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Jacobs, Vegas and the day Mike Tyson played handball



It's April, 1975, and in Sin City, all you need's a strong heart and nerves of steel. High-rollers roll high, crooners croon, strippers strip and gamblers gamble, same as it ever was.


Down in the Tropicana, the ballers are getting ready to go balling. Some of the best handball players in the country, all moustaches, medallions and short shorts, are waking from their sleep at three in the morning, limbering up in the corridor, talking smack to each other, ready to take to the court.


Sounds bizarre? Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. It's a 24-hour town, as the song says. Turning day into night time, turning night into daytime...


The following is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Paul Fitzpatrick with Steve Lott in 2014 for Rollout magazine.


* * *


Among the ballers was Steve Lott, then a 25-year-old doubles specialist from New York. He was teaming up with a grizzled veteran named Marty Decatur for the first round of the largest-ever US Nationals, which had attracted a field of 909 players, meaning matches served off until the small hours of the morning.


Decatur had made his name partnering Jim Jacobs – to that point, recognised as the greatest player of all time – to several US titles. Jacobs (more of whom later) was handball royalty, a six-time singles champion who transcended the sport and enjoyed a Bradyesque level of dominance in his era.


“I was rooming with my girlfriend and Marty was rooming with his wife, Phyllis,” remembered Lott, four decades later.


“I got up at about 3.15am and stepped out into the hallway to put on my handball gloves and shoes and everything and here comes Marty walking out of his room. He's used to playing with Jim Jacobs, back in ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65 when they were national champions. Back then, when he was in a tournament with Jim, they [the organisers] would go up to Marty the day before and say 'Mr Decatur, Mr Jacobs what time would you like to play tomorrow?'


“And here we were at four in the morning. As he's coming down the hallway, Marty's looking at me from about 20 feet away, and he's shaking his head saying 'Schmucks! We have to be schmucks!' He was okay with it but he realised he wasn't playing with Jim Jacobs any more!”


Regardless, Lott and Decatur went on to become kings of Vegas, beating a crack Californian team of Mike Tracey and Matt Kelly in the semi-final before coming through a tiebreaker in the final against lefty-righty combination Jerry Konyne and Jim Barnett.


Jacobs, although he wasn't in the court, played a crucial role in that victory, too.


“We were playing the match and won the first game,” recalls Lott.


“Back then they had the black handballs and after the first game, the ball started getting a little soft. In the second game, we lost the feel of the ball and we lost the game. Jim was doing the commentating and was in charge of the filming and he was in a truck at the back, there was a camera looking through a hole in the front wall behind a glass plate.


“He came into the arena, court-side, we were changing our gloves. He casually walked up to me and said [slowly] 'Steve, go in the court and get me the ball'. I said 'what for?' and he repeated it. So I walked on to the court, bounced the ball a few times and walked out and handed him it and he walks off.


“The four players were back in the court a couple of minutes later and the referee says 'where's the ball?' and I said 'I don't know'. So they threw in a new ball and we played and won.


“Later, I said to Jim 'what'd you do with the ball?' and he said he went out to the parking lot and threw it as far away as he could!'”


It was a different era for handball, an era where the sport was championed by the likes of actor Ryan O'Neal, when Sports Illustrated regularly devoted column inches to it. When Lott and Decatur were runners-up two years earlier, they were presented with their medals by the elderly Harold Lloyd, a silent film star who ranked alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton back in the Roaring '20s and had a handball court constructed at his Hollywood mansion.


Times were different. Handball, and the US National Championships, was a big deal but Lott's dalliance with top-level ball wouldn't last long. The fight world was calling, and he wanted in.


* * *


Steve Lott and Mike Tyson in 1987.


Jimmy Jacobs, who died in 1988, may be better known to handball followers as one of the greatest champions the sport has ever produced, but to boxing aficionados, he is remembered as a manager and film collector, who was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993.


Steve Lott first met him when he was a 14-year-old One Wall player learning the ropes in the four-wall court. Within a few years, he found himself working for the biggest fight film company in the world – Fight Films, owned by Jacobs and Bill Cayton – and, eventually, sharing an apartment for three years with one of the most famous sportsmen in history, Mike Tyson.


By the late ’70s, Jacobs was gone from competitive handball, with Fred Lewis and Naty Alvarado by then vying for supremacy. Lott had slipped off the scene, too, finding his time eaten up by his job.


He started out as a video editor, cutting down hour-long films to short segments and shipping them all over the world. And then when Jacobs started managing fighters, he became an indispensable part of their team, working, essentially, as minder and fixer for various champs including Wilfred Benitez and Edwin Rosario; where the fighter went, Lott went.


“When you have a fighter who's a world champion, they have to travel to the fight site and train there for a few weeks and I kind of felt that neither Jim nor Bill wanted to do that, and baby-sit a fighter for that time period,” Lott remembered.


“I said 'I'll go with the fighter and hang out there' and they said 'wonderful'.


“The first successful fighter was a sensational world champion called Wilfred Benitez, he was the youngest champion in the history of boxing, he won the welterweight championship when he was 17 years old. I went with Benitez to his fights, I'd watch the training, deal with sparring partners, get the fighter his medicals, do some press and PR. It was fun, watching the fight, being there for the camp, all that stuff.


“At the same time period Jim and Bill were funding the training camp that Cus D'Amato had in upstate New York. They would pay the food, insurance training bills, the electricity, the expenses and Cus would call once a year or so and say he had a kid who could be really something and they'd say 'terrific Cus, we'll keep sending you money' and the kids never turned out to be anything.


“And then one time, he called, it was 1980, he said he'd got a kid... And that kid was Mike Tyson.”


Business had just picked up, history was in the making and the lives of D'Amato, Jacobs, Tyson and Cayton, among others, would never be the same again.



* * *


Long before he became 'Iron Mike', the self-styled baddest man on the planet, Tyson was just another hoodlum from Brownville, given a rare shot at making something of nothing, going – as another Brooklynite, Biggie Smalls, would put it years later – from negative to positive.


Tyson famously lost in the US amateur trials and, says Lott, was not expected “to be anything”.


“No-one knew that Mike would be the Mike Tyson,” he insists.


“But he won and he won and the fun part was, he lived with me in my apartment for almost three years. He slept on the couch. I'd get up in the morning and there on my couch would be Mike Tyson, four-round fighter.


“As the weeks and months went by, he was a four-round fighter, then a six-round fighter, then an eight-round and ten-round fighter and then one day, I came out of my bedroom and there on the couch was the heavyweight champion of the world. And not just the heavyweight champion, but an explosive, knock-out-punching heavyweight champion of the world.


“So it was fun to have him, fight after fight, coming back to New York, partying for two weeks or three weeks, no car, no jewellery, no clothes, the happiest kid in the world. It was a wonderful time.”


The Tyson parable – the tale of Cus and the kid, the reformed thug and the monster lurking within which re-emerged with the deaths of mentors Jacobs and D'Amato and the involvement of Don King – has been worn out in the telling. Lott, you sense, prefers to focus on those magical years when Tyson had it all.


It's surreal to hear him speak of Tyson, the normal teenager with the abnormal ability and attention.


To Lott, the champ was like a lovable, pesky younger brother, crashing on his couch, knocking on his door at night when he had female company. Lott's apartment was in the dead centre of Manhattan, two blocks from the United Nations building, and Tyson would arrive home in the early hours and meekly thump his landlord's bedroom door, cajoling him to warm up some Chinese food.


“Mike would say 'Come on Steve, cook that shit up!' I was 35 years old but had a 250-pound son, who happened to be heavyweight champion of the world...




“Unless you know someone, it's very difficult to describe,” he continues.


“He was very low key. Of course, he had five years of Cus D'Amato. I'm sure that when he got to Cus originally in 1980, he was a handful, a monster. Everyone has heard.


“But as the years went by, Cus knew that if given the right amount of time and counsel and understanding, Mike could learn and become different and become a good person, and that's exactly what I met in 1984.”


Lott's job was as assistant manager and camp co-ordinator, essentially making sure that everything ran smoothly for the hottest property in sport.


“When he started travelling on the road, once again I was given that job of overseeing everything. With Mike, I think I was probably a little too young, to be given that pressure. When you have a fighter who is Wilfred Benitez, with a big Hispanic audience and some TV, I could handle that, but with Mike, the entire world watches everything you do, every single day, for six weeks before the fight.


“Anything that can go right was great but anything that can do wrong hits the papers that day. So the pressure on us, and especially on Mike, was enormous... But it was a great time, and Mike did everything that was asked of him.


“He was the best friend you could ever have, if you had a problem, he was there for you 100 per cent.”


* * *


Fast forward 15 years from that Nationals doubles triumph to July, 1987, and Lott finds himself back in scorching Vegas. Much has changed in the intervening years – handball has taken a back seat to work, dealing with the world's press and a thousand other boxes to be ticked each day for the most famous sportsman on earth.


Tyson is back in town preparing for the Tony Tucker fight, a bout he would win on a unanimous decision to add the IBF belt to his WBA and WBO straps, and the hype is through the roof, the heat stifling.


A couple of weeks out, perhaps prompted by the memories of his own championship win in the city, Lott suggests getting away from the madding crowd and hitting the handball court for some publicity shots for the official United States Handball Association publication. A diversion, really, from the pain business in which Tyson excels.



Lott takes up the story.


“It was a bit of fun, a PR shot for Handball Magazine. There was a club there called the Sporting House. I said to Mike, 'I'd like to shoot some shots of you and Jim, just tossing the ball up in front of each other, just for Handball Magazine. He said 'Great, let's go'.


“So I brought them down, they put on the handball shirts and the gloves and threw the ball up a few times for two minutes, and, click-click-click, I took some photos.


“They were smiling and I said, 'Okay, let's go'. It was two weeks before the fight, I didn't want Mike playing handball, just posing for a photo. So when I took the shots I started to walk off the court and Mike looked at Jim and said 'hit it up'. Jim looked at me and turned to Mike and said 'the fight is in...' but Mike says [insistent] 'hit it up!'


“So Jim says 'Just one, Mike'. I walked to the front of the court and I knew this was my chance to get the one shot. So Jim hit a soft overhand serve and as Mike backed up and hit it, click, I took that shot! Mike hit the ball back, we asked him was his hand okay, he said 'yep', and we walked off the court. I knew it my one chance to get that shot, and I got it, it was sensational...”



Steve Lott and Marty Decatur after winning the US Nationals Pro Doubles in Las Vegas.


While Tyson wasn't a handball player, he was familiar with the sport and, as anyone who has seen the famous photo knows, had the form down.


“Mike saw me play a couple of times, he enjoyed watching it. During that same period, Freddie Lewis came to town and called me and asked me to go hit the ball at the Las Vegas Athletic Club. When Jimmy heard Freddie was in town, he said 'I gotta go' because he loved to watch Freddie play,” said Lott.


“And then when Mike heard Jimmy and I were going down, he wanted to come. Jim was there, Mike was there and the press were there because they heard Mike was going to play a handball match.


“I started playing Freddie and Jimmy told me later that Mike was standing next to him in the gallery watching the game and after about five minutes, Mike turned to him and said 'How come Steve is running so much?'”


Lott laughs loudly at the thought of it, at a heavyweight boxing champ scratching his head and wondering naively why his assistant manager is getting a tour of the court from one of the greatest handballers of all time. Heady, innocent days...


* * *


All those years later and when I spoke to Steve in 2014, the wheel had come full circle again. Tyson had been through hell, much of it his own doing, and come out the other side. Recently, he had started his own promotional company – Iron Mike Productions – and Lott was back on the staff. It was like old times.


“They formed a company called Iron Mike Productions, the fighters train in Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, and Mike's office, the IMP office, is in Henderson, about 10 miles outside of Vegas. Mike lives two minutes away,” said Lott.


“For me, it's great to work with Mike again. I do various things, mostly documentations, with the promoters, getting the fighters their licences, all the medicals, dealing with casino, press and PR and finding out who the journalists are in each city and state.”


Lott was also running the Boxing Hall of Fame, based at the Luxor Hotel, and continued to have a day to day involvement in the sport.


“I have about 10,000 photographs of Mike and I put out releases on him and I have 20,000 photographs of all the great fighters. It's working with the fighters and Mike and it's a lot of fun seeing him.


“Mike's brother-in-law, Azim, is the COO of IMP, and we talked, and then one day Mike and his wife Kiki called and said 'Steve, we're starting a company and we want you to work with us'.


“When you're his friend, he is the most terrific friend you could ever have. Ever.”


And the week before we spoke, Lott was back in the handball court, limbering up. Though not in touch with the sport closely, he said he watched videos online and was “amazed” by “the athleticism and firepower” of the game's top players. “Guys like Brady,” he says, “are at another level.”


“It brings back memories. I had not played in three years since I've been in Vegas and I just started playing this week. My last time playing was in New York in 2010. Even when I was playing, if I laid off for two weeks, I couldn't hit the ball, and after a few games by myself, I'd be fine. Now, I couldn't even bend down to pick it up!


“In boxing, they say the legs go first. Well, it's true... But I started playing again, and it's fun.”



This article was originally published in Rollout Magazine in 2014. Steve Lott, RIP, sadly passed away in November, 2021 aged 71.


 

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