June 3, 2005

Out of the Shadow and Into the Spotlight

NY Times

Jeremy Schaap is defined, in part, by being Dick Schaap's son. The shape of his face and dimpled chin, his deliberate style of speaking and his respect for the written word evoke the look and career of his late father.

His choice of profession, a correspondent for ESPN, also echoes his father's, but he pursued it in reverse order: Dick Schaap started in print journalism, shifted to television, but all the while kept writing, including books, nearly three dozen of which bore his name by the time he died in 2001.

Jeremy Schaap targeted a television career early on and last month published his first book, "Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History" (Houghton Mifflin), which is not the source for the film of the same name, starring Russell Crowe as Braddock, which opens today.

"My agent and I were talking for years about a boxing book, and he said, 'Why not James Braddock?' " Schaap, 35, said. "I said that it was a great story, and they're making a movie on him. It might work."

Braddock is not nearly as well known in the pantheon of champions that includes Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, but his up-from-welfare saga is boxing's version of Seabiscuit, who has proved rather marketable.

The book shows paternal influence. It is a punchy read with touches of humor, opinion and attitude. Schaap wrote it quickly, after several months of research starting in the spring of 2004.

"I grew up watching my father write books in two or three weeks," he said. "Even if he had a year to do them, he'd write three or four thousand words a day, and a book emerged."

Schaap exists, with evident joy, within his father's prodigious shadow, not the least the one that he cast at ESPN. But Schaap seems as comfortable in that role as Joe Buck, the Fox baseball and football sportscaster who so clearly benefited from learning beside his father, Jack Buck, the late voice of the St. Louis Cardinals.

"My father never pushed me, but he took me to places where he was working," Schaap said. "I knew I wanted to be in TV and do what my father did."

Before his parents separated, Schaap recalled, a sports salon existed at his house, with visits by the likes of Joe Namath, Earl Monroe, Reggie Jackson and Tom Seaver. Jerry Kramer, the former Green Bay Packer with whom the elder Schaap wrote the classic diary, "Instant Replay," is Jeremy's godfather.

"To people of my generation, he's somewhat in Dick's shadow," said Vince Doria, ESPN's director for news. "But it's really less Dick's shadow than Jeremy being an extension of a wonderful journalist who had the great ability to tell a story."

At ESPN, Schaap the elder was a commentator and host of "The Sports Reporters"; his son is a national correspondent and occasional "Outside the Lines" anchor who has distinguished himself with reports like one that led to the departures of the Georgia basketball coach Jim Harrick and his assistant, Jim Harrick Jr., and another into allegations that a Lithuanian basketball team massacred Jews in 1941.

But his best-known work reflects on his father's old friends. Bob Knight grew frustrated with Jeremy Schaap for interrupting him as he offered a meandering account of the so-called zero-tolerance policy that led to his resignation as Indiana's basketball coach.

"Let me finish this," Knight said. Then, as if he were giving career advice, he added, "You've got a long way to go to be as good as your Dad."

"I appreciate that," Schaap said politely.

But that spasm of irritation by a master intimidator was minor compared with what Bobby Fischer, the erratic former world chess champion, dished out in March at a news conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. Dick Schaap had befriended the isolated teenage chess prodigy in the 1950's and interviewed him many times over the years. By the late 1970's, Fischer's bizarre and reclusive behavior prompted the elder Schaap to question Fischer's sanity.

Fischer had returned to Reykjavik, where he won the chess title over Boris Spassky in 1972, because the Icelandic government granted him citizenship, which sprung him from a Tokyo detention facility. There was Jeremy Schaap, 10 feet from Fischer, wondering what had become of the boy who needed the elder Schaap to take home to Brooklyn because he could not ride alone on the subway.

Fischer recalled past kindness by the elder Schaap, but snapped that "like a typical Jewish snake, he had the most vicious things to say about me." Jeremy Schaap protested and Fischer asked him if he had read his father's words. Schaap calmly told him: "I don't know that you've done much here today really to disprove anything he said."

If not a career highlight, the confrontation was memorable.

"Jeremy loves to be at the center of the storm," said John Walsh, the executive editor of ESPN. "Like his father, he has the fire to be right in the middle of things."

Soon after the Reykjavik contretemps, Schaap was at a news conference promoting Mike Tyson's June 11 fight against Kevin McBride. Tyson asked him what he had been doing in Iceland. Tracking another former world champion, Schaap said.

"Bobby Fischer," Tyson said. "That guy's crazy!"

Such moments make Schaap want to call his father, who died at age 67 from complications following hip surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital.

"There are so many things I'd like to tell him," Schaap said. "Just to tell him what Bobby Fischer said. To tell him about writing a book. Or just to tell him a funny story. There was stuff between us no one would appreciate."

They shared so much together, off the air and on their ESPN Radio show. One of those subjects, early in Schaap's career, was his voice. He didn't like the way it sounded. Too New York, a little raspy, but not as much as his father's. So he slowed his pace, enunciating with precision, which works well for someone who is telling stories, not narrating the night's highlights.

"My father said people thought his voice was terrible, too," Schaap said, "but after a while, people got used to him, and he became a distinguished voice."