Flack he got. Only it wasn't Roberta. Roberta Flack didn't sing for Mike Tyson, because the all-star parade planned for Tyson was canceled. On account of he's a convicted rapist, recently paroled. And the idea of celebrating his release—well, it drew some flack. So instead of being paraded, the former heavyweight champion of the world was discreetly "saluted" last week in the hazy heat of Harlem, where preacher after preacher honoring the ex-champ proclaimed him "the prodigal son."
You know: the Biblical boy who demands his share of his father's estate, leaves home, squanders the money and returns to the old man, repentant. "Father," says the son in Luke 15, "I have sinned against God and against you; I am no longer fit to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants." But the father fetes the lad instead. "Fetch a robe, the best we have, and put it on him," he tells the help. "Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast. For this son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found."
The above translation is from The Oxford Study Bible, which summarizes the story as, "Joy over repentant sinners." If you forget the fact that, in coming to Harlem, Tyson had not quite returned home (he's from Brooklyn), or that he remains prodigiously prodigal (buying cars like he's Adnan Kashoggi), or that he has yet to admit to or apologize for raping 18-year-old Desiree Washington in an Indianapolis hotel room, you might have figured him for a neo-New Testament hero, an honest-to-goodness repentant sinner. Until, that is, he appeared at the "press" conference.
Held in a tent in Harlem, the Q-and-A session was dominated by "sycophants and psycho fans," as the New York Daily News put it. So Tyson fielded such softballs as "Mike, I just want to tell you that African-American women love you" and "Mike, do you still give away free turkeys on Thanksgiving?"
When an actual journalist was somehow heard and began to ask Tyson if he was "sorry," promoter Don King seized the dais. "Sorry?!" shrieked King. "Sorry for what?! What are you talking about?! C'mon, man!"
Moments later Tyson was asked if he would denounce violence against women, and again one of his handlers handled the inquiry. "He doesn't have to!" said John Home, a Tyson confidant. "I won't sit here and let you disrespect him like that!"
There would be no act of contrition. Tyson left to spread charity checks totaling roughly $1 million around Harlem before arriving by limousine in front of the historic Apollo Theater, the centerpiece of what one pro-Tyson speaker called "the most famous black community in the world."
Harlem salutes Mike Tyson & Don King read the banner on the makeshift stage set up in the street, where over 500 spectators—"so desperate for heroes," as one Harlemite put it—waited for two hours in the 95° heat for a few words from Tyson. But first, there were filibustery speeches: some praying for Tyson's redemption, many stating that he was railroaded in the rape trial and a few frighteningly implying that, all things considered, rape is a relatively unserious transgression. "Remember the lady who drove her two children into the river in South Carolina?" asked the Reverend William Crockett. "Mike Tyson didn't do that. Remember Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the building in Oklahoma City? Mike Tyson didn't do that. Remember Jeffrey Dahmer, who ate the people and put them in the refrigerator? Mike Tyson didn't do that."
In short, Mike Tyson is no manslaughterer. Though Don King is. Does it matter? Both men did their time. But do an athlete's actions outside the arena diminish his greatness in it? "Like Picasso," says Camille Paglia, a self-described dissident feminist and author who is decidedly in Tyson's corner. "Because he was mean to his girlfriend, he was not a great artist?" Of course he was.
So, say Mike Tyson remains a great artist inside the ring. Should you root for him?