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After Newtown: Change Has Gotta Come


Thirty-two years, one month and six days ago, I decided I was done living in 850-word boxes like this one. I'd grow claws, if that's what it took. I'd scratch my way out.

I'd just finished coming to a conclusion about a man I'd never spoken to in my life. I'd just written, in two hours of moist deadline panic, an 850-word judgment on Dick Howser's vacillation over returning to manage the 1981 Yankees. Hamlet Howser, I'd called him, a man hemming and hawing over whether to be or not to be. Very cute. Very clever. Very wrong. Dick, it turned out, was a dignified man trying to find some dignified way to stand up to George Steinbrenner's backroom bullying, a hundred cogs whirring behind the curtains that I couldn't see.

That was it for me and sports columns. I went right on applauding the masters of the high-wire sprint. I just knew I didn't have the fast-twitch muscles for it. I needed two months and 8,500 words, not two hours and 850, so I exited the box.

Until last Thursday morning, over breakfast, reading what a rookie basketball coach from low-lying Winthrop University had just done. Walked to the microphone after a 10-point loss to an Ohio State team ranked fourth in preseason polls, politely answered the age-old questions about X's and O's and Davids and Goliaths, then hesitated, as everyone began to scatter and someone muttered, "Anything else, Coach?" ... and said, Well, yes, he did have one more thing.

And suddenly Pat Kelsey was talking about these two pink bedrooms back home in South Carolina and these two little girls that he was going to give the biggest hugs of his life ... and about those 20 empty bedrooms in Newtown, Conn.

"I didn't vote for President Obama," he said. "But you know what? He's my president now. He's my leader. I need him to step up. Mr. Boehner, the speaker of the House ... he needs to step up. Parents, teachers, rabbis, priests, coaches, everybody needs to step up. This has to be a time for change. And I know this microphone's powerful right now, because we're playing the fourth-best team in the country. I'm not going to have a microphone like this the rest of the year, maybe the rest of my life.

"I'm proud to grow up American. I'm proud to say I'm part of the greatest country ever.... And it'll stay that way if we change. But we gotta change."

Then I read, in the next paragraph, that Jim Boeheim—after talking for 15 minutes about his 900th victory at Syracuse last week—had done it too. "If we in this country," he said, "cannot get the people that represent us to do something about firearms, we are a sad, sad society."

And I looked up from my French toast and started reading their words to my wife, and started wondering out loud what would happen if this became contagious, if every coach and every athlete....

Why'd you switch to the 2--3 zone in the last three minutes, Coach? "Their point guard was killing us off the dribble, we weren't getting any weakside help, and I've got one more thing, a question for you: How long can 300 million people keep letting a rifle club's money and fears steamroller all their common sense and humanity?"

Who's your quarterback this Sunday? "Well ... uh ... that depends on Michael's concussion test on Wednesday, on what the doc says, and one more thing: You know, it's got to be just as nice, if you're a gun collector, to see that $3,000 semi gleaming under glass as it is for a baseball fan to see a Mickey Mantle card, but here's what I don't get—how that can possibly trump everyone else's right to go to the movies without ending up in a lake of 70 people's blood?"

So you still like your chances against Oklahoma City once all your teammates are healthy? "Give us a month to get a little chemistry going, and yeah, I do, but meantime, help me get something straight: So we're saying that a target shooter's right to squeeze a trigger 30 times and make 30 holes in a target 60 feet away without reloading matters more than every six-year-old's right not to end up in a pile of bodies under a 27-year-old teacher full of bullets?"

And then I began wondering out loud what would happen if all of us, when our wives call from the grocery to see if we're out of peanut butter, reminded each other that banning assault weapons might not prevent every massacre, like the rifle club says, but it would surely prevent at least one.

And if every time our mothers finished updating us on the weather back home, we added that one more thing: "Did you write to your congressman and senators again this week, Mom, because like Coach said, we gotta change."

My wife looked at me across the breakfast table. "You need to write a column," she said.

And I knew she was right, because I was twitching. Fast.

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What if it became contagious? What if every coach and athlete spoke out about the scourge of guns?