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NFL: Good theater from Al

By Scott Ostler
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday was my day off, but when I heard Al Davis was holding a news conference at Raiders headquarters, I dropped what I was doing (my Mount Rushmore origami project) and sped to Alameda, Calif..
You don’t want to miss an Al Davis news conference.
Davis doesn’t do them very often. The Oakland Raiders owner limits his exposure to the media, at least partly to enhance his mystique. Hey, it worked for Howard Hughes. When Davis does talk publicly, the events range from entertaining to bizarre.
This briefing promised to be something special, even by Davis standards. Coach Lane Kiffin had been sucker-punching Davis in the media and Davis had been countering with leaked rage and threats.
Adding to the intrigue is Davis’ increasingly low profile, which fuels speculation that at 79, he hides out because his wheels aren’t spinning as smoothly. Maybe that type of talk is unfair, but Davis is one year (to the day) older than George Steinbrenner, who is no longer George Steinbrenner.
This time, far more than for any previous Raiders coach firing, Davis was steaming mad. This wasn’t about incompetence or philosophical differences, this was about (alleged) deceit and betrayal, two things that tend to annoy Davis.
Much was expected and Davis delivered.
It was a great moment in sports-news-conference history when the lights dimmed in the Raiders’ auditorium and the overhead projector threw the image of a letter onto the wall behind Davis.
In the audience, we were like kids seeing our first fireworks. It was a buzz like the scene in the original “King Kong” when Kong’s captor tells the New York theater audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!”
Davis could have handed out printed copies of his Dear Lane letter, but the projected image was so much more dramatic.
At the end of the letter, I wanted more.
“Now I’m going to show you security-camera footage of Lane shaking the locker-room vending machine to get a free Almond Joy.”
No dice. Still, the tone was set ó this was Davis, scorned, in full fury.
He proved that though his once-superb team-building skills might be obsolete, his mind is still razor sharp. Who’s better at speaking extemporaneously and fielding hostile questions: Al Davis or Sarah Palin? Not even close.
Davis also showed that his flair for drama still burns brightly. He makes the Phantom of the Opera look like a hockey goalie.
This was arguably Davis’ best news conference. He was angry, vengeful, regretful, vulnerable, sharp and convincing. However petty the Davis-Kiffin feud became, Davis presented a strong case for Kiffin as Brutus to Davis’ Caesar.
It was a classic, although in a weak genre. Formal news conferences tend to be dull. In my experience, only a few stand out.
For head-scratching bemusement, there was the 49ers news conference two years ago to announce plans for a stadium in Santa Clara. After which Santa Clara officials said, essentially, “Cool, the 49ers are going to build a stadium in Santa Clara? This Santa Clara?”
I attended the Magic Johnson news conference in Los Angeles in 1991 where Johnson announced he was retiring after contracting HIV. That was a stunning and sad event, the only news conference I’ve attended in which there was no laughing and joking among the sportswriters.
Ten years earlier, another bizarre Lakers news conference: Team owner Jerry Buss announced the Lakers’ new co-coaches, Pat Riley and Jerry West. The wide-eyed West leaped to the microphone to announce that he would not be the co-coach or any other type of coach.
Another classic was Barry Bonds a few spring trainings back, outside the ballpark with his son. That one rated a maximum five stars. Bonds was always good because he was, if possible, weirder than Al Davis.
And Kiffin, since he launched his Kneecap-Davis campaign, has been scintillating theater. Quietly, almost innocently, Kiffin let the media in on how Davis ruined the team with bad moves and stripped away poor Kiffin’s power.
But when it comes to fun, Davis is da man. Reading that letter to Kiffin, riffing off it like Coltrane straying from the sheet music, Davis was superb. I can’t wait for Davis’ next news conference, the day he fires Tom Cable and hires Don Nelson.

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