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ESPN's Ralph Wiley Dies


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Monday, June 14, 2004




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."



Remembering Ralph

Ralph's friends and colleagues at Page 2 and throughout the country offer their memories of an important voice.



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 6?-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 essense of either their greatness or tragedy.



Your thoughts on Ralph Wiley



Upon the passing of Ralph Wiley, we would like to hear your memories and condolences. Click here to send your thoughts.



"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", was published in 1993.



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 fianc?, 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 son, Cole, and daughter, Maggie; his mother, Dorothy Brown, of Washington, D.C.; and his fianc?, Susan Peacock.

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Memories: (This is making me cry)


Vintage Wiley | From Dan Le Batard

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, umm, 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 rock slide gathered momentum. Because, all by himself, without any solicitation, Ralph had worked himself 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 Admin 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 Le Batard hosts a weekend show on ESPN Radio and is a regular columnist 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.



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.


When I learned about the death of my colleague Ralph Wiley on Monday morning, I had quite the opposite reaction.


Ralph's voice was important. Very important. And as I grimly passed along the news of his death to his friends at Page 2, I was reminded just how important the words we put out every day really are. How they can touch people, move them, make them think.


Few did that better than Ralph.


Just click through his archive on Page 2. See what he wrote about sports on the day after 9/11. Read his thoughts on the legacy of Jackie Robinson. Check out the second piece he ever wrote for Page 2, an examination of Darryl Strawberry's fall from grace.


If you still think those are unimportant words about games, then I don't want to know you.


Kevin Jackson is one of the founding editors of Page 2 and currently works as the coordinating editor for ESPN.com.



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.


He looked innocent, the way cats do, but I knew he was ready to pounce. I didn't know what was coming next, just knew it was going to be smart. He had a wonderful mind. His voice was his own. His opinions were his own. His passion was real. You didn't have to scroll back to the top of the page to know who you were reading.


At a time when the business gets dumber all the time, Ralph Wiley tried to make everything smarter. This he did with his idea and his fine prose, with anger and humor and strut and sass. And fearlessness. I loved watching his "Voices of SportsCenter" pieces, just because he was the same there as he used to be in the chair to Dick Schaap's right: When he smiled, I knew somebody in sports better hit the deck fast.


They told me I had a paragraph today. It's not nearly enough. I will end this with a paragraph from Ralph instead, from a piece he wrote in Sports Illustrated 22 years ago, about the Boom Boom Mancini fight that killed a boxer named Duk Koo Kim. It is only as good as sportswriting gets:


"Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini held his swollen left hand in front of him like a jewel while shading his battered brow with his right. The bright lights were harsh and unwelcome. There were questions in Mancini's heart about what had happened in the ring, though he didn't yet know the full horror of what had occurred. Was the WBA lightweight title he had just defended successfully against South Korea's Duk Koo Kim worth this? Was anything? 'Why do I do it?' Mancini asked himself. 'Why do I do this? I'm the one who has to wake up in the morning and look at myself.' He fingered the purple, misshapen area around his left eye. 'A badge of honor,' he said in a morbid tone."


Mike Lupica is a columnist for the New York Daily News and regular commentator on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters."



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.



Ralph never stopped being black. A lot of times as you become successful, and you see this with a lot of younger guys, they forget their roots, become all integrated and they lose their voice. Ralph never lost sight of his roots. He began at a black newspaper and attended a black college. And he stayed true to that.



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."

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Vintage Wiley | From Dan Le Batard

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, umm, hey, maybe the Pistons are just better. Ralph got real heated, surprisingly so, until he was yelling.


I listened to that yesterday morning. It was awesome.


Makes it that much more unbelievable. He was a great writer. I didn't agree with half his stuff, but I enjoyed reading it all.

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Guest Juanky

Next to the Sports Guy probably my favorite writer on Page 2 and maybe even in the whole sports business. I'll miss him for sure, the Road Dogg bit, the way he brought class and style to the business, and how he wasn't afraid to call people out when they were clearly in the wrong. We've been losing too many great souls lately.



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