I have two new best friends. I’ve known who they were for many, many years, but only recently I have let them into my life on a personal level.
Well, truth be told, they’re letting me—and thousands upon thousands of others; especially those in St. Petersburg—into their lives on a personal level, and it’s absolutely priceless.
Former UConn women’s basketball star and present-day ESPN talking head Rebecca Lobo and Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin have a podcast called “Ball + Chain.”
They’ve put together 35 episodes, so far. I’m about 26 episodes in as I’m still playing catch up, but I’m enjoying the ride. So much so, in fact, that I’ll sit in the car for a few extra minutes, or drive around the block, just to finish listening to a segment … or perhaps the entire remaining minutes of a podcast.
It’s a home run. Or, in Robo-speak, it’s a pure swish.
First, let me say this: A big part of this podcast is right in my wheel house.
A former college basketball star that I once saw play joining forces with an SI writer, who I’ve spent a lot of my life reading?
What’s not to like, right?
But it’s more than the sports talk that keeps me hooked. It’s the people … well, the family, really .. that’s involved.
It’s like sitting on a back deck with friends, listening to them play off each other to much amusement. It’s like being invited to their breakfast nook the morning after spending the night and listening to husband and wife discuss their day in absolutely entertaining fashion. It’s like being in a car, with your friends in the back seat, gabbing about their family, their world, their lives.
And it’s so much fun. Yet it almost wasn’t.
When I first gave “Ball + Chain” a try, I didn’t even make it through the first episode.
There were some major sound quality issues that made listening to it almost impossible.
Many months later, on a recent road trip to New Jersey, though, when I was stuck in a car, driving through Connecticut, New York and New Jersey traffic, I gave it another try.
They fixed the sound issues, making the podcast much easier on the ears, and by the time my trip to and fro was over, I must have been eight episodes in.
I was hooked.
I was a fan.
I had two new friends to keep me company on pretty much every journey I’ve taken since.
If my drive is more than 30 minutes, I switch off my Sirius XM and tune in to the “Ball + Chain” podcast.
And, I repeat, it is so much more than the just the sports that keeps me tuned in and coming back for more.
First some background: Rushin is going to be turning 52 years old soon, while Lobo is soon to be 45.
As such, both are from my generation and for the most part grew up watching the same sports teams, sports moments, television shows and commercials and listening to the same music as I did.
They are my generation and they relish in their memories of growing up during the same era, and as they reflect on such moments, so do I.
Lobo grew up in Massachusetts, Rushin in Minnesota.
Fate, however, brought them together in a New York City bar. It’s a topic that is frequently brought up on the podcast, and it’s as a great of a first-meeting story as there is out there.
Rushin had once written, “Although Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have slept with 20,000 women in his lifetime, I had once slept with 7,138 women in a single night: We were all snoring in the stands at a WNBA game.”
Lobo happened to be a WNBA star at that time and confronted Rushin at the bar during a chance meeting.
“She asked if I was the scribe who once mocked, in Sports Illustrated, women’s professional basketball,” Rushin later wrote. “Reluctantly, I said that I was. She asked how many games I’d actually attended. I hung my head and said, ‘None.’ And so Rebecca Lobo invited me to watch her team, the New York Liberty play at Madison Square Garden. We both reeked of secondhand Camels (and, quite possibly, of secondhand camels: It was that kind of a dive.) But my insult had been forgiven. It was—for me, anyway—love at first slight. She had the longest legs, the whitest teeth, the best-sown cornrows I had ever seen, and I imagined us to have much in common. I ate Frosted Flakes right out of the box, and she was on boxes of Frosted Flakes. I am ludicrous, and she was name-dropped in a rap by Ludacris. We were, I thought, made for each other.”
Give them a listen and you realize, they really are made for each other.
That’s why it works so well, I think.
I have this little fantasy in my head: Rushin makes Lobo laugh a lot and every time he does I can almost picture him smiling with the knowledge, “Yup, she still loves me.”
Their connection to each other radiates through their words and mannerisms. I don’t recognize true love when I see it. In this case, though, I hear it.
The two married and have four children—three girls, one boy—all of whom come up from time to time in the podcast.
I told you it was about more than sports.
The ball and chain—“Who’s the ball, who’s the chain? is a key line in the podcast’s opening ditty sung by Tom, Dick and Harry (Tom is Steve’s brother, by the way)—talk about their lives and everything that happens in it. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters … even grandparents, uncles, aunts and neighbors.
As often as they trade good-natured jabs at one another, they also obviously keep their hearts open for each other, as well.
It’s funny. It’s interesting. It’s touching. It’s just a great listen, from start to finish.
It doesn’t matter if they’re reflecting on Larry Bird, Geno Auriemma, the Minnesota Vikings (or Twins), changing their car oil, or Steve’s inability to cook anything other than microwavable White Castle, they will keep you entertained.
While many podcasts have tunnel vision (i.e., I listen to The West Wing Podcast, too, which is focused just on the hit television show), you never know where “Ball + Chain” will take you.
Each episode is a different adventure, but is filled with enough memories and running jokes that Lobo and Rushin make it feel like you’re part of their larger extended family.
Sometimes, literally, it’s an adventure, too, as Lobo and Rushin discuss their different travels and travails, from airports to hotels to Uber (or Lyft) rides. Or maybe just a mini-van ride to an AAU basketball tournament in Massachusetts, or the local grocery store.
They’ve had some special guests—Lobo’s sister, former NFL player and current ESPN personality Mike Golic and his wife, and the podcast’s producer Deny (With one N!) Gallagher– to name a few. Even when others enter the podcast, it doesn’t throw off the enjoyment.
Semi-spoiler alert: The ending of the podcast with Deny (With one N!) is one of the best endings in podcast history.
In closing, I remember the moment I realized “Ball + Chain” and I had a special connection.
It came when Lobo talked about a ventriloquism dummy she had received as a gift when she was younger. And, Rushin reflected on what it was like to work as a 14-year-old during a Minnesota Vikings game.
It took me back to a picture of myself when I was younger. Of me, wearing a Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt, holding on to a ventriloquist dummy I was given as a child.
Basketball. Sports. A Sportswriter. UConn basketball. A dummy. The Vikings.
How’s that for a fate?
In a different time and in different places, I could have been friends with Lobo and Rushin. We would have shared a lot of laughs.
Instead, I’m just a loyal listener, taking my new friends—one a ball, the other a chain–with me on countless rides to keep me company.