Check out my latest podcast with David Davis about his new book Wheels of Courage.
Out of the carnage of World War II comes an unforgettable tale about defying the odds and finding hope in the most harrowing of circumstances. Wheels of Courage: How Paralyzed Veterans from World War II Invented Wheelchair Sports, Fought for Disability Rights, and Inspired a Nation (Center Street, 2020) tells the stirring story of the soldiers, sailors, and marines who were paralyzed on the battlefield during World War II-at the Battle of the Bulge, on the island of Okinawa, inside Japanese POW camps-only to return to a world unused to dealing with their traumatic injuries. Doctors considered paraplegics to be “dead-enders” and “no-hopers,” with the life expectancy of about a year. Societal stigma was so ingrained that playing sports was considered out-of-bounds for so-called “crippled bodies.” But servicemen like Johnny Winterholler, a standout athlete from Wyoming before he was captured on Corregidor, and Stan Den Adel, shot in the back just days before the peace treaty ending the war was signed, refused to waste away in their hospital beds. Thanks to medical advances and the dedication of innovative physicians and rehabilitation coaches, they asserted their right to a life without limitations. The paralyzed veterans formed the first wheelchair basketball teams, and soon the Rolling Devils, the Flying Wheels, and the Gizz Kids were barnstorming the nation and filling arenas with cheering, incredulous fans. The wounded-warriors-turned-playmakers were joined by their British counterparts, led by the indomitable Dr. Ludwig Guttmann. Together, they triggered the birth of the Paralympic Games and opened the gymnasium doors to those with other disabilities, including survivors of the polio epidemic in the 1950s. Much as Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough into the major leagues served as an opening salvo in the civil rights movement, these athletes helped jump-start a global movement about human adaptability. Their unlikely heroics on the court showed the world that it is ability, not disability, that matters most. Off the court, their push for equal rights led to dramatic changes in how civilized societies treat individuals with disabilities: from kneeling buses and curb cutouts to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Their saga is yet another lasting legacy of the Greatest Generation, one that has been long overlooked. Drawing on the veterans’ own words, stories, and memories about this pioneering era, David Davis has crafted a narrative of survival, resilience, and triumph for sports fans and athletes, history buffs and military veterans, and people with and without disabilities.
Check out my latest podcast with Ralph Carhart about his book The Hall Ball.
Rescued in 2010 from the small creek that runs next to Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York, a simple baseball launched an epic quest that spanned the United States and beyond. For eight years, “The Hall Ball” went on a journey to have its picture taken with every member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, both living and deceased.
Ralph Carhart visited 34 states, Puerto Rico and Cuba, hundreds of graves, the spots where baseball legends’ ashes were spread and even the cryogenic lab where Ted Williams is frozen. The goal? To enshrine the first crowd-sourced artifact ever donated to the Hall.
Part travelogue, part baseball history, part photo journal, The Hall Ball: One Fan’s Journey to Unite Cooperstown Immortals with a Single Baseball (McFarland) tells the full story for the first time. The narratives that accompany the ball’s odyssey are as funny and moving as any in the history of the game. The Hall Ball also provides a rarely before seen history of the origins of baseball.
One of the hardest things about writing a book is deciding what not to include. As an author who’s deeply immersed in your subject, you come across certain nuggets that you find fascinating, but which may not resonate with your readers. Stories or other pieces of information may also be left out because they could not be confirmed, were off the record, didn’t fit the time period, disrupted the flow or were too tangential to the topic. I thought I’d share a few of the nuggets that didn’t make it into the book.
But first, the bloopers. I interviewed close to 100 people for my book and spoke with many others who declined to talk or assisted me along the way. Tracking down a source is a two-step process. First, you have to find contact information for the person. Then you have to convince him or her to talk to you. The second part led to some comical interactions.
One afternoon I called a former Knicks scout to glean some insight into the Knicks’ draft picks in the 1990s. He answered the phone and without saying hello immediately unloaded on a rant: “Listen you fucking scumbag, I’ve had enough of this shit. I’m a busy man and I don’t have time for fucking scumbags like you. You’re a real piece of shit. I’m trying to get work done and motherfuckers like you keep harassing me…” This went on and on and on. I had never heard anything like it. Then he concluded his epic rant by asking, “Is this a fucking scumbag or a real call?” I said, “It’s a real call.” Stunned silence. He asked who I was and I explained. He apologized profusely, explaining that he had received a ton of solicitations that day from numbers he didn’t recognize and assumed I was one of them. He ended up being helpful and generous with his time.
After venturing down multiple paths in search of contact information for an important executive of the 90s Knicks, I finally acquired the correct phone number. (He will remain nameless.) I called his home number and asked to speak to him when a male answered. The man asked who was calling. I identified myself and said I wanted to talk to this individual for a book I was writing about the 90s Knicks. The man on the phone said the person I was looking for wasn’t home and asked for my number so he could get back to me. Except, I knew with 100 percent certainty that the man I was talking to was the man I was looking for! I grew up on those Knicks teams and had heard his voice countless times.
Not surprisingly, the executive didn’t call me back. A few weeks later, I tried again. Once again, I called his home number and once again he answered. This time he revealed his identity, but said he had a guest and asked if I could call back later. I asked if there was a specific time and he said, “Any time this afternoon.” I called back later that day. Somebody picked up the phone and immediately hung up. I was pretty sure it was intentional, but gave him the benefit of the doubt. I immediately called back. The same thing happened.
I wasn’t about to let this important source off easy after his bizarre behavior. A few weeks later, I called again. Once again, the source answered. Once again, he said he was busy. He told me to text my number to his cell phone and he’d call me back later that day. He never did. Months later, I was up against my deadline to submit the book to my publisher. I texted him one last time, saying I was out of time and would really like to talk to him. To my surprise, he called me a few days later. He was as nice as could be and we talked for well over an hour about the 90s Knicks and current NBA. It was a lesson in persistence.
One of the most difficult omissions from the book is the story behind the Notorious B.I.G.’s track “I Got a Story to Tell.” In the song, Biggie tells a story about having sex with the girlfriend of a Knicks player in the player’s bed and then robbing him at gunpoint when he unexpectedly returned home. “I Got a Story to Tell” appeared on the 1997 album “Life After Death,” which was released 16 days after Biggie’s death and he never publicly revealed the player’s identity. The only clue he provided in the song was that the Knick in question was six-foot-five. It became one of hip hop’s biggest mysteries.
Nineteen years later, rapper Fat Joe revealed on ESPN’s “Highly Questionable” that the player was Anthony Mason. Fat Joe hedged on his claim, indicating that he did not know all the details and that rappers are known “to lie or stretch the truth.” However, a few days later, Biggie’s close friend and producer, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, confirmed it was Mason. Mason, who died from a heart attack in 2015, was 6’7’’, a bit taller than the height Biggie provided, though close enough.
I investigated the story behind the song a bit further. A couple of Knicks players told me it was not something that was discussed within the team when the song came out (at which point Mason no longer played for the Knicks). I decided to leave it out of the book for a couple reasons. One, neither Biggie, nor Mason are able to confirm or deny the story. Additionally, I determined it was really a story about Biggie, more than Mason or the Knicks, and there was no way to smoothly incorporate it into the narrative.
Knicks owner James Dolan is not a major figure in the book. He didn’t take control of the Knicks until 1999. However, I did uncover some interesting stories about him during the course of my research. Dolan loves music and has his own band JD and the Straight Shot. During his early days at Madison Square Garden, he inquired as to which Garden employees played instruments. Then he forced those musicians to jam with him after work. Dolan had them flown by helicopter to his house in the Hamptons and play music with him, often until midnight. Here’s the crazy part. After the sessions were complete, the employees had to find their own way home! It was midnight and they had work the next morning. They didn’t have cars at his house and some of them lived as far away as New Jersey.
There were several questions I attempted to answer during my research. One I never definitively answered was what caused the beef between Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. The two were teammates in Charlotte, but their relationship had soured prior to their brawl in the 1998 Knicks-Heat playoff series. There were rumors that a woman was the source of the rift between the two big men, something both have denied. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to talk to LJ or Zo, though I spoke with people who were around them in Charlotte as well as their teammates in New York and Miami. Most people either didn’t know the cause of the beef or believed the animosity stemmed from a clash of egos regarding who was the man in Charlotte, a la Shaq and Kobe in L.A. I discuss this in detail in the book. The one exception was Tim Hardaway Sr. who grew close with Zo when they were teammates in Miami. When I asked Hardaway if he knew what the beef was between L.J. and Zo, he chuckled mischievously and said, “Yes, but I can’t tell you.” The way he said it certainly made it sound like there was more to the story, but he wouldn’t elaborate and I didn’t discover any additional information on the subject.
Another “but I can’t tell you” I received was about Anthony Mason. Mase was a practical joker and I cover some of his PG-rated pranks in the book. However, I sensed that the best Mason pranks were R-rated and typically involved his genitals, but I couldn’t get any of his teammates to violate the sanctity of the locker room by giving specific examples. His good friend, John Starks, started cracking up when I asked him about Mason’s jokes, but was adamant that he couldn’t share them.
One of the most common questions I’m asked when I tell people I wrote a book about the 1990s Knicks is: “How did you contact all of those sources?” I’m a lawyer by trade. I don’t have a journalism degree. I covered the Knicks for a couple of years for Bleacher Report but from a distance. I’ve never stepped foot in a locker room or cultivated sources and I don’t have any industry connections.
I knew I needed original content in order to make the book interesting. Given my lack of experience and connections, I thought it would be great if I could talk to 15-20 people who were associated with those Knicks teams. I ended up speaking with close to 100 sources, including players, coaches, executives, ball boys and journalists who covered the team.
I quickly learned the key to tracking down sources is persistence. I decided I wouldn’t stop chasing down an individual until I spoke to him or received an explicit refusal to talk from him or his representative. That determination often led me down numerous paths in pursuit of one player or coach.
In some cases, I began with a solid lead. For example, I knew former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy is an announcer for ESPN so I contacted ESPN’s public relations representative who provided me with Van Gundy’s phone number. Similarly, I reached former point guard and current Mavericks commentator Derek Harper through the Mavs’ public relations department. NBA teams or other organizations may also be willing to help you contact their former, as well as current, employees.
More often than not, I needed to do some digging. My first step was typically to google my target. A person’s Wikipedia page may include useful biographical information, such as the college they attended, where they live, the name of their business, current employer or a charitable organization they’re involved with. A google search may also reveal articles written about the potential source or his or her website. Within 10 minutes, I googled Patrick Ewing’s high school coach, Mike Jarvis, filled out a contact form on his website, received an email from Jarvis and connected with him over the phone.
Social media is another way to contact potential sources. I reached out to former players, coaches and executives via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. LinkedIn was the most fruitful, connecting me with former Knick Rick Brunson, one-time Madison Square Garden president, Bob Gutkowski, and movie producer Stanley Jaffe, to name a few. Even if you’re unable to connect with a source through social media, his or her Facebook page, Twitter account or LinkedIn profile may provide helpful clues.
Another way to obtain contact information is through search websites such as Whitepages.com, Spokeo or Been Verified. These type of sites typically provide various subscription options and many offer cheap trial periods. This approach leads to a lot of dead ends so you must be patient. It can be difficult to identify the right person, especially with a common name like former Knick forward Larry Johnson. Once you do, you’ll often find numerous numbers and emails listed, many of which you will discover are no longer in service, belong to family members or are simply incorrect. Additionally, people are less likely to talk when their personal information is made available by others as opposed to on their website or social media accounts. When I called Scottie Pippen at a number I received from one such site, the Hall of Famer was not happy to learn that his phone number was publicly listed.
One more potential means of connection is through a person’s college. Athletic departments often maintain contact with alumni, especially those who go on to coach or play professionally. I connected with five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway through the University of Texas at El Paso athletic department. Colleges may also be able to put you in touch a subject’s former teammates or coaches, who can be valuable sources themselves. Paul Evans, who coached Charles Smith and David Robinson in college, Leonard Hamilton, John Starks’ coach at Oklahoma State, Wimp Sanderson, who recruited Latrell Sprewell to the University of Alabama, and Dave Robbins, the former coach at Charles Oakley’s alma mater, Virginia Union, all provided insight into their former players.
My conversation with Coach Robbins was particularly productive because after checking with Oakley he provided me with the Knick legend’s phone number. It was the culmination of a years long, multi-pronged approach to landing one of the most important subjects of my book. I had attempted to contact Oakley through; a prolonged email exchange with his publicist, the Virginia Union athletic department, the Big 3 basketball league, a contact form on his website, various social media sites, his former agent, his booking agent, the attorney who represented him when he was arrested at Madison Square Garden, former teammates, teams he played for and others. Ultimately, Virginia Union’s current coach provided me with contact information for Coach Robbins, who delivered me Oakley’s number.
The Oakley connection is an example of an ideal way to contact a potential source: through another source. Chris Childs was likely more inclined to talk to me because I told him I’d received his number from his old teammate, John Starks. Understandably, sources are often reluctant to share their friends’ contact information, especially when that friend is famous, but it never hurts to ask. You may want to phrase your request as, “Can you please ask “so and so” if he would be willing to talk to me?” That way you provide the source with an opportunity to assist you without violating his friend’s privacy.
If all of the above approaches fail, be creative. Think of anybody who may be associated with the man or woman you’re attempting to contact. I reached former Miami Heat coach Stan Van Gundy through his agent and obtained the email address of former Knicks president Dave Checketts from a journalist who covered the team. Tim Frank, the NBA’s Sr. VP of Basketball Communications, put me in touch with long-time NBA executive Rod Thorn, and I tracked down All-Star turned minister Terry Cummings through his church.
Of course, once you obtain a source’s contact information, you must convince him or her to talk to you, but that’s a topic for another article. Be creative. Be persistent. And always make the extra call. If I can contact this many sources, so can you.
I’m excited to share my first interview for my book The Knicks of the Nineties. https://hoopsanalyst.com/?p=2059 Hoops Analyst is a great basketball resource. His Twitter handle is @hoopsanalyst
Sixteen athletes from eleven sports arenas. Each chapter tells a different story, as each superstar shares the habit that helped them accomplish their goals and reach the pinnacle of their profession.
Sports fanatic or not. Guaranteed to tap into your athletic edge, Trust the Grind, is made for sports fans and nonfans alike. Fans of professional athletes get an in-depth look at their heroes’ climb to the top; those less passionate about sports have the chance to read the secrets of success from some of the most talented people in the world. Both learn pivotal life lessons, and can immediately instill these particular traits and habits into their own lifestyle.
A ‘success habit’ point of view. Learn the secrets behind success, and what it takes to remain on top. With Trust The Grind, you will learn about the value that comes with becoming disciplined, staying driven, setting goals, identifying your “why”, staying active and eating right, making sacrifices, obsessing over your passion, and more.