Jeff Pearlman

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Steve Rushin

#316
The world's best sportswriter has tracked mud into the West Wing and competed in the World Ice Golf Championship. And yet, even with a new memoir out this week, he still can't resist manifold nacho cheez. POSTED July 2, 2017

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This is sort of embarrassing to admit, but back when I was a student at the University of Delaware, my goal was to become America’s best sportswriter.

Now, some two decades later, I realize there’s no such thing as “America’s best sports writer.” But at the time my cockiness and idiocy teamed up to set the expectation. So, for the next few years I found myself motivated by this dangling carrot—best sportswriter, best sportswriter, best sportswriter, best spo …

Smack.

Although I certainly knew of his existence, it wasn’t until arriving at Sports Illustrated in 1996 that I began regularly reading the work of Steve Rushin. And, with that, my dream died. Steve’s writing was … fuck. I’m not even sure how to describe it. Flavorful. Dynamic. Inventive. Creative. I was vanilla, and he was peppermint-fudge-Reese’s swirl. I was Paul Zuvella and he was Rickey Henderson. I mean, it wasn’t even a fair fight. The guy was that good, and his 2005 title of National Sportswriter of the Year should, in my opinion, be a lifetime label. For my money, Steve is the finest sportswriter (hell, writer) of this generation.

Anyhow, Steve also happens to be a colleague, a friend, a former teammate on the surprisingly excellent SI hoops team and, with its July 3 release, author of a new memoir, Sting-Ray Afternoons The book, his fifth, delves into Steve’s (largely innocent) 1970s Minnesota boyhood—Rod Carew and Bic pens and bicycle rides and backyard football games.

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One can follow Steve on Twitter here, and visit his website here. He still writes columns and occasional features for Sports Illustrated, and lives in Connecticut with his wife (Rebecca Lobo, the ESPN announcer and former UConn hoops star) and their four children.

Steve Rushin, you are the 316th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Steve, when I arrived at Sports Illustrated toward the end of 1996, I looked at you and Rick Reilly as the gold standards of what it was to be an American sports writer. You guys were stars at one of the nation’s great magazines; you wrote stuff millions of people read; you had talent and access and an enormous following. And now here we are, 21 years later, and I’m confused. I don’t know what the gold standard is these days; I’ve had people ask me, “Does SI still publish?” I’m befuddled, lost, dizzy. This is a broad question, but through your eyes, where are we as a business? As a profession? What should we be aiming for?

STEVE RUSHIN: Thank you. I’m blushing. Where is our profession? I’m just as dizzy as you are. My Dad sold magnetic tape for 37 years—8-track tapes, audio cassettes, VHS tapes—for 3M. He said to me recently, “I can’t believe all that stuff I sold for all those years just . . . went away.” I don’t think writing is going away. But I do feel like a blacksmith sometimes. A nice kid recently asked me for writing advice and then told me he thought sports writing would be a good entree into sports broadcasting. And I understood why a high school kid might feel that way. For me, writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

I don’t think there is one gold standard of sportswriting now, but I don’t think there was necessarily one in 1996, either. There were definitely fewer places to look for good sportswriting, like when I grew up with five TV channels and you watched whatever was on. Was “B.J. & The Bear” great TV, or were there just fewer alternatives? SI was and still is a home for great writing, but I think of all the great writers we hired away from newspapers, which were also full of great sportswriting. I remember being a reporter at SI and sitting behind Richard Hoffer, then of the LA Times, in the press box at Shea Stadium. I was trying to read his Dodgers-Mets game story over his shoulder, which is not great press-box etiquette. Not long after that, Hoffer wrote a freelance story for SI on George Foreman and we hired him. I can still quote his Foreman lede from memory, about a retired Foreman stopping at all the fast food joints on Westheimer Road in Houston—”the Boulevard of Broken Seams”—and ordering his burgers from that most non-judgmental of service personnel: the curbside clown. In that ancient time before the internet, I could only read Hoffer in the LA Times, and I could only read the LA Times when I was in LA. That didn’t make Hoffer any less of a great writer, just not as easy to find. Now, of course, you can read anyone, anytime, and that is a miracle to me, and a great improvement.

But like you, I haven’t a clue what is going on in our profession. I’m not a businessman. When I started at SI, my benefits-consultant brother had to persuade me that enrolling in the 401k was a smart thing to do, and not some kind of a scam, as I had been led to believe by another writer, whose initials are Jack McCallum. Needless to say, I have no idea what the business model for print journalism will be, but our aim as writers should still be what it has always been. Entertain, inform, enlighten and avoid cliche. Try every time to write something that’s never been written before, even if it’s a line on a birthday card.

Eating nachos in the stands before a 1992 Angels game (photo by V.J.Lovero)

Eating nachos in the stands before a 1992 Angels game (photo by V.J.Lovero)

J.P.: This isn’t something to be proud of, but when I pitch books I’m always thinking (among other factors) commercially. My books have all been topics with the scope to potentially sell themselves. Favre. Walter Payton. The ’86 Mets. On and on. Your books include one on the unorthodox history of baseball, a novel about a sports fan who digs word play, an anthology, a childhood memoir. And I truly admire/envy you, because they’re passions without a sniff of selling out or settling. So, I ask, how do you decide upon book subjects? What goes into an idea becoming a project? How much does the marketing/sales play into the pitch?

S.R.: You should be proud to write books that people want to read. I try to do that too. My agent, my Dad and my accountant would all prefer I choose more commercial topics. And I would love every book of mine to rocket to the top of the best-seller list. (Sting-Ray Afternoons, out now!) There’s nothing high-minded about the choices I’ve made. Pay me enough money and I’d have to consider writing Kim Kardashian’s as-told-to autobiography. I have four kids and I’d like them all to go to college.

But as you know, book writing requires so much time in a sparsely furnished room—or in your case, in an idyllic coffee shop overlooking the Pacific—that it’s really only worthwhile to me if the subject interests me intensely. It has to interest SOMEBODY else, too, or no commercial publisher will look at it. Ninety-nine percent of book writing is the actual writing of it. What follows the writing—publication, bookstore appearances, red carpets, klieg lights, groupies, paparazzi rooting through your trash bin—that’s a tiny percentage of the job. Who wants to spend every day for two years (in my case) working on something that doesn’t interest them? I want to write the books that I want to read. I’m much better writing about subjects that interest me than I am writing about subjects that don’t interest me. All you have to distinguish you as a writer is your own voice, your own point of view. Having said that, you sometimes have to take assignments that don’t initially interest you if you want to write for a living. If you’re a curious person, you’ll find something interesting in just about anything or anyone. It’s why you do these Q-and-As, because you’re curious about the world. It’s why I’ve filed stories for SI from seven continents. I’ll go anywhere once. Try never to say no.

J.P.: Your new book, “Sting-Ray Afternoons,” is a memoir of your 1970s boyhood. I’ve never written a memoir. Truly, the idea very much intimidates me. So how did you go about this? Was it just your memories? Was it interviewing people from back in the day? Reporting and digging and old newspapers? What was the process? And how long did it take?

S.R.: Here’s how it started. One day I looked up the newspaper for the day I was born, in the city where I was born: The Chicago Tribune of September 22, 1966. Oh look, there’s an ad for that night’s Star Trek episode, airing 30 minutes after I was born. Did Dad watch it in the waiting room? There’s a horoscope for babies born on that day (“his nature will be an unhappy one.”) Wow, a six-pack of Old Style is 79 cents. And so on. This led to me wondering what the world was like in those first few years of life before memory kicks in, which in turn led to me—and this is much harder than most people realize—trying to remember and resurrect what my childhood and childhood in general was really like. Not just the birthday parties and the endless schooldays and the family vacations we remember, but all of it: how scary it often was, how boring it often was, how the hot vinyl smelled on a summer day in the station wagon, the tedium of eight hours stretching out before you with nothing to do but make up a game with a tennis ball and an empty Folgers can. All of that. I didn’t want to just write a book that took a warm bath in nostalgia. And here it helps to have kids of my own. I see them running their hands over their bug bites in bed at night, as if re-reading the day in Braille, and I think I forgot that I used to do that; tomorrow morning I’ll write about it. 

I was also lucky in that most innocent period of childhood that i wanted to write about—age three to age 13, from the onset of memory to the onslaught of puberty—coincided exactly with the 1970s. So it’s also a book about that decade.

I did a lot of research into objects that preoccupied me as a kid: the Schwinn Sting-Ray bike I coveted, the Boeing 747 that took my Dad away on business trips overseas, the Panasonic boom box that I saved up for as a 7th grader in thrall to Earth Wind & Fire. I mined the memories of my Dad, my many siblings, my close friends from home—Bloomington, Minnesota, where most of the book is set. And of course I went back to Bloomington, where the Twins and Vikings and North Stars played when I was a kid, where Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and the Harlem Globetrotters played. They say you can never go home again, but it turns out you can. Unfortunately, when you do go home—as I discovered—there’s no longer a Met Stadium, or a Southtown Theater, or a Shakey’s Pizza, or a Beanie’s Arcade. There are no longer four 8-year-olds in plastic Vikings helmets in your backyard, asking if you can come out to play football.

It took a couple of years start to finish. I wrote what ended up being the introduction, sold the book on the basis of that, and then had a year to write the rest. You and I have spent years writing feature stories in which we try to make sense of someone else’s life. It’s no easier trying to make sense of your own life. Imposing a narrative on the chaos that is existence, that’s what writers do. That’s the challenge. Another challenge? Part of me was still worried that my terrifying oldest brother was going to kick my ass for whatever I wrote about him.

In action at the 1999 World Ice Golf Championships

In action at the 1999 World Ice Golf Championships

J.P.: How did this happen for you? I know that’s a big question—but you’re a kid in Bloomington, Minnesota, you love sports. Your Wikipedia page is all over the place—a family of athletes, your appreciation of cereal boxes, the impact of Alex Wolff. But when did the writing bug first appear? When did you realize you had a talent for this?

S.R.: I did read the back of the cereal box, the backs of baseball cards, street signs, washing instructions, anything with words on it, as if the world was a book you could eventually finish. I watched Sesame Street in the morning and again in the afternoon.

Starting in about fifth grade, I would write stories for my own amusement, about Twins games I watched on TV or football games we played in the backyard. I’d type them up on my Mom’s Royal typewriter, leave them in a folder for a few days, then throw them away. I didn’t want anyone to read them. One day—maybe I was in sixth grade?—I came home from school and my Mom had fished a story I had written out of my bedroom wastebasket. She was passing this crumpled piece of paper around the family room, showing it to members of her bridge club. I was mortified. But I got over it. And now I had an audience, which was better than not having one.

In 7th grade, my buddy Mike McCollow checked Rick Telander’s Heaven is a Playground out of the library, then passed it along to me. We loved the book and never returned it, and eventually we got it officially withdrawn from the library system and got amnesty for the eternal late fee. I read in the author bio that Telander wrote for Sports Illustrated. Maybe I could do that some day, I thought. When I got to SI, and met Rick, I showed him the first edition of Heaven, stamped with “Officially Withdrawn From the Hennepin County Library System.” He signed it for me and it’s still on my shelf, one of the many little miracles of my writing life.

The Rushin brothers from the 1970s—Left to right: Jim, Steve and Tom

The Rushin brothers from the 1970s—Left to right: Jim, Steve and Tom

J.P.: You graduated from Marquette in 1988. Two weeks later (two!?) you were on the staff of SI. What the fuck? Step by step—how?

S.R.: So when we were kids, my best friend, the aforementioned Mike McCollow, rang the Bloomington doorbell of this former University of Minnesota basketball star-turned-local juco coach who lived equidistant between us. The coach was Flip Saunders who would go on to coach the Timberwolves, Pistons and Wizards in the NBA. Flip, who was in his 20s at the time and married, actually invited us in and let us shoot hoops on his backyard half court. Later, we started a 3-on-3 tournament there that I called the Saunders Hoop Invitational Tournament—the S.H.I.T. We made a trophy from a Cool Whip tub wrapped in tinfoil. Shortly after, SI ran a story about a national 3-on-3 tournament called the Gus Macker. I wrote a letter to SI telling them about the S.H.I.T. The author of the Gus Macker article—SI writer Alexander Wolff—wrote me back, and in doing so completely changed my life forever. We became pen pals. If Mike doesn’t knock on Flip’s door, if Flip doesn’t answer his door, if Alex doesn’t write me back, it’s unlikely that I ever write for SI.

In college, at Marquette, I’d occasionally send Alex a story I’d write for a journalism class. He’d send back kind or withering critiques. He was always honest. For one story in a Magazine Writing class, I took a city bus to a shopping mall in Milwaukee and watched this 76-year-old professional pool player, Willie Mosconi, do trick shots at Sears as a way of selling their pool tables. I wrote about it for class, but also sent the piece to an SI editor, Bob Brown, who Alex steered me to. Bob said he liked the story on Mosconi, with one notable exception: I had never spoken to the subject. Bob said if I interviewed Mosconi, he’d consider running the piece. So I went to the Milwaukee Public Library, found Mosconi’s number in the Philadelphia phone book, dialed the first nine digits about five times before finally working up the nerve to dial all ten digits and let the phone ring. (I still don’t like calling strangers on the phone, which is an occupational hazard. My wife orders all the pizzas.) Mosconi answered my phone call, kindly replied to my questions, I added his quotes to the piece, sent it off to SI by snail mail and a year later—a year later, as I was graduating from Marquette—SI ran the piece regionally, in select zip codes.

As that was happening, Alex Wolff put me in touch with Jane Bachman (Bambi) Wulf, the chief of reporters at SI, in charge of hiring fact-checkers as prospective writers and editors. As you know. She hired you, didn’t she? I spoke to Bambi on the phone one day and she said, “The next time you’re in New York, swing by the office and I’ll talk to you.” I hung up the phone. I was elated for about five seconds, then despondent. I knew I would never “happen to be” in New York, casually “swinging by” the Time & Life Building. I knew nobody east of Cincinnati. A few days later, at the urging of my Dad, I worked up the nerve to call Bambi back and say: “I’ll never be in New York. I don’t know anyone there.” And in that moment, as I sat on my bed in a shitty off-campus apartment in Milwaukee, Bambi sighed heavily and said I could work at SI over the summer, for three months. I couldn’t believe it. Two weeks after I graduated, I flew to New York with one suitcase and stayed at the apartment of the only person I knew there: Alex Wolff. Twenty-nine years later, SI is the only full-time employer I’ve had as an adult.

That’s it. The whole story. I was ridiculously lucky. Bambi passed away in June, as you know. At her memorial service, dozens of people told similar stories about their own hiring, so I was lucky but not unique.

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J.P.: I’ve always been intimidated and dazzled by your mastery of the English language and, specifically, word play. It’s wizard-like and inventive and often reminds me (strangely) of the rapper Twista. And I’ve wondered, “How does he do this?” What I mean is, do you always have a thesaurus by your side? Do you never have a thesaurus by your side? Do these things just randomly pop into your brain? Are you devoting hours to a single line? I’m talking little things (“I ate Frosted Flakes right out of the box, and she was on boxes of Frosted Flakes”) and bigger things (“When an Olympian wants to podium, I reach for the Imodium. I’m not a fan of batters plating base runners, either. (Plate, as a verb, belongs in restaurants, where you platemeals—and crumb tables.) Thanks to announcers who can’t say “tired,” I suffer from fatigue fatigue.”). In short–where does this shit come from?

S.R.: It’s kind of you to say. I think it’s more of a bar trick or a genetic defect than anything else. I read a lot as a kid, as I mentioned, and was always fascinated by words. It helped that a newspaper was always lying around. As a little kid, I liked how “Twins” concealed “Win” in headlines in the Minneapolis Star. The word “Vietnam”—a constant print presence throughout my childhood—was sometimes spelled as one word (“Vietnam”) and sometimes spelled as two words (“Viet Nam”). I remember wondering if that was what the war was about—about dividing or uniting the word Vietnam, as if it were the country itself.

Then I found a book of wordplay in the Nativity of Mary library. It introduced me to palindromes: “Madam I’m Adam” and “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama.” And it taught me to look at language as modeling clay. All writing is arranging words in a certain way. Every sentence has infinite possibilities. As a baby, you get ABC building blocks and rearrange the letters. It teaches you that words are playthings. And that you can build stuff with the alphabet.

The answer to the other part of your question—do you spend hours on a single sentence?—is sometimes, yes. When writing columns for SI, I usually have three days to write 800 words and a lot of that time is spent thinking in the car or in bed at night about getting a certain line or phrase right. Rob Petrie, on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, said: “I do some of my best writing in the shower.” I think most of us do. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time alone with your own thoughts, writing may not be for you.

J.P.: I feel like all of us in this business have a money story—the one we can tell 1,000 times at parties and never grow tired of it. Mine is the whole John Rocker thing. Steve, what’s your money story?

S.R.: There are so many. Here’s one. I covered the Kentucky Derby one year. One of our photographers, Bill Frakes, gave me a photo bib and let me go down on the track to watch these magnificent thoroughbreds come thundering down the stretch. My dress shoes were covered in that beautiful red clay mud of Churchill Downs.

A month or so later, I was supposed to interview President George W. Bush at the White House. I hadn’t worn the dress shoes since the Derby, and as I hastily put them on in my Washington hotel room before racing to the White House, I noticed too late that they were still covered in dried Churchill Downs mud, which I tracked all over the rugs in the West Wing waiting room. But I thought to myself: This is like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I’m mixing two great American institutions, the  Churchill Downs winner’s circle and the West Wing of the White House, where the winners of the two biggest American horse races end up.

So I interview president George W. Bush, he asks me if I think Barry Bonds was on steroids, yada yada yada, and five years later, two days after I stop writing a weekly column for the magazine, I go to my mailbox and there’s a handwritten letter from Bush. He writes: “Don’t worry about the mud in the West Wing. I’ve been on my knees scrubbing and I’ve finally got it out.”

J.P.: In 2010 GQ ran a piece headlined WHERE THE HELL DID STEVE RUSHIN GO? And I remember being fascinated by this at the time—because you did sort of vanish from the scene when you left SI at 40, and I never asked why. So, Steve, why? And did you ever regret it?

S.R.: Ha, yes, thank you Google and GQ. I didn’t go anywhere. Where did I go? I literally didn’t go anywhere. I stayed at the same desk where I’d written most of my SI stories and wrote a novel there instead.

There’s a show business saying, “You’re either appearing or disappearing.”As soon as you stop writing a weekly column in a national magazine, you’re going to lower your profile. That was never a concern of mine. Writing a novel was something I had hoped to do one day. I also knew that if I didn’t stop writing a weekly column one day, I’d be writing it forever. At some point, you have to jump off the merry-go-round or die on the horse.

The novel I wrote, The Pint Man, was a joyful experience from beginning to end. And when I got a call that Doubleday bought it, I pulled over at a rest stop on Cape Cod and had, if I may quote Blur’s Parklife, “a sense of enormous well-being.” So no, I have no regrets whatsoever. On the contrary, it was a great pleasure.

More important than anything else—my wife and I had four kids in five-and-three-quarters years, and I stopped writing the weekly column in the middle of all that. So my disappearing from GQ’s view coincided with my appearing before my own children. It was a good trade. I love being around the kids in the day, and book writing is a good job for that. When I’m on the road now, I feel a strange sense of withdrawal. I can’t sleep in hotels. They should make a version of nicotine patches for parents of young children that feed chaos into your system instead of nicotine. Now I write columns every few weeks for SI, which is perfect. I love the life I have. Writing books and occasional magazine pieces with frequent, sometimes hourly breaks to dominate driveway basketball games.

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J.P.: I often struggle with the meaninglessness of this whole thing. I mean, we write about sports. And I tend to think, “Big shit?” I mean, there’s climate change, Trump, terrorism, gun violence, on and on and on. How do you justify people like us devoting our lives to an endeavor like this? Do you ever go through the whole, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my time?” blues?

S.R.: This is one of the reasons I love you. You recognize the absurdity of it all. Not everyone does. Of course I think all of those things. I remember flying on a Vietnam-era Sikorsky helicopter over Greenland to write a piece about ice golf and saying to my pal, the photographer Simon Bruty: “What are we doing? If this helicopter goes down, we’ve died in pursuit of a jokey golf story designed to divert a man on the toilet for 15 minutes.” It’s one thing to risk your life to cover war, famine, dictatorship. But I’ve been on sketchy flights in Java to write about badminton. So yes, I’ve thought about this a lot. My sister is an emergency room doctor in Minneapolis, while I interview competitive hot dog eaters. But like they say: the world needs ditch-diggers too. And if it was my calling in life to have former Angels manager Doug Rader throw his uniform pants at me in anger in the visitor’s clubhouse at Fenway Park, then so be it.

J.P.: I’m struggling with something. I’m 45, and lately this business is making me feel, well, ancient. It’s reaching the point where I’m old enough to be a parent to some of the players; an editor recently complimented me by saying, “You don’t write old”; social media is dizzying and stupid. Does this bother you at all? Can we survive as sports-writing dinosaurs in our 50s? Does this end badly for us?

S.R.: I turned 50. It doesn’t bother me at all. One of the compensations of getting older is becoming more comfortable, more secure. Like you, I think a lot about mortality. I think it’s healthy. I try to keep in mind every day that life is running time and you have to enjoy it. Sure, the planet is boiling, our political culture fills me with despair, social media is inane, and I worry about my kids like everyone else. But it helps every once in a while to hear “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” . . . “Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke it’s true. You’ll see it’s all a show, keep ’em laughing as you go, just remember that the last laugh is on you.” So yeah, it ends badly in that it ends. But when you’re feeling in the dumps, don’t be silly chumps.

So I keep that in mind. I just go about my daily life. I don’t try to write young, whatever that means. I wouldn’t know how to do that in the first place. But I sometimes look back on things I wrote in my 20s and think: I could be a scolding, middle-aged curmudgeon at 25. My Dad, who is 83, has aged in reverse, becoming more liberal, more embracing of technology, more live-and-let-live with each passing year. I hope I am aging in the same way. As another Minnesotan said: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STEVE RUSHIN:

• Five reasons one should make Bloomington, Minn. his/her home?: 1. If it’s good enough for Kent Hrbek, it’s good enough for you; 2. The White Castle on Lyndale Avenue is, or ought to be, on the National Register of Historic Places; 3. The Bloomington Ice Garden, universally known as BIG, is a hockey shrine on par with the Montreal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens, except better, because BIG still actually exists; 4. Three words: Wally’s Roast Beef; 5. Where else are you gonna learn to play box hockey?

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Ray Parker, Jr., Yoko Ono, Egypt, Tony Campbell, Winston Churchill, Disneyland, Bobby Clay, library cards, Lyndon LaRouche, Atari 2600, milk: 1 (tie) Bobby Clay and library cards, 2 Winston Churchill, 3 Ray Parker, Jr. in his Raydio days (“You Can’t Change That”), 4 Disneyland (got a Space Mountain T-shirt there the summer Space Mountain opened), 5 Tony Campbell, 6 Egypt, 7 Yoko Ono, 8 Atari 2600 (I was an Intellivision guy), 9 milk, 10 Lyndon LaRouche.

• One question you would ask Rick Perry were he here right now?: When you hear the Elton John song “Rocket Man,” is there a faint glimmer of recognition when he sings: “All this science I can’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week”?

• Five friendliest sports figures you’ve ever interviewed: Vin Scully, Alan Page, David Ross, Sparky Anderson, Dusty Baker.

• In exactly 14 words, make a case for Tommy Kramer: I sold him three tins of Copenhagen at Tom Thumb convenience store in Bloomington.

• Rank the Twins (favorite to least favorite): LaTroy Hawkins, Rod Carew, Scott Erickson, Roy Smalley, Gary Ward, Tim Laudner, Hosken Powell, Christian Guzman, Hector Santiago, Lyman Bostock: Rod Carew,  Lyman Bostock, Hosken Powell, Tim Laudner, Roy Smalley, Gary Ward (and the rest are alphabetical): Scott Erickson, Christian Guzman, LaTroy Hawkins, Hector Santiago. I would add, high on my list, George Mitterwald, Eddie Bane, Dave Engle, Ken Landreaux and Bombo Rivera.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: My wife and I were flying from Hartford to Chicago. A snowstorm arrived on the runway and we were the last plane to takeoff, after which BDL shut down. An hour into the flight, the captain announced we were turning around and heading for whatever airport was still open. A passenger listening to the radio communications on headphones said one of the pilots smelled smoke in the cockpit. And there was a weird smell on the plane. As we approached the airport in Burlington, Vermont, the plane began circling Lake Champlain. We were dumping fuel. Then we made our approach and fire trucks lined the runway. The landing was normal, we got off the plane, and we were met by TV news crews. They appeared to me visibly disappointed by our failure to perish. The story had become a non-story. I know the feeling. The airline put us up in a Burlington  hotel, where we immediately went to the bar and saw, at the start of the six o’clocknews, footage of our plane’s routine landing. And I felt like we had let them down somehow.

• Best advice you’ve ever received?: Every night at dinner my Dad used to tell us, “Mable, Mable, sweet and able, get your elbows off the table.” To this day you’ll never catch me with my elbows on the dinner table.

• Favorite movie involving Denzel Washington?: I liked him as Jesus’ dad in “He Got Game.” But I’m also old enough to remember him in “St. Elsewhere.”

• What are the three words you most overuse in writing?: My brother told me that every other column of mine contains the phrase “nacho cheez”.  A reader told me to stop using the word “manifold” so often. (As a result, I use it more frequently.) And I do love the word “redolent.”

  • tenn tom

    Read his Ode to Hotdogs today in S.I. Entertaining and informative. He is indeed one of the best.

  • Matt Garrow

    Try reading his Steven Randall column in public. Like a bus. That’s a hoot. Love much of his work but for whatever reason, that column is most evocative.

    • Sanford Sklansky

      I just read this and do remember it now. SI has to do something about how certain words are not separated by a space. That is tough reading.

    • Sanford Sklansky

      Here is an update on Lance. Still coaching but has had a couple of jobs since leaving Oshkosh. Still winning where ever he has coached Seems like he should be coaching a division one college team. https://hoopdirt.com/breaking-lance-randall-named-head-coach-at-lindenwood/

  • Chris Dorin

    Hilarious. You should do one of these on Rushin’s old partner in crime Franz Lidz. Their New York Times essays are classics.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life