Michael Wilbon’s Last Column

Michael Wilbon departs the Washington Post after more than 30 years to work full time at ESPN. Here are his last -- and first -- columns.

Most of us know Michael Wilbon best as a sports commentator on ESPN, first with the “Sports Reporters” and more recently with “PTI.”  But his ticket into that world was as a fast rising star at the Washington Post, where he worked for 31-1/2 years, 22 of them as a columnist.

His farewell column appears today and it’s well worth the read.

I remember thinking in the summer of 1980, after graduating from college and coming back to Washington for a second summer, that it would be a successful career if I got to have a byline from each of the major sporting events once in my life. It never dawned on me I’d wind up covering nine Olympic Games for The Post, or more than 20 Super Bowls, more than 20 Final Fours, more than 20 NBA Finals, or more importantly evolve to the point where the editors of this newspaper would trust me to lead the daily discussion about the news of the day and the changing cultural landscape as it all related to sports.

I never woke up a single day in those 30 years hesitant to go to work, whether I was reporting on something as surprising as Virginia’s top-ranked basketball team losing to Chaminade in Honolulu; as terrifying as Mike Tyson biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear 30 feet in front of me; as historically significant as John Thompson navigating a Georgetown basketball program through the hostility of a sports world not yet comfortable with a black coach; as locally galvanizing as the Redskins winning a Super Bowl; as personally rewarding as being front and center to see David Robinson and Grant Hill and Byron Leftwich grow from boys to men; as selfless as Gary Williams leaving a perfectly good basketball program at Ohio State to come and save his alma mater; or as tragic as the death of young Len Bias.

His debut column, on the racist remarks that ended Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder’s long career, was pretty good, too.

Because WaPo became my “local” newspaper around the same time that I stopped reading the print version of newspapers, I was never a regular reader of his columns, instead stumbling on them from time to time.  The one I most remember was his assessment of his friend Michael Jordan’s rather odd performance at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

My reaction was to be surprised at the reaction of people who were so stunned. What did they think separated Jordan from merely great athletes? Almost certainly it was the controlled rage with which he played every single night of his life and probably 90 percent of the practices in which he participated. A less ruthless Jordan would have been, well, Clyde Drexler.

That’s not only a great line but a great insight into the nature of athletic competition and human nature.  The good sportswriters can dole out the former with regularity; only the greats give you the latter.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.