Wilbon on why he still writes: It’s who I am; does columns for ESPNChicago.com

Part 3 of my Q/A with Michael Wilbon:

Michael Wilbon was at Soldier Field to write a column off the Bears-Houston game last Sunday. And he plans to be at San Francisco to do the same drill for the Bears-49ers game Monday.


I am not alone in asking this question. Wilbon already has a packed schedule with two shows at ESPN: Pardon The Interruption and NBA Countdown. And he has various other duties, projects and speaking engagements that keep him plenty busy.

Wilbon earns crazy money, as in excess of seven figures annually. He isn’t grinding out 80 or so columns per year for the money. Knock a couple zeros off of Wilbon’s contract, and that’s what a sportswriter earns.

And Wilbon isn’t even writing for ESPN’s biggest online platform. Most of his columns run at ESPNChicago.com. Hence, his coverage of Chicago sports.

Yet there Wilbon is, trolling the press boxes of his hometown teams. Going down to the lockerroom; checking sources. It can be hard and difficult. Grunt work, for lack of a better term.

Why wasn’t he relaxing at home Sunday night instead of catching a post-midnight ride in the rain outside of Soldier Field?

The answer, Wilbon says, is simple. Even though he has gained fame and considerable fortune on TV, the former Washington Post columnist says, once a writer, always a writer.

Here’s my Q/A.

You don’t have to do this. Why do you continue to write?

Because it’s who I am. I love it. I’m not exaggerating. I’m terrified at the prospect of not writing. That’s who I am. That’s what I do.

What about those TV gigs? Plenty of scribes in the press box wouldn’t mind trading places and paychecks with you.

I’m happy with what I do for ESPN. I’m grateful to do it. It’s fun. The fun level for PTI is a 10. The satisfaction level is a 9. But is that who I am? No. I aspired to be a columnist, not a talker on television. I didn’t grow up with that.

What is it about the creative process of writing a column?

You can’t develop a thought on TV. You have to go to something else. It’s sound bites. It’s 140 characters. It’s tidbits. I kid Bill Simmons about writing 6,000 word columns. You don’t necessarily have to do that, but with a column you get a chance to develop a thought.

I go out of my way to write because I still love it. I live in complete fear every day that I’m not as good at it.

How so?

I went to the Olympics and wrote every day. 20 columns. I loved it, but that’s it. I’m not going to do the Olympics anymore. The writing is harder now. Now I know what the coaches mean about getting the reps.

Once I wrote 230 columns in a year at the Post. Another year, it was 208. When you go down to 80, you’re not going to be as good at it. The words don’t come as quickly on deadline.

At the Bears game Sunday, I told the driver to pick me up at midnight. I walked downstairs at 12:28. It took me an hour-and-half to write that column. That’s twice as long to write what I used to write. And I worried all night, was it any good?

What if they asked you to go to Brazil for the Olympics in 2016?

In four years? Are you kidding? I won’t be able to produce any copy. It’ll take me a week to write a column.

How come you’re writing mainly for ESPNChicago.com and not for ESPN.com?

They’ve got a ton of people over there. I’m not anyone. I’m just a guy who argues on TV.

My first thought  when I (started writing for ESPN) was that I would do more national stuff. I don’t think anyone cares or wants me to. I did not think it would evolve in this direction. I still do some pieces that run nationally. They’ll call me and, ‘Can you write a big picture piece (for ESPN.com)?’ But I’m glad it worked out this way because I care about what goes on in Chicago.

So you’ll be in San Francisco for the Bears game Monday?

I volunteer to cover stuff if (ESPNChicago.com) is going to be there. The writing still is important to me.








Wilbon on sports writing today: Not as much good stuff as there used to be

Second of three parts

Michael Wilbon repeatedly stressed he isn’t looking to pass judgment or that he longs for another era.

“I don’t want to sound like some grumpy old man telling you to get off my lawn,” he said.

Yet Wilbon’s role as editor of The Best American Sports Writing 2012 confirmed what he already knew.

“There’s not as much good stuff being written as there used to be,” said the former Washington Post columnist.

Make no mistake, he said, he found plenty of good stuff in the book. Make that, tremendous stuff. As I wrote Sunday, there are several stories in the book that will stand the test of time in any era. It is a great reminder of what sports writing still can produce.

Wilbon, though, laments that the volume simply isn’t the same. He says the impact of social media and the post-it-first mentality of sports websites have altered the craft. It’s all about information, and less about style and quality, he said.

“Tony Kornheiser likes to say, ‘This is the golden age for sportswriters,'” Wilbon said. “‘He said, ‘Don’t confuse that with the golden age for sports writing.'”

Here’s my Q/A with Wilbon on sports writing, 2012:

Why did you want to edit the book?

I don’t get to write as much anymore, so I wanted to be connected to it in that way. I wanted to look where we are now and assess where it’s going.

It was interesting. People don’t write takeouts and profiles anymore. There’s a few, but that used to be a staple of sports journalism. It’s not a driving force now. It’s all news and information driven now. It’s all this metrics and stuff I don’t give a shit about. I’m not saying it was better 30 years ago. It’s just different.

But you have profile pieces in the book.

Yes, but I went out of my way because I thought they were really good. I wanted a good mix of stories. There’s some columns, some shorter stories, issue and enterprise pieces. There’s a writing and awareness of where we are as a culture.

Oh my God, the hockey piece (John Branch, “Punched out: The life and death of a hockey enforcer,” New York Times) stands out among the best sports writing I’ve ever seen. I had bets with myself. ‘What’s going to be better than this?’ Nothing. It’s a stunning, stunning piece of work. There were a couple along those lines.

How did a story pass the test and get into the book?

Good question. Did I find it compelling? Did I not put it down? If the phone rang, will I answer it or not? What I like is so varied. What’s going to hold my interest is not uniform. I want to feel compelled. I want to feel something.

What was your overall impression from editing the book?

There’s not as much good stuff as there used to be. Don’t get me wrong. I turned down some good pieces. But I know what it used to be. There’s not enough stuff that compels me. The volume (of quality writing) is not close.

We’re all chasing the same story. Most of it I don’t care about. Where’s LeBron going? Even the great writers aren’t as great as they used to be. They’re smarter. They may be good reporters. They may get information we care about, but they’re not as good at writing. I’m not as great as I used to be. You’re too busy trying to get it posted before Yahoo! does. It’s all a rush to get it posted, to be first.

That’s why Grantland is important. There’s a void. People don’t do (the longer stories). They don’t read anymore.

I don’t want to sound like the old man with the rolled up newspaper saying, ‘Get off the lawn.’ But it’s the truth. If people want to get mad at me for saying that, they can.

Weren’t they saying the same thing in the 80s when you were coming up at the Post? Didn’t the veterans talk about how good things were back in the glory days of Red Smith and Grantland Rice?

Listen, there’s still good sports writing. Great sports writing. But is there as much of it as there was 30 years ago? No, not in my opinion. Who’s the Frank Deford out there now? Leigh Montville? Dave Kindred? Our Ralph Wiley? Is there anybody out there writing a column like Tony Kornheiser did 20 years ago? Is the Republic going to fall if nobody can turn a phrase like Barry Lorge did? No, but I like that.

It’s just different. The biggest development: Beat writers don’t watch the game. They’re tweeting. When I was at the Post, I told the beat writers, ‘Would you put that down and watch the game.’ They’re sending the editors the inactives just before kickoff. For what? It’s going to be on TV in two minutes. It’s hard to do all that and then produce great writing.

I’m on the board of (Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism). We changed the whole curriculum because it’s not the same. They don’t write as well. Why is that? They’re taking classes in multi-media. They have to learn how to operate a camera. It’s stuff I didn’t have to do.

You say all that, and yet the book you did could have been as representative of 1989 as 2012.

That’s the best compliment I could get. I wasn’t doing it consciously, but I think I was putting together a book of stories that I care about. It reflects my point of view. It might look like something in 1988, because it’s going to reflect what I believe in.

They asked me to edit this. I chose stories I liked. It’s not edited in the style of a 28-year-old. The book reflects my feelings about what the good journalism is, not somebody else.

Thursday: Wilbon doesn’t have to write anymore, but he does. Why?











Wilbon Q/A: NBA Countdown isn’t trying to compete with Barkley, TNT; speaks on changes, Simmons, Magic

First of three parts:

It isn’t easy to pin down Michael Wilbon these days. It’s not that he doesn’t want to talk. The notion of silence doesn’t exist for him.

Rather, Wilbon is a constant man in motion this time of year. His regular gigs on NBA Countdown and Pardon the Interruption should be enough to fill his plate. Wilbon, though, still loves to write, which is why he was in Chicago to write a column off Sunday’s Bears-Houston game for ESPNChicago.com.

“It’s crazy, man,” he said.

After many texts, I finally connected with Wilbon Monday. And sure enough, he had plenty to say. Enough for a three-parter.

We discussed the state of sports writing in the wake of him editing and selecting the stories for Best American Sports Writing 2012; and why he feels the need to continue to cover games and write.

The first part of my interview with Wilbon will focus on the changes for NBA Countdown. Out are Chris Broussard and Jon Barry. In are Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose. Wilbon and Magic Johnson remain the constants in a studio show that exists in the same stratosphere as the Charles Barkley fest on the NBA on TNT.

How did you feel about the changes?

For the first time in my life, I understand what happens in the lockerroom when a guy gets traded. Jon wasn’t just a co-worker. He was one of my closest friends. It was every day for five years. It put me in a funk. There was an emotional component I hadn’t been forced to look at before.

Yet having said that, I love the guys coming in, Jalen and Bill. Bill knows so much about basketball. Jalen is terrific. We’ll have four guys with different points of view. We should be able to do some smart talk about basketball.

What about the inevitable comparisons to Barkley and TNT?

We’re not TNT. There’s only one Charles Barkley. I’ve said that Charles is the most important voice in the post-John Madden era. People compare. That’s fine, that’s natural. I love Charles and (Kenny Smith). I guess they’re still trying to figure out how to get Shaq involved. I love watching them. But we don’t compete with them. We shouldn’t try to do the same thing. We should do a different show than the one they’re doing.

Simmons is the wildcard. He didn’t play, and never covered the game the way you did. How will his addition make the show different?

He will be easy to tweak. Some of my job will be to start some fights and be an instigator with Bill. Bill’s personality allows for that, and it will make for better discussion.

One of the producers said, ‘Bring some PTI to this show.’ It wasn’t the case before for this show. Maybe it will be for this one.

What is it like to work with Magic?

I always say, ‘I get to watch basketball with Magic Johnson.’ I know so much more about basketball than I did five years ago. When you’re watching Magic watch Steve Nash, that’s like basketball nirvana. He said LeBron James needed a post game. What does LeBron do? He gets a post game. If you can’t listen to Magic and not learn something, then turn it off.

As a player, Magic was flamboyant, but as an analyst he goes back to his Midwestern roots. It’s just that he’s straightforward. People compare him to Charles. They say he doesn’t do this or that. Hey, they’re different people. Magic just has to be Magic.

What’s your assessment of the new show thus far?

We’ll be fine, but it’s going to take repetition. It’s like the coaches say about getting the reps. The other day, my wife asked how the show went. I said, ‘We were better at 11 than we were at 7.’ I’d expect we’ll be better on Christmas Day than we are today.

Wednesday: Wilbon says the new media age has resulted in a lower quality in sports writing.










Simmons, Rose part of revamped ESPN NBA Countdown

Bill Simmons’ dream continues to get better. The NBA junkie now will be talking hoops with Magic Johnson as part of ESPN’s revamped NBA Countdown.

In are Simmons and Jalen Rose. Out are Jon Barry and Chris Broussard. Remaining are Johnson and Michael Wilbon.

ESPN felt like the show needed some tweaks. Simmons, who has his hands on pretty much everything at ESPN, obviously is seen as an upgrade with his unique perspective.

Thanks to the magic of video, here are Simmons and Rose talking about being “teammates.”

For those who prefer reading, here are some quotes:

“I think the four of us will be able to have good conversations,” Simmons said. “We’re all going to say what we’re thinking. I’m better playing off other people and I think Jalen is the same way and I know Magic is the same way — all four of us can do that. At the same time we want the show to have a level of sophistication.”

Mark Gross, ESPN senior vice-president and executive producer for content said:

“The unique, diverse perspectives of our new commentator team fit perfectly with the show’s free-flowing format. Bill brings a deep knowledge of the league past and present, an entertaining style and an ability to articulate his inventive thoughts from a fan’s point of view. Jalen’s lengthy playing experience and his strong, informed opinions will give fans great insight into how and why things happen on the court. They join a team that includes one of the greatest players of all time and one of our most versatile and engaging commentators.”


Who needs a host? ESPN exec explains why hostless NBA Countdown works

What ESPN did with its NBA Countdown show this year might not be good news for James Brown, Curt Menefee, Chris Berman, Chris Fowler, and countless other hosts of studio shows.

ESPN has proved that a studio show can be done without a quote-unquote host.

In one of the more unique experiments in recent years, ESPN decided to go without a studio host for its NBA studio show. In previous years, the network had employed Hannah Storm and Stuart Scott to direct the traffic.

This year, ESPN simply put Magic Johnson, Michael Wilbon, Chris Broussard, and Jon Barry at a table and let them talk. Wilbon does most of the nuts and bolts stuff when it comes to opening the segments. But unlike a regular host, his main purpose is to be an analyst, offering his opinions in the discussion.

ESPN’s version is a contrast to TNT’s Inside the NBA, where host Ernie Johnson has to steer through the goofiness often generated by Charles Barkley. ESPN’s NBA Countdown is far less yuks and more hardcore basketball.

Mark Gross, ESPN senior VP and executive producer , is more than pleased with the new format. I asked him about the show in a Q/A.

Why did ESPN decide to go without a host?

We thought let’s just try something different. We thought if we could get the right guys together, we wouldn’t need a host. We believe they could carry it on their own.

This place is built on a risk. It shouldn’t be that difficult for us to take a risk on a pre-game show. It doesn’t have to look like every other show that’s out there. If you get the right four guys, it can work.

Why is it working with these guys?

It works because they all get along. Two, they’re big basketball fans. Three, they all have something to say. Magic is great. He’s exactly who you think he is. He’s even a better person.

What about the comparisons to TNT’s show?

We don’t have Charles Barkley. We’re not getting him. Everyone understands that. That’s OK. We’re happy with the show we have. I’ve never seen anything positive written about our show since we’ve gotten the NBA until this year. We’re pleased with how it’s turned out.

Does this mean hosts are going to be passe on ESPN’s studio shows?

No. There are a lot of shows where you want a host. You want to ask a specific question. You want Chris Fowler to host College Gameday. In that show, you need someone to get you from point A to point B to point C. It’s a two-hour show.

NBA Countdown is different. What we’ve done works for this show.