Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.
On Thursday, June 18, 2009, I turned 40.
Now, some people would try to suppress information like that; but not me. It’s somewhat of a badge of honor for me to make it to 40, because I have been looking forward to it since I was 17 years old.
Why, you might ask?
The answer is so ironic that I will save it for later.
My love affair with sports goes back to the late 1970s. Interestingly enough, my older sister got me started.
Yes, you read that right.
She started it all inadvertently, actually. See, in my young mind, my sister, Francie, was the standard by which I judged myself. I wanted to be able to do anything that she could do, and I usually wanted to beat her.
That was pretty tough to do.
My sister was (and still is) a very intelligent, crafty person. She has a way of lulling you into this sense that she’s not paying attention, or that she’s not trying very hard, but then you look up and she’s embarrassed you because her project ended up better than yours.
I will never forget, at the age of eight, crying because we were taking turns spelling words from her vocabulary list and I couldn’t get one of them right; I got tripped up by the word "queen."
I don’t know if it was that particular exercise that chapped my behind, but that summer, my sister was watching television one night. We had a standard rule in our house—and it was probably the way millions of homes operated back in those days—that whoever got to the TV first dictated what was watched, until that person was done for the night.
With our nine p.m. bed times, that pretty much meant until we went to sleep. (It became 10 o’clock when we turned 10, so by then, my sister could stay up one extra hour.)
This night, she was watching NBA basketball.
I don’t know why she was watching it; I never thought to ask why. That was unimportant to me. But that night, we established a pattern that set the standard for me for the next few summers and falls.
She was rooting for one team—the Washington Bullets—so I automatically started rooting for the opposite team, the Seattle SuperSonics.
It helped the cause that the Sonics wore green (my favorite color) and yellow (my second fave); but I was really rooting against my sister.
History tells us that in 1977, the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards), behind the gritty play of Wes Unseld, defeated the Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder), four games to two, and became NBA Champions for the first time.
What history doesn’t tell you is that an eight-year old Leroy Watson, Jr. took his first baby steps towards becoming a sports junkie of the highest order while watching that series.
I didn’t get to play organized sports for very long as a child. I have three years playing tee-ball under my belt, and that’s it.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with tee-ball, it is a pee wee version of baseball. There is typically no pitcher, but an extra-infielder (so you still play nine per team), and batters hit the baseball off a tee.
I led the league in home runs my second year, and was named to the All-Star team in my third year.
But my mother converted to a form of worship that did not look kindly upon kids participating in organized athletics, because of the ultra-competitive nature (the idea being that it encourages children to be selfish), the amount of time it takes to prepare for and play in games (when the child could be studying the Bible), and the exposure to other children who might have bad habits (can’t say that there isn’t some merit to that idea!).
So, by the age of ten, the only outlet I had for my burgeoning love of sports was reading, watching, and writing about them.
As a fifth-grader, I wrote a regular column about the Memphis Chicks, the AA affiliate of the then-Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals). I shared duties with my friend Raymond, and I must say that we did a decent enough job of it.
Occasionally, my mom would let me go to a Chicks game—usually once, maybe twice a year—as long as I kept my conduct grades up in school.
She got to the point that she didn’t even bother looking at my scholastic marks. I was a slow starter, and I usually clocked A’s and B’s in October and November. By December, though, it was generally straight A’s, unless I didn’t like a teacher or something.
Conduct marks were another subject! That’s an entirely different article, though. . .
I would lug my ball glove with me in hopes of catching a foul ball from one of the players’ bats.
I came pretty close one night, but I never got one.
After the Bullets beat “my Sonics”, as I quickly took to calling them, I turned my attention to other sports, to see if I was going to get a shot at revenge on my sister for beating me.
Francie liked the Yanks; that left me with the Bums.
She got me again, 4-2 once more.
I was doing a slow burn; how was this girl picking the winners all the time?
On January 15, 1978, the NFL held the Super Bowl XII at the Louisiana Superdome. The Dallas Cowboys—my sister’s favorite professional team, regardless of sport—were taking on the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos got mauled, 27-10, and my losing streak to my sister swelled to three major events in a row.
I was relegated to playing pick-up basketball and the odd game of softball at family and religious gatherings. That was the only outlet for the competitive juices that flowed through me so freely.
By the age of 12, I was a rangy 5’9”, weighed in the neighborhood of 135-140, and wore a size 10.5 shoe.
My father was 6’2”, well north of 250 (the guy loves to eat, what can I say?) and wore a size 10.
I was thinking I was going to at least be his height, and with my hops and slender frame, I was imagining myself soaring through the air and throwing down some insane dunks. I could already grab the rim!
Fate threw me a cruel curveball, though; I stopped growing about half an inch later (to this day, I round it up to an even 5’10”) and my peak weight in my teens and twenties was 152.
I played the game of basketball with a reckless intensity, though. I loved to rebound, set screens, block shots, take charges, and guard the paint as if my very life depended on it. No one has ever successfully thrown down a dunk over me, though many have tried.
I’ve put many a competitor on his ass, unashamedly.
I was a power forward stuck in the body of a point guard.
As my sister kept picking winners, I was seething in silence.
The Sonics took me off the schneid by beating the Bullets in the summer of 1978. I was still behind, though, three-to-one, so I was hoping baseball could narrow the gap for me.
The Yankees, despite losing the first two games of the Fall Classic, clipped the Dodgers again.
Four out of five.
I started to play the “if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em” game, siding with her in tennis, rooting for Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg. We celebrated together when Borg won both the French Open and Wimbledon that year, and Chrissie’s win at the U. S. Open was great.
But I still wanted to beat that girl. I was beginning to think that my lone triumph had been a fluke.
On January 21, 1979, it happened.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were matched up with the Dallas Cowboys. The Steel Curtain versus the Doomsday Defense. A rematch of the taut, 1976 Super Bowl, won by the Steelers, 21-17.
My losing ways ended for good in what was still the most breathtaking Super Bowl I have ever seen, with the Men of Steel defeating America’s Team, 35-31.
Having it come at the expense of my sister’s all-time favorite team was pretty sweet. But from then on, I started picking my favorite teams by standards of my own choosing.
Until then, I had been the pawn of fate, picking from the scraps that my sister left behind. Now, I was free to be my own man, and make my own choices.
Because I had won, I had finally earned the right to trust my own judgment.
I don’t play sports anymore. And the day is fast arriving when I will have to say that I “can’t” play.
That’s another bitter pill that life has shoved down my throat.
Now, it would be normal for a man of my age to have many good years of recreational play left in him. Having never been through the abuse that is organized sports, I should be able to bowl, golf, play pick-up basketball or softball, or stroke a tennis ball for a decade or more at a fairly competitive level.
Not, though, when you’re in the throes of the early onset of rheumatoid arthritis.
See, there are two forms of old Arthur, as it’s sometimes called: osteo and rheumatoid.
Osteoarthritis is also known as “degenerative” arthritis.
That’s what football players, hockey vets and professional wrestler typically suffer from as they grow older.
Earl Campbell had to have a lift built in his home, because he could no longer perform the simple task of walking up the stairs.
Rheumatoid arthritis, however, is entirely different. Essentially, the body’s immune system begins attacking soft tissue; namely, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.
Any joint in the body is open season, including joints we take for granted, like the rib cage and collar bone.
There are some nights when I have to decide which shoulder I am going to sleep on depending on which one hurts the least; sometimes, the hips are the deciding factor.
So, when I say that reaching 40 is ironic, here’s why: I always thought 40 to be the perfect age, because, in my own words, “You’re old enough to really know something, but young enough to do something about it.”
I finally get here, and in my case, I’m not quite able to do many of the things that I would like.
I don’t feel sorry for myself, though, because I can still read, talk, and write about sports. As many of you might know, I have contributed articles on college basketball, the NBA, major league baseball, golf, hockey, pro wrestling, tennis and track.
I haven’t gotten around to the NFL yet, but I will.
I just love sports, period. I love analyzing what makes a great play, who’s going to be the next break-out star, or talking about forgotten stars of yesteryear.
And I guess I owe it all, in a roundabout way, to my sister, whom I gave up competing against years ago. But without that (inadvertent?) nudge from her, I might never have begun down the road to sports fandom.
I love you, Sis! Here’s hoping we get 40 more years together.
Image credit: kuhkay