Last August, when he was 44 years old, Lee Trevino won one of golf's major prizes, the PGA tournament. It wasn't his first major, or even his first PGA. But a series of factors, including his relatively advanced age, his many years of honest service to his profession and the high regard in which he is held by the public, combined to light this victory with a particularly warm, soft, sweet glow.
Appreciating that there wouldn't be many, if indeed any more triumphs like this, Trevino lingered over it, inhaled it as if it was an aroma. "When you're young," he said wistfully, "you always say to yourself, 'It's inevitable; you're going to win sooner or later.' But when you're old, then the inevitable is over with. You don't know whether you're going to win or not."
Last weekend, three people who were long past inevitable, three people who had won very big before but didn't know whether they would again, three people who had, years ago, earned the respect and admiration of the sporting public -- a 30-year-old tennis player, a 38-year-old basketball player, a 71-year-old horse trainer -- all won big, warm, sweet victories.
Chris Evert-Lloyd won the French Open.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA championship.
Woody Stephens saddled Creme Fraiche in the Belmont Stakes.
Three geezers winning majors, in each case overcoming major obstacles to do so. Three geezers worth applauding for giving their best in something special.
Evert's best surface may be clay. But given the way Martina Navratilova has dominated women's tennis in recent years, winning like no one since, well, like no one since Evert in the Chrissie days, winning on every surface, and winning, it seems, every single match, Evert did not figure to have enough colors on her palette to paint Navratilova into a corner. As wide as the gap is between Evert and the rest of the field, that's how wide the gap seemed between her and Navratilova.
Yet there she was in Paris, as always giving away speed, strength and power to Navratilova, but somehow playing better than most anticipated, playing, said an admiring Navratilova, "the best tennis of her life -- she has actually improved at the age of 30."
As nice as it must have been for Evert to win the French, it must have been nicer still to beat atilova and certify the integrity of the victory. Nice, too, were those evidently warm feelings of friendship and mutual respect that connected the rivals. "I think we've made each other better," said Evert. "I made her improve her ground strokes and her discipline. Then, when she passed me, I became very conscious of physical fitness and strength." The names Evert and Navratilova have become so interlocked and so synonymous with women's tennis that Navratilova admits, "The game wouldn't be the same without (Evert). I'm sure whenever she retires, I will follow shortly. The game won't be the same for me without her."
Although it's not a rarity for two longstanding opponents to bring out the competitive best in one another, it's always appreciated when it happens. Which leads us to the Lakers- Celtics series and what might be the last hurrah for the oldest player in the NBA. Eight times before the Lakers and the Celtics had met for the NBA championship, and eight times before the Lakers had lost. No matter how much marquee value they had -- from West, Baylor and Chamberlain to Kareem and Magic -- the Lakers never had enough points. Until now.
"I feel like Johnny Podres in the '55 Series," said a jubilant Abdul-Jabbar after beating Boston in Boston, on that parquet floor, under those banners, and amid all that ghostly victory cigar smoke. Suddenly the Lakers were the boys of summer -- the Brooklyn Dodgers of Lew Alcindor's long-ago youth, finally rising up to mite the lordly New York Yankees. Suddenly Abdul-Jabbar was, like Podres, a stopper in a final game. He had won three titles before, but they paled against the historical backdrop of this one. At 38, he had led his team both in scoring and, unusually, rebounding. He played enthusiastically and impetuously, without creaks or rust, a style that belied his years and recalled his coltish days in the league.
The mention of colts -- although this transition would better be served by the mention of geldings -- brings us to Belmont Park and Stephens, who saddled a record fourth straight Belmont Stakes winner, and then sent some champagne over to the press box to wet the whistles of the writers who were adding logs to the fire of his legend. Although it can be argued that 30 is old for tennis, and 38 is very old for basketball, such an argument is based on context. On the other hand, it's hard to find too many contexts where 71 would be written off as callow youth. The unlikely Stephens scenario -- he was 68 before he won his first Belmont and he hasn't lost one since -- is a testimonial to having hope and being of good cheer.
Stephens entered two horses in the race against the heavily favored Chief's Crown: Stephan's Odyssey, a colt thought to be much the better of the pair, and the gelding, Creme Fraiche. Then, Stephens watched with glee while a heavy rain pelted the track, making it into a muddy goo. Creme Fraiche, you see, is a mudder. When reporters asked how it felt to have won four straight, Stephens, whose arms have always been long enough to pat himself on the back, pointed out that his horses finished one-two, congratulated both jockeys on giving the kind of ride he approved of, and cracked, "For a while, I thought it'd be a dead heat and I'd have five."