For 16 years center Bob Bourne, 33, of the Los Angeles Kings has earned his daily bread in hockey's trenches—in the corners and along the boards, on checking lines and penalty-killing units. Twelve of those seasons, from 1974-75 through '85-86, were spent with the New York Islanders; they included the dream years of '80 through '83, when the Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups.
Bourne's physicality on the job sometimes spills over at home, where his sons, Jeffrey, 8, and Justin, 5, are two of the country's top roughhousers in their age-groups. Black streaks on the walls of the family's tiled-floor foyer commemorate hockey games, played with a regulation puck and cut-down sticks, between father and sons. Lamps tumble as the brothers wrestle in the den; furniture and buckets of Legos scatter. Justin leaps from sofas and chairs onto his brother. Often as not, Jeff swats away Justin as if Justin were a gnat.
As much as he would enjoy doing so, Jeff, who has a condition called spina bifida, can't lay a flying headlock on his brother. In fact, he can't even run after him. It's after school, and he has removed his leg braces. He ditches them the minute he gets home. Braceless, he gets around by "scooting"—propelling himself with his arms while keeping his legs tucked under him.
Jeff, like the one in 1,000 children in the U.S. and Canada who have spina bifida, had a congenital hole in his lower back that left the neural tube, containing the nerve bundles inside his spinal cord, exposed to the air. The results of spina bifida range from problems with bladder and bowel functions to spine and limb deformities, varying degrees of muscle paralysis and, sometimes, death. From Jeff's courage and Justin's loyalty to him, everyone can draw encouragement.
December 21, 1987
Bob and Janice Bourne's Good Samaritanism is also heartening. During his years with the Islanders, Bob was known as a soft touch for worthy causes—celebrity events for charity—and he became softer still after Jeff was born. Jeff underwent therapy at the New Interdisciplinary School for Handicapped Children in Medford, N.Y., a nonprofit school specializing in the care of children with a wide range of disabilities. Because the school is funded by the state and county, the Bournes, like other families, did not have to pay for their child's treatment, and it would have been easy enough to let it go at that. But as a pro athlete, Bob was in a position to do more-and, with Janice's considerable help, he did just that.
To benefit their son's school, the Bournes organized annual soirees at the Oak Beach Inn. a Long Island night spot. The Inn's owner, Bob Matherson, who at one time also had a child at the school, donated the food. Every Islander attended, and fans packed the place to see their heroes tend bar and wait tables. All told, the parties raised more than $80,000.
Once a season the players' wives would don their husbands' away jerseys and collect donations in Nassau Coliseum. "But we weren't making enough just standing there," says Janice, so they began working the crowd, going up and down the aisles in the stands. Donations soared—from $4,500 the first year to $10,000 the last. Largely through these fund-raising efforts, the New Interdisciplinary School was able to build a gymnasium and new classrooms, enabling it to increase enrollment and expand its programs. The Islanders as a team deserve credit, but Claire Salant, New Interdisciplinary's director, says. "The Bournes were the prime motivators."
Somehow the Bournes have summoned sufficient time and empathy to continue to lend a hand to causes unrelated to their family circumstance. For example, although they are newcomers to Los Angeles, Janice recently joined other Kings' wives in making donations to a home for unwed mothers. Except that this isn't really unrelated to their family circumstance. It's simply "repaying a debt." as Bob puts it. for the kindnesses shown them by the staff at the New Interdisciplinary School.
Jeff has required special attention from birth, when it was discovered he had spina bifida. Some of his exposed nerves were tangled—"out of place," Janice says. In surgery the day after he was born, doctors "rearranged" the nerves as best they could and enclosed the neural tube with membrane grafted from Jeff's buttock. It was the first of a dozen operations Jeff has undergone.
When Jeff was four months old, therapists from the New Interdisciplinary School started coming to the Bournes' house several times a week. When he was 2½ years old, Jeff began attending the school daily.
There were also group sessions for Bob and Janice. "We see ourselves as working with families, not individuals," says Salant. It would have been hard, certainly, for the school not to be aware of Jeff's family. Salant tells of Jeff's rejoinder when a classmate broke a rule: "Uh-oh. Into the penalty box."
Bourne tries to minimize the help he and Janice have given the school. "The best thing for us was for the Islanders to keep winning Stanley Cups," he says. "It gave us such a high profile that fund-raising was easy."
But then, in 1986, the Islanders failed to list Bourne as a protected player, and the Kings acquired him in the NHL's waiver draft. For the Bournes, so content on Long Island, the transition has been rocky.
Two months ago they learned that Jeff, like many spina bifida victims, also has scoliosis, or lateral curvature of the spine, and will have to wear a stiff plastic brace from chest to midthigh (in addition to the leg braces that extend from his thighs down under his feet) until he stops growing. If the scoliosis does not improve, doctors will fuse Jeff's spine, greatly reducing the chance that he will walk as an adult. Such concerns tend to make the question of whether the Kings will reach the playoffs seem less important.
Salant tells a story: One morning at school when Jeff was not quite four, he stood leaning forward in his braces, painting at an easel. Bob, who was at the school for a meeting, sneaked up behind his son to surprise him. Salant saw the boy "look up and up and finally recognize his father. He was so thrilled, he just beamed. I can't rid my memory of that beaming face."
She also won't soon forget Bourne's contributions to her school. In addition to raising funds, he visited the school often, got to know all the children and teachers and spent a lot of time in the classrooms. Salant is speaking of Bob and Janice as much as of Jeff when she says, "We miss them a lot."