I woke up this morning to find two stunning announcements in my morning newspapers.
One was a relatively small item inside The Washington Post saying that John Thompson would be retiring from hosting his radio show on WTEM when his contract is up in February. The other was a column in The New York Times written by George Vecsey that was his farewell as a fulltime columnist.
It isn’t as if either man is young—Thompson is 70 and Vecsey must be closing in on that age if not there already (his Wikipedia doesn’t include a birthdate but he started his career in journalism in 1960)—but having known both of them as long as I have it is still kind of stunning to think of either stepping away from the stage.
As anyone who lives in Washington undoubtedly knows, Thompson and I have had many battles through the years. We squabbled early and often over access to his Georgetown teams when I covered them for The Washington Post. In ‘One on One,’ I describe a scene where I was dumb enough to offer to go outside with Thompson after a game at Capital Centre and also tell the story about what happened when I wrote a piece in The Sporting News that included the phrase, “Hoya Paranoia.”
We have also disagreed for years over Georgetown’s—or more specifically John’s—refusal to participate in The BB+T Classic, the local tournament played in Verizon Center for the last 17 years that has raised almost $5 million for kids at risk in the D.C. area. We had a discussion about that subject as recently as two weeks ago. We still disagree.
But our relationship changed over the years, even before he got out of coaching. I think it is fair to say that two of the most important people in John’s life were Dean Smith and Red Auerbach. Most people know how I feel about Dean and Red. John was absolutely devoted to Red. So was I. We shared that. He would often thank me for all the time I spent with Red without mentioning that he often went to see Red at his apartment late at night, knowing Red was almost always up watching games. The only reason I knew about that was because Red told me.
I was never a huge fan of his radio show. If the subject was basketball you listened because John didn’t get into the basketball Hall of Fame by accident. Other subjects, not so much. If I wanted to hear what, “Joe the Fan,” thought of a subject I didn’t need to listen to the radio.
WTEM paid John a lot of money, in large part because he’s an icon in Washington. But it was also because he had David Falk negotiate his contract. I wouldn’t trust Falk to tell me the time of day but he’s not stupid. When the station decided to cut John’s show from three hours a day to two hours a day I’m told (reliably) that Falk called the station GM and said, “okay, so how much more are you going to pay John?”
“More?” the GM reportedly answered. “We’re making the show SHORTER not longer.”
“Read the contract,” Falk said. “It says any CHANGE in the format means you have to pay him more. This is a change.”
I know John has some things going on in his personal life that have made it tougher for him to put in five days a week on the show. I have no idea what WTEM will do to replace him. I’m pretty confident I won’t be offered the job. But in an odd way I’ll truly miss knowing John was there even if we agreed on very little. John once told me he didn’t like me but he respected me. I always respected him. And, being honest, I also like him.
I also like and respect George Vecsey. I would say he’s been a role model for me except I’ve never come close to handling myself as calmly and evenly as George did in almost all situations. I do think one thing we had (have) in common is that George liked to write about people—regardless of who they were or what they did. He covered religion, he covered country music, he covered sports and he covered politics. He was good at all of them.
I never got his obsession with soccer but he probably never got my love of golf. I still remember when he showed up for the last round of the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee (he was there mostly to see his daughter Laura who was working in Seattle at the time) and was stunned when he learned the media was allowed to walk inside the ropes.
I honestly thought George did some of his best work the last couple of years. I had meant to write him a note about that but—as I often do—forgot. When I ran into him somewhere I told him that I thought he was on a serious roll, not that my affirmation is a big deal, but I like to tell people when I think they’ve done good work because I know how much I enjoy it when people do the same for me.
It says something about how George handled himself and his job that all three of his children are involved in journalism in one form or another. Laura, like her dad, started out in sports and is now covering politics. Who knows, maybe she will come full circle too, as he did.
In any event, The Times will miss George’s thoughtful columns and his graceful prose. I have no idea who will replace him although I’m guessing it won’t be me. (Hey, give me some points for consistency). Being a New Yorker I have read The Times all my life. Once upon a time being a Times columnist was what I most wanted to be not because I haven’t loved every minute I’ve spent at The Washington Post but because I am a New Yorker at heart and I learned to read as a kid getting up in the mornings to read The Times sports section because I needed to know how the Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants, Knicks and Rangers had done and didn’t want to wait for my parents to wake up.
Whoever replaces George Vecsey will be someone I will envy. He or she will also, to use a cliché George would never use, have very big shoes to fill.
My newest book is now available at your local bookstore, or you can order on-line here: One on One-- Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game