They Paid Him To ‘Watch’ Jordan

Lacy J. Banks was a ray of sunshine in whatever newsroom, locker room or media workroom he entered. A legendary Chicago Sun-Times reporter who became the paper’s first African-American sportswriter when he was hired in 1972, Banks became a fixture on the NBA scene during his years covering the Bulls through parts of five decades. He died Wednesday at age 68 after battling a fleet of health issues, including prostate cancer, a brain tumor and heart disease.

Banks, also known for his work as a Baptist preacher, was a character as well as a correspondent, as one of Lacy’s colleagues at the Sun-Times, Toni Ginnetti, wrote Wednesday:

His time spanned all of Michael Jordan’s career and the start of Derrick Rose’s. Along the way, he deftly balanced a reporter’s objectivity with the personal bonds that grew between him and those he covered.

“He was more than a reporter on the sidelines,” Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said. “He cared deeply about the teams he covered and the profession that he represented. While we didn’t always agree with his position — as is natural — we never questioned his enthusiasm for the Bulls or the city of Chicago.”

There’s no question covering the Jordan era was the pinnacle of Banks’ career. In a 2005 column, Banks wrote: “In those glorious days, I could brag, ‘They pay me to watch Michael Jordan.’ Yeah, they fly me around the country — even flew me to Paris once — book me in the best hotels, give me courtside seats and then pay me to watch Jordan.”

Scottie Pippen wasn’t always the most media-cooperative Bulls player but he got along well with Banks. “He was a great friend, and we spent a lot of time calling my mom on Sundays and praying with her and just doing some great deeds for her and my family,” the Hall of Famer said.

Isiah Thomas, a Chicago native and local legend, knew Banks before Thomas began his own Hall of Fame career at the University of Indiana and with the Detroit Pistons. “We knew him from the church and the community,” Thomas, now the coach at Florida International, told Ginnetti. “He and my mom got to be real close. When things would be rough for us at times, he’d pick up the phone and call, say a prayer with us. Our conversations weren’t always even about the NBA or basketball.”

Neither were mine. I called him “Reverend” and he called me “Stevie Wonder” in that soft, almost sing-songy voice of his, and most of our chats focused on his health, our families, the best places to stay on the road and media issues encountered while pounding the NBA beat. Banks was a loyal member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and served as its vice president from 1999 to 2001 (I hold that post now).

And even though he sometimes wore the hat of “mentor” with the players he covered, he didn’t back off from asking them — all of them, even Jordan — questions that needed to be asked. Last season, he wrote critically of Jordan’s performance as chief basketball boss of the Charlotte Bobcats. He even took the ex-Bulls’ star to task as recently as November for, in Banks’ opinion, turning hypocritical during the lockout as one of the league’s hardline owners.

Toward the end, he would show up at United Center less often, with oxygen hoses, medical devices and other attachments making it harder for him to do his job. He wrote a blog for the newspaper about his health battles. A lot of younger men and women would have shrunk from the challenges he embraced.

“He never lost his edge as a reporter,” Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander said. “He was battling Michael Jordan to the very end. He was one of those hellfire and brimstone ministers in the locker room. He would give them a sermon in his questions.”

Someone will give Lacy a sermon now, which will probably be like singing to Sinatra. He will be missed in and outside the NBA. Rest in peace, Reverend.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the good writeup. It actually was a enjoyment account it. Glance complex to far brought agreeable from you! However, how can we communicate?

  2. Dave says:

    As a Bulls fan growing up in the Jordan era, I always looked forward to reading Messrs. Banks’ and Smiths’ columns. You will be missed Lacy!