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Shaw Nielsen
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Halloween makes zombies of sports fans feasting on athletes’ reputations

Sports stars will either shine or shrink during World Series and the NBA, NFL seasons

Halloween looms. The sports world spins on the index finger of goddess of the season. She bears a striking resemblance to Meadowlark Lemon of the old Harlem Globetrotters, “the clown prince of basketball.” She’s got the whole sports world in her hands: Everyone is playing and anything can happen in an unscripted universe.

The head sports god, who, like Santa Claus, can appear in any form to the true believers, lifts a cracked horn of plenty from a large satchel with her laserlike brown eyes. Icons representing big-time sports skate, sprint and jump out.

The icons, some with names like Ovechkin, Melo and Kershaw on their jerseys, are pursued by hellhounds, zombie fans, mouse-click mobs and sports pundits, their eyes aglow, their logic dim. They speak in the word clouds of graphic novels and comic books. Many shout, “Can’t win the big one!” Others moan, “Chokers!” The hellhounds bark the lyrics of Janet Jackson’s song “What Have You Done for Me Lately” again and again.

Lately, the sports mobs shouting their eerie slogans have trampled everyone from Bruce Arena, the former head coach of America’s men’s national soccer team to Dusty Baker, the former manager of the Washington Nationals baseball team. They’d won, but never the big one.

John Farrell, the former manager of the Boston Red Sox, and Joe Girardi, former manager of the New York Yankees, had won the big one with their teams, but not lately. In today’s sports, Farrell’s 2013 World Series victory and Girardi’s in 2009 happened eons ago, bubbles blown into the air, then popped and forgotten.

Consequently, Farrell and Girardi have been trampled too.

Last year, Kevin Durant, a perennial All-Star, left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join a great Golden State Warriors team and led them to victory in the NBA Finals, winning his first league championship. The mobs, which had chased the star forward, chanting, “Can’t win the big one,” grew silent and directed their attention to new targets, including James Harden of the Houston Rockets.

Just last week, Clayton Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner for the Los Angeles Dodgers, notched his first World Series victory, squaring his postseason record at 7-7.

For years, Kershaw had been assailed for his mediocre postseason record. Last Tuesday night, he basked in post-victory, opening-game glory. His eyes danced to the music blaring from the Dodger Stadium sound system. He’d beaten a strong Houston Astros team 3-1. He mused that he’d probably have to win one more game for his team to win the best-of-seven series, which was tied 1-1 going into the weekend’s games in Houston.

He smiled. For a moment, he was cradled by the sounds of silence: The voices that had crowed that he couldn’t win the big one couldn’t say that any longer.

“It’s a pretty special thing,” Kershaw said of his victory over the Astros and his detractors.

When Michael Jordan won his first of six NBA championships, he achieved a double victory: over the Los Angeles Lakers and over those who said he could not win the big one.

Jordan cried.

His tears washed away years of frustration for the game’s best and most competitive player.

After all, in today’s big-time sports, teams, players, coaches and managers have only one way to succeed: win the championship. At least that’s what so many sports pundits say.

Consequently, the sports chattering class hammers sports icons for failing to stand tall in high-pressure moments. Then the jabber mouths work overtime to invent new categories of failure for today’s best players, including asserting that current star athletes are not as good as they should be, or that they are not among the best of all time.

Halloween draws near. Sports pundits reduce the magic and majesty of the games, especially in team sports, to the final scores of the championship games. Hellhounds bark. Sports zombies and the undead chew on the reputations of our sports icons. Between bites, the mobs shriek, “What have you done for me lately?”

It’s a scary thing.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.