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Tuesday, April 24, 2007 - Page updated at 11:20 AM

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Steve Kelley

Saying goodbye to a mentor and friend

Seattle Times staff columnist

We were on the backside of another wearying, mid-winter road trip, walking down another long, drab airport corridor and I was complaining about everything, really — but specifically about how heavy my computer felt.

This was back in the technological Stone Age, when I was working for The Oregonian in Portland, covering the Trail Blazers and writing on a Teleram, a portable computer about the size of a microwave oven.

Finally, my traveling companion and career-long mentor, David Halberstam, asked me to hand the Teleram to him.

And, in his typically deep, booming baritone that always sounded like the voice of God, David bellowed to anyone who would listen, "Don't let anyone ever say I can't carry Steve Kelley's computer."

The best gift I've ever received in this business was the friendship of David Halberstam.

In 1979, when I was covering the Blazers, David decided to write about the NBA, centering on a season in Portland. The subsequent book, one of the most important sports books ever written, would be called "The Breaks of the Game," and for me, that time we spent together was better than any post-graduate program at any prestigious journalism school.

David was one of the giants of journalism. I began reading him when he was working at the New York Times, covering the Vietnam War. He was a flawless reporter, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a ubiquitous presence in the early days of talk shows.

On the other end of the journalistic spectrum, I was a still-skittish reporter, in my second year on the beat, still looking for my voice and still unsure of my skills.

I watched him for more than a year. I eavesdropped on his interviews with players, coaches, general managers and owners. He was fearless and relentless with his questions. He was indefatigable. Even at the end of a road trip, he never seemed to get tired.

Although he could have, David never pulled journalistic rank.

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During that season with the Trail Blazers, occasionally he would be invited into private meetings, by coaches or front-office people. He always refused. If no other reporters were invited into the Blazers' inner sanctum, David wouldn't go.

That's the kind of integrity he had.

The Blazers, world champions in 1977, were falling apart in that 1979-80 season. Bill Walton was gone. Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins wanted to be traded. For a young reporter, it was a scary and exciting team to cover.

There was so much reporting to do and David kept pushing me to ask the tough questions, even when sometimes I felt a wave of nausea come over me before I went into a news conference.

He pushed me the way great coaches push their players.

And David didn't suffer whiners well.

When I would complain that Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay was angry at me, or mention that Lucas wasn't speaking to me, or team president Harry Glickman was upset, David would put the moments in perspective.

"When I was covering the war in the Congo, I had to sprint across the street from the hotel to the Western Union office, dodging snipers' bullets, just to get my story sent back to The Times," he once snarled at me. "Don't you back down from Harry Glickman."

I didn't, because I didn't want to let down David.

Still, he never was condescending to me. He was a teacher, not a lecturer.

On the job, in the locker rooms, at the press tables, in the media rooms, he always treated me as an equal. Our friendship lasted for almost 28 years, since the day I first met him, in a coffee shop in downtown Portland in the summer of 1979.

And it always seemed it was David, not me, who kept the friendship going. He would call periodically to check up on me, to suggest a column to write, or to tell me he was coming to town.

When he was in Seattle, he always had time for dinner with my wife, Carole, and me. And while I always wanted him to talk about politics and the state of the world, it seemed he always wanted to talk basketball.

When I wanted our dinners to be about him, he never gave me the chance. He was more interested in what, and how, I was doing. He scribbled notes on a napkin, book ideas, column ideas, even suggestions on how I should start those columns.

At one fairly recent dinner, I remember telling him that I felt as if I had disappointed him. I hadn't written books. I hadn't won major awards. I never had ventured too far away from sports.

He said something flip like, "Don't be ridiculous," but the next day he called me and gave me a pep talk that was the most inspiring speech I'd ever heard.

I always could count on David — to give me a lift when I needed it, to give me the right advice when I asked for it, to make me laugh when I least expected it.

Always, he was only a phone call away.

Monday morning David Halberstam died in a car accident. And as sad as I feel, all I can think about today is, "With my great friend and best teacher gone, whom do I call now?"

Steve Kelley is taking a leave of absence. His column will resume upon his return.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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