"My father used to get [free] stuff from the Yankees every year, and he would put it in a box and send it back or donate it to charity," Laura says of Little George. "He was saying, 'I cannot, in my conscience, be a part of it. It will compromise whatever I do.' "
But by the time Peter started hanging out in Harlem, George's career had veered off into places Pop could only have imagined. In 1968 he'd finally gotten his pass into Manhattan when the Times hired him. "And the sons of bitches lied to me," George says. He had been led to believe that he would be sent to the Mexico City Olympics that year, but he wasn't. In 1970 George left sports on an elevated track: He spent two years covering poverty and mine collapses in Appalachia, then came back to New York to cover Long Island for four years, then gave four years to covering religion. While raising a family he also started a cottage industry when he wrote Loretta Lynn's best-selling autobiography, Coal Miner's Daughter. He became the unlikely chronicler of country divas, following up with a best-seller on Barbara Mandrell and a book on Lorrie Morgan. (He would also write a book about coal miners, autobiographies with Welch and Martina Navratilova, and last year's autobiography with Chinese dissident Harry Wu.) After 12 years the Times lured George back to fun and games, and he was stunned by sport's crass new world.
"The first days I was back in a locker room," George says, "I'd see the same faces, of my friends and colleagues and baseball writers, and now they were just older and more sour, and I'd say, 'What the f—-? What have I done?' It was a different business from the one I'd left: There were agents and Steinbrenner and constant news to keep up with. You now had to cover sports as a business rather than just games, and part of me had a self-hatred: Why'd you come back?"
Peter never had second thoughts about devoting his life to writing about basketball. He loved the game Little George taught him when they were kids—how to go to your left, how to shoot, how to box out with your butt—and he loved everything around it: the seamy agents, the confused but magical players, the infighting. By the time George hit his stride as a columnist in the early '80s, his younger brother had become established, had been blasted by Del Harris at the Finals, had become Peter Vecsey.
By then Young had come over to the Post and was writing rants against all the bad things sports had become, but he tried to patch things up with Peter by telling him he was the future of the paper. "Yeah?" Peter replied. "F—-you, Dick." A week after Peter wrote his tribute to Big George, Young approached him while he was on the phone. "He comes over and says, 'Your dad was a great guy,' " Peter says, and suddenly he looks away. Tears pool up in his eyes and spill down his nose. After a moment he turns back and says, voice shaking, "I could've killed him. God. I mean, this is a guy he worked with for 30, 40 years! How he shrugged it off.... I wanted to put that phone around his neck. Great guy?"
Cross Peter and, in his mind, you are done. "He carries grudges, he exacts his revenge," Costas says. "Get on his s—list, and you stay there a long time."
Layden? Peter says their bad blood goes back to the All-Star Game in Cleveland in 1981. "We were at a bar," he says, "and [Layden] said, 'All these players are animals.' He didn't call them niggers, but it was very plain what he was saying. I told him, 'It all comes out now. You are a bitter racist. I won't forget.' " Layden denies that this incident occurred and that he has ever made racist comments.
It is such explosiveness that laid the groundwork for one of Peter's lowest moments. Two years ago, during the NBA Finals in Seattle, Vecsey was charged with fourth-degree assault after a man named Derek Nephew accused Vecsey and a companion of assaulting him at a Toys 'R' Us store. Peter says that Nephew verbally abused him but that he never laid a hand on Nephew. Though the charges were later dropped, the incident became national news and, true or not, had all the earmarks of a classic Peter clash. And no one would understand it better than his brother.
George in person is different from George in print. Though soft-spoken and personable, he has been known to fly into a red-faced rage at incompetent officials, to feud with a fellow columnist, to snap like Big George in search of a Baby Ruth. Ask him about former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti, and it's as if you'd asked Solzhenitsyn about the Gulag; the writer who needled Giamatti for having a "viola da gamba" voice now calls him "a prancing a———."
But work at another paper, one that would allow him to rip at will? No. There are few things in this world George loathes as much as the tabloids. He needs the constraints of the Times, because he knows the alternative all too well. He speaks of the Johnny Cash song The Beast in Me. "Do you lock the beast in the closet as much as you can? I believe you do. If we all let the beast out too often...." He doesn't finish the thought, but it's clear. Let the beast loose, and you risk a world of what George, in his column, recently called "sniggering Page Six Australian-language demi-journalism." You risk a world of rage and rumor and plummeting standards—the world of screaming headlines that top the stories in the pages of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post.