A Front-Row Seat with the Sportswriters Who Sat There

Sit down with host Todd Jones and other sportswriters who knew the greatest athletes and coaches, and experienced first-hand some of the biggest sports moments in the past 50 years. They’ll share stories behind the stories -- some they’ve only told to each other.

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George Diaz: “Larry Holmes is Flying Through the Air”

George Diaz: “Larry Holmes is Flying Through the Air”

Try writing on deadline when Larry Holmes leaps off a car to brawl with Trevor Berbick in a parking lot. George Diaz tells us what that was like to be there for the Orlando Sentinel. He also takes us into Don King’s home to hang out with Mike Tyson and onto the streets of Panama with the “Hands of Stone,” Roberto Duran. Hear what it was like at Daytona International Speedway on the day Dale Earnhardt died. George also recalls returning to his homeland of Cuba for the 1991 Pan American Games, where Fidel Castro walked into a bowling alley.

George Diaz was a trusted and much-respected writer on the Florida sports scene for four decades. He spent the final 29 of those years at the Orlando Sentinel, where his numerous roles included sports columnist, as well as three years on the paper’s Editorial Board. After graduating from the University of Florida’s School of Journalism in 1978, George began his career at the Miami Herald. He eventually spent a year at the Cincinnati Post before joining The Sentinel in 1989. George covered 8 Olympics, 6 Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, major college bowl games, and numerous world championship boxing matches. George served as the NASCAR writer for the Tribune Co. while in Orlando. He once drove the track at Daytona International Speedway with Tony Stewart, and he covered the fateful 2001 Daytona 500 when legendary driver Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap. In 1991, George returned to his native Cuba to cover the Pan American Games. That was 30 years after his family fled the country when he was four years old to get out from under the rule of communist dictator Fidel Castro. His family settled in Miami, Fla., where he was raised a U.S. citizen and became interested in journalism while working for his high school’s newspaper. George is the ghostwriter for “I Am Duran,” the 2016 autobiography of boxer Roberto Duran, who held world championship titles in four different weight classes. Forbes magazine said the book made you feel like you “just sat down to a long dinner and beers after in some open Panamanian café with Duran sitting across from me just speaking with no filter, none at all.” George’s career in newspapers ended in November 2018 when he took a severance package from The Sentinel. He now works as a senior writer with GrowingBolder.com. George is involved with the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, serving as honorary chairman for the signature fund-raising event, and Paws for Peace, a fundraiser for Harbor House of Central Florida, a shelter for domestic violence survivors. He is an advocate for foster children and has rescued several dogs and cats.


Here is a link to George’s final column at the Orlando Sentinel on Nov. 30, 2018:

https://www.orlandosentinel.com/opinion/os-ae-orlando-sentinel-george-diaz-career-20181130-story.html

Come back on July 21 when we are talking to Randy Harvey!

You can follow George on Twitter: @georgediaz

Follow our very own host, Todd Jones on Twitter @Todd_Jones

You can find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Press...

Contact us at [email protected]

Todd Jones:
I'm Todd Jones, recovering from 30 years as a sports writer. Thanks for joining me as I sit down with some of the best sports writers of our time, who knew the greatest athletes and coaches and experienced first hand some of the biggest sports moments of the past half century. We'll share stories behind the stories, some we've only told each other. Pull up a seat on Press Box Access. George Diaz knows how to get to the heart of the matter. He has a big heart himself. As a writer, it led him beyond the surface to the stories behind the story, to the homes of Dale Earnhardt, Roberto Duran, and a grieving family in Cuba, where George was born and fled with his family at age four. George will tell us about those places and people and much more from his 40 years of covering sports. Welcome to the show, George.

George Diaz:
Great to be here, my friend. Good to reconnect with you via this fancy devices things you've got going on.

Todd Jones:
Yeah, I know. What happened to us? We used to be typing on Radio Shack Tandys and now we're speaking via the internet. What is this internet thing, George?

George Diaz:
I don't know. I'm just trying to figure out Snapchat. We'll go from there.

Todd Jones:
Well, you know, George, 29 years at the Orlando Sentinel, you were also at the Miami Herald for quite a bit, I think of you as Mr. Florida, like you're an institution there, not in an institution but an institution in Florida.

George Diaz:
That could happen too.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. Mister bright and sunshiny, optimistic. I don't know why you're hanging out with me. But I did a little research preparing for your appearance on this show. And I came across a quote. And the quote is, "I had aspirations to be an athlete, but I found that challenging since I had no athletic skills."

George Diaz:
Might I have been one who fired that one out there?

Todd Jones:
You wrote that in your goodbye column when you retired from the Orlando Sentinel after 29 years. And I just want to say I can attest that you had no athletic skills.

George Diaz:
Well, thank you, man. I'm feeling the love already. We're only five minutes into this thing. Okay, man. Good talk. Loved the TED Talk. See you later.

Todd Jones:
We actually did play a lot of basketball together in the one year you did not spend in Florida. You were in Cincinnati in the late '80s. I was just starting. And we used to play a lot of basketball together. So you were a good player. I'm just joking you, George.

George Diaz:
I have my moments.

Todd Jones:
Yeah, me too. It's like what they say about sports writers, right? Those who would if they could, but they can't, so they tell others who can how they should.

George Diaz:
That's the whole game plan for ... And it's worked. Somehow it worked for quite some time.

Todd Jones:
Well, one guy who could play basketball is a guy that you got to know pretty well down in Orlando. A guy by the name of Shaquille O'Neal. And Shaq, 19 years in the NBA, people, they think of Shaq as being with the Lakers. But really his career started in Orlando. And we know Shaq the basketball player. Tell us a little bit about what he was like to deal with as a person.

George Diaz:
For me it was great. He put Orlando on the map. He put Orlando not only on the NBA map but on the world map. Because for the short run that he was here, it was a great marriage for a franchise in a city looking for relevance and a guy who was, whatever he was, a 20-something year old kid. I remember doing a magazine piece on him a year or two into this thing. And one of the things that was relayed to me was that the neighborhood kids would basically knock on his door and say, "Hey, can Shaq come out and play? We want to go play paint ball" or whatever it was. And he would. He would. So he was larger than life, but he also had this little bit of innocence about him that he didn't ... We all have egos and obviously he had one as well. But he didn't consider himself to be that ... He was the biggest kid on the block, but sometimes he didn't necessarily have the biggest ego on the block.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. I didn't know Shaq. I never really crossed paths with him during my own career. But just knowing him from television, he does, he seems like a big, jolly kid, a guy that you would like to hang out with. Was he good with the media?

George Diaz:
He was good. He had his moments. I was fortunate because I got to know him a little bit better. I did that magazine story, and that gave me a little bit of access, so I'd be going to his house and doing things of that nature. And there were some funny stories with him. I remember in the Olympics, in the '96 Olympics, that's when Orlando, there was a series of events and that could be a whole podcast of why he left Orlando. I think it was a perfect storm of different circumstances. But during that time is when they had a press conference at quote Planet Reebok in Atlanta where he announced he was going to sign with the Lakers. But during that time, we were still close.

George Diaz:
And I remember there was one time there was some mixed zone. And he was trying to get through some I believe it was a TV or a radio interview, and it was from Chile. And the guy did not speak much English. And he kept going, "Shaq Chile. Shaq's Chile." And Shaq finally came up to him, and the guy asked him through an interpreter or whatever, how he ended up, did he know anything about Chile? And he said, "I didn't know much about Chile. But I had seen two of my friends who are world travelers." And then he pointed at Brian McIntyre of the NBA, who was in media communications, and me. So he said, "Brian McIntyre and George Diaz went to Chile. And they really loved it. So I need to go." So he was just busted. So this is going back to Chile, and he's telling them a story that's completely fabricated about his buddies going to Chile.

Todd Jones:
George, wasn't there a time where you were covering the Magic and the Bulls in the playoffs, and Shaq had a bunch of tickets, and he got you roped into something with the tickets? What was that all about?

George Diaz:
Well, it was a playoff that one year, the Bulls and the Magic, I believe it was the Eastern Conference finals. And there was I think it was 12 or 13 tickets, Todd, that he was given for his friends and family, whatever. And for whatever reason, he just didn't like them, didn't need them. And we were doing the pre-game scrum there in the locker room. And he just handed them to me. So I went outside. I just went outside to the United Center, and there was actually a basketball court like a block or two away. I just handed them to some kids. And it was a neat deal. I mean I did what I did. It wasn't me. And obviously he gave me the tickets, but it was a neat thing that all these kids got to see an NBA playoff game finals between Magic and the Bulls. But it was fun. It was a fun thing to do. But that's how he was. That's how he rolled.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. That's the thing. When you were in a job like we had, you got to see people behind the scenes a little bit. And you got to see another side of somebody. And I think that's one of the great things that I treasure about what we used to do. And I'm sure you probably feel the same way.

George Diaz:
Yeah, there's no question about it. Sometimes it's a little bit of a darker side. But a lot of times, the moments where you do have a laugh. And you really, for me, you have this sense of pride and accomplishment, I guess. And you feel good about being there in the moment.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. Well, sports writing got you to meet Shaq. It got you really to travel around the world. Sports writing took you all over the place. You went to eight Olympics, you covered I think probably six or seven Superbowls, Daytona 500. You went around the track once, right, in the car?

George Diaz:
Oh, I've been around the track a few times. Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, that kind of stuff. It's been a wild ride, as they say.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. It's literally taken you everywhere. One place it did take you back to was your homeland, your homeland of Cuba. And for those who don't know, George, you were born in Cuba. And I think you lived there till what, age four perhaps?

George Diaz:
Yeah. I was almost five when I came over.

Todd Jones:
Almost five. So when I think back in February of 1961, your family fled Cuba. This was only a couple years after Castro had overthrown the Batista regime and instituted a Communist government. Were you young enough, could you remember your family leaving Cuba at the time?

George Diaz:
No. But I was, again, about four, really young. Barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday. So going back that far was a challenge. But I do remember my family telling me the story that my uncle was pretty well off. We actually lived with him, an estate maybe we should call it, because there was horses and chickens and all that stuff. But they told me that when actually Castro's forces used to start basically overtaking people's homes. And when Castro's henchmen showed up at my house, as a four-year-old I told them to leave, that they were not welcome there. Of course, I don't think they listened to four-year-old George Diaz because ... But that's a story that I hear from my family. So, very, very sad circumstances. But hey, it got me over here.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. You moved to, what, Fort Lauderdale or Miami?

George Diaz:
Yeah, we landed in Lauderdale and ended up living with that aunt and uncle. And we initially lived with them and then moved out on our own.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. You were too young to remember details, but do you think the experience of leaving your homeland, did it inform your reporting and writing over the years with your-

George Diaz:
That's a good question. I don't know. In all ways, I think you're always shaped by your experiences. And for bigger picture stuff, of course it did. It did. It certainly gave me a perspective of what the American dream is about and the sacrifices that my parents made to come over here, which were great because they basically gave up everything for me and my two sisters. And it also, every time there was a story about the Cuban-American experiences, you had the whole deal with Elian Gonzalez, who was taken back to Cuba. There were parts of his story that became international news. And that always brought me back to how I got here.

Todd Jones:
Right, right. Well, you actually did go back to Cuba, literally went back in 1991. You were a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel and you went to cover the Pan American Games. First off, what were the Pan Am Games? They were like the Olympics, right?

George Diaz:
Yeah. The Pan Am Games were, if you will, a poor man's version of the Olympics. It's Central and South America countries. Most of the sports, I would say about maybe 3/4 of the Olympic sports, we're talking summer sports not ... nobody's bobsledding in Cuba. But an interesting vibe. Just basically I would call it a scaled-down version of the Summer Olympics.

Todd Jones:
So you go back. This is 30 years after your father, I think, left behind a sister and two brothers, your mother had left behind a half-brother and a sister she would never see again. There's all this family history with Cuba. And you go back. What was it like for you to go to your homeland?

George Diaz:
It was very odd. And sometimes it was a little scary. I went with the United States Olympic Committee and a select group of journalists. We went over before the Games started to see what ... Because this was a major undertaking for Cuba because they were a country with limited resources hosting these big games. We went from the Miami Airport, I still remember vividly there was no gate. It was very much a clandestine charter thing. We were just told to meet at a certain place. We went, boom, we got on the plane. But there was no announcements and any of that nature. So it was still during that time, relationships were still very frosty between the two countries. They had made me get a Cuban passport because they had said that, well, you were born in Cuba. Therefore you're a Cuban citizen. And I didn't really like that vibe, that condition, terms of engagement.

George Diaz:
I actually called the State Department and got through to somebody who said, "Look, I would not worry about it." Because I didn't want to go back to Cuba and be considered a Cuban citizen. Because I wanted to be able to go back in case something happened. And I certainly wanted the protection of the American passport. But they said, "Look, it's a cash grab." It was like an 80, $90 cost to get a passport. "They don't want an international incident or anything that would cause them bad publicity, so I wouldn't worry about it." But the thing is, when I landed there, there were some TV cameras there, a TV crew from Cuba. And they immediately found me, like they knew I was coming.

Todd Jones:
Wow.

George Diaz:
And they knew my background. And it was a little scary at first, very off-putting as you can imagine. But that's the kind of stuff that goes on there, that we don't really pay much attention to or take for granted. It's obviously not on our radar screen, Todd. But that's the kind of influence and control that they have. They know a lot of things. And they want to know a lot of things about you.

Todd Jones:
You were there for about three weeks or so. And I think you were able to see some of your family, right? You were able to see an aunt, I believe?

George Diaz:
Yeah. May she rest in peace now, but it was my dad's sister. And really out of all the relatives, the one I was more closely close to. There was a couple cousins. One of my cousins was a big Fidel fan, and we basically chose not to talk politics. But my aunt was very sweet. And going back to the police state that they had, we stayed at a tourist hotel, the American press corps under our event. And she had to go get like a hall pass to go visit me because locals were not allowed into the hotel for tourists. It was almost like an apartheid thing.

George Diaz:
And what made it even tougher, Todd, was my uncle, her brother, had given me $100 and said, "Go spend this, give them whatever they need." And so we went to a store that was basically like a poor man's version of Walmart or something like that. But it was a tourist store. And she was not supposed to go in. So essentially there was a guard there and had to sweet talk our way in there. And it was really annoying and very ... I had to really just keep my mouth shut because my initial impulse was just to lay into this guy because he was being a jerk, not letting an 80-year-old lady in or at least being very obstinate about it. But we got in. I held my breath. We got in.

George Diaz:
And then my aunt was starting, and we're talking about buying basic essentials like toilet paper and things of that. And my aunt said, "Why don't you get something for your mom?" And even now, I get a hard time, I get choked up about it. Because she was thinking about other people, and they needed so much more, that stuff that we take for granted, that stuff that we take for granted all the time. So as you can see, it was just a very, one of those seismic experiences for me from an emotional standpoint, having to deal with all that. And I covered the Games. But I did do a lot of other stories that reflected that type of struggle that the Cuban people had as well.

Todd Jones:
During your time there covering the sporting events, apparently Castro was everywhere, right? He was using it as a good propaganda tool to be all over the place. Was there more than one Castro?

George Diaz:
I don't know. That's a good question. I don't know if there was a stand in or not. But he was pretty large or he was a pretty big guy for a Cuban. So I think he'd be hard to miss.

Todd Jones:
Well, let's talk about the time you actually crossed paths with him during those Pan Am Games. I think you went to a bowling place, a bowling alley of all places. What was going on there? Why'd you end up in a bowling alley in Cuba?

George Diaz:
Well, it gets back to when you asked me about the Pan Am Games, bowling is part of their program, the Pan Am Game program. So they actually had to build a bowling alley because the bowling centers had been basically shut down after the revolution. It was a fun offbeat story, one that I looked forward to doing and it would be a little bit more lighthearted. And within the context of that, I was also the unofficial interpreter for the small ... it was a smallish US press corps there. [crosstalk 00:17:46].

Todd Jones:
Yeah, I think it was you and Archdeacon and Mark Purdy [crosstalk 00:17:49].

George Diaz:
Mark Purdy was there and Bill Conlin, who passed away. And Arch was there. But Arch was there as a guest with one of the friends he had made over there. I don't think he was covering the event. Typical Arch, he was going there to kind of figured it'd be a low-key thing to just, he'd keep under the radar. And of course Castro showed up.

Todd Jones:
So tell us about that. So the reporters, I think Maureen Boyle was the press liaison for US bowling. I would love that job, right? Because it has to come with cigarettes and beer, right?

George Diaz:
Exactly. And a very cool shirt with embroidery on the back.

Todd Jones:
Right. So she seats all of you in where the press is supposed to be sitting. But then you were told not to be sitting there, right?

George Diaz:
Yeah, it was like the Cuban press liaison for bowling. And she kept saying, "You're not supposed to be here." And it was one of those deals that I was the only one who could communicate. So I was trying to tell them, "Hey, they don't want us to sit here." But again, you're not talking, we're not in the Rose Bowl or anything. It's a bowling alley and I don't really care where we're sitting. She kept saying, "Well, these are reserved for some Cuban officials." And she didn't really make herself clear until I finally, all of a sudden, I realized everybody in that bowling alley stands up. And I look, and there's Castro standing at the top steps, surrounded by two of his henchmen in green khaki outfits. And they've got machine guns strapped to their side.

Todd Jones:
You mean they weren't wearing bowling shoes?

George Diaz:
No. Nobody was wearing bowling shoes. And the kicker to the story is, Todd, that we were sitting in Castro's seats, which was probably not a good idea. I wanted to be low-key as well. And there went my low-key approach. [crosstalk 00:19:44].

Todd Jones:
What was Castro like? What was it like to be around him?

George Diaz:
Well, at that point, I really didn't want to be around him. I wanted to be as far away from him as I could. So I was worried that they might gun us down there on lane seven and it be like a Iwo Jima kind of statue that they would build, honoring the death of the American journalist pegs who dare defy Castro.

Todd Jones:
Yeah, you don't want to go during a beer frame. I mean, come on.

George Diaz:
No, no. So I was getting out of there. And I remember Conlin getting out his video camera. And I'm thinking, dude, we just got to get out of here now while the getting's good. So basically he's going down and I'm going up. And made it out alive. But I remember in Florida they do the same thing, I don't know how it is up north, but you go to Florida, it's the summer, it's 90 degrees out, and then you go to a bowling alley and it's like 50 degrees. And that's what it felt like, it was there at that time. But I literally remember sweating, I was sweating because my adrenaline rush was so much, having to deal with that perspective.

Todd Jones:
Did you ever get a chance, when those Games ended, to ever go back to Cuba, George?

George Diaz:
No. There was an opportunity. I guess I could have gone back when the Orioles did the baseball detente thing. And I guess that was in later, in 2000s somewhere. My history escapes me in terms of the exact date. But I got denied from the Cuban officials-

Todd Jones:
Really?

George Diaz:
... the credential, because of all the nasty things I've written about them.

Todd Jones:
Oh, no. Wow.

George Diaz:
So, banned, banned from Cuba. Put that on the resume, pal.

Todd Jones:
That's a badge of honor.

George Diaz:
It is. I'll take that any day.

Todd Jones:
Well, it really shows that you had the journalistic chops to do your job and do them in a tough circumstances.

George Diaz:
There you go.

Todd Jones:
Well, you got banned from Cuba. But you were not banned from boxing.

George Diaz:
No, thank God.

Todd Jones:
And I know you spent a lot of years covering boxing, major championship fights. And I know you came across a lot of characters in that field. You spent a lot of time around Tyson in his heyday, when he was the champion of the world. But how do you end up eating Popeyes chicken with Mike Tyson?

George Diaz:
Well, it was one of the fights in Vegas. And Don King has a place in Vegas. And during the time that King had him, Tyson was really, in the press conferences, he was awful. He gave you nothing. But if you got him away from that scenario, he was pretty good. I mean, crazy good, but he was good. And so King would set up what he called these round tables. And boxing is a pretty insular world, where if you get the hook up, it doesn't take long. All you got to do is cover X number of fights, and you're kind of in. So I was, even though I didn't have as much clout there, just working with the good old Cincinnati Post, I wasn't New York Times or the Washington Post or whatever. But I was part of that small insular world of boxing writers who they'd gather and had some scope of influence. So King would set up these round tables with Tyson. And he'd sit there on the couch, and it was like therapy.

George Diaz:
At one point he was talking about how his wife at the time had just given birth to a daughter. And he fast forwarded to the time she was going to start dating, and how that was going to ... that really freaked him out. And so he had said that during the session. And then what happens is that there was I think about two fans that came. And for whatever reason, I just got left behind with another group. There was a couple of writers, usually it's the Times or somebody else that they wanted a little bit more. So most everybody had left. There was only a few of us that's still there. I just happened to be the odd man out in a good way. So I got to stay behind. And when we stayed behind, it became even more informal, to the point everybody's getting up, walking around.

Todd Jones:
And this was at Don King's house.

George Diaz:
Yep. Yep. So I'm now in his breakfast nook. And King always, first of all, he asked for coffee, somebody to make him coffee. And I remember him saying, "Not the regular coffee. I want some of that designer coffee." What he meant by that is flavored.

Todd Jones:
Designer coffee.

George Diaz:
Designer coffee. Yes.

Todd Jones:
So he was ahead of the game. He was ahead of the coffee game.

George Diaz:
He was. So Don King's designer coffee brand coming to you soon, neighborhood to you soon. But anyway, and then he ordered Popeyes fried chicken. I just happened to be next to Tyson and we're eating the fried chicken. And I'm trying to tell him in a nice way that if his daughter is dating, and he says be there at 10, if I'm dating his daughter I'm there at 9:30 just to be on the safe side so I don't get killed. And so I tried to explain that dynamic in a nicer, more subdued way, thinking, saying like, "I think that, Mike, that whoever's dating your daughter would really respect you a great deal and hold you in great reverence."

Todd Jones:
How did he take the advice?

George Diaz:
I can't do the voice. I remember him saying, he goes, "That really f-ed me up, man, thinking about it. It really f-ed me up." I'm thinking, okay. I got nothing for you.

Todd Jones:
So now you've got the Cuban military after you. You've got Tyson after you.

George Diaz:
Yeah, I didn't want to push the envelope too much with Tyson. Because I don't want to get banned from Don King's house as well.

Todd Jones:
Right, right. By the way, what was Don King's house like?

George Diaz:
Opulent.

Todd Jones:
George, weren't you there when Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick had a little bit of a street brawl, and Larry went jumping off the car or something? [crosstalk 00:25:50].

George Diaz:
Oh, you're bringing back all the greatest hits. That might have been the greatest night of my life just about. So Holmes is making X however many comebacks it is, right? So he's fighting in Hollywood. But not California, my friend. Hollywood, Florida, at I think it was some hotel, it wasn't even a casino. And so he's fighting some guy.

Todd Jones:
Was this the guy that the Magic drafted and sent [crosstalk 00:26:20].

George Diaz:
Yeah, right. Found out [crosstalk 00:26:21].

Todd Jones:
Okay, right, right.

George Diaz:
So he takes him out, even though Holmes is way past his prime. So he fights and beats him. And it's a regular mundane story, right? There's nothing. There's no drama in this. We all know that Larry's washed up. He's just looking for a paycheck and doesn't want to leave, which the story of most boxers. So they do a press conference. And during the press conference, Trevor Berbick shows up and starts calling out Holmes, wanting to challenge him to fight.

Todd Jones:
Right there? In the press conference?

George Diaz:
Yeah. Not at that time, not at the very time. But down the road.

Todd Jones:
Now, you got two columns to write.

George Diaz:
Yeah. Oh, no. It gets better. So then he makes some reference to some girl named Jenny that Larry was dating, and that was Trevor's girlfriend, and he stole his girlfriend, Holmes did. And Jenny, he's professing his love for Jenny or whatever. And I still remember, at that point we were still trying to make deadline, everybody's typing away, trying to get in some flash quotes and all that. And I remember Jon Saraceno from USA Today, because Berbick was right next to us, screaming, and Saraceno is telling, "Trevor, will you just shut up? I'm trying to write. I'm working here." So we all let it go. Trevor eventually disappears or whatever. But about 10 minutes later, some guy, just a flunky or whatever with the PR people there says, "Hey, hey. Trevor and Larry are fighting in the parking lot." And we're all like, well, there goes deadlines.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. We all get rewrite.

George Diaz:
We all go scrambling over. And Mike Marley, another one of these boxing writers that's famous infamous if you will, and me and Saraceno, there's a few others out there, there's not that many people covering this thing. But we go out there. And there is the valet entrance. And at the valet entrance, we see Trevor. And now he had this bright, shiny brown suit, and it's been ripped and stuff already. So they've already had a bit of a scrum. And so Trevor's out of breath and he's going, "I hit Larry. Larry tried to kill me. Yeah, he's gone crazy." And so he's going through all this. And we're sitting there.

George Diaz:
And then this couple pulls up in a little Toyota or something, right? And they're just wanting to valet park their car. God bless them. They're there maybe on a special occasion, a nice night. Maybe they want to get a drink. But they didn't really expect that when they tried to valet park their car, Larry Holmes would jump on the roof of the car and catapult himself toward the herd, toward Trevor Berbick. So here I am with my little scribe pencil and pad, and I look up, and there is Larry Holmes flying through the air, trying to take out Berbick again. Of course, he gets to him because it's not a hard target. And they just rolled around. Nothing really happened. I mean nobody really got hurt badly. I mean I guess they got broken up pretty quickly. But I still feel for that couple because I think he might have dented his roof.

Todd Jones:
How do you report that to your insurance company, right?

George Diaz:
Nobody's going to believe that story.

Todd Jones:
Former heavyweight champion went flying off of my car. Honest.

George Diaz:
That's one of those GEICO commercial deals.

Todd Jones:
Yeah, right. So how did that wrap up? Do you know? Did they have a fight after [crosstalk 00:30:15].

George Diaz:
Oh, it gets better. No, no, it gets better. They never fought. So now, we file whatever story we could get out of it in the short. But nobody's talked to Larry about it. And the whole genesis of why Larry wanted to fight him would because when he was talking about Jenny and all this, Larry's wife was in the press conference, Diane was in the press conference, and she was not at all happy with the commentary that was going on. So Larry-

Todd Jones:
She didn't even hear about Jenny.

George Diaz:
867-5309 [crosstalk 00:30:51].

Todd Jones:
Yeah, exactly, right.

George Diaz:
The old school reference, kids.

Todd Jones:
Now we know what that number's all about.

George Diaz:
So anyway, so we still haven't talked to Larry. So Larry, true story, also fancies himself as a singer. So he set up a gig at the club. Maybe that's where the couple was going to see Larry Holmes sing. But he had his band with him. It was a R&B thing. And so to add the piece de resistance to the whole thing, at about 12, 12:30 at night, there is Larry up on stage singing Brick House with his R&B band. And that's a wrap, kids.

Todd Jones:
And now you're supposed to make sense of this and write a story, right? When people say, "What was it like to be a sports writer?" I'm going to tell them, "Listen to George Diaz' story about Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick fighting in a parking lot in Hollywood, Florida."

George Diaz:
It's out there on YouTube. You can find it on YouTube. I am not exaggerating any of this. It was a great, it was like, oh, it's just too good to be true.

Todd Jones:
Well, you find all kinds of characters in boxing. And one of the characters that you know better than anybody was Roberto Duran, the hands of stone. And you actually end up being the ghostwriter for the 2016 autobiography, I Am Duran. And I can only imagine what the writing process with Roberto Duran was like. You got to know him so well. What was it like?

George Diaz:
I joke that it's a two-drink minimum, probably a two-bottle minimum to get through the process.

Todd Jones:
Duran was one of the all-time intimidating guys. I mean, the hands of stone. I mean, he won world championships in four different weight classes. I mean, he was just a vicious fighter. What was he like to deal with when you were trying to be his ghostwriter?

George Diaz:
Challenging is the best word I can think of. He's the deal with Duran. He's just a street guy at third grade education. He could be a real pain to deal with at times. And there was more than once that I went to Panama. And the first time out, after about three or four days, he disappeared and went, he had something else to do. He had some memorabilia show. And either he got booked and he didn't care. He just left. And there was another time that something similar happened. But the good thing is that his family was very, very ... especially his son Robin, we became close. His wife's a sweetheart.

George Diaz:
And they really shared everything. This is one of those deals where you get some people that want the varnished version of reality. But they had all his womanizing, everything was out there for the world to see. But going back to Roberto, he could be surly and difficult. He also has a sweet, he could be a very sweet man with a big heart. I mean, and it got to the point where every time I'd see him, we'd hug and he does the Latin thing, he'd kiss me on the cheek type thing. So it's almost like this yin and yang, if you will, Todd. That you saw this guy, you see where that street tough brutality, if you will, because boxing's a blood sport, boxing is the most brutal sport I can think of. But there's also this other side to him that ... and that's why he ended up losing so much money. He would literally give money away. People would come up to him, knock on his door and he'd give them money during his prime. He could never keep it.

Todd Jones:
In Panama.

George Diaz:
Yeah. In Panama. And he's lived in the same house since forever. City of Panama and Panama City, he's a god there. Still is.

Todd Jones:
Well, was he receptive to the idea of you writing about his life story? I mean, he obviously signed on to do it. But was he cooperative?

George Diaz:
He was cooperative but he wasn't very good about details. So in putting it together, I was able to get to places I needed to be in certain points of his life by talking to other people, whether it was his manager, Luis DeCubas was great. I mean, I talked to Bob Arum, I talked to Sugar Ray Leonard. I didn't need Duran for every single pit of information. I could set the scene just by talking to as many people as I could during moments that were significant in his career. And I was able to do that. And that was the biggest challenge because Duran was not somebody who was going to give me, at the end of the day, he didn't give me a lot to work with at times.

Todd Jones:
He wasn't very introspective, right? Yeah.

George Diaz:
No. He wasn't introspective at all. But I was able to get into his head simply by using other voices and people in his past. And the most challenging aspect became the no mas thing because [crosstalk 00:36:15].

Todd Jones:
Yeah. I wanted to ask you specifically about that. Duran was such a great fighter. Like we said, four world championships at four different weight classes. And yet, unfortunately for him, he's known for that one moment when he quit. He quit during the rematch fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. And it's famously known as no mas, which is what he said to the referee. What did he say about that moment when he quit against Leonard?

George Diaz:
Well, we had to do some serious negotiating. Because at first he was sticking to the fact that he had a stomach ache and he didn't feel well. He did think this. He did think that if he just quit, he knew he was going to lose, so he did quit. He knew he was losing. He was frustrated. He quit. That's the bottom line. But he also thought he was going to get a rematch because it would be one one, right? But he miscalculated how badly it would be perceived. And between him and talking, as I mentioned, his son was very good, Robin, I said, "Look, we've got to get away from the tummy ache narrative. You've got to come clean with it." So he came about as clean as you can. And I'm real sorry, I probably should have had the book with me. But he basically said that, "Yeah, I just was frustrated. It wasn't my night. I thought I was going to get a rematch. So I quit." But at first, he was being obstinate saying that, "Oh, my stomach hurt." No, it wasn't hit stomach. It was his pride that hurt the most.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. Well, you mentioned that Duran, he was such a tough guy, a street guy, a ferocious guy. But he could also be a kind-hearted guy too, a soft guy. And I think about sometimes there are athletes like that, that their public persona is out there, and yet as a sports writer, you get to see a little bit behind the curtain. And one of the athletes that I think about in those terms is another guy that you came across, and that's Dale Earnhardt. The old man, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. And you covered NASCAR for a lot of years for the Tribune Company, which owned the Orlando Sentinel. And you were there in February of 2001, I can't believe it's been 20 years already, the day that Earnhardt died at the Daytona 500. What comes to mind when you think about that race?

George Diaz:
How surreal I know it was. Because first of all, if you look at it, it doesn't look like a bad accident at all, does it?

Todd Jones:
No. You see way worse.

George Diaz:
Just hits the side. He just hits the side of the car. But he hit it with, just the angle was just right in a bad way. And he didn't have any head and neck restraints, which became a point of contention and later would obviously lead to great changes in NASCAR, for NASCAR. But just sitting there waiting for over an hour. And the silence. And people, like Ed Hinton knew, had covered a bunch more NASCAR races than I ever had.

Todd Jones:
Yeah, Ed was a great, great race writer, yeah.

George Diaz:
And Ed knew that it was not good. And you knew it was not good also because Ken Schrader, who went to see him, another driver, right after the race looked in the car, and you could see him flinching. And I was able to get to all three of the EMTs who were there. And they shared enough. I mean, they shared a good bit of information. They just needed to keep some things for themselves. But from what they were able to tell me, that he was basically gone when they got to him. I mean, we're talking someone who's, he was bleeding head through the eyes, through the nose. It was bad. And I remember there was a female there that said, one of the EMTs was female. And she just said she said a prayer for him, closed his eyes and said a prayer for him.

Todd Jones:
So you were in the press box. And like you said, the race is ending. It's the final lap. There's this wreck, but there's also a finish to the race. So it had to be just really bizarre, the atmosphere in the press box.

George Diaz:
It was. With NASCAR, there's a press box upstairs, and then most of the action then happens downstairs at the infield media center. And that's where we were and just waited for a good hour, until after Mike Helton then, I believe he was president at the time of NASCAR said, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt." That pretty much shook everybody to the core.

Todd Jones:
What was it about Earnhardt? Why did he touch so many people who love NASCAR?

George Diaz:
Well, NASCAR's built on, they started out as moonshiners, right? So you've got this blue collar base that, kind of good old boys that like to kick some butt. And he was just true to that. And we talk about athletes and going through PR people in layers and all that. There weren't a lot of layers to Earnhardt. What you see is what you got. He didn't take any nonsense from people. I remember just a few days before that, they used to have this IROC series, which was different drivers in different race categories. It was International Racing of Champions or something.

George Diaz:
And so these open wheel guys race with NASCAR guys. It was just a fun little sprint race. And one of the drivers named Eddie Cheever was part of the open wheel wine and cheese crowd, if you will. Somehow he got tangled up with Earnhardt. I think he took Earnhardt out, by mistake, I mean he didn't do it on purpose. And I remember Cheever going into the media center, and I think he was terrified that he thought ... Because Earnhardt, on the cool down lap after he had wrecked Earnhardt, and Earnhardt was able I guess back onto the field but finish X number of laps behind. Earnhardt took him out during the warm down lap after the race [crosstalk 00:42:51]. And I remember Cheever going up in the press box or up in the media center, in the infield media center and saying, "I have no issues with Mr. Earnhardt whatsoever." He was like, "Please don't kill me now."

Todd Jones:
He wasn't jumping off somebody's Toyota trying to get to Dale Earnhardt.

George Diaz:
No. No. You weren't doing that. And that's how Dale was. He was one of those guys that was just kind of cranky and he had a heart too, had a great heart. But also could be a real SOB.

Todd Jones:
Yeah. I had an interaction with Earnhardt once at the Brickyard in Indianapolis. And he had such a presence to him, right? I remember seeing him standing in the garage, and he could just be standing there and you were like, "It's Earnhardt." And so anyway, they had a breakfast with some writers and some drivers. And it was me and about three or four other writers were just standing around with Dale. And he was really good. He was actually engaging and talking about different things. And some radio guy came over and said, "Can I join in?" And Earnhardt says, "Yeah, sure. Go ahead."

Todd Jones:
And the radio guy was all nervous. You could just tell that this was his big moment. He probably practiced in front of the mirror the night before. And he goes into it, he goes, "Three, two, one. I'm here with Dale Jarrett." And Earnhardt goes, "I'm not Dale Jarrett." Turns around and stalked off. And all the blood in that radio guy's face just drained away. And the writers, we were pissed because we're like, man, we had Earnhardt, and he was great, and he just left because of you. But at the same time, I was also thinking, oh, that poor bastard. He finally got his big interview, and he just missed it. You think of Earnhardt, you think of the intimidator. Behind that, he could be a softie too, right?

George Diaz:
Yeah. And he was. He was. He had a great charitable heart. He did certain things that he didn't want to get publicity for.

Todd Jones:
Remember in 1998 when he won the Daytona 500? A girl with spina bifida had given him a lucky penny. And he took it, and he glued it to the dashboard of his car. And he won the race. He finally won the Daytona 500. And he never really told anybody, but word got around that as a return favor, to thank you, Earnhardt bought the family a special van to meet all of her transportation needs. And that's the kind of thing that a guy that has that rough exterior, the intimidator, he's not really going to let you know. But behind that sometimes is a heart of gold. Well, NASCAR was the sport, and still is, that touches so many people, and people in the South. And you covered it for many, many years down there in Florida and covered it so well as you did so many different sports. And it's been great talking to you about all these different things. We've been all over the place, George.

George Diaz:
We have.

Todd Jones:
We've been with Shaq, we've been in Cuba, we've been Larry Holmes in the parking lot of a hotel fighting in Hollywood, Florida, and we've been in Daytona. And I think that speaks to your career, your great career. I was joking with you early on about your basketball skills, only because I love you like a brother. I've had a lot of respect for you. You were great to me when I was a young guy in Cincinnati. And whenever we crossed paths, we always had some good laughs. And you're a guy of a big heart, advocate for foster kids and Alzheimer's disease. You've taken in dozens of foster children. And you've done a lot for your community down there in Orlando, Florida. You really are such a big part of Central Florida down there. And it's because of your work as a journalist, but also because of your own heart. So I appreciate you taking the time and spending it with us.

George Diaz:
Well, thank you, my friend. Those words really do mean a lot. And I'm glad I might have provided a few pointers now and then. But I think you got this. And you've obviously carved out a great career for yourself. So pat on the back, right back at you.

Todd Jones:
All right, my friend. Thank you for your time.

George Diaz:
All right. Take care.

Todd Jones:
Thanks for listening to Press Box Access. You can find us here with a new episode every other Wednesday. If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to subscribe and follow us on Apple Podcasts or on your favorite podcast app. We'd love for you to review us. Five stars would be nice. Follow us on social media. Drop us an email at Press Box Access at Gmail dot com. And be sure to spread the word. Everyone is welcomed here. This has been a production of Evergreen Podcasts. A special thank you to executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando, producer Sarah Willgrube and our audio engineer, Dave Douglas. I'm your host, Todd Jones. It's closing time. Rock on.

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