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Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Brewer

Every star should tip his hat to Buck O'Neil

Seattle Times staff columnist

A sports ambassador, perhaps the most colorful and genteel and motivated of all, died last Friday. Buck O'Neil lived one month shy of 95 years, and you get the feeling he was given so much time more for us than himself.

He will be remembered not for his athletic brilliance, though he had plenty, but for how he explained athletic brilliance. O'Neil made baseball intimate, and by extension, he made all of sports that way, too. And he did it with ease. He mixed his mouth and memory with a rare congeniality, telling stories that might have been forgotten and making them eternal.

When dealing with death, reflection absorbs the brain. So, you must wonder: Are sports figures of O'Neil's ilk close to extinction?

More than anything, O'Neil represented overcoming inequality. The grandson of a slave went on to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues when major-league baseball wouldn't accept his kind. Then he shed any understandable contempt and spent his pro sports afterlife celebrating the game.

His recollections have kept the Negro Leagues alive. Listening to him talk about baseball provided cute images, not frustration over salaries. Considering all the goodwill he spread, every baseball franchise should've been paying him.

Anybody out there willing to provide free benevolence?

Sports are different now, you hear. Without a doubt. Athletes have it easy now, you hear. No question. These games don't need to be sold anymore, you hear.

Wrong.

The hazards of privilege disrupt to no end. Athletes today must remember that all things can die if left malnourished. This isn't meant to use O'Neal to attack modern athletes yet again. This is just a necessary reminder that the concept of being good to the game goes beyond greatness on the playing field.

"Buck O'Neil was that ambassador to people in his generation," Sonics guard Ray Allen said. "We have to be ambassadors to people in our generation.

"He grew up in an America that didn't treat black people equally. The Negro Leagues are a reminder of that and also the fight to find a level playing field. Now athletes are representing different things."

Allen is an athlete who gets it, obviously. He understands being a star in the NBA involves more than averaging 25 points. He probably won't lead any impromptu sing-alongs, which O'Neil did often, including during a Hall of Fame ceremony this past summer, but his professionalism and approachable public demeanor help promote basketball.

No matter the method, the goal is to have sports personalities who make everyone understand the value of athletics through their examples and efforts.

Some can be effusive (Tommy Lasorda). Some can be low-key (Hank Aaron). Some can be megastars (Muhammad Ali). Some can be just be pretty good (Dikembe Mutombo). Some can act silly (Shaquille O'Neal). Some can be stately (Jack Nicklaus).

They just need to be plentiful and mindful of the mission.

"As an athlete, when you're playing, you're an ambassador whether you believe it or not," Allen said. "You represent the city you play in. You're an ambassador to your family. You're always representing somebody else."

There are numerous kinds of sports ambassadors. Allen is simply the do-right type. He's a great player and consummate pro, and everybody realizes that and it results in good feelings about the sport.

Then there are players such as Michael Jordan, who influence a sport so greatly with their play that they revolutionize it.

In another group are athletes who break down barriers. And finally, there's the brand O'Neil fits in: the protector of a game's purity.

Each category is equally important. But you find fewer sports figures even willing to be a good example. They lack two things: a general understanding of the importance and a focus on the benefits.

Allen made a practical point.

"Now, it's all about crossing over," Allen said. "Remember when, 10 years ago, crossing over was something you didn't do? Remember how much rappers, for instance, looked at it as a bad thing? Now they realize there's money and movies to be had.

"But you also hope we just realize how much the world is changing. Just in America, it has become so much more open. Your fan base has so many varying ethnicities and cultures. You almost have to cross over. We represent a city, but we're truly open to the world."

It's funny. O'Neil grew up in a closed world but understood that better than anyone. Maybe it's because he watched it open slowly. He even unlocked some of the doors.

His Hall of Fame exclusion is one of the great injustices in sports. This past year, he was nominated on a special ballot for Negro Leaguers but fell one vote shy.

It didn't stop him from singing while accepting for the 17 Negro Leaguers who made it, however.

"If I'm a Hall of Famer for you," O'Neil said during a May commencement speech at Missouri Western State University, "that's all right with me."

Now there's a standard worth sweating to achieve.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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