Mike Lupica is one of this nation’s most prominent columnists. He writes four columns in the New York Daily News every week, two on sports and two on whatever else is on his mind. He anchors a TV show for ESPN every Sunday morning, does a daily radio show for ESPN, broadcast from the LTV studios in Wainscott when he is in town, and in a “writing room” cabin his wife built for him some years ago, writes two novels a year now, which, if you do the math, is an incredible output. And he’s been doing this year after year for 35 years, a fact which would have included ESPN, had it been around in those early years. One of his books, Dead Air, was nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best First Mystery and was made into a CBS television movie starring Blythe Danner. Also, for 10 years, he wrote the Esquire Magazine column “The Sporting Life.” It’s been quite a career. Did I leave anything out? Oh yes, he’s also one of the best selling authors of books for young adults in the country.
Here’s how he discovered his talent for writing books for young adults. He summers in the Hamptons, but raises his family in a house in New Canaan, Connecticut. He and his wife, Taylor, have four children, three boys and a girl. Ten years ago, when his boy Alex was in seventh grade, he tried out for a seventh grade basketball team that would travel to other towns in Connecticut to play other teams of kids the same age. Alex was a very good basketball player, but he was cut. So was a friend. They were cut because they were short.
Mike decided he could not let this stand. He wanted his son to have the same experience as the taller kids did. And so, in a moment he now calls “insanity,” he called up the parents of the other kids cut that year and created “The New Canaan Rebels.” They hired a coach, got uniforms, set up a schedule and off they went.
“They weren’t that good at first,” Mike said. “But as the season wore on they got better and better. Finally on the last day of the season, they played a team that beat them badly earlier. They fought hard, played them neck-and-neck, and in the end, it came down to a free throw by the Rebels. They made the shot. They won.”
You would have thought, Mike told me, that this team had won the World Series. The dancing and jumping around as the game ended was unbelievable. Mike was so moved by what happened, it made him think he was on to something.
“I called my agent, Esther Newberg,” he told me. “I told her, ‘I just saw something great,’ and explained it to her. I told her I thought this should be a movie or a book or a play. Something. She said, ‘Write me a three-page book synopsis.’ I did. She sold the book that afternoon. The first printing was 20,000. That’s what they hoped to sell. It sold a half-million.”
This book, Travel Team, was such a success that it reached #1 in the New York Times Young Adult List. He followed it up with Heat and Million Dollar Throw and a dozen others, which also have become runaway bestsellers. What he was describing, of course, was what he does in his spare time. His day job is sportswriter.
Mike Lupica, a man full of energy and enthusiasm, was born and raised in Oneida, New York until he was 12, then in Nashua, New Hampshire. His father was an air force bombardier in World War II, and in Mike’s early years worked at Griffiths Air Force Base in Rome, NY near Oneida, and then later at Hanscom Field in northern Massachusetts near to Nashua. Father and son loved playing sports together or going to sports events. Mike also has a sister, Susan, who also played sports. She qualified for the Olympic Trials one year, after running the Boston Marathon in under three hours.
When Mike was 10, his father took him to Cooperstown, 30 minutes from Oneida, for the induction of the newly elected baseball stars. There were two that year, 1962, and both were there. One was Bob Feller, the Cleveland pitcher who was the first person to fire a fastball over 100 miles an hour as clocked by a timer, and Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who broke the racial barrier. This was a moving moment for the Lupicas. And it set in Mike’s mind that he wanted to have a career in sports.
Mike went to the Bishop Guerton High School in Nashua. He wasn’t a very big kid. It was unlikely he would become a professional. But he found he liked writing about the drama of sports for the school paper. He also wrote about sports in high school for the local newspaper, the Nashua Telegraph, which paid him $5 a story. On graduation, he went off to Boston College, where, as a freshman, he continued sportswriting, this time for the Boston College paper The Heights.
One day, he got a call from the Boston Globe sports editor. Lupica remembers his name: Ernie Roberts. You don’t forget the name of the man who assigns you your first big time story to write.
“It was a feature on Pam Lake,” Mike said. “Every year at Boston College, the school selected the best baton twirler. She was called ‘Golden Girl.’” His story ran as the front-page story of the Boston Globe that day.
“Here was the first line to that story,” Mike says: “‘She has the best pair of hands on the BC Campus but she doesn’t play football.’”
During his college years, Mike majored in English—they didn’t have a media major then—and worked the night shift at the Boston Globe. He also wrote for two other school papers, and also the Boston Phoenix, the free paper that had started up not long before.
“After my junior year,” Mike told me, “the Globe offered me the job of covering the New England Patriots. But I’d have to travel with the team, so I told them that as flattered as I was, senior year in college only comes around once. So I didn’t accept the job.”
After graduation, Mike was hired by the New York Post to cover the Knicks; a year later, at 23, he became the youngest sports columnist ever hired for a New York newspaper. This with the New York Daily News. He is still at the News, 35 years later.
“What do you find so interesting about sportswriting?” I asked him.
“I think my old boss at ESPN, Steve Bornstein, said it best,” Mike said. “He was asked why ESPN had essentially exploded. He said, ‘Because you can’t go to Blockbuster and rent tonight’s game.”
Lupica met the woman he would marry in Bridgehampton. She was Taylor McKelvy, the daughter of a banker in Toledo, who had moved to Manhattan after college.
“Taylor’s mom had a house out here. Taylor was visiting. During the week she worked in the city at the fashion house Perry Ellis.”
They were married at Queen of the Holy Rosary Church in Bridgehampton and they bought a house on Lumber Lane and, still later, on Butter Lane. Over the past seven years, Taylor owned a well-known boutique in New Canaan called True Blue, which closed a few months ago. But sports continues on in the family. Their daughter, Hannah, age 14, is a champion rider and will compete in the Hampton Classic horse show this week.
I asked Lupica what he likes about the Hamptons. He didn’t talk about the Artists & Writers softball game, which we have both attended for 25 years, he as a shortstop and second baseman and me as an umpire. We both knew that would be right up there. Instead he went off on a far-ranging ramble.
“The best beaches in the world. Baseball Saturday mornings in Mashashimuet Park in Sag Harbor. Mornings at the Candy Kitchen. Hanging around BookHampton and Gubbins Running Ahead in East Hampton talking to Chris and Barbara. Finding new back roads, new ways to get from point A to point B.”
“You have a jeep?” I asked.
“Its parked right outside.”
“I remember listening to Bobby Van playing the piano on Sunday nights at his bar. Jack Whitaker. Johnny Angel, Donuts at Scoop. Gus at the Candy Kitchen.”
Mike Lupica does not start off his writing each day on a computer. He starts off writing longhand, with a pen and yellow lined paper.
“Years ago, before computers,” he told me, “I did my writing on an old Olivetti typewriter. One summer, before I was married, I shared a house in Bridgehampton with several friends. I’d get up at six to write, but then realized that the clack, clack, clack of the keys would wake everybody up. So I’d write longhand so that wouldn’t happen. And I found I think better when I do that. So that’s how that started. In the afternoons, I switch over to computer.”
Last December, Taylor gave him a fully restored 1950 Smith Corona typewriter for Christmas. He loves it. He types on it just to hear it. “When I first got it, I called up my friend Carl Hiaasen and said ‘Hey, listen to this,’ and then typed near the phone. He let out a whoop.”
Lupica’s new book will appear this fall. It’s called QB-1 and is, he says, a kind of combination Manning Brothers/Saturday Night Lights story set in Texas.