It's little things that showed how big Lamar Hunt was

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

December 20, 2006|By Joe Posnanski

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Lamar Hunt, a sports giant, cared about small details. And he'd talk about rules, numbers, children - just about anything but himself.

Lamar Hunt, the founder of the Kansas City Chiefs, the man who named the Super Bowl and a guy who once tried to buy Alcatraz, called the cell phone a couple of years ago when my wife and I were in the doctor's office with our oldest daughter.

"Is she all right?" he asked with grave concern in his voice.

"Oh. Yes, she's fine. It's just a regular checkup."

"Well, you take care of her. I can wait. If you would be kind enough to call me back later, that would be great." And he hung up the phone so quietly that I was not entirely sure he had gone.

Hunt may have had a larger effect on American sports than anyone who ever lived, but he did not find himself very interesting. That's a rare quality among rich and accomplished men. It is the first thing anyone who met Lamar Hunt noticed.

Hunt wanted to be called the Chiefs "founder" rather than the Chiefs "owner." He insisted on it, and he rarely insisted on things.

"To me," he said, "every Chiefs fan has ownership in the team. They are just as invested emotionally as I am. I was able to bring the team to Kansas City, but it is Kansas City's team."

Lamar Hunt had a unique way of turning conversations away from personal talk. For instance, you might ask him how he became interested in sports, and he might begin by talking about his childhood. They called him "Games" back then because he was always inventing some new sport with a ball, a wall, chalk lines, concrete steps, whatever. He was the son of H.L. Hunt, the oil magnate, a billionaire in a time when there were only a handful of billionaires in the world.

So you might ask Hunt then whether those little games were a way for him to escape that soap-opera world of Texas oil. This would spur Hunt to talk about - kneeling quarterbacks.

He would then offer up a series of potential rule changes - he could go on like this for quite a while. And by the time he finished, you had forgotten what you were asking about Hunt's life, which was probably the point all along.

Beauty from afar

An e-mail story: A man was killed in a motorcycle accident; he was working at the time for Lamar Hunt's construction company. The accident had nothing in particular to do with the construction job, but Hunt's personal secretary went to the home of the widow and gave her a book of blank checks, each signed by Lamar Hunt.

A week later, the secretary returned with a message from Hunt: "Please don't use these checks to pay for $10 items or small amounts. Please use them for what you really need."

Lamar Hunt loved playing around with numbers. He would take scraps of paper and scribble for hours. One time, he figured up some statistic to show what a 1,500-yard running back might do for the Chiefs. Another time, he totaled up the number of times he saw Michael Jordan play live.

"I believe it's 108," he said. This was in 1997, a few months before Jordan retired for the second time. Hunt was an original partner in the Chicago Bulls, and watching Jordan play was one of the sporting thrills of his life, along with seeing the World Cup for the first time, watching Rod Laver hit forehands, being there in Atlanta when Michael Johnson ran his famous 19.32 in the 200-meter dash and, of course, seeing Otis Taylor break free in the 1970 Super Bowl. The beauty and adventure of sports moved him much more than winning and losing. That's what defined him as an owner and a sportsman.

"You know I've never met Michael Jordan," he said suddenly, as if he only just realized that. "And I don't think I ever will." When asked why, he said the words that I still believe cut closest to the heart of the man. "Sometimes," he said, "beauty is best appreciated from afar."

Kid at heart

Lamar Hunt named the Super Bowl after his daughter's Super Ball and spent $2.5 million for one gigantic painting called "Icebergs." He tried to start a professional bowling league, and he did help start professional tennis. (He's in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.) He put a bid on Alcatraz Island (he wanted to turn it into a shopping center and space museum). He built amusement parks. He never gave up on his dream for a rolling roof that could cover both Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums. He claimed for many years to own just one suit because he said one was all a man needed. His name was in the Dallas phonebook until the day he died.

"There are those who would say I never quite grew up," he said. "And I suppose they're right."

When I called Lamar Hunt back that day, he again asked whether my daughter was all right. I assured him that this was just a checkup, she was fine, she got a lollipop on her way out, and he said that was good. "Health is so important," he said. Hunt was already sick by then. He still thought he could beat the cancer.

Then, perhaps because he thought the conversation was turning too personal, he asked whether I thought baseball would be better if there was were a pitch clock that forced the pitcher to throw the ball within, say, 20 seconds of when he got the ball back from the catcher. It was just another odd Lamar Hunt turn, but by then I had grown used to them. I said that a clock like that might do more harm than good - it might ruin the pace of the game.

"You could be right," he said. "Baseball does have a nice easy pace. Like life."

"Not your life," I said.

"No," he said, and he laughed. "Not mine. I've always managed to get into something, haven't I?"

The conversation ended shortly after that. Every single time I saw Lamar Hunt after that - until he was no longer well enough to come to Chiefs games - he always asked how my oldest daughter was doing.

Joe Posnanski writes for The Kansas City Star.

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