Harding-Kerrigan was the best scandal ever

by Gary Shelton on January 19, 2017 · 1 comment

in general

Thursday, 4 a.m.

It was just supposed to a long weekend away from the sports that mattered. That's all.

No deadlines. No headaches. No football.

No news.

Okay, okay. It wasn't the geographic holiday you might have imagined. It was snowing, and it was in Detroit and it was, for crying out loud, figure skating. You could empty out a small snow globe, and you could put everything I knew about figure skating inside it, and you'd still have room for the Detroit skyline.

To be honest, I was here because of a threat. In those days, there was a list of criteria for writers covering the Olympics – I covered my first Winter Games that year -- and one of the items on the list was covering the Nationals. So the USOC held it over our heads to cover events like these. Besides, the Bucs didn't make the playoffs that year. Or any year in recent memory. It was a lot like, well, now.

So I meandered into Detroit slowly. I wasn't down to write the next day. The office wanted a couple of soft feature stories, just to show I was there. I remember I stopped at a book store on the way in.

I got to Cobo Arena, and I grinned at a couple of friends. Five minutes later — no more, I don't even think I had pulled my laptop from the backpack, when a reporter rushed breathlessly into the arena.

“There has been an attack,” she said.

And all hell broke loose.

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Lately, Tonya and Nancy have been on my mind. There is a another movie coming out about the crime, another fresh spin for Tonya to insist she knew nothing, saw nothing, said nothing.

It was Jan. 6, 1994, the day Nancy Kerrigan was attacked. And it launched the most bizarre story in the history of bizarre stories. That day launched the Gillooly Gang, led (I still believe) by Tonya Harding. It gave us a million views of a videotape with Kerrigan crying out in anguish “Why...why.” It dropped a million police officers who all looked like Barney Fife as they walked around bumping into each other. It was a sports story that became enduring simply because it was so hard to believe, a theatre of the absurd starring Tonya and Nancy.

It was difficult to tell if the weeks after the attack on Kerrigan were more humor or evil intent. There were half-witted plans and trumped up thugs, lies and oafs and pratfalls. If not for the pain in Nancy's knee, the whole thing could have been comic relief.

First, there was the press room. Again, I didn't nearly as much about figure skating – I knew Kerrigan was starring in a Campbell's soup commercial at the time -- as I would come to learn. I think my first reaction to Kerrigan getting whacked was “hey...she's the good one, right?”

Another writer from Houston just kept moaning over and over. “Please, don't let there be news.” He was joking, I think.

Turns out that Harding's then-husband, Jeff Gillooly (who later changed his last name to Stone, which seemed to tick off all of the guys who had come by the name honestly) got together with Harding's bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (who changed his name to Brian Griffith; one supposes he was fond of Family Guy). Eckhardt hired a hit man name Shane Stant to break Kerrigan's knee so she could not compete in Lillehammer. Instead, he bruised her. (These were bad guys, they just weren't very good when they tried to be bad.).

That day, Harding swore a thousand times that she had no idea who might want to hurt Kerrigan. Still, there was such a strange vibe about Harding that suspicious persisted.

The Detroit police put out wanted posters featuring two artist renditions of the attacker (I still have mine). The thing is, they looked absolutely nothing like each other. It might as well have been Brad Pitt and Zorro, or Donald Trump and Obama.The order of the day was confusion.

But because these were small-minded criminals, we got the small-mind SVU unit to catch them. Right there in Cobo, there were thugs and there were cops, and it seemed as if they were trying their best to avoid each other. It was the Gang That Couldn't Swing Straight against the Cops Who Figure It Out.

Eventually, the absent brainpower of the Gillooly gang caught up to them. Police started making arrests. Fingers started pointing at Harding.

About this time, I wrote a column that said, basically, we should all let this play out. That ended up with a strange phone call one evening. The guy on the other end said he was a producer for The Today Show. I was skeptical. He offered to send a limo. I told him, no, I could drive to a nearby TV studio. And so, at a god-awful early time, I went to a Tampa studio. I did a remote debating whether Harding should be kept or kicked against Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe. Katie Couric interviewed us both.

Then I went to work and got fussed at. Turns out, the big boss was shaving when he heard my name on the Today Show. He didn't know about it, so he was ticked. Just my luck: I bring attention to the paper by appearing on a national TV show, and I'm reprimanded. They should have whacked me on the knee. Thing is, I didn't quite believe it was legit until Katie showed up. It was hardly the strangest thing about the case.

Eventually, both Harding and Kerrigan went to Hamar (where the skating was for the Lillehammer Olympics). I remember Tonya's opening press conference, in which the sports information people pleaded for the media to go easy on her. First question, from the great Jere Longman of the New York Times: “Tonya, you lied to us about your smoking, and you lied to us about not knowing anything about the attack. Why should we believe a word you're saying now?”

Lillehammar was a Christmas card. It was my favorite Winter Olympics, with the village in the snow, with the Northern Lights, with the moose playing in the fields. There were great stories like Dan Jansen, like Bjorn Daehlie, like the igloo village. But most Olympics lack an edge of news; Tonya and Nancy gave it this.

They shared the ice for one awkward day of practice in which a couple of hundred of us watched. A couple of journalists figured out how to hack into Tonya's private account in the computer system at the Olympics. Tonya broke a boot strap and cried for a do-over. Nancy was efficient, but she lacked the charisma of Oksana Baiul enough to sway the communist bloc that voted against her.

And then the real fun began. Harding once threw a hubcap at an ex-husband; no one doubted she had a hubcap handy). She boxed, and wasn't very good. She pulled out of a match where she was supposed to wrestle a transvestite “because it's beneath my dignity.” To which the promoter asked: “What dignity?”

After that, I covered two more Olympics and three more national skating championships. I can barely remember the names of any of them.

But I remember Tonya and Nancy.

This was the ultimate sports story. It was Sosa and McGwire and the Black Sox and Lance Armstrong. This was Liston perhaps taking a dive, and Pete Rose making a bet, and the crooked NBA ref and Dennis Rodman wearing a dress. In all the annals of sport, only O.J. Simpson has a prayer of holding up against it.

It was Tonya.

It was Nancy.

It was the best story ever.

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