"I've always liked you, Lacy."
Those words could have come from an array of people Lacy J. Banks encountered during his four decades of writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. They happened to come from Michael Jordan, during the news conference for his second retirement in 1999.
Lacy was the only journalist Jordan mentioned by name while up on the dais that afternoon. It's fitting, because Lacy was exceptional. He was the first African American on the sports staff of the Chicago Sun-Times, and even after many others joined the press boxes that Banks helped integrate, he found a way to stand out from the rest. Often the best responses at news conferences came from questions that Lacy had asked. He established a great rapport with athletes, and that helped him elicit great quotes. But he had this persistent way of asking questions that prompted memorable sound bites even from those who were irked by him. One reason was that even if someone disliked Lacy's line of questioning, it was next to impossible to dislike the man himself.
What a sweet disposition he had. He was always smiling, always playfully using the full extent of his vocabulary, Don King style. I wish I still had the tape of the sing-song messages he used to leave on my answering machine when we worked together at the Sun-Times. I also wish I had recorded him swearing at a cab driver that Lacy thought was jacking up the fare for our trip to the Newark airport. It's the only time I ever heard him curse, which is one more time than most folks who knew him. The Rev. Lacy J. Banks, we called him, because he also was a minister. Sometimes I would deferentially refer to him as Your Lacyfulness.
Yes, Lacy could cross the bounds of media decorum by exuberantly celebrating big plays by the Bulls (look for him at the 4:01 mark of this video of Jordan hitting The Shot over Craig Ehlo) . He also could put journalistic duty over friendship and call Jordan out for associating with dubious gamblers. Most of all, he could get the story. He was the first to have Jordan retiring on the eve of training camp in 1993.
When I saw Lacy during the 2010 NBA Finals and (for what turned out to be the last time) at the 2011 Eastern Conference finals I wrapped him up in a big hug, then teased him for still carrying around a full-sized cassette player to conduct his interviews while the rest of us were using tiny digital recorders. That we are just now writing about his death in 2012, rather than 10 years ago, is a testament to his fighting spirit. He had so many major health issues posing serious threats to his life that I lost track. What I do know is that we would have passed away a lot earlier if it hadn't been for Shaquille O'Neal forcing Lacy to seek medical treatment as a condition for granting him an interview.
As Lacy recounted for the Sun-Times
Heck, Shaq saved my life in 2003. Upon the advice of Los Angeles Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, Shaq made me go to hospital in Milwaukee before he’d give me his annual interview. As it turned out, I was on the verge of suffering a heart attack. Emergency medical care prevented it. The next day I underwent a potential life-saving coronary stenting at Northwestern University. Shaq got on Jay Leno’s show telling everybody he saved my life and drew laughs when he grossly imitated how heavily I was breathing.
Shaq cared about Lacy's well-being. Lacy cared about the story. That pretty much sums up this remarkable journalist and the relationships he forged with some of the biggest names in sports. The only way I can think of to say goodbye to Lacy is to quote his greeting whenever he answered the phone: "God bless you."