There's only one Ira Berkow.

The people he has interviewed is a who's who of sports. Name a sport, pick the biggest name it has, and Berkow not only has written a column or feature about them but chances are he's dined with them, too.

Boxing. Muhammad Ali and "Smokin" Joe Frazier, two of the greatest heavyweight fighters of all-time. Berkow has turned out stories on both multiple times. Basketball. Michael Jordan and LeBron James have sat down to offer their opinions with Berkow. Baseball. Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Derek Jeter have been in Berkow's presence more than once.

On the road, in their arenas of play, when an interview request came, sports' best have been only to accommodating to Berkow. On the sports beat since 1965, first with Minneapolis Tribune, and later joining the New York Times in March of 1981 where he spent decades traveling the globe for THE story, Berkow has seen it all.

Now, sports fans read it all in Berkow's latest book - How Life Imitates Sports - A Sportswriter Recounts, Relives And Reckons With 50 Years On The Sports Beat available at sportspubbooks.com.

It's more than a bit intimidating writing about one of sports' "best of the best"; a hall of fame writer if there ever is one. I admit to being more than a little selfish in wanting to speak with Berkow about the 70-plus subjects he writes about in How Life Imitates Sports. Aside from being a tremendous wordsmith, Berkow is a sports fan. Having a 30-minute give and take on subjects that are near and dear to me (why I feel Dr. J - Julius Erving should be in the same conversation as Michael Jordan, when debating on pro basketball's greatest performer of all-time), when it comes to sports, is deliciously selfish.

What is most appealing to my reading How Life Imitates Sports is that it is easy to pick up and put down, at any time. Each previously published
story runs just a few pages. You have time to be introduced to a subject, be educated on their uniqueness, and move on to the next memorable subject. There is no time for a lull.

You set the pace for when any one of the 373 pages. On page 372, the book goes out with a bang, a full Fourth of July fireworks display, with a two-page piece with The Pigeon Race. Written on December 24, 1969, Berkow reports from Ocho Rios, Jamaica - with a start time of 7:30 a.m. sharp. Berkow makes a believer out of me that pigeons can be memorable for something other than leaving their mark on my car's windshield.

The late MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti's life is well defined, beginning on page 351. Another favorite subject, and so brilliantly described, beginning on page 355, is the late Chicago Bulls' general manager Jerry Krause.

What you learn, starting on page 52, in a story involving Jordan and the NBA playoffs, while in Cleveland is beyond amazing. The story Berkow offers readers, first in May 1993 at the Ritz-Carlton has the most unlikely (and most famous) non-athlete introduced.

Who Berkow bumps into in the elevator, on the way up to Jordan's room is,
well, something for a book.

One of my mom's favorite saying for as long as I can remember is - " that's a keeper". Mom couldn't be more precise in the copy of How Life Imitates Sports that I have. It's a go-to read the same as my collection of Mets and Yankees yearbooks.

What Berkow offers is a smorgasbord of sports' greatest entertainers. Each page is a consistency of excitement and enlightenment.

Berkow allows readers to get up close and personal; eavesdropping if you will, as he learns from his famous subjects. A visit to Manhattan by Roger Bannister in November 1996 gives me much to think about, now days after first reading of the late runner. Page 31 explains how Bannister, who later in life would become a physician, broke the four-minute mile on May 6, 1954.

Then there's "Broadway Joe" Namath, and the beautiful blonde he met at a casino in Dorado, Puerto Rico. Page 34 shows just how interesting a steak dinner could be, especially when you are a championship caliber professional quarterback, and a bachelor. This February 15, 1972 story filed by Berkow has smile written all over it.

World Series, Super Bowl, NBA Finals, the Olympics, golf, any major event of decades past and present, Berkow knows intimately. His readers do as well. Now, all his favorite assignments during his 26 years at the Times are neatly repackaged for sports fans to absorb again.

It's easy to be jealous of Berkow. Read any of his 25-plus books published. Basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Baseball Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Casey Stengel. The late comic Jackie Mason. Berkow has told their stories for their fans to learn about, from "behind the curtain".

In listening to Berkow explain How Life Imitates Sports came to be, the reason for his successful career is blatantly obvious - he's a sports fan.

"I wanted to do categories," said Berkow during a recent telephone conversation. " In 50-plus years, I've done close to 5,000 columns and feature stories. I had a lot to pick from."

Berkow's writings of the 1972 Munich Olympics will surely leave its mark with you. Trust me. You'll be sharing what you read more than once.

Did I tell you how I worked the late basketball icon "Pistol" Pete Maravich (selfishly, I may add) into my privileged minutes with Mr. Berkow?

"I've been around remarkable people," explains Berkow, who lunched with Jackie Robinson, played in a pick-up basketball game against Robertson, and spent time at The White House with Nadia Comaneci. "55 years doing this (sports writing), I feel fortunate."

Thankfully, Berkow, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, is unselfishly in the sharing mood to invite and remind us just why we are addicted to sports, any sports, even pigeons in Jamaica.

Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley.  He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com. 

 

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