eleven years, representing 4 majors per year, it seems to me Tiger might reasonably be expected to win 5 out of 44 major championships. But to give sports pundits their due, this assumes several things that all must come together, and no one, not even Tiger, knows for sure that they will, i.e. his return to physical and mental or spiritual well-being.

But I’m not ready to give up on Tiger. I think he’s surly and often un-likeable. But I don’t wish him ill, I believe his personality could make a George Foreman change if Tiger took certain spiritual steps, I still believe his phenomenal golf skills are there to be reawakened, and I think he has time. So we’ll see.

As just another human being with issues like the rest of us, here’s hoping Tiger gets the help he needs--maybe from "Big George" Foreman himself.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

The more I read about what Coach Jim Tressel apparently did the more distressed I get. Here is a highly successful coach of a major university football program, a person who at various times touted his Christian faith, and a man who seemed to embody certain virtues-in-leadership. Now it’s come crashing down.

I react in part because—except for six years in West Virginia and New York—I am a lifetime resident of Ohio (grew up there, went to three universities there) and Michigan (for the past 20 years). I like football, have watched hours of it, and am steeped in the Ohio versus Michigan rivalry. And for a long time I’ve liked Tressel. So this hit home.

At a minimum it appears Coach Tressel lied to his superiors, or at least did so by omission in terms of things he didn’t tell them (there’s enough information now to conclude with a fair degree of certainty that he did). Assuming this is so he succumbed to a major breech in professional and personal integrity. No matter his success winning football games or helping student-athletes turn into men, Tressel violated one of the fundamental tenets of leadership. He proved himself untrustworthy.

I don’t think he is alone in this. The Ohio State University Athletic Director Gene Smith and President E. Gordon Gee were kept in the dark for a few months, but they’ve known about all this now for several months. Their knowledge seems to reach back into the fall. If so, they allowed athletes to play in a bowl game when they should not have been allowed to play. And if Tressel deserved to be fired he deserved to be fired back then. Both the A.D. and the President have handled this matter poorly, even flippantly in the case of the President.

But the primary responsibility lies with Tressel. After all these years working with young men, he knew what his athletes were capable of doing and likely what they were actually doing. So maybe it’s a case of “What did he know and when did he know it?” But Coach knew a long time back, covered it up in classic Watergate fashion, by doing so lied to the public and the NCAA as well as his superiors, and tried to finesse his way through. What could have and should have been a serious matter involving a few athletes was thereby magnified to a very serious matter trashing Coach’s reputation, costing him his job, and putting the entire athletic program and university at risk.

Integrity is a powerful thing. When it exists it creates strength. People admire and follow leaders who evidence integrity. When integrity is violated it weakens leaders and leadership, and once gone it is difficult to impossible to rebuild in a given assignment.

Perhaps Coach Tressel can confess his mea culpa and begin anew somewhere else. I hope he possesses the integrity to do this and also that he demonstrates the resolve to “make things right” as opposed to riding off into the sunset. In any event, there was no way he was going to begin anew at OSU, and I think the same may apply to the A.D. and President. For OSU to move on it needs a clean slate and that means the A.D. and the President also need to fall on their sword. Whether they or the Board of Trustees will possess the courage to act remains to be seen.

One last thought: USC and Michigan have come under NCAA sanction and other programs like Auburn have been investigated. What happened at OSU under Tressel is wrong, unprofessional, and possibly illegal. And unfortunately it’s happening at other schools as well. The NCAA needs to step up to the moment and put in place more teeth and more reforms for ethical compliance in university athletics.

In the end this is another lesson in how greed, power, winning-at-all-costs, and hubris can tempt leaders into actions that destroy their character and opportunities for future achievement. It’s sad, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

Probably every generation thinks the athletes they’ve witnessed are the greatest. I can’t attest for ancient Greece, but I imagine they were proud of their Olympians.

And I can remember my Grandpa Davis talking about Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, and Y.A. Tittle. Who could argue these athletes weren’t “great”?

But the thought struck me not long ago—actually in March while on a jet winging across the Atlantic—that I have been privileged to witness, to actually see perform, some of the reputedly greatest athletes of all time. Here’s my hall of fame list:

--Jim Brown. Being a kid from Ohio and having watched Brown run as a Cleveland Brown in the early 1960s when I was in junior high, no one will ever convince me there was or is a better, greater running back in the National Football League. I know he’s had a couple of dust-ups along the way, but I also enjoyed his short acting career, particularly “The Dirty Dozen” and “100 Rifles.” And I’ve admired his work with inner city youth.

--Muhammad Ali. “The Greatest.” Ali was at his peak when I was in college. After bursting to prominence in his second victory over Sonny Liston in 1965, a knock-out at 2:12 in the First Round, he went on to become boxing’s best ever, a cultural force, and a worldwide celebrity. His record was 56-5. One of those losses came from Joe Frazier in 1971 when I was a college freshman. It was billed as “The Fight of the Century.” Frazier fought Ali twice more, losing both, 1974 when I was a senior, and 1975, the last being “The Thrilla in Manilla.” Unbelievable fights. Then there was big George Foreman in 1974, “The Rumble in the Jungle.” In a matter of ten months Ali beat Frazier and Foreman. Incredible. There is not now and I don’t think ever will be a fighter like Ali. “The Mouth” is quiet now due to Parkinson’s syndrome, but he is still a force of nature.

--Pete Rose. I watched “Charlie Hustle” throughout my youth. So it’s especially sad for me today to think about how he botched his reputation and legacy gambling on games in which he managed. It’s particularly ironic in that I grew up to write a no-gambling book. Rose is Exhibit #1 for what gambling can do to a life. But Rose is still the greatest hitter ever to play baseball, 4,256 hits. He gambled away Cooperstown but he still makes my hall of fame.

--Secretariat. Yes, a horse. And what a horse, and an athlete in every sense of the term. In 1973 when I was in college Secretariat became the first horse in 25 years to win racing’s Triple Crown. His records at the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes still stand, the latter of which he won by 31 lengths. Secretariat went to his reward in 1989 and it’s improbable we’ll see his like again in the next one hundred years.

--Lance Armstrong. Road racing cyclist’s greatest, Armstrong won the Tour de France 7 times in a row, 1999 to 2005. This feat may be approached, but I doubt it will ever be bettered. Armstrong, though not the most likeable person and a rather testy agnostic, is nevertheless a cancer survivor, tireless worker on behalf of his foundation, and hero of those who acknowledge resolve. He is known to possess an exceptionally large heart, which is the source of his incredible energy. This is a trait he shares with Secretariat, which during autopsy was discovered to have a heart two and one-half times the size of an average horse. Amazing.

--Michael Jordan. I’m not a big basketball fan, but who can ignore “Air Jordan”? Kids today know him more for Nike and Hanes underwear commercials than for basketball, but Jordan’s 6 NBA championships, 5 MVP awards, and 14 All-Star appearances, and much more, set a standard few have emulated. Maybe more than his skill and winning, or certainly along with them, he stood out because he so obviously loved the game and gave it every hang-time moment he could.

--Tiger Woods. No one at this point, not even Woods, knows whether his career is at its zenith. But to give him his due, he was and in large measure still is, the gold standard of golf greatness—not in majors won, that belongs to the Golden Bear Jack Nicklaus—not in crowd appeal, that belongs to Arnold Palmer and his Army or maybe to Phil Mickelson—but in technique, skill, hitting a ball like no one else. That's Tiger. I hope he gets his life on course and hits some more great shots.

There’s more “Great Ones” among sports figures, of course--these are all men, so a women's hall of fame is yet to come. But these will do for my hall of fame short-list for now. I’ve been privileged to watch them all.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

Let me begin by saying I consider Tiger Woods the greatest golfer I’ve ever seen and likely ever will see play. Technically, when he was “on” for a good ten-year run, his golf skills were truly phenomenal. He's yet to demonstrate he can catch Jack Nicklaus's professional golfers' best record, but Tiger's skills are without question the best ever witnessed.

Second, let me say that I don’t generally root against Tiger. I do often root for others, so it depends upon how you look at it. The point is, I get no personal jollies when Tiger falters.

Third, I think his fall from grace was, in a word, remarkable. In a matter of a few hours, certainly a few days, he toppled—no, he plummeted—from the pinnacle of worldwide sports and endorsement capacity to a place somewhere very low in the public’s estimation. It still strikes me as rather amazing, especially given the fact that his transgressions involved sexual escapades that are: a) quite common among celebrities, b) behaviors in which many in the general population indulge. Still, he hit some kind of bottom, real fast, and his game if not his life has yet to recover. Clearly, he needs to get back on course—pun intended and in more ways than one.

So, I don’t claim any self-righteous right to condemn Tiger or use him as an example of all things unholy. I now just think he and his saga are sad.

But the man is only 35 years old. He’s still physically capable of being the world’s greatest golfer, and as long as he breathes he still has a chance to turn things around in his life spiritually, socially, and more.

So here’s my recommendation on “How Tiger Woods Can Reboot His Life.” I sincerely wish and pray him well.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.