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  Owning Up to the Truth: Cooke Was the Best

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 8, 1997; Page E1

Jack Kent Cooke was 46 years older than I am, which is two generations. I didn't address him by saying, "Hi, Squire." I called him Mr. Cooke, as is probably appropriate for someone old enough to be my grandfather. I wasn't familiar enough with Cooke to have personal anecdotes about him and his dog, and I didn't wind up in his company enough to see, first hand, the host extraordinaire he undoubtedly was; I was fortunate to have had lunch with him once and it's true he was a riot.

But I was never into Cooke-watching as much as I was into watching his teams, and the people he hired to run them. You didn't have to be close to Cooke to make this case: He was the best owner in the history of sports. Not pro football, all of sports.

It's an opinion that almost becomes fact when you look at the overwhelming evidence.

That Cooke's Lakers won an NBA title and his Redskins won three Super Bowls is by itself overwhelming. (Lamar Hunt's Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl, and he is an original investor in the Chicago Bulls, but he is quick to say he is a silent partner in the operation of the NBA team.) His 1972 champion Lakers, with Wilt and Jerry West, still own the pro sports record for consecutive victories in a season with 33.

Then, there was Cooke's almost absurd ability to see people who were working in one capacity and project that they would wind up being perfectly suited to run his team. Sure, we know now that Joe Gibbs is one of the great minds ever to coach in the NFL. His Redskins teams in the 1980s introduced an entire new offensive philosophy built around new approaches to offensive line play and running the ball. But before Cooke hired him, Gibbs was a nobody in the larger scheme of things, an assistant who hadn't really distinguished himself.

And even less well-known than Gibbs was a minor league second baseman named Sparky Anderson, whom Cooke was convinced had a brighter future as a manager than an infielder. So Cooke hired Anderson as the manager of his Toronto Maple Leafs minor league team.

It didn't seem to matter which sport Cooke was in at the moment; he knew who was going to be great. Pro basketball is a sport that the star players often make less-than-adequate coaches and GMs. The guy Cooke thought was the difference for the Lakers was West, the man who used Cooke as a mentor during his transition from Hall of Fame player to being the best GM in the NBA.

Sparky Anderson, Jerry West, Joe Gibbs. Cooke didn't just pick them when they were already finished and polished products; he hired them raw and gave them the encouragement to become the best at what they did. It's a talent George Steinbrenner wouldn't develop if he owned five franchises for 50 years.

One time when I publicly lauded an executive in the NFL and predicted his team would rise quickly, Cooke called me and said: "My dear boy, he's a nice enough fellow but he has no bloody idea of what he's doing. That team isn't going anywhere and I expect you to call me up and acknowledge just that at the end of the season."

One of us wound up eating crow and it wasn't Cooke.

During his ownership of the Lakers, he traded for Chamberlain, traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and drafted Magic Johnson. He built the best basketball arena in existence early in his sports career and was building the best football stadium in existence at the end.

He promoted arguably the single greatest boxing match after World War II: Ali-Frazier at Madison Square Garden.

What else, exactly, was there for this man do in the world of sports?

Well, there were two things: buy into major league baseball and build himself a monument in the form of a new stadium right here in the District of Columbia.

He ultimately gave up on baseball because the NFL, until just recently, banned ownership of teams in other pro leagues. The stadium thing is much worse because it shows just how mean, just how stupid and just how petty the District and federal governments can be.

Right now, in cities such as Indianapolis, politicians are trying to figure out how to finance new downtown stadiums and arenas because it's been proven beyond a doubt how they revitalize cities. But for a half-dozen years, government jerks gave Cooke the runaround even though he was about the only man in America willing to pay for his own stadium and not charge customers for a personal seat license, which is soon to become the scourge of America.

Instead of trying to figure out how to put the new football stadium as close to the basketball arena as possible and really make downtown D.C. a showplace (like they've already done in Indy, Minneapolis and other cities) that would attract business like this city hasn't seen in 30 years, the District and federal governments unknowingly conspired to run out of town the greatest galvanizing force this metropolis has: Cooke's Redskins.

Late in the game, when Cooke was reluctantly going to Prince George's County, he told me in a phone conversation that if D.C. Council chairman John Wilson had lived or if Marion Barry had remained mayor, he was certain a deal would have been done. "Those fellows and I understand each other," he said. "The know all I want to do is build a football palace that the District would be proud of."

It was the only time I ever heard Cooke sound, well, down. An opponent hadn't beaten him; shortsightedness and stupidity had.

He could have gotten a deal by threatening to move his team elsewhere, by flirting shamelessly with Los Angeles or some other place. I wished he had, so that enough panic would set in around here to turn up the heat on the power players. But, you see, that would have made Cooke like so many other owners who extort their cities for sweetheart deals, still don't win anything, and tell you how lucky you are to have them.

Jack Kent Cooke would never run with that crowd of owners. All he did, year after year, regardless of the sport, was produce a team that was so professional, so ahead of most everyone else playing the game, that there was no replicating or imitating what he did.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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