Claire Ellis and Scott Simon discuss his new book: Home and Away
May 22, 2000
Claire Ellis You're known for covering wars, conflicts, and the human comedy. So why a book in which the theme is sports?
Scott Simon Covering war and conflicts can distill what's precious to you. I saw that sports, which I love, has become the popular theater of the world. From east LA to the West Bank. I saw Chicago Bulls caps bloom on the streets during the siege of Sarajevo. I saw them on the heads of firebrand Hamas members in refugee camps, and off-duty Israeli soldiers. When I told street kids in the slums of Rio that I was from Chicago, all these tough young boys who had shaved their heads to shear away lice leapt at the moon to slam-dunk phantom basketballs. Shee-cago! Mi-cal Jordan! You don't forget the sight of a street-full of Brazilian kids trying to Be Like Mike.
Claire Ellis What did that emblem mean to them?
Scott Simon Michael Jordan and the Bulls became an emblem of America. Like jazz and movies, they meant liberty, energy, and boundlessness. Sports, show, and politics are always crisscrossing in our minds--well, at least my mind. So, the links that many fans make in their minds between sports and personal history convinced me to try to track some of my own life by tracing the trail through sports.
Claire Ellis Are the links fans make real or imagined?
Scott Simon I prefer to say loony but irresistible. My favorite baseball ball player got traded just as my parents got divorced. Men landed on the moon at the same time as a really incredible event--the Cubs were in first place (albeit briefly). Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers struggled against mortality just as Chicago was being roiled by political ferment. The Bulls become a popular symbol just as Chicago was becoming an international brand name. And then, the Bulls made their last championship run just as my stepfather began to slide into death. Of course there's no real relationship in any of this. But the emotional links are overwhelming. They are signposts for our memories.
Claire Ellis How did a love of sports strengthen your relationship with both your father and stepfather?
Scott Simon It was a common language--a romance language. Especially in those times that love was hard to come by.
My father used to build our Sundays around watching Bear games in his old one-room apartment that we had festooned with newspapers. The games were both our connection to each other, and the outside world. We only spoke about sex once (he died when I was sixteen); and then,only after we had tossed around a football. In the 1970's, my stepfather was convicted of a crime. Almost the first words I could bring myself to say to him outside the courtroom were to observe that the Bulls were off to a good start that year. It was a way of sending him a signal--I'm on your side, whatever happens. We're still on the same team.
Claire Ellis Your father, Ernie Simon, was a comedian. Your stepfather, Ralph Newman, was an old minor league ballplayer who became a Lincoln scholar. Were they very different kinds of men?
Scott Simon Less than you might think. My father, the comedian, had scholarly ambitions. My stepfather, the Lincoln scholar, was a natural comedian. Actually, my mother was the best comedian of them all. She was asked once, "What's it like to be married to the funniest man in Chicago?" and said, "I wouldn't know."
Claire Ellis Was it difficult was it for you to write about things like your father's alcoholism or your stepfather's felony conviction for backdating the deed on President Nixon's papers during the Watergate era?
Scott Simon Of course. I hadn't planned on those things coming up when I set out to write a book about being a fan. But as I wrote, it became a story about what and who I loved. The love of sports and comedy and performance that I shared with them couldn't be separated from some of the pains I hope I helped them bear. It deepened our feeling for each other.
Claire Ellis Why do you call Home and Away the memoir of a fan, not a journalist?
Scott Simon I do not even pretend to be impartial about the outcome of games. While I might rely on a little reportorial talent to tell some of the stories in the book, I make no effort to tamp down my fan's passion. Writing about what you love is impossible without including the intensities and anxieties that go along with being a fan--or being in love..
Claire Ellis Can we assume that you agree with all those surveys that name Michael Jordan the Athlete of the Century?
Scott Simon Actually, I don't. Jordan was more successful and versatile than Babe Ruth or Muhammed Ali. No athlete ever prevailed more times in critical situations than Jordan. Then, in mid-career, he remade himself from a power player into a finesse performer.
But Wayne Gretsky matched many of the same moves, backwards and on ice skates. Bebe Neuwirth does it while singing and dancing--not even the most lavish admirer of Space Jam would make such a claim for Michael Jordan. Writing this book convinced me that stress is the supreme, defining test of performers of equal ability. No athlete performed at a higher level through greater stress than Jackie Robinson.
Claire Ellis Why were the Chicago Bulls broken up?
Scott Simon Greed. But for fame, not money. Jerry Reinsdorf, their owner, and Jerry Krause, the general manager, felt excluded by the public acclaim for Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson. Rich men don't buy sports teams to be anonymous and uninvolved. I think Jerry Reinsdorf enjoys the challenge and recognition of trying to rebuild a team more than just writing the checks for another championship.
I also believe it was as wrong for an owner to break up the Bulls while they were still winning championships as it would be for a player to deliberately miss a shot because he wants to be traded. It damages the game's integrity.
Claire Ellis What would have happened if the Bulls had stayed together even after Michael Jordan retired?
Scott Simon They would have won another championship in 1999. The strike-shortened season would have favored their experience. People forget that they came within just a shot of defeating the New York Knicks in the playoffs when Jordan retired in 1994. I think that a Bulls team with Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Toni Kukoc could have attracted a top free agent like Penny Hardaway and continued to challenge for championships.
Claire Ellis Is Phil Jackson a great coach?
Scott Simon Yes. His success in Los Angeles confirms his gift for taking even great talent to new levels. Phil's great feat with the Bulls was to inspire them with new reasons to win the same old championship year after year. He kept a picture in the locker room of a Tibetan monk wearing a Bulls cap to emphasize that they were playing not just for themselves, their city, and fans around the world--but for a kind of eternity.
Claire Ellis Do you still root for the Bulls?
Scott Simon No. I won't cheer on a team that's playing to lose so they can get high draft picks. I root for some of the old Bulls, wherever they have landed. I root for Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors to get into the playoffs, where he can be seen on the main stage. And, I root for Michael Jordan to remake the Washington Wizards.
Claire Ellis Should athletes be expected to be role models?
Scott Simon No. They are performers. The public has a right to expect them to give a full and honest performance, but has no claim on their personal lives--anymore than they do of Luciano Pavarotti, Meryl Streep, or Susan Sontag.
However, I was pleased to discover that many of the athletes I write about in Home and Away--Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Floyd Patterson, Bill Veeck, and Phil Jackson--are as fine a group of human beings as you would encounter anywhere. As a group, I find their personal morality and public spirit to be superior to those of the US Congress.
Claire Ellis Is Michael Jordan a nice man?
Scott Simon Nice would not come to mind before intense, aggressive, or even, as Luc Longley says, predator. MJ was a good friend to his teammates--but he could taunt and bully them, too. He can afford to lost tens of thousands of dollars in a round of golf. But what does that say about his values?
Jordan is a good citizen who does much for his community. He uses his vast celebrity to encourage good things. He has given literally countless hours to terminally ill children. On the whole, he is a much nicer man than Pablo Picasso--the artist that Phil Jackson used to compare with Michael. Phil calls Jordan a genius. I agree. He made the unthinkable visible.
Claire Ellis Is Sammy Sosa the nicest athlete you've ever seen?
Scott Simon I'm not sure you can find a nicer person in any line of work than Sammy Sosa--and I knew Mother Teresa.
Claire Ellis Is it right for professional athletes to be paid so much?
Scott Simon No. But it's also not right for movie stars and corporate moguls to be paid so much. People who do really valuable things--like teaching autistic children or cleaning up toxic wastes--are gravely underpaid.
I feel better about Michael Jordan making $30 million dollars a year than I do about Jerry Springer making thirty cents. I feel better about Tiger Woods earning whatever he does for winning tournaments than I do about CEO's getting millions of dollars for firing people.
Claire Ellis What's with Dennis Rodman?
Scott Simon He is a gifted and clever performer. To play as well as he does at his age is a marvel. His lunatic displays sometimes obscure his sheer professionalism.
What I hadn't realized until seeing the Bulls close-up is how much Dennis came to mean to gays. Dennis deliberately identified himself with gays and cross-dressers. In places like San Antonio and Salt Lake City he had to face down some pretty ugly bigotry. Many gays came to admire him for that. So do I.
Claire Ellis Do you think there is anything in Home and Away that may surprise those who know you from radio and television?
Scott Simon Maybe the language. I use words in the book that I would not on-the-air, where "Mercy!" is my most pungent expletive. This has lent me an unwonted image of wholesomeness. It was a pleasure to finally use the so-called Seven Deadly Words banned by the FCC. A helluva pleasure.
Claire Ellis So, how much time do you really spend in Chicago?
Scott Simon Not nearly as much as people think. These days, I live on the New York-Washington shuttle. I have spent more time in recent years in Bosnia. But my center of gravity is still at the corner of Lake and Wabash.
Seeing a place from the outside can help you appreciate what it means in the world. Chicago has become a kind of international brand name--hot jazz, thick pizza, impromptu comedy, cool blues, visceral drama, piercing skyscrapers, and boisterous politics.
Claire Ellis You don't like boxing.
Scott Simon I don't. That's because I like boxers. Even the best of them suffer some kind of brain damage from getting hit in the head for a living.
Claire Ellis Should boxing be banned?
Scott Simon I don't know if it can be. But people should stop going to or betting on boxing matches. It's not sport, but organized brain damage.
Claire Ellis Do you participate in any sports yourself these days?
Scott Simon Yes. Ballet. It is tough, demanding, and awful lot of fun. The music and derrieres are beautiful. Now that I have finally accepted the fact I will never pitch for the Cubs, my next ambition is to play the Sugar Plum Fairy in Lincoln Center. Why should nineteen year-old Dutch girls with eating disorders get all the good roles?