Saturday, September 25, 2004

Myths of Place by David Shields

When Jim Fassel, who was born and raised in California and had coached primarily in the West, was hired to be the head coach of the New York Giants, the New York Daily News wondered whether someone who was “accustomed to bikini weather and a pretty passing game would struggle with the elements of player discipline in the He-Man’s land of the NFC East.”

Boston Celtic Paul Pierce, an All-Star, by reputation one of the grittiest players in the NBA, and a native Californian, said, “The hatred for the West Coast player—it’s everywhere. Especially in high school. When you go back East, it’s always, ‘the West is soft.’ I can’t tell you how many guys I got into it with over that. That probably has something to do with why no one had heard of me until the McDonald’s All-American game.”

Pierce’s then teammate, Kenny Anderson, who was born and raised in Queens, told him, “Because there’s no ballers on the West Coast like in New York, the mecca of basketball. That’s why nobody heard of you.”

Kenny Anderson was a high school phenom and a college star but has been an NBA journeyman; inevitably, it’s the middle- and lower-rung players who cling to the badge of geographic superiority.

When Larry Bird, longtime Boston Celtic star, was coaching the Indiana Pacers, he said, “The East used to have the defensive powers. But with the new rules, scoring is up, and it hurts us. It’s a softer game now, and the West always has had soft teams.”

Jalen Rose, then of the Indiana Pacers, replied, “The West is about scoring and putting three or four guys out there who can actually put the ball in the basket. In the East, two guys might be robots.”

The West is about pretty skills; the East is a manly scrum.

Texas Tech defensive coordinator Greg McMackin said, “The West Coast offense is a finesse offense that’s built on rhythm. They dink and dunk in the short, quick, passing game so they can have third-and-short situations.”

After the Sonics defeated the Knicks in New York several years ago, Seattle’s Sam Perkins said, “It’s no problem for us being physical. We’re not as soft as people say we are. We just don’t have the reputation. We’re not seen as much on the East Coast. People think we just run and shoot. They don’t really see how we are, until today.”

Ex-New York Yankee and (current Houston Astro) pitcher Roger Clemens claims that he’s “seen a few times in Anaheim where a guy is throwing a cool game and people get up in the fifth, sixth, or seventh inning and head for the beach.”

The myth persists that West Coast fans always arrive late and leave early, whereas East Coast fans supposedly arrive on time and stay until the bitter end: they have true forbearance, persistence, stick-to-it-tiveness. In actuality, at lopsided games at Yankee Stadium, fans leave in the fifth inning, as they do anywhere else. When the Knicks are way behind, fans throng to the exits midway through the fourth quarter, the same way people do in the rest of the country. When the Yankees were bad during the 1980s, attendance fell dramatically; so, too, at Madison Square Garden, attendance is way down now that the Knicks are terrible.

Everybody needs someone to beat up, and the East Coast defines itself as the East Coast by caricaturizing the West Coast, which I didn’t fully understand until I moved back to the West after growing up in California and then living in the East for fifteen years. It’s simple but true: power is a fulcrum. East/west; north/south; white/black; male/female: Group X always needs Group Y to buff its own sense of superiority. We are mind-haunted civilization; you are the physical beauty we’ll contemplate.

In the New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers writes, “Larry McMurtry, a widely read and cosmopolitan man despite his reputation as a Western writer….”

Jonathan Raban, a British writer who lives in Seattle, says, “Living in the West, I find myself a victim of ‘Westism’—that mixture of condescension, sentimentality, and na├»ve romanticism, which is strangely like old-fashioned sexism. The assumptions of the East about the West-its politics, society, open-air sports like fishing and skiing-are mighty annoying, if you happen to live in a region conceived by New York to be a sort of rugged national park, stretching from the Mississippi to the Pacific, inhabited by unlettered rustics. In actuality, there are many more nerds than Marlboro Men in the West I live in, from Bill Gates to Jeffrey Katzenberg.”

A box at the bottom of the front page of the New York Times guides readers to stories inside: “G.I. Killed in Afghanistan,” “Fujimori Seeks a Comeback,” “US Airways Plans Cuts,” “Office Shopping Spree,” and “Bear Concerns at Yosemite.” The West is forever the 22-second nature non-story at the end of the network news.

Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa, born and raised in Philadelphia, says, “There’s more of a sense of urgency to excel on the East Coast. They don’t have a lot of other things to do, whereas fans have a lot of stuff to do out there on the West Coast. Going to the ballpark’s more laid-back. It’s a little more casual. It’s really a form of entertainment for them. On the East Coast, it’s, ‘Hey, we want you to win at all costs. It’s our summer; don’t screw it up.’ If you’re not a mentally tough person and you’re traded to an East Coast team, it might have an effect on you—fans calling you a bum. If that bothers you, you might want to get into another line of work. Or try to get traded back out West.”

The West is invariably referred to as “out West,” as a way to underscore that the Northeast is the center of American civilization. China/Japan; Japan/Korea; Athens/Rome; Christianity/the Roman Empire; London/New York; East Coast/West Coast—every society has forever condescended to every society that followed afterward.

Mo Vaughn was raised near Boston and had several good years with the Red Sox before being traded to Anaheim, for whom he was an extremely expensive disappointment. “Being on the West Coast, I learned how much I love the East Coast,” he said. “The intensity of the will to succeed just wasn’t there. Every place has got its issues. But for me, as a ballplayer, I need to be in the fire. I can’t be out there on Mars.” Out there. “I’ve got to be in the mix, man.”

Upon being traded to the New York Mets, Vaughn said, “You’re in the limelight here and you’re going to be seen. If you’re not intimidated by it, it can help you as a player. For me, to have that on an everyday basis can only bring your game up, because you can’t hide. There’s nowhere to go.” This relentless scrutiny was the very thing that drove Vaughan out of Boston—he said he felt suffocated playing in the same place where he had grown up—and in New York he was an even bigger bust than he was in Anaheim.

“I was brought up in a pressure-packed situation in Boston,” he said. “Overall, the East Coast is a get-it-done-yesterday type situation, and I seem to thrive on that.” In 2002, his first season with New York, he batted .259—his worst average in ten years—while Anaheim won the World Series.

Geographic snobbery is the last refuge of the fallen. One of the least motivated players ever to play in the NBA, Benoit Benjamin, shortly after being traded from Seattle to New Jersey, said, “As far as I’m concerned, the real basketball games are on the East Coast.”

In a letter to the editor in the December 2002 issue of Harper’s, Joe Ferullo, of Studio City, CA, said, “Mark Slouka rightly argues that September 11 generated an apocalyptic response because Americans considered themselves immune to, and protected by God from, such acts. Let me take his argument further. The attacks of 9/11 generated such a response because they took place in New York City. Many of the people Slouka quotes, and nearly all the media reports he mentions, are from New York. The attacks hit them where they live, and the commentators, although they purport to speak for the nation, have for quite some time spoken for a small world confined by the Hudson, East, and Harlem rivers. I strongly suspect that if those horrible events had occurred instead in Los Angeles, the national (that is to say, New York-based) media reaction would have been different. After an appropriate period of respectful silence, the talking heads and newsweeklies would have trotted out timeworn homilies about how Los Angeles had brought this on itself, thinking it could be isolated from the real world in a bubble of sand, sunshine, and mass-produced make-believe. If Seattle had been the target, I imagine national commentators would have ruminated on how this was one more, though extraordinarily painful, step in that city’s decline since the irrationally exuberant dot-com days. An attack on, say, Miami would not have been expanded into evidence that evil had returned to the planet, that the entire world had been irrevocably altered, that nothing would ever be the same anywhere.”

New York native Gordon Edelstein, for many years the artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theater, said, upon becoming artistic director of the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, “In Seattle, when the curtain rises on a play, the audience is open, but their tacit agreement is that life is pretty good, it’s important to be comfortable, and human beings actually can be healthy. The curtain rises on a New York audience, and everybody agrees we’re basically sick and we want redemption and we want a good time, but we’re not made uncomfortable by deeply disturbing news about our psyche. In fact, that feels like the truth to us.” Of course this feels like the truth to you: you get to control what’s agreed upon as truth. The issue isn’t that this E/W dichotomy isn’t indicative of real regional differences; it’s that the dichotomy gets completely cartoonized and the “greater than” arrow always points to one side of the equation.

Larry King once said, “Bums in New York could run a grocery chain in Des Moines.” In my experience, people in the West (or, for that matter, the Midwest) are at least as intelligent and driven as people in the East; they just cloak these qualities in a more understated cultural style.

In Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Reverend Cherrycoke says, “As to journey west, in the same sense of the Sun, is to live, raise children, grow older, and die, carried along by the stream of the day, whilst to turn Eastward is somehow to resist time and age, to work against the Wind, seek ever the dawn, even, as who can say, defy death.” “Eastward” here is capitalized; “west” is lower-case.

The East is part of the history of art; the West is the mere muck of life.

The New Yorker sponsored a cruise ship going around the world from Los Angeles to Greece; different New Yorker contributors entertained passengers on different legs of the journey. On the L.A. to Australia run, all of the New Yorker artists on board ship were cartoonists.

S. Bass, of San Francisco, in a recent letter to the New Yorker, wrote: “In lauding Manhattan’s street grid plan in his review of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Paul Goldberger fails to comment on one invidious urban effect that was unforeseeable when the plan was adopted in 1811: the grid plan’s ‘equalization’ permits motor vehicle traffic to universally intrude on and interfere with pedestrianism, making New York unlike other great cities in the world, where it’s relatively easy when walking to find a quiet side street. In deeming the plan brilliant urban planning, Goldberger seems to be confusing New York’s ‘determined rambunctiousness’ with the stress caused by the grid’s constant, omnipresent crush of traffic.” New York’s much vaunted “energy,” in other words, is just gridlock. New Jersey Nets’ (famously fragile) forward Donny Marshall said several years ago, “I feel more comfortable with the East Coast style of basketball. You go to southern California and you see palm trees and beautiful people.” Marshall himself is model-handsome. “I remember our trip to New York to play St. John’s when I was at UConn. The people weren’t beautiful; they were jittery. Everything was so fast. I loved it.”

Mark Twain wrote about New York, “There is something about this ceaseless buzz and hurry and bustle that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy.”

Even Japanese baseball star Hideki Matsui, when he was being courted by several American baseball teams, told Japanese reporters, “I want to go to an East Coast team where there’s some pressure to perform.” Or, alternatively and interestingly, a “West Coast team if that team can help me develop further as a player.” Skills vs. scrum.

Coming from Philadelphia to Phoenix for his first season, Charles Barkley said, “Guys thought I was too mean in [training] camp, but they don’t get it. You can’t just show up on opening night and say, ‘O.K., now we’re going to be mean.’ I think living in the sun makes these guys soft. John Havlicek [of the Boston Celtics] told me that. In the East, you wake up, you look out, and there’s snow on the ground. You start the day pissed off. Out here”-out here-“you wake up, it’s beautiful out. You put on the Bermudas and have breakfast on the porch.”

During the 2002 season, Washington State University quarterback Jason Gesser played on a severe ankle strain to lead his team to a victory over UCLA and into the Rose Bowl. It was about as courageous an athletic performance as one could hope to see; if he’d been from Pittsburgh, there would have been be much discussion of how both his grandfather and father had worked in the coal mines, but Gesser is from Hawaii, so no one knew what to say to mythologize the moment.

A New York Times interviewer didn’t understand why Albert Brooks didn’t find it a compliment to be called the “West Coast Woody Allen.” When she asked him what he’d rather be called, he said, “Why do I have to be called something?” She still didn’t get it, so he said, “How about ‘the living Stanley Kubrick’?”

In the 2001 NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers were expected to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers easily, but Philadelphia won the first game. Afterward, sportscaster Marv Albert said, “Philly was down, 18-5. If this were a series in the West, you’d feel like Philly didn’t believe in themselves. But Philly came back.” Only people in the East believe in themselves. Only people in the East have heart. Everyone else is a scarecrow or, perhaps, the Cowardly Lion. Los Angeles won the next four games, but it had nothing to do with heart or character. They were just, boringly, the better team.

When Arizona beat the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, it wasn’t perceived to be a fable; the Diamondbacks got lucky in Game 7. When Anaheim beat the Yankees in the 2002 American League Division Series, New York only happened to be in a batting slump at the wrong time. When Seattle came back from a 2-0 deficit to beat New York in the American League Championship Series in 1995, the Mariners weren’t displaying superior fortitude; the Yankees ran out of steam. When an East Coast team, or especially a New York team wins, it’s a morality tale about the little engine that could or, contrariwise, the unstoppable forces of capitalism. When a team from somewhere else wins, it’s just, shrug, a game. It’s not shrouded in mythology. Whoever owns the story tells its meaning.

David Shields is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award) and Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (winner of the PEN/Revson Award). His most recent book is Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine.

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