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  Inside Denver, March, 2000

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Reilly’s Life

 

 


People open the magazine he writes for from the back—like the Old Testament—because that’s where his column runs. Six times his peers voted him National Sportswriter of the Year, and he’s only 41. If you don’t know him, you probably grew up in a cave like Maurice "Slo-Mo" Finsternick, the protagonist of his most recent novel. For the cave-dwellers out there, I’m talking about Sports Illustrated’s senior writer and columnist Rick Reilly.

Like so many others with a gift for humor, Rick Reilly had less than an idyllic childhood. His homelife in Boulder, Colorado was a crucible in which his father's moods were dark and unpredictable. Reilly claims he’s been "lightening things up" as the family comedian since the age of two. Even then, making people laugh was more than a hobby to him. "It was my job," he says.

When he won a writing contest in the first grade, and his story was displayed in a Pearl Street bank window, he was hooked: writing, and writing funny, became his obsession. Later, he created a newspaper with his neighborhood friends which they delivered by a hand-pulled wagon. "It was 7 cents," he recalls. In high school, however, Reilly got lax about his writing. Friday afternoons he'd go drinking with his buddies, even though that was the day his column was due for the school paper. Sometimes he'd have this "gorgeous blond girl on the staff" write it for him and sign his name to it. "And that's the girl I ended up marrying," he says. "I still turn to her every now and then and say, 'Hey, can you help this?'"

After graduating from the University of Colorado, Reilly worked for the Denver Post and then moved on to the Los Angeles Times, where he fell under the influence of the legendary sportswriter, Jim Murray. Then, 1985, Sports Illustrated called, and he's been there ever since.

"Life of Reilly," the first signed opinion column in SI's history, launched two years ago, quickly became a sensation. If it weren’t so popular, it'd have cult-status, as it defies preconceived notions of what a sports column is supposed to be. Readers count on Reilly's point of view on any number of issues; the tone is alternately angry, funny, offbeat, sentimental, silly--but never boring. For instance:

  • Reilly on hunting (written in the form of a post-game interview with John Doe, general manager and coach of the deer): "I heard a guy say he never apologizes after he fills one of my guys with a bucketful of lead, but he always remembers to 'thank the deer for the contest.' Wait a minute. What contest? This ain't a contest anymore than the Exxon Valdez versus shrimp was a contest."
  • On cheerleading: "I don't hate [it] just because it's about as safe as porcupine juggling. I also hate it because it's dumb. The Velcroed-on smiles. The bizarre arm movements stolen from the Navy signalmen's handbook."
  • On Atlanta (host to this year's Super Bowl, a sporting event he said was "to excitement what Rosie O'Donnell is to the thong bikini."): "[It] is basically a string of Shoney's restaurants connected loosely by jammed parking lots, many of them disguised as interstates...a wonderful place to live if you happen to be a muffler."
  • On the Reverend Jesse Jackson (inappropriately playing the race card): "[He] yelped that the Packers' recent firing of coach Ray Rhodes, after one 8-8 season, may have been racist. I love it. Former Green Bay star Reggie White reads from the Book of Rocker and Jackson yawns, but Jackson makes a football coach seem like Rosa Parks? Lord!"
  • On the Yankees: "Rooting for [them] takes all the courage, imagination, conviction and baseball intelligence of Spam. It's like rooting for Brad Pitt to get the girl or for Bill Gates to hit Scratch 'n' Win."
  • On Jim Murray: "He wrote the nation's best sports column for 37 delicious years at the Los Angeles Times, but, come to think of it, the column was about sports sort of the way Citizen Kane was about sleds."
When Reilly pens his column, he visualizes the guy he's writing it for. He describes him as "some guy in Peoria, sittin' in his Barcalounger, after a hard day's work." This imagined reader has three kids running around him and all the tools of distraction at his disposal--the Internet, TV, newspapers, a video rental, etc. "What's gonna keep his interest?" Reilly asks. "It's like Jim Murray used to say: 'You know, there's no city ordinance says they gotta read you.'"

Reilly holds the reader with his knack for putting things in unique ways. On the golfer Fred Couples, for example, he wrote: "His swing is slower than the last day of school, holes jump in the way of his golf balls, and money knocks on doors to find him." Every familiar analogy, metaphor or turn of speech is blue-penciled and replaced by something fresh, by language that pops and sizzles. "Instead of, 'He was quick as lightning,'" Reilly explains, 'He was faster than rent money.' Or, 'She was gorgeous...no, she was twelve-car-pile-up gorgeous,'" which is what Reilly wrote of Katarina Witt. He's exceptional at baiting the reader.

Ironic, then, with all the satisfaction he gives others, that Reilly calls writing "a horrible, lonely job. You sit there by yourself. If someone doesn't like your writing, it's not because, 'Oh, you've got a big nose' or 'I hate that tie.' It's the essence of you that they hate." So he takes comfort writing around others. In fact, he wrote both his novels, Missing Links (Doubleday) and Slo-Mo! My Untrue Story (Doubleday), at Zaidy’s, a deli in downtown Denver. He always sits in the same place, at the end of the counter--girded by a "wall of noise"--and orders the fried egg sandwich and coffee. "They don't really talk to me, I just like the fact I'm not alone."

But talk he does. A congenital storyteller, he's as funny in person as he is on paper. He enjoys public speaking, and has a 30-45 minute routine. He says he thrives on the immediate laughter from the audience because writing a funny column is like "sending a bunch a jokes down a deep black well, and you don't know if anybody is laughing, throwing up, falling asleep or what." He has an unpretentious way about him, which makes sense; a sportswriter must get along with folks.

That lesson was one of the most important taught to Reilly while under Jim Murray’s tutelage at the L.A Times. Murray's gift for working with people made a lasting impression. When Murray died, Reilly wrote, "Murray was so humble that when you left him--even if you were the third-string volleyball writer in Modesto--you couldn't remember which of you was the legend." Reilly attempts to treat people likewise. He's a mensch, but one with an ulterior motive: his antennae are always out--just as Murray's was--ready for an amusing phrase, good dialogue, a new idea. A writer's work is never done.

"I like to think of myself as 22 and cool, you know?" Reilly says. "I think I can hang with anybody." Indeed, Reilly passed muster with the professional wrestler Goldberg, whom he met at the Super Bowl in Atlanta. "He told me, 'Damn, I didn't know any media people could be cool.'" Not many media people are in Miller Lite commercials with models, either, as he was with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. He received some flak for doing that, which he feels was unwarranted, but his philosophy is clear: you can love me, you can even hate me, as long as you read me. "I need exposure," he says. "I want people to hit the back page, I want them to hear what I have to say." Just don't go up to Rick Reilly and call him "'the salty guy in the back,'" as one kid did recently, which the sportswriter received like a shot to the solar plexus. "I mean, he made me sound like a 60-year-old sailor!"

He's more lighthearted about some of the hate mail he's received, particularly letters from angry cheerleaders. "They just can't quite be mean enough. They're like, 'I hope you die!'--with a little heart over the "i." Or, 'Write back!' They always want me to write back. No, you don't write back hate mail!"

Regardless of the public's reaction to him, Reilly sees his responsibility as being simply to tell the truth. As he sees it, the high-profile athletes he covers have a greater responsibility to the public. They have the money, the visibility, and the influence on youth culture to affect major social change, but they often do little with their privileged position.

Charles Barkley, whom Reilly generally admires, declared in a Nike ad, "I am not a role model." "Well, it's too late!" Reilly responds. "You don't get a choice, you're out there, you chose to be public, you chose to be famous. So guess what? You are a role model, good or bad." He explains how athletes become role models for different things: Latrell Sprewell is a role model for selfishness, Michael Jordan's a role model for success. But Jordan, he feels, is more culpable than the rest: "He let himself become the most famous person on the planet. Well, now you got to do something with it. The things he could do socially are mind-boggling. He could change the world. But he doesn't take his life to the people."

Furthermore, Reilly has zero tolerance for athletes who use religion as a "rub-a-rabbit's-foot kind of thing," such as Isaac Bruce, who claimed Derrick Thomas would have escaped injury had he invoked Jesus's name as his car flipped; or Reggie White, who uses the press as a pulpit for racism, homophobia and child abuse--and calls himself a good Christian.

When he finds the time, Reilly tries his hand at screenplays. Universal bought a screenplay he co-wrote called Leatherheads. It's about the 1927 Duluth Eskimos football team of the NFL--"This owner was so cheap," Reilly pitches, "he'd make the players shower in their uniforms to keep them clean." Warner Bros. has commissioned him to write three screenplays, though he chafes under the system’s penchant for relegating material to development purgatory. He wonders if Kurt Vonnegut was not correct when he said: "'Go to the Nevada/California border, throw your book across, take your check and never go in.'" He has also co-authored several popular sports biographies: The Boz, with Brian Bosworth; I'd Love To But I Have A Game, with NBC announcer Marv Albert; The Wit and Wisdom of Charles Barkley, and Gretzky.

It was writing Gretzky that prompted his second foray into fiction. "Gretsky made me rewrite his book three times," Reilly exclaims, "it was too funny and too controversial!" He got over it; Slo-Mo, his most recent effort, is all those things. It's a parody of the "as told to" genre sports book, filled with real and stereotypical NBA characters. Maurice "Slo-Mo" Finsternick's a slow-witted, white, 7'8'' malaprop-dropping teenager, an innocent from a Colorado spelunking-cult, who is drafted into the NBA as a high school junior--he can drain 30 foot hook shots with either hand. He's so clueless, that when Charles Barkley tells him at a hotel-bar to "get yourself a freak," he responds with, "no, thanks, I don't drink." Reilly mined every story he wanted to tell about athletes, especially in the NBA, that was either too dirty or too sensitive for the pages of SI. How have the hoopsters responded? "Well, the thing about guys in the NBA, they don't read things, they have a staff that reads for them. They go play Nintendo, and, you know, watch a video--it's sad.

Reilly's wit and perception on the confluence of sports and society has taken him a long way from the kid who just wanted to make people laugh. He has reached an enviable position in life. He's a skillful and prolific writer, who is widely read and has the respect of his peers. It's fair to say his existence aptly mirrors the title of his weekly column: "The Life of Reilly."
 

 

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