Football

As Lamar Hunt's achievements grow, so do the stories

Lamar Hunt loves to play with numbers. The other day, for instance, Hunt took out a pad and pencil and figured out that he has seen Michael Jordan play basketball 108 times over the years. Hunt owns a percentage of the Chicago Bulls, he has owned a piece since the team joined the NBA in 1966, and he enjoys breezing into Chicago with his wife, Norma.

"It's a miracle to watch him play," Hunt says, and he tells some of the miracles he has seen, like the time earlier this year against Utah when Jordan carried the Bulls, though he was wrecked with the flu. Hunt shakes his head. He still cannot believe the wonders of sport. "You know, I've never met Michael Jordan," he says suddenly. "I don't think I ever will." The words are astonishing. Lamar Hunt is part-owner of the Bulls, not to mention the Chiefs and two pro soccer teams. He is in six different halls of fame. He single-handedly has changed the landscape of football, tennis, soccer, even bowling. He once tried to buy Alcatraz. He named the Super Bowl, for crying out loud. He has never met Michael Jordan. "Sometimes," Lamar Hunt says, "beauty is best appreciated from afar."

Patience a vice, virtue

There's a wonderful story about Lamar Hunt that has been told so many times, it doesn't even matter that it's absolutely not true. It was 1960, Hunt's first year as owner of the Dallas Texans of the American Football League. Hunt had started the American Football League that year for one reason: The old geezers of the NFL would not let him buy a team for Dallas. Hunt made his own team and league, and pro football would be changed forever. Anyway, the story goes that the Texans lost a million dollars that first year. A reporter went to Hunt's father, the legendary oil man Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, and asked how he felt about his son losing a million dollars on a football team. H.L. Hunt smiled and said, "Certainly I'm worried. At that rate, Lamar will be broke in 250 years." Great story. It's bogus, though. The Texans did not really lose a million dollars that first season. H.L. Hunt was not the kind of man to say those sorts of things. And, if you want to be technical, Lamar Hunt probably had more than $250 million to play with in 1960, when his family fortune was at its height. People still tell the story because it's funny, but more, because it tells you a lot about Lamar Hunt. "I suppose I have been a pretty patient man," Hunt says. "It's a vice. I tend to let things play out. I want to see what will happen." Patience has marked Lamar Hunt. He waited out the early rough years of the AFL, and eventually he forced a merger with the NFL. He basically created professional tennis in the late 1960s by starting World Championship Tennis, the first professional circuit. That also lost money at first, before turning the sport inside out. He has been involved in two different pro soccer leagues - he currently owns two teams in Major League Soccer, the Kansas City Wizards and the Columbus Crew - and even now the sport has not yet captured America. He waits still. "I knew it would be harder with soccer," he says. "But I believe in it." And that has been the way he runs the Chiefs. The team was dominant early in its history, but then came the long dry spell. The Chiefs made the playoffs once between 1972 and 1989, an 18-year span that just about killed football in Kansas City. By the late 1980s, the Chiefs were averaging fewer than 40,000 fans at home. "It was rough there for a while," Hunt says. "And I regret that I didn't do more, especially in the early '70s when things were getting away from us a bit. I've been too patient at times, I suppose." And this is exactly the knock on Lamar Hunt now. The Chiefs have made the playoffs six times in the 1990s, they have been to one AFC championship game, and still the murmur is that Hunt does not care about winning. The talk goes that as long as the stadium is filled, Lamar Hunt is happy. "Anyone who would say Lamar Hunt doesn't care about winning, that all he cares about is filling the seats, is absolutely foolish," Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson says. "With Lamar, it has never been about money. He let me build the finest facilities, as good as anything in the NFL. We're always upgrading. He has never said no regarding a player's contract. He wants to win, badly."

The innovator

They called Lamar Hunt "Games" when he was growing up because he always was inventing little distractions. The world blurred around him. H.L. Hunt built an oil empire reportedly worth between $6 billion and $8 billion. He was the richest man in America, according to the New York Times Magazine, richer even than J. Paul Getty, and Lamar Hunt's three brothers scurried to find their way into the oil game. Lamar Hunt would throw a ball against a wall, create a scoring system, invent his own world. "For me, it's about the game," Hunt says. "I love to break down the game, figure out what's happening. I get enjoyment from the little things, seeing something done well." So he constantly tinkers. Lamar Hunt was the force behind getting the two-point conversion into the NFL. He brought the seven-point tie breaker to big-time tennis. Now, he tries to get the AFC and NFC championship games moved to neutral sites. "It can be like the Final Four," Hunt says. And this is where his enjoyment lies. He's an innovator, still. He says he spends 95 percent of his business time around sports, though little of it dealing with players or coaches. He goes to NFL meetings, he deals with Al Davis lawsuits, he works on rule changes, he promotes soccer, he worked on getting pro hockey to Columbus, Ohio. Before the Chiefs' first preseason game against Pittsburgh, everybody else worked on football details. Hunt prepared a special presentation for new Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who played for both the Chiefs and Steelers. "Lamar just called me about it," Steelers owner Dan Rooney says. "He sounded so excited. He said 'Wouldn't this be great?' Lamar is a special person." Hunt does not like to be called the Chiefs' owner, just the Chiefs founder. During Chiefs games, his wife of 33 years, Norma, will scream madly. A friend gave the Hunt family one of those referee dolls, the kind with removable arms and legs, and Norma Hunt spends her football afternoons tearing apart referees limb by limb. "Every year, I make a New Year's resolution that I will calm down, and every football season, I break it," Norma says. Lamar Hunt, meanwhile, will sit absolutely still. He will chat. He will smile at touchdowns. He will frown at turnovers. "He's not a guy that overreacts to things," Peterson says. "He gets a little excited inside when we win - I know he loves it when we win - but when we lose he couldn't be nicer. He has a great expression whenever we lose. He will walk over to me and say, 'Bad luck.' That's it. He leaves it at that." This is why some people feel Hunt does not care enough, but the truth is Hunt is not driven by his emotions. He hired Peterson in 1988 with one promise: He would stay out of the way. In an era of intrusive owners like Oakland's Davis, it was an amazing commitment. "Lamar picks good people and lets them do their job," says Mike Brown, president and general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals. "And it has worked out well for the Kansas City Chiefs." Here's another story, a true one. Hunt met Peterson on a tennis court, years before hiring him. They were doubles partners at one of those NFL functions - Peterson worked for Philadelphia at the time - and Peterson's first serve smashed squarely in the back of Hunt's head. "He fell to the ground," Peterson says. "And I thought, 'Oh no, I've just killed the founder of the AFL.' " Years later, Hunt brought Peterson in for an interview. After a while, Peterson could not stand it any longer, and he said, "You know, we've met before." Hunt smiled. "Yes, Carl, I've been meaning to talk to you about that. I've been having recurring headaches. My attorneys would like to talk to you."

Legendary tales

Lamar Hunt named the Super Bowl. He did it by accident. He was thinking one day about a Super Ball, a toy he had brought home for his daughter, Sharron, and he came up with the phrase "Super Bowl." Now, that Super Ball is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That's the way it goes with Lamar Hunt. Legend swirls around him like Texas mosquitoes. Stories grow around him, amazing stories, some true, some fantasy, some a combination of both. In the 1960s, Hunt tried to buy Alcatraz, the whole island, and turn it into a shopping center and underground space museum. He once bought a painting called "Icebergs" for $2.5 million. The rest of the story, which may or may not be true, is that he then gave it to the Dallas Museum of Art after finding out it was too big for his wall at home. When he moved the Texans to Kansas City in 1963, Hunt desperately wanted to keep the name - the Kansas City Texans - until somebody talked him out of it. He still thinks that might have made for a good name. That one's 100 percent true. His brothers, Nelson Bunker and W. Herbert Hunt, once tried to hoard silver. They bought billions of dollars worth. Lamar was involved, though not as heavily as his brothers, and the investment disaster cost the Hunt family most of its fortune. According to Texas Monthly, the three turned a $5 billion fortune into $325 million, most of that revolving around Lamar's sports interests. The collapse led Nelson Bunker Hunt to utter this classic, "A billion dollars ain't what it used to be." There are more stories. Lamar Hunt started a bowling league. It didn't last. He built a 72-lane bowling alley in Dallas. He built a commercial fishing lake. He built a teen-age social center. He built a tennis resort in Austin, Texas. Lamar Hunt was once the most hated man in England because his pro tennis tour threatened the integrity of Wimbledon. "Hunt is the all-time enemy of England," J.L. Manning of the London Evening Standard wrote in the 1970s. Somehow, Wimbledon survived. Then, there are the other stories about Lamar Hunt. He does his own gardening. He drinks Dr Pepper because it is made in his hometown of Dallas. He rides the subway in New York. He flies coach class. He once said he would only own one suit because that's all a man needs. Once his car was towed in the middle of a Chiefs game because he forgot to put a parking sticker on it. "He's just a regular guy," his oldest son, Clark Hunt, says. "He doesn't like attention. He likes being a regular guy." So it goes that after the Chiefs' first scrimmage this season, Lamar Hunt called a reporter to finish an interview. When the interview ended, the reporter thanked him, only Hunt would not hang up. "How did Kevin Lockett look?" he asked. "How did J.J. Smith look? What was his long run like? How did Pat Barnes throw? How hard was that hit Kevin Ross put on their receiver?" Finally, Lamar Hunt ran out of questions. He laughed. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm just a fan at heart."

Optimistic about Chiefs

Lamar Hunt feels good about this team. He doesn't like change much - change represents instability - but he is excited about the Chiefs' many new players, especially new quarterback Elvis Grbac. Hunt spent some time memorizing their numbers. "I don't think it would be reasonable to expect a second-string quarterback to take us to the Super Bowl right away," Hunt says. "But, you never know. He has looked good, I'm told." Besides, even with all the new players, Hunt has the most stable team in pro football. The games are sold out. The team has won more games than any other team in the AFC the last four years. His management team of Peterson and coach Marty Schottenheimer has been together longer than any duo in football, and they are signed through the end of the decade. "Things are exactly as they were with Carl and Marty," he says. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Carl is the best man I've ever seen with player personnel. And Marty is just such a wonderful competitor." Already, Norma has broken her New Year's resolution, and it's only preseason. She did not like an offside call at the first preseason game. The referee doll took a beating. The grandchildren ran about. The sons screamed. Lamar Hunt remained stoic, naturally. "He never shows anything," Peterson says. "He's a classy Texan." Twenty-seven years have drifted away since the Chiefs last won the Super Bowl, and Lamar Hunt admits he's anxious. He just turned 65, and he would like to win the AFC championship trophy, the one named for him, and he would like to go back to the Super Bowl, the game he named. "I would love to get to the Super Bowl for myself, of course," Schottenheimer says. "But more, I would love to get there for Mr. Hunt. There isn't a classier man in professional football." Hunt says: "The key though is not to panic. It's very hard to get to the Super Bowl. It's harder now than ever because we have so many good teams in our league. Still, I can't help thinking it will be our turn soon."

Amazing stories

Lamar Hunt loves playing with numbers. He tells the story about sitting in Olympic Stadium in Atlanta on his birthday and watching sprinter Michael Johnson shatter the world record in the 200-meter dash. Hunt watched beauty from afar, just the way he likes it. After the run, the stadium fell silent and then exploded in cheers as the clock flashed. "I looked at the clock and saw the time," Lamar Hunt says. "And it was 19.32 seconds. You know what year I was born - 1932. Now, how can you look at that and not feel blessed?" He smiles big. It's a great story. Shame of it is, it's not exactly true. Michael Johnson ran his world-record time on Aug. 1, a day before Hunt's birthday. No matter, of course. Stories always grow a little bigger around Lamar Hunt.

Quick checkup

If Lamar Hunt, owner of the Chiefs, were the patient in the game "Operation," you would have to add tennis elbow to the board. Hunt is 65 but still a good club player, noted for his ability to keep the ball in play. Here's the rest of Hunt's "Operation" medical report: Broken Heart: Hunt has been married twice, but he and his current wife, Norma, have been together since 1964. They have four children: Lamar Jr., Sharron, Clark and Daniel. Butterflies in stomach: "Sure, I get nervous before games," Hunt says. "But I don't think it's anything like the players or coaches. It's just a fan's reaction." Funny bone: Hunt was the first to say, "True injustice is a busload of lawyers going over a cliff with three empty seats."

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