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.
Because it’s not Philly, it’s not Boston, it’s not Chicago.
Do you think it could be?
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.