Harvey Araton is one of the greatest newspaper writers of my lifetime, which immediately makes him one of the greatest Quazes of my lifetime.
Hell, just check out his blog. Or his clips. Read his takes on the U.S. Open, on Super Bowls, on the World Series. From the time he debuted as a New York Times columnist in 1994 until his recent retirement from the paper, Harvey has been one of my go-to reads; a man whose work makes other writers sit up and moan, “Shit, I can’t do that.” Along with decades of work on the New York newspaper scene, Harvey is the author of seven books, including the wonderful “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseball’s Greatest Gift.”
Today, Harvey talks about newspaper highs and newspaper lows; about legacy and Bernard King and, in 1993, skipping a flight from Indianapolis to Chicago that ultimately crashed.
Harvey Araton, I hate that you’re better than me. But I love that you’re the 281st Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Harvey, I wanna start this with something that’s going to probably seem quite weird. So I was reading your New York Times blog, and I came across a really beautiful entry shortly after the death of Scotty Stirling, the former Knicks GM. Stirling was a big deal (for admittedly a short span) when I was a kid in New York. I mean, my memories of him are quite vivid. And when he died, well, it seemed to be a non-news story. I mean, it was noted here and there. But nothing large; nothing overly noteworthy. And I was thinking how fleeting fame truly is. How while we have our occasional Jordans and Gretzkys, what we really have are tons upon tons of Scotty Stirlings. And I wonder, with you having covered ceaseless Scotty Stirlings, if there really is a such thing as legacy in sports. Are people truly remembered? Is there such a thing as impact? Or will the vast majority of us (from athletes to executives to writers) simply have our existences turn to meaningless, forgettable dust?
HARVEY ARATON: I think most of us who perform or entertain in some public setting ultimately grapple with legacy or the more fundamental fear of being forgotten 20 minutes after we exit whatever stage we’re on or forum we have. It’s worse for the average athlete; it happens much sooner in life and in most cases without advance warning, though many do get to recreate themselves as managers, coaches, executives or broadcasters. That at least can create a renewed sense of relevance. But, OK, the truth is most of us wind up as Scotty Stirling, made to feel even worse if our last name is commonly misspelled. (I had to Google Stirling/Sterling when I wrote that blog and I covered the guy for a whole bunch of years). Leaving the Times after 25 years, I’ve been moved by so many people reaching out to say they have enjoyed my work and would miss it in the paper. But if I let myself for even a second think that makes me indispensable and wonder how the Times sports section will survive without me, I’d like my wife to dump a bucket of frigid Gatorade on my head to snap me out of my sad and delusionary state. I’m proud of the work. It is preserved in the archives. Enjoyed the run. Life moves on in another direction.
J.P.: I teach journalism out here at Chapman University. And I always debate something—can you teach someone how to become a writer? Put different, can I take someone with little skill, little experience and improve him/her? How about make him/her good? Or do you feel like this is a talent one is born with, to a certain degree?
H.A.: There are certain devices and constructive techniques that can be learned to improve one’s writing skills, for sure. I know that by looking at the dreck I turned in earlier in my career. But I’m not sure I was taught as much by academicians as I was impacted by those whose work I’ve read and tried to emulate some stylistically (Larry Merchant, Vic Ziegel and Henry Hecht come to mind from the old New York Post).
I have also done some adjunct teaching the past few years at Montclair State University. The most recent course has been called Column Writing & Analysis and I begin each semester by asking students to name the columnists they regularly read. I typically get back blank stares or the name of some obscure hockey blogger. So I have a prepared response now: You want to write columns you but don’t read any columnists? That’s like saying you want to be a rock star but you don’t listen to music.
I guess I do believe writing skills can be improved, otherwise why am I there? Or maybe what I should say is that students can be taught to be better reporters and journalists, which automatically makes the writing read better. But as for superior writing (which of course is such a subjective thing), I’d have to say, probably not so much. I’ve had few students who are just natural with the cadence of words, the rhythm of sentence structure and how paragraphs can flow from one to another with the use of transitions. That’s more innate. I’ve also known some brilliant people who speak more articulately and intelligently than I ever could on my most clearheaded day. Then I look at their writings. Really? It baffles me.
J.P.: I feel like people under a certain age don’t get what it was like to work for a newspaper when newspaper mattered; when the smell of print was floral; when you rushed to the newsstand to see what happened to the Knicks. Harvey, you started your career in 1970 with the Staten Island Advance, and stayed there until 1977. So (and this is admittedly wide open) what was the experience like? What do you remember? Was it thrilling? Awful? High? Low?
H.A.: When I was kid growing up in a Staten Island housing project, the son of a postal worker and grandson of a man who was functionally illiterate, I was the pitcher for my youth baseball team in the first game of our first season. I gave up five runs in the first inning but the coach, bless him, stuck with me and we won, 7-6. My dad remembered that the Advance ran line scores on every little league game with the winning pitcher’s name in agate. Next morning, he waited outside the candy store for the paper, jangling the coins in his pocket. He brought it home, beaming. From that day on, seeing my name in newspaper print was special. Before I knew it, and with some serendipity and kindness, I was making deli runs and wrapping the old ticker tapes for the Advance sports department. My career, by the way, was nearly aborted before it began when I attached tape to the copy of a newsbreak from Munich in ’72—the U.S. had beaten the Russians by one in the gold medal basketball game. Rushed it out to the composing room on first-edition Sunday paper deadline. Proud of my quick response, I didn’t bother returning to the wire room for another 20 minutes, by which time the result had changed: the last Russian possession was infamously replayed, the Commies had won, except not in the first few papers that rolled off the Advance presses. After that, I didn’t leave that wire room unless was my appendix was about to burst.
I came of working age still in the days of hot type (though I titled my one published novel about a newspaper strike in the early 1990s, Cold Type). I learned so much about nuts and bolts reporting covering high school games for the Advance. I loved working for both New York tabloids in the late 70s and 80s, hurrying to the newsstand on the morning after a big sports night, anxious to check out my competitors and ready to hate myself if I got beat on a story or if I decided I’d been out-written. I could have used a good therapist much sooner than I actually found one. But those were also days of growth and self-discovery. For better or worse, I was full of energy and excitement, immersed in the great and ongoing struggle for survival between the Daily News and the Post.
J.P.: Harvey, I’ve never had a one-on-one conversation with Mike Lupica. But I’ve been in a bunch of press boxes and press conferences with him—and I’m quite certain I hate him. Is that hatred misplaced? And what can you tell me about the Lip?
H.A.: I worked with Mike for several years at the News. We’re not what I would call friends but we mostly had a good professional relationship – we’re about the same age – and I have to say that I have always admired his pure writing skills, the speed at which he’s worked and his ability to produce prodigiously in multiple forums at what seems to be every waking moment. He is the best self-promoter I’ve ever been around and it amazes me that he never gets tired of it.
That always-on persona has made him the brand he is but is also what many find so grating. But hate, I think, is too strong for someone who ultimately doesn’t impact your life and can be tuned out by just walking away (unless you were the poor NCAA attendant on the receiving end of a tantrum over preferred seating at the Final Four).
Some believe that Mike had the very talented Mark Kriegel banished from the News years ago (Mark recovered, I’d say) because he saw him as a threat to his empire there. If so, shame, shame. And I will also say that I threw up in my mouth a little last year when the News laid off Filip Bondy – who went everywhere for that paper and wrote with a wonderfully informed and light touch — while keeping Mike, who, let’s face it, hasn’t for some time been piling up the Marriott points.
J.P.: You were at the New York Post in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I wanna throw two things at you here: A. What was it like, competition-wise, being a beat reporter in New York City during the newspaper heyday? And … B. How unbelievable was Bernard King? And what was he like to cover?
H.A.: My first full year as the Knick beat reporter, I wrote a piece out of Seattle quoting Willis Reed, asking MSG president Sonny Werblin for some relief from rumors that Werblin wanted to replace him as coach. “Am I in or out?” Reed said, maintaining the clarity was necessary for a young team. The quote, presented in my story as a plea, was rewritten by the desk into a back-page ultimatum. I called Werblin to explain what Reed’s intention was but it was too late. Werblin seized the opportunity and fired Reed a few days later. When he was the hub of the championship Knicks teams of the early 70s, Reed was my fucking hero. Welcome to tabloid beat life and especially Murdoch World.
Truthfully, occasional excess muckraking aside, I loved my years writing for the Post and the News. We had a great cast of characters, none more fun than Jerry Lisker, the Post’s former executive sports editor – which brings me to the next part of your question, Bernard King.
I always said while covering King that he was one of a few special players that were singly worth the price of admission. His game face scared the shit out of me and his focus and intensity in that relatively short period between dealing with his alcohol and drug issues and tearing up his knee was remarkable. He was pretty much un-guardable and so intent on cleaning up his life and image that he wouldn’t so much as loosen his tie on the plane while playing cards with the guys.
A very bright guy who could be absolutely charming but also unpredictably difficult. I did the first interview with Bernard when he finished a stint in rehab after trouble with police in Salt Lake City. When he was joined the Knicks from the Warriors, he again addressed his issues with substance abuse but then said he was done talking about his past and, on top of that, warned the beat writers from dwelling on it in the paper. So then he really starts tearing up the league and the Post assigns me to write a comprehensive King piece. I tell his agent, Bill Pollak, my plan and he says, “Bernard will talk to you but not about his past, and if you write about it, there will be problems.” I write the piece, portraying him as the man who conquered his demons. Pollak calls the Post and demands to speak to Lisker. (I happen to be in the office, sitting nearby). Pollak explains that I had been warned, had betrayed my relationship and what was the Post going to do about it? Lisker told him to hold a second, then gets back on, tells him we’ve talked about the situation, and “You should go fuck yourself.” Then he hangs up.
J.P.: You were a tabloid guy until 1991, when you left the Daily News for the New York Times. And I wonder, did you at all feel like you were (for complete lack of a better term) “selling out”? What I mean is, at the time the News and Post were thought of as pure grit, grease, grime, fight, heart. And the Times was caviar and bubbly. So … how did it feel? And why did you make the move?
H.A.: I left the News following a brutal five-month strike (90-91) after my first son was born, my wife quit her job and we bought a coop we could barely afford in Brooklyn Heights. Back then, the Times was thought to be an impregnable force in an already wobbly industry, and I would have been nuts to pass up a job there to stay at a paper that had just been sold by the evil, union-busting Tribune Company to a British press lord, Robert Maxwell. (Maxwell lasted a year, then got busted for siphoning money from the pension funds of his holdings and retired to the sea head-first from his yacht).
I also knew why Neil Amdur, the Times’ sports editor then, hired me: his mandate was to expand his section and quicken its metabolism in order to compete with the tabloids (including Newsday, which was pushing into the city from Long Island). So while I had to lower the stridency of my voice – something I wanted to do anyway — I never thought I was competitively sacrificing anything.
J.P.: This is sort of random, but why do you think Derek Jeter was pretty universally beloved while Tom Brady is pretty universally (outside of Boston) reviled? They’re both handsome, well-spoken winners with sexy female companions and major marketing mojo. So what’s the difference?
H.A.: To start, I’d say that Jeter from early on was tethered to Joe Torre, who for a dozen years was the benevolent, paternal face of New York sports. Brady was tied to Bill Belichick, a man who would mumble the eulogy at the funeral of his best friend. More importantly, Jeter came to represent something baseball desperately needed a half-dozen years into his career: a player who was so much above suspicion of doping that people routinely would say: if I found out that Jeter was using that would be it for baseball.
Brady, conversely, had no such context. No one seems to care what football players put in their bodies, as long as they can tackle and block. Add the attachment and his contributions to the notion of the Patriots as cheaters and it is what it is. I will say that I kind of liked Brady (and Belichick, for that matter) but that ended when I heard that he is for Trump. Now I hope the Jets’ front four chases him out of the end zone and into a sedentary life cutting up and pasting photos for his wife’s scrapbooks.
J.P.: I know you’re from Montclair, N.J.; know the newspaper that employed you. But how and why did this happen? Why journalism? Why sports journalism? Was there a moment? A spark?
H.A.: Montclair has been my family’s home for 23 years. Growing up I was an outer borough kid. Growing up in an extended family of civil servants and people who didn’t go or even think of going to college, I originally thought my chances of having a professional career were only slightly less than succeeding Walt Frazier as the Knicks’ lead guard.
Moving to Staten Island from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn (yeah, Mike Tyson’s neighborhood), we lived in the West Brighton Houses, a city housing project. The basketball courts in the center of the development were our paved oasis and escape from our harsh economic (though not hopeless) financial reality. I was an OK player for a 5-8 kid. Spent most of my free time there. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar worked a clinic there when he was Lew Alcindor. I loved the game so much and I’m guessing I just gravitated to anything that would have kept me around it. After I had some experience covering high school sports, I begged the Advance’s sports editor to let me cover Knicks games at the Garden on Saturday nights. Then my childhood pal Phil Mushnick connected me to Lisker at the Post for a clerk’s job and when the Knicks beat opened a year later, Pete Vecsey – already the NBA columnist — told Lisker to send me out with them (mainly because he didn’t want to get stuck with doing windows himself). I suddenly had a life that I couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Eternally grateful.
J.P.: What are the keys to writing great columns? Construction? Approach? Etc?
H.A.: I’ve always thought of sports writer as something of an insult, a way to separate what we do from what everyone else in the newsroom does. We’re all reporters, storytellers, and that includes or should include the columnists. And those that aren’t, while they may brilliantly entertain in their commentary, ultimately become pontificators. The best columns are invariably – if not always — the ones with information in them and the best columnists are those who get around, call people, all of that.
Adrian Wojnarowski is terrific at writing basketball columns because he knows so much by being a great reporter. Bill Plaschke has long been a destination read in the L.A. Times because he is gifted writer and storyteller with the knack for getting out of the office. When I was young in the business, covering a lot of Celtics playoff games, I couldn’t wait to get off the plane to grab the Globe for Leigh Montville’s columns. You never knew what you were going to get from him but you were sure it would be different from what you got elsewhere.
I will also say this: when I first wrote Sports of the Times, the column was anchored on the left side of the first sports page, which gave us about 775 words, and that, I believe, was when I was at my best. The hole forced you to write crisply, making careful use of information and quotes. No overwriting! When they moved the column for design purposes, all of a sudden we started stretching out to 1000-1200 words, just because we could. Didn’t make the columns better, just longer and lazier (writing wise).
J.P.: Is journalism fucked? I know I’m supposed to be optimistic and peppy, and I usually am. But … man, newspapers are dying, ad revenue is gone, corporations increasingly own the messengers. Is our industry a corpse?
H.A.: Obviously – and sadly — there is no model right now that holds up economically, print or digital, as long as the goal is to provide real journalism, which costs plenty, and not shitty aggregation. I get the question a lot from students – as I imagine you do as well: Professor, can I get a good job doing this? I try to be honest. I don’t know what the future is, only that there is a greater need now for smart content than there’s ever been, and more exciting, fun ways to present it.
But I do wonder what the future of the full-time job is, at least as we’ve known it. Will there be a middle-class for journalists – full-time salaried jobs with health benefits and 401Ks (I have a defined Times pension coming but few places offer that anymore)? Or will the uncertainty mean a class of industry multi-forum one-percenters – in sports, for example, the likes of Bill Simmons, Tony and Mike, Stephen A. – while most scavenge for part time work, finding a little here, a little there, while dreaming of a big score, akin to aspiring actors and novelists?
I hope not. But given the trend of newspapers and the limited advertising revenue for digital only publications, I don’t see how they support as many decent-paying jobs as there will be deserving reporters with traditional benefits going forward. I hope I am as wrong about this as I’ve been about most prognostications.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH HARVEY ARATON:
• One question you would ask Ricardo Montalban were he here right now?: Were you as grossed out as I was when you inserted that little worm-like creature into Paul Winfield’s ear during “The Wrath of Khan?”
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: When I was made a columnist at the Times late in 1993, I was assigned to cover a Jets game in Indy. Next day, my editor asked me to go from there to Chicago, where they were opening United Center and retiring Jordan’s jersey in a ceremony on Tuesday night. I booked my flights, then changed my mind, wanting to come home on Monday, which was Halloween, to be with my kids for a block party right after we’d moved to Montclair. So I did, had a wonderful afternoon and evening, put the kids to sleep, turned on the TV and learned that the flight I’d switched off from Indy to Chicago, on American Eagle, had gone down in northern Indiana during an ice storm. Sat there frozen for a half-hour. Went up to bed, never more thankful for fatherhood.
• This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: Like the song, never heard of the band. Then again, I’ve been raving about the new Jayhawks album lately and friends look at me, like, who?
• In exactly 16 words, can you make a case for stale bagels?: I can’t make the case for any bagels because I have sworn off bread for months.
• Global warming terrifies me, yet most people don’t seem to care. What the hell are we supposed to do?: I wouldn’t say most people, but one side of the political spectrum. But Trump’s election is enough to make me think there is no hope, none whatsoever, for the human race, especially since the U.S. influences as much as it does around the world. Our east and west coasts could be under water and the far right would still be in denial, or just defend their position by calling it God’s will.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Marco Rubio, Nick Cage, David Bowie, Scottie Pippen, “The Martian,” award shows, strawberry ice cream, “Zoolander,” Jojo Moyes, Martin Lawrence, the number 44: Bowie. Pippen. Strawberry ice cream. Zoolander. 44. Martin Lawrence. The Martian. Cage. Moyes. Award shows. Rubio.
• What word do you overuse in writing?: Narrative.
• On Facebook, I tend to block all the arch-conservative wingnuts from my high school. Then I get ripped for it. What to do?: Unfollow but still be friends. That works for me.
• What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: In the context of what’s at stake, Trump’s face contorted in staged anger is the first thing that comes to mind.
• Who wins in a fight between you and Mark Kriegel? How long does it go?: Kriegel sounds more street than me but I, unlike him, actually grew up in the hood. He is younger, bigger and better-looking, the type who wins over the judges and gets a decision, even if I manage to bloody him with some MMA-style tactics and trickeration.