SI 60 Q&A with Alexander Wolff: No Michael Jordan? No problem
In conjunction with Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the magazine's best stories. Today's installment in the SI 60 series is "55," a 1995 story by senior writer Alexander Wolff. It recounts, in vivid detail, the night Michael Jordan produced what may have been the most thrilling performance of his singular career, a 55-point explosion against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in just his fifth game after returning from his short-lived retirement. Wolff spoke to SI.com associate editor Ted Keith about his relationship with HIs Airness, the tense interoffice circumstances surrounding the piece and, especially, how he wrote 5,400 words about a game he never saw.
SI: By 1995, Michael Jordan was already one year into his self-imposed ban on talking to Sports Illustrated, because of the 1994 cover about his attempt to play minor league baseball that read, "Bag It, Michael." You had known Jordan for years, though. Did you attempt to speak with him for this piece?
WOLFF: I didn't even bother because I knew how he felt about the magazine at that point. I had known him for years though. The first time I spoke to him was when he was a sophomore at North Carolina, which was like speaking with a freshman because [Tar Heels head coach] Dean Smith wouldn’t let freshman talk much. I remember sitting in the stands at Carmichael Auditorium, and he had a certain self-confidence even then. What I noticed then was similar to an encounter I had with him when I did the first cover story on him after he got to the NBA, which was a kind of wide-eyed, "Gee, I’m really here." In fact, we were talking about his goals for his career for that story and he said he'd like to play in at least one All-Star Game, which even at the time seemed liked such a modest goal for the guy. After four or five years it was ridiculous.
SI: This story ran almost eight months after the game itself, which took place on March 28, 1995. Did you watch that game live?
WOLFF: I didn't. I think I had just gotten back from covering the regionals of the NCAA tournament. I was probably doing my laundry or something. So I was starting totally from scratch. I was aware of it, as we all were, because it was such a huge number and it was a big stage in New York and he was a big-stage guy.
In some ways it might have been an advantage to come at it so fresh, to be forced to inhabit it all after the fact. There was no dissonance over the way I might have first seen the game versus the recreation.
SI: How did the story come about?
WOLFF: It was a real challenge for me, because I wasn't at the game. Dan Okrent, who was engaged at the time with Bill Colson in a bake-off to see who would be the next managing editor of SI, specifically asked that I do the piece. He had seen a similar piece that I did on Christian Laettner’s famous 1992 shot for Duke, and that was a recreation of a game I’d actually attended.
What that forced me to do was go other places to recreate the circumstances. I got the tape, watched it, slowed it down, rewound it and then tried to talk to as many people as possible.
Doing these stories you sort of learn where to go for it. Some of the richest stories can be the people you see courtside who are that close to the action but don’t have any real duty that we would recognize. They’re going to hear byplay between players, they’re going to see little things. A TV producer, a ball boy, someone like that.
SI: When did you get the assignment?
WOLFF: It was late summer, but it wasn’t a whole lot of time because both Dan and Bill were on these three-month trials. And you had these two guys who wanted to make every issue as full with compelling material as possible so all the writers were on red-alert to execute these stories, and they had to be turned around quickly because both of their trials were going to expire. The first thing I did was get a copy of the tape.
It was a pretty quick turnaround and something specific that Dan wanted, which was the Duke-Kentucky treatment of that game. Michael was off limits. [Longtime SI NBA writer] Jack [McCallum] was the one who always had this great relationship with him. Jordan would always tell him, "It’s nothing personal. It’s SI." He’d put his arm around him and say, “You’re a good guy but I’m not talking to you.” There was no special access and that’s what I needed for this.
SI: Do you enjoy doing these historical pieces?
WOLFF: I love doing those kinds of stories because it’s this great interplay between game action and the other context, the human interest, that surrounds it. So much stuff dribbles out after a big game that you’re never going to find on deadline in the blush of those 90 minutes or so that you have. This story was somewhat like a historical piece and a deadline piece. It has that immediacy as it unfolds you have a chance to really sketch out the rest.
SI: Given the stakes in the office, was the editing process any different?
WOLFF: I have this vague recollection that I wrote it for Dan and he had a lot riding on it. I got into this issue about verb-tenses because I got into a little cul-de-sac of grammar where I was trying to make it seem immediate but very conscious of the fact that it happened the previous season. I remember Dan, in editing it, just cut right to the chase and said, "You can do this really simply." It was like this magical moment I’ve never forgotten. If all editors could come up with fixes like that it would be amazing. It was like a lesson in 10th grade English. There were a number of places in the piece that he pointed out it could be a whole lot simpler. It was one of those cases where the guy actually running the magazine made a little line-editing fix, which would usually be done by the copy editor, that the story really benefited from. That sticks in my memory.
SI: Was it a strange environment to write in?
WOLFF: I think everybody had their own preferences but everybody was also doing their best. Nobody was sandbagging either of those guys. But it was weird because there were a number of stories that were commissioned and if they didn’t get published in that three month window they just died on the vine, Suddenly they didn’t have a patron saint anymore. This piece ran toward the end of Dan’s three-month trial and it took a while to report and turn in.
SI: Have you talked to Jordan since then?
WOLFF: I once tried to approach him when I was working on a book and I had a chapter about the friendship between him and Buzz Peterson, who was his best friend at North Carolina. I approached Buzz and asked if he would reach out to Michael, Buzz, who was the coach at Appalachian State at the time, sensed that this could be a good thing, so he asked but Jordan said no. I guess I had the scarlet letter of SI on me.