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Obituaries

Dick Schaap, 67; Sports Journalist

December 22, 2001|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dick Schaap, journalist and commentator who mastered every medium from newspapers to books to television, as well as the delicate art of interviewing some of the most difficult personalities in sports, has died. He was 67.

Schaap died Friday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City of postoperative complications following hip replacement surgery performed Sept. 19. Schaap developed a respiratory infection after the procedure and never recovered.

During a media career spanning 45 years, Schaap wrote for Newsweek and the New York Herald Tribune, edited Sport magazine, served as a correspondent and talk-show host for ABC and ESPN and wrote 34 books on subjects ranging from Robert Kennedy to Billy Crystal to superstar athletes such as Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Mickey Mantle and Bo Jackson.

His work for ESPN earned him three sports Emmy awards, and features for ABC's "20/20" and "World News Tonight" garnered three more Emmys. Among those Emmys was one Schaap was awarded in 1984 for a dramatic interview on "20/20" with comedian Sid Caesar who recounted his recovery from addictions to alcohol and drugs.

Schaap was widely respected by colleagues and interview subjects as a journalist with an even hand, unafraid to ask a tough question but unwilling to embarrass his subject.

Consequently, he gained the confidence, and sometimes the friendship, of some of the most media-shy figures in the world of sports and popular culture.

"I only have two friends in the media," Jackson, the notoriously reticent star running back with the Los Angeles Raiders and outfielder with the Kansas City Royals and the Angels, once said. "Dick Schaap is one of them. And I can't remember the other one."

ESPN President George Bodenheimer said Friday that Schaap's journalistic achievements "were exceeded only by his compassion and respect for fellow human beings. He lived each day to the fullest and, during the course of an amazing life, encountered almost every major figure that impacted our culture over the last 40 years."

A Brooklyn native, Schaap played goalie for the Cornell University's lacrosse team, boasting in his 2001 autobiography that he "stopped" future NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown in a match against Syracuse--saving three of seven shots by Brown.

After graduating from Cornell in 1955, Schaap attended the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism on a Grantland Rice Memorial Fellowship. He began his career in journalism with Newsweek in 1959. There, as the magazine's sports editor, he began a relationship with Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, that would last more than four decades.

In an early encounter, just after the Olympics in 1960, Schaap escorted the young boxer around New York City. The two happened on a black man preaching on a soapbox to a small crowd.

As Schaap wrote about the incident, the man "was advocating something that sounds remarkably mild today--his message, as I recall, was simply buy black, black goods from black merchants--but Cassius seemed stunned. He couldn't believe that a black man would stand up in public and argue against white America. 'How can he talk like that?' Cassius said. 'Ain't he gonna get in trouble?' "

In 1964, Schaap moved to the Herald Tribune, where he first worked as a city editor and later a columnist alongside Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe.

"His basic sentences were terrific," said Breslin. "Today's writers use 40-50 words in a sentence, but Schaap would get the point across in maybe 10. His pieces were short and remarkable. He never bored."

Wolfe said Schaap brought "his personality to his writing. Not every writer has a voice, but he did."

In 1973, he became editor of Sport magazine, causing waves at the Super Bowl by assigning two NFL players, Fred Dryer and Lance Rentzel, to "cover" the game, which had become too grandiose and self-important in Schaap's eyes. Dryer and Rentzel dressed like old-time news reporters, press cards stuck inside the brims of their felt hats, and peppered coaches with cliche questions that enlivened the proceedings and annoyed league officials.

Schaap branched into television in the 1970s, working as a correspondent for "NBC Nightly News" and the "Today" show before moving over to ABC and ESPN.

For the last 13 years, he served as host of ESPN's weekly sportswriter round-table debate, "The Sports Reporters," proving himself to be a deft and patient referee for a rotating panel of sportswriters.

"The hardest thing about doing 'The Sports Reporters' show is you're really surrounded by three very high-octane individuals," said Joe Valerio, the show's executive producer. "You need a breath of fresh air, you need a calm voice in there. And yet the person still has to be able to make their points very quickly and then do very smart and witty transitions to move it along. Dick was masterful at that."

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