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Purdy: My five most memorable athletes and coaches

Mark Purdy, who has been a sports columnist for this newspaper since 1984, will retire from that job in August. He is writing a series of columns recounting the most memorable elements of his four decades as a sports journalist. This time: Most memorable athletes and coaches .
Making lists is such a cheap way to write a column. Making lists is the haven of the desperate journalist.
Welcome to the corner of cheap and desperate.
I can tell you, however, there is one line of questioning I hear often from friends and relatives and complete strangers in sports bars who are Raiders fans and have had too much to drink. The line of questioning usually goes like this: “Who is the best athlete you covered? Who is the best coach?”
(Exception: With Raiders’ fans, the question usually is, “So who’s the best ‘effin NFL quarterback of all ‘effin time? Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett or Derek Carr?”)
My answers to these questions depend on my mood and whether I want to think too deeply. You might be surprised to learn that sportswriters generally don’t obsess over the “who’s best” questions. We’re too busy worrying about the next column topic. Plus, if you do this job long enough to have covered games involving Earl Campbell and Marcus Allen and Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett and LaDainian Tomlinson and Barry Sanders — all of them brilliant runners with signature styles — well, you realize the folly of trying to rank which one’s better or best. They’re all remarkable.
Sportswriters also are inclined to appreciate those players and coaches who make a professional effort to understand our jobs. Darryl Sutter, the former Sharks coach, has the reputation of being a crusty character, prone to shut down and embarrass media members on a whim. But he did realize what our job entailed — as he demonstrated one year in Japan, of all places. In 1998, as an NHL promotional outreach, the Sharks opened their season against the Calgary Flames in Tokyo. The time difference was such that we writers were basically on an instant deadline. We couldn’t wait 30 minutes after the game for the protocol-driven postgame news conferences with interpreters and translations.
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After we explained this to Sutter and asked if he could just give us a quick question-and-answer session immediately after the game, he went one better. Sutter arranged for the San Jose contingent of writers to enter the Sharks’ dressing room via a side door and have five minutes to speak with anyone we wanted, then return to our keyboards and start typing. Then we could skip the news conference.The NHL was furious. Sutter didn’t care. That put a positive checkmark next to Sutter’s name in my notebook.
What I can say is, there are certain athletes and coaches who I will remember on a higher plane than others — not necessarily for being the best but for being the most memorable in all sorts of ways. As I offer the following lists, I’d frame it this way: Given the chance to do so, which players and coaches would you most like to spend time watching and covering all over again as they pursued their craft? It would be these five players and five coaches.
(The answer to the Raiders’ fans question, by the way, is: Otto Graham.)
Let’s start with the athletes first:
JOE MONTANA
How fortunate was I to land in the Bay Area in 1984 to become a sports columnist, squarely in the midst of No. 16’s salad days?  Every Sunday, I sat in the press box and watched the 49ers break the huddle on their first offensive possession. Montana would go beneath the center, take the first snap and drop back. It was as if he kept pulling the trigger on a secret weapon that no one could stop.
22 Jan 1989: Quarterback Joe Montana #16 of the San Francisco 49ers wants to pass during the Super Bowl XXIII game at the Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. The 49ers won over the Cincinnati Bengals, 20-16. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport 
No matter how big Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant get for winning trophies with the Warriors, they will never match the adoration laid upon Montana by the Bay Area during the 1980s. Once, I ended up with a mini-scoop about Montana taking a back injection for a spine issue and you would have thought I had cracked the nuclear code.
A few days before his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 2000, I visited Montana’s hardscrabble hometown in Western Pennsylvania and gained a greater understanding of what an ambitious soul he truly was. He and I had an OK professional relationship, nothing beyond that. But I appreciated how he owned up to (rare) bad throws as well as the good ones.
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JACK NICKLAUS
Not a Bay Area sports figure although he played in plenty of events at Pebble Beach. He always will be my standard for how to be a great athlete while accommodating the media and somehow holding together a successful family life. It’s pretty clear that Tiger Woods will never catch Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships and that’s just dandy by me.
The first major I covered was the 1975 Masters, when Nicklaus made a back-nine charge to defeat runners-up Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf. It’s still considered one of Augusta’s best finishes. But off-course interactions over the years won me over. Nicklaus always had a few minutes on the driving range if you needed a quick quote. And at the 1985 British Open, played at the all-male Royal St. George’s Golf Club, I saw Nicklaus chastise club members who were harrumphing at the presence of female reporters in the locker room. You remember that stuff.
BARRY BONDS
As everyone knows, Bonds and the media were not chummy. That never bothered me much. As I once told him, I got paid the same whether he answered my questions or told me to perform an unnatural act. All I know is, during his first season as a Giant in 1993 — well before the cream and the clear — he was the most complete and devastating baseball player I’ve ever seen. And he was an offensive force to the end of his career, asterisk or no asterisk.
Off the field, I just considered Bonds to be an odd duck. He would hit two home runs in a game and tell reporters to get lost and go write about someone else. So we did. But when Bonds botched an at-bat in a losing playoff game, he would speak at length and be self-critical. The conundrum: Bonds would then complain that reporters only wrote about him if he did something bad. Huh? My wish is that Bonds eventually comes clean about his juice relationship and encourages others to do the same. Only then will we Hall of Fame voters know what the true PED landscape was during that era and be able to assess candidates based on that landscape. Right now, I’m not voting for Bonds or other steroid candidates — but he has five more years on the ballot.
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WAYNE GRETZKY
There’s an argument to be made — although I don’t buy it entirely — that the San Jose Sharks would not exist if Gretzky had never been traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 and boosted hockey interest in California. I’ll go this far: NHL owners knew when they awarded the expansion franchise in 1991 to the Bay Area that the new team would have an immediate natural rival down south — and that the game’s best player would help that rivalry fill seats several times a year.
It definitely was a big thing whenever Gretzky did suit up against the Sharks and he wound up tying Gordie Howe’s career goals record (801) during a 1994 game at what was then called San Jose Arena. I simply feel fortunate to have seen the man work his magic so many times. When he retired in 1999, he held 62 NHL records. Only two have since been broken. Most never will be. Away from the rink, Gretzky has always given me time if needed and he seems like a regular guy. During the Edmonton-Sharks series this past spring, he was spotted drinking beer at a downtown San Jose bar with former Sharks captain Owen Nolan. That makes Gretzky OK by me.
LeBRON JAMES
Warriors fans will be furious at me for putting James in this list of five names. So will Michael Jordan fans. I understand. Curry and Durant proved in this spring’s playoffs that James can be declawed as a superior basketball being. But my experience in covering the sport also includes nine Olympic tournaments. James has played in three of them. He has represented the USA as well as any athlete I’ve seen in any sport at any Games. That goes a long way with me. My memory of Jordan when I covered the 1992 “Dream Team” in Barcelona was his petty way of staying “loyal” to his Nike sponsorship by covering up a rival shoe company’s logo on his sweatsuit at the gold medal ceremony.
In 2004, James was still a teenager at the Athens Olympics and was a bench player when the USA suffered an embarrassing semifinal loss and settled for a bronze medal. Four years later in Beijing, James made sure there would not be another Athens. An assistant coach on that 2012 USA team was Johnny Dawkins, who shortly thereafter became Stanford’s coach. One afternoon at his campus office, Dawkins detailed to me the way James took over leadership of the American roster, kept them focused and even instructed them on the proper way to stand for the national anthem after the gold medal presentation.
At the 2012 London Olympics, James played a similar role before sitting out 2016 in Rio. Oh, yes. James has also won three NBA titles — including the 2016 championship against the Warriors where his block of Andre Iguodala’s layup in the final minutes was the biggest play in Game 7. If I had covered more of Jordan’s games, I might feel differently. But I make no apologies for being a LeBron man.
The list of coaches was even more difficult to pare down, but here goes (and pardon the asterisk.)
BILL WALSH
I’ve previously mentioned that Walsh was consistently the best Bay Area sports interview during his coaching years with the 49ers and Stanford. My feeling, perhaps an immodest one, is that we also cultivated a relationship of mutual respect. But that was merely a bonus on top of being able to observe Walsh’s coaching skills week after week and the way he essentially gave the rest of the NFL a nervous breakdown with his “West Coast Offense.” (See Joe Montana, above.)
I think it was Sam Wyche, a former Walsh assistant and later the Cincinnati Bengals’ coach, who told me that Walsh was so far ahead of the game that he would purposely call a play in Week 2 that he knew wasn’t likely to work, just to get it on video — because Walsh knew that a coach he would be facing in Week 9 would see the video and prepare his team for the play … only to have Walsh install a different action out of the same play to outmaneuver the opposing coach. Once, I asked Walsh for his opinion about the best NFL coach ever, he said: “I think it would have to be Vince Lombardi.” But during the 1980s, if Lombardi had still been alive and coaching, I don’t believe even he would have had an edge on Walsh.
SPARKY ANDERSON
Back in the day, baseball managers would often hold court in their offices for half an hour or more before games, bantering with writers about whatever subject arose. That doesn’t happen in today’s media climate, for various reasons. Interaction with the Giants’ Bruce Bochy and the A’s Bob Melvin, as cooperative as they are, is far more limited and almost never inside their offices. That’s a shame. Under the previous tradition those office hours allowed me to receive a premier baseball education from men such as Roger Craig, Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker and Art Howe, among others. But no baseball manager will ever mean as much to me as Anderson, who managed the Cincinnati Reds during my spawning years in the sportswriting racket. He won two World Series there, then went on to Detroit and won a third title.
However, it was in the summer of 1973 that Anderson influenced my worklife significantly. I was a 21-year-old intern for a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio, when I accompanied the beat writer to a Reds game for a twi-night doubleheader. (Anyone remember them?) The first game yielded a great story and the second game ran past 11 p.m., so the beat writer sent me down to Anderson’s office to gather some quick quotes. I was ordered to specifically ask about a blown save by a Reds reliever in the second game. Imagine my shock as I entered Anderson’s office and — because of the late hour — I discovered that he and I were the only people in the room.
Nervously, I began: “Sparky, I’m sorry I have to ask you this question, but … ”  Whereupon he interrupted me and said: “Young man, you should never begin a question by apologizing. Never. Just because you’re starting out in the business doesn’t mean your questions matter less than anyone else’s questions. So never apologize for asking a question. That’s your job. Now, what did you want to know?”
It was exactly what a 21-year-old intern needed to hear. I’ve followed Sparky’s advice for the last 43 years.
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CHRIS CARVER
The South Bay’s Carver is the best synchronized swimming coach in USA history. Those who have followed my long-held antipathy toward the sport will be shocked to find her on this list. What you might not know is, in addition to being the best at her game — as proven by the way she coached USA teams to gold medals at the Olympics and Pan American Games — she is a terrifically good sport. Carver knew that I had continually disdained synchronized swimming as an Olympic event and had once called it “break-dancing in a fish tank.” And yet whenever I showed up on any pool deck to cover her teams, Carver was never anything but professional and enlightening.
This photo was taken at the US National Team selection trials in Indiannapolis in May 2010, when it was annonced that Leilah was selected to the US National. Chris Carver was there and gave Leilah a great bigh hug.Ê Chris Carver (who has been in this sport for over 30+ years),Ê isÊthe head coach of the Santa Clara Aquamaids (leilah’s team) and has coached the US Olympic teamÊ5 times (spanning nearly 20+ years). 
In fact, at the 2004 Athens Games, my bosses took a poll of readers and asked them to “assign” me to any event they wished on a particular day. Naturally, the readers sent me to write about Carver’s team. When I saw her, she laughed and said: “They made you do it, huh?” She always did know how to go for the chlorinated jugular. Over the years, Carver convinced me that her swimmers were great athletes. And I think that, especially after a Spanish team attempted to use swimsuits that lit up at the Beijing Olympics, I finally convinced Carver that synchronized swimming would gain more credibility if it abolished sequins and cartoon makeup. Maybe. Possibly. All right, probably not.
 
 
 
 
 
DAVID SHAW
You might wonder what Stanford’s current football coach is doing on this list, compared to so many other men or women who could be here. Nothing against them. But my personal belief is that Shaw continues to perform the most under-the-radar excellent college football coaching in the country. It’s true that Shaw had a good launching pad for his tenure because of the upward-mobility years from his predecessor, Jim Harbaugh. But since taking over in 2011, Shaw has managed to win more bowl games (four) and make more Rose Bowl appearances (three) than any Stanford coach in history. His teams always rank in the top 20 and often the top 10. And at a time when the NCAA needs a beacon school to prove football can mix with academics, Shaw also provides that service.
Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw talks with an unseen person during practice at the Stanford football practice field in Stanford, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 
He has kept his word, too. We have long known that Shaw is the perfect fit at Stanford because he’s an alum who believes in the university’s mission. But every winter, cynics have predicted he’ll be leaving to coach the NFL. They have been wrong. One cool December afternoon in 2012 after a practice, Shaw and I stood on the field and he outlined his daily routine of jogging through the Stanford campus, often stopping at the Rodin Sculpture Garden to reflect. He truly does love the place. That day, I pressed him on the NFL rumors, which he again denied. He looked toward the Hoover Tower and told me: “Put it this way — I want to be coaching here until my kids graduate from here. And I have a 2-year-old.”
The 2-year-old is now a 7-year-old. Shaw, as promised, is still at Stanford. I’m starting to wonder if he will ever leave.
AL McGUIRE
It feels strange to have McGuire on this list representing college basketball instead of such fine Bay Area coaches as Pete Newell, Mike Montgomery, Tara VanDerveer or Carroll Williams. McGuire has no real Northern California connection. He won the 1977 NCAA title as Marquette University’s coach and then became college basketball’s most beloved network television analyst. But he’s here for one reason. McGuire was the first big-name coach with whom I had a real relationship. It sort of happened by accident. One of my first beats during my Ohio years was University of Cincinnati basketball. During the 1976-77 season, the Bearcats played Marquette twice. I interviewed McGuire before and after each game. He was a huge personality. We hit it off. That wasn’t unusual for McGuire and other writers but most were much older. I was two years out of college.
Mark Purdy (left, with mustache) on the floor of the Atlanta Omni arena with Marquette coach Al McGuire (in suit) after Marquette’s 1977 NCAA championship victory. 
That season ended with me covering the Final Four in Atlanta and sitting at the press table directly behind McGuire for the most epic moment of his life, the national championship victory. At the final buzzer, fans flooded the floor. I climbed over the table to follow around McGuire as he wept and absorbed the atmosphere. A few weeks ago as I researched this story, I actually discovered a photo I had never previously seen. It shows me with McGuire in that postgame whirl. I did a double take. It definitely brought back good memories.
By the following season, I had moved to California to work for the Los Angeles Times covering UCLA basketball. McGuire had retired from coaching and was with NBC. He came to Westwood for a game and called me up — yes, called me,  not vice versa —  and asked me to lunch. We did an interview that I used for a story but mostly just laughed a lot. I gave McGuire a ride back to his hotel in my tiny Ford Pinto, which amused him to no end. We stayed in touch off and on until his death from leukemia in 2001. To this day, I frequently repeat a famous McGuire quotation that could explain why we meshed so well because I subscribe to the same perspective.
The McGuire quote: “Winning is only important in war and surgery.”

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