Scott Hamilton will let nothing -- not even cancer -- -- keep him from dazzling the crowd
||Milwaukee Journal Sentinel|
||February 21, 1998|
||Alan J. Borsuk |
Moline, Ill. -- Shameless, that's what Scott Hamilton
is. Shameless about entertaining.
If you go
The Discover Stars on Ice show will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the
Bradley Center. Tickets are $38 and $28. On tour with Scott Hamilton
are a dozen other skating stars, including Kristi Yamaguchi, Paul
Wylie, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. The
tour then heads for the East Coast and Florida, before returning to
the Midwest and a performance March 28 at the Kohl Center in Madison.
If figure skating purists aren't so hot about back flips on the
ice, but the audience goes wild for them, you know what Hamilton will
do: Back flips at the start and end of every show.
If it makes sense for figure-skating stars to think about what
comes next in their life once they reach their 30s, you might guess
what Hamilton's goal is at 39: A musical, on skates, on Broadway.
And if a heavy-duty match with cancer might lead most people to
drop the demanding life of a performing tour, you know where Hamilton
is, coming back months before his doctors' forecast: Going from city
to city, in front of adoring crowds, with the popular Discover Stars
on Ice tour that he co-founded a decade ago.
In this latest and perhaps most riveting chapter in a love story
between a performer and audience, Hamilton says he does not want his
cancer to be the focus of his life. But he also knows there is a
special set of emotions underlying this tour, on his part and among
the audience. The show taps into that directly and indirectly.
He described one of his two solo numbers on the tour, which will
visit Milwaukee on Thursday and Madison on March 28, as a direct thank
you to his fans. When he took the ice for the first time during the
introductory number in a performance here recently, just the sight of
him brought a roar from the crowd of 9,000.
You don't need to rely only on subjective impressions to see that
the bond between Hamilton and his fans is something to behold.
Marketing Evaluations/TVQ, a Manhasset, N.Y., firm that does
polling of public attitudes toward performers and personalities, found
last summer that Hamilton's favorability ratings were the highest of
any sports figure in the United States except Michael Jordan. In a
poll the company did several months before that, Hamilton had the
highest favorable ratings of any athletic performer among women who
were surveyed. Company President Steven Levitt called the results
Hamilton has received more than 60,000 get-well messages since the
news he had cancer was released last spring. His first-person
recounting of the diagnosis and treatment was the cover story in the
Sept. 8 issue of People magazine.
A four-time world champion, Olympic gold-medal winner, TV
commentator at the Olympics and star of TV specials, a key figure in
figure skating for almost two decades -- those attributes explain much
of his importance to the sport.
But the element that puts him over the top is that shamelessness --
his trademark enthusiasm for pleasing a crowd.
As he sat at the edge of the ice three hours before show time in
Moline, talking in quiet, reflective tones that contrast with his
gregarious stage personality, Hamilton recalled that as a youth he was
the kind of kid who liked "seeing how far you could push somebody
before you got yelled at."
He still goes after that feeling on the ice.
"In certain numbers, I like to push it as far as I can, just to see
how much I can get away with. . . . I'm just trying to figure out how
shameless I can be before it kind of gets over the top."
And what would be something shameful to do in front of a crowd?
"If you did something totally for you and not for them. That would
be shameful. Shameless is kind of generous to an audience."
He said the first condition that performers on the Stars on Ice
tour have to agree on is that the skaters are there for the crowd, not
the other way around.
A little later, as he ate a dinner of ham, pasta and green beans
backstage, he returned to that train of thought.
A lot of people at the top of the world of professional sports
don't get it, he said. They don't get how fortunate they are, they
don't get how much they owe their fans, they don't get their basic
obligation to go all out in what they do.
"Reggie White gets it," he said. And Brett Favre. "I love
exuberance," Hamilton said.
Most of the players in the National Basketball Association don't
get it -- "they're out of sync with planet Earth at the moment," he
And legendary NBA star Wilt Chamberlain is "the biggest jerk I ever
met in my life . . . and I don't mind saying that."
What did Chamberlain do that was so terrible? Hamilton tells how a
mutual friend thought it would be fun for Chamberlain and Hamilton to
meet. When they ended up at the same event in Los Angeles several
years ago, Hamilton introduced himself. Turning his back, the
7-foot-plus Chamberlain didn't even acknowledge the presence of the
No one should treat someone else like that. And it especially
shouldn't come from someone who owes his place in life to the public.
Even Hamilton's quick return to the ice following cancer treatment
lines up with his love -- he seems to treat it almost as an obligation
-- to perform.
He had been feeling poorly for several weeks last March, near the
end of last year's tour, when he finally brought himself to go to a
doctor in Peoria, Ill. In short order, he was diagnosed with
testicular cancer that had created a large tumor in his
abdomen. Radiation, chemotherapy and surgery followed.
It was early August, almost five months later, before he stepped on
the ice again. In late October, he returned to performing with a
comeback show in Los Angeles that was nationally televised.
He said, "This is the only thing I can do, to come back and try to
get to the highest level of skating I can achieve as a thank-you to
people, as a way of saying, 'Without your support, without your
kindness, without your generous prayers and love, there's no way in
the world I could have accomplished all of this. You're responsible
and I'm grateful and I share it with you.' "
Hamilton said he's basically feeling pretty good now: "I'm up and
down. . . . Two steps up, one back all the time. Just when you think
you're really gaining on it, something kind of blows you away a little
bit. You know, here we go again. Just with energy, mainly, and
He has a chest X-ray once a month and every three months has a more
thorough exam, including a CAT scan.
On this day, he admitted an ankle was bothering him, unrelated to
his treatment, and he seemed a bit worn. But he was generous with his
time, meeting with a child who has cancer, some young figure skaters
and local radio-contest winners, and doing a short local television
interview and a lengthy interview for this story.
His skating, he said, is fine. "On a good night, I'm probably
better this year than last year. My material is better this year. I
liked what I did last year, but I like what I'm doing this year a lot
"I can still do everything I did when I was 25, or even 21, for
that matter. I'm not out there trying to beat the world with the
hardest jump combination or the biggest this or this or this. My job
is to entertain, and I try to anticipate what the audience would like
It took him until mid-January before he felt comfortable on the ice
again and he knows he still doesn't have the strength and conditioning
that he would normally have.
But, whereas he doubted last spring if he would ever perform again,
now he's not willing to attach a time frame to questions of when he'll
Members of the troupe agree Hamilton is doing fine. Paul Wylie
said, "He seems a little more upbeat than in the past."
And Kristi Yamaguchi, the tour member whose fame comes closest to
matching Hamilton's, said, "He's the same upbeat, positive
person. . . . I think he sees life more as a gift now. Otherwise, he's
the same old guy."
Hamilton said there are days when "the air has smelled sweeter and
the colors have been brighter" and his birthday in August, just as
life was getting to be more normal, was especially fun this year.
He said he would like to cut down on his television commentary
work, especially now that the Olympics are over, and do some
motivational speaking. What will his message be in such speeches?
"Rising above challenges. Dealing with adversity in a way that is
healthy, not in a way that would ultimately bring you down or destroy
Going through an episode such as cancer treatment, he said, "you
learn a lot about yourself and how to handle challenge and rise above
certain obstacles. You learn. And you apply it to the rest of your
life, and hope you're a better person for it."
He said one message that he is eager to spread is for people to
take care of themselves and to respond to warning signs within their
bodies. He went several weeks knowing something was wrong without
seeking medical help.
"It's my fault probably that I didn't find it sooner. . . . I
thought I had an ulcer, I thought it was lifestyle related, I thought
it was stress related. And it wasn't. I had something kind of
Fortunately, he said, the cancer was discovered before it could
spread to his lungs or brain.
He said: "You're ultimately responsible for your own health and you
are ultimately responsible to make sure your health is good, in honor
of your family and the people around you that care about you the
most. Because any life-threatening illness is harder on the people
around you than it is on you. Much harder. I learned that from both
sides of the hospital bed."
At first, he wanted to hide the fact he had cancer from
everyone. Now, he says he doesn't treat even the locale of his cancer
as a sensitive subject. "It's actually an abundant source of humor."
When he's not traveling, Hamilton shares a home in Denver with his
longtime girlfriend and indulges in a passion for golf that is one of
But his focus is still on the ice that has been his home since it
was discovered that a sickly and small child of 8 had a great gift for
"Everything else in my life can be complete chaos, but when I step
on the ice, it's great, it's home," he said. "I just really feel more
comfortable on the ice, in front of a crowd, doing what I love to
do. It's the best part of my day. Even on a bad night, it's the best
part of my day."
While figure skating seems to have boomed, especially on television
in recent years, Hamilton views its popularity as a more of a gradual
climb, going back to the era of Sonja Henie in the 1930s. And he
foresees the popularity either staying at current levels or rising,
depending on how warmly the public embraces the current crop of
The Stars show, with its combination of individual and group
numbers, is a good home for former Olympians because it offers "an
extension of the same type of outlook they had to their Olympic
careers," Hamilton said. "They can have that same intensity and that
same desire, the reward of knowing that you are as good as you can
be. . . .
To him, the show means that "at the end of the day, when you're
sitting there bouncing your grandchildren on your knee, you can look
back and not have any regrets, because you were in a place where you
could develop everything and you didn't miss anything. You had the
best opportunity to do the best work in the best environment."
Hamilton says it's still a fresh experience for him to get on the
ice: "There's no limits to what you can do on the ice. You can use
your imagination, you can put skating out there in a way that hasn't
been seen before."
At one point in the interview, there is silence as Hamilton and his
guest watch other stars practice in the empty arena.
It's a beautiful thing to watch, the guest says.
"It's magic," Hamilton says, almost to himself.