June 4, 2006
By Jim Washington
The Virginian-Pilot

Mike D'Orso opened the front door and invited folks into his obsession.

The author walked visitors through his Colonial Place home, under arched doorways, into an expansive sunroom that overlooks a Japanese garden out back and onto a wrap-around deck with an outdoor fire pit and conversation pit. D'Orso planned out every corner, chose every fixture, material and piece of furniture, and he can tell a story about each one. He bought the house more than a dozen years ago and only recently got it the way he wants it.

The house is just one of his obsessions, actually. It has become a testament to his relentless drive, an attitude that has taken him to the top of the best-seller lists.

His latest book is "Eagle Blue: A Team, A Tribe, And a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska." D'Orso is scheduled to discuss the book June 16 at 7 p.m. at Broad Street Books in Ghent.

He got to know the people of Fort Yukon, Alaska, intimately, like he knows the folks in all his books, because he climbs inside them and lives in their skin for months at a time.

That's what he does.

Over the course of 15 nonfiction books, D'Orso has laid bare politicians, professional athletes, civil rights pioneers, school principals and sports agents. He has filled readers' lungs with crackling Alaskan air, showed them around a sweltering South American brothel and taken them down dusty roads in the depths of the South.

His writing has made him millions of dollars, taken him all over the world and, to hear him tell it, provided a higher purpose in life.

"This really is my religion," he said.

The author read a few chapters of "Eagle Blue" at Prince Books & Coffeehouse downtown on a chilly March evening. He had just returned from a national book tour, and this was his first hometown reading. Before he read, D'Orso invited everyone over to his house for drinks.

"I like to bring people together who don't know each other," he said later. "I do what I do because I'm fascinated with people, and that doesn't stop with the books."

He stood at a lectern encircled by some of his favorite things - friends, fans and books. He was in his element, telling stories.

Sarah Pishko owns Prince Books and has long been a fan of D'Orso's. She has invited him to read there several times.

" His writing is very forthright, and his words are very precise," Pishko said. "He's very attentive to getting the facts and feeling right. He's a hard worker."

D'Orso read in the store's coffee shop, flanked by bottles of wine, posters for community activities and tall, arched windows reflecting downtown buildings. About 50 people crowded around small tables, some sipping coffee. He spoke over the hum of the shop's coolers.

D'Orso, 52, is lean, tall and tan, mostly bald with a stubble of white hair and beard. He wears round glasses, and on that night a two-tone black and gray sweater and jeans. His deep voice emphasized the rhythm in his writing.

In 1992, as a feature writer for The Virginian-Pilot, D'Orso shadowed the Booker T. Washington High School basketball team through an entire season, which ended with a tournament trip to Alaska. That experience - and a later magazine piece about an Alaskan basketball star - inspired "Eagle Blue."

"It's such a unique place, it struck a chord with me . I approach stories with an everyman view. If something interests me, it usually will interest a reader."

More than a book about basketball, "Eagle Blue" addresses issues of race, poverty, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, education and the environment.

In April 2004 , D'Orso traveled to Fort Yukon for a short scouting mission. Coach Dave Bridges, the players and elders of the Gwich'in Native American tribe gave him permission to tell their story.

He returned in October of that year and stayed for six months.

He stayed in a rented cabin, bundling up each morning to spend the day among the people in the village - and not just the basketball team. He tried to experience every facet of the tribe's life.

"I just dig in and be there . I'm like a photographer. I hang around long enough until people don't notice me, and that's when I get my photo."

D'Orso accompanied Bridges and his undersized, outmanned team as they took on the expectations of the village (Fort Yukon has a history of basketball success) as well as better-funded opponents from bigger cities around the state. He writes about the team sleeping in classrooms, eating fast food if they're lucky and wearing frayed uniforms passed down for years.

D'Orso describes each Fort Yukon basketball game, complete with coach comments, game action and crowd reactions. He re-creates the games in breathless detail, without the aid of a tape recorder or even scorer's sheets, just his own scribbled notes.

"When I get ready to go into those things I'm like a ballplayer . I'm on my game. You're paying attention to the sights, sounds - you're really on."

Here's how he writes about one game against a team from Nikolaevsk, a village of Russian immigrants. The team includes a 6-foot- 5, 300-pound player named Anecta.

Four minutes in, the score is 12-4, Fort Yukon, and Nikolaevsk calls timeout. The crowd is subdued, almost silent.
Anecta checks in, and the tide and the tone immediately turn. He looms in the key like a sequoia, forcing Fort Yukon to alter their shots.
… He has a surprisingly delicate shot off the glass, he sets a pick like a mountain, and he's a nimble passer, dropping the ball on the mark to his cutting teammates.

The quarter ends 14-12, Nikolaevsk. A 10-0 run since the big man came in.

D'Orso spent so much time on the bench that refs mistook him for an assistant coach. He was there for every game, every practice even. It was the only way, he felt, to tell the story.

"They had to trust me . As a writer you're waiting for those magic moments, but first you have to sit through a lot of times when nothing happens."

He returned to Norfolk in March 2005 under pressure to finish the book by August. His publisher wanted it released during basketball season this year.

"The good thing about this book is I had a lot of time in that cabin to come back and work on it every night."

Earlier this year, D'Orso returned to Alaska to watch the end of the current Fort Yukon season and see how people in the village reacted to having their lives played out on a national stage. "Eagle Blue" has garnered national praise, and D'Orso is working on a movie treatment.

"They love the book because it's warts and all," he said. "Some of the warts weren't too happy. I never knew if someone was going to hug me or pull a knife."

The group in the book shop sat enraptured, laughing, listening and sighing as D'Orso talked. A woman asked a question about something he had already covered.

"Were you asleep, or just not paying attention?" the author asked.

A week after the reading, D'Orso sat in an office at his house in Colonial Place, wearing his usual uniform of a T-shirt and jeans. The room overlooks the Lafayette River on three sides. It's where he writes, starting as early as 5 a.m. , and often gets his best ideas.

A large cardboard box sat on the office floor, crammed with folders full of notes from "Eagle Blue." There are folders for various people in the village, players, game statistics, environmental issues and more, all tagged with yellow sticky notes. Stories circulate that D'Orso is so maniacally organized he makes lists of his lists.

"People who do what we do have to be determined, even obsessive," he said. "It's all about organization and structure. I'm not the smartest guy on the block, but you're not going to outwork me."

"Eagle Blue" was typical of the way D'Orso works - patient, spending as much time as it takes to get what he needs and being brutally honest with his subjects about what he's doing. He calls it "climbing inside" them.

"This is a sacred relationship . I'm asking them to bare themselves, then I'm going to lay them bare on the page. It's a huge responsibility."

He uses the word "sacred" with some thought.

"I've spent my life looking for something to believe in. My work is the closest thing to religion in my life."

D'Orso was born in Portsmouth into a Navy family. Like most military families they moved around a lot, and D'Orso had to work hard to make friends in each new place.

"Growing up I was always an outsider, an observer . I was dying to know what makes people tick.''

He played sports, for one because it was an easy way to meet people. To this day he throws himself passionately into each game he tries, from baseball to duckpin bowling to golf.

His first writing experience came at his high school newspaper. He attended The College of William and Mary, where he studied Eastern philosophy and covered freshman football for the school paper. After graduating in 1975, he moved around the country doing ''his Kerouac thing," as he called it. He returned for graduate school at William and Mary, taught school and just for fun wrote about sports for a weekly paper in Virginia Beach.

"I never thought about being a writer . It was a hobby."

He got married and had a daughter, Jamie. He wrote a column for a small newspaper in Williamsburg and then became a full-time writer for a statewide magazine. He called that job - getting paid to talk to people and tell their stories - "four years of heaven."

In 1984 an editor from The Virginian-Pilot called with an offer to write features for the newspaper. It was more heaven to D'Orso, more stories to tell.

His work for The Pilot earned numerous awards, and selected stories have been published in two collections. He wrote about rock stars and super models as well as the local greasy spoon cook, a teen stock car racer, a Marine sniper and a man who saw angels. Lamar Graham, now general manager of Parade magazine, worked with D'Orso at The Pilot in the late '80s.

"He's an impeccable reporter," Graham said. "He's able to observe an incredible level of detail that gives texture to his writing. He understands people."

In 1986 D'Orso wrote a story about a Portsmouth woman's search for her slave ancestors. After the story ran the phone rang with an offer from a literary editor who thought it would make an interesting book. The editor was Jackie Onassis. On top of his surprise at hearing from a famous editor, D'Orso had doubts about writing a book.

"I didn't know how. I made up my own ground rules."

The book, called "Somerset Homecoming," came out in 1988. D'Orso took time away from his newspaper duties to write it but still used his desk at the Pilot.

Graham remembers D'Orso typing away as the chaos of the newsroom charged on around him.

"He wrote that book sitting at his desk in the features department," Graham said. "He was able to summon amazing powers of concentration."

After the book came out, Onassis introduced D'Orso to New York literary agent David Black. They became friends and have worked together ever since.

"The man can flat-out write," Black said. "He's the only client about which I've said, immediately, 'If you wanted to write books full time, we'll find a way to make it work.' "

While D'Orso's professional life clicked along, his personal life was in turmoil. He went through a divorce and moved out of his house in Larchmont into a small apartment in Colonial Place.

Every day he strolled along the water, admiring the houses. One place in particular caught his eye, a dark and funky two-story Tudor with odd angles.

"Maybe someday," he mused.

His third book, co-written with pro football player Dennis Byrd, bought that house.

Byrd, a New York Jets defensive end, was paralyzed in an on-field accident in 1992. Doctors said he would lose the use of his legs, but months later Byrd walked into a press conference to announce his remarkable recovery. Plenty of big-time writers wanted to tell Byrd's story. D'Orso met with the hulking football player, both dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and they hit it off. Negotiations began. While D'Orso sat in his apartment getting updates from his agent, the book advance soared into the stratosphere.

The day after the deal came in north of a million dollars, a "For Sale By Owner" sign sprouted in the lawn of that Tudor house on the water. D'Orso began the process of buying the house, then moved in with Byrd in Oklahoma for several weeks. He came back and cranked out the book "Rise and Walk" on an unholy deadline.

D'Orso left The Pilot to pursue writing books full time in 1993, the year that book came out. He wrote a book about the 1923 destruction of the black community of Rosewood, Fla., and its aftermath. That story was turned into a movie after D'Orso wrote his book, but he was only tangentially involved. He has worked with a long list of celebrities and is in such demand as a collaborator he regularly turns down opportunities. For a variety of reasons he passed on writing books with former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, former Vice President Dan Quayle and rapper P. Diddy.

"I would say that Mike gets it," Black said. "He sees the big picture. He knows how to use a person's story to make a larger point."

In 1998 Black asked D'Orso to meet with a professional bodybuilder who wanted to publish his health and weight-loss program. D'Orso was reluctant, but the agent talked him into it.

That book, "Body for Life," was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller and has sold more than 5 million copies, D'Orso said. Even the bodybuilder had a story to tell.

If "Rise and Walk" bought D'Orso's house, "Body for Life" and other books made it a showplace. Over the years D'Orso has reworked the house exhaustively. He expanded the kitchen and added a sunroom, two decks and the outdoor fire pit. He did extensive landscaping, with some encouragement from Hurricane Isabel. The backyard is now a sprawling Japanese garden, with tumbling water, ponds and stone footpaths.

"It all comes together to create an organic whole," he said.

While the attention to detail in the house is classic D'Orso, the home itself is an uncommon extravagance, friends say. This is a man who for years drove a succession of junkers - even now he owns a modest hybrid - and was known to sneak food into movie theaters.

Then again, he might spot a homeless person on the street and hand him $50. Last month, when he heard the current seniors at Fort Yukon were having trouble raising money for their senior trip, he wrote a check to cover the tab. D'Orso's success has given him the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wants. What he wants is to keep telling stories.

"This is my life . The world is a messy place. I've been blessed to have that mess handed to me to fix, to make sense of."

That night in March, after the book reading, dozens of people took D'Orso up on his offer and dropped by the house. They flowed through the rooms, admiring the artwork, enjoying the jukebox packed with classic and indie rock and bunching around the bar. The author stood among swirling eddies of friends and strangers, playing host, mixing drinks, answering questions and telling more stories.

A common query - what's next? Of course he already has plans for another book. There are a lot of people out there he's never met.