Sports columnist, television sports analyst
Michael Wilbon cohosts the top-rated early-evening program Pardon the Interruption on the ESPN cable network. His on-screen sparring partner is his longtime Washington Post colleague, Tony Kornheiser, where both accrued a devoted readership for their separate sports-page columns. "Many consider Wilbon … the best deadline writer in American newspapers, and Kornheiser the wittiest columnist," wrote Sports Illustrated's Stephanie Mansfield, who further noted that their ESPN program was "merely a televised version of what they have been doing in the corridors of the newsroom for years: debating, ribbing, needling, one-upping."
Wilbon was born in Chicago in 1958 and grew up on the city's South Side. As a teen, he played baseball and tennis and attended St. Ignatius College Prep, one of the city's top private schools. He graduated from the century-old, West Side institution with a reputation for academic excellence in 1976 and went on to Northwestern University. Years later, he wrote about the sports culture, or lack thereof, at Northwestern during his time there as a student, admitting that the school's Wildcats had a dismal record. Yet, he also noted that he and his fellow students took a kind of perverse pride in the emphasis on academic achievement, noting that while Northwestern had produced zero Heisman Trophy winners, it had several Nobel laureates among alumni ranks. Wilbon recalled in a column he wrote for the Sporting News, "We'd leave the library on Saturday, go to dinner and ask, ‘How much did we lose by?’ If the score was something like Ohio State, 35-17, I'd walk down the hall and ask one of the players how in hell we got so close. Instead of throwing me out the door, somebody would patiently explain it, we'd both go back to the library and that was that."
Wilbon spent two summers as an intern at the Washington Post, and then he was hired by the newspaper in 1980 when he graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. Assigned to the sports desk, he spent ten years covering college and professional teams before being given his own column on the sports page in February of 1990. He also became a regular contributor to the Sporting News and gained broadcasting experience with appearances on local pre- and postgame series for television stations in the Washington, D.C., area, including the Redskins Report on the NBC affiliate WRC-TV.
Wilbon and Kornheiser also became popular guests on ESPN's Sunday-morning chatfest, The Sports Reporters. In the fall of 2001 the cable sports network gave them their own show, Pardon the Interruption. Taped in ESPN's D.C. studio, PTI—as fans soon dubbed it—featured the two sportswriters delivering their opinions on the sports news of the day. It aired five nights a week at 5:30 p.m. (Eastern time) as a lead-in to the top-rated Sports Center and garnered excellent ratings as well as a devoted following. Even President George W. Bush was reportedly a PTI watcher and was rumored to have the half-hour show taped for him every day. Michael Speier of the Daily Variety described it as "a rapid-fire sports talker more fun than the games it skewers" and credited much of its appeal to the Kornheiser-Wilbon combination. "In an industry that has hit yakker overload," Speier asserted, the duo "are a dream team, combining knowledge, sarcasm, class, wit and a little tension to make up for the industry's other blowhards who mouth off way too much."
Over the course of his career, Wilbon has occasionally become friends with the star athletes he covers. Most notably among these is Charles Barkley, who spent sixteen years as one of the National Basketball Association's (NBA) top-scoring forwards and became one of the most lionized—and demonized—players in NBA history. Wilbon served as the editor of Barkley's bestselling book I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It (2002) and of Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man? (2005). The second book was a collection of Barkley's interviews with a range of prominent figures, including the U.S. senator Barack Obama, the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, and the former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Wilbon also penned the introduction for the second title, and in it he wrote about sitting in on many of those interviews. "I loved hearing Tiger Woods talk about why he will not compromise or reduce the fullness of his racial heritage for the convenience of those who can only deal with racial simplicity," he wrote. "I loved it when Ice Cube and George Lopez, both working on location, welcome us into their trailers to talk about race and the entertainment industry."
Five years after PTI began, Wilbon signed a contract-extension deal with ESPN that gave him more air time, both on the cable network and on sporting broadcast events for ABC, ESPN's sister property in the Disney stable. He continued to write his column for the Washington Post, but the ESPN deal—worth a reported $8 million over four years—specified that his ESPN and ABC assignments would take priority over the newspaper's coverage of D.C. team sporting events.
As of 2008, Wilbon and his wife lived in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of the District of Columbia suburb and had a vacation home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was there preparing to cover Super Bowl XLII in Phoenix in early 2008 when he woke his wife—who was seven months pregnant at the time with their first child—in the middle of the night to have her take him to the hospital. The chest pains he was experiencing turned out to be a mild heart attack, and he underwent an angioplasty procedure to clear a blocked artery. Doctors told the forty-nine-year-old journalist to slow down, and he missed his first Super Bowl game since beginning his sportswriting career. In a column he wrote a few days later for the Washington Post, Wilbon conceded that a change in his workaholic ways was long overdue. He also admitted that he had been stunned by the abundance of phone calls, cards, flowers, and other get-well wishes he received from some of the most prominent names in sports—some of whom, he noted, he had criticized for years both on the air and in his columns. "I hope I have the grace to extend myself to someone who might offer a public rebuke of my work," Wilbon wrote. "The lesson learned is probably that a bad pass on third and 12, a missed jump shot at the buzzer or even a prolonged disagreement with a teammate doesn't make that the dominant theme of a man's life."
At a Glance …
Born Michael Raymond Wilbon on November 19, 1958, in Chicago, IL; son of Raymond Wilbon and Cleo Wilbon (a teacher); married Sheryl; children: Matthew Raymond. Education: Northwestern University, BA, 1980.
Career: Washington Post, sports desk staff reporter, 1980-90, and columnist, 1990—; Pardon the Interruption, cohost, 2001—.
Memberships: Society of Professional Journalists.
Addresses: Home—Bethesda, MD; Scottsdale, AZ. Office—ESPN Inc., ESPN Plaza, Bristol, CT 06010.
(With) T. J. Simers, "The Year of the 'Cats," Sporting News, December 11, 1995, p. 36.
"A Life-Changing Turn of Events," Washington Post, February 1, 2008, p. E1.
Barkley, Charles, Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man? Penguin Press, 2005.
Daily Variety, January 21, 2002, p. 20.
Sports Illustrated, August 5, 2002, p. 52.
USA Today, December 27, 2006.
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