John Akers has always felt like his life in sports journalism resembled Forrest Gump.
Wherever he goes, or wherever life has taken him, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Sure, luck has played a part in Akers’ career. However, the Dows, Iowa native and Iowa State University graduate didn’t receive his latest honor as an United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Hall-of-Famer on pure fortune.
He earned the highest honor in his profession through 40 years of hard work, talent and persistence.
Now in his 18th year as the publisher/editor of Basketball Times, Akers will be at the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis watching the sport he loves and accepting the ultimate award given to him by his peers.
“I went through the roof when I found out,” Akers said. “It is a tremendous honor. I don’t know how to describe it, but I am very excited.”
Akers always loved sports. Growing up in Dows as a youngster, Akers would routinely write colleges to request their latest media guides. He fell in love with the bios and statistics of the athletes, memorizing their accolades.
“Somewhere along the line I figured out if you wrote to sports information directors or professional franchises to their PR department, they would send me their leftover media guides,” Akers remembered. “I don’t know how I found their addresses, but I did.”
This fascination continued when he arrived at Iowa State in 1977 after transferring from Buena Vista College. He saw an article that the Cyclones just hired a new sports publicity director named Tom Starr.
He contacted Starr and asked him if he needed any student help in the Iowa State Sports Information Department. SID shops were smaller back then, and Starr put him to work.
Akers dove in to his new volunteer job, writing stories on Cyclone athletes for their local newspapers, providing the PA for JV hoops games and rubbing elbows with the local media.
“I saw this story about Tom Starr being hired at Iowa State and I thought, ‘Man, that would be a pretty cool thing.’” Akers said. “I went over and asked if they used any student interns. That exposed me to the world of sports writers and it allowed me to figure out who was who amongst sports writers. I was getting to know the Don Doxies and the Rick Browns, and I was figuring out who was who in Iowa sports journalism. That was extremely helpful and I really got hooked. That’s kind of how it all got started.”
His networking helped him earn a part-time job with the Ames Tribune, where he eventually was hired full-time after graduating from Iowa State in 1979.
“I was taking a journalism 201 course and my first instructor was a woman named Margaret Epperheimer,” Akers recollected. “She knew I was working in the SID office and she told me her husband, John, was the managing editor of the Ames Tribune and they were looking for Friday night help all the time. Gary Richards, who was the sports editor at the time, hired me to do Friday night stuff and I guess I did ok because they started giving me some bigger assignments and left enough of an impression that they eventually hired me.”
It was a transitional period in Iowa State athletics. Legendary football coach Earle Bruce had just left for Ohio State and was replaced by Donnie Duncan. Lynn Nance was still patrolling the sideline in Hilton Coliseum, but his tenure was about to end.
Little did Akers know that things were about to change for Cyclone men’s basketball. The college basketball world was turned upside down when Johnny Orr, who coached Michigan to the national championship game in 1976, left his comfortable job with the Wolverines to take over a struggling Cyclone program.
Akers had a front row seat in those early Orr years. The product on the court still wasn’t great, but Orr made it fun, and he knew the tide was turning.
“There was just so much buzz and energy about it even though they were still kind of bad for those first few years,” Akers said. “Everyone was willing to forgive it because it was Johnny and he was entertaining. Everybody could see that there was a future there. We would attend the Cyclone meetings/outings every Tuesday at the Best Western, which was a nice hotel in town at the time. We found out what Johnny said was funny in the way he delivered it, but it didn’t always translate to print all that well. You have this hilarious guy, but it was a challenge to convey the humor in print. Some of the stuff he would say, I was thinking about this the other day, you probably couldn’t use today.”
The colorful Orr was always the life of the party. Some of Akers’ favorite memories in the profession were covering the Hall-of-Fame coach, where there was never a dull moment.
“There was a preseason media day and Johnny was asked about Ron Falenschek, who was a big center for the Cyclones,” Akers said. “One reporter asked Johnny where Ron’s weight was at, and Johnny said, ‘Well, it’s in his ass.’”
Akers also helped Orr land one the nation’s top recruits.
“I remember one time they were going after a kid named John Culbertson out of Chicago,” Akers said. “I happened to call Culbertson to see how the recruiting process was going. He said he was going to Iowa State. I said, ‘Oh, this is news,’ so I called Johnny, and it was news to Johnny, too. Johnny said, ‘He said that? Put it in the paper! Put in the paper, man!’”
Some of Akers’ favorite Cyclone athletes he covered were Andrew Parker, Alex Giffords, Jeff Hornacek and Barry Stevens.
Hornacek was a Cinderella story in the making, and Akers had a hunch he was special right away.
“Hornacek came in and he made quite an impression on all of us,” Akers remembered. “The Des Moines Register rotated writers and I remember for about four games straight the different writers discovered Hornacek. His talent was noticeable to all of us covering him on a daily basis.”
On one occasion, Akers was in the Cyclone dressing room prior to the game. On each of the players’ lockers, there was an inspirational note from the coaching staff placed for positive reinforcement.
He noticed a difference in the players’ inspirational messages.
“All the players had little notes on their lockers and Hornacek’s note was very detailed with all these different things to watch for in the game,” Akers said. “I then read Barry’s note and all it said was, ‘go for it.’ It was perfect for both of those guys, not to say Barry wasn’t cerebral at all. Barry was one of my all-time favorites, but he was a guy who played on emotion.”
Akers loved watching Stevens play. Stevens was a smooth-shooting gazelle on the court who could out-gun and out-run anybody.
He thinks back on a critical game in ISU history when the Cyclones defeated Iowa, 76-72 in double overtime during the 1983-84 season.
It was right on the cusp of “Hilton Magic.” The sound was deafening.
“The decibel level was so loud it almost hurt,” Akers said. “I remember Barry fouled out of that game and I remember his emotion. It wasn’t out of protest or whatever, but he when got his fifth foul he started hopping. He bounced to this incredible height as he hopped in frustration and we had a photo of him where he was so far off the ground. We were going to run the photo and one of our publishers didn’t want us to because he thought it was in bad taste like we were showing up this player or something. We had two publishers and one publisher talked the other one into allowing us to run it.”
Covering those early Orr teams was special. The program was gaining momentum and Akers was witnessing history. However, Akers decided to make a move professionally after five years with the Ames Tribune, so he headed out west to join the sports staff at the San Jose Mercury News, a job he held from 1984-2000.
Iowa State finally got over the hump and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 41 years during the 1984-85 season. Akers wasn’t around to see it, but he wrote Orr a letter to wish him congratulations.
In typical Orr fashion, Akers received a note back from the Hall of Fame coach.
Thanks for your note. You would love the games now. The Coliseum is sold out and we are no longer the underdogs. We are expected to win most of the time. We did have a fun year and next year promises more of the same. How about the NCAA? We miss you.
It was tough for Akers to leave his roots in Iowa, but it was also great time to be in the Bay Area as a college hoops writer. Akers covered Jason Kidd at California, Steve Nash at Santa Clara and witnessed the rise of Stanford basketball.
Another case of being in the right place at the right time.
“The Bay Area was going through a heyday,” said Akers. “I think it was around 1992 when Steve Nash arrives. I covered Nash and then Jason Kidd arrives at Cal. I covered them and then I took on the Stanford beat and they started to become one of the nation’s best teams. I got to ride that wave.”
In 2000, Akers’ wife, Ann, got a job with the National Scholastic Press Association in Minneapolis, as the couple moved closer to family in the Midwest.
Akers took a job with the Associated Press and was becoming dissatisfied with the work.
Once again, Forrest Gump came galloping to the rescue.
Ann’s workplace was hosting a convention and one of the guest speakers was legendary sportswriter Bob Ryan. The company needed a mug shot of Ryan, and Akers picked up the phone and called Basketball Times to find one.
He soon learned the organization was without an editor. Basketball Times founder and editor, Larry Donald, started the publication in 1980, making it a hoops junkie bible.
Donald died of an apparent heart attack in November 2000 at the age of 55, leaving his widow, Nanci, in charge of the operation.
Akers was intrigued and excited about another opportunity to dive into the world of basketball, offering his assistance to become the managing editor and publisher of the proud basketball publication, a job he still has today.
Relocating to Charlotte, N.C., Akers travels all around the country writing about hoops. Ryan, Dick “Hoops” Weiss, Wendy Parker and Dick Vitale are contributors for the publication and life is good.
He has cherished every moment working with the best basketball writers in the country and forging relationships with the giants in the coaching profession.
“It’s been great getting to know those guys and work with them,” Akers said. “I’ve been doing this now for eighteen years at Basketball Times and those guys have been doing it longer. I’ve been able to develop some really good friendships with a lot of these legends in basketball.”
It’s humbling for Akers to be considered for the USBWA Hall of Fame. As a former president of the USBWA, Akers instituted the organization’s Rising Star award, which recognizes excellence in a member who is under the age of 30.
This year’s USBWA Hall of Fame class includes Dan Wetzel, Bill Rhoden and Jack McCallum, all luminaries in sports writing. Akers is thrilled to be in the same company.
“When you see the guys that are also being inducted this year, it’s like, wow, I feel like I’m the Harold Baines of the crowd,” Akers joked.
Despite his status in the profession, you can’t take the Cyclone out of him. He still follows Iowa State and tries to watch as many games as he can.
I was the men’s basketball contact for the Iowa State Athletics Communications department from 2000-13. When Fred Hoiberg was hired as the leader of the Cyclone program in 2010, Akers played a huge role in getting The Mayor on the cover of the magazine and wrote a fantastic piece on him.
I found out later he was just giving props to a prodigy he coached as a grade-schooler.
“When I was at the Ames Tribune I coached Fred Hoiberg as a fifth-grader in flag football,” Akers said. “We had Hoiberg at wide receiver. That’s how smart we were.”
Congrats, John. Cyclone Nation is proud of you. That’s all I have to say about that.