Neil Best, the Life of a Sportswriter

A New York sports expert talks local teams


Not many sports writers are still hunched at the keyboard after more than 4 decades of covering their local and regional teams.

But Neil Best is still at it with his regular sports column at Newsday, Long Island’s leading daily newspaper and the country’s 8th largest in circulation.

Recipient of the 2017 NSMA ‘Sportswriter of the Year’ award (NY), Best has seen it all from promising high-school hoopsters to the hockey legends at Madison Square Garden.

I caught up with Neil and asked him about his time as a sportswriter in the New York City area.

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How did you get into writing about sports?

I worked for my school papers at Northport High School and Cornell, but not specifically about sports.

I got a part-time job on the high school sports desk at Newsday in the fall of 1982, which in turn led to a full-time sports job in Anchorage, Alaska, which in turn brought me back to Newsday for good in 1985.

My options were this or law school, since I had no marketable skills other than typing fast and being able to BS my way through school research papers.

Any major sports-writing influences? I really like Lupica, Jeremy Schaap, Stephen A Smith, etc.

Hmm. Interesting question. I am glad you mentioned Jeremy Schaap, Cornell Class of ’91! I used to work with Lupica at Newsday. I used to cover high school sports with Stephen A.!!

My biggest sportswriter influence was probably Newsday’s own Joe Gergen, whom I read throughout my teen years in the 1970s and later got to work with.

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Who are some the greatest athletes you have gotten to meet in your career?

I think it would be easier to name the ones I have not met. But as with most people, and especially cranky old sportswriters, the ones who impressed me were the stars of my youth, not those who are my age or younger.

So, Dr. J or Walt Frazier are much more important to me than Jordan. Rod Gilbert was much more important than Messier or Gretzky. Tom Seaver was much more important than Derek Jeter. Jack Nicklaus is much more important than Tiger Woods.

That’s just the way it is. So, I guess my coolness list would include Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Walt Frazier, Julius Erving, Rod Gilbert, Mickey Mantle, Mario Andretti, Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Reggie Jackson, Joe Namath, etc.

All of them are older than me.

What are some of your favorite sports stories?

I have met most of the major sports figures – certainly ones with New York area ties – of the past half-century or so, but my favorite stories generally have been off-the-beaten path stuff.

Like when I tracked down the San Diego Chicken without his head on in 1983 in Fairbanks and he ripped the Anchorage baseball team for gouging fans on ticket prices when he visited there.

Or, when I did a feature on MSG salesman John Gilchrist in 2012, better known as Mikey from the famous 1971 Life cereal commercial.

Or, when I talked to Monty Hall about his days as the Rangers’ radio announcer in the late 1950s. He was there the night Jacques Plante was the first to wear a goalie mask!

One of my favorite stories was a history of Sports Phone that I wrote in 2015. Baby boomer nostalgic catnip.

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What are the coolest things about your job and some of the challenges of being a modern-day Oscar Madison?

The coolest thing about my job is making my college friends who make many, many times more money than me jealous about what I do.

The challenges include work/life balance. As we speak, I am blowing off my wife for Memorial Day weekend to watch a bunch of dudes smack pucks around in Florida.

But the biggest thing is the constant rapid typing we do to try to accommodate multiple print deadlines that are more restrictive than ever. It isn’t brain surgery, but it is something 99.4% of people would not be able to do.

Also, access to players ain’t what it was in 1985, to put it mildly.

When you think of NYC Sports icons past or present, which stars come to mind and why?

Anyone who was a New York sports star from around 1969 to 1978 is big for me. The rest are just guys/gals I watched and/or covered.


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How would you describe the energy and excitement inside MSG these days with the Rangers and the Knicks? It seems off the charts on TV.

I did not attend any Knicks playoff games, but I could feel the vibe through the TV.

Hockey is different than basketball in that there are longer stretches without scores, obviously, so there are times when the loudness is replaced by quiet nervousness. Then comes a big play, and an immediate explosion.

There are no other fan bases as loud or louder than the Knicks and Rangers. It’s the knowledgeability that really separates them, to me.

Who were some of your favorite Rangers over the years to interview and write about?

To be clear, I mostly have been a football writer and media writer over the past 30 years. I just dabble in hockey, which does happen to be my favorite sport as a fan.

But by no means am I a real hockey writer. I have been around hockey players for decades, it’s true, but not on a regular basis.

Jagr was funny as heck. The Maloney brothers were good, and Dave still is! Lundqvist was great to deal with. I was just a fan in the 1970s.

Hockey players in general these days are super-cooperative and super-boring, especially if you ask them about themselves.

ALWAYS best to ask hockey players about teammates. Then they gush.

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How does Rempe’s fighting style compare to other past Ranger enforcers like Nick Fotiu, or Barry Beck?

Very difficult to compare a fighter of this era to those guys. Rempe does it as a side job. It’s just not the same as the old days.

How does this current Rangers team compare to the ‘94 Stanley Cup team of Messier, Leetch, and Richter?

Somewhat similar, I guess. That year I was on the Knicks through the NBA Finals, but I would rather have been with the Rangers.

Fox is Leetch, Shesterkin is Richter and . . . well, I guess no one is Messier.

I was there the night Messier was first introduced as captain in 1991. Loudest I have ever heard the Garden.

Are the Rangers good enough to win another Stanley Cup?

Sure. Why not? They have a little bit of everything.

They have as good a chance as anyone - world class skills, plus Kreider in front for tip-ins and Jericho’s own Adam Fox getting things started at the point.

The power play with Mika and Panarin has been fun to watch.

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You used to write about St. John’s Basketball. Who were the most exciting hoopers from that time?

My time was right after the Mullin era, 1990 to ‘95. Malik Sealy was my guy, because like a lot of the St. John’s players of that era, I had covered him in high school. Same with David Cain and many others.

Boeheim was great to deal with when I was covering high schools, in part because of his personality and in part because like many superstar coaches of that era – including Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski – they would ALWAYS return the calls of New York City high school writers because that was a back doorway to reach recruits.

Carnesecca was super old-school. If I needed him, I would just show up at the office and ask his secretary, “Is Coach around?” Try that with Bill Self!

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Thoughts on the Yankees, Mets this year?

Yankees good, Mets bad.

What about the Giants and J-E-T-S?

Giants bad, Jets good.

Any books or projects you’d like to promote?

All I have to promote is Subscribe early and often!



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