One-on-one with Michael Wilbon

February, 28, 2012
2/28/12
8:00
AM ET
Michael WilbonRandy Sager/ESPN"Pardon The Interruption" co-host Michael Wilbon knew in high school that he wanted to combine his two loves -- sports and writing -- to make a career as a sports journalist.

From Michael Jordan's famous midair, hand-switching layup to Mike Tyson's infamous midfight chomp on Evander Holyfield's ear, Michael Wilbon has had a front-row seat for countless unforgettable sports moments. He set out on that career path as a senior at St. Ignatius (Chicago) -- about the same time he realized he wasn't destined for a pro baseball career. In addition to teaming with Tony Kornheiser for "Pardon The Interruption," Wilbon also talks hoops regularly on "NBA Shootaround," so we asked him about a few of today's NBA stars who went from the preps to the pros.

ESPNHS: What was your high school sports experience like?
Wilbon: I played baseball for two years and tennis for one year at St. Ignatius in Chicago, and it actually helped me figure out who I was. It sort of laid out my career. I was OK doing team sports because I like the camaraderie, taking trips to play other teams together. But I didn’t like it because, part of me was an individual sports person. I didn’t really collaborate all that much.

Here I am now, I only play individual sports, like tennis and golf. So it was very accurate about what I would become. Of course, growing up, I wanted to play professional baseball like a lot of kids. But high school showed me that I didn’t have that kind of talent. So after I quit the baseball team before my senior year, I ended up marrying my two interests, which were writing and sports.

ESPNHS: How often did you cover high school sports when you started out as a journalist?
Wilbon: Very little. When I started at the Washington Post, Georgetown was recruiting Patrick Ewing, so suddenly Georgetown became a major beat at the paper and I was assigned to cover them. Along the way, though, I saw a lot of guys play in high school who went on to the NBA. I saw Sherman Douglas before he went to Syracuse. I saw Danny Ferry when he was at DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.). I saw Adrian Branch at DeMatha, too.

ESPNHS: What impact did not going to college have on guys like Kobe and LeBron?
Wilbon:
It changed all of them. You look at the players before them -- did going to college hurt Michael Jordan? Did it hurt guys like Ewing and David Robinson? Did it hurt Grant Hill, who for seven years there, before he got hurt, was a beast? Did it hurt Tim Duncan staying at Wake Forest for four years? Of course not.

Kobe and I talk about this all the time in a good-natured way. There’s no way you can tell me he wouldn’t have been a better player by spending some time at Duke in that system. He disagrees with me and he knows I disagree with him.

ESPNHS: What exactly do you feel like they missed by not having that college experience?
Wilbon:
In college, you learn how to rely on your teammates better. The whole AAU system doesn’t teach you that; it does the opposite. I talk to guys like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and they agree. Magic would come home after games at Michigan State and be frustrated that he couldn’t do it all by himself. So it forced him to learn how to depend on guys like Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent.

I wouldn’t call it failing because he’s a great player, but what does LeBron have issues doing? Closing games. You look at all the great players who won championships, except Kobe with his last two -- and even then, he had to figure out he needed help on the Lakers. Those guys learned how to do it in March. Kobe might be the last one who has won it all without having that tournament experience. LeBron is a great, great player, but to me it’s evident what’s missing. It’s not a big thing, but it’s an important thing.

There are plenty of guys who don’t become great at winning, but look at all the guys who won in March and then look at how they did in the pros. Even a guy like Derrick Rose with just one year at Memphis, you see the difference. Look at guys like Bill Russell, Bill Bradley. Larry Bird learned how to use his teammates in college, and they learn how to be coached, too. You make that transition from boyhood to manhood. They knew they couldn’t do it by themselves. At one time, they probably thought they could, but those are the cultural aspects of basketball that you have to learn.

ESPNHS: How different are things when Kobe and Kevin Garnett came out of high school in the '90s and when LeBron and Dwight Howard did in the 2000s?
Wilbon:
Kobe and KG had a culture of players around them who had played three and four years in college and were much more fundamentally sound. That’s not the case for LeBron and Dwight. Everybody now is coming from high school or a year or two in college. You look at some kids now; they can’t play. But think what would happen if they spent three years in college. You learn how to play and you can get paid more long-term and not just be a high draft pick.

THE RUNDOWN

NBA Finals prediction:
Whoever wins between Miami and Chicago versus Oklahoma City.

Sleeper team: I said Memphis at first, but I like the Indiana Pacers. I think they are the only team that could crash the Bulls or Heat party.

Breakout player: Either Kyrie Irving or Ricky Rubio. There hasn’t been a sophomore player who’s been really great.

Pick one player to build your franchise around: LeBron, because you can put the ball in his hands. Fifty years ago, MVPs were always big men; it was a big man’s league. Now, I take the guy with the ball in his hands, like LeBron or D-Wade or Derrick Rose.

Favorite athlete: Muhammad Ali. He’s been the most important athlete in my lifetime. Other guys like Jordan and Tiger changed their sport; Ali changed the world. The whole NATION was divided over Ali-Frazier. People don’t understand that. It was big. Nothing hurt me more than when he lost. Nothing was more triumphant than when he won.

Best game you ever covered: I’ve seen too many to have one. When you’re ringside when Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear, on the sideline when Jordan hit the shot against Georgetown in 1982, a few feet away when Jordan switched hands in midair in the Finals, in the box when John Elway is executing "The Drive" downfield, above home plate when Cal Ripken is breaking the record for consecutive games played, you can’t pick just one.

Favorite athlete you ever covered: Again, there’s too many to pick one. Ali, Jordan, Len Bias, Arthur Ashe, Pete Rozelle and then people nobody has ever heard of. I have maybe a top 15 or 20, but there are just so many fascinating people.

Brandon Parker covers high school sports for ESPNHS magazine and ESPNHS.com. Follow him on Twitter @brandoncparker or email him at brandon.c.parker@espn.com.

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