Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Verona – Part I

JLeon-Love-feature_Casino

Thursday, Feb. 27: Has it really been five days since I returned home from Cleveland? It sure doesn’t seem that way, but when every waking second of every day is filled with boxing-related tasks, hours and days have a way of melting away. That’s what happens when you’re lucky enough to make a living doing what you love.

The first two days were spent finishing and filing last week’s Travelin’ Man stories as well as recording, editing and transferring last week’s fights to DVD. The next two days were dominated by CompuBox-related research for Throwdown Fantasy, the company’s stats-driven game, as well as taking part in my weekly bowling league (our team won), doing the usual mid-week shopping and preparing for the next trip – Verona, New York for a ShoBox tripleheader topped by J’Leon Love-Vladine Biosse.

Another byproduct of the hectic pace was that I got an excellent night’s sleep. Instead of the usual 2:30 a.m. bedtime I turned in three hours earlier, which made getting up at 6:30 a.m. far easier. The day’s itinerary called for me to fly from Pittsburgh to LaGuardia to Syracuse, then meet up with a Showtime crew member who was scheduled to land about an hour before me. He then would drive to the regional transportation center in Syracuse to pick up my punch-counting colleague Aris Pina, whose bus was slated to arrive at roughly the same time my plane was scheduled to land. Sure, it sounded complex but if all went well it would be an economical way to get everyone where they needed to go: The Turning Stone Casino.

My two-and-a-half hour drive to Pittsburgh went well but sometime between parking my car and reaching my gate the weather changed dramatically. On the way up I encountered an occasional flurry while the temperature was a below-average 21 degrees. But when I glanced outside the giant window at the gate I saw blowing snow so thick that it created a virtual white-out, which would explain why the flight’s departure time was pushed back 30 minutes. I wasn’t worried, for if all went as planned my connection window would still be a little more than an hour, plenty of time to reach even the most distant gate. And given LaGuardia’s reputation for having plenty of delays – a trait LGA shares with PHL, JFK, EWR (Newark, N.J.) and other Northeastern U.S. airports – I had another scenario potentially working in my favor.

Just before unpacking my laptop to get some work done, my cell phone started beeping. It was a text from Showtime production coordinator Nikki Ferry.

“Hi Lee,” she wrote. “I rented a car for you and Aris. I’ll let (your ride) know.”

That certainly simplified things, and for that I was appreciative. I called Aris and CompuBox president Bob Canobbio to let them know about the new travel plans, then went about the business of passing the time before boarding the flight.

Over the next 90 minutes the weather changed at least a half-dozen times. The white-outs dueled with far calmer, if still chilly, conditions and the sun even peeked out a time or two. It was as if Mother Nature were playing a game of Meteorological Roulette that challenged the pilots to time their takeoffs within the tiny windows of decent weather or else risk doing so amidst more-than-challenging conditions.

Although the plane that was to take us to New York City arrived at the gate earlier than anticipated and despite getting into our seats in a timely fashion, our departure still occurred 15 minutes later than even the pushed-back time because (1) we failed to snag the latest good-weather window and (2) the aircraft had to be de-iced. Just before taking off the pilot told us we would be helped by a 100 mph tailwind but all it did was magnify the ensuing turbulence that lasted for the vast majority of the flight.

Even worse, the frigid temperatures caused all the windows in the cabin to freeze over. Here’s why that’s bad for me: When I was a kid sitting in the back seat of my mother’s car, I discovered that looking out the window helped me deal with any potential motion sickness. Knowing where I was in relation to my environment helped my brain settle my stomach. But here that option was removed. I saw nothing but white, which only enhanced the effects of the unpredictable bobbing and weaving we all felt.

I got through the take-off phase OK and once we leveled off the choppy air had quieted somewhat. But once we started our descent the rocking and rolling returned and within a few minutes I began eyeing the air sickness bag. Just as I began reading the instructions I glanced to my left and saw a vague outline of the land below us. Realizing that our touch-down was nearing, I put the bag back into its assigned place, gripped the armrest and rode out the rest of the flight.

With a little more than an hour between flights, I had planned to grab some lunch at LaGuardia’s food court but after looking at the prices I decided to buy a couple of Snickers bars to quiet my rumbling stomach. I ate the first one while reading John Stockton’s biography “Assisted,” one of the six books I received as Christmas gifts. I kept the other one in the pocket of my heavy blue-jean jacket in case I needed it later.

Once I settled into my eighth row seat on the LaGuardia-to-Syracuse flight, the pilot explained at length about the terrible turbulence that he expected to encounter. He had good reason to feel that way, for the temperature in Syracuse was 14 degrees and the winds were 25 mph with gusts of 40. But this time I had a clear view of the outside and as it turned out the bumps weren’t nearly as bad as those I felt on flight one. My seatmate, a marketing executive for a printing company in Syracuse, also helped because he was such a good conversationalist. We talked about mutually experienced sporting events that took place during our childhoods such as Super Bowl VII between the perfect Dolphins and his Washington Redskins. While the descent was a bit shaky, it wasn’t as severe as what had taken place a few hours earlier.

Just before de-planing the flight attendant announced we all had been flying with an Olympic medalist. Remsen, New York’s Erin Hamlin, who was seated two rows behind me, was the first American ever to win a singles medal in luge and her bronze earned her not only a hero’s welcome but also a $10,000 bonus from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The woman seated directly in front of me raced back to have her boarding passing autographed by the blushing 27-year-old and as I walked into the gate area I got a good look at the reception that awaited her. A dozen passengers with signs and flags clustered near the entrance and once Hamlin emerged the applause and cheers caused others at accompanying gates to turn their heads in curiosity.

The welcoming party at the terminal was even more robust; three dozen well-wishers and batteries of still photographers and TV cameras. Several people wore American-flag suits and when Hamlin came out – this time wearing her bronze medal – they broke into loud “USA” chants while awaiting their turn to hug her. Even more celebratory layers awaited Hamlin, first at the airport entrance, then a police escort that would take her through several Oneida County towns before finally arriving at her high school in Remsen. Her medal might not have been gold, but she received every bit of the champion’s treatment.

These are the moments for which athletes of every stripe strive. Visions of triumph fuel the long, lonely training sessions and justify the months and years away from loved ones. When those visions become reality, the emotions that were suppressed during those years come pouring out like the waters held by Hoover Dam. That’s why Floyd Mayweather Jr. broke down in tears moments after winning his first belt from Genaro Hernandez and why Acelino Freitas shed tears after seemingly every victory.

Few of us can relate to the extreme commitment elite athletes must endure and when those efforts yield the ultimate success those emotions must be released. Some are more demonstrable than others – Sonny Liston merely raised his right arm after destroying Floyd Patterson — but the inward feelings that come with life-changing achievement are palpable and nearly universal. When one literally has to fight for his success, that success is even more meaningful.

As for me, I had to fight through my own unfamiliarity in terms of finding the bus station to pick up Aris as well as the now-brutal weather conditions. I didn’t pack my Magellan GPS because when I left the house I thought I was going to be driven instead of having to drive, so I was on my own in terms of navigation.

My seatmate on the Laguardia-to-Syracuse leg had given me general directions while the Avis representative in Syracuse provided more detailed ones. The blowing snow and fierce winds made driving on Interstate 81 South a difficult, hazardous task. My rental car, a red Nissan Altima, had trouble maintaining a straight line but I was able to see just far enough ahead to pick out the exit sign for Hiawatha Boulevard. I soon found the bus and train station as well as a handy parking spot. I called Aris to see how far away his bus was and he told me he had just passed Exit 34. Fittingly, that’s the exit designated for the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

As I waited for Aris to arrive, I took care of my hunger by eating the other Snicker’s bar and eased my need for entertainment and comfort by listening to the radio with the heater turned on. Aris’ bus arrived 40 minutes later and by then the weather conditions were chillier (11 degrees) but considerably quieter. We arrived at the hotel with little trouble and as I checked in I ran into ring announcer Thomas Treiber, who was wearing a bright blue track suit and expressing his usual good cheer.

After checking into my third-floor hotel room and unpacking some of my belongings, I sought out my first significant meal of the day. I walked toward the food court and visited Crystals, one of my old haunts at the Turning Stone. Famished, I order the double burger and fries to go and consumed my bounty in the hotel room while channel surfing between college basketball games and news programs. From time to time I pulled back the curtain to see what was going on outside and I saw the same thing every time – wind-blown snow. A brief check of the Weather Channel reported that the temperature had fallen to near zero. Thank goodness I wasn’t scheduled to leave the Turning Stone for at least another 36 hours.

Saturday, Feb. 28: The storm had done its damage. As I opened the window of my third-floor hotel I saw the impact of the lake effect snow and the only traffic I saw was a snowplow with a giant blade doing laps around the parking lot. According to Syracuse.com, more than 30 accidents had occurred throughout Onondaga County, including one near the exit I used to get to the bus station. The good news was that the worst was over, for while more snow was predicted for the area it was thought that most of it would veer north of Verona.

I spent most of the morning catching up on my writing, then, because I had a 1 p.m. call time at the arena, I went down to the business center to print out my boarding pass and grabbed an early lunch at another familiar outlet within the Turning Stone, the Stone Street Deli. I ordered a turkey Reuben sandwich, a small bag of Ruffles and a Diet Pepsi, which more than filled my stomach.

The set-up went pretty well and Aris arrived shortly before our dinner break, which took place at Season’s Buffet. As usual, Aris filled his plate far beyond his capacity to clean it while I took the reverse tack by eating moderate portions and cleaning both plates.

As we returned to our ringside seats situated next to one of the neutral corners, we readied ourselves for a potentially long night of counting. We thought we knew who was going to win and how they were going to do it but in the end it turned out we knew less than we thought we did.

*

Photo / Tom Casino-SHOWTIME

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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