In memoriam: Jim Gordon, sports editor, my mentor

jim gordonI was, at first, intimidated, very much so, by Jim Gordon, a local sports legend who had himself helped make legends of the likes of Ralph Sampson (Harrisonburg High School, UVA), Dell Curry (Fort Defiance High School, Virginia Tech), Kevin Madden (Robert E. Lee, UNC), Reggie Harris (Waynesboro High School, the Oakland A’s).

I was answering an ad in the paper calling for part-time sports writers. The pay didn’t promise to be great – $15 a game two or three nights a week, covering high-school games, primarily, occasionally also taking scores and details from out-of-town games over the phone.

I wasn’t necessarily planning a career of it, anyway, so the almost nonexistent pay was really no issue. I had been accepted into the MFA creative writing program at UVA starting in the fall, and had a few months to kill before grad school, and was otherwise just substitute teaching a couple of days a week, and working on short stories that nobody was ever going to read.

I loved sports, loved to write, and figured, what the hell.

Before the interview, I’d happened to read an article about how ESPN interviewed prospects for jobs on SportsCenter, which is how I’d gotten myself intimidated going in. Because the article went into detail about how the people doing the hiring would ask random sports questions on obscure topics, rules interpretations, players, game situations.

So when Jim sat me down and started going on about a middle-school swimmer who seemed to have promise, to the point of being on the verge of maybe qualifying for the Olympic trials that summer, yeah, I have to admit, I hadn’t been following middle-school swimming that closely.

I left the interview thinking, that guy is a genius.

I got the job, despite fumbling my way around talking swimming, which I knew nothing about.

It would only be later on that I would come to realize that, he wasn’t trying to get me off my game with the stuff about the middle-school swimmer. That was just Jim Gordon.

Jim Gordon passed away this week at the age of 78. You likely would never have heard my name or read anything that I had written if not for him hiring me, and then giving me plenty of rope.

I could write, and I knew sports, aside from swimming, but putting it all together into a format that would fit the space the newspaper gave the sports section was a challenge at the outset.

I’d practically write a book on Friday nights on deadline after getting back from a high-school football game, and then hear Jim ramble on about something or the other needing to get my story cut down to 20 column inches.

After a while, I figured out that we were talking roughly 30 words per column inch, so 20 inches was 600 words, which still didn’t seem like nearly enough, but we had seven local high schools to cover.

We also had UVA sports to cover, and I quickly learned that even though Jim had sat through a lot of ACC basketball and football over the years, at that point, close to 30 years into his career, he knew the UVA assignments were a bonus to his guys covering high-school games for $15 a pop, and he was generous in sharing them with us.

I’ll never forget how he broached the topic of my first ACC Tournament, in 1996.

“Chris, I’ve got a deal for you,” he started. The state high-school wrestling tournament was the next weekend down in Salem. If I could cover that for him, the ACC Tournament was mine.

“The Waynesboro girls are probably going to the state tournament that week, anyway,” was his reasoning for sending me to Greensboro in his place.

Funny story there, and everybody who worked for Jim has several of these to share, but here’s my best one. So, he’s sending me to Greensboro. The credential is in his name, of course, and I’m so green at this stage that I have no clue how any of this is supposed to work.

“Take this down with you,” he told me, thrusting a business card into my right hand, with all manner of scribble, exceedingly fine print, seemingly flowing out in all directions.

The scribble was a handwritten note explaining that I was taking Jim’s place on press row, I presume. To this day, I’m not 100 percent sure what it said; I couldn’t make a single letter of it out.

I walk up to the press check-in table at the Greensboro Coliseum, and sheepishly hand the lady at the table this card.

To my horror, she motions for someone at the next table to come over to look at the card, and then that person got on a walkie-talkie to call somebody else in.

At this point, I’m thinking, they think I’m an impostor. I’m going to be arrested. My sportswriting career is over.

Then they all start to laugh, and wave me in.

It occurred to me later that Jim probably did this every year, sent one of his guys to the ACC Tournament, to the Sugar Bowl, to the World Series, with one of these hand-scribbled business cards, and his guys got in to do their job.

There were award plaques all over his office, including one for being named the Associated Press Sports Editor of the Year. He’d written about future NBA, NFL and MLB stars from the time they were middle-school phenoms. Coaches including Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Bowden, John Thompson, took his questions, slowly, deliberately asked, in press conferences.

The middle-school swimmers and girls volleyball championship seasons were just as important to him, if not a lot more so.

I didn’t like the way the business treated him toward the end of his career. He struggled to adapt to technology, having to design his sports section on the computer screen, after more than three decades of doing it by hand, and ended up being let go several years before he should have been.

His exit was certainly a bit too soon for him to have tried his hand at catching on with a blog or starting a branded one of his own. For several years, Jim served as an usher at UVA basketball games, back in that familiar setting, and occasionally I’d see him at a Waynesboro Generals game, back when I was serving as the team’s internet radio play-by-play guy.

It had, sadly, been some time since I’d seen Jim, and the sad thing about life is that you never know when you might see somebody for the last time.

I owe him my career. He gave me enough rope that first few months that I was able to figure out what I was going to the point that I never did go back to grad school to work on that MFA. I got my master’s in sports journalism under his wing.

Thanks, Jim. Miss you, big guy.

Column by Chris Graham

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