Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Friday (10/2) is the big day and I’m excited. The International Olympic Committee is meeting in Copenhagen to vote on the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics and my beloved native city of Chicago is in the running, along with Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid.

By me, it figures that Chicago will prevail. Rio is best known for crime and immense slums, Tokyo for $150 airport-to-hotel cab rides, and Madrid for being the seat of the Franco government, which far outlasted those of his buddies Hitler and Mussolini. Looks like a slam dunk right there.

Chicago has many positive things going for it as well. International sports honchos love the U.S.’s restaurants, five-star hotels, limos and rental cars, telephone systems, stadiums, luxury boxes and fans able and eager to buy tickets for whatever event is on tap, and Chi-Town has those in abundance. Anything you can get anywhere you can get there, and I mean anything. Who could ask for more?

The Olympics would look great in the City by the Lake. I can see the TV cameras focusing lovingly on Buckingham Fountain, Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park, Belmont Harbor and other tourist magnets. Chicago hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches, the city’s major contributions to world cuisine, finally would get the attention they deserve. So would 16-inch softball, Chicago’s gift to the world of sports; I’m sure they’ll be able to work it into the Olympic schedule. Thillens Stadium would be the perfect venue.

Yes, I know there are naysayers. Their argument is the same as it always is for such endeavors, centering on the immorality of spending millions (billions?) of dollars on a sports extravaganza when so many societal needs go unmet. But hey—why limit that to sports? One can make the same case that a better use could be made of every buck we spend on booze, cigars, cigarettes, chewing gum, candy bars, lattes, comic books, bad movies, massages and cocaine, but the world doesn’t work that way.

As you know if you follow this space, I’m against spending public money for new stadiums for our domestic sports staples of baseball, football and basketball. That’s because the vast majority of the revenues those facilities generate are local and they serve only to funnel money away from other local entertainments and into the pockets of team owners. Money spent on Olympic installations would be different because the Games would be a tourist bonanza for Chicago that would continue well past the time the athletes leave.

Further, from what I’ve seen of the city’s Olympic plans, relatively little money would go into building new facilities. Existing structures would accommodate most events, with the main exception being a sort of erector-set stadium for track and field and the opening and closing ceremonies, slated for Washington Park. After the Games it would be disassembled and a smaller stadium built on the site for local use. That would be a lasting plus. So, too, would the considerable sum of federal cash that would go into updating Chicago’s public-transit system to better serve visitors, and, of course, residents.

The main reason for my optimism, though, has nothing to do with bricks and mortar, civic spirit, or, even, Italian beef. It’s the natural affinity between the two main legislative bodies that would be involved in a Chicago Olympics, the Chicago City Council and the IOC. Although municipal graft wasn’t invented in Chicago, and certainly exists elsewhere, it was brought to such an art in the City Council that the late Royko held that the English translation of the city’s Latin motto—“Urbus en Horto”—is “Where’s mine?” The IOC has a similar rep, similarly well earned; no IOC member ever has been seen exiting the rear door of an airliner.

The good-old boys from Georgia greased many an IOC palm to obtain the 1996 Summer Games for Atlanta, as did Salt Lake City’s agents in landing the 2002 Winter Games. A couple of SLC people resigned in disgrace after that vote, as did 10 IOC members. But the bottom line was that the Games stayed in the virtuous Beehive State.

I see where President Obama plans to be in Copenhagen to make the city’s final pitch to the IOC. That’s great—he’s persuasive. But smart as he is I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a delegation of city councilmen—past and present—surreptitiously accompany him to seal the deal. He should include Alderman Eddie Burke from the current council, and get a prison furlough for ex-Ald. Eddie Vrdolyak so he could make the trip. If those two can’t swing it, nobody can.

I’m just sorry Tom Keane isn’t still around. If he were, it’d really be a slam dunk for my home town.

POSTING A COMMENT: Getting in your two-cents worth via comments is a big part of blogging, and I welcome yours. Several people have told me they’ve tried to comment on my efforts at various times but failed to get theirs posted, so here’s a how-to:
At the end of the column click on the word “comments.” That will take you to another screen. Write your comment in the box, then copy the “verification” letters in the box that’s provided. Skip the stuff about “user name” and “password”—it’s not required. Click on the “name/url” circle. Put your name in the box that’s provided or click on the “anonymous” circle. If you wish, click on “review” to check what you’ve written, or go immediately to “publish.” You can do it!

BUSINESS NOTE: If you’re in or around Scottsdale on Sunday, Nov. 1, you might drop into the book fair at the Jewish Community Center at 12701 N. Scottsdale Rd. I’ll be speaking about my “For the Love of…” books, and other things, starting at 9:30 a.m.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Being misunderstood is a chronic condition these days, one that many people—famous and not—richly enjoy. Indeed, the plaint that “nobody really knows me” may be the real national anthem in a land where navel gazing outranks TV watching as a source of mass entertainment.

Thus, it wasn’t surprising to hear Mike Tyson, the subject of a recent James Toback documentary movie that bears his name, deliver an opening monologue to his unseen (and unheard) interviewer that asked the question “Who am I?” and answered it by saying “Nobody really knows Mike Tyson.” The fact that “nobody” includes the ex-boxer himself is what gave the movie its punch. He’s always been as much a spectator as a participant in his chaotic life, and as morbidly curious as we are to learn what’ll happen next.

I first met Tyson in February, 1986, when I went to a college hockey arena in Troy, N.Y., to see him fight the journeyman Jesse Ferguson in his 18th professional bout. Tyson, then just 19 years old, had dispatched his previous 17 foes by knockouts, most in the first or second rounds. The tall Ferguson proved a tougher nut, but only because he dedicated himself solely to such survival tactics as running and holding, and in the sixth round was duly disqualified. Still, Tyson showed enough to make the trip worthwhile and presage the more-significant ring triumphs that were to follow.

Ask somebody today about Tyson the fighter and he’ll probably label him a primitive brawler who got by mostly on muscle. That simply wasn’t true. Even as a teen Tyson possessed advanced skills in all facets of his brutal sport. Moreover, he had the fastest hands of any fighter I’ve seen, in any weight class. In my view he’s the only man who could have given Mohammad Ali a good fight if both were in their primes.

At 5-foot-10 or -11 and about 215 pounds, the young Tyson was among the smallest heavyweights of his day, but punching upward from his powerful haunches he could deliver blows of unmatched speed and ferocity, and bobbing and weaving from the hands-high “peekaboo” stance taught to him by his mentor, Cus D’Amato, was hard to hit as well. Ali might put him away if he were able to hold him off for seven or eight rounds, but, by me, that would be a big “if.”

Alas, the Tyson most people remember is the wild man who bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in a fit of frustration during a losing effort, and the one who wrecked his life with choices so self-destructive as to suggest insanity. His downward spiral began with the death of D’Amato in 1985, just as his pro career was being launched, and turned into freefall when Jimmy Jacobs, the ex-handball champion who was his first manager and could speak to him athlete-to-athlete, unexpectedly followed D’Amato in 1988.

Unanchored, Tyson put his professional affairs in the hands Don King, a scoundrel without peer, and devoted himself personally to the scheming actress Robin Givens. The fact that everyone (literally) told him that King would rob him and Givens would use him seemed only to increase his commitments to them. Inside the ring he forgot the precepts that enabled him to unify the heavyweight title at the rare age of 21. Outside of it, problems with women, booze and drugs, and a three-year prison term for a rape conviction, stripped him of his dignity.

Gone, too, is just about all of the $300 milllion (no typo) he grossed during his fistic career. The subject of where it went concerns him so little that it’s barely mentioned in the Toback movie. While allowing that King took much or most of it—“He’s a wretched, slimy motherfucker. He’d kill his mother for a dollar”—he quickly absolves the electric-haired one of blame. “I loved leeches. I associated myself with leeches. I allowed that to happen,” Tyson says with an offhand shrug.

The “why?” of it all wasn’t asked or answered directly in the film, but it’s always been there for those who would listen. In interviews Tyson often would relate how just about all of his partners in crime during his days as a child street thug in Brooklyn were dead, in jail, or hopelessly hooked on drugs, and express the view that he expected a similar fate. Why plan for the future when there probably wouldn’t be one?

“My past is history, my future is a mystery,” the erstwhile Iron Mike tells Toback in conclusion. That’s one of those glib rhymes silly people love, but in this case it contained more truth than poetry.

BUSINESS NOTE: “For the Love of the Bulldogs,” about University of Georgia football, is on the market, the 11th in the “For the Love of…” series published by Triumph Books. Written by me, and beautifully illustrated by Mark Anderson, it’ll make a great gift for Dawgs’ fans of all ages. Barnes & Noble has ‘em, as does Buy a bunch!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


The U.S. Open tennis tournament is underway in the big complex at the former World’s Fair site in the New York borough of Queens, but I am more concerned with other things, such as the homestretch of the baseball regular season (bye-bye Cubs and Sox) and the start of the NFL’s.

Such wasn’t always the case. During my columnizing days the tournament was a highlight of my year, and not just because it meant I got to spend two weeks in glorious Gotham on an expense account. A tennis player myself then, I loved watching the game in any way, shape or form, and pursued it in as many venues as I could.

The first week of the Open was my favorite because there was action all over the multi-court grounds, involving not only the certified stars but other players, both up-and-comers and old timers on their way out, and I was there watching whether or not I planned to write about what I saw. When I scanned the small-print results of the first- and second-round matches I had well-rounded pictures to go with names that meant little to more-casual fans. Heck, I even knew the juniors, and could converse knowledgably about which might succeed, and which not.

Unfortunately, though, top-flight tennis has changed since, and not for the better. Advances in racket technology have all but erased stylistic differences among players, turning every match into a virtual copy of the one before, and the one after. When the players don’t wear different-colored outfits it’s tough to tell them apart.

The racket revolution began around 1970, when traditional wood frames gave way to steel or aluminum. The initial change was widely noted and much commented upon, and gave players a bit more bang for their bucks, but its effects were small compared with what was to follow. Starting around 1990 such exotically named materials as titanium, boron, Kevlar, graphite and Hypercarbon increasingly came into use, often in combinations. This allowed racket frames to become much bigger, stronger, lighter and more flexible than before, and “sweet spots” (areas of maximum impact) to grow. Grips and strings improved, too, magnifying the results.

In “woody” days, the typical racket had about a 65-square-inch frame and weighed about 13 ounces. Today’s frames run to 145 square inches (although most pros use ones smaller than that) and weights have dropped to 10 or 11 ounces. The term “trampoline effect” has come into use, vividly describing what the new weaponry has wrought in the hands of the athletically gifted.

Most observers initially predicted that better rackets would give the edge to big servers and cause the serve-and-volley game to flourish. The reality has been quite the opposite. Sure, service speeds are up, but today’s top players nullify that by retreating behind the baseline a step or two, then trampolining the serves back faster than they come in, relatively speaking. Rushing the net has become akin to charging a machine-gun nest, and about as productive. It has all but been abandoned as a regular offensive tactic.

The great tennis rivalries of the recent past were between serve-and-volleyers and baseliners, which translated neatly into the puncher-boxer dichotomy that enlivens many sports: think McEnroe-Borg, Navratilova-Evert and Sampras-Agassi. Now there are only baseliners, hitting back and forth, ad infinitum.

Stylistic contrast hasn’t been the only casualty of the new era. The term “touch” is little heard any more, and smallish players like Ken Rosewall, Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis, who depended on it, are all but extinct. The top level of the women’s game has come to be the sole province of such strapping bashers as the Williams sisters and the East European “evas” and “ovas” who have the muscle to stay on the court with them.

Among the men stamina is all, with matches in the brutal, best-of-five-set Grand Slam format often topping three grueling hours. Injuries are rife and just about everybody has them some of the time. To me, the most remarkable thing about Roger Federer’s recent dominance of the sport hasn’t been his considerable skill but his ability to soldier on as those about him falter.

Golf also has undergone a technological revolution but has accommodated itself to it by lengthening and tightening championship courses. Tennis can’t change its dimensions, and with the money at stake in its equipment business it’s not about to turn back the clock, so like it or not only more of the same is in prospect. I’ll probably be watching the Open finals, but not much until then.