NEW YORK -- The night before last, on the eve of a Garden fight but in the slowest season of sport, a cocktail tribute was begun at the Yale Club and resumed at Runyon's bar for a sportswriter who drank himself to death. He was 47.
Newspaper reporters, television broadcasters, magazine editors, singers, actors and authors (no athletes, as usual) toasted their friend, Pete Axthelm, for, in the phrase of several of the speakers, "living life on his own terms."
In race track terms, someone noted colorfully, he did the life in "47 and change." For however many furlongs that represented, it was a good time.
Saloon songs by Willie Nelson were turned up. Runyonesque tales were recounted. Such as the one about the Yale undergraduate who played cards through the night and then remembered he had to take the law school admissions test that morning; who achieved a perfect score on the test, anyway, but went to Aqueduct instead of law school.
Ax must have passed through Yale in a blink because he made it to the New York Herald Tribune under the wire. "He had to be older than 47," said the golf writers at Pebble Beach last weekend when his obituary suddenly appeared. They said the same thing a dozen years ago about Wells Twombley, another gifted colleague with a destroyed liver. "Wells was 41? God, I thought he was 61."
The headline on most of the Axthelm obits was some variation of: "TV Personality Dies." His friends cringed at that too. He was a writer.
At the Yale Club, Tony Kornheiser read this excerpt from Ax's 1970 book "The City Game" about such lost basketball players as Earl Manigault:
"Manigault played at Benjamin Franklin High School in 1962 and 1963, then spent a season at Laurinburg Institute. Earl never reached college, but when he returned to Harlem he continued to dominate the playgrounds. He was the king of his own generation of ballplayers, the idol for the generation that followed. He was a 6-foot-2-inch forward who could outleap men eight inches taller, and his moves had a boldness and fluidity that transfixed opponents and spectators alike. Freewheeling, unbelievably high-jumping and innovative, he was the image of the classic playground athlete.
"But he was also a very human ghetto youth, with weaknesses and doubts that left him vulnerable. Lacking education and motivation, looking toward an empty future, he found that basketball could take him only so far. Then he veered into the escape route of the streets, and became the image of the hellish side of ghetto existence. Earl is now in his mid-20s, a dope addict, in prison.
"Earl's is more than a personal story. On the playgrounds, he was a powerful magnetic figure who carried the dreams and ideals of every kid around him as he spun and twisted and sailed over all obstacles. When he fell, he carried those aspirations down with him. Call him a wasted talent, a pathetic victim, even a tragic hero: he had symbolized all that was sublime and terrible about this city game."
When Tony came to the phrase "a wasted talent," he left it out.
Highlights of Ax's NBC and ESPN reports were played for the mourners. The tapes reminded everyone how unnatural Ax usually appeared on television, exaggerated and overamplified, although in an interview setting with Al Davis, George Steinbrenner or another misbegotten basketball legend, Sam Drummer, he was himself. "Which is the stronger feeling?" he asked Drummer. "The good memories or what might have been?"
Axthelm courted TV for money and fame. Once, in a Super Bowl pregame show, he portrayed himself, the football tout, in a skit set at "Cheers." Waiting for his cue to enter the bar, Ax peeked through the glass of the door and saw Diane Chambers, Sam Malone, Norm, Cliff and Carla. "I'm still a Newsweek writer," he told himself. "I've just fallen down a rabbit hole."
Even after leaving Newsweek two or three years ago, he essentially remained a Newsweek writer. The day I went to Time magazine 10 years ago, Ax pulled me aside in Runyon's. "You'd pick it up quickly on your own," he said, "but I've been a newsmagazine guy for 12 years and I can tell you some of the ins and outs if you want to know."
I listened to him for several hours and everything he said turned out to be helpful. "You're pretty generous to a competitor," I signed off with a laugh. "Aren't we friends?" he replied.
In a Super Bowl press box, as the Raiders blocked a Redskins punt, Ax let out a whoop. "I'm sorry," he whispered sheepishly. "That was very unprofessional. But I've got $4,000 on the Raiders."
He relentlessly backed the Raiders, the Dolphins and horses of a certain sinew: Thirty-Six Red, Twenty Grand, Houston. In the horse readings at the Yale Club, all of his subjects seemed to have "rippling muscles." Go For Wand "reached so far down into her muscles and heart that it killed her."
Tossing a story to the Newsweek editor, he would say aside to a colleague: "Let them read it and weep."
There was a bit of weeping at the Yale Club, but a lot more "he did it his way." Some in the congregation were sore at Jimmy Breslin, who knew Pete Axthelm before he was Pete Axthelm, and reacted angrily both at the death and at the rhapsody around it. He was mad at Ax. He didn't come to the party. I think he may have been Pete's best friend.