The best head of hair in sports leaps from Don King's temples as if galvanized, its fuzzy tendrils intercepting signals from distant galaxies. It seems to jerk his eyes up and his mouth open, though you can't be sure because King's mouth is always open anyway.
I am here to commune with boxing's shock-follicled fabulist about hair and athletics. For days I've been tangled up in hair heritage and hair heretics. I've interviewed female tennis players who pluck hair out and hockey players who have it woven on; swimmers who shave it off and basketball players who have designs shaved in; a pitcher paid to grow a mustache and a first baseman fined for sprouting sideburns. I've tracked down many artistes of the scalp: Barbershop Mike, the silhouette draftsman of Harlem, whose etchings run from Michael Jordan in a reverse jam to Mike Tyson in a half-dozen stances of belligerence; Pasquale Gallo, the Greenwich Village stylist who created the mushroom, a postnuclear 'do that suggests an explosion over Los Alamos, N.M.; and the legendary Gary Bray, who coached the U.S. Ladies Hairdressing Team to a gold medal at the 1984 World Hairdressing Olympics in Las Vegas. I've seen tresses shorn into topiary gardens of staircases, slopes, spikes, fences and Gumbys; flattops you could eat your lunch off; shaggy perms that look like they had caught fire and been put out with Louisville Sluggers.
As it turns out, none of this came close to preparing me for the don of Kings.
My dinner with Don unfolds on a chintz-covered couch at his gilded and mirrored Manhattan town house. In his sandals and gray silk pajamas, King is as genial as a used-car salesman and as exhortatory as a preacher. Between fistsful of honey Teddy Grahams, he talks about all things hairy—all things, that is, except his hairy lawsuits. His conversation soars effortlessly through speculation, prophecy and hallucination. Naturally, everything he says comes off the top of his head.
December 10, 1990
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: Tell the truth. How did you survive the electrocution? King: The truth is that my hair is an aura from God. Until 1971 it was kinky and nappy and burry, like any other black man's. Then one night I was in bed with my lovely wife, Henrietta, when suddenly my head got to rumbling. It felt like a volcanic eruption. Ping! Ping! Ping! Henrietta shook me and said, "Look at your head! Your hair is half up and half down!" And she was right: All them curls was straightening out and straightening up. Each strand stood erect, pristine and beautiful, reaching for the heavens on its own individual stimulation.
SI: What did you make of this hair-raising experience?
King: I was alarmed. Don't you see, I'd been traumatized. I'd just spent four years in prison for manslaughter, and I'm laying there in the free world wondering what direction I'm gonna go in next. I knew it wasn't back to the numbers business, where I came from. So the next morning I went down to the barbershop to get a haircut. The barber put his clippers to my hair, but all he got was static electricity. There were shocks and fiery sparks and I heard a snap, crackle, pop!
SI: Haven't I heard those sounds before?
King: Not in a barbershop! Those clippers were giving me an awful migraine. I had to get out of that barbershop. I had to run. Being a religious person like myself, I looked up the Scriptures and found out the Lord did it to me. I thought, Whaddya know, I've been chosen by God! He made every shank a citadel. He had given my hair abandon that could not be controlled. No one can beat me over the head to make me submit. My hair will not be conquered!
SI: Didn't Samson say that?
King: Indubitably. I am the black Samson. But I don't think the Lord wants me pushing down no temples. He wants me to build them up and demonstrate in this country called America that you can be somebody—in spite of insurmountable obstacles and impediments—as a black American vis-à-vis a white American.
SI: What was your hair like before this awesome power was bestowed on you?
King: I used to have my hair cut off and be glad about it. The barber would clip, clip, clip and snip, snip, snip. But even then, while my hair was dying on the vine, I felt its power. It got under my skin, up around my neck and behind my ears, making me uncomfortable and causing me terrible mental frustration. Oh, the horror! Even after the barber brushed my neck and shook talcum on it, the little hairs would still be crawling around my back, shouting, "Why did you do this to me, sir? Why did you kill me? Come back! I'm still alive! Get me!" Hair that's cut fights back. It rebels! And it always gets the last laugh, continuing to grow even when the rest of you is laid out on the slab.
SI: But hair doesn't grow after death. It's a myth.
King: I'll take your word for it. I sure ain't closing my casket from the inside to find out. Whatever energy remains in the body may make hair look like it's growing after death. Hair is like a fungus, maybe. Fungus grows on dead things, so you never know.
SI: Hair is just strings of dead protein.
King: Dead!?! Hair lives! It's alive! The ads say: "Let your hair breathe!" How can it breathe if it ain't living? Another scam must be going down.
SI: A cabalistic theory in Orthodox Judaism holds that the excess of the mind flows from the head in the form of hair.
King: The activity of the brain is what generates hair growth. That's why a lot of people go bald: They overactivate their craniums and knock their hair out. My own hair stands sentry over a brain that can emulate and imitate any of the great thinkers of yesteryear. Thanks to my hair, I will go down in history as one of the great thinkers. No matter how they look at it, no matter what they say or do, I've had a great career, a phenomenal career. Certainly, I've had my trauma, my travails, my ups, my downs, but still I've persevered, I've prevailed. And I've done it without the gun, the club or the knife. I've done it with wit and cunning and intellect.
SI: Don't forget understatement.
King: I won't.
SI: Roy Blount, the published plumageologist, thinks wild hair caused civilization. According to his hair theory of human evolution, early hominids were always tossing their heads back to get the hair out of their eyes. The longer it got, the more they had to shift their weight to their haunches and kick at their hair with their front feet. Before long, they were standing up. Their brains relaxed and enlarged, and pretty soon the thought occurred to them to cut some of their hair off with a sharp rock. Through technology, they could detach a part of their body and hold it. Blount says this act was fraught with all sorts of symbolic implications. King: Throughout eternity, hair has had symbolic power. It's been a crown of honor, a cloak of comfort. When you're cold, it warms you. When you're hungry, it feeds you....
SI: Feeds you!
King: Indubitably. I lair nourishes me with its intricate power. No question about it. It's an attention-grabber that gives me the opportunity to present whatever story I want, for better or worse. Without that attention, I might not get a chance to say anything. People across the country see what they consider my outlandish—and what I consider my magnificent—coiffure and follow my example. I'm a walking billboard. Joe Louis had to fight 14 years to make the Hall of Fame. Babe Ruth had to hit 60 home runs. Ty Cobb had to hit a triple play! But I made it on hair.
SI: Where is this Hall of Fame?
King: In the minds and hearts of the little mothers—black and white—who say to their babies, "Here comes Don King. I wonder what he wants. I bet something wondrous is about to happen, an extravaganza second to none." With no hair I'd be just like every other nigger walking down the hall or the sideway. If I was bald, people would say, "Do you know Don King?" And I'd say, "Yes." They'd say, "You look a great deal like him, but you don't have The Hair." This way, they know it's me for sure.
SI: There is a striking resemblance.
King: There's a reason for that.
SI: Would anyone listen to a bald Don King?
King: Let me just say that I am an instrument of the Lord, and He is using me as a conduit. He didn't give me any other facial distinguishments. He took me from the pits of despair and through my hair gave me hope, knowledge and international recognition. I'm world-renowned now. In fact, I'm known all over the world. The power of my hair radiates inwardly and outwardly. It fertilizes new thoughts and activates the churning of the cerebellum and the medulla. The poet John Donne said many years ago: "No man's an island, a train to himself. Every man's a member of the continent and a part of the main. And when the death bell tolls, does it not toll for thee?" For whom the bell tolls, bro.
SI: Hemingway was alleged to be a bald-head freak.
King: Margaux or Mariel?
King: What's the name of his hair book?
SI: To Have and Have Not?
King: I must have been thinking of the one he wrote about arms.
SI: I think A Farewell to Hair was just a working title.
SI: Actually, Hemingway shaved his head twice. Once after he got lice in Turkey, and another time on a safari in Africa.
King: Hemingway was a very excellent writer, and his works are certainly historical. He had a brilliant mind, so naturally his hair would have grown to great lengths. That kind of brainpower makes your hair grow. So being a perceptive and ingenious young man, Hemingway readily perceived that the Africans in the bush kept their hair short to avoid problems caused ~by having to go through the vines and leaves and twigs. Imagine all the bugs that might have cohabitated in his hair, making nests in that hot heat. In Africa, there is no long hair. Only in Shakespeare's Egypt do you find the long, flowing locks of Antony and Cleopatra.
SI: One of Antony's lines seems to describe you: "My very hairs do mutiny."
King: How about the Bard's immortal Merchant of Venice, in which Sherlock—or whoever he was—was going to marry What's Her Name. After grabbing her hairpiece and bewigging herself, she defended him in his case of being whatever he was in the most eloquent and articulate fashion.
King: In the kingdoms and fiefdoms during the Inquisition, a serf's crudest punishment was to have his or her hair lopped off. Bette Davis loved to render her subjects bald.
SI: I didn't know she was around then.
King: I'm talking about the movie. As Queen Elizabeth, she deprived the British underclass of their beauty, their pride, their dignity. It was not unlike the Old South. Slavery in America stripped the black man of his cultural existence, his religious existence, his mythological existence, and cloned him to be a servant of the master. Even in the 1940s and '50s he had to repeat the Big Lie, that he was worthless, shiftless and brainless. He stole, he cheated, he could hardly function. He wished he was white. Black athletes couldn't be white unless their hair was straight and silky. So they went out and conked it with all sorts of lethal and abusive chemicals.
SI: The Afro blossomed in the Sixties as an emblem of unity and ethnic pride.
King: It instilled a much-needed self-determination. The Afro was wild and woolly. It let black athletes rebel against convention while they campaigned for freedom, justice and equality. It proclaimed: "I'm unified, I'm within myself and I'm proud." It made it so the black athlete of today can afford to get his hair cut.
SI: What part, if any, did you play in this scheme?
King: I have to admit that I had a lot to do with the reckless abandon in the hair-growth of people in general and athletes in the specific. My phenomenal success is unique, rare and wonderful. In the jargon of the ghetto—a self-made vernacular we call ghettoese—bad is good. When you say how bad I am, you're really saying how much better I am. The Justice Department has charged me with every known crime and misdemeanor—kickbacks, racketeering, ticket scalping, skimming, fixing fights, preordaining them, vitiating officials and laundering money. The only thing they missed was kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. But the missing link is the burden of factual proof. And while I would be feeling aggrieved and somewhat disgruntled about what they write about me in Newsweek, The New York Times and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, my people love it. The tirades and salvos of negativism in the media only fill me with positivism, for I defy convention and tradition. Convention is vanity, and vanity is self-destruction. The vain athlete doesn't make rational, reasonable, pragmatic decisions. He survives solely on ego. He doesn't listen to his hair!
SI: What about tennis players like Andre Agassi who constantly preen for adoring fans?
King: That's vanity! He's just telling you he's on a self-destruct course.
SI: So you think Agassi's hair will eventually do him in?
King: Not his hair, his vanity. He primps at the expense of his talent. Nowadays, the first thing many sports figures do after gaining wealth and fame is alter their hairstyle to a more traditional one. It's a way of saying they've made it. They demand, "Get me something that will make me look like the big stars: Clark Gable, Bruce Willis, Jack Paar...."
SI: Jack Paar!?
King: Sure. These big athletes try to emulate and imitate instead of just being themselves. They forget what brought them to what they are: hard work, dedication, tenacity, doggedness. The black athlete says, "I've got a limo, a Rolls, my kids go to private school, but gee, something's missing." They sound out the wife: "Henrietta, what would you think if I get me some of that wavy hair like the white athlete's got?" When they change the hair that got them to where they at they do. That's why Howard Cosell bought a wig. But his hair is man-made. My hair is God-made. That's the difference. But the symbolism is definitely there. In fact, I represent the symbolism.
SI: The first athlete to use his hair symbolically may have been Ernie Holmes, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive lineman who in 1975 had his hair sculpted into the shape of an arrow. Holmes said he wanted to know where he was going.
King: It's always good to use your head for something other than a hat rack.
SI: A lot of contemporary athletes have messages shaved into their hair. Boxer Jorge Paez wore NO DRUGS in his hairdo during his April featherweight title bout. Dennis Rodman of the Detroit Pistons had I LOVE ALEXIS, referring to his daughter. How long before we see corporate logos? When will fighters start having DON KING PRODUCTIONS stenciled into their hair?
King: I don't believe a fighter's hair should be tampered with. It's a great ornamental bush that can be pruned, but not chopped to the roots. A naked head is an exposed brain venue. A boxer's venue can be destroyed much more easily if it's without a protective covering.
SI: Are most boxers aware of the power of hair?
King: The sad commentary is that most of them are not. They see hair as a nuisance. They clip it off and toss it away like confetti. Unless you grasp the significance of hair, you cannot know the power instilled in it.
SI: How tight is Tyson's grasp on hair?
King: He looks at mine and laughs at me. I look at his and laugh at him. He says, "Whaddya laughin' at?" I say, "I'm laughin' because you talk about all the hair on your head when you hardly got no hair on that head." So you see, this brings a repartee and a rejoinder. Through hair, we've got something to banter about, and I can tell him what significance my hair has vis-a-vis his has in significance. Tyson's hair really only becomes a critical factor in training. His opponents become afeared when they see hair budding on his face and under his chin. It tells a talc without him having to open his mouth.
SI: When Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, was his hair unmanageable or just mismanaged?
King: I don't think hair had nothing to do with it. It would only have been a complement. Basically and fundamentally, it was the icing on the cake.
SI: What happens to prizefighters who shave their heads?
King: That great book of parables, the Bible, tells us that if your right eye offends thee, pluck it out. If your right arm offends thee, cut it off. It is far better to lose a part of the body than the whole body. One asks how a blind man can live while unable to see the lilies of the valley, the flowers, the rivers and the flowings. But the body has ways of substituting, of adjusting. Take Marvelous Marvin Hagler. When he balded himself, his body became vulnerable and had to compensate. His mind asked, Should we move in another direction and start other mechanisms to generate the same excitement? Yes, said his central nervous system. So Hagler worked that much harder to be the intimidator he was purporting to be. Hairless, Hagler had to rely on brute strength, physical stamina and a mental aggressiveness. He became a champion unknowingly, and perhaps unwittingly.
SI: Can George Foreman win back the heavyweight title without hair?
King: Foreman is 42. If he didn't have his chrome-dome, he'd be gray. So rather than put the coloration and the dye in it and have people perceive him as older than he really is, he cut it off. Sportswriters had been having a field day writing about Old Man Methuselah and how his being in the ring was a threat to his safety. But as he became more formidable with each outing, they dropped the safety angle and viewed him as an incredible resurrection of what they would like themselves to be at that age.
SI: So Foreman's lack of hair works to his advantage?
King: Yes, but only because it projects intimidation. He's the bald-headed man with the grim eyes who can glare at you and stare at you. Don't forget: that's what he was doing when he had hair. Now he's the Stare Without No Hair. Oddjob, the baldie from that 007 movie. Much more frightening.
SI: How about dreadlocks? John McEnroe once said he feared Yannick Noah's dreads more than his game.
King: Well, you've got to take the boy at his word, even if he was being facetious. If it provoked such a statement, there's got to be some substance to it. Perception is reality to those who don't understand what reality really is. And you find yourself in a very precarious and untenable position of having people perceive you to be something you ain't. So perception has its qualities. And its setbacks.
SI: When swimmers shave down before meets, the benefits are more psychological than physiological. They do it to psych out the opposition.
King: It really depends on how much strength a swimmer has in the various points of resistance on his head, and whether that swimmer's relative strength overcomes it vis-a-vis a person who lacks this resistance. Or whether the swimmer shaved his hair into a mushroom which, when wet, would drag. Over a long time it would take its toll, but in short spurts it could be overcome. The key is what the swimmer thinks. Convince a man against his will, and he'll be of the same opinion still.
SI: It's been said that Chris Evert's hairstyle and tennis game became more aggressive at the same time.
King: The hair itself could have been the derivative from whence her aggression came. It may have made her more intoxicating, more captivating. People would say, "Oh, how wonderful and different you look, Chrissie. I've never seen you so light. Your countenance is coming through so provocatively." All these appraisings could have gotten her adrenaline pumping, so that her hair and her game become indelibly meshed.
SI: Who else has become at one with his or her hair?
King: Donald Trump. He just trims his hair. He don't want a lock to fall out of place. His coiffure is always in place. If you look closely, you'll see that he only wears one suit. He's got a copy in his closet and alternates them every other day. He don't want nothing to change because this is the look that did it, baby. This is the quintessential look: a power suit and a power haircut. Why do they call the lion the king of the jungle? It's because of the magnificent mane he has. That's his hair, his crown and glory. When he barks, everyone listens.
SI: Any athletes with power cuts?
King: I can only think of one.
SI: Who's that?
King: Michael Jordan.
SI: But he's bald!
King: He looks bald, but really there's a thin, thin layer of hair that retains the moisture. He keeps it cropped real close so you can see the thought waves and the way it glistens like flowers in the morning dew. When the light hits, Jordan throws his head right in his opponent's face. The rolling sweat and this dewy glistening have a kind of a mirrored effect, blinding the other team with their beauty. In that instant, Jordan bobs his head, soars through the air and scores! The glare from his little head, shiny-wet with dew on all sides, makes him a powerful man on the basketball court.
SI: If hair harbors so much power, why would you shave your whiskers?
King: The significant part of my power is on my head. The Lord hasn't done any miracles on my beard. If it grew up into my eyes and became part of the total scope, I probably wouldn't cut it, either.
SI: You probably already knew that if you collected all your whiskers for 16 years, you'd have enough to form a one-pound ball.
King: I doubt the hairs on my head go the full 16 ounces. I'm not going to mow them just to weigh them. I need to keep a lot stored up so that when I don't have much left, I'll still have some in escrow. Part of the reason men shed their hair is that they work themselves so hard that they knocked out the room in their brains for the roots. Poor Cosell got to the age where he was no longer self-sustaining in the hair-growth department. He didn't prepare for the inevitable. Maybe if he hadn't had all those haircuts, his hair would be around today.
SI: Cosell's toupee has a life of its own. On TV, it almost seemed to be moving. King: He may tell it like it is, but he should have left it like it was. Which reminds me of a poem I wrote:
Little spider on the wall,
Ain't got no hair at all.
Ain't got no comb to comb his hair,
So what it care?
Ain't got no hair.
SI: What reminds you?
King: That Howard's got no hair. He had to go out and get an artificial substitute. You can buy hair, but you can't buy its power.
SI: Toupees don't secrete power?
King: They do, but it's dead power. Bald men moan, "My head's got to have hair! I can't live without it!" The urge becomes so all-consuming that they're willing to paste mats onto their scalps and have weavers prick at them with needle and thread. Can you conceive of the pain and misery a man must endure to have hair stitched into his skull? And then to have it look like you're wearing a muskrat pelt on your head.
SI: Jon Miller, a Baltimore Orioles' broadcaster, once wore a hairpiece so hideous that people stopped him to ask if he'd consider wearing a hairpiece.
King: That's the power of the want of hair, Jack. That's dead power.
SI: What do you think of athletes who wear curlers?
King: Male or female?
SI: Male, actually. When Dock Ellis was pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the '70s, he sometimes worked out in curlers. The story goes that he was warming up for a game when a teammate said, "I've been meaning to ask you—why is your hair in curlers?" To which Ellis replied, "Oh, after the game I'm going out."
King: In those cases, an athlete must make sure his sport doesn't mess with his head. Dock didn't want his hair to get caught up with the ball or the bat. Instead of having to get it reset in a beauty parlor, he just waited for the game to end, removed the netting and left for the races or wherever. Simultaneously, his date—if she ain't at the ball game—was probably somewhere else getting her hair curled for this gala evening.
SI: What's your position on the role of hair spray in sports?
King: It depends. I don't use nothing on my hair. All I do is wash it and oil it up. Each hair spray is destined to do something unique and extraordinary. So I guess they do the job psychologically as to what you are brainwashed to do before they are even applied. In fact, the word brainwash may have been derived from the hair spray.
SI: Jherri curls?
King: The problem with them is that they are not au naturel. My hair is. I don't know how it got here, I don't know why it's here, but I'm trying to find out. The cosmic rays of the sun mold it into a pyramid every morning at five. That's the most powerful time of the day. The skull turns into a subterranean cavern where all the vital brain germs cogitate and congeal and the mechanism and the machinery and the power of the thing dwells. You have the part of the mind for those who are visionary, the part for those content to accept whatever happens, and the part for those who know what it was yesterday, what it is today and can prognosticate about what it will be tomorrow. This machinery operates under the great protective shield of hair.
SI: All this happens at five in the morning?
King: Yeah, five or six. While others dream, my hair parts like the Red Sea, opening my mind to the magnetic fields of the solar system.
SI: How does it feel?
King: S.K.D., which in the ghetto means Something Kinda Different.
SI: Do you try to make deals then?
King: No, I just absorb this spiritual revitalization, this rekindling of an unwavering vision that prepares me for the day's journey, whatever it may be. I tell you, it's exhilarating.
SI: And what do you see when you look in the mirror?
King: I see my hair, a burning bush basted in righteous juices. I say, "Thank you, Lord, for giving me this power you have bestowed upon me to protect me from the evil forces that will beset me today." God is pulling my hair upward into the heavens, holding it aloft for all humanity to see. My hair will remain that way as long as I'm considerate of others and don't let ego and vanity consume me to such a point that I think the world is mine and that the sun resides in me along with the rain and the snow and that I'm all-powerful, omnipotent, omniscient and ubiquitous. It is only when these spiritual vibrations stop cascading to my brain that I will lose the sense of power that catapults me into prominence and motivates me to towering heights. For now, my hair has mastered the universe! When I gaze into the mirror, I never cease to amaze myself. And I say this humbly.