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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The perennial excellence of Ron Higgins’ journalism

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

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

Ron Higgins fits the above descriptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ron Higgins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I covered Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Recommended reading from last year:

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

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

Follow him on Twitter: @RonHigg