The best head of hair in sports leaps from Don King's temples as if galvanized, its fuzzy tendrils intercepting signals from distant galaxies. It seems to jerk his eyes up and his mouth open, though you can't be sure because King's mouth is always open anyway.
I am here to commune with boxing's shock-follicled fabulist about hair and athletics. For days I've been tangled up in hair heritage and hair heretics. I've interviewed female tennis players who pluck hair out and hockey players who have it woven on; swimmers who shave it off and basketball players who have designs shaved in; a pitcher paid to grow a mustache and a first baseman fined for sprouting sideburns. I've tracked down many artistes of the scalp: Barbershop Mike, the silhouette draftsman of Harlem, whose etchings run from Michael Jordan in a reverse jam to Mike Tyson in a half-dozen stances of belligerence; Pasquale Gallo, the Greenwich Village stylist who created the mushroom, a postnuclear 'do that suggests an explosion over Los Alamos, N.M.; and the legendary Gary Bray, who coached the U.S. Ladies Hairdressing Team to a gold medal at the 1984 World Hairdressing Olympics in Las Vegas. I've seen tresses shorn into topiary gardens of staircases, slopes, spikes, fences and Gumbys; flattops you could eat your lunch off; shaggy perms that look like they had caught fire and been put out with Louisville Sluggers.
As it turns out, none of this came close to preparing me for the don of Kings.
My dinner with Don unfolds on a chintz-covered couch at his gilded and mirrored Manhattan town house. In his sandals and gray silk pajamas, King is as genial as a used-car salesman and as exhortatory as a preacher. Between fistsful of honey Teddy Grahams, he talks about all things hairy—all things, that is, except his hairy lawsuits. His conversation soars effortlessly through speculation, prophecy and hallucination. Naturally, everything he says comes off the top of his head.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: Tell the truth. How did you survive the electrocution? King: The truth is that my hair is an aura from God. Until 1971 it was kinky and nappy and burry, like any other black man's. Then one night I was in bed with my lovely wife, Henrietta, when suddenly my head got to rumbling. It felt like a volcanic eruption. Ping! Ping! Ping! Henrietta shook me and said, "Look at your head! Your hair is half up and half down!" And she was right: All them curls was straightening out and straightening up. Each strand stood erect, pristine and beautiful, reaching for the heavens on its own individual stimulation.
SI: What did you make of this hair-raising experience?
King: I was alarmed. Don't you see, I'd been traumatized. I'd just spent four years in prison for manslaughter, and I'm laying there in the free world wondering what direction I'm gonna go in next. I knew it wasn't back to the numbers business, where I came from. So the next morning I went down to the barbershop to get a haircut. The barber put his clippers to my hair, but all he got was static electricity. There were shocks and fiery sparks and I heard a snap, crackle, pop!
SI: Haven't I heard those sounds before?
King: Not in a barbershop! Those clippers were giving me an awful migraine. I had to get out of that barbershop. I had to run. Being a religious person like myself, I looked up the Scriptures and found out the Lord did it to me. I thought, Whaddya know, I've been chosen by God! He made every shank a citadel. He had given my hair abandon that could not be controlled. No one can beat me over the head to make me submit. My hair will not be conquered!
SI: Didn't Samson say that?