Writer Rick Telander, 24, is good enough at basketball to have gotten an HO on South Carolina star Brian Winters in a recent game of HORSE. He did it while gathering material for his story about playground basketball, which begins on page 50. But this was his only attempt at that sort of research. "I quickly learned why those guys are so good," he says. "I dilettanted my way around as a kid, but they never thought of anything but basketball, basketball, basketball." Still on the edge of basketball dilettantism, Telander keeps his hand in these days by playing once a week in a Chicago park league.
Telander's involvement in sport has been a major theme in his short life and, inevitably, in his writing. As a 9-year-old in Peoria he swam competitively at the YMCA. For a while he was a third-string Little League pitcher, and he ran track and played basketball and football. But he claims his most memorable childhood sport was one he calls The Chase, an event that began with the chasee (him) throwing something—a firecracker, an apple, a mud ball—at a moving car and then running for his life when the driver came after him. "I loved to be chased more than anything," he says, "but it was no fun if the guy chasing me didn't want to beat my brains out." Telander, who never did lose a chase, used his unbeaten brains to write a reminiscence of The Chase that appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on Oct. 30, 1972.
Running to stay alive helped Telander become an outstanding high school end and safety, until they made him a quarterback in his senior year. They were short of quarterbacks. "I was pathetic," Telander says. "I couldn't throw the ball at all. My ends would throw it back to me harder than I threw it to them." But he was fine on defense, and Northwestern University gave him a scholarship. In his senior year he intercepted two passes against Ohio State. He started in the East-West Shrine game and wound up covering Missouri's Mel Gray, an assignment he would rather forget. At one point 50 yards downfield they both looked back for a pass but Telander tripped and fell. Gray scored, and the West won 17-13. The next day a San Francisco paper printed a front-page picture of Telander lying ingloriously on the ground.
Still, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the eighth round and Telander suddenly saw his tryout as an important personal test. When he was cut from training camp he returned to Evanston, crushed. "Finally," he says, "I was feeling so bad about things that I thought writing about them might make me feel better." He converted the episode into his first story for SI (July 31, 1972) and felt both numbed and elated by his accomplishment.
Telander has long since recovered his aplomb. He manhandles the guitar in a group he helped name Pablo and the Del-Crustaceans. (The name does not mean anything.) He describes their music as primitive rock and says, "We scream as loud as we can." In addition to that, he plays in a touch football league, works on his writing and is doing some heavy thinking. He says, "I see my whole childhood in terms of how many baskets I made and how many touchdowns I scored. Now I'm just trying to become normal."