If Davis is rich, he doesn't assume the lifestyle. His extravagances are limited to the ridiculous largess he bestows upon loyalists. John Madden's son Mike, now on the Raiders' staff, remembers looking for his dad after a game. He was 12, and Davis spotted him pacing around. "What do you want for Christmas?" Davis asked. Mike said any kid would appreciate a motorcycle. "O.K.," Davis said. Mike added that, all the same, he probably wouldn't be allowed to have one. Too dangerous. "What about a car, then?" offered Davis. Too young, said Mike. "How old do you have to be?" asked Davis. Too old. "Let's think big here," Davis persisted. "How about a store, then? Could you run a store, hire and fire people?"
"I'm 12 years old, looking around for my dad, and all of a sudden I'm running a store," Mike says today.
Davis, for all his apparent power and fame, does not exploit his celebrity in a town that would surely enjoy it. Three or four nights a week he drops in at Carmine's, a small Italian restaurant in West Los Angeles. He dines alone, a telephone at one side, a pile of reading material at the other. For nightlife he returns to his home near the Raiders' training facility and watches game tapes.
For Davis the only important wealth is the legacy of the Raiders. But the Raiders are often losers now, and he blames himself. He frets that he robbed his team of its home-field advantage by moving it into the vast Los Angeles Coliseum. He agonizes over each defeat, each injury. After a loss, he moves through the dressing room like a wraith, approaching each player as if they'd both lost a loved one.
"He doesn't have anything else, you know," says John Madden. "His life is entirely the Raiders." Hard times in Silver and Blackdom, then, when the franchise fails to excite fear and suspicion, does not dominate. Of course, nobody thinks that Davis, even at 60 and with signs of mortality all about him, lacks the conviction that, one more time, he can get it done.
The history is, Al Davis has always gotten it done, achieved his will with an arrogance that is at times appealing. Del Courtney, a former big-band leader, became Davis's right-hand man in the Raiders' early years. One night in 1971, before the team was to leave for a game in Kansas City, Courtney got up from a restaurant table and keeled over. Stricken with Guillain-Barré syndrome, he was completely paralyzed. For nearly three months he lingered in intensive care. Because he was unable to move even an eyelid, nobody knew if he could so much as hear. Doctors didn't think he would live. "Did Del make it through the night?" asked a doctor on rounds, unaware that Courtney could, in fact, hear. "Well, no way he'll make it through another."
Late each evening, after practice and meetings, Davis would appear at Courtney's bedside. Courtney says, "He would stand there and say, 'Del, I don't know if you can hear me, but things are going good at the office, made a couple of good trades.' Other times he'd say, 'You're probably lying there worried about your security. Well, nobody's been in your office, nobody's gonna take your place, and not a penny is being deducted from your salary. And if you're worrying about your horrendous hospital bill, we're picking up every cent.' "
On and on he went, each night. The Tribune in Oakland had prepared an obituary for Courtney. At one point doctors announced Courtney had one hour to live and phoned relatives, saying, "If you've got anything to say to Del...." And still Davis kept showing up. "He said, 'You're not gonna die, Del, you're gonna fight.' He kept saying that. I guess it got to me," recalls Courtney, who has retired from the Raiders and is once again leading a band. "He said, 'Del, you're a Raider. Raiders don't die.' "
Of course that was 1971 and Al Davis was just 42 and greatness was in the Raiders' future. It was possible to believe anything.