Anyway, the shirts. The shirts are thick and cotton and soft to the touch. There are some with sleeves and some without, and beneath the suspension bridge are the letters G-E-A-R. Gear, as in a clothing line, and gear, as in a street nickname for steroids. Both designer, of course. Conte is quick to point this out, quicker still to grin. I like him already.
We're sitting in the lounge of a Manhattan luxury hotel, nursing cocktails, and between sips Conte tells me -- with a dollop of outrage and two pinches of pride -- he has been unfairly likened to both Al Capone and Adolph Hitler. (For the record: Der Steroid Fuhrer drinks Pina Coladas). The shirts are his idea. Well, mostly. In October 2006, just six months removed from a four-month stay in a federal prison camp, Conte paid a visit to the Olympia Weekend in Las Vegas -- a four-day tournament-cum-jamboree for the engorged of pectoral and shrunken of testicle, America's most anabolic, perhaps the only place on the planet where Conte's role as BALCO ringleader gives him performance-enhanced credibility. Probation papers in pocket, Conte walked the main hall, worked the crowd, had more than a dozen people ask him to autograph their T-shirts. Not just any shirts. Knockoff BALCO shirts, the original bridge pillars replaced by giant syringes.
Conte couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe the shirts were going for $30 a pop. He spoke to a lawyer, surfed the Web, found out shirts were only the beginning. There were coffee mugs and baseball jerseys, baby bibs and barbecue aprons, some 10 different companies hawking 25 different BALCO-themed tchotchkes. Oh, and thongs. Somebody was selling those, too, with big block letters stenciled across the front -- really, where else would they go? -- "the cream" and "the clear" joining black lace and Bart Simpson as suitable fodder for cultural pelvic enshrinement. Facing the deeply discouraging prospect of someone else squeezing a buck out of his hard-earned notoriety, Conte did what he always does: saw an opportunity -- or, as he likes to say in a phrase that's two parts Dale Carnegie and one part Successories poster, "the seed of equivalent benefit." Now Conte's peddling shirts of his own, the same ones he's showing me, for the low, low price of $24.95. They're available on his Web site, also home to his (perfectly legal) line of nutritional supplements, a site that still lists Barry Bonds and Marion Jones as affiliated athletes, shining examples of what Conte's (perfectly legal and otherwise) chemical concoctions can do for the rest of us.
"The shirts are mainly just for fun," he says, eyes twinkling behind rimless glasses. "But people are going crazy for this stuff. I want to bring some for the hostesses at the book party."
Right. The book party. "Steroid Nation." Written by my ESPN colleague Shaun Assael, it's a sprawling, "And the Band Played On"-style account of how performance-enhancing drugs migrated from Venice Beach squat racks to double-occupancy clubhouse stalls to "not talking about the past" before Congress. Conte is the guest of honor at the book party, cheerfully so. Forget that Bonds holds the unhappiest record in sports and faces a federal perjury indictment; that Greg Anderson spent more than two months in prison, silent as a mollusk; that a disgraced Jones will be sentenced to six months in prison, her Olympic medals already airmailed back to Switzerland; that the whole sordid BALCO affair has blown across the sports landscape in the manner of radioactive ash, poisoning careers and reputations alike. No. Forget all that.
Four years after federal agents first stormed through the steel-framed glass doors of his office in Burlingame, Calif., Conte sits before me in Manhattan, in jeans and a dark pink polo shirt, placing a hand on my shoulder. He is free and clear, rested and energized, mildly chastened and mostly proud, back in business and happy to talk. About almost everything. Conte says he doesn't trust the media; we spend the next 45 minutes chatting. He even pays for my drink, and as we head out into an unseasonably warm October evening, the better to hail a cab, the man whose smiling -- smirking? -- face has joined Ben Johnson, Lyle Alzado and Bonds on the Mount Rushmore of sports doping wants to know one thing.
My shirt size.
Even now, deep into Conte's 16th minute of fame -- as talk-show bookers keep calling and newspaper reporters keep e-mailing and stories like the Signature Pharmacy scandal in Florida produce headlines like "BALCO East?" and HBO preps a "Game of Shadows" movie and Conte's face and words continue to grace every major media outlet save Us Weekly and PerezHilton.com -- the former Wizard of Stanozolol continues to confound, disregarding the standard-issue "So You've Been Busted For Steroids" playbook, which more or less reads as follows:
Conte isn't doing rocks. Not even rocks in really nice gated communities with golf. He's the anti-Mark McGwire. To wit: One day after attorney general John Ashcroft announced the 42-count indictment charging Conte and three others with everything from conspiracy to money laundering, Conte and his girlfriend got a dog.
As in: Bill Clinton has a goldfish named Monica.
Oh, and that's not the ironic part.
Nope, the ironic part is this: Conte gives his dog pet supplements.
Speaking of which, Conte's dog is huge. Like, 115 pounds. Walks 4-5 miles with him every morning. Still has the tail-wagging energy of a puppy. Can probably hit a baseball farther than Air Bud. "What can I say?" Conte says with a shrug. "It's great stuff."
Rebirth is in the air. Or maybe it's just jet fumes. We're outside Conte's office in Burlingame, among a cluster of restaurants, hotels and physical therapy offices located just down the road from the airport. The midday sun has burned off the last bits of morning fog; beyond the far end of the block, passenger planes descend over the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay. Conte is petting Balco, and the dog is drooling all over the passenger seat of his Bentley. The car is a point of pride, a pricey toy for grown-up boys, made possible by the success of Conte's supplement company, Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning. SNAC, letters that grace a sign above the building. A sign that used to read BALCO, until Conte had it painted over. New life and all that.
Besides, it drew too many tourists.
"People used to come a few times a week to take pictures," says Veronica Conte, Victor's 23-year-old daughter. "Dad wanted the meatheads off his lawn. Now it's estimated he could have sold that sign for something like $50,000. And he's like, 'What was I thinking?' "
Veronica squints at her BlackBerry. Blonde, blue-eyed and fiercely loyal to her father, she sits behind an L-shaped desk topped with invoices, brochures and a bodybuilding magazine whose cover hunk's bulging thighs most closely approximate two exploding fire hydrants. She wears a black, sleeveless shirt; her arms are disconcertingly buff. (No THG jokes, please: Turns out she used to be a gymnast.) She handles SNAC's day-to-day business, along with two female co-workers -- one of them wearing a BALCO Gear shirt, the other a brunette also named Veronica.
Brown-haired Veronica gives me a tour. First, comes the entryway, which doubles as a waiting area and triples as the Santiago de Compostela of BALCO. The walls teem with framed pictures and posters, most of them autographed, all from athletes and bodybuilders. Jim Courier and Michael Chang. Flex Wheeler and Milos Sarcev. Jones and Bonds and Bill Romanowski. The 1996 U.S. women's Olympic judo squad. Some are steroid users. Some are -- ahem -- alleged steroid users. Some, like the judo team, just used Conte's (perfectly legal) supplements.
Veronica points to a photo of Anderson, Bonds and Conte, the first two apparently hiding inflated volleyballs under their biceps, the latter beaming like a proud father. "This is Greg Anderson, if you're not familiar," she says, almost apologetically. "I know Greg. I worked at World Gym. He's a very good guy."
Veronica ushers me down a long, narrow hallway lined with more photos and jerseys, including Romanowski's. "Another very good guy," she says. "He still calls from time to time." Conte greets me in a side room. He sits at a faux-wood conference table, the same table that once hosted the initial meeting for Project World Record, now hosting a chess board and a couple dozen bottles of his (perfectly legal) supplements. (For the uninitiated: Project World Record was more or less the Apollo program of track and field doping, in which Conte, Sarcev, track coaches Charlie Francis and Trevor Graham, and enough performance-enhancing drugs to power a Saturn V rocket took diminutive sprinter Tim Montgomery from also-ran to world's fastest man.)
We talk business. To my chagrin, Conte isn't peddling flaxseed oil. He is selling cream. Well, not the cream, but a blue-tinted goop called PhysioBalm, which supposedly soothes sore elbows and achy knees through a process involving antioxidants, enzymes, the body's copper supply, cross-linking of connective tissue mesh and ... er, here my notes get a little hazy, mostly because I have no idea what Conte is saying. It certainly sounds technical and scientific; on the other hand, ABBA sounded pretty convincing singing in Spanish.
Moving on, Conte shows off a brochure for his newest brainstorm, a box of bundled supplements: energy pills, fat-loss capsules, a sleep aid called ZMA. (Add an erection pill, and you'll never have to get out of bed.) The box is Conte's bid to become a bigger player in the billion-dollar, barely regulated supplement business; while he currently makes good money licensing the ZMA formula, he hopes to make better money hawking the product himself. "You have to bet big to win big," he tells me, his grin as wide as a cover hunk's thighs.
Of course, that's the same thing he told Kelli White.
On the bottom of the brochure is a photograph. Conte's mug, right next to his signature, above the title "world renowned sports nutritionist." (And why not? John Basedow is a "fitness celebrity.") This also counts as a bet -- specifically, that Conte's besmirched reputation will move product, enticing the would-be citius and wannabe fortius to gobble his pills like Pez.
He tells a story. Last spring, a Dallas reporter spotted a tub of SNAC protein powder (perfectly legal, and perfectly harmless) in the locker of Texas Rangers pitcher Scott Feldman, who hails from Burlingame. Team management went wobbly. The club's nutrition consultant accused Feldman of making a "mistake in judgment." Feldman denied ever ingesting the stuff, publicly and vigorously, the way a candidate for district attorney might deny having a hard drive full of adult-men-in-diapers JPGs. "If something came from me," Conte says, "people think maybe it's laced."
People still call the office, he says, a few times a week, asking to buy THG. And SNAC shipped 16 tubs of protein powder to the Rangers' spring training and ballpark addresses -- more than King Tantalus could scarf on his own. "Sixteen tubs!" Conte exclaims, slapping the table. Damned if Jones didn't run fast, if Bonds didn't hit the ball a country mile, if Conte's mystery potions didn't have a little magic in 'em. Damned if Paris Hilton's sex tape didn't make her a bigger star. "Maybe they're hoping there's something in there!"
"FROM PARIAH TO PROPHET"
Stop me if you've heard this one before: A female bodybuilder, an editor of a muscle magazine and a senior investigator for the New York State Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement walk into a bar. The magazine editor points at his right shoulder, which in size and shape most closely resembles a frozen Cornish game hen, pumped with 20 ccs of avian Dianabol and wrapped in black felt. "Hey, if she can get breast implants, why can't I get a little something in here?" he asks.
"She had those?" asks the narcotics investigator, shooting the bodybuilder an incredulous look.
"I had them four times!" the bodybuilder says with a giggle.
OK, OK. This isn't a joke. It's the actual "Steroid Nation" book party, where the above exchange is par for the course. Conte and I are on our way over, sitting in a taxi, stuck in Manhattan's rush-hour traffic. He fidgets. He has places to be, people to see. Conte plans to tape another interview with a local TV station the next day; time permitting, he might meet with the New York Times. He has a book proposal as well, three pages long, which he hopes to run by the attorney who represents John Grisham. Or is it Dan Brown? Conte can't remember. "The 'DaVinci Code' guy," he adds, shrugging.
Right. That guy. Exit the taxi. Conte reaches into his little black bag, asks the driver if he can break a $100 bill. Enter the party. We're accosted by autograph seekers. They work for Court TV. Next comes a camera crew, three reporters in tow. Conte places his drink on the bar, hands me the yellow bag stuffed with T-shirts. He stations himself in front of a folding table, piled high with books and faux prescription medication bottles, the latter a promotional gimmick. Conte holds a bottle between thumb and forefinger. An approving smile. He tugs his lapels. On come the lights. Flip go the notebooks. Conte talks ...
"There are 60 banned stimulants on the IOC list. Only 30 of those are banned by baseball. So if you're a baseball player, all you have to do is look at the IOC list to see what works, then take one of the other 30!"
And talks ...
"The spotlight needs to be shined on those who are in charge, the people with the money and power."
And talks some more ...
"It's called SNAC. S-N-A-C. Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning. Sales are up 27 percent."
The cameraman nods. The reporters scribble. A photographer nudges me out of the way. Someone else takes snaps with an iPhone. Conte squints into the lens, never stuttering, never reaching for a glass of water. His brow is completely dry. He stands before his inquisitors as a human piņata, yet somehow ends up holding the stick, feeding us candy all the while. He gets tough ("I never rolled on anyone! I did my time like a man!"), goes soft ("Marion Jones is not a bad person"), dazzles with statistics ("only 24 of 208 countries participating in the Athens Games had independent anti-doping federations"), gift-wraps his paragraphs with pithy sound bites ("BALCO is about cheat to win. There are many beyond athletics who cheat"). On it goes.
Everything is as Conte wants it to be.
His girlfriend, Mandy, wishes he would turn off his BlackBerry, close his e-mail account, more or less shut up. She might as well wish for a unicorn. On his computer, Conte collects BALCO stories, thousands of them. He reads every one, commits them to memory, quotes them back to reporters. He sends out regular e-mail updates, too -- sample subject line: VICTOR ON BONDS ON CNN -- and pens newspaper guest columns, most recently an open letter to the World Anti-Doping Agency, which scored him a meeting with outgoing WADA honcho Dick Pound. (Conte later says the meeting went "much better than expected," and that he gave a receptive Pound "quite an education" on the loopholes in current anti-doping practices). It's all very meta, fodder for a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, and purposefully so, because Conte very much wants to re-edit the Wikipedia page that has become his image, his life.
He hears every snicker, feels every sling and arrow. He could just walk away. But Conte also knows that bad news is good for him, that with each successive doping scandal -- Floyd Landis, Rick Ankiel, Jones -- he looks less like a solitary bad apple and more like the harbinger of a totally rotten bunch. And so he engages, wraps his arms around the bloated, pock-marked superhuman sports world he helped create. Conte knows what you're thinking. Trust him anyway. "I told the truth! I was the first domino! I am a man of full disclosure!"
The camera crew is gone. Guests are on their second and third drinks. Two reporters remain, hands on chins, fading. Not Conte. He's rolling, picking up speed, going on about a study in the New England Journal of Medicine refuting a link between steroids and teen suicide. About his plan to fight sports doping -- Talleyrand would be proud -- and how any plan would be better than the ones currently in place. "USADA wants to send a clean team to Beijing," he says, all but snorting. "What, are you kidding me? They sweep it under the rug. Let's get real here. Put me in charge. You know what will happen?"
Conte snaps his fingers. "I'll clean it up like this!"
He punches the air in front of him. "BALCO is only at halftime!"
The night is young.
"I've gone from pariah to prophet!"
Good line. Later, I ask Conte if he came up with it himself. Maybe, he says. Unless he read it somewhere.
"I. DON'T. GIVE. A. F---."
He figured the feds were coming. They were sifting through his trash, reading his e-mail. Still, the raid was a shock. Sept. 3, 2003. Nearly two dozen agents -- some local narcotics, some IRS, some wearing flak jackets -- spilled from unmarked Buicks, swarmed through BALCO's front door, firearms in hand.
Conte stood next to a bookshelf, speechless. He was made to sit on a cloth-backed chair -- as were BALCO vice president Jim Valente and his wife, Joyce -- across from the coffee pot and the artificial sugar packets, under the photo of Anderson and Bonds. Police shuffled back and forth, labeling each room with a lettered placard. The whole building seemed to vibrate; it was the thwack-thwack-thwack of an overhead helicopter. A news chopper.
We're back in Burlingame, Conte's office. He gestures toward a horizontal glass louver above the door, still broken, a reminder of the afternoon it all came to a halt: the juicing, the gold medals, the tap-dancing around WADA. And Conte has regrets. He rues the anguish he caused his family, television trucks bivouacked outside his house, having to move Mandy and Veronica into a nearby extended-stay hotel. The trucks were parked on his lawn. He couldn't get to his car. He dialed the police: What do I do?
Call a cab, they told him. Jump your back fence.
Mandy was home alone during a separate FBI raid, an intrusion that left her and Conte with a gnawing sense of paranoia. Being watched. Of having a tapped phone and a tapped computer and a tapped who-knows-what-else, of wanting to stand in the middle of their backyard just to share intimate conversation. For days on end, Conte felt physically sick, heart racing, head pounding, memory shot, as if his brain were on fire. He saw doctor after doctor -- something he loathes -- and each said the same thing: There's nothing wrong with you. It's just stress.
Conte laments the stress he brought on others, too, the families of his athletes and associates -- even Jones, who trashed him publicly. Once, at the federal courthouse, he ran into Valente's mother. She stood by a pay phone, distraught. Conte was moved. He looked her in the eye, promised her son wouldn't see jail time, he wouldn't agree to a plea deal otherwise. His own parents weren't as supportive -- the father he could never please, the mother who never said, "Good job." They never showed up in court, didn't say much of anything. Their shamed silence said enough.
Conte still talks to his mother. Relations with his 49-year-old sister, Cheri, are strained. He blames no one but himself. He knows what he did was wrong, in the way speeding and jaywalking are wrong, because both are against the rules. And we need rules. Our games need rules. "BALCO is about cheat to win," he reminds me. But what if everyone cheats? And what if winning is ... kinda fun?
Conte went to a Super Bowl. He sat three rows up from first base at PacBell Park, watched Bonds club baseballs into McCovey Cove. At home, he has self-shot Handycam footage of Florence Griffith Joyner warming up before a race in Seoul. For Project World Record, he printed themed shirts for everyone, goofy little tokens of unity, of a commitment to making history, the kind of history a former Fresno City Junior College high jumper couldn't hope to sniff otherwise. Bonds didn't know Jones, Jones didn't know Romanowski, Romanowski didn't know White. But Conte? Conte knew them all, connected them all, was right at the center, right in the trenches with his athletes. He earned their trust, became a confidante. To beat the drug testers, he spent his nights on the Web and his days in the Stanford medical library, reading and researching, convinced if the whole wide sports world was doping, then he could do it better, and even do it safer.
Every time Patrick Arnold, the Illinois-based chemist who created the clear, sent Conte a new designer steroid -- the first shipment, coincidentally, came in a flaxseed oil bottle -- he diluted the substance by half. And before he gave anything to his athletes, Conte says he took the drugs himself, always testing his blood, checking his liver and kidney functions, making sure he wasn't handing out poison.
Nobody talks about this, Conte complains. Instead, they fixate on a single passage from the book "Game of Shadows," in which Conte offers Montgomery insulin. The sprinter balks, fearing diabetes. "You're going to kill somebody," Montgomery reportedly says.
"I don't give a f---," Conte reportedly replies.
"I. Don't. Give. A. F---." Conte spits the words, bitter as chewed-up lemon seeds, insisting he never said them. He has been called a snake oil salesman, likened (charitably) to a used car dealer, borne the brunt of a federal investigation, been tried in court and in the media, done his time and paid his debt. He's a big boy, he says. He can take it. But this? Suggesting he didn't care? That he wasn't just a mastermind -- he's cool with that -- but a callous, evil mastermind? This offends him. Wounds him. He cares about his athletes. Deeply.
Would Conte do it all again?
"Look, when I think of all the great moments in my life, what I was doing [with steroids] was a part of it," he says. "If I had made other decisions, that removes those moments from my life. Would I choose to do that? I'm not so sure."
"I'M TRYING TO TELL THE TRUTH"
Around us, the "Steroid Nation" party continues. The book's editor gives a short speech and thanks Conte personally. A tall, dark-haired man wearing jeans, a tie and a black blazer stands by the bar, nursing a glass of red wine. He's Mark Haskins, the aforementioned New York state narcotics investigator, part of the multistate, multiagency police force that brought down Applied Pharmacy, an Alabama-based drugmaker that allegedly supplied steroids to at least a half-dozen professional athletes. (Kurt Angle, Jose Canseco and Gary Matthews Jr., are among the athletes linked to Applied Pharmacy. The investigation is ongoing.)
Haskins approaches, glass in hand. Assael, the book's author, makes introductions.
"I've read a lot about you," Haskins says to Conte. "I'm not sure what the right word is. I have a lot of ... respect."
"I'm trying to tell the truth," Conte replies.
Haskins sizes up Conte, seizes the verbal opening. Think of the children, he says. The 17-year-old who lives in Nebraska, plays football, who's good and big and tough, only he's 20 pounds lighter than college recruiters would like. There's pressure from Coach, pressure from Dad. Pressure to do whatever it takes. And what if the kid needs that scholarship, if it's his only ticket off the farm? Take the needle, kid. Make the family proud. This is what Haskins is up against. Why he fights. "That happens every day!" Haskins says. "Let's not kid ourselves. I coach youth football, youth hockey. Winning is the object."
"So now you're focusing on the parents?" Conte replies. "That's my message, too."
Haskins places a hand on Conte's shoulder. His eyes soften. "Adults can make a choice," he says. "Children can't."
"I couldn't agree more," Conte says.
The two men shake hands. Three more guests approach. They work for The Smoking Gun, online bane of publicists everywhere, where unflattering mug shots (Nick Nolte, is that you?) and unedited police reports (Sen. Larry Craig claims he has an extra-wide ... er, bathroom stance?) combine to take the rich and infamous down a couple hundred notches, one embarrassing revelation at a time. Conte seems relaxed. I'm nervous. This has all the makings of an ambush. Of cheetahs on the Serengeti, circling a winded gazelle, closing in for an Animal Planet hot plate special.
As it turns out, the Smoking Gun guys want T-shirts. Conte reaches into his yellow plastic bag. Christmas in October. He checks sizes with the help of a glowing cell phone, volunteers to pose for pictures. His guests eat it up, smiling and holding their bounty aloft. "Will this make me bigger if I wear it?" asks Joe Jesselli, a reporter for the Web site.
Conte laughs. "I don't know if the research has been done on that," he says.
Conte hands out his SNAC business card, then reaches into his bag. "Check this out." Old BALCO cards. An entire stack of them. Giggles all around.
Nearby, Haskins chats with Dave Palumbo, editor of Muscular Development magazine, himself a bodybuilder who served five months in federal prison for selling fake growth hormone (and in a Conte-esque stroke, later wrote a book titled "Perfect Prison Physique"). Palumbo met Conte at the 2006 Olympia, considers him a friend. He takes in the scene before him -- at this point, Conte is multitasking, autographing BALCO business cards for Jesselli and Smoking Gun editor Bill Bastone, soliloquizing a mile-a-minute -- and shakes his head. "Victor's one of those guys that you feel like you've known forever, like an uncle," Palumbo says. "He loves to talk. I get a headache sometimes."
Conte rolls on, blasting federal investigators, throwing the entire women's 100-meter Sydney Games field into disrepute, recommending law journals, calling out NFL drug testing, endorsing flaxseed oil (again), telling Bastone that he reads The Smoking Gun, that he loves the site, and it is "dead-on" with some of its BALCO-related reporting.
Suddenly, he stops. "I have to be careful what I talk about here."
Bastone arches an eyebrow. "Why?" he asks.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, PLEASE WELCOME THE BALCO
Conte has a vision. Actually, he has two. The first involves forgiveness. Forgiveness for the dopers, the juicers, the tired hyper-anabolic masses yearning to be free of their lies and excuses and Whizzinators. Forgiveness for BALCO and for all the BALCOs to come.
It's a lovely vision, full of sweetness and light. It's also a little boring.
The second vision is better. More concrete. Conte's on a television sound stage. Letterman. Maybe Leno. He's holding his trusty bass, surrounded by former bandmates, his music buddies, ready to rock out. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the BALCO Boys! Conte wears a Bonds jersey. His playing partners wear Romanowski jerseys, Jones gear, black ZMA skullcaps. And they're jamming, dude. Jamming to Conte's newest song, "THG Blues."
"Dad has actually written some BALCO music," Veronica Conte says. "He called me once to work on the lyrics, asked me if the words rhymed. I think it's fun for him."
Give Conte lemons, he'll make lemonade, then do his best to hide a vial of the Clear inside the bottle. He is, at heart, an opportunist, and if this seems obvious -- because, quite frankly, it is -- it's no less important to understanding his character. He's an opportunist in the best and worst senses of the term, the most capitalist and American senses of the term, the most athletic sense of the term -- the latter familiar to anyone who has ever taken locker room clichés about "manning up" and "silver linings" to heart, anyone who has listened to an uptight football coach like Nick Saban compare an upset loss to the worst terrorist attack on American soil and thought, yes, both catastrophes (one genuine, one to anyone betting the spread) really are just blessings in disguise, chances to step up and overcome adversity and prove the doubters wrong, all while shocking the world.
To put things another way, there's a reason Conte ended up selling steroids, and not secondhand Chevys. Maybe, Conte says, this all stems from his childhood, from wanting to impress his hard-to-please parents, some way, somehow. Maybe it's all the power-of- positive-thinking, change-your-life-today books Conte devours, Ernest Holmes and Dale Carnegie and "The Secret," books he reads and rereads and passes along to Veronica, dog-eared and annotated with scribbled notes. Maybe it's just Conte's nature, the nature of sport, really, and of America, home of the second chance, and the third, and the chance after that. Where John Travolta goes from "Look Who's Talking Now" to "Pulp Fiction." Where Isiah Thomas still coaches the Knicks. Whatever the reason, Conte sees setbacks as challenges, screwups as steppingstones, people telling him no as an opportunity to demonstrate "strength and achievement." (Conte's exact words; has a better explanation for BALCO been uttered?) He sincerely believes "thoughts become things" -- uses this phrase all the time -- and the Great Pumpkin will appear if you really, really want him to. And why not? As a teenager in Fresno, Calif., he practiced guitar in the bathroom, imagined strumming riffs as skillfully as bass legend Ray Brown; a few years later, Conte was living in Los Angeles, taking music lessons from the man himself.
This explains much.
It explains why Conte's first move when the BALCO scandal broke was to purchase online affinity ads, ensuring every search for "BALCO" or "Victor Conte" produced a link to purchase ZMA. It explains how Conte can currently refashion himself as an anti-steroid crusader, the Diogenes of Dianabol, and still hand out BALCO Gear T-shirts to the tellers at his local bank, all while registering the Web domain balcogear.com. You know, just in case.
It explains how Conte ended up coaching a track team in prison.
The first 36 hours spent at the C.I. Taft Prison Camp near Bakersfield, Calif., Conte says, were terrifying, a blur of handcuffs and body searches, topped off by a night in a detention cell. Shivering in his orange jumpsuit, Conte looked through his steel-barred window, past etched graffiti reading "LA METH MONSTER," saw grim inmates doing push-ups in the yard. He felt sick, felt the brain fire coming on, broke down in tears. "Lowest moment of my life," he says.
And then ... guards pushed a box through his door, a package from Veronica ... a heartfelt letter ... his books ... pictures of Mandy and of Veronica's infant daughter, Abby, the little girl who calls Conte "Poppy." More crying. The guards came back, took Conte from the cell. They walked him through the yard, and instead of encountering dozens of angry convicts looking to re-enact the weight bench scene from HBO's "Oz," he found ...
"A sports paradise," he says.
Green trees. Chirping birds. Two mountain ranges in the background, each postcard-perfect. No guard towers, no machine guns, no barbed wire. Not even a fence. Just a sign reading "OUT OF BOUNDS." Park benches everywhere, and no real reason to sit. Not with inmates playing basketball, tennis, soccer, baseball, horseshoes, even bocce ball. And the equipment! Flag football flags. Flag football jerseys. An actual track! Conte was dumbfounded. Taft had a music room, too, fully stocked. Six bass guitars. He started a band, put on shows, gave lessons. Mandy and Veronica came to visit Conte on weekends. During the Christmas season, the prison put up decorations and provided Santas for visiting children.
During his second day in the yard, Conte says, he chatted with a fellow inmate, a Hispanic kid in his early 20s. "God," said the kid, "I'm going to have to do something bad so I don't have to go home."
"Wait," Conte replied. "You don't want to go home?"
"Nah," the kid said. "Then I have to start paying rent."
Anyway, the track team. While playing soccer and football, inmates would challenge each other to foot races, goal line to goal line, about 70 yards. Thing is, nobody knew how to crouch, or start, or reach top speed. Nobody knew technique. Except Conte. He remembered his time with Charlie Francis, with track coach Remi Korchemny. He somehow acquired a stopwatch -- he still has it -- and started coaching. Six students became 20, and by the end, Conte was printing out race forms on a prison computer.
Conte didn't race himself. But he still found a way to compete -- in, of all things, a steroid debate, held by Taft's Toastmasters Club. (And you thought prison was just race wars and soap-dropping). "There are some smart people in there," Conte says. "Ivy Leaguers. Billionaire-type guys." Before a hall packed with inmates and guards, Conte argued for doping. For taking sports to 11. For BALCO and its legacy, for asterisk-stamped balls and voided world records and stripped Olympic medals. For the vial of flaxseed oil not being half-empty, but rather half-full.
He won, too.
And no, I'm not making this up.
The others walk ahead. Conte and I follow, trailing by a half-block. He seems a little winded, but excited nonetheless. He loves Manhattan, loves the crowds, the commotion, the energy. His favorite place, he says. Reminds him of track meets, of Tower of Power gigs, playing before 80,000 fans. "I come here, and I light up." Takes him back, too, all the way back to fifth grade, back to Wishon Elementary School in Fresno, where Conte -- Mr. BALCO, king of cheats, the man who ruined sports -- jumped and dashed his way to the field day trophy for most outstanding boy. Made him feel like an Olympic gold medalist, he says. Like a little Ali. Next came a school talent show. Conte played music. Everyone cheered. "Right then and there," he says. "Right then and there, I knew I wanted to be an entertainer."
Bonds went smash. Jones went zoom. Conte toiled behind the curtain. Only now it's gone, pulled back, and the stage remains, and Conte's still here, and the lights are still on. And maybe, just maybe, BALCO is the best thing that ever happened to him.
We cross a street, duck under some scaffolding. A young girl -- 20, tops -- leans against the criss-crossing metal pipes, pushing buttons on a cell phone. She has spiked black hair, white paint blotted across her face. She wears a bright orange jumpsuit reading "PSYCHO WARD." Even in New York -- the city that gave the world the Village People and Donald Trump's hair -- it's not the sort of look you cultivate to blend in. Besides, Halloween is a week away.
I try not to stare. Conte turns his head, gives her a once over, neither leering nor suggestive nor flirtatious. Just ... appreciative.
"Cute," he says with a nod.
The girl looks up from her phone. Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, she smiles.
Patrick Hruby is a writer for ESPN.com and columnist for Page 2.
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