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The man who knows everybody
Dick Schaap recalls his life -- and a half-century of journalism
(CNN) -- Dick Schaap has been a journalist for half a century now, but he says it was during the tumultuous 1960s when he came into his own.
"I just can't believe all the things I did that decade," says Schaap, who was an editor at Newsweek and, later, the New York Herald Tribune during that time. "I met Muhammad Ali, I met Lenny Bruce, I met the Green Bay Packers, I met Joe Namath, I covered Richard Nixon, I covered Bobby Kennedy, I covered (former New York mayor) John Lindsay, I covered the riots in Watts and the murders in Mississippi.
"I just look back and say 'Wow, I wished I had stopped a little more and appreciated how lucky I was to be doing what I was doing,' " he says.
Actually, Schaap, 66, is finally stopping to appreciate what he's accomplished in his new book, "Flashing Before My Eyes: 50 Years of Headlines, Deadlines and Punchlines" (William Morrow). It's Schaap's memoir of a life in a trade encompassing newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet.
'My subject was accessible'
Anyone who has followed Schaap's career knows he's made part of his living by writing the "autobiographies" of athletes. Hank Aaron, Joe Montana and Bo Jackson are just some of the sports legends who have told their story "with Dick Schaap."
Now that Schaap is tackling his own tale, with a subhead that reads "As Told To Dick Schaap," it begs the obvious question: What was it like to write a book with himself?
"The best thing," Schaap says gamely, "was that my subject was accessible, which wasn't always true with the other people I worked with. Secondly, I didn't have to split the money with him. He did it gratis, which was nice of him. And if he was wrong, I had nobody to blame but myself. I couldn't pull a Charles Barkley and claim I was misquoted in my autobiography."
Schaap was born in Depression-era Brooklyn, New York. His first journalism job was at the tender age of 15 when he worked at a newspaper called the Nassau Daily Review-Star; his editor was Jimmy Breslin, who was 20 at the time.
Schaap's career has since run parallel with and perpendicular to Breslin's. At one point, they both banged out stories for the Herald Tribune during the last two-and-a-half years of the respected paper's existence.
"It was the opportunity," Schaap recalls, "to work with Tom Wolfe and Breslin and Red Smith. If you're a journalist, that's who you want to be with. (Legendary theater critic) Walter Kerr used to use my typewriter, I was so proud."
By the dawn of the 1970s, Schaap was taking his journalism to television airwaves, appearing on New York's NBC affiliate and then the network itself. He eventually jumped ship to ABC and, later, ESPN. Schaap also was an early arrival to the Internet, writing on sports during the early days of Prodigy's Web site.
These days, Schaap spends much of his time providing content for ESPN. He's been hosting the show "The Sports Reporters" for 12 years and he does a radio show -- "The Sporting Life With Dick Schaap" -- on weekends. Also, he recently edited the latest edition of "The Best American Sports Writing."
Over the years, Schaap learned to be what he calls a "people collector." He makes friends with the people he meets and tells their story. And often times, he remains friends with them.
"Part of my thing of being a people collector is I hold on to the collection," he says. "Jimmy Breslin and I have been friends for 50 years and he calls just about every day and just about every day I hang up on him. But he persists. If there's anything Jimmy appreciates, it's rudeness."
"Flashing Before My Eyes" is a pleasant, easy read of recollections, jokes, high- and lowlights -- a scrapbook of snapshots guided by Schaap's words.
The book is also a brisk overview of the last half century, told through the filter of some of the dominant personalities of the times. As Schaap walks down memory lane, he's joined by his favorite subjects: Namath blowing marijuana smoke into the face of Schaap's dog; Ali, readying for his third and final war with Joe Frazier; Peter Falk, before his "Columbo" days, helping Schaap investigate the drug death of a young woman.
Sports is the common thread through Schaap's life. He says that his first copy of SPORT magazine, a magazine he would edit years later, featured Joe DiMaggio and Joe DiMaggio Jr. on the cover.
It was at that moment "I realized I wanted to be a sportswriter," Schaap writes. He would eventually interview both DiMaggio and his son.
Schaap has gone on to witness some of the greatest moments in sports: the 1967 Ice Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys; Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Mazeroski's bottom-of-the-ninth homer to defeat the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series; Ali-Frazier III in Manila.
The times have changed
Schaap admits, however, he does get sick of sports. Athletes, he says, are helping to ruin sports journalism as he knew it by surrounding themselves with their successes and refusing to open their lives to the media.
And for a guy who's attended many legendary sporting contests, Schaap doesn't enjoy covering the big-name events these days.
"There's just too many people covering these things," he says. "There's no such thing as reporting. Everything is spoon-fed and nobody gets exclusives because the athletes all have their posses surrounding them. Even the coaches have their posses.
"It used to be in the early days of the Super Bowl when Namath was playing, you'd just walk over to the hotel where the Jets were staying and go out to the swimming pool and Namath would be there and six of his teammates would be there and you could just sit around and (talk) with them," he says.
"All of journalism is a shrinking art," says Schaap. "So much of it is hype. The O.J. Simpson story is a landmark in the decline of journalism."
The people collection on display
Schaap has recently expanded his journalistic activities to another of his loves: the theater. He regularly attends shows with his third wife, Trish, and does theater reviews for ABC's "World News Now." He's the only person to vote for both the Heisman Trophy and the Tony Awards.
So, what does he appreciate more: thespians or athletes?
"Given the choice of going to the Knicks or the theater, I'll go to the theater," he admits.
Of course, he will head to Tampa later this month for Super Bowl XXXV. He won't attend the game, he says, but he will throw his annual bash, a smorgasbord of barbecue ribs and free drinks.
And at least part of his 50-year-old people collection will be on display.
"The first two RSVPs were from Yogi Berra saying he couldn't make it, and the other from Bob Beamon saying he could make it," he says. "It'll be a good line-up.
"This year we're celebrating the book," he says. "It's enlightened self-interest."
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