Lacy J. Banks died Wednesday, and because I was out of town, I heard the news the way we find out so many intimate details of life – through the Internet.
Banks, 68, the longtime sportswriter and esteemed NBA scribe for this newspaper, had been dying for years. (Apologies to those who feel we start dying the moment we are born, which is, of course, true, but irrelevant here.) Lacy had been in the journalism business since portable typewriters were high-tech. And at the end, as his old-school heart was failing and cancer was attacking his prostate, he became something like Mr. High-Tech himself.
There were tubes and wires around his abdomen, and things were inserted into his body, and there were oversized batteries strapped to his waist or jammed into the pockets of his safari jacket, and he would do his hoops business as if he were no different from anyone else.
Technology was keeping him alive. When he came back a year ago after a setback, I gave him a hug at the United Center and it was like hugging a computer.
He had been tricked-out with an external heart pump or something, and until somebody donated a new heart for him or the cancer ate him up, this was how he was gonna roll.
‘‘You look like a cowboy with six-shooters,” I told him.
Lacy, or ‘‘the Reverend,” as we all called him – because he was a Baptist minister in his spare time – chuckled.
‘‘Nope, batteries,” he said.
You have to understand there is very little sympathy in the press zone. There isn’t time, there isn’t patience, and ultimately there isn’t reason for it.
We’re all working.
And Lacy never, ever forgot that. Even as he was as delicately rigged as a satellite, he did his work, wanted no special treatment.
Fearing deadline, fighting through sweaty locker rooms, interviewing reluctant, late-showering athletes and despairing coaches, then focusing hard while the noise of sycophants, leaf-blowers, push carts, rolling beer barrels, screeching horns and the like cascade around one is a skill not taught anywhere that I know of.
But to watch the Reverend was to see sports journalism at its purist, its finest. If a kid reporter had the luxury of shadowing Banks for a day, he or she would have learned more than from a year in grad school.
The Reverend elbowed to the front of media crowds and stared directly at his subjects with purpose, and he asked his questions in a booming, from-the-pulpit vocal splendor that sometimes left interviewees mute, staring at him in slack-jawed wonder.
Banks’ voice was a gift. He said it was from God. I said it was from Memphis, Mississippi, Mo-Town, from the soulful, painful roots that gave us Sam Cooke, Jimmy Ruffin, Otis Redding.
Lacy sang a cappella at then-Sun-Times sports editor Bill Adee’s wedding in downtown Chicago a decade ago. The music was so gorgeous it seemed as though he were playing an orchestral instrument, with tones rising from a rich bass to a velvet tenor. Oh, the Reverend also married the couple.
I can’t gloss over Lacy’s singing voice because what it showed was that he was an artistic, thoughtful, passionate man. He would sing me snippets of the Temptations or Smokey Robinson, and the word ‘‘soul” was all that came to mind.
Lacy arose from a different world than young journalists – young blacks, especially.
He knew about Mobile, Ala., Jackson, Miss., lynchings and the Klan. He knew about segregation and racial prejudice that destroyed jobs, hope, humanity.
Banks covered elite sports when the athletes were mostly white, and that led to an understanding of history and a generational gap between him and some young black athletes. The new kids had no idea what Lacy had fought for his whole life. How could they?
Michael Jordan and the Reverend were unlikely sparring partners, playing Ping-Pong at the old Multiplex, sometimes playing cards, arguing often. Jordan was famous, hedonistic, rich beyond belief. Banks was spiritual, middle-class, humble. And to the very end, the Reverend asked Jordan questions in news conferences that made MJ squirm.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when the Sun-Times was bankrupt, Banks stood in front of our despairing Guild and gave a speech about racism, solidarity, dignity and death that could have made us charge through the walls of the nearby Merchandise Mart.
After a Bulls-Bucks game in Milwaukee a few years back, I visited Lacy in a local hospital where he had been taken after falling ill.
‘‘Congestive heart failure,” he said.
But he came back, and, in my mind, nothing ever failed him at all.