Even though he can be a bit—odd?
There’s no show if not for Tony. You know, Tony mentored a lot of us. The following people owe money to Tony Kornheiser, not that we’ll give him a damn dime: me, David Aldridge, Sally Jenkins, John Feinstein, Dave Sheinin . . . .
Junior [Feinstein] will not like that.
Too bad. Junior’s top of the list. Rachel Nichols. J.A. Adande. All of us. Tony created opportunity for all of us. So, you know, we all love him. We all know he’s the most neurotic man in America. And we all love him. And more neurotic every day.
Give me an example.
He can’t fly. He can’t take a boat. He can’t drive across a bridge. But he’s the most loyal. There’s just nothing Tony wouldn’t do for any of those people I named, and hasn’t done already. He went to bat for us in ways that we don’t know.
Do you still see yourself as a sportswriter?
That’s what I am. I see the world that way. I know that television has changed what people think of me and what I’m identified as. I get that. I’m grateful to ESPN.
All my life I’ve been a sportswriter, so I see the world that way.
And what does that mean?
I’m not “talent.” I don’t see myself as a guy who has a limo.
Do you think that affects the way you evaluate a situation, a player, a controversy, a game?
I do it the same way I did it 20 years ago. I realize I’m no longer the fly on the wall, because when people are asking you for autographs during a game, you can’t be the fly on the wall.
When you started as a sportswriter, African-Americans probably were 50 percent of the on-court players in the NBA. Now it’s 80, 85.
Same with football—football’s close.
How do you think sports has affected African-American individuals and culture?
It’s probably the most fascinating aspect of sports in America. But we don’t talk about it as such. We talk about little things like who’s the first and who’s the only. It’s the big elephant in the room.
Give me an example.
It drove the Michael Phelps conversation on the Internet because a lot of people, mostly white observers, would say, “Hey, wait a minute. If this was an NBA player—meaning a black player—who had been photographed with pot, would he have had 48 hours of grace period like Michael Phelps did?” They say, “How do you let this go?”
Who called first?
Tony called me the previous night, said, “Does this bother you?” And I said, “In what way?” He said, “Is this kid skating here? Let’s say LeBron James is caught doing this, what’s the reaction? And why should we be any different because of Michael Phelps now?”
You’ve got to say that’s a very genuine question. And I said, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of it.”
Why didn’t you think of that?
I think it was Super Bowl weekend, and I was preoccupied. The other thing is I don’t even drink.
What’s that got to do with anything?
I never have fallen, never been high. Never had a joint. Never. Ever. Never been drunk.
So I am less likely to get judgmental on that because I know it ain’t my area. But—
So then you write a column skewering Phelps for taking a bong hit in public, but you don’t bring up race. Instead, you take a swipe at Sally Jenkins for writing a column defending Phelps.
I’ve known Sally my whole life. She’s like a little sister to me. And so I call her and she’s mad at me for 30 seconds and we—I said, “Tony and I killed you on the talking points today,” and she goes, “You guys.” And then we’re back to being friends.
But you don’t shy away from racial controversies. You took on Don Imus when he made remarks on radio about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Your columns helped get him fired.
I think race needs to be discussed. Once it’s discussed, people are okay. They’re just scared to get to it. They don’t know how to get to it. At one point, about five years ago, I said to my editors, “I don’t want to be the only guy writing about that. I don’t want to write about race today. Let somebody else do it.”
What was their reaction?
Len Downie said to me, “You write about it as much as you want to because what you’re doing is you’re not preaching, you’re getting a discussion started that needs to be started.” I’m not writing about racism in sports, I’m writing about race in sports, and I hope there’s a big difference.
We’re afraid to talk about race. Sports is the only place we can talk about it.
Let’s talk about two problem stars in the NFL: Plaxico Burress and Terrell Owens. Two receivers with outsize talent who seem to self-destruct. What’s their story? How come Larry Fitzgerald, another talented receiver, is such a sweetheart?
Because that’s how he was raised. I mean Plaxico and T.O. to my knowledge didn’t have strong fathers in their lives like Larry Fitzgerald’s dad.
Larry had advantages that T.O. didn’t have. I don’t want to make excuses—you know me, I ripped T.O. and Plaxico, ripped their asses. But I have a sense of how difficult it probably was for both.
As a sportswriter, as a black man, as a father, do you talk about fatherhood in the black family?
You have to. You do it in locker rooms with players. You do it because you can’t remove yourself. If you’re a black man in America and you remove yourself from that conversation, you’re an irresponsible bum. It’s not always for public consumption, but you never remove yourself. You talk about it all the time.
You listen to the guys who say, “I send a check, I pay.” Because that’s an evolutionary step in fatherhood for that guy because his father wasn’t there, so now to contribute financially even if you’re not there, that’s a measure of progress as a father.
Who among the black athletes you know is a solid family man?
Oh, I know plenty, and maybe I gravitate toward them. Darrell Green: great father, great kids. Grant Hill grew up like I did. Avery Johnson. I know how his kids are raised. Shaq talks about his father—it’s his stepfather, technically. He’s Phil, Sergeant Phil. Shaq loves telling how Sergeant Phil knocked him on his ass when he was in high school. He’s a military father. And sometimes I’ll say on the air, “You know what that kid needs? That kid needs to be Sergeant Philled.”
Some coaches like Terry Robiskie, who coached for the Redskins. His son Brian is a three-time Academic All-American at Ohio State. I went up to him at a game recently and said, “Congratulations.” Then I said, “You know what? I’m not talking about the damn Fiesta Bowl. You’re a three-time Academic All-American.” And he smiled. I said, “I’m not surprised because I know your father.”
That resonates for me because I’m still trying to please my father. He’s been dead 22 years, and I’m still trying to show my father I’m worthy.