- Dr. Jack Ramsay, NBA
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This feature was originally published in 2007.
I first met David Halberstam in the fall of 1973 at a social get-together at the home of writer Gay Talese in New York City. Talese and I were friends from summers in Ocean City, N.J., where we played a lot of tennis. Halberstam and Talese were longtime friends since the days when both wrote for the New York Times.
I was coaching the Buffalo Braves at the time and we had a preseason game against Boston, played as part of a doubleheader in Madison Square Garden. The night before the game, Talese invited me to join a group of his friends ... mostly from the literary world. It was Halberstam who answered my knock on the door. I had just finished reading "The Best and the Brightest," Halberstam's Pulitzer Prize winning documentary of the war in Vietnam, and I was stunned to see him face-to-face.
"David Halberstam," I blurted out. "I just read your Vietnam book. What a great book!"
He smiled, we shook hands and were friends ever since.
He and Talese, both huge Knicks fans, would come to Braves, and later Trail Blazers games, along with their wives, Jean and Nan, whenever my team played in New York. And we would get together after the game for a bite to eat and a glass of wine. Those were fun evenings ... even after losses that my team endured.
After we won the championship in Portland in 1977, David approached me with the idea of writing a book on the NBA, focusing on the Trail Blazers. I checked with team president Harry Glickman, who thought it was a great idea and an honor to have someone of Halberstam's literary stature write about the Blazers.
So in the fall of 1979, David came to training camp to observe the team -- one far different from the one that won the NBA championship in '77.
Bill Walton, who had broken his foot early in the 1978 playoffs, expressed resentment over his medical treatment and a desire to play elsewhere, and had been traded to San Diego. Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins, both unhappy with their contractual arrangements with the Blazers, were traded to New Jersey and Philadelphia, respectively, during that season. Bob Gross struggled with injuries and would later sign with San Diego. In their places were Kermit Washington, Calvin Natt, Jim Paxson, Kevin Kunnert, Billy Ray Bates, Tom Owens, Abdul Jelani, Jim and Ron Brewer and T.R. Dunn.
Starting at training camp, Halberstam arranged interviews with all of them, taking copious notes, transferring them into typed material, and meticulously filing them away at the end of each day. He had a personable knack for acquiring the confidence of the players, and was able to dig deeply into their backgrounds. The players all liked him.
Halberstam's hotel room was often near mine and I would hear him clacking away on his typewriter into the wee hours of the morning as he organized his material.
I also liked David. He had a sincere interest in sports and how it related to society, and he had a special fondness for basketball. He and I would grab most of our meals together, long sessions when he would ask me about the league, its players, the makeup of my team roster, and what I had to do to develop a winning record. It was very enjoyable.
The season was tumultuous. Players were coming and going and it was hard to sustain consistent play. We ended up 38-44, squeezing into the playoffs on the last day of the season. Halberstam was an insider.
David kept telling me that at some point, he wanted to sit down with me for an extensive interview, but we never got to it. Then, shortly before the book's publishing date, he called me to say he was sending me the galley proofs of the book to be called "The Breaks of the Game."
When the proofs arrived, I read through the early chapters before coming to the one about me. In it Halberstam expressed the idea that surpassing Red Auerbach's record for most NBA wins -- I was second at the time -- was something of an obsession for me. He stated that when Portland played Boston, it was not the Celtics that I focused on, "... it was Auerbach, Auerbach, Auerbach."
I called him and told him that I thought he had written a great book -- terrific insights into the NBA and its players. But his assertion about me and Auerbach's record just wasn't true. I seldom saw Red at all during the season. I admired him for what he had accomplished, but I was focused on winning games -- whether it was against Boston or any other team in the league -- not on Red's record.
David heard me out and said that he would fix it. The final version of the passage stayed the same, except it finished with only one "Auerbach."
David Halberstam remained a friend of mine and my family members. He took a special interest in our two oldest children, Susan and John, who acquired doctoral degrees and taught at the college level. David once shuffled his lecture schedule and traveled an extra leg to talk at Carleton College, where John is an assistant dean.
The literary world has lost one of its foremost craftsman. I have lost a dear friend.
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