LADY VOL

Today, the world of college basketball mourns the loss of an icon.  Pat Summitt, longtime coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team (the “Lady Vols”), passed away earlier today of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 64.  Summitt coached the lady’s basketball team at UT from 1974-2012.   In 38 years she never had a losing season.   She won 1,098 games, the most by any college basketball coach, male or female, and her teams won eight national championships and appeared in 18 “Final Fours.”

In addition, she won an Olympic silver medal in 1976 as a player and coached the women’s team to a gold medal in 1984.  In 2009 the Sporting News ranked her # 11 on its list of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time (all sports, both male and female), the only female coach on the list.  Moreover, she has won numerous coaching awards, such as the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award (at the 2012 “Espys”), and many others too numerous to mention.

Patricia Sue Head was born on June 14, 1952 in Clarksville, TN.  She had two older brothers and one sister.  She grew up playing sports with (and against) them.  That was probably where she honed her intense competitive nature.  Pat was a standout basketball player, but her local high school did not have a lady’s basketball team.   Consequently, her family moved to an area where she could play – Cheatham County.   In those days, girls’ high school basketball in Tennessee was played the old-fashioned way.  You either played offense or defense.  A player could not cross half-court.  Also, there were no athletic college scholarships for women.   Head paid to play at UT.  She was so accomplished that she made all-America and co-captained the 1976 women’s Olympic basketball team that won the aforementioned silver medal.

There was no women’s pro league in those days, so after graduation it was on to coaching.  In 1974 she became a graduate assistant at UT, but after the head coach suddenly and unexpectedly quit the school needed a new head coach exigently.  Pat was available and, thus, was hired at the tender age of 22.  Of such serendipity is history often made.  It was not exactly a dream job.  It included a lot more than coaching.  Summitt often said her ancillary duties included washing the uniforms and driving the team van.  Moreover, on road trips, the accommodations were not exactly deluxe.  The night before one game, the team had to sleep on the floor of the home team’s gym in sleeping bags.

Summitt was an aggressive recruiter and a very demanding coach.  One story is that while nine months’ pregnant with her son, Tyler, she, nevertheless, went on a recruiting visit.  As told by the player, who ended up going to UT, she and her parents were concerned Summitt was going to deliver the baby right there in her living room, but they were extremely impressed by her tenacity and dedication to show up in the first place.  As a coach, she demanded the best, and when she felt a player wasn’t giving it, she would fix her with an “icy stare” that would thoroughly intimidate and produce the desired result.  On the other hand, she also provided a role model and developed countless teenage girls into young women.  She was so successful and highly respected that in 1997 and 2001 the school extended her the singular honor of asking her if she would like to coach the men’s team.

CONCLUSION

Summitt was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2011.  Nevertheless, she coached through the 2011-2012 season, albeit in a reduced role.  She passed away on June 28.

Summitt no longer holds the record for most championships.  Her mark has been superseded by UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who has won eleven.  But that has not diminished her legacy.   She was about more than wins and titles.  The conventional wisdom is that she was a women’s basketball coaching pioneer, and one of the greatest coaches ever, not just women’s basketball coaches, but coaches period.  Tributes have been pouring in from her former players and assistant coaches.  Her legacy is enhanced further by the fact no less than 25 of her former players and assistant coaches, plus her son, have become coaches and/or basketball administrators in their own right.  In my opinion, that is her most enduring legacy of all.

 

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30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO

We never know when greatness will be thrust upon us.  We never know when we will get the chance to do something that will have a truly significant impact, not only on us personally, but also on history, itself.  The vast majority of us will never have that opportunity or, perhaps, may not seize it when it presents itself.  But, for 80 young men, most of which were barely out of their teens, that fateful opportunity came on April 18, 1942.

I am referring to the daring, many thought foolhardy or ill-advised, bombing attack on mainland Japan, what is commonly referred to as the “Doolittle Raid.”  Permit me to “set the scene,” so to speak.  It was early 1942.  The Japanese had just executed a daring, dastardly, and devastating sneak attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor in which they had essentially wiped out our military capabilities in the Pacific and thrust the US headlong into WWII.  Americans were shocked and scared, and morale was extremely low.  Japan, which had been terrorizing east Asia for a decade, was perceived to be a mighty and invulnerable fighting machine.  FDR and the senior military leadership conceived a plan to bomb the Japanese mainland to boost American morale and to demonstrate to the Japanese and the rest of the world that they were not invulnerable.

Some points of information about the raid:

  1. The commander, Lt. Colonial Jimmy Doolittle, had been a well-known test pilot and aeronautical engineer before the war.
  2. The raiding party consisted of 16 B-25 bombers and a total crew of 80 persons.  The planes, would be launched from an aircraft carrier, which would get as close to the Japanese mainland as practicable without being spotted.  Nevertheless, these planes would not have enough fuel to be able to return to the carrier.  Therefore, the plan was to have them try to reach parts of China that were not under Japanese control.  Failing that, they would have to crash-land or “ditch” with the crews taking their chances on survival.
  3. The bombers would not have fighter escorts and, furthermore, in order to reduce weight and increase range, they would not have a full complement of armament.  Essentially, they would be defenseless against enemy fighters.  Not exactly a suicide mission, but close.
  4. The group succeeded in bombing multiple targets in Tokyo, Osaka and other cities.  None was shot down
  5. Following the raid, 15 of the 16 bombers proceeded toward the designated landing areas in China.  (The 16th  was extremely low on fuel and had to head for eastern Russia, which was closer.  When it landed near Vladivostok, the plane was confiscated and the crew detained.)   The Chinese resistance was supposed to guide them in using homing beacons and provide refueling.  Due to a miscommunication between the American brass and the Chinese resistance, however, the Chinese were not expecting them.  In any event, despite a strong tailwind, none of the 15 was able to reach the designated airfields.  They were all forced to bail out or crash-land near the Chinese coast.
  6. Thanks to assistance from Chinese civilians and guerilla fighters, most of the crewmen survived.  Of the 80 crewmembers only three were killed in the mission, itself, and four more perished in POW camps.  Many of the others were even able to return to service.
  7. In retaliation for helping the Americans the Japanese launched a brutal campaign against the Chinese in the area (Operation Sei-go) in which upwards of 250,000 Chinese were slaughtered, mostly civilians.
  8. Initially, Doolittle had thought his mission to be an abject failure, because all 16 planes had been lost and the damage inflicted had been minimal.  In fact, James Scott, journalist and author of the book “Target Tokyo,” an account of the mission, opined that the raiders inflicted merely a “pinprick” of damage to Japan’s war capabilities.  But, Doolittle had misjudged the tremendous morale boost it provided.  He was promoted two grades to Brigadier General, and he and many of the others received various medals.

CONCLUSION

One historical footnote: many historians, including Scott, maintain that the success of the raid goaded the Japanese into attacking the US at Midway later that year in retaliation.  Our decisive victory in that battle was the turning point of the war.

The surviving Doolittle raiders held a reunion almost every year through 2013.  The highlight of the reunions was the roll call and subsequent toast saluting those who have died during the previous year.

As I said in my opening paragraph, most of these heroes were just ordinary men who volunteered for a bombing mission not realizing the significance.  For example, consider David Thatcher, who passed away this week at the age of 94:

  1. He was one of ten children born and raised on a dairy farm in rural Montana.
  2. He joined the army right after graduating high school before Pearl Harbor.
  3. He volunteered for the mission without a second thought.  As he related to a reporter from the Lincoln Star Journal in 2013 “we didn’t think it [the bombing mission] was important then.  We thought it was just another mission.”
  4. When his plane crash-landed on the Chinese coast he became a hero.  Luckily he was not as severely injured as the others, so with the assistance of some local villagers he tended to them.  He made sure pilot Ted Lawson got to a local hospital (where his severely injured leg was amputated).  He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.  Ironically, Lawson later authored the definitive book on the raid, 3o Seconds Over Tokyo, which was later made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson.
  5. He eventually returned to combat, flying 26 missions over North Africa.
  6. After the war he returned home to Montana where he worked for the post office until his retirement in 1980.

The last surviving member of the raiders is Colonel Richard Cole who served as a gunner on one of the planes.

The raiders have been celebrated in various books and movies.  The best and most extensive display of raid memorabilia is at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Doolittle, Thatcher, Lawson, Cole and the others were just ordinary guys who did an extraordinary thing when the opportunity arose.  Let us not forget them nor the considerable significance of their achievement.

FATHER’S DAY

On Sunday, June 19, the third Sunday of June, many of us will celebrate Father’s Day.  FD is commonly viewed as an opportunity to gather with family for barbecues, picnics, sporting activities (e.g. baseball, golf or fishing), eat at a favorite restaurant or attend a Broadway show.  Generally, it is a fun day.

The idea of an annual day to recognize fathers was first proposed by Sonora Dodd a resident of Spokane, WA, in 1909.  She wanted to honor her own father who had raised her and five siblings as a single parent.   In her opinion, mothers had their “day,” so why shouldn’t fathers.  At first, she approached her pastor about organizing a special service on her father’s birthday, June 5, but for some reason, perhaps, time constraints, the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday of June.  The initial celebration was held in 1910.

For many years the idea of a “day” for fathers did not catch on with the general public.  The major reason was the fear that it would become overly commercialized like Mother’s Day and Christmas.  In addition, the media was not behind the concept.  Rather than support the idea, they attacked it with sarcastic and cynical articles and cartoons.  FD did, however, have its supporters.  Congress debated a bill as early as 1913, but it did not pass.  Presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge spoke out in favor of it.  Margaret Chase Smith, a longtime influential Senator from Maine,  criticized the inequity of Congress’ ignoring fathers while honoring mothers.  Finally, in 1966 LBJ issued a Presidential proclamation designating the third Sunday in June as FD.  It became a permanent holiday in 1972.

FD is celebrated differently in other countries around the world, as follows:

  1. United Kingdom – It is also celebrated on the third Sunday of June.  It is recognized as a day to honor not only fathers, but also other father figures, such as grandfathers and  fathers-in-law.  As in the US, typically, people pay a visit and give cards and gifts.  Other activities might include male-only outings [golf, football (soccer), or cricket] or trips.  One significant difference is that the day is not considered to be a holiday, just a normal Sunday.
  2. Canada – Very similar to the UK.  Popular activities would include going to the park, the zoo or eating out in a restaurant.
  3. Russia – The holiday, celebrated on February 23, is called Defender of the Fatherland Day.  All men are honored, not just fathers.  It began as a military celebration and is still marked by military parades.
  4. Mexico – Celebrated on the third Sunday of June.  It is marked with parties and gifts for dads and a 21 kilometer Father’s Day race.
  5. Brazil – It is celebrated on August 2 in honor of St. Joachim, patron saint of fathers and grandfathers.

CONCLUSION

Sports fans, which, let’s face it, include most dads, will have a variety of choices.  In addition to the regular choices of the US Open and baseball we have the unexpected bonus of Game 7 of The Finals.  My family will be enjoying all of the above.

FD is one of the few days of the year when the wife will not complain when you watch “too much” sports.  Dads, it is your day. Whatever you decide to do, enjoy it.

TERROR IN ORLANDO

Americans awoke on the morning of Sunday, June 12 to the horrific news of another terrorist attack.  This one was a mass shooting by a lone terrorist gunman in Pulse, a night club in Orlando that caters to gays.  The terrorist murdered a total of 49 persons and wounded an additional 53, many seriously.  This was the deadliest shooting in US history, and the deadliest terror attack since “9/11.”

According to the investigation by the FBI and others, the terrorist gunman was an American born Muslim who had become radicalized at some point.  Perhaps, he was inspired by ISIS’s or other terrorists organizations’ well-publicized and successful attacks in Europe, the US and the Middle East; perhaps, he became radicalized during his two pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia in 2011 and 2012; perhaps, he became inspired by family and friends; or, perhaps, a combination of the above.  FBI Director James Comey has noted the absence so far of any direct, coordinated link between Mateen and any terrorist organization outside the US.  Indications are that he acted alone, rather than as part of a cell or network, although the FBI is exploring the possibility of accomplices and/or aiders and abettors.  The situation remains fluid.  As yet, we do not know definitively.

The Orlando shooting attack is continuing a very disturbing trend.  Now, we have to face the stark reality that American-born terrorists can become inspired to commit terror acts without having been formally trained by a terror group.  They can be inspired from afar by the internet or even by news accounts of prior terror acts.

In any event,  I prefer not to focus on the “why.”  It may be newsworthy to some people, but I am more interested in the “how,” as in how did it happen and how do we protect ourselves better against future attacks.

Consider the following:

  1.  Like the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers, Mateen was a native- born US citizen.  This adds another layer of difficulty to maintaining our security, as native born terrorists are extremely difficult to ferret out.  They look, speak and appear like normal Americans and have constitutional rights.
  2. Mateen is a second generation American.  His parents emigrated from Afghanistan.
  3. Mateen purchased the two firearms he used in the attack legally, although one might question the thoroughness of the background check.
  4. As in the case of other terror attacks, e.g. San Bernardino and Boston, in retrospect, there were warning signs that were discounted or ignored: (a) A former co-worker characterized him as “unhinged” and “unstable” and remembered that he had often expressed a desire to kill people, notably Jews,  African Americans, women and gays, all of which he hated. (b)  He had bragged to co-workers about “connections” to Al Qaeda and being a member of Hezbollah. (c)  Co-workers described him a “loner,” “socially awkward,” and generally “disliked.” (d) Mateen’s first wife, who divorced him in 2011 after a very short marriage, characterized him as “obviously disturbed, deeply, physically abusive” and a steroid user. (e) The FBI had linked him to Moner Mohammed Abu Salha, an American radical who had committed a suicide bombing in Syria, and considered him a person of interest in multiple terrorist investigations.

CONCLUSION

Reaction has been predictable.  Every business is re-examining and beefing up their security protocols.  Fine, as far as it goes.  The old and insoluble debate over gun laws and the Second Amendment has resurfaced.  I don’t want to get bogged down in debating that one in this blog, except to say that we need to be more vigilant when it comes to noting and reporting aberrant behavior.  In my opinion, many us have been reluctant to do so due to excessive concern over “political correctness.”   In particular, friends, neighbors, co-workers and mosque members are likely critical sources.  As in this case, often, things that are ignored at the time become clear and obvious in retrospect, but by then it is too late.

This is another example of a terror attack on a “soft target,”such as a shopping mall, school, church, movie theater, or restaurant.  As I have blogged before, this is where we are most vulnerable.  Not only is security light or non-existent, but also these types of attacks hit us psychologically and emotionally in various ways.  They cause us to question our safety in our everyday life.   Without diminishing the importance of the economy, immigration, or other issues I consider security/combatting terrorism the number 1 issue in this presidential campaign.  If we’re not safe from terror, nothing else will matter.

We can expect more of these types of attacks.  Truly, we are in a war against terror, and the sooner we realize that and react to it appropriately, the better.

 

THE LAST FIRST COMIC

Most of you will puzzled by the enigmatic title, which seems to be an oxymoron.  How can someone or something be both last and first at the same time?  Well, read on, and I will demonstrate to you that it is a fitting title.

Chances are few of you have heard of Irving Benson. I know that I never had.  If anything, the name sounds like it belongs to a Jewish waiter at the Carnegie Deli.  But, no, Irving Benson was believed to be the last surviving headlining comic from the vaudeville circuit.

Irving Wishnefsky was born on January 31, 1914 in Brooklyn, NY, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland.  He began appearing in talent shows before his tenth birthday.   Soon after, he won an amateur dance contest, and by his early 20s he was already part of the burlesque and vaudeville circuits, touring the country as a comedian.   For those who are unfamiliar with these genres I will provide a brief synopsis.

Vaudeville was a form of live entertainment popular in the US and Canada from the 1880s to 1930s.  A troupe of entertainers would perform in small venues, such as clubs or small movie houses.  A show would include a wide variety of acts, such as singers, dancers, magicians, comedians and even animal acts.  Each act would be unrelated to the others, and the performers might travel from town to town separately or together.  The order of performance would be from the least popular or accomplished to the best or most famous, which would perform last.  Burlesque shows were similar, but more off-color and would include strippers and similar less reputable “entertainment.”

The popularity of these genres waned in the 1930s as movies and radio took hold.  Many famous entertainers we know from radio and/or television had their start in vaudeville or burlesque, including The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton,  Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Kate Smith, Bing Crosby, and many, many others.  Vaudeville is gone, but not forgotten.  It is fondly remembered by fans as a romantic link to their youth.

At some point, Wishnefsky changed his name to Irving Benson, perhaps, to sound less ethnic or, perhaps, just to enable it to fit on a billboard.  As we know, this was very common in those days.  He was a contemporary of some of the famous and familiar names listed above.  At first, being the unknown newcomer, he performed at the bottom of the bill, but eventually he worked his way up to the top as a the featured “first comic,” or “top banana,” as it was sometimes called.

During WWII Benson did his part by touring with the USO entertaining the troops.  Later he was a popular guest on tv variety shows, working with such as Milton Berle and Johnny Carson.  His most memorable schtick was to pretend to be a heckling spectator in the audience.  For example:

Berle:  “Why are you applauding?  I didn’t say anything yet?”

Benson: “That’s why I’m applauding.”

Berle:  “Is there something about my performance you don’t like?”

Benson: “You stand too close to the camera.”

Berle: How far away would you like me to be?”

Benson: “You got a car?”

Carson: “I’ve got a million jokes in the back of my head.”

Benson: “How come they never reach your mouth?”

CONCLUSION

In 1979 he appeared on the tv show Happy Days.  In 2010 his life was the subject of a tv documentary aptly named “The Last First Comic.”

Benson died on May 19 at the ripe old age of 102, the “last first comic,” and the last connection to a way of life long gone.

THE GREATEST

There have been no more than a handful of persons who have been instantly identifiable just by their nicknames.  Such was their fame that not even a first name was required.  For example, mention the “Babe,” the “Great One,”  the “Stilt,” the “Big O,” and the “Duke” and most people who follow sports or entertainment would know you are referring to George Herman Ruth, Jackie Gleason, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Edwin Donald Snider, respectively.  Such was the case with Muhammed Ali, who was known to one and all as simply, “The Greatest.”

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, KY.  He is generally considered to have been one of, if not the, greatest boxers ever.  Personally, I would place him on the “Mt. Rushmore” of pugilists along with Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson.  But, to characterize Ali as just a boxer is akin to labelling George Washington as merely a “general” or Martin Luther King as simply a “preacher.”  Ali was so much more than just a “boxer.” He was one of the most recognizable, influential, inspiring and symbolic persons in the world.  Sports Illustrated dubbed him one of the most recognizable sports figures of the last 100 years and “Sportsman of the [20th] Century.”   He was idolized by Muslims, the third world, young people, virtually everyone.   Probably, other than the Pope he was the most beloved person in the world.

Clay took up boxing at the age of 12.  As the story goes, someone had stolen his bike, and he vowed to “whup” him.  A police officer who doubled as a boxing coach suggested that he’d be better off learning to fight first.  So he did.  Clay was a very successful amateur, compiling a 100-5 record, winning several Golden Gloves and AAU titles as well as the Gold Medal in the 1960 Olympics (as a light heavyweight).   Following the Olympics, he quickly capitalized on his notoriety by turning pro.  He hired the renowned trainer, Angelo Dundee.  He won his first bout on October 29, 1960, and he was on his way.  By the end of 1963 he was 19-0 and the leading contender for the heavyweight title held by Sonny Liston.

Clay had a unique boxing style, which masked his relatively weak punching ability and utilized his quickness.  He would “dance” around the ring continuously in what became known as the “Ali shuffle;” the opponent couldn’t get a clean shot at him; he was as quick and mobile as most middleweights; his opponents would tire from chasing him, and he would weaken them further with a series of quick jabs.  Then, when the time was right, he would move in for the kill with lightening quick punches.  This style fit his mantra, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”  Jimmy Jacobs, who co-managed Mike Tyson, denoted that opponents didn’t realize how fast Ali was until they got into the ring, and then it was too late.  His punches didn’t feel like much but the cumulative effect of them could be devastating.  Charlie Powell, an early opponent, said “you don’t realize how much they hurt you until it was too late.”  George Chuvalo, another opponent, said “he was just too damn fast.  He’d be out of punching range, and as he moved into range he’d already begun to throw the punch.  So, if you waited until he got into range to punch back, he beat you every time.”  Finally, Arthur Mercante, noted long-time referee: “Ali knew all the tricks.  He was the best fighter I ever saw in terms of clinching.  Not only did he use it to rest, but he was big and strong and knew how to lean on opponents and push and shove and pull to tire them out.”

In addition, Clay was a superb “trash talker,” both before and during the bouts.  I believe his brash personality was the model for “Apollo Creed” in the Rocky films.   It went way beyond the common practice of just trying to promote the fight.  Sometimes, he would often predict the round in which he would knock out an opponent.  His objective was to anger his opponents to the point where they would lose their focus.   For the most part it worked.  Thus, Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson were “Uncle Toms,” Doug Jones was an “ugly little man;” Henry Cooper was a “bum;” and Sonny Liston was a “big, ugly bear.”  At times, he went out of his way to torture and humiliate opponents, such as Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson, who had insisted on calling him “Clay” after he had changed his name to Muhammed Ali.  Ali hated the name “Clay” with a passion.  He called it his “slave name.”

Clay was particularly rough on Liston.  He stated that “Liston even smells like a bear.  After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.”  To some extent Clay goaded Liston into fighting him just to shut him up.  Think of the scene in Rocky 3 where “Clubber Lang,” played by Mr. T, goads Rocky, and multiply it by 10.

Clay was a major underdog against Liston, who was perceived as “unbeatable.”  Few people in or out of boxing thought he had a chance.   But, Liston could do little more than chase him around the ring.  Liston failed to answer the bell for the 7th round, citing an injured shoulder, and Clay, at just 22, became the youngest boxer to wrest the heavyweight title from the champion in the ring.  I remember listening to the fight on the radio in my college dorm in total shock as he pranced around the ring chanting “I am the greatest!”  “I am the greatest!” And, you know, he was.  Due to Liston’s suspected ties to the Mob, some thought the fight was fixed; those suspicions were redoubled the next year when as Muhammed Ali beat Liston in the rematch in less than two minutes with a “phantom” punch.

A major turning point for Ali came in 1967.  Ali’s draft board had reclassified him as 1A and he had been drafted.  Ali refused induction claiming he had “no quarrel with them Vietcong.”  He sought conscientious objector status, but his claim was denied.  He was convicted of evading the draft.  He avoided jail pending appeal, but he was denied a license to fight in every state, and eventually his passport was revoked.  Thus, at age 25, in the prime of his career, Ali was on the shelf.  So much for due process.

At first, Ali had few defenders in the boxing world.  One notable exception was sports commentator Howard Cosell, who at the time was not that well known outside of NYC.  Cosell, himself, was a controversial figure who claimed to “tell it like it is.”  You either loved him or hated him.  He once described himself thusly:  “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff.  There’s no question that I am all of these things.”  And, he was right.  But, one other thing he had was a sense of right and wrong, and he knew Ali had been denied due process.  Thus, began an unusual symbiotic and, at times, contentious relationship between the two that, ultimately benefited both of them.  Cosell provided Ali with much needed support, and Ali provided Cosell with the means to rise to prominence as a sports commentator and personality.

Ali’s exile ended in early 1971 when the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, overturned his conviction.   By this time, support for the war had eroded to the point where most people just wanted it to end, so Ali’s position was more accepted.  In addition, he had benefited from the growing civil rights movement.   For example, he had become a popular speaker at colleges around the country.

After a few tune-ups he met Joe Frazier in what was billed as “the fight of the century.”  Perhaps, a bit of hyperbole, but not much.  Although Ali lost, the fight was a big success for the sport of boxing.  In retrospect, this was the first of the big money bouts, and boxing became rejuvenated.

The two fought two more times highlighted by the “Thrilla in Manila,” fought in 100 degree heat , which nearly killed both men.  By most accounts there was real animosity between the two.  Frazier insisted on calling Ali “Clay,” and Ali had a series of unflattering nicknames for Frazier besides the aforementioned “Uncle Tom.”

One other notable bout was the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Zaire, which Ali won in another huge upset.  What made this fight notable was Ali’s use of the novel  “rope a dope” strategy to tire out Foreman before dispatching him in the eighth round.  After the fight Foreman admitted that Ali had “…outthought me and outfought me.”

CONCLUSION

As mentioned above, Ali became an iconic and inspirational figure, particularly in the African American community.  For example, Martin Luther King, an iconic and inspirational figure in his own right, admitted that Ali’s stance on the Vietnam War had encouraged him to speak out about it.  Additionally, Kareem Abdul Jabbar claimed that as a school kid he looked up to Ali and his anti-establishment positions.

Perhaps, the culmination of Ali’s status as an iconic figure came at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  He was given the supreme honor of lighting the Olympic torch in the stadium.   According to Dick Ebersol, a former prominent NBC sports executive it almost didn’t happen.  Although, legally, Ali was considered to be a “conscientious objector,” many Southerners viewed him as a “draft dodger.”  Billy Payne, head of the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee, wanted the honor to go to Evander Holyfield instead, but he was overruled.  Finally, there was a tense moment when Ali, stricken with Parkinson’s, seemed unable to actually light the torch, but it finally caught.  This near faux pas was edited out.  The torch lighting was a most inspiring moment.

A small sampling of Ali’s many awards and legacies:

  1. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
  2. Ring Magazine named him “Fighter of the Year” more times than any other fighter.
  3. He has had various streets, schools and malls named after him.
  4. In 1993, the AP reported that he, along with Babe Ruth, was the most recognized athlete in America, dead or alive.
  5. In 1999 the AP ranked him as the top heavyweight of the 20th century.  ESPN ranked him as the second greatest fighter in history behind Sugar Ray Robinson.
  6. He has appeared in films and on TV several times.

In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, no doubt as a result of the considerable punishment he had taken in the ring.   He was in declining health for many years.  He died on June 3 in Scottsdale, AZ from respiratory complications.   Rest in peace Muhammed.  We will miss you.

Some of my favorite quotes regarding Ali:

  1.  Upon learning that his IQ was 78, which was in the 16th percentile, “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”
  2. “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee.
  3. “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
  4. “I should be a postage stamp.  That’s the only way I will ever get licked.”
  5. “I am the greatest!”
  6. Live every day as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right.”

THE CUSTOMER’S ALWAYS RIGHT

We are all familiar with “rags to riches” stories about people who started with nothing and became extremely successful and/or famous.  Stories such as these are what America is all about.  Well, this one is a little different – call it a “rags to riches to rags” story.

Harry Gordon Selfridge was born on January 11, 1858 in Ripon, Wisconsin.  He was one of three boys.  Harry had a very sad, tough childhood.  When he was less than one year old the family moved to Jackson, Michigan, and his father bought the town’s general store.  During the Civil War his father enlisted in the Union Army.  Following the war he simply failed to return home, abandoning his family.  In addition, Harry’s two brothers died at young ages leaving just his mother and him to fend for themselves.  His mother found employment as a headmistress in the local high school, but her salary was not nearly enough to support them.

Harry began working part time at the age of ten delivering newspapers.  At 14, he was forced to quit school altogether and work full time to help support the family.  He worked at a succession of jobs, including at a bank, a dry goods store, as a bookkeeper at a furniture store, and finally, at Marshal Fields Department Store in Chicago.  He started there as a stock boy, but over the years he worked his way up to junior partner.   Along the way, he married into a very wealthy and prominent local family and became a wealthy man in his own right.  In 1904 he opened his own store, named Harry G. Selfridge and Co., but shortly thereafter, he sold it at a tidy profit and decided to retire at the young age of 46.

For the next two years Harry lived a life of aimless leisure, doing “a little of this and a little of that.”  Then, in 1906, while on vacation in London he realized that for all of the city’s cultural and commercial prowess, its department stores were decidedly inferior to those in Chicago.  So, Harry purchased a department store in an “unfashionable” section of the city for 400,000 pound sterling (about $1.1 million, a considerable sum at the time).  The store opened in 1909 and was a rousing success due, in large part, to Harry’s innovative marketing.   For example:

  1.  He promoted his store as a place where shoppers could do so for pleasure, not just out of necessity.  This seems logical to us today, but in 1909 it was a radical notion.
  2. The floors were arranged to make merchandise more accessible to shoppers who would be encouraged to browse.
  3. Employees were trained to be accessible, but not obtrusive.  If need be, they would be prepared to actually “sell” the merchandise.
  4. He provided diversions to encourage customers to linger, not just shop and run.  He reasoned that as long as the customer remained in the store he or she might buy something.  Thus, he provided amenities such as restaurants, a library, a reading room, first aid room and a “silence room” in which to relax.  Also, shoppers who did not speak English could find assistance from employees who spoke foreign languages, such as French or German.
  5. He arranged for the store to have a private telephone number “Gerrard 1” so that a prospective customer could be connected to a Selfridge operator quickly.
  6. Service was paramount, and the shoppers loved it.
  7. Harry also treated his employees very well, and they liked and respected him for it.

Selfridge’s became immensely successful, especially during WWI.  But then, tragedy struck.  His wife died in 1918, a victim of the infamous Flu Pandemic.  His mother followed in 1924.  Harry was all alone.  He began to live a reckless lifestyle, dissipating his fortune on gambling , show girls and extravagant spending.  In addition, like most everyone else, the Great Depression hit both his company and him, personally, very hard.  In 1941 he was forced out of his own company, and it was all downhill from there.   Harry died of bronchial pneumonia virtually destitute on May 8, 1947 in London at the age of 89.  Fittingly, he is buried next to his wife and mother.

CONCLUSION

Harry and Selfridge’s are not particularly well-known in the US, except, perhaps, among very dedicated shoppers, however, in the UK he was among the most respected, innovative, and wealthiest of retail magnates.  In addition to the innovations listed above while at Field’s in Chicago he is credited with being the first retailer to promote Christmas sales with the phrase: “Only ____  Shopping Days Until Christmas.”

Some of the principles by which Harry ran his business can be epitomized by the following quotes, which have been attributed to him:

  1.  “The customer is always right.”
  2. “The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them.”
  3. “The boss depends on authority, the leader on goodwill.”
  4. “The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.”
  5. “The boss says ‘I’; the leader , “we.’ “
  6. “The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.”
  7. “The boss says ‘Go;’ the leader says ‘Let’s go.’ “

Finally, if you are interested in finding out more about Harry Selfridge you can watch the television series Mr. Selfridge on Amazon Prime Video.  My wife, who urged me to write this particular blog, has seen it and strongly recommends it.  If you should watch it, I would welcome your opinion.