Sports! Muhammad Ali, Pelé and Team Canada 1972: Ah yes, thanks for the memories and the madness

I have the great privilege, excitement and pressure right now of directing a documentary on one of the greatest and most charismatic sports legends of all-time: the inimitable Muhammad Ali.

The challenge, after ten thousand books and three thousand documentaries on the man, is both daunting and and wondrous. An extraordinary talent through extraordinary times, whose intersection with history and with other famous and powerful people both defies and demands encapsulation.

When Ali uttered the famous phrase “I an’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong,” the effect was profound. Even one as unlikely as Noam Chomsky said:

“That rang serious alarm bells because it raised the question of why poor people in the United States were being forced by rich people in the United States to kill poor people in Vietnam. Putting it simply, that’s what it amounted to. And Ali put it very simply in ways that people could understand.”

And sportswriter Mark Kram indeed wrote (as quoted in Thomas Hauser’s The Lost Legacy of Muhammad Ali):

“What was laughable, if you knew anything about Ali at all, was that the literati was certain that he was a serious voice, that he knew what he was doing. He didn’t have a clue. Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived…”

…but Nelson Mandela said:

“Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam and the reasons he gave made him an international hero. The news could not be shut out even by prison walls. He became a real legnd to us in prison…”

And legendary play-off slugger Reggie Jackson talked about Ali’s influence on his psyche:

“Do you have any idea what Ali meant to black people? He was the leader of a nation; the leader of black America. As a young black man, at times I was ashamed of my colour; I was ashamed of my hair. And Ali made me proud.

I’m just as happy being black now as somebody else being white, and Ali was part of that growing process.

Think about it! Do you understand what it did for black Americans to know that the most physically gifted, possibly the most handsome, and one of the most charismatic men in the world was black? Ali helped raise black people in this country out of mental slavery.

The entire experience of being black changed for millions of people because of Ali.”

Enough said…

…for now.

NEW YORK COSMOS and the great PELE

In researching the time, I saw the 2006 documentary film Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos the other night, about the hilarious and quite incredible story of the New York Cosmos soccer team—that thanks to the signing of the legendary Pelé (and then other greats), took New York and North America by storm in the late 1970s early 80s .

Their success, incidentally, was interrupted only once, by the unlikely, yes, Vancouver Whitecaps in 1979, while I was dreaming (haplessly) about one day getting out of Bantam (age 14-15) and playing in the NHL.

If the era and the sport of soccer (or, as it should be called, football) interest you—or even if they don’t—I highly recommend the film.

Here’s a little Pelé from his earlier days in Brazil.

THE SUMMIT SERIES

But, being a Canadian, we finish with un peu de hockey—and footage from the most remarkable hockey series in history, an eight game extravaganza between Canada and the (now defunct, like the California Golden Seals) Soviet Union in September, 1972, with the Cold War still exceedingly hot.

With the first four games in Canada and the last four in the Soviet Union, the series was supposed to be a cakewalk, an eight game rout, for the NHL star-studded Canadians against the “amateur” Russians.

Russia shocked all of Canada by winning the opeing game 7-3 in Montreal, with Ken Dryden in net for the Canadians (Ken is the same Ken in the title of my second novel Understanding Ken).

And, as a sort of intermission, a live, Big Bum excerpt from the book here.

After four games in Canada, Russia was shockingly ahead, two wins to one, with one game tied.

With guantlet thrown down after the Game 1 massacre (am I mixing metaphors?), the series turned into a war of pride and ideology—and the Canadian fans had taken to extensively booing the Canadian team.

Team leader Phil Esposito’s post-game-four, on-ice, sweat-drenched, nearly swearing interview in Vancouver shamed and rallied the Canadian public in the same instance, with its passionate innocence.

Check it out here.

Canada lost the first game in Russia, as well. Then won the next two by a goal (both winners from unheralded Paul Henderson—who for good reason became a born again Christian).

Then in the final game eight, Canada fought back from a 5-3 deficit in the third period, to tie the game at 5 on a goal by my hero, Yvan Cournoyer (I was six at the time).

And then, with schools and work-places put on hold all over Canada, Paul Henderson (from Esposito), scored the winning goal (the goal of the century) that won the game for Canada with 34 seconds left in game eight (4 wins to 3 with 1 tied).

Check out J.P. Parise swinging his stick hatchet-style at the referee, the madness ensuing after the Cournoyer goal (with Canadian hockey official Alan Eagleson—who would later be indicted for ripping off the NHL pension fund, and a bunch of players to boot) going slightly beserk, and then Henderson’s legendary goal.

There you have it. You’re up to date in the world of sports/nostalgia/distraction/love and the Cold War.

Lots of love to you,

Pete

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2 Responses to “Sports! Muhammad Ali, Pelé and Team Canada 1972: Ah yes, thanks for the memories and the madness”

  1. Jason Goode says:

    So you have the greenlight on the Ali project? This is really exciting. Congrats!

    Can you tell us how this project came to be and how you came to be the one directing it? Is the focus on his anti-war stance?

  2. Jason, you lovely fella, I can’t tell you anything, but all of the secrets are decodable from Phil Esposito’s outburst, which was actually designed and unfolded by the CIA, with help from the KGB, with a little help from an IOU, with an IUD thrown in.

    Okay, I’ll tell you abou it when we see each other!

    Love t you and the gang,

    Pete

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