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.

***
Follow Linda Robertson on Twitter: @lrobertsonmiami

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

A Toots & the Maytals tale

Now and then, it’s nice for a change of pace. This includes journalism-related activities.

And so, in the spring of 2004, in Flagstaff, Arizona, I lined up an interview with iconic reggae singer Toots Hibbert. The freelance magazine assignment took place during a Toots & the Maytals concert (I scribbled down notes during the show) and afterward (about a 20- or 30-minute interview in his dressing room back stage after the show).

The interview touched upon a lot of topics: decades of performing, musical influences, friendship with Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, role as a pioneer in Jamaican music, the relationship with the audience.

We covered a lot of material in a short period of time.

I didn’t have to lie and pretend I enjoyed the show. It was lively, quality music, a spirited crowd, a legendary performer still at the top of his profession at age 61.

I told him that for many years I especially enjoyed an album he recorded in Memphis, “Toots In Memphis.” I mentioned one of his songs was a real favorite, “Beautiful Woman,” with an unforgettable line: Beautiful woman will drive you crazy.”

He smiled and said, “You should have cried out for it, man!”

He was right.

Sure, I was at the concert as a journalist, but I could’ve did double duty as a fan. That song, which wasn’t performed would’ve been a hit at cozy Orpheum Theater, too.

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

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

Brin-Jonathan Butler's new memoir.

Brin-Jonathan Butler’s new memoir.

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

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

By Ed Odeven

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Follow Brin-Jonathan Butler on Twitter: @brinicio

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

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

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

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

By Ed Odeven

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

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

Peter Vecsey and former NBA scoring champ Bernard King

Peter Vecsey and former NBA scoring champ Bernard King

Former Nets owner Joe Taub (left) and Peter Vecsey

Former Nets owner Joe Taub (left) and Peter Vecsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

What is your typical writing schedule for this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, on every level.

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

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

And what changed?

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

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

How many chapters do you think this will realistically be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t have any idea.

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

So you want to provide a partial recap?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Follow Peter Vecsey on Twitter: @PeterVecsey1

On Sportswriting

I came across this memorable passage in an excellent interview with John Schulian, who has worn many hats in a distinguished career (news reporter, sports columnist, magazine writer, book editor, TV writer).

“These are games they’re writing about, not the end of the world. If you miss one, don’t worry—there will be another tomorrow. The same with heroes—there’s a bus pulling into town with a new batch every day. Life is going to go on. Enjoy it, examine it, try to understand it, and try to write about it in a way that will stand up for more than a day. When you have the chance and the clock is on your side, try to put something on paper that years later will help someone stumbling across your words understand the time in which you lived and wrote.”

Full interview: http://www.bibliobuffet.com/archive-index-athletic-supporter/1680-we-write-and-take-our-chances-an-interview-with-john-schulian-012212%5D

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recently conducted this interview with her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you consider your chief strengths as a journalist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A  mentor’s words of wisdom?

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

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Steer clear of the comments under your stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Bill Plaschke –likes to tug at the heartstrings

-Edwin Pope – a sports journalist legend

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

-Elgin Baylor — underappreciated

-Phil Mickelson – a born entertainer

-John Daly — complicated

-Arnold Palmer — beloved

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

-Gary Hall Jr. —  showman

-Don Shula  — old-school

-Joe Namath – misunderstood

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

-Jackie MacMullan — fierce

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many Olympics have you reported from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
Follow Karen Crouse on Twittter: @bykaren

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

A profile of a TV newsroom managing editor

While reflecting on legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s life and his influence on American newspapers with the news of his death on Tuesday at age 93, my mind wandered back to March 1993, a few weeks before my 20th birthday, when I wrote a profile piece on the managing editor of a TV station for a community college’s reporting class assignment. Re-reading this story now, I notice similar qualities in their approach to journalism.

Here’s that article, which provided a good learning experience as a phone interview.

A profile of Dan Nuff
By Ed Odeven
(March 10, 1993) — A local television employee feels a problem is developing in the media industry. Some people are more concerned with seeing themselves on the air, rather than reporting the news.

Dan M. Huff, 41, of Tucson is the managing editor of television station KGUN (channel 9). He has held this job for almost two years. A basic job description for Huff is “(he’s) responsible for the daily operation of the newsroom.” He oversees the work of around 35 people.

Huff graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in journalism. He also attended the University of Arizona and earned a law degree.

Growing up, Huff was interested in journalism. He gained experience in high school as the editor of the Scottsdale High School newspaper, and in college as editor of the ASU State Press.

Huff’s first full-time job came in 1977, when he became a reporter for the Tucson Citizen. He started with a salary of $18,500. Other jobs Huff has had in the past include being a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star for six or seven years, and a producer of Channel 4 noon and five o’clock news.

Currently, Huff works a Monday through Friday schedule, usually around 40 hours a week. But, he was quick to point out that in the past his jobs required all kinds of strange hours to be worked.

Huff enjoys watching Frontline and Nova and Seinfeld (“the best written comedy out there”). His favorite movie is “My Dinner With Andre,” a story about two guys sitting in a diner booth talking about life.

For those interested in journalism as a career, Huff has a few suggestions:

*Major in a journalism program that teaches you to report and write well.

*Go after the facts.

*You have to appreciate a well-written sentence.

*You have to have a liking of variety.

*You have to have a curious mind.

Huff quoting Ernest Hemingway talking about news: “A good reporter has a built-in, shockproof shit detector.”

“In your first five or six years you will develop and learn who’s telling the truth among politicians and news makers you work with,” he said.

The three network top guns (Jennings, Rather and Brokaw) are disliked by Huff because “they are pompous assholes.”

“The worst part of the job is answering the phones and talking to drunk and insane people, and still be civil and polite to them because you never know if it’s the ratings people,” he said.

“The best part of the job is giving an assignment to a reporter you know can handle it, and the reporter comes back with a story that is above and beyond what you could have expected.”