Dick Fick died 13 years ago. Do you remember him? Probably not. He was a relatively minor college basketball coach; Dick was an assistant at Valpo and Creighton, head coach for a time at Morehead State. He was known, if at all, for two things, one obviously being his name. The other: His antics on the sideline. Dick would rant, rave, collapse, drop to his knees, whatever. He would lower his tie, centimeter by centimeter, throughout the game until it resembled a noose.
Once after what he viewed as a particularly egregious call in a game against Kentucky, he just fell to the court and laid flat on his back. That was the thing that inspired the late Jim Valvano to give out “The Dick Fick Award.” It got enough play that when Dick would travel around, college students would sometimes just lie down in front of him. He loved that.
Dick was a wonderful man. He was also a haunted one. I knew the first version of him. I only heard about the second version after he died, at age 50, of bleeding ulcers after a crushing and losing battle with alcoholism.
The version of Dick Fick I knew was irresistible. He was funny. He was exuberant.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he would say to me when I was writing sports columns for the Cincinnati Post. “You know what thing about Art Long hitting a horse?”
I knew. Cincinnati’s star player, Art Long, had been charged with hitting a police horse (he was later acquitted — his defense was that he had only been petting the horse).
“Yes, I heard Dick.”
“Well, well, well, I know for an absolute fact that he didn’t hit that horse.”
“How do you know that?”
‘Because he was STILL PLANTED IN THE LANE FROM WHEN WE PLAYED THEM!”
Or there was the time his Morehead State team lost to Kentucky by the somewhat lobsided score of 96-32, and Dick said it wasn’t fair because he looked out on the floor and only saw three of his own players.
“Then I realized,” he added, “that two of mine were behind (Kentucky’s center) Nazr Mohammed.”
Dick loved coaching basketball. He loved the strategy. He loved the relationships. He loved the attention. But I would say that, if possible, he loved the Chicago Cubs more. Dick was from Joliet, but he was the most Chicago guy you ever saw, some combination of Belushi and Studs Terkel, Royko and Ebert and Jeff Garlin, a big ol’ wind burst coming down the stadium stairs with a Chicago Style dog in his hand and mustard on his shirt and love in his heart.
“You rooting for the Cubs,” he shouted at the people around him — we were in Cincinnati for that one. “No? How can you root against the Cubs? Do you KNOW the last time we won the World Series? We’re talking 1908! Come on!”
As everyone around him laughed, he gave a pretend look of hurt.
“Can you pray for us at least?” he asked.
Oh, he loved those Cubs. He loved them not with the practical cynicism of an adult who has seen all those losing seasons but with the naive hope of a child, positive, optimistic, sure that this will be the year and, hey, if it isn’t this year, no bit deal, let’s all enjoy ourselves because it will be next year for sure. You must know some fans like that. These are, I must admit, some of my favorite kind of fans. I think sometimes about that line in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” — the main character’s father, a deeply religious man, is asked: “And if all of your faith is wrong … just what if?”
And the man says: “I’d still have a better life than all those that doubt.”
Dick was one of those Cubs fans incapable of doubt. He wasn’t blind. He knew when the Cubs played lousy. He wasn’t gullible. He knew when the Cubs often made lousy moves and he complained loudly about it — he never did forgive them for trading Lou Brock. But in a larger sense, he didn’t doubt that the Cubs, couldn’t doubt them. In the end, they would somehow win, he was sure of that. It was a better life that way.
In the months after Dick died in 2003, the Cubs got very close to the World Series. I thought about him often that year, thought about how much he would have loved the run and how thrilled he would have been with the Cubs six outs away from the Series and how much the ending would have kicked him in the teeth. I also know what he would have said after the Cubs lost again.
“Next year,” he would have said. “Next year for sure, buddy.”
It wasn’t next year — but it has happened now, the Cubs in the World Series. In my Dick Fick obituary column, I tried to make some sense of his life, the extreme joy, the extreme pain, the guy who seemed to have life beat and the guy who just could not outrun his own demons. I’m not a good enough writer to do it. All I could do was end it with my hope for Dick Fick, a hope that has only grows strong here in 2016.
“Dick,” I wrote, “I hope you have a good view of Wrigley Field through the clouds.”