And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.
For four decades, Michael Wilbon has been one of the major figures in American sports journalism, first at The Washington Post and now, of course, at ESPN. He's written and spoken incisively not just about games and athletes, but about the role sports plays in our society. A native of the South Side of Chicago, Michael's also a brilliant storyteller whose own story is well worth hearing. We sat down last week just as the NBA Finals were coming into focus. Here's our conversation. Michael Wilbon, what a thrill to see you here, especially, this podcast is going to drop the day the NBA Finals begin.
So it's this is like getting the pope on Christmas Eve.
Oh, don't put the pressure on me being that good. But, you know, it is a to carry the analogy to a preposterous length. It's a religious time for basketball, for basketball herds, you know, in terms of getting up on the finals. And when the penultimate, you know, series sort of start, it's great. It's just great, too.
Although to me, you know, it's always a big letdown when the conference finals are over and you don't have a game every night.
That is heaven right there.
It is. It is. I like the early rounds of the playoffs just because of what you said, doubleheaders every night. And some nights don't get a second round.
But let me say, we will get to that. But they can hear you talk about this stuff any day of the week. And I want to talk about you for two reasons. One is you're really one of the premier sports journalists, and I'd argue, journalists of the last half century. That's one reason. The other is that you're a son of the South Side of Chicago, which to me is a great distinction. And I wanted to start there. I wanted to I wanted to to I want you to tell me about growing up on the South Side. Tell me about your folks and how they got to the south side.
Well, that's where it began. I mean, start at the beginning. I, I grew up in the neighborhood that is called West Chatham.
Right off the Dan Ryan, you can hear the L in the middle of the night, early in the morning. You can hear it even though as two blocks away. And my parents are typical of parents of that age born during the Depression. Well, just before the Depression, both in 1925 and six, are typical in that they fled the South as part of black folks. Great Migration. Yeah. You know, from Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, God knows where else to, you know, the big cities in the North and the Midwest. Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Chicago, New York, too. But in my family's case, Chicago, they each took the train north, seeking to get out of away from, worse than the Jim Crow South. Because we're talking, my mother was 14. The same age as Emmett Till. She got on a train and she went to Chicago because one of her uncles had said she could live with him. And and the aunt and go to house and go to school. Go to school all the time, not drop out for planting season like my father had to.
Your uncle and aunt were in Chicago already.
In Chicago, on the South Side in Bronzeville, 47th and Langley. 4729 South Langley.
I remember my mother's address? And so my father came. He was more like 19. So he came, you know, like five years later. But they both they both were seeking this life that millions of people like them sought. Millions. So they came to Chicago and stayed there and met there. She from Tennessee, in a little town called Trenton. He's from a little town in Georgia called Washington. You drive past his home town, the exit for it on the way to Augusta National. But it's small town, southern people, farmers, sharecroppers, you know, they grew up in Chicago. Was heaven.
Just let me interrupt something. It struck me when you mentioned Augusta National, you know, that he lived nearby. And I'm thinking, man, the distance between those two places where your father grew up.
And how he grew up in Augusta and that it could have been a million miles.
Yes, they bet it was. And I've been you know, I've been to Washington, Georgia, in my life in the car where you just driving. And I got relatives to point out where I was supposed to exit. And yeah, it's like, you know, being on the south side, growing up on the south Side, I've never been to Wrigley Field, but my my father refused to take us to Wrigley Field, but it was light years from 82nd and Wentworth, where I grew up.
On the South Side to the Northside.
It's it's light years. So yes, yes, for my parents light years. And so, yeah, so they moved to the South Side. They worked. My mother was a teacher. She went to Loyola to get her master's. She was a teacher's college undergrad, which was called Teachers College. Now Chicago State. My father did not finish high school. I don't know that they would even meet each other today. Dad didn't finish high school, but he was a hundred times smarter about math and science than his son, the journalist. And he helped me get through it and had no academic decoration at all, you know?
But was a salesman, right?
A salesman, yeah. A route salesman. So it was more physical work of Dave's Food in Chicago. And so, yeah. So it all started on the South Side. You know, David, I hear about the dangers of Chatham and West, Chatham even and Inglewood and you know, here's one thing I do know. It makes me sad, but I know it's not new. And they knew the Chicago you and I know was always violent. It was violent before Capone. It's always been violent. And I tell people when they're on the way there to write stories or do stories and broadcast. Part of the business. And I tell my friends, they say, what can you tell me? I got to go to the store in Chicago and violence. I said, Whatever you do understand that this ain't new. It was bad then, it's bad now. I grew up dodging. Not literally, but. Navigating the streets of Blackstone Rangers and the Disciples and all of that. I said, don't make this sound new, because that's Chicago's. That's what we've always had. We've always had. In 1919, when the riots broke out, they broke out because somebody hit a kid with a rock who was out in Lake Michigan. That's that's how it started and Chicago was diverse enough. Diverse enough. There were enough Black folks in Chicago where people weren't acquiescing, where there was going to be violence every turn. It's always been violent. It's a violent place. I know. I love my hometown. I know what it is and what it isn't, but it's not new.
What what is new is a lot of the neighborhoods that you grew up around, as much as they struggle, then they're sort of depopulated. Now. They've lost a lot. And the just saturation of guns is is. And that's made the violence more extreme and more difficult. These guns that they're carrying now, they shoot 50 rounds, you know. A magazine and. But your point is, is well taken. So. So I know that you. You said you were bad at math and. And that sort of. But you. But you had a gift for writing from the beginning. And a love for writing from the beginning. Was that from your mom, or how did that come about?
It's interesting. I, I think it's just storytelling. My father is one of 20 children.
Yeah. And that's what you called employment in the Deep South for my grandfather, because I don't think he was allowed to hire. And my grandfather was the son of slave and slave owner. My grandfather was born in 1886. I call it the generation stretch, the large wave for my family in a hurry. And my mother was one of 11. And you get those big families and you got great storytellers in those days. Right? And I was always the kid who didn't want to be at the kids table. I wanted to be listening to the people who told the great stories. And I know it comes from that. And those great storytellers and none of them the the the family business. For those of us in that next generation after that grandfather I told you about in our parents there lots of journalists. Carole Simpson.
Yes. Was a cousin of yours, right? Yeah.
We got a couple of first cousin. I have a couple of now cousins of the children of theirs who are producers at CNN and ABC and some smaller local stations. So this has become storytelling became as close to the family business as anything.
And the other thing that I guess was very rife in your home was like, you know, you obviously you do a show every day of which you talk about sports. Apparently it started at your dinner table when you were a kid.
Yeah. Yeah. My father was different than other fathers at the time, and he said it was okay to argue back with him, that gets you, that gets you a beat down a lot of houses. In the 1960s when I grew up my dad said you could argue with him. You could even do it at the dinner table. But you had your reasoning better be backed up. So if you were going to say that Ferguson Jenkins was as good as Bob Gibson, his favorite pitcher. Yeah, Eddie Colfax. You better bring it. You be told to shut up only if you had nothing to offer. And so, yeah. So we argued about sports and politics from my earliest memories of sitting at dinner with my parents and going back and forth on my father. Seven years old. Eight years old.
One of the arguments that you kind of hinted at a couple of minutes ago was you said he wouldn't drive you to Wrigley Field, but somehow this child of the South Side of Chicago, home of the Chicago White Sox, became a Chicago Cubs fan. And I think you got to explain that.
Well, and I came home one day when I was, I don't know, eight or nine years old, maybe a little older. And there's a guy sitting on my front steps talking to my father. Which in segregated Chicago then was fairly big deal and he didn't have his leg on.
Why does Bill Veeck? No, my father, he couldn't have known him yet.
One of the great characters in the history of major of baseball.
In all sports in America. And yeah, so my father was a White Sox fan. And what made it for a guy from Georgia would crystallize it for him was he tried to go to Jackie Robinson's first game at Wrigley Field in 1947 and was turned away. Huh? My dad was turned away and he vowed that day in whenever it was April or May or June of 1947, that he would never set foot in Wrigley Field. He would never go. And I was a Cub fan because, again, Chicago was the most segregated city in America, certainly the most segregated big city in America, a city so virulent in its segregation that Martin Luther King talked about it publicly in disbelief. But my heroes lived with us, David Ernie Banks and Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins. They weren't living.
Yeah, they weren't living in Northbrook. They weren't living in Evanston, but they were living on the South Side with the rest of us. And so did Muhammad Ali. Mm hmm. Just like Jack Johnson and Joe Louis before him, you lived where we all lived, which was the South side of Chicago. Which is why it's not a coincidence. The South Side of Chicago produced Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama. No, there's no coincidence. You know that the South side of Chicago probably still hasn't been studied appropriately, thoroughly. You know, I'm 65 years, almost a bit of that history in the making, and I love the place. But so they live with us. The Cubs players lived on the South Side. I know what they the Fergie Jenkins, you know, has put us in his car and said, get in the car. What are you doing walking around and drop guys at home and Ernie Banks and Billy Williams said hey, what are you doing?
Ernie Banks sponsored your Little League or something?
He did. Ernie Banks Ford was on the back of the jerseys.
Some of them have pamplin Alderman William Shannon. They both they co-sponsored.
Me from the 17th ward. I remember.
17th ward. We don't have a little I don't think we have our Little League program debut without Ernie Banks, which I have to before to his face.
Yeah, I got. I got to do that.
I have to tell you, just as a you you have a show called Pardon the Interruption. So you got to pardon mine. But Ernie Banks came to the White House when I was working there, and I had some baseballs. One of the great gifts of work in the White House is you get to meet your sports heroes as they pass through. And I had an autographed baseball from Willie Mays and Ernie Banks games. Willie Mays, the greatest of all time. And Willie was my favorite player of all time. And I think he was the greatest of all time. And I so I try to be blessed. Well, Ernie, I bet you people say the same thing about you. And he said, Now, I wasn't even in his league. Said he said when the other plate when when Willie stepped on the field, every other player was excited to see what he was going to do that day.
Now, another guy who lived on the South Side was a guy named Wendell Smith.
Who was a legendary figure in sports journalism of his generation. Tell me about him and whether he was an influence on you.
David. Unknowingly he was.
Because I explain who he is.
Okay. Wendell Smith was both a columnist and at the time that I was growing up, that column was in the Chicago Sun-Times, and he was also on WGN. Which means people come up to me and say, You're a pioneer. And I'm like, Please stop. Please stop, because there have been people. 50 years before me, 60 years before me. They did this to look like me. So I was I grew up. I didn't grow up with the very real reason that many people who look like me grew up saying I didn't see anybody who looked like me. I did. Wendell Smith, I didn't know I was following him. I wasn't following him. But I grew up. He was on in my house and I read him.
You also knew that you could do this, that, you know, this is what, Barack, when Barack Obama went when Michelle Obama asked Barack Obama why he thought what he could do that no other candidate could do, cause she wasn't that keen on his running back in 2008. And he said, well, one thing I know when I raise my hand, there are millions of kids who are going to look at themselves differently. So it's important to have these role models to say, you know what, I could do that.
Yeah, I tell you what, I'll tell you what is at the time even more important. And then this is going to sound weird, but this is more important. It wasn't that I thought I could do it because he did. It was that I never thought I couldn't do it.
Yes, right, right, right.
Never, never an issue. Yeah, it was never an issue.
It was never an issue. So people that I grew up. And then, yes, later as I got to be a teenager and I thought, I have some sort of talent for this, the two people that I grew up watching and reading and not knowing, I got to know one of them were Wendell Smith and Brant Musburger.
Yeah. Who was a great Chicago broadcaster at the time.
And a Northwestern person and a, you know, more than just a sort of idol and a role model to me now, a friend. But I grew up it never dawned on me that I couldn't do that. Yeah, Wendell Smith was doing it.
Now, we should point out that Wendell Smith's place in history, aside from all the things that he did breaking Barriers, was he helped break the barrier because he.
He helped break the barrier of baseball.
Yeah, exactly. He was the guy who went to Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers, and said, this is the guy. This is the guy who can integrate baseball, Jackie Robinson. And then he followed him for several years as Robinson went through that experience.
He and the great Sam Lacy, among others. But those you know, I got to Sam Lacy worked and lived in Washington, D.C., so I got to know Sam Lacy and be in his company as an adult and as a writer for The Washington Post over decades. He had he and Wendell Smith. They would be in a car driving from somewhere to north. And I bet that trail, if Wendell started in Chicago and picked up Sam Lacy in Washington, they drove because they they had to know where they could go and where it was safe to be and where they could stop and get gas and sandwich and lay their heads if they did it on the way to spring training. Mm hmm. And so, yes, they. Helped integrate baseball. They were very large in that. Branch Rickey, as you just mentioned, leaned on them heavily for their intimate knowledge of Negro League ballplayers. And who was going to be that right person.
Who could handle it, and both them, among others. But both of those men very prominently, said Jackie Robinson.
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You went to Northwestern, you went to journalism school there. I was really pissed when I read that you had applied for an internship at the Chicago Tribune because three years before you did. I did. I got to work at the Tribune. I started two days after college, and that was the beginning of my career. You know, I became a political writer there. So on up. But you applied for those in that internship, and The Washington Post was smart enough to hire you. The Tribune did not. That was the Tribune's loss. Tell me what it was like when you arrived at the Washington Post around 1980 or so.
That summer of 79? Yeah. Yeah. All I wanted to do, David, I delivered. I was a paper boy growing up. Now, not many people listening to us will know what that means anymore, but.
But I. Well, yeah, barely. I grew up delivering 92 newspapers on Wentworth and LaSalle in my neighborhood. House to house. And I just wanted to. All I wanted to do is write for the Sun-Times, The Tribune. That's all I wanted to do, that that was my goal in my life. I delivered those papers. I wanted to work for one of them. They both turned me down and I didn't even get to really grieve it over it because the Posts and Newsweek both accepted me. So I was, you know, buoyed by that. And I got to The Washington Post. In the afterglow of Watergate. I got there when the people greeting you, you know, our luncheons, my luncheon speaker was as a the first day. Summer Internship, June 13, 1979. My intern speaker for the class of 20 interns was a man named Bob Woodward.
And then within three or four days, I'm sitting with Ben Bradlee because he came in the sports department to meet the two interns.
One of the great editors of all time.
And yeah, so I went there at a time where the post was still in the afterglow. Robert Redford would come. Bob Woodward.
Yes. Played Bob Woodward in the movie.
This is Bob Woodward in the newsroom. And so this is 19- who's better than Robert Redford in 1979? Yeah, right, right, right. So he would come in and the women particularly would just crowd around Woodward's office and wait till Redford got there. But then I got to know the actual people, not the actors and the people who comprised, in my view and obviously The New York Times reporters and staffers would argue with the greatest newspaper staff of its time.
Well, listen, though, there's a whole generation of journalists who were inspired by that group of reporters. Yeah. And not just Woodward and Bernstein. I mean, I was a political reporter. David Broder was-
Broder. Oh, my God. Yeah.
A huge role model for political reporters. But you also you joined what would become and you were one of the reasons for it. One of the great sports staffs of all time. I mean, really, really stellar group. In fact, I spoke to a guy named Jonathan Martin, who's a political writer. He was with The Times, and now he is. He writes a column for Politico. And I told him this morning, I'm going to be doing a pod with Michael Wilbon. And he said and he went nuts. And he said, I was inspired to journalism by the sports pages of The Washington Post, and I promised him I'd tell you that. So I've fulfilled that promise.
You know, it means something. It means more than any contemporary observation, because, yes, you're right. I joined a staff that had. Tony Kornheiser and Thomas Boswell and David Redden, you know, so many others. Barry Lords and these names don't necessarily mean anything to anybody. And George Solomon was the sports editor that. You know, he was the guy who I guess had an eye for talent. Because even when you come down years from now, David and David Remnick, Pulitzer Prize winning U.S. colleague, of course, and Sally Jenkins, and there were so many-
And by the way, the internship class I mentioned, 20 interns, Lucian Perkins and David Remnick and Isabel Wilkerson. I mean, Wilkerson, people who did because I'm right, I have like the least of them, you know, these are the decorated people I think we had, you know, So Bob said to us, look, there's some talent in this room. There's 20 of you, probably only three or four, and you'll be able to stay and join The Post as full time staff writers. I think he wound up being 12 of us stayed.
Yeah. This is a little like my own story at the Tribune.
You had that kind of staff at the Trib. I learned how to read reading the newspaper. Yes. It started with the sports section when I was five years old. I'd stare at the words until some of them made sense. And then more of them. And more of them in all of them. But I grew up reading the Sun-Times and Tribune. My father didn't sit mute in the house, so he had to read it outside at the front porch that the other newspaper business outside it.
By the time I got there was a little more progressive.
Yes, it changed, you know, completely. And so but, you know, when I was a little kid, your colleagues were my were the people that inspired me.
I know he was at the Daily News, but you must have read Royko.
Well, that I can't even mention Royko in any other company, because Royko is. That's Michael Jordan.
Yeah, the great. No, he was the H.L. Mencken of this time. The greatest daily columnist.
Greatest columnist. I tell Tony that a New Yorker, he didn't want to hear it. And I mean, you can talk about all the people if you want. Nobody no single person in New York had the impact of Royko in Chicago.
And I've lived east long enough to know and become friends with some of the great, great writers and newspaper writers, daily people in New York City. But nobody had the impact of Royko on politicians.
Absolutely. People bought the paper to see what Royko said that day.
And in his heyday, he wrote six columns a week.
And at least three of them were literature. I mean, it's just like it was unbelievable. To produce what he produced. But anyway, we can geek out on Chicago journalism. I want to talk about your early years at the Post, and you covered this over the course of your 30 years at the Post. You covered all the sports at one time or another before you became a columnist. But I want to talk about college basketball in the around the city of Washington in that period, because you covered some of the most notable talents of all time at Georgetown, where Patrick Ewing was. You covered the ACC, so you saw Michael Jordan play. Talk about that. Talk about that period there. And I want to ask about specifically about Jordan and then about someone who may have been as great as Jordan had he lived.
Yeah, well, that sticks with all of us who are old enough to this day. Len Bias, Of course, we're talking about. So let's just take the year 1983. I'm just picking 83. So or the period, say, from 82 to 84. So in one, I get out of my car on any night, I could leave The Washington Post newsroom. And if I left a little early, I could go to Charlottesville to see Ralph Sampson, only the three time player of the year. There's never been anybody three time player of the year since. The great Ralph Sampson down to Virginia. Charlottesville. I could go to College Park and see Len Bias. Mm hmm. You go to Georgetown to see Patrick Ewing. I could go to Annapolis and see David.
He would have been a freshman maybe in 83 because he graduated 87. I could see George Washington had a terrific team there with a pro named Mike Brown, who people don't don't shouldn't be confused with Coach Mike Brown now. But but but went to the tournament, Catholic University, Howard University. They all had teams that played and competed and at some point went to the tournament. And it was, wow. It was heaven to just cover college basketball in any given night in the coaches. Lefty Driesell and John Thompson and Gary Williams. Gary Williams is an American university. Long before Ohio State and then Maryland, Gary Williams is winning 26 games at a little place called American University.
Let me ask you about Michael Jordan. Obviously, I was lucky enough to live through the 13 years that he graced the courts in Chicago. And I saw the whole miraculous story unfold. But I've been I've thought ever since about what is it that makes him, in my view, the greatest of all time. But what is it that makes the players who are a cut above great? Because it's not just physical talent. There are a lot of physically talented players. There's something else.
Oh yeah, there's lots else. The signature way that he played, the way he looked, I mean, you got to Jordan introduced three things to the American culture through his brilliant basketball genius that we weren't accustomed to. He had to do something as elemental now as I sit here with a shaved head. He wasn't the first person to do it. My gosh, Sonny Liston had done it 20 years earlier, but he was the first to do it and sort of make it stick that everybody else then began to do it.
Yeah, I want to be like Mike. Yeah.
The style of the day. He introduced a shoe. Word and magic were arguably as talented, and they neither had a shoe. Julius Erving did not have a shoe. Jordan had a shoe. Some of it's taught timing and luck of the time. And certainly for me, in like you, was the luck of being born when we were. But Jordan, it's the greatness, it's the will. It was the by God, the intimidating nature of it that other of his peers were intimidated.
Yeah. You know, Michael, when he stepped on the court and you were a fan in Chicago, you just assumed you were going to win. You knew when Michael Jordan was on the court that you were going to win that game. And even if you were behind by 20 points, you knew you just figured, he would figure out a way. To drive them back. And he had great players around him.
Well, he had great players. They weren't great when he got them. And this is one of my arguments, you know, against the LeBron is the goat thing. And LeBron to me, there's a mount Rushmore of basketball in on it without any chance for removal are Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson and Michael Jordan that fourth spot? Sometimes I can talk myself into it being Kobe. Sometimes I can talk myself into it being Kareem, but most of the time I think is LeBron. But. But. What LeBron, LeBron didn't have some of the things Michael had. I remember sitting at a game, game seven against the Pacers and Michael Jordan only played three game sevens in his career. Has a great line out there when somebody said they got LeBron in the interview and Michael in interview and they asked LeBron, who's been in a bunch of game sevens. So what's it like to be in game seven? And Michael and LeBron tell them a long answer. Michael says, I'm sorry, what's game seven B? One two. We beat the Knicks and he beat the Pacers in conference finals. But he was never in a game seven in the finals. And he lost one. He lost four to the Pistons famously. But I remember game seven in Chicago, and they're losing the Pacers by seven with about 2 minutes to play. And I I'm freaked out and we're going to lose this game. I'm a sportswriter I'm not supposed to be freaked out. I'm supposed to be sitting dispassionately covering the series and the game and the event, and I say out loud, oh my God, he could lose this. And Rick Telander looks back at me.
Sportswriter for the Sun-Times, yeah.
Both, Chicago Sun-Times and then Tribune. Salander looks back at me and said, and I know what he was saying. He goes, is he still out there? And I said, that's right. You're right. Never mind. And of course, the Bulls went on to win that game seven and then win a championship. I think that was 97 their their fifth. But yes, Jordan had things that none of the others had.
You know, I asked Bill a bill what did my podcast once was, which was an experience. I love Bill. It was like it was like riding a bucking bronco to keep him in the within the lanes here. But. But I asked him about this because I was in the crowd when Bill Walton I hitchhiked down to Chicago. I was a student in 1973. The end the Final Four. It was the championship game against Memphis State, and Bill Walton scored 44 points and hit 21 of 22 shots. He had like, you know, double digit rebounds, I think eight assists. It was the greatest single game I've ever seen anybody play.
And I said to him, do you get nervous? I mean, what are you thinking? And he said, nervous? He said, I live for that. He said, that was the most fun in those. And it's like the how how many players in that position where everything is on the line really want the ball with everybody watching. And, you know, these guys demand it. Jordan you know Walton they'd put in that category and you name some of the others. It is a mental thing I'm just obsessed by. But listen, talk about Len Bias. Len Bias was a contemporary of Jordan's, played at Maryland, was drafted by the Boston Celtics. He was going to be the next big thing in the NBA.
He's going to rival Jordan. Kobe and LeBron didn't really have each other because they never met in the finals. They met in the regular season. But Bird had magic, of course, and Russell had Wilt, and there have been some great rivalries in the NBA, which is particularly made by rivalries. And for those of us and I got to cover Len Bias, he was the second overall player chosen. But Lin Bias was maybe the most talented of the draft. He was 6'8. He had the prettiest jump shot I've ever seen to this day. I saw play against Jordan. I saw Len Bias dunk once at coal fields in College Park, and he landed on the shoulders of Brad Daugherty. Brad Daugherty's 6'11 Landed on his shoulders. And Mike Krzyzewski says.
Immortal coach at Duke says that the two greatest players he ever saw on his time were Michael Jordan and Len Bias. And that's the consensus that everybody who saw Lenny play came to and, of course, died tragically two days after the draft of a what was what we now believe is a cocaine overdose.
When you heard that news, what did you feel? I've read some of your columns.
I was on a plane on the way to L.A. I was taking a few days off after the draft and my body was cold. I just literally my body temperature declined and I was cold all day. I flew to L.A., I got off the plane and I was just no good. I was just no good for a long time, for days because I knew Len Bias. I covered him, I knew him. I'm never going to outrun it. But Len Bias, you know, there were two great players we never saw at that time, and they both died so young. Len Bias and Ben Wilson, speaking of the South side of town.
He went to Simeon. I could see Simeon outside my window.
Was shot and the ambulance. After answering the 9-1-1 call went to the wrong location and he bled out on a sidewalk near my home. And those two. John Thompson, the late great John Thompson, told me that Ben Wilson was the greatest prospect he ever saw. This is a man who recruited successfully Patrick Hughes, first player chosen in the draft. And John Thompson got to see Len Bias up close, like we all did it locally in D.C. So David, I can't talk about Len Bias without getting emotional. I'm never going to outrun it. I'm never going to get to a place where it doesn't impact me. And if you talk to, say, Jay Bilas, who is the same class and people used to get their names confused, Bilas and Bias. If you talk to Jay Bilas, he'll be the same way. If you talk to David Robinson, he'll be the same way if you talk to Michael Jordan about it. He'll be the same way.
Yeah. You know, there's something so tragic about someone so young and so filled with potential. And. But. But I want you to tell your own story. You know, you excelled at journalism. The Post made you a columnist. You were going to leave. They said, no, stay. And you were a great columnist at The Post. Then when you were 49 years old, you had your own sort of profound experience. And I'd really like you to talk about that.
Yeah. I mean, you know, I've been running around the country feeling pretty invincible, from 21 to 49. I was a late, I got married at 39, almost at 49. In January, late January, our son, Matthew was two months from being born. Two months from being born. And I had a heart attack right here in Scottsdale, right where I am now, had a heart attack. It was not a massive heart attack. I got on a plane and flew from New York, left the studio, flew across the country, got here, got in bed, woke up. It was like a Fred Sanford moment for people who are old enough where I'm like, I'm having a heart attack right. Your hands over your left side of your chest right there. And that's and I laughed because it was like a sitcom moment. I'm having a heart attack. And I told my wife to wake up, we have to drive to the hospital. So, you know, that sort of was the first alarm to go off to say, you're not invincible, get your shit together. And the doctor said on the side of my bed, two mornings later, 40 hours later, and said, you're never going to see your child. The young boy that's about to be born, baby, that's about to be born. You're never going to see and reach five years old if you don't do exactly what I'm telling you to do.
So, you know, I sort of got religion at that point. And, you know, then, you know, you fall out of it because you go back to feeling you're invincible. But yeah, like a lot of people, like a lot of men, like a lot of specifically men of African-American descent that we think if we've navigated part of the world's land mines that we're going to step over them all. It don't work that way. And so I was warned.
And you also were diagnosed with diabetes.
The same day. Same day, which is why now, like an advertisment, I'm wearing my glucose monitor. My Dexcom. My Dexcom. I'm wearing that to tell me when my blood sugar is at all times. Because. Yeah, because my my mom and grandmother and you know, we know now such a large percentage of our specific demographic suffers from diabetes but a large percentage of America entirely. And people didn't know it, don't know it, ignore it, all kinds of stuff. And so, you know, I did way too long.
You know, the older I get and you lose friends and, so on. And, you know, life is all our life ends up being a cliche, but you realize that every day actually is a gift. And especially you have your son is still pretty young.
Yeah, he's 15. I got a I got a freshman in high school. We just finished freshman year sophomore to be and I'm running around trying to go to AAU games and my peers are laughing at me, either just dads in the neighborhood who did this 15 years ago or was particularly my friends in the basketball world, coaches and scouts and owners. And they're like, we did this where you when we did this 15, 20 years ago. But, you know, he's 15 and there's no guarantee I got friends, as you do, David, you talked about we got friends who over the last few years were losing them. A trickle becomes a flow.
I don't I'm not I'm not taking that for granted. And so now I think he can hit the golf ball further than I can't. I'm not he's definitely I couldn't beat him in any basketball endeavor. I used to deal with being in horse until about he was 12 and that's over. He's good. He's got a little basketball player.
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. Did that in any way. That was, I think, a couple of years before you quit your job as a columnist at the Post. You'd already, since 2001, been doing your show with Tony Windsor on ESPN. How much did all of that? Because you must been running your ass around the country. How much did the health scare contribute to you saying, you know what, maybe it's time to give some of this up.
None. I wish I could see I was that smart. I so I start writing The Post column on December 7, 2010. I can remember the date and I don't remember anything because that's my father's birthday. That was my last column. You know, ESPN said to me, we can't have your best work appearing somewhere else all the time. You got to decide.
Yeah, I miss writing, but it writing's hard. I can't do it anymore.
I do two things. I regret not being able to do anymore. I took music lessons growing up. I can't play. Mary Had a LittleLlamb. Just went away. I took lessons from 8 to 18. I played Pomp and circumstance for my own high school graduation. And now I can't play Mary Had a Little Lamb and I wrote, you know, I was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which is not a big deal to people like you, David, but in sports, when nobody gets that far. That's a big.
That's a big, it's a big deal to people like me. That is a big deal.
And I, you know. I mean, I. I think of myself as a columnist. I'm not. I'm not a columnist anymore. I think of myself that way. But it's over. And I have to live my peace with it. I live my peace with not being able to do what I once was. Probably pretty decent.
Well, life has chapters, you know, and you've written.
And I'm not good at turning the page. I'm not good at it.
I understand. So I want to ask you about two great figures in sports we lost recently. Who both of whom you knew. One was Bill Russell and the other was Jimmy Brown. And I ask you about them because their greatness wasn't limited to the fact that they were arguably the most dominant players in their sports, basketball and football during their playing careers, which was in the fifties and sixties, but because they were a big piece of American social history.
Absolutely. I did not get to know Bill Russell at all personally because Bill didn't really want to be known. That wasn't his thing. I could observe and I was tapped into one of the people closest to him, and that's John Thompson. He's Irish.
Who played on the Celtics.
Was Bill Russell's backup center for eight years, and that was it. And so I got to absorb, if you will, Bill Russell, through Coach Thompson, who did let me in a lot, was intimidated like anybody else by Bill Russell, just by being in his presence on the few times I was. And he did talk to me a few times because I was somebody that it was all take was okay with Coach Thompson and Coach Auerbach and Red Auerbach. But I got to know Jim Brown because he wanted to be known. Jim, it was okay. Jim Brown wanted that. He was not afraid-
Was a movie star after he was-
He was a movie star, a successful movie star. And and also, I covered the NFL at a time where I was about the only Black writer covering the league. And Jim Brown would literally walk up to say, who the hell are you and why are you here? You know, and this is long after he retired. Jim probably retired, I was seven, so I didn't I remember seeing him carry the ball a little bit as a little boy, but not really. I got to know Jim Brown as Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns formerly. And oh my God, this intimidating figure. And Jim Brown who could organize anything and tell people to do anything. And I went to I was in Southern California covering in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, if you will, if I can call them that. My sports editor, George Solomon, wisely, brilliantly sent me out there to make a connection between what was going on and the lack of recreational sporting opportunities for young African-American men in South Central L.A.
And I went out there, and the night I got there, Jim Brown was having the Crips and blogs at his house. At his house?
Gangs, yeah. Gang leaders. Yeah.
This is insane. And so I was able to get in contact with Jim. And Jim Brown invited me to his house, gave me directions back in the pre-GPS days.
No cell phones idea to call it return a phone call to my hotel room. This is 1991.
And I drove up. I went there. I thought there would be some uniformed LAPD or personal security or something. These, we're talking about notorious open gang leaders whose gangs are involved in the burning of Los Angeles. There's nobody on the door, David. Jim Brown said, You will not bring these things into my home. You will not bring your guns and knives into my home. So lay them down. Guess what?
They did. And if anybody thinks there's an athlete out there with that kind of authority today, you'd be a fool.
Yeah, well, let me ask you about that. I raised those guys because they were, you know, you think about them and Muhammad Ali and some of the great athletes of the sixties who were part and parcel of the civil rights movement of social progress and put themselves on the line by doing it. By way, I should tell you, Harold Washington, who you remember the first Black mayor of Chicago, was mayor when the Bears won the Super Bowl, and he had a big rally for him. And I was working for Harold. Harold said to me, thank God nobody knows that I'm a Cleveland Browns fan. And I said, you're a Cleveland Browns fan?
I know why he's a Browns fan too.
He said, Jimmy Brown. He said, Jimmy Browns, my guy. And I so admire him. So I'm a-
Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell.
You know, that look that was he was right about America's team, the Cleveland Browns and then the Cowboys who the Cowboys drafted necessarily people from small Black colleges, nobody else. Big, big, big, big city teams. I don't know that the Giants and the Bears and the Packers were doing that. The Cowboys are doing it more than anybody. But the Cleveland Browns did it. We've been Browns did it. And the Cleveland Browns were beloved by Black America. And so I get it.
You say there's no one like that now. And it leads me to a question. I mean, these athletes are you know, they're celebrities. They're marketed as celebrities. They they make a great deal of wealth and so on. But, you know, Charles Barkley, who I know you're close to, you worked on some books with him and he once said, and it really stuck with me. And he's a friend of mine, too. But he he said, you know what? We are not role models, okay? We are not heroes. We are athletes, you know, but don't look, don't expect us to be. Now, I actually think in many ways, Charles, the way he is, the the kindness of the man and the honesty of him is is extraordinary. But, you know, like I think of Michael Jordan, I revere him as an athlete. It was a wonderful experience to watch him play basketball. I told my little boys at that time, guys, watch this. You'll never see it again. This is the Babe Ruth of basketball. But I never I didn't, you know, people, my friend Sam Smith wrote The Jordan Rules. And that book, he he said he recounted the fact that Jordan wouldn't endorse Harvey Gantt, who was running for the Senate in in North Carolina. And and he said, look, Republicans wear shoes, too. In other words, he didn't want to drag politics into his marketing. Right. Fine. I don't need Michael Jordan to tell me to talk to me about politics. I don't need to. But the question is, should we look at these athletes as as I mean, obviously the guys we've mentioned, Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell and Jimmy Brown. I mean, they but that's the exception. That's not the norm.
No, And I am Charles. His point was don't necessarily make me a role model. Me meaning athletes. I am not necessarily a role model. Charles very much is. But the but the point was, I am not automatically one because I'm an athlete.
Yeah, right. Because I'm great at what, basketball.
I'm great at this one thing. And that was.
You know what happens? People want to ascribe to the people who are great.
And it is that they don't necessarily have.
That's what Charles, his point was. That's his lengthy bullshit. And, you know, the person who in your neighborhood who might be the postman might be a better role model. Your teacher got clergymen a lot, any number of people. So your uncle who just goes out and, you know, earns a living could be, so. But yes, some of them were very much not just role models. They were central, as you said, David, to they were central to the civil rights movement. All of them were central to that.
I got to tell you about a conversation I had with President Obama, and it was about LeBron James. And like a lot of people, I was sort of put off when he did the whole I'm going to take my talents to South Beach. And they made that a- and that stuck with me. You know, as the years went by, I didn't really think much about it. And I mentioned that to Obama once, he said, think about this. This this kid grew up no father, mother who had lots of problems. He went to the league when he was 17 years old. He is a great player, but he's a great teammate. He's a great father. He he's gives back to the community. He said, that's a pretty admirable story. That's something to be admired.
The changing the turning of that into something villainous is too bad. And people will say, well, I'm biased and I am because I was involved in that telecast. But LeBron James was 25 years old. Yeah. Is it my favorite moment? No. Do I find it villainous and something that is regrettable? No. Find it almost just a footnote.
Well it is a footnote because of everything that he's done.
Everything he became after that.
It was before that. And so there's so many other things he's done. It's like like Michael Jordan at that point of his life. I didn't need Michael to tell me who to vote for. And so that is stuck with him. Republicans on issues, too, where in the meantime, Michael Jordan is has now, in the last 5 to 10 years put his might, financial and otherwise behind more programs that have benefited more people who probably identify with being sort of old school Southside. I'm using that term advisedly Democrats that Michael has been completely unafraid to associate himself with all of that. And I've talked to him about it recently, just when he's there times where he's done things for health care. And I've called him up and I said, dude, this needs to be publicized in a greater ways. Like I don't care. I just I'm just doing it.
Well, that's really good. I'm glad that I raised it and I'm glad that-.
You're saying this. So before we go out, I would be remiss, even though I said everybody here should talk about it elsewhere. First of all, I want you to talk as we're sitting here recording this, we actually don't know who's going to win the Eastern Conference finals. No team has ever come back from three nothing. We've has been brooded about. The Celtics were down to Miami three zip. They're now, they've won two games going back to Miami. We'll see what happens. I'm asking you, how is it that Miami, which barely made the playoffs, is one game away from the finals with injured players and, you know, arguably a less August, a less impressive roster?
Well, I mean, part of the Miami Boston story has to do with Boston's failings through three games and Boston's inability to play with that signature Celtic style. They teamwork. They didn't do unselfish. They weren't selfish. It just they took turns. They weren't a team. Just I think part of it has to do with Miami and the culture they've instilled with Pat Riley down to Erik Spoelstra and Will and what that means. And Pat Riley is famous for all those things.
Yes. And Jimmy Butler fits in.
And Jimmy fits that. Jimmy Butler on draft night. I was there in Chicago. What did the draft, but it must have been in New York. But I was there because he was drafted by Chicago.
He was drafted kind of for the sole purpose of getting in LeBron James face and stopping LeBron James for the greater good of the Bulls, which they couldn't finish off. But Jimmy was. You know, born into that Derrick Starr and Tibbs was the ringmaster, a kind of a kind of Pat Riley Lite, if you will.
Yeah. Tom Thibodeau. Yeah.
Jimmy Butler had that already. And so for him to then have it fully drawn out by Pat Riley in the culture of the Miami Heat. That's what they did. They came they come closer to maxing out than a lot of teams in the NBA that have more talent.
Yeah, well, they also eliminated Milwaukee, the number one seed in five games, which was pretty extraordinary. So last thing on this, the Nuggets. Like I am completely transfixed by Nikola Jokic. I have never seen anyone quite like him. He looks like a big bag of groceries, Doesn't really look like an athlete and yet he's got the best hands, feet and brain. Of anybody I've seen, you know, in one package.
He's the best player in the world. He's the best player in the world, period, right now. Look, I voted for him, beat David for MVP. Now I voted for Jokic, you know, three years ago when only one of them. And so between Giannis and Embiid and Jokic you can't go wrong.
There But I voted for Embiid and now and that's a regular season award in the playoffs. I know that Jokic is the best player.
I loved LeBron's press conference after the Lakers were eliminated and some reporters said What did you learn about Jokic in the series? And LeBron said, nothing. I didn't learn anything.
I already knew. I knew he was great. I just saw that clip today from LeBron who's a you know because players when you get, one of the great things about being behind the curtain with a press pass is getting to talk to players on stuff that's never on the record. Now that would have been because a camera caught it, but you can just you can be in practice sometimes and somebody would say, what do you think about so-and-so. I don't know, what do you think about this guy? And you get unvarnished answers about things and that's the way you go to the gym with these guys.
And it's just it's really wonderful to be able to have the access to that and to people like LeBron. Michael was great for that. Michael Jordan was great for that. At 8:30 in the morning, if the Bulls had a shoot around, you got there early and Michael would ask us too, what do you think about so and so?
And if he didn't like the answer you were going to be in, you're going to be in for it. But it was great because he like going back and forth, and it still happens. I can't show you the text messages, but it happens now. You know, we're both 60 years old plus and it'll be what do you think of so-and-so. What? And I will ask him as often as I can. hey, what about this guy? And so, you know, Jokic is one of those players that great players like Michael and LeBron, you're like two or three years ago they just said this guy, this guy has greatness in him. What? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You see what he's doing with his body? He's changing his body.
I love what LeBron said. He can see the play before it happens.
He was talking about Gretzky. Yeah, LeBron or Magic or all those guys And so yeah so Denver because of Jokic and Jamal Murray and they just have this kind of have it.
Well let me just say Michael Wilbon you are a joy to watch and though you missed the days of writing your column, you, you impart your wisdom in a beautiful way and you do it with real authenticity, which to me is the most important quality a person can have. I ascribe that to your character and to the South Side of Chicago.
Well, first of all, I hope I'm worthy of that praise from you. There's as you know, there's a kinship among people from Chicago, period. And then even stronger bonds when people have had ties to the South Side. And so that I know that who I am and what I am has a lot to do with all the things I am. And, you know, a great part of that is produced by what happened to me in that city. The people I believe in, the institutions that are part of me. I have an apartment in Chicago. I come back whenever I can. If somebody says, where are you from? I do not say I'm from Washington, D.C., though I have lived there for 43 of my 64 years. At this point, Arizona is a part time thing. I love it. And part of the reason I love it is because there's so many damn Chicagoans here.
You know, we're all over the place.
Well, we're going to have to break some bread, one place, one place or the other. But I want you to know that the but that Chicago and the South Side of Chicago is proud of you.
A great pleasure to be with you. Thanks, Michael.
Thank you for listening to The Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Miriam Fender Annenberg. The show is also produced by Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics.uchicago.edu.