Photo by Ben Standig for The Sports Capitol
BY BEN STANDIG | JUNE 26, 2018
Nobody views a clogged weekend drive on I-95 from the D.C. area to New York as therapeutic. Here’s the story on why it was for me this weekend, nearly four months after opening The Sports Capitol.
It had been over nine years since I visited my father’s gravesite. The last time I made the trek to the Beth David Cemetery, a few furlongs away from famed Belmont Racetrack, was when the granite slab that told the world here lied Jerome Louis Standig met freshly shoveled dirt. That I live 5-6 hours away in Suburban Maryland didn’t factor into the separation. Fear of answering the most basic of questions did.
The NBA Draft went down last Thursday night. The Washington Wizards made two selections including Oregon swingman Troy Brown Jr. Friday, I traveled to Port Washington, New York on Long Island based on a decision I made several months prior.
My cousin Larry’s oldest child, Sean, would become a Bar-Mitzvah boy that weekend. The family invited me to attend. The invitation was no shock. That I said I’d attend may have been.
We can skip the family tree X’s and O’s, but we’re talking about three generations of cousins on my father’s side, including two sets of siblings I grew up with, and older relatives who remember “Jerry” decades before the “devoted father” line would be required for his headstone.
These relatives largely lived in New York, Queens and the Island, and Boca Raton, Florida. We were together during holidays and family events. They visited during August, the month of the year my parent’s divorce papers declared dad had dibs. We did this despite my Redskins-Orioles allegiances and their unholy devotion for the Cowboys and Yankees. As the saying goes, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick the pro sports teams your relatives back.
Only sporadically had I seen these people over the last nine-plus years and never in New York. Most of them married before this period, but their children were largely strangers other than Facebook photos. Frequent phone calls or emails quieted. There was no falling out. I just checked out. Even when occasionally sharing the same space, I often found myself there in body, but not spirit.
This dawned on me Friday afternoon as the ride began. Hopes of heading north earlier in the day went south after I stayed up into the wee hours overnight. This is a daily occurrence since three of us began The Sports Capitol. It wouldn’t matter the day or topic. This just happened to be a Friday morning and about the Wizards draft.
I’d spent the previous night contemplating what it meant that the Wizards spent the 15th overall selection on an 18-year-old who has good size and brings a passing flair yet isn’t an athletic big man and requires more time to develop. Now, I was dealing with steady rain and numerous highway delays. Nobody likes traffic. My tolerance is akin to the apparent mutual annoyance between John Wall and Marcin Gortat. Google Maps projected a trip of more than six hours. I needed help. Howard Stern interviewing Dennis Rodman and Zach Lowe’s post-draft podcast provided some.
Eventually, I got to thinking about where I was headed, whom I would see, what they would ask. The expected questions were nothing wild, though some of my older cousins missed careers as aggressive talk show hosts. The Mueller probe didn’t want me to testify under oath about possible crimes. These were standard inquiries asked across the globe every minute of every day: How are things? How is work? When are you going to settle down and have kids already?
Basic stuff, for sure. The crime was that they came from people I’ve known my whole life who care about me and I had no proud answers. Yes, this is all kinds of ironic since my job at times involves asking relative strangers uncomfortable questions and here I was dodging Q&A sessions with actual relatives. Wizards coach Scott Brooks would surely keep me in the lineup because I kept my defenses up regularly.
Relationships of all kinds were put on hold while aiming for a foothold in the D.C. sports media scene. Various stops including some with major heft offered hopeful paths that were freelance rocky from the start and typically turned into frustrating dead ends regardless of my perception of the scoop or hustle. Tight financial budgets were often in play. New waves of eager journalists arrived on shore yearly. Self-doubt splashed the scene far more frequently.
From the outside, people think I have the coolest job. “You cover sports! You go to all the games and you talk to John Wall and Kirk Cousins and LeBron James!” They also believe I have a never-ending supply of tickets to said games. The naiveté is cute. It also carries over into thinking that my specific role was great. They simply hoped the best for me and didn’t know any better. I did, which is why at some point in certain cases I decided the best way to cope was essentially not to see them. This is why it had been nine years since I visited my father.
During all those years I never pondered this aspect long enough to come up with such a conclusion. When you put yourself into a never-ending cycle of covering the Redskins and the Wizards and all the Georges men’s basketball college basketball teams and the NFL Draft and the Mystics and the Nationals and record podcasts while striving for that work breakthrough, there’s no time for such personal contemplation. Beyond chasing bill-paying work and professional traction, this is perhaps why I put myself into this relentless sequence during an era of sports writing specialists. These are things I considered somewhere Friday night during a 24-minute delay on the New Jersey Turnpike near the Woodrow Wilson rest stop.
I arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn in Roslyn, New York around 8 p.m. I texted my Yankees-loving cousin, Adam. No response. His sister, Tara, told me via text he and his family were flight-delayed from Florida. She arrived a few days prior with her mother and two-year-old daughter, Sophie, whose smile could solve Middle East conflicts. This was based on Instagram posts only, but I’m sure the analysis was true. The two-year-old needed a bath. I’d see them all in the morning for breakfast before heading to the Synagogue.
I didn’t make it to the hotel lobby in time for the communal scene with eggs, bagels and catching up on the menu. Did I need the extra sleep time? After four months of 16-hour days with The Sports Capitol, surely. Was that the sole reason I didn’t motivate that morning? Probably not. In my defense, there wouldn’t have been enough time for the coffee to kick in before those questions began.
A breezy 15-minute drive under blue skies on a well-worn suburban thoroughfare just off Manhasset Bay brought me to a one-level brick building with a raised blue roof. I walked in during the service equivalent of the bottom of the first inning, which meant chitchat would wait. Eye contact with relatives was exchanged along with some quick hugs. All had a general vibe of it’s been a minute. In recent weeks Larry texted me 3-4 times leading up to the blessed day to check if I was coming. I suspect he wasn’t sure I would. I don’t blame him.
I found a seat in the quaint space next to Adam’s oldest son Aaron, a tall, dark-haired baseball player who has the cool kid vibe. He didn’t have issues answering my whispered catch-up questions. The rising high school senior and his family were driving to Philadelphia on Sunday to officially tour Penn on Monday. He already stopped by Duke and fell hard for the Durham, North Carolina campus and its decent basketball program. I questioned his sanity as the service moved into the middle innings and Sean became a man.
The Rabbi’s sermon – which, shaking my head, actually included mentions of the Yankees – and some traditional prayers wrapped up the ritual. Everyone moved into an adjoining room for lunch. Audible greetings followed. The cousins-turned-parents and their parents-turned-grandparents offered hugs and joy. They also were catching up with each other and chasing around little Sophie and other kids. I had met Sean and his generation of cousins briefly in the past, but no realistic way any of them would remember me. I re-introduced myself. One said he knew who I was. “You’re the Washington Capitals fan.” That’s the local team I’m least associated with, but close enough. Sean said his father showed him my verified Twitter account and that I had over 10,000 followers. He seemed impressed. And you people said all that social media-ing was a waste of time.
The adults asked if I was attending dinner at Larry’s home that night. Yes, I said. That’s where those questions I loathe answering would come. Buckle up.
Larry, his two sisters and their parents lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Rego Park, Queens, which is the community one over from Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld’s Forest Hills neighborhood. Part of the living room was turned into a closet-of-a-bedroom for the oldest of the three. To this day, I have no idea how all five came out alive in that tight space. It taught the kids to fight for their legroom and identity.
Now Larry, a director for a financial services firm, his wife Michelle and their three kids lived in a three-level home with a backyard and a driveway. They had 30-40 people over for dinner. If I had known Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen catered the affair — For the record, no relation — I might not have arrived 40 minutes late. Afternoon nap went long; I told you about the sleep deprivation.
No matter the party, I loathe the entrance. I majored in social awkwardness in college and honed those skills as an adult. Adam sees me. Guy is always in a good mood. He said his mother had asked where I was. He now planned to walk into the backyard where those top two generations were munching on kosher pickles and grilled chicken to say I had just called and was lost. Jokester. I waited a beat or two, scooped up a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda, took a deep breath and joined the crew outside.
There were as lovely as always. Millie the matriarch adored my father growing up. He was the fun-loving, superhero uncle and could do no wrong in her eyes. Now Larry’’s mother looked at me for the first time in years and said how much I looked like my father now. All four of my grandparents passed. My mother died five years before my father. Nobody looks at me the way a loving parent or grandparent does anymore. Maybe she really only saw my father staring back at her, but Millie, who knew me from the start and took on the supervising role when I’d visit Larry during the summers, gave me that look. Scott Brooks wouldn’t be happy. My guard slipped.
Millie and her husband, Gerry, both have IPhones, but I don’t think the 70-somethings fully grasp what it means to start a website. They asked about The Sports Capitol, but we kept the conversation basic. Their daughter Stacey, then jumped in.
Stacey started her own personal organizing business a few years back while raising two young boys. Her default mode, even when the packing of lunches pushes her to the edge, is lovely engagement. Her disarming personality allows her customers to explain without judgment the sentiment behind that rusted tin box or worn t-shirt they cannot bear to part with.
Years back she took me to my first Broadway play. I didn’t hold it against her that it starred Tony Danza. We now connect on Facebook at times. Now we were talking face-to-face. Now she was asking questions. How are things? What’s going on with work? Can you explain The Sports Capitol?
That’s around the time I realized something was different. At least for the job question, I finally had a good answer.
The media industry was frustrating and often directionless, I explained. Newspapers and websites were cutting back on jobs and often looking for the lowest-hanging fruit of topics for headlines that advertiser’s desire and users scorn. This was frustrating as a consumer and at times revolting as a sportswriter. The idea of starting something new began a good year before we launched, which is around the time others tried the subscription model.
Two colleagues had similar views on the industry and the notion of becoming explorers. We’ll just cover D.C. sports with a delivery twist. No ads, no clickbait, just the type of straight and informative content I’d want as a reader and believe others do as well even with a paywall. Membership has its privileges.
She has no interest in sports, but asked questions about our challenges and related via her own start-up experiences. Her business was part-time. No work after 2 p.m. because that’s when mom mode returned. The oldest of two sons becomes a Bar-Mitzvah boy next year. The youngest a lengthy list of food allergies. Both boys have baseball games and practices and remain years away from having a driver’s license.
This was hardly the first engaged conversation I had with my cousin Stacey. It was the first in many years. Similar chats took place over the night and the following morning with relatives I’ve known for years and others who entered the scene by marriage or friendship at points over the last decade. They were interested in the site. I was interested in them. All of this made things fascinating and lovely, not nightmarish and angst-filled. I took a risk with my career. For the first time in forever I could proudly discuss the work portion of my life.
Sunday’s agenda included one stop before weaving my way through New York thoroughfares and reuniting with I-95. Beth David Cemetery was 10 miles from the hotel.
There is old and there is ancient. This sprawling memorial park opened in 1917 and looks every bit of those 101 years. It’s not the upkeep, but the antique disarray. Endless rows of gravesites of all shapes and sizes accessed by one-lane roads even the horse-and-buggy types surely considered tight. The people permanently staring skyward didn’t come over on the Mayflower. Some probably knew relatives of those that did. The comedian Andy Kaufman is buried there, in theory.
It required a map to find my father because of the one-way road options and the Sunday crowds. Two rows off a gravely road on the site’s far right, JLS is directly across from his siblings, Bernard and Evelyn, their spouses, and his parents, Sam and Mary. I knew the scene well. I witnessed the casket of five of those people lowered into the ground. My father brought me by other times just to check in. This was the first time I had been there in over nine years. It was the first time I’d ever gone alone.
The rectangular patch of grass in front of my father’s marker was golf course green except for a small yellowish spot burnt by the sun. I looked above at the etched information, specifically the start and end dates. The information wasn’t new. The emotions kicking in were. The loving father, son and brother died June 26, 2008. Tuesday would mark the 10-year anniversary of his death. To connect this back with the Wizards, he passed away at a hospital in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas after a short battle with colon cancer. That is where Brown hails from and where I visit every year for the NBA Summer League. Like others, thoughts of gambling, booze and fun cross my mind when Sin City enters a conversation. In the summer, basketball joins the list. I also think about holding my dad’s hand when the mathematician whose career included a lengthy stint at the Pentagon took his final breath and presumably pondered his final calculation.
Reading the date rather than just knowing it had me thinking about his nearly 84 years on this planet. The kid from Greenpoint, Brooklyn who hooked up with the 95th Infinity in France during World II as a strapping 20-year-old. The 60-something explaining the Pythagorean theorem to his teenage son who would much rather watch the Bullets game on TV. The 80-something with a sharp mind who hunkered down at $2 craps table at the local casino long enough each session to sweet talk his way into a comped meal for him and his lady friend.
I thought about our relationship. I thought about my life in the 10 years since he passed. I pondered silently and then asked the captive audience in the truest one-way conversation possible if verbal updates were required or if they already knew everything. One blade of grass at my father’s site moved sideways Mutombo-like. I took that to mean they had kept up. I remained contemplative while fighting back the tears.
I texted a different set of cousins, ones who shared the same grandparents and told them everyone was good. Some 30 minutes had passed. Goodbyes were said. I drove off down the narrow roads, eventually solving the maze that returned me to the 21st century. Thoughts of my past remained as I maneuvered down the Belt Parkway, across the upper section of the Verrazano Bridge and a couple of hundred miles down I-95.
All that lost time over questions I couldn’t handle answering. Shutting off this one group of people wasn’t an isolated incident. Other factions or individuals received the unintentional cold shoulder in recent years. Only very few people get inside the paint. All that holding back probably explains other outbursts – hello, Twitter. I don’t want people who care for me to think the reciprocal isn’t true. I also need to shore up those other parts of my life. All work and no play — or exercise — makes Ben a dull and overweight boy.
I have no idea if The Sports Capitol will truly take hold. We’re doing good work and certainly putting in the sweat equity required. Our reach keeps expanding as does our membership list, but we’re not there yet. There are numerous tweaks and fixes on our to-do list.
The well of support from readers and perhaps especially our colleagues has been welcomed and surprising. Other than too many teams, not enough staff and that damn lack of sleep, I’d argue the biggest challenge is getting consumers to change their habits. Free is good. In some cases, you also get what you pay for.
If nothing else, at least for one weekend, the site helped me change my habits. More talks to have, more steps to take, but for now I had meaningful conversations with important people who cared enough to ask, “How are you?” If that’s all that comes from this site, it was worth it.
And, Dad, I’ll be back to visit soon
Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.