Being There

Hi-Def TV is fine, but a sportswriter’s pilgrimage to the top ten athletic events not only puts him in touch with his past—it proves there’s no substitute for showing up.

If my mother had a motto,” says Jim Gorant, “it would have been something like, ‘Wanna go there, wanna do that.’” In 1987, for example, Lucy Gorant accompanied her husband to California to sightsee while he watched his beloved New York Giants play in Super Bowl XXI. But she wound up wanting to see the game, too, and slipped an usher 50 bucks to let her in after kickoff.

On another occasion, Lucy was visiting Memphis and decided to drive across the Hernando de Soto Bridge over the Mississippi River and twenty miles farther to a visitor’s center in Arkansas—just to cross that state off her to-see list.

Gorant, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, hadn’t thought much about his mom’s gotta-go inclinations until June of 2005, when he tried to bluff his way into Wimbledon. He wound up buying a one-day grounds pass. That night he dreamed of her for the first time since she had died of cancer at age 61 one year earlier. He was then on the sixth leg of a quest to visit the top ten sporting events in the world—and write a book about it.

“I realize it was no coincidence that I came up with the idea for this yearlong journey two weeks after my mother was diagnosed,” he writes in his recently published Fanatic: Ten Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die (Houghton Mifflin, $24). “Yes, what I’m searching for on some level is some magic key that will help decipher the common denominators between the great events and what lies at the heart of my own sports mania, but I’m doing something else, too. I’m dealing with my mother’s death.”

The concept for the book arose from a dinner discussion at the 2004 Masters. At the table, the conversation among Gorant, several SI colleagues, and a few people from the golf industry turned to the Kentucky Derby. Someone confessed to never having been to the Derby. Everyone was shocked. One of the SI veterans said the Derby was the one event everyone should go to. “The Derby and the Masters,” someone else corrected. The list got up to five before the conversation veered off.

The idea, however, lingered in Gorant’s mind. He began asking friends what their top choices would be, and he jotted down ideas on the train ride between Manhattan and his home in Montclair, where he lives with his wife, Karin, and their two children. Eventually, he whittled his list down to ten and hit the road.

For Gorant, the expeditions triggered personal reflections. Spotting a cotton- candy vendor at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field reminded him of taking his daughter to a WNBA game the year before. She begged to try cotton candy, and when Gorant finally gave in, she took two bites and handed it back to him. “It was the best $6.50 I’ve ever spent,” he writes.

The larger point, he goes on to explain, is that he doesn’t want her to think that the only way she can relate to her sportswriter father is through sports. He also worries that bringing her to games could make her the kind of 24/7 sports geek he was while growing up in Norwood. So he is relieved when she proves to be just as interested in the cheerleaders and the dancers and the Jumbotron as in the game. All this flashes through his mind at Wrigley.

That wasn’t the only personal reflection he made while on his quest: Sticking it out in the single-digit deep-freeze of a Green Bay Packers game at Lambeau Field brought him back to a talk with his son about keeping one’s commitment to a team.

Ultimately, his journey helped him mourn the loss of his mother. “I found this personal side of things with my mom that I never expected when I started out,” he says. “I just sort of stumbled across it.”

That doesn’t mean Fanatic gets maudlin. There is plenty of banter, lore, and fervor as Gorant leads readers through his decalogue—the Super Bowl, NASCAR’s Daytona 500, college basketball’s Final Four, the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, Wrigley, Ohio State at arch-rival Michigan (in college football’s largest stadium), Lambeau Field, and opening day at Fenway Park.

“There are a couple of layers to it,” Gorant says. “There’s what these events are like, what’s the atmosphere.” He sipped a mint julep at the Derby, chatted with body-painted fans at the Final Four, and watched the Fenway Park grounds crew manicure the infield.

But rather than a play-by-play, he wanted to figure out “what it is with sports. It’s sort of this huge cultural thread that runs through society, the de facto conversation in America, especially among guys,” he says. “I wanted to find that thread that might reveal something about our sports obsession.”

He found several threads, notably the importance fans attach to being there, coming together for a moment that can’t be relived. They revere the history of their team or the event and feel honored to be part of it. Most of all, they connect through an undertow of hope. “These games are both terribly important and unbearably trivial,” he writes, “and within their measured lines incredible doses of the human condition are on display.”

Gorant came away from Super Bowl XXXIX (Patriots 24, Eagles 21) less cynical than he went in. (“Certainly it’s a media circus,” he says, “but the game also was very intense.”) He discovered that watching the Daytona 500 from atop an RV requires “a comforting metronomic rhythm” of turning this way and that as the speeding cars lap the track. He noticed that camaraderie at the Kentucky Derby vanishes when the horses burst from the gate. (“At that moment we are no longer a crowd,” he writes. “We are a collection of individuals, isolated in our respective dramas, fully concentrating on our singular dreams.”)

The Derby, it turns out, was Gorant’s favorite, in part because it was the one event he was able to share with his wife. An ad-agency creative director and partner, she took care of the house and the kids, then three and five, when Gorant was away. “There were some low moments when she was stranded with the kids,” he says. “But she was on board from the start and always would do whatever she could to help me.” That included editing his work, helping shape it into something that even she, not a sports fan, would enjoy. “It sort of passed the test,” he says.

If Fanatic does well, Gorant might do a follow-up, with the events that didn’t make the schedule. He would have included World Cup soccer, for example, if it had taken place in 2005 when he made most of his trips. He hears from fans of events he missed that he might include next time, such as a Duke–Carolina basketball game or the Rose Bowl.

Seeing copies of Fanatic stacked at a bookstore or noticing someone reading it at the town pool gives Gorant a surreal feeling. Though he helped write a Zagat golf course guide and a fitness book, this is his first solo creation. He dedicated it to his mother.

“Sports,” he says, “is about people as much as anything else. It’s about who you’re sharing it with, this sort of sense of community it creates. Over a year, I really saw this personal side.” And in the process, he turned his wanna-go-there, wanna-do-that upbringing into a been-there, done-that—times ten.

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