April 23, 2010

New horizons for The Guru

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: — wendyp @ 12:58 pm

Many of you probably know by now that Mel Greenberg has retired from the Philadelphia Inquirer after a career of more than 40 years, including his creation of the first women’s college basketball poll. Here’s the farewell blog post he penned to the Inquirer staff. Very classy, just like the man.

There’s not a lot I can add about Mel that many of you don’t already know, since you’ve likely known him, and about him, for far longer. But I’ll try.

It’s been 21 years since I got that first late-night phone call — the first of hundreds — after I wrote him about wanting to cover women’s basketball.

He’s the only person I knew at a newspaper who was doing this, and I knew this only because his name was mentioned in the Street & Smiths annual, in its women’s preview pages.

Then, as now, there were only two or three pages among hundreds in that magazine, but to me this was heaven. For most of the 1980s, while I covered local news, government and politics, I knew I always wanted to get to writing about the sports I had played as a kid.

As absurd as it might have seemed then, I had it in the back of my mind, early in my career, that someday I could make something of a living writing about women’s hoops.

So before I sent letters to editors about freelancing, I made sure the first letter I typed up went to Mel. I enclosed my phone number if he cared to contact me, never expecting it would be returned so promptly.

Or so late in the evening.

At the time — in the spring of 1989 — I was working at a suburban Atlanta daily since closed, and had to report to the office around 9 a.m., which is rather early for me.

I’ve always proudly considered myself a night owl. Then I met Mel.

During that first phone conversation — and I really, really needed to get to bed — he urged me to join the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. With it came a subscription to Basketball Times. Many of you know the rest of that story, and the people I’ve met and friends I’ve made because of it I will treasure forever.

Another memorable late night call came a few months later. I was struggling to get any of those editors to let me freelance women’s hoops, and didn’t think I’d ever get my foot in the door anywhere.

He called me ’round midnight to tell me that his father had died. This wasn’t unexpected; the man had been in poor health. I can’t recall anything in particular Mel told me about his father, but I realized sometime during the conversation that he just wanted somebody to talk to.

Even someone he’d never even met. It wasn’t until a few months later, at the first Women’s Final Four I covered in Knoxville in 1990, that I first laid eyes on The Guru, and observed how he truly rolled.

The network of coaches, broadcasters, NCAA people, anybody associated with the women’s game who clamored around him, wherever he was — at the arena, the hotels, a restaurant — was amazing.

I knew Mel was plugged in, but the whole darn sport was radiating around this guy.

And not just because he paved the way for the media coverage that has come since, but also because of how thoroughly decent and generous he is.

I’ve never heard Mel utter an unkind word about anybody. I’ve never heard anyone do the same to him. He’s in truly rare company in that regard.

Even during my hiatus from the sport a few years ago, he always stayed in touch, always wanted to see how I was doing, what I was up to. Then he rattled off all kinds of insider intelligence about the game that only he could collect, taking — and making — all those late night phone calls.

Even after all of these years hanging around Mel, I was taken aback at the Final Four in San Antonio while watching him work the hotel lobbies. If you’ve seen him in action before, you know what I’m talking about.

Within a few minutes of arriving at the Grand Hyatt, he had buttonholed about a half-dozen people, including former UCLA assistant AD Judie Holland, who also was the NCAA women’s basketball committee chair in the years shortly after the move from the AIAW.

He did likewise at the main coaches hotel, where he stayed up late — 3 a.m. to Mel is like 7 p.m. to the rest of us — every single night. Call me a party pooper, but I’ve never been able to hang with the man like that. Not ever.

And he’s always, always plugged in. We were having dinner at a San Antonio restaurant with three other sportswriters when Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato came over to say hello. She noticed Mel on his Blackberry, and scolded him to put that thing down. He did for a time, only to pick it back up after she left.

When I first got involved with the U.S. Basketball Writers, helping organize the Final Four breakfasts and counting All-America ballots, Mel’s the guy I went to because he had done all this before.

And for those of you who don’t know, he’s the only journalist covering primarily women’s basketball who’s in the USBWA Hall of Fame. The WBCA has named its media award after him, and his efforts to get the game before the media is the reason he’s in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

All so richly deserved.

Mel’s not going away — he’s going to keep blogging on his own site and recently bought some domain names that he wants to do something with eventually.

Mel probably doesn’t want all this gushing, precisely because he’s not going away. But after making the move from newspapers a couple of years ago, I can attest to the mixed emotions that he might be having.

The Inquirer, like so many papers, is in dire trouble; next week it goes up for auction. Like thousands of refugees from the newspaper business, he knew the odds were long of staying for longer than he did.

But he gets to go out on his own terms, which given the layoffs in the business, is something of a bonus.

He called me last night rather early — just as my hometown Atlanta Falcons were drafting! — to describe the farewell party at the paper and the fact that he was penning his last Inquirer byline.

I’ve been telling him that all sorts of possibilities are out there, but first enjoy and feel proud of the work you’ve done, and then get on with it. I figure he’ll be lurking around a WNBA training camp next week.

I just wanted to say thanks to Mel for inviting me into his world, and into the world of women’s basketball, as crazy as it can be from time to time.

Most of all, thanks for being such a good friend.

Mazel Tov!

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