Five Amazing Celebrity Sports Stories
A career of sportswriting takes you to a lot of places to meet a lot of people. Every once in a while, those people are famous.
The celebrities I encountered often were knowledgeable and more than courteous — sometimes downright friendly. And even when they ignored me, like Jack Nicholson, at least I got shrimp and champagne out of the deal.
I also got some good stories, though in the case of Tommy Lee Jones, I had to sweat a bit for the privilege.
I wish I could relate some anecdotes about Gary Busey’s off-camera antics during the making of a film about Bear Bryant, but it might lead to some legal problems.
So here are my favorite celebrity encounters.
The Greatest’s Magic Act
In 1983, working on a story for the Village Voice, I went to a 20th anniversary luncheon for the World Boxing Council. Intending to swipe one of the posters advertising the event, I arrived more than an hour early.
Someone else got there early as well. As I was slipping a poster into my case, the elevator door opened and in walked the most famous man in the world. He walked right over to me, and reaching for a packet of sugar on the coffee table, handed one to me and asked, "Wanna see a magic trick?"
In back of him, four men carrying briefcases, apparently Muhammad Ali’s entourage, filed into the room, smiling.
Startled, I looked the champ in the eye and said, "Uh, sure."
Ali Really Did Have Fast Hands
He instructed me to rip open the packet and sprinkle the sugar into his cupped hands. He pronounced some kind of medicine show-sounding gibberish and then held up his hands, palms up.
No sugar, not even a granule.
I have no idea how he did it. I would later find that along with boxing and music, magic was one of Ali’s passions.
And he signed the poster for me.
The Day Tommy Lee Jones Got Knocked Down
The scariest moment I ever had in all my years of sportswriting came in my hometown of Birmingham, Ala., in 1993 at Rickwood Field, America’s oldest ballpark.
Ron Shelton, director of "Bull Durham," was filming "Cobb," a biopic about the fiery Georgia-born Hall of Famer, who led the American League in batting 12 times.
Stories of Ty Cobb’s temper are hard to validate, but he was reputed to have slashed opposing infielders with sharpened spikes on his cleats and charged into the stands to attack a fan who had been baiting him — according to one report, the guy was legless.
Working on a story for Entertainment Weekly, I was there for a profile on the actor playing Cobb, Tommy Lee Jones.
Tommy Lee Was Cobb
I caught Jones on a bad day, the day they filmed the scene where Cobb attacks the fan. After 11 takes, he was, as actors say, deeply into character.
Some actors might have been exhausted after such a grueling scene, but Jones, when I met him in his trailer, was still running on adrenaline. In full makeup and costume, he was the incarnation of Cobb himself, and he answered each question not as Tommy Lee Jones but with a scowl on his face, a chip on his shoulder and stern, unblinking eyes. He was terrifying.
I’d ask him a question, and the answer seemed to come straight from the dark soul of Ty Cobb.
Me: "Was Cobb full of rage?"
TLJ: "No! Not rage. He was a warrior. He was a proud man, and he suffered no man’s insolence."
Me: "But didn’t he nearly cripple some infielders with those spikes?"
TLJ: "Hell no. He fought clean, clean as everyone else. Just harder, that’s all."
And so on.
Let’s Talk About Football
Everything I asked him was taken as a provocation. I thought I would try changing the subject.
I knew Jones liked to talk about the famous 1968 Harvard-Yale football game in which he played for Harvard on both offense and defense. The game ended in a 29-29 tie after the Crimson scored an incredible 16 points in the final 42 seconds. Jones, grinning for the first time, told me that the next edition of the student school newspaper headlined the story "Harvard Wins 29-29."
Ah, I thought to myself, we’re on good terms now. I figured I could butter him up by recalling the odds that Harvard was up against: The Yale team featured quarterback Brian Dowling (who later played in the NFL) and a terrific runner named Calvin Hill (who won a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys).
Me: "Man, you guys were really outmanned."
Jones’ face instantly turned into a scowl: "We were NOT!"
For the only time in my professional life, I was flustered. I didn’t know how to tell Jones that I had meant outmanned as a compliment, that I meant that Yale had more talent, not more heart. But as I stammered through an apology, the publicist mercifully appeared and told Tommy Lee he was needed on set.
The next morning, I had breakfast with the crew and cast. Jones sat down beside me, slapped me on the back, and said, "Let’s talk some baseball and football." I realized how charming Tommy Lee Jones could be when his head wasn’t full of Ty Cobb.
Roger Clemens’ Pitch Just a Bit Inside
That afternoon, on the diamond at Rickwood, where Cobb had played many times, I watched director Ron Shelton and his crew recreate a famous confrontation between Cobb and one of his favorite antagonists, a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Big Ed Walsh. Big Ed was played by Roger Clemens, then an ace for the Boston Red Sox.
Jones stepped up to the plate, dangling a pair of pink panties. "Your wife left these with me last night."
Clemens, in character, growled, "I hear you’re from Royston [Georgia], where men are men and sheep are nervous."
Walsh was a mean pitcher in an era when pitchers were encouraged to be mean. Clemens threw an intimidation pitch — maybe 75 or 80 miles per hour — that wasn’t close, but Jones jumped off the plate as if he’d been brushed back. He grinned at Clemens, moved back into the box, and dug in, the kind of move which then, as now, was meant to anger a pitcher.
Clemens reared back and threw a little faster and a little closer. Shelton and his crew along the third-base line gasped as Jones sprawled in the dirt. For one terrifying moment, it seemed as if both actors were in full character, two hard asses who wouldn’t back down. But the hard ass on the mound was a real-life pitcher capable of throwing a 95-mph fastball ,and the man at the plate was an actor with no batting helmet or protection.
Shelton, who had played minor league baseball and knew what it was like to get plunked in the side of the head with a fastball, tried to be nonchalant. "Hey, Roger," he called out, "make sure you don’t throw one of those 10 miles an hour faster and about a foot closer."
Jones, dusting off his hands, broke character and grinned, "Then we’d be shooting 'The Ray Chapman Story.' "
Shelton and the crew burst out laughing. Ray Chapman is the only man in baseball history to be killed by a pitch.
Jack Nicholson Stands Me Up
In June 1988, a short-lived slick magazine called Fame sent me to Atlantic City to interview Jack Nicholson about his love of boxing. The event was the hugely hyped heavyweight championship fight between unbeaten Mike Tyson and equally unbeaten Michael Spinks.
Jack was a fan often seen ringside at big fights in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. The interview went great, and afterward, he invited my wife and me for a drink in the hotel bar before the fight.
What we got with Jack was about 10 seconds, but it was quality time.
When we arrived, we found him chatting up a stunning cocktail waitress, who appeared to be immensely enjoying his rap. My wife raised her camera to snap his picture. Jack flipped his shades, flashing a smile like R.P. Murphy, his character in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, on steroids: "Don’t take my picture when I’m flirtin'! What would my dead mama say?"
And, animated by his own wit, he told us to join him in his suite after the fight and bounded off to a nearby elevator. Presumably to join Warren Beatty, whom he sat with at the fight.
That Was The Last We Saw of Jack, But …
After all these years, it’s safe to tell the rest of the story.
It wasn’t much of a fight. Tyson knocked out Spinks in the first round.
Afterward, Jack’s publicist escorted us to his suite, where we waited, and waited, and waited.
After an hour and a half of basic cable, we decided that Jack owed us something. We invited friends to join us, and, using my best Jack Nicholson impression, ordered shrimp, champagne, and chocolate-covered strawberries for everyone.
I would have loved to have seen Jack’s face when he saw the bill, but he was probably being comped.
Ruining Don Rickles’ Image
Don Rickles died on April 6, 2017, 30 years to the day of the middleweight title fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. It was probably the most hyped boxing match since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s "Thrilla in Manila" 12 years earlier.
Sugar Ray was returning to boxing after a self-imposed three-year layoff, trying to do what everyone said was impossible: take the middleweight title against the seemingly invincible Marvelous (that was his legal name) Hagler.
The odds were 4 1/2-to-1, favoring Hagler. About an hour before fight time, the hotel’s betting board flashed up a change in the odds: Hagler was now a 5 1/2-to-1 favorite.
I heard angels singing "The Hallelujah Chorus" and, in defiance of all logic, put down every dollar I had in my possession — including my expense money — on Sugar Ray.
Celebrities at Ringside
In the 1980s and early '90s, big fights drew attention not just from the sports media but from the mainstream news outlets. They were glamorous events, drawing movie idols, rock stars, and politicians to ringside.
At the Hagler-Leonard fight, my Voice credentials got me into the VIP section of the outside arena at Caesars Palace, which was packed with celebrities. I sat next to someone I assumed was a celebrity, but I was so wound up I didn’t take a look at him.
Every time Hagler seemed close to nailing Leonard against the ropes, I held my breath. After the third round, I said out loud, to no one in particular, "Well, damn, I don’t know how to score that one."
The gentleman to my left replied, "The flurry Leonard threw in the last 10 seconds impressed the judges. Watch, he’ll do it again this round."
Don Rickles Teaches Me The Ropes
And, by God, he did — Sugar Ray stole the round again.
I began to feel a little better about my bet. So I said to my savvy neighbor to the left, whom I realized, with a jolt, was Don Rickles. I turned to him and said, "You’re Don Rickles."
He flashed that lopsided grin. "Yes, I am."
"Boy," I said, "you really know your boxing."
"I’ve been picking winners for 40 years, but I’ve never had the guts to put money down," he said. "I’m guessing, though, that you have a sizable bet on this one."
"I don’t know what I’m going to do if Leonard doesn’t win this," I respond. "I’ll have to call my wife back in Brooklyn and get her to wire me car fare to the airport."
"Don’t worry," he assured me with a pat on my arm. "Sugar Ray is tying Hagler up in knots." This fight, he told me, reminded him of Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta: The stronger fighter kept plodding forward trying to corner the faster one. The faster fighter kept moving in and out and counterpunching.
"Watch," he said, "Sugar Ray’s moving counterclockwise. Not many fighters can do that. Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, but not many others. That way, when Hagler throws a right hook" — Hagler was ambidextrous but fought left-handed most of the time — "Leonard is already moving away from the punch."
As it turned out, Mr. Rickles — that’s what I called him even after he told me to call him Don — knew not only more than I knew, but at least as much as the officials did. After 12 fast rounds, I waited for the decision with my heart pounding as never before or since.
"Don’t worry," he told me, "Ray will get a split decision."
"Did you score it for Leonard?"
Don’t Make Me Seem Too Nice
"Eh," he shrugged. "I don’t know who really won. A draw would be fair. But this is Vegas, and people expect a show. And Ray put on a show — those big flurries at the end of the rounds got him a lot of points. He looked like he won, and that’s what matters."
Mr. Rickles was indeed correct — a split decision for Sugar Ray — and after the fight, I bought him a drink.
"All the notes you took," he asked, "are you writing this up for someone?"
"Yeah, the Village Voice. It’s a weekly paper in New York."
"Oh, yeah, I know the Voice. I started reading it when Norman Mailer was there. You’re writing about boxing for the Voice, huh?
"To the Village Voice," he said, raising his JD in a toast, "where boxing is the sport of queens." Then he stopped. "If you write about this, don’t use that. I don’t want to offend anyone."
"Don Rickles doesn’t want to offend anybody?"
"Only when I’m on stage. And don’t make me seem too nice — you’ll ruin my image."
Ted Williams Tips His Cap
My father loved Ted Williams, who batted .406 in 1941 before becoming a bomber pilot in the military during World War II, and liked to quote his most fervent wish: "All I want out of life is when I walk down the street, hear someone say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' "
My father also loved to tell me that Williams never tipped his cap to the fans during his playing days.
I met Ted Williams at a card show in Atlantic City in 1990. The man who was a holy terror to sportswriters and pushy fans during his playing days turned out to be a pussy cat.
After demonstrating to my 10-year-old cousin, Derek Schofield, how to stand in against a southpaw’s curve, Williams headed for the auditorium exit. I knew this chance would never come again. "Derek," I said out loud, "there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."
The Splendid Splinter stopped, turned and tipped his cap to a fan.