The darkness always is the same. No, that is not true. Not
exactly. There are crescents of light at the edge of the
darkness, crescents that are brighter or dimmer depending on the
light outside. The rest of the darkness is the same.
The places that are familiar to Gordon Gund in this perpetual
darkness are his three homes in three states and his apartment
at the top of the three-year-old showpiece Gund Arena in
Cleveland and the office of his investment company on Nassau
Street in Princeton, N.J., places where he can strike a rhythm,
where the objects and the people mostly are where he expects
them to be. Yes, the chair is here. Yes, the table. Yes. The
textures are familiar, the edges of carpets, the start of
hardwood floors, the subtle railings that look to anyone else
like wainscoting along the hallways but can be touched with a
discreet movement of the hand. The doors are where they are
supposed to be. The people are where they are supposed to be.
Here in Princeton, for instance, is Gund's business associate
Warren Thaler in his office....
Here is secretary Sharon Polignano....
January 12, 1998
Here is Dave Prescott....
"Dave's not here, Gordon. He went out to lunch."
Right. Out to lunch. How to know?
That is the thing with the darkness. Even the familiar can
become unfamiliar--bang, watch out--just like that, and...great
god, the unfamiliar could be just about anything at all. That is
the battle. Most of the world is unfamiliar.
If you are blind.
"More than a couple times I've tried to put myself in his place,
but I haven't been able to do it," says Mike Fratello, coach of
the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA team that is owned by Gordon
Gund and his older brother, George, and that plays in Gund
Arena. "Because it's too big to understand. How would I remember
everything? How would I organize things? Just going through the
mental preparation of every day. How would I go through that?"
"You close your eyes, you try it," says Terrell Brandon, the
star point guard of Gund's team until he was traded to the
Milwaukee Bucks last September. "It isn't the same. Because you
can always open your eyes at the end."
"The first time I saw him, the way he went up to a microphone
and handled himself, I said, 'Wow,'" says Danny Ferry, a forward
on Gund's team. "I'd never been around anyone like him. I guess
it's the wrong phrase, but being around him was very eye-opening."
The darkness came 27 years ago. Gund was 30. His son Grant was
three. His son Zachary had just been born. He has raised his
children in the darkness, raised them into young men, off on
their own. He has built his business and sports empire, has been
successful in many endeavors, all in the darkness. He is 57 now.
The last basketball game he actually saw was in Boston Garden,
the Celtics and the Philadelphia Warriors, Russell against
Chamberlain. He was at Harvard. He was playing hockey. He was
going to be an engineer, maybe a banker, maybe a photographer,
maybe a lot of things. He hadn't gone into the Navy yet. He was
learning how to fly a plane.
He has been the principal owner of the Cavaliers for 14 years.
He has been in charge of wheelings and dealings, building
programs and rebuilding programs. He has owned and sold pieces
of real estate around the country. He is the head of Nationwide
Advertising, a classified-ad company with 35 offices across
North America. He has been the chairman of various boards,
active in assorted causes, and currently he is chairman of the
board of the NBA. He was in charge of the construction of the
arena that bears his name--the $150 million sports palace that
sits next to Jacobs Field, part of the rebirth of downtown
Cleveland--for three busy years. All in the darkness.
"It's like you have burned all your bridges," a doctor told him
when he went blind. "It doesn't mean you can't exist. It does
mean you have to build new bridges."
He has spent almost half his lifetime doing that, constructing
and using new bridges, traveling step by tentative step. What
does he look like? He does not know. He laughs. He says that
maybe his image in a mirror is something he does not want to
see. What do his sons look like? He does not know, and he does
not laugh. That is something he wishes he could see.
Images of the people in his life at the time the darkness
arrived, in 1970--his contemporaries, his friends, his wife,
Lulie--have been frozen in his mind. Gray hair has not been
added. Hairlines have not receded. Wrinkles have not appeared.
It is all so natural, but all so strange. Lulie says if Gordon
ever regained his sight, she and the other women he knows would
all head straight to Elizabeth Arden for major makeovers. He
says he hasn't seen an ugly woman in almost 30 years.
The newer people in his life are almost characters in a novel, a
sprawling novel, one of those billion-page Michener sagas that
you take to the beach every day for a summer and never finish.
Gund has had to construct these people in his head, relying on
description, insight, memory, imagination. Most of all,
"I'm 6'7", and I weigh 265 pounds," his friend David Stern, the
NBA commissioner, tells him. "I'm a brute of a man."
The curious thing about this novel, this personal novel, is that
the characters are real. They talk not only in his head but also
into his ears. Real voices. He can hear. He can smell garlic on
the characters' breath after dinner at an Italian restaurant. He
can reach out, touch. (Six-seven, David? Right.) He can talk to
other people, get other impressions of the characters. He can
collate all this in his mind.
He fights the darkness in any way possible, turns his other
senses to the highest reading on the dial. He listens, listens,
listens some more, as hard as he can. What's that? A bell on a
special clock; the passing of another hour. That? Someone
entering the room. That? The most important part of a business
report, the words in the midst of all the other words in the
nightly stack of tapes prepared by his longtime reader, Jeanne
Phillips, the words coming in a flurry, played at high speed, no
pauses, all in an effort to cram the most information into his
head in the least amount of time.
Often someone gives him assistance. His driver. His associates.
Someone in the family. Step coming, four inches up, straight
ahead. He reaches out with his long white cane with the red tip.
Yes, a step. There it is. He goes into big rooms and small,
challenges the unfamiliar. Voices sometimes echo. Voices
sometimes get lost in a banquet crowd. There are times when he
becomes disoriented, stands and faces the wrong way when
everyone is pledging allegiance to the flag, turns toward the
public-address speaker at the side of the room instead of toward
the human speaker at the podium next to him on the dais, but
then someone gives him a clue and he turns back. He is O.K. again.
"Hello, Mr. Gund. How are you?"
The voice appears from nowhere. The collating begins. Where is
he today in the darkness? Cleveland. The arena. The Cavaliers'
locker room. The voice is coming down toward him. A big man. An
accent. The file cards roll through the mind. Easy. The image of
the particular character in the real-life novel appears. All in
an instant. "Zydrunas," Gund says. "How are you? Getting
stronger every day?"
Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He is the Cavs' no-longer-secret weapon.
Twenty-two years old, from Lithuania. Seven-foot-three. He was
drafted in the first round in 1996, but that September he broke
his right foot. This was the second break, same foot. The kid
missed the entire '96-97 season, but he rehabilitated. And ate.
He sorely needed more weight for the body slams of the NBA. He
is off to a very promising start this season; and if everything
works out, perhaps he will become another Rik Smits, the 7'4"
Dutchman who became a star with the Indiana Pacers.
"I have gone from 237 to 265," Ilgauskas says. "Here, feel my
A big hand grabs the owner's hand and pulls it to a flexed
biceps. Here. Feel. There is one picture in reality: this pale,
huge kid with a splash of acne across his cheeks, showing off
his newly developed muscle. There is another picture in Gund's
mind. What is it? How close to reality? The mind knows all the
facts about Ilgauskas. The opinions of the coaches. The
description. The smell. The sound. What is the picture? The next
Rik Smits? What is the picture of Rik Smits? How close to reality?
"Very impressive," Gund says from his darkness as he squeezes
the kid's biceps. "Great."
"I will remember this forever," Wayne Embry, general manager of
the Cavs, says. "It happened a number of years ago. We lost a
tough game in the playoffs. We were in the locker room, just
after the game. Only our personnel. Gordon said, all of a
sudden, 'Get that guy out of here. He shouldn't be here.' We
looked around. Sure enough, someone was in the room who
shouldn't have been there. Nobody else had noticed. Gordon heard
this one voice from among maybe 15 other voices."
"There were meetings with the architects while the arena was
being built," says Thaler, vice president of Gund Investments.
"The architects would be talking about something, and Gordon
would say, 'No, that won't work,' and invariably what he said
was right. Everyone would be grabbing at the blueprints,
looking, finding out what he said was true. He had built this
entire building in his head."
The darkness closed from all sides. That is the damnable way his
disease--retinitis pigmentosa, or RP--works. The straight-ahead
vision might be fine, 20-20 on that eye chart, the subject able
to read even the smallest letters on the bottom line, but the
peripheral vision disappears. The subject eventually sees the
world through two keyholes. The keyholes become smaller and
smaller, then ultimately close. The darkness takes charge.
This is one of those genetic diseases that hides inside the
body, then jumps out and surprises the victim at some point in
his or her life. Many times this moment is late, when the victim
is 60 or 70 or 80 years old. Sometimes it never comes, the
disease remaining dormant forever. Sometimes...Gordon Gund. Early.
Until he was 25, he led a life of privilege as one of the six
children of George Gund II, who had developed a company that
made decaffeinated coffee (now the Sanka division of General
Foods), then moved along to run the Cleveland Trust Company (now
Ameritrust) and establish the charitable Gund Foundation. Rich,
Gordon's father was. Very rich.
Beginning in the sixth grade Gund attended Groton, an American
version of an English boarding school. He played football and
hockey, rowed in the four-man crew and was, one classmate
remembers, "hell on wheels." He was one of those disciplinary
problems, but in a good way. Why were you late for class? I was
just fishing, lost track of time. Things like that. He tied his
own flies to do the fishing.
From Groton he went to Harvard. He played hockey all four years,
an earnest defenseman, though mostly jayvee. The varsity had
four future members of the U.S. Olympic team that stunned the
Russians and won the gold medal at Squaw Valley in 1960. The
star was Bill Cleary, now Harvard's athletic director. Gund
always has joked that for four years he carried Cleary's skates,
that he helped give Cleary confidence in practice to become the
star he was.
In the spring Gund was on the crew team. He wanted to row in the
heavyweight eight, but when he asked coach Harvey Love about his
chances, Love had him line up with two seniors who already were
in the varsity boat. The seniors each were about 6'3", maybe 235
pounds. Gund was considerably smaller, maybe 5'10", 180. Love
had the three rowers stretch their arms as far as possible, to
see who would be able to pull his oar in the biggest arc. "What
do you think?" Love asked Gund. He became a member of the
During the winter he would row in the tanks in the morning,
practice hockey in the afternoon, attend classes in between, go
back to the dorm and fall asleep, exhausted, with his head on
his desk. At the end of hockey season he had to drop from 180
pounds to below 160 to be in the lightweight boat. It was a
He went from Harvard to the Navy. He trained in Newport, R.I.,
became an ensign and served on a ship in Japan, where he became
more settled, quieter, ready to begin life as an adult. He went
home in 1965 and started to go blind.
It didn't happen all at once. His vision at night gradually
became a problem. He would bump into objects. Lulie, on only
their second date, at a party on Cape Cod in the summer of '65,
noticed him stumbling as they left in the evening. She wondered
what was wrong. He'd had only one beer. His peripheral vision
started to narrow during the day. He would drive and not see
cars coming from the side until the last second.
There hadn't been a lot of research on RP, so when he went to
doctors, he would take the standard straight-ahead eye test and
do fine. Even when the doctors mentioned the possibility of RP,
they added the calming words, "Maybe you'll go blind in your
60s, but maybe never." The degeneration continued.
He was a New York City investment banker by then. He married
Lulie in May '66. They had their first son. Gordon saw less and
less. He stopped driving at night. He stopped flying after an
incident that occurred when he was stacked up at the Teterboro,
N.J., airport. He was told 16 other planes were in the holding
pattern, but when he looked out he could see only seven. The
tower talked him down, and he never flew again.
Finally, he went to Boston to see Dr. Eliot Berson, a specialist
in RP. Berson delivered the sad news that in as few as six
months, Gund would be totally blind. In six months he was
He made one last attempt to save his sight. There were reports
that a clinic in Odessa, in the Soviet Union, was having great
success with radical procedures. This was 1970, during the cold
war. Virtually no Americans were going to the U.S.S.R., but Gund
went, along with his younger brother Graham, who would become a
prominent Boston architect. The clinic was in a rambling
structure that before the revolution had been a gorgeous private
home but now was falling apart. Paint was peeling from the
walls. The parquet floors were dulled, having been scrubbed with
lye. The lightbulbs looked as if they were from Edison's time.
Virtually no one spoke English. The patients wore old striped
pajamas. Gund stayed six weeks.
He had thought most of the treatments would be some kind of eye
washing, but instead they involved the injection of various
fluids from animal placentas. The needles were huge, out of a
comic strip. Many of the injections went directly into his
forehead. They did not work.
When Lulie came to get him, worried because he was supposed to
have been gone for only two weeks, she was shocked at his
appearance. He had lost weight. He passed out when she took him
to a hotel for a good meal and a bed with clean sheets. What had
these people done to him? The important thing, it turned out,
was what he had done to himself.
He had talked with himself, since no one else could understand
him. He had reached inside, grabbed all of his sadness about his
condition and wrung it out, every last bit. He was almost
relieved to know the truth. He was ready to live in the
darkness. He would learn what he had to learn.
"I had never known a blind person," Lulie says. "The only ones I
ever had seen, I think, were a man who sold pencils in front of
the bank where my father worked and a woman who caned chairs. I
decided early on what my approach should be. I could feel
incredibly sad for him, sad that his eyes didn't work. I never,
never could feel sorry for him. I never could say, 'Oh, my god,
I've got to do everything for him.' That would not work. Not for
either of us."
"A lot of people didn't even want to take the test, to know if
they had this disease," Berson says. "Being blind is a very
tough proposition to live with. It's like being told you have
terminal cancer...except with the cancer, you will die. Being
blind is something you will have to live with for the rest of
your life, which may be a very long time."
The darkness imposed limits, to be sure. Take three unaided,
impulsive steps into the unfamiliar and, hell, anything could
happen. A tractor trailer could knock you into oblivion, or you
could knock a drink all over a woman's new cocktail dress, or a
wall could appear, or a table or a cocker spaniel puppy.
Anything. If a man thought about it, each step could carry him
over the rim of an unseen Grand Canyon. The chances of emotional
paralysis, just staying on the couch, thank you, were real.
Gund fought those thoughts. He wondered, instead, how much room
there was between the perceived limits and the actual,
positively-can't-do-it limits. How far could he push? How well
could he adapt? In the last few months of his sight, he had
visited a magical man named James Wheat, a businessman who was
blind but was upbeat and encouraging. He worked in an office
filled with fine art and a view of the James River in Richmond.
If Gund was going to be blind, this was the kind of blind he
wanted to be, James Wheat blind.
He went to an information session for a course given by the New
Jersey Council of the Blind, but he decided against a
traditional approach. He would figure things out for himself. He
learned a bit of Braille but discarded it as too slow, the books
too bulky. He chose tape recordings instead, much faster, made
specially for him after he hired his own reader. He learned to
pay strict attention. If he was to get information by recording,
he would give himself one shot to listen. No notes. No going
back, because going back was too time-consuming.
About a year and a half after the blindness had arrived, he was
taking his son Grant, then five years old, to a small swimming
pool in their backyard. No one else was around. Gordon was
nervous about Grant's safety. He held the boy's hand so Grant
wouldn't run to the water too fast, jump in without supervision.
They maneuvered through the house and out the door. Grant
dropped his hand. "O.K., Dad," the boy said. "You can go the
rest of the way on your own."
Who was leading whom? Hah. This was the way it was.
Gund established his Princeton investment company in a former
bank building, decorating it with taste and style to put people
at ease. He hired assistants he could trust. He plunged into
work, chairing meetings, acquiring properties he never had seen,
never would, working out numbers and strategies in his head. He
found he had an aptitude for all of this. He had a house built,
a special house that featured subtle changes in textures, aids
that would allow him to walk around without a cane.
At the same time, he attacked his disease. There had been little
research into RP, little money spent, because it was not fatal,
not common, not high on the list of causes. He changed that.
Teaming with Bernard Berman, a Baltimore real estate developer
who had two daughters with RP, Gund helped create the Foundation
Fighting Blindness as well as the Berman-Gund Laboratory for the
Study of Retinal Degenerations at Harvard. Berson, the doctor
who had delivered the sad news about Gund's future, was
installed as the director of the laboratory.
The Gunds attacked RP not only with money--Gordon and his
family's foundation provided $675,000, half the cost needed to
establish the laboratory--but also with time. Lulie became
involved, starting the first Foundation Fighting Blindness
chapter in New Jersey. Gordon spent 35% of his workweek
organizing for the foundation and soliciting funds, not in a mad
rush to find a cure for himself but simply to get something
moving, to try to ensure that sometime in the future no one
would get the same grim surprise he had received.
He entered professional sports in 1977, almost by accident. Own
a team? He never had thought about that. His brother George had
bought 50% of the floundering Cleveland Barons in the NHL.
George wanted Gordon to buy a piece. "I don't think so," Gordon
"Come on," George said. "Just stick your toe in the water. It
could be fun. Buy an eighth."
"I think there's alligators in that water," Gordon said. He
bought an eighth anyway, stuck a toe in. Other investors had
financial problems. He stuck another toe in, bought another
piece. He owned half the team almost before he knew what was
happening. The team stunk, and attendance was not great,
and...oh, wait a minute, the arena, Richfield Coliseum, suddenly
was one of his investments.
The team eventually moved, merging with the Minnesota North
Stars in '78 in one of sports' most unusual business
transactions. (Twelve years later the Gund brothers sold the
North Stars and bought the rights to the expansion San Jose
franchise, now the Sharks, which are operated by George.)
Meanwhile the Cavaliers, an immensely troubled franchise, played
in the arena in Richfield. The NBA inquired if Gordon would like
to own the team, if he would take it for next to nothing from
owner Ted Stepien. Certainly not, Gund said. The team was losing
millions and had no future because Stepien had traded its top
draft choices for years to come. Maybe if the draft choices were
back on the table.... The NBA, in another of sports' most
unusual business moves, simply gave the Cavs new draft choices.
This was in 1983. With George as his partner, Gordon now owned a
professional basketball team. The purchase price was $21
million, but the package included Stepien's Nationwide
Advertising, which was the more important part of the deal to
"I'd never really thought too much about basketball," he says.
"We had a hoop at home, and I played pickup games at school, but
I was more involved with other sports. I was a hockey player."
Gund still was a hockey player in his heart, but the limits
imposed by the darkness were too tight for hockey. He skated
sometimes, but that was not satisfying. Get up some speed, and
how close were you to those boards, to the rim of the Grand
Canyon? He ran on a treadmill four or five times a week, three
or four miles each time, to stay in shape. He swam in his pool.
He needed something else, something with more freedom, more fun.
He needed skiing.
He had skied as a teenager--aggressively, all body and reaction.
He skied again now in Aspen, Colo. He wore a bib with the
warning BLIND SKIER. An instructor lined him up with the fall
line, the fastest descent of a particular trail, then followed
him down the mountain with instructions to hold left or hold
right or stop.
This was the answer. The worst part of the darkness--outside of
not being able to see his family--was the loss of independence,
the chance to jump in a car, to just get up and go. Skiing
brought that touch of independence. He could concentrate and
fly. He could hear the chatter of other people's skis as he
passed. He could feel the terrain under him and react in a
moment. This was the edge of the unfamiliar. This was beautiful.
He learned to ski much better than he had skied when he could see.
"Rating skiers on a one-to-10 basis, I'd put Gordon as a high
seven, maybe an eight," says Dave Elston, a ski instructor in
Aspen. "He and I go out, we ski everything, except maybe some of
the moguls. We go fast."
Lulie worried, especially when he reported the inevitable
collisions, but what could she do? He needed this room, this
feeling. She worried when he carved his little sculptures at
home, presenting a finely crafted wooden bird or a fish to her
with a smudge of blood on it from a cut he had not noticed. She
worried when he went swimming in the ocean, crazy, swimming
against the tide, sometimes turned around and unknowingly headed
toward England. What could she do? She yelled from the shore and
told him to come back. She couldn't stop him, wouldn't want to
One day she was on a commercial flight without Gordon. The young
man in the next seat started a conversation. He said he lived in
Nantucket. She said she, too, had a home there. He asked her
where. She described the approximate location of the summer
house. "Oh," the man said, "you must live near that blind dude.
The one who is married to that bitch who yells at him all the
time when he's swimming."
She considered her response. "Well," she finally said, "maybe
she's just worried about him. You know?"
"A blind person makes a great parent," says Lulie. "A blind
person listens very well. Kids have to be articulate. Do you
know that age, around 13, when all they do is sneer at a parent?
Nothing ever is right? Well, you can sneer yourself up and down
with a blind person, and it just doesn't count. You have to say
what's the matter."
"It's just a joy to watch him in action," says Stern. "He's the
chairman of our board. He comes in and has the best grasp of all
the data of anyone in the room. He's the one who pulls out the
important fact, the answer, from page 36 of the report."
"He's a hero every day," says Richard Watson, legal counsel for
the Cavs and assorted Gund businesses. "You know why he's a
hero? Because he doesn't have to be a hero. He doesn't have to
do everything he does to feed his family and educate his
children. He could stay home and have someone read books to him
every day. He does all this because he wants to do it."
"We go to his house," says Dr. Alan Laties, chairman of the
Scientific Advisory Board of the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
"He makes his own sandwich. My wife says, 'My husband doesn't
make his own sandwich.'"
The darkness now is inside the brightly lit Gund Arena. The Cavs
are playing the Charlotte Hornets in an important end-of-season
game last April, trying to grab the eighth and final playoff
spot in the East. The crowd is 15,985, noisy enough but not as
noisy as the public-address announcer. The color scheme in the
arena is dominated by blue, four shades in all, the blues of the
seats becoming increasingly lighter until they reach the top.
Lulie picked the color scheme. Gordon picked the lightest shade,
saying it should be "the blue you see at sunrise on the ocean."
It was a color he remembered from the Navy.
He knows the contours of this building well. His hands explored
countless scale models before and during the construction, his
fingers traveling all the stairs and escalators, running up and
down all the aisles. He helped design the bar, Gordon's Sports
Bar and Brew Pub. He approved the art for The Depot, the
season-ticket holders' club. He even chose the Cavs' logo in the
center of the court and on the players' jerseys. He felt the
letters, the trademarked basketball and the basket on a raised
model constructed of sandpaper. "We wanted to do everything
right," he says. "This is the only building we'll ever do in our
He sits in the front row of the owners' box, center court. His
suit jacket is off. He has headphones so he can listen to the
words of radio broadcaster Joe Tait. ("Wham, with the right
hand!") The arena is one of the few in the NBA that has its own
small transmitter, so fans at the game can listen to a clear
broadcast. Do it right.
Gund listens to the games whenever possible but attends only
eight to 10 per season. He is too busy in other places. There
always is another board meeting, another place to be. He is
especially proud of the progress made by The Foundation Fighting
Blindness, of which he is chairman. Recent findings show that
vitamin A can retard the onset of blindness in RP patients and
in those suffering from other macular diseases that the
foundation is attacking. "This has been like starting a small
business with a couple of friends and watching it grow into
something much more than that," Gund says. "We've raised over
$100 million to fight blindness. We're starting to see some
The chances are slim that a cure for RP will be found during
Gund's lifetime, but so be it. He stopped wishing for that in
Odessa. He has moved along. In a family of achievement--his
brothers and sisters have accomplished notable things in
architecture, art, cinema, education and psychiatry--his
achievements are as dramatic as any.
A waitress brings a glass of water and places it on the railing
in front of him. His left hand reaches straight ahead, the
proper height, the proper distance, but maybe a foot to the
right. He slowly moves his hand left, touches the side of the
glass, puts his hand around it and takes a drink. He replaces
the glass exactly where it had been, on top of the napkin.
"Whooooa!" The crowd roars at a dunk by one of the Cavs. Tait
reports the basket on the radio. Gund nods in approval. The
collating takes place in an instant. The real joins the
imagined. The game on the floor and the game on the radio have
merged into the game in Gund's head. "Can you picture what each
of these players looks like?" the man in the next seat asks.
Gund pulls the earphones from his head. "I think I can," he
says. "Most of them. I do have trouble, though, with someone
like Michael Jordan. The idea of the third dimension, about how
high he jumps--that's hard to grasp. I can get two dimensions,
but I have trouble with the third. The game has changed so much
since I saw it. People compare Michael Jordan to Julius Erving,
but I never saw Julius Erving either. I have trouble picturing
There is no self-pity. There is no spoken regret. There never
has been time for that, for might-have-beens or
should-have-beens. There has been too much to do. The days and
nights have been too full, the challenges too many. Twenty-seven
years? The bridges that once were burned have been replaced as
well as possible. The movement must be forward. That is the only
way to go.
Donations can be sent to the Foundation Fighting Blindness at
P.O. Box 17279, Baltimore, Md. 21297-0495; telephone (800)