“Everybody’s an athlete,” says John Zant. “We have bodies that are made to move.”
No one’s better equipped to make that statement than John, who’s celebrating his 50th year as a sportswriter in 2018. He was hired fresh out of college to work for the Santa Barbara News-Press in 1968 and has been writing for the Independent since 2007. He’s covered six Olympics and won numerous accolades. He’s also one of the most enjoyable people to sit down with for a cocktail, a wonderful raconteur who’s palpably in love with Santa Barbara.
John grew up in the foothills of La Cañada. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life,” he says, “but journalism might have been there all along.” He delivered the L.A. Herald Express as a young kid. “I had seven miles to ride to deliver 50 papers,” he recalls. “That got me in great shape.” He worked for his St. Francis High School’s yearbook and also played football and track. In his senior year, the football team won the 1963 Southern CA 3AAA Division Football championship.
Wanting to get away from home, he applied to UCSB. By his junior year, he was the editor of the Sports Yearbook. As a senior, he edited the La Cumbre Yearbook, which was 512 pages. “It was a 60-hour project,” he remembers. “My grades suffered, but I liked laying out pages as well as writing.”
He majored in anthropology, for it encompassed a lot of things. That, he jibes, prepared him to write about some of the neanderthals in sports. “It’s a joke,” he tells me with a big smile, as his respect for athletes is evident. “I don’t subscribe to it.”
After graduating in 1968, he recalls lounging by the pool like Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate, “but I didn’t have a Mrs. Robinson.” He ran into Don Bernstein, UCSB’s sports information director who told him the News-Press needed someone to cover high school football. John hit it off with sports editor Phil Patton. Within three months, he was covering the Rose Bowl and interviewing O.J. Simpson in his Heisman Trophy year. “It was so cool to be able to interview him,” says John. “That solidified sports journalism as my career.”
American culture was changing during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and John sensed a shift in athletics as well. “I always felt that sports were good for everybody,” he explains, “and I like to cover female athletes as well as male.”
In 1973, John wrote a four-part series about women in sports. The first part argued that women are fully capable of participating in sports. The second explored the discrepancy in funding and opportunities for women. The third part covered the pros and cons of having women on men’s teams. Finally, the fourth part concluded that women might be able to bring a healthy attitude to sports.
Around that time, the high school sports association started sponsoring women’s sports. Today, Santa Barbara schools offer some of the best programs for women’s sports in the country. “I’d like to think I had some part in that,” John says humbly.
He was the sports editor for the News-Press for five years starting in 1991. He put women’s basketball on the front page. By 2000, UCSB women’s basketball was one of the most popular sports in town.
In 1988, the paper’s editor David McCumber decided that someone should walk the entire coastline of Santa Barbara County. “I was in good shape and I was a good writer,” says John, who took the job. “I started in the mouth of the Santa Maria River and walked 110 miles to Rincon. The first day was really rough. It was sparsely populated. I had a photographer with me.” Experiencing that special interface between land and sea, John recalls, “I had a sense of the power as well as the fragility of the ocean.”
Says John about Santa Barbara, “I’ve been here for a long time.” Lucky for us, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
John Zant answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I’ve evolved from valuing a solitary state of happiness — like being in the High Sierra backcountry where I could taste the purest water right out of a stream (circa 1970) — to the harmonious sharing of an experience with other people: a great meal with family and friends; a stirring concert (jazz can really move me); a momentous game, whether in a high school gym or Dodger Stadium.
What is your greatest fear?
That my children and grandchildren could be in a world of diminished livability and increased hostility.
Whom do you most admire and why?
In my first year of sportswriting, I might have said O.J. Simpson, but I’ve long since learned great athletes are not necessarily great people. I can safely say Vin Scully is a most admirable individual, having listened to him reveal his humanity while announcing baseball games from 1958, when he came to L.A., until last year.
As a Catholic, I admired the late Fr. Virgil Cordano, who sought a common spiritual ground for people of all faiths and backgrounds. My father-in-law, Robert Rodriguez, is a 94-year-old high school graduate who used his wits to do business with rocket scientists.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Wine with almost every dinner. Fortunately there is lots of good stuff out there, and only for special occasions do I go over $40 to $50 for a bottle.
What is your current state of mind?
Trying to remain hopeful and optimistic against the flow of nightly news.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Being a good sport. Do your best, accept the outcome, and learn from it. I guess it’s the same as keeping an open mind.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
A sense of entitlement, lack of gratitude for one’s good fortune. If things go against them, you’ll see bad sportsmanship.
What do you most value in friends?
That they like me whether I’m on my game or not, and that we can laugh together.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I’ve realized that I speak very s-l-o-w-l-y.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
My wife recently pointed out that I too often say “should” — like “we should have done this” — which takes me out of the present moment.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Musicality, a way of expressing oneself that transcends language barriers.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
The tendency to procrastinate.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Professionally, I’m proud of two series of stories in the News-Press. In 1973, when the media generally ignored women and girls in sports, I wrote a four-part series that foresaw the increase in their participation and worthiness. In 1988, I walked the 110-mile coastline of Santa Barbara County, filing a next-day story about my experience each of the 10 days I hiked.
Where would you most like to live?
Nothing beats our slice of heaven for year-round wholesome living.
What is your most treasured possession?
My health is a precious gift.
What or who makes you laugh the most?
What: Comics in The New Yorker magazine. Who: Grandkids in toddlerhood.
What is your motto?
Get it right.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Red Smith, the first sportswriter to win a Pulitzer Prize. Not because I’m Pulitzer-worthy, but because I can relate to what he once said about his art: “Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed.”
On what occasion do you lie?
When I’ve squirreled away that last chocolate or slice of pie and say it’s all gone.