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Daddy’s Game
Mike Wilbon talks about what it’s like turning 50, becoming a new father, and recovering from a heart attack—plus what he thinks of his friend the President, the Redskins, the Wizards, the Nats, Tony Kornheiser, and more. By Harry Jaffe
Mike Wilbon has started pumping iron so he can better handle his son, Matthew. At 12 months and 30 pounds, “Little Shaq” is climbing stairs and moving fast. Wilbon might have to add wind sprints to his workouts. Photographs by Matthew Worden.
Comments () | Published April 1, 2009

Mike Wilbon has hit the trifecta of major life experiences. Last year he suffered a heart attack in January; his first child, Matthew, was born in March; he turned 50 in November.

Which might come as a surprise to readers of his sports columns in the Washington Post and fans of his rants and insights on TV. Neither the bad heart nor the son’s birth kept him from being the multimedia Mike Wilbon for long.

Wilbon on hoops, on football, on baseball. “The only sport I don’t cover is NASCAR,” he says.

Wilbon slides his six-foot-two frame into a booth at the Daily Grill in Bethesda. His wife, Sheryl, sits between him and their son, Matthew Ray Wilbon, who occupies the highchair at the head of the table.

“Check out those legs,” Wilbon says. “He weighs in at 30 pounds already. I call him Little Shaq.”

Wilbon was born on Chicago’s South Side. He graduated from St. Ignatius Prep in 1976 and got a journalism degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School in 1980. He came to the Washington Post as an intern and never left.

He started out covering college basketball, then moved on to Major League Baseball and pro basketball. He started writing a sports column in 1990 and still writes at least two columns a week.

Wilbon made his mark on national television when he became cohost of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, known as PTI, in 2001. Aimed at young sports fanatics with the attention span of video-game addicts, the daily half hour pits Tony Kornheiser and Wilbon in a face-to-face duel about the day’s sporting events that often descends into a shouting match. A bell rings every few minutes to kill one discussion and start another.

Wilbon also has a contract with ABC Sports to be a commentator on the NBA. His PTI shows are podcast. He does regular chats on Washingtonpost.com.

The Wilbons recently bought a home in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they spend some weekends. They live here in Bethesda.

What was the sporting scene like here in 1980?

Joe Gibbs was on the way. Bobby Ross was on the way. Lefty Driesell and John Thompson were established. They were the mountain lions.

Was Georgetown a basketball powerhouse?

Not yet. Patrick Ewing was being recruited. Everybody referred to Gary Williams as young Gary Williams. He was coaching at American University. His lead assistant was Ed Tapscott.

What about the NBA?

I got here as an intern right after the Bullets won the NBA title. Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were still playing. They were exciting. So that was the local scene. It was kind of like it is now.

In what sense?

Washington is a secondary sport city.

Why?

Because it’s not Philly, it’s not Boston, it’s not Chicago.

Do you think it could be?

No.

Why?

Because people here are interested in stuff other than sports. You don’t have a million, 2 million people who have grown up here, who are always here and call it home. It’s always in transition. God knows Detroit’s a great sports city. So are Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Washington is never going to be.

Because the teams aren’t that good?

The teams are much better here than a lot of places. Georgetown’s been in the Final Four and won a championship; Maryland’s won a championship. There are Super Bowl trophies out at Redskins Park.

Why is this not a great sports town?

People here want a show. I’m a Washingtonian in primarily one way: I live for the event. People go to a Redskins game because it’s an event. They’re not like Giants fans. It’s a cocktail party.

I’ll tell you a story. I’m sitting with Ronde Barber at Cafe Milano two summers ago. Clinton Portis comes in. Clinton Portis should be as recognizable a Redskin as you’re going to get. People are whispering—is that Clinton Portis? That’s a Redskin, right? You think [Bears linebacker] Brian Urlacher walks into a Chicago establishment and people go, “Is that Brian Urlacher?”

People will see that coming from me as a criticism. I like the fact that we’re not singularly possessed and obsessed with sports. I like living in an atmosphere where people think and talk about other things—government, politics, and media. I love it; I love living here. When I come back home from New York on a Sunday night after an NBA show, I’m in a place that’s healthier.

You are not tied to your hometown Chicago teams?

I like to visit my twisted existence. You know what I did last summer? I flew to Chicago every other weekend.

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  • Mctrapp3

    A response to the interview with Mike Wilbon, which I just read today, May 4, 2012....

    Mike,

    Your objectivity seems rivaled only by your generous outlook on and interest in people. The 'fatherless thing' in the black community remains an ongoing challenge, but less of one because of people like you who have 'made it out' and who point out its consequences with a sense of reality but also with understanding and a level of compassion.
    My father started a black appeal radio station in the heart of an affluent suburb in Columbus, Ohio; he broadcast OSU Buckeye football games for 33 years. His patience was tried by the incivility he often encountered ( from all sides) in striving for in civil rights, but he continued to believe that even the offering of remedial reading classes for athletes at the college level ( reviled by the elite he knew in academia) represented perhaps the only opportunity for young African Americans to get in the college classroom and raise their own as well as their community's level of both education and sophistication. My dad had goals for America; Brian Robiskie is representative of one of those goals. I would recommend to you Eugene Robinson's book, Dis-integration; I think Mr. Robinson somewhat laments what he identifies as the segmenting of the African-American community; I don't, and I don't think my father would either; he would say that the emergence of all these different 'segments' of the black community represent victory---de-homogenizing, if you will---real independence that is reflective of significant steps towards making skin color irrelevant.
    I noted you do not drink and have never taken drugs; I have never taken any drugs and I am practically a tee-totaler; I wish the same money that was spent on Iraq could have been applied to the drug war, a battle I see as every bit as threatening to our country as terrorism---and certainly it preys upon/ is the scourge of the African-American community.

    I have been watching you and Mr. Kornheiser for a long time on PTI . I remember listening to Tony on radio, and so often thinking, "Yes, Tony---that's the way I feel, too!" And then I discovered he and I share the same birthday! I'm not into fortune-telling, but if there is anything to horoscopes, well....we July 13 people seem to be in sync.

    Much good luck with your new son, and I wish you continually improving health and fitness since your heart attack. Writers hold special places in my heart; both my mom and dad started out writing, and encouraged verbal expression in my sister and me from the time we were little girls. I cherish my memories of their soliciting our opinions on things ( from a very young age), for I realize now that those were the seeds of verbal agility being planted. I hope that, in spite of your demanding reporter's schedule, you will be home enough to ask your young son lots of non-yes/no questions so he will become as good at expressing himself as you are!

    Thanks for continuing to share your steady analysis and your sensitivity to sports as a great metaphor for life. Your 'Interruptions' need no pardon.

    Meredith Trapp ( Mrs. James W. )
    housewife, mother of 2 sons, John and Mike Trapp ( ages 27 and 23)
    1922 Stanford Rd.
    Columbus, OH 43212
    614-488-7290
    mctrapp3@aol.com

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 04/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles