Surprising Sports Stars – Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard

One day someone could make a pretty decent biopic about Robert Pollard of the indie rock gods, Guided by Voices. After all, there’s plenty of compelling material to work with. This is a band mentioned in any self-respecting list of best alternative/indie albums of the 1990s. Their admirers range from outgoing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (whose last press conference included the band’s classic track, Motor Away) to film director Steven Soderbergh (who commissioned Pollard to write an entire soundtrack for an ill-fated Cleopatra film project).

Usually the hook about what makes this band so interesting comes down to the storyline about how Robert Pollard, the band’s principal singer and songwriter, made his living for years as an elementary school teacher in Dayton, Ohio, where he taught fourth grade. It was being immersed in this world that brought him inspiration for some of the band’s most revered songs, such as Gold Star For Robot Boy, off 1994’s Bee Thousand, thought by many to be the band’s masterpiece.

Another claim to fame for Guided by Voices is that Pollard is sometimes mentioned as the most prolific songwriter of his generation. In fact, he’s joked that he could write five songs while on the toilet, and three of them would be good. As of the writing of this article, he has 1669 songs registered with BMI, and more than 80 albums released.

But what makes Pollard’s story even more unbelievable comes down to his less heralded athletic past. It may not be such a surprise to think of Pollard as a ‘jock,’ given his propensity for high kicks and microphone twirls while performing in concert. As a high school athlete in a sports obsessed Dayton, Robert Pollard was a football quarterback who could throw for an amazing 70 yards, and a basketball point guard who averaged 20 points a game.

But it was in baseball where he was especially notable. He was a star pitcher with a 95 miles an hour fastball, and who in 1978 threw a no-hitter for Wright State University. Pollard’s father, believing his son to be a gifted athlete, rubbed down his arm each night, referring to the appendage as his ‘golden arm.’ Sadly, the ‘golden arm’ eventually failed him after popping a tendon in his elbow, and his throwing speed fell to around 85-88 mph. His baseball career was essentially over after an unsuccessful tryout camp with the Cincinnati Reds.

Later, while on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour with Guided by Voices, his sporting past most famously reemerged during a basketball game where his band played against a combined force of The Smashing Pumpkins and The Beastie Boys. Though the latter two bands were huge basketball fans, they had no idea who they were up against, and by all accounts it wasn’t much of a contest.

Surprisingly, despite the tri-sport athlete that he was, Robert Pollard was not the deciding factor in that game. That honor would have to go to his own younger brother – and sometimes Guided by Voices member – Jim Pollard, who was a basketball scoring star during his high school days, averaging 41 points a game in 1980, tops in Ohio. That led him to a stint playing basketball for Arizona State, at the time ranked third in the nation. In fact, Robert Pollard claims his brother was so good at basketball that he was like a god around the city, and that Dayton should even consider naming a street after him.

Apparently, both the musical and sporting genes ran in the Pollard family, and needless to say, The Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys never stood a chance against Guided by Voices; in basketball, or in any other sport.