In my youth, nearly every boy I knew had his sports heroes. Happily, now nearly every girls does too, but not so much back then. I sure had mine, and the image on the left now completes my gallery of my personal heroes in the three major sports of my childhood era: football, baseball, and basketball. I began my quest to compile portraits of my three several years ago, when I stumbled across a signed painting of Leroy Kelly, hall of fame running back of the Cleveland Browns, and my first big sports hero. I found the painting in a catalogue of work by Robert Hurst, an Austin-based artist that I met at an art festival. I bought a signed Willie Nelson painting from him, and later he was kind enough to paint a commissioned memorial piece for me – a portrait of John Prine.
Kelly took over when Jim Brown retired. Those were big shoes to fill, but he did it admirably, and began his career just as I was beginning to think that a skinny kid with minimal athletic ability might become a football superstar. Our neighborhood games fueled the fantasy, as I went up against Gale Sayers, Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, and all the other heroes of my friends.
Next, I went searching for my baseball hero. I thought hard about what image I wanted for Willie Mays. The easy one was the catch, his legendary grab in the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series, but I had never seen that catch except on newsreels. What I remembered most was his batting style, which looked off-balance, but really was extraordinarily athletic. I found this beautiful charcoal painting online and developed a personal relationship over the phone with the artist, Dave Hobrecht of Laguna Beach, California. His painting captured the power and beauty of Mays’ swing, his wide stance and the way his trail hand released the bat after impact. I had no illusions of a baseball career, since I couldn’t hit except when I got lucky, couldn’t pitch without getting hit by a batted ball, and could only play outfield without embarrassing myself. But I loved watching Willie, and I remember getting the afternoon paper and sitting in a lawn chair on summer afternoons, checking the box scores to see if he’d hit a home run.
Which brings me back to Frazier, this one a commissioned portrait done by Hobrecht. “Clyde” became my basketball hero as I entered my teenage years, when the Knicks were really good (really). I loved his style—cool, controlled, smooth—and although mine bore little resemblance to his, I did not let that deter me from wanting to be him whenever we played, which was nearly every day.
After trying and failing to make the high school basketball team, I recognized the limitations of my athletic ability and went on to other pursuits, but these men remain in my memories and provided me with many wonderful moments during my youth. This gallery, which hangs in my office, reminds me daily of those relatively carefree afternoons spent playing with Chris and Ray and Kip and Gerry and Billy and Wayne and Tommy and Jack and all the others. It’s a big part of my story, and I’m glad I get to relive it.