(Column flashback) Remembering the late Johanna Nilsson and one of her finest hours as an athlete

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Dec. 3, 2005.

Note: Johanna Nilsson was one of the most supremely talented athletes I’ve ever seen. She passed away at age 30 in June 2013 in an apparent suicide.

Nilsson’s run-away cross country championship was no small feat

By Ed Odeven

Winning should be enjoyable for any athlete. Sometimes, though, it’s even more enjoyable for a coach.

Such was the case for NAU cross country coach John Hayes on Nov. 21 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.

While at nationals, Hayes witnessed history being made in the women’s 6-kilometer race. Lumberjacks standout Johanna Nilsson took first in a field of 253 runners, setting a course-record of 19 minutes, 34 seconds in the process. Nilsson shared or held the lead for the entire race.

“As a coach, you may or may not ever have another NCAA cross-country champion,” Hayes said, flashing a million-dollar smile a week later. “It’s different than track, where there’s all the events. These are all the best distance runners. So I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her this year, and if it works out that she’s able to repeat or come close to a repeat, I’ll be more than happy to be there.”

What’s more, Nilsson, a junior, obliterated the competition, winning by an astounding 12.1 seconds.

Is this really a big deal? You betcha.

Let Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training and one of the world’s foremost running experts, explain why.

“It is not often that a runner can run with the pack, including some very talented runners, for 5,000 meters and in the final 1,000 run away from second place by (almost) 13 seconds,” Daniels said. “You just don’t beat that many good runners by that much in that short a distance.”

It was the fastest time on the course since the 2002 NCAA Championship Race, when North Carolina’s Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line in 19:36.

In other words, it was an exceptional performance.

Or as Hayes put it: “It’s the best race I’ve seen from her. It was so dominant. It was hard to say she could’ve done better.”

During the race, Hayes ran back and forth on the course’s big loop to observe how the seven Lumberjack runners were doing.

It didn’t take Hayes long to realize Nilsson was having an exceptional day. His eyes and ears told him as much.

“With about 800 (or) 1,000 meters to go, I had heard the announcer say she had gapped the field by 15 meters,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, that happened pretty quickly.’ About two minutes later, that 15 meters had become 80 meters. So I knew she was in pretty good shape.”

A week after her extraordinary triumph, Nilsson didn’t appear to be in a state of glee. In fact, when she spoke to reporters about winning her second national title — she won the indoor mile at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Meet — Nilsson downplayed her win.

“I don’t think I’ve been thinking about it that much,” she said. “I mean you notice it because people come up and (and say) congratulations and all that. It’s fun, I guess, but other than that it’s just school and normal life again.”

Nilsson’s response didn’t surprise her coach.

“She’s got so much ability and she’s worked so hard that she tries not to overemphasize one thing,” said Hayes, a former Russian linguist in the Army. For her, she enjoys winning, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of life. It was nice to win. And so we try not to put too much importance on one race.”

Nilsson competed in five races during the fall season, taking first at the Aztec Invitational, Big Sky Championships, NCAA Mountain Region Championships and nationals. At the Pre-National meet, she placed seventh.

Something was special, though, about Nilsson’s performance Nov. 21. And she knew it as soon as the race began.

“In the race I felt really good all the time,” she says now. “I was, like, positive, of course. .. It was a nice feeling. I was like, ‘Maybe this is going to turn out really good.'”

“I guess I’m pretty either/or, up or down with everything I do, maybe that reflects in racing, too,” she added. “I either have good races or (bad) races. When I’m on, I’m on, and when I’m off, it’s bad.”

And how big a deal was Nilsson’s victory back home? Three Swedish newspapers interviewed her within two hours after her title-winning race.

Nilsson’s older sister, Ida, closed out her collegiate career by winning the 5,000-meter race at the 2005 NCAA Indoor Championships. She also won the 3,000 steeplechase at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Championships. And she set more than 25 Big Sky Conference records during her days at NAU. (She’s now in South Africa at a training camp while rehabbing from an injury.)

Does that means Johanna’s success in running has something to do with genetics?

“It’s so hard to figure,” Hayes said. “There’s always the question with great athlete: Is it because they work so hard? Or) is it because they have natural talent? I think you’ve got to have the combination of both, and she’s someone that’s stayed around. She does the extra drills. She does extra stretching where the team is long gone.

“Johanna is doing all the little things to allow her to win in such a dominant fashion.”

Naturally, when she first began participating in running events in her hometown of Kalmar, Sweden, Nilsson enjoyed these activities like other kids enjoy an adventurous game of hide-and-seek.

“It was like you ran (a kilometer) you got an ice cream and candy and you were all happy,” she said. “It wasn’t that competitive.

“You run the 800, you do the 16 (1,600), you do the shot put, and you’re just rushing around. … But then I ended up not being very good at anything else,” she said, laughing.

So she decided to stick with distance running.

It’s unclear, however, if Nilsson’s future will involve competitive running. She did place second at the 2002 Swedish National Cross Country Championship and could probably earn a spot on the 2008 Swedish Olympic team.

“I don’t really have long-term goals,” she said, “because I don’t really function that way too good I guess. So we’ll see what happens.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do,’ like some of the kids have that dream when they are young.”

Is she a future Olympian? I asked Hayes.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“She’s just trying to figure out what she wants to do in her life, and over the next few years I’m sure it’s going to become more clear,” Hayes said.

Then, he added, “If she wants to be (an Olympian), she will be.”

It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

Exactly

A closing snippet from a column I penned in May 2003 for the Arizona Daily Sun.

While doing a little spring cleaning the other day, I came across an issue of The Sporting News from 1995. Buried in small type on one of the inside pages was this gem of a quote from boxing legend Thomas “Hitman” Hearns:

“It’s just one step. The next step: I need to go get a title that people really know.”

That’s what he uttered after kayoing Lenny LaPaglia (who?) to win the World Boxing Union cruiserweight title. Something tells me that “title fight” doesn’t rank as one of Hearns’ all-time memories in the ring.

High-altitude training, physiotherapy and more

This featured appeared in the May 8, 2004, edition of the Arizona Daily Sun.

Training in all phases

By Ed Odeven

Nobody ever accused Babe Ruth of being in tip-top shape — he was notorious for eating a dozen or more hot dogs in one sitting. Once, the portly, famous home-run hitter consumed 24 frankfurters between games of a doubleheader.

The Sultan of Swat may have done pretty well for himself with his eating habits, but in today’s society it’s common knowledge that high-caliber athletes perform better when they keep in excellent shape.

“I’ve learned that the key to having a good season is staying healthy,” Canadian middle-distance runner Diane Cummins, who recently did a stint at Northern Arizona University’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex, told the Edmonton Sun in a 2001 interview.

“… Being more concerned about my health allowed me to train effectively and consistently.

“There are lots of everyday things I do or don’t do to make sure I am on top of my game.”

A handful of running coaches’ training doctrine is quite unsophisticated — what they tell their pupils can be summed up in two words: run faster.

Others, like Cummins’ coach, Wynn Gmitroski of the Pacific Sport Victoria Endurance Centre in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, develop a more complex fitness regimen.

While running fast is certainly objective No. 1, Gmitroski expects his runners to do more than run wind sprints.

The Pacific Sport team, which completed a month-long training camp at HASTC last week, does yoga, massage therapy and medicine-ball exercises.

A holistic approach to training, the 46-year-old Gmitroski said, is an important part of his coaching. He is a registered physiotherapist who has been coaching for a quarter century.

“He certainly seems to be ahead of the game,” said Pacific Sport’s Andy Brown, a 26-year-old-Scot who runs the 800 and is vying to make the United Kingdom’s Olympic team. “He’s always trying to find out the latest research and the most advanced techniques to make sure we benefit.”

“He tries different things,” Brown continued. “A lot of coaches run the same programs every year, whereas Wynn’s training always seems to progress. It changes as he finds out the latest techniques and finds out more about different things that he can use.”

Teammate Aimee Tetevis concurred.

“I would say Wynn is definitely the most knowledgeable coach I’ve ever worked with,” said Tetevis, who previously starred at Rice University. ” He really actively pursues keeping up to date on new training methods and ideas.”

“He went to a conference in Colorado Springs a few months ago on altitude training,” Tetevis said. “This was before we came here and in preparation for us coming here, so we would have the latest ideas on what the best way to train at altitude is.”

REST AND RECOVERY

In simple terms, the key to Gmitroski’s training program focuses on rest and recovery, both psychological and physical. He said without proper R&R, athletes cannot maximize their potential.

“I know to try to get fit towards even the best in the world, you’ve got to have support,” said Gmitroski, who owns a sports therapy clinic in Victoria. “You can’t do it yourself. It’s not just a matter of hard physical training, but it’s also what you do in between your training sessions that count. Having the right support makes a big difference.”

The Pacific Sport team, comprised of 10 runners and a support staff of four, utilized six-day training cycles during its recent training camp.

In Flagstaff, the team ran at Lumberjack Stadium, did yoga sessions at the Rolle Activity Center and used saunas and hot tubs at the Flagstaff Athletic Club. The hot tubs and pool, Gmitroski explained, are used for hydrotherapy and contrast therapy. Say what? “They’ll get into the hot tub and then they’ll hop into the pool,” he said. “It’s good to have that contrast, and that improves circulation.”

Two of the six days were spent running at lower altitudes, one day in Camp Verde, the other in Beaver Creek on the trails east of Sedona. On the sixth day, the team rested.

So what are the key aspects of rest and recovery?

Gmitroski broke it down into three primary building blocks:

* Rest (this includes naps and passive rest, during which you are “not doing much” between training sessions).

* Proper hydration (some Pacific Sport athletes drank 10 liters, or 2.6 gallons, of water a day while training in Flagstaff).

* Nutrition (Gmitroski’s athletes are well-versed in the importance of body-weight optimization).

“The lighter you are, the more powerful you are, the better you perform,” Gmitroski said.

Pacific Sport’s top performers who trained here are: Cummins, who is ranked seventh in the world in the women’s 800 and finished sixth at the 2003 IAAF World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Paris; and up-and-coming Gary Reed, who broke the Canadian indoor record last year in the 800.

The aforementioned standouts and the rest of Pacific Sport’s athletes are gearing up for the Canadian Olympic Trails, which will be held July 9-11 in Victoria, B.C. In the meantime, they are competing all over.

For instance, Pacific Sport runners are competing at the Jamaica International Invitational, a Modesto, Calif., meet; and a low-key meet in British Columbia this weekend. In mid-July they will travel to Arles, France to begin final preparations for the 2004 Athens Games, which will be in August in Athens.

Asked last Sunday, two days before the team’s departure, how the training camp had gone, Gmitroski said, “Every time we come back, we get a little smarter at how we do things. “I’m quite happy with how the camp has gone.”

Added Tetevis, “(This was) the best training of my life I would say, the most intense.”

A FUN DIVERSION

When he’s not devoting countless hours to his sports therapy clinic or Pacific Sport, Gmitroski has developed another passion: serving as a consultant for Cirque du Soleil.

Gmitroski picked up this intriguing diversion last year after participating in a recovery and regeneration summit in Montreal.

“We spent a week with them brainstorming and looking over their program and making suggestions (about) how they could enhance the (tenure) of the performers in their shows,” he recalled.

For Gmitroski, one of the advantages of being a consultant is that he gets to see many Cirque du Soleil shows. In the past year, he’s seen three of the circus’ nine traveling acts in Las Vegas, another one in Belgium, and one last week: the Varekai show, in Scottsdale.

“It’s just something that’s fun and something on the side that adds a little interest to life,” Gmitroski said.

During Gmitroski’s travels, he’d “spend a day or two with the staff, go out to dinner and they’d pick my brain. They’d just like an outsider’s point of view a lot of times.”

Regarding?

Such things as “(we) look at patterns of injuries … and is it happening because they are not getting enough recovery? Or is it because the stunts they are trying to pull are too dangerous?” Gmitroski revealed.

As much as he said he’s fascinated by seeing time and again the fantasy world of Cirque du Soleil, Gmitroski said these experiences have been beneficial to Pacific Sport.

His staff helped Cirque du Soleil build a special orthotic (foot padding) for a Cirque du Soleil star tumbler who kept having foot problems. It worked so well that they then devised a specialized, lighter orthotic for a runner’s spikes. “As a result, you are going to see faster times,” he said.

“There’s a spin-off between these things and learning to be done,” the coach added.

By all accounts, Gmitroski has learned how to run a productive, well-organized training camp.

“The hard work for the season’s been done,” Gmitroski said. “For 90 percent of them, it’s gone really, really well.”

Credit the coach for steering them in the right direction.

And keeping them away from those hot dogs.

Peter Vecsey, who needs deadlines, discusses his upcoming book … and the stories behind the stories

Peter Vecsey and Al Skinner, former NBA and ABA player and longtime college coach

Peter Vecsey and Al Skinner, former NBA and ABA player and longtime college coach

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (April 13, 2015) — Decades ago, Peter Vecsey defied the boundaries and labels that were the norm in newspapers’ sports departments. When he became the New York Post’s NBA columnist in 1976, he was the nation’s first single-sport newspaper columnist. It was a role he was born to have, dispensing wit, biting commentary, insider info, countless scoops and unforgettable nicknames (“Larry Legend” and “Next Town Brown,” for instance), all with a fearless approach to the job.

In addition to his work for NBC and TNT, Vecsey’s thrice-weekly Hoop Du Jour column became must-read material for NBA aficionados from coast to coast, an in the Internet age, it appeared in email inboxes spanning the globe.

Peter Vecsey and former NBA scoring champ Bernard King

Peter Vecsey and former NBA scoring champ Bernard King

Former Nets owner Joe Taub (left) and Peter Vecsey

Former Nets owner Joe Taub (left) and Peter Vecsey

What’s more, he gained unique perspective and expertise as an ABA beat writer in the 1970s and cemented his status as a one-of-a-kind hoop fixture by coaching teams (and winning titles) at the famed Rucker Tournament in Harlem in the 1970s and ’80s.

Vecsey received the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, a long overdue honor. And he was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in ’01.

Since retiring from the Post — he penned his final column for the July 1, 2012, issue — Vecsey has slowed down. Columns are not his meal ticket. Deadlines don’t consume him. He’s appeared on a number of radio shows and online podcasts to discuss basketball, but it’s not a 24/7/365 mandate anymore.

That doesn’t mean, however, that he doesn’t maintain strong ties to the game. He keeps in touch with now-retired commissioner David Stern. He recently visited Philadelphia 76ers stat guru Harvey Pollack in the hospital. He champions the accomplishments of the game’s past greats and forgotten standouts with equal enthusiasm.

His respect for the history of the game and the personalities who have grown it (streetball, the ABA, the NBA) and have made it thrives is peerless.

And some of his Twitter missives and conversations about the game’s legends are akin to a classroom lecture. Really.

For many years, Vecsey and his wife, Joan (“The Mysterious J” to Post readers), have rescued animals (see below).

***

Vecsey, 71, is working on a book, his memoir.

I caught up with the Queens, New York, native recently for a wide-ranging interview.

What is your typical writing schedule for this book?

I don’t have a typical writing schedule. I wish I did, but there’s so many things going on, with the animals, the family, the (weather) and everything like that, that it’s very difficult to get a time every day where you go and you do it. So that’s been a problem.

You’re so used to deadlines where you have to write, so you kind of step back from that and have a life away from that, with so many other things that you are able to do. Are you able to give yourself some kind of first-tier, second-tier, third-tier deadlines for certain aspects of the books?

(He laughs) I don’t. I have an agent (who’s based in New York) who gently pushes me. You mentioned deadlines, and we discussed this at length, and there’s no question in my mind that I need a deadline for sure. So he said for so many years if you know you have to do it at a certain time and that means getting paid and having all the benefits that go with it … you’ve got to do it, no matter what’s going on. You blot it out and you get it done.

To have a deadline is difficult, but my agent has been kind of pushing me and so a couple weeks ago he said, “OK, fine, you’ve got a deadline. Here it is: I want a chapter by such and such a time.” And it really works, I got him a chapter, and last night I got him a second chapter. … The one I got him yesterday was (on) Jordan. The one before that was the Rucker (Tournament), but the Rucker expanded into maybe four chapters because it’s just so many interesting people that were involved in the Rucker in my life, starting with Julius Erving, and just branching out into all sorts of people that either played for me, played against me — you know, like, here at the park. So each one was a story, basically.

Tiny Archibald became a big story in this chapter and my relationship with him. There are just so many stories … about Charlie Scott. He played for me and that became a big story.

Of course finding things in my clutter, in my disorganization I am finding things, and I found a story that I had written about Charlie Scott when he jumped from the ABA to the NBA, and here I was his coach the previous summer. So I was the only media guy he was talking to, and I was at the Daily News then, and they did not send me to Phoenix when he jumped from the Virginia Squires, and I went on my own, and I wrote a huge piece for a small weekly (New York Insiders Newsletter). … There were like three or four weeklies in those days, and I wrote for all of them at certain times. So anyway, this one had the story, and I never read it for years or so, and there were so many great details. I remembered some of the other things, and Jerry Colangelo was the (Suns) general manager, Cotton Fitzsimmons was the coach, Connie Hawkins was on the team.

David Wolf, who wrote the book “Foul” on Connie Hawkins, I met him out in Phoenix. That became part of this chapter, my relationship with David Wolf. And it just kept going and going.

I handed it in to him and he was laughing. He read it and said he really liked it and there’s an awful lot here. And then we happened to meet for lunch the other day. I went into the city (NYC) and met with him on another project introducing him to Dick Barnett — Dick Barnett’s writing a book — and so I’m with my agent and he’s saying I really like it. And then he tells me, “I know how to edit this. I know what we are going to do with it.” And I said, “Fine, I really don’t know how. I know there’s a lot of stories there. We can break it into chapters or whatever, but it’s all Rucker related.”

And he sent me a note yesterday, actually, and he said something like, “I’ve read this again, and it’s too good for me to mess with. I’m not gonna to mess with it. We’re going to use it and the Jordan one and we are going to sell it this way.”

Two publishers were interested in it and have been waiting on me patiently.

Finding this stuff is unbelievable. That’s all I can say. Finding what I have is confusing because there’s just so much, like the Bob Seger song: “Words, you don’t know what to leave it, what to leave out.” I don’t know.

Do you consider your column material your primary sources for research? is that the basic way you are approaching this and your memory to also fill in the blanks?

It’s my memoir and my memory is not what I think it is. I’ve discovered that many times over now. So it’s imperative for me to have, like, the Charlie Scott stuff. I remembered a lot, but then when I read this piece, it was so detailed and had so much information in it that it was mind-boggling and nobody read that, nobody had ever read it. Now I’m not saying we’re going to reprint anything like that, but I did use a lot of the info and then explain what I was doing there and what happened.

And then I used David Wolf (material) and we became really good friends after that.

I’ll tell you one story that just blew my mind is that while I was writing the Rucker I was re-reading “Foul.” It’s truly an amazing book. I knew it was an amazing book. … I read it, re-read it, read it so slowly because I was just enjoying it so much.

Now I’m looking back at all these things that happened … and then I had my own stories, so I became mesmerized by the whole thing.

So I don’t know what part of the book I said to my wife, “I really have to get back in touch with David Wolf.” He and I were really good friends for quite a while. He mentored me a lot, even though we were the same age basically, he was so far advanced than I was. He wrote for Life Magazine … he broke the whole Connie Hawkins thing in that magazine and then wrote the book off of it, but then he became a boxing guy, he became a boxing manager. He gave up basketball, so we drifted apart.

(Note: Vecsey’s wife looked up Wolf’s contact info, which led to her finding out that he had died in 2009).

That just crushed me because I didn’t know that.

You ask about the memory and I’m doing it from memory, but then I have to go and check my facts because almost every time I’m finding out that the facts are different than I remember. So that’s kind of scary, but, yeah, it really is. It’s a long time ago. We’re not talking about what happened five years ago, we’re talking about what happened in the ’70s.

So you’re basing the book from the mid-70s on primarily? Or even further back?

Well, no, it’s going to be my life so it’s going to be stuff growing up, high school, the first story I ever broke and on and on. It’s an unbelievable story. It’s a very personal story. …I haven’t even written that part yet. These two chapters were key, I’ve written an awful lot down about different phases of my life and most of it, I think what I’ve got to make you understand, even though I’m using the columns in certain spots, and I really don’t know how to do that — how much do you use? Do you use the entire column?

I went down to Orlando when Michael Jordan was just playing baseball and he gave me an exclusive. Do you remind people of that peripherally, just throw in some salient facts? Or do you print paragraphs at a time? I’m not sure but I think the key to this whole book is I’m going to give you the stories behind those stories.

So that’s your mission: the stories behind the stories?

Yes, on every level.

The biggest story I ever broke, for instance, you’re going to talk about (Golden State Warriors star) Latrell Sprewell choking (Warriors coach) P.J. Carlesimo (in 1997), and I’m going to give you how I got that story and then what happens afterward. Which I’ve never written that stuff. Will I reveal sources? I know I’m going to reveal some sources that led me astray. That’s for sure; absolutely for that. But I doubt that I’ll reveal the real sources, but I’ll tell people how I arrived finding out what happened that night in breaking it … and that’ll happen in every one of them, every one of the big ones.

What convinced you to write this book? You’d joked about it sometimes that “I’m never going to write a book.” Was this ever really a mission until recently?

And what changed?

Being on a fixed income changed it. (he chuckles)

I think in all these interviews I’ve done telling all my stories I think people would really like to read all of the stories that I have, and I’ve told it to my agent and he goes nuts about it. In fact, everybody I’ve told stories to they go, “Oh my god…!”

How many chapters do you think this will realistically be?

I don’t know. I have a bunch of them in mind, obvious ones. The Rucker, the ABA, the NBA, NBC. You start breaking them down further like all the people who wanted me to write their books — What was that all about? Who were they? Why didn’t I do them?. Relationships that started out good, turned sour, became good again. That’s a chapter. There’s all different chapters.

I’m really terrible at recognizing people. You can be the biggest superstar in the world and I can be talking to you and the next time I see you I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what it is with me. if it’s not basketball…

So I’ve got a chapter on that happening to me with numerous people, including Denzel Washington. (He laughs)

There’s a certain cutoff point where a large percentage of the population doesn’t know what Rucker is, what it represented, that it even ever existed. I don’t know how many of them will pick up this book, but for any basketball enthusiast they might have no idea that this was ever a big part of the culture.

This could be a real eye-opener to them, and just as a historical document as well. You will be able to give it some proper due many years later when it’s a lot different.

Correct. And I didn’t show up there until ’71.

And before that you had books written about the Rucker, “The City Game” by Pete Axthelm, in which he brings out all these characters: Earl (“The Goat”) Manigault, The Helicopter (Herman Knowings), The Destroyer (Joe Hammond), Pee Wee Kirkland. … I met all those people, so I have stories on them. But aside from those street guys, now you had Wilt Chamberlain playing. One year, in the summer of ’69, seven of the top 10 Knicks played in the Rucker that won the championship the next year. Willis Reed, (Dave) Stallworth, Cazzie Russell, (Walt) Frazier, (Bill) Bradley, they all played up there.

There were so many things that went on up there and then people have to know this. The Celtics sent Dave Cowens there before his rookie year, so I’ve got some great stuff on that. Tiny Archibald played with Cowens on the same team, Austin Carr was on the same team. Their team was loaded. I had Julius coming out of college (UMass). My team was loaded; Charlie Scott, Knicks, Nets.

But also in the Rucker piece I want to debunk stuff that’s been passed down erroneously over the years. I really resent the fact that it has been reported on erroneously. So I definitely go after a couple writers on that one.

I think even if you don’t know these people you certainly know the top guys if you’re any kind of a basketball person. But even if you don’t, the stories are unbelievable, the one-liners are funny as hell. They paint a pretty good picture of being in Harlem in the early ’70s. And then came back in the ’80s with another team. And I had guys playing for me that had very famous relatives. Whitney Houston’s brother played for me, Tom Chapin’s brother played for me. and they weren’t stars yet. It’s just funny. And the (Harlem) Globetrotters played, so the Rucker is really fascinating and my agent just loved reading it.

I think the back story behind the NBC stuff — Vecsey worked as an NBA analyst during the network’s 12-year run (1990-2002) — will be fascinating for people that don’t pay attention to the dynamics of live sports TV and just those kind of shows, either.

Right, right. We’ll definitely get into NBC. But again being around a bunch of stars. I worked with Pat Riley for the first year of NBC. You look at the people that I worked on the same set with: (Bill) Walton and Erving and Isiah (Thomas) and (John) Salley and Kevin Johnson and on and on and on. Jayson Williams. I was the only constant for the 12 years out of that whole crew. So that makes it kind of interesting, too. Yeah, sure I’ll throw in some TNT stuff, too, with (Charles) Barkley. So the TV chapter will be interesting.

What do you think is a possible release date for the book?

I wouldn’t have any idea.

There’s going to be a chapter on anecdotes, too. I’m thinking about this all the time. They don’t fit anywhere but just were fascinating anecdotes, whether it’s Julius apart from his regular career, involving Joe Barry Carroll — god, there’s just so many of them — (the late Jim) Valvano and Jeff Ruland, just things that people would be amazed to read that I never printed. No reprints other than you have to know the story to know what’s going on; for the behind-the-scenes story, you have to know the story.

So you want to provide a partial recap?

Yeah, I have to. How do you do P.J. and Sprewell without explaining what happened? And then I’ll tell you how I got that story, and my relationships afterward with P.J. and Sprewell, it’s pretty interesting.

One of the proudest things in my career is that everything I broke in that story that night was unchanged, never got changed. There were no corrections.

Unlike when I broke the (Gilbert) Arenas-(Javaris) Crittenton guns story — (A Christmas Eve incident involving two Washington Wizards teammates in 2009 was summed up this way in a Foxnews.com headline: “NBA Players Reportedly Drew Guns in Christmas Eve Argument”) — there were some minor things that I had wrong. Minor, but the major things I had correct, even though they denied it, denied it, denied it until it went to court, and then everything came out, and we learned out it was true.

Another big story was I broke the insurrection of the Magic players having the insurrection for Brian Hill, Penny Hardaway and that stuff. I broke that on national television, and nobody ever — I don’t care what sports, not sports — nobody ever breaks the story live like that. They just played on television, and I’m breaking the story that the coach is going to be fired because of an insurrection. …

Matt Goukas did the game; he was the color commentator, and he used to be the Magic coach. And he and (play-by-play man) Marv (Albert) are going, “No, no,” and this is live. “No, no, that’s not true. I would have heard about that.” Brian Hill hadn’t heard about it.

What did the producer and the director say about your report? He’s just nuts?

They knew I had it. We probably should have tipped them off … but that’s the way they wanted it. That was their call. The boss of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol, that was his call. We were going to do it before the game, and he said no we are going to ruin the whole game then — it would just take away from the game. So we waited until after the game, and that’s when we broke it. That was pretty heavy, that was very heavy.

Vecsey also recalled that he was offered a chance to go work for The National Sports Daily, an upstart publication that lasted from January 1990 till June 1991. He declined the offer.

I was the first one they came after. It was (editor-in-chief) Frank Deford and (publisher) Peter Price, I believe, who was the editor of The Post, so they wanted me bad, and offered me big money. In the end, I said, I don’t want to work for this paper. Nobody’s going to read it. Why do I want to do this? And I turned it down.

***

How is the satisfaction and just the enjoyment of rescuing dogs, the interaction with animals and with your wife and others who are involved with that, different from when you finished a good column and knew it was good … how is that different?

I don’t think you can compare them. Nothing compares to rescuing dogs, cats and horses. We’ve said it a hundred times, a thousand times, it’s heartwarming and it’s heartbreaking, because we usually take animals that nobody wants that have been abused and they consume our life.

The first dog that we rescued was a 9/11 dog. It’s master died in the tower, a woman that tied in the tower, we found out. Others were looking for money and we didn’t want to give money. I just didn’t trust anybody … but I said I would like to give something and then my wife actually ran into the policewoman who was in charge for getting homes for the animals that they found of the people who died. So we wound up taking a dog, a yellow lab named Charlie, and that was our first dog ever.

And then we just kept going and going. At one time, we had nine I don’t know how many we’ve had in total, but I think at one time we probably had 18 cats, and then they die.

We just buried a dog yesterday in the snow. So we’re down to six. We’re down to 10 cats and one horse, well actually three horses, because two of my horses are being taken care of by (Hall of Famer and Pacers legend) Mel Daniels on his ranch in Indianapolis … because it was just too much for us. …

I’ve got my chocolate Lab lying right next to me. He’s like 12 now, I’ve had him since he was like 2, and he’s getting old. He and I have a bet on who’s not going to make it up the stairs first.

Is this primarily restricted to Long Island, or are you also rescuing dogs from the New York tri-state area?

We’ve gotten them mostly from the South. Tennessee, Louisiana … several dogs from Tennessee, one is blind. He was beaten blind. So we’ve gotten them from all over. Kentucky, a couple from Long Island.

Are they brought to you? Do you go pick them up?

No, my wife finds them. The ones from the South they come up on a truck. That’s how they get up here. But over the years she’s gone out of her way to find animals that we don’t adopt and we’ll find homes for them …

I’ll give you one, for instance, real fast: She found a dog that they were going to put to sleep, a pit bull that they were going to put to sleep, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Pregnant. And so she arranged for a vet to take the dogs, take the puppies when they were born, she’d keep them for a certain amount of time because she had a litter of eight, and so we funded it … and so now we have the mother and four of her puppies and (brought) them up to Connecticut, where transport leaves them off.

We wound up getting homes for all five, and the mother lives on a palatial place in Connecticut, like a hundred-acre place, and she lives their alone, and they love this dog like you can’t even believe. So it’s an unbelievable story. And then we found homes for the other four, one of them lives on Shelter Island, not that we go see her, but they’ve all turned out great.

***

Follow Peter Vecsey on Twitter: @PeterVecsey1

Too much exercise?

Are Major League Baseball players doing more harm than good by embracing year-round conditioning programs?

Is there too much emphasis on weights and body-building exercises within pro sports today, especially baseball?

The numbers in an AP report from early this morning are alarming. Especially for the start of another big league season, when players are supposed to be in tip-top shape.

The article states that a record 115 MLB players are on the disabled list to start the season. There were 101 players on the DL to open the 2014 season, 110 in 2008 and 104 in 2001, AP reported, citing data from MLB’s commissioner’s office. In 1995, when the commissioner’s office began keeping these records, 46 players were on the DL on Opening Day.

Do these players have enough muscle flexibility? Are they doing the wrong exercises to prevent injuries?

San Antonio Spurs (circa May 2005)

This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 24, 2005.

Suns dig deep hole

By Ed Odeven

PHOENIX — “He’s our guy.”

That’s Tim Duncan’s value to his team, according to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Duncan proved it once again, hitting 9 of 12 shots from the field in the second half to lead the poised, playoff-tested Spurs to a 111-108 victory over the Phoenix Suns.

The two-time NBA MVP was 1-for-7 from the field in the first half, but when it mattered most, his shots found the bottom of the net with regularity. He scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half, including 14 in the final quarter.

Young star Manu Ginobili, who led Argentina to the Olympic gold medal in Athens last summer, scored 14 of his 26 points in the decisive quarter.

The series shifts back to San Antonio for Game 3 Saturday. Trailing 0-2, the Suns will try to become the first team in NBA history to win a conference finals series after losing the first two games at home.

“Our backs are to the wall,” said Suns forward Shawn Marion, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds. “The bright side of it is that we’ve got the (league’s) best record on the road (31-10 during the regular season). We just have to go out there and try to get this done on the road.”

Especially in the fourth quarter.

The Suns haven’t been able to finish games, particularly on the defensive end — in the fourth quarter against San Antonio. They allowed 43 points in the final stanza Sunday and were outscored 31-23 Tuesday.

Duncan certainly understands the Suns’ frustration. Or as he put it: “The Suns shot almost 56 percent and they lost. I mean, they have got to be thinking, what more can we do?”

“We did not make a stop when we had to,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said.

The Suns trailed by 10 points in both of the first two games at home after one quarter, but they found themselves in the thick of things entering the final quarter in both games.

Trailing 97-94 with 5:43 left Tuesday, the Spurs used a 13-5 spurt to pull ahead 107-102 at the 1:19 mark.

Tony Parker, who scored 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting by slicing his way to the hole with ease, converted a layup to start the run. After Marion missed a short J, Parker made another inside bucket.

The Suns retook the lead at 102-100 on Steve Nash’s pull-up 3 with 2:56 to go. The Spurs called a timeout. Then they ran a set play and got the ball to one of their steady, clutch performers — Robert Horry.

The 13-year veteran, who owns five championship rings, knocked down a 3 from the right wing to give the Spurs a 103-102 lead at the 2:31 mark

Phoenix never regained the lead.

“It was huge. It’s what he does and we will often run things for him to shoot that. … He’s confident with it and he did it again,” Popovich said of Horry.

The Suns scored enough points to win a basketball game, but again, the Spurs got too many good looks, too many open, uncontested shots in the fourth. On Sunday, the Spurs made 71 percent of their shots in the fourth quarter; Tuesday’s numbers were similar: 70.7 percent, or 12 of 17.

“Our guys are pretty new to this,” Nash said, “and I think it shows, not necessarily in the lack of production from our guys but in the super production of their guys.”

Amare Stoudemire poured in a game-best 37 points and Steve Nash had 29 and 15 assists. The NBA’s 2004-05 MVP has four straight playoff games of 25 or more points and 15 or more assists (Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson are the only guys to do it three straight games). Quentin Richardson rebounded from a seven-point outing in Game 1 to score 18, while Steven Hunter scored seven points off the bench.

“Again I thought we played well enough to win,” D’Antoni said.

But they failed to convert in crunch time.

They missed four layups in the final minute. Nash’s 3-pointer at the buzzer was off the mark, too.

“Playoff games, the game is so close, just a couple of mistakes and you lose the game. So we didn’t do it,” Ginobili said.

Said Nash: “I still think we were good enough to win a game tonight and if we play as well as we did tonight we have got a great chance to win the next game.

“So we just have to stay positive and hungry and go out there and give ourselves a chance again.”

Both teams had big runs in the first half. The Spurs used a 14-2 spurt to take a 26-13 lead in the first quarter, the biggest lead of the game.

The Suns answered with a 13-0 run to make it 40-38 at the 6:49 mark of the second after Stoudemire hit a short J in the lane. He had eight points during the run, asserting himself with strong inside moves in the paint.

The Suns may face an uphill battle as they try to stave off elimination, but don’t expect them to feel hopeless.

“My confidence is always high,” Stoudemire said. “It’s never going to change as long as I live.

“We just have to go into San Antonio and play extremely hard.”

MLB’s mission to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease (column flashback)

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 6, 2002.

Baseball’s support of ALS research an homage to Gehrig

By Ed Odeven

It’s easy to criticize Major League Baseball. The owners’ greed, the players’ ridiculous salaries, recent revelations of a troublesome epidemic plaguing the game (rampant steroid use) and the outrageous price of tickets are too much for the average fan to afford: All are clear-cut reasons why many fans have been turned off by the grand ol’ game.

Today, however, let’s discuss something baseball is doing right. Baseball is doing its part to help raise awareness and find a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

It’s been just over 61 years since legendary Lou Gehrig died (June 2, 1941) from ALS, but he is not forgotten, nor are his on-the-field accomplishments.

The New York Yankees first baseman batted cleanup, for years hitting behind Babe Ruth — talk about job security, y’all — in the famed Murderers’ Row lineup that dominated baseball like few teams ever have — or ever will.

Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games, an amazing streak later topped by Cal Ripken Jr., before taking himself out of the Yanks’ lineup in 1939. He would never play again. But Gehrig touched the hearts of ballplayers and fans when he gave his now-famous speech.

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig said on July 4, 1939.

Gehrig is remembered for both his brilliant career and the progressive neurodegenerative disease that bears his name.

Perhaps more than anyone associated with the game today, Curt Schilling has made sure that Gehrig is not forgotten.

The Diamondbacks’ Mr. Good Guy, Schilling, is more than just a dominant figure on the mound. He’s a guy with a keen sense of history and respect for the game’s legends. And he’s a guy with a heart as big as the Great Wall of China.

Since 1992, he has helped raise more than $3 million for ALS research. Since joining the D-backs, Schilling has become an active supporter of the ALS Association’s Arizona chapter. At the same time, Schilling, who first made a name for himself with the Philadelphia Phillies a decade ago, continues to provide financial contributions to the City of Brotherly Love’s ALS Association’s chapter.

Schilling realizes the influence he has as a public figure, raising awareness for a worthwhile cause.

“Over the past eight years I’ve met many ALS patients and their families,” Schilling said. “I’ve learned that ALS can strike anyone. The emotional and physical toll is devastating to the whole family.”

Last Saturday, MLB gave a heartfelt tribute to Gehrig at ballparks around the country on a special day dubbed “Project ALS Day.” Before each game, celebrities read his speech and urged fans to help support ALS research.

It’s a great start. But there’s so much more that society and athletes can do. Too many players worry about getting a shoe contract, getting lucrative endorsements and getting “respect.”

As noted humanitarian and late baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente once said, “If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.”

If only more athletes, especially those with the means to improve the lives of countless others, would realize that.