Revenge of the Words The yak attacks of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on ESPN's 'Pardon the Interruption' prove that friends make the best arguments

August 04, 2002

What am I, chopped liver? Can I get a glass of Merlot?" he
kvetches, in his best Alvy Singer whine.

Heads turn. Tony Kornheiser, the man of a million opinions,
endless insecurities and exactly eight thin strands of chestnut
hair combed over a freckled dome, finally catches the eye of the
bartender at the Palm. Already seated on a stool is Michael
Wilbon, his nattily dressed Washington Post colleague and
television cohost, sipping a ginger ale. Wilbon is
uncharacteristically on time, and Kornheiser is
characteristically cranky. He wears a blue oxford shirt, sports
jacket and pattern tie and scuffed shoes pulled from the Closet
That Time Forgot.

"I don't own any green pants. A long time ago I had green pants,"
Kornheiser says, confessing to one sartorial transgression.

Since October of last year Kornheiser and Wilbon have been the
yin and yang of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, known simply as
PTI. The 30-minute yapfest, usually airing on weeknights at 5:30
p.m. (ET), features the two sportswriters' haranguing each other
to an audience of 354,000 homes (as indicated by the show's .43
Nielsen rating), with a heavy concentration of flip-flop
wearing, crotch-grabbing, Bud Light/Smirnoff Ice-drinking
18-to-34-year-old males. The format--in which topics switch
faster than you can click the remote, with a bell interrupting
each discussion--appeals to those with no dependents and short
attention spans. Among its devotees are pro athletes, coaches,
agents and celebrities including film director Penny Marshall
("She gives me a hug every time I see her," says Wilbon) and
President Bush, who reportedly has the show taped.

"What surprises me most," says the 54-year-old Kornheiser, "is
how many high school and college kids like the show. They say,
'It's like watching our parents argue.'"

But three weeks ago Kornheiser was rudely interrupted when the
ESPN suits--smarting over critical off-air remarks about network
personnel decisions, which were heard over the
Internet--temporarily pulled Kornheiser off the morning radio
show he has hosted since 1998 and suspended him from his TV show
without pay for one week. (Wilbon was already on vacation.)

What put Kornheiser in the penalty box--lack of judgment,
juvenile rebellion and "emotional stupidity," according to one
ESPN executive--may seem like job requirements these days for
sportscasters fiercely vying for attention and ratings. Spouting
obscure pop-culture references, statistics and Rolling Stones
lyrics, they are rewarded for the very thing that got Kornheiser
muzzled: having strong opinions.

Indeed, PTI is less a sports show than a verbal smackdown, with
the hosts debating everything from Martha Stewart's stupidity to
Matt Lauer's latest hairstyle. "Tony has an opinion on most
things," says PTI's 35-year-old producer Erik Rydholm, who meets
with seven staffers each morning at 10:30 after scanning three
dozen national and foreign newspapers online to find provocative
subjects: the watercooler buzz, "subjects that light them up,"
says Rydholm. Wilbon (often just back from a road trip) and
Kornheiser (fresh from his three-hour radio show) arrive around
2 p.m. and begin preparing for the taping in a Washington
studio. "Then all we do is turn the cameras on," says the
producer, clearly amused by his hosts' ability to recall not
only obscure boxing statistics but also Ludacris raps. Waiting
in the wings is the ever popular Stat Boy (the television
version of a caddie), 24-year-old Tony Reali, who eagerly
corrects the hosts' factual errors. Once a position is taken, it
is defended to the death. Woe betide those who disagree!

Widely regarded as the perfect lead-in to SportsCenter, PTI is
pulling in a 40% higher rating than the previous show in the
same time slot. Heated debate is "what sells these days," says
Mark Shapiro, ESPN's 32-year-old senior vice president and
general manager for programming. "Blood-and-guts arguments.
Sports is often defined by argument: Who's better? It's riveting
entertainment. Tony's a wiseass, and Mike is Mr. Hollywood."

What sets PTI apart is not only the chemistry between the two
hosts ("psychic friends," according to a former colleague) but
also their wealth and breadth of sports knowledge. Together they
have 45 years of Post sportswriting experience. Many consider
Wilbon, 43, the best deadline writer in American newspapers, and
Kornheiser the wittiest columnist. The show is merely a
televised version of what they have been doing in the corridors
of the newsroom for years: debating, ribbing, needling,
one-upping. ("When the show is on and we are there," says
Kornheiser, "[coworkers] don't even look up. They think we're
yelling at each other in the room.") Kornheiser and Wilbon
personally know owners, managers, coaches, players, trainers,
beer guys and ball girls, and are widely respected within their
industry. Athletes have been known to ask for their autographs.

While the teddy-bearish Wilbon is the teacher's pet, the
cantankerous Kornheiser is the kid lobbing spitballs from the
back row. He also has his share of idiosyncrasies: He hates to
fly. And he's afraid of boats. "Didn't you see The Poseidon
Adventure?" he explains. "What are you, nuts?" Initially he was
skeptical about the show, telling the ESPN bosses he wanted to
stick to radio. He was, he declared, too fat, bald and ugly for
television. Not to mention neurotic: Kornheiser is happiest when
he's miserable, and he's in bed by 9:30. "Why are you doing this
to me?" he whined before he signed the contract covering all his
ESPN duties, reported to be worth $500,000. Now he threatens to
quit the radio show every other week.

Seated in their VIP end booth at the Palm, the two spar over
soft-shell crabs and clams casino, their husky voices growing in
volume. The topic of Wimbledon comes up. And, of course, Anna
Kournikova. "Well, she hasn't won a tournament, but every guy
wants to sleep with her," says Wilbon.

Kornheiser shoots back, "If Anna Kournikova were a guy, she'd be
changing brakes at Midas."

Ding!

Topic No. 2: The Most Embarrassing Moment in Sports

Kornheiser: "When they come to write the history of golf, the sin
of pride that Jean Van de Velde committed [on the final hole of
the 1999 British Open] is gonna be way at the top. And you've got
to feel terrible for him."

"I don't," says Wilbon. "All he had to do was take a pitching
wedge and hit it five times. I'd say Greg Norman [blowing the '96
Masters]."

Kornheiser: "When Van de Velde took off his shoes and rolled up
his pants and went into the water like Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt
and the ball disappeared in the bottom, tell me you didn't say,
'Mon Dieu!'"

Wilbon: "O.K.--in football? Wrong-way Jim Marshall. That's gotta
be Number 1."

Kornheiser: "No! It's [Washington Redskins quarterback Gus]
Frerotte smashing his head against the wall and knocking himself
unconscious! I covered that. I was there. He literally knocked
his own brains against the wall."

Kornheiser digs out another clam. In fact the only reason he is
at the Palm is that it's in Washington and he could have gotten
there by sedan chair. Wilbon has two million frequent-flier
miles. Kornheiser has two million Valium. Once forced to
chauffeur his partner to the train station in Chicago when
Kornheiser refused to go to the airport, Wilbon says, "It was
like Driving Miss Daisy."

Topic No. 3: What Is a Sport?

"Figure skating is not a sport," says Wilbon.

Kornheiser: "A sport is, you get to the end and you know who the
winner is and you don't have to wait for somebody to hold up a
card! The ultimate sport is eight guys"--he hesitates, overcome by
a moment of political correctness--"or eight women running in
lanes, and the first one to cross the finish line wins.
Everything is downhill from there. For example, soccer ends on
penalty kicks! It's not a sport!"

Topic No. 4: Boxing Groupies

"Lennox Lewis's girlfriend," says Wilbon, "is one of the most
stunning women I've ever seen. I stared at her for an hour....
Rockers, rappers, fighters, actors. It's all the same. It's guys
with juice. That's all it is. It's access--and fame and money
bring you access. That's why these women are with the guys
they're with. Money and access. Why else? They don't like them.
I've covered sports enough to know. Why does a woman who had a
medical degree marry Mike Tyson? We know why. I'm very jaded."

Topic No. 5: The Strike and Steroids

"I secretly want them to have [a work stoppage]," says Wilbon. "I
want baseball to be hit hard. I want baseball to hurt enough.
Because baseball is the most arrogant and presumptuous of
professional sports."

Kornheiser: "I couldn't disagree more. That's simply insane! I
don't think baseball is any different than any other sport in how
it views itself. I don't want to see any sport particularly hurt.
You like David Stern. You like Paul Tagliabue. You don't like Bud
Selig. You hate the Orioles."

Wilbon: "I believe baseball should test for steroids."

"The only thing that matters in sports," says Kornheiser, "is
continuity. So you can go back and say, 'Who won in 1945?' When
you tell me that 73 [home runs] doesn't count because that guy
was on steroids, I lose interest. Baseball likes home runs. They
want better performances."

Ding!

Kornheiser: "There is no sportswriter in America who would be
shocked if any, any athlete died from something drug-related."

Ding! Ding!

Topic No. 6: Those Who Can, Play; Those Who Can't, Shvitz in the
Press Box

Kornheiser: "What do I think of athletes? They've devoted a great
measure of their young lives to the physical nature of their
being, and they are fabulous at their craft. Do I find them
interesting people to talk to? No. I don't put them on the radio,
by and large, because we really don't have that much to talk
about. They have programmed answers to programmed questions...."

Wilbon (interrupting): "I don't believe what he believes. I think
the people who are good at it are far smarter than the general
populace wants to admit.... I don't believe dumb athletes can be
great."

Ding!

Wilbon: "I would defy you to find someone over the last 25 years
who's been great in athletics and been stupid. It doesn't happen.
There's too much to process. Mike Tyson? I would argue he was
never great."

"I would argue he wasn't stupid," interjects Kornheiser.

The PTI adversaries readily concede that they're failed athletes.
Wilbon, his fingernails bitten to the quick, grew up on the South
Side of Chicago and played high school baseball and tennis before
attending Northwestern. Kornheiser is from Long Island, went to
Harper College (now Binghamton University) and had no athletic
success that he'll admit to. "I tried to play everything," he
says, "with the exception of ice hockey. I was bad at everything.
I became a sportswriter because I was a failed athlete. If I were
a great athlete, sportswriters would be writing about me."

Do sportswriters--we kid because we love--get the last laugh?
"The last laugh with men," says Wilbon, "is always money, fame
and women. And you get more of each of those if you're Tiger
Woods."

Ding!

Topic No. 7: Why We Need Sports

Kornheiser: "After 9/11 all the people who said we shouldn't play
the games were f------ morons. F--- you! In fact, we needed the
games more than ever. And when the games came back, people were
so grateful--mostly people who were grieving."

Wilbon: "I disagree with that. I don't think people are dopes. I
think people thought it was inappropriate to resume at that time.
I was at some of those things. It was inappropriate to ask people
to fly."

Kornheiser: "They're still painting their goddam faces and
screaming and acting like dopes."

Wilbon: "Millions of people don't paint their faces!" "You know
that fat schmuck I'm talking about," says Kornheiser. "He hasn't
changed a goddam bit."

Wilbon: "He's a dope. Other people did change their behavior."

What about fan interference?

"Anyone who doesn't think that that's what America's about should
be deported," says Kornheiser. "Anyone who thinks you have to
play by the rules and somehow not put your glove out to catch the
ball [in the stands] is an imbecile. You go to catch a ball! You
save the ball the rest of your life. That's why you go to the
game! To get the ball."

Topic No. 8: What's My Price?

"There's nothing I wouldn't do for a hundred million dollars,"
says Wilbon, playing one of his favorite games.

Kornheiser: "There are things I won't do for a hundred million
dollars."

That sheds light on Kornheiser's success. He's not it in for the
money, despite the title of his new book, I'm Back for More Cash,
which he hawks gleefully on his shows. In fact he'd be happy in
his misery if the show were canceled. Or he'd go back to the golf
course with Wilbon, whose collaboration with Charles Barkley, I
May Be Wrong, but I Doubt It, is due out in October.

"Mike sucks up to athletes," growls Kornheiser.

Would Wilbon suck up to, say, someone really despicable, like
Osama bin Laden?

"For a hundred million dollars?" Wilbon says with a laugh. "That
would buy a lot of Listerine."

Even Kornheiser can't argue with that.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LINDA SPILLERS/ESPN COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LINDA SPILLERS/ESPN COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF MICHAEL WILBON PATTER FAMILIAS Wilbon (with nephew Jordan, left) and Kornheiser (with wife Karril and their daughter) are old pals. B/W PHOTO: SUSAN MCELHINNEY/PEOPLE MAGAZINE (TOP RIGHT) [See caption above]

"Sports is often defined by argument: Who's better? It's
riveting entertainment. Tony's a wiseass, Mike's Mr. Hollywood."

PTI is a verbal smackdown, with the hosts debating everything
from Martha Stewart's stupidity to Matt Lauer's hair.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)