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Glory days

Near death by Scrabble, hypnotizing the Hawks, and other introductory humiliations

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Ten years ago, when I was 20, I drove to Rome (Georgia) with my Dad and then-girlfriend to compete in a sanctioned Scrabble tournament. I entered an arm-wrestling competition and ran a drunken "hash" earlier that year; I was in college and experimenting athletically. Neither event suited my physical abilities, such as they were. (My gift: the ability to hit a pretty consistent topspin backhand.) But a Scrabble challenger hosted by the dorkier NSA - the National Scrabble Association - held at a Days Inn just off the highway, on an otherwise blameless Saturday? That was in my wheelhouse.

Dad and his recently diagnosed arrhythmic heart condition would compete, too. He was the Coleridge to my Wordsworth, the Doc Rivers to my '86 'Nique, the Bela Karolyi to my Mary Lou Rhetton. He was my enabler, as well as a high-level recreational Scrabbler and word game romantic. We'd had many spirited if mutually deluding battles over the years, concluding from them that we were both very good. My long-suffering girlfriend, a Boggle savant but Scrabble agnostic, would watch from the sidelines with admiration - perhaps even arousal - as we slayed the competish.

I had a vision, is all.

And it wasn't entirely baseless. We had one-and-three-quarters fancy English degrees between us, Dad and I. We fetishized the Oxford English Dictionary - still a massive physical object back then, a decade ago, when the Internet was young - and knew a fair number of the words and etymologies therein. We assured each other that our performances at this Scrabble tourney would be unlike any that old Milton Bradley had foreseen in his board game omniscience

I maintained this point of view even as we stepped into the stuffy confines of Conference Room C. (Rooms A and B weren't available for this minor Southeastern Scrabble journey.) The antiseptic smell and the sounds - click, tap, murmur, chortle, cough - conjured up years, even decades, of wasted time. A whole future of it, if one so chose. There were personalized Scrabble boards and personalized Scrabble board tile bags toted by blue-haired ladies. There were young men with fanny packs filled with God knows what. There was a guy with spiked hair and aviators - the Andre Agassi of Scrabble, I presumed - inserting a plug (of ginseng, someone said) into his quivering lower lip. I watched his fingers warm up with tiles. His nails were raw.

You may have decided by now that I was not the coolest kid on the block at this point in my life. I won't disabuse you of that notion. But understand that, at a glance, these board gamers inspired Tarzanic confidence in a naive young man. Then the timers started - Timers? Where were they in the living-room round robins? - and I could almost hear my dad's heart beating irregularly from across the room. A giggly old lady named Georgia, who had no college degree but spent her twilight years boning up on the OSPD (Official Scrabble Players Dictionary), was breaking him in like a lightly used catcher's mitt.

You know what happened over the next three hours: We got c-r-e-a-m-e-d.

Dad finished second to last, ahead of only his red-faced son, out of maybe 40 players. Along the way, a pleasant Thai man, who barely spoke English, dropped WAMEFOU (meaning: "a bellyful") on me for more than 100 points. I lost every game by triple digits. Dad had to excuse himself to take a pill. My girlfriend looked away and reconsidered the suitability of our genes. On the long, quiet drive back to Atlanta, I couldn't bear the Waffle House signs we passed: more mocking tiles.

I write all this as an introduction. I'll use this space to humiliate myself further, in sporting ways as of yet unimagined, over the coming months. But I also hold out the narrative possibility - however unlikely for me, and for this town - of athletic glory. That's the psychological condition of being an Atlanta sports fan, after all, especially a Hawks freak. We wait for the rapture that won't come.

Speaking of Larry Drew's stooges, anybody know a good sports hypnotist? I'll do anything to get Josh Smith to quit taking jumpers. And, while we're at it, why not convince the corpses of Jerry Stackhouse and Tracy McGrady and Chipper Jones that they're 23 years old again? But not as naive as I was.

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