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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Come Fly with Me ...

The bicycle, engineered by Ignaz Schwinn, was usually put in motion by the power of my older brother, Timmy, for his Newsday paper route. For that reason, it had a large front basket, big enough to carry a stack of 50 papers, then filled with Woolworth’s or Gimbel’s advertisements for post war families rearing baby boomers on Long Island.

On this day, however, with lunches packed and placed in brown paper bags, the basket held a toddler. It was a bumpy ride to Scooter Lane park. Although it took only 10 minutes, the ride crossed from the Island Trees section of Levittown through a block or two of Bethpage and into Hicksville, the town of St. Ignatius and Holy Trinity where that little toddler would be schooled one day.

On this particular bright summer day, school was already in session.

By today’s standards, of course, a parent might be chastised or even charged with neglect for allowing a child to be placed in an 18-by-24-inch wire basket, mounted to the front handlebars of a bicycle. But, in the early 1960s, it was a much simpler time. we knew not of car seats or nicotine or of asbestos. We worried more about the Viet Nam war than we did of lead in our drinking water, sipped from front yard hoses or rustic water fountains at the Village Green pool. 

On this day, I was learning to fly without a seat belt in sight. We were off on an adventure. Me and my older brother, Timothy, 11 years my senior. It was great. I was free. It was so easy being three.

Until this day, my mother - now 91 and going strong - laments, “What was I thinking, allowing you guys to do that?”

It was among the most important days of my life. I was only three, maybe three and half, but, I remember it today. I do.

Another important day in my life was a day, less than a decade later, when my brother Thomas and I boarded a Pan American Clipper jet at JFK International Airport. I was 12 and he would be 17 that December and we were off to Frankfurt am Mein to visit with Ulrich von der Osten, a family friend who greatly assisted my father in establishing Pan Am’s European inventory control operation. Two American kids, dressed in suit coats and ties, were off to see the world.

Oh what courage it took, not for the kids but for their mother and father - my wonderful parents - to put us on that trans-Atlantic flight. Thank God they did, as on that summer day, school was in session, yet again, and the lessons would last a lifetime.

The world was a much different place in 1970 than it is in 2016. The advent of seat belts, flower power, Sly and the Family Stone and a world of difference in terms of mores and standards, have lent their way to a more conservative approach of political correctness, finger-pointing, rash and unrelenting judgement of our neighbors, literally and figuratively, foreign and domestically, albeit with our front, rear and side air bags.

An American child in 1970 traveled the world as a truly global citizen. Our presence was welcomed. Our country respected. Our opinions valued and sought after, respectfully.

An American adult in 2016 now travels the world apologizing on behalf of a nation for Donald Trump and the antics of Ryan Lochte.

It wasn’t always that way.

My training from the front basket mounted to a bike or a trans-Atlantic flight to Germany, with side trips to the East German border or a boat ride to Koblenz on the river Mein, paved the way for a lifetime of international travels, much of it carrying the globally accepted torch of the National Basketball Association to countries far and wide. From friendship tours and coaching clinics in Tblisi or Vilnius, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, vodka toasts in Milwaukee and Moscow, to games and events in Beijing and Shanghai, Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne, or Tokyo, Saitama, Yokohama or Sapporo and beyond, we enjoyed a wonderful place in the world of basketball while never losing sight of the importance of sport to the United Nations.

That lifelong voyage culminated one day when I read a testimonial in the prologue of a book about the great Boris Stankovic, the head of FIBA largely responsible for righting a wrong and being sure the very best basketball players in the world competed on the global stage in the Worlds and Olympics. I was so honored, taken back really, by a passage from that book on the life of Stankovic, written so perfectly by Oscar Elini and Lorenzo Sani, two of sports’ most accomplished historians.

They wrote: "We would like to thank Terry Lyons of the NBA for such a helpful introduction to his world, that of the NBA. The friendship, which began on a basketball court at a time when the reality of this great sports spectacle was not yet globalized, but which today can reach out and touch one hand. At that time, ‘world' basketball was just a dream but today, it is a reality that fills us with pride and joy. Terry, together with his colleague, Brian (McIntyre), taught us that NBA not only means National Basketball Association, but also 'Nobody Beats America,' not in speaking on the court but with regaard to knocking down fences and finding the most efficient shortcuts that helped their idea, their vision take off and kept flying higher than ever."

Such a nice compliment, yes, but that high came crashing down for me one day while on a bus ride at the 2006 European Final Four in the Czech Republic. I was flying solo, barely making the tournament opener after a delayed connection via Heathrow.

As one of the last six or seven to board the tour bus, I sat in one of the few remaining empty seats, next to a middle-aged gentleman from Serbia. As I slid into the chair, I turned and smiled and maybe said a simple, ‘Hello.” It was returned with a nod, but certainly not with a smile. The short ride continued to the venue, in the heart of Prague, a wonderful city. If I remember correctly, I made some small talk, asking for the gentleman’s opinion on the prospects of CSKA Moscow, Maccabi or the two Spanish teams, Tau Vitoria or FC Barca, in that evening’s games. The reply, direct but not diplomatic, set me back a lifetime.

“Excuse me,” he said, in near perfect English, “but I do not like Americans.”

“Okay,” I replied, knowing that bus ride was some 44 years after my bicycle ride to the park on Scooter Lane, and some 36 years after my first trip to Europe.

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