Eagerly seeking a break in the profession during the summer of 1994, I attended a job fair at a New York hotel full of representatives from newspapers all over the country. While waiting for an appointment with the editor of a small paper in Virginia, I spotted a slim, elderly woman sitting alone at a table. She obliged my request to share it, and we quickly struck up a conversation. The woman, Marie Davitt, informed me that she recruited news clerks -- entry-level positions -- for the New York Times. Wow. The Paper of Record! At the end of our casual conversation, I was flabbergasted by her request for writing samples. I bashfully responded that I possessed only a handful of newspaper clips from a part-time job at New York Newsday, covering high school sports from September through June. Nonetheless, Marie insisted on taking my samples. And a few days later, she shocked me with a telephone call offering a job as news clerk in the Times sports department that entailed assisting writers and editors. Despite mundane duties such as phonework, I was thrilled about the opportunity. Former Times news clerks included legendary figures in the profession such as Norm Pearlstine and Gay Talese. I felt privileged at being able to pick up the phone and speak to some of the nation’s best sportswriters: Dave Anderson, Harvey Araton, Ira Berkow, William Rhoden, etc. The enormous stable of talent was overseen by Neil Amdur, a hard-driven yet caring editor-in-chief. Despite my satisfaction at merely being at the Times, Neil encouraged me to come up with a story idea -- and write an article on it during my free time. Although the Times rarely published articles involving high school sports, I used my background to sell him on the nations's best prep hoopster: Stephon Marbury, who lived in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Neil greenlighted the story. And after I visited Marbury's apartment, I stayed overnight at the office -- literally going 24 hours without sleep -- writing and revising the piece. The maniacal approach paid off; Neil loved the piece: “A Prodigy Prepares to Seize His Moment” was published on August 2, 1994. It ran without a byline because the Times prohibited news clerks from official acknowledgment. Within hours of publication, Sam Roberts, a Times reporter who hosted a local cable-news show, telephoned the sports desk with an inquiry: “Can you please tell me who wrote that great piece on Stephon Marbury? We’ve arranged to have the player on our next show, and would like to also invite the writer.” I responded with excitement: “That was me! I wrote the story!” Sam said, “Okay, we’d love to have you on with Stephen Marbury.”
I started out the live interview on NY1 with stage fright -- as nervous as I've ever been -- before turning almost cocksure by the end of it. In 2007, Will Leitch -- the founding editor of the irreverent sports website Deadspin -- would stumble upon a video of the segment. Leitch couldn't resist writing an amusing piece poking fun of both Stephon and me. Anyway, my appearance prompted the Times to place me in its writing program, which comprised a handful of its best young reporters. I earned more responsibilities in the sports department, including helping to select noteworthy books of the year. Meanwhile, Ira Berkow -- a future Pulitzer Prize-winner considered perhaps the premier feature writer in America -- became a mentor. Occasionally, we met a restaurant in his Murray Hill neighborhood, where he critiqued my articles over a meal.
The Times eventually abandoned its policy against bylines for news clerks. Now, I had proof! My writing output -- and confidence -- increased. I got wind of an interesting story about the inventor of the tennis bubble — a former tennis player — who had gone almost four decades without being recognized for the significant contribution. In a nutty coincidence, the man, a black engineer named Desmond Margetson, lived one block from me: 122nd Street between Amsterdam and Broadway — in the same building as my aunt. My article on Desmond Mason received prominent placement in the sports section. And he earned long-overdue attention for inventing the tennis bubble. Three months later, Sports Illustrated piggybacked off my piece for an article, “Mr. Bubble.” More than a decade later, I attended Desmond Margetson's memorial service -- after his death on May 28, 2008 from an extended illness.
My other articles at the Times earned praise in and out the newsroom. However, my debut piece on Stephon Marbury had placed me on the New York Daily News's radar. And within a year, the tabloid offered me my first full-time writing opportunity. My boss at the Times, Neil Amdur, tried to dissuade me, promising to eventually free me from the constraints of being a news clerk. But even my allies at the Paper of Record advised me to accept the Daily News's enticing opportunity. A major paper was handing me my goal since graduating college: the compensation -- and freedom -- to write regularly.