“[My] popularity after Beverly Hills Cop—all that ‘He’s so hot’ shit—everything was going out of control. Everything came too easy … And when the laughs come too easy, you start doing things like walking through movies. You get too comfortable. You start getting out of control. You start tripping. You argue. You get the big head. You wear a leather suit and a glove with a ring on the outside.
“And I let myself get fat. There’s nothing like going into a movie theater and looking up on screen and you’re a fat guy in a bad movie.”
Here he laughs. Not the “Eh! Eh! Eh!” laugh, though—he never laughed that laugh in his customized bus.
“But I came out of that head … Now I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’ve got a beautiful chick, a beautiful daughter [Bria, age 3], a great record, a great movie. But it was a long time coming.”
Peter Richmond is a good man, loyal friend, and a gifted writer. Here he is at his best, writing about his father for GQ in December of 1993. The article was the genesis of Richmond’s beautiful memoir, My Father’s War: A Son’s Journey.
He survived Guadalcanal, and then New Britain, and then Peleliu, and came home in 1944 to take over the family business, manufacturing paper bags in a gray factory next to the railroad tracks in Long Island City. He married the woman who would become my mother and moved to Westchester County, and died in 1960, at the age of 44, when I was 7, so I never had much of a chance to ask him about his war.
But it was always there. I could hold it to my face. My father’s war was tucked into the trunk that sat in the darkest corner of the cellar: a Japanese flag, stained with Rorschach blotches of blood, the red circle still bright, the field of white crowded with the Japanese characters that identified the man whose blood graced it.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with the flag, running it through my hands, marveling at the liquid feel of the silk, at how different it was from the rest of my father’s memorabilia: the .30-caliber Japanese machine gun, the Japanese hand grenade, the rifles–all of them so inconceivably heavy and redolent of good grease and iron that I knew they carried the real weight of war.
Paul Newman had been a star for more than two decades when he went on fantastic run. It might not be his best string of movies, but starting in 1977 with Slapshot and lasting through The Color of Money in 1986, Newman delivered some of his most impressive work in movies like Fort Apache, the Bronx; The Verdict; and Absence of Malice.
In her review of Slapshot, Pauline Kael wrote:
“Newman is an actor-star in the way Bogart was. His range isn’t enormous; he can’t do classics, any more than Bogart could. But when a role is right for him, he’s peerless. Newman imparts a simplicity and a boyish eagerness to his characters. We like them but we don’t look up to them. When he’s rebellious, it’s animal energy and high spirits, or stubbornness. Newman is most comfortable in a role when it isn’t scaled heroically; even when he plays a bastard, he’s not a big bastard—only a callow selfish one, like Hud. He can play what he’s not—a dumb lout. But you don’t believe it when he plays someone perverse or vicious, and the older he gets and the better you know him, the less you believe it. His likableness is infectious; nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman.”
His last great performance came a few years later in Robert Benton’s adaptation of Richard Russo’s wonderful book, Nobody’s Fool.
That’s when our man Peter Richmond—whose terrific first YA novel, Always a Catch, was published a few weeks ago—caught up with him. This piece first appeared in the January 1995 issue of GQ and appears here with the author’s permission.
He answers the door in slippers, a polite and questioning half-smile set off by tortoiseshell bifocals perched on the bridge of his nose. He offers toast in the kitchen of his prewar penthouse late on a Sunday morning when the New York autumn is chilled by October showers and the sky is as absent of color as the froth of hair on top of his head. He is slicing a stick of butter, very carefully, with a serrated knife, peering over his spectacles so as not to cut off his fingertips. He is talking about the weather.
“I love it,” he says. “I just think the cold is blissful”—a pause for an inside-joke smile—“in my antiquity.”
It would seem, at best, an uneasy fit: Paul Newman and his seventieth birthday, this month. But spend more time with him and it’s clear that the man and the age are a good and comfortable match.
Eddie Felson, Cool Hand Luke, all the cons in search of the angle—maybe they’d fight it, fighting the roll of the seasons. But Paul Newman—who now, finally, is none of these people—is clearly at home with his current circumstance: as no one but himself.
You knew him for the color of his eyes and the chiseled perfection of his torso, but in fact you knew nothing but the way Paul Newman looked. You have never been on familiar terms with Paul Newman the symbol, the symbol of whatever it was you wanted him to be: the defiant youth, perhaps, but without the darker currents of James Dean, or the outcast, but without the bluster of Brando, or, eventually and most memorably, the cad thief or villain eternally redeemed by a beatific smile.
But he is no symbol now. Paul Newman’s physical presence is no longer overwhelmingly compelling, a fact that leaves us—and him—with much more of the essence of the man. In his new movie, the story of nothing but the quiet emotions of an aging man, his looks are irrelevant, and he seems entirely suited to the role.
He does not pretend to have all of the answers. Questions remain. He asks them gently, in a low voice, using measured words and separated by long pauses, all of it punctuated by frequent glances at the rain patting the terrace outside the living-room windows.
“I am thoroughly and predictably concerned about what was my accomplishment and what was the accomplishment of my appearance, which I have no control over,” he says. “What was attributable to me? And what is the difference between a truly creative artist and an interpretive artist? I have not concluded anything about that, but it’s fair to ask the question.”
It’s not the usual rope-skip one expects from people of note who deign to cede a few minutes of their days to an interviewer. This is a deliberative conversation, and he tries to get as much meaning into as few words as possible. He’s never had any love for the interview process, but he is nonetheless polite enough to want to convey something substantial in a short time. Envision, if you can, a weight attached to every phrase.
“And everybody shakes their head and says ‘Oh, isn’t it too bad that he doesn’t enjoy…more of a sense of accomplishment,’ and so forth,” he continues. “But it’s not a false sense of modesty or self-deprecation. It’s really just looking at it and saying ‘Where did it come from? What do you owe it to?’”
So it should come as no surprise that the definitive question Paul Newman poses about his life is whether an entire career was forged on the pigment of his eyes.
“You’re constantly reminded,” he says. “There are places you go and they say ‘Take off your dark glasses so we can see your beautiful blue eyes.’ And you just want to…you just want to…I dunno, um…thump them.”
He holds up his right hand—“A short chop right above the bridge of the nose”—and gives up a laugh.
“They could say, ‘Hey, its very nice to meet you’—that’s great. Or ‘Thanks for a bunch of great performances,’ and you can feed off that for a week and a half. But the other thing, which is always there, is a never-ending reminder.”
The eyes. He proposes that if we insist on putting his picture on GQ’s cover, we eschew the usual mug of shot and run one simply of his eye. His right eye. Close up. Just the eye.
“This bloodshot blue eye,” he says, and he laughs. And then he says, “Or take the engine out of a stock Ford. Have the hood up. I’ll just be sleeping in there.”
The last is not a non sequitar. It’s an allusion—a comic allusion—to an arena in which Paul Newman answered the question of how much of his success was due to talent and hard work. He was a champion race-car driver. He was good at driving; his looks didn’t matter. But that time is over now, too. Newman raced just once last year. The previous year, he’s raced in six events and crashed in five of them.
“Driver error,” he says now. “The teeth get longer. The hair gets thinner. The eyes and ears don’t sense danger as quickly as they did before. You can’t go fast, so you try and go faster.”
Madness lies that way, of course. And so on a Sunday morning when two years ago he might have been up on the track at Lime Rock, in Connecticut, he’s wending his way through The Times instead. His wife is in another part of the apartment, listening to opera. An aria winds out of the room and finds us. Newman falls silent; the conversation pauses.
But it is the most welcome of silences, too; fifteen stories above the Central Park reservoir, amid books and family photographs and very old paintings. It is so peaceful that time feels if it’s not even passing.
“Bette Davis said it best of all: ‘Getting old ain’t for sissies,’ “he said eventually. “I mean—suppose, to do it right, it ain’t for sissies.”
How do you do it right?
“Stay in the thick of it, I guess…I’ve been working on this thing on and off for seven years.”
I need a moment to make the connection: The “thing” is his current project—not Nobody’s Fool, the movie just out, but the next one—he assumes that I know what he’s talking about because it’s on his mind all of the time; it’s what binds his professional life now. It’s the script he’s been writing for the past year and a half. The film he’ll direct.
The writing is what drives him. It’s easier than getting in front of the camera, where the way he used to look has become an issue. “Which is part of why I’m directing this next film,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about it. I wouldn’t worry about it. But other people worry about it. And I’m at that point where…it just takes too much effort.”
They never seemed effortless, the men in Paul Newman’s catalogue. They were all highly complicated, not a flat-out, clear cut hero among them—pool hustler, grifter, alcoholic lawyer and now, in Nobody’s Fool, a man who abandoned his family because it was the easy thing to do. They were flawed and beautiful men in circuitous search of redemption, and Newman wore the characters effortlessly.
This was not luck or fortuitous casting. He did the foundation work for years, on the stage and in bad films, but so did any number of pretty young men. What Newman brought to the screen, what allowed him to blossom, was his ability to make Hud and Harper and Fast Eddie so familiar. So identifiable. Their troubles were always, somehow, real.
“I had some troubling years,” Newman says.
Newman did what many young men do. He drank; he fought. He should have known better, he says now. After combat duty in the Pacific, he put in four years at Kenyon College and a year at Yale Drama. He was kicked off the football team at Kenyon for taking part in a tavern rumble between college kids and townies—a particularly embarrassing episode, given that Newman hadn’t even been rounded up with the original arrestees; it was only when he showed up at the jail to give the quarterback his car keys that a cop saw the second-stringer’s scuffed knuckles and locked him up, too. Several years later, there was an arrest for leaving the scene of an accident in which no one had been hurt. “A mistake,” he admits. “Dumb.”
“I barely made it in my time,” he says. “And don’t forget that the acceleration of everything was much slower. We only had booze in our day—which was bad and ugly enough. We didn’t have crack.”
In the kitchen, two empty beer cans stand upside down, side by side, in the dish rack, rinsed for the recyclers—aligned in orderly fashion, in defiance of any hint of impropriety.
Did his drinking ever come close to derailing what he had going?
After a moment’s thought, he nods and nods and nods. The silence stretches on and on. Then he says, “Fortunately, that was back in the Stone Age.” Silence again. “So.”
It is neither the time nor the place to ask for elaboration. Not in Paul Newman’s living room. That is a given. The overriding theme of the hundreds of interviews Newman had granted is his discretion. He saves a special disdain for the public’s gutter curiosities. Several years ago, amid the flowering of tabloid journalism, Newman announced that he’d adopted a personal theme: Fuck Candor.
His father was the successful proprietor of a sporting-goods store in Cleveland, and when Newman speaks of him, it is with respect for nothing so much as Arthur S. Newman’s integrity: “In the Depression,” he says, leaning a little closer over his coffee, “[he] got $200,000 worth of consignment from Spalding and Rawlings because [his] reputation for paying, [his] honesty, was so impeccable.” Arthur Newman, his son says, was many things: ethical, moral, funny. And distant. Newman once spoke of his anger and frustration at never being able to earn his father’s approval.
He met and married his first wife, Jacqueline Witte, in 1949, when they were members of an acting troupe in Illinois. Upon his father’s death, in 1950, Newman moved his wife and infant son back to Cleveland but couldn’t put his heart into selling sports goods. He turned the business over to his brother and took his family to New Haven, for his year at Yale; soon afterward, he was working in New York. But his ascent on the stage coincided with a muddying of emotional waters: He met Joanne Woodward in 1952, worked with her frequently and found himself being pulled toward her. Newman and Jacqueline had three children by the time they divorced. In 1958, he married Woodward, and they subsequently had three daughters of their own. His career took flight.
In 1978, Scott Newman, his 28-year-old son, died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. The family endowed a drug-education foundation in his name. Several years later, Newman started a Connecticut camp for seriously ill children, and now his charity work had become the stuff of legend. He has gone into the food business and has been wildly successful in it. It’s typical refutation by Newman the person of Newman the Hollywood icon: Matinee idol joins the merchant class.
“I worked in the [sporting goods] store every Saturday as a kid,” he says. “And now I’m hustling salad dressing. What is the circularity of things?”
But the answer doesn’t seem too difficult to divine. The success of his food endeavor made Newman a businessman of good refute—someone his father could admire—and by donating his considerable profits ($56 million, so far) to various charities, he has equaled his father’s reputation for integrity.
More: He derives genuine pleasure from watching something he created flourish. “I can understand the romance of it,” he says. “Where you create something. It’s kind of like writing, in a way…where you say [to your creation] ‘Just stay right there’ and it says ‘I got other plans,’ and it goes shooting off in other areas. And you say ‘Look at that little fucker go.’ “
Clearly, the greatest joy he derives from the business these days is in designing the labels—fanciful, nonsensical, joyous paeans to the simple goodness of good food, Whitmanesque in spirit: “Terrifico! Magnifico…share with guys on the streetcar…ah, me, immortal!”
He writes the copy himself. On the new Caesar salad-dressing bottle, the government has co-opted three-fifths of his label for the mandatory nutritional data, robbing him of the space needed for what he wanted to write—an apocryphal story of the time he played Caesar at a regional theater and how, after he was stabbed, an offstage phone rang and another actor ad-libbed “I hope it wasn’t for Caesar.” Instead, he settled for a sketch of the morally wounded emperor, a bloody dagger pointing to the ingredients, and Caesar saying “Don’t dilute us, Brutus.”
Newman laughs at that one. Then he pauses again. Half of the morning in pauses.
Writing—the next movie, the labels—is a sensible thing for a man grown distrustful of the camera to do. He has found, in the scripting of a very personal film, a new creative surge. “I could have given up on this thing,” he says, “a long time ago.”
Did people tell him to?
“Oh boy—writers and friends. But I really am pleased with it. The way it turned out. It has the same kind of emotional progression as Nobody’s Fool. But much more personal.”
Nobody’s Fool is personal, too. As written, the character of Sully—an underachieving, good-natured, down-on-his-luck handyman in a depressed, snow-locked upstate-New York town—allowed for a great deal of invention on Newman’s part. “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of plot progression,” he admits. “[I] had to create the progression of where he was emotionally.”
In giving Sully a life, he gave the character some of his own life. And after a couple of intentionally over-the-top roles—Governor Earl Long in Blaze, a corporate shark in The Hudsucker Proxy—he may have finally come up with a way to quiet his own questions about how much of his success is the result of a craft he worked hard to perfect.
At first glance, Sully appears to be a man who finds a small nobility in living a life that requires nothing but getting through each day with his circle of small-town friends. But his story is tangled when, by chance, he meets the son he abandoned when the boy was a year old and the grandchildren he’s never met and has never particularly wanted to meet. Thereafter he is forced to examine his life: simple and reassuringly placid on the surface but rooted in irresponsibility and neglect. Sully decides to face the truth of what his negligence has sown. And to make amends.
“His bravery,” Newman says, “was that he was at that point in his life when he did not want to…deny it anymore. He no longer tries to keep his own…accessibility…away from himself. [He finally] accepts his sense of family. And the incredible magnetism of that.
“I don’t know whether the audience will get that,” he says. “They may get something else. I don’t know that they’ll get all of the things this film means to me…[the] secrets between me and the character. They are tiny discoveries. And they’re mine. I don’t know if they’ll be visible.”
It is an oblique soliloquy. The gist of it seems to be that in Sully, Paul Newman had finally found a man who has made the right decision: to face himself in his waning years.
I begin to observe that it sounds as if Sully is in microcosm what Newman himself…but that is as far as I get.
“Yeah,” he says, interrupting me. “Painfully close. As this next film will be.”
His wife has taken the dog for a walk. The radio is silent. The rain has stopped. The coffee is cold.
“The nice thing about the picture was that you didn’t have to discover where the money was—you had to discover where he was,” Newman says. “It’s an examination of the good in ordinary people. But maybe in order to be good [in movies] you have to kill 53 people. Used to be you only had to kill three or four. Now everything has escalated. The insistence on sexual, visceral gratification has become so intense…The human animal is an escalating beast.”
His expression makes it obvious that he is reluctant to be led into this old swamp, into routine condemnation of the modern age, but it would hardly be right to talk with Paul Newman without getting his take on the social pulse. He was a Connecticut delegate in the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and a member of a U.S. delegation to a 1978 United Nations session on disarmament. He was No. 19 on Nixon’s enemies list. But his activism has since been reined in. “The Sixties—I had to have my foot in everything then,” he says. “I’m doing the same thing now but through an intermediary. You know. The food company. Maybe that’s the way to go about it. You go right straight into the inferno, and when you get older, you pull back. You don’t really give up your responsibilities, but you find some less exhausting way.”
Still, when he’s led into conversation about the mores of our time, his hands tap a drumbeat on the arms of his antique wooden chair.
“It’s kind of like those little electric bumper cars where you drive around and see if you can hit the other guy. That’s exactly what the country is like now. You no longer have the sense of community. Of loyalty. It’s lost its sense of group. It has nothing to do with leadership. Everybody’s out there alone, getting his own whacks. Instead of deifying the community, they’ve deified the individual. Maybe that’s necessary in principle. In the Bill of Rights. But… ‘What’s good for the individual is good for the country’? It simply is not true. What is good for the community is good for the country. Once you put the individual on a pedestal, it’s at the expense of everything else.
“What I would really like to put on my tombstone is that I was part of my time,” he says. “And that I’m, satisfied with that. And that’s comforting. I did okay. It’s been good. It’s nice to finally…get it as you get into your mid-sixties. It’s better than not getting it at all. And I have seen a lot of people who go to their graves without ever…without ever getting in touch with what it is that’s the core of them. It’s very easy as an actor…you can just walk around as Hud all day long, have people marvel at your grace, your manliness, your quick-wittedness. [But] it all eats away at whatever is at the core of…your own humanity. At getting in touch with that, and being satisfied with it, and comfortable.”
Being satisfied. Being comfortable. Getting it. We’re talking about him now, right?
“Yeah,” he says.
A moment later, en route to the elevator, he amplifies. Only a bit. But enough.
“I don’t have to worry,” he says, “about being something for somebody.”
The other half of the thought doesn’t need to be spoken: Now it’s time to be him for him.
Which is why, finally, the smile at the end of the morning—back at the apartment door, in the foyer, the elevator summoned—is different from the one that greeted me. It’s not just on his lips. It’s in his eyes.
The difference is not in their color. Their color is just sort of pale-blue.
It’s the light behind them. Maybe the light I want to see behind them. The light I do see behind them. The particularly brilliant light of winter.
Muhammad Ali “shocked the world” 50 years ago today when he beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Since then Ali has been written about more than any famous athlete. He’s what the Madonna was to Renaissance painters—every writer has to take his shot. Fortunately for them, Ali was the gift that kept on giving.
This profile by Peter Richmond, first published in the April 1998 issue of GQ (and reprinted here with the author’s permission), is a classic lion in winter piece. It shows Ali dealing with Parkinson’s but still sharp, charismatic, and more revered than ever.
Muhammad Ali in Excelsis
By Peter Richmond
He is in mellow middle age now. Parkinson’s disease has silenced the voice once full of preening, arrogant poetry. But in his stillness he has become the god he always wanted to be.
On the table in front of him sit a copy of the holy Koran and a plate holding three frosted raspberry coffee cakes, and when he leans forward on the couch and reaches out it is not for enlightenment. It is for a piece of pastry. With his right hand wobbling just this side of uncontrollably, he guides it, slow inch by slow inch, toward the mouth that once yapped without stopping but that now, largely mute, chews slowly, as the eyes stare straight ahead, seeing nothing; only the patter of a cold rain splashing the leaves of the trees outside the window mars the silence. Flecks of frosting tumble in slow motion to light on his belly, which gently swells beneath a black sweater. I am sitting next to him. Close enough to see the tiny scar on his eyelid that looks like a birthmark. Close enough to hear him chew. Close enough to taste the cake as he tastes it. The look on his face is the fat and happy near smile topping the fat and happy body of all the renderings of Buddha you’ve ever seen. It is an expression of bemusement and contentment and wonder at the beauty to be found in the simplest things.
As I watch him eat, I have never been more sure of a man’s inner contentment. Except maybe when he eats the second piece.
It’s not supposed to be Buddha. It’s supposed to be Allah, because it is Allah who has ruled his life since even before Liston, and Allah who controls it now more than ever before. The contents of his briefcase say so. He is carrying the briefcase as he enters the room, so still even in walking that he does not disturb the air around him. He opens the briefcase to reveal hundreds of well-thumbed sheets of paper filled with typewritten words. It is the briefcase a man would carry if he were to knock on your screen door to convert you to his faith, and on this day, dressed in black, shoulders slumping toward his paunch, gray sprinkling his temples, he looks like such a man.
He shuffles through the papers, finds one, hands it to me.
“First Chronicles 19:18,” I read aloud while he listens. “‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel. David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers of the Syrians.’ Second Samuel 10:18: ‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen of the Syrians.’ Was it 700 or 7,000? Was it foot soldiers or horsemen?”
“The Bible has contradictions,” he says to me, the voice sandpapered raw by the disease. “Not in there,” he says, nodding at the Koran. His briefcase also holds a black-and-white photograph of three boxers—Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson; it looks like a snapshot from the turn of the century—but most of the case’s contents are there to do Allah’s work.
It’s easiest for him to talk about Allah, although it is not easy for him to talk, because the muscles of his face don’t work as well as they once did. His wife, Lonnie, has asked if I want her to sit with us so she can tell me what he is saying. Lonnie is a strong woman who walks through a room like a beautiful storm approaching. But right now I ask her if Ali and I can be alone and if she could close the door, which she does, leaving the two of us in silence in a small room in the suite of offices on Ali’s southern Michigan farm. The farm used to belong to AI Capone’s bookmaker. A workman doing renovations recently dug some bullets out of the floorboards from back in the days when people were shooting one another here. Now it’s just about the quietest place on earth.
After he hands me several more tracts, I tell him I’m pretty much a nonbeliever, and at this his eyebrows arch up and the words come quickly.
“Do you believe that phone made itself?”
No, I say.
“Do you believe the chair made itself?”
“Do you believe the table made itself?”
“Do you believe the sun made itself?”
“The Supreme Being made it.”
The Bible’s inconsistencies don’t persuade me, nor do the sermons. It’s when he levitates that I start to come around. Well, not when he levitates—when he pretends to. His levitation trick is like his handkerchief-in-the-fake-thumb trick or the trick where he rubs his fingers together behind your ear and what you hear sounds like a cricket. He’s been playing pranks since he was a kid, to complement his verbal trickery, but now his pranks are the currency with which he communicates.
It’s when he’s pretending to levitate that I figure out what’s happening with Ali now, and it sounds an awful lot like something involving divine intervention. At the very least, it sounds like the sort of parable that ought to be typed up and carried around in the briefcase of someone trying to convert you.
“For decades,” it would read, “Allah had Muhammad Ali doing Allah’s work. Ali was the most remarkable young black man the nation had ever seen, unafraid to take on the mightiest of the white man’s institutions, speaking out, yes, for the black man, but even more for Allah, in a fashion that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad never could have.
“But the older the disciple grew, the more he began to lose fights to people like Trevor Berbick. And the more he began to lose fights, the more he threatened to fall into the black hole wherein reside all the great athletes who tried to hang on too long. Allah knew that the closer Muhammad Ali got to the ultimate indignity of punch-drunkdom, the less use he was for Allah as an emissary on earth. Yes, a million faithful would line the airport runway in Malaysia, and he could move the masses in Syria and in Algeria and in Turkey, but it wasn’t working in America, where the enemy lived.
“So Allah hit upon a plan. Where Ali’s voice once moved mountains, Allah struck him mute. Where Ali’s swift fists once rained upon opponents with the precision of a surgeon, Allah struck them with terrible tremors so that they struggled to hold a piece of cake. Where Ali once had more physical vibrancy than any athlete the world had ever known—a face like a thousand different masks, a dancer’s body, all of it always in motion—Allah wrapped him in an invisible cloak of paralysis, and he had to labor to move any muscles at all.
“And this is how Allah made sure that Muhammad Ali would be doing his work again. Tenfold. For in infirmity, Ali came to mean much more than he ever had before.”
“I can levitate,” he says, and he tries to get up from the couch, but he cannot. The couch is too deep, and he is growing heavier; he will be Buddha-like in girth at some point soon. I reach out to help him, but he dismisses me with a gesture of his left hand; the closed fist that sits rocking back and forth at his side opens slightly and motions me away. He speaks with his hands now, even though they are constantly trembling and not much good to him. It has taken me a full hour in his presence to begin to recognize the nuances in his shaking fingers, and it has taken me equally long to understand the nuances of his facial expressions, from the eyebrows shooting straight up in true surprise to the rare half smile to the flat, expressionless expressions that are differentiated by the degree to which the eyes and the eyelids move.
All the gyrations and the mugging and the shouting have been distilled into a thimbleful of expressions, but it is a bottomless thimble. So when with a single slight crook of an index finger he tells me not to help him, it’s as if a healthy person had slapped my hand away. Then he tries again, rocks against the back of the couch and vaults himself up. He walks over to a corner of the room, where he turns away and, with his back to me, slowly rises off his feet.
His body appears to levitate—his left foot is off the ground. I cannot see his right foot. Maybe he is levitating. This sounds absurd, but it would make more sense if you were in the room with him and could feel the otherworldliness his utter stillness and oddly detached gaze now impart. In the lasting silences between long questions and short answers and magic tricks, as he stares straight ahead, I begin to feel a mounting sense of disorientation. It’s as if the room is growing smaller or he is growing bigger, as if the space is too little to hold whatever he is becoming now. It’s as if Euclidean rules are being bent.
I’d expected the disease to have robbed him of the vitality that once exploded from him. I’d expected the disease to represent the ultimate cruel triumph of the world that had always wanted the black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, to shut the hell up.
But up close, I am discovering that his affliction has taken nothing away, none of the energy, none of the wit, none of the pride; it has only bound all of it, captured and constricted it, with the entirely unexpected result that, as an aeon of geologic forces can compress a large vein of coal into a very small diamond, whatever was the essence of Muhammad Ali is now somehow magnified. He is at last what he always pretended to be but never was: the Greatest. For it must be axiomatic that if someone calls himself the Greatest, as Ali did for years, he cannot possibly be; the Greatest would never have to label himself as such. Only when he was forced to stop proclaiming his greatness did it become possible.
Never has he been more mortal—struck dumb and slow, crumbs spilling down his shirt—and never have we deemed him more godly.
On the afternoon prior to the kickoff of the Louisville-Penn State football game at Cardinal Stadium on the Kentucky fairgrounds, he was sitting alone in a golf cart behind the grandstand next to the locker room, waiting to be driven to midfield for a pregame ceremony. Suddenly, a few feet away, there stood Joe Paterno leading his team out of the visiting locker room door, dozens of huge, young Pennsylvania mountain men lined up snorting behind the little man in khakis and a sweater and thick glasses, stamping their feet behind Paterno, his energy bubbling out of his body—a game to play!—oblivious to anything else, even to the dozens of folks who had turned around in the top two rows of the bleachers to look down at the man in the golf cart just a few yards away from the football team, oblivious even to the several hundred more fans who had quietly filed out of those bleachers to form a line on each side of the golf cart, like sidewalk crowds at a parade.
Standing directly behind the golf cart, I saw the world as he must always see it, looking straight ahead, looking out through the tunnel of his illness: people crowding to be in his field of vision, chanting his name, some smiling, some shouting, some staring with mouths agape.
Joe Paterno, something of a god himself, saw none of it; he was minutes from the kickoff. When an official signaled for him to enter the stadium, he began to jog, the general leading his infantry, past the golf cart, glancing over his shoulder—and then he stopped. The Penn State players behind him ran into one another like confused cattle. Now shaken from his reverie, stunned, Paterno walked over to the golf cart and crouched and shook the hand of the champ. Then he rose and led his team onto the field.
The golf cart followed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” rang the public address voice, “at the 50 yard line, please welcome the heavyweight champion—” But the announcer didn’t get to finish his sentence; the swell of the roar blotted out the words. Forty thousand people were on their feet singing his name in a two-syllable mantra. Finally, he waved—a quick flip of his right hand—and the cart wheeled around, the beery bleachers still chanting “A-LI!” as the cart disappeared behind them.
In the first half, I sat next to him in the front row of the stadium. We could not watch the football game because we’d been seated behind the Louisville bench and the players blocked our view. Even if Ali could have seen the field, he could not have followed the game, because his head does not move back and forth quickly. So he sat there looking pretty much straight ahead while people such as the former governor of Kentucky came and sat on his other side and called him champ. We did not speak at all. I spent the half handing him peanuts. He would take each one out of its shell and deliberately raise it to his mouth and chew until finally, with a motion of his right hand, he signaled that he didn’t want any more, and he reached out for his soda, which sat on top of the concrete wall in front of him, and very carefully guided the cup to his mouth. The liquid in the cup roiled like a sea, but none of it spilled.
In the limousine back to town, he did not speak, either, except to say, as he threw a left jab and looked out the window, “Gonna make a comeback. Exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Twenty million dollars. Champion of the world at 55.” It was the only time I heard him voluntarily refer to the man he had once been, but it was enough to confirm what I had suspected—that if he were not hindered by disease, he would indeed be trying to make a comeback at the age of 55, and he would be humiliated and pummeled. Frazier tried; Holmes tried. Tyson will try. And while Muhammad Ali was smarter and better than any of them, he is still a boxer.
When the limousine pulled up at his mother-in-law’s house in the suburbs of Louisville to disgorge its passengers—Ali; his best friend, Howard Bingham; his attorney Ron DiNicola; another attorney; and me—l was surprised to see that they all walked quickly up the driveway, leaving him behind to take baby steps up the asphalt toward the house. No one who’s around him a lot treats him as if he’s infirm, because they know he isn’t.
“Oh yeah, he’s all there; he gets it all,” Bingham told me, a little wearily and a little impatiently, as if he were surprised I had to ask.
Then Ali’s wife came out and saw him.
“There he is,” she said softly and went to his side.
That night 11,000 people filled Freedom Hall at the fairgrounds to see an entertainment-extravaganza tribute to Muhammad Ali, starring Natalie Cole and Jeff Foxworthy. After the gospel choir sang, a boxing ring was wheeled to the front of the stage and a series of embarrassing boxing exhibitions ensued, including one in which former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis faced Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum and took a dive as an expressionless Ali watched from a mezzanine seat.
Then a 13-year-old-boy bounced into the ring—a thin kid with gloves as big as his head, his face, nearly in shadow, framed in the padding of the protective headgear. But I could see the eyes and the mouth; they were the features of a boxer before a fight. It turned out he was the youth boxing champion of South Carolina, and he was going to fight Muhammad Ali. I do not think that the youth boxing champion of South Carolina had the slightest idea of the significance of the man who was going to join him in the ring.
I glanced at a man seated next to me, and the look he cast back mirrored the anxiety in my eyes. Then someone raised the ropes for Ali, and as he slowly ducked to climb into the ring the applause swelled, but it was a worried ovation. The bell rang, and the kid charged, fists flying out like misdirected darts; he wanted to kill the old fool. But before anyone could wince, Ali was dancing to one side and then dancing back the other way—not the Ali of 1965, but not a cripple either: It was the dance of an overweight former athlete who was perfectly healthy. The kid could not land a punch.
Then, as the cheers of relief started to rise, he did the Ali shuffle. I’d forgotten about the Ali shuffle. This was not the shuffle of 1966 but the shuffle of an overweight former athlete in perfect health. Ali did not do one dance and one shuffle. He kept it up for a full minute.
Finally, he reached down and grabbed the kid in a bear hug and smiled the best smile he could, although it was just a wink of a smile, and that was the end of it.
When I found him a few minutes later in a room behind the stage, dining on fried chicken, he did not resemble the man in the boxing ring, except for the face. He was surrounded by friends and family, and women—one was fetching him a piece of cake. There was an inordinate number of women in the room, watching him avail himself of the post-event spread, making sure he got enough to eat, wearing expressions that seemed quite maternal. They were not the expressions I’d seen on the women at the black-tie banquet the night before. After Louisville’s high society had grazed its way through a two-hour open-bar cocktail party, Ali had slowly made his way to the dais, and I saw on the faces of the pearled women with low-cut gowns and bustiered girls in impossibly high heels the distinct expression I’ve come to recognize as the one women wear when they’re looking at a man they want.
The boxing match was the last official event of Muhammad Ali’s weekend, but the last unofficial event took place at midnight in the bar at the Seelbach Hotel. It is a historic place, often cited in those stories about great old bars in the great Old South. Natalie Cole and her band were lounging at the bar. I was with one of Ali’s counsel and her boyfriend when Howard Bingham, sloe-eyed and cool, slid a chair up to our table and ordered a beer. Bingham, a photographer, has been by Ali’s side from the beginning, and he is the only one who never left it.
I waited until Howard was halfway through his beer before I asked him what had happened at Freedom Hall that evening.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
The dancing, I said. The shuffling.
“Oh yeah, he can do that; he does that sometimes.”
He can? Then why doesn’t he do it more often?
Bingham had no immediate answer. He was not looking at me or at anything when a moment later he took his right arm and started to windmill it, like an old Ali punch. Then he stopped, and the hand wrapped around the mug of beer.
“Sometimes,” Bingham said, “I just want to…” But he did not finish the sentence. He said something else: “He could be 100 percent better.”
And he could. If he spent more time in boxing rings. It turns out that only when Muhammad Ali is in a boxing ring can he, or does he choose to, turn back the clock. It’s only a boxing ring, fittingly enough, that moves him to movement. Perhaps he believes that if some of us are now finding divine inspiration in his metaphysical majesty, his real power will always derive from his ability to outwit, outpunch, and overpower everyone else.
What Parkinson’s disease does is make you brittle. Ali’s version of the disease is a slow one, but it’s making him brittle nonetheless. The way to fight being brittle—to keep the disease at bay—is to work at being limber. And the only time he feels like working at being limber—at fighting the disease—is when he’s in an environment where he’s always been accustomed to fighting.
“He won’t exercise in a regular gym or do the Nautilus or a StairMaster; he will not do it,” says Lonnie. Her voice is exasperated, because she is exasperated. “I have bought him state-of-the-art equipment. He won’t use it. He says it’s for sissies. That’s why I’m building him a gym on the farm, with a ring and mirrors and a heavy bag. Because that’s what he knows. And that’s how he wants to do it.
“Sometimes Muhammad, unfortunately, might use this illness. Don’t get me wrong, but Muhammad knows when to turn it on and off. And sometimes I think he does it deliberately. Turns it off. He’s a master manipulator; I’m not going to kid you. He will look more fragile than he actually is. Why he does it, I don’t know.”
Perhaps I do. Perhaps if I were being worshiped by flocks of followers, my every whim attended to, and all I could see from behind the smoked glass was legions shouting my name and feeding me cake, well, I would have stopped trying to get better a long time ago, too. Especially if the crowds were finally affirming what I’d been saying for 40 years: that in me you see a god.
“I began to suspect that he was a special vessel that might be ordained for special things,” a writer named Mort Sharnik once said of Cassius Clay as the writer tried to come to grips with the essence of this strange new champion.”Esse est percipi,” an eighteenth century bishop named George Berkeley said many years earlier as he tried to figure out what it meant to exist, to be. After a lifetime of considering the notion, Berkeley decided that to be is to be perceived. And so it must be now with Muhammad Ali. If he is a vessel, it is not only his own self that fills it; it is filled up by all of us, filled with whatever it is we need to find in him. He is what we perceive him to be.
What we see in him is purely an individual matter. It might be something in the eyes, which seem particularly expressive because everything else on the face has shutdown—a sense in his eyes of not only the playful jester but also the kind and compassionate man whose clowning and belittling of opponents often obscured the goodness of the soul within. It might be forgiveness: of him, for adopting a racist religion or acting like a self-centered showman at so many people’s expense—like the cruelty he showered on Joe Frazier (“See how ignorant you are?”); or forgiveness of ourselves, for not realizing how special he was beneath the bluster and the lunacy. For not sensing what we had in our midst.
It might be reverence for the physical embodiment of the greatest man ever to fight, and for the greatest athlete we’ve ever known: The title of heavyweight champion, before its devaluation, was a kingly title. And no one has ever ruled the sport as gracefully, or as magically—although his crowning triumph, his victory over Frazier in their third fight, in Manila, was the most brutally beautiful heavyweight championship fight in history, a battle won not with wits but with soul. If the disease came on while he was fighting—if it was not inherited, as his wife insists—then this is the fight during which it must have taken root.
It might be simple awe at the survival of a man who had the balls to stand up to white America and risk its wrath when most of us would have shut up and joined the damned army. In 1967 to be a young black man from Kentucky who refused induction—one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, three years after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi—was to be made of a singular fabric.
And it might be pity, although if it’s pity, he neither merits it nor wants it. When l ask him, after he levitates, if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and slumps hack against the couch in a manner that l recognize as meaning he will have more to say on the matter in a moment. This happens only three times in our two hours in that room: There are three questions he wants to answer slowly, not reflexively. This is not to say that some of his quick answers aren’t honest ones. When I ask if he misses boxing and he quickly answers, “No”; when l ask if he’d want his son to be a boxer and he quickly says, “No”; when l ask, “Are you a happy man?” and he quickly answers, “Um-hmm.” But three times when l ask him questions, he slumps back on the couch and closes his eyes, then opens them and speaks.
Sometimes he gets only the first three or four words out and then has to stop and try again before uttering a complete thought—like a car turning over several times before catching on a cold morning.
So when l ask if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and then a few moments later he says, “Everything… everything… everything has a purpose.”
Another time I ask if he’d change anything in his life. After several seconds, he says, “I wouldn’t change nothin’. It all turned out to be good.”
The third time, l ask how he wants history to remember him. This is the one he takes the most time to think about. He closes his eyes and slumps against the back of the couch for what seems to be a very long time. Then he opens his eyes, leans forward, and says in quick bursts of words, “I want people to say, ‘He fought for his rights. Fought for my people. Most famous black man in the world. Strong believer in God.’”
I have a million more questions, but he is tired, and I am not going to get the answers I want. When I ask what lessons he has learned on his long and troublesome journey—when I lean in and, in tones drenched with meaning, ask him what we should know—he says, “Do a lot of running; eat the right foods.”
And when I tell him l think that it was the third Frazier fight, not the Foreman fight, that was his best, he looks at me and rasps, “You’re not as dumb as you look,” which makes me laugh in delight—how sharp he is—until I remember that this is exactly what he said to the Beatles when he met them in Miami Beach in 1964.
We shake hands—it’s a soft handshake but not a sickly one; it’s like a gentleman’s handshake—and he picks up the briefcase and rises to walk down the hall to say goodbye to his wife, who is working in another room, before he walks over to the main house. I take a tour of the rest of the office suite. One room’s windows overlook an expanse of emerald green grass bordering a river, and stacked against the wall beneath the windows are 13 translucent plastic cartons with the words PROPERTY OF THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE printed on the sides. Each is overflowing with letters and envelopes. Perhaps a thousand pieces of mail.
“A week’s worth,” says a woman whose job is to open them and answer them: the well-wishers, the autograph requesters, the charity seekers. Most of Ali’s life is given over to good works now. Last fall a Roman Catholic nun who cares for Liberian children at a missionary center in the Ivory Coast wrote Ali to ask for his help.The next month, she was surprised to see him there in person, giving out food.
In another room sits a woman who presides over the memorabilia being packed up to be shipped to the nascent Ali museum in Louisville: the autographed Golden Gloves, the photograph of Ali standing over Liston’s prone body in Lewiston, shouting at his defeated foe. Glass trophies and engraved plaques line walls, huddle atop tables, rest on floors—too many to examine any particular honor; the cumulative effect of the glittery clutter says enough.
My tour has taken 10 or 15 minutes, and as I turn down the hallway toward the door that will take me outside, I see that Ali is standing exactly where l saw him last; he hasn’t moved an inch. He is standing in a doorway looking at his wife, who is sitting in front of a computer wearing a telephone headset. She is a woman with discernible soft and humorous sides, but she is also a no-nonsense person, and right now she is talking to a lawyer in tones as authoritative and sure as those of a general commanding troop placement from a bunker, discussing some award Ali will be receiving in New York next month; she is running the business of Muhammad Ali.
He leans down to whisper something in my ear. By now l know not to expect anything profound.
“I like my office,” he says, and I nod, understanding instantly what he means. That he likes standing and watching people testify to his power and his goodness. That he likes all these tangible testaments to how important he has become. Also, I think he likes the women.
He escorts me down the stairs, out the door, and we stand for a moment beneath the outstretched arms of the giant elms. This is where I leave him, surveying his kingdom. As l walk to my car, he is still standing there, and as I drive away down the long, winding driveway toward the iron gates, I have no doubt that as soon as I’m out of sight he will turn around and go back upstairs to eat the last piece of coffee cake.
I recently had the chance to catch up with him and chat about Phil Jackson and the craft of writing a biography.
Dig in to this holiday Banter treat. Then go pick up the book.
It’s a good one.
AB: This is your sixth book and second biography—the first was on Peggy Lee. What was it like writing another biography?
PR: It was terrific because the first one taught me that to be a biographer, you’ve got to be a very different kind of writer.
AB: Different from being a newspaper or magazine writer?
PR: To write a biography, you have to become something of a different animal. You have to become a PhD in your subject. When Peggy Lee died, and I was asked to write her bio, I said to the editor “Thank you, it’s flattering but maybe you should get someone who knows the music of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s.” But he said, “No, we want you to come in from the outside. We think you’re a good enough writer to come in and surround the subject.” And that’s the only good book I’d ever written. When I was approached to write a Phil Jackson biography, and figured I wasn’t going to get him to cooperate — he was writing his own book — it freed me to surround his life objectively.
AB: He’s got a library of books he’s written himself.
PR: If you go into Barnes and Nobles to the sports section there’s seven categories – baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, boxing and Phil Jackson. Maverick and Sacred Hoops are worth reading. Mine might be, too.
AB: Don’t be so modest. It is. What have you learned as a writer since the Peggy Lee book that allowed you to do the Phil Jackson story in a way you might not have previously?
PR: That you should never judge anyone, or their actions, or their legacy, before doing everything you can to try and see the events of their life through their own eyes, from their own perspective–but then use that perspective as only one of your lenses. Phil had left behind his books, and gave his approval for friends to talk to me. I’d interviewed him several times in the past and we were cool. I had every lens available to see the guy’s life objectively and thoroughly.
AB: What was the difference between writing a bio of a dead singer, whose career arc had already ended, and someone who’s still got a few chapters left to go in his career?
PR: Peggy’s role in history had been predetermined. She was the only white top 5 jazz singer of all time. With Phil, everybody had ideas about him, but nobody had out them all together for an objective portrait. Some think he’s overrated because he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Then there are those who say, “No, the man is a genius.” Nobody had ever gone in and found the middle ground, the third space. The truth is never black or white. And freed of his subjective perspective, I was able to enter this gray Twilight Zone where I could assemble the pieces that led to assembling the puzzle of the most successful coach in the history of sports — if you go by numbers, anyway, which I do. As Earl Monroe says in the book “Sports is a strange animal, in that you can make all the money in the world, but if you haven’t won the championship, you don’t have the same respect.”
AB: At the same time, Jackson briefly played with a guy named Neal Walk who was comfortable with himself even if he didn’t win. If he lost, he was like, “Oh I’m the first place loser.” Wouldn’t you believe that Neal Walk was a guy who was happy even though he didn’t get a ring?
PR: Oh, God yes, absolutely. Neal Walk and Eddie Mast were his blood brothers on the Knicks, and neither put all their stakes into winning. Those were the people who were saying to “Phil, dude, cool out, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the game. You’re a Buddhist. It’s the journey not the destination.” Phil seems to be possessed by an almost surreal degree of competition. He needed Walk and Mast as early role models to temper that mania.
AB: But he was able to combine the two.
PR: You got it. He managed to incorporate and meld all of those ingredients. Here’s the bottom line: He never stopped questioning what’s real and what counts in this very short lifetime. Native American Indian culture, Buddhism, Christianity, mysticism — he kept exploring and he kept questioning.
AB: And that’s authentic right? That’s not an act.
PR: Completely authentic. None of his former players that I spoke with said it was for show. Burning sage in the locker room, giving his players books. Every one of them was affected. Whether it was 10% or 90% they were affected.
AB: I thought it was interesting that for some of them, the gesture was enough, it didn’t even matter if the book spoke to them or not. It was the act of him being thoughtful in that way that did have a certain meaning for them.
PR: Exactly. For a few it was both of those things. I’m thinking Craig Hodges, the three-point shooter who was showed up at the White House after the Bulls’ second championship and chastised George Bush and was blackballed from the game — until Phil Jackson brought him back to be the shooting coach of the Lakers. Hodges told me that the book Phil gave him—The Passive Warrior—changed his life. So yes, it was all authentic — and that’s why I actually wrote the book. I would never have written this book if I thought that Jackson was inauthentic in any way shape or form.
AB: You write about Jackson as a teacher, a searcher, and a survivor. How much of that resonates with you at this stage in your life?
PR: It felt as if it were time for me to write a biography of a guy who, in a weird sort of way, was paralleling my own life, at least in terms of trying to never lose curiosity about everything when you reach Act III of your life. In a way, as I wrote, I sort of thought that not talking to him almost didn’t matter, because the more I read his books and interviews over the last 40 years, and the more people I talked to, the more I recognized this innate need for searching, the more I seemed to understand him. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself to him in terms of career success, but I came to quickly sense that we shared a few psychological things in common, both on the ultra-competitive side and the intellectual-searching side. Which gave me the confidence to write the book authentically and truthfully.
AB: Would you have had to force this book had you written it 15 years ago?
PR: Absolutely. It would have been forced even five years ago, truth be told. But now, somehow, researching his life not only vibed with some of the exact questions I was asking myself, but I was finally mature enough to accept the validity, the intent, of some of his teachings and searchings and questions. That’s not to say I lost objectivity; just that, in a way I was finally receptive enough to learn from his philosophies — which only enhanced the book.
AB: Speaking of teaching, one of Jackson’s most important teachers was his coach with the Knicks, Red Holzman.
PR: Absolutely. Red taught Phil just about everything he ever learned about coaching, on the court and off. Phil couldn’t be on that first championship team because he had had back surgery that season, so he was Red’s defacto assistant coach—back then you couldn’t have an assistant coach. Red knew Phil had something going on, intellectually. In the locker room after games, after Red had given his post-game talk, he’d turn to Phil and say, “Did I do alright tonight?” Red knew.
AB: Now, you first covered Jackson when he was coaching Albany in the CBA.
PR: And before that, when I was a weed-smoking teenager and lover of sports, a rebel without a cause, fan of the Knicks, I just loved Phil Jackson. I loved the way he looked, I loved the way he tried so hard, I loved that he was clumsy, I loved that he was different. I’d read those same New York Post columns that I quote in the book. Everyone was so attracted to this guy who clearly didn’t fit the paradox. Fast forward to 1986 when he was coaching the Albany Patroons and I was working for the New York bureau of the Miami Herald. So we met for a column, and I could immediately sense that he was just a normal guy. Unlike any pro coach I’d ever covered. He was so normal, I became normal — not a writer, just a guy I was talking with. I wasn’t there as the sports writer trying to get something and he wasn’t there as the coach trying to give the right answers. It was like a couple of hours “Let’s talk about stuff.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. I hope it works for him.”
AB: Was it that he was necessarily charming?
PR: Oh no, he wasn’t charming–I mean unless we’re all charming, unless you and I are being charming. He was being human and social and friendly.
AB: Did you ask him how come the Knicks hadn’t called on him after he’d won a CBA championship?
PR: Yes. He said, “I don’t know. I’m not political enough, I guess. I don’t say the right stuff, But hey, do you want a chocolate chip cookie?” He was getting ready to leave the CBA, and had no idea what he’d do next, which happened to be opening a health club in Montana. He was thinking of the law, or the ministry. Then, a few months later, the Bulls called. A few years after that he was the head coach. So I profiled him again, for the National Sports Daily, during his first season, and hung around Chicago for a couple of days, and wrote a piece whose gist was basically, “How bizarre! An actual person is a really good NBA coach. A real person you could have a conversation with about philosophy or the triangle or Bill Bradley or Wounded Knee was actually a good coach.” You could tell, just from the way Jordan and Pippen were listening to him.
AB: One of the things that’s interesting to me, you alluded to it already, here’s this guy, he’s a seeker. He’s a curious guy and he’s interested in all these different kinds spiritual pursuits. But the other part of him enjoys throwing quips and keeping people — essentially the press–off balance, as if even that were a competition.
PR: I came to understand him as a man trying to reconcile those two pulls, the pull of the peaceful “mindfulness” and the pull of the competitor. I think he was smart enough to see that when he was questioning all of reality — spiritually, intellectually, philosophically — he also had to succeed in a corporate world, and the fact that he was able to reconcile the two to the degree that he could is what really intrigued me. I think he knows that there’s a third space where it can all work out. Ultimately, the he was able to incorporate that corporate trope, that philosophical trope, that spiritual trope, and communicate it all to his players. He coached hundreds and hundreds of players for many years and every one of them, with a few exceptions, would say “Phil looked at me as if I was an individual” — and that, for me, is the road map for success in life. My guess is that Phil would say he’s a teacher. Not a coach but a teacher.
AB: You didn’t talk to some of the superstar guys, though. Before we get to that, I want to know why you didn’t speak to Jackson’s children or the women in his life.
PR: I didn’t want to.
AB: Why is that?
PR: Because I’m not a writer first, I’m a human being first and I just don’t want to go places where I’m not invited. I wrote a book about Phil Jackson because it seemed like the right book to write and I got offered money for it. But I have rules. I don’t compromise humanity. There’s something in me that just doesn’t allow me to step from person into journalist. I just can’t do it. I’ve been told that it has hurt my career. Somebody once told me, “Oh man, you’re such a soft core journalist, can’t you be a hardcore journalist?” And I said, “No I can’t because I’m a person, period.” If I can make money writing books about Phil Jackson and the other people I’ve written books about, that’s really cool, but don’t ever ask me to stop being who I am. Phil Jackson doesn’t want me to find his first wife. I could have tracked her down but I wasn’t going to find her because whatever happened with Phil and his first wife is between them. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson? Yup. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson on my own rules? Yup. Does that mean my books aren’t going sell as many? Yup. Do I care? No.
AB: As a reader, do you like reading those biographies that are lured in that kind of person detail?
AB: So this is about knowing who you are as a writer?
PR: How old are you?
PR: Alright. I’m 60, so when you get to 60 you’ll realize what I mean. There comes a point later in life where you realize that exploiting somebody else’s life for your own advancement is not only stupid, it’s destructive. I have my agenda, the reader has their agenda, but in between, there is a space where you can tell the truth and when you do that, people are going to buy your books, people are going to give you advances to write your books, and you don’t have to break news or have sensational stuff. There’s a point where if you’re just telling somebody’s truth or maybe your own, it works. I really feel as if I surrounded Phil Jackson. I really feel as if I understood him and could show the readers why Phil Jackson could be both a Buddhist, spiritualist, off-the-wall guy and the most competitive insane asshole ever and therefore won 11 rings–the combined total Vince Lombard and Pat Riley. I feel as if I am the first guy to tell it right but I don’t think I compromised any of my inner ethical rules writing the book.
AB: How much of an obstacle was it that you didn’t talk to Jordan, Pippen, Shaq or Kobe?
PR: The two best stories I ever wrote for GQ were about Ray Carruth, who took out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend, the number one pick of the Carolina Panthers, and Jason Williams, the former Net who shotgunned his driver to death. Neither of them talked to me. What I was able to do was approach their stories without them and that’s the best way to approach any subject. To answer your question, at the top, I had an editor who didn’t care that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin wouldn’t talk to me. “This is your book,” he said. “I don’t care about what Scottie Pippin thought about him or John Paxton or Kobe, just tell me what the hell is going in Phil’s brain.”
AB: Stars don’t generally give the most insightful interviews, either.
PR: You’re exactly right. In this case, none of the superstars would have told me anything about Phil that they hadn’t already told a hundred other writers. The last guys on the bench are often more valuable for a writer. They’re all looking at their coach to see what they could learn from the guy — about the game, about what it is to be successful. They take notes in their head. I could go on and list the number of people who have been his 11th and 12th player who have gone on to tremendous success as athletes, as athletic directors, as high school coaches, as really enlightened individuals. Unlike Michael Jordan, who is clearly the unhappiness man on Earth. Do you think we’ll ever be able to talk about how happy Kobe Bryant is? I don’t think so. But talking to those who had seen him through a truly authentic lens—and that includes Diane Mast and his old friend Charley Rosen—I think I was able to get to why he was the most successful coach ever. Anybody who is truly a success is a guy who inspires people to follow him and I think every guy Phil ever coached was willing to follow him. They wanted to follow him out of the foxhole because he treated them as equals.
AB: There’s a great story you tell about Jud Buechler. Jackson asked him how his wife was doing and Buechler was blown away because no coach had ever asked him anything personal about himself. It seems like such a common gesture. It made me think how impersonal and screwed up the world of professional sports is.
PR: If you get a new job at Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, does somebody sit you down and ask you if your wife is happy that she’s moved from Indiana to Manhattan and Westchester, and how’s the school district? Phil did, and he didn’t do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do — because clearly that’s not what you’re supposed to do. He did it because clearly that’s who he was. That’s the point of the book. Phil was a guy who was guided by what you and I are guided by, which is that we’re all part of the same social fabric. If Jud Buechler becomes the 12th man on a team that includes Scottie and Michael , Phil wanted him to know not only that it’s important that he knows his role on the team, but to know that I consider him an equal as a person. That’s a gift, a gift that most people in charge of corporate entities never consider bringing into the equation. I’m not sure that’s why he won 11 rings, but I can’t think it wasn’t part of it.
AB: How did Jackson grow in his second go around with the Lakers?
PR: I’d like to think the time off made him examine how he fucked it up the first time around. He had great players and everything fell apart. He understood when he came back that teaching is a two-way street, and I think Kobe was finally willing to listen to someone who could teach him. He’d grown up, too.
AB: And Shaq was gone.
PR: I don’t think its coincidental that once you lose Shaq, you’ve got to completely reconstruct the entire paradigm. The second generation of Lakers he took over wasn’t as stable as his first go-round but he had Kobe. He needed Kobe to be the guy to hold the shit together. Phil went back in after writing a book that ripped Kobe as uncoachable. But when the two of them came back together, and then produced more championships, that was an example of both of them learning and both of them growing up. The two of them had an understanding and got to a place and that to me is what is great about Phil Jackson. He’s still willing to learn.
AB: I love the thing from the Lakota Indians, where one of the guys said, “Phil saw that for us, spirituality is everything in life — that spirituality is everyday life.” That sort of spoke to me about what Jackson seems to be about.
PR: The difference between Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson is that Lombardi would wake up every morning thinking, “How do I game plan to win next week?” Jackson wakes up and asks, “How can I understand why I’m here?” Weirdly enough, the guy who asks “Why am I here?” every day winds up statistically a greater winner than Lombardi, Joe McCarthy, Red Auerbach or any of them.
AB: That’s funny.
PR: This guy whose entire life who has been built around non numbers, about how you cannot quantify success, happiness, whatever, ends up statistically winning more championships than anyone in professional sports history in the United States of America. At that point you say to yourself, “Why is it that a guy who can’t even show up on the radar of all the barometers and quantifiers of coaching success in American sports, how is it that a coach who doesn’t need any of those things turned out to beat everyone at the one statistic we worship? Is it a coincidence that Phil’s thinking outside of the box and treating his players as people as opposed to product resulted in him winning the marathon? Is that coincidence? That’s why I wrote the book. The guy never stops thinking. He simply doesn’t close his mind to anything.
The end of the world as I know it. And I don’t feel fine. How could I? What if you had two overriding passions that eclipsed everything else in your life, including your family (as they’d surely attest), and each passion (or, to be frank, religion) represented the two totally opposite sides of your bipolar psyche, and somehow balanced it into sanity…and, surreally, they then decided to collaborate?
How could this be a good thing? Look at it this way: If your beloved old family physician let drop that he was dating Lady Gaga would it make you feel warm and fuzzy? So: When your favorite Pentagonian/George Patton-inspired sporting corporation, whose 32 franchises are largely symbolized by drunks who take off their shirts in blizzards and then beat people up in the parking lot because they’re wearing apostatic jerseys, enlists, in a marketing moment, your favorite anarchic jam and, which is largely symbolized by a few million stoners who believe in nothing except the axiom “Rules Are Irrelevant”…what else could this mean other than that the universe has collapsed into itself? That The End f Days was upon us?
The specifics: On New Year’s Eve morning, and the following afternoon, ESPN2 will air an NFL Films segment about how Seattle Seahawk fans have adopted a Phish song. Which said event tears a hole in the universe.
Background to this unholy miscegenation: In the Eighties, Phish’s insanely creative and eminently likeable guitarist Trey Anastasio, before formally forming the band, wrote a musical thesis as a senior at Goddard College — a legendarily leftie institution in rural Vermont — called “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday.” His work featured a song called Wilson, which has not only endured, for we Phishfanatics, but has taken a rightful place in the band’s pantheon of Pure Phish Songs.
(Full disclosure: A few years ago, when I had to drive to Buffalo to interview a quarterback on assignment — seven hours by way of the New York State Thruway — I structured the trip around the day when I knew that the Jam On channel on Sirius satellite radio would be playing the top 50 Phish songs, from 50 to one. I wanted to hear them all. In order. Wilson cracked the top 10. No, it’s not their best, by any means. It’s no Fluffhead, or Possum, or Chalk Dust Torture, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a pretty cool song.
Well, okay, it’s not a “song,” exactly. Lots of the time, Phish plays “songs” in the manner of a team which might play a game of “baseball,” only in their game, everyone stands wherever they want to after they take the field, facing in whatever direction they prefer, while making up their own rules as the game goes along. And then adopting new rules the next time they play a game.
So anyway. the “song” Wilson includes a refrain wherein, for the last two decades, every Phishfreak in whatever sold-out arena they’re playing sings, in a delightful call-and-response to the band’s cues: “WILLLL-sonnnnn”. If you listen to it, it goes from e-flat to C, I think.
Yes, that arena, from Delaware to Oregon and everywhere in between, will be sold out; the band grossed more than $18 million on this summer’s tour. The last four years’ total: $120 million in ticket sales).
So you can see where this is going, right? Last spring at a solo concert in Seattle, and later at another featuring the whole band at a venue in George, Wa. (Yep; that’s a Phish venue if there ever was one), Trey urged the crowd to start chanting “Wilson” at Seahawk games, in honor of Russell, this year’s quarterback flavor of the season — and, perhaps, for many a season to come.
The ritual caught fire, and now the sound of “WIL-son” can be heard waterfalling out of the stands at CenturyLink Field several times a game: when Wilson takes the huddle for the first time in the game, and again at the beginning of the third, and, throughout the game, interspersed with bits of the song on video board.
So who could blame NFL Films from filming a Phish concert, and filming the CenturyLink chant-ritual, and getting it aired on ESPN 2? Where’s the rub? Why am I Grinching this joyous collaboration?
No. 1: Every man has two sides: The roid-rage/road-rage madman who needs to see athletes try to kill each other legally every Sunday for six months a year, vicariously experiencing what it used to be like to get up in the morning and say to your buddies, “What do you say we attack that tribe over the hill and kill them all? I mean, after we eat raw antelope for breakfast”…
….and the gentle soul who wants to step back, cool out, find his Metroman side and try his damnedest to be a court jester in a land that takes itself way too seriously…and, not incidentally, do so in a place where he might be surrounded by, um, you know, stoned girls.
But nature never intended the two sides to meet. Hence the term “yin/yang” — or, in moderndayspeak, “bipolarism.” Once they overlap, they both lose their power to entrance.
But No. 2 is way more important. In “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” Trey’s man Wilson is not a man to be admired. In fact, in Anastasio’s college script, the original Wilson is the arch-villain of all time: a greedy, powerlusting fascist who enslaves the peace-loving Communist lizards of a land called Gamehendge, changes the name of their land to Prussia, and steals the book of goodness given to them by their god Icculus. Wilson destroys their forest, builds a castle where he keeps the book, and executes a rebel by hanging. One of the lyrics from the song’s chorus? “Wilson, king of Prussia, I lay this hate on you.”
Basically, young Trey was writing about a monstrous entity spoiling everyone’s fun. But now, as ESPN and NFL Films will have it — with Trey’s worrisome consent — Wilson is an anthem celebrating a football player who, according to the Goodell/Boys Life Magazine metric for what a young man should be, scores off the charts: Russell Wilson is the great-great grandson of a slave, the grandson of a former university president, the son of a Dartmouth graduate, part Native-American, endorses Levis, Nike and Alaska Airlines — and posts bible verses daily on his Twitter account. (As I write, watching him slice and dice the Giants: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:13″) No argument there, Russ. Anyway, you’re just a pawn in this game.
Okay, yes, I have a soft spot for Wilson. But who, given my memories, wouldn’t? The first time I heard Wilson played live was at The Clifford Ball in 1996, Phish’s first multi-day festival, held at the decommissioned Plattsburgh (NY) Air Force Base. I was backstage, doing a story for a slick magazine about the band that had lured me in because they seemed to sell out Madison Square Garden every New Year’s Eve — without ever actually, like, advertising. People kept passing me joints. So Wilson sounded very good that day — as, did, well, everything they played. From AC/DC Bag to Reba to Weekapaug Groove. Even 2001.
Much later that night, lying in my tent, surrounded by 60,000 overly polite Phishkids (although the philosophy major from Oberlin vehemently and almost aggressively disagreed with my assertion that the pan-European Rationalists had it way over the stupid All-Anglo-Empiricists), I couldn’t get the refrain out of my head — until the next morning, when the young woman in the adjacent tent stepped outside into the morning sun wearing nothing but blue jeans, and smiled “Hi,” and went off toward the showers.
That day unfolded as the day before had, in Shangri-La fashion: plentiful hugs, plentiful nugs.
Behind the stage at a picnic table that afternoon, during an interview with the band, the drummer, John Fishman, who wears dresses on stage, told me that this was the only job he had never been fired from. His last job had been cutting out patterns for women’s bathing suits. Then Trey told me he’d briefly considered seeding the festival crowd with ladies of the night imported from New York, but had quickly discarded the idea. After they all left to go back to their trailers, I finished writing in my notebook, then noticed the large roach on the table, and considered leaving it be, in case one of them had left it by mistake. But I quickly discarded the idea.
But you just have to know that ESPN and NFL Films are patting each other on the backs after a few brews, despite their home library of “Eagles” CDs” “What is hip? We are!”
I don’t know if they’ll show the whole song in the TV show, with its true lyrics. I do know that I won’t be watching. Because if this is the beginning of a friendship, it won’t be beautiful to me.
I’d sure hate to have to turn to professional golf and the String Cheese Incident to find new religions. But I sure as hell won’t sit around watching my life’s passions go up in smoke.
After talking with the board of directors, Donald Graham quietly began looking for a potential buyer around Christmas of 2012. “We were in our seventh consecutive year of declining revenues, and there was the question of, What could we do?” Graham told me. The company had bought Slate and Foreign Policy (and is holding on to them) and sold Newsweek (which changed hands again this weekend). “Our strategy had been to innovate like hell in digital and other businesses and offset the declines in print revenues. But Katharine said the declines were going to go on, for the eighth and ninth straight years. And so …”
The trends were violent and undeniable. Graham and Weymouth saw circulation drop from 832,332 average subscribers, in 1993, to 474,767. The newsroom staff was once more than a thousand; it is now around six hundred and forty. The paper is still capable of extraordinary journalism—in June, it broke the Edward Snowden-National Security Agency surveillance story, along with the Guardian, and, only last Sunday, scored the first interview with the leader of the Egyptian military coup, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in which the general said, nervily, “you have turned your back on the Egyptians and they won’t forget it.” But the Post is clearly a diminished version of its old self. It is still serious and grounded, but not quite essential in the way its rival, the Times, remains.
It’s a terrifying patrol, psychologically: Single file through torrential-rain jungle, holding your M-1 dating back to the previous war because the Department of the Navy , in the marines’ first Pacific battle, had yet to provide the First Division on Guadalacanal with a modern rifle. Spiderwebs – and huge spiders — snagging your face, snakes underfoot. Now a shot rings out from above, from the impenetrable jungle cover, and the man two yards in front of you, maybe the buddy you were singing with as he played the guitar the night before back in camp, drops like a stone, dead, shot right through the heart.
The rest of the platoon shoots up at the tree cover, blindly, but no sniper plummets, because the shooter had strapped himself in up there for that very reason, knowing that the marines, even if they’ve killed him, wouldn’t know it, and would keep wasting ammunition.
The file then stops shooting, and starts moving again.
When my father landed on Guadalcanal, commander of G company, 2d battalion, 5th Regiment, First Marine Division, he had 151 men. When they left 4 months later, 60 were able to walk off under their own power.
“He prayed that he’d get it, that he’d be killed, instead of so many young beautiful young lieutenants,” my mother told me. “He said it was so horrible to call and say, `I need two more lieutenants.’”
When he got home, one of 89 men to win two Silver Stars in the entire war, and moved to Yonkers, then Bronxville, from where he’d commute to Long Island City to run the family’s struggling paper-bag manufacturing company out of one floor of an old factory just off the 7 train, he never spoke to his kids of his war.
But his men did, fifty years later, at a convention in Vegas. “You’re Tom Richmond’s son? Get a drink, and sit down,” said the men of G-2-5 who’d lived, usually at about 10 in the morning, when the bar opened. They’d sit there most of the day, not saying a whole lot, never getting drunk, trying to convince themselves that their guilt at having lived, half a century later, was okay, when their friends of half a century ago never made it off an island no one had ever heard of.
“Your father had a horseshoe up his ass,” one said to me. “He was the luckiest sonofobitch. He’d start walking toward the fire, and look back, and say, `Come on,’ and we’d say, `What the hell are you doing, captain?’ Other officers didn’t go out there first. He always did. Never took a bullet, did he?”
No, I said, he never did.
“There was a banquet at the Waldorf once,” another told me. “They had him seated up at one of the front tables. The rest of us were in some other room. He said he wouldn’t sit up front unless we could sit with him. The next thing you know, we’re all up at one of the front tables.”
“Your father never got any of the credit he deserved because he was so quiet,” a third told me. “That always burned my butt. He was never truly recognized for his accomplishments. I’ve told anyone who listened about them, too. Ever since.”
In one of his letters home, my father, who graduated from Dartmouth with a D average, which made med school unlikely, makes a reference to how Guadalcanal’s streams reminded him of Kipling’s “Great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo Rover.” When I went over there, the Matanikau was brown where it ran into the sea. For two days in late 1942 it was red. There was a sandspit at the mouth. According to one of the guys in Vegas, my father was pinned out on a sandbar, protected by the sand, as he tried to cross. He made it back. A few made it across, to never be seen again.
“You couldn’t have gotten a thousand men across that river,” the man told me. “But your father’s company held that spit.” Another man, whose mouth was slightly askew, told me that he himself had made it to the opposite bank (“the river was alive with fire”) only to get shot in the jaw, and shoulder. Other marines waded across and pulled him back.
Near the end of the war, now a major – the youngest major in the First Marine Division (10,000 men), my father returned to try and find their bodies, but didn’t. This could not have surprised him; within days of arriving on the island, the marines would find their missing comrades roped to trees, dead, pieces of skin flayed and stuffed into their mouths. Subsequent marine retaliations have not received a great deal of notice through the years. Why go there?
But the diary of my father’s best friend, Harry Connor, has a passage that reads, after a long battle in which several marines companies killed 239 Japanese, “Ended up in close range grenade and pistol battle. No prisoners.”
Sometimes, after the company was back in camp, he would he then go back out, on his own, this Dartmouth guy, and lie in wait in the dark for a Japanese soldier to assassinate with his bayonet. The man he told that story to had asked him in a bar in Melbourne,” Where would you go on those night?” My father, well into a few beers, explained, and then said,
“You will never tell that story to anyone.” He didn’t, until he told it to me. This explained the Japanese flag covered in blood, and Japanese characters that identified the man and his family, that I found in a trunk some years later after he died.
He liked beer. He once told a comrade, “When this war is over, I’m coming back with a jeep and a barrel of beer and I’m gonna piss it all over this island.”
In another letter, he writes, “We have a little jungle music every once in a while. One of my men picked up a guitar from a Navy plane which went a-reef over in Tulagi. When we go out on a mission we leave the guitar with company property in the rear echelon. Then we settle down in a new line position or bivouac area, out comes the guitar and a songfest gets under way. The man who plays it is really talented. Good for the morale.”
You know those signs you see in people’s windows that say, “Support Our Troops?” What kind of question is that? Who in hell wouldn’t? Question the men who put them there, but the troops?
So this Memorial Day weekend I am thinking of, and thanking, those two lieutenants he had to replace, and the two after that, and the two after that, and then the next two — all through the years. And hope that tomorrow, there won’t be two more.
[Photo Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / The Associated Press]
Originally published in the October 1992 issue of GQ, here is a classic from Peter Richmond.
(A postscript from the author follows.)
Nighttime in Los Angeles, on a quiet street off Melrose Avenue. An otherwise normal evening is marked by an oddly whimsical celestial disturbance: Baseballs are falling out of the sky.
They are coming from the roof of a gray apartment building. One ball pocks an adjacent apartment. Another bounces to the street. A third flies off into the night, a mighty shot.
This is West Hollywood in the early eighties, where anything is not only possible but likely. West Hollywood shakes its head and drives on by.
But if a passerby’s curiosity had been piqued and he’d climbed to the roof of a neighboring building to divine the source of the show, he would have been rewarded by a most unusual sight: a man of striking looks, with long blond hair, startlingly and wincingly thin, hitting the ball with a practiced swing—a flat, smooth, even stroke developed during a youth spent in minor-league towns from Pocatello to Albuquerque.
This is not Tommy Lasorda Jr.’s, routine nighttime activity. A routine night is spent in the clubs, the bright ones and dark ones alike.
Still, on occasion, here he’d be, on the roof, clubbing baseballs into the night. Because there were times when the pull was just too strong. Of the game. Of the father. He could never be what his father was—Tommy Lasorda’s own inner orientation made that impossible—but he could fantasize, couldn’t he? That he was ten, taking batting practice in Ogden, Utah, with his dad, and Garvey, and the rest of them?
And so, on the odd night. On a night he was not at Rage, or the Rose Tattoo, he’d climb to the roof, the lord of well-tanned West Hollywood, and lose himself in the steady rhythm of bat hitting ball—the reflex ritual that only a man inside the game can truly appreciate.
“Junior was the better hitter,” recalls Steve Garvey. “He didn’t have his father’s curveball, but he was the better hitter.”
“I cried,” Tom Lasorda says quietly. He is sipping a glass of juice in the well-appointed lounge of Dodgertown, the Los Angeles baseball team’s green-glorious oasis of a spring-training site. It’s a place that heralds and nurtures out-of-time baseball and out-of-time Dodgers. A place where, each spring, in the season of illusion’s renewal, they are allowed to be the men they once were.
On this February weekend, Dodgertown is crowded with clearly affluent, often out-of-shape white men, each of whom has parted with $4,000 to come to Dodgers fantasy camp. In pink polo shirts and pale-pink slacks—the pastels of privilege—they are scattered around the lounge, flirting with fantasy lives, chatting with the coaches.
“I cried. A lot of times. But I didn’t cry in the clubhouse. I kept my problems to myself. I never brought them with me. I didn’t want to show my family—that’s my family away from my house. What’s the sense of bringing my problems to my team?
“I had him for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years is better than nothing, isn’t it? If I coulda seen God and God said to me ‘I’m going to give you a son for thirty-three years and take him away after thirty-three years,’ I’d have said ‘Give him to me.’”
His gaze skips about the room—he always seems to be looking around for someone to greet, a hand to shake, another camper to slap another anecdote on. Tom Lasorda floats on an ever-flowing current of conversation.
“I signed that contract [to manage the Dodgers] with a commitment to do the best of my ability,” he says. “If I’m depressed, what good does it do? When I walk into the clubhouse, I got to put on a winning face. A happy face. If I go in with my head hung down when I put on my uniform, what good does it do?”
These are words he has said before, in response to other inquiries about Tommy’s death. But now the voice shifts tone and the words become more weighted; he frames each one with a new meaning.
And he stops looking around the room and looks me in the eye.
“I could say ‘God, why was I dealt this blow? Does my wife—do I—deserve this?’ [But] then how do I feel, hunh? Does it change it?” Now the voice grows even louder, and a few fantasy campers raise their eyebrows and turn their heads toward us.
“See my point?”
The words are like fingers jabbed into my chest.
Then his eyes look away and he sets his face in a flat, angry look of defiance.
“You could hit me over the head with a fucking two-by-four and you don’t knock a tear out of me,” he says.
“Fuck,” he says.
The word does not seem to be connected to anything.
He was the second of five sons born, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a crowded little city-town a half-hour north of Philadelphia, to Sabatino Lasorda, a truckdriver who’d emigrated from Italy, and Carmella Lasorda.
By the age of twenty-two, Tom Lasorda was a successful minor league pitcher by trade, a left-hander with a curveball and not a lot more. But he was distinguished by an insanely dogged belief in the possibility of things working out. His father had taught him that. On winter nights when he could not turn the heat on, Sabatino Lasorda would nonetheless present an unfailingly optimistic face to his family, and that was how Tom Lasorda learned that nothing could stomp on the human spirit if you didn’t let it.
Tom Lasorda played for teams at nearly every level of professional ball: in Concord, N.H.; Schenectady, N.Y.; Greenville, S.C.; Montreal; Brooklyn (twice, briefly); Kansas City, Missouri; Denver; and Los Angeles. Once, after a short stay in Brooklyn, he was sent back to the minors so the Dodgers could keep a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball named Sandy Koufax, and to this day Lasorda will look you in the eye and say “I still think they made a mistake” and believe it.
The Dodgers saw the white-hot burn and made it into a minor-league manager. From 1965 to 1972, Lasorda’s teams—in Pocatello, Ogden, Spokane, then Albuquerque—finished second, first, first, first, second, first, third and first. Sheer bravado was the tool; tent-preaching thick with obscenities the style.
In 1973, the Dodgers called him to coach for the big team, and he summoned his wife and his son and his daughter from Norristown, and they moved to Fullerton, Calif, a featureless sprawl of a suburb known for the homogeneity of its style of life and the conservatism of its residents.
In 1976, he was anointed the second manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ nineteen-year history. His managing style was by instinct, not by the book, and his instincts were good enough to pay off more often than not. In his first two years, the Dodgers made the World Series. In 1981, they won it. In 1985, they didn’t make it because Lasorda elected to have Tom Niedenfuer pitch to St. Louis’s Jack Clark in the sixth game of the playoffs, against the odds, and Jack Clark hit a three-run home run. In 1988, though, he sent a limping Kirk Gibson to the plate and gave us a moment for history.
From the first, Lasorda understood that he had to invent a new identity for this team, the team that Walter O’Malley had yanked out of blue-collar-loyal Brooklyn-borough America and dropped into a city whose only real industry was manufacturing the soulless stuff of celluloid fantasy. His clubhouse became a haunt for show-business personalities, usually of distinctly outsized demeanor—Sinatra, Rickles—and he himself became the beacon of a new mythology, leader of the team that played in a ballpark on a hill on a road called Elysian, perched above the downtown, high and imperious. Because, really, aren’t there too many theme parks to compete with in Los Angeles to manage your baseball team as anything other than another one?
In sixteen years, the tone of the sermon has seldom faltered, at least not before this year. This year, through no fault of Tom Lasorda’s, his fielders have forgotten how to field, in a game in which defense has to be an immutable; and if this is anyone’s fault, it’s that of the men who stock the farm system. His pitching is vague, at best. So the overwhelming number of one-run—is, in fact, testament, again, to Lasorda’s management. No one has questioned his competence.
His spirit has flagged considerably, but his days, in season and out, are as full of Dodger Blue banquet appearances as ever, with impromptu Dodgers pep rallies in airport concourses from Nashville to Seattle. Unlike practitioners of Crystal Cathedral pulpitry, Lasorda the tent-preacher believes in what he says, which, of course, makes all the difference in the world. Because of his faith, Dodger Blue achieves things, more things than you can imagine. The lights for the baseball field in Caledonia, Miss.; the fund for the former major leaguer with cancer in Pensacola: Tom showed up, talked Dodger Blue, raised the money. Tom’s word maintains the baseball field at Jackson State and upgraded the facilities at Georgia Tech.
“I was in Nashville,” Tom says, still sitting in the lounge, back on automatic now, reciting. “Talking to college baseball coaches, and a buddy told me nine nuns had been evicted from their home. I got seven or eight dozen balls [signed by Hall of Fame players], we auctioned them, and we built them a home. They said, ‘We prayed for a miracle, and God sent you to us.’”
Nine nuns in Nashville.
In the hallway between the lounge and the locker room hang photographs of Brooklyn Dodgers games. Lasorda has pored over them a thousand times, with a thousand writers, a thousand campers, a thousand Dodgers prospects—identifying each player, re-creating each smoky moment.
But on this day, a few minutes after he’s been talking about Tommy, he walks this gauntlet differently.
“That’s Pete Reiser,” Tom Lasorda says. “He’s dead.” He points to another player. He says, “He’s dead.” He walks down the hallway, clicking them off, talking out loud but to himself.
Back in his suite, in the residence area of Dodgertown, I ask him if it was difficult having a gay son.
“My son wasn’t gay,” he says evenly, no anger. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”
I ask him if he read in the same paper that his son had died of AIDS.
“That’s not true,” he says.
I say that I thought a step forward had been taken by Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his own HIV infection, that that’s why some people in Los Angeles expected him to…
“Hey,” he says. “I don’t care what people…I know what my son died of. I know what he died of. The doctor put out a report of how he died. He died of pneumonia.”
He turns away and starts to brush his hair in the mirror of his dressing room. He is getting ready to go to the fantasy-camp barbecue. He starts to whistle. I ask him if he watched the ceremony on television when the Lakers retired Johnson’s number.
‘”I guarantee you one fuckin’ thing,” he says. “I’ll lay you three to one Magic plays again. Three to one. That Magic plays again.”
As long as he’s healthy, I say. People have lived for ten years with the right medication and some luck. Your quality of life can be good, I say.
Lasorda doesn’t answer. Then he says, “You think people would have cared so much if it had been Mike Tyson?”
On death certificates issued by the state of California, there are three lines to list the deceased’s cause of death, and after each is a space labeled TIME INTERVAL BETWEEN ONSET AND DEATH.
Tom Lasorda Jr.’s, death certificate reads:
IMMEDIATE CAUSE: A) PNEUMONITIS — 2 WEEKS
DUE TO: B) DEHYDRATION — 6 WEEKS
DUE TO: C) PROBABLE ACQUIRED IMMUNE
DEFICIENCY SYNDROME — 1 YEAR.
At Sunny Hills High School, in Fullerton, Calif.—”the most horrible nouveau riche white-bread high school in the world,” recalls Cat Gwynn, a Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker and a Sunny Hills alumna—Tommy Lasorda moved through the hallways with a style and a self-assurance uncommon in a man so young; you could see them from afar, Tommy and his group. They were all girls, and they were all very pretty. Tommy was invariably dressed impeccably. He was as beautiful as his friends. He had none of his father’s basset-hound features; Tommy’s bones were carved, gently, from glass.
“It was very obvious that he was feminine, but none of the jocks nailed him to the wall or anything,” Gwynn says. “I was enamored of him because he wasn’t at all uncomfortable with who he was. In this judgmental, narrow-minded high school, he strutted his stuff.”
In 1980, at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Cindy Stevens and Tommy Lasorda shared a class in color theory. Tommy, Stevens recalls, often did not do his homework. He would spend a lot of his time at Dodgers games or on the road with the team. At school, they shared cigarettes in the hallway. Tommy would tell her about the latest material he’d bought to have made into a suit. She’d ask him where the money came from. Home, he’d say.
“He talked lovingly about his father and their relationship—they had a very good relationship,” Stevens says now. “I was surprised. I didn’t think it’d be like that. You’d think it’d be hard on a macho Italian man. This famous American idol. You’d figure it’d be [the father saying] ‘Please don’t let people know you’re my son,’ but it was the opposite. I had new respect for his father. There had to be acceptance from his mom and dad. Tommy had that good self-esteem—where you figure that [his] parents did something right.”
In the late seventies, Tommy left Fullerton, moving only an hour northwest in distance—though he might as well have been crossing the border between two sovereign nations—to West Hollywood, a pocket of gay America unlike any other, a community bound by the shared knowledge that those within it had been drawn by its double distinction: to be among gays, and to be in Hollywood. And an outrageous kid from Fullerton, ready to take the world by storm, found himself dropped smack into the soup—of a thousand other outrageous kids, from Appleton, and Omaha, and Scranton.
But Tommy could never stand to be just another anything. The father and the son had that in common. They had a great deal in common. Start with the voice: gravelly, like a car trying to start on a cold morning. The father, of course, spends his life barking and regaling, never stopping; he’s baseball’s oral poet, an anti-Homer. It’s a well-worn voice. Issuing from the son, a man so attractive that men tended to assume he was a woman, it was the most jarring of notes. One of his closest friends compared it to Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist—the scenes in which she was possessed.
More significantly, the father’s world was no less eccentric than the son’s: The subset of baseball America found in locker rooms and banquet halls is filled with men who have, in large part, managed quite nicely to avoid the socialization processes of the rest of society.
Then, the most obvious similarity: Both men were so outrageous, so outsized and surreal in their chosen persona, that, when it came down to it, for all of one’s skepticism about their sincerity, it was impossible not to like them—not to, finally, just give in and let their version of things wash over you, rather than resist. Both strutted an impossibly simplistic view of the world—the father with his gospel of fierce optimism and blind obeisance to a baseball mythology, and the son with a slavery to fashion that he carried to the point of religion.
But where the illusion left off and reality started, that was a place hidden to everyone but themselves. In trying to figure out what each had tucked down deep, we can only conjecture. “You’d be surprised what agonies people have,” Dusty Baker, the former Dodger, reminds us, himself a good friend of both father and son, a solid citizen in a sport that could use a few more. “There’s that old saying that we all have something that’s hurting us.”
In the case of the son, friends say the West Hollywood years were born of a Catch-22 kind of loneliness: The more bizarre the lengths to which he went to hone the illusion, the less accessible he became. In his last years, friends say, everything quieted down, markedly so. The flamboyant life gave way to a routine of health clubs and abstinence and sobriety and religion. But by then, of course, the excesses of the earlier years had taken their inexorable toll.
As for the father, there’s no question about the nature of the demon he’s been prey to for the past two years. Few in his locker room saw any evidence of sadness as his son’s illness grew worse, but this should come as no surprise: Tom Lasorda has spent most of four decades in the same baseball uniform. Where else would he go to get away from the grief?
“Maybe,” Baker says, “his ballpark was his sanctuary.”
It’s a plague town now, there’s no way around it. At brunch at the French Quarter, men stop their conversations to lay out their pills on the tables, and take them one by one with sips of juice. A mile west is Rage, its name having taken on a new meaning. Two blocks away, on Santa Monica Boulevard, at A Different Light, atop the shelves given over to books on how to manage to stay alive for another few weeks, sit a dozen clear bottles, each filled with amber fluid and a rag—symbolic Molotovs, labeled with the name of a man or a woman or a government agency that is setting back the common cause, reinforcing the stereotypes, driving the social stigmata even deeper into West Hollywood’s already weakened flesh.
But in the late seventies, it was a raucous, outrageous and joyous neighborhood, free of the pall that afflicted hetero Los Angeles, thronged as it was with people who’d lemminged their way out west until there was no more land, fugitives from back east.
In the late seventies and the early eighties, say his friends and his acquaintances and those who knew him and those who watched him, Tommy Lasorda was impossible to miss. They tell stories that careen from wild and touching to sordid and scary; some ring true, others fanciful. Collected, they paint a neon scar of a boy slashing across the town. They trace the path of a perfect, practiced, very lonely shooting star.
His haunt was the Rose Tattoo, a gay club with male strippers, long closed now. One night, he entered—no, he made an entrance—in a cape, with a pre-power ponytail and a cigarette holder: Garbo with a touch of Bowie and the sidelong glance of Veronica Lake. He caught the eye of an older man. They talked. In time, became friends. In the early eighties, they spent a lot of time together. Friends is all they were. They were very much alike.
“I’m one of those gentlemen who liked him,” says the man. “I was his Oscar Wilde. He liked me because I was an older guy who’d tasted life. I was his Marne. I showed him life. Art. Theater. I made him a little more sophisticated. [Showed him] how to dress a little better.”
They spent the days poolside at a private home up behind the perfect pink stucco of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Tommy lacquering himself with a tan that was the stuff of legend. The tan is de rigueur. The tan is all. It may not look like work, but it is; the work is to look as good as you can.
He occasionally held a job, never for long. Once, he got work at the Right Bank, a shoe store, to get discounts. His father bought him an antique-clothing store. He wearied of it. Tommy, says one friend, wanted to be like those women in soap operas who have their own businesses but never actually work at them.
Tommy’s look was his work. If there were others who were young and lithe and handsome and androgynous, none were as outre as Tommy. Tommy never ate. A few sprouts, some fruit, a potato. Tommy spent hours at the makeup table. Tommy studied portraits of Dietrich and Garbo to see how the makeup was done. Tommy bleached his hair. On his head. On his legs. Tommy had all of his teeth capped. Tommy had a chemabrasion performed on his face, in which an acid bath removes four of the skin’s six layers. Then the skin is scrubbed to remove yet another layer. It is generally used to erase scars or wrinkles. Tommy had two done.
But he smoked, and he drank. Champagne in a flute, cigarette in a long holder, graceful and vampish at the same time: This was Tommy at the Rose Tattoo. His friend also remembers how well Tommy and his father got along. His friend would drive Tommy to the Italian restaurant where he’d meet his father for Sunday dinners.
“He loved his father, you know. They got along perfectly well.” His friend was never his lover. Only his friend. That was all. That was enough. “He was very lonely.”
On occasion, the nighttime ramble led him far from the stilted elegance of Santa Monica Boulevard. In the punk dubs, amid the slam-dancing and the head-butting, Tommy parted the leathered seas, a chic foil for all the pierced flesh and fury, this man who didn’t sweat. This man who crossed himself when someone swore in public.
Penelope Spheeris met him at Club Zero. She would go on to direct the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and, years later, Wayne’s World. They became friends. They met at punk clubs—the blond man in custom-made suits, the striking woman in black cocktail dresses and leather boots. In 1981, she interviewed Tommy for a short-lived underground paper called No Mag.
PENELOPE: Have you been interviewed very much before?
TOMMY: No, but I’m very…oral…
PENELOPE: People who would see you around town, they would probably think you were gay.
TOMMY: I don’t care.
PENELOPE: What do you do when you get that reaction from them?
TOMMY : I like all people. And it’s better having comments, be it GOOD, BAD or WHATEVER. I don’t mind at all, but I dress quite…well, I wouldn’t say it’s FLAMBOYANT because it’s not intentional. It’s just intentionally ME.
PENELOPE: O.K., but you understand, when somebody looks at a picture of you, they’re going to say, this guy’s awfully feminine.
TOMMY: I’m there for anyone to draw any conclusions.
PENELOPE: Are you?
TOMMY: Well, I mean, I’ve done different things…of course…I have no label on myself because then I have restrictions. I would really hate to state anything like that.
PENELOPE: When you were young did your dad say, “Come on, Tommy, Jr., let’s go play baseball”?
TOMMY : Never. They always allowed me to do exactly what I pleased. I don’t know how they had the sense to be that way. As parents they’re both so…well, very straitlaced and conservative. I don’t know how I was allowed to just be ME, but I think it was because I was so strongly ME that I don’t think they thought they could ever STOP IT…
PENELOPE: Do you feel like you should be careful in the public eye?
TOMMY: I feel like I should, but I don’t.
PENELOPE: Do you think the press would be mean to you if they had the chance?
TOMMY: I’m sure they would, but I’ll take ANY PUBLICITY.
TOMMY: Because that’s what I want…I do everything TO BE SEEN.
“I found him totally fascinating. He was astoundingly beautiful, more than most women,” Spheeris says now. “I became interested in…the blatant contrast in lifestyles. Tommy Lasorda Sr., was so involved in that macho sports world, and his son was the opposite…”
“I was astounded at how many clothes he had. I remember walking into the closet. The closet was as big as my living room. Everything was organized perfectly. Beautiful designer clothes he looked great in.”
Often in the early eighties, when fashion photographer Eugene Pinkowski’s phone would ring, it would be Tommy. Tommy wanting to shop or Tommy wanting Eugene to photograph his new look.
When they went shopping, they would fly down Melrose in Tommy’s Datsun 280Z, much, much too fast, Tommy leaning out of the driver’s window, hair flying in the wind, like some Valley Girl gone weird, hurling gravelly insults (“Who did your hair? It looks awful”) at the pedestrians diving out of the way.
He was a terrible driver. Once he hit a cat. He got out of the car, knelt on the street, and cried. He rang doorbells up and down the street, trying to find the owner.
Tommy would call to tell Eugene he was going to buy him a gift. Then Tommy would spend all his money on himself. Then, the next day, Tommy would make up for it. He would hand him something. A pair of porcelain figures, babies, a boy and a girl, meant to be displayed on a grand piano—very difficult to find, very expensive.
Then the phone would ring. It’d be Eugene’s mother, saying she just got a bracelet. From his friend Tommy.
“He was a character,” Pinkowski says at breakfast in a Pasadena coffee shop. “He was a case. He was a complete and total case.”
Then he looks away.
“He was really lonely,” Pinkowski says. “He was sad.”
When he was being photographed, Tommy was always trying to become different people.
Eugene captured them all. Tommy with long hair. With short hair. With the cigarette. Without it. With some of his exceptionally beautiful women friends. Tommy often had beautiful women around him, Pinkowski recalls—vaguely European, vaguely models. Sometimes Tommy had Pinkowski take pictures of them.
Mostly he took pictures of Tommy. Tommy with a stuffed fox. Lounging on the floor. In the piano. Sitting in a grocery cart.
In red. In green. In white. In blue. In black and gray.
His four toes. Tommy had four toes on his right foot, the fifth lost in a childhood accident. He posed the foot next to a gray boot on the gray carpet. Then he posed it next to a red shoe on the gray carpet. The red looked better.
Tommy and his foot were a regular subject of conversation, often led by Tommy.
“Tommy was a great storyteller, and he’d tell you stories of his dad in the minor leagues,” Pinkowski says. “Everybody’d like him. He was very much like the old boy. He could really hold his own in a group of strangers. And he’d do anything to keep it going. To be the center of attention. He’d just suddenly take his shoe and sock off at dinner and say ‘Did you know I was missing my toe?’”
One day, Tommy wanted to pose wrapped in a transparent shower curtain. Tommy was wearing white underwear. For forty-five minutes they tried to light the shot so that the underwear was concealed, to no avail. Tommy left, and returned in flesh-colored underwear.
There was nothing sexual about Tommy’s fashion-posing. Tommy’s fashion-posing was designed to get Tommy into fashion magazines. Tommy was forever bugging the editors of Interview to feature him, but they wouldn’t.
“As beautiful as he was, as famous as his father was, he thought he should be in magazines,” Pinkowski says now. “He was as hungry as Madonna. But Bowie and Grace [Jones] could do something. He couldn’t do anything. He could never see any talent in himself.”
The closest Tommy came was when he bought himself a full page in Stuff magazine, in 1982, for a picture of himself that Eugene took.
He would pay Eugene out of the house account his parents had set up for him. On occasion, Eugene would get a call from Tommy’s mother: We don’t need any more pictures this year. Still, Tommy would have several of his favorites printed for his parents. One is from the blue period.
At the Duck Club, down behind the Whiskey, in 1985, Tommy sat in a corner drinking Blue Hawaiians. To match his blue waistcoat. Or his tailored blue Edwardian gabardine jacket. This was during his blue period. In his green period, he was known to wear a green lamé wrap and drink crème de menthe. But the blue period lasted longer. The good thing about the blue period was that on the nights he didn’t want to dress up, he could wear denim and still match his drink. And, sometimes, his mood.
“He walked around with a big smile on his face, as if everything was great because he had everything around him to prove it was great,” Spheeris says. “But I don’t think it was…When you’re that sad, you have to cover up a lot of pain. But he didn’t admit it.”
The nature of the pain will forever be in debate. Few of his friends think it had to do with the relationship with his parents. “The parents—both of them—were incredibly gracious and kind to everyone in Tommy’s life,” says a close friend of the family’s.
Alex Magno was an instructor at the Voight Fitness and Dance Center and became one of Tommy’s best friends. Tommy was the godfather of his daughter. “We used to ask him, ‘You’re thirty-three, what kind of life is that—you have no responsibilities. Why don’t you work?’” says Magno. “You lose your identity when you don’t have to earn money, you know what I mean? Everything he owns, his parents gave him. I never heard him say ‘I want to do my own thing.’ When you get used to the easy life, it’s hard to go out there. I don’t think he appreciated what he had.”
He loved the Dodgers. He attended many games each season. His father regularly called him from the road. In his office at Dodger Stadium, the father kept a photograph of Tommy on his desk.
Tommy loved the world of the Dodgers. He loved the players. To friends who were curious about his relationship with his father’s team—and all of them were—he said it was great. He told Spheeris they were a turn-on.
“He was a good, sensitive kid,” says Dusty Baker, now a coach with the San Francisco Giants. “There was an article one time. Tommy said I was his favorite player because we used to talk music all the time. He loved black female artists. He turned me on to Linda Clifford. He loved Diana Ross. He loved Thelma Houston.
“Some of the guys kidded me. Not for long. Some of the guys would say stuff—you know how guys are—but most were pretty cool. That’s America. Everybody’s not going to be cool. Most people aren’t going to be. Until they have someone close to them afflicted. Which I have.”
Baker spent last Christmas Eve distributing turkey dinners with the Shanti Foundation, an AIDS-education group in California.
“There are a lot of opinions about Tom junior, about how [his father] handled his relationship with his son,” says Steve Garvey, who more than anyone was the onfield embodiment of Dodger Blue. “Everyone should know that there is this Tom [senior] who really loved his son and was always there for him. The two loving parents tried to do as much for him as he chose to let them do…Junior chose a path in life, and that’s his prerogative. That’s every individual’s right.”
Garvey attended the memorial service for Alan Wiggins, his former teammate on the San Diego Padres, who died of an AIDS-related illness last year, after a seven-year career in the majors.
“He was a teammate, we always got along well, he gave me one hundred percent effort, played right next to me. I think the least you can do, when you go out and play in front of a million people and sweat and pull muscles and bleed and do that as a living, when that person passes away, is be there. It’s the right thing to do.”
Garvey was the only major league baseball player at Wiggins’s service. I ask him if he was surprised that he was alone.
“Not too much surprises me in life anymore,” Garvey says.
In the mid-1980s, Tommy’s style of life changed. It may have been because he learned that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus. According to Alex Magno, he knew he was infected for years before his death. It may have been that he simply grew weary of the scene. It may have been that he grew up.
He entered a rehabilitation program. He became a regular at the Voight gym, attending classes seven days a week. Henry Siegel, the Voight’s proprietor, was impressed by Tommy’s self-assurance and generosity. Tommy moved out of his West Hollywood place into a new condo in Santa Monica, on a quiet, neat street a few blocks from the beach—an avenue of trimmed lawns and stunning gardens displayed beneath the emerald canopies of old and stalwart trees. “T. L. Jr.” reads the directory outside the locked gate; beyond it, a half-dozen doorways open onto a carefully tiled courtyard. The complex also features Brooke Shields on its list of tenants.
He was a quiet tenant, a thoroughly pleasant man. He had a new set of friends—whom he regaled, in his best raconteurial fashion, with tales of the past.
“Tommy used to tell us incredible stuff about how he used to be…everything he’d done—drugs, sleeping with women, sleeping with men,” says Magno.
“He went through the homosexual thing and came out of it,” Magno continues. “Gay was the thing to be back when he first came to L.A. Tommy used to tell his friends he had been gay. He didn’t pretend. He let people know he had been this wild, crazy guy who had changed. He was cool in that. When you got to meet him, you got to know everything about him.”
Including that he slept with guys?
“Yes. But…he didn’t want to admit he had AIDS because people would say he was gay.”
This apparent contradiction surfaces regularly in the tale of Tommy Lasorda.
“I think he wanted to make his father happy,” says his Oscar Wilde. “But he didn’t know how to. He wanted to be more macho but didn’t know how to. He wanted to please his dad. He wished he could have liked girls. He tried.”
No one who knew Tommy in the seventies and the early eighties recalls him having a steady romantic relationship. Pinkowski remarks on the asexual nature of the masks his friend kept donning—and about how his friend kept some sides of himself closed off. “He’d never talk about being gay. He’d never reveal himself that way. He’d never say anything about anybody that way.”
“Of course he was gay,” says Jeff Kleinman, the manager of a downtown restaurant who used to travel the same club circuit as Lasorda in the early eighties. “No, I never saw him with another guy as a couple. [But] just because a man doesn’t have a date doesn’t mean he isn’t gay! To say he wasn’t gay would be like saying Quentin Crisp isn’t gay. How could you hide a butterfly that was so beautiful?”
“Please,” says his Oscar Wilde. “He was gay. He was gay. He was gay.”
“Gay,” of course, is not a word that describes sexual habits. It speaks of a way of living. No one interviewed for this story thought that Tommy wasn’t gay; reactions to his father’s denial range from outrage and incredulity to laughter and a shake of the head. Former major league umpire Dave Pallone, who revealed his own homosexuality in an autobiography two years ago, knows the father well, and also knew his son.
“Tommy senior is, as far as I’m concerned, a tremendous man,” says Pallone. “I consider him a friend. I have a lot of empathy for what he’s going through. [But] as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think he ever accepted the fact that his son was a gay man. I knew him to be a gay man, and I knew a lot of people who knew him as a gay man.
“We don’t want to be sexual beings. We just want to be human beings.”
“If nothing else, his father should be proud that he repented,” Alex Magno says. “He’d come a long way—denying what he used to be, so happy with what he’d become.”
I tell him his father denies the illness.
“He died of AIDS,” Magno says. “There’s no question. But what difference does it make? He was a good man. He was a great man. You shouldn’t judge. He had had no sex for a long time. We didn’t know how he could do that. I mean…but he was incredible. He gave up everything. That’s what he said, and there was no reason not to believe him. He was totally like a normal man. He was still feminine—that gets in your system—but there was no lust after men.”
In the last two years of his life, Tommy’s illness took its toll on his looks. He was not ashamed. though. The surface self-assurance remained. One night, he made an entrance into Rage—thinner, not the old Tommy, but acting every bit the part. He still showed up at Dodger Stadium, too, with his companion, a woman named Cathy Smith, whom Tom senior said was Tommy’s fiancée. When he did, he was as elegant and debonair as ever: wide-brimmed hats, tailored suits.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to say it’s not difficult—I know how difficult it is for them to try and understand their son,” Dave Pallone says. “And to accept the fact he’s not with them and what the real reason is. But…here was a chance wasted. The way you get rid of a fear is by attacking it…Can you imagine if the Dodgers, who are somewhat conservative, could stand up and say, ‘We understand this is a problem that needs to be addressed…We broke down the barriers from the beginning with Jackie Robinson. Why can’t we break down the barriers with the AIDS epidemic?’”
A close friend who was with Tommy the day before his death vehemently disagrees.
“If his father has to accept his son’s death right now in that way, let him do it,” she says. “If he can’t accept things yet, he may never be able to..but what good does it do? [Tom's] world is a different world. We should all do things to help, yes, but at the same time, this is a child who someone’s lost. Some people have the fortitude, but they simply don’t have the strength…There comes a point, no matter how public they may be, [at which] we need to step back and let them be. You can’t force people to face what they don’t want to face without hurting them.”
“There’s something wrong with hiding the truth,” Penelope Spheeris says. “It’s just misplaced values. It is a major denial. People need to know these things. Let’s get our values in the right place. That’s all.”
“I’m in a position where I can help people, so I help people,” Tom Lasorda says. We are strolling through the night in Dodgertown, toward the fantasy-camp barbecue. “You don’t realize the enjoyment I got with those nuns in that convent. I can’t describe how good that made me feel.”
I ask him what his dad would say if he were alive.
“I think he’d have been so proud of me. My father was the greatest man.”
He tells me that his winters are so busy with appearances that “you wouldn’t believe it.” I ask him why he doesn’t slow down.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I like to help people. I like to give something back.”
On Valentine’s Day, 1991, Eugene Pinkowski’s phone rang. It was Tommy. His voice was weak.
“He was typical Tommy. He was really noble about it. He was weak, you could tell. I was so sad. He said, in that voice, ‘I’m sure you’ve read that I’m dying. Well, I am.’
“Then he said, ‘Thank you for being so nice to me during my lifetime.’ He said, ‘I want to thank you, because you made me look good.’”
On June 3, 1991, with his parents and his sisters at his bedside, in the apartment on the cool, flower-strewn street, Tommy Lasorda died.
His memorial service was attended by Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. Pia Zadora sang “The Way We Were,” one of Tommy junior’s favorite songs.
Tom Lasorda asked that all donations go to the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, a charity that helps former ballplayers in need.
In the coffee shop in Pasadena, it is late morning, and Eugene Pinkowski is lingering, remembering. His Tommy portfolio is spread across the table. Tommy is smiling at us from a hundred pictures.
I ask Eugene if Tommy would have wanted this story written.
“Are you kidding?” he says. “If there’s any sort of afterlife, Tommy is looking down and cheering. This is something he wanted. To be remembered like this. He’d be in heaven.”
First, the obvious answer to the obvious question: Yes, Tommy was livid when it was published. Tracked me down in a motel in Indiana, screamed over the phone, talked of how he thought we were friends, although our relationship had consisted of a half-dozen interviews over the years in which I quoted him and presented him in my newspaper exactly as he wanted to be presented, which did not cleave to my idea of friendship. On the other hand, as a father, I was torn. Did I have a right to go against a father’s wishes? To display for all of the world to see a part of his son he didn’t want seen? Especially since the more I reported, the more obvious it became that this was a love story about a father and a son? But ultimately, on balance, I had no choice. I had to adhere to what Penelope Spheeris had referred to: values.
The first time I saw Tommy Jr. was a decade earlier. He was on the field during BP. Assuming he was a woman, I asked a writer, “Who’s that?”
“That’s Tommy’s son,” he said.
“Really? That’s incredible. Who’s written the best piece about this?”
No one had. Not a single Los Angeles writer, seeing the diaphanous beauty on the field, talking to his father, Mister Baseball, had seen fit to explore it. By the time I joined GQ‘s staff, the plague had blown up. I had visited a friend at St. Vincent’s who was in the terminal stages of an HIV-related illness, and smuggled in a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s for him, and fed it to him, but he couldn’t keep it down. I could never get the image out of my mind. Then I reported, and reported, and wrote and rewrote—and took note that all Tommy Sr. had spoken of was how the son’s death had affected him and his wife, and not of his kid, and how difficult it must have been to be one thing to himself, and something else to please his dad—and waited, and waited, and finally, the death certificate I’d asked for from the county arrived in the mail, and I knew what I had to do.
There was a plague, and it was gutting the arts world in my city, and it needed to be cured, and quickly. Expecting the father to ask that donations go to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis? That would have been too much. But what if Tommy Sr., one of the most highly visible men in all of professional sports in those days, had simply acknowledged his son’s sexuality and his cause of death? It could have saved more lives than we can ever know.
Ultimately, I wrote the piece confident that it would advance the cause. I was wrong. Two decades later? No vaccine. More locker-room enlightenment about gays in sports? Despite current events, ultimately, no. In corporate sportsworld, talking the talk is very different from walking the walk. As a for-profit goliath, fed by young men who learn homophobia at an early age, governed by men who were themselves raised in a primitive society, Big Sport’s seeds of gender-preference bias have been sown very, very deeply, and uprooting them is going to take more than a story or two and more than a handful of men who come out every few years. It’s going to take loud voices and even louder fury. It’s funny that Tommy cites Magic, isn’t it? The man who earlier this month spoke so wonderfully of his pride in his gay son? I couldn’t help wondering what Tommy Sr. thought when heard about how Magic was so supportive of his son. I wonder if he even listened.
As a fan of the Knicks ever since Phil Jackson donned a uniform, I really, really, really, really, really hope that @TheRealLJ2 is not the real Larry Johnson, former Hornet, former Knick, even though there’s nothing to indicate on his Twitter site that he isn’t. Photographs of the real LJ, and his wife, and pictures of Knicks, and running commentary on Knick games, and the Tweeter’s photo being a shot of Larry Johnson as a Knick — all of it indicates that if the tweeter isn’t the real Larry Johnson, @TheRealLJ2 is an incredibly deft and savvy LJ impersonator.
I do not hope that this is a fake site simply because of what he has tweeted in the last two days, albeit sort of ungrammatically (these are accurate transcriptions): “homosexuality is nothing to fear, I don’t think it belongs in a mans locker room”; “I’m attracted to women, is it ok for me to walk around a women’s locker room naked, and they be naked”; “I don’t Jason Collins personally but he seems like a great guy. Me personally gay men in the locked room would make me uncomfortable”; “Ppl ! this is nothing against Jason or homosexual’s,all I’m saying is this don’t belong in a man’s locker room”, and “I don’t judge anyone!! I have fallen short of the grace of Allah myself, but stop trying to make this acceptable.” (That one got 12 retweets.)
On the Wikipedia page for Larry Johnson the former Knick (“This article may contain wording that promotes the subject in a subjective manner without imparting real information”) I discovered that LJ has recently converted to Islam. The Twitter site includes a posting about how bad it is to eat pork, which, well, it probably is, but, IMHO, not for religious reasons.
The Wiki site makes no mention of the fact that LJ reportedly sired five children by four different women. It does say he once signed a contract with the Charlotte Hornets for $84 million, which at that point was a record-breaker, and appeared in an episode of Family Matters. But none of that is really relevant to my point, I guess.
To be clear: If the tweeter is the real Larry Johnson, he has every constitutional right to air his assertions, although they seem a tad, um, dumb, because they seem to infer that a) when someone sees someone naked, the sight of said nudity is automatically arousing (he has apparently never been to the linemen’s corner in an NFL locker room, or the pitcher’s corner in an MLB locker room); b) that unlike heterosexual men, whose lives comprise balanced appetites, gay men think sex is the be-all and end-all to life, and that the sight of a genital would make them start frothing at the mouth, and quite likely be unable not to pounce upon the possessor of said genital; c) a real “man,” who should be the sole occupant of the inner sanctum of a locker room, is defined as a man capable of impregnating any woman who crosses his radar.
No, to be clear: What worries me, and not just as a Knick fan, is that the team’s website, as of 4/30/13, lists as “Business and Organization Representative” a man named Larry Johnson. And that the Wiki site mentioned that Johnson was now occupying said position. And that whatever that job title actually means, the word “Representative” implies that he is representing to someone, presumably outside of that manly locker room, The New York Knickerbockers.
I may be alone here, but, given recent occurrences, I do not think that he should be representing a basketball team when we seem to be taking the first steps toward turning a very important corner, gender-preference-in-sports-wise. Turning that corner may take decades, and it’s going to be like walking into a hurricane wind, but it’s sort of dumb for a team to be represented by a – excuse my German – Neanderthal. But that’s only if the tweeter is the actual Larry Johnson.
This morning, always (and probably deleteriously to my own career advancement) having always followed the Hippocratic Oath (“First, Do No Harm),” I e-mailed the Knick PR guy and apprised him of the circumstances.
He answered with one word: “Thanks.”
He did not say whether @TheRealLJ2 was Larry Johnson, but then, I hadn’t asked him. I wanted to be, like, a person first, and not a journalist. (Plus, as a journalist, who wants to piss off the PR guys if you need access for your next book?) And I figured that this was the first he’d heard of the situation.
And I really, really, really, really. really want to be believe that the tweeter isn’t the man we knew so humorously as “Grandmamma” in those Converse commercials. Even if I can’t help wondering whether the real LJ knows the grandmammas of those five kids.
So please, Knicks: Track down this imitator, threaten him with a lawsuit, and end this farce. Your “Representative” should not be saddled by the specter of an ignorant imitator haunting your employee. You’re having too cool a season to have an albatross like that hanging around your neck.
Another one from the vaults by our man Peter Richmond. This one from GQ, reprinted with the author’s permission.
By Peter Richmond
It’s not that a ’70 BMW 2800 CS Coupe isn’t the most magnificent machine ever designed by man. It is. Or that I wouldn’t orchestrate a major drug deal to own one—or even drive one, just once, along an autumnal Vermont mountain road, en route to a fire-placed inn, with a case of ’85 Canon Saint-Emilion in the trunk, next to a Crouch & Fitzgerald valise stuffed with Thomas Wolfe first editions. I would. These are a few of my favorite things.
But they do not constitute the good life. I find the good life a little farther off the beaten path, in a world full of unsmiling figures, brooding tenements and shadowy streets-although the sunsets are pretty nice. Edward Hopper could always paint light. Hopper’s light is a corporeal thing, heavy and tangible, illuminating a quiet, unhurried place unbeset by the swarm of the modem species—a place where time has stopped,
My idea of the good life wouldn’t be to own a Hopper; it would be to live in one. Maybe in Gas, with its darkening road to unknown destinations, and its overwhelming sense of stillness in the forest of pines through whose needles wisps a wind making music that cannot be heard in my world. Or High Noon, in which a woman wearing only a bathrobe stands in the front door of a clapboard house. In the fashion of all Hopper’s solitary figures, her mouth is closed; her face is passive and yields no clues. It’s a mask of mystery. Unlike her modern-day counterpart, she feels no need to spill her secrets, to yammer endlessly on daytime television about the bad luck that has befallen her. She is at rest.
This stillness must be what people are trying to find when they spend enormous amounts of money vacationing at remote Caribbean resorts or buy whole islands in the South Pacific. I’ve found it a little closer: In 1978, before a minor league hockey game, in an art museum in Rochester, New York. In 1992 in an art museum in Cincinnati. In 1973, in a library in Massachusetts, I even held some Hopper etchings. The curator of the collection made me wear gloves, but I felt the calm just the same.
Does my consideration of a Hopper painting feel as good as the night I persuaded my tenth grade girlfriend to flee her prep school on an interstate bus to meet me in my older brother’s college dorm in Boston, where we fell asleep on the bare wooden floor in front of the fireplace and she slept on her side with her back to me and I awoke to sputtering firelight to find the palm of my right hand resting in the valley of her soft waist between the top of her jeans and the bottom of her ridden-up blue sweater, and it felt as if all of the currents at the heart of the universe were flowing beneath her skin? Does looking at a Hopper feel that good?
Well, no. But the two have something in common. In the contemplation of both (and that’s more or less what my tryst entailed—contemplation), there is something being stirred and stoked that physical pleasures can’t fuel: the imagination, with its promise of the infinite. Of anything you might want. Just beyond the frame of a Hopper, there’s always something more.
Take the country road in Gas: It’s a road to nowhere in particular, but wherever it’s going, things are probably better there. Or the faceless city in Manhattan Bridge Loop: You’d think it nothing but a cold pile of brick. But I know better. I know that inside the buildings, there is more to be found; there’s the soul of a city. And when I spend time in front of the canvas, I find it.
Or take High Noon. The woman’s bathrobe has fallen open, but shadows demurely cloak her. She is turning her face to the sun. Upstairs, behind waving curtains, her bedroom is dark. There might be someone in it. There might have been someone in it not long ago. There might be someone in it soon. Me, maybe.
You may remain unconvinced. You may find it a preposterous notion that the good life could be made up of windows into a state of mind. You may insist that the good life must comprise the sensory pleasures and the sensual ones. But when your Mondavi Cabernet is drained down to the sediment, your Jag needs new valves and your woman has dismissed you like an empty can of cat food lobbed into the trash, I’ll still have this place where, even if the sun reveals a world that’s haunting and bleak, it’s a sun that never sets.
Unlike many of my social-media colleagues who were lucky enough to meet Roger Ebert, I never did. I only knew him a while back as a guy on a TV show, with another guy in the other chair, presuming to tell me whether a movie was good or not. He and Gene Siskel’s relationship had a comforting vibe, but I, a bristly pseudo-artist-critic from the City of New York, home of the Yankees uptown and birthplace of Damn Yankees downtown, with Woody’s Manhattan somewhere in between, I always felt as if I were being ever-so-slightly lectured by an ever-so-slightly professor about a subject far too subjective to be bandied about by a couple of Midwestern white guys. (On top of which, the thumbs-up, thumbs-down thing creeped me out: flashes of the emperor in his Coliseum luxury box deciding the fate of a gladiator, on a whim.)
Truth is, I never decided whether to go to a movie because of what Roger Ebert said about it. What could a guy for the plodding Trib know about the essence of a film, its nuance, its art? Real movies only aimed to capture the hearts and minds of we sophisticates on the East Coast (the Philistines who made them out in Lemming Angeles? As if.) But Carl Sandburg’s big-shouldered meatpacking town telling me whether Terrence Malick and David Lynch were frauds or geniuses? Please. Canby! Kael! Real salon-sambuca-sipping Critics! The Second City could teach me a lot about architecture…but movies?
Then I grew older, and the world grew snarkier, and Siskel died, which was sad-making, but still, if their pairing had made for such immortal TV, why go on with the show with a replacement? Roger and the other guy lost me for good.
And then, in 2010, a few years ago, apparently long out of the loop, I read about Ebert’s health. About how thyroid cancer had left him with no jaw, and after three reconstructive surgeries had failed, leaving him looking grotesque, he refused to try any more, because, in his own words, “This is what I look like.” He said he thought that as a culture we are very bad at dealing with sickness, and, in one fell swoop, he did a whole lot to change that.
And then I read that he was a master chef, even though he could not taste – indeed, took nutrition through a tube. And that while he couldn’t talk, he had a text-to-message program that allowed him to give interviews. And I started paying more attention to his movie reviews, He saw 306 movies last year.
And no, he wasn’t the best movie critic out there, not by any means. He was not Anthony Lane (although he was better than Denby, if I have to flash my prejudices.) But he wasn’t mean. He wasn’t attitudinal. He never let his ego get in the way of his criticism.
And when he announced yesterday that he was taking a Leave of Presence, because cancer had reappeared, but he announced about 11 different other things that he was going to be backing, I thought: Man, you did it. Ill, you’ve aged gracefully. Here comes a third act that the rest of us will admire, and enjoy: Selfless Roger Ebert projects all over the place: an arsenal of artistic sanity in a world gone angry.
Then he died. And I instantly knew what was up with that prolific message that had offered 24 hours earlier so much hope for the future: He was subtextually telling us: “This is the possibility of the future of what I have envisioned, but won’t see. A day or so from now, I’ll be gone. I hope you guys will take some of the good I hoped to create, express and exemplify, carry on.” Unlike any other writer (except for Updike), he didn’t even hint that he was on his way out. No one has ever died with more grace. We owe him this: to look at the insane good fortune with which we’ve been blessed, and to go to the movies.
Peter Richmond is one of the finest takeout writers of the past thirty years. According to his website:
Peter Richmond attended Yale University, where he studied under the late, great John Hersey and the very alive, great David Milch. Somewhere in there he also attended auto mechanics school, from which he never graduated, but which led to his eventual purchase of a ‘77 Eldorado which is currently his family’s most mechanically reliable vehicle. He was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard, where he studied art, architecture, paleontology, playwriting and humility.
His stories have been anthologized in 13 books, including “Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century,” and four appearances in “Best Sportswriting of the Year” anthologies. (And, yes, he had the title essay in Riverhead Press’ “I Married My Mother-in-Law.”) He is the co-host, with author David Kamp, of a public radio show about his tragic attachment to the New York Giants called “Tangled Up in Blue,” which airs weekly on NPR’s smallest affiliate, WHDD-FM.
…His work has appeared in several periodicals, including Grantland.com, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Parade, GQ, Details, Architecture, Parade, Golf Digest, Travel + Leisure Golf and TV Guide, as well as two amazing magazines which, sadly, no longer exist: Play and New England Monthly.
He forgot The National where, along with Charlie Pierce, Johnette Howard, and Ian Thomsen, he made “The Main Event” a must-read.
Please enjoy this story, originally published in The National, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.
“Jimmy The Greek”
By Peter Richmond
His words break the silence of a breakfast conversation that has wound down to nothing. They are as soft and insubstantial as rust flaking away, so soft that at first you think you might have heard him wrong, except that his eyes are focused on something that isn’t there, and the flesh of his face has gone completely slack, and part of a bagel sits forgotten halfway to his mouth, and there really couldn’t have been any mistaking them at all.
He doesn’t mean he’s dead tired. He doesn’t mean he’s dead because he’s in trouble. He doesn’t mean he’s literally dead; in fact, after spending nine months in and out of Miami Heart Institute, with the bad heart and the chicken pox and shingles and diabetes, he’s looking much, much better than last year, if dangerously overweight, certainly younger than 71.
He means he’s dead as in without life. He’s says “I’m dead” because no other word wraps as neatly around the emotion that dominates his life. Because when CBS took away his job two years and four months ago with a one-paragraph release that called him “reprehensible”—to be precise, it was his remarks they called reprehensible, not him, but that distinction blurred long ago within Jimmy Snyder’s mind—they apparently carved his guts right out, which have since been replaced completely by the singular obsession that he was wronged. And instead of diminishing, that sense of injustice has festered, until all that seems left of Jimmy Snyder is the core of anger and bewilderment.
“I still don’t know what I did,” he says, but there’s no outrage to the words, no heart to them, no Greek to them. The Greek would have bellowed those words. Not whispered them into a bowl of granola.
Andy Rooney, the apparent philosopher, no simple setter of odds, may or may not have said that blacks watered down their genes, but he definitely did say that “homosexual unions” were a cause of “premature death.” He didn’t say this in a spontaneous interview in a restaurant, but in a prerecorded network television show. Then, in a draft of a letter to a magazine, Rooney said that he considered sex between men “repugnant.” For this, Rooney was given a three-month suspension. Within days his producer, Don Hewitt, said, “I spend 90% of my waking hours trying to get Andy Rooney back.” And 22 days after the suspension was announced, Rooney was indeed back.
Jimmy the Greek said some strange and unconscionable things about black athlete, which he insists reflected his admiration for them, although it didn’t come out that way, and now he’s dead. His own boss, Brent Musburger, within days of The Greek’s indiscretions, excised Snyder’s name from history the way Winston Smith used to eviscerate history for a living in Orwell’s 1984. Today no one at CBS is losing any sleep over the return of Jimmy Snyder. In fact, except for a director who has since quit the “NFL Today,” no one from CBS has even given him a phone call since they pulled the trap door.
Maybe no one really thought he’d take it this hard. Maybe that’s why Brent and Ted Shaker and the rest of the crew haven’t bothered to drop so much as a postcard in the mail. Maybe they all said to each other, “Forget it, guys, it’s just The Greek.” As if for The Greek all the rules were different. As if maybe he wasn’t the guy Musburger’s kids once loved, or the guy Shaker once thanked for having paid for the new extension on his house because the ratings of the show he was producing had grown so high.
Maybe they all thought that if anyone was a survivor, The Greek was, and that losing the “NFL Today” gig was no different than losing his right to vote when the feds convicted him of interstate gambling in 1962. But it was different. It was everything.
The truth is, The Greek had spent the first 50 years of his life in one world and then vaulted, to his surprise, into another, and he wanted, desperately, to finish his life in that second world. The first was a fringe kind of world where a man might be a “felon or might not be, where money might flow unnaturally swiftly from sources best left unseen, where distinctions between good and bad were as vague as the distinction between night and day in a town where the neon glowed 24 hours. The second was the network TV world, a place where the morals are similar but the trappings arc not.
And while it may have never seemed to the people who watched him on Sunday afternoons that it mattered to The Greek that he was on a sound stage instead of at a betting window, it mattered more than you can imagine. A man who’d once been surrounded by federal marshals loosed by Bobby Kennedy had suddenly found himself surrounded by makeup artists and the high-priced talking-head spread of Brent and Phyllis and Irv, and it felt not only good, but legitimate.
So when they yanked it out from under him, the way The Greek sees it, they might as well have yanked out the stool from beneath the feet of a man with a noose around his neck. And here he is, living in an overstuffed luxury hotel on Miami Beach where the other guests glance at him in sidelong fashion as he fills the corner table alone.
“I got to start doin’ something,” he says. “I wake up some mornin’s and you say, ‘Jesus Christ! You’re not doin’ nothin’!’ And you get a little lonesome. And disgusted. With everything. It gets a little lonesome. No one comes around. No one calls.”
And here it is again:
Iit’s not true. A few days later, he is besieged by autograph-seekers and the rest of the bit players who make up the supporting cast of his life at the race track. As he peels hundred~dollar bills with his left hand from the baseball-sized clot of bills in his right, Jimmy the Greek is wildly alive. And if it’s only alive the way a character on stage for the 2000th production of a fraying Broadway play is alive, it nonetheless breathes and moves and barks and snarls, which beats the hell out of being dead.
So there he sits, in his customary chair near the $50 window in the clubhouse at Gulfstream, still too weak from the three months in a hospital bed to jump to his feet and run to the window when the odds suddenly get good. So he throws fifties and hundreds at the half-dozen men with the oddest of morphs who circle him like distant planets all day without ever leaving the orbit.
“Jeff!” he’ll yell, or Mike, or someone else, and Jeff will skip over and take the hundred and head for the window while The Greek says, “Get the one-four and the four-one for 50 each.”
Sometimes the one-four hits. Sometimes not. He’s down a couple thousand after the sixth race. After the seventh he’s up a couple thousand, after picking the winning horses in the fifth, sixth and seventh, the Big Three, for $3,500. One of his pals cashed his ticket, and he had to be careful on the walk back across the floor lest the bills all spring out of his hand, they’re so thickly stacked. In this he is still The Greek. When the five horse runs in and The Greek shouts in glee, other horseplayers smile and say, “Way to go, Greek,” mostly because they’re so glad to see him looking half-alive again.
But even afloat on a seas of green, The Greek’s mind is elsewhere. He’s motioned to a tall blond kid to come over for a second.
“You play basketball?” The Greek says, and the kid nods. The kid’s built like a lamppost. The kid is a friend of one of The Greek’s track friends. The kid has wandered over because The Greek is a friend and The Greek is all right.
“C’mere,” says the Greek, and the kid steps up close to the Greek’s chair.
The kid walks over. The Greek reaches out and lays his incongruously lean and fragile fingers—they should be sausages with a body like his, but they’re more like angel-hair pasta—on the kid’s calf. In the adjacent chairs, The Greek’s track friends lean in to listen, as do some other people he doesn’t know.
“See how he’s built?” says The Greek as he describes the contours of the kid’s leg with his left hand. “See how his calf is like this, then it leads up to his thigh, and there’s hardly any difference in the size? The thigh’s hardly any bigger’n his calf?”
His friends nod, and the kid is looking down at The Greek’s hand with remarkable detachment considering the circumstances.
“Now the blacks, the thigh would go out like this, and that’s where they get their spring,” says the Greek.
“But you can’t say that,” the kid says.
“Can’t say what?” The Greek asks, pleading.
“‘Black,’” the kid says. “You can’t say ‘black.’”
The friends all nod, and their heads go up and down like pistons. “Work for CBS, tell the truth, get fired,” says one of them.
“We have a coach, he was a scoring champion in his conference,” says the kid, adding, “and his thighs are, like, out to here.”
“That’s all I said!” says The Greek, spreading his hands. “That’s all I said!”
NOT ENTIRELY. What he said during lunch at Duke Zeibart’s on the Friday of Martin Luther King Day in 1988, was, essentially, three things. The first was, “If they over coaching, like everybody wants them to, there’s not going to be anything left for white people.” This one packed the most immediate impact. Snyder insisted afterward it was just a bad joke, and a compliment to blacks, too. They’ve taken over all of sport because of their drive and their desire. They want it so badlv they’ve pushed the whites right out. (Look, he said, if anyone should have been mad, it was whites. He said whites were lazy. No whites got angry at what Jimmy said.)
Then he said, “There’s 10 people on a basketball court. If you find two whites you’re lucky.” The last word was the killer. Otherwise, it’s no different from the famous tabloid basketball columnist saying, a few years ago, “The blackest thing about the Celtics is their sneakers” in reverse. But he never should have said “lucky.” He might have been using it In nothing but a careless sense. but can’t be careless with live ammunition. More than anything, this was the statement that was indefensible.
Finally, he said, “[Black superiority] goes all the way back to the Civil War, when during the slave trading the owners would breed his big black with his big woman so he could have a big black kid.”
This is the one that stuck.
At any rate, within hours, Musburger and Shaker had viewed the tapes and talked to the CBS brain trust, most of whom happened to be in Hawaii. Later than night CBS issues a statement saying it found his remarks to be “reprehensible.” No one actually said he was fired. But when Sunday showed up, he’d been deleted.
“You know, on Friday afternoon, our former colleague Jimmy the Greek, made some regrettable and offensive remarks for which he has apologized,” Musburger said the way he might have recited the Seahawks’ injury list. “Yesterday, CBS issued a statement disassociating itself from those remarks. It goes without saying that his comments do not in any way reflect the thinking or attitude of the rest of us here at CBS Sports. While we deplore the incident, we are saddened that our 12-year association with Jimmy had to end this way. And the “NFL Today” will continue from RFK Stadium in Washington in just a moment.”
And that was the sum total on CBS of discussion about the several issue The Greek had raised. Elsewhere, reaction was mixed, and Snyder had his defenders.
“Much of what he said seemed unexceptional to most whites and a good many blacks as well.” wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. “Blacks are more athletically gifted than whites. He spoke of racial differences. That is a taboo. Never mind that there are such things.”
“He’s right.” Jim Rice said a few weeks later, in the weight room off the Red Sox locker room at Fenway Park, during an interview for a Miami Herald series that had been prompted by The Greek’s firing. “It’s just a gift. Raw talent.” And a few days after that, at Yankee Stadium, Jesse Barfieid nodded: “Leaping, running—physiologically, we have an advantage.”
Recently, Synder’s former colleague, Jayne Kennedy-Overton, said, “If he was telling the truth, why blame Jimmy? Why not blame the people who made the history he spoke of?”
AFTER THE eighth race, he was up several thousand. He’d taken the 10 horse across the board for $400, and it won at 6-1. After the ninth, he was up another couple thousand with the two horse. He now had a bundle of hundred-dollar bills the size of Zeus’s fist in his right-hand pants pocket, all earned in a dizzying 90-minute span that left your mouth dry and your hands shaking just to he next to him. He has not mentioned the money on the drive back to Miami Beach.
“Brent panicked,” he says. “If he’d opened up his mouth that day for me. he could have saved my job. But he didn’t. Or if he did, it wasn’t to say anythin’ good. If only [Howardj Stringer had been there, he’d have looked at the tapes, and sat everyone down, and they coulda suspended me for that last game, and that would have been enough. But the big guys were in Hawaii, and Brent and Shaker were the only ones talkin’ to ‘em. Nobody stood up for me. When you got the No. 1 producer and Brent against you nobody’s going to go against them. Who’s gonna say somethin’? Irv? The only guy who could have said somethin’ was Madden, but he was at a meeting of some sort and said it was all over by the time he got there: Summerall said somethin’ good in my behalf.
“Aw,” he says, “don’t let me start this.”
It’s absolutely huge, Jimmy’s car, as wide as a whole lane. It has a blue leather interior and the dashboard looks wooden, but it’s really only wood-pattern contact paper. On the glove compartment the pattern has all peeled away, leaving a bare metal panel. The inside of the passenger door is pocked with gray spots from the ash of his cigar, like a wall that’s been riddled with bullets.
Gliding the Cadillac to the hotel curb is like trying to dock a tugboat. It’s a car that has somehow survived beyond its age and now it is unwieldy and impractical. In these respects, it’s a lot like Jimmy. He has not gone into the new age gracefully. Watch him yelp at the pretty women—”Hey! Are you married?”—with that old man’s license to leer. He struts through his hotel, this outsized guy all in white and gold with his cane with the heavy steel knob as a handle, this purely exotic figure from some Graham Greene novel, part Sidney Greenstreet, talking too loudly, flashing that wad of hundreds. He doesn’t seem to realize that we’re in the mall age now, where the people we admire don’t come outsized any more They come in a garb of discreet homogeny. They come smooth. They come so they fit into a preconceived notion of special.
He’s not alone in this stumble into the late 20th century. Surely some of Rooney’s indiscretion can be chalked up to his inability—voluntary or otherwise—to evolve with the flow of time.
Most of us adapt. Some adapt by shedding ignorance. Others adapt by burying it. Only The Greek knows which camp he’s in. No one who’s ever spent any time at all with The Greek thinks he’s racist—”No black ever got mad at me,” he says. “The blacks all loved me”—but it doesn’t matter anymore.
Now he’s winking at the little girl in the scotch-plaid dress in the lobby. He is mugging. His face is all rubbery. She is fascinated. Her mother is leery. He loves kids. He’ll drop anything—anything—to wink a kid. How could he not? He lost two to cystic fibrosis, and he was never one himself, not after his mother was shot to death by his aunt’s estranged husband when Jimmy was 9. So he pats them and reaches out to them and laughs at them and mugs for them, and the kids love it, but the mothers wonder what in the hell this old guy is up to. And, of course, the mothers don’t know who The Greek is. The mothers only know who Bryant Gumbel and Willard Scott are.
“Without even saying goodbye. After 13 years. You think that’s fair? You think that’s fair?”
In the morning he’ll try to walk a mile on the beach, but it takes an hour. He’d rather linger over breakfast for a couple of hours until it’s time to go to the track, although these breakfasts can daunt an ego, because in the restaurant there are often several young families with children who won’t be all that amused by the man in the gold chains who frequently commandeers the telephone in the middle of the dining room and starts swearing at his stockbroker.
“I got some money in an Austrian money fund. and it was doing really good until this morning Gorbachev said somethin’ and it’s going straight down,” he says, returning to the table after one rant. “The market’s all I got. It’s the only excitement I have out of life. I win or lose 10 or 20 (thousand} a day. That’s all I got.”
He is spending a lot of time in Miami Beach. His wife, Joan, is in the house in North Carolina. “We don’t want to talk about that,” he says. Then he grows disgusted with himself: “Oh, listen, you take the good with the bad, what else you gonna do.”
Wilburn, the waiter, refills his cup. Wilburn is from Jamaica. Wilburn knows what Jimmy wants to eat before Jimmy can tell him. Jimmy regularly summons Wilburn by saying, “Get your black ass over here.” He loves to say things like, “I’m gonna get your black ass fired,” and Wilburn laughs.
Jimmy speaks like this loudly enough for the people in the restaurant to turn around and some of them smile. He does this because he wants the world to know that that is the Steubenville way he speaks, and that is the way he was speaking on Martin Luther King Day, casually, and not from prejudice. He will not allow the perception to endure. He simply will not. He Is adament.
That is the most important thing now. Not the firing. The firing, he concedes, was inevitable.
“It had gotten to the point where I kept fighting’ over the show with Shaker almost every Sunday by the end,” he days. “The last year they a;most cut me off completely. Shaker kept wantin’ to know what I was going to say beforehand. But I never knew. Which is what made it a great show. Tell him first? I’m sitting there with 100 things to say and I never knew what I was going to say. That’s what was so great about it. Everything was spontaneous.
“But I overcome that. I overcome so much. I overcome hittin’ Brent. I overcome a situation where I went to a racetrack and asked someone for figures and they were trying to grab the guy. Turned out he was a bookmaker. I overcome that. I went to Denver on a speaking engagement and said something about rednecks. Overcome that. I told Phyllis I hated her friggin’ husband, right on the air. Overcome that. I overcome everything. Then all of a sudden the thing I was paid to do I was fired for.”
Now there’s passion. The Greek has turned his chair to face his companion head on, and he’s squinting. Suddenly, it’s The Greek’s voice, all blustery and rough.
“Listen. I was the only person who never went with one camp or the other. l never cared about personalities. All I ever cared about was the good of the show. Ask anybody. I didn’t have grudges. I didn’t have vendettas. The show was everything to me. I thought this was supposedly going to be my life. “NFL Today” was … I mean I had a good PR firm, but little by little I gave everything up because of a show, then all of a sudden I woke up one day and I didn’t have it. All of a sudden I was the sonofabitch who said blacks were better athletes.”
Three men have dropped by the table. They have tans like they watched a nuclear test in person. They are on their way hack to the marina to sell more boats at the boat show, for $375,000 each.
“You got screwed, Greek,” says one, and the other two nod. After they leave, The Greek’s smiling.
“Next to survival, what’s the most important thing?” he says after they’ve gone. “Recognition.”
More important than health? Family?
“Those are both part of survival,” he says.
“I had a son and I lost him,” he says. Quietly. “So brilliant. He was a mathematic marvel. Professors from all over the United States—Michigan, Indiana—used to send him problems when he was a student at UNLV. He’d sit there for hours. Finally he’d look at me and say, ‘I got it Dad.” Once when a teacher went on vacation they let him teach the class. That’s how good he was. The teacher said, ‘The guy can spot me the deuce and still beat me at mathematics.’”
“Oh, well”—these words like marbles dropping off the edge of a kitchen table.
“He was somethin’. Tried so hard to live. He was 26. He was supposed to be dead at 2.”
“Look,” Jimmy says. “I’ll survive. I’ll get a show. I’ll have a 900 number by the fall.”
“Why’d they have to do it the way they did it? I begged them to not use reprehensible. It was just a word that wasn’t needed. “Take that word out,” I said. They wouldn’t. I said, “I can’t overcome that.”
As a guy who spent considerable time in George Steinbrenner’s presence back when both he and I were cogent and unreasonable men (me the barbed newspaper scribe, he the pompous asshole who once called Hideki Irabu a “fat, pus-y toad”), I never expected the Yankees to look anywhere but backward with the new park. After all, this is a family that, in lockstep to George’s scarily tin-eared, tone-deaf take on himself, now runs its corporation by the family’s uncurious, unimaginative philosophy of “I haven’t a clue about vision … but can I buy the guy who everyone else thinks is good?”
So I wasn’t surprised that the new stadium, with its faux-gold façade lettering, emerged with a distinctly Gilded Age/decline-of-the-Roman Empire vibe. The first (and only) time I sat in those thousand-dollar seats behind home plate, and a comely woman who looked like a young Cameron Diaz kept sidling up to ask if I needed anything, I was wise enough to ask for nothing more exotic than shrimp cocktail.
I’ll grant you that the new one’s not a bad place to watch baseball (although annual attendance is a half-million lower than the last year in the old one). But the real problem with wrapping the new place in a retro-traditional-revivalist costume is that once you’re inside there’s not even the slightest pretense about trying to duplicate the original sensorial experience of watching a game in the old stadium, when the borough of the Bronx was part of the fabric of the team’s success. This was when you could reach out from the upper deck and touch the Buy DiNoto’s Bread sign, two stories high, painted in red, green, and white on the back of the six-story, yellow-brick apartment house on 845 Gerard Avenue; when the Ayn-Randian blue-steel screech of the no. 4 train coming to a halt at the 161st Street station wafted the sweet, industrial fragrance of railroad brake linings through the upper rows of the right-center-field bleachers.
But who can complain when the new place is packed with such sophisticated lures as a private dining room where toqued chefs serve crab roll sushi, strip loin, locavore haricots vert, and chocolate mousse?