Sunday, November 8, 2009

Andre's right: He had to be 'Open'

I owe Andre Agassi an apology, not that Agassi needs to hear an apology from a sports journalist -- particularly from one he's never met and likely will never meet.

Still, I need to ask his forgiveness for questioning why he broached the subject of drug abuse in his soon-to-be-released book "Open." As he discussed the book Sunday on "60 Minutes," Agassi convinced me that had he kept his abuse of crystal meth out of his autobiography, he would have needed to re-title it, perhaps slapping the words "Half Open" on its cover.

For just as his candor about his violent father, his baldness and his thoughts about his marriage to movie star Brook Shields needed airing, so did the despair that drove Agassi to abuse drugs in the first place.

His interview was revealing beyond his explanation about why he included his drug problems in the autobiography. Certainly, he had to expect his saying he used drugs would be a titillating revelation; it's the kind of introspection that ensures bold headlines -- and criticism.

Agassi got both.

He talked about both of them as well, pointing out that he hoped his critics would understand that he turned to drugs at a nadir of his life in 1997. Agassi had lived most of that life in the spotlight, the prince of tennis, the game's heartthrob, the image of style and daring and beauty.

He had the world -- wealth, recognition and talent. Oh, did Andre Agassi have talent. He had worn the title of No. 1, which he fit him like an Ermenegildo Zegna sports coat. He could have modeled the garment himself and would have looked at home in it.

Wealth and fame doesn't come with a guarantee of happiness, and Agassi, 39, said he was unhappy playing a sport he never loved. It didn't matter to him that he was great at it -- better than almost anybody else of his era. What did matter was that he couldn't push himself to play it at a level he needed to play it, and he couldn't do that because he simply didn't love it. He never obsessed over his tennis the way his father, a domineering force in his life, wanted him to.

So Agassi, an eight-time Grand Slam winner, was left to find comfort in places where so many people go for it. He turned to illegal drugs.

His abuse of crystal meth didn't turn into tragedy, a sobering saga that we had seen before in the lives of men like Len Bias. Agassi would eventually settle into his fame and into his place in sports history.

I should have appreciated that history instead of condemning a man's public honesty. I should have thanked Agassi for showing the human side of a great athlete, a side that's becoming increasingly more difficult for journalists to see.

Image, as he once boasted in a TV ad, might be everything, but it isn't the only thing in an athlete's life. He has to live with all the good, the bad and the ugly

that comes from living in the public's eye -- or in that part of living he allows the public to see.

I can't rightly criticism him for that. I should salute him for reminding me -- and everyone else -- that even a golden boy doesn't necessarily live a perfect life. Agassi deserved the compassion from me that he asked from his peers in professional tennis.


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