A serious discussion about comedy with Peter Mehlman

Seinfeld table read

Blast from the past: The cast and crew of “Seinfeld” prepares for an episode during the 1990s.

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 3, 2017) — Before landing the job of a lifetime as a writer and producer (eventually executive producer) for “Seinfeld,” Peter Mehlman bounced around several jobs where his journalism skills paid the bills.

He worked as a sportswriter for The Washington Post after graduating from the University of Maryland. He wrote and produced for Howard Cosell’s “SportsBeat” TV program from 1982-84. He penned articles for Esquire and GQ and The New York Times magazine, among other publications.

Mehlman’s move to Los Angeles in 1989 paved the way for his eventual role as a key contributor to the remarkable success of Seinfeld, which aired from 1989-98. (Indeed, fellow New Yorkers Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, the show’s co-creators came to recognize that the witty Mehlman could and would make valuable contributions to the show.)

In recent years, the New York native, now in his early 60s, created an online interview show called “Peter Mehlman’s Narrow World of Sports,” filling the roles of host, writer and producer. Mehlman is also a longtime Huffington Post contributor. A recent blog item: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-mehlman/250-million-undateable-people_b_9862748.html

In a recent interview, Mehlman explained what it was like working on the set of Seinfeld and why the job was such a joyful experience, described the “pure alchemy” between Seinfeld, David and the show’s other writers, revealed why he’s a big fan of Steven Wright’s contributions to comedy (plus Richard Pryor, Howard Stern and Johnny Carson, and others) and what it was like becoming a stand-up comic for the first time at age 58.

***
When you were 10 years old, what did you consider your dream job? How about when starting your senior year of high school?

Heart surgeon. I was a very eager-to-please 10-year-old. By senior year of high school, I thought the best possible job in the world was being Walt Frazier, the oppressively cool guard for the New York Knicks.

 

Stand up B&W

Peter Mehlman began doing standup comedy at age 58.

Who’s the funniest athlete you’ve interviewed and then written about?

I can’t think of anyone funny whom I’ve also written about. Writing profiles about athletes was never my thing. But Blake Griffin of the LA Clippers is the funniest athlete ever. The interview with him was incredible.

He’s practically a comic genius … and he’s very serious about comedy.

 

What’s your favorite episode of Seinfeld? Your favorite scene (perhaps from a different episode)?

I always like “The Deal*” in which Jerry and Elaine try to figure out how they can have sex and maintain their friendship. The first scene of that episode is the best comedy dialogue I’ve ever seen on TV. Larry David at the height of his powers.

*www.seinfeldscripts.com/TheDeal.htm

Do you read a lot of serious essays and novels, contrasting with the image of a quintessential funny man?

I read nothing but serious essays and novels. Novels by John Updike and essays by Joan Didion have made for some of the most blissful moments in my life.

 

IMG_2273

Peter Mehlman

How would you describe the creative synergy between you and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David during Seinfeld’s heyday? Was there, in your view, a famous argument that took place over a certain episode or minute detail of a scene?

 

I can’t recall a single serious argument about the show’s content. There were disagreements and discussions but it never got heated, no one was ever offended. Seinfeld was, in addition to everything else, a very joyous place to work. The synergy between me (and every other writer) and Larry and Jerry was pure alchemy. We never focused on that kind of thing but each had his own sensibility. Larry was darker than Jerry and, on occasion, I was called in to give my opinion on their differences. I tended toward Larry’s point of view because (a) his viewpoint had already taken us to the mountain top and (b) when the show went to dangerous places, it gave me a bit of a thrill.

What was a typical TV production meeting like on the set of Seinfeld in the mid-1990s? Were Jerry and Larry both control freaks? Did one of them usually have greater control over the script and joke revisions at the 11th hour?

Larry had control over everything. Seinfeld was very different than all other sitcoms. There was no writers’ room and we didn’t have a lot of meetings and the ones we had were pretty quick. The word “joke” barely came up because we didn’t write jokes, we wrote funny dialogue. If you were stuck for a joke, you were in trouble… it meant that the scene was not organically funny. All the typical late nights and groping around for jokes in a room full of junk food-infested writers you hear about from other sitcoms, didn’t happen on Seinfeld. And by the way, if Larry liked a funny line that didn’t get laughs from the crew the whole week, he was undeterred. His confidence in what he believed to be funny was absolutely fireproof.

As a writer, you cemented your place in TV history from now till the end of time with expressions like “yada, yada, yada,” “shrinkage” and “double dip,” with those and other phrases entering the American pop cultural icon. That said, how influential do you think comedians are in shaping the way language is asked? (I ask this question while reflecting on George Carlin in the 1970s, for instance.)

Comedians have their place in the history of language but not an oversized place. If anything, comedians’ impact on the culture is slightly overrated. Personally, I think Steven Wright is the guy who’s put more absolutely brilliant lines out there than any other comic yet very few people would mention him if asked the same question. As someone who started out in journalism, I don’t feel the same level of reverence for comedians than most comedy writers, so I’m kind of freed up to say that George Carlin never made much of an impression on me. His “Seven words…” bit is all I remember and to me, it’s a big “So What?”

Comics like Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman or Garry Shandling have had a much bigger impact on me. Woody Allen has contributed more brilliant lines than anyone but that’s more in the context of writing than from being a comedian. All that said, putting the term “double dip” out there is nice — but a thousand times less impactful than, say, “Can’t we all just get along?” by Rodney King or “Better angels” by Abraham Lincoln or “Follow the money” by William Goldman in “All The President’s Men.”

What’s your reaction to this statement: Seinfeld’s online show “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” is one of the five best things on the Internet in the 2010s?

My reaction is … I have no idea what the other four are because I don’t watch much internet content. Jerry’s show is interesting to me in how you get to see comics being funny, or trying to be funny, without their material. Sometimes it’s fantastic and reassuring, other times it’s disillusioning and cringeworthy. I see the show as less comedy and more suspense … “Who is really funny?”

Do you devote X number of hours per day to writing? If so, how many? Where do you like to write? Do you prefer to do so at home, in a public setting? On a laptop or tablet? On a notepad?

At home, on a desktop with no particular hours of operation.

How far and wide have you traveled doing stand-up comedy? Were was your first show? Your biggest show? Your most-recent show?

In order to perform stand-up comedy, I have traveled all the way to Burbank. It might be nice to try it out of town but let’s face it, when you do stand-up for the first time at the age of 58, you’re doing it for the fun/challenge, not as a career. My first time was the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. My biggest show was following Dane Cook on a Saturday night at The Improv in Hollywood. It was fantastic.

***

What’s your earliest recollection of finding something funny? What was it?

My parents got tickets to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts which were later on TV and sponsored by Bell Telephone. After a long symphony, Lenny (as we called him) said, “We’re going to take a break now for a long distance call.” Somehow I got the joke. It was thrilling because it came from an adult. A super famous, genius adult.

Do you consider yourself naturally funny? Do you think that humor is best expressed with the written word?

I never really thought about being naturally funny but being funny was always important to me. Humor in the written word is completely different. It’s all about grammar and usage, as opposed to voice delivery and facial expression. Written word humor is hard and, ultimately, the most intelligent form.

Who was the funniest person you knew before your 10th birthday? What made him or her so funny? Same question … but between ages 10-20. Why?

Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. He just made funny sounds and faces. Of course, he was already dead by the time I saw him…

Between 10-20 — a wildly changing time span — I started out loving Don Adams on “Get Smart.” It was and is one of my favorite shows ever. The repetition was especially funny; you knew certain lines were coming and that made the show even funnier. I guess I was loving Mel Brooks but I didn’t really read the credits. Between 16-20 it was all Woody Allen and then Richard Pryor. I listened to their albums and knew every line. They were funny in radically different ways. Woody was so creative, his movies and stand-up were wild and unpredictable. I stole lines and tried to use them on girls. Pryor was a whole different planet for me. I went to a high school that was almost half black but wasn’t exposed to the deepest thoughts of black people. Pryor was so funny and powerful and eloquent and profane simultaneously. It was mind-blowing.

For you, who was the first comedian you considered a role model or hero?

Woody Allen, the reasons above. He not only made great, funny, deep movies but he did amazing stand-up AND wrote for The New Yorker. “Getting Even” and “Without Feathers” were monster examples of great writing and humor. And I used to chat with Woody at Knick games at Madison Square Garden when I was around 13. So I felt like I knew him.

If there were an all-time starting nine of superstar comedians to steal a baseball term, who’d crack the starting lineup? Who’d be your No. 1 pick?

Pryor, Woody, Steven Wright, Sarah Silverman, Garry Shandling, Gilbert Gottfried, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles and just to give a nod to the present, Jarrod Carmichael. Picking a number one between those first six is too tough.

What’s the best joke you heard or read in the 20th century?

I don’t really know. I’m not a joke guy.

What’s the best joke of the 21st century?

Ditto

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said?

No idea. I’m so not into picking superlatives out of my own life.

What’s the funniest line you’ve ever written?

Ditto.

What was the most impressive aspect of David Letterman’s long run on late-night TV?

That he seemed so cheerful every night as opposed to what he was like in reality.

Who do you consider the most underrated comedian of all time? Why?

Gilbert Gottfried. His delivery overwhelms his content for a lot of people but his material is amazing. In a way, Sarah Silverman is similar: the genius and courageousness of her material is, for some people, lost in what’s misperceived as raunchiness.

What’s the funniest movie you’ve ever seen?

Airplane!

Based on their creative synergy and gift for delivering “a show about nothing” each week, is it an apt description to label Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David the Lennon and McCartney of TV sitcoms?

More like the Lennon and McCartney of Seinfeld. The show was beyond the genre of sitcom.

Looking back on the remarkable success and popularity of “Seinfeld” and the cultural footprints it left and contributions to the English language as well with memorable phrases, how satisfying is it personally that you were a key part of the show’s writing and production?

It’s satisfying and pleasing and I’m grateful it happened. But I’m just grateful for my other jobs. Being published in The Washington Post and New York Times was equally wonderful… I just didn’t get paid as much. In a way, the lasting catchphrases is the best part of it all… you don’t often get to have an impact on the cultural landscape of this huge, unwieldy nation.

Has that satisfaction increased over the years?

No. I was aware of it when it was happening and I’m still aware of it.

Just suppose the show was relaunched in 2017 with the four main characters. Is there a story line for the first show that you have in mind?

It would be fun if Kramer met Maya Lin and convinced her to re-design his bathroom.

Who are some influential individuals — let’s say 5-6 people — who have shaped the way you write and inject humor into your writings? (Please elaborate on each one’s role as an influential figure for you.)

John Updike, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Ian McEwan, Fran Liebowitz, Woody Allen… all of them for the same reasons: they use the English language perfectly at their funniest moments. They weave humor in their writing with a seamlessness that’s always surprising and therefore doubly impactful.

How did working at The Washington Post under both George Solomon and legendary executive editor Ben Bradlee help guide you on the path to success as a writer? As prominent journalism professionals, what impression did each of them make?

They infused young writers with the two most important traits: commitment to truth and fearlessness.

And how did writing for Howard Cosell’s “SportsBeat” TV program further establish your career? What was the most important thing you’d say you accomplished during those 2 1/2 years you worked with Cosell?

He forced you to question everything and develop a highly functioning bullshit detector. Growing up a sports fan, I had to unlearn every belief I had about teams, athletes, executives, agents, everything. Sports is a massively corrupt world and it’s important to keep people from mindlessly watching games without seeing the hypocrisy staring us in the face.

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your ability to do Cosell impersonations?

8.5. Not as good as a few other people on the SportsBeat staff, better than Billy Crystal.

Finish this sentence to give it a comic tone: Donald Trump and George Costanza walk into a bar and …

Nothing happens. Most of what we learned to anticipate never happens.

***
What immediately comes to mind — a handful of adjectives and/or phrases — for each of the following?

Peter Sellers – Unhinged, brilliant and incredibly poignant in “Being There.”
Richard Pryor – Tortured genius, beyond powerful… I can quote entire albums of his stuff. Meeting him was a religious experience.
Denis Leary – Aggressive, smart. I’ve gotten to know him and really like him. It’s kind of funny that he’s a real urban Boston guy and yet, through his truck commercial voice-overs, he’s become one of the big voices of Redneck America.
George Burns – Understated, kind. Major longevity.
Chris Rock – Insanely self-confident, prowling, prolific — great taste in heroes (Woody Allen)
Johnny Carson – mysterious, dangerous, unpredictable, dark, secretive, better at his job than anyone ever was or will be.
Stephen Colbert – Better as his fictional character on the Colbert Report than himself on Late Night.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Greatest line-readings ever. Classy. Grounded. Unpretentious. Enunciates words to perfection… no American speaks more beautifully than JLD.
Bob Newhart – Low key. Halting. Stylistically as unique as anyone ever.
Joan Rivers – Made you laugh despite not wanting to. Jam packed with human frailty. Brave. An aura of desperation.
Howard Stern – Makes me laugh on a more consistent basis than anyone in the world. Tuning into Howard is a lifeline. Fearless. The greatest thing about him is, for all his low-brow humor and incorrigibility, you know that he’s a really good guy with his heart in the right place on everything.
Joe Pesci – Great in “My Cousin Vinny.” Otherwise, he’s exhausting. The fact that he’s an avid golfer seems weird.
Robin Williams – Mixed feelings. Epically wonderful in “Good Will Hunting” and kind of ruined “Garp” (one of my favorite novels ever.) Probably a brilliant comic but I’m not big on improvisational, unwritten stand-up.
Lenny Bruce – In this time of cancerous political correctness, he should be resurrected as a way of showing the world how you can say anything and have it be OK if it’s funny or true. Not even sure he was especially funny but it doesn’t matter, he had something important to say. Also: At 16, seeing one still photo of him on the cover of his biography (by Dick Schaap) made me think stand-up would be a cool job.

***
Follow Peter Mehlman on Twitter: @PeterMehlman

 

 

 

Allen Berrebbi’s moral crusade against the NBA

IMG_1339

Allen Berrebbi

By ED ODEVEN
TOKYO (May 26, 2017)
First in a series

Editor’s note: Over the next few weeks, this website will features various articles about the NBA’s disgraceful treatment of former ABA players. The series-opening article features my interview with Allen Berrebbi, a Tampa-based tech entrepreneur, who wants to see his campaign go viral. Upcoming installments will include  exclusive interviews with former ABA players, among others.

Fearless and passionate about raising awareness about the issue and building a social movement, Allen Berrebbi is taking the initiative to confront the NBA.

“The history of the NBA’s greed when it comes to paying and doing the right thing is long and sordid,” he tweeted.

In another Twitter missive, he wrote this: “Sign petition to tell Adam Silver and NBA to do the right thing. Please share.”

Here’s his petition:

https://www.change.org/p/adam-silver-and-the-nba-justice-for-the-retired-aba-players-many-of-who-are-dying-penniless?recruiter=653007752&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=share_twitter_responsive

Here’s Berrebbi’s explanation for his involvement in this issue.

“This issue has been bothering me for quite some time. The recognition and trademarks’ issues have been front and center for me for several years however the pension issue became known to me about 3-4 years ago, when I became friends with several players. I recognized the power of social media to raise awareness and would have liked to have planned a little better, but when I came to acquire a copy of the ‘kiss-off’ letter from the NBA, and after begging the players to cause their own storm, I had enough and started my campaign. I wanted this to hopefully come out during the playoffs, which is why it was rushed.

“Too many players are afraid of upsetting the NBA and the same with some wonderful people doing charity work on the players’ behalf. I could care less about pissing anyone off so here I am. These players are the founding fathers of the modern game, heck the Golden State Warriors owe them their very success, and they do nothing to not only pay them what is due, but acknowledge their place in history.

“NBA Cares is a joke, only caring about PR. Take some snapshots with some kids so you look good and sell more merchandise. Terrific. Or take a stance on politics to make you look like you care, again for popularity sake, but actually tell the NBA to take a little money out of everyone’s pocket to help the players who gave you all these opportunities and they are silent.

“For example, (NBA Players Association executive director) Michelle Roberts talked a big game, BEFORE. After they came up with a new CBA, she’s been just as quiet and ineffective as every other head of the players union. No one wants to upset the cart and their money train. Cowards, all of them.”

By reading the Retired ABA Players signed petition for benefits, which was sent to the NBA and NBPA early last month, one clearly sees that the NBA has done a great injustice to former ABA players for … decades. (This will be explained in greater clarity in upcoming articles, with background on the daily struggles of former ABA players, personalized stories and ample facts to explain how what’s addressed in the petition needs to enter the court of public opinion ASAP.)

Here’s the Retired ABA Players petition:

Petition without Tables 1-22 (1)

My interview with Berrebbi continues.

***

What is your tie-in to the ABA? Were you a big fan during its years of competition?

Started as a fan, grew up loving the ABA and my old Nets as kid, often going to Nassau Coliseum to watch the Doctor (Julius Erving) operate, as well as my other fave, Super John Williamson. Big basketball fan, but as a lover of underdog, always preferred the ABA.

Did you meet many of the players over the years after the ABA ended and become personally interested in their plight (now) because of your relationships with them?

Yes. I have reached out over the years and been involved in some things that brought me into contact with many of them. I was briefly involved in the current “league” calling themselves the ABA; due to my thinking they were connected in some way (they’re not). I also got to become friends with many of the ABA Pacers when they invited me to be at the Roger Brown day in Indiana, through my reaching out to filmmaker Ted Green, who did a wonderful documentary http://tedgreenfilms.com/Film4.html on Roger.

Having drinks with the Pacers, I learned a lot of things. Some great and funny stories, but many heartbreaking things on what has become of some of these players who brought me such joy as a kid. I also reached out to the Dropping Dimes charity and offered to help in any way. Let me be very clear, however. While I have friends within the ABA players and care a great deal about the wonderful work the Dropping Dimes charity is doing and admire their board members a great deal, I am doing this completely 100 percent on my own.

In fact, I’ve received resistance about my actions as both the players and the charity want to continue to work with the NBA in a peaceful manner and don’t want to stir up trouble. Well to me, they’ve been nice far too long. I’ve begged them to do this for years and been stymied. But after catching the recent kiss-off letter from the NBA, I had enough and said I would do it with or without any help. I have made it very clear I am doing this strictly as an outraged super-fan.

NBA-Kiss-Off-letter

The kiss-off letter

How are you strategizing the tweets to publicize the campaign? Is it simply trying to keep repeating the same message often?

This came about very recently so it is not as well strategized as it would be if I had months to plan. But when yet another player (Skeeter Swift) died with no justice, plus the NBA’s kiss-off letter, I couldn’t wait anymore. Right now I’m hoping to repeat the message to the point of others taking the message and going viral with it.

How did you outline what you want the petition to become? Was there a lot of scribbling on paper and multiple drafts? Or a pretty straight-forward message to get people talking and thinking about the NBA’s stance on this issue? Is it moral outrage?

Yes, moral outrage for sure. And I’ve known in my heart what I want for the players from day one. First and foremost, they should be paid like any other player of that era. It was a MERGER and everyone knows what that means. And they were promised to be treated that way. Shame on the NBA for taking advantage of poor players, many of them uneducated in the ways of business, for their gain. However, speaking to the players confidentially, they would settle for even pre-1965 money, and cost of living increases. $300 lousy bucks per month, per year of eligibility.

The second thing I want, probably a lot more than the players themselves, is the trademarks of the ABA, outside of the four teams in the NBA now, to be given to the players so they can at the very least, hold on to their legacy without outsiders diminishing the brand and therefore the memory and history. For example, the more time passes, the more people will think the current ABA is what the REAL ABA was, which is an outrage. The original ABA was on par, talent-wise, with the NBA. They invented the modern game; they should have control of their likeness. So them and their children can bask in and enjoy their accomplishments.

How would you sum up your views on the multi-billion-dollar industry stiffing these pioneers?

Greed and perhaps racially biased. For sure there is an inbred ABA bias, inherent hatred against the upstart ABA for what they did to the game and forcing the merger. It is the ONLY explanation for why they would allow the marks to be used willy-nilly now.

Let me ask you this, if I was to use the NBA marks or one of their teams or even one of their players without permission or in a negative fashion, how soon would the office come down on me with a cease and desist? And they bragged recently about how they did the right thing with the pre-1965 players, who by sheer coincidence are predominantly white, and yet the more modern players from the ABA, who by sheer coincidence predominantly African American, are ignored and dying without justice. Smells bad to me and anyone who knows me knows I usually hate when people use the race card quickly but here, I don’t know what else to think. Maybe it is greed alone, but the bottom line is players are suffering. PERIOD. To satisfy the players, it would cost so little.

The NBA just signed a $24 BILLION contract, are you telling me they can’t afford to have each team contribute ONE TIME, a million dollars, to a fund in which the interest alone can fund the pension? And to give them the marks to a league they have no use for that was operational 40 years ago? BS.

You must be a busy guy with the jobs listed on your Twitter profile. So how much time are you currently planning/trying to spend for this crusade, for this petition?

It’s become a big part of my non-work time. No specific plan on how much time, just squeezing it in as much as possible.

And what is your target, signatures for the petition? How many names do you want to collect to throw it back at Adam Silver and basically put him in a corner that he has only one way to get out of? Do you have a targeted timetable for this campaign? To complete it this summer? This year?

My goal is one thing and one thing only. To show the world what the NBA has done to these players for no good reason other than greed and perhaps bias, and maybe let the NBA realize that in this internet age, you can’t get away with anything anymore, especially keeping secrets of your bad behavior. And hopefully they will realize this is plain bad business and bad PR and they can look like heroes very cheaply. NBA Cares? Prove it. That’s my goal.

***

Follow Allen Berrebbi on Twitter: @krbmedia

Recommended reading

http://www.indystar.com/story/sports/2015/08/21/life-struggle-charlie-jordan-wants-new-suit/32159455/

https://droppingdimes.org/2016/07/slam-magazine-aba-players-get-back-feet/

An engaging conversation with sports columnist Mark Whicker

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 15, 2017) — Distinguished sports columnist Mark Whicker has written about Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama, the Super Bowl, Pac-10 hoops, the NFL’s Rams, legendary announcer Dick Enberg, the upcoming World Baseball Classic, horse racing and, of course, boxing, among other topics in recent weeks.

In other words, Whicker writes about pretty much everything in the sports world. And he does so with style, while being consistently informative and with a curiosity that has no limits.

These days, the North Carolina native is an authoritative voice for the Los Angeles News Group, which includes the Los Angeles Daily News and Orange County Register. He was a staple of the Orange Country Register’s sports section for nearly 30 years, and his memorable coverage of boxing has included many of the marquee fights since the late 1970s.

Among Whicker’s top honors from his decades in the news business is the 2015 Nat Fleischer Award, presented by the Boxing Writers Association of America for excellence in boxing journalism.

Early in his career, Whicker paid his dues and learned the skills of his craft from time spent writing, starting in 1974, at the Winston-Salem Journal in his home state, then the Dallas Times-Herald, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (1978-82) and Philadelphia Daily News (1982-87) before joining the Orange Country Register in 1987.

Whicker garnered respect from his peers during his time in Philly. In 1986, Dick “Hoop” Weiss, also of the Philadelphia Daily News at that time, wrote: “Whicker is a guy who grew up on Tobacco Road and has combined excellent writing skills with unusual insight. He’s the one person I defer to in our city.”

In a recent interview, Whicker provided insights on his career, changes in the media landscape, favorite assignments, most difficult assignment, and a magazine he read voraciously as a junior high school student, etc.

***

What fires you up the most about having the opportunity to write columns for a living?

I enjoy the variety of the job, the fact that I get to experience all sports on many different levels. I still enjoy the interviewing and the games themselves, and getting to know different athletes and finding out their stories.

Is there a particular story or series of articles that you consider the top work you’ve done during your journalism career? If so, why? Or do you have pride more in the hallmark of your work: consistently thought-provoking commentary?

If I had a favorite story it would be in 2008, when it appeared Obama might win the election. I arranged an interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who grew up during the Civil Rights era. He talked about how much he wished his dad were alive to see this, and he relayed some anecdotes about growing up in the ’60s. Then we ran the story on the day after the election. Fortunately Obama won or I would have to write about something else.

What’s the biggest scoop of your career?

Since I’ve been a columnist for so long I’m not sure I ever really had a “scoop,” or an exclusive story that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. I had a few minor scoops when I was the beat man for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1979-80.

Who is the most demanding editor you’ve worked for? What made, or makes, him or her so demanding?

I’d say Greg Gibson (a former OC Register sports editor) was the most demanding and also the best sports editor I had. He just expected everybody to perform at a certain level and had good leadership qualities.

What’s the most difficult article you’ve ever written? What made it a bona-fide challenge?

I was in Philadelphia when the Flyers goalie, Pelle Lindbergh, died in a car wreck. I went to Sweden to cover the funeral and do a story on his background. There were a lot of unknowns involved, and I had a lot of people to track down, but fortunately it worked out well.

Were there a handful of columns or articles filed on a tight deadline that were the most exhilarating that you’d elevate above the others?

I think all World Series games at night were that way. I remember in 2001 writing about the series of Yankees’ comebacks wins over Arizona at home, while the city was still grieving over 9/11. I also remember writing about Ben Johnson’s 100-meter sprint victory over Carl Lewis at the world championships in Rome in 1987, which turned out to be a deadline write for us.

In newspapers, what do you miss most about the “good old days”? What do you miss least about the work of, say, 25 years ago?

I miss the clacking of the typewriter and the more relaxed access we had to athletes. But I think the writing itself is superior to those days, and so is the access to information.

What do you like most about the job in 2017? What is your least favorite aspect of it now?

I enjoy the Internet and the fact that we can expand upon things after print deadline. I miss the press box camaraderie we used to have. Fewer writers seem to be enjoying themselves.

Who are 4-5 of your journalism heroes? Why do you hold them in high esteem?

Red Smith, Edwin Pope, Larry Merchant, Peter Gammons when he was a Boston Globe baseball beat writer. All had original ways of looking at things and a real feel for writing. There are others, of course.

When did you know, at what age, that you wanted to pursue a career in newspapers? Was there a local newsman whose work really got you interested in journalism? Or your love of sports and writing in general?

I knew it probably in junior high school. I enjoyed writing and loved sports. Every Friday I would wait eagerly for Sports Illustrated to come to the mailbox and read it immediately.

What are essential ingredients of quality journalism?

Curiosity, accuracy, versatility, organizational ability, and listening ability, especially in interviews.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a newspaper man about the craft of journalism over the years?

It never hurts —and often helps —to make one more call.

Is the 2015 Nat Fleischer Award the biggest honor of your career? And what does the award mean to you?

It means a lot because I love boxing and the award is voted upon by the former winners, all of whom I respect. But I don’t write to win awards.

For your own reading enjoyment, who are a half dozen or so must-read sports journalists today? For each of them, why are your fond of their work?

I like Mike Sielski in Philadelphia as a columnist, Sally Jenkins in Washington. Columnists are being kicked to the curb in a lot of places. And a guys like Patrick Reusse in Minneapolis, Cam Cole in Vancouver and Lenox Rawlings in Winston-Salem are either writing less or have retired. Chuck Culpepper in Washington has been a great writer for a long time.

What’s the quirkiest column you recall writing? What made the subject matter so unique?

When I worked in Philadelphia I was in Rome for that track meet and wrote a column putting everything in a sportswriter perspective. For instance I wrote about the Colosseum and said I always loved the old ballparks, and wrote about the late Emperor Vermillius (Dick Vermeil) and his quote about “It’s my way or the Appian Way.” Just kinda silly, but some people liked it. I’ve never been concerned about whether everybody gets the joke.

***

A few short ones…

Will the Chargers be a big draw from the get-go in Los Angeles?

I don’t think they’ll draw from the beginning, but they’re playing in a 30,000-seat arena, so they won’t have to draw much.

What about the Raiders in Las Vegas?

The Las Vegas thing has gotten shaky lately, but if they do get the dome built I think the Raiders will be a success. For one thing they’ll get a lot of fans flying in from Oakland and LA.

What are seven adjectives that immediately come to mind to describe Donald Trump?

Impulsive, immature, flamboyant, entertaining, vindictive, untruthful, energetic.

Your favorite sports book? Non-sports book?

Ball Four. Bonfire of the Vanities.

Favorite sports movie? Non-sports movie?

Hoop Dreams. Dr. Strangelove.

***
Follow Mark Whicker on Twitter: @MWhicker03LANG

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

By Ed Odeven

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

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

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

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

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

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

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

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

What are you writing about now?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

Aram Goudsouzian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

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

What are you writing about now?

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

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

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

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

 

A conversation with portrait artist James Fiorentino

fiorentino.berra.collage

Yogi Berra/JAMES FIORENTINO

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 30, 2016) — Before he graduated from high school, James Fiorentino had already become a prominent painter. When he was 15 years old, Fiorentino’s work, a painting of slugger Reggie Jackson, was featured at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, a distinction that made him the youngest artist to be showcased there.

It was a sign of things to come. Over the past few decades, Fiorentino has produced a portfolio that’s made him one of the most prolific American painters.

His depictions of sports stars, past and present, are brilliant.

He has an unbelievable eye for detail and a rich range of colors are used in his art.

His love of history shines through in his work as well.

Fiorentino explains his approach to art on his website, saying, “Sometimes, I step back and wonder if what I am painting will be remembered the way I want it to be when I am finished, but when I am finished, the painting looks exactly the way I imagined it. I don’t concentrate too much on painting a flawless image. I let my eyes and hands do the work.

“Just as a poet expresses himself through words, I express myself through paint. I feel fortunate to be able to use my art as a means of communication.”

Fiorentino was an all-state shortstop for the Middlesex High School baseball team in New Jersey and college baseball at Drew University, where he started all four years as shortstop. In between, he established himself as a rising star as an artist.

Consider the following:

*At age 17 Fiorentino landed a job creating an iconic baseball project. “…Ted Williams commissioned a portrait of himself surrounded by 19 of the other greatest hitters in baseball for a limited edition lithograph sale,” the Newark Star-Ledger reported.

*At age 19 he joined the New York Society of Illustrators, the youngest person to do so.

*In a 2015 interview, curator David Wagner spoke about Fiorentino’s talents. “His painting of John Ford Point in Monument Valley (Arizona) is stunning,” Wagner told the Newark Star-Ledger, a New Jersey newspaper. “It looks like a still from a classic Western. He has a great feel for perspective and composition.”

I recently spoke to Fiorentino at his home studio in Flemington, New Jersey, to gain some insight into his work, his influences, his passions, his current and past projects and future goals.

* * *

fiorentino.Yankee.legendsSince it’s Monday, the start of another work week for most folks, can you spell out what you have planned for work this week?

I get the opportunity to do a variety of things. Right now I’m working on painting a farm in New Jersey for a client … and it’s a nice mix. But I try to keep it a 9-to-5 job just like everyone else. Wake up, go through my email, (plan) the day. I’ve got a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old, so it’s that kind of stuff. …

I get very busy towards summer time.

Do you primarily work in your studio? Or do you find yourself more productive if you paint in different places, like, in a basement, an attic, a barn? Is it best to be in one place most of the time?

Yeah. So I have a studio and a gallery , which is obviously for private clients. But I do have a studio that’s attached here to the house, which is nice because it enables me to be around my family a little more. But it does give me privacy…

All my work is done in watercolor. …

jamesandbuzz

James Fiorentino and Buzz Aldrin

In my studio I have everything from reproductions of (astronaut) Buzz Aldrin and (former Soviet Union leader Mikhail) Gorbachev to (former New York Giants baseball player) Bobby Thomson, who was a friend. There’s sports stuff and a brush that Norman Rockwell used,,a lot of my wildlife paintings. So I get to kind of be in my studio, which is great, and listen to the radio or have the TV on. …

He mentioned that his studio is also filled with “museum-style baseball paintings” he has collected over the year, including one of Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, and other sports memorabilia.

Do you advertise very aggressively to get new clients? Or is a case of your name growing in prominence, so clients are looking for you instead of you looking for them?

Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a little bit of both. I’m very lucky because I’ve been doing it for like 20 years, which is kind of crazy and I’ve really built a great reputation. I’m definitely one of the top artists in the country.

But I don’t aggressively pursue a lot of different projects. … I am lucky that I’m always doing projects for clients, and like any kind of business you’ve built it up, so there are guys that I still have from when I was 15, so that’s kind of cool, and they’ll still want stuff.

But then I’ll put stuff together. I’ll think of ideas, like this Jackie Robinson idea* (the 70th anniversary of his joining the Montreal Royals in 1946, a season before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers).

 

firentino.history.on.deck.JACKIE

Jackie Robinson (30) is seen on deck, waiting to bat for the Montreal Royals in his pro baseball debut in April 1946. JAMES FIORENTINO

Fiorentiono.jackie

Montreal Royals player Jackie Robinson crosses home plate after hitting a home run and shakes George “Shotgun” Shuba’s hand in Jersey City, New Jersey, in April 1946. Shuba later became Robinson’s teammate on the Brooklyn Dodgers. JAMES FIORENTINO

This summer for the first time in a while, I’ll be publicly out at the National Sports Collectors Convention (in August in Atlantic City, New Jersey) … and get an opportunity to meet a lot of guys that collect my work and meet new people. So that’s kind of a nice way to see new clients. So it’s kind of a little of both.

A lot of people come to the website. A lot of people email me, and then obviously old clients, but then I’m still pursuing new people, which is nice.

Describing the upcoming NSCC, now in its 37th annual convention, Fiorentino raved about the sheer volume of items that will be on display. “It is literally I fee like miles and miles, probably a couple thousand dealers, I think. It’s all from sports memorabilia and cards to auction houses, to trading card companies, over 60 athletes, which are Hall of Famers from every sport. So it’s a really cool show and it’s tens and tens of thousands of people. I’ll have a booth there with my artwork, showcasing stuff. The National is such a good (event) that I’ll even end up walking around more than even sitting there.”

*Before his April 20 show in Jersey City, New Jersey to commemorate Jackie Robinson’s first professional hit at Roosevelt Stadium, I asked Fiorentino what he had planned for that event.

This is nice where I had an opportunity to paint a couple pieces, so that’s the 70th anniversary of Jackie’s first hit as a pro. He got the home run in the second at-bat against the Jersey City Giants. I met with the city council and we’re doing this really cool show that will be up for a month. The opening’s April 20th and the mayor of Jersey City (Steve Fulop) will be there along with other special guests to speak about that day, one of which is my friend Ed Lucas, a really great guy. A blind baseball reporter. … So we sort of have a little interaction of guys to talk about Jackie and the field, which has been torn down now, and my artwork will be, I’m going to say, around 20 pieces, primarily New York-related baseball guys from going back to the Brooklyn Dodgers and obviously the Yankees and Mets and what we’ll do is well have the paintings up for a month. And then the paintings I did specifically for the show, I have painted three Jackie Robinsons: a portrait of him on the Dodgers and the other two are of him as a Montreal Royal. And one specifically is a famous shot of him coming home when he hit that home run in Jersey City at Roosevelt Stadium. It was kind of cool to have done that one.

Speaking to Fiorentino recently, George “Shotgun” Shuba’s son had this to say about the historic moment, according to Fiorentino: “George is not recognized properly — that in the home run that Jackie hit when he came home both players on base went back to the dugout and the third-base coach turned his back, so the only person to greet Jackie at home was George.” Fiorentino told this reporter that the scene was “an amazing moment in history.”

fiorentino.yankee.stadium

Yankee Stadium/JAMES FIORENTINO

Did you look at old historical film reels or pictures from books to figure out how you wanted to recapture that event?

Yeah, I get to research this stuff. So whether it’s through the Baseball Hall of Fame Library or photo houses, I found a wider image, where you see more of the stadium. … I talked to guys who had been there. So you kind of get that historical accuracy and feel for it.

Even since I was like 12, 13, I love history so maybe that’s probably why. I was just fascinated by (Joe) DiMaggio and all these guys I didn’t see before. So when I found out last year that this year was going to be the 70th anniversary, I was thinking, my God, I didn’t even realize that Jackie was here and played in New Jersey, and hit a home run and came to find out that the Dodgers played 15 regular-season games at that field. So it was kind of cool to find all that out and incorporate a baseball art show with it. We are raising some money, I think, for the Little League of New Jersey. So it’s kind of a nice all-around feel to it.

Do you have a certain type of music you listen to while you paint … a certain kind of music that relaxes you or puts you in the frame of mind you want to be in to be productive?

I don’t really listen to much music when I paint like I used to when I was in college. Mainly, I listen to Howard Stern in the morning, and then after I hear that I watch a lot of “SportsCenter,” and I watch “First Take,” and I’m listening, and then obviously when baseball season comes on I’m such a baseball fan that I’ll actually watch spring training games…

Back to the process of creating your paintings, are you a guy that outlines a lot of stuff on paper, like the idea, the theme, the characteristics or things you might want to show or describe? And do you also collect a lot of photos of things maybe related to that type of project that you think will help you with your research to come up with the basic idea?

Yeah, more for my wildlife artwork or landscape scenes I would do more types of sketches. For a lot of the sports stuff, because you have to be so historically accurate, I have a real extensive collection of books, images, ball images, catalogues, and obviously today with the Internet you can pretty much find really interesting pictures.

For instance?

He spoke about a painting he came across of Jackie Robinson on deck when he played for the Montreal Royals.

I don’t even know where the heck this is. It’s almost like a barnstorming-looking type of town, it’s just so cool-looking. You know, I love painting these images of black and white water color. And so I’ll look through a lot of images and sort of find what I like as a collector and what I find interesting as a baseball enthusiast.

For example, we’ll look at Jackie Robinson and I’ll have maybe 20, 30 shots of Jackie Robinson here I’ve collected over the years and I kind of find out what makes sense, what looks good.

Fiorentino.portrait

James Fiorentino at his home studio in Flemington, New Jersey.

 

So being a collector but also a connoisseur of art kind of helps?

Yeah, I guess the nice combination of probably why this all came together was the fact that I’ve always been painting since I was little. As an artist, it’s always was in me. I painted every day … others sports and baseball. And so, all of a sudden, I’m sitting there doing all these paintings and actually I remember people telling me — I’d show my art work at shows when I was younger — keep painting landscapes and flowers.

I’d paint little images of Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly and sell them for 10 bucks and they’d say stop doing this. I would tell ’em I love painting baseball guys.

When I was 14, that’s when I had that DiMaggio painting at a show. And then when I was 15, I was, like, wow, this is definitely so cool that so many people are seeing my work, and basically why I just kept continuing to do it.

* * *

What impressed you about Norman Rockwell’s overall body of work? As a fellow artist, what would you say about his legacy?

Well, he was definitely very prolific. The guy who painted that long and all those covers and in the national spotlight and just how incredible he was and recognized he was, and obviously all that he could do. I think obviously he was one of those guys that when he was gone now they recognize him as a master. When he was painting he was nothing but like an illustrator. Now he’s a museum-quality master, which I believe everything from portraits in sports to everything. He was just tremendous. I always loved him as a kid, and I love every art from comic-book art to Italian Renaissance to modern art to a guy like Rockwell. I really feel like a guy like Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) is one of my big influences in my wildlife work and landscapes…

Fiorentino told me he recalled taking a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in upstate New York, when he was 10 or 12 and visiting an art gallery there had a Rockwell original. “It just blew me away, and I remember saying, oh my God, imagine if I could got my artwork here some day, and a couple years later I had a painting in there.”

* * *

If they were alive and working today in this age of the Internet and social media, how do you feel like the public would perceive artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and how they would talk about them and dissect their work?

I guess that’s like anything. We sort of live in a new world today, like you were mentioning with everything being so quick. I don’t know.

You could attribute that to anything, even like sports. How would Babe Ruth be perceived today? How would Michelangelo be (viewed)? I don’t know. … In art you have to be great at it, but you also have to be great at selling it and people have to like you. It’s important that all that kind of comes together.

Art no matter what will always be subjective. It will always be someone’s opinion. Not everyone’s going to love it. There are people who wants wildlife or portraits done could care less about baseball, and guys who love baseball could care less about other stuff that I paint. So it’s really what someone enjoys and likes.

I’ve always seen the beauty of, like, a Michelangelo’s as much as a Rockwell or any of these guys. It’s incredible.

But in today’s day and age … I’m more old school. But I primarily just do that for my business.

For your work, how valuable a tool is your personal website?

There’s no question that having a website (helps). Before you would literally have to mail your stuff out or be at somewhere where your clients would be. Today, they can just Google (my name and business). Like I had someone interview me about a month or so ago, an Italian production company, where it would mainly be shown in Rome. And I said, how the heck did you guys find me? (He was told), oh we just Googled (you).

We’re so connected now. You’re in Japan. It’s just amazing. So I think that’s just made it easier for business for people to see your stuff, and also that creates a lot more competition. There’s a lot more guys doing it now.

Is LeRoy Neiman one of your artistic heroes?

Absolutely.

I had the opportunity to meet him three times at least. One time at a lunch at New York City with only a few of us, which was amazing. I went up to him and he said, “James, I admire your work.” …

He was definitely one of the most well-known sports artists, that’s for sure.

Was that because the paintings were so realistic? Did he bring the action to life on the canvas?

I think his thing was just like anything else, at the right place at the right time and created a new style of work that nobody had ever seen before, and he got his start doing artwork in Playboy with Hugh Hefner, and just got a name for himself in that and kind of making sport an art form, which a lot of guys weren’t doing yet. So he started making it collectible, interesting and different.

Are there one, two or three painters who are brilliant but overlooked these days?

I’ll give you the name of a friend of mine, an named Benjamin Blackburn*, who does sculptures, bat sculptures, wood sculptures of ballplayers and stuff. He does amazing artwork, and he’s had his stuff in museums and galleries. But I know he’s maybe not going to be as maybe seen as much as my work; it’s just a different medium, but just incredible baseball stuff. …And there is so much competition now with so many guys painting,which I guess is a good thing. I bet at The National I will see a lot of younger guys doing it … and I love meeting these guys and talking to people

*http://baseballart.com/sculptor-benjamin-blackburn-carving-name-for-himself-as-top-baseball-artist/
* * *

How would you describe your friendship and relationship with baseball icon Yogi Berra (who passed away in September at age 90)? And maybe it changed, though, from when you first met him as a teenager to his final years.

I guess it all goes back to when I first met him, which I think was around 15, and I went to a baseball card show and he was doing an autograph signing, and I had him sign probably the first original I had done of him, this portrait of him. He loved it.

I think all these guys really liked it when I was so young, too, painting them and seeing my age. And so I said to Yogi, and I think my mom was there, “I’d love for you to sign if we make prints of these. Would you sign them?” I had never made a print before of anything and he said, “yeah, you know, no problem. How ’bout you come to my house?”

I mean, what guy would do that?

Fiorentino.Berra.photo.age15

As a teenager, James Fiorentino met Yogi Berra.

So we made the prints up and went over to his house in Montclair (New Jersey), and I’m living in New Jersey so it wasn’t that far of a ride, maybe like an hour ride, and (then) we’re sitting in Yogi’s living room, and he’s signing all these things for me, telling me how much I loved it and actually showed me an original art of LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012; leroyneiman.com). And he was really proud to have that hanging in the house.

So that’s when I first met him and then I must have been asked by someone, I don’t remember who, it could’ve even been Ed Lucas when I first him, but I started doing artwork for his golf outing, which was to help the Cub Scouts. And so he would see me every year, a a couple times a year, and he got to know me as a kid, and I would do these originals and donate them.

I had told people there was one time, and you forget about all this stuff, and I was sketching him on one of the holes (during the golf fundraiser) and he hit a hole-in-one. And when we had our show at Yogi Berra’s Museum, the second show I’ve ever had there which was last year, I asked his son and he said that was the only hole-in-one he ever had. So I just remember being there for that….

But I would see him all the time at Yankee Stadium on the field and at other events. He was always good to me. I’d have him sign some stuff before he passed away maybe three or four year ago for my kids. I wanted them to have something from him, and how nice he was to me. The museum’s incredible.

I don’t think people realize how great this guy was as a player. Sometimes when they’re gone, it’s like, wow, this guy was a legend. The guy’s statistics, all the World Series he won (10 times), the fact that he was in D-Day . An incredible life.

fiorentino.mike.trout

Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout/JAMES FIORENTINO

Do you feel privileged that you had the opportunity to interact with Yogi so much and create all this art of him?

Yeah, I really do. I guess I kind of take things for granted, but I’m very humble about it. I’ve been doing it all my life and I never really think about it. I think sometimes now looking back on 20 years, it’s like, wow, doing all this for Ted Williams and (Phil) Rizzuto and all these guys and Yogi and just to have that opportunity and meeting (Mickey) Mantle, it was amazing. And you’ll never get that back. When you think of all that kind of stuff, it is pretty cool and it just goes back to me having a love for history and baseball and I certainly love the current players but I was so into the older guys.

Do you think Yogi helped you gain greater insight into older baseball fraternity ?

Yeah, a little bit. I think Yogi was kind of one of those guys I didn’t have long, long conversations with him. Some of the other players I would have longer conversations with. It depended what I was doing. When I was doing the artwork for the Ted Williams Museum, I remember having long conversations with Bobby Doerr and George Kell and we would talk all about baseball and they would ask me about playing baseball — at that point I was playing in high school. …

Ralph Kiner was also talking a lot about baseball, and actually Ralph was amazing, talking all about Rockwell. He had a Norman Rockwell original.

I’ve had so many  unbelievable conversations with a lot of the old-time players, even a guy like (pitcher) Mickey McDermott, who became a friend.

So that interaction has been really neat.

To some people, Yogi Berra was like a cartoon character because of his funny saying and mannerisms, but how do you prefer to describe him and characterize him as a person, athlete and individual who had a great life?

He had an incredible life. He obviously wasn’t born with the perfect athletic body, but was an incredible player. He could hit. He was hitting pitches all over the place. He worked hard. Just a great winner. Obviously he went into coaching. A great leader. He really did care about people … about the game … about the players, the Jeters and Posadas (Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada) and all their teammates, and helping out at the museum. …

But I think if you look at him you say, How the hell is a guy like this hitting? Which probably makes it more amazing.

In 2015, was it a real thrill to have a show at his museum?

Fiorentino explained that the 2015 show at the Yogi Berra Museum was “a collage of his life.”

It was a really neat show celebrating Yogi’s life, and we had Roy White there, for example. And to have it so soon after he passed away was very meaningful, and his son, Larry, was there, which was really nice. And it’s always nice to get compliments from them: saying “Oh James, we’ve seen your work before and this came out beautiful. Or I remember this day.” Or just personal stuff from the artwork I’ve done.

fiorentino.ripken.2131

Commemorating Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr.’s record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game and Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, who held the old record of 2,130 games. JAMES FIORENTINO

Fiorentino remembered having three exhibits at the Yogi Berra Museum , which opened in 1998, over the years. The first time featured a Latino sports art show. At the second show, he had a solo exhibition, and Yogi attended the opening. “It was funny. He was hiding in the back,” Fiorentino recalled. “I said, ‘Yogi, you’ve got to come out.’ And he finally came out and saw a couple people…” 

* * *

For some of the historical painting projects that you’ve done, where and how did you paint former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as Gorbachev and Desmond Tutu, the South African civil rights activist and now-retired Anglican bishop?

The Gorbachev and Tutu (art) were all painted when I lived with my family, because that goes back to 2001. I was at home with the parents after college, and that was for a charity event in West Palm Beach, Florida. So they were auctioning off the originals and it was pretty amazing. I remember sitting in (Donald) Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for lunch and all of a sudden, there’s maybe only 30 people in there, Gorbachev’s there and Desmond Tutu’s introducing himself to me, and that kind of stuff is more amazing to me. I’m so used to meeting all the athletes that meeting these political, historical people is amazing.

(Former astronaut) Buzz Aldrin, I met him here in New Jersey, and I’d done that painting in my studio. I had an opportunity to talk to him for a while actually. He was talking all about my watercolors. He couldn’t believe it was watercolors. …

Congressman John Lewis, we presented a painting I did of him many years ago at his office in (Washington) D.C. It was the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, so to meet him there. I brought my whole family and my two little boys, because one day I can say you were in his office.

He had pictures with all these different presidents around and I remember he had a baseball card framed with like 12 Negro League and famous African-American ballplayers there. The history in that room (was special). So that kind of stuff to me is really amazing and cool to do.

Did Bush, Clinton, Gorbachev, Tutu and other political figures make any memorable remarks about how you portrayed them in your paintings?

Through an interpreter, Gorbachev just told me how much it looked like him.

Tutu came up and introduced himself, and he was really gracious.

John Lewis was so excited that I did this artwork of him. He was so pleased, he couldn’t wait to hang it up. He invited us to come back for lunch. (The painting) hangs in his office in Washington.

* * *
Revealing insight

When Sports Collectors Digest once asked Fiorentino to explain “what sets his art apart,” he responded by saying, “I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I’m in a great area — to be an artist in this tri-state area with great teams. There are a lot of people who collect and want to buy art. I paint in water color and my water color is very tight and realistic. It looks like oil or acrylic. When artists, professors and professionals see it, they can’t believe it’s water color. So I think there’s something in my painting because of the way I paint with water color. There’s also a lot of emotion, a lot of spirit in my paintings. I think just my passion and my love for sports, my passion and my love for baseball comes out in my pieces. I’m glad that other people really love it.”

Recommended reading: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/10/nyregion/artistic-shortstop-makes-hall-of-fame-with-brush-not-bat.html

 

 

 

Catching up with … Javier Morales

Me

Javier Morales

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 7, 2016) — Though he’s been out of the newspaper business for many years now, Javier Morales maintains the curiosity of a newshound and a real appreciation for the facts and figures and personalities and history that are essential to the craft.

These days, Morales operates ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com, a website that gives him a chance to showcase his knowledge of and deep passion for sports in his hometown.

Morales, The Arizona Daily Star’s men’s basketball beat writer during the University of Arizona’s 1996-97 NCAA championship season,  focuses on coverage of the UofA’s sports teams and the Pac-12 Conference. But his website provides a broader mix of coverage, including high school sports.

In a recent interview, Morales offers detailed insights about his website and how he runs the operation, plus perspectives on former University of Arizona sports personalities such as Steve Kerr, Jason Terry, Lute Olson, Luke Walton and Chuck Cecil, newspaper mentors and former colleagues and his love of the written word, among other topics.

***

Can you define the mission of ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com and why it was started?

The mission of the website is to provide a voice for youth sports at all levels in Tucson as well as professional insight into University of Arizona athletics with my knowledge going back almost 40 years.

With the afternoon newspaper, the Tucson Citizen, going under in both print and online, I believed it was imperative to provide as many opportunities for readers in Southern Arizona to learn more of what is developing around them in terms of athletics in the city. The more reports, the better, to allow the readers there in my hometown to become better educated of what’s going on.

What have been some of the website’s most popular articles to date? What have been, in your view, some of the key success stories of the site since it was launched? 

Some of the more popular articles are the all-region teams compiled by my brother Andy Morales from votes of local high school coaches for various sports. We have also learned that readers love the compiling of our top 10 badasses in the history of Arizona football along with articles that list what former Arizona athletes are now up to, such as where they are coaching and where they are working as broadcasters. A very popular article was our compilation of male and female athletes at Arizona who became married after meeting during their time as competitors at the university. We always try to provide stories that our off the beaten path in order to generate interest both in our Web site and what’s happening at Arizona. People also like read our segments on social media reactions with the posting of tweets from athletes or members of the media pertaining to a specific event.

What do you most enjoy about running this website? What has been the most frustrating aspect of the ongoing project?

What I enjoy most is the creative aspect. Not only do I write blogs but I work on coding and designing some of the elements of the site. I would like to see it grow to where we have a solid group of writers contributing. We have been fortunate to have some here and there but nobody other than my brother has continued for an extended period of time. That’s the most frustrating is that we know we can be that much more impactful in the community with more voices. I believe that will come in time. Because the site is not a money-making site, I must work a regular job full-time which takes me away from concentrating 100 percent on the development of the site to make it more attractive for writers to come on board. We also cannot offer salaries to writers without advertising dollars. In order to reach that level, I need to devote much more time on the project but have not been able to do that nearly as much as I want.

Would you say your writing style for the website is quite similar to when you covered University of Arizona sports teams, or have you developed a distinct style of writing for an online audience?

I believe my writing is less of a reporting style such as it was when I worked at The Arizona Daily Star. It is much more opinion based with more of a feature style to the stories because it is a blog. While we would like to break stories at the site, we are not bent on that because of the unavailability of working on the site at all hours. Most of my writing is based on analysis and from a historical perspective. My brother offers features and roundups of high school athletes that are welcomed by their parents and coaches. He does not write with a negative slant at all because that is not necessary at our site, especially with kids 17 years and younger. He prides himself about not writing who committed an error in a baseball game, for example, just about why a team was able to win. Parents and coaches respect that a great deal.

With the success of the Arizona Wildcats under Sean Miller, do you consider this a second golden era of Wildcats basketball? Do you think the Wildcats fan base and Tucson have the same affection for him as Lute Olson?

They do not have the same affection for Miller that they had with Olson but they respect the way he is able to bring talent to Tucson to carry on the tradition of turning out NBA-level players. Miller will not enter the same realm of Olson until he coaches the Wildcats to the Final Four. He has come so close three times now in the Elite Eight with two of the three losses (to UConn in 2011 and Wisconsin in 2014) coming down to the last play. Arizona is at a high level again because of Miller, reaching No. 1 for eight weeks two seasons ago during a 21-0 start, but it will not reach golden era status until it gets to a Final Four again in my opinion. That might be an unfair opinion but that’s what happens with Olson setting the bar so high with four Final Four appearances, twice making the national title game. That combined with his ability to develop quality character guys sets the standard by which Miller must live by. Miller has it in him to continue challenging himself to reach that level. He is certainly right on the cusp.

What’s a typical week during college football season and basketball season for the website’s writing, editing and publishing schedule? And how does it differ from the demands of a daily newspaper?

The typical week during the college football season is writing blogs about that game through Thursday and offering an “off the beaten path” feature on Fridays before the game. In that blog are notes about that game that includes information that is not the standard preview fare. They are opinion notes, rankings and historical observations pertaining to that week’s matchup. We get great feedback from that blog especially with the Wilbur the Wildcat drawings our professional artist named Michael Hanaoka provides.

Since there are so many basketball games during various weeks, we offer analysis after every game with a breakdown of stats instead of game stories. We run what’s called a “Productivity Report” that has gained some interest from readers. It ranks the player by their overall production factoring positive stats (scoring, rebounding, assists, etc.) against negative stats (turnovers, fouls, etc.) divided by minutes played. How all of this differs from the demands of a daily newspaper is the lack of strict deadlines, especially after late games. Because most of my pieces are analytical I avoid play-by-play, which people won’t read the next day. They want perspective and analysis of where Arizona is headed not about who scored a touchdown or who made a basket as a specific time.

Regarding your previously named website, WildAboutAZCats.com, was it simply a practical move to have a different name? Or is it a completely different website, because of the expanded focus to include high schools, too?

It was a practical move because of my brother’s work covering high school sports diligently. He came on board at the beginning of 2014 because Gannett pulled the plug on TucsonCitizen.com. Andy was popular offering that Web site what he is doing now for AllSportsTucson.com. When the Citizen site went under, I asked him if he still wanted to publish his material (stories and professional quality photos) at my site. When he joined me, we realized we needed a different name. We came up with All Sports Tucson because that appropriately describes what is written about at our site.

Because you are based in Nevada, are you able to get to a number of Wildcats football and basketball games to enhance your reporting? Or is your primary way of gathering info for news via mass media and team and Pac-12 sports information directors (SIDs)? Do you participate in the teleconference calls throughout the season?

I follow the region religiously through media reports and tracking social media. I watch as many games as possible. I also keep in contact with media who cover Arizona. A few times a year I also travel to Tucson and visit the campus. Whenever a sporting event occurs in Las Vegas, I am there, especially the Pac-12 tournament. I do not interact with SIDs as much as I would like although I know individuals who work at the Arizona schools who from time to time provide information. But I would say most of my information gathering is from watching a lot of the games and reading as much as possible.

When the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 in 2011 did you embrace the idea or find yourselves thinking the conference had gotten too big for its own good? And has your view changed since the change was made?

I embraced the change because that’s the way of college athletics and the conference can’t be left behind. We see that now from the Big 12 that has only 10 teams. The conference needs more teams to have a conference championship game in football to have a better opportunity to land a team in the college football playoffs. I actually think the Power 5 should be structured as its own entity playing for a national title with balanced schedules devised as we see in the NFL to make it a more even, fair playing field.

What sparked your interest in becoming a sports writer growing up in Tucson? And are there a few special memories and mentors that stand out above the rest?

What sparked my interest was following the Arizona athletic programs so closely from when I was in grade school. Back then, the Internet did not exist, neither did cable TV or ESPN. The main outlet for information was the newspaper. I remember looking forward to reading about the developments daily when I was old enough to comprehend what was going on. I remember clipping the front page of the Arizona Daily Star sports section the day after an Arizona football game and posting it on my wall like a poster. I am very appreciative of that experience because I realize things are a lot different now. I have always looked up to local sports journalists such as Jack Magruder, Bob Moran (rest his soul) and Greg Hansen. Their stories and style of writing interested me into becoming a sportswriter at a very young age.

Who are a few of your favorite sports scribes in the business today? Can you give a basic rundown on why you like/admire their work?

Some of my favorites are those I know personally such as Greg, Jack, Anthony Gimino (TucsonNewsNow), Steve Rivera (GOAZCATS.com) and Jon Wilner (San Jose Mercury News). I make it a point to read their work because I am so familiar with their talents as sportswriters. Greg is a veteran who knows his stuff and he does not hold back in many cases to let his opinion be know. Jack is a workhorse who is knowledgeable about his beat. Nothing gets past him. Anthony does so many things covering Arizona athletics and working annually on the Lindy’s college football annual. Steve has more than two decades of experience with Arizona hoops and has established meaningful relationships with Lute Olson and players over the years that has parlayed into memorable stories for his many books about the program. Jon deserves more notoriety nationally for his in-depth coverage and analysis of the Pac-12.He is another tireless worker who covers all of the bases with his information.

And as a news consumer who are a few must-read journalists nowadays for you, especially for Pac-12 insights? How about must-read websites and publications that fit that description?

Some of the more obvious must-read journalists are those who cover college basketball so closely such as Jeff Goodman of ESPN. The same goes for Dennis Dodd with college football at CBS. Rick Reilly as a national sports columnist is a joy to read. He keeps things fun and interesting to read. For Pac-12 insights, Wilner is a must to read as are all of the beat reporters for the publications through the conference. I read most of them throughout the year. Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic is one of the best covering Arizona State and the Pac-12. He is very informative and never disappoints.

Since he’s had a little over a year now on the job now, what’s your impression of the impact men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley, the former Duke Blue Devil, has made at ASU? Is he a good fit for the program, the university and the Valley of the Sun?

I think it’s the best hire ASU could have made all things considered. He has a basketball name from one of the best programs in the country. His name transcends the Pac-12. He is known. That can only help ASU’s image, which is lacking on a national scope. My only concern – and I’m sure it’s shared by many at ASU – is that Hurley will leave for a higher profile job once he makes the Sun Devils successful. Because of his East Coast background, the odds of that happening are greater than him staying at ASU for five-plus years.

How vital has your former Daily Star colleague Greg Hansen’s body of work been over the years in chronicling the history of Tucson and Southern Arizona sports?

Very vital. He is synonymous with Tucson-area sports and the University of Arizona. He was one of my mentors at the Star along with Magruder and Moran. The Sunday notes column has become legendary in Tucson, especially among those who follow the Wildcats and sports in general in the city. He knows how to piece together a story or column to make it interesting no matter the topic.

Over the years, what are five favorite UofA football games or moments you’ve witnessed? What made them especially significant to you?

Arizona’s win over ASU in 2014 to clinch the Pac-12 South was special because the Wildcats have rarely experienced that kind of success. The 1986 game against the Sun Devils was the loudest I’ve ever heard Arizona Stadium, especially when Chuck Cecil made the 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. Arizona’s shellacking of Miami in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl is even more impressive today because looking back the Hurricanes had Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. One of my favorites is the 1982 victory over ASU in Tucson, a game in which the Wildcats eliminated ASU from the Rose Bowl and started the streak. That game had two long touchdown passes thrown by Tom Tunicliffe and the Wildcats also did the unthinkable with two safeties in the game. The game at ASU in 1985 when Max Zendejas kicked a 57-yarder and 33-yarder in the fourth quarter to eliminate the Sun Devils again from the Rose Bowl was also special.

For Wildcats basketball, what are five favorite hoops games or moments you’ve witnessed? What made them especially significant to you?

I always look back fondly at the “McClutch” game in which Craig McMillan took a length-of-the-court pass from Steve Kerr and made the game-winning basket at the buzzer. The pass bounced off the hands of a couple of players into the direction of McMillan, who was in stride toward the basket. That was one of the few times fans rushed the court at McKale. The Arizona-ASU games during the Fred Snowden-Ned Wulk games were always intense and a must to watch. The double-overtime win over Gonzaga in the 2003 NCAA tournament is a wild game people will talk about forever. (In 1997), Arizona’s overtime victory over Kentucky of course was historic and one of the most significant in the program’s history, but to me, the biggest win was that over No. 1-seed Kansas in the Sweet 16 that season. The Jayhawks had only one loss all season entering the game while the Wildcats had nine and Olson’s team managed the upset on its way to a national title.

Which athletes and coaches from both teams make any top-10 players/coaches list you’d make for best interviewees?

The best interviewee in my time without a doubt is Jason Terry. Very personable guy. Says what’s on his mind. He is also very respectful. Another is Steve Kerr. One time at the NBA Summer League I approached Kerr for an interview during a game in the stands when he was the Suns’ GM. I did so because I was afraid he’d leave right after the game and I’d miss him. He was so cordial with me and answered every question. Most of Arizona’s players have been great to deal with such as A.J. Bramlett, Bennett Davison, Gene Edgerson, Josh Pastner, Richard Jefferson, Jason Gardner, Luke Walton, Damon Stoudamire and Reggie Geary. The list goes on and on. I have not had too many opportunities to go one-on-one with Sean Elliott but I know he is a class act, also. In terms of other programs, I enjoyed interviewing the late Pat Tillman when he was with the Arizona Cardinals. I asked him about his thoughts of Chuck Cecil (a hard-tackling walk-on who made it big like Tillman) and Tillman was very complimentary of Cecil. Tillman was very sincere but always open to talk with reporters.

What are your general thoughts on Luke Walton, who served as an assistant for Kerr on Golden State, being hired as the new bench boss by the Lakers?

(It’s) a great transition for him and acquisition by Los Angeles. It will be interesting next season when Golden State faces Los Angeles. Who will Lute Olson cheer for? Lute may have that same struggle this season if the Warriors face the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. He would have to choose from Kerr, Walton, Bruce Fraser and Andre Iguodala with Cavs assistant Bret Brielmaier, Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson.

Looking back to the fall, in addition to the Warriors’ remarkable talent, what character traits helped Walton make a seemingly seamless transition to interim bench boss in Kerr’s absence?

I believe Luke’s even-keel personality helped a lot. He was not overbearing. He was not a pushover either. He kept things on course and didn’t stray from who he is, which was the most important element of the Warriors staying focused for a record 24-0 start.

***

What prompted you to write “The Highest Form of Living?” Was the idea for the book, published in 2014, something you had in the back of your mind for a long time? Is it based on something you observed or experienced? Is it more fiction than nonfiction?

I love writing. I love sports. I am fascinated by war stories and the heroic developments of our soldiers throughout the years. I am especially interested in those soldiers who never made it home. I recall visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when I lived near D.C. for four years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was touched by how we don’t know of these fallen heroes but we know of what they meant to our freedom. The book is more fiction but it has very real elements dealing with a kid without his father, a lost prison of war, and how sports can lift somebody up from the depths of their life.

Is it your first book? 

It is my first book and it is only available through Amazon. I hope to work on more, fiction and non-fiction. I am so into history. I’d love to piece together something sports related from a historical perspective.

What kind of feedback have you received about it? 

Only positive. People have told me they love the positive message delivered. I wish it sold more especially at only $4.99. Last Christmas was the one-year anniversary of the book getting published. I donated the few dollars I made off the book to the Wounded Warrior Project. I would love to keep making donations off the book’s sales to that organization because that subject ties into the book.

Book info: https://www.amazon.com/Highest-Form-Living-Javier-Morales-ebook/dp/B00RF8QTLY?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Shifting the conversation back to your website … Is your website accurately described as a (modest) money-making venture or a labor of love? Or both?

Very much so a labor of love. My brother and I do not make money off the website itself. It’s more of a vehicle to tell stories about Tucson-area sports. Any notoriety we get off those stories is great, but that’s not our focus. I am not blind to realize journalism in most cases is not for one who wants riches in terms of money. Being creative and able to touch lives through the written words means a heck of a lot more.

***

Follow Javier Morales on Twitter: @JavierJMorales