March 11, 2003

Human Beings

It is just natural for people to look at celebrities and idolize them. Some girls (and guys) put posters of Britney Spears on their wall, some people keep scrapbooks of Al Pacino and some people own every single baseball card that has ever had a picture of Jim Edmonds on it.

For me personally, I suppose that at least part of the reason I am such a gigantic sports fan is that, deep down, I really want to be the players I watch on TV. And if that's not possible, I think many of us imagine the athletes were admire as the guys we'd want to hang out with, the guys we'd want our sisters to date, the guys that stand for "what's right in sports."

I have lived in Minnesota all of my life and I've noticed some very real "rules" that Minnesota sports fans seem to live by.

1) If you are "one of us" (meaning from Minnesota or here to play for the University of Minnesota) you are "one of us" for life and we will treat you better than anything you can imagine - through thick and thin.

I would call this the "Bobby Jackson rule."

Bobby Jackson came to the University of Minnesota basketball team from a junior college, which meant he had 2 years of eligibility. He broke his foot the first year, which meant his Gopher career would last exactly 1 season.

Well, it turned out that one season was one of the best in the history of Minnesota basketball. Bobby (he quickly earned one name status here) led the Gophers to the Big Ten Championship and a Final Four appearance. He was the Big Ten Player of the Year and an All-American.

As someone that watched almost every game that year, I can honestly say that Bobby Jackson's Senior season was one of the best seasons by a college basketball player I have ever seen. If we needed a basket, he got it. If we needed a big stop on defense, he got. If there was a rebound or a loose ball to be had, he got it (despite being about 6'1"). I have never seen a tougher, harder working or smarter college basketball player.

Bobby was selected in the 1st round of the NBA draft and eventually ended up on the Timberwolves, where he was cheered like no other player on the team, despite the fact he came off the bench the entire time and averaged about 6 points a game. After a couple of seasons here, he moved on to the Sacramento Kings and the fans in Minnesota only got a chance to cheer for him a couple times a year.

Flash forward a few years and we find out that Bobby wasn't doing much schoolwork while he was here at the U of M. There was a huge investigation, a Pulitzer Prize was won and coaches and adminstrators were fired.

Bobby and some other players on coach Clem Haskins' various Gopher teams were having their papers written by someone else. If you go to Williams Arena (where the Gophers play) that Big Ten Championship banner is no longer there and you'd be hard pressed to find any mention of a Final Four appearance. In addition, dozens and dozens of wins are now "losses" in the record books, the program had scholarships taken away and experienced tons of other various sanctions. The whole thing was a complete mess and the basketball program is just now starting to rebuild.

Despite all that, I was at a Gopher game last year and Bobby Jackson was in attendance (he was in town with the Kings to play the Timberwolves). There was no announcement of his presence and Bobby was actually pretty well undercover (he was wearing a hat), but at some point some fans spotted him in the crowd. Within minutes, the entire place was chanting: "BOBBY JACKSON!" [clap, clap, clap, clap, clap] "BOBBY JACKSON" [clap, clap, clap, clap, clap] "BOBBY JACKSON!"...

This entire state is still in love with Bobby Jackson and nothing he could ever do, including academic fraud that led to severe penalties for the entire program, could ever change that. Unless...

2) If you're "one of us" and you "betray" us, you will forever be treated as if you ran over our dog on the way to robbing our grandmother's house.

I would call this the "Joel Przybilla rule."

Joel Przybilla was a high school star at Monticello High School here in Minnesota. He was a McDonald's All-American and probably one of the top 10-15 high school players in the country. He came to the U of M just like "one of us" should and was quickly approaching Bobby Jackson territory.

Like Jackson, Joel was not very interested in schoolwork and apparently he did not attend very many of his classes. Unlike Jackson, he no longer had Clem Haskins as a coach. The program was fresh off of all the trouble related to Bobby Jackson and Clem Haskins and the new coach, Dan Monson, was completely unwilling to let such things slide.

The day after Przybilla's best game as a Gopher (I don't remember the exact numbers, but I'm going to guess about 30 points and 15 rebounds - including the game winning basket - against Indiana) he was suspended from the team until he got his academic situation straightened out. Despite the suspension, Joel still wasn't very interested in academics, so he quit the team right in the middle of the season and declared for the NBA Draft.

He was only a sophomore and was beginning to show so much promise that it was like someone cooking a big steak for you to eat and then throwing it in the garbage when it finally was ready to enjoy.

An added wrinkle to this story is that the NBA Draft that year was actually here in Minnesota...and I attended it. Throughout the evening, footage of the various draft eligible players was shown on the big screen and every single time anything involving Joel Przybilla was shown (or even if his name was mentioned) the entire place went absolutely nuts, booing louder than anything I've ever heard.

Joel ended up getting picked 9th in the draft that night and when he went up to the podium to shake David Stern's hand, he was booed extraordinarily loud. Then when he went to another stage off to the side to do a television interview, the noise in the Target Center was so loud that it affected the interview.

It is now several years later and Przybilla has come back here to play several times as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. He is booed each and every time and I imagine he will be until the day he retires.

3) If you weren't "one of us" by birth or by virtue of playing at the University of Minnesota, you can be so damn good and nice that we decide to adopt you.

This rule would apply to professional athletes that come to Minnesota from other states.

Right now, the best example of this would be Kevin Garnett. He can do no wrong at this point. He's great on the court, he's a great interview and from everything we've ever heard about him, he's just a hell of a guy.

I think he's the best player in the entire NBA. Plus, I'd love to hang out with him, my mom thinks he's "cute" and, if I had a sister, I'd gladly fix them up on a date.

Flash back about 10 years and all the stuff I just said could apply to Kirby Puckett.

In fact, rule #3 would probably best be descibed as the "Kirby Puckett rule."

Kirby Puckett was born and raised in Chicago and attended Bradley University. The Twins drafted him with the #3 pick in the 1982 draft and he was roaming centerfield in the Metrodome full-time by 1985.

Kirby just had that special something about him.

He never had a "baseball body." He was extremely short (listed generously at 5-8) and he was what I would describe as "portly" in the early days and "chunky" later on. Yet, he played a Gold Glove centerfield for many years.

As a hitter, he despised the walk and swung at a ball more often than a strike. He was the very definition of a "bad-ball hitter." No matter what the pitch was, Kirby hit it and, posting .300 batting averages year after year. And he was at his best when it really counted. In 24 career playoff games he had a .309 batting average and a .536 slugging %.

His brightest moment came on the biggest stage. In game 6 of the 1991 World Series, with the Twins facing elimination, Kirby Puckett had one of the greatest single game performances in the history of the World Series. He drove in a run with a triple in the 1st inning. He made an absolutely astonishing leaping catch up against the centerfield wall in the 3rd inning. And he led off the bottom of the 11th inning with the game-winning home run, which inspired Jack Buck to say: "AND WE'LL SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT!" - 6 words that will never be forgotten by Twins fans.

A season later, Kirby was a free agent and turned down huge contract offers from other teams - including his hometown Chicago White Sox - to stay with the Twins.

Off the field, he had a smile that could light up a room, he came off very well in interviews and appeared to be a perfect family man. Plus, there was just something very lovable about him.

You could look back throughout the history of athletics and you'd be hard pressed to find an athlete as loved and admired as Kirby Puckett was here in Minnesota.

Then, about a year ago, some not-so-wonderful stories started popping up in the local newspapers here about Kirby, who had retired from playing (had been newly inducted into the Hall of Fame) and was a member of the Twins front office.

A female Twins employee threatened him with a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Puckett's long time wife, Tonya, divorced him and said that Kirby had threatened to kill her and attempted to hurt her on several occasions. There was a story about Tonya locking herself in the bathroom and Kirby cutting through the door with a power saw. There was a story about Kirby allegedly threatening her with a gun while she held their child.

Most recently, there have been stories about Puckett's long-time affair with a woman and an incident at a local bar, which resulted in Puckett being charged with sexually assaulting a different woman.

Throughout it all, the majority of Minnesota sports fans have remained fairly silent about it, perhaps unwilling to believe that their Kirby could be responsible for such things.

And then, yesterday, I saw this:

That is what next week's Sports Illustrated cover looks like.

In it, there is a story by Frank Deford entitled: "The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett."

The story, according to SI, deals with "a pattern of alleged sexual indiscretions and violent acts by the former Minnesota Twins icon."

As I said, stories about Puckett have been around for the past year or so, so this SI article isn't really uncovering anything new. Still, there is a difference between the people of Minnesota knowing all about something and the entire world knowing about something because it was written about in the most well-known sports publication in the world.

Frank Deford was asked about what the reaction of the people of Minnesota has been to the on-going Puckett saga:

The fans there are very much aware of what's happening, and they feel two things, which are reflected in the SI piece -- sad and betrayed. And I think they feel a little foolish. That's a big theme of this story -- the fans were taken. They gave their hearts away and it turned out that the man to whom they gave their hearts was not quite so deserving. Even if Puckett is acquitted of the sexual assault charges brought against him, it's still very clear that he's not the person everyone thought he was. But a fascinating aspect of this story reflects on how fans get so carried away with their heroes.

I could not agree with him more.

Has there ever been something that you absolutely knew to be true? I'm talking 1 + 1 = 2 and the earth is round type of stuff. You just know it is true and you live your life with that knowledge.

Now, suppose one day you find out that it isn't true. 1 + 1 = 567 and the earth is a triangle. It is really an astonishing feeling and one that hundreds of thousands of people are feeling right now because of Kirby Puckett.

This is obviously a hot topic here in Minnesota. Yesterday I heard a sports fan talk about what a shame it was that all this has happened, but how glad he was to have someone like Kevin Garnett playing in Minnesota. He went on to say that Kevin is such a magnificent athlete, such a charismatic person and such a wonderful human being.

If I had had a chance to, I would have asked that sports fan how exactly that description of Garnett is any different than one of Kirby Puckett as few as 2 or 3 years ago.

The answer is, of course, that it is no different.

In various cities and states across the country and throughout history, athletes are loved, admired and idolized. Cal Ripken Jr. in Baltimore. Tony Gwynn in San Diego. Karl Malone and John Stockton in Utah. Michael Jordan in Chicago or Washington or North Carolina. Brett Favre in Wisconsin. Larry Bird in Boston. Magic Johnson in Los Angeles.

Bobby Jackson and Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. The list goes on and on and on.

What is it about all of those people and all of those situations that is different from Kirby Puckett and Minnesota? Absolutely, without a doubt, not a single thing.

Kirby Puckett being on the cover of Sports Illustrated next week isn't going to change very much, even for people in Minnesota. Some of us might say it will, but it won't. I'm still going to keep thinking of what an extraordinary athlete Kevin Garnett is and I'll keep wanting to hang out with him, my mom will keep thinking he's "cute" and if I ever get a sister my first choice for her will be Kevin Garnett.

In the end, people are just people, no matter how many base hits they get, how many game-winning home runs they hit or how bright their smile is.

Sometimes it hurts to be reminded of that.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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