Interview with Ira Berkow
BROADCAST: Jun. 27, 1997 | DURATION: 00:49:02
Interviewing sportswriter Ira Berkow.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Ira Berkow is one of the most perceptive of all sports columnist in the country. He -- well, columnist I should say, because he, he captures more than sports but an aspect of life itself. And he's, he works for "The New York Times", columnist there for 16 years now, and his most recent book is called "To The Hoop". Now seemingly, it's all about basketball, it is, the subtitle is "The Seasons of a Basketball Life", and Basic Books are the publishers. But it's more than that; it's about himself, his brother, the matter of aging, and in a sense this book is what that's about, really, isn't it? As far as you go. As far as you concerned.
Ira Berkow Yeah. It's, you know, "To The Hoop", it details much of my basket-- or my so-called basketball life. I'm 57 years old now, I still play. And I play pickup games, I play with, with people of all ages, all nationalities, all backgrounds. Governor Cuomo, who still plays, he's 65. His office just called me. They want to play a three-on-three game with a group of my group and his group, but I play with 17-year-old high school kids, Puerto Ricans, all kinds.
Studs Terkel Now this is set up to do with aging, is something to do with the United States, with our country, with changes: its basketball you're talking about, and you're now in the 50s, late 50s, and you still play with young guys around. Is that to -- now, the big question, is that to keep in trim? Is it a macho aspect? Is that fending off the idea of age? What is it?
Ira Berkow Well, it's something -- it's a passion. I've been playing basketball since I've been about five or six years old, on starting on the West Side of Chicago, first shooting at a ball in a bag which was hanging over a hallway in my apartment on Springfield Avenue near Roosevelt Road. And then I graduated to the -- into the alleys and schoolyards, played high school basketball at the Sullivan High School on the North Side, played at Roosevelt University and I just never stopped playing. And so it's something I've always loved, something I can do with a certain amount of skill, and so I just keep doing it, and the players keep getting younger, it's a shock to me.
Studs Terkel Before we come to the book itself, the theme of it. Several things you said: see you were at Chicago, Roosevelt Road. Once upon a time primarily a Jewish neighborhood, we know of synagogues have turned into storefront churches and churches of the Black community. We talk about shooting a hoop in certain areas. This involves, the book involves race, changing communities, also a relationship with you and your brother which are the themes of the book, I notice you dedicated the book to him, as well as aging itself. Now, when you said basketball. Now, I'm of a certain age, right? I'm a 1912 baby. And to me baseball has always been the [king?], and today I notice more and more we hear this talk as -- has baseball disappearing? Has basketball become the prime sport? These questions come up and suddenly I start having fears about a change has taking place of which I am not part. Childhood, in your case, you're of a certain age when you too were a little kid. When you were a very little kid baseball was still the prime
Ira Berkow A professional basketball team. They had the Stags for a few years in the late '40s, and then another pro basketball team didn't show up -- well, there was one in 1960 and '61, it was called the Packers first and then the -- I forgot the other name. But anyway, they moved on after two years they moved on to Baltimore. So even in Chicago they couldn't support a team.
Studs Terkel Now why, that's a big question. Why is it, we know that a lot of people who were not sports fans now are in Chicago especially Bulls fans, Bulls are a phenomenon, true, but aside from that, your father, mother became basketball fans. Jordan plays a role, but were they -- see, baseball was still -- why do you think this change has happened? Why do you think? There are several theories about this.
Ira Berkow Yeah. Basketball has become a more exciting game. I mean, there are certain rules that they brought in, like the three-point and also they -- the players. I mean, Jordan flies through the air. Sure, you know
Ira Berkow Right.
Ira Berkow Well, I was just going to say, you know, the attention spans. If you watch a lot of television shows, "Hill Street Blues", they have so many -- it's not just like a one story beginning to end, it's all chopped up. They've got 15, 20 stories. I mean, they're like soap, the way the soap operas are.
Studs Terkel Exact -- "ER", as you mentioned all these have -- the sequences run about 15 seconds, it seems. Bang bang bang bang, and this is the nature of TV thinking. We think "sound bite" is the word. So we have "sight bite." See, in basketball it's immediate!
Ira Berkow Now remember, baseball was this pastoral game. You know, and it was leisurely, had big fields and so now with a greater, with an increase in the industrial age I guess and city life, we've come more, more to a quicker-paced game which is which is basketball. On the other hand, after a basketball season which is so fast and there's so much tension involved and you wonder, can you ever get to appreciate baseball again? It's like coming off of a treadmill, and then yes, the fact is yes, because baseball is a beautiful game. Now we've had and also baseball has hurt itself tremendously with the strikes and the lockouts and a lot of the greed and stupidity of the owners and the players. It's turned so many people off. And yet the basic game of baseball is still a beautiful game. The green grass, the white uniforms, I mean just, and the game and the intellectual aspects of the game are still wonderful, and we see the interest in it when we have like the city -- like the Cubs/White Sox game. You know, there are people that think, well is this a gimmick? But this is a gimmick that should, that should have come, you know, 95 years ago. All other sports have these kinds of things where, you know interleague play, team sports. But so finally now baseball is starting to do it. And in New York City, the Mets and the Yankees series was sellouts and excitement, it was tremendous. And you know, people, sure, that you know, the Knicks are still of concern, you know, in New York to the fans, and everyone was watching to see, you know, who's going to get who in the draft, even though the Knicks drafted 25th, but still the Mets against the Yankees? This was big stuff.
Studs Terkel That is but again that whole -- you brought up the subject of once upon a time there was more open space, lots, kids play, kids came from the countries that is the rural -- all you play is rural communities, early Germans, Irish, and later on thanks to Jackie and breaking down the color line, Blacks of course have helped the game tremendously. But the open lot. So instead we're left with little courtyards, and here is where Black people come in the picture. Crowded, hardly any opportunity for anything. You know, when we think of open lots for them or houses surrounded by lawns, you think of crowded communities and little, a little hoop.
Ira Berkow CCNY. Nat Holman, New York, Lower East Side, our friend Red Holzman, you know, I mean a lot of these guys, these great Jewish players, I know that when the Knicks played their first game in 1946 in the NBA, I think of the 12 players, seven or eight or even nine maybe were Jewish. And this is, this is the way it was, the great CCNY teams that won 50 -- they were the scandal-ridden teams, but they won the NIT, the only thing in the NIT and the NCAA, and about half the players were Jewish!
Studs Terkel Should point out this was City College of New York, known for these kids with their glasses and heads in books, and here they were, 'cause there was speed involved, and all kinds of ingenuity, but now,
Ira Berkow Yeah, but there's also some, the Black players brought a dimension to the game that didn't exist before. I mean, Earl Monroe with his twists and turns, and Julius Erving flying, and Elgin Baylor was the first actually to fly through the air, and they're doing phenomenal, phenomenal things. They've changed the game in a way that that it's so uncommon, and people are just taking to it. There's one other aspect, and that is the marketing of this game, and you have to give a lot of credit to Nike. I mean, in some ways
Ira Berkow Well, but they also, they contributed because those commercials really -- made Jordan in a way that brought him a national attention that even his championships weren't bringing him. There was a sense of imagination right now with Michael flying around. I mean, I mean I guess maybe one of the first commercials doing this was O.J. Simpson flying through the air for Hertz, but O.J. was also retired, he was no longer a football player. But here Michael would be flying through the air in a commercial and then he'd be doing it in real life. I mean, this was a phenomenon.
Studs Terkel Obviously we're dealing with a phenomenal athlete, but I'm still stuck as we come to your book. By the way, this also underlies the subtext to your book is the nature of basketball itself. The intensity of the speed and the question of age, or holding forth, holding back age. But I still think -- the pace we live in, the sound bites, the technology, the loss of sandlots, the crowded -- plays a role in baseball to some extent diminishing [unintelligible] and basketball, that aspect. Attention span. Right.
Ira Berkow Right. But there are still fields, there are still baseball fields, and if you drive around cities, even the suburbs now, where much of the baseball is really so organized, a little league, I guess or the pony league with the parents, but if you drive around, you'll often see the baseball fields empty, empty, lots of baseball fields, but the basketball courts are filled.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel Now we come to basketball, and this is the nature of your book. Ira Berkow is my guest, "The New York Times" sports columnist, and by the way, a number of people, whether it be Red Smith or others, speak of him as, he is prime, prime, prime brand indeed, one of the very best. It's not only about the sport, it's about the world or the climate surrounding it. And so you speak of pickup games and you play [on neighborhood?] communities. You don't know some, you don't know who these guys are. The one guy called "Monster," and you want to reach Monster, you don't know his name, and you're on the phone and the kid says, "Da-ad." That [idea?] is very
Ira Berkow Yeah. You play in different place almost like the French Foreign Legion. Guys just come out, dressed haphazardly, whatever. Some are very good players, some aren't. But all have something about themselves, some aspect of the game that they're pretty good at. They could pass, they could rebound, they could play defense, they could shoot. There's always and the, but the common denominator is a love for the game, a passion for the game, and you go out and you don't -- you know guys by nicknames. There's a guy who wears wrist bands all the time, he becomes "Wrist Bands." There was one guy we used to play with, between games he would read a book. We called him "Diogenes." So, you know, you didn't even know what their real names were, and you didn't care! You know, but if they were if they were good, that's the important thing. Or if they helped you win, because winning teams stay in the school yards, the losing team has to sit out, and a new team comes, and sometimes there are lots of players, and so there becomes a lot of pressure to win. Sometimes there are arguments, sometimes there are fights, but the pressure is as great for us on a court to keep winning as it is for Jordan and Pippen to win a championship.
Studs Terkel As just you say that, the, it's a motley combination of people that plays, whether it's the local Y or a neighborhood community, age is a big thing. It's not race because that's back and forth there, it's age. There are you in late 40s, you know, early 50s playing against the kid who is 19 or 20. Now, in ba-- there are -- is there any -- outside of Jim Bouton the pitcher, a writer, a very brilliant, very witty guy. He takes part in some of these semi-pro games and others, but that's a rare case,
Ira Berkow It's a serious game for him. I mean they play pretty good brand of ball. But as he said to -- we're very friendly, Jim and I, and as he said, he has to produce even today, even though he was an All-Star with the New York Yankees and played in, pitched in two World Series and was a 20-game winner in the Major League Baseball, he said, "I still have to do it on the field. I can't throw my scrapbook on the mound and expect to win. You've got to do it." And the same with me. You have to, you've got to make the shot.
Studs Terkel Oscar Robertson and George Mikan who played Chicago for a long time, and sometimes others don't know who they are. The case of Mikan he was he was playing against a much younger ex-pro guy, guy didn't know who he was, but he held sort of -- he was there. Proving something.
Ira Berkow Yeah. Some guys come out and they still -- they're in their 50s and 60s and they don't give, they don't give up. And there are tournaments for guys 50 and old -- 45 tears and older, 50 and older, 55 and older, 60 and older, and they still do it, and many of them if they stay in shape and still have pretty good skills. They aren't what they used to be, but they don't care anymore.
Ira Berkow Steve.
Studs Terkel And Steven. We'll just take our first break and we come to that, and basketball figures in that too, but in a metaphorical way, and Ira Berkow is my guest, and the book is "To The Hoop", the subtitle "The Seasons of a Basketball Life". Well, I'd say the seasons of a life. And it's Harper Row. Oh, that isn't -- no, not Harper Row. It's Basic Books the publishers. I said "Harper & Row" 'cause once upon a time there was a Harper & Row, then Harper & Collins, and now the conglomerates are taking
Studs Terkel It is, it's second quarter. So, there's you and your brother, and now here's something: this happens once in w while in families, there is a brother who is celebrated working with a most prestigious paper in the country, a renowned sports columnist. Another brother is a hardworking, conscientious guy. And he's standing there when his mother and father are asked by a friend, a neighbor, "How's your son?" Singular. "How is your son?" Meaning, of course, you.
Ira Berkow Yeah. Yeah. That used -- that disturbed me a lot, and I'm sure it disturbed my younger brother, because my -- but my parents, and it would embarrass my parents, but they would say, "Well, which one, which son are you talking about? Steve is right here." And I couldn't control that. I was -- my younger brother was five years younger than me and we were close in some ways but distanced in other ways, 'cause five years makes a big difference. And when I -- I had my own -- I'm 10 years old, he's five years old. You know, who wants a five-year-old chasing around with him, with kids in a neighborhood are, you know, going out with my friends. And then I'm 15, he's 10, and now I have some girlfriends. I mean, do I want my brother to tag along, my parents are saying, "Take your brother with you." I say, "Where am I going to take him with me?" But, and we teased and so forth. And he was quiet. I was a little more gregarious. I was a little taller, he was a little shorter. He wore glasses, I didn't. I mean we were just very different in a lot of ways, and we grew apart and then we came together when he became -- well, I guess we both became more mature in our 20s and 30s, and then something happened, I don't know what it was. He was teaching -- until the end of his life was teaching in an inner-city school, Yeats.
Ira Berkow Yeah he was teaching in an inner-city school and teaching seventh, eighth grade, and something happened. I wasn't quite sure. I offended him in some way which I don't know, but I -- I didn't introduce him to somebody or something, and he held something against me, I wasn't quite sure but I thought it was more than just that. And from that point forward for the next couple of years there was a distance. We would say "Hello." Previously to this we would talk on the phone once a week or so, Chicago to New York, and I'd see him when I come to the city, to Chicago. But then something happened and I wasn't seeing him now. It was disturbing for my parents and it disturbed me, too. But then I thought well, I thought that he was -- it was his fault in some ways, and maybe it wasn't, but maybe I was stubborn, but whatever. These are common things that I know that happen in families. And then I got the news a year ago January that the leukemia that he had been diagnosed with a few years earlier and that was supposed to be under control was now taking a turn for the worst and suddenly his immune system was beginning to break down. He was getting ill, quite ill, and my parents are in their 80s and were having a problem in dealing with this. His wife, my brother's wife and daughter, who was a high school senior were having problems. And so it was left to me to pretty much deal with the hospitals, the HMOs, the doctors and I was starting dealing with it in New York City. So it was halfway across the country, and my brother began to rely on me, and then I think he began to understand our love, my love for him and I began to understand his love for me, and it was a trying time, but in some ways it was a heartfelt time for the two of us. And he died May 21, 1996 and he was struggling to hang on to life. He did everything he could, he was -- you know, I don't know if courageous or brave is the word, because you want to, one wants to hang on to life, but courageous or brave comes in with a certain dignity, I guess and he didn't he didn't bemoan the fact necessarily that, you know, I mean how unlucky I was even though he was unlucky. He, even to the end he was really looking after his wife and his and his daughter and praising them for the effort and the support that they were giving him, as well as to me and my parents. And I'd never told my brother that I had loved him, and he had never told me that he loved me, but maybe a month and a half two months before he died he was sitting up in bed, and my parents were in the room, and I was, we were wearing masks because we couldn't -- you know, it was, there was a risk of infecting him. And he didn't wear a mask. And so but I walked over to say goodbye to him and I said, "Steve, I love you." And he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me down and kissed me and said, "And I love you, Ira." And that was really a moving moment for all of us and my parents were there and I think it was important for them to have seen this and heard this. And I write about this in my book and how do I relate that to basketball in that here I am trying to hang onto a passion, he was trying to hang on to life, and it was a metaphor I guess for life period. Him and me, and what I and I wrote in the book about what I took from this is that well, you know, what do you make of the death of a loved one, of someone close to you? What do you make of someone being taken away too young? He was 51 years old, and still had a lot to give, and the kids in his school came to the funeral and they wrote beautiful letters to his wife about how much he meant to them, and one little girl named Perez I think her name was, she wrote, "Losing, losing Mr. Berkow was like losing a part of my heart." I mean, it was moving, moving stuff and he meant so much these people. And so what did this mean to me? And what it meant to me was only the cliches, you can only almost -- it all comes down to threadbare lines. "Life is short," "Live life as fully as you can live," "Live life as passionately as possible," "Care about other people," Live outside of yourself," and I guess that's all you could think about, and I then I would take a basketball and I would go shoot by myself, because I've always loved shooting by my-- I love the feel of the ball, and I love the ball going in. And so this is a pleasure, and this also gives me time to think, and so all these things make up -- and basketball is a part of my life. And so it brought it all together.
Studs Terkel You say you were dealing with your passion, he was dealing with his life, and both related and you were saying that also since way back you don't know why there was that separation, that split. You mentioned it the 20s now it was happening, 20 [unintelligible]. You by this time had become successful, there's to some, you established some renown in that world.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Studs Terkel That is a factor, is it not? See, he worked hard, though considered himself perhaps -- here I am, the amateur psychiatrist, two for a nickel psychiatry, and I'm saying that maybe a sense of a failure in contrast to you. But you said letter that came from the students, how could he, so he was a success in that sense.
Ira Berkow He was, he was a great success in that, but you know I had a visibility. My name is in the papers all the time. Bylines, I'm going here, I'm traveling. I'm going on the Olympics, you know, I'm going to Europe, or I had -- and I'm -- my mother and father I know would tell friends about you know what I'm doing. But I know that they also tried to say, "And Steve did this and that"
Ira Berkow It had to be a killer for my brother. And so what could I do? So I would tell him, I would say, "You know, Steve," we would talk and as I say, "I'm the visible one." That's what I would, I mean that's how I would characterize it. I was the visible one, and I would talk to him about his kids, and I would say, gee, and I would tell him that I thought he was doing great stuff helping, helping these people find some kind of niche in life, that that if they didn't have a dedicated teacher, they wouldn't have, they perhaps wouldn't have any of this. And so he was really important in their lives. You know, I wrote about people maybe on occasion I'll do something more than just entertain people, you know, in the newspaper. But he was really affecting people's lives hands-on directly.
Studs Terkel But there's something else dealing with basketball. You say he was a guy with glasses and studious and you were a bigger guy and more, more adept muscularly, kinesthetically than he was. And he's, he figured what, he almost tried out for the Mather, this is Chicago.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Studs Terkel Mather High School Bas-- he didn't make it. And this in the book of Ira Berkow, it's very revealing passage I think on page 158 here. It says, he said he tried out for the team but then he decided not to try out. And here's what he said, your brother, and you quote him. "I believe I could have made the team even if I couldn't see too good," he said. "There was room on the team, but I wanted to be -- I wanted to live with the idea" here's: "That I could have made it. Maybe it was a way to save face for myself if I hadn't made the team." The idea that maybe, by God, in my mind I could have made
Ira Berkow Yeah, see the difference between my brother and me I think is that sometimes he would think about failing. I'm too stupid to think about failing. And I would just go headlong into things, and if I failed, I'd be knocked down, and I'd get up I just, I'd try it again. That was that was my temperament. Maybe, you know being smaller and with the glasses and having trouble seeing, I don't know. I don't know what -- one doesn't know. But I do know that that failure didn't exist, it didn't exist for me really. Or the idea of failure didn't exist, because I would keep trying until I succeeded. And there is a story about my -- Red Smith and me.
Studs Terkel Perhaps you just speak of that. Red Smith is perhaps the most respected of all sports writers of recent years. He worked for a long time for "The New York Herald Tribune" and the "Times".
Ira Berkow Right.
Ira Berkow Yeah, I corresponded with Smith, I -- well, I started reading him in the "Chicago Sun-Times", and then when I went to Miami of Ohio and by a quirk got on the school paper, and then soon started writing a sports column at the Miami University student newspaper. [Coughs] Excuse me. And I thought, "Gee, you know, I'm going to send a couple of these columns to Red Smith. Maybe he could help me be a better writer." And so I sent two of my columns to him, and about a month later I received a reply, and it said, "Dear Ira Berkow, when I was a cub reporter on the Milwaukee paper, I would be writing the lead and the city editor would come by and look over my shoulder. If he liked what I wrote, he'd nod and walk away. If he didn't, he'd say "Try again." My advice to you is try again and again. If you're not for this business, and not too many really are, you'll have an eternity of tears and sweat ahead." And then he said, then he wrote, "My first impulse was to paste up these two columns and write in marginal criticisms, but they wouldn't have made you happy. But never mind all this. Keep trying. God bless. Red Smith." And so when I got this letter, I thought, "Gee, should I be depressed that this great man didn't think more of my work, or should I be flattered that he took the time, took the time to write me?" So I decided to be flattered, and so and I took, I got copies of the two columns I sent him, I pasted them up, I folded them up, put them in an envelope, and wrote him a note. I said, "Dear Mr. Smith, please make me unhappy." And from that point forward, he say he made marginal criticisms, and from that point forward I began learning how to write a column, but also we developed a correspondence over the years and so here I am maybe being again being too stupid to think that I'm going to fail, because I just, I loved that kind of thing. I kept trying at it, and where my brother sometimes would just sort of step back. And maybe that was a difference in some ways.
Studs Terkel [He was a little cooler?] than you in that respect. It was the heat that you had, you see that [passionate input?] that. By the way, Red Smith is also known for his comments. He was, he had a depth at remarkable style, and they said, "It's how, it's kind of easy to write a column, isn't it?" He says, "Oh, it's so, all you got is open a vein or two."
Ira Berkow Yeah, because I think that his idea of basketball was in the '30s when there was the jump ball after every, after every shot. I mean, can you imagine, you know, how slow that was. That's why part of basketball rules have changed tremendously. Baseball, the rules are still the same, other than for a DH, but Red once said that if the NBA championships were played in his backyard, he'd draw the shade.
Studs Terkel By the way, on that subject of writing, I'm sure you follow that precept of his, he was talking about the old writer Grantland Rice, who Rice succeeded. He was seeing a game of, almost with the wonder of a child, that is, as though he saw something for the first time in his life.
Ira Berkow Right. Well, it was -- artists generally, well, Picasso had to have a kind of childlike quality to them as opposed to childish. But you have to keep seeing things fresh, keeps seeing things new. Somebody once asked Red Smith, "Isn't it dull going out, writing about baseball games all the time?" And he said, "It's dull only to dull minds, because there's something new happening all the time, and something different happening in every game."
Studs Terkel You know, we have to take another break. I forgot. We were talking to Ira Berkow. The book, by the way, this is book called "To The Hoop: Seasons of a Basketball Life", but again I repeat seasons of a life really. And we'll continue. By the way, you wrote an earlier book about Maxwell Street. You lived here and I didn't realize you were, you originally lived in the old 24th Ward that was the Machine -- and the vote would be about -- I want to say of 5,000 people voted, 4,999 to one.
Ira Berkow Yes.
Ira Berkow Right.
Studs Terkel He had clout. So we'll resume with Ira Berkow, who has had several lives, after this break. [pause in recording] So as we enter the third quarter with Ira Berkow and the book is "To The Loop" [sic - "To The Hoop"], our engineer here, Jen Nelson is pinch-hitting for Steve Jones, our demon engineer, says you were playing basketball with your nine-year-old kid, and he was taken the fact that Jen here shoots hoops and can play basketball pretty well, see. He was overwhelmed by that idea, which leads to a whole subject of women in sports, doesn't it? Sports writers as well as players.
Ira Berkow Oh, yeah. When I started writing sports in 1965, there were there were no women sportswriters that I knew of. Today, we might have out a writing staff of maybe 27 or so on "The New York Times", we've got about five or six women. I've -- there's been a sports editor at "The New York Times". There's a, there's been a few deputy sports editors at the, at least three at "The New York Times" in my time in 16 years, and women in sports are getting more and more prominent. There is now a second women's basketball league, the first -- neither one is really quite established, but they're both new. They're both trying. There have been about two or three other pro women's basketball leagues that have failed. But, you know, right now these two have a shot. And it's wonderful to go out into the parks and you see women playing, girls playing soccer, girls playing softball, girls playing basketball, In my time, we -- I mean when I was a young man and a boy, you never, ever saw this. The most that a woman would do from a physical standpoint, or a girl, would be a cheerleader! Sometimes they would run, and or, you know, there was tennis, but that was only for special breeds I guess, monetary breeds anyway. And, but otherwise no. But now it's common, and with Title IX, when supposedly 50 percent of scholarships are to be going to women, 50 percent of facilities are supposed to be for women, I think it's been a tremendous thing and it's and it's a pleasure for me to see, because I've always felt that women missed, especially team sports. They missed the aspect of the camaraderie and the pleasure of playing with other people, and the aspect of teamwork. So I think that there's a great advancement. I just hope that women don't go into the kind of corruption that men's sports have gone through, in colleges
Ira Berkow Yes.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Ira Berkow Oh, yeah. Right. Well, women, if they're going to compete, they're going to learn to compete the way in many ways the way men do or do whatever they can to win. Now, a great example: I usually take my basketball stuff whenever I go on trips and for interviews, and it was in the early 80s that I went to do a piece on Martina Navratilova, who was then the reigning great women's tennis player, and she was living in the same house with, and her good friend Nancy Lieberman who then was perhaps the best basketball, women basketball player in the country. And so Nancy was teaching Martina how to play basketball, which was going to help her tennis, bec-- in lateral movements, also aggressiveness. And so I said, "Well, I still, I have my stuff and I'm playing, let's go out, you know." They invited me to play. We went to the SMU gym. They were living in Dallas, and Martina and Nancy played against me, and we picked up a, another girl was in the gym who was an All-State high school player. So it was the two of us against the two of them. And at one point in the game, and Martina writes about this in her biog-- her autobiography called "Martina", was written with a colleague of mine from "The New York Times", George Vecsey. And but in the book Martina is nice enough to say that "Ira came and Ira's a pretty good player, and but shows how ferocious Nancy is that she gave him a hip to the groin." I guess she said that in a gentler way, "as hard a shot that as he's ever had in that area." And it was pretty true. But what was not added was I gave her a pretty good shot to another area later, but it was all within the game itself. But as we're playing, and then at one point Nancy was on Martina: "Martina, do this. Martina, do that. Move here, move there." And then so then we hit, we're taking the ball out, and I had the ball, and Martina was guarding me, and I saw tears welling in Martina's eyes, and I knew that she was being emotionally injured by Nancy, even though I had a feeling that she knew that Nancy was just trying to get the best out of her and pushing her to be more aggressive, to be tougher on the court. But there were the tears welling up and I said to Martina, I said, "Martina, are you okay?" And she said, "Yeah," she said "I'm an easy cry."
Studs Terkel And on that whole subject, earlier you raised the question of what the missing -- women not being in sports, basketball or baseball, camaraderie. This question of ensemble play, now we come to the aspect of ensemble play, so we're speaking
Ira Berkow Oh, yeah. I mean in basketball, even more so than well other than maybe football on the line, but in basketball all five guys have to do all the things; defense, and they have to help each other. So there's helping on defense. If one guy gets past you, if your man gets past you, there should be rotating on defense. You know, you hear about that. Well, you know Pippin is great on rotating and picking up and picking up someone else's mistakes. There's also the picking and the screening. When I played with Oscar Robertson, it was about a year and a half ago, I mean it was marvelous the way Oscar can, can just block people out so that he would open up an easy shot for you. And then the, and then the passing, the teamwork in passing, you can get open just for a moment like Oscar, who was the great assist, he held the record in the NBA for assists until Magic Johnson broke it. But playing with Oscar you make a, you make a move and you get the ball just perfectly, just the way you see John Stockton now give the ball to Malone. Perfect, in your rhythm, in your stride. So you can have something to do with it, and there's all this teamwork and part of the teamwork is wanting to make those passes, not just a pass around the ankles or in the vicinity, but right at your chest where you can do something with it.
Ira Berkow Meaning more than double figures in points, assists, and rebounds. And for 10 years he almost averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists a game, averaging for 10 years. He was unbelievable.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Ira Berkow "It's a simple game for Oscar, and perhaps in their fields the same could be said for Picasso and Mozart. It's somewhat more difficult for the rest of us, but I saw that Oscar still enjoyed the game, still and delighted in the competition. It wasn't the NBA, but it was still a decent run even for him. Still enjoy -- he still enjoyed mixing with the other players in a familiar setting, the basketball court, just as he had when he first began playing as a boy in the dustbowl playground of Indianapolis, his hometown. And he maintained a competitive sense of himself even to the pros of today. When I asked Oscar about Michael Jordan, who has averaged 30 points a game in his career, he said that Michael was a great player. I asked Oscar how many points Jordan would have scored in his era. 'We had fewer teams, and the talent wasn't as diluted as it is today,' said Oscar. 'So I think Jordan would've scored about 20 points a game.' 'Twenty a game?' I said. 'But you scored 30 a game in that era.' 'Well,' said Oscar with a shrug, 'I handled the ball more than he does.' After we parted, I remembered something Oscar had told me near the end of his NBA career. I had mentioned that his scoring average was dropping. In his last season he averaged 16 points a game down from 30 after his first 11 seasons in the league. 'I don't feel too bad about -- that it's dropping,' he said. 'It's to be expected. I'm getting older.' He paused. 'But you know, it happens to everybody.' 'What happens to everybody?' I asked. 'Autumn,' he said."
Ira Berkow Perfect!
Studs Terkel Because basically we're talking before we take our last break and enter the fourth quarter, we're talking, aren't we, about age throughout is the pervasive aspect of aging, slipping a bit, recognizing when you're slipping, that's the big one too, isn't it? Not to play long after your prime. Robertson I figure recognized that, not unlike a great lieder singer, Lotte Lehmann, who astounded her audience, audience loves her during those town hall concerts and she finished a concert, said "This is my last concert." And you hear on the tape [the Europeans?] holler, "No!" and she says, "Yes, I'll tell you why." And she's, "I sensed something you didn't sense," and so in a sense this is what Jordan is all about, too, and all artists all about,
Ira Berkow That was it. But for somebody like me, and maybe to somebody like Oscar who still loves the game, you can still play the game, you play and you, but understand your limitations. And so in a way you're growing up, you're still learning some things about yourself that you can't do all the things you once could do, but you can still do a lot of good things, and like with Oscar when he plays with younger players, he can make them better because he can still pass beautifully and throw some picks. He can't do all the shooting that, and the driving that he could do at another time, but he can still make other players better than they even knew they could be. And that's a beautiful thing.
Studs Terkel That's the artist. You should talk about, before we enter the last quarter and talk about a memory, in fact the last passage of your book, you speak of how you can almost determine how a person is by the way he -- possibly by the way he plays basketball.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Ira Berkow Yeah. I met Kenny, I didn't know his last name, and he didn't even know, he didn't know who I was, in a school yard near my house that I play, and he lives in the projects a mile or so from the courts. And I got to know him and I got to like him. I loved the way he played. For a 17-year-old kid, and he played on his high school team, Seward Park High School in Lower East Side, and they had a pretty good team and he was a starting player, but he knew the game and he had a good head on his shoulders. He didn't argue, he didn't have to argue, and he moved the ball and he played defense and he knew the fundamentals, and one day he found out that I worked for "The New York Times", and he said, "Ira, can you get me a job at the 'Times'?" I said, "Well, what kind of job? What are you talking about, Kenny? We already have a publisher." And he said, "No, the mailroom or something, whatever." And so I, I went to the woman who hires young people like in the summertimes. And I said, "Would you have an opening for a kid who, all I know about him is the way he plays basketball, and I think he's a good kid." Well, it turned out that she called him, he came in for an interview, she liked him, she hired him for the summer. And he turned out great. And so I felt good about this, that I was able to determine
Ira Berkow There was a maturity to him and I thought and I so I felt that I wasn't taking a ri-- well, you're always take some kind of risk in suggesting anybody for a job. But I thought he would work out, and he did.
Studs Terkel Well, listen, we'll take our last break and for the commercials as we see on TV, of course. "To The Hoop" is the name of Ira Berkow's book, "The Seasons of a Basketball Life". Basic Books the publisher and we'll pick up for the last quarter in a moment. [pause in recording] And so for the last quarter with Ira Berkow. I remember we were talking about your brother, the idea of what happened when someone who's more renowned than the other, and the other considers himself not quite that successful. Age, basketball pickup games, all related, at the very end you still play it and you speak of a certain moment, don't you?
Ira Berkow Yeah. You know, I remembered my sister-in-law Judy, my brother Steve's wife, saying that one of the things that makes her sad was that my brother will never see a sunrise or a sunset again, and one of the things I got out of my brother's death, you know after the grief, is that you try to live as fully and as passionately as you can. I think -- and one's death makes you appreciate your own life that how fragile it is and you want to hang on. And so I would like going, I enjoyed going to the basketball courts and he, and I liked when nobody was there even. And you just play by yourself. And so I end my book with this: "One day recently in the late afternoon I went to the NYU court near my house where I play often, and it was empty. These are often some of my favorite times. I dribbled the ball the length of the court up and back, up and back, up and back. Switching hands: lefty to righty, righty to lefty. I worked on my moves. I worked on my shots. A righty hook, a lefty hook, a spinning fallaway; a jumper from the top of the key, another from the right baseline corner, the left baseline corner. I watched the ball float toward the hope and swish musically through the net, or I chased the carom off the rim. I dreamed, I soared, I sweated, I drove. The sun had not yet set."
Studs Terkel And that's how Ira Berkow's book ends. Now listen to this. This is the professional hockey player Eric Nesterenko, member of the Blackhawks for a long time. He was a certain interesting kind of guy. Never, never the superstar, but he was a professional. Years later he says, "I still like to skate. One day last year on a cold, clear, crisp afternoon I saw the huge sheet of ice in the street. God damn, if I didn't drive out there and put on my skates. I took off my camel-hair coat. I just, I was just in a suit jacket on my skates, and I flew. Nobody was there. I was free as a bird. I was really happy. That goes back to when I was a kid. I'll do that until I die, I hope. Oh, I was free," and he says "The wind was blowing north with the wind behind you, you're in motion. You can wheel and dive and turn, you can lay yourself into an impossible angle you never could never could walking or running. You lay yourself at a 45-degree angle and your elbow's virtually touching the ice as you're in a turn, incredible," he says. "It's beautiful. You're breaking the bounds of gravity. I have a feeling this is the innate desire of man." Isn't that amazing, the similarity of the two?
Ira Berkow Yeah.