Monday, January 16, 2006

you can't take it with you

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.

so what?

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

great post, kenny. poignant and true.

Billy said...

Kenny,
Loved the article. Well written, honest and insightful. Please don't even think of posting it to rec.sport.disc - realm of the undereducated and over-opinionated.

I can relate, in a more modest way, to your satisfaction in your personal memories tinged by a bit of regret for the choices that years of devotion to ultmate can force.

One funny moment came to mind. When I first moved down to Florida, I eventually found a local game with a rather scraggly band of pick-up players. They graciously invited me to join the game, complimented my ability to complete my first throw, and encouraged me to keep up the good man to man coverage on defense.

After the game, their leader asked me where I had moved from, "San Francisco."
"Oh," he said, "who did you play for out there?"
"A team called Double Happiness."
"Uh, well, I hear they also have some pretty good teams out there."
"Yep," I said with a smile, "They do at that."

-Billy

Anonymous said...

you know joe durso. THE joe durso?

luke

Anonymous said...

Great Post!!! I always get a kick out of the folks that are yearning for acceptance in our sport. It is as if they are lacking in self-esteem or have a misguided view of themselves and this sport we love. I have never reached the heights that you have in this sport, but I have played for 26 years because I love to play. I don't give a hoot about what people think of the sport or if it will ever receive any recognition.

Obviously, many did not get enough attention at home as a kid or something!

Masters Hack

PS The current thread on RSD about some ultimate players being able to play in the NFL! What a bunch of crap!!! If you could you would!!!

parinella said...

A wise man once wrote, "There is nothing quite so humbling as having a gift you deem virtually priceless tossed aside like so much worthless junk."

not chris said...

Outstanding post!

Hh said...

from 1980-2002, Joe Durso did not make semis only thrice, and won 9 times. Pretty impressive, but it probably makes letting go that much harder.

I love this line, "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."
Powerful writing. I read your pieces on "New Teacher" and, a teacher myself (though in elementary school) they were good.

You are fucking eloquent. My hat is off.

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece of writing -- made me curious enough to look up the text of the article from December 1992. I guess I see now why Durso collects sugar bowls instead of art -- he resents artists like that hack Rembrandt for getting paid so damn much:

They have never filed for free agency. They have never been quoted through an agent. Their names have never appeared in a boxscore, and chances are, and no best-seller list will ever include their unauthorized biographies.

Nevertheless, Joe Durso, Steve Radjeff, Wayne Davies and members of the New York Ultimate remain the Babe Ruths and Michael Jordans of their respective, but little-known, sports.

Durso, ruler of the handball courts; Radjeff, king of the fly-fishing waters; Davies, the grand master of court tennis, and Frisbee's famous Ultimate, are all certified members of the same play-for-very-little-pay club: athletes anonymous.

"It saddens me and it angers me at the same time," said Durso, a 37-year-old school teacher from Brooklyn who in the last 10 years has won eight United States Handball Association titles, including the last six. "If you become the best in the world at something, you shouldn't be asked to do anything else.

"It's like having Rembrandt paint every day between 8 and 5 and then asking him to sell subway tokens at night." Dominates the Sport

Radjeff, a 36-year-old fishing-rod designer from Poulsbo, Wash., feels the same way. After all, he has held the United States All-Around Casting championship for the past 21 years, first winning it in 1972 at the age of 15.

"If casting was a higher-profile sport, then the paybacks would certainly be more rewarding," said Radjeff. "Instead, I'm scraping a little money together designing fishing rods."

Davies, a 37-year-old head professional at the Racquet and Tennis Club in midtown Manhattan has been the court-tennis champion of the world since 1987. He hasn't let the lack of notoriety dampen his spirits.

"What's the use of of being jealous of other athletes," said Davies. "If I wanted to be a part of another sport, I would have gone in that direction."

Ken Dobyns, captain of the New York Ultimate, a local frisbee team that has won five of the last six championships and four straight in the Ultimate Players Association, believes that the amount of recognition in any sport is "a double-edged sword." Could Lose Status

"If frisbee was more popular than it is today, a lot of guys might not be able to play because better athletes would likely take their place," said the 31-year-old Dobyns. "As it is now, frisbee catches a lot of athletes who fall through the cracks of many other organized sports."

Durso, the most outspoken member of athletes anonymous, doesn't exactly share that opinion.

"I'm not taking anything away from frisbee, but it's a very limited sport and very narrow skills are required to play it," Durso said. "Handball, on the other hand, is a very difficult sport to master, let alone be great at. I'm not just a guy who plays handball, I'm a great athlete who happened to choose handball as a sport."

If Durso, or any other member of athletes anonymous needs to hear a consoling voice, they might listen to Patrick Le Clerc, a 21-year-old student from Quebec.

"You think they're suffering from an identity crisis?" asked Le Clerc. "I'm the barrel-jumping champion of the world."

--Ken

Anonymous said...

Just realized that signing that last comment "Ken" could confuse some people. To clarify, I'm not the author of this blog, just a reader who happens to also be named Ken.

lil_brown_bat said...

Very nice piece; a concentrated dose of perspective. Congrats.

BTW, I found it via a front-page post on sportsfilter.com.

Travis Finucane said...

Two things:
Capitalizing the first letter of sentences and proper nouns makes prose easier to read, even in blogs.

A cocksure attitude is a greater boon to handball players than frisbee players, barrel leapers or flyfishermen. So a sample of champions from obscure sports will get most of its menace from the handball dude.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful writing. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Kenny:
Great to hear something from you after all these years. I am glad to hear that your life seems full and meaningful without Ultimate. You were a great coach and leader to all of us at Purchase and if you still have the desire to have fun with a bunch of foolish state school dropouts we would love to have you come and play at Fools or just hang out and coach/heckle. I hope your memories of Purchase were as special to you as they were to us.
Best,
Neal P

Anonymous said...

Dobyns, You RAT BASTARD!!! GOD BLESS AMERICA!! How much do I love you? You're all eloquent and shit. As much as I loved reading this, especially because it referenced my favorite topic...ME, it is a tribute to your ability to be secure in who you are and where you are, that you handled your fame, or lack thereof, with such class.
Joe Durso is a school teacher and an attorney. He has chosen the latter profession to be his life-long career. I think that may stem from his receiving the "star" treatment he relished in his glory days from his current tribe of 5th graders. You very accurately describe him as existing in "a living hell" when he begrudges his lack of recognition. However, when ESPN & CBS Sports compares you to Jordan, Gretsky & ALI, living off of a $40,000.00 NYC school teacher salary could really get to you. FYI: Joe has mellowed in his later years. At the age of 50, he still competes in the National Handball Championship open catogory, refusing to play in the masters. He's happy if he beats a couple of 20 year olds and makes it to the quarter finals. The plaque to which you refer still hangs in the same spot where you last saw it. The sugar bowls have been moved somewhat & he has some nice additions thanks to my wife & our family. The resentment is still & will always be there as to the lack of recognition. Even as ESPN gears up to do yet another special on the GREAT JOE DURSO, he never made one penny from being the Champ & I can't imagine in our materialistic society how frustrating that must be. I am pretty good at my craft and quite frankly am overcompensated for it. However, I am so far from the BEST. You and Joe were number ONE at what you did and yet you never reaped the financial rewards by which our society wrongly measures success. I appreciate Joe's frustration and constant venting and at the same time it adds that much weight to your ability to highlight the positive and to judge sucess by your own barometer. (Nice job of ass kissin' by Aidala)
Oh & btw Mr. "he's definatley not an ultimate player", when your ass was suspended & Crib was callin' subs, I caught the winning goal at sectionals to take us to regionals & caught the layout goal from Crib to break the tie against Columbia to win Regionals....must have been the great coaching. Love You & Miss you Arthur A I D A L A

beatty said...

moraga, moraga
rally, arnie, rally

Anonymous said...

please post more articles. we love your writing.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Dobyns. My oh my. And to think, I read the whole thing.

The one and only,
Kali Rose.

Anonymous said...

i wonder how butthurt joe durso would be if he found out that ken and the NY Ultimate were both featured on Cheap Seats on ESPN Classic.

Anonymous said...

1. Ultimate
2. Girlfriend
3. Family
4. Job
5. God

Erica Evans said...

Hello,
I stumbled across this post while researching a bit more about the SUNY Purchase Atomic Dogs Ultimate team. I am the president of the current SUNY Purchase Ultimate team, the Sub-Atomic Puppies. I'm researching some about the Dogs because we are in the process of putting together a fundraiser letter to send out to our friends and family and I'd like to include a blurb about SUNY Purchase Ultimate history. If there is any information you can provide I'd love to correspond with you via email, sunypurchaseultimate@gmail.com.

Also, I noticed you mentioned team cheers, I was wondering if you remember any of them and could pass them on. Our team is always looking for new cheers!

Thanks,
Erica Evans

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Ted Bowen said...

Kenny:

As an enthusiastic but severely skill-challenged, bench-warming ultimate player first with Middlebury and then Earth Ultimate, I definitely relate to the section on Artie. Glad to see you still have the "we" not "me" attitude.

Tedly

John Timmel said...

I was a neophyte ulitmate player and freshman at SUNY Purchases in 1989-90. Artie not only showed up at many of our practices, he made the trip across country to support us at College nationals in Scottsdale, Arizona. I still have a picture of me and Arty at our hotel. A great guy, who treated a skinny rookie atomic dog like a long known friend. I don't plan on getting arrested anytime soon, but if I do, I'm looking you up, Artie.