I had a date with a 15-year-old brunette in Paris, and I was waiting for her in the lounge when the old Aussie hero came in, took a Perrier at the bar and spotted me across the way. It had been a long time, so he sauntered over and sat down and we caught up on one another. "What're ya doing here?" he asked, gesturing at my tools of accuracy. They lay on the table, my pad and pen.
"Waiting to interview the kid—Gabriela Sabatini," I said, and he nodded. Then, like a flash, it hit me. The man sitting before me, Tony Roche, had been the first athlete I ever wrote a feature story on for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. He was 17 at the time. I discovered Tony Roche. One freezing day in Philadelphia, in what became a blizzard, I interviewed him, and here he was 22 years later, at 40, a coach now, while I, with my pad and pen out, was waiting to interview another teenager.
I started to say something about this—the more things change, and all that—but, mercifully for Tony, I stopped myself before I could bore him with a lot of pointless vocational nostalgia. As my first profile, Roche had done pretty well by me. He never did quite become the world champion he longed to be, but he won one Grand Slam singles title and a dozen Grand Slam doubles and spent a decade near the top of the world rankings. Here he was now, an honored name in his profession, sipping a Perrier one glorious spring day in Gay Paree. That's not bad for a kid from Tarcutta, New South Wales; and that's not a bad subject for a kid writer from Baltimore to break his maiden on. And so we chatted awhile longer, until Gabriela swept in, and Tony left her to me.
Probably the most curious phenomenon that anybody in the permanent cadre of sports—not just the journalists, but the officials, the promoters, the trainers, all of us support troops—must deal with is that the truly important members of the cast, the players, never grow older. Oh, particular players do, of course, but the cohort is always the same, ever youthful. It's you that ages. I imagine it's like being a school teacher and always having fifth grade.
In sports, whole professional lifetimes pass before you—unknowns who become rookies, who become established, who become stars, who lose a step, who get released. All of a sudden they're coaching other rookies, kids who have every step God ever gave them.
Over the years I have done stories on a lot of young athletes like Tony Roche, athletes who had all their steps, who had, as we say, just arrived, standing at the threshold of glory. I decided to pick out four of them, champions all, and go back and visit them. I would ask them where they'd come from and where they are now and how it's been, changing.
I first met Bobby Orr one summer's day in 1966 in Parry Sound, Ont. when he was 18 years old. I saw him play a couple of times in the NHL, but I never spoke to him again until I met him the other day at his office in Boston.
It's most curious to do the first story on someone and never write another word about him, even though that someone became the best and most significant player in his game. It was a fluke that first brought me to Parry Sound. In those days the Boston Bruins were the dregs, perennially the NHL's worst. The Boston Celtics were, then as now, the elite of pro basketball, and because I covered the NBA, I spent a great deal of time in the company of the Boston sports press. Late at night, when there was absolutely not another word to say about Russell or Heinsohn or the Jones boys, somebody would mention Bobby Orr, and then the Boston writers, in hushed voices, would confidently tell tales of the future. They would talk about the day when Bobby Orr, who was 15 or 16 years old and playing junior hockey in some Canadian backwater, would come to Boston, become the greatest player in the world and lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup. Imagine getting carried away like this about a 15-year-old snot-nosed kid.
Still, you never know. Maybe the Boston writers could get it right for once. And so it was on a summer day 19 years ago that Leo Monahan of the old Boston Record-American and I set out for Parry Sound to find the wonder child. The night before, in a motel, Leo and I drank some beers and he tried to explain hockey to me, blue lines and high-sticking and stuff. Finally I said: "Leo, is this kid really this good?"