For nearly seven decades, the biggest names in North American pro sports came to Hamilton to share their stories and memories from the biggest stages in the world.
It turns out, last week’s 69th annual B’Nai Brith Sports Celebrity Dinner was the final one. Officially, the dinner celebrated the achievements of local high-school athletes. But it turned into something so much more, raising $2.6 million over the years for local charities and, at least for one day, putting Hamilton on the big-league map — even though the city features no teams from the Big Four leagues.
I’m a Hamiltonian, born and raised, and, as a kid, I was fortunate enough to go to the dinner with my parents and my brother, Jeff, every year. And we’ve continued to go as adults. My brother estimates he’s been to 37 of the 69 dinners. I’m not far behind. Jeff, who still lives and works in the Hamilton area, eventually became dinner chair, meaning he was responsible for bringing so many big names to the event for the past quarter century.
Growing up, Jeff was a maniac for both professional and NCAA basketball. The UCLA Bruins were his favourite hoops team. In fact, he dreamed of playing for them one day and even got an interview with a team recruiter. (That dream died hard when he stopped growing at 6’3”, and the recruiter told him, “Even if you were the best basketball player in all of Canada, you probably wouldn’t be good enough to play for us.” Ouch.)
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But Jeff did the next best thing. As dinner chair, he decided which athletes to pursue for the dinner and reached out to two UCLA legends — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton — inviting them to come to Hamilton.
“I idolized both in childhood, as UCLA guys, and to have them in the room was totally amazing,” Jeff told me earlier this week. “Plus, they are both bigger than life, physically, and did their jobs well.” (Abdul-Jabbar is 7’2” tall, while Walton checks in at 6’11”. Walton’s charismatic half-hour speech, all without notes, urging the high-school athletes in attendance to overcome adversity — as he had had to do, thanks to three dozen orthopedic surgeries on his body — was spectacular.)
When the Los Angeles Lakers were winning multiple championships with Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, their coach was Pat Riley. And, yes, he came to Hamilton, too.
“I was at home on a Sunday night, and the phone rang,” Jeff recalls. “It was Pat doing his homework for his speech at our dinner the next day. It’s pretty cool when you pick up the phone and someone says, ‘Jeff, this is Pat Riley!’”
The athletes who’ve made the trek to Hamilton over the years are a who’s who of professional sports. Major League Baseball’s all-time hit king, Pete Rose, was there in January 1976, having just been named World Series MVP two months earlier. Rose’s teammate Johnny Bench was the best player in the 1976 World Series; he ended up on the dais in Hamilton eight years later. Other baseball notables included Brooks Robinson, Steve Garvey, Roberto Alomar, and Ball Four author Jim Bouton.
Managers Tommy Lasorda, Whitey Herzog, Bobby Cox, and Earl Weaver also made it to share stories from the diamond. One of the first big names to attend was, perhaps, the most historically significant player of all time, Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 broke baseball’s colour barrier.
As a teenager, I chatted with and got an autograph from New York Yankees catcher and captain Thurman Munson, who, only three years later, in 1979, died when the private plane he was piloting crashed.
The dinner had its share of big-name superstars from the NFL, as well. As a big Oakland Raiders fan, I loved meeting George Blanda, who played quarterback and kicker for the Silver and Black until age 48. Other superstar quarterbacks included the San Francisco 49ers’ John Brodie, the Washington Redskins’ (and Toronto Argonauts’) Joe Theismann, and the San Diego Chargers’ Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. Numerous other NFL stars found their way to the dinner, including Super Bowl MVPs Franco Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers), Larry Csonka (Miami Dolphins), and Randy White (Dallas Cowboys). Steelers running back Rocky Bleier, Buffalo Bills wide receiver James Lofton, and Bills running back Thurman Thomas were also there. So were coaches Marv Levy (four straight trips to the Super Bowl with the Bills) and Hank Stram (winner of Super Bowl IV with the Kansas City Chiefs).
In 2001, the dinner wanted to celebrate its 50th anniversary by inviting legends from the Original Six NHL franchises. As a result, I got to meet Johnny Bower (Maple Leafs), Guy Lafleur (Canadiens), Phil Esposito (Bruins), Red Kelly (Leafs and Red Wings), Bobby Hull (Blackhawks), and Hamilton native Harry Howell (Rangers) — an incredibly special night.
“I drove Guy Lafleur after the 50th to the airport the next morning,” Jeff tells me. “We went through the Tim Hortons drive-through, and he spilled his coffee on the passenger-seat floor. I never cleaned it for three years till I sold the car! He was so sincere and so open and honest. Told some very personal stories. He was a really great guy.”
So if the event was always so memorable, why end it? The decision was excruciating for my brother, but he suggests it was inevitable. Back in the day, big-name stars simply didn’t make the salaries they do today, so picking up a few thousand extra dollars to do a charity banquet was worth the trip to the Hammer. Nowadays, if you’re making $20 million a year, an extra $10,000 just isn’t incentive enough to leave home.
Also, when my brother signed on to help the dinner, he was one of two dozen on the organizing committee. Today, that number is more like half a dozen, and they still have to do the same amount of work. The dinner used to draw more than 1,000 people annually. This year, attendance was 700 — not bad, but the smallest crowd ever. Competition for the entertainment and charitable dollar is just exponentially more intense these days.
One of the biggest thrills about being Jeff Paikin’s brother was getting to go out for drinks with the athletes after the dinner. That’s when they tended to bring out their juiciest and most profane stories. In 1989, Baltimore Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey expressed astonishment over drinks at how much another catcher was being paid: Dempsey thought he was so much better than the other guy. My brother and I looked at each other in disbelief as this major leaguer bared his soul to us.
“I remember sitting with Dan Fouts in the bar at the Royal Connaught Hotel after, thinking, this guy was the QB in the best playoff game ever played, and he’s here shooting the shit with me!” Jeff recalls. “Fouts, Dennis Hull, Tony Esposito, Ben Curtis, and Mark Tewksbury were the best after-dinner guys. They were open, sincere, and no egos at all. Just the guy across the table.”
The final edition of the sports banquet took place last Thursday, and, once again, it was an all-star lineup. One of the all-time great mixed-martial artists, Montreal’s George St-Pierre, headlined this year’s gathering and teased the audience about whether he’d make a comeback. Ben Curtis, who’s won four major tournaments — including the 2003 British Open — Team Canada hockey gold medallist Tessa Bonhomme (now with TSN), and one of Canada’s best-ever baseball and basketball announcers, Dan Shulman, were also on hand. So was Leafs broadcaster and dinner emcee Jim Ralph, whose wry sense of humour (he often poked fun at his less-than-successful love life) has been a highlight of the dinner for nearly two decades.
But the last-ever sports-dinner speech was given by Canadian swimming gold medallist Mark Tewksbury, who offered up perhaps the most riveting speech I’ve ever heard at this gala. As Tewksbury took us on his journey to gold, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the hall. Tewksbury finished that speech as brilliantly as he did the 100-metre backstroke at the ’92 Olympics in Barcelona.
If the sports gala had to come to an end, it couldn’t have wrapped things up in a more inspirational and memorable way.