Staff writer John Papanek, a native of Patchogue, N.Y., spent his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan, where he got his first earful of Bob Ufer, the clamorous voice of Wolverine football and the subject of this week's TV-RADIO column (page 54). "I used to think Ufer was a buffoon," Papanek says. "Now I don't know what to think." But as a former sports editor of the Michigan Daily, he knows what he thinks of the Michigan football coach. "Bo Schembechler and I arrived at Ann Arbor the same year. Unfortunately for the school, I left after four years and Bo stayed."
If Papanek leaped at the chance to write about Ufer, it wasn't Ufer's irresistibility so much as the idea of interviewing a subject at eye level for a change.
Pro basketball has been Papanek's beat for two years, and he often finds himself talking to players' waistbands. Already this season he has interviewed the shorts of Bill Walton, Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dave Cowens. Papanek is something of a Cowens authority, having covered his walkout in 1976, his subsequent return and his coaching debut last week. (Cowens and Papanek also have a common driving urge—during his sabbatical from the Celtics, Cowens drove a cab for a night, and Papanek hacked for seven months before joining SI in 1973.)
Majoring in journalism at Michigan didn't teach Papanek everything he was going to need to know about the profession—that there would be a different handshake for every basketball team he would cover, for example, or what to do when stuck in a stalled elevator with an uncool Earl Monroe an hour before game time. In Ann Arbor he did learn how to survive a real winter, though, a lesson that would come in handy on the basketball beat. "I remember one winter that was so bad I didn't go outside for three weeks," Papanek says. "We used to send out for pizzas and use them for heat. When they cooled off, we ate them."
December 4, 1978
Clever, but not quite resourceful enough to get Papanek through last winter. In addition to his regular trips to snowy Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and Boston, he went to Anchorage for a story on that city's team in the Eastern Basketball Association, as well as to Lake Placid for the World Bobsledding Championships. In February he came down with pneumonia. When he recovered, he was sent to Fort Lauderdale to do a story on Sparky Lyle, then a Yankee reliever.
Papanek is occasionally mistaken for Thurman Munson, although temperamentally they are worlds apart. Once in Fort Lauderdale the two of them were standing behind the batting cage. When a woman in the stands kept yelling for Munson's autograph, Munson snapped, "Don't bother me, lady. Can't you see I'm working?" Papanek politely intervened. "C'mon, Thurman, you're not working." Munson gave him a long look and said, "Who are you?"
Papanek has more than a physical resemblance to Munson. Last spring he led the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED softball team in home runs, RBIs—and demands to renegotiate his contract.