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Scott Hamilton will let nothing -- not even cancer -- -- keep him from dazzling the crowd

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Date: February 21, 1998
Author: 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 extraordinary.

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 said.

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 5-foot-3 Hamilton.

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 consistency."

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 more."

"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 to see."

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 stop performing.

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 you."

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 serious."

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 his trademarks.

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 skating.

"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 Olympians.

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.