AS JESSE Owens walked through the Charleston Civic Center lobby that day 38 years ago, a young man approached him and engaged him in a conversation that was obviously pleasant. It was Labor Day Weekend of 1973, three months after I had taken a job as a Gazette sportswriter, and Owens was in town for the inaugural Charleston Distance Run, the 15-mile race that has become a Charleston fixture.
Owens was one of the few American athletes to transcend sports, a black man who had undermined Adolf Hitler's hard-line stance on Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and later earning the Associated Press honor as the Greatest Track Athlete in the first half of the 20th century.
My presence in the Civic Center lobby at that moment had been wonderful happenstance. I had not been assigned to interview Owens, and it had not been my intention to do so. I didn't even expect to see him. But there he was.
As he talked with the young man, I gathered my nerve, waited for an opportunity to introduce myself and requested an interview. Owens enthusiastically consented and suggested we find a comfortable air-conditioned room to escape the late-summer swelter.
Owens seemed to enjoy himself and seemed to enjoy the air-conditioning. He reminisced about Hitler and the '36 Olympics. "I gave less than a damn about Hitler,'' he said. "For 13 years, I wanted to be the world's fastest human and on that day I was the fastest.'' He said the rubberized tracks of the modern era might have increased his speed by a tenth of a second in the 100 meters. He even mentioned Jerry West, who was approaching the end of a brilliant NBA career. "Jerry's hat size never got any bigger,'' he said.
For a young sportswriter, it was a good lesson in the inherent rewards of his chosen profession and, as I approach semi-retirement, it's safe to say the lesson has held true.
Although an Owens interview may have been a once-in-a-lifetime thing, we sportswriters generally deal with subjects who, like Owens, want to be interviewed and who welcome our presence, partly for the publicity value and, in many cases, partly to renew acquaintances with a familiar face. And when it comes to interviewing a dedicated, hard-working athlete, a sportswriter can often feel inspired.
Most sportswriter interviews, shall we say, are little more than pleasant conversations with a bit of probing to elicit spontaneity and obtain the factual and statistical information essential to a sports story. A politician with something to hide is never so forthcoming with the media - and he might even be hard to find.
And once the sportswriter's subjects have had their say and the information has been gathered, the challenge of writing a concise, accurate and interesting story awaits.
Of course, not all interviews go smoothly. "It's a good thing I didn't see you this morning when I read that,'' the late Jim Beauchamp said to me more than 30 years ago. Beauchamp managed the Charleston Charlies for three seasons in the late 1970s and had found fault with a story that had appeared that morning.