Tuesday, June 05, 2007

TO AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG

A. E. Housman said it better than thee or me ever will, but the death of Charles Johnson can’t help but cause a few of us to pause and reflect.

CJ and I were hardly friends. But we recognized one another—in the taping room, (though he was a world class athlete, and I was just trying not to fall off the bench) on campus—mostly at the Tri Delt House where he hung with Mel Harrison and his brother who hashed there.

We had one thing in common. We each waited on girls. They got paid. I got zilch—still more than I deserved.

I’m not sure he was there the night Forbes and I drove my Honda ’90 up the staircase, but I’m sure he would have agreed that D-Day in Animal House was hardly an original. CJ was quiet—almost sullen. The Tri Delts would always say how nice he was. All I could see was how focused he was.

He played basketball with a certain √©lan, which was uncommon at Cal, despite the presence of Phil Chenier, Anslie Truitt, Jackie Ridgle, and Bob Presley—all who spent some time at the next level.

Those Rene Herrerias/Jim Padgett days in the late 60’s and early 70’s were odd days for Cal basketball. They all blend in together now.

But those of us of a certain age remember two things from back then. Tommy Henderson inadvertantly sticking his finger in Lou Alcindor’s eye (thus causing the Bruins to lose the following week to Elvin Hayes and Houston, and CJ scoring 25 as Cal lost to UCLA in overtime at Harmon in 1969. (By our record, we were certainly double digit underdogs at tip off).

The years have run together, so I get some of the players on some of the teams mixed up—and despite the internet, I’m not bright enough to figure out who played on which team.
Was it Presley or Truitt in that ’69 game? My guess is Presley, but no matter. That poor kid (who was the tallest student on campus) used to walk around with a tiny dog (was it a poodle?) on a leash. Sparks flew between him and Rene Herrerias (another good guy and casualty of the ‘60’s) over the issue of Presley’s hair. Presley thought an Afro would make him look taller—be more intimidating.

Herrerias was not gonna have any “Hippy, radicals” on his team.

As an aside, Wooden wouldn’t get into that with Alcindor, although later, when Bill Walton said he (Walton) had a constitutional right to grow a beard—Wooden said, “That’s right, Bill.
You do have a constitutional right to grow a beard. And we’re going to miss you here at UCLA.”
Eventually, after the “Black Strike” Herrerias lost his job and Padgett took over. Bob Presley had a cup of coffee with the Milwaukee Bucs and then (according to those in the know) tragically jumped from a Bridge up in Washington over the Columbia River—allegedly wearing a dress. (Others say he died in a car accident). Those were stressful days.

CJ was not awed by Alcindor or his various teammates, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Mike Warren, Lucius Allen, Lynn Schackleford, (Hazard and Goodrich had Graduated).

They were an awesome team.

The Bears, oddly enough in ‘70 were no slouches themselves. How many teams can Phil Chenier be on and be considered the 4th best on the floor?

Yes, Ridgle, CJ, and Truitt were considered better prospects than Chenier his first year. And Bobby White was no slouch.

It’s easy to forget that our childhood buddy, Tom Henderson, started with those guys. CJ would shoot fall-away bank shots like K.C. and Sam Jones. He could go behind his back and between his legs, back when that was grounds for getting benched for “hot dogging.” CJ was never a hot dog. He was simply fearless—and confident. (Once he "slolomed" though two defenders, going behind is back with his left hand, then his right, without ever dribbling in front. We'd never seen anything like it.

When I flew the coop for Europe (and then Nueva Jork) in ’71 I didn’t see CJ again until 1975—down in the Capitol Center in D.C.

My grandfather had died in ’74 and I was down visiting my grandmother.

As chance would have it, The Golden State Warrior’s were visiting the Washington Bullets for the 4th game of the NBA finals. Though Rick Barry got all the play, CJ guided them through that final victory for a 4-0 sweep—the biggest upset in NBA history, at the time.

CJ looked just like he did that night (and every night) against UCLA. Calm, determined, in control, unafraid and focused. He was the ultimate athlete—the consummate pro.
I wish he had promoted himself a tad bit more.

He died last week (from Cancer)--like he played—quietly, with no fuss. Always dignified—no matter what was going on around him.

If you go to ESPN.Com and look up NBA players who played at Cal, They’re all there—but not CJ. The Sports Pros left out a real Pro.

It is so like CJ. Too modest to even be remembered by the internet.
They can’t remember—but we will never forget.

Like I said, those of us of a certain age, know that we saw one of the greatest athletes at any level anywhere, play the game the way it was meant to be played.

It was a treat—we won’t soon forget.

Go Bears,
Jeffrey Earl Warren ‘70
www.jeffwarren.com/



TO AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG
By A.E. Housman


THE time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.