Monday February 11th, 2008

When Maurice Greene retired from track and field recently, I, for one, was disappointed. Granted, the sprinting exploits of the man who was once the world's fastest human had already been surpassed by the likes of Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin (clean or unclean) and Asafa Powell, but nobody will ever be as much fun in interviews. Ever unpolished, Greene often let his honesty and quirky nature show through, even if the honesty sometimes got him in trouble.

Go back to 2003 in Paris. Greene sat at a press conference table before roughly a hundred reporters, including one woman with a hat the size of Al Oerter. It isn't unusual on the often-daffy European circuit to find eccentric wannabee scribes, especially TV reporters, who try to make a name for themselves by being outlandish in their manner of questioning or their dress. But this hat, complete with bows, flowers and waxed berries, blocked out the sun for a good five rows behind it.

"Tell me about your dog," the woman asked Greene. "Do you feel it is OK to eat breakfast for dinner?" "Would you ever race in my slippers?" Greene tried to keep a straight face and never complained about the inane line of requests. Since it was a pre-meet morning conference and nobody was on deadline, our group didn't stop her either. We did manage to get in a few track questions before the moderator cut in to ask: "Any more questions?" Greene spoke up. "Yeah, I have one," he said, staring at the lady in the front row: "Does that ever make your head fall off?"

That was Mo. So was this: When a man at the same press conference pointed out that there was a famous 17th century composer named Maurice Greene, the 20th-century sprinter told him to speak to the other athletes at the table while he composed a song. So it was rap song. At least Greene made a few phantom strums of the viola while reciting hip-hop.

His résumé is loaded with achievements. He won golds in the 100 meters and 4x100-meter relay at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and bronze and silver in those events four years later in Athens. He won the hundred at three consecutive world championships (1997, 1999, 2001) and doubled in 1999, by winning the 200. In 1999, he broke the world record in the hundred, blitzing the tape in 9.79 seconds.

Even as end-zone celebrations are becoming showier, answers from athletes and coaches are now ever more rehearsed, managed, predictable and almost interchangeable. Take the head off one grumpy jock, place it on another and you either have a second Ebenezer Belichick who doesn't want to be there or Scotty Bowman, the master of saying absolutely nothing in as many words as possible. Greene stands out as an exception.

Granted, his playfulness got him into hot water at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when he and his relay teammates celebrated too much after winning the 4x100-meter relay. The celebrating was especially overdone when the runners were on the victory stand receiving medals from Henry Kissinger, a man who might as well have been the Olympic mascot, for all the runners cared. Yet unlike his oblivious relay mates, Greene expressed genuine remorse once he grasped that the frivolity had been excessive. "We're sorry we offended people," he said. "We were so happy, we basically lost our minds." The apology passed the smell test and rang sincere.

Greene also never hid his bravado. He would swing his shoulders on his walks to start lines in the most exaggerated strut imaginable and he had a tattoo placed on his shoulder that read: GOAT, as in "Greatest Of All Time." Greene was speaking at a meet in New York after a 100-meter race against a field that included Shawn Crawford, one of his fiercest rivals. During the interviews, Greene, an average starter, opined that if he could stay even with the field through 50 meters, he would be able to pull away in most races, because, "I have the fastest top-end speed in the world." At that, Crawford launched into a profane rebuke that would have made Lenny Bruce blush.

Out of nowhere, Greene would sneak up on people to talk football, never missing an opportunity to tease his coach, John Smith, a former Dallas Cowboy, about how blows to the head affected his judgment. I once made the mistake of insisting that the Rams were a sure thing against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, a game they lost in the final seconds. Greene wasn't especially good with names, and I'm sure he never figured out mine, but he spotted me in a hotel hallway months after the game to remind me of my prediction.

"Yo, still picking St. Louis?" he said.

"Mo, you're not even competing here," I told him.

"Ha, and I still got you."

Before athletes started showing up on Donald Trump's reality shows, Greene appeared on both Identity and Blind Date, stunning his companion with the news that the man who showed up late to pick her up was actually the world's fastest human. He won a second date anyway. These days, he has a better deal. In fact, if you watch Deal or No Deal, the woman holding case No. 1 is Greene's regular date.

Greene always seemed intent on appreciating life, ever since bursting onto the sprint scene in the mid-90s. After flunking his SATs, he drove with his father, Ernest, from his home in Kansas City to train with Smith in Los Angeles. The training went so badly at first that Greene sometimes left the track in tears. But he never lost sight of the opportunity that afforded him to train with a world-class coach. "Most guys would have quit," Smith once said. "People look for a reason not to fight on, you know. Mo welcomed the fight. Even when he was smiling, he was fighting."

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