NEW YORK — As several hundred boxing and television types filed out of his memorial service at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theatre Wednesday afternoon it occurred to me that Artie Curry’s worst fears had been realized. For us it had been a poignant and often uplifting celebration of his life, a tribute to a departed friend, but Artie, well, he might not have hated it, but he would have squirmed uncomfortably through almost every minute of it.
Once I recovered from the shocking news of his death five weeks earlier, I’d inquired about arrangements. There were none, I was told. Artie had left express wishes that he be cremated without fuss, privately and quietly interred without a formal funeral service.
I wondered then whether he had had some vague premonition of his impending demise, because men in their forties don’t commonly devote much thought to these matters. As it turned out, his death had been preceded less than two months earlier by that of a beloved sister, who’d succumbed to cancer. Her burial struck Artie has such a gut-wrenching, grief-stricken experience that he determined that he didn’t want to be the focal point of a similar exercise. He’d told Lise Curry that, and, lest his mother be tempted to override his wishes, he’d told several friends as well: No body, no funeral, no tears.
Of course he could have anticipated that with HBO showing Paul Williams-Winky Wright in Vegas just a few nights later there would be the inevitable 10-count before the main event. And as they attempted to convey their sense of loss even while attempting to explain just who Arthur Curry was and what he did to a television audience that had probably never heard of him, first Michael Buffer, then Jim Lampley, and finally Larry Merchant each flubbed his lines, bursting into tears on-camera.
The concept behind Wednesday’s gathering was that it wouldn’t violate Artie’s proscription. The well-intentioned idea was that his friends, his family and his HBO family would come together at the Mecca of Boxing to exchange some light-hearted reflections, share a few memories by telling stories in which Artie would often be the butt of the joke – in his self-deprecating humor he was used to that – and everyone would go home happier for the experience.
They even managed to retrieve footage of the high point of his non-HBO television career – his appearance as a contestant on “The Price is Right.”
When Bob Barker looked to Row 18, fourth seat from the right, and said “Arthur Curry, come on down!” recalled his old friend and HBO mentor Carl Veibranz, “Artie sprang up like a jack-in-the box and bounded down the stairs like a boxer entering the ring.” In his subsequent conversation with the host he was in the process of bonding with a spellbound Barker when there came a voice-over:
“We interrupt this program to take you to the White House…”
And for the next 25 minutes Ronald Reagan addressed the nation over the troublesome issues in Afghanistan (back then, we were defending the rights of our friends, the Taliban) and that was the end of Artie’s career as a game-show contestant.
But despite such moments of levity, and the fact that a decent interval had elapsed, close to a dozen speakers shared their memories of Artie at Wednesday’s gathering, and almost without exception they were unable to get through their remarks without succumbing to tears. Whether it was HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg or Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes or Lou DiBella, whose tenure as an HBO executive paralleled Artie’s eventual role with the network, or Kery Davis, the VP to whom Artie allegedly reported (though as Davis made clear, the opposite sometimes seemed to be the case) or Roy Jones Jr., not a man normally given to sentimental reflection, at some point they all found themselves crying, and when they cried, the rest of us did too, and somewhere Artie was saying “Damn! I told you this was a bad idea!”
It wasn’t a bad idea at all, and we all left the better for it. But it clearly wasn’t what Artie would have wanted, because in his mind it was never about himself. But they all turned out for him Wednesday – boxers great and small, past and present, promoters, sportswriters, judges, officials, trainers, sanctioning body officials. There were even a couple of what looked suspiciously like round-card girls.
In just over an hour it took for a dozen people to fill in the gaps of a life story, interspersed with some uplifting, but inevitably emotionally overwhelming live musical performances from Tracy Adams, Fabian Spady, and Chaz Perry, it became clear that while both Artie’s life and career over the past three decades had been the product of a series of happy accidents, in each instance it had been he and he alone who had seized the moment and made the most of every opportunity to arrive at the indispensable position he held at the time of his untimely end.
Essentially an abandoned child from Brownsville who barely knew his natural parents, he grew up in a series of foster homes, and at 17 was about to be discharged from the system. Lise Curry and her husband, a sometime jazz singer, were looking to adopt a small child, but a social worker passed along word about Artie Sheppherd, whom he described as “a diamond in the rough.”
When DiBella phoned Lise Curry a day or two after Artie’s death he’d never met her.
“You’re going to be surprised,” she told him. “I’m a little white lady.”
“Yes,” said DiBella, “but I also understand that you’re a strong black woman.”
Artie finished high school as a member of the Curry family, and eventually took their name. A few phone calls through friends of friends resulted in a pro-forma “job interview” and a place in the mail room at the Time-Life building, whose rounds included the offices of subsidiary HBO.
“He never took anything for granted, not even the smallest kindness,” recalled Mary-Ellen Simonnin, who arranged his job interview back then. “He’d thank me and tell me how thrilled he was to be working at such a great job, and I’d be thinking ‘Great job? As a mail room boy?”
And, if you went strictly by the job description, he wasn’t even very good at that. “It quickly became apparent that getting the mail delivered on time was not among Artie’s priorities,” recalled Viebranz. But as he made his rounds and stopped to chat in each office, brightened the day of each and every occupant with his infectious conversation, and along the way he was absorbing everything he came in contact with along the way, and learned the way this intricate company operated by mentally connecting its individual components.
Always a sports fan (and, as footage showed at his service attested, the owner of a deadly jump-shot from three-point range well into his forties), Artie had naturally gravitated to the HBO side of the Time empire, and after seven years in the mailroom was offered the chance to join HBO sports as a production assistant. On the surface this could have been a job holding even less promise for the future than the mailroom, but he plunged into it with such enthusiasm that it eventually became clear that his people skills might make him useful in an even more important role, that of a go-between coordinating relations between the network, its sometimes contentious roster of boxers, and the public that represented the constituency of both.
The role has been described as “ambassador,” but it was more and less. Officially at the time of his death Artie’s title was “Manager of HBO Sports Talent Relations.” He had his own expansive office, and, he told Vierbranz in a recent visit, “you wouldn’t believe how much money I’m making now.” (He was right about that part. Viebranz, who had been an HBO VP when he was ushered out the door a decade ago, couldn’t.)
The job was a two-way street, of course. Artie managed to maintain the trust and loyalty of both his employers and the boxers because he never favored one over the other and never tried to bullshit either one of them. His friendship with Jones appears to have been one of the more enduring, and while Roy deliberately avoided citing past examples, one can almost imagine a conversation between the two, whether on the grounds of the farm in Pensacola or in a Vegas hotel suite.
“An HBO jacket for your cousin? What size does he wear, my brother?”
“Smoke on another HBO undercard? I can pass it along and see what they say.”
“You headlining as a rapper at Radio City Music Hall? Get real, my brother. No chance.”
“But how about you fighting at Radio City Music Hall? Now, there’s a chance to make history.”
“Artie,” said Bewkes, “would come up with all these ideas that shouldn’t have worked, but you’d be surprised how often they did.”
Kery Davis recalled a meeting when Artie reported for his annual job review. The network, of course, hadn’t a single complaint, but Artie did: “I don’t think I’ve been giving enough back,” he told Davis, and proposed a program that would send HBO boxers out into the community to speak at schools and social agencies. Somehow the concept had never occurred to his superiors, but as Artie outlined it to Davis that day, Kery found himself thinking, “He’s absolutely right.”
He truly carved out his own job description, one that made him so irreplaceable that the notion of a single successor has not even been contemplated. As Merchant noted on the broadcast the weekend Artie died, he was not only the bridge between the fighters and the HBO suits, but between them and the guys in the tuxes at ringside, too.
“His job was so unique and he was so good at it that he actually had better access to the seats of power at HBO than the guys in the boardroom did,” said DiBella. “Artie was HBO royalty.”
And he rubbed shoulders with boxing royalty as well.
“I can’t begin to tell you the basis for our relationship, because it doesn’t even make sense to me,” said Jones. “He’s from the North, I’m from the South. He’s from the big city, I’m from the country. It’s not like we had a lot in common, but we hit it off right away and stayed that way for years.
When he spoke to Artie just before his death, Jones recalled, he had mentioned that he wasn’t feeling well but said he had medication had things under control. RJ had been worried enough to offer to fly to New York. Given his well-documented history of Big Apple Xenophobia, this was, Artie had to know, a reflection of the utmost concern, but he discouraged the visit. Within a day he was dead of a heart ailment.
“Sometimes an angel just appears in your life,” said Jones, “but don’t ever take anything for granted, because in a spark that angel might just fly off without warning.”
Even as he choked back his own tears, Jones expressed his confidence that, “Wherever Artie is right now, he’s happy and he’s smiling.”
One can only hope so. Peace, my brother.