Short Relief: Channeling the sports curmudgeon

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My turn to play the role of a soccer dad has come. I spent my Memorial Day weekend at Nauset, Mass., Regional High School, on Cape Cod, attending a New England Soccer Classic tournament.

Like others before me, I sat on the sidelines while my son’s team played teams composed of other people’s sons. I felt pride in their good play; frustration at their missed offensive opportunities and defensive lapses; annoyance at the bad calls; and occasional resentment toward their opposition.

I did my best to only cheer positive encouragement. I tried to restrain myself from the urge to jeer. I mostly succeeded.

It is a relatively new role for me. I have been an amateur athlete of modest ability, and a professional sports fan of moderate dedication. I grew up playing baseball and football. My son plays lacrosse in addition to soccer. I grew up rooting for the New York Mets, Knicks and football Giants, and endured many years of mediocrity between the occasional championships.

In contrast, my son has led a charmed life as a sports fan. Since he arrived in Maine in 1999, he has known nothing but success. He has no idea about the frustrations and heartaches that generations before him endured: the Bucky Dent home run, the Mookie Wilson grounder to first, the Patriots when they were hapless, the Celtics’ loss of Len Bias.

He’s seen the Sox win the World Series, the Patriots win the Super Bowl, the Celtics win the NBA championship, and now the Bruins with a shot to win the Stanley Cup.

Maybe I’m being nostalgic, but it seems to me that over the past 30 years, NBA basketball has become more physical, while NHL hockey has become more skillful. I trace the beginning of the decline of NBA basketball to its peak in the 1980s.

At the time, the NBA featured a style of team play that emphasized teamwork. The Celtics were led by Larry Bird. They played a New England brand of the game: methodical, with lots of picks and cuts and rolls, precision passes, and sharpshooting. In contrast, Magic Johnson’s Lakers played a star-studded, West Coast, fast-breaking, Hollywood/showtime form of the game. And many of the other teams in the league had distinctive personalities of their own, like the Detroit Pistons, the bad boys of Motor City led by Bill Laimbeer, Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

Basketball began to change when the officials started allowing more physical contact. I remember defenders being allowed to put their shoulder into Kevin McHale’s back and drive him out of the low post to neutralize the drop-stepping, double-jointed moves that he employed so well from the paint. Then, they started to allow big men like Shaquille O’Neal to pound their way into the low post. Now, the game is a contact sport and I can discern no consistent principle by which fouls are called.

In contrast, during roughly the same period of time, hockey has become more skillful. It was always fast and physical. But it has become less of a brawl since the Russian Army team skated and passed circles around most of the NHL’s best during a goodwill tour in the mid-1970s.

The NHL was embarrassed by the disparity in quality of play. It embarked on a program to raise the level of its game. Today, NHL hockey is still fast and physical, but the teamwork, the passing, the shooting, and the goal-tending are amazing.

Does it matter how these games are played? What the rules are and how penalties are called? Whether they emphasize teamwork or individual performance? Brute force or finesse?

Does it matter who is the best at putting a ball through a hoop, sticking a puck in a net, or hitting a ball with a stick? They’re not going to cure AIDS, end world hunger, or ensure world peace. Is professional sport anything more than making a spectacle of winning at any cost?

Rules define a game and give it meaning and value. Some rules are in synch with their game and the nature of sport. Others, not so much. Good rules, consistently applied, allow players and teams to develop their skills and techniques and apply them so that it becomes apparent who and which are better.

At the top of any well-ordered game, the best often have comparable physical abilities. The difference between first and second best is often intangible: leadership, teamwork, sacrifice, determination, spirit, heart, resilience; qualities that can serve a person well in other aspects of life.

My son’s team made it to the semifinals. On the way, they and their competition worked harder and played better than I and my contemporaries did at their age, and they were more composed than some of the people on the sidelines. I take it as some sign that we as a civilization are not going to ruin.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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