Pop was scared. Pop knew what happened to men who tangled with the bosses, who stuck a stick in the spokes of power. "Don't rock the boat," he'd tell his second son, because Pop had done it himself, and god knows you didn't want to end up like him. The old newspaperman was broken. The old newspaperman was haunted: by the career that didn't happen, by the thugs who came nightly in his dreams to kill him, by all that money lost over a deck of cards. "Tone it down," he would say. And the son, who worshiped his father, didn't listen to a word.
No, throughout his career Peter Vecsey has never played it safe. He has made enemies. He has betrayed his bosses. He has rocked the boat so hard that powerful people have tried to get him fired. Once, a coach cursed him out during The Star-Spangled Banner.
Del Harris had his reasons, mind you. Three times during the 1980-81 season, Vecsey had written that Harris, then coach of the Houston Rockets, was one loss from being fired. He wasn't. Instead, Harris engineered one of the most shocking playoff runs in history, taking his 40-42 team to the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. This was an inarguable coaching triumph, Harris's moment—and what on earth could spoil that? Yet when Harris saw Vecsey walking to the press seats along the baseline before Game 2, in Boston Garden, a spark flashed in his brain. Harris began to swear, spewing a river of profanity that flowed even as people stood, hand over heart, and sang about flag, courage and country.
The Rockets won 92-90. Now Harris had an even more eloquent answer for the bastard from New York who had killed him in print: He had beaten the mighty Celtics on their own floor. He could take the high road. But when he saw Vecsey walk into the near-empty Houston locker room, the mad spark flashed again. Harris's face turned scarlet, and suddenly the coach was toe-to-toe with Vecsey, screaming, "I should kick your ass!" Vecsey yelled back, and Harris lunged at him. The clash spilled out of the locker room, and cops struggled to keep the two men apart. Brought word of the commotion, Celts legend Red Auerbach crowed, "I knew there was some reason I liked Del Harris!"
By all the old rules, the incident should have spelled the end of Vecsey's career. Not only had he been wrong about Harris—repeatedly—but now error had begotten embarrassment and, worse, news. The incident was reported, commented upon. It looked like the culmination of Pop's worst fear: Make waves and you drown. But how could the old man know that the old rules about caution and exactitude had changed? How could he know that far from signaling his son's banishment, the fight at the '81 Finals would announce just the opposite? Peter Vecsey had arrived.
By then, Vecsey's fourth year as the New York Post's first pro basketball columnist, the NBA dynamo had started to hum. His thrice-weekly column—a biting dish now called "Hoop Du Jour" that combined cruel wit, news from Vecsey's unmatched contacts and generous dollops of speculation—had become the league's version of Variety. "Half of it ain't true," former Sacramento Kings general manager Joe Axelson once said, "but you've got to read it."
"I thought he was making it up, trying to create a problem," says Harris, now the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Other writers were read and either respected or disdained, but Vecsey was a different animal. Harris feared not only that Vecsey was trying to get him fired—but that he somehow could.
"Making it up?" Vecsey yells, laughing at the thought. "My source was the f——— owner! How about that?"
From that moment, everyone knew: Vecsey had become the league's rogue gene, an uncontrollable factor that would not go away, a storyteller now part of the story. Rivals and victims took justified shots at his accuracy and ethics, but no one denied that Vecsey had power, and it has only grown during the eight years he's been an NBA analyst on network television. "Nobody wants to piss him off," says Harris. Coaches have been known to call Vecsey just to ask, "Are you mad at me?"
"I see it in our own people: They're afraid of him," says Utah Jazz president Frank Layden. "Even people in the league—higher up—are afraid of him."