Barkley and Wang on TNT set
Lin Wang and Charles Barkley on the TNT set

One of the best sports stories of 2018 is a story of an Odd Couple.

Gentler than the relationship of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, more real than the bond between Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes, was the friendship between a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa named Lin Wang, and one of the most famous basketball players on the planet, Charles Barkley.

The story told by Wang’s daughter, a journalist named Shirley Wang, set the internet world abuzz a few weeks ago with her feel-good story of how her father was in a hotel in Sacramento in 2014 when he spied Barkley at the empty bar, and then went up to say hi. What ensued was 6 hours of drinks and dinner, and a friendship that lasted four years, much to the mystery of Shirley’s family, and the bemusement of Barkley’s jet-setting friends.

Shirley Wang tells the story eloquently in this audio report for public radio called “My Dad’s Friendship with Charles Barkley.” Wang and Barkley texted each other. Wang would get invited onto the TNT set when Barkley was broadcasting. Barkley would sign Air Jordan and Air Max sneakers for Wang, which Wang would then send to his close friends on their birthdays.

Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie
Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie

But when Barkley’s mother passed away, Wang dropped everything, got on a plane, made his way to Leeds, Alabama, and attended the funeral. Here’s how Barkley explained the scene to Shirley on the phone last year: “You know, it was obviously a very difficult time. And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’

Wang’s daughter, Shirley, had no idea who Barkley was, and humored her father who said he was friends with a big celebrity. To her, Barkley was not one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, as her father would fondly note. No, at best he was a B-List celebrity. And as she learned when she was interviewed on a Slate sports podcast, Barkley did not have the best of reputations as a player.

In his hey day, the “Round Mound of Rebound,” as he was known, the 6ft 6 (198cm) and 250 lb (113 kg) Charles Barkley was a loud-mouth, elbow-swinging, rim-shaking Mack Truck on the basketball court, who was an 11-time NBA All Star for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets.

A member of the US men’s basketball team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, aka The Dream Team, he was labeled the Ugly American for elbowing a slight Angolan player in the chest for little apparent reason. “Next time, maybe I should pick on a fat guy,” he said flippantly after the game.

In defense of friends sitting with him at a bar, he stood up to a guy who was said to throw ice at him and his friends. Barkley chased the 20-year-old man down, picked him up and threw him through the window of the Orlando, Florida bar.  “For all I care, you can lay there and die,” Barkley was quoted as saying as he left the scene.

And in his current role as commentator on the NBA, TNT and their viewers love the unfiltered opinions and clownish antics of Charles Barkley.

Wang, on the other hand, was a quiet cheerful guy, “everybody’s suburban dad”, as his daughter would put it. But Barkley and Wang found a deep common bond, as she explained on the Slate podcast.

To me, they were kindred spirits. They had a chance encounter and they decided to act and follow through on that friendship to exchange numbers and continue talking. I don’t think a lot of people would sense that connection with other people. They wouldn’t go out of their way for other people. I think my dad could feel the gravity of a moment and he could be very convicted about what he needed to do. He felt really convicted about his feelings and his friendships so I guess that’s why he jetted off. It was confusing to us at the time. We didn’t really understand why.”

It really surprised me that he thought about our similar racialized experiences in the US. And of course they were very different. My dad came  with a visa to study for a PhD. He was already on a path set for success, or financial stability. Whereas Charley comes from a lower income family in the South of the US. It was really interesting that they made that connection. But I do think that they come from a very specific generation where that is the belief – the American dream. They can both build themselves up. Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.

Shirley Wang and Lin Wang
Shirley Wang and Lin Wang

In May of 2016, Lin Wang was diagnosed with cancer, a fact he hid for a long time from friends, including Barkley. And in June of 2018, Wang passed away. And as the guests began to settle in to the funeral taking place in Iowa City, Iowa, Shirley looked behind her. “Standing there — drenched in sweat from the Iowa summer, towering over everyone in the room at 6 feet, 6 inches tall — was Charles Barkley.”

Alone, slightly panicked, disoriented in a town he had never been with people at a funeral he had never met, but gracious and humble, Barkley was true to the spirit of his friendship with Wang – authentic.

In her phone interview, Shirley asked Barkley what they talked about. He replied they talked primarily about their kids, and that Wang talked about his son and daughter a lot. And Barkley, to the surprise of the world, dispensed insight into the parental mind that melted hearts:

“Hey, listen. You stay in touch. Please tell your mom I said hello. Give her a big kiss. Tell your brother I said hello. And listen: Just keep doing you. It’s your time now. Don’t forget that. That’s the most important thing. Your dad prepared you to take care of yourself. He prepared you for that. I was blessed to know him — and know you, too.”

“Thank you for your time,” I said.

“You’re welcome, baby. You take it easy, you hear?”

“You too.”

I know how much his friendship with Charles Barkley meant to my dad. It was not just a relationship with a celebrity — it shed light on the possibilities of this world. A world where someone like him could just say something cool, something charming, and befriend someone like Charles Barkley.

Haripal Kaushik

Haripal Kaushik

Haripal Kaushik was a three-time Olympian and won two gold medals on the dominant India field hockey teams of the 20th century. An assistant captain of the team, he witnessed India’s string of six consecutive Olympic championships end at the 1960 Rome Olympics when Pakistan took gold, but was on the field when India defeated Pakistan at Komazawa Olympic Stadium in 1964. Karushik served in the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army, and after the Olympics had a career as a field hockey administrator and television commentator. He passed away on January 25, 2018 at the age of 83.

 

Kaoroly Palotai_1964

Károly Palotai

Károly Palotai was midfielder on the Hungarian football club, Győri ETO FC, and was on the strong Hungarian national team that won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Palotai went on to a long and successful career as a referee, on the field officiating at the 1974, 1978 and 1982 FIFA World Cups, as well as the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Palotai died on February 3, 2018 at the age of 82.

 

 

Sir Durwold Knowles_1964

Durwold Knowles (right)

Durward Knowles

Durward Knowles was a sailor from the Bahamas who, with Cecil Cooke, won the first Olympic gold medal for the Bahamas in the Star class at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Nassau died on February 24, 2018, nearly 4 months into his 100th birthday. Knowles was an 8-time Olympian, first representing Great Britain in 1948 before representing the Bahamas from 1952. It was thought that the 1972 Munich Games was his last, until Knowles returned to competition at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, becoming one of only four Olympics to have competed over a span of 40 years. Knowles was, at the age of 80, easily the oldest competitor at the Seoul Olympics and was the Bahamas flag bearer in the opening ceremony.

 

Sven-Olov_Sjödelius_1960

Sven-Olov Sjödelius

Sven-Olov Sjödelius was a two time gold medalist in the K-2 1000-meter canoe event representing Sweden at both the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Svärta, Sweden. Trained as a mechanic, Sjödelius also served as a member of the Swedish Olympic Committee. He died on March 29, 2018 at the age of 84.

 

Jan Cameron
Janice Cameron

Janice Cameron

Janice Cameron (née Murphy) won a silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on the Australian 4×100 freestyle swim team. The native of Sydney, Australia went on to coach swimming in Australia, Canada and the US before settling into a long career as coach and sports administrator in New Zealand. She was appointed national coach for the New Zealand swim team in 2001. Cameron passed way on April 30, 2018 at the age of 71.

 

Irena Szewińska 1964
Irena Szewińska

Irena Szewińska

Irena Szewińska, née Kirszenstein, passed away on June 29, at the age of 72. The native of Warsaw, Kirszenstein was one of the greatest women athletes of the 20th century, the only sprinter in history to have held the world record in the 100, 200 and 400-meters. She competed in five Olympics from 1964 to 1980, winning three golds, two silver and two bronzes in the sprints and the long jump. The “Athlete of the 20th Century in Poland” was a busy sports administrator from the mid 1980s, serving on the IAAF, the EAA as well as the IOC. She was also a stage actress before focusing on athletics, once portraying Ophelia in Hamlet.

 

Hans_Günter_Winkler_1966
Hans Günter Winkler_

Hans Günter Winkler
Hans Günter Winkler was an equestrian show jumper who appeared in six consecutive Olympics from 1956 to 1972, compiling five old medals, a silver and a bronze, primarily in team jumping. Representing Germany, and then West Germany, Winkler won his sole individual jumping medal at his Olympic debut at the 1956 Stockholm Games where his mare, Halla, carried him to victory despite a painful groin strain. Winkler went on to a successful career as a representative in a pharmaceutical company and a US mail-order company. Winkler passed away on July 9 at the age of 91.

Tokyo wins 2020 bid
Tokyo wins 2020 bid

573 days to Opening Day of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On July 24, 2020, all the questions, all the angst, all the planning will end, and all that will matter are the athletes. For now, we can only speculate about what will be, and recall what has been.

 

Ralph Boston_Mexico 1968_from his collection
Ralph Boston jumping at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, from his collection.

I’ve researched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for four years. I published an original blog post everyday for over a thousand days straight in the course of my research. And I finally completed the manuscript of my book, “1964:  The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise From the Ashes.” Here are a few of the articles I wrote in 2018 relevant to those Games in 1964:

Rich Stebbins_2016
Stebbins at the Northwest Express Track and Field Classic in Florida, June, 2016.
Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.
DSC_0239
The unified Korean team marching at the Opening Ceremony.

I still have chills thinking about my first Olympics – and it wasn’t just because of the minus-ten degree weather. I stood meters away from North Koreans. I met Olympic legends. I witnessed feats of athleticism and artistry amidst crowds of amazed spectators. I felt like a newspaper reporter again, writing over 30 articles in my 8 days in PyeongChang. Here are some of my favorites:

 

Biathlon 14
Freezing before the commencement of the biathlon competition.

Chance Meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad

Meters from North Koreans on Opening Day.

USA vs Slovakia_Ryan Zapolski goaltender

USA vs Slovakia, USA goaltender Ryan Zapolski

Spartan_Emily 3
Emily Downey

Bear crawl under barbed wire. Scramble over a 2-meter wall. Climb a rope 5 meters, hand over hand. Flip a 100 kg tire. Get a strong grip and hoist a pack weighing 50 kilograms up about 10 meters. Lug a heavy bucket for what seems forever to many.  Jump into mud, run through fire, exert your body and your will to its fullest…for what?

According to Emily Downey, Managing Director of Global Partnerships for Spartan Japan, it’s about the camaraderie, the sustainable boost to confidence, and ultimately a lifestyle that contributes to better health, and a greater chance of living a longer, more satisfying life. Spartan Race makes that happen.

Downey gave a talk at the American Chamber of Commerce Japan on November 6, 2018 entitled “Spartan: The Business of Selling Mud, Barbed Wire, and Fire – Creating a Multi-million Dollar Sports Brand in Japan in Less than 2 Years”.

Spartan_Emily

Spartan Race is the world’s largest obstacle race and endurance brand in the world, with over 1.2 million enthusiasts competing in over 200 races in over 40 countries. It is the fastest growing obstacle race, if not one of the fastest growing sports in the world. And Spartan races in Japan have been a turbo engine to the company’s global success.

Founded in 2010 in the US by Joe De Sena, a born entrepreneur and former Wall Street trader, Spartan Race established itself in Japan in 2016, thanks to circumstances that brought De Sena and Downey together in Tokyo. Thirty minutes into an initial meet-and-greet, the two immediately started making plans for Spartan’s first race in Japan.

Two years later, Spartan Race Japan is hugely successful and garners the highest ATV (average ticket value) in the world for Spartan. Additionally, thanks to Downey’s initiative, Spartan secured Spartan’s largest global partnership to date – The giant Japanese brand Rakuten, which runs the largest e-commerce platform by sales in Japan. This global partnership provides Spartan Race, in addition to financial support,  the ability to more powerfully leverage Rakuten’s digital and marketing services. The partnership also provides Rakuten with access to the massive markets of middle America, as the Rakuten logo will be seen on over a million race ‘Finisher’ shirts, as well as in Facebook livestreams of races.

Rakuten values the highly-educated, high income and diverse demographics of Spartan Race participants, making Spartan Race Rakuten’s third significant sports global partnership, after the vaunted global brands of La Liga’s FC Barcelona and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

At the heart of Spartan Race’s business model is the ability for organizers to engage participants in life-changing ways. Overcoming our fear of trying new things, of attempting activities that are perceived to result in failure, or even pain, is a significant part of Spartan Race’s value proposition. Through a series of challenging but achievable activities laid out across a race course in a natural open vista or a closed Stadium grounds, the organizers and its countless evangelists exhort and cajole their fellow Spartans to push themselves to climb that wall, to keep carrying that weight, to keep their eyes on the goal.

Spartan_Emily 4

Initially Downey wondered if Spartan Race could be replicated in Japan. “I was told the Japanese, particularly Japanese women, hate mud, that the Japanese just won’t do mud! The bucket carry – that’s really hard. Japanese won’t do it. I was told I was crazy to do Spartan in Japan. But the reality is, the Japanese love it. They learn like everyone else that after you achieve all that, you’re just not the same person, you have changed.”

Spartan Race is about finding levels of confidence one never though were possible. Children from the age of 5 compete. Men and women in their 70’s and 80’s compete. The disabled compete.

Spartan_Marla
Marley Sweeney

Marla Sweeney is 73 years old and has a litany of health issues, as well as artificial vertebrae implanted after being run over by a drunk driver in 2006. And yet Sweeney, inspired by her son who competed in Spartan, decided to try it, and trotted to complete a three-mile Spartan race in 2015. Since that time, she has been unstoppable, completing another 15 spartan races. And as a result, arthritic pains have washed away, as did bouts of depression.

“It’s a passion, it’s addicting and the world is brighter,” she told Runner’s World.

Kacey McCallister lost his legs at the age of six after being hit by an 18-wheel truck. Surviving was one thing. Living was another. As he relates in this video, if his mother treated him like an invalid, he would become an invalid. McCallister liked sports, but couldn’t find the right avenue…until he discovered Spartan. People thought he was crazy to even consider an obstacle race like Spartan, but he went right at it, competing for the first time in a 9-mile race, on his hands.

“When people doubt me, when people tell me I can’t do something, that fires me up. That gets me going. In fact, in this recent Spartan run, my wife said this was going to kill me.  That makes me want to do it even more.”

McCallister completed the race and many more after. And he discovered the essence of his achievement, a lesson that applies not just to he disabled, but to all people.

Disability is in your mind. People out there with a totally functioning body have this mental block. That’s all it is for anybody. It’s a mental block that says I can’t do something because….. Sure there’s a lot of people out there in wheel chairs who think,  “Oh, I can’t do it, so I’m going to stay home and play Halo for eight hours a day. They can. You have to figure out a way.

Downey explained that the ripped athletes who look like they can conquer a Spartan race in their sleep, her so-called 1% of the population, are not the ones who ‘win’ the race. She said it’s the 99% who do – the housewife, the grandfather, the office worker, the casual sportsman. She has come to understand that winning the race is not the goal for so many, that in fact, the goal is realizing the potential within, a potential that many didn’t realize even lingered inside.

In fact, Downey challenges everyone to get off the couch, and tells them they’re not “special,” that they too can do so much more. “People participate in Spartan, gain confidence, and learn they can improve their lives.” More importantly, Downey notes, the results of achieving in a Spartan Race have longer-term implications, beyond the medals. “People say that money, family, children – these are the most important things. But really, health is. Without health you won’t have any of the other important things. Spartans treat their bodies well.  They don’t dump a lot of bad stuff in it.”

In fact, as obesity continues to grow as a global health threat, De Sena calls Spartan Race “a public service.”

This is not even a business. We have no choice but to do this and convince people to start getting healthy. This is not a want to do, this is a have to do.

Ralph Boston_Mexico 1968_from his collection
Ralph Boston jumping at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, from his collection.

Ralph Boston of Laurel, Mississippi came to Queens, New York to visit Jamaica High School in 1964. The gold and silver medalist of the Rome and Tokyo Olympics stood before the teenagers in the school gymnasium in his red-white-and-blue warm-up gear and talked about dreams, commitment and hard work. An 18-year-old high school senior and budding long jumper named Bob Beamon stared starry-eyed at Boston and wondered, having no idea that this great Olympian would be providing him life-changing advice four years later.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Boston was the World and Olympic record holder in the long jump, but the three-time Olympian knew he was approaching the end of his career, and knew that Beamon had a better chance than he did to re-take the long jump Olympic championship back from the Brits and 1964 gold medalist Lynn Davies.

Amateur photographer, Tony Duffy from London learned about Beamon from Boston himself. Duffy was on vacation in Mexico City, sitting poolside with England’s long jumper and ’64 gold medalist, Mary Rand, in the Olympic Village. According to Deadspin, 1964 long jump gold and silver medalists Lynn Davies and Boston walked by and sat down at the same table, and began talking about Beamon.

Ralph Boston and Bob Beamon_Mexico City
ack & Field: 1968 Summer Olympics: (L-R) USA Ralph Boston (256) and Bob Beamon (254) during Men’s Long Jump competition at Estadio Olimpico. Mexico City, Mexico 10/17/1968–10/18/1968 CREDIT: Walter Iooss Jr. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

The subject came around to Bob Beamon, Boston’s precocious American teammate, “a slash of a man, 6’3”, 160 pounds,” according to Sports Illustrated. Boston knew that Davies liked to play psychological games with his opponents, and he had some advice for Davies about the long-limbed, long-necked 22-year-old Beamon: “Don’t get him riled up because he’s liable to jump out of the f—ing pit.”

It’s possible that Boston was also messing with his rival’s head, but Boston knew what Beamon was capable of. And in fact, it was Boston who, on October 17, 1968, provided critical advice to Beamon. According to this great account in LetsRun of that day, Beamon had worked the previous day with sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to work on his own sprinting speed. Beamon could run the 100 yards in 9.5 seconds, a world class sprinting time. But in the qualifying round, Beamon was simply too fast in his first two attempts, overshooting the board and fouling on both attempts. One more miss and Beamon’s great season up to that point, and his amazing potential for Olympic glory would evaporate, leaving the kid from Queens a footnote in the annals of the Mexico City Games, as Boston explained to me:

I said to Bob, “You can’t win gold today.” This is the qualifying round. It just moves you on until tomorrow. He was zipping down that runway. He hit his jump. It was probably as good as when he won on the second day, but he fouled it. “C’mon man,” I said. “All you got to do is jump 7.8 to qualify.” I took my jump and I qualified easily. I took off my spikes. Bob does it again and fouls by over a foot. I said, “Damn it, Bob. Just qualify!”

According to LetsRun, Beamon was extra careful in his final qualifying leap.

He lengthened his run-up, half-jogged down the runway, and did not come close to touching the board; Boston estimated he was 18 inches behind it when he took off, while Beamon thought it was closer to two feet. Still Beamon leaped 8.19 meters (26-10 ½), second only to Boston’s 8.27 (27-1 ¾). He was in the final.

The rest, as they say, is history. On October 18, 1968, Beamon watched three others foul before he started his sprint on his first attempt in the men’s long jump finals. Duffy, the amateur photographer without credentials took advantage of the lax security in the Estadio Olympico Universitario, and parked himself about 50 feet from the long jump pit.

And with his Nikkormat manual drive camera and 300mm lens, he knew to get ready for Beamon, just in case. Covering 130 feet in 19 strides, Beamon launched himself into the air. Sprinter Carlos thought that “he just kept climbing.” And as Beamon finally began his descent, his arms outstretched forward, his mouth and eyes wide open, a blend of possibility and joy etched on his visage, Duffy snapped away on his camera.

Bob Beamon_Tony Duffy
Tony Duffy’s photo of Bob Beamon

Beamon had leapt 8.90 meters. The distance was beyond what the optical sensors in place could pick up so it took some 20 minutes before they could determine the distance by tape measure. And when the board flashed 8.90 meters, Beamon did not know what that meant in feet, but when he learned that he hit 29 ft. 2½ inches, an astounding improvement on the world record of nearly two feet, he fell to his knees in emotional shock.

Everyone knew that after Beamon’s first jump the competition was over. Davies was famously quoted as telling Beamon, “you have destroyed this event.” Beamon made one more attempt, a relatively pedestrian 8.04 meters, and then stopped. He had the world record, one that no one would touch for another 23 years until Mike Powell raised the current world record to 8.95 in 1991.

An East German named Klaus Beer took the silver medal. And with a jump of 8.16 meters, Boston won the bronze medal, completing the gold-silver-bronze set he accumulated over three Olympiads. He also had the heartfelt admiration and gratitude of Beamon, the biggest story of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as he explained to a reporter in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 19, 1968.

Whatever Beamon has achieved as a long jumper he said he has to credit Boston. “Ralph has helped me since I started jumping as a 12-year old,” Beamon recalled. “He has given me bits of information to help and he still does.”