Staff writer Alexander Wolff, whose story on the Tarkanians of UNLV begins on page 30, has been an important contributor to our basketball coverage since he joined SI as a reporter after graduating from Princeton in 1980. Wolff, who looks like a basketball player (he's 6 feet, weighs 165 pounds), spent a year playing the game in a Swiss league and is co-author of The In-Your-Face Basketball Book, a special favorite with fans, now in its fifth printing in paperback and second in hardcover.
All this makes him sound a little like a new version of Princeton's Bill Bradley, another basketball player with a head on his shoulders, but Wolff, a quiet, unassuming young man, disavows the parallel. "I played basketball in high school," he says, noting that he was co-captain his senior year at Brighton High near Rochester, N.Y., "but at Princeton all I played was intramurals."
Yet Bradley was a basketball influence on Wolff, who lived in Princeton until he was 12 (his father, a chemist, worked there for RCA), and Wolff well remembers the showdown in the December 1964 ECAC Holiday Festival between Bradley (41 points), who fouled out, and Princeton, and Cazzie Russell (27 points) and Michigan, which Princeton lost. "I was only eight, and I couldn't stay up to watch the game on TV," he says ruefully. The Swiss adventure came about when a Swiss-American friend arranged for Wolff to join STV Lucerne, a team in the third division—which means not very high up. "They wanted an American," Wolff says, "and I could play. So I went." He found a job ("I colored maps for an agronomical research firm") and played ball once a week.
The In-Your-Face Basketball Book stemmed from a summer visit to his parents' home near Woodstock, Vt., where he landed a playground job with Chuck Wielgus, the town recreation director. "During lunch hour we'd play basketball—one on one or H-O-R-S-E or around the world—and we got to talking about differences and similarities in playground basketball in various places. We decided to write a book about it and began gathering material, and just about the time I graduated from Princeton it was published."
February 20, 1984
At Princeton, along with playing intramurals and majoring in history, Wolff worked as a campus stringer for The Trenton Times in New Jersey. He particularly recalls a story he did on a physics major named John Aristotle Phillips, who for a class project had turned in a workable design for assembling an atom bomb. The story made headlines across the country, but the first account was Wolffs.
The printed word is part of Wolff's heritage. His grandmother is the publisher Helen Wolff, who with her late husband Kurt first published Dr. Zhivago in the U.S. In New York, Wolff shares an apartment with his grandmother. SI staff writer Franz Lidz says he likes to visit Alex there so that he can look at Mrs. Wolffs impressive bookshelves. Amid first editions of Pasternak, Kafka, Max Frisch, G√ºnter Grass and others, says Lidz, is a copy of The In-Your-Face Basketball Book.