Speaking of ESPN, do you read its website, Grantland, named for Mr. Rice?
Occasionally. I was sort of seduced into it because it launched with an oral history of The National. The piece was entertaining and also complimentary about what we did with that newspaper. So they seduced me. Bill Simmons, who runs Grantland, had enough sense of history to name it after Grantland Rice.
But, "there's no poetry in ESPN's soul," you say in this new book. Is it really that bad?
ESPN is all meat and potatoes. It's pretty much scouting reports. There isn't a great deal of humor, and when there is, it's pretty sophomoric. The people at ESPN feel that their charge is simply to deliver just the facts, ma'am—inside baseball all the way. They don't have any sense of trying to be poetic or graceful.
Spoken like a man who works for HBO Sports.
Well, whether I'm on HBO or NPR, I try to leaven my pieces with a certain amount of humor and grace. I just don't think you see that on ESPN.
In 1971, you wrote There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. I read that book and loved it. Reviewers did, too. But There She Is bombed. What happened?
The Miss America insiders were the only ones who wanted to read 350 pages about Miss America.
Even with the critical raves it didn't catch on.
There are some books that get huge numbers of positive reviews, but reading them satiates people. They say, I've read enough now.
But when it went out of print, it almost developed a cult following.
Yeah. For a while, every Miss America contestant wanted to read it. If they'd only bought it when it was published it would have been a runaway success. [laughs] I guess people who watch Miss America don't read a whole lot of books. At the end of the day, maybe that was the real issue.
In 1966, you wrote the first big story about hockey star Bobby Orr. Years later, you say that he gave you the best definition of what it means to be blessed with great talent: "I don't think most people can understand what little pressure I felt out there," said Orr. "It was like skating in a little balloon. Only you can't take that balloon anywhere else with you."
That's an absolutely brilliant thing he said. He was in his 40s at the time. I don't think any 20-year-old could understand that statement.
Did it remind you of all the other great athletes you've covered?
That statement isn't just about a great athlete—it's about anybody who's extraordinary at something. They're inside this protective cocoon. What they do is so good, so special, that they're untouched by pressure, never mind by the other players. They float above everyone else. Once Bobby climbed off the rink, he was human. Not just human, but vulnerable.
You've purposely avoided participatory journalism. Your philosophy is, "I would never try do with any of my subjects what they do for a living. Leave that amateur hokeyness to the local TV reporters."