An Athlete For The Ages

I never got to see Babe Ruth up at bat in a baseball game, watch Jesse Owens run and jump, or cheer as Jim Brown carried the football on a sweep . . . but I am getting to watch LeBron James play basketball.

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along that is so spectacularly gifted that they break all the records, bust through every preconceived notion, and change their sport and the expectations about it in fundamental ways.  Babe Ruth singlehandedly turned baseball from a bunt and steal, scratch for a run, “small ball” game to one in which home run hitters and big innings were what brought fans to the ballparks.  Jesse Owens set records that lasted for decades and thumbed his nose at Hitler and his racist notions about a “master race” while doing so.  Jim Brown crushed every NFL rushing record then in existence and was such a dominant player, in size, speed, and power, that he is probably one of the few NFL players of his era who actually could have played, and starred, in the modern league.

And, then, there is LeBron James.  He hasn’t had quite the same impact on his sport as Ruth, Owens, and Brown, because he’s working against a much longer history of NBA players — but he’s still steadily moving up the all-time records lists, routinely scoring 30+ points in the playoff games when the challenges are the greatest, and winning, winning, winning, wherever he plays.  He’s probably not going to catch Bill Russell or Michael Jordan when it comes to winning championships, or score the most points every year, but in every game he is the dominant player and, to use Reggie Jackson’s phrase, the “straw that stirs the drink.”

And, speaking as a non-athlete, it’s pretty amazing to watch a barrel-chested, 6-foot-8, 270-pound man who can run like a deer, jump out of the gym, dunk from the free-throw line, shoot three-pointers, and block shots from the cheap seats.  He’s basically unguardable, and he imposes his will on every contest.  Watching LeBron James play is simply an awesome spectacle.

Let’s not engage in petty arguments about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, or worry about whether LeBron’s team wins the championship every year.  Let’s just savor the fact that we’ve got an athlete for the ages in our midst, and we’re lucky enough to watch him work his magic in real time.

R.I.P. Louis Zamperini

We all hope to live lives that are full and interesting.  Louis Zamperini, who died last week at the ripe age of 97, sets a standard to which the rest of us can only aspire.  If you’ve read the best-selling book Unbroken:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, about Zamperini’s life, you know what I mean.

Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent, then a champion runner at USC, then a member of the fabled 1936 U.S. Olympic team that competed in Nazi Germany and saw Jesse Owens achieve immortality.  Then Zamperini fought nobly in World War II, was shot down over the Pacific, somehow survived weeks on a raft that floated hundreds of miles before reaching land on a Japanese-occupied island, and then lived through brutal treatment in a prison camp.  His story reads like the over-the-top plot of a movie, but it’s true — and the movie will be released later this year.

Leonard Pitts has written one of many appreciations of this fine man, who exemplified so many of the traits of the Americans known as The Greatest Generation.  A slightly different take on Zamperini’s life, and the role religion played in the “redemption” part of his story, can be found at National Review Online.  You can’t help but be inspired by the story of an average American who did extraordinary things — and you can’t help but wonder how many average Americans, put in the same circumstances, could have done the same.

A Statue For Jesse Owens

Many people may be surprised to learn that the most legendary athlete to compete at The Ohio State University was not a football player — instead, it was track-and-field star Jesse Owens.  On Thursday, on one of the few sunny days we’ve had recently, the University unveiled a new statue of Jesse Owens at the southwest corner of Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.

Owens’ athletic achievements were extraordinary.  Most people know about Owens’ Olympic accomplishments, but his efforts the prior year at the Big Ten championships (at that time still called the Western Conference) were equally amazing.  On one day — May 25, 1935 — Owens equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash and broke the world records for the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the long jump.  Four world records in one day!  At the 1936 Olympics held in Germany, Owens then reached iconic status by winning four gold medals in the heartland of Nazism and disproving Adolf Hitler’s racist Aryan superman myths.

When many of us think of the model for an athlete, we think of Jesse Owens, who performed exceptional feats under enormous pressure and did so with grace and class.  Many of the pampered, steroid-using, self-absorbed athletes of the modern world would do well to study Jesse Owens and learn from his example.  Perhaps this latest tribute will help in that regard.

Putting A New Buckeye In Statuary Hall

When Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite places to take visitors was Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.  Statuary Hall is the former location of the House of Representatives chamber and is now the home of dozens of statues of American luminaries.  Most of the statues are bronze or marble; the notable exception that I recall was the towering black and gold depiction of Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I, who looked like he could have walked off the pedestal and competed successfully in the Arnold bodybuilding competition.

Many of the individuals depicted in the collected statues have long since faded into obscurity.  Most of them are politicians, and some of them are a bit embarrassing to see displayed so prominently at the seat of our Nation’s government because of their support for slavery.   One such example is William Allen, who served as Governor of Ohio from 1874 to 1876 and was pro-slavery and opposed to the Civil War.  Allen is one of only two Ohioans in Statuary Hall; the other is former President James Garfield.  Allen is an exceptionally bad choice to represent Ohio, which was home to the Underground Railroad, to countless men who fought and died in the Civil War, and to many of the Union’s most successful generals, including Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Appropriately, the powers that be have decided to remove the statue of Allen and pick from a list of 10 Ohioans who are viewed as better representing the values and heritage of modern Ohioans.  The list of candidates is interesting:  James Ashley, Thomas Edison, Ulysses Grant, William McCulloch, Jesse Owens, Judith Resnick, Albert Sabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Taylor Upton, and Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Some of these names are familiar, others less so.  James Ashley was a prominent 19th century abolitionist and politician, William McCulloch was a civil rights activist who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than 25 years, Judith Resnick was an astronaut who was killed in the 1986 Challenger explosion, Albert Sabin was the medical researcher who developed the oral vaccine for polio, and Harriet Taylor Upton was a leading proponent of women’s suffrage.

Ohioans will get to influence the final selection through a popular vote.  I think all 10 are worthy candidates, but my preference would be for Thomas Edison, Jesse Owens, or Albert Sabin.  There already are more than enough politicians in Statuary Hall.  Adding an inventor and businessman who brought electric light to the world, or an athlete whose Olympic triumph electrified the world and exposed the stupidity of the racial superiority rantings of the Nazi regime, or a researcher whose hard work and inspiration freed millions from the debilitating effects of a terrible disease, would be fitting reflection of the many contributions that The Buckeye State has made to America.