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From Ali to Xena: 31

Hello, I Must Be Going

By John Schulian

My life began to change for the better as soon as I caught a glimpse of Hollywood in my future. I believe that’s known as the magic of show business. Of course, the Philadelphia 76ers, being mostly very tall, as professional basketball teams inevitably are, did what they could to obscure my view by playing a game they appeared to be as uninterested in as I was. But we all had to be someplace that January night in 1985, so there we were. Afterward, out of desperation more than anything else, I tried, unsuccessfully, to coax a sentence or two out of Moses Malone. All Moses seemed to have in him was a few grunts, and a few grunts do not a column make.

It was snowing when I headed back to the Daily News wondering how I was going to tap dance my way through this one. Sometime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., I remembered the “Red on Roundball” feature that Red Auerbach used to do on the NBA’s TV games. One of his guests had been Moses, and when Auerbach asked him what the secret of rebounding was, Moses said, “I take it to the rack.” Though hardly as memorable as “Give me liberty or give me death” or “I can’t get no satisfaction,” those words became my inspiration for an ode to Moses, who, after all, would end up in the hall of fame as a player, not an orator.

Afterward, while driving home through the snow, I realized that (1) I had turned 40 while I was in the process of immortalizing that big sphinx, and (2) I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this. In truth, I didn’t want to spend another day doing it. But I needed the dough, and besides, in just a few hours, I had an appointment to see Steve Sabol at NFL Films about his search for someone to replace the late John Facenda as the voice that would stir the soul as the game’s behemoths shook the earth. For what it’s worth, I wrote a column nominating Tina Turner. She didn’t get the job.

Not that I cared. I was too busy thinking about Hollywood. At first it was an abstraction, the way it had been when I was a kid so fascinated by movies–-never TV, always movies–that I drew crude versions of them on sheets of paper. If you want to be generous, I guess you could call what I did storyboards. The movies I chose to give my special touch were primarily Westerns, and not great ones, either. We’re talking about the bottom half of a double bill. I didn’t start thinking bigger until I picked up “The Craft of Screenwriting,” a book of interviews with heavy hitters like William Goldman and Robert Towne that my wife had given me for Christmas in 1981. In her inscription, she had said she expected me to be writing in Hollywood in five years. She was my ex-wife by this point, of course, but I realized that if I hustled, I still had a chance to make her deadline.

I’d been in Philly for less than three months, and I already knew it wasn’t for me. The only time I liked the city was when I was looking down at it from a plane bound for Los Angeles. Mike Rathet, the Daily News sports editor, was incredibly generous about giving me assignments on the West Coast. I must have made eight or 10 trips there in 18 months. In each of the two holiday seasons that I worked for the News, I spent three weeks in L.A., ensconced in an out-of-the-way hotel where somebody interesting was always in the lobby–Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, James Earl Jones. I heard that Elvis Costello stayed there, too. Lots of rock-and-rollers did. God bless them, because the women they attracted made the rooftop swimming pool the eighth wonder of the world. But I was equally fond of the clerk who greeted me on one of my visits by saying, “Oh, Mr. Schulian, welcome back. Are you filming?” Only in my dreams.

The spoiler was always my return trip to Philadelphia and the low-grade depression that set in the moment my flight touched down. Once again, I would be trapped in a world where the good guys were becoming harder to find. They were still there, of course–the ones with the stories and the one-liners and the moments of insight and reflection–but there were more and more athletes, coaches and executives who were the writers’ enemy and reveled in it.

And so there came a night when John Thompson, the Georgetown basketball coach, decreed that there would be no speaking to his two star players after they had mumbled a couple of forgettable clichés in a post-game press conference. This was in Madison Square Garden after the Hoyas had just beaten Chris Mullin and St. John’s. I marched down the hallway to Georgetown’s locker room, determined to either talk to the kids or get thrown out trying. And then I hit the brakes. Screw it, I told myself. There would be no confrontation with Thompson or that horrible crone he had watching over the team. There would be no more groveling.

I’d spent enough time choking on the cynicism in the press box at wretched Veterans Stadium, too. There wasn’t any place in the country that was its equal for toxicity. While the artificial turf curled like discount-store shag and the paying customers howled for blood, some immensely talented knights of the keyboard entertained themselves by, among other things, mocking a ballplayer with a speech impediment.

What I was sickest of, however, was my own writing. I’d read years before that someone–-I think it was Russell Baker, the New York Times’ op-ed page wit–said you spend your first year as a columnist discovering your voice and the rest of your career trying to get over it. In Philadelphia, where I was new to readers, everything felt old to me -– the anecdotes, the turns of phrase, the choices of column subjects, the striving to establish myself. I’d done it all in Chicago, and the prospect of doing it again felt like a death sentence.

Faulkner in Hollywood

Writing in Hollywood promised to be as different as fiction is from fact. There was a chance it might even be my salvation. That may seem a curious choice of words when you consider the fate of writers far better than I who have washed up on the rocky shoals of the movie and TV business. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the most beautiful prose America has ever seen, was baffled by screenwriting no matter how hard he worked at it. William Faulkner, weary of executives who thought he was loafing if his typewriter wasn’t clickety-clacking, simply went home to Mississippi and soothed his soul with bourbon. But I couldn’t be scared off by Fitzgerald’s fate, nor could I drink as much as Faulkner. This was about me and no one else. I had to close my eyes and jump.

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1 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 6, 2011 1:14 pm

Moses did say "Fo, Fo, Fo," though when asked about the Sixers playoff chances in 1983. Meaning, they were going to sweep, four, four, four.

2 RIYank   ~  Sep 6, 2011 2:27 pm

Is tonight's game going to be rained out?

3 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 6, 2011 3:14 pm

I assume John is referring to Mary Fenlon as "that horrible crone" watching over the basketball team. She was the academic coordinator and responsible for Georgetown graduating 97% of it's basketball players during Thompson's career.

4 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 6, 2011 3:26 pm

Mary Fenlon:
One of the first academic coordinators in the nation, Miss Fenlon was the first person Coach Thompson hired when he came to Georgetown. She worked for 27 years and retired in July 1999, six months after the Coach. While she was at Georgetown, 97 percent of the players who stayed at the school for four years graduated. Miss Fenlon characterized her job in this way: “It’s just common sense. It’s just making sure that, because we are asking the students to spend so much time in practice, traveling and at games, that we check to make sure they are doing what they should academically. Because we create so many distractions we need to balance them and refocus the student athletes on education. That’s what they’re here for.”

Patrick Ewing has commented that: “Miss Fenlon played a major role in my development. When a kind word was needed, she said it, but if a strong word was needed she said that too. She was like a mother in some ways–she cared enough to tell you what you needed to hear, not just what you wanted to hear.”

5 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 6, 2011 4:27 pm

4) That's impressive. Was she also a jerk to work with that you know of?

6 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 6, 2011 7:07 pm

[4] absolutely not. thompson wouldn't let his players talk to the media, and i'm sure she agreed with and helped enforce that policy.

7 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 6, 2011 8:57 pm

[5] i mean, absolutely not, that i know of, was she a jerk.

but i bet she was tough as hell and had no sympathy for reporters. and made no effort to find out which ones were good ones and deserved respect and which ones were hacks who were going to be exploitative. they built a high-wall and threw buckets of of tar down on everybody coming up.

but she saw the players as students first, ball players second, and media figures never.

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