In all the years I knew Ken Denlinger, the only person I ever saw truly angry with him was Lefty Driesell. When I was a kid reporter at The Post, I was assigned to cover Maryland basketball. It didn’t take Lefty long to start railing at me about ‘yo buddy Denklinger.’
Lefty, it seemed, was upset with a piece Ken had written about him soon after he took the job in College Park in 1969.
“He had all these unanimous quotes from my Davidson players saying I couldn’t coach,” Lefty insisted. “No names, just guys unanimously saying they never listened to me in the huddle. I still have the story in my desk. I’ll never forgive him.”
I was surprised. I had known Ken and read Ken since college and had never known him to use a “unanimous,” quote — or even an anonymous quote. He was too good a reporter for that. So, one day when I was in Lefty’s office I asked to see the story.
He opened his desk and pulled out a massive file marked “negative stories.”
I began going through the file and quickly found the story. Sure enough, it was full of unanimous quotes. I began reading it to Lefty. “That’s it!” Lefty shouted. “That’s the one! Yo buddy Denklinger, trying to run me out of town.”
“Lefty,” I said. “This story ran in The Washington Star. Ken didn’t write it.”
Lefty stared at me for a second. “Oh really?” he said. “Guess I’ve been mad at the wrong guy all these years.”
Anyone who got mad at Ken Denlinger, who died early Saturday morning after a long battle with cancer, was mad at the wrong guy. He could be tough when he needed to be in print, but there wasn’t a mean bone in his body. He was a wonderful reporter, a superb columnist, a mentor to a slew of young writers at The Post and — more than anything — a loving husband, father, grandfather and, as he loved to tell us all, a proud great-grandfather.
Ken was living proof that you didn’t have to shout to make a point, in print or in real life. He was a keen observer, who saw things most of us missed. The first time I met him was in the old D.C. Armory on a rainy March night in 1977. I was a Duke senior on spring break and I was there to see Gene Banks — who had committed to Duke — play for West Philadelphia High School. Prior to the game, I introduced myself to Ken, who was also there to see the prodigal Banks. I had been reading him for several years and had just read, “Athletes For Sale,” the ground-breaking book he and Len Shapiro had written on college basketball recruiting.
Before I could finish gushing, Ken interrupted me. “I read your internship application,” he said. “I was really impressed.”
What he didn’t say was that George Solomon, the Post’s sports editor had whittled the list to five finalists and asked Ken to read them. Ken had told George, “I like the kid from Duke.”
There had been rumors that Banks was reconsidering his college decision, so, when the game was over, I went to talk to Banks.
“I’m coming to Duke,” he told me. “I never had any second thoughts.”
I walked upstairs from the locker room satisfied by Banks’s declaration. Ken was waiting. “Everything okay with your guy?” he asked.
I told him what Banks had said, shook hands, told him what an honor it was to meet him and was about to leave. Ken put a hand on my shoulder. “You might want to hang on for a minute, lad,” he said.
He nodded in the direction of the locker room door. Banks had just walked outside and was being swarmed by Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps and a host of former Notre Dame players. Duke assistant coach Bob Wenzel was standing a few yards away, white as a sheet. I wandered over in time to hear Phelps say, “These are the guys [Bob Whitmore, Austin Carr, Sid Catlett] you’ll be following at Notre Dame. Who in the world will you be following at Duke?”
I saw and heard the whole thing for one reason: Ken telling me to hang on a minute — to be just a little bit patient. It was the first lesson I learned from him. It certainly wasn’t the last.
A few years later, Ken and I drove to Penn State — his alma mater — to see Bear Bryant go for his 314th win, which would tie him with Amos Alonzo Stagg. Alabama won and I wrote a brilliant game story — according to me. The reaction in the office was a little different: “You wrote 10 inches too long,” I was told. I argued that the story was too important and too good to be cut. I lost the argument. So, very calmly, I threw the phone against the press box wall.
Ken never said a word — until we were in the car.
“Okay lad, listen up,” he said. “I read your story. It was fine. It was also too long and it wasn’t winning a Pulitzer Prize even if they didn’t cut a word.”
“But. . . ”
“No buts,” he said. “Part of being a good newspaper guy is writing the best story you can in the space you’re given. Also not throwing phones in the general direction of your columnist.”
He never raised his voice. He didn’t need to — he never needed to.
Although he was a country boy from Pennsylvania and wrote a remarkable book on Penn State football called, “For The Glory,” Ken’s first love was basketball. He knew and understood the game as well as anyone. Dean Smith never failed to ask about him when I was in Chapel Hill and would always add, “he’s someone I really like. He understands the game.”
Ken did not love hockey. Neither did Dave Kindred, who was Ken’s co-columnist at The Post for seven years. Whenever the two played golf, the bet was the same: loser writes the next hockey column. Once, early in the season, Ken walked into the newsroom and announced, “I’ve built an insurmountable 1-0 lead on Kindred in hockey columns.”
He was right.
Ken dealt with various forms of cancer for most of the past 20 years. He took to naming his tumors after people he didn’t like and kept confounding doctors predictions that he had months to live. During much of that time, after he retired from The Post, he volunteered at a local hospice.
That was Ken.
In the last few weeks, after the last round of chemo had failed to stop the tumors in his esophagus from spreading, he spent his final days at home constantly surrounded by friends and family. His once-a-month Tuesday sportswriters lunch group met last Tuesday — at Ken’s house in Frederick.
As one person after another came to sit with him and trade stories, Ken kept saying, “Boy, it’s so nice of you guys to do this for me.”
For once, Ken got it wrong. We all did it for ourselves. On the wall in the living room, Ken and his wife Nancy had a one word plaque that said simply, “JOY.” No word better described Ken Denlinger’s life.