By Paul Gardner
Farewell, then, to Ike Kuhns, who died last week at the age of 76. Farewell to a treasured journalistic colleague who had been covering American soccer for some four decades. That fact alone tells you that Ike was an unusual man. There weren’t, back in the 1960s when I first met Ike, many other American journalists -- if there were any -- who, while working as a staffer on a major daily newspaper -- the Newark Star-Ledger -- managed -- alongside his standard baseball, football, hockey and basketball beats -- to cover and study soccer.
Ike had not grown up with the sport -- he discovered it during his time in the Army in the Far East, attending the 1958 Asian Games final in Tokyo -- a pulsating game in which China edged South Korea 3-2 in overtime. I know it was pulsating because Ike told me it was, and when Ike told you something, in his insistent, penetrating voice, you knew it was so.
Soccer became important to Ike. He spent his own money on it -- notably traveling to England to cover the 1966 World Cup final. A game I also attended. Both of us agreed about that game -- it was exciting. And Ike, by taking soccer seriously, by writing about it with enthusiasm and knowledge, totally convinced his editors that his stories on this foreign sport -- it was certainly viewed that way in the 1960s -- should be published.
He and I saw a lot of each other, particularly once the pro soccer scene began to develop, starting in 1967 with the formation of the National Professional League and the United Soccer Association.
Not only did Ike enjoy the sport, he actually wanted to play it. Now, no one would have mistaken Ike for an athlete, but he was determined to give it a try, and in 1967 his moment arrived when a press team was put together to play a curtain-raiser to a New York Generals game at Yankee Stadium.
“I’ll play halfback,” said Ike, whose terminology had not caught up with midfielders yet. The self-appointed captain of the team looked doubtful. But we only had 11 players as the kickoff approached; our star player -- the Irish international Danny Blanchflower -- had not turned up. Most of us had no cleats, but the Generals provided a selection of suitably run down shoes. Ike made his choice and enthusiastically donned them along with a pair of dangerously tight shorts.
I was playing right midfield (not halfback, if you please) and got a close up view of Ike in action. He trotted around, somehow never being anywhere near the ball. I wasn’t doing much better. The difference was that Ike was enjoying himself. As he sweated and panted, the smile never left his face. I was grimacing.
At halftime, Blanchflower joined the team. So I had my moment of glory, playing with an international star at Yankee Stadium. But Ike was nowhere to be seen. I asked him later what it felt like to be replaced by Blanchflower, and Ike, beaming in triumph, refused to acknowledge that he’d been taken off for poor play. “They needed my cleats,” he said. Adding, after a long pause, “Well, maybe they were trying to tell me something.” And Ike chuckled merrily.
And there he was, at all the games I covered, it seemed, making his notes, writing his game reports, talking easily with the players and coaches (most of them foreign) about a sport that he was just beginning to understand. That perpetual smile helped, for sure, it was difficult not to feel good about soccer when Ike was around.
The Generals had a huge defender named Herb Finken whom I had accused, in print, of being “inelegant.” Ike was greatly amused. Over 20 years later, he suddenly reminded me of the adjective. I expressed my surprise that he remembered. “Oh no, inelegant never forgets, you know,” was his -- probably rehearsed -- punchline.
Ike loved his New York Cosmos years, but I don’t think he ever fell for all the shallow, glitzy -- and supposedly glamorous -- stuff, that surrounded them. Certainly he never wrote about it, preferring instead to pay attention to the soccer, and what happened on the field. He got it all down, accurately, concisely.
What was missing in Ike’s writing was not the soccer ... it was Ike’s human face, that warm humor. I recall a steamy May night in 1968, well before the Cosmos era, when Ike and I turned up in Jersey City to watch an exhibition game between AC Milan and Glasgow Celtic. Roosevelt Stadium was the venue, a baseball stadium that looked like it hadn’t been used for years.
The ticket collector reluctantly admitted us as non-paying press. The press box was on the other side of the field. No, we couldn’t walk across the field (which was in horrendous condition) we must walk around behind the goal. That area turned out to resemble a bombsite, dusty and rock strewn. I picked my way through the mess, then paused to allow Ike to catch up. He stumbled and tripped his way toward me, grinning as ever, stopping for breath, and blurting out “Did Brian Glanville really start like this?”
Probably not, but Ike cheerily put up with all the slings and arrows of covering soccer in those early days, simply because he believed in the sport. He never lost that belief. He retired in 2001, but he still turned up regularly at Red Bull games, watching with an undoubtedly critical eye, but no doubt enjoying himself.
In 2008 Ike won the National Hall of Fame’s journalism award, and that was right and proper, for Ike was a pioneer who helped put soccer on the journalistic map in this country. Said Clive Toye, the man who put the New York Cosmos on the map: “I tend to think of Ike as one of the stalwarts who kept on writing about soccer when it was unfashionable -- even treasonable -- to do so.”