Dream State By nearly any measure--from star athletes produced to recreational opportunities offered--California is No. 1 in sports

July 04, 2004

As philosophical bedfellows, Bill Walton and Ronald Reagan go
together like alfalfa sprouts and apple pie. In other words, as
the voluble 6'11" basketball announcer might opine, the
combination is horrible. Yet when asked about the Golden State's
superiority to the rest of the nation, the tie-dyed hoops
virtuoso draws upon the wisdom of the late conservative
governor. "The only thing Ronald Reagan ever said that I
believed to be true," Walton says, "was that if the Pilgrims
had landed in California, the East Coast would be wilderness
still." ¶ Rather than ponder the unlikely notion that such a
populous, diverse and sophisticated state would choose a movie
actor as its top elected official (imagine that!), let's allow
Walton to elaborate. "California," the native San Diegan
continues, "is the greatest place in the world--the climate,
the creativity, the diversity of people and geography, the
sense of optimism and of not getting bogged down by the
restrictive thinking of the past."

It's also, the Mountain Man insists, the foremost sports state,
and there's a mountain of evidence to support that contention. No
other state offers so vast a variety of sports to play or churns
out more top athletes. Indeed, if the heartland's killer-quake
fantasy ever came true, and the Golden State split off into the
Pacific, the Island Republic of California would win more medals
at the Olympics than all but two or three other nations. (On the
victory stand our athletes would shed many a tear to the tender
strains of Tupac and Dr. Dre's California Love.)

Indiana has its basketball, Kentucky its Derby, Texas its Friday
night lights. California's claim to fame is, well, fame. The
Golden State has produced so many renowned athletes that five
years ago, when SI published its list of California's 50 greatest
sports figures, Hall of Famers such as baseball's George Brett
and Robin Yount and basketball's Gail Goodrich and Ann Meyers
didn't make the cut. Nor did Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn
Swann, who isn't even the most famous athlete from his own high
school. (Barry Bonds and Tom Brady also starred at San Mateo's
Serra High.)

A quintet of kids out of Hawthorne called the Beach Boys gave us
the anthem Be True to Your School, but there's nothing sweet and
harmonious about high school sports competition in California.
Powerhouses such as Concord's De La Salle High, which has won 151
consecutive football games, more or less prohibit lesser schools
from completing a Hoosiers-style miracle season. I learned that
in June 1982, while attending Palisades High in Pacific
Palisades. Our baseball team, riding a series of dramatic playoff
victories, swept into the Los Angeles city final. Filing into
Dodger Stadium, we Palisades fans noticed Cleveland High's skinny
pitcher. "That's their star?" my buddy Andy asked. "We'll torch
that guy."

Two hours and no Palisades hits later, we made like good L.A.
fans and headed for the freeway before the end of Cleveland's
13-0 victory. The no-no didn't bother us quite so much three
years later, when that skinny pitcher, Bret Saberhagen, became
the youngest American League Cy Young Award winner and World
Series MVP.

California is home to many of the nation's top teenage stars in
other sports, too--especially women's sports. "We're so
progressive in our grassroots organizations that kids get a big
head start," says U.S. soccer team captain Julie Foudy, a Mission
Viejo native. "At age seven I was on a competitive all-girls'
soccer team. Some of my teammates [from other states] say, 'I had
to play with the boys until I was 15.'"

Culturally and meteorologically, California's climate is ripe for
physical fitness. "It's the whole lifestyle--go to bed early, get
up early and be as active as possible," says Walton, who grew up
as a sort of human longboard, riding waves along San Diego's
coastline. "The life of a spectator is almost a foreign concept."

When it comes to watching, we've been spoiled. In the past decade
only one state has won championships in pro football (the 49ers),
baseball (Angels) and basketball (Lakers, Lakers, Lakers) and
played for one in hockey (Mighty Ducks). As for college sports
Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC excel comprehensively: USC is the
defending national co-champion in football and has won more men's
NCAA team titles (72) than any other school; Stanford has earned
the last 10 Directors' Cups for having the nation's best overall
sports program; and UCLA holds the NCAA Division I record of 94
team championships, including the last two softball titles--both
over 2002 champ Cal.

Yet in California, merely winning isn't enough. Our athletes must
be flamboyant, creative performers. We are perpetually indulged,
from Showtime to the Sacramento Kings' fast break, from
Fernandomania to Bonds's Splash Homers, from the renegade Raiders
to the sublime Niners. No wonder our natives have provided so
many fantastic climaxes, from Cal's five-lateral jaunt through
the Stanford band to win the 1982 Big Game to San Jose native
Brandi Chastain's shirt-shedding after the U.S. women won the '99
World Cup at the Rose Bowl.

Our representation in golf (Tiger Woods, Mickey Wright) and
tennis (Billie Jean King, Jack Kramer, Helen Wills Moody, Pete
Sampras, the Williams sisters) may not surprise you, but how
about our success in figure skating (Peggy Fleming, Michelle
Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi), NASCAR (Jeff Gordon) and the decathlon
(Rafer Johnson, Bob Mathias)? We have far more pools than any
other state--961,184 at the end of 2002, according to one
study--which partially explains our long list of swimming
champions, from Mark Spitz to Janet Evans to Natalie Coughlin,
whose all-American smile will likely light up Athens in August.

What we boast most of all, though, is originality. Each year we
reveal our untraditional takes on sport: the Bay to Breakers road
race in San Francisco, with its nudists and Elvis impersonators,
for instance, and the Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog
Jubilee. You can also thank us for mountain biking and Frisbee

The only thing we lack is humility. We're so secure in our
dominance that we turn inward for our rivalries: Giants versus
Dodgers, UCLA versus USC, Kobe versus Shaq. When no one rains on
your Tournament of Roses Parade--more to the point, there have
been only five wet Rose Bowls in Pasadena--you can be forgiven
for regarding your state's sporting scene as golden.

"I thank my parents every day for raising me in California,"
Walton says. "It's probably better to be in prison here than
governor anywhere else." To which one of our former chief
executives might have replied, There you go again.

This is the 50th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: National Poll Results and District of Columbia

COLOR PHOTO: BOB LARSON/CONTRA COSTA TIMES (FOOTBALL) CALIFORNUCOPIA The state that hosted the '84 Olympics has all manner of competition, and a surfeit of stars, from Walton to Woods to Kwan to uberfan Jack Nicholson. COLOR PHOTO: TIM TADDER/NEWSPORT (VOLLEYBALL) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL (SOFTBALL) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: SUSAN RAGAN/AP (RUNNING) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: SHEEDY & LONG (BASKETBALL) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES (SWIMMING) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: MARK HUMPHREY/AP (GOLF) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: GILBERT IUNDT/TEMPSPORT/CORBIS (TRACK) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES (SNOWBOARDING) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY (SKATING) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ASP TOSTEE/REUTERS (SURFING) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP (NICHOLSON) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK TROJAN WARRIORS Its Rose Bowl win gave USC yet another national title. COLOR PHOTO: GERRY GROPP (FROG) ANIMAL INSTINCT While Californians excel at almost any sport, their pets are no slouches either, from the jumping frogs at the Calaveras County jubilee to leaping Frisbee dogs. COLOR PHOTO: JOSEPH SOHM/CHROMOSOHM/CORBIS [See caption above]

"It's the whole lifestyle--go to bed early, get up early and
be as active as possible," Walton says.

"The life of a spectator is almost a foreign concept."

For more about sports in California and the other 49 states, go
to si.com/50.