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David Halberstam is indisputably one of journalism history's heavyweights of reporting. His name is attached to the Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the Kennedys. But in between challenging the powers that be, he made time to write about sports. And, indisputably, those stories are among the most significant on that side of the bookstore: "The Breaks of the Game," "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "Summer of '49," "October 1964," "The Amateurs" and "The Education of a Coach." Here is a sampling of his columns from ESPN.com's Page 2 Vault in 2001 and 2002, an era when his encyclopedic knowledge of the heart of sports collided with technology's rush to give us only spectacle:
You know that part of the start of NBA games when the lights go down and the lightshow kicks in and the announcer screams, "YOUR NEW YORK KNICKS!" ... well, Halberstam points out, please don't accuse the rest of us of being responsible for the product on the floor.
"Jumbotrons and sound system steroids" (Dec. 2, 2002)
They're not his New York Knicks -- nor, for that matter, mine -- they belong to a man named Charles Dolan, and he heads a large, very rich corporation that does not do basketball very well -- it is always too impatient to win, and not patient enough to build. In addition, the process of any city, but especially this one, where there are so many choices, taking a sports team to its heart is a long and complicated one, and just because some general manager signs (as in this case) a lot of unlikely teammates, and pays them too much money, and puts them in uniforms that say New York does not mean they're mine. I was most assuredly not in on the drafting of this team. I think it's bush to introduce them that way.
If Halberstam comes down hard in his TV movie review of the based-on-a-true-college-football-story "The Junction Boys," he comes down harder on its historical subject -- coach Bear Bryant, and how he came short of being truly trailblazing.
"Just a Coach, Not a Leader" (Dec. 20, 2002)
The truth about all of us in life is that when history pays us a call and chooses to judge us on a certain issue, more often than not, it does it by surprise, and it does not warn us in advance that the issue we are being judged on is going to be more important than the thing we think we are going to be judged on. So it was with Bear Bryant.
The great test of him as a man was not whether he gave or did not give water to his players that first summer. The great test of him was how he handled the subject of race as Alabama's football coach -- as the South's signature coach on a subject of great importance, whether or not to go after black players despite regional prejudice -- during a terrible time, when the entire nation, but most importantly the deep South, was being torn apart on the issues of race, prejudice and traditional culture. I happened to be working as a reporter in the South in those years, and I remember what he did not do, as well as what he did do.
What's the sportswriter etiquette when a former superstar who's been traded returns to play his old team? When Patrick Ewing and the Seattle Sonics came to Madison Square Garden, Halberstam made it clear he did not share the nostalgia on display by the rest of the media.
"Greatness Passes Ewing" (March 6, 2001)
The tipoff to what most sportswriters really feel about him was evident during the homecoming week when they described him as a warrior. Ah, there it is, I thought, the W word. When basketball writers want to say something without being truly candid -- when they think a player works hard but in the end is not really talented -- they use the W word.
One of Michael Jordan's coaches, summing up his career, once said that he never gave the appearances that he had been sentenced by a judge to play professional basketball in Chicago. By contrast, Patrick Ewing almost always looked like he had been ordered to play by some unsympathetic higher power.
Did sports writer Halberstam admire Deion Sanders more as a baseball player or football player? Did N.Y. Giants fan Halberstam fear Sanders more when he was with the Cowboys or the Redskins? Mostly, Halberstam saw Sanders as someone nowhere near worthy of his hype.
"Deion, We Hardly Knew Ye" (May 15, 2001)
To me, the definitive Deion play is this: A defensive lineman on his team makes a great play, breaks through, nearly reaches the opposing quarterback; the quarterback, off-balance, about to go down, throws a dying quail; Deion, all alone on a busted play, makes an easy interception, runs it back almost unopposed for a touchdown, and then does a patented Deion celebration in the end zone -- Look at me! Look at me! All of this, it should be noted, is done with great calculation.
Television, after all, hates being bored, and it greatly prefers a talented racket thrower who loses to an even more talented racket nonthrower who wins. So it was with Deion. No matter that he rarely had anything important to say, he had a talent for making himself the center of attention. ... I can remember one year when I was in Miami at the time of the Super Bowl. San Francisco was playing San Diego. The same 49er team included Jerry Rice, quite possibly the greatest player ever to play his position. But all the coverage seemed to be about Deion. Almost nothing was written about Rice. Writing about Rice demanded energy and originality and hard work; writing about Deion was easy, even if in the end the pieces were oddly empty and self-mocking.
Greg Hardy is a Page 2 contributor. It's all pop culture all the time at Twitter.com/HardyVision.
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