I wrote my first story about pro basketball in 1968, a feature on the Denver Rockets and the upstart American Basketball Association. Back then, I was a 20-year-old full-time sports reporter at the Colorado Springs Free Press. I had to convince the sports editor this was a story that would interest our readers and pestered him for weeks. Finally, he approved the story, with a caveat: No expense money. I made the 140-mile round trip to Denver in a 1964 Volkswagen Beetle. Gasoline cost 33 cents a gallon. Getting to see the new pro hoops league seemed worth it.
My long feature piece about the Rockets and a sidebar about the ABA stayed in the sports editor’s in-box for weeks. He remained unconvinced our readers cared about pro basketball. Then he was fired. His successor was even less interested in the pro game. The stories never appeared in the paper.
I wrote my final newspaper story about pro basketball last Friday, a deadline “gamer” about the Spurs’ 15th straight home court win to open the 2015-16 NBA season, 115-107 over the Clippers. It made it into the Express-News. Official retirement from the paper commenced the next morning. A lot has changed in the newspaper business since 1968. Leaving a life of newspapering was an easy decision, for many reasons.
My deadline days are done, but not my days writing about pro basketball and the Spurs. The Rivard Report long has considered adding a Spurs element to its urban, independent reportage of all things San Antonio. The Spurs being a vital piece of city’s civic identity, as essential as the Alamo, the Riverwalk and Tower of the Americas, it makes perfect sense. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring Spurs coverage to this vital digital piece of San Antonio’s journalism scene.
Over a career that has spanned 47 years as a sports reporter, I have written about football, baseball, track and field, boxing, wrestling, tennis, table tennis (don’t call it ping-pong), motor sports, skiing, cross-country skiing, volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, arm wrestling and wrist wrestling (yes, there is a difference), boom battle (don’t ask) and tiddlywinks. (If the North American Tiddlywinks Championships ever are contested in San Antonio you might want to check them out.)
And then there’s basketball. Since the disappointment of that first foray into writing during the early days of the ABA I have written a few stories about pro basketball that have made their way into print and onto the web. A few thousand, to be more accurate, beginning with the 1985-86 NBA season. By then I had landed at The Denver Post, where I toiled for 30 years, 15 of them devoted primarily to pro basketball. My basketball assignments have taken me from Bahia Blanca, Argentina to St. John’s, Newfoundland; Miami to Vancouver; San Juan, Puerto Rico to Regina, Saskatchewan; Butte, Montana to Rome, Italy; Honolulu to Calgary, Alberta.
I covered the Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post. When I got the Nuggets beat they were coached by Doug Moe. My very first assignment: The Midwest Rookie Review Summer League in San Antonio. It was my first-ever visit to The Alamo City. Former Spurs media relations director Wayne Witt introduced me to Tex-Mex food and Lone Star beer. On an off-day I visited Sea World with a Moe entourage that included Pistons coach Chuck Daly and his assistant, Brendan Malone, plus legendary scout Al Menendez, legendary trainer Bob “Chopper” Travaglini, Nuggets assistant and former Spur Allen Bristow, and injured Nuggets veteran player Bill Hanzlik.
I decided San Antonio was a pretty cool place.
The Doug Moe Nuggets were fun to cover, the highest scoring team in the league. They played the wide-open ABA style and Moe was an early advocate of the 3-point shot that is now in such vogue.
In 15 seasons on the Nuggets/NBA beat I covered all but two of Michael Jordan’s NBA Finals games; saw the Nuggets become the first No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs; covered a game in which the Phoenix Suns scored 107 points against the Nuggets in the first half; witnessed Tim Duncan’s first NBA game; and learned that it was easier to transcribe recorded interviews of Dikembe Mutombo if you played them back at high speed.
I broke a few stories. In early October, 1993, I got a tip that Jordan soon would announce his retirement. A “soft” confirmation was enough to phone Commissioner David Stern in hopes of getting something I could run with. He laughed, at length, when told about the story I was working. Later he sent a message through an intermediary that he no longer was laughing. I knew the tip was legitimate. Bulls coach Phil Jackson gave me the hard confirmation I needed.
I saw the possibilities of digital journalism and left The Post for FoxSports.com in 2000. Fox had hired nine newspaper sportswriters as the first full-time content providers at any of the sports websites. We did some great sports journalism but Fox didn’t renew our contracts. When they expired after three years, former Express-News Spurs beat reporter Johnny Ludden suggested the paper hire me to replace retired NBA writer Glenn Rogers. I joined the E-N staff in 2004 and discovered what it was like to finally cover a legitimate NBA title contender, including four trips to the NBA Finals, three championships and dozens of baleful stares from Gregg Popovich during post-game interviews.
Popovich is a fascinating character and we share a link to the past. Both of us attended the U.S. Air Force Academy in the late 1960s. Pop graduated. I didn’t. When the Professional Basketball Writers Association honored my career by making me just the second member to receive the Phil Jasner Lifetime Achievement Award, Pop presented the trophy before tipoff of a Spurs playoff game.
The Spurs are off to an amazing start to the 2015-16 season. Join me at The Rivard Report for an old-school take on the new-look team.
Featured image: Spurs Coach Greg Popovich presents Mike Monroe with his NBA Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs.