Dick Schaap found us out. Me and everybody else he encountered in his sporting life.
I was out in Oakland covering the A's for the Oakland Tribune in 1981. He was a correspondent for ABC World News Tonight, among nine other jobs. Dick always had 10 jobs going, for the 20 years that I knew him. ABC had sent out a crew to Oakland in 1981, because A's manager Billy Martin was overseeing the winning of ballgames in a most unexpected and spectacular manner. "Billy Ball" was my description of this phenomenon -- and my formulation was now the local rage.
It was Dick who took "Billy Ball" national. No scoffing at my unpolished look, no jealousies, no dissing me for being an odd man from Boonieville, no look of utter surprise, as if to say, "You're black? You're Ralph Wiley?" None of that. Here was this strange-looking young black guy, babbling on: "Look, man, they've got Rickey Henderson running wild, they steal home at the drop of a hat, they play an exciting brand of ball, they're a great team." Dick ran the clip, then grinned knowingly, intimately, at this tyro's enthusiasm.
You know that grin? -- The Knowing Grin, that always let the viewer in on the joke? Dick understood sporting life at a deeper level -- in this case, he knew a little hyperbole was involved on my part, basically breaking the code on my whole coming career as a sportswriter -- and he let the viewer know it without calling me out. That was Dick's secret. He had the knack for exposing you for and to the world without demeaning you.
From Cosell to Wilt, Broadway Joe to Ali, Tom Waddell to "Son of Sam" David Berkowitz, Jim Brown to Billy Crystal, Reggie Jackson to George C. Scott, Dick got 'em all right. Dick had the knack.
A few years later, in the mid-'80s, after "Billy Ball" and similar crimes got me hired on as a hand at the Ponderosa (a k a Sports Illustrated), I was brought into a 57th Street studio in Manhattan by a producer named Terry O'Neil. He had an idea for this show for ESPN. He called it "The Sports Reporters."
There was some fine-tuning to be done on the concept; the three reporters in the pilot were, I believe, Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News and moi. The reporters were sort of interchangeable. If there's one thing there's always plenty enough of, it's opinionated sportswriters. But one thing was clear -- weekly groupings like this would require one hell of a ringmaster to keep it from deteriorating into a rooster scrum.
Dick Schaap was The Perfect Guy.
|Dick Schaap's autobiography, "Flashing Before My Eyes." reflected on his five decades as a sports journalist.|
How he managed to rein in the brooding, would-be genius (moi), the New York bon vivant and heir to Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith and the Roman Empire (Lupica),
and the anti-Quaker Excoriator (Conlin) is beyond me. But you can go back and look at the tapes, and get a clue or two.
Dick always started every broadcast with a smile, a good salutation, and a quick uplifting of his head, as if to say, "Isn't it great to be alive? This is going to be fun."
Then he'd introduce each panelist with a comment that gently illuminated the foibles of the assembled, rather than feeding their often oversized egos. As Lupica later said, "Dick was the smartest guy on the show."
By far. He dished verbal dimes. He made us look better than we were. He was the Michael Jordan of TV sports panel show hosts; I pity the soul ESPN picks
to replace him. Dick made hosting "The Sports Reporters" into, if not an art form, then at the very least fine craftsmanship.
Panelists -- there would be dozens of them, in the end; everybody wanted to sit next to Dick Schaap and talk ball -- might argue, challenge, berate,
maybe even insult each other. It makes for good TV, apparently. It must -- been a good six, seven years since I last appeared on the show, and to this
day, no matter what clime I hit, from L.A. to Manhattan, from Florida to the Nation's Capital, people will still walk up to me and say, "Hey, it's that
dude from 'The Sports Reporters!' With Dick Schaap! Man, I love that show!"
It all worked off the grace of Dick. The show's offense was run through him, the way Reggie was the straw the stirred the drink with the Yankees, the way the Lakers offense was run by Magic, and now through Kobe. If "The Sports Reporters" were the Boston Celtics, Dick Schaap was Red Auerbach and Larry Bird, at the same time!
At one point, Dick brought his son Jeremy, a student at Cornell then, into the studio and made him part of the process. Once, he asked us more grizzled types if the kid had done right in writing an expose about some questionable conduct of former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker and then Cornell coach, Maxie Baughn.
"Did he holler?" I said to Dick and Jeremy. "If he hollered, you got him."
Of course, Dick already knew that. It was much more difficult to expose and stay clean, make the subject not just holler but think about what you had
said or written about him/her. Dick's Parting Shots -- during which he could profoundly sum up anything in a few well-chosen words -- always had
more depth, more context, a little more background, a little more relevance.
As far as I know, he never alluded to it. He didn't need to.
I never met a man in this business more secure in his abilities. The closest thing to it in my experience was Illy writer Bob Creamer ... and Bob was never required to work 10 jobs at once. And yet, Dick was never harried, never mussed, never snappish.
Muhammad Ali once asked me if I knew him. "Sure," I said. "Who doesn't know Dick, Champ?"
"That might be the coolest white man I ever met," Ali said. The Champ's eyes widened. "And he might even be as smart as me!"
||Back in February, Page 2 ran an excerpt from Dick Schaap's memoir, "Flashing Before My Eyes." Click here to read Schaap's reflections on the night he introduced Billy Crystal to Muhammad Ali.
Once -- was it 13 years ago already? -- before recording another installment of "The Sports Reporters," Dick had asked me, "Ralph, you're not using all of
your talents. When are you going to write a book?" Well, as luck would have it, "Serenity: A Boxing Memoir" was about to be published.
"Give me a week, Dick," I said.
Dick smiled. "Let me know when it hits." I did, and for the next five programs, Dick brought up "Serenity." (He also brought up "Bo Knows Bo," the
autobio Dick had just co-authored with Bo Jackson. Dick was nice, which is not the same thing as being stupid.)
A couple of years after that, I took a little sabbatical from sports -- I was getting sick of seeing the athletes, particularly the young African-American
athletes, getting ripped off by all these Fagins posing as "agents." And a young man I'd written about for the Illy -- Raghib "Rocket" Ismail of Notre
Dame -- decided to turn pro after his junior year, and he asked me to help him market himself, and to help represent him.
The honchos at the Illy were not thrilled. This was not so rare. They hadn't been thrilled when I did "The Sports Reporters," with Dick Schaap, or later,
when I followed O'Neil to NBC and did "NFL Live," with Bob Costas. The honchos at the Illy said I was wrong on both counts, that I'd have to make a
choice -- work on the back 40 only, or not limit myself. So, maybe subconsciously inspired by Dick's example, I didn't limit myself. I decided
to help the Rocket, and to bet a career on all-purpose multimedia.
Thanks, Dick. It was the right play, the smart money, a good bet.
When the Rocket lost the Heisman Trophy to Ty Detmer that year, 1990-91, Dick told Ismail that it would help him in the end. "Undeserved misfortune," Dick
said. "The public will have greater empathy for you now." All I had to do was nod, amazed that Dick understood so well a young man's game.
When Rocket got his precedent-setting deal with the Toronto Argonauts (with the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders battling it out for his future
services behind the scenes), a deal that helped change the salary structure of the NFL forever, Dick was first to call me up and say: "You did a great
job for the kid, Ralph."
I thought, since I was no longer at the Illy, and couldn't do "The Sports Reporters" anymore, I'd seen the last of Dick Schaap.
Couldn't have been more wrong.
In 1991, when I finished a book called "Why Black People Tend to Shout," I fully expected no pub or hype or notice, let alone support, from my confreres
in the sporting life. When my literary agent at the time held a book party at his Manhattan digs, guess who showed up? Dick Schaap, with his lovely wife
Trish in tow.
Someone asked Dick what he thought of the latest Wiley effort.
"What do I think of Ralph's book? I think it is funny, angry, passionate, rational ... it's a book that sort of sneaks up on you, jabs you, dances away, then levels you," Dick said.
I cocked my head at him, like he was a rare bird, which he was.
"Thanks, Dick," I said.
"For what?" Dick replied, smiling That Knowing Smile. "I'm just quoting myself ... that's the blurb I wrote for your book."
And so I went off into the multimedia miasma, and had all kinds of interesting adventures, which don't go well here -- but this fact does. Every Sunday, I was amused, entertained, often amazed and somehow comforted by Schaap hosting "The Sports Reporters." How long had it been since Lupica, Conlin and I had first trolled for his set-ups? Fifteen years?! Yet Dick looked almost the same, and sounded better. If I happened to do a sports-related book in my wanderings, Dick would always call me and say,
"Come on my radio show ('The Sporting Life'), and let's kick it around."
I always did, and it was always fun, and Dick seemed to get smarter as the years went by. So finally, one day in 2000, I asked him, "Dick, when are you
going to write a book about all of your adventures, all your acquaintances, all your great stories? You did 'Instant Replay' for Kramer, You did 'Bo' for
Bo, you did everybody else from Son of Sam to Who Shot John. When are you going to do you for you?"
"Give me a week, Ralph," Dick said. I cracked up.
When "Flashing Before My Eyes" was published earlier this year, I was gratified he'd gotten it down. Dick had made good use of his talent. He'd
drawn the water from the well, drank it and shared it with others. He was old-school and new-wave at the same time.
Dick came down to the ESPN Zone in Washington, D.C., for part of the book's rollout, its marketing campaign. Of course, I went to see him. Hooked up with
Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon -- two longtime regulars on "The Sports Reporters" -- and stood talking with them and Dick. Dick told some funny and
bawdy jokes. Then I asked him if he had a video compliment to the marketing rollout.
Dick gave me That Knowing Smile. "Of course you do," I said, laughing. "You're ... Dick Schaap."
Lenox Hill Hospital is not a sporting place, and not very theatrical either; there aren't very many people in there laughing and telling stories, so it's the last place you'd expect to find Dick. But there I was. By then I'd done episodes of ESPN Classic's "Classic Sports Reporters" for producer Bud Morgan, with Dick's son, Jeremy, as host. Dick had trained Jeremy well. Dick had filled in as host of "Classic Sports Reporters" occasionally, which made 11 jobs he had. Never did he look tired to me. Not once.
Then came Sept. 11. Shortly after, Dick had gone in for hip replacement surgery, and there had been ... complications. I spoke to Trish over the
phone. She said, "It's bad, Ralph. It's really, really bad."
Nurses in the ICU aren't paid to be pliable. All I wanted to do was touch his hand, and leave a card I'd brought, there, by his side. A get-well card from
Ali, which read, "Get up, Schaap! Get up and fight!"
The nurse was nice, and smiling, but also firm, and unconvinced.
"Sorry, but you're not family."
"Well," I said to her, smiling back. "There isn't much of a family resemblance, it's true -- but I feel like family. Does that count?" The nurse patted my hand. At least, I got to tell her goodbye.
Which is why I'm saying this here:
"Be seeing you around, Dick. Save us all a spot at your table."
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."
|Schaap was the consummate ringmaster on ESPN's "Sports Reporters."||
LOSS OF A LEGEND