An engaging conversation with sports columnist Mark Whicker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

What’s the biggest scoop of your career?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are essential ingredients of quality journalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

A few short ones…

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

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

What about the Raiders in Las Vegas?

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

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

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

Your favorite sports book? Non-sports book?

Ball Four. Bonfire of the Vanities.

Favorite sports movie? Non-sports movie?

Hoop Dreams. Dr. Strangelove.

***
Follow Mark Whicker on Twitter: @MWhicker03LANG

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

By Ed Odeven

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

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

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

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

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

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

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

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

What are you writing about now?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

Aram Goudsouzian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

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

What are you writing about now?

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

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

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

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

 

A conversation with portrait artist James Fiorentino

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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.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is LeRoy Neiman one of your artistic heroes?

Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, what guy would do that?

Fiorentino.Berra.photo.age15

As a teenager, James Fiorentino met Yogi Berra.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

* * *
Revealing insight

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

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

 

 

 

Catching up with … Javier Morales

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Javier Morales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it your first book? 

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

What kind of feedback have you received about it? 

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

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

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

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

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Follow Javier Morales on Twitter: @JavierJMorales

 

The perennial excellence of Ron Higgins’ journalism

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Sports columnist Ron Higgins of NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (April 7, 2016) —Some of the best and brightest journalists make a living far from the major media markets. They shine where the lights aren’t quite as bright as on Broadway.

Ron Higgins fits the above descriptions.

His prosperous career hasn’t garnered the same attention as some of the most famous sports scribes based in New York or Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles, but Higgins has carved out an impressive niche, including coverage of more than 50 college bowl games, and a standard of excellence that has made him an enduring voice of sports history and contemporary sports in the South and across the United States. He is an SEC expert. He has amassed a collection of awards that rivals anyone’s in the business —150 national and regional journalism awards, including 70 first-place awards.

Higgins, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1979. His career has taken him from the Baton Rouge Advocate to The Shreveport Times to the Mobile Press-Register to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, where he worked for 28 years before joining the The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper, in September 2013.

“He’s a wonderful storyteller with tremendous insight and perspective,” Tim Brando told the New Orleans paper at the time.

In a recent email interview, Higgins offered insights on memorable moments in his career, his commitment to his craft, mentors, favorite assignments and much more.

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How would you define your job as a sports columnist in 2016? And what are the biggest changes and challenges you’ve faced on the job in the past 15-20 years?

I don’t think I’ve changed my approach to writing columns, in the sense I never want to get stuck in a rut. I don’t want to be a columnist that continually criticizes, or a columnist that continually tries to use humor, or a columnist that continually looks for heart-tugging angles. I try hard to be like a baseball pitcher who mixes his pitches. I might write something one day that makes you angry, then something that makes you laugh the next day, then something that makes you cry and then something that makes you think. Ideally, that’s what I shoot for, but sometimes the news of the day might take me in a different direction.

The biggest change is because of social media breaking stories, I have to react a lot quicker as columnist. Sometimes, my reaction is not a full-blown 1,000-word column, but rather a 300 or 400-word min-column that I get online quicker.

Looking back on a piece you wrote for the SEC Digital Network a few years back (SEC 40/40: Chancellor Went from Cotton Picker to Hall of Famer), it’s clear that you have a deep knowledge of the history of the Southeastern Conference and a rapport with key figures in the league’s history. When you set out to capture what makes a fellow like Van Chancellor tick, decades after he first made a name for himself, is there a really different approach you to take to article and interview preparation than, say a column on LSU freshman Ben Simmons this college basketball season?

When you write something on somebody you’ve known for 20 or more years, you have all this perspective rolling around in your head. Because of that, it’s easier for me to frame the subject in his current state of mind. I know where he’s been, where he came from, what he’s done and what’s important to him. I don’t have to research him as heavily as a fresh subject like Ben Simmons.

What was the biggest reward – if that’s the right word – of having had the chance to be president of the Football Writers Association of America? What did you most enjoy about that experience? Under your leadership, what accomplishment(s) and goals were key objectives fulfilled in that time?

In my one-year term (2008), I wanted to bridge the ever-widening communication gap between paranoid head coaches and overeager media who want to Tweet about anything that moves. I wanted to understand what the media looks like from the coaching perspective and educate the coaches about what we do on a daily basis. I had a 45-minute meeting alone with all the SEC football coaches, and it was quite educational for both sides. They want to control the message that goes to the public and we believe we should be allowed more daily access to get to know the players and coaches better. Even though the coaches haven’t budged on access, I think it opened up more civil lines of communication.

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Ron Higgins

Comparing and contrasting the different sporting traditions and success stories in Louisiana and Tennessee, especially LSU and the University of Tennessee, what are a few differences that stand out for you, someone who has observed and chronicled the history of sports in both states?

Both schools are rich in tradition, but it’s much harder to build winning programs (especially football) and maintain that winning in Tennessee. Tennessee high school football doesn’t close to producing the amount of high school recruits that Louisiana does. Almost annually, Louisiana has more players in the NFL per capita than any state in America.

In a Swampland Sports interview, I’ve read that Dan Jenkins, David Halberstam and Rick Reilly are writers that have inspired you. Who are some other journalists over the years whose talent, work ethic, sustained excellence, imagination, interviewing skills, empathy, dogged determination to get the scoop among other qualities have impressed you, inspired you and fired you up to do your job?

I enjoy free-lancer Dave Kindred, once a brilliant columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Chuck Culpepper, who writes for the Washington Post and (in recent years) traveled the world for sportsonearth.com, has a great knack for finding unique angles. Columnist David Jones of pennlive.com writes thoughtful stuff with beautiful texture almost daily. In his prime when he was a columnist in Dallas, Skip Bayless was as good as it gets. And the late Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote stuff so good it was just ridiculous, like his column on losing sight in one eye because he had cancer.

Away from sports, are there a handful of other writers whose articles, books, blog entries, whatever medium they write in or for, you regularly return to for enjoyment?

I’m pretty much a one-trick pony, though I do like author John Grisham.

With the massive TV deals in place and the national success of SEC football programs in recent years, do you view the conference as sort of a Triple-A for the NFL?

Even before the TV deals, the SEC attracted enough homegrown southern blue-chippers to stockpile its rosters with future NFL talent. But as the league signed TV deals with CBS and ESPN, eventually getting ESPN to create the SEC Network two years ago, SEC coaches now have the ability to recruit coast-to-coast easier. They don’t have to explain how great it is to play on a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. Recruits can see it, all the way from Key West, Florida, to Anchorage, Alaska, to Honolulu.

Throughout the years, what are five assignments that you’ll always consider among the best of the best — the most memorable? Do you have an all-time favorite? If so, why?

I’ve covered three Summer Olympics (see below). The NBA playoffs is another, because of the game-to-game, possession-to-possession battle is extraordinary. College basketball’s Final Four, especially the Saturday semifinals, provides genuine electricity that you get at no other event. Most of the national championship football games I’ve covered have almost that same feel.

But my favorite assignment ever was covering a world heavyweight championship fight between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson in Memphis where I worked for the Commercial Appeal. I was assigned to Lewis and went to his training camp for a week in the Poconos. The night of the fight in Memphis was so emotionally charged.

Similarly, are there five games or events that you’d find impossible to leave off any list you’d make of your favorite live assignments?

Final Four, The Masters (which I’ve never covered), the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl and a world championship boxing bout in Las Vegas.

Has Peter Finney inspired you in a profound way since you returned to Louisiana in 2013 to become a Times-Picayune columnist, knowing all about his decades on the job there and his overall body of work as a New Orleans-based columnist?

He inspired me for years, because he was able to deliver columns that reflected the joy or disgust of the Saints or LSU sports fans in such a relevant manner without ever being seen as a homer. Pete was fair. Even when he was critical, he was very fair.

Do you have a favorite Peter Finney story that helps to capture the essence of his legendary career  (it includes 15,000 articles), his personality and the way he did his job as a columnist?

I don’t have any particular Pete Finney story. He has always been a classy, funny man with a beautiful writing touch.

From readers, what are two or three of the best compliments you’ve received about your work over the years? How about from editors and journalism colleagues?

The best compliment I’ve gotten has happened several times when I’ve done an extensive profile piece on someone, and that subject says to me after reading it, “That’s the best story I’ve ever seen anyone write about me.” To know you nailed a story so perfect that even the subject holds it such high regard is very humbling. The best compliment you can get from an editor is, “You wrote it so well that I barely had to edit it.”

Can you think of a vivid example of when, in a column, article or series of reports, you took a stand, raising awareness about a problem or troubling issue and that led, eventually, to positive changes being made?

I did a series of stories back in the 1980s about the lack of African-American coaching hires in the SEC. Maybe it was coincidence, but shortly thereafter the league started hiring black men’s head basketball coaches. It eventually spread to other sports, but it has taken awhile.

Despite his success at the University of San Francisco and with the Boston Celtics after moving to California in his schoolboy days, do you sense that the older generation (and others from the state) beams with pride that Russell hails from Monroe, Louisiana?

I’m sad to say that very few Louisiana natives know that Bill Russell is from Monroe. Maybe the feeling would have different had he played high school and college basketball in Louisiana.

Reflecting on the more than 150 regional and national journalism awards that you’ve been honored with over the years, what does this remarkable recognition mean to you? Does it fire you up? Validate the work you’ve done?

I’m a very competitive person, so I like to win. I realize that judging contests is very subjective, because I annually am asked to judge. But I’m so competitive if I get a second place certificate, I’ll either place it in a file folder and stick it at the bottom of a drawer, or I’ll throw it away immediately. I don’t think awards validate my work. My work is validated by readers that expect a high level of consistency.

Tell me about a few of these awards…What made them special to you and the articles that cemented those awards? (For instance, there are those who will say that sports provides an ideal opportunity to examine society through the prism of something we can all relate to. And, in 2013, the Tennessee Sports Writers Association honored you for your feature on Penny Hardaway, former NBA and Memphis star, citing his growing community involvement. That said, because of Hardaway’s well-known status in the community, was this project an ideal way to look at how local icons can use their fame and fortune to make a difference and improve society?)

I cherish the nine Tennessee Sportswriter of the Year awards I won because each of those awards required an entry of three stories, a mixture of columns, features, news, event stories, investigative stories. To win that award, you had to have consistently extraordinary stories each year, and you had to carefully select the ones that best reflected your writing that particularly year.

One of my favorite awards was a first place in the national Associated Press Sports Editors contest for a column I wrote about a senior football player suffering a college-career ending injury. It happened in a game at the end of a first quarter. I actually left the stadium, went to the hospital and sat with his parents and the player in the emergency room to see their raw emotions, then got back to the game in the third quarter.

Another award-winning story I wrote involved a minor league manager getting thrown out of a game. I went down to his office and listened to the rest of the game with him on the radio. We talked about the team. I wrote what he said, interspersing it with play-by-play off-the-radio.

The Hardaway story was easy to write. We had forged a trusted relationship since his days at the University of Memphis. He wouldn’t open up to just anybody. It was a good story, because it showed the roots of compassion given him by his grandmother long before he became a multi-millionaire.

Which three Olympics did you report on? What do you recall most vividly about each of three experiences? And was there a once-in-a-lifetime story angle or sight you stumbled upon that truly made it (or on three occasions) a unique experience?

I covered Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta.

In Seoul, I covered baseball, and the USA vs. Cuba baseball matchups were always fascinating. That’s when the USA team was still college kids and the Cubans were professionals. The Cubans had a skinny chain-smoking manager who always took one last long puff before stamping out his cigarette in the dugout when he was about to walk to the mound to change pitchers.

In Barcelona, I remember waiting after a basketball game to interview Australian center Luc Longley. He had gone to random drug testing and was dehydrated, so he had to replenish his fluids to produce a urine sample. Finally, almost two hours after the game, he comes and out and explains what happened to him. Then he says to me, “Mate, you may have to clean up what I say. I drank two six-packs of beer to put fluids back in me and I’m drunk.”

In Atlanta, I was in the press work center next to Centennial Park when the bomb exploded. It looked like a war zone. I tried to talk to as many people as possible and got back into the press center before police shut every thing down.

Is there a distinct approach and sports writing style for a journalist from, say, Louisiana or Mississippi that is noticeably different than one from Boston or New York?

I think Southern journalists are a bit more gentle in criticism than East Coast journalists, but it’s also a reflection of the different cultures.

Similarly, Mel Allen, Red Barber and Ernie Harwell are among the Southern-raised baseball announcers who gain widespread fame and respect for their storytelling skills. Did men like these three, who told the stories of sports heroes for decades — have a big influence on how approached your written storytelling?

They probably did in some way. My approach to writing is like I’m sitting in bar and telling you the story. Very conversational. Always an opinion. Always humor. But always easy to follow.

What are the first five adjectives (or words) that come to mind to describe Pistol Pete Maravich as a basketball player?

Innovative, imaginative, self-made, showstopping, scoring machine.

If your father, Carl “Ace” Higgins, didn’t work as the sports information director at LSU, do you think your career path definitely would’ve been different?

That’s a good question. Probably so, because I’ve got his writing genes. By hanging around him, I was placed in situations not only to learn to love sports, but to learn how to write. By the time, I got to college I had so much experience writing for the Baton Rouge newspaper as a free-lancer that I decided to major in broadcast journalism.

What impression did former LSU hoop mentor Dale Brown make on you? Pistol Pete? Eddie Robinson? Ron Guidry?

On Dale: Every day is as sunny and optimistic as you want to make it.

On Pistol Pete: Great things happen when you accept God in your life.

On Eddie Robinson: Nobody is ever going to hand you anything. It must be earned.

On Ron Guidry: His fast is faster than your fast.

How did Chris Jackson’s freshman season at LSU in 1988-89 stack up with other great single-season performances in college basketball? Does it make your top 10 list?

It’s definitely in the top 10. If you watch old tape of Chris Jackson (who changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), it’s like watching Steph Curry 25 years old. Jackson had this stepback three-point jumper in which he dribbled the ball between his legs left hand to his right (shooting) hand while stepping back and shooting in almost the same motion. It was so quick and smooth that it was unblockable.

What do you like most about your job in 2016 with all of the challenges that are a part of the Internet/24-7 news cycle and social media age? And what do you like least about it?

I like the immediate feedback good and bad from the public about something I react and write about. What I like least is there’s too much shoddy incomplete reporting in the race to get the information online. There’s the attitude that if it’s not entirely accurate, you can correct and update as you get new information and nobody remembers that you didn’t have the story completely correct originally.

***
Recommended reading from last year:

http://www.nola.com/lsu/index.ssf/2015/01/we_all_still_have_a_little_pis.html

Ron Higgins’ article archive: http://connect.nola.com/staff/Ronhigg/posts.html

Follow him on Twitter: @RonHigg

 

Getting to know … Linda Robertson (part I)

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 7, 2015) — Linda Robertson is an established, versatile, creative sports columnist for The Miami Herald. During her tenure at the South Florida newspaper, the rise of Dan Marino to superstardom was one of the earliest generation-changing topics reported by the venerable paper.

Joining the Herald during legendary quarterback Marino’s rookie season (1983), Robertson witnessed history as it unfolded in the booming, sports-crazed market of Miami and the surrounding areas.

In time, the Miami Dolphins weren’t the only pro team in town and the University of Miami Hurricanes football team weren’t the squad chasing titles (see later moments of glory for the Florida – now Miami – Marlins, Miami Heat and Florida Panthers)

Her thoughtful coverage of the South Florida college and pro sports scene is a major part of her overall work portfolio. But Robertson has filed stories from the Winter and Summer Olympics, about top-notch tennis stars (Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, et al), among other topics such as sailing, running — you name it, she’s written about it. .

She’s also been on the right side of history in blasting the corrupt reign of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter. (To wit: a recent column had this headline: “Godfather of soccer Sepp Blatter keeps reign of shame as FIFA president”)

Robertson received the 2009 Mary Garber Pioneer Award, given by the Association for Women in Sports Media, in recognition of her distinguished career.

In 2014, she received an Associated Press Sports Editors top 10 award for explanatory reporting for 175,000-plus circulation newspapers.

I recently caught up with Robertson via email. Here’s the first of two planned Q&A segments that highlight her career and influences, thoughts on the news business and a wide range of individuals working in media and the sports world.

There’s something to be said for familiarity and longevity in a community and at a job. How has your time at the Miami Herald (since 1983) made it easier — if it has — to establish rapport with key sources from teams and colleges and other sports events in the South Florida sports community?

Rapport is enhanced by knowledge. By staying in Miami these many years – embedded like a sodden mangrove — I’ve developed a certain amount of institutional knowledge, if by no other means than osmosis. I know the reference points for the Dolphins, from the Perfect Season to the Dan Marino era to the current period of futility. I know the characters from the University of Miami’s glorious, swaggering five national championship seasons. I’ve been here for the birth of the Marlins, Heat and Panthers and their ups and downs. You can draw on those relationships in your reporting and those histories in your writing. Covering a local sports culture is kind of like living in a small town; you know your neighbors’ business – which can be claustrophobic, as well. Longevity bestows a keen sense of place. When I wrote about the inner-city rivalry of the Soul Bowl, for example, I interviewed parents of players who used to be players and cheerleaders themselves, and still live on the same street and burn with pride for what their school’s football team does for their neighborhood. When I wrote about Jimmy Johnson taking an early retirement in Islamorada, I had an understanding of the Keys lifestyle and why it was his ideal escape.

When I wrote about the Cuban baseball defectors pipeline, I already had layers of knowledge on the subject, having lived so long in the Cuban-American city and been to Cuba. I grew up in Miami from age 11 when the Dolphins were going undefeated (the Buonicontis lived nearby), and I’ll be doing an interview today and discover some kinship from my high school running days. Roots help you connect with your reading community. I returned here after college to start my career never, ever intending to stay. Sometimes I feel a twinge of regret for turning down opportunities to leave, but then remind myself that having a voice in one’s hometown is a rare and rich opportunity, too. Miami is a journalist’s dream. To be here to cover its wild and wacky evolution has been a lot of fun.

Do you think using a historical figure, stretching back to ancient times, can make a random point in a column that much more effective? Is that a technique you visit on numerous occasions? (Example from one recent Bosh column: “That will be tough without Bosh, the linchpin of the team and its thoughtful leader — its Socrates.”)

Allusions illuminate your subject from a different angle. When LeBron James failed to rise to the occasion during his first NBA Finals with the Heat, I compared his angst and lack of action to Hamlet. Not the most original reference, but at least it gave readers something to think about, because Hamlet is such a rich character and our current sports stars often come off as flat cartoon characters. I once wrote a column comparing the University of Miami’s agonizing wait for the sentence from the NCAA to “Waiting for Godot.” I like writers willing to take risks. You’ve got to be careful, though, because too many of us are guilty of the lazy, overused but handy historical reference. In sports writing we ought to put a moratorium on David and Goliath.

Did you always want to be a sportswriter? Or was there an event or person that made an impression on you that piqued your interest in this career? Describe what led to this career path.

I wanted to be a lot of things but sports writer was not one of them. I sort of fell into it because I always liked sports. Certain athletes made an impression on me: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Billie Jean King, Fran Tarkenton, Ken Stabler, Muhammad Ali, Alberto Juantorena and Mary Decker, among others. I played sports and I became a very good runner. I always enjoyed and excelled at writing and worked for my school newspapers. When I was a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, I wanted to write for the Daily Tar Heel but the only way I could wangle my way onto the staff was by volunteering to cover women’s sports. Nobody else wanted to cover women’s sports; they were mainly interested in the men’s basketball team, which would soon have a player by the name of Michael Jordan.

Because I had knowledge of sports and was on the cross country and track teams, the editors figured I could handle it. By the time I graduated, I was associate editor writing editorials. I hoped to be a feature writer, then a foreign correspondent, then maybe a novelist. But the Miami Herald called asking me to cover sports because they were desperate for another female sports writer. Christine Brennan was soon to depart for The Washington Post. So I said yes, figuring I’d come back to Miami and write sports for a maximum of two years before moving on to a journalism job with more substance.

How influential were your UNC professors on you to provide a nuts-and-bolts foundation for your journalism? Was there a mentor your time there as an undergrad who you would like to point out as having a special influence on your development as a writer and reporter?

UNC has a distinguished history of educating journalists. I was fortunate to have professors who taught students to be storytellers. Jim Shumaker (the inspiration for Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly’s strip “Shoe”) taught us to write with flair and impact, to say what you mean and mean what you say, and leave out the b.s. Raleigh Mann taught me how to be a meticulous reporter, observer and interviewer. Jane Brown taught me about the sociology of journalism, which has helped me see sports as integral to our culture. And my English teachers and professors were a huge influence.

As you reflect on Dean Smith’s life and legacy (note: the Hall of Fame basketball coach died in February), how important was his moral leadership and values in helping to advance racial unity and equality and progress at UNC, in the ACC, in North Carolina and in the South as a whole?

Dean Smith was a force for integration in the 1960s. He took a black student to an all-white restaurant where the team often ate. He made Charlie Scott the first scholarship athlete at UNC, just as his father had put a black player on his all-white high school team in Kansas. Smith exemplified class. He taught everyone who came in contact with him how to compete, work and treat people with class. I had no idea who Dean Smith was when I arrived at UNC but through the years covering college basketball – first as a student journalist at the 1982 championship then as a professional at the 1993 championship and his other Final Four appearances – I learned what a selfless, humble man he was. He spoke out against the death penalty, opposed nuclear proliferation and supported gay rights, but he did it quietly, lest he bring attention to himself. Matt Doherty said Smith would annually take the team to the Death Row prison in Raleigh to scrimmage and talk to inmates. When Smith died, it was so incredibly Dean-like that he left $200 to each of his 180 letter winners, to let them know he was always thinking of them and to “enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Smith.”

When you think back to your time working at the Daily Tar Heel what are the memories that immediately come to mind? What was the biggest thing you gained from that experience?

The Daily Tar Heel was crammed into a small, cluttered office space in the Student Union. This was in the Mesozoic Era, pre-computers, pre-Internet, pre-cell phones. We pounded on vintage manual typewriters and edited with pencils. We did headlines, layout, paste-up, everything. It was such a wonderfully intense, chaotic, hilarious hive of students dedicated to publishing a newspaper that was better than yesterday’s. I was sports editor my junior year, associate editor my senior year. The place had a Jack Kerouac-type of energy, like we were on this perpetual adrenaline-fueled adventure, at least in our minds. I loved my colleagues. S.L. Price and I ran the sports section. John Drescher, Melanie Sill and Jim Hummel were wiser-than-their-years editors. Frank Bruni, Ann Peters, Ken Mingis, Scott Sharpe, Al Steele – all distinguished themselves in a line that includes Thomas Wolfe and Charles Kuralt.

What we gained from the DTH experience was the conviction to embrace creativity rather than repress it like it was one of the seven deadly sins. We wrote some awful ledes but that’s how we improved. And we developed a work ethic we still draw on, learning it’s 90 percent perspiration, 10 percent inspiration, and when you finish that feature article, go to the library and write your English term paper.

How would you describe your working relationship with top newsroom management and top sports department management at the Herald?

I’m fortunate to have a great working relationship with my superiors at the Herald. They respect my ideas. The Herald has always been a dynamic, empathetic newspaper and the best pound-for-pound fighter in the business. But it’s a shrinking business. We can only hope editors will keep playing to reporters’ strengths, because that’s what distinguishes good journalism from all the media noise out there today.

What are the biggest challenges for a female sportswriter in this male-dominated field of print journalism?

It used to be the impediments to equal access (the uninformed security guard who thought we were locker room voyeurs), then condescending attitudes. But today what’s most frustrating is the low number of women in positions of decision-making power. Salaries remain out of whack with male counterparts. And it’s amazing, in a comically pathetic way, how a certain percentage of irate readers still choose to insult women writers with outdated gender stereotypes such as “go back to the kitchen” or your basic nasty vulgarities. About sports! You’ve got to feel sorry for their daughters.

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Follow Linda Robertson on Twitter: @lrobertsonmiami

Robertson’s Miami Herald archive: http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/linda-robertson/