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Jack Kent Cooke II Kept On Dreaming In the Shadow of His Name

By Laurie Becklund
Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, February 28, 1989; Page E07

LOS ANGELES -- When Jack Kent Cooke II was a child growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, his grandfather owned a sports empire bigger than a boy could dream; bigger, in fact, than any in American history.

The senior Jack Kent Cooke owned the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings and the Washington Redskins. He built the Fabulous Forum on a civic dare and brought superstars like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play there.

But the grandfather traded away his Los Angeles holdings, and the young man who was his namesake would never grow up to inherit an empire valued today at more than $1 billion. Instead, he would haunt the Forum that might have been his, wrangling tickets to hockey games, borrowing money to party and invoking his famous name with strangers he sought to befriend.

In January, a few days before the Super Bowl his grandfather's team had twice won, young Cooke died in his modest apartment in Glendale, eight miles north of Los Angeles. The coroner concluded Feb. 16 that he had died of alcoholic liver disease and a related heart condition. He was 26.

No one who knew him thought of him as an alcoholic. Friends described him as a witty, decent young guy who partied too hard. Family members said he had a history of serious kidney problems since childhood and bouts of hepatitis that left him with delicate health.

But the autopsy showed that somewhere along the way, he became an alcoholic. And, many friends say, Jack Kent Cooke II died more victim than beneficiary of his famous name. No one is certain just how it happened, but there are clues.

For one thing, Jack had trouble learning. In second grade, he was diagnosed as having a serious learning disability. His mother was so concerned about the lack of help for youngsters like him that she founded the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which is today the major such resource center in the country.

"It's very, very sad, a damn waste," said his father, Ralph Kent Cooke, a former film and advertising executive. "Who's to blame? I don't know, if there is anyone . . . It's a tough thing to live under the family name."

Like his grandfather, Jack loved hockey best. Someday, he dreamed, he would capture the Stanley Cup: the only prize he knew that eluded his grandfather.

When Jack was 11, his parents were divorced, and his mother moved to New York and married Pete Rozelle, current commissioner of the NFL. Jackie moved with them and, by all accounts, developed a close relationship with his stepfather.

In 1979, Jack Kent Cooke's wife of 42 years divorced him in a settlement that made the Guinness Book of World Records. Within weeks, Jack Kent Cooke sold his Los Angeles sports empire to Jerry Buss and moved east.

The younger of his two children, John, sided with his father, and is now executive vice president of the Washington Redskins. The eldest, Ralph, sided with his mother, and refused to speak to the senior Cooke for 10 years. The two reconciled only last year.

The relationship between grandson and grandfather is not clear. Jack himself often said he had "blown it" with his grandfather, and had been "disowned" by him. However, friends said he also received regular stipends from his grandfather and talked to him occasionally by telephone.

Jack Kent Cooke said in a brief telephone conversation that he felt "pretty badly" about his grandson, and preferred not to be interviewed.

After his death, those who knew him best would ask themselves whether Jack's failure to succeed -- failure even to seem happy -- was rooted in his learning disabilities, his splintered family history or some other shortcoming that was his alone.

The happiest time of Jack's life, his sister said, was when he attended a private boarding school for learning-disabled teenagers, where he excelled in sports. Later, he went to Biscayne College in Florida. He was arrested at least once for drunk driving, and left after a year.

In 1982, he moved to Los Angeles and attended Pepperdine University. According to the registrar's office, he dropped out in 1984.

A friend who asked not to be named said Cooke had worked as a "stock analyst" for a time.

"He liked to play the big shot," said his father. "He wouldn't know a good stock tip if he heard one . . . {After being} put down all those years {as dyslexic} he felt he had to say something in public to his peers . . . The problem with Jack was that he never quite found a purpose in life. . . . He was like a lot of kids these days -- they want to own businesses and be president of the company before they know anything."

Jack remained Jack Kent Cooke's most loyal sports fan. Friends said he would watch every Redskins game he could on television and bet on his grandfather's horses at Santa Anita. Above all, he loved the Kings.

Sometime last fall, friends said, Cooke, his allowance cut back to about $25,000 a year, moved into a small apartment in Glendale, where he began to pull himself together.

"He told me he had had problems with {alcoholism}," said his girlfriend of four months, who asked not to be named. "But he was over that . . . He'd only drink Coke."

He and his friend Ollon Downing, an air controller, had come up with a proposal to build and operate a sports bar and hotel in Telluride, Colo. But that was only an interim goal, Downing said.

"All of the business plans were to make enough money to do one thing: to buy the Kings and win the Stanley cup," he said.

©Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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