It was late April in 1992, and I saw what looked like smoke rising into the Los Angeles sky.
It was smoke.
I was in the city for business, but I had taken some time off to play pickup basketball with a friend at the Hollywood YMCA.
I remember the afternoon well because actor Denzel Washington was playing on another court. He was wearing a waist wrap for his protruding gut, and he still sported reddish-tinted hair and a goatee from having just played Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s movie of the same name.
The not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating incident had come down while my buddy and I were in the gym, oblivious.
That night, I watched TV in my hotel room — alone, enthralled, horrified — until the sun came up, as helicopter cameras showed fires spreading through Los Angeles like a slow rain of napalm.
Protest riots shock us all, their suddenness, passion and intended message always profaned by the violence and destruction those on the fringe create. That would include fringe police.
But riots don’t come from nowhere. Tinder is set. It dries and crackles. And then a match — a black man beaten half to death, a bad war promoted, students shot, a cop kneeling on a black man’s neck until death — becomes the spark.
The role of sports in the midst of social upheaval is something I long have pondered. I wonder if public turbulence makes the games we love irrelevant, almost stupid, or if we need them even more to aspire to a peace in our society that allows us to enjoy the beauty and grandeur of play.
The day after the fires, I drove my rental car into the streets of torched South Central L.A., looking at smoldering ruins and shattered glass. I sped away when active looters and threatening people gave me looks I never want to see again.
Years before those riots, I had been riding with my father in the family car, traveling from Peoria to Northwestern for preseason football camp. It was late August in 1968, and I was a sophomore joining the varsity team. My hair was cut short, as mandated by coaches, and my clothes and things were packed in suitcases in the trunk.
As we drove up Lake Shore Drive, there seemed to be a vapor in the air. It might have been tear gas. It wafted over Lincoln Park, which was filled with tents and young people like me, crowded about.
We drove past and said little. The scene vanished, and I soon was stuck in Sargent Hall in Evanston with the rest of the team, laboring through two-a-days.
The riots at the Democratic National Convention were about to start. I had left campus to go home three months before, at the end of my freshman year, shortly after Chicago had been lit on fire by protesters after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.
That riot was vicious, hideous. King himself had said of our city: ‘‘I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.’’
By the spring of my junior year, with the Vietnam War in full bloom, there would be the shootings of unarmed students at Kent State and Jackson State by National Guardsmen and police. Protests, some violent, would spread over college campuses nationwide.
Still, we football players grunted through spring ball, carrying the torch of normalcy, obedience and alleged conservatism. To say I burned with a conflicted conscience would be an understatement.
And now we have the Derek Chauvin/‘‘I Can’t Breathe” protests of great sincerity and need — and, of course, accompanying violence. Here in Chicago, the damage is as bad as anywhere.
I wonder: If there were no COVID-19 lockdown and the Cubs or White Sox were playing games in town, what would the protesters do? What would the arsonists do? What would the players do?
Two statements stick in my head and have for years.
Thomas Paine, a philosopher and political activist who helped inspire the American Revolution, said: ‘‘It is the responsibility of the patriot to protect his country from its government.’’
Damien Williams, a 20-year-old rioter who said he didn’t even know about the King verdict when he joined in the mayhem in Los Angeles in 1992 and spent 10 years in prison for extreme violence during the chaos, said after sentencing: ‘‘I was just caught up in the rapture.’’
How those statements go together is something we need to figure out and address. Or pay the price.