by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The Last True Sports Fan was ready to die. He stood on the bridge, peering down into the icy waters. His hood was up, his coat was long and tattered. I recognized him by the tattered baseball glove and the broken transistor radio still hooked to his ear.

“Stop!” I yelled, running from my car. “Don’t jump!”

“Why not?” he whispered.

His face was old and sad. There were faded trading cards in his pockets and a cardboard sign that read “Go Dodgers!” under his arm. The word
“Brooklyn” had been crossed out.

“Have you got any money?” I asked.

“I used my last $100 on two hockey tickets.”

“How about a car?”

“Stolen. I couldn’t afford the VIP lot.”

“Family? You must have family.”

He smiled for a moment. “I did once. Every sports fan was my brother or sister. When we cheered, we all came together. I had the biggest family you could imagine.”

“What happened?”

He looked at me sadly, and he told me his story. Over the years, he said, The Last True Sports Fans had mostly disappeared. Ticket prices snuffed out many. Greedy owners killed many more. Bad manners by athletes and broken rules by coaches erased the few that remained.

“In the end, there were only two of us left,” he said, “myself — and this other guy in Florida. Lenny. Lived in Orlando.”

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“Shaquille O’Neal. Took $120 million and left to play for the Lakers. Remember? When Shaq said, ‘It ain’t about the money’? “

He wiped away a tear.

“I never heard from Lenny again.”

The Last True Sports Fan cleared his throat, squatted on the edge of the bridge, and prepared to jump.

“Wait!” I yelled.

No spitting, please

He looked at me patiently.

“It’s almost New Year’s Eve.”

“That’s the problem,” he said. “True Sports Fans only get so many years. My time is up.”

“Things can change. What would it take?”

He shook his head. “Too much,” he said.

I looked at the water, crashing on the rocks. “Indulge me,” I said. “Tell me what you want. I’m a sports writer.”

I took out a pad.

“Well,” said The Last True Sports Fan. “I want one year to believe in. One year in which only the game matters, not the money, not the touchdown dances, not the hair dye. The game. The sweat, the pride, the joy of motion.”

“Is that asking too much?” he said.

“Not by me,” I said.

“I want one year without commercials. I want one year without a Nike swoosh. I want one year where I don’t feel manipulated by Lil’ Penny dolls and Michel Jordan cologne.

“I want one year where no Dallas Cowboys are arrested. Not for drugs, not for liquor — not even for a parking ticket. I want one year where coaches don’t holler at the refs.

“Also spitting. One year without spitting. No Roberto Alomar spitting at umpires. No Charles Barkley spitting at fans. No spitting. Is that too asking too much?”

“Not by me,” I said.

Longing to belong

He took the transistor radio from his ear.

“I want one year where announcers broadcast the game and not themselves. I want one year where baseball is played in sunshine, and no game goes past 10 o’clock at night. I want one year where I never hear an agent’s name or a salary figure.

“I want one year where tickets can be purchased by regular people, not Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson. I want one year where all teams stay put, and no one mentions the words ‘luxury box.’

“I want one year where, if an athlete scores, he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t point a finger. He tells his defender, ‘Good try. Maybe next time I won’t be so lucky.’

“I want one year where children don’t have to ask what the words ‘sexual assault’ mean, and where autographs are always free.

“I want to matter. I want to count. I want to believe that, even though I can’t physically do what the athletes do, I can be part of sports, I can soar with my team and sympathize with my team and be proud of my team even if it didn’t win.”

He whispered, “Is that too much to ask?”

I shook my head no.

He rose on the bridge. He raised his arms. It was my last chance.

“Wait’ll next year!” I yelled.

He turned to me. He smiled sadly.

“It is next year,” he said.

And he jumped.

When he hit the water, he turned into a thousand tiny ticket stubs and floated out of sight.

I stood there for a while, stunned. Then I got in my car, turned on my radio, and immediately heard a Reebok commercial, where Shaquille O’Neal declares, “This is my planet.” And I wondered, as I drove into the night, if anyone ever tells these guys that it once was our planet, too.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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