BOOK REVIEW: Bijan C. Bayne’s ‘Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball’

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 25, 2018) — Award-winning critic and author Bijan C. Bayne delivers a detailed account of Elgin Baylor’s greatness as a basketball player and the historic impact of his amazing career from the playgrounds and gyms of Washington, D.C. to the College of Idaho to Seattle University to the NBA’s Lakers (first in Minneapolis, then in Los Angeles).

Every step of the way, Bayne chronicles Baylor’s exploits with thorough research, drawing upon an impressive list of contemporary sources to tell the story. Newspapers, magazines, books and websites are referenced throughout the biography, which enrich the narrative.

In 2015, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. published the hardcover book. The paperback edition was released two years later, and recently seized my attention from start to finish.

Bijan C. Bayne

A gifted observer and pundit, Bayne captures the essence of Baylor’s greatness. He explains again and again why Baylor was one of the most revolutionary — and important — athletes of the 20th century.

Above all, this is an excellent primer on the significance of Baylor’s career and how he changed the game, how he influenced future stars and run-of-the-mill players.

Longtime Boston Globe sports scribe Bob Ryan, an authoritative voice on the NBA for decades, penned the foreword to this book.

Ryan, employing both eloquent and straight-forward prose, explained why Bayne’s overarching premise for this book was spot-on.

“He just did what came natural to him on the court,” Ryan wrote. “Thus, we had a 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound athlete stutter-stepping, swooping and up-and-undering, and double-pumping and releasing shots from decidedly unfixed release points, adding up to a style of individual offense no one had ever seen before. Period.”

“…And before anyone says, ‘What about Oscar Robertson?’ understand that the vaunted ‘Big O’ was the king of orthodoxy, perhaps the most fundamentally sound player ever. The Big O was the basketball equivalent of classical music.

“Elgin was improvisational jazz,” Ryan declared.

Ryan also had this to say: “Elgin Baylor … had more influence on how the game of basketball is played than anyone in the past 60 years.”

Profound, indeed. And setting the stage for the action-packed book.

***

Baylor’s schoolboy exploits on the court are reported in detail. He was a local hero and on-court sensation.

In a Washington Post article from 1954 cited in the second chapter, the player nicknamed “Rabbit” was summed up this way: a remarkable athlete averaging 39.9 points per game, who had arms that extend to the “inside, not just touch, the rim of a standard basket on a jump.”

During his days at Spingarn High School in the early 1950s, Baylor attracted attention throughout the region. For instance, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach was well aware of him.

How couldn’t he have been?

Baylor’s best high school game, a 63-point gem, remains the record in D.C., Bayne wrote.

An all-around gifted athlete, Baylor took his talents to the College of Idaho in 1954, where he was one of the few black students on the campus, which had an enrollment of 450 students.

Interestingly enough, he received a football scholarship to Idaho, even though he’d only played sandlot football, the author noted.

“I thought, well, I’ll play football, and maybe I can make the basketball team, too,” Baylor said at the time.

He seized the opportunity. The rest is history.

Baylor quickly found his way to the basketball court.

In his first two games for the Idaho Coyotes, Baylor poured in 57 and 46 points as a college freshman, and the Coyotes had an unbeaten season in conference play. The team’s starting center, Baylor scored 31.3 points per game. (Baylor’s early foes included Nevada, Gonzaga and Montana State, and one of his well-known teammates was R.C. “Alley Oop” Owens, the future NFL receiving standout.)

Baylor was instrumental in making the Coyotes a hot ticket in the community.

“The basketball program that had total gate receipts of $2.40 a few years earlier was now turning away fans from sold-out games,” Bayne wrote.

It’s a powerful reminder of the big-time nature of Baylor’s entertainment value, even at this early stage of his career.

Despite Baylor’s impact on the program and its success, College of Idaho, an NAIA school, ended its basketball program in ’55.

Idaho’s loss became the Pacific Northwest’s gain. Seattle University has never had a more incredible game-changing force on its roster.

But before he left Idaho, a seminal moment in Baylor’s college days took place in his dormitory. He tuned in to the NCAA title game between the University of San Francisco, led by Bill Russell, and LaSalle, headlined by Tom Gola.

Here was Baylor’s recollection of that game, which Bayne cited from prolific author Bert Sugar’s “The Sports 100”:

“I’d read about Bill Russell and Tom Gola in the papers, but just to listen to the game on the radio was like seeing them play. I could see them blocking shots and rebounding and scoring. It was so exciting — it was better than any game I had ever seen.”

***

Just as he was at Idaho, Baylor became an instant success at Seattle.

John Castellani, the Chieftains’ new coach in 1956, described Baylor as “point-blank the greatest ballplayer I had ever seen.”

He did this, Bayne deftly pointed out, on the second day of preseason practice that October.

What caused Castellani to make this bold proclamation?

“The way he rebounded, the way he put the ball back up after a rebound,” the ex-Seattle coach said in 2012. “You see guys rebound today, and it’s not the same. Elgin would squeeze the ball, and no one could get the ball away from him. He could run the court, dribble, and he had a jump shot from today’s three-point range.”

In a February 1957 game against Gonzaga, Baylor, then  sophomore, demonstrated his one-of-a-kind talent. A game in which he scored 40 points, including 26 in the second half. Double- and triple-team defenses couldn’t stop him. That same month Baylor stuffed the box score with 51 points and 20 rebounds against Portland.

Seattle went 24-3 that season, finishing fifth in The Associated Press’s final poll. And “sportswriters were calling the school ‘Baylor Tech,’ ” noted Bayne of the superstar who was the NCAA’s No. 1 rebounder and third-leading scorer.

In the 1957-58 season, Baylor compiled back-to-back games of 60 and 43 points on consecutive days against Portland at Seattle Civic Auditorium.

“A week later,” Bayne wrote, “Seattle faced Gonzaga and its much ballyhooed 280-pound, 7-3 French freshman center, Jean Claude Lefebvre. When Lefebvre and Baylor went up for a jump ball, the 6-5Baylor outjumped Lefebvre and swatted the ball into the stands for good measure. Baylor netted 42 points to Lefebvre’s 26. Of the Gonzaga giant, Baylor said Lefebvre was the toughest player he faced all season. Yet, when the teams played again the next day, Baylor managed to college 30 rebounds and score double Lefebvre’s output, for a total of 46 points, taking over the national scoring lead at 33.7 points per game from Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson (32.9) and Kansas’s Wilt Chamberlain (32.7). His 23.5 rebounds per game also led the nation — including Chamberlain.”

Indeed, he was a player destined for greatness. Bayne made this clear with his authoritative presentation of the facts.

***

The Chieftains fell to the University of Kentucky in the 1958 NCAA Tournament championship game, and Baylor received the Most Outstanding Player award. He had 25 points on 9-for-32 shooting and snared 19 rebounds.

The following is one of the best passages in the book and effectively explains why Baylor produced a lasting imprint on the game.

“Without a doubt, Elgin Baylor’s skills were helping him build a legendary reputation in the game of basketball. … For all the credit Baylor has since received for paving the stylistic path for Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, and Michael Jordan, he was a thoroughly unique player. Unlike his aerial descendants, Baylor was a novelty because of his many unpredictable moves from the wing. His ballhandling ability at 6-5, 200 pounds made him a one-man revolution. He had all the fakes and a sure handle, and some of his spectacular plays culminated in twisting, hanging, or gliding near of past the basket. Yet, it was the combination of those elements — the yo-yo dribbling, the subtle feints, the knifing reverse layups between taller defenders — that set Baylor apart from his predecessors and peers. Where such players as Hawkins, Erving, and, of course, Jordan became known for their trademark dunk, Baylor scored on one-handed push shots, banks, floaters, and fallaways…”

While the Minneapolis Lakers settled on drafting Baylor in 1958, he was on the New York Knicks’ wish list. New York made a $100,000 offer to the Lakers “for the rights to draft Baylor, a move that reminded NBA owners why they held Knicks owner Ned Irish in such low regard,” Bayne reported.

Unearthing key but lesser-known facts about Elg’s career from first-hand accounts — teammates, opponents, ex-coaches, broadcasters and media — paint a full picture of a player who’d be a LeBron James-like presence in the modern media landscape,  a player picked No. 1 in the 1958 NBA Draft after guiding Seattle U. to the NCAA Final four.

Baylor played in his first NBA game on Oct. 22, 1958, competing against the Cincinnati Royals. He made a stellar debut for the Lakers with a 25-point effort.

“On the opening center jump, Lakers center Jim Krebs tapped the ball to Baylor. The rookie glided down court with a dribble, raced past Royals forward Jack Twyman, and laid the ball in uncontested.”

Baylor instantly emerged as one of the leading scorers and rebounders in his rookie campaign. The Lakers upset the St. Louis Hawks in the West Division finals, and they faced the reigning champion Celtics in the NBA Finals. Boston’s four-game sweep was the first of numerous playoff disappointments for Baylor over the years against the Celtics.

Earlier that season, he also stepped into the spotlight as a man with strong moral convictions in Charleston, West Virginia, in January 1959, when racial discrimination reared its ugly head. During Lakers captain Vern Mikkelsen’s visit to a hotel’s front desk to check in, he was told the team’s black players  couldn’t stay there. Two additional hotels also refused to admit them. The team wound up staying at Edna’s Retirement Hotel, which Bayne described as “an establishment for Negroes.”

While in Charleston, Baylor and black teammates Ellis and Ed Fleming  were unable to find a place that would let them eat besides inside the Greyhound bus station — at a concession stand.

Bayne wrote, “He decided to boycott the game rather than support the hypocrisy. That would show the city of Charleston, the NBA organization, and the press how ridiculous the double standard was. ‘I was turn up inside,’ he said of the decision.”

Baylor sat on the bench during the game, and the Royals won 95-91.

“Only after the game was it revealed that he had refused to play in protest,” Bayne highlighted in a chapter entitled “I’m Not An Animal Put In A Cage…”

“Baylor later said he wouldn’t have played even if it cost him his entire year’s salary.”

The Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s African-American newspaper, praised Baylor afterward. “Baylor’s refusal to compromise with all the evil segregation stands for is a tribute to his character and should give the faint-hearted something to think about. He has shown the way.”

Speaking to Sport magazine in 1963, Baylor, named Rookie of the Year in ’59,  looked back on his decision to boycott the game in Charleston.

“Certainly I don’t regret having done it,” Baylor was quoted as saying. “I’m no pioneer or anything like that, but I’m interested in my people and I’m interested in progress. I’m Elgin Baylor, and I don’t want anything more than I’m entitled to or anything else.

“When you do something you hope something good will come out of it, that people will recognize it and be conscious of what’s going on in this country. If it serves its purpose, great. At the time when you’re being embarrassed or humiliated, you’re not thinking, ‘I have to do this for everybody else.’ You’re just thinking about what’s happening to you.”

***

Snippets from Sports Illustrated and Sports, Jet and Ebony, The Washington Post and Washington City Paper, Baltimore Afro-American and Seattle Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many other publications are doled out throughout the book. The author collected rich anecdotes for his research on Elgin Baylor’s life and basketball career. He finds valuable stats, trends and comments as well from numerous books and publications from all corners of the country, including Negro Digest, New York Magazine, Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Long Beach Independent, Boys Life and Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Bayne turned to Tommy Heinsohn, the former Boston Celtics great, head coach and announcer, for an expert’s viewpoint on Baylor.

“Elgin Baylor was the premier quick forward in NBA history,” Heinsohn said in “Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA,” penned by Terry Pluto. “I’m sure you would get an argument about Dr. J, Larry Bird, and other players. But not only was he a great offensive player, rebounder, passer — which is evident in the record books — but … he was by far the best defender.”

The accolades came early for Baylor in his pro career as he was chosen for the All-NBA Team as a rookie, and the Lakers went from missing the playoffs and finishing in last place in the year before his arrival to reaching the Finals in Baylor’s first pro season.

Baylor had a dynamic 52-point game to open the 1959-60 campaign against Detroit, doing so even after serving in the U.S. Army Reserve for basic training while his teammates trained away from military duty. Then he scored 64 points in a November game against Boston, eclipsing the league record of 63 points set by Joe Fulks.

A year later, the team’s star attraction was a major reason flocks of fans attended Lakers games during their West Coast trek. The increased income from ticket sales convinced owner Bob Short to relocate the team to Los Angeles, but not without some resistance from some owners who didn’t want to shell out extra money to fly out to California.

In short, as Bayne pointed out, “the fate of the NBA on the West Coast rested on Baylor’s broad shoulders.”

On Nov. 15, 1960, “Baylor propelled the NBA into the atomic age,” the author noted. The details: Another record-breaking performance — 71 points versus the Knickerbockers. He had 15 points in the opening stanza, 34 by halftime and 47 entering the final period.

“…Baylor picked up his fifth foul in the fourth quarter and played matador defense the rest of the way. The Knicks would not double-team Baylor, who eclipsed his own record of 64 points with five minutes to play,” the author stated.

Totals: 28 of 48 from the floor and 15 of 19 at the free-throw line and 25 rebounds.

***

As Baylor gained greater notoriety within sports circles and among the general public as a whole, he crossed paths with a wider cross section of the nation’s most famous folks.

Case in point: A December 1960 visit by boxers Ray Robinson and Gene Fullmer to the L.A. Sports Arena for a fight. Elg was an integral part of the pre-fight promotion.

Bayne described it this way: “To hype the bout, newspapers ran a photo of middleweight Fullmer raising Baylor’s lofty hand as the world:s greatest scorer, in a pose generally reserved for a boxing ref lifting a victorious fighter’s arm…”

A prolific scorer (27.4 ppg) and magnificent rebounder (13.5 rpg), Baylor’s dazzling passing skills may have gone unnoticed by many hoop observers or forgotten as the years passed by.

To his credit, Bayne doesn’t let that happen in this book. He brings up this underappreciated aspect of Baylor’s game to the forefront on several occasions. He cited one one of the Lakers media guides to underline that important point. The guidebook noted, “(H)is passes from one side to the other from impossible angles and out of impossible tangles were spectacular.”

Author Leonard Koppett correctly noted in “24 Seconds to Shoot” that Baylor and the Big O possessed the ability to play anywhere on the court. “If anyone could match Oscar (Robertson) on the versatility scale, it was Baylor,” Koppett wrote.

Descriptions of all-time great Wilt Chamberlain’s impressive accomplishments, including his 100-point game against the Knicks, are sprinkled throughout the book. Bayne detailed with contextual clarity how Wilt and Baylor interacted as foes, friends and later as teammates. A huge chunk of space is devoted to Wilt in the book (and for this review, honestly, it could constitute a separate story). He underscored the chief differences between the two men’s games and personalities; it all adds up to one of the most interesting aspects of the book.

Baylor’s aerial artistry combined with his physical toughness created defensive nightmares for opponents. According to legendary columnist Jim Murray, who gave Baylor the moniker “The Big Hurt,” Bayne recounted that the former stated that “opposing players stocked up on liniment and aspiring before guarding him.”

But it wasn’t just his toughness that stood out. As Bob Ryan pointed out in the aforementioned foreword, Baylor was a master improvisational artist.

“Finesse usually happens in small people about 5-foot-9,” Lou Mohs was quoted as saying to Sports Illustrated in April 1959. “But Elgin is so quick of mind and hand he gets his shot off no matter how good the defense is … He comes up with the second and third try on the same ball.”

***

Baylor’s popularity within the greater Los Angeles community is detailed again and again in the book, with examples of his involvement in philanthropic, civic and sports activities provided. This included working as a customer service rep for Great Western Savings & Loan in the offseason.

For the 1961-62 season, he became the third-highest player in the league, a sign of his rising status as an NBA icon.

In one memorable game that season, the Lakers faced Wilt’s Philadelphia Warriors, and Jerry West provided the winning spark for L.A. in triple overtime.

It was tied 109-all after four quarters, with Chamberlain scoring 53 and Baylor putting 47 on the board. Wilt finished with 78 points, topping Baylor’s mark, while Elg had 63, including 16 in bonus play.

“When I play, I don’t think about how many points I’m scoring,” Baylor was quoted as saying in a Sport Magazine cover story in 1961. “It doesn’t mean anything to me. I like to win.”

The Celtics dynasty overshadowed what Baylor achieved with the Lakers, a team also featuring all-time great Jerry West starting in 1960. But the author reminds all that the influential pioneer preceded the era of noted leapers like “Pogo” Joe Caldwell, Gus Johnson and Erving, and did so while appearing in seven NBA Finals and producing a 61-point output in Game 5 of the ’62 Finals against Russell and L.A.’s arch-nemesis, Boston, “facing the best defensive player of all time.”

The impact that Baylor had as a stylistic impresario is felt in the words of Dr. J, Jerry West, Bill Bradley, Rick Barry, Paul Westphal and George McGinnis, among others. All praised the jaw-dropping skills that Baylor possessed, and revealed they tried to emulate what he did at one time or other. These comments are fascinating, well-placed reporting.

Future Hall of Fame player and coach Lenny Wilkens also weighed in on Baylor in a passage from “Tall Tales.”

Said Wilkens: “Elgin Baylor would have been a great player in any era. People talk about the amazing things Julius Erving and Michael Jordan did athletically, but I saw Baylor do many of the same things — only this was in the early 1960s. He had spin moves, the dunks, the head-above-the-rim attacks on the basket. He played way above the pack.”

The Lakers became the most popular team in terms of attendance in the league in the mid-1960s. Credit must go to Baylor for raising the team’s status in the City of Angels and beyond.

As the late, legendary writer Frank Deford stated in a letter to the editor to New York Magazine in 1970, “I cannot offer proof of authorship, but I have often heard that the word superstar was first applied to basketball hero Elgin Baylor — at least the word first supposedly gained regular currency with regard to Baylor.” Bayne cited Deford tracing this nickname to the late 1950s.

***

By reading this book, one clearly comes to understand that Bayne has a great admiration for Baylor as a player and as a man. He illustrates this repeatedly with a carefully crafted narrative that focuses on Baylor’s lifetime in the game, including the pitfalls of working for dysfunctional owner Donald Sterling of the L.A. Clippers for 22 years as general manager. Sterling’s reputation as a cheapskate indeed hindered Baylor’s ability to build consistent winners.

Throughout Sterling’s reign of repeated errors and apathy, Baylor’s dignity carried him through difficult times until the end, when he was dismissed in 2008, and Bayne examined this crazy era with a deep-probing eye for details.

He highlighted Baylor’s post-playing career, including stints as a sports analyst and head coach of the New Orleans Jazz on two occasions in the 1970s.

Before that, he chronicled the intense rehab efforts that Baylor made after knee injuries slowed him down, but never rendered him ineffective for long, toward the middle of his career. Bayne explained also how Baylor’s contemporaries lamented how his physical ailments robbed him of his full power.

“Opponents noticed the hesitancy in his game — some of the assertiveness was gone,” was the way Bayne described it.

“The lion has a thorn in his paw,” Murray wrote in one column. “It’s heartbreaking to see the jackals come out of the woodwork in the forest. Guy who used to take a head cold on the nights they needed to stop Baylor now volunteer.”

Baylor, of course, endured — and excelled — for several more seasons and remained one of the game’s elite players but with less spring in his jump. He made 10 All-NBA Teams and was an 11-time All-Star, and was a 1977 inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Lakers captured their first title as residents of L.A. the season in which Baylor retired. He was worn down by persistent knee pain, and hung up his shoes for good famously nine games into the 1971-72 campaign, and the Lakers rattled off a record 33 straight victories after Baylor stepped aside en route to the championship over New York.

Yes, Baylor helped shape that team and left a permanent imprint on the way that group of players competed cohesively, with intelligence and with fierce determination. Those facts are relevant to Bayne’s treatise on the Hall of Famer.

He also brought deep moral convictions to the game, as evidenced by his participation in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.-led March on Washington in August 1963.

Baylor was one of 250,000 Americans there, and it showed that he valued the message and the opportunity to support a peaceful event aiming to push for societal changes.

When Chamberlain was named player-coach of the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors in 1973 — he was not permitted to play due to his previous contract with the Lakers — Baylor voiced skepticism about his ex-teammate’s coaching chops.

Speaking to Jet magazine, Baylor made these remarks: “I don’t think he can coach. What could he possibly help a player with? He doesn’t have the temperament to be a coach. He never had any discipline. He hardly ever came to practice, and when he did, he didn’t work hard because he didn’t think he had to practice. He didn’t think he needed it.”

Baylor was a gregarious athlete, too.

Or as Chamberlain put it in “Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan’s Game and Beyond: “(Baylor was) a garrulous, fast-talking guy who likes to be the center of attention.” The author added: “Baylor was so found of quizzing, challenging and card playing with teammates, Laker Walt Hazzard said to Deford for his 1966 SI cover feature, ‘We call  him the King of Gamesmanship.’ ”

There’s so much more you’ll discover about the great Elgin Gay Baylor as an American icon, sporting superstar and person within the 250-plus pages of Bijan C. Bayne’s thoughtful tome on the hoop legend. That’s why I highly recommend that you pick up the book and start reading it.

It’s an important book that combines a tireless reporter’s curiosity and a serious student of history’s appreciation for little nuggets of info and big themes that connect the dots on the fuller picture of a legendary athlete’s huge impact on basketball.

The book succeeds in telling us why Baylor matters as a key figure in basketball history at a time of major changes in U.S. history and in the sport and the pro game as well.

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Willie Wise: a defender of the ABA’s legacy, a staunch supporter of the players’ pension fight

Willie_Wise_and_Julius_Erving
New York Nets star Julius Erving and Willie Wise of the Utah Stars compete in an ABA game in the early 1970s. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Aug. 1, 2017)
Fifth in a series

A few weeks before the NBA’s hectic signing period made headlines to kick off summer, former ABA star Willie Wise reflected on the economic changes within pro basketball across the decades, but also provided a detailed analysis of how influential the ABA was in shaping the way the game is played today.

But first a few numbers from contracts finalized in recent weeks: J.J. Redick (one year, $23 million, Philadelphia 76ers), Gordon Hayward (four years, $128M, Boston Celtics), Kevin Durant (two years, $53M, Golden State Warriors), Paul Millsap (three years, $90M, Denver Nuggets), Kyle Lowry (three years, $100M, Toronto Raptors).

Those, of course, are just a few of the blockbuster contracts being signed by dozens of players, many of whom never enter the discussion as being superstars. In a July 2016 article, The New York Times’ Marc Tracy noted, “An infusion of billions of dollars into the league’s coffers from a television contracted agreed upon two years ago has led to this: That random guy on the bench is getting upward of $15 million a year.”

In other words, as Tracy cited, guys like Timofey Mozgov. The veteran big man, who scored 6.3 points per game in the 2015-16 campaign, got a four-year deal, which began in 2016, for a cool $64 million from the Los Angeles Lakers.

There’s also Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley’s $153 million deal for five years, starting in 2016.

Indeed, there’s big money being thrown around — more money than ever, in fact. Sportsbusinessdaily.com reported in October 2016 that the NBA’s expected revenue for this past season was $8 billion.

Wise, who starred for the Los Angeles/Utah Stars and Virginia Squires in the ABA before wrapping up his playing career with the Denver Nuggets (1976-77) and Seattle SuperSonics (1977), is passionate about the issue of former ABA players’ pensions, especially at a time when the NBA is thriving financially.

And Wise was one of the elite players in ABA history (see below for a detailed analysis by ABA and NBA expert Peter Vecsey). In 1971, he was described by Sports Illustrated as “the best two-way performer in pro basketball.” This lavish praise came after the Utah Stars, with Bill Sharman at the helm, captured the 1971 ABA championship, winning that crown in seven games over the Kentucky Colonels.

As Julius “Dr. J” Erving declared in an article penned by the late Dan Pattison that is featured on the essential website www.remembertheaba.com, “Willie Wise was one of the toughest competitors I ever played against. He came to play every night. I really respected him. Willie was one of those players that the NBA fans never had a chance to see the best he had. That’s because Willie was injured a lot when he played in the NBA. That was a shame. Willie Wise had game. A great game.”

In the same feature, Wise , a 6-foot-5 forward out of Drake University (his No. 42 jersey was retired by the Missouri Valley Conference school in 2009; he helped lead the Bulldogs to the 1969 NCAA Final Four), summed up his approach to the pro game this way: “My first and only goal coming into the ABA was to be a great defensive player. I loved playing defense. It was always a challenge to see if I could stop guys like Rick Barry, John Brisker, and Roger Brown. But I didn’t like to think of myself as the best defensive player in the league. That’s because when I started to think about that I might have let down.”

Willie_Wise_and_Julius_Erving_(2)
The Nets’ Julius Erving drives on the Stars’ Willie Wise during the 1974 ABA playoffs. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Guided by lawyer Steven Hart, the Retired ABA Players submitted a signed petition to the NBA and to the National Basketball Players Association in April.

Wise said that Hart was “launching this petition to see if the NBA would want to move forward and do something to avert any kind of negative publicity, because the (league’s) popularity is pretty good.”

The signs are not encouraging. The NBA has not committed to earnest dialogue or any changes to the status quo.

At the heart of the petition is this: “Very simply, the promises made to the ABA players to finalize the ‘merger’ have been broken time and again,” it stated. “ABA players were told they would be treated the same as NBA players; they weren’t. ABA players were told that their pension fund would be equal to the NBA pension fund; it wasn’t.”

However, it’s an important initiative at a crucial time in the lives of former ABA players.

“I don’t know how effective it’s going to be,” Wise, now 70, said in a phone interview, “because the NBA can stall forever.”

And the number of former ABA players keeps decreasing; time is not on their side in this battle.

Throughout our conversation, Wise rattled off names of ex-ABA players who had passed away, including Zelmo Beatty, Moses Malone, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, George Stone, Warren Jabali, Caldwell Jones and Mervin Jackson and, in recent months, two more: Skeeter Swift and George Irvine.

What’s more, three-time ABA All-Star guard Steve “Snapper” Jones, a longtime NBA TV analyst, is “dealing with a fairly serious medical condition,” Wise said.

“So those of us who are alive and remain upright are dwindling quite rapidly .. and if the NBA says out of the goodness of their heart we will in fact go ahead and take care of those players who did in fact play in the NBA, but didn’t play the number of required years to qualify for the NBA pension, we will make their years retroactive to take care of them, I think if they wait another 10 years, then they won’t have that many players to deal with. (But) they could take care of them.”

Reflecting on Swift, who passed away in April, and noting his financial challenges over the years, Wise also had this to say: “I know others that were hurting and still are hurting..

“There are a lot of players that are in that category like Skeeter was — Goo Kennedy (age 67), Cincinnatus Powell (age 75), and they are still alive in the Texas area somewhere … John Beasley (age 73), ones like that.”

Wise, a fifth-round pick (64th overall) of the San Francisco Warriors in the 1969 NBA Draft, is hopeful that the petition’s message can trigger changes.

He said, “I hope that we can apply through this media pressure, media influence, some pressure on the NBA to look at this whole situation, revisit it and say, ‘We’re not obligated, but at the very least we can take care of the players who went from the ABA to the NBA during the absorption. It wasn’t a merger; it was an absorption. At the very least, those players and, hopefully, all the former ABA players who were current at the time of the absorption. That’s my hope.”

The petition elaborates on this objective in clear terms.

“The former ABA players do not ask for much —they merely want to be heard in a meaningful way, to fashion a remedy that justly compensates them consistent with the way the NBA has gratuitously compensated similar ‘pioneers’ in the past. What they seek is a modest monetary acknowledgement compared to the money running through the modern game,” the petition stated.

This modest request includes a request for ABA players with more than three years of service in the league to receive an increase in monthly compensation to $300/month for each  year of service from $60/month. (Players from the pre-1965 era receive $300/month for each year of service, while the current collective bargaining agreement provides $2,000 per month for year of service to retired players.)

An important point addressed in the aforementioned petition is the fact that NBA teams and the NBA online store via the omnipresent power of the internet sell throwback jerseys and other ABA-themed memorabilia of the Pacers, Nets, Spurs and Nuggets.

“What have the former ABA players realized monetarily from the advertisement of their legacy and playing days? Nothing, not a dime!” the petition stated.

It’s really disgusting,” Wise said. “If there’s profiteering going on, of the ABA, the old throwback (jerseys) and memorabilia of anything like that, for sure they should take care of, again, those players who went into the NBA…”

Wise issued a direct challenge to the NBA commissioner.

“So Adam Silver at the very least could (decide), ‘OK, instead of just shutting us out, let’s at least come to the table. They’re making money off of us as it is,” he said.

“I think it’s just morally right, morally correct, for them to add us to the full pension, especially since it’s not going to hurt them that much.”

If the former ABA players are able to change the NBA’s mind on this issue, it will take a dedicated campaign to elevate the public’s awareness of the issue. Having a high-profile spokesman to raise the bar is a key.

So who could help elevate the issue?

The Doctor.

Wise explained it this way: “A very important component of the history of the NBA, especially the way the game is played currently is the NBA, and I think a face of the ABA that is really pro-ABA and would celebrate their ABA roots is Dr. J.”

Wise also recommended that longtime announcer Bob Costas, who got his big break as a young announcer as the play-by-play voice of the Spirits of St. Louis, have an active role in being a key figure in this fight.

“Whether he would agree to be the face of this issue, I have no idea,” Wise said of Costas. “But I know he would say something very positive about the ABA, and there should be something in the form of financial consideration for those players who shaped the current NBA … the current playing style of the NBA today.”

***

“There are retired NBA players who are very sympathetic to our cause, there are a number of them,” Wise said, suggesting Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins and Spencer Haywood, the last three of whom also starred in the ABA early in their careers.

Wise is pleased that the ABA petition is making the rounds on the internet, giving it greater visibility and helping educate the public on the matter.

“The power of the terms cannot be overlooked or discounted,” Wise said, “so I think that it’s a good thing and I’d like to see more of it … and hopefully it could gain momentum that would force the NBA (to say), ‘OK, we better do something about this.'”

***

Wise’s highlights from the 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Game in two packages:

Wise was a prime-time player. During his pro career he saw action in 552 regular-season games and averaged 17.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.16 steals. He increased those numbers to 19.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.39 in 74 postseason contests. He was a two-time All-ABA Second Team selection and a two-time All-ABA Defensive First Team choice.

The SuperSonics waived Wise in November 1977, signaling the end of his playing career.

He began driving a concrete mixer in the Seattle are and retired in June 2015 after three decades on the job.

“I had to work,” he said. “I had a family. I was trying to make ends meet.”

Before starting his job as a driver, Wise had tried to pursue a career as an airline pilot, but said that it was too expensive to gain the necessary training and experience.

Raising a family and switching careers more than once created financial burdens for Wise. He cashed in on his pension in one lump sum at age 45. He received $83,000.

“I was in dire financial straits,” he said. “Basically homeless. I needed a down payment for a house.” (This included originally deferred money that “was redistributed back into the contract.”)

“I didn’t have anything afterwards, no. I didn’t have anything monthly coming in because I took it all because I needed it,” he said.

He said the IRS “disallowed” some investments and limited partnerships he was involved in four or five years later, demanding “all our money now.”

As a result, he was forced to sell his previous house.

“We weren’t living extravagantly,” he said.

To get the pension, he hired an attorney (legal fees amounted to 33 percent of what he received).

The Spurs administered the dispersal of pension funds, but in order to get paid players had to fight for their cause in a local court in Texas.

As Wise remembered it, one former ABA player who had the same number of years of service in the league was awarded a $150,000 lump-sum payment.

Another player, Wise said, “got substantially less than me and he played more years in the ABA than I did. I don’t understand it.”

***

Wise maintains pride in the way ABA teams played the game and influenced the way the NBA has evolved into a more free-flowing style that resembles the ABA.

“We practically pioneered the Golden State Warriors,” Wise said. “The way they play is the way we played in the ’60s and ’70s, and the NBA’s adoption of the 3-point line after much wrangling back and forth — because there were a lot that did not want it because they thought it was just an ABA gimmick to get people into the stands; let’s give them three points for a shot from a certain distance rather than just two, and the old guard in the NBA didn’t want it and fought against it, Red Auerbach being one, Dick Motta from the Bulls being another, and I want to say, but I’m not certain about this one, Jerry Colangelo. There were a number of coaches that fought it and finally the NBA adopted it (for the 1979-80 season), and it just grew and grew…”

He went on: “As the years passed, more and more teams saw the value of opening it up, having a wide-open game, because now you have to defend further away from the basket, which means that you are a lot more vulnerable to someone who can penetrate like Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

“And now, guys like Isaiah Thomas 20 years ago wouldn’t have made it in the NBA without the 3-point line. So those guys should be forever grateful to us.”

Wise, of course, is right. He is, well, wise about this matter without sounding pompous.

“And now because of the fan appeal, everybody’s looking for the 3-point shot,” Wise said. “Look at Golden State today. They just go bananas over that 3-point shot, and we were the ones that brought that in and introduced that.

“And so there should be some readjustments, some reconsideration from this standpoint as well for the players who have X amount of years in the ABA.”

There’s a generational gap among those who know the historical impact of the ABA and those who don’t, particularly those in their teens, 20s and 30s.

Case in point: The belief that the 3-point shot and Slam Dunk Contest were NBA innovations.

Actually, the ABA popularized both, doing so first.

Or as Wise put it: “We of the old guard are constantly telling them, ‘No, they got that from us.’ ”

IMG_4879c
Willie Wise and his wife pose for a portrait with their grandchildren in Ohio in June 2017. 

***

In Peter Vecsey’s words, here’s a one-of-a-kind analysis of Wise’s career, persona and hoop legacy:

“Willie’s game wasn’t attention-grabbing, and his personality wasn’t attention-seeking. Despite being acknowledged by his peers, coaches and the media as among the ABA’s three toughest defensive forwards in ABA history (Joe Caldwell and Bobby Jones), and the best two-way player in pro ball one season by Sports Illustrated,  I can’t remember him ever talking about himself, immodestly or otherwise. He always gave credit where credit was due, and not so much, to others,” Vecsey wrote in an email. “Opponents weren’t quite as reserved. Rick Barry, to this day, says Willie made it harder for him to score than anyone else the two years he dominated the red, white and blue scoreboard for the Nets. Think about who Willie  had cover on a nightly basis — Barry, Roger Brown, Julius Erving, John Brisker, and sometimes Spencer Haywood during his brief tour with Denver. Occasionally David Thompson and George Gervin, as well.

“I put Willie on the same plateau as Dave DeBusschere. His offense (19.2 in seven ABA seasons, almost 9 rebounds, as I recall) was more diversified, a lot trickier than DD, faking, leaning, finishing off  the backboard, or he’d pull up on the fast break and drill a midrange jumper. DeBusschere’s offense was nothing fancy, long jumpers and putbacks in congestion.

“Regrettably, like James Jones and Jimmy Silas (crippled by injuries and was still a standout), and Mack Calvin and Ron Boone, Willie’s best days were seen by far too few fans and HOF voters. Hence, his historic lack of recognition.”

Vecsey, the legendary former New York Post columnist who has returned to the basketball beat with a new subscriber-based website, petervecseyreport.com, revealed that Wise was stiffed by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“When Jerry Colangelo condescendingly formed an ABA HOF Committee — Barry, Costas, DT, Ice, Hubie (Brown), Mike Monroe and myself —Willie was near the top of our list when it was disbanded, because JC (once an ABA snob, always an NBA snob) told me he felt Louie Dampier didn’t deserve our (unanimous) selection, and that no one else deserved it.” 

Added Vecsey: “Willie and Jones and Calvin definitely would’ve been voted in by our 7-person committee within 3-4 years.”

But there’s more to the story, a while lot more, that reveals who Wise is, and was, as a person.

“Regarding Willie’s humility: Several years ago, I found a picture of him alongside Wilt in the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game at Nassau Coliseum,” Vecsey recalled. “I sent it to him without telling him what to expect. He thanked me profusely. And proceeded to show to his friends. ‘People had no idea I played pro ball. But there am I fighting for a rebound with Dipper.’ Willie scored 12 points in that game.”

***
Related stories
Part 1: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2017/05/27/allen-berrebbis-moral-crusade-against-the-nba-2/

Part 2: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2017/06/16/former-aba-players-fighting-for-fairness-dignity/

Part 3: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/broken-promises-nba-never-fulfilled-settlement-agreement-with-aba/

Part 4: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2017/07/04/skeeter-swifts-dying-words-gratitude-for-a-former-aba-teammates-unconditional-support/

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

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

By Ed Odeven

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

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

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

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

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

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

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

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

What are you writing about now?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers
Aram Goudsouzian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

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

What are you writing about now?

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

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

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

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

 

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/

Jack Mitchell: Oklahoma’s All-American QB in 1948

This article on former quarterback and football coach Jack Mitchell appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 13, 2002.
(Reporter’s note: Mitchell died in 2009 at age 85 in Sun City, Arizona.)

Memories of football glory

By Ed Odeven

Old guys love to tell tales of their younger days. Jack Mitchell, a former All-American quarterback for Oklahoma, is no exception.

In a recent interview at his Munds Park home, Mitchell, 79, reminisced about his career — a career that brought him in close contact with exceptional athletes like Gale Sayers and Wilt Chamberlain.

PLAYING DAYS

Mitchell grew up in Arkansas City, Kan. and was an all-state basketball and football player and a state tennis champion.

“I played athletics all through school, from first grade and up,” he said. “The Lord was just good to me in that direction.”

Mitchell went to the University of Texas to play for coach D.X. Bible in 1943 after graduating from Arkansas City High School. He spent one semester at the university before he was called to serve in World War II. He was a platoon leader, an Army lieutenant in an infantry division, serving in Germany, France and England.

After the war, Mitchell resumed his football career. It was a time of fierce competition.

“We were all back from the Army,” Mitchell said. “In other words, when we came back in ’46, there were three classes all together in one. The competition coming back was all mature. We were all in the same boat. … The competition was much more severe in ’46, ’47, and ’48.”

Mitchell went to Oklahoma in 1946, and the Sooners won the Big Six Championship, when the conference consisted of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa and Iowa State. Mitchell earned all-conference accolades at QB in 1946 and 1947.

In 1948, he was named an All-American quarterback, leading Oklahoma to a 14-6 Sugar Bowl victory over North Carolina on New Year’s Day.

Mitchell was named the Outstanding Player Award for the 1949 Sugar Bowl.

“I didn’t play my best game,” he said, “but I’ll tell you why I got the trophy, mainly. It was a defensive game all the way.”

Perhaps his best work, however, was done in the film room during pre-bowl preparations.

After an Oklahoma defender returned an interception back deep into Carolina territory in the first quarter, Mitchell’s smarts were on display as he called running play after running play, plays that kept gaining positive yardage.

“On the film I had noticed that [North Carolina] went into its eight-man front, its goal-line stand, at the 12- or 13-yard line,” Mitchell explained.

“As long as they were going to line up that way, you were going to make two or three yards.”

Mitchell kept running QB sneaks and finally picked up a 2-yard touchdown run, the game’s first score.

“I was basically not a good passer,” he said. “I did; I had to throw some.”

Mitchell also excelled on special teams. He holds the NCAA career record for punt-return average (23.8 yards per return). The record for most punts for touchdowns is shared by three: Mitchell, Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and Kansas State’s David Allen.

Looking back, he’s proud of those accomplishments.

“In those three years I can’t remember if I ever made a fair catch,” he recalled. “Today, 90 percent are fair catches, and when you do catch it they are all right on top of you, because they are all rested. They are specialty teams. They are covering like hell. They are all picked for speed. So that’s why it’ll never be broken. … I don’t think the career average will be broken”

Another highlight of Mitchell’s playing day was appearing in the 1949 Chicago College All-Star Game at Soldier Field. That game pitted the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles against college’s best gridiron stars.

“It was a big thrill when you ran out and they had that full house,” Mitchell said. “And they played the Oklahoma ‘Boomer Sooner’ (song). “[The announcer said], ‘Now, at quarterback will be Jack Mitchell, All-American from Oklahoma.”

Mitchell’s counterpart in the game was Tommy Thompson of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was blind in one eye.

The Eagles won the game, 38-0, and Mitchell separated his right shoulder in the game. Although he was signed by the Green Bay Packers, he never played due to his injury.

COACHING DAYS

In 1949, Mitchell started coaching at Blackwell (Okla.) High School. It was a challenge for which he felt prepared.

“By gosh, with my background, with [OU coach] Bud Wilkinson and through my college career and the little time I had with the pros and the All-Star game and all that, I was so far ahead of the old guys that were coaching high school,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t even funny.”

Mitchell’s college coaching career lasted from 1953 until 1966, with stints at Wichita, now called Wichita State (1953-54), Arkansas (1955-57) and Kansas (1958-66). He was named the Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year in 1954 and the Big Eight coach of the year in ’60.

He coached three times against Alabama’s legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, when Mitchell was at Arkansas and Bryant was with Texas A&M.

Asked what those experiences were like, Mitchell said, “It was just playing against another team. The guy that’s got the best players is going to win. They are all good coaches when you get in college.

“High school is a different story,” he continued. “You can out-coach a lot of them, because, heck, I played defenses that did stunts, and then I had an option play. They didn’t think you could do that in high school. And I put in the option play and taught the quarterback how to do that. Hell, we ran ’em crazy. We went to the state finals and they’d never been to the finals in the history of Blackwell.”

Mitchell guided the 1961 Kansas team to a 35-7 Bluebonnet Bowl victory over Rice.

Once dubbed “a great motivator,” Mitchell now wonders if that’s an appropriate description of his coaching style.

“You never know if it’s because you’ve got great players or if it’s because you are motivating them,” he said. “But I had to get them. We were fortunate in doing good recruiting. We worked awfully hard on recruiting players.”

Mitchell crossed paths with Chamberlain, when “Wilt the Stilt” was an exceptional all-around athlete at KU. Mitchell tried to persuade Chamberlain to join the football team for a specific purpose — short yardage situations.

“I was going to play him at quarterback, but never put him in the game unless we just needed a yard. … “He could step over them.

“In track, he could out-high jump, out-shot put everyone. He was not only 7-foot-2, but he was built like a guy 6 feet with strength and muscle who could run just as fast. He said he wanted to box. He would’ve been a helluva boxer.”

Mitchell mentioned former KU quarterback Johnny Hadl, who earned All-Pro distinction with the San Diego Chargers and Sayers, the ex-Chicago Bears great, as two of the best players he’s ever coached.

“Sayers might’ve been the finest running backs I saw, and one of the great defensive players,” said Mitchell, an avid golfer.

Of all the college football rivalries Mitchell has been associated with, he said the biggest one involves Ole Miss and Arkansas.

“By God, that’s a war,” he said.

NOWADAYS

Mitchell retired from coaching in 1966 to pursue a full-time career in business. He’s been involved with running a variety of different businesses ever since, including a bank, an insurance company and Mitchell Publications, Inc., which owns several newspapers in Kansas.

Although he’s no longer coaching, Mitchell, who also maintains residencies in Sun City and Kansas, is still passionate about football. That’s especially true during the autumn.

“I love to go the high school games,” he said, revealing he attends several games in the Phoenix area during the fall.

On Saturdays, Mitchell prefers to remain home rather than go screaming and shouting at a college football venue in the Southwest or Midwest.

“I don’t go to college games, because I want to stay home and be able to watch Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. I get to see three or four of the games on Saturday,” he said. “If I go to a game, I don’t see anybody else.

“I’ve got two TVs going and a radio on the side. Most of my buddies do the same thing,” he continued, smiling.

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

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

By Ed Odeven

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

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

Peter Vecsey and former NBA scoring champ Bernard King
Peter Vecsey and former NBA scoring champ Bernard King
Former Nets owner Joe Taub (left) and Peter Vecsey
Former Nets owner Joe Taub (left) and Peter Vecsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

What is your typical writing schedule for this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, on every level.

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

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

And what changed?

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

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

How many chapters do you think this will realistically be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t have any idea.

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

So you want to provide a partial recap?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Follow Peter Vecsey on Twitter: @PeterVecsey1