Saturday, July 15, 2017

A JOCK AND HIS MONEY IS SOON ...

                The July 3 Sports Illustrated is a “Where Are They Now?” issue, tracking the afterlife of several notable sports figures from years past, and Allen Iverson is on the cover. The piece about him is titled “The Answer,” after his nickname, and subheaded “How Allen Iverson Finally Found His Way Home.” The cover photo is of the former fast and fearless basketball star, staring out blankly and clutching two handfuls of long-stemmed, red roses. It’s a funereal-looking pose that suggests that he has, uh, passed, or is about to, although there’s no indication that is true.
               
                 The story itself is similarly confusing. It portrays a man who lives a jumbled life, moving from place to place, splitting and reuniting with his former wife, embracing and rejecting the duties of parenthood of his five children. Apparently, the “home” he has found is BIG3, a new league of former pro hoopsters playing half-court, three-on-three games for a TV audience of people who can’t abide a summer without the sport.  At age 42, that’s all he can think of to do with himself.
           
                  More upsetting still is the picture the piece paints of Iverson’s finances. They’re not spelled out in detail but it shows someone whose published basketball earnings alone in his 17-season NBA career (1996-2010) came to about $154 million, but is living in less luxury than such a figure suggests. It quotes him as saying during his 2013 divorce proceedings that he “couldn’t afford a cheeseburger,” and while men typically plead poverty in such circumstances there must have been some basis for the claim. It goes on to say that while Iverson gets $800,000 a year from a lifetime contract with the shoemaker Reebok, and can access a $32 million trust fund when he turns 55, he’s pretty much pissed away most of the money he’s made.
                
                 The subject of athletes and their money was one I dealt with in my Wall Street Journal columns.  The tale often was a painful one, of reckless spending, excessive generosity and misplaced trust in shady advisers. To many of the young men involved, totally lacking in perspective, the sudden wealth that accompanied their professional status was so large as to be an abstraction, devoid of meaning.
  
It brought to mind the stories of how Don King, the wily and unscrupulous boxing promoter, would visit fighters he wished to underpay with a satchel containing a few thousand dollars in small bills, which he’d spread on his mark’s kitchen table and turn over in return for a signature on a contract. King knew the cash would be seen as real money, something the fighter could relate to, as opposed to the much-larger sum the deal really was worth.

Suede-shoe types swarm over jocks like ants on sugar. Privileged all their lives (albeit maybe poor)—both na├»ve and arrogant-- athletes can be easy prey to those who tell them that ordinary investment returns are for chumps, and that special people like them deserve three or four times the going rate.  If anyone told them that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is, the message usually was forgotten. (The same, I might add, also applied to Bernie Madoff’s investors, most of whom had fewer excuses than a nuevo riche athlete.) 

A further perusal of the SI issue underlined the same theme. Of the six “old” jocks profiled at length (Iverson and way-back basketballer Tom Meschery, ex-footballers Vince Young and Clinton Portis, former hockey star Eric Lindros and golfer Justin Leonard), two more were having serious financial difficulties.

Young is only 34 years old, but his football career seems like ancient history. The quarterback showed up in the NFL in 2006 after a brilliant college stint at the U. of Texas, and was the league’s rookie of the year with the Tennessee Titans, but injuries and emotional problems set in, and by the time he left the league in 2011, after a try in Philadelphia, he was considered a bust. He earned a reported $34 million in NFL salaries, plus about $30 million more for endorsement deals from Reebok and other companies, but in 2014 declared bankruptcy, listing assets between $500,000 and $1 million and debts between $1 million and $10 million.

Young said he gave his finances little thought while he was playing, trusting an uncle to manage them. He said that one bad deal, costing him $600,000, was with a company he couldn’t recall knowing. One anecdote had him spending $15,000 for a single meal he hosted at the Chocolate Factory, a chain operation where the cuisine is less than haute. At last sighting he was trying to revive his gridiron career in the Canadian League, where the pay is far lower than in the NFL.

The saddest story was that of Clinton Portis, who earned a reported $43 million in his nine seasons as an NFL running back (2002-10) with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. He was so distraught over losing $14 million in investments engineered by a couple of financial advisers that he got a gun and stalked one of them with murderous intent (he didn’t pull the trigger). It made him especially angry that the two got off with only professional reprimands.  “No jail time, no nothing. Living happily ever after,” Portis said to the magazine.

But while Portis was unwise in his advisory choices he also wasn’t smart about some of his own actions while he was flush. After turning pro he bought a house for his mother—a move many athletes make—but this one was a 8,400-square-foot affair costing $900,000, and came with the purple Jaguar she always wanted. He himself had “various” homes with such features as indoor waterfalls, stripper poles and giant aquariums, and a “armada” of cars.

When Portis filed for bankruptcy in 2015 his debts included $412,000 in “domestic support” to four women, $170,000 in shopping bills and $287,000 in gambling losses at the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas.  If he didn’t come away with much money he had fun while he had it.

BUSINESS NOTE--   Another reminder that a new edition of the “For The Love Of The Cubs” book, featuring heroes of the team’s 2016 World Series victory, is just out. The illustrations are by the marvelous Mark Anderson, one of the best, and the verses and fact blocks are by me. It’s a great keepsake and gift item for Cubs’ fans of all ages. You can buy it by clicking on the Triumph Books link above, by going to the amazon.com or barnesandnoble.co websites, or at your local bookstore. 





                

Saturday, July 1, 2017

BIG FIGHTS

                When asked what I liked best about my stint as a free-range sports columnist, I quickly reply that I enjoyed the variety my post offered, being able to write about a baseball game one day, a track meet the next and, maybe, an arm-wrestling tournament the following week. I regarded my brethren who covered the same team (and sport) day in and day out with a mixture of awe and aversion. How did they do that? I asked myself.
               
                 But when inquiring minds want to know more, honing in on my favorite sport to write about, I have a bit of as problem. It’s not in deciding what to say but whether to say it. Although I always feel obliged to apologize when I admit it, I really liked boxing. It’s not the mindless brawl its detractors make it out to be, and while A.J. Liebling’s description of it as the “sweet science” strains credulity, it doesn’t exceed it. Withal, the sport is elemental, rooted in our collective psyche, which is why periodic attempts to ban it have failed. As long as some men (and, lately, some women) want to do it, they’re best off in a ring wearing padded gloves, with a referee present.

                If I may be permitted a bit of nostalgia, my ties to boxing go way back. My father worked half days on Saturdays in his small downtown Chicago office, and when I was 10 or 11 he’d sometimes take me with him. I’d do odd jobs or amuse myself for a few hours and he’d take me to lunch at Harding’s cafeteria, which had wonderful roast beef sandwiches (and where patrons could roll dice double-or-nothing for the check, although my dad never did that). Then, sometimes, he and I would walk about a block to the Midwest Gym, upstairs in an old, walk-up building on Madison Street, to watch the boxers train.

                Dad wasn’t a sports fan so I don’t know why he did that, but I’m glad he did. Chicago had an active fight scene in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, and local boxers such as Tony Zale and Bob Satterfield regularly trained at Midwest. When a big fight was in town the contestants would join them, as Ezzard Charles and Joe Walcott did before their 1949 heavyweight title match. By age 10 I already was an avid sports-page reader and was thrilled to be close to the heroes I’d read about. I once was introduced to the great Zale, and his autographed photo decorated my bedroom wall until I went away to college.

                Once handed a press card I couldn’t wait to get to ringside, and did so frequently. Besides covering championship bouts I followed the sport in five Summer Olympic Games and scouted young pugilists with promise. I saw a skinny, 16-year-old Oscar De La Hoya (he spelled it De Lajoya then) win a National Golden Gloves title in Knoxville, Tennessee, a 20-year-old Mike Tyson win a prelim bout in a seedy arena in Troy, New York, and a 21-year­ Floyd Mayweather pitch a 10-round shutout in Los Angeles.

                As a cultural experience, nothing in sports beats a big fight. They usually were staged in Las Vegas hotel arenas during my tenure, and I’d show up early to watch arrive what Pierce Egan called “the fancy.” Hollywood and sports stars headed the mix, along with politicians, Vegas big shots, gangstas (especially for the Tyson fights) and assorted pimps and high-priced hookers wearing enough gold chain to stretch from Caesars Palace to Timbuktu.  Even when the fight turned out to be a yawner the show never failed to dazzle, and afterward the host casino literally would roar with action. That’s why the hotels pay up big to have them.

                I haven’t much followed the fights for the last 15 years but, really, there hasn’t been much to follow. That’s a good thing; boxers are recruited from the economic underclass (nobody does it for fun) and its waning in the U.S. stems in large part from a lack of volunteers. The upper-weight divisions have just about vanished from these shores and the lower ones have become largely Hispanic affairs. The number of “names” that can stir a broad American audience has, I think, dwindled to one.

                That would be the abovementioned Mayweather, a consummate craftsman who would have stood out in any era. Nobody I’ve seen better embodies the fight-game aim of hitting without being hit, which is why he’s had a career spanning two decades. He’s unbeaten in 49 pro bouts and according to online sources has a net worth of $340 million, mostly from pay-per-view TV events such as his May, 2015, go with Manny Pacquiao. Mayweather would be richer if he hadn’t had to pay legal fees for the half-dozen female-assault charges he’s faced over the years. A good guy he ain’t, but we’re talking boxing here.

                Mayweather has been retired since the Pacquiao fight but, at age 40, has been lured back to meet the Irishman Conor McGregor in Las Vegas on August 26. It’s testimony to boxing’s decline that McGregor isn’t a square boxer but a “mixed martial arts” specialist, from a “sport” in which it’s okay strike one’s foe with one’s feet, elbows and knees as well as fists, and with just about anything that’s lying around. Contrary to many perceptions, MMA does have rules (no head-butting, biting, hair-pulling, spitting or groin shots) but you wouldn’t know it to watch a match. The description that comes to mind quickest is “mindless brawl.”

                McGregor is 12 years younger than Mayweather, and probably in better shape. He’s undeniably tough, and white, so enough people will pay the expected PPV tab of $100 to gin up a nine-figure gross.  It’ll be a boxing match though, with boxing rules, and, apparently, nobody has told McGregor not to try to beat a man at his own game.  My take is that it’d be worth the $100 to stand outside the arena on fight night, but once the first bell rang I’d go home and wait until the replay gets to free TV.