A story circulated in 1960 became a one-liner between my Sweet Al and me. The score is 21- 21 with three seconds left in the game. The home team has the ball. The roaring crowd is on their feet. They yell, “Throw the ball to Leroy.”
Leroy, beat up, knocked down and on his last leg, yelled back, “Leroy don’t want the ball.”
Over the years, in our glory days, Al and I were beat up, knocked down and on our last legs. The ball was thrown to us and Al would say, “Leroy don’t want the ball anymore.” And I’d say, “But, Leroy has to carry the ball if he wants to or not.” We’d laugh.
Now in our later days, there are only three seconds left in the game. We’re limping on one good leg, can’t hear, can’t see and can’t remember. Whether we want the ball or not, we’re still in the game.
Al and I talked about some of the hard hits that came our way. I asked Al, “Do you remember when I won Salesman of the Year?” There was a lot of fanfare; I was at the top of my game. I carried the ball and far surpassed all the other salesmen. I worked for a company that sold investment art.
The company had a big conference in New Orleans where I received a 3-foot trophy for being top salesman. I had sold $500,000 of art each year for three years. The bosses, known as “The Brothers,” asked me to give a pep talk to 400 salesmen from 40 galleries throughout the country. They wanted me to tell the other salesmen how I sold so much investment art.
I called my speech, “It was Mario’s race.” I talked about Danny Sullivan, a rookie driver, and how he fought for the win no matter whose race it belonged to.
Sullivan was not a favorite to win. It was supposed to be Mario’s race. It was reported, “On lap 120 of the 1985 Indianapolis 500, Danny Sullivan forced his car inside of Mario Andretti as they entered Turn 1 in a bid to take the lead.
“Coming out of the corner, Sullivan lost control and the car went into a vicious spin, disappearing into a cloud of smoke. Yet the former Pebble Beach resident was fortunate that afternoon. The car did not slam into the wall and Sullivan managed to get it pointed in the right direction. He would eventually make the pass and take the checkered flag — the famous ‘spin and win.’”
When asked, Sullivan said, “I’m proud of winning the championship, the 500, all the people in racing — Chip Ganassi, the Andrettis, Penske. You look back and, in the scheme of things, I got to do what I wanted to do. Or what I stumbled into doing.”
While I was speaking that Saturday morning in 1986 in New Orleans, the sheriff’s office in Albuquerque was hauling out the Salvador Dali prints from the gallery. A blinking red light greeted me when I returned to the hotel room.
The sales clerk at the gallery in Albuquerque left a message. “Call me. I don’t know what to do. The sheriff came in and took all the Dalis and the walls are bare. We have nothing to sell. Should we open the gallery tomorrow? What are they looking for?”
I called back, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” I hung up the phone and called The Brothers. They played dumb and asked, “What do you think they are looking for?”
“I don’t know, but the gallery is empty.”
When I returned to Albuquerque, on the front page of the newspaper stated, “Shelby Galleries under investigation for selling fraudulent art.” The phone rang off the hook from buyers who had invested thousands of dollars. They had trusted us.
My successful, thriving business came to a screeching halt in a matter of seconds. It was all over.
But real life began. As an independent salesperson, because I had sold so much art, I became the target and was advised to hire an attorney.
My attorney said, “The grand jury will indict a ham sandwich. You have no friends but me. The Brothers want to hang this on you. The sheriff wants you as an inside informant. Your clients are all mad at you. They are going to use you to save their necks.”
The Brothers insisted I misrepresented the investment art. They didn’t know anything about the art being fake even though they furnished it.
With immunity as a star witness, I appeared before the grand jury. For the next year, the process of saving my own neck began. The Brothers, after two weeks of trial, were found guilty and were cited as felons. I did not go to jail, I did not pass go, but I played the game, carried the ball over the goal line and won.
Final brushstroke: When Leroy says he doesn’t want the ball, he knows how it feels to be hit. Mario, upstaged by a rookie, wasn’t ready to give up his place to a younger driver. Not too many years later, Mario stepped out of his car and made room for his replacement. For Al and I, there are young hopefuls waiting to step in. We still have a race to finish. If the ball is thrown, we’ll try our best to catch it.
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