I Miss David Halberstam Already

April, 24, 2007
4/24/07
1:13
PM ET

Didn't know the man, but I have been reading a lot of articles about him, and I wish I had known him.

He has always been a BIG NAME. DAVID HALBERSTAM. Yes, he's a guy who sometimes wrote about basketball, including his legendary book about my favorite team ("The Breaks of the Game" about Bill Walton and the Blazers). He even wrote for this very website.

To me, however, he mostly wrote BIG BOOKS about IMPORTANT STUFF. He changed the Vietnam War. He helped America heal after 9/11. He was one of a very few writers who was genuinely powerful. He was a huge tall man with a huge deep voice.

But now that he has died at the age of 73, in a car accident in California, I'm learning from all these touching obituaries (why did he have to die for all these great stories to come out?) that he was also just a really good, decent human.

UPDATE: I'm slipping in this great column about Halberstam from his friend, Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley, who worked alongside Halberstam covering the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers:

There was so much reporting to do and David kept pushing me to ask the tough questions, even when sometimes I felt a wave of nausea come over me before I went into a news conference.

He pushed me the way great coaches push their players.

And David didn't suffer whiners well.

When I would complain that Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay was angry at me, or mention that Lucas wasn't speaking to me, or team president Harry Glickman was upset, David would put the moments in perspective.

"When I was covering the war in the Congo, I had to sprint across the street from the hotel to the Western Union office, dodging snipers' bullets, just to get my story sent back to The Times," he once snarled at me. "Don't you back down from Harry Glickman."

I didn't, because I didn't want to let down David.

Similarly, Jon Meacham writes on Newsweek.com:

Over drinks and at dinner, he would dispense avuncular counsel in a deep and resonant voice that, I think, put John Houseman and Charlton Heston to shame. Halberstam so adored his life with his wife, Jean, and his daughter, Julia, that a standard sermon to younger journalists in New York revolved around the wonders-even the necessity-of raising one's family in the city. "It's so important," he would say, and he sounded so sure, so certain, so Godlike that you found yourself wondering how you could even have considered anything else, even if you never had.

A few years ago, less than a month after the attacks of September 11, he and I were together in Sewanee, Tennessee, at The University of the South, where Halberstam was receiving an honorary degree. From his days in Mississippi (and later, in Nashville) he had always loved the South, and he savored audiences, especially audiences of young people. In that grim season of terror, he took a moment from his more formal remarks on the nature of the new war and said, "I would like to add a word for the students here. You are going to be fine." His hope endured; his confidence in the country he loved and served so long with the power of his pen and the acuity of his vision was undiminished. His generation, he said, had overcome Pearl Harbor; the one coming up would survive and thrive in the face of a different global threat.

This Associated Press version of Halberstam's biography includes this passage:

Halberstam's wife, Jean Halberstam, said Monday that she would remember him most for his "unending, bottomless generosity to young journalists."

"For someone who obviously was so competitive with himself, the generosity with other writers was incredible," she said by phone from their New York home. He also is survived by a daughter, Julia.

Born April 10, 1934, in New York City, to a surgeon father and teacher mother, Halberstam attended Harvard University, where he was managing editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper.

After graduating in 1955, he launched his career at the Daily Times Leader, a small daily in West Point, Miss. He spent only a year there because the editor at the time thought Halberstam was too politically liberal, said Bill Minor, Jackson bureau chief for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

He went on to The Tennessean, in Nashville, where he covered the civil rights struggle, and then The New York Times, which sent him to Vietnam. Halberstam quit daily journalism in 1967 and turned to books.

"He was a mentor, a companion and a very dear friend," said Horst Faas, a retired AP photographer who met Halberstam in the Congo in 1960 and later shared a house with him in Saigon. "As a journalist he was very different from the rest of us. Not everybody went along with him, but he believed it was his duty to change things."

Halberstam told journalists during a conference last year in Tennessee that government criticism of news reporters in Iraq reminded him of the way he was treated while covering the war in Vietnam.

"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn't salute or play the game," he said. "And then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around and they've used up their credibility."

ESPN's Jim Caple remembers Halberstam on Page 2:

As Halberstam grew older, sports became an even more popular topic for him. He was among the original contributors to Page 2 (seeing my byline next to my hero's in those early months of the page was one of the greatest thrills of my career). He wrote many books on sports, including very popular volumes on the Red Sox and Yankees of the late '40s and early '50s, but "The Breaks of the Game" is his true masterpiece. This profile on the 1979-80 Trail Blazers is essential reading for any fan of sports, culture, race relations and good reporting. The book is so good that even the dedication page is stirring.

"In memory of Dr. Michael Halberstam," it reads, "who in the last year of his life was fond of sneaking onto Washington, D.C. playgrounds and attaching brand new nets, which he had just bought, so that he and other playground players could hear their jumpshots swish ..."

(Michael, David's brother, was murdered in 1980 by an escaped convict in a burglary.)

If you think if him as "just" a sportswriter, of course you are missing most of the story of Halberstam. Clyde Haberman's obituary of Halberstam in The New York Times describes the work that made Halberstam famous:

It was when he went to South Vietnam in 1962 that he began to leave an indelible journalistic mark.

He soon saw that the American-backed government in Saigon was corrupt and failing - and he said so. William Prochnau, who wrote a book on the reporting of that period, "Once Upon a Distant War," said last night that Mr. Halberstam and other American journalists then in Vietnam were incorrectly regarded by many as antiwar.

"He was not antiwar," Mr. Prochnau said. "They were cold war children, just like me, brought up on hiding under the desk." It was simply a case, he said, of American commanders lying to the press about what was happening in Vietnam. "They were shut out and they were lied to," Mr. Prochnau said. And Mr. Halberstam "didn't say, You're not telling me the truth.' He said, You're lying.' He didn't mince words."

President John F. Kennedy was so incensed by Mr. Halberstam's war coverage that he
strongly suggested to The Times's publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, that the reporter be replaced. Mr. Sulzberger replied that Mr. Halberstam would stay where he was. He even had the reporter cancel a scheduled vacation so that no one would get the wrong idea.

That article also has a great ending, in which Halberstam quotes Julius Erving saying "Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don't feel like doing them."

NPR has a lot of great archived Halberstam materials that let you actually hear Halberstam's famously deep voice. The NPR site also features author and journalist Neil Sheehan, who says he lost his best friend, remembering Halberstam.

Halberstam's Wikipedia entry has a good biography, including, for better or for worse, more details about the crash that ended his life than I have seen anywhere else.

Meanwhile, Salon is home to several meaningful archived talks with Halberstam. One was about his Michael Jordan book, "Playing for Keeps." Geoff Edgers asked him how he kept it from being another celebrity biography:

A book like this is more complicated. It's about an era; it's about context, about showing the world around him, the forces that affected him. It's the coming of ESPN, it's the Nike commercials, Spike Lee, [Nike CEO] Phil Knight. It's David Falk [Jordan's agent] having the idea that he could make a basketball player a star like a tennis player. We know that Michael Jordan's a great basketball player; one of the questions I'm asking is: What does it take to be a champion?

Bingo. That's what I'll remember Halberstam for. A lot of journalists ask questions like who's bad, who's sexy, or what's new? Only a few dare to ask questions like what is it going to take to win? That's messy. That's complicated. That's hard work. That's big.

UPDATE: Much of Halberstam's work for Page 2 is up now. I highly recommend his stories on Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing, and sports in the wake of 9/11.

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