Sportswriter Ralph Wiley Dies; Essays Probed Black Life
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2004; Page B06
Ralph Wiley, who wrote about sports and the African American experience with wit, erudition and sometimes anger, died June 13 of a heart attack at his home in Orlando at the age of 52. Before moving to Florida four years ago, he had lived in the Washington area.
In his three-decade career, Mr. Wiley wrote about athletes and coaches with an unsparing but sensitive eye, developing a vast network of friends in the worlds of sports and entertainment. For the past four years, he had written three columns a week for ESPN.com. He also had been a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and was the author or co-author of 10 books on sports and African American life.
He frequently appeared on television as a sports commentator and, in 1989, was a regular NFL analyst for NBC. He wrote screenplays, worked as a sports agent and was president of Heygood Images, a Washington-based multimedia information company.
"It would be hard for any of us, even Ralph, to define in a neat phrase a summary of him," John A. Walsh, executive editor of ESPN, said yesterday. "He was an innovator. He was a giant talent. He was a risk-taker. He was a maverick."
Yesterday, the Page 2 section of ESPN.com, for which Mr. Wiley wrote, was made a tribute to him. His final column, which appeared Thursday, began with these words: "All a man's got is the integrity of his work."
"He had a very distinct voice," said filmmaker Spike Lee, with whom Mr. Wiley collaborated on two books, "By Any Means Necessary" (1992) and "Best Seat in the House" (1997), and a television pilot for ESPN, based on Lee's "He Got Game."
"Ralph was able to articulate the anger, wisdom and rage of African Americans in America today. He wasn't just a sportswriter," Lee said.
Mr. Wiley, who was once wrongly accused by police officers of a bank robbery, wrote from experience in his probing essays on African American life.
"Black people tend to shout in churches, movie theaters, and anywhere else," he wrote in "Why Black People Tend to Shout" (1991), "because when joy, pain, anger, confusion and frustration, ego and thought, mix it up the way they do inside black people, the uproar is too big to hold inside."
He was sometimes criticized for being angry at both black and white America, but others saw his assessments in another light.
"He wasn't provocative, as so many people today are, for the sake of being provocative," said Bob Costas, who worked with Mr. Wiley on NBC broadcasts of NFL games in 1989. "He wanted to present an argument and make you think. He wasn't a guy who walked around with anger as his pose."
Despite his frequent television appearances, Mr. Wiley was best known for his writing. He had 28 cover stories and more than 200 bylines in Sports Illustrated. While writing for the Oakland Tribune in 1980, he coined the term "Billy Ball" to describe the scrappy, base-stealing brand of baseball of the Oakland A's under manager Billy Martin.
Mr. Wiley could mix the vernacular of the streets and playing fields with apt allusions to Dickens, Dumas and Dostoevski. He had an expert knowledge of football, basketball and baseball, but his deepest affinity may have been for boxing. In his first book, "Serenity: A Boxing Memoir" (1989), he interwove accounts of his life with tales of the boxers he found such irresistible subjects.
"Nothing captures the imagination," he wrote, "like a guy with a big punch."
He described the Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran as "a raven riding on the back of a wolf running across snow and ice. See, stalk, hunt, kill -- live to hunt again."
Mr. Wiley was born and raised in Memphis. His father died young; his mother was a college teacher who instilled a love of reading from an early age. He played football at Knoxville College in Tennessee, until injuring his knee, and graduated in 1975. His career began at the Knoxville Spectrum, continued from 1975 to 1982 at the Oakland Tribune and was followed by nine years with Sports Illustrated.
In the early 1990s, after writing about Notre Dame football star Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, Mr. Wiley became Ismail's agent, negotiating a $27 million professional contract. Mr. Wiley also wrote about film and books. Fond of the works of Mark Twain, he wrote an updated version of Huckleberry Finn as a screenplay for Lee.
On Thursday, Mr. Wiley completed a cross-country trip with his 22-year-old son, Cole, who was taking a summer internship in Los Angeles with lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
"I know he's been prominent in all these fields," said his son, "but the thing that's spectacular to me is the way he prepared me for life. He prepared me to be a man."
Mr. Wiley's marriages to Holly Cypress and Monica Valdiviez ended in divorce.
Survivors include his companion, Susan Peacock of Orlando; his mother, Dorothy Brown of Washington; a son from his first marriage, Colen C. "Cole" Wiley of Los Angeles; a daughter from his second marriage, Magdalena Valdiviez-Wiley of Washington; and a half brother, Samuel Graham of Memphis.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company