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Blood Relations
Gary Smith
April 17, 2006
Sportswriter Sam Kellerman might have gone even further than his older brother, HBO analyst Max Kellerman, if his generosity to an old boxing friend hadn't led to murder.
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April 17, 2006

Blood Relations

Sportswriter Sam Kellerman might have gone even further than his older brother, HBO analyst Max Kellerman, if his generosity to an old boxing friend hadn't led to murder.

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Was this the way life worked? One circumstance leading like an arrow to the next and then the next? If it were, then a forceful and logical man might begin to foresee those circumstances, might blaze his own trail of cause and effect ... and determine his fate. Max began to sharpen his power of reasoning, to strip the sentiment from an argument and make it stand on the legs of logic, knowledge ... and will. The dinner table became his workshop. Pick a topic. Any topic. Hakeem Olajuwon, best center in basketball? How can you say he's better than Patrick Ewing? Didn't matter what the conventional numbers said; Max unearthed factors that nobody else at the table knew, debated in a way that made you feel he'd already rifled through the closets and drawers of your argument and discarded it. He became an animal of logic. That's what brother Jack said.

One boy kept entering the animal's lair. Sam, as a fourth-grader, wrote a story about a monkey in a barrel whose keeper pelted him with numbers--big, heavy ones like 110--until the monkey heaved back a huge one, 1,186, the sum of all the numbers hurled at him, and knocked out the shocked keeper. All the brothers, as sons of a shrink, knew it was a story about Sam and Max. Sam could think and articulate as fast as his big brother, lie in wait listening and then wreak havoc with a reply. Once, debating why man had invented sports, Sam unloaded this haymaker: "Sports is man's joke on God, Max. You see, God says to man, 'I've created a universe where it seems like everything matters, where you'll have to grapple with life and death and in the end you'll die anyway, and it won't really matter.' So man says to God, 'Oh, yeah? Within your universe we're going to create a sub-universe called sports, one that absolutely doesn't matter, and we'll follow everything that happens in it as if it were life and death.'" Which delighted Max, because he craved a foil, someone who would compel him to hurl ever bigger and heavier numbers.

On a dry debating day they'd resort to the King of All Games, a joust they'd invented in which they'd select a subset--condiments, say--and then hammer out its hierarchy, haggling over whether salt, butter, mayo or ketchup was the king, the prince or a mere jester. Then they'd analyze each other's analyses, exposing hidden psychological motives, louder, louder, with younger brothers Harry and Jack chirping from the sidelines, until their father would shout, "Time out! Time out! I can't take it!" and their mother would flee to her easel and their friends would flee to the bathroom, choking back laughter, leaving Max and Sam at the table arguing, their debate disintegrating an hour later into Ahhh, you're full of s--- and You're such a f------ moron! ... two boys growing closer than any brothers you've ever known.

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New opponents kept coming after Max and his scarred lip. He sat beside his dad one night and watched Muhammad Ali fight on TV. He disappeared into his bedroom with Ali's autobiography and emerged spouting Ali's poetry. He decided at age eight that he needed more control over his response to his antagonists, more science--Ali's science. His father started taking him to a gym for boxing lessons, which lasted until Boom Boom Mancini battered Duk Koo Kim to death on national television in 1982. The boy's horrified mother and grandmother retired him at age nine.

Max stomped ... then sulked ... then sublimated. If he couldn't be a boxer, he'd be a boxing know-it-all. He began memorizing five boxing magazines a month, reading them during classes at Hunter, the hotshot public high school he tested into in seventh grade. He compiled lists all day, the more obscure the better: Top 10 left jabs. Top 10 middleweights of 1986. Top 10 middleweights of 1968. He turned his living room into a ring, with a cooking timer to ding out the rounds, and began tutoring his three brothers, all within six years of his age. At 14 he was sneaking back up those grimy stairwells into boxing gyms and writing to Bundini Brown, asking Ali's shaman to train him to the world title while Mom wasn't looking.

One Sunday, just after he turned 16, Max was watching Boykin on Boxing on a Manhattan public-access TV station. He turned to his dad. "I could do that," Max said. His father and grandmother Esther had schooled Max, Sam, Harry and Jack in public speaking from the day they'd begun to babble. "Of course you could, Max," said Henry.

Four days later he took Max to the Manhattan Neighborhood Network studio and paid the $27 studio fee for a half-hour slot. The engineers pinned a microphone to Max's lapel, seated him in front of a camera and flashed a signal. Off he soared, making references to fighters from a half century before he was conceived, sorties into the psyche of Mike Tyson, allusions to Sophocles and Star Wars. All the phone lines lit up within 30 seconds. When he walked off the set, the engineers applauded.

"Tyson could whip Marciano, Louis and Dempsey in the same afternoon!" Max would crow, his big, expressive eyes sparkling and his thick, dark eyebrows hopping with each feverish opinion. "I don't think that's an opinion! That's a fact!" Lowlifes and Columbia professors called his weekly show, Max on Boxing. So did Dustin Hoffman, who asked Max to his house for dinner. David Letterman had Max on his show. The kid became a Manhattan cult phenomenon.

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