My thoughts on passing of Jasner, Kelley

Cancer, a horrible disease, took two more sportswriter friends during a horrible week — Phil Jasner and Jim Kelley. Phil died after an extended battle with colon cancer and Jim after a 14-month war against cancer of the pancreas. 

These were both giants of the business. Phil covered the NBA out of Philadelphia and Jim the NHL out of Buffalo.

I met Phil when both of us were budding NBA beat writers in the early 1980s. Phil had just been put on the 76ers beat at the Daily News and I the Clippers for the old San Diego Tribune. We had a common thread in Tom Cushman, who had been a columnist at the Daily News and moved on to be Sports Editor of the Tribune. Tom hired me nearly 30 years ago. It was with him over drinks one night after a basketball game that I became friendly with Phil.

The Clippers were short-lived in San Diego and I was short-lived on the basketball beat. Tom put me on the Padres in 1984 and my career veered inexorably into baseball. Phil remained on the Sixers until his death. We covered Philadelphia’s sweep of the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals, to this day the 76ers only NBA championship.

I continued to attend the NBA All-Star Game and Phil and I remained friends. He was one of those guys who’d I’d see every once in awhile and pick up right where we left off. There was a bond among people who had been on the NBA beat back then tied together by the coaches we covered. Don Casey was one of them. He coached in Philly’s competitive Big Five and moved on to the Clippers as both an assistant and the head coach. When I heard rumors of Phil’s death on Friday night, it was Casey I immediately called. He still lives in San Diego. We had two conversations that were long and philosophical.

Through Casey I’d heard of Phil’s battle with colon cancer coming at the same time I was going through a similar tussle with the same disease. I’ve been cancer-free for 18 months, having gone through four surgeries. They caught mine early. Twice. I spent a very uneasy night pondering the question of why I’ve been spared (so far) and Phil wasn’t. There’s no answer. It’s the luck of the draw — perhaps it’s no more complicated than that.

I met Jim when I spent four years at Bloomberg News from 1998-2002 as their national hockey writer, among other duties. My relationship with Jim was much more casual than it was with Phil. He was a hockey writer and columnist for the Buffalo News back then and eventually made his way into the Internet. Like Phil, he was a dogged reporter with a myriad of sources, easy going and wonderful to talk to. We were among the group that covered the Sabres loss to Dallas in the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals.

Pancreatic cancer is a death sentence. As one survivor recently told me, 80 percent of those diagnosed with it die within the first year. Like Phil, Jim fought it to the end. By one wonderfully written account, Jim filed his last column early in the morning before he died. 

Even in illness, going to the rink, the ballpark, the gym, getting support from the people you know, putting your words in a laptop every day, creates a sort of normalcy to an abnormal situation. It’ll be soon enough before we all go home. That’s what I found. I’m sure Phil and Jim also took solace in doing what they loved best.

They are both gone now and sadly the list of sportswriters dying of cancer continues to know no bounds.

 

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