In his 16 years with SI, senior writer Rick Telander has visited prisons and ghettos, and has heard his share of gruesome tales, but none like the one former South Carolina defensive lineman Tommy Chaikin told about his ordeal with steroids. Telander was uniquely qualified to help Chaikin write his chilling story, which begins on page 82, having experienced firsthand the pressures of playing big-time college football as an All-Big Ten defensive back at Northwestern in the early 1970s. After working with Chaikin, Telander was so moved by the lineman's revelations he wrote an essay (page 114) on the lessons to be learned from Chaikin's flirtation with drugs. (Telander also contributed the cover story, on page 28, about Notre Dame's upset of Miami.)
This isn't the first time that Telander has become deeply involved with one of his subjects. Fifteen years ago, he journeyed to Brooklyn to write about The Hole, a playground famed for its pickup games (SI, Nov. 12, 1973). "I could feel stories everywhere," he says, and he returned the next year to Brooklyn, to spend the entire summer playing and writing. From that experience, Telander wrote Heaven Is a Playground, which was published in 1976. It has recently been reissued by Simon & Schuster.
Heaven recounts the exploits of local legends such as Fly Williams, who went on to star at Austin Peay; Albert King, now a forward for the Philadelphia 76ers; and Lloyd Hill, "the master leaper and stuffer of Foster Park." Though only some 3,000 hardcover copies were printed, Heaven attracted a cult following among basketball aficionados, and their fanaticism often caught Telander by surprise. "Once when I was flying into Los Angeles, the rental-car agent met me at the gate," says Telander. "It turns out he'd read the book, seen my name on the rental contract and insisted I come with him to L.A.'s best playground."
One of the questions Telander gets asked most often by readers is, Whatever happened to Williams? The answer is a sad one. After playing semipro for a while, Williams dropped out and wasn't heard from again until last winter when he was arrested in Queens and later convicted of unlawful imprisonment. During the incident he was shot and wounded by an off-duty court officer. Telander writes in the postscript of Heaven's new edition, "Fly is a sports legend now—beyond me, beyond us all, a hero of failure—and his message will not be complete until he leaves this earth."
As for Chaikin, with Rick's help he has already left quite a message.
For Telander, sport isn't all heaven.