I was sitting at the Pistons game, fans screaming, giant men racing up the court, when Matt Dobek, the Pistons’ PR vice president, pointed at a TV and said, “My god, did you see this?”
There in the corner of the screen, was a “breaking news” alert: David Halberstam killed in a car crash.
Halberstam, who was 73, would have understood the “breaking news” part. A Pulitzer Prize winner from his Vietnam days, he was as good a journalist as we’ve produced in this country. And since he wrote famous books about the news business, the sports business and even basketball, I guess the setting was not altogether inappropriate.
But the news itself? Halberstam? Dead? This made no sense. Not a car crash. Not on a Monday. Not being driven by a graduate student in northern California. You couldn’t imagine Halberstam going out that way. Maybe covering some war in some hot zone. Maybe dying at his desk in New York, copious notes piled in giant stacks around him.
But not like this. I tried to turn back to the game. I failed. In his later years, David had become a friend of mine. We got to know each other through an annual writer’s conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. There, David could be at his intellectual best: lots of time and space and sunshine and eager minds. He spoke. He did panels. I see him walking across the manicured lawns with a sweater tied around his shoulders, or at dinner, holding court with poets and novelists. His hair was silver but his words were golden, and he was kind and interested and he brought grace to any discussion he joined, and certainly those he and I engaged in.
I thought I might see him soon.
Just like that, a thought dies.
A legacy of sports writings
Let me tell you why David Halberstam was important to the sports pages. Because, in a world where too many of us use our mouths, David used his mind. In a world where fast and ignorant are celebrated, David was slow and cerebral. He was a throwback to how things should be covered and researched – he once explained to an interviewer that he took notes long hand, and if subjects spoke too quickly, he asked them to slow down. Can you imagine that? And after those hand-written notes, he said, he went home and spoke them into a tape recorder, then had an assistant type them up.
In today’s world of blogs and talk radio, that must seem like carrying water from a well. But it explains such books as “The Breaks of the Game,” about professional basketball; “The Amateurs,” about Olympic rowing; “Summer of ’49,” about the Yankees and the Red Sox; or “The Teammates,” about four old ballplayers getting together in Florida, including one crotchety fellow named Ted Williams. You can read these books today and they are as current and as complete as the year they were written.
That’s because Halberstam’s sports books were never just about sports. They were about time, friendship, culture, history. Some of us in this business, and I suppose I count myself in this grouping, have tried now and then to capture such variety in our little corners. We do so far less eloquently than David.
That’s OK. By broadening the spotlight, he defied cynics who refer to sports as the “toy department” of journalism. He gave us new heights to shoot for
A man for all topics
David had a deep voice and he spoke slowly, so you were forced to take your foot off the pedal during a discourse. While I found this at first to be off-putting, in time I discovered I was smarter when I spoke to David, whether about Michael Jordan, quarterbacks or the Olympics. He made you think.
In 2000, he gave a commencement speech at Michigan. He told the graduates: “You receive your degrees at an uncommon moment, a rare moment of peace and prosperity: Rarely has the future seemed so bright.”
Things change. I guess David would remind me of that. He would say that news can come anywhere, at anytime, in the middle of anything. But I didn’t expect a car crash, a TV scrawl or this empty feeling at a basketball game. He once wrote a famous book and called it “The Best and the Brightest.” He didn’t know he was penning his epithet.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He and his mother, Rhoda, will discuss and sign copies of “For One More Day” at 8 p.m. Thursday at Borders, 612 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor.