When I was 21 and finally came to grips with the reality I would never be a professional basketball player – nothing drove the harsh truth home more than riding a community-college bench in my last year of eligibility — I took a newswriting class at American River College, a two-year school outside of Sacramento.
That’s when I met Bruce Patt — teacher, campus newspaper adviser and, though I’ve never told him, the reason I became a sports columnist.
Bruce asked hard ethical journalism questions of us in class, such as: Is publishing a photo of a Tibetan monk setting himself on fire to protest his government tasteless, or just showing the unvarnished truth? He made us write obituaries about people who were still alive. (Most non-journalists don’t know this, but most of the major news organizations already have obits written for every prominent person over 65 – from Muhammad Ali to Dan Rather. Just in case.)
Bruce even taught me how to compose my stories on the earliest Mac computers. It sounds ridiculous now (and probably an indictment on my early education), but I used to write my stories long-hand and type them into the computer afterward. For some weird reason, I couldn’t think when I typed the way I could when I put pen to paper. Bruce fixed that phobia (though my editors might occasionally doubt it).
Bruce invited head of journalism departments from four-year colleges to make their pitch to us – including from Fresno State, where I finished school. It took me six years, three schools and student loans up the wazoo, but I graduated. Without Bruce pushing, it would not have happened.
The best thing Bruce did was introduce me to Jim Murray, the late great Pulitzer prize-winning sports columnist at the Los Angeles Times — well, not personally, but he copied a Writer’s Digest article on Jim Murray from 1985, which included some of his best work.
I was instantly hooked.
Murray didn’t write about sports. He wrote about the people who played and coached them. He used metaphors. He incorporated humor. Great running backs weren’t just strong or hard to tackle. To Jim Murray, they were “as elusive as a collar button, as indestructible as a bride’s first set of biscuits.”
Of the city of Cincinnati he once wrote, “”They still haven’t finished the freeway . . . it’s Kentucky’s turn to use the cement mixer.”
He was incredibly vulnerable, too. He wrote about losing his eye to glaucoma, his wife to cancer. Whether he made you laugh, cry or vent, Jim Murray always made you feel. Still coming to grips with my athletic dreams dying, I decided after reading that article, working at the campus paper and learning about journalism and life from Bruce that I wanted to be a sportswriter.
When I had the privilege to meet Jim Murray at the 1989 World Series in San Francisco, I told him he was one of the main reasons I went into the business. Moving closer, having a look at my lanyard credential around my neck with his one good eye, he replied, “Mike? Mike Wise? Is that your name? Don’t ever blame me for that.”
I don’t even know if I ever told Bruce Patt that Jim Murray used a one-liner on me. But after I saw Jason Reid’s moving homage to Isiah Thomas’s influence on his decision to go into sportswriting, after Steinberg was smart and thoughtful enough to ask J. Reid to write an item for him, I thought hard about who really inspired me down this path.
Jim Murray was right; it wasn’t his fault for getting me into this business. It was Bruce’s. It was always Bruce, whom I really need to reconnect with now to let him know.
When Alonzo Mourning began talking about John Thompson’s influence on his career and life after his Hall of Fame election last week, it made me think how we all have a person like that in our lives — someone who didn’t open up our classroom or our gym (or our campus newspaper) as much as they opened our world.
Bruce opened mine. I’m going to go look for his e-mail and publish it on my Twitter account. It’s about time he took some grief for foisting me on Washington and, in general, society.
[Ed. note - So when Jason Reid started explaining on Twitter last how Isiah Thomas's NBA Finals performance led him to get into this sportswriting, I thought it could make for a cool Bog item. Then that post inspired Mike Wise to write this about his early inspriations. So maybe my idea for a series, "How Washington Post sportswriters decided to enter this crazy profession," isn't so crazy. This is the second one. Three makes a series, right?]