There is the old wives tale that certain things, like death, comes in threes. In reality it is probably only true because when you hear of someone you know or know of, passing away, your mind starts looking for ways to bring closure, and finding those other two, no matter how remote, helps to somehow makes thing easier.
Then there was Friday, when three prominent people in their own way attached to sport, were all lost, all after lengthy illnesses, and in this Forrest Gump-like existence I have from time to time, I had crossed paths with.
In the morning came news that Bud Collins had finally passed away following a lengthy illness. Although Bud and I butted heads occasionally on things like access and procedure during my time at the USTA and the WTA back in the day, there were few characters, let alone people of character, that I enjoyed being around more. While many people knew him for his time on TV through tennis, a quick look will show what a master storyteller he was for decades, from baseball to boxing, and how his ability to find the narrative, and then tell it in his own way, set him even further apart from the crowd than his signature multicolored outfits that always made their way to broadcast TV. The good news is that Bud’s mind for facts and figures will continue to live on in The Bud Collins Tennis Encyclopedia, which was his baby even as his health failed in recent years. His name and his legacy will also live on thanks to the USTA, who renamed the Media Center in Flushing Meadows for him last September. The book and the hub of media activity for two plus weeks every year will be a very fitting way for generations going forward to hopefully remember a man who really helped lift tennis in its heyday, and continued to champion the sport as it has ebbed and flowed in America in the last 20 years.
Later in the day Friday came more difficult news, that Shannon Dalton Forde, longtime member of the Mets PR staff, was lost to cancer. The tributes for Shannon went far beyond the beat writers who covered the team, even bringing veteran sportscaster Bruce Beck to tears on the air Friday night on WNBC TV in New York. While I know the other members of the PR staff at the Mets…Jay Horwitz, Ethan Wilson and Harold Kaufman and their boss David Newman…much better than Shannon, she was always willing to find ways to help and was always quick to return emails and answer questions during the various and sundry stops I have made to CitiField and Shea Stadium for work over the years. The universal grief and emotion that came pouring out in the hours after her passing again reinforced that her life, not her work per se, was what anyone should aspire to be; selfless, passionate, and always willing to go the extra mile. Joel Sherman’s story in the New York Post was the most fitting tribute to her, and was reflective of yet another life well lived, one that surely is over too soon, but one that will not be forgotten.
Then there was Pat Conroy. While many knew Pat for his iconic works of fiction, I came to know him in a brief window through his love of basketball. His book about his time playing hoops at The Citadel, My Losing Season, really helped set the stage for millions as to how he came to be a writer, and how his formative years in Charleston were shaped not just by challenges in life, but in sport as well. Several years ago when I was with the Knicks (we had training camp at The College of Charleston), I took a chance and dropped him a note, and after clearing it with then-coach Larry Brown, invited Pat to come watch practice. At first he called and said he might be away, but then he sent me a note, hand written, saying his schedule had changed and he might be able to come by one day. I didn’t hear back from him for a few weeks, but one day as I was walking to practice my phone rang and it was Pat. He said he could swing by for a few minutes later that morning, and low and behold, he popped in to watch more than a few drills and talk hoops. He left before practice was over and didn’t get to meet the players or coaches, but it was clear, sitting high up in the gym, that he enjoyed the respite and was grateful for the opportunity. That ended up being my last season with the Knicks so I couldn’t return the favor again, but he did email me a few times afterward, especially after the team stopped making the trip south under Mike D’Antoni. While I wouldn’t call Pat Conroy a friend, that short time we spent together was memorable for me, as I used the access I had to give someone a little unique break from the day to day.
His works will certainly live on with his millions of fans, but I was glad to be able to give a hoops fan, who also happened to be a great storyteller, a little extra boost that he certainly appreciated.
The fact that the news of all three losses came while I was literally sitting in a press box (at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas watching Rugby Sevens on the road to Rio) probably would not have been lost on any of the three. After all, it was their passion for people, and for their livelihood, that drove them to greatness and respect in their own way, and with their own circle of people, which numbered in the millions. Those circles probably didn’t cross that much, there are probably a few people other than myself who had met all three, but their impact on the lives of others big and small will be a great legacy going forward. Their passing on the first Friday of March also serves as a great reminder that sports, and the business we are in, can still be an amazing and passionate unifier, and more importantly, that even with all the crap that we deal with, the ability that sport has to inspire should never be forgotten.
It was a privilege to have known all three in such unique ways and to such varying degrees, and it is even more impressive to see how their spirit, their work, and their passion will live on. While that is something that probably won’t be appreciated in the days ahead by those who knew them closely, it will serve as a solace for the future. All three lived lives of passion, talent and grace; something we should all aspire to and never forget.
And now back to the field…