Shelley Smith excerpt: Elusive Davis

October, 8, 2011
10/08/11
11:20
AM PT
The following is excerpted from Shelley Smith's upcoming book: Al: An Unauthorized Biography of Al Davis.

A few days after I let the Raiders and Al Davis know I had a publishing contract to write a book on him, I got a phone call from a 510 area code -- Oakland area -- and someone using a voice scrambler started shouting at me.

It took a few minutes to figure out who was calling about what and why, but once they ratcheted down the scrambler, I heard, “Mr. Davis would appreciate it very much if you didn’t write this book. He can’t have his reputation damaged.”

I explained that I wasn’t out to damage anyone’s reputation, just to write the truth.

“Well, he doesn’t want it. It’s all he can talk about, all he can think about.”

I started in again, on how seriously I was taking this project, how I promised to be fair and balanced . . . and then heard a dial tone. I called back the number and got the “number not in service” response. It was obviously a dummy phone number, or fake or both.

Al Davis was arguably one of the most intriguing and powerful sports figures of the last four decades. And yet, he was one of the most mysterious sports figures as well, shunning the public spotlight, the media, consumed only with the love of power and winning.

Davis was largely responsible for making the NFL what it is today, the most powerful league in existence; a multi-billion dollar corporation. With the Raiders, he won 13 divisional championships from 1967 to 1985, one AFL championship and three Super Bowls. He was a rising and powerful voice in labor disputes and he challenged authority as if it owed him an audience.

He also became one of the most despised, if not hated, owners in the league. Stories of his battles with the NFL and commissioner Pete Rozelle are legendary, as is his how he gained majority ownership of the Raiders by essentially selling out his partners. Over the years he hired and fired dozens of coaches at will, intimidated and threatened staff members, terrorized everyday workers at the practice facility, and ruled his empire like the dictators he has admired through history, fascinated with those who had total control of those he loomed over.

It is a story that needs to be told. And so I took on the project of my life.

A few months after the voice-scrambler phone call, I called the Raiders PR office to say I was coming to training camp in Napa, to try and speak with Al.

Mike Taylor, the head of PR, called me back and said, “It would not be good for you to come here.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He doesn’t want you writing this book,” he said, his voice rising. “You don’t have his permission or his blessing.”

I calmly replied that, no matter what he said, I was coming to Napa and would be staying at the same Marriott as the team. And I told him that I was writing the book whether the Raiders or Al cooperated or not, while making sure he knew, I was still welcoming them to tell me their stories, their experiences, their thoughts on one of the most intriguing owners in the NFL.

“What gives you the right to write a book about someone who doesn’t want a book written on his life?” Taylor asked me angrily.

“It’s called the first amendment,” I said.

I had sent numerous faxes and letters and even photos of my parents at the Masters -- I had used part of my book advance to fulfill their lifelong dream. After hearing nothing back and after that last conversation with Taylor, I went to Napa and set about trying to find Mr. Davis and, always the optimist, I was hoping for some time.

After practice one night, I waited for him to make what I had been told was a nightly ritual at 9 p.m. sharp, to walk down the hallway at the hotel to the restaurant for dinner. I had known him, sort of, for years and we had always been friendly because I had become friends with his son, Mark.

I was hopeful that once he saw me, he’d remember that and, perhaps, give me a few minutes of his time. I watched as he maneuvered his walker down the hallway, fans coming out of the sports bar to gawk. He was slow, he was deliberate, and people revered him.

As he got close to where I was standing I said, “Hello Mr. Davis.”

He looked up and paused.

And then he started yelling for his bodyguards.

“Move her out of here,” he yelled frantically. His bodyguards looked stunned, embarrassed by the outburst.

“Get her away from here. Get her out of here.”

I moved aside and he continued screaming on his way to the restaurant. I took my laptop to my room, but undaunted by his outburst, I went in to the restaurant and had dinner a few feet away while he glared from his private dining room. I was there the next night, too, just in case he had a change of heart.

He didn’t.

This book is the most difficult project I’ve ever undertaken. Many people were afraid of him, afraid to tell their stories. Some weren’t. Some have been incredibly bold, and his story will be told. I’m just very sad I won’t learn things from him first hand. It’s the way he wanted it, obviously.

Shelley Smith

SportsCenter correspondent
Shelley Smith joined ESPN in January 1997 after working part-time as a reporter for the network since 1993. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS championship game, the Stanley Cup playoffs, golf and tennis championships and more.

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