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Monday, March 16, 2009

Hall of Famers

The Studio City driving range is a Valley landmark. On Whitsett just north of Ventura Blvd., it is a place where Hollywood types sometimes hang to smash golf balls off mats and share stories about crooked agents and unsold scripts.
Dennis Quaid, Sylvester Stallone, Jon Lovitz and Christian Slater have taken lessons from the pros there and some old timers whose faces pop up in commercials or old films can be seen on the putting green. Don Cornelius, the longtime host of "Soul Train", is a regular.
Those guys are usually left alone by the rest of the duffers who are there to pound golf balls. Celebrities are usually treated the way we treat grieving acquaintances, a quick gesture of recognition (just so they don’t feel forgotten) followed by averting eyes and giving plenty of space.
There is some solace in noticing that most of these famous and successful stars are lousy golfers, and I can usually outdrive them.
Then there are some visitors who inspire something more than curiosity. Pete Sampras recently took a series of lessons from one of the pros there, Ron Del Bario. Sampras was pretty serious about his golf after retiring from a tennis career that left him as one of the all time greats. He brought his own cameraman to record every lesson and said he was practicing hours every day. He sweated out his golf lessons, and you could see what made him a superior athlete. It was impressive.
But I was not still not in awe until a few years ago, when Ernie Banks frequented the range, visiting an old friend from Chicago. I had seen him play in Ebbetts Field when the Cubs visited the Dodgers in 1956. Along with Musial, Kiner, Spahn, Roberts, and the other stars of that era, Banks had been a superhero. He hit 512 career home runs when it meant something, and has ever since been called "Mister Cub".
At the range fifty years later, I was able to have several long talks with Mr. Banks.

Now in his 70's, he was an elderly African American man, friendly and approachable. Not until you looked closely at his forearms and wrists could you see the athlete he was and always will be. Now thick in the waist and waddling on arthritic pins, he swung his golf club gingerly, though the competitive fire was evident when he hit a good one.
I told him about seeing him when I was a kid, realizing that he has heard that story a million times. He was more interested in his work with ghetto kids in Chicago and getting his projects going.

Today at the range I ran into another sports legend of my youth. Jim Brown was the best football player of his era and possibly of all time. He is considered one of the best athletes of the second half of the 20th Century. When I was in high school, rooting for the NY Giants of Sam Huff and company, the Cleveland Browns were their rivals. Brown regularly gained over a hundred yards a game rushing and more than a thousand yards a season (when a season was 12 games, not 16 as now). Although he was the focus of every defense he played against, he averaged 5 yards a carry for nine years. At 6'2" 230, with speed and power, most experts think he would have been a great player in any era.

He quit playing at the top, at age 30, and became an actor, in "The Dirty Dozen" and other films, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement, marching with Dr. King, speaking out with other African American sports stars like Bill Russell, Ali, Kareem-Jabbar. He was known as confrontational, sometimes militant and troubled (as when he was accused of domestic violence acts - throwing a lady friend from a balcony, for instance).

At the range, Brown could barely walk. He was stooped, barely recognizable. I found out that he’s recently had hip replacement surgery, which didn’t surprise me. Brown had over 2300 carries in 9 years, and was targeted by guys like Dick Butkus and Huff for special treatment. Brown’s trademark move was to rise very slowly after a tackle and walk back to the huddle as if he could barely make it. Taking the next handoff, he shot through the line with the same speed and power as always.
I asked him about it today. He explained gruffly but patiently - having told it many times - that he did that so the other team would never know whether he was really hurt by a tackle. I joked that his injuries may have come from lacrosse. Brown chuckled at that. He was an all-American in lacrosse and football at Syracuse, remembered there as the best college lacrosse player ever. He also lettered in basketball.

He said, "No, my troubles come from being 73."

He swung his golf club stiff-legged, but still managed to move the ball out there using only his upper body. He hit two buckets of balls, placing each one on the tee with a device that didn’t require bending down. When he hit a good shot, he smiled. When I hit a good one, he sometimes said, "That sounded good".
He shared his opinion of modern players. "The difference is preparation. You can’t do it in a nightclub." About Tiger Woods? "He may have lost it when he got hurt. This young kid, McElroy is 19 and he looks good." Someone mentioned Anthony Kim, a young pro who used to attract crowds at the Studio City range when he was the best ball striker there at 8 years old.
I suggested that maybe Tiger got interested in other things during his 8 month layoff - he has a second child, all the money in the world, and his father wanted him to change the world. Brown laughed at that. "Earl got pushed aside by the corporate suits and it became about making money, that’s all." I asked about his foundation. Brown didn’t conceal his bitterness. "His foundation? He expects to change life in the ghetto by teaching golf?"

I knew that Brown had spent many years speaking out about gangs and black poverty and had his own foundation. It crossed my mind that disappointment and ego were involved in his opinions.
When I left, he was still hitting balls. I wished him well. He said, "See ya."

On the way out, Samuel L. Jackson strolled in, carrying his golf bag, a serious look on his face, maybe seeking "the path of the righteous man" who can hit a golf ball out to the fence.

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