SI Vault
Mark Kram
March 08, 1976
The scream of Billy Cunningham as his knee tore and his season—perhaps even his career—ended, bespoke the savage hurt that can come with sport, the pangs and throbbing and enduring ache that athletes live with, scheme against and, at times, are beaten by. The irony is, fans seldom notice...
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March 08, 1976

The Face Of Pain

The scream of Billy Cunningham as his knee tore and his season—perhaps even his career—ended, bespoke the savage hurt that can come with sport, the pangs and throbbing and enduring ache that athletes live with, scheme against and, at times, are beaten by. The irony is, fans seldom notice...

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The mental aspect of pain is sometimes even worse than the physical hurt. There is gnawing self-doubt, anxiety over the future, the dread of an operation. Always an optimist, Billy Cunningham of the 76ers fought back from two major kidney operations, but when his knee was severely hurt in a game last December it was obvious he was hanging on an emotional precipice. "He was very upset, very emotional," says Philadelphia trainer Al Domenico. "He had had those terrible kidney operations. Now he knew another operation was coming up." A photographer recalls the moment: " Cunningham yelled, 'It's broken, it's broken.' I saw the bone in his knee move...I mean, it just moved to one side. He screamed." A teammate, Steve Mix, says, "It was black-and-blue before they got to him. I've seen guys go down. I've never seen an injury like that." Cunningham himself says it felt like someone had a hand on his foot, and another person had a hand on his hip "and they just pulled my knee completely out of the socket."

His wife Sondra reflects on all the pain of the last several years, all of the hard mental sweat. "The first time he had the kidney operation," she says, "they told him he'd be back on the court. It didn't happen. He had to go through another. I felt so sorry for him. He'd take our oldest daughter out for a walk. He'd barely get down the driveway before he was so tired he'd have to come back. He would just about make it up the staircase to the bedroom. I remember he started working out on the day they pulled the tubes out of him. He rushed to the Philadelphia Athletic Club and started running around. He ran and he ran. And then he sat down. And he was so tired he fell asleep, right there on the bench."

Tony Roche has managed only 1� years of tennis in the past six years. To the Australian Roche, once one of the game's most luminous talents and ranked No. 2 in the world, pain has meant half a million dollars or so, three operations and endless anxiety. At one point he was filled with so much cortisone that the drug was no longer effective. Two of the operations were on his left elbow, another on his Achilles tendon. "At first," he says, "I started to get a constant pain like a toothache in my playing elbow. It hurt to grip a racket. It was there all the time, and I played with it for nine months. I took four months off, came back, and the pain was worse than before. It had shifted to the bone. I worried when I played. I couldn't practice because I had to save myself for actual matches. There are so many things added to the pain, the lack of confidence, the frustration. Away from the court, every time I would grasp something it would hurt. If I was on the telephone with my arm in one position for any length of time I would have difficulty straightening it out when I hung up. I then had two operations, and my arm was as bad as ever. I was serving so softly it might as well have been underarm. After a while you begin to wonder if it's worth it. It is especially true when you have just lost to somebody you know you could beat in the past. It was a long, hard battle to get to No. 2 in the world. Once is enough to battle up that ladder."

Pain of the mind, pain of the body, it is seen, or heard, and then felt, but often it is not remembered. In games played for money, where man times speed equals injury, where ego is involved, where the law of natural selection is rarely more obvious, the canvas is smeared with pain. You look, and then move away, never looking back. You think athletes are like certain birds, that can go so far, so long. Some can go only a little way, some are like the blue geese that migrate nonstop from Hudson Bay to Louisiana, and then there are those few, like the Sooty tern, which can fly for three years or more before alighting. That is the way of athletes; Leopold von Sacher-Masoch has nothing to do with it.

Everyone has his own private picture of an athlete in pain—Joe Namath laboring to get out of a taxi, his face contorted while placing his leg down as if he were about to walk barefoot on nails; Ben Hogan, bandaged from his foot to his crotch. For me, my last look at Dick Tiger will always stick. Toward the end of his career, the last four years or so, pain followed Tiger like another man's shadow. It got up with him in the morning, it ate with him, and it sat alone with him in the shabby hotel rooms in which he used to kill the long Manhattan nights. Once, watching him walk down sticky and stained Eighth Avenue on a winter afternoon, it seemed that the gray sky had opened up and poured all its sorrow on him. But that was only the way he looked, mostly because of his old man's shuffle, his weathered Homburg and tattered overcoat that trailed the ground. For Tiger, eye to eye, was a man of strength, of a dignity that threw out a wide light, and few athletes ever suffered more to the day he died—so quietly and too young.

At 41, Tiger had not been a memorable fighter or champion, but he had produced moments that you reach back for over and over, and then try to hold like some stone or other keepsake; he made you feel better for having watched him work. By all accounts, he was through by age 37, though he hung on gloriously, crouching and weaving until cancer found him. By then he had no hope, no money (once he was wealthy) and no country. The Nigerian civil war, with its drawn-out horror, had left him that way. The stress of trying to fight on, of trying to find a way to help his country and family, finally cut out his heart.

One afternoon one of his trainers and I stopped by to see him in a little West Side hotel room. Tiger just sat there in a worn robe in the half-dark, saying nothing, his hands joined solemnly over his nose.

"Well, Dick, we'll stop back later," said the trainer. "We were just wonder-in' 'bout ya. How ya were doin'. You know. That sort of thing."

"Yes," he said, in his accented English. "Come back, please, in a little while. I don't want to talk now, gentlemon."

"That goddam war broke him in two," said his trainer, leaving and closing the door. Then the trainer stopped and said, his eyes widening, "Shhh. Listen. Can ya hear him? Tiger, Dick Tiger cryin'? Yeah, he's cryin'!"

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