For more than 30 years, John Papanek built one of the most legendary careers in American sports journalism. Reporter, writer and senior editor at Sports Illustrated. Founding managing editor of SI For Kids. Managing editor of Sports Illustrated. Founding Editor-in-Chief of ESPN The Magazine. Editor-in-Chief of ESPN.com.
Since retiring in 2011, however, Papanek has devoted most of his energy to another life-long passion: music. He started playing the clarinet and the saxophone as a boy growing up on Long Island, and for many years he would join longtime SI writer Rick Telander's band, the Del-Crustaceans, and play tenor sax at the magazine's Christmas parties. Now, said Papanek, "I devote myself almost entirely to studying tenor saxophone. I take lessons every week and practice for hours every day."
Papanek's passion for and knowledge of jazz, in particular, helped him connect with one of the most famously aloof athletes of the past half-century, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As an NBA writer at SI during much of Abdul-Jabbar's prime, Papanek was chosen to write a bonus piece about the Lakers center in the winter of 1980 as he was en route to his sixth and final MVP award and helping Los Angeles to its first championship in eight years. The initial interview, at the Westwood Marquis Hotel in L.A., went fine, but Papanek was then invited to Abdul-Jabbar's Bel-Air home for another discussion, whereupon he discovered that the two had a very similar taste in music.
That visit formed the backbone of Papanek's resulting story which shed new light on a man who had been in the public eye for more than 15 years and remains an icon of American sports. It ran in the March 31, 1980 issue and was entitled, "A Different Drummer."
SI: Were you always an NBA fan?
PAPANEK: For sure. I came of age during the golden age of the New York Knicks when they won their championships. I graduated high school in 1969, I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1973, and the Knicks were like the quintessential perfect basketball team and I loved every single thing about them. I was very fortunate to be hired by SI a coupe of months after I finished at Michigan; I graduated in April and was hired by SI in December of 73.
I got put on the NBA beat pretty quickly. In 1975 I wrote my first bylined story in SI, which was about a very little known guard on the Buffalo Braves named Randy Smith. He was I think a seventh round draft choice a couple years before, and the reason I got the chance to do the story on him was that he grew up in the Suffolk County town next to mine; I grew up in Patchogue and he grew up in Bellport. He was a year ahead of me and I had watched him play in high school. Here was this guy that no one had ever heard of from SUNY Buffalo, and now he was starting on a first-place team and had just signed a contract for $100,000, which even then was big money. Scott Leavitt was the NBA editor at the time, and I talked him into letting me make a trip to Buffalo. They liked my story and they ran it.
SI: How did the Kareem story come about?
PAPANEK: Going into 1980 I was going to be one of the writers that was going to cover the Olympics in Moscow. But then President Carter announced that the United States was going to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics. So Peter Carry, an assistant managing editor, had to break the news to all of us that we weren’t going to cover the Olympics. It was going to be my first Olympics and I was very excited about it. I remember him calling me and telling me that I was off the Olympics, but he said, “Here’s some good news: We want you to go do a bonus piece on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
SI: Was it your first bonus piece?
PAPANEK: This was not my first bonus, but my first had a pretty good story attached to it as well. Not too long after that Randy Smith story, [senior editor] Pat Ryan came down to my little cubicle one day and she had clipped out of the New York Times a tiny one-column, three-inch story from one of the pages in back of the sports section with a headline that was something like “Brooklyn College Gets $500 Bill For Destroying Army Barracks At Bowl Game.” This team had been invited to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to play against an Army team at the base in what they called the Coconut Bowl, and the Army put the team up at the barracks for a couple of days while they were getting ready to play the game. When they left, the Army went in and found that the barracks had been trashed.
The Army sent a bill to Brooklyn College for $529 to cover the damages. As a footnote it said that Army won 74-3 or something. Pat said, “Hey it’s Brooklyn College, maybe there’s a story there. Why don’t you take the subway out there and find out what the heck happened.”
So after work I went to Flatbush and I ended up getting all kinds of stuff and stories about this incredible cast of characters on this football team. It was just like Welcome Back Kotter. It was a Brooklyn class of total misfits and scew-ups, and that’s what this football team turned out to be. By the following fall I told Pat, “I think there might be a good little story.” Pat said, “OK maybe it can run as the college football column,” which was like a 150-200 line story, maybe 1,500 words. I said, “OK I’ll write it and see what happens.”
I took out my notes and started writing and realized I was way beyond 200 lines, I was way beyond 300 lines, 400, 500. This thing just wouldn’t stop. I called Pat the next day and said, “Pat, this is way more than 200 lines.” She said, “Just write it for what you think it’s worth and we’ll see how it goes.”
So I wrote the story it ended up being something like 850 lines and was almost 6,000 words. It was long enough to be a bonus piece. I was embarrassed and scared when I brought it in, and she said, “Let me read it and see what it reads like.” I went back to my little cubicle and wondered if I had just committed career suicide by sending this esteemed editor a story four times longer than it was assigned to be. After about an hour she came by and said, “Pap, it’s terrific.” I said, “You’re kidding me.” She said, “No.”
Ray Cave was actually sitting in as managing editor that week because Roy Terrell was on vacation. Ray, we sort of knew even then, was Pat’s boyfriend. She said, “Ray is going to run it as the bonus piece this week.” I was still a reporter, I wasn’t even a writer-reporter. I wasn’t even hyphenated. I hadn’t been at the magazine more than a year and a half and it was completely unprecedented. No reporter had ever had a bonus piece published in SI.
The editor of the story turned out to be Bob Ottum, and the headline was “Of Subways And Salami,” because one of the players said his mother would make them salami sandwiches, and it had an opening picture of the football team at halftime sitting on the platform of this elevated subway track in Brooklyn.
SI: If those guys were unknown that certainly wasn’t the case with Abdul-Jabbar. Did you know him well by the time you got that assignment?
PAPANEK: I knew him a little bit but only from having covered him. I was still quite in awe of him, but in those days even with a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, if you presented yourself and said, “I am a writer for Sports Illustrated,” you would have the athletes’ attention in 99 out of 100 cases. And if you said, “I’ve been assigned to spend some time with you to do an intense and deep profile and I’m going to need to spend several days with you and visit with you in your home and have your undivided attention,” in 99 cases out of 100 the athlete would say, “Great, I’m yours.”
SI: Did he do that too? Because he had a reputation for being guarded.
PAPANEK: Even he did that. In this particular case the fact that we are both from New York and that I could let him know how familiar with him I was to going back to when he was in high school and junior high was very helpful. The other ace in the hole with me was that I knew that he was a huge jazz buff. I was also a very serious jazz buff and I was able to talk with him about John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon and let him know that on one subject at least I was on the same level as him. When he did allow me to come into his house he showed me his music room and I could say to him, “Kareem your record collection looks exactly likes mine.”
But you’re right, he wasn’t known to be a talker or to be a good interview. Rarely if ever did he sit with anyone for a length of time. And this story was shortly after an incident in Washington, D.C. involving some feud between rival Muslim factions and there was an apartment that was incinerated and people were killed. He, like Muhammad Ali and several others, was a very high profile American Muslim. People involved in the various Muslim factions were eager to us these high-profile celebrities to endorse their causes. He had to be very vigilant and careful, and really a hallmark of his character is that he’s not willing to trust a lot of people because he’s been taken advantage of his whole life and people have always wanted to use him for whatever they were doing. And this was a particularly fraught time.
SI: He wasn’t hiding out either, though, right?
PAPANEK: No, I got to go roller skating with Kareem. This was a red-hot craze there in 1980 in L.A., and it was A-list celebrities and movie stars and cocaine fueled, beautiful, rich people who would strap on roller skates in this dark hall with the pulsating disco lights and go zooming around drinking margaritas.
It wasn’t even my idea, it was his idea. So one night after a game against the Chicago Bulls he got in his Mercedes-Benz with his girlfriend and a couple of friends to go to this roller disco club after midnight. I went along. Here’s this guy who is 7-3, 7-5 on skates, and who is at the peak of his career earning and represented probably 90 percent of the value of the franchise going to this club after midnight where people are drunk or worse and zooming around after dark at high speeds. He roller-skates like he’s the Colossus of Rhodes, the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
SI: How did you do?
PAPANEK: I had not been on roller skates since I was 10 years old. I strapped them on and like a complete klutz I very gingerly made my way along the rail and within five seconds I collided into somebody. We went rolling over each other on the floor and to my complete and total horror and embarrassment, when I reached over to help this guy who I had just waylaid, I swear to you it was Sonny Bono.
SI: Abdul-Jabbar was having a typically excellent season that year, and he is still the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, yet his name is rarely mentioned in discussions about the greatest players ever.
PAPANEK: He is to me. To me he is No. 1. I think he’s the greatest and most indomitable player who ever played the game. A lot of people that lived in his era feel that way. He certainly wasn’t as flashy or entertaining as Jordan or Bird or for that matter Wilt. And it’s always hard to put anybody above Bill Russell because his teams won 11 championships in 13 seasons and nobody in any sport has ever done anything remotely like that. Although it was a different league and a very different game in a very different time then.
If Abdul-Jabbar had played in the same era as Russell it would have been a very interesting rivalry to watch. He was so much bigger than Russell and so much more skilled just in terms of athletic ability. That sky hook he had was absolutely unbeatable. He was as close to perfect with that shot as anybody has ever been with anything. He would talk about how he would use trigonometry, knowing the exact reach of his height with the ball and then calculating the distance from the basket so that he knew exactly how to launch that shot to make it go down.
And he was never hurt. Bill Walton is the most injured athlete in the history of sports, and a couple years ago when Kareem was 65 they met up. Kareem had a cast and he was on crutches and Bill said, “What happened?” Kareem said, “I had to have some surgery on my ankles,” and Bill said, “How many surgeries is that for you Kareem?” “My first.”
SI: Have you stayed in touch at all with Kareem?
PAPANEK: I’ve run into him many, many times, in fact ,in recent months at jazz events in New York City, and we have a lot of friends in common so I see him four or five times a year at jazz clubs in New York.
Not long after that story ran Kareem had a huge fire in his home and his entire record collection was destroyed by a fire. That was a huge wrench in his life. And then people all over the world called and donated records to restock his beloved collections.
But he remembers the story we did together. It was a very good collaboration and we were very close thereafter.