Passing of giants makes chasing childhood harder
Bill Russell, Vin Scully dying days apart markers for those who've never not known them
Al Michaels isn’t enough.
A fantastic caller of games, he popped up for most of us in February 1980, calling “Miracle on Ice” hockey at the Lake Placid Winter Games.
I have a feint memory of knowing him already, probably from doing college football for ABC in the late 70s. I don’t remember it, exactly, just that I’d seen him before.
Yet, he wasn’t prominent until Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Buzz Schneider, Mark Johnson, Mark Pavelich, Bill Baker, Neal Broten — you want more names from memory: Dave Silk, Mark Pavelich, Jack O’Callahan, Ken Morrow — and other American collegians earned hockey gold, making Michaels too late to catch up to the voices and figures in my original sports heart and brain.
Those voices belonged to Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, Brent Musberger and Jim McKay. Maybe Chris Shenkel, even though by the time I watched him regularly, he’d tumbled into calling bowling alongside Nelson Burton Jr, the bridge to each NFL Sunday.
Hank Aaron, Kareem, Doctor J., Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Roger Staubach, Franco Harris, A.J. Foyt, Richard Petty.
We’re talking all-timers here.
And two more.
A name for each list.
Perhaps a name to lead each list:
Scully died on Tuesday.
He was 94 and only six years retired as voice of the Dodgers, a job he held for 67 seasons, from 1950 to 2016, Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
He did other stuff, too.
He called the NFL in the ’80s, including the 1982 NFC championship decided by “The Catch,” Joe Montana to Dwight Clark. He was the voice of golf on CBS before Pat Summerall, who gave way to Jim Nance, who’s still going.
If not the best to call any game, Scully's undoubtedly the best to ever call a baseball game.
Two days before Scully left us, Bill Russell left us, too. He was 88.
Maybe the best basketball player who ever lived, absolutely one of the three best centers who ever lived and widely known as the greatest winner in sports history, claiming two NCAA championships as a San Francisco Don, an Olympic gold medal back when Team USA was all collegians and 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics, the last two of which he was the coach, too.
Imagine averaging 40.3 minutes, 11.1 points, 18.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, uncounted and untold blocked shots because they were not yet kept, making substitutions and calling and running timeouts, too.
Over his last two seasons, before his 1969 retirement, Russell did all of that, winning it all both times.
What each accomplished is unthinkable. What each meant is, too.
Somewhere in my childhood I read Russell’s autobiography, “Go up for Glory,” about his life in basketball and much more. He dominated on the court and fought for justice and civil rights off of it.
Scully, whose calls could be literary — “In a season of the improbable” he said after Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, “the impossible has happened” — had the presence of mind following Hank Aaron’s 715th home run on April 8, 1974, to say this from the Dodger booth inside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium:
“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”
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That, and they were always there.
My first basketball memory is the 1976 NBA Finals, Boston and Phoenix, including “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the Celtics’ triple-overtime Game 5 victory.
Phoenix came with former Sooners Alvan Adams and Garfield Heard and were directed by former Sooner coach John MacLeod. The Celtics came with Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, JoJo White, Paul Silas and all their history, which somehow, though just an 8-year-old, had already washed over me.
Russell called games as color man to Rick Barry for TBS in the 80s. Two former players, I remember eating up the games because it meant more NBA on television and the two of them cracking each other up.
Whenever he’s popped up since, the thought’s the same: there goes a giant, who may have no peers.
Though not a Los Angelino, several years ago I began buying the MLB TV package just to come home from late nights at the paper to listen to Scully and his omnipresent voice calling games past midnight on the West Coast.
So welcoming, familiar and soothing, just as he’d always been, calling games played by Jackie Robinson, to Sandy Koufax, to Orel Hershiser, to Clayton Kershaw.
Like Russell, he came along before I did, was always there, always one of the good guys, always a connector, from then to now.
Some things, I see with 53-year-old eyes. Other things things, though 53, I still see with 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, 14- and 16-year old eyes.
Bob Uecker’s still going.
Still calling the Brewers at 88.
In Scully’s trade and generation, Ueck’s the last one.
Musberger, 83, would be, too, but has left the scene again after giving up the Raiders radio job after last season.
Kareem’s only 75. Julius Erving is 72.
Though Aaron’s passed, Rose (81), Bench (74), Staubach (80), Harris (72), Foyt (87) and Petty (85) remain with us.
Good thing athletes tend to live longer than those who call them.
Still, it’s inescapable.
Vin Scully and Bill Russell are gone.
I feel pretty good for 53, but feeling 14 again’s going to be a lot harder.
Very nice tribute. Thank you, I appreciate the sincerity of your words and am so happy you focused on the sports careers of these men rather than the over use of political preaching that has overtaken professional sports columnists. Sports fans want to be entertained, not preached down to. I’m 60 and grew up not far from Binger, Oklahoma.
“ I feel pretty good for 53, but feeling 14 again’s going to be a lot harder” Now that’s one of your all-time conclusions. A walk off, a buzzer beater and lighting the red lamp, in overtime, all in one. 3rd contribution to the “trilogy” was the best. Thanks for the read.