Ailene Voisin

From coffee with Ali to covering the Dream Team, Ailene Voisin reflects on career highlights

Doug Christie talks with Sacramento Bee columnist Ailene Voisin during the Kings' game against the Phoenix Suns at Sleep Train Arena on March 25, 2016 in Sacramento.
Doug Christie talks with Sacramento Bee columnist Ailene Voisin during the Kings' game against the Phoenix Suns at Sleep Train Arena on March 25, 2016 in Sacramento. hamezcua@sacbee.com

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The man who mentored Muhammad Ali tried to chase me out of the business before I even got started.

True story: When Angelo Dundee saw me standing in a smoke-filled Caesars Palace exhibit hall in 1973, yards from where Ali was sparring, the legendary cornerman stopped and stared.

“What the hell you doing here?” he barked.

“I’m a sportswriter now,” I replied, proudly, flashing my press pass.

See, Dundee knew me in a former life, as the bus girl who, two summers earlier, filled Ali’s coffee cup every time he took a sip. When the champ wasn’t training and sparring, the two hung out in the café for hours, charming employees, signing autographs, curious about our lives. Once the shock of our reunion wore off, Dundee insisted that sports journalism was a dirty, nasty business, and no place for an 18-year-old college sophomore, especially a female.

Angelo meant well, truly he did. But I was hooked, and he was wrong. While there were few female role models in sports journalism four decades ago, there were allies in surprising places, powerful mentors and influences within the industry, and a blank slate to chart a course. Billie Jean was still king, remember, and the '60s were barely in the rearview mirror.

It was a time to rock and roll, to embrace this dirty, nasty business and transform it into a beautiful, fascinating adventure that took me to Athens, Paris, London, Israel, St. Petersburg, Belgrade and Toronto, and on the homefront, every major city in the United States. There were detours and diversions – the late, great Los Angeles Herald Examiner folded in 1989 – but no regrets. I toured the world, chronicled history, interviewed some of the most accomplished figures in sports, witnessed the birth of Title IX and equal rights for women in sports.

So how do you summarize a career that spanned four decades into a farewell column? This is an impossible task because there are many people to thank and many more moments to cherish, but here is a slice of what I saw and who I met along along the way.

Muhammad Ali. It starts with the champ. He not only drank tons of coffee, enabling me to keep pouring and talking, he welcomed me two years later during his weeklong training session at Caesars Palace. As I stood attached to the side of UPI Bureau Chief Myram Borders, the only other woman in the massive media scrum, Ali repeatedly made eye contract, encouraging us to ask questions. Myram – a self-proclaimed “one tough broad” – dove right in. I watched, listened and learned.

Billie Jean King. The tennis icon was my first sports hero. I remember where I was and how we celebrated after she routed Bobby Riggs, and will never forget the numerous interviews and conversations we enjoyed at tennis tournaments through the years. She shared her history, and her soul, and on my list of legends, is entrenched at No. 1.

NBA pioneers Wayne Embry, Lenny Wilkens and Elgin Baylor. Wayne’s encouragement and unwavering support was invaluable, not that I would expect anything less from the NBA’s first black manager and a courageous, compassionate figure.

Elgin? Only he could call me “Pen” – endearingly, if short for poison pen – and phone me at 7 a.m. to complain about one of my competitors and get away with it. Our chats during practices and after games were priceless; he was my private history teacher, mesmerizing me with stories about NBA travel in the '50s and '60s, of being denied hotel and dining accommodations because of his race, and the white teammates (Jerry West among them) who stood at his side.

Lenny was no less an authority, and a brilliant coach. I am forever grateful for the hours we spent at the coffee bar after Atlanta Hawks practices, where he would offer insights and design plays on a napkin.

The Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s. I still can’t believe we got paid to cover the league in the midst of its rebirth, when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson drove the annual L.A.-to-Boston shuttle. The postseason was a never-ending extravaganza of exquisite basketball, compelling story lines and luminous figures. The post-practice routine was a veritable gab fest. Once, after a two-hour session, Bird wisecracked, “If you guys had brought some beers, we could sit here all day.”

And GM Jerry West. Can never forget one of the most complex and intriguing figures in sports. He is the logo and a legend, yet refuses to put himself above the game.

Bill Walton. Despite repeated foot fractures, he provided occasional glimpses of brilliance with the hometown Clippers before escaping for one last season of hoops dessert with the Celtics. He was an accomplice in spirit. How many athletes would carry a new computer on the flight from San Diego to L.A. when my old one imploded during the playoffs? Right.

Val Ackerman, Rick Welts, Russ Granik, David Stern. Due to their efforts, the WNBA was founded in 1996, and to this day remains the longest surviving women’s professional sports league. Take a bow, but please don’t stop now. The struggle persists.

The Sacramento Monarchs. My nephew grew up with a robust appreciation for women in sports, largely due to the existence of the city’s now-disbanded WNBA franchise. Ticha Penicheiro, Yolanda Griffith, Kara Lawson, Jerry Reynolds and John Whisenant, and other members of the organization captured the 2005 WNBA championship and deserved a better fate. Their demise still makes me angry.

Charles Barkley. Where to start? My trip to Leeds, Ala., when he threatened to run for governor as a Republican? The sight of him strolling down a grand boulevard in Barcelona in a matching Bermuda shorts set, with hundreds of his newest fans following the procession? His humor, his passion, his irreverence? I most appreciate his generosity of spirit, and of cash contributions to various charitable causes. And, Charles? Thanks for the recent shoutout on TNT.

The Kings and Lakers, 2002, also known as the greatest series ever stolen. The horrible officiating in Game 6 resulted in the heist of an era. But remember that the Kings had a seventh game at Arco Arena to avenge the loss and direct their fury at Kobe, Shaq, Rick Fox and Phil Jackson. That never happened, of course. But if Kings fans ever fully recover, they will applaud an absolutely epic series that had everything – superstars, engaging personalities, enduring drama, sparring coaches, spectacular performances, if a heartbreaking finish.

And Vlade Divac? I thoroughly enjoyed covering his journey from his rookie season, when he arrived in L.A. speaking not a word of English, to numerous international events, his seasons as the Kings’ affable, accommodating center, to his current role as general manager. We view basketball through a similar prism. Best of luck bringing back the Kings.

Tom Glavine. Covering the Atlanta Braves’ rise in the 1990s was a pleasure, and he was a big part of that. My lasting image is this: Glavine seated in the middle of the clubhouse in Cleveland, munching on a late-night meal, minutes after Greg Maddux was outdueled in Game 5 of the 1995 World Series. I mentioned that, as the longest tenured Brave, it seemed only fitting that he would get the ball and a chance to secure the title clincher. He smiled and nodded, and flashed a knowing grin. Two nights later he threw a one-hit, 1-0 gem. Couldn’t happen to a nicer person.

NBA commissioner emeritus David Stern. He couldn’t save the Clippers for San Diego, but took extreme measures to save the Kings for Sacramento, and for that I am eternally grateful. There were countless times during the 15-year arena saga that he easily could have succumbed to the entreaties of other cities and billionaires eager to poach the team. Yet he remained a Sacramento stalwart, kept resisting, kept pushing, kept pursuing alternatives.

For me, Golden 1 Center was always about much more than basketball. Every time I drive past that arena and see how the downtown corridor is evolving, how swiftly the renaissance is occurring, I smile and thank Stern for his stubborn resolve, dogged commitment and forceful, progressive leadership.

The Dream Team. This is the ode to joy, easily the career highlight, condensed into one magical three-month period. A dozen or so of us journalists spent the summer of 1992 with Bird, Magic, Charles, Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Karl Malone, to name a few, trekking to La Jolla, Portland, Monte Carlo and the Barcelona Olympics. These were the Beatles in shorts and sneakers. Charles threatening to ignore dining protocol at a team dinner with Prince Rainier and Prince Albert (he actually behaved); Stockton unrecognized as he toured Barcelona with his family; Bird griping about $8 beers; Charles getting booed for elbowing Angolan forward Herlander Coimbra, but apologizing and receiving the loudest cheers at the end.

Then there was Magic. Only months after revealing he had the AIDS virus and was retiring from the NBA, he arrived in France amid considerable controversy. A number of officials and players competing in the upcoming Games expressed fears of contracting the disease through the routine physical contact. No one knew what to expect when the Dream Team arrived for its first overseas appearance – an exhibition against the French national team in Nice. Alas, Magic was greeted with nothing but love. He received rousing ovations every time he entered the game, touched a ball, made a pass, converted a shot. The fans stood as he walked off the court for a breather, refusing to sit until he took a bow or turned and waved. It was, frankly, an unforgettable night, and there were few dry eyes among the press corps, by the way.

Finally, a special thanks to my friends and colleagues, and especially, my family. My brother Chris, you are my best friend and teammate for life. So glad you live only miles away. My late father, Rupert, nurtured my love of sports, and in his final days before succumbing to cancer at age 42, our debates about Mickey Mantle’s health temporarily took our minds off his imminent, inevitable passing. My late mother, Marie, accepted my utter disdain for dresses, bows and patent leather shoes – and how she loved to dress up! and indulged my love of all things sports.

The real test occurred years later after I finished my second year of law school. On an impulse, I called home and said I missed writing and wanted to return to sports journalism. My mother never flinched. “Do what makes you happy, A,” she said. “Follow your heart, but get that law degree.”

I heeded her advice and wouldn’t have done anything differently. Now it’s time to test the free agent market, in my adopted Sacramento hometown. I’m not leaving. Peace and love to all.

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