So far I have met three major sportswriters who call Shelter Island home. And almost a fourth.
Now, when I say major, I mean newspapers with large circulations. There’s Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, John Feinstein of the Washington Post and Peter Vecsey of the New York Daily News and New York Post. The fourth? Several years ago my wife showed some houses to Mike Lupica of the Daily News but he finally decided to go to the Hamptons.
What I find noteworthy about all three is simply that these guys do not “kiss up” to any athlete. All three have had the guts to say what they want without the fear of losing their jobs. Since I already did a column on Lipsyte and Feinstein, this week it’s Peter Vecsey’s turn.
I’ve known Peter for quite a few years, but until this week, I never really sat down and had a conversation with him. I knew he wrote a basketball column for the Post because my friend Bruce Orr talked about him all the time.
As interesting as I found him, I had a hard time making him smile. I thought I said a few humorous things but this is a serious guy and laughing seemed out of the question. I almost dropped when he told me that his 25-year-old son Joseph made his living as a stand-up comedian. I figured he must have seen his dad laugh at least once and decided comedy was his calling. Joseph is appearing at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor this June. Keep an eye open, I think he will be good.
Vecsey also has a daughter, Taylor, 30, an editor at East Hampton Patch, and a son Michael, 46, who is a college professor. Peter referred to his wife Joan, a schoolteacher, as the heart and brains of the family. He said it was Joan’s connection to the Island as a young girl that brought them here.
Looking back, whatever Peter did, he must have done it right. Today, he and his family are living in one of the loveliest homes on Shelter Island. When I asked him why he retired from the Post, he said that even though the paper offered him a new contract, he left without even looking at it. I dropped the subject since he didn’t seem comfortable talking about it. But I had the feeling he’s getting a little itchy to get involved again, maybe with a book or another sports column. (I just hope he doesn’t take mine.)
When I spoke to him about his success, he immediately countered with his work ethic throughout those years. He was a boy from Queens who started working for the Daily News in high school and stayed 14 years before moving to the Post where he wrote for another 36 years. During those years, he usually had one or two other positions at the same time, usually with NBC or TNT.
Peter went to Hofstra University and then graduated from the Army Airborne School and became a Green Beret. Sportswriting is a family trade; his older brother George is a legendary sportswriter for the Times.
But Peter has become a legend himself. He’s in New York City’s Basketball Hall of Fame and has been honored by his alma mater, Archbishop Malloy High School, and Ruckers. But the jewel in his crown of honors came in 2009 when he was inducted in to the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
I will boldly say that this man knows the game of basketball.
He seemed proudest that in 1976 he was one of the first columnists to specialize in a sport, with the NBA as his domain. He was also famous for giving nicknames to the players — some they liked and some they didn’t. “Larry (Bird) Legend” liked his but Spencer Haywood wasn’t thrilled with “Spencer Deadwood.”
One secret to his longevity and success was that nobody was too sacred to be called out in his columns and criticized if Vecsey believed their performance or conduct warranted it.
Before this week, this is what I knew about Peter Vecsey: 16 years ago, Anne and I were in a strip mall restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. While there, we ran into two couples from Hay Beach: Mike and Aileen Osofsky and Peter and Joan Vecsey. Imagine being a couple thousand miles from home and running into two couples from a neighborhood of about 50 people.
The second thing I remember was sitting next to Peter at Tom Lord’s funeral service. He said he had been trying to get his 90-year-old mother and 92-year-old Tom together. As only Tom would do, he finally told him that his mother was a very nice lady but he was really looking for someone a little younger.
The third thing I remember was a match I set up with two guys 25 years ago who played basketball at the Downtown Athletic Club and boasted they could beat any two players on Shelter Island. I was offended that their image of Shelter Island ballplayers was so low. The Downtown AC boys played two matches and lost them both. First to Jay Card and Chris Tracy and then to Jay Card again with Peter Vecsey. I never saw guys play so hard for pride and to win a dinner. Way to go, Shelter Island!
Today, Vecsey admires Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, even though when Jackson was a player, they didn’t always get along. Jackson is also a certified minister and one of Vecsey’s nicknames for Jackson was “point God.” Since Mark was putting on a little weight, Vecsey said he looked like he ate too many communion wafers.
Well Mark, I hope you get to read this. Put down the communion wafers and listen. If Peter Vecsey goes before you do, he would like you to speak at his funeral service.
Bob DeStefano is a retired golf pro from Shelter Island. He writes a weekly sports column for the Shelter Island Reporter.