Sunday, June 21, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Every so often in life, you encounter someone who truly is larger than life. Less frequent are the moments you are touched by a larger-than-life presence who is not, in fact, present.
Having never met Kirk Kerkorian, this is how I best remember him: on an October night in 2011 at Wynn Las Vegas, at the 16th annual Andre Agassi Foundation for Education Grand Slam for Children, where Kerkorian made his presence felt.
To the tune of $18 million.
Smokey Robinson, Michael Buble and Martina McBride were among the entertainers to grace the stage that night at Lafite Ballroom. But there was no more beautiful sound than Agassi announcing that donation.
“There has been a gift generously given from a great man named Kirk Kerkorian, which I get the privilege of announcing for the first time, publicly,” Agassi told the audience of about 1,000 dignitaries and supporters. “But before I tell you that gift, let me tell you that if it wasn’t for him and his kindness to my family, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today. And I mean his kindness long before I hit a tennis ball.”
The familial ties bonding Agassi and Kerkorian were stronger than the strings on any tennis racquet. Agassi’s father, Mike, worked at the original MGM Grand when fire erupted at the hotel in November 1980, killing 85 people, temporarily closing the hotel and putting employees out of work. The Mike Agassi and Kerkorian shared a strong Armenian heritage, and Kerkorian made sure the family was not left financially bereft.
Unknown for years to even the most avid Agassi fans, Kerkorian supported Mike Agassi again when the family patriarch underwent heart surgery in 1995. “We’re still waiting for that bill,” Agassi said in 2010.
A year later, Andre Agassi told the well-heeled gala audience, “His generosity didn’t stop with me. It continued to millions of people in Nevada.”
Agassi, whose middle name is Kirk in tribute to Kerkorian, also mentioned the UCLA “Dream Fund” charity founded by Kerkorian in April 2011.
“The other thing I want to say about this gift is that it’s unprecedented in our foundation’s history,” Agassi said. “It’s a gift that assures us our future in perpetuity and forever. Kirk Kerkorian has given our foundation $18 million.”
The crowd erupted, the applause lasting a full minute, but even at that moment, it was difficult to appreciate the full scope of the gift. Kerkorian’s donation had pushed the night’s total to $26.1 million, which ensured that the Andre Agassi Preparatory Academy had enough operating funds to live on for the foreseeable future.
“Mr. Kerkorian, I respect you, I love you,” Agassi said, his voice quivering. “On behalf of this foundation, on behalf of every child who will walk the halls of Agassi Prep, and on behalf of the millions and millions of people he has helped and continues to help who he will never meet, thank you.”
Agassi left the stage, and as it turned out, it would be the last such fundraising effort for Agassi Prep. It later was announced that the Grand Slam for Children would take a year off, and it has not been staged since. There is no need.
The event, which rivaled even the Keep Memory Alive “Power of Love” gala for its grandeur, required several months of planning and, as Agassi said at the time, was “taxing to our small staff.”
An unassuming man who never finished the eighth grade made it possible for multitudes of children to further their own educations.
Watching the tennis superstar reduced to tears was one of the many testimonials to Kerkorian’s legacy. He was the sort of mythic person who could make even great champions like Andre Agassi feel humbled. Kerkorian’s was a reminder that even while building the grand resorts that make Las Vegas one of the world’s greatest tourist destinations, building a future for the children of this generation is just as important.