Basketball maven Mark Heisler’s reflections on a legendary career

 

heisler

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.

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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.

gasol-and-heisler

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

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