Beyond the byline
Story by Bailey Gilliam
If you ever picked up a Sports Illustrated between the ‘60s and 2000s, you’ve probably come across the name Curry Kirkpatrick. This legendary writer spent most of his career as a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, specializing in college basketball and tennis coverage. Known for his ability to inject humor and sarcasm into his articles, Kirkpatrick was one of the greats of the Sports Illustrated staff, among NSMA Hall of Famers Frank Deford, Peter Gammons, Dan Jenkins, Sally Jenkins, Leigh Montville, Jim Murray, William Nack, Rick Reilly, Gary Smith and Rick Telander. You can find his work in the Sports Illustrated Vault, which houses Kirkpatrick’s writing archives, from regular-season college game reports and Final Four write-ups to long-piece stories on superstar athletes, celebrities and musical legends.
Kirkpatrick also wrote for Newsweek and ESPN the Magazine, dabbled in television commentating for both CBS and ESPN and co-wrote two books, Jim Valvano’s autobiography, They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract and Then They Declared Me Dead, and Dick Vitale’s autobiography, Just Your Average Bald, One-Eyed Basketball Whacko Who Beat the Ziggy and Became a PTPer. Both were New York Times best-sellers.
In 1993 Kirkpatrick was inducted into the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, and in 2001 he won the Curt Gowdy Award from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. This April Kirkpatrick was inducted into the N.C. Media Hall of Fame. To commemorate his recent achievement, LOCAL Life met him to discuss his career as well as what made him call Hilton Head Island home.
[LOCAL Life] How did you get your start at Sports Illustrated? [Curry Kirkpatrick] I read Sports Illustrated as a kid but never did any writing in high school. I played sports and loved reading about them, but I didn’t aspire to be a writer. However, during my senior year of high school, I wrote two letters to the editor of Sports Illustrated – so I was published there before I even got to college (laughs).
At the University of North Carolina, I started writing for The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper. In those days Sports Illustrated had stringers on campus who would send the magazine things they thought might be of interest, so I sent a couple of suggestions. I started writing a column for the newspaper but still had no aspirations of anything. Then during Christmas break my senior year, Sports Illustrated called me and asked if I could come to New York to show me around. Once there, I spoke with a managing editor, and he said, “We have an opening for a reporter. Would you be interested?” I was shocked and said something like, “Oh, great! I graduate in May. Can I come after that?” He said, “No, we need you right now.”
I wasn’t sure about such an abrupt start. I went home and thought about it. I loved Chapel Hill and didn’t want to cut my time there short, so I called and asked if there would be an opening in the spring after graduation. They said they didn’t know if there would be an opening then.
I was 22 years old. And I had just turned down a job at Sports Illustrated.
After I returned to Chapel Hill and graduated in the spring, I went home to Niagara Falls, New York. That summer I worked at the Buffalo Evening News doing movie reviews and covered city hall and the police beat. It wasn’t particularly exciting. But then in September Sports Illustrated called again and said, “We have another opening. Can you come now?”
I couldn’t get there fast enough.
[LL] What kind of work did you do at Sports Illustrated?
[CK] I did a lot of college basketball and tennis but other sports as well. I also wrote stories on the fringes of sport, such as the star animal trainer at the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. I did a story on The Wedge at Newport Beach, a mecca for body surfers. Sports Illustrated let me travel with a bizarre four-man softball team. They allowed me to do so many things. If you gave them an idea, more often than not they let you run with it. So I started doing long-form stories. It was really great fun. It was such an adventure.
[LL] How did you end up living on Hilton Head? [CK] When I began at Sports Illustrated, everybody had to live in the New York area – commuting to the office in the Time-Life Building. But eventually, the magazine allowed people to live wherever they wanted because we were usually all filing our work from out of town anyway, so it didn’t matter. Sports Illustrated could save money by letting people live anywhere. I knew about Hilton Head because my parents vacationed here. When I got married, my wife and I came down and stayed. I always wanted to live on the beach, and when I got here, I fell in love with the place. I moved to Sea Pines in the late ‘70s with my wife and two daughters.
[LL] What’s your favorite thing about living here? [CK] The beach. I used to play tennis a lot before I hurt my leg. I played some golf too, but I love the beach. I go to the beach every day if it’s not storming. I swim in the ocean all the time.
[LL] Did you go to the beach often while working at Sports Illustrated? [CK] When I was working, I was traveling three weeks out of the month and writing for almost every issue. But on the days I was here, I was on the beach. I did research, reading and note-taking there. I even did some longhand writing on the beach.
[LL] Did you cover any stories on Hilton Head? [CK] I helped cover the very first Heritage Tournament. I don’t know if people remember, but the first few tournaments were not in the spring but at Thanksgiving. Sports Illustrated did a big story on the first tournament here with six or seven pages of photos. Dan Jenkins was the main golf writer, and I was a reporter helping out when he wrote about the first tournament, which Arnold Palmer won. It became a huge story, a national event that immediately put the Heritage on the map. For the second Heritage tournament, I wrote the story; so I became very familiar with Hilton Head and the people that ran the place – Charles Fraser, John Smith and all the original gangsters that ran Sea Pines.
I also covered the first clay-court tournament here in the early ‘70s – the Family Circle Cup – which was usually the week before the Master’s golf tournament. Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and other stars came and played. I did reports on the players and got to know them very well over the years. The best thing about my job was getting to know so many people through sports. I even got to know then-President George H. W. Bush by doing a story on him playing various sports on vacation at Kennebunkport, Maine.
[LL] How did that story come about? [CK] I had a contact at the White House named Sid Rogich, so I asked him if the President would be interested in doing a sports weekend at Kennebunkport. He liked the idea, so I went up one summer and played golf, horseshoes and tennis with the President. We even went swimming, boating, and fishing. When Bush took out his boat, he nearly killed us — including the Secretary of Defense — because of the speed. He would drive out and keel around the rocks unexpectedly, so everybody would tip over in the boat. The Secret Service always got mad at him, but he had a hysterical laugh out of the whole thing.
The main event was a tennis match. I had played tennis for many years, but for this I trained and practiced long hours. Remember, I knew Chris Evert really well because I had done many stories on her as a teenager. Well the Bushes knew her too because she’d been to the White House many times. Bush told me, “I’m going to check you out because I don’t know if you’re any good. I’m going to call Chris and check.” I told him, “Yeah, you go ahead and call her. I invented Chris Evert.” We were both laughing. But apparently he did talk to Chris.
Barbara, the First Lady, was there too. She was the funniest woman and such a trash talker! Every sport we played she’d trash me. Initially, when I arrived I was dressed up and had on Gucci loafers. Later when we were playing tennis, Barbara looked at me and said, “I knew you were an elitist when I saw your shoes.” She called me an elitist because of Hilton Head and the Guccis — such a trash talker! But they were both a lot of fun. It didn’t ever seem like I was hanging around with the President and First Lady. Still, I felt so much pressure being the President’s partner. As a matter of fact, Bush’s mother, his son and his grandchildren came to watch. It made me even more nervous.
Despite me and the President losing the match, somehow I was able to write about my time with the Bushes. Of course, we all assumed it would be the cover story. I mean, we had the President of the United States exclusively in a lazy August week, very slow for sports in America. Back home on Sunday I was talking to the magazine when they said, “Great story. But we’ve got some bad news. We’re not putting the President on the cover. This guy from Arkansas named John Daly just came out of nowhere today to win the PGA.” So they put John Daly on the cover! I couldn’t believe it! There are two people in the world who have the original cover. Me and George Bush.
[LL] You’ve written many stories and had the privilege of meeting many celebrities; your writing has always been in great demand. How would you describe your writing style?
[CK] I think for some people writing comes easy. I don’t think it ever came easy to me. I worked hard at it because it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t a natural. People said I was a stylist, but I kind of “copied” here and there from Frank Deford and Dan Jenkins, my two mentors at Sports Illustrated. They had their own styles, and I kind of borrowed from both of them.
I also tried to write with a lot of humor. I agree my stuff was cynical and sarcastic, but I tried to always stay humorous. I don’t think I did many stories that didn’t have a touch of laughter. I always took umbrage at folks in the journalism field who looked sideways at sports writing. I don’t think any of us at Sports Illustrated saw ourselves as merely sportswriters. We were writers who wrote about sports. You know, we picked that field. So I never identified myself as a sportswriter. Just a writer. I like to think of myself as that.