every year's end, the new york times publishes an exhaustive list of all the national champions in just about every sport in the sunday edition that falls closest to new year's day. for all i know this has been going on for many years, but it was not until the the late 80's that i began to take notice, an expansion of my world view that coincided with new york's run of championships that began about the same time. i must admit to some small sense of satisfaction at being included in a publication of such stature, and that the times recognized our accomplishment once a year did, at least for a day, lend us an air of legitimacy that we lacked for the other 364. ultimate was still unrecognized by, and unrecognizable to, just about everyone we knew who didn't play, and therefore we were still the lowly peasants of the sporting world. but we were kings for a day, and that, as they say, beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
one year, however, the times made a decision that had the potential to vault us from obscurity to celebrity (or some facsimile thereof). they decided to run a sidebar in that year's list of champions highlighting the accomplishments of local champions who were all but unknown to the world at large despite being legendary in their respective sports. i have no idea how the decision was made, who was involved, what the connection was or even the year in question, but i still remember, and will so long as my faculties remain with me, which local champion shared the sidebar with us: one wall handball champion joe durso of brooklyn.
researching the sidebar, the writer contacted me and joe and asked us some standard questions. what's it's like to be so successful and totally unknown? do you long for recognition and exposure? the usual fare. i was interviewed first, and i basically said it didn't really bother me because i hadn't gone into ultimate expecting to be famous. interviewed second, durso not only said that he wished for and deserved widespread recognition, he also took a swipe at ultimate by saying something to the effect of "hey, i'm an athlete. i don't play a sport with a limited skillset like frisbee." wouldn't you know the times ran that quote.
when the piece came out, several of my teammates were upset. one in particular, amos himmelstein, was incensed enough to write a strongly worded letter to the paper. i, on the other hand, didn't really care. over the years we were written about quite a bit. some of it was accurate, some of it less so, but none of it ever really made all that much of a difference, and i had long since stopped caring what people thought about us. i put the piece out of my mind, and because i didn't keep a copy, assumed i would never see it again. i was sorely mistaken.
while coaching the suny purchase atomic dogs in 1989 and 1990, i had the pleasure of having one arthur a. aidala on the team. artie was not much of an athlete, and he was most definitely not an ultimate player. what he was, however, was the most highly motivated, coachable, infectiously enthusiastic player i have ever been around, and an instrumental member of the team. he came up with many of our cheers, never got down no matter how little he played, and roamed the sidelines keeping everybody pumped up throughout every game. in fact, he can be seen in the video of the 1989 open national finals game between ny and tsunami, stepping onto the field to congratulate cribber (a former purchase teammate) after a goal.
i liked artie from the start, and in a strange piece of foreshadowing, i knew from the day i met him that we would be friends for many years. we have been. we still are. in fact, whenever i make a return visit to new york these days, i stay with artie. it was on such a visit that artie arranged the encounter that will tie all of these memories together.
it was christmas, and arthur is a social creature, beloved by all who know him in his bay ridge neighborhood, so spending the holidays in his company required me to accompany him as he "made the rounds," as it were. most of the visits took place at delis, pizzerias, restaurants, and many other local establishments arthur has been frequenting for years. the encounters were brief, filled with warm feelings, and evocative of a time that, for those who have not lived their entire lives in the same ten square block area of bay ridge, has all but disappeared. as one who lives in a part of semi-rural north carolina where walking onto a neighbor's property in search of a stray dog once brought me face to muzzle with a loaded gun, i rather enjoyed the experience with arthur. so when he asked if i minded stopping by a friend's apartment, i said no without hesitation.
the apartment was a small, one bedroom affair with a view of new york harbor and the verrazano bridge. while arthur and his friend exchanged hugs and loud, profanity-laced greetings, i looked around. one wall of the living room was covered floor to ceiling with sugar bowls arranged meticulously on a series of mahogany shelves. two other walls were covered with "art photos," framed photographs that, had they not been shot in black and white, would be called pornography. the rest of the living room was a cluttered mix of bric-a-brac of predominantly asian origin with an occasional african piece thrown in. it was while i was panning across the room taking it all in that my eyes landed on a collection of trophies, plaques, medals and laminated newspaper and magazine articles arranged in an alcove that could only be described as a shrine. stepping closer i noticed that all of the trophies were for handball competitions. looking even more closely, i noticed that one of the laminated articles was from the new york times, and that my name appeared in it. arthur's friend was none other than joe durso, the one wall handball champion who had disparaged ultimate as a limited skillset sport in the new york times some ten years earlier.
what followed was a somewhat awkward and altogether surprising series of revelations. although a frequent visitor to joe's apartment, arthur had never looked closely enough at the article to notice my name. because joe held every other athlete on the face of the earth in contempt, he had little recollection of having cast aspersions on me all those years ago, and seemed entirely unremorseful once reminded of it. taking the high road, i assured him i held no grudge whatsoever, but allowed as how he was in serious need of an interior decorator's assistance.
we spent the better part of the evening at joe's, and on subsequent visits i have seen him at arthur's place or out on the town. in the years since the times article was published he has lost none of his bitterness. he still laments his fate as an obscure champion, and sincerely feels that he is in every way deserving of the kind of recognition michael jordan once received, arguing that he is an equally talented athlete. given the slightest provocation, he will haul out and display every article ever written about him. asked about the current crop of handball greats, he sneers that he's better than every one of them. listening to him go on about his past success, the misery of his obscurity, and the unfairness of a world that still refuses to recognize and adequately reward his greatness, i am struck by the futility of his endless quest for respect, and i pity him. imagine being so concerned about what others think that you allow yourself to experience so little lasting joy in what you accomplish. talk about a living hell.
i was reminded of all of this recently when two things occurred, both of them somewhat loosely connected to ultimate and rsd. the first was jeff brown's mention of a prized photograph of him and me in usa today where through some mistake our names were jumbled. the other was a comment made during a podcast where someone suggested that it must be strange for me to teach at a school where no one has any idea about my illustrious frisbee past. it occurred to me then that while joe durso is an extreme case, many champion ultimate players suffer from the same melancholy. in the absence of mainstream acceptance, they cling to scraps of fleeting fame, seek out the company and comfort of those who recognize the significance of their accomplishments, and dream of a day when the world at large will recognize their greatness. i can't say i know of a sugar bowl collecting ultimate player, but i have seen many a shrine to past glory, and i'm quite certain that it wouldn't take much in the way of provocation to bring out the scrapbook, if you know what i mean. i just don't get it.
during our reign, i lived and breathed the game, and i truly believed that was necessary for us to be successful. looking back i'm not so sure, and i am more than a little embarrassed by some of the decisions i made, some of the family events i blew off for tournaments, and the utterly skewed value system i had at the time. but i'm older and wiser now, and while i can't go back and change the decisions i regret, i can be thankful that i've lived long enough to make up for lost time. i have no trophies, and no frisbee pictures adorn my walls. my past glories exist only in my memory, and were it not for a pair of misguided authors, they would have died there with me. i'll pay them back if i get the chance.
it's true that neither students nor faculty at my school have an inkling of who kenny dobyns is. in one of the more bizarre comments i have ever heard, my fellow podcaster said, "but they have no idea who you are." in fact, they know exactly who i am, although they don't know who i was.