It wasn't exactly Plimpton strapping on the pads for the Detroit Lions or Mailer stepping into the ring, but on this night, at long last, I was going to have my chance to go toe to toe with a sports legend. I had thrown down the gauntlet, and my challenge was accepted by four-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier, the former number one tennis player in the world.
Fortunately this epic contest didn't take place on the tennis court. I'm not an idiot. Instead we decided on a more level playing field, one on which I might actually have the slimmest prayer of avoiding embarrassment: the bowling lanes. Now that's something I have experience in; after all, I've seen "The Big Lebowski" like 50 times. And in the immortal words of Walter Sobchak, "This is not 'Nam. It's bowling. There are rules."
If you've ever been to Kings Bowling Lanes in Boston, you know that it's not entirely conducive to heated competition. It's a whirling maelstrom of energy, with pulsing lights, booming music, and flickering video screens. In short, a sensory onslaught. My only regret was that the 10-year-old version of myself couldn't have been there to see how awesome the future turned out to be.
Nonetheless, I steeled myself against the overload and tried to put my game face on. Unfortunately the completely affable Courier, 37, cofounder of Inside Out Sports & Entertainment and the Outback Champions Series, was way too laid back to take the bait. At first anyway. (Expect a bit more edge when the New York resident comes back to compete against the likes of Pete Sampras and John McEnroe for the Champions Cup Boston starting Wednesday.)
"I'm moderately pathetic. You'll enjoy how un-athletic I am," he assured me while lacing up for the match. Entering the names of our group - a number of publicists and friends joined in on the competition - proved to be the most complicated task of the night. Courier settled on the handle "GUTTERTIME", while I, keeping with the Lebowski theme, chose "The Dude."
I explained to Courier that all of my pregame smack talk was just hot air. Did that change his mental preparation?
"The fact that you suck means we can compete," he said, selecting one of the boulder-size balls from the rack. Most of them were quite heavy, he pointed out, with large holes - "which is good news, because I have fat fingers."
The game began without much fanfare, as Courier coached the entourage on some of the mechanics of their throws. For his part, he nailed a pretty difficult split to score a spare right off the bat. Lucky, I told him. "I'd rather be lucky than good," he said. After I'd had my shot - let's just say it was less than graceful - he came out on the lane to talk about the mechanics of spin.
Shouting over the booming bass, standing in the light of the fluorescent gutter markers, we figured out that there's little relation to the spin you'd put on a tennis ball.
After I choked on picking up a spare, I tried to blame it on the music. "Men At Work will throw you off every time," he joked. "Why don't you put down the notepad, stop working, and start playing." Good idea. Game on. Well, for a minute anyway. The final scores were less than stellar. "I'm not going to print these," I said. "You have to. Journalistic integrity," he said.
Fine. Courier: 129, O'Neil: 85.
But Marky Mark saved the day. Spurred on by his set of crunches in the "Good Vibrations" video playing on the screen above our lane, we racked 'em up for one more round. This time it was going to be serious. "I was flatlining till he came on," Courier said.
After I jumped out to an early lead with my first two strikes of the night, Courier came back. Superior conditioning? Fewer beers? Hard to say. Ultimately, the game came down to his final throw. Needing only an eight to beat me, he selected the ball, eyed the pins, and began his stride.
The ball curved to the right, hesitating on the lip of the gutter, then danced in a gentle spin back toward the middle. A cheer went up from our crowd. Time slowed down. Then, the explosion.
Final score: 135, 135.