I knew from about age seven that I had no future in math or science. My math scores were always subterranean and my reading and English scores were through the roof, so that will give any kid a little bit of confidence from the start.
After starting out as a Washington Post intern after college, Michael Wilbon went on to cover college sports, the NBA and the NFL at the Post before becoming a columnist. He left the Post in 2010 to join ESPN as an NBA analyst, columnist and co-host of Pardon the Interruption.
BORN: November 19, 1958
HOMETOWN: Chicago, Illinois
LIVES: Washington, D.C.
EDUCATION: Northwestern University
I liked reading and writing and putting together the language. And then in Mrs. Richards’ 5th-grade class we were diagramming sentences on the blackboard and I ended up correcting her on a mistake she had made.
From that point on, she always had me come to the board to diagram sentences in front of the class. I knew the language and how to take it apart and put it together at that early age. I remember walking around with the thick grammar book in my big cargo-pants pocket; words were magic to me.
My favorite people in my family growing up were the great storytellers – one was a Baptist preacher, and another was my father, who had not much of a formal education but could still captivate you with riveting stories.
People complicate journalism. But to me, it’s simple; it’s storytelling, that’s all it is. Whether it’s Steven Spielberg telling it, or somebody covering the O.J. Simpson trial, or whether it’s really mundane and somebody is covering a school board meeting that may be really boring, but they keep your attention because you live in that area and should know what happens at the school board meeting. I knew I wanted to do that on some level.
I remember walking around with the thick grammar book in my big cargo-pants pocket; words were magic to me.
It became evident to me pretty early on that the stories that I was meant to tell were those that arose from sports. It could have been something else because my father was a blue-collar worker who had an interest in politics and my mother was an educator, so there was other enriching conversation and debate in our household. But my biggest passion was always sports.
I played everything growing up, back when kids played everything and didn’t spend hours in the car traveling for competition, they just played with friends in the park. If there were 150 days of summer you played 150 days of baseball, that’s what you did, you played every sport in its season, which kids don’t seem to do anymore. It didn’t matter if that person was going to go on and become an NBA All-Star, that didn’t mean that they couldn’t come get whooped in some ping pong or on the pool table. You learned how to compete, and competition was the attraction and then it manifests itself into whatever you were capable of.
I was really good at everything; I was not a great athlete. I was one of those kids who could play everything and got chosen early to play everything because I was a competitor and I wanted to win.
Michael Wilbon at Wimbledon in 1989. (Photo courtesy of Michael Wilbon)
It helped me understand sports because I played everything. And I’m not one of those people who think you had to play everything to know everything, but I do believe that you have to compete. You have to know the feeling of it. You have to know the feeling of what it’s like to lose, what it’s like to miss a putt, what it’s like to strike out to end your little league championship game; what it’s like to hit a grand slam in your little league game; I did both in one game.
We were down 4-0; I hit a grand slam early to tie the game up at 4-4; I came on to pitch and pitched about three scoreless innings, then I gave up the go-ahead run; I had to come up to bat at the bottom of that inning with the chance to be the hero again and struck out.
I was so angry, because I have always had a bad temper when it comes to sports, and I picked my bat up like I was going to throw it, but in the crowd, down the third baseline, I saw my dad shaking his head as if to say, ‘if you throw that bat, you will regret it for the rest of your life.’ And I didn’t throw the bat, but I think you need to know that feeling, what it’s like to be angry and want to curse and hit somebody. I felt the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in one game.
I was fortunate growing up to have another great storyteller in my family, Carole Simpson, who worked for NBC News for years and then switched over to ABC, from which she just recently retired. She was the first African-American woman to anchor a major network newscast, but to me she was just my cousin Carole.
She was incredibly influential to me because when I turned on television I saw a person who not only looked like me, but one that was at Thanksgiving dinner, or Sunday dinner, or I would be in her bedroom with her cat, while she explained to me why I should rewrite a certain lead to my paper. And I had so much respect for her as not only my cousin, but as a professional journalist who became decorated.
For me it was personal, she was my cousin who could help me get a better grade than the other students in the class, but for so many women out there, including Robin Roberts and Condoleezza Rice, Carole is an iconic trailblazer. I actually wrote my first profile on her and I still look to her for approval even now because that’s what you do when somebody paves the way for you like that.
Michael Wilbon with Christine Brennan at the Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Michael Wilbon)
I used to write my papers for school at 8 in the morning between my paper route and going to class. Not because I felt like I had to cram them in or didn’t feel like doing it the night before, but because I liked doing it that way.
I felt like papers were something you wrote out of the love for the topic. I never wrote them out longhand. I sat down in front of a typewriter and composed them. That’s where I learned to write; that’s where I learned to formulate thoughts, and my fingers became an extension of my brain.
By the time I was a junior at St. Ignatius, taking Mr. Wall’s journalism class, I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go to school. And I actually had him write my recommendation to Northwestern, that’s how certain I was.
But I was lucky because I knew what I wanted to do and school became basically vocational for me. I went to Northwestern to get a degree in journalism and that was it. They will hate me for saying this, but I would have probably taken all journalism courses if they had let me. But thankfully Northwestern doesn’t let you shortcut and they only let you take about a dozen or so journalism courses and the rest were general studies because they know that journalists need something to write about. People who are in their 20s and don’t know what they want to do still ask me all the time when I figured it out and I tell them that I am a bad example.
There may have been a time in high school when I was unsure if it would be sports or not because for those of us of a certain age The Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who brought down our president in the Watergate scandal, also were heroes. I would rush home on the train early on in high school to watch the Watergate hearings.
About four years later, I’m applying for internships. I must have applied to about 25 of them, and other newspapers had said yes, but when The Post said yes, I was going there because The Washington Post was the most important paper in the universe in 1979. I had family in the Washington, D.C. area, but that didn’t matter. What mattered were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. And ironically, I ended up at the first internship luncheon with Bob Woodward addressing us.
When I first got to The Post, it was at a time when Robert Redford would be coming by the office to see Bob because he was portraying him in the movie “All the President’s Men” so that was kind of a crazy experience too. I’m friends with Bob now, and I still choke on that sentence.
Michael Wilbon with Tony Kornheiser (hat) and Thomas Boswell (blue sweater). (Photo courtesy of Michael Wilbon)
However, the one thing that remained a constant in my life and our culture is the daily conversation of sports. My son Matthew, for example, knows all the sports better than any of the other kids. Even the older kids like to come to my son to talk about sports; it’s the conversation of his life. It was the conversation of my life, as I sat there and listened to Ali-Liston on the radio with my father. That’s what you did, you sat with your father and you listened to sports, you talked about sports, and the kids who couldn’t talk about it got weeded out and the kids that could continued to talk about it.
So as a freshman at Northwestern I walked into The Daily Northwestern and I said, ‘I want to work for the Daily.’ They said, “What department do you want to write for,” and I said ‘Sports.’ And from that point forward it has always been sports.
It was the conversation of my life, as I sat there and listened to Ali-Liston on the radio with my father. That’s what you did, you sat with your father and you listened to sports, you talked about sports...
Shirley Povich of The Post was the man who myself, along with every other person that I knew who wanted to be a sports journalist, idolized. He and Sam Lacy of the African-American newspapers were the most influential voices of one of the most transient cities in America for nearly three-quarters of a century, and both were unwavering in their stand for racial equality on and off the field. Shirley had the courage to be socially relevant and culturally impacting with his writing, something that today you don’t see much of because too many people are worried about potential repercussions.
After interning at The Post for two summers and then being offered a full-time job upon graduation in 1980, there was no debate about where I was going. With the chance to learn from the likes of Shirley, I would have slept on a sewer grate on L Street if I had to.
But I didn’t have any obstacles to overcome. I was lucky to go to the best high school in Chicago and the best journalism school in the country. I was an intern at the best paper in the country at the time. I worked with the best group of sports journalists in the country: Shirley Povich, John Feinstein, Tony Kornheiser, Dave Kindred. I worked with the best editors like Lenny Shapiro and George Solomon. They all taught me how to do this.
Tony Kornheiser talks about how he met Michael Wilbon on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption."
I finally met Shirley Povich for the first time as a rookie reporter for The Post when we drove together to cover a boxing match. He was such a helpful mentor who not only spoke words of advice, but also showed it with his actions every day. Some of the best advice he ever gave me was that you only have about three paragraphs to grab the reader’s attention; a lot of times it’s only two. And he knew how to do this in his writing, which would appeal to the audience but not pander to them.
From day one, he wanted me [to] treat him as an equal, but I could not help but be in awe of him when he would talk about covering the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney, long-count fight in 1927, or Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson or Sammy Baugh. I once asked him if he had any idea how much that amazed me. He simply said, “It’s only time. In 50 years some young fellow is going to point at you and say, ‘See that old guy over there? He knew Michael Jordan.’ And you’re going to think, ‘What’s the big deal?’” And he was right.
I covered Grant Hill when he was 15 years old, I covered Michael Jordan when he was a freshman in college, and now, as everyone knows, we’re friends. When I was young and a reporter I didn’t have those relationships, but anyone who stays in this profession long enough develops those relationships that sometimes force them to recuse certain assignments or activities after a while. The world is small and you have these situations that arise, but you take yourself out of it.
Michael Wilbon with Grant Hill. (Photo courtesy of Michael Wilbon)
I don’t want to write about Boomer Esiason anymore. I’ve known him since he was the quarterback at Maryland. When I covered him then and as the quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals we had a friendly relationship, but I wouldn’t say we were close friends like we are now. But that’s what usually happens; if you have that kind of relationship with someone long enough it usually becomes a close one. If I talk about Boomer on the show, I say, ‘my friend Boomer Esiason,’ but I don’t write about him anymore.
Now people like Michael Jordan stay in the news so it’s tough. Is it ideal to have these types of relationships with people? No. I have a close relationship with Charles Barkley, who allowed me to contribute to two of his books, taught me a lot. He’s a social commentator who does not pull his punches and has a great way of saying, ‘I know this guy, I like this guy, but this is what I have to say about him.’ It comes across as a device but it’s not just that, it’s the truth and something he has to do. I think people appreciate the honesty.
Members of the media have always had relationships with athletes but the media members weren’t always celebrities like they are now. They didn’t always get the best table at the restaurant nor have people elbowing each other out of the way for their autograph. Television created that.
Members of the media have always had relationships with athletes but the media members weren’t always celebrities like they are now. They didn’t always get the best table at the restaurant nor have people elbowing each other out of the way for their autograph. Television created that. I don’t trust people who say they don’t have any friends, I don’t believe that. There are some (in the media) who try and be tough guys and claim they have no allegiance to anybody. I say, stop, you’re not John Wayne.
So yes I have to declare my baggage and say I am not going to talk about certain things on the show. But forget objectivity; that doesn’t exist. You strive for it but you never get there. What you’re really striving for is fairness. Can I be fair to somebody that I’m close to? I think so. Can I fairly say the Charlotte Bobcats stink? Of course I can. Does it mean I’m not friends with Michael Jordan? No. Might he be mad at me for saying it? Yeah, probably a little bit. But that’s part of being friends and sometimes friends make each other mad.
Michael Wilbon interviews Michael Jordan for ESPN.
I don’t really have any friends currently playing in the NBA now. Coaches, yes, because I grew up with guys like Mo Cheeks and Doc Rivers, but most of the players are too young. But am I objective about Derrick Rose or Dwyane Wade, who grew up in the same place I grew up? No, I’m not. Can I criticize each of them? Yes. Am I predisposed to liking them? Yes.
We all have people that we like more than others and to say we don’t is just a lie. And I think viewers, readers, and listeners see right through that. And I don’t act like I don’t have people that I like. But that doesn’t mean I can’t ask Derrick Rose a tough question in an interview, but I love the guy. It’s not as much of a friendship because of the age difference, but I root for him to succeed.
I was lucky that I never had to cover anyone that I directly grew up with. That would have been really tough. But growing up I watched people like Doc Rivers compete against my brother, and if you don’t think I am going to root for somebody like that, you’re crazy. People recently thought I was a Celtics fan, but no, now I tell them I am a Clippers fan because of Doc Rivers. We golf together and support each other’s charities, and I’m not going to hide any of that. But that doesn’t mean come June I can’t ask him why his team is down in a playoff series or why he blew a timeout.
I had great beats, great promotions. George Solomon was probably the single most important person to my life in the 1980s. He was the hands-on person who kept moving me around. Back then it would frustrate me because he would tell me to go cover colleges and after I did that for a few years and just started to feel comfortable he would then say, ‘Okay now I’m going to move you to the NFL.’ At first I didn’t want to do that. But it was great because a lot of the players I covered in college, like Boomer Esiason, Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, and Dan Marino, were now all playing in the NFL so I had built-in sources. And then he got me off the NFL beat and told me to go cover the NBA. George made me better prepared for this than anybody.
I’ve taken no stock in my career. The only column I can really remember is the last one I wrote for The Post on Dec. 7, 2010. I’m proud of the show and all of the work that was put into it. I’m proud of writing a column for The Post for 20 years. I’m proud of the Society of Professional Journalists award for top sports columnist. I’m proud of being given a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists, my cousin Carole being present – that means we both won one.
I was a recipient of the Eugene Meyer Award, along with Tony Kornheiser and Tom Boswell, at The Washington Post, which is the highest honor the paper bestows (on its own staffers). I’m proud of all of those things and it’s hard to separate them. But there are people that I am in Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Fame with like Garry Marshall and Brent Musburger, who I would be too embarrassed to even admit that I am in the same company with because of the amazing and groundbreaking careers they have had.
The art of storytelling doesn’t ever go away, the platform for telling it may change but the idea doesn’t...
There is a story though that I am proud of because it’s an example of how fulfilling this profession can be. One of the first stories I wrote for The Post was about a kid named Ivan Thompson, who went to Howard University. And he ran like a mad man for the football team, running for more than 150 yards (a game) or something like that. I did a feature on him and I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, and he said, “Yeah, I can’t afford to go to school. I’m a walk-on and I have no food, I have no shelter because the coaches had reneged on a promised scholarship.” And I wrote about him.
So there I am at 21 writing a story that had a social impact and drew attention to the lack of sustenance for athletes at Howard University. So fast forward from 1980 to this fall, I had not seen Ivan Thompson since; I don’t know where he is. I had said to people, ‘Do you know where Ivan Thompson is?’ Nobody knew where he was.
I was at a wedding in Georgetown and there was high security because it was a high-profile wedding. And this guy taps me on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me Mr. Wilbon I am sorry to bother you,” and this guy was running the whole security effort; it was his company. And he says, “My name is Ivan Thompson and I just wanted to say hello.” I was stunned and all I could say was, ‘Oh my god.’
When I talk to young journalists today and we explore how the industry looks nothing like it did when I was entering it, I tell them to remember that the art of storytelling doesn’t ever go away, the platform for telling it may change but the idea doesn’t; it doesn’t matter if it is a 140-character tweet or 1,000-word column.
Michael Wilbon with Muhammad Ali. (Photo courtesy of Michael Wilbon)
Whether it’s shifting from when Shirley Povich was growing up and had to walk each morning to pick up a newspaper for a penny to find out who won the games from the night before because there was NO RADIO – a concept that is still so foreign to me that I’m in shock when I think about it – to my high school days when we used to have to call the sports hotline for score updates. Or from that to the digital age we live in now, you have to be ready to do whatever it is that you do and be ready to tell the story that you are supposed to be telling.
You can tell when someone is a good storyteller right away. Sometimes people talk and it drags on and you start getting distracted with other things. But then when someone gets up there that is a good storyteller, you say to yourself, ‘let me put this stuff down and listen to what this person is saying.’ And that’s all it is, you can complicate it all you want, but it’s not complex. It’s storytelling using whatever the method is of that time.
So at the risk of sounding redundant, my advice is to learn how to be a great storyteller; learn how to use words; learn how to master the language so that you can write. And writing is the key to it all anyway. I write the teleprompter material for the show every day. Now is that like writing a column? No. But that’s why I still write for ESPN.com because I don’t want to lose that.
Highlights of Michael Wilbon's ESPN analysis by ESPN's Front Row.
I don’t know how to shoot anything but if I were coming up today I would have to know how to do that. The people I mentor have to know how to do that, and if I was at Northwestern now I would learn how to shoot and edit and all the other things that everyone knows how to do now.
But for me at this point, I don’t want to change and don’t have to. I still like holding a newspaper and watching television programs when they are actually on TV. And that’s just my prerogative at 55 years old. It’s not like I am opposed to technology, I have TiVo, I have a tablet, I have a smart phone, but I just don’t always give into it. Sometimes while traveling on the plane I find myself asking, ‘I wonder who won that game?’ and it’s usually followed by a response of, ‘you have an iPad to look it up, you idiot.’
But I don’t care how much video you shoot, the video you shoot better help you tell your story quickly. And if there’s drama to be found, you better find it.
But I don’t care how much video you shoot, the video you shoot better help you tell your story quickly. And if there’s drama to be found, you better find it. But what I find is that people are too reliant on other stuff and they can’t write. I get the samples every day from kids and most of them can’t write.
I know I made huge strides between being in college and becoming a professional journalist, but what worries me is that I might have been better in college than most professionals are now. And it’s not because they aren’t intellectual or don’t understand the craft. It’s because all people do today are text their brains out; they don’t talk; they don’t express themselves; they don’t master the language. But those who do will have a jump on everybody else. You can have all the tricks up your sleeve that you want, but the one thing that is transferable is being able to read, write and speak the language.