After covering sports for nearly 45 years, the question I get asked the most is: who was my favorite person to write about? Since I’ve covered more than 850 NASCAR races, 500 NBA, 100 NFL, 50 Major League Baseball and thousands of college and high school games, I can’t pick just one.
But there are a few that really stand out.
It should be no surprise Shaquille O’Neal would be high on the list. He is a lot of fun. You’ve seen him on the set covering the NBA on TNT, and you’ve seen his commercials. What I can tell you is, that’s not an act. He really is that playful and genuine.
When he was a rookie with the Orlando Magic in 1993, he asked me if I’d like to spend the day with him to see what it’s like to be the biggest man – literally – in town. Of course, I said yes.
I drove him around in my Ford Taurus all afternoon with his knees pressed against my windshield. We went to practice and to a pizza joint. We picked up his dry cleaning and made a stop at Home Depot. Later in the afternoon, I told him I needed to pick my son up from elementary school. Although his school was across town, Shaq wanted to ride with me instead of going home.
When we got to Cheney Elementary, he uncoiled from the front seat and yelled, “Where’s little Don?” Hundreds of children went into a frenzy. So did the teachers. My son eventually worked his way through the crowd, climbed into the backseat with Shaq holding the door open for him, knowing he had just become the coolest kid in the fifth grade.
All three of us then drove to Dennis Scott’s house. Scott was drafted by the Magic a year earlier out of Georgia Tech, and he and Shaq were good friends. Scott, Shaq and my son shot pool until it was time to go home.
Twenty-five years later, my son ran into Shaq in Atlanta. He started to tell him of spending the afternoon with him and Scott when Shaq interrupted and said, “You’re not little Don, are you?” Yes, Shaq remembered. And yes, it was little Don – only he’s now 36 and not-so-little.
Of course, there’s a large degree of luck and skill to build a long career that allows you to work with superstars, and I’ve certainly had more than my share. At the same time, I’ve learned that if you treat people with respect, they will do the same. Also, whether you’re working a Super Bowl or standing on the sidelines for a Friday night high school football game, the real secret is to take the conversation into a more-comfortable topic.
If you’re an accountant, the last thing you want to do is balance a checkbook when you get home. Some mechanics I know, especially in NASCAR, have someone else change their oil. If you’ve just spent the last eight hours doing “scattered, smothered and covered” over a hot grill, the last thing you want to do is go home and cook dinner.
The same goes for superstars.
If you’re talking to Michael Jordan, that means talking about golf and golf courses. If you’re former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, you talk about NASCAR. If you’re actor Patrick Dempsey, you talk about sports-car racing. If you’re seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, you talk about physical fitness. (In fairness, I really don’t contribute a lot to that conversation). If you’re the late Payne Stewart, you talked about the Orlando Magic or his daughter’s volleyball team. If you’re NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski, you talk about the Detroit Red Wings.
And away from the track, the late Dale Earnhardt would rather talk about his fried chicken recipe than his race car.
Most of my working relationships were made long before social media evolved. Before Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, both sides understood the difference of being “at work” and being “off duty.” More important, both sides understood and respected the difference, and rarely did we cross the line.
Now it’s so difficult to create a friendly working relationship since every word, every action, is subject to being shared by millions in just a matter of seconds. Communications now are done in 140 characters or less, and in the process, we lose the opportunity to make the kinds of personal connections that sometimes leads to an afternoon with Shaquille O’Neal.
For me, I’ll just keep asking questions and telling stories. And who knows? Maybe I’ll have a great tale to tell about us some day.