WHEN I knew him best, the only occasionally irascible George Plimpton, who had written for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED from its freewheeling birth, liked to warn fellow writers of the "tin-eared butchery" they might suffer at the hands of the magazine's editors. This was harsh and baffling because it was Plimpton who had concocted the brilliant April 1, 1985, hoax, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, with then managing editor Mark Mulvoy, the two of them pushing the fool-around quotient in the traditional writer-editor compact to a new level. But then came the editing on Plimpton's personal piece on George H.W. Bush, which had started out as an assignment to play horseshoes with the President-elect and wound up as a survey of the Bush family as athletes. Zzzzzz.
Plimpton's complaints became infamous. In private, however, shortly after I was hired here, he would praise SI as a writer's magazine which, when finely tuned, could soar like a great tabernacle choir or "a troop of chacma baboons in full-throated roar." He would then add, "You should do more of that."
Plimpton was talking about different voices of various and eccentric writers lifting sports to reflect the broader sweep of culture. As an example he cited POINT AFTER, a back-page column that Mulvoy introduced to the magazine the year after Sidd Finch, supplanting THE 19TH HOLE, a collection of letters from readers.
The first POINT AFTER, by senior writer Frank Deford, made clear the magazine's position that the challenge symbolized by Jackie Robinson needed to be mounted again and again. Deford took readers back to a black Ohio Wesleyan baseball player in 1906 who was denied registration at a team hotel in South Bend, and who in anguish had "pulled at his hands, like Lady Macbeth, as though he might somehow wring the blackness from them." It was painful to read, and then Deford threw the story forward to underline "how little, really, we live up to the homilies we love to recite at sports banquets."
This was a voice of conscience, but it was not the only voice, and as the back page was handed off from writer to writer many more came blasting out—including Martina Navratilova and Jesse Jackson—to find new connections with readers. Some were hilarious. Here is senior writer Leigh Montville on what happened in 1995 after he put Michael Jordan's number 23 on his clothes: "Cooked four-course dinner while speed-reading collected works of James Joyce. Learned to speak French fluently in hour after dinner. Ran five miles at five-minute-mile pace. Cleaned basement. Painted den. Learned to play guitar. Wrote dozen songs. Yodeled while taking shower. (Never had yodeled.)"
There were almost 600 POINT AFTERS published between 1986 and 1998. Some were compelling and others confrontational, telling readers to sit down and listen or to kiss off. But even then they were a long heave from the narcissism and relentless self-promotion creeping into journalism. This is because they were written, not barked.
That said, SI is reintroducing POINT AFTER. On page 148 you will find senior writer Peter King with a private story about SI's Sportsman of the Year, Brett Favre. In coming weeks you will read other SI writers on the back page. The byline you will not see is the late George Plimpton's, which is too bad because his horseshoes story has a coda. He was invited to play again, this time at Camp David. After the horseshoes there was a game of tennis with the President, which was interrupted by the ringing of an ominous red phone. The President's face darkened as he crossed the court but brightened after he picked up the receiver.
"It's for you," he said, holding the phone out to Plimpton.
Whenever Plimpton told this story to writers and they asked him, as they inevitably did, who was calling he would whisper, "Mulvoy, wanting a Point After."