A Front-Row Seat with the Sportswriters Who Sat There

Sit down with host Todd Jones and other sportswriters who knew the greatest athletes and coaches, and experienced first-hand some of the biggest sports moments in the past 50 years. They’ll share stories behind the stories -- some they’ve only told to each other.

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Johnette Howard: “Why Do You Think You Can Say That to Me?”

Johnette Howard: “Why Do You Think You Can Say That to Me?”

Johnette Howard has never been afraid to stand her ground while reporting and writing about sports for four decades. Hear what she told Bill Laimbeer and Kirby Puckett when they challenged her early in her career. Howard has also always followed her curiosity, which has led her to craft award-winning stories and best-selling books. She tells us about hockey goons, the Bad Boy Pistons, and dramatic Olympic moments that remain seared in her memory. She also takes us to Centre Court at Wimbledon, and through the years with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova – a rivalry unparalleled in sports. We finish by going from tennis to beyond with Howard as she recounts how Billie Jean King impacted sports and life for women everywhere.

Howard worked as a columnist and on-air commentator for ESPN.com (2008-17), a general sports columnist for Newsday (1999-2009), and a columnist and enterprise writer for The Washington Post (1993-94). She was a senior writer for The National Sports Daily (1989-91) and Sports Illustrated (1994-98) after beginning her career at the Detroit Free Press (1982-89 and 1991-93) as an NBA and Olympics writer. Her long-form articles have been collected in nine anthologies, including “Best American Sports Writing of the 20th Century,” Sports Illustrated’s “Great Football Writing,” and “A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sports Writing by Women.” Her newspaper columns for Newsday were nominated for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in general commentary. Besides ESPN, she has also frequently appeared on radio and television for NPR, CNN, HBO, FOX, BBC TV, and Spike TV. She has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Athletic, Slate, The Times of London, House & Garden, Architectural Digest, and Golf for Women.

Howard collaborated with Billie Jean King on King's autobiography, "All in", which was released in August 2021 and debuted at No. 5 on The New York Times Best-Seller List. The Christian Science Monitor called “All In” the best sports book of the year, and The Washington Post named it one of the 50 notable non-fiction books of 2021. She is also author of the book “The Rivals: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship,” which was published in 2005. Howard has won national and local recognition from the Associated Press Sports Editors, Best American Sports Writing (five times), the Women’s Sports Foundation, the New York Headline Club, Long Island Press Association.

Howard’s account on Twitter: @JohnetteHoward

Her website: www.johnettehoward.com

Todd

Jeanette, welcome to Press Box Access.

[00:00:05.570] - Johnette

Thanks, Todd. Nice to be here.

[00:00:07.330] - Todd

Good. So glad you're joining us. Well, I've enjoyed so many of your columns and stories over the years. I really get a kick out of the eight words in your Twitter bio. It says adventure never stops seeing a lot of stuff. I just think that captures sports writing so well.

[00:01:02.040] - Johnette

Yeah. And, you know, it's funny, and I'm sure you can relate to this. As a former newspaper person, the first paper I worked at almost folded. The second one I worked at did fold. I was laid off twice, including an ESPN, which I thought would be immune to any kind of the market tribulation and volatility that I've seen. And when people ask me about my career, I'm always like, I had a great life, right? Exactly. Yeah. And so it's funny. I'm not sure that people get that. Maybe when you get into it, you know, that it's going to be a ride and, you know, you might relocate a couple of times and make your family mad occasionally because you don't show up for things.

[00:01:49.570] - Todd

Yeah.

[00:01:50.890] - Johnette

But it's been great. It's been really great.

[00:01:54.430] - Todd

What's the first thing that comes to mind when somebody says what's it been like to be a sports writer for 40 years?

[00:02:01.450] - Johnette

Well, it's funny. There was a young guy that came here when I was still working. I live in New York when I was still working at ESPN, and he was complaining. He said, you know, this job would be great if we didn't have to write the stories. Oh, yes.

[00:02:14.680] - Todd

I have a friend, Jack Brendon in Cincinnati used to always say that great job if you didn't have to write.

[00:02:19.700] - Johnette

Yeah. And I told him, I said, you know, well, then it'd be seasoned tickets, man. I think the thing that's been funny because I'm not in daily journalism anymore is you get so used to having that backstage access and that sort of view where so many of your questions are answered. And it's been a transition for me to be sort of at a remove now and not know why things happened to the extent I would have before and to not feel like I have as informed a grasp on what's going on as I did before. But even if I were still in daily journalism, that would also be a function of how the business has changed. And it's just more acute when I'm doing other stuff.

[00:03:09.550] - Todd

Right. Well, Jeanette, you've written as well as anyone in the last 40 years. Books, articles, long form investigative columns, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Washington Post, ten years at Newsday, a couple of stops at the Detroit Free Press. But I want to start with the job that you had in between those Motor City stops. And that's a place that's near and dear to my heart because I was a young journalist at the time. And that's the National Sports Daily. And that ran from 1989 to 1991. The created by the great Sports Illustrated writer Frank To Ford the national. I still have a few copies in my attic, by the way.

[00:03:55.810] - Johnette

Well, it was the best job I ever had, and it was also constant chaos. And, you know, we were so proud of the product that we put out. And yet by the end, it was an inescapable conclusion that we really did deserve to fold because the business side was such a wreck and there were so many boondoggles going on in excesses. There was a guy who won't be named John Feinstein.

[00:04:30.070] - Todd

Wait a minute.

[00:04:33.290] - Johnette

Set the French open and his cat died. And he said he had to come home because his wife was upset and they were like, all right.

[00:04:41.270] - Todd

Oh, okay. Well, just hop on the next flight.

[00:04:43.380] - Johnette

Yeah, stuff like that, where there were ego clashes because there were so many more key writers. There were just excesses. So among the other excesses that we needed, photos taken mug shots for our columns, and they had decided that each of us had the flying to New York for these mug shots, which turned out to be being taken.

[00:06:19.000] - Todd

Was there like one camera in all of America that can take a mug shot? It's in New York.

[00:06:24.130] - Johnette

That's what I said. We could have gone to a passport office, but it was the publisher's wife. It was a total boondoggle. I get to the apartment, I knock on the door, they open the door, and they go, who are you? And I said, I'm John Ed Howard, Detroit Free Press. Yeah, I was right on time. And they said, oh, damn. Because I was from Detroit and my first name, they thought I was black. And so they had a makeup artist, and I was like, there's a makeup artist for the mugsa. Her name was Cheyenne, and she had to run down the street on the Upper East Side back to her salon to get the makeup for a white person. And it was just that kind of stuff. So by the time we folded, everybody was both heartbroken and also kind of not surprised because it was the greatest ride we ever had. But as a business.

[00:07:15.570] - Todd

I think about the Takeout team that you guys, you're a part of. You're on a team with Charles Pierce, Peter Richmond, Ian Thompson. That's a pretty good line up.

[00:07:24.500] - Johnette

Yeah, it was great. And we had to write one 3500 word story a day, not a day a week, at least, which meant you would turn them around pretty quickly. And we always say it was the best job we ever had, all of us, because Charlie remains brilliant and just pressing everything else. Some of the stories he's written, both about politics and sports, are just classics.

[00:07:52.650] - Todd

Right.

[00:07:54.210] - Johnette

And Ian and I were both about the same age. And just looking around going, can you believe this? And we knew each other from when I was in Detroit covering the Pistons and he was on the Celtics during the playoffs. And Peter Richmond also was just an exquisite writer who went on to GQ with Charlie after we folded. Our Editors were David Granger, who ended up running Gqire, and Rob Flater, who was running Sports Illustrated features for a while. So it was like an impeccable place. And then Frank The Ford was in charge of all of it. The stories that we did were such a privilege because you got the kind of the rigor and the discipline and the editing that was rare for newspapers where there's that daily churn.

[00:08:45.910] - Todd

Well, one of the stories that you wrote that still remains one of my all time favorites, especially I was such an impressionable age at the time when I was just soaking up anything that people were riding around the country. And that was a story called The Making of a Goon. And that came out, I think, in early 1990, and it was about the Detroit Red Wings enforcer, Joe Coker. And I was wondering if you could recount what that was like, why that became a story and what that story means to you even today.

[00:09:19.210] - Johnette

Yeah, it's one of the stories I'm most proud of in my career. I lived in Detroit still because they hired me away from the Detroit Free Press. And actually, it's funny. It was the first story I wrote for the national, the very first story I wrote for them. And I had changed jobs so quickly that I had to go and get a loaner computer from Apple because the national was so new and not organized that they didn't have computers to give us. I wrote it on a desktop computer that I was nice on loan. And actually, it's a lot of stories started. I had just posed a question to Rob Slater. I said we had in Detroit two goons at the time, Joey Kosher and Bob Probert, who was actually a scarier guy. And it was rare for teams to have two of them, and I would have done Probert, but he was in prison.

[00:10:20.900] - Todd

Well, that's an issue.

[00:10:23.740] - Johnette

Yeah. The fights that weren't accessible. So he was in prison with Jim Baker, it turns out, in a federal prison in Minnesota, which was another story because he got Baker on the prison hockey team.

[00:10:40.210] - Todd

That's a pretty good team.

[00:10:41.680] - Johnette

Yeah. Well, when he got arrested, he hit a tree and the cops showed up and Probert was laying on the ground and he looked up at them and said, charge me with the usual guys. So he would have been good, too. But anyway, Joey was the one who was out. And it's a funny thing. Some stories just come together. I did that in just a couple of days of reporting. And I talked to him and there's a story you might remember, an anecdote in the story about him getting caught up from the Miners to the Red Wings. And he had knocked out a guy the night before and didn't know that the cut on his knuckle was from the guy's tooth and his hand blew up overnight. And there's so much bacteria when that happens that you can get gangrene and actually the tendons will start to rot within a day. So he shows up for morning practice and he couldn't get his glove on. And so the story is about the sacrifices that a guy like that makes and how you're sort of steered into it. Nobody really grows up wanting to punch people in the face for a living and the sort of ethical and moral dilemmas that he went through and had trouble talking about.

[00:12:07.250] - Johnette

But it comes through and also the opinions of some of his victims. So it was a really nuanced story and it sort of examined this culture in hockey that values these guys and why. And at times it can almost seem a little reasonable.

[00:12:27.030] - Todd

Yeah, a little bit. Yeah, right. Well, it was a type of journalism that was, you know, it took you behind the scenes. It took you into, like you said, a nuanced area of a sport, this life of a goon, this enforcer. You might talk to them once in a while after a game or a certain fight, but you never really knew what was going on in their life. And I think that's the type of journalism that I was attracted to. And is that what got you into sports writing to begin with? Is the idea of going farther than what the result of the game is?

[00:12:57.240] - Johnette

Yeah, that's what I was more interested in. I love sports and I love the excitement and all those things, but I was really interested in the people. And I always say I would encounter people sometimes they go, oh, I don't care about sports. I don't care. And I was like, I don't really write about sports. I write about people in sports, and it's a whole different thing. And you intersect with every issue in the world. And so that was always my fascination when I was a beat writer with the Pistons. It was great experience getting to know people on a day to day basis and how leagues work, how athletes mindsets, the grind, all of it. But I wanted to get off it within a year because I felt like I was never going to find out how well I could write if I was always having to hit a 1015 deadline.

[00:13:49.270]

Right.

[00:13:50.290] - Johnette

And so it was what always attracted me with long form stuff, and people always kind of steered me toward that, fortunately. So it worked out well. But journalism has changed. You used to be able to get the access, and I would have a hard time today if I were still in daily journalism because of that.

[00:16:16.560] - Todd

Well, you know those tough guys at the Red Wings and you knew some other tough guys in Detroit, too. You mentioned the Detroit Pistons. You were on the beat for the bad boys in the 1980s. Speaking of tough guys, what a team, right? I mean, we're talking about one of the all time teams, and I think in some ways they get a little lost. They're almost like a bridge between Lakers Seldicks dynasty to the Jordan years of dominance. But when you think about it, the bad boys, that was the Detroit team that really defined the way basketball was being played in those days in the 80s. What was it like covering the Detroit bad Boys?

[00:16:55.890] - Johnette

It was remarkable. And I was lucky because I got the job the year before they really took off. So I got to see the whole rise. They were pretty much a. 500 team once Isaiah got there, Isaiah Thomas. And that's when I took over the beat. They were full of characters, but they were young and they all grew together. And of course, Chuck Daley was the coach. Daddy Rich.

[00:17:24.060] - Todd

Daddy Rich right. Now tell me about that name. Daddy Rich.

[00:17:28.230] - Johnette

Well, it's a great story. He was coaching in Cleveland for Ted Stephen's, Cleveland Cavaliers. And at the time, Stephen was the worst owner in sports, and nobody wanted to play for Cleveland. They lost all the time. Chuck never got his first shot at head coaching in the NBA until I forget, in his late 50s, I think. But it was such a miserable existence for everyone that he had a secret deal with the players because he was such a closed horse that if one of them got traded, they owed him an ultra suede jacket. Sports jacket.

[00:18:05.070] - Todd

I love it.

[00:18:06.000] - Johnette

It was like being paroled. And he's like, yeah, pal, I got to stay, you get to go. So they had to buy him an ultra suede jacket.

[00:18:14.650] - Todd

When did he move on to the silk ties?

[00:18:17.650] - Johnette

Once he got the gig, the head coaching job, but people didn't know he had one of the top five winning percentages in the big five as a head coach College when he was at Penn and not exactly a basketball factory. And that's when Jack Ramsay and guys like that were in Philly. So Chuck was an exceptional coach and a great guy who went to Mass every day, gave up candy for Lent. But then he had this style that was and he said it always went back to his father, who was a traveling salesman. Chuck grew up in Pungsatani, Pennsylvania, and he worked in an abattoir in the pits where they would put, I guess it's lime on hides, cow hides and stuff, and it's nasty, stinking work. And he just thought there's got to be something better. And so he got out. But he was a great guy, and he understood the guys on the team perfectly. And Isaiah was this 61 force in nature. And I just saw him the other day talking to Trey Young, and he's still saying this. He said it at the time that he used to look at Magic and Bird and those guys, Jordan, and say, if I was six nine, none of these mothers could guard me, that I'll be in trouble.

[00:19:37.950] - Johnette

Yeah.

[00:19:38.260] - Todd

You forget he was six one.

[00:19:39.910] - Johnette

Yeah. And that's when you could knock guys down and beat them up. And I have undying admiration for how tough he was. Carl Malone opened a cut over his eyebrow when we were in Salt Lake once. And I don't know. I mean, he had to get at least 30 stitches. He went off and he was so mad. He came back to the game after halftime and scored some outrageous amount of points, and they won the game. He was like, that tough. And same when they played the Lakers in the Finals. He blew up in his ankle and still played. And by then he had a patch over his head because he got hit in the head. And his will was just amazing. And the way he kind of whip cracked those other guys in the line. And then it was Bill Ambier who was the rich kid's son who pretty obtuse about race relations.

[00:20:33.530] - Todd

Now I want to ask you something. Was Bill Lambert as big an asshole as he seemed to be on the court?

[00:20:40.910] - Johnette

I think he knew that's the only way he could play. And he has a good side. He really does. He knew that he had to be kind of a provocateur and get charges and annoy people. But it's funny. He got on me once for some story that I wrote. And I just looked at him. He was making a scene in the locker room and yelling at me. It's like my second year. And he was yelling something at me, and I said, you better just be grateful we don't write everything we know about you.

[00:21:16.230] - Todd

I like it.

[00:21:18.510] - Johnette

He just went like, yeah, Jeanette's firing a gun there so he could be steered.

[00:21:30.560] - Todd

That's good.

[00:21:31.550] - Johnette

The funny thing about him and I always have said this and, you know, I never asked Isaiah if it were true, but I think I think Isaiah knew they needed him to win. And there were these big Ream of stories about how it was almost like a buddy movie, like the little black guy and the big white guy. And they were best friends and yada, yada, yada. And I mean, they were friendly, and it was true to an extent, but I really think it was another one of the calculations Isaiah made that if we're going to win, we need this guy because he would show up for training camp and they would have to run. I forget. I think it was a mile, and he would get about halfway through it and have to Puke in the garbage can on the side of the track.

[00:22:16.610] - Todd

Lane beer. Must have had too many beers.

[00:22:19.030] - Johnette

Yeah. But, you know, those teams had Joe Dumar was a rookie my first year, and then Rodman and John Sally came the second year, and then Rick Mahoney got traded for, I think it was the third year, and he was at that time part of Mcfeelthe and McNasty, if you remember, with the Washington Bullets. And I thought, oh, no, because women sports writing, women in sports writing was still really lonely. About five years old, as far as equal access to the locker room and stuff like that. I thought, oh, no. When they traded for him, and he showed up and we were in India, and he looks at me and he says, you're going to find out why they call me sick, Rick.

[00:22:57.530] - Todd

Oh, nice.

[00:22:59.630] - Johnette

And it didn't turn out to be true. He turned out to be one of the best guys on the team. A great guy. Still a great guy. When I see him, I'd love to catch up with him. They had Vinny Johnson the microwave, because he could heat up in a minute and that kind of stuff. It was a great cast of characters.

[00:23:16.400] - Todd

You mentioned Rodman, and really, Rodman was kind of a shy young guy at this time. He wasn't quite this cartoon character that we all came to know.

[00:23:26.060] - Johnette

No. As I said, he got drafted the second year. I was on the beat. And I remember when they drafted him, they were thrilled. And they said he was taken in the second round. And they said, we got this guy, and he's raw, but he's an extraordinary athlete, and we think he could really be something. And when he showed up, he came from a little University, NAIA, Southeastern Oklahoma State. And it was total shocking to him that his life turned out this way. And when he got to the first workout, they were probably, I would say, five minutes into it. And they had to yank him out of the training camp workout because he flunked his EKG. He was so excited that his heart was pounding so much that they had to pull him and redo everything before he could start again. But he was he was a really endearing guy who hadn't experienced a lot. He had a Church Lady, mom and some sisters. His dad, we've since found out, had the perfect name. I think his first name was Philander. And he literally has 20 some children.

[00:24:32.090]

Wow.

[00:24:32.640] - Johnette

He lives in the Philippines now? I guess so. He had a really hard upbringing, and Chuck Daley became really a surrogate father. And when Dennis kind of spun out and became the guy with the hair and everything else was after Chuck Daly got fired, he got pushed out. They didn't say he got fired, but he was, for all intents and purposes, pushed out. And Chuck was ready to move on it by that point, too. And Dennis was so distraught that he's talked about this since he sat in the parking lot with a. 22 rifle on the seat of his car, and he was going to kill himself, but he fell asleep.

[00:25:12.540] - Todd

Wow.

[00:25:13.970] - Johnette

And then he woke up.

[00:25:15.180] - Todd

It's how fragile they are, right? I mean, sometimes you forget that just the trauma.

[00:25:19.610] - Johnette

I think, in his life. I mean, he was working at a bump shop in an auto bump shop at an airport, concessions, stuff like that. But I remember we were both about the same age. I was only like, whatever, 24, 25. And I remember talking to him once, and we were talking about how your life turns out in ways you don't expect. And everyone called him Worm. And I said, Worm, did you ever steal the tiles at a hotel? And he said, Because we were staying in nice hotels, Chuck always made sure we were, like, at the Ritz and whatever, Santa Monica. And I said, Warren, did you ever steal the tiles in the hotel? And he said, all the time, Joe. Then he told me, he said, you know, he said, I'm afraid. I'm afraid if people really know who I am, they wouldn't like me. And I always remembered that, because when good stuff happened to him, like when he won Defensive Player of the Year award or things like that, he would cry at the press conference. He would just cry. And I think it was just that gratitude. And I think when Chuck got fired, it made him more cynical about the business.

[00:26:31.860] - Johnette

And he changed in a lot of ways.

[00:26:36.890] - Todd

Well, what a collection of talent and characters. The Pistons. They lost the NBA Finals in 88 to the Lakers, but then they came back and won consecutive NBA Championships in 89 and 90 before the Jordan rules for Michael Jordan broke through. But they had to be tough to play the way they did. And you had to be tough, too. Like you mentioned, there weren't a lot of women's sports writers at that time, so you moved from the Pistons beat into you're doing more long form, more columns. When you think about your career in that regard, how tough was it for you, especially in the earlier years, to find your place and hold your own in this business? In terms of how guys were dealing with women's sports riders.

[00:27:23.930] - Johnette

Well, as I said, it was a new thing. And people know this that are in the business. It was not just the athletes or the teams. It was sometimes colleagues too. That would be difficult. And there's like, scarce resources, scarce jobs. And back then, there used to be these things where people would be cynical, like, how do you get this information? That kind of like scurrilous crap. People thought they had the Liberty to comment on stuff like your appearance or anything. They would try to test you. I got along with most people, but stuff would happen. And I always felt that it was important to handle it myself. I wasn't one of those people that was going to run always to management. He said this to me. He said that to me. And I used to tell people, I will die before I cry. I will kill them first before I cry. I used to say I'll throw a stapler through the window or whatever. No, never, ever, never, never, ever. I'm like, oh, she cried. Really?

[00:28:43.770] - Todd

You're from Pittsburgh? You had that toughness?

[00:28:45.820] - Johnette

Yeah, I did. I used to think I told one guy, he said something to me and I said, Why do you think I said, I'm just curious. Because it was, in a way, it's not news. So you've heard a lot of stuff, and sometimes it's almost like this clinical, anthropological thing where you're like. And I would just ask. I'd say it was Kirby Puckett. And I said, I'm just curious. Why do you think you could say that to me? Like, what is it about me that I exude that you thought you could say that to me? I just met you, like, ten minutes ago. Why? Because I'm sincerely curious, you know? And then he said something back and I said, you're an asshole.

[00:29:26.550] - Todd

Good for you.

[00:29:27.700] - Johnette

But it would go like that. But the difference in sports is you have a wide berth and you can talk like that. You can't talk like that in a boardroom. I just felt it was important to handle things like that on my own because I was going to see these guys every day, and you're not going to get much support in the locker room if you confront people, get into shouting matches and things like that. That's the kind of stuff that ends up on tape in the newspapers. So I would just sometimes walk up the guys and just tell them when they were making a scene yelling at me or something, I would just walk up to them and whisper stuff like, you need to stop right now, because this is going to turn out really bad for you. And it really helped in the NBA that David Stern had told there were, I think, three of us at the time, two or three of us that covered the MBA full time. And he called each of us and he's the Commissioner of the NBA. And he said, I want you guys to know if you have any trouble, you call me directly. Nobody else, you call me. And so the guys knew that. I think somehow the teams knew that.

[00:33:13.480] - Johnette

I don't know if he had put out a letter to all the teams or whatever Chuck Daly asked me. We went to breakfast before the first season. I covered them, and he said, why do you want to do this? You're a nice girl. Why do you want to do this?

[00:33:25.850] - Todd

Come on, Daddy rich. Come on. Get with.

[00:33:30.410] - Johnette

Yeah, but it got better and better. And a lot of the tropes, the old stupid thinking went away, and women proved that they could do the job and write and, you know, and it's a lot better. Stuff still happens, but it's a lot better.

[00:33:46.270] - Todd

Well, it's a lot better because of people like you. So you certainly held your own and know so many other media members are grateful for that to help trailblaze like that. And you saw some of the worst things behind the scenes, but when you think about your career, you've also seen some great, memorable things, too, right?

[00:34:05.710] - Johnette

Yeah. Extraordinary.

[00:34:07.200] - Todd

Yeah. So when you think about extraordinary, what does come to mind?

[00:34:12.410] - Johnette

Well, you know, people always ask, what's your favorite sport to cover? And it was really an event. I just always loved the Summer Olympics because this was through the NBA back then, too. I'm not so much into it now because it's just a clear out and guys go to the rim and finger roll and whatever. It's not as exciting to me. But when I covered the NBA nightly, you would see something extraordinary every night. And even though you're seeing 100 games a year, it was really true. The guys are amazing. And when I would go and cover the NCAA tournament, when the Pistons got eliminated and the guy would miss a shot from the corner, I would blink. Like the College kid would miss a shot from the corner, blink. Like, I got so used to how great they were. But the Olympics was really something I really loved because just the scale of it, and it reminds you of how extraordinary people are, like the virtuosity, the talent and the ability and the determination and the rigor and the training and the imagination and all those things. And so the first time I covered the Summer Olympics, and Ben Johnson was racing Carl Lewis in the 100 yard dash in Seoul, and there was over 100,000 people, I think, in the Stadium.

[00:35:39.010] - Johnette

And we were ground level, so they were running right past us. And when the starter's gun went up, I'll never forget the place was just, like, quiet. It was like a Church. And the gun cracked, and it was like this roar, like this wall of sound, and they came flying. And to see a human being run that fast is also extraordinary. And Ben Johnson beat him. And then he got caught, like, a couple of days later, he flunked the drug test, but he broke the world record by an obscene amount. It was like not just a tent, it was a few tents. Like, he just chainsawed off. That was amazing. When you see the remember.

[00:36:25.970] - Todd

You say that moment, because that actually is my favorite memory of the first Olympics I covered was in Sydney. It was the 100 meters dash.

[00:36:34.880] - Johnette

And like I said.

[00:36:35.560] - Todd

1000 people gun goes up. And I can remember at that moment hearing the helicopter above the Stadium. It was so quiet.

[00:36:44.300] - Johnette

I just don't remember that you could hear people come.

[00:36:47.120] - Todd

Amazing. Yes. And then it goes off and then it just explodes into the sky. Amazing.

[00:36:53.710] - Johnette

So that was my initiation. And then, I mean, you name it, I used to the ski jump, but I was so excited to go see the ski jump at the Winter Olympics. And we snuck on the chairlift before the event, and we're riding up just because it was me and another woman, Washington Post. And we wanted to just see how high it was from the top, because it's 90 meters. And when we were up there, the event started. We didn't get off in time. And so we were hearing them going by in the air, and they do all kinds of things. They scream on their way down, they yell, they go. And I didn't know that that was great. But I saw Dan Jansson win in his third Olympics. He had been the colossus in speed skating, and he always had some horrible luck where his sister died of leukemia. The first Olympics we covered, and then the second one, he wanted to win so badly, he fell down in the curve, and he was down to the last race of his life. He was going to retire. And it wasn't even his event. It was the 1000 meters.

[00:38:04.370] - Johnette

And he went around and broke the world record. His wife spun around and fell down. She fainted. Everybody started crying. The Norwegian crowd sang to him. It was like the best thing we ever saw. The President called him. We were all crying on press row. It was great. We're trying not to show it, but we're like. And then one of my buddies turned to me. He was a couple of rows down, and he turned to me and he moused the words, Is that the best thing you've ever seen? And we were just like, yeah, it was the best.

Todd

What about in New York? You were in Newsday for ten years writing columns, and that's not an easy gig. You're in New York City and your opinions out there, you had to see some crazy things, too, Besides just epic. You were there for the Clemens bathrobe, where he threw the bat at Mike, right?

[00:39:30.250] - Johnette

Yeah, that was great. That series, we were telling Todd Zeal he won a game with a hit. And that game was at Shay. And we went downstairs and we were telling him, when he got the winning hit, the press box was swaying, it was shaking. The Stadium was shaking from the noise. And he said the ground was shaking, too, and we were talking. But the thing with Clemens and Piazza was funny because Clemens claimed he thought the big Shard of a bat was the ball, and that's why he threw it.

[00:40:05.960] - Todd

No, wait a minute. He might have been a meathead, but it shouldn't have been that long.

[00:40:09.710] - Johnette

And we were like, okay, so we go to Piazza, and somebody asked him, what do you think his state of mind could have been? And Piazza had a great line. He said, I'm going to Butcher it. But he said something to the effect of, Are you asking me if he's crazy or mentally disturbed? It was something like that. He said it in the press box, the press conference. And we were all kind of like, that would work.

[00:40:35.680] - Todd

Yeah, that's a good question.

[00:40:38.310] - Johnette

But I was lucky when I got here. George Steinbrenner was still around, and that was a lot of fun because of the bombastic. He always thought he was General Patton. So he would stride in and stride out and stick on his chest. It's like almost cartoonish. And then he loved it. He would say something inflammatory, and then everybody would stake out the exit where he had to go to his limo after the game, and he would walk by. It was almost Trumpian, actually. He would walk by and he might say something. He might not. And you'd be on the elevator. He took the same elevator to his box that we took for the press box. And sometimes he'd be with Kissinger. Sometimes he'd be with Billy Crystal. Sometimes it just depended. And that was always fun to see him explode and get hacked off.

[00:41:33.790] - Todd

Was he ever with George Castanza?

[00:41:36.310] - Johnette

No, not on any nights I was there, but I used to love the stakeouts where everybody would leave in the 7th inning. Nobody covers the games with just one Yankee games with just one writer in New York. So there'd always be, like, the third guy would have to go down and just stand there waiting for George to leave. And it was a lot of fun. And that series that they played against Arizona, and they actually ended up losing it, but it was one of the great series I've ever seen. World Series. And Mariano Rivera ended up giving up the winning run on a Bluetooth. But it was just so full of drama and game winning home runs and Randy Johnson and Kurt Schilling against the Yankees pitchers and hitters and great stuff. I remember Darryl Strawberry getting booed in Boston at Fenway. They were chanting, just say no, just say no, because he had a drug problem that everybody knew about. And they were chanting, just say no, just say no. And he was always, like, really calm. Like, kind of like, easy. Darryl just really calm. And he went up to bat, and they were chanting it, and he just stood there and the pitch came and he just cranked it out of the park.

[00:42:58.920] - Johnette

It was like crack, and you knew it was gone the minute the sound and it went out. And he took his time running around and he got and he touched home plate and he just winked at everybody. It was great. And again, it just reminds you how amazing they are. They're pretty amazing. Whatever their other flaws, they're like savant when it comes to what they do.

[00:43:23.810] - Todd

You mentioned a venue that I wanted to ask you about because I want to talk some tennis and that's Center Court at Wimbledon. I never was fortunate enough to cover Wimbledon. And I wanted to know what it was like the first time you walked into Center Court, even if it was empty. I don't know what the circumstances were, but do you recall the first time you went into Center Court?

[00:43:43.870] - Johnette

Yeah, absolutely. And it's kind of a roundabout story because I ended up writing Billie Jean King's autobiography the past couple of years. But I was at the Washington Post. We had a writer, Alyssa Musketin, who decided to go work at the White House, and she ended up writing speeches for Hillary Clinton only in Washington. So George Solomon, my boss, comes to my desk and he says, I haven't been there long. And he says, how would you like to cover Wimbledon? Because Lisa had to leave quickly. And I said, he's serious. And he said, yeah. And I said, I would love to. So back then, it was great. Newspapers would send you to develop your expertise early or to events, whatever. And the Post was great that way. And so he said, Why don't you go over early to Eastbourne and cover that tournament? It's a tune up before the real one, just to get acclimated. I said, Great. I go there, I take the train. I cover it. Martina played there, and I got an interview with her because I had written something about it previously that she liked. And I got a one on one that was great.

[00:44:50.620] - Johnette

I get on a train there's Billie Jean, whom I had met a couple of times, just doing other stories, and I reintroduced myself, and she was with her partner, Alana, and I said, I'm going to be covering tennis now, I think, and this is my first time at Wimbledon. And they said, what? And I said, yeah. And Alana said, who? I didn't even know, said, Meet me at the Fred Perry statue tomorrow, and I'll give you a tour.

[00:45:13.980]

Really?

[00:45:14.800] - Johnette

Yeah. Just kindness of their heart. And so I said, okay. So I met her there, and she had been a player. She took me around and it was empty, and it was gorgeous because first of all, the grass is like suede. It's like a golf green, really, and nobody plays on it the rest of the year. So it's just pristine when you get there. Everything's painted that dark green with the purple flowers spilling out of these hanging baskets. The sprinklers are going. And it just is almost poetic the way the water is spraying. And she takes me to center court and we walk in and it just blows open in front of you. When you walk out of these little corridors, it just pops up in front of you. And it's gorgeous and acoustics. I mean, it was like I remember thinking people talk about like Carnegie Hall or whatever. But when you were watching a match, when the people were there, it was the same thing. It would get incredibly quiet, intense. And then the minute something happens, you would hear like either the big wall of sound or they would go, oh, it always reminded me of a courtroom.

[00:46:34.170] - Johnette

Like somebody says something awful and they all go because in between when as the points are being played, or it's like riding a roller coaster. Like somebody gets a drop shot and it's like they're going down the roller coaster Hill or like, it's unbelievable. And still it was one of my favorite places ever. I think the roof changed the sound somewhat, but the sound was one of the things in addition to it's just gorgeous. I mean, it's perfect symmetry. Not too big, not too small, just gorgeous. The crowd is really knowledgeable so they know what they're seeing.

[00:47:12.900] - Todd

Do you have a favorite moment from center court that you covered?

[00:47:18.490] - Johnette

Yeah. It's funny because I'm trying to think I mean, this is I look forward to seeing Martina in person because she was so athletic and played so differently than everybody else. And you don't realize when you watch on TV how she's charging the net and she'd pluck these volleys off the ground like a couple of inches down by her shoes and lifted over the net from 4ft from the net. And you think, how did she know to cover the alley or whatever? She would get to these things that were amazing. It was like really swashbuckling and exciting. But I also saw when Federer was very young and he upset Sampras, and that was pretty amazing because Sampras was the best player in the world at the time and on his way down. And I also saw when Yana Navatna blew a big lead against Stephanie Graff and ended up losing. And it was the heartbreak that was something. It was different there, too, because Fleet Street, the tabloids back then, would send these Piranha writers that weren't really sports writers. They were just there to stir up. Today. It would be called clickbait. And so they would ask these impertinent questions or embarrassing personal questions.

[00:48:44.270] - Johnette

There used to be a bounty. Martina told me there was a bounty on her once with photographers. If somebody could get her holding hands with her new girlfriend, they would get paid $15,000.

[00:48:54.830] - Todd

Really? Wow.

[00:48:57.020] - Johnette

Because they could sell a lot of papers. There were like nine papers in daily newspapers, I think at the time in London, and they were so competitive that would win the day on the newsstand if they had something like that, because people were fascinated with her back then.

[00:49:12.240] - Todd

I wanted to ask you more about Martina. You wrote a great book called The Rivals about the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martinez Vertelova that really defines especially the late Seventies. But throughout the Eighties, I think, of great rivalries like Ollie Frazier, Magic Bird. But even in tennis, people say, oh, Borg McEnroe. But I think they only played like 14 times.

[00:49:36.870] - Johnette

Right.

[00:49:37.320] - Todd

But Chris and Martinez played 80 times.

[00:49:41.030] - Johnette

Yeah. Over 16 years. And, you know, they were they were competing one or the other was number one, I think, for eight years straight or something like that. And there was like this equipist. They both ended with 18 Grand Slam singles titles. I think Martina ended up winning the head to head, like 42 37. But it gives you an idea how close they were. And I do remember from writing the book, they played 80 times and 60 of those were finals.

[00:50:16.420]

Yeah.

[00:50:17.230] - Johnette

So it was always a high stakes thing. And then it's like the old line in boxing that styles make fights. I mean, they couldn't have been more different temperamentally or stylistically. And so that was and it was funny because a lot of the traits that were attributed to Chris were actually more true of Martina and vice versa. One of the reasons I wanted to do the book was I thought that beyond the fact they were seminal figures in sports, not just women's sports, was the idea that they had been sort of these cartoonish depictions that weren't accurate. And I thought they had social import beyond just their athletic greatness. And so I thought it was a rich topic.

[00:51:06.490] - Todd

Even a backdrop of what they played in at the time. You're talking in the 70s, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, heck, the Cold War is going on. You got Martina, who came over, defected, title nine. So you have all these cultural issues surrounding that rivalry, which really made it interesting, too.

[00:51:23.930] - Johnette

Yeah. If you think about it on a timeline, Billie Jean kind of envisioned all the stuff that could happen and set it in motion. But Martina and Chris were really the first generation that were sort of free of having to carve out a pace to play and could actually earn a living. And they kind of embodied it in flesh and blood, everything that Billy and the people of her generation, which was just a few years earlier, had fought for. And they were also the first generation in tennis and part of sports that came along in the television age where they were covered on TV. And so Chris especially became kind of this cultural rock star. It's in the book where Andy Warhol painted her picture and she was dating Burt Reynolds and all kinds of stuff. So they were crossover stars, especially her. She had a ton of endorsements, and they also changed what people believed women were capable of, which I think was a big deal and something that Billy had started. But I think Billy won $100,000 in her first pro season after she created the women's Tour with some other people, the original nine.

[00:52:42.870] - Johnette

And within five years, Chrissy made 1 million in a single year. The velocity of the growth was amazing. And Billy tells a story about running into Reggie Jackson someplace, and he was still not making big money yet. And he said he almost fainted when he saw what they were earning. He said, you girls are making some serious bread.

[00:53:08.150] - Todd

Time, right? You got to know Chris and Martina so well, especially through writing the book. Is there a story or an anecdote about either one of them or their relationship that sticks with you even now?

[00:53:27.030] - Johnette

Well, I mean, there's a lot of them, because when you're trying to figure out what made them the subtitle of the book, it's called The Rivals, but the subtitle is something like their epic duels and extraordinary friendship. And so one of the puzzles when you're trying to figure out the narrative arc or what to say about them is how could they have remained friends when they were battling each other every time for the biggest prizes in the sport? And really what happened was they had separated themselves so far from everybody else that they were really the only two people that understood what the other was going through at that level. And so they kind of really had compassion for each other. And so they would kill each other on the court and they had frosty times, but they would kill each other in the court and then go back and whoever lost would be consoled by whoever won like that, feel guilty a little bit that they want. But there were moments when Chris was, I think some London papers had written that she was having an affair when her marriage was breaking up with John Lloyd.

[00:54:39.610] - Johnette

And Martina was indignant. It was at the Australian Open. And she was telling them Chris would never do that, whatever she called Chris and told her what had happened and said, don't worry, I stuck up with you for you. And Chris told her, well, Martina, it's actually true. So they were fiercely, like, defending. And then Chrissy tells a story about when Martina could finally had her citizenship and could go back to Czechoslovakia for Fed Cup. And Chrissy had a knee injury, but she just went anyway because she wanted to be with Martina when she went home, because Martina hadn't seen their family in years and had not been able to go home. And they're standing there and they start playing the Czech National anthem, which is called Where is My Home? And Martina started crying. And Chrissy just reached over and put her arm around her. It was like one of those Peewee Reese Jackie Robinson moments. So there was real affection in addition to real competition. And they were always extraordinary to me how they were able to balance it. And they're still good friends. They're probably better friends now than ever.

[00:55:47.990] - Todd

That's great, right? It's like that old cartoon, The Sheepdog and the Wolf. They clock in, they battle it out, then they clock out and they go get a beer.

[00:55:56.450] - Johnette

Yeah. It's funny. They had times when they didn't get along or they would. I mean, Christie is very funny because she's very self aware of her ego and she talks freely about how when you're at that level, you have to be really selfish and that she used to just think people are going to have to put up with her as long as she's playing, because it's got to be about like me resting and eating and practicing and whatever. But she said the last three years especially, she didn't really like it who she was. And Martina said she felt like she became a much better person herself and a much better human being after those invincible years she had because they're just so driven. Yeah.

[00:56:41.260] - Todd

That's what it takes, right. To reach that. Speaking of driven, the door was really open for both of them and for women's sports in general by Billy Jean King, who you mentioned. Yes. And you participated in the writing of All In with Marianne Vollers. You guys wrote the autobiography about Billy Jean. That's a great read. I really recommend it. I've learned so much. It's funny. I met Billy Jean a couple of times, wrote a couple of things, but I've learned so much to this book. I really recommend you reading it. But think about what Billie Jean King has meant, not just to tennis, but to sports. John Mceroll once said that she's the single most important person in the history of women's sports.

[00:57:24.230] - Johnette

He's right. Yeah. I think the thing that's remarkable about her as well is she 78 and she's still indefatigable. She's still working for this stuff every day of her life, every day. And she's adapted to Twitter and Instagram and everything else. She still travels and give speeches, and she has this sort of unsinkable sort of optimism and determination. And it's an interesting case study. And if you're trying to persuade people, what's the best way to get it done? Like, is it to be in their face? Is it to bring people together and be kind of a conciliator? Is it both? It's in the prologue, she says, we wrote something about how it always used to astonish her that people thought she was a separatist because she's always been an egalitarian. She's never been one of these radical feminists who just thinks men have no right to participate in the discussions or they can't relate to what people are going through. Women that kind of stuff her Leadership Institute had an annual thing one year where it was just for men because she felt like the men were excluded too much from the conversation. And you need the men to help you get things done, which made perfect sense.

[00:59:02.530] - Johnette

I don't think she gets enough credit. I think people see the bubbly little bit goofy stuff she does sometimes, like laughing all the time and they don't give her enough credit for the gravitas and the amazing prescience that she had and how right she was about so many things and how it's all come true. None of this. She basically started the entire women's sports industry when they broke away at great risk to themselves and started their own professional women's tennis tour because the men were trying to basically snuff them out.

[00:59:39.600] - Todd

Right. I mean, I think about it, it's kind of been a theme of our conversation. Toughness, the idea of toughness and what it takes, what it took for her on the court. She won 39 Grand Slam titles. When you talk about doubles and mixed doubles included twelve of them single Championships, former number one player. So she did all that on the court. But then the advocacy work that she did founding the Women's Tennis Association, the foundation, everything that she's done since, I just admire the fact that she was willing to put herself out there, like who would play in the battle of the sexes. Right. Who would agree to go out there and play against Bobby Riggs in 1973? 90 million people watch that.

[01:00:24.440] - Johnette

Yeah, right. 90 million. And, you know, she didn't really want to, but he beat Margaret Court a couple of months earlier. Margaret didn't really prepare, take him seriously and lost to him. And Billy was mortified and said, now I have to play him because it was going to undermine everything she had fought for. She felt even that was kind of genius because Bobby was such a hustler and she just decided to give him three months of blackout. He didn't get to see her, and it drove them crazy. Yeah. But the thing so much stuff in her life, that thing changed her life and catapulted her. It's still the thing. Every day somebody comes up to her and tells her they watched it or they knew about it or something. But she got out in 1981 when she had to go back to playing when she was 39, she had had something like six knee surgeries. And I was kind of bummed out because when we were doing the photos for the book, we had to cut some. And I was really fighting to get this one in because knee surgery was so primitive when she played.

[01:01:32.320] - Johnette

And there's a picture of her at Wimbledon tying her shoe or something. And you can see these Crescent scars on her knees, like all of them, because she had six surgeries and she played on bad knees. She would fly to New York For a business meeting and fly back and play her match in the evening in Florida without warming up. Should be running onto the court at the cost. Excuse me. Just an extraordinary and as I said, she just never stops. I mean, she never has stopped, ever.

[01:02:06.450] - Todd

Would she like to be around on a day to day basis?

[01:02:10.010] - Johnette

Well, this is funny Because I'm 62 and she was asking me, what are you going to do after this book? And I said, you know, I don't know. I said I don't know if I'll do another book Or I might be done. I said I've been working 40 some years. I had stage one breast cancer in 2017 And I was very lucky it was early. I said but I might be done. Journalism has changed And I don't enjoy it as much. I love the books, but I don't know. I said I might just stop and she goes, no. What do you mean no? She said, I have ideas for you And I said, you can't do that. You can't make me work. It's so funny because she wants everybody to be on board.

[01:03:28.050] - Todd

I think Billy Jean's right Though I would agree with her. Don't stop because you've brought too much great journalism to sports in the last four decades. I've really enjoyed your work over the years. I really admire the toughness you showed throughout your career to help also be a trailblazer like Billy Jean in many respects And I'm just so thankful that you've joined us today. I've really enjoyed going over some of the highlights of your career.

[01:03:56.450] - Johnette

Well, thank you for all those kind of things. I'm not sure I have it coming, But I have enjoyed talking with you and this is a great podcast And I encourage people to keep tuned into it Because it's a lot of fun And I think it's a world that is worth illuminating for people Because it's changed so much before it recedes into the mists and all that.

[01:04:18.970] - Todd

It would be nice to have into the mist together. We'll have a drink. Don't tell Billie Jean we'll just have a drink together.

[01:04:28.470] - Johnette

No. Alright.

[01:04:33.320] - Todd

Thanks again, Janet.

[01:04:34.910] - Johnette

Appreciate it. Thank you.

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