First day on the job I interview Muhammad Ali. Not bad!


For more than twenty years I was a sportswriter in the New York metropolitan area with New York Newsday, The Ring Magazine, and several New Jersey dailies. It was a fun time for someone in his twenties, thirties and forties because I never knew who or what I’d encounter day to day.

In September 1976, I was hired by The Dispatch in Union City, New Jersey, and my first assignment was to interview Muhammad Ali. The world heavyweight champion was working out at Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., in preparation for his fight with Ken Norton. It was a day I’ll never forget, but not for the reason you might be thinking.

A few days before, I’d come in for an interview with sports editor Bob O’Connor. Bob was 25 and I was his first hire. We spoke for thirty minutes and he told me that he liked my sports clips from the Daily Record in Morristown, N.J., where I was a part-time sportswriter.

“You have a different way of looking at an event,” he said. “We like that and that’s why you’re here.”

A year later, he fessed up and admitted I also was hired because they needed a power-hitting first basemen on their newspaper team and I had fit the bill in that category as well.

Even so, I now had the ultimate job in journalism.

Then Bob asked when I could start. I told him I had tickets to England, but I’d be more than happy to cancel.

“No, no, don’t do that,” he said. “Take the trip. It sounds great. You can start in three weeks.”

“That’s okay, I’d like to start now.”

Bob graciously tried to get me to see reason, but I reasoned it was a lot better if I started immediately. I cancelled my trip later that afternoon and got to work.

Bob explained my first assignment. He handed me a press kit, a press pass, and explained that I needed to be aboard a bus bound for Kiamesha Lake the next morning. It would leave from Madison Square Garden at 5:30 p.m., and arrive a couple of hours later at Muhammad Ali’s training camp.

“Anything else I need to know?” I inquired.

“You’ll figure it out,” he replied.

That’s when I knew I was at the right place with the right editor.

As General George S. Patton once said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

The press bus was filled with sportswriters I had read all my life. Dick Young of the Daily News was there, Dave Anderson of The New York Times, Vic Ziegel of The Post, and a host of other writers I would get to know in the coming years. The atmosphere was highly charged even though we were pulling out of Manhattan at an early hour.

I was sitting next to a young man my age, 24, and though I cannot recall his name 39 years later, I do remember his first name was Mike. He had just been hired by 1010 WINS,  the all-news New York radio station. We were excited about our first assignment and to meet Ali was beyond belief.

As the bus rolled into Ali’s training camp at the Concord Hotel, my teeth started chattering. When I regained control, I admitted to Mike what had just happened. He couldn’t reply because his teeth were chattering too.

So we collected our wits, got off the bus, and stepped into the world of sportswriting for the next twenty years.

The press conference was pure Ali. He marched in with his main people: Bundini Brown and trainer Angelo Dundee, and a half dozen hangers-on. Ali was in great spirits as he goofed on Ken Norton and a film Norton was starring in titled “Mandingo.”

No one could fire off a question that Ali could not deflect with humor. I even got off a few and for one of them he looked at me, put on his pretend scowl, and said, “You know, you’re not as dumb as you look.” This was a classic Ali retort to certain questions and it was said in jest, but I enjoyed being the butt of his joke.

After the press conference, lunch was announced and you never saw so many out-of-shape sportswriters move so quickly.

“Wonder what they’re serving?” a voice said.

“I don’t care,” another replied. “It’s free.”

Later that afternoon, we returned to the gym and Ali smacked the speed bag for a while and then worked out with his sparring partners. He entertained a few more questions before heading back to his cabin and around 2:30 p.m., sportswriters boarded the bus for Manhattan.

When I arrived at The Dispatch, Bob O’Connor asked me how my first day went. Great, and I got to work writing my story. I finished by 6:50 p.m. and as my father always advised me, “Never leave a job without asking the boss if there’s anything else you can do.”

“There is,” Bob said. “Now I’d like you to cover a Ridgefield Park-Ridgefield football game.

To myself I’m saying, “Is he kidding?” But I took the assignment without registering a complaint.

On the way up, I tried to figure out how to cover a football game. I’d never written one in my life. By game’s end, I got the basics, interviewed the coaches and a player or two, and began writing my story on a nearby picnic table. Deadline was beckoning.

I set down my portable Olivetti typewriter and started banging away. No sooner had I finished my lede (opening paragraph for you novices) than the field lights went out. I looked around but there was no light source. Think, think. Got it. I went to my car, turned on the headlights, and sat against the vehicle writing with pencil and paper.

That done, now I had to find a phone. I scanned the field and saw a phone booth and placed a call to The Dispatch. Bob answered and said Greg Hochstein would take my dictation. Greg did a splendid job and the next day I walked into the newspaper office, picked up that day’s paper, and read my two bylines. Pretty heady stuff for a 24 year old who always hated writing in high school.

“I’m surprised you even came in,” Bob interrupted, smiling.

“What do you mean?”

“I know I worked you to death yesterday, but I wanted to see what kind of writer I’d hired. You passed the test. Now go work your shift and take off the next two days.”

Not a bad ending to the best first day on a job ever.


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