The Duncan Banner

September 9, 2012

Best sports event I’ve covered? It was legendary

Jeff Kaley
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — In what now seems like a previous life, at one time my full-time gig in journalism was covering the World of Perspiring Arts. For 25 years, being a sports editor/writer was my only beat.

I was fortunate to work for publications — especially this one — that believed in extending sports coverage beyond the local level to college and professional sports.

Because of that, over the years I’ve been asked about my favorite sports coverage experience. It happened again the other day, when an old friend said, “Kaley, what was the best thing you covered as a sports writer?”

First, two disclaimers: 1. I apologize for the name-dropping you’re about to read; and, 2. trying to prioritize experiences as a sports writer is like asking me, “Who’s your favorite band?”

See, when the “Who’s your favorite band?” question arises, there’s The Beatles alone on an exclusive pinnacle — then there’s every other band and musician I’ve ever heard.

Likewise, when the sports event question is tossed my way, there’s getting to spend an afternoon with Mickey Charles Mantle — then there’s every other sports experience I’ve had.

Mickey Mantle was my first sports hero, and in 1982, I got to meet and chat with The Mick. Hanging with Mantle is the only time I ever asked an interview subject for an autograph; the only time I was so transfixed and tongue-tied I could hardly speak, let alone ask pertinent questions.

OK, now the parameters are set, back to the original question.

A press pass for sports events presents many unique experiences, like interviewing legendary athletes and coaches — Musial, Wooden, Staubach, Switzer, Sutton, Butkus, Magic, Michael, Brett, Knight, Herzog, Woods and a gaggle of greats in a dozen different sports.

I’ve covered two World Series, four Final Fours, the PGA Championship, the NJCAA Men’s Basketball Championship and the U.S. Olympic trials. There have been bunches of Bedlams and at least a dozen Oklahoma-Texas games; a Rose Bowl and two Cotton Bowls; and three Big 12 Football Championships.

Can’t begin to prioritize all the exciting, dramatic high school, college and pro events at which I was in the press box.

But what was the best sports event I ever covered?

It was in February 1986, when I was on press row for the NBA All-Stars Weekend at Reunion Arena in Dallas. Specifically, “the moment” was the day before the All-Star Game, when the dunk contest and the Legends Game were held.

There was a stunning start on that Saturday, when 5-foot, 7-inch Spud Webb won the dunk contest. Webb’s final dunk — a bounce-the-ball-off-the-floor, grab-it-and-do-a-360 — remains one of the most impressive athletic feats I’ve witnessed.

The Legends Game was fun to watch, with the floor filled with former stars having fun but also reminding people of their great skills. But for me, at least, nothing matches what happened in post-game.

I went to the Legends locker room to do the interview thing, and immediately got wide-eyed when the first players I encountered were Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson. “Coos” and “The Big 0” were my first basketball heroes.

Got to share some laughs with Elvin Hayes, Cazzie Russell and Walt Bellamy. Then Larry Bird, who I’d met years before at Indiana State University, came over and handed me a cigar and we started chatting about our homes in Illinois and Indiana.

Before long, others had stopped to gab with Larry, and I looked up to find myself sharing cigars and hearing great stories told by Bird, Cousy, Robertson, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Red Auerbach. I thought to myself, “I’ve gone to ‘Basketball Heaven’. It can’t get better than this.”

But it did.

Heading back into the arena, I discovered Pete Maravich alone in the hallway. For about 20 minutes, I was locked in conversation with “The Pistol,” the greatest scorer in college basketball history and multi-time all-pro.

We talked some about basketball, then drifted into exchanging thoughts about life in general. Maravich spoke about the challenge of changing from being “Pistol Pete” into being just Pete Maravich. He was friendly and philosophic, and seemed to be comfortable in his new skin.

Two years later, Maravich had a fatal heart attack in a pickup basketball game. Having had an opportunity to get to know him just made the best sports event I ever covered even more meaningful.

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