“I COULD ALWAYS SEE HIS SMILE, EVEN WHEN HE WAS ON THE PHONE”
The Big Bear just could have just mumbled, “no way.”
He could have said, “Who are you, you’re not part of the old boys network. You know what, my friend, I just don’t believe in ‘no-resume’ dreamers, don’t waste my time.”
But that wasn’t Barry MacKay. When I went over to MacKay’s Sausalito office 32 years ago to see if he could help launch a new magazine I was calling Inside Tennis, the great tennis man said, “Come on in Bill, sit down, so what do you have in mind, let’s see what we can do.” That was Barry. Few in this sport had a bigger heart or a more generous spirit. And few in the game reflected as well the arc of this sport over the past six decades.
In his Marin County office (near the houseboats where the hippies, the Buddhists and beautiful people lived in harmony), there was a huge fishbowl jammed with credentials from scores of tournaments from around the world. I was impressed.
Barry was everywhere in tennis: at The Racquet Club of Memphis or lumbering down the press hallway behind Court Centrale at Roland Garros; playing an exhibition with Prince Ranier in Monte Carlo or whispering into his mike in his almost soothing, “aww shucks” manner from the Grandstand at the U.S. Open. You’d seem him catching up on gossip with Billie Jean or super agent Donald Dell or whispering into John McEnroe’s ear.
MacKay, who passed on June 15th at age 76, after a long stomach illness and months in the hospital, was a beloved figure.
It wasn’t so much about his pedigree. It was his giving spirit, his love of the game, his ability to engage all. Look at it this way: the hulking guy they called “The Ohio Bear,” who was his state’s tennis high school champ, actually went on to be a star at Michigan, where he won the 1957 NCAA championships. The guy he beat in the NCAA finals was Sammy Giamalvea. Twenty-four years later, Giamalva’s kid, Sammy Giamalva Jr., won a tournament MacKay promoted in Napa. In 1959 and 1960, Barry won the Bay Area tournament he would come to own.
Barry was an old school serve and volleyer who, in the ’59 Wimbledon semis, narrowly lost in five sets to someone named Rod Laver, the low-key Aussie with the short red hair. Yet he would come to cultivate the over-the-top baseliner Andre Agassi, with his long mullet. MacKay ran a tournament. He was a businessman, but get this: players actually adored the guy. He would pick them up at the airport, arrange for cars and tee times, and oh did he love to lace up his sneakers and warm up Ivan Lendl or some little-known hopeful. “Barry could schmooze and work with many a high-maintenance player or sponsor,” said SAP Tournament Director Bill Rapp. “A lot of people think of big ideas, Barry actually stepgped up. What an impact he had.”
Stanford coach Dick Gould added, “I never met a person who met “The Bear” who didn’t have anything but exemplary things to say about him. I didn’t know anyone who knew him who didn’t love him.” Former USTA NorCal Executive Director Pete Herb said, “I could always see his smile, even if he was just on the phone.”
The big-serving MacKay won the Italian Open on clay and was often seen by the grass courts of Wimbledon. But at heart he was all-American. Our nation’s No. 1 player in ’60, he played on five Davis Cup teams. More than this, he was a Northern Californian. Generous to a fault, he’d lavish tickets on thousands and would always give of his time, emceeing fundraisers, going to Hunters Point clinics or appearing with Arthur Ashe. Sure, he always looked forward and brought cutting-edge celebs courtside: think Santana or Robin Williams. Still he celebrated the heritage of a singular game. Don Budge, Jack Kramer and Alice Marble were just some to the storied icons MacKay honored at his tournament. Plus, he loved to spin tales of his three years barnstorming as a pro in the early ’60s on Jack Kramer’s nomadic tour. Crowded in a station wagon in freezing or scorching temps, toting their own portable court, Kramer, the Panchos, Riggs, Trabert, and MacKay would go form high school gyms in Albuquerque to indoor armories in Eau Claire.
Simply put, in the fiercely competitive, turf-conscious, watch-your-back world of tennis (where if you want a friend, ‘tis best to get a dog), MacKay got along with everyone. From Beijing to D.C. – whether it was PBS in the 60s or The Tennis Channel just months ago – he could step in with anyone in any broadcast booth and thrive.
There was a benign comfort to most of his commentary, but he could bristle at the arrogant. He once said Chilean Marcelo Rios was “the epitome of what you don’t want … He doesn’t have the awareness of where the game has come from. There’s always been millions of dollars and people looking after him. He does nothing to promote the game, and that bothers me.”
Yet, MacKay himself seemed almost selfless. “He had no ego, he was a flat-out good person” noted Gould. “He did so many good things behind closed doors.”
Not that Barry was low profile. Thousands saw him twitch in agony when the zealous ump Marv Goldberg almost tossed his meal ticket, John McEnroe, out of the Transamerica. And never mind that there was lots of heartache in Barry’s life. Promoting tennis and traveling the world as a sports broadcaster is more than glamorous, but it doesn’t necessarily make for easy times. There were setbacks. He ultimately sold his beloved tournament in 1997. Plans for a senior tourney on the piers of San Francisco never quite materialized. Incredibly, he is not in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, or even the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. And then there was his “Zazu Pitts Of The World” moment. In the mid-’80s, MacKay invited the press corps, assorted gliteratti and VIP’s to a gala press conference which was to feature John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl at San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid. While the celebrated Zazu Pitts Memorial Band played a dandy set, not one of Barry’s temperamental stars showed up. And, can we be candid, just eight weeks after it was announced that his baby, the SAP Open, was leaving town. Some speculated whether his heart had been broken.
But this was a man who was eminently comfortable in his own skin and loved to laugh. He was always generous with Stanford, lavishing wildcards on their young players for his big-time tournament. But one year, after Cardinal Tim Mayotte dumped the great James Scott Connors (as MacKay would call him) out on his back side, he informed Stanford’s Gould that “this is the last time I will be offering some Stanford kid a wildcard.”
Barry was smiling. But today, we don’t smile.
California and all of tennis have lost a great man.
He helped me out. He helped this magazine. Well, then again, he helped everyone who came his way.
This Bear was good – very, very good.
He will be missed.