Vol. 57, No. 4 June 2020 .pdf version
Seth Davis: Unusual times could lead to positive change
Malcolm Moran: As we prepare for '20-21 season, it's still a question of 'if'
Mike Waters: Especially now, reporters need to listen
Dufresne had an eye for drama as national college hoops voice
Millsaps: unyielding without threatening; revered by all
Dayton pair, Duke's Carey claim top honors
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Millsaps: unyielding without threatening; revered by all

By DAVID TEEL / Richmond Times-Dispatch
USBWA Past President

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As VCU basketball's sports information director in the early 1980s, Tom Baker worked for a coach who how to be charitable here? was a bit unhinged.

So as J.D. Barnett emerged from the locker room following a 1984 loss at neighboring Richmond, he went off on Baker. In Barnett's mind, a gameday column by the Times-Dispatch's Bill Millsaps the topic was VCU star Calvin Duncan's recent slump had caused Duncan to have another poor performance.

And since Baker had arranged the interview ...

"It's YOUR fault," Barnett ranted at Baker. "If Duncan hadn't done that interview, we would have been FINE."

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"That's horsesh$&," Millsaps, a towering figure built like an offensive tackle, interjected. "Don't you ever blame your sports information director for losing a game you coached. He's doing his job and he's doing it well."

Barnett calmed down and, according to Baker, "never yelled at me again."

Baker told that story in a letter to the Times-Dispatch following Millsaps' death in April at age 77. And the exchange was classic Saps. He was unyielding yet not threatening, fiercely protective of media access and revered by subjects and colleagues alike.

A Tennessee native, Saps worked at the Times-Dispatch from 1966 until his 2005 retirement, the first 28 years in sports, the last 11 as vice president and executive editor. At his core, he was a sports guy.

A 2002 USBWA Hall of Fame inductee, he served as our president during the 1985-86 season. He was an 11-time Virginia Sportswriter of the Year, and in 2011 he received the Red Smith Award from the Associated Press Sports Editors.

"Willie Nelson sang that his heroes have always been cowboys," Saps said in his acceptance speech. "MY heroes have always been sports writers, such as Blackie Sherrod, Jim Murray and Red Smith."

Saps worked alongside, and socialized with, those heroes, writing elegantly and authoritatively from virtually all the large events: the World Series, Super Bowl, Final Four, Masters, Kentucky Derby and Olympics. He earned the trust of athletes, coaches and politicians.

"At first I thought I was dizzy. Then I realized it wasn't me. It was Candlestick Park."

That was the lede Saps dictated to the copy desk from a pay phone outside the stadium after an earthquake struck San Francisco prior to Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

But even as he traversed the country and globe with other revered columnists the Washington Post's Dave Kindred, Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Furman Bisher and Roanoke Times' Bill Brill were running mates Saps befriended and counseled the next generation back home.

He taught us to report and prepare tirelessly, but never to take ourselves too seriously. He considered and treated us like peers.

"He was genuine," former Richmond basketball coach Dick Tarrant told the Times-Dispatch's John O'Connor.

Former T-D columnist Paul Woody recalls a 1980s Friday night when the staff was shorthanded due to illness. Saps, then the sports editor, asked aloud in the office how he could help. Someone mentioned a big high school basketball game that might go uncovered, and that was all Saps needed to hear. He grabbed a legal pad and drove off to Highland Springs High.

Saps was the founding father of the Times-Dispatch Invitational Tournament, a four-team college basketball holiday event staged at the Richmond Coliseum from 1976 to 1991.

And after each night of the tournament he held court in a hospitality suite he arranged at a neighboring hotel.

Saps liked his steaks rare, wine red and bourbon straight, tastes I witnessed more than a few times, hanging on his every word as he dispensed wisdom and shared his personal story.

A native of Daisy, Tenn., Saps grew up reading the Chattanooga Times. He dabbled in basketball at the University of Tennessee and joined the Knoxville Journal in 1963 before landing in Richmond.

"Every morning, I'd wonder how the people at the Times made all those words and all those lines in the paper fit so nicely," Saps wrote in a 1978 Times-Dispatch column. "It appeared to be a wonderful jigsaw puzzle, a daily miracle of stories and headlines and pictures."

For decades, Saps was essential to that daily miracle. RIP, my friend.

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