Today’s interview is with Sports Illustrated‘s Grant Wahl, who covers soccer and college basketball for the magazine. He’s got a book out that you may have heard of: The Beckham Experiment. Wahl’s also the guy who wrote the first SI cover story on Lebron James (where we first bumped into Wahl, in 2002) and he penned the memorable Redick-Morrison SI cover story. He talks soccer, college hoops, and journalism after the jump.
Q: We’re always up for a history lesson. How’d you get involved in journalism? How’d you land at SI?
A: I guess I was dumb enough in high school to tell my friends that I wanted to write for Sports Illustrated someday. And specifically naming the magazine maybe wasn’t the smartest thing. I got laughed at quite a bit. And I figured that if I were lucky enough to have that happen, it would happen in my 40s after working at a newspaper – that’s the track people took then.
But I got a shot to start out at the bottom of SI as a fact checker out of college in 1996. It worked out. It’s been a great place to do work over the years, and I’ve really enjoyed covering college basketball and soccer. It’s not a coincidence that those two sports are the most followed in the world. I generally cover soccer in the summers … and then college hoops in the fall and winter and spring. I can’t think of a more fun thing to be doing.
Q: When we spoke in LA in November at the MLS Championship game, you had mentioned that you were taking a leave of absence to go to South Africa for awhile to write The Beckham Experiment. With the journalism job market in a bad place, did you worry about job security?
A: There’s a lot of really, really good people in the media who have lost their jobs. People would be lying if they said they weren’t concerned with the economy and the impact it might have. There are good people at SI who have lost their jobs or had their pay cut.
I had a little bit of concern taking a 6-month leave of absence at that time to go to South Africa and be with my wife who was working there for a year as a doctor. I was just going to sit down and write the Beckham book – which I was excited about – but I was a bit worried people might think I had been laid off just because the layoffs had happened right at the time I took my leave of absence. Maybe I should have written a column about what was going on because I kind of disappeared for awhile into my cave in South Africa when I wrote the book.
Q: Beckham’s had an accomplished soccer career, he’s a worldwide brand … how much of that has been damaged in his two seasons in the MLS?
A: What’s strange is that if you watched him at AC Milan or coming on as a sub for England recently, he can still play at the highest level and be effective. So the question I have is how come he wasn’t showing that during the last half of the 2008 with the Galaxy?
I watched all of those games and was subjected to some really terrible soccer, including by Beckham. Over the years, everyone I’ve always talked to has said this guy works 100% every single day, in training and in games. He was great in the first half of the 2008 MLS season. But in the last half he wasn’t going at 100% anymore. And it wasn’t just me noticing that, it was his teammates on the Galaxy, like Landon Donovan. [Beckham] was always the last to arrive and the first to leave – it hadn’t been that way. It wasn’t like that before.
Q: What specifically happened caused the change?
The Galaxy went three months without a win starting in mid-June of last season. They went from first place to last place and Beckham had never experienced that kind of losing in his career. He had never gone more than five games without a win with Man U or Real Madrid. Here he is going on a 12-game winless streak in a much lower league.
Also his handlers had essentially taken over the Galaxy in the 2007 season. Beckham’s best friend and person manager Terry Byrne was made a paid consultant by the Galaxy and he conducted the search for the coach. That’s a pretty tremendous conflict of interest and it cause the Galaxy’s management to become a fiasco. Alexi Lalas, the GM, is supposed to be hiring and firing coaches. It got crazy.
Then Byrne were dropped by the Galaxy, and I think Beckham cared about that. Landon Donovan thought the same thing, and that Beckham flipped a switch and said, ‘I’m not doing it anymore.’
Q: So far, two years in, would you say Beckham has been a good or bad thing for the MLS?
A: In some ways he has been good for MLS. When you look at the Beckham experiment as a whole, it has been very successful from a business perspective. Beckham’s made a lot of money, the Galaxy has, MLS has, a ton of jerseys – over 300,000 – have been sold, and more people around the world know of the MLS now because they signed the most famous athlete in the world.
But at some point, it has to be about the product on the field and whether you win or not. And as much as Beckham’s handlers try to control everything about that guy, you can’t control sports. You have to earn your credible on the field. And the Galaxy has been terrible in both seasons in he’s been there. They missed the playoffs both times.
Q: Landon Donovan’s had an interesting couple of months – between his play on the field and his strong quotes in your book, do you think it’s fair to say he’s shaken the derisive moniker, ‘Landycakes?’
A: Donovan has been been some perceptions of people inside and outside of the US over the past few months. A lot of people were impressed by how he performed on the field in Confederations Cup. He was probably the US’s best player – maybe with Dempsey, as well – and people saw a Donovan who was willing to use his speed and take on defenders. To play like a man. He had done that on occasion in the past, but not all the time. And even he’d admit that.
People have different viewpoints on what he said for the book – is this a ballsier Landon, should he have done this .. and I think reasonable people can disagree and have a good argument about that. But I don’t think you can argue he’s shown a lot of nerve. I guess some cojones … maybe people didn’t realize Landon Donovan had.
Q: We first met briefly about seven years ago when Lebron was in high school and you were writing his cover story for SI. We’ll never forget how a crush of media was waiting for LeBron to emerge from the locker room after the game, and you snuck in, angering everyone. Remember that?
A: [Laughs] I remember getting screamed at by Dru Joyce, his high school coach, when I got into the locker room that day. Since I had been following Lebron all week, I thought it would be OK. Turned out that it wasn’t. He apologized to me later on and said he did it because the other media was there and he didn’t want to show preferential treatment.
That was one of my favorite stories I’ve ever done. Lebron was just starting to really blow up – he had that game the previous summer where he beat Lenny Cooke – we need to do a where are they now on Lenny Cooke! – and I parachuted into Akron in January of 02. I didn’t give Lebron a lot of advance warning – unfortunately, that’s the way some things work at SI.
He was kind of being difficult with me at first. I was in the locker room and i said, ‘can we go over and chat for a second, just the two of us? I’m sorry I came in here all of a sudden … but this has a chance to be a cover story. At SI.’ Keep in mind, he’s a junior in high school! I just said ‘you can help me out here and we can make this a cool story – it can be a really cool thing.’
For whatever reason, he listened, and suddenly invited me in to his world. I remember visiting his apartment – this crappy apartment in West Akron. And there was a Washington Wizards game that night in Cleveland. Somehow, I persuaded [LeBron and his friends] to all pile in my rental car and go to the game.
It was a really cool experience – Lebron was still really young. He brought his big book of CDs with him into the car and I remember him texting with Sebatsian Telfair. We went to the McDonald’s drive-through, we went to Applebee’s after the game, and as fate would have it … Jordan hit a last-second game winner. Lebron was celebrating – his guy, Jordan, had won.
After the game, Uncle Wes – William Wesley, connector to the stars – brings Jordan out to talk to a junior in high school. It was a very cool scene of them exchanging small talk. Jordan was already working for Nike to get Lebron on with Nike … it felt like the picture of Bill Clinton with JFK when Clinton was really young. It was so cool to see Lebron excited on the drive back to Akron that night.
We caught a lot of hell for putting that story on the cover. ‘You’re ruining his life, he’s only a junior in high school, he will never pan out’ … and it worked. I remember the cover line, ‘The Chosen One‘ – which has been made fun of for being so commonly used. But Greg Kelly, an editor at SI, came up with the cover line. and I guess Lebron liked it – he has a tattoo of it now.
Q: One other memorable SI piece you’ve done was the Morrison and Redick feature. Who’d you think would be the bigger deal? Are you surprised by how their NBA careers have gone? Do you see either of them turning it around?
A: [Laughs] I still think no matter what happened to those guys in the NBA, it was a great college basketball story. For two guys from visible program to be scoring so much and winning so much in that year … it built to a critical mass when they were on the SI cover.
I’m not an NBA expert and I’m terrible at knowing which college stars would go on to be good in the NBA, but … i knew at the time Morrison couldn’t defend. And Redick, sort of, too. But I’m a little surprised they haven’t been a little better in the NBA.
I still catch hell for using the RedMo device in that story. I think Bill Simmons gave it to me recently. I probably deserve it. The fact was, at the time … those two were so much fun to watch.
Q: Speaking of Simmons, he recently said something on a podcast to the effect of: ‘I’m surprised athletes even talk to the media now,’ a nod to twitter and personal websites. What’s your take on that?
A: I think we may be heading in that direction. But there are very few athletes who don’t need the media in some way at some point. In the two sports I cover, you’re not going to run into that very much. Guys in college basketball are excited when a guy from SI shows up wanting to write a story about them. They aren’t jaded about the media – in most cases.
In soccer, you have international stars who will give SI more access than any European media because they want to get bigger here. They feel like if they’ve made it in the states, they’ve truly made it as a soccer player.
Q: One last one about college basketball – your main man Jon Scheyer and Duke … can the Blue Devils get back to being a Final 4-caliber team? Between the one-and-done struggles, Coach K’s investment in USA basketball, and Duke players not always translating in the pros … how much of an uphill climb are the Blue Devils looking at?
A: I don’t think they’ve made the Final Four since 2004, and I think Duke’s last title was in 2001. So clearly, Duke’s under-performed in the last several NCAA tournaments. I think Roy Williams’ arrival next door has had a huge impact. He’s such a crazy-good recruiter and he’s won two titles in the last few years … you look at the records head to head … i think it’s a real challenge for Coach K. He put so much into USA basketball and really showed the US could win a major international tournament again … but I think it may be even a more difficult challenge to get Duke back to the Final Four and competing for a national title.
Q: Favorite comedian: Chris Rock was great when I saw him in Baltimore last year.
Q: Will Portugal make the 2010 World Cup. No. Which is a total bummer by the way.
Q: Three athletes, dead or alive to invite to dinner. Who are they? Bill Walton – I’ve had a few dinners with him in the past, and that’s why I’d invite him again; good story about that – Walton had some media people over during the NCAA one year in San Diego … he had a 14-foot high tepee in his backyard, and he had a classical pianist come and play for us before dinner. It was wild. Really cool. Other athletes: Pele and … let’s throw Maradona in. Getting those two at the same table would be a hoot. They have kind of a checkered past.
Q: Thing you like least about the internet. Anonymity.
Q: Three favorite sports to watch/cover. The two sports that I love and follow are the ones that I cover. I don’t really follow many other sports at this point. I’m kind of bummed. I’m much less of a general fan than I used to be. But I do love the two sports that I cover. The World Cup and the Final 4 – the NCAA tournament in general – are the two best sporting events in the world.