Testimonials to longtime Philadelphia Daily News NBA writer Phil Jasner, who died at age 68 on Friday after a battle with cancer, have invariably included adjectives like "old school" and "traditional," and he most assuredly fit the mold of the classic print guy, a shoe-leather specialist still relevant in an Internet age. But the word I attach to Phil is an awkward one -- "uncynical." That is what made him special.
When we're with our own kind, many (most?) of us sports journalists tend to put our tongue in our cheek as we go about our business. Part of it is our nature, and part of it comes from swallowing our pride all the time, cooling our heels while we wait to talk to 19-year-olds and asking semi-banal questions to semi-naked men in locker rooms.
But that wasn't how Phil operated. During almost 30 years on the NBA beat, mostly covering the Philadelphia 76ers on a season-long basis, Phil had to chronicle some pretty bad teams. But every time I'd see him at home or on the road, armed with my wise-guy comments about what a drag it must be to cover such a horrid team every night, Phil wouldn't play along.
It wasn't that he wore rose-colored glasses about the teams he covered. He wrote as honestly about their weaknesses as he did their strengths and with a perspective born from experience and a deep understanding of the game. It was just his belief that the teams he covered deserved respect. Cellar-dwellers or champions, you covered them the same way: daily, honestly, respectfully.
Phil could've easily gotten spoiled, too. One of the first teams he covered for the Daily News was the 1982-83 Sixers, a championship club that included Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney. It didn't get much better than that for both color and great basketball. But I never heard Phil endlessly reference them -- an occupational hazard of the aging sportswriter, of which I am one, is to harp on ancient times -- even as he covered the eminently forgettable 76ers teams of the '90s, which failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years. His job was those guys, and that's what he did.
Most NBA chroniclers of recent vintage have a story or two about Allen Iverson, whom Jasner followed on a daily basis for more than a decade. Iverson was never the easiest guy to interview or write about, and I'm sure Phil had his go-rounds with him. But he never complained, never talked out of school about Iverson, just did his job the same way every day, making sure he got a quote (or tried to), covering him without judging. That's partly why Iverson sent this message via Twitter on Friday night from Turkey: "The world has truly lost a 'great man,' who will be surely missed."
I have the predictable regrets, of course. I never got a chance to tell Phil what I thought about his work. All I can do is try to remember his example and go out and do the job with a little less cynicism, a little more professionalism, a little more like the way he did it for so many years.