Steve Bulpett: Interviewed on December 5, 2011
Position: NBA writer/columnist, Boston Herald
Born: 1957, Lynn, MA
Education: University of Dayton, 1979, B.A.
Career: Beavercreek (Ohio) Daily News 1979-81; Burlington (MA) News 1981-82; Salem (MA) Evening News 1982-85; United Press International 1985; Boston Herald 1985-present.
Personal: Single. “Close to the altar a few times – three arrests, no convictions – but surely maturity will kick in soon and I’ll complete the trip.”
Favorite restaurant (home): “Too hard to narrow it to one. And I’d piss off too many friends in the business if I did.”
Favorite restaurant (away): Presently in the NBA: Billy Coerper’s Five-O’Clock Club, Milwaukee. “The name has changed and it’s gone a bit upscale, but it retains much of the charm of an old-time corner bar restaurant.” Honorable mention: Rendezvous Barbecue in Memphis; Gibson’s in Chicago; In-n-Out Burger out west “the one on Lincoln Blvd. and Sepulveda is so close to an LAX runway that I once lost a french fry in the vortex of a Korean Air Lines 747.”
Formerly in the NBA: Metropolitan Grill, Seattle. “I don’t miss the Sonics nearly as much as the triple-cut lamb chops and the football-sized baked potato.”
Favorite hotel: “I pretty much stay with Marriott because it’s important, as much as possible, to know what to expect on a work trip. A favorite then becomes a matter of location, so I’ll split the vote and say the Marriott Marquis in New York and the Marina del Rey Marriott. Living in the smallest town in Massachusetts, the experience of waking up in a room overlooking Times Square remains wonderfully abnormal. And the Celtics are usually in L.A. in late December and February, so a smaller, relaxed hotel a short walk from Venice Beach is a nice touch — even though the days are pretty much killed because of the time difference and the need for early and additional copy.”
Q. You’ve covered the Celtics beat for 26 years. What are the physical demands of covering the beat?
A. I hesitate to even answer this question. Having worked loading trucks out of a freezer chest from midnight to 8, as a bouncer and briefly on a lobster boat, it’d be inviting a 15-yard penalty for whining to think about sportswriting in physical terms. … But, being 6-4, I do plan to have a conversation with the airline guy who designed the leg-room in coach when I meet up with him in Hell.
Q. How is your health affected during a normal season?
A. The biggest issues are fatigue and diet. I wish I had better discipline, but it’s not easy to control your menu when you’re on the run and eating in airports and press rooms. And when you don’t get enough sleep, your body doesn’t process sugars properly. This comes into play because the Celtics nearly always charter out right after games on a trip. That means you’re grabbing a few hours’ sleep at the hotel and rushing out in the morning to catch up with them.
I’ll generally gain in the vicinity of 20 pounds during a season, accompanied by a spike in cholesterol levels. The problems then disappear in the offseason. My primary care physician at Mass. General describes it as two different people. It’s fair to say he wants me off the beat even more than do the readers.
The other health issue is that if you get sick during a road trip, you really can’t take a day off. Narrowly avoided hurling on Mike Fine of the Patriot Ledger during a game in Phoenix years ago. I now don’t leave home without Cold-Eeze lozenges and Emergen-C.
Q. How does covering a lockout compare – physically and competitively – with covering a normal season?
A. The basic difference is that you’re not writing about something you can see. You have to rely on sources in the room, and the number and quality of those sources is what determines how your coverage will stack up against others. (Though my understanding of the process was helped by the fact I went to college to be a lawyer before falling into journalism.)
This last lockout was notable for its marathon sessions. It gets a little surreal when you’re sitting in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, calling and texting sources as the clock moves past midnight. Even when the paper’s editions have all gone to press, there are still blogs and website stories to write.
Never thought I’d be filing a full wrap at 4:15 a.m. when I began this job.
Q. What happens – physiologically and emotionally – when a normal season ends?
A. This gets a bit strange. I had a conversation with Larry Bird about it long ago and was comforted to learn I wasn’t alone. You actually go through a sort of depression in the first couple of weeks you have off. Much of it is the withdrawal from junk food and other such toxins, but there’s also a part in which you have to convince yourself it’s all right to be doing nothing. For a while, when you start to relax, you’ll catch yourself and your heart will start to race. That’s because during the season, there’s pretty much always something you should be doing — a call to make, a place to be, etc.
No matter how many years you do it, you can’t avoid the decompression process.
Q. You’ve been encouraged to start tweeting? How do you feel about that?
A. I understand that it’s a necessary part of the news cycle. Stories used to be broken in the next day’s paper. Then the battleground switched to blogs and your outlet’s website. Now it’s Twitter.
I was hesitant to get involved at first, because it seemed like people were mainly using it to toss out random thoughts. My opinions aren’t that interesting to me, so how could I expect someone else to care? I just figure that if you’re going to invite readers in, you should have something worthwhile to tell them.
But with so many people now in the Twittersphere, it’s become an important tool for disseminating news. I just hope I stick mainly to the important things and avoid as much as possible the urge to turn into a wisecracking lounge act.
Q. What sports media do you consume and why?
A. The number of outlets with whom the Herald competes has grown exponentially with the Internet, so there is the need to know what all of them are producing. There has, thankfully, been a concurrent growth in the number and quality of catch-all sites that speed the daily process.
I also make it a point to check in on what David Aldridge is writing. He’s probably my best friend in the business (he still tells people we were the last cut for Miami Vice), and I know he’s more apt than most to keep his journalistic head when things get crazy.
Q. In an ideal world, what kind of writing or creative arts would you be doing?
A. You know the answer, and I can’t believe you’re making me admit this publicly… but, yeah, I’d love to be able to make a living writing music. It’s something I’ve been doing since high school, but until a few years ago I frankly lacked the courage to show anyone my stuff. A couple of blues and R&B artists have worked with some of my songs, and I’m hoping to take a larger step forward in the next week or two.
I’ve also done two screenplays and written for a couple of stand-up comedians. Doing different things can help keep you out of the potholes that come with writing so much in one format.
Q. Give us a link to a story you are proud of and tell us why.
A. This is a piece that ran in the Herald in April of 2002. To me, it’s one of the few truly important things I’ve ever written, not because of anything I did but because it tells the story of a relatively uncelebrated man who deserved to be known by more. After spending too much time around “famous” people, you come to understand it’s people like this who make the world work with their simple humanity. I was fortunate to be in a position to offer tribute.
By STEVE BULPETT
Finding one’s way through the minefields of youth is always a risky proposition. If you’re lucky, someone stops you and holds your attention long enough to point out the safe route of passage. If you’re lucky, you have a coach who challenges you and inspires you.
I and hundreds of others who grew up in Swampscott in the 1970s were very fortunate, indeed. We had John Smialek.
We still do.
Mr. Smialek died this week, a victim of diabetes and other ailments that slowed him in his later years. But he didn’t leave us. He achieved a sense of immortality long ago as he put his basketball and baseball teams through their paces. When you mold others, you never really stop living.
Sure, Mr. Smialek was just a small town CYO coach and a small town Babe Ruth League coach and a small town Legion ball coach. There will be no television cameras outside his memorial service today. The headline on the obit in the local paper said he had worked for a department store chain. It’s the stuff of everyday life in passage.
But to those he coached, that doesn’t begin to describe Mr. Smialek. He was an educator, an artist, a motivator. Mr. Smialek — he hated being called that in recent years, but you can’t pass up the chance to verbalize respect — had a passion for life that is so rare in these cynical times. He brought that passion to his wife, to his children, to his coaching and even to painting. His art was thoughtful and far beyond the level of one who dabbles.
Along the great circle, he met up twice with Tommy Heinsohn. In the 70s, the St. John’s CYO team had done well and Heinsohn spoke at our banquet. Some 20 years later, their art would reunite them. The two shared the stage at a local exhibition of their paintings, entitled, “Coaches on Canvas.”
Most people came to see the work of the Celtic legend, but as they left they knew they had seen something special, too, in the work of this unknown.
The brush strokes of Mr. Smialek’s coaching brilliance had long before made their mark, and the works are still there in the legacy of his players and his family. He wasn’t your average coach. He wasn’t even your average renaissance man.
The stories he told still ring in these ears. Instead of simply making us run wind sprints, he’d explain as we ran how the expansion of lung capacity would make us better. Instead of simply instructing us to stop being selfish and start playing as a team, he sat us on the gym floor and paced before us.
“For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,” he would say, his voice bouncing off the walls, his eyes finding each of us, his finger punctuating the narrative. “For want of a shoe, a horse was lost. For want of a horse, a battle was lost…”
It wasn’t until years later when his movements became labored and the eyes lost their ability to pierce that I came to see him for what he was — true genius. He frightened some and was seen as a threat by others, which is why he didn’t get to coach us in high school. That’s the way it is with people of grand vision and common sincerity. Few truly understand them.
He was a coach who should have been on a national stage. He was an artist whose works should have been celebrated the world over. But he worked to a small audience.
Part of that audience wants to tell you now how grateful he is for the opportunity to have known Mr. Smialek. To still know him.
(SMG thanks Steve Bulpett for his cooperation)