In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.
The reflection – Prologue: For my entire life, sports has read like one long, living journey. No thanks to the Coronavirus, I think we’d all agree that this current tremendous void of sports – in participation, spectating, or watching on TV – has given all of us pause to reflect just how much sports has played a major part in our lives and how much we miss it. Based on what we’ve heard from government officials this past week, we may not have sports as we know it until summer at the earliest, but I am not that optimistic about that.
The reflection – Chapter 1: We’ve never seen anything like this Coronavirus in my lifetime, and I am not confident that everybody will follow the health guidelines to make this go away sooner rather than later. However, this nervous “downtime” has given us all a chance to reflect upon what sports – which certainly includes USC football – has meant to each and every one of us down through the years. Sports have played a major part of not only who we are but what we are – for good or bad. Sports flows through our veins like the red blood that keeps us alive.
The reflection – Chapter 2: As a (gulp) senior citizen, I am told I check all the boxes that could attract the Coronavirus into my being, a fact that has barricaded me into my condo. That being said, even if the virus comes down my chimney and does invade my body, it can’t take away from me the lifetime memories and experiences of sports participation, spectating, or writing. For a select few, like myself, sports even turned it into an occupation. Hopefully, for some of you, my passion for sports hits home.
The reflection – Chapter 3: For me, this love affair with sports started as soon as I could throw a ball.Believe it or not, when I was a young boy (4-years-old) growing up in what was then called South Arcadia (Calif.), times were so different that my parents allowed me to ride my black Schwinn bicycle to the liquor store to buy Topps baseball cards. Now, as I look back on it, my parents must have been crazy to let a 4-year-old bike over a mile to buy baseball cards at a liquor store, especially when there was no major league baseball team in the LA area. Heck, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn back in 1954, but I fell in love early with baseball by playing the game in the front yard of our bought-with-the-G.I. Bill house.
The reflection – Chapter 4: Back in the day (1954), you could buy a Topps baseball card for a penny or five cents for a packet, which was accompanied by the proverbial stick of gum, which had the most addictive smell. During certain times,I would save money and ride my bicycle to the liquor store and buy an entire box (carton) of cards, which I think was $5.00. If I had saved all my baseball cards and sold them when I had gotten much older, I could have retired at 40. What happened to all my cards? I traded them for bags of marbles to another boy, which was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made. I had so many “doubles” of player cards that I would rewrap them, set up a card table on our front yard, and resell them to other kids in the neighborhood. I mean, when you have seven copies of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, how many do you need?
The reflection – Chapter 5: During this young time period of my life, my parents enrolled me in the local Little League, a sports organization known as BCL (Boys Christian League). BCL offered me organized tackle football, basketball, and baseball. I was on Team Coral C-1 (first grade), Coral C-2 (second grade), and Coral C-3 (third grade). I was far advanced as a youth athlete compared to the others on my team. Both my parents were Jewish, but there was no local little league for me to play, so they knew how badly I wanted to play ball and went ahead and allowed me to play in BCL with some other Jewish boys in my same situation.
The reflection – Chapter 6: My parents took home movies of me in all three BCL sports, which I used to show my classes when I was a high school teacher and coach. It should be noted, today BCL is no longer, but it’s now the educational grounds of Rio Hondo Prep. For the record, in my very early days, I was a Milwaukee Braves fan, and my favorite player was pitcher Warren Spahn. A neighborhood boy named Dennis loved the Braves, and I jumped on the bandwagon. I was thrilled to learn that Spahn had a son also named Greg. When the Dodgers finally arrived from Brooklyn, I became a Dodgers fan, and pitcher Sandy Koufax – to this day – remains my all-time favorite Boys in Blue. I once watched with my dad and my uncle Eddie, Sandy strike out 18 Giants in 1959 in the Coliseum, a memory that never went away. And can you believe that in those days, you could park your car in a neighborhood front yard across the street from the Coli and leave your car keys in your vehicle so the owner, who charged a reasonable fee, could move your car to make room for another.
The reflection – Chapter 7: Even as a very young boy, I was already such a little jock that my parents couldn’t contain it. They tried to put me in Saturday religious school. I remember saying, “I go to school five days a week, so why do I have to go to school on Saturday? I just want to play ball.” Not bad logic for a first grader, I must admit. And BTW, it didn’t matter if it was baseball, basketball, or football, all I ever wanted to do was play ball. In the end, my parents – who probably couldn’t believe what planet I was from – capitulated. My life was sports and would always be so. As I grew older, I learned to read at a higher level because I was given easy sports books to read. About the only distraction from sports for me was when I would watch Superman or Zorro episodes on television. Now those were real superheroes!
The reflection – Chapter 8: The funny thing is that I had basically never heard of USC football as a youngster, but I had heard of the New York Yankees, Babe Ruth, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, of whom I had baseball cards of guys named Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Jim Gilliam. One day in 1956, I found my dad washing his car in the driveway while listening to a USC football game being broadcast from South Bend (Ind.). I distinctly remember hearing the name “Notre Dame” and listening to the exploits of an Irish player named Paul Hornung, who would later win the Heisman and become an NFL legend with the Green Bay Packers.
The reflection – Chapter 9: The following year, I remember my dad listening to another USC game, and recall the name of a USC halfback named Angelo Coia. Now that was a name you didn’t forget. My dad was actually a big Navy and UCLA college football fan because he fought in the Navy in WWll (Philippines), and we always listened to or watched the Army-Navy football Game. He loved a Navy halfback named Joe Bellino, who would go on to win the Heisman in 1960. My Dad’s UCLA connection? His oldest brother, Jack, attended UCLA. Historical note: my uncle Jack once dated Rosalind Wyman while at UCLA, and she would eventually become part of the LA City Council and was instrumental in bringing the Dodgers to LA from Brooklyn.
The reflection – Chapter 10: My parents, Howard and Anita, moved to Monterey Park (Calif.) before my fourth-grade year (1959) and bought a house in a new track area just minutes from downtown Los Angeles called the Monterey Highlands. The new housing was just inside the boundaries of the Alhambra Unified School District. Point of information: my parents and most of my relatives attended old AHS as would I. In fact, my dad’s brother, Jack, was Commissioner General (AKA President) of Alhambra High back in the early 40’s. My Lithuanian immigrant grandpa, Abe, owned a shoe and leather goods repair store -Abe’s Shoe Repair – on Main Street across from the high school. Upon moving to the Monterey Highlands, I enrolled at Fremont Grammar School, which I learned was home to a number of former celebrities, which included baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, but I digress.
From the press box…
The reflection – Chapter 11: My love of sports was undeniable. I remember in fourth grade my parents had the normal fall parent conference with my teacher, Mrs. Goldberg. Mrs. Goldberg told my parents in a typical New York City accent, “Greg is such a sweet boy, but he is so obsessed with sports, winning, and does not accept losing. However, I think as he gets older, he will eventually grow out of it.” A year before my beautiful mother died four years ago, she retold me the parent conference story again and revealed to me, “Greggie (she loved calling me that), Mrs. Goldberg was wrong; you didn’t grow out of sports, you grew into it!” Heck, when my sister, Lisa, who is 16 years younger than me, was in elementary school, I prodded her to learn the 1976 Dodgers batting order to gain my acceptance. She laughs about it today, but I don’t think she thought it was quite so humorous back then.
The reflection – Chapter 12: My first live Dodgers game was May 7, 1959, which was the famous Roy Campanella Night, a Coliseum exhibition game featuring the Dodgers and the mystical New York Yankees to raise funds for Dodgers paralyzed all-star catcher Roy Campanella. I remember all the lights of the Coliseum turned off, and everybody held up their cigarette lighter or lit a match to provide light. As my dad, me, and my uncle Eddie sat behind the left field “screen,” I remember it was a sight to behold. It was also that night that I began a long love affair with the Dodgers, which lasts to this day. As I got older and when Dodger Stadium was opened in 1962, my dad had Dodgers season tickets with his company, tickets that were located on the field level behind the visitors’ dugout on the first base side. I was one lucky guy to spend much of my grammar and teenage years at Dodger Stadium.
For the record, my first Dodger Stadium game was the initial 1962 opening home stand, and my dad, late brother, Randy, and a neighbor, Ed McGuire from Philly, watched the new NY Mets make their major league debut in the new stadium. What I remember is that during Dodgers outfield practice (they did that back in the day), my brother and I went to the front row of the field level around Section 50. Dodgers outfielder Wally Moon saw me and my brother, I was wearing a glove, and he threw me a ball. I was in heaven. I wish I could have had the ball autographed. When the Dodgers had that successful exhibition game some years back against the Red Sox in the Coliseum, I saw Wally signing autographs. I wanted to walk up and tell him how a 12-year-old never forgot that ball he threw me. Well, I didn’t walk up to him because I was really starting to get emotional and didn’t think I could get the words out to thank him. I was afraid he would think I was some sort of a nutcase.
The reflection– Chapter 13: Speaking of baseball, one of my proudest sports moments was in 5th grade when I won the first-ever City of Monterey Park’s Baseball Skills Day. The skills day consisted of hitting to all fields for accuracy, throwing for accuracy, and speed around the bases. Point of information: I also remember when I was an eighth grader at Fremont, we won the Alhambra City Schools “B” Division Basketball Championship by going undefeated and winning the title at Almansor Park Gym. I continued to play baseball through eighth grade and was a pretty good left-handed pitcher, good enough to make the Monterey Park Double-A All-Star team, but I would be forever cursed because I threw curve balls and eventually ruined my pitching arm for any high school ambition to that sport.
The reflection – Chapter 14: During the aforementioned time, my dad also had UCLA season football and basketball tickets. I enjoyed the UCLA basketball games because of the greatness of their program, but I found UCLA football extremely boring compared to attending a USC football game. Ah, yes, the birth of my obsession with USC athletics, especially football.
The reflection – Chapter 15: It was 1962 as a 12-year-old that my uncle Eddie (my mom’s brother) took me to my first USC football game in the Coliseum. Point of information: uncle Eddie also loved USC basketball games at the Sports Arena, where I would watch the hoops greatness of center John Rudometkin and his teammates Chris Appel, Wells Sloniger, and Vern Ashby. The basketball games were fun, and there was school spirit for basketball. While we’re on the basketball subject, I also remember in those days attending the old Los Angeles Basketball Classic, a tournament held in the Sports Arena that featured the top teams in the country like Ohio State, which featured hoops legends Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, and a forward named Bobby Knight, the eventual Indiana head coach.
The reflection – Chapter 16: In case you were wondering, I attended my first Lakers game in 1960 when the team played in the old Los Angeles Sports Arena. I remember watching the Lakers and Celtics, and I’ll never forget seeing Lakers Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Rudy LaRusso, Frank Selvy, and Tom Hawkins battling the Celtics, who had legends like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, and Tom “Satch” Sanders. I loved watching the Lakers. My great uncle Jack – on my mother’s side and also a huge sports fan – would take me to the Lakers games with my uncle Eddie.
The reflection – Chapter 17: It was in 1962 that USC football became a lifelong passion. My uncle Eddie, a USC grad, had bought season tickets and since he had no children at the time, he would take me with him to the home games. It was a real thrill to walk into the Coliseum and see the beautiful grass, those incredible home uniforms of cardinal and gold, Traveler, and the school spirit. We sat in Section 19, Row 55. After attending my first USC football game against Duke in that home opener in 1962, I couldn’t get enough of the Trojans. Point of information: I also recall that season watching a Navy quarterback named Roger Staubach give the Trojans fits in a losing cause. The Trojans won a hard-fought game, 13-6. Think about it, what a way to begin a love affair with USC football, a national championship season!
The reflection – Chapter 18: When I entered Alhambra High School in 1964, I continued to love all sports. However, I didn’t play any sports my freshman season at AHS because I was afraid to take a high school physical. I had very traumatic experiences with some not so kind and gentle doctors at a very young age, and it affected me greatly. When my shocked friends asked me why I wasn’t going out for freshman sports, I was embarrassed to tell them – it was too deep for them. Anyway, I eventually decided to play basketball my sophomore year, but I first failed the physical. The school doctor detected a systolic heart murmur and said I didn’t pass the physical. I needed my own personal doctor’s permission (my mom had changed doctors for me by that time), who knew my heart history and waived me in to play high school sports. Point of information: I should mention at the start of my sophomore season, I figured I might just give football a try, but I didn’t really like the football coaches. You would, however, be surprised to know that our varsity head coach, John Patrick, saw me play quarterback in my freshman PE classes and really worked on me to come out and play. Honestly, I just didn’t like the situation, and I wasn’t all that big physically (5-8, 135). I actually grew taller and put on weight when I graduated high school.
Point of information: my 1964 freshman year our varsity football team won the Pacific League, which was quite a feat considering that the league featured Whittier (eventual 1964 CIF champs), Monrovia, Arcadia, and Montebello, which were really good teams at the time. The only two teams in the league that were horrible were our rival Mark Keppel and El Monte. Two years later, El Rancho was added, and they were one of the best prep teams in the country.
The reflection – Chapter 19: I remember playing basketball my sophomore season on the “C” team, and we beat Monrovia, a traditional CIF power. I remember scoring 14 points against the Wildcats in a “Moors” victory at Monrovia on a Friday, and then reading a headline in our school newspaper on Tuesday: “Alhambra’s Katz defeats Monrovia’s Cats.” I must admit, it was kind of cool. I will admit when I thought the coaches had confidence in me, I played pretty well. When I thought they didn’t, I wasn’t very good. It actually was a painful learning experience that made be a better varsity high school basketball coach when that time arrived later in life. Ironically after graduating AHS, I remember playing with some of my former high school teammates at the Monterey Park Recreation Department gym (Barnes Park), and one of my former teammates, Jim White, who had been on my 8th grade city title team at Fremont, complimented me on how much I had improved. Honestly, I didn’t think that I had improved as much as I played relaxed because I didn’t have incompetent high school coaches looking over my shoulder.
The post-game show…
The reflection – Chapter 20: As I participated in basketball at Alhambra and Coach Patrick continued to try to get me to play football, I continued to play basketball, although I didn’t feel like our team was learning anything, and it showed on the court. Once I got my driver license, my independent USC football passion kicked into high gear. I became the point man with my varsity football buddies to buy a 1968 USC football student tickets package. We totaled 12 guys and had a blast throughout the season, a season in which the Trojans finished 9-0-1 with tailback O.J. Simpson leading the way. We sat behind the end zone in the closed end of the Coliseum. I recall we were in Section 15, Row 62. Oddly enough, when the Trojans went on to play Ohio State in the 1969 Rose Bowl, most of my buddies decided they didn’t want to go, so I was stuck with a large bundle of RB tickets, which I was eventually able to sell.
The reflection – Chapter 21: I was now totally into USC football. I would like to point out that before my junior basketball season started, I would drive to USC to try and watch practice. I guess legendary Coach John McKay must have thought I was a weirdo, but one day the coach opened the practice field gate to Bovard Field and began to walk in with some other VIPs. I figured – since I was a 25-minute freeway drive to USC from my house – that I had to have my weekly USC football fix for the day even if I didn’t get into the closed practices. However, one afternoon Coach McKay stopped, turned to me, and said, “Well, get in here!” I thought he was talking to somebody else. I looked around to see who he was talking to. McKay starred at me and continued, “I see you here all the time, so why don’t you just come in and watch practice.” I was in shock, but, yes, I got to see practices that were basically closed to the public. Watching McKay practices was nirvana, and they were so physical and so organized. What an education! I was indoctrinated on how a national championship college football program practiced. Little did McKay or I know that one day I would be covering the team for WeAreSC.com and ESPN.com.
The reflection – Chapter 22: Now I must confess, I wasn’t a bad academic high school student, but my mind was definitely deep into sports and the teenage social world. At this time, I was also the sports editor of the Alhambra High school newspaper, The Moor. I was blessed to have one of the great journalism teachers in the history of local high schools, Mr. Ted Tajima, a true legend. He gave me the freedom to write a sports column and in-depth sports stories not usually allowed at the journalistic prep level in high school.
The reflection – Chapter 23: I probably knew more about our high school football team and the Pacific League my junior and senior seasons than the guys that played in it. My journalism teacher, Mr. Tajima, called me up to his desk in very early September of 1966 and asked if I wanted to represent the school and report our varsity football and basketball scores to the Pasadena Star News newspaper and get paid for it. I was all in on that paid gig. As for the actual game story for our school newspaper, The Moor, in the early going I would watch a football game on Friday night, go home, “type” up the story later in the evening (sometimes having to miss parties – oy veh), and then wake up early Saturday morning to get my story into the print shop before 8 a.m. The print shop was in downtown Alhambra on Main Street, and it took me about 25 minutes to get there if the traffic lights were all turning green. Do you know how hard it is for a teenager to get up at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning? Brutal! FYI, our school newspaper came out every Tuesday (8 to 16 pages) and was yearly awarded “All-America” recognition, the nation’s highest high school journalism award.
The reflection – Chapter 24: Now, back to my football game stories for The Moor. I hated writing a story right after a Friday night game. It ruined my whole Friday night, and I couldn’t hang out or cruise Valley Boulevard because of my writing responsibility. Before the 1967 season, my senior year, actually got underway, I decided to try something different and paid the price. I decided to “pre-type” the game story, leaving blanks for the final score and statistics. Well, one of the football players who was in my journalism class saw me “pre-writing the game story” on a Wednesday and got really pissed off at me for writing the game story before the game had even been played – even writing and analyzing how we got beat. Word spread what I was basically word betting against the home team. I quickly got on my football buddies “S” lists. However, I guess, the good news was that I was right in predicting each week how the team would win or lose and how the game would unfold. I believe the varsity team my senior season went 0-9. So, you could say I was 9-for-9 in my predictions.
Point of information: decades later, our best high school’s best football player, fullback Tim Caropino, who played in the 1968 San Gabriel Valley All-Star Football Game and was recruited by UCLA, told me that our Alhambra coaches were horrible, and he didn’t learn anything until he went to East LA College, where became the lead fullback for future Trojans All-America tailback Clarence Davis. Tim, who also attended Fremont Elementary with me, eventually played in the Canadian Football League. BTW, when UCLA was recruiting Tim our senior season, my dad would take Tim and me to the Bruins games, and afterward we would go into the UCLA locker room. I remember the Bruins had played Syracuse in one game and saw legendary fullback Larry Csonka, who became an NFL Hall of Famer. He was as big as a tackle.
The reflection – Chapter 25: After high school, I knew that I wanted to be in sports, so I first attended East Los Angeles College (big mistake, a high school with ash trays at the time) as a journalism major and covered some of the football games, which featured a great team as previously mentioned, led by tailback Clarence Davis. I did a story on Clarence for the ELAC school paper when Davis participated in the 1968 USC Spring Game in the Coliseum. Point of fact: a USC Spring Game in those days was a real game, not just a couple of “hitting” periods.
The reflection – Chapter 26: Since I couldn’t stand going to East Los Angeles JC, the following year I then transferred to Pasadena City College (excellent decision) with my best high school buddy, Bob Lawrence, who would later spend 30-plus successful years as a military reporter for San Diego ABC affiliate KGTV, 10News. I became sports director for radio station KPCS under legendary telecommunications teacher, Dr. John Gregory. FYI, one of my PE teachers at Pasadena was a coach named Harvey Hyde. Yep, thee Harvey Hyde, the coach and radio personality we all know and love. I loved going to PCC, and my dad told me during this time period that if I had the grades, he’d pay for me to go to USC, my dream school. Well, I got great grades and got accepted to USC, but when I showed my dad my acceptance letter to SC, he said we couldn’t pay for it. I was devastated. During this time period, I was also a coach and recreation leader for the City of Monterey Park (6 years), which allowed me to hone my skills as a coach during the school year in football, basketball, and baseball, and in the summer to development my interpersonal skills with kids in the summer.
The reflection– Chapter 27: With the Viet Nam War going on, I had to go to college if I wasn’t going to USC…unless I wanted to get drafted. No thank you. I quickly enrolled at Cal State Northridge and majored in telecommunications but didn’t like CSUN at all and then the next semester transferred to Long Beach State, which was a major basketball power at the time under coach Jerry Tarkanian. I would later become the public address basketball announcer for the 49’ers at the Long Beach Arena while still maintaining my Trojans football season tickets. FYI, I would later do the public address in the final years of Long Beach State football program under George Allen at Long Beach Veterans’ Stadium, and one of Allen’s assistant coach was Harvey Hyde. Go figure.
The reflection – Chapter 28: At Long Beach State, I made a career change and decided to become a high school teacher and coach. I had a plan to teach and coach as a foundational income and write sports and do public address/radio announcing to fulfill those other parts of me. So, I did my student teaching in English and Speech at Huntington Beach Edison High and got heavily involved in the football program, which was the big power in CIF Division 1 in 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1981. At the time, Edison was like the high school version of USC. I did play-by-play for all the Edison football games home and away on KWVE radio (50,000 watt), and I was considered at the time the first high school sports information director in Southern California. Against my better judgment, I let Chris Baker of the Los Angeles Times do a story about being the first high school sports information director. The story actually spurred other high school in the future to have somebody be the liaison between their sports teams and the media. Being part of the Edison football program at that time was as good as it gets –great coaches, great players, great community support. Although I really enjoyed the Edison experience, declining enrollment didn’t allow me to become a fulltime faculty member. I actually wanted to coach varsity basketball and eventually did so for 27 years. I eventually found a position at Santa Ana (Calif.) High School as a varsity assistant basketball coach for the Saints. In 1988, our team was ranked No. 1 in Orange County for a time, ranked 4th in The Times, and went to the CIF semi-finals before losing to Simi Valley and future UCLA star Don Maclean. We finished the season 26-3.
The reflection – Chapter 29: So, as you can see, my whole life has been sports in so many areas. I was even fortunate enough to be the public address announcer for the 1996 Rose Bowl game between the Trojans and Northwestern. It was the ultimate for a USC fan! Let me make one thing clear, however, I don’t apologize one bit for my sports passion or obsession. Point of information: I began dating my first and only wife after she told me that she was a big Milwaukee Brewers fan and knew of a Brewers’ outfielder named Sixto Lezcano. I said that any woman who knew about Sixto Lezcano I should get to know better. Yep, it was a sports connection that started that off, too. And although that marriage didn’t last (23 years), sports did and has been there for me through thick and thin. I live the motto: Sports will never divorce you, it will always be there for you.
The reflection – Chapter 30: A year before my angelic mother died, she said to me, “Greggie, you should never be married.” I looked at her and asked, “Mom, why would you say that?” She responded, “Because your life is what very few experience, and you have a passion that supersedes everything else but in a good way for you. I don’t know if people other than yourself and your friends that you hang with can relate to it.” Mom is probably right.
The reflection – Chapter 31: Now you will be happy to learn that I eventually reunited with my high school girlfriend, Sharon (who attended rival Mark Keppel at the time I attended Alhambra), but that is a story for another time. You will, however, be glad to know Sharon is a huge Dodgers fan, but unfortunately is a big UCLA sports fan since her son, Brian, attended Westwood. Point of information: Now, I must admit, Sharon doesn’t have the same all-around passion that I have for sports unless it’s the Dodgers or UCLA. She has to root for school she feels connected. Now don’t get me wrong on this, but one time she said to me, “You’re crazy with USC and sports; it’s all just a game.” I responded, “Yeah, and the Beatles were just a band. For you (Sharon) it is just a game, but for me it’s a passion, it’s who I am, what I am, and I am totally at peace with it.” Sharon says I am like Jimmy Fallon in the sports baseball movie “Fever Pitch” about a crazed Red Sox fan who lives and dies with his beloved Boston team.
The reflection – The epilogue: Sports has been a lifelong journey and covering USC football since 2001 has been both a blessing and a never-ending thrill, despite the difficult times we are currently enduring. Right now, having no sports available is like the temporary amputation of a body part. The good news is that sports body part will one day again be reattached, it’s just a question of when? Hopefully soon for all of us.
The last word: On the bright side (?), I will turn 70 in August, and would like to think the best in sports for me is yet to come…like a USC football national championship at some point in the future. Is that too much to ask? Damn you, Coronavirus!