First, I want to be clear that the person I’m writing about is very much alive. (Social media was a bit vague about such details last night, leading to a very bad 25 minutes until people returned my messages.)
The news isn’t great. The doctors aren’t advising taking on a lot of long-term debt, but there’s no need to get the obit ready yet.
So why am I writing this now? When that particular deadline does hit, I’m not sure the words will come. And besides, what good will those words do if their subject is a few long irons out of earshot?
If you’re in journalism – particularly sports journalism – for any length of time, you come to know a few archetypes of co-workers and/or colleagues. The bitter, jaded veteran who hasn’t been happy in his job for decades and intends to make damn sure no one else is happy in theirs, either. The aloof all-star, talented and well aware of it, consenting to share press row with the plebeians but not bound to interact with them. The insular club members, possessors of the secret code and not about to share it with those who – let’s call a spade a spade – don’t have the right equipment.
There are those who are satisfied in their jobs, sure - pleasant people willing to share transcription duties from a two-hour press conference or otherwise lend a hand.
And then there’s Ken Burger.
Glad to be there. Glad to meet you. Glad to help.
Need an introduction to a source he’s cultivated for 20 years that you’ve never met but think would add to your story? Glad to make it. Need to hear a story from 10 Masters ago that illustrates the importance of what just happened on a tiny green backed by a candy-striped lighthouse on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean? Glad to tell it. Need to unwind after the fever of deadline has broken? Glad to share a laugh.
Not begrudgingly. Not because someone is watching. Not because you’ll owe him later. Not because being nice to a green 22-year-old reporter benefits him in any way, shape, or form.
Just because that’s who he is.
I met Ken at the beginning of what is now my former career, during the halcyon days of half-hour interviews with Billie Jean King, of the freedom to write what I pleased, of fresh fairways and endless possibility. Like most things you need to appreciate, I didn’t at the time. I thought this was what journalism was, and that this was who journalists were.
I was right on some counts, and more wrong than I could have realized on others.
Ken understood some basic truths about writing, and by extension life, that I had not yet begun to grasp. Among them:
- Often, the outcome of a game is incidental to the great column about it.
- You gotta write what you feel, even and especially if what you feel is: “I love women. I love basketball. I hate women’s basketball.” (That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lead, and one written with nary a thought to clickbait – a term that would not have meant then what it means now.)
- Some men can, in fact, pull off white bucks.
Ken called me Sweet Melinda, and we joked that if the Allman Brothers had had more balls, they would have gone with the obviously correct choice instead of bowing to conventional pressure.
Laughter accompanies Ken, much of it directed by the man himself at himself. A favorite subject was his inability to succeed at marriage but his penchant to keep trying – until he finally found the incumbent who obliterated term limits.
After winning more national and regional newspaper awards at the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier than a hound dog has fleas, Ken retired in 2011, becoming a best-selling author. He also became a tireless advocate for prostate cancer awareness and screenings after being diagnosed in 2007. The Ken Burger Prostate Challenge Golf Tournament is played on Kiawah Island each year, and he spent so much time visiting patients at the Roper St. Francis Foundation and Cancer Center that the place named a room after him.
I haven’t seen Ken in years. He’s never felt far away.
Twenty years after I met him, I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are not many people like Ken Burger in the world. He is humble, kind, self-effacing, and a better person than he is a writer - which is saying something.
He is my friend, and I am glad.