Michael Rosenberg believes Tonya Harding. He believed her then; he believes her now.
For a moment in an eventful life, Rosenberg was the manager of the most notorious figure skater in history. That was in the months just before the whack on Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.
But that was years after he befriended Dorothy Hamill and Aretha Franklin. It was after Carlsbad, Albuquerque and Washington, D.C.
It was after he joined the circus and had a stint with Playboy.
Through all of that, it seems to him that his was the lone voice in support of Harding, the Olympian who, 20 years ago, was at the epicenter of one of the more bizarre scenes in sports history.
Rosenberg, 70, sits in his Albuquerque apartment and talks of how much he likes Tonya. He’s always liked her.
But in a moment of exasperation, he did something he did not want to do.
He fired Tonya Harding.
Joining the circus
Michael Rosenberg grew up in Carlsbad in the 1950s.
“It was like ‘Happy Days,’ so innocent, so provincial, so happy,” Rosenberg says.
From there, he went to Albuquerque where he attended the University of New Mexico and met and married Barbara, a Lobo cheerleader.
Rosenberg, who had joined the New Mexico Air National Guard, got a job working for New Mexico congressman Thomas G. Morris and headed to Washington, D.C.
This was in the mid-1960s and everywhere he went, from the office to the dinner parties, the talk was about the Vietnam War.
“I decided I was going to see for myself, and I volunteered,” Rosenberg says.
He was stationed in Da Nang, served two tours and was awarded eight combat medals.
He returned to D.C. and landed a job with New Jersey senator Harrison Williams, who later would get caught up in the Abscam scandal.
While serving for Williams, he was contacted by Karen Feld, a reporter for Roll Call magazine, about a series on Vietnam vets working on Capitol Hill.
Rosenberg, at this point divorced, asked her out. It turned out her father was Irvin Feld, owner of the Ringley Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Every time Rosenberg picked Karen up, Irvin told him he should get out of politics and come work for him. Rosenberg, who had never even been to a circus, protested he knew nothing about marketing or promotion.
But Feld, who had taken the circus out of the tents and into arenas, told him he would teach him everything he needed to know.
Eventually, Rosenberg gave in and he told the senator he was leaving to join the circus.
The Washington Post included a note quoting Rosenberg as saying the transition from the senate to the circus was the easiest transition of his life.
“I never said that,” Rosenberg says. “I wish I had said that.”
Career on ice
Rosenberg, it turned out, had a knack for promoting. He went from the circus to promoting concerts.
Hugh Hefner, a magazine publisher of some renown, was looking to start the Playboy Jazz Festival and needed a promoter. Rosenberg was his guy.
“I went from the circus to Playboy,” the former kid from Carlsbad says.
From there, he went on to promote for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Rick James, Teddy Pendergrass and Ashford and Simpson.
And that was just his summer gig. In the winter, he promoted the Ice Capades. That’s when he came across Dorothy Hamill, star of the 1976 Olympics. She asked Rosenberg to be her manager.
“I would have to put Dorothy Hamill on hold to take a call from Aretha Franklin,” Rosenberg says. “Talk about two different kind of conversations.”
After his success with Hamill, other figure skaters asked him to represent them. Eventually, Rosenberg, with his current wife Nancy, decided to focus on ice skating.
In 1991, a young girl from Portland, Ore., became the first American woman to perform a triple axel. Rosenberg asked her if she needed a manger. She said yes.
Her name was Tonya Harding.
Rosenberg was immediately drawn to the 20-year-old skater.
“If you had a dinner and had 12 skaters sitting around the table, at the end of the night, you would say Tonya was the most interesting, the most fun to talk to,” he says. “She’s smart. Street smart. Funny. Unpolished, but funny. Truthful. And a spectacular athlete.
“I liked her, and she liked me. And she liked my wife. Then Tonya married this schmuck Jeff Gillooly.”
No matter what kind of deal Rosenberg would get for Harding, he says Gillooly complained. The arguments were constant. Then it came to a head.
“Jeff gets on the phone and says I should be getting her this and getting her that,” Rosenberg says. “It was way too premature.”
“I said, ‘Jeff, please put down the phone and let me talk to Tonya.’ I said, ‘Tonya, I really care for you, but I’m terminating our relationship. I wish you the best, but I can’t work with Jeff. But I do wish you well.’”
“Two months later was the whack on the knee.”
On Jan. 6, 1994, Gillooly and his friend Shawn Eckhardt hired Shane Stant to break Nancy Kerrigan’s right leg just prior to the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Kerrigan, who suffered a bruised knee in the attack, was unable to compete. Harding won the event.
Meanwhile, as the Olympics approached, speculation grew as to the extent of Harding’s involvement in the attack.
And Rosenberg became a lonely voice for Tonya Harding.
“I went on ‘Nightline’ and ‘Crossfire’ and all the TV shows at the time,” Rosenberg says. “There were trucks with big dishes in front of my house. Everybody wanted to know, ‘Did she do it?’ I was the only one out there who said I don’t believe that Tonya did it.’”
But why did he believe her?
First, he insists, Harding and Kerrigan liked each other.
“But the biggest factor was that Tonya had beaten Nancy,” Rosenberg says. “She wanted Nancy to have no excuse. Not a broken toe nail, not the flu, not anything. She was so competitive and into a good skating mode. She knew she could outjump her.”
The x-factor would then become the grace and style portion of the event.
“There’s no evidence she conspired,” Rosenberg says.
Still, in March 1994, weeks after the Lillehammer Games, Harding pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers. She was put on three years probation and fined $160,000.
But the harshest penalty was her expulsion from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
“And they did it without any evidence, which I bring up whenever I see one of those people,” Rosenberg says.
Documentaries this year by ESPN and NBC are covering the 20th anniversary of the Harding-Kerrigan spectacle. ESPN’s documentary aired prior to the Olympics.
NBC likely will air its 45-minute retrospective on Feb. 23, the last night of the Olympics, said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC’s coverage. The 20-year anniversary piece is one of the few times Kerrigan, who is working as an NBC analyst, has spoken publicly about the attack. Bell said it could run earlier if weather forces delays in some competitions.
Rosenberg was not invited to participate in either, but there’s no doubt what he would have told them.
“I truthfully believe she would not participate, she would not conspire,” he says. “There’s no evidence she ever did.
“But in the American public, and in the media, she was guilty. Headlines were: ‘Tonya Guilty.’ People, if they think about it at all, they think she’s guilty of the whack.”
In the ESPN “30 for 30″ documentary, she admits to having a part in the coverup, but not in the planning. She also talks in the film and writes in her 2008 book about being afraid Gillooly, Eckhardt or Stant would harm her, something she has also spoken to Rosenberg about.
Rosenberg says she told him she was afraid.
“She said, ‘They took me into my kitchen and told me they had done it. If I said one word, they would rape me, could kill me. I was very afraid’.”
Rosenberg, who sold his MARCO Entertainment firm in 1998, hasn’t paid much attention to figure skating in recent years but will be watching this week when the women figure skates take to the rink in Sochi, Russia.
“I had a varied, neat career,” Rosenberg says. “And skating was such a big part of it.”
A couple of months ago, he moved from Indian Wells, Calif., to Albuquerque, a place he hasn’t lived since 1965 when all he had to know was Lomas Boulevard and Central Avenue.
“I get lost all the time,” he says.
His daughters Amy and Whitney, who provided him his baby grandson Miller, live in Corrales. His sister is local art gallery owner Mary Ann Weems.
“It’s a big change for Nancy, my wife, and a pretty big change for me,” Rosenberg says. “Winter. Four seasons. With all the movies here, ‘Breaking Bad’ and the restaurants. I love it. New Mexico should be bragging.”
So says the kid from Carlsbad, who took a lifetime to return.