It was a little past 2 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2004, and I recall being a bit nervous, which seemed odd. I was at the Convention Center, holding a pen in one hand, a small tape recorder and a pocket-size notebook in the other. In a few minutes, I would be interviewing Edson Arantes do Nasimento, which is what his mother probably called him when she was upset with him, at least if she was anything like American mothers who tend only to use the middle names of their children when they are dragging them off by the ear.
To the rest of the world, he is known simply as Pele.
In a few minutes, I would be granted a one-on-one interview with the Brazilian soccer legend, the greatest practitioner of The Beautiful Game, which is what he called it. A brief one-on-one interview, I was told. Pele’s got places to be, people to see, things to do. I understood. That’s his job. Few in sports have it. Pele, Ali, Tiger, at least before last Thanksgiving. Gretzky? Maybe in Canada. Maybe in Sweden. Not in Sri Lanka, or Bora Bora.
I wanted to be ready with a question. Not a conventional question about soccer or being a world ambassador, as impressive as that is. I wanted to ask something different, something he had never been asked. Yeah, maybe I would ask about having his likeness plastered across a penny slot machine, like I had assured the slot machine people who had set up the interview.
So I lied.
I decided I would ask Pele about his role in the 1981 prisoner of war movie “Victory,” starring Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone. Maybe I wouldn’t mention Stallone, because Pele has dined with kings and queens and heads of state. But what if that Rex Reed guy also had been granted a brief interview with Pele? Certainly, that’s something he would have asked.
Pele’s skills with a soccer ball were so extraordinary that in 1967 the warring nations of Nigeria and Biafra declared a two-day truce just so they could watch him play an exhibition match. Were it not for Cronkite, I might have asked about that.
Nothing I could come up with seemed original or provocative. I had just about resigned myself to asking Pele if his mother had ever called him by his full name and dragged him off by his ear after he had knocked her knickknacks off the living room shelf with a soccer ball when … There, From Out of Nowhere, The Great One materialized.
(I always do a Howard Cosell impression when I tell people about meeting Pele.)
He was sporting a retro Afro hairstyle and wearing a pale green polyester leisure suit and embraced me with a bear hug, as if, I wrote the next day, I had just set him up in the 6-yard box with a teasing cross.
This is how, I was told, Pele greets kings and queens and heads of state, too. I remember people screaming and jumping up and down and a woman who spoke only Spanish, or Portuguese, breaking into tears because Pele had touched the baby she was cradling to her chest. I recalled the conversation I had had a few minutes earlier with a TV producer from Los Angeles who had jumped into his car and driven straight to Las Vegas when he heard Pele would be making a public appearance with slot machines. “I didn’t even change my underwear,” the man said.
I saw all this, and remember it now, which is probably why when it was my turn to speak, the best I could come up with was, “What’s it like to be Pele?”
He spoke for what seemed like 10 minutes and must have answered my question three times, although it was hard to tell because he doesn’t speak English as well as he played soccer, and I don’t speak Portuguese.
It was over quickly, and although I don’t normally do such things when I cross paths with celebrities, I took the little microcassette out of the tape recorder for safe keeping.
Months later, when my mom was visiting and I went to play the tape, Pele’s voice was gone. Some American Legion coach was talking about missing the cutoff man.
My mom then called me by my entire name, and dragged me off by my ear.
Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352.