The tallest sports statue in North America was unveiled last weekend in Brockton, Mass. The subject was boxer Rocky Marciano, sometimes known as “The Brockton Blockbuster” in the long ago. Sixty years to the day after he climbed off the canvas to drop Jersey Joe Walcott in the 13th round at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia to win the heavyweight championship of the world, he was immortalized in his hometown.
The immortalization was 22½ feet tall.
“It’s finally here” his younger brother, Peter Marciano, told a crowd of more than 8,000 people at the local high school athletic field, known as -- yes -- Rocky Marciano Stadium. “It’s something you can look at. It’s something you can touch and you can really believe it. … Rocky is home where he belongs.”
The size of the statue was startling. Frozen forever in his boxing shoes and shorts, staring straight ahead, throwing a stiff right hand at some imaginary opponent (Godzilla? King Kong? The Incredible Hulk’s big brother?), the Rock looked as if he were the keeper of the peace, the protector of the town. No wonder he was 49-0, the only undefeated champ in boxing history. Look at him. The fact that in his prime he was listed as 5-foot-11, 188 pounds, one of the smaller champs in heavyweight history, did not matter. Look at him.
Fifty-seven years after his last fight, when he knocked out Archie Moore, “The Old Mongoose,” in nine rounds, and 43 years after his death in a plane crash in an Iowa corn field one day before his 46th birthday, Rocky Marciano was bigger than he ever was. Larger than life.
“He is a guidepost and an example to follow for all young people,” president of the Brockton Historical Society Larry Siskind said to the assembled crowd. “That’s what Rocky Marciano stands for.”
“Rocky did not discriminate,” promoter Don King added, just to be Don King. “He knocked out black and white alike.”
The two-ton statue, donated by the World Boxing Council, shipped from Mexico in six pieces, assembled in Brockton, was a Triple XL example of a 21st century trend. Sculptures of athletes are everywhere these days. The stars of yesterday -- some of them from just a few minutes ago -- are being preserved in cast iron and bronze and stone and fiberglass and polyester resin (that was Rocky), captured for future generations.
Mario Lemieux still skates in Pittsburgh, Gordie Howe in Detroit, Rocket Richard in Montreal. Wayne Gretzky, of course, can be found in both Edmonton and Los Angeles. Babe Ruth is in Baltimore, where he started. Ernie Banks is on the North Side and Harold Baines -- Harold Baines! -- is on the South Side. Harry Caray still is around in Chicago to call the baseball action.
Predictable people are found in the predictable places. Dale Earnhardt is both in Kannapolis, N.C., where he lived, and at Daytona International Speedway, where he died. Payne Stewart still celebrates that 1999 winning putt at the U.S. Open next to the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2. Stan Musial is in St. Louis. Kirby Puckett, Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew are in Minneapolis. Magic Johnson is in both Los Angeles and East Lansing, Mich. Bear Bryant, of course, still is in Tuscaloosa. (Nick Saban is also there, perhaps a little early, since his real self also can be found on the campus.) Bobby Bowden is in Tallahassee, Lou Holtz is in South Bend, Vince Lombardi is in Green Bay, Tom Landry in Dallas. Both John Stockton and Karl Malone are in Salt Lake City. Al Kaline is in Detroit. Etc., etc.
The civic statue has become the true Hall of Fame. The best are enshrined in those Cooperstown places. Congratulations. The best of the best also stand on a street corner somewhere close to home, still able to watch the pretty girls pass on summer afternoons.
No one pointed out this fact better in the past year than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Los Angeles Laker great. Noticing that statues of Magic, Jerry West and Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn stood outside Staples Center along with statues of Gretzky and boxer Oscar De La Hoya, he pronounced his displeasure.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “It’s either an oversight or they’re taking me for granted. I’m not going to try to read people’s minds, but it doesn’t make me happy. It’s definitely a slight. I feel slighted.”
A statue of Kareem will be unveiled outside Staples Center during the coming season. Thank you, Big Fella for all you have done.
In Boston, where I live, the big sculpture gap that is soon to be filled belongs to Bill Russell. The legendary Celtic big man will be cast in stone -- or some suitable medium -- with his arm around a young boy, a visionary look in his eye, in City Hall Plaza. The design was envisioned by, no one less than, President Barack Obama.
“I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player but Bill Russell the man,” the president said when presenting Russell with the Medal of Freedom in 2011.
I suppose that is the goal of all these statues, to inspire future generations. Historical heroes and patron saints used to do the job, kids brought to contemplate the direction of their lives in the presence of George Washington and Ben Franklin and St. Francis of Assisi. The kids learned not to cut down a cheery tree, to watch out for a jolt when you attach a key to a kite during a thunderstorm and to be kind to animals. I suppose they can learn a lot of this stuff, too, in the presence of Tim Tebow (Gainesville), Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia) or Bud Selig (Milwaukee.)
I have grand kids, two little boys. I can take them to see Bobby Orr score that winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals, still soaring through the air outside the TD Garden. I can take them to see two versions of Ted Williams, Teddy Ballgame, himself, outside Fenway Park. I can take them to see Doug Flutie at Boston College, Harry Agganis at Boston University, Cy Young at Northeastern, site of the old Huntington Avenue baseball grounds. I can take them to a bunch of places.
I can take them now Brockton.
The two kids will hold my two hands. We stand in the shadow of the Rock, 22 ½ feet tall. The kids are dwarfed. I am dwarfed. We stare upwards, one of those out-of-towner stares at the top of the Empire State Building. The Rock’s massive arm throws that massive punch. The idea of being hit by that massive hand inside that massive glove is fearsome.
“Rocky did not discriminate,” I say. “He knocked out black and white alike.”
It will be one of those grand teaching moments.