Work in Sports
Lewis not alone in attracting hangers-on, large parties
Posted: Friday March 03, 2000 01:19 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
ATLANTA -- There were a lot of people with Ray Lewis in the black stretch limousine on that deadly early morning after Super Bowl XXXIV. As many as eight or nine people. Maybe more.
Well after midnight, as Monday dawned, the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl linebacker stood near the front of the Cobalt Lounge, near the big glass windows that loom over the busy street outside. He was surrounded by well-heeled patrons, imported flowers, leather couches -- and a group of friends and acquaintances.
Lewis later would tell police that several women, including one he called "J," were at his side. There was one man Lewis called "my homeboy" and another he apparently had known since his college days at the University of Miami. But Lewis, sporting a full-length white fur coat, was clearly the leader.
As long as there have been athletes -- dating, no doubt, to the Roman gladiator -- there have been entourages. Celebrity and fame attract people who want to be associated with athletes, and the athletes are often eager to be served. For some of today's ballplayers, having their own crowd provides a barrier against the pressures of fame, even a sense of security.Most of the time, the groups themselves are benign, indeed, even necessary. The members of Muhammad Ali's entourage gained their own measure of fame (see inline box). Sometimes, however, they create, rather than repel, trouble.
The events that would surround Lewis that morning provide a compelling example of a problem that pro athletes and their employers have wrestled with for years: The increasing influence some hangers-on have on athletes, and the inability -- or, perhaps, the unwillingness -- many athletes have to shake themselves free of a group that often includes longtime friends and family.
Followers "flock to these kinds of people [athletes and entertainers] like vultures, like leeches," said sports psychologist Dr. Don Beck, co-founder of The National Values Center, a Dallas-based consulting firm. "And that produces an energy, a force field, that is destructive. It gets out of hand quickly."
At around 4 a.m., Jan. 31, 2000, in a few moments that would shatter several lives, the partying stopped. On the street some 200 yards down from the Cobalt, two men had been fatally stabbed.
Amid the scramble, Lewis and his entourage tumbled into the passenger compartment of his rented 40-foot Lincoln Navigator limo. As the big black vehicle sped off, shots were fired, at least one of which hit the Navigator.
Lewis and two other men who ended up in the limo, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, now stand charged with the murders of two Atlanta-area men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Still to be sorted out in the courts is what role -- if any --Sweeting, Oakley, Lewis and others played in the slayings.
Lewis is now free on $1 million bond. Oakley and Sweeting are in an Atlanta jail.
The two men charged with Lewis -- both of whom Atlanta police said are "longtime associates" of Lewis - have extensive criminal backgrounds .
"They have been hangers-on around Ray Lewis ... for years," Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, said of Oakley and Sweeting. "He allowed people to be around him, but did not condone in any way this kind of response."
Lewis, according to published reports, left his home in suburban Baltimore in the rented limo on the Wednesday before the Super Bowl. He reportedly picked up a couple of people on the drive and, prosecutors said, flew others into Atlanta to join the party.
By the time Sunday night rolled into Monday morning, Lewis had a full-blown entourage.
"It's all a matter of what we call in the psychological world 'collective behavior,'" said Dr. Dan Tripps, a sports psychologist at Seattle Pacific University. "You can be anonymous, but you can be emotionally magnanimous. You can display certain behavior you could never do on your own."
That's not unusual. Typically, though, these entourages contain friends, sometimes childhood friends to whom the star feels he owes a certain allegiance. There also can be agents, family members, doctors, bodyguards and personal assistants.
"Some are hangers-on and some are friends," Tampa Bay tackle Warren Sapp, a teammate of Lewis' at the University of Miami, said during Lewis' bond hearing in February. Sapp, who also was in Atlanta with friends that week, was talking about his own experiences with entourages. "It comes with the territory. I'm sorry to tell you that, man. Sometimes friends are friends that just hang on. I mean, they just come along with it."
Many individuals who attach themselves to athletes provide a useful function. Athletes use them as drivers, as companions, as gofers. They are often there, according to experts, to feed off the player, to feel as if they are part of something bigger. They often get their food free, their drinks free. If they have known the player for some time, they are taken care of in many other ways. They get a free place to stay. They get clothes. Sideline passes to games. Personal favors, financial favors. Even jobs.
What they give back can be of both benefit and harm to the player.
"That player is their guy. They are there to elevate him at any turn of the day," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Society.
"Some of the [players] think they're alive because of the protection they got from these people they grew up with," Lapchick added. "[But] if they come from an environment where violence was a part, that is going to continue."
That may have been the case with at least some of the people around Lewis. Sweeting has multiple arrests for possession of a firearm by a felon. Oakley was considered armed and dangerous by police before he turned himself in following the Atlanta killings. Sweeting was known by both Lewis and Sapp at the University of Miami.
"He was always there," Sapp said of Sweeting. "I mean, everywhere."
Asked at the bond hearing how Lewis was off the field, Sapp said: "Quiet ... He just pretty much let it go, let everything just happen in front of him."
During Super Bowl week, prosecutors said Lewis allowed Sweeting and others to stay in Lewis' hotel room. Lewis also let Sweeting and Oakley ride around in the limo, attend autograph sessions with him, and he took them to clubs and bought them drinks, according to prosecutors.
"It's hard for these athletes to get the right people around them," said Dr. Dan Gould, a sports psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "You have all these people running around making you feel that you're more important than you really are."
The entourages alone often are not dangerous, experts say. But when you put an entourage of some size, surrounding a wealthy, acclaimed athlete in a late-night setting where drinks are flowing, the potential for trouble grows.
Especially if a violent past is part of the equation.
"It's alright to remember your friends," Miami Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning recently told the Washington Post, "but at the same time you have to develop an understanding that you can't do some of the things you used to do in the past."
Breaking from that violent past is a problem many athletes face.
"It's hard advice to give," admitted Lapchick. "I would say to them 'I understand your loyalty, I understand the sense of gratitude you have for these people. But if you want to reward them, if you know you have enough resources that giving them money to establish a business or perhaps go to school ... that's certainly a justifiable idea.'"
As he left the nightclub that morning, Lewis and his entourage mixed with others spilling out of the Cobalt and those already on the street. One witness at the scene reported that a scuffle had started inside the Cobalt when someone stepped on the toe of a member of Lewis' entourage. Lewis' mother said she heard the fight started over an argument about football.
Some, including his lawyer, claim Lewis was acting only as a "peacemaker." Others say Lewis threw at least one punch during the ensuing melee.
Regardless of what started it, the argument quickly spun out of control, and police say that the entourage that surrounded Ray Lewis played a part in it.
Perhaps a deadly one.