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Sporting News: As Memphis’ George Lapides ends legendary career, sports talk world owes him big
For most of the last year, particularly these last several months, he struggled merely to draw a breath. His lungs were ravaged by a disease not well known at all, that does not inspire telethons and 5K races and bake sales, George Lapides was constantly connected to an oxygen tank that assured he could live a little longer.
And then the recording proclaiming him as “the originator of sports talk radio in Memphis” would play — and it darned near could have called him the originator of sports talk radio, period — and his microphone would go hot. And George would begin another episode of “Sports Time” on WHBQ. And you would swear he was just fine.
There were two wonderful things former Commercial Appeal sports editor John Stamm did for me more than two decades ago. One was rescuing my career as a sports journalist when it seemed I might be out of options following the closure of The Pittsburgh Press. The other was introducing me to George Lapides.
Stamm had an inkling we might hit it off, and that meeting was a gift I’ll never be able to repay.
George did not reveal beforehand that show was the last appearance he would make on radio because he wanted as little fuss as possible…
He began his show when his boss at the old Memphis Press-Scimitar said he wanted George to do a sports talk radio show. George’s response: “What’s sports talk radio?” There were almost no shows anywhere in 1971. Bill Mazer is credited with the first such program, on WNBC in New York in 1964. Pete Franklin was doing a show in Cleveland as early as 1967. Myron Cope didn’t launch his show in Pittsburgh until the mid-1970s.
What made Lapides a particular pioneer was that he did his show for nearly a decade while also serving as sports editor and lead columnist of the Press-Scimitar. So everyone from Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on ESPN, to Jason Whitlock with Fox Sports, to Bernie Miklasz in St. Louis and Ron Cook in Pittsburgh and David Haugh in Chicago and Woody Paige in Denver and so many more – they all owe Lapides some small thank you for opening that door. There are more than 140 all-sports stations in the U.S now, more still on SiriusXM and the internet. There were none when Franklin, Cope, Lapides and their like were inventing the form.
When I introduced George Lapides at his induction to the United States Basketball Writers Hall of Fame in April 2014, I described him as “the best newspaperman I know — and he hasn’t worked for a newspaper in more than three decades.”
Inside his final half-year in radio, George would privately worry that his illness was making it difficult for him to properly prepare for the show, to make the calls and attend practice and get the insight that would make the program as good as it possibly could be. It was an astounding confirmation of his work ethic. He easily could have drawn on the wisdom and knowledge from five decades in sports media and still delivered more to his listeners than most anyone could hope to match. That wasn’t how he did it, though, and so he knew it was time to stop.
As he said this, he sounded clear and crisp and in the prime of health.
George Lapides was getting oxygen at the time, from the large tank behind his chair and the microphone connecting him to his audience.