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Defense! Defense! : Contrary to One Reader's Opinion, My Love for Sports Is Deep and Abiding

May 08, 1988|JACK SMITH

AS A COLUMNIST who has labored many years in the field of self-exposure, I doubt that there is any facet of my personality that I have not betrayed, consciously or unconsciously.

A columnist is always so desperately in need of material that inevitably he must look inward and write about himself.

So everyone knows by now that I don't like vegetables, that I like detective novels, that I like soft music, that I like Art Deco buildings, that I like white wine, that I like old movies, that I like women, that I like dogs and, according to my critics, that I am something of a male chauvinist pig.

So I am surprised by a question asked by Nick Polos, emeritus professor of history at the University of La Verne.

"I wonder," he says, "why Jack Smith, who touches on many phases of the human condition, very rarely ever mentions American sports. Most cultural historians, like Will Durant, would say: 'Show me how a civilization plays (Greeks, Romans, for example), and I will tell you what kind of civilization they have.' Is this aversion due to a dislike of any physical activity or out of respect for the 'Jim Murray Department'? "

Dr. Polos hasn't been paying attention. One of the most frequent complaints I hear is "You turn me off when you write about sports."

Women, especially, seem to despise my football columns, of which I have written many. Dr. Polos is correct, however, in suspecting that I tend to defer to Jim Murray and others in the sports department. They cover the subject so thoroughly and so well that there is really nothing left for a generalist like me to write about.

To set Dr. Polos at ease, however, let me repeat that sports played an influential part in my development and that to this day I retain a rather proprietary interest in them.

For example, I regard baseball as sacred among American institutions, and I think its pooh-bahs are toying with Holy Writ when they change its rules. In recent years, for example, the American League has suffered the designated-hitter rule, which has seriously damaged the game.

Under this rule, a team may designate a non-playing member of the squad to hit for the pitcher. This not only denies the pitcher a chance to hit but also brings a non-player up to bat, which goes entirely against the tradition of the game and grievously alters its rhythm.

As war is too important to be left to the generals, so is sports too important to be left to owners, managers and sportswriters. To keep it honest requires constant monitoring by righteous amateurs like me.

Surely Dr. Polos has read one of my sermons on the beauty of football. I have often observed that a wide receiver, running his intricate patterns, cutting to avoid a defensive back, leaping up and out and stretching to catch a ball that has been perfectly thrown to anticipate his position, is as beautiful as any ballet dancer, and his performance is heightened by your not knowing how it's going to turn out.

What is more thrilling to watch than a Laker fast break, or Magic Johnson lofting a timely pass to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for one of his exquisitely graceful skyhooks? This is all done, keep in mind, with five giants trying to prevent it. Basketball is the apotheosis of the human body in action.

I have often observed that Chris Evert is my favorite person in all sports. Even today, when she no longer dominates women's tennis, she is exemplary in her grace, her concentration, her courtesy, her skill, her humor and her doggedly combative spirit. She defines the undefinable: class.

This essay would not be complete were I not to mention my own triumphs in the field and on the court. I cannot believe that I have not already mentioned being the fastest runner in Whittier's John Muir Junior High School, except for Dorothy Welch and Lucille Logue, and that I was high-point man in Los Angeles City Class B basketball at Belmont High School in 1934. (Look it up in our 1934 yearbook. I wrote the article myself.)

And certainly I have not failed to mention that I began my career in journalism as a sportswriter on the Bakersfield Californian.

Call me Jock.

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