Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Characters from Sportswriting Past

No. 10 tee, Augusta National, April 11, 1994.

Secretly, I always hoped one day my name would be a minor character in a Ken Burger book like my friends Scott Michaux, Bob Gillespie and the late Furman Bisher. In my heart, though, I always knew that I was far down on the list of people he might eventually include in his fiction.

Burger, even after all his years of writing newspaper columns and novels, has so much more material to use. I hope he gets to.

From friends in South Carolina and Georgia, though, I hear that Ken’s future is darkly clouded by his longtime fight with prostate cancer. He’s battled and battered it gallantly since 2007. (You can read about it, and hear Kenny’s pleas for regular screenings for men, at his blog, Unexpected Journey.)

Like Lowcountry tides and deadlines for 9 p.m. basketball games, cancer has a way of wearing down even the boulders in our business.

Or, I should say, our former business. Newspapering isn’t it used to be, and it hasn’t been close to the same since 2011, when Burger retired as the columnist and executive sports editor for the Charleston Post and Courier, so he could turn his attention to writing books, all of which are available online.

If you ever worked for a South Carolina newspaper, as I did from 1990-94, you knew Burger. He wouldn’t let you not know him.

He’s always been the cool guy in pressed khakis and a popped collar, someone you wanted to sit with at the same table, like at junior high lunch. Make him laugh and it made your day. And Ken is the kind of guy who laughs at someone else’s joke, even though he had probably made it, and told it funnier, years before.

In the press box, Ken always suffers fools…frequently.

Other writers who are closer to Ken and far more capable have written of their recent visits with him, as he goes back and forth between his home near Charleston and the hospital where he receives treatment. They say his time is limited. Ken has asked folks who are so inclined to write their memories of him now, so he has a chance to read them.

Yes, that’s a little self-absorbed, crass and beautiful. Like sportswriting itself.

Hats off to Gene Sapakoff and Joe Posnanski for their fine living memories of someone they consider a friend and a mentor. (Both wrote their pieces before this week’s flooding overwhelmed South Carolina. Ken and his wife Bonnie Grossman had to be rescued from their home by boat, and Ken returned to Roper St. Francis Cancer Center in Charleston. When it rains…)

Certainly, I can’t claim the same kind of closeness as they have with Kenny. We saw each other infrequently, except those few years when we covered the ACC Tournament, the Final Four and the Masters all in the span of six weeks. We spent a lot of time together at the Centennial Olympics in 1996, having dinner with other writers at the empty restaurants in downtown Atlanta. He’s a friend who would always say yes to dinner but cleverly decline an invitation to meet up for drinks. (That’s the kind of stupid friend I am—always forgetting that among the many evils Ken beat over the years was alcoholism.)

He was always willing to suggest things I could do with my kids when we visited Charleston on family outings. Fort Sumter. City Market. A carriage ride. A ghost walk. And, he once told me, “Don't forget the ever-popular ‘Places Where Ken Burger Got Married Tour!’”

Yes, Ken has been married five times, the source of infinite pressroom hilarity. (Ken joined me and Steve Elling as the only people I knew with our own shirt sizes: a 2X was a “Peeler” because of general girth. A 3X was an “Elling” because that’s the average number of holes he had no recorded score in any given round. And 4 Exes was a “Burger” because, well, that seemed pretty damned funny at the time.) He laughed louder than anyone at the jokes.

Ken’s the kind of friend that would meet you and your wife with his wife-at-the-time at The Peninsula Grill to show off one of the world’s best restaurants—and pick up the tab.

Few people have enjoyed Charleston, or his profession, more than Burger. A native of tiny Allendale, South Carolina, he grew up wanting to be a journalist and ended up having the kind of big-time jobs all of us wanted, first as a political reporter in Washington and then as a sports columnist. He’s always been so much better at it than most, as he proved in 1989 while writing about Hurricane Hugo.

In newspapers, you end up being friends with reporters from other papers far more than your co-workers. That’s because you work in the office and bond on the road. Those friendships evolve gradually. I never told Ken how much I admired his work and enjoyed his company; never had to.

What I should have done a long time ago is properly apologize to Kenny for what had to be the worst good day of his life. On April 11, 1994, we played Augusta National Golf Club together. It’s a tradition at the Masters—isn’t everything?—to allow 20 writers and 20 broadcast reporters to play the course the day after the final round. Players were chosen by lottery on Saturday morning. Those picked were worthless to their media outlets the rest of the tournament.

When I saw that Kenny and Al Muskewitz of the Anderson (South Carolina) Independent-Mail also won the lottery, we worked up a group to play that day, along with another writer I did not know. With all apologies to my wife and kids, despite the number on the scorecard, it was the greatest day of my life.

Kenny was in the cart playing his steady game, not unnerved by the stupidity of my interaction with golf’s most solemn masterpiece. It was the same golf he played at some of the best courses in the country whenever he had a chance and at his regular offseason game at Patriot’s Point.

He was silent through my overzealous joy of being on the same greens as the best players in the world. He was calm on the tee box at No. 12, as we attempted the hardest shot in golf. He endured every muffed tee shot, every raked iron, every scalded wedge, every freaking four-putt on the elephant burial mounds. He helped me line up the putt for the only par I made all day—a saved 5 from a sandbar in the middle of Rae’s Creek on No. 13. And he kept quiet when I made an 11 after hitting the scoreboard on No. 15, ruining the best drive any of us had all day. Occasionally, he said something like “Maybe you shouldn’t swing so hard”—but that was about his only critique.

I’m sure, between Muskie and me, we ruined a perfectly spectacular day.

Sorry about that, Kenny. I wouldn’t trade the memory for anything.