June 29, 2009
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jacksonBy Brad Eastland

      I was sitting around doing some thinking the other day, about Michael Jackson.   Yes, I know I say I’m “doing some thinking” a lot.   Just read a few of my past columns.   You, my loyal flock of LVO readers, must think that practically all I do is sit around all day doing some thinking….

      Well, come to think of it, that’s pretty much exactly what I do do.   (Once in awhile I get off the couch and go hit a golf ball.  But not very often.   Or very well.)

      Anyway, I was doing some thinking.   I was thinking about the iconic Jackson’s sudden and shocking death, and how his story might throw some illuminating light on some similar aspect of Sports, or vice-versa.   In other words I was thinking about comparing some specific sports thing to the Michael Jackson thing.   In order to briefly entertain (or even enlighten) y’all.

      Here’s what I came up with.   The thing that sticks to my mental ribs about the King of Pop is that his story is a classic tale of “rise and fall”.   We Americans are understandably fascinated by the rise-and-fall concept.   We are incredulous as to how someone in the public eye can rise all the way to the top, obtain all the money, fame, and praise the world has to give, and then blow it all, have it all come crashing down.   We gobble up a good rise-and-fall story like Sunday dinner.   No one cares to admit it.   But we do.   The sheer waste fascinates us, the seeming inevitability of it vexes us.   But in the end it excites us, we read everything we can get our hands on, we can’t get enough.   There is even a famous idiomatic expression for the phenomenon, you know the one I mean, we all learned it when we were just kids: “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”.      Nixon, Elvis, O.J.   The bigger they were, the harder they did indeed fall.  

      Michael Jackson fits right in.

      First, the Rise.   No American entertainment figure ever rose so fast or so high.   A child star with the Jackson Five at age five, then a solo sensation, the electric voice, the frenetic dance moves, inventor of the Moonwalk, the hit records, the biggest-selling album of all time (remember “Thriller”, 1982?), and by the mid-80s he was standing foursquare atop the musical world, the self-proclaimed King of Pop.

      And then, the Fall.   First all the physical changes, surgeries to the nose, the chin, the apparent bleaching of the facial skin (which may have been done to hide the effects of a rare skin-pigment disease), the famous agile skinniness turning to a far less athletic, anorexic-like frailty, soon the inevitable decline in worldwide record sales, more failed nose jobs, more mounting financial problems, massive debt, the strange marriage to Elvis’ daughter, allegations of child abuse and molestation, the disturbing video of him holding and dangling his own baby out over a balcony railing, then the two utterly disillusioning child molestation trials, and the living of his final years, after his acquittal in the 2nd trial in 2005, as a virtual recluse.   And then finally, on the verge of his comeback London tour (which he himself eerily and portentously proclaimed “the final curtain call”), a sudden, stunning, mysterious death at age 50.   In the history of American pop culture, no shooting star has ever, ever, fallen so spectacularly far.

      Sports has had its share of tragic rise-and-fallers.   The aforementioned O.J. Simpson, of course, is the name forever to be permanently engraved at the top of the list.   Mickey Mantle, Mark McGwire, Mike Tyson, John Daly, Ryan Leaf….sad stories all.    There are dozens of others, of course.

      I hope we do not have another one in Rafael Nadal.

  nadal    What???   Wait just a cotton-pickin’ sky-is-falling armchair-quarterbacking minute, you are probably asking me in your head….c’mon, Brad, how can you slot Nadal into the same sad stereotype as those other fallen luminaries?   Isn’t Nadal still ranked #1 in the tennis world?   Isn’t he the defending Australian Open champion.   Also the defending Wimbledon Champion?   Isn’t he still only 23 years old and in the very prime of his athletic life?

     True in every case.   No argument.   And there are no personal, financial, marital, chemical or legal scandals yet attached to his name like the six examples above.   Emphasize yet.   Hopefully there never will be.

      But when you have been watching, interpreting, philosophizing and writing about Sports for as long as I have, sometimes you can see disaster barreling ‘round the bend before it ever makes it to the headlines.   We need to be on the lookout for things like this.

      For one thing, the rise and fall timeline in Sports is usually lightning short.   Ryan Leaf’s journey from 1st-round NFL draftee to on-field bust to a probable prison term spans only one decade.   Tyson went from heavyweight champ to washed-up tabloid fodder in a similar span.   Conversely, Michael Jackson’s story played out in front of our eyes over a period of 45 star-crossed years.

      In Nadal’s case, the hints are there.   Few in number perhaps, but perhaps not minor in scope.   Remember, as recently as January he had completed a year of dominance in men’s tennis not seen since the heady days of Rod Laver.   Because it was all at the expense of all-time great and former (emphasize former) world #1 Roger Federer.   First he humiliated Federer at the French Open (18 games to 4), then he stole Federer’s most prized possession (his 5-times Wimbledon crown), and then in January he finally won a grand slam on a hard court, the Australian Open, again at Federer’s direct expense.   Federer was so moved by his sudden relegation into Nadal’s shadow that he broke down after the match and cried like a baby.   Put yourself in Federer’s position:  Right as he’s about to be anointed the Greatest Player Of All Time, this baby-faced Spanish kid five years his junior gives him a public spanking on clay, grass, and hard courts, all within eight months, all in full view of a disbelieving world.   He has won but 7 of 20 lifetime matches against Nadal.   And his #1 ranking, for the moment at least, is gone.

      But what has happened to Nadal himself since his Melbourne triumph?   Well, first he lost a match at the French Open.   That might not sound like much, until you consider that he had never lost a match in Paris, not in over four years, ‘never even came close to losing there, and his four French Open crowns were each highlighted by a thorough drubbing of the luckless Federer.   Then, almost immediately, he pulled out of Queen’s Club, the traditional grass-court prep for Wimbledon.   Sore knees, they told us.   All of tennis was hoping that it was a minor injury, hoping it was also the underlying reason for his defeat in Paris.   It would explain everything.   But then, the bombshell exploded.   RAFAEL NADAL WITHDRAWLS FROM WIMBLEDON screamed the headlines.   That’s how bad—and possibly chronically bad?—his knees are.   Can you just imagine how damaged Rafa’s knees are and how much pain he’s in for him to not even lace up the sneakers and try to defend his Wimbledon title???

      Put it this way.   In the history of Sports, once a great athlete has knee problems, he is almost never the same player again.

      The biggest loser in this whole rotten development might be Federer.   Yes, he did win last year’s U.S. Open after Nadal lost to someone else, yes he did win his first French Open last month thanks to someone else eliminating his suddenly sore-kneed tormentor, and yes, he’ll probably take back his Wimbledon crown next week because Nadal is not there to thwart him.   But no matter how many ‘slams’ he puts in his knapsack, unless—or until—he wins one with Nadal on the other side of the net, there will linger in the air the prevailing notion that he lucked out.   That his late-career success was the fruit of Nadal’s physical problems, not the residue of his own talent and greatness.

      I myself feel that way.   I bow to no man in my admiration for Roger Federer, he’s one of my all-time favorite sportsmen.   But until he’s holding a grand slam trophy above his head while Nadal is standing a few feet away holding the runner-up’s plate, I will not only never consider him the Greatest Player Of All Time, I will not consider him even the greatest player of his own time.   As of now, he’s neither.

      Rafael Nadal will most likely never join the hall of shame of rise-and-fall athletes mentioned above.   You need scandal walking hand-in-hand with physical decline to make that list.   And I’m certainly not cynical or mean-spirited enough to predict it here.   But given the physicality of his game, the strain his speed, strength, and unparalleled every-point effort bring to bear on his wheels, I do think there’s a good chance he’ll never be the same player who kicked the great Roger Federer to the curb.   I hope I’m wrong.

      Just come back as strong as ever, Rafa.   Doesn’t matter if you dominate Federer or are dominated by him.   We just need to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.   Just come back the same once-in-a-generation genius you were before.   Just come back.


brad-eastland3The Sports Philosopher

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, and sports nut, in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written four novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of Brad’s fiction work can be discovered within the links below :







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