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Don Shelby Talks Basketball, Haircuts and New Book

Retired news anchor Don Shelby made a stop in Hopkins for his new book tour.

Don Shelby, the former WCCO anchor and a Minnesota journalism figure for more than 30 years, visited in Hopkins on Saturday to sign copies of his new book, The Season Never Ends: Wins, Losses, and the Wisdom of the Court. Hopkins Patch caught up with Shelby and asked him about his book and how he’s adjusted to retired life.

Hopkins Patch: Were you working on this book before you retired?

Don Shelby: I’ve written these stories over the past 25 years. I wrote these stories for a great basketball newspaper called The Full Court Press, and when my daughter, who is a basketball player, came back from six years of publishing at Penguin, she asked me where those stories were because they were important to her. I had a few at home and then she went down to the library and collected all of these newspapers and keypunched all of the stories in, made copies of all of them, and then she edited them. I wrote five new ones, and Bascom Hill Publishing Group took a look at the book and said, “This book has some potential.” So I didn’t have to sit down after I retired and write a book. It was already written.

Hopkins Patch: How do you like retired life?

Shelby: I don’t like it a lot because I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked and I’m not getting paid so what’s to like about that?

Hopkins Patch: Do you get to spend more time with your family?

Shelby: I get to spend more time with my family and I get to be a better grandpa, a lot better grandpa than I think I would be if I were continuing to work. And I have managed to take a little time off and spend some very needed time in the Boundary Waters, the Quetico, the St. Croix River and on the Mississippi River with the Urban Canoe Wilderness Adventures.

Hopkins Patch: Did you ever want to be a sports reporter?

Shelby: I was a sports reporter for about 25 minutes once. I was a person who loved the games. But I was never good with names or statistics, and to be a good sports reporter, you need to have a full reservoir of that kind of knowledge, and I didn’t so I ended up not being very good. However, toward the end of my career, one of the things I did want to be able to do was call play-by-play basketball, and I did call one game. It was aired on WCCO AM radio, the University of Minnesota Golden Gopher Women’s Basketball game against the Hoosiers of Indiana. And I called that game, and I just had a ball. I thought maybe that would be my second career, maybe I could just sign up and be a play-by-play guy.

Hopkins Patch: You could be like one of those athletes who goes into TV after they retire.

Shelby: That’s true! I might be a TV guy going back into TV.

Hopkins Patch: Do you have a favorite story in the book?

Shelby: No, I don’t have a favorite story. They’re all individual stories and all of them have a great deal of meaning to me. In fact, they ask me a lot at these events, “What’s your favorite story in the book?” And I can’t tell them which one is a favorite. The stories I choose to read out loud to these people represent a funny story or a story that has a path of some sort because I want to show them that the book isn’t just a big laugh line or all sad, but that it continues to rise and fall. One of the best messages on my webpage was a woman who bought the book at Dunn Bros. and read it to her coach husband on the way to the lakes and they had to pull off to the side of the road intermittently laughing and crying.

Hopkins Patch: What are some of the key messages you hope to get across with your book?

Shelby: Those people who have watched me over the years know that I’m a man of emotion, and a man of, I hope, a big heart and that I long for a time of greater innocence, and this book presents stories that come out of a period in my life that was pure. And I hope that people who read the book will recognize that it’s something worth trying to recapture, something in which your heart plays a big part and that we can innocently enjoy it. There are no ulterior motives. I’m not looking for the scholarship. I’m not looking for the big money. I’m not looking for the headlines. We’re looking to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves and that we’re willing to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the benefit of that bigger thing, whether it’s your business, your basketball team, or your family.

Hopkins Patch: How have readers been responding to your book?

Shelby: With great enthusiasm. People first of all were surprised that a guy on television could write a word. People just think we talk for a living and forget that we actually have to sit in front of a computer or a typewriter and write all those words out first of all and that I have always cared a great deal about writing. I taught writing at the University of St. Thomas, and I have a style of writing that is not based on anyone else’s that I have read but it is my voice. Because at 45 years, I developed a voice—the way I said things, the way I reported things, the way I wrote—and this is simply an extension of that internal voice mechanism. I don’t make any claims to say that this is a great literary piece. But what’s most important to me is not the writing, per se—not the grammar or sentence structure—but the story and the meaning and whether that is good.

Hopkins Patch: For how much of your career did you write your own material for the news?

Shelby: All of the reports that I did. I was an unusual anchor because anchor wasn’t the first thing I claimed on my business card or on my resume. I was always a reporter first and then I was an anchor also. So even to the last day of my career—the last months of my career when I traveled to Iraq and reported on the war, when I was reporting on energy and the environment for the past 10 years—all of those words were mine.

Hopkins Patch: Why did you choose the distribution model of going through Dunn Bros.?

Shelby: I didn’t choose that. That was chosen by the publisher. They have a relationship with Dunn Bros. This is what they considered a ‘soft launch,’ so the books right now are not in bookstores. That will be at the hard launch which will happen in October. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and on the website Donshelbybook.com. Dunn Bros. is providing the venues where I can read to people, and Bascom Hill Publishing Group made the arrangement with Dunn Bros. So now you have a place to read and you have traffic and they have their own websites where they can go to customers and say, “On this day, the author will be here to sell his book and read,” and that creates traffic. People will come in to buy a cup of coffee, so I guess it’s good for both of them. And Dunn Bros. has been working their way more and more into the area of literature and books, so they want to do that more and more.

Hopkins Patch: You obviously look different now than you did on TV, are people surprised at all when they see you?

Shelby: Two things are different about my appearance. One is longer hair, but it’s not like hippy-ponytail hair, it’s just longer in the back. Part of it is because I’m not being paid and I’m saving money on haircuts. And the second thing is that I’m wearing glasses. I’ve worn glasses for 20 years, but I’m far-sighted so the top part of my glasses are just glass so I can see far away as anybody could with 20/20 vision. But up close, I’ve got to read closer to the page. Well, the teleprompter is far enough away on television so that I didn’t have to wear my glasses and in fact they didn’t want me to wear my glasses because it looked too professorial. My wife complains because I’ve got five or six different pairs of glasses that I wear depending on whatever image I’m trying to project, and this one looks like a professor.

Hopkins Patch: Had you wanted to grow your hair out while you were an anchor but they wouldn’t let you?

Shelby: When I started in television, my hair was longer than this, which was allowed because this was back during the hippy years and everybody had long hair. Have you ever seen the movie Anchorman? I mean we all had permanents, we all had mustaches, we all had giant-lapelled, loud sport coats and stuff; that was all true. We actually looked that way back then, and then as time went by, styles changed and you had to adapt to the style because one of the things at first on television is that you don’t want to look different. In fact, I’ll tell you a story. My daughter and my wife got tired of my haircut. I had had the same haircut for 32 years, and they got tired of the haircut and they said “Can’t you do something other than that helmet-looking thing?” And so all I did was I moved the part three quarters of an inch. 1,500 calls came in to the station because what that represented to them was that I was having a midlife crisis. Now a woman could change her hairstyle all the time because that’s what women do, that doesn’t affect their credibility. But a man who changes his hairstyle after 32 years obviously is going through a midlife crisis—he is obviously having trouble with his identity—and then that affects your credibility so they immediately said, “Comb your hair back the way it was.” They let it go one night because we can’t have people thinking that you’re less credible now because you’re somehow unhappy with the way you look or you’re out trying to find chicks. Every time I’m on a television clip, Amelia [Santaniello] talks about it, Frank [Vascellaro] talks about it, and I love it that they talk about it because I know they want their hair that long.

Hopkins Patch: Are you planning on doing more writing in the future?

Shelby: Well I’m writing for MinnPost. I’ve written 29,000 words for MinnPost now on energy and the environment, and I hope someday to be able to write a serious non-fiction book, and I would like to think that I would examine whether journalism has failed to adequately tell the story of global climate change. I’m working very closely with a planet scientist right now, and the overwhelming scientific evidence is that there is a clear fingerprint for human-caused global warming but the population of the United States is about divided half and half on whether or not that’s true. Well how can science be 98% certain while the public is half-certain? Is that the failure of journalism or is that the power of the public relations agencies who are working for the fossil-fuel agencies, who are trying to stand in the way of any kind of serious change. So I’d like to do a serious examination, a journalistic examination, so not a book of stories but an actual investigative report on whether journalism is doing its job on this critical issue.

Hopkins Patch: What’s your next project?

Shelby: Well first, let me go back. When Dave Moore retired and I took his place, the first thing Dave Moore did was appear in Mister Rogers at the Old Log Theater, he went to stage. Well the first major thing I’m doing besides this book is I’m appearing in the Rocky Horror Show at the Lab Theater Sept. 15 to Oct. 31, and tickets are available at Rockyhorrorminneapolis.com, and it is incredible. There’s a huge cast from all over the country. It’s being produced by Andrew Rasmussen, who also produced the very successful Rent that ran in the cities, and it is hilarious. I’m having a ball. So if people want to know what I’ve been doing lately, just tell them I’ve been hanging around with bisexual aliens because that’s what the story is based on.

Hopkins Patch: Do you have any background in acting?

Shelby: All the people in television anchoring have been accused of being nothing but actors anyway, but the truth is my focus when I was going to college was in theater arts and journalism. It was mixed and so this is a musical and I can sort of keep up with the music. I can read the music and stay with it and stay on beat. There are a lot of things I have to say that have to be paced over a number of measures, and I have to hit them just right so the background comes in on time, and it’s a lot of fun. We rehearse six nights a week, 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock, and that’s for a month, and then we’ve got a month and a half run of the show. But this is going to be an exceptionally big deal. I think it’s featured in Minnesota Monthly out today. It’s on the cover I think.

Hopkins Patch: Back to the book, who would you say is the best basketball player you’ve ever seen?

Shelby: Pete Maravich. He was the best, and it’s not just my opinion. There was a documentary produced where they asked Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas who was the best basketball player ever? And all of them independently said Maravich. Because Maravich was not only college’s all-time leading scorer—which he did in a three-year span of time where now they allow freshmen to play, so the people who are competing against him for overall total points in a career have 4 years to accumulate the points. But before there was a 3-point line, he was averaging 44 points a game and 12 assists so was the all-around basketball player. Then when he got out of college he was an MVP and the league’s leading scorer for the New Orleans Jazz. They said, I think this was one of the points Jordan made, was that professional basketball not only being basketball is also a spectator sport. There is an audience, not just fans, and Pete never forgot that there was an audience. So he always did something along the lines of performance so that the crowd would keep coming back.

Hopkins Patch: Do you get a chance to go to a lot of Timberwolves games or Gopher basketball games now that you’re retired?

Shelby: Yes. Timberwolves less, but for the first six years of the franchise, I was a season ticket holder and only missed 11 home games. I see fewer now because I started doing a lot of reporting and working to 10, and they wouldn’t let me off between 6 and 10 to go over there. But I helped build the largest crowd that ever saw a women’s Gopher basketball game. When they were averaging 350 people per game, we put more than 7000 people in the stands at Williams Arena. I pushed that promotion on our air to pack The Barn. And of course, I adore Tubby Smith, who wrote the foreword of my book, and he said he would come to a bunch of these signings, which is just exceptional. But, yes, I still love the game of basketball, and the truth is while I love professional basketball for the incredible skill level, I’m still fond of high school and college basketball for the purity of the game because they’re not playing for money, they’re not playing for glory, they’re playing for the team, and that’s what I love most about the game

Hopkins Patch: If you had to choose, because you grew up in Indiana, would you say you’re more of a Hoosiers fan or a Gophers fan?

Shelby: Gophers fan. I never was a Hoosiers fan, absolutely not, and I’ll make very clear sense of that for you. Where I grew up, college basketball meant absolutely nothing. It wasn’t until 1972 or ’71 that college basketball started meaning anything to anybody. Indiana is a state of high school basketball addicts and, in fact, there were people on my team who were asked to consider a letter of intent for Indiana University and said no and went to the University of Miami at Ohio or went to Rose Polytech or Ball State or Butler. No, I’m not a Hoosiers fan. I’m a fan of Hoosiers-style basketball when Bobby Knight was coaching. But, you’ve got to remember Indiana is my mom and dad’s home; it’s not my home. Minnesota is my home and so the Gophers are my team, always have been, and I don’t have any second choice.

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