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Good Sport

An award-winning journalist in his own right, Jeremy Schaap ’91 is following in the footsteps of a famous father

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 Jeremy SchaapIt was early autumn in 2000, and Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight had just been fired after twenty-nine years, three NCAA championships—and one too many temper tantrums. Given the choice of three ESPN reporters to interview him live in primetime, Knight chose the son of a friend. He had known Dick Schaap ’55 casually for years; Knight, Schaap, and their wives had socialized as a foursome, including going to dinner and a show.

Jeremy Schaap ’91 was already making his mark as a serious sports reporter. But he knew that the Knight would be, as he puts it, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most scrutinized.” He flew to Bloomington, Indiana, and spent much of the day avoiding Knight, who wanted to discuss potential questions. As the interview started and Schaap tried to keep the famously volatile coach focused on the particulars of the firing, Knight grew frustrated, telling him he had “a real faculty” for interrupting. Then he mentioned his own son, Pat, an assistant coach who was also fired, calling him “the victim in this.”

“If you would have abided by the rules,” Schaap said, referring to a zero-tolerance policy that had been instituted at Indiana regarding any further misbehavior by Knight, “would he have been the victim? Would he still have his job?” The next day, the back page of the New York Post would shout, “ESPN’s Schaap Stands Up to Bully Knight.” But in the moment, Knight began to boil. He again chastised Schaap for interrupting. Finally, he just stared for a few moments, rubbed his chin and said, “You’ve got a long way to go to be as good as your dad.”

The younger Schaap has since earned a half-dozen Emmy awards—matching his famous father’s total. As a correspondent for ESPN’s primetime newsmagazine “E:60,” a frequent contributor to such shows as “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines,” and “Good Morning America,” the host of the award-winning weekly radio program “The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap,” and the author of bestselling books about track icon Jesse Owens (Triumph) and rags-to-riches boxer James Braddock (Cinderella Man), he is even approaching his father’s prolific output. “My father had a million different deadlines for a million different projects—books, TV, radio, magazines. He had a hard time saying no,” says Schaap. “I think the people I work with would probably say the same thing about me. I do a lot of different things, but when you measure yourself against one of the world’s great workaholics, which my father was, it doesn’t feel like much.”

Dick Schaap was once described by New York Times columnist Dave Anderson as “the most versatile talent in sports journalism.” But actually, he was a master storyteller in nearly every medium and genre—comfortable in sports and news, print and broadcast. The Bo Jackson of journalism (who, in fact, co-authored Bo Knows Bo, the best-selling sports autobiography ever), he served as the youngest-ever senior editor of Newsweek, city editor and columnist at the New York Herald Tribune, editor of Sport magazine, sports editor of Parade magazine, sports anchor for WNBC-TV in New York, and a correspondent for NBC’s “Nightly News” and “Today” and ABC’s “20/20” and “World News Tonight.” He wrote nearly three dozen books and hosted several TV talk shows, including thirteen years on ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” (which Jeremy now often guest hosts).

father and son

The first journalist inducted into the True Heroes of Sport Hall of Fame by the Northeastern University Center for Sport and Society, Dick Schaap is also a member of the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame. (He was a lacrosse goalie on the Hill.) And if there were a shrine for name-dropping, he’d be a first-ballot choice. “I was able to get close to my subjects, to get to know them, to share their lives in a way that seemed mythic a generation later,” he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, Flashing Before My Eyes, published just months before he died at age sixty-seven from complications following hip replacement surgery. Over the course of his more than five-decade career, Schaap found himself—or put himself—in notable company remarkably often. “Often I am asked what my favorite sport is,” he wrote, “and always I say, ‘People.’ I collect people.”

When ESPN’s “SportsCentury” series ranked the 100 top athletes of the twentieth century, Dick Schaap calculated that he had interviewed seventy-five of them. He played golf with Bill Clinton, tennis with Johnny Carson, five-card rummy with Wilt Chamberlain. He shared a house with Chuck Barris, a meal with Jackie Robinson, and a joint with Joe Namath. He had breakfast with Jimmy Breslin and Hubert Humphrey, brought Norman Mailer to Henry Miller’s house and introduced Muhammad Ali to Billy Crystal (both posed with him on the cover of his autobiography). “Being out on the town with him,” Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote, “was like walking through the fields of heaven with a tour guide.”

But his son inhabits a different world. “The athletes have become further removed from the lives of the people covering them,” says Schaap, who lives in Westport, Connecticut, with his wife, Joclyn, daughter Katherine, and infant son Winston. “But also, the reporter has become more adversarial. The entire dynamic has changed.” Which is not say that he dislikes the shift; when he does his job well, camaraderie’s loss is journalism’s gain. For more than a decade and a half now, ESPN viewers have grown accustomed to Schaap asking the tough questions. “I think there’s a great reluctance to do that in the sports world,” he says, as he settles into his nearly bare cubicle in Building 4 on the massive ESPN campus in Bristol, Connecticut. “The justification has been, ‘I have to preserve my relationship with this guy or that guy.’ But if all you’re doing is preserving your relationship in such a way that you can never ask the hard questions, what’s the point?”

on assignment

While his father preferred to, in his words, “be probing, but not confrontational,” the son suggests that there is “an element of theatrical to what we do” in which the best interviewers—think Mike Wallace—are actor-journalists. Just this July, he sat across from former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and took him to task for complaining that “Don King got a tax lawyer to defend me” in his 1992 rape case. “Now hold on, Mike,” said Schaap, his ears within biting distance. “I’ve heard you say that a lot over the years. Vince Fuller was not a tax lawyer. Vince Fuller was a very successful criminal defense attorney.” Wallace would have approved.

In Dick Schaap’s autobiography, published not long after the Knight incident, he declared that Jeremy had handled the interview with the coach “better than I would have.” When the book was published, ABC’s “World News Now” used some camera trickery to broadcast five minutes of Dick Schaap going face-to-face with just about the only well-known sports figure he hadn’t yet interviewed: Dick Schaap. One scripted exchange revealed his self-deprecating wit.

“Is there anyone you don’t know?” he asked himself.
“J. D. Salinger,” he answered.
Pause. Wry smile. “You have a long way to go to be as good as J. D. Salinger.” 

Billy Crystal once noted that one of the best things about Dick Schaap was his ability to obtain tickets to just about any event. “He’s more than a friend,” quipped Crystal. “He’s a concierge.” In 1960, he took Lenny Bruce to his first baseball game, which happened to be Game 7 of the World Series—the one in which Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski hit the first bottom-of-the-ninth championship-winning home run in major league history. Eighteen years later, he and Jeremy attended a one-game playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox, sitting in seats provided by New York shortstop Bucky Dent. It was the game in which Dent hit a famous (infamous if you’re a Boston fan) pennant-winning home run.

Earlier that year, 1978, eight-year-old Jeremy Schaap made his television debut. His father was covering spring training for WNBC, standing on the field next to would-be Hall of Famer Pete Rose, and he handed his son a microphone. “How many more years do you think you’ll play?” the boy asked.

“Seven hundred more hits,” said Rose, who was en route to breaking Ty Cobb’s all-time record.

To Rose’s astonishment, the kid then brought up the fact that Rose had surpassed the greatest hitter of the nineteenth century, a first baseman named Cap Anson. “You know who he was?” asked the ballplayer, impressed. The back-and-forth went on for about a minute longer, ending with a high-five. WNBC ran the entire interview.

interview

It was that kind of childhood. Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer Jerry Kramer, with whom Dick Schaap wrote the diary Instant Replay (at the time the best-selling sports book ever), is his godfather. Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver was a neighbor in Greenwich, Connecticut; the two families’ Himalayan cats came from the same litter. A parade of New York Knicks—Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley—would come over for dinner. It was heady stuff, but some of Jeremy’s fondest memories were of a simple sound: the clickety-clack of fingers working a typewriter, often early in the morning. He describes it as the soundtrack of his father’s life.

Many sons are reluctant to follow in their famous fathers’ footsteps for fear that the prodigious shadows will obscure their own successes. When John Updike’s son, David, wrote his first novel, one columnist likened it to “firing a water pistol while standing under Niagara Falls.” But Schaap simply saw a father who loved his job—so why not try it? “I wasn’t thinking, You’re going into a business where your father’s a big presence; it’s going to be hard to achieve things that don’t seem small compared to his achievements. None of that stuff entered my mind,” he says. “Certainly, there are moments of frustration—that no matter what you do, it always comes back to a comparison. But the good always outweighs the bad.”

His choice of college? That was more or less preordained, considering that his grandfather, father, aunt, two uncles, and two half-sisters had studied on the Hill. (His late mother, Madeleine, was the second of Schaap’s three wives.) Schaap was a government major, but spent most of his time in the Daily Sun offices. His father had been editor-in-chief in 1954; that year, he and some pals hijacked the Syracuse student newspaper and substituted a bogus edition. Thirty-five years later, while sports editor, the son did the same—only to the Yale Daily News.

Still, Schaap describes his Sun tenure as marked by “a stubborn refusal to lighten up.” As a freshman, he covered women’s basketball and persistently criticized a woeful team that went 0-14 against Ivy League foes. But he says he overdid it and has learned from the experience. “You have to be fair,” he says. “Sometimes being fair, of course, is being tough on them. But you can’t do it reflexively. You have to think about it.”

One of his early Sun stories—published on the Friday of Parents’ Weekend—revealed how easy it was for underage students to get into Collegetown bars. Almost nobody was happy about the piece—not his classmates, not the tavern owners, and not the University administration. “I thought I was Woodward and Bernstein for going undercover at The Nines,” he says, laughing ruefully. “Certainly, I wasn’t in it to make any friends, and I succeeded.”

And then there was the Maxie Baughan affair. Having received an anonymous note about “strange bedfellows” in the Cornell football offices, Schaap—then all of nineteen years old—and editor-in-chief Jeff Lampe ’89 uncovered a scandal involving head coach Baughan, who was allegedly having an affair with the wife of his top assistant. The story hit the media, including the Daily Sun, the Ithaca Journal, and the New York Times. Citing conflicts and distractions that “have engulfed the program,” Baughan resigned just months after leading the Big Red to its first Ivy League title in seventeen years. “It was exciting, but it was also frightening because there was a lot at stake for these people,” says Schaap. “That taught me a lot of lessons.”

More than two decades later, he has covered much of the Penn State scandal, and he was one of the first TV journalists to take Joe Paterno to task, calling him “an accessory” to Jerry Sandusky’s crimes. He summed up the fallout in a few dozen words: “That such a career should end in such ignominy, that such a man should be shamed so late in the game, that such a legacy should be so tainted can only be viewed as terribly sad. But ultimately, not as unjustified and not as tragedy. Something tragic took place at Penn State, but it wasn’t the fall of Joe Paterno.”

‘Certainly, there are moments of frustration—that no matter what you do, it always comes back to a comparison. But the good always outweighs the bad.’Dick Schaap was a generalist—writing books about Robert Kennedy and the “Son of Sam” murders, profiling everyone from Spike Lee to Neil Simon, voting for both college football’s Heisman Trophy and the Tony awards. His son, by contrast, focuses on sports, but primarily as a platform for storytelling. Among his recent “E:60” contributions are long-form pieces about an NBA executive, a major league pitcher, and a boxer. But these weren’t ordinary sports profiles. The NBA executive had come out as gay. The New York Mets pitcher was willing to discuss how he’d been sexually abused as a child. And the boxer had died from injuries suffered during a title bout, his donated organs saving five lives.

But there are times, too, when Schaap veers into whimsy. He has covered everything from full-contact jousting to the world’s fastest knife-thrower. (He rode the spinning “wheel of death” while the “Great Throwdini” tossed blades at him.) And one of the funniest malapropisms in sports history was the result of a Schaap query moments after Mike Tyson was knocked out by Lennox Lewis in 2002.

“Where do you go from here, Mike?” he asked.
“I don’t know, man,” said Tyson, his face swollen, his infant son in his arms. “I might just fade into Bolivian.”

Schaap’s pursuit of a story has him constantly on the move; that cubicle at ESPN headquarters is unadorned because Schaap is rarely there. He was recently in Savannah keynoting a charity event. Before that, he had been in Auschwitz and Krakow doing a story on an American hockey player, the great-grandson of Holocaust victims who is now a member of the German national hockey team. In the preceding months, there were forays to Brazil, Bahrain, and Bhopal.

At times, Schaap is very much an investigative reporter (a term his dad found redundant). He has filed stories about subjects ranging from the illegal horse-meat trade to allegations that the 1941 Lithuanian basketball team massacred Jews. In Bahrain, Schaap profiled male soccer players who claimed to have been tortured for protesting in support of governmental reform. In South Africa, he interviewed female soccer players who were beaten and raped, allegedly because of their sexual orientation. In India, he explored the lingering environmental and medical effects of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that killed thousands. “Mostly I use sports as kind of a starting point,” he says, “Going to Bahrain and telling a story about the athletes who have been tortured there, that’s a way of talking about the Arab Spring. Doing a story about kids not having anywhere to play in Bhopal is a way of examining the consequences of the chemical spill. Telling the story about lesbian athletes being raped in South Africa is a way of discussing violence and homophobia.”

One of Schaap’s proudest moments came when he pursued a story that his father had first covered decades earlier. Dick Schaap had met chess player Bobby Fischer in 1958, when the fourteen-year-old prodigy won the U.S. national championship. Schaap later took him to ballgames, played tennis with him, even served as the master of ceremonies for Bobby Fischer Day after Fischer defeated Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in an iconic Cold War confrontation in Iceland. Then Fischer went into seclusion, only resurfacing in 1992 to play a $3 million rematch against Spassky. Because Fischer violated U.N. sanctions by playing the match in war-torn Yugoslavia, he essentially became a fugitive from the U.S. Over the next decade, he reclaimed the spotlight sporadically, usually to give voice to anti-U.S. rhetoric and anti-Semitism that included Holocaust denial. “He discarded me,” Dick Schaap wrote in his autobiography, “as he discarded so many friends, as if we were lower than pawns.”

In 2004, Fischer was arrested for a passport violation in Japan, but he avoided deportation when Iceland offered him honorary citizenship the following year. Having tracked his movements since long before his father passed away, Schaap convinced his ESPN bosses that an interview with Fischer was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. They agreed, and he made it to Reykjavik in time to watch Fischer’s flight arrive. He introduced himself only briefly as the sixty-two-year-old was whisked away. To Schaap’s surprise, Fischer later held a press conference. While other reporters were asking if he would learn to speak Icelandic or go whale watching, Schaap asked why he went into seclusion.

“Your father was Dick Schaap?” Fischer responded suddenly. “He rapped me very hard. He said that I don’t have a sane bone in my body. I didn’t forget that.”

“I don’t think he meant it literally,” said Schaap, who continued to ask more questions—about Fischer’s reclusiveness and about his contention that 9/11 was a case of “what goes around comes around.” Fischer then embarked on a diatribe, recalling how Dick Schaap had been “kind of like a father figure,” and then later, “like a typical Jewish snake, he had the most vicious things to say about me.”

“I have to object—” said Schaap.
“Did you read what he said in that article?” asked Fischer, his voice rising.
“I heard things about it . . .”
“Did you read the article where he said I don’t have a sane bone in my body?”
“I’m not sure if I read it, but I know that he said it,” Schaap replied, then added: “Honestly, I don’t know that you’ve done much here today really to disprove anything he said.”

The room went quiet. Fischer was speechless for ten, twenty, thirty seconds. Finally, Schaap turned and walked out of the room. “My dignity,” he now says, “was more important than whatever answers he was going to give.”

A few months later, for his feature report on “Finding Bobby Fischer,” shown both on ESPN and ABC’s “World News Tonight,” he received an Emmy. It was called the Dick Schaap Outstanding Writing Award.

Contributing editor Brad Herzog ’90 is the author of more than three dozen books for children and adults, many of them about sports.

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