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Sixers beat writer Phil Jasner dies at age 68

PHILADELPHIA basketball is less a sport than it is a community: past and present, college and pro, the people and their stories woven together. Phil Jasner, the premier chronicler of that community, as well as one of its most cherished members, died last night at age 68.

Phil Jasner (middle) at the Basketball Hall of Fame with Julius Erving (left) and Billy Cunningham in 2004. (Steven M. Falk/Staff File Photo)
Phil Jasner (middle) at the Basketball Hall of Fame with Julius Erving (left) and Billy Cunningham in 2004. (Steven M. Falk/Staff File Photo)Read more

PHILADELPHIA basketball is less a sport than it is a community: past and present, college and pro, the people and their stories woven together. Phil Jasner, the premier chronicler of that community, as well as one of its most cherished members, died last night at age 68.

A Daily News staff reporter since 1972 and the paper's 76ers beat writer since 1981, Jasner distinguished himself by his generosity and his even-handedness and his persistence most of all. He was an old-fashioned reporter who grew to be the most important basketball voice in a basketball city, known for both his fairness and his decency.

"I could tell at the age of 5," said his son, Andy. "He took me to a game with him and people started coming up to him to talk - security guards, everyone. It would go on for years like that, at the old Spectrum, whether it was an usher or Joe Fan in the third row. He was approachable that way. People liked him, and he treated everyone the same. He had time for everybody."

The 12th man on the bench got the same attention to detail and the same courtesy from Phil as the star of the team. It is one of the lessons Andy, also a sports writer, learned from his father. The two of them covered an NBA All-Star Game together for the first time in 1992 in Orlando.

"He was like a kid in a candy store that weekend," Andy said. "He never lost his enthusiasm for the work. I'm convinced he would have done it forever. He loved it.

"So many people in the business are so cynical. 'Sports writer' and 'cynical' go hand-in-hand sometimes, but he never was. In fact, he hated that. It made him crazy when people were like that."

His personal life was both painful and joyous. He supported his wife Susie, who died in 2006, through a decades-long battle with lupus. But late in his life, before his cancer diagnosis, he met Marcia Levinson, whom he grew to love and described as his life partner. Throughout, though, there was Andy and later, Andy's family: wife Taryn and granddaughters Jordana and Shira.

"He loved his girls," Andy said. "He adored them. It was who he was. Those two phone calls I was able to make to him, when they were born, were the happiest days of his life.

"His life was hard in many ways. My mom went through hell. But he felt like that was going to be one side of his life, and he was going to take care of it, and then there would be the work side of his life. He really had a tough personal life for many years, but the work became a release for him."

Among those paying tribute was Sixers coach Doug Collins, whose team was in Atlanta to play the Hawks.

"Needless to say, it's a very sad night," Collins said. "Phil Jasner was the ultimate professional. Just the ultimate respect that was shown to this man the last days of his life. Writers from New York stopped to see him, people from all across the country have called him, reached out to him.

"Phil was all about the truth. He was all about facts. He wasn't about any rumors, he was all about the right things."

The stories about Jasner's work ethic are legend around the Daily News. The number of times he called in with the offer of one more sidebar story are beyond calculation. Thousands of his bylines filled the pages of the newspaper over 38 years, as did his humor and a variety of column head shots, all of them dominated by a full head of curly hair.

Thirty-eight years. As Daily News editor Michael Days said: "Phil really gave us a blueprint on how to live a rich life, how to have a magnificent career. He was a smart, elegant man who cared deeply about this paper and his colleagues. His passion and his distinctive reporting and writing on the Sixers and the NBA brought him many accolades, and each one was richly deserved.

"To be honest, I'm having a very difficult time imagining this place without him," Days said.

Everyone has a Phil Jasner deadline story. Often it involved Phil swooping in to save a colleague with a phone number. He was famous for having serious phone numbers - you know, like Wilt Chamberlain's - but he was less well-known for having the phone number of the guy who would get you to the guy you needed. He kept all of them in a stack of index cards held together by a rubber band.

He was a reporter first and very proud to be known as such.

"Among the things that made Phil special and so good at what he did was how much he loved getting the information, any information, whether it took one phone call or 10," said Josh Barnett, the Daily News executive sports editor. "And then he wanted to share it. You could tell by the inflection in his voice how excited he was to be able to tell you something that he knew. That enthusiasm was there every day, to the end.

"The last major thing he did for us was a story on Allen Iverson as Iverson was heading to Turkey. He made tons of phone calls, read all these websites, found people to translate Turkish news reports. Little by little, it came together. And you could tell how excited Phil was to be able to do it, even as he struggled physically. It was the mark of a true pro, how, despite all he was going through, he just kept hammering away at it, until it met the standards that he had set for himself his whole career. He wanted anything that appeared to be right, be complete, be thorough."

It was this professional excellence that saw Jasner chosen for induction by five halls of fame: the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame; the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame; the Overbrook High School Hall of Fame; the Temple University School of Communications and Theater's Hall of Fame; and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

"I considered it a great honor to represent the Daily News when Phil won the Curt Gowdy Award and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.," Daily News managing editor Pat McLoone said. "That Friday night, previous Hall of Famers return for an alumni night. I just stood around, amazed, as people approached Phil, genuinely glad to see him inducted: Billy Cunningham, David Stern, Julius Erving, Bill Walton . . . They just kept coming and coming."

Like the ushers and the security guards.

Like Joe Fan in the third row.

"He loved to talk about basketball, off the record, just talk hoops," said Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski, who knew Jasner for nearly four decades. "How many guys who had Stage 4 cancer would continue on like he did? He just loved it. He loved basketball. It was his outlet.

"We argued sometimes, had great debates. But he was fair and he was a character. Philadelphia basketball people are interesting people, and he was one of them."

Philip Mark Jasner was born on March 24, 1942; he was a lifelong Philadelphian. He met Merrill Reese, the longtime radio voice of the Eagles, when the two of them were students at Beeber Junior High.

"I used to throw passes to him on the front lawn of Beeber - I was the quarterback, he was the receiver," Reese said.

Several years later, while both were undergraduates at Temple University, Reese remembered a road trip that the two of them took to a basketball game at the University of Kentucky - Reese to do play-by-play on WRTI radio and Jasner to do color commentary as well as write a story for the Temple News.

"They were both top 10 teams and I had to ask the alumni association for the money," Reese said. "We were supposed to fly but the flight was canceled by a snowstorm. We ended up taking a 26-hour train ride to Lexington. Temple lost, but Phil and I really became close friends on that trip. I was in his wedding party, and we stayed close through the years."

The two of them, Reese and Jasner, bounced around some of the smaller media outlets in the Philadelphia area at the start of their careers. When Phil was at the Trentonian, covering the Philadelphia pro sports teams, he received a call from Stan Hochman, then the Daily News sports editor, offering him a job covering high schools.

"He didn't know what to do," Reese said. "He was covering the Phillies and Eagles in Trenton. He didn't know if it was a step down. I said,'Are you crazy? Just get your foot in the door. It's a chance. You'll move from there.' "

Reese has never been more right about anything. Both he and Phil delighted in recalling the conversation in later years.

Jasner started at the Daily News in 1972. He briefly covered high schools, moved to colleges and Sixers home games, and then covered the Eagles for the first 2 years of Dick Vermeil's tenure. Then it was back to the colleges before taking over as the Sixers beat writer in 1981.

"When I hired him, I talked to some people I trusted and they all had good things to say about Phil," Hochman said. "The theme was 'hard worker.' I needed a utility man, someone who could cover the fringe sports. Little did I know I'd wind up with a guy who would eventually make five, count 'em, five halls of fame.

"Relentless is the way I remember his reporting style back in those days, ever on the prowl for human interest stories. We had a soccer team back then, the Atoms. Half the team spoke no English, but that didn't stop Phil. They won a title and one of the star players wanted to celebrate with champagne. So he bought a bunch of long-necked, gilt-wrapped bottles in a drugstore, thinking they were champagne. Turned out he'd bought shampoo. Phil wrote a memorable story about it."

But it was basketball that became Jasner's professional passion. He loved the game and he loved the people. In an era when few newspaper writers work professional sports beats very far into their 50s - so wearing is the travel and the long nights and the sheer volume of words that must be typed - Phil retained his enthusiasm for the work for as long as his body would allow. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2001.

Near the end of his life, he found another measure of personal happiness when he was introduced to Levinson after the death of his wife.

She said, "He walked in the door with that crazy curly hair - it was just like mine. The first time we went out, it was to the movies. I said, 'Phil, do people know you? Do people recognize you?' He said nobody did. Well, I think Allen Iverson was being traded around then, and about four people came up to him. One of them said, 'Excuse me, but can you tell me what's going on with Iverson?' I said, 'So nobody knows you, huh?' "

She laughed. Undoubtedly, Jasner talked to everyone who stopped him. He was like that until his final days.

"This was typical Phil," McLoone said. "On his last stay at the hospital, a nurse and Phil start talking. She said her father played college basketball for Textile, but Phil wouldn't know him because it was in the '70s. When she mentioned his name, Phil told her precise details of things her father had done on the court as a key reserve. She called her father, and he said Phil was exactly right."

Funeral arrangements are incomplete. *

Daily News sports writer Bob Cooney contributed to this report.