Early in 1999 my good pal from USC, Anthony “Bruno” Caravalho, was at my house in Hermosa Beach. I introduced Bruno to Dave Diaz. They became roommates in nearby Redondo Beach. Bruno, a lifelong restaurateur, was about to be hired as manager of a new eatery just a few blocks away near the Hermosa Pier, called Ein Steins.
“Wanna walk down with me?” he asked.
It was like so many days down by the beach, a glorious one. I agreed. We strolled down to Ein Steins, ogling beautiful girls on skateboards and the other benefits of life in this Mecca of youth and sexuality.
I was introduced to the man who was building Ein Steins from scratch. In the course of the conversation he asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“What kind of writing?” he asked me.
I could have said, “Screenwriting,” which I really thought of myself as at that time, but I was also doing the prep stuff. I replied, “Sports writing.”
“Really?” he piped up. “My good friend and former business partner, Andy Solomon, just started a new sports magazine in Marina Del Rey. You should check it out.”
Indeed I did. I found a copy of StreetZebra magazine on a rack at the Lucky’s grocery store in Hermosa. It featured Kobe Bryant of the Lakers on the cover; excellent coverage of all L.A. and Orange County sports; glossy photos; “cheese cake” shots of hot girls in bikinis; all laid out in a well-formatted, professional style. It was brand new.
“This is for me,” I said immediately.
Yes it was. I made an appointment to come in and speak to Andy Solomon, President/CEO, and editor Zach Beimes. If ever timing was good, mine was. The magazine employed a handful of writers. They were actively hiring new ones. The economy was exploding. Dot.com money seemed to be falling off trees.
I gave Zach a few samples, including a piece I wrote about the state of “Our National Pastime,” offering a variety of new ways for baseball to expand its popularity via increased international play. Several of my suggestions were later adopted by Commissioner Bud Selig, without crediting me one bit.
The “Internet revolution” was in full swing. StreetZebra evolved from a magazine started a few years prior by Beimes, an enterprising UCLA graduate. The Hawaii native Beimes was kind of a “pretty boy,” but he was smart; a workaholic with a passion for sports and a knack for publishing.
He operated out of a small office located in a converted apartment complex just off of Lincoln Boulevard in Marina Del Rey. One day Zach took a stack of his magazines across Lincoln Boulevard to the offices of a web site called AthleteDaily.com. He wanted to sell ad space to Andy Solomon, who ran AthleteDaily.com. Solomon decided, instead of buying an ad, he would buy the company. Money was plentiful, courtesy of his investment banker brother at Goldman Sachs in New York.
The idea was to create a web site, StreetZebra.com. The magazine was the perfect marketing tool, something to show investors that was tangible and real, a source of advertising revenue. Never mind Solomon (or his younger bro, Jeff) knew nothing about publishing. Andy did not even know much about sports, although Jeff did possess some knowledge. They did not know anything about web sites, either, but neither did many of the 20-something sudden millionaires of this giddy period.
I was not about to complain. They gave me a column and made me their star writer. The money was good. I paid off my debts and was promised the editor’s job as soon as we expanded, which was going to be soon.
When I started in 1999, we operated in two separate buildings. The main was a large warehouse on Lincoln Boulevard. It looked like at one time it was used for airplane parts or some other enterprise I imagined Howard Hughes may have run. At one time Hughes owned everything in sight in this section of Los Angeles. Marina Del Rey was little more than sand dunes until the 1960s. Developers finally were able to make use of its incredibly desirable beachfront locations. They built luxury, high-rise condominium complexes, resorts, hotels and restaurants.
During the “sexual revolution,” its waterfront condos were its epicenter, home to models, starlets, singles looking for “free love,” and porn stars (who sometimes filmed X-rated movies in the various condos they lived in, or used the pools and attendant bikini-clad girls as “background”). If you were young and hip, Marina Del Rey was the place to be. Some 20 years earlier I lived in nearby Santa Monica. I was well aware of its pleasures.
The Lincoln address housed Andy’s office and a few “content managers” accumulating data for his web site AthleteDaily.com. At the time, several companies occupied different parts of the building. StreetZebra still operated out of the shabby apartment building/“office complex.” It was just up the street from fancy hotels housing professional basketball teams in town to play the Lakers. Sometimes players from the teams walk by. We would have a shout at Danny Ainge or somebody.
Shortly after I started, we closed down the “apartment,” (what Zach called the “dark side”). Andy bought up the whole warehouse/office, making it entirely StreetZebra.
Solomon was a Jewish man from the New York area, Westchester if I recall correctly. Andy was a tepid-looking fellow, slight-of-shoulder, unathletic, balding. He was perhaps 35, a UCLA graduate and shrewd businessman who voted Republican. He was private, quiet, lacking great communication skills. Charisma: zero. He made little effort to conceal favoritism for Jews, whether it be employees or stories about the rare Jewish athlete, such as the Dodgers’ Shawn Green. When he saw Green would be on our cover, confirming he was Jewish, Andy pumped his fist.
He lived in a beautiful home in Hermosa Beach with his elegant wife, who to me was too attractive for the likes of him. I reasoned she must have married for reasons other than pure love. We had a Christmas party at his home that was great fun.
His brother, Jeff was “humanity-challenged,” a moniker I may or may not have laid on him. He was second-in-command. I never, ever knew what he contributed. He was less of the same. Neither Solomon was a bad guy, but neither was an impressive individual, either.
Zach Beimes, on the other hand, was most impressive. Still in his 20s, half-Hawaiian and half white, he was very bright but quite reserved. He and I always got along, but he never let me in his inner world. He had good friends in the company. They were the ones who saw his inner self.
Zach more or less assembled the former staff of the Daily Bruin, who in 1999 were all in their late 20s and early 30s, tops. It was a rambunctious cast of scalawags, a fraternity house a few years removed from college; Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell types from Old School. There was George Cuddy, who like me finished college later than his years after a tour in the Marine Corps. George was of average size, with dark, curly hair, an Irishman’s love of whiskey and women. He was not handsome but possessed a rapscallion’s charm.
After making it through the Marines, he went to UCLA. For fun he joined a frat, partying with the young guys like one of them. George once asked me what I thought the most influential book in the world was. When I told him, “The Holy Bible,” he almost keeled over and fainted. He was what the Boston Irish call “wicked smaht.” Eventually he gave notice and went to work at eGreatCaue.com and now lives in Boston.
Tim Townsend grew up in Hawaii and Marin County before graduating from UCLA. He was a pudgy, dark-haired guy with no discernible athletic skills. He appeared to be dour and serious until the subject of naked women was brought up. This was his specialty. They adorned his walls and screen saver. He was a regular at L.A.’s various strip clubs. He lived in an apartment in the lowlands of Beverly Hills, where I pictured him stumbling in drunk after partying at strip clubs and local happy hours. He was not really a writer. His specialty was web design.
Taylor Whitney was a roly-poly Bruin who needed a hair cut, wore sunglasses in doors, had a goatee, and wrote everything on deadline. He was married, living in small apartment. I think he liked to smoke a little weed. He was one of those guys who knows how to get along with the ladies. He was not gay by any means, but he had an effeminate side, always gossiping with the pretty girls who worked for us. He could ask questions the macho dudes could never ask, like “So are you gonna go sluttin’ up tonight?” If somebody else asked that, they would get slapped with a harassment complaint.
Not everybody was a Bruin. John Simerson was a former Trojan tennis player and close friend of Rick Leach, a USC legend whose father coached the team for years. John did not look like a tennis player any more. His father was a huge Hawaiian fellow who played pro football. John more resembled his dad’s build. He was smart, a “hail-fellow-well-met” guy who roomed with Townsend and, most likely, shared his interest in scantily clad females. He was more discreet about it. When discussion of some porn star occurred, he chimed in with, “Oh, yeah, I like her a lot.” He was a little older than most of the crew, closer to my vintage. John was my immediate editor, at least in terms of web content, which was different from the magazine.
Newy Scruggs was a smooth-talking black guy who also hosted one of the sports radio shows. He left shortly after I started for a job in another state. Chris Reed was an exceptionally nice fellow from North Hollywood whose Left-wing politics were the polar opposite of mine.
Rick Devereux was the product of a Catholic education but eschewed traditionalism for the world of extreme sports. He was a great guy, always friendly and ready to help, a 20-something just happy to have a job. He later had testicular cancer but survived it, becoming a PR manager for the Long Beach Ice Dogs minor league hockey team.
Chris Correa grew up in Newbury Park with Rob Fick, the brother of my old minor league pal from the A’s, Chuck Fick. Chris, known as “Chick” because of the jazz impresario of the same name, played on the Newbury Park American Legion World Series winners managed by Chuck. We immediately hit it off on this point of interest.
Dave Blank, our photographer, was a talented pro from New Jersey. He was a tiny little fellow, a bit quirky, but easy to get along with. Lead salesman Paul Mendoza was a “piece of work,” a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, determined to get ahead in life. Catholic school brought out the best in him. After graduation from Villanova he moved west to become a millionaire. He wanted a big house, fast cars and fast women. He could drink all night but answer the bell in the morning.
StreetZebra was also staffed by beautiful young women. Lisa Guerrero was on the staff. She was absolutely gorgeous. Lisa wrote a column called “the Sports Chick.” She was petite, busty, a striking brunette with a dark tan and great eyes. She was partly Latino, very exotic. Despite having the looks of a supermodel, she was a dedicated professional and good writer. She was at every event, never missing a beat. She was smart and very good at her job. Her looks may have been a hindrance as a writer. She eventually moved on to areas where physical beauty was more emphasized. An actress on the soaps, she landed a role with Fox Sports’s Best Damn Sports Show Period, then as a Monday Night Football sideline reporterette,. She discovered as they all do that female beauty is a short-lived commodity. As she got older and younger girls arrived on the scene, she moved on. Trying to stay relevant, she did a photo spread in Playboy. As best I could tell she faded from the scene.
Besides Lisa, a bevy of 20-something hotties worked as secretaries, interns, assistants, sales girls, and the like. The guys were all jock types. The place reverberated with locker room language. Stories of somebody’s latest conquest, disparaging sexual innuendos, and all manner of harassment marked each day at StreetZebra. I think it worried Andy Solomon to death. That was not his style at all. He must have always worried about lawsuits. But a lot of the girls were equally sexual. Once I was doing an interview on television. We gathered around to watch it. I addressed the fact there were no great, tall centers like Bill Walton coming out of the L.A. area in recent years.
“There’s been a real dearth of great big men,” I said.
“I’ll say,” one of our under-sexed staffers said.
Great double entendre.
There were small affairs, “one night stands,” closet quickies, after-work bar rendezvous, and the like. We drank beer in the office every Friday around five. We often repaired to nearby watering holes, socializing or watching a game. When Blake got a look at the “talent” in the office she was apoplectic. I routinely worked until nine at night, sometime later. She always thought it was something else. It never was. A lot of guys may have been fooling around. I never stuck my “pen into the company ink.”
I lived in Hermosa Beach. My daily commute was perhaps the best in Southern California. Each morning I casually drove down the Pacific Coast Highway, veered down to the water’s edge where I drove a fabulous stretch of about files miles on Vista Del Mar, just to the west of Los Angeles International Airport. There was never traffic. The blue ocean was to my left, Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance. Every once in a while, as I drove under the LAX flight path, I was startled by a 747 taking off, still so low off the ground (and loud) that I could read the serial numbers on the fusillade.
After casually picking up Lincoln Boulevard near Playa Del Rey, it was a short little jaunt to the office, taking maybe half an hour. I always arrived relaxed. The hours were casual. In truth, I worked 13-, 14-hour days, usually coming in on weekends. Plus, I often worked at home, or was on assignment at night covering the Dodgers, Angels, USC, UCLA, Lakers, Kings and high school games. I tried to get in by nine, but I put in so many late nights I never worried too much. I put in twice as many hours as was required. I worked out at 24 Hour Fitness in Manhattan Beach, which was on the way. I showered there in the morning after training, on the way in. Sometimes I worked out right after lunch, either at the Manhattan location or another 24 Hour Fitness in Santa Monica. I would shower, then come back, working until nine or 10 at night. Nobody ever complained about my dedication. I was older than the other writers and had the chops.
I worked so hard, in fact, I overdid it. I developed so much stress one Saturday I did the unthinkable. I actually canceled a scheduled day with Elizabeth because I was so zonked out from hard work. That happened only one other time, when I partied with Todd Marinovich at USC. I spend the night at the “football house” near the Coliseum where the dog threatened to rip me up in the middle of the night.
I had to see a doctor about intense headaches. It was one of the strangest things that ever happened to me. So bad was my psychosomatic that by the time I met the doctor, I was convinced I had a brain tumor. I was mentally preparing for the news, truly girding myself with the Good Lord for the Great Beyond. When the doctor looked over the tests, declaring me fit, it was like the release of a pressure valve. My headaches disappeared immediately.
StreetZebra saved my writing career at the age of 40. I struggled for five years with screenwriting. I made a living but it was always a battle; the manipulation by Dale Crase, the reaming I took from ICM over The Lost Battalion fiasco, and after such a promising start the way I was forced to sue Dennis Jarvis for payment. StreetZebra paid me an excellent salary with full benefits, but the money was a side issue. The work defined me. It created for me a name in the business, a body or work, and imprimatur that only comes with membership in the press corps.
Yes, I still thought about screenwriting. I did not wish to confine myself as a sportswriter. I wanted the freedom to explore all my talents, to use my knowledge of history to write great works; novels, political treatise and the like. But I was a pro athlete. I was a sports historian. I knew this subject matter backwards and forwards. My knowledge was nothing less than amazing. I found ways, like Jim Murray, to throw tantalizing tidbits, war analogies, Greek philosophy, Hollywood and literary anecdotes, into my work.
I had the very best assignments immediately, which I thought might be a problem. A few of the writers were there before me. I was immediately elevated to star status. Solomon flat told me he never expected to land somebody of my stature. He outlined a future in which Zach would step down, taking a more executive role. At such time as I would be made the editor.
I did a very smart thing. I compiled a big list of both mailing addresses and email addresses. I had the magazine mailed to every person on my list through the company. It went to all my friends and family, plus a big list of people in the sports media, influential movers and shakers. The emails were the beginning of a long list cultivated over the years, credited in large measure with marketing my work.
I was given the USC beat. To call that work was a joke. Trojan football, however, was in a down period, although the hottest high school quarterback in America, Carson Palmer was in the program. The coach was Paul Hackett. USC’s basketball program under coach Larry Bobby, was rather successful. The track team was improving after a down period. Women’s sports were making a comeback. Several hires were made, resulting in great success in women’s soccer and men’s water polo. It was the best baseball era in 20 years under coach Mike Gillespie. In 1998 he led the Trojans to the College World Series championship. In 1999 his ace pitcher was Barry Zito.
Chris Huston, who handled football media, was very helpful. I was reacquainted with sports information director Tim Tessalone. He was an employee in the sports information office under Jim Perry when I briefly volunteered there as an undergraduate.
Tim stood under six feet tall, a slight build, with a very professional demeanor. He insisted on total professionalism in his office; suits and ties, good grooming, and proper decorum. A nice Catholic boy from an Italian family, Tim grew up in the south bay area, attending Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance before USC. He was in the stands the day Anthony Davis scored four touchdowns to beat Notre Dame in 1974.
Tim had a standoffish attitude which at first I took to mean he did not quite approve of me, or that I had not earned my spurs. I had not. In the decade that followed, working relatively closely with he and his staff, first for StreetZebra then making ample use of the SID’s office in the writing of many Trojan books, I found this was simply his way. He was quiet, reserved, and dignified. In my opinion, having dealt with many SIDs over the years, and read all the media guides of major college football programs (plus many other sports), Tim is the single best in the business. USC’s media guides are easily the best organized, most informative and easy to use. The help he and his staff provided me over the years is second to none. I know there are many media members more important to USC’s daily operations than I. I always received personal service second to none.
I covered all USC sports: football, basketball, baseball, track, volleyball, swimming, and women’s sports. I attended all the USC press conferences (football, basketball) and all the games. The Trojan sports beat was a delight, of course. It was the tail end of their down period in football. Ironically in my mind it began when I was there in 1983. I ruefully “blamed” myself for this. Pete Carroll was not yet on hand.
The building of Staples Center, which occurred during my employment with the magazine, was part of the revitalization of the city (under Mayor Riordan) and the beginning of the school’s regaining great prestige. John Simerson and I both expressed the attitude the school’s tremendous academic improvement, firmly accomplished under Steven Sample by 1999-2000, was worth it even if football aspirations dropped.
“I’m glad they emphasize academics over football,” said John. “That’s what a college is supposed to be for.” This attitude was shared by most of the alumni I came in contact with. After Staples opened, Pete Carroll was hired in 2000. Capacity crowds at the Coliseum, the building of Galen Center, combined with business development, all created new life from downtown to USC. It was all beginning to happen when I was there.
I thoroughly enjoyed covering USC baseball. In the winter of 1999-2000, I was at the original Golds Gym in Venice, doing a story on an Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger
wannabe who was a nutrition expert and trainer. He spoke exactly like Au-nuld. He was talking of nutrition, how one must “feed the ma-sheen.” He pointed to a quiet young man sitting at the table.
“Take Barry here,” he said. “His sport is baseball, which requires a specialized diet and program to accommodate the rigors of his sport.”
“Who do you play for?” I asked the kid.
“I played at USC but I’m with the Oakland A’s now,” he replied.
It was Barry Zito. I quickly forgot about the Austrian, making arrangements for Zito to come in to the office for an interview. He stiffed me, but called, asking if “you can forgive me and do it again.” I did. When he came in, every girl at StreetZebra swooned over him. It was the beginning of a nice friendship. I also got to know his father, too.
Joseph Zito was a musical composer who worked with such legends as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. He knew little about baseball, but when he recognized his son’s talent growing up in San Diego, devoted all his energies into making Barry the best he could be. He hired former Padres Cy Young winner Randy Jones to work with him. Barry was a “late bloomer,” not a surefire prospect coming out of high school. He went to UC-Santa Barbara, where he had excellent freshman season, but an argument with the coach led him to Pierce J.C.. He earned a scholarship to USC. In 1999, he was probably the best amateur pitcher in the nation. Oakland drafted him number one, giving him a big bonus.
That was when I met him. He was on the fast track.
I found him to be extremely intelligent. Zito has been called a “flaky southpaw,” because previous California left-handers like Lefty Gomez and Bill Lee created that template. The term really does not fit him. Barry, like his father, is a conservative Republican who strongly backed President George W. Bush. Despite his playboy image, he is a moral young man, very patriotic and supportive of the military. I attended the 2000 USC alumni baseball game at Dedeaux Field. Barry was the hit of the show. I saw him around the McAfee Coliseum when I covered the A’s for the San Francisco Examiner. Some years later, I visited with Coach Gillespie.
“You just missed Barry,” he told me. Zito and his friend, pitcher Dan Haren, swung by to say hi. “They went to the Beverly Hills Hotel pool. You know . . . chicks.”
When Zito went into an awful slump after signing a huge contract with the Giants, I sent his dad an email.
“Tell Barry that no matter the conditions, no matter the difficulty, a Trojan never quits,” I wrote. “A Trojan will always . . . ‘Fight on!’ ” Joe emailed back, “I really appreciate it, Steve, and so does Barry.”
I gave Barry signed copies of my Bonds, A’s and USC books. I wrote the same inscription about how, “A Trojan will always . . . ‘Fight on!’ ” in my book Trojans Essential. Shortly thereafter, he started a comeback. Once Barry emailed me that he read one of my conservative opinion pieces.
“Loved your article on Bush,” he wrote. “Right on. I deal with so much Left-wing stuff it’s good to hear some common sense.”
His father also responded to one of my conservative essays, emailing me, “That’s the only way to go, Steve.” Joe, the musical type, also enjoyed a web page I created displaying my mother’s artwork.
I later befriended Barry’s sister Sally, a musician who I saw perform.
I interviewed USC pitcher Mark Prior/ Like Zito he came out of San Diego. Prior’s father was an athlete at Vanderbilt, which led him there. After a great freshman start Prior decided to return to his home state, transferring to USC. Prior was, like Zito completely dedicated to his craft, a very serious young man. He lacked the kind personal color and charisma of Zito. In 2001 Prior had what many experts believe to be the greatest season in the history of college baseball, pitching the Trojans into the College World Series against the best competition in the country using aluminum bats. He received the largest signing bonus ever, a record not broken until the Washington Nationals signed San Diego State’s Stephen Strasburg in 2009.
I did a nifty interview with Mike Gillespie, a great guy who did not try to kick me out of his office when I told him he reminded me of either Hunter S. Thompson or Doonesbury. The physical resemblance was there, but Mike was as mild-mannered as they come. He graduated from Hawthorne High (the school of my great friend Dennis Gonsalves) with The Beach Boys and Trojan football legend Ron Mix. Gillespie won the College World Series two years before, finally breaking out of the shadow of Rod Dedeaux. His son-in-law is Chad Kreuter. We developed a warm relationship. I am proud to be able to call Mike a friend.
I did a nice on-campus interview with track star Angela Williams, later an Olympic champion, as well as a retrospective of 1968 Olympic gold medalist Bob Seagren. I interviewed an engaging young man, USC basketball star Jeff Trepagnier, for a cover story we ran on him. Told he was going to be on the cover, Trepagnier broke into a big smile, exclaiming, “For real!” which seemed to me a good title for the piece. I also did a short, but nice interview with coach Henry Bibby. He was a big man, and quite introspective. I started out by telling him my dad and I sat in the Oakland Coliseum stands in 1973 the day his brother, Jim Bibby threw an overpowering no-hitter for the Texas Rangers against the World Champion Athletics.
I was doing some research for a John Wooden piece. Bibby starred under the Wizard of Westwood for three years. The overall story was a set of three different profiles; Wooden and the two “leading men” who mentored and now coached at UCLA and USC, Steve Lavin and Bibby. It was obvious even though Bibby was coaching at University Park, a big piece of his heart was still in Westwood. I asked him if Wooden was hired by the Trojans instead of the Bruins in 1948, “how many NCAA titles would USC have won?” He smiled, considering USC was already a national basketball power when Wooden came to UCLA, and the Sports Arena (the Trojans’ home until 2006) was, incredibly, considered a state of the art facility when it was first built.
“I’d say about 15 or 16,” said Bibby.
Unfortunately, Southern Cal football was at a low point when I covered them for StreetZebra in 1999 and 2000. I went to all the games, sitting with Bud Furillo, who I befriended from my efforts at turning the Bo Belinsky story into a movie. I always asked Tessalone to seat me near Bud if he was going to be at the game, which he usually was.
When USC beat UCLA at the Coliseum in 1999, it ended an eight-year losing streak to the Bruins. It was such a big deal to me at the time I insisted Dave Blank and his assistant, Caroline Cronin drink with me to celebrate the win after the game at Hennesseys in Hermosa Beach. We all lived nearby.
I first met USC athletic director Mike Garrett at the 2000 Pac-10 media day. I spoke with him at length about his college baseball buddy, Tom Seaver. Garrett was friendly but standoffish, not a comfortable person. He did not have great people skills. He came out of a rough neighborhood in east Los Angeles to play for coach John McKay. It was a seminal moment for Trojan football. USC’s first All-American in 1925, Brice Taylor was black. The school had always been integrated, but UCLA with Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington, Rafer Johnson and many others did better in the recruitment of African-Americans. Garrett’s choice of USC began turning that around.
He won the Heisman Trophy, then played in two Super Bowls, winning the 1969 World Championship with Kansas City. In looking at Garrett’s interviews as a player, I realized he was more comfortable speaking in the dressing room after the game. He was eloquent and smart. In a suit and tie, now the face of USC sports, he was discomfited. Garrett played some minor league baseball (he may well have liked baseball more). He went to a division of the same law school I did, the San Diego campus of Western State University College of Law. He was hired as the A.D. in 1993. I dealt with him more over the next decade. He never got more comfortable.
Based on the conversation I had with Simerson, in which he mutually agreed that we were proud USC was one of the nation’s best academic institutions, seemingly at the expense of football greatness, I wrote an article in 2000. The team was a dreadful 5-7. Called “The Fall of the Trojan Empire,” I wrote they were “not a football school anymore.” I interviewed coach Paul Hackett. I was at first led to believe he would turn things around.
Hackett was very enthusiastic. A product of Orinda, a ritzy suburb in the Bay Area, Hackett was considered one of the designers of the “West Coast offense” under coach Bill Walsh with the 49ers. He also had a great reputation under coach John Robinson at USC. His imprimatur and Trojan pedigree seemed to make him just the man to replace Robinson, who did not succeed in his second go around at Troy (1993-97). Hackett lived in Manhattan Beach. He loved old time American rock music so much he installed a jukebox in his house. He was an owlish figure who gave the impression of a coach filled with winning schemes. Despite having the enormous talents of quarterback Carson Palmer, he failed in his three years. The article was called, “I Didn’t Come to SC to Sit on My Butt in Manhattan Beach.”
I interviewed legendary former USC coach John McKay in Tampa, Florida. It remains one of the highlights of my career. McKay grew up an iconoclastic, conservative West Virginia Catholic, a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps. He was a “race-neutral Republican,” as his son, J.K. put it. He starred at the University of Oregon, then was brought in as a “star” assistant at USC. When coach Don Clark was either fired or chose to go into his family’s business, a possible power struggle for the head coaching job between McKay and future Raiders owner Al Davis went to McKay. He did not retain Davis (who would have angled for his job).
McKay won four national championships while coaching two Heisman Trophy winners (Garrett, 1965; O.J. Simpson, 1968). He would have gone down as the greatest coach in college history had he not been swayed by money to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976. He admitted to me it was a mistake. Asked about his team’s “execution,” he responded, “That’s not a bad idea.” A wit, he described speaking to his team trailing at the half: “ ‘Gentlemen, we’re behind.’ Two math major raised their hands.” He routinely informed players “there’s no rule against blocking and tackling.” When recruiting his son, J.K., and his best friend Pat Haden, who lived a year in his house, McKay was asked if he was worried he would not land either one.
“No. One lives in my upstairs bedroom and the other guy, I’m sleeping with his mother.”
When I interviewed McKay, he was a pixyish figure. His small stature was slightly surprising considering the giant shadow he cast on the game. All-American fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham said “the only thing that scares me is the ‘little white-haired man’ ” on the sidelines, referring to McKay.
McKay may have been suffering from the debilitating effects of diabetes when I interviewed him. If so he was none the worse for wear. He was somewhat combative. I asked about USC’s reputation for unlimited recruiting in his day. The notion was he gave scholarships to all the star players, therefore preventing them from facing him with Stanford, Notre Dame or UCLA. He called it “baloney,” going into great detail what his budgetary constraints were as coach and also athletic director.
He gave me great insight into the 1970 USC-Alabama game, which would prove to be of benefit to me when I tackled the subject five years later. McKay was very proud of his sons. Rich was the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who he led to a Super Bowl victory in 2003). J.K., a Trojan star, was an attorney working with USC alum and real estate financier Ed Roski to bring pro football back to Los Angeles.
McKay said he was friends with Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight. He supported his methods, which were then under fire. He was dismayed at what happened to O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering his wife in 1994, He said, “That’s not the man I knew.” I got the impression he left just a little bit of breathing room for the possibility of O.J.’s innocence. My interview, “He Was a Legend of the Old School Variety,” got plenty of mileage. It was used by different media when McKay passed away a year later. I thought I had his last interview, but Loel Schrader apparently did. I used his comments extensively in my 2007 book One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation, as well as a chapter on him in my 2009 book What It Means to be a Trojan: Southern Cal’s Greatest Players Talk About Trojans Football.
After interviewing John McKay, I was compelled to interview his famous assistant, Marv Goux. I scheduled an interview at UC-Irvine. Hackett’s team trained there prior to the 2000 season, with quarterback Carson Palmer. Tessalone told me Goux planned to be in camp that day. Through him I arranged time with Goux, as well.
Goux, a native of Santa Barbara, played at USC in the mid-1950s. A back injury suffered at Notre Dame ended his professional aspirations. He briefly coached at Carpinteria High School, where it was rumored he erected a statue of Tommy Trojan in front of the gym, regardless of whether the student body rooted for Troy. He became an assistant at USC. He was on the staff with McKay and Al Davis in 1959. He was too young to get the head job when it became open after the season. He never had a real chance to become head coach at USC. Goux never pursued higher opportunity anywhere else. He chose loyalty to his alma mater and was an urban legend of sorts. There were wild stories of Goux’s speeches, his acts of machismo. He was still on John Robinson’s staff when I attended the school in the early 1980s. I never met him personally, even though I had a rhetoric class with his daughter, Linda.
Goux coached under Robinson with the Los Angeles Rams. In 2000 he was retired, living in the Palm Springs area with his second wife (a very attractive lady I later got to know fairly well as part of my book research). He was a fierce man, built like a truck, short and squat. He was said to literally eat “raw hamburger with salt and pepper,” which he did just before bedtime each evening with two cold beers. This made him “sleep like a baby.” He had thick, bushy eyebrows. He eventually evolved from a crew cut to a mod style.
It was interesting how in 2000, both my interviews with Goux and McKay focused so much attention on the 1970 USC-Alabama game. That was not the primary reason for either interview. I had no idea I would later write a book about the subject. I spoken to Cliff Culbreath about it as an undergraduate; heard it described (apparently incorrectly) by announcer Tom Kelly in the 1988 documentary Trojan Video Gold; and discussed it with John Papadakis. The subject dominated the Goux piece, which I titled “The Eternal Trojan.”
Goux spoke at length not just about the star of the 1970 Alabama game, Sam Cunningham (who shared Goux’s hometown of Santa Barbara), but of his black teammate at USC, C.R. Roberts. He had an even better game at Texas in 1956 (without the same social results).
As with my McKay piece, the Goux interview could have been the last he ever did. In 2002 he passed away of cancer. He, along with McKay, Bear Bryant and a number of other prominent people, never saw my book and later a movie about the subject. At his 2002 memorial service, held at USC and conducted by ex-player and Christian pastor Chares “Tree” Young, Goux’s granddaughter spoke. Laura Kamen urged Trojans to “win one for the Goux!”
The day I interviewed Goux I also interviewed Carson Palmer. He was entering his “red-shirt” sophomore year after sustaining an injury the previous season. It was hot. We stood in the shade of a tree next to an outdoor weight-lifting cage. His teammates pumped iron. Palmer was as impressive as they come; tall, handsome, a golden boy. He was a spectacular high school star. As a lifelong Trojan fan it was easy for him to choose Troy. The program was mediocre during his first years there. He did not reached his potential, but in 2000 expectations were sky high. Palmer said the team’s goal was to play in the Orange Bowl, the site of the BCS title game, for the national championship. I later used the interview, combined with a short 2008 interview I did with him, for his chapter in What It Means to Be a Trojan.
At the staff meeting in we discussed the September 2000 issue of StreetZebra. I said my title for the article was “Is It Too Early to Hype Palmer For the Heisman?” The Bruins in the room laughed. It appeared they were on the money. USC beat Penn State in 2000 Kick-Off Classic at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. This had the effect of getting everybody believing they were major contenders. They were still unbeaten a few weeks later at a game I covered at the Coliseum. They were completely ineffective but lucked out to beat Colorado on a late field goal. From there they folded like an accordion. Watching Arizona run away from them at the Coliseum, I turned to the writer next to me in press box. I quoted T.S. Elliot’s, “Not with a bang but with a whimper.” The “beating went on,” concluding with a loss to Notre Dame and a 5-7 record.
When Palmer won the statue in 2002, however, I was the prophet. It took five years and the arrival of coach Pete Carroll, but he finally reached greatness. After being made the number one pick of the 2003 NFL draft, Palmer signed a multi-million-dollar bonus with the Cincinnati Bengals, becoming All-Pro.
I interviewed and wrote up a story about John McKay’s younger son, Rich McKay. He was the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He recently signed former USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Mainly, the piece was about growing up in the McKay household and playing for Bishop Amat High in their glory days.
“Ah, the Lancers,” Rich exclaimed when I brought the subject up. As a kid, his roommate was Pat Haden, his brother a Trojan star, his dad a USC icon. Richie was a fine player in his own right. He did not go for USC. He went for an Ivy League education instead. McKay eventually came back to football. My interviews with John and Rich McKay opened doors for me. In later years, I had a most consequential relationship, and eventually friendship, with J.K. McKay.
I was tasked with a lot of back-up work for the pro teams. I regularly worked the Dodgers, Angels, and Lakers. I helped my daughter, Elizabeth, who was 14 in 1999, write an article about fishing in the Sierras. I wrote a piece about her activity at Villa Park High School called “Winter Guard Becomes Color Guard.” I also fashioned a piece about my brother Don, the great outdoorsman who scaled Half Dome in Yosemite. It was called “The Adventurer.” I visited a special fitness-training center for elite athletes, VERT in Santa Monica. I watched the great Olympic volleyball star Sinjin Smith go through a work out. That day I was given an introduction by my friend Marc Samson, a public relations agent, to Hall of Fame baseball star Ernie Banks. He was one of the most effervescent, engaging people I ever met.
“How’s your wife, how’s your kids?” Ernie asked me as if he knew me well. He was quite the character.
Later I spent a day with Sinjin Smith at Manhattan Beach. He went through grueling volleyball drills with several practice partners. It was hard work, but one heckuva way to make a living, basking in the sun amidst the pleasures of the beach scene, with fabulous girls strolling about all day.
“Not bad, huh?” Sinjin said.
I drove out to Rancho Cucamonga, doing a great story on the Quakes’ minor league baseball team. That brought back a flood of memories from my minor league days. When I spoke to the players they were all the same. Their lives were dominated by two things: looking for girls and sleeping in late.
One of my favorite stories was of Newbury Park volleyball player Katy Fick. Her father, Chuck was my friend of who showed me pictures of her when she was a baby back in 1982 in Phoenix, Arizona.
I covered a pro tennis match at UCLA, interviewing former Bruin Justin Gimmelstob on his collegiate rivalry with USC’s Rick Leach. I interview the high-powered sports agent Leigh Steinberg (“Leigh Steinberg Has a Take . . . on Everything”). I wrote several reviews of sports book and movies. These included Ball Four (1970) by Jim Bouton, Semi-Tough (1972) by Dan Jenkins, North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent (1973), October 1964 (1995) by David Halberstam, and Jerry Maguire (1996)
My background as high school reporter made me a natural to take the prep beat, especially when George Cuddy left. Many people read StreetZebra for our high school features. They could get coverage of USC, UCLA or the Angels anywhere. I shined a spotlight on the sports stars of the future. I did not consider high school coverage to be a “step-child” in any way.
I wrote a piece, “Exodus” about how in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the best high school football players in Southern California increasingly chose to leave the area in favor of the state of Florida. Quarterback Chris Rix followed Carson Palmer at Santa Margarita High. He chose Florida State. I wrote about a couple of star players at Mater Dei High School named Matt Grootegoed and Matt Leinart. Leinart was a big time player, but not as highly touted as Palmer. In 1999-2000, there were a host of high school signal-callers who, from my angle at least, appeared to be as highly thought of as Leinart. Of course none came close to living up to what Leinart went on to do.
My least favorite experience was at Dominguez High School in Compton. The town was a veritable “war zone.” I needed to be on my tows, a conspicuous, 6-6 white man. I arrived while after-school sports activity was still going on. The campus was not yet deserted, left to the tender mercies of gang bangers and drug dealers. I was looking for a seven-foot basketball wunderkind named Tyson Chandler. At the time he was said to be the most sought-after prep in America. Every college wanted him, but he was ticketed for the NBA instead.
I went to the front desk, asking where I could find Chandler. The team was not practicing that day. I thought I was out of luck until I saw a seven-foot black kid walking around with two or three girls looking up at him. This had to be Chandler. It was. He granted me a fine interview. I found him to be a delightful young man.
However, I found his coach, Russell Otis to be arrogant and condescending. Once I interviewed Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight, a legend in SoCal prep hoops circles. McKnight despised Otis. I mentioned several other prep coaches. He had nary a good word for any of them. By 1999-2000, recruiting was a completely accepted practice in L.A. area high schools. I traced it back at least to the Ronnie Knox case of the early 1950s. One of McKnight’s players lived in San Bernardino. He moved there moved there from Inglewood, which was insane. Both of these cities were tremendous commutes from Mater Dei’s Santa Ana location. Were they driving in traffic for an hour and a half each way every day? Who was driving and paying for the gas? I heard the same of Chandler, that he was not from Compton. He was brought in like merchandise.
A quarterback who lived in Pacific Palisades might go to school in Gardena for football. A kid from the San Fernando Valley might be going to a Catholic school near the central city. Chris Rix attended Bishop Amat High in La Puente and Santa Margarita High in San Juan Capistrano, a distance of perhaps 50 miles in heavy, truck-laden, dirty-air traffic jams traversing a maize of different freeways. Where did he live all that time?
I went to see Chandler play against University High of San Diego in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Classic, held at The Pyramid on the Cal State, Long Beach campus. I sat with two friends, Matt and Paul Gulbransen. They worked for XTRA, the huge San Diego sports station. As the game wore on, I was increasingly unimpressed with Chandler. He scored around nine points with a minimum of boards despite his huge height advantage. I finally turned to the Gulbransens.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t think Chandler’s even the best player on the floor,” I said. “That big kid who shoots from the outside for Uni is.”
Paul laughed . “You know who that is? That’s Luke Walton, Bill’s son.”
Indeed he was a great player. Luke starred at Arizona, forging a good pro career. After my Chandler piece came out, I got a call from Brentt Eads at Student Sports magazine. He wanted me to conduct an interview for a national story on Chandler. I called Coach Otis, making an appointment to interview he and Chandler at Dominguez High. When I got there Chandler was nowhere to be found. Otis completely blew me off. The Student Sports piece never appeared, costing me money and a good clipping for my resume.
Chandler went into the draft, struggled, but eventually found a niche in Chicago. Not long after, Coach Otis was accused of having sex with his male players. He was an unimpressive fellow. There were some very sleazy characters in the high school ranks. Artesia, a huge powerhouse for years, was found to have recruited players from Europe and other countries, using aliases and fake papers. It was all totally illegal.
My favorite prep story was from the 2000 L.A. City baseball championship game at Dodger Stadium. I believe it to be the most exciting high school sporting event I ever witnessed. A crowd of 5,000 was on hand. They sounded like 50,000. Two valley rivals, Kennedy and El Camino Real, went at it. Both starting pitchers were sophomores. El Camino Real’s shortstop was also a sophomore, Conor Jackson. He later starred at Cal and with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Trailing 2-1 in the seventh, Kennedy pitcher Adam Geery made a clutch hit to spark a rally. He came around to score the winning run in a 4-2 triumph, giving his team the city title. When the game ended, I made my way onto the field to interview Geery. He fell to his knees, extending praise to the Heavens. He was obviously crying when the press surrounded him. He was virtually speechless until somebody asked if this was the “highlight of your career.” At age 15 or 16 he was still at the beginning. He had no answer, then recalled something. He said no, it was not that night. The highlight was “playing catch my dad,” who died 10 years earlier when he was just a little child.
It was one of the most touching moments I ever saw, resulted in one of my all-time favorite pieces. I titled it appropriately “Playing Catch With My Dad.” I evoked memories of Kevin Costner having catch with his movie dad in Field of Dreams. The scene brings out tears in me and millions of red-blooded American males whenever we see it.
I wrote about a basketball player at my daughter Elizabeth’s school, Villa Park. I also wrote an article about the Villa Park baseball team. I attended one of their practices. I was astounded at how talented they obviously were. Their coach, Tom Teruschuk was the brother of Pete Teruschuk. Pete coached me years earlier. I informed Coach Teruschuk of this. He seemed unimpressed. Villa Park put together a magical season in 2000. After capturing the CIF-Southern Section championship with a victory at Dodger Stadium, they were named “mythical national champions” by USA Today, similar to the 1977 Redwood Giants.
I drove out to Granada Hills High School with Dave Blank to do a story on a sophomore who everybody said was “can’t miss.” They were right. Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers became an All-Star. We also ventured out to the northwest valley, to some tiny Christian school. We were there to see a kid break the all-time California career record for most pitching victories. The previous record-holder, Scott McGregor of El Segundo High and the Baltimore Orioles., sent him congratulations when he won his 52nd game. Then the California Interscholastic Federation came to verify it. Upon examination of four years of scorebooks and records, they took four of his wins away. If I have my facts straight, he did won four more games between the end of the regular season and the CIF-Southern Section play-offs, ultimately finishing in a tie with McGregor at 51.
I had great respect for high school sports. I certainly enjoyed making this feature part of my monthly duties far more than, say, writing about hockey. My high school moniker was the “prep guru.” I wrote in the third person sometimes, as in “the prep guru has seen a thing or two in his time, but nothing quite like the scene at the El Camino Real-Kennedy L.A. City title game Saturday night at Dodger Stadium.” I started receiving correspondence addressed to the “prep guru.”
Everybody had their own personal faves. Rick Devereux, for instance, was into extreme sports, which I knew nothing about. Through him I learned my fair share of Tony Hawk.
On of my signature pieces was “All-Century L.A./Orange County Prep Dreams Teams,” originally written for Bill Dwyre and the L.A. Times. StreetZebra published it in January of 2000. Of all the articles I wrote, this created more reader mail than I anything ever wrote for the magazine.
I was contacted by Jim Watson, a great Trojan and a great guy. He then hosted a prep show for Fox Sports Net in their old Santa Monica Boulevard studios. He brought me for a special feature on my “labor of love,” which he called it.
I also met one of my best friends in the world while covering high school sports for StreetZebra. I was at a girl’s basketball game at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale. A beefy fellow with a friendly face came by to tell me he read my work and wanted to say hello.
Jason “Jake” Downey played football at North Hollywood High School with Garry Paskwietz, who now runs the WeAreSc.com web site, before going to San Diego State where he majored in beer drinking. After stints at TV stations in Wyoming and Santa Maria, California, Jake came back to L.A.. He started a career as a freelance videographer. His stock-in-trade was prep sports. He filmed and archived it, selling it to NBC for Fred Roggin’s “Roggin’s Heroes” feature, among many others.
Jake was the kind of person who cultivated a friendship. We had no real ties. He stayed in touch until we really became true friends. For years I spent much quality time with Jake and his family. Jake seems to know everybody. Once I was interviewed at San Francisco’s Comcast Sports Net Bay Area studios. One of their personalities, Scott Reis was a good pal of Jake’s. I said hello from him.
“Jake’s like Six Degrees of Separation,” said Scott. “It all starts with Jake Downey.”
When my “All-Century L.A./Orange Prep Dream Teams” article appeared, I got a call from former Rams great Fred Dryer. He was featured as the all-time greatest defensive football player from a Southland high school. He never saw StreetZebra, which he must have called “interesting” about five times.
I arranged to interview Dryer at his Studio City office. It was one of my favorite interviews. Dryer was wrapping up an independent movie called Highway 395. Dryer was a man with opinions. He held nothing back. He was a big man, about 6-5, still athletic and aging gracefully. He was not a big prospect at Lawndale High School, so he honed his skills at El Camino J.C. before starring under the great Don Coryell on the famed San Diego State teams on the 1960s. The Aztecs featured wide receiver Haven Moses, quarterback Dennis Shaw, and a coaching staff including John Madden and Joe Gibbs.
Dryer played for the New York Giants. He was known as a free spirit. He was captured by NFL Films wistfully saying, “I’m a bird.” This earned him a “California flake” appellation, but he was all business on the field. Traded to the hometown Rams, he was a star on their great defensive teams of the 1970s. Dryer was known as a ladies man, hanging out with Joe Namath in New York and Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. When I asked about his dalliances with Playmates, he said of Hef, “He knows how to throw a party pal.” He gave me some graphic descriptions of different women, but not for publication.
He said New York was the best place to be a pro athlete. Celebrity status there is over the top. He commented on the “thug mentality” Oliver Stone depicted in Any Given Sunday, which was recently released. He made some politically incorrect commentary about the “criminal element” in the NFL as blacks more and more dominated the pro scene. He had no doubt Rams owner Georgia Frontiere intentionally had her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom drowned in order to take the team for herself. He only gave me this for print: “She’ll met her Maker someday and be judged.”
I wrote extensively about UCLA, too. During my college basketball work, I often saw a dapper Los Angeles Times sports reporter named Mike Terry at USC or Pauley Pavilion. I like him a great deal.
“There’s Mike Terry,” I said. “The best-dressed sports reporter in Los Angeles.” That brought a smile out of Mike.
Probably the best interview I ever had the privilege of conducting was in September of 1999. Dave Blank and I drove to Margate Street in Encino. We found a fairly non-descript condominium. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden lived there. There were a few mementos here and there, but by no mean was the place filled with shrinage to his greatness. Wooden was most proud of a painting his little granddaughter recently finished.
I did a great deal of prep work for this momentous opportunity. I was making a pilgrimage where many great writers, coaches and players had, and would continue, to seek wisdom from the Wizard of Westwood. Wooden was about 90 years old, but totally spry. A lifetime of clean living left him with all his faculties and good health. He long before lost his beloved wife, Nell.
One of my favorite books growing up was The Wizard of Westwood, the seminal book on UCLA basketball by Jeff Prugh and Dwight Chapin. In addition to being Wooden’s biography it was one of the first books really tying sociology and politics into a book on sports. It described the tempestuous 1960s, the Vietnam War, and its effect on Bruins players.
As part of my preparation, I consulted L.A. Times sports editor Bill Dwyre. “Ask him about his father,” said Dwyre, who recently wrote a Wooden piece for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. Steve Lavin also gave me good advice on how best to approach Wooden.
“He’ll talk about a lot of things,” said Lavin. “He loves Shakespeare, history. Be prepared for a well rounded discussion in which basketball is likely to be a mere parable of life, so to speak.”
My dad’s advice, however, was less sound.
“Tell him I saw him play for the Wichita Henrys at the Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco in 1935,” Dad told me. When I brought that up, I thought the Wizard would be impressed with my in-depth research. Instead he said in a very stentorian tone, “Please inform your father I never played for the Henrys, as I was never on the West Coast until taking the UCLA job in 1948.” Thanks, Dad.
I took great notes, which came in handy because I set my tape recorder on a coffee table in front of me. Wooden sat in a chair across the room. He was too far away for his soft voice to be picked up. When I played it back I only heard my questions. I was there two full hours. We only spent half the time talking basketball.
Wooden told me when he started his salary was so low he had to work for an insurance company in the mornings. He lived in the valley. Every day at lunch he drove on Sepulveda Boulevard (before the building of the San Diego/405 Freeway) to UCLA. I never knew anybody who ever wrote about this. A week or so after my piece hit the streets Wooden was interviewed by Jim Rome.
“I don’t think a lot of people know that when you started at UCLA, you were paid such a small salary you had to hold a job in the valley, driving over the old Sepulveda Boulevard every day to UCLA at noon,” Rome asked. The “pimp in the box” (one of his monikers) was reading my writings and using it for research. Say it is so, Jim!
Wooden told me was assured a new gym would be built in a few years. He had to play in a dilapidated shack called the “B.O. Barn” among other places until first the building of the L.A. Sports Arena near USC (1959), then finally Pauley Pavilion (1965). He was also assured by UCLA administrators a “student fund” was set up out of tuition payments over the years, providing him a financial windfall down the road. At some point five or 10 years after taking the job, probably when looking to buy a house, Wooden inquired of the “student fund.” The administrator just stared at him, struck dumb. There was no “student fund.”
Wooden gave all the credit to Sydney Wicks for deciding to guard Artis Gilmore from the front instead of the back, leading to his blocking of five or six of Gilmore’s shots en route to UCLA’s victory over Jacksonville in the 1970 NCAA title game. I suspected Wooden’s coaching was more than collateral to Wicks’s successful move, which catapulted the Bruins to the most surprising of their 10 NCAA titles between 1964 and 1975.
During the interview, Wooden’s phone rang several times. He listened to the message, played over a speaker. That was how he answered his phone. I called him several times. Always after identifying myself he picked up.
My favorite part of the Wooden interview was when he talked about politics, history and Shakespeare (as Lavin said he would). He was a highly educated, erudite man. Wooden was cultured, a lover of plays and music. Wooden was deeply Christian to the very core. He said Franklin Roosevelt was the best President of the 20th Century and Mother Teresa the greatest person. I felt Wooden was probably a very old school Democrat, but I had he supported Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War. It was a bone of contention with Bill Walton and other players.
Wooden said he drank water from the tap and, “I’m alive to tell you about it.” He did not believe the environmental arguments about massive pollution. Of sex he said the difference between “love and sex is that love lasts.” Finally after two hours I asked to use his bathroom. He had only a bathroom adjacent to his bedroom. It made me uncomfortable to invade his private sanctuary. The toilet had a bar over it. Wooden apparently needed it in order to steady himself when he lowered himself and got up. In order to urinate, I calculated I would have to “aim” in order to miss the bar. That meant some splashing about. I was not about to leave my bodily fluids in a puddle in John Wooden’s bathroom. I endeavored instead to find a gas station before hitting the Ventura Freeway.
I spent a fair amount of time at Pauley Pavilion. Wooden had a regular courtside seat. He entertained visiting fans. I always came by to say hi. He always remembered my name. He never held my USC pedigree against me, either. The story was titled “The English Teacher.” Wooden had been one at South Bend Central High School in Indiana. The name had a double meaning.
That came from my conversation with UCLA coach Steve Lavin. When Lavin first met the Wizard, he was naturally in awe. He made a disparaging remark about his own father, saying he was “only an English teacher.”
“Oh, Coach Wooden really took exception to that,” said Lavin. “He said, ‘I was an English teacher, and the teaching of proper use of the English language is the first and foremost role of an educator. Never forget that, and your father has done great work in teaching this gift to young people.’ I was mortified.”
Indeed, Cappy Lavin started at USC, transferring to play basketball at the University of San Francisco when the Dons were one of the top programs in America. He became an English teacher at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, where I grew up and would have attended had I not determined to play baseball for Al Endriss at Redwood instead.
My Lavin interview was fraught with outside tension. That was the day my girlfriend Blake apparently discovered I cheated on her. What timing! She hit me with this bombshell just before I went to interview Lavin and his two assistants, Steve Spencer and Jim Saia. It forced me to scramble like crazy. I managed to get the job done.
Lavin grew up around the corner from my good friend Rob Scoal in Ross. He played for coach Pete Hayward on Drake’s 1982 and 1983 teams. Along with my 1977 Redwood baseball team and the 1952 Tamalpais football team, these are likely the greatest in Marin County history. Drake’s 34-game winning streak broke a state record held by Bill Walton’s 1970 San Diego Helix High juggernaut (also the alma mater of Reggie Bush and Alex Smith).
Lavin was a whiz kid, no two ways about it. He was from a big Irish Catholic family of mostly older brothers. John played for my dad with the 1973 Drake Joe DiMaggio summer baseball team. He was handsome, smart and fast-talking, a slick younger version of fashionable Lakers coach Pat Riley with his expensive suits and “wet look” hair. His father’s numerous connections, to Phil Woolpert, Pete Newell and, by extension Bobby Knight, were Lavin’s ticket. His college career was like mine. He moved around before eventually graduating. His family supported him while earning his spurs coaching as a non-paid volunteer. Lavin was allowed to literally “sit in” for a year under Bobby Knight at Indiana, something the Hoosiers’ coach never would have allowed had Pete Newell not given him his word the kid was okay.
He managed to gain experienced with legendary Purdue coach Gene Keady. Each of his steps were detailed in the Marin Independent Journal. He was touted as an up-and-comer, a future candidate for jobs opening at USF, Cal or other Bay Area schools. He landed in precisely the right time and place, UCLA in the mid-1990s. At first he was low man on the totem pole under coach Jim Harrick. He barely made money, forced to “max out my credit cards” in order to pay the high rents in Westwood, which was substantially more luxurious living than Bloomington or West Lafayette, Indiana.
Harrick elevated him. In 1994-95 UCLA returned to glory with their first NCAA title in 20 years (causing Zach Beimes, then a student, to be arrested – and released – for celebrating in the streets). Lavin was one of his top lieutenants. He was able to bring his friend from Marin, Jim Saia, onto the staff. A year later Harrick was fired for falsifying expenditures.
“Saia was the guy who had to console him in his hour of grief,” said Lavin.
At 32 Lavin was named head coach, causing grief in Westwood. In 1999, the complaints did not die down. When I covered the Bruins I always gauged the temperature among the press. Many, like one writer for CBSSports.com, said he thought he was like a “kid just using UCLA to get his friends jobs.” Lavin’s teams were good, his recruiting classes among the best. He did not won the national title. Like football at USC, that was the impossibly high yardstick they measured success by, especially since Harrick’s win was still recent
Even though I knew Lavin’s older brothers John and Ken from the Marin sports scene, I never met him until 1997. He knew who I was. Our first encounter came when I was on campus checking out screenwriting opportunities posted on the bulletin board of the UCLA film school. I did a “walk in,” introducing myself. Steve said he had fond memories of the Scoal family and his days with the Ross Rams. He was fascinated to find out Jeff was a multi-millionaire Corona Del Mar businessman, and Rob a soap opera star.
Saia grew up in Fairfax. We knew of each other but never met. His mother and mine were close friends who played tennis regularly. Jim, also Catholic, rooted for Notre Dame to beat UCLA when they ended Wooden’s 88-game winning streak in 1974. He was Lavin’s teammate at Drake. The two made a pact if they ever got a coaching job, they would hire the other. Saia was a workaholic. He always had a “hangdog” look because he probably did not get enough sleep. He did not have Lavin’s polish. Saia seemed eternally nervous that his dream would end.
Spencer and I had major history going back to the age of nine. He and his brother always played on rival teams in little league, usually coached by our fathers. We were never friends. Whereas I was often the target of abuse because I was arrogant, the Spencers were quiet, reserved, and held up for respect. Our parents always had animosity for each other. When little league ended our mothers became thick as thieves. Mr. Spencer died young after a lifetime of hard, hard work.
Our meeting in a Santa Monica restaurant was as much re-union as an interview. Lavin interspersed his thoughts with off the wall commentary, at one time remarking that “there’s so much talent here.” That could have referred to either the number of great athletes to recruit in the Southland or all the hot chicks walking around Santa Monica.
We discussed their old high school coach, the legendary Pete Hayward. He was such a tremendous influence on their lives.
“He gave us the best gift he could give us,” Spencer said. “He gave of his time.”
That reminded me of my own father, who never once told me he was too tired or busy to practice baseball with me. I liked the Lavin crew. After having interviewed Wooden I could not help compare them. They, like everybody else, could not measure up. They all seemed to understand that even if they did not verbalize it. Lavin got a little defensive, saying of his friends “Hey, these guys are fine coaches with good resumes. Their not the Bobbsey twins coming in coaching at UCLA.”
After a nice dinner (Lavin sweepingly picked up on his credit card “courtesy of the UCLA athletic department”), I left to “face the music” with Blake. That night she “tricked” me into asking her to marry me.
The article, “Bay Area Bruins,” was a big hit. It appeared as part of large section devoted to UCLA basketball, alongside my Wooden and Henry Bibby pieces. It made the magazine’s cover. Wooden’s visage overshadowed his two protégés, Lavin and Bibby, under the title “Leading Men.”
Saia loved it, scooping up a bunch of issues to distribute among friends and family. In subsequent visits to Marin County, I found many mutual friends read it. Since I directed the magazine to include many of my Marin contacts on our monthly mailing list, it received excellent review.
I saw the lads several times throughout the season, at the Sports Arena and Pauley. When the Trojans destroyed UCLA their locker room resembled a funeral. Poor Saia looked like somebody just shot his pet.
I had a great idea for a follow-up to the UCLA interviews with Wooden and Lavin. I tried to create a round-table discussion, possibly even moderated on TV by Fox Sports’s Jim Watson, with Wooden, Lavin, the great Bill Walton, and USC coach Jim Bibby.
I left a message for Walton. He called me back, leaving classic Waltonisms on my voicemail. He urged the “best way to reach me is by email.” He was thrilled I wanted to speak about “my hero, the great John Wooden, the greatest basketball coach of all time.” His voicemail was so filled with color and joy d’vivre it was almost an interview in and of itself. Unfortunately, the “Wooden round table” never occurred.
Lavin was never truly accepted by the Bruin faithful. In 2003 he and his crew were fired. He landed on his feet as a highly paid ESPN basketball analyst until 2010, when he was hired at St. Johns. Spencer took over at Orange Coast Junior College. Saia landed on Henry Bibby’s staff at USC. I saw him during frequent visits to Heritage Hall. In 2004-05 Bibby was forced out during the season. Saia was USC’s head coach on an interim basis. He was not retained. He took over a small college program in Fresno.
I also covered the Los Angeles Lakers. They were in the middle of their great three-NBA title run under coach Phil Jackson. Led by superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Staples Center just opened for business. It was really a spectacular building in a downtown location.
I saw something at a Lakers game against the Denver Nuggets I thought quite hilarious. A big part of the scene was people watching. Many Hollywood celebrities were seen at the games. Many also frequented Dodger Stadium and the L.A. Coliseum, but those places were too huge to effectively spot them. Staples Center was small enough, and of course their courtside seats prominent enough, to easily see the likes of Jack Nicholson, then dating actress Lara Flynn Boyle.
I was sitting in the press section with Taylor Whitney. The crowd started going crazy. A well-known movie producer was walking to his seat very close to the floor. His “date” trailed him by a few steps. She moved slowly. She was poured into a micro-mini dress so tight it inhibited her movement. She was in very high heels, slipping on the wood floor. What caused the biggest uproar was the fact she was a well-known porn star, recognized by many fans shouting her name. They were “telling her” how much they enjoyed the various acts she performed in this movie or that.
That was Staples Center.
I had a chance to meet the Lakers’ legendary media director, John Black. He was considered one of the best in the business. He always got major kudos from Jim Rome. Another media figure I ran into, whether it be at Staples Center, Dodger Stadium or the Coliseum, was Vic “the Brick” Jacobs. He was relatively new to L.A. at the time. Nobody then – or now probably – knew what to make of this East Coast transplant with a “Yosemite Sam” beard. He literally dressed like a clown. He often sported a giant, multi-colored “hat,” a cross between what Russian citizens where in the winter, the Mad Hatter, or perhaps something out of Dr. Seuss. He spoke in a strange, Eastern drawl mixed with New Age phraseology. Vic constantly used the word “love” as in “feel the love.” I introduced myself and got a full barrel of it.
The craziest thing I ever saw Jacobs do was in the dressing room after a Lakers game at Staples Center. Taylor Whitney was interviewing guard Derek Fisher. I was interviewing assistant coach Tex Winter for a story I was doing on the evolution of the “triangle offense.” Winter seemed thrilled to expound upon it. Jacobs wanted to interview Shaq, who was making himself scarce.
“Where’s Shaq? Where’s Shaq?” an exasperated Jacobs demanded of Black. He calmly told him he was in the shower.
“I’m goin’ in there,” said Jacobs.
“Please don’t do that, Vic,” implored Black.
Jacobs headed towards the showers. Black pleaded with him. “C’mon, Vic, please don’t go in there.” Finally Vic “the Brick” backed off. I only saw him a few times. I imagine if he did that on this occasion it must have been his regular act. He was smart and knew sports, but his whole persona then and now seemed to be based on buffoonery.
I did cover the Los Angeles Kings minimally. My lack of ice hockey knowledge was a hindrance. My favorite memory of the Kings was not professional. The company had season tickets to all the major sports teams in Los Angeles. I managed to get two ducats to a Kings game one night. I took my daughter. She had a great time. We had dinner in the fancy Fox Sports lounge. She marveled at the glorious Staples Center and the light show they put on.
The old Anaheim Stadium was refurbished, re-named Edison International Field of Anaheim. The California Angels were now the Anaheim Angels. Gene Autry recently passed away. The Walt Disney Company, led by former super-agent Michael Ovitz from Creative Artists Agency, now owned them. They wore funky, pinstriped uniforms.
I knew steroids existed. I knew people in the gym who took them. There was absolutely no evidence of steroid abuse in baseball. Nobody spoke of it. Unbeknownst to all apparently, except those actually abusing them or abetting the abuse, this was the apex of the “steroid era.” I eventually came to realize I “witnessed” it going back to 1982-83. I played with Jose Canseco, was a classmate of Mark McGwire’s at USC, and watched Big Mac and Randy Johnson battle Arizona State’s Barry Bonds.
When I arrived at Edison Field, walking around the cage during batting practice, that was the first time I realized something was . . . amiss? I knew the guys lifted weights. By 1999 I was a hardcore strength trainer for years. I knew how hard it was to put on lean muscle mass. I knew some body types were better suited to it than others. I was tall and wiry, not as prone to mass but rather to a tight, “lean ‘n’ mean” look. My body type was not unlike what Randy Johnson looked like shirtless in the visitor’s clubhouse at Edison Field that day. We had a brief exchange, based on our shared USC connection, but he was unable to grant me an interview.
So I went out on the field. There I saw the 1999 Angels gathered about. There was Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon and Jim Edmonds, just for starters. Now, to my knowledge, none of these men were ever implicated in the Mitchell Report, baseball’s steroid investigation spurred some years later. I do not wish to impugn their reputations, but I know what I saw. Those guys had to be “juiced.” Relief pitcher Troy Percival also looked to be on ‘roids, too. His body was pumped up. He expressed characteristics of a guy on “ ’roid rage.” Then again, he was said to chew three cans of Copenhagen and drink 12 cups of coffee a day. Matt Luke, who I coached at Cal in 1991, also played 28 games for Anaheim in 1999. I liked Matt, but I knew he was a gym freak. The chances he played all those years never using steroids is possible, but not probable. His body was jacked like so many others.
Nancy Mazmanian, the daughter of former USC All-American and Mount San Antonio J.C. baseball coach Art Mazmanian, handled the Angels’ PR. Nancy never gave me the time of day in any capacity I ever dealt with her, anywhere. Tim Tessalone seemed fond of her. To me she was an anomaly. Here was a person tasked with dealing with the public. She seemingly hated the public. I could be wrong but this always was my impression. Surely when I saw her at the stadium she never gave me any “Trojan love.” I saw Jim Watson in the press box. He was warm and gracious.
One of my all-time favorite stories emanated from a June, 1999 game in Anaheim. It was one of those hot, sultry Southern California nights in which there is no place in the world I would rather be than at the ball park, soaking in all the wonderful ambience of baseball. But what made this particular day special was the existence of my old pal from Canada, Todd McFarlane, and the 70-home run ball national tour.
I had absolutely no idea what happened to he or Al Simmons until after Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’s all-time single-season home run record. I read in the paper a man named Todd McFarlane bought home run balls number 65-70. I recognized the name but thought it a coincidence. I looked into who this guy was. It was the same man I played with in Canada. His creation of “Spawn” made him a multi-millionaire.
His purchase of the balls for several million dollars engendered great interest and not a little controversy. Now McFarlane was funding a tour of the ball to each Major League stadium. This was his West Coast swing – Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego – before heading east. The baseball’s were displayed in a glass case outside the ballpark, all accompanied by much fanfare and hoopla.
Good old Al Simmons was in charge of the operation. It was a pure gas to re-connect with him from our Kamloops, British Columbia days. McFarlane carried him along every step of the way. He ran his warehouse in Tempe, Arizona. A few days after the game, I arranged for Al to have lunch with Elizabeth and I at his Anaheim hotel. It was quite exciting for my daughter to meet the actual model for the Spawn character. He gave her a bunch of autographed Spawn memorabilia.
But as great as it was to see Simmons, the highlight for me was meeting a tall, lanky sports “shock jock” named Scott Ferrall. I first heard Ferrall in 1991 or 1992 on KNBR in San Francisco. I immediately loved him. He was utterly, completely irreverent, not at all in tune with the San Francisco scene. He was not provincial, sayings things like, “I’m not even in San Francisco; I live in L.A., man.” What I liked best about him was he openly mocked the joke KNBR sports host Ralph Barbieri, a Catholic who said he practiced Buddhism. For the life me, one of the great mysteries of all times was the fact he collected a paycheck for being on the radio. I was not entirely beyond the notion he sold his soul to Satan, so unworthy of air time was he.
Ferrall hailed from Pittsburgh. He became a national sports talk figure with his raspy voice, nasty commentary, incendiary opinions, extremely suggestive sexual innuendo, cutting edge knowledge, and inside source of all sports. He claimed to be married to a six-foot blond he described as a sex goddess. He was always out-scooping ESPN or the newspapers, making fun of his competitors. He exclaimed, “I’m in the foulest mood possible!” Scottie called his show Ferrall on the Bench. He made out to be drinking beer while talking and may well have been. Callers said, “You da man.” He rapid fired back, “How can I possibly be da man if you da man?” He was hilarious, one of my all-time favorite sports talk hosts, even though I cannot find him anymore on my radio.
Ferrall got to know McFarlane. As I understood it, Ferrall hoped to be the Phoenix Coyotes play-by-play man. McFarlane wanted to buy the franchise. Either way, Todd made him the M.C. for the baseball tour. In person he was a very nice fellow. He was not nearly the nasty, hard-boiled figure of the radio, but he still had his moments. I asked him what his next gig was.
“I’m up for hosting American Gladiator, me and that blond chick with the big rack, the one who was doin’ Rodman,” he said (as in crazy basketball star Dennis Rodman). As for “blonds with big racks” who were “doin’ ” him, the list of girls from which to choose from was lengthy.
After the baseball tour, I contacted McFarlane about using one of my screenplays. He had production company in a glitzy office tower in Century City. I went over to see the man who ran his operation, Terry Fitzgerald (who like Simmons had a character in Spawn named after him). Fitzgerald, like McFarlane a Canadian, was friendly enough. Nobody there ever gave my movie ideas the time of day.
I spent a great deal of time at the beautiful Dodger Stadium. One of their media representatives was an amiable lady named Donna Carter. She was always helpful. Once outside the clubhouse I ran into the comedian Jay Mohr. He played the rival sports agent Bob Sugar in Jerry Maguire. He was often a guest host on the Jim Rome Show. In 1999, when the Mets and Yankees were set to battle in the “subway Series,” Mohr’s take was perhaps the best Jim Rome Show I ever heard,
“It’s gonna be out of control,” Mohr said. “It’s gonna be the river scene in Apocalypse. It’s gonna be like Berenger in Platoon. ‘Death. Whaddaya’al known about death?’ ” His riffs on movies were so funny I almost drove off the road.
I sat next to respected Long Beach Press-Telegram sports columnist Doug Krikorian. I had one of my all-time most embarrassing moments. Krikorian requested media guides for every Major League baseball team. The Dodgers media representative, Julio Sarmiento placed them in a box next to where he sat. I thought they were there for any member of the media to grab. I started taking Krikorian’s press guides.
“What are you doing?” he asked me.
Red-faced, I apologized. I said I did not know they were his. I met him later at Pacific-10 Conference media day. “Well, I bet your glad you don’t have any media guides for me to steal,” I said. He looked at me deadpan.
“Do we know each other?” he asked.
“I’m just as glad you forgot who I was,” I said, leaving it at that.
I saw Chad Kreuter, then the Dodgers catcher. I interviewed him for a story. I eventually dubbed him the “Forrest Gump of baseball” because he always seemed to be the catcher in the photography of famous baseball moment. These ranged from Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters and record-breaking strikeouts, to Rickey Henderson’s record-breaking steals, to Barry Bond’s 73rd home run in 2001.
Tommy Lasorda came up to the cramped Dodger Stadium press box, hold courting. For all of the stadium’s great beauty and fan amenities, it had a pitiful press box and media dining room, plus relatively small clubhouse facilities. Lasorda oversaw the Mexican cooks, telling them just how hot the water should be and how long the spaghetti should cook, what spices to put in the marinara sauce, and other Italian homilies. It was a bit of a joke to me. Dodger Stadium press food was perhaps the worst of any stadium I have ever been in. It was well below that found in Anaheim and San Francisco. For a team in a city with a large Jewish population I was amazed how many times the choices came down to hot dogs or ham.
Lasorda was always touting a restaurant near Dodger Stadium called Little Joes. Being Italian and a self-professed connoisseur of fine food, I figured if he liked it, Little Joes had to be good. I knew Lasorda was a regular at Original Joes when the Dodgers were in San Francisco. I took Elizabeth to Little Joes. The portions were miniscule, with more plate showing than food. Miniature veal parmagiana no better than that found at Dennys, and starchy spaghetti. All highly over priced. What a gyp.
Lasorda was a real pain. One time I wanted to interview him for a story I was working on about the upcoming 2000 Olympics. He was named coach of the United States team. I made an appointment with the Dodger PR people. They said he would meet me in the press box. I cooled my heels for a couple of hours. Right around game time, he emerged like a potentate. He showed no knowledge of any appointment with me. I finally barged in, saying I was there to interview him. He said he was busy, which did not endear him to me. He headed back to his office. I asked if I could interview him “on the run.”
Imagine trying to interview Tom Lasorda while he walks the corridors of a crowded Dodger Stadium during a game. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was yelling out, “Hey Tommy.” There were constant autograph requests. I finally just forced my way into his office. I got a sit-down of about five minutes. He did acknowledge who I was, showing me a copy of StreetZebra at his desk. It was a horse manure interview. I do not think I ever wrote the story. It turned out to be a great one when Ben Sheets shut out Cuba, 2-0 to deliver gold to America in Sydney, Australia.
The opposite of Lasorda was the gentleman Rick Monday. In June of 1999 I made an appointment to interview him before an inter-league game with the Texas Rangers. Something came up. He passed word if I was willing, he would meet me in the press box after the game. Monday came out of Santa Monica High to become an All-American at Arizona State. In 1965 he was the first player chosen in the initial free agent draft. A Marine Reservist, the handsome, blond Monday won a place in the hearts of L.A. fans. In 1976 Iranian protestors tried to burn an American flag on the field. Then with the Cubs, Rick ran, scooped up the flag, saving it before a standing ovation. Traded to the Dodgers, he helped them win the 1981 World Series. He replaced Don Drysdale in the announcer’s booth after Big D’s untimely 1993 passing.
I had photographer Dave Blank with me. He normally snapped a few shots in the first couple of innings, then left. He had to stick with me until after the game to accommodate Monday. To Blank’s credit, he was a real pro about it. It was a work night. He had business in the office at nine the next day. He was a real trooper when the game last 13 innings.
“If it’ll help the magazine I’m okay with it,” he said.
It had to be one in the morning. Monday strolled in after the Dodger post-game show. Incredibly, he gave a me a full 45-minute interview with no hesitation. He had a doozy of a Charlie O. Finley story from his tenure in Oakland.
“One day Charlie calls me and says he has a stock investment for me,” recalled Monday. “He says he needs $30,000, but he needs it now! Like RIGHT NOW! Not five minutes from now, right now! He tells me he will guarantee the investment in writing if I lose money. I get the money, and a couple days later I get another call. ‘Get out now! Get OUT RIGHT AWAY!’ So I call my stockbroker and sell. I made a big profit, maybe three times the investment, but that stock tanked right after that. Old Charlie must have broken a lot of SEC laws for insider trading.”
Monday said A’s Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers was “too dumb to know when he was in a jam. He’d just throw a yak slider on three-and-two for a strikeout with the bases load like it was nothing.” The article, “Patriot Games,” was excellent
Stu Nahan, a famed L.A. sports personality who Paul Coppersmith developed a real fixation with back in his USC days, calling him “Stu Johnny,” was always around. He played sportscasters in several movies, including Rocky. I never really got to know him. I interviewed broadcaster Ross Porter. He told me he covered Notre Dame’s 7-0 win over Oklahoma to end the Sooners’ 47-game winning streak.
“Somebody came into the Notre Dame dressing room and shouted, ‘This one’s for all the Catholics in Oklahoma,’ ” recalled Porter. “Somebody said, ‘Yeah, all seven of ‘em.’ ”
I wrote several other baseball essays. The infamous story of Al Martin being married to two women came out in 2000. He stuck a gun in the girl’s mouth with the words, “I”ll O.J. you.” I wrote the story, “Martin Bigamy Allegations No Surprise.” I had no duty, ethical or otherwise, to warn Al or his agent, Jeff Moorad, about it. Nevertheless, I sent Moorad a preview. He called, asking that I refrain because it was “piling on.” I agreed to pull it. Moorad tacitly agreed to give me an exclusive for one of his clients in the future. I never cashed in that favor.
I interviewed former USC star Jeff Cirillo. He hit .326 for Colorado in 2000 after years of high productivity in Milwaukee. Cirillo never achieved great fame. He played in the “steroid era,” overshadowed by abusers like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Caminiti, and very possibly even his own Trojan teammate, Bret Boone. It seemed to me Boone got awfully big awfully fast, driving in a lot more runs than ever before all of a sudden in 2001.
I was quite close to Cirillo when I knew him at USC in 1989-90, then coached for Cal against his team in 1991. He seemed to barely recall me, however. The article was called “A Line Drive Hitter.”
I wrote two pieces on Bill “Spaceman” Lee. The first, “Spaceman Re-visited” was a general retrospective of his life. It was filled with jaunty Spaceman quotes. Ex-teammate Bernie Carbo was “selling religion someplace.” Former USC coach Rod Dedeaux had “eyes in the back of his head. He didn’t look like a ball player but he knew in the second inning what would happen in the seventh.” Former catcher Carlton Fisk was “the meanest man in baseball. Who wouldn’t be, pulling stumps of wood out of granite rock in New Hampshire all his life?” Carl Yastrzemski “wore this ancient old rain coat. We’d throw it in the garbage. He’d pick it up, smooth it out and wear it.” Former Trojan Tom Seaver “was champagne, big cigars and a limo. I was a six-pack and a pick-up truck.” Lee yelled at ex-Redwood coach Al Endriss, “What’s wrong now, (deleted) Al?” during games. Lee’s convertible was ransacked on a street near USC so that night he and his pal “cruised Sunset Strip sitting on orange crates.” His brother “was stabbed at a Doors concert but didn’t die.” I sent a copy to Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post. He called back.
“It’s well written but I don’t know what you want me to do with it,” he said.
I saw Spaceman again when he was inducted into a quirky “hall of fame” called the Baseball Reliquary. It was located in the Pasadena Public Library, serving as an alternative place of honor for baseball figures known not for great play on the field, but strange or different behavior off it. Moe Berg, an OSS operative featured in The Catcher Was a Spy, was an example of the kind of guy they went for. So was Spaceman.
Spaceman showed up in a baseball uniform from a game he played, as best I understood it, the day before in Canada or Vermont. In theory at least this meant he had not showered, changed, or slept? He said the usual outrageous things. Of the Unabomber, he said “I don’t agree with killing people, but other than that I think he had some good ideas.” Of the L.A. freeways he said, “I used to drive from Pomona to L.A. on surface streets in an hour or less.” Baseball director Ron Shelton was there. He gave me zero attention. My article, “A Reliquary For Real Baseball Fans,” featured Bill’s Unabomber quote. It was picked up by ESPN’s Dan Patrick.
As much as I loved covering USC athletics, not to mention the preps, the Dodgers, Angels, Lakers, and Bruins, my raison d’etre at StreetZebra was the magazine’s fabulous monthly lead column, “distant replay.” If ever a writer was perfectly suited for an assignment, I was for “distant replay.” It was a regular retrospective of some great event in Southern California’s sports past. The column was always given prominence at the beginning of the magazine. Zach gave me the space to run enough words to give it proper depth. I loved the interviews I conducted for “distant replay.” Just as I was unimpressed by Al Martin when I represented him for San Francisco Sports Management, Inc., I was none too impressed with the professional stars I interviewed in dressing rooms and clubhouses. They generally thought of themselves as kings and princes, above the press corps. They were more interested in their money and their women than in their public image. By 1999-2000, the average pro athlete probably felt his agent controlled his public perception more than he, or by extension, the press did. But the old breed always enjoyed somebody reaching out to them. They could re-live past glory which, as the slave told Caesar (so well repeated at the end of Patton) is “fleeting.” Dave Blank did a fabulous job always securing great old photos of by-gone days.
My first “distant replay” focused on the 40-year anniversary of Roy Campanella’s candle light vigil at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, after his car crash rendered him paralyzed, in 1959. I interviewed several old Dodgers, including Duke Snider. I wrote this event could be viewed as the turning point in which Los Angeles truly became a “Major League city.” It was called “Changes.”
My next column trod well-known territory; the story of Bo Belinsky. In it I posited the notion originally bandied about four or five years earlier that Charlie Sheen should take on the Belinsky role in a movie. Charlie was still young enough to do it at the time. I expressed the belief it could have the same effect on his career, which was taking on water, that Pulp Fiction had for John Travolta’s. I got some reader response to it. There was surely a lot of interest in a Belinsky film among the public. I was hoping Bobby DeNiro or Marty Scorsese would read it, reminding them of Raging Bull. I re-printed it in 2007 when I wrote Angels Essential.
I interviewed famed pro football writer Bob Oates for a piece on the infamous 1995 “escape from L.A.” of both the Raiders and Rams. Called “The Day Al and Georgia Stole Christmas,” it described their respective last games in December of 1994. The two owners, Al Davis of the Raiders and Georgia Frontiere of the Rams, were as different as could be, yet were linked by the shared event of abandoning the second-biggest market in the nation at the same time. Frontiere was viewed with even greater disgust in Los Angeles during this time. In 2000 her St. Louis Rams miraculously won the Super Bowl, an ultimate act of glory they never achieved despite so many close calls in L.A. (they won the 1952 NFL title and the Raiders were World Champions in 1983). Oates, who lived on Orange Avenue in the Fairfax district, was wonderful. I read his work for years growing up in The Sporting News. I still had not mastered the Internet entirely, learning all the wonders of Google and Yahoo searches. Interviewing men like Oates was a lot more fun anyway; certainly more so than finding something they wrote, then “cutting and pasting” it.
In the fall of 1999, I wrote the story of the 1971-72 “greatest ever” Los Angeles Lakers. It included interviews with both coach Bill Sharman and superstar guard Jerry West. Sharman was a prince, his voice shot from that very season when he damaged his vocal chords. The raspiness gave him a tender quality. He was a two-sport star at USC, riding the Dodger bench the day Bobby Thomson hit his “shot heard ‘round the world” in 1951. After that he went to Boston, forging a Hall of Fame basketball career with the perennial champion Celtics. Sharman was an innovator of the game, a Californian who advocated fitness and healthy diet before it was popular. He lived near the ocean in Playa Del Rey, just down the street from our offices. He regularly got fresh air while walking or jogging.
Because of our shared USC pedigree, Sharman and I developed a friendship, which I cultivated over the years. I later re-visited him for a piece on the origins of the “triangle offense” at USC in the late 1940s, as well as my 2007 book The Good, The Bad, & the Ugly Los Angeles Lakers. He sent me personalized missives written on notepads shaped like a basketball with the Laker logo on it. Bill was always gracious.
So was West. He confided to me he never could enjoy basketball because he was so consumed in winning. It was a “lose-lose” situation, of sorts. “Mr. Clutch” was devastated by defeat, but never savored victory because he was already thinking about the next challenge. When he finally won the “big enchilada” against the New York Knickerbockers in 1972, he looked drained as he drank champagne in a glass in the Forum dressing room. West, the Lakers’ general manager at the time of the interview, was as respected a man as there ever has been in the game. Aside from his playing career, he was a successful coach and architect of what was in 1999 about to be his second long-running dynasty as general manager. We did not get into his run-ins with former owner Jack Kent Cooke. I was able to use much of this Sharman-West material in the chapter of my Lakers book about their all-time best 33-game winning streak. Both that chapter and the 1999 “distant replay” were called “33 Straight!”
The subsequent column about USC basketball of old was called “Glory Days.” I interviewed Tom McGarvin, a former Trojan hoops star. I managed to get Tex Winter at Staples Center. Winter, dapper in a gray suit after a game, opened up, discussing the times with much enthusiasm. Winter played for USC coach Sam Barry. Between Barry, Winter, Sharman and Hall of Famer Alex Hannum (who I also interviewed before his passing), “the triangle” took shape. Winter modernized it over the course of decades coaching. It was made famous when Phil Jackson adopted it as his offensive scheme with Michael Jordan in Chicago. Now, it was all the rage in L.A., even though some basketball people, like Rick Barry, made light of it.
I learned when the colleges played in the 1930s, a form of “cage” hung over the baskets, thus giving rise to the term “cagers.” It was enlightening to those who thought basketball was spelled U-C-L-A, since the Trojans were a national power long before the Bruins won their first NCAA title in 1964. Sharman said he “respected” Wooden, who he played against. He noted that he beat him. Sharman also said athletic director Jess Hill offered him the Trojans coaching job in 1966. He turned it down in favor of the professional game, leading to his 1972 NBA title in L.A.
I also returned to the Laker theme in “Hot Rod Remembers the Old Lakers.” I interviewed “Hot Rod” Hundley. He spoke candidly of his dislike for Jack Kent Cooke, his years working alongside Chick Hearn, and how he was once instructed to stop Boston legend Bob Cousy. After Cousy left him “holding my jock strap,” the coach confronted Hundley. Cousy went right past him as if he were not even there, the coach said.
“Yeah, he’s great, isn’t he?” Hundley replied
I wrote a retrospective of the 1988 Dodgers World Series victory called “The Dodgers’ Last Hurrah.” Considering they have not won since I suppose it still is. This was personal to me. I attended that Series and had many connections. These included my former classmate at USC (Mark McGwire); three minor league teammates (Jose Canseco, Stanley Javier, Curt Young); another A’s Spring Training “teammate” and high school rival from the 1977 Redwood-El Camino debate over national supremacy (Rich Bordi); two high school or summer ball opponents (Mike Davis, Chris Gwynn); a potential sports agency client (Lance Blankenship); three players I faced in college (Mike Gallego, Tim Leary, Jesse Orosco); two A’s staff I met when Cal played them in 1991 (Tony LaRussa, Rene Lachemann); and the A’s minor league teammate of my good pal Dennis Gonsalves. (Luis Polonia).
I saw Vin Scully around but never dealt with him. Orel Hershiser was on his last legs. The Houston Astros bombed him out of the box early. I rode in the elevator at Dodger Stadium with Orel and his father. I could tell from their body language he was just about ready to retire after a great career. I saw him pitch all his best games in 1988. I have seen them all, from Seaver and Palmer and Marichal and Gibson and Hunter and Carlton and Ryan to Clemens and Maddux and Johnson. I never saw a more unhittable pitcher than Orel Hershiser in 1988.
I believe my background as a pitcher allowed me to write with an insight into this phenomenon other writers lacked. Hershiser was a fine pitcher. In no other season did he approach his 1988 levels. Why? I reasoned that in the “game of inches,” in sports and, in particular, pitching, there was a peculiarity to his finger pressure, wrist muscles, and torque of his shoulder as he delivered. In this single season he captured it. He never quite grooved like that again.
One of my more humorous interviews was with the golf legend Walter Hagen. He owned a pro shop in L.A. He was ancient, but still full of vim and vinegar. Hagen competed in epic matches with Bobby Jones in the 1930s. He was known to be quite the ladies man in his day. He was featured prominently in the 2000 Robert Redford movie The Legend of Baggar Vance starring Matt Damon and Charlize Theron. I wanted to get his memories of a famous mid-1960s golf match in Los Angeles. The great Arnold Palmer completely blew his lead in a total meltdown. It was said to be the template for Kevin Costner’s blow-up in Tin Cup.
“Lemme tell ya somethin’ about Arnie,” Hagen said in a high-pitched, craggy voice. “He don’ back away from nuthin.” The interview continue. About three minutes later he said, “Lemme tell ya somethin’ about Arnie. He don’ back away from nuthin.” Okay. We continued. Again he repeated. “Lemme tell ya somethin’ about Arnie. He don’ back away from nuthin.” He probably repeated that phrase four times.
When StreetZebra opened a Chicago edition, I wrote some articles for them as well. One was “Disco Demolition Redux.” It featured a picture of fans burning disco records on the field at Comiskey Park in 1979 (note to Barack Obama; it is not pronounced Cominskey) above the caption, “Burn baby, burn.” I also did a retrospective of Cubs announcer Harry Caray (“They’re Just Wild About Harry”). My Rick Monday interview provided a treasure trove of Caray stories. Caray bad-mouthed players he did not like.
“One day we were waiting in the bus outside the ballpark," Monday recalled. "Somebody said the only one we were waiting for was Harry. One of the players got impatient and said `Oh, Harry told me to say he's taking a cab.' So the bus takes off without him, and Harry comes out, no bus. He buried that guy on the air, just buried him. Later he tipped a skycap at the airport a hundred bucks to have the guys' bags shipped to Tokyo."
Caray apparently was fired by St. Louis Cardinals owner August Busch for having an affair with his wife, a rumor he never discouraged because he felt it increased his sense of virility.
As if I had not gone to the “Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee well” enough, I returned to it in “A League of Their Own.” This was special because I interviewed Annabelle Lee, Spaceman’s aunt. I first met her in 1988 when Bill and I spent the day driving around Orange County after he spoke to the Orange County Young Republicans. I did not realize who Annabelle was when I first met her. A League of Their Own had not been made.
Annabelle still lived in Santa Ana or Costa Mesa. She was as spry as ever. She played professional baseball, and was part of a “composite sketch” of players in the 1992 Penny Marshall film. Annabelle came to the office. She was a big hit. All the young women were fascinated with her story. She played with Don Drysdale’s father in Van Nuys and threw a perfect game on June 6, 1944. Asked whether she was distracted by events of that day, she seemed to have no knowledge of D-Day.
“I was pretty focused when I pitched,” she said. Annabelle literally taught nephew Bill how to pitch. Photos of their respective motions bear this out. In 2007 I was doing a book signing in Corte Madera. Bill came in with his wife and Annabelle. Elizabeth was with me to meet them all, a big thrill.
“I want to party with that dude,” she always said of Spaceman. Annabelle, bless her, passed way recently.
I was able to return to the Trojan genre with a great story about ex-USC tennis star Stan Smith. I interviewed him in gorgeous Hilton Head, South Carolina. We talked about his matches with Ion Tiriac and Illie “Nasty” Nastase in 1971. Titled “Mr. Smith Goes to Bucharest,” it told the story of Cold War intrigue surrounding the Davis Cup match-up in which Smith and his Yank teammates somehow overcame every act of chicanery and cheating by the Communists, beating them on their home turf. Smith was a real American gentleman.
When I reached my old pal Dave Weatherman he pronounced I was a “blast from the past.” I interviewed him for a story on the 1979 College World Series, credited with changing the game (“Breaking the Trojans Stranglehold”). Long dominated by USC and Arizona State, the 1979 CWS opened it up for Miami, Wichita State and the Southeastern Conference in subsequent decades. Weatherman said after getting knocked out in a semi-final the writers asked coach Augie Garrido who was pitching the title game.
“It’s up to the weather man,” as in the forecaster of possible rain, Garrido said. Everybody else figured he meant Weatherman would pitch. He did. His 2-1 triumph over Arkansas was one of the great moments in Omaha history. It was certainly Dave’s greatest highlight.
I also interviewed Garrido, who recently took over at Texas, and former Pepperdine coach Dave Gorrie. Gorrie told me he “could tell” how much I loved college baseball. He disputed Garrido’s memory on a particular point.
“He should take some of that Gingko Giloba,” he advised.
Bob Karl suggested I write about the one-armed Angel star Jim Abbott. It was called “Abbott Remains Inspiration to Millions.” Another “distant replay” with an Angel theme was darker and less inspiring, but one my most well written, well-researched pieces. “The Angels Curse” was coined after the 1986 play-offs between California and Boston. Dave Henderson’s homer off Angel closer Donnie Moore denied his team the World Series. The theme of the column was these were the two most star-crossed teams in baseball history. I reached deep into my Jim Murray influence, saying it was “the witching hour,” making reference to black cats, great disasters in history, war blunders, and strange spiritual coincidences seemingly wrapping themselves around both teams until the Angels (2002) and Bosox (2004) finally broke their respective curses.
“The Angels and the Red Sox? Oh, man! Talk about a riddle, surrounded by a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma . . .” I wrote.
“These are the two most star-crossed teams in baseball here.”
When I tracked down Rafer Johnson, I discovered one of the greatest sports resource centers in the world. Johnson, hero of the 1960 Rome Olympics when he beat UCLA teammate C.K. Yang and Soviet star Vasili Kuznetsov in the decathlon, was on the board of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. Located a few miles west of USC on West Adams Boulevard, it housed a sports reference library second to none. I used their services many times over the years for articles, research, and photos. Johnson was an elegant and powerful man. My father, the former track coach, particularly enjoyed my “distant replay’ of the Rome Olympiad entitled, “The Best I Could Be,” which was what Rafer said he tried to accomplish. I also did a piece on his daughter, a volleyball player competing in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
I interviewed several former Kings hockey players, plus announcer Bob Miller, for my story on “The Miracle at Manchester.” That was the nickname given to a National Hockey League playoff game between the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers on April 10, 1982. The game, the third in a best-of-five post-season series, was played at The Forum, situated on Manchester Boulevard (hence the nickname). The Kings completed the largest comeback in NHL play-off history, going from down 0-5 to winning 6-5 in overtime. Combined with upset wins in games one and five, the Kings eliminated the heavily favored Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers in a 3-2 series victory, reaching the second round.
I also wrote an absolutely brilliant column about the 1974 USC-Notre Dame game, for the November 2000 issue of StreeZebra. I pulled out all the stops, going “full Murray” on that one; writing the game “was not a sporting event, it was a Roman orgy. USC was not a football team, they were Patton's Army moving through the Low Countries, Grant taking Richmond, the Wehrmacht during the Blitzkrieg . . .
“For Trojan fans, it was not a game, it was a sighting. It was Fatima, Lourdes and the Burning Bush combined.
“For Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian, it was the Seventh Circle of Hell, The Twi-Light Zone, the decapitation scene from Apocalypse Now.
“For the Irish, it was their worst disaster since the potato famine.
“It was a 17-minute Southern California earthquake, epicentered at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a fall Saturday in 1974. It was felt as far away as South Bend, Indiana, and the after-shocks reverberate to this day.”
" ‘I told them that if Davis runs the second half kickoff back for a touchdown we would win the game,’ said John McKay of Anthony Davis, who scored four touchdowns in the game. Over the years, McKay's remarks were changed to ‘Davis will run the second half kick-off back for a touchdown,’ but like everything else that day, his words are now legend and myth.”
I went on to write, “McKay normally stood calmly amid the bedlam, arms crossed liked a commuter waiting for the 5:30 to Larchmont. This time, he lost control, hugging Haden (who lived in his house his senior year at Bishop Amat High), his son, J.K. (Haden's best friend), and Davis, all at the same time. None of the players weighed more than 183 pounds.
" ‘There have never been three smaller kids who have done so much so often,’ " he said, managing to sound like Winston Churchill.
“Up in the broadcast booth, Ohio State coach Woody Hayes must have felt like a Prussian military commander with a binocular-view of Napoleon's Italian Campaign, knowing he would have to face them down the road. The USC rooting section started chanting, ‘Woody, you're next!’ in reference to the upcoming Rose Bowl.
“With 13 minutes left, the Trojans had conquered Ireland, but before they could roll over Austria, Poland and Denmark, McKay pulled his starters in favor of Vince Evans and Rob Adolph.
“Davis proved himself the best college football player in America that day, but because it was played on a late date, ballots for the Heisman Trophy were mailed prior to his performance. Ohio State's Archie Griffin won it instead.”
The game vaulted Southern California to the national championship. “In those days,” I wrote, “not only was USC unbelievably good, but they were as exciting as any team ever.
“Parseghian never coached after that season. Rumors have it he sees a therapist to combat visions of a white horse constantly running around a field.”
This column, “It Wasn’t a Football Game, It was a Sighting,” has over the years found its way into two of my subsequent USC books and various Trojan blogs on the web. Anthony Davis became my business partner as co-producers of the movie version of One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation. Once at his condominium in Irvine I read it to him aloud. He loved it. Many articles I wrote at StreetZebra were later fashioned into chapters for books I wrote, particularly histories of the A’s, Angels, Dodgers and Trojans. I consistently used this column about the 1974 USC-Notre Dame game as a writing sample in subsequent application for writing work. I had to do it because this was the last issue of StreetZebra magazine.
The Internet was deeply inter-twined with the 1992 election of Bill Clinton to the White House, the successful economy he enjoyed in his two terms, and the career of his Vice-President, Al Gore. In 1992 we started to hear about something called the “Information Superhighway.” We were told it was coming to us. Gore in particular grabbed onto this issue, even incorrectly claiming to have invented it. The Democrats captured the romance of a “bridge to the 20th Century.” They sounded futuristic and forward thinking. President George H.W. Bush famously did not know how a grocery store scanner worked.
Clinton correctly took credit for a strong economy under his watch. He accomplished it only when the Republicans swept the 1994 midterms. He implemented their tax cuts. But the wildly successful late 1990s, early 2000s economy and stock market surge was a false one. It was false because the dot.com bubble was false. In 1999, when I started at StreetZebra, nobody knew that. It was the greatest economic boom in years, if not ever. It was like the “gold rush.” Money seemed to be as available as gold in swift-moving streams.
Andy Solomon, who had a brother on Wall Street, was a symbol of this exuberant time. He was well educated, smart and had the right contacts. He was in over his head. In his low- to mid-30s during this period, he was even a bit old. Many kids were dropping out of college. 20-somethings who suddenly knew how to design a web site were raking in millions (or at least millions in stock options).
So it was when Zach Beimes took his little magazine, started as an after-shoot of the Bruin Daily, to Solomon. Shortly thereafter, I was hired. There were about nine of us. The magazine was a success, great reviews from all quarters. The name was changed to StreetZebra, with a web site called StreetZebra.com. Then Andy went to Goldman Sachs. They arranged financing. Soon the company had $10 million just for “starters.” We began hiring.
Solomon dumped piles of dough into hiring shads of new people to do God-only-knows-what. Every Friday afternoon somebody hauled in the beer. We were introduced to four or five new technicians, web coordinators, and diagnostic traffic functionaries. These were people right out of school who grew up with computers. They each therefore convinced Solomon (who had not) they were worth another $70,000. They all formed a kind of “mad monk squadron” under the auspices of some marketing dude who was maybe 27 years old named Adam something. He kept his dog in the office, had a habit for alcohol, drugs and sexual harassment.
Soon I was surrounded by salesmen, web designers, techies and marketing folks. I often never even introduced myself to them. From nine employees we grew to 200 or 300 on site. We bought several companies, including the U.S. Sport & Social Clubs, a thriving venture with offices spread throughout America. We started a Chicago operation. Between the Los Angeles, Chicago and multiple U.S. Sport & Social Clubs offices, Solomon now controlled an “empire” of sorts. I can only estimated the number of employees at around 1,000, at least.
I knew we were headed down a bad path after that. I was right. The thing is, though, it was avoidable. It was avoidable because we had something real and actual, in the form of a great sports magazine. If we concentrated on subscriptions and advertised what we had, we could have survived. Rather than using the web site to promote the magazine, we used the magazine to promote the web site. This was the single most glaring mistake learned during the dot-com revolution. Not only that, the site was devoted to intramural athletics, not the hard-hitting coverage of pro, college and high school sports that made the magazine popular in the first place.
In effect, Andy Solomon bet millions of dollars on a web site people could use to schedule and find out intramural softball, recreational sports schedules, and other lame activities; all things offered for free by any local park and recs department. I could forgive losing one’s shirt on a super idea that just did not hit. My vision of a thriving sports agency in 1994, for instance, was a very sound one. We just missed hitting it big, which we could have done had the players not struck that August, costing us a millions in Al Martin’s commission. But recreational sports? Looking up public tennis instruction for 12-year olds? Under no circumstances could I forgive destroying a proven commodity, a wonderful all-sports magazine in the Mecca of athletics, Los Angeles, for such an idea.
I observed all these new people, quickly deducing this could be a zero sum game in which every dollar these web gurus made was money I would not make. I knew it was only a matter of time before my job was lost, along with any semblance of good journalism. But what was worse than just a bad idea was bad business. We needed to be frugal, to save the money we had. Aside from not hiring a bunch of recent college graduates for big salaries, we should have kept our expenses down. But that was not the dot.com style. Companies flaunted their “wealth” and “success.” I suppose the idea was it would impress investors, potential employees, or God knows who else.
The kicker occurred after Solomon consolidated his “empire,” which was the Los Angeles main office, the Chicago magazine, and U.S. Sports & Social Clubs branches.
Solomon flew everybody out to Phoenix for a weekend of drinking and sex. All expenses were paid by the company. The rule at StreetZebra was if you were a woman and wanted to work there, you had to be a “hottie.” A typical dot-com. The women at the resort, an upscale, very expensive spot, were fantastic; all young and delicious. We just looked at this mass of pulchritude and took it in.
On the first day we had a big seminar. Solomon introduced all the StreetZebra employees. When he came to me I swear I saw the man go into genuflection.
“Steve is great, a helluva writer,” he told several hundred, maybe 1,000 people. “This man possesses encyclopedic knowledge of sports and history. He is a poet, an artist who agonizes over every word and works the longest hours in the company, maximizing every phrase until each article is his individual masterpiece.”
Then we all played. We were on per diem. More than 1,000 people ate expensive meals in Phoenix and Scottsdale restaurants. Buses took us on a tour of all the hot nightclubs, which were nothing less than legend there. At least we avoided any DUIs. 1,000 sexually charged up young people descended on this maelstrom of tanned flesh, alcohol and hedonistic pleasure, each armed with company money. Who knows how much trouble was gotten into?
The partiers eventually returned to the hotel. Everybody got more snookered. I never got details of how many different girls slept with how many different guys. It had to be off the hook. By day we lounged about the pool ogling all those same girls in bikinis, gossiping about who did what to whom. At night we went back at it.
My first inkling things might not work out came when Zach was “bumped upstairs.” Danny King took over as editor. Solomon expressly promised I would be the editor. I spent countless hours and hours with Zach, Dave Bank, John Simerson and Tim Townsend, learning their jobs in anticipation of a promotion. I wanted to know every aspect of the business, the entire operation from soup to nuts. I wanted to learn all the computer graphics and gadgets used by the editor; the photo work, the magazine design, its layout, the web content design, and so on. I took a local adult education course to improve myself. I wanted to be an indispensable employee, somebody they absolutely needed to have no matter what.
The beginning of the end was a few weeks after our love fest in Arizona. It was announced most of those U.S. Sport & Social Clubs employees, who all had jobs before being bought by StreetZebra, were laid off.
The web producer explaining it to us sounded like Ross Perot. He inanely compared people who no longer could support their families, with looking under the hood of a used car. In the spring of 2000, Clinton’s stock market bubble burst. From there it was a B.B. King song: “Down, down, down . . .”
Or maybe a Ray Charles song. Even he could have seen what was next. I was the highest-paid writer. Naturally, I was the first to be let go. It was still a shock. My agent, Lloyd Robinson, wrote a letter to Solomon, saying I had a review coming up and was deserved of a raise and a private office. He asked for the honor of making me the editor. The day the letter arrived, I was laid off. Andy spun my newfound unemployment, uncertainty and financial hardship as a chance to “pursue your art.” I felt like punching the SOB in the nose.
The scene that tells more about the plight of the modern writer is the one from Robert Altman’s 1992 classic, The Player. Smarmy studio boss Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins) is confronted by unknown screenwriter David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio). Kahane says, “Whaddaya gonna do when you can’t cut it at the studio anymore, eh Grif? Huh? Whaddaya gonna do you when you can’t do any more deals? Whaddaya gone do then, man? Me? I can write.”
I felt like saying those very words to Andy Solomon. As president and CEO he transformed StreetZebra from a thriving sports magazine to a failed web site, thus effectuating my layoff from their staff. That would have been apropos. I could write. I would use that skill to land more work. A decade later I was much farther along than I was then. There was comparison. I had a vision of this future, even though it took some doing to confidently see it. But Andy failed. He could not do any more deals. He did not have any gift, any skill beyond having a brother on Wall Street who raised money for him at a time when everybody raised money. His brother had no special skill, either. Being able to write is a more beneficial skill than knowing how to raise Other People’s Money.
So instead of going all Vincent D’Onofrio on him, I just thanked him for the opportunity he provide me. Truth be told, he did that. It was a mixed bag, but I did owe him that much.
I got to keep my stock options. This was the big thing in the Internet era. It was all a bluff in Bill Clinton’s “false economy.” Of course it all failed. Almost as soon as I left, he entire company crashed. The stock options were as useless as (breasts) on a boar. The final joke was on some of our employees on a business trip to Chicago. They had to fly back to L.A. on their own dime. The company abandoned them, like CIA agents on a black ops mission gone badly.
I blame Andy and Jeff. I harbored some ill will towards them. The “human cost” included the end of my relationship with Blake, who I planned to marry. I finally found “true love.” Wedding bells were ready to chime, until the company folded. At first we decided to postpone the nuptials. The strain of the situation helped end it for us. As a Christian I am taught to “forgive those who trespass against” me. I wrote Andy a letter doing just that. I forgive. I do not forget.
StreetZebra did not have to be a dot-com. It was a nice, big, traditional rag that looked like ESPN the Magazine, specializing in all thing sports-related in L.A. The articles had some of that Jim Rome “edge” to them. We had good photographs. We managed to get pictures of beautiful women with large breasts liberally sprinkled throughout our pages. Our target audience was males, 16-30. There was no reason for it to fail.
Back to The Player. About five seconds after getting his feelings off his chest, Kahane is killed by Mill. Mill, of course, gets away with it. Well, after being metaphorically “killed” by Solomon, I kept on writing. I kept on getting “killed.” Solomon “got away with it,” too. But over time I made my comeback. I do not know what happened to the Solomons. I have done a lot Googling over the years. I never found any mention of any successful operation they were ever involved in.
StreetZebra died an ugly death, the details of which were posted for all to see on a popular web site of the era, f-----company.com. All those people were thrown to the tender mercies of unemployment (with the collateral human costs that go with it). Everything came crashing down hard and at once. The job, the company, the wedding to Blake, the relationship itself, all within a very short time of. The New Millennium started with such high hopes. The symbolism of a new century in confluence with such new opportunities and new success seemed a true gift to me. Now I needed to re-group. I continued to practice my “art.”
It was the end of 2000, almost 2001. I was 41 years old. I loved StreetZebra. It was the reason I did not marry Blake. At first this broke my heart. Looking back with the perspective of a decade, it was a gift. Breaking up with her was the first step in a process of truly getting closer to Jesus Christ. By 2000, I was relatively clean and sober. I still drank, but the old party days - with Rob Scoal on the Sunset Strip, with Shawn Tomczak in Germany – were for all practical purposes over. Yes, I cheated on Blake, but the kind of womanizing of the past was over. It never returned. I had a long way to go, but leaving Blake was the break I needed.
John Simerson went to work for KTTV/11 in Los Angeles. Chris Correa went to law school and passed the Bar. Dave Blank continued to shoot pictures. Zach Beimes, a great editor, went into a series of odd occupations. I did not understand that. I have either no information or extremely incomplete information about the rest of the StreetZebra crew. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only one who achieved success, as a writer or in any other field.
I read a book in 1999 that influenced me. I identified with the men who practice stoicism in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. It reminded me of ho I quietly just absorbed criticism from my parents all my life, and always got the dirty end of the stick from my ex-wife.
One day in 2000 I was sitting my desk at StreetZebra when the phone rang. It was my pal from Marin County, Chester Aldridge. He said he was with Logan and Noah Miller, was right around the corner, and wanted to meet for a beer.
I closed up shop for the day, meeting the three for beer and pizza in Marina Del Rey. Chester, the brother of Bob Aldridge, struggled in the 1990s to make it as an entrepreneur. A stab at “pyramid marketing,” a loose Ponzi scheme, crashed. By 2000 he was making some in-roads. He created a golf board game and was in the process of getting into the lucrative world of board game marketing and licensing. He since succeeded at it.
I heard of the Miller twins but never net them. They grew up in the Woodacre acre, west of Fairfax, not far from me in San Anselmo. They played baseball at Drake High. Their father was a day laborer working in a quarry. He was an alcoholic, always in trouble with the law. He disappointed his sons over and over. He finally died in the Marin County Jail after getting picked up for vagrancy in 2006.
The twins, however, went in the other direction. They were great baseball players; one a pitcher, the other a catcher. One played in the Toronto Blue Jays system, the other played college ball. Neither made it, however. But they were determined. They avoided the alcoholism of their dad. Instead they were upright, clean-living All-American boys, with short hair and demeanors much more suited to a small Southern town than liberal Marin. They worked out every day and were in terrific shape. Both were exceptionally handsome. They were absolutely identical, almost impossible to tell apart unless one knew them very well.
Neither was well educated or even really bright. They were certainly not dumb, but they were naïve. They were “babes in the woods.” After failing in baseball and working in the rock quarry with their old man, they looked to make a break for themselves, moving to Hollywood. They lived in a one-bedroom, roach-infested apartment in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by pimps, transvestites and druggies. They wanted to make it as either models or actors. They also had story ideas. They were starting to talk about writing screenplays.
That was when Chet called me, introducing me to these doe-eyed white boys for pizza and beer in Los Angeles, 2000. I was happily employed, making great money. Because I arranged for the magazine to be mailed to all my friends, including everybody I knew in Marin, I was something of a celebrity back home. Everybody received StreetZebra, causing my name and success to widely circulate.
The Miller twins knew all about me. They wanted to meet me. Chet thought I could help them with advice or contacts. I had written screenplays. I was in the media. I had an agent. I was “the man.”
Those kids listened to me as if I was the Burning Bush. I almost felt sorry for ‘em. Almost. I told them they needed to study screenwriting. They needed to watch a lot of movies, not for entertainment, but to understand story development, structure, and character transformation. They had the looks but no acting background, although there was a playful charisma to them that possibly could work on screen. They were certainly handsome enough. I was very worried they would end up in porn; worse, find themselves in gay porn without realizing until it was too late. In 2000 people were discovering the vagaries of the Internet, photo-shopping, and attendant embarrassment. They lacked street smarts. I felt they could be taken advantage of.
I do not think I gave them anything they could use. I did not discourage them, but in my mind nothing more would be seen from them. But they were enthusiastic. They finished each other’s sentences. They had unbridled optimism for the future. They were in their mid-20s, in L.A. They had each other. Alone, neither could make it. Together they would not worry how difficult the odds stacked against them were.
The night ended. We said good-bye. I stayed in regular contact with Chet and Bob Aldridge over the years. I did not see the Miller towns. Periodically I asked about them. Bob said, “They’re making movies.” I thought he was nuts. I knew they were trying to make movie, a far cry from actually making movies.
In 2006 I ran into one of their friends, Tony Shapiro, at the gym. A former minor league ball player and teammate of theirs at Drake and College of Marin - where they all got a dose of Al Endriss, 1990s style - Tony told me he was in a movie directed by the Miller twins. I sighed. Now I actually felt sorry for them.
They were filming baseball scenes at the College of Marin diamond. Tony was one of the players. I thought it was such a waste. Six years passed since our meting in Los Angeles. At least they avoided porn, but they obviously had not gotten anywhere in Hollywood. Now they were doing the deed of the desperate, making their own “independent movie.”
I knew this cost money. I imagined they maxed out their credit cards and were setting themselves in a big hole pursuing this stupid “pipe dream,” as if a baseball movie filmed at College of Marin would ever see the light of day. I felt badly for these guys. They deluded themselves.
Another year or two passed. At some point, around Christmas of 2007 or perhaps early in 2008, I was at 19 Broadway in Fairfax, enjoying a cold brew or two with my good friend Mike McDowd. That was when I ran into Jeremy Zajonc. He was my friend from Gold’s Gym whose ex-Marine father flew helicopter for movies. He went to UCLA to get into the movie business.
This was when I heard about Ed Harris being in a movie Jeremy produced with the Miller twins. From there the film showed in the San Francisco Film Festival. My feeling was the boys should be congratulated for making the movie in the first place, but it would be amateurish, film school quality at best. A calling card, a resume builder, but far from success in the movie business. The date for the showing approached. I saw Tony Shapiro. He told me it was “good. Really good.”
“How good?” I replied. Good by what standards?
“I’m not gonna say anymore, Steve,” Tony told me. “Go see it for yourself.”
So I did. The Kabuki AMC in San Francisco was packed. Many Marin people I knew were friends of the Millers. They were in attendance. The film came on, knocking my socks off. Jeremy’s dad used his helicopter to create sweeping vistas of the Marin hills and valleys. Somehow the Millers landed a Panavision grant. The film quality and sound was surprisingly first class. Harris starred as their dad, giving an Oscar-worthy performance as their father. They did not use their real names, but it was their personal story of failing in baseball, then picking themselves up and trying again.
I exaggerate not, the film was almost as good as Field of Dreams. It was substantially better than Sling Blade. I wrote pieces for American-Reporter.com and ModernConservative.com saying the Millers would be the next Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, their singular debut worthy of the same accolades as Goodwill Hunting. I tried to help them land agents, producers and distribution deals with the people I was dealing with on the movie version of One Night, Two Teams. They were on their way and did not need my help.
In 2009 HarperCollins published their Best Seller Either You’re In Or You’re In the Way, the story of how they talked Harris into being in the film and making the movie. It showed to 8,000 people on the big scoreboard at AT&T Park, home of the Giants. In 2010 the movie debuted in theatrical release in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and selected other cities. It will be a big hit. They will be stars.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism