When Jerry Izenberg heard the question, he cracked a joke. That’s just the way Jerry is.
"My top-five memories?" he asked. "Discovery of fire? Refining of the wheel? Is that what you’re looking for?"
Izenberg, the Star-Ledger’s sports columnist for almost 40 years and this year’s winner of APSE’s Red Smith Award (the 20th), has written about some of the significant sports events in history.
Once he got past fire and the wheel, he came up with these memories:
• Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, 1974. "The social implications of Ali in Africa were tremendous," Izenberg said. "This was the first overseas fight that was held in such a strange setting. It meant so much to him."
Izenberg remembers watching Ali hitting a heavy bag a few days before the fight. When he noticed Izenberg standing behind him, Ali looked over his shoulder and said, "I’m going to knock that sucker out."
"And he did," Izenberg said.
After the fight, Izenberg and a few other reporters found Ali standing alone, staring at the Zaire River, which had flooded after a heavy rainstorm. Ali turned, approached them, and in an uncharacteristically quiet voice said, "You’ll never know what this means to me."
Izenberg called it "the most sensitive moment I’ve ever seen with him."
• The final season for Pelé, 1978. Izenberg remembers Pelé breaking onto practically non-existent U.S. soccer in the 1970s.
"Here was a guy who was as recognizable as Ali, hanging his jersey on a nail in Rochester, New York, to play his games," Izenberg said. "We’re in an era where superstar athletes put an Ace bandage on acne. But Pelé played because he loved the sport.
"He once told me, ‘I’m a soccer missionary.’ And he was."
At his final game in the Meadowlands, Pelé took the microphone and delivered a touching speech. "He said, ‘I want to leave you with one thing. We must always do everything for the children.’ When he said that, he was talking about everything he didn’t have as a child growing up in Brazil."
He concluded by asking the crowd to repeat the same word with him three times: Love. "It shook everybody," Izenberg said.
• The aftermath of Bob Vorhies’ death, 1980. Every important memory is not aired incessantly on ESPN. Izenberg received a letter from the mother of Vorhies, an Irvington, N.J., teenager who had died in 1977 during punishment workouts at Virginia Tech (known as VPI at the time). While reporting the story, Izenberg found a series of attempts to cover up the death.
He wrote five consecutive columns on the topic — the only time in his career that he has done so.
"It shook me," he said. "It was the ultimate in arrogance as far as college football goes. It taught me that, as sports columnists, we can do something. I didn’t win the case, but I gave [the mother] the ammunition to fight."
• Willis Reed vs. the Lakers, 1970. It’s hard to believe that was 30 years ago. Reed had pulled a hip ligament in game five, and, without him, the Knicks were crushed in the next game.
Would Reed play in game seven? The hysteria leading up to it was intense. "I had been there in the afternoon with Willis," Izenberg said. "To see him play in that game was just unbelievable."
Reed played, only the first couple of minutes, and the Knicks beat the Lakers. Izenberg had his column, one that would begin with a reference to No. 5 on this list.
• Ken Venturi at the U.S. Open, 1964. "It was 98 degrees at Congressional," Izenberg said. "It was unbearable."
And memorable. Under Open rules at that time, the field played 36 holes on the final day. Venturi staggered through the final nine holes and then dropped to his knees after holing a 10-foot putt to win.
"It was unbelievable that he could make it through another 18 holes," Izenberg said. "All these golfers looked like they came out of cookie cutters. Ken Venturi showed it doesn’t have to be that way. It was a courageous thing, and you don’t always equate courage with golf."
Venturi later sent Izenberg a letter to thank him for the column. "He had no need to do that," Izenberg said.
Plenty of readers have thanked Izenberg for his columns since.