Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Mailman's McDonald's

There is an abandoned McDonald's on Highway 89 in Bountiful. Six months ago the Golden Arches opened up a new building around the corner, and so far no one has moved into the old location.

Normally I'm not all that bummed at the prospect of a vacated McDonald's, but I actually had a history with this place. Years ago, before it was remodeled with a two-story enclosed Playland, the Highway 89 location had an outdoor patio ringed with an iron gate. Among its impressive features was a 10-foot plastic Grimace mounted on industrial strength springs and a Mayor McCheese tower you could climb around inside. I probably visited this fast food wonderland dozens of times as a kid, but none was so memorable as the time I dropped in to meet a brand new Utah Jazz rookie named Karl Malone.

The image is as vivid as any from my childhood. It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and the Playland was completely empty save for a 6'9" black man sitting alone at a table in the far corner, about 10 feet from Mayor McCheese. He was equipped with a sharpie marker and a stack of glossy 8X10s that featured an enlarged action shot from a recent game, and there wasn't a PR rep or security person in sight.

My dad and I approached Karl, and five minutes later we walked away with personalized 8X10s for all four members of my family. Each one was personally addressed and signed with the following:

"To: Josh, Karl 'The Mailman' Malone, #32, Utah Jazz."

The memory makes me smile for a multitude of reasons, but it also makes me sad, because it reminds me of how much I miss Karl Malone.

After the Jazz were eliminated from playoff contention last week, I was reminded of a feeling I have often encountered as a teacher. It's the feeling of frustration and heartbreak that occurs as you watch a student do just enough work to not pass your class. You never feel all that bad for the students who go up in flames, but when someone attends regularly, turns in most of their assignments, and still comes up short...well, it's just a waste.

That feeling perfectly describes my last two months as a Jazz fan.

As I've watched the 2012-13 squad stumble and fight all year, only to fall short of playoff qualification, I've started to wonder if I was holding them to unreasonable expectations. Maybe I took the Stockton-to-Malone years for granted. Maybe having two top-50 all-time players on my team for more than 15 years and a 50+ win contender on the court every year was more out of the ordinary than I realized.

Every once in a while something will jog my memory of the glory days. Karl Malone will call in as a guest on a sports radio talk show. I'll stumble on an old YouTube clip that takes me back. Or I'll just drive by an old abandoned McDonald's. It's easy to look at the past and point an accusing finger at the present, but we also need to realize that we were pointing fingers back then, too. Maybe bad decisions have been made, and maybe potential is not being realized, but I think we're a lot better off taking stock of the fun times than fretting about the frustrating ones.

I've been a basketball fan since the 5th grade, but I'm not dumb enough to think that I know whether the Jazz should fire Ty Corbin or play Derrick Favors. I can barely keep track of my own crap from day to day, and ultimately the Jazz need to take care of their business just like my students do. That's not to say that I haven't let a loss get to me, especially when that loss gives the NBA's entry in the Pro Sports Axis of Evil a ticket to the playoffs. I'm just saying that I should know better. Unless your financial livelihood depends on the success of the Utah Jazz or whatever team is causing you stress, being a sports fan should be fun. If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.

Even Mayor McCheese could tell you that.