Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Silver Medalist Pat Summitt

Full disclosure: I'm not a big basketball fan.

My first Olympic basketball experience is coming soon, with a ticket to the gold medal women's basketball final in Rio during the second week of the Games.

With that said, tuning in to recent news reports, one could not miss the weekend updates about the legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt and family statements about her declining health. 

This morning I woke up to the overnight headlines that Summitt died from complications related to Alzheimer's. 

Condolences are due for this accomplished athlete and coach, who I learned only today was an Olympic silver medalist on the first U.S. women's basketball team in Montreal 1976. 

Summitt later coached Team USA's gold medal follow up at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (though she did not personally earn a gold medal, as some reports erroneously stated).

Sadly, my family learned first-hand about Alzheimer's and later-stage "complications" as my mother, Betty, died of the memory- and function-stealing disease in early 2014. 

Mom was diagnosed in early 2008, a couple of months after her 65th birthday, so she was not an "early onset" patient as Summitt was (the coach was diagnosed in 2011, before she turned 64, the demarcation line for "early onset" designation). 

But I suspect -- and don't wish this for anyone -- that Summitt's family worked through many of the same challenges we witnessed and that millions of American families experienced, or continue to endure, in the final months for an Alzheimer's patient. 

Hollywood portrayals of diagnosed characters in "Youth" and "The Descendants" give brief but accurate glimpses of the disease and the impact on family members. 

Inspired by some of the online remembrances, it's likely I'll track down a copy of Summitt's autobiography "Sum It Up" for more details on her Olympic and other accomplishments, in her words.

It would also be cool to track down the Los Angeles Times' reports about Summitt published during the 1984 Olympic women's basketball tournament to see how they reported on the team's progress and victory.

I hope that Summitt's diagnosis, treatment and foundation will continue to inspire research toward a cure for Alzheimer's or fund respite for the families managing their loved ones with this condition. 

Images: Coaching photo via this page; Montreal Olympic photo via NPR; Los Angeles Olympic photo by Pete Leabo/Associated Press; book cover photo via this page. Image below via Clarkson Creative. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Enjoy Olympic Day and Move!

It's Olympic Day, the global holiday launched more than 65 years ago.

According to the Team USA site, more than 160 nations participate through formal Olympic Day events. The International Olympic Committee page for the festivities offers some details.

"Encourage people to get active on Olympic Day. 'Move' can refer to all sorts of physical activity for people of all ages and abilities."

Their use of the word 'move' reminded me of instructions from a famous Nick who appeared frequently on Saturday Night Live.

In the USA, a record-setting 2,120 Olympic Day events are planned nationwide, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee press release.

Olympic bid cities are getting in on the action, too, with LA2024 hosting Olympic Day festivities in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"Olympic Day is a unique opportunity to get a taste of what it means to inspire the next generation around the positive and powerful values of sport and Olympism," said LA24 Vice Chair and Director of Athlete Relations Janet Evans.

Image via IOC

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Want to Carry a 2018 Olympic Torch?

With just a few more weeks until the Rio 2016 Olympics of summer, a key milestone just passed -- with an open invitation to perhaps carry a torch -- in the countdown to the next Winter Olympiad.

In celebration of the 600 Days to Games mark on June 20, organizers for PyeongChang 2018 announced a global Torch Relay Idea Contest open to anyone and everyone worldwide. 

On the competition homepage, entrants find the following greeting:

"The PyeongChang 2018 Torch Relay will shine the light of the Olympic and Paralympic flames on Korea's hidden potential. Please share your ideas for the torch relay, including potential routes, torchbearers, modes of transport or ways to spread the word about the event. 

"We especially welcome ideas that highlight Korea's defining qualities -- passion, creativity, dynamism and uniqueness. Make sure your ideas are based on your personal stories and experiences."

Entrants are instructed to read a brief history of the Olympic torch relay tradition, then consider what type of entry (route, runners, transport, publicity) they wish to suggest. 

From what I can tell, individuals or teams of up to three people may enter.  

In case contributing to Olympic history isn't enough of an incentive, the most creative entries in adult and "students under twenty" (ages 14 to 20) categories may win a trip to Olympia, Greece, to see the start of the 2018 Olympic torch relay, tickets to Winter Olympic events, cash and/or merchandise. 

Though the trip to Greece is billed as the top prize, perhaps second prize is more extraordinary in that it includes a runner's segment as torchbearer. 

Winners will be chosen through three stages of evaluation including basic entry requirements, "expert" review and a public vote, presumably online and worldwide. Multiple entries are encouraged. The contest is open through August 12.

I love that video files or images are allowed to enhance the entries -- it will be fun to brainstorm some creative options from Atlanta and to see what folks around the world contribute. 

Personally hoping a truly new addition to the Olympic torch relay tradition will be created through this contest, which would be a great legacy for the Korean hosts staging their second-ever Olympiad and first Winter Games. 

For anyone on the fence about entering, keep in mind "the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part."

Images via PyeongChang 2018

Monday, June 20, 2016

Making the Rounds at Ali's Memorial Service

Before last week's terrible news from Orlando -- which gave me cause to pause in posting to this site for several days -- I applied for a media credential to attend the Muhammad Ali Memorial Service in Louisville.

Though it was only a week before, even then seems like a simpler time. If only the Florida attacker had invested his energy in learning Ali's many positive messages, things may have been better.

With press pass access granted just a couple of days before the June 10 service in Kentucky (about 400 miles north), there were only a handful of hours to plan a trek to Louisville to celebrate and report on The Greatest.

For posterity, the following includes 12 rounds of highlights from the 36-hour Ali Memorial experience. 

ROUND ONE: Preparation and the Drive North

A car rental was necessary as my own vehicle has a recently-diagnosed bald tire unfit for the 850-mile round-trip journey to Ali's hometown. 

Always eager to make the most of time on the road, I reserved an audio book copy of "The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey" -- an Ali autobiography -- at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library. Learning about The Champ in his words brought better context for many of the interfaith remarks presented in eulogies later in the week. 

Skilled at packing light, it was satisfying to quickly fill an overnight bag before departing Atlanta around 5:30 p.m. Thursday, on track for a midnight arrival.

Sadly, around Lake Altoona (45 miles northwest of Atlanta), I discovered my suit and tie remained hanging in my apartment closet, so a 90 minute round-trip return home threw off my "easy" journey.

Ultimately, it was 3:30 a.m. Friday when my head hit the hotel pillow, dog tired. 

ROUND TWO: Before Sunrise

Upon check-in at my Louisville hotel, the desk manager at the Cottonwood Suites Louisville Fair & Expo Center informed me most downtown streets would close by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday for the Ali funeral processional.

My wake-up call and alarm clock, therefore, started ringing before 7 a.m. to beat the traffic into the center of the city. 

Dog tired, I showered then dressed while watching several Ali family members' taped interviews on local morning news -- sort of a crash course in who's who of the Ali entourage. This proved incredibly helpful only a couple of hours later. I was also thankful for retrieval of the suit and dress slacks the previous evening. 

ROUND THREE: Media Check-In

Though I had previously driven through Louisville a dozen times from 2012 to 2015, no itinerary provided time to explore the city's central streets, which I had only briefly visited in the early 2000's with Fort Knox-based friends Meghan and Luis. 

The northbound drive along the main road Dixie Highway reminded me of Lincoln Blvd. in Oklahoma City or Atlanta's Buford Highway for the mix of historic structures and businesses new or long-since forgotten.

Downtown impressed me for its thriving destinations and restaurants. Louisville is easy to navigate and I reached my destination -- the Marriott -- in no time. 

Thank goodness for the overnight tip about the road closures, the first of many serendipitous conversations in town.

I'm convinced my car was among the last to get into downtown without road blocks. Parking was a breeze in a deck just west of the hotel, and it was reassuring the vehicle would remain secure while the rest of the day would be spent walking from one Ali event destination to the next. 

Media check-in was straightforward. Hundreds of chairs remained in the hotel ballroom from the week's many Ali-related press conferences.

The Ali P.R. team informed me about 1,500 reporters got a badge (with hundreds more turned away), and reporters from six continents traveled to the event, mostly from Europe and Asia.

I spoke with national sports reporters from Germany, France and China, and that was only in line for check-in.

It turned out the Marriott was also the staging area for V.I.P. check-ins, and the rallying point for the Ali funeral motorcade.

So only moments after donning my press pass, I found myself snapping photos, first of Ali's daughters and second wife (spotted on those earlier morning TV newscasts), then of some of Ali's pallbearers, including Will Smith. 

Professional boxers Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson came into view before diving into awaiting Cadillac limousines and SUV's.

ROUND FOUR: The Sunny Streets of Louisville

Once the motorcade pulled away, I thought there might be time to get a coffee and make way to the KFC YUM! Center Arena, site for the 2 p.m. main event, about three blocks north.

Media were instructed that check-in access would start closer to noon, and as it was only after 9 a.m., it made sense there'd be time to walk toward the venue and maybe catch a glimpse of the citywide processional set to return downtown.

Coffee was a no-go (every establishment had 20+ people in line), but it was a beautiful and breezy clear morning, so the walk in the direction of the Ohio River was pleasant even sans beverage.

My first glimpse of the city's waterway was due north during my walk, and I wondered whether the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge on the horizon was the same river crossing from which Ali claimed to toss his Olympic gold medal into the water as portrayed in "The Greatest" and his autobiographies (the bridge is in the film, but Ali did not toss a medal there as the fables describe; rather, the medal was simply lost and later replaced).

There were dozens of TV trucks parked in proximity to the arena. It impressed me, during this "quiet time" on the urban stroll, that local children decorated the sidewalks with chalk butterflies and bees.

I reflected on this simple act of hospitality and remembrance while resting beneath the bridge before the action really took off.

My only regret of the morning: Not taking time to snap my own photos of the historic Art Deco bridge entry from the 1930s with a clear blue sky (the images in this section are the closest available online).

ROUND FIVE: Evander and the Media 'Scrum at the YUM!'

Though the media entrance was easy to find, locating security to provide access was not, so this blogger joined a small herd of journalists in search of arena staff.

We circumnavigated the building only to learn what we previously heard: 11 a.m. would be the earliest option to enter, so the question "how to kill time in downtown Louisville?" earned discussion.

It turned out one of the journalists, Doug, was the Associated Press' local bureau chief going on seven days of straight reporting for one of the city's all-time biggest news events. We previously corresponded only weeks before when a client sent a group of students to work at the Kentucky Derby, so we decided to visit and compare notes while searching for bottled water (a wish quickly granted by a kind Red Cross volunteer working hard to keep the growing crowds cool).

As we stood in the shade and chatted, Doug mentioned he needed a quote from a boxing peer of Ali just as, over his shoulder and across the street, I spotted Evander Holyfield walking down the street.

"Would Holyfield work?" I asked Doug, pointing in the boxer's direction.

We quickly began walking in Holyfield's direction, crossing Main Street to find a row of media tents with their risers backed up to the YUM! Turned out Evander was starting at one end of "media row" and worked his way from one live TV interview to the next, starting with ESPN, then NBC and The TODAY Show, MSNBC and other national or local affiliate pop-up newsrooms.

While awaiting our chance to corner Holyfield, there was plenty of time to visit with reporters and producers (some past and now upcoming Olympic news contacts) at a relaxed pace.

It was cool to interview Matt Lauer about the previous morning's news his TODAY co-host would skip Rio (more details from that conversation will appear in a future post).

As Holyfield exited his final TV interview, Doug and I were first in line to ask Holyfield questions (as with Lauer interview, more details of this conversation will appear in a future post).

As Doug and I took turns peppering Holyfield with questions, several more reporters circled us and the Champ spent a good 10 minutes, creating an impromptu and crowded media "Scrum at the YUM!" before Evander started signing autographs for many patient fans.

ROUND SIX: V.I.P. Arrivals

Already satisfied with the day's roster of celebrity encounters, Doug, a couple of other reporters and I next returned to the YUM! media entry. At a relaxed and air-conditioned pace, we set up our gear in the arena's NBA practice gym, which was transformed into a giant media workroom for the day.

As we were early to arrive, we also scoped out and taped-off perfect seating in media section 111 of the YUM! bowl during the sound-check, which made the whole scene feel like the calm before a rock concert.

We learned the memorial motorcade was about an hour slower than planned -- not surprising, legions of fans reached out to toss flowers and touch Ali's hearse on its journey from his youthful neighborhood to the Muhammad Ali Center a few blocks west of the arena. Additional time afforded us the option to feast on YUM! brands chips in plentiful supply (best water and Doritos-only lunch ever).

It turned out our press table neighbors from China's Xinhua News Agency included a reporter who visited my client B.C. Canada Pavilion at the City Museum during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and we will likely visit again in Rio in a few weeks (small world).

Around 12:30, I decided to revisit that under the bridge area (site of that morning meditation). Though only a few police were standing guard and a handful of fans were curiously lingering, it was quickly established we were all in the right place at the right time for some star-studded arrivals.

Appropriately, there was no red carpet. No step and repeat. Many of the well-known arrivals waved briefly but, out of respect for the memorial theme and Ali, most did not pause to interact with "plain folks" vying for their attention. At 12:45, by my count, there were only six cops, 10 fans, four volunteers (at a makeshift check-in area) and this blogger on the scene.

By 1 p.m. it was A SCENE with hundreds of fans and dozens of cops, who moved in barricades for safety. I positioned myself next to the volunteers assigned to check tickets -- at the entry of a long tent corridor -- and no one questioned the media badge.

Here's a rundown of all who crossed our path en route to their seats (portions of this personal list later appeared as part of Doug's AP wire story of the day and its sidebar):

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, IOC President Thomas Bach, Dave Chappelle, Chubby Checker, Common, Katie Couric, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Whoopi Goldberg, Larry Holmes, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luthing King, III, Matt Lauer, Spike Lee, Sugar Ray Leonard and Lennox Lewis.

Also ... Ray Lewis, Reba McEntire, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith and Steve Wynn, among others.

Some VIPs, including President Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel and others' limousines pulled directly into the YUM! parking lot or other unseen entry points.

Not listed by the AP, but spotted: Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and former NBA coach Pat Riley.

Will Smith turned out to be the friendliest of the bunch. In addition to engaging fans, posing for selfies and signing an autograph or two, he stopped for a good 2-3 minutes to tape an interview with an ET reporter directly in front of my staked-out spot! He impressed me for his professionalism and poise on what must have been a difficult day.

It took all of my strength to refrain from asking Chappelle a pancakes/Prince question, but I bit my tongue. He was another of the arriving stars who smiled more than others.

Farrakhan had the most security -- double that of Karzai and likely more than Clinton as well.

My guess is that Goldberg attended as much in reverence to Ali as in support of her Comic Relief co-star and friend, Crystal, who was to complete some of the heaviest lifting among the event's eight eulogists.

Around 1:45 p.m., the original start time for the Memorial Service, I asked one of the volunteers and a P.R. person for the event "what is the updated start time?" receiving a reply of 3 p.m.

No one mentioned, however, a designated closing time for the media entrance, an important detail regretably absent from the conversation, as readers will learn in the next round.

ROUND SEVEN: Locked Doors

One of the last arriving VIPs was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The clock read 2:40 p.m.

Reassured about the later start time by the Ali P.R. team, I lingered near the VIP entry until about 2:45 as the media entrance was only steps around the corner of the arena. Imagine my surprise to return to said entry at 2:50 p.m. to find about 20 journalists banging loudly on the back doors of the venue!

In what proved to be the most ridiculous scene of the entire day, it turned out the "powers that be" did not schedule Secret Service nor other law enforcement to stick around for the later start time. With their shifts ending at 2:30, security packed up their gear and went to their event-time posts, we deduced.

Confounding the situation: No one on the event team conveyed to media a "hard stop-doors closed" instruction. So my China friends (outside on a smoke break), a French radio anchor, an incredulous ESPN reporter, several other late-arriving photographers (who struggled to find parking) and I found ourselves banging on the doors -- on again, off again -- for about 15 minutes.

While some continued to knock, several in the group frantically worked on calling or texting every number we had for P.R. or other persons known to be inside the venue, but most likely had their devices on "silent" as the service began.

Shaking our heads, we could not help but think of a John Candy-like guard showing up to say, "Sorry, folks. Park's closed."

ROUND EIGHT: We're In Again

Finally, at 3:10 p.m., a uniformed Louisville detective -- a cop who could be described as a "dim bulb" -- opened the door, at once stunned and flabbergasted by the number of folks awaiting his attention (we were up to 40 at this point).

One could almost see the slowly-forming thought bubble taking shape above his head to state, "What the?!?" or "Does ... not ... compute."

This guy was clearly confused, so we spelled it out slowly in three languages, loudly: "WE ARE REPORTERS AND WE NEED TO GET INSIDE!"

Things finally "computed" for Officer Brainy, so at long last he summoned a supervisor who approved our late entry. Whew! Confidence and appreciation of Louisville's finest restored!

ROUND NINE: Ali Bound for Heaven

Once inside the arena, I spent the first hour of the service at my station in the press room. In our negotiation with the police supervisor we agreed to stay at that working area in lieu of entering the memorial service in progress. But by 4 p.m., there seemed to be a changing of the guard after which taking a seat in section 111 was fine.

The complete Ali service -- titled "A Celebration of Life" -- included eight speakers, eight eulogists and a handful of Quiranic Readings. There was no music, which answered the question, "Would they play 'The Greatest Love of All'?" (they did not).

While taking my seat, the emcee, Imam Zaid Shakir, introduced Rabbi Michael Lerner, a Berkeley, Calif.-based spiritual leader. His remarks earned multiple standing ovations and, unfortunately, the event's only example of heckling by an audience member who opted to stop shouting when two nearby police visited his row.

One of the most interesting and surprising eulogies: Chief Sidney Hill and Chief Oren Lyons. The duo, joined by another Native American leader, spoke of a late-1970s U.S. Congressional bill that could have nullified several historic treaties. Ever the champion of important causes, Ali supported the Native Americans' fight to prevent the bill and collectively they succeeded (bravo, Ali!).

The most passionate eulogies arrived from Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel and President Bill Clinton.

Crystal's included just the right touch of humor and sincerity (two hours into the service he opened his remarks with, "We're at the half-way point" later followed by, "He was funny, he was beautiful, the most perfect athlete you ever saw -- and those were his own words."

Gumbel was the most appreciative. Describing a career obviously shaped by Ali, the national broadcaster shared the personal story of meeting Ali 50 years ago in Chicago, when Gumbel was 17 and happened to be shooting hoops as The Champ dropped by the neighborhood. Gumbel also paraphrased Maya Angelou, stating, "I doubt how any of us will ever forget how Ali made us feel ... I'm talking about how he gripped our hearts and our souls and our conscience, and made our fights his fights for decades."

Clinton seemed the most in awe of Ali, describing in detail the president's tearful reaction to the 1996 Olympic Opening Ceremony cameo that surprised the world.

"I'll never forget it," said Clinton. "I was sitting there in Atlanta. By then we knew each other, by then I felt I had some sense of what he was living with, and I was still weeping like a baby, seeing his hands shake and his legs shake and knowing 'by God, he was gonna make those last few steps, no matter what it took' [and] the flame would be lit, the fight would be won, the spirit would be affirmed. I knew it would happen."

ROUND TEN: In and Out at the Ali Center

Back in the press room following the service, the Associated Press team reminded me of the International Olympic Committee's plans to present a keepsake item to the nearby Muhammad Ali Center. Earlier in the day, Doug shared the IOC's press materials for the event set to take place after the Memorial Service, and by this time (approaching 6 p.m.) an Ali Center contact confirmed approval for me to attend via text.

I embarked from the KFC YUM! Center makeshift press room with Around The Rings Editor Ed Hula, and the two of us made our way on foot through the bowels of the arena (in a sea of celebrities) and down Main Street to the museum named for the day's honoree.

Inside the Ali Center we were escorted to the sixth floor event space where the Ali family and friends started gathering. Over here: Billy Crystal. Over there: Howard Bingham, Ali's closest friend.

Because of the flow of the event, and the venue's closure for the day of the Memorial Service, there was not an opportunity to explore the Ali Center in detail. But I look forward to visiting the collection again as, out of the corner of my eye, the galleries of fine art and photography of Ali by world renowned artists piqued my interest, as did the Olympic torches on view.

Hula was on a mission to speak with Olympic Champion and LA2024 vice chair/director of athlete relations, Janet Evans, who was kind enough to visit with me earlier this year in Los Angeles (stay tuned for a future post from that conversation).

On the search for Evans, Hula and I visited with the IOC's Anita DeFrantz about the presentation soon to take place, during which an Olympic flag was to be given to Lonnie Ali, family and the Center.

At one point during our wait for the presentation, a distinguished couple (a man and a woman) entered the room as I was speaking to Evans. The woman asked Evans if she would mind posing together for a photo, which the man offered to snap. In turn, I offered the photographer, "If you like, I'd be happy to take a photo of the three of you," which was politely but quickly declined (it turned out the man was Neil Leifer, who famously captured world-famous images of Ali and dozens of other athletes for Sports Illustrated).

What happened next surprised me -- bewilders me, actually. But it happened, and though things turned out fine in the end, it was extremely confusing in the moment.

The same P.R. reps who granted a credential for the day, as well as the Ali Center rep who approved museum access for the IOC presentation, decided to remove me from the event. Like I said, everything worked out in the end thanks entirely to a later apologetic Ali Center contact. It's a safe bet that Evans may have been as confused as I was by the Ali rep's behavior.

Mark Humphrey/AP via Ali Center
Though it was my intent to write about the presentation by DeFrantz and Evans, who I believe spoke on behalf of IOC President Thomas Bach, I missed the IOC ceremony.

The Ali Center rep was kind enough to share a photo (shown at left) later the same evening, which I appreciated.

Will likely spend years to come shaking my head about the Ali P.R. agency -- doors locked to media at event start time, then booting an Olympic reporter out of a five-ringed news event for which access was granted in writing by the event host? WTF!?!

ROUND ELEVEN: Evening Olympic Stroll 

As a Louisville cop -- obviously satisfied to showcase his Cartman-like authoritah (lucky for me he was not Detective Brainy) -- delivered me to the Ali Center Plaza at sunset, a flurry of text messages arrived from the Ali Center rep and from Evans, both hoping I could return to the conversation and event.

Long story short, I waited patiently outside, visiting with an Arizona TV crew for PBS, fellow Atlantans from CNN and other reporters.

Eventually, a very kind, understanding and professional Evans met me post-event to complete our conversation, and we wound up walking with DeFrantz for several blocks of downtown Louisville while exchanging Ali memories (Evans describing her Olympic flame hand-off to Ali in detail) and other Olympic stories to appear in a follow-up post. 

ROUND TWELVE: Don King, Steak and Ache

After saying "good night and safe travels" to DeFrantz and Evans near their hotel, I made my way back to the Marriott then searched for a restaurant, very tired and hungry after a long but productive day of incredible experiences, feeling very lucky and thankful to learn so much more about Ali during the week. My feet were in bad shape, sore from hours of moving about the city.

It was very satisfying to belly up to the bar at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, order a medium filet and enjoy conversation with fellow diner Remo Tulliani (who said he was Ali's neighbor in Arizona) and his colleague from their international fashion enterprise.

My weary eyes could hardly believe it when an additional knockout memory of the day walked into the scene: Mr. Don King.

The 84 year old legendary boxing promoter had just finished his meal in the main dining room, and he kindly posed with several diners and the restaurant's live jazz band, who all toasted Ali as "The Greatest" one more time. 

Image credits: Ali Hearse by Adrees Latif/Reuters; road trip via Google Maps; Skyline/Marriott via Kentucky Tourism; under bridge via Flickr; Event tickets via this link; John Candy in "Vacation" via IMDB; police badge via Yahoo! All other photos by Nicholas Wolaver copyright Nicholas Wolaver may not be used without written permission. 

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