Remembering a pioneer, role model

Michael Jordan laughs at the memory of playing cards with Lacy J. Banks. Courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times

For a kid who couldn't handle math and science to save his life but loved the language and great storytelling, Chicago might have been the perfect place to grow up in the 1960s and '70s. The only thing I loved as much as sports was the newspaper. Siskel and Ebert bled their thoughts onto a page long before their lives evolved to TV. Roger Simon and Bob Greene, young and passionate, took on the world several times a week. And of course there was Mike Royko, for my money the greatest columnist in the history of newspapers. If I couldn't be Ernie Banks when I grew up I wanted to be Royko, the newspaper equivalent of a superhero.

When I was 13 years old a new guy jumped into the mix. His name was Lacy J. Banks and he went to work for the Chicago Sun-Times. OK, he wasn't exactly new, and he certainly wasn't as heralded as the aforementioned. Lacy had been at Ebony magazine. I knew who he was. Well, I knew what he looked like. He was black. In 1972, this was an enormous deal. To provide some context, deep into the 1990s I had young journalists come up and tell me I was the first black sportswriter they'd ever read, which was unthinkable to me because I'd read Lacy's stories a quarter-century earlier. Read so much of what he wrote, lots of it on the Chicago Bulls of my youth, the Dick Motta/Jerry Sloan/Norm Van Lier Bulls, if memory serves me correctly.

It never dawned on me there was some barrier to being a sportswriter because -- lucky me -- I saw Lacy Banks doing his thing every day. Well, I saw his byline, saw his picture sometimes in the Sun-Times. A couple of times when my father took us to Bulls games, I could see Lacy J. sitting on press row. I wasn't really that close to the floor but there was only one black guy sitting on press row, so it had to be him.

I'm not saying I became a sportswriter because of Lacy Banks -- and yes, I always called him Lacy Banks, or Lacy J. or Lacy J. Banks, or Rev. Lacy, because he was an ordained Baptist minister -- but it was full steam ahead because of Lacy. I never worried that I wasn't welcome, even though there were fewer black sports columnists at American daily newspapers in the 1990s than black NFL head coaches. Without me knowing it and probably without him knowing it Lacy J. was a role model, my role model, a man whose work was right there in the pages of the newspaper I delivered on the South Side every single morning for seven years, from sixth grade all the way through high school.

Then, lo and behold, I met him. I was an intern working for The Washington Post covering a DePaul basketball game. He came over with that soft tone he always spoke in and said, "Son, I'm Lacy Banks. Who are you?" I told him I knew who he was, I'd grown up reading him. I had to be as nervous as though I were meeting Van Lier himself, and called him "Mr. Banks." He said, "Son, never call me that again. We're colleagues now."

And so we were. I remember being in the press box with Lacy for a Chicago Sting game or two in the early '80s. From time to time he would be, it seemed to me, pulled off the Bulls beat for some reason or another. I recall a completely ugly flap with an editor, a man who had about as much business editing a Chicago sports section as I do in the cockpit of a 767. And I remember, as belittling as the episode was, how Lacy handled himself with dignity and covered whatever was thrown his way.

Luckily, Lacy was back on the NBA beat by the time Michael Jordan's Bulls began playing important games. We always teased Lacy about the Craig Ehlo game, about jumping up and raising both fists over his head when Jordan hit the shot. You can see it if you slo-mo the video of Jordan's reaction after the shot. I'm not sure who jumped higher off the floor in exultation, Jordan or Lacy. By then, Lacy was pretty much a fixture on the NBA beat, a character to say the least. He always seemed to be in one of those cargo jackets that had a million pockets. David Stern would always address Lacy by name when he asked a question at a news conference. My friend and ESPN colleague J.A. Adande, who once worked at the Sun-Times with Lacy, reminded me last night that when Jordan retired in 1999 the only journalist he mentioned by name was Lacy. Lord, Lacy could ask some questions that would start eyes to rollin'. But more often than not he elicited good answers. The people he covered paid him the greatest respect they could show a reporter: They talked to him. So many news conferences would start "What, Lacy?" He was like the Helen Thomas of basketball writers.

Jordan tells the story, cackling, of Lacy being so bad at playing cards he'd lose all his money in a card game and have to borrow some to get his car out of the parking garage at O'Hare. We all teased him, laughed with him and loved him, and no more so than in recent years when he had so many serious ailments that would have put most men in a sick bed. Lacy chronicled them in a blog; and still worked. Sometimes he'd go to a college basketball game in the afternoon and a Bulls game that night.

Jack McCallum, the extraordinary basketball writer for years and years at Sports Illustrated, was, along with David DuPree, the ringleader of our basketball writing fraternity. When I texted him of Lacy's death early this morning McCallum texted back, "Lord … he's been through so much. At least we know where he's going."

For decades it was to a gym then a hotel then an airport then another gym, following the bouncing ball. If Lacy's pain of more recent years is taken away on this detour McCallum alludes to, all's well with the world, even as those of us who adored him are reduced by his absence.