Monday, July 11, 2011

Love of the story -- Lipsyte remembers when Ali burst onto the scene

“Muhammad Ali was my first Big Story. He put my name on Page 1. He made me a columnist. He was also the single most important sporting lens through which I learned about politics, religion, race, and hero worship. Loving Ali has been easy. It’s grasping what he stands for at any given moment that’s been hard.”

Because I love to study stories, I was attracted to this new book by celebrated sports journalist Robert Lipsyte, the New York Times’ longtime lead sports columnist. In An Accidental Sportswriter, Lipsyte mines gold from his long and eventful career to bring readers inside the personal relationships and culture of sports.  An Accidental Sportswriter interweaves stories from Lipsyte’s life and the events he covered to explore the connections between the games we play and the lives we lead.

Here’s more from the book that expresses his thrill of seeking the story:

“Our journey began as sheer joy. The first time I ever saw him…his name was Cassius Clay. He was 22 years old. I was 26. The New York Times was so sure that Clay would be knocked out early in his heavyweight title fight in Miami against the champion, Sonny Liston, that the paper didn’t bother to send its boxing writer. Instead, it sent a feature writer whose time was less valuable. I was thrilled with the assignment.

“The first inkling that the prohibitive 7-to-1 odds against Clay might be a mistake came when the fighters met in the middle of the ring. Clay was bigger than Liston. Round by round, I kept losing my breath. Except for the moments when he was apparently blinded by some chemical from Liston’s gloves, Clay totally dominated the fight. Clay danced around Liston, he jabbed, he slugged, he mocked the brute. Then Liston sat down on his stool and wouldn’t get up, and it was over. Clay capered on the ring apron, yelling at the press, ‘Eat your words!’

“And then it was my turn, minutes to deadline, banging out a paragraph on my little Olivetti, ripping out the page, handing it to the telegrapher at my side, banging on. I loved the rush of writing under the gun. I’d never say it was better than sex, but it was in the same ballpark.

“The front-page, above-the-fold story I filed began, ‘Incredibly, the loud-mouthed, bragging, insulting youngster had been telling the truth all along. Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight title tonight when a bleeding Sonny Liston, his left shoulder injured, was unable to answer the bell for the seventh round.’

“I don’t remember what I did with the rest of that night, but I don’t think I slept. I still have the scrawled notes of my future-story file: Muslims, Malcolm, Clay’s early life in Louisville,  Liston’s reputed mob connections, whither boxing?, a new model of sports hero. I wanted to hang on to this story.

“This was going to be a big story, and it was going to be around for a while, and I was going to ride it to the buzzer.”

Click here for a link to a video with the author. 

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