Looking back on sports in 1985, it's striking how many of the champions we celebrated made their way to the dais traveling improbable routes. Perhaps it's not an unprecedented list, but it's an impressive one:
Villanova, 9-7 in the Big East and unranked as the NCAA tournament began, successively upset Dayton, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and Memphis State to reach the final, then shot a remarkable 22 of 28 from the field and stunned mighty Georgetown.
Boris Becker, an unheralded 17-year-old West German, became the youngest player and the first nonseed to win tennis' most prestigious title: men's singles at Wimbledon.
Scott Verplank, a collegiate golfer competing against pros in the Western Open, led or shared the lead in all four rounds and beat Jim Thorpe in a playoff to become the first amateur in 30 years to win a PGA Tour event.
The Kansas City Royals, at their best when the odds were longest, spotted favored Toronto a 3-1 lead in the American League playoffs before reversing gears, then repeated the trick against favored St. Louis and in so doing became the only team to lose Games 1 and 2 at home and still win the World Series.
Michael Spinks, plumped, pumped up and still giving away about 25 pounds to undefeated and overconfident Larry Holmes, earned a clean decision to become the first light heavyweight to depose the heavyweight champion.
Penn State, after losing five games and not going to a bowl in 1984, is now 11-0 and the top-ranked college football team in 1985.
In picking a Sportsman of the Year, you couldn't fault any of these performances; they all have merit. But taken together, as a piece, they reveal a pattern to the year -- a pattern of unusual, improbable, even startling results.
For 1985, this Year of Living Unusually, my Sportsmen of the Year are two people who, standing side by side, form a perfect 10, Mr. Inseam and Mr. Outseam, the Laurel and Hardy, the Mutt and Jeff, the Toody and Muldoon of pro rookies, Manute Bol and William (The Refrigerator) Perry.
For the raison d'etre of sport: for the sheer, joyous fun of it.
They're fun to watch. And when you watch them, they appear to be having fun playing. You see their smiles -- Fridge's an endearing gap-toothed, Manute's a wide ivory -- and you feel their delight.
They're not hiding anything. How could they? They are what they are, and it is impossible not to like them.
Sport is increasingly, almost overwhelmingly bottom-line directed. The very modern major franchise is a paradigm of cynical corporatism. Every few months, a different group is talking about going on strike. Players, umpires; who's next, general managers? Winning isn't everything anymore, and it's certainly not the only thing. Profit is. The stain of greed in sport is so deep and so thick, you can barely tunnel through it.
There are scandals everywhere you look and more hidden in the sock drawers. Athletes taking money, taking drugs, then taking the Fifth Amendment. Coaches, alumni and boosters greasing teen-age palms, then giving sanctimonious speeches about honor, character and sacrifice. Knowing that payoffs were being given to his Kentucky basketball teammates, Mel Turpin wasn't proud that he hadn't taken any money; he was infuriated he hadn't gotten his fair share.
That world is too much with us.
We needed fresh air.
We got Manute and The Fridge.
Yes, in a sense they're cartoons. They wouldn't be celebrities if they didn't look like they do. Certainly, the initial interest in them coalesced around their physiques. Many people, myself included, saw these athletes in comic terms. The first piece I wrote about Manute suggested if he didn't make the team he might get work as a foul pole, or, standing on a roof with a dinner dish on his head, as a cable-TV system. The first piece I wrote about The Fridge said when he went into a restaurant he didn't ask for a menu, but for an estimate; at 360 pounds he looked as if he'd been held hostage inside a Baskin-Robbins. Many people, myself included, assumed both Manute and The Fridge would shortly be gone from the spotlight because their athletic skills were insufficient to maintain the curiosity about them.
What happened was that we were half right. They aren't now and may never become athletic stars. Manute has miles to go on offense, and The Fridge is a similar distance from all-pro. But in this one short year they have become superstars. Everyone knows them. They are familiar names even in nonsporting households. They've already received the highest compliment: Kids are being nicknamed after them.
Is it marketing and hype? Sure.
Is it cynical and patronizing? Maybe.
But it's also in recognition of how they're perceived by the public. People want to see them because people like them, respond to them, root for them. It's out there. You can feel it. People appreciate their personalities, their senses of humor, their senses of self. It is their imperfections -- their great size and their awkwardness -- that make them endearing, as it is the innocent abandon with which they play that makes them beloved.
Manute reaching up to block a shot, The Fridge lining up at fullback: On a clinical level they represent new advances in their crafts. That's interesting. But seeing them smile, seeing them so pleased to have this chance to play their games reminds us of the intrinsic escapism of sport. And that's wonderful.