They called them the Superstars, and last week they came to Rotonda, Fla., which is 40 miles south of Sarasota and, according to its Superflacks, is "not just a place to live, but rather, a way of life," to answer questions that somebody, somewhere, must have been asking. Like, can Joe Frazier outcycle Rod Laver? Or, who is the better bowler, Johnny Bench or Rod Gilbert? There were 10 Superstars, plus one Superstar Host, Ed McMahon, and 10 events to compete in—for a total of $122,000 in prize money. When the two-day contest was over what lingered in one's mind was not that pole vaulter Bob Seagren had won or that John Unitas had lost but how all of them had played the games.
There were also the images, so familiar yet so strange. Unitas, for example, running—or almost—and no one chasing him, doing the 880 in well over four minutes. Or Unitas on the tennis court, belting Gilbert's serves out of bounds, and saying, "Well, gracious, I haven't done these things in years."
And, indelibly, there was Frazier—"Joe Frazier, former heavyweight champion," the announcer kept saying, hurrying by the adjective. The spectators gazed sympathetically upon Joe, but he was all good humor, hahyadoin' everyone in sight. In the baseball-hitting event he had a chance to win. All he needed was one good hit. Grunt, whoof, whiff and he was out.
Weight lifting was to have been Joe's specialty, though. "I think I can lift about 300 pounds," he said, and he probably could have yanked a Volkswagen out of a ditch. But at Rotonda there was a barbell on a stand, and Frazier's feet were out of position, his hands unevenly placed on the bar. He failed at 170 pounds, and when Seagren, who is 40 pounds lighter, raised the weight overhead Frazier looked puzzled. For the second time in a month—in a lifetime—he was wondering about his style.
March 5, 1973
Weight lifting was the turning point of the competition, the first of four victories for Seagren, and one that was clearly symbolic. Seagren was the only contestant who had proper form, the only one who had thoroughly prepared. Perhaps that was because he was also the only athlete at Rotonda who had never competed for money, and he needed a bunch. He was in fine shape—everyone knew that; his first pro track season was about to begin, and from the start he was the victim of some playful psyching. Before the opening ceremonies Bench said, "Someone's got to run with a torch, you know, so why not let Seagren do it. He can start in Miami." Peter Revson, the race-car driver, kept saying, "You know, Bob, I race every weekend for $100,000. This is just pocket change to me," and Seagren's acre or so of white teeth kept flashing in nervous laughter. In tennis, his first event, he couldn't get a serve in against Bench, who said after gaining a 3-1 lead, "It's only money, Bob."
Bench, however, took a dim view of his own chances. "I can't run," he said. "I can't play tennis or Ping-Pong, the doctor won't let me lift weights and I'll probably drown in the pool." Only 10 weeks had passed since his successful lung surgery, but no athlete at Rotonda worked closer to his limit of endurance. "I feel about as I have in past years," he said. "Well, maybe a little weaker on one side."
"Are you trying to prove something to yourself here?" he was asked.
"No," he said. "I never get that serious about anything but baseball."
Nonetheless, out of shape and weighing in at 205 pounds, he ran a 2:33.3 half-mile to finish third behind Elvin Hayes and Seagren, the winner in 2:22.5.
The 6'9½" Hayes had the advantage of being nearly everywhere at once, at least in tennis and Ping-Pong. There was no ball he did not get to, but he could not handle Seagren's slice or Revson's placements in tennis and he also could not see very well. Four nights before he had knocked heads with Jim Barnett of Golden State and broken his nose, which was encased in a big white bandage. But he had to be there, as he put it, "To meet Rod Laver. I've always been a fan of his, the legendary Johnny Unitas and, especially, Joe Frazier."
Before the athletes arrived there was heavy betting—about the competition, of course, and about Revson. Would he have a beautiful girl with him, or would he have two? Instead, Revson came alone, three days early, to work out. He said, "At 33 you don't learn to run overnight, and I don't feel like making an ass of myself on national TV. All I do in my sport is sit and coordinate my feet with my hands." Gilbert, a pretty good tennis player, found that Revson must do something besides drive a car; Revson beat him 6-1 in the tennis final. And a lot of people would like to know what Revson eats for breakfast. He was in second place after the first day, following up his win in tennis with one in swimming. "I have a pool at my apartment," Revson said. "I walk by it all the time."
The thing about Jean-Claude Killy and Laver was that no one knew what to expect. Athletically, they seemed to be all there. Killy's sport requires preternatural nerves and reflexes, and Laver, isn't he the Rocket? The day before competition began he had beaten Roy Emerson in straight sets in Toronto. In Rotonda, Laver smiled often, his little blue eyes seeming to take in everything at once, but he spoke little. Killy spoke less. He seemed always to be gazing at a distant point, possibly aghast at being stuck for two days in a place that was both warm and flat.
According to the rules, Laver was barred from the tennis event, Bench from batting, bowler Jim Stefanich from bowling and Seagren, not altogether reasonably, from the 100-yard dash. Yet Laver could play table tennis. He said he had not done so in 10 years, but nowhere in the competition was there a greater sense of watching a master at work. He beat Killy 11-0 in the final.
"Be careful," Gilbert said to spectators along the fairway at the nine-hole golf event. "The Kid is known to be waahld." The Kid wasn't kidding. He had arrived at 7:30 a.m. from New York, where the Rangers had defeated the Islanders the night before. At 9 a.m. he grabbed a tennis racket, and went out to beat Unitas. That afternoon he was part of a golfing threesome—Bench, Stefanich and The Waahld Kid. The gallery loved him. They called him Fifi, or Gilbert, as in filbert, and he got home on guts alone with a 52. Stefanich won with a 41; Bench was second with a 42.
Ironically, the golf drew the week's biggest crowds. The developers of Rotonda had not wanted to host "just another golf tournament," as Dick Button, the man who conceived of the Superstar decathlon way back in 1948, put it. That year Button won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. He also won the Sullivan Award, given to the country's best amateur athlete, and, he recalls, "I was nonplussed. I was a terrible athlete." So Button had an idea: why not stage a competition to determine who the real athletes were? He got nowhere with it until a year ago when he had it presented to the makers of Fram Oil Filters, who agreed to underwrite half the sponsorship costs for the ABC-TV special, which was telecast last Sunday.
But no one, not even Button, claimed that the world's best athlete had been chosen at Rotonda. Publicity considerations precluded that. For one thing, the need for maximum TV appeal required that every major sport be represented, and basketball players, for example, or trackmen, are likely to be better athletes than bowlers. For another, big names were of paramount importance. And then there were the events, the implication that to be "great" an athlete must know how to bowl, swim and lift weights and play tennis, golf and Ping-Pong. The organizers wisely minimized this problem by requiring each entrant to compete in only seven of the 10 events, but still there were questions. Why table tennis and the 100-yard dash? Why not foul shooting and a round of archery or skeet?
A point system was used to keep track of standings and earnings—10 points for first, seven for second, etc., at $300 per. This did create interest and even a bit of suspense, but the entertainment value was largely confined to ogling the celebrities.
The swimming event was the most amusing. Before his 50-meter heat Frazier said, "I can swim fine, as long as they got a shallow end and ropes so I can grab on." At one point Frazier—oh, it was unbelievable—was dog-paddling! Revson, Killy and Seagren had finished by the time Joe made his turn.
"Trouble staying in my lane?" he replied to a questioner. "I had trouble staying in the water." Frazier's unofficial time was 1:42.05. Seagren did 34.6, but in the 100-meter final he lost to Revson, who was caught in 1:18.2.
The bowling competition was held the first evening, and Stefanich said Bench should be the favorite as he was the only one who brought his own ball. Indeed, Bench won with a 131. But Frazier got the biggest hand when he knocked down a total of three pins with his first two balls. Earlier he had said, "Sure I can bowl. I just can't keep score."
The first day ended with Seagren's weight-lifting victory, and after five events he had 17 points to Revson's 20 and Bench's 21.
The second day began with baseball, in which each contestant got nine at bats. A hit beyond the infield was worth one point. Two, three and four points were awarded for drives over fences 250, 300 and 350 feet distant. Seagren had practiced for three days and that, together with his upper-body strength, helped him win with eight points. Stefanich and Gilbert tied for second.
Much of the interest in this event was created by the ABC-TV men. First they packed the crowd together to make it look larger, then they gave instructions about when to cheer. Once a child lifted a crayoned sign that read ABC WE LOVE YOU. A terrific groan went up. It was supposed to sound spontaneous. Apparently, it did not because it was not included on the TV show.
After Laver won the table tennis, Hayes took the 100 against a stiff wind in 11.5, with Killy second, Laver third, Revson fourth and Frazier last in 13.5. Seagren then won the half-mile run eased up by a huge margin, and the stage was set for the bicycle race.
The bikes were three-speed Columbias, and the Superstars looked like big children as they warmed up. Frazier went out fast in the first half-mile heat, with no thought of pace or tactics, and he won, getting a big hand.
Bench was in the second heat, but at the first turn his handlebars collapsed and he was unable to finish. He stomped off in a huff, but the officials let him ride another lap against the clock. Back he came, with little rest. He lost a few seconds when he started in the wrong gear and still only missed qualifying by eight-tenths of a second.
In the final Frazier started fast and confident again. He went way out front, but this was a mile, not a half. Seagren held back; he had planned his race. Just beyond the halfway point Frazier, wearing another of his puzzled expressions, began to fade. Seagren came on to win in 3:19.05. Laver was second, Killy third, and Frazier, in agony now from thigh cramps, had to be helped from the track.
The Superstars competition was over. Winner Seagren earned $39,700. Killy was second ($23,400), though he had taken no firsts. Laver and Revson tied for third, Bench was fifth and Frazier and Unitas tied for last ($3,600).
Before the bike race Killy had explained to Laver how to use the gears, and then Laver ungraciously beat him. "In bicycle racing there is a lot of technicity involved," Killy said. "I teach him how to shift, and then I can't catch him." But Killy was not angry. That was not the point of it all. It was how they played the games.