It was a late afternoon in early December 1997. Peter Vecsey had an 8 pm deadline for his New York Post column, which ran three times per week, but the Golden State Warriors weren’t returning his calls. Vecsey had recently reported that Latrell Sprewell was on the trade block, and was trying to nail down progress on or consummation of a deal.
Beloved by some and despised by others, and sometimes loved and hated by the same people over time, Vecsey was the first newspaper columnist to specialize in the NBA. He also made league gossip into an art form. After making some calls on Sprewell that day, he’d wind up with something far more significant than trade news, and arguably the biggest scoop of his career.
A source in the league office didn’t have a specific answer for Vecsey, but told him that there was “something happening out there” and urged him to check it out. Vecsey says he phoned up an ex-Warriors player – obviously, he won’t say who – that then called someone from the team. After hearing about how Sprewell had choked his head coach P.J. Carlesimo during practice, the source swiftly relayed the whole story back to Vecsey. This was about 7 pm.
“I believed him, obviously,” Vecsey tells me, over a recent dinner in Manhattan. “He told me the whole story, and we go with it. Within an hour. We put that together in an hour.”
Former NBA Commissioner David Stern once booted Vecsey from a league-sanctioned studio show (more on that later), but has since come to count the reporter as a friend. “He had very good relationships and very good sources – he used to drive our general managers crazy because he was up on things that nobody else had information about,” Stern tells me. “We’ve had some pretty interesting shouting matches because there were times his instincts were not as great as he thought they were, and he had a story ass-backwards, but I actually came grudgingly to accept his basketball nose for picking up interesting stories.”
As he detailed in a very well-conducted interview on Adam Ryan’s In All Airness podcast in 2013, where he also discussed his Sprewell reporting, Vecsey had an interesting path into newspapers. Never a tremendously invested student, after high school he got set up with a merchant marine union through family connections and landed a job as a scullion washing pots and pans on a passenger ship at sea, traveling the world.
The primary mechanism for communication at this time was letter-writing, and he was told by recipients he had a knack for it. Again, though Vecsey wasn’t “attuned to school.” He reckoned he acquired this purported talent through “osmosis,” as his father was a sports editor and mother a society editor at the Long Island Press. As he noted on that podcast, Vecsey worked as a statistician for the Daily News on baseball box scores for two seasons during high school, and wound up dropping out of Hofstra after one year to re-take a full-time job at the paper.
Aside from a two-year stint as a green beret, Vecsey spent 14 years at the Daily News, and began writing stories for the paper in 1967. Though baseball was his first love, he began covering the New Jersey Nets consistently in the 1969-70 season, about six years before the merger. This was not especially trodden territory.
Embedding himself in this nascent sports league formed the initial foundation for Vecsey’s status in basketball, as did his participation as a player and coach in the fabled Rucker Tournament in Harlem. Here, spectators gathered to watch teams comprised of professionals and playground stars play summer games. As Vecsey describes on the In All Airness podcast, he’d done a brief story about Julius Erving while Dr. J. was at UMass, but they’d communicated over the phone and hadn’t met in person. Erving was connected to Vecsey for what would be both of their first seasons at Rucker by a mutual friend named Dave Brownbill.
“He always had a lot of confidence,” Erving, who would also later work with Vecsey on NBC, tells The Big Lead of his first meeting with Vecsey, “He had a swag about him.”
Though Erving had averaged 20+ points and 20 rebounds a game in his last college season, few realized just how special a player he was. This was, as Vecsey said, partly because in 1971, dunks were penalized with a technical foul. “I think the [Rucker] league definitely was a coming out party,” Erving says by phone. “No question about it. The idea of playing with NBA, ABA, and summer league pros all at the same time, and excelling, and having a sense of the freedom to put the talents on display after playing in college and being handcuffed in terms of some of the things I would always do in the offseason and in preparation of the season.”
Perhaps because of his theatrics, other aspects of Erving’s game, like his mid-range jumper, may have become underrated with the passing of time. Nevertheless, he says the opportunity to put the full arsenal of his talents, which he practiced all year but had to withhold in college games, on display felt “like the chains were being taken off … Everything got elevated to another level, and certainly the Rucker did wonders in terms of just boosting my confidence to that level.”
Though Vecsey’s team that summer included Dr. J, ABA leading scorer Charlie Scott, and some other pros, they lost to a team that included Tiny Archibald and Austin Carr. Vecsey’s teams would, however, win four Rucker Tournament titles.
Erving and Vecsey became so close that Dr. J was the best man at the writer’s wedding. Their friend group also included players like Billy Paultz, Ollie Taylor, Billy Schaeffer, and Manny Leaks. “So much of the bond happened because of his respect for the ABA,” Erving says. “There were a lot of naysayers and skeptics regarding the quality of basketball and quality of life for the ABA players, and Pete was always one of the staunch advocates making [us] feel that NBA players weren’t better, but that we just made a different choice.”
“I’ve told everybody over the years that I’d never be what I was today if it wasn’t for the ABA and the Rucker,” Vecsey tells me. “That’s the way it works for everybody, isn’t it? It’s where you start out. You’re trying to make it. The ABA and Rucker were trying to make it.”
As these links were burgeoning, Vecsey’s relationship with Dick Young, who Vecsey revered as a columnist growing up, deteriorated in the mid-70’s when Young became sports editor of the Daily News. Vecsey has said that Young was a “control freak” as a boss, and publicly accused him of a conflict of interest while guest-hosting John Sterling’s radio show. After these remarks, Vecsey was relegated to covering high school sports in Queens for the Daily News. Nevertheless (and Vecsey says he enjoyed doing features on playground competitions at this time), these circumstances did not yield any type of self-preservation instinct for him at future stops.
In a follow-up column to the Sprewell story, Vecsey wrote that players at multiple stops had such disdain for Carlesimo that such an incident was certainly not excusable, but almost inevitable, and wondered rhetorically why none of Sprewell’s teammates stopped it.
The Warriors were 1-13 at the time the story broke, and tensions boiled over when Carlesimo harangued Sprewell for not putting enough effort into a pass to Muggsy Bogues in practice. Vecsey ultimately blamed owner Christopher Cohan, writing, “He 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.”
Photo via John G. Mabanglo/AFP/Getty Images
Weeks later, Vecsey met Sprewell at union offices. Sprewell waved off attorneys and Billy Hunter, so they could meet one-on-one. According to Vecsey, Sprewell initially tried to “bogart” him, but then came clean about what he’d been accused of. “I’m not as bad as everyone has made me out to be,” Sprewell told Vecsey. “It’s as if I’m another O.J. Simpson. Yes, I was wrong, but I didn’t kill anybody. I’m not a double murderer. No matter what happens, I hope to sit down with P.J. some day and have a long conversation. I want to look in his eyes so he can see how sincere I am in my apology.”
After that, Vecsey and Sprewell would actually become close after the latter joined the Knicks. The reporter says he also patched things up with Carlesimo, who became his colleague at NBC.
“THAT’S INFLUENCE, AND HE HAD IT”
Vecsey wrote his Hoop Du Jour column for the New York Post from 1976 until 2012, save for a few years in the early 1990’s when he was at USA Today (this site’s parent company now). A Rupert Murdoch loyalist, Vecsey left the Post relatively soon after Ted Kennedy legislation hampered the ability for someone to own a newspaper and television station in the same city, which forced Murdoch to sell the paper.
The reporter would return to the Post in 1993 after a disagreement with his USA Today sports editor. Vecsey had broken the news that Nets free agent Dražen Petrović died in a car accident. When he turned in a follow-up column, an editor wanted to scrap it and run a piece on the upcoming NBA Finals instead, Vecsey was incensed (“We break the story and we don’t do the follow-up?” he asks me rhetorically. “That’s crazy.”), and soon thereafter obtained a release from his contract to return to the Post, which Murdoch had just re-bought.
Bob Ryan, who along with Vecsey may be the newspaperman most associated with the last 40+ years of the NBA (though he also branched out as a generalist), describes Vecsey as profoundly influential. “He was probably the most dominant person in NBA reporting for a 15-20 year period,” Ryan says by phone. “He was my competition. Not the Boston Herald. I had to react to what he did, because he threw so much stuff against the wall. Some of it stuck and some of it didn’t, but my bosses would be going, Oh Vecsey said this or Vecsey said that, so now I’m scrambling to catch up. That’s influence, and he had it.”
In the late 1980’s, after he finished the book 48 Minutes that was a collaboration with Terry Pluto (then of the Akron Beacon-Journal), Ryan kicked around the idea about writing a book on the history of basketball. Though Ryan never ultimately took on the project, Vecsey would have been singled out for his importance: “I thought I would have to write a whole chapter on Peter Vecsey. He was such a distinct entity and part of the NBA fabric that he merited his own chapter, and I don’t think I would have thought that about any other writer.”
Vecsey was originally brought to the Post by Jerry Lisker, an old cohort from the Daily News, to be the nation’s first columnist specializing only in the NBA. Vecsey, who was nicknamed the Viper by Hubie Brown, used his platform to break news and gossip about the inner workings of the Association. Nobody was immune from getting ethered.
“When I first started doing the column my whole idea was to be informative, funny, and to take on anybody, not just the 12th man on the team or the second assistant,” Vecsey told Bill Simmons on a 2008 podcast. “I felt that to have some credibility you had to be willing to take on anybody if you felt the need, so I think that’s where I’ve been successful is people have seen that I’m not afraid to take on anyone – whether it’s Michael Jordan or Brian Cardinal.” Vecsey has asserted that his favorite compliment to receive was that he never took a day off, and has said on multiple occasions that the purpose of his writing was to “break news or break balls.”
Vecsey established many recurring nicknames. Most were pejorative – Shawn Kemp was Spawn Kemp, Charles Barkley was Sir Charlatan, Jayson Williams was the E-limo-nator. Some, like Larry Legend for Bird, were positive. A column had an overarching theme at the beginning, often followed by a collection of disparate one-liners. As Vecsey’s former NBC colleague Hannah Storm observed, these were basically tweets. Some were his own, others were attributed to various loyal contributors.
Once, after publishing an observation from an unnamed former player who bashed Magic Johnson’s lack of insight on television (the two worked together at NBC in the 90’s), Vecsey was the recipient of what might be the only mean tweet in the history of Magic’s account:
People around the league skimmed Vecsey’s column to look for their names in bold, exhaled, and started reading if they weren’t there. “Some people didn’t appreciate things that he wrote, but that’s true with any writer out there who’s worth their mettle,” former NBA PR head Brian McIntyre tells me by phone. “If they don’t ruffle some feathers then I’m not sure they’re making an impact with their job … He was always funnier if he was writing about someone other than yourself.”
Longtime NBA writer and Jordan Rules author Sam Smith says that while Vecsey is an “acquired taste,” his basketball writing personified New York tabloid reporting, and writers really had to pop out because they were competing with upwards of seven daily newspapers.
“Pete understood early on that this was the entertainment industry,” Smith tells me. “That’s what sports is. Politics has become entertainment, but at that point the government was something you were supposed to take seriously. You didn’t have to take sports that seriously. The idea was to entertain and inform, and Pete did that well, because he was clever. It wasn’t what you would teach in journalism school. Nobody would stand in front of the class in Journalism 101 and teach what you to do what Pete did, but it’s what sold.”
Smith disputed the notion, held by many over the years, that Vecsey was overly cruel: “What Pete did was [write in] the New York tabloid view, which, while to New Yorkers doesn’t seem mean, it seems mean to people in, like, Nebraska. The New York view is ‘If you can’t take a joke then screw you.’ With other people, it’s like ‘How could you say that?’”
Peter Mehlman, a former head writer of Seinfeld who met Vecsey in the early 70’s at a game between the Knicks and Baltimore Bullets and has stayed in touch ever since, echoed the thoughts of many in his admiring curiosity about how Vecsey could be ruthless in print but still maintain sourcing pipelines. (And, many have wondered, not get beaten up.)
“You always wondered how he did it, how he wrote these horrible things about people and then went and covered them,” says Mehlman. “Who would talk to him? It was mind-blowing. He was truly fearless, and he had great relationships with a lot of players.”
Frank Isola, now a contributor to ESPN’s Around the Horn and a writer at the Post’s rival, Daily News, recalls that, when he first joined the Post as a clerk, Vecsey took him under his wing and out for dinners. However, Isola felt that Vecsey became a little territorial when he began covering basketball for the same paper. When he joined the Daily News, they were adversaries. While they were working together on-air at NBA TV, Vecsey became incensed when he broke that the Knicks would be firing Larry Brown because when Isola covered it, Vecsey felt he wasn’t properly credited. This escalated when Isola’s editor contacted ESPN and they attributed the Daily News on the bottom line.
“Vecsey obviously had a lot of sources,” says Isola, who, despite the falling out, advocated in print for Vecsey’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. “Some of it was sourcing by fear – fear that if you didn’t leak to him that he’d destroy you in the paper. He wasn’t the first reporter to do that, nor the last.”
Peter Mehlman isn’t so sure about that explanation. “It’s crazy to think Pete let up on coaches or GMs or players if they gave him information,” he says. “It’s not like he was in the protection racket: ‘You give me something and I’ll keep you safe.’ He never pulled punches on anyone if he felt it was deserved. He could have dinner with Hubie Brown, spend the whole time laughing and dishing with him, then knock him two days later. The whole stereotype of the fearless, confrontational New Yorker is usually bullshit… but not when it comes to Pete.”
There’s no one magical elixir you can point to for Vecsey’s sourcing. Part of it came from the foundation of people connected with the ABA and Rucker. He was also given basically carte blanche for travel by his editors, Jerry Lisker and Greg Gallo, whether or not they knew for sure there was an immediate story. For example, he spent weeks in the late 70’s on the road with the Sonics during the playoffs, or with the Bill Walton Trailblazers, or the 1986 Celtics. There were many more.
Vecsey explained his affinity for those 1980’s Boston teams at length with Bill Simmons in 2008. That respect was reciprocated over the years by Larry Bird. “When you get to know him you understand that he knows and loves basketball,” Bird says by phone. “He’s seen a lot of players come and go. His perspective on the game is he knows what he’s talking about, and I’ve always enjoyed people that like to talk the game and really like to be a part of it.”
“Back in the 70’s and 80’s, before teams got these private jets, we traveled with the media,” Bird continues. “They were on our buses going to games, they were at shootarounds, they were in our hotels. They really had access to us a lot more than they do now. When Peter used to travel with us there would be a number of guys where we wouldn’t go out every night, but we’d go out to eat and the next day we would go to practice together and then we’d go on the plane in the next city. Peter wasn’t the only one, but it was always interesting because he had a lot of stories to tell.”
However, Bird was not one of Vecsey’s anonymous sources: “He never got inside information on me because I was always on the record.”
Peter Vecsey eventually became a mainstay on the NBA on NBC, which he was on for the duration of the program in the 1990’s and early 00’s. Before that, he had multiple national TV gigs, including the origination of the NBA pregame show. Vecsey brought the Hoop du Jour title to CBS, and hosted alongside Hubie Brown (Earl Monroe and Mike Breen were part of the pilot; Vecsey used to go on Breen’s college radio show at Fordham).
Though the CBS show was not always broadcast at consistent times across the country, a 1989 Boston Globe story said the program was syndicated in 83% of the nation’s markets. The problem, as Vecsey has said on multiple podcasts, was that the money man was Chet Forte, the former Monday Night Football producer who was a television whiz but also a notorious degenerate gambler. Vecsey wound up having to sue Forte and his partners, and recalls recouping just 2/3s of the money he was owed, some of which went to his attorney.
Vecsey had also been on at halftime of the NBA’s first cable platform on USA Network, in the early 1980’s. However, he was yanked from it by David Stern. “I thought he was very disrespectful to our players at the time, and I thought it was not appropriate,” says Stern. “I didn’t have a problem with his dealing with them in a basketball matter, but I thought he got a little too personal. And, when he asked me if I was responsible for weighing in on that subject, I said of course and I’m proud that I did it. We’re friends now, actually, and I think he calmed down his act a little bit as he moved into respectable society. I was happy that he was successful.”
Though he lasted just three episodes on that show before getting the boot, Vecsey was paid for the whole season. He told Adam Ryan that he and his wife were able to buy nicer furniture for their new living room than they had ever been able to afford before that, and thusly called it the “David Stern room.”
Vecsey and Stern have differing accounts of how the latter felt about the former joining NBC’s coverage when NBA moved there from CBS in 1990. Vecsey has said that the Commissioner and league were “totally against it,” while Stern says he was ambivalent: “I was not in favor of it but I was not against it. We were very grateful to NBC for the support they gave us and if they were willing to try it, it was their call.” Vecsey nonetheless beat out what he says were upwards of 50 other insiders for a spot on the show, and he was on it until the network lost NBA rights in 2002. He didn’t shy away from tension on television.
One of his more conspicuous battles came in the Spring of 1993. Discussing an interview Bob Costas had done a few days prior with Richard Esquinas, a gambler who said he’d won over $1 million from Michael Jordan, Vecsey voiced strong opposition to providing him with that platform. “It was an embarrassment to the media, to NBC especially,” he said at halftime of an Eastern Conference Finals game between the Bulls and Knicks. “Personally, I’d have never gone on with a story like that … We were irresponsible. I think that the guy’s motives were clear. He’s a publicity seeker. He’s looking to make financial gain and we gave a story of no importance credibility.”
Before this, Vecsey had written this column in USA Today:
Even though Vecsey’s opinion on the matter was not a surprise – he’d also objected to the segment in a meeting – it’s nonetheless crazy to think about him doing that in the middle of a network’s coverage of a decisive playoff game. “I was going to take my shot,” he says. “I believed in it. Got no props one way or the other. What if that happened today? People would go fucking nuts. I took on my own network.”
Sixteen months later, Vecsey tracked down Jordan after a Minor League baseball game in Orlando and elicited previously non-public candor about the reasons for his first retirement from basketball, but doesn’t think his NBC commentary helped him get that story. “Michael to this day has never thanked me for doing that,” says Vecsey, who plans to reveal more details about this in the book he’s writing about his own career. However, one thing he would tell me was that MJ’s late father, James, came up to him at a ’93 Finals game in Phoenix and thanked him for it.
It was common for Vecsey to break news on the air at NBC. During an Orlando Magic telecast in 1997, he reported that Brian Hill, having faced an “insurrection” from players led by Penny Hardaway, was spending his final day as head coach and would be fired. Hill’s predecessor in Orlando, Matt Guokas, happened to be the color commentator of the game. Per the Orlando Sentinel (Lexis subscription required), Guokas said he was “in shock” about the report, and that an earlier interaction with Hill and Magic GM John Gabriel revealed “absolutely no indication that anything was happening.” The Sunday report was tepidly denied by the Magic, who officially fired Hill that Tuesday.
Hannah Storm, who knew Vecsey from when she was very young because her father was ABA Commissioner Mike Storen, anchored NBA on NBC studio coverage from 1997 through 2002. “He was the insider,” Storm tells me. “He’s OG. He knew so much, and he would have this look at you, and he called me, with his accent, Hann-er, and he’d kind of squint his eyes, so you knew what was coming out of his mouth would be really important and really intense, and he would break some information on you literally every telecast. You felt like you were completely in the know, and that nobody else knew any of this. It was just uncanny.”
Reporting subjects were not spared because they were colleagues. A Miami Herald story from 2000 (Lexis subscription required) detailed an exchange where fellow NBC employee Mike Fratello denied a Vecsey report that he’d traveled to interview for a coaching job. On the same telecast, studio-mate Isiah Thomas was similarly mentioned on the coaching carousel, and declined to comment. Hannah Storm didn’t recall this specific instance, but wasn’t surprised when I brought it up. “He didn’t care who was sitting on the set, or on the other end of the satellite,” she says.
When Vecsey interviewed players, he didn’t lob softballs. After the Bulls beat the Jazz in the 1998 Finals, he had Karl Malone in the locker room, opening: “Karl you said after the first two losses that it was the low point of your professional career, has this taken it down another rung?”
One-on-one features with players were less aggressive, but still incisive and direct, and hold up very well. There’s a good one on YouTube with Penny Hardaway going over the fissure with Shaq. In this 1999 interview with a 20-year-old Kobe Bryant, he asked if losing was breeding resentment, and got an honest answer in return:
He got stars to open up on-camera in a way that, if it was rare then, is now near-extinct. “If you look at the postgame press conference now, the questions that are asked are so inane and so generic, so you could imagine how the players, especially the ones who were secure with themselves, would be drawn to someone who asks really tough, inside questions,” says his friend Peter Mehlman.
Vecsey also became close with players’ family members. He tells me the story of when he had a particularly candid interview on NBC with Allen Iverson during his rookie year with the Sixers spurred inter-family friendship.
“I go to Philly, they told me I had X amount of minutes to do the interview, I went in the locker room and I think they fixed it up really nice,” Vecsey says. “We’d never met before, and I think I had 10-15 minutes. There was a woman PR person telling me that. I do this interview and she says alright that’s it, and he goes No this is going good. I like this. So we wound up with a two-parter. We were friends till the end. We’re still friends because of that interview. He became so open to me and to my family – my wife, my son, they could go into the locker room and sit with him after the game – we’d be invited to a party where he’d put us on the list. My wife was friends with his mother.”
He says that he had similarly connections with Shaq’s mother and Terrell Brandon’s parents, and that he just ran into Grant Hill, whose mom used to read the column, at this past All-Star game.
LOSING A FEUD
There was a stretch of several years where Vecsey was juggling his New York Post column, the NBA on NBC, and a role in Turner’s Inside the NBA studio. When Charles Barkley arrived at TNT in 2000, he and Vecsey had been dueling for much of the previous decade. There are myriad examples to draw from, but this column came from June of 1993, when Barkley and the Suns were set to play the Bulls in the NBA Finals:
On Barkley’s debut on Inside the NBA, the hope was to capitalize on the tension right off the bat. Vecsey joked that he wasn’t happy to see Barkley there, and Barkley said Vecsey’s “been an ass a long time.” Ernie then put up a Vecsey column from the previous week’s Post that said Barkley was “looking very much these days like Richard Jewel’s body double,” and Barkley quickly retorted, “I’m gaining weight. I can lose weight. He’s always going to be ugly.”
There were many times – Pat Riley and Del Harris, for example – where Vecsey’s relationships moved from contentious to close over time. This was not the case with Barkley, who called Vecsey a “scum bag” as recently as last year. Vecsey has also called Barkley “a clown” in the interview with Adam Ryan, questioned his preparation and ability to bring substance, and said “all he does is make stuff up … I couldn’t stand working with him. In the end it probably cost me 5-6-7-10 million dollars.”
For his part, Barkley doesn’t purport to be the most prepared broadcaster, but there is still intrigue in what he says, and he is on the short list of sports media members who can opine with near impunity. Barkley, as well as Ernie Johnson, and Turner boss David Levy all declined to comment for this story.
It’s easy to understand why he and Vecsey could not coexist for long. Vecsey says of his 3.5 years with Turner, “I hope my feud with Barkley doesn’t define me … it was one minor part of my career to me.”
Though Peter Vecsey won’t answer questions about his older brother George, a longtime former columnist for the New York Times, and contends that his brother had nothing to do with his career, the dichotomy came up unprompted in almost every conversation during the reporting of this piece.
“Pete and George couldn’t have been more different. In their writing, in their tone,” says Peter Mehlman. “I always found it kind of fascinating. Even physically. Pete is a really strong guy. He was really built and solid. George was professorial.”
“It was hard to believe they were brothers,” says longtime sportswriter Bill Livingston, who interacted with Peter on basketball coverage and George at the World Cup. “George looked like an old testament prophet. Very soft-spoken, and wonderful in his writing. And Peter’s Peter.”
The juxtaposition of the two from both personal and professional standpoints was the subject of a 1998 Sports Illustrated profile by S.L. Price. The feature acknowledged Peter’s accomplishments and in some sections portrayed him as a fiercely loyal son. But, it also quoted a litany of (then, at least) adversaries speaking out against him, brought up a fourth-degree assault charges stemming from a 1996 incident at a Toys ‘R Us (charges were dropped, and Vecsey said he’d been verbally abused and had not struck the accuser), and had allegations of conflicts of interest.
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.
Vecsey said in the piece he regretted taking the loans, but asserts it never compromised his honesty on the Nets. He does not see an issue with applying to work for teams, and cited examples to Jeff Pearlman of other writers joining teams, most recently John Hollinger. “I am positive I would’ve been an asset to one and all,” he said.
Speaking in broader terms about Price’s story, Peter Vecsey is still unhappy with it. “Doing [your story] is really everything against what I said I’d do again after that,” Vecsey tells me. “[Price] showed me why people hate and don’t trust the media. Everything I told him, he told half the story. On purpose. He knew the story but only told half of it. He’d never come near me again. I wouldn’t even recognize him anymore, but it’s a smart move. I never imagined that SI would be that way, where they would write half-truths.”
The only specific matter here that Vecsey would talk about with me was the 1981 Del Harris altercation that served as the lede for the SI piece. Vecsey reported, based on information from Rockets owner George Maloof, that the coach would be fired. The team proceeded to go on a tear and actually make the NBA Finals, where Harris swore at Vecsey during the National Anthem and “lunged at him” in the tunnel after the game, where they had to be separated. Vecsey feels that Price mischaracterized this incident as having “made his career.” (Vecsey says he and Harris have since patched up their relationship, and laugh about this incident today.)
“I never said the Harris showdown ‘made’ Vecsey’s career,” S.L. Price says in an email. “He had broken plenty of stories before. But based on my reporting, his surviving of that public, physical tussle with a head coach during the NBA Finals—after being repeatedly wrong about Harris’s firing—marked the moment when league circles realized that he was a unique force. I spoke to dozens of sources at length in the reporting of this piece, including Del Harris and Peter Vecsey. An SI fact-checker spent nearly an hour on the phone with Vecsey, double-checking facts, before publication. He’s a pivotal figure in the history of sports media. I stand by the story.”
Vecsey broke hundreds if not thousands of stories throughout his career. On some occasions, timelines would be stretched but the end result the same (e.g. in 2009, he had Bulls GM John Paxson resigning for Gar Forman “soon” after the February trade deadline but it didn’t happen until May, and Paxson remained in the organization; how do you score this?), circumstances could dramatically turn around (as was the case with Harris and the Rockets), or people who were trusted sources might leave him hanging out to dry with outright lies.
In 1999, Mike Wise, then of the Times and now a writer at ESPN’s Undefeated, reported that Knicks president Dave Checketts had clandestinely met with Phil Jackson, while Jeff Van Gundy was still employed as coach. Vecsey said on the NBC pregame that this report was “bogus,” but added that communication had occurred through an “intermediary.” Later in the same telecast, Jim Gray wrangled the truth out of Checketts, and after that Checketts copped in a presser that ”I regret that I lied about it … I misled the press. I misled Jeff Van Gundy.”
“What were we supposed to do?” Vecsey asks me. “I’m going to him asking if it’s true. No. Never happened. I went on the air with it. And then I called him the next day and said my own network came back with it and said it was true. Yeah I know. I’m gonna … admit I lied. Well fuck you, Dave. I mean really. Fuck you. What the fuck?” From then on, Vecsey nicknamed Checketts the Mormon Tabernacle Liar.
Things were particularly contentious amongst Knicks writers, but especially Vecsey and Wise, in 1999. As detailed by the Observer, Vecsey wrote that Van Gundy “wantonly manipulated an obviously ignorant faction of the media” to write negative things about players like Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby, who were acquired by then-GM Ernie Grunfeld. He then called Wise “He-man” and the “class creep from the Times” for having criticized Grunfeld’s wife and daughter for jeering Pat Riley, and wrote that Wise was “bound to get what’s coming to him,” as was Van Gundy (when I asked Van Gundy about this by phone, he said he didn’t have memories of it, and that he didn’t feel that Vecsey was unfair to him when he was coach of the Knicks).
Wise and Vecsey would again be at odds over a decade later. On New Year’s Day in 2010, Vecsey broke the story that Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton had guns in the locker room. This was a monumental scoop, and it included a statement from both the Wizards and then-NBAPA Executive Director Billy Hunter, as well as comment from one of Crittenton’s old friends confirming an incident had taken place.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
However, some details from the initial story have been disputed. The first report said that “It was … Arenas, 27, who went for his gun first, sources said, drawing on the 22-year-old Crittenton, who quickly brandished a firearm as well.” In a follow-up two days later, Vecsey reported that Arenas laid guns out and told Crittenton to pick one, Crittenton responded he had one of his own, and that “At some point, guns were drawn on each other.”
Weeks later, Vecsey took a shot at Mike Wise’s reporting (then in the Washington Post) that Crittenton had drawn a weapon and “chambered” it, writing that Wise “took out the shovel and really dug deep.” Wise responded by calling Vecsey an “old, bitter man” on his radio show. While first acknowledging that he respected the platform Vecsey created for other NBA writers, Wise accused him of being “mean-spirited and just about heartless” in writing jokes about Leon Smith, a former NBA player who attempted suicide.
Principals and witnesses still do not agree on all the details. Recently, Caron Butler’s book excerpt said that Crittenton “pulled out his own gun, already loaded, cocked it, and pointed it at Gilbert.” Arenas then accused Butler of being a snitch, and hiding Crittenton’s gun for him. (Crittenton is now in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter from a separate incident. He, and his agent Mark Bartelstein, emphatically denied at the time that he brandished a gun, which was a major source of obfuscation for everybody.)
“I stand by that story,” Vecsey tells me. “There were minor mistakes. Big fucking deal. You can’t know everything. I tried. I asked key people for the facts, and they wouldn’t come across. We held that story almost two weeks. We had reporters from the front of the paper down in Washington, interviewing Arenas. We did our homework on that. Minor discrepancies, I stand by that story. That was a big story. I got apologies from a number of key people there, who told me I was right.”
“The Washington Post got beaten on a story in their own backyard,” he said. “I’ve done that 100 times in my career where you’re in a city, you beat a newspaper to a story, and the first thing they do is try to knock you down and devalue your story. It happens all the time. It was tough shit. They got beaten.”
Says Wise, via email: “I went from being in awe that I was sitting next to Peter Vescey on press row at Madison Square Garden some 20 years ago – knowing I’d finally made it in the business – to almost depressed our reporting is now being compared 20 years later. Yeah, Pete was on the forefront of covering the league. But I can’t buy into this in-my-day nostalgia of Pete. He was also on the forefront of some lousy journalism; he helped make it important to be first before you made sure you were right.”
“And when he did things like mock a mentally unstable rookie after he tried to take his own life, when he got nasty and personal, it forced me to balance the good with the truth,” Wise continues. “And the truth is, Pete stopped being a legend in this business when he became a caricature of himself. Now, would I read a book about his life if it came out tomorrow? In a heartbeat. The stories and myths about the guy are incredible.”
Vecsey won’t answer questions about tiffs with Mike Wise or Frank Isola or any other sportswriters (The Post also once settled a libel suit brought against Vecsey and the paper by former ESPN writer Chris Sheridan), because he doesn’t consider their commentary about his professional life to be relevant.
“To be judged or talked about by newspapermen is preposterous, because I don’t cover them and I wasn’t in competition with them,” Vecsey tells me. “I was in competition with myself day-to-day. The only people who should be judging me are the people I covered. It’s like asking Republicans how they think Obama did in eight years of office. Oh shit, really?”
Vecsey played basketball during his one year at Hofstra, and as noted before was a player and coach in the Rucker League. On the road, it was common for him to run pick-up games. He was a feisty, physical player. Laughs Larry Bird: “He used to try and get out there and play one-on-one or play some games with us. Like somebody said, ‘If you get a chance to whack him, whack him,’ — because he’s gonna whack you if he gets the chance.”
One apocryphal story of Vecsey on the court involves him slapping Mike Lupica – who Vecsey eventually nicknamed Pee-Wee Vermin in his column – in a pick-up game. Though the details are a little hazy, Vecsey confirms that it did indeed happen and believes it was in Washington DC, during a Celtics-Bullets series, when Lupica was at the now-defunct Boston Phoenix, before he became a major New York columnist. Vecsey felt that Lupica was shooting too often relative to his ability, told him enough, and Lupica shot again. (Lupica declined to comment for this piece.)
There was another scrap with a sportswriter during the 1989 NBA Finals in Detroit, which Sam Smith wrote about the time in the Tribune (though, he didn’t witness it). Jeré Longman, then of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now of the New York Times, swung at Vecsey after a hard pick, and Vecsey drew “first blood of the finals” by landing a counterpunch to Longman’s nose. Vecsey tells me that Longman later apologized to him for starting the fight, and that the Pistons trainer joked about how he was tending to the writers in a series involving the Bad Boys Pistons.
Though Vecsey confirmed that these fights happened, he felt that they were “miniscule” and “immaterial” relative to the entirety of his career, and emblematic of the way basketball is played. He joked, “Let’s talk about every fight I ever had here in the gym on 14th street. Cuz I got in a fight with a sportswriter or slapped Mike Lupica? How many people wouldn’t want to slap Lupica? Come on.”
THIS DAY AND AGE
Since retiring from the Post in 2012, Vecsey’s main platform has been Twitter. There, he analyzes today’s game, bashes coaches, engages with longtime readers, and sometimes breaks news. He’s definitely still Peter Vecsey there. So, he’s not totally without presence, but couldn’t there be a platform with more space and permanence for him to contextualize the game?
Larry Bird would welcome any medium for Vecsey’s stories. “You can go through [online or television] media or a book or a radio show, but he’s got a lot to offer,” he says (Bird also felt that there are a lot of older writers out there whose stories have value and aren’t being told). Hannah Storm agrees: “I’d love to see more of him out there, besides just Twitter.”
Vecsey and Pat Riley go back more than 40 years, and famously feuded in the 90’s. However, Riley tells me he eventually came to the realization that the media, like officials, “have a job to do,” which can at times clash with his desire to be the single organizational voice. Though he noted that “You’d go away feeling dissed” by negative columns, Riley praised Vecsey’s knowledge, connections, and accomplishments.
While acknowledging the pitfalls of a 24/7 grind for a fellow basketball man over 70, Pat Riley said he missed the lost art of a weekly newspaper column that felt like a real event: “I think it would be great [if he wrote again] because there really aren’t many left from the old days.” He added that while many great sportswriters have ventured online or to television, “What I’ve always appreciated is opening the newspaper on a Sunday and looking forward to, once a week, there would be a column by Jim Murray or somebody along that line that simply would write the column of our times.”
When the topic of if he would even want a job again comes up, Vecsey is ambivalent. He doesn’t need the money, and he left the Post at a time where he could have made more of it there. He’s pouring effort into his book. But, there will also be times that come up offhandedly where he will mention someone that he got a job for years back and lament that the deed hasn’t been reciprocated. He boasts that even in the era of up-to-the-second reporting he could break news like this, which he “sits on,” in the morning newspaper:
There is not much room in Vecsey’s life for travel now. He and his wife Joan spend much of their time now caring for rescue animals. He tells me they are “down” to six dogs, eight cats, and three horses at their house (he says their peak was “around” 19 cats, nine or 10 dogs, and five horses at one time). There have been many others in their home in between, and Joan has also found homes for dozens more in the South. Last year, Vecsey described how his household began rescuing animals in an interview with reporter Ed Odeven. Their first rescue dog, Charli, was one whose owner passed in 9/11.
Vecsey tells me that he and a chocolate lab, named Bro D, whose foot was mangled in a trap in Louisiana, are “inseparable.” Oliver, A pitbull/greyhound mix who was bred to go from zero to kill mode, was saved from being put down with help from a lawyer, and given 10 weeks’ training in upstate New York. Still quick with the nicknames like he used to bestow upon NBA players, Vecsey refers to him as Oliver Twisted: “I love him, but he’s made some moves that scared me—Whoa, what was that? Where did that come from?—because of what happened to him. Who the hell knows? Somebody did something, you replicate the motion, and all of a sudden…”
Their oldest cat, Scot T (named after Scottie Pippen), died last week at 18 years old. “All of rescue is heartbreaking, at the outset and at the end,” Vecsey says. “Between, it’s all heartwarming.”
Vecsey began covering basketball before it was mainstream, and one of the aspects of his career that many have respected most has been his preservation and promotion of that history. “I really respect how he’s gone out of his way to try to promote ABA players – and older players in general – and their careers,” former coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy tells me. “Sometimes you’d think the history of the game started 10 years ago, and it didn’t.”
This advocacy was on full display in 2009 when Vecsey accepted the Curt Gowdy Award from the Basketball Hall of Fame (which, it must be noted, differs from outright induction). Ernie Johnson introduced Vecsey by saying that “97% of the league reads Peter Vecsey’s column, and that the other 3% are just flat-out liars.
Vecsey’s speech was pilloried at the time by both Jeff Pearlman and this web site. (He admitted to Pearlman that his speech “sucked,” and was a “rambling wreck,” but also insisted “not a single lie was told.”) He fired a bunch of shots, and also took aim at the Hall for not yet having inducted people like Dennis Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Chet Walker, Tex Winter, Milt Kutsher, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Slick Leonard, and Roger Brown. All of those men except for Kutsher, a Catskills resort owner whose Maurice Stokes games in summers helped raise a lot of money for players in need, have since been enshrined.
With Vecsey, it’s clear he continues to lament that older basketball players are not given the due of their counterparts in other sports. “The old guys don’t get the recognition they deserve, for many reasons,” he told Adam Ryan. “People just don’t have a great sense of history for them. Like in baseball, all the old guys are acknowledged as being super. It’s just passed down from generation to generation. Everybody knows the statistics, even though they can’t watch them on film in many instances. You know, you’re not gonna sit down and watch film of Ty Cobb or Tris Speaker, but everyone knows who they are.”
Pat Riley can be seen in video of Vecsey’s Hall of Fame Speech, sitting front and center, grinning from ear to ear. “When I listened to him that night I smiled throughout the course of it because this was the Peter Vecsey I knew as a writer,” Riley says. “His speech was the same way he was going to be on paper. He wasn’t going to pull any punches just because he was in front of a camera or a microphone at the Hall of Fame. That’s why he was inducted. I think he was very sincere that night. He was very humbled and honored, but he was still the irascible Peter Vecsey.”