Back in the Day with Lakers GM Rob Pelinka

After covering Rob Pelinka’s high school basketball career, the new general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers shared his thoughts about being a sports agent with me in 2004:

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What prompted you to become a sports agent?

Funny thing is, when I was in law school, I had no plans of pursuing a career as a sports agent. As a matter of fact, I had a perception of agents as being slick and pushy. Those are both characteristics I never wanted any association with.

However, I had established some connections through my basketball playing days and Michigan law school days that led me down a path into the sports business. I have been pleased to find that you can become successful in this business without taking on the negative characteristics that are often associated with it.

The part of the business I enjoy the most is the mentoring relationship I have with my players and their families. When I can use the sum of my legal, business, basketball and life experiences to help guide and direct my players into making wise choices, that is a very gratifying feeling.

What’s it like being an agent for Kobe Bryant, one of the best-known basketball players on the planet? How tough has the last year been?

Kobe is one of the most focused and determined people I have ever met. I have incorporated a tremendous amount of strategy for how he approaches the game of basketball into how I approach business and negotiations. The model is incredibly successful, as he has shown by holding the mantle as the best player in the game. My relationship with Kobe has been one of the most rewarding relationships in my life — a true blessing.

The majority of people have an image of sports agents based on the movie “Jerry Maguire.” What parts of the movie accurately portrayed the life sports agents lead?

The part of that movie that resonates the most for me is the passion in which the title character poured into his clients lives and successes. I can really identify with that part of the movie. I think clients can tell when you have deep and real concerns for them. The lifestyle of an agent is very demanding, since you always have to be there when a client needs you. So sacrifices need to be made. But when those sacrifices are made for the betterment of another person’s life, it is worth it. As an agent, I am really there to serve my clients needs. That is what is all about — service. I think that part of the business was portrayed in the movie.

What are the pros and cons of working as a sports agent?

The pros are the lifelong relationships of trust that you build with your clients. You truly fight battles together and grow strong together. Those relationships have become very much like a brotherhood for me. I enjoy going through the hard times with my guys just as much as the times of prosperity. I think true character in a relationship is built when you face adversity with someone.

In this business, you realize that athletes are not invulnerable to the real trials of life. They need support just like anyone else. While it is always great to celebrate the headline, multimillion-dollar deals you get for clients, it is also great to support a client when he is going through a professional or personal hard time.

The cons are the unfair assumptions hoist upon you by outsiders that think all agents are fast-talking and greedy people. That is an unfair bias that comes with being in the business. But you come to realize that your true reputation is defined by what your friends, clients and those people you work with — those people who really know you — by what they think of you. That is really all that matters in the end.

You played on one of the most famous college basketball teams of all-time at the University of Michigan. What was that experience like for you?

It still amazes me to think that I had the opportunity to play in three NCAA Final Fours and to be a member of the 1989 NCAA Championship Team. Growing up in Lake Bluff, my dream was to always play ball for Northwestern. I was blessed with so much more. I will forever have great memories of playing for those teams. There is just nothing like March Madness, cutting down the nets in the Final Four and hearing that song “One Shining Moment” play. Those are some of the best memories of my life.

What’s your most prized sports possession and why?

You would think it would be autographed jerseys or championship rings. But really my most prized possessions are the hand-written notes I have got from my players, from college coaches, or NBA general managers that have let me know that I have made a positive influence on their life. I save those, and they mean the most by far. After all, I feel like when you can use your life to bless the life of another person or to make their life better or more understandable, that is the ultimate payoff.

The Quinquagenarian Traveler: A Whirlwind L.A. Sports Marathon

Thirty-six hours. Two NHL games. A college football rivalry battle. Two boys dressed in   shorts. One convertible.

Thanksgiving weekend was a sports feast for the males in our family (excluding the dogs). The three of us flew in from Chicago to watch the Blackhawks prevail in Anaheim before falling by a goal in Los Angeles. In between, my alma mater USC and stalwart Adoree’ Jackson dismantled Notre Dame before our eyes.

Standout memories include:

— Watching the Blackhawks pre-game practice from the second row in the Honda Center, surrounded by hundreds of like-minded fans. Ducks backers were as hard to spot as the team’s retired jerseys (grand total: one).

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Blackhawks fans (two fresh out of a convertible) swarmed the plexiglass at Honda Center.

— Sitting not only in a section but a row that actually won a prize announced at a major sports event (chocolate popcorn at the Staples Center).

— Why it’s important to be prepared for potentially bad weather (see: ignore L.A. rain forecasts for events at the uncovered Coliseum at your peril).

When the sun shone, we splashed around the pentagon-shaped pool filled to the brim at the Marina Del Rey Hotel. The three-story white structure, renovated to perfection a year ago, featured patios connecting to artificial grass where the boys played shinny. At the restaurant Salt, kid-friendly menus included awesome hamburgers for dinner, and sitting outside let us watch sailboats rock nearby while the stars danced above. .

On the flight home, live NFL games appeared on our Virgin America TV. We didn’t need the NFL in L.A. (and the NFL didn’t need L.A. for decades), but it was the perfect way to end a whirlwind sports marathon.

The Quinquagenarian Traveler: Horse Sense in Charleston

For years I had torn out magazine articles and filed a collection about why I should visit Charleston, S.C. If there were a linchpin among the myriad pieces, it would consist of one word: charm.

Unfortunately I found little during the first viewing of the decidedly Southern city (South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, and the Civil War began at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor). But that changed the second day of my visit as I took that most touristy of choices: a horse-drawn carriage ride.

It is the only way to efficiently see Charleston and to learn about it. For an hour, one passes antebellum houses, some with welcoming double staircases and many of which double as museums. Churchyards are dotted with gravestones, some from the 17th century. The Four Corners of Law is a special intersection, featuring a church, U.S. Post Office, city hall and county building — otherwise known as hail, mail, jail, and bail.

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The elegant U.S. Post Office at the Four Corners of Law.

Lest one think the historic streets must be lined with horse manure, be heartened that drivers are required to drop a marker wherever a horse goes to the bathroom for a worker to clean up.

My magazine articles perhaps got me too excited about the charming attractions of a surprisingly large city (population near 100,000), but at least a slow-paced carriage ride opened my eyes to some of the beauty in town.

 

 

The Quinquagenarian Traveler: The Hall Has It All

The original cup proffered by Lord Stanley.
The original cup proffered by Lord Stanley.

Befitting its setting – an entrance facing a bustling, futuristic mall and an elegant trophy room featuring stained glass on the ceiling – the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto mixes the new and the old with aplomb.

Prefer the modern age? Enjoy a creative 3-D look at a Stanley Cup Game 7, with pucks and snow from hockey stops flying toward you.

Prefer history? Check out the days when players literally wore sweaters (now moth-eaten with puck-sized holes) and when fedoras graced the noggins of coaches like Toe Blake. Cases are also groaning with gloves, goalie masks and other mementoes from bygone eras.

The Hockey Hall of Fame has it all, from the short-lived (Cleveland Barons jersey) to the kitschy (a lunch box graced with Wayne Gretzky’s image). No one does trophies better than hockey, and there are some beauties — gorgeous silver bowls and even the oversized AVCO World Trophy of the defunct WHA

The Great One even had his own lunchbox.
The Great One even had his own lunchbox.

Of course, the coup de grace is the original bowl given by Lord Stanley. It rests in a vault near bands stripped from the Stanley Cup with names of former champions, done to create space for new winners. You almost feel guilty talking in such a sacred space.

The flow of the museum is a little unorthodox – you’re never sure which way you’re supposed to go – but if you find yourself in Toronto, a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame is worth the time.

 

 

 

 

 

Making a Long Cubs’ Story Short

Pick your adjective: jarring, exciting, eye-opening. Dozens of others also apply when considering the Chicago Cubs are playing in the World Series.

Much has already been written about this phenomena, but three items truly stand out among the overload of World Series information, emphasizing how long it has been since the Cubs and the World Series were a pair in 1945:

1) Major League Baseball was still segregated.
2) The World Series had never been broadcast on television.
3)  Vin Scully had yet to call a Dodgers game in Brooklyn or Los Angeles.

And here’s a bonus item: Since the Cubs last won the World Series (in 1908), the New York Yankees have appeared in 40 World Series.

The Quinquagenarian Traveler: Be My One&Only

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By David Sweet

This was not your typical trim—unless drinking Don Julio 1942 during a haircut is normal.

At the new barber shop at One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, the chair itself—created in the 1920s and bolted to the middle of the floor—was the most comfortable I had ever sat in. That doesn’t mean it was shaped like a La-Z-Boy recliner; the combination of stiff back and perfectly placed footrest made it a lumbar king. Products from London graced the shelves for the hirsute, even one created especially for long beards.

With the curtains closed and with a shot of Don Julio racing down my gullet (other choices include vodka, whiskey, bourbon, and mescal), I watched the U.S. Open on ESPN Vivo on a television screen within the mirror. The golfers strode down fairways, yet I could see myself in the reflection in the mirror as well. I don’t think it was the effects of the tequila, but at that point, I didn’t care to prove or disprove that theory. One more Don Julio with the scalp massage, if you please.

Fully recovered from the September 2014 hurricane that ravaged the Mexican resort, One&Only Palmilla is better than ever—and not just for men searching for the ultimate haircut. The veranda—part of the original 1950s house owned by Don Abelardo Rodriguez, son of the President of Mexico—now features floor-to-ceiling windows proffering views of the Sea of Cortez. A new steakhouse, Seared, has opened, along with a fire pit by one of the pools.

One other hefty new addition: Priscilla the turtle, who weighs more than 100 pounds. She was rescued by the resort during the hurricane; her owners were out of town and needed someone to take care of her.

“She’s been so happy here,” says Cecilia Aragon, director of public relations at the resort, showing Priscilla’s sloped plot of grass. “The owners still come and say hello.” Aragon witnessed the hurricane firsthand.

“It was horrible,” she recalls. “It came with such strong winds that roof tiles were flying off like bullets. But from a bad experience comes a good experience.”

After four months of intense construction—where all 920 employees pitched in—One&Only reopened this past spring.

During a three-night stay with around-the-clock butlers, my wife Tricia and I took pleasure in the abundant choices of food, drinks, leisure activities, and more.

Fresh from a tequila-infused haircut and with Tricia sporting new beach waves courtesy of the OBO Salon (her stylist mentioned Jennifer Aniston recently sat in her chair), we walked to Agua by Larbi, one of four restaurants at the 25-acre resort.

“This is the best table in Los Cabos,” says the maître d’ and he is right. A handful of half-moon benches and tables built for two perched over the Sea of Cortez present an unmatchable view.

As the sun sets, lights sparkle in houses and on cars around a large stretch of southern Baja, a hint of Monaco emanating from the scene. The lamb tanguine and seared sea bass are especially tasty.

The following night, a lengthy table for 12 rests on the sand, featuring flowers down the middle and a stone oven roasting meats at one end. The menu, organized by executive chef Larbi Dahrouch, includes Mexican nopalitos salad, jumbo shrimp, grilled chicken and pork rack, along with coconut corned pie for dessert.

Peter Bowling, the resort’s debonair managing director who grew up in England, is a maestro at ensuring all are entertained.

Margaritas and/or wine in all hands, he conducts a wave of toasts, asking guests to clink glasses with the person on their right while looking straight into their eyes.

One&Only Palmilla (which includes a Catholic chapel at its highest point) is spread out nicely so that a large wedding reception could be happening at one end, and most visitors would never know.

Palm trees sway and flowers bloom, buttressing the tranquil scene. Upon seeing a guest, employees place their hand on their heart.

“That’s the One&Only Palmilla salute,” Aragon says. “It’s our way to say we’re happy that you’re here.”

The resort caters to those who wish to stay active along with those who wish to simply read a book. For the former, sunrise yoga takes place on the beach and kayaks can be paddled about the Sea of Cortez.

During a long walk on the sand, pelicans can be seen dive-bombing for their lunch into the salt water. Guests can rent the resort’s 95-foot yacht for the day, which features a full crew and four cabins. For the less-active types, the two pools—one containing a swimup bar—possess dozens of chaises longue to relax and devote one’s self to his or her favorite paperback. The rooms, comfortable and attractive, are also a fine place to hang out quietly.

In ours, a painting of fish scurrying about the ocean hangs above the couch, and a wide wooden desk in front of the king bed offers plenty of room to write a postcard, as anachronistic as that activity may be.

But the real excitement arrives upon stepping outside. The balcony, concocted of stone and tiles, overlooks the Sea of Cortez.

The sight, sound, and sometimes smell of the waves leaves only touch and taste unsatisfied among the senses, and the latter can be satiated with the complimentary tequila inside. A half bed lets couples snuggle into the pillows and uncurl their legs at one end.

Birds are not afraid to appear on the rail, walk a bit of a high-wire act, and fly away.

It’s not easy to leave One&Only Palmilla, with its emphasis on the unhurried life in an idyllic setting. I hope the Don Julio 1942 doesn’t run out before our next visit.

The Quinquagenarian Traveler: Five Ways to Improve a Disney Cruise

The waiters captivate diners with magic tricks, and new film releases abound in comfortable theaters. But despite its popularity, the Disney Dream cruise to the Bahamas can be improved.

Here are five ways the Mouse can perfect its experience:

1) Don’t misrepresent offshore excursions. Swimming with the Dolphins at Atlantis was more like Kneeling with the Dolphins. And if you’re going to ask customers to meet at 9 a.m. on the cruise’s first day, don’t make them wait nearly three hours before cuddling up with Flipper.

2) Adults love coffee. At Castaway Cay, the island owned by Disney where cruisers spend the better part of the day, the message was: No coffee for you, even though unlimited joe could be poured onboard. Stop at enough spots, and one could find a frozen cappuccino for a hefty price.

3) Combs are good. Within the Serenity Spa’s men’s locker room, the amenities are slim. But when a spot offers showers, shouldn’t combs be available afterward? I even asked at the front desk with dripping hair, and a kind woman checked the nearby barber shop. But no, a man must groom his locks with his fingers.

4) Let there be light. Using a card by the door to turn on all lights in a room has its pitfalls. Example: When our son started throwing up in the middle of the night, we couldn’t see anything to grab to help keep it off the bed. One emergency light by the parents’ bed would improve matters greatly.

5) Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink. Even cheap hotels supply free bottled water in its rooms. Though you’re captive in a five-person stateroom – replete with a view of, you guessed it, water – the Disney Dream is bereft of complimentary H2O.

Zoo Chief Achieves Boyhood Dream

Hinsdale Living

April 2015

By David Sweet

As a boy, Stuart Strahl visited the Bronx Zoo in New York with his neighbor, Dr. William Conway, who happened to be the institution’s director.

In an aviary, Dr. Conway put peanuts in Strahl’s hands and, all of a sudden, Lady Ross’s Turacos flew over to eat them.

“It was the most startling, marvelous experience,” says Strahl. Inspired by the memory, he stands up to grab the hefty “Handbook of the Birds of the World” out of his office and flips to a picture of the two-pound iridescent blue bird with a red crest and yellow beak.

“Imagine that eating out of your hand and looking at you,” says the president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates the Brookfield Zoo.

Back in his seat for lunch, the 59-year-old’s passion for wildlife and conversation becomes even more apparent.

“Building interest in wildlife and nature is there in our brainstems,” says Strahl, a resident of Clarendon Hills. “People need to be connected to wildlife. Our mission is to inspire people and engage them in caring about wildlife.”

Though the Lincoln Park Zoo, The Art Institute, and The Shedd Aquarium often receive more press, the Brookfield Zoo attracts more paying customers—about 2.3 million annually—than any other cultural institution in not only Chicago but the Midwest as well. More than 4,000 animals (including royal antelopes and two-toed sloths) can be seen across the non-profit’s 216 acres. Its history boasts many innovations, from the inaugural animal hospital at a zoo to the first genetics laboratory. Original governing members of the Chicago Zoological Society include some of the city’s most prominent names, from William Wrigley Jr. to A.B. Dick to Solomon A. Smith.

Thanks to 83 acres of land donated to the Forest Preserves of Cook County by Edith Rockefeller McCormick of Lake Forest, who dreamed of having a barless zoo so animals and people could connect, Brookfield opened in 1934. That connection she desired exists today and will be strengthened this summer with the opening of Hamill Family Wild Encounters, where visitors will be able to touch and feed parakeets and goats while also enjoying close encounters with red pandas and llamas.

Though a number of new exhibits have opened under his watch (including the Great Bear Wilderness) since he was hired in 2003, Strahl has also faced the challenge of reinvigorating the 81-year-old facility’s aging infrastructure. In the past decade, every boiler and many roofs have been replaced.

“Imagine running a small village,” says Strahl, who oversees a $60 million operating budget. “In addition to animal staff and exhibits, we have our own emergency-medical-technician-trained police force, our own food people, maintenance and design shops, and three or four weddings each weekend. It’s a pretty complex organization.”

Strahl and his management team have boosted attendance at the zoo by more than 15 percent and expanded membership to 110,000 families. He has hired a staff to develop outreach programs on Chicago’s West Side and South Side to persuade more inner-city residents to visit. He worked with the Forest Preserves to notch an agreement with the Pace bus service to drop people right at the doors of the zoo from places as far way as 95th Street. He hopes new offerings (in 2014, Brookfield launched extended hours on summer nights with music and light shows) will bring even more people in.

His enthusiasm for nature (he worked as a field biologist in the South American jungles for 10 years after earning a bachelor of arts in biology at Bates College and a Ph.D. at SUNY Albany) was stimulated during childhood. Strahl grew up in Pelham Manor, N.Y., a few blocks from Long Island Sound and from the forests of Pelham Bay Park.

“I’d go exploring with my brother. We’d have canteens and go bird-watching,” he recalls. “We’d go down to the rocks and get mussels and flounder and make a campfire. It was like going on safari.”

His grandfather owned a 410-acre farm on a deep-water creek on Maryland’s eastern shore, a picture of which hangs on the wall above him. Strahl visited often and would explore surrounding forests, wetlands and the Chesapeake Bay. When his grandfather passed away, the family donated the farm to the Chesapeake Audubon Society. Strahl created a performance-based science curriculum there for neighboring schoolchildren to take advantage of.

“My grandfather, who was a businessman, probably would have said, ‘Oh my God, you gave it away?’” Strahl says. “But our family felt other people should have the same experience we did.”

Before coming to the zoo, Strahl worked as vice president of the National Audubon Society (he first donated to the organization as a teenager, using money earned from mowing lawns). Moving to Miami in 1996, he helped the society restore the Everglades, a massive area of tropical wetlands in Florida. Though the space generated $20 billion in tourism from sportsmen and others at the time, that number was dwindling because of dirty water and other ills. Recruiting supporters from the chambers of commerce, engaging with the agricultural community and more, Strahl helped Audubon create a broad-based movement that culminated in the largest ecological restoration initiative in history, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Upon joining the Chicago Zoological Society, Strahl moved to Clarendon Hills. He finds many similarities between Pelham Manor where he grew up and the Hinsdale area.

“You have the big Victorian-type houses, all those elm trees are just beautiful, and excellent schools,” says Strahl, who points out that even though his three daughters had learning differences, each one was accepted by her first-choice college. Hinsdale, in fact, seems to be a first choice for Brookfield Zoo leaders, as former board chairman Fred Krehbiel, deputy chair John Grube, senior vice president Dr. Alejandro Grajal and many zoo trustees live in town.

As lunch finishes, it’s time for Strahl to return to his adjoining office, whose door is emblazoned with a bison, the Chicago Zoological Society’s logo. No doubt he’d prefer to be roaming the grounds with the speed of that hoofed animal to connect many visitors with Brookfield’s variety of creatures. Says Strahl, “When I give people an experience with an animal they’ve never had before and to have their face light up—I see that spark that ignited my own passion for wildlife and conservation. All of us can make a difference, and that is what Brookfield Zoo is all about.”