As the world pays tribute to one of country music’s biggest stars, Kenny Rogers, who passed away at the age of 81, it’s the perfect time to take a look back at Rogers and his impact on the sports world. Rogers may have made his name in music; he also left his mark in football, basketball, and tennis.
Kenny Rogers inspires USFL football team name
Kenny Rogers became a country music superstar in the mid-1970s with numerous hits such as Lucille (1977), Lady (1980), Islands in the Stream with Dolly Parton (1983), and his signature song, The Gambler (1978).
The Gambler, which was written by legendary songwriter Don Schlitz, was recorded by multiple artists, including Johnny Cash. However, it wasn’t until Rogers’ version was released that the song turned into a smash-hit success. The song topped the country charts at No. 1 and crossed over into the pop charts, a rarity at the time.
Interestingly, the song crossed over to sports as well. In 1984, the USFL team in Houston adopted the song as the club’s name, in honor of its hometown boy, Rogers, who was born and raised in the Bayou City.
The Houston Gamblers played in 1984-85 and were led by veteran NFL head coach Jack Pardee and star quarterback Jim Kelly, who spurned the NFL to play in the USFL. Kelly was the league’s second-biggest star behind a running back named Herschel Walker.
Rogers takes on NBA stars including Jordan and Bird
While Rogers had that connection to football, he always enjoyed a game of hoops. He showed off his basketball skills in 1988 when he held a three-day fundraising event called the Kenny Rogers Classic Weekend at his Georgia home.
The weekend festivities included several nationally televised pickup basketball games with a variety of celebrities and some of the NBA’s biggest stars including Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, and Dominique Wilkins. Legendary Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn called the game.
Highlights from one of the games, which former NBA player Rex Chapman posted on Twitter, include Rogers setting up for a shot as the always competitive Jordan comes flying through the air to block it. Rogers pump fakes, steps to the side, then calmly drains it. Hearn’s call—”Rogers puts Jordan in the popcorn machine.”
Jordan, who won the NBA defensive player of the year the previous season, shows up in multiple clips blocking shots, including one where the ball rebounds directly into Rogers’ hands, and he converts the easy putback.
Despite being several years older than most of the athletes, Rogers is clearly in good physical condition and has a decent stroke. To those who knew him well, Rogers’ athletic ability didn’t come as a surprise. That’s because Rogers also excelled in something outside the world of music. Rogers was an ATP-ranked tennis player.
Rogers and professional tennis
For a time in the late 1970s, Rogers became obsessed with tennis. He played eight hours every day, and against some of the best players in the world, he told Rolling Stone in 2014.
“I developed a national ranking while I was on the road playing with Wimbledon champs.”
His passion for tennis grew so strong he decided to bring a couple of tennis pros with him on the road, where he developed a crisp doubles game.
“We just flew from city to city, and we’d get into town, and we’d play the pro and the assistant pro at one of the clubs. I heard at one time that I was ranked one notch above Björn Borg in the doubles,” Rogers said in an interview to BBC Radio. Then he laughed. Borg “only played one doubles match.”
Although his tennis stats are limited, Rogers still has a listing on the ATP site.
The man who won three Grammys, played basketball with Jordan and Bird, and earned a national ranking on the ATP Tour, may have departed this earth, but he has left a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.