Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, is my favorite writer on the planet. His piece on Bill Parcells of the Dallas Cowboys in the November issue of Play, the new sports magazine of the Sunday New York Times, is a masterpiece. Appearing the day after the death of “Red” Auerbach of the Boston Celtics, it is a picture of the totally driven joyless coach.
Lewis takes us into the daily anguish of Parcells as the coach looks for weaknesses in his opponents and in his own guys. Parcells is a boxing nut. In the off-season, his idea of a good time is to hang around cloroxed fight gyms. Parcells sees the world through the prism of boxing. He believes games are often won and lost because one team quits at a crucial tipping point. Parcells cherishes the clippings of a long forgotten fight thirty years ago between Vito Antuofermo and “Cyclone” Hart, which Lewis relates to us through Parcells.
Hart was the better fighter, and he knocked Antuofermo all over the ring for four rounds. But Antuofermo absorbed the punishment dealt out by Hart, his natural superior. He did it so well that Hart became discouraged. In the fifth round, Antuofermo sensed Hart’s discouragement and quickly attacked. Hart went down for the count.
Lewis recounts Parcells quoting his long saved yellowed article about the match: “When the fighters went back to their makeshift locker rooms, only a thin curtain was between them. Hart’s room was quiet, but on the other side he could hear Antuofermo’s corner-man talking about who would take the fighter to the hospital. Finally he heard Antuofermo say ‘Every time he hit me with that left hook to the body I was sure I was going to quit. After the second round, I thought if he hit me there again I’d quit. I thought the same thing after the fourth round. Then he didn’t hit me no more.’
At that moment, Hart began to weep. It was really soft at first. Then harder. He was crying for the first time because he understood that Antuofermo had felt the same way he had and worse. The only thing that separated the guy talking from the one crying was what they had done. The coward and the hero feel the same emotions,” quoted Bill Parcells to Michael Lewis. Parcells then ended with this comment, “This is the story of our last game. We are Cyclone Hart.”
Bill Parcells at this point in his career can still synthesize the DNA of winning. The portrait that Lewis paints of Parcells the man makes we wonder if a sour, sullen, totally driven coach can mold a group of players into winners who will absorb the punishment and then deliver the decisive blows.
As I read Michael Lewis’s piece I thought of “Red” Auerbach who knew how to savor a win. He would light a long chubby cigar on the bench when his team was comfortably ahead. It became his trademark and symbolized one of the greatest pro sports dynasties in the history of pro sports.
Auerbach loved his players. Bill Russell was his star and ultimately his protégé and successor as coach of the Celtics. Both loved to win, and they also loved to laugh and celebrate. Auerbach loved the players and remained involved with the Celtics for 50 years – until the day he died.
I finished the Parcells article wishing the old football coach could absorb some of the Auerbach aura. Bill Parcells has won in every job he’s had for forty years. Coaching is his life. It’s his everything, and he can’t allow himself even a smile, much less a cigar.