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Normally John Bassett dresses casually—sport shirts, slacks, loafers, that sort of thing. "I only wear a suit when I go to the bank," he says. "My hair is short when I'm raising money and long when I'm spending it." He had gone into the WFL, the WHA and WTT in partnership with members of his family, primarily his father, and the Eaton family, another prominent Toronto clan, but the mounting bills scared the others off. Bassett decided to make a stand on his own; he bade farewell to the others, cashed in his stock in the family enterprises and headed south. He has been largely based in the U.S. ever since. Much of his working time now is spent in Tampa with the Bandits or racing around the country on USFL business, but he also has an office in Toronto. When he's not looking after his sports enterprises or monitoring Carling's tennis progress, he keeps track of the four movies he has produced, none a rousing success, though Carling's performance in one of them, Spring Fever (its original title was Sneakers), which starred Susan Anton, moved The Hollywood Reporter to say, "Its main asset...is a winsome young actress named Carling Bassett who captivates us without halfway trying."
He has a real estate development in Panama City, Fla., owns a ritzy complex of condominiums called The Players Club on Longboat Key outside Sarasota and is investigating further deals with Stephen Arky, a partner in the Bandits. "It's a movie," Bassett says of his fast-forward life, "but nobody would believe it."
Bassett is a maverick. Often after a long day with the Bandits, he sleeps in the Hideout, the coaches' modest offices, where a foundling German shepherd mix named Bandit keeps him company. When he was in prep school he spent most weekends "gated"—marching punishment tours around the school grounds. When he wrote a newspaper column in Toronto he used The Rebel as his pen name. When he was with the WHA he was suspended for six months for raiding amateur teams for players, and already USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons has fined him $10,000 for criticizing league officiating. In Tampa there's a rivalry growing between Bassett's Bandits and the NFL Buccaneers, owned by Hugh Culverhouse. The Tampa press has taken to the newcomer, putting down Culver-house as "Mr. C," while Bassett comes off as the guy in the white hat.
Bassett breezed into Tampa—with Burt Reynolds, another Bandit investor (5%), out in front generating publicity—and took the town by storm. Wide Receiver Danny Buggs terms fan support "an epidemic." Twenty-two thousand season tickets were purchased, a Bandit poster featuring Loni Anderson, Burt's girl, hangs all over town, and Bandit souvenirs are outselling those of the out-of-season Bucs.
Tampa is a pro wrestling center, and Bassett's free-spirited operation fits in just fine. Bandit business manager Ralph Campbell sports an outrageous rattlesnake hat. It has a snakeskin brim and, on the front, a large rattler baring its fangs. The franchise's minority owners, most of them locals, wear satin Bandits jackets to games and smoke thin cigars. When the Bandits played in Washington and some unruly fans pounded on the wall of the visiting owners' box, one of the Bandit stockholders knocked down the wall. "Thar," he said to the astonished group on the other side. "Now you won't have to pound no more."
"The NFL has a great big gray-flannel executive IBM image," says Bassett. "Our image is dirt kicking, down home. We're having a ball." Dirt kicking? Down home? For a millionaire? The clothes may not match, but they fit. Bassett is consistent in his lack of pretension. He shovels snow in Canada, drives a '77 Ford station wagon in Florida and loves spareribs, an egalitarian food if ever there was one. Naturally, strangers suspect he's a rich phony, but you keep biting his quarters and find they don't bend. He's so approachable that when he was a patient at a Toronto hospital about to undergo a skin cancer operation, the attendants wheeling his gurney, aware he was a member of the hospital's board, began telling him their union problems.
Bassett and his wife, Susan, have four children. Johnny is 22 and works at CFTO, the family's Toronto television station. Vickie, 20, a down-to-earth student at her father's alma mater who is still comfortable with a knapsack, is an intern this summer as a reporter for The Toronto Sun. Then came Carling, and Heidi, who's 13 and worried. She's an accomplished figure skater, but bored with it. One night at dinner her disgruntlement became obvious, and her father tried to soothe the child he calls Heids. In a soft, solicitous voice Bassett said, "You don't have to keep skating. If you're tired of it, Heids, give it up." This might seem a normal, comforting statement for a father to make. But for Heidi it was like the Pope telling a priest he could throw away his clerical collar. "But I rode horses and I gave that up," she wailed. "I played tennis and I gave that up. If I give up skating, what will I do?"
"You don't have to do anything," said her father.
Johnny piped up, "Remember that, Heidi, when you do give it up and he starts to yell."
"I just want each of them to have something they're good at," the father explains.