Jeff Pearlman

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Something missing

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Pearlman (far left), Tim Giambalvo and Joe Grace: The fleeting pride of Mahopac cross country. Circa 1989.

So while digging through an old photo album yesterday, I stumbled upon a bunch of faded, worn-down newspaper clippings from my occasionally glorious, mostly pedestrian days as a distance runner at Mahopac High School. There are probably, oh, 20 pieces in all, and they ran in one of three local papers near my home in Putnam County, N.Y.

One way or another, they tended to read something like this …

trader

And as I was combing page by page through the book, I started thinking how—thanks to the death of the local newspaper and the rise of inane social media—young athletes no longer know the pleasure of anxiously finding the latest copy of X publication to see if they spelled your name correctly.

For young Jeff Pearlman, fourth man on the Mahopac XC squad, it was electrifying, thrilling, euphoric. I would never let a clip pass without cutting and saving it; I’d never allow Mom or Dad to go to bed without reading of their child’s exploits. It not only filled me with giddiness. It actually made me want to become a writer.

Alas, it’s a forgotten relic of yesteryear.

Bummer.

Uncle Marty

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My uncle, Marty Pearlman, died yesterday. He was 81.

Shortly after learning of his passing, I thought of the above photograph, which was stashed in an old album and took me quite a bit of time to locate. The picture was snapped at some point in the early-to-mid 1980s. For the life of me I’m not sure how it wound up alongside wayward pictures of proms and elementary school classes and Yankee spring training visits.

But there it sat—and still sits. It’s an image I love for myriad reasons.

First, because it’s so unlike my uncle, who was as athletically inclined as carpet and slightly less coordinated. The next baseball Uncle Marty caught would have likely been his first. He knew little about college sports and even less about pro sports. A few minutes ago I played my nephew Jordan in a game of NHL 18 on the XBox 360, and I (lightheartedly) chose the New Jersey Devils because it was my uncle’s home state team. Then I thought, realistically, he might not have known the Devils exist.

The second reason I love the picture is because it’s very Martin Pearlman. The number pinned haphazardly to the shirt. What appears to be an out-of-print discarded hospital bandage clumsily looped around his head. The sly smile, probably following some self-deprecating joke about his two left feet or 25-minute mile.

Third, because he’s young and vibrant and in the moment.

He’s the Uncle Marty I remember as a child.

My Uncle Marty.

•••

There is a thing that happens when people die these days, and it makes me uncomfortable. We go to Facebook, note that a favorite teacher or a third aunt has passed—then behold as the expressions of sympathy pour in. And I’m not saying anything’s wrong with it. But I tend to squirm, because in most of the cases I feel like a bit of a fraud; like there are tons of people more worthy of your sympathy.

In this case, however, I’m a bit broken.

Because I come from a particularly small family, every relative counts. And for the entirety of my life, Uncle Marty—Dad’s older brother—was a cornerstone. Throughout my youth, holidays would be attended by my grandparents, my parents, my brother, my Grandma Marta and Grandpa Curt, my cousin Daniel and his parents, Uncle Marty and Aunt Mary. That was it.

I was about 11 when my aunt and uncle got divorced. It was jarring—our family had never had a divorce before. I actually remember the last time I saw them together. It was at a distant cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in Virginia, and I asked my mom, “Why aren’t Aunt Mary and Uncle Marty dancing?”

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Uncle Marty, far left, with my Grandma Mollie, Grandpa Nat and my dad, Stan, in 1955.

I was too young to understand the pain Uncle Marty was experiencing. But, in hindsight, I can see the rawness. He was—in 1950s term—a guy who needed a woman’s touch. My uncle was the smartest member of the family, without much debate. He was  super well-educated (University of Michigan undergrad; masters at the University of Utah, PhD at Rutgers) and—starting in 1969—worked as a professor in the psychology department of Middlesex County College while also running a  private practice. But he was also sort of a wrinkled napkin. He was raised in an age when men didn’t really cook, or pick out their own clothing, or … really, do much of anything except go to work, come home from work, read the newspaper. There is a photograph, somewhere in a long-lost family album, of my uncle holding up a magazine cover that reads DIVORCE in bold letters. He’s smiling, but not really smiling. Happiness sans the happy. I always remember that.

My uncle attended a good Hebrew school. I know that because, come Jewish holidays, my Grandma Marta (Mom’s mom) would hear him read the prayers and whisper, “You know, Marty went to a good Hebrew school.” On Passover, his long-winded, integrity-loaded rendition of “Had Gadya” was music to my ears. High and low. On key. Off key. But hilarious and sincere and self-aware.

My uncle wasn’t just good conversation. He was terrific conversation. Delightful laugh, warm expressions. He was naturally curious; asked a ton of questions; could hold forth on anything from Trump and Clinton to Spike Lee films and Florida traffic. I knew he was my intellectual superior. And surely he knew he was my intellectual superior. But it never felt that way. He never held his smarts over people. Never, ever. When we spoke via phone, he’d always express genuine pride in whatever my latest book was—shocking and loving, because he knew little of the topic. It was sorta like talking with a boastful grandfather: “Jeff, you know, I have a friend who apparently loves the Green Bay Packers, and I was telling him about your Brett Favre book …”

My uncle was surprising. You wouldn’t think so. But he was. He wasn’t religious, but spoke Yiddish. He was super well-versed in belief systems, and liked understanding different modes of thinking. After his divorce from my aunt, he started going on Outward Bound adventure trips. The ensuing stories—told at holiday tables—filled my young mind with all sorts of intrigue and bewilderment. “Wait. They leave you alone in the forest for a week with a roll of toilet paper and a stick?” Yes. “And you paid money for that?” Yes. “Why?” To challenge myself.

He saw movies. Tons of movies. Bad movies and good movies. Tremendous movies and shit movies. I think it was initially a way for him and my cousin Daniel to connect, and his breakdowns of, oh, “Nightmare on Elm Street III” were always worth the price of admission.

After the divorce my uncle ultimately began a new relationship with a lovely woman named Patsy that lasted for some 30 years. It was, on the surface, a confusing pairing. He lived in New Jersey. She lived in California. They’d fly back and forth, back and forth—for three decades. Head-scratching stuff. Yesterday I called Patsy, and we spoke about it for the first time ever. “I know it always sounded quirky, but it just worked for us,” she told me through tears. “I never knew anyone like your uncle. I never loved anyone like I loved him.”

In the hours since I learned of his passing, I’ve been Googling my uncle—who leaves behind less of a social media imprint than almost any human on the planet. His Facebook page ID photo is blank. There’s no Twitter, no website. He published a text book in 2010, but the Amazon page lacks any author information (He’d have gotten a kick over the one review—a five-star rating that reads, “It was like brand new for a much better price! It was awesome! I would recommend this to other people!”).

The one thing I did find, however, made me laugh aloud.

And, I’m quite certain, once made my uncle laugh aloud, too.

Four years ago, Middlesex’s alumni magazine ran this brief entry on a page listing donations made to the college …

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Then, in the follow-up issue, this …

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It is 2019. Uncle Marty has died, and I am heartbroken.

But with the legacy of a son, three grandchildren and a life of intrigue, rumors of his demise remain greatly exaggerated.

The little you know …

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Brian Turnbull is a longtime Pearlman family friend. As we speak, he is battling Stage 3 Hodgkin Lymphoma. He’s a great guy, and I asked him to do some writing here. So first is an introduction, then a Brian Turnbull poetic original, “The Little You Know the Better.” One can follow Brian on Twitter here.

My first job was cleaning the fat off thighs and picking the feather off wings in the back of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen located in the Bronx.

I was 16-years old. By the time I turned 18 I had moved up to lead cook. I had once dreamed of playing in the NBA, but as the bad decisions piled up that hope deflated and I was kicked off the high school basketball team (barred, really, is the proper term). You see, basketball was my safe haven, my happy place. Somewhere I could let my emotions go and think freely.

What happens to a person when his happy place or safe haven is abruptly taken away? Let me fill you in. The bad decisions tend to hold heavier consequences and sometimes (well, more times) you’re saying “fuck it” instead of thinking things through.

The dean looked over the credits I accumulated from freshman year to fall of my senior year, and I still can vividly hear him say, “I’m sorry, but the amount of credits you have now are not enough for you to be eligible for graduation this year. We don’t think this is the best place for you. Please see your counselor for an alternate solution”.

In 2013 I graduated, from high school one year later than I was supposed to. I wasn’t a stupid kid, I just made highly questionable choices. I don’t know if it was seeing my friends going away for college in the fall of 2012 (while I was preparing for my “Super Senior” year) or the support of the counselors and teachers who locked me in a room immediately after I approached them with intentions of dropping out … but something resonated in my soul that I had to do better.

The following fall I got a call to work at the Times Square Dave and Busters as a buss boy, and within three years I was promoted four times and named Employee of the Month ,multiple times. I might not have realized it, but I was setting myself up to become a leader in the hospitality industry.

•••

Now it’s 2018, and I’ve just received a email from the CEO of Hyatt. He wants to set up an interview. At first I don’t believe it. My jaw drops and all the professionalism I’ve always projected soars out the window. I celebrate as if I’ve just won an NBA title. I do a lap around the lobby like I hit a home run to win the American League pennant. This is the greatest accomplishment of my life. I am hired to work for Hyatt. My life has never been better.

Then, on Aug. 3, 2019, I am diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin Lymphoma. It is hard to digest at first. I still need to stop at times and think, “Man, I have cancer.” The first time I thought I might have a problem was when I heard the story of James Conner, the Steelers running back who in 2015 was said to have stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma. Like Conner, my lymph nodes were swollen near my heart and lungs. I told my doctor that I had cancer before she even diagnosed it. I knew. And I accepted it.

How am I getting through it all? The stories of men like James Conner, like Anthony Rizzo. Like me hero, Muhammad Ali. He’s the greatest and he’s my hero. His words—“I am the greatest I said that before I knew I was”—is something I tell myself daily.

When basketball was taken away from me I found solace in writing. my ambition to be the best didn’t die in that gymnasium back in 2009. It was applied to the life i was going to live from then on and it showed in my work ethic. All the accolades I’ve collected via work won’t compare to the day I’m told the cancer is gone. My writing is my service to others who may be going through something similar or just need a little inspiration …

•••

The little you know the better
Brian R. Turnbull

Right before chemotherapy I learned I wouldn’t be able to father children. I’ve never felt so defeated, devastated in better words. My circle getting smaller disappointment growing it’s starting become an epidemic. There are days I just want to down a bottle of Hennessy just make the pain go away, at the moment those days are over. Then there are days when I’m asked how am doing and I just want to jump out the window, but will the pain stop? The bad days are overcoming the good ones but I’m not complaining that doesn’t really help anything. Then there are days when people who really don’t give a fuck about me want to check up on me. It drives me crazy but I don’t explode when deep down I really want to. For the first time in a month I began to start feeling sorry for myself. Slight depression, constant pain will eventually show its wear and tear on a person, eventually a drug addiction recently kicked will re-surface. These days the battles with my demons are becoming more and more tolling. Am I strong enough to fight off a relapse? Only time will tell.

You said you will be there—anything I need you got me. How naive for me to believe you.
How naive, how foolish could I have been to think you were built for this? How dare I think you were serious. Maybe it was the drugs, maybe it was the feeling of hopelessness, maybe I was in a dark place and you shined a light that I didn’t expect. WELL I’m in a dark place right now and where’s the light you shined? I’m all alone, I shared my feelings, I opened up even though I was reluctant to but the words I’m always here for you if you need anything can weigh heavy on a human sometimes homicidal, in my case I opened up I let you in allowed you to give me false hope that you would be here. I thought for sure my corner was tight but in reality my corner was here for a publicity stunt. These bad days I go through alone, these bad days I think of you and rage boils, in that burning pit of rage is the Person I once knew, a person I’m losing if not I’ve already lost. Motivation stems from the smoke to come out the fire the other end rebirth, new life, stronger, mentally physically and emotionally. For that I thank you.

I Dominate

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So Emmett had his first flag football practice on Friday. He’s a member of the Raiders. I told the head coach I’d be happy to help as an assistant. He didn’t seem particularly interested. I am relieved.

I tend to sit by the side for the first practice, usually with a book, just to make sure the head coach isn’t Hitler. On Friday, I wasn’t alone. There were other dads. One, in particular, stood out.

His son wore a T-shirt that looked (and read) pretty much like this …

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The dad paced the sidelines throughout the session. He cheered when his son made a good play. He pulled him aside when he made a poor play. He’s not a coach, or an assistant coach, or an assistant assistant coach, but he felt compelled to serve as a private tutor for Junior during a practice.

I don’t understand these types of parents. Ever. Your kid is a kid once. For a very short period. A. How does flag football success translate into anything? B. How does being a sideline parent translate into anything positive? C. Why do you care?

Let the kid play.

He doesn’t need to dominate.

On Tebow and lacking empathy

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Much was made of Tim Tebow’s comments from earlier today, when he said that college athletes wanting to get paid was ruinous. His words, on ESPN

“I know we live in a selfish culture where it’s all about us, but we’re just adding and piling it on to that where it changes what’s special about college football and we turn it into the NFL where who has the most money that’s where you go. That’s why people are more passionate about college sports than they are about the NFL. That’s why the stadiums are bigger in college than the NFL because it’s about your team, about your university, about where my family wanted to go, about where my grandfather had a dream of seeing Florida win an SEC championship and you’re taking that away so young kids can earn a dollar. And that’s not where I feel like college football needs to go.”

So here’s what I never get about white middle-to-upper-class conservative athletes from American team sports. Or, I should say, here’s what disappoints me: Tim Tebow was raised comfortably. A family that could afford things like cars and nice clothing and meals out. Which is fine. But he played alongside, oh, hundreds upon hundreds of teammates who were raised anything but comfortably; who were brought up via a single parent working two or three jobs; who wondered whether the next meal would be dinner or a subsidized scrapple-and-unidentified-meat breakfast at school; who studied out of 15-year-old texts (the only ones the school district could afford) and looked left and right as 70 percent of their classmates dropped out.

Tim Tebow ate with these people. He huddled with these people. He prayed with these people. He surely knew of their struggle, and knew how badly their families—unlike, say, the University of Florida—could use the money from jersey sales.

He apparently learned nothing from these people.

I am a wuss. But I challenge Briscoe Cain to a fight.

Fake Tough Guys need guns.

Fake Tough Guys need guns.

In case you missed this, during last night’s Democratic presidential debate a Texas state representative named Jonah Hill Briscoe Cain responded to Beto O’Rourke’s suggestion of an assault weapon ban by Tweeting this …

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Social media jumped all over ol’ Cain, noting that threatening the assassination of a presidential candidate (or, really, anyone) isn’t a particularly good look for a member of the state government. Some of the replies were pure gold. One that had me laughing at the gym was offered by  Jack Burton, who—after Cain’s Tweet was deleted—wrote, “Why’d you delete that tweet? Squirt a little pee out knowing your ass is getting a call from @FBI?”

I digress.

Guys like Briscoe Cain annoy the fuck out of me because—like Donald Trump, like Mike Pence, like Ted Cruz—they’re fake wanna-be tough guys. I mean, see the photo at the top of this post? Yeah, that’s Briscoe Cain in cowboy garb, standing on some ranch near some fence. Only (gasp!) he’s not a cowboy, has never been a cowboy and almost certainly doesn’t know how to ride a horse or lasso a calf. He’s a suburban kid from the leafy neighborhood of Deer Park, Texas (home of Andy Pettitte and NFL kicker Zane Gonzalez). He attended college; got a law degree from the South Texas College of Law. His name has some history in Texas—a lot of society page mentions of  a Briscoe Cain from back in the 1960s. Either his dad or grandpa …

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Briscoe Cain is actually Briscoe Cain III. His grandfather, Briscoe II, was a mayor of Calvert in Robertson County. Which is weird, because in his official biography Briscoe III doesn’t mention this. Nope, in his bio he just “grew up in a working class home in Deer Park. The son of a plant operator and occupational nurse, he was taught the value of hard work and a strong commitment to his community.”

Right.

So here’s an offer I wanna make Briscoe Cain: Let’s fight.

Leave your gun at home. Stash the bullets. And let’s go toe to toe in the middle of a cell. Bare fists. Me v. You.

Am I tough? Fuck no. My lifetime fight record is 0-1, and the single loss was a staggering gym class KO. However, I am 100 percent certain I can beat the shit out of this sniveling little runt; this aspiring John Wayne who—despite a gazillion studies insisting it’s a bad idea—feels compelled to own an AK-47 and (apparently) keep it in his home. He’s younger than me, he’s surely quicker than me, he certainly talks tougher than me. But I will bust my fist into this guy’s nose, and I will enjoy doing so.

And I won’t need a gun.

On pleasuring oneself to Tanya Tucker

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So my latest episode of the Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast was a weird one that I’d long wanted to do—me breaking down my first year as a journalist. Here’s the link.

Yet while I use the 40 allotted minutes to discuss all sorts of mayhem—crossing police tape, writing about condoms, a prostitution sting gone bad—I’d say what’s evoked the most attention is a very brief reference to spans of boredom resulting in me jerking off to Tanya Tucker, a country singer of some note.

Let me explain …

It was 1995. My girlfriend dumped me. We used to receive tons of free CDs sent by record companies. One was Tanya Tucker’s box set. I had no interest in Tanya Tucker. Or country music. But one day a co-worker told a story about his friend, who allegedly was at a party that Tucker also had attended.

Tucker (the story goes) approached my friend and said, “You want to fuck me. I know it, you know it. So let’s go somewhere.”

Mind. Blown.

Was it true? Who the hell knows? Probably not. But, again, I was 23 and painfully lonely and painfully sexually repressed, and the above Tucker photo, and the story, and … yeah.

Here’s Tanya Tucker now, in 2019.

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Some things are hard to explain.

PS: To be clear, I’m not shaming Tanya Tucker. She’s 60 and has lived a really hard life.

Tyler Ugolyn has a blank Facebook page

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Earlier this evening my pal Michael Lewis texted, asking whether I was going to write something about Tyler Ugolyn, the 23-year old Sept. 11 victim I profiled the following week for Sports Illustrated.

So I Googled a bit, and stumbled upon this—a Tyler Ugolyn Facebook page with nothing on it.

And it got me thinking …

Tyler Ugolyn would be 41 right now. He would likely have a wife, kids. His Facebook page would be filled with wedding photos, vacation photos, hospital photos from the arrivals of his children. He would have all his friends listed—from Ridgefield High, from Columbia University, from Fred Alger Associates, from the jobs that followed.

Tyler Ugolyn’s Facebook page would be a tremendous scroll. That trip to Hawaii for his pal’s bachelor weekend. That drive through the Rocky Mountains. Birthday wishes to his mom and dad. There’d be throwback memories to old cars, old ceremonies. He would write about sports and politics and investments and his new puppy—the one who keeps chewing on his shoes. He’d tell the story of meeting his wife at a party or bar and through a friend of a friend. He’d recall that first look—her blue eyes gazing up from the floor. He would rave about her new career; about the books she reads; about the way she finds bargains; about what her love does for him.

He’d write snarky captions about his inlaws visiting. He’d talk trash to old basketball rivals. He’d mock Columbia’s lousy sports program. His FAVORITES listing would be filled with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant; with trucks and rock music.

He would bemoan getting older in that serious-but-not-too-serious way. The jumper that once always found net would be a bit rusty. He’d mourn not playing enough hoops. But his back is sore. His feet are tired. Plus, his daughter has ballet three days a week. Someone has to drive her.

His Facebook page would be a celebration of the collection of people and experiences that is life. O

Instead, on Sept. 11, 2019, Tyler Ugolyn has a blank Facebook page.

Eighteen years after his death, that feels horribly appropriate.

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RIP

Lee Greenwood (doesn’t blow)

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Greenwood on the sax. Who knew?

So yesterday evening I planned a surprise outing for the wife. We were leaving the kids home and going somewhere interesting.

“Where?” the wife asked.

I refused to say.

We drove about 20 minutes north to the Orange County Fairgrounds, home to the small-yet-splendid Pacific Amphitheatre. I had offered some hints en route—the camouflage hate atop my head, the suggestion that there’d be a fair #MAGA turnout, the sly grin.

She guessed a few times.

“Darius Rucker?” the wife said.

“No,” I said, laughing. “There will be, I’m guessing, no blacks attending this.”

“AC/DC?”

“Way off.”

Finally, as we pulled into the lot the wife saw a man wearing a black T-shirt featuring a bald eagle and the words, BLESS THE USA

“Are we seeing Lee Greenwood?” she said.

“Yes,” I replied. “Yes we are.”

The wife isn’t a big Lee Greenwood fan, and she’s as liberal as I am. But she’s also an absolute sucker for Greenwood’s one song, “God Bless the U.S.A.” So when I saw he was coming to our turf, I plunked down the $20 or so per ticket.

To be honest, I expected a carnival of Trump hats, of Obama bashing, of hate-hate-hate. I expected to giggle beneath my breath as idiot #MAGA bots roamed the building waving flags and barking about taking back America.

I.

Was.

Terribly.

Wrong.

The event actually featured the Pacific Symphony performing patriots songs to honor veterans and active-duty soldiers. And it was fucking awesome. The Ampitheatre was about, oh, 80 percent filled, and I’d say half of those people were affiliated with the military. There was almost no sign of Trump loyalty (or disloyalty)—just people who had fought for what they believe, standing to salute the flag, crying as the symphony (along with a choir) played a slow, stirring hymm as two large screens projected images of myriad military cemeteries.

Greenwood emerged 3/4 of the way through the night—77-years-old, a bit shrunken, but engaged, entertaining, enlightening. He mentioned politics not once, and (via reading later that night) learned he actually has little interest in the politicizing of his music. Yes, he voted Trump and clearly leans conservative. But he also told Rolling Stone he would have proudly played Obama’s inauguration had he been asked; that he loved our nation more than any party.

When he belted out, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” all the attendees stood, sang, applauded. A few rows in front of us, a man in his 90s beamed beneath a hat marking his service in both the army and marines. One person after another stopped to thank him, and he—without fail—replied with, “Thank you for thanking me.”

It felt like the America I still love.

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Showtime Book
Love Me, Hate Me Barry Bonds Book
Sweetness Walter Peyton Book
The Bad Guys Won Book
The Rocket that Fell to Earth Book
Boys Will Be Boys Book

Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life