First Serve: Off To See The Wizard

0
870

In many ways, I’m quite the serious fellow. Truth be told, few in the press corps ask more “What’s it all about?/meaning of life” questions to aspiring teens than I do. But, all that shifts at the U.S. Open.

While the Aussie Open has its beer-swigging fanatics, Roland Garros displays continental gents and Wimbledon is crowded with dukes and duchesses, the U.S. Open draws celebs: tall ones (the late Wilt Chamberlain), short ones (Barbra Streisand), sweet ones who come out for the love of sport and vain ones who come out for the love of being seen.

After all, we Americans live in the greatest celebrity-loving society in the history of the known universe, where Brangelina’s baby pics sell for $11 million and to some Paris Hilton, Britney Spears  and Lindsay Lohan are a kind of Holy Trinity. Let’s face it, many souls are captivated by the red-carpet glitz of snazzy stars who sparkle, the political powerhouses who rule and the mighty tycoons in our midst.

So, inevitably, at each U.S. Open, I seek ‘em out. A not-exactly-shy, celeb-seeking missle, I get to them with the help of media-friendly USTA presidents or kind PR handlers. I do it by schmoozing security guards and, on occasion, by sidestepping the Secret Service. When “A-list” celebs gather at their usual watering holes, talking with them can be like picking low-hanging fruit. Other times, you better know the hidden staircases, VIP elevators, dank back corners and the glam-heavy power suites of that Alice In Wonderland maze they call Ashe Stadium.

Sometimes the process is sweet and nourishing. Just last year, I sat down outside the locker room with the incredibly gracious Aretha Franklin, who made me feel oh-so comfy. More often, there’s a certain theater of the absurd. Like when I shouted questions two years ago to Tiger Woods through an imposing gauntlet of not-too-friendly security folks in front of me and a cadre of breathless reporters behind me. Or the time I skirted by eagle-eyed Secret Service agents in the upper deck in order to call out wonky questions down to President Clinton, who was hanging out in an open-air luxury suite.

Then, there was the curious time I was invited to the Trump suite and, as the father of two young daughters, found myself entertaining “the Donald’s” young kid with inventive funny faces and gaa-gaa jokes that brought plenty of giggles until the kid’s not-exactly-amused mom, scowl in place, walked in and offered her stern (if glances could kill) disapproval.

Over three decades in New York, I have been blessed to interview bishops (Tutu) and knights (Sir Paul McCartney), commentators, (Cronkite, Wallace, Couric and Charlie Rose) and Kings (icon Billie Jean, singer Carol and the late comic Alan), mayors (Dinkins and Bloomberg) and governors (Jeb Bush), congressmen (Gingrich), and senators (Hillary Clinton). I’ve spoken with boxers (George Foreman) and bikers (Lance Armstrong), directors (Spike Lee) and divas (Aretha, Streisand, Diana Ross and Nicole Kidman), three U.S. presidents (Carter, Bush Sr. and Clinton) and a president’s son (John F. Kennedy, Jr.). Some of the names have been oh-so familiar to me: the late William Simon, the treasury secretary and razzmatazz financier who virtually had the same name as myself.

But other times, I didn’t even know who I was interviewing. Like when I was at a reception for black female athlete pioneers, I landed up talking with an anonymous Olympic bronze medalist and scrambled to begin the interview, asking: “What is your name and what are you known for?”

Of course, there are times (even though it violates my religion) when I actually don’t seek an interview, like when I spotted love-smitten Steffi Graf up in the ozone seats watching her new boyfriend, Andre Agassi, in the final; or James Taylor, who I tactically let pass by in order to get to Robin Williams and Lance Armstrong.

Ultimately, I do these interviews because they not only make for fun, breezy reads, but there’s an undeniable joy in the hunt and, as much as anything, I get to meet intriguing folks and get a passing glimpse of what they’re really like.

So Bishop Tutu really does have an elfin sparkle. Newt Gingrich is far more bright and engaging than I imagined and wanted to chat long after his handlers insisted on closure. Diana Ross is (if it is possible) even more self-absorbed than her rep. (When, after she performed as part of a celebration of Billie Jean King, I asked her a question about the great pioneer, she pivoted and said the night was also about her, too.) Robin Williams is just as quirky/funny as you might imagine. Nicole Kidman is way tall and knows her tennis. Carol King is surprisingly nervous and twitchy, and Katie Couric is tough as nails, yet oh-so peppy-cute.

Of course, there are times when interviews simply fizzle. Bill Murray, in a huff, said no way. Yankee Manager Joe Torre didn’t like my question. British security didn’t let me within a Royal Mile of Princess Fergie, and 60 Minutes’ Andy Rooney — while not as put off as Ethel Kennedy or as surly as former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, was grumpy and mean. Then there were times when these encounters took off and soared. Mike Wallace and I clicked and Bishop Tutu offered thoughtful insight into the role of Arthur Ashe in the movement to sweep apartheid aside.

Then there was the time I thought my interview was an astounding triumph, but it proved otherwise. In ‘92, I was packed into a steamy pressroom jammed with reporters who were informed that Barbra Streisand was hanging out in a tiny tournament office nearby. Certainly, I thought I would be left in the dust as the herd of writers stampeded. Wrong!

I was the only one to scamper over. Never mind that scores of wide-eyed groupies, cameras in hand, draped over a nearby balcony and the stone-faced USTA officials scoured the scene; I tried to appear to be professional and invisible as I began a lengthy vigil that drew on one of the most important qualities of celebrity interview-hunting: patience. Then 30 minutes later, the door swung open, camera flashes flared en masse and a radiant star emerged in white jeans and a white tank top. This was my moment.

“Ms. Streisand,” I began with deferential modesty. “Could I kindly ask you who your favorite tennis player is?”

She paused and gazed deep within me, her doe eyes wide, and slowly lifted her arm to offer a grand operatic gesture as she whispered, “It’s Andre Agassi. He’s a Zen master.”

“In what way?” I wondered.

“Oh, he’s all craft. He’s sensitive. He’s an extraordinary human being who is far more evolved than his linear years.”

Scoop in hand, I nodded Zen-like, thanked Streisand and headed off to get a response from Andre. All the while the British tabloid writers begged me to spill the beans and reveal what Streisand had said. But I resisted: “Sorry, fellas, not this time.”

Then, just two nights later, Zen disaster (but, then again, is there such a thing?) struck as the TV announcer said, now let’s go out to our roving reporter who’s up in the stands with a very special guest. It was Micheal Barkann with Streisand, who promptly began once more to gush her Zen litany: “Andre’s a Zen master,” she said. “He’s very focused, very intelligent”…La-di-da, la-di-da, I thought. “He’s such a kind human being,” she continued “and that just amazes me.”

What amazed me was that in a brutal flash my “Zen Flesh” scoop had instantly been reduced to “Zen Bones.” But Zen again, on you go.

Certainly, other times will come when the magic works. Like nine years later in ‘01, when I was about to take my press seat to cover the Sampras-Lleyton Hewitt final, the L.A. Times’ Lisa Dillman simply gestured up to the suites section and said, “Bill, I’ve got an assignment for you. McCartney’s in the house.”

Without hesitation my quest began as, with some effort, I found out precisely where Paul and his then-girlfriend Heather Mills were seated. Never mind that, as the crowd roared with a U.S. Open final fervor, I was relegated to waiting — seemingly forever — in a bare concrete corridor that had all the cozy charms of a Prussian bunker. But the long wait was worth it when, just as the final ball was struck, McCartney emerged into the still-quiet passageway.

“Excuse me, Sir Paul,” I began. “Could I possibly introduce myself? I’m Bill Simons, the publisher of Inside Tennis, and I named my daughter, Abby Rose, after The Beatles [as in Abbey Road] and I just wanted to ask…”

But McCartney interrupted, and offering a beaming Fab Four smile, said, “Oh, that’s just so wonderful.” Then, incredibly, Paul put his arm around my shoulder. Now, in total disbelief, I couldn’t resist gingerly placing my arm around the icon’s waist. Soon we jauntily strode down the bare concrete corridor, miraculously transformed into a kind of Yellow Brick Road. Bubbling with glee, I was now but a wide-eyed kid filled with wonder, who — shall we say — was simply off to see the wizard, the wonderful…

SHARE