When Jackie MacMullan joined the Boston Globe as an intern in the news department, in 1982, the N.B.A. was just beginning its ascent to major national—and, later, international—popularity. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had entered the league a few years before; CBS was still airing some playoff games on tape delay. MacMullan did more than witness the league’s growth; she became one of its most influential chroniclers. She was a beat reporter, covering the Boston Celtics, in the eighties, then a writer for Sports Illustrated and a columnist for the Globe, and finally a columnist and writer for ESPN. (She also appears frequently on a number of ESPN television shows.) She has co-written autobiographies by Larry Bird, Geno Auriemma, and Shaquille O’Neal, and, with Bird and Magic Johnson, she wrote “When the Game Was Ours.” Last year, she co-edited, with Rafe Bartholomew and Dan Klores, “Basketball: A Love Story,” an oral history of basketball based on the ESPN documentary series of the same name.
In 2010, the Basketball Hall of Fame awarded her the Curt Gowdy Award, which is given to members of the media who have made significant contributions to the game. She was the first woman to win it. (She remains the only woman to have won the print award; last year, Doris Burke was a recipient in the electronic category.) Earlier this year, she became the first woman to win the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sportswriting. I spoke with her recently, in Boston, about the course of her career, the evolution of the N.B.A., and the state of sportswriting. We later talked on the phone. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.
I know you have a good story about how you got into journalism.
I went to Westwood High School in Westwood, Massachusetts. We had all these great sports teams for the girls, and the women’s basketball team hadn’t lost a league game in—I think it was seventeen years. And, every time I picked up the local paper, they never wrote about the girls. I used to stomp around the house complaining about it. Finally, my dad said to me one day, “Why don’t you stop complaining about it and do something about it?” And I’m, like, “Well, maybe I will.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you call the sports editor?” So he stood there and watched me. I called the guy—his name was John Wall. He smoked a cigar. He was an old-school newspaper guy. And, of course, all of a sudden, I lost my nerve. I was like “Uh, I’m kind of wondering, maybe . . .” He said, “Look, I don’t have a big staff and so I don’t have anybody do it. Do you want to do it?” And I said, “Well, I’m fifteen.” And he said, “Yeah, well, if it stinks, I won’t run it.” So that’s how it happened. I would write a story out longhand and drop it at the front office at Westwood High School, and he’d come pick it up and put it in the paper. I still can’t believe it. I only wrote about the girls. I refused to write about the boys. Even if there was a good story, I just wouldn’t do it.
After college, you got a job at the Boston Globe. Did you have a sense of yourself as breaking ground as a female sports reporter?
I didn’t know how few people had done it before. I’m being dead serious. When you’re twenty-one, and you’re at the Boston Globe, you’re just so happy to be there. I noticed at the games when I was the only woman, but I never noticed it in the newsroom.
Was that a kind of blessing?
The blessing for me was that my name was Jackie MacMullan. Everyone thought I was an Irish-Catholic guy from Southie. I got to write under a cloak. I don’t think I realized at the time what a gift that was, because Boston’s a really tough town, and very set in their ways. And yet they embraced me, and once they did they were, like, “Oh, my gosh, she’s a woman.” And then they were, like, “O.K.”
What’s tough about Boston in particular?
Boston is—once you become one of them, and they decide you are one of them, they will protect you and support you in the most emotional and strong and incredible way. This idea that it’s this tough sports town . . . When they embrace you—oh, my God—they hold on so tight.
There are stories about Red Auerbach, who’d run the Celtics for decades by then, blowing cigar smoke in your face when he met you—and assuming that you were the coach of the cheerleaders. How do you withstand that—and then have the generosity to give people the time to come around?
Red is an iconic figure. I thought, well, I’ve just got to make my way with this man. I thought, If I can get Red Auerbach to come around, I’ll have everybody.
That could make someone resentful, having to make that effort just because you’re a woman.
I never felt that way, because I was so young, and so grateful to be at the Globe. I remember my first day—no one told me what time to come to the office. I sat there for an hour and a half before anyone spoke to me. I had no idea what my job was. So, after that, I just thought, O.K., whatever happens, I just have to deal with it.
Back then, practice was open to reporters. When the Globe finally gave me a chance to do the beat, the Celtics had two-a-days. All the writers went in the morning, because that’s when the access was. I went to both. I was terrified I was going to miss something. And, by doing that, I got very big stories early on. Then I thought, “O.K. This is the gig. Make sure you’re there, all the time.” It’s really very basic. But for me it was motivated by an absolute terror of failing.
At what point did you step back and say, you know what, I’m actually good at my job, I’m not going to get fired tomorrow.
Have I done that yet? I’m not sure I’ve done that yet.
The thrill of our business for me, in the early going, because I really wasn’t a very good writer, was breaking stories. That was just the biggest rush in the world, having something that someone else doesn’t have. This seems like the Dark Ages now, but I can remember having stories and getting up in the morning and running to the 7-Eleven to see: Does the Herald have it?
Social media has changed that.
Now when I have something—because I don’t use Twitter—I either give the scoop to someone else or try to hang onto it in the hope that I can get it into a story before someone else does. It doesn’t always work.
You wrote a five-part series on mental health in the N.B.A. One way to insure that it won’t get scooped is to make it too big to contain in a tweet.
I think it’s probably the most important thing I’ve written, because of the feedback I’ve gotten from within the N.B.A.
In some ways, it’s the most obvious thing in the world, because some of these guys are coming from the toughest situations imaginable.
And we’ve all written about that.
And they’re going into high-stress, high-pressure situations, and they’re very young, and suddenly they’re coming into a ton of money—how are mental health issues not endemic?
But you can’t do the story if you don’t actually ask the players about these things and give them the space to talk about them.
If only you knew the ones we had at the finish line, some really big names. But I understood. I was never going to out anybody, obviously. We got to the finish line, and a few of them just couldn’t. I understand that and respect that immensely. The main thing is that they were getting help. It doesn’t matter if they go public.
At the M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytic conference this year, the N.B.A. commissioner Adam Silver called this an “age of anxiety” in the league. Do you think he’s right?
I do. I blame social media for a lot of it. I was talking to [the Celtics general manager] Danny Ainge about it for this story. When he walks into the training room, everybody’s on their phone. When the game ends—and this is something we never see, because we’re not allowed in the locker room until ten or fifteen minutes later—everybody runs into the locker room and checks their phone to see how people viewed what they did that day. How can you possibly have a healthy outlook when you’re relying on the opinions of total strangers who don’t know what’s going on in your personal life, and don’t know the game the way you know the game? Everything these guys do is scrutinized. I think the N.B.A. is making great strides toward trying to help these players, but you can’t be helped unless you want to be. There’s still a stigma. A Celtics player—and I won’t say who—said to me the other day, “Yeah, we’ve all just gone soft. Everybody wants to blame the way they feel on something else.” And I’m thinking, “You’re really missing the point.”
When you got to the Globe, did you ever think you had a responsibility to write about women’s sports, as you had when you were in high school?
I used to call it my pro-bono work. It was never assigned to me. My first story I ever wrote about women’s sports was about Kathy Delaney-Smith, my former coach. During my time at the Globe,, she went from Westwood to being the Harvard coach. I wasn’t even on staff then—I was an intern, in news, not in sports.
I went to Vince Dorian, the Globe’s sports editor, and said, “I’m young, I’m cheap, I’ll do anything. I want to work in sports.” He said, “I’ll think about it.” He had me doing college football games. Then I got a job offer from the Orlando Sentinel. I went straight from the airport to his office. He said, “Come back in a week.” I remember him saying something like, “I don’t know why, but I’m going to hire you.”
Whenever I wrote about women, I knew I was going to do that on my own.
There was no W.N.B.A.
There was nothing. We never covered any of the women. Women’s golf—every year, at Ferncroft, there would always be women’s golf, and I always put my hand up. And there would be occasions to do tennis, but that was really it.
If you were coming up now, do you think you would have a greater sense of responsibility to be covering the W.N.B.A. or women’s sports?
Probably. It’s a regret of mine, honestly; it came much later for me. And I’ve been criticized by other people for it—Kathy Delaney used to get on me for that. I said, “I’ve written about you more than anybody!” But that wasn’t her point. My career got on a certain trajectory. I really like espnW—I think it’s really good, and from time to time I’ll have ideas for them. But I’m not their jurisdiction. I have a contract, and it doesn’t include that stuff.
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Recently, the women’s basketball coach at Notre Dame, Muffet McGraw, went viral for comments she made about the need for more women in positions of power. She’s been particularly outspoken about the opportunity gap for women in sports.
I met her at the Hall of Fame—I’d never met her before. I thought she was fantastic. And I loved [the former University of Tennessee basketball coach] Pat Summitt. I thought Pat Summitt deserved to be an icon. Muffet McGraw is cut from the same cloth. I was really thrilled to see her use that platform.
I feel like, in our industry, we’ve taken care of it—there are so many great female journalists. I went up through the ranks with Sally Jenkins. I think she’s the best sports columnist in the country. Nevermind female: best, period. Johnette Howard was someone I grew up with who did great work. Christine Brennan. For some reason, we’ve been accepted. But, in professional sports, it’s a lifelong struggle. I covered the Olympics in London, 2012. I went strictly for W. I covered all the sports, not just basketball. I loved every second of it. And, at the end of it, I called David Stern, who is a great champion of women, and had been a great champion of mine when I was young and covering the N.B.A. and dealing with a lot of stuff. He talked about what the N.B.A. was like when he started, and how everybody’s got to be patient. And I think he’s right. But it’s not easy to be patient if you’re that athlete, waiting. If you’re Abby Wambach and your time has come and gone, it’s really frustrating.
When you were coming up, you used to have more access to players.
We used to fly with the team. We used to stay in the same hotels. If their flight was delayed two hours, so was ours. We’d all be up at 6 A.M. in the hotel lobby grabbing tea and a muffin on the way to the airport. I think it’s very difficult for young people today to establish relationships with players. What worries me is that they’re so anxious to establish those relationships that they’ve forgotten there have to be some critical distance. We don’t have enough of that.
It must be harder without all the casual contact there used to be.
We just submitted our All-N.B.A. ballots. I left LeBron off my ballot. I think other people will, but it will be somewhat—I mean, he had 28, 8, and 8. The thing that I admire most about LeBron James is how he empowered players. To me, that will be his legacy, and it’s a great one. But, for my thinking, this year, he took that player empowerment and abused it. He opened a grenade, threw it in the locker room, and walked out. He literally and figuratively separated himself from the team when things went bad, as if to say, “This isn’t on me.” He showed up for a game with a glass of wine! To my mind, there has to be consequences for that. But the media, in general, because he’s so difficult to get access to—what people will do to curry favor with him makes me nauseous.
I talked to a lot of writers who voted for All-N.B.A., and was like, “Did you leave him on or off?” There’s no right or wrong answer. I’m not suggesting he’s not one of the greatest basketball players—of course he is. But that’s not what this award is. It’s for the top fifteen players that season. And for a guy who said, “I’m not even going to play defense until the playoffs,” I’m just not going to vote for that guy. I was talking to some of my colleagues, and others, too, and more than one of them said, “I can’t afford to leave him off. I need the King.” What has that gotten you? And where are your journalistic sensibilities? This is the biggest thing I worry about with our business. I know people say ESPN is an entertainment company, and I guess it is, but I’m not an entertainment writer. I’m a journalist.
There’s been a lot of attention lately to the adversarial relationship that some players have with the press. Russell Westbrook, for instance, has a habit of saying to reporters, “Next question.” What do you think of that?
There have been adversarial relationships between the media and their subjects pretty much forever. [The former Globe writer] Will McDonough knocked [the former New England Patriots cornerback] Raymond Clayborn into a locker once. I remember Jim Rice trying to rip off Steve Fainaru’s shirt.
Isn’t there a story about Lawrence Taylor throwing a hair dryer at you in the locker room?
Right. To me—Russell Westbrook saying “next question”? I’m, like, come on. That’s the least of it. This has been going on forever.
But, if you’re a young writer, you’re not going to end up hanging out at the airport with a player. So how are you going to build relationships that aren’t sycophantic or entirely adversarial?
Work harder! Go to every practice early. Be at the game earlier than everybody else. You’ll be surprised who’s there. There’s a 7:30 game one day? Show up at 3. There are ways.
I remember Larry Bird telling me once, way down the road, “You always show up. They notice.” So show up. Work the phones, text, whatever. It’s not impossible. I can’t speak for LeBron, but do you think he really respects people that . . . I can’t imagine that he does. He’s a very smart man. He probably doesn’t like people drilling him in the press all the time, but I don’t. I’m just very honest. I don’t think we’ve ever had a cross word. But I have very little access to him. I can’t remember a time he’s said yes to anything I’ve asked him to do. I can live with that. I’m good.
How do you preserve your objectivity?
It bothers me that people don’t seem to care. We have people at ESPN saying “my team,” or “we won.” I’m like, “What are you doing? No.”
Bill Simmons, who used to be my boss, has made a career out of being a fan—though with him it’s very explicit.
As much as I admire and respect Bill Simmons, every time he does it, I cringe. I’m old school, I guess. Now, I don’t think we should ever stop being a human being when we interview someone. Sometimes people say things they shouldn’t say, and, if they’re young, and inexperienced, I always say, “Are you sure you want to say that?” And I probably shouldn’t do that.
I think you should.
I do. I was doing a story on Chauncey Billups once, when he was a rookie for the Celtics. We did a lunch interview, and he said some things, and I know they didn’t come out the way he wanted. It had to do with race relations in Boston. I didn’t use them. I said, “I like you. I think you should be careful. You don’t want to start out here like that.” I didn’t realize it, but, for the rest of my life, Chauncey Billups is going to have my back. That’s not why I did it. But, to me, that’s different.
But, listen. Josh Beckett is the biggest horse’s ass I’ve ever come across in my life. I couldn’t stand the guy. But he was a great pitcher, and so, when he won big games, I had to write about how good he was. Conversely, I remember Dennis Johnson, at the end of his career, was having some trouble adjusting to the young players taking some of his time, and as much as I adored Dennis Johnson—talk about someone who gave me every chance and then some, went out of his way to give me a platform—I had to write that he was behaving poorly. It’s terrible. It’s the hardest part of my job.
Were you surprised with the ending of Magic Johnson’s time at the Lakers, by the way?
I wasn’t, because I know Earvin—I call him Earvin. I wasn’t, because he coached for sixteen games. [In 1994, Johnson briefly took over, mid-season, as coach of the Lakers. He finished with a 5–11 record.] Earvin wants to be Magic Johnson. He wants to be loved by everyone. And, by the way, he is one of the most loveable people—when you are in a room with him, you feel like you’re the only person in the room, and there could be six thousand people. It’s all genuine, too. But he just thought being Magic Johnson would be enough, and it’s not. When [the owner of the Lakers] Jeanie Buss hired him, I remember thinking, That’s not going to work.
Do you have any playoff routines?
Yes. I don’t really cover the playoffs the way I used to. But, back in the day, when I was a beat writer, I would update this notebook I kept. [The former Globe writer] Bob Ryan taught me this. Before we had analytics, Bob Ryan was doing analytics. He made me fill out this book when I was covering the beat. Every player with ten-plus assists against the Celtics. Every player with fifteen rebounds or more. I would update all my books. And, again, I would always try to get there early and to get to know the movements of the players. You position yourself accordingly. But the best thing about our business is the unpredictability. When people ask “What’s your typical day?,” I say, “There is no typical day. There’s no such thing.”
How has analytics changed your job?
Significantly. I’m trying very hard to keep up, but I haven’t done as good a job as I would like. The reason, in part, is that we have ESPN Stats and Information. They have become my crutch. Instead of figuring out how to do things myself, I can e-mail them and say, “I’m interested in a story on pressure,” and they do it for me. I think analytics are very valuable tools, but they can’t be the only one.
Are there any stories you wish you could go back and do now that you have these valuable tools?
Every one. Almost every story. Here’s a good example. The Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins. It was a really big deal, and we weren’t a hundred per cent clear on what they were doing. Perk was beloved in the locker room. He wasn’t a great player, but they seemed to play well when he was on the court. I now find out, in retrospect, that when Shaq, who was on the team that year, was on the floor, the numbers were off the charts—the numbers significantly favored Shaq. There wasn’t one single metric that suggested Kendrick Perkins was helping the team. It would have been great to have those numbers. We were guessing, “Well, he wanted a new contract.” That certainly factored in, but the numbers were apparently glaring. But, again, the true value of a player goes beyond that.
You talk a lot about showing up. Was that hard in part because you were also a mother?
Once I had my daughter, I just had to decide what was more important. It really wasn’t that hard. I took six months off with both of my kids, and there were some opportunities that I had that I passed on. It’s cost me more than anything financially, I would say. [The former Celtics great] Bob Cousy used to talk about how he had to get a summer job, because he never got paid enough being an N.B.A. player. I think it was hard for him to see these guys getting paid. I missed out on the bigger money, because I didn’t go into TV the way I could have. But that was a conscious choice on my part: one, I wanted to be able to control my time with my kids—two, because I like to think that, at heart, I’m a writer. Sometimes I look at what some of my colleagues are making, and I’m, like, Damn. But I’m not crying poor.
The balance, for me, was challenging. I used to get my hair cut, and I would fall sound asleep on the chair. I was trying to be everything to everyone. I remember calling my editor from the airport during the N.B.A. playoffs, because I’d been on the road for so long and needed to get home and see my kids. He was like, “Is everything all right?“ And I’m, like, “Nope.” I really thought I was going to have to quit. With my daughter, it was seamless: I worked nights and weekends, but that meant we had days off during the week. I never felt like I was dropping her off at 6 A.M. and picking her up at seven at night. I know people have to do that, and God bless ’em. People don’t have choices. I had choices. But my son—he had a little more trouble being away from me than my daughter. My sister had passed away, and I hadn’t really dealt with that. So I quit. I took two years off, and it was great. If I could do it over, I’d do it sooner. I would never get to the point where I had to check my bag to Phoenix and then jump on a plane home. I should have seen that sooner.
When I went to ESPN, they wanted me to be the Boston columnist. My daughter was playing basketball at Connecticut College, so I just printed out her schedule and said, “I want all of these nights off.” They said, “O.K., unless it’s a playoff game.”
I was always so fortunate to be with people that were reasonable. I know it’s not like that for everyone. Even still—now my kids are grown, and my daughter is in Denver, and I’m pretty open about it. I wanted to do a story on [the Denver Nuggets’] Jamal Murray, and I said to my editor, “I’m not going to lie to you. My daughter is in Denver.”
Is that kind of question, about work-life balance, tiresome? I doubt that, say, Marc Stein, the Times’ national N.B.A. writer, would be asked about it.
I don’t mind, because I understand why people ask. I was the only one for the longest time—not the only woman, but the only mom for a while that I can think of.
You and Rafe Bartholomew turned the conversations from the ESPN documentary series “Basketball: A Love Story” into an oral history of the game. Rafe described that project to me as the Dead Sea scrolls of basketball. What has stuck with you?
The racial inequality that those players endured. And we’re not talking about all the way back. We’re talking about Shaquille O’Neal seeing a scarecrow with his jersey hanging from a tree in Texas, when he was in high school. Isiah Thomas told this story—he grew up in inner-city Chicago but went to this privileged school, because he was a great basketball player. He had to take the subway and then two buses and then walk the final mile and a half. And it’s freezing. His teammate and his mom are driving by, and they don’t pick him up. He’s, like, “Why didn’t you pick me up?” And his teammate is, like, “Oh, man, I’m not like that, but you know my parents.” Can you imagine? Those were the revelatory things. Unbelievable. I hope we did it justice.
Sports writing has changed since you started. Now everybody knows the score—they’ve seen the highlights on Twitter.
That’s the challenge for young writers now. We know everything. So why do I care that they’ve won? Maybe I care more about the person who lost the game. We have to be different.
That’s the gift of this moment, too—you don’t have to check those boxes.
We’re battling a little upstream with that. We have all these meetings about what stories we’re going to cover. And we have to have forty stories about the Warriors, and forty stories about LeBron. I don’t want to do any of those stories. I want to write about Nikola Jokic. Bradley Beal. There’s a place for that. But we have all these people who track the statistics, the clicks. Please, God, don’t let my career hinge on clicks.