A long, tortuous tragedy

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:16 AM ET

George Best will be buried alongside his mother Saturday in Belfast in the final chapter of a long and tortuous tragedy.

The end, like the start, will be fitting. Tens of thousands of fans will mourn the man who has been called the first total world superstar when services are held in Stormont Parliament.

Millions worldwide followed first the on-field genius of the soccer wizard, then, luminous in other ways, his off-field exploits.

That's the part that is so troubling, the part where Best's excesses competed with his athletic magic for sheer amazement and, as the years progressed until his death from alcohol abuse at 59 on Friday, petered off into the latest predictable George Best self-destructive vignette.

It would be a joy to remember the Manchester United and Northern Ireland international star for his uncanny ability to slip his slim frame through the most committed of defenders, to ghost his way through the most vicious of tackles with the ball always seemingly inches from his feet, and come through unscathed to score another breathtaking goal.

It would be nice to only remember George inviting me onto the team bus at Pearson International Airport for an interview while the rest of the Manchester United players looked on with incredulity at the unheard-of breach of protocol. A sportswriter on their bus?

If all the memories were of Best during his North American Soccer League days and our subsequent chats, of his twinkle-eyed humour and wealth of pure Ulster one-liners, it would be oh-so-fitting.

Here, after all, was Britain's greatest footballer of the half-century, a fellow I must include with Pele, Muhammad Ali, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky as the greatest athletes I've ever interviewed.

Like them, he had an endearing common touch. Too common, maybe.

For all his spectacular on-field exploits and for all his jet-setting with starlets and beauty queens, Best found solace at his local pub.

In a bottle, usually vodka. He underwent a liver transplant three years ago. He couldn't stop drinking. It killed him.

The one Canadian player to play with Best prefers not to dwell on the tragic side. John McGrane, a teammate with the Elton John-owned Los Angeles Aztecs, sees him another way.

"I think the disease that he had was tragic," said the former national team player from Hamilton. "People say he was Macbeth times two but that's not the case. George just burned brighter than everyone else.

"When you burn a candle really bright, it burns fast. Like many great people in history, Mozart, whoever, they all had tragic lives. But they did things nobody else had ever done before."

McGrane feels Best singlehandedly changed sport.

"He opened up sports so players could express themselves," he said. "He was the first (soccer player) to wear his shirt outside his shorts, the first to have long hair, the first athlete to transcend sport and become a playboy."

Whether any of it was of benefit to subsequent athletes is debatable. It certainly didn't help Best. One wonders whether life might have been different if Best had not been so gifted, so good-looking, so exciting.

He didn't seek out Sean Connery or Elton John or Miss Universe or all the rest who came into his light. People sought him out.

During United's visit to Toronto for an exhibition game, the man they call Bestie was spotted late one evening in a very relaxed mode heading for his Royal York Hotel room with a young lady on each arm.

"I'll be all right tomorrow," he promised.

After a 2-0 win in which he scored one goal and arranged the other, he spotted the same person and with a wink said "I told you," as a new set of ladies approached.

They all came to Bestie. Now, the tragedy is over and peace has finally come to him.


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