Coach's Corner

A children's story tells of a paranoid and loudmouthed chicken who gets it in her hen head that the sky's going to fall, presumably squishing her. Henny Penny's her name.

The hen has many friends. She tells a fox, and the fox tells a bird, and the bird tells her friend the rabbit, and the rabbit tells the goat. On and on it goes, until the entire animal world is in an uproar. "The sky is falling, the sky is falling," is the cry. Since these are just stupid animals, and this is an old tale, there's no Bruce Willis to blast off in a rocket ship and deflect whatever it was that's causing the sky to fall. These simple animals don't have a calm leader, like Morgan Freeman, to gently explain that, indeed, many of them may die in the ensuing Deep Impact. Still, fish should swim deep and goats should climb high. Maybe, some will survive. No, without Willis, or the technology of modern-day America, animal panic ensues.

In the end, the sky doesn't fall. The fox eventually finds a gingerbread man. The bird flies away, and 10 years later sits on the shoulder of Snow White. The rabbit will soonmeet a new friend, Bambi the deer. The goat, forever emotionally scarred and unable to deal with his anger over this traumatic incident, will father three abused and hostile kids, who will become known, collectively, as the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Henny Penny is pecked featherless. She'll freeze to death -- friendless -- the next winter. Many lives later, she'll return as Phil Gramm. Life returns to normal on the pond.

When the National Basketball Association locked its players out 200 days ago, it was widely reported (in the human world, that is) that the sky, metaphorically speaking, was falling. Anxious national-electronic-sports-readers told viewers about the impending apocalypse. At first they joked, but as the reality of the sky falling became more and more imminent, the tone turned somber. Celebrity sports reporters discussed the prospect of no professional basketball every Sunday on ESPN. When the writersweren't yapping, they were writing. With no games to report, they wrote about empty stadiums, pompous, stupid players, and invisible, silent team barons.

Yet with all the massive power of late 20th-century technology at their disposal, try as they might, the clarions of the day couldn't rouse the populace (the one evolutionary development, obvious from the days on the pond, was rampant cynicism) into believing the end was near. No matter how loud the cry, no matter how intense the hand wringing, sports fans went on doing what they do. Some trimmed a hedge. Others, instead of spending $500 at the Alamodome, read Henny Penny to their kids. Babies were made. Beer was swilled. Dogs were washed. Football was watched. An occasional book was read. One sports fan was reported (though this couldn't be confirmed) to be trying to lurch through The Cold War on CNN. In short, life went on with nary a hitch or a twitch for all 200 days.

A hint was dropped during the football strike of 1982. The hint became a widely whispered rumor during the baseball strike of one summer past. The rumor has now become a confirmed fact: Americans are an easily amused and distracted gaggle of folk. We don't need any particular sport, maybe we don't need sports at all. We just want to be entertained.

In meccas like Madison Square Garden, The Great Western Forum, and the United Center, great temples of the National Basketball Association, places where tickets to a game, any game, are not available to a casual fan, there were no disorderly scenes from angry executives of IBM or Coca-Cola. Not one glittery, clever spot from a few who "Love this game," featuring Woody Allen, Dyan Cannon, or Jack Nicholson. On the great democratic leveler of our time, talk radio, a place populated by wackos and sports nut jobs, calls about the half-year lockout were few and far between.

There's a widely held belief that our populace is sports-crazy. Indeed, impossible-to-get tickets to see bad teams like the Colorado Rockies or Chicago Cubs would seem to prove this assumption. But the reaction of the previously thought-to-be rabid hoops fan points to another conclusion, one which rapacious team owners and gluttonous athletes might heed: sports fans really don't care.

Human beings -- which many sports fans are reported to be -- are adaptive creatures. A race which has evolved from a naked animal fighting to survive with sabre-toothed tigers and large reptiles into a creature comfort-oriented thing who can easily endure a cold winter and rarely venture out of his warm home, canlive without basketball, or football, or even indoor soccer. If all our sports were taken away, even I, the aforementioned sports-crazed nut job, would adapt.

Americans who thought they couldn't exist without sports are learning, with each break in the sports routine, that they can. Baseball (the stupidest of all sports), whose game is tied tightly to a railroad track with a bullet train coming fast, look out. Sports fans are telling you, a movie is as good as a ballgame, it's cheaper, and we can usually get a good seat.

The cries of a falling sky, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated.

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