My Short Adventure in Sports Publicity

(Below is a draft from the year 2000 of a proposed chapter for Joe Batory’s first book.   The chapter was eventually included in Joey’s Story by Joseph P. Batory which was published in 2002, by Rowman & Littlefield, Scarecrow Education, Lanham. MD, Oxford and London. Joey’s Story is the second book in Joe Batory’s autobiographical trilogy.)

download Going back to my undergraduate alma mater as a college administrator was an awesome prospect. The job required topnotch writing skills, creativity, and the ability to meet deadlines. La Salle College (not then a university) gave me that marvelous opportunity in 1970. I was determined to give it my best shot.

My new boss, Bob Lyons, was a very savvy public relations guy who had directed the La Salle news bureau for many years. Bob was the editor of the quarterly alumni magazine.  He interacted daily with college administrators and faculty, and generated most of the news releases about campus happenings. Bob also worked to entice stories from the Philadelphia news media and developed promotional materials.

My assignments included editing a monthly newsletter full of academic papers (Who, me?) from faculty members and generating publicity for La Salle’s acclaimed summer Music Theater.  I also did promotional work for the entire sports program. But my primary responsibility was to maximize the publicity for La Salle’s one big-time  NCAA sport, basketball.

Like many institutions around America, winning seasons in Division I football or basketball translates into tons of free publicity and name recognition for universities. In point of fact, if you ask people around United States to recite any fact they might know about LaSalle, many will tell you that the great Tom Gola led the college to both the NCAA and the and NIT championship in the early 1950s.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Philadelphia Big Five basketball rivalries between Villanova, Temple, Pennsylvania, St. Joseph’s, and LaSalle, all played at the University of Pennsylvania Palestra offered the top sports attraction in Philadelphia and one of the best in the country. The classic basketball clashes of these five colleges got plenty of newspaper coverage in Philadelphia and beyond. And in 1970, when I took over the LaSalle sports information position, I walked right into the middle of this heated excitement.

The worst part of the sports information job was the airplane travel in the blustery turbulence of winter. LaSalle’s basketball teams played in arenas from coast-to-coast, and I accompanied them to help promote our games in the local press wherever we played. Often, the La Salle group landed on snowy or icy runways and sometimes had the plane de-iced just before takeoff. On many of those scary flights, I piously made promises to God about doing good works if I could just get home safely. I ended up in heavy debt to the Lord.

Chicago and Buffalo in January are two of my least favorite places in the wintertime. That’s because it was always snowing in both of those cities. The North Pole has nothing on either of these urban refrigerators.

The most difficult part of sports information was the game night deadlines. Often the Philadelphia newspapers when we played a game far away from Philly opted to not send a reporter with us. In such cases I was required to feed the game coverage back to The Philadelphia Bulletin and to The Philadelphia Inquirer. For La Salle games played in different time zones, this presented extremely tight deadlines. On Saturday nights in particular both Philadelphia newspapers had prescribed deadlines around midnight (Eastern Standard Time) and they were not about to hold the presses for a story of LaSalle’s basketball game.

For a sports information director, there could be no more important task than just making sure the game story hit the next day’s newspapers. I was forced to write rapid-fire. There was no time to be creative or rewrite! Just get it done! Say something clever that summarized the game, lay out some thorough and accurate facts, and fire the story back to the newspaper at 90 miles an hour! Talk about learning by doing! Talk about no room for error! Talk about white heat pressure!

The most intriguing aspect of my sports information experience at LaSalle was with its new head basketball coach, Paul Westhead. We arrived together in 1970. Paul Westhead struck me as being caught in some kind of time warp. To me, he was really some kind of Arthurian night in search of the Holy Grail who was gobbled up by a Time Machine and thrust into the role of a college basketball coach.

Paul was very Catholic. Mass and Holy Communion were required game day preparations. Nothing could be more important to our basketball wars then Paul’s pure heart. However, finding a Catholic Church where there were none was not always easy. In some parts of the USA, I remember renting a car so that I could drive the coach and me to some isolated Catholic Church where we hoped to find a priest to say Mass for us.

It did not take LaSalle’s athletic department too long to figure out that it would be a lot more economical to just send a priest on road trips with the team. And so father Ray Halligan, a delightful Dominican, became a fixture in our traveling party. Father Halligan said Mass prior to every game in one of our motel rooms. Father Ray’s job was to prepare us as knights in armor going into our basketball battles. It was all pretty cool.

The physician who traveled with the team was Dr. Gene Gallagher, a well- respected humanitarian with a great sense of humor. Dr. Gallagher loved his LaSalle players and cared for them like they were his children. The doctor and I spent much time together sipping martinis around the United States and he became a father figure to me as well. Several years later, I agonizingly wrote his obituary on deadline after the doctor suffered a fatal coronary attack on the LaSalle bench in the middle of a game. I still miss him to this day.

Coach Westhead’s first season at LaSalle was a terrific one. Led by Ken Durrett, a superb player, the team had national ranking for most of the year. I did a lot of inexpensive but effective promotional work for Kenny Durrett, and he obtained all American status. But that achievement was much more because of Ken’s outstanding scoring and rebounding totals rather than because of me. Nevertheless a major American newspaper called my promotional work for Ken Durrett, “the cleverest in America.”

 The following year, with most of our best players having been graduated, Westhead had to rebuild the team around the lone returning player, Jim Crawford, a smallish 6’3″ forward. The coach challenged me to create some excitement for the coming year. No problem, coach. I was an evolving public relations wizard.

 I posed Jim Crawford for pictures in uniform on top of a three foot high table next to the basketball hoop in our gym. Because he was on the table, Jim’s elbows were well above the basketball rim. For more realism, I then had Jim slam dunk the ball by jumping off the table a few times while we snapped pictures. With the bottoms of the photographs neatly cropped, Jim Crawford now looked like the greatest “leaper” the world had ever seen.In fact, Jim could jump pretty well and easily dunk the ball but when I was done with him, he looked like a human flying machine. I dubbed Jim Crawford as the “Sky Man” in our publicity materials and I featured Jim’s flying act on the cover of our basketball program. In spite of a mediocre campaign in terms of wins and losses, LaSalle got lots of national attention for this remarkable player who could “sky” above all of the other players. As we traveled across America, newspaper after newspaper previewed our games with invitations to the local populace to come out and see LaSalle’s “Sky Man.”

I too was flying high. I was damn good at what I was doing. One thing about the public relations though. No one cares about yesterday. Only what you will do tomorrow.

And Paul Westhead was at it again with a new project for me. During the summer of 1972, he had coached basketball athletes in Brazil on some sort of goodwill mission from our government. When he returned from Brazil I interviewed him and created a nice story about his experiences that gained national exposure for the coach. But that wasn’t good enough. Westhead showed me some statuettes he had brought back from Brazil. Basically, these featured a closed right hand with the thumb protruding through the second and third fingers. I had no idea what any of this was about.

Coach Westhead then informed me that these images from Brazil should be the basis of my promotional campaign for the 19 72–73 LaSalle basketball season. I was ordered to splatter this Brazilian symbol throughout our brochures and even have it made into cloth logos that could be sewn onto the team uniforms. Just what I needed: the basketball coach as my public relations assistant!!!!

All of this was too easy. Something just didn’t feel right. I decided to do some research. I located some Brazilian nationals through the Philadelphia International House who explained to me that the item in question was a part of Macumba. And what they told me next scared me to death: Basically that Macumba is a kind of black magic. Macumba was not to be trivialized. Bad fortune (doom) would befall any and all of those who might make light of it.

One thing I’m not is stupid. I crossed off Coach Westhead’s Brazilian promotional plan on the spot. Predictably, when I told the coach about it later that afternoon, he was really miffed. I had better come up with something just as a glitzy or else. Sure, Coach Westhead… and maybe I could even find something that would not get all of us killed by voodoo black magic!

For several weeks, my mind raced in search of some unique idea to promote LaSalle basketball for the 1972-73 season. And then one morning I passed the coach on campus as he walked to the English class he was teaching that semester. Coach Westhead had a master’s degree in English literature with some concentrated study of William Shakespeare. The light went on in my perverse brain.   Always look for opportunity in the midst of adversity. What an idea crossed my brain. I would put Coach Westhead in lights as the only basketball mentor in America who was also a Shakespearean scholar.

I raced over to the college library and checked out a Shakespearean thesaurus. It was all over but the research and some hard work on my part. And so it came to pass that I created a nationally published La Salle basketball preview for 19 72–73 utilizing a contrived interview with Coach Westhead that existed only in my imagination.

 

And it was a work of art it was:

 

  • About improving last year’s losing season:

“Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood.” —–from Julius Caesar

 

  • About being optimistic after a losing season:

“Wise men never sit and wail their loss, but cheerily seek how to redress their harms.” —– from Henry IV

 

  • About new coaching strategy for the coming year:

“O mischief, Thou art swift to enter in the thoughts of desperate men.”

—–from Romeo and Juliet

 

 

  • About this year’s team spirit:

“Would to God you were of our determination.” —–from Henry IV

 

  • About having several veteran players returning this year:

“I shall have so much experience for my pains.” —– from Othello

 

  • About three returning players who were starters last year:

“Three proper young man of excellent growth and presence”

—-from As You Like It

 

  • About our one best player returning this year:

“He makes sweet music.” —– from Two Gentlemen of Verona

 

  • About our top incoming sophomore player:

“Yon Cassius has a mean and hungry look.” —–from Julius Caesar

 

  • About the potential of our other new La Salle players this year:

“Wondrous qualities.” —– from The Taming of the Shrew

 

  • About a prediction for the coming season:

“To climb steep hills requires slow pace at first.”

—- from Henry VIII

and

“Be patient. Tomorrow it shall be mended.”

—– from The Taming of the Shrew

 

  • About many good teams on the schedule:

“They that stand high have many blasts to shake them; and if they fall they dash themselves to pieces.” —– from Richard III

 

  • About any surprises for opponents:

“Have more than that showest; speak less than thou knowest.”

—–from King Lear

 

  • And to summit all up:

“It is not madness that I have uttered; bring me to the test.”

—–from Hamlet

 

Well, you have to admit it. This college basketball preview was certainly different, my unique masterpiece. And that’s exactly how several national newspapers and television networks evaluated my creation. LaSalle’s name got national play. Coach Westhead was forever cemented as a celebrity “bard accomplice of Shakespeare” in the Philadelphia media and all across America.

And yes, Westhead is the same guy who a few years later went on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA championship. I know for sure because I subsequently watched a television sports special on CBS about the NBA’s Coach Westhead. It described Westhead as the Shakespearean leader of Magic Johnson and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers. Of course, my role in all of this had completely disappeared! Oh well, I never needed fame and fortune.

My years at LaSalle were truly wonderful ones. Great colleagues, eager bright student workers all around me, and a very friendly environment in which to work. I probably could’ve lived happily ever after at LaSalle.

But after five years, something began to gnaw at my insides. Sports publicity was great fun. But for me, it was also frivolous. I needed to get back to a job where I could make meaningful change in the world.  Silly me…..I had this thing about not wanting to go through my life without significance. And besides that, in my fearful moments of air travel with LaSalle’s basketball teams, I had made promises to a higher authority. Working in sports publicity would never pay that debt I owed!