Andrew Maraniss reflects on an eight-year labor of love (writing a biography about SEC basketball pioneer Perry Wallace)

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Photos courtesy of Andrew Maraniss

 

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Andrew Maraniss

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (March 11, 2018) — Fifty years after Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Major League Baseball honored the historic day in American history on April 15, 1997. It’s one of my all-time favorite days in sports history, even if the Hall of Famer wasn’t alive to observe this special day.

Since then, Robinson’s legacy as the man who broke MLB’s color barrier continues to be honored and discussed.

Other sports figures, of course, helped pave the way for the racial integration of college and pro sports in the United States. One of the most important individuals was former Vanderbilt University basketball player Perry Wallace, who was the first black to compete on a Southeastern Conference basketball court. The native of Nashville, Tennessee, did so from 1967-70. (In 2004, his No. 25 jersey was retired by Vandy.)

In a recent interview, Andrew Maraniss, author of a fascinating and important biography, “Strong Inside,” on Wallace looks back on the project, provides great insights on Wallance’s remarkable life and the strength of his character and deep moral convictions.

Maraniss exhibited admirable dedication and persistence in completing the project. It took him eight years to research and write his first book. By doing so, he joined his father, legendary journalist and biographer David Maraniss, as a published author.

Wallace passed away on Dec. 1, 2017. He was 69.

Maraniss delivered the eulogy for his friend, hero and mentor in February.

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In his life, Wallace shattered stereotypes about ex-athletes. For the U.S. Department of Justice, Wallace worked as a trial attorney, and became a law professor at American University. Maraniss’ book captures the essence of Wallace’s life and offers insights about his intelligence, courage and common decency, among other attributes.

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Above all, how has Perry Wallace shaped your outlook on life?

I knew Perry for nearly 30 years and he changed my life in so many ways it is impossible to list them all. He was like a combination of a mentor, brother, father, and favorite professor, not to mention the subject of my book. He was a remarkable person whether or not he ever made history as a sports pioneer. That’s been one of the challenges of explaining STRONG INSIDE to people. The quickest and easiest way to describe it is that it’s a biography of the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. Ho hum. But Perry was so much more than that. He was the kind of person who quoted Othello when making a point. He sang opera. He spoke multiple languages, including fluent French. He was the rare law school professor who had been drafted by an NBA team. He loved martial arts. He had witnessed the lunch-counter sit-ins first-hand as a 12-year-old kid in Nashville. He met and spoke with civil rights figures in the ’60s such as Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert F. Kennedy. He served in the National Guard and was an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department. He was the first black basketball player ever to play at Ole Miss or Mississippi State, tremendously dangerous places to be in 1967. He had uncommon wisdom on race, racism, and race relations. He also had great advice on fatherhood. He turned down scholarship offers to colleges that offered him cash and cars and told him he didn’t have to go to class. He traveled to Nigeria to help save the life of a woman sentenced to death. He testified before the United Nations. He could throw down a reverse slam dunk and jump so high he could pick up a quarter off the top of the backboard. His last words to me were to look for ways to create opportunities for women. Think about all this. One man! It’s incredible. In every possible way, he was an inspiration. As one of his law school colleagues at American University said, he was the best in all of us, the best side of any one of us, our best selves. The rest of us fall so far short, but Perry was the real deal.

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Perry Wallace and Andrew Maraniss

How significant, or perhaps how touching is it for you that iconic journalist Bob Woodward delivered the following message about your book?: “In a magnificently reported, nuanced but raw account of basketball and racism in the South during the 1960s, Andrew Maraniss tells the story of Perry Wallace’s struggle, loneliness, perseverance and eventual self-realization. A rare story about physical and intellectual courage that is both shocking and triumphant.”

This was indeed very touching. Mr. Woodward has been a very close friend of my parents ever since my father joined The Washington Post in the mid-1970s. I met him for the first time when I was 6 years old. I remember he was the first person to ever show me a Sony Walkman! When I put the headphones on, I was stunned nobody else could hear the music. He also brought me and my sister some 45-rpm records one time when he visited our house. I remember Safety Dance was one of the songs! So to know him as a child on top of all the respect I have for him as such a significant journalist and figure in American history, it was indeed a great honor to know that he read STRONG INSIDE and had kind things to say about it. As a first-time author, it helped develop some credibility. I also remember how great it felt when I received an email from Frank Deford with his blurb for the book. He’s not someone I had known previously. Given his stature as an iconic sports journalist, that was very meaningful to me as well.

As you make visits to schools and civic organizations to speak about your book and Wallace’s life experiences, how would you characterize the general reaction from students about your message? Have you been touched and inspired by their questions and their overall curiosity about your project and Wallace?

This has been the most amazing part of my experience as a new author, and one that I hadn’t anticipated. I really love traveling around telling Perry’s story, and it has been touching how very disparate audiences have reacted to the book. I’ve been to 19 states, and the audiences I’ve spoken to have been incredibly diverse: from civic clubs in rural Tennessee to a school for the deaf in Texas to a program for Latino and African-American high school young men in New York City to a boarding school in Chattanooga to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to a book festival in Des Moines and many, many more. I’ve spoken to four-year-old pre-school students and at retirement homes. I’ve spoken in a maximum security prison and in a few churches. The reaction has been very, very gratifying. It’s no surprise that people are drawn to Perry’s story of perseverance, grace, and wisdom. He was a very special person and people recognize and appreciate that — no matter their background. It’s not uncommon for me to see people crying. A couple of schools in Nashville have used the book for “all school read” projects. Vanderbilt has required incoming freshmen to read the book each of the last two years.

A few other things come to mind:

  • When Perry Wallace was a freshman, he began attending a white Church of Christ across the street from campus upon the recommendation of a teammate. Perry said that growing up  in Nashville, he never would have considered going to a white church, but that this was what pioneering was all about: doing things that hadn’t been done before. So he starts going, but around the fourth Sunday, some members of the church pull him aside and tell him he can’t keep coming anymore. They say older members of the church have threatened to write the church out of their wills if they allow Perry to keep attending. So he’s kicked out. Fast-forward to this year and a Church of Christ middle school in Nashville, Lipscomb Academy, selected STRONG INSIDE as it’s required read for all of its students. These are the literal and figurative descendants of the people who kicked Perry out. It was amazing to see the way these kids fell in love with Perry and embraced his story. Two of Perry’s sisters visited the school for an assembly and they received a standing ovation and a long line of hugs from the students.
  • A group of special students in Cleveland, Ohio, read STRONG INSIDE and decided to come all the way to Nashville to visit the important sites in Perry Wallace’s life. What makes this all the more remarkable is that these young people have Downs Syndrome and Asperger’s and other exceptionalities. Their teacher told me that Perry has become a real inspiration to her students, who are battling various challenges every day. When they encounter hard times, they ask themselves, “What would Perry Wallace do in this situation?” And she said they always remind themselves that what he would do is remain “strong inside.” Incredible.
  • Last year, I had a chance to meet all the first-year international students at Vanderbilt the night before classes started. One young man from China came up to me and said that he had read STRONG INSIDE before making his decision whether to come to Vanderbilt. He said that after reading the book, he had decided that if Perry Wallace could make it at Vandy, he could, too.
  • Perry and I spoke at the Maret School in Washington, D.C. two years ago. The students there loved him. This year, I saw a girl on campus wearing a Maret T-shirt. I asked her about it and she said that she was a freshman and that after hearing Perry talk at her school, she was inspired to apply to Vanderbilt.
  • I spoke to a third-grade class in Nashville yesterday. It was “Super Hero Day” and all the kids were dressed up in cute costumes. One little girl was dressed up like a pilot, but she told me she had read STRONG INSIDE 10 times and that Perry was her hero.

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Originally, did you have the intention of making a Young Readers edition of Strong Inside? If so, why was that an important goal after the first version of the book was produced? If not, what prompted you to make the new adaptation of it in 2017?

I didn’t have that vision when I wrote the original edition of STRONG INSIDE. It was not something that had ever occurred to me over the entire eight years I spent working on the book. I have two amazing women in Nashville to thank for the inspiration to do it. One is Ann Neely, a highly regarded professor of children’s literature at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody School of Education. Ann is someone I’ve known for more than 20 years, dating back to the time I was the sports information director for the Vanderbilt basketball team and she ran the academic center in the athletic department. After STRONG INSIDE came out, she suggested it would make a great story for young people. Then there was Ruta Sepetys, a best-selling author of historical fiction for Young Adults. Ruta was sitting in a coffee shop in Nashville doing a newspaper interview to discuss her book “Salt to the Sea” when the reporter, Keith Ryan Cartwright, introduced the two of us. Ruta is not only a fantastic writer, she’s the nicest person in the world. She interrupted her interview to talk to me for 15 minutes about my book, and by the end of the conversation she had offered to send a copy of STRONG INSIDE to her publisher along with her endorsement. Within just a few weeks, I heard back from the editor at Philomel (Penguin Young Readers Group) saying he wanted to adapt the book.

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Andrew Maraniss is making the rounds speaking about Perry Wallace, the profound impact Wallace made on his life, and the book they collaborated on.

An eight-year project from start to finish shows discipline and dedication and persistence. Were there times during that period that you honestly thought you wouldn’t finish writing Strong Inside? Are there a few voices of inspiration you’d like to mention who kept you focused and striving to get it done during those years?

I was fortunate to be very naïve about the process of writing a book when I got started. Ignorance was bliss! I had no idea when I got started in 2006 how long it would take to complete the project, and honestly I didn’t care. Because I didn’t have an agent or a publishing deal, I wasn’t under any sort of deadline pressure. The entire time I worked on the book, it was a side project outside of a regular “day job’”at a public relations firm in Nashville. For the first four years, I didn’t write a word; it was just research and interviews. I loved that aspect of the project. I’m very happy scrolling through microfilm. This was the period, however, where the book seemed more like a dream than an actual tangible product. There would be weeks or entire months where I wouldn’t get much done. As I completed the research and began writing, the biggest mental hurdle I had to overcome was the idea of writing something so long. I’d never written anything longer than a magazine article. STRONG INSIDE turned out to be around 200,000 words. Once I had written one chapter, I just said to myself, “If I can write one, I can write two.” And then it was, “If I can write two, I can write four.” I convinced myself that all I had to do was stay disciplined and patient and eventually I would complete the book.

One of the things that kept me going was Perry Wallace; both my incredible respect for him and also just his own story of perseverance. If he could overcome all the challenges he faced in his life, there was no excuse for me to feel overwhelmed by simply trying to write a book. Beyond that, my wife, Alison, my parents, David and Linda, and my in-laws Doug and Cathy were constant sources of support.

Do you recall when you first met Perry Wallace? Where was it? Was that initial encounter significant for you in pursuing this project? Or did living in Nashville and attending Vanderbilt, being immersed in a place where his history was so alive, contribute greatly to your decision to write a book on him?

The first time I met Perry Wallace as in Atlanta at the SEC basketball tournament in 2004. But that wasn’t the first time I talked to him. My initial interest in him and the first time I spoke to him came in 1989, when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt. This also happened to be the year that he was invited back to campus for the very first time since graduating in 1970. A student a year older than me, Dave Sheinin (now an outstanding writer at The Washington Post) wrote an article about Perry for a literary magazine at Vanderbilt. He described the first game Perry ever played at Mississippi State as a freshman, and how scary that experience was in Starkville, Mississippi in 1967. As a sports nut and a history major taking a course in African-American history, I was hooked. I asked my professor, Dr. Yollette Jones, if I could write a paper about Perry. I thought she’d say no, that sports wasn’t a serious enough topic. Thankfully, she said if that’s what you’re interested in doing, go for it. Back then, of course, there was no Google or email so I found Perry in the phone book. He was a professor living in Maryland. I called him out of the blue and introduced myself and he spent two hours talking to me about his experience as a pioneer. So, I wrote my paper and Dr. Jones gave me some really nice feedback. I felt like I was on to something. The next year, I wrote another paper about Perry for a similar class. I became sports editor of the student newspaper and wrote some columns about Perry, introducing him to my generation of students.

After I graduated, my first job was as the publicist for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team. That gave me an excuse to stay in touch with Perry, nominating him for various anniversary awards. But again, that was all done over the phone.

Finally, in 2004 I was in Atlanta for the tournament just as a fan. Perry was being honored as an SEC legend that year. I was leaving the Georgia Dome one day and saw him waiting for a shuttle bus. So I went up and introduced myself. Two years later, I was standing in my future in-laws’ kitchen in Nashville. I declared that I wanted to write a book, but didn’t know what to write about. My future father-in-law said, “What about Perry Wallace? You’re always talking about him.” And that was the Eureka moment. I said, yes, that’s it, and I got started the next day.

Back to part of your question: the truth is that Perry’s story wasn’t all that alive in Nashville. As I mentioned, he graduated in 1970 and wasn’t invited back to be honored as the Jackie Robinson of the SEC until 1989. The reason for that is a story that still resonates today: essentially, he was told to “shut up and dribble,” just like the FOX talking head Laura Ingraham told LeBron James. The day after Wallace’s last game in March of 1970, he gave an interview to the local newspaper where he talked about his experience as a pioneer. It was an honest interview, and he discussed the racism and isolation he experienced on campus. He suspected that people weren’t going to want to hear this difficult truth, but he felt he had a moral obligation, as a pioneer, to tell the truth for the benefit of the people that would come behind him, and for the benefit of the university.

After the story ran, Wallace was labeled as “angry” and the university kept its distance for almost two decades. One of the most gratifying things that happened over the last decade of Wallace’s life was the complete turn-around in his relationship with Vanderbilt. The school embraced him and he welcomed that. He used to say that “reconciliation without the truth is just acting,” and he felt that this was a real reconciliation, one where the truth was accounted for and appreciated.

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Perry Wallace (No. 42, third from right in back row) and the Pearl High School basketball team.

Was he eager, excited, intrigued by your book project? Did he approach you about writing it? Did you approach him? Was it a mutual idea you both sort of came up with after being around one another for X number of hours over the years?

When I emailed Perry in 2006 to re-introduce myself and let him know that I was interested in writing a biography about him, he was very supportive. He remembered me and the paper I had written about him, and I think he also respected my father’s work at The Washington Post. I’m sure there was some doubt in Perry’s mind initially about how serious I was about this, would it really happen, etc., but he was always very, very supportive. He was the subject of the book but also a mentor to me in many ways. And even though it took me eight years to complete the project, he never became impatient. It was a wonderful experience. The bonus of it taking so long was that I got to spend so much more time talking to him. I would fly to DC to see him or he’d come to Nashville. We’d also talk on the phone, and sometimes I’d email him a set of questions and I’d be so excited to see his name in my inbox with his responses.

How instrumental has your father’s work as a prominent journalist who has reported on history and historic figures been in steering you in this path, in influencing you about how to approach this project? And was he a real critical eye in critiquing your work along the way, or more a listening board whom you bounced ideas off of to get some clarity and focus?

I grew up reading my dad’s stories in The Washington Post and also reading other great writing in that paper, so that was a huge influence in my life and my writing style, really without even being aware of it. It was more like through osmosis that I was learning how to write just by reading great writing. My dad wrote his first book after I had graduated from college. On a few of his projects, such as for his biography on Roberto Clemente and his book on the 1960 Olympics, I had the opportunity to do some research for him or conduct some interviews. Those were great learning experiences for me. Just as a reader, the types of books he writes are the kind I’m most interested in. I’m sure that’s no coincidence. Narrative non-fiction is my favorite style. I learned from him the importance of doing the real work, meaning the research and the interviews and traveling to important places in the book. He was more of a sounding board and big-picture guy when it came to my book. My mom was more active in providing line edits and that sort of thing.

What are the biggest journalism principles he bestowed upon you? Does one stand out above all the others?

Avoid clichés. Avoid unnecessary words. Do the reporting. Unpack the story. Go there (as in travel to important places in the story). Illustrate the universal through the particular. Pay attention to leads and kickers. They were all important lessons.

Since Wallace’s days as a collegiate player ended, who are a few college and pro players whose skill sets and on-court ability and impact closely mirror what he brought to Vandy?

There aren’t many 6-5 centers in college or the NBA these days! Perry was a fantastic rebounder, shot-blocker and dunker (until the dunk was banned in college basketball prior to his sophomore season). He wasn’t a great shooter, but he worked on his shooting tirelessly. By his senior season at Vanderbilt, he was the one the coach selected to shoot free throws on technical fouls, and he was very proud of that. Someone like Charles Barkley comes to mind as an undersized rebounder, but Perry was a better leaper and not quite as much of a wide-body. This is a good question and one I wish I had asked Perry – who reminds you of yourself?

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Perry Wallace signs autographs for Vanderbilt basketball fans during his playing days.

You cited Jackie Robinson and the question of what if no one had written a book on him on your website in the trailer for Strong Inside. Now that two editions of Strong Inside have been produced, what’s the general feeling you have about what the book has accomplished for both sets of audiences? Is there a persistent satisfaction in knowing the book can and will educate folks and also change some people’s minds in terms of stereotypes about so-called “typical” athletes?

I like listening to a light-hearted podcast where the hosts follow-up every self-serving statement by saying, “not to brag.” So, “not to brag,” but I was very proud that STRONG INSIDE received two civil rights book awards, the Lillian Smith Book Award and the RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition Prize. To me, this was evidence that the book was taken seriously as far more than a sports book. And then the Young Readers edition was named one of the Top 10 Biographies for Young Readers in 2017 by the American Library Association. Again, evidence that even for kids, this was more than a sports book. And all of that is to say that I have been very happy that people have recognized Perry Wallace’s impact well beyond the basketball court.

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Students have been inspired by Perry Wallace’s life story. Andrew Maraniss has spoken at numerous schools and civic organizations to talk about the book and about Wallace’s incredible story.

I’ve spoken to adults and seen contemporaries of Perry’s crying in the back of the room. I’ve listened to elementary school kids talk about how they can’t comprehend the racism Perry endured. So, yes, this is satisfying to see the emotional impact of the book, and perhaps to have people think about race in a way they weren’t expecting when they picked up a biography of a basketball player. Most of all, I’m pleased that Perry’s story is known. I talk to kids about the movie Hidden Figures, and how there are so many other hidden figures out there, people who have done important and interesting things whose stories haven’t been told yet. Any one of us can be the person to unearth those stories and tell them to the world. I feel very fortunate to have been able to write about Perry and introduce his story to people who had not heard of him.

 

 

 

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Perry Wallace in a game against SEC rival Alabama.

In addition to Wallace, who are some other absolutely invaluable sources for the book? According to a 2014 news release, you interviewed more than 80 people for the project. Did you travel far and wide to do that?

I ended up interviewing around 100 people for the book, and that was one of my favorite parts of the whole project. I really enjoy preparing for and conducting interviews, and there’s nothing like the feeling when someone starts telling you an interesting, colorful, detailed anecdote that you know is going to make a great scene in the book. I traveled some to conduct interviews and also did quite a few over the phone. I was also lucky that most of the book takes place in Nashville, where I live. So many of the people I needed to interview for the book live here. Some of the most fascinating interviews were with Godfrey Dillard, who was Perry’s only African-American teammate during his freshman year. Dillard ended up transferring before playing a varsity game, and his experience at Vanderbilt provided an interesting contrast to Wallace’s in many ways. I was also fortunate that Perry’s college coach, Roy Skinner, was still living when I started working on the book. He was the first person I interviewed. I also had the great pleasure and honor to interview John Seigenthaler, who was the editor of the Tennessean at the time Wallace was in college. Mr. Seigenthaler was a staunch supporter of civil rights and had served as a special assistant to Robert F. Kennedy during the Freedom Rides.

What was it like interviewing Wallace for his life story? Was he very forthcoming and quick with details in interview settings? Did you throw out a general topic and just let him recollect about it for a while? Was there a lot of very specific questioning?

I tried to be very prepared for our interviews, but I also went in with an open mind and tried not to stick too closely to a prepared script or list of questions. Perry was such a brilliant person that it was not difficult to interview him at all. He was a great observer of people and situations and had the ability not only to recollect details, but also to put anecdotes into a greater context. He not only helped you envision a scene from 1968, for example, but would place a particular story into the context of the times. He had such wisdom when it came to race relations. So, many times we’d start a conversation and I’d just sit back and listen. The biggest mistake I could make was getting in the way. With someone like Perry, just let him talk. And really listen, so that you can ask good follow-up questions. That’s an interesting insight you make about him being a lawyer and using precise language. That is true. But Perry was also precise with his language well before he went to law school. I found a transcript of remarks he made to the Vanderbilt administration in the summer of 1968 and it was expertly crafted. Perry was a brilliant person and he took pleasure in disproving stereotypes, even at a young age. Part of that meant being prepared, being precise, being profound.

Vanderbilt coach Roy Skinner shakes hands with Perry Wallace.

Did you have regular weekly/monthly interview sessions lined up with Wallace as you formulated the book? Did you often meet him at his home or workplace? A favorite restaurant? Long phone chats? What worked for both of you to get the questions asked and answered? Was it a combination of all of the above?

We didn’t have any sort of regular schedule. We had four or five major in-person interviews at the outset of the project, where we divided his life up into chunks and covered ground in particular areas each time. Some of those interviews were done in Washington, D.C., where he lives and where my parents live, either at his office at American University or at my parents’ house. We did one or two in a coffee shop. Other interviews were done in Nashville. I remember one of my favorite days was just driving around with him all day, and he showed me the houses he grew up in, the parks he played in, the schools he attended. We also did several phone interviews, and eventually his favorite way to do it was over email. I’d send him a list of questions, and then a few days later I’d get a response back. His quiet time at home was around 4 a.m., so that was the timestamp on so many of his replies. Which were always detailed and brilliant, by the way.

How emotional, how challenging, was it to deliver the eulogy on Feb. 20 at Vanderbilt for Perry Wallace? Was it a cathartic experience to share your thoughts about his life and legacy with an attentive audience?

The most challenging aspect was figuring out what aspect of Perry’s life to focus on since I only had three or four minutes to speak. We called the event a “Celebration of Life,” so there was a focus on keeping it upbeat and celebratory rather than maudlin. I decided to talk about a few things: just how a good of a man Perry Wallace was his entire life when there seems to be a lack of good men, at least in terms of public figures, these days. And I talked about how he might use such an event had he been alive: he would turn the spotlight away from himself and use the occasion to try to make life better for other people. It was special to see the caliber of people who not only came to the service, but wanted to speak: the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and the chancellor of Vanderbilt University, for example. This was important in substance and symbol, and really demonstrated what an incredible impact Perry Wallace had on the university and the South.

Are you currently pursuing a new book project? Or is there a topic that intrigues you that you’d be interesting in writing about in the coming years?

Yes, I am in the final stages of writing a book for Young Readers on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, which played at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. What I’d like to do is continue to write the kinds of books I would have liked to have read as a student: narrative non-fiction, with a bent toward sports and history.

How did the daily grind of working in sports media relations for Vandy and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays sharpen your focus and self-discipline as a writer and journalist? And looking back, how did that help you as you wrote about Wallace?

That’s a really interesting question I’ve never been asked before. I think of a couple of things. For one, I never worked harder in my life than I did in those days (or for less money!). As you mentioned, it is an incredible grind, day after day. So I learned how to work hard, how to be creative every single day, the importance of accuracy. I had great bosses who were mentors to me and gave me confidence that I could succeed in the business. Obviously working as a publicist for the Vanderbilt basketball team gave me an appreciation for the history of the program, access to former players and coaches, and various anecdotes over the years that helped me with little details for STRONG INSIDE. I felt like I understood the history of the program inside and out. When I was writing the basketball scenes in the book, I felt like my professional background and just my interest in sports allowed me to write with authenticity and credibility.

Is there a greater appreciation of, and recognition of, the incomprehensible challenges that Wallace faced during his time at Vandy and in the SEC since he passed away in December?

I’d say that the appreciation for what Perry endured really began several years ago. Over the last 10 years of his life or so, you began to see the university and the Nashville community reach out to Perry in ways it never had before. A big part of that was thanks to the leadership of people like Vanderbilt chancellors Gordon Gee and Nick Zeppos and athletic director David Williams. They understood that Perry had done more for the university than Vanderbilt ever did for Perry. So you saw things happen like Perry’s jersey retired, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame. Since the book came out in 2014, other things happened like various awards being named after Perry, scholarships established in his name, his induction into various other halls of fame and rings of honor. Vanderbilt freshmen all read STRONG INSIDE the last two years.

With the publication of the Young Adult version of the book, kids all over the country have learned his story and been inspired by it. It was gratifying that Perry got to experience this love and appreciation before he passed away. One thing that’s been interesting to observe is the way that Perry’s own family, especially his wife, Karen, has been able to witness the incredible affection that so many people had for Perry since his passing. He was such a humble and accomplished person he didn’t talk much about his “basketball pioneer days” to his family, friend and colleagues in D.C. There was a whole “public figure” aspect to his existence that was different from the Perry they knew every day: the professor, husband and father who was a regular guy and took out the trash every night.

Who are a half-dozen or so authors whose books are must-reads for you again and again?

Bill Bryson, John Feinstein, Bob Woodward, Eric Larson, James Swanson, Howard Bryant, Jeff Pearlman, Ruta Sepetys, Lou Moore and of course, David Maraniss!

In your opinion, who are some of the most important journalists whose articles and broadcasts are pertinent to understanding what’s happening in the world around us?

I will answer this question specifically as it relates to race and sports. First, I’d recommend anyone interested in the subject check out ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com site. It’s fantastic and right at the cutting edge of these issues. People like Lou Moore, Derrick White, Dave Zirin, Etan Thomas, Bijan Bayne, Anya Alvarez, Jemele Hill, Howard Bryant, Johnny Smith and Jesus Ortiz are must-follows on Twitter. We’ve also started a Twitter account at Vanderbilt called @raceandsportsVU that curates this kind of news.

What was the last great book you read?

For the book I’m writing on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, I just read a German book on those Olympics that was recently released in an English translation. It’s called “Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August” by Oliver Hilmes, and it presents a really interesting look at some behind-the-scenes intrigue in Berlin at the time.

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Follow Andrew Maraniss on Twitter: @trublu24

Visit his website: andrewmaraniss.com

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The Wallace family: Gabby, Perry and Karen.
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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 […]

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. …

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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).

 

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

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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.

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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.”

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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/
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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