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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Scattershooting on the 1970s
By Jeff Merron
Special to ESPN Classic

When I was growing up in New Jersey suburbs in the 1970s, some things were, I was sure, forever: there would be three TV networks, shag carpet, long hair, LPs, Walt Frazier leading the Knicks, goal posts on the goal line, kickoffs from the 40, short basketball shorts, and suede adidas.

I had a choice of hometown teams, but not really; the Mets, Knicks, Jets, and Rangers chose me, and for some reason, the Yankees, Giants, Islanders, Phillies, Eagles, 76ers, and Flyers, all playing about 50 miles from my central Jersey hometown, didn't. This was good luck, too: me and my friends could argue endlessly about the Jets and Giants and Yankees and Mets, and there was no end because there were no games that counted between these teams.

Howard Cosell
Howard Cosell entertained MNF viewers until 1983.
Lindsey Nelson, Marv Albert and Howard Cosell, "Speaking of Sports" on WABC -- those were my sports voices. Curt Gowdy and Joe Garagiola were always there for the national games. But when Keith Jackson's voice crackled during college football games, I couldn't imagine it getting any better.

Sports first flitted into my TV consciousness, really, in September 1972. The Munich Olympics filled my world for a few weeks, entering as all sleek modernity and German efficiency and Mark Spitz, and quickly devolving -- even at 11, I could sense disaster -- with U.S. sprinters Rey Robinson and Eddie Hart missing their races because of an outdated schedule, with the U.S./USSR men's basketball triple do-over fiasco, and -- not finally, but tragically -- with Arab terrorists killing 11 Israeli athletes.

"They're all gone," said Jim McKay.

On rainy days, we flipped cards, endlessly. We played Thinking Man's Football and knock hockey and Pong. Outside, in the mid-February snow, we'd toss around a baseball, because spring training was underway. We pretty much played sports with the season, and like most dome-less pros, played in all kinds of weather.

The Sporting News was the must-have subscription: it came every week wrapped in thick brown paper, and was to be savored and studied, and then neatly saved. Box scores for every game. Stats for every player. A bold color cover photo. Sport and Sports Illustrated came next: eye candy.

Franco Harris
Franco Harris eludes a tackle by Oakland's Jimmy Ware for the "Immaculate Reception" in 1972.
Sports changed. We got a color TV. Franco Harris' "immaculate reception" was played over and over and over again, and never seemed less of a miracle. It played again and again in my head, too, and in some way, I just couldn't figure it out.

"That was a sign that this was a team of destiny," said Steelers coach Chuck Noll.

The Mets were the second-best team in baseball in 1973, despite their 83-79 regular season record. Jon Matlack and John Milner were superstars. George "The Stork" Theodore had potential. But still they lost to the A's in game seven of the World Series. No shame in that. Who expected them to beat the green-and-gold A's, with Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers and his handlebar mustache?

Saturday night was the best night on TV: "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show," and "The Carol Burnett Show." And except for a brief period when "M*A*S*H" rounded out the lineup, you could always count on some clunker to fill the 8:30 slot.

"American Graffiti" led to "Happy Days," and life had two soundtracks: "Chantilly Lace" and "At the Hop" on the '50s nostalgia track, and "American Pie" and "Love Will Keep Us Together" and "Thunder Island" on the modern '70s track.

John Dean seemed to be on TV all the time. We watched the Watergate hearings on Channel 13. Dean's voice -- was it because he was reading from a big stack of typed sheets? -- seemed honest. Nixon announced his resignation on the car radio, while we were driving home from a Phillies game at the Vet.

"I have never been a quitter," said Richard Nixon.

Gerald Ford took over and promised to "Whip Inflation Now," and some people wore "WIN" buttons, as if that would make a difference. Inflation and unemployment and the recession and the high price of beef formed part of a never-changing landscape.

Hair changed, though. It was all over the place -- sticking out the back of Joe Namath's helmet, reaching the upper deck when Oscar Gamble stepped out of the dugout, and gently caressing the seven gold medals on Mark Spitz's chest. Flopping all over when Bill Walton rebounded. It was okay to have square hair, if you were Bill Bradley or Dave DeBusschere or Jerry West. It was okay to have a mohawk, if you were John Riggins.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
Muhammad Ali won two of his three brutal fights against Joe Frazier.
And it was necessary to have a rug, if you were Howard Cosell.

Everybody talked about Muhammad Ali. Especially after Ken Norton broke his jaw. Especially because he was fighting in exotic places like Manila and Zaire. Especially because of the classic trilogy with Joe Frazier.

In 1975 I stopped being a kid. The first time I heard "Born to Run," sitting in the back seat of a Mercedes Benz with a great stereo playing WPIX-FM, I knew things had changed. The song was complicated and had lots of levels and great lyrics that anyone who grew up with Highway 9 as their main street could instantly understand.

"Rocky" was my first "date" movie, and every once in a while I became so engrossed in it I forgot to worry about whether I should try to take the girl's hand.

They weren't hometown heroes, but I liked Jim Plunkett and Fred Biletnikoff and Monty Towe and Ernie D. and didn't understand why, didn't think to think about it. I liked Notre Dame and Adrian Dantley. Mark Fidrych -- everybody liked him.

Sports books that exposed a dark side seemed to come from everywhere. "Ball Four" was a fun and revealing read when I was 12, and I don't remember being in the slightest bit disillusioned by it. ("Ball Four," the TV series, was another thing -- even a kid could tell what a bad idea that was.) Dave Meggyesy wrote about football's evils in "Out of Their League." Lance Rentzel wrote about exposing himself in "When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow." By the time the "Bronx Zoo" rolled around, nothing seemed really surprising, or scandalous.

Because, in the late 1970s, the Mets and Jets stunk and the great Knicks of Frazier and Monroe and Bradley and DeBusschere and Lucas and Phil Jackson were ancient history (Clyde traded to Cleveland?!), my attention turned elsewhere. I became a dedicated runner, and coveted the latest Nikes because of what they could help me do, not because they were cool. Waffles worked. Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter were my heroes. I watched the Steelers and the Pirates and appreciated the greatness of Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann and the guts of Rocky Bleier. I didn't love 'em, but understand how others could. The Cowboys? The cheerleaders made sense, but Tom Landry was too much corporate CEO for me.

And besides, after reading Peter Gent's "North Dallas Forty" (assigned by a way cool high school English teacher), how could I do anything but actively root against the Cowboys?

There was more. There was "Love Boat" and "Charlie's Angels" and "Welcome Back Kotter." "Saturday Night Live" introduced Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Roseanne Rosanna-Dana and the "Land Shark" skit. There was Jackson Browne and "The Pretender." There was Fleetwood Mac and Annie Hall and The Cars and Joe Jackson and Queen and The Talking Heads and "Lay Down, Sally" and Little Feat and Boone's Farm and lots and lots of pot.

Pot became cocaine, which became Prozac. The big three networks became many. Carpets and hair got shorter. Albums became CDs. Walt Frazier became a wordsmith. Goalposts retreated, basketball shorts became not-very, and suede adidas became a cute retro fashion statement.

Sports were my real first love, and like all first loves, nothing was more intense, more emotional, more passionate than the first years. Time went by. But it was the start of a beautiful, lifelong friendship.

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