JB’s friendship was by the ‘book’

Mar 22, 2005 8:12 AM

During the early weeks of Sports Form’s debut, the late Chuck Di Rocco spent a good deal of his time in circulation. Basically, that meant he was out delivering the paper.

Naturally, the majority of his stops were the race and sports books around town — Union Plaza, Hollywood, Derby, Turf Club, Churchill Downs, Santa Anita and Rose Bowl are the ones that come to mind.

At the Rose Bowl he met John Bennett.

John’s real name was Lucien Buonantony. He was as Italian as they come and the bonds of pasta and lemon ice were strong. Chuck and John shared a love of all things Italian, especially food. The two of them would spend hours comparing their neighborhoods — John grew up in the Bronx and Chuck in Philadelphia — traditions and, of course, favorite dishes.

They also shared a love of racing. Being East Coast boys, they were both certain the best horses in the world raced at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, and California horses couldn’t compete in that league.

It didn’t take long for Chuck to realize that, in addition to horse racing, John was also a mighty fine sports handicapper. With the NFL pre-season approaching, he knew we needed a strong writer in that area and John was a perfect fit. From his very first column, our page one headline proudly proclaimed John’s top pick of the week. It always started with his initials and a colon — JB: — then listed his prime pick.

John’s ability was amazing and his winning streak of 17 headlines in a row that first season put JB on the lips of nearly every sports bettor in town. It also helped make Sports Form a must-read for sports handicappers.

What made it all the sweeter for Chuck was JB’s refusal to take any payment for his columns. He insisted it would bring him bad luck if he got paid. In reality, that was JB’s kind way of telling us he knew we were struggling to make ends meet.

But that wasn’t the only way he helped us. JB would run ads for the Rose Bowl on a regular basis and often paid for weeks up front, saying that he might forget so he’d better pay us ahead of time. What a wonderful gift at a time when cash flow couldn’t have been weaker.

One day he came waltzing in with his usual smile and cheery hello. He went over to Chuck’s desk and plopped down his column along with a large sum of cash. It was much more than several weeks of advertising would have cost.

"There was a good thing in the third at Aqueduct this morning. I had your ad money in my pocket so I bet it for you. The horse came in and paid $14 and change," he proclaimed.

What a great friend he was.

Those were the thoughts going through my mind Thursday night as I sat next to John at Harbor House hospice. His son Richard sat across from me. As usual, John had no complaints.

JB always took everything life handed him and gave back smiles and humor. He was a good man and a true friend. He will be missed.

God bless you, John.