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Vol. 56, No. 2 • January 2019 • .pdf version
Hall of Fame class had humble beginnings
Dan Wetzel got his start in sports journalism covering the women's cross-country team for the Daily Collegian at UMass.
"Not a lot of color in cross-country writing," Wetzel said. "They shoot a gun and they run into the woods. Then they come back and you have to write a story on what happened."
Bill Rhoden played defensive back on the football team at Morgan State, where he took just one journalism class. But the professor just happened to be Frances Murphy, whose family founded the Afro-American Times.
"She told me if I didn't get drafted that I would march my butt to the newspaper," Rhoden recalled. In February of 1972, shortly after his college football career had ended, Rhoden went to the newspaper's offices. "I marched up three steep flights of stairs and began my career."
As a senior at Muhlenburg Colllege in Allentown, Pa., Jack McCallum landed a job at the Allentown Globe, where he was assigned to cover the courts – both basketball and judicial.
"The real opening was in sports, which was probably a good thing," McCallum said. "I was better in sports than I was a courthouse reporter."
John Akers grew up on a farm in the tiny Iowa town of Dows (population 700), where the weekly arrival of his Sports Illustrated sparked the imagination.
"You read a story about Pete Maravich," said Akers, "and your image of him was how he was described to you in Sports Illustrated."
Akers went on to college at Iowa State, where he saw a story about the school's new sports information director. "That sounds pretty cool," Akers thought. He went to the sports information office to see if they were taking volunteers or interns. "They said 'Sure.' That exposed me to newspaper people."
From those beginnings, Wetzel, Rhoden, McCallum and Akers would embark on careers that led them to this year's enshrinement in the United States Basketball Writers Association's Hall of Fame class.
It's a group so accomplished that the only question regarding their candidacies was summed up by Wetzel, who said of his fellow inductees: "My thing was, how were those guys not already in the Hall of Fame? Bill Rhoden and Jack McCallum and John Akers are all guys I love reading. Insightful and impactful and trail-blazing."
Wetzel, the national columnist at Yahoo Sports, grew up just outside of Boston. His father would get several newspapers. Wetzel soaked up the sports coverage in the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the Patriot Ledger, but he never considered going into the business. During his high school days, he worked at Fenway Park, selling popcorn and Fenway Franks.
"I was not someone who wrote for my student newspaper in high school," Wetzel said. "I didn't go to college expecting to be a journalist."
Once he got to UMass, Wetzel landed the women's cross-country beat. He climbed the student paper's ladder, eventually moving up to the basketball beat around the time UMass hired a coach named John Calipari and brought in a recruit named Marcus Camby.
"Not only did the team turn into a Top 10 team, but we had this guy who is just this incredible newsmaker and personality," Wetzel said. "And he loved the media."
Wetzel was in the room when Temple coach John Chaney stormed into Calipari's post-game news conference. "The A-10 was awesome," Wetzel said.
After college, Wetzel interned at the Indianapolis News, covering the police beat. He moved to the Chicago Tribune, where he continued on the news side.
"Murders. Plane crashes. A safe falls out a window and lands on a guy," Wetzel said. "Every day was total mayhem."
Then the late Larry Donald, a past president of the USBWA and a Hall of Famer himself, contacted Wetzel about a job opening at Basketball Times.
"I could've been happy as a news reporter, but I loved how Larry allowed 18,000-word stories about the history of Mississippi State basketball," Wetzel said. "The idea of getting the opportunity to go super-deep on a subject I liked appealed to me."
Wetzel left Basketball Times for CBSSports and now writes for Yahoo. He has written several books, including Sole Influence and Glory Road, the story of legendary UTEP coach Don Haskins. But Wetzel said he's never forgotten the lessons that Donald taught him.
"If it's a great story, go write a great story," Wetzel said. "That's all Larry cared about."
Bill Rhoden of The Undefeated was caught completely off-guard when USBWA president David Teel called with the news that he was part of the 2019 Hall of Fame class.
"I thought he was pitching a story," Rhoden said.
Rhoden got his first newspaper job at the Afro-American in 1972, but he became an author when he was in the fourth or fifth grade. He "wrote" a Christmas story, making liberal use of his Childcraft Encyclopedia.
"My father said 'What are you doing?'" Rhoden recalled. "I said 'I'm writing a book.' He said 'No. No. You've got to write your own.'"
It's ironic that Rhoden is going into a college basketball organization's Hall of Fame. The Chicago native went to Morgan State to play football.
"I always thought basketball players were prima donnas," he said. "We're up there beating the hell out of each other and the basketball players would waltz in."
On his first day of work at the Afro-American in Baltimore, Rhoden wanted to make a good impression.
"I got there at 8 in the morning," he said. "Sam Lacy was there. He'd been there since 5 in the morning. That was my first lesson."
A year and a half later, Rhoden got a job at Ebony magazine and spent four years there as an associate editor. He wrote as well, but only occasionally on sports-related topics. He returned to Baltimore, where the Evening Sun had started a new features section. He wrote features and covered jazz.
In 1983, Rhoden got a call from a friend at the New York Times. The paper was looking for an editor for its Weekend Review.
"I figured, 'Just let me get on the train and I'd work my way up to the engine,'" he said. "I spent about a year at Weekend Review as an editor, which was about as much as I could stand. I was a writer at heart."
Rhoden got a chance to write again in the Times' sports section. He was put on the St. John's beat, giving him the opportunity to cover St. John's and the Big East during their heydays. He stayed on the beat until becoming a columnist in 1990.
This will be Rhoden's second Hall of Fame induction ceremony. In 2015, he spoke when Bryan Burwell was inducted posthumously.
"Bryan was a dear friend," Rhoden said "This really makes it all the more special."
John Akers would deserve his Hall of Fame nod for no other reason than what he's done at Basketball Times since becoming the magazine's editor in 2001 and publisher in 2011.
Brendan Quinn, of The Athletic, said this in his nomination of Akers: "He's not only single-handedly kept Larry Donald's legacy going but has nourished a fertile ground for both up-and-coming writers needing a break (ahem) and for some of the greatest voices in our game."
A past president of the USBWA, Akers created the organization's Rising Star award, which recognizes excellence in a member who is under the age of 30.
But Akers' career stretches well beyond his extraordinary work at Basketball Times. As an undergrad at Iowa State, he started working for the Ames Tribune. He took scores over the phone before earning the right to "actually go cover games," he said.
He went to the Burlington Hawk Eye after graduation and then went back to the Ames Tribune. He joined the San Jose Mercury News in 1984, first on the sports desk and then moving to college basketball. He covered Santa Clara, Cal and San Jose State. He got the Stanford beat as that program began to take off in the 1990s.
Akers and his wife Ann moved to Minneapolis. It was because of Ann that Akers found his way to Basketball Times.
"My wife worked at the National Scholastic Press Association and they were having their convention in Boston," Akers said. "Bob Ryan was going to be a speaker and she needed a mug shot of Bob. I called Basketball Times. That's where I learned that they were without an editor at that moment."
Akers has maintained Basketball Times and Larry Donald's legacy ever since. He said he's thrilled that former Basketball Times staffers Dan Wetzel and Mike Sheridan are part of this year's ceremony.
"It wasn't easy to follow Larry,' Akers said. "It's pretty cool that Dan and Mike are getting in at the same time. They were key parts of the making of Basketball Times."
McCallum went to Muhlenburg College to play basketball; not cover it.
"I played one year," he said. "They were really good."
McCallum is best known for the nearly three decades he spent at Sports Illustrated. Before joining the magazine in 1981, he worked for several different newspapers.
"I worked at four newspapers," he says, "and I killed three of them."
His first assignment at Sports Illustrated was a feature on Danny Ainge, the BYU guard who was set to embark on a baseball career at the conclusion of the 1981 NCAA tournament.
"I was there when Danny Ainge went coast-to-coast to beat Notre Dame," McCallum said.
Because of his newspaper background, McCallum got assigned stories that needed a quick turnaround.
"At that time, SI had a lot of thumb-sucking writers who took three weeks to write a story," McCallum said, chuckling. "I could do things fast."
When informed of his nomination into the USBWA Hall of Fame, McCallum said he felt unworthy at first.
"I haven't done as much college as other guys," Mc-Callum said. "I felt bad, so I immediately began trying to remember all the college stuff I did do."
McCallum was there when North Carolina State stunned Houston in the 1983 NCAA championship game. He saw Tyus Edney and Ed O'Bannon lead UCLA to the 1994 title. He covered Connecticut's 1999 championship team, featuring Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin.
"I'm very proud and very happy because I've always loved college basketball," McCallum said. "There's nothing like the Final Four. I covered the pros but there's nothing like the three weeks in March."
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