I’ve been pondering something since the deaths of basketball Hall of Fame coach John Thompson and baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. It is that being a sports fan was hugely significant to me for a chunk of my life. But it has waned in recent years.
I could tell you, without looking it up, who won the World Series every year in the 1960s. For the 2010s, I could recall only four. And two of them, the 2017 Houston Astros and the 2018 Boston Red Sox were arguably tarnished.
After the decline of my New York Yankees after their 1964 Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, I started following their crosstown rivals, the Mets. But they were pretty terrible. They put this young pitcher, Tom Seaver, into the rotation in 1967, and he went 16-13, with a 2.76 ERA. Pretty good on a team that went 61-101. In 1968, the Mets were 73-89, their most wins ever. Seaver was 16-12 but lowered his ERA to 2.20.
By 1969, the leagues divided into East and West divisions. Shockingly, the Mets amazed sports fans with a 100-62 record. They swept the West’s Atlanta Braves in three games. They were widely assumed to be the underdogs to the Baltimore Orioles with the Robinsons Franks and Brooks, among other stars. Yet the Mets won the World Series four games to one. Tom Seaver in 1969 went 25-7, with a 2.21 ERA.
A letter writer in the Boston Globe remembers this. “That year, Seaver had made a statement that ‘if the Mets can win the World Series, then we can get out of Vietnam,’ an extraordinary act in those days for a professional athlete.”
I followed Seaver through his career with the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox. I forgot he pitched for the Red Sox in 1986, but he was injured during the 1986 Series, so didn’t play against the winners, NYM. It was just as well for the legacy of the greatest Met. He died in late August in his sleep of complications of Lewy body dementia and Covid-19.
For a couple years in the mid-1960s, John Thompson was a backup center for Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. It was probably before I saw the Celtics in an exhibition game at the IBM Country Club in Endicott, NY. The NBA’s Celtics and the New York Knicks were my teams then.
I didn’t become a follower of the men’s college game until the late 1970s. I tended to root for the teams in the Big East, which was formed in 1979 and featured Syracuse, the premiere team in upstate New York. But I’d root for any BE team, including Georgetown, against non-conference opponents.
John Thompson inherited a Georgetown Hoyas team which had been 3–23 the year before. He led them to a .500 record in season two. “By his third season in 1974–75, Georgetown qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1943.”
So when North Carolina beat Georgetown in the March Madness finals in 1982, I was disappointed. And when the Hoyas beat Houston in 1984, making John Thompson the first black coach to win the Final Four, I was quite thrilled. And when underdog Villanova, from the Big East, beat Georgetown in the championship game in 1985, it was actually OK. “Over 27 years, Thompson’s Hoyas went 596–239 (.714), running off a streak of 24 postseason appearances – 20 in the NCAA tournament and 4 in the NIT.”
Thompson’s coaching legacy includes the recruitment and development of four players in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and Allen Iverson.” Iverson thanked Thompson for “saving my life” in an Instagram post.
Sean Gregory wrote in an appreciation for Time, “No coach of his generation, in any sport, was more influential.” John Thompson died in late August.