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Where Were You When?

7 October 2009

ESPN launched its 30 for 30 documentary series last night with the story of the Wayne Gretzky trade, directed by Peter Berg. I missed the airing, since I was liveblogging that amazing Twins-Tigers game for WSJ. I plan to track down the second airing on my TiVo and watch it, though. Pretty sure that’ll hook me in for the whole series.

I look forward to reading reactions on this side of the border to Berg’s Gretzky documentary and Steve Nash’s feature on Terry Fox. It’s impossible (at least for me) to properly explain the full impact those two events had on my entire home country. The Fox story came out when I was a little kid, but I remember being schooled and reschooled about Fox’s legacy and the lesson he’d imparted to kids.

The Gretzky trade resonated on a deeper level, if for no other reason than I was much older (nearly 14) by then. People talk about remembering exactly where they were and how they felt during dramatic or traumatic events. Sadly, we can’t shake the feelings we all had or the place we were when we think about a tragedy like 9/11. But it’s amazing to me that we can conjure similarly vivid memories when it comes to sporting events, even though it’s preposterous and almost insulting to mention them in the same sentence as a national day of mourning.

I remember October 19, 1981, sitting with my Papa Max on his chesterfield in Cote-des-Neiges (an old Montreal neighborhood) at the moment that Rick Monday launched a Steve Rogers meatball over the center field wall to deny the Expos their best-ever chance at a World Series (1994 notwithstanding). I was 7 at the time.

I remember June 17, 1994, sitting in San Diego at my future in-laws’ house watching the NBA Finals. What made the moment doubly surreal, other than the fact that a high-speed chase involving O.J. Simpson suddenly popped up on the screen, was that I was only 19, had only been dating Angele for 3 1/2 months at that point, yet here I was spending the entire summer with her in California at her folks’ place. Even weirder, Angele wasn’t even at the house when the O.J. news broke. She was driving through L.A. — on the exact same freeway O.J. was, at the exact same time. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have visions of shots being fired or horrible car wrecks occurring.

And yes, I remember exactly where I was when the Gretzky trade broke too. August 9, 1988. I was too young to hold a job legally, but my Uncle Marty had secured a gig for me at the Subway restaurant he co-owned in Etobicoke, Ontario (one of the first such shops in the country). Aside from my complete incompetence at the job (you try slicing tens of dozens of sandwiches an hour during the lunch rush when you’re 13), the only clear memory that stands out from that whole summer was the Gretzky trade.

I thought it was a hoax. I mean it had to be, right? How could Canada’s greatest treasure (this wasn’t hyperbole at the time – there’s no sports equivalent in the U.S. to Canada’s relationship with hockey) get shipped out. It really wasn’t exaggerating to say that Canadians were leaning on Parliament (PARLIAMENT!) to try and intervene, as if armed American commandos were invading Alberta and stealing our precious oil, never mind our even more precious Oiler.

More than that, how could the greatest player in the history of a sport see such a dramatic change in his career arc, right in his prime no less? It wasn’t until Michael Jordan’s mid-career retirement a half-decade later that I ever fully grasped the idea that even the great ones’ careers (not just The Great One) are transitory and fleeting, and that anything can happen at any time.

All of which leads me back to the original point of this post: Which sports moments stand out for you, where you remember exactly where you were and how you felt at the precise moment when the key moment arrived?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 October 2009 11:02 am

    The Gretzky trade – I’m an Oilers fan who grew up in Calgary, so when I first started hearing about the trade, I just assumed that my friends were trying to torment me again (as they always did about the Oilers… except after all those times they beat the Flames or won the Cup). I was too young to even comprehend the possibility that he wasn’t going to be an Oiler (I was 11), and that moment pretty much destroyed any illusions of loyalty in professional sports for me, meaning that my whole life I’ve been pretty cynical about pro sports (but still a fan).

    Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement – Again, I heard about it from friends, and as a Laker fan in an increasingly Bulls-rampant world, I assumed that my friends were just making something up to hurt me. At the time, I assumed that I had just learned that my favourite basketball player was dying.

    Reggie Lewis’ death – My dad and I were on a roadtrip to Seattle to watch some Mariner’s games (ended up seeing Ken Griffey Jr hit a home run in a record-tying eighth straight game). While spending the night at a hotel in Couer d’Alene, Idaho on the way there, we were watching a San Francisco Giants game on ESPN, when along the crawl at the bottom of the screen came the announcement of Lewis’ death. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

    Canada wins gold in Men’s Olympic Hockey in 2002 – My family was on a vacation in Las Vegas during the Olympics, so my dad and I had to go out and find sports books or the ESPN zone in order to watch Canada’s hockey games. I wore my Ryan Smyth Team Canada jersey to all the viewings, so when they beat the US for the gold (which we watching on the big screen at the Excalibur sports book), I kept getting congratulations from passersby, as though I had somehow contributed to the victory.

  2. glennlarkin permalink
    13 October 2009 5:19 pm

    Nice Jonah. I remember it well. I was in LA at the time. At that moment I knew the cheap seats to the Kings game were gone.

    I had two nice sports moments. Dodger Stadium, watching Kirk Gibson hit the famous home run while listening to Vin Scully on the radio. Stayed in the park for hours after the game was over.
    Gibson came out for a bow – after he had showered and changed into a suit.

    1998 – Jason Elam’s 63 yard field goal tying the 1970 record; Mile High Stadium, Denver.

    In both instances, it seemed like the football and the baseball were traveling in slow motion.

    Continued best wishes with the twins – they look great.


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