There are a lot of perks to being a sportswriter. Get to cover a major college basketball team and your first trip is to Florida.
For four days.
I told a good friend of mine about four weeks ago I was taking over the Illinois State basketball beat.
“You’ll be able to give me all the inside stuff,” he said.
It was going to be fun covering games at Redbird Arena this season and finding Jim Slattery, my Two-Man golf partner and loyal ISU fan, in his lower bowl seat next to his wife, Nancy.
“Slatts,” as he was called by anyone who knew him for five minutes, was confident ISU would be a much improved team this season.
Sadly, Slatts never got to see the Redbirds make a basket for the 2006-07 season.
It was with a heavy heart that this reporter boarded the plane Saturday en route to Tallahassee. The Redbirds lost one of their biggest fans this week, and those of us who knew him and cherished his zest for life lost one of our best buddies.
Jim Slattery was taken away at the age of 49.
Slatts attended as many games and played as many golf courses as he could squeeze in to his busy schedule in the three years since he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He and his brother, Jeff, went to the Monterey Peninsula about a year ago. Slatts never gave up and never gave in before being summoned to the 19th hole in the sky on Monday.
It was only last month that Slatts, Nancy and other family members gathered in South Bend, Ind., for a Notre Dame football game. Slatts graduated from ISU and loved the Redbirds, but Notre Dame was right there in his loyalty (the Irish Catholic thing, you know). It didn’t matter that Slatts had to use a wheelchair that day. He could see the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus and all was right.
Some people go through life wondering if they picked the right profession. Slatts worked his way up through Country Insurance & Financial Services after graduating from ISU. He made it all the way to Director of Customer Service Operations Training and Development in the Bloomington corporate office. He enjoyed his job and liked the people he worked with.
Yet, if there was anyone born to be a sportswriter, it was Slatts.
Slatts loved sports. He ate, drank and devoured sports (as well as good food and cold beverages). The first page he read in the newspaper, and he read a lot of them, wasn’t A1.
He loved ISU, Notre Dame, the Cubs, the Bears and the Bulls. He hated the University of Illinois and often would give us Illini alums the needle when they would lose.
I figured that was just part of being in the Redbird Club and didn’t mind.
Slatts was a good athlete at Dwight High School, but not great. After quarterbacking the freshman football team to one touchdown (we’re talking the entire season!), he wisely focused his energy on basketball and was a reserve guard on the varsity his final two years.
As much as Slatts always liked playing basketball, he absolutely loved being on the golf course. Slatts could pound the ball a long way. When he moved to Bloomington, Slatts eagerly took on a 14-handicapper as a partner in the Bloomington-Normal Two-Man Best Position Golf Tournament. All he got for his trouble was a 13th flight championship trophy in 2002, but I hope he had as much fun as I did riding in that cart and swapping stories.
Slatts was the heart and soul behind the Wild Bunch Open golf tournament every summer at Dwight Country Club. He was the life of the party — and, trust me, those were some crazy parties. He organized all 25 of them, including this past summer when we looked at him and prayed he would be there for No. 26 in 2007. It’s your job now, Bart and Humbie, to carry that spirit forward. No need to tell you what a tough act you’re following.
It was in 1973 when Slatts, who was a junior, convinced a 100-pound freshman to join him on the cross country team at Dwight High School. Slatts didn’t exactly possess a cross country body, but the new Trojan basketball coach was also the cross country coach. Slatts always knew how to work the angles and wanted to get on the coach’s good side.
The voice of our cross country coach, Jim Jennings, still rings in my ears to this day. Unknown to me, Coach Jennings and Slatts had a little conversation before our last home meet. I found out about it halfway through the race.
I could feel Slatts breathing on my shoulder when he usually was a little (OK, quite a ways) behind me. I was wondering what was up when I heard Coach Jennings’ soothing voice:
“Jim Slattery, if you don’t beat Jim Benson you’re not going to get a letter!”
Let me tell you, I had plenty of incentive too. If Slatts beat me, our friends would still be razzing me. I did beat Slatts to the finish line that day, but not by much. Coach Jennings realized the effort Slatts put forth and rewarded him with a letter anyway.
Now, Slatts has finished his final race. His grace and dignity through these last three years is something his family and friends will never forget.
Undoubtedly, Slatts still will be watching his Redbirds this season.
Probably from the best seat in the house.