THE CALL would usually come about an hour before the game. Our sports editor, Caesar Alsop, would explain my job that night at a 76ers playoff game. Make sure, he would say, that Phil does not write any more than five stories.
And that, more than anything, explained Phil Jasner's work at the Philadelphia Daily News.
Nothing was ever enough. There was always another idea, another call, another angle.
Those Sixers playoff runs under Larry Brown were memorable for me not for the games, although they surely had meaning. I won't forget them because I got to hang out with my friend.
It wasn't the work, although that was surely no small matter and taken quite seriously. It was spending time with Phil between games, in the hours before and after the games, in restaurants and airports, on planes, wherever. I was usually assigned to cover the other team. Which worked because by the time Phil was finished covering all the Sixers angles, there were none left anyway.
Loved it when somebody would start talking too loud in the press room and Phil, harried but focused, as he was finishing his fourth story, would implore for quiet. He would plead while in the midst of pounding the keys on his laptop.
I remember a night in Indiana, alone in the locker room with Phil and Larry Brown after a game. Brown thanked me for a story I had written about his relationship with Dean Smith. Phil nudged me as if to say Larry gets it. Which I always thought he did, no matter how he was perceived.
Almost at that moment, Allen Iverson walked in and asked Brown if one of the members of his entourage could fly back home with the team. Brown agreed and then looked at us with no words needed. It wasn't always about the games anymore.
The old coach knew it. So did the old-school writer.
We lost Caesar in June 2004. We lost Phil Friday night.
That was really hard 6 years ago because Caesar and I had been friends since college. It is equally hard now because Phil was like a mentor to me at the paper. He knew things I could never know, but if I asked, he shared.
Loved to talk baskets with Phil. He was a "play-the-right-way, do-it-the-right-way" guy. He knew how the game was supposed to look and he knew how to cover it.
Phil found out about the cancer nearly 2 years ago, just before he was to leave for the NBA All-Star Game. He fought it hard. There were good days and bad days. We talked regularly, but only sometimes about his illness. I would ask gently and he would tell me about the treatments and his doctor and the possibilities.
Mostly, we would talk hoops. He wasn't covering the Sixers every day anymore, but he still wrote often. And he still made every call, explored every angle.
I was at the Sheraton Society Hill on Nov. 11 when Phil was given the Legacy of Excellence Award by the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. He gave a brilliant speech, from the heart, with just the right doses of his great stories and how much it meant for him to be able to cover NBA games side by side with his son Andy.
What few there knew was that the following night Phil was going to cover the Saint Joseph's-Western Kentucky game for the DN. There were four Big 5 teams at home that night. We needed some help and Phil was willing to cover a college game for the first time in years.
He called me with all manner of questions. He called Hawks coach Phil Martelli. He was prepared.
He sent me his story as he filed it to see what I thought, just to make sure he had done everything correctly. I did not read it then because I knew the answer. Phil always did it correctly. And when I did read his story the next day, I just smiled. Of course, he missed nothing.
That game will stand as Phil's final story for the DN after 38 years of them. It was almost like he had come full circle, back to the Big 5 after all those years in the NBA.
The illness got worse that weekend. Phil was back in the hospital. Then, he was home. And then it was over.
But really, it will never end, not for those of us who knew him as a friend and colleague.
When NBA players were allowed to play in the Olympics in 1992 and it was clear that would be the biggest story in Barcelona, our then-executive sports editor Mike Rathet made the only call and the right call. Phil would be sent to Spain to cover the "Dream Team."
Rich Hofmann and I were along for the ride. We shared an apartment with Phil. Another writer from a wire service (I can't remember which, but when I asked Phil a few days ago, he said "Reuters" so Reuters it is) arrived after we did and got the fourth room.
There wasn't much free time. Phil was at the basketball venue. Rich and I were wandering about the city, covering whatever there was to be covered.
One day, we needed Phil to do a feature on local diver Mary Ellen Clark (Radnor High, Penn State). He knew nothing about diving or Clark so he called Andy. His son assured him he would do fine. He did, of course. Clark won a bronze medal.
Whatever I was doing, I always paused to watch the USA basketball game. The games were never competitive. I was just fascinated by the sheer brilliance of the ball. Later, I would ask Phil about what he saw, what he heard, what he knew that I didn't.
Even though I wasn't covering it, I went to the gold medal game. When it was done, I told Phil I would tape the press conference while he worked the locker room.
The press conference was with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. I handed Phil the tape and he wrote the story as only he could write it - the details, the passion, the larger-than-life characters who made it all happen.
Once Phil was done with the tape, he gave it back. And I kept it. Really - Michael, Larry, Magic. How many of those tapes exist?
And how many like Phil Jasner?
We had 2 more days in Barcelona after the closing ceremonies and I had promised Phil we were going to take a gondola ride high over the city to Montjuic, the hill where the Olympic Stadium was located not far from that diving venue that gave television viewers so many memorable pictures with the city and its glorious architecture, including the unforgettable Sagrada Familia, as the backdrop.
I can still see Phil staring down on Barcelona in awe, perhaps wondering how we got to do what we do and how that led us into the sky at that moment. And that is how I will always see him.
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