ESPN'S 30 FOR 30

Game, set, and match for 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair in Houston: The real story behind the 30 for 30 episode

Pro wrestling legend Ric Flair made the publicity rounds recently to promote his bio-documentary, Nature Boy. WWE.COM

Originally appeared on CultureMap/Houston.

Pro wrestling legend and "limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheeling-dealing" trainwreck, Ric Flair made the publicity rounds recently to talk up his controversial bio-documentary, Nature Boy, which drew the highest ratings for ESPN's 30 for 30 series in more than a year. Nature Boy drew 1.8 million viewers for its premiere airing, almost twice as many viewers than 30 for 30 has averaged in 2017.

During one national interview, Flair talked about the time he came to Houston and played a tennis match against "the 12-year-old champion." It was a typical "bull in a China shop" story, with Flair recounting how the kid beat him badly. It was a very cute story, filled with self-effacing humor ... except for one detail.

Everything he said was wrong.

If you watched Nature Boy, you heard Flair admit to drinking "10 beers and five mixed drinks" every day for decades. Many of his wrestling associates said they'd take the over on the beers and mixed drinks. Flair's out-of-control drinking exploits on the road, especially in hotels and on airplanes, are the stuff of legends. And legal action. So let's chalk up Flair's cloudy memory of his tennis match to booze.

It's too bad. Because what actually happened at the Westside Tennis Club is a much crazier story. I should know. The whole thing was my idea.

Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale called me in 2001 and said he was filming a commercial with Flair at Gallery Furniture, did I want to watch? Sure. The spot ended with Flair body-slamming Mack over "two great recliners for one low price." Okay, it wasn't DeNiro and Pacino. But the idea was to sell furniture, not win an Oscar.

That was the year that Mack bought the U.S. Clay Court Championships tennis tournament to Westside Tennis Club, which he happened to own. Mack asked me to come up with a publicity stunt to promote the event. I knew that Flair would be in Houston that week, appearing at the Summit (later called Compaq Center, now Lakewood Church). I asked Flair if he'd play along with a comedy bit. Sure.

The tennis tournament featured two pro matches each night, with a few minutes of entertainment, usually a local band, between matches.

Except for opening night. The "entertainment" would be a doubles match between a 7-year-old tennis whiz and a 9-year-old champ against "Ken Hoffman and his mystery partner."

I began to plant clues to my mystery partner's identity in my little newspaper column — "won matches in more than 40 countries" and "has more titles than Martina Navratilova." All the clues pointed to my partner being tennis Hall of Famer Steffi Graf.

Except it was Ric Flair.

That night we snuck Flair into the players locker room at Westside Tennis Club. You should have seen the pros run to shake Flair hand, get a photo together, ask for an autograph. Flair said he had never played tennis, and James Blake happily gave Flair one of his rackets to use.

The first pro match ends, and the announcer introduces the kids who will be playing against me and my mystery partner. Amazingly, it looked like nobody had left the stands. I took the court and then, "Here is Ken's mystery partner."

Flair's entrance music, "2001: A Space Odyssey," hit the loudspeakers. Flair walked out, "styling and profiling," tanned almost red, wearing one of his sequined wrestling robes. Here's where I was concerned. These are hardcore tennis fans. What if they think it's sacrilegious for a bleached blonde "fake" wrestler, who's never touched a racket, to play on center court at a real tennis event? What if they're insulted by the whole skit?

Except the crowd went absolutely crazy with delight. Spectators were screaming Flair's trademark "Wooo!," like they do now for Houston Astro outfielder and Flair fan Josh Reddick.

We had a couple of comedy spots planned. With the kids about to finish us off, I hit a ball as hard as I could. It landed in the top row of the stadium. Announcer Cliff Drysdale announced, "Out! Point to the kids."

I protested to Drysdale, who's one of the stodgier voices of tennis. I was surprised he even agreed to officiate this "match." I told him, "I think the ball was good. It should be our point."

Drysdale said something like, "Are you nuts? The ball sailed into the stands. The point goes to the kids. And if you continue to argue, I will disqualify your team."

I turned to Flair. "You handle this." Flair approached Drysdale, flexing his muscles, "The ball was good," and started climbing the umpire's chair to make his point. Drysdale had a change of mind. "Correction, the ball was good." The crowd erupted.

I told the kids, who were in on the joke, "in the last game, hit an easy shot to Ric Flair and let him smash it for a winner." He crushed the easy lob. Flair screamed "Wooo!" and did his trademark strut on the court. Fans lost their minds with laughter.

On match point, one of the kids blasted a forehand past Flair — he probably never even saw it — and the contest was over. 

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The Rockets are collecting a lot of young talent. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Good parents are protective of their kids. Some helicopter parents are a little too protective and take it too far. Kenyon Martin Sr came out and wanted his son traded to a contender where he can flourish in a winning environment. He felt as if Jr wouldn’t be able to flourish as much as he thinks his son can in Houston. With the arrival of the number three overall pick, most likely being a frontcourt guy, they must’ve thought his playing time would decrease. Less time means less development means less money you can ask for on the next contract. I get it. I’m a parent. I understand. But there’s a point in which you have to be realistic.

Things like this are actually a good problem to have. It speaks to the Rockets having an abundance of talent, young talent at that. Whenever a team has a bevy of young talent in the NBA, they’ve been losing a lot and have stockpiled high draft picks. That, or they’ve developed a bunch of young guys that are now getting playing time and are on the verge of perhaps breaking out. Teams love it because crafting and shaping their future is easier when there’s a ton of options. They can choose to play and develop the guys they want to keep and trade the ones they don’t…provided they have any value.

Sr may think Jr is a future All NBA guy, and maybe he is, but he hasn’t been able to beat out Jae’Sean Tate for playing time in that tweener 3-4 combo position. One of the main things people point out is his ball handling. If he can’t handle the ball and make plays, he can’t play effectively enough in this system at that position. While he’s been able to give them valuable minutes, he’ll have to continue to improve and fight for those minutes. With the possibility of yet another player at that position with lofty draft status and expectations coming in (not to mention a unique skillset), the writing was on the wall.

When Sr came out recently and stated Jr is committed to staying here and getting better and Jr reiterated that at media availability this week, it helped quiet down the rumors. Would I be surprised if he’s traded? Not at all. He’s a good young athletic player who’s improved his shot. He could be a valuable rotation player for any team that has him. Do I want him to stay? Of course! I’d love nothing more than this team to grow together and stay together.

That’s in a perfect world and that’s somewhere we don’t live. Acquiring this much talent has paid off in the recent past. I wrote last week that this team can do what the Warriors and Celtics did if they continue to draft well, develop their talent, and surround their core with the right kind of role players. If playing time and meeting their potential for too many players becomes a problem (cap-wise, playing time, or any other reasons), they can always make deals and turn that talent into more draft picks. OKC did it with James Harden and flipped assets into about 3 million draft picks over the years. Blueprints are out there for the team to follow. Let’s keep hoping Rafael Stone can push the right buttons at the right times and continue to build this team back into a contender.

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