ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
The sports world lost one of its most controversial and compelling characters today. Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, died at age 82. Davis was a rebel in the buttoned-down world of pro football owners. He had slicked-back hair, black leather jacket. He brought a swagger to the game that came to define the entire team, the Oakland Raiders.
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SMITH: That's the late Al Davis in an ESPN documentary. Sportswriter Peter Richmond is with me now. He's the author of the book "Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders." Peter, welcome. I love to read the name of that book.
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PETER RICHMOND: It's kind of an awkward subhead, isn't it? Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
SMITH: What was the role of Al Davis in hiring - these are nicknames of players - Snake, Foo, Dr. Death?
RICHMOND: Al found guys who'd played for coaches who treated them like players, and Al wanted to treat them like men. And so he had these goofballs, but they weren't all goofballs, a lot of them - there's a high goofball quotient - and they got to the Raiders and Al said, I don't care what you do during the week. You're men. You're pros. I know that on Sunday you're just going to show up and we're going to win games and you're not going to make, you know, us look bad. You're not going to make yourself look bad. But you know what? You're men, so just live your life the way you want to.
So they didn't have curfews, and then on Sundays they showed up and played their, you know, cliche-ish guts out for Davis because he treated them like men.
SMITH: It wasn't just the players on the field that Al Davis took a chance on. I mean, he broke some barriers on the sideline and in the front office, too, right?
RICHMOND: He did. He hired the first African-American head coach, he hired the first Latino head coach. He was always proud of his ability to see beyond all racial stereotypes. The ASL, his first league, was more African-American, percentage-wise, than the NFL, but it was still pretty low. And Al made a point of making sure that African-American players, and later coaches, were not only welcomed, they were going to be integral leaders. Early on, his captains and his team leaders, and then his coach, were emblematic of a certain enlightenment that, unfortunately, is going to get lost in the legacy of his overarching kind of maniacal ego.
SMITH: You interviewed him, obviously, when you were writing this book. What was the first meeting like?
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RICHMOND: It was pretty bizarre. It was about two years ago. He was already pretty frail. His health was ailing. And I've never been more intimidated - in 40 years of being a writer, I've never been in someone's presence in which I was just so awestruck. I think his frailty at that point made him even more dignified. It was kind of like meeting Caesar Augustus in the last few days. Just because he's no longer a great emperor doesn't mean he wasn't a great emperor. He did emanate the certain sort of not only - part of it was dignity, but part of it was power. I mean, it wasn't the illusion of power. It was power.
SMITH: You talk about Al Davis' rebel image, but he also attracted a strange crew of fans. I mean, the Hell's Angels were fans, Hunter S. Thompson was sometimes on the sidelines, and of course, there was a period - there where gang members loved to wear the silver and black Raiders jackets. Why did Al Davis sort of really encourage this?
RICHMOND: He was an outsider himself and attracted outsiders and outlaws to celebrate the fringe, to celebrate, you know, if it were today, he'd be down with Occupy Wall Street.
SMITH: That's sportswriter Peter Richmond. He was speaking to us about Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, who died at age 82. Peter, thanks very being here.
RICHMOND: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.