Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Melissa Isaacson

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Generally speaking, the interviews that make up the Quaz Q&A series are prepared weeks in advance.

I reach out to a bunch of people, fire off questions, get a bunch back—then have the pleasure of deciding which to run when.

This week, however, something weird happened. Yesterday afternoon I spoke to a sports journalism class taught at Northwestern by Melissa Isaacson, the former Chicago Tribune and ESPN writer whose work has always been exceptional and exceptionally regarded. Everything about the lecture experience was joyful—even via Skype, it was clear Melissa knows how to keep a class moving; how to engage her students.

Anyhow, late last night I thought, “Hmm … Melissa Isaacson would be a terrific Quaz.” So I asked, she agreed—then I woke up this morning to her answers, plus this fun little note …

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I could spend all day reading about her life covering Michael Jordan, her life teaching a new era of aspiring scribes, her life after leaving the Tribune. It’s simply terrific stuff.

One can follow Melissa on Twitter, and check out her website here.

Melissa Isaacson, you’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Melissa, we’re both veteran scribes who came up when print was rolling along, and we both teach college journalism. So I ask—what are we supposed to tell these kids? I mean, I love my career, I’ve loved my gigs. But am I as convinced in 2019 as I was in 1999 that this is a viable profession? Well, no. So what are we supposed to say? Teach?

MELISSA ISAACSON: You and I sort of discussed how we hate when old sportswriters come into our classrooms and grumble to our students that they should run for the hills, rather than go into our profession. That happened about twice early in my adjunct career and now I don’t let those old cranks (all my closest friends) come anywhere near my students. These kids pay a crap-ton of money—most on their own at their age—to come to Northwestern and be enriched in various ways. For the ones who make the emotional investment as well, I am there to tell them that I love what I do and I always have, that it has given me a life of amazing experiences and that I adore storytelling and I believe in my heart there will always be a place for good storytellers—that whether people are reading on their watches or in embedded brain chips, I believe that. I told them that days after I was laid off for the second time in my life and I tell them that now. Only now I tell them the work reporters are doing from places like the N.Y. Times and Washington Post and CNN and the New Yorker is nothing short of heroic and that while sportswriters may not be saving the republic, we’re good people doing really important and really good work too. And they’re finding jobs, many at the jobs we vacated, one actually at the job I vacated.

OK, clearly I have to pace myself.

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With her husband, the hard-to-spell Rick Mawrence

J.P.: So you covered Michael Jordan and the Bulls during much of the glory days. What was it like, as a member of the media, having to deal with His Airness every day? Was he relatively accessible? Was he distant? Agreeable? Did he treat women scribes as he did men?

M.I.: Anyone who covered Michael on the beat—and there weren’t many of us in those days (three to be exact who traveled regularly—Tribune, Sun-Times, Daily Herald) will tell you that he was fantastic to deal with and here’s why. He was accessible. Not every single day but most. And when he was under fire. He rarely ducked us. And we all witnessed the mobs at his locker after games and the shy ones in the back from another country or Indiana or somewhere, mustering up the courage to ask him something or to “Say hi to Indonesia (OK, maybe it wasn’t Indonesia but close) and he always would. Always. And he would treat the guy from Oskaloosa the same way he did the N.Y. Times. He really did. I’m sure he got pissed at people, he would be condescending at times to guys he liked—liked Lacy Banks from the Sun-Times, who he kidded mercilessly—but in our world, in mine, he was respectful. In his quiet moments, like on the road when we three would actually catch him alone, he would talk about his kids (who he truly loves even though he never changed a diaper or ever picked up one of them from school). He was also incredibly respectful of me (maybe because I was pregnant a chunk of the time I covered him!) never, ever came into the lockerroom undressed or even in the Carolina blue shorts he wore under his game uniform but always in his full wide-shouldered suit (not because of me but just because that’s how he was). And other than patting my stomach when I was pregnant occasionally, and remarking on my choice of heels when I was in my latter months, he never treated me nor any woman journalist I ever witnessed, any differently than the men. I can go on and on. Oh wait, I have.

J.P.: You are the co-author of “Sweet Lou,” Lou Piniella’s biography. And I say this with total respect, but a Piniella biography doesn’t seem like an automatic huge seller. Cool idea—yes. Great topic—yes. Huge sales—not sure. So why write it? What was the experience like? And did it sell?

M.I.: I get it. Weird. One of those local publisher inspirations in July that the Cubs were going all the way and fans would have to be rewarded by a book on the manager. And so, just as I was ready to go to Beijing for the Olympics, I oh-so-wisely agreed to do it—and, oh yes, have it finished some time in late September. At some point as I was ready to break down after reporting for like 300 hours in four weeks, a wise friend told me to just start writing and so I did. And a remarkable piece of literature was produced. And the Cubs didn’t win the World Series, as you may recall. And it sold like 3-4,000 books, I believe. Ugh. But it wasn’t as awful as it could have been. I LOVED meeting Lou’s friends. It was like being on an episode of the Soprano’s only without the killing, and I believe at some point when I went to interview them in Tampa, I started calling them all “Uncle.”

J.P.: What was it like, when you were a younger reporter, having to deal with male professional athletes unaccustomed to having “a skirt” (their term) in the locker room/clubhouse? And was there a point when you started to see perceptions and reactions change?

M.I.: As a professional, I was indoctrinated to the ways of the women’s sportswriter world when I witnessed the great Joan Ryan being harassed in the Birmingham Stallion lockerroom in Orlando. I was hovering near the door at the time, since we were told we weren’t to come in, but Joan wasn’t putting up with that bullshit on deadline at a USFL game, and went in. One guy rubbed her leg with a tape cutter. The rest simply yelled disgusting things and cursed at her to get the fuck out. And when I looked around desperately “for help,” hoping perhaps one older guy with a Stallions’ polo  might step in, I noticed no, he was laughing too, joining in on the fun. Later, Joan and I wrote about him. He was the team owner, Jerry Sklar. But yes, it got better, mostly because I laughed off as much as we could, tried to blend in, which is what almost all of us did. As I got a little older, I tried educating them, even nicely lecturing the young ones I felt I had a chance to convert to humans. But the assholes will always be assholes. They stopped audibly harassing us sometime in the early 90s, in my experience. And I did my job with the belief that if I worked hard and was fair and was there every day and they got to know me, I would be respected, or at least accepted. And that’s pretty much how it went down. The Bulls were great to me. And the bad stories sort of faded away. But get me a little drunk and I’ll have more.

J.P.: In 2008 you won the Chicago Headline Club’s Peter Lisagor Award for top feature story of 2008 for your Tribune Magazine story on your folks’ fight with Alzheimer’s. And, soon enough, you’ll have a book that details the subject. And I ask, why would one want to re-live such awfulness via writing? I mean, is it therapeutic? Does it help you come to grips with things? Or is it awful, but you feel compelled?

M.I.: For the Magazine story, I worried, truly worried until the moment it was published, that I had done something bad, somehow violated my parent’s dignity or spilled family secrets without their permission, and the writing was done through tears. But to this day, I still hear from people who read it, clipped it, were touched by it in some way. And I know my parents would have been OK with it and proud of me as they always were. I want to kill myself every time I join “The Notebook” mid-stream (why do I do that?), but yes, it was therapeutic. Writing always has been for me. And after people told me the story made them feel a little less alone in dealing with the disease themselves, I know it was a good thing. My book is about my 1979 state championship basketball team and how basketball, in so many way, saved us. For me, high school marked some of the last lucid years of my parents’ lives. One of my brothers told me after they died that me and that team gave them a “second wind.” And it makes me happy every time I write about them now.

Melissa, front and center, during her hoops glory days.
Melissa, front and center, during her hoops glory days.

J.P.: I know many people (myself included) who gripe about millennials and their bullshit. You’re a lecturer at Northwestern. You deal with millennials daily. How do you see the generation? Ate there points to the stereotypes?

M.I.: OK, so I say this by prefacing it that I love my students. LOVE. Almost all of them. But yes, they have some issues, which makes me only sound old when I talk about it because it’s basically the same shit old people said about us when we were that age They don’t appreciate the importance of hard work. They’re entitled. They write for crap (not my students, of course, but a lot of them write like they text). They have a hard time actually speaking to people as in interviewing. But they can’t help that. I grew up loving to talk to my girlfriends (and with any luck, the occasional boy) on the phone. I still do. They obviously did not. My son, who is a junior at Northwestern, had to be locked in a room and forced to make his own haircut appointment at 17. But they’re also so, so smart, and opinionated in good and bad ways, and have big ideas and big plans and are terrified and insecure and want to do good work. In other words, just like us.

J.P.: I know you’ve written for Florida Today, USA Today, the Orlando Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune. But how did this happen for you? Why sports writing? When did the bug bite?

M.I.: I was 13 when Nixon resigned and I remember where I was when I watched it (my friend Bari’s house) and though I can’t tell you I read the Washington Post, I knew who  Woodward and Bernstein were and thought—probably because my parents did—that they were heroes. My parents had three papers at any given times in our house. We got the Sun-Times for much of my childhood all week, the Tribune on weekends (until I started writing for them) and my father read the Chicago Daily News every night. I circulated a class newspaper when I was in fourth grade—I was editor-in-chief, sports editor and the advice columnist. I loved Royko. And David Israel and John Schulian and Ray Sons and Roger Simon and Bob Greene. I remember how my mother savored the Sunday papers, only she made my father get them on Saturday night, and how I had to wait patiently for everyone else to read each section before I could. I loved newspapers. I loved to write. And thanks to two older brothers, I loved sports. There is no point at which I remember that happening. It just was. And so there was absolutely no hesitation in what I would do for my life. I thought I would die at my desk, working for the Tribune. Sigh.

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J.P.: What’s your money story from journalism? Meaning, the one story you tell at parties about your absolute craziest/weirdest experience?

M.I.: I have a lot. They are on a rotation basis. But it usually comes back to the years when I was pregnant, covering the Bulls and the time, in a pregame lockerroom in Cleveland (which is to say it was tiny in the old Richfield Coliseum), when Ron Harper and I got into a conversation about childbirth. Harper had several kids and was well-versed. B.J. Armstrong was listening in and thoroughly disgusted by the very notion, and announced he would be nowhere near the birthing process should his future wife ever have a baby. This prompted Harper to tell him it was really OK and to convince him, had him lie on the trainers table, his feet in imaginary stirrups, a towel over his knees and a basketball serving as the baby. As Harper and I acted as Lamaze coaches, coaching B.J. and very seriously urging the process along, roughly 35 minutes before the Bulls were to play the Cavs, Phil Jackson walked in, I assume to, you know, get ready for the game and address his team. I looked up and I will never forget the expression of part-wonderment, part incredulity on Phil’s face as he looked at this scene, shook his head, turned around and walked back out.

J.P.: In 1994 you wrote a book, “Transition Game,” about a season with the Bulls. I’ve never done an author-along-for-the-ride book. How difficult was that? How rewarding was that?

M.I.: Did it while I was pregnant (seeing a theme here) and it was fabulous because it was the first time I wrote “fuck” in print and I did it a lot. It was my first experience in pure writing freedom and I loved it and got to know the team in so many ways I never had before. I went to a movie (“A River Runs Through It”) with Bill Carwright, and if you’ve never gone to a movie with a 7-foot-1 man, try it sometime. I had off-the-record talks about AIDS with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. And I interviewed Steve Kerr in his hotel room, which prompted a lecture from Cartwright.

“Don’t do that,” he said as he saw me leaving Steve’s room.

“What do you mean?” I said dumbly.

“Don’t ever go into a players’ hotel room.” he said.

“But it’s Steve Kerr, for crying out loud,” I protested.

“Doesn’t matter,” Cartwright said. “The other guys will see that and you know what they will think.”

So I never did that again.

J.P.: You wrote of your last day at the Trib: “Being ‘Melissa Isaacson from the Chicago Tribune,’ gave me the confidence I did not always possess on my own, a veneer of credibility I had not yet earned.” So how did you adjust once you left the paper? How hard was it?

M.I.: Thanks for reading that. Hardest moment of my professional life. Cried in front of my kids. Cried for days. This was the place that brought me home to Chicago. The place that gave me chills every time I walked through the lobby. The place where, after I got the job offer, my friend Mark ran over from his job across the street and twirled me on Michigan Ave. and I felt like Mary Tyler Moore. I finished the column I was writing on Denis Savard the day I was laid off. And I didn’t stop writing. That day was my first blog. And I kept going. And someone read it from ESPN, thank God, and they took me in and rescued me. But I never got over it. I still haven’t.

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• I just visited your website, and you haven’t blogged since 2011. Why?: A big mistake. I started after leaving the Tribune and it was some of the best, most enjoyable writing I have ever done—not important in any way, just pure, unadulterated joy—and I actually, from nothing, got an organic following of a few thousand people, some of whom still ask me when I’m going to start again. I got busy with ESPN and just stopped. My book is going to be the impetus for me to start again. Clearly, I like to write. I have things to say. But I need to be better at social media and I need to blog.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Bienen School of Music, B.J. Armstrong, “Elf,” potassium citrate, rocking chairs, Handel’s Messiah, Matt Suhey, line dancing, Covington Catholic High School, Russell Martin: Bienen, Matt Suhey (butt-dialed him the other day—hadn’t talked to him in maybe 10-15 years—and he called back and we had a great conversation. Love Matt Suhey. But my kid is in the Bienen School of Music), Chromium picolinate (don’t know about potassium citrate but mine sounds like it. I love vitamins and take many), rocking chairs, “Elf,” Handel, line dancing, B.J., Martin, Covington (no f-ing way they weren’t jags).

• The world needs to know—what was it like covering Stacey King?: Wonderful. Michael was mean to him, so was Phil. I felt sorry for him. I loved Stacey and still do.

• Your husband’s name is Rick Mawrence. What are the myriad ways that last name is butchered?: For a second, I thought it was literary-sounding and was going to change my name. But my first editor at the Tribune, when I told him I was engaged, said, and I quote, “You’re not going to do that hyphenated byline shit, are you? No one wants to see that. Just keep your name. That’s how people know you.” I’m pretty sure I hadn’t asked him for his opinion. Then he asked me when I was going to get pregnant and that I probably would have to stop covering the Bulls when I did. True story.

• Five nicest athletes you’ve ever covered?: Roger Federer, Pam Shriver, Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, Jim Miller.

• Three biggest dicks?: LaTroy Hawkins. Ted Washington. Dick Butkus (made me cry on a phone interview when I worked for the Orlando Sentinel and called to do a story on the Butkus Award for best college linebacker being named for him. I believe liquor was involved).

• What are your four most overused writing words?: Mine or others? “Clearly. Generally.” I like qualifiers. “Likely.” I think I do that too much. But I think you may mean what are just overused in general. Anything that approaches a cliche, I loathe and makes me yell out loud when I grade. Sorry, I know I’m not answering this question well.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Michael Wilbon? What’s the outcome?: I do strength training at my Y. Last 25, 30 years. If a fight broke out, I can handle myself. And I can kick anyone ass who’s over the age of 60. Possibly.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I’m not a great flier. Flyer? So a bad taxi will have me thinking “This is it.” I try not to think about it and I don’t think I ever came close.

• Is humanity fucked, RE: climate change, or will we figure something out?: Oh God, as my mother used to say whenever my father would talk to her about burial plots as people used to do, “I’ll be dead. What do I care?” I do care, obviously. For my kids and their kids. But I’m an optimist. I refuse to believe we won’t fix things, just as I believe Trump will get his.