01/14/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
Dick Schaap's last weeks were nothing like his vibrant life. The celebrated sportscaster checked into Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital Sept. 19 for what he thought would be routine hip replacement surgery. But acute respiratory distress syndrome, a rare complication of surgery, caused his lungs to fail, and the normally garrulous Schaap, 67, lay still and silent in intensive care for 13 weeks before he died on Dec. 21. "It's unbelievable," says his son Jeremy, 32, a fellow ESPN sportscaster. "He was perfectly healthy when he walked in, other than a sore hip. He couldn't have been busier." (Lenox Hill declined to comment.)
Known for his quick wit and graceful writing style, Schaap will be most remembered for the passion he brought to his work. Born in Brooklyn, he was a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune before branching out to television in 1971 to report for NBC and later ABC. His poignant, intimate stories, such as one on AIDS-stricken decathlete Tom Waddell, were landmark features, and he would go on to win six Emmys. But Schaap also took on politics and pop culture, writing more than 30 books, including the seminal 1968 sports confessional Instant Replay with Green Bay Packer Jerry Kramer. "He was the smartest, funniest, quickest guy in the room," says Mike Lupica, his friendly sparring partner for the last 12 years on ESPN's The Sports Reporters. "You couldn't top him."
Yet the outgoing Schaap, who was married three times and fathered six children, took as much pride in his legion of friends as in his work. In his last days-, though, only flashes of his lively, generous spirit remained. When Lupica came by the hospital, Schaap, by then unable to speak, slowly lifted his IV-strapped hand. "He gave me the finger," says Lupica with a laugh. "It was like he was saying, I'm not in great shape, but I'm still me. It was pure Schaap."