Johnny Gray didn't compete in the L.A. Invitational track and field meet in 1960 with an all-star field including Don Bragg, Charlie Dumas, Parry O'Brien and Lee Calhoun; or in 1961, when fans stormed the gates of the sold-out Sports Arena to see Wilma Rudolph; or in 1966, when Kenya's Kip Keino ran for the first time in the United States.
It just seems like he did.
It's difficult for anyone who has been following track and field for the last two decades to remember an L.A. Invitational without Gray. He competed there in 1985, the year after he made the first of his four Olympic teams, and almost every year since.
Gray is identified with the meet almost as much as is the grapefruit pink and yellow track, reminders of the days when Sunkist was the sponsor. Only two athletes have won on those boards more than he has.
It seemed last summer, though, that his career had come to an end. Attempting to earn a place on his fifth Olympic team, the 1992 bronze medalist ran miserably in the U.S. trials. He acknowledged that, at 40, it might be time for him to make a concession to age.
But there he was Saturday night at the Sports Arena, conceding nothing before his 600-yard race as he embarked on a comeback.
It didn't seem impossible that he could succeed. It was, after all, only two summers ago that he won the 800 meters in the Pan American Games.
The other compelling reason to be at the Sports Arena was to see the invitational debut of Ryan Hall, the 18-year-old miler from Big Bear High believed to have the potential to run under four minutes this year.
If he does, he will be only the fifth high school miler to accomplish that and the first since, well, Saturday afternoon, when Alan Webb from Reston, Va., ran it in 3 minutes 59.86 seconds. Before him, no high school miler had done it in 34 years.
Hall wasn't believed to be in that sort of shape this early in the year, but it had to cross track fans' minds that they might some day be able to say they saw him when--the same thought that had to be on golf fans' minds when Tiger Woods was given an exemption to play the L.A. Open at Riviera while in high school. No pressure there, young Ryan.
Of course, no one is more identifiable with the L.A. Invitational than Al Franken, who founded the meet 41 years ago with the late Herschel Smith.
To call Franken a promoter is like calling Albert Einstein a mathematician. He once recruited a Frisbee-chasing dog to compete in the high jump against Dwight Stones, had USC long jumper Larry Doubley leap over a car for a photo opportunity and almost persuaded Mary Decker Slaney while with child to run in a pregnant women's race.
Franken has been criticized in recent years--not necessarily unfairly--for selling more sizzle than steak, but it also should be pointed out that no one else has been putting up his own scratch to keep the sport alive here.
That's what he and son Don have been doing since Sunkist pulled out its money after 1995, saying that customers weren't buying orange juice because they'd seen Randy Barnes put the shot.
The Frankens produced their show this year with a budget of $25,000, which is $5,000 less than the appearance fee they paid Ben Johnson alone in 1991. New York's Millrose Games last year had a $600,000 budget.
I was prepared to write about the end of an era, that Franken was like Johnny Gray, having seen many great days in the sport but now just trying to hang on from one year to the next.
If not exactly convinced otherwise, I was at least prompted to reconsider after a conversation with Rich Perelman. As director of communications for the new meet in town, the Powerade Indoor Championships on Feb. 11 at Staples Center, he didn't seem like the most likely person to encourage Franken.
Perelman's meet, with a big-time title sponsor and commitments from Olympians such as Maurice Greene, Ato Boldon and Stacy Dragila, would at first glance appear to be the Saks Fifth Avenue that is trying to run the mom and pop store out of business.
Not so, Perelman said. "Look at it this way," he said. "If we do well, that will prove there is a market for track and field. If there's a proven market for track and field, other companies besides Powerade are going to want to sponsor meets--like the L.A. Invitational. We could be the best thing ever to happen to Al."
In other words, Franken, at 74, might be like Ryan Hall. Full of potential.
Gray was a couple of minutes late arriving trackside Saturday night, so an usher made him wait until another race was finished before allowing him to report for the 600. As a result, Gray wasn't able to warm up with his competitors. Recognizing the predicament, however, the starter told him his gun was stuck and let Gray take a lap.
Fame is nice, but he still had to run the race. In that, his experience was an advantage. Although the bell didn't ring before the final lap, he knows by now when he has run 600 yards. He stopped at the 600th of them, an easy victor.
Hall, 22 years younger, also knew what he had to do. A less mature runner, on hearing of Webb's achievement, might have tried to run faster than his conditioning would allow, risking injury. Hall contained himself, finishing fourth among a world-class field in 4:09.46. That won't make headlines. Still, it was a record for a high school miler in this meet and an auspicious debut in what could be an outstanding international career. Not many people were at the Sports Arena to see it, but I was glad that I was.
Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org