A TALE TALL AS A TREE

After Mike Tyson's arboreal fender bender, a story was planted alleging the heavyweight champ is mentally disturbed
September 18, 1988

Poor Mike Tyson, he can't hit anything without getting into trouble. This time it was a 100-year-old horse chestnut tree in upstate New York, and hardly had the bark fallen to the lawn when Tyson, the heavyweight champion of the world, was charged with being a suicidal, homicidal wife-beater with an unspecified chemical imbalance that made him violent.

The latest episode in the tumultuous life of the 22-year-old Tyson began a little after 11 a.m. on Sept. 4, a rainy, foggy Sunday morning in the Catskill Mountains. Tyson was in training for his Oct. 22 fight with Frank Bruno in London—a match that had been rescheduled from Oct. 8 after Tyson broke a bone in his hand in an Aug. 23 street scuffle with journeyman heavyweight Mitch Green. When Tyson is training at the gym above the police station in Catskill, N.Y. (pop. 4,700), he stays at the nearby home of Camille Ewald, the 83-year-old woman who is a stepmother of sorts to him. It was in Ewald's Victorian house that he was raised from the age of 14 by Ewald and the late Cus D'Amato.

According to Ewald, who is as bright as a new penny, on that Sunday morning she was in her living room drinking coffee. Members of her family were visiting from Long Island. Tyson was on a couch, reading a magazine. Earlier he had watched a horror movie on a VCR. Tyson had planned to take Ewald and her visitors to dinner at the China Palace on Columbia Turnpike in neighboring East Greenbush, but because of a heavy rainstorm they had canceled the outing. Upon finishing his magazine, Tyson stood up and said, "Camille, I don't have anything to read. I'm going to drive into town and get some magazines."

"It's raining very hard, Mike," Ewald said. "Be careful." She sighed and shook her head. Tyson is a notoriously poor driver, although he has received only one citation, a speeding ticket, and has had no serious accidents since getting his license in 1985. "He's a bad driver," says Jim Dolan, chief of police for nearby Hudson, N.Y. (pop. 8,000), where Tyson has spent a lot of time. "But that doesn't make him a bad person."

A moment after Tyson left the house, the phone rang. The caller was Shelly Finkel, a fight manager and friend of Tyson's. "Just a minute, Shelly, I'll see if I can catch him," Ewald said and stepped out onto the front porch.

Tyson had already started the car, a $71,124 BMW 750iL, a 12-cylinder beast he purchased last December as a Christmas present for Robin Givens, who would soon become his wife. He then executed a typical Tyson takeoff: He put the powerful car in gear and tromped on the accelerator. "When I went out, the wheels were spinning like mad on the wet grass," says Ewald.

Suddenly the tires grabbed and the silver BMW shot ahead 10 yards and into the chestnut tree, the right front side of the car spewing out bits of chrome and trim. As Ewald screamed and started running down off the porch, the car spun slowly and came to a halt in a bush. On a nearby tree someone had nailed up a yellow rectangular sign that read: CAUTION CHILDREN AT PLAY. When Ewald reached the car, Tyson's head was back. His eyes were closed. "Mike, wake up," Ewald yelled. She slapped him; Tyson's eyes popped open.

"Camille," he said in a shaky voice, "what happened?"

"You hit the tree," she answered.

Tyson passed out again. Later a doctor would say that Tyson was unconscious for as long as 20 minutes. Three days later the New York Daily News claimed that Tyson had been trying to commit suicide or, at best, had been trying to make the accident look like an attempted suicide to shake up his wife, whom, the story also said, he had threatened to kill before taking his own life.

The writer of the piece, Mike McAlary, a respected cityside reporter and columnist, went on to say that two shotguns reportedly had been delivered to Tyson in Catskill, presumably for the murder-suicide (why two shotguns?), and that Tyson has a chemical imbalance that drives him to violent behavior, including wife beating. McAlary wrote that the only people genuinely concerned with Tyson's welfare—call them the good guys—are billionaire builder and nouveau fight promoter Donald Trump, lawyers Peter Parcher and Steven Hayes, and publicist Howard Rubenstein. And, of course, Givens and her mother, Ruth Roper. On the other side were manager Bill Cay ton and trainer Kevin Rooney—the bad guys—who, wrote McAlary, "were trying to save a meal ticket."

The story made for juicy reading, but there was a problem: It was a plant, and an artless, bubbleheaded one at that. "Suicide?" says Lance Dunning, the salesman at Keeler Motor Car Co. in Latham, N.Y., who sold Tyson the BMW. "That car is equipped with an air bag on the driver's side and Mike knew it. We discussed it." (The bags are designed to activate themselves in collisions more violent than the one Tyson had with the tree.)

In his piece McAlary referred to his sources as "these people," "friends [of Tyson's]" or "camp sources." The "friends" apparently talked the most—McAlary cited them five times. When he wrote a similar story two days later, he added "visitors" to his list of sources.

McAlary never quoted Cayton or Rooney. In fact, the only person he quoted directly was Dr. Henry L. McCurtis, a New York City psychiatrist hired last week by Roper and Givens to treat Tyson for something called "athletic stress." McCurtis's words were truly enlightening: "I don't talk about people who are or are not my patients."

McAlary told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Rich O'Brien that the Daily News story "doesn't say this was a real suicide attempt. It says it was a cry for help." That's true. The charge was leveled only in the headline on page one, which declared: TYSON TRIED TO KILL SELF. Said McAlary, "You have to trust your sources. I do. And the paper trusts me. I checked it out just like any other story. I have no doubt. Absolutely none. I'd do the whole thing again tomorrow. And so would the paper."

What about those sources, which McAlary refused to identify in any precise way? One of McAlary's best friends is Edward Hayes, a lawyer and literary agent who helped McAlary negotiate his contract with the Daily News last May. Hayes is the brother of Steven Hayes, one of the attorneys Trump recommended to Givens and Roper when Good Samaritan Donald stepped in to help Tyson in his contractual dispute with Cayton last spring.

"The people with knowledge of Tyson's problems include Donald Trump and public relations man Howard Rubenstein," wrote McAlary, neglecting to mention that Rubenstein is Trump's p.r. man. "Tyson's lawyers—Peter Parcher and Steven Hayes—also understand the situation. But none of these four will discuss the champion's problems. They are more interested in the fighter's future than his next fight."

Historically the heavyweight champion of the world is the most sought-after sports prize for those who would like to make a buck off the efforts of a star athlete. Should Tyson continue to fight for, say, another five years, his purses should exceed $100 million. Let him retire, and then we'll find out how interested in his future that foursome really is.

According to Edward Hayes, McAlary called him on the night of Sept. 5 and said, "I've got this great story." McAlary told Hayes about the attempted suicide but, says Hayes, didn't divulge the sources for the story. Hayes, the model for Tommy Killian, the fast-talking, streetwise defense lawyer in Tom Wolfe's best-seller The Bonfire of the Vanities, says he told McAlary, "I don't know anything about this. I can't say anything." McAlary, according to Hayes, then asked if he should call Hayes's brother, Steven, and tell him. Eddie says he replied. "Yeah. You better call him. He'll have a heart attack."

"That's all I did," Eddie insists. "I never did another——ing thing. Everybody says the Hayes brothers did this. I swear to you on my mother's eyes that I wasn't the source. My brother didn't do it. I think McAlary has a Brooklyn guy [as the source]."

Despite repeated attempts to ask Trump what part, if any, he played in the Daily News story, his office said he was unreachable.

After Tyson passed out in the BMW, Ewald was joined by her niece, Yvonne Conrad, a registered nurse, who took Tyson's pulse and then said they had better call an ambulance. They called Richards Ambulance Service in Catskill. Within 10 minutes Louis Leo and Judy Sweet arrived in a white 1981 Wheeled Coach ambulance. Moments later they were backed up by two more attendants in a second ambulance. The four attendants loaded Tyson into one of the ambulances on a long backboard.

"He was unconscious," says Leo, "but his pulse and his breathing and his blood pressure were normal. It looked like a relatively minor accident, nothing to indicate high speed. The only thing that made it different from a hundred other minor accidents I've done was who was in it."

Tyson was first taken to a hospital in Catskill. Soon after, he was moved to a larger hospital in Hudson for a CAT scan. Givens and Roper, who were in New York City, were notified and set off in a limo on the two-hour drive north. Around 1 p.m. Ewald went to see Tyson. "Robin and Ruth want you transferred to a hospital [Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center] in New York," she said. "Do you want to be transferred?"

"I'm not going anywhere until I eat," said Tyson. Apparently his "failed suicide" hadn't diminished his appetite. "I'm starved."

Jay Bright, a friend of Tyson's who lives at Ewald's house, was sent out to fetch some lunch. He found a Chinese fast-food place, Food Sing, near the hospital. After paying the $15 tab with a $100 bill, he returned with an order of beef and broccoli and two quarts of shrimp fried rice with extra duck sauce, which Tyson ravenously consumed.

When Roper and Givens arrived at the hospital, Tyson happily told Ewald, "I'll be fine now. My wife is with me." Then he was whisked away in another ambulance to Columbia Presbyterian. There, a very short list of authorized visitors was posted. Security guards were brought in to enforce the edict. Cayton and Rooney were not on the list. Most of Tyson's old friends were barred. Trump, his wife Ivana, Rubenstein, Parcher and Hayes were allowed in.

"Mike [Tyson] called me on Wednesday," says Ewald. "He said, 'Camille, have you seen the papers? Who the hell said I was committing suicide?' He was very upset that anyone could think of something like that. The whole story is ridiculous. It was just a plain crazy accident. Every young fighter that Cus had living here hit that same tree at one time or another. I'm thinking of putting up a plaque on it with all their names."

In his only public statement before leaving with his wife on Thursday for the Soviet Union, where Givens will tape two episodes of her TV show, Head of the Class, Tyson told New York television sportscaster Carl White, "I have way too much butt to kick in the ring to try and kill myself out of it. That story was embarrassing. That's insulting, that I would try to make a freak show out of my life. That I would try to kill myself. I have too much to live for."

As for McAlary's charge of wife beating, which had been alleged before, both Tyson and Givens vehemently denied that he has ever struck her. He also denied that he has a chemical imbalance that requires him to take medication, another tidbit dropped on McAlary by someone in a "small circle of people."

"That's the first I heard of it," says Bobby Stewart, a former counselor at Tryon School for Boys in Johnstown, N.Y., where Tyson spent his early teen years. "A lot of people were under medication at Tryon, but Mike Tyson wasn't one of them. I know, because I was the guy who gave it out every night."

Richard Stickles, Tyson's principal at Catskill High School, is equally mystified. "It's suggested that Mike had some sort of a chemical imbalance, or that he is off his clock," says Stickles. "No way. Not him. We couldn't have hidden a thing like that. People would have been all over us. There's been talk that Mike had a lot of trouble in school. That's not true, either. He was a boy like any other boy, no better but no worse, and he was brighter than most, and still is."

Dr. Eugene Brody, a Manhattan internist and hematologist and Tyson's personal physician since late 1985, says that he is also baffled by references to a chemical imbalance. "I've examined him regularly, and nothing like that ever showed up," he says. "When I took his medical history the first time, I saw that there was no record of any such thing, and he never mentioned it. I certainly have never prescribed any kind of drug for something like that. It's hard enough just to get him to take antibiotics when he has an infection. He'll start taking them and just stop."

Cayton and Rooney were infuriated by the attack in the Daily News. "The story is obviously a plant, and it's replete with lies," says Cayton. "They [McAlary's sources] say that Bill Cayton and Kevin Rooney were told almost immediately of the crash and emotional problems, and our only reaction was our concern for Tyson's upcoming and lucrative fight with Frank Bruno. That's 100 percent a lie. We weren't called, and we are not, I repeat not, concerned about the fight. Where this story deals with Bill Cayton, where I know the facts, this is a thoroughly outrageous story."

McAlary wrote that "[Tyson] was surrounded in a hospital room by two sets of people. One set, the nonfight people, were trying to help the heavyweight champion of the world save his life. The second set, the fight people, Cayton and Rooney, were trying to save a meal ticket." (In fact, Cayton and Rooney were never allowed in Tyson's hospital room.)

"Save the meal ticket!" says Cayton, who is a multimillionaire. "I told Jarvis Astair and Mickey Duff, the British promoters, that I expected Mike to get a completely clean bill of health. But even so, before I will permit him to fight, I will demand that he get a clean bill of health from five of New York's top neurosurgeons. And all five must give it. Only then will he fight Bruno or anyone else. The story said that Kevin and I were told of emotional problems. That's totally false. It's actually libelous."

"What it is," says Rooney of the McAlary piece, "is bull——. I've told Mike before, I don't care if he ever fights again. If he wants to quit and live a happy life, fine. I'm all for whatever he wants to do. And so is Bill Cayton. You ask them bastards who planted the story what they want Mike to do. See what they answer."

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out where that News story came from," says Chief of Police Dolan. "That suicide story is a deliberate attempt on someone's part to make Mike appear as a real bad person. That wasn't your accidental leak to the press. The obvious question is: Who and why? For some reason Mike's new family feels threatened by, and is insecure because of, his old family. And from what I know, there's absolutely no reason for it. At some point Mike has to take control of his own life. He has to say to his new family: Hey, this is my manager and my trainer and these are my friends. There is no reason to feel threatened by them. They are a part of my life, and they are going to stay a part of my life. Get used to it."

Still something good may come out of all this. Tyson just might go out and hire himself a chauffeur. That would make a lot of people rest easier. As Bright says, "When Mike drives out of the yard, I hide behind a tree. But now, he's even getting those."

PHOTOWhen Tyson's car skidded in Ewald's drive-way and struck a tree, a "Daily News" headline said he had intended to take his life. TWO PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANN[See caption above.] PHOTOALAN E. SOLOMON[See caption above.] PHOTOED BAILEY/APGivens (left) had her husband transferred to a guarded hospital room in New York City. PHOTOLORI GRINKER/DUOMOEwald, who helped raise Tyson, called the suicide story nonsense. PHOTOBLANCHE/GAMMA-LIAISONFive days after the accident, the Tysons seemed ebullient as they arrived in Moscow.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)