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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Melissa Isaacson – “Michael Never Saw Us as the Enemy.”

Melissa Isaacson – “Michael Never Saw Us as the Enemy.”

Melissa Isaacson takes us into old Chicago Stadium, where smoke rose to the ceiling while Michael Jordan soared into history. She recounts chronicling the 1990s dynasty of the Bulls, with its crazy circus, gracious characters, and poignant moments. Hear about her visit to Birmingham, Ala. when Jordan was playing minor league baseball and mourning his father’s murder. Oh, and there was that time Phil Jackson walked in on a simulation of childbirth involving a basketball. Melissa also recalls sitting by Princess Diana at Wimbledon, visiting the athletes’ Olympic village, and navigating the early days of her career when there were few women working in the sports media.

Isaacson was an award-winning sports journalist for 34 years, including 19 at the Chicago Tribune, where she was the paper’s first female beat writer on the Bulls (1991-95) and Bears (1995-2001). She initially covered University of Illinois men’s basketball (1990) and later became the Tribune’s first female sports columnist and a feature writer before leaving that paper for ESPN in 2009.

Throughout her career, Isaacson received Associated Press Sports Editors awards for beat writing, investigative and feature reporting. She covered the Summer and Winter Olympics, more than a dozen Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, World Series, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Final Fours, Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis, the British Open, and college bowl games. Isaacson was a columnist for ESPNChicago.com from 2009-2012; for ESPNW.com on professional tennis, golf and general sports from 2013-15; and ESPN.com covering the Olympics, tennis, golf, Special Olympics and general sports from 2015-17. She also covered sports for the Orlando Sentinel (1986-90), USA Today (1985-86), and Florida Today (1983-85).

She was awarded the Chicago Headline Club’s Peter Lisagor Award for top feature story of 2008 for her Tribune Magazine story on her parents’ struggle with Alzheimer’s: http://www.melissaisaacson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Fade-to-Black.pdf

Isaacson is currently an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where she has taught since 2009. She’s also taught journalism at DePaul University (2010-14). She was interviewed in ESPN’s 10-part documentary, “The Last Dance,” about the 1997-98 Bulls.

She is also the author of three books:

· “Transition Game – An inside look at life with the Chicago Bulls,” (1994)

· “Sweet Lou – Lou Piniella: A Life in Baseball” (2009)

· "State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation” (2019).

Isaacson’s latest book, recounting her experience on her state championship-winning high school basketball team in the years after the passage of Title IX, was named one of the top sports books of 2019 by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Forbes, and featured on the national “TODAY” show.

Isaacson was born in Chicago and was a member of the 1979 girls state championship basketball team for Skokie’s Niles West High School. She graduated from the University of Iowa in 1983 with a BA in Journalism. She lives in the Chicago area, with her husband Rick Mawrence. They have two children, Amanda and Alec.

Follow her on Twitter: @mkisaacson

You can visit Melissa’s website: http://www.melissaisaacson.com/

Her bio at Northwestern: https://www.medill.northwestern.edu/directory/faculty/melissa-isaacson.html

Melissa Isaacson edited transcript

[00:00:01.990] - Todd

Hey, Melissa, I really appreciate you joining us on press box access.

[00:00:05.990] - Melissa

Thanks for having me, Todd.

[00:00:07.910] - Todd

Well, it's quite an honor. You're in a sports riding game for more than 30 years, 19 of them at the Chicago Tribune soon. And I always respected your work from afar. I think we kind of ran in a parallel universe. I would see you at events, but we never really got to cross paths personally. So it's great to chat with you about your career. I do know that when I left sports writing, I had to go into one of those astronaut rooms for a few days to decompress because it was so different. I don't know what it's been like for you since you get out of the daily grind.

[00:00:41.590] - Melissa

That's funny. I miss it more than I thought I would. And I don't know, there's different ways, I guess. I don't want to call it morning, but of leaving the profession on a daily basis, I certainly didn't miss. OK, I'll start with the negative. I certainly standing around empty locker rooms waiting for players to come in that didn't want to talk to us, who didn't want anything to do with us, frankly, in the last several years, the access got worse and it just became sort of this endless waiting around and feeling like it was very difficult to really engage. And so that part I don't but I think what happens is you remember the good times. You remember sort of the moments when you did have engaged with athletes and really did do meaningful stories and sat down at your computer. I still have moments, although I still write, when I just badly miss writing. Badly, badly miss it. It could be a big game. It could be anything from a big game to watching it and saying, like, gosh, I wish I was writing it, watching Wimbledon and thinking like I covered probably 20 of them while I wish I was there.

[00:02:06.990] - Melissa

This is what I would say, right? Maybe even thinking of a lead occasionally. Just crazy stuff like that. And still teaching journalism. Obviously writing is always front of my mind, so there's that. And then, of course, just missing the gang. I mean, the lifestyle itself got harder and harder, and I'm sure now is even harder than ever with canceled flights and just everything that 2022 presents in terms of traveling. We used to build a kind of run for flights at the last second for much of my career. Not all of it. Don't miss social media, but do miss the immediacy of it. Do miss thinking like a reporter and being in the thick of it. Being the thick of it, I think, is what we all love, right? Just being super curious and having that credential to allow you to be in the middle of stories. So whether I'm watching a news story unfold on television or a sports event, it will never leave me. That I'm a reporter, I will never not call myself a reporter. There are times when I'm sad about that.

[00:03:55.280] - Todd

Well, you didn't leave the business altogether. You're a respected author and your faculty member at medilla school, journalism at Northwestern, as good as the kids out there, and I'm sure the students are being well taught the craft by you. And I want to start with something, though, that I think you were also a teacher back when you were covering the Chicago Bulls dynasty in the 1990s. There was a moment, and I've done my research now when you taught Ron Harper and BJ. Armstrong. You know what I'm getting to. All right, well, let's set the scene. Let's set the scene. It's Ridgefield Coliseum outside of Cleveland. It's before a game between the Bulls and the calves. What happened?

[00:04:42.310] - Melissa

Yeah, I mean, I remember this very well, but I'm a little scared that if I checked with BJ and Ron, they'd be like, what are you talking about? But I remember it very well, and maybe it was definitely BJ. And I think it was Ron we were talking about. I was very pregnant, and I should set the stage with that. I was very pregnant at the time, probably the last moment that the airlines let me travel maybe seven to eight months, probably into the 8th month. And you could not talk about children in pregnancy when you're walking around that big. And frankly, athletes like to talk about that. I talked more to Michael Jordan about my pregnancy than anything else, probably, and that happened with a lot of athletes. It was somewhat of a refreshing change for me, I guess, if you will. So BJ was, at the time, a single guy. He had a serious girlfriend, and somehow we got to talking about childbirth, and he was like, wanted none of it. He was just ill. Gross. I'm not going to be near the place. I'm not going to be at the delivery. It's so icky and blah, blah, blah.

[00:05:55.530] - Melissa

Not Teresa word, icky. I'm making that up, but it's just gross. And so Ron, as I recall, chimed in. It's like, no, it's not like it's Lamas. It's all breathing right? And then pretty soon we're talking very serious Lamas. And one, two, three. Next thing we know, we've got BJ on the training table and the basketball serving as the baby and talking him through it to try to explain how easy. It was, as I recall, it was very serious conversation, as if we were in a real Lamaze class, like guiding them through the breathing. Ron Harper's talking to him very seriously about how to breathe. He's got his legs in the imaginary stirrups. No one like laughing. They're not belittling the process. And I'm coaching. And so we go through the whole thing and Ron's explaining in the ball, the baby's born. And then at precisely that moment, phil Jackson walks into the room and mind you, this is a playoff scenario. And he walked, as I recall, a few steps in and just in his droll sort of way, looked at us and just shook his head and turned and walked out. And it was with a look that was like both like, you better get out of here, Melissa.

[00:07:20.410] - Melissa

In 2 seconds when I turn around again, you better be gone. But also like, what is going on? I have nothing to say. I quickly got my gear in. But it was memorable. It was one of the memorable pregnancy moments.

[00:07:38.360] - Todd

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is what it was like to be a sportswriter back.

[00:07:42.680] - Melissa

Yeah, that's it.

[00:07:46.310] - Todd

All right, we're going to talk a lot about those Bulls teams and Michael Jordan, that guy Jordan. Heard a little bit about him because you covered that dynasty run of six NBA championships, but you witnessed and wrote about so much more in your career. The Tribune at ESPN, Orlando Sentinel, USA Today, besides the Bulls, when you think about certain moments or memories or anecdotes or behind the scenes things that linger in your memory, what comes to mind when you think about your career in totality?

[00:08:16.730] - Melissa

Well, those bullets, they certainly were special. And I think people always want to know when you are going through it, was it that cool? Was it that special? And I do remember taking stock of it and I do remember fully appreciating, no, you can't have perspective. You can't be like, well, 20 years from now or 30 years from now, I'll look back and think, this is the greatest moment of my career. But I certainly was cognizant of how special it was and that it may very well be a highlight of my career and that I was watching at that time. And I thought forever more, and some would argue still the greatest basketball player ever lived in his time on an almost nightly basis. So that was not lost on me at all. And being able to, again, have that access, have that front row seat, see it close up, and more than that, describe it to an audience that didn't all get to get tickets to Chicago Stadium and the United Center couldn't afford it or just couldn't get them. And so because of the lack of social media, I think it was a real luxury for us writers to have that responsibility, to really describe in full.

[00:09:37.870] - Melissa

Yes, they saw it on television, but there was so much behind the scenes that we could bring to our stories, and not just because of the immediacy of social media. And I don't think social media is terrible or anything like that. All I'm saying is that it allowed us the luxury to sit back and witness it and sit back and really gather our thoughts to some degree. Certainly we're on deadline, but to ask thoughtful questions and to listen to their answers without being nervous that we were having to tweet and having to beat the next guy, right? So, yes, we are concerned with beating people, but we could ask more questions. We could report more fully, be more sure of ourselves before we reported the next morning. And then the downside, obviously, is you have to live with it for a whole day. But when we were really in the peak of covering the Bulls, and certainly I covered the Beers, and it was just all Chicago, even with the Cubs and the socks, you could count on this level of interest. I guess that's my point, this great level of scrutiny and interest that just made our job so fun and so demanding, but so fun.

[00:12:43.090] - Todd

You mentioned taking the reader someplace that they couldn't go. Right. And we'll talk more specifically about the bulls, but you also traveled the world and you went to Wimbledon and you went, like you said, 20 times or so, you went to the British show up in the Olympics. Was that your approach, even when you weren't doing daily Beat stuff, was to try to take somebody along with you?

[00:13:03.780] - Melissa

For sure. Oh, absolutely. It was so much fun. I was very cognizant of like, I'm not going to go to Wimbledon the first time and just do nothing but wax poetic about the strawberries and cream is just I'm the first person who's ever been to Wimbledon before.

[00:13:19.770] - Todd


[00:13:20.760] - Melissa

You have to sort of realize that people have been watching forever, and maybe people have been or whatever, and you don't want to act like too much for an amateur. But at the same time, that sense of wonder, of being there and being next to the real box, and again, back in the day, the real box is right next to the press box. And there was little different food in.

[00:13:42.360] - Todd

Those two boxes, by the way.

[00:13:43.690] - Melissa

Yeah, little bit. Princess Diana was like a spit away. And we didn't spit, but she really was. And we were all just fascinated with her and watching her every second. So you better believe I was going to bring that to people. And I did do a strawberries and cream story. I just tried not to act like I was the first person who walked on the moon and did it. But I remember going chasing the strawberries from the farm to the raw box with only the very select ones, went to the royal box and fun stuff like that. But, yeah, Beers fans, when the Bears played rather in Ireland, that was certainly a cool experience and got to do four or five Olympics, and that was very cool and certainly wanted in every way, just like at the Chicago stadium, to make people feel they were there. I think that's sort of the responsibility of writers everywhere to heighten that reading experience. Because, again, especially the Olympics. I mean, that's a TV show. That's the greatest TV show ever. You could be watching it. So what are we going to do to make you feel like you were there behind the scenes?

[00:14:55.760] - Melissa

And that's tough. I think the Olympics is the toughest one to do that, as a writer.

[00:14:59.660] - Todd

Gave us an example of an Olympic moment where you were able to do that and you recall you were able to get away from just a typical game story, per se.

[00:15:10.620] - Melissa

Yeah, I think my first Olympics ever, and I'm going to forget his name, but the swimmer from a country that, if I guess I'll get it wrong, but he was one of those countries that there was like one delegate from the whole country. He didn't have an Olympic size pool to train in. He trained in a little teeny hotel pool. He'd have to swim back and forth a billion times. He ran around the small village to get in shape. He was in no means Olympic, world class level. And so he came in last, and he came in. Maybe I could swim faster. I'm not sure. Probably not until I remember meeting him back in the day. This is probably Australia in 2000 because it was before the really heightened security where I just sort of met him. I just sort of went to the Olympic Village and sat down with him. I remember sitting on a bench, and no one cared and just really talking about it and describing his training and describing the whole thing. And maybe that was a guy. Everybody did stories. I don't remember, but I remember having a one on one because there's a few athletes that would fit that description.

[00:16:25.730] - Todd


[00:16:26.070] - Melissa

Sorry, I don't have his name, but I do remember having a one on one with them, and that was not uncommon pre 911.

[00:16:34.150] - Todd

Right. Security is so much more lax than those days.

[00:16:38.300] - Melissa

Yes. My husband if you were in Sydney, you probably remember my husband. Well, you don't remember my husband, but he came to visit the last several days, and the women's US. Olympic basketball team was playing a gold medal game. And, you know, people always joke, like, can I just go in your suitcase and carry your bags?

[00:16:59.000] - Todd

And stuff like that.

[00:17:01.010] - Melissa

Okay. A, it was pre 911 also was Australia. The friendliest gade made people in the world. And so my husband literally just carried some of my stuff and walked behind me with no credentials, and they just waved him through, and he walked right on in and watched the gold medal game. I'll never forget that. And he was not even devious. Like, in these days, if you tried that, you'd be arrested. He was just like, hi.

[00:17:25.670] - Todd

Did he write a sidebar for you, Melissa?

[00:17:27.870] - Melissa

He did not write a sidebar, but he did eat the pressed food, as I recall.

[00:17:32.570] - Todd

Well, then he was a sports writer.

[00:17:35.990] - Melissa

Did some of his responsibilities.

[00:17:38.570] - Todd

Well, one of the things I think about with your career is you started in 1983 when you first graduated from the University of Iowa, and at the time, there weren't many women sports writers. So what was it like for you, breaking in as a female in a business that had a bunch of old, mostly white guys?

[00:17:59.690] - Melissa

It was lonely in terms of not having a lot of women. But in my college paper, there were two women, actually, so I shouldn't even say that. There was a lot of scrutiny. One of the women went only by initials and her byline. Really, if she's listening. H. Forrest Woolard was her byline, and her first name was Holly. I admired her. And Heidi McNeil are sports that are greatly but I didn't know that Hollywoodord was a woman because it was H. Forrest. And I don't think I ever even talked to her about why she did it. I can only surmise that she wanted to blend in and not be. And so at that time, I remember reading her and thinking she was great and reading Heidi and wanting to be just like her, but also reading articles in The New Yorker magazine. At that time, there was a big article about all the women who are getting out of sports writing. They were maybe 30, and they were just clearly there was no place for them. There was all kinds of horror stories about not being allowed in the press box and being too old for the game.

[00:19:00.140] - Melissa

And I remember vividly reading this in the college library at Iowa and thinking, like, well, there is no place for me. What am I getting myself into? Then I met I went into the newsroom and I met Holly and realized she was a woman and thought, well, she's got a hide her identity, so what in the world am I really getting into? But I immediately loved it so much that there was no question I adored writing and I adored sports, and we had unbelievably colorful coaches. Hayden Fry back then, and Lou Dolsen was the basketball coach into the basket. Football team was going to Roseball, and the basketball team was going the final fourth, Ronnie Lester. And so, my God, if you can't get excited about that. But it was clear I didn't hit a real roadblock at that point. That would come later, being told that you're a woman. Get out.

[00:19:58.950] - Todd

Were you in the locker room when Joan Ryan had the incident at the USFL. Because Joan was a guest on our show, and she recounted that incident, and I think I heard that you might have been present.

[00:20:10.730] - Melissa

Joan was at the Orlando Sentinel, and I was at Florida today in Cocoa, Florida. So, yeah, I was the one cowering at the door while Joan was in getting harassed by the Birmingham Stallions. And the way my perspective was that I was looking around for help, literally, because I could see everyone crowded around her, and I could see someone crouching next to her and, like, doing something to her leg, which later I found out was a tape cutter was up and down her leg and just really harassing her. Right? And when I saw the nearest guy with, like, a red polo shirt, I still remember the red polo shirt and looking like a team official, I thought, well, kind of alert him, and later found out that was Jerry Sclard, the team owner, and he was joining in on the whole proceedings, so he was not to be somebody who would help.

[00:21:17.230] - Melissa

And Joan wrote an amazingly powerful column the next day, and I watched Joan in awe, and I wrote a column as well for the smaller Florida Today paper, More Than Scrutiny.

[00:21:32.220] - Todd

Melissa, how did you deal with the shit that you had to deal with at times, especially earlier in your career?

[00:21:38.320] - Melissa

Yeah, I think the credo, if you will, for all of us was just to blend in. There was fear that if you complained, if you made too much of a big deal out of it, we were not going to have a sympathetic audience by any stretch of imagination. Even if you had a nice editor, there was going to be some of our editors who weren't going to look kindly to us complaining. And certainly our readers didn't care at all, didn't want to hear that we're in this wonderfully privileged position of being able to cover games. So we are very conscious of the fact that no one wanted to hear. And I personally, I won't speak for everyone, felt like if I ever said anything, or if anybody did, we would get drummed out of the business. And certainly we saw what happened to Lisa Olsen, who felt like she had to leave the business, and that was very scary. She's younger than me, but there was very much of a just please God, let no one throw me out of the locker room feeling. And there were many times when in football locker rooms, players would single me out and other women and say, if she's here, I'm not talking.

[00:22:49.480] - Melissa

And then the other guys would kind of look at you like, can you either mainly get out? Or nicely, like, I'll give you quotes, can you just get out? And so I'm not sure when it happened. Maybe early ninety s is when the tide sort of shifted to if any player ever said that, I could feel pretty confident that my male colleague would turn and say to the athlete, no, if she goes, we go kind of thing. If not quite that strongly, then certainly that feeling that you had that everybody was behind you and there were more women joining you, but more often than not, you were the only woman in the locker room throughout the think, if I saw another woman, it was a big deal, right?

[00:23:32.980] - Todd

I mean, you think about it, your career started, it wasn't that much longer, maybe a decade, ten years or so after title Nine, which changed women athletics. And so the scene just wasn't accepted of women at the time in sports writing. It just wasn't. And I feel like the courage and the trailblazing that you and others did is something that shouldn't be forgotten, because you had to deal with a hell a lot more than somebody like me who started an 88 and just walked in and felt comfortable.

[00:24:00.810] - Melissa

Well, certainly the pioneers came before us now, blinking, and everybody's names, the Michelle Hembleberg of Melissa Lucky. They were unbelievable. Women worked in the those are the ones I read about in The New Yorker who were some of them were leaving the business, but some were digging their heels in, and even those who left the business had paved the way for us. So in no way do I want to leave the impression that the early 80s was the worst for women sportswriters. The foundation was laid for us and Mary why am I forgetting your name? Is it Olsen Gerber, one of the very first Gerber? Yes. She was tremendous before us. And in Chicago, Jeannie Morris was covering the Bears and stuff. So there are always women before us who fought the fight, the good fights. And so for us, I think it was just let's just follow along, keep our head down, do our work. I wasn't ashamed that I wasn't bringing up every complaint. There were times when I was there were times when I thought, well, maybe I should have for the women to come if I would say, like, this guy is a bad dude, or, this happened to me, joan and I raised it certainly made it public what happened with that situation.

[00:25:23.130] - Melissa

I'd like to think I would have if something really, truly horrible happened, I certainly would have said something. But I think our motto and there were so many good and there are still but so many great sports writers to come out of women to come out of that those eighties and nineties, because we really did know that we had to be really good. You had to be better. You had to be better than the average guy. And so at least I thought that way. At least I felt that way, that, you know, and everywhere I looked, there were women like Johnette Howard that were so, so, so good, and Diane Pewson and Christine Brennan and on and on that were just wonderful, and, of course, Sally Jenkins that were doing tremendous work across the country. And so it was very lean based on the NBA. So it was very easy to look at others and just say, okay, they're just doing great work. Let me just keep up.

[00:26:28.210] - Todd

Yeah, right. Let the work speak for itself and make your way that way.

[00:26:34.010] - Melissa


[00:26:34.570] - Todd

But you had to deal with I do find it amazing that the things that the women had to deal with in those years and it did start to change in the early 90s. It started to become a thing a little more welcoming. And I think that's around the time when you started covering the Bulls as a Beat. I brought up title nine before because you actually played basketball and you wrote a great book about it called State a Team a Triumph of Transformation, which is about the high school basketball team that won the 79 state championship and in about the years of title nine and being an athlete. So you did know the game, too, by the way. What position did you play?

[00:27:18.210] - Melissa

It's a little point guard. I was lucky they let me on the court. Five two, I think I said five two and a half, maybe. Yeah. I was not destined for a big thing. I was not destined for the Olympic team. Let's put that even though I wanted to be. I wanted desperately to be on the Olympic team.

You played basketball, you played for a state championship high school team, and you got about a career of sports riding under your belt. And now you go into Chicago Stadium in the early ninety s and put us inside that old barn, the smoke, the heat. What was the atmosphere like in that place when his airness was flying around at the start of that dynasty?

[00:30:57.320] - Melissa

Oh, my gosh. Well, my first book was on Michael Jordan's transition to baseball, but I spent at least two chapters just on the stadium, one on the entrance. The media was entered, which is called gate three and a half, which continued just symbolically after that, but it really was in this little gate three and a half thing. But I wrote, I wrote in detail about that place, and it was to call it charming would really be overselling it. There was certainly a charm to it. But if you want to call rats charming, yeah, right then okay. In those days, the home locker room was worse than any visiting locker room. I mean, nowadays, for sure, the visiting locker room is beautiful now, but back in the day, when they started revamping stadiums, the visiting would be terrible and the home would be pretty nice. Chicago Stadium, I mean, they're lucky if they had a hook for their clothes and not a nail. Certainly in Richmond, Coliseum was like that in Detroit, palace was like that in Boston. All the old Burns were like that. But it gave a certain intimacy, a certain Michael couldn't hide.

[00:32:11.320] - Melissa

They couldn't hide from us. There was no in visiting locker rooms, particularly like I was describing with BJ and Ron Harper. The visiting locker rooms in those days had a training table right in the middle of the visiting locker room, and so guys had to be wrapped and they couldn't escape us. We could talk to them while they were getting their ankles taped and stuff like that. So that was cool, but smoky, like the stadium. Smoking was allowed, so the cloud of smoke would rise, though, and there'd be a ring, and it would be right where the press box was. Of course.

[00:32:49.040] - Todd

Right, exactly right.

[00:32:50.800] - Melissa

It was right there. But we also were on the floor. The beat writers got floor access. So that was good. I'm trying to think. I feel like the stadium, though, we were always up in that teeny, tiny, little, shaky little press box that when the roar of the crowd happened, it would shake. The press box would shake. You feel like maybe it might come down. It was that shaky. And I know it just sounds crazy because when you use word electricity, it's like a cliche. But I could close my eyes and I could feel that the whole place shaking. There was no music piped in to make it feel like it was loud. The whole place was loud. And there was almost this smoky, grainy quality to the players. It was so exciting. It really was. And like I said back when I reflected on knowing how cool it was, you definitely knew how cool it was when the Bulls were at their peak back then and Michael was in his prime and they were winning games by 50 points or up by 30 at halftime. I mean, you were very conscious of this force that was part of this whole building.

[00:34:09.090] - Todd

I think in life, sometimes in general, we don't always appreciate the good old days are happening right now. We don't get it.

[00:34:18.270] - Melissa

No. When the beer is trickling down, you mentioned the beer. Someone would always, at least once a game, would knock over a beer right above the press box, and it would come in a shower onto your laptop. And we have Crumbly laptops then, like the little Radio Shack ones. Not that it would matter. And so everybody would go like that. You can't see me. But you were doing a tornado drill over your computer like half dozen times a game, and there was no lid to the computer. Let me just point that out. So you just had to throw your body on your computer?

[00:34:56.090] - Todd

Yeah, but you could throw acid on those Radio Shack tandies and they would still work.

[00:35:01.210] - Melissa

But always, once again, too, somebody didn't work. And then you'd hear this, like, cascade of F bombs and someone throwing their computer against the wall.

[00:35:10.680] - Todd

Right. You mentioned the tiny locker rooms. And it leads me to this. In terms of access, especially for a guy like Jordan, who he became this global icon, what was access like to Michael and what was it like to deal with the team in general on a daily basis?

[00:35:28.100] - Melissa

Michael was, I say this without exaggeration, I think, one of the most gracious superstars of his time. And by that I mean he made himself incredibly accessible after games, was almost unheard of, that he would not stand up and answer every last question. He would come out and there'd always be a ton of people around his locker. And I'm talking about the stadium. It was hard to even breathe in there. And there'd be people from China and there would be people from other countries where the English wasn't the first language and the questions weren't super clear, and he was always very patient. There would be some small paper from Iowa, say, you know, and I went to Iowa. So I'm not saying that in a disparaging way, but a tiny paper somewhere, and they would introduce themselves and ask a question. He would never look down on them. He would answer their questions. I always admired him for that. And I think that all of us who covered him on a daily basis did admire him. In practice, they practiced at the Brido Center, but before the Bridge Center was an old health club, the Multiplex, it was called, still there, and the Chicago Sky practice is there, but it was just not a fancy schmancy health club.

[00:36:53.330] - Melissa

And they played there, and the players would have to pass us. I mean, there is no way of avoiding us after practice. So Michael would take a break every few days and he would sort of station Scotty and Horace to go first, and then we'd crowd around them, and then he duck around the crowd sometimes, but really, other than that, he stood up. And there were some hard questions, as you know, with the gambling allegations, but we'll all tell you that he stood there and answered the questions on more than one occasion, more than not.

[00:37:23.990] - Todd

Was that because of who he was, or do you think he understood the role he was playing for not just himself, but for the league and the sport?

[00:37:32.620] - Melissa

Yeah, I think there was an inherent understanding of his job. I don't know if it was because of his endorsement, potential power, rather than he felt like he had that responsibility, if he felt his leadership on the team demanded it. I'm not sure. I think he just understood on some level that because he was who he was, that was part of it. That was just part of it. I don't know if he thought he was selling more shoes because of it. I didn't ever sense that from him. I just felt he understood his responsibility. I think his father kept him grounded in that respect, and I didn't think he thought he could be sarcastic with us. But I never got the feeling we are the enemy. I never got the feeling he hated us. I never got the feeling that there was a disrespect between us. He understood it. And I think probably all the big stars of the day were like that. And maybe I don't cover them on a daily basis, so maybe there's still some of that, but I think there's probably more antagonism right now.

[00:38:45.900] - Todd

Did Michael take care of the local media in terms of looking out for them? Because sometimes you will find an athlete that's famous and they're better with somebody who comes in from the outside. And on a day to day basis, it's not very fun. But it sounds like Michael was good to deal with at all times.

[00:39:01.170] - Melissa

I've actually looked out for us. But he definitely recognized and appreciated that we were the only ones on the road. Typically, Mike Mulligan from The Suntimes and Kent McDill from the day we hear all the three of us, were often the only Chicago reporters, print writers, for sure, print reporters on the road. And so he would take time with us. But he loved a mad rashad, and he certainly would go off with him, especially come play off time, talk to him. I think he respected the guys. Why am I forgetting Vessel at some level? He may not have loved Peter Vessel from New York, but he appreciated that when New York played Chicago, he knew all those guys by name. He knew all the New York reports, he knew all the Cleveland guys, and he would take time to acknowledge I would be surprised if any of the Cleveland or New York reporters would say, like, oh, yeah, he hated us, or we hated him. I don't think you'd get that.

[00:40:01.700] - Todd

That's interesting, because again, you get a guy that becomes a global icon, and everybody's heard about Michael's competitiveness, and you almost feel like, was he an egomaniac? Because people always ask his sports Ryers right. What was he like in person? It's so contrived that you really don't know. But at the same time, you can tell if you're around him on a daily basis, if this is a fraudulent pose, or if this is just how the type of guy is when he deals with you.

[00:40:29.200] - Melissa

Yeah. I'm not going to pretend like every single person agrees with me. I like him personally. I really did. I felt like he was very respectful of me as a woman.

[00:40:40.170] - Todd

In what ways?

[00:40:42.090] - Melissa

I think when I was pregnant let's go to the pregnant part first. He was very almost gentle with me. If I sell me in the middle of a crowd, he would sort of make sure I was okay, make sure that people weren't stepping on me, or make sure I felt okay, like in.

[00:41:03.940] - Todd

A scrum of reporters when jostling around to get around him.

[00:41:07.740] - Melissa

Yeah, it was sort of sweetly protective like that, and I remembered that very well. I didn't expect special treatment by any means, but certainly I felt like he and I had a little bit of a bond, and I'm sure the other beat writers felt like that as well, which you would hope. If you're a beat writer for a major newspaper covering a team, you better have a relationship with the greatest player on the team, if not all of them, which I felt like I did. So, yeah, if I saw him today, we'd hug and it'd be like, how's your kids? How's your kids? It was a work relationship. It was a respectful working relationship. And if he treated others later in his career any differently, then I didn't know about it. But I don't think you'd find any chicago media. People would hate him who dealt with him daily, because he did respect us. He really did.

[00:42:08.550] - Todd

You mentioned your book Transition, which was about the season when he retired to play minor league baseball. It was about the Bulls, that team transitioning without Michael. There was a point in that book where you went down to visit him when he was a minor league baseball player. It was very poignant. What do you recall about that visit with Michael when he was down toiling in the minor leagues of baseball?

[00:42:31.780] - Melissa

I remember how hot it was when I worked in Florida, but that was a level of humidity. Birmingham. In Alabama. So it's very hot. No, I remember that. I remember a lot of things. I remember talking to his young teammates and they were still in awe of him. But he really wanted to be one of the guys. He very much wanted to be one of the guys. And just it's tough when you've got like another separate locker next to you to accommodate all your fan mail and huge pile of gym shoes. But he would give the shoes and cleats and whatever, you'd give them away to all of his teammates. He really wanted to be one of them. And I think even though they were in all of them, they did treat him like one of the guys who are still trying to hit a curveball like everybody else. I remember him talking about just coming to grips with his father's death at that time and crying in his hotel room and getting to spend time again with him. If there are other reporters there, I don't remember them. I remember getting time with him. I remember him really I don't want to say letting down his hair, per se, but just really confiding in me how sad he still was, how much he mourned his father's violent death.

[00:44:09.850] - Melissa

And it was terrible. It was very, very sad. He was lonely. He was happy to be in his element and he was thrilled to be in a baseball uniform and working on all those things. But I also got a sense he was very lonely because he was a guy who liked being around people. He liked his older friends who are the security guards from the stadium. Those were his friends. You could call them his posse. But they weren't collected as a posse. They were collected as friends who were looking out for them and then became his dear, dear friends. I think he missed them and he missed his dad. And that's who I saw those few days that I visited. I saw a guy who was mourning his loss of his father.

[00:44:57.730] - Todd

Were you surprised when he came back to basketball?

[00:45:00.790] - Melissa

No, I don't think any of us could be completely just because he was so great and he left so much on the table in the court. That was dramatic the way he did it. Certainly.

[00:45:16.670] - Todd

By the way, you got the scoop on number 45, right? That was your scoop. He was going to come back with a different number. Tell us how you got that scoop, by the way.

[00:45:25.680] - Melissa

Oh, gosh. Well, it was like old days journalism where you're like, just sort of the only one left in the building in the Burrow Center where they're practicing. And I walked in on, again, couldn't do this, but just kind of walked into the training room and saw Johnny Ligmanowski, who is their trainer, the Bulls trainer, sewing on a 45 onto Michael's uniform and said, oh, my gosh, what's going on with that? And he's like, Oh, he's going to be number 45. And I said, Can I write that? And he's like, Sure. And then I couldn't tweet it because it's 05:00 at night, right. So I remember calling into the office. I got excited, and this happened to me a number of times. This is terrible to say, but there could have been a sexist quality to it at that time that they didn't believe me. I think that there were certain stories that I was not taken seriously on back in the day, that a man would have been taken seriously, would have been trusted with stories. That was one of them. I felt like nobody believed me as a young woman still. I was 30 years old.

[00:46:37.080] - Melissa

But come on, right? So they did a little teeny tiny box inside the section, which maybe that's what it deserves, that he was coming out as number 45. And I think they put it like in a late edition because they weren't quite sure, and there had been a lot of talk about it. Are you sure? Is it going to happen? And then when people doubt your words so much, you start thinking like, well, maybe I'm wrong, maybe he was just kidding. I don't know. But it was a big deal to be in the newspaper. That was a very big deal. And you couldn't undo it when it was in there online, you just scrub it, right?

[00:47:12.250] - Todd

Yeah, just change it real quick.

[00:47:14.930] - Melissa

Yeah. But sure enough and I have a 45 jersey, nice house. Not his. I have like a fake Tshirt one that I thought I could get this because it might be worth something someday.

[00:47:25.740] - Todd

Right? Well, Michael comes back as number 45, and when he got back to the Bulls, he got back to being who he was and even better as a player, and the team got even better, if you can imagine that. And then really, did the scene change, especially when Rodman came aboard.

[00:47:57.460] - Melissa

Well, I wasn't the beat rate for Rodman, but I was still covering the team here and there. I thought there was an element of circus quality that was unlike anything. They would like it. They would always use the word beetle maniac to describe the early 90s pre Rodman time. The first three, Pete, and you'd go into the Plaza, let's say, wherever they stayed, and you couldn't get in the lobby and there was a million people, but yet there was still a certain control to it. When Rodman joined, it did become more circus like, in part because and I think probably those who covered the beat on a daily basis had a different relationship with him and a different viewpoint, just like I did of Michael. I found Dennis to be a very sad and sympathetic kind of character in some ways, because he'd start crying when you talk to him, and he was clearly just all over the map, and I felt for him, but yet I did not feel for him after games when he wouldn't talk and he run to his car and the whole press pack would run after him. And that was to me, the most demeaning thing.

[00:49:08.870] - Melissa

And I remember at one point I asked off of the Rodwin sidebars because I was now not the beat writer. I was covering the team just as ga until I covered the Bears. And so I was like, Please don't make me run. I'm not running.

[00:49:26.320] - Todd

After dinner, I covered this team.

[00:49:30.730] - Melissa

Yeah, there's something about it I found really distasteful. It did sort of take on a life beyond what the media could get our arms around and cover. And so I resented that part of it. But I found it very interesting watching the last dance, for sure. I found it fascinating and the stuff I didn't know, but at the time I really resented that. And I didn't like the what it had become. Nor did Michael at first.

[00:50:03.530] - Todd


[00:50:03.990] - Melissa

They didn't like it either.

[00:52:24.640] - Todd

Why was Phil the right guy for that team as a coach?

[00:52:28.420] - Melissa

I think he was one of them. I think when he was a Nick, he was certainly this very eclectic guy. He was marched to be of his own drummer. He was not someone who conformed. And so he appreciated when he came that he was going to have to treat everybody a little differently and that all these different personalities were important to figure out. He didn't have patience for the young guys. He had patience for the rookies. But the older guys, he certainly with his books and his Transcendental meditation, all that kind of stuff, he really did try to tap into what made this team tick. And he created this incredible little bond. And you've got to have that every championship team has us against the world kind of feeling. Either us against the world, nobody likes us, nobody appreciates us, or nobody understands us. And I think that may have been what he had with them. He building this wall against Jerry Krause, I think, endeared him that much more. He understood he was the only one who could have gotten Michael to share the ball like he did, to play the triangle. And that was certainly hugely key.

[00:53:57.740] - Melissa

He had these two veteran assistant coaches in, Johnny Bach and Tex Winter, who understood him, and he allowed them to do their thing offensively and defensively. He's very good, a very good manager of personalities and of human beings, which.

[00:54:14.760] - Todd

Isn'T easy to do when you get a group of successful, uber talented people egos contracts. I'm always amazed when a professional team can keep any type of success going. You mentioned why the bitterness of Chicago fans about it ending. Why did it end? Why do you think it ended when.

[00:54:33.710] - Melissa

It did well, I mean, contractually, Jerry Reinserth would tell you that he couldn't resign Bill, and he couldn't resign Michael. There was contractual things that now they'll go back and be like, well, no, that wasn't the case. You didn't try hard enough, or you walked away first, stuff like that. I think egos did get in the way at the end. I don't remember every little detail right at the moment of kind of what splintered it, but I think Jerry Krause had that famous line that he could still win. I don't remember how he said it now, but he could still win without he could still fill the guest suites without Michael. He could still win. So that ego really tripped them up, this thought that he could really do it without the principal players. Of course he couldn't. No way could he? And could they have done it without Phil, perhaps. But without Phil, the whole thing kind of crumbled, and maybe it was just meant to be maybe it was just meant to be sick, and that was that.

[00:55:49.060] - Todd


[00:55:50.060] - Melissa

But you could tell that Michael was bitter at the end of Last Dance, that he felt like they could have kept going.

[00:55:56.640] - Todd

Right. I think the title that they won at home at the stadium in 92, I think that epitomizes. You have this atmosphere. It's at home, it's in this great old barn, it's electric, and yet you're sitting there trying to type on deadline while they're making this ridiculous comeback against Portland. I think they're down, like, 17 or something crazy. I think that epitomizes. What it's like for a writer to be in the moment, but also trying to work.

[00:56:33.430] - Melissa

I talked to my students about being on deadline like that. There's nothing better, there's nothing more fun than that rush, because there were times when we got spoiled and we could write at halftime because they were ahead by so much. So when you got the opportunity to write, that was my most fun time. I mean, there's no substitute for that in my life that I could find that will equal that adrenaline rush of sitting over your laptop and trying to create something with minutes to spare. I adored that feeling, and I think I was probably better at it in some ways than other things. But, yes, I remember that championship. That was the first one at the stadium, right. The first one at home, and standing with my notepad in the middle of the floor and just absorbing it and knowing that the editors are going crazy because I was literally on deadline.

[00:57:40.370] - Todd

Where's the story, Melissa?

[00:57:42.270] - Melissa

Yeah. And there was no way I was going to turn into a story of play by play. It was not going to happen. I needed to bring that feeling that I was experiencing to the readers, even if it was the first edition. So I just remember, like, typing as these things are rushing and standing in them, I was going to stand the middle of the court and start scribbling and then almost getting squished on the boards as the players went down to the locker room that was in the stadium, and thinking like, well, if I get killed, that will be a hell of a story, but it won't be my story, and I would like it to be my story being in the middle of that, which, again, back in the day, if you are a beat writer, they give you a little sticker on your maybe they still do it on your credential. That meant you could be in the locker room after the game, so there's only a few of us who could be in the locker room after that. And so we were in this teeny tiny, teeny tiny not even their locker room was like a little holding room where Phil was literally addressing them after the championship and saying what a long, strange journey it's been, and sort of being in it with this champagne.

[00:58:59.780] - Melissa

And it's not fun because you're on deadline and the champagne is the worst possible pain on earth. But like, later you go, wow, that was really cool. And that was worth being a minute or two late on deadline so that a couple of hundred thousand people could be in that huddle with you and have that feeling with you. And they didn't hate us for being with them because we were with them the whole time. So it's like, what's she doing here? Get her out of here. It was like, oh, no, it's okay. She's chronicling this. So the handful of us who were there were in no way were we part of that victory, obviously, but we were allowed to be part of that scene, and that was something I'll never forget.

[00:59:42.370] - Todd

Well, you being in that locker room at that moment allowed all those Chicago Bulls fans and the people in Chicago and the readers everywhere, you allowed them to be there with you, and in that moment, too, because you captured it. And I think that's what the heart of the job was about, was to try to hey, folks, I got this access. I'm going to take you along with me if you're willing to go. And sometimes you have moments like that where it's just historic.

[01:00:09.550] - Melissa

Casey Johnson is a very talented writer from the Tribune who followed me, a couple of writers later covering the Bulls, and now he's with Comcast, NBC Sports Chicago, covering the team. But he had a brilliant line once to my students. I brought him in to talk, and he said, I've always thought of myself only as the custodian of the beat. So years from now, when they unearthed the time capsule, if you will, of all the Bulls coverage, this is the block that I was the custodian of. That was my responsibility to bring this, that's it. But it's an enormous responsibility. But I think he was trying to get across the kids. Like it's not about you ever as a writer, but it's also this tremendous responsibility that when someone cracks open, however they find the Tribune stories of the early ninety s, I hope that they get that feeling. I hope that they're in that locker room and on that floor because that's what I was trying to do and that's all any of us could do.

[01:01:13.570] - Todd

Well, you did it so well for so many years all over the world when you think about it. you're with the greatest basketball player ever, you're covering some really bad Bears teams, but you're on the local scene, you're around the world and you were taking everybody with you. And I think the advice that you're now giving to students at Northwestern, they're very lucky to have somebody like you teaching them the skills and how to do this job. And I'm really thankful that you were able to provide our listeners with a chance to understand what it was like to do the job then when you did it.

[01:01:56.120] - Melissa

Well, thanks so much, Todd. I know that there is still the same magic for the profession and still the same desire to tell the stories and hopefully there always will be because you can't get a computer to tell stories about what's happening, right? So I think there will always be a place for us, right? It'll always be a place for the storytellers.

[01:02:17.800] - Todd

Let's hope so. Melissa, thanks a lot.

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