Dec. 09, 1991
Dec. 09, 1991

Table of Contents
Dec. 9, 1991

Skins Game
Detroit Pistons
Cincinnati Bengals
Dikembe Mutombo
Tough Mothers
  • By Charles P. Pierce

    Bettie Taylor and Bonnie Lindros want the best for their sons, pitcher Brien Taylor and center Eric Lindros, and they aren't intimidated by major league baseball or the NHL

Point After


Bettie Taylor and Bonnie Lindros want the best for their sons, pitcher Brien Taylor and center Eric Lindros, and they aren't intimidated by major league baseball or the NHL

By Charles P. Pierce

The Yachts Rock softly at anchor under the pale, watery sunlight of late fall. Big, seagoing things, they bob there along the waterfront known as the Crystal Coast, and the old men come down to the boardwalk and point to them, then out to sea, south toward the Caribbean. In the late 1970s, when the federal government authorized a multimillion-dollar renovation of the docks in Beaufort, N.C., the town became a prized anchorage for trust-fund sailors running the inland route on their way to the Bahamas. The yachts tie up for a while and then they go, the town's real money hoisting anchor and heading south.

This is an article from the Dec. 9, 1991 issue Original Layout

Inland from the anchorage, the houses get smaller and farther apart as you conic into that part of town they call North River. Up past East Carteret High, past the Thomas Seafood Company and the little brick church of uncertain denomination, there is a dirt road. A long driveway, really, it is gullied by the rain. Cars and trucks rust along the side of it, and battered boats jut like ruined teeth out of the tall weeds. At the end of the road is a trailer home. There's a house rising up now behind the trailer. Because of one woman, this is where some of the big money came to Beaufort and stayed.

"I didn't really look on it as a contest," says Bettie Taylor. "I was a mother doing what was right for her child. I don't know anybody around here who wouldn't have done that. I don't know one woman who wouldn't go to bat for her child."

She is not a big woman; her son Brien towers over her. She is still young, 39, but she's stooped a little bit from working. Her voice is light and lilting. Wherever the steel is, and it is there as sure as sun and rain, you've got to look close to find it.

Last spring, the New York Yankees made Brien Taylor the first pick in the annual baseball draft. The team offered him $300,000, which is more money than anyone in North River had ever seen. Bettie Taylor looked at the offer, studied baseball precedent and turned the money down. She saw what the Oakland A's had given Todd Van Poppel the year before, and she saw that it was a lot more than $300,000, and she told the Yankees that, no, this wouldn't do at all and that Brien would go to college instead. The pressure mounted. Bettie was flogged in the baseball press. Some of her neighbors wondered if she had lost her mind. However, in August the Yankees came down to Beaufort, up the driveway through the weeds, and they gave Brien Taylor a $1.55 million deal. Some of the money has gone into the house that's going up behind the trailer, which to the Yankees these days must look a great deal like Appomattox Court House looked to Robert E. Lee.

"Like any business, you've got buying and selling," Bettie Taylor says. "Look at it that way, and Brien's a commodity. It's not a very pretty picture. I can appreciate where [the Yankees are] coming from. They're trying to do what's right for them. But I was trying to do what I know was right and fair for my child, and that's all I cared about."

This is a new phenomenon in sports, and sports is not entirely prepared to deal with it. Because young athletes are increasingly coming out of single-parent homes and an overwhelming number of those homes are headed by women, mothers are becoming more and more involved in the career plans of their gifted children. College coaches involved in recruiting saw this first. At Kentucky, Rick Pitino hired Bernadette Locke-Mattox as an assistant basketball coach in 1990, at least in part to have a woman who could approach the mothers of prospective Wildcats. "You're seeing [involved mothers] more than you did 10 years ago." says Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams. "I think a mother is more likely to be concerned with the human being who is her kid, while the father might see the athlete more."

As these athletes move toward professional careers in their sports, their mothers inevitably collide with the huge corporate enterprises that are professional teams. And the people who run these enterprises are not used to dealing with assertive women or with the fact that a mother's perspective on her child's welfare might be different from their own, largely male, perspective.

"A mother will probably have more of a tendency to think about the real interests of her child," says Carl Lindros, whose wife, Bonnie, has become a controversial figure in Canada because of her conspicuous involvement in the career of their son, hockey wunderkind Eric Lindros. "I think the mother might have a broader sense of things, particularly if the father was involved in the sport himself. He might be actualizing his own dreams through the kid, whereas the mother won't focus on anything except the well-being of the child." The fact that both Bonnie Lindros and Bettie Taylor have husbands makes them no less determined to secure the best future for their children.

Because the sexism laced through American culture is closer to the surface in sports than it is elsewhere, there's considerable resistance to the involvement of women in their children's careers. The sports world seems to classify women as either disposable or a nuisance, a continuum fairly well defined at one end by Margo Adams and at the other by Lisa Olson. In both of their celebrated cases, sports had an opportunity to confront its fundamental attitude toward women. In both cases, sports botched the job and went blithely onward. Indeed, every one of the male athletes interviewed by SI in the immediate wake of Magic Johnson's announcement that he had contracted the AIDS virus described a world in which women were either prey or predators and professional athletes were na‚àö√òfs struggling with temptation.

At one time or another, people have tried to pigeonhole Bettie Taylor and Bonnie Lindros as either disposable or a nuisance. No one accused Carl Lindros of brainwashing his son. Willie Ray Taylor, Brien's father, has spent his entire adult life fashioning stone and laying brick. He went to all of his son's games. He, too, thought the Yankees had brought far too little to the table. But nobody claimed that he wasn't smart enough to guide his son's affairs. Bettie Taylor was seen as a woman who just didn't understand. "Most of the time," her husband says, "she means what she says. I don't think they knew that. I did."

They do not lose, these two women. Bettie beat the Yankees, and it's better than even money that Bonnie is going to stare down the NHL. After all, both of these mothers hold an unassailable bit of high ground—it is their children that the nervous executives need. And it's awkward for any sports team to promote itself as entertainment for the whole family while it attempts to pillory a woman for acting upon one of the most basic family values of all: Don't Sell the Kids.

"I never hear Daddy jokes, never," says Eric Lindros. "What I hear are Mommy jokes."

Eric went to Dallas last summer to be photographed for a series of trading cards. All the No. 1 draft picks were there. The Charlotte Hornets' Larry Johnson, whose mother, Dortha, raised him alone, was there. So was Brien Taylor. Eric is baseball silly, so he fell into conversation with Brien, and they talked about their mothers. Good mothers both, but more than that. Strong women, bred in their own ways to compete and to win. Fearsome opponents for the whiskey hours of the poker game.

Bonnie Lindros, 42, is talking about her days as a high school track star. "I was," she says, "a great standing broad."

There is a two-beat, and then there is this huge, 200-watt laugh. Brassy, it would have been called some years ago. Flo Ziegfeld would have cast Bonnie Lindros on sight, and she would have made Fanny Brice look like a Carmelite. Bonnie's laugh is good to have if you're going to be a Hockey Mom. You can laugh at all the cold, cracked-gray dawns and all the crowded, sweaty rides and all the coffee poured hot and thin out of battered machines and all the tin-pot rinks from Trois-Rivières to Norman Wells and back again.

Hockey Moms are cheery sorts, fiercely uncompromising in their belief that the next great player is munching potato chips there in the back scat. They are dedicated to working through the system. The stolid conformity endemic to the sport is first instilled by the Hockey Mom, who is an establishment figure first and always. One morning not long ago, it flashed upon Bonnie Lindros that the next great player was indeed asleep in the next room. And hockey's panjandrums, equally convinced that Eric Lindros was the best young player in the game, anticipated dealing with just another Hockey Mom. They were, ah, incorrect.

"I don't chew gum, and I don't have a [team] jacket," says Bonnie, and then there's that laugh again.

She grew up outside Chatham, the town in Ontario where Ferguson Jenkins was born. Bonnie Roszell's father, Blake, was a justice of the peace, and he was amused when big Carl Lindros would ride his bicycle out from town to the Roszell place, a guitar bouncing off the handlebars. Blake Roszell's teenage daughter was being classically wooed, albeit in the key of D Minus. "It was sweet," she says, "but his singing was brutal."

They were a striking couple, tall and athletic. Eventually, Carl would be drafted by Edmonton of the Canadian Football League and played hockey in the Chicago Blackhawks' system. Though her sister, Marcia, went on to set a Commonwealth Games record in the shotput, Bonnie's career in track and field came to an abrupt end one afternoon in 1965. Anchoring a relay team, she came all the way from last place to second, whereupon she looked over to one side and lost the race. Instead of applauding her effort, the coach tore into her for peeking. Bonnie quit on the spot.

"I have a very strong sense of fairness and a strong sense of what's right," she says. "I learned it in a one-room country schoolhouse, and all of us had to play together. If something happened to you, your siblings came to make sure it was fair."

Bonnie and Carl were married in 1969, and Eric was born four years later. He was the neighborhood ball of fire, and out of sheer desperation his parents enrolled him in a small local hockey league. He so took to the sport that he refused to remove his equipment, pedaling his bicycle down the street in full pads like a strange little tank. His talent became plain early on, and Bonnie became very visible at Eric's games. Once, when the tabloid Toronto Sun ran several pictures of her in the stands, other Hockey Moms openly wondered whether she had paid off the photographer. "If I was going to pay to be in the paper," she told them, "it'd be on page 3," referring to the Sun's daily pinup picture.

"See?" she says. "That's why I get in trouble."

Eric rose swiftly through the regimented system of Canadian youth hockey until, in 1989, he was ready to ascend into the Ontario Hockey League, his last scheduled stop before the NHL. It was here that Bonnie Lindros first went national. It was here that she first became a target.

Both Bonnie and Carl agreed that Eric should play close to home so as not to disrupt his schooling. Unfortunately, the first pick in the OHL draft was held by the Greyhounds of Sault Ste. Marie, a town far from the Lindros home in suburban Toronto. Bonnie and Carl said flatly that Eric would not play there; he would play on an amateur team in the U.S. instead. Figuring this for a bluff, the Soo drafted Eric anyway. On the way out of the draft, a local reporter cornered Eric. Since her 16-year-old son had just had his whole life turned upside down, Bonnie told the reporter to get lost. Her reputation has never recovered.

"That day at the OHL draft was when it started," Eric recalls. "She just told me, 'Eric, shut up and get in the car.' That's when I started to hear about my mother ruining my life and stuff." Bonnie's eyes still tear up at the memory of those days.

"It was a sad time," she says. "He takes his finals, and then he's off to a new country, new school, new home. Simple, right? But I knew that it just wasn't right to stick a microphone in the face of a 16-year-old at that controversial time. To me, that's a violation of a child." Later, of course, the OHL decided that it was absurd to have the league's biggest drawing card playing amateur hockey in Detroit, so it magically adjusted the rules to allow the Soo to trade Eric to the Oshawa Generals, who play near his home. The Lindros family had not been bluffing, and the OHL threw in its hand.

Resentment lingered everywhere Eric played. He was named an OHL All-Star after playing only one league game. To protest Eric's selection, the players at the Soo wore black armbands for their next game. Worse than that, however, was the general feeling among Hockey Moms that Eric was the worst kind of whippersnapper, and that Bonnie—not Carl; never Carl—was pushing around all of junior hockey. After all, the other Hockey Moms had played by the rules. They had put their kids in an archaic system in which children as young as six might be forced to practically sign away the next 12 years of their lives. That was the way the game worked.

"When Eric was drafted by the Soo," Bonnie says, "we didn't criticize. We just said, 'That doesn't work for us.' Isn't that fair? Can't we say that about our own child? That's what I can never understand."

Today the Lindros family finds itself in an eerily familiar predicament. Eric's NHL rights are owned by the Quebec Nordiques. No one in the family wants Eric to play in Quebec City. He would again be playing far from home. Indeed, given Quebec's desire to separate itself from English-speaking Canada, Eric would be playing in what is virtually another country. Not only would his endorsement opportunities be limited in a francophone culture, but he might also find himself in an intolerable bind if relations between Quebec and the rest of the nation worsen—and the tabloids are already full of wild talk in two languages concerning the possibility that Quebec will one day play the role of Croatia in some Great White G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átterd‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ümmerung. In such an event, it wouldn't be easy being the most famous English-speaking person in town. Thus, one young hockey player—and his mother—find themselves in the middle of Canada's struggle for its soul.

"One time, I heard [a man say] on the radio that Eric should go to Quebec because that's the rules," Bonnie says. "I wanted to ask that guy, 'Where do you work? What if I told you you had to go to Winnipeg and work? Would you like that?' Why don't people understand that? It seems so simple to me."

Still, the Nordiques have no intention of trading the rights. Hence, Eric Lindros is playing today for the Canadian Olympic team. The Nordiques are the latest folks to call the Lindros family's bluff, and, again, Bonnie has been made the fall person. "Bonnie has looked them right in the eye," says Carl. "They're not used to that." After all, it's easier for the Nordique faithful to vilify Eric's mother than it is for them to vilify Eric, whom they still hope to applaud one day. And it's easier to vilify Bonnie than it is to vilify Carl, who is, after all, a man and who therefore, of course, understands the game. It's more insulting, in the eyes of Eric's detractors, to imply that he's doing what Mommy says.

There is a certain precedent for this. For years Gordie Howe's wife, Colleen, was the object of carping around the NHL for her great success in managing her husband's career. The carping, of course, was largely surreptitious, because nobody who played against Howe was crazy enough to bad-mouth his wife in public and thereby risk an impromptu splenectomy. Colleen Howe also helped along the NHL careers of her sons Mark and Marty. Once, after negotiating a contract with Gordie Howe, an NHL executive was heard to sneer, "I hope that makes Colleen happy."

So there are leaks and whispers about how or how often Bonnie has done this, that and the other thing. There are more rumors about Bonnie Lindros than there ever were about Margaret Trudeau. For her part, Bonnie is quick to cite a newspaper report that certain people in Quebec treated some visiting Indian hockey players in an inexcusably racist fashion—neatly implying that all Quebecois are racist, which is a form of prejudice in itself. While Bonnie's role remains strictly advisory, it's clear that her advice will be heeded and that Eric Lindros is unlikely ever to be a Quebec Nordique.

"Sometimes," Eric muses, "I get scared, you know? Things between me and my mom get a little strained. It's like, 'Mom, don't say that.' But that's when I'm not thinking clearly. When I was at the Canada Cup this summer, my roommate was Brent Sutter, and he said, 'Don't worry about it. Your mom's just doing the best she can for her kid.' " Sutter is an expert on Hockey Moms, his own having sent six sons to the NHL.

Nordique general manager Pierre Pagè, not surprisingly, takes the high road. "Part of what makes Eric a great player is what comes from his parents, that drive to be the best," says Pagè, who took over as Quebec's coach last month. Bonnie's critics, meanwhile, continue in their attempts to make her into a cartoon character—hockey maman de l'enfer. However, there's a bright edge to her that cuts through the caricature.

"I know who Eric is," Bonnie says. "He may be 6'5" and 225 pounds, but he's an 18-year-old kid. He's my 18-year-old kid. He might be precocious in a lot of ways, but I know he's vulnerable.

"There are ways in which I deserve to be a target. You know, I looked up outspoken in the dictionary. I think in the States, that's cool. But I don't think they like outspoken up here."

People once thought Bettie Murrell was trying to go above her station. After all, East Carteret High School was white. Bettie was trying to go there, and she would just start trouble, and who did this child think she was, anyway?

"My mother didn't want me to do it," says Bettie. "She thought I would be so alone. But I couldn't back down. It was my right to go there." She learned that from her people, who were righteous in their church, quick with the Bible and quicker with the switch. She especially learned it from her granddaddy Columbus Murrell, who preached his lessons as deacon of the Mount Tabor Baptist Church. Everybody in Beaufort knew Deacon Murrell, who preached so hard one morning that he collapsed, just died right there in the pulpit and went straight to Jesus. Her real father was long gone, but 10-year-old Bettie Murrell didn't feel the loss until the Deacon died. "It was that day that I first realized I didn't have a father no more," she says.

She learned the Deacon's lessons well, and they helped her when she became one of two black children to integrate East Carteret in 1965. The lessons helped her in the tobacco fields, too, where she worked alongside a gentle boy named Willie Ray Taylor. They courted, and they had a child, Brien, in 1971. Two years later, they were married. They bought the trailer at the end of the dirt road. Bettie worked at the Thomas Seafood Company, taking the meat out of crabs for eight hours a day. Willie Ray worked as a bricklayer and stonemason. They had three more children, and they raised them the way Bettie had been raised, quick with the Bible and quicker with the switch.

"As a child," Brien says, "I was real bad in the house. I knew how to behave outside and all, but I'd do wrong at home. This is when I was six, seven, eight years old. I got beat so early that by the time I was 13, I didn't get a kick out of being bad anymore."

Brien grew up long and lean, and the neighbors were amazed by how he could throw a stone and knock a bat out of midair. Soon, he was pitching for East Carteret, the school his mother had helped integrate, and his fastball was being clocked at 97 miles per hour. Scouts began to come to North River. By his senior year, Brien Taylor was 9-2 with an ERA of 0.92, and the feeling was that he would be picked first in the major league draft by the Yankees. The Taylors were all Yankee fans, as were many others in Beaufort, a fluke of fan demography caused first by an atmospheric glitch that allowed the old-timers to hear radio broadcasts of ball games from New York and second by the fact that Babe Ruth used to come down to Beaufort to hunt birds. His picture hangs in a number of the old hunting shacks that are still occupied deep in the scrub woods up behind the town. It was a very big thing to have Brien Taylor drafted by the Yankees last June.

The Taylors knew that Brien was going to need advice in dealing with his new employers, so they enlisted the aid of a Los Angeles-based attorney named Scott Boras. It was Boras who had wrung the Van Poppel contract out of Oakland, largely by threatening to have the pitcher go to college, which would have cost the A's their rights to him. Boras instructed Bettie about the intricacies of the sports business, and he found a bright and apt student. "By the time the Yankees came down here," Boras says, "she was ready with all the questions."

New York first offered Brien $300,000, then $650,000. The family thought it over, consulted with Boras and turned the deals down flat. Baseball, which was once again trying to rein in salaries, was agog. Bettie was adamant. She knew what Van Poppel had gotten, and she knew what was fair. If the Yankees didn't want to give Brien what was fair, then he would go pitch at Louisburg College, near Raleigh. The Yankees fumed. Newsday's Tom Verducci, expressing an attitude widely held in baseball, ridiculed the notion of Brien as a student. This got Bettie even angrier. People seemed to assume that the threat of college was less credible coming from a poor black kid like Brien than from a suburban white kid like Van Poppel. She called on those same reserves that had gotten her through the doors at East Carteret on that first day of school.

"When somebody tells me I can't do something," she says, "it makes me want to do it all the more. Push me against the wall, and you've got a battle on your hands. O.K., so I looked like the bad guy, but I wasn't going to do what they wanted just so I wouldn't look like the bad guy."

People were talking in Beaufort, too. Bettie would hear them behind her in the store. They thought she was crazy to turn down that money, that she was being too damn high and mighty about it, just the way she had been when she had to go to that high school. There were others, too, more vicious than the rest, telling people they hoped that the nigger wouldn't get a nickel. This attitude was so prevalent that it chilled even Bruce Paul, a sportswriter at the Carteret County News-Times, and Paul's previous job had been as a Marine aviator taking surveillance photos of Iran during the hostage crisis. Paul wrote a column decrying the racism that was fueling some of the reaction to Bettie Taylor.

In any event, Brien says, "it was really my decision. I didn't have no doubts at all. She raised me up, and I was not going to sign until it was right to sign."

The situation reached its nadir in late July when Bettie publicly wondered whether the Yankees were trying "to take advantage of a poor black family." In August a man named Don Koonce, who represented the Major League Scouting Bureau, showed up at the trailer and tried to pressure Brien into accepting the original Yankee offer. Bettie, who by then was fed up with rich people trying to knuckle her, threw Koonce out. Inevitably, George Steinbrenner got into the act, saying that Yankee general manager Gene Michael "ought to be shot" if he failed to sign Brien.

Oddly enough, once Michael and Bettie met, later in August, they shook out the deal very quickly. "He talked about how [it was for him] coming up, how hard he had it, and I believed him," Bettie says. "I thought, This is a nice man."

On the day that the agreement was struck, Brien was at Louisburg, waiting to hear if he should go to his first class. The Yankees met the Taylors' $1.55 million demand, while the Taylors agreed not to insist on a major league contract. This gave the Yankees not only flexibility—they wouldn't have to protect Brien in an expansion draft before he arrived in the major leagues—but also a minor victory they could proclaim. "Once we got them off the major league contract," Michael insists, "it was easy to get it done."

Afterward, however, Steinbrenner, his feet firmly planted on both sides of the fence, said that Michael should be ashamed of himself for having agreed to the deal. Houston Astro owner John McMullen fumed that Michael had been "snookered by a 19-year-old kid from North Carolina." Indeed, last month baseball's owners moved to close the loophole through which Brien had threatened to escape by proposing that teams be allowed to keep the rights to their draft choices for as long as five years, a provision so blatantly restrictive that the NHL might have thought it up. Regardless, Brien went off to the Instructional League, where he pitched superbly. Shortly thereafter, with $15,000 contributed by the town's newest millionaire, work began again on the house behind the trailer, which had been going up slowly as time and money allowed.

Not much else has changed. Willie Ray works at what work he can find, and Bettie's job at the seafood company has dropped down to three days a week now that crabbing season is over. Fewer people come down the road through the tall weeds, although Morley Safer brought the 60 Minutes crew to the trailer in November. Every Sunday, Bettie Taylor goes back to Mount Tabor, where her granddaddy went straight from the pulpit to glory one day when she was very small.

"If Brien had gone to college," she says, "our standard of living would've been just what it is now. I've adjusted to it. We haven't fared that badly. We never missed a meal here. We never didn't have clothes on our backs. Our bills get paid—not on time always, but they get paid. It would've been easy for me to go on." Her business has always been the business of living—the business of raising the children and feeding them and keeping them safe and making for them a life of value and substance. Nobody owns your children. They are yours until they are their own.

Other businesses will bend to this business of living, or no business at all will be done in North River. There is something unreal about sports, after all—something very much like the little shops down along Beaufort's waterfront, where the gold-leaf letters catch the dying sun and where you pay an extra 10 cents on the ashtrays for the e that they hang on Old. Something artificial that works so very hard at being genuine.

It almost succeeds. But then it rubs up against something real and fine, and it bends out of deference, the way that the old men ignore all the little shops and look out beyond the big yachts, out to where there is just the sea. Sometimes not all the money that comes to Beaufort rocks at anchor for a while and then heads south through the channel. Sometimes, if you hold on tight to the best of what you are, good things come here and stay.

PHOTOJIM GUND (TAYLOR)PHOTOROBERT BECK (LINDROS)TWO PHOTOSANTHONY BARBOZAPHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (LINDROS)Lindros's size, speed and scoring ability were all on display in the Canada Cup in January as he scored his country's first goal (above); Taylor's lightning lefthanded pitches for East Carteret High made him, like Lindros, the top draft pick in his sport.PHOTOJIM GUND (TAYLOR)[See caption above.]PHOTOSCOTT SHARPE/RALEIGH NEWS AND OBSERVERBefore Brien would sign autographs for Yankee fans, just as he did for the kids back home in Beaufort, Bettie was determined that he get a fair shake from big league management.THREE PHOTOSCANADA WIDE/PAUL HENRYBonnie is a vocal, emotional presence at Eric's games, but she's no gum-chewing Hockey Mom in a team jacket, dedicated to fitting her prodigy into an archaic system.PHOTOCANADA WIDEBonnie denies charges that she won't let Eric stand on his own two feet, but she points out that despite his size and his accomplishments, he is still a vulnerable 18-year-old kid.PHOTOJIM SULLEY/APBettie may have negotiated her son's lucrative deal with the Yankees, but Brien has always leaned on Willie Ray as well as his mother for support.