The Roanoker - September/October 2014 - 43
THE 40-YEAR STAR AMONG US
Sandra Brown Kelly talks to an old friend: "Michael Jordan:
The Life" is just the tip of the writing iceberg for the
talented and relentless Roland Lazenby, who got his writing
start making $2.70 an hour at the Blacksburg Sun.
I HAVE KNOWN ROLAND LAZENBY for more
than 30 years - not quite as long as The Roanoker has
been around, but a long time. We both worked at The
Roanoke Times - me for more than 30 years, Roland
for about four. The newspaper paid for our graduate
degrees from Hollins University. Later, we both worked
as adjunct instructors at area colleges for many years.
And through the years, Roland and I have stayed in
touch with an occasional chat. Always, two things are
clear. Roland can really talk - part of his success as an
interviewer and author - and he cares deeply about family, especially Karen, his wife of 39 years.
And I suppose if anyone could break my bias against
jock sports books, it would be Roland. His new biography of Michael Jordan, "Michael Jordan: The Life" in
fact did just that. I began reading, and then I read and
read, learning so much more than about basketball. I
never knew about schools built in the early 1900s for African Americans by the Rosenwald Fund, set up by Julius Rosenwald, Sears Roebuck & Co., president. Some
of Jordan's family members played sports at one of those
schools in Rocky Point, N.C. (Pender County). And, as
interesting as Michael Jordan is, his great-grandfather
Dawson Jordan is also. The strong role his mother Deloris played in Jordan's life also is part of a good read.
At a recent catch-up at Mill Mountain Coffee in Salem, I learned some new things about Roland. He had
a terrible GPA at Virginia Military Institute, switched
his major from biology to English, and when he graduated, went to work as a junior-high English teacher, after
selling cars for a while. From there, he was the wrestling
coach at Blacksburg High School, worked at the Blacksburg Sun ($2.70 an hour) and later at the News Leader
in Staunton. Along the way, he won some Virginia Press
Association awards and ended up covering night cops
at The Roanoke Times where he eventually reported on
Salem and Roanoke County government.
Roland got into the Hollins Creative Writing Program with a feature, "Death of a Nobody," about a
homeless guy who died on the Roanoke City Market.
Strange that homeless people are still an issue in that
locale. All the while Roland worked as reporter and
teacher, he also wrote books. His first was in 1983 and
was about Ralph Sampson ("A Life Above the Rim").
Roland Lazenby's blend of
erudition and playfulness
has resulted in successful
careers as a book author
Sampson, from Harrisonburg, was a star at the University of Virginia and the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA
Draft. That book was excerpted by the Associated Press
and Sporting Magazine.
Roland covered the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, and
he wrote several quick-hit books that paid him handsomely, by writer standards. He also became an expert
on the Lakers:
"It's a narrow field," he points out. Overall, Roland has
written about five dozen nonfiction books on basketball
and football, but a turning point came with "Blood on
the Horns: The Long Strange Ride of Michael Jordan's
Chicago Bulls." That book got good reviews but did not
pan out financially. Roland was his own agent and the
small publishing house he worked with went bankrupt.
Still, he continued to write books and teach, spending
11 years at Virginia Tech, spanning the time of the April
2007 shootings on campus that left 32 people dead. He