Miscellany

On Nowness, Barkley and Race in Sports: an Interview with Mike Wilbon of the Washington Post

You know him from the Washington Post, PTI and most recently, his squabble with Peter King. Perhaps you remember him from The Sports Reporters, back when it was the Supreme Court of sports journalism. Now the show has devolved into Judge Joe Brown, but that’s neither here or nor there. Mike Wilbon is among the respected sports journalists in America, and he’s ridiculously wealthy, too. After much cajoling, we finally got him to do an interview with us.

Q: Let’s just get ‘Who’s Now’ out of the way early – Bill Simmons took a swipe at it, Newsweek did too, and now Peter King has done so. In the Chat House, you mentioned it was loose and fun. So is everyone justified in poking fun at it, or is this slamming of ESPN a bit overboard? [For what it's worth, we did something like this 'round NCAA tournament time - an all-encompassing Culture tournament.]

It’s fair to take shots at big institutions, and ESPN qualifies as that easily … I don’t tailor my thoughts to what people think I should do or not. I liked doing “Who’s Now” and would like it even more if I was sitting next to Jessica Biel for the second round! Look, I’m hardly a joke-writer as a columnist. But I like it, usually, when Tony and I veer off into pop-culture land. I didn’t like it nearly as much when PTI started, but our producers, Erik Rydholm and Matt Kelliher, made me see the value in taking a lighter approach at times. Now, I thoroughly enjoy most of it (though never Good Cop/Bad Cop). But I don’t want to hear from sportswriters on this, given the trivial junk we often prize … the fights and debates over players who never mattered and should never be argued about. I think the bracket formula was smart, and the pairings as well. And I’d do it again, regardless of criticism. Everything doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be serious all the time.

Q: You’re buddies with Sir Charles. Should ESPN throw whatever it takes at Barkley to grab him for the ESPN NBA show next year, filling the void left by Dan Patrick?

Wow…great question. I don’t know. It’s not my money. I love Charles and would love the chance to work with him beyond his two book projects, which I’m grateful he asked me to be involved in. My loyalties are to ABC/ESPN on this topic, of course … but I think Charles, Kenny Smith and Ernie (not to mention Magic or Reggie Miller) have the best sports show on television. Even if I can’t catch the game on TNT, if I get in before 1:30 or so, I’m turning the TV on to hear what Charles/Kenny/Ernie/Magic/Reggie have to say. It’s must-see TV for a pro basketball junkie like me. Charles, six or seven years into retirement, is still the biggest star in the NBA. If you don’t think so, just see the reaction to him when he enters a room … I can’t get fined for tampering, so yeah, I’d love to see Chuck with us. But if I was Turner, would I let Charles leave? Hell, no. No. No. That would be insane.

Q: You’re one of the most beloved sportswriters around (the Teflon Sportswriter, up until this ‘Who’s Now’ business), but have you had any memorable athlete/coach run-ins? As a point of reference, TJ Simers told us that he once had an athlete blow their nose on his shirt.

I don’t try to incite athletes; that’s not my job as I see it. I’ve been friends with T.J. for years but we don’t do the same thing. I don’t write jokes (I’m no good at that) and to me there’s a huge difference between criticism and ridicule. I’m not into ridicule, except when someone is truly an ass and has earned it. I don’t call a guy named Jim “Chris” to incite. I haven’t had any infamous run-ins … I’ve had players and coaches/managers get angry and have had confrontational phone calls or behind closed-doors disagreements, but certainly nothing physical. “Get away from my locker” from Donnie Moore once … After criticizing a local athlete or coach, I try to show up the next day at practice or a game. I learned from columnists and old-time ballplayers years ago that the situation is diffused if the angry party doesn’t have to look for you very long, and that it becomes very exaggerated if you don’t show up. It was my father’s philosophy when I was a kid: “Don’t throw the rock and hide your hand.” If a guy can speak his mind the next day or two, it usually ain’t going much further than that.

Q: Right now, which pro sports league has more of a bum rap among the public at-large: the NFL or the NBA? Do you think the public views Pacman, Chris Henry, Jared Allen et al worse than Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson et al?

The NBA is seen by people in the main, black and white, as a “black league” and its players are called all too often (and mostly by white non-fans of the league) “those thugs.” The NFL will never, by anybody, be seen as a black league even though 65 or 70 percent of the players are black. When Pacman made it “rain” in the strip club and acted like an ass during the NBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas, who did it immediately reflect upon? The NBA, of course. People said, “Oh, look at what the thug league has done now” even though it was an NFL player who was involved in the trouble. I didn’t see columnists and commentators calling the NFL a “thug league” last year when Bengals kept getting arrested right and left. They ripped the individual players, but didn’t attach the behavior to the league as is almost always the case with the NBA. So, what’s that about? The NFL is the preeminent form of civic entertainment in America. The product is superior, and it gets almost no criticism, even when deserved. Most of my brethren will criticize the local team, or whether the coach made the proper decision on third-and-three with two minutes left, but not the game, not the sport. You don’t hear anybody say, “The games this week sucked. They were poorly played.” There’s little honest assessment of it, just worship. The NFL has a brilliant construct, and has gathered quite a following of sycophants in the newspaper and television/radio business who believe anything the NFL does is historic and needs to be reported breathlessly … That, I find rather sad. By contrast, it’s open season on the NBA all the time, when it’s deserved and when it, in my opinion, isn’t.

Q: More fun to cover Gilbert Arenas or Clinton Portis? Why? Who is the bigger star in DC?

Gilbert Arenas, and Gilbert Arenas. I was at a restaurant in Georgetown the other night and Clinton Portis came in … people didn’t know who he was. Seriously, people looked at each other and said, “Isn’t that somebody I’m supposed to know?” A few knew Portis. Everybody in town knows Gilbert Arenas. He’s genuine, stylish, handsome, affable and approachable. And he’s an All-Star. He gets it. He has time for everybody (not that Portis doesn’t) and he’s out and about in town. He’s the biggest star in D.C. (not counting the Jordan years) since Joe Theisman and John Riggins in the mid-1980s … D.C. simply doesn’t have many stars.

Q: Did you play any sports growing up in the neighborhood or at the high school level?

Yes, I played everything, from tackle football without pads and helmets in West Chatham Park on the South Side of Chicago, to horseshoes, to table tennis, but especially baseball, hockey (no joked about black people playing hockey, ’cause that’s what brothas do in Detroit and Chicago and St. Louis), tennis, basketball. Everything except golf and soccer. Those were out of bounds. I played baseball as a sophomore and junior at St. Ignatius College Prep (the Jesuits would hurt me if I didn’t use the official name), and tennis as a senior … I was pretty good at almost everything, and great at nothing.

Q: Circulations are shrinking, the Cincinnati Post just folded, and newspapers in general seem to be in trouble. If you were to go back to Northwestern to talk with j-school students, would you advise them to get into newspapers? The online game? Magazines? Start a blog?

You don’t have to pose a question in theory. I just went back two weeks ago to talk to journalism students (well, high school students at The Cherub program … kids who will likely major in journalism) and told them it’s still about being literate, about being able to master the language, about knowing how to tell a story masterfully. If you can do that, it can be applied in any medium. You can’t plan a whole career in the newspaper industry the way I did, the way Kornheiser did … but good writing, detailed reporting and in general great storytelling are never going to go out of style. The skills are transferable in my mind.

Q: Which was a worse NBA pick: Adam Morrison by the Bobcats last year, or Yi Jianlian by the Bucks this year?

Yi … because he’s not going to Milwaukee. Adam Morrison has plenty of time to become a good enough player. Why would Milwaukee, given all the Bucks need, have to take Yi? It’s not like he was John Elway and Baltimore had the first pick in the 1983 draft. Yi isn’t Oden. Why do it? I think it’s crazy.

Q: We’re in agreement that Kim Kardashian is the new … whoever she wants to be. The next time you see Reggie Bush, will you ask about her? We’ve been assured they are dating, but you never know with these athletes …

No, I won’t ask…Okay, please don’t be so nerdy. Don’t ever use the word “dating” with people who have money and/or celebrity … what is this, the Donna Reed show?

Q: The last good book you read – sports and non-sports.

“The Big Bam” by Leigh Montville, the life and times of Babe Ruth … fabulous … and now, I’m just about to start “Pistol,” about the life and times of Pistol Pete Maravich, a biography by Mark Kriegel … I love sports biographies … biographies in general. Katharine Graham’s “Personal History” is fascinating, more so to me than others perhaps because I was fortunate enough to work for her for many years before she passed away. I’m about to start, on vacation, a James Baldwin bio by David Leeming … I don’t have great range when it comes to books … no fiction … only non-fiction and almost exclusively bios.

Q: Best movie you’ve seen this summer?

It’s been a bad summer for movies, so far. “Knocked Up” is the only thing I’ve seen and it had a bunch of laugh-out-loud moments. I liked that a lot … Katherine Heigl is damn nice to look at for two hours. I don’t do horror flicks or car chase stupidity, so I’m waiting for the rest of the summer fare.

Q: Stat boy has rebuffed our advances for an interview. Once he sees this, you think it’ll turn him around? Word around DC is that he’s livin’ large with the Georgetown co-eds. Or maybe it’s ladies of GW.

One of many things I love about Tony Reali is he’s pretty immune to peer pressure, especially stupid peer pressure. I don’t monitor his personal life, but if I was 29 years old, looked like that, and hosted a TV show, I’d run through quite a few colleges … but I don’t know if that matters to him in the least. He’s just one of those people who was raised right, as my parents say … he’s a prince of a person.

Q: You’re hosting a dinner with one sportswriter, one athlete, and one celebrity. Either or all can be living or dead. There may or may not be a visit to the hot tub afterward. Who you got?

I don’t do well on these types of questions because I always have an agenda. I’ve had dinner, fortunately for me, with all the great sportswriters I ever wanted to dine with, most notably Shirley Povich, (for 75 years or so THE COLUMNIST at The Washington Post) and Sam Lacy, Shirley’s contemporary, who lived nearly 100 years and covered the other side of the world, even though he and Shirley lived, allegedly, in the same world. Mr. Lacy worked for the Afro-American, in Baltimore and Washington. So, if I get to pick, I want to have dinner with both of them in an integrated restaurant (so I guess, California) in 1947, the day before Jackie Robinson is to integrate baseball. Athlete: Ali, no question. Celebrity? Never been into it … don’t really care that much. Well, not male celebrities, anyway. Can I get rid of everybody else and just have dinner with Roselyn Sanchez? If you don’t know her, hit google. Okay, if I have to answer seriously, then Ali, Lacy, Povich and Sinatra … that’s a pretty damn good group, right?

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