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A Column That Cosell Could Truly Love

November 10, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

Howard Cosell sounded distraught. His voice on the phone was raspy, barely discernible.

"Kid," Howard wheezed. "I am ill. I cannot write my brilliant and nationally syndicated sports column today. You are the only writer in the world who can fill in for me."

Quite frankly, I was stunned.

"Is it because I, like yourself, stand for truth, justice and ethical crusading?" I asked.

"No," Howard said. "It is because you write short. Short sentences, that is. Like me. Will you? Do it? For me?"

Before I could reply, the doorbell rang. I put Cosell on hold.

Quite frankly, I was shocked to see Sugar Ray Leonard standing on my doorstep. He hardly ever shows up before noon. He told me he was wrestling with a big decision. Whether or not to return to the pugilistic wars. He had already signed to fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler for $11 million, but now Ray was having second thoughts.

"Let's talk, Big O," Ray said. "I brought a pizza."

Just then the other phone rang. It was Al Davis.

"Hello, Superscribe," Davis said, even though I've begged him a hundred times to find another nickname for me. It's almost as embarrassing as when Ted Williams insists on calling me, in public, at the top of his lungs, "Scotty Ballgame."

Al and I shot the breeze for a few minutes, discussing courtroom strategy, world politics and the Raiders' quarterback situation. All at once, Davis' voice cracked and he began sobbing into his phone receiver.

"Get ahold of yourself, Al," I beseeched him. "Speaking of hold, my friend, regretably I must to put you on it while I answer the back door."

It was John Robinson, the genial and brilliant coach of the Rams. Just a week before, John and I had dinner at Spago, with Frank Sinatra and Mookie Wilson. Over desert, I doodled on a cocktail napkin some plays and formations. They were merely my ideas on how the Rams could juice up their offense. Robinson, I remember quite clearly, laughed. In my face, as it were.

Now, standing on my back porch, Robinson clearly looked worried.

"Scotty," he said, glancing furtively over one shoulder and then the other. "Uh, do you still have that cocktail napkin?"

I motioned Robinson into the house, and I went back to Sugar Ray. Together, we walked out onto my balcony. It was a sunny yet cool morning. Far below, sailboats tacked on the blue Pacific Ocean. Someone called out to me. I recognized the voice. It was Johnny Carson, who has the home below mine. He was playing tennis. He waved and yelled out to me, asking when in the heck I was going to give him that rematch I promised him.

As always, I gazed out to sea and pretended to completely ignore Carson. It breaks him up every time. He and David Letterman dropped their racquets and fell down laughing. So did Ed McMahon, of course. But for me, this was no time for frivolity. A dear friend of mine needed some advice.

"Sugar," I said, sincerely yet bombastically, "I've said it before and I'll say it again . . . "

The doorbell rang again.

This time it was Smokey Robinson. The Motown legend drops by now and then to ask my advice on songs he's writing. It's really not my field of expertise, but the Smoker has trusted my instinct ever since the day years ago when he showed me a song he was about to record, "Crying on the Railroad." I suggested a few subtle changes and he turned it into "Tracks of My Tears." I was the original choreographer for the Miracles, of course, but I cannot take credit for their moves. In all honesty, this reporter picked up most of that footwork and hand jive while sparring with a young man named Cassius Marcellus Clay.

I sent Smokey down to my basement recording studio while I answered the phone. Pat Riley, the marvelous and gifted young coach of the Lakers, began demanding, for the hundredth time, that I give him the name and address of my tailor.

"Very well, Mr. Riley," I told him. "But only if you can persuade your friend Jack Nicholson to stop banging on my door at 3 a.m., dribbling his basketball on my porch and screaming at me to come out and play him a game of H-O-R-S-E. My neighbors are furious about the situation. Madonna will hardly speak to me."

Riley readily acceded to my demand. I punched line one on my phone and apologized to Howard Cosell for keeping him waiting.

"Quite frankly, Howard," I said, "I would be honored to guest-write your column. Besides, to be perfectly honest with you, I'm bored. There's nothing going on around here. Count me in."

He thanked me profusely. I hung up and went to the den to join Sugar and the two Robinsons, Smokey and John. Nicholson was asleep on the couch, snoring.

"Now where were we?" I asked, jocularly.

Nobody could remember. So we broke out a six-pack of diet soda and turned on MTV.

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