John McEnroe’s stringed instrument of choice may no longer be the tennis racquet, judging by the way the former professional tennis star played the guitar with such ease at last night’s 25th annual Ottawa Celebrity Sports Dinner.
McEnroe, who was one of the most talented and temperamental figures in the history of tennis, headlined this year’s sold-out 650-person fundraising dinner for the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (JCC), held at the Infinity Convention Centre.
Organizers had hoped the presence of a live band at the dinner might lure McEnroe, who’s also a musician, to the stage to play at some point in the evening. The 64-year-old sports legend did indeed join the band. Ironically, they played Chuck Berry’s hit Johnny B. Goode.
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The theme was New York City in honour of the 2023 U.S. Open. Attendees felt like they were walking through the Times Square subway, complete with faint train sounds, as they entered the venue. The only iconic red tennis headband to be seen in the crowd, however, was on the cardboard cutout of McEnroe from his big hair days.
The stage had a wonderful late-night talk show feel for McEnroe’s conversation later with Arash Madani from Sportsnet. The evening, which also featured slick videos capturing exciting moments of McEnroe’s career, was emceed by TSN sports commentator Kate Beirness.
McEnroe, who shoots from the hip, didn’t shy away from his reputation as the bad boy of tennis, acquired from his temper tantrums on the court.
He recalled a newspaper article from the ‘80s that listed him as the third-most hated man in history (after Attila the Hun).
“People are always going, ‘They remember you because of the way you acted’. Yes, they remember me from the way I acted but if I hadn’t been able to beat [my opponents’] asses they wouldn’t remember me at all. That’s the part that people forget.
“I’m okay with people having a love-hate thing or like it or don’t like it, but they have to at least hopefully respect that I brought something to the table when I played.”
He also discussed his three biggest tennis rivals: Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl in a largely admiring way. As well, McEnroe spoke of how proud he was to be part of the tennis world at a time when its popularity was booming. He remembered the sport as seeming “lame” when he was growing up in the Douglaston neighbourhood of Queens, N.Y. “One of the things I hoped to do was change that a little,” said McEnroe of the personality-plus that he added to tennis.
McEnroe intentionally gave as much intensity as he could to the sport, the room heard. “I wasn’t going to knock them over with my physique or blow them off the court with the power that I had,” he said of why he always tried to “come out with guns blazing”.
Among the McEnroe fans in the room was Colin Keddy, director of family office for TAAG. He remembers hitting tennis balls against his school wall with his racquet when he was growing up. “Every kid on my block wanted to be him,” said Keddy. “He’s the original rock star bad boy of tennis when that didn’t exist, when it was this sort of la-dee-da, whatever.
“He’s a hero, for sure.”
The evening was expected to surpass last year’s total of $350,000 in funds raised for the Soloway JCC, which is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. “I’m pretty confident that we will surpass that number,” Soloway JCC president and COO Barry Sohn told OBJ.social.
He lauded the work of Stuart Ages, principal at Paramount Properties, for his “tremendous” contributions toward the dinner. “There’s a group of us that work on it; we all take on different roles, but Stuart is really our big reach into the corporate community. The financial success is very much tied to Stuart.”
The evening paid tribute to “Stuntman” Stu Schwartz, long-time emcee and live auctioneer of the Ottawa Celebrity Sports Dinner. His friend Lianne Laing, who’s also president of the Heart Institute Foundation, publicly thanked him for doing such a terrific job. “…He owned the stage; he knew this crowd inside and out,” she said of the ease and comfort in which the veteran radio host has always handled an audience, particularly the social crowd at the sports dinner.
Schwartz was gifted a portrait done by Laing’s husband, professional sports artist Tony Harris. Schwartz didn’t miss a beat; as the painting was unveiled on stage, he pointed toward the crowd and jokingly shouted in his familiar-sounding auctioneering voice: “Who will give me $5,000?” He knew exactly who to tease, too (Mark Cantor from The Butchery in Bells Corners).
On a much more serious note, Andrea Freedman, outgoing president and CEO of the Jewish of Federation of Ottawa, took a moment before dinner to acknowledge the Israel-Hamas War. “We pray for a day when Israeli and Palestinian children live safely and free from Hamas’s reign of terror,” she said on stage. “The Jewish people are strong and we will overcome the challenges ahead as we have always done in the past.”
She paid special thanks to Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and Ottawa Police Chief Eric Stubbs for their “extraordinary efforts” in helping to keep Ottawa’s Jewish community safe.