IT WAS THE WINTER of 1985. I had been at the Daily News for just a few weeks when I got a call from executive sports editor Mike Rathet, the man who hired me. In classic Rathet style, he said: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t care if I ever see you again.”
“As long as you do your job.”
I took it exactly as it was meant. Find the stories and write ’em up. Have a point of view. Tell people something they don’t know.
Nearly 33 years and more than 7,000 stories later, the job is done. (You will see me here occasionally, called out of the bullpen during March Madness and the Triple Crown, but that is for later.) What a glorious run it has been for me.
Really, who gets to cover their two favorite sports for so long at a paper that so valued writing and writers? It was an endless joyride from college gyms in the fall and winter to race tracks in the spring and summer. The NCAA Tournament would end in early April. The Triple Crown would begin in early May.
There was the occasional Eagles, Phillies or Sixers game. (Never understood why they didn’t send me to a Flyers game.) MLB playoffs, NBA playoffs, Eagles NFC Championship games, Sixers ride to the 2001 NBA Finals, the 2008 World Series when I timed the final half-inning, almost exactly 10 minutes from first pitch to city exploding.
Penn State football from 1993 to 2004. A few Temple, Villanova and Penn football games. Figure I had to cover at least 1,000 college basketball games involving city teams.
I got hired mainly to cover the new Garden State Park, which opened on April 1, 1985, the night Villanova beat Georgetown for the national championship. That was surely an omen.
I am not sure what it says that I lasted twice as long as the track. I do know this: When I was thinking about ending my run, I asked myself a lot of questions, including what is it that I have not had a chance to do at the paper that I really want to do. When the answer was nothing, I knew it was time.
It was nothing because so many wonderful people gave me the opportunity to do what I loved to do for so long. I have covered 25 Final Fours and the Kentucky Derby for the last 31 years. Been to every Preakness for the last 40 years, but I had a head start, growing up in Baltimore.
I didn’t know it when I got here, but I wanted to work only in Philly, with fans who stop me in gyms or at the track to talk about anything and everything. I will still be in the gyms and at the track hanging out, so keep stopping me.
I certainly spent more time at Parx Racing than anyplace. When anybody asked me if I had to choose between basketball and horse racing, which would it be, I would say, thankfully, I never had to choose, but my answer was always the track. They allow betting there.
Me, Phil and Rich
The best single event I covered?
The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Shared an apartment with Phil Jasner and Rich Hofmann. Phil covered the “Dream Team.” Rich and I covered everything else. I remember the eclectic city more than the events. It never closed, and as far I could tell, nobody ever slept.
Wrote about swimming and track and field mostly. Went to a boxing match where I swear the winner never threw a punch.
Even though Phil was all over everything, I had to be there for the gold-medal basketball game. I don’t remember much about the game, but I do remember going up to Chuck Daly afterward and saying to him: “Did you know you never called a timeout during the Olympics?” He smiled and said, “That was my only goal.”
While Phil was working the locker room, I taped the press conference for him — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Phil listened to the tape. I kept it. By the way, Charles Barkley was the best player in Barcelona.
Most amazing year?
2004, of course, with the SJs.
I had Saint Joseph’s from the beginning at Madison Square Garden until the agonizing end more than four months later across the Hudson River at the Meadowlands. Easily the best continuing story I ever covered.
Was barely back from the Final Four when Smarty Jones, the horse from Philadelphia Park, was running his way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated by blowing away the field in the Derby. Smarty ran out of the proverbial TV set in the Preakness before a loss every bit as cruel as St. Joe’s in the Belmont.
Good endings were not my specialty. In fact, as the years went by, I wondered if I would ever get to cover the only two stories left that I really wanted to cover: a Triple Crown and a Philly basketball team winning the national championship.
Then, I got them both within 10 months — American Pharoah’s Triple Crown on Long Island and Villanova’s national championship in Houston. I can still hear the sound through the press-box window at Belmont Park as Pharoah crossed the finish line. And I had a perfect view behind Kris Jenkins’ shot. It was always going in, and a team that had played perfectly for three glorious weeks had the perfect ending.
Best of the best
Best Philly team I covered?
Dead heat: La Salle (1990). St. Joe’s (2004). Can’t choose. Won’t choose.
Dead heat again: La Salle’s Lionel Simmons and St. Joe’s Jameer Nelson, both national players of the year, both wonderful people. Very different players, but their major impact was the same. When they played, their teams won.
Best team I covered?
Not a close call. Penn State 1994 football. They were a machine.
Best of the local horses that incredibly won five Triple Crown races from 2004 to 2006?
Loved Afleet Alex and Barbaro, but Smarty Jones was never beaten except by circumstance and ran his opposition into submission. Never had a better time than hanging with the Afleet Alex crowd, a party that had no beginning or end.
First Derby for the DN was when Bob Levy’s Bet Twice ran second in 1987. When Bet Twice crushed the field in the Belmont Stakes, the party was at 21 Club in Manhattan, my first and last visit.
Stood right behind the Wyeths when Union Rags won the 2012 Belmont Stakes.
Story that struck the biggest chord with non-sports fans?
Barbaro, without any doubt.
Story that I will never forget researching and writing?
The 25th anniversary of Hank Gathers’ death in 1990. When I began to talk to people in 2015 and ride around town and, finally, visit his gravesite, it was clear the pain, so overwhelming for so many 25 years before, had never gone away.
So many people to thank, too many to name, but you know who you are. And I knew who you are — coaches, players, athletic directors, trainers, jockeys, editors, copy editors, writers and the readers, definitely the readers.
Whenever I sat down to work on a story, the goal was always the same: Find the best obtainable version of the truth and write it. That will never change.