Editor's Note: With the passing of Page 2 columnist Ralph Wiley, several of his colleagues offer moments that embody their time with Ralph.
Vintage Wiley | From Dan LeBatard
We talked Sunday morning on the radio, as we always did, and that's what made Monday morning's news so jarring. Just 24 hours earlier, I had never, ever heard Ralph Wiley sound quite so alive.
He was, in the those last few minutes I heard him, the same way he was in so many before them -- colorful, vibrant, smart, engaged. He was unreasonably ticked about how everyone was dismissing the Lakers as lazy and not allowing that, um, hey, maybe the Pistons are just better. Ralph got real heated, surprisingly so, until he was yelling.We weren't arguing. I wasn't saying much of anything at all, actually. I was just smiling on my end, literally smiling, as this rockslide gathered momentum. Because, all by himself, without any solicitation, Ralph had worked himselft into quite the froth. And it was a lot of fun to hear him when something, anything, moved him. Ralph was very good at making you smile. That's what I'll remember -- that passion. That kind of thing doesn't get extinguished, not even by news as sad as this. It echoes. Ralph cared, deeply, about people, about injustices, about learning, about teaching, about mental stimulation, about writing and, of course, about sports. So, Ralph on Sunday railed about everything from underappreciated Tayshaun Prince's ungodly wingspan to how Larry Brown was the best coach in the history of basketball because he had once gotten the Clippers to the playoffs. Our time was up, but he would not be contained. We had to go another segment with him, which we never do. He had so much more to say. That's part of what makes this news so empty and sad. He had so much more to say. Dan LeBatard hosts a weekend show on ESPN Radio and is a regular columnist for ESPN The Magazine.
Always ahead of his time | From Rick Reilly
You'd call Ralph Wiley just to hear the way he'd answer his phone. Sometimes it would be, "Speak to me!" Sometimes, "Go!" and sometimes it would be, "Be good news!"
I've never met anybody remotely like him. He seemed to be three parts carnival sideshow barker and four parts encyclopedia. I liked to go to dinner with him just to hear him carry on wildly -- his arms and hands making like an Army Corps signalman -- about everything BUT sports: jazz, race, politics, history. Honestly, you could've sold tickets. Or given out college credits.
I loved his mind the first time I read him in the Oakland Tribune way back in the early '80s. He was deep, brilliant, engaged, funny, angry, and so well-read. I read him for years before I ever got to meet him and when I did, he acted as though he'd known me my whole life. He arched those eyebrows until they practically snapped, folded those fingers in front of his face and said, "Have I got an idea for you!" This was 10 years ago. He said, "This will make us BIG bank (Ralph's word for money) and it's so simple. You, a white guy. Me, a black guy. You, Reilly. Me, Wiley. We'll call it Wiley vs. Reilly and we'll sit in front of ESPN cameras and argue about sports! We'll NEVER agree! They'll eat it up!"
And, of course, I said, "Forget it, Ralph. It'll never work." And, of course, it became PTI.
Ralph was always ahead of his time that way. He had a profound effect on my career. I watched and learned the way he wrote about life through sports. I watched and learned the way he never half-assed his opinions, selling them for every cent of his soul. I watched and learned the way he interviewed athletes -- as people first, as men and women who were more than their uniforms, who had brains and pasts and opinions that had nothing to do with their games.
I just can't believe he's gone. It's like we just lost the most colorful crayon out of the box of 12.
For years I answered the phone the way Ralph did: "Be good news!"
Monday morning, it wasn't.
Rick Reilly is a columnist for Sports Illustrated.
A true friend | From Eric Davis
I met Ralph during spring training in 1986, and I must say he was a breath of fresh air because he was honest and true to his word. From that point on we became very close friends. He was like a big brother to me, and I had the utmost respect for him. He was one of those guys who was very opinionated, but that didn't stop him from being a great listener. And during some of my difficult personal times -- most notably when I got cancer in 1997 -- Ralph was always there for me as great friends always are.
Our friendship grew even stronger in 1998 when we spent nearly 3½ weeks together in preparation for the book he wrote about me, "Born to Play." He was an easy guy to talk to, and he helped me in becoming more trustworthy of other reporters. He gave me that sense of security to be more confident in myself when dealing with other people.
He was a phenomenal person, and someone I will truly miss.Eric Davis played major league baseball for 17 years.
Paving the path | From Jason Whitlock
Ralph Wiley, my friend, my mentor, counseled me often. Once, I said something that Ralph found profound. We were discussing the dangers of black people buying into the Chris Rock notion that there are black people and there are n------. I told Ralph, if it's true, then black people better go to bed every night and thank God for n------.
"We owe everything to n------, Ralph. We wouldn't have our jobs if it wasn't for n------. The only reason we have these fancy mainstream media jobs now is because poor, ghetto black folks rioted after Martin was murdered. The inner cities were on fire, and it was too damn hot for white reporters to go in the 'hood and find out what was going on. So they gave notebooks and pens to the black janitors and told them to go find out what was going on. We owe our jobs to the ghetto folks who were mad as hell, refused to take it anymore and started tossing around Molotov Cocktails. Poor blacks do all the dirty work and middle class blacks reap the benefits. All the real freedom fighters die early, go to jail and never get to enjoy the freedom they won."
That's how I feel about Ralph. He threw Molotov Cocktails. And because he did, guys like yours truly, Wilbon, Rhoden, Stephen A. Smith, Jeffri Chadiha, Jim Trotter, Monte Poole, Shaun Powell, Bryan Burwell, J.A. Adande, Drew Sharp, John Smallwood, Tim Smith, Phil Taylor, Terrance Harris, Clarence Hill, Terry Foster and countless others have an easier road to travel.
Jason Whitlock is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and Page 2 and is a regular commentator on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters."
Always intelligent, always Wiley | From Mike Lupica
I sat across from Ralph Wiley on "The Sports Reporters," way back at the beginning. And every single time he would make his fingers into a steeple, and raise an eyebrow, and smile, I would smile.
Ralph Wiley had many qualities, but the quality that made him special among writers was gravitas. His words commanded respect not only because of their passion but because of their author. Wiley covered (and more importantly, experienced) so much in his career that even when you disagreed with him -- in fact, especially when you disagreed with him -- you had to pay attention. Basketball, football, baseball, boxing, track -- he covered and knew those sports inside and out. But it was his willingness, his determination, to challenge us on race that made him stand out. In a field nearly as white as the cast of "Friends,'' Wiley made a point of writing the issues that we all too often ignore. Or never really understand. One of Wiley's best books was, "Why Black People Tend to Shout." Wiley could shout with the best of columnists. But even when he whispered, you could hear the wisdom of his life. Ralph sent me an email a while back, complimenting me on something I wrote. I can't even remember what the story I wrote was, but I'll always remember the compliment. Receiving praise from Ralph Wiley made me feel special. Now I realize that he made everyone feel that way, and that was his greatest gift. Jim Caple is a columnist for Page 2. Forever a teacher | From Bomani Jones
Like so many others, I spoke with Ralph Wiley on Sunday morning, only our talk was through the new millennial party line known as instant messenger. For the last year, Ralph took the time to -- in no particular order -- counsel, encourage, advise, and humor me. I called him Sensei, and he called me Grasshopper.
He did all those things even though he had never seen my face. After a buddy of mine passed Ralph some of my work, he allowed me to correspond with him through e-mail. For a young writer, this was like an NBA player helping a young cat with his jumper at the Y. It was an exchange for which I've always been grateful, and that gratitude will continue.
Ralph once subtly mentioned a gentleman named Young Boy Dover in a piece, the neighborhood basketball star of his day in Memphis. He told me that everyone has a figure like that in his life, and I would have to find my Young Boy Dover, the old head that would help sharpen my game. I can only hope that he realizes that he served that role for me.
In a world where people don't even wave to each other on the street, he did all of this though he had never seen my face.
In the end, I'm left with his most lasting piece of advice. "Grasshopper, you appear to be a master of overstatement, but be careful. I prefer to be a master of understatement. But whatever you do, be a master of something."
Bomani Jones is a columnist at Africana.com, a Time Warner company, and has contributed to Page 2.
The Big-Leaguer | From Tim Keown
A quick memory of Ralph Wiley: I was 22 and naïve when I walked into the old Arco Arena in Sacramento and saw the name on the card next to my press-row seat -- Ralph Wiley, Sports Illustrated. I was working for a tiny newspaper in the Sacramento Valley, and sitting next to a senior writer from Sports Illustrated was better than a one-on-one interview with Magic Johnson.
He sat down, said hello and proceeded to watch a game more thoroughly than anyone I'd ever seen. (Watching a game is an underrated art, and this guy knew how to do it.) By the end of the first quarter, I was peppering him with questions -- some embarrassingly stupid, some insightful, most in the middle. He answered every one with kindness and grace, and that experience stuck with me.
I remember thinking, "That's how a big-leaguer conducts himself."
Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Sketches of Wiley | From John Marvel
When the idea of starting Page 2 came about in early 2000, I spent several days with John Walsh brainstorming about writers who would be regular contributors. We disagreed on many, but there was no argument when Ralph Wiley's name was brought up.
Ralph would be perfect to help launch the section. And he was.
My first encounter with Ralph was in the late 1980s at the Oakland Coliseum, hours before a meaningless August game between the A's and an American League patsy. I was doing a pre-game interview on local TV and had dusted off a coat and tie. As I was standing around doing nothing, Ralph stopped in front of me, rolled my tie through his fingers and shouted to everyone within earshot.
"Damn, Captain Marvel, this is some tie," he chuckled. "You sure you're a sportswriter?"
I was, but certainly not in Ralph's league. The man could bring it, often raising an emotional reaction in the reader's mind. His words could make you angry or they could make you cry. They always made you think.
Later on the same day I met him, he was walking by my seat in the press box when he stopped on a dime and grabbed a book out of my hands. I had just started "Miles: An Autobiography," the fabulous collaboration between Miles Davis and the poet Quincy Troupe.
"What are you doing reading this?" Ralph asked. "You like jazz?"
"Love it," I replied.
"What's your favorite Miles record?"
"Sketches of Spain."
"Yeah, you like jazz," he cackled with approval. "That was the right answer."
I listened to Miles for several hours on Monday after I heard about Ralph's death. When "Sketches" came on, the music flowed through my office as it always does. Yet because we'd lost a friend long before his time, the sound was different. We can ask why, but for that question there is no answer.
John Marvel is an Editor-at-Large with ESPN and former Executive Editor of ESPN.com.
Meet Terence Mann | From Tom Friend
After my last visit with Ralph, as we sat courtside with Spike Lee before a February Knicks game, it dawned on me who he was: He was James Earl Jones' character in "Field of Dreams.'' The black voice of his journalism generation.
And so, along those lines, that's what happened Sunday night: he walked into that Iowa cornfield. To get a friggin' great story.
I wish I could read that piece someday, Ralph. Wish I could read it.
Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
A truly unique voice | From Jay Lovinger
I was wandering around Westchester County this morning, bemoaning my fate -- I had just gotten a $60 parking ticket, and had a handful of annoying chores to attend to -- when Page 2's David Schoenfield called with the terrible news that Ralph Wiley had died at the obscene age of 52.
My first thought was that Ralph would never have wasted any of his precious time worrying about a lousy parking ticket. The great thing about Ralph -- out of many great things -- was his generosity of spirit. I don't know what he was like in the solitude of his own company, of course, but whenever I ran into him -- in person, by phone, via e-mail -- he was too busy thinking about me. Or somebody else who would never appreciate how lucky they were.
In fact, when I told Bob Lipsyte that Ralph had died, he said he had just been talking about Ralph the day before, and the phrase he had used was "big-hearted."Late last year, I started a project for Page 2 called The Writers' Bloc. Naturally, I asked Ralph to join. Naturally, Ralph said he was too busy -- which was more than reasonable, since he was working on a couple of screenplays, a TV project or two or three with Spike Lee, a new book, his regular weekly column for Page 2, regular appearances on SportsCenter and other ESPN TV shows, radio interviews, etc. Of course, within moments of starting The Writers' Bloc, I began to receive a stream of contributions, ideas and encouragement. More amazing, every day Ralph read the endless e-mails (both in length and number) that went back and forth among the writers and editors of The Bloc, offering encouragement and praise to his colleagues -- even when he had to shovel through 10 pages of drivel to find one pretty good sentence. But, in a nutshell, that was Ralph. Oddly, when I first met Ralph, I didn't like him very much -- at least, for the first two hours. Kevin Jackson and I had been commissioned by ESPN executive vice president John Walsh to start Page 2, and Walsh was quite certain Ralph would be a vital contributor to any success Page 2 might eventually have. So he set up a lunch with Ralph and a bunch of ESPN.com editors, including me. At the lunch, Ralph got caught up in the macho posturing that often dominates when "sports guys" get together. And, to be fair, Ralph could bluster and get in your face with the best of them. I was uneasy, especially because Page 2, in some ways, was supposed to be everything traditional sports stuff was not. However, Ralph wound up giving me a ride back to the office from the restaurant, and the whole way back he talked poignantly about how painful it had been for him earlier that week to drop his son off at college for his freshman year. By the time we got back to Bristol, I understood exactly what Walsh was thinking. It is often said about writers, especially right after they die, that they had "a unique voice." And, almost always, this is not true. However, love his work or hate it, if you have an ounce of fairness in your bones, you have to admit that Ralph had a unique voice. And the reality is that what appeared on Page 2 was just the teensy, tiniest tip of the iceberg. To get a feel for what Ralph really had to offer, get your hands on his book "Why Black People Tend to Shout." It's a classic -- funny, wise, brave and brilliant. Which are precisely the words I'd use to describe Ralph himself -- yes, Bob, along with "big-hearted" -- and precisely why he will be so sorely missed. There aren't enough like him in the world. Not nearly enough. Jay Lovinger is a founding editor for Page 2.
Paving a path | From Eric Neel
For most of my life, Ralph Wiley was a hero. My hero.
As a young man, I read his stories in Sports Illustrated, and I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to love words, the way he did, with a feel for the keen edge of critique and the flow of poetry. I wanted to tell stories, the way he did, with an eye for the little weirdnesses, good and bad, that make people human, and with an appreciation for the fundamental features and bold acts, good and bad, that make people more than human.When I came to work at Page 2, and learned I'd be part of a team that included Ralph Wiley, it was literally a dream come true. One May day a couple years back, reality surpassed the dream. I opened my e-mail box to find a note from Ralph. We'd never met or spoken before. I had no idea he knew who I was. I'd written a piece about the Lakers' 1987 championship run and the death of my grandfather. "This stuff is strong," Ralph wrote. "Keep at it, Young One. Never stop. It's in you." I printed the e-mail. Posted it above my desk. Read it every morning when I sat down to write. And the notes kept coming. He would offer encouragement. Tease out an idea with me. One time, after we'd both written about an infamous Allen Iverson press conference, he wrote to say he thought we sounded good together. He was like Thelonious Monk, he said, all syncopated rhythms and angular transitions. I was like Bill Evans, he said, with a feel for silences. That was Ralph, an incredibly gifted writer and a tireless worker who always took the time to make other writers feel good, whose love of language and the work was so deep he wanted to see it grow in others. Over the last couple years, Ralph became a friend. We got together in Oakland one day last spring and sat in the bar at Yoshi's jazz club, talking about music and politics and film and the Lakers, and always about the writing. He had energy and enthusiasm to spare. No subject was too small. His eye and his ear were voracious. Talking to him, as it had been years earlier when I first read him, I wanted to do more and to be more. "You will," he said as we parted for the evening. "You're a writer. You've got no choice." I felt like I was being knighted in that moment. I felt like he saw the path I was about to walk down, and he was telling me to go on, that it'd be all right. God, I miss him. I miss knowing he's out there somewhere, bending words into gold, setting the standard, and always waiting with advice and with the great gifts of his generous heart. I miss my hero and my friend. Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. The game | From Bill Simmons
I almost invited him over.
Maybe Ralph and I weren't friends quite yet, but we were headed that way. So when he was passing through Los Angeles last week, I wanted to invite him over to watch Game 3 of the Finals. You may remember my running joke about the dwindling number of diehard NBA fans, how I was one of the last remaining 20 on the planet. Well, so was Ralph. And we liked that about each other. I thought it would be fun to watch a game with him.
As it turned out, I was working on a column for Friday that took much longer than I expected, so the invitation was never extended. "Maybe some other time," I remember thinking to myself. We exchanged e-mails on Friday, planned our next collaboration for Page 2 ... and he passed away 48 hours later. We never got to watch that game.
I feel for his family, I feel for his readers, I feel for me. Because we were just scratching the surface of a potential partnership. When I returned full time to ESPN last month, one of my first projects was to figure out something to do with Ralph, something we could write together, something that captured the same spirit of the e-mails we sent back and forth from time to time. If we could channel some of that same passion that worked so well for Kornheiser and Wilbon on TV -- which didn't seem impossible -- we would really have something. Like "PTI" on the web.
Finally I sent him an idea: What if we e-mailed back and forth about the NBA playoffs for an entire day, then ESPN posted the responses as they came? Ralph agreed in about 2.37 seconds. It's not like he needed an excuse to talk hoops. Just like me. The first collaboration wasn't as good as it could have been, only because our responses were too long (no surprise to anyone who reads Page 2). So we identified the kinks and fixed them for our next scheduled attempt, which never ended up happening.
I think we could have pulled it off. Actually, I know we could have pulled it off. Alas.
There's a scene in "Midnight Run" when Grodin and DeNiro say their goodbyes at the airport, knowing they probably would have been buddies under different circumstances, when Grodin tells DeNiro's character, "See you in the next life, Jack." That's how I feel right now. Not only did the list of diehard NBA fans just drop from 20 to 19, but I lost someone who should have become my friend. He just ran out of time.
See you in the next life, Ralph.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine and Page 2
Through the athlete's eyes | From Roy Johnson
Ralph was always passionate about the people he covered. Passionate about what drove them and about describing them in a way that was unique, in that it also meshed with his own passions. His gift was to be a unique voice.
He painted portraits of some of the great fighters that still stand as seminal portraits of greatness. He was also able to bring that same sensibility to people in other sports from Cal Ripken to Ken Norton Jr. He was one of the early writers to discover the intriguing relationship between Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, and to trace that back to its beginnings and give it light at a point when both players were beginning their troubling declines.He clearly brought a unique perspective. He was never afraid of bringing a consciousness that was often overlooked in the sports world. It was one that valued the athlete and went the extra mile to discover the essence of either their greatness or tragedy. At a time when people look at the surface or look at stats, Ralph kind of threw them in the trash, and tried to get to the essence of the athlete. Roy S. Johnson is the assistant managing editor for Sports Illustrated.
Truly important | From Kevin Jackson
Whenever tragedy strikes, sports journalists have a habit of always saying something like, "It makes what we do seem not very important." After all, we cover games for a living.
True to his roots | From William Rhoden
Ralph was a soldier. He was a soldier in the ongoing war of freedom for black journalists and in the war of freedom for the truth in sports journalism. He saw things as they were.
I'm going to miss his voice, his presence, his perspective and his sense of humor. He was a giant in our industry. He was like a beacon. He really will be missed.William Rhoden is a sports columnist for The New York Times and regular commentator on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters." The provoker | From Bill Conlin
Ralph Wiley was born to make people think. He was born to infuriate readers of newspapers and magazines, to outrage TV viewers and Internet browsers, not so much with the intensity of words that often left bare, bleeding flesh, but with the realization that he was probably right. We most likely deserved the back of his hand upside our heads. As frequent panelists on ESPN's "Sports Reporters," Ralph and I debated the opposite sides of many issues -- some even involving sports. But what he did even better than debate was write wonderfully from a solid platform of intellectual accomplishment. As Ralph entered mid-life, I fully expected to see his name atop the best-seller lists with an important novel or a wet-hands-on-a-hot-wire collection of essays treating the often harsh realities of being black in America. Bill Conlin is a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and regular commentator on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters." Giving thanks | From Michael Knisley
For once in my life, I did something right. I said 'thanks' before it was too late. Among my last communications with Ralph was a quick email exchange last Wednesday, shortly after he finished up a SportsNation chat with Bill Simmons in response to Larry Bird's comments about white players in the NBA. We'd asked Ralph to get into the chat at the last minute; and when it was finished up, he emailed me this: "Man, was that a middle-school fire drill, or what? I'll try to do better next run. If there is a next run." I wrote back: "For stepping in and stepping up like you did with the chat -- like you do every time we need you -- I am grateful on a daily basis. 'Tis truly a pleasure, my man. Thank you." And this was his response: "In the immortal words from 'Bridge on the River Kwai': 'Be happy in your work.' I am. Glad it's mutual." That's what it was like to work with Ralph Wiley. I'm glad I had the chance to do it. Michael Knisley is the Senior Editor for Page 2. A hero, and an inspiration | From Alan Grant
Several years ago, during a tribute to Richard Pryor, Keenan Ivory Wayans stood up and announced to the crowd that he had always wanted to meet the guest of honor. Said he was a hero, and an inspiration, and everything else you'd expect at such an event. But then I recall Wayans saying that though he had always wanted to meet Pryor, he never felt it would be quite right, until he was "doing something worthwhile." At the time of the event, Wayans was enjoying success as the creator of the television show "In Living Color." So when he stood to offer praise, he did so at a time when he felt most worthy of meeting the source of his inspiration.
I felt the same way when I first met Ralph Wiley. It was at the College Football Awards in Orlando, Fla. in 2002. At the time, I was working on my first book. I introduced myself to him. I told him that after I read his book, "Why Black People Tend to Shout," I was convinced that I wanted to write about sports for a living. He was the first writer I knew who wrote about black athletes as if they were actual human beings.
In 2002, when I finished my book, my editor told me I needed to get a quote from a writer I respected to post on the book jacket. Needless to say, my first call was to Ralph Wiley.
Over the past two years, Ralph was a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. For a generation of aspiring, young black sportswriters, "R-dub" was the OG. He'll be missed.Alan Grant is a writer for ESPN The Magazine. A true teacher | From Richard Lapchick
I was lucky enough to become a close friend with Ralph Wiley in the last few years after knowing him since his early days at Sports Illustrated. As the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program, I asked Ralph to come to speak to our students each semester. In the 24 hours since his passing, here are some of the things they emailed to me:
As someone who writes and thinks about race and sport and social issues and sport, Ralph Wiley is a never before, never again figure. He made me rethink all that I had thought and challenged all of us to make ethics and integrity the pillars of our lives.
Ralph and I talked even more often since I became an ESPN.com Page 2 columnist. I always wanted to know what he thought about what I was writing and thinking. Now I will only be able to imagine it as I will miss this special gift to humanity known as Ralph Wiley.Richard Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program.