Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

February 27, 2012

Revisiting His Coach

Ira Berkow, after decades of covering other sports figures, checked back in with his college-basketball coach and learned new lessons. The former New York Times columnist has many more writing projects in the works.

Justin Adler

The legendary sports journalist Red Smith wrote his last column five days before his death. Ira Berkow, who followed Smith as a columnist at the New York Times and later wrote a biography about him, plans very much to do the same. The 72-year-old Berkow continues to press full-throttle since his retirement from the Times in 2007, staying nearly as busy as he was during his 26-year career there. Berkow says he plans on writing "until I drop dead or until my wife stops feeding me."

Ira Berkow. Photo by Howard Schatz.
"I didn't like to be friends with people I covered—I might have had a good relationship with them, but I never wanted to be their friend."

Ira Berkow. Photo by Howard Schatz.

Among Berkow's recent output is an essay in Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference, which features memories of his collegiate basketball coach, who started Berkow in his lineup at Roosevelt University. The essay is a "recalibrated" passage from Berkow's 1997 book To the Hoop: The Seasons of a Basketball Life, his memoir of his life on the blacktop and hardwood. Berkow's other activities include work on his upcoming book Wrigley Field: The One and Only, which is due out this spring; and the script for Steinbrenner: The Musical alongside David Fisher and George Steinbrenner biographer and New York Daily News reporter Bill Madden.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Berkow found a brief moment between penning books and plays while vacationing in Florida to talk to Gelf about his love for Red Holzman and offbeat Division III coaches, plus how picking up garbage continues to inspire his writing.

Gelf Magazine: The subject of your passage in Coach, is your basketball coach from Roosevelt University, Edwin Turner, whom you had not seen since 1959 before working on the piece. When was it like meeting him for the first time in over 40 years?

Ira Berkow: He was still just as great a man, a very interesting and really smart guy. When I saw him, we talked more about his background, things I never asked him when I played for him. I learned about his history and how he overcame discrimination.

Gelf Magazine: Did Coach Turner ever ask you why you covered roughly 10,000 sports figures before you got to him?

Ira Berkow: Oh, no, he was just happy that I remembered him. Later, after I first reconnected with him, he got sick and was in a nursing home. He introduced me to all his friends as one of his players. He was simply happy to have me there.

Gelf Magazine: If you had to pick one basketball coach—be it collegiate or professional—to mentor you on and off the court, who would it be and why?

Ira Berkow: I'd pick Red Holzman, whom I became friends with after he retired from coaching. I didn't like to be friends with people I covered—I might have had a good relationship with them, but I never wanted to be their friend. Once Red retired, we became close for the 15 years of his life before he died. He was funny and he had incredible perspective. On the court there were a lot of things I liked about Red, that I'm seeing in Mike D'Antoni right now. Red was always able to adjust his way of handling the team to the caliber of the players he had, as opposed to having a set idea of the way the game should be played.

Gelf Magazine: What percentage of Division I college basketball coaches do you think are dirty, according to NCAA standards?

Ira Berkow: Without doing any research on it, and because I'm cynical, I'm going to guess 90 percent. Maybe it's even higher, because coaches know that if they don't win, they'll get fired. There are no simple fixes to this problem because there is too much money involved and whatever they try to fix will be fought by the school's board of trustees, alumni, or president. They all get pressured not to change things and have a winning team.
In jest many years ago the president of the University of Oklahoma said that he was trying to raise more money from the state legislature because he said he wanted a school that the football team could be proud of. This was said sixty years ago, and in many ways not a lot has changed.

Gelf Magazine: In which professional sport does coaching matter most? In which the least?

Ira Berkow: I think it's important in all sports to teach fundamentals. I don't think I could take coaching out of any sport, as far as team sports are concerned. A good coach is a good coach is a good coach.

Gelf Magazine: Who do you think is the best collegiate coach today? Is it possible we've never heard of him because he's extremely loyal to some small-time program?

Ira Berkow: I did a story about a Division III coach from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., named John Gagliardi who is the winningest coach in the history of organized college football. He had so many unusual methods. If I had played football, I would have loved to play for this guy.

Gelf Magazine: Before journalism you dabbled in the not-as-enthralling industry of garbage pick-up. They say writers draw upon everything they ever learned and experienced for each article. How many times has your experience in the sanitation department found its way into your writing?

Ira Berkow: I was a garbage collector my last two years of high school and my first two years of college. It was a great job. I learned a lot about perspective and understanding how smart and adept anyone can be. These guys also used teamwork and coordination daily.
One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever got was from this really smart black guy I worked with. I was 16 at the time and I was too young to understand the basic principles of taking turns buying soda for our crew. Finally one day my coworker pulled me aside and said, "I'm telling you this because I like you: You need to take a turn buying drinks for them." To be that critical and warm at once really resonated with me. I like to think that it opened my eyes in my writing that no matter what a person does, they could be a genius.

Gelf Magazine: Having written the script for Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, do you think you could have made the film with any other sport? Furthermore, do you think 100 years from now that Jews will still be the small minority across professional sports?

Ira Berkow: Historically speaking, Jews were once the dominant force in basketball during the 1920s through '40s. In fact, when the Knicks started their lineup in '46, seven or eight men on their 12-man roster were Jewish.
For a long time there were fewer Jewish athletes because the money wasn't there. So why waste your time trying to work you way up through the minor leagues when even the major leagues weren't paying well, especially when you could become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant? Now you can find Jewish athletes following their hearts because the money is there.

Gelf Magazine: Finally, since we're discussing sports nine games into Linsanity [at the time of this interview], we're morally obligated to talk about Jeremy Lin. Is Mike D'Antoni aware that Lin saved his career? How much longer do you think D'Antoni has with the team?

Ira Berkow: If the Knicks keep winning, D'Antoni will be there for quite a while. I think D'Antoni deserves great credit for how he's allowed Lin to rise to the heights that he has. The question is, if Stoudemire and Anthony can't work with Lin, will any coach be able to make it work?

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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