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Schaap Helped Build a Better Sports Business

January 20, 2002|STEVE JACOBSON | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- Dick Schaap began in this business at age 15, taking high school scores for Jimmy Breslin at the Review Star, gone these many years. Thursday a lot of people whose names you recognize paid tribute in a memorial service at the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. In between Dick made this a better business.

The sports business, the book business, the magazine business, the television business, the newspaper business. And it took very fast hands to beat him to a check.

Billy Crystal was the master of ceremonies, if that's what you call the person who presides over a memorial service. "I never got laughs in a church before," Crystal said, and that was right. There were some choked tears, more laughs and a lot more insight. "He started at 15," Crystal said. ''He had to be either the youngest sports reporter or the starting pitcher on the Bronx Little League team."

Schaap would have liked the line. It was funny and biting but not too caustic, which was the way Schaap presented his work, which was considerable over 40 years and more. It would stand well in a journalism class.

Martina Navratilova said she had failed to find a memorable line of Schaap's to be quoted. "His strength," she said, "was not to be quoted but to bring out the quotes of others."

In a business of late marked by people who seek to make their name by tearing down others, Schaap told what he found inside others. He accomplished so much because his work was good, not because he was a great self-promoter.

His producer for years at ABC News, Joe Donnelly, said he'd point out what everybody was talking about and Schaap would say, "that's why I don't want to do it." His strength was in developing another aspect and showing how it was at least as important and more interesting. Dick and I took high school scores at the Long Island Press, another departed paper, and even then he knew there was more to it than the boxscore.

Schaap died Dec. 21 at 67, three months after hip replacement surgery that went wrong. Oddly, he was on the big video screen doing his own afterword from a TV piece about his last book, "Flashing Before My Eyes." There were clips of Ali, Vince Lombardi, Martin Luther King, Son of Sam and more, who were subjects and often friends of Schaap's.

The book was generally panned as an exercise in name-dropping. His best work wasn't writing about himself.

"It's fitting that I drop a name," Crystal said in his droll opening. "I'm a friend of Dick Schaap."

And Dick's wife, Trish, said, "He was in awe of his life."

He described his life as ''about athletes and actresses, cops and comedians, politicians and playwrights, the eclectic mix that has made almost every day of my life seem like a fantasy to me.

"Often I am asked what my favorite sport is, and always I say, 'People.' I collect people.

"I once asked Paul Prudhomme, the Cajun chef, his idea of great taste, and he said, 'Chocolate ice cream with curry sauce, because they're so different.' I feel exactly the same way -- about people."

Crystal was a substitute teacher in Long Beach when Schaap, then editor of Sport--another departed publication--tried to get Robert Klein to MC the dinner for Sport's Man of the Year for 1974, which was Ali.

Klein's agent said, ''Take Billy.'' Schaap, in some haste, did. And Crystal did impressions of Howard Cosell and Ali that he'd honed in comedy clubs.

His Cosell was wonderful and his Ali was popeyed and braying, "I've got $900,000 in Chicago banks and eight Rolls-Royces--one for every day of the week." They stayed good friends.

I went to a nightclub with Schaap and saw Lenny Bruce, a brilliant comedian, reading transcripts of his lingering trial for obscenity, and failing to be funny. Bruce was staying at the YMCA, he said, because it was the only room available.

Schaap grew up in Freeport. Bruce grew up in Freeport. Schaap, then a general columnist at the Herald Tribune -- another lost newspaper -- defended Bruce. When Bruce died, Schaap wrote: "One last four-letter word. Dead. Dead at 40. That's obscene."

Breslin recalled that on Thursday.

Jerry Kramer was there, too. With Schaap they produced "Instant Replay," Kramer's diary of Green Bay's 1967 championship, portraits of the Packers and Vince Lombardi and the game known as the Ice Bowl.

Schaap's title was going to paraphrase Lombardi, "The Day Time Ran Out," but with 14 seconds left Kramer's block sprung Bart Starr for the winning touchdown. Kramer gloried in the instant replays on TV, and that became the title.

The book became a classic for its insights into the game and its people, with wit and without scandal or obscenity. It's a landmark work 35 years later.

Schaap's work was important because, as The Rev. Robert Wright said, "Our play and our work have as real a place in our lives as our prayer." On the way out, a jazz quartet played, "Memories of You."

It swung.

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