Jack Twyman (left) and Maurice Stokes. “I benefited much more from being associated with Maurice than Maurice benefited by being associated with me,” said Jack Twyman, who worked tirelessly for more than a decade to raise money for his friend and former teammate’s medical bills (Saint Francis University’s Maurice Stokes Collection).

The ultimate friendship (Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman), and an interview with the author who wrote their story

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (July 30, 2015) — Some stories are timeless and unforgettable; others are easily forgotten. But the vital lessons of the friendship between Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes ought to be told again and again for generations to come.

It’s a powerful reminder of friendship and kindness and common decency and profound courage. It’s a story that transcends racial barriers.

Pat Farabaugh captured the essence of their friendship in his 2014 book, “An Unbreakable Bond: The Brotherhood of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman.”

Stokes (left) and Roy Campanella (right) became friends following accidents less than two months apart in early 1958 that left both sports stars paralyzed.  Campanella was a three-time National League Most Valuable Player as a catcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He and Maurice are seen here at one of the Stokes Benefit Games at Kutsher’s Resort.  In the back row, left to right, are NBA stars Oscar Robertson, Dave DeBusschere, Gus Johnson, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain (Saint Francis University Marketing and Public Relations).

Stokes (left) and Roy Campanella (right) became friends following accidents less than two months apart in early 1958 that left both sports stars paralyzed. Campanella was a three-time National League Most Valuable Player as a catcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He and Maurice are seen here at one of the Stokes Benefit Games at Kutsher’s Resort. In the back row, left to right, are NBA stars Oscar Robertson, Dave DeBusschere, Gus Johnson, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain (Saint Francis University Marketing and Public Relations).

Milton Kutsher (left) hosted the “Stokes Benefit Game” at his resort in the Catskills each August from 1959 to 1999.  Kutsher reached out to Twyman (center) in late 1958 and asked how he could help Maurice.  Kutsher’s son, Mark Kutsher (right), continued this tradition after his father died.  Following Stokes’ death in 1970, proceeds from the benefit game went to NBA players who needed financial help because of an unforeseen medical crisis (Saint Francis University Marketing and Public Relations).

Milton Kutsher (left) hosted the “Stokes Benefit Game” at his resort in the Catskills each August from 1959 to 1999. Kutsher reached out to Twyman (center) in late 1958 and asked how he could help Maurice. Kutsher’s son, Mark Kutsher (right), continued this tradition after his father died. Following Stokes’ death in 1970, proceeds from the benefit game went to NBA players who needed financial help because of an unforeseen medical crisis (Saint Francis University Marketing and Public Relations).

  Stokes defends against the New York Knicks’ Mel Hutchins during a game in 1958.  Jack Twyman is trailing the play (Courtesy of Jay Twyman).

Stokes defends against the New York Knicks’ Mel Hutchins during a game in 1958. Jack Twyman is trailing the play (Courtesy of Jay Twyman).

 

By all accounts, Stokes was a rising star. Entering the NBA out of Saint Francis (Pa.) College, the 6-foot-7 forward was the second overall pick in the 1955 draft. He joined the Rochester Royals and earned Rookie of the Year honors.

Twyman also joined the Royals in 1955 as a second-round draft pick out of the University of Cincinnati. He went on to play 11 seasons with the franchise, first in Rochester, then in Cincinnati. He was a six-time All-Star and a 1983 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

While Twyman had longevity in the pros, Stokes, over three seasons, just three seasons, was a three-time All-Star and led all players in the fledgling circuit in rebounds (3,492) in that span. His career totals: 16.4 points, 17.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. He was named to the All-NBA second team three teams. And he was on the verge of being one of the all-time greats.

What cut short Stokes’ career?

He hit his head on the court and became unconscious in the final game of the 1957-58 season. Days later, after the playoffs had begun and he kept playing, Stokes got sick, suffering seizures while on an airplane flight following a postseason game against the Pistons. He went into a coma and was later diagnosed as having post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that left him permanently paralyzed.

In a June 2013 article posted on ESPN.com, Curtis Harris summarized the plight that Stokes faced and how Twyman stepped in to help his teammate. Harris wrote, “The Royals were obscenely quick to remove Maurice and his $20,000 salary from their payroll. There was no pension or medical plan for NBA players back then, which left Stokes and his family unable to endure medical bills that would approach $100,000 a year. Facing financial peril, Stokes was saved by his Royals teammate Jack Twyman. The hot-shot small forward filled a void few would, and he did so for the duration of Maurice’s life.

“Twyman became his teammate’s legal guardian and undertook all kinds of fundraising efforts to round up the money and save Maurice. … Twyman, who worked for an insurance company during offseasons, successfully sued under Ohio law to have workman’s compensation awarded to Stokes.”

Indeed. Twyman spearheaded efforts to raise funds to pay for Stokes’ medical bills and other expenses for the rest of his life.

In 1958, Twyman and Milton Kutsher put together the Maurice Stokes Memorial Basketball Game, which became an annual event.

Stokes passed away in April 1970 at age 36. He was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2004, and Twyman was there in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the induction ceremony. Here is Twyman’s induction speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-K1fg5xWc9s

Twyman died in May 2012 at age 78.

In June 2013, the NBA established the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, an appropriate way to keep their legacy current.

When the award was created, then-commissioner David Stern said, “The relationship shared by Jack and Maurice is as profound an illustration of compassionate and unconditional fellowship between two teammates that the NBA has ever seen. What better way to honor the life-long bond that developed between them by establishing an award in their honor that recognizes friendship and selflessness among teammates.”

I recently interviewed Farabaugh, an associate professor of communications and football play-by-play announcer at Saint Francis University, about his aforementioned book about Twyman and Stokes via email. I wanted to gain a broad perspective on his project and learn about the stories behind the stories, as well as his overall thoughts on this book, which is a valuable addition to sports and American history.

* * *

First of all, what prompted you to write this book? Was it a suggestion from a university colleague? Was it a project you decided to do based on your own intellectual curiosity? Was it in the back of your mind for some time because of Stokes’ association with the university?

Pat Farabaugh (Courtesy of author)

Pat Farabaugh

I served as sports information director at Saint Francis from 1999 to 2005. Stokes was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004 and we retired his jersey number 26 at Saint Francis in 2000. At these events, I had the opportunity to talk to Twyman and the idea for a book project on the two men began to form following these conversations with Jack. It was such a fascinating story and it had been well-documented by newspapers and magazines back in the 1960s, but now it was largely forgotten, plus no one had written a book that told the entire story. A friend of mine – Vince Negherbon – also served as a catalyst to write the book. During my time as SID at Saint Francis, I became close with Father Vince. Vince is almost as much of a legend at the school as Stokes. He graduated from Saint Francis in 1943 and stayed to pursue theological coursework, eventually becoming a priest. He was appointed the College’s librarian in 1947. This was the first of several roles he served at the school over the next half century, including Dean of Students, Academic Dean, Executive Vice President and Vice President for College Relations. In 1966, Vince became president of Saint Francis, serving in this capacity until 1972. He was also a diehard sports fan. And he loved basketball. During the 1950s, he served as the Saint Francis basketball team’s chaplain. And a driver in the team’s carpool to away games. And a de-facto assistant to head coach Skip Hughes.

Father Vince got to know Stokes well during Maurice’s four seasons in Loretto. Years later, he asked Maurice if he would allow the school to name its new athletics facility after him. In April of 1970, Vince presided over Stokes’ funeral mass. He and I became close friends during my time as SID at Saint Francis and he shared stories with me about the Stokes Era at the school. In 2008, Father Vince died at the age of 87. I thought back to all the stories he had shared with me and kicked myself for never having written anything down. This also motivated me to share the story of Stokes and Twyman.

Was St. Johann Press the first publisher you pitched this book to? Was it difficult to convince SJP to approve the project?

No. I pitched the book to a number of different academic and commercial publishers before signing a contract with St. Johann Press. I had some interest on both fronts, but no offers. I remember it was a Friday afternoon during the dead of winter and I was doing a Google search of publishers and I happened upon St. Johann Press. I had cold-called some other publishers without much success, but I called the number for this publishing house and, moments later, I was sharing information about my book with the owner, Dave Biesel.

Dave was interested – he was a sports fan and knew about the Stokes-Twyman story. He asked me to send him some more information about the book, so I sent him what I had written up to that point. Shortly after our phone conversation, I traveled to the Dominican Republic on a mission trip. When I got back, I had a message from Dave saying that he liked what he had read and wanted to publish the book. I really liked some of the ideas he had regarding the book – they were in line with what I was thinking. My instincts told me that this was a good fit. They proved to be right.

Since the book’s release last year, how has it been received? What kind of feedback have you been given?

Reviews of the book have been very positive. It has been written about in a lot of newspapers and magazines, as well as on-line sites. The Altoona Mirror, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati Herald, Johnstown Magazine, Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, Mainline Newspapers, Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh Sports Report, UC Magazine (University of Cincinnati Alumni Magazine) and others have written about the book and I was very happy with these reviews. Readers have also reviewed the book on-line (Amazon, Goodreads, etc) and these have been positive, too.

I have done a number of book signings and presentations, including one at the University of Cincinnati last November. Amazingly, the first game following the book’s release for both the Saint Francis and University of Cincinnati basketball teams – Stokes and Twyman’s alma maters – was against each other. The two teams played each other to open the 2014-15 season. Prior to this game – which was at Cincinnati – I did a book signing in the Twyman Lounge at UC’s Lindner Athletic Center. Some of Jack’s family stopped by and it was really special.

People that I talk to – at presentations and in one-on-one conversations – are amazed at the selflessness of Twyman. Many of them are just floored that a young man with so many other responsibilities would step up in such a huge way for someone. And then honor that commitment for so many years. And they are equally impressed by Stokes’ approach to his life following the accident. Twyman’s selflessness and Stokes’ perseverance in the face of all his physical challenges are the two things that stick with most readers.

Is the timing of your next book (“Strike Three: The 1977 Johnstown Flood”)  specifically planned to coincide with its 30th anniversary?

That’s the plan. I have LOTS of work to do before then, but I am hoping to release the book right around the anniversary of this event.

What were the interviews with Twyman like in the summer of 2011? Were there many emotional highs and lows for you and for him? Where did you meet him? Can you describe these interview sessions? Were they real straight forward journalism-style Q&A sessions? About how many hours and sessions were there? After all of those interviews, did your impression of him change at all? Was he essentially the person you felt he was going into the book project?

These interview sessions were a lot of fun. The first time I told Jack that I wanted to write a book about his relationship with Maurice, he told me that the book should be about Stokes, and not about him. I told him it would be impossible to share the full story of Stokes without explaining to readers all that he had done for Maurice.

He was initially leery about the idea. He thought about it for a while and then told me that he would participate in the project because he wanted more people to learn about the person Stokes was. Jack constantly dismissed all those who were quick to praise his efforts on behalf of Maurice. He always said something like, “anyone else in a similar situation would have done the same thing.” Which, of course, is not true.

Our conversations – most of which were over the telephone – were pretty much storytelling sessions. Was it emotional? Yeah, at times it was. I remember when Jack was telling me the story of when Father Vince came to his home in Cincinnati to ask Maurice if Saint Francis could name its new fieldhouse after him. Jack got choked up telling that story. Vince hid in the basement of Jack’s home and they surprised Maurice after Jack picked him up at the hospital. When Vince asked Maurice if he would consent to his name being given to the new fieldhouse, Stokes started crying.

They were definitely not traditional, journalistic question-and-answer sessions. I sort of steered the interviews and gave Jack a lot of latitude to take our conversations in all sorts of different directions. In terms of hours and number of interview sessions, that’s hard to say. Some of our conversations were long, some were short, some were interrupted by things that came up for me or him, and sometimes we played phone tag.

Going into the interviews, I was already a bit in awe of the person Jack was, because of all I knew about what he had done for Stokes. After talking to him during our interviews, I had even greater respect for him. Twyman is a no-nonsense kind of guy. His work ethic and commitment to everything that he took on life is probably what I appreciated much more following our conversations. When this man set his mind to something, he did not rest until he achieved his goal. And when he gave his word, you could take it to the bank. Jack gave his word to Maurice and the Stokes family that he would look after his friend, and he never wavered from this responsibility.

How has learning about the friendship between Twyman and Stokes enriched your own life? Has it given you a greater appreciation for friendships and family bonds?

I have learned so much from these two men, but two “life lessons” stand out above the others. From Maurice, I learned that things in life can change very quickly and we can’t control a lot of this. What we can control, however, is the attitude that we decide to adopt when facing life’s challenges. Despite his paralysis and loss of independence and everything else that went along with the last 12 years of Stokes’ life, Maurice’s attitude was upbeat and positive and almost unbelievable. He didn’t wallow in self-pity and simply “wait out” the years that he was confined to Cincinnati hospitals. He lived his life to the fullest and grew as a person and worked to improve his limited mobility and speech and made an impression on the people he met. He never gave up. His perseverance is awe-inspiring.

From Twyman – and I touched on this earlier – I learned that hard work produces results and that giving to others is a blessing that we all should cherish. Jack succeeded at everything he put his mind to because he worked and worked and worked to see things through. This is a guy who was cut from his Central Catholic High School basketball team as a freshman, as a sophomore, and as a junior. He is now in the Naismith Hall of Fame. This is a guy who excelled in basketball, in business, in broadcasting, but more importantly, as a father and as a husband and as a human being. And certainly as a friend.

From your interview with the Cincinnati Herald, does this poignant statement (“Sure, it’s a basketball story, but it is so much more than that,” he said. “At its essence, it is the story of two men – one who overcame tremendous challenges and another who embodied selflessness.”) remind you of other highly visible friendships chronicled in popular culture in recent years?

I can’t think of any recent friendships that have been highlighted by the media that come close to the levels of love and sacrifice and stick-to-it-tiveness of the Stokes-Twyman story.

What does the friendship of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman, when the Civil Rights movement was underway, tell us about how American society can and should be?

This story certainly transcends race, but it is important to appreciate the state of race relations in the country during the period in which Stokes and Twyman’s relationship evolved. It was not until 1954 – when Stokes and Twyman were still in college – that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the integration of the nation’s public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education. The Stokes-Twyman story was a beacon of light shining from the sports world during the tumult of the Civil Rights era. Twyman served as a role model for all Americans – in Jack, we have a man’s whose vision of the world was truly colorblind. During a decade of upheaval, one in which Americans grappled to determine what the “proper” relationship between blacks and whites should be, all Twyman saw was a friend and teammate who needed his help. And he never wavered.

How can their friendship be an important learning tool for American society at a time when rampant gun violence, police shootings of unarmed blacks and a symbol of hatred (Confederate flag) are in the public spotlight?

Racism stubbornly persists in American society. It’s like a weed that you pull out of your garden – but before it comes out altogether, it breaks off. You don’t get the roots, and that weed is out of sight for a little while, but soon it grows back because the root system is still intact.

Anyone who thinks we are living in a “postracial society” just needs to move that dirt a little to see the roots of the weed. We have seen these roots over the last year in some of the events that you mention. What we can learn from Stokes and Twyman’s friendship is that we do not need to be afraid of those who are different from us – in race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or whatever. That fear keeps us from growing and learning and understanding.

Although Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club in the Catskills, in upstate New York, location of the annual summer fundraisers for Stokes is now closed, can you share a few memorable anecdotes about people you spoke to from the upstate New York resort area?

I interviewed Mark Kutsher, who was a child when his mother and father hosted the Stokes Benefit Game at the family’s country club each summer. My interview with Mark was really special because he was talking about all of these legendary players visiting his family’s resort. He recalled meeting the NBA’s biggest stars when he was a kid and he had a childlike enthusiasm when he was describing these experiences to me. And I understood exactly where he was coming from. When Stokes was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2004, I attended a reception before the induction ceremony and I was a 30-something kid in awe, meeting and chatting with my childhood heroes – James Worthy, Dr. J., Moses Malone, Robert Parish. Even though you are an adult, you can be taken back to your childhood. I was taken back on that Hall-of-Fame weekend and I felt like Mark took me back to his childhood years as he shared stories about the Stokes Benefit games at Kutsher’s.

What made Jerry Izenberg an ideal choice to write the foreword for your book? And how did that come about?

St. Johann Press had published Jerry’s memoirs – “Through My Eyes: A Sports Writer’s 58-Year Journey.” This book came out in 2009. Dave Biesel – the owner of St. Johann Press – knows Jerry pretty well and he suggested that we reach out to him and ask him to write the foreword for my book. I was ecstatic when he agreed to write it. He was indeed the “ideal choice” for this part of the book project. He had covered Stokes, but not only that. He had gotten to know Maurice more than a sportswriter covering a sports figure. The two had struck up a friendship and they enjoyed each other’s company. He knew Maurice well and he had seen the daily challenges and struggles Stokes faced following his accident.

Who were a few key sources for the book that may surprise some people because they may not be household names or folks who hold/held the prestigious or most visible jobs in the NBA and college hoops?

Two of my favorite interview subjects were not basketball people at all. They were with Maurice’s speech therapist at Good Samaritan Hospital, Sylvia Meek, and with his brother, Terro Stokes Jr.

Sylvia’s ability to recall experiences she had with Stokes during their speech therapy sessions was impressive. These sessions happened more than a half century ago, yet she was quick with details and specifics during our conversations. It was obvious that she had a fondness for Stokes and it was also very apparent that she respected the effort that Maurice had put into their speech therapy sessions.

Maurice’s brother, Terro, shared insights from Stokes’ years growing up in Homewood, a community just outside of Pittsburgh. You could hear in his voice just how much his brother meant to him. He also expressed to me how much Twyman meant to the Stokes family. He was at a loss for words as he tried to describe his feelings for all that Jack did for Maurice.

After all of the painstaking research that went into writing the book and what you learned along the way, do you agree with this assessment: Twyman remains one of the lesser-known greats to ever play the game?

Yes. No question about it. Twyman could score the ball, especially from the corners along the baseline. In 11 NBA seasons, he played in six All-Star games. He finished his career with 15,840 points in 823 games (19.2 per game). He finished runner-up in the league in scoring two times and led the NBA in field goal percentage (45.2 percent) in 1957-58.

Twyman ranked 20th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list when he retired. He played in 609 consecutive games before a broken hand sidelined him during the 1963-64 season. This is remarkable – think of the pounding that he took night in and night out as a professional basketball player. Twyman was tough.

His best scoring season came in 1959-60, when he averaged 31.2 points per game (2,338 points in 75 games). This was second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 37.6 points per game that season. Talk about lofty company. Twyman and Chamberlain became the first two players in NBA history to average more than 30 points per game for a season. This is a good trivia question to spring on your friends who think they know NBA history. It was the second straight year that Twyman finished runner-up in the league in scoring – he averaged 25.8 per game (1,857 points in 72 games), second behind Bob Pettit (29.2 per game) in 1958-59.

Which players in the NBA over the past quarter century most remind you of Twyman and Stokes from what you’ve seen and heard?

Stokes’ combination of scoring, rebounding and passing abilities, combined with his unselfishness and basketball IQ, was something that the NBA had never seen before he got to Rochester in 1955. He was a power forward and ferocious rebounder who could not only finish on the fast break, but also handle the ball in transition. He was the first big man in the league with outstanding passing skills. I think his skill set was most similar to that of Magic Johnson and LeBron James. There are differences, sure, but he could do things that these two can also do. Besides Stokes, the only other player in NBA history to finish in the top three in rebounds and assists for two straight seasons was Chamberlain.

I think Twyman’s game was a lot like Paul Pierce in his prime. Like Pierce, he could score in a lot of different ways – from the outside, on the drive, getting to the line. He could also deliver key passes at important moments, although he definitely possessed a “shoot-first” mentality.

* * *

This book is available on Amazon and elsewhere: http://www.amazon.com/An-Unbreakable-Bond-Brotherhood-Maurice/dp/1937943178

Additional recommended reading: http://grantland.com/features/bryan-curtis-tragic-inspirational-story-maurice-stokes/

Brin-Jonathan Butler’s adventures and travails in discovering the real Cuba

UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCES: BRIN-JONATHAN BUTLER’S
ADVENTURES AND TRAVAILS IN DISCOVERING THE REAL CUBA

Brin-Jonathan Butler's new memoir.

Brin-Jonathan Butler’s new memoir.

Brin-Jonathan Butler near Ernest Hemingway's house in Cuba, circa 2000.

Brin-Jonathan Butler at Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba, circa 2000.

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (May 22, 2015) — Before celebrating his 36th birthday on June 3, Brin-Jonathan Butler has already lived an action-packed life as a young adult. He’d dated Fidel Castro’s granddaughter, produced a documentary “Split Decision” about Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux and U.S.-Cuba relations, interviewed Mike Tyson at his Las Vegas mansion, and established himself as a writer to keep an eye on with compelling articles for Salon, Deadspin, Vice, SB Nation Longform, The New York Times, among others.

An adventurous traveler, a boxer, keen observer and accomplished interviewer (he’s also found time to interview Errol Morris and Tyson, again, for the Amazon.com’s Kindle Singles Interview series), Butler is making a name for himself as a prolific journalist these days.

His new memoir, “The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba,” is scheduled to be released on June 9. Indeed, a life packed with unforgettable tales and delivered with the determination and confidence of a prize fighter.

Charles Bock, who penned the New York Times bestselling book “Beautiful Children,” gave “The Domino Diaries” a glowing review. He wrote: “In The Domino Diaries, Brin-Jonathan Butler writes like a heavyweight champion: Tyson’s power, Ali’s elegance, and Joe Louis’s humanity, all of them are on display here. Writing, like boxing, is a solitary endeavor, one that gets displayed nakedly, for better or worse, to the world. This engrossing work not only looks at the sweeping world, it delves into the darkness of being alone with your aloneness. A total knockout.”

One of Butler’s mentors, Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price (detailed below), who has written “Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports,” wrote this hard-hitting review of the book: “There’s nothing in the world like America’s grasping, oversexed, blunedering, blustery and oft-deadly relationship with Cuba. Charting this fever dream, this illness of love and fear, requires a poet’s ear, an outsider’s eye, a boxer’s clinical cruelty, and an unhealthy attraction to breakage. I give you Brin-Jonathan Butler. Anyone can — and especially now — will tell you what to think about Cuba. But no one can show you better how the places makes you feel.”

I caught up with Butler, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, for this interview a few days before his memoir’s release.

* * *

As a basic inquiry, about how many trips did you take to and from Havana from 2000-05? And was there a typical length of stay per time?

Four trips during that period, all for several months. More visits and for longer durations for the next 6 years until 2011, especially while filming and researching my film “Split Decision” where major interviews were involved.

In the Los Angeles Review of Books interview, you’re quoted as saying, “I think interviews are a bit like photography: what’s left out of the frame is often as important or even more so than what resides in the frame. All photographs are ‘staged’ in that sense. As a rule, I think you learn far more about people from what they conceal than what they reveal.” And then you continued by saying, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mike Tyson is one of the most exposed personalities in the history of the world.”

Do you believe your ability to make profound statements is one of your top skills as a writer? Is that an aspect of your writing you try to make stick like Don King’s wild hair became his visual trademark?

I think going back to caveman times, if you’re joining the campfire

Brin-Jonathan Butler (left) and Cuban boxing champion Felix Savon in 2007.

Brin-Jonathan Butler (left) and Cuban boxing champion Felix Savon in 2007.

In Tijuana, Mexico, Brin-Jonathan Butler (center) with fighter Guillermo Rigondeaux.

In Tijuana, Mexico, Brin-Jonathan Butler (center) with fighter Guillermo Rigondeaux.

after the hunting has been done and the food has been prepared, you’d better have a pretty good story and know how to tell it if you’re expecting to be invited back. Most people read anything to find out what’s next. So I try to tell a story where something interesting is promised and in the first read through I can deliver on that promise. In a way you try to find stories that are like difficult rivers for people to cross and find the necessary stepping stones for the reader. Once you’ve done that, you can go back and look after other angles to the story that provide further richness if anyone should wish to return to the story the next day or the next year or 10 years from now. I find the most interesting elements of a story offer the reader an opportunity to look but you don’t force anyone, you just tap their shoulder and they can turn their head as far as they wish to and see what you’ve laid out. It’s the chemistry with a reader that, in my experience, offers the most profound things in a story. But chase stories that are the ones I find the most compelling and rich, so I always hope the reader shares my enthusiasm along the way.

Shifting focus to “The Domino Diaries,” can you share info on a few experiences that were most unique and surprising to you that you describe in the book?

In the first week after arriving in Havana I was sitting with The Old Man and the Sea and training with a two-time Olympic champion in the oldest gym in Cuba. It was completely surreal from the start. In a way wandering around Cuba you feel a bit like the Zapruder film––you just look at what’s in front of you and you have something so remarkable since everywhere you look are people and a culture that defies explanation in so many ways and is just so vibrant and singularly breathtaking. Havana is the biggest small town on earth. So by the end of my travels I’d sat down with many of the sporting heroes of the revolution and had a short-lived fling with Fidel Castro’s granddaughter. I don’t feel anything close to the access I had to prominent people would have been possible anywhere else on earth. Granted, it required taking some ridiculously dangerous chances. But once you crossed that line…

What is the overarching message you aimed to deliver in writing this book?

I wanted to offer a glimpse into what it was like to trespass into the last days of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and offer readers the most profound access I was granted into what it meant, which was through the people I encountered who shared their stories. I’d never been so inspired by the courage and humanity of a people as what I saw in Havana struggling against such difficult and painful circumstances. At the same time, there was such joy and humor and color. A lot of places require talent to capture their essence or meaning… in Cuba it takes genius to take bad photographs. And if you get out of the way of Cubans, they’re the greatest storytellers in the world because their lives exist at the extremes. Nothing I’d read or seen prepared me for what I saw. But they knew where I was coming from from a mile off. That was enormously confusing to encounter and was my first inclining I’d learn as much about America spending time in Cuba as I was about the culture in Havana.

How, or in what way, do you think this book can shed some light, some clarity, on the realities of life, and changes, in Cuba under the Castro regime?

I think “Domino Diaries” allows Cubans and their stories to live their contradictions and paradoxes without resorting to artificial means of reconciling them. Lawrence of Arabia famously replied to why he chose the desert: “Because it’s clean.” Cuba is dirty and complicated and almost unbearably poetic. None of it fits neatly into a box. And for over 50 years America was waiting for Cuba’s economic system to collapse and then, in 2009, Wall Street did such a number on the global economy that taxpayers had to clean up the mess and socialize their losses. Cuba on the other hand had to open up and soften policies to allow for more economic opportunity. Their black market economy was larger than the official economy. Irony after irony on both sides. The moment you’d romanticize Cuba seeing things you’d never seen back home, you’d hear them romanticize American life in a way that was just as selectively cherry-picked. I also think having 11 years there offered enough time to show, contrary to the endless proclamations of international media, Cuba has been changing dramatically. One example of this is that the Cuba inventoried in my book is already long gone. In many ways that’s a good thing, but tourism and an influx of tourist dollars offers a very mixed blessing for many.

If you were granted a one-on-one interview with Fidel Castro, what would be the first question you’d want to ask him?

Perhaps whether, in his heart, he still believes “history will absolve” him. I say in the book, my first impression arriving in Cuba was wondering what Shakespeare would have done with Castro and very quickly the more important question was what Fidel Castro would have done with Shakespeare.

Above all, which journalists and writers have influenced you the most as either mentors or individuals who’ve piqued your interest or inspired you to do this work?

Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” and George Orwell’s work inspired me the most as a journalist. S.L. Price wrote a book that offered me a roadmap when I first arrived in Havana called “Pitching Around Fidel.” His was the first book about Cuba that allowed all the radical ambiguity of the island to flower. I was very moved and fascinated by the portrait he offered and I arrived shortly after he was blacklisted and ended up, in a fashion, picking up his baton to follow up with the same Olympic champion characters from his story in my own book. Price has been a very generous mentor with me and my work and when my book is published, we’re reading together in Washington D.C. and also here in New York. He’s joked our books are, in many ways, companion pieces. I’m very honored he’d make that appraisal since his book meant an immense amount to me and informed a lot of my travels in Havana.

Describe a “typical” work week for you while writing your books. Did you have a number of people critique them along the way?

I signed a two-book deal with Picador USA and worked like a maniac over the next year to deliver about 150,000 words in total to my editor without anyone having seen it prior. It was a pretty furious pace as I was also churning out a lot of journalism on the side to help cover the rent and basic needs for life in New York. I usually get up at three or four in the morning and work until around one in the afternoon. Then a jog through Central Park usually ended up providing the best solutions to all the insurmountable problems and I’d chart out a plan of attack when I got home in my notebook. I had about 20 books all over my desk to help with research and endless notes strewn around or hung up on a clipboard. I’d conducted hundreds of interviews and had the transcripts typed up. It was pretty much total chaos and I was petrified handing in both books to my editor that he’d respond with, “What in the world have you given me?”

Do you see the timing of this memoir as being enhanced by shifting U.S. government policies toward Cuba, and as a result/assumption, more interest in Cuba-related culture and literature?

Obama’s put Cuba on the front page of many papers around the world. Fidel Castro is approaching his 89th birthday. Raul is pushing through massive reforms. A lot of the strife remains for ordinary Cubans. But the Havana depicted in the pages of “Domino Diaries” has already drastically changed and irrevocably so. So it’s a lot more of time capsule to a time and feeling than I envisioned it in the composition. I hope that adds some value to the story.

Are you a voracious reader? What are the last five books you’ve read? Do you have an all-time favorite? If yes, what puts it at the top of your list?

The last five books would be research for a longform piece of journalism I did in Las Vegas: “Bad Bet” by Timothy O’Brien, “The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson,” Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Jonathan Rendall.

I do read as much as I can. I’m probably more of a compulsive re-reader than anything. My all-time favorite books that I return to almost every year include “Invisible Cities” by Calvino, “Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Kundera, Orwell’s essays, Nabokov’s “Lectures On Literature” (Russian, European, and Don Quixote), Borges. Steinbeck. Salinger.

While writing “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: “Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion,” did you pepper Rigo with questions about his jaw-dropping number of fights? As you wrote, he had 475 fights as an amateur with just 12 defeats. How frequently was he fighting as an amateur? What kind of condition was he in to withstand the physical demands of 475 bouts?

Every strength and conditioning coach who dealt with Rigondeaux told me he was, far and away, the most impressive physical specimen they’d ever encountered. He fought himself into the ground in terms of how active he was, however his style was such he was hardly ever hit. Watching Rigondeaux at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, there are performances there that almost defy explanation how magical his precision got to with the craft of boxing. The footwork and balance are so flawless and majestic the accuracy and blurring speed of the punches––he was a once in a lifetime talent. It’s a shame he never got to have his prime on public display in the professional ranks. Yet, as incredible as he was in the ring, I was far more compelled by his impossibly dramatic story outside the ring. The failed defection where Castro personally branded him a traitor. The successful defection by smuggler’s boat to Mexico and finding a way into the U.S. to land in Miami. Chasing the American Dream via a smuggler’s boat is just so eerie and tragic in its dimensions.

In other countries, which sporting figures would you compare Teofilo Stevenson to in terms of public admiration he received in Cuba?

Muhammad Ali is the obvious choice. They look like almost twin brothers only Teofilo was considerably bigger at 6’5 and more muscular. Stevenson was the second-most famous face on the island after you know who. On top of that kind of recognition, he was a highly intelligent, articulate man who offered a great deal of eloquence and compassion behind his reasons for turning down vast fortunes to leave. His legacy was such that even Ali never boasted of what he might have done to Stevenson in the ring. Ali tore down every other claim to his throne, but never Stevenson. On the contrary, Ali brought almost two million dollars worth of money to Cuba to support humanitarian aid in opposition to the embargo. They were inseparable on the island and when I asked Stevenson, shortly before his death, whether he regretted not having the chance to fight Ali to prove who was better he laughed, “How could I fight my brother?” It was very moving to be in the presence of such a spirit.

During your interview with Stevenson — his final interview before he passed away in June 2012 at age 60 — for an agreed upon price of $150 and a bottle of vodka, what was the first thing you asked him? What was your final questions? What was the physical and emotional atmosphere of that interview? Were you surrounded by a lot of people? How long did it last?

I interviewed Teofilo Stevenson in May of 2011. I had one translator with me who was a personal friend of Stevenson. My first question, given how reluctant Stevenson was to be on camera, was whether or not he’d live up to his word to sit with me for an interview that I could film. He’d backed out of countless interviews with myself and many others and he was very sneaky if you got there about delay tactics where you’d end up spending a lot of money on dinner and drinks and end up with nothing to show for it. I didn’t have the money to fall prey to any of that and my circumstances of being chased around Havana by state security made my one opportunity do-or-die. So my first questions were making damn clear our deal was honored. He poured a viciously huge glass of vodka before me after we agreed to the price and had me agree we’d start after I’d down the drink. I don’t drink and I come from a family that has battled a fair share of alcoholism. So I gulped the whole drink and turned the camera on and off we went while he screamed in protest because he’d assumed I’d sip the thing down over the next 30 minutes which he’d count against the time we’d agreed. Stevenson was pretty far gone with alcoholism at that point but he could certainly hold his liquor and he was still immensely imposing both as a figure and physical specimen. And even liquored up, he was very bright with a playful intellect and real moral conviction when he explained his reasons for turning down all the offers to leave. “There are decisions in your heart and soul that can never be betrayed,” he told me at one point, while discussing the defection of Rigondeaux. We talked for a little over an hour. Most Cubans knew of his battles with drink and that his circumstances after his career wound down were better than most Cubans, but still difficult. But I knew after filming him in his condition and hearing the pain in his voice it was likely the end of ever coming back to the island. America had always denied Cuban champions their reasons for leaving beyond them being brainwashed, but Cuba had denied these champions any cost for turning down such vast sums of money. Both stances did damage to these very brave, courageous men. My aim was to allow them to talk for themselves.

***
What was the general public reaction, especially in Cuba, Florida and New York, to your Victory Journal article (http://victoryjournal.com/stories/el-duque-la-gran-fuga) on Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez? And how does his story compare and contrast to the narratives of Stevenson and Rigondeaux in the way they were/are treated and perceived by Cubans and the Cuban exile community in South Florida?

Orlando Hernandez’s story is just so impossibly dramatic with endless turns and freakish stakes. Then the character of the man himself, so bright and articulate and contemplative at every step. El Duque was very up front even after he left that had he not been forced to leave, he never intended to defect. There are parallels to his journey with Rigondeaux and Stevenson playing opposite sides of the coin of whether to stay or leave. With all three we have very different times when they were presented with their choice. Stevenson fought when Cuba was still heavily subsidized by the Russians. Duque pitched during the Special Period when times were horribly difficult for the country. Rigondeaux entered his teenage years just as the Special Period was declared but was given a small house and a reasonably nice car for his Olympic gold medals. Rigondeaux differs from Duque and Stevenson in that, largely, he wished to be apolitical. Duque was a strong advocate for the advances of the revolution as was Stevenson. Rigondeaux did what was necessary to follow in step with what was expected of him, but primarily Rigondeaux always contextualized his life as an individual and what he deserved on the basis of his talent. I think that speaks to his time in Cuba as more and more people had abandoned the ideal of a common sense of purpose after so much hardship and instead looked at more ways to advance their own lives by any means necessary. Rigondeaux’s defection split his parents in terms of his father disowning him and his mother strongly supporting his dreams on American soil. One of Castro’s most corrosive legacies is the split of nearly every Cuban family in Cuba and those who left. Very few were left untouched.

From conception to conclusion, how exhausting and exhilarating, challenging and difficult was piecing together your recent SB Nation Longform article (http://www.sbnation.com/a/pacquiao-mayweather-fight)?

How many people did you interview for the piece? And in your words, what is the article’s basic message about Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao and the sweet science in general?

A typical longform article is around 6,000 words with no deadline. My illustrator was contractually obligated to hand in 10 illustrations and I was shooting for 8,000 words on deadline a couple days after the fight. I ended up handing in nearly 25,000 words and my illustrator completed 40 illustrations 48 hours after the conclusion of the fight. But this fight that ended up grossing half-a-billion dollars, both fighters making nine-figure paydays, we knew at the outset was prepackaged as the biggest sports spectacle ever put on. It was once in a lifetime and everyone at SBNation agreed to throw everything we had at it. It was the most daunting assignment I’ve done I was out in Vegas and Los Angeles for two weeks reporting after having spent a month interviewing maybe 20 people. I didn’t know what kind of access I’d get. I ended up trying quite desperate things. I snuck into Pacquiao’s inner circle to run with him up Griffith’s Park toward the Hollywood sign. I staked out Mayweather’s gym after being forbidden access. The thrill and the terror of the piece was trying to shape what it would look like having no idea what the fight would actually be and then having no time to reshape and rework your guesses after it went down to make the deadline.

My agenda with the article was just that we had “the fight of the century” we deserved, a complete one-percent spectacle with $350,000 ringside seats, nearly half-a-billion in pay-per-view sales, bigger live gate than the Super Bowl or all the games of the previous World Series, and, in the end, everyone felt swindled. Well what else is new in Las Vegas? It was farcical and quite frightening in many respects in terms of what it reflected about the values of our society. A society where no child will ever walk into a museum to look at a masterpiece without asking first, “How much was that?” If the fight taught us anything, how much people are willing to pay for something hardly reflects it’s true value.

Like Mike Tyson in his younger days, have you watched countless hour of old fight films? Or read about them in dozens of books? And which fighters from Ali’s heyday and earlier impressed you the most by what you saw and read?

I love boxing’s history and how it always walks in lockstep with American history. Always the perfect champion for his time with so much rich complexity. Spending time with the old fighters does remove a lot of the mystique from more recent champions. Ali owes a tremendous amount to those great champions who came before him: Jack Johnson and Ray Robinson for example. Ali was enormously influenced by both to an almost embarrassing degree. The elegance of Joe Louis. The subdued menace of Rocky Marciano. Joe Frazier’s incredible journey lifted wholesale in Rocky. Just such impossibly compelling characters. And certainly reading the likes of Jimmy Cannon or Mark Kram describing these people and their time has been an invaluable tool to my own efforts covering fighters today.

In conjunction with your upcoming travels to Spain for an in-depth report on bullfighting, tell me this: What similarities are there in writing about boxing and bullfighting? And how does bullfighting prose totally take on a life of its own?

Boxers are one punch away from death or serious, crippling injury. A bullfighter courts death with each pass of the bull’s horn. Where both intersect, I feel, is how willingness to risk everything existentially creates some of the most intense feelings in an audience of anything human beings are capable of. In both bullfighting and boxing individuals are elevated, with tremendous performances, into staining the collective memory of their time. I’m a huge animal lover and from the outset understood there is no defense for bullfighting or even an argument to present on its behalf for anyone opposed to it. I eat meat but I am not willing to kill it. Some say, compared to a slaughter house after a life in a cage where you can’t move, given the choice between that and five years living out in the open on a ranch and then death in a bullring, is bullfighting really less moral? Boxing’s history dovetails with slavery and the symbolism of fighters weighed on the scale before entering the ring to batter one another for the entertainment of an increasingly elite audience does give me pause (barely any seats were sold to the public for Mayweather-Pacquiao and even those were obscenely expensive to procure). With bullfighting and how I want to approach it in an article, mostly I’m curious about where Spain is today from when I last saw it, in 2004, and how the cultural attachment to bullfighting exists mainly for tourist dollars to provide a transfusion to an ailing economy.

Revisiting one of your surreal experiences in Cuba … how old were you when you met Gregorio Fuentes in Cuba? Now did that meeting come about? Was it a being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time type of interview? What was it like? And knowing that he represented a timeless character, the model for the old man in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” what kind of impression did that make on you as far as being able to speak to anybody at anytime and anyplace?

I was 20 when I first met Gregorio Fuentes. The meeting was something I dreamed about on the plane over and as I mentioned earlier, Havana is the biggest small town on earth. A friend of a friend of a friend had the number, lined up the meeting, and within a few days of arrival I was knocking on his door in Cojimar, the same small fishing village from the story. Meeting Gregorio, and he was 103 years old when I met him, is one of my most treasured memories. He was humble and warm and very charming, still smoking a cigar, and we just had a cozy conversation for half an hour about his life and friendship with Hemingway. You have dreams of such things taking place and if you’re fortunate enough to meet the people who are still living in the world they rarely live up to it. Gregorio surpassed my expectations (which were impossibly high after the book), but then so did his island for me.

***

Follow Brin-Jonathan Butler on Twitter: @brinicio

Recommended reading: (on Mike Tyson) http://www.sbnation.com/longform/2015/2/11/7957523/mike-tyson-interview-history-background

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

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

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

By Ed Odeven

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

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

Peter Vecsey and former NBA scoring champ Bernard King

Peter Vecsey and former NBA scoring champ Bernard King

Former Nets owner Joe Taub (left) and Peter Vecsey

Former Nets owner Joe Taub (left) and Peter Vecsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

What is your typical writing schedule for this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, on every level.

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

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

And what changed?

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

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

How many chapters do you think this will realistically be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t have any idea.

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

So you want to provide a partial recap?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Follow Peter Vecsey on Twitter: @PeterVecsey1

A profile of iconic mentor Jack Daniels, aka “the world’s best (running) coach”

This feature appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of Cross Country Journal

JACK DANIELS RETIRED?
By Ed Odeven

It’s June 20, 2005. Jack Daniels isn’t ready for retirement. He’s ready for a new challenge. And so, the day after an interview with this correspondent, he was to meet with movers at his upstate New York home.

The next destination: Flagstaff, Arizona. It is here where Dr. Daniels, formerly the cross country coach at State University of New York at Cortland, will begin his new job, July 1st, as the head coach for the U.S. Distance Running Program at Northern Arizona University’s Center for High Altitude Training. He will also spearhead the Center’s Community Olympic Development Program.

In short, Daniels’ decades of experience as a world-renowned coach, author, and consultant (to Jim Ryun, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Ken Martin, among others) will be put to use in a new locale. And for the man who’s been called “the world’s best coach,” by Runner’s World Magazine, it’s his goal to help elite-level athletes maximize their training and help promising athletes blossom under his tutelage.

“I’m really excited about it,” the septuagenarian says. “There are several things I hope to accomplish. One os being able to help relocate athletes that want to come here and train. Another is to get something going to really expand what is available for all the people in the community, whether it’s old kids, young kids, or adults who want to get fitter and involved in running. I’m really interesting in seeing what we can do.

“My whole life has been geared around fitness,” he continues. “I’m really kind of disappointed with how unfit we are as a nation. I guess I’d like to see Flagstaff take the lead and make a genuine commitment to fitness, so they could say this is the fittest community in the United States. All we’ve got to do is go out and do something.”

For his entire life, Daniels has been a go-getter. As a high school student in Redwood City, California, Daniels was eager to participate in the school’s athletic programs. “Looking back on those days, we were just extremely fit at out high school,” he says.

Six years after Daniels graduate from Sequoia High School, classmates Tim Goran and Bob Cooper were representing the United States in diving and water polo, respectively. And Daniels was a member of the 1956 and 1960 USA Olympic squads as a heptathlete. He won a silver medal in his first Olympiad even though he was originally selected as an alternate (a teammate broke his leg in a horseback riding accident, sending Jack to the Olympics.)

Being a two-time Olympian opened doors for Daniels. He studied in Sweden, did research on high altitude training in Mexico City in the 1960s and later spent a years as a consultant to the Peruvian national team.

Over the years, Daniels’ philosophy has been guided by the belief that everybody deserves an opportunity. “This is another opportunity,” he says of his efforts to establish the program in Arizona, including outreach to Native American tribes in the area. “The ability is up to individuals and parents. You have to make the opportunity available to as many people as you can. The final ingredient is direction and hopefully we can offer that to anybody who is interested.”

Daniels commended organizations such as Wings of America and individuals like Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, whom he’s known since 1960, for their efforts in promoting running for Native Americans. “I think there is a lot that can be done,” he admits, “and they are doing a lot right now.”

His future efforts will include education young people and their parents about running and the benefits of fitness. “I’m sure most of them already know about that,” he says, “but need a little boost or confirmation.”

Nowadays, Daniels runs 20-30 minutes every day. “Some days I’ll go a little more,” he says. “Haven’t missed a day in six years.” It’s this commitment to running that goes well beyond his doctorate in exercise physiology and his book, “Daniels’ Running Formula.”

Sean Anthony, the Center’s assistant director, said, “The hiring of Dr. Daniels provides us great leverage in increasing the success of distance running for USA Track and Field. He will be a considerable resource person for Northern Arizona University as a whole, and his presence will likely provide some interesting opportunities for faculty and students in such areas as biology and exercise science.”

Daniels will be a featured speaker July 28 during the altitude center’s Distance Coaching Classic, a two-day seminar for coaches to hear about high altitude training, racing theory, overtraining, sports nutrition, sports psychology and other key topics.

In the Grand Canyon State, Daniels plans to build a strong base of core runners for the short term, but hopes in the long run to have a core group here in Flagstaff for training during most of the year.

Among the athletes who have already expressed an interested in training at Flagstaff are:

Magdalena Louis, 5th in Olympic Trials in 2004.

Heather Tanner.

Amy Begley, a 5,000-meter runner.

Peter Gilmore, who was recently selected to run for the U.S. in August at the World Marathon Championships in Helsinki.

“And there are several others. We’ll see after nationals coming up,” he says. “We’ll be talking to some of the athletes.”

“In all my years of altitude research and training distance runners, I can’t imagine a better place for this type of program. The weather and the environment are ideal, facilities are outstanding, and there is a group of individuals involved and they are very experienced and successful in working with elite and emerging athletes. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I hope I am able to help increase interest and success in running and in exercise in general.”

Under Daniels’ tutelage, Cortland runners captured seven NCAA Division III national championships, 24 individual national titles and more than 110 All-American awards.

Karen Crouse’s recipe for success: A passion for sports and writing (and knowledge) shines through in every article

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 25, 2015) — Her latest story appears on Page 1 of the International New York Times, bundled together with The Japan Times as a two-newspaper package available throughout the Land of the Rising Sun. In this piece, also displayed prominently on The Times’ website, she writes with clarity and depth about the state of men’s golf in 2015.

One brief passage, which appeared on the story’s jump page, immediately grabbed my attention because of its clever word play and broad viewpoint: “He has a twinkle in his eye, a strut to his step, a howitzer for a driver and 2.3 million Twitter followers.”

She was writing about Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland.

She is … Karen Crouse, a 1984 graduate of the University of Southern California and former Lady Trojans swimmer.

She has paid her dues in this business, reporting for newspapers located on the West Coast and East Coast. Her career has included stops at the the Savannah (Georgia) News-Press, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Palm Beach Post and The New York Times.

I recently conducted this interview with her.

***
Who are three or four must-read sports journalists you read on a weekly basis? What makes their work appealing to you?

Anything by J.R. Moehringer, and if you read his piece on Alex Rodriguez in ESPN The Magazine, the reason why will be self-evident. His collaboration with Andre Agassi on Agassi’s autobiography is the gold standard of sports memoirs. I greatly enjoy our Sports of the Times columnists, especially Michael Powell, whose dexterity with the English language is laudable. His column from Madison Bumgarner’s dad’s home during the decisive game of the World Series was an instant classic. Sally Jenkins consistently writes thought-provoking columns, and her writing is so lyrical it could be set to music. I’ll read anything by Chris Ballard or S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated because of the depth of their reporting and the loveliness of their prose and I always look for Johnette Howard at ESPN.com.  I read a LOT of non-sports non-fiction. I just finished “Leaving Before the Rains Come” by Alexandra Fuller, whose writing is beautiful.

Do you have an all-time favorite favorite print journalist?

Jim Murray, because he could wound without drawing blood – he wasn’t vicious in his criticism – and his columns were unfailingly original, entertaining and artfully crafted. And a more humble person you will NEVER find.

Considering the ebb and flow of an NFL game (one of your past coverage beats) and a “typical” day of pro golf, how does your note taking, reporting, writing, interviewing … the whole enchilada differ?

In football, I filled my notebook with facts and numbers. In golf, my notes contain much more description of scenes, of player and crowd reactions, of dialogue. I have much more freedom in golf to find different stories because of the sheer number of players posting scores every week, and because they are in action from dawn to dusk, I have a lot more time to sniff out stories and report them than when I was limited to 15 minutes of watching practice, a half hour of locker room access or one game a week.

Is pro football and golf reporting equally intense, but different?

The misconception about golf is that it is a deadline dream job because it ends before dark. The reality, for me, anyway, is that I’m typically at the course from dawn to dusk most days, which is much longer than I spent at football stadiums on game days.  I love the freedom the sport affords me in plucking stories from all over the course. But one of my friends, after observing me at work one week, said it’s like I’m trying to write like (John) Cheever while keeping a wire service reporter’s hours. I’m not sure about the Cheever part, but the days are very long and four years into the beat, I haven’t really figured out how to strike a better balance.

What do you consider your chief strengths as a journalist?

My curiosity, my ability to ask good questions (which is a consequence of pretty exhaustive research, if I’m working on a profile), my genuine interest in what makes the people I’m writing about tick, my doggedness (a leftover quality from my competitive swimming days, I suppose), my desire every day to tell the readers something about my subject that they haven’t read before.

There are challenges, biases, and obstacles that female sports journalists have faced and continue to face that their male counterparts never do. But is there additional respect given to you when you identify yourself as a New York Times journalist? Does that open doors or provide greater access/opportunities that you wouldn’t have normally received in past newspaper jobs that you have had?

I definitely get calls back from people who almost certainly would have ignored me if I had contacted them when I was with any of my nine previous employers. I never take for granted the doors that open to me, if only a crack, because of where I work. And I never kid myself about why many people choose to talk to me – while I’d like to think it’s because of my sparkling personality or reputation (ha!), in many cases it is entirely because of I have the Times’ stamp of approval.

I’m not sure I’m automatically accorded more respect because of where I work. If anything, my work and how I carry myself is more closely scrutinized by people inside and outside the business. I’m keenly aware there are many people who would love to have my job, and who think they would be better at my job, and so in some respects I feel like I have to work harder than ever to prove to outsiders that I’m worthy of occupying such a prized position. I remember not long after I was hired by the paper, I was covering a football game and a fellow sportswriter, a man, congratulated me on the job and said, “I didn’t know they were looking for a woman to fill that position.

”Bless him, but it never occurred to him that the editors might have thought I was the best hire for the job. He assumed that if I was hired, it was because I was a woman and the paper was looking to diversify its sports section.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in this profession?

Treat the people you cover the way you’d like to be treated. Remember they are people first, athletes second. Don’t assume anything.

Maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned, and perhaps this is unique to me, is all these years I’ve been digging into people’s lives and asking all kinds of questions, it is ostensibly because I’m trying to make sense of their lives, but what I’m really trying to do in a very elemental way is make sense of my own and our collective lives.

A  mentor’s words of wisdom?

Don’t try to fit in because it’s your differences that set you apart.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Steer clear of the comments under your stories

A past lesson you learned that served you well for future work?

At the 2012 Masters, I was misquoted in a national sports blog – in the headline, no less — and suffered greatly for it. It was an invaluable experience, being on the other end of an interview and seeing firsthand how your words can be a boomerang that knocks you off your feet. It gave me a greater appreciation of how vulnerable people become when they entrust you with their stories and their beliefs. The experience strengthened the empathy I already felt for the people I cover.

These days, because of their prolonged time away from the game, how much of a void is there without Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa winning frequently and traveling the world over for the LPGA? Which LPGA golfer now in the game do you feel has the greatest potential for legendary status?

Lydia Ko is 17 years old and already No. 1 in the world. Never mind Rory McIlroy, Lydia may end up being the next Tiger Woods. She has said she plans to play until she is 30 and then embark on another career.  She has a bubbly personality, a beautiful swing and is as gracious as Lorena, which is saying a lot.

Who has a better sense of humor in a one-on-one setting with a reporter for an interview — Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps?

I’ve been told Tiger has a wicked sense of humor, and I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen shades of it over the years. But since I’ve never had a one-on-one with Tiger, unless you count walking and talking to him as he strides purposefully to the practice range or his car, I’ll have to say Michael.

Has there been a years-long Phelps boom in increasing popularity in swimming that’s clearly noticeable in terms of participation numbers

There has been a noticeable Michael effect. There was a definite spike in club swimming participation after the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. I didn’t appreciate how much he transcended swimming until he showed up at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medina Country Club outside Chicago to play in the pro-am and drew a larger gallery than any golfer, Tiger included. Michael made swimming look fun and effortless. Of course, the rub is that anybody who gets into it on a year-round level quickly discovers the sport can be very time intensive and demanding, and the sensory deprivation can be so great — staring at a black line for hours on end is not everybody’s cup of tea, and so while Michael may have brought a lot of people to the pool, he alone cannot make them love the grind. That has to come from within and not everybody is wired that way. For that reason, I’m not sure the sport will ever take off, though when you see teens  like Katie Ledecky and Michael Andrew, there’s reason to hope.
in the U.S.

Are there female U.S. Olympian swimmers who also ought to be recognized for helping achieve this?

Natalie Coughlin has been huge, Missy Franklin, by her actions and her attitude, has won over a generation of impressionable youngsters while endearing herself to the casual fan.  Katie Ledecky, through her humility and her dominance, is raising the profile of the sport stateside.

And now … a bit of word association and descriptions that immediately come to mind from your experiences observing them and interacting with them over the years…

-Paola Boivin – one of my best friends in or out of the business, writes with humor and compassion

-Bill Plaschke –likes to tug at the heartstrings

-Edwin Pope – a sports journalist legend

-Donald Sterling – personifies a very small subset of Los Angeles

-Elgin Baylor — underappreciated

-Phil Mickelson – a born entertainer

-John Daly — complicated

-Arnold Palmer — beloved

-Jacques Rogge – the Beijing Olympics on his watch taints his legacy

-Gary Hall Jr. —  showman

-Don Shula  — old-school

-Joe Namath – misunderstood

-Teemu Selanne – a prince of a player and a person

-Jackie MacMullan — fierce

-Linda Robertson – wonderful writer, one of the best in the biz

-Jim Murray – singular talent; my favorite writer of all-time

-Bruce Jenkins – terrific wordsmith, I’ll read ANYTHING he writes on baseball

-Natalie Coughlin – admirable longevity and I’d eat meals she concocts!

-Federica Pellegrini – broke freestyle barriers with the help of the buoyant suits

-Pat Summitt – the all-time greatest college basketball coach of either gender

How many Olympics have you reported from?

Nine (every Summer Olympics since 1992 and every Winter Olympics since 2006)

Which assignment(s) brought you the greatest thrills/adrenaline rush to watch and report on them?

The Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup Finals run in 1993 – I hadn’t covered much hockey and was thrown into this incredible postseason run, starring Gretzky and including series in Toronto and Montreal, cities that are the cradle of the NHL.  And Michael Phelps collecting his eight golds  in the 2008 Olympics. I started swimming competitively after watching Mark Spitz win seven golds in 1972 so to be able to cover the man who supplanted Spitz in the record books for The New York Times felt like my sporting life had come full circle.

And which off-the-beaten path Olympic stories are among your favorite stories you think you’ll be recounting to family, friend and colleagues in 20-30 years from now?

At the very first Olympics I covered, in 1992, two of the U.S. Olympic team members were swimmers I had grown up training with in Northern California. So it was kind of surreal to be covering their races as a journalist. And Mike Bruner’s victory in the 200 butterfly at the 1976 Olympics is a result that will always be near and dear to my heart. He let me interview him for an eighth-grade project before the Olympic Trials. I brought a copy of the interview to the Trials, which I attended with my father, and he later credited the interview with putting him in the right frame of mind to make the Olympic team.

What do you think is the biggest misconception the general public and/or sports fans have about a sports reporter’s job?

That it is glamorous and easy. That we come at our jobs as fans when, in truth, most of us bring to the workplace the detachment of anthropologists observing unfamiliar tribes in their natural habitats.

What are three must-read sports nonfiction books and three non-sports books you would recommend to anyone to read?

“Open” by Andre Agassi with J.R. Moehringer; “Swimming to Antarctica” by Lynne Cox; Jim Murray, “The Last of the Best, Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand

And a sampling of my favorite non-sports books; “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs; “Gold” by Chris Cleave; “Glass Castle”s by Jeannette Walls. “The Skies Belong to Us” by Brendan Koerner. “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. “The Good Spy” by Kai Bird. “Fire in the Lake” by Frances Fitzgerald.

Is Dan Jenkins’ sense of humor (http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-tours-news/2014-12/dan-jenkins-fake-interview-with-tiger) something that Tiger will refuse to relate to? Or was Tiger’s reaction to what Jenkins wrote a by-product  of his drop in win totals and simply a public way to blow off steam?

My sense is that Tiger Woods’ inner circle was more upset by what Dan wrote than was Tiger, who I really, truly (believe) does not seem to care what anybody writes or says about him.

You’ve written, I believe, several thousand articles now during your colorful career in this business. Can you think of three or four stories that resonated the most with readers (and your professional colleagues)?

These are some stories that resonated with readers and that I’m also proud of because of the positive impact they had on their subjects:

In 2005, during the first month of my first Jets season, I wrote a profile on the receiver Laveranues Coles in which he talked about for the first time publicly being sexually abused as a child. After unburdening himself of this secret, his personality blossomed. I had a Jets front-office official come up to me a few years later and tell me that that story helped Laveranues come out of his shell and set him on the path to becoming one of the most beloved (instead of misunderstood) players in the organization.

While with the Palm Beach Post, I did a project in 2004 on the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic swim team and how the members were among the first competitors to face a playing field tilted against them because of competitors using performance-enhancing drugs. The anchor of the piece was Shirley Babashoff, who might have equaled Mark Spitz’s Munich gold medal outlay in Montreal if not for the fact she was going up against East German competitors pumped full of steroids. Shirley was famously reclusive, but I persuaded her to talk and the result was a really powerful piece that I hope gave people who don’t see understand why athletes using PEDs is such a big deal a different perspective.

In 2010, I did a series of pieces for the Times on the challenges faced by women whose prime years as child bearers coincide with their prime years as athletes. I did a piece on the golfer Cristie Kerr, who was considering surrogacy; on the tennis player Gigi Hernandez and the golfer Jane Geddes, who adopted two children after Gigi battled infertility; on the driver Sarah Fisher, who retired from racing so she could try to start a family, on Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a WNBA player then with the (New York) Liberty who experienced motherhood right out of high school, scuttling her college plans, and then again after she was established as a professional.

Also in 2010, I wrote a profile of the swimmer Amanda Beard in which she talked for the first time about her struggles with drug abuse, bulimia and cutting. The story led to her writing her autobiography for Simon and Schuster.

In 2008, I wrote a really fun profile of Kurt Warner and I included 8 Family Rules for being a Warner. It also was developed into a book, which Kurt and (his wife) Brenda did with the help of a ghost writer.

In 2012, I wrote an essay for the New York Times sports section about how I became a sports journalist and told the story of interviewing Mike Bruner when I was a youngster, and how impactful it was when he credited the interview with his making the Olympic team. That story really resonated with readers and colleagues alike, I think because it’s such a pay-it-forward type of story, a really feel-good tale for these tough times in journalism.

During your times covering the NHL, was Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux the more magnetic superstar in your view?

Definitely Wayne, because even though he is a shy man, when he had the puck on his stick your eye was inexorably drawn to him.

***
Follow Karen Crouse on Twittter: @bykaren

Here’s a link to her New York Times archive: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/karen_crouse/index.html

The perfect description

By Ed Odeven

From time to time I enjoy repeat reads of random articles from the late David Halberstam’s “Everything They Had,” an anthology of his quality sportswriting.

Today, during coffee time, I opened the book to Halberstam’s ESPN.com piece on Pedro Martinez from Aug. 3, 2001. He described the essence of the then-Red Sox hurler with keen observations.

He wrote: “…Pedro Martinez … is, to my mind, not merely the best pitcher in baseball today, but something rarer still — a genuine artist.

“I say artist, because of the level of craftsmanship involved, the assortment of pitches, the variety of speeds, the perfection of location. Pedro Martinez is not only ahead of the hitters, he is ahead of the fans, the announcers, and most likely his own catcher.

“…Pedro is an artisan; for the true fan, watching him pitch is like getting a lesson in the infinite possibilities of the game.”

‘The Miracle on Ice … will always be No. 1 on my list’ (A candid interview with Ron Rapoport)

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 1, 2014) — During Ron Rapoport’s long, distinguished career in sports journalism, his work has been showcased by some of the biggest U.S. news outlets.

He was a sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Los Angeles Daily News, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times and an NPR commentator for “Weekend Edition.” He also wrote for The Associated Press, while he was based in New York and San Francisco.

His books include “The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones’ and the Golden Age of Golf, (in 2008),” “Betty Garrett and Other Songs: A Life on Stage and Screen (1999),” which he co-authored with Garrett, and “Love in the NBA: A Player’s Uninhibited Diary (1975),” which he collaborated on with Stan Love. He wrote “Covering the Bases: The Most Unforgettable Moments in Baseball in the Words of the Writers and Broadcasters Who (1997)” with Benedict Cosgrove, and “How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America (2006)” with Eddie Einhorn.

He edited “A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sportswriting by Women” (1994). He also edited “From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sportswriting from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Other Newspapers.” The book was released in August 2013.

Rapoport, a member of Stanford University’s class of 1962, is retired from the daily grind and the nonstop demands of making deadlines, but he remains attuned to the pulse of the business and what makes it tick.

In a recent email exchange, Rapoport, who resides in the Los Angeles area, offered his thoughts on the state of sports journalism in 2014 and some general thoughts on his career and influences, too.

* * *

How has the sports media landscape changed, for better and for worse, as the Internet age has given way to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media apps in this era of the 24/7/365 news cycle? But with all of these tools in a fast-changing landscape, has the challenge of being a quality wordsmith and reporter really changed?

Rapoport: It’s changed for the better in that it is so easy to do research these days–what did we do before Google?–and for the worse because the writer has to do so much more to do besides write. I’m in the guinea-pig generation, I guess–we started with typewriters (remember them?), then moved on to every generation of portable computer the tech guys came up with. But I missed the blogging, tweeting, podcasting and all the rest of it, for which I thank my lucky stars. I don’t know how writers do it these days. They’re always working. When do they have time to watch the game or, heaven forbid, sit and think? It’s a mystery to me.

There’s great admiration for Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully for his humility, longevity and brilliance as a broadcaster, and that’s fascinating to observe. Can you share a story about him that probably most people haven’t heard?

I don’t know whether people outside Los Angeles know this, but this season most Dodger fans haven’t been able to see or hear Vin except for a few innings on the radio. A dispute between cable companies has prevented 70 percent of Dodger fans from getting the broadcasts and it’s a shame. Many people say they miss Vin as much as they do the Dodgers and when the mayor of Los Angeles asked the FCC to get involved in resolving the dispute, he specifically mentioned how much Los Angeles misses Vin Scully. Can you imagine any other broadcaster being cited in this way? Vin is well into his 80s now and as one of the lucky 30 percent, the best thing I can say about him is that he’s as good as ever.

In print and online, who are a half-dozen or so sportswriters and columnists you consider among the best in the business today?

Rapoport: I’m ashamed to say I don’t read many of the online writers, though I understand they’re doing a lot of good work, particularly long-form pieces. I’m just more of a print guy, I guess. Go ahead and call me a dinosaur. I don’t mind. I was sorry to lose fine writers like Rick Reilly and Joe Posnanski to the Internet. I just don’t know where to go to find them.

The best I do read? There are several in the Los Angeles Times I think do good work–Bill Plaschke, Bill Shaikin and a few others–and some in The New York Times, too. I think Karen Crouse does a huge job covering golf and Olympic sports for them. And I know there are other good people around the country. Sports has always drawn good writers for a variety of reasons, and I think it always will.

For your own enjoyment, do you have a few “must-read” sportswriters and columnists throughout the United States? Is there somebody’s work you read first thing in the morning on a regular basis?

Rapoport: To my surprise, I find myself spending more and more time with Sports Illustrated these days. The magazine has gone through a number of changes–it’s over-the-top concentration on the NFL drives me crazy sometimes–but some of the articles they do are very strong. They have fine writers and good ideas and I enjoy reading it.

Can you think of a few of recently published articles – game stories, features, Q&As, columns, etc. – that caught your eye for their quality, originality and substance?

Rapoport: Well, SI recently did a piece on how major league baseball reacted to a con-man who suggested a pitcher for the Pirates was throwing games. It turned out the guy was an old high-school buddy of the pitcher’s and they’d had a falling out. MLB turned it into World War III–it sounded like a bad movie–and it was a great story. The recent “Where Are They Now” issue was also very strong.

Is there journalist with more clout or gravitas on a single pro or college reporting beat these days than Peter King on TV, Sports Illustrated and its Monday Morning Quarterback spin-off website?

Rapoport: Probably not, but I’ve got to tell you that as someone who likes pro football and who covered a lot of it, I find that I really can get enough. I know it has a fan base that will read, watch and listen to anything connected with the sport, no matter how ephemeral, but to me a lot of it is noise. The games are fine and good stories about the athletes draw me in. Peter does a great job, no question about that, but it’s not something that really appeals to me.

Which sportswriters and columnists had the biggest influence on your career? And were there a few specific articles or event coverage you remember that made a big impression on you that you read while growing up?

Rapoport: Jim Murray would be at the top of the list, I guess, if only because he made me realize early on that I wouldn’t ever approach his brilliance. Growing up in Detroit, I was really interested in the Tigers, Lions, Pistons, etc., and there was a very fine columnist named Doc Greene I enjoyed. This was when television was in its infancy so newspapers were really important and I liked reading the Detroit News and the Free Press and seeing how the different writers handled their stories.

Can you select five or so favorite/unforgettable on-deadline assignments you’ve had over the years and reflect on them a bit?

Rapoport: If you mean looking-at-your-watch deadlines–the ones where you’re sweating bullets and wondering why you didn’t go to law school–I’d say big fights are as tough as it gets. They start very late and if they’re particularly exciting or result in an upset it can be tough to find something to say very quickly that the TV viewer won’t have seen. I covered Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns in Las Vegas in 1985 and that was the wildest fight I’ve ever seen–three rounds of two guys just standing there pounding each other. I’m not sure I’d like to go back and look at what I wrote.

But if you mean events where the deadline is just a little more forgiving, I’ve covered my share, I guess. The Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980 will always be No. 1 on my list, but Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at the age of 46 in 1986 a close second and, in no particular order, Kirk Gibson’s epic World Series home run in 1988, Tom Watson’s chip-in at the 1982 U.S Open at Pebble Beach, Nolan Ryan’s first two no-hitters in 1973 and a bunch of stories from six Olympics following close behind.

For aspiring sports journalists or those just starting out in the business, what advice would you give them to achieve success?

Rapoport: My advice would be for them to seek advice from somebody more up to date with the requirements of the job these days. To the extent that anything I could say might help, I’d give the same advice I always have. Aspiring writers should read and they should write. That last part means write for anyone who will let you–high school and college papers, for sure, and local publications, Web sites, anybody who will run your stuff and, hopefully, offer you some ideas about how to make it better. The best writers don’t know how to take no for an answer. If, like some of us, you simply “have” to write, you’ll find a way.

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Visit Ron Raport’s website: http://rapoports.net/ron/