Friday, April 23, 2010

Mel is just Mel

Something like 100 years ago I was a sports intern at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Despite my journalism pedigree from the University of Missouri, I found the Inquirer an intimidating place. Its mammoth size was daunting. The writers were superstars in their craft. The sports department wasn't used to having interns, so I was rather alone as a newbie trying to figure out the lay of the land. I didn't know the city or the sports or how to drive, for that matter. I spent the summer living above an antique store in the apartment of a rock musician who was on the road. It sounds glamorous, maybe, but it wasn't.

It's always great to have someone who makes the road a little bit easier when you haven't a clue, and that's what Mel Greenberg did for me.

Mel is retiring from the Inquirer this week -- not women's basketball, just the Inquirer. He's an amazing guy, and I'm glad I can call him my friend.

I'd love to say that in the summer of 1990 I hung on every word Mel had to say about women's basketball. But it wasn't like that. I remember Mel from the night desk in Philly. I had trouble figuring out what I was doing on the computer system and everybody seemed too busy to ask. Mel was busy, too, but he always had time to help, whether I had one question or 20, and I usually had 20.

It wasn't until years later when I became a women's basketball writer that I began to understand the role Mel has played in the development of the sport. He knows its past and present, and he's inside enough to be able to tell you what's going to happen in the future. What a head start I could have gotten on the annals of women's basketball if I had loved the sport then the way I love it now. But I didn't know.

Truth is I didn't discover the sport till a few years later. I didn't realize in my intern days what an asset Mel was to the game. My buddy Lou, an editor there, told me about Mel, but I didn't realize Mel invented the women's basketball poll and was a one-man show for many years. What Bud Collins is to tennis, Mel is to women's basketball. I wish I had known at the time.

I didn't know because nothing about talking with Mel says big time. Mel is humble and unassuming and easygoing. He's a storyteller, if you can decipher his stories. I've frequently compared conversations with him to reading a Faulkner novel -- even if you start at the beginning, you still feel as if you've somehow missed something. Mel knows all the layers of the game. He's an encyclopedia of knowledge, and if you can grab on to what's he saying, he'll take you on quite a journey.

Speaking of journeys, Mel is always on one. If he sleeps, I don't know when. I can't imagine the hours he's spent in the car after working the night shift driving to a women's basketball game that anybody else would have blown off. Mel never talks about it like it's a chore. It's just what he does, what he's done, hundreds and hundreds of times.

The first time I ran into Mel a few years after I interned, I didn't expect him to remember me. But Mel has always remembered who I was. Writers can be pretty cliquey at times, but there's no clique with Mel, a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame whose Greenberg Award is the Pulitzer in the sport. It doesn't matter if he has a million things to do -- he makes the time and he is genuine all the time. Mel knows a million times more than I do, but he's always made me feel like I had something to add about a sport that's he narrated for nearly 40 years.

Lou used to say, "Mel is just Mel," and that's just it. There's no one like him. One of a kind. The Inquirer was lucky to have him all those years. The sport is richer thanks to him. And me, I'm lucky, too. I'm lucky I know Mel. And I'm flattered Mel knows me, too.

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