Sports

Karl Lindholm: “So then I said to Larry…”

A VERITABLE MOUNT Rushmore of sports writers on a panel at Middlebury College earlier this month. Shown from left are Alex Wolff, Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullan and Jack McCallum, who all worked for either Sports Illustrated or the Boston Globe. Photo by Karl Lindholm

Stories!
An hour and a half of great stories by four of America’s most highly respected sportswriters — verily, a Mount Rushmore: Alex Wolff, Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullan, and Jack McCallum, all in one place at Middlebury College.
These four terrific writers have been intimately affiliated with either Sports Illustrated or the Boston Globe, publications of Biblical import and authority in my life and for many other American sports fans. To list their awards would take up much of this column space.
A few years back I was lucky enough to attend the Basketball Hall of Fame weekend festivities in Springfield, Mass. with my basketball-obsessed son, Peter, then 16. At the dinner in the Hall of Fame itself the night before the induction ceremony, our Cornwall neighbor Alex Wolff was being honored with the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Award for his body of work over three decades.
At one point at the reception before dinner, I whispered to Pete, “Turn around slowly,” and he did, and there was Julius Erving, close enough to touch, “Doctor J” himself. That was the first hand Peter shook. We shook a lot of hands that wonderful night and conversed with some of the greatest players in the history of basketball.
For my part, I had a chance to meet and converse at this event in 2011 with Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullan, and Jack McCallum. Just as Pete met many of his hoop heroes, I met mine.
For the second year in a row, Jack McCallum (Gowdy Award recipient in 2005) has taught in Middlebury’s Winter Term a sportswriting course, “Sports Journalism in a Cultural Context.” Jack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 30 years and is the author of 13 books, including the enormously popular “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever.”
Jack invited his friends to come to Vermont to visit his class, and then sit on a public panel on Jan. 15. He was the perfect moderator for this discussion, asking just the right open-ended questions, offering his own experience as well. He revealed that he played on his small college (Muhlenberg) basketball team as a freshman, before retiring “to intramural immortality.”
Jack asked Alex about his experience at that “small community college in New Jersey (Princeton).” Alex explained that he didn’t play on the team there, but he did write about it as a stringer for the Trenton Times, and described the thrill of seeing his name attached to a story, a byline, in the paper the very next day.
Alex’s book “Big Game, Small World” (2002), an account of his world travels chasing absorbing basketball stories, is one of the great sports books, anthropological in its depth. His book on Barack Obama and basketball, “The Audacity of Hoop,” is delightful portrait of Obama’s passion for hoops.
When Alex left Sports Illustrated after 36 years there as a senior writer and lead college basketball writer, he embarked upon a project unrelated to basketball: the striking story of his family’s experience in Europe in World War II. He studied at the Middlebury summer language school in German, and with his family — wife Vanessa, children Frank and Clare — lived in Berlin for the year 2017-18. “Berlin Reckoning” will be published about this time next year.
Jackie MacMullan (Gowdy Award – 2010) has the distinction of having played Division I basketball in college, at the University of New Hampshire. Jackie wrote for the Globe for 25 years and covered the NBA for Sports Illustrated for five years.
She spoke about the challenges of being one of the first women sportswriters with equal access as men to athletes in clubhouses and locker rooms and told the dramatic story of being confronted intimidatingly by an angry NBA player after a game.
She decided to let it go, a painful rite of passage, but she received a call that same night from NBA Commissioner David Stern, who pressed her to tell him the story. He told her she would receive an apology from the player who had abused her — and she did the next day.
In introducing Bob Ryan (Gowdy Award – 1997), Jack considered Bob’s reputation as the “consummate Bostonian” for his 44 years writing sports for the Boston Globe (he still writes a column in the Sunday Globe). He noted that Bob actually grew up in New Jersey before attending Boston College.
BC guys, in my experience, are generally outgoing, boisterous, strongly opinionated, fun to be around — that’s the stereotype and pretty much applies to Bob Ryan, and his writing style. He pulls no punches.
Bob told us how he disliked being told by professional athletes that he didn’t have a right to comment about their play because he “never played the game.” He fulminated, “I played the game! I started as the point guard on my high school basketball team and scored 12 points a game!”
Do pick up Ryan’s memoir, “Scribe, My Life in Sports,” an entertaining and perceptive account of his life as a Boston sportswriter, in truth, a Boston institution himself.
Both Jackie MacMullan and Bob Ryan have written books in collaboration with Larry Bird and they spoke about Larry with high regard. Bob asserted that Larry “could control a game all by himself without scoring a basket,” his game was that complete.
Jackie told of being taken in a car to a secret Larry Bird place when she was writing her book with him. Larry made her swear that she would never reveal where and what this place was. Then she told us all about it, though she made us promise, all 150 of us in the stuffed lecture hall in the science center, that we would never tell.
I’m so grateful that Jack invited three of his pals in the business to meet with his class, here at Middlebury College two weeks ago. Alex lives here, but Jackie and Bob drove up from Boston: “eight-hour round trip in the middle of winter,” as Jack put it, “for absolutely no compensation.”
When I heard this panel was being put together on short notice, I said, “I’d pay $200 to go to that!” (Of course, there was no charge — it was an academic program.)
In retrospect, I was wrong — I’d pay more! A great night of sports talk.

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