Now that I’ve moved past my selfish lament that I’ll never again see Phil Jasner, a good man whose company I’ll miss, I’m wondering how we’ll all recover from the loss of that rarest of combinations: someone who brings historical perspective without a generational gulf.
Jasner covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks, through Charles Barkley, during the days when the closest thing to a star was Clarence Weatherspoon, amid the ups and downs of Allen Iverson and on to the current roster with a majority of players who weren’t even born when Jasner first got on the beat.
The league’s players were moving away from him, but he never held it against them. He didn’t let differences in age, culture, salaries or anything else interfere with his pursuit of the only thing that ever mattered: the story.
“He just treated them as basketball players,” said Billy King, a former 76ers general manager. “The money, the color…none of that mattered to Phil. It was, did you play, did you play hard?”
I think Jasner would echo the sentiments expressed here by another irreplaceable journalist, the late David Halberstam, who during the 2001 NBA Finals expressed his fondness for Iverson despite the inherent differences between the two.
“We come from different worlds, and we are likely, once the Finals are over, to remain part of our different worlds,” Halberstam wrote. “Just to admire him is good enough.”
Jasner had to do more than admire Iverson. He had to cover Iverson. That meant chronicling an MVP season and Iverson’s mercurial ways. That meant sometimes having to write things that Iverson or anyone else wouldn’t like to read about themselves. Yet Jasner came from a place of respect, thus he commanded Iverson’s respect as well.
You could see it even in the full transcript of the infamous “Practice” press conference, which continued long after the clip you’ve memorized by now. Iverson challenges him, but he ultimately yields to him, instead of brushing him off with a Rosenhausian “next question.” What stands out is how resolute Jasner was in his quest for Iverson’s explanation, rather than imposing his own views on Iverson.
Reporter: "There are people that have suggested, myself included, that instead of shooting 40 percent, you...
Iverson: "What do you know about basketball? Have you ever played?"
Iverson: "I don't know Phil, I don't know you as a basketball player. I know you as a columnist but I have never heard of you as a player though.
Reporter: "Why is that an issue?"
Iverson: "Why is that an issue? Because we're talking about basketball."
Reporter: "Let me ask my question."
Iverson: "Go ahead, Phillip."
Reporter: "Supposed you shot 44 percent..."
Iverson: "I don't know about that. That is in God's hands. I do not know if that will help me or not. That's God. God does that, It ain't up to you to say if Allen Iverson does this then he'll do that. That's up to God. It ain't up to anyone in here. That is up to God. He handles that.
Reporter: "You have control over your body?"
Iverson: "God has more control over it than I do. You know that. God has more control over your body. I do not care about how much you eat, how many weights you lift or how good you eat, if God says you're gone, you're gone.
So Jasner didn’t exactly get what he was looking for, but he did wind up with a rumination on the powers of the Almighty from Iverson, which might be worth even more. (Reading Iverson’s quote and Stephon Marbury’s tweet on logic and Jesus Christ makes me realize we need a theological student to write a thesis on NBA players and their views on religion, pronto).
Even though Jasner very well might have more basketball knowledge than the people he covered, Jasner let them have their say. I worry that’s missing from coverage today. People don’t even consider the value of the other side.
When Jasner criticized King (now the general manager of the Nets), King might call to discuss it. Their relationship was strong enough to allow for such conversations without them being confrontational. Jasner would always let King have his say, then reply: “Fair point.”
Civility combined with familiarity. Jasner never played in the NBA, but he dedicated himself to learning about it and covering it for so long that he became an authority. King said Jasner would often tell young Sixer players about the glory days of Doc, Moses and Andrew Toney. Jasner was so detail-oriented that he once warned me about some errors in the 76ers official stats.
An early – and perhaps first – meeting I had with Jasner came at a Spurs-Lakers game right after Christmas in 1992. I was in my first year in the business, covering the University of Illinois football team for the Chicago Sun-Times and taking advantage of their trip to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego to spend a little time at home in Los Angeles. I drove to the Forum to do a story on John Lucas, the former No. 1 overall pick who had just taken over the head coaching job of the Spurs. Jasner had flown in because the Sixers happened to be on a West Coast trip.
The last thing any beat writer needs is an extra flight. But it was Jasner who suggested it to his editors, when he saw he’d be in the same time zone as Lucas. That was the dedication Jasner had to his job. His work mattered more than convenience. And the game mattered more than the culture. He might not have listened to the same music as the players, but he could find a common topic.