Basketball maven Mark Heisler’s reflections on a legendary career

 

heisler
Mark Heisler

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 5, 2017) — A lot has changed since 1969, the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Mark Heisler began his newspaper career.

Space exploration, of course, has continued. Heisler, meanwhile, has carved out a career as a significant sports writer, one of the most prominent, prolific NBA chroniclers for decades.

Raised in Springfield, Illinois, Heisler’s career journey included stops at the Rochester (New York) Times-Union (two years), Philadelphia Inquirer (three years) and Philadelphia Bulletin (seven years). He was 25 years old and covering the 76ers (more on that below.)

Heisler then moved west and became a part of the Los Angeles Times sports staff in 1979,  a position he held until 2011, when the paper’s newsroom downsizing gutted the department and left a huge void (professional experience, expertise, etc.).

Heisler had a close-up view of the great Lakers-Celtics rivalries of the 1980s, the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls dynasty in the 1990s and the Lakers’ return to prominence under Phil Jackson. He witnessed the immense popularity of Magic Johnson and the competitive intensity of Kobe Bryant.

In short, he is one of the most experienced, authoritative writers covering the NBA. One nugget that underscore that: He has covered almost 40 NBA Finals.

As a 2006 recipient of the Curt Gowdy Award, which is given annually by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Heisler’s contributions to basketball and journalism were given their well-deserved public recognition.

He paid his dues on other reporting beats before becoming a fixture in pro basketball circles. When he joined the Los Angles Times, Heisler covered the Los Angeles Angels for three years, and for five years he reported on the NFL’s Raiders, when the team called L.A. home. And then he thrived on the Lakers beat.

Nowadays, Heisler pens an NBA column for the Southern California News Group, including the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Daily News. In recent years, his work has also been featured on HoopsHype.com, Forbes.com and other websites.

In a wide-ranging interview, Heisler shares tales from his long career, noting unforgettable moments and mentors, players and coaches. He also sheds light on how covering the game has changed. He highlights what he misses about the old days and why he thinks analytics are not always practical numbers to dissect a game and a player’s impact.

This is Heisler’s story, his life’s work compressed into a Q&A format, about his nearly 50 years in the biz.

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What is your favorite Pat Riley story?

My favorite story about Pat isn’t exactly about Pat. I had written my book on him, “The Lives of Riley,” for which he had shut down every source he could. I think he thought it was going to be sensational. In any case, he had an ingrained skepticism of the press, which he included in his list of “peripheral opponents.”…. Anyway, Doc Rivers was then the Knick point guard and very curious to get the real story on Pat, who was the glamorous, silent type. Doc told me he was reading the book on the bus — but with a different book jacket on it so Riles couldn’t tell…. As it turned out, Pat wound up not minding what I wrote about him and we resumed a cordial relationship.

On a personal level, what became different and what didn’t change when dealing with Riley during his days with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat?

Pat had never done personnel or anything else related to the front office when he was coaching the Lakers or the Knicks. He was totally obsessed with coaching but  that was it. In the off-season, he disappeared to get away from the game, probably because he had put so much into it, he was exhausted….

When he took over in Miami, he not only started doing personnel, and running the Heat basketball operation as if he had the GM title, he was brilliant at it…. Pat’s deal had always been to coach through his best player — Magic in Los Angeles, Patrick Ewing with the Knicks…. The adaptation he made in Miami was to go out and get a great all-heart player he could coach through like them—Alonzo Mourning. The Heat team Pat took over was a mediocre one with good players but no real star.

With Zo on the outs in Charlotte because he wanted more than the Hornets wanted to pay, Pat, who would never have gone to Miami if there was any question of the resources owner Micky Arison would make available, Riles pulled off a trade for him, picked up Tim Hardaway and built an elite team in the East….

Years later, he drafted Dwyane Wade, traded for Shaq (not a Riley-type player but Riles had learned flexibility) and won the Heat’s first title…. Years later, Pat beat everyone to LeBron James — after the meeting where Pat dropped his championship rings on the table in front of Bron, as if they were boulders—who joined with Wade and Chris Bosh and won them two more titles.

They might be challenging for titles still if Bron hadn’t stunned everyone and gone home to Cleveland.

And is he one of the best executives in league history? How would you evaluate his ability to run an organization?

I think he is. The execs who come to mind first for me — Red Auerbach, Jerry West — were GMs for decades longer than Riles and built multiple powerhouses, but after those two, Pat would be right there for me.

Under a different system, sans the triangle and Phil Jackson’s guiding hand, do you think Kobe Bryant would have have been as effective over the long haul and won as many titles? And in its L.A. days after the Bulls dynasty was the triangle offense overanalyzed, and deified, by those who didn’t recognize the remarkable ability of Kobe to make big plays in the biggest moments?

I don’t think the triangle made Kobe, who would have been great in any system. On the other hand, he very well might not have won five titles without Phil’s gently restraining hand… and then a lot more people would have doubted his greatness. Of course, Kobe was out of control from start to finish — and so great, he could put up good numbers, like a 45-percent career shooting percentage while taking the wildest assortment ever launched.

Looking at Kobe’s post-NBA projects as a businessman and entrepreneur, do you see a ruthless ambition with equal intensity shining through or more of a step-by-step approach to building a business empire?

I see a guy with amazing drive and will who needs to find someplace to put all of that now that he can no longer play basketball. I sympathize completely and I hope it works out for him because it’s a terrible thing to have to go through, a mid-life crisis so early in life.

How instrumental was Michael Cooper’s defense to the Lakers’ success during the Showtime years? Was it overlooked? In that era known for high-scoring duels, what should people raised on this current 3-point era of basketball know about Coop’s play and impact?

Coop was an important piece of the puzzle, who would have fit into modern basketball very neatly. He was what they now call a “Three and D” player before they had the term. His game fit “Showtime” too, suggesting it was a modern balanced, keep-the-defense-continually-off-strife offense decades ahead of its time, the difference from today’s high-powered offenses being their reliance on three-pointers…. Coop came in as an athletic non-shooter who could D it up on anyone and run on the break with anyone but ty the 1986-87 season, at age 31, he had become the Lakes’ leading three-point shooter, even if that only meant he averaged 1.1 a game, to starter Byron Scott’s 0.8 threes per game.

If Al Davis had had the desire to own and run a pro basketball team in either the ABA or NBA, do you think (based on his fierce competitive spirit) he would have had success like with his Raiders?

The thing about Al that was so amazing, he didn’t play the game beyond the high school level and he wasn’t much good at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn. He just thought his way into coaching, working his way up with brains and will. Anyone who overcomes an obstacle like that and succeeds at his level can’t be underestimated. In the right situation, he might have succeeded far beyond what people might expect…. In Red Auerbach’s day, there wasn’t anyone around as smart and as far-sighted as he was. He built multiple powerhouses including the game’s greatest dynasty — the Russell teams who won 11 titles in 13 years —without a single player that someone else couldn’t have taken ahead of him, starting with Bill Russell. It’s amazing enough that Red did all he did so I wouldn’t be the one to say someone else could have done that, too, but one thing Al was, was smart.

What do you consider your biggest scoop as an NBA beat writer? Did it seem huge in your mind at the time? Or grow in significance over time? Was it a real challenge to keep the scoop a secret?

I got a scoop once on a 76er coach — Billy Cunningham replacing Gene Shue — which I thought was cool because the owner, Fitz Dixon, was trying to dump stuff to another paper (I was then on the Bulletin)…. I got a few more like that but scoops were really my thing. Overview was.

What did it mean to you, both personally and professionally, that legendary New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey asked you to write his 2009 Hall of Fame program piece for that special day in Springfield, Mass., when he was honored for his inimitable, important career?

Personally, it meant a lot because we were friends. Professionally, it meant as much or more because Peter’s respect didn’t come cheaply. Love him or hate him — and he’d be the first one to tell you there were plenty of both — there’s no one who wouldn’t say he was a giant in the biz.

How influential was George Kiseda as a mentor to you? And if so, what about his work experience and approach to covering the NBA resonated with you?

Ten on a scale of 10 (or 11 on a scale of 11, as in “Spinal Tap”). George was a mentor to a lot of people — young writers followed him around as if he was the Pied Piper — and one of my best friends. He was the most brilliant guy I ever met in newspapers — or in any other sphere — in everything from writing to generating totally original story ideas to copy editing, which he did late in his career. On the desk at the Los Angeles Times, he wrote headlines that had better ideas in them than the stories under them. As our Olympic editor at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, our boss, Bill Dwyre, credited him with the Red Smith Award Bill received (in 1996) from the Associated Press Sports Editors for our stellar coverage.

George was also the most courageous man I ever saw in newspapers, someone who took controversial stands in important areas — especially race relations — long before newspapers (and sports editors) were comfortable doing that sort of thing… as in 1957 when he pointed out that Army, an institution run with tax dollars, was going to play Tulane in a segregated stadium, the Sugar Bowl. George’s column was read on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Army was obliged to forego a big payday to move the game to its own campus. And George was ordered not to write about non-sports issues in the pages of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, leading him to depart for Philadelphia.

George was also the greatest basketball writer I ever saw, the man who all but single-handedly introduced irreverence to the process — which made NBA coverage different from other sports in which everyone took himself so seriously — with his various teams like All-Interview and All-Flake.

There are few of us left who saw George in his prime but we’re all still slack-jawed with awe.

Peter, Bob Ryan and I joined together in writing a letter to the Hall of Fame to urge that he receive the Curt Gowdy Award for print journalism. To many of us who knew George, there should be an award named after him.

Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, and then receiving that honor in Springfield, Mass., too, was it beyond your wildest dreams that your career in journalism would include the top honors?

Truly. In the beginning I just wanted to watch a major league baseball game from the press box.

The summer of 1967 when I graduated, and was about to leave from my native Illinois for my first job in Rochester, N.Y., I went down to St. Louis to see a Cardinal game. I had binoculars with me and I spotted Taylor Bell, a guy I had gone to school with at Illinois (who became a high school writing icon in Chicago) sitting in the press box. I couldn’t imagine anything that could be cooler than that.

How did leaving Illinois and getting to compete and grow and gain experience in the tough sports media market of Philly point you in the right direction to become one of the best in the biz at covering the NBA?

First, thanks for the compliment. The greatest —and luckiest — thing to happen to me was to wend my way to Philadelphia after two years in Rochester, N.Y., following my graduation from the University of Illinois.

Going to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked for three years before going to the Philadelphia Bulletin for seven gave me the opportunity to work against, learn from and become friends with greats like George Kiseda, Stan Hochman, Sandy Grady, Tom Cushman, Gary Smith, Alan Richman, Ray Didinger, Mark Whicker, Rich Hoffman, et al.

As great as New York and Boston were in sports writing, Philadelphia writers took special pride in what we were doing. I think we were the toughest sports writing city, emblematic of our readership.

My first year in town in 1969, I went to the exhibition football opener between the Cowboys and the Eagles. They were introducing the players one by one, running out onto the turf in Franklin Field and when they got to tackle Lane Howell, the whole place went up in boos — and this was years before they used to say who holding penalties were on. I thought to myself, “What great fans!” I was thrilled to work there.

Was it really more laid back working for a newspaper in L.A. than in Philly? Or is that a misconception?

If was definitely more laid-back in Los Angeles because there was no real competition for my paper, the Times, even before the Herald Examiner folded.

When I was hired in 1979, the Times had a “daily news magazine” format with long features more or a priority than hard news gathering.

An East Coast writer I knew had a joke about it, claiming that all the L.A. baseball writers would ask Dodger Manager Walter Alston was, “Good game, Skip, Sutton going tomorrow?”

It was too close to being true for Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Shirley, who hired a bunch of us from around the country to put more teeth into our coverage.

Nevertheless, the people who did the hiring at the Los Angeles Times were extremely sharp. The section I worked on in the Olympic year of 1984 was the best I have ever seen in the biz with Jim Murray and Scott Ostler as our columnists, beat writers like Mike Littwin, Alan Greenberg, Richard Hoffer and Gordon Edes — and young upcoming young guys like Rick Reilly, Gene Wojciechowski, Mike Penner, Chris Dufresne and Sam Farmer who weren’t even on beats yet.

What were a few hard lessons (and embarrassing mistakes) you made at the Bulletin and Inquirer that looking back on now you view as vital in your maturation and development as a journalist?

The hardest lesson was how to stand up to people on the beat in order to write what you thought needed to be written, no matter how anyone felt about it.

The worst day I had in my first 10 years in the business was the one in which I trotted out stats to show the 76ers’ 47-35 record in the 1970-71 season was only better than their 42-40 mark the year before because of their record against the three new expansion teams.

True as that was, it set off Coach Jack Ramsay, who made a remark about all the critics. When I asked him later if he wanted to talk about it, he snarled, “I don’t give a fuck what you write,” and stomped off.

It hurt me so much, I resolved to leave the business. I revered Ramsay, a really upright kind of guy, as did so many who knew him. That was a lesson to me — don’t revere people you cover. Don’t like them, or dislike them. Just cover them. It’s not a personal relationship, it’s a professional one.

I actually would become friendly with Ramsay later on when I was no longer covering him day to day. (that’s usually what happens over the years, even with Al Davis, who demonized me for every day of the five years I covered his Raiders). But from then on, I knew to protect myself against investing in someone I was covering.

Of course, five years covering Al, who once told me straight out in the weird accent of his that he would never sit down for an interview with me because “Ah think youah a prick,” was a lifetime of experience all by itself.

gasol-and-heisler
Former Lakers star Pau Gasol and Mark Heisler

Is there an over-reliance in statistics and analytics by basketball writers today? For example, do you think the game story of, say, 1985 was better and more interesting for the average reader (perhaps because of better descriptive writing) than what appears in online news sites and newspapers today?

I think there is. Modern “analytics” is very much in vogue now, especially on the internet. The problem is, all statistics aren’t equally useful, nor are all statisticians.

Sharp ones like Zach Lowe are discerning in the way the use stats. The internet is full of less discerning guys who throw numbers around as if they’re a magic language, no matter how well or badly they’re conceived.

This is the age of the algorithm, which is a black-box kind of analysis based on a model somebody constructs, spitting out stats that no one understands, like WAR, which discerning baseball people (I like Keith Law a lot) use), or basketball’s PER.

I think a lot of John Hollinger — whatever you think of their models, a lot of analytic guys are really sharp — but his PER is one of my pet peeves. If you look at PER rankings, there are always total anomalies that make you wonder what the whole thing is worse, like (presently) Javale McGee at No. 32 and Jabari Parker at No. 44…. If PER suggests that a backup center averaging 8.3 minutes a game is somehow better than one of the league’s hottest comers, I’d suggest the stat has shown itself to be problematic, rather than telling you anything of value.

Indeed, the PER anomalies all have incredibly high shoot percentages, since the guys mostly just dunk lobs.

There’s also the issue of whether a single list can sum up up the difference between big players, who get points, rebounds, blocks and have high shooting percentages, and perimeter players who get points, assists, steals and threes. Personally, I don’t think it can, and I think the anomalies I cited suggest that.

There’s also the issue of how modern “advanced stats” apply from sport to sport. I think there’s much better application to baseball, which is a static game in which there really is additional value with every base you gain, so that On-Base Percentage really does measure something of more value than mere Batting Average.

Basketball is a fluid, zero-sum game in which any shot I take is one that you can’t take. I think it’s harder to apply statistical measure to than baseball. Bottom line, some stats work better than others but there’s too little recognition of that fact and too much inclination to throw around dumb numbers like basketball’s “usage rate” which essentially just adds up all the numbers, including turnovers, as if they’re all equal.

To me, this piece* really demonstrated your ability to capture the essence of a person’s life, work and legacy? Was there a level of satisfaction that went into writing about Vin Scully at the end of his remarkable career that topped the level associated with most other assignments?

*http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/last_call_for_vin_scully_the_king_of_los_angeles_20160923http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/last_call_for_vin_scully_the_king_of_los_angeles_20160923

To me, the satisfaction doesn’t come from saying nice things about someone lots of people love. It’s in doing the job as well as I’m capable of doing it, even before I start the actual writing, thinking it through so that I can give the reader a chance to see the subject in the context of the big picture… and in a way that you can’t read 100 other places.

Also, I love to make readers laugh. I know how much I love it when I read someone who does that to me. The whole story doesn’t have to be a comedy routine but great lines are great lines.

I always like it if I can figure out something to say that no one has. In this piece, I looked at the devotion of Vin in the context of the hometown baseball announcers I grew with like Harry Caray, whom I listened to as a boy 100 miles from St. Louis; Harry with both teams in Chicago; Jack Buck in St. Louis; Harry Kalas in Philadelphia and, of course, the one and only Vin. (There are more, I just didn’t happen to grow up with, like Red Barber and Ernie Harwell.)

What it suggests is something deeper than mere baseball. These guys are on the air so much as voices of hope, creating such a bond with their audience, they’re more than sports announcers. They’re like doing the narrative of the entire community.

What was the greatest all-around team in NBA history? Is there a clear cut No. 2 in your mind?

To be meaningful, I think “best team” has to include achievements from more than one season.

I’ll overcome the inevitable tendency to overvalue relatively recent events and go with the Russell Celtics, who won 11 titles in his 13 seasons. From there, you could pick out your favorite — like the team that won 60 games in an eight-team league with Bob Cousy still active and Sam Jones and K.C. Jones coming up under him.

At No. 2, I’ll go with the Michael Jordan Bulls’ champs from 1996-1997-1998, when they won 72, 69 and 62 in the regular season.

To me, that’s way ahead of Golden State winning 67-73 the last two seasons but only one of the two titles. If you look at multiple seasons, whatever the Warriors’ level of greatness is, it has yet to be determined.

That’s the way it should be. To me, the answer to most sports questions being debated at any given time is: Incomplete.

What was the most stunning NBA Finals game you witnessed? Why?

Game 5 of the 1976 Finals in Boston where the Celtics had just taken a two-point lead at the end of regulation, about to go up, 3-2, on Phoenix. I was getting an early start to the dressing room, which you had to do with all the people there. I was shuffling along behind everyone… when Gar Heard hit his famous “shot Heard ’round the world” to tie it at the end of regulation, a 17-foot moon ball over Don Nelson after in-bounding it with :01 left in the first of three overtime sessions.

So I’m shuffling along toward the dressing room, jammed in with everyone else, when I see Gar’s shot go way up, and come way down, into the hoop… so i turn around and shuffle back the way I came.

That was also the game in which the Suns’ Paul Westphal called for a timeout they didn’t have, taking a technical foul and giving up a point — which made the Boston lead two points but moved the ball up to half-court for the in-bounds play, giving Heard a chance to tie the game.

That was also the game in which a Celtic fan wrested referee Richie Powers to the floor in the melee after Boston took its lead before Heard’s shot. The fans thought the Celtics had won the game but the refs then summoned both teams back onto the floor.

It went three OTs with Dave Cowens and Paul Silas fouling out before the Celts won to take that elusive 3-2 lead. The Celtics then closed the series out in Game 6 in Phoenix with everyone emotionally exhausted.

Had the Suns managed to pull it out, they’d have been going home with that 3-2 lead and history might have been different.

What were 2-3 of the most difficult breaking news assignments you had on the NBA beat? (I would predict Magic’s HIV announcement/retirement in November 1991 would be at or near the top.)

You would be right. We were all working with lumps in our throats that day.

Nothing else comes close to that. That wasn’t a sports story. That was real life, and, we thought, death… although I had such admiration for Earvin and his remarkably positive mindset, I didn’t really believe this would kill him.

In any case, I cried when I wrote my last line about Magic in that week’s Sunday column, the one in which Jerry West told me something on the lines of, “Somewhere there’s a young player on a playground who’ll be better than Magic, but there will never be another leader as good.”

Is Adam Silver as effective a commissioner as you thought he’d be when he was chosen to follow David Stern?

I think Adam has been great, in part because David left him a league in such good shape after all the misadventures they had endured in the years after the 1998 end of the Jordan dynasty in Chicago, like the 2004 Auburn Hills riot and the 2008 Tim Donaghy scandal.

I had my share of go-arounds with David but I always thought very highly of him. He was not only highly intelligent but imposing going on intimidating. He had been a litigating lawyer —the ones who go to court —so standing in against him in a press conference called for all you could summon in the way of poise because he took great delight in making you look foolish.

He did it to me once when I asked a poorly-thought-out question at the 2007 Las Vegas All-Star Game. Happily, David had mowed down the two guys who asked better questions before I did, enabling me to write that NBA reporters didn’t ask questions so the commissioner could answer them, but, instead, got run over by the commissioner.

David called me at home the next day and apologized. I told him he didn’t have to since give and take is part of the process. Of course, I thought that much more of him because he did.

What was Stern’s biggest accomplishment at the helm? What mistake(s) that he made had a profound impact on the game?

As I said, he kept the league together in the down years between the end of the Jordan Bulls dynasty in 1998, which represented the league’s high point.

It was 10 increasingly grisly seasons from there to the rebirth of the Laker-Celtic wars in 2008, marked by the riot in which NBA players slugged NBA fans, on camera, and the mother of all officiating scandals.

The Laker-Celtic Finals of 2008 and 2010 were followed by LeBron’s adventure in Miami, giving the NBA a ratings-driving celebrated team, if one that everyone hated.

From there, it was a straight line to the new $2.6 billion TV deal that guaranteed prosperity for all after all those years battling in the bushes.

Who are, for you, a half-dozen or so must-read sources of NBA news and commentary these days?

No surprise, anything Woj (Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski) writes. What he has done in this age in which everyone goes nuts trying to get news is truly amazing.

Bryan Curtis of the Ringer is one of the smartest guys out there, although he doesn’t specialize in NBA stuff. Frank Isola of NY Daily News. Ramona Shelburne, Brian Windhorst, Marc Stein and Baxter Holmes of ESPN. Mitch Lawrence of Forbes.com. Howard Beck and Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report. Mike Bresnahan of Time Warner and Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times, my long-time teammates at LAT. Scott Howard-Cooper, Fran Blinebury and Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. Bill Oram and Dan Woike, my current teammates at Southern California News Group. Kevin Modesti, an editorial writer for the Southern California News Group who’s a former sports writer and one of sharpest I know.

How has covering the game changed for the better and for the worse over the past few decades?

Much less access to players, who have much bigger heads. Back in the day, the guys didn’t make enough money to take themselves that seriously. We hung out with them, especially as far as travel was concerned, flying on the same planes, riding the same buses, killing time in the same airports. Whether or not we did a good job of explaining who they were, we knew players then a lot better then than we know them now.

What’s your favorite basketball book of all time? Sports book? Non-sports book?

“Catch-22” for non-sports book.

“A Season on the Brink” for sports books. Major props to John Feinstein for a year spend with the tyrant of tyrants, Bobby Knight.

“Hoop Dreams” for the all-time best work of sports journalism.

Who would make your 15-man rotation of all-time best players? Why?

Michael, Magic, Larry, LeBron, Kobe

Kareem, Wilt, Russell, Hakeem, Shaq, West, Oscar, Elgin, Duncan, Charles

As to why, just because they were the best. It’s great if they led their teams to titles but not all-important if greats like Barkley (or, especially, Mailman or Stockton) didn’t.

The problem I have with naming top teams is leaving people off and making it look like they’re less deserving. I think it’s awful if someone like Ron Santo dies feeling bad about not getting into the Hall of Fame because of some sports writer’s opinion. Having been a sports writer, I don’t care what sports writers have to say.

Same concept for NBA figures – your all-time interview team, including front-office personnel and support staff?

Michael (boy next doorest), Magic (most likeable), Larry (candor humor award), Charles (funnest), West (most endearing with his heart on his sleeve), Wilt (wildest), Phil Jackson (wiggiest), Don Nelson (most creative), Gregg Popovich (really!), Donnie Walsh (mensch), Jack McMahon (mensch), Gene Shue (taught me most), Mike Dunleavy (down to earthest), Mike D’Antoni (nicest), Isiah Thomas (most heart), Bill Fitch (top story-teller)

Who are the 3-4 best TV and radio analysts working the game today? Who’s No. 1 on your list of all-time play-by-play announcers?

No. 1 all-time in basketball for me would be Marv (one name should suffice). Hip, professional and Vin-style inobtrusive…. Chick, of course, who was anything but inobtrusive but was thoroughly Chick.

For color guys, I love Jeff Van Gundy for saying the opposite of what the league wants, and Doug Collins for his sharp perspective…. And Billy Packer, a college guy, of course, for loving ball and being able to explain it as well as anyone ever has.

Before the Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter/texting era, working on and reporting stories was quite different. That said, are there a few examples from your Philly and L.A. days when your ability to work the phones and speak directly to people face-to-face developed as top-notch go-to sources for years, maybe, decades to come?

My favorite story is from the ’70s when we had everyone’s number. The 76ers just gave us a sheet, with all the home numbers on it.

So, I’m trying to find out what’s going on with the 76ers and Coach-GM Jack Ramsay, so I call up Hal Greer… but I dial the wrong number and get Matty Guokas, the next name down on the list.

Matty tells me he was in the office the day before and knew what I was trying to find out, giving me the scoop: The 76ers were bumping Jack down to coach only and would hire a new GM.

The Los Angeles Times has lost a huge amount of talent and experience and proven expertise in sports in the past several years. When you see the direction the paper has taken and the similar situations at news outlets across the country, do you think the big-city sports section as a staple of news consumer’s information diet has vanished for good?

The importance of the local paper hasn’t vanished — the better the local one is, the luckier its readers are — but obviously the old days are over.

My generation was obsessed with writing, who the hot writers were, who the tough writers were, etc. Nowadays, it’s more about who gets hits and who gets on TV — which means, to a great extent, who works for ESPN, the billion-pound gorilla. On the other hand, someone has to dominate. It was the same way my L.A. Times dominated the other papers around here locally, pre-internet.

There is still a place for long form but it seems to be a shrunken place. It’s no wonder there’s so little perspective, and that holds true in more areas than sports, like — witness the recent campaign —politics.

***

Word-association time … What phrases and/or words immediately come to mind for …?

Wilt Chamberlain… Fun guy. Guy’s guy. A gift for any writer he say down with.

Elgin Baylor… The stars’ star in his day, all too forgotten today.

Rick Barry… A difficult guy but a great, incredibly precise player.

Magic Johnson… Best at dealing with people I ever saw and he dealt with a huge number of them.

Jerry Buss… Best owner for being engaged but not too engaged, furnishing the grand vision while backing up his professionals.

Chick Hearn… Chick Hearn.

James Worthy… As great a guy as a player. The one who hugged me when I told him I was leaving the Laker beat.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar… Stand-offish but really smart. Did more journalism than most journalists.

Jerry West… All heart, all smart: the logo, definition of an icon, NBA’s greatest exec after being one of its very greatest players.

Phil Jackson… All eccentric. smart, too.

Kobe Bryant… All Kobe all the time, but if what you do is what counts, he’s the most passionate basketball player the game ever saw.

Larry Bird… Country humorist with totally urban chops. video of players on Atlanta bench falling over each other at his improbable shot is one of funniest ever.

Bill Russell… Not best center ever but definitely the most competitive, not to mention winningest.

Bill Walton… There but for good health goes the best center there ever was. Awesome in his life for the game.

Michael Jordan… Had it all, including personality. Deservedly considered the best there ever was.

Bob Ryan… Greatest gig there ever was. One of the greatest hoop writers ever covering one of the greatest ongoing stories for one of the greatest sports sections.

Peter Vecsey… Had the same deal as Bob except Pete did it his way and Bob did it his.

Red Auerbach… Smartest NBA guy ever, from an age in which you could out-smart people — which is how they won 11 in 13 seasons without a single player they had the first shot at, then built powerhouses someone else could have had, Dave Cowens and Larry Bird.

Pat Williams… Showman. Unbelievable energy. Still going strong.

Marv Albert… How to broadcast basketball. Hip and unobtrusive, the NBA version of Vin.

Donald Sterling… My cottage industry.

Ralph Lawler… Almost as much of an iron horse as Chick. Special commendation for being as good as he has been for as long as he has been, with the team a laughingstock for so much of it.

Bill Dwyre… Thanks for the memories!

*AND A BONUS TALE*

me-and-al-1
TV screen grab

Heisler explained the on-TV mix-up this way: “Photo is a TV capture from a Raider game in Denver in 1987. I was taken by it, of course, because they put Al’s name over me.
The timing was exquisite. Al had just sent his PR guy, Irv Kaze, to tell me to watch what I wrote or they could ban me from their practice facility.

“We used to extend off-the-record privileges to Al when he sat in the press box, as he did for road games like this.This time, I made sure to use something in my story that he yelled — he was always cheering, moaning, etc.— to signal I wasn’t going with the program.

“I never did get barred. Al later told Mike Ornstein, his bulldog of a promotions guy, to throw me out, but Orny —whom I later became very friendly with—didn’t want any more notoriety, having become infamous for throwing CBS’s Irv Cross off the Raider sideline before the 1984 Super Bowl, and wouldn’t do it.

“So, not being the confrontational type, himself despite his swashbuckling image, Al couldn’t get me thrown off his own lot. That was the stuff you went through all the time with the Raiders. They should have given combat ribbons for covering them.”

***
Follow Mark Heisler on Twitter: @MarkHeisler

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

By Ed Odeven TOKYO (Jan. 4, 2017) — Aram Goudsouzian has two very interesting, interconnected jobs. He’s the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, and he writes books that examine historical periods and figures, important events and iconic personalities. Dr. Goudsouzian has written “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith […]

By Ed Odeven

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

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

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

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

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

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

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

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

What are you writing about now?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers
Aram Goudsouzian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

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

What are you writing about now?

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

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

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

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

 

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

An indispensable figure in NBA history and league operations in North America and around the world … (The definitive interview with Terry Lyons)

David Stern become NBA commissioner in February 1984, and Terry Lyons (second from left) attends the ceremony.
Witnessing history: David Stern became NBA commissioner in February 1984, and Terry Lyons (second from left) attends an “office humor” ceremony a few days after the real one.
Terry Lyons photo
Terry Lyons photo
Terry Lyons was in charge of all NBA communications, public relations and media activities outside the United States from 1992 through 2007. PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA PHOTOS
Terry Lyons was in charge of all NBA communications, public relations and media activities outside the United States from 1992 through 2007. PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA PHOTOS

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (Oct. 2, 2014) — Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and David Stern are all names synonymous with the NBA’s rise in popularity during the 1980s. But there were, of course, key personnel in the league office building the foundation for success in the decades to come.

Terry Lyons was one of those individuals. In fact, he filled some of the most important roles behind the scenes.

“Terry Lyons’ enormous contributions to our media relations efforts for almost three decades have been a key driver to our growth, domestically and internationally,” Stern was quoted as saying in a statement posted on Lyons’ website. ” He has grown up with the NBA and the NBA has grown up with him. Terry has traveled the world on behalf of the NBA and Team USA, spreading the basketball gospel. He has worked arduously to enhance international media coverage of our teams and our games and he has made the NBA office a welcoming center for the global basketball community and international media. We will miss him greatly, and wish him continued professional success and much personal happiness.”

So how does a man summarize his life’s work? That was a task Terry Lyons handled with precision this week, writing in the third person.

“Terry Lyons was best known to the NBA basketball fans of Japan when he ran the NBA’s international communications department and frequently worked with the many Japanese reporters who covered the league,” he wrote. “Lyons made over a dozen trips to Japan, many to help organize and stage the NBA Japan Games, the series of regular season games the league staged in Tokyo, Yokohama and Saitama. Lyons also work with USA Basketball for the men’s and women’s Olympic teams and that included the 2006 FIBA World Championship when the USA played its games in Sapporo and Saitama.

“Lyons’ career with the NBA spanned from 1981 to 2008. He worked at a record 135 consecutive NBA Finals games dating from 1983 until 2007. Since stepping down from his executive post, Lyons relocated to New England with his family and is enjoying his entrepreneurial projects of launching a sports news site – http://www.DigitalSportsDesk.com – voted by the WGBH “Boston A-List” as a Top 5 sports site. Lyons spends the majority of his time working as Chief Marketing Officer for a technology-based Fantasy Sports company, Hotbox Sports Ventures (http://www,hotboxsports.com). Lyons is also an investor in a popular, casual restaurant and lounge, West End Johnnie’s which is located a block from the TD Garden in Boston.”

The following interview was conducted by email.

***

Can you give a general overview of your current work projects at Hotbox Sports, Terry Lyons Sports Marketing LLC, Digital Sports Desk and other ventures you are involved in and some short-term and long-term goals? And what’s a typical week for you like – can you provide a basic rundown?

One of the things I enjoy most about my work and the way I can live now, is that there is no such thing as a typical week. I dedicate a significant amount of time as we continue to build Hotbox Sports Ventures, which is a very interesting company that is coming of age in front of my eyes after years of hard work. Hotbox Sports is more of a Business-to-Business technology company than a “typical” Fantasy sports company. We work with sports teams, sports leagues, State and Govt. lotteries, media companies and others to build custom sports fantasy games. We’re doing a lot with the international fubol space and, of course, have great offerings for basketball, baseball and ice hockey – more so that the space everyone else seems to be working in and that being NFL American football. Aside from Hotbox Sports, where I’ve been overseeing Business Development and now some Marketing efforts, I work with some select and very highly regarded clients with Communications plans and projects. In the past few years, I’ve enjoyed working with the AND1 Basketball company, Runner’s World – mainly surrounding the Boston Marathon – the Basketball Hall of Fame (for Michael Jordan’s induction and that of the USA Basketball Dream Team). And, when I can find some time, I love to write and create content for my sports site, DigitalSportsDesk – which is a one-man creation with the help from video provider, CineSport, sports images from Getty Images and my good friends at SportsDirect Inc to keep all the scores and stats up-to-the-minute. It keeps me busy seven days a week which is good, but I can keep pretty flexible hours and can work from anywhere. And, I get to see my kids continue to grow and learn. I see them so much more than when I was at the NBA.

Who are in your view, a few unsung heroes at the NBA league office(s), who have been an integral part of the league’s rise in popularity and global prominence? Can you sum up how they’ve been instrumental in key ways that don’t grab the headlines on a regular basis?

That’s a great question and one I’ve never been asked before. I could name 20 or 30 people for sure, but I’ll pick two. Ski Austin, the head of the NBA Events & Attractions department is retiring this week and he might be one of the league’s all-time most unsung heroes. Like me, he sort of “grew up” at the NBA over the past 25 years or so. He is in charge of every event the NBA conducts, and that includes organizing the NBA All-Star Game, the many preseason international events around the world, the International series of regular season games, this year in Mexico and Britain, all WNBA events, D-League, USA Basketball and the many league functions, like Board of Governors meetings. You name it, Ski’s done it. His staff are all a bunch of hard-working miracle workers with an amazing scope of talent and an equally amazing ability to pay attention to details. He is very well liked and very, very well respected by everyone he’s ever come in contact with via the NBA. The league will miss him a lot.

The other is Matt Winick, the NBA’s Senior VP for Basketball Operations who oversees both the NBA schedule and the scheduling of the officials. Talk about a thankless job. But Matt gets it done, largely by himself. He needs a ton of input from the teams, of course and the team people, while they might like to complain about their game schedules, it’s usually Matt that saves them from themselves when they book other non-NBA events and then fall into the trap of placing their own tenant/team in a bad situation, especially at playoff time and when the building is booked with both NBA and NHL teams. Then, the refs’ schedule is equally important and just as hard to deal with, especially when a handful (or even 1 or 2) refs are injured. Matt is a wonderful colleague, as honest and sincere and hard working as they come. And, full disclosure — he gave me my start at the NBA when I interned for him when he was the Media Relations and Information director in 1980-81. I owe a lot to Matt and he’s now a dear friend and a true unsung hero at the NBA.

Looking back on your 25 years of work at the NBA, and related duties for USA Basketball, what do you consider a handful of top achievements you had an active role in successfully implementing? (Examples: media policies that increased public consumption of the sport, working with the teams’ PR guys in better, smarter ways, etc.)

That’s a tough one. In the 25+ years, we really worked hard to create the entire PR/Press/Media/TV operation at the NBA, from working with the teams and players on policies that guide game-related access and media operations to the digital stat system, to the modern-day analytics that are so prominent now. We were in the pioneering role for that. It really doesn’t seem all that long ago when they were doing it all by hand, hand writing the final boxscore and faxing the paper back to the news papers and to Elias to compile league stats. It was a very steadfast, gradual climb to get it all together as the technology changed for the better. One of the things I’m most proud of was the creation of NBA Photos. I pushed for it, framed it, planned it, staffed it and really enjoyed launching NBA Photos in about 1986. It was all on color slides back then, and the digital world was about to explode, making the vast infrastructure of the league’s images a vital cog for the league. After it launched and grew rapidly – from just two photographers (Andrew D. Bernstein in L.A. and Nat Butler in N.Y./N.J.) – we slid it to NBA Entertainment where the function was much better suited. I’m also proud of NBA.com and the fact the “Global Game” sections still play a vital role for the NBA today. That was my baby! It was great. Now, NBA Photos is part of Getty Images and its a million-dollar business. Sometimes, I think back and just say, “Another brick in the Wall!”

You cite the 1984 Finals, Game 7, Celtics-Lakers showdown on your website as a favorite game? Why did you chose that one?

That was just a very memorable night at the old Boston Garden and the decisive game in an amazing seven-game series. As much as I appreciated every game and what every team brought to the table, and that includes Michael Jordan’s run with the Chicago Bulls, of course. But, those LA Lakers vs Boston Celtics series were the best. Magic was the best player I’d ever, ever seen in person. James Worthy was a SUPERSTAR. Big Game JAMES. Kareem? Cooper. And, the Celtics – with Larry Bird-Robert Parish-Kevin McHale, then DJ, Walton (in ’86) – they were just a team for the ages. Those memories go very deep, the hot nights in the Garden, some 12:30 p.m. L.A. starts, the crowds packed in. Two great, great teams. I could go on and on!

What are the best nicknames bestowed upon NBA players? Teams? Coaches?

Wow. It’s fun to think about some of these and again, I’ve never been asked that question! I have to say the best nickname of all-time is bestowed upon Julius “Dr. J” Erving, also known as “The Doctor,” or my favorite was to just call him “Doc.” Think about it? Is there a better name in sports? Dr. J! He was a guy that was so media friendly and was held in such high esteem, but, forget all that – When he was on the court, he just dominated. His “In-Game” dunks were the best ever. He changed the game but he was always so courteous and gave the props to Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins and some others. I had the great fortune to watch Dr. J play in the old ABA when I was growing up, not far from where he grew up. I never saw him in high school, but I did see him play when he was at UMass and then with the Virginia Squires and NY Nets, before he went to the 76ers. — My No. 2 might go the the great Seattle Sonics guard “Slick Watts.”

Based on what you observed and heard about, which writer(s) and/or broadcasters asked the toughest questions and best questions after games to players and coaches?

The best questions always came from the crew of team beat writers who traveled with the clubs and saw all 82 games. They knew the teams they covered and had to be critical when needed. For the most part, the NBA had a legion of very good reporters and broadcasters covering the sport in those key years – call it 1970-2000 or so. Then, the budgets crushed the newspapers, so many folded, fewer were assigned to travel the beat and it all went downhill fast.It is too hard to name just a few, but, I’ll try: Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated comes right to mind. Peter Vecsey of the NY Post really created a niche as the NBA league-wide notes columnist and he wrote massive columns three or for times per week. All good stuff, unless he ripped you! David Aldridge did (and still does) a great job, Ron Thomas, Greg Boeck and David Dupree at Washington, then the USA Today paper, Ian Thomsen of the Boston Globe, then the International Herald Tribune, then SI.com was brilliant. Philly’s Phil Jasner, Dallas Ed Sefko, Denver/SA reporter Mike Monroe, Boston’s Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullen and Leigh Montville all deserve mention. Montville is the best writer in the land. Nowadays it’s so different and harder, as everything is condensed and it’s a 24/7 news cycle. Adrian Woj (Wojnarowski) of Yahoo just kicks ass now. He’s alone as the top guy.

People saw David Stern on TV for years, doing the NBA Draft presentation with the lottery picks, for instance. What’s similar, and different, about his personality in the big boardroom with the league’s head honchos compared to, say, when he’s at a local diner at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday in Anytown USA?

David’s persona and ever-lasting image and legacy of being the hard-charging Commissioner/CEO of the NBA will live on forever. I think he’s the same in the board room as he is if he’s ordering breakfast. He expects and demands competency. Period. That’s all. He prefers perfection, but simply demands getting the best from a person, whether they be an NBA employee who was cashing a check with his name at the bottom, or from anyone. He has tremendous compassion and he’ll – LITERALLY – drop everything to help someone in need. That’s the stuff no one ever hears about, but that’s the way he wants it, and I respect that. I was able to, errr, SURVIVE, or make it THRIVE, really, because of that high expectation. And, what do I say to my kids? We have one golden rule… “Try your very best.” – Thankfully, they abide by that rule. And, it works. On everything.

If you were stranded on a deserted island with only three books about the NBA (such as biographies, history, etc.), which three would you want to have close by?

I’ve been asked the Desert Island Albums/Discs but never NBA books! You’d have to have the NBA Encyclopedia, although its getting a little dated. It’s a great resource. I’d cheat and get an official NBA Guide and Register delivered every year! That’s three. For fun? “Breaks of the Game” by (David) Halberstam.

What do you miss most about the demanding workload of the NBA? What do you miss least about the job?

I think I miss the work with USA Basketball the most. It was an amazing ride. I worked on the NBA’s interaction with the ’84 and ’88 teams when the NBA threw together some summer-time all-star teams to scrimmage the Olympic team as they prepped for L.A. and Seoul. Then, of course, I was intimately involved in the ’89-92 formation of the Dream Team, then every event from ’92 to the 2008 Olympics. Wow, it was an amazing ride. Best memory? Antonio McDyess’ put-back at Sydney 2000 when we were in that tough game against Lithuania. That locker room celebration was unreal. What passion. Vince Carter was the man! KG (Kevin Garnett), Ray Allen might’ve been one of the best USA international players ever, together with Jason Kidd and David Robinson. Of course the 1956 team had Bill Russell who was THE BEST player ever, NBA and Globally.

Miss least? The travel and the LONG travel, not in distance but the sheer number of days away from home. Sometimes 30+ days away from the wife and kids. In Sydney 2000, that was tough, as my youngest was 1 or so … But then we did it again to Brisbane for the Goodwill Games in 2001. Then, you’d barely get home and head out for another month on the NBA’s busy October preseason tilt. It was just too much and it was magnified when I had the kids at home. I think the USA and NBA PR guys were gone for about 45-50 days this summer.

Can you cite five players and five coaches who would immediately come to mind as top candidates for the NBA’s all-time all-interview team? And what makes each of them a worthy part of the list?

Players:
1-through-5 – All Charles Barkley! He’s the best – All time.

Seriously, I’ll list them.

PLAYERS
1. Charles
2. Julius Erving
3. David Robinson
4. Magic Johnson
5. Yao Ming (he was unreal and I name him to represent another 50-75 international greats)

COACHES:
1. Jerry Sloan
2. Rudy Tomjanovich
3. Pat Riley
4. Hubie Brown
5. Jack Ramsay

The late Dr. Jack Ramsay had an infectious love for the game and a gift for sharing it with others in so many ways — through broadcasts, through books, through clinics, through conversations, for instance. The same could be said for Sixers stat man and info guru Harvey Pollack, who in his own right is an institution within the NBA. In a nutshell, what have guys like these two done to put their stamp on the sport within the larger framework of American society?

Funny, as I named Dr Jack and then saw the next question right as I did it! Let me say this, In all of the years at all of the events, the NBA Finals were always the best, the most competitive, the best basketball in the world. After a Finals game, even though the game ended at Midnight and we worked until 2 a.m. or later, there was NOTHING better than to go back to the hotel to unwind a bit, and sit and listen to Jack Ramsay holding court at a small table, usually with his ESPN crew or the NBA/ESPN Radio guys and gals. It was heaven. Jack and Hubie taught me a lot about the game and I was a sponge for that insight. Thankfully, I grew up in a “basketball family” so I had a pretty good foundation and a real appreciation of the game.

Harvey is one of a kind. Super Stats. I always enjoyed his company in Philly and he is a good friend. He belongs in the Hall, right where he is as a Bunn Award honoree, just like my old boss, Brian McIntyre.

Based on your experiences, what’s the most important advice you could dish out to any pro team’s or pro league’s PR department to build a foundation for success?

Build relationships. Period. Honor those relationships with credibility. Do what you say you are going to do. Be reliable. Case closed.

To the PRs, all of the above, but to add advice to not be afraid to say, I don’t know but I can try to find out for you.

Return calls and messages promptly. Pick up the phone and don’t rely on email.

From your point of view, are players too media savvy these days, what with the ability to deliver their own message in so many ways via Facebook, Twiter, YouTube, Instagram, social media and other means? Does that take away from some of the spontaneity of interviews that help generate good stories?

No. I think the players are evolving alongside of the media. That’s fine. And face it, the leagues, teams and players can take an unfiltered message right to the masses. That’s the way it is. The “traditional” media have to “get over it” and move on, build a new model, It’s a whole new world and it starts tomorrow.

Similarly, what are the biggest changes and job demands that team and league PR staff face nowadays compared to when you joined the league office in the early 1980s?

The massive changes in technology are a blessing and a curse. We were typing the news on IBM selectric typewriters with broken ribbons. The amount of time saved by better tech is mind-boggling. The Internet changed EVERYTHING for PR, especially when you think that I had to budget and spend a fortune to fax stuff around on long distance phone lines to put a piece of paper in a broadcasters or newspaper reporters hands. The challenges are all still time management, managing up and down and sideways, when it comes to your bosses, staffs, players, coaches, fans, media, wanna-be-media, so on and so on. 24 hours a day is simply not enough for a good PR guy, but you’ve got to manage the time and your life, too.

Of your favorite league stories – quirky, funny, candid tales — beyond the headlines and/or games, which ones bring you the most amusement when something reminds you of them?

Walking the Barcelona Ramblas with Charles and somehow, finding a quiet place to enjoy a few cold refreshments stands out as a pretty good story. And, I always say, when the game was done, the last writer finished and the game was in the books, so to say, Brian McIntyre would ALWAYS hand me a cold beer and say, “T, We Fooled Them Again! – Good job” – Til this day, just typing that phrase brings tears to my eyes – Laughter, and joy!

Can you pinpoint a childhood memory or influential figure that sparked your desire to pursue a career in sports and specifically NBA PR? Can it be narrowed down to one thing or a confluence of events and mentors?

From childhood, I can vividly remember watching the NBA on ABC and the parquet floor of the Boston Garden – on a BLACK and WHITE TV.  When I saw it in color when we finally got a color TV, it was amazing. Then, in ’81 to be working there and being ALLOWED to actually step on that floor pregame? To be in RED AUERBACH’s office? It was a dream come true.

An influential person was certainly Matt Winick, noted above. But, thinking back, I’d also add Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s and his longtime asst coach John Kresse – who went on to a fantastic career at College of Charleston – they named the building after him! Coach Kresse gave me a tour of St. John’s and told me about a “new” major “Sports/Athletic Administration” – a business in sports degree. That was a key moment! Another, was Bob McKillop of Davidson. He was the coach at Trinity and he helped me a lot and we’ve kept in touch all of these years, ’77 on. He is the best coach in the NCAAs. No doubt.

Which compliments you received from your time at the NBA bring you the most satisfaction? (And if you recall who said or wrote them, that’s good info.)

It’s a funny question, when the game was done and you were monitoring the post game and the writers were all tapping/typing away. That clatter was like fine music to my ears. They had enough info, good service, accurate stats, working electricity, decent light, access, access to the players and coaches.I think I was my toughest judge and critic, so, I looked for those moments. And yes, when I decided to step down, the compliments were plenty. The best? All the writers chipped in and bought me every single Rolling Stones CD ever made. All of them. I was speechless. Seriously, I opened that present and was in a daze for about 10-15 minutes.

Is the NBA effectively using its Hall of Famers, top 50 players and past icons enough to promote the game, in the U.S. and abroad, and share its rich history with younger generations?

Yes. very effectively and ever-growing. Since the NBA at 50, the league has done a GREAT job on that.
Ask guys like Clyde Drexler, Darryl Dawkins, Doc, Dikembe (Mutombo), Bob Lanier to mention a few.

The NBA’s global growth is a fascinating thing to learn about. During your travels for Team USA exhibitions, Olympic games, promotional events, etc., which locales outside the U.S. made the biggest impression on you for the fans’ enthusiasm and love for the game?

In no particular order …

Japan, for sure. 34-35,000 in the Tokyo Dome was a pretty serious statement. And, we had great games there.
Mexico – Great, passionate NBA fans.
Lithuania – Small country – GREAT players. Medals to prove it.
Australia – A country where SPORTS matter.
Brazil – They gave us OSCAR!
Spain and Italy and France – The cornerstone of the NBA’s international footprint in 1980. Look how it’s grown.

For you, what was most memorable, most special, about the Atlanta Hawks’ 1988 journey to the Soviet Union? (And since I’m writing these questions … what’s most memorable and special about NBA games and events over the years in Japan and Asia?)

Yes, the trip to the (former) USSR was one for the books. (Recommended reading: http://www.nba.com/global/games2013/opening-the-curtain-hawks-1988-soviet-tour.html)

On Japan, I did a small variation of the story I mentioned about me and Brian sharing a beer. Most of the time, Brian was not on site for the NBA international games. I was running them, and Brian was dealing with the ring ceremony or whatever. I took it upon myself to take a first-time Japan Games staffer and to walk them back out to the empty court when the game was long over. I’d remind them that a few hours ago, there were 34,000 people in those seats and they all enjoyed their experience. Chances are they would tell the story about that game for the rest of their lives. I would remind each NBA employee that they had played a HUGE part in that experience. They made some fans in Japan happy that day and they probably helped create a ton of new fans. That was a pretty powerful message and it was never lost on anyone.

Yao Ming’s time in the NBA and the impact it had on building China’s fan base and Chinese media coverage of the game cannot be overstated. So would a breakout NBA star from India have the same impact there?

The Yao Ming story was unimaginable. I always admired the way he dealt with it all, and let me tell ya, we put him through the old NBA PR machine! His grace, humor, professionalism was second to none and he did it bi-lingual style! A great page in the NBA’s history and a sure Hall-of-Famer.

On India, I have to simply state – “I don’t know.” – I would love to assume the impact would be as big, but I’m just not sure if it is possible. The player would have to be as good as MJ or Yao or Dirk (Nowitzki) or Pau (Gasol) or Manu (Ginobili) or Tony Parker or Steve Nash! (many others could be added!)

From a PR standpoint and the public’s perception that goes with it, how have the NFL and Roger Goodell handled the Ray Rice case? Would David Stern have managed the situation in a much different way? And how would you have suggested the NFL respond to press inquiries and public scrutiny of the case in recent weeks?

Out of respect to my colleagues at the NFL, I’ll take a pass on this one. It’s a mess and we all know it. Let’s just leave it and hope something good comes in the future.

What are your regular must-read and must-listen sources of NBA news and commentary these days?

I like the NBA on TNT coverage the best. Ernie, Kenny (Smith) and Charles. Everyone else does a very good job, but Ernie Johnson is the MAN. Mike Breen does a great job on play-by-play for the big NBA games. I like him alot, as a broadcaster and as a person. He’s the real deal. Doug Collins does a great job, too. On ESPN, their best guy, Jay Bilas, does the NCAA games. The all-time best, Marv Albert, is just that – THE BEST! Up here in Boston, Mike Gorman does a very good job on the local Comcast SportsNet and his longtime sidekick, Tommy Heinsohn makes me laugh every night. If every single call went the Celtics’ way, Heinsohn would still be claiming the refs were against the Celtics. He sort of mocks the game but it’s pretty funny. The problem is the fans actually believe him and they don;t realize he’s a cartoon. I enjoy Tommy’s banter and he always has a smile and a story for us, and I admire him greatly. Same with Satch Sanders – who frequently does analysis and functions for the Celtics. Talk about class. That is Satch. He is what the NBA is all about.

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Follow Terry Lyons online: http://terrylyons.com/

Getting the OK from the commish

David Stern wouldn’t allow Chris Paul to go work for the Lakers for the 2011-12 season, the proposed trade rejected by the commissioner because it was perceived to be a “steal” for Los Angeles.

Instead, as you know, the New Orleans Hornets sent the point guard to the Clippers. That was OK’d by the league czar.

Paul had the same home arena, Staples Center, but a different cast of teammates and a franchise with a history of failure and an unbelievable amount of instability in the past few decades. The Lakers have built dynasty after dynasty, decade after decade, starting in the franchise’s Minneapolis days…

Now what makes the Lakers’ pursuit of Paul and the Clippers’ pursuit of head coach Doc Rivers an interesting comparison is the fact that the commissioner has a say in the decision. (According to the collective bargaining agreement, coaches are not permitted to be traded for players.)

But should the Clippers be able to trade a draft pick(s) to the Celtics to land Rivers? Should Stern demand that the Celtics sever ties with Rivers as step one, followed by a normal hiring process in which a proposed player trade has nothing to do with the possibility of Rivers leaving Boston to go work in L.A.?

Interesting that the Lakers and Celtics, the league’s most successful teams, both find themselves at opposite ends of the trade spectrum in back-to-back seasons.