A privilege to appear in Free Press for 3 decades

Not many people know this story. Before working at the Detroit Free Press, I was a sports feature writer at a newspaper in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. I was desperate to be a columnist. I had come from the music world, I thrived on creativity, and it felt natural to me to write with a voice, all things a column job affords.

After two years, my chance arrived in Ft. Lauderdale when the senior columnist left for another job. I was beyond excited. I gushed to my boss over the thousands of topics I wanted to write about. On my way out of his office, I casually asked what the new salary was.

“Same as you’re making now,” he said.

“No raise?”

“Nope.”

“Shouldn’t a promotion like this come with something?”

“Yeah,” he said. “But if I fight to get you a raise, and then you leave for some other paper, I’ll look stupid with my boss.”

This struck me as odd. I knew the previous guy had earned more than twice what I did. The truth is, I would have taken the job for half the money. But remembering my parents’ lessons about standing up for yourself, I cleared my throat and firmly said, “Boss, if you give me a $1,000-a-year raise, I will sign a contract that promises I won’t leave for at least three years.”

He rubbed his chin. “Really?”

He said he’d take it up with the boss.

A week later he said, “Sorry, they won’t go for it.”

Six months later, I was here.

I see that as the best $1,000 I never made. And the first of many lessons that prove the smallest things can have the greatest impact on your life.

Like the first letter I ever received from a Free Press reader, 30 years ago this month. I hadn’t even started writing yet, but a nice couple who had read about my hiring wrote to say, in essence, “You seem like a talented young man. We know you won’t stay long — none of the good ones do — but we hope you have a good time while you’re here.”

I never forgot that letter, or the emotion it symbolized, that Detroit was a place that didn’t deserve to keep good things. Having felt a bit like that with the Ft. Lauderdale episode, it warmed me to this city.

And I never looked back.

So many memories

Thirty years is a long time at any job. But being on the front of the sports section always has felt more like a privilege to me. People constantly ask, “Why do you stay in Detroit? You’ve had enough success to go elsewhere.” My answer is simple: It was Detroit that enabled that success. Why would I leave it?

With this job, I have been blessed to witness all of the following and more: Super Bowls, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup playoffs, Wimbledon, the Masters, Olympic ceremonies, an America’s Cup in New Zealand, a dogsled race in Alaska, bullfights in Spain, a Scottish golf course, a surfboard in western Michigan and the Great Wall of China.

I’ve raced Lance Parrish in a swimming pool, took on John Salley in a one-on-one game (he spotted me 10 points, game to 11), walked the North End of Boston with Joe Dumars as Celtics fans yelled out their windows “Doooomahs, yaw gonna lose, Dumahs!” Saw Sparky Anderson eat spaghetti in his underwear, had Bo Schembechler scream at me from a shower, had a bucket of ice water dumped on me by Willie Hernandez and shared my chocolate chip cookies with Barry Sanders.

Jacques Demers used me as a lucky charm driver during the NHL playoffs. Chuck Daly bounced prices off me in a shopping mall. Ernie Harwell showed me all the radios in his house (one in every room).

I’ve had a catbird seat to glory. I’ve seen the original Dream Team practice, Steve Yzerman raise his first Stanley Cup, Desmond Howard strike “the pose,” Tom Izzo go crazy with the Flint kids. I witnessed LeBron James throw up 25 straight, Tom Brady win all of his Super Bowls, Cecil Fielder send them out of the park and Prince Fielder, his son, do the same.

The heartbreak I’ve had to chronicle is indelibly etched with me as well. The sudden death of the Lions’ Eric Andolsek, the limo crash that permanently changed three members of the Red Wings family, Mike Utley not getting up, the crash of Northwest Flight 255, Scott Skiles behind bars, the deaths of friends and legends like Harwell, Schembechler, Daly.

But the stories that stay with me the most are the unknown characters, the drug store worker who braved the Iditarod in Alaska, the two kids who comprised India’s Olympic ski team, the one-footed cheerleader, the 5-foot-5 guy who could dunk.

And the tragic stories that were shared with me from the hard streets of our city, teenage athletes paralyzed by bullets, killed in drive-bys, mowed down by drunken drivers, the basketball player who quit the team to stand like a sentinel on his front porch, protecting his drug-addicted mother from dealers.

You can ask me favorites, there are too many. You can ask me best memories, they are stacked a mile high. The road has had its bumps (most worthwhile roads do), but after 30 years, there are no regrets. This three-decade milestone may be worth a small fuss, but my still being here does not. It is an honor to have this job, to be a voice for this city, and to earn a seat in the crowd, a really good seat.

Missing out on $1,000 has given me a far richer experience, one I never could have ever imagined. I thank you readers, this newspaper — and my old Florida boss — for that thrill.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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