I perked up when I saw the link while browsing the internet on a train to New York yesterday. "Bert Sugar: An Appreciation," it read. My first thought was that someone must have profiled my old friend, whose name I hadn't seen in print for a while. But then as I clicked I suddenly sensed it was likely something else entirely, and alas, it was. The man I loved to watch and read as a kid who later became a friend, neighbor, drinking buddy and role model as an adult, was gone at 74.
The hits seem to just keep on coming, don't they? This last year or so has been particularly brutal when it comes to loss of great ones. And boy was Bert Sugar great. A great writer (over 80 books all told -- not all about boxing or even about sports) and columnist, a great editor (Boxing Illustrated, The Ring, and later Bert Sugar's Fight Game), great sports historian, a great commentator and so on. (He also gave Keith Olbermann his start -- no one bats 1.000). But the greatest thing of all about Bert -- and the bit of his legacy that we could all take a lesson from -- is how he lived. He loved being Bert Sugar, loved people and loved living extra-large.
Having been into boxing from a pretty young age, the loud man on the TV with the omnipresent fedora and cigar was a familiar and amusing character to me. So I was quite pleasantly surprised when, one day in my early 20s, there he was sitting a few seats away on the Metro North train that I had begun to take between my new home in Westchester County and my new job in Manhattan. (In retrospect, head buried in a newspaper, I am quite sure it was first and last time I ever saw Bert Sugar not talking).
"The boxing dude!" I remember thinking to myself. "Awesome."
As if spotting him weren't enough, my surprise turned to delight when we got off at the same stop -- Chappaqua -- and shortly thereafter were both sitting at the bar at Calhoun's, a pub near the station where nowadays I'm told one can catch a fairly regular glimpse of Bill Clinton.
"My next book..." he bellowed to the fellow behind the bar who had just greeted him familiarly, "'I Hate The Dallas Cowboys And Who The Hell Elected Them America's Team Anyway?' Whaddayathink?!"
Noticing me chuckling on the corner stool, he said "Well, Whaddayathink? And who are you?" I introduced myself, noted that I was new to Chappaqua, hated the Cowboys and that I had in fact been an admirer of his since I was a kid. "You are a kid," he huffed with a smile, slapping the bar with his palm, "Let's have a drink."
Thus began a friendship characterized by frequent, rollicking sessions at Calhoun's, occasionally at other bars in Manhattan and on the Metro North train in between. I learned a lot from him, and I laughed a lot more. For twentysomething me, it was like hanging out with Frank Sinatra or something.
My passion and profession at the time was politics, and Bert, having grown up in Washington DC and experienced the beast up close, could talk politics just as easily and entertainingly as he talked sports. I urged him on several occasions to write about politics, which he (wisely, in retrospect) resisted.
A few years into the fun, I took a job that required me to relocate to Washington DC. For a while after I moved away, we exchanged some calls and letters, but the days of the regular, rollicking hangouts were sadly over. He did come along with me to hang out at the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, where the organization I was leading at the time had planned a sports-themed party. As you might imagine, he owned the place. People couldn't get enough of him, and I realized how much I missed seeing him.
That would be our last great hurrah.
Eventually, we lost touch altogether, but Bert and the life lessons I learned from him over banter, laughs and drinks back in the day have always been with me, and always will be. Like other brilliant one-of-a-kinders we've lost lately, the loss of Bert Randolph Sugar leaves a special cultural hole that will never be filled. May he rest in peace.