By In Stuff



This photograph makes me so happy. It was taken at the White House, of course, on the day that 21 people received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I first saw it on Vin Scully’s Instagram page. I am thankful that Vin Scully has an Instagram page.

I have spent the last two days staring at this photograph more or less nonstop. It has everything. At the center, you have Vin Scully, a miracle. Look at the joy on his face. That’s not one of those “OK, everybody smile,” expressions — that is the pure and runaway wonder of a child who cannot believe that life has been so good to him.

That was the wonder that Vin Scully brought to baseball. You can talk, of course, about the poetry. “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”  You can talk about his sense of rhythm and tempo and music, the way he watched Henry Aaron hit the home run that passed the Babe, declared it gone, and then stepped aside for 27 seconds to let people hear the crowd roar, the fireworks go off, the rapture everyone felt just being there.

And then, at exactly the right beat, he sang:

“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.”

You can talk about the stories, the interludes, the vivid descriptions, the  way he would take the plainest of moments — baseball’s beauty is in all of its plain moments — and turn it slightly magical: “So,” he would say, “deuces wild, two balls, two strikes, two outs, two on and two runs in the game.”

But it was his joy, above all, the way he could express his own sense of fortune at every game for more than a half century, that made him a miracle. Vin Scully’s life has had great sadness in it. Personal tragedies. Long lives do. “In the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” Samuel Beckett wrote.  Vin Scully went on, and somehow, through it all, conveyed that he still could not believe how wonderful it all is, a hitter, a pitcher, a beautiful day at Dodger Stadium. Pull up a chair and spend the afternoon with us.

To his right in the photograph, blocking the lower corner of he painting of John Tyler, that’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, of course, and the smile on his face is a bit more forced, a bit wearier. That too fits. “Listen kid,” he said to the boy in the cockpit in “Airplane,” “I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”

Kareem’s game was pure efficiency. In his later years and after he retired, people would write about the beauty and gracefulness of his signature move, The Skyhook, but it always seemed to me that the miracle of The Skyhook was how ungraceful and unbeautiful it was; The Skyhook was scoring refined and distilled down to a sort of clear basketball concentrate. You knew it was coming. You had seen it a thousand times before. But it was unstoppable as rain and as unavoidable as the wind.

To Vin’s left in the photograph, with Ulysses S. Grant hovering over his shoulder, is Michael Jordan. He too has a camera-ready smile, though unsurprisingly, unlike Kareem’s, it is perfect.

Somewhere on my computer, I keep a list not of the greatest athletes I’ve seen in my charmed career as a sportswriter but of the most wonderful to watch.  There is a small but subtle difference. On there you would find Dwight Gooden for those two years when everyone chased the high fastball, and you would find Steph Curry, even when was he was a skinny kid at Davidson who no one else recruited. You would find John McEnroe on there when he could volley so softly that the tennis ball would not bounce, and Monica Seles when she grunted like an old car engine and hit nothing but lines. Barry Sanders is on there, and then he’s gone, and then he’s back again. Some of the greats are there — Gretzky, Magic, Marino, Federer, Tiger, Messi. And some who never quite became great are there too — John Daly, Michael Bishop, Tom Dodd, Deion Sanders but as a baseball player, Darren Sproles but in high school, Juan Martin Del Potro and, of course, Bo.

But no one ever was more wonderful than Michael Jordan. This is the part that can get lost when you consider Jordan’s place in basketball history, his NBA record 30.1 points per game, his unquenchable thirst for winning, his impact on sports as  a business, his uncertain political and social stances (though he has always denied that he said “Republicans buy sneakers too”), his role in helping Bugs Bunny and friends defeat the Monstars.

Jordan made basketball three-dimensional in the way a pop-up book can. This is not to diminish the sheer sensation of his basketball ancestors. of Dr. J and Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins and Pistol Pete Maravich and David Thompson and Earl the Pearl Monroe and Bob Cousy and all the rest, but Jordan was just slightly more miraculous than any of them. There was something about the way he moved, the way he faked, the way he jumped, the way he leaned and tilted and soared and fell, the way his tongue stuck out, all of it overloaded the senses and left your brain sending out a distress signal with a long series of exclamation points (“!!!!!! !!! !!!!!!!!!!”).

And then, to the left of Jordan’s arm, there’s the photograph’s Rosebud, the thing that makes it all so impossibly beautiful. That’s Bruce Springsteen. And his smile is as real as a smile can be because he’s not in the photograph. He’s watching it with us.

A lot will change in 2017. I suppose that’s true for all of us, but in this case I’m speaking personally. I turn 50 as the year begins. And I will start a new adventure, a couple of them actually, stuff I can’t wait to tell you about. When I was a columnist in Kansas City, I used to write an annual Thanksgiving column where I listed off dozens of things I was thankful for — Arthur Bryant’s burnt ends, Hamilton, those who give out full-sized candy bars at Halloween, old Cubs fans who cried when the final out was made, card tricks, typewriters, the way leaves crunch under your feet, Usain Bolt in full stride, Louis CK in full stride, Jason Isbell in full stride, that song “Death of a Bachelor,” the rare instances when I still understand my daughters’ homework, people who give up their seats on planes so friends and family can sit together, Ward Parkway, Fifth Avenue, cloudy days in Burnley, the West Side Market, Skyline Chili 3-Ways,  Adrian Beltre fielding a ground ball, Sidney Crosby powering through, Keira Knightley doing anything, Harry Houdini, The Great British Bake Off, all those mushy things about Margo and Elizabeth and Katie and all my friends that do not need to be said and the way that baseball fields look as you’re flying over the city.

Finally, though, I’m thankful for those small but potent moments of joy that make just a tiny bit of sense of this crazy world and these crazy times we live in. Whenever it seems too much, whenever I get a little bit pessimistic about the world or feel a little bit stuck or wonder how and why and what’s next, I try to go back to the things that give me hope, give me faith, to the music, to the compassion, to the humor, to the magic, and maybe too I’ll go back to this picture and see that big smile on Vin Scully’s face, and see just how tall Kareem really is, and see how perfectly Michael Jordan wears a suit. And then I’ll see Bruce in the background and think, you know what? It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.



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38 Responses to Thankful

  1. Karyn says:

    Thank you, Joe.

  2. Frederick McMane says:

    Who is the woman on the right of the photo?

    • Chris H says:

      My guess: she’s a White House staffer. And I would imagine that working in the White House is like any other job, except the hours are way longer and the pressure is way greater, and every now and then you get to see Vin Sculley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen in the same room as the same time – maybe in the company of the President of the United States – and it seems wondrous that you could have been fortunate enough to work in that place. That’s what I like to think, anyway.

      • Sarah says:

        I’ve been waiting to post, but I am the woman on the right side of the photo, and–you are correct–I was a White House staffer until this past week. On Wednesday, after more than five years of working for President Obama, and for the last time, I walked out of the White House. And as I walked through the White House gates that last time, I thought to myself: it seems wondrous that I was was fortunate enough to work in that place. Thank you for your post.

  3. Larry Schmitt says:

    What a perfect Thanksgiving story. Thanks.

  4. Margaret Howland says:

    Thank you for this wonderful collection of memories, Joe.

    And thank you for including Steph Curry. Keep your eyes on the GS Warriors. There will be so any more magical moments, like last night’s game. What a treat to watch superstars having fun with their game!

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

  5. PhilM says:

    And we’re thankful for you, Joe, for giving us insights, and poetry, and always food for thought.

  6. Jeff C says:

    Thank you for this- it has absolutely helped brighten my day.

  7. invitro says:

    I’m thankful for (most of) Joe’s columns. And I’m thankful I don’t have to watch John McEnroe any more. I don’t think I can come up with an athlete who was LESS wonderful to watch. (Maybe Serena Williams, when she’s in a mood.)

  8. invitro says:

    One reason why I’m particularly interested in Kareem is simple: he wrote his own book; more than one of them. There aren’t many star athletes that have, or that I know about, that wrote a book without the aid of a co-writer or ghostwriter. I know Bob Cousy did, and as far as I can tell, Jose Canseco’s “Juiced” is by his own hand. But that’s all I know of… any others?

    • Dan says:

      Ken Dryden wrote “The Game” and wrote/co-wrote several others. I think “Ball Four” is all Jim Bouton, but I could be wrong.

    • PhilM says:

      And whenever he appears on Celebrity Jeopardy, Kareem laps the field. A talented, thoughtful, fascinating individual.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        Years ago, probably around 1983, I was passing through LAX when I walked past one of the gates and suddenly realized I was looking at the Los Angeles Lakers, preparing to board a commercial jet to Oakland. They were all tall, of course, and Kurt Rambis stood out with his needy glasses. But I was most awestruck by the sight of Kareem. You don’t realize how tall a seven-footer is until you see one off the court. I just stared.

        Soon I realized that Kareem’s eyes were fixed on mine. It wasn’t a friendly stare. Instead, it seemed to say, “This is not a zoo and we are not animals. Get on your way.” I was more than a little embarrassed.

        He has lived a wholly admirable life of tremendous dignity. He was a hell of a basketball player, too.

    • TWolf says:

      I believe that former major league pitcher Jim Brosnan (Cubs, Cardinals, Reds, White Sox) wrote two baseball books in the early 1960’s, The Long Season and Pennant Race, without assistance.

  9. Carla&John Young says:

    Thank you.For years I would read your thanksgiving column in the star,always a wonderful way to start a long day of cooking.I am thankful that today I could read another one.

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  11. Hudson Valley Slim says:

    Happy Thanksgiving Joe & followers!

  12. shagster says:

    Happy Thanksgiving, Joe. Thank you for the picture. Was in your burb this week. Can’t believe how much the place has grown since South Park Mall was new and part of ‘outer Charlotte’.

  13. Tom Morgan says:

    Thankful for you Joe.

  14. Meg DesCamp says:

    So beautifully written, it made me cry. Shoveled it into my FB timeline with strict instructions to everyone to read it whether or not they’re sports fan. Thanks so much for this touching essay.

  15. Joshua Smith says:

    Echos from a simpilar time
    Happy Thanksgiving

  16. Beautiful, indeed. By the way, Kareem said late in his career with the Lakers that he knew he’d been around for a while because there no longer was anyone he could discuss the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers with. Maybe Vin wore him out on that one!

    Someone asked about the White House staffer on the right. Who’s the guy on the left? Sorry. Just kidding.

    By the way, historical trivia. John Tyler joined the Confederacy. That may help explain some of Kareem’s weariness. Tyler also has two grandsons who are still alive. Tyler’s wife died during his administration and he married a much younger woman. They had a child in 1860, when Tyler was 70. That child remarried late in life and had two children in the 1920s. Believe it or not.

  17. Pat says:

    “That Vin Is Shorter than Kareem”

    I, too, am grateful for it.

  18. Richard says:

    And you just know that after the ceremony was all over and done, Vin thanked President Obama for giving him the chance to meet so many wonderful people…..

  19. Lori Kirchoff says:

    Joe believe it or not that is the first thing I saw this picture was Springsteen and his Joy at being there to watch that moment is palpable isn’t it

  20. Otistaylor89 says:

    Hate to say it, but you probably gave short shrift to Kareem as he was probably the best high school player ever (his teams went 79-2), the best college player ever (88-2 and most likely 89-1 if wasn’t for the eyeball scratch thing) and up there with the best NBA player of all time (probably Jordan, but Jordan didn’t have an unstoppable shot). If he were allowed to come out early he would have had over 40,000 points and 6,000 playoff points. Think about that for a second – Dwyane Wade has been playing at a high level for 14 seasons and he just passed 20,000 points.

  21. Bob Forer says:

    Michael Jordan was one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball. But Medal of Freedom?????

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