Friday, November 24, 2006

New York: The True Genesis Revealed

I have been amused by the recent flap related to a certain team from California not qualifying for Nationals even though many of the team’s players had already bought plane tickets to Sarasota. Lest you should think that by mentioning it now I am in some way thumbing my nose at that team, I should point out that I was not so amused as to actually determine which team it was. My amusement actually comes from a memory this incident dredged up, a memory of an incident that was potentially far more humiliating than buying a non-refundable plane ticket.

In the weeks that followed the recent and untimely passing of Curtis Wagner, an original member of New York, Pat King hit upon the idea of getting the old crew together to mourn Curtis, celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of The Greatest Team In The History Of The Game, and pass countless hours doing the only thing we loved more than beating our opponents into submission: rehashing the beating of our opponents into submission. It should come as no surprise to those who observe the way the world works that we could very easily be planning to get together in celebration of nothing at all. If life teaches no other lesson, it teaches us that the line between success and failure, between victory and defeat, between the Greatest and the Stupidest is preciously thin. At the time when Pat King’s email was making the rounds of cyberspace it had been 20 years since an event that no one has ever celebrated, an event that mercifully faded into obscurity just when it seemed to be poised to become the most embarrassing moment in the history of a sport whose history would not be written for another 18 years or so.

To set the scene, the fall of 1985 saw the rise of the Chicago Bears, as one dimensional a team as ever there was. Behind a dominating defense, they charged to a title with a marginally talented quarterback and a behemoth of a man running the ball in goal line situations. Somewhere along the way they recorded the Super Bowl Shuffle, and the world learned that their meager offensive skills were in no way supplemented by artistic talent.

During that same fall, KABOOM!, another marginally talented team, finished a surprising second at the UPA Nationals, losing in the finals 21-19 to a significantly better Flying Circus squad. Over the following year those two seemingly unrelated events would come together to bring about another event that almost humiliated an entire team into early retirement, and indirectly gave rise to The Greatest Team In The History Of The Game.

In the spring of 1986, northeast colleges graduated a bevy of talented ultimate players with family ties in and around New York. For reasons that can only be guessed at, upon returning home they opted to form a new team, Spot, rather than join the established area powerhouse, KABOOM!. The folly of their choice soon became evident when they won that year’s Easterns (at the time a very prestigious tournament) while KABOOM! went down in a fiery quarterfinal crash. With Titanic a perennial juggernaut out of Boston and Spot threatening to become the top dog in New York, you would have thought the members of KABOOM! had reason to be worried. After all, this was before the introduction of wildcards, and there were only two spots available for those three teams. But the gap between how talented the members of KABOOM! were and how talented they thought themselves to be was a veritable chasm, and just when they needed to assiduously apply themselves to the task of preparing for that fall’s regional championships, they opted instead to do as the Bears had done before them. Yes, when confronted with the very real possibility that they might not even qualify for 1986 Nationals, KABOOM! recorded The National Shuffle. How’s that for hubris?

Liz Queler is a singer, songwriter, and musician who is talented enough to make a living at it, but back in 1986 she was an ultimate player who foolishly pledged her support to the misguided musical efforts of some fellow players. If she remembers it at all, it is probably when she wakes in a cold sweat from a nightmare episode of This is Your Life, with the entire professional music community learning with dismay that she once sang backup on The National Shuffle.

Patrick King is perhaps the most musically gifted corporate attorney you’ll ever meet, and one of the smartest people I know, so it was surely a low point when he hatched the brainchild that would become The National Shuffle. Still, we gleefully followed along. With Pat leading the way, and Liz providing talent, support, and a 4 track tape recorder, The National Shuffle was born.

As I remember it, Liz manned the equipment and Pat acted as what must have been passing for a producer, even going so far as to pound our more rhythmically challenged teammates on the back in time to the beat so that their portions of the song had at least some semblance of rhythm. In the meantime, I sat close by frantically writing and re-writing lyrics that were being recorded mere moments after I had penned them. At no time do I remember thinking that perhaps our actions might be seen as foolhardy. For reasons I can’t possibly understand, we were so sure of our imminent success at regionals and subsequent trip to Nationals in Texas that we even went so far as to give ourselves stupid “cowboy” nicknames. And you thought buying a plane ticket was bad?

That fall’s regional tournament was held on the Purchase College campus in Purchase, New York. Titanic and KABOOM! met in the winners final with Spot patiently waiting to take on the loser for the second spot to Nationals. As I mentioned previously, there were no wildcards at this time. There also were no games to 15 or ninety minute time caps. In fact, battles between top teams often stretched into multi-hour affairs that were more wars of attrition than displays of ultimate prowess, and this one was no exception. KABOOM! received the pull with the game tied at 21, double game point. Five turnovers later Titanic punched it in for the epic win.

We had the disc to win three times, but we couldn’t close the deal. Now we had to face a younger, more athletic, more talented team that had been watching us kill ourselves for the last hour of the game. Our front line players were exhausted, and our subs were largely untested. Oh yeah, and we had stupid cowboy nicknames and had recorded The National Shuffle.

A combination Spot victory and KABOOM! humiliation seemed inevitable. In fact, had someone been taking action on the game, I doubt anyone would have bet on us, least of all us. We knew better than that, although we hadn’t known better than to record that stupid song. But a funny thing happened to Spot on the way to their first Nationals appearance; they forgot to show up.

In a game whose outcome still has me scratching my head twenty years later, the fresher, younger, more talented Spot team lost to a demoralized and exhausted KABOOM! team 19-12. Why? Is it because we were motivated by the fear of the lifelong humiliation we would suffer when word of The National Shuffle got out? Maybe. Who knows? But what I do know is that if Spot had won that game the ultimate landscape in New York would have been dramatically different the following winter. With an Easterns victory and a Nationals semi-final or final appearance in their first year (we can assume they would have done at least as well as we did), would Spot have had any motivation to entertain the idea of a merger with KABOOM!? It doesn’t seem likely, and it therefore doesn’t seem likely that the dynasty that would become the Evil Empire would have been brought to life in a dingy bar later that year. And if there were no New York in 1987, what would have happened at Nationals that year and what would that have meant to the players in Boston? I guess we’ll never know, and we have The National Shuffle to thank for that. Our egos were just too big to realize how foolish it was to record that song, and our pride too overwhelming to allow us to lose once we had done so.

Perhaps that’s the problem with those guys in California. Maybe they just don’t have pride enough to back up their egos. Then again, all they did was buy plane tickets. Big deal.