Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea! I’m the Optimist, and you’ve stumbled head-first into the prickly sports briar patch that I like to call News … Around … The … League.
Welcome, one and all, to the first episode of the fall. It’s still only early September, but Cleveland is already basking in autumn’s Aurelian glow. Apple cider. Marching bands in the distance on a Friday night. Perfect sleeping weather.
This particular date – September 9 – has very little significance. Sure, it marks the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the creation of World War I’s fearsome Canadian Automobile Machine Gun Brigade. California was admitted as the 31st state on this date in 1850, and of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t wish Zimbabwean cricketer, Chamu Chibhabha, a happy 35th birthday. (Happy Birthday, Chamu Chibhabha!)
The date that I’d like to commemorate in today’s column, however, actually takes place two days from now. That date, as you all know, is September 11 – an infamous date whose 10th anniversary we will mark this Sunday.
And in commemoration of that life-changing day, I’ve decided to break from the normal N.A.T.L. format.
The Tribe is treading water and we all know what the Browns have to do on Sunday afternoon. I’ll break down the X’s and O’s of their double-digit victory in next week’s column. All is quiet on the Cavaliers front. When there’s movement, you know I’ll be there to cover it.
On September 11, 2001, I was still working under the watchful eye of Uncle Dave at NBA Headquarters in New York.
That morning began like it did for most people in the country – with a phone call from a friend telling me to turn on the TV because some dumbarse had flown his plane into the World Trade Center.
When the second plane struck minutes later, it was obvious that wasn’t the case.
As I walked to work up Fifth Avenue, I could see the Towers burning – smoke billowing into the clear September sky. People walked along Fifth Ave. in a stupor. Some sat on a curb or the stoop of a building – crying, praying. Manhattan’s frenetic morning traffic had come to a stop.
I joined my co-workers in the office, where we shared a common concern: What’s going on and is more of it coming?
Not long after watching in shock as both Towers crumbled to the ground from a corner office, we were ordered to evacuate the building. By then, emergency vehicles were winding their way through Manhattan toward the towering infernos.
From the NBA’s midtown office, I walked towards the Towers, but police had closed off everything south of Union Square. Every few minutes, someone would come staggering up the street completely covered in ashen debris – a dazed, frightened look etched on their face.
On that day, there wasn’t much else to do than buy a bunch of bottled water and Ramen noodles™ and take as much money out of the ATM as possible. I wasn’t sure what to do. Nobody was.
I tried to reach a friend from Garbage Heights who’d also transplanted to New York and who worked in one of the Towers. But phones were down everywhere. (He’d actually flown to Denver on the morning of 9/11; passing the New York Giants, who played the Broncos the night before, at the airport.)
In the days after 9/11, it was difficult for anyone in the city to hold it together. Across the boroughs, family members had posted heartbreaking photos of their missing loved ones – posed, smiling on a Caribbean cruise or a Christmas morning.
By the following week, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral – next door to NBA Headquarters – they had begun funerals for the fallen policeman and fireman who had given their lives just days earlier. Sitting at my desk, as the bagpipes bellowed out “Amazing Grace” several floors below, I tried my best to keep my emotions in check.
I stayed home that Friday night, listening to the Mets on the radio in my small studio apartment, downing large quantities of Absolut.
During the seventh inning stretch, Liza Minelli – (yes, Liza Minelli) – replaced “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with “New York, New York” and, as you can imagine, Shea Stadium went berserk. One inning later, Mike Piazza hit the most dramatic non-Tribe home run I’ve ever seen – blasting a 2-1 pitch to deep right center to cap a Mets comeback victory.
Late that night – hungry, buzzed and broke – I tried to defrost some leftovers. I had the choice of chop suey or rigatoni.
Thirty minutes later, the chop suey was defrosted. But when I removed it from the microwave, I tipped the container and helplessly watched it fall to – (and across) – the hardwood floor.
Disgusted, I put off cleaning the mess until the next day, opting instead to heat up the rigatoni.
Thirty minutes later, I eagerly pulled the rigatoni from the microwave. But as I turned to walk it towards the living room, I slipped on the previously-spilled chop suey and – as if on my first pair of ice skates – fell backwards, spilling the rigatoni across the floor and myself.
At that point, I did the most logical thing I could think of. I crawled, defeated, into bed and cried. That night, for the first time since I was a child, I cried like one.
I tried to detach myself as much as possible from 9/11 in the days after the tragedy. But it all caught up to me that night. The events of that Tuesday morning. People weeping on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The photos of missing victims. The funerals of heroic cops and firemen. Liza Minelli. Mike Piazza. Rigatoni.
I woke up to a mess the next morning. But I think I woke up a changed man. You could almost say The Optimist was born on that Saturday morning.
I was lucky enough to wake up – even hung-n-slung and covered in leftovers. I was lucky enough to see how sports – even fleetingly – can heal a hurting city. That morning, I cherished life a little more.
I wish my story involved me charging into one of the burning Trade Center Towers to rescue someone or featured me as one of the NAVY Seals who aerated Osama Bin Laden’s melon five months ago in Abottabad.
But I told the story of how 9/11 changed me. Because that day in September changed everyone. And everything.
In the week after those planes crashed into the Towers and the Pentagon and into the fields of Pennsylvania, we were never more together as a country. And since that week, we’ve never been further apart.
On Sunday, the 10th anniversary of that fateful day, we’ll have the NFL’s opening Sunday and we’ll have each other. On Sunday afternoon, we’ll come together as a nation – even if it’s just for sports, just for a day.
America is still the coolest country in the world when we want to be.
It’s a shame it takes events like these to bring it out of us.
Unless you’re a Bengals fan, I’m willing to put aside my political and personal differences as we commemorate the tragedy of 9/11 and celebrate the start of another NFL season. This Sunday, we are One Nation. Indivisible.
Enjoy your weekend, knuckaheads. Enjoy life, every day. Ten years ago, over 3,000 people had theirs taken in a single morning.
We’ll talk about the Browns victory in exactly seven days, yo. In the meantime, please do your patriotic duty and remember to …
Keep the faith, America