At the risk of blowing my journalistic objectivity, it was an unbelievable thrill for me to see George Best play when I was covering the original North American Soccer League from 1978 to 1985.
So next Thursday at 7 p.m. CT when ESPN airs a “30 for 30” profile on Best, I’ll be tuned in hoping more time is devoted to the brilliance he displayed on the field rather than the disappointments he faced off it.
I became a fan of the Northern Ireland star when I was 16 and first saw highlights of Best at his best when he was playing for Manchester United. By the time he migrated from England to the NASL in 1976 to play for the Los Angeles Aztecs, he had long secured his legend as a player and legacy as a playboy.
When he joined the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1978, I somehow convinced him to let me shadow him for a day and a half. Even the Strikers didn’t think he’d give me that much time, but he did.
That’s still one of the coolest memories from my 41-year career as a sports writer (and I covered three Super Bowls, an Olympics, a World Cup and even sat in a golf cart with Jan Stephenson.)
Alas, I didn’t get to sit on a bar stool next to Best. He ditched me around 6 p.m. during my only night in Fort Lauderdale, apparently having sized me up as an unsuitable wing man.
Still, I came away with a story that wrote itself and memories for a lifetime.
In all, Best played for three teams in the NASL – the Aztecs (1976-1978), the Strikers (1978-1979) and the San Jose Earthquakes (1980-82) – at the end of his career. It was in San Jose in 1982 that I last chatted with him.
But I never quit thinking about him, hoping he would get his life straightened out before it was too late.
I was devastated when he lost his battle with the bottle in 2005 at the age of 59. Even now, I can’t watch highlights of Best’s most spectacular goals without feeling sad. But I know I’ll be smiling through any tears I have next Thursday, knowing ESPN will be introducing his legend to a new generation of fans.
Even the other greats of the game were in awe of Best.
Johann Cruyff: “What he had was unique, you can’t coach it.”
Pele: “George Best was the greatest player in the world.”
Franz Beckenbauer: “George Best was one of the most talented players of all time and probably the best footballer who never made it to a major world final.”