A Bittersweet Farewell to SI’s Tradition Unlike Any Other

September 23, 2015

Within the halls of Sports Illustrated, there is no dispute as to what constitutes the fifth major. It’s not the Players, or the Evian Championship — it is most definitely the Christmas City Classic, which for the last quarter-century has been played annually at a humble muni in Bethlehem, Pa. The C3, as it’s known, is a one-day tournament devoted to raising money and staff morale. The patriarch is SI legend Jack McCallum, who earned a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame with his wry, lively dispatches throughout the NBA’s golden era of Bird, Magic and Jordan.

Last week, 32 current and former SI types gathered for a bittersweet farewell, as Jack had decided that it was time for the C3 to join him in retirement. He lives in Bethlehem, which explains the out-of-way venue, but the pilgrimage has always been part of the tourney’s appeal, serving as a chance for stressed-out Manhattanites to escape the city and get a glimpse of the pastoral beauty of the Poconos. When I worked out of the SI office around the turn of the century the C3 was an important part of the social calendar, but because I had long since decamped for California, this was my first appearance in more than a decade. I was delighted to discover that, as with the Masters, all the important traditions have been preserved.

It begins with the so-called skinnies, a pre-tournament tip sheet crafted by Jack that delivers handicap strokes and wisecracks on every player in the field. Regarding Gary Van Sickle, Jack wrote, “Father of PGA-er Mike lowballing expectations after arthro knee surgery, but we’re Van Cynical; memory of long-ago 68 at C3 makes him clearly the man to beat.” Michael Bamberger’s began the same as it always does: “Poet o’ the linksland will heave haggis at sight of muni golf track.”

This year there were more festivities than usual, as on the eve of the tourney we gathered for a dinner to remember longtime SI contributor Merrell Noden, who recently died of cancer. Merrell was among the most enthusiastic golfers I’ve ever known. He was part of my first trip to Scotland, an epic 17-rounds-in-nine-days bender, and I don’t remember him without a smile on his face, even when it was raining sideways. Jack dusted off an old skinny for Merrell that served as an excellent memorial: “Jersey running legend will overthink himself into an 88 that could’ve been a 78, ruminate on the life of the muni architect, argue about rock guitarists, German philosophers and split times in the ’72 Olympics, eat a lot, compliment everyone’s games, say thanks many times and promise that tomorrow will be a better day.” The $4,200 (and counting) raised at this year’s C3 is going to a cause selected by Merrell’s widow, Eva Mantell: a theatrical program at Trenton Central High, the alma mater of Merrell’s father. Merrell was a Shakespeare buff who acted on stage throughout his life.

At the dinner, Jack was presented with a coffee-table book that chronicles the history of the C3. Full of old photos, laid out by SI’s longtime design wiz Steve Hoffman, with a witty forward by Steve Rushin, it’s a beautiful piece of work, and Jack was genuinely moved by this labor of love. That’s part of his appeal — he likes to come off as a salty curmudgeon, but deep down he’s a big softy. Mix in a raconteur’s ability to weave a tale, and it’s no wonder so many brand-name hoopsters still call Jack a friend.

The next morning brought the golf, with all of its bad swings and outstanding one-liners. I teed it up with two of my favorite playing partners, Bamberger and John Garrity, along with our beloved former editor Jim Herre, who is enjoying his own retirement. This ability to reconnect was always one of the appeals of the C3, especially for us writers who are scattered across the country. We share a masthead, but I hadn’t laid eyes on Rushin or Tom Verducci in probably 15 years. Verducci still has great hair, Rushin none at all.

After the last straggler holed out at Bethlehem Golf Club — an extremely sporty track with championship-caliber greens — we retreated to Jack’s house for the Spoutoff, a tradition unlike any other. The winners of the three flights — Moe, Larry and Curly, naturally — and one wild card selected by the tournament committee (i.e., Jack) have to chip all the way around the house and then get their ball up a drainage spout. Everyone follows along, heckling, beverage in hand. Years ago, Bamberger touched off an epic rules controversy by hitting a shot over the two-story structure. It was the key to a victory he calls “one of the great achievements of my golfing life,” a day in which he also won low gross and net. As Michael regaled me with details of his “open-faced 56,” I realized the telling was as urgent and evocative as anything he’s written for the magazine.

There was a Fleck-sized upset at this year’s Spoutoff, as copy editor Rich Donnelly, a 20-handicapper, prevailed despite a damning skinny: “Comma-wrangling, book-hoarding triathlete, accustomed to swim-bike-run, will sink-bite-retire at C3.” In fact, Donnelly navigated the Spoutoff in six strokes, tying the very unofficial course record set by Mark Godich, my current editor. I called Godich with the news, for he was marooned in Texas, where he recently relocated. (“Taciturn Texan and Friday Night Lights fanboy finally returned to Lone Star roots; had he played, we liked his chances about as much as those of new homeboy Rick Perry.”) Godich sounded as morose as Nicklaus will be when Spieth wins his 18th major.

In the old days, when we were friskier and less injury–prone, pickup hoops in the McCallum front yard always followed the Spoutoff, and it was played with an absurd intensity. This year, no one wanted to risk blowing out an Achilles, so the driveway was merely the scene of lots of heartfelt goodbyes. As I was walking away from the house, perhaps for the last time, I looked back just in time to spy Jack picking up a stray basketball. He took a couple of dribbles and loosed a fallaway jumper that was unexpectedly elegant. Nothing but net.

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