Upon entering the contestants' locker room before a NBA three-point contest that he later won, Bird asked aloud, "Who's coming in second?"
Trailing by three, Montana's San Francisco 49ers sat 92 yards and 3 minutes, 20 seconds away from eventually winning the 1989 Super Bowl. Joe Cool crouched in the huddle and directed his teammates' attention to the stands. He asked them, "Isn't that John Candy?" moments before leading them to one of their four titles.
Those tales, simply, are the stuff legends are made of. But all of today's stories come now with a disclaimer. Some of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the media because today's paparazzi sniff through every player's dirty laundry and air it for public viewing.
Yet it's not a two-way street. For every fluff story celebrating an admirable athlete, there are 15-to-20 hard-news reports about an NFL star, accused of a crime and preparing to serve 15 to 20 years. Why are the Shaquille O'Neals and the Cal Ripkens of the sports world outnumbered and overshadowed by the J.R. Riders and the Lawrence Phillipses?
No wonder I haven't replaced Joe and Larry. With so many sports and so many athletes, yet so few good ones, there's but one way to find whom I'm looking for.
HELP WANTED: A professional athlete who not only acts like a role model but also relishes being one. Should be down-to-earth, hardworking, selfless. Desirable characteristics included a grounded ego and positive attitude, as well as willingness to accept blame and admit fault when wrong. Love of children is a must. College degree preferred but unnecessary.
Former NBA star Charles Barkley once said, "I am not a role model." I agree. He isn't. He spat on a young girl, then claimed to be aiming for a heckler seated near her. In 1997 he threw an argumentative fan through an Orlando bar's plate-glass window, then said he regretted only not tossing him from a higher floor.
Barkley meant that athletes shouldn't be role models; rather, parents should. Absolutely. Role models are like hobbies, or Lays Potato Chips. Having more than one is encouraged.
I have no problem with promoting parents, teachers or civil servants as role models, rather than athletes. But kids will be kids, and kids like sports. Their Little League swings will emulate their favorite major leaguers'. They'll still wag their tongues like Michael Jordan or camp out behind the net like Wayne Gretzky.
Children inevitably will turn to athletes because that's who they watch. Society can't blame parents completely. Dad's accounting business, as important as it is, isn't broadcast on NBC. Mom's business suit and heels aren't advertised in commercials or sold in stores.
Regardless of whether they should be considered role models, athletes have a responsibility to provide the public with a positive image. Sure, it's a lot to ask, but it's only right. They get paid millions to play sports! Seems like a good trade-off, and little if any pity befalls their complaints. Siskel died before Ebert. Sometimes life is unfair.
Athletes need to play the hand they're dealt. I'm old enough now to know that the people closest to me -- my family and friends -- were, and are, my real role models. Bird and Montana were just admired from afar. Kids eventually outgrow the stage when they consider them anything more.
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But somewhere, some little boy doesn't yet know this. He's about to stumble upon his first role model, and he needs someone he can look up to.
Yes, he needs to know to look close to home, and not just to his hometown's teams. But when -- not if, for it's bound to happen -- he turns to sports, please let him find someone worthy to hang on his bedroom walls.
As he's gotten older, Dan Satter has grown more disillusioned with professional athletics. But he's still a fan -- especially of the Red Sox. If you are, have or know a role model,
e-mail Dan at email@example.com.