Ralph Wiley, one of the original Page 2 columnists and former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, died Sunday night at his home in Orlando of heart failure. He was 52 years old.
Wiley joined Page 2 at its inception in November 2000 and had written more than 240 columns for ESPN.com.
"For the past three and a half years, Ralph has produced a body of work that was both exceptional and insightful and arguably the best sports commentary on the web," said John Walsh, executive vice president and executive editor, ESPN.
Wiley also had appeared on ESPN's "Sports Reporters" since 1990. He provided regular commentary for ESPN's SportsCenter and formerly worked as an NFL analyst for NBC.
"Through his perspective and experience, Ralph developed one of the most creative lead voices in the American sports chorus," added ESPN.com vice president and executive editor Neal Scarbrough. "We were lucky to have him as a big part of ESPN.com."
Wiley was born in Memphis, Tenn., on April 12, 1952. His mother, Dorothy, who taught humanities at S.A. Owen Junior College, made an early habit of reading great books to her son: Alexandre Dumas, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Richard Wright. His father, Ralph H., a veteran of the Korean War, died young.
The early literary exposure clearly had a major influence on Wiley, who wrote several plays in high school. "Until I was 18, I never slept where I couldn't reach my hand from my bed to a bookcase," he told Essence magazine in 1993.
Wiley, who had run track and played football at Melrose High School in Memphis, started college with an eye toward playing football. But after a knee injury, he turned his focus to his studies.
He attended Knoxville College from 1972-75; while at Knoxville he played wide receiver and landed his first professional journalism job, writing sports for the weekly Knoxville Keyana-Spectrum. He studied business and finance at the school.
Upon graduation, Wiley took a job as a copyboy for the Oakland Tribune. After a year at the paper, the sports editor asked Wiley to write an article about Julius Erving to coincide with the merging of the NBA and the ABA. The article was a success and earned Wiley a job as the Tribune's prep sports writer. He soon was promoted to a city beat writer, and then, a year later, to sports, where he covered boxing. By the end of his 6½-year tenure at the Tribune, he was a regular columnist.
Sports Illustrated hired Wiley in 1982, and he remained there for nine years, writing 28 cover stories, many about boxing (most notably, the Mike Tyson trial), baseball and football.
"He clearly brought a unique perspective," said Roy Johnson, assistant managing editor for Sports Illustrated. "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.
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"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 essense of the athlete."
Wiley grew up boxing in "friendlies," and took a liking to an uncle who had been, briefly, a pro middleweight. "Charlie Boy" Wiley finished his career with a 3-2 record. "Charles was my favorite uncle," Wiley said in SI in 1989. "He was the slowest to anger and the quickest to laugh. And he had ability. It gave him what I call serenity."
That was the theme of Wiley's first book, published in 1989, "Serenity: A Boxing Memoir," which received excellent reviews. In the book Wiley "has taken the reader on an unflinching, sensitive and often sad boxing journey," wrote Bernard Kirsch in the New York Times Book Review.
"The novice will find 'Serenity' a fascinating look at the world of boxing, its winners and losers, which Wiley illustrates with anecdotes that reveal what he has learned about it," wrote Manuel Galvan in the Chicago Tribune.
His second book, a collection of essays entitled "Why Black People Tend to Shout" was rejected, Wiley estimated, "25 or 30 times" by publishers. The book sold well and also got good reviews. "It is not easy to express how it feels to be a black man in the 1990s," wrote Alex Raksin in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Ralph Wiley is one of the few who have been able to find just the right tone."
Wiley's writing was intentionally provocative. "As an essayist I don't believe in the fiction of an anonymous observer. Rather than the sham of objectivity, I think you should put your perspective up front. That's only fair to the reader," he told Essence in 1993, shortly after the publication of his second book of essays, "What Black People Should Do Now: Dispatches from Near the Vanguard".
Wiley's third book of essays, "Dark Witness: When Black People Should Be Sacrificed (Again)," was published in 1996. One of the more memorable segments of that book was "Trial of the Century." Wiley wrote of the O.J. Simpson trial from the perspective of having worked with Simpson on TV just a few years earlier. Wiley's portrait of the Simpson he knew was less than flattering.
Wiley also co-wrote many books. "Best Seat in the House: A Basketball Memoir," by Spike Lee and Wiley, was, according to John D. Thomas of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "One of the most honest, opinionated and enjoyable sports books to come out in years, maybe ever."
With Lee, Wiley also wrote "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X." And, at the time of his death, Wiley was working on a script with Lee for a follow-up to "He Got Game."
He co-authored "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story" and Dexter Scott King's autobiography, "Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir."
Wiley also wrote articles for Premiere, GQ, National Geographic, and many national newspapers. Among Wiley's many contributions to sports writing over the years was the phrase "BillyBall" to describe the Oakland A's under manager Billy Martin.
Wiley's fiancée, Susan Peacock, said Wiley was watching the player introductions in Game 4 of the NBA Finals when he took ill.
"He had not been feeling badly; there was no forewarning," she said.
Peacock added that Wiley worked out three times a week at the gym and was "very disciplined.
"He would wake up at 5 and would work nonstop like a madman until 10 or 11. Then he would go to the gym. He took his work very seriously."
Wiley is survived by his fiancée, Ms. Peacock,; his son, Cole, and daughter, Maggie; and his mother, Dorothy Brown, of Washington, D.C.