ANYONE trying to understand the American athlete might want to have a chat with Roy Firestone.
In his 13 years as host of a popular cable-TV sports talk show ("Up Close," ESPN - check local listings for time), Firestone has interviewed athletes by the thousands. He's drawn out thoughts from promising rookies, interrogated champions, probed the feelings of aging superstars, and highlighted ex-athletes who have recovered from substance abuse. To borrow a phrase, he's seen athletics in all its agony and ecstasy.
"I see all these athletes go through the rise ... the glory, and I see them going through the periods of ignominy, of being traded, of being released," Firestone said in an interview with the Monitor. "There is nothing worse than being publicly fired when everyone knows you.... You see levels of humility change; you see how fleeting it all is."
The popularity of shows such as Firestone's are just one indication of the seemingly insatiable curiosity Americans have about sports stars. "The greatest celebrity of the 20th century is the athlete," Firestone asserts. "They've transcended the movie star, they've transcended actors and singers and rock stars and scientists and politicians."
Even though Firestone has won six Emmys and six Ace awards for his sports show, he doesn't join in this veneration of athletes. "We mistake accomplishment with celebrity," he says.
For better or worse, today's professional athletes are admired by children, Firestone says, a responsibility they can't choose to ignore. When Phoenix Suns anti-hero Charles Barkley says, "I'm not a role model," Firestone replies: "He's right, and he's wrong. In principle, that's absolutely the right opinion. Our parents should be the role models.... But the reality is ... kids look up to athletes, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not." Athletes as role models
Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan's alleged heavy bets on his golf games are "a tremendous disservice" to the game, Firestone says. "It erodes the credibility [Jordan] has built for the sport and for his character." When Magic Johnson "went on television programs more or less bragging on his sexual exploits," it "was a tremendous blow to the game." The sport needs Magic Johnson, Firestone says, "to remain a figure of respect and admiration for all kids." (Firestone, who has had Johnson as a guest, s till admires the "utter joy" Johnson has brought, not only to basketball, "but to the whole world.")
Firestone has a new book out ("Up Close: and in Your Face With the Greats, Near-Greats, and Ingrates of Sports," with Scott Ostler, Hyperion, $19.95). In its most gripping chapter (and in many hours of interviews on his shows), he deals with what he sees as "the most defining issue in America" - racism.
"I talk more about race on our show more than anything else," he says. The lives of professional black athletes, he says, paint a distorted picture for black youths. "We're talking about some of the wealthiest black people in the world - 200, 300, 400 black people who make millions of dollars." The reality is that a kid playing basketball has "a better chance of becoming a doctor than becoming Dr. J."
Yet athletics have long been a vehicle for measuring the successful integration of blacks into American life. Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball "in its way was as important as Brown v. the Board of Education," he says.
Among recent black athletes, Firestone especially admires tennis great Arthur Ashe. Ashe appeared on "Up Close" last fall, a few months before his death. The former Wimbledon champion and Davis Cup player and coach was "wonderful: thoughtful, poignant, funny."
He was "one of the first and last idealists and true warriors for all the right social issues," Firestone muses. "I don't see a lot of young people coming up to carry that torch." Richard Nixon as guest
Firestone has expanded his guest list far beyond athletes to people like actor James Stewart, photographer Ansel Adams, and even former President Nixon, who impressed Firestone with an extensive knowledge of baseball.
"I realized that for Nixon, baseball is no different than military strategy," Firestone writes in his book. "Analyzing the Mets is like figuring out how to mine Haiphong Harbor.... This guy would have made a great baseball manager. He has the basic knowledge, and obviously feels comfortable being in charge. He has all the tools: the ability to schmooze with the press, yet to sometimes be suspicious and paranoid. He has a gift for diplomacy and the guts to try the occasional unusual maneuver, to go agains t the book. He'd be stealing signs, pulling hit-and-runs, sending in surprise relief pitchers. Tricky Dick, they'd call him."
Who does Firestone most want to interview? "I need to get Ted [Williams]. He spoke for a whole different generation. He has a John Wayne persona. He really is the Duke. He even looks and sounds like him."
Not every Firestone show digs for deep truths: "In a 24-minute talk show, you're not going to tie someone's life together in a nice, neat bow," he says.
In fact, many of his interviews have been lighthearted and humorous. Like the time Firestone tried to get inside the mind of Pete Rose. "How would you have been as a woman?" Firestone asked, trying elicit a fresh answer. "I'd have been an ugly one," Rose replied.