TIME

Hank Aaron Would Have Faced Worse Racism Today

Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves
Scoreboard flashes 715 in Atlanta after Hank Aaron of the Braves hits home run #715 to break Babe Ruth's record off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 8, 1974. Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery—Getty Images

The home-run king is lucky he didn't have to contend with the ubiquitous bigots and haters on today's social media

“The only thing I can say is that I had a rough time with it. I don’t talk about it much. It still hurts a little bit inside, because I think it has chipped away at a part of my life that I will never have again. I didn’t enjoy myself. It was hard for me to enjoy something that I think I worked very hard for. God had given me the ability to play baseball, and people in this country kind of chipped away at me. So, it was tough. And all of those things happened simply because I was a black person.” — Henry Aaron, June 12, 2006, American History magazine

Henry Aaron’s record-setting 715th home run off Al Downing on April 8, 1974 still stands today as one of the greatest milestones in Major League Baseball history. By breaking the four-decade mark of the great Babe Ruth, Aaron strode out of the shadows – and stepped into a cauldron.

This accomplishment transcended sports. By his own accounts over the years, we can recognize that Aaron went through hell during that time. It was tough enough when reporters and camera crews chronicled his every at-bat and invaded his privacy. But that was the least of it. Here, a black man stood poised—while playing in the Deep South, to boot—to claim one of the sports world’s most storied marks. Bigots hounded Aaron and made his life miserable, at a time when he should have basked in the glow of both his historic achievement and the recognition that had eluded him for decades.

Still, you know what? We might conclude that Aaron got off easy four decades ago, long before social media dominated every facet of our lives and removed any shred of privacy.

Just try to imagine how much more intense and challenging his predicament would have been. Can you picture the potential for incessant racist taunts on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention the blogosphere? In the 1970s, the haters reached Aaron by what we call “snail mail.” Today, in our sped-up-world of modern communications, Aaron would have had no escape.

Racism existed before Aaron challenged the Babe and it continues to pervade our society today, all over the world. I made a cursory Google search to check out “sports racist taunts on Twitter” from 2014 alone and found numerous examples, such as:

“Cops Investigate Racist Taunts at Stan Collymore After He Accused Luis Suarez of Diving”; “Students Suspended After Racial Slurs at Basketball Game”; “Racism Rears Its Ugly Head: Peruvian Fans Shout Epithets at Black Brazilian Soccer Player

Plus, we witnessed the possible racial overtones in the bullying furor late last year that engulfed the former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, and the reaction to Richard Sherman’s post-game comments after the NFC championships game. Even in those simpler times, Aaron, caught up in a media whirlwind that he did not sign up for, surely paid a price for his lofty accomplishment. Indeed, Aaron had gotten death threats during the winter before the start of the 1974 baseball season. The Atlanta Journal discreetly crafted Aaron’s obituary, just in case. As Sports Illustrated noted:

“Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport…? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball’s attic?”

And just after Aaron did finally hit No. 715, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ iconic announcer Vin Scully remarked:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron. … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”

Aaron was never the type to stand at home plate and stare at a long ball, as Reggie Jackson was wont to do in his heyday. Nor did Aaron showboat around the bases by slowing his trot to an excruciating level after he had just hit a home run.

How would Aaron likely have fared in the Twittersphere, where athletes try constantly to be glib, provocative and controversial at all costs? He likely would have flopped on Twitter. Aaron is by his nature an articulate and measured speaker, but articulate and measured speakers are not exactly revered in social media. Aaron’s dignity and integrity would have gone unappreciated on Twitter.

As he pursued Babe Ruth’s historic home-run record, bigots, racists and haters chased him. Only he can know how painful that ordeal must have been. Still, he is lucky it didn’t happen today.

TIME hockey

NYC Firefighters, Police in Vicious Brawl During Charity Hockey Match

Charity match marred by nasty confrontation between the Big Apple's Fire Department and Police

What began as a charity hockey match between New York City police officers and firefighters later erupted into bedlam as the benches cleared and punches were exchanged on the ice in Long Island on Sunday.

Based on videos posted on several social media outlets, the brawling began during the second period of a charity exhibition at the Nassau Coliseum.

The referees struggled to bring order as fans screamed profanity-laced chants. What exactly sparked the confrontation remains uncertain and both departments refused to comment on the episode following the melee.

After calm was restored the NYDP team pulled off an 8-5 win, their first victory after enduring five straight losses to the FDNY squad.

TIME March Madness

The Only Final Four Drinking Game You’ll Need Tonight

Patric Young
Florida center Patric Young dunks during practice for an NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game, April 4, 2014, in Dallas. David J. Phillip—AP

It's a good time to be a sports fan as we prepare for today's big Final Four games: UConn vs. Florida and Wisconsin vs. Kentucky. To celebrate, TIME presents its inaugural Final Four drinking game. Enjoy, but don't forget to drink responsibly

Final Four parties are super fun. The games are played on a Saturday night, so unlike, say, parties for the Super Bowl, you don’t have to worry about work in the morning. And they’re also a celebration of something more: the best few weeks of the sports calendar. College hoops is about to crown a champ, baseball’s getting into the swing of things, the Masters is coming up, the NBA playoffs are approaching, the NFL Draft is in the foreseeable future. It’s a good time to be a sport fan, tax season be damned.

So, to help prep for today’s big games — Florida vs. UConn at 6:09pm EST, and Wisconsin vs. Kentucky at 8:49pm, both on TBS — and celebrate your good sports fortune, TIME presents its inaugural Final Four drinking game. Enjoy, but please do so responsibly. Obey all local drinking age laws, don’t overindulge and take a cab ride home if need be.

Here are TIME’s rules for a Final Four drinking game:

1. The first time Florida’s Michael Frazier makes a three-point shot, imbibe. It shouldn’t take that long: Frazier can catch fire quickly. Against South Carolina in early March, Frazier sank a school-record 11 three-pointers: this season, he led the SEC in three-point percentage field goal percentage, shooting at a 44.7% clip. He also led the SEC in an even more important stat, true-shooting percentage, at 65.1% (true-shooting percentage is an efficiency measure that takes into account three-point field goals, two-point field goals, and foul shots). Frazier models his work ethic after Ray Allen, the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers: on game days, he’ll launch upwards of 400 shots to get in rhythm.

2. Every time you hear the word “student-athlete” in an NCAA commercial during the games, drink. The NCAA has a habit of running propaganda ads during big events, touting how the organization is like a spirit squad for “student-athletes,” has the backs of “student-athletes,” etc. Drink now, cause that term may soon be disappearing. According to the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, “employees” is the more appropriate name for college athletes — at least for football players at Northwestern.

3. Every time UConn star Shabazz Napier makes an outside shot with a defender harassing him — the kind of shot that makes you say “noooo, what are you doing?” – and that shot goes in anyway, chug away. Napier’s an expert at making the “holy s–t” shot.

4. Choose which mascot TBS will show first in each game. Pick one, and drink if you’re correct. I’ve got Albert E. Gator and Bucky Badger.

5. The first time an announcer mentions that UConn coach Kevin Ollie played for 11 different NBA teams during his 13-year career, start double fisting.

6. For CBS, the Final Four has traditionally served as one big promo for its upcoming coverage of the Masters, which starts next week, on April 10. So even though the games are being broadcast on TBS this year, the networks are partners on NCAA tournament coverage. You’ll surely hear the soothing Masters piano – “ding, ding, ding, ding,” — that accompanies the Masters plugs. So each time you hear the Masters theme song, dream of azaleas and Amen Corner and all the mythical beauty of the Augusta National, and take a few soft sips. You’ll have a healthy buzz.

7. Sip every time TBS shows Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan scowling on the sideline. Like this. Or this. Ryan’s always been a first-class all-tournament scowler.

8. Kentucky has reached the Final Four with five freshman starters. Michigan, led by Chris Webber and Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard, was the last team to win this much with five rookies, back in 1992. That Michigan team was christened “The Fab Five.” So during Kentucky-Wisconsin, the first time you hear a “Fab Five” reference from one of the announcers, you know what to do.

9. Ever since the NBA set a rule in 2005 essentially mandating that players spend a year playing college ball before entering the pros, Kentucky coach John Calipari has done a better job than any coach in the country of recruiting a collection of talented freshmen, molding them in to a championship-caliber team, and shuttling them to the NBA. So the term “one-and-done” is now stuck to Calipari’s suit. When the TV cameras show Calipari, and someone says the words “one-and-done,” you will drink.

10. Wisconsin’s most intriguing player is seven-footer Frank Kaminsky. His game, and personality, are a little quirky: Kaminsky can fool you with his awkwardness, as he’s just as comfortable firing threes as he is posting up around the basket. And he was always a bit of a class clown, earning the nickname “Frank the Tank” a decade ago, in homage to Will Ferrell’s character in the movie Old School. So when someone mentions “Frank the Tank” on Saturday, you may have to pull a Frank the Tank yourself.

But seriously, be careful. Don’t end the night like the original Frank the Tank did. Because on Final Four Saturday, you don’t want to miss the drama. If we’re lucky, Florida-UConn and Wisconsin-Kentucky will treat us to two classics. Let’s all raise our glasses to that.

TIME NCAA Tournament

The Final Four: 4 Predictions

Scottie Wilbekin of the Florida Gators scores against the Dayton Flyers during the Elite 8 Getty Images

Since Obama bombed his bracket, see how the pro predictors are calling the shots

The final rounds of the Big Dance tip off Saturday in Dallas with Florida playing UConn at 6:09pm and Wisconsin taking on Kentucky at 8:49pm. Kentucky’s thrilling upset over Michigan makes the 8-seed one to watch. And while Florida has only lost two games this season, one of those losses was to the team it’s now up against. The other? To Wisconsin. See who the favorites are below.

FiveThirtyEight and Nate Silver
The lead data-cruncher has Florida favored over Connecticut and Wisconsin over Kentucky with Florida winning it all. Silver, who called the 2012 Presidential election correctly, also accurately predicted Louisville as last year’s tournament champ.

Sports Illustrated
The magazine’s new issue might be cursing Kentucky by putting the team on its cover. The issue puts Kentucky and Florida in the finals with the overall estimate that Billy Donovan will bring home his third ring for the Gators.

ESPN’s Top Bracket
ESPN’s current bracket leader mike_opheim24 (who has 10 different brackets) earned a perfect prediction score for the Elite Eight. For this weekend’s match up, he has Florida and Kentucky meeting on Monday ending with the Wildcats cutting down the net.

Warren Buffett Bracket
Though nobody won Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar bracket challenge, the top scorer thus far puts Florida and Kentucky in the finals game, predicting Florida will win 72-64.

TIME Retail

Gun Super Center Decides It’s Smart to Sell More Than Just Guns

171615705
Man's hand holding pistol Getty Images

Maybe it’s unwise to take a store the size of a typical Best Buy and stock it almost exclusively with guns and ammunition.

Last spring, Minnesota-based outdoor gear retailer Gander Mountain launched a large expansion of a new store concept: the firearms super center. The stores—a half-dozen or so, opened in the Midwest—stood out because they were big (30,000 square feet) but more importantly because they sold guns, ammo, a range of gun accessories and gun-related gear, and little else.

At the time, the nation was still reeling in the aftermath of the Newton shootings, when gun sales were surging due to fear that tougher firearm regulations were inevitable, or just because of the simple urge to protect oneself. So the concept of a retail megacenter focused almost exclusively on firearms seemed like it would stand a reasonable chance of success.

“Taking a whole store and devoting it to guns is fairly radical but, from a business standpoint, it makes sense,” one retail analyst told the Columbus Dispatch in early 2013, around the time two Gander Mountain firearm super centers were opening in Ohio.

Lately, however, gun sales have been tanking. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the further quarter of 2013 sales declined by 10% at Cabela’s, a direct Gander Mountain rival, largely due to a falloff in demand for guns and bullets. Cabela’s CEO referred to the previously soaring gun sales as a “bubble” triggered by the 2012 reelection of President Obama and a series of high-profile shootings, it was a bubble that had apparently burst. Sales were down 50% during the first month and a half of 2014 compared to the same period a year prior, which was just after Newtown, and Cabela’s has forecast subpar sales going forward. Likewise, background checks have fallen sharply in recent months, indicating that the once-frenzied pace of gun sales had subsided significantly.

Lately, Gander Mountain has been undergoing major remodeling initiative, and the result is that its firearms super centers now sell a lot more than firearms and directly related gear. A grand reopening of a super center in Grandville, Mich., takes place this weekend to introduce a new “flex” retail concept, in which there’s still a focus on firearms, but in which many aisles will also offer camping, fishing, boating, and other seasonal gear, as well as outdoor and active fashion apparel. A similar remodel, with a influx of new non-gun products, took place a month ago in a Gander Mountain near Toledo, Ohio. A company representative told the Toledo Blade that both the “flex” and firearm super center models were doing well, but that it made more sense to broaden the range of products at several stores.

It’s unclear to what extent, if at all, the larger nationwide gun sale slump played a role in Gander Mountain’s decisions to play down its focus on firearms. By some account, the remodel initiative has been in the works at least since last fall, before the most dramatic falloff in gun sales had become glaringly apparent.

Surely, the move is an effort by Gander Mountain to expand its customer base, in particular to reach younger consumers, including women and those who are fit and fashion conscious. In a recent tour of a new Gander Mountain store opened in the St. Louis area—the first in Missouri, and one of 23 new locations planned for 2014—company president and CEO Mike Owens explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the rows of brightly colored running shorts and T-shirts and apparel from Under Armour and other popular brands should make it apparent the store isn’t just for hunters and gun enthusiasts. “In a typical outdoor store, you’ll see a lot of black and gray,” Owens said. “We’re trying to attract men and women and, really, any active person.”

TIME Family

The Amazing Response to Sports Radio Host Mike Francesa’s Anti-Paternity Leave Rant

8th Annual Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation Gala
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 11: Mike Francesa attends the 8th annual Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation gala at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers on November 11, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage) Jim Spellman—WireImage

The radio personality calls paternity leave a 'scam and a half,' and his male fans call him out

Sports talk radio host Mike Francesa blasted Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy for taking three days off when his wife gave birth this week, calling the paternity leave a “scam and a half.”

“I mean, what would you possibly be doing?” Francesa said on his Wednesday afternoon broadcast at WFAN, “I guarantee you’re not sitting there holding your wife’s hand.”

Murphy took three days off as part of the collectively bargained paternity leave, and missed two games. He’s expected to be back in the Met’s starting lineup on Thursday.

But that’s not soon enough for Francesa. “One day, I understand,” he said. “Go see the baby be born, and come back. You’re a major league baseball player, you can hire a nurse.”

“Your wife doesn’t need your help, those first couple days, you know that,” he said. “What are you gonna do? Sit there and look at your wife in the hospital bed for three days?

The host also blasted his co-workers for taking 10 days paternity leave. “For what? To take pictures?

But then, something incredible happened. Francesa’s male listeners called in with objections, saying the old-timer had outdated ideas of a dad’s responsibility.

“Society has come to a point where we recognize this is one of the most important milestones and it’s important to be with your family,” said one caller, who then got slammed by Francesa.

Another caller also attacked Francesa for being out of touch. “For you to say ‘oh it’s okay, let’s throw some money at a nurse and have them take care of the kid,’ and not let Daniel Murphy take two days in the beginning of the season is crazy,” he said.

“He’s learning prenatal care, he’s learning how to take care of the baby,” the caller argued. “He plays a 162 game season, he wants to spend time with his family.”

 

 

TIME Basketball

This Is the Best Shot of the NBA Season

The Indiana Pacers' Paul George may as well have screamed "YOLO" while nailing this three

Just watch that video of Paul George hitting an impossibly deep three-pointer for the Indiana Pacers in the fourth quarter of a one-point game game against the Detroit Pistons last night. Watch it again. One more time, if you don’t mind. Mesmerizing, isn’t it?

First, George catches the ball and it looks as though he’s going to shoot it, which is obviously impossible because he’s basically standing at midcourt. And yet there he is, looking at the hoop like it’s the size of a hot tub. Next, he sticks his hand out, as if to indicate that he’s not to be touched. It’s unclear whether the hand is for the Pistons defender or his Pacers teammate, but whoever it’s directed at, it clearly functions like The Force: “There is no basketball player to defend here.” Everyone else simply stops and watches.

Then George gathers himself, and launches a shot. Somehow, he makes a 35-footer look like a 10-footer — no added effort, no heightened doubt, just his typical shooting motion. The ball travels. His arm extends outward. Swish. Crowd explodes, and George just stands there while teammates run by giving him high fives, almost as if to say, “What, you were expecting something else?” The Pacers won the game 101-94.

TIME MLB

Former Baseball Star Sues L.A. Cops Over Alleged Beating

Former Major League baseball player Lenny Dykstra appears in Los Angeles Superior Court for an arraignment in San Fernando, California
Former Major League baseball player Lenny Dykstra filed suit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Wednesday. Danny Moloshok - Reuters

Lenny Dykstra, formerly of the Mets and Phillies, says police savagely knocked his teeth out and beat him until he could barely breath while they had him in custody two years ago. Now he's suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for an unspecified sum

Former Major League Baseball All-Star Lenny Dykstra filed charges against the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department and county officials on Wednesday after he says he was brutally beaten while incarcerated two years ago.

Dykstra claims two of the department’s deputies threw him against the wall, knocked his teeth out and kicked him until he could barely breath while he was in their custody in April 2012, the Associated Press reports. The sheriff’s department has yet to comment.

During the time of the alleged assault, the erstwhile outfielder was serving time for a litany of charges including grand theft auto, indecent exposure and providing a false financial statement. Dykstra was released from custody last June.

[AP]

TIME

What The Northwestern Football Union Means For College Sports

Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, right, speaks while College Athletes Players Association President Ramogi Huma listens during a news conference in Chicago, Jan. 28, 2014. Paul Beaty—AP

On the surface, a union for football players at Northwestern seems like a limited development. But thanks to new precedent, and some union-friendly state laws, college athletes could start banding nationwide.

A collection of college football players at Nothwestern University and other high-profile schools, fed up with a system that enriches people involved with the game but not the actual talent on the field, started a solidarity movement last September. They wrote the initials APU — All Players United — on their wristbands during that week’s games. Just six months later, that seemingly quaint gesture could go down as a milestone in the escalating fight over how to define and compensate big-time college athletes.

On March 26, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern are employees of the university and thus have a right to unionize and fight for better health care coverage, larger scholarship funds and other benefits (Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback leading the school’s union charge, says ”pay-for-play” salaries are not on the agenda). “The players now have moral high ground, and momentum,” says Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “This was a landmark decision for the future of college athletics.”

And it was an easy one. NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr reached a logical conclusion: a prior ruling disallowed Brown University graduate teaching assistants from forming a union due to the academic nature of their work. Thus, football players — who don’t read books in front of 80,000 delirious fans on Saturday afternoons — have full-time jobs, Ohr decided. Coaches aren’t professors. You get no course credit for sweating through practice.

The ruling, that scholarship football players recruited to Northwestern are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, is limited in scope as it stands. The NLRB only regulates private institutions, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I teams are dominated by big state schools. In this year’s Sweet 16, for example, only two schools – the University of Dayton and Baylor University — are private. Of the 128 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), just 17 — or 13.2% — are private. And since the NLRB is treating scholarship aid as player compensation, should a cut of player scholarships go to the government?

Northwestern will appeal the ruling to the full NLRB board in Washington, but experts say the ruling is likely to stand. “I think the regional director’s decision is a sound one,” says William Gould, a Stanford law professor who chaired the NLRB from 1994 to 1998. “I expect the board in Washington to uphold it.”

Expect the union movement to expand. Athletes at public schools are subject to state labor law, and Gould points to California as a union-friendly state for athletes. California’s student-employee test, for example, asks: are the services rendered related to the student’s educational objectives? As the NLRB ruling — and common sense — point outs, scholarship football players aren’t tackling opponents in a classroom. The services rendered are related to a school’s economic objectives. So players may be called employees.

Players at, say, UCLA, could make a strong case. “There’s definitely an opening in California,” says Gould. “I think athletes at public schools there would have an easier case than the Northwestern students.” The bigger question, says Gould, is whether more players want to unionzie. Northwestern’s players have yet to officially vote to form their union.

Players in Michigan and Florida can also make strong claims for employee status and the right to unionize, according to a 2012 paper published in the Buffalo Law Review, “A Union of Amateurs: A Legal Blueprint to Reshape College Athletics.” Historically, Michigan has been favorable to student-worker unionism. Paper co-authors Nicholas Fram and T. Ward Frampton write about Florida:

As a “right-to-work” state with only a 3.1% unionization rate in the private sector, Florida might seem an unlikely candidate to pioneer collective bargaining in college sports. But the Florida Constitution enshrines collective bargaining for public employees as a fundamental right under Florida law, and in the public sector, a full 27.8% of Florida workers are covered by union contracts. The robust constitutional and statutory protections afforded public workers under state law, coupled with the dramatic profits earned from Division I football in Florida, create a favorable playing field for college athletes seeking to unionize. But perhaps most importantly, the idiosyncratic history of disputes over the “employee” status of students on Florida campuses has established legal precedent extraordinarily favorable to student-workers. As a result, “the rights of graduate assistants to bargain collectively — and perhaps, by analogy, the rights of college athletes to do the same—“are now more secure in Florida than in any other state.

And if athletes at Florida negotiated more favorable benefits, officials in Alabama, which currently gives college athletes no constitutional or statutory right to collectively bargain, could face pressure to tweak state law in order to compete for recruits. The potential ripple effect, state by state, is real.

For college athletes, finally, that’s a pretty sweet deal on the table.

TIME Soccer

How I Finally Got My Picture With Pelé

TIME's International Editor Bobby Ghosh with Pelé.
TIME's International Editor Bobby Ghosh, left, with Pelé. Javier Sirvent for TIME

This week, TIME International editor Bobby Ghosh stood for a photograph with the Brazilian soccer legend Pelé—a snap that both fulfilled a childhood dream and ended a journalist's longstanding frustration

Pelé, the soccer wizard, may have been the first famous person to enter my consciousness. I was just three years old in 1970, when his goals brought Brazil its third World Cup. My father, a soccer nut, had never seen Pelé play, but read enough about him to become a fan, and he passed that enthusiasm down to me. When I was old enough to kick a ball around, I scrawled ‘10’ — the number Pelé made famous — on the back of my T-shirt and tried to execute his patented bicycle kicks.

I never became the goal-scoring superstar of my own imagination, but when I started my career as a journalist it allowed me to invent a new fantasy: Someday, I told myself, I would meet my boyhood hero. Someday, I would shake hands with Pelé.

The opportunity came in 2002 when TIME sent me to Japan to cover the World Cup, my first major sports assignment. I knew Pelé was going to be there, in his capacity as a pitchman for a famous credit-card brand, and I made it my business to find him.

In the meantime, I got to meet, interview and generally hang out with my favorite players. And not just current (for the time) stars like Brazil’s Ronaldo and Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta, but also stars of a previous era, like French genius Michele Platini and the German ‘Kaizer’ Franz Beckenbauer.

But as a newbie sports journalist, I was not entirely sure about the rules governing such encounters. Was I allowed to ask the players for their autographs or to have my picture taken with them? I decided, foolishly, that to ask would be to behave like a fan, and therefore unprofessional.

It was agonizing to deny myself the opportunity, and made worse by the fact that nobody else seemed to be following this rule. I would find myself chatting with Nigeria’s Jay-Jay Ococha, and a Nigerian journalist would come up and ask if I could shoot a picture of the two of them. I always complied, of course. But I never summoned the courage to ask for myself.

Things came to a head one night in Tokyo, at a grand party thrown by the makers of the official World Cup ball. Sure enough, Pelé was there, and to my delight he agreed to an interview on the spot. He was, true to everything I had read and heard about him, genial and charming. Just over his shoulder, a couple of feet away, Platini was deep in conversation with Beckenbauer. I felt honored just to be breathing the same air as the soccer aristocracy.

Then, a young Japanese kid came up: he could have been no more than 10 years old and he carried a camera half his size. He approached to Pelé and asked if he could take a picture. Once Pelé agreed, the kid went over to Platini and Beckenbauer and asked if they would stand alongside Pelé.

As the giants of the game lined up, I stepped out of the frame, to give the kid a nice shot of the troika. Then, just because he’s such a nice guy, Pelé reached out and grabbed my arm, and dragged me into the picture. “No, you must join us,” he said.

The kid shot a couple of frames, bowed and left.

I couldn’t believe my good luck: a picture of me with these three amazing players! But then a quandary arose in my mind. Should I run after the kid and get his contact details, so I could ask for the picture later? (Remember, this was 2002, before cellphone cameras.) Or should I take the opportunity to have a conversation with Pelé, Platini and Beckenbauer?

Naturally, I chose to stay and chat with my idols.

About half an hour later, I went looking for the kid. He was gone, and nobody could tell me who he was.

For over a decade, I have told friends the story of that picture: the one I would give almost anything for, but could never have. I imagined what the kid’s thoughts would be when he looked at it: “Pelé, Platini, Beckenbauer… but who the hell is THAT guy?”

I’ve kicked myself for my stupidity. And I’ve learned not to be so stupid: years later, when I interviewed Leo Messi, Sachin Tendulkar and Neymar, I made sure I got pictures taken with them.

But that picture, THAT picture… it would never be mine.

Life sometimes throws up consolations. Yesterday, Pelé came to the New York offices of TIME for a photoshoot. I badgered my colleague, Belinda Luscombe, to let me sit in on the shoot. When the chance arose, I told Pelé the story about that night in Tokyo, 12 years ago. He didn’t remember the incident — Why would he? — but since he remains a genial, charming man, he kindly indulged my request for a picture. And he signed a miniature soccer ball I happened to have in my office.

All that remains now is to cling to the hope that life (or Luscombe) will somehow engineer encounters with Platini and Beckenbauer. When that happens, I know I will not hesitate.

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