Frederic Weiss at a Knicks camp

It was the end of June, 1999, and my New York Knicks had come off a stunning run to make it to the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. They lost in five games, but the energy and excitement that Latrell Sprewell, Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Marcus Camby brought to New York City was electric!

It was a great time to be a Knick fan!

But a week later, still basking in the glory of my team’s incredible season-ending run, the powers that be in the Knickerbocker management team made a decision in the NBA draft that puzzled, if not deflated the fan base. With the fifteenth pick in the first round of the draft, the Knicks selected Frédéric Weis.

Qui?

Weis was from France, a seven footer, perhaps someone to clog up the middle. Who was pick number 16? One of the most talented players to come out of my favorite university college team, Ron Artest, who would go on to become a volatile but brilliant All-Star in his career. (Yes, Artest of St. John’s University, would change his name to Metta World Peace.)

But what of Weis?

For starters, the Knicks’ coach, Jeff van Gundy did not appear to be supportive of the selection. Weis, overjoyed to be drafted, soon felt the cold shoulder once he arrived in the United States for the Knicks’ summer league camps where rookies and others are worked out. Weis was not considered inspired material, but he was a first round draft pick, which afforded him the right to sign a contract that would have made him a Knick. But thanks to his agent, he declined so that he could play another year with his professional team in France. Weis personally believes that was a mistake.

Then came the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and perhaps the most famous dunk in Olympic history, perhaps in basketball history. The American team were facing the French national team, and pretty much handling the French, up by 15 with 16 minutes to play in the game. The French rebounded the ball at their end of the court, one player bounced pass a ball that went a bit too high for his teammate. That’s when Vince Carter, one of the NBA’s most dynamic players at that time, came charging in, snatching that high pass, dribble twice and then leaping for a thunderous dunk. In his path was Weis, who Carter simply lept over, all 2.18 meters of him.

That play has been dubbed “Le dunk de la morte,” or the Dunk of Death.

Vinsanity went into overdrive. Weis, if he were a stock, nosedived – a symbol of all the terrible talent decisions Knick management had made in the past (and in the future).

And that was despite the fact that Weis played well on a French team that won the silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Weis never played a game as a New York Knick. After the Olympics and his return to France, no efforts were made by Knick management to make him a part of the team. In other words, to Knicks fans, Weis was a total waste of a good draft pick.

The New York Times followed up on Weis in September, 2015, with this wonderful but sad story of a man whose basketball career, so full of promise, never took off, and a life that appeared to deteriorate year on year.

Vince Carter Frederic Weiss in Le Duck du Mort

A couple of years after winning silver at the Olympics, Weis and his wife Celia had a boy named Enzo. A year later, the boy was diagnosed to be autistic, which was hard for Weis to handle, so much so that the couple separated, Celia taking Enzo away. Bouts of depression became deeper, until finally Weis decided he had had enough of himself. Here’s how the New York Times told that story:

On the morning when Frédéric Weis tried to kill himself, he dreamed about owning a beach house. A beach house had been Weis’s dream for a long time. In France, in Spain, in Greece — wherever his career as a 7-foot-2 professional basketball player took him. He liked the sand, he liked the surf. A beach house was a good dream.

But on that day, in January 2008, the dream did not make him smile. Weis got into his car in Bilbao, Spain, around 10 a.m. and began the drive here, to this small city in west-central France best known for its production of fine china. He was on his way to see his wife and son. About 90 minutes into the drive, Weis suddenly pulled over at a rest area near Biarritz, a French town not far from the border.

He stopped the car, leaned back in his seat and, at 30 years old, considered all that had happened to him during his career… Weis thought about all this for a while. Then he thought about the beach house. Then he thought about his son, Enzo. Then he reached over, took out the box of sleeping pills he had brought with him and swallowed every single one.

But, as the article explained, Weis did not pass on. He instead fell into a deep sleep, waking up 10 hours later realizing he was still alive. “He had failed, and for once, this made him happy. ‘It was the luckiest I’ve been in my life,’ he said.”

Frederic Weiss tobacco shop
Frederic Weiss at his tobacco shop

Weiss returned to basketball in Spain and France before retiring in 2011. When the New York Times caught up with him in Limoges, France, where he was running a tobacco store and a bar, battling bouts of depression, but back with his wife Celia and son Enzo.

Life goes on for the man made famous by the Dunk of Death.

Advertisements

Mikako Kotani and synchronized swimmers in onsen
Mikako Kotani (front) and other former Olympians perform synchronized swimming in an Oita Prefecture
One of my most treasured memories was in the Fall of 1987, sitting in a hot spring in Hokkaido, the snow falling, the steam rising, and a beer in hand.

In addition to the great food and shopping, tourists are flocking to Japan for the country side, and in particular, enjoying onsen throughout the country. Once you (some of you) get over the embarrassment of getting naked with a whole bunch of strangers, you get yourself all clean in the shower area outside the bathing areas, and then you dip your toes into the water. And yes, it’s hot!

Some of the best onsen are in Kyuushu, a large island in the Western part of Japan. And to get Japanese and non-Japanese alike to venture beyond the cosmopolitan confines of Tokyo and Osaka, the government of Oita Prefecture started a campaign to promote their onsens….using Olympians.

In typical tongue-in-cheek Japanese fashion, the promotional videos portray Japanese synchronized swimmers performing in the onsens of Oita. The athletes include Mikako Kotani, who won two bronze medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as well as Raika Fujii, silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and bronze medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The campaign is called “shin-furo”, which is a word made up from “synchronized” and the Japanese word “furo”, which means bath.

“I hope viewers will enjoy the beautiful, thoroughly organized performance by former Olympians,” said Oita Prefecture spokesman Takahiro Miyazaki. “And at the same time, I hope people will also be attracted to Oita’s hot springs.”

Japan had a record 2.68 million visitors in Japan in July, well on its way to topping 2016’s record number of foreign tourists of 24 million, blowing past its original target of 20 million by 2020. The 2020 target has been re-set to 40 million visitors. For repeat visitors, the Oita onsens should certainly be a hot place to spring to.

li-na-laura-wilkinson-anne-montminy
Li Na Laura Wilkinson Anne Montminy
It was looking bleak for the divers from the USA at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The traditionally strong men’s team had not medaled in the 10-meter platform or the inaugural synchronized platform diving event. The American women were also shut out of the inaugural synchronized 3-meter springboard competition.

Laura Wilkinson of Houston Texas was on that synchronized swim team that finished fifth, adding to Team USA’s diving woes. But some felt that there was a chance as the Chinese, the powerhouse over the past four Olympics, had entered two very young divers, Sang Xue (15) and Li Na (16). It was thought that they could break under the pressure.

They didn’t. In fact, Sang and Li were 1-2 going into the final round. Wilkinson was fifth, and considered way behind. When asked after the semi-finals what it would take to beat the Chinese? “My best,” said Wilkinson (in an AP article). “I need to hit all my dives.”

It was only six months before Olympics that Wilkinson broke three bones in her right foot. And while she was able to recover in time to win a spot on the Olympic team by winning the US diving trials, she had to wear a big rubber kayaking boot to protect her foot as she climbed the 10-meter platform. She told reporters that the broken bones would rub against each other in a way that made it feel like she was walking on a rock.

So imagine, you’re way behind in fifth, an entire country is pinning its hopes on you. And you have to block out the foot as well as the expectations.

Which is what Wilkinson did.

In the final round, her third dive – a reverse two-and-a-half somersault – the 22-year-old split the water with nary a splash. Even with a perfect dive, Wilkinson needed help. And she got that. Li and Sang both had poor third dives, and Wilkinson suddenly was in the lead, which she clung to, to the very end.

Wilkinson unexpectedly won the 10-meter platform gold medal, ending a 36-year drought for US women’s platform diving.

Wilkinson would go on to win the 10-meter platform competition at the 2005 World Championships, and compete in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but she will forever be remembered for her gutsy come-from-behind victory in Sydney.

In honor of her accomplishments, the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISOH) announced on March 2, 2017, that Wilkinson will be entered into their Class of 2017.

naoto-tajima_berlin-2
Naoto Tajima at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

There was a time when the Japanese were seen as great jumpers. In the years between the great world wars of the 20th century, Japanese men in particular were frequent medalists in the triple jump, long jump and pole vault. Shuhei Nishida won silver in the pole vault at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Sueo Oe won bronze in the pole vault in 1936 as well.

Naoto Tajima won the gold medal in the triple jump in 1936, making it the third consecutive Olympics that a Japanese won the hop, skip and jump – Mikio Oda won it in 1928 in Amsterdam, while Chuhei Nambu took gold at the 1932 LA Games.

Tajima may have won gold in the triple jump, but he enjoyed his bronze medal in the long jump even more. He is said to have considered the triple jump just a simple matter of technique while the long jump was more of a profession, something requiring a more serious, in-depth approach. Perhaps also significantly, Tajima’s long jump competition at the 1936 Olympics was one of historical significance, not just in sports but also geo-politically.

tajima-owens-luz-on-mdeal-podium
Bronze medalist Naoto Tajima, gold medalist Jesse Owens, and silver medalist, Luz Long at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, medal ceremony of the long jump competition.

Tajima took a relatively unnoticed bronze to Jesse Owens‘ gold and Luz Long‘s silver in the long jump. Owens had already won gold in the 100 meters, winning the title “fastest man in the world” in front of Adolph Hitler. A day later, on a day Owens would have to run a heat in the 200-meters race, he took on a strong German team in the long jump. In this oft-told tale, the battle for gold came down to Owens and Long. While Owens led throughout the competition, Long stayed close behind, as you can see in the round-by-round details here.

In the end, Owens won with a stunning 8.06 meter leap which set an Olympic record, and that Long could not match. Long put his arm around Owens after the American’s victory, creating an image worldwide that encouraged those who believed a world of peace and brotherhood was possible. But while we may forget there were other competitors, we should be reminded there was a third person on the medal stand – Naoto Tajima of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi.

His medal in the triple jump and the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Games were the last for a Japanese in Athletics, until Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Athletes
15 Sep 2000: The athletes gather during the athletes parade at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Adam Pretty /Allsport

Yao Ming was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame on September 9, 2016. Only 8 years in the league, the 7 foot 6 inch center from the People’s Republic of China was one of the most influential players in international basketball, cementing China’s popular hold on basketball. When the 8-time NBA All Star played in his third Olympics at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was one of the tallest athletes in the Olympic Village, and most certainly one of the most popular people in the world.

In a recent article penned by Yao Ming in The Players’ Tribune, he wrote about how the Olympics is so much bigger than one person, even bigger than the biggest person in the Olympics. He wrote about his first Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games, and how he saw a wide-shot picture of the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies, when all of the nations’ athletes were standing in their national colors. He said he stared at the picture in frustration.

I was somewhere in that photo, way down there, but as hard as I looked I couldn’t find myself. I tried to locate our team. I knew we were somewhere on the track, walking around the stadium. But I couldn’t figure out where we were. I stared and stared at the picture. The more I looked, the more blurry the photo became. I was the tallest person in the stadium but it was like I was lost.

yao-ming-and-lebron-james
Yao Ming and LeBron James

But what he later realized about the Olympics is that no one person, not even the great Yao Ming, is what makes the Olympics great. What makes the Olympics great is an entire country coming together to show the world how welcome, appreciated and respected they are. After his team played hard and well against the vaunted US team in basketball, Yao Ming remembers one of the US players coming up to him to thank him for making them all feel so welcome.

In the moment, I remember feeling that when he said “you” he meant more than just me as an individual. I felt like he was talking — through me — to the entire nation. We’d lost the game, but I felt that we’d earned the respect of our opponent.

Yao Ming finally understood that athletic competition in its greatest form, particularly at the level of the Olympic Games, is about respect, about respecting your opponent enough to do your very best against them and emerge victorious, or to push the other to their limits.

I believe an athlete’s value comes from his opponent. What I mean is, our value will only be its highest when our opponents play their best. That is where respect comes in. It comes not when you fear or dislike your opponent, but when you find the best in yourself.

There is a commercial from that wonderful series called “Celebrate Humanity”, created when the IOC realized it needed to take control of the Olympic brand after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and re-frame the Five Rings in terms of the Olympic values. This film is a reflection of Yao Ming’s values. It is called “Adversary”.

Adversary

You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy.

For your resistance gives me strength,

Your will gives me courage,

Your spirit ennobles me.

And though I aim to defeat you, should I succeed, I will not humiliate you.

Instead, I will honor you.

For without you, I am a lesser man.

barcelona cauldron lighting
The lighting of the cauldron at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The Olympics live on symbols. The five colored rings that represent the five continents of the world. The doves that represent peace. The gold, silver and bronze medals that symbol achievement at the highest sporting levels.

One of the most dramatic symbols of the Olympic Games has been the lighting of the Olympic cauldron that symbolically represents the Games ancient Greek origins, the beginning of the Games, and by extension, the suspension of hostilities in times of conflict and the coming together of the world’s athletes in competition and fair play. The cauldron lighting of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics most poignantly emphasized the need for world peace.

While this particular ceremony started at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it was at the 1992 Barcelona Games where organizers raised the bar significantly in creating the Wow factor, that moment when you’ve seen something spectacular, something you would not have imagined or expected. In this case, it was paralympian archer, Antonio Rebollo, who shot a flaming arrow some 60 meters over a cauldron that rose seven-stories high, igniting the gases accumulating over the cauldron, and sending chills and thrills across the world.

In 1996, the organizers of the Atlanta Olympics had all sorts of issues with the planning of the cauldron lighting, but one thing they got right was having Muhammad Ali do the honors. Spectacle had to wait four more years for Sydney to bring goosebumps tot the world. An island nation, surrounded by water, Australia brought fire and water together in spectacular fashion. 400-meter sprinter, Cathy Freeman, stood in a pool of water. When she placed it to the watery surface, a ring of fire curled around her, the cauldron rising out of the water like a spaceship, making its way majestically to its home at the top of the stadium.

In 2008, China amazed the world with its spectacular opening ceremonies, highlighted by its impossible-to-imagine sky run, performed by legendary gymnast, Li Ning. Rising high above the crowd, suspended on wires, Ning appeared to run along the stadium wall for 500 meters before applying his torch and igniting another flame that spiraled up into a spectacular ignition of the cauldron.

What new spectacle and symbolism will the Rio Olympics bring? Our hearts are already a-flutter in anticipation.