George Solomon on late sportswriter Bill Nack

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George Solomon on late sportswriter Bill Nack
May 15, 2018

The great sportswriter Bill Nack, who passed away in Washington on April 13 at the age of 77, loved to write. But even greater than his passion for good writing was his love of reading.

When visiting the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, which he did often to talk sportswriting, he would share with students the secret to writing well: reading.

“Do not limit yourselves to sports,” Nack would say. “Read good fiction, poetry, great novels. James  Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Read them all.”

And Nack, who could recite long passages from “The Great Gatsby” as well as reel off the names of  every Kentucky Derby winner in history without so much as missing a beat, lived to read and write.

He loved horses and wrote about them as well as anyone who ever went to the backstretch, covered a major race

and touched a keyboard. His coverage in 1973 of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, including  his famous farewell (“Pure Heart”) on the death of the horse in 1990, set the standard for writing about the sport.

But he had a gift for writing about human sports stars as well in his 23 years as a writer for Sports Illustrated after a run at Newsday. He first worked as a metro reporter for the Long Island newspaper (“My beat was sewers,” he would say), then as a racing writer and general sports columnist before joining Sports Illustrated in 1978.

Reciting all the winners of the Kentucky Derby, starting in 1875, at a staff Christmas party got Nack off the sewer beat in 1971; he grew up around horses and was infatuated them, as well as the sport of racing (a beat far more important to newspapers then compared to now).

At Sports Illustrated he became  one of the magazine’s leading “long form” writers, touching on subjects as varied as Jackie Robinson, Isiah Thomas, A.J. Foyte, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and chess champion  Bobby Fischer. He spent two years (during  his vacation time) trying to track down Fischer for a Sports Illustrated story. When he finally  cornered the unpredictable Fischer under a light pole outside a Los Angeles public library, Nack, dressed down to look homeless, decided  walk away from his prey.

“I didn’t want to bother him; I felt he deserved his privacy,” said Nack, telling the story to a sportswriting class. He noted his spur of the moment decision did not sit well with his editors at SI. “They became very angry with me, but the story eventually got published,” he said.

The Fischer story was one of many Nack classics that earned him the 2017 PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement award for literary sports writing. He also authored three books, two of which were turned into movies.

“He was a splendid man and a splendid writer,” Tom Callahan, also an exceptional writer, told Newsday. “He was the only thoroughbred writer I ever knew who didn’t care about the (betting) windows.”

John Schulian, a retired sportswriter and screenwriter who puts together anthologies of great sportswriting, was among the journalists to attend a May 7 celebration of Nack in Washington’s St  Columba’s Episcopal Church. Schulian, in an email,  said this of Nack:

“Bill was great for many reasons, but I always thought it was his passion for the written word that set him apart from other writers. He cared about each paragraph, each sentence, each word, each syllable. Look at the way his best pieces are constructed. There’s a rhythm that is almost musical, just as his imagery often seems more poetic that journalistic. He gave you all the facts–he was a meticulous reporter—but he gave you art, too. And art doesn’t come in a rush, which may surprise those who have grown up in an age when speed seems to count for more than anything. Bill crafted his piece with the kind of single-mindedness that threatens deadlines, just the way Red Smith, Westbrook Pegler and Larry Merchant did before him. He knew what it was to be the last person out of the press box. He knew because he was always searching for a better word, a better metaphor, a better way to make his story come to life. His readers were the lucky ones. He always gave them a piece of his heart.”

After he retired from Sports Illustrated several years ago, Nack was hired to write and verbalize essays – mostly on horse racing –   for ESPN.  They’ll be available for fans to savor forever.

One of those essays ran after the death of Ali. It read, in part:

“When Ali emerged in the dark of that Atlanta night in 1996 to light the Olympic fame[…] I could see him clomping through the Chickasaw Park in Louisville in those steel-toed Brogans. I could imagine him walking around the Olympic Village in Rome showing his gold medal to everyone. I could remember him dancing like a madman around the ring in Miami after beating Liston and telling the astonished world that he was  ‘the baddest man’ on the planet.

“I could hear him saying that he had no quarrel with those Viet Cong. I can recall him leaning back against Foreman in Zaire as Dundee screamed at him, ‘Get off the ropes.’ I could remember him sprawling on his back, tassels flying in the air, after Frazier dropped him with the mightiest of left hooks at Madison Square Garden in ’71.

“I could see him sitting in his locker room, looking puffy and drained and beaten after he lost his title to Spinks, with his entourage and  handlers, afraid for their jobs, screaming at him that he had let them down because he had not trained.

“I could remember him waving at the honking horns with one hand, blowing kisses left and right, while trying to untangle the cables with the other.

“And I still recall Ali today, dressed in radiant white, as he bore the Olympic torch that touched the hearts and lit the conscience of a nation still shadowed by its turbulent past.

“Today came the journey’s end, with one thing made clear: There is not chance we’ll ever see his like again.”

But as important as Nack’s own words is the legacy he left for readers and students, one of  whom told me several years ago: “Listening to Bill Nack talk about sportswriting changed my life.”

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