A university lecture hall earlier this month. A room full of students, most of them seniors, seeking career advice and insight. One of them raises his hand and asks a good question: How do you find a mentor?
Ah, well, no problem. Here’s what you do: You grow up reading the man who wrote a sports column in Philadelphia better than anyone has or will. When you yourself are a college student, you write that man a letter, on the wing-and-a-prayer hope that he’ll give you some tips about the business, and after he responds, you discover that he is also the finest man to write a sports column in Philadelphia.
How do you find a mentor? You find someone like Bill Lyon.
He was an interloper, from the Midwest. And you know how we generally treat interlopers around here.
Bill Lyon came to The Inquirer in 1972, and in a story he loved to tell, he arrived at the moment that this star-crossed sports town might have been at its nadir. The Eagles went 2-11-1 in 1972. Steve Carlton won 27 games. The rest of the Phillies won 32. The Flyers finished 12 games under .500 and missed the NHL playoffs on the final day of the regular season, when the Buffalo Sabres scored with four seconds left to beat them. The 76ers went 9-73, which remains the worst record over an 82-game season in NBA history. And Bill Lyon — who had moved his wife, Ethel, and their sons, Jim and John, to the Delaware Valley on the promise that they would never move again — looked at her and said, “My God, what have I done?”
But this interloper was different. He didn’t scream and shout in print, though over the years those teams gave him plenty of reason to do exactly that. He became, instead, our sports culture’s conscience, the counterbalance to the anger and outrage and warped perspectives.
The clarity of his thinking, of his values, was obvious if you observed him working. There’s an old adage in sportswriting, an aspiration born of too many games and events on too many nights when hard deadlines loom: Be faster than everyone who is better than you, or be better than everyone who is faster than you. That adage did not apply to Bill. He was faster and better. The words seemed to flow directly from his brain to the screen, with only the clacking thumps of his index fingers against the keyboard reminding you that, yes, there was some labor involved here and, no, the job wasn’t as easy as Bill made it appear.
He wrote about sports in a manner that revealed something about himself, about the way he viewed the world and conducted himself in it. We should always tell the truth, of course, but we should be tolerant of others’ failings. We should remember that there is more to life than sports. We should remember that sports, at its best, is a stage that puts the indomitability of the human spirit on display for all to see. We should remember that sports means nothing and everything at the very same time.
And so … in the Spectrum’s cramped press box, in February 1996, Bill watches Villanova toy with an overmatched La Salle team, 90-50, and he hears the whispers that Explorers coach Speedy Morris might lose his job, and he writes this:
Anyone can afford to be magnanimous during times of success, but … it takes considerably more courage, vision, and perspective to support a man when the floodwaters are lapping at his feet. A man stands by you, there is a time when you ought to stand up for him.
No one knows for certain if that column saved Morris’ job. But he remains at La Salle for another five years, and after that column appears in The Inquirer, Morris’ wife, Mimi, calls Bill in tears, to say thank you.
And so … it is the 1982 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, and the Sixers — one year after squandering a three-games-to-one lead to the Celtics — look like they are choking again. They take another 3-1 lead on Boston, only to lose the next two games, and ahead of Game 7 at the Garden, Bill writes this:
Why, a Philadelphia sportswriter was asked, even bother going to Boston today? “For the same reason,” the writer said, shrugging, “that you agree to be a pallbearer, I guess.”
It’s a great line, tart and funny. But here’s the part that matters: After the Sixers win Game 7 in a rout, Bill walks up to their coach, Billy Cunningham, in the locker room. He extends his hand, and he says, “The line of apology forms here.”
And so … at the 1999 U.S. Open, in Pinehurst, N.C., Bill spends the tournament’s first day following John DiMarco, the assistant pro at Laurel Creek Country Club, who had qualified for the Open for the first time. Someone else is following DiMarco, too: his dad, Aymon, cheering him on, sagging with every missed fairway and bunker-bound iron. John DiMarco shoots a 79, and Bill closes his column with this:
As they left, Aymon DiMarco felt a father’s compulsion to add one last stubborn postscript: “John played great today, you know. Really, he did.”
The son smiled, indulgently, and he shrugged one of those what-are-you-going-to-do kind of shrugs.
It said: You know how fathers are.
Where their sons are concerned, yes. Yes, we do.
Here’s what a mentor does once you’ve found him:
He counsels you, professionally and personally. He invites you into his home, into his family, and allows you to invite him into yours. He travels with you on road trips, jets and puddle-jumpers and long car rides to Eagles games and NCAA tournaments, always having dinner at the hotel restaurant because … well, who needs to splurge, even when you’re on an expense account?
He talks with you for hours about the craft of writing, about the ability to see the story right in front of you that no one else can see, about the sacrifices that this life requires and the joys and benefits it can bring, about the truth of this profession: that if you’re doing it right, you’re not really writing about sports. You’re writing about people, so search for and highlight the humanity in the games boys and girls can play.