By any definition, it's an undeniable winning combination

December 13, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

Abbott and Costello had it.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had it.

TV's Cagney and Lacey had it, so do Will and Grace. So do Siegfried & Roy - if not Roy and that Siberian tiger that mauled him.

Sonny and Cher had it until their pop-duo career sank faster than the Lusitania and their marriage dissolved and they went their separate ways.

Now, at least for the moment, the Baltimore Ravens' surprising pair of quarterback Anthony Wright and wide receiver Marcus Robinson have it: chemistry.

Over the past three games, the former University of South Carolina teammates have combined for six touchdown passes. Watch them on Sunday afternoons. Wright intuitively knows when Robinson will zig instead of zag on a pass route. Robinson can feel when Wright wants to throw him a lob pass, or a ball so low it comes in at grass-top level.

It's a beautiful thing, chemistry.

Except, well ... since we're not talking about rattling test tubes in a lab or the atomic weight of boron, no one's exactly sure what this kind of chemistry is.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "an instinctual, apparently unanalyzable, attraction or affinity between people or groups of people; the combination of personal characteristics that create this."

But what does that tell you?

That tells you this: a big, fat nothing.

So maybe defining the personal chemistry that exists between two people is like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of pornography: "We can't tell you exactly what it is. But we know it when we see it."

Chemistry is Johnny Unitas slinging the ball downfield to Raymond Berry as the crowd at old Memorial Stadium shoots to its feet like a school of startled fish.

It's Ed McMahon playing the foil and guffawing on cue in the midst of a "Carnac the Magnificent" skit with Johnny Carson.

It's John Lennon and Paul McCartney in a drab London recording studio creating an album (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) that would change rock forever the way fire changed food.

It's Ali and Cosell, Lucy and Desi, Tony Soprano and his shrink, Dr. Melfi, the ditzy friends on Friends.

Anthony Wright doesn't even use the term "chemistry" to refer to what he has going with Robinson, even after the two combined for four touchdowns in that thrilling 44-41 overtime win over Seattle three weeks ago.

"All I know is, I feel very comfortable with him, and things have been working for us," says Wright. "It's just the confidence I have with him. ..."

Comfort? Confidence? The eggheads won't let it rest at that, of course.

They keep trying to explain chemistry, dissect it, parse it, worry over its origin.

Merrill Melnick, who teaches social psychology courses at the State University of New York at Brockport, says a 1966 book called The Interpersonal Underworld by psychiatry professor William Schutz is considered a landmark text on personal chemistry.

In it, Schutz first dusted off an eye-glazing term called the "notion of complementarity" to explain the magic that can exist between two people.

"Basically, Schutz says that two people will get along if they complement each other," says Melnick. "If I have a need to control and you have a need to be controlled, we should get along famously.

"So we're attracted to those who satisfy our interpersonal needs. If I need a lot of affection and you're a very affectionate person, we'll hit it off."

Fine, great, OK.

But surely there was something more than a "notion of complementarity" at work between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, or between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.

For the simple fact of the matter is: Some chemistry sizzles.

Think: Sam and Diane in Cheers. Maddie and David in Moonlighting. You know the drill.

Witty repartee, smoldering looks, heightened sexual tension, then the dam breaks and the two throw themselves at each other like crazed wolverines and then . . . whew.

Is it me or is it warm in here?

Thankfully, this kind of chemistry happens in real life, too.

Here, for instance, is what George Stephanopoulos, the pol-turned-ABC news analyst, told The New York Times about his first meeting with Alexandra Wentworth, who would become his wife: "She just leaned in and said something, and we were suddenly in another place, another universe, immediately. We went from strangers to friends to being in love in days."

Sometimes, though, the chemistry between two people, no matter how intense, no matter how long-standing, goes awry.

Look at Simon and Garfunkel. Pals since the sixth grade. A meteoric rise to the top of the pop charts in the late '60s. Gold records, sold-out concerts, critical acclaim.

Then, storm clouds on the horizon. Garfunkel wants to try acting. Simon wants to go in a different direction musically.

In 1970, they release Bridge Over Troubled Water, which goes on to sell a record 9 million copies in less than two years.

Then ... they break up!

That same year!

"People grow apart for a variety of reasons," says Melnick. "Basically, people's needs change over time."

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