Furman Bisher

I can’t let the week go by without commenting on the death of Furman Bisher.

Bisher, a longtime sports editor and newspaper columnist in Atlanta, was still digging out stories and posting them on his blog as late as earlier this month. He was 93.

A lifetime ago, I was a sports editor. Never on the kind of stage that Bisher commanded (though that was my dream), but then — I didn’t have Bisher’s talent, either.

I saw another reporter put this more succinctly than I will, but here’s the real reason to mourn Bisher: sportswriting is becoming a lost art. In our haste to break news, to slap readers across the face with more and more information and minutiae and call it done, the actual writing part — the part that requires talent and verve and balls — has fallen by the wayside.

Sports is at its best when it conveys the rise (or fall) of the human spirit. Sportswriting is at its best when it chronicles that process, whether that’s at the peewee football level or on the much grander stages of professional sport. Increasing story quotas, shrinking staff and cutbacks in expenses covered have all combined to irreparably weaken the foundation of sportswriting.

Furman Bisher had talent. He had sources. He could captivate as well as inform. His writing was, at best, art. At worst it was still a labor of love. He was, simply put, the best at what he did. He was the idol of my own boyhood idol, Lewis Grizzard. And the sports world is a sadder, dimmer place now that he is gone.

One of my favorite Bisher anecdotes, taken from Grizzard’s masterful If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground:

As sports editor at the AJC, Bisher once told an unpopular, incompetent sports writer that he had a new assignment for him: “Find another job,” Bisher said.

I can’t tell you how many times I wish I’d been able to say that to a reporter. Or publisher. Sadly, nowadays the HR department won’t let you.

Bisher was also demanding of his staff and the subjects he covered. There are so many stories of him skipping a postgame press conference, it’s not even funny. Instead, Bisher would march into the locker room to get his answers. No respecter of the star athlete or coach was Furman Bisher.

The players and coaches mattered far less to Bisher than the readers of his newspaper. That’s the way it ought to be.

It’s a damn shame that’s not the way it is anymore.

Rest in peace, Mr. Bisher. You sure as hell earned it.

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