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Bringing Celebrities, Fish and Checkbooks Together

The New York Times

November 17, 2003



JOHN HAVLICEK, the Hall of Fame guard for the Boston Celtics, did not wear black tie to the party. He wore foul-weather gear, and it was a good thing he did. As the celebrity guest of the Mercury Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series, a fishing event to raise money for cystic fibrosis, Mr. Havlicek was in for a cold, wet, miserable morning, facing high winds and pouring rain in a small boat with no cabin.

An avid fisherman and regular participant in charity tournaments of all kinds, Mr. Havlicek handled the churning waves off Long Island with Zenlike calm, catching a 22-inch bluefish on his first cast. Mr. Havlicek was the event's defending celebrity champion, a title awarded for the number of bluefish and striped bass caught. But this year, appearing to take pity on his less prepared and thoroughly soaked and frozen companions, he headed back to shore before the end of the day, as did most of the fleet of 25 boats, because of the bad weather.

Fishing tournaments are not the only kind of activity, of course, that draws donors away from the chicken-dinner circuit and into the open air. Celebrities are inundated with offers to participate in sporting events that benefit nonprofit organizations. "There are so many tournaments," Mr. Havlicek said. "Last year, I kept every request for a golf tournament, which are all for charity, and I had 110."

But 15 years ago, a fishing tournament for charity was a fairly radical departure. "Most of the fishing tournaments back then were for money," said Capt. Gary Ellis, who with his wife, Susan, started the Redbone tournament in 1988 in Islamorada, Fla., after their daughter, Nicole, now 19, was born with cystic fibrosis. (Mercury, a marine products company in Fond du Lac, Wis., is the tournament's main sponsor.)

It began when Captain Ellis, a fishing guide in the Florida Keys, asked a client, Ted Williams, the baseball legend, if he would endorse a catch-and-release charity tournament. When he agreed, other celebrities followed, including Joe DiMaggio, the sports announcer Curt Gowdy and Mr. Havlicek, who attends every year.

Mercury Redbone now has 24 national tournaments a year with all profits going to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; in the last 15 years, the donations have totaled $5 million. Celebrity participants have included Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jane Seymour, Laurence Fishburne, Lauren Hutton and sports figures like Wade Boggs, Davey Johnson, the former manager of the New York Mets, and Chuck LaMar, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Trent Stamp, the executive director of Charity Navigator, a company in Mahwah, N.J., that evaluates charities, said that events like the fishing tournament helped attract potential new donors and encouraged them to give regularly.

"Fishing gets them in the door," Mr. Stamp said of the Mercury Redbone tournament. "They become acclimated to the cause, learn about the cause, and see the good people involved. If they can fish with John Havlicek and help a worthy cause along the way, wow, they've killed two major birds with one stone."

Mr. Havlicek has his own annual fishing and golfing charity event: the John Havlicek Celebrity Fishing Tournament for the Genesis Fund, a group in Canton, Mass., that raises money for children with birth defects. He knows the appeal of a desirable location, fun activities and the right mix of celebrities. "I hand-pick them," he said. "I know who the good ones are."

Because of the high cost of arranging a big "special" charity event in a first-class location, Mr. Stamp suggests that the most cost-effective way of showing support might be to just write a check to a foundation ? and skip the fishing."

But about 40 percent of the $250 billion raised annually for charities "start with special events," Mr. Stamp said. "They are the No. 1 way people get introduced to a new charity."

Mr. LaMar of the Devil Rays has used the Mercury Redbone tournament as a model for a similar tournament he holds each year for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation. "It may look glamorous to some, but it's not," he said. "There are kids that are losing their lives." As for Nicole Ellis, her quality of life is much better than in her early years, said Captain Ellis, adding that she still needs many medications and hours of daily therapy to keep her lungs clear. Cystic fibrosis is a chronic genetic disease that debilitates the respiratory and digestive systems. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, in 1955 the life expectancy of a child with the disease was age 6. Today it is 32, but there is still no cure.

Nicole is now a freshman at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who speaks at her parents' charity tournaments. "We never treated Nicole as if she wasn't going to college," said Mrs. Ellis, who was originally told that her daughter might live to be a teenager. "We didn't buy into that."



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