We all lost a good friend in Lacy Banks


Mar 22

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My friend, Lacy Banks, died Wednesday. He was a much accomplished man, from his military service to his Baptist church preaching and decades writing for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Lacy had a rich singing voice he used in concerts and in church. But it was his voice for equality that always resonated most deeply with me and was an inspiration.

One of my proudest moments was with Lacy, when his presence helped show me the person I could be and who we all should be.

It was in the 1980’s when we were on the Bulls beat together. It’s difficult for many to believe, but the Bulls—and yes they had Michael Jordan—weren’t much of a big story in Chicago then. The Bears had just come off that Super Bowl victory which refuses to fade and the White Sox and Cubs were just off postseason runs in 1983 and 1984. Chicago was not a Bulls town.

So we were a lonely few writers traveling. This happened to be in the preseason when the NBA ventures to places without franchises. I think it was somewhere in Kentucky or Tennessee, late after the game, and Lacy and I were the only ones left filing our stories in a makeshift press room that was little more than a trailer. The guard, a muscular, tall man with a hard to understand southern accent, had to wait for us to close. And he wasn’t very happy.

I finished first and was waiting for Lacy. The guard made some small talk with me and complimented something I was wearing, which should have put me on guard about his judgment. But, as I said, it was late. Then he said he was closing and the heck with that guy, meaning Lacy, about whom he offered an unpleasant racial description.

Yes, it was the south, but it was the late 1980’s. I’d always wondered if I were of age in the 1940’s and 1950’s what I would have done about all the segregation taken for granted in America at the time. But I grew up in New York City and we mostly read about that stuff.

Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays were our heroes.

I’m not a fighter, but I looked at Lacy, who sat stunned for a second, and then I looked back at the guard. I told him to get out, that he was an ass and owed Lacy an apology. He didn’t apologize. But he also didn’t try to kill me, about which I would have had little defense.

For years afterward, Lacy would always joke with me about how I’d saved his life that one night. He’d make a dramatic production of standing in front of me at times in mock protection, and then there’d be that big, engaging laugh we’d share. He knew and I knew we weren’t exactly facing a mob.

I tell that story much less about me than about Lacy.

Lacy’s life and his work, in many respects, was a fight for dignity and justice.

He was born in Mississippi and went to college in Kansas, neither always particularly welcoming places for an independent black man. He served in the Navy and once when we were in Indianapolis for a game, I went with him to Fort Benjamin Harrison, where he was stationed for a time. He told some stories that made you feel uncomfortable just hearing them.

Lacy wasn’t always the most popular guy on the beat with teams or the league. But when you are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom and not accept the easy way of doing things because of an injustice, you don’t become the favorite or the most beloved. But you also can be true to those who most matter, yourself your family and your God.

Lacy helped teach me that spending time with him.

I’m not making comparisons to Nelson Mandela or the many freedom fighters over the centuries, but in his own way Lacy fought for the rights of respect for the rest of us as they did.

I remember my old colleague at the Chicago Tribune, Bob Logan, who shared the Bulls beat with Lacy in the 1970’s, telling me stories of Lacy’s battles with coach Dick Motta. Motta was a fan and media favorite, though not necessarily with all his players. There were ugly incidents over the years with Norm Van Lier, Bob Love and Chet Walker, so bad after the devastating 1975 playoff loss that Motta tried to get the rest of the team to deny playoff shares.

One of Motta’s psychological ploys was to privately pit players against one another, a form of creative tension, which Lacy would ferret out. I remember Logan saying how Motta would scream about Lacy asking him questions and then telling the players what he said. How dare he!

Lacy had seen and lived inequity and partiality and stood in its way whenever it appeared.

It was what I felt that night in the south after being around Lacy. It wasn’t so much making a stand for Lacy but making a stand to stand with Lacy, to do what I knew Lacy would do for me and which he had done for so many others at the risk of his personal popularity.

That was the inspiration I felt being with him, that he always was willing to take the unpopular and difficult position if it were right. And that’s where I wanted to stand.

Lacy and I weren’t close off the court. We had our families and our private lives, though we’d share the occasional Chinese food meal after games. Lacy loved that late night Chinese snack and I smile when I think about those nights talking about the games.

Lacy was heavily involved in his church. I’m Jewish, which never was an issue, of course, and Lacy was so much more studied in religion than I was that he’d often quote Old Testament phrases to me. He’d always ask about my children and wife and was the ideal working companion. We’d talk about raising teenagers as he was years ahead of me in that and would offer some guidelines and try to warn me away from his mistakes, though his family was always a tremendous source of pride.

It can be difficult when you are on a newspaper beat because like in any business there is heated competition, especially with the Chicago tradition of front page journalism. It spilled over to sports, and especially with the Sun-Times, which delighted in showing up the haughty Tribune.

So it could get uncomfortable on a beat because if your opposite number got a story, you’d get heat from your editors and it was not uncommon for a coldness to develop. That never happened with Lacy, to his credit, as we shared time both on basketball and boxing, which we both loved as well.

When I’d get a big story first, Lacy was always the first to call me at home to congratulate me and say what a good job I’d done. I admit I had trouble doing that, my own competitive urges not as mature as his and not able to admit defeat as well. Though Lacy did always understand well the larger picture and what was important, his faith a sophisticated guide to life.

Lacy was just as dogged a reporter, a very good one whom I admired also for asking the question that was difficult to ask but also had to be. You see it often where there may be a legal or embarrassing issue or a question a player doesn’t want to answer and all the reporters are asking around the subject. You’d see that happen almost with the sense of knowing everyone was waiting for Lacy.

But being a good journalist isn’t always about being popular despite how some may do their jobs. I felt it was always a big part of why Lacy was in journalism, and even in sports, that there were stories to tell and what our country was about was facing the truth and reality no matter the price.

Lacy also was a worker and he’d get me plenty of times. I remember once when we were on boxing I’d gotten this scoop about how the Illinois commission was questioning whether a fight had been tampered with.

The Tribune back then had this ridiculous early Sunday edition which came out Saturday mostly to sell cars or apartments. The editors decided to put the story in that early edition, which Lacy got a hold of even before it went out on the streets, an old Chicago tradition. He jumped on the story and by the time the actual Sunday paper was coming out with the filing Saturday night he’d advanced the story and found the boxer in question and my editors were screaming at me about why Lacy had this story. I spent the next few days chasing around after Lacy’s followup reporting and doing radio interviews to praise the reporting. It was humbling on my competitive instincts.

In those early years with Michael Jordan, we’d all developed relatively intimate relationships with Jordan that are hard to fathom now. But we were traveling together in commercial aircraft and staying in the same hotels. Jordan had a few friends who’d occasionally join him on the road, but they couldn’t always afford to travel. And Jordan wasn’t particularly close with many of his early years teammates.

So he’d invite the writers to his room occasionally as he hated to be alone and always liked something going on. Lacy was a fairly accomplished ping pong player and we’d watch he and Jordan go at it or just sit around and talk. My relationship with Jordan diminished, obviously, after I began writing books, though I must say Jordan always dealt with me professionally. He could have made it difficult on me, as who was winning a battle against Michael Jordan? But he always answered my questions and treated me with respect, if no longer the intimacy we’d had before.

Lacy maintained that with Jordan and you could tell how much Jordan liked him the way he picked at him playfully. That was Jordan’s sign you were OK because he’d make you the target of his jibes.

But at the same time Lacy always insisted on a professional journalist’s relationship, and some of the toughest things written about Jordan were by Lacy. Lacy was going to be fair and give you a chance to state your side. But he also was going to always stand on the right side of fairness, principal and professionalism. I always felt I was a better person for having known Lacy.

He was a good and honorable family man, devout and a good friend who lived a good life. There is no greater legacy.

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