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They called them the Superstars, and last week they came to Rotonda, Fla., which is 40 miles south of Sarasota and, according to its Superflacks, is "not just a place to live, but rather, a way of life," to answer questions that somebody, somewhere, must have been asking. Like, can Joe Frazier outcycle Rod Laver? Or, who is the better bowler, Johnny Bench or Rod Gilbert? There were 10 Superstars, plus one Superstar Host, Ed McMahon, and 10 events to compete in—for a total of $122,000 in prize money. When the two-day contest was over what lingered in one's mind was not that pole vaulter Bob Seagren had won or that John Unitas had lost but how all of them had played the games.
There were also the images, so familiar yet so strange. Unitas, for example, running—or almost—and no one chasing him, doing the 880 in well over four minutes. Or Unitas on the tennis court, belting Gilbert's serves out of bounds, and saying, "Well, gracious, I haven't done these things in years."
And, indelibly, there was Frazier—" Joe Frazier, former heavyweight champion," the announcer kept saying, hurrying by the adjective. The spectators gazed sympathetically upon Joe, but he was all good humor, hahyadoin' everyone in sight. In the baseball-hitting event he had a chance to win. All he needed was one good hit. Grunt, whoof, whiff and he was out.
Weight lifting was to have been Joe's specialty, though. "I think I can lift about 300 pounds," he said, and he probably could have yanked a Volkswagen out of a ditch. But at Rotonda there was a barbell on a stand, and Frazier's feet were out of position, his hands unevenly placed on the bar. He failed at 170 pounds, and when Seagren, who is 40 pounds lighter, raised the weight overhead Frazier looked puzzled. For the second time in a month—in a lifetime—he was wondering about his style.
Weight lifting was the turning point of the competition, the first of four victories for Seagren, and one that was clearly symbolic. Seagren was the only contestant who had proper form, the only one who had thoroughly prepared. Perhaps that was because he was also the only athlete at Rotonda who had never competed for money, and he needed a bunch. He was in fine shape—everyone knew that; his first pro track season was about to begin, and from the start he was the victim of some playful psyching. Before the opening ceremonies Bench said, "Someone's got to run with a torch, you know, so why not let Seagren do it. He can start in Miami." Peter Revson, the race-car driver, kept saying, "You know, Bob, I race every weekend for $100,000. This is just pocket change to me," and Seagren's acre or so of white teeth kept flashing in nervous laughter. In tennis, his first event, he couldn't get a serve in against Bench, who said after gaining a 3-1 lead, "It's only money, Bob."
Bench, however, took a dim view of his own chances. "I can't run," he said. "I can't play tennis or Ping-Pong, the doctor won't let me lift weights and I'll probably drown in the pool." Only 10 weeks had passed since his successful lung surgery, but no athlete at Rotonda worked closer to his limit of endurance. "I feel about as I have in past years," he said. "Well, maybe a little weaker on one side."
"Are you trying to prove something to yourself here?" he was asked.
"No," he said. "I never get that serious about anything but baseball."
Nonetheless, out of shape and weighing in at 205 pounds, he ran a 2:33.3 half-mile to finish third behind Elvin Hayes and Seagren, the winner in 2:22.5.
The 6'9�" Hayes had the advantage of being nearly everywhere at once, at least in tennis and Ping-Pong. There was no ball he did not get to, but he could not handle Seagren's slice or Revson's placements in tennis and he also could not see very well. Four nights before he had knocked heads with Jim Barnett of Golden State and broken his nose, which was encased in a big white bandage. But he had to be there, as he put it, "To meet Rod Laver. I've always been a fan of his, the legendary Johnny Unitas and, especially, Joe Frazier."