Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009 | 12:51 a.m.
Andre Agassi, what a force, eh? If he’s not careful, this whole unvarnished honesty thing might catch on.
On Monday night, Agassi appeared onstage with journalist Rick Reilly, a recurrently awarded sports writer who is as renowned in his universe as Agassi is in his. The two chatted for a little more than an hour at Encore Theater, which not long ago was the setting for a weekend of sold-out performances by Beyonce. It’s fitting. Both Agassi and Beyonce are nimble, powerful and were pushed to extremes by hard-charging parents to become children of destiny.
They can both pitch a product, too.
As Reilly said in describing the stirring autobiography “Open: An Autobiography” in his introduction of Agassi: “This book is so flammable, you need to handle it with oven mitts.” At the risk of dropping the lasagna (metaphorically speaking), consider what Agassi has confessed to: abusing methamphetamine and giving up in some of his biggest matches, for starters.
The early focus of the book, released Monday by (Knopf, $28.95), has been on Agassi’s nearly yearlong use of crystal meth. The cover of "Open" reflects what's inside. The image is of a deer-in-the-headlights Agassi from 1997, the year he pinpoints as when he abused the drug. But Agassi started Monday’s discussion of the topic with a deft piece of humor, telling Reilly the controversy was unfounded for a typo in the book. “What really happened was I tried ‘math’ in 1997.”
Ha! Good one. An ace. And we thought Agassi was a return specialist.
But similarly stunning is that Agassi, who ended his playing days as a dogged competitor you needed to crush like a Terminator to subdue, was known to “tank” matches early in his career. Tanking is a pretty big offense in sports (see Jackson, Shoeless Joe and Crew, Paul). What is “tanking?” It is intentionally not trying so you will not win. It’s cheating to lose.
In a tale that is now known across the globe, Agassi at least partially tanked his first Grand Slam final, in the 1990 French Open, because the Hair Club for Men toupee he’d told his brother Phillip to purchase for him fell apart after he opted to scrub his falsified dome with a crummy conditioner. Bobby pins in place (Phillip frantically ran the streets of Paris to find hairpins and even asked Chris Evert if she could spare a few because she was the only English-speaking woman he could locate), Agassi cautiously slogged around the court, salvaging his weave and saving himself international embarrassment.
Agassi lost the match in four sets to Andres Gomez, but his prayers for an incident-free performance were answered, and he and his celebrated mane went on to make a bunch of Canon and Nike commercials.
It’s a great story. Laughable, even. But consider this comparison: Pete Rose, who hit safely more times than any other baseball player in history, is banned from the National Baseball Hall of Fame because then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti uncovered evidence Rose bet on baseball games while Rose was managing the Cincinnati Reds. Why is this a violation of the rules of Major League Baseball? Because it is possible -- possible -- Rose might have adjusted the way he managed to affect the outcome of Reds’ games. Maybe the games could have been fixed, to some degree. The mere possibility of altering the outcome is enough to keep Rose out of the Hall of Fame, and at the moment, he’s got scant chance of ever being inducted.
But here’s Agassi, out there admitting that he lost matches on purpose, and it’s considered remarkable prose. It is remarkable prose, actually. Agassi clearly has nothing to hide, and it isn’t as if any of tennis’ governing bodies is about to strip him of his eight Grand Slam titles even after he lied after testing positive for meth. Too late for that.
At the center of Agassi’s explosive crystal meth disclosure is a figure known only as “Slim.” I came out of Monday’s session at Encore wondering what in the world happened to this man. He did exist, that much is clear. From the stage, Agassi said he’d long lost track of Slim, allowing, “He might be dead, for all I know.” A guy who seems to have all the resources he’d need to track down anybody on the planet (even Ivan Lendl) has no idea where his long-lost associate is today. Welcome to the wonderful consequences of meth addiction.
Afterward, I asked Phillip Agassi who Slim was, and he said only that he was an assistant who was friends with Andre. I also asked J.R. Moehringer, the book’s author who was in the audience (and who borrowed my Wynn Las Vegas pen to sign a couple of books, as it happens) how it was that the whereabouts of this Slim character remains unresolved. Moehringer said he long tried to find this guy, failing to locate him even after a couple of strong leads, before settling on the unsettled.
Slim was an old friend who Andre hired and is gone was the author’s explanation.
Strange, and probably tragic. One of the more astute questions Reilly asked Agassi about Agassi’s crystal meth use was if Agassi had entered into rehab to recover from its use. He didn’t. Wow.
Moehringer also said Agassi simply “walked away” from the drug, experiencing nary a withdrawal symptom while charging full force back into his game with his unflagging coach, Brad Gilbert. Agassi went cold turkey, in other words. But ask anyone who has been in the grips of meth in any of its forms, and they’ll tell you that just walking away from the drug after nearly a year of abusing it is just about impossible. This drug is garbage -- you might as well be shooting or snorting Drano -- and it is incredibly addictive. That’s why two of our past three presidents have said that meth, not crack or OxyContin or alcohol, is the country’s most dangerous drug problem.
Agassi spoke of the power of crystal meth when he related that he’d spent two days awake when he’d first used it. Doing what? Reilly asked. A lot of housecleaning, Agassi answered. The audience laughed, but that could easily happen. People stay up for days on meth binges, aimlessly pedaling bicycles for miles or manically scrubbing radial tires with S.O.S. pads before finally collapsing.
As for being able to swiftly cast aside the drug, Agassi told Reilly it is possible that the powder Slim was supplying him to snort was “cut” with something (Splenda?) to curb the drug’s more addictive properties. Moehringer, who stopped drinking simply by plugging the jug, said the same thing.
As I remarked to Moehringer, last week Nevada first lady and anti-meth combatant Dawn Gibbons said she’d welcome Agassi as an anti-meth spokesman. But what would his message be exactly? That after a year of use, it is possible to flush the drug and pick up a tennis racket? Not everyone is an Andre Agassi. Most meth addicts aren’t, that’s for sure.
Nor is Slim, the facilitator of those drugs and one of the book’s catalysts. He was not nearly as fortunate as his celebrated friend. If Slim is still alive, he might still be out there, huddled under a bridge or cowering behind a Dumpster. It’s a shame. He’d have a hell of a book, too, if he could find someone to write it.
As it is, we have Andre Agassi, one of our own, a Las Vegas success story so remarkably gifted and blessed and even lucky. He’s delivered the memoir of his life, and he’s not yet 40.
What an odyssey. Time to get back to the book …
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.