Daly, Baker play from life's hazards

Commentary

February 18, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

JOHN DALY and Vin Baker play totally different sports. One's a big-hitting golfer. The other is a former NBA All-Star and Olympian.

One plays an individual sport, predominantly white. The other plays a team sport, infused with and marketed to hip-hop nation.

John Daly and Vin Baker play in totally different worlds.

Or do they?

At the Buick Open on Sunday, one of the world's most famous alcoholics scored a stunning victory. Daly won his first PGA tournament since 1995. That was a long dry spell: 189 tournaments without a win.

John Daly: The mere mention of his name conjures up vivid images of that "grip it and rip it" swing and that down-home, cherubic face.

It's a face that belies the demons that have beset the long-hitting golfer since he exploded onto our sporting consciousness 13 years ago by winning the PGA Championship.

Since then, Daly's personal chronology reads like an intoxicated ride through Dante's Inferno.

Disqualification from the Kemper Open in August 1993. Three-month suspension from the PGA in November 1993.

After a run-in with a spectator at the World Series of Golf in August 1994, the PGA Tour announced that Daly agreed to sit out a year.

He came back to win his second major, the 1995 British Open. Otherwise, the litany of near-tragic Daly-isms litter the timeline.

Daly bingeing on Coca-Cola and chocolate to battle his addiction during tournaments. Daly picking up balls and throwing equipment into the water. Daly breaking down on the 15th green of a PGA event with a bad case of the shakes.

Daly divorcing wives No. 2 and 3 and, just six months ago, his fourth wife being brought up on drug charges.

One day at a time for this guy must feel like centuries. Turns out a round of tournament golf can't provide an alcoholic like Daly the kind of peace and salvation he needs, but maybe that's what makes the victories seem so much bigger.

"It's the greatest," Daly was quoted in news stories after the Buick win, fighting back tears.

"I've had a lot of ups and downs. Geez, this is sweet."

Hopefully, Daly has learned to proceed with caution. No amount of money or success is going to keep him safe from his disease. Thirteen years of experience tell him that.

"The fishbowl life that celebrities lead can translate into increased pressure," said Carol Falkowski, director of research and communications at Hazelden, a national nonprofit organization that provides services and education on addiction.

Daly recently signed an endorsement deal with Dunlop, a sign that his celebrity is still valuable.

"John is the most colorful and fun personality in golf, and we like to think of ourselves as the most colorful and fun equipment manufacturer. It should be a perfect marriage," Dunlop announced last month.

But there's a touchy line between fun and trouble when it comes to Daly, whose contract with Callaway was terminated in 1997 when his relapses violated the terms of the equipment maker's contract.

Maybe Daly has some advice for Baker. The Boston Celtics forward has been an admitted alcoholic since he was first suspended by the Celtics last spring, causing him to miss the end of the season and the Celtics' playoff run. He is now in the middle of a brewing battle between the Celtics and the NBA Players Association.

Is it tough love by the Celtics for Baker, or is it a way for the NBA team to clear $36 million in salary off the books?

The Celtics have placed their troubled forward on waivers. They are set to release Baker as early as today, the result of his failure to meet the terms of his alcoholism aftercare program.

Contracts for NBA players are guaranteed, although more of them have personal behavior clauses that give a team the right to void the deal. In Baker's case, he agreed to submit to specific rules set up for him by the Celtics, in addition to a weight clause that already existed in his NBA maximum contract.

Now Baker and the players' association want to salvage that contract as the team moves to cut him.

"We made proposals, one of them being that Vin would continue to work out with the team and take another week off. He's ready to come back, but the [Celtics] had no interest," Baker's agent, Aaron Goodwin, said yesterday from his office in Oakland, Calif.

The Celtics have said they won't comment on Baker's situation until the waiver period expires at 10 a.m. today.

A trade to Boston from Seattle was supposed to "cure" Baker of his demons. He was going to be close to his Connecticut home and his mother and Baptist minister father. He was going to get a fresh start, dropping weight and recovering his considerable skills.

The cure he needs wasn't a change in NBA cities or teams.

"My definition of addiction is when someone continues to use a drug repeatedly despite its negative consequences to one's life, job, health," Falkowski said.

By getting busted three times, Baker has given the Celtics the ammunition they need to waive him. This week, the argument Baker's defenders will make is that he is ready to play and deserves the team's support as he battles his alcohol addiction.

"Vin's biggest therapy is basketball," said Goodwin, adding that the Celtics did as much to ratchet up the pressure on Baker to create a situation where he could not succeed.

If it sounds like an excuse, well, maybe it is.

"I like to use this quote from Richmond Walker, who wrote the book Twenty-Four Hours a Day . He said, `If we don't take that first drink today, we'll never take it.' It's a daily struggle," Falkowski said.

Even for the big hitters and All-Stars whose rock bottom is for all to see.

The Celtics might have $36 million ulterior motives for cutting Baker. That doesn't mean they won't be doing him a favor.

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