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Longboat Key Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019 5 days ago

Jordan, Nike and Knight: Ed Janka's basketball life

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Ed Janka spent a lifetime making memories and friends through the game of basketball. He decided to write a book about them.
by: Brendan Lavell General Assignment Reporter

What do you do after coaching basketball at four colleges, working at Nike, rubbing shoulders with everyone from Michael Jordan to Jerry Seinfeld to The Temptations, coaching in Italy, running 45 years worth of basketball clinics and becoming well-known among coaches?

Write a book, of course.

That’s exactly what Ed Janka did, with the help of friend Bob Brown, whom he met at a fantasy camp for adults run by Vince Carter during Carter’s time with the NBA's Toronto Raptors. After working together in the Lido Key condominium where they both live (coincidentally), Janka and Brown published “I Never Had a Bike” in 2016, a collection of 40 anecdotes and photos featuring Janka and some of the legends he’s encountered.

It also includes a foreword from longtime Indiana University coach Bob Knight. Knight's passage almost didn't happen, though, until Brown received a call from a number he didn’t recognize while relaxing outdoors.

“Is this Bob Brown?” he recalled hearing in a gruff voice.

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“It’s Bob Knight.”

Brown jumped out of his chair. “Sure, Coach Knight!”

“I understand you want a foreword,” Brown remembered Knight saying.

A copy of Ed Janka's book, "I Never Had a Bike."

“Yeah, have you got something you can email?”

“I don’t email.”

“OK—”

“Here, I’ll read it to you.”

So Knight read Brown the foreword, then asked how he could send it to him. Brown suggested Knight call back and read his words again on voicemail.  After Knight agreed, Brown remembered trying to say something to him.

“Listen, Coach Knight, I just want to say—” *click*

And that was that. (The voicemail came in a little spotty, but Knight’s wife later helped verify the message — via email.)

Janka took the first step toward his career as a senior at Marquette, where he helped coach the freshman team during the 1967-68 season. Eventual Hall of Famer Al McGuire was the team’s coach and would eventually become Janka’s mentor for basketball and life. Janka was a pallbearer at his funeral in 2001.

After graduating, Janka spent four years coaching at three high schools in his native Chicago. This included stops at Gordon Technical High School (now DePaul College Prep), where he met Tony Barone and Dick Versace, who went on to become successful coaches at the Division I college level, and his alma mater, the now-closed Weber High School.

He then went back to Marquette to work under McGuire for another year before stops at Division III John Carroll, Italy, D-III Oberlin and D-I Fairfield. Meanwhile, in 1974, he also started running coaching clinics, which he continued to do until the spring of 2019.

In 1985 he began working in Nike’s college basketball marketing department. One of his colleagues was Sonny Vaccaro, who would later become the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 film called “Sole Man.” Janka’s main job was signing coaches, including those at the D-III and junior college level, to contracts with Nike.

It was while he was at Nike, where he worked until 1999, that he struck up a relationship with Michael Jordan that he has maintained to this day. They were first introduced in 1986 when Jordan decided he wanted to run a basketball camp for kids. Vaccaro recommended he work with Janka, and Janka eventually ran fantasy camps with Jordan as well.

“He’s a down-to-earth, outstanding person,” Janka said. “If you would see what can happen to him when he walks through a door to the general public, he has handled it as well as you can.”

From working with Phil Knight as he built the Nike goliath (“he didn’t mind playing on the edge, being controversial”) to skating in front of world champion figure skater Janet Lynn (“I was totally embarrassed, and I don’t get embarrassed very much”), Janka has far too many stories to fit in an article.

But they fit in 130 pages.

 

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