For Michael Wilbon, a fond farewell to The Post
After more than 31 years with The Washington Post, Michael Wilbon, second from right, moves on to TV work and ESPN full-time. (Photo by Mark Gaier) Network NewsX Profile
By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 12:05 AM
This is the first column I ever dreaded writing, the only time I can recall experiencing that thing known as writer’s block. It’s my last column for The Washington Post, 20-some years after my first one and 311/2 years after I walked in the door as a summer intern. It’s not Shirley Povich’s 75 years but I hung around long enough to think it might last forever.
Sadly and of my own doing, I’ve come to that part in the program where it’s time to say goodbye, where I need to tell readers, editors, colleagues, even some of the people I’ve covered over the years just how enormously grateful I am for their helping me have the greatest adventure imaginable.
I remember thinking in the summer of 1980, after graduating from college and coming back to Washington for a second summer, that it would be a successful career if I got to have a byline from each of the major sporting events once in my life. It never dawned on me I’d wind up covering nine Olympic Games for The Post, or more than 20 Super Bowls, more than 20 Final Fours, more than 20 NBA Finals, or more importantly evolve to the point where the editors of this newspaper would trust me to lead the daily discussion about the news of the day and the changing cultural landscape as it all related to sports.
I never woke up a single day in those 30 years hesitant to go to work, whether I was reporting on something as surprising as Virginia’s top-ranked basketball team losing to Chaminade in Honolulu; as terrifying as Mike Tyson biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear 30 feet in front of me; as historically significant as John Thompson navigating a Georgetown basketball program through the hostility of a sports world not yet comfortable with a black coach; as locally galvanizing as the Redskins winning a Super Bowl; as personally rewarding as being front and center to see David Robinson and Grant Hill and Byron Leftwich grow from boys to men; as selfless as Gary Williams leaving a perfectly good basketball program at Ohio State to come and save his alma mater; or as tragic as the death of young Len Bias.
There’s no “favorite” or “best” interview, no “greatest” game because there were simply too many, thousands of each, over the years. But there is a favorite moment: Aboriginal hero Cathy Freeman winning track and field gold in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, leaving me to write through tears the only time in my career.
There is a favorite athlete: Michael Jordan, because he had and continues to have the greatest impact on the culture of sports since Ali and because, as Scott Turow wrote, “Michael Jordan played basketball better than anyone else in the world does anything else.”
There is a biggest influence outside the profession: Coach John Thompson, whose 2 a.m. return phone calls would often begin with, “You want to sleep or you want a scoop?” and evolve into 90-minute conversations that usually had nothing to do with the Hoyas but everything to do with what was right or wrong with the world.
And most definitely there was and is a most important story in my career: the death of Bias, a young man with godly physical talents who was so much more than a headline to me because I covered just about every game he played his first two years at the University of Maryland. My friend Jay Bilas observed a few years ago that those of us of a certain age mark time with Bias’s death the way the generation older than us does with the death of John F. Kennedy - and Bilas wasn’t exaggerating.
The vast majority of my time at The Post has been anything but sad. I arrived at the paper close enough to the end of Watergate that Robert Redford was still occasionally popping into the newsroom to visit Bob Woodward, the man he portrayed in “All The President’s Men.” As difficult as it is for me to accept the notion that I became a colleague of the world’s best reporter, it’s nothing compared with the complete awe, even 30 years later, I still feel whenever I’m in the company of Ben Bradlee, even if it’s just seeing him in the elevator.
Everything I have now professionally I owe to The Washington Post, specifically to George Solomon, my sports editor of a quarter century, for taking a chance on a 20-year-old kid, to Don Graham and Len Downie for allowing me the freedom to go anywhere and write about anything and anybody, especially for giving me the green light to do television at a time when TV and the Internet had newspapers pinned on the ropes while landing one haymaker after another.
I can only hope, as I leave for my own personal gain with a full-time career with ESPN, that the men who shepherded my career don’t regret granting all those opportunities over the years. So many of us used The Post sports department as a launching pad to fame and (in some cases) fortune. Long before ESPN unleashed “Pardon the Interruption” on the world, Tony Kornheiser and I did pretty much the same thing on the fifth floor of the newsroom.
We also owe - let me speak for myself: I certainly owe - the people who indulged us over the years: our readers. No big city daily newspaper in America has an audience as educated, as diverse and as literate as The Post. And for those of us who care less about who was moving from guard to tackle and more about the significant issues of the day, whether it pertained to eligibility or race or performance enhancing drugs, it opened up grand possibilities for assignments, for pursuing fascinating stories that appealed to the widest audiences. Few newspapers had the means or the interest in sending a young columnist to Shoal Creek, Alabama, for several days to write about the difference between an exclusive country club and the local municipal track where the descendants of slaves and slave owners found themselves, willingly, to play in the same foursome.
I don’t recall ever being told “no” if I wanted to write about something, even when it had little to do with sports. Probably my favorite enterprise assignment, one I viewed skeptically in the beginning, was going with Dave Sheinin to Los Angeles during the riots in the aftermath of the Rodney King drama in 1992 to try to find out whether there was any correlation between the decrease in funding for community programs related to sports and recreation and the increase in gang-related activity in the city.
Oh, yes there was a correlation. Kids who wanted to be running backs, center fielders, sweepers and shooting guards had become, largely through civic neglect, gang leaders. There was nothing quite like being invited one night to the Hollywood Hills home of the one and only Jim Brown to join members of the Crips and Bloods who had accepted his invitation to stop the violence for at least one night to talk about their differences.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved covering some of the greatest events of the end of the 20th century, like the game where Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s streak for consecutive games played. But the stories like the one in Los Angeles were the ones that separated The Washington Post from 99 percent of daily newspapers, and those issues were the ones that began to reshape the discussion of sports in America, the ones that led people to look to columnists essentially as discussion leaders. The complex stories, the ones that made people examine their own values and beliefs, were so far removed from box scores and game analysis, but they now drive viewership and readership.
George Solomon, Len Shapiro and Sandy Bailey were the most influential editors in my life and could see so much of this coming. That they allowed me to be the junior member of a columnist lineup featuring Tom Boswell, Andy Beyer and Tony Kornheiser starting in 1990 was beyond my dreams. My very first “audition” column came before that in 1988 and was about Jimmy “The Greek” and some controversial remarks he’d made after lunch in downtown D.C. (at Duke Zeibert’s for those of you of a certain age) that got him fired and truly kicked off the discussion of language, stereotypes and race in sports. Sally Jenkins, Tracee Hamilton, Mike Wise and Boswell will write, as they always do, with such passion and insight and grace that many of you might not have noticed for months I was gone. Still, knowing that I’ll no longer have those kinds of discussions in this newspaper, from the frivolous to the serious, will be far more traumatic to me, I suspect, than to you.
The past 20 years, I’ve had the best job in America. My only regrets are that my father, who taught me the art of making a good case from the time I was 7 or 8 years old, died just before I became a columnist, and that my son Matthew, 21/2 years old, will never truly know what his old man did for a living most of his adult life. Everything else - all 30 years of it, thank you - was candy sweet.