Bill Littlefield Looks Back On 25 Years Hosting Only A Game

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Bill Littlefield retires this week after 25 years as the host of Only A Game. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)
Bill Littlefield, former host of WBUR and NPR's Only A Game, (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

A lot of the stories I’ve written for Only A Game have taught me things. The ones I’ve considered most significant have stayed with me long after they’ve aired.

Roxbury Community College

While working on a series of stories about the Roxbury Community College men’s basketball team during the 2000–01 season, I met a young man named Jamil Abdullah. He’s a big, powerful guy who’d been an impressive high school player.

Only A Game aired a six-part feature on Roxbury's men's basketball team from 2000 to 2001. (Only A Game)
Only A Game aired a six-part feature on Roxbury's men's basketball team from 2000 to 2001. (Only A Game)

Before arriving at Roxbury CC, Jamil had briefly been an unsuccessful student and a neglected basketball player at a couple of other colleges — both Division I — where he’d had an athletic scholarship. While he was at Roxbury, he worked the overnight shift as a security guard at a bus terminal in Boston to support himself, showed up for early morning practice, put in a full day as a student and then got a few hours of sleep before going back to work at the bus terminal.

Toward the end of the season, as Jamil and his teammates prepared for the final four of their national tournament, he told me a little bit about what the junior community college from which he was about to graduate had come to mean to him.

"Just like a lotta people say, ‘That’s only a D-III, Juco’ — this is big for me," Jamil said. "And another guy, in like a Division I school will say, ‘That’s nothing.’ You know what I mean? But this is my — I’m the king of my castle. Regardless of if it’s a little shack. You may be the king of the castle on the hill, but I’m the king of this right here. And can’t nobody take that away. You know what I mean? You come to my home, it’s like, ‘Wipe your feet.’ You know what I’m saying? It’s just ... it's real exciting for me."

Jamil wasn’t the only player on the team who was proud of himself and of what he and his teammates had accomplished. But he was the only member of the team who referred to Roxbury Community College as his bubble — the place where he knew he would be safe among other strong people who would support him as a student and as an athlete.

With no home games left to play and only a national tournament standing between himself and the unavoidable departure from that bubble, I wondered if Jamil felt anything beyond excitement and pride.

"It feels good and at the same time it's a little scary," Jamil said. "And it's like the disease — saying this world is like a disease, right? And it's like our immune system is built up. So now we can leave our side of the bubble. I mean, at first it's like, ‘You don't have no wings yet, you don't have no wings yet.’ But, Coach, he's helped us grow those wings, you know what I mean? So now — now we ready to just come out and just fly. That's my mentality. I feel like I'm ready."

Jamil Abdullah (left), Ka'reem Horton (second from right), and Malcolm Wynn (right), joined Bill Littlefield to reflect on the 2000-01 Roxbury Community College basketball season. (Only A Game)
Jamil Abdullah (left), Ka'reem Horton (second from right), and Malcolm Wynn (right), joined Bill Littlefield to reflect on the 2000-01 Roxbury Community College basketball season. (Only A Game)

"You're a poet," I told him. "I thought you were supposed to be an engineer."

"Nah, renaissance man — good at everything, not great at anything," Jamil said with a laugh.

Jamil went on to earn an engineering degree at Northeastern University and a master's degree beyond that. I caught up with him a couple of weeks ago and learned that these days, he’s pretty great at several things. He’s currently working as a lead engineer at a power company in Massachusetts. He’s also active as an organizer in the Muslim community.

Famous Athletes And Writers 

I've had the opportunity to meet and talk with lots of exceptional people over the past 25 years … some of them famous as well as accomplished. Yogi Berra, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Katarina Witt come to mind … the latter perhaps because she kind of liked my name.

"Littlefield — that’s such a cute name," she giggled during our interview years ago.

Greatest skater ever. No question.

Anyway, I conversed with Wilt Chamberlain, too, and Bob Gibson. Kristine Lilly and Rebecca Lobo and Billie Jean King.

I've met lots of the writers I’ve admired, including Frank Deford, Gwen Oxenham, Robert Pinsky, and my personal favorite, W.C. Heinz. You want to hear him read from his terrific profile of “Bummy” Davis, titled “Brownsville Bum,” one more time? Yeah, so do I … even though on the day we talked in the basement of his Vermont home, I only asked him to read the first paragraph.

“It's a funny thing about people," Heinz began. "People will hate a guy all his life for what he is. But the minute he dies for it, they make him out a hero. And they go around saying that maybe he wasn't such a bad guy after all. Because he sure was willing to go the distance for whatever he believed in or whatever he was."

W.C. Heinz died in 2008 at the age of 93.
W.C. Heinz died in 2008 at the age of 93.

"And this is of course, Bummy — not a spectacularly admirable until he had his one chance to do something exceptionally admirable," I started to say.

"Yup, and the second paragraph here says, ‘That's the way it was with Bummy Davis,' " Heinz continued. " 'The night Bummy fought Fritzie Zivic in the Garden and Zivic started giving him the business and Bummy hit Zivic low maybe 30 times and kicked the referee, they wanted to hang him for it. The night those four guys came into Dudy's bar and tried to do the same thing, only with rods, Bummy went nuts again. He flattened the first one, and then they shot him, and when everybody read of it, and how Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain in front of the place, they all said he was really something, and you sure had to give him credit at that.’ "

When we’d finished the interview, Mr. Heinz and I sat in his study and talked for a time. It was, to paraphrase Rick in "Casablanca," the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Eventually, the Library of America gave me the opportunity to edit and write an introduction for a collection titled "The Best Sports Writing of W.C. Heinz." I’m proud to have my name alongside his on the cover of a book.

Unexpected Guests

Sometimes the conversations with Only A Game guests haven’t gone entirely as planned. Fairly recently, I spoke with a fellow who’d helped a soccer team in Ireland find a coach.

"Well, my name is Father Joe Young. I’m a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Limerick," Father Young told me over the phone.

We usually try to get our guests into a studio, of course. Or, if that won’t work out, they can record their end of the conversation on an iPhone. Or we can use Skype. Unless …

"I’m the only priest in the diocese that doesn’t have a computer," Father Young said. "God be with the days when we would sit down and have a cup of tea together, you know?"

The Only A Game team wishes Bill a happy retirement. (Only A Game)
The Only A Game team wishes Bill a happy retirement. (Only A Game)

Those were good days. No doubt of that.

Anyway, when we’re recording somebody for broadcast, we also try to make arrangements to eliminate the background noise … no matter how delightful that background noise might be.

In the case of my conversation with Father Young, the background noise came from a barking dog.

"And who’s that in the background?" I asked.

"That’s my dog, Moses," Father Young said.

"It’s a bit Old Testament," I said.

"I know," Father Young said. "Yeah, he’s a good boy."

"Do you think it’s possible that Moses could be given a biscuit or something?" I asked.

"Well, I’m doing my very best," Father Young said. "There’s somebody out in the back, and he’s playing his role."

May the next host of Only A Game encounter his or her own favorites — Moses included — and may he or she have as much fun as I’ve had over the past 25 years working with an always extraordinary group of producers, writers, editors, interns and technical directors who put the show together each week.

Thanks for listening.

This segment aired on July 28, 2018.


Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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