Friday, August 6, 2010

Dinner With Yav

TigerBlog went to dinner with Harvey Yavener the other night. When Yav walked into the restaurant, he greeted his favorite waitress and apologized for not coming in more, explaining, as only he could, that: “Most of my friends are dead.”

Yav is coming up on 81 years old, and there is probably no current Princeton athlete who has ever met him or even knows who he is.

None of the current athletes - and most of the head coaches - have ever been interviewed by him. The last Princeton athlete whom Yav ever wrote about was All-America swimmer Alicia Aemisegger, who graduated this past year.

You can contrast this with, oh, 50 or so years of Princeton athletes who almost all knew Yav. And, for those who'd ever been interviewed by him, it was an experience that has certainly stayed with them.

TigerBlog can't begin to remember how many times a Princeton athlete talked about getting interviewed by Yav. To a man or woman, they all said it was unlike being interviewed by anyone else.

The first six years that TB worked in the newspaper business were mostly spent covering high schools. In the summer of 1989, one afternoon in the sports department of the Trenton Times, TB was sort of drafted by Harvey Yavener to be Yav's assistant covering local colleges, something Yav had already been doing for decades.

From then until TB came here, he and Yav covered five schools: Princeton, Rider, Rutgers, Trenton State (now the College of New Jersey) and Mercer County College. After TB came to Princeton, he worked with Yav until his retirement two years ago - "I didn't retire from the newspaper business; the newspaper business retired from me."

Yav didn't cover sports the way most people did, and his style differed from the norm in four ways.

First, to him, the worth of a game within the context of a particular sport is what mattered, not the sport itself. To that end, the biggest rowing race was as important as the biggest basketball or football game.

And, Yav almost never wrote about the game, choosing instead to write about an event's protagonist while barely mentioning the score.

Third, he never took a day off during the school year. There was always something to be written about. One time, when TB told Yav that he had assigned him something to cover for 37 straight days, Yav replied "yeah? You're about 3,000 off the record."

Lastly, nobody - and certainly not a middle-aged white man - covered women's athletics like Yav did. The amount of column inches that he devoted to women's college sports in the time TB worked with him, and the 20 or so years before it, has to dwarf the coverage that anyone else in a major newspaper was doing at the time.

A typical Yav spring Saturday would have him go to Princeton for the crew races, stay in Princeton for women's lacrosse and then stop at Rider for baseball on the way back. All three would get a big story the next day.

And after that, it was time to write "the wrap," or, as was the case on most Saturdays, "the killer wrap." Back then, TB and Yav would get faxes from all of the schools for every event that was played that day, and he would turn them into masterpieces that often reached more than 100 column inches.

TB and Yav would cover some big events that came into the area, usually the NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Meadowlands or at the Spectrum. One night in 1992, Yav was going to go to the Spectrum for the Eastern Regional final but couldn't because of a killer wrap, so he sent TB instead. The result? TB got to cover Duke's 104-103 win over Kentucky in what many consider to be the greatest college basketball game of all time.

Of course, there were Yav's feature stories, which would see him talk to an athlete for, what, 45 minutes, an hour, more?, and then turn it into a story that often seemed like an old Clair Bee/Chip Hilton novel.

Anyway, there was Yav earlier this week, sitting in one of his two favorite places, a restaurant (a press box is the other), talking about his health, his 58 years in the newspaper business in Trenton at both daily newspapers, his experiences at Princeton (including going to every Tiger football game, home and away, for more than 30 years).

He talked about the ones who aren't there anymore, especially his old friend Bus Saidt, another legendary Trenton sportswriter, and of course Marvin Bressler, to whom Yav made a toast to start the evening.

Through the meal, Yav talked about his favorites from Princeton, including lacrosse coaches Bill Tierney and Chris Sailer, track coaches Fred Samara and Peter Farrell, any number of other coaches and athletes and of course, his all-time favorite at Princeton, Pete Carril.

This being a dinner with Yav, he also talked about the ones he didn't like, doing so in his usual matter-of-fact manner.

Sitting with Yav, TB heard dozens of stories he'd heard a million times before, recounting times that he had spent with Yav in the past. It wasn't always smooth sailing with Yav - TB once had Yav come up to him after a basketball game at Rider and say "come with me; I'm going to get in a fight with a guy - and certainly Yav was known to get into a verbal altercation or two, in the newsroom and at a game.

He remains one of TB's all-time favorite people, and TB worked hard for years to earn Yav's respect.

These days, TB doesn't call him or see him enough, but the times when he does remind him of how great it was to work for him and how special those newspaper days are to TB.

There's only one Harvey Yavener. Anyone who's ever met him can vouch for that.

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