At the 1993 ESPY Awards, former basketball coach Jim Valvano, who 10 years earlier led an underdog North Carolina State squad to an improbable NCAA championship, received the first Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Riddled with cancer, and needing help to get on stage, the charismatic Valvano exhibited emotional strength the cancer could not touch.
In an inspirational speech, Jimmy V. shared with the rapt audience his philosophy of life. “There are three things we should do every day. Number one, laugh; you should laugh every day. Number two is think; each day you should spend some time in thought. And number three, you should have your emotions moved to tears. If you laugh, think and cry all in the same day, that’s a heckuva [sic] day.”
At the risk of embarrassing John Tournour, the bombastic sports talk show host known to millions of radio listeners as “JT the Brick,” his true-life memoir, “The Handoff: A Powerful Memoir of Two Guys, Sports, And Friendship,” is a heckuva [sic] read. It made me laugh, think, and, at times, moved me to tears, an impressive feat for a first-time author.
Unexpectedly, “The Handoff” is far more than a sports book. It chronicles JT’s childhood in the 1970s on Long Island all the way to Los Angeles in 2008. It was there that he lost his mentor and dear friend to cancer in a battle during which JT was chemo partner, driver and confidant. The experience changed how JT viewed success, life and death.
Growing up in Massapequa, N.Y., JT was a model son to parents he revered (and still does), older brother to two sisters and a swimmer on his high school team. He was a fun-loving teenager who knew how to party before the word became a verb.
Somehow JT avoided getting into serious trouble. And after high school, where he was hardly a disciplined student, he managed to get accepted to State University of New York College at Geneseo.
No matter JT’s sports talk show fame, or even if “The Handoff” becomes a best-seller, as it very well might, his proudest achievement may be that of being president of his fraternity. To JT, buddies (and family) are everything, having friendships he’s maintained from childhood.
Just like his No. 1-rated overnight sports talk show, “The Handoff” is fast-paced. It documents JT’s almost impossible rise as a sports radio personality after fearlessly leaving a lucrative position as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker.
In a chapter entitled “Birth of the Brick,” JT recounts how his dream of a radio career came to him as a frequent caller into sports talk shows. Given the nickname “JT the Brick” by the iconic Jim Rome, he won the famed host’s first annual “Great American Smack-Off.” But his career path wasn’t exactly paved in gold. In fact, his first radio gigs required that JT had to pay to be on the air. (He sold commercial time to offset expenses, including to a brick company.)
But JT’s greatest challenge came when his best friend and mentor, legendary program director Andrew Ashwood, was diagnosed with cancer. With unconventional long hair and beard, Ashwood was larger than life in personality and stature. (Picture Grizzly Adams meets John Candy.)
JT generously credits his success to Ashwood, who unselfishly shared his insights, experience and even his radio “playbook,” which JT practically committed to memory.
Ashwood even impacted JT’s bachelor status when he gave him tickets to a Rolling Stones concert in Las Vegas. JT instantly fell in love with a tall blonde wearing a tiger print jacket, black pants and heels who would eventually become his wife. Fate? Five minutes either way and JT and Julie might never have met. They have two sons, 12 and 10.
With Ashwood’s cancer, JT’s skyrocketing career takes a backseat. Syndicated on 250 radio stations, JT also does Oakland Raiders pre- and post-game shows and hosts NFL wrap-up TV in Vegas. (When does he sleep?) All that matters now is helping his friend, who is more like a brother, battling for his life.
As Ashwood courageously endures chemotherapy, JT is silently by his side for the entire 13 months. A confessed “world class narcissist,” JT learns to listen and absorb the life lessons his mentor is “handing off.” (One day, JT will surely hand those tips off to his sons.)
The antics of JT’s pursuit of a radio career might make you laugh while the profound life lessons Ashwood hands off will undoubtedly make you think. And JT’s vivid description of losing such a vital friend, who fought so valiantly to live, will likely make you cry. I have a hunch Jimmy V. would have appreciated “The Handoff.” I know I did.
JT the Brick will be signing copies of “The Handoff” in Santa Monica on Sunday, Aug. 18 at 3 p.m. at the Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., (310) 576-9960. Jack Neworth writes the column Laughing Matters in the Daily Press every Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.