Zest and strength of their convictions define Eckman, Gonzalez


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At first glance, you wouldn't guess Charley Eckman and Pancho Gonzalez had anything in common. Born and raised a country apart, Eckman made his reputation as a basketball official, coach, sports commentator and all-around good guy who seemed to know everyone, particularly anyone who frequented the race track. Gonzalez played tennis, fiercely. He could be warm and friendly but not so often that you expected it of him.

The area in which these men who passed away over the long holiday weekend were very similar is they were not spawned by an era, beginning shortly after World War II. They possessed the strength and personalities to make major contributions toward creating their eras.

Eckman's showmanship and rapier wit often covered up the fact that Charley was a true expert on any number of categories. He carried a national presence long after he left the national sports scene. Pancho was a man who made it all right to want victory so badly it no longer seemed out of place in the once genteel game of tennis.

One of the finest performances ever witnessed was delivered by Charley one night at the ballpark a few decades ago. In one corner sat Eckman, aging with poor eyesight and checking in at about 160 pounds and a cigar that measured at least a foot. In the other was the Boston press, eight or nine barracudas strong who delighted in chewing up teams, coaches, managers, players and anyone else they drew a bead on. Charley won every round before the referee mercifully stopped it. The put-down lines, the anecdotes, the introspection, the insults -- "Ask Red Auerbach how many championships he won before Bill Russell came along?" -- made it a night to remember.

Richard Gonzalez's middle name had to be competitor. Long after he was done playing, Pancho served as celebrity teaching pro at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where he lived. Weekly, a tall, hard-hitting, much younger player would fly in from Las Vegas to challenge the U.S. Open champion of the late '40s. The men always played a very tough match, usually going to a third set. Pancho was receiving a hefty fee for his services, of course, and it became twice as hefty if the challenger won. Gonzalez had way too much pride to ever let it happen.

It never appeared as if Pancho was having fun playing. But when reminded of the early days of the touring pros, when four players would hustle out before the matches and stretch a canvas over a basketball floor, Gonzales smiled and said, "Oh, to be back there and doing it again. I'd give anything."

* You want to know what preparing a course to U.S. Golf Association specifications for one of its Open championships is like? Forget all that business about four-inch-high rough, fairways measuring no more than 35 yards in width and greens mowed hourly so that they putt like marble. During the U.S. Senior Open at Congressional last week, 156 players played 437 rounds to a combined 2,613 over par.

Jack Nicklaus, who pumped some interest into the final round with a hole-in-one and 67 when Tom Weiskopf was grinding inexorably toward his 13-under, four-stroke victory, was quick to point out: "The regular Open comes in here in two years. These greens will come around and they'll be able to work them [speed them up and select nasty pin placements], and it'll be tough. The players will have something to say about it." Forewarned is forearmed.

* Let's hear it for Chris Evert. Without her, NBC's midday coverage of the matches from Wimbledon yesterday would have come down to gee-whiz host Dick Enberg. With a quarterfinal match between Jana Novotna and Kimiko Date fast approaching tedium, Chris decided saying "Nice shot" every so often wasn't going to get it.

Despite the apparent superiority of the fourth-seeded Novotna, Evert pointed out, "You always feel a shakiness in Jana's matches. She has a very predictable game and when she's on, she can beat anyone. When she's not, she can lose to almost anyone. The unpredictability is in her head."

Naturally, this assessment led to a review of Novotna's unbelieveable fade in the Wimbledon final two years ago and her blowing a 5-0, 40-love lead in the final set to lose to an unknown in the French Open last month. "You know, to this day," said Chris, "she still hasn't admitted she choked. Hey, everyone chokes in tennis; you learn from it."

It's on-the-money analysis like this that doesn't make the commentator overly popular with the players but serves the viewers well.

When nice-guy Enberg said, "A Japanese player will win a major championship in this century," Chris guffawed: "I can't believe you said that. That's a bet."

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