Phil Berger
by Michael Rakosi

My relationship with Phil
Berger began June, 1, 1986
in San Francisco. At the
Cooney-Gregg fight,
sometimes known as the
Gregg Cooney fight, where
my fighter was knocked
down in 1-28 of the first
round. Columnist Wally
Matthews introduced me to
Phil and we found that we
had much in common:
boxing, basketball,
comedians, our young
daughters, and food. Mostly
mine. It was a while before I
realized I had been reading
his books for years.

Phil Berger always knew he
wanted to be a sports writer.
In the summer after college,
he walked in cold to the
offices of the now-defunct
Sport Magazine and got
(amazingly) an immediate
assignment.

Phil was a prolific writer,
writing 30 books and
countless articles. Even in
the last days of his life his
love of books remained a
constant, as he revised
his
own work and re-read many
of his favorite authors. Phil
collaborated with Joe Frazier
and Larry Holmes on their
autobiographies giving each
man his own own voice with
a literary style distinctly
Berger.

He wrote The Last Laugh as
a very young man, and got it
published despite many
naysayers who did not see
the power of "stand-up". It
has become a Bible for all
comedians. At the age of 27,
he took a risk and $2500 and
traveled with the Knicks
day-by-day and had the
serendipity to join them on
their most miraculous '69-'70
championship journey.

The Knicks named him Sly,
for he seemed to be able to
diminish himself in size and
weight, hunch over and grab
the tidbits that every reporter
and columnist would give
their eye teeth for, just by
being unobtrusive. "Miracle
on 33 rd Street" is still in
print. Memorialized forever,
Clyde will not be rhyming but
jumping and scoring. Willis
will not be making
administrative decisions, but
clearing out opposing
centers for shots for himself
and his teammates. Bill will
not be running for president
with campaign reform, but
will be hitting the jump shot
behind the pick. And Dave
will be hitting the boards and
shutting down his man, not
leasing real estate to big
corporations. Dick will not be
a Ph.D. but a left-handed
jump shooter with a most
awkward and devastating shot.

This is what Phil as the
scribe, the writer, the author
was able to do, freeze
historic moments in time,
that we the readers get to
treasure forever, even when
our heroes are old, gray,
balding and heavy. The writer,
and in this case the sports
writer, keeps them youthful
and beautiful forever. Phil
brought a beauty, a majesty,
an unerring ear and eye to
even the world of boxing.
Blood Season, maybe Phil's
finest work, gave an incredible
account to what we now know as
the life and times of the
continuing saga of Mike Tyson.
Read the back of the book,
with Phil's predictions, and
he appears to be Nostradamus
disguised as a writer for the
New York Times.

After seven years with the
Times Phil decided to give
up the steadiness of a regular
check, and take a shot at
Hollywood. After that, it was
only 5 short years of endless
options, contracts and
re-writes until "Price Of
Glory" starring Jimmy Smits
was released, in April 2000.
Screenplay by Phil Berger. He
was very proud of his efforts
and rightly so.

Phil, though very quiet, quite
insular, introverted,
had a few loves. His daughter
Julia, the light of
his life, whose every
accomplishment brought a man
who rarely smiled to showing
teeth, grinning and a gave
him a buoyancy he had never
before experienced. Veronica
Vera, his life companion
brought love and warmth,
caring, an outgoing
personality that balanced his
own, and a way of life that
proved that you can teach an
old dog new tricks. Veronica,
Phil would have worn a tutu
if you asked him to, well,
maybe not...His mother Fanny
and sister Cynthia Darling
were a constant source of
strength.

After these four extraordinary
women, there was basketball,
his sine qua non, his essence,
his very joy. Hitting a lefty
hook, in someone's face,
threading a pass or blocking a
shot, were profound ecstasies.
Phil started as point guard at
Johns Hopkins for three years
and his love affair with
basketball was perfect and
completely fulfilling.

After the surgery, three
months before his death, from
cancer Veronica took him home
in a very weak condition asked
him what he would miss most.
Without a thought to his
perfect lover, he replied
quickly and without hesitation,
"basketball." Over the last
seven or eight years, we have
built a wondrous game every
Saturday and Sunday morning
from 8 to 10. It is not the
greatest basketball, with the
most knowledgeable players, but
rather a diverse collection of
terrific people born everywhere,
living here and loving
basketball.

Phil loved the games and our
players unendingly. He would
stand in the cold for me to
pick him up on Second Avenue,
so he could enjoy the warmth,
the skill, the camaraderie
and the constant insults of
what we guys laughingly call
basketball. He loved it so
that we named our company
after it, which is Sundays At
Eight, in which he achieved
his greatest success, "Price
of Glory." Three weeks before
his last surgery, under heavy
chemo and with an arrythmia,
he came down to shoot with the
guys and kept complaining to
me that somehow he wasn't
getting full rotation on his
jumper. I use the term jumper
loosely. I stared at him in
stark amazement, at his belief
in his body and that it could
not fail him. All I can say is
wow.

Phil is gone and the loss is
profound. Who will I discuss
the fights with, the man he
called "Maravich light," the
trials and scandals of boxing,
the latest pay-per-view party
at my house, the betting pool
which he played so slyly, the
food he ate voraciously (and
first, because that made him
first in line for seconds also)
and the constant camaraderie?
Even that last Sunday night,
when he was in bed, Veronica
put the phone to Phil's mouth
and he answered about the
previous night's fights. He
said, I don't have much energy."
I said, I understand. Go to
sleep. And I love you." Rest
in peace now, Writer Boy.