I don’t think there’s ever been a more influential basketball writer than Peter Vecsey.
I don’t think there’s ever been a more read basketball writer than Peter Vecsey.
I don’t think there’s ever been a more disliked basketball writer than Peter Vecsey.
He was, for a long time, the eyes and ears overlooking the NBA; a longtime New York Post columnist who spared no one and took delight (it seemed) in ridiculing players who didn’t meet his expectations or who, according to league sources underperformed and/or refused to work. In Pulp Fiction speak, Peter Vecsey was both a bad-ass motherfucker, and an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in professional hoops. He even took his career (and edge) to TV. Somehow, it worked.
Truth be told, I always had mixed opinions on Peter. Loved his creativity, questioned (on occasion) his viciousness. Couldn’t wait to see his stuff. Cringed seeing his stuff.
Now retired from the game, Peter Vecsey comes to the Quaz and speaks awful about his brutal Hall of Fame speech, his approach to covering the sport and why he has nothing to ask Spencer Dunkley. Peter Vecsey, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Peter—since you’re as blunt a writer as they come, I’m going to be blunt. I attended the Basketball Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies when you were honored in 2011. I sat for your speech the night before—and I hated it. I just hated it. I thought it was mean, arrogant, condescending … etc. It wasn’t as bad as Michael Jordan’s brag-a-thon, but it was (in my meaningless opinion) petty.
That said, I thought about it later, and wondered whether, perhaps, you were uncomfortable, nervous, whatever. You’d spent much of your career covering those in attendance, and maybe the moment didn’t work for that reason.
Tell me, Peter. Am I off? Am I being too harsh? Or, in hindsight, were you like, “Um, that sucked?”
PETER VECSEY.: It sucked, no debate. A rambling wreck. Shame on me for being so ill prepared and for careening out of control and jumping the divider on tangents into traffic. Still, not a single lie was told. I probably should have listened to instincts and rejected induction, on principle. As stated, in all immodesty and objectivity, induction was ten years or more overdue. Vindictiveness reigned behind the annual selections by a decision maker(s) with an ax to grind and wield. Many (some anyway) enshrined before (and after) greatly devalue the ‘honor’. I was pissed and made no attempt to hide it.
Why then accept ‘induction’? Because I felt it might propel me into position to give numerous deserving players and coaches, who were consistently unable to accrue enough votes or whose (ABA) accomplishments were purposely ignored, a stronger, more passionately persistent shrill voice during the selection process. Good move. Everyone I pinpointed as being worthy—Dennis Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Chet Walker, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown—is now in the Hall of Fame. My voice was accorded an audience and it influenced panels of voters, and continues to do so. For that I am exceedingly thankful. At the same time, let it be known, Curt Gowdy Award winners are not true Hall of Fame members. We’re treated as outsiders. Not once did those running the show place me (or Doug Collins) alongside Michael Jordan, Jerry Sloan, David Robinson, John Stockton or Karl Malone for so much as a photo. Nor were our names included on shirts. And when Mel Daniels wanted me to be one of his induction presenters a couple classes ago, he was told only those in the Hall of Fame qualified. Which is one of the reasons my trophy (not a ring like real Hall of Famers) remains on the bottom shelf of my garage.
J.P.: You started covering the Nets in 1967, and wrote your final column on July 1, 2012. That’s a ton of basketball. A ton. How do you explain your love for the sport? How didn’t it ever get old? Or stale? Or did it?
P.V.: In actuality, I started covering the Nets on a regular basis beginning in ’69-70. Before that, I wrote about every sport for two or three years. I loved baseball (and was a better player than at basketball) more than anything. But everyone wanted that beat and I had little experience and less education (115 credits shy of a college degree) to think I was ever going to get such a plum assignment. Nobody cared about the ABA or the Nets. That’s how the opportunity presented itself. For quite a while, I covered on my own time, for half the pay as a regular reporter. By the ’80s, I had lost all interest in baseball. I had always loved basketball, but soon after inhaling the beat, I became addicted. I wrote about the game, became much better playing it and even coached pros summers in the Rucker Tournament. It never gets old because rarely does a game go by without seeing something I never saw before.
J.P.: Athletes struggle terribly in retirement. T-e-r-r-i-b-l-y. You left the Post in 2012. How have you adjusted to no longer having the column? No longer being on TV? Are you bored? Fidgety. How do you fill the time?
P.V.: Retirement is a mind trip. I do not miss deadline pressure and the everyday grind, or the travel. I do miss the process of compiling info and breaking stories. I miss most being able to salute the old timers while they’re alive and when they die. I tried to do that as much as possible and was really proud of the finished product. I left a cavity in that area that will never be filled. I also miss the paychecks, a lot. I don’t miss TV a bit. I don’t know how doing it for 20 years, while writing a column three times a week, didn’t kill me. Or I didn’t kill an editor or eight. My wife and I keep rather busy caring for rescue animals, horses, dogs and cats. Total currently is down to 21.
J.P.: I know you were born in 1943, I know you attended Archbishop Molloy in Queens, I know you attended Hofstra; that your older brother George is a New York Times legend. But how, Peter, did this happen for you? What I mean is, when did you realize you wanted to be a writer? Was there a moment? An inkling? Something?
P.V.: My older brother wasn’t our family’s first writer/journalist. Both parents, May and George Sr, were editors—society and sports—for the Long Island Press. My father later worked for the Daily News, where he got me a full time job as a sports statistician during the baseball season (3-11 shift) of my junior and senior years at Molloy. I started writing, letters, while working my way around the world on a merchant marine ship after high school. People seemed to like them. The seed was planted. I wrote for Hofstra’s paper the brief semester I attended. I’m unsure if anyone read articles. Upon being discharged from the Army in ’67, and resuming work at the News, I started writing features on topics that interested me, and turned them in … hoping they’d interest editors. A career was launched.
J.P.: Your writing has always been blunt. Sometimes painfully blunt. Your nicknames were often cringe-worthy— Sir Cumference (Charles Barkley), Barely Cares and Joe Barry Aparthy (Joe Barry Carroll), Spawn Kemp (Shawn Kemp), etc. How were you not killed by some angry 7-foot, 300-pound center? And did you ever feel physically threatened over the course of your career?
P.V.: My nicknames for people, not just players–coaches, GMs, sportswriters, teams, too—are meant to tell all you need to know about the subject; they’re appropriately form fitting. Many were courtesy of regular column contributors, some from readers, some collaborations. Good material elicited better material. I always surrounded myself with caustic wits who understood the column’s attitude. What good are you if you’ve got nothing worth plagiarizing. I’ve often been physically threatened. For the most part, the intimidation had little do with nicknames, instead resulting after a steady stream of negative press. I’ll save the names and incidents and how they turned out for the book I’ll probably never write.
J.P.: In 1998, you applied to be the general manager of the Denver Nuggets—while working for the Post. This has always struck me as a conflict of interest. Tell me why I’m wrong. And do you think you would have/could have had a fruitful career as a GM.
P.V.: I was always told, you’ve got to have at least two conflicts of interest to be successful. Pro sports has plenty of former sportswriters-turned executives. The Knicks were started by Ned Irish. The latest example was John Hollinger leaving ESPN to become VP of basketball operations of Memphis. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to pursue front office or coaching, as long as it’s during the off-season? I tried to put together group to buy the Nuggets in the early ’80s … tried to get Rick Pitino to hire me as GM when he was running the Celtics … approached Larry Brown about helping him in Washington when he was close to coaching the Wizards … had an interview on tap as Hawks’ GM just before Stan Kasten left … and had a very brief interview with James Dolan to be Isiah Thomas’ GM. I am positive I would’ve been an asset to one and all.
J.P.: I vividly remember the 1998 SI piece about you and George, and feeling genuinely sad about the lack of communication between the two of you. Is that still the case? Have you grown closer with age? And why has the relationship been so … complex?
P.V.: Next question.
J.P.: What’s your take on the coverage of the NBA in 2014? Better than ever? Awful beyond awful? Somewhere in between?
P.V.: I assume you mean TV’s coverage. TNT’s and half of ESPN’s studio panels (Bill Simmons’ overwhelming success is life’s darkest mystery) will never have to worry about being charged with substance abuse. TNT’s David Levy repeatedly declares, “Content is king,” yet features a peanut gallery (exempting Ernie Johnson) of foolishness. But it sells, so who am I to quibble? Jeff Van Gundy is worth paying attention to, because he’s thoroughly uncensored and offers fresh insights. Hubie is Hubie. Cannot stand the non-stop, counterfeit chatter of Kerr, Miller, Webber and everyone else whose names thankfully escape me at the moment
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
P.V.: Never really thought about it. Off the top, running the fast break alongside Pistol Pete, fondling an around-the-back pass from him, and making the lefty layup. After the Stokes’ game at Kutsher’s, the last organized one he played, dying six months later, Maravich cackled. “Don’t say I never give you nothin’, Pistol,” which is what he always called me. Another was running a 3-2 break alongside Julius Erving at Rucker. This time I had the ball in the middle, looked off the defender on my left and intravenously fed the good doctor, who swooped to the hoop for a claw-like dunk. I’m sure I came.
J.P.: You had a pretty well-known dislike (if that’s the right word) for Dick Young back in the mid-1970s. Young sounds like one of the absolute meanest guys in journalism history. What was he like? And what caused your battles with him?
P.V.: I idolized Dick Young growing up. Never missed a column, which he wrote five times a week until cancer sidelined him at 69. He was a great writer, a great reporter and didn’t back up or down to anyone. His post-game trips to the locker room for quotes revolutionized sportswriting. I remember every gem he taught me about writing. For instance, “Don’t try to outdo yourself. If you have a good line, leave it at that. Don’t try to top yourself with the next sentence.”
My perspective of Young remained unchanged until he was promoted to sports editor/columnist/control freak. Instead of telling me how to write, it became what to write, regardless if I agreed with the dictated theme. Twice we butted heads big time. The first had to do with a series the paper was doing pertaining to drugs in each of the four major sports. In my mind, Young made it a black and white issue. His stance: basketball players were drug-infested, and hockey players were clean. Meanwhile, I knew drugs were rampant in both sports. The Nets and Islanders hung in the same bars on Hempstead Turnpike. I witnessed stuff, if you know what I mean. The second head-on collision occurred when I took over John Sterling’s radio program for a day, four hours, I believe. At one point, I accused Young of a conflict of interest concerning his harsh take on Tom Seaver’s attempted contract renegotiation. A large part of Young’s opinion, I felt, was a result of his son-in-law being embedded in management. What’s more, I underlined, Seaver’s renegotiation attempt was no different than Young’s recent renegotiation of his News contract. Shortly after, I was covering high school sports in the News’ Queens office. A year later, I joined the Post and became NBA columnist, first in the country to write exclusively about one sport. Wouldn’t you know it, a few years later, Young jumped to the Post and we became colleagues, in theory.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PETER VECSEY:
• Five least-talented NBA players you’ve ever seen: My mother taught me never to make note of the afflicted.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Todd Lichti, Skittles, Einstein Bros Bagles, Toledo, Melba toast, Adobe InDesign, Al Davis, Bill Musselman, Hugh Grant, Styx, typewriters: Hugh Grant, Bill Musselman, the rest tie for last.
• Celine Dion calls: She’ll pay you $50 million next year to be the editor in chief of Celine Digest, her in-home newspaper read only by her. You have to file 20 stories per day, subsist on a diet of cabbage, brownies and strawberry milk and officially change your name to Sedric Toney. You in?: No. I’m retired.
• Scouting report of Peter Vecsey, high school basketball player: Good enough to start for Molloy, had I been able to remain academically eligible. Failed off the team for a marking period and it cost me my spot and playing at the Garden.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: There have been numerous near disasters. One, in particular, I sidestepped was the Eastern Airline plane that went down at JFK. Wendall Ladner, the off-the-wall Nets’ poster forward perished. I was supposed to be sitting next to him. Sport Magazine wanted me to accompany him to and from Necaise Crossing, Mississippi—pop. 1,308. His hometown was holding a day in his honor and Dick Schaap hired me because Ladner and I were tight, not because of my writing skill. At the last minute, my 6-year-old son begged me to take him on a vacation. I was in the midst of a divorce. I felt obliged to spend some quality time with Michael so I asked out. We were in Disney World when the plane crashed due to wind sheer.
• One question you’d ask Spencer Dunkley were he here right now?: I have no clue who that is.
• How do we save the dunk contest?: Raise the rim or lower the floor. And use a red, white and blue basketball.
• Best nickname you ever gave a player?: Larry Legend.
• Why do so many athletes get tattoos?: So they’ll never be without reading material.