In his last story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, beloved University of Duquesne fan and sportswriter Phil Axelrod wrote about the victory the Duquesne Dukes basketball team had over Abilene Christian. The game was a predictable one. The Dukes, the team with the greater competitive advantage, were sports analysts’ favorite to win, but Abilene had poked holes in the defense throughout the game.
The story, published in 2013, has all the reverence and excitement that Axelrod has been known to give to stories, that only a true journalist and fan of the beat and industry he covered — sports — could deliver. Axelrod captured the angst and frustration of a team that struggled through the game. When readers read his work, they became part of the story and saw the game as if they were watching it again.
That passion and empathetic nature is one of the things that will be missed the most, said those close to Axelrod, who succumbed to lung cancer at his home on July 21, eight months after he was initially diagnosed with the disease. He was 67.
His knowledge and love for sports was expansive, and his writing continuously paid homage to all sports, both locally and professionally, as well as popular and unpopular.
“Phil was a guy with real passions — for his family, his newspaper, his community and for sports of all sorts. He could write about basketball and bowling in the same week,” David Shribman, executive editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said. “He knew all sorts of sports arcana. He was a big Duquesne guy from a big Pitt family. He defied every stereotype and was just essentially Phil.”
For 37 years, Axelrod found a home in the Post-Gazette’s sports department, where he used words to capture the beauty of sports. He wrote stories and profile pieces on anything related to sports, from a memoriam profile on Chuck Copper, who broke racial barriers by being an African-American drafted into the NBA, to a piece published in 2003 about the recruiting habits of the University of Pittsburgh’s then newly hired coach, Jamie Dixon. Axelrod left the paper in 2008.
Everyone called him Axe and marveled (and joked) that he still typed stories with two fingers to get his stories to the public. But, if there was one thing Axelrod loved more than sports, it was his family.
“Phil was the best father in the universe. He coached Josh in soccer for 10 years. We never used a carriage when Josh was a baby because Phil carried him everywhere,” said Axelrod’s widow, Sharon Eberson, the theater and online features editor for the Post-Gazette. “He loved his life in Squirrel Hill, being among familiar faces and places; it gave him great pleasure that his son attended Allderdice, as he did. For him, there was truly no place like home.”
Eberson said Axelrod was already working at the Post-Gazette when she was hired in 1980 as the first woman to join the sports desk. The pair married in 1986. Their son Josh, 22, followed both of his parents into journalism and recently accepted a position at Gannett Digital.
Last year, when the University of Kentucky traveled to Pittsburgh to play against Robert Morris University, Axelrod and his son went to the game. After the game, they met with John Calipari and Josh was amazed that Calipari — head coach of the winningest NCAA Division I basketball team in history — greeted his father like he had reconnected with a long lost friend.
“That was a ‘cool dad’ moment,” Eberson recalled.
Axelrod was born in Pittsburgh and attended Taylor Allderdice High School and Duquesne University. Writing and sports were his life, but his family and faith were the foundation. Axelrod was deeply invested in the activities of the Jewish Community Center and attended Temple Sinai.
In the eulogy that he prepared for Axelrod, Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai, who played basketball at the JCC under Axelrod’s direction, urged funeral goers to stand up for principles as Axelrod did. Axelrod, who was a known debater, would argue his point and would expect others to do the same.
“We must stand up for our principles the way we know that Phil would if he were here right now,” Gibson told the congregation at the July 23 funeral.