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

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Photos courtesy of Andrew Maraniss

 

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Andrew Maraniss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perry Wallace and Andrew Maraniss

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

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

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

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

A few other things come to mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Perry Wallace in a game against SEC rival Alabama.

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

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

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

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

Vanderbilt coach Roy Skinner shakes hands with Perry Wallace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the last great book you read?

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

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Follow Andrew Maraniss on Twitter: @trublu24

Visit his website: andrewmaraniss.com

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The Wallace family: Gabby, Perry and Karen.
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A Reminder of Charles Barkley’s Convictions

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 27, 2016) – Michael Jordan’s announcement on Monday that he is donating $1 million apiece to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Institute for Community-Police Relations is an important contribution in the aftermath of recent shooting deaths in the United States.

Larry King tweeted, “I would like to congratulate Michael Jordan for making a bold and important statement today.”

And it reminded me of something I witnessed in October 1999 in Birmingham, Alabama, when I worked as a sports reporter for The Birmingham News.

At halftime of the NBA preseason game between Charles Barkley’s Houston Rockets and the Detroit Pistons at the Birmingham Civic Center, not far from Barkley’s hometown of Leeds, the perennial All-Star forward announced he was giving $1 million apiece to Leeds High School (from which he graduated), Auburn University (where he rose to fame as a college hoops star) and Cornerstone Schools, which serves Birmingham’s inner-city community.

On that night, Barkley walked onto the court at halftime to tell his most loyal fans, those who had seen him play since his schoolboy days, that he would retire after the season. (He had entered the NBA in 1984, the same year as Jordan, with the Philadelphia 76ers.)

Barkley walked onto the court, escorting both his mother and grandmother. Bernard Kincaid, the then-mayor of Birmingham, was also there.

It was inspiring to see somebody using their fame and fortune to help the common good.

A hopeless optimist: Paola Boivin, distinguished sports columnist

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (July 11, 2015) — For two-plus decades, Paola Boivin has been a fixture in Phoenix-area sports, reporting  and crafting columns on Pac-10 (now Pac-12) sports and the growing pro scene, including the arrival of the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This is what I know: She writes thought-provoking, well-organized columns. She does her homework. She asks good questions. She has a good handle on how to structure stories and how to pack them with quality anecdotes, important facts and opinions that resonate with readers. She’s a personable journalist, a good interviewer and a pro’s pro with empathy for those she writes about.

Over the years, she has written about everything and everybody, ranging from Pat Tillman’s death to Super Bowls, Olympics, NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament title games, NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL playoff contests to current players and coaches’ perspectives on the Confederate flag. Boivin has worked at The Arizona Republic since September 1995 after a six-year stint at the Los Angeles Daily News. Before that, she served as a sportswriter and then sports editor at the Camarillo (California) Daily News (1984-1988).

In an April interview with Illinois Alumni Magazine, Boivin said, “I’m drawn to the human stories—the underdog, the long shot, the forgotten person.”

I interviewed Boivin recently to learn more about her career, her influences, what motivates her on the job and other reflections on her life and work.

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What’s the best way to describe your style as a journalist and as a columnist? Of course it can differ from day to day and sport to sport, but how would you summarize your basic approach to this work and the way you do your job?

It took me forever to find my voice as a columnist. For a long time I tried to be something I wasn’t: a screamer and finger-pointer, the print version of some sports talk radio hosts. I’m not that. I would wake up the next day, read my work and cringe because it felt unauthentic.

The reality is I’m a hopeless optimist. A listener. And someone who loves a good story. I think (hope) interview subjects pick up on those traits and realize their story will receive fair treatment. It doesn’t mean I can’t be skeptical or outraged or anything of those things that are at the heart of good journalism, it just means I lead with an optimistic foot. And sleep better at night.

How has being a mother shaped the way you view sports and their role in society at large? And do you think motherhood changed your perspective on sports somewhat?

Both of my children are athletes: my daughter a runner and my son a basketball player. To have a front-row view of how athletics has impacted their lives has been a game-changer. Young girls are bombarded with air-brushed magazine covers and unrealistic expectations. How can they not grow up with body-image issues? Feeling strong and athletic is empowering. And the lessons my children learned about discipline and commitment and teamwork were better than any of the words of advice that I would spew out at home, which they probably tuned out anyway!

Motherhood has many me appreciate sports even more.

Of the biggest compliments received over the years from journalist peers and readers for something you’ve written, can you share a few details of two or three of them that really meant something to you?

Without question it’s the feedback I received following an article I wrote about a transgender golfer who dreamed of playing in the LPGA. I received emails from parents who said the story made them better understand their children who were battling identity issues, and from a man who found comfort reading the piece because his journey, that was almost halted by suicide, was about to take a similar turn. It was all because my subject, Bobbi Lancaster, a well-respected doctor in the Phoenix area, was so open about her life. I was so grateful for that.

Journalism should never be about the praise but it felt good to know the article impacted lives. I love, too, how my voicemails have changed over the years in Phoenix. They used to be “you’re an idiot woman who knows nothing about sports.” Now they’re “you’re an idiot who knows nothing about sports.” Progress!

What did receiving APSE Top 10 columnist recognition in 2011 mean to you? Did that inspire you, fire you up for the coming years, too? What do you think was your best column for 2010? And do you have an all-time No. 1 favorite?

I guess it was my Sally Field “You like me, you really like me” moment. It is hard to grow up as a female sports journalist in the era I did and swell with confidence. From the early locker room battles to peers (in my past) suggesting I was the product of equal-opportunity hiring and not talent stings, especially for a ball of insecurity like me. It absolutely did inspire me and shifted my motivation into a higher gear. Ha. I guess I’m supposed to say awards are meaningless but I would be lying.

My favorite column from 2010 was one I wrote about Steve Nash. I was in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics and took a side trip to Victoria to visit the home in which he grew up. If you hopped over the fence in his backyard, you would find a basketball hoop that belonged to an elementary school. He would shoots hundreds of free throws a day there as a kid, trying to improve his percentage each time. I couldn’t stop staring at that hoop. It was the symbol of how hard work can shape an athlete. I also had the opportunity to talk to childhood friends, family members and coaches and to visit his high school. It was the closest I ever came to truly understanding how an athlete at his high level achieved greatness.

That one (http://archive.azcentral.com/sports/suns/articles/2010/02/28/20100228suns-steve-nash-vancouver-CP.html) and the transgender one are probably my all-time favorites.

How did your time at the Camarillo Daily News and Los Angeles Daily News – 10  important years – shape your approach to journalism and give you the foundation for all the reporting, column writing, talk-show work you’ve done since? Can you think of a couple important lessons, including the biggest one, you learned early in your career?

Both jobs were amazing and I remain grateful for the people who gave me the opportunities  there. The Camarillo Daily News, which, sniff, is no longer around, was my first full-time job. I started as a sportswriter and later became sports editor of a three-person staff. I had to do everything: report, write, edit, design. I stumbled plenty of times along the way, including once, when running a story about a USC running back named Aaron Emmanuel. I used a photo of actor Emmanuel Lewis instead. Anyone who ever watched the TV show “Webster” knows these two look nothing alike. Fortunately, I caught my mistake right before the story went to print.

Having to do a little bit of everything helped prepare me for the variety of assignments that came my way in the future. I think my willingness to say yes to any assignment, to always being a team player, made me more hireable down the road.

(Side note: I pride myself in having a good eye for talent. While at Camarillo, I hired several terrific writers early in their careers including two still doing great work: Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports and Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune.)

The Los Angeles Daily News was incredible, too. I was in a great sports market surrounded by terrific talent at the paper. My first beat was covering UCLA football and basketball. It didn’t get much better than meeting John Wooden at his favorite breakfast spot and talking hoops.

While I was at the Daily News, I sometimes covered Dodgers game. It was at a time when women in the locker room was still a hot topic. I would walk into the clubhouse and stare at the ground. One day, the great Orel Hershiser pulled me aside and said, “Keep your head up and look like you belong here. Because you do.” I always think of that when I walk in a clubhouse now. I am forever grateful for that moment.

For you, who are a few must-read journalists in print and online? What makes their work something you return to again and again?

Karen Crouse, one of my best friends, of The New York Times is at the top of my list. I don’t think there is anyone in the country better at finding a fresh way to look at a story and the depth of her reporting is second to none. Subjects trust her. Read her story on Laveranues Coles from 2005 (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/sports/football/new-trust-lets-coles-share-secret.html) if you need proof. I also find Gregg Doyel, now with the Indianapolis Star, and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports must reads.

I am surrounded by great talent at The Arizona Republic, too. They make me better every day.

How much influence did the late Jim Murray and other L.A. media giants have on your career? Where there individuals in the Chicago area/sports media market who had a similar or bigger influence on you?

Huge. Murray wasn’t only a great writer – it doesn’t get any better for an auto racing story than “Gentlemen, start your coffins” – but he was a gentleman. You could learn a lot from watching how he conducted himself.

There was also a young hotshot at the L.A. Times when I starting out that was creating a lot of buzz among my peers. For good reason. It was Rick Reilly. He was only there a few years before Sports Illustrated grabbed him.

I think my biggest influence in the Chicago area, quite honestly, was the sports editor of my local paper, the Chicago Heights Star, the late John Meyers. I read his work religiously in high school. He gave me my first professional opportunity, writing during my summers home from college. And when I grew up, Chicago had three daily papers: the Sun-Times, Tribune and Daily News. Three! It was a sports lover’s dream. I ate it up.

Bob Moran at the East  Valley Tribune (who died of cancer at age 55 in 2008) and Steve Schoenfeld at the Republic and then CBS SportsLine (killed at age 45 by a hit-and-run driver in 2000) were among the most gifted and well-respected sports journalists who covered the Pac-10 and the NFL, respectively, who’ve ever worked in Arizona. What is their legacy, individually and/or collectively, as it’s carried on and remembered by those who worked with him and grew as journalists in that time?

Both were amazing men.

Bob Moran was a consummate pro who loved his work. Everybody respected him because he was defined by his knowledge and integrity. He was my “competitor” during my first beat in Phoenix covering Arizona State. I learned a ton from him.

From Steve Schoenfeld, we all better understood the art of reporting and the value of relationships. He knew everybody! It served him well in his job. His funeral service was so large they held it in a concert hall. That showed just how popular and respected he was.

Both left us way too soon.

Have sports become too serious, too analytical, too high school calculus-like because of the explosion in metrics over the past decade? Is this more of a good thing or bad thing? Or is it just a different era?

Like chocolate, metrics are fine in moderation. They have great value but it’s important to remember, too, metrics can’t measure heart. And heart is a big part of sports.

With a respected, successful tenure at The Arizona Republic, writing for the paper (and also along the way its website) since 1995, how much more does your voice, your ideas, carry weight when it comes to pinpointing story angles, assignments and your schedule than it did when you arrived to work there in Phoenix?

I’m blessed to have a sports editor, Mark Faller, who trusts my instincts. We will bounce ideas off one another but I can dictate much of my writing path. I think early in my career I sought more guidance in that regard than I do now.

As someone who observed the growth and history of the Arizona Diamondbacks since their inception, how important was Joe Garagiola Sr. as a behind-the-scenes guy within the organization and as a connection to the fans and the game’s rich history during his work as a TV analyst through 2013? 

I think what Joe Sr. has done for baseball in general has been spectacular. He founded two important organizations: the Baseball Assistance Team, to help the needy with connections to the game, and the National Spit Tobacco Education Program. Talk about impacting a lot of lives.

As a broadcaster, few have as many anecdotes as Joe Sr. His willingness to share them are not only entertaining but educational in terms of history of the game. And his sense of humor is a great example of what sports broadcasting should be.

Of all the athletes who hail from Arizona and who call or have called Arizona home, who are three you’d put at the top of any list?

That’s a tough one. I guess it depends on the criteria. I’ll make mine the top three who have impacted the landscape since I’ve lived here.

  1. Jerry Colangelo. I’m going to cheat a bit. He wasn’t an athlete here but he changed the sports scene in Arizona like no other. He is gave us an MLB franchise and great memories with an NBA one. He also gets an assist for helping our NHL team arrive.
  1. Kurt Warner. What he did for the Cardinals — leading a franchise that was long a laughing stock to a Super Bowl — was remarkable.
  2. Charles Barkley. His popularity with Suns fans and his national visibility today are hard to top. He still lives here and people very much think of him as one of their own.

Similarly …. same questions but for coaches?

Lute Olson. Lute Olson. And Lute Olson.

If you were granted a one-on-one interview without any restrictions ASAP with Sepp Blatter, what’s the first question you’d ask him?

How do you sleep at night?

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Follow Paola Boivin on Twitter: @PaolaBoivin

Read her journalism work here: http://www.azcentral.com/staff/10465/paola-boivin/

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).

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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/

A 2005 interview with Charles Barkley

This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: ‘Sir Charles’ in charge
Feb. 5, 2005

By Ed Odeven
In his college days, they called him the “Round Mound of Rebound.” When he became a superstar in the NBA, he was affectionately dubbed “Sir Charles.”

These days, Charles Barkley is recognized wherever he goes. He works for TNT as an NBA analyst, enjoys his time on the golf course near his Scottsdale home and travels the country to help with a number of charitable causes.

Barkley paid a visit to Northern Arizona University Saturday night to help raise money for the Sports Celebrity Dinner and Auction, presented by the Flagstaff Family YMCA and the Arizona Daily Sun. It was his first visit to Flagstaff since he participated in the Phoenix Suns’ preseason training camp here in 1995.

“I think kids deserve an opportunity to be successful, and that’s what organizations like the YMCA provide,” Barkley, the keynote speaker, said at the Dubois Conference Center.

Proceeds from the dinner/auction, which organizers hope will bring in $25,000 to $30,000, will benefit the YMCA’s Strong Kids Campaign.

Steve Saville, a YMCA board member and the organization’s community relations chairman, said the YMCA plans to make this an annual fund-raiser.

In a brief interview with the local media before the evening’s festivities commenced, Barkley addressed a number of topics.

Named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players in 1996, he said he’d eventually like to be an NBA general manager or an owner. His love for the game is the same as it’s always been.

“I miss playing every day,” said Barkley, an 11-time All-Star, who retired in 2000. “I miss it more than anything in the world. There’s nothing like playing.”

Never one who’s been shy about expressing his opinions, Barkley explained why sports are such a valuable tool in the lives of youths.

“I think sports are a great motivator for your mental health (and) your physical health. It keeps you in shape,” he said. “But it’s stupid to think that every kid is going to do well in reading, writing and arithmetic. I think one thing about school that’s brutal is you need to get rid of some academics to teach more vocations.

“I owe basketball every single thing in my life, because I grew up a poor kid,” he continued. “… All these kids aren’t going to make it to the NBA, but one thing about sports is it can give you a chance to go to college. And that’s what I think more kids should use college for instead of trying to make it a profession.”

In recent weeks, Barkley’s been traveling the country to promote his latest book, “I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It.”

A recent appearance on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” certainly didn’t hurt, he acknowledged.

While signing some copies of the book for the evening’s auction, Barkley casually remarked that “once you get on ‘Oprah’ you’re a best-seller.”

“She’s a cool chick,” he added with a smile.

Book tours keep him busy, but he has other concerns, too.

“My No. 1 priority is my teenage daughter,” he said, “trying to keep boys away from my house.”

Barkley, a fan favorite during his days with the Phoenix Suns (1992-96, which included the Suns’ appearance in the 1993 NBA Finals), said he’s happy his former team is playing so well this season. “Phoenix fans are fantastic. One of the reasons I love it in Phoenix is the fans made me enjoy the game of basketball …,” he added.

In three weeks, Barkley’s fifth book — “Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?” — will be released. For this book, Barkley conducted interviews with numerous well-known individuals, including Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, actor Morgan Freeman, rapper/actor Ice Cube and former President Bill Clinton.

“I wanted to write a positive book on race,” he said.

What was the most memorable interview?

“Probably Bill Clinton … because I had never met him before,” Barkley said. “I’m a huge fan and he’s a cool dude and it was really cool.”

Following Saturday’s festivities in Flagstaff, Barkley flew back to Las Vegas, where he’ll watch Super Bowl XXXIX.

Asked to offer his thoughts on today’s game, Barkley had this to say:

“I’m going to take Philadelphia.” The reason?

“Well, I’ve got a house in Philly, and I just think that Donovan McNabb is not going to let them lose,” he said.

“I think it’ll be really close, 20-17.”

Mexican basketball pioneer Horacio Llamas (Autumn 1997 magazine cover story)

llamasThis was the cover story for the September/October 1997 issue of FASTBREAK, the official magazine of the Phoenix Suns.

Cover headline: El Primero
Horacio Llamas made history in his rookie year and now he’s determined to make an impact on the NBA

Inside head: El Primero
Horacio Llamas enters the history books as the first Mexican-born player in the NBA

By Ed Odeven

Horacio Llamas has always been a big fella (un hombre grande). One with equally large aspirations. As a youngster growing up in Rosario, Sinaloa, Mexico, he kept telling his parents that he would make them very proud.

“Horacio always said he was going to be somebody,” his father, Horacio Llamas Tirado said recently through a translator.

Just how big Horacio would become remained a question mark to his family. But the long-anticipated answer arrived on March 2, 1997, in Dallas. It was on that spring evening that Llamas’ name was called by Suns Head Coach Danny Ainge, signaling him to enter a game against the Mavericks.

“It was in the second quarter and I heard coach Ainge say my name and I was like, ‘You all hear my name? Wow!,’ ” Llamas said, re-enacting the look of shock on his face. “I got up and I started walking and it was like everyone in the arena stopped. It was like everyone was paralyzed, even the players. I was like in another world — I was walking, but my mind wasn’t there.

“Then I got in and started playing real hyped. Right away I went to the other side of the court and they passed me the ball.I shot it from like the free throw line and I made it, so all the nervousness and all that stuff that went down real quick. Then when they took me out, I was like, ‘Thank you, Lord. Thank you.’ ”

The rookie center, who was signed to a pair of 10-day contracts in February before being inked for the remainder of the season, wasn’t the only one thankful for his brief appearance. Although he played but four minutes in the game, it was four minutes that won’t soon be forgotten by his family, who was in the crowd. And, more importantly, it was four minutes that will go down in the country’s history. You see, with the call to action, Llamas became the first Mexican-born player to appear in an NBA game.

“I’m very honored that Horacio is the first Mexican to make it to the NBA,” Tirado said. “I’m very satisfied to be the father of a distinguished person. It is a gift from God (un regalo de Dios).”

The 6-11, 285-pound center agreed that it is a noteworthy accomplishment, but it also excited to be an inspiration.

“It’s the best feeling because I’m the first one and I’m opening the doors for a lot of young Mexicans who want to make it to the NBA,” he said. “They think they can make it if they have a strong role model.”

As the Suns made their way down the stretch last season, Horacio’s fans back home and throughout the southwest followed his every move. And although he saw few minutes (101 in 20 games), backing up Hot Rod Williams in the middle, Llamas did give the Suns’ starting center some valuable rest and held his own while doing so. He even got a chance to start one game, alongside Williams, against the Houston Rockets. He switched back and forth between Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley on defense — not an easy task for any rookie, to be sure.

Despite being originally signed as another big body for practices, Llamas showed in his short stint that he could contribute — whether it was in practice, as support from the sideline or as a banger down low. His enthusiasm and determination impressed his teammates, coaches and the entire Suns organization.

“He comes out early. He works every night before the game with our coaches and I like that,” said Cotton Fitzsimmons, senior executive vice presidents for the Suns. “I like how hard he’s working and the attitude he has whether he’s in the game or on the bench.”

The impression he left in two months was good enough to earn him a new one-year contract this summer. But Llamas isn’t satisfied with just being re-signed. He wants to prove to everyone that he belongs in the NBA for good.

“The only thing I can do is keep getting better. I’m doing all these little things to get better,” he said, referring to his busy summer schedule that’s included his participation in the Rocky Mountain Review in Utah and Pete Newell’s Big Man’s Camp in Hawaii. “I’m getting stronger every day. I’m trying to get better physically, to lose fat. I can see when I play down low that they push me and foul me and I’m still getting up and making shots because I’m stronger. I want to be here for 10 years.”

From Sinaloa to Arizona

Horacio grew up in a working-class neighborhood. His father is a veterinarian and his mother, Ana Luisa, a teacher. His parents instilled a sense of responsibility in him, his two younger brothers, and an older sister, and let them know the difference between right and wrong.

“They are supporting me since I started playing any sport and now they are happy to see their son doing well and not doing drugs or is a problem child,” said Llamas, who is still mastering the English language. “Since I was a little kid, they told me the right stuff and I listened to them. If they hadn’t raised me how they raised me, I wouldn’t have come out like I came.”

Like many Mexican youth, Horacio grew up playing soccer and baseball. But his first love was karate, which he began taking when he was only 2 years old.

“My uncle would take me and I would just go out with him,” he reminisced with a big smile. “I just kept going until I was 13.”

“I remember when I went to a national tournament when I was 10 or 11 years old and somebody told me that it wasn’t for ages, that it was for sizes. Somebody told me that I was somebody’s father that was in the division, so he wanted me to go to another division.”

Sure enough, the man got his wish and Horacio started sparring against boys three or four years older than him. Even then, he was a man among boys.

It wasn’t until his early teen years that he began playing basketball. He became a fan of the sport watching the NBA playoffs at a friend’s house who had a satellite.

“I started playing basketball for fun,” he explained. “My friends invited me to play in city tournaments. I started going there and liking it. When I was 15 I had to decide if I wanted to play basketball or baseball. I started playing basketball.”

Wise choice, amigo.

Horacio was head and shoulders above the other basketball players in Sinaloa — in more ways than one. His enormous size and raw, rugged ability landed him a spot on the Mexican junior national team which trained in Mexico City at the Olympic Training Center.

While in Mexico City in 1991 on business, former Pima Community College Athletic Director Larry Toledo heard whispers about a guy named Llamas.

“We were informed that there was a young man that had a lot of potential that was a very big man,” Toledo recalled. “But we never got to talk to him. We had an emergency that made us come back to Tucson.”

That didn’t stop Toledo from convincing Pima coach Mike Lopez that Llamas could be a pioneer.

“Larry sold me on the idea way before I talked to Horacio,” Lopez said. “He felt that Mexico had some players. They needed to be exposed so they could go on and get somewhere. Larry had the vision that, ‘Hey, Horacio could be the first in the NBA, and that this can happen through Pima.’ ”

Of course it didn’t hurt that, at the time, Pima had a player from Mazatlan, Mexico, named Francisco Gomez, a friend of Horacio’s. Gomez also kept talking to Lopez and Toledo about the mammoth Mexican. All this hype sparked Lopez’s interest and he decided to give Lopez a call at the Olympic training center.

“Through Francisco, I was able to ask him if he was interested in coming up,” Lopez said. “He wanted to come to the United States to play basketball but, before that, he had to come to visit.”

So Llamas took a day-long bus ride from Mexico City to Nogales, Sonora, where he was greeted by Gomez and an astonished coach.

“When I first saw Horacio, he came out of the bus station,” Lopez recalled. “I thought he was going to be 6-7, 6-8 maybe. He was an awesome, imposing stature and he was dressed to kill. He was dressed in black and had black terminator sunglasses on. He was very, very imposing.

“I thought to myself, ‘We are going to make this man a basketball player.’ ”

Instantly, Llamas took a liking to Pima. His first day in Tucson found him surrounded by competitive basketball players at Aztec Gymnasium, including ex-Wildcat standout Ed Stokes.

“Stokes was a 7-footer with legitimate game,” Lopez said. “I got Horacio to go work out against him and with him. Stokes took him to school, but Horacio liked that the first day he came to the United States he could go meet somebody bigger than he is.”

Lopez was not an overnight success at Pima. During his freshman season, in 1992-93 he was overweight, a little lazy (flojo) and knew no English. Those were three things he needed to improve dramatically.

And he did.

“Even back then before Horacio was very good, he was still big,” said Lopez. “He had to build up his conditioning, his training, his work ethic, his strength, his lifting, and his English. That was one of the biggest barriers for him. Once he was able to do that, he was able to do a good job.”

As a sophomore, Llamas’ desire caught up with his ability. During a game in 1994 against visiting Arizona Western College, he exploded, putting up 52 points. It was a game that truly marked the beginning of his arrival as an impact player. Sure, he has shown flashes of brilliance before but, in this game, he was unstoppable.

After starring at Pima for two years, Llamas transferred to Grand Canyon University in the heart of Phoenix, where he quietly developed into a Division II star. During his senior season, he led the Antelopes in scoring (17.5 per game), rebounding (9.2) and blocked shots (3.7). Basketball Times even selected him as the 1995-96 Division II Player of the Year.

Llamas’ next stop was the American West Arena, but not as a Phoenix Sun. Invited to participate in the Nike Desert Classic in April 1996, the local college product displayed his game in front of NBA coaches, general managers and scouts.

But despite his impressive collegiate stats, a good showing at the Classic and a bulky frame, Llamas went undrafted. That did not demoralize him, however. Instead, it gave him an added incentive. If he wasn’t ready for the NBA, he was going to make himself ready.

Llamas participated in summer leagues in Detroit and Los Angeles and even was invited by Olajuwon, who had heard of him through a common friend, to join him for some private workouts in Houston.

“Olajuwon helped teach me some moves,” said Llamas, who utilized some of those moves when he joined the CBA’s Sioux Falls team last fall. He appeared in 37 games for the league-leading Skyforce in 1996-97 and averaged 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks (fifth best in league) per game.

It was those stats and an injury-plagued Phoenix roster that triggered Llamas’ historic promotion to the NBA.

HORACIOMANIA!

Long before Llamas made NBA history, he was embraced by Tucson’s Hispanic community. While he was a student-athlete, Llamas was a well-known figure to people of all ages.

“They never saw a Mexican so big and doing so well. They just thought that he walked on water,” Toledo said. “He has been quite a positive inspiration to a lot of the members of the Hispanic community here in Tucson.”

“We took him to meet all different aspects of the Hispanic community here in town and everywhere he touched, he left quite an impression. They loved him. I went to an elementary school to talk and the kids thought he was an incredible hero.”

If he wasn’t an incredible hero then, he certainly is one today. Now, wherever Horacio goes he is a celebrity. People on both sides of the border easily recognize the Sinaloan sensation.

“He’s like the Michael Jordan of Mexico, Air Horacio,” Toledo said. “He’s as big as Michael Jordan down there, maybe even bigger because he’s one of their own. They don’t get all the games on TV, so as far as they’re concerned he’s at the level of Michael Jordan.

“In Mexico, journalists put sports on the front page. A sports figure is more heroic than the president. He can’t go anywhere there that he is not recognized.”

He is especially well known in his hometown. His parents’ house has practically turned into a visitation center for everyone and anyone.

“He’s well known,” Llamas’ proud papa said. “He’s really loved. People always come over the house. The house is open for all the town.”

With the open invitation, people stopped in all the time. ALL the time.

“He’d get up in the middle of the night, and there would be people in the living room waiting for him,” Lopez said. “Some of the people coming over were like some he knew in 1st grade. He couldn’t get any sleep.

“When he did get away, Horacio would borrow a car and just get on the road just to get away from the attraction of people that were coming by. Everyone known him down there.”

If there is anyone in Mexico who doesn’t know him yet, they soon will. He recently signed a deal with Pascual Boing, a Mexican juice company, to star in commercials and has also agreed to become a spokesman for Mexico’s long distance phone company, Telemex. Other possible endorsement opportunities his agent is looking into include a rental car company and a Mexican supermarket chain.

And if that wasn’t enough, Toledo and his son, Pablo, who recently started their own film company, have begun working on The Horacio Llamas Story. The feature film has already been written and Horacio has agreed to play the starring role. Filming is expected to begin sometime next year.

“He broke barriers,” said Pablo, a graduate from the USC film school who will direct the picture. “But he broke them on both sides of the border. Now the kids in Mexico are going to be playing just as intense as American kids because they see that, ‘Hey, Horacio did it.’ He’s the one leading the way.”

And he’s sticking to his humble roots.

“He’s one of the few people I’ve seen attain the level of success, but yet respect everybody from the janitor sweeping the floor at America West Arena after the game to Jerry Colangelo,” Pablo said. “And every kid that comes up to him, he not only signs their stuff, but he talks to them. He actually communicates with them.”

And with only one NBA season under his belt, “Horaciomania” is just beginning. And as his countrymen and many north of the border already know, Horacio Llamas is somebody to look up to — in more ways than one.