OK, so part of getting smarter on this job, particularly in social settings, is learning to be careful not to ruin or diminish anyone else’s moment, the one play or defining episode they cherish most in their entire sports experience.
Just a couple of weeks ago, while hanging out with a bunch of fine folks after a speaking gig, the conversation once again steered to “the moment.’’ What did I think, they asked, was the biggest moment in New England sports history?
No surprise, I suppose, that the top choice for most everyone in the room was the Malcolm Butler goal line interception that handed the Patriots their Super Bowl victory over Seattle. Obviously, it was a great and memorable play, and though it may seem to have happened a decade ago given how various Patriots story lines (first-degree murder, Deflategate, Framegate et al) have evolved in recent weeks, it happened barely more than 90 days ago.
Truth is, I suspect Butler’s pick feels a lot fresher for people in Seattle right now, just because loss is that way. Otherwise, we wouldn’t constantly remind ourselves not to let defeat define us. Loss lingers, gnaws, regurgitates its pain. Triumph settles quietly, confidently, in trophy cases and statues. Loss exacts a toll. Winning pays dividends.
For me, the moment came 45 years ago Sunday, Mother’s Day 1970, when Bobby Orr mashed home Derek Sanderson’s return feed (Fred Cusick: “Orr . . . to Sanderson . . . back in front to Orr . . . shot, SCORES!’’) to clinch the Stanley Cup and then took flight gloriously across the Garden ice.
For those age 50 and above, the moment lives on like no other in this town. Ray Lussier’s photograph of Orr, suspended in air, stick raised in reflex and triumph, still hangs in barrooms, repair shops, and maybe a rectory or two, all around town. Orr’s statue, capturing him in that very instant of triumph, in 2010 was placed at the edge of where the old Garden stood.
The “Flying Bobby’’ moment remains with us as both memory and art form, unparalleled in that sense, at least until someone goes bronze with that iconic photo (credit Frank O’Brien) of a baby-faced Larry Bird puffing on Red Auerbach’s cigar after the Celtics captured the 1981 NBA title. Bird is Churchill-like in the pose, his right index and middle fingers raised high to shape the ‘V’ for victory.
On that sweltering Mother’s Day afternoon of May 10, 1970, still in high school, I sat at home with my finger on a cassette recorder and taped the entire radio broadcast, careful to edit out the commercials (something I now regret).
We were a hockey town then. Which isn’t to deny we remain that today, but nothing, in large part because of Orr, dominated the conversation here like the Bruins. They were talented and fun and as deliciously off the wall as the game itself, with its ricochets, crazy bounces, and brawls that erupted spontaneously and spilled over the boards and carried on along the benches and down the hallways.
We knew them for such little things as their sweep checks (Sanderson), their pugnacious twitches (Johnny “Pie” McKenzie), even the trademark stitches inked on their masks (Gerry Cheevers). The trainers, John “Frosty” Forristall and Dan Canney, held near-celebrity status.
Up until Orr’s arrival in 1966, the once-proud Bruins franchise, though still with an ardent following, had become irrelevant in the NHL standings They were perennial postseason DNQs.
The same was true of the early and mid ’60s Red Sox, with but Carl Yastrzemski and Dick Radatz as their only drawing cards. Crowds at outdated, tired Fenway Park frequently dipped below 10,000, even with a $1 bleacher seat as the get-in price and hot dogs and popcorn but 25 cents each.
The upstart AFL Patriots were a vaudevillian one-liner. It was all Babe Parilli, Gino Cappelletti, Jim Nance, and an endless string of quotes from owner Billy Sullivan that kept the team in print when everything else about his team was unprintable. Wacky as Sullivan was, history may show that he had a stronger grip on reality than the current Patriots owner.
The Celtics, of course, won and won and won, but it’s arguable that we were truly a basketball town prior to Bird’s arrival in 1979. The Hick from French Lick changed the entire Green dynamic, to the point where, no matter what success follows, it will never be like that again.
Orr and Bird transformed their teams, to the point that neither franchise may ever recover from their respective heroics.
But in 1970, the Bruins owned it. They owned everything, the entire market, the public conversation and consciousness. When tickets went on sale, usually in groups of 6-8 games, fans queued up outside the old Garden a day or two in advance. By predawn hours on day of sale, the line snaked down Causeway Street, and turned at North Washington toward the Charlestown Bridge. Come daylight, Garden doors swung open and attendants would usher fans into the building, where they would sit in the stands until called down, one section at a time, to the box office.
Chatter in schools and business offices and churches was dominated by everything Bruins, who had not won a Stanley Cup since World War II (1941). And the center of every conversation was Orr, the humble kid from Parry Sound, Ontario, who arrived here with an adolescent’s brush cut, reinvented the sport with his speedy rushes, his dare and guile, and on one warm and wonderful Mother’s Day afternoon actually proved he could fly.
Look, I know, there is no wrong answer when asked to name the greatest sports moment. Whatever it is, it’s right for you. But from an era when things so rarely went right in Boston sports, when nothing else seemed to matter beyond when the Bruins would next be on Channel 38, I’ll stick with the Orr goal.
Of all the tests, it is time that measures the moment. The Orr goal wins. Then. Now. Forever.