December 06, 2013

Art Kaminsky was the kind of person who, if you put lots of accomplished people with lots of things in common into one place, they would talk about Art.

We met at Cornell. Athletes often dismiss super fans as wannabes but Art was too interesting to ignore. He took on life with a jock's intensity and competitiveness, wanting to know everything about everything.

After Cornell, he went to Yale Law School, to go to a good school, and to locate himself more centrally to attend more college hockey games. When I negotiated my first contract with the Montreal Canadiens, I was his first sports client. He would come to represent about one-half of all the NHL's players. When I became a color commentator in the 1980 Winter Olympics, I was his first TV client. The Olympics weren't such a big deal then. But Art knew that in 1980 they would be big in the US, because they were in Lake Placid. He decided which US athletes were most likely to win medals, and went after them. He signed up Eric Heiden. Eric won five speed-skating gold medals. Art knew many of the college hockey coaches. He told the players, you can sign a pro contract now or sign a bigger one a year later -- and after you have played for your country. He would come to represent coach Herb Brooks and all but one of his gold medal-winning players.

Art didn't have a room in Lake Placid. He asked to share mine. Within a few days, it was as if I was sharing his. The phone never stopped. Later he represented such people as Al Michaels, Rick Reilly and Dan Dierdorf. John Hughes had played hockey at Cornell when Art and I were there. More than 30 years later, he represented John's daughter Sarah when she won the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating.

Art also had his collections. In 1963, he sent away a Time magazine cover to Mortimer Caplin, head of the IRS, and received his magazine cover back, signed. That was the beginning. Every week after that he prepared a new letter and sent it out. Most of the Time laureates responded. Neighbors gave him back copies from their basements. He picked up others in second-hand stores.

"The first Time issue," he once told me, "was March 3, 1923. Joe Cannon was on the cover. He was Speaker of the House. [President] Harding was on the second week. It was [Time founder Henry] Luce's way to get back at him." To Art, his covers weren't collectibles. They were history.

He had a signed cover of every US president since 1923, except for FDR. He had Einstein, Picasso, and as he put it, "all the guys who died at Nuremburg." He had Nehru, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-shek, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Timothy McVeigh. He didn't have Hitler, Stalin or J. D. Salinger. Salinger returned all his letters. Katherine Hepburn didn't sign his cover but wrote back a response to him that wound around the margins and open spaces of his letter to her. In 1991, he found his way into Cuba for the Pan Am Games and returned with five Time covers signed by Castro. A few years earlier, when Reagan and Gorbachev signed an arms reduction treaty in Washington, at the same table they also signed Art's Time cover. Art had a friend who worked for Reagan. In Time's 90 years, Art had about 75 percent of its covers signed.

He collected political buttons as well. He had more than 1000, dating to the late 1800s. His favorites were those of presidents from earlier in their careers when they had run for lower office: Roosevelt for Congress; Truman for Judge. He collected first edition books. When I was at his house this past weekend, we had take-out sandwiches from a local deli. I put my drink on a box beside me. On it was printed, "Clinton's Sax."

He also collected "states." Some years ago, when he had been to 49 states, he started bragging. I was at 48, but then I went to Oklahoma. We each had one state left, the same state -- Idaho. We started trash-talking each other. He told me that on this next trip to Pittsburgh, he would go by way of Pocatello. In 2002, I drove to Toronto from Calgary with our son. We decided to go south into Montana, wind around a bit and enter Yellowstone Park through Idaho. But it was winter and the Park's Idaho gate was closed. A few years later I was driving through southern British Columbia and saw a sign that said, Idaho, 8 km., but I was already two hours late for an event, and I missed my chance again.

Then Art got sick. It began to seem less important now who got to Idaho first. We started to think about how we could get to Idaho together. We'd go to a Boise State football game, or to an Idaho State basketball game. Or really, it didn't matter what. His condition would stabilize; he would seem to get stronger. Then things would worsen. I contacted a friend who knew the Governor of Idaho. Was it possible for the Governor to declare Art's house on Long Island as part of the territory of Idaho for just one day? The Governor said he would. I would visit Art with the Governor's proclamation; we'd open it together. We'd be in Idaho, our 50th state, at exactly the same moment.

But that would be giving up. So I waited. I never told Art.

Art had retired as an agent a few years ago. When the 30th anniversary of my book, The Game, came out last month, this was his chance to get back on the phones. He stunned the book's promotions people with his ideas, with all the people he knew who would surely clamor to interview me. We talked almost every night. I was coming to New York for Thanksgiving. I'd do some book promotion that weekend and into the following week. I met him in Manhattan on Monday; we went to a few places and then to a studio for an interview with Bob Costas. Art was moving very slowly. The tumor in his neck meant that his head was pitched forward. During my interview with Costas, he cleared his throat as he often had to do. The director had to stop the taping and begin again. Art was horrified with himself. He knew many of the people there; talked sports and TV with them. He was "Artie the agent" again. He knew he would feel awful the next day, but this was his fun and he wasn't going to miss his chance.

I talked with him the next day; he was very tired and we cut our conversation short. We spoke again on Wednesday. His voice sounded like his throat was on fire. I had done a draft of an article we wanted to submit to the New York Times. He was to have sent it in earlier that day, and was upset at himself for feeling too weak to do it. He would send it tomorrow, he said.

This morning, he died.

49 states is enough.

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