B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK: First All-Star Game makes strong impression | The Japan Times

The unification of the NBL, NBDL and bj-league to create the B. League represented a big step forward for men’s pro basketball in Japan. Another important

Source: First All-Star Game makes strong impression | The Japan Times

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Boxing pulsates through Carlo Rotella’s soul (and other insights from an interview)

 

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Carlo Rotella

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 18, 2017) — Carlo Rotella brings a historical perspective to his writings on boxing. He examines changes during the postindustrial age and how they’ve affected the sport.

 

He’s a keen observer of the intricacies of boxing, and has written extensively on the sport while also maintaining a busy schedule in academia. Rotella is the director of American Studies at Boston College.

Professor Rotella earned his Ph.D. from Yale University. He’s penned stories for The New York Times Magazine, including this recent op-ed piece (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/opinion/want-to-visit-the-jazz-age-try-fight-night-in-vegas.html?_r=0https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/opinion/want-to-visit-the-jazz-age-try-fight-night-in-vegas.html?_r=0), columns for the Boston Globe, as well as articles for The New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post Magazine, Slate, The American Scholar and Harper’s, among others. His work has been featured in The Best American Essays anthology.

His first boxing book, “Cut Time: An Education at the Fights,” was published in 2003, setting the stage for thoughtful commentary and reporting in the years since.

“Boxing is not just fighting,” Rotella wrote in one passage in Cut Time. “It is also training and living right and preparing to go the distance in the broadest sense of the phrase, a relentless managing of self that anyone who gets truly old must learn.”

For Rotella, Larry Holmes was an instrumental figure in his future work chronicling boxing in books and other mediums. As he recalled in a 2001 interview with The Boston College Chronicle about visiting a gym that the ex-heavyweight champ owned in Eaton, Pa, “Going down there to watch him train, I had a chance to see a master craftsman work at his craft. That, as much as anything else, got me interested in writing about boxing.”

In a recent interview, Rotella, who grew up in Chicago’s South Side, reflects on his earliest memories of boxing, his current book project, how boxing illuminates societal changes, top boxing writers, Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s tainted legacy and more.

***

What first piqued your interest in boxing growing up? Was there a clear-cut moment, fight, boxer, movie, etc. that sparked your lifelong interest in the Sweet Science?

Boxing was on TV in the 1970s, when I was a kid. I saw some of Larry Holmes’s big fights, and then, 20 years later, I found myself at my first academic job at Lafayette College, in his hometown, Easton, Pa. He was still fighting then, in his forties, and there wasn’t all that much to do in Easton, so I started hanging out at his gym. That’s how I got into writing about boxing.

How is boxing a revealing tool to illuminate sociological changes and trends in American society (and other nations) across the decades?

That’s a big, complicated subject, but one of the ways to come at it is to recognize that boxing is deeply connected to work rather than play, and that boxing reached its peak in this country at the height of the industrial era. It was once woven into the fabric of daily life in ways that it isn’t now. Like a lot of other things in the postindustrial era, it went from being an everyday feature of the neighborhood landscape — the boxing gym was part of a set of institutions that included saloon, church, union hall, etc. — to being an esoteric electronic spectacle put on by a handful of experts. Something similar goes for the pay structure: boxing is kind of a parody of a postindustrial labor market, with a handful of fighters and a triple handful of promoters, managers, and other business people making almost all the money and everybody else doing something less than breaking even.

Can you describe how you prepared your first book, “Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt,” organized the research and sought out those you interviewed? What was most interesting about it? Most challenging?

Only part of that book was about boxing, but I learned a good deal about women’s boxing while I was working on it, which I was overdue to catch up on. I spent a lot of time in Erie, Pa., working on that book, and the most marketable fighter in town at the time was a woman named Liz McGonigal who was barely five feet tall and had long blond hair and was getting a Ph.D. in psychology. Listening to factory workers rhapsodizing about how she reminded them of their hard-as-nails grandfathers suggested to me that something was going on there, bigger structural pieces of social and cultural history in motion, that I should try to figure out.

 

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Carlo Rotella’s upcoming book

 

Along with Michael Ezra, how have you narrowed down the authors for this upcoming project (set for April release), “The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside?” Who are the authors?

Our criteria were pretty simple: we looked for people who knew what they were talking about and could write. There were a couple that got away that we really wish we could have had — Frank Lotierzo, Rich O’Brien from Sports Illustrated, the trainer and former fighter John Scully — but we mostly got who we wanted to get, and were surprised by a few writers we hadn’t known about before. In addition to Mike and me, the lineup includes Robert Anasi, Brin-Jonathan Butler, Donovan Craig, Sarah Deming, Charles Farrell, Rafael Garcia, Gordon Marino, Louis Moore, Gary Lee Moser, Hamilton Nolan, Gabe Oppenheim, Sam Sheridan, and Carl Weingarten. There was no way we could offer them anything like what they deserve to get paid, but we could offer something that’s actually even rarer in the fight press these days, which is careful, thorough, patient editing. It was a real pleasure to work with these writers as they revised and polished their work to a high shine, and they were extremely generous in their commitment to this book. We asked for a substantial original piece from everybody (it’s a book of new essays, not reprints), and the contributors did us the honor of giving us their best work.

What is the mission of your latest book?

The Bittersweet Science is either the glorious last stand or the amazing comeback of good boxing writing.

What’s, in your view, the best-ever pro bout in Boston? Is it somewhat unheralded?

I couldn’t tell you, but I have a weakness for the kind of matchup in which an overprotected local hero runs into a guy who was brought in to lose to him but who, because he has been in with a higher class of fighter, suddenly realizes he might actually be able to pull off a win. Watching a guy who’s 7-13 upset a guy who’s 9-1 can be a lot more interesting than watching big shots play it safe.

For you, who are three to four must-read boxing writers nowadays? Why?

Charles Farrell is the most original and challenging fight writer working today, and he’s talking about stuff that most others don’t go anywhere near: how the business works, how what happens in the ring reflects what happens around it, how the heroic version of writing about boxing misses or falsifies most of what makes it interesting. He’s a one-man antidote for sports-talk sentimentalism and fake-literary posturing. And, as Farrell himself points out, when it comes to technical analysis Frank Lotierzo is the best in the business. He’s great on breaking down fighting styles and strategies. Mike Ezra, my co-editor on The Bittersweet Science, brings a historian’s command of evidence and argument to thinking about boxing that’s sorely missing in most of what I read in the sports press.

Is “When We Were Kings” the best boxing documentary ever made in your view? Is it near the top? If it’s another one, what’s No. 1? Why?

I’m in the minority who don’t love it. I found it all right as a document of the moment but not all that compelling in its treatment of Ali and Foreman. If you don’t seek complexity in your characters, you don’t find any. Of course, I don’t have a documentary to propose in its place as best ever. I tend not to be all that compelled by boxing movies, documentary or fictional. There’s actual boxing out there; why bother with movies?

Do you approach your essay/column/book writing from a scholarly perspective more so than a journalistic/pundit’s view? Or do you feel you have a combo approach?

I hope I don’t approach anything from a pundit’s point of view. I regard that label as basically pejorative, suggesting a lack of legwork more than anything else. I don’t know whether I’m more academic or journalist. I think of boxing writing as primarily an essayist’s craft, which has its own priorities.

When was the first boxing fight you saw live at a venue? Who fought?

Good question. It was probably a tank-town card in the Lehigh Valley, so likely it was in Bethlehem or Allentown. I don’t remember the exact card, but I can promise you that any shifty effete outlanders from far-flung exotic locales like Altoona or Reading who had the temerity to invade the valley got what was coming to them from manly local bruisers.

When was the last one? Who competed?

Ward-Kovalev in Las Vegas, which I covered for the NY Times op-ed section (cited above). A very good fight, contested at a high level throughout (there was more effective feinting by both men in that fight than I’ve seen in a long time), and one that I hope will produce a rematch. Ward’s likely to have the upper hand if they do fight again, having already gone through the hard rounds in which he got to know Kovalev’s power and worked out ways to deal with it, but it’s still a good matchup.

Did the Mayweather-Pacquiao bout create big present and future problems for pay-per-view TV? Did it damage the possibility of increased viewership via PPV for the coming years?

It certainly wasn’t the first time Mayweather’s crew engineered a prohibitive mismatch against a much smaller guy who was safely over the hill. It’s part of what makes Mayweather the greatest money fighter of all time (measuring risk to reward), and more power to him, though it’s also part of what prevents him from being the all-time great in the ring he wants to be recognized as. Outpointing a shot Pacquiao isn’t much of an all-time credential, especially when Mayweather wants to compare himself to Sugar Ray Robinson, whose non-undefeated record in February 1943 alone — 2-1, splitting with Jake La Motta and beating California Jackie Wilson between the two bouts — is more impressive than any three or four years of Mayweather’s undefeated career. Pacquiao has fought much tougher competition and has a far more distinguished record than Mayweather, and to my mind he’s the more accomplished fighter, but he had almost no chance in that fight, which was held more than a few years and pounds beyond his prime. But there’s nothing new about any of that. Why would this fight, of all overhyped mismatches, suddenly cause the public to become suspicious of pay per view?

Who’s your favorite movie director? Why?

I don’t think I have one. I tend to be partial to individual movies and to genres (almost anything featuring swordplay and archaic speech will do), but not so much to directors. Favorite writers, yes, many; favorite directors, not really.

***

Word association time: What words and/or phrases immediately comes to mind when I mention the following…?

Muhammad Ali – For all the praise that has been lavished on him, much of which he deserves, he was underrated in at least two areas: functional strength and fouling acumen.

George Foreman – I kind of enjoy how crazy he could get on the air when he was calling fights. He has a thing about not being touched on the chest, for instance, and every once in a while he’d get fixated on that and start ranting about it: “Never touch a man’s chest when you’re working his corner! That’s how you take his power!” and so on. Way more interesting than the usual color-commentator blah blah blah.

Sonny Liston – If both fights with Ali were fakes, not just the second, it does something interesting to the canonical Sixties, sort of unwinding the whole thing from one loose thread.

Howard Cosell – He rarely seemed to have any idea about or interest in what was happening in the ring in front of him. The real drama was his struggle to do his pointless job (why do we need him to tell us mostly wrong things about what we’re seeing on the screen?) against the tendency of his own mayfly attention span to lead him elsewhere. If you go back and watch the last round of Holmes-Cooney, he barely even notices that the fight has been stopped. Then, afterward, he obtusely asks Cooney why he seems so depressed. When he visits Holmes in his locker room, Holmes is so violently impatient to be out of his odious company that there’s no point in Cosell’s attempting to interview him.

Sugar Ray Robinson – A very rare case in which the person generally acknowledged as the best ever may actually be the best ever.

Mike Tyson – Short prime, short wind, short fuse. Short arms, too. But he turned out to be a thoughtful and even somewhat interesting guy once he stopped fighting.

Bernard Hopkins – The most accomplished fighter of our time, and the distinction rests heavily, as Mike Ezra has pointed out, on the strength of what he did in his post-prime, which is especially impressive.

Roberto Duran – Maybe the last short-list pound-for-pound all-time great I’ll see in my lifetime. He came along just in time to have enough fights and enough major fights to qualify, something that’s almost impossible under the current business model of boxing stardom. He would have been among the very best in any era.

George Kimball – I got to know him late in his life, and I really enjoyed spending time with him. A well-read, funny, thoughtful guy. He also knew a lot of publicans in Dublin, which came in handy when I went there for an academic conference.

Marvin Hagler – Years ago, when I was on assignment on the road and staying in a motel full of hustlers, with all kinds of criminal noise coming from the parking lot and hallways, I couldn’t get to sleep until I happened on a rerun of Hagler-Mugabi. It was like a reassuring bedtime story, a reminder that all was right with the universe. I slept like a baby.

Basketball maven Mark Heisler’s reflections on a legendary career

 

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Mark Heisler

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 5, 2017) — A lot has changed since 1969, the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Mark Heisler began his newspaper career.

Space exploration, of course, has continued. Heisler, meanwhile, has carved out a career as a significant sports writer, one of the most prominent, prolific NBA chroniclers for decades.

Raised in Springfield, Illinois, Heisler’s career journey included stops at the Rochester (New York) Times-Union (two years), Philadelphia Inquirer (three years) and Philadelphia Bulletin (seven years). He was 25 years old and covering the 76ers (more on that below.)

Heisler then moved west and became a part of the Los Angeles Times sports staff in 1979,  a position he held until 2011, when the paper’s newsroom downsizing gutted the department and left a huge void (professional experience, expertise, etc.).

Heisler had a close-up view of the great Lakers-Celtics rivalries of the 1980s, the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls dynasty in the 1990s and the Lakers’ return to prominence under Phil Jackson. He witnessed the immense popularity of Magic Johnson and the competitive intensity of Kobe Bryant.

In short, he is one of the most experienced, authoritative writers covering the NBA. One nugget that underscore that: He has covered almost 40 NBA Finals.

As a 2006 recipient of the Curt Gowdy Award, which is given annually by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Heisler’s contributions to basketball and journalism were given their well-deserved public recognition.

He paid his dues on other reporting beats before becoming a fixture in pro basketball circles. When he joined the Los Angles Times, Heisler covered the Los Angeles Angels for three years, and for five years he reported on the NFL’s Raiders, when the team called L.A. home. And then he thrived on the Lakers beat.

Nowadays, Heisler pens an NBA column for the Southern California News Group, including the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Daily News. In recent years, his work has also been featured on HoopsHype.com, Forbes.com and other websites.

In a wide-ranging interview, Heisler shares tales from his long career, noting unforgettable moments and mentors, players and coaches. He also sheds light on how covering the game has changed. He highlights what he misses about the old days and why he thinks analytics are not always practical numbers to dissect a game and a player’s impact.

This is Heisler’s story, his life’s work compressed into a Q&A format, about his nearly 50 years in the biz.

***

What is your favorite Pat Riley story?

My favorite story about Pat isn’t exactly about Pat. I had written my book on him, “The Lives of Riley,” for which he had shut down every source he could. I think he thought it was going to be sensational. In any case, he had an ingrained skepticism of the press, which he included in his list of “peripheral opponents.”…. Anyway, Doc Rivers was then the Knick point guard and very curious to get the real story on Pat, who was the glamorous, silent type. Doc told me he was reading the book on the bus — but with a different book jacket on it so Riles couldn’t tell…. As it turned out, Pat wound up not minding what I wrote about him and we resumed a cordial relationship.

On a personal level, what became different and what didn’t change when dealing with Riley during his days with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat?

Pat had never done personnel or anything else related to the front office when he was coaching the Lakers or the Knicks. He was totally obsessed with coaching but  that was it. In the off-season, he disappeared to get away from the game, probably because he had put so much into it, he was exhausted….

When he took over in Miami, he not only started doing personnel, and running the Heat basketball operation as if he had the GM title, he was brilliant at it…. Pat’s deal had always been to coach through his best player — Magic in Los Angeles, Patrick Ewing with the Knicks…. The adaptation he made in Miami was to go out and get a great all-heart player he could coach through like them—Alonzo Mourning. The Heat team Pat took over was a mediocre one with good players but no real star.

With Zo on the outs in Charlotte because he wanted more than the Hornets wanted to pay, Pat, who would never have gone to Miami if there was any question of the resources owner Micky Arison would make available, Riles pulled off a trade for him, picked up Tim Hardaway and built an elite team in the East….

Years later, he drafted Dwyane Wade, traded for Shaq (not a Riley-type player but Riles had learned flexibility) and won the Heat’s first title…. Years later, Pat beat everyone to LeBron James — after the meeting where Pat dropped his championship rings on the table in front of Bron, as if they were boulders—who joined with Wade and Chris Bosh and won them two more titles.

They might be challenging for titles still if Bron hadn’t stunned everyone and gone home to Cleveland.

And is he one of the best executives in league history? How would you evaluate his ability to run an organization?

I think he is. The execs who come to mind first for me — Red Auerbach, Jerry West — were GMs for decades longer than Riles and built multiple powerhouses, but after those two, Pat would be right there for me.

Under a different system, sans the triangle and Phil Jackson’s guiding hand, do you think Kobe Bryant would have have been as effective over the long haul and won as many titles? And in its L.A. days after the Bulls dynasty was the triangle offense overanalyzed, and deified, by those who didn’t recognize the remarkable ability of Kobe to make big plays in the biggest moments?

I don’t think the triangle made Kobe, who would have been great in any system. On the other hand, he very well might not have won five titles without Phil’s gently restraining hand… and then a lot more people would have doubted his greatness. Of course, Kobe was out of control from start to finish — and so great, he could put up good numbers, like a 45-percent career shooting percentage while taking the wildest assortment ever launched.

Looking at Kobe’s post-NBA projects as a businessman and entrepreneur, do you see a ruthless ambition with equal intensity shining through or more of a step-by-step approach to building a business empire?

I see a guy with amazing drive and will who needs to find someplace to put all of that now that he can no longer play basketball. I sympathize completely and I hope it works out for him because it’s a terrible thing to have to go through, a mid-life crisis so early in life.

How instrumental was Michael Cooper’s defense to the Lakers’ success during the Showtime years? Was it overlooked? In that era known for high-scoring duels, what should people raised on this current 3-point era of basketball know about Coop’s play and impact?

Coop was an important piece of the puzzle, who would have fit into modern basketball very neatly. He was what they now call a “Three and D” player before they had the term. His game fit “Showtime” too, suggesting it was a modern balanced, keep-the-defense-continually-off-strife offense decades ahead of its time, the difference from today’s high-powered offenses being their reliance on three-pointers…. Coop came in as an athletic non-shooter who could D it up on anyone and run on the break with anyone but ty the 1986-87 season, at age 31, he had become the Lakes’ leading three-point shooter, even if that only meant he averaged 1.1 a game, to starter Byron Scott’s 0.8 threes per game.

If Al Davis had had the desire to own and run a pro basketball team in either the ABA or NBA, do you think (based on his fierce competitive spirit) he would have had success like with his Raiders?

The thing about Al that was so amazing, he didn’t play the game beyond the high school level and he wasn’t much good at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn. He just thought his way into coaching, working his way up with brains and will. Anyone who overcomes an obstacle like that and succeeds at his level can’t be underestimated. In the right situation, he might have succeeded far beyond what people might expect…. In Red Auerbach’s day, there wasn’t anyone around as smart and as far-sighted as he was. He built multiple powerhouses including the game’s greatest dynasty — the Russell teams who won 11 titles in 13 years —without a single player that someone else couldn’t have taken ahead of him, starting with Bill Russell. It’s amazing enough that Red did all he did so I wouldn’t be the one to say someone else could have done that, too, but one thing Al was, was smart.

What do you consider your biggest scoop as an NBA beat writer? Did it seem huge in your mind at the time? Or grow in significance over time? Was it a real challenge to keep the scoop a secret?

I got a scoop once on a 76er coach — Billy Cunningham replacing Gene Shue — which I thought was cool because the owner, Fitz Dixon, was trying to dump stuff to another paper (I was then on the Bulletin)…. I got a few more like that but scoops were really my thing. Overview was.

What did it mean to you, both personally and professionally, that legendary New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey asked you to write his 2009 Hall of Fame program piece for that special day in Springfield, Mass., when he was honored for his inimitable, important career?

Personally, it meant a lot because we were friends. Professionally, it meant as much or more because Peter’s respect didn’t come cheaply. Love him or hate him — and he’d be the first one to tell you there were plenty of both — there’s no one who wouldn’t say he was a giant in the biz.

How influential was George Kiseda as a mentor to you? And if so, what about his work experience and approach to covering the NBA resonated with you?

Ten on a scale of 10 (or 11 on a scale of 11, as in “Spinal Tap”). George was a mentor to a lot of people — young writers followed him around as if he was the Pied Piper — and one of my best friends. He was the most brilliant guy I ever met in newspapers — or in any other sphere — in everything from writing to generating totally original story ideas to copy editing, which he did late in his career. On the desk at the Los Angeles Times, he wrote headlines that had better ideas in them than the stories under them. As our Olympic editor at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, our boss, Bill Dwyre, credited him with the Red Smith Award Bill received (in 1996) from the Associated Press Sports Editors for our stellar coverage.

George was also the most courageous man I ever saw in newspapers, someone who took controversial stands in important areas — especially race relations — long before newspapers (and sports editors) were comfortable doing that sort of thing… as in 1957 when he pointed out that Army, an institution run with tax dollars, was going to play Tulane in a segregated stadium, the Sugar Bowl. George’s column was read on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Army was obliged to forego a big payday to move the game to its own campus. And George was ordered not to write about non-sports issues in the pages of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, leading him to depart for Philadelphia.

George was also the greatest basketball writer I ever saw, the man who all but single-handedly introduced irreverence to the process — which made NBA coverage different from other sports in which everyone took himself so seriously — with his various teams like All-Interview and All-Flake.

There are few of us left who saw George in his prime but we’re all still slack-jawed with awe.

Peter, Bob Ryan and I joined together in writing a letter to the Hall of Fame to urge that he receive the Curt Gowdy Award for print journalism. To many of us who knew George, there should be an award named after him.

Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, and then receiving that honor in Springfield, Mass., too, was it beyond your wildest dreams that your career in journalism would include the top honors?

Truly. In the beginning I just wanted to watch a major league baseball game from the press box.

The summer of 1967 when I graduated, and was about to leave from my native Illinois for my first job in Rochester, N.Y., I went down to St. Louis to see a Cardinal game. I had binoculars with me and I spotted Taylor Bell, a guy I had gone to school with at Illinois (who became a high school writing icon in Chicago) sitting in the press box. I couldn’t imagine anything that could be cooler than that.

How did leaving Illinois and getting to compete and grow and gain experience in the tough sports media market of Philly point you in the right direction to become one of the best in the biz at covering the NBA?

First, thanks for the compliment. The greatest —and luckiest — thing to happen to me was to wend my way to Philadelphia after two years in Rochester, N.Y., following my graduation from the University of Illinois.

Going to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked for three years before going to the Philadelphia Bulletin for seven gave me the opportunity to work against, learn from and become friends with greats like George Kiseda, Stan Hochman, Sandy Grady, Tom Cushman, Gary Smith, Alan Richman, Ray Didinger, Mark Whicker, Rich Hoffman, et al.

As great as New York and Boston were in sports writing, Philadelphia writers took special pride in what we were doing. I think we were the toughest sports writing city, emblematic of our readership.

My first year in town in 1969, I went to the exhibition football opener between the Cowboys and the Eagles. They were introducing the players one by one, running out onto the turf in Franklin Field and when they got to tackle Lane Howell, the whole place went up in boos — and this was years before they used to say who holding penalties were on. I thought to myself, “What great fans!” I was thrilled to work there.

Was it really more laid back working for a newspaper in L.A. than in Philly? Or is that a misconception?

If was definitely more laid-back in Los Angeles because there was no real competition for my paper, the Times, even before the Herald Examiner folded.

When I was hired in 1979, the Times had a “daily news magazine” format with long features more or a priority than hard news gathering.

An East Coast writer I knew had a joke about it, claiming that all the L.A. baseball writers would ask Dodger Manager Walter Alston was, “Good game, Skip, Sutton going tomorrow?”

It was too close to being true for Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Shirley, who hired a bunch of us from around the country to put more teeth into our coverage.

Nevertheless, the people who did the hiring at the Los Angeles Times were extremely sharp. The section I worked on in the Olympic year of 1984 was the best I have ever seen in the biz with Jim Murray and Scott Ostler as our columnists, beat writers like Mike Littwin, Alan Greenberg, Richard Hoffer and Gordon Edes — and young upcoming young guys like Rick Reilly, Gene Wojciechowski, Mike Penner, Chris Dufresne and Sam Farmer who weren’t even on beats yet.

What were a few hard lessons (and embarrassing mistakes) you made at the Bulletin and Inquirer that looking back on now you view as vital in your maturation and development as a journalist?

The hardest lesson was how to stand up to people on the beat in order to write what you thought needed to be written, no matter how anyone felt about it.

The worst day I had in my first 10 years in the business was the one in which I trotted out stats to show the 76ers’ 47-35 record in the 1970-71 season was only better than their 42-40 mark the year before because of their record against the three new expansion teams.

True as that was, it set off Coach Jack Ramsay, who made a remark about all the critics. When I asked him later if he wanted to talk about it, he snarled, “I don’t give a fuck what you write,” and stomped off.

It hurt me so much, I resolved to leave the business. I revered Ramsay, a really upright kind of guy, as did so many who knew him. That was a lesson to me — don’t revere people you cover. Don’t like them, or dislike them. Just cover them. It’s not a personal relationship, it’s a professional one.

I actually would become friendly with Ramsay later on when I was no longer covering him day to day. (that’s usually what happens over the years, even with Al Davis, who demonized me for every day of the five years I covered his Raiders). But from then on, I knew to protect myself against investing in someone I was covering.

Of course, five years covering Al, who once told me straight out in the weird accent of his that he would never sit down for an interview with me because “Ah think youah a prick,” was a lifetime of experience all by itself.

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Former Lakers star Pau Gasol and Mark Heisler

Is there an over-reliance in statistics and analytics by basketball writers today? For example, do you think the game story of, say, 1985 was better and more interesting for the average reader (perhaps because of better descriptive writing) than what appears in online news sites and newspapers today?

I think there is. Modern “analytics” is very much in vogue now, especially on the internet. The problem is, all statistics aren’t equally useful, nor are all statisticians.

Sharp ones like Zach Lowe are discerning in the way the use stats. The internet is full of less discerning guys who throw numbers around as if they’re a magic language, no matter how well or badly they’re conceived.

This is the age of the algorithm, which is a black-box kind of analysis based on a model somebody constructs, spitting out stats that no one understands, like WAR, which discerning baseball people (I like Keith Law a lot) use), or basketball’s PER.

I think a lot of John Hollinger — whatever you think of their models, a lot of analytic guys are really sharp — but his PER is one of my pet peeves. If you look at PER rankings, there are always total anomalies that make you wonder what the whole thing is worse, like (presently) Javale McGee at No. 32 and Jabari Parker at No. 44…. If PER suggests that a backup center averaging 8.3 minutes a game is somehow better than one of the league’s hottest comers, I’d suggest the stat has shown itself to be problematic, rather than telling you anything of value.

Indeed, the PER anomalies all have incredibly high shoot percentages, since the guys mostly just dunk lobs.

There’s also the issue of whether a single list can sum up up the difference between big players, who get points, rebounds, blocks and have high shooting percentages, and perimeter players who get points, assists, steals and threes. Personally, I don’t think it can, and I think the anomalies I cited suggest that.

There’s also the issue of how modern “advanced stats” apply from sport to sport. I think there’s much better application to baseball, which is a static game in which there really is additional value with every base you gain, so that On-Base Percentage really does measure something of more value than mere Batting Average.

Basketball is a fluid, zero-sum game in which any shot I take is one that you can’t take. I think it’s harder to apply statistical measure to than baseball. Bottom line, some stats work better than others but there’s too little recognition of that fact and too much inclination to throw around dumb numbers like basketball’s “usage rate” which essentially just adds up all the numbers, including turnovers, as if they’re all equal.

To me, this piece* really demonstrated your ability to capture the essence of a person’s life, work and legacy? Was there a level of satisfaction that went into writing about Vin Scully at the end of his remarkable career that topped the level associated with most other assignments?

*http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/last_call_for_vin_scully_the_king_of_los_angeles_20160923http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/last_call_for_vin_scully_the_king_of_los_angeles_20160923

To me, the satisfaction doesn’t come from saying nice things about someone lots of people love. It’s in doing the job as well as I’m capable of doing it, even before I start the actual writing, thinking it through so that I can give the reader a chance to see the subject in the context of the big picture… and in a way that you can’t read 100 other places.

Also, I love to make readers laugh. I know how much I love it when I read someone who does that to me. The whole story doesn’t have to be a comedy routine but great lines are great lines.

I always like it if I can figure out something to say that no one has. In this piece, I looked at the devotion of Vin in the context of the hometown baseball announcers I grew with like Harry Caray, whom I listened to as a boy 100 miles from St. Louis; Harry with both teams in Chicago; Jack Buck in St. Louis; Harry Kalas in Philadelphia and, of course, the one and only Vin. (There are more, I just didn’t happen to grow up with, like Red Barber and Ernie Harwell.)

What it suggests is something deeper than mere baseball. These guys are on the air so much as voices of hope, creating such a bond with their audience, they’re more than sports announcers. They’re like doing the narrative of the entire community.

What was the greatest all-around team in NBA history? Is there a clear cut No. 2 in your mind?

To be meaningful, I think “best team” has to include achievements from more than one season.

I’ll overcome the inevitable tendency to overvalue relatively recent events and go with the Russell Celtics, who won 11 titles in his 13 seasons. From there, you could pick out your favorite — like the team that won 60 games in an eight-team league with Bob Cousy still active and Sam Jones and K.C. Jones coming up under him.

At No. 2, I’ll go with the Michael Jordan Bulls’ champs from 1996-1997-1998, when they won 72, 69 and 62 in the regular season.

To me, that’s way ahead of Golden State winning 67-73 the last two seasons but only one of the two titles. If you look at multiple seasons, whatever the Warriors’ level of greatness is, it has yet to be determined.

That’s the way it should be. To me, the answer to most sports questions being debated at any given time is: Incomplete.

What was the most stunning NBA Finals game you witnessed? Why?

Game 5 of the 1976 Finals in Boston where the Celtics had just taken a two-point lead at the end of regulation, about to go up, 3-2, on Phoenix. I was getting an early start to the dressing room, which you had to do with all the people there. I was shuffling along behind everyone… when Gar Heard hit his famous “shot Heard ’round the world” to tie it at the end of regulation, a 17-foot moon ball over Don Nelson after in-bounding it with :01 left in the first of three overtime sessions.

So I’m shuffling along toward the dressing room, jammed in with everyone else, when I see Gar’s shot go way up, and come way down, into the hoop… so i turn around and shuffle back the way I came.

That was also the game in which the Suns’ Paul Westphal called for a timeout they didn’t have, taking a technical foul and giving up a point — which made the Boston lead two points but moved the ball up to half-court for the in-bounds play, giving Heard a chance to tie the game.

That was also the game in which a Celtic fan wrested referee Richie Powers to the floor in the melee after Boston took its lead before Heard’s shot. The fans thought the Celtics had won the game but the refs then summoned both teams back onto the floor.

It went three OTs with Dave Cowens and Paul Silas fouling out before the Celts won to take that elusive 3-2 lead. The Celtics then closed the series out in Game 6 in Phoenix with everyone emotionally exhausted.

Had the Suns managed to pull it out, they’d have been going home with that 3-2 lead and history might have been different.

What were 2-3 of the most difficult breaking news assignments you had on the NBA beat? (I would predict Magic’s HIV announcement/retirement in November 1991 would be at or near the top.)

You would be right. We were all working with lumps in our throats that day.

Nothing else comes close to that. That wasn’t a sports story. That was real life, and, we thought, death… although I had such admiration for Earvin and his remarkably positive mindset, I didn’t really believe this would kill him.

In any case, I cried when I wrote my last line about Magic in that week’s Sunday column, the one in which Jerry West told me something on the lines of, “Somewhere there’s a young player on a playground who’ll be better than Magic, but there will never be another leader as good.”

Is Adam Silver as effective a commissioner as you thought he’d be when he was chosen to follow David Stern?

I think Adam has been great, in part because David left him a league in such good shape after all the misadventures they had endured in the years after the 1998 end of the Jordan dynasty in Chicago, like the 2004 Auburn Hills riot and the 2008 Tim Donaghy scandal.

I had my share of go-arounds with David but I always thought very highly of him. He was not only highly intelligent but imposing going on intimidating. He had been a litigating lawyer —the ones who go to court —so standing in against him in a press conference called for all you could summon in the way of poise because he took great delight in making you look foolish.

He did it to me once when I asked a poorly-thought-out question at the 2007 Las Vegas All-Star Game. Happily, David had mowed down the two guys who asked better questions before I did, enabling me to write that NBA reporters didn’t ask questions so the commissioner could answer them, but, instead, got run over by the commissioner.

David called me at home the next day and apologized. I told him he didn’t have to since give and take is part of the process. Of course, I thought that much more of him because he did.

What was Stern’s biggest accomplishment at the helm? What mistake(s) that he made had a profound impact on the game?

As I said, he kept the league together in the down years between the end of the Jordan Bulls dynasty in 1998, which represented the league’s high point.

It was 10 increasingly grisly seasons from there to the rebirth of the Laker-Celtic wars in 2008, marked by the riot in which NBA players slugged NBA fans, on camera, and the mother of all officiating scandals.

The Laker-Celtic Finals of 2008 and 2010 were followed by LeBron’s adventure in Miami, giving the NBA a ratings-driving celebrated team, if one that everyone hated.

From there, it was a straight line to the new $2.6 billion TV deal that guaranteed prosperity for all after all those years battling in the bushes.

Who are, for you, a half-dozen or so must-read sources of NBA news and commentary these days?

No surprise, anything Woj (Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski) writes. What he has done in this age in which everyone goes nuts trying to get news is truly amazing.

Bryan Curtis of the Ringer is one of the smartest guys out there, although he doesn’t specialize in NBA stuff. Frank Isola of NY Daily News. Ramona Shelburne, Brian Windhorst, Marc Stein and Baxter Holmes of ESPN. Mitch Lawrence of Forbes.com. Howard Beck and Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report. Mike Bresnahan of Time Warner and Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times, my long-time teammates at LAT. Scott Howard-Cooper, Fran Blinebury and Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. Bill Oram and Dan Woike, my current teammates at Southern California News Group. Kevin Modesti, an editorial writer for the Southern California News Group who’s a former sports writer and one of sharpest I know.

How has covering the game changed for the better and for the worse over the past few decades?

Much less access to players, who have much bigger heads. Back in the day, the guys didn’t make enough money to take themselves that seriously. We hung out with them, especially as far as travel was concerned, flying on the same planes, riding the same buses, killing time in the same airports. Whether or not we did a good job of explaining who they were, we knew players then a lot better then than we know them now.

What’s your favorite basketball book of all time? Sports book? Non-sports book?

“Catch-22” for non-sports book.

“A Season on the Brink” for sports books. Major props to John Feinstein for a year spend with the tyrant of tyrants, Bobby Knight.

“Hoop Dreams” for the all-time best work of sports journalism.

Who would make your 15-man rotation of all-time best players? Why?

Michael, Magic, Larry, LeBron, Kobe

Kareem, Wilt, Russell, Hakeem, Shaq, West, Oscar, Elgin, Duncan, Charles

As to why, just because they were the best. It’s great if they led their teams to titles but not all-important if greats like Barkley (or, especially, Mailman or Stockton) didn’t.

The problem I have with naming top teams is leaving people off and making it look like they’re less deserving. I think it’s awful if someone like Ron Santo dies feeling bad about not getting into the Hall of Fame because of some sports writer’s opinion. Having been a sports writer, I don’t care what sports writers have to say.

Same concept for NBA figures – your all-time interview team, including front-office personnel and support staff?

Michael (boy next doorest), Magic (most likeable), Larry (candor humor award), Charles (funnest), West (most endearing with his heart on his sleeve), Wilt (wildest), Phil Jackson (wiggiest), Don Nelson (most creative), Gregg Popovich (really!), Donnie Walsh (mensch), Jack McMahon (mensch), Gene Shue (taught me most), Mike Dunleavy (down to earthest), Mike D’Antoni (nicest), Isiah Thomas (most heart), Bill Fitch (top story-teller)

Who are the 3-4 best TV and radio analysts working the game today? Who’s No. 1 on your list of all-time play-by-play announcers?

No. 1 all-time in basketball for me would be Marv (one name should suffice). Hip, professional and Vin-style inobtrusive…. Chick, of course, who was anything but inobtrusive but was thoroughly Chick.

For color guys, I love Jeff Van Gundy for saying the opposite of what the league wants, and Doug Collins for his sharp perspective…. And Billy Packer, a college guy, of course, for loving ball and being able to explain it as well as anyone ever has.

Before the Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter/texting era, working on and reporting stories was quite different. That said, are there a few examples from your Philly and L.A. days when your ability to work the phones and speak directly to people face-to-face developed as top-notch go-to sources for years, maybe, decades to come?

My favorite story is from the ’70s when we had everyone’s number. The 76ers just gave us a sheet, with all the home numbers on it.

So, I’m trying to find out what’s going on with the 76ers and Coach-GM Jack Ramsay, so I call up Hal Greer… but I dial the wrong number and get Matty Guokas, the next name down on the list.

Matty tells me he was in the office the day before and knew what I was trying to find out, giving me the scoop: The 76ers were bumping Jack down to coach only and would hire a new GM.

The Los Angeles Times has lost a huge amount of talent and experience and proven expertise in sports in the past several years. When you see the direction the paper has taken and the similar situations at news outlets across the country, do you think the big-city sports section as a staple of news consumer’s information diet has vanished for good?

The importance of the local paper hasn’t vanished — the better the local one is, the luckier its readers are — but obviously the old days are over.

My generation was obsessed with writing, who the hot writers were, who the tough writers were, etc. Nowadays, it’s more about who gets hits and who gets on TV — which means, to a great extent, who works for ESPN, the billion-pound gorilla. On the other hand, someone has to dominate. It was the same way my L.A. Times dominated the other papers around here locally, pre-internet.

There is still a place for long form but it seems to be a shrunken place. It’s no wonder there’s so little perspective, and that holds true in more areas than sports, like — witness the recent campaign —politics.

***

Word-association time … What phrases and/or words immediately come to mind for …?

Wilt Chamberlain… Fun guy. Guy’s guy. A gift for any writer he say down with.

Elgin Baylor… The stars’ star in his day, all too forgotten today.

Rick Barry… A difficult guy but a great, incredibly precise player.

Magic Johnson… Best at dealing with people I ever saw and he dealt with a huge number of them.

Jerry Buss… Best owner for being engaged but not too engaged, furnishing the grand vision while backing up his professionals.

Chick Hearn… Chick Hearn.

James Worthy… As great a guy as a player. The one who hugged me when I told him I was leaving the Laker beat.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar… Stand-offish but really smart. Did more journalism than most journalists.

Jerry West… All heart, all smart: the logo, definition of an icon, NBA’s greatest exec after being one of its very greatest players.

Phil Jackson… All eccentric. smart, too.

Kobe Bryant… All Kobe all the time, but if what you do is what counts, he’s the most passionate basketball player the game ever saw.

Larry Bird… Country humorist with totally urban chops. video of players on Atlanta bench falling over each other at his improbable shot is one of funniest ever.

Bill Russell… Not best center ever but definitely the most competitive, not to mention winningest.

Bill Walton… There but for good health goes the best center there ever was. Awesome in his life for the game.

Michael Jordan… Had it all, including personality. Deservedly considered the best there ever was.

Bob Ryan… Greatest gig there ever was. One of the greatest hoop writers ever covering one of the greatest ongoing stories for one of the greatest sports sections.

Peter Vecsey… Had the same deal as Bob except Pete did it his way and Bob did it his.

Red Auerbach… Smartest NBA guy ever, from an age in which you could out-smart people — which is how they won 11 in 13 seasons without a single player they had the first shot at, then built powerhouses someone else could have had, Dave Cowens and Larry Bird.

Pat Williams… Showman. Unbelievable energy. Still going strong.

Marv Albert… How to broadcast basketball. Hip and unobtrusive, the NBA version of Vin.

Donald Sterling… My cottage industry.

Ralph Lawler… Almost as much of an iron horse as Chick. Special commendation for being as good as he has been for as long as he has been, with the team a laughingstock for so much of it.

Bill Dwyre… Thanks for the memories!

*AND A BONUS TALE*

me-and-al-1

TV screen grab

Heisler explained the on-TV mix-up this way: “Photo is a TV capture from a Raider game in Denver in 1987. I was taken by it, of course, because they put Al’s name over me.
The timing was exquisite. Al had just sent his PR guy, Irv Kaze, to tell me to watch what I wrote or they could ban me from their practice facility.

“We used to extend off-the-record privileges to Al when he sat in the press box, as he did for road games like this.This time, I made sure to use something in my story that he yelled — he was always cheering, moaning, etc.— to signal I wasn’t going with the program.

“I never did get barred. Al later told Mike Ornstein, his bulldog of a promotions guy, to throw me out, but Orny —whom I later became very friendly with—didn’t want any more notoriety, having become infamous for throwing CBS’s Irv Cross off the Raider sideline before the 1984 Super Bowl, and wouldn’t do it.

“So, not being the confrontational type, himself despite his swashbuckling image, Al couldn’t get me thrown off his own lot. That was the stuff you went through all the time with the Raiders. They should have given combat ribbons for covering them.”

***
Follow Mark Heisler on Twitter: @MarkHeisler

A conversation with Aram Goudsouzian, author and historian: insights on the Civil Rights movement, Bill Russell, Sidney Poitier, and more

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (Jan. 4, 2017) — Aram Goudsouzian has two very interesting, interconnected jobs.

He’s the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, and he writes books that examine historical periods and figures, important events and iconic personalities.

Dr. Goudsouzian has written “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear,” “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon,” and “Hurricane of 1938.” (He and Randy Roberts are editors of the “Sport and Society” series, which is published by the University of Illinois Press.)

He earned his Ph.D. in history from Purdue University in 2002, and has taught four courses at Memphis: United States History Since 1877, The Civil Rights Movement, The U.S. Since 1945 and African-American History.

The range of material that he has written and lectured about about piqued my interest. Also, I wanted to learn a bit more about how a historian views an author’s work.

What follows is a recent interview with Dr. Goudsouzian conducted by email.

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

What sparked your interest in history and sports and books as a focal point of your career? Was there a defining moment, a seminal moment, or theme from your childhood that you look back on as instrumental in setting you on this career path?

I think that both sports and history were paths to an American identity for me. As an Armenian and a child of immigrants, I am sure that I was seeking ways to fit in among my Irish Catholic and WASP friends. History was always my favorite subject: it brought order to the mess of human existence, and it told great stories. And like a lot of kids in suburban Boston in the 1980s, I loved sports.

I devoured the sports page of the Boston Globe, when the newspaper was in its heyday and the city’s teams were so interesting and successful. I also connected to people through sports – my young days were filled with pickup football, basketball, and wiffleball, and I have played soccer my entire life (I was once adequate and still stubbornly strive for mediocrity.)

But I had no idea that becoming a history professor lay in my career path. When I was in college, I had no clue about my future. I loved my classes, but I figured that whatever I did, I would be happy. I was wrong. When I graduated I took a job as a customer service representative for a mutual fund company. Within a few weeks, I was thinking about graduate school in history. My interest in sport history was a driving force in my life – it was what brought me to study African American history, as well.

What best sums up the role the Sport and Society series, published by the University of Illinois Press, has had in chronicling this vast subject for academics and general readership?

For many years, most academic historians turned their noses up at sports history. They considered it unworthy of study even as it consumed mass attention and shaped important elements of our culture. A pioneering generation that included Benjamin Rader and Randy Roberts – the founding editors of the Sport and Society series – changed that perception through their first-class scholarship. The Sport and Society series now provides the premier outlet for academic sports history. When Dr. Rader retired, I joined as the series co-editor, and it has been a terrific experience to help usher along some outstanding books.

Reflecting on your four previous books — Down to the Crossroads, King of the Court, Sidney Poitier and Hurricane of 1938 — can you offer a basic explanation of the unique challenge of each project? Were these topics in the back of your mind as things you simply wanted to learn more about and felt they would be timely books, as well as subjects that would have a broader, longer value as contributions to the American history?

For my three “big” books, one project has fed into another, in some form. The biography of Sidney Poitier grew out of my interest in how popular culture has fed our political debates over race – Poitier’s super-respectable image was groundbreaking and controversial in the late 1950s, embracing a liberal consensus in the early 1960s, and an object of derision among radicals by the late 1960s. Bill Russell, by contrast, was so interesting because he refused to fit any political category: while leading the interracial Boston Celtics to eleven NBA championships, he was also defying the conventions expected of black athletes. While writing those biographies, I was also reading a lot of the cutting-edge work on the civil rights movement for context, and that fed my interest in telling the story of the Meredith March Against Fear, a 1966 civil rights march that introduced the slogan “Black Power.”

The book on the Hurricane of 1938 is definitely an outlier. In the early 2000s, I had sent my Poitier manuscript off to the press when a colleague offered me an opportunity to write a short book for a local history series. At the time I was scraping together courses as an adjunct at various schools in Boston, and I had no plan for what was next. I also thought the hurricane was particularly interesting – it is largely forgotten, yet at the time it was the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Living history, as some say, is perhaps more vivid in certain places, and maybe that’s true in Memphis, where the music history (Elvis, R&B, soul; and nearby country and other genres in Nashville) and civil rights history and reminders of tragedy (MLK Jr.’s assassination) are omnipresent. That said, do you view living and working in Memphis as ideal for someone who does what you do?

For sure, the past is always breathing in Memphis. It is a city that both banks on its history and is haunted by it. As a birthplace for rock and roll, it possesses an attractive mystique. But like any city that trades on its place in the civil rights movement, that legacy is fraught with ambiguity. For years I lived across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built into the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. People arrive at that site from all around the world, and it compels so many different reactions. The city helped draw me into a tale of the “classic” southern civil rights movement. If I did not live in Memphis, I am sure that I never would have written Down to the Crossroads, which tells the story of a march that started in Memphis and traveled through Mississippi.

Is Bill Russell under-appreciated by a majority of Americans for his contributions to the Civil Rights movement, race relations and progress?

I think many sports fans understand Russell as part of that pioneer generation of outspoken black athletes that included Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Curt Flood. But Russell was a particularly thoughtful and complex man, which gets lost sometimes. He can get simplified as a great winner who overcame prejudice. The thickest thread running through King of the Court is Russell’s insistence on his individuality, on his identity as a black person who was both liberal and radical, on his manhood.

In recent years, it has been interesting to see Bill Russell return to the public spotlight more and more, and also to observe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s growing role as a commentator, columnist and pundit. Indeed, Kareem is seen more on TV and in broadcast media. But what insight and analysis of life and America in 2016/17 do you believe Russell would be most articulate about if he had the same platform?

Interestingly, Russell wrote a semi-regular (weekly) column for the Seattle Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after his coaching stint ended with the SuperSonics. He was not the best writer, but he was not bad. He tackled all sorts of subjects, from national politics to marijuana legalization to the lives of prisoners. Some columns were light, others quite hard-hitting. He almost never mentioned basketball. As with Abdul-Jabbar, who has grown into a fine writer, we might understand Russell’s column as a form of resistance – not just against prejudice or political developments, but also against the notion that he is a big black beast, placed on earth just to perform physical feats for our entertainment.

From Russell or those who reported on what he said and did that you came across during your book research, can you recall what was most profound when he spoke about Wilt Chamberlain’s greatness as an athlete?

Russell and Chamberlain had such a fascinating relationship. In the 1960s, when their on-court rivalry consumed the basketball media, Russell struck up a friendship with Chamberlain, often hosting him at his home. While many were vilifying Chamberlain as a selfish egotist, Russell was defending him. But when Russell retired in 1969, he blasted Chamberlain as a loser. It was as if he had maintained the friendship only for a psychological edge that was no longer necessary. The two proud men stopped speaking to each other. And yet, over time, they found peace with each other, and when Chamberlain died, Russell spoke with eloquence about his great friend and rival.

What’s your assessment of the remarkable Russell-led Celtics dynasty? 

Russell is, without question, the greatest winner in American team sport. He won eleven NBA championships in thirteen seasons with the Boston Celtics. We might think of this as one basketball dynasty – I would say instead that it was three different dynasties, linked by Russell. During the first group of championships in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Celtics were an offensive firepower, anchored by Russell’s revolutionary shotblocking. By the mid-1960s, as players like Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, and Tom Heinsohn retired, the team revolved around its defensive identity. And then, in 1968 and 1969, he won two NBA championships as a player-coach! That is somehow the least appreciated element of his remarkable career.

Also, he won an Olympic gold medal in 1956. And before that, he led an unknown program at the University of San Francisco to two NCAA titles and a record-breaking win streak. There is no one else who even approaches this legacy as a winner.

In your close following of American history, did the rise of Donald Trump en route to the presidency surprise you? What are your general views on the tactics and rhetoric used by him and his team during the campaign and transition period while he’s been the president-elect? And what are your greatest fears and concerns for the Trump administration?

I was as shocked as anyone else that Trump won. Like most people, I trusted the polls and the establishment media. That was a rational response, based on recent elections. It turns out there was nothing rational about the 2016 election.

There is not much I can say about Trump that has not been said. He flouts the principles of the Constitution, exhibits an open racism and xenophobia, lies without remorse, has a brittle ego, and acts more like a pampered celebrity than the leader of the free world.

I have great respect for the American political tradition, for the consistent and peaceful transition of power from one party to the other. I appreciate rational differences of political opinion. But once again, there is nothing rational going on here.

Do you see a natural connection between being a scholar and book author? Is there an overlap in skill sets for the jobs?

For me, the two are intertwined. I always sought to write for an audience beyond my fellow historians, even when I was in graduate school, or still when I am writing articles for scholarly journals. Scholars have to express their ideas in a clear and compelling fashion over an extended piece of writing, which is the mark of a good book author.

Who are some of your favorite writers, regardless of the genre, that you turn to for enlightenment and enjoyment?

In my formative years as a historian, I was most inspired by the great journalists who emerged in the 1960s: David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and others. They all had different styles, but they shared certain skills as writers, in their telling details and compelling characters and narrative arcs. More recently I have developed a great admiration for the work of Rick Perlstein, who is narrating the rise of the New Right in a series of long books filled with insight and humor.

My adviser in graduate school at Purdue University was Randy Roberts, the author of many terrific books, including biographies of the boxers Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis. Randy taught me many things, but especially how to think about narrative history. Right now, in the field of civil rights history, there are a number of academic historians who are writing books that speak to a broader public, including Tim Tyson, Danielle McGuire, Ibram Kendi, Peniel Joseph, Johnny Smith, and Heather Thompson. Check out their books!

How do you consume news and current affairs? Do you read several newspapers, magazines and online articles on a daily/weekly basis? Are you an avid TV news watcher or radio listener? 

I used to read the newspaper over breakfast – then I had kids, which apparently means I cannot sit and read quietly for more than twenty seconds at a time. Now I tend to get my news more in snippets – sometimes over social media, more consistently through the “News” app on my phone.

From a research and scholarly perspective, is there a comparable value in fiction work as a research tool for an understanding an era and its trends to nonfiction work? Can you offer an example of how fiction work has augmented your research and study of subjects to enable you to lecture on it and write about it?

I used to read fiction before falling asleep – then I met my wife, which apparently means that I cannot read in bed any more. I wish I had more time for fiction now. A great novel sweeps you into a story, makes you care about characters, and illuminates important themes. Those are all good lessons for historians.

Writing for QZ.com about Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy, your closing passage was an apt conclusion. In part, it read: “He became a global icon of goodwill, a transformation completed by his dramatic lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His trembling silence was broken by lightning flashes of the old magnetism. He let us see the best of ourselves in him.” Was that something that you thought about for a long time before writing? Or was it penned more on adrenaline and in the moment?

An editor at Quartz asked me to write the essay upon reports of Ali’s bad health, which was a few months before he died, so I had some time to formulate my thoughts. I had to acknowledge the near-universal admiration for Ali, but more important, emphasize that for much of his life, most white Americans feared and hated him. His image transformation says more about us than about him.

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

When I teach introductory-level surveys of U.S. History, I tell my students that they are historians. A good historian works hard, thinks critically about the evidence before them, speaks and writes clearly, and learns to approach the world from multiple perspectives. These are the same skills that foster success in any field.

What are you writing about now?

I am currently working on two projects. One is a collection of essays on the African American struggle in for freedom in Memphis, which I am co-editing with my friend, Rhodes College historian Charles McKinney. Memphis is an important and under-appreciated site for black activism – in the national narrative, it often gets boiled down to the sanitation workers’ strike and the King assassination. Charles and I have solicited essays from a number of our colleagues, and we have sent the draft off to the publisher with our fingers crossed.

My other project is writing a short history of the presidential election of 1968. It has been covered extensively, as it includes many dramatic events: the surprising challenge by anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson’s surprise decision not to pursue another term, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic National Convention, and the election of Richard Nixon, which signaled the beginning of a slow shift in the political center from Left to Right. My own book is designed to reach undergraduate students; each chapter revolves around the experiences on one candidate, so that they might appreciate how the past informs our current political situation.

In the long history of motion pictures in America, how influential and important would you say Sidney Poitier was? What is his legacy as an actor? In terms of talent, charisma, looks, etc. would he be on any top 10 list of movie actors for the 20th and 21st centuries you would make?

Poitier’s most important legacy is that he was the sole black actor consistently wining Hollywood roles as a leading man from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. He was an actor of prodigious talent, able to convey a wide range of emotions, while emitting a strong presence. But race limited his opportunities. He carried an enormous burden as a representative of black dignity and justice. He often played a liberal fantasy of a black man – sacrificing for his white co-star, containing his anger, sidestepping sexual contact. But the political shifts wrought by the Civil Rights movement changed the meaning of his image. He negotiated these shifts with grace, but no one actor could satisfy all the demands wrought by a race-torn nation. His story still resonates today – if we expect all black people to be as perfect as the Sidney Poitier icon, we are denying the possibility of a more genuinely equal society.

 

A conversation with Aram Goudsouzian, author and historian: insights on the Civil Rights movement, Bill Russell, Sidney Poitier, and more

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 4, 2017) — Aram Goudsouzian has two very interesting, interconnected jobs.

He’s the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, and he writes books that examine historical periods and figures, important events and iconic personalities.

Dr. Goudsouzian has written “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear,” “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon,” and “Hurricane of 1938.” (He and Randy Roberts are editors of the “Sport and Society” series, which is published by the University of Illinois Press.)

He earned his Ph.D. in history from Purdue University in 2002, and has taught four courses at Memphis: United States History Since 1877, The Civil Rights Movement, The U.S. Since 1945 and African-American History.

The range of material that he has written and lectured about about piqued my interest. Also, I wanted to learn a bit more about how a historian views an author’s work.

What follows is a recent interview with Dr. Goudsouzian conducted by email.

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Aram Goudsouzian

What sparked your interest in history and sports and books as a focal point of your career? Was there a defining moment, a seminal moment, or theme from your childhood that you look back on as instrumental in setting you on this career path?

I think that both sports and history were paths to an American identity for me. As an Armenian and a child of immigrants, I am sure that I was seeking ways to fit in among my Irish Catholic and WASP friends. History was always my favorite subject: it brought order to the mess of human existence, and it told great stories. And like a lot of kids in suburban Boston in the 1980s, I loved sports.

I devoured the sports page of the Boston Globe, when the newspaper was in its heyday and the city’s teams were so interesting and successful. I also connected to people through sports – my young days were filled with pickup football, basketball, and wiffleball, and I have played soccer my entire life (I was once adequate and still stubbornly strive for mediocrity.)

But I had no idea that becoming a history professor lay in my career path. When I was in college, I had no clue about my future. I loved my classes, but I figured that whatever I did, I would be happy. I was wrong. When I graduated I took a job as a customer service representative for a mutual fund company. Within a few weeks, I was thinking about graduate school in history. My interest in sport history was a driving force in my life – it was what brought me to study African American history, as well.

What best sums up the role the Sport and Society series, published by the University of Illinois Press, has had in chronicling this vast subject for academics and general readership?

For many years, most academic historians turned their noses up at sports history. They considered it unworthy of study even as it consumed mass attention and shaped important elements of our culture. A pioneering generation that included Benjamin Rader and Randy Roberts – the founding editors of the Sport and Society series – changed that perception through their first-class scholarship. The Sport and Society series now provides the premier outlet for academic sports history. When Dr. Rader retired, I joined as the series co-editor, and it has been a terrific experience to help usher along some outstanding books.

Reflecting on your four previous books — Down to the Crossroads, King of the Court, Sidney Poitier and Hurricane of 1938 — can you offer a basic explanation of the unique challenge of each project? Were these topics in the back of your mind as things you simply wanted to learn more about and felt they would be timely books, as well as subjects that would have a broader, longer value as contributions to the American history?

For my three “big” books, one project has fed into another, in some form. The biography of Sidney Poitier grew out of my interest in how popular culture has fed our political debates over race – Poitier’s super-respectable image was groundbreaking and controversial in the late 1950s, embracing a liberal consensus in the early 1960s, and an object of derision among radicals by the late 1960s. Bill Russell, by contrast, was so interesting because he refused to fit any political category: while leading the interracial Boston Celtics to eleven NBA championships, he was also defying the conventions expected of black athletes. While writing those biographies, I was also reading a lot of the cutting-edge work on the civil rights movement for context, and that fed my interest in telling the story of the Meredith March Against Fear, a 1966 civil rights march that introduced the slogan “Black Power.”

The book on the Hurricane of 1938 is definitely an outlier. In the early 2000s, I had sent my Poitier manuscript off to the press when a colleague offered me an opportunity to write a short book for a local history series. At the time I was scraping together courses as an adjunct at various schools in Boston, and I had no plan for what was next. I also thought the hurricane was particularly interesting – it is largely forgotten, yet at the time it was the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Living history, as some say, is perhaps more vivid in certain places, and maybe that’s true in Memphis, where the music history (Elvis, R&B, soul; and nearby country and other genres in Nashville) and civil rights history and reminders of tragedy (MLK Jr.’s assassination) are omnipresent. That said, do you view living and working in Memphis as ideal for someone who does what you do?

For sure, the past is always breathing in Memphis. It is a city that both banks on its history and is haunted by it. As a birthplace for rock and roll, it possesses an attractive mystique. But like any city that trades on its place in the civil rights movement, that legacy is fraught with ambiguity. For years I lived across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built into the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. People arrive at that site from all around the world, and it compels so many different reactions. The city helped draw me into a tale of the “classic” southern civil rights movement. If I did not live in Memphis, I am sure that I never would have written Down to the Crossroads, which tells the story of a march that started in Memphis and traveled through Mississippi.

Is Bill Russell under-appreciated by a majority of Americans for his contributions to the Civil Rights movement, race relations and progress?

I think many sports fans understand Russell as part of that pioneer generation of outspoken black athletes that included Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Curt Flood. But Russell was a particularly thoughtful and complex man, which gets lost sometimes. He can get simplified as a great winner who overcame prejudice. The thickest thread running through King of the Court is Russell’s insistence on his individuality, on his identity as a black person who was both liberal and radical, on his manhood.

In recent years, it has been interesting to see Bill Russell return to the public spotlight more and more, and also to observe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s growing role as a commentator, columnist and pundit. Indeed, Kareem is seen more on TV and in broadcast media. But what insight and analysis of life and America in 2016/17 do you believe Russell would be most articulate about if he had the same platform?

Interestingly, Russell wrote a semi-regular (weekly) column for the Seattle Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after his coaching stint ended with the SuperSonics. He was not the best writer, but he was not bad. He tackled all sorts of subjects, from national politics to marijuana legalization to the lives of prisoners. Some columns were light, others quite hard-hitting. He almost never mentioned basketball. As with Abdul-Jabbar, who has grown into a fine writer, we might understand Russell’s column as a form of resistance – not just against prejudice or political developments, but also against the notion that he is a big black beast, placed on earth just to perform physical feats for our entertainment.

From Russell or those who reported on what he said and did that you came across during your book research, can you recall what was most profound when he spoke about Wilt Chamberlain’s greatness as an athlete?

Russell and Chamberlain had such a fascinating relationship. In the 1960s, when their on-court rivalry consumed the basketball media, Russell struck up a friendship with Chamberlain, often hosting him at his home. While many were vilifying Chamberlain as a selfish egotist, Russell was defending him. But when Russell retired in 1969, he blasted Chamberlain as a loser. It was as if he had maintained the friendship only for a psychological edge that was no longer necessary. The two proud men stopped speaking to each other. And yet, over time, they found peace with each other, and when Chamberlain died, Russell spoke with eloquence about his great friend and rival.

What’s your assessment of the remarkable Russell-led Celtics dynasty? 

Russell is, without question, the greatest winner in American team sport. He won eleven NBA championships in thirteen seasons with the Boston Celtics. We might think of this as one basketball dynasty – I would say instead that it was three different dynasties, linked by Russell. During the first group of championships in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Celtics were an offensive firepower, anchored by Russell’s revolutionary shotblocking. By the mid-1960s, as players like Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, and Tom Heinsohn retired, the team revolved around its defensive identity. And then, in 1968 and 1969, he won two NBA championships as a player-coach! That is somehow the least appreciated element of his remarkable career.

Also, he won an Olympic gold medal in 1956. And before that, he led an unknown program at the University of San Francisco to two NCAA titles and a record-breaking win streak. There is no one else who even approaches this legacy as a winner.

In your close following of American history, did the rise of Donald Trump en route to the presidency surprise you? What are your general views on the tactics and rhetoric used by him and his team during the campaign and transition period while he’s been the president-elect? And what are your greatest fears and concerns for the Trump administration?

I was as shocked as anyone else that Trump won. Like most people, I trusted the polls and the establishment media. That was a rational response, based on recent elections. It turns out there was nothing rational about the 2016 election.

There is not much I can say about Trump that has not been said. He flouts the principles of the Constitution, exhibits an open racism and xenophobia, lies without remorse, has a brittle ego, and acts more like a pampered celebrity than the leader of the free world.

I have great respect for the American political tradition, for the consistent and peaceful transition of power from one party to the other. I appreciate rational differences of political opinion. But once again, there is nothing rational going on here.

Do you see a natural connection between being a scholar and book author? Is there an overlap in skill sets for the jobs?

For me, the two are intertwined. I always sought to write for an audience beyond my fellow historians, even when I was in graduate school, or still when I am writing articles for scholarly journals. Scholars have to express their ideas in a clear and compelling fashion over an extended piece of writing, which is the mark of a good book author.

Who are some of your favorite writers, regardless of the genre, that you turn to for enlightenment and enjoyment?

In my formative years as a historian, I was most inspired by the great journalists who emerged in the 1960s: David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and others. They all had different styles, but they shared certain skills as writers, in their telling details and compelling characters and narrative arcs. More recently I have developed a great admiration for the work of Rick Perlstein, who is narrating the rise of the New Right in a series of long books filled with insight and humor.

My adviser in graduate school at Purdue University was Randy Roberts, the author of many terrific books, including biographies of the boxers Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis. Randy taught me many things, but especially how to think about narrative history. Right now, in the field of civil rights history, there are a number of academic historians who are writing books that speak to a broader public, including Tim Tyson, Danielle McGuire, Ibram Kendi, Peniel Joseph, Johnny Smith, and Heather Thompson. Check out their books!

How do you consume news and current affairs? Do you read several newspapers, magazines and online articles on a daily/weekly basis? Are you an avid TV news watcher or radio listener? 

I used to read the newspaper over breakfast – then I had kids, which apparently means I cannot sit and read quietly for more than twenty seconds at a time. Now I tend to get my news more in snippets – sometimes over social media, more consistently through the “News” app on my phone.

From a research and scholarly perspective, is there a comparable value in fiction work as a research tool for an understanding an era and its trends to nonfiction work? Can you offer an example of how fiction work has augmented your research and study of subjects to enable you to lecture on it and write about it?

I used to read fiction before falling asleep – then I met my wife, which apparently means that I cannot read in bed any more. I wish I had more time for fiction now. A great novel sweeps you into a story, makes you care about characters, and illuminates important themes. Those are all good lessons for historians.

Writing for QZ.com about Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy, your closing passage was an apt conclusion. In part, it read: “He became a global icon of goodwill, a transformation completed by his dramatic lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His trembling silence was broken by lightning flashes of the old magnetism. He let us see the best of ourselves in him.” Was that something that you thought about for a long time before writing? Or was it penned more on adrenaline and in the moment?

An editor at Quartz asked me to write the essay upon reports of Ali’s bad health, which was a few months before he died, so I had some time to formulate my thoughts. I had to acknowledge the near-universal admiration for Ali, but more important, emphasize that for much of his life, most white Americans feared and hated him. His image transformation says more about us than about him.

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

When I teach introductory-level surveys of U.S. History, I tell my students that they are historians. A good historian works hard, thinks critically about the evidence before them, speaks and writes clearly, and learns to approach the world from multiple perspectives. These are the same skills that foster success in any field.

What are you writing about now?

I am currently working on two projects. One is a collection of essays on the African American struggle in for freedom in Memphis, which I am co-editing with my friend, Rhodes College historian Charles McKinney. Memphis is an important and under-appreciated site for black activism – in the national narrative, it often gets boiled down to the sanitation workers’ strike and the King assassination. Charles and I have solicited essays from a number of our colleagues, and we have sent the draft off to the publisher with our fingers crossed.

My other project is writing a short history of the presidential election of 1968. It has been covered extensively, as it includes many dramatic events: the surprising challenge by anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson’s surprise decision not to pursue another term, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic National Convention, and the election of Richard Nixon, which signaled the beginning of a slow shift in the political center from Left to Right. My own book is designed to reach undergraduate students; each chapter revolves around the experiences on one candidate, so that they might appreciate how the past informs our current political situation.

In the long history of motion pictures in America, how influential and important would you say Sidney Poitier was? What is his legacy as an actor? In terms of talent, charisma, looks, etc. would he be on any top 10 list of movie actors for the 20th and 21st centuries you would make?

Poitier’s most important legacy is that he was the sole black actor consistently wining Hollywood roles as a leading man from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. He was an actor of prodigious talent, able to convey a wide range of emotions, while emitting a strong presence. But race limited his opportunities. He carried an enormous burden as a representative of black dignity and justice. He often played a liberal fantasy of a black man – sacrificing for his white co-star, containing his anger, sidestepping sexual contact. But the political shifts wrought by the Civil Rights movement changed the meaning of his image. He negotiated these shifts with grace, but no one actor could satisfy all the demands wrought by a race-torn nation. His story still resonates today – if we expect all black people to be as perfect as the Sidney Poitier icon, we are denying the possibility of a more genuinely equal society.