Of course Dick Weiss was working when he got the phone call. This was last May, and Weiss was in New York City interviewing Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien. Though he is widely known by his nickname "Hoops," Weiss, the longtime national college sportswriter for the New York Daily News, is an accomplished football reporter as well. He is one of just two men to be inducted into both the U.S. Football and U.S. Basketball Writers' Halls of Fame.
When Weiss' cell phone rang, he noticed it was the office calling, so he picked it up. His sports editor delivered the news that Weiss had long dreaded: After 20 years on the beat, he was being let go as part of a wave of layoffs that slew more than a dozen staffers. "It was devastating," he says. "It took me a month to get over it. I'm still not really over it."
It was a sad but all-too-familiar tale: a newspaper lifer, the classic ink-stained wretch, made a casualty of the digital age. For someone like Weiss, who is 66 years old, that kind of phone call almost always amounts to an involuntary retirement. Yet there he was on Nov. 12 at the Champions Classic in Chicago, strolling through the pressroom with a credential around his neck, pecking away at his laptop after the games. And there he was again last week in the Bahamas, sitting on press row for all 12 games at the Battle 4 Atlantis. (Except for a couple hours on Saturday, when he ducked away to catch the Auburn-Alabama football game.) Weiss was covering those events for BlueStar Media, a website which tracks basketball around the world. BlueStar is one of several outlets that are employing Weiss these days -- including the Daily News, which has hired him on a freelance basis to cover big-ticket events like the BCS Championship and the Final Four. "I feel like a survivor," Weiss says. "A lot of people who get out of newspapers disappear, but I've been able to reinvent myself."
You've heard of survival of the fittest? This is survival of the nicest. Over the years, Weiss' doggedness on the beat was surpassed only by his perennial good cheer. His affection -- obsession might be the better word -- for the game of basketball was evident from his days as an undergraduate at Temple University. He attended so many high school and college games around the city that Sandy Padwe, who was then a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, started calling him "Hoops." Says Weiss: "The name stuck, which was pretty amazing."
Weiss wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News until 1993, when the New York Daily News plucked him to be its national college basketball and football reporter. It was a great gig, partly because he did not have to move away from his Philly, his native city. For the next two decades, Weiss was the benevolent king of the beat, constantly working, constantly on the road, often with his wife, Joan, in tow. He has covered 41 Final Fours and 29 college football national championship games while receiving some of the profession's most prestigious awards, including the Curt Gowdy Award at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as well as the Bert McGrane Award, which is bestowed annually on a member of Football Writers Association of America.
That's why the industry reacted with such dismay when word spread over Twitter that the Daily News was dropping him. By his count, Weiss received more than a thousand tweets that night, "none of 'em negative." (That is itself exceptional, given the oft-vitriolic world of Twitter.) Immediately, the calls came pouring in, not only from fellow veterans like Bob Ryan and John Feinstein, but also from coaches and schools across the country who assured Weiss that if he ever wanted to come to their games, he would have no problem getting a credential. That wave of support got Weiss through those difficult first few days. "It's funny," he says. "Your whole world feels like it's collapsing, and then you find out you probably have more friends than you thought."
One of those friends was Mike Flynn, the founder of BlueStar. Forty years ago, Flynn was a clerk in the Philadelphia Daily News sports department, helping Weiss and other writers keep stats. Flynn later left the paper and became immersed in the world of women's basketball. He founded BlueStar in 2010 as a vehicle to produce events, and he subsequently created BlueStar Media to serve as an Internet portal for his events. Flynn had been pushing BlueStar deeper into men's basketball when Weiss called to let him know what happened. Flynn invited Hoops to lunch. "He was very despondent and really didn't understand how he was going to move forward," Flynn says. "The biggest fear for someone like Dick is losing your relevance."
Flynn pitched Weiss on the idea of traveling the world to cover basketball for BlueStar. Within a month, Hoops was whisking off to Prague to cover the FIBA Under 19 World Championship. He later traveled to the Philippines to cover the FIBA Under 18 men's and women's world three-on-three championships, with a stop in Singapore on the way home to write about another three-on-three event there. Next May, he will be at the Euroleague Basketball championships in Milan, Italy. Flynn is happy to have tossed his friend a life raft, but he insists that Weiss is no charity case. "This was a quid pro quo," Flynn says. "I'm getting one of the most iconic writers in America, who brings us authenticity, and he's getting to have fun with no pressure doing the things he loves."
Weiss' work for BlueStar is only part of his portfolio. During the current college basketball season, he will write columns for the American Athletic Conference's website as well as former USC coach George Raveling's site. He will do some studio work for Big Ten Network. He is co-writing a book with Teresa Shank Grentz, who coached the U.S. women's basketball team at the 1992 Olympics. (Weiss has co-authored several books with basketball luminaries such as John Calipari, Dick Vitale and Rick Pitino.) And he will make occasional contributions for the Daily News, including this weekend in Atlanta, where he'll be covering the SEC football championship.
It is remarkable that, at this stage in his career, Weiss is not only surviving but also advancing, chronicling in digital form the cutting-edge emergence of global basketball. But that alone does not explain his upbeat attitude. "I don't want to be the bitter old guy," he says. "That's not me. I never held what happened against the people at the paper, because they've always been nice to me. Look, for 20 years I had the best job in America. Newspapers are struggling right now. I've been very lucky to be able to find work elsewhere."
Still, after suffering through the shock of that phone call, Hoops knows better than to spend too much time pondering his long-term future. He hopes to write for BlueStar at least through the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He might pick up another book project, although it probably won't be a memoir. ("I just don't think it would sell.") Beyond that, Weiss will keep going until someone, or some thing, tells him to stop. "You're only as old as you feel," he says. "I love this game. I still get goosebumps before the Final Four. When I start losing the passion for it, then it will be time to go."
No doubt there will be a few goosebumps in the pressroom at the 2014 Final Four when Hoops Weiss strolls through with a credential around his neck. This Philadelphia story could have ended differently but for the age-old adage: No man is a failure who has friends.