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Noteworthy graduates: Harvey Araton, sportswriter

New York Teacher

Harvey Araton had never seen The New York Times until a high school English teacher gave it to him and his classmates each day with the sage directive, “I don’t care what you read, just read.” Araton was a tabloid kid from a blue-collar family, with a postal worker dad and a stay-at-home mom. Born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he and his family stopped briefly in Brooklyn before settling in the West Brighton Houses on Staten Island. “For kids who grow up in a neighborhood like that, particularly in a housing project, the basketball courts become a concrete oasis, a center of social activity,” he says. They would also become his livelihood and his claim to fame. Araton has been a sportswriter and columnist at The New York Times for more than 25 years. Before that, he worked at the Staten Island Advance, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. He’s covered the World Series, Super Bowls, Wimbledon and the Olympics. The author of eight books, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. In September, Araton was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in honor of his body of work.

When I think back to my childhood in the 1960s, my first thoughts are of the basketball courts behind the projects. It was the place where you spent so many waking hours. All the kids were there. They were from families that didn’t have much, but for basketball all you need is a ball. I loved baseball and I was a crazy Yankees fan, but I really gravitated to basketball.

I went to PS 165 in Brooklyn before we moved and then I went to PS 18 until my parents, who wanted me to be Bar Mitzvahed, sent me to the Jewish Foundation School of Staten Island. The class was me and four girls and three of them towered over me. I was so happy to get to Port Richmond HS. Every one of the people who figured prominently in my career was somehow connected to Port Richmond, two important teachers and two alumni.

When I was a freshman in 1966, a teacher named Lou Rappaport started every day by giving us The New York Times to read. He would catch me looking at sports statistics but he didn’t care. After a while I started paying more attention to the stories. He told me to go to the library and gave me sports books to look up. I would spend hours there.

Lou lives in California now. I friended him on Facebook and we had an hour and a half phone conversation. He has a great memory of the kids in my class. You can see what teaching meant to him. He knew a little about my career. And I knew he was a big basketball fan because I’d seen him playing in a men’s league. I sent him one of my books about the great Knick teams of the 1970s.

The second part of my luck, that exposure to certain people, was having Jack Minogue for sophomore geometry and senior history. He was a pretty versatile teacher because he taught me those two very diverse subjects. Sophomore year I missed a geometry quiz on Yankees opening day. They played the Red Sox and lost 1-0. The next day when he was handing out papers, Jack called me up. He’d drawn a big zero on a piece of paper and pasted the line score inside it. Then he drew a face with tears streaming down.

Jack was a sportswriter at the Advance, but I never knew that until he talked about it in history class. I had thought I might work at the post office like my father, but Jack and other teachers told me I wrote pretty well. He would encourage me.

I’ll never forget the feeling of euphoria as a kid the first time my name was published in the paper. And it really made my father proud. We all want for our children something better than what we had. My father would wait for the Advance at the candy store if my name was going to be in it. I’ve often wondered if him making a big deal about that had something to do with my career path, if that was the beginning of the magical feeling of seeing my byline.

In the spring of senior year, I got a job at the Advance through a reporter who had gone to Port Richmond. I had no idea what anybody did at a newspaper. I drove to Manhattan on Saturday afternoons to pick up photos from the Associated Press, then spent the rest of the night doing clerical work in the wire room. I was quiet as a mouse then. The sports editor, Tom Valledolmo, was also a Port Richmond graduate. He gave me my first full-time job and started sending me to Knicks games. I almost melted.

A few years later when I was doing rewrite at the Post, I had to get a quote from (Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner. I did a good enough imitation of the Yankees’ PR guy to fool the secretary. George came to the phone and I apologized. “I should hang up but you’ve got some spunk,” he said, and I got my quotes.

— As told to reporter Suzanne Popadin