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COMMENTARY

Halberstam embraced idea of sportswriting

April 25, 2007|Peter McAlevey | Special to The Times

David Halberstam is dead.

When Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting from Vietnam in 1964, it wasn't just that he was a good writer ... it was that his reporting from there helped change history. After all, when the prestigious New York Times pointed out the flaws in the war, well, it was all downhill from there.

Then, of course, there was his book (ironically) titled "The Best and the Brightest," which came out in 1972 and not only gave us a new catch-phrase but actually (as any good writer should) named and defined a place and time.

But who knew, that in what amounts to a second career, he would turn out to be one of America's most prominent sportswriters -- beginning with his story for the late, lamented Inside Sports magazine on the Portland Trail Blazers.

Well, I knew.

A year out of college, I was the fourth person hired by the Washington Post Co. as Newsweek's answer to what was then, in 1979, perhaps the most profitable magazine in history, Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated.

The first person was John Walsh, a legendary editor, who during his stint as Rolling Stone's managing editor oversaw gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and then, later, helped create the legendary Washington Post "Style" section.

Now, he'd been given $24 million by Post publisher Katherine Graham to "eat Time Inc.'s lunch.... "

The second person was Peter Bonventre, whose reporting out of the Philippines on the "Thrilla in Manila" remains among the best boxing reporting ever done. Today, he's the managing editor of Entertainment Weekly.

The third was a former Los Angeles Times assignment editor named Ted Beitchman.

Then there was me -- a year out of college and in way over my head.

Just to make the point clear, Walsh put his paws on me as soon as he could -- it was either sink or swim. I'll never forget at the first staff meeting of the fledgling magazine when he looked right down the table (I made the mistake of sitting in his eye-line) and barked, "McAlevey, go get David Halberstam and have him write a sports story for us!"

Now, a year out of college and in over my head, I had not a clue what he was talking about -- I mean, I knew who David Halberstam was

So I did what any young assistant editor would do -- I looked in the book and called his agent ... the equally legendary Sterling Lord.

Of course, Lord wanted nothing to do with his clients writing sports, let alone for a magazine that had yet to publish its first issue.

Moreover, he was quoting figures that were out of the stratosphere for magazine articles at the time (or even today) -- $10,000, $15,000!

Yet, as Walsh ordered, I stuck at it and eventually, through friends of friends, I was able to get a private line to Halberstam.

And lo and behold, turns out no one had ever offered him the opportunity to write sports. "Of course," he told me, he'd love to meet and kick around ideas.

Eventually, we all did get together and decided that he'd spend much of the season with the Trail Blazers (then in their Bill Walton glory.)

When the story was done (for, I remember, a measly $2,300 -- despite his agent's pleading), he was so supercharged on sports that he decided he wanted to make it a book.

Halberstam's "The Breaks of the Game," which came out in 1981, was the first of what would become almost a second career for him. He went on to write, among others, "The Amateurs," about Olympic rowers at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, "The Summer of '49," about the Red Sox and Yankees, and "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made."

When Halberstam was killed Monday in an auto accident near San Francisco, he was on his way to interview famed quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a book on "The Game," about the first nationally televised NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants at a snowy Yankee Stadium in 1958.

Many people believe that is the game that put the otherwise underappreciated NFL on the sports map.

What did I have to do with it all? Not a lot -- let's face it, Walsh, after working with talents as varied as Thompson to novelist Pete Dexter ("Paris Trout"), was the one who figured out Halberstam was ready for a career change.

Walsh went on to raise talents as unique as sports-talk host Jim Rome while at the same time refining "Sports Center" for ESPN, the most profitable franchise in sports history.

But I did one thing -- I kept Halberstam (who could be a handful) in line, and got the story in on time and on budget. In fact, when he was done and contemplating turning it into the book that became "The Breaks," he actually asked me to co-write it with him.

I thought about it for a day or two -- after all, when you're a year out of college, that $300-per-week salary that Newsweek was paying me seemed pretty good.

So I passed -- and he's now passed on to legend. Who knew? Had I had a chance to do it all over ... I mean, work with a living legend versus $300 per week?

Well, I'd probably make the same choice.

Peace, David. From your biggest fan.

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