Last year, when Michael Jordan announced he was making an NBA comeback with the Wizards, the Washington Post gave reporter Michael Leahy a special assignment: covering nothing but the Jordan beat, all season long. Leahy’s periodic reports, capped by a lengthy piece in last Friday’s style section, testified to how big a story Jordan was. They also testified to the failings of coverage in the Post sports page.
Leahy’s wrap-up article contained a number of revelations about the superstar. The highlight reel includes:
* Jordan ignoring the advice of his personal trainer, Tim Grover, and making his ailing knees worse by refusing to rest them;
* Jordan’s locker-room presence alienating and menacing his teammates;
* Jordan’s injuries hampering team practice sessions to the point that the Wizards hardly scrimmaged full-court;
* The Wizards breaking league rules by closing their practices to the press, in an effort to cloak Jordan’s injuries;
* Jordan’s conduct becoming considerably less role-modelish once the cameras went away and reporters packed up their mikes.
Leahy’s killer story settled a number of lingering questions about Jordan’s comeback. Along the way, it raised a more basic question about journalism: Why can’t regular sportswriters tell unpleasant truths about top jocks?
Prior to Leahy’s contributions, the orthodoxy in the sports press about Jordan was a simplistic trope: MJ is fiercely competitive, and that explains everything. If Jordan gambles, it’s because he’s competitive. If Jordan neglects family life, it’s because he’s competitive. If Jordan drives fast sports cars, it’s because he’s competitive.
That handy analysis drove the Jordan-related coverage of writers both inside and outside the Post. Even Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam succumbed. In his 1999 book Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, Halberstam chronicled the star’s rise through high school and college hoops.
In one telling episode, Halberstam reported about a time Jordan and three pals from the University of North Carolina basketball team went out for a round of golf. On the final, winner-take-all hole, Jordan missed the green but somehow came up with a miraculous bunker shot to make up for his errant approach. Later, Jordan confided to his roommate how he had done it: He’d picked up the ball and tossed it onto the green. Halberstam cited the event as proof that Jordan’s “competitiveness was now surfacing on the golf course.”
Alternate interpretation: Jordan cheated.
“What these things are is flip sides of something [in Jordan],” says Leahy.
Good point. Problem is, the Post sports page has been covering Jordan for years and has seen fit to publish only the upside. Blame for the jocksniffing rests with columnist Michael Wilbon, who in a column last November boasted that he had been covering Jordan since the winter of 1982.
And just what do the readers get from Wilbon’s two decades’ experience in following this soaring cager? A partial inventory:
* “There was one important thing you could feel on the practice court even after Jordan left the court: energy. Make that two things: energy and hope.” (Oct. 3, 2001, after the Wizards opened training camp)
* “Jordan has been one of the best
problem-solvers in sports, largely because he
practices so fanatically and with such purpose.” (Nov. 13, 2001, following an MJ shooting slump)
* “[M]y money is on him being back in uniform at the start of next season, and on him bringing a smarter, tougher, more determined team back with him that ought to see the light of May.” (April 17, 2002, following the Wizards’ late-season collapse)
When asked about the tone of his Jordan coverage, Wilbon responded that he has, in fact, printed negative material on the superstar, such as the 1999 column in which he reported that Jordan, then a Chicago Bull, had created a fake spat with Washington Bullet LaBradford Smith. Wilbon wrote that Jordan used the grudge as a means of motivating himself against Washington. What did the columnist conclude from this nasty episode? “[Jordan’s] brilliance will never be fully appreciated.”
Says Wilbon: “Where some people feel I should be highly critical, I don’t feel the need to be highly critical….What’s the point—just to satisfy some other writers?”
Actually, the point is to get at the truth. Although Leahy relies on a lot of blind sources to make his points, he at least raises questions on the wisdom of rebuilding a bad franchise around a 39-year-old megalomaniac with bad knees. And he punctures the tired claims that Jordan’s mythic work habits will somehow filter down to his underachieving teammates. It’s the sort of skepticism that drives journalism—and the sort that doesn’t often make the Post sports page.
Sports editor George Solomon argues that penetrating pieces on a character such as Jordan are not the province of a columnist. “[Wilbon is] a columnist with opinions, with sensibilities as to what he feels about the sports world, including Jordan,” says Solomon. Wilbon, too, points out that he can’t delve deep into a single subject such as Jordan, because he also has to cover college hoops and other timely topics. And Managing Editor Steve Coll applauds the work of the sports section in breaking stories about Wizards personnel moves and ownership. “We’ve worked really hard to break news when it’s come up,” says Coll.
The real story here, though, has nothing to do with workload, or with the distinctions between columnist and reporter. Rather, it has to do with covenants: Wilbon has full access to Jordan, who has a history of shutting out skeptical observers, including Leahy. The columnist has so much access, in fact, that Jordan, Random House, and Wilbon once agreed to produce an autobiography tentatively titled A Whole New Ballgame: Michael Jordan Comes to Washington. (The book hasn’t materialized.)
If he keeps it up, Wilbon may well become the go-to guy for fluffy biographies of our sports icons. The columnist is now assisting retired NBA star Charles Barkley with his autobiography. It’s a nice reward for Wilbon, who wrote that Barkley “has never, even for one second, brought dishonor to the game.” For the record, Barkley once spat on a fan and tossed another through a plate-glass window.
With that coziness comes a worldview that will continue to dominate Post sports coverage. “I don’t share Leahy’s view on what a lot of things mean,” says Wilbon, referring to the Post’s critical coverage of Jordan. “I would disagree with the interpretation of a lot of what he’s written.”
Ride, Sally, Ride
The establishment is losing its foothold at the Post.
For years, Post writer Sally Quinn has occupied rarefied space at 15th and L. The wife of ex-Executive Editor and Vice President at Large Ben Bradlee, Quinn seems to write as frequently or infrequently as she chooses. From her desk in the style section, she presented the opinions of the Georgetown set: blessing Mayor Anthony A. Williams, scolding Gary Condit for his handling of the Chandra affair, and intoning that “establishment Washington reveres the office of the presidency.” (See Lewinsky affair.)
Then, one day in April, Quinn came to work and found she had no space. Her usual perch in the newsroom, with a window looking out on the L Street Rite Aid, had been taken over by music critic David Segal.
According to newsroom employees, Quinn blew her stack. “I understand she was upset,” says one staff writer.
Says Post features goddess Mary Hadar: “She was surprised—I’ll say that.” Hadar says that Quinn had agreed with Post editors that her desk could be occupied in the summer months, when she is out of town. But not in the bustle of springtime.
Quinn disavows anger: “It makes a better story if I was furious, but I wasn’t furious,” she says, noting that her desk move is getting too much air time. “I’m expecting People magazine any minute,” she says.
Quinn’s unseating stems not from a proletarian revolt among Post employees. Rather, she fell victim to what staffers describe as a routine bit of office-space shuffling. Segal, who had grown fed up with the traffic in his work area, petitioned his editors for a desk change. The request was approved, and Segal proceeded to choose a new spot.
“There are no rules or anything like that [regarding office moves],” says Style Deputy Editor Deborah Heard.
Segal had squatter’s rights on his side. According to Posties, Quinn appears in the newsroom on a quarterly basis, if that. “She hadn’t been in for months,” says Hadar, who notes that Quinn works four months out of the year.
The homeless Quinn quickly found a new place for her wares in the sports section, courtesy of sports editor George Solomon. “There was a need, and we were happy to accommodate her,” says Solomon. “I wouldn’t consider her a nomad.” Quinn says she’s delighted with her new digs: “It’s where I wanted to be originally,” she says.
The eviction caps off a rough spell for Quinn at the Post. In January, she wrote an Op-Ed slamming Germany for depriving American parents of visitation rights for children who reside in Germany. The article’s tag line ID’d Quinn as a board member of Parents and Children Abducted Together. The piece triggered a memo from Executive Editor Leonard Downie warning staffers that they “cannot belong to, be on the boards of, contribute to or be paid by governmental, political or advocacy organizations of any kind.” —Erik Wemple