Pop was scared. Pop knew what happened to men who tangled with
the bosses, who stuck a stick in the spokes of power. "Don't
rock the boat," he'd tell his second son, because Pop had done
it himself, and god knows you didn't want to end up like him.
The old newspaperman was broken. The old newspaperman was
haunted: by the career that didn't happen, by the thugs who came
nightly in his dreams to kill him, by all that money lost over
a deck of cards. "Tone it down," he would say. And the son, who
worshiped his father, didn't listen to a word.
This is an article from the June 8, 1998 issue
No, throughout his career Peter Vecsey has never played it safe.
He has made enemies. He has betrayed his bosses. He has rocked
the boat so hard that powerful people have tried to get him
fired. Once, a coach cursed him out during The Star-Spangled
Del Harris had his reasons, mind you. Three times during the
1980-81 season, Vecsey had written that Harris, then coach of the
Houston Rockets, was one loss from being fired. He wasn't.
Instead, Harris engineered one of the most shocking playoff runs
in history, taking his 40-42 team to the NBA Finals against the
Boston Celtics. This was an inarguable coaching triumph, Harris's
moment--and what on earth could spoil that? Yet when Harris saw
Vecsey walking to the press seats along the baseline before Game
2, in Boston Garden, a spark flashed in his brain. Harris began
to swear, spewing a river of profanity that flowed even as people
stood, hand over heart, and sang about flag, courage and country.
The Rockets won 92-90. Now Harris had an even more eloquent
answer for the bastard from New York who had killed him in print:
He had beaten the mighty Celtics on their own floor. He could
take the high road. But when he saw Vecsey walk into the
near-empty Houston locker room, the mad spark flashed again.
Harris's face turned scarlet, and suddenly the coach was
toe-to-toe with Vecsey, screaming, "I should kick your ass!"
Vecsey yelled back, and Harris lunged at him. The clash spilled
out of the locker room, and cops struggled to keep the two men
apart. Brought word of the commotion, Celts legend Red Auerbach
crowed, "I knew there was some reason I liked Del Harris!"
By all the old rules, the incident should have spelled the end of
Vecsey's career. Not only had he been wrong about
Harris--repeatedly--but now error had begotten embarrassment and,
worse, news. The incident was reported, commented upon. It looked
like the culmination of Pop's worst fear: Make waves and you
drown. But how could the old man know that the old rules about
caution and exactitude had changed? How could he know that far
from signaling his son's banishment, the fight at the '81 Finals
would announce just the opposite? Peter Vecsey had arrived.
By then, Vecsey's fourth year as the New York Post's first pro
basketball columnist, the NBA dynamo had started to hum. His
thrice-weekly column--a biting dish now called "Hoop Du Jour" that
combined cruel wit, news from Vecsey's unmatched contacts and
generous dollops of speculation--had become the league's version
of Variety. "Half of it ain't true," former Sacramento Kings
general manager Joe Axelson once said, "but you've got to read
"I thought he was making it up, trying to create a problem," says
Harris, now the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Other writers
were read and either respected or disdained, but Vecsey was a
different animal. Harris feared not only that Vecsey was trying
to get him fired--but that he somehow could.
"Making it up?" Vecsey yells, laughing at the thought. "My source
was the f------ owner! How about that?"
From that moment, everyone knew: Vecsey had become the league's
rogue gene, an uncontrollable factor that would not go away, a
storyteller now part of the story. Rivals and victims took
justified shots at his accuracy and ethics, but no one denied
that Vecsey had power, and it has only grown during the eight
years he's been an NBA analyst on network television. "Nobody
wants to piss him off," says Harris. Coaches have been known to
call Vecsey just to ask, "Are you mad at me?"
"I see it in our own people: They're afraid of him," says Utah
Jazz president Frank Layden. "Even people in the league--higher
up--are afraid of him."
There is almost no one, from commissioner David Stern to Vecsey's
own good friends, whom Vecsey hasn't trashed. "He's honest," says
Isiah Thomas. "Sometimes it stings, but he calls it as he sees
it." A college dropout who served two years in the Green Berets
in the mid-'60s, Vecsey torpedoed his career at the New York
Daily News by accusing legendary News columnist Dick Young of
hypocrisy on a 1976 radio show. In 1993, when NBC reported
Michael Jordan's gambling debts to golf buddy Richard Esquinas
and broadcast an interview with Esquinas, Vecsey went on the air
and said the network's coverage was "irresponsible," an
"I killed NBC," Vecsey says. The man who hired him, executive
producer Terry O'Neil, never spoke to him again.
O'Neil wasn't the first. The fact that Vecsey is often ahead of
his peers--he was the first to report in 1997 that Orlando Magic
coach Brian Hill would be fired, the first to interview former
Golden State Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell after his
suspension for assaulting his coach last December, the first to
assert, in April, that Lakers vice president Jerry West was
planning to resign--is overshadowed by the mean-spiritedness
with which he dispenses information. Over the years Vecsey has
used clever nicknames to praise ("Larry Legend" for Larry Bird)
but more often to savage players, coaches and even his
competitors on other newspapers: Spencer Heywood ("Spencer
Driftwood"), M.L. Carr ("Minor League"), Mike Lupica ("Pee Wee
Vermin"). When writer Harvey Araton was covering the Hubie
Brown-coached New York Knicks for Vecsey's own paper, Vecsey
dubbed him "Hubie Brown's suppository."
"It's a disgrace that this guy represents us," says Layden, who
has tried to have Vecsey removed from NBC. "He hurts good people.
Look at his attacks on Lou Carnesecca and Magic Johnson. He sees
people on the ropes and he hits 'em low, after the bell." Layden
feels that Vecsey drags the network and the league into the
gutter. "The Post? That's as low as you can go, I guess. But NBC?
The NBA? Come on. You can't polish a turd."
This, of course, delights Vecsey, not least because he's sure his
father would be delighted, too. For all his caution, the old man
had a bomb-throwing bent he couldn't hide. "He'd tell me one
thing, but I knew he meant the other," Peter says. "I gravitated
toward what I knew would please him." His father has been dead 14
years. Peter tries to please him still. It is why he takes pride
in having stood his ground in 1995, when Miami Heat coach Pat
Riley--whom Vecsey had dubbed "gutless" and "a phony" and "The
Quitter Within" for resigning as Knicks coach by fax--confronted
him in an Orlando Arena hallway and unleashed a profanity-laced
tirade during which the two men nearly came to blows. Who cares
if they don't like him? Peter Vecsey matters.
"I don't talk to him," Riley says. "I have no respect for him,
because he tries to hurt people. And his brother is just the
Imagine the surprise. You are an NBA executive, coach or player,
and after a few years you've just about reconciled yourself to
the fact that you'll always have that glowering mug shot of Peter
Vecsey in the Post watching your every move. Then, one day you're
Joe Barry Carroll, notoriously lax center for the Warriors.
Vecsey has labeled you Joe Barely Cares. You're going through the
motions in a layup line in Madison Square Garden, and you hear a
rich, classic Noo Yawk voice. "Hey, Joe Barry!" Vecsey, standing
next to a man with an Abe Lincoln beard, is waving you over to
the press table. "Meet my brother George, he's a sportswriter
with the Times."
You stop, you blink, you wait for someone to explain the gag. But
no one's laughing. Honest Abe is still there. And all you can say
is, "There's two of you motherf-----s?"
Yes and no. For to say merely that there are two New York
sportswriters named Vecsey is like saying the Port Authority Bus
Terminal and the Statue of Liberty both attract tourists.
George, 58, succeeded the Times's legendary columnist Red Smith
and has been writing eloquent essays for the paper's
million-plus share of the nation's Range Rover-driving,
plugged-in, self-reverential elite since 1982. His subtle
criticisms come off like a series of paper cuts--annoying,
painful but never lethal. He has never destroyed anyone. Peter,
54, has a weekly audience of millions between the Post and NBC,
and his slash-and-burn style embodies the excesses of his
newspaper. "He writes the way he plays basketball," says Buffalo
News columnist Jerry Sullivan. "You come away with bruises."
Last Dec. 5, both Vecseys reacted to the Sprewell affair in
typical fashion. Peter quickly dispensed with Sprewell, saying he
was not worth the money in his contract, and then delivered some
body blows to Warriors owner Chris Cohan and coach P.J.
Carlesimo: [Cohan] gave crazy money to a crazy player and gave
absolute power to someone who only knows how to abuse it and the
people under him. It's like the Iran-Iraq war all over again. You
were hoping they'd both lose. George, viewing the scene from his
usual Olympian distance, mocked Sprewell, the league and Stern in
prose so airy that the victims could be forgiven for not
realizing they'd been hit: It is not good to throttle your coach,
or anybody else for that matter. It's downright bad form,
particularly in a league trying to sell a lot of television space
and sneakers and tickets costing up to four figures. But more
important, there is the health and safety and emotional
well-being of the throttled person....
Ask a colleague of the Vecseys about Peter, and he's likely to
mention the media basketball game during the 1989 NBA Finals in
which Peter bloodied the face of a fellow reporter with one
punch. Ask about George, and the colleague might mention bumping
into him on his way to a Polish film festival. The Vecseys are
the id and superego of New York sports journalism, one serving
up tabloid fury, the other serving as the voice of proportion
and reason. "I think I am the Post," Peter says. "I identify
with it, people identify me with it. But my brother? I came to
him about 10 years ago and said, 'George, the Post would love to
hire you as the columnist. You could probably double what you're
making.' No, he said, not interested. He is the Times. I thought
we could've tore it up together. His personality would've come
out, the real personality.
"He would've been a changed person. But he's an elitist, and
maybe that would've been taking too much of a chance. My life has
been one risk-taking adventure after another. I've made mistakes,
hurt myself, quit things--and he's always been in the comfort
zone. Never took a chance that I can remember."
The New York sports community has long grown used to such snide
comments between the brothers, but that hasn't eased curiosity
over their differences. George and Peter have now gotten the
faces they deserve, and they are the same face--beneath very
different disguises. Pair George's Old Testament visage with
Peter's slick, hair-plugged persona, and it's like the setup of
some bad joke: So this Amish farmer is sitting next to Hugh
Broadcaster Dick Schaap said that the Vecseys are as much alike
as the Thurmonds--Nate and Strom. Former Times sports editor Joe
Vecchione, who made George a columnist, bragged vis-a-vis the
Post, "We've got Abel, and they've got Cain." For years, Knicks
staffers referred to the two brothers simply as Good and Evil.
Bob Costas once demanded of Peter, "How could you and George have
sprung from the same womb?"
This is, of course, the unanswerable question of many clans.
Explain Jimmy and Billy Carter, or the brothers Kaczynski. When
Thomas Wolfe wrote, "There is something sad and terrifying about
big families," he captured the perplexed expressions that can be
seen across America come Thanksgiving, the angry thrill of
sharing blood with absolute strangers. Often, children in such
families escape by rejecting parents or siblings or just running
hard in different directions. Peter and George did the latter.
The odd thing is that when they stopped running, they were in the
same city at the same job--and they barely recognized each other.
"I'm vain, he's not," Peter says. "I care about the way I look,
the way I dress, the cars I drive. I'm materialistic. He's not.
He's much more erudite, much more versatile. He could bore you to
death on any number of issues. I can bore you to death on only
After George ended a decade-long hiatus in straight news and
returned to sportswriting in 1980, Peter helped him, introduced
him around, caught him up. But over the years they saw less and
less of each other. In May 1997, during a Heat-Knicks playoff
game at the Garden, George and Peter provided a rare sight: the
two of them eating a pregame meal. "Together?" George says. There
they sat for 15 minutes, side by side, chewing. Neither said a
word. Despite their shared interests, people wonder what they
have to talk about.
"Nothing," says Laura Vecsey, George's 36-year-old daughter, a
sports columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I don't
think either has any interest in what the other one does."
They almost never read each other's work, though Peter makes an
exception when George hammers New York Yankees principal owner
George Steinbrenner, whom he has described as "sick" and "a
blowhard and a bully." George once wrote, "There is always an
invisible calliope playing wherever George Steinbrenner roams.
The biggest show on earth. Jojo the Dogface Boy. Barnum's
elephant, Jumbo. Hurry, hurry, check out the sideshow!" For
Peter, reading that is like stepping back to an adolescence in
which his brother wielded sarcasm like a razor.
Chris Vecsey, the youngest of the five Vecsey siblings and a
professor of religion at Colgate, says he can recall many
affectionate moments between himself and his two brothers, but
never between George and Peter. George, asked why he and Peter
are not close, goes silent for long seconds before finally
saying, "Parliamo idiomi molto differenti, e viviamo in paesi
differenti." Then he translates from the Italian, softly: "We
speak very different languages, and we live in different places."
It's an awkward moment, but it soon passes. George insists on
being helpful; he knows a story on two brothers wouldn't be
complete without a visit to the family home, and, of course, "You
haven't met our mother," he says. "She's a formidable old lady.
She's a part of this." So George leads the way into a nursing
home near his old high school in Queens, signs in and wheels his
87-year-old mother, May, to a quiet place where she can talk. For
39 years May has struggled with multiple sclerosis, and now she
sits in a white cardigan and saggy knee-high stockings. Her eyes
are bright. George sits across a table from her, guiding May to
remember her life and her dead husband.
When talk turns to Peter and George, she speaks of their writing
and says George's is more her speed, although "it sometimes seems
pointless." No, she hasn't read anything of Peter's lately. She
says Peter was always a bad boy, never took school seriously.
"But if you want a good friend, Peter's the one to turn to," May
says, and at this George blinks. His face stays blank, as if he
has heard this so often that it has become meaningless. But she
isn't looking at him. She speaks as if he isn't there. "My love
at the moment is Peter," she says.
It's not easy to find families like this anymore, not in
newspapers anyway. The Vecseys are an ink-for-blood cliche. May
was pregnant with George when she and Big George, the society
editor and the sports editor, respectively, of the Long Island
Press, helped organize the local chapter of the Newspaper Guild
and took to the picket lines in 1938, braving billy clubs and
marking the scabs. Journalism, Laura Vecsey says, is "the family
disease," and its symptoms can be extreme. Once, while working
for the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union and facing a stiff deadline at
the Garden, Laura says, she asked Peter if a much-rumored trade
was about to go through, and Peter wouldn't answer. Peter denies
this, but he admits that he has no use for reporters who share
scoops. "It's competition," he says. "I don't give it up." Two
years ago, after Peter created a stir during the NBA Finals by
questioning, in a radio interview, the heart of Seattle
SuperSonics swingman Nate McMillan, Laura buried in her column a
veiled but obvious slap at her uncle.
Big George would've been pleased. Newspapers became the family
business when newspapers mattered most, and 50 years later the
Vecseys are at the top of the profession, stirring things up,
telling people in Queens and Manhattan--hell, the whole
country--how to think. The New York Times! The New York Post! What
could be better for a man who, after working seven days a week on
two jobs at the Daily News and the Associated Press, would come
home every morning with several papers, talking about Dick Young
and Jimmy Cannon--a man who'd never finished college, a man whose
confidence had been hollowed out by fear?
Once, Big George went into a candy store to buy a Baby Ruth bar.
The clerk had only Tootsie Rolls. Big George punched him. His
temper was legendary, but it grew out of weakness: Big George was
a small man, an adopted kid saddled with the knowledge of a
double desertion, first by his biological parents and then by his
adoptive father. When he reached middle age, his childhood demons
took the form of loan sharks and McCarthy-era informants. The
entire house would hear him scream in his sleep because the bad
guys were coming. Sometimes it was no dream.
But that was later. The early key to Big George was that he
wasn't supposed to be a mere deskman working the rim, editing the
stars' copy. No, he had always attacked books with the oasis
thirst of a self-taught man; he stocked his shelves at home with
Wolfe and Eugene O'Neill and read all the history he could lay
his hands on. Unlike May, a magna cum laude graduate of the
College of New Rochelle, Big George didn't have a college degree,
but he was smart and had views and at 35 was the sports editor of
the Press. Why shouldn't he have dreamed of running the sports
department of a big New York paper someday?
But then came the '38 strike, and Big George was a devoted union
man. Management offered him $5 extra per week to cross the picket
line, and he refused; the guy who accepted, his assistant, ended
up running the sports section of the Press and living in a big
house. Big George was not rehired after the strike. He worked odd
jobs, but newspapering is a nasty drug. In the early '40s he
hooked on with the Daily News as a deskman, and for the rest of
his career that's what he was, at the News and the AP in
Manhattan. He wrote radio copy, edited stories and went home.
"He was one of the best newspapermen--and one of the best men--I
knew," says Bill Gallo, the longtime cartoonist and former
associate sports editor of the News. "He should've been sports
editor of the News, but he got there too old. He would've made a
hell of a sports editor. It was his kind of paper."
Little George, the oldest Vecsey child, got the full benefit of
his parents' youthful energy and bookish interests, and he took
the most direct shot of his mother's high-minded, Catholic
ambition. She never worked again after he was born, for soon
there were four more kids--Liz, Peter, Janet and Chris. But May
remained the family's propelling force. "George was always her
shining light," says Liz Vecsey Gembecki. "We were always told
how bright he was, his IQ." All the kids were pushed to do
better, be better, and when they disappointed Mom, she let them
know it. Even now, George says, it scares him to see how much he
is like May.
"He has very high standards, and he holds other people to them,"
Chris Vecsey says. "Pete--no matter what he says about
players--isn't holding them to any standard. He's always looking
for a good line. But George has a self-imposed integrity, like my
mother, and at times it makes them hard to be with."
Big George got Little George his first job, answering phones at
the AP as a teenager, and at that point the boy began to distance
himself from the family. Little George had gorged himself on
Wolfe, on books about breaking loose of the loving family prison
to become a great writer, and he grew increasingly aloof as he
fed his mind at Hofstra and then at Newsday on Long Island, where
he got his career break covering major league baseball for Jack
Mann's cocky, irreverent sports section--at age 20. By then George
had also left May's beloved Catholic Church and fallen for a
strong-willed, arty Protestant girl named Marianne, whom he would
marry. May never forgave him. Her shining light went out, and as
for George's wife.... "My mom just cut her dead," George says.
With the world and love to distract him, George never saw--didn't
want to see--all the clues his father dropped about his gambling
problem. Big George worked constantly, but in the '50s and early
'60s the family never had any money. Husky-voiced men kept
calling the house. Little George didn't link that with the
ongoing game of gin in the AP locker room or with the fact that
Charlie Morey, Big George's boss, was so sad to see him go home.
Big George, Morey says, laughing, was one of his "pigeons."
"I'll tell you why George was so bad," Morey says. "When he
played gin rummy, he was either mad or scared--mad because he was
losing money and scared that he was going to lose more. You can't
play any card game like that."
But Peter knew what young George refused to see. In 1960, while
Little George was covering baseball for Newsday, Big George got
Peter, a junior in high school, a job at the Daily News. Aside
from brief stints at Hofstra and in the merchant marine and then
a two-year Army hitch, Peter lived in the three-story house on
188th Street in Jamaica, Queens, with his parents and little
brother and two sisters and went to work at the News with Pop.
He was there when Big George began his desperate slide,
remortgaging the house and taking out usurious loans. Peter was
there, a 17-year-old, when loan sharks trailed Big George home,
and the sounds of Pop's cries filtered through the windows.
"They beat the crap out of him, right in front of our house,"
Peter says. "I went out and talked to them. I knew they wouldn't
hurt me. I was young and thought I could kick everybody's ass,
and they thought that was funny. I stood up for the guy, and he
obviously loved that.
"I am my father. No doubt about it. He got such a kick out of me
because I was him, and he was me."
George isn't so convinced of this. His father's literary
interests and radical politics were all but lost on the
hoops-centric Peter. But there's no doubt that Big George was a
tabloid man, with an ego-lancing humor and a grittiness that the
rarefied Times never reflected. In Little George, Pop instilled
the love of newspapers and baseball. He knew enough not to guide
the boy with a heavy hand. But when Peter started writing at the
News, Big George was different. He looked out for his son,
checking his grammar, correcting his tortured spelling,
proofreading everything. "Pete was his best creation," George
says. "And he worshiped my father."
Little George didn't. By 1962 Big George had started going to
Gamblers Anonymous, but his first son held him in contempt,
wanted nothing to do with healing. He got himself into trouble?
He can get himself out. It wasn't until much later, when Little
George spent a week in an addiction treatment center while
researching his 1982 book on pitcher Bob Welch, that he
understood how cold he'd been. He apologized to his father, who
waved his absolution and let it go. But how do you get back 19
years? A few years ago, Little George went to pick up his own
son, David, then a 24-year-old reporter, at the same AP building
where his father had gotten him his first job. He walked into an
office and felt his skin go cold: There was his son where Big
George had once been, looking out the window at Rockefeller
Center. Fifty years disappeared. Quietly, George wept.
By 1984 Pop was struggling. George would hang back in the press
box while his father tried vainly to square the numbers in the
box score, snapped at deskmen on the phone, began to die of a
blood disorder. There was a nice Thanksgiving dinner with the
whole family in the old house, and that night George tucked his
father in and kissed him on the cheek. "Leave the papers by the
bed," Big George said. "Maybe I'll read them later."
He didn't wake up. The next day, readers turned to Peter's column
in the Post and saw a first: Nothing about frauds or
incompetents, nothing about the Knicks or the scoop du jour.
Instead, Peter wrote a lovely appreciation of Big George, "the
nicest thing he's ever written," Little George says. It read, in
If he could die with newspapers on his breath and ink smudges on
his hands, then the natural progression is for me to write about
him. No one is more responsible for my success than my father.
George didn't write about his dad's passing for the Times.
Peter's column "caught the humanity of my father," George says,
and he knew that there was nothing more to be written.
"Pete scooped him," Chris Vecsey says. "George wasn't too happy
about that, as I recall."
"I told you--I love this!" Peter says. It's a mid-March evening at
Philadelphia's CoreStates Center, and the man is in his element:
before the game, behind the basket, basking. Already he has
interviewed his new love, Allen Iverson; heard the 76ers point
guard stroke him about their chat; talked with team president Pat
Croce and coach Larry Brown. The security guards know Vecsey,
fans call his name. Now a girl is asking for an autograph. Behind
her a boy is waiting to take a picture.
"I know the fans, the audience," Peter had said earlier that day,
at lunch. "They love me. They love me. I get it back a thousand
times, and it's tremendous: out on the street, in the letters I
"I've always known that my brother was good at what he did and
had the respect of everybody, deservedly so. I know I don't."
Unlike George, Peter has been guided by none of journalism's
notions of fairness and ethical probity. He once hit up a coach
he was covering, Kevin Loughery of the New Jersey Nets, for a job
as an assistant. During the 1981-82 season, Peter accepted two
low-interest loans totaling $60,000 from Leon Spiller, a close
friend of Nets owner Joe Taub's, to build a house on Shelter
Island, in New York. Peter was questioned about the loans by his
bosses at the Post, who chastised him but did not suspend him.
The loans were a textbook example of conflict of interest--and a
firing offense at most newspapers.
"Did I take it easy on Joe?" Peter says. "I love Joe. But I
didn't take it easy on the team. It was winning in those days.
But my honesty is the best thing I have going. If I had to do it
all over again, I wouldn't put myself in the position to be
This year, Peter applied to the Denver Nuggets for the general
manager's job eventually given to Dan Issel. Asked if he thought
this compromised him, Vecsey says, "Why? There've been
newspapermen who've gone to work for teams before. I wanted to
join the fray."
Ever quick to tee off on others for any transgression, Peter has
blurred the line between journalist and subject so often that at
times the line has disappeared. A decent player at Archbishop
Molloy High in Queens, Vecsey not only covered Julius Erving for
the News when Dr. J was with the Nets but also coached and played
with Erving for four years on a team in the renowned Rucker
League in Harlem. Erving was Peter's best man when he married his
current wife, Joan. Peter knew all the New York playground
legends, hung out at team parties, put up Earl Manigault in his
apartment one summer when Manigault was hiding from drug dealers.
Such access helped Peter build his strong network of sources,
but it also gave him a ready pool of clients when, banished to
covering high school sports for the News after his tiff with
Young in '76, he began recruiting pro players to endorse Pony
sneakers. "I was actually out there signing players to
contracts--M.L. Carr, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free," he says.
"They got $1,000 a year. That was my job." It created a thin
line for him to walk: Though Vecsey didn't cover the NBA that
year and ended the arrangement when he joined the Post in 1977,
he ended up covering people with whom he had once had business
ties. It is precisely such gray areas that deny him the respect
George is accorded.
"My father used to get [free] stuff from the Yankees every year,
and he would put it in a box and send it back or donate it to
charity," Laura says of Little George. "He was saying, 'I
cannot, in my conscience, be a part of it. It will compromise
whatever I do.'"
But by the time Peter started hanging out in Harlem, George's
career had veered off into places Pop could only have imagined.
In 1968 he'd finally gotten his pass into Manhattan when the
Times hired him. "And the sons of bitches lied to me," George
says. He had been led to believe that he would be sent to the
Mexico City Olympics that year, but he wasn't. In 1970 George
left sports on an elevated track: He spent two years covering
poverty and mine collapses in Appalachia, then came back to New
York to cover Long Island for four years, then gave four years
to covering religion. While raising a family he also started a
cottage industry when he wrote Loretta Lynn's best-selling
autobiography, Coal Miner's Daughter. He became the unlikely
chronicler of country divas, following up with a best-seller on
Barbara Mandrell and a book on Lorrie Morgan. (He would also
write a book about coal miners, autobiographies with Welch and
Martina Navratilova, and last year's autobiography with Chinese
dissident Harry Wu.) After 12 years the Times lured George back
to fun and games, and he was stunned by sport's crass new world.
"The first days I was back in a locker room," George says, "I'd
see the same faces, of my friends and colleagues and baseball
writers, and now they were just older and more sour, and I'd say,
'What the f---? What have I done?' It was a different business
from the one I'd left: There were agents and Steinbrenner and
constant news to keep up with. You now had to cover sports as a
business rather than just games, and part of me had a
self-hatred: Why'd you come back?"
Peter never had second thoughts about devoting his life to
writing about basketball. He loved the game Little George taught
him when they were kids--how to go to your left, how to shoot, how
to box out with your butt--and he loved everything around it: the
seamy agents, the confused but magical players, the infighting.
By the time George hit his stride as a columnist in the early
'80s, his younger brother had become established, had been
blasted by Del Harris at the Finals, had become Peter Vecsey.
By then Young had come over to the Post and was writing rants
against all the bad things sports had become, but he tried to
patch things up with Peter by telling him he was the future of
the paper. "Yeah?" Peter replied. "F--- you, Dick." A week after
Peter wrote his tribute to Big George, Young approached him while
he was on the phone. "He comes over and says, 'Your dad was a
great guy,'" Peter says, and suddenly he looks away. Tears pool
up in his eyes and spill down his nose. After a moment he turns
back and says, voice shaking, "I could've killed him. God. I
mean, this is a guy he worked with for 30, 40 years! How he
shrugged it off.... I wanted to put that phone around his neck.
Cross Peter and, in his mind, you are done. "He carries grudges,
he exacts his revenge," Costas says. "Get on his s--- list, and
you stay there a long time."
Layden? Peter says their bad blood goes back to the All-Star Game
in Cleveland in 1981. "We were at a bar," he says, "and [Layden]
said, 'All these players are animals.' He didn't call them
niggers, but it was very plain what he was saying. I told him,
'It all comes out now. You are a bitter racist. I won't forget.'"
Layden denies that this incident occurred and that he has ever
made racist comments.
It is such explosiveness that laid the groundwork for one of
Peter's lowest moments. Two years ago, during the NBA Finals in
Seattle, Vecsey was charged with fourth-degree assault after a
man named Derek Nephew accused Vecsey and a companion of
assaulting him at a Toys 'R' Us store. Peter says that Nephew
verbally abused him but that he never laid a hand on Nephew.
Though the charges were later dropped, the incident became
national news and, true or not, had all the earmarks of a classic
Peter clash. And no one would understand it better than his
George in person is different from George in print. Though
soft-spoken and personable, he has been known to fly into a
red-faced rage at incompetent officials, to feud with a fellow
columnist, to snap like Big George in search of a Baby Ruth. Ask
him about former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti, and it's
as if you'd asked Solzhenitsyn about the Gulag; the writer who
needled Giamatti for having a "viola da gamba" voice now calls
him "a prancing a------."
But work at another paper, one that would allow him to rip at
will? No. There are few things in this world George loathes as
much as the tabloids. He needs the constraints of the Times,
because he knows the alternative all too well. He speaks of the
Johnny Cash song The Beast in Me. "Do you lock the beast in the
closet as much as you can? I believe you do. If we all let the
beast out too often...." He doesn't finish the thought, but it's
clear. Let the beast loose, and you risk a world of what George,
in his column, recently called "sniggering Page Six
Australian-language demi-journalism." You risk a world of rage
and rumor and plummeting standards--the world of screaming
headlines that top the stories in the pages of Rupert Murdoch's
New York Post.
Every family's story ends in mystery. There's no predicting what
will hold it together, never a good explanation for what pulled
it apart. For years, everything seemed to run on rails: Christmas
at Little George's home and Thanksgiving at Liz's. George and
Peter might not talk much: different languages, different places.
But everybody muddled along, breaking bread and handing out
gifts. Then things started to turn; Big George died, and the two
sisters moved out of New York, and Peter got busy with
television. "It's amazing," Peter says. "One person dies and
Three years ago one of the nieces had a wedding in Orlando, and
all five of Big George and May's kids got together there. "That
was a happy time," says Janet Vecsey O'Rourke, George and Peter's
youngest sister. "Everybody danced, and we were a family. Things
have gone downhill since."
Last year May began falling down, alone and helpless in the tall
white house on 188th Street. She needed constant care. This was
the time, most agreed, for clear-eyed, dispassionate thinking,
George-like thinking. Four of the five kids made the wrenching
decision to place her in the nursing home. May hated the idea.
Peter opposed it, too, but with his traveling for TV he couldn't
offer an alternative. The other three siblings lived far away, so
it fell to George to make the regular visits. Often, when he goes
to the home, May ignores him.
Understand: "She loved George, idolized him, but when he started
to slip away in high school.... Well, now she never gives him a
break," Liz says. "No matter what he says, she bristles up, and
no matter what she says, he bristles up. It's been like this for
Peter has been her one ally. He has wanted May out of the nursing
home and back in the house, has fought his brothers and sisters
on it, and the tension has fractured family relations. "It hurts
Peter so much to see her unhappy," says Janet. "But he's not
being realistic. She needs a million things every day." But just
as Peter was with Big George, so he is with May. Last Christmas
she became very sick, and Peter was the only one who would get in
the shower and hold her and wash her. He was the one who, when
everyone else was preparing to let May die, needed to keep her
"We all thought she'd had a good life," Liz says, "but Pete saw
things differently: 'Get her a private-duty nurse. I'll pay for
it.' He wanted to pull her through, and the rest of us wanted to
let her go.
"If you need anything, Pete does it with gentleness and tears in
his eyes. But he isn't consistent. The rest of the family has a
saying: Peter will come in on a white horse, but he'll do none of
the daily dirty work. It's just once or twice a year: Look out!
In April came signs of a thaw. George and Peter spoke briefly
about working together to plan May's future. One day Peter took
May out of the nursing home, back to the house where they all
had grown up. For four hours she was home, where she could look
out the window and see where the neighbors once tended victory
gardens and raised chickens. This was the place where the family
had heard the news that FDR had died and that Jackie Robinson
had joined the Dodgers, where May had listened to the opera
singers next door practicing scales in the afternoon. "It was
absolutely great," Peter says. "She never thought she'd get back
there. She was rearranging stuff. We ate. I told her, 'Now that
we know we can, we can do this all the time.' It was a great day."
As it was with Big George, so it will be with May. When she dies
and becomes the story, it must be a Post exclusive. She wants a
nice tribute, and she's told Peter to write it.
simply as Good and Evil.
and ethical probity.
The clerk said he had only Tootsie Rolls. Big George punched him.
says. "I know I don't."
the Times's constraints.
from the same womb?"