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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Basketball maven Mark Heisler’s reflections on a legendary career

 

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Mark Heisler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

What is your favorite Pat Riley story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Catch-22” for non-sports book.

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

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

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

Michael, Magic, Larry, LeBron, Kobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chick Hearn… Chick Hearn.

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

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

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

Phil Jackson… All eccentric. smart, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Sterling… My cottage industry.

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

Bill Dwyre… Thanks for the memories!

*AND A BONUS TALE*

me-and-al-1
TV screen grab

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

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

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

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

***
Follow Mark Heisler on Twitter: @MarkHeisler

Remembering Howard Garfinkel

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 13, 2016) – As the basketball world mourns the passing of Howard Garfinkel, who died at age 86 last weekend, tributes have poured in from all over, and rightfully so.

The one-of-a-kind hoop talent evaluator and co-founder of the Five-Star Basketball Camps made a profound impact on the game, from his native New York to the West Coast, where a coach named John Wooden famously read Garfinkel’s typed analysis of a high school phenom named Lew Alcindor back in the 1960s. (Wooden, like many coaches of that era, relied on Garfinkel’s vast East Coast scouting and beyond and paid for his scouting reports, The New York Times and other media outlets have written.)

Of course, Alcindor, the future Hall of Famer who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wound up at UCLA, and the rest is history.

In its obituary, The New York Times correctly noted that Garfinkel “changed the landscape of college and professional basketball through an innovative high school scouting service and a celebrated instructional camp that helped groom top young players like Michael Jordan and LeBron James.”

ESPN college analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted, “…One of the most important people in basketball in the last 50 years. RIP Garf.”

Those with a deep knowledge of the game and real respect for its history will tell you this: Garfinkel should be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of a Fame as a contributor. He contributed to the game’s growth and success for decades.

What’s more, Five-Star Basketball Camp, started in 1966 in New York and set up afterward in Pennsylvania, created countless opportunities for coaches to gain experience and further their careers.

***
Reaching out to many individuals in basketball circles with close ties to Garfinkel, I’ve learned a little bit about his deep personal ties to those spanning several generations. Basketball was their common bond. A shared love of the game.

By all accounts, Garfinkel will be greatly missed.

Legendary college basketball scribe Dick “Hoops” Weiss penned a detailed look at Garfinkel’s life after he passed away. The article was posted on George Raveling’s Coaches for Success website.

Weiss wrote, “Garfinkel died peacefully Saturday morning and there was an outpouring of grief in the basketball community for an American original who lived in an apartment just this side of Broadway, was a fixture at the Garden and used to talk all things basketball during late night meals at the Carnegie Deli. He loved the horses and Broadway show tunes sung by Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

“But most of all, this beloved Damon Runyonesque character loved basketball and gave up the chance to become rich in his father’s textile business to devote his life to scouting high school talent for a recruiting service he ran and running summer camps for 40 years in the Poconos, Virginia and Pittsburgh that attracted some of the best high school prospects in America. ‘He was the godfather of college basketball recruiting and summer basketball,’ said Tom Konchalski, the legendary talent evaluator from New York City and one of Garfinkel’s two closest friends, along with 89-year old guru Larry ‘The Scout’ Pearlstein.

“I can’t think of six other individuals who had a bigger impact on the game.”

Weiss also delivered this insight in the obituary: “During its heyday, the camp was a proving ground for future legends like Moses Malone, Jeff Ruland, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Pearl Washington, Len Bias, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Dominique Wilkins, Grant Hill, Alonzo Mourning, Steph Marbury, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. It was a magnet for the best college recruiters in the country who made the pilgrimage to out-of-the-way Camp Bryn Mawr in Honesdale, Radford and Robert Morris College every summer to evaluate hundreds of campers, who played shirts and skins games on outdoor courts and listened to Hall of Fame speakers like Bob Knight, Hubie Brown, Chuck Daly, Herb Magee and Dick Vitale before afternoon and evening sessions. There were no free rides, even for the best players, who had to bus tables in the dining hall if they couldn’t afford full tuition.

“Five-Star was worth the price of admission. It was the best teaching camp of its kind, a place where campers actually got better and learned how to play the right way at a series of teaching stations that were developed by Knight to give them the best instruction possible.

“It also an incubator for great young coaches like Rick Pitino, Mike Fratello and John Calipari, who used Five-Star as a giant think tank.

“Calipari was a camper at Five-Star in 1976 and returned to be a counselor and coach when he was a college player at UNC-Wilmington and Clarion State. ‘Without him, I’m not the coach at Kentucky and I’m not able to pay it forward to my kids,’ he wrote in a powerful tribute to Garfinkel on his website. ‘The things that happened to me in my life can all be traced back to Five-Star when I was a camper and a bespectacled man came up to me and said, ‘What’s your name kid? Where are you from?’ I love you Garf’.”

What’s more, Weiss observed, “Five-Star was the birthplace of stars like Michael Jordan.”

Don DiJulia, the director of athletics at Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia, reflected on his friend’s life and legacy via email.

DiJulia said Garfinkel was “one of a kind. A man for all seasons. Kind, gentle, purposeful, altruistic, and passionate. Covered more miles in more states than anyone who never drove a car!

“The Master of one-liners…keen eye for talent and champions, on and off the court. He was in sport terms ‘an impact player.’ ”

In closing, DiJulia had this to say: “Mr Howard, thanks for your friendship and the many fond memories!”

New York native Herb Brown, Larry’s big brother, whose coaching career includes college, NBA and international jobs spanning six decades, added this: “He was a great resource for players seeking exposure and scholarships as well as a networker for coaches who worked at his camp.”

Former Philadelphia 76ers GM Brad Greenberg, who drafted future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, admitted that Garfinkel helped him early in his career.

“Garf certainly impacted my life in a dramatic way,” Greenberg told me. “If not for him, I would not have connected with Jim Lynam when I transferred from Washington State after playing my freshman year for George Raveling to go play for Jim at American University. Jim became my mentor. I played for him and worked for him as well in both college and the NBA. (St. Joe’s AD) Don (DiJulia) was an assistant at American U. and Jim Lynam’s brother-in-law and I also count Don among the people I most admire. I attended 5 Star as a camper and played in 2 Orange-White All-Star Games, and then worked the camp for 10 years.

“The last summer I worked I was the head coach in Pittsburgh and had to leave in the middle of the camp to go to California and meet with Jim Lynam before becoming his assistant with the L.A. Clippers.”

Regarding Garf’s legacy, Greenberg, a longtime coach with stints in the NBA, college and overseas leagues, offered this perspective: “Garf was uniquely special and among the most influential people college basketball has ever had. And he certainly impacted my life as well as my brother Seth. Five Star was a big part of our coaching education. For a young college player with the goal of becoming a coach, Five Star was as good as it gets. Every day was a world-class ‘living clinic’ where you got to rub shoulders with the best in the business. And Garf orchestrated it all.

“He is certainly deserving of Naismith Hall of Fame consideration as he had a direct hand in helping shape so many of the players and coaches already inducted in Springfield. There will never be someone so unique to the game as Garf.”

Former University of Mississippi and Arizona State bench boss Rob Evans, who now works as the University of North Texas associate head coach, has fond memories of his times crossing paths with Garfinkel.

“I went to Garf’s camps in the 80s at both Honesdale, Pa. and Pittsburgh,” Evans told me. “His camps were always so well run and he would take time to give you any information that you asked. He was always moving around watching every kid in the camp. This was back when we had no dead periods. I was fortunate to see him at the Final Four in Houston a few months ago and visit with him. He will certainly be missed.”

Returning to Weiss’ article, Garfinkel’s remarkable impact is clearly defined in the words that follow. “The day Garfinkel died, the Five-Star organization published a testimonial in which they referred to him as a visionary who pioneered the basketball specialty camp and innovated the scouting and evaluation process.

” ‘Garf’ also represents the unmistakable tree in the basketball landscape, one in which every player or coach could trace their roots back to. His eye for talent and evaluation took both prospects and coaches to unprecedented highs and will never be rivaled,’ “it said.

More than 300 coaches employed at the Five Star camp went on to get college coaching jobs, Weiss noted.

“…His legacy lives on in this, the 50th anniversary of the storied camp, which touched so many lives and showcased the talents of thousands of campers, who earned Division I scholarships,” Weiss declared.
.
***
Recommended reading: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/sports/scout-is-a-five-star-original-in-basketball.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

http://coachgeorgeraveling.com/articles/garfalltimehs/

Getting to know … Linda Robertson (part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
Follow Linda Robertson on Twitter: @lrobertsonmiami

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

The ultimate friendship (Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman), and an interview with the author who wrote their story

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (July 30, 2015) — Some stories are timeless and unforgettable; others are easily forgotten. But the vital lessons of the friendship between Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes ought to be told again and again for generations to come.

It’s a powerful reminder of friendship and kindness and common decency and profound courage. It’s a story that transcends racial barriers.

Pat Farabaugh captured the essence of their friendship in his 2014 book, “An Unbreakable Bond: The Brotherhood of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman.”

Stokes (left) and Roy Campanella (right) became friends following accidents less than two months apart in early 1958 that left both sports stars paralyzed.  Campanella was a three-time National League Most Valuable Player as a catcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He and Maurice are seen here at one of the Stokes Benefit Games at Kutsher’s Resort.  In the back row, left to right, are NBA stars Oscar Robertson, Dave DeBusschere, Gus Johnson, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain (Saint Francis University Marketing and Public Relations).
Stokes (left) and Roy Campanella (right) became friends following accidents less than two months apart in early 1958 that left both sports stars paralyzed. Campanella was a three-time National League Most Valuable Player as a catcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He and Maurice are seen here at one of the Stokes Benefit Games at Kutsher’s Resort. In the back row, left to right, are NBA stars Oscar Robertson, Dave DeBusschere, Gus Johnson, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain (Saint Francis University Marketing and Public Relations).
Milton Kutsher (left) hosted the “Stokes Benefit Game” at his resort in the Catskills each August from 1959 to 1999.  Kutsher reached out to Twyman (center) in late 1958 and asked how he could help Maurice.  Kutsher’s son, Mark Kutsher (right), continued this tradition after his father died.  Following Stokes’ death in 1970, proceeds from the benefit game went to NBA players who needed financial help because of an unforeseen medical crisis (Saint Francis University Marketing and Public Relations).
Milton Kutsher (left) hosted the “Stokes Benefit Game” at his resort in the Catskills each August from 1959 to 1999. Kutsher reached out to Twyman (center) in late 1958 and asked how he could help Maurice. Kutsher’s son, Mark Kutsher (right), continued this tradition after his father died. Following Stokes’ death in 1970, proceeds from the benefit game went to NBA players who needed financial help because of an unforeseen medical crisis (Saint Francis University Marketing and Public Relations).
  Stokes defends against the New York Knicks’ Mel Hutchins during a game in 1958.  Jack Twyman is trailing the play (Courtesy of Jay Twyman).
Stokes defends against the New York Knicks’ Mel Hutchins during a game in 1958. Jack Twyman is trailing the play (Courtesy of Jay Twyman).

 

By all accounts, Stokes was a rising star. Entering the NBA out of Saint Francis (Pa.) College, the 6-foot-7 forward was the second overall pick in the 1955 draft. He joined the Rochester Royals and earned Rookie of the Year honors.

Twyman also joined the Royals in 1955 as a second-round draft pick out of the University of Cincinnati. He went on to play 11 seasons with the franchise, first in Rochester, then in Cincinnati. He was a six-time All-Star and a 1983 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

While Twyman had longevity in the pros, Stokes, over three seasons, just three seasons, was a three-time All-Star and led all players in the fledgling circuit in rebounds (3,492) in that span. His career totals: 16.4 points, 17.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. He was named to the All-NBA second team three teams. And he was on the verge of being one of the all-time greats.

What cut short Stokes’ career?

He hit his head on the court and became unconscious in the final game of the 1957-58 season. Days later, after the playoffs had begun and he kept playing, Stokes got sick, suffering seizures while on an airplane flight following a postseason game against the Pistons. He went into a coma and was later diagnosed as having post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that left him permanently paralyzed.

In a June 2013 article posted on ESPN.com, Curtis Harris summarized the plight that Stokes faced and how Twyman stepped in to help his teammate. Harris wrote, “The Royals were obscenely quick to remove Maurice and his $20,000 salary from their payroll. There was no pension or medical plan for NBA players back then, which left Stokes and his family unable to endure medical bills that would approach $100,000 a year. Facing financial peril, Stokes was saved by his Royals teammate Jack Twyman. The hot-shot small forward filled a void few would, and he did so for the duration of Maurice’s life.

“Twyman became his teammate’s legal guardian and undertook all kinds of fundraising efforts to round up the money and save Maurice. … Twyman, who worked for an insurance company during offseasons, successfully sued under Ohio law to have workman’s compensation awarded to Stokes.”

Indeed. Twyman spearheaded efforts to raise funds to pay for Stokes’ medical bills and other expenses for the rest of his life.

In 1958, Twyman and Milton Kutsher put together the Maurice Stokes Memorial Basketball Game, which became an annual event.

Stokes passed away in April 1970 at age 36. He was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2004, and Twyman was there in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the induction ceremony. Here is Twyman’s induction speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-K1fg5xWc9s

Twyman died in May 2012 at age 78.

In June 2013, the NBA established the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, an appropriate way to keep their legacy current.

When the award was created, then-commissioner David Stern said, “The relationship shared by Jack and Maurice is as profound an illustration of compassionate and unconditional fellowship between two teammates that the NBA has ever seen. What better way to honor the life-long bond that developed between them by establishing an award in their honor that recognizes friendship and selflessness among teammates.”

I recently interviewed Farabaugh, an associate professor of communications and football play-by-play announcer at Saint Francis University, about his aforementioned book about Twyman and Stokes via email. I wanted to gain a broad perspective on his project and learn about the stories behind the stories, as well as his overall thoughts on this book, which is a valuable addition to sports and American history.

* * *

First of all, what prompted you to write this book? Was it a suggestion from a university colleague? Was it a project you decided to do based on your own intellectual curiosity? Was it in the back of your mind for some time because of Stokes’ association with the university?

Pat Farabaugh (Courtesy of author)
Pat Farabaugh

I served as sports information director at Saint Francis from 1999 to 2005. Stokes was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004 and we retired his jersey number 26 at Saint Francis in 2000. At these events, I had the opportunity to talk to Twyman and the idea for a book project on the two men began to form following these conversations with Jack. It was such a fascinating story and it had been well-documented by newspapers and magazines back in the 1960s, but now it was largely forgotten, plus no one had written a book that told the entire story. A friend of mine – Vince Negherbon – also served as a catalyst to write the book. During my time as SID at Saint Francis, I became close with Father Vince. Vince is almost as much of a legend at the school as Stokes. He graduated from Saint Francis in 1943 and stayed to pursue theological coursework, eventually becoming a priest. He was appointed the College’s librarian in 1947. This was the first of several roles he served at the school over the next half century, including Dean of Students, Academic Dean, Executive Vice President and Vice President for College Relations. In 1966, Vince became president of Saint Francis, serving in this capacity until 1972. He was also a diehard sports fan. And he loved basketball. During the 1950s, he served as the Saint Francis basketball team’s chaplain. And a driver in the team’s carpool to away games. And a de-facto assistant to head coach Skip Hughes.

Father Vince got to know Stokes well during Maurice’s four seasons in Loretto. Years later, he asked Maurice if he would allow the school to name its new athletics facility after him. In April of 1970, Vince presided over Stokes’ funeral mass. He and I became close friends during my time as SID at Saint Francis and he shared stories with me about the Stokes Era at the school. In 2008, Father Vince died at the age of 87. I thought back to all the stories he had shared with me and kicked myself for never having written anything down. This also motivated me to share the story of Stokes and Twyman.

Was St. Johann Press the first publisher you pitched this book to? Was it difficult to convince SJP to approve the project?

No. I pitched the book to a number of different academic and commercial publishers before signing a contract with St. Johann Press. I had some interest on both fronts, but no offers. I remember it was a Friday afternoon during the dead of winter and I was doing a Google search of publishers and I happened upon St. Johann Press. I had cold-called some other publishers without much success, but I called the number for this publishing house and, moments later, I was sharing information about my book with the owner, Dave Biesel.

Dave was interested – he was a sports fan and knew about the Stokes-Twyman story. He asked me to send him some more information about the book, so I sent him what I had written up to that point. Shortly after our phone conversation, I traveled to the Dominican Republic on a mission trip. When I got back, I had a message from Dave saying that he liked what he had read and wanted to publish the book. I really liked some of the ideas he had regarding the book – they were in line with what I was thinking. My instincts told me that this was a good fit. They proved to be right.

Since the book’s release last year, how has it been received? What kind of feedback have you been given?

Reviews of the book have been very positive. It has been written about in a lot of newspapers and magazines, as well as on-line sites. The Altoona Mirror, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati Herald, Johnstown Magazine, Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, Mainline Newspapers, Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh Sports Report, UC Magazine (University of Cincinnati Alumni Magazine) and others have written about the book and I was very happy with these reviews. Readers have also reviewed the book on-line (Amazon, Goodreads, etc) and these have been positive, too.

I have done a number of book signings and presentations, including one at the University of Cincinnati last November. Amazingly, the first game following the book’s release for both the Saint Francis and University of Cincinnati basketball teams – Stokes and Twyman’s alma maters – was against each other. The two teams played each other to open the 2014-15 season. Prior to this game – which was at Cincinnati – I did a book signing in the Twyman Lounge at UC’s Lindner Athletic Center. Some of Jack’s family stopped by and it was really special.

People that I talk to – at presentations and in one-on-one conversations – are amazed at the selflessness of Twyman. Many of them are just floored that a young man with so many other responsibilities would step up in such a huge way for someone. And then honor that commitment for so many years. And they are equally impressed by Stokes’ approach to his life following the accident. Twyman’s selflessness and Stokes’ perseverance in the face of all his physical challenges are the two things that stick with most readers.

Is the timing of your next book (“Strike Three: The 1977 Johnstown Flood”)  specifically planned to coincide with its 30th anniversary?

That’s the plan. I have LOTS of work to do before then, but I am hoping to release the book right around the anniversary of this event.

What were the interviews with Twyman like in the summer of 2011? Were there many emotional highs and lows for you and for him? Where did you meet him? Can you describe these interview sessions? Were they real straight forward journalism-style Q&A sessions? About how many hours and sessions were there? After all of those interviews, did your impression of him change at all? Was he essentially the person you felt he was going into the book project?

These interview sessions were a lot of fun. The first time I told Jack that I wanted to write a book about his relationship with Maurice, he told me that the book should be about Stokes, and not about him. I told him it would be impossible to share the full story of Stokes without explaining to readers all that he had done for Maurice.

He was initially leery about the idea. He thought about it for a while and then told me that he would participate in the project because he wanted more people to learn about the person Stokes was. Jack constantly dismissed all those who were quick to praise his efforts on behalf of Maurice. He always said something like, “anyone else in a similar situation would have done the same thing.” Which, of course, is not true.

Our conversations – most of which were over the telephone – were pretty much storytelling sessions. Was it emotional? Yeah, at times it was. I remember when Jack was telling me the story of when Father Vince came to his home in Cincinnati to ask Maurice if Saint Francis could name its new fieldhouse after him. Jack got choked up telling that story. Vince hid in the basement of Jack’s home and they surprised Maurice after Jack picked him up at the hospital. When Vince asked Maurice if he would consent to his name being given to the new fieldhouse, Stokes started crying.

They were definitely not traditional, journalistic question-and-answer sessions. I sort of steered the interviews and gave Jack a lot of latitude to take our conversations in all sorts of different directions. In terms of hours and number of interview sessions, that’s hard to say. Some of our conversations were long, some were short, some were interrupted by things that came up for me or him, and sometimes we played phone tag.

Going into the interviews, I was already a bit in awe of the person Jack was, because of all I knew about what he had done for Stokes. After talking to him during our interviews, I had even greater respect for him. Twyman is a no-nonsense kind of guy. His work ethic and commitment to everything that he took on life is probably what I appreciated much more following our conversations. When this man set his mind to something, he did not rest until he achieved his goal. And when he gave his word, you could take it to the bank. Jack gave his word to Maurice and the Stokes family that he would look after his friend, and he never wavered from this responsibility.

How has learning about the friendship between Twyman and Stokes enriched your own life? Has it given you a greater appreciation for friendships and family bonds?

I have learned so much from these two men, but two “life lessons” stand out above the others. From Maurice, I learned that things in life can change very quickly and we can’t control a lot of this. What we can control, however, is the attitude that we decide to adopt when facing life’s challenges. Despite his paralysis and loss of independence and everything else that went along with the last 12 years of Stokes’ life, Maurice’s attitude was upbeat and positive and almost unbelievable. He didn’t wallow in self-pity and simply “wait out” the years that he was confined to Cincinnati hospitals. He lived his life to the fullest and grew as a person and worked to improve his limited mobility and speech and made an impression on the people he met. He never gave up. His perseverance is awe-inspiring.

From Twyman – and I touched on this earlier – I learned that hard work produces results and that giving to others is a blessing that we all should cherish. Jack succeeded at everything he put his mind to because he worked and worked and worked to see things through. This is a guy who was cut from his Central Catholic High School basketball team as a freshman, as a sophomore, and as a junior. He is now in the Naismith Hall of Fame. This is a guy who excelled in basketball, in business, in broadcasting, but more importantly, as a father and as a husband and as a human being. And certainly as a friend.

From your interview with the Cincinnati Herald, does this poignant statement (“Sure, it’s a basketball story, but it is so much more than that,” he said. “At its essence, it is the story of two men – one who overcame tremendous challenges and another who embodied selflessness.”) remind you of other highly visible friendships chronicled in popular culture in recent years?

I can’t think of any recent friendships that have been highlighted by the media that come close to the levels of love and sacrifice and stick-to-it-tiveness of the Stokes-Twyman story.

What does the friendship of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman, when the Civil Rights movement was underway, tell us about how American society can and should be?

This story certainly transcends race, but it is important to appreciate the state of race relations in the country during the period in which Stokes and Twyman’s relationship evolved. It was not until 1954 – when Stokes and Twyman were still in college – that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the integration of the nation’s public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education. The Stokes-Twyman story was a beacon of light shining from the sports world during the tumult of the Civil Rights era. Twyman served as a role model for all Americans – in Jack, we have a man’s whose vision of the world was truly colorblind. During a decade of upheaval, one in which Americans grappled to determine what the “proper” relationship between blacks and whites should be, all Twyman saw was a friend and teammate who needed his help. And he never wavered.

How can their friendship be an important learning tool for American society at a time when rampant gun violence, police shootings of unarmed blacks and a symbol of hatred (Confederate flag) are in the public spotlight?

Racism stubbornly persists in American society. It’s like a weed that you pull out of your garden – but before it comes out altogether, it breaks off. You don’t get the roots, and that weed is out of sight for a little while, but soon it grows back because the root system is still intact.

Anyone who thinks we are living in a “postracial society” just needs to move that dirt a little to see the roots of the weed. We have seen these roots over the last year in some of the events that you mention. What we can learn from Stokes and Twyman’s friendship is that we do not need to be afraid of those who are different from us – in race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or whatever. That fear keeps us from growing and learning and understanding.

Although Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club in the Catskills, in upstate New York, location of the annual summer fundraisers for Stokes is now closed, can you share a few memorable anecdotes about people you spoke to from the upstate New York resort area?

I interviewed Mark Kutsher, who was a child when his mother and father hosted the Stokes Benefit Game at the family’s country club each summer. My interview with Mark was really special because he was talking about all of these legendary players visiting his family’s resort. He recalled meeting the NBA’s biggest stars when he was a kid and he had a childlike enthusiasm when he was describing these experiences to me. And I understood exactly where he was coming from. When Stokes was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2004, I attended a reception before the induction ceremony and I was a 30-something kid in awe, meeting and chatting with my childhood heroes – James Worthy, Dr. J., Moses Malone, Robert Parish. Even though you are an adult, you can be taken back to your childhood. I was taken back on that Hall-of-Fame weekend and I felt like Mark took me back to his childhood years as he shared stories about the Stokes Benefit games at Kutsher’s.

What made Jerry Izenberg an ideal choice to write the foreword for your book? And how did that come about?

St. Johann Press had published Jerry’s memoirs – “Through My Eyes: A Sports Writer’s 58-Year Journey.” This book came out in 2009. Dave Biesel – the owner of St. Johann Press – knows Jerry pretty well and he suggested that we reach out to him and ask him to write the foreword for my book. I was ecstatic when he agreed to write it. He was indeed the “ideal choice” for this part of the book project. He had covered Stokes, but not only that. He had gotten to know Maurice more than a sportswriter covering a sports figure. The two had struck up a friendship and they enjoyed each other’s company. He knew Maurice well and he had seen the daily challenges and struggles Stokes faced following his accident.

Who were a few key sources for the book that may surprise some people because they may not be household names or folks who hold/held the prestigious or most visible jobs in the NBA and college hoops?

Two of my favorite interview subjects were not basketball people at all. They were with Maurice’s speech therapist at Good Samaritan Hospital, Sylvia Meek, and with his brother, Terro Stokes Jr.

Sylvia’s ability to recall experiences she had with Stokes during their speech therapy sessions was impressive. These sessions happened more than a half century ago, yet she was quick with details and specifics during our conversations. It was obvious that she had a fondness for Stokes and it was also very apparent that she respected the effort that Maurice had put into their speech therapy sessions.

Maurice’s brother, Terro, shared insights from Stokes’ years growing up in Homewood, a community just outside of Pittsburgh. You could hear in his voice just how much his brother meant to him. He also expressed to me how much Twyman meant to the Stokes family. He was at a loss for words as he tried to describe his feelings for all that Jack did for Maurice.

After all of the painstaking research that went into writing the book and what you learned along the way, do you agree with this assessment: Twyman remains one of the lesser-known greats to ever play the game?

Yes. No question about it. Twyman could score the ball, especially from the corners along the baseline. In 11 NBA seasons, he played in six All-Star games. He finished his career with 15,840 points in 823 games (19.2 per game). He finished runner-up in the league in scoring two times and led the NBA in field goal percentage (45.2 percent) in 1957-58.

Twyman ranked 20th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list when he retired. He played in 609 consecutive games before a broken hand sidelined him during the 1963-64 season. This is remarkable – think of the pounding that he took night in and night out as a professional basketball player. Twyman was tough.

His best scoring season came in 1959-60, when he averaged 31.2 points per game (2,338 points in 75 games). This was second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 37.6 points per game that season. Talk about lofty company. Twyman and Chamberlain became the first two players in NBA history to average more than 30 points per game for a season. This is a good trivia question to spring on your friends who think they know NBA history. It was the second straight year that Twyman finished runner-up in the league in scoring – he averaged 25.8 per game (1,857 points in 72 games), second behind Bob Pettit (29.2 per game) in 1958-59.

Which players in the NBA over the past quarter century most remind you of Twyman and Stokes from what you’ve seen and heard?

Stokes’ combination of scoring, rebounding and passing abilities, combined with his unselfishness and basketball IQ, was something that the NBA had never seen before he got to Rochester in 1955. He was a power forward and ferocious rebounder who could not only finish on the fast break, but also handle the ball in transition. He was the first big man in the league with outstanding passing skills. I think his skill set was most similar to that of Magic Johnson and LeBron James. There are differences, sure, but he could do things that these two can also do. Besides Stokes, the only other player in NBA history to finish in the top three in rebounds and assists for two straight seasons was Chamberlain.

I think Twyman’s game was a lot like Paul Pierce in his prime. Like Pierce, he could score in a lot of different ways – from the outside, on the drive, getting to the line. He could also deliver key passes at important moments, although he definitely possessed a “shoot-first” mentality.

* * *

This book is available on Amazon and elsewhere: http://www.amazon.com/An-Unbreakable-Bond-Brotherhood-Maurice/dp/1937943178

Additional recommended reading: http://grantland.com/features/bryan-curtis-tragic-inspirational-story-maurice-stokes/

Buster Douglas dishes out insight on LeBron James and the Cavs

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 11, 2015) — I spoke to former world heavyweight boxing champion James “Buster” Douglas a few weeks ago in preparation for a series of articles on the 25th anniversary of his 10th-round knockdown victory of Mike Tyson at Tokyo Dome.

We chatted briefly about basketball, too. After all, Douglas was a standout forward in high school — he helped lead his team to a state championship – and at the junior college level.

These days, how much attention do you pay to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers? I asked.

“Big time,” said Douglas, a Columbus, Ohio, native. “The Cavs are my favorite. I follow LeBron. Miami was my favorite when he left the Cavs and went to Miami, but he’s back with the Cavs, so I’m back with the Cavs again.

“I’m a big-time LeBron James fan. He’s a great ballplayer and a great young man.”

What are your thoughts on the second half of the season for the Cavs?

“I think they are going to do all right,” Douglas told me. “They are going to pull together and make the playoffs and they are going to start jelling and coming together a little better, which I expected at the beginning of the season (it would take time) to get used to one another’s ways and getting the rhythm down. And now they are starting to turn the corner, I think, for this final stretch to make the playoffs, and maybe come along very well.”

Have you ever played LeBron one-on-one?

“No, I haven’t had a chance to meet him yet,” Douglas said. “Yeah, to meet him would be great.”

****
Exclusive interview with Buster Douglas: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/02/10/more-sports/boxing-2/douglas-reflects-tyson-fight-25-years-later/ … …

Playing for the Cavs in 2010 … Jawad Williams

This Hoop Scoop column appeared in The Japan Times in April 2010.

Persevering Williams making most of shot in NBA

By Ed Odeven

The NBA playoffs begin this weekend, which means – hallelujah! – the “real season” is only hours away.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who racked up a league-best 61-21 record in the regular season, have one of the most gifted all-around players (LeBron James) in the game’s history, a future first-ballot Hall of Fame center (Shaquille O’Neal) and a strong cast of role players. This includes lithe 206-cm forward Jawad Williams, who paid his dues in far-flung outposts in Spain, Israel and the NBA Development League, as well as a successful stint with the JBL’s Rera Kamuy Hokkaido in 2007-08 before finally securing a regular paycheck from the Cavs this season.

Williams played in 54 games and averaged 13.7 minutes per game with a modest 4.1 points-per-game average and 1.5 rebounds per game this season. He scored a season-high 17 points on Feb. 9 against the atrocious New Jersey Nets and also filled in as a starter in six games to spell James and other Cavs regulars when called upon to do so by coach Mike Brown.

Statistics matter, of course, but a job in the world’s best basketball league means much more to Williams.

For the easy-going Williams, life is good these days, playing for his hometown team in a season filled with countless highlights.

“I feel like everything’s going great,” Williams said during a recent phone conversation. “I couldn’t ask for a better situation right now, playing for my team in my home state.”

With the season winding down, Williams was asked to assess the way the Cavs have played. It came as no surprise that his answer was upbeat and positive.

“I think we are where we should be right now,” were the words he chose to describe the situation.

Up next: The Cavs face the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs. Williams is ready for the challenge.

“This team is built for the championship,” he said. “All we have to do is continue to work hard and compete.”

* * * * *
Williams capped a four-year collegiate career at the University of North Carolina with a title in 2005, averaging 13.1 ppg for Roy Williams’ squad, which also included future NBA players Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, David Noel and Marvin Williams. He scored 13 points in the NCAA championship game against Illinois, knocking down three 3-pointers in process.

And then he went unpicked in the 2005 NBA Draft. For some players, that fact might have signaled the end of their careers. But for Williams it gave him greater motivation to compete.

“We have a never-give-up attitude in my family,” Williams told me. “One thing my parents instilled in me is the attitude that I’ll go as hard as I can and hope for the best outcome.

“Patience is a virtue in this game because nothing is guaranteed,” he continued. “When you do have that one chance, you have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity.”

For Williams, that meant starting his professional career with the Fayetteville Patriots of the NBADL in 2005, and moving on to the D-League’s Anaheim Arsenal the following season, where he made 49 starts in 50 games and averaged 19.2 points and 4.6 rebounds and rounding out the busy season with a 19-game stint with Alta Gestion Fuenlabrada Madrid of the Spanish League.

Williams accepted an offer to come to Japan for the 2007-08, and made the most of the opportunity while playing for the Hokkaido-based club. In 35 games, he averaged 24.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, statistics he acknowledged were indicative of his growth as a player.

“I expanded my game,” he said, “and I think that’s what brought me back to the NBA.”

A quick primer: Williams played for the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2006-07 preseason (four games). His time with the perpetually bad franchise, however, didn’t carry over into the regular season, and so his familial advice kept him inspired to stick with his plan: to keep pursuing his lifelong goal.

Overseas opportunities with the aforementioned clubs, and Hapoel Galil Elyon of the Israel Premier League (10 games after Rera Kamuy’s 2007-08 season), gave Williams the necessary workload he desired and the time to hone his skills. Then he returned to the United States and joined the Cavs’ summer team squad in July 2008.

That move paid off. Williams earned an invitation to Cleveland’s training camp in the fall of 2008, and made the team’s roster to begin the season.

His patience was tested, though, when the Cavs waived him on Jan. 7, 2009. But, as you know by now, it didn’t signal the end of his time in Cleveland; he was signed to a pair of 10-day contracts last season, followed by a short stint with the NBADL’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Cavs re-signed him to a contract for the remainder of the season on April 8.

For Williams, this has been his first full NBA season, and he cherishes the experience.

“I am very well-traveled,” the 27-year-old said. “It took me a long time to be where I’m at right now. It’s a blessing to be where I’m at. I can’t complain at all.”

Reflecting on his time with Rera Kamuy, Williams summed up the experience as a “great time” and said his teammates and the nation as a whole treated him generously. He expressed pride in his performance on the court, too, pointing to his nearly 25 ppg as an example of his creed to “try to fill out the stat sheet in every category.”

Williams developed a positive impression of the JBL for being organized and for its well-mannered fans and said several of the league’s top Japanese players, including Rera Kamuy guards Takehiko Orimo and Ryota Sakurai, deserve the public’s admiration.

“Those guys were real talented and overlooked,” said Williams, whose mother Gail played college ball at Cleveland State and sister Na’Sheema suited up at power forward for Vanderbilt University and in the defunct ABL. “As time goes on, people will see there are very talented players there, like (Yuta) Tabuse.”

* * * * *
Williams’ basketball pedigree won’t be fully chronicled in this story. It will be noted, however, that he first dunked a basketball while playing in an AAU tournament as a seventh-grader. A story on cavs.com notes that after that game he received his first autograph request.

Call it an unforgettable moment. Or as he recalled: “It felt good. It was seventh grade. Not too many guys were doing that then.”

More than a decade later, Williams is entering his prime as a basketball player. His physical skills are still developing, but his mental makeup as an athlete has already revealed its signature trait.

Matt Doherty, Williams’ first coach at UNC, said perseverance has paid off for Williams.

“The tough thing at North Carolina is everyone expects to be drafted. The thing I was really proud of is that Jawad stuck it out,” Doherty, who now coaches at Southern Methodist University, was quoted as saying in a Cleveland Plain-Dealer article in February. “He didn’t let if affect him. A lot of kids struggle with the emotional side of not getting drafted. He stuck it out, and now I see him on ‘SportsCenter.’ ”

Does Williams feel lucky?

“I wouldn’t call it luck. I call it being blessed,” he said. “Things just happen to fall into your lap sometimes, but I worked hard to get to this point.”

Coach Brown, in his fifth season at the helm, isn’t one of the NBA’s most recognizable faces, but he commands respect from the Cavaliers players.

“He knows when to push us and when to back off,” said Williams.

Another thing Williams always anticipates is fierce competition in practice; he routinely guards King James. It’s a terrific measuring stick for any player looking to stay sharp on defense.

“He’s the toughest guy I have to guard on a daily basis,” Williams said bluntly, adding that it prepares him for difficult duels against guys like Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest and Kevin Durant.

For opponents, James creates headaches and nightmares. For Williams, he makes his job a joyful experience.

“He’s very unselfish,” Williams said of the Cleveland superstar. “He cares about everybody’s success and everyone around him and I think that’s what sets him apart from everybody around him.”