Wolff, Alexander 1957-

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WOLFF, Alexander 1957-

PERSONAL: Born February 3, 1957, in Wilmington, DE; son of Nikolaus Emanuel (a chemist) and Mary Whitney (a pianist; maiden name, Neave) Wolff; married Vanessa James (a filmmaker), June 20, 1998; children: one son, one daughter. Education: Princeton University, B.A. (history; cum laude), 1980.

ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY; Portsmouth, NH. Offıce—Sports Illustrated, 135 West 50th Street, New York, NY 10020. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Journalist and sports commentator. Sports Illustrated, New York, NY, reporter, 1980-81, writer/reporter, 1981-82, staff writer, 1982-85, senior writer, 1985—. Young Writers Institute, West Hartford, CT, mentor-through-the mail, 1991; Institute for International Sports, Kingston, RI, sports ethics fellow, 1992; British Broadcasting Corporation, London, England, Atlanta Olympics basketball commentator, 1996; CNN, CNN/SI, CNNSI.com, Atlanta, 1996, commentator; Ferris Professor of Journalism, Princeton University, 2002.

MEMBER: Professional Basketball Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association (president, 1990-99), National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, Association Internationale de la Presse Sportive.

AWARDS, HONORS: Numerous writing awards from U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) and Professional Basketball Writers Association; Sports Journalism award, Women's Sports Foundation, 1997; inducted into USBWA Hall of Fame, 2002; Powerade sports story of the year, 2003.


(With Chuck Wielgus, Jr.) The In-Your-Face Basketball Book, introduction by Al McGuire, Everest House (New York, NY), 1980.

(With Chuck Wielgus, Jr.) The Back-in-Your-Face Guide to Pick-Up Basketball: A Have-Jump-Shot, Will-Travel Tour of America's Hoops Hotspots, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1986.

(With Chuck Wielgus, Jr., and Steve Rushin) From A-Train to Yogi: The Fan's Book of Sports Nicknames, Perennial Library (New York, NY), 1987.

(With Armen Keteyian) Raw Recruits, Pocket Books (New York, NY) 1990.

(Contributor) Best Sports Stories, Dave Sloan, editor, Sporting News, 1990.

One Hundred Years of Hoops: A Fond Look Back at the Sport of Basketball, Crescent Books (Avenel, NJ), 1991.

A March of Honor, photographs by Damian Strohmeyer, Masters Press (Indianapolis, IN), 1997.

Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, Warner Books (New York, NY), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: Alexander Wolff, grandson of famed publishers Helen and Kurt Wolff, has earned a reputation as the "dean of basketball writers within the magazine industry." Wolff grew up in Rochester, New York, co-captained the Brighton High School basketball team, and played for a club team in Lucerne, Switzerland for a year. While a history major at Princeton, he studied writing with Robert K. Massie, author of Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great. "I love immersing myself in the thorough, gripping narrative re-creation," he commented on the Time Warner Web site. "J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground and Richard Kluger's Simple Justice are two books by which I've charted my journalistic path." Fascinated by sports even as a child, Wolff became even more fascinated with the opportunity they presented him as a writer. Of particular interest was the personal aspect of athletes' lives. He once said, "I consider myself a writer first and sportswriter second, and in my magazine pieces for Sports Illustrated I look particularly for subjects that transcend the arena."

One such subject is the topic of Raw Recruits, a book a critic for the Rose Zone Web site described as "an explosive exposé of the underbelly of college basketball recruitment practices." Here, Wolff and his coauthor describe not just how top high school players are courted by brokers and middle men, but how twelve-year-old kids in all-star leagues, summer camps, and on big-city playgrounds and street corners are seduced—particularly by sneaker manufacturers such as Nike. "Because so many of the players who are fiercely recruited are inner-city black kids who have never known financial security, they are particularly vulnerable," commented a reviewer for Kliatt. In the New York Review of Books, meanwhile, Arthur Kempton quoted a summer league coach featured in Wolff's book: "Nothing surprises me. . . . All hands are out. Some of these kids, they could open up a sporting goods store by the time they get to high school. A pair of Nikes and a sweat suit to a sixth-grader is like $100,000 to a college kid." The book's authors also describe the devastating effect these high-stake recruitment practices often have on players, coaches, parents, and the colleges themselves.

On his Web site, Big Game Small World, Wolff described his previous books, One Hundred Years of Hoops and A March for Honor, as "coffee-table efforts" that focus on the first one hundred years of the game, and the game at the Indiana High School level, respectively. Of the former, John A. Pyros in Aethlon wrote: "if you did judge Wolff's book by its rather pedestrian coffee-table format, you would be greatly underestimating its quite estimable value." Pyros described the book as broken down into components, including play strategy; women in the game; and biographies of players, coaches, and teams, "all written with a delicate balance of encyclopedic detail, anecdotal portraiture, and compassion."

Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure came into being when Wolff, according to the Time Warner Web site, decided to follow his "inner assignment editor." For nearly twenty years at Sports Illustrated Wolff covered all types of sports on every continent, but, in his online profile, remarked that he "sensed something was missing." So, in 1998, just recently married and forty-two years old, he negotiated for a leave of absence. "My aim was to chase basketball to the ends of the earth, and in the process get a better understanding of what the game can tell us about the world, and what the world can tell us about the game," he explained. Along with his wife, Vanessa—a filmmaker and sound editor—he began his self-imposed assignment.

From September 1998 through August 1999, Wolff traveled to sixteen countries and ten states in the United States, interviewing basketball players, coaches, and many others connected with the game. Invented in Massachusetts in 1891 by Canadian-born James Naismith, a Protestant minister, the sport had always been deemed purely American. However, in a New York Times review of Wolff's book, John Paul Newport commented that, while still dominated by the National Basketball Association, with most players being American, basketball is now more popular than soccer among middle-class youngsters around the world; in some places, the game is "practically a national religion." Wolff's book traces the international development and burgeoning popularity of basketball with the intent of creating what he calls on his Web site "a kind of unified-field theory of the game."

"The most entertaining chapters focus on people torn between their love of the game and conflicting, often incongruous forces," commented Newport, providing examples such as Mike McCollow. A nearly broke American coach of a professional team in Poland, McCollow was watched closely by local gangsters and had to somehow develop a winning team from a group of three Americans, playing for their last chance, and an "indifferent squad of only sporadically paid Poles." Another story tells of former Villanova sharp-shooter Shelly Pennefather, who went on to anchor Japan's top team, then gave away all her money, took a vow of poverty, and joined "an austere order of cloistered nuns in Alexandria, Va." Yet another recalls the multiethnic Yugoslav team that won the World Junior Championship in 1987 and the four players from that team who became NBA stars. "A decade of ethnic conflict in the Balkans hopelessly sundered their friendships," wrote Newport. "Some rifts, Wolff reports, are too deep even for basketball to transcend."

In his book, Wolff writes: "By journey's end, I hoped to have taken the measure of the game, and much of the world, and maybe even my sorry, settle-for-the-jump-shot self." In his review, Newport comments: "Wolff never does reveal much about his inner self. . . . This is a pity because the book would have benefitted from a stronger authorial personality to link the scattershot chapters." Newport concluded, however: "The book does provide some memorable cultural insights." Tom LeClair agreed in Book: "By touring outside the NCAA and NBA, Wolff has written one of the richest, most varied basketball books out there."



Aethlon, spring, 1994, John A. Pyros, review of One Hundred Years of Hoops, p. 178.

Book, March-April, 2002, Tom LeClair, review of Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, p. 76.

Booklist, January 1, 2002, Wes Lukowsky, review of Big Game, Small World, p. 793.

Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, January, 1991, review of Raw Recruits, p. 55.

Library Journal, June 1, 1980, Robert L. Rice, review of The In-Your-Face Basketball Book, p. 1323; February 1, 2002, Will Hepfer, Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, p. 108.

New York Review of Books, April 11, 1991, Arthur Kempton, "Native Sons," pp. 55-61.

Publishers Weekly, December 24, 2001, review of Big Game, Small World, p. 57.

School Library Journal, December 1980, Eileen D. Bort, review of The In-Your-Face Basketball Book, p. 83.

Sports Illustrated, January 21, 1985, Robert L. Miller, "Staff Writer Alex Wolff as Cheese Connoisseur," p. 4; April 7, 1986, Donald J. Barr, "Curry Kirkpatrick and Alexander Wolff Covered NCAA Basketball," p. 5; Steve Wulf, column, "Up Against Wall," p. 12.


Big Game Small World Web site, http://www.biggame smallworld.com/ (October 23, 2002).

National Basketball Association Web site,http://www.nba.com/ (October 23, 2002), "Big Game, Small World: An International Mail Bag" (interview).

New York Times on the Web,http://www.query.nytimes.com/ (March 24, 2002), John Paul Newport, "The World Court."

Rose Zone Web site,http://www.rosezone.com/ (October 23, 2002), review of Raw Recruits.

Time Warner Web site,http://www.twbookmark.com/ (October 23, 2002).

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