With the conclusion of this year's NBA playoffs, staff writer John Papanek (whose coverage of the Celtics-Rockets championship series begins on page 26), will be leaving the pro basketball beat after seven years. Among Papanek's most treasured memories of those years are Julius Erving almost single-handedly winning the last ABA title for the New York Nets, in 1976, and Bill Walton leading Portland to the NBA championship the following season. Among Papanek's many fine stories, those we most treasure, are his profiles of Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walton and Dr. J. "It was a tough decision," Papanek admits, to say good-by to all that. On the other hand, he just might change his recent run of luck.
From January to March, an eye condition called keratoconus left Papanek unable to read, watch television or even take a reasonably comfortable stroll. "I might have walked under a bus," he says. In March he was fitted with a special set of contact lenses and was back in action, "filled with renewed anticipation, relish and excitement." But then:
With his pick of the four mini-series, Papanek chose to cover Chicago-New York, and his story on the Bulls' sweep was killed at the last minute when the Lakers were upset by Houston. The following week, after Boston crushed Chicago in four, he wrote an enthusiastic piece on the Celtics. It, too, was superseded when heavily favored Phoenix went down 3-1 to Kansas City.
Injury was, in this case, to follow insult. On his way to LaGuardia Airport last month, Papanek was in a taxicab accident. He spent the next week and a half suffering from a stiff neck and a persistent headache, recovering only to eat a bad clam and to suffer for two more days. Feeling better by game time, he was ready for a classic Sixer-Celtic war. "But before I knew it," he says, "Philly was up 3-1 and all my Boston stuff was useless." His story (which did run) predicted doom for the Celtics—and Boston won Games 5, 6 and 7.
May 17, 1981
Last week, once again on his way to LaGuardia, Papanek was delayed by a jackknifed semi-trailer truck and a second taxi accident, a collision with a school bus. "So far for the series," he said upon arriving at Boston Garden minutes before tip-off, "my box score reads two dead stories, two cab crack-ups and one bad clam."
Little did he realize what was waiting for him at the hotel—no room.
But there were compensations. After the 76ers lost to Boston, several reporters, including Papanek, faced a despondent Erving at the Garden. After a minute of silence, Erving turned to Papanek and said, "Thanks, John, for the nice story you wrote about me. I'll always remember this season for that."
From all the basketball years, Papanek says, he will remember that moment above all others.