Thursday, June 30, 2011
When the Oakland Tribune's longtime sports editor, Bob Valli, retired in 1993, a bunch of us who worked at the paper decided to throw him a retirement party.
We asked him to tell us whom to invite, and the first name on his list was Al Davis.
"Come on, Bob!" I said. "He'll never come! Everybody knows he's a recluse."
"He'll come," Bob said. "You'll see."
And, of course, Bob was right. Davis was the first person to arrive that night and the last to leave.
Why? Because back in the '60s Bob had been the Tribune's pro football reporter, covering the Raiders during their early days. And in Davis's mind, that made Bob part of the family.
And that, I think, is the key to understanding the Raiders owner, who will turn 82 on July 4.
If you're part of the family, there's nothing he won't do for you. Just ask Art Shell, whom he made the first African American head coach in the NFL.
Or Tom Flores, whom he made the first Mexican American head coach. Or Amy Trask, whom he made the first female CEO. Or players like Jim Otto, who have remained close to Davis long after their playing days were over.
On the other hand, if he views you as an enemy - or, even worse, an apostate - watch out! Just ask Marcus Allen, Jon Gruden, Lane Kiffin or Pete Rozelle.
I once was talking with the late Dr. Bob Albo, the Raiders' team physician and Davis' personal friend, and we agreed that the person Davis most resembled was Frank Sinatra.
Some people might have thought of Davis and Sinatra as bad guys, but they didn't care because they lived according to a code of conduct that they considered superior to society's.
It's a tribal code, really: indifferent to outsiders but extremely caring and kind to members of the tribe.
When a good friend of his, an Alameda County Superior Court judge, was dying of cancer, Davis would send a limousine to his house to take him to Raiders home games. The limo parked in a secluded part of the Coliseum where nobody could see it, so the judge could watch the game without having to get out of the car.
But here's the catch: The judge's family family wouldn't let me write about this at the time because for Davis, even a hint that he might have done it for something as crass as publicity would have spoiled the pleasure for him.
True, the team has been in the doldrums lately. But there was a time when opposing players would run by the Raiders bench and yell, "Hey, Al! Trade for me! I want to be a Raider!"
And though some people still haven't forgiven him for moving the team to Los Angeles in 1982, he brought them back in 1995, didn't he?
He's like of Winston Churchill, who was originally elected to Parliament as a Conservative, crossed the aisle in 1904 to join the Liberals, then crossed the aisle again 20 years later to re-join the Conservatives.
As he took his seat on the Conservative bench, his erstwhile Liberal allies hooted at him, "Rat! Rat!"
Unperturbed, he replied, "Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat."
Happy birthday, Mister D.