Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

by Joe Dobrow ©1992


Scrunched into a 5×7 box frame on an unobtrusive bookshelf in the bedroom sits one of my favorite photographs. In it, I am standing on the parquet floor of Boston Garden, running a press conference; next to me, in a row, are Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, and someone I was particularly proud to be seen next to– Bank of Boston President Ira Stepanian.

Working with celebrities, I have found, can be at once exciting, enervating, and excruciatingly frustrating. It can also be disillusioning, as idols and idylls alike rapidly recede into the dim mythology of boyhood. What, I wonder, has happened to all of the heroes of yore?

First, a brief history. In the second grade, our teacher, Mrs. Goldman, once asked us to write down the name of our greatest hero. Precocious, ostentatious, and obviously dazzled by a family trip to Arizona, I penciled-in pioneering Southwest photographer Josef Muench. Mrs. Goldman later asked me who Muench was and why I had chosen him — not because she was all that curious, but because she was baffled by why Peter Klinger, who sat next to me, had also written down Muench. Peter, I’m afraid, had even fewer heroes than I.

But the fact is, there were heroes all around me. Like so many other impressionable kids I was a sports fan, and I absolutely worshipped baseball players. Johnny Bench was a veritable deity to me: not only did I follow him into catching, I even donned a Johnny Bench outfit for Halloween, 1971. I didn’t speak of him as “my hero,” of course, because kids don’t like to think they have heroes (the shame of it is, neither do adults). There’s some comic book connotation to the very word. In my heart, though, I knew there was no one better than Johnny Bench.

In those early years, of course, anybody who appeared on television or a playing field was somehow unreal and untouchable, and their celebrity seemed heroic. Those who were capable of great things (homeruns and slam dunks, for instance) were all the more mystical. Thus, when I finally met people like Tom Seaver and Willie Mays and Pete Rose — people who, in my TV-groomed experience had never been more than about eight inches tall but had been giant in stature — I had nothing to say. Who was I to speak in their presence?

Later, though, I began working in the media, and repeated contact with athletes and other celebrities forced me to readjust my thinking about heroism. No longer were these people unreal or untouchable — in fact, they were sometimes all too human. The sight of Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Steve Nicosia cleaning out his locker after he had just been traded — wife and kids clinging to him in tears — touched me deeply. The nervous discomfort of a rookie quarterback, Tony Eason, as I hounded him with a TV crew, likewise struck a sympathetic chord. Perhaps, I thought, I had gotten it all wrong? Perhaps celebrity wasn’t so desirable after all? Perhaps heroism was something different altogether?

More recently, my conceptions of celebrity and heroism underwent still further revision. In a series of concurrent jobs in the media and sports marketing, I had the opportunity to work with a number of people who are truly considered “legends,” people whose heroic athletic feats and significant media exposure combined to cast an aura of majesty about them. Larry Bird. Bobby Orr. Carl Yastrzemski. Working with these people, I got the opportunity to peek in on their lives, and more interestingly to observe how people — including me — act in their presence.

Bird, the Boston Celtics great who is destined for the Hall of Fame, was the first true “superstar” I ever worked with. In the winter of 1987-88, the New England Sports Museum (of which I was PR Director) decided to honor Bird with a this-is-your-life tribute, featuring the grand unveiling of a remarkable life-size wooden sculpture. A painfully shy man, Bird would never have hnored our request had it not been for some arm-twisting by Museum Chairman Dave Cowens, himself a Hall of Fame Celtic.

The first time I met Larry was at the Celtics’ practice facility at Hellenic College in Brookline, MA. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself (like I didn’t know who he was). We talked a little bit about the sculpture. A little bit about the event. That was it. Bird is such a disarmingly demure person that he leaves you foundering with your own thoughts. Why don’t I have anything intelligent to say to him? How should I keep the conversation going? I wasn’t myself when I was with Larry Bird.

In coordinating the event, I had to work closely with Bird and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Dinah Mattingly to attend to details. What should the tribute be like? Who should the guest speakers be? Who from the old neighborhood in Indiana should be invited? How should they dress, what should they say? These were the focus of numerous meetings and discussions during that winter.

One time I had to go over to his house to pick up some posters he had signed for the event. Standing at the door, I cautioned myself not to stare at anything once I got inside. Act cool. This is no big deal. I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. Dinah answered.

“Oh, hi Joe. Come on in. Larry’s in the den.” I walked inside as she whispered to me, “He’s a little tired because they just got in from Detroit a few hours ago.”

I knew that. I had watched “them” get their butts kicked by the Pistons on TV last night.

There, on the floor in the den, wrapped in a green blanket, was Bird. On the couch was his mother, Georgia, whom we had flown in for the event. On the television was Godzilla. None of them so much as blinked at my presence.

“Hey Joe,” Larry mumbled without getting up. “Posters are over there.” I went over and inspected the, surreptitously taking in the decor, the photographs, the trophies on the shelf. Easy there, easy. “Got a few more to sign if you can hang out.”

I hung out. Larry rolled over to do some more signing. Dinah and I discussed some details. Godzilla stomped on some buildings. All the while, Larry and Georgia and Dinah remained as casual as can be imagined, transfixed by the TV. A few minutes later, I got up and left.

Now, the absurdity of the situation did not escape me. There I was, worried about acting cool, concerned that I had to do all the right things; and there he was, as unprepossessing as always. I wouldn’t be caught dead watching Godzilla with my mother in the room — let alone an outsider; Larry Bird couldn’t care less. I guess it was then that I first realized that heroism is not some personal attribute which cloaks the Chosen Few wherever they go; it’s just a hazy myth through which the rest of us sometimes see the world.