Jackie MacMullan has covered basketball for more than 30 years, with stops at The Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
She has written four books, including “When the Game Was Ours,” written with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
In 2010, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame honored MacMullan, presenting her with the Curt Gowdy Media Award for print media.
MacMullan currently writes for ESPNBoston.com and ESPN.com, appears on “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption” and works as an analyst on select Boston Celtics broadcasts for Comcast SportsNet New England.
MacMullan is a longtime member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
In the first installment of a recurring series called “The Write Way,” she took the time to speak with PBWA staff writer Andy Zunz about her career.
What does your life look like now with your family and professional projects?
It was supposed to be a lot calmer than it is. I have a daughter who just graduated college and I have a son who’s about to go off to college, so I’m not at a point anymore where I need to be home to get them off the bus or watch their games. Right now, I have two contracts with ESPN. One is a written contract, so most of my stories appear on ESPNBoston.com, but I also have a certain amount slotted for ESPN.com. Today, I have a story on Curt Schilling and his battle with cancer that appeared on ESPN.com.
And then I have a whole separate contract for television, and most of it is “Around the Horn,” and there’s some “PTI” sprinkled in there or “Outside the Lines.” Occasionally, I might end up on “SportsCenter.”
I’m also doing some stuff for Comcast SportsNet New England here in Boston. They broadcast Celtics games, so I signed on to do 11 or 12 studio nights where I do pregame, halftime and postgame. I’m also doing two color commentary games this year, which I’m really excited about. I did two last year, and that was something new for me. It was pretty daunting, to be honest with you. But it was really fun. I enjoyed it. I worked with Mike Gorman. He made it very easy. He’s a real pro and very good at what he does.
I have written some books, but I haven’t done one lately because I haven’t been able to carve out the time. I haven’t found the right subject matter, either. But I imagine that once the kids are out of the house, it’s something I might end up doing.
What was the toughest part about transitioning to color commentary?
The cadence of it. I’ve been around the NBA to know the content they want. But, the first game I did, at halftime Mike Gorman said to me, “OK, your information is great, but you’ve got to sound excited. You’re a barometer of the excitement level of this game, so you’ve got to raise your voice and the cadence.” I had no idea how to do that. That was something brand new to me. I had absolutely zero formal television training. I’m in television completely by accident. So I’m always learning something new about the medium of television.
How did you get started in journalism, and where did that passion stem from?
Like a lot of kids, I loved to read. I did a lot of reading growing up. My dad was a New York City guy. He was a traveling salesman. So there were a lot of newspapers in our house. I grew up reading Dick Young and Pete Vecsey and the guys in the Boston Herald. My dad brought home quite a few newspapers, so I was lucky to grow up reading quite a few voices.
I went to Westwood (Mass.) High School, which was an exceptional sports town. Especially the girls, they were good at everything. Every time I picked up the paper, it was always the boys. I would get annoyed by it and rail around my house and stomp my feet.
Finally, my dad said to me, “Well, all you do is complain about it. Why don’t you do something about it?”
I said, “Maybe I will.”
And he said, “How about now? Why don’t you call the sports editor at the paper?”
I said “I don’t think I need to do that.”
And he said, “Yeah, you do. I’m tired of listening to it.”
He stood over me and made me make that phone call to the sports editor, who turned out to be a terrific guy.
He said, “Well, the truth is I don’t have enough people to cover the girls. Do you want to do it?”
I said, “I’m like 15.”
He said, “Well, if it stinks, I won’t print it.”
So I started writing for the Daily Transcript when I was about 15 years old.
What was it like to work at The Boston Globe when you first started?
I was so lucky. It was Murderer’s Row with Bob Ryan covering the NBA, Peter Gammons covering baseball and Will McDonough with football and Leigh Montville as a columnist. They were the most talented people you could be around. And everybody was so nice to me. I couldn’t get over how helpful every single one of them was.
The first time I met Will McDonough, I was scared to death of the guy. He scared the crap out of me, but he ended up being one of my biggest champions and one of my closest friends.
Of course, to have Bob Ryan there, I learned so much about reporting and about basketball. I used to sit and eavesdrop on his conversations that he would have on the phone with whoever it was. He was an encyclopedia. He knew so much. He still does. He can go back to a game 18 years ago and tell you what the score was in the third quarter and tell you who was on the floor.
I don’t have that memory at all. I forget what I said. I forget what I wrote five minutes after I do it. I’ve always been in awe of that incredible skill set that Bob has. When you talk about a mentor, my goodness, I couldn’t have had a better one.
Would you say he was your main mentor there? Was there a woman in journalism who you looked up to as well?
It’s funny, there were no women there.
My first day of work was a Monday, and it was the Monday after Lesley Visser got married to Dick Stockton and moved to New York City. So she was working for the Globe, but she wasn’t there. She was in New York.
I will tell you that I covered a lot of college basketball and when I walked into an arena, someone would come up and say, “Hey, I’m Dick Weiss from the Philadelphia Daily News. you must be Jackie. Nice to meet you.”
I thought, “How the heck does this guy know me?”
And it was often because Lesley would call in and say, “We’ve got this young kid.”
I was 22 walking into these arenas without knowing a thing. So I was always very grateful for that. But on a day-to-day basis, I learned all about covering game stories and basketball from Bob Ryan, I learned about great writing from Leigh Montville and I learned about reporting from Will McDonough. That’s a pretty good trio.
The film “Let Them Wear Towels” did a great job of chronicling the struggle for women to gain an equal footing in sports journalism. Do you have any similar personal experiences?
Oh, sure. We all had plenty. When I first started at the Globe, which was December of 1982, I really was generally the only woman wherever I was, and I was covering colleges.
I think it was different in the pros because they had very strict guidelines and regulations. Title IX had long been on the books. The NBA and NFL, they had to give me equal access, it was right there in print.
Whereas at the colleges, it seemed a little more nebulous to me. They didn’t seem to have a specific policy even though they probably should have.
I remember one of the first games I ever covered for the Globe. I was covering a UMass football game. I covered the game. The press box was all guys. I went down to the locker room with my press pass and security would not let me into the locker room. He let everybody else in. I tried twice to get in, and he physically removed me from going in there. I had been working at the Globe maybe a month or two months. I’m thinking, “What am I going to do?”
Thankfully for me, the head coach — his name was Bob Pickett — came out, saw what was going on, took the guy’s name and badge and said, “This won’t happen again, Jackie. You’ll be treated just like everybody else.”
He put his arm around me, and I probably started to cry, which was not the most professional thing. But those kinds of things when I was young, they rattled you a little bit. I had a priest sit there and stop me from going into the St. John’s locker room. He stood there with his arms folded in front of the door and wouldn’t let me in.
I remember the Red Sox, Bruce Hurst was a very devout Mormon. He really made his displeasure known when I was in there. I actually ended up becoming really friendly with Bruce Hurst. He’s a great guy, but he couldn’t reconcile with me being in there.
In the NBA, David Stern was so great. He made sure there were no issues. The minute I became the beat writer for the Celtics, the first thing they did was give everybody bathrobes. The truth is, with the 10- to 15-minute cooling-off period — which is usually 20 to 25 — usually by the time I made it into the Celtics’ locker room, I didn’t even see the bathrobes because everyone was showered and dressed. Over time, it became a moot issue. Now, it’s been 20-plus years since I’ve been the only woman in any press box, which I’m really happy about.
What do you think is the next big step for women in journalism?
I’d still like to see more women in positions of power: more women sports editors, female sports writers. There are some really good ones out there. Since I’m on the TV and the print side now, I love the fact that Doris Burke does commentary for NBA games. She does a fantastic job. Those kinds of groundbreaking things are terrific.
You see more and more female columnists. I mean Sally Jenkins is one of the best columnists in the country. Period. I don’t care whether she’s male or female or otherwise. I feel the same way about Johnette Howard. I’ll leave someone out, but I don’t want to because there are so many good ones.
The whole idea of women being allowed in this industry? That, to me, feels like that’s past. I don’t feel that anymore. Now, there’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t want you there. There’s always going to be a player who’s going to have a wise-ass comment. There’s going to be an old-time coach or manager who’s going to give you some trouble. But what I’ve found is that if you put your head down and do your job, all you can really want is for someone to respect you.
In my market here in Boston, Karen Guregian covers the Patriots for the Boston Herald. She probably breaks as many stories as anybody because she’s good and they respect her and they trust her. So I don’t view her any differently than some of the other great NFL guys who cover that team.
What was it like to take over the Globe’s Celtics beat for Bob Ryan?
That was brutal. I was just filling in for a year because he was writing a book with Larry Bird. It was pretty daunting. I had been around the team and covered it for the NBA playoffs. The Globe used a cast of thousands for those events. For the 1987 Finals, I think we had nine people there.
So I had been around the team a little bit. I had covered it somewhat. I had gotten to know some of the players and was involved in the day-to-day coverage so I didn’t go in there cold turkey.
I do remember the first training camp I was scared to death I was going to make a mistake. There was two-a-days and everyone went to the morning session and talked to the media and then the evening session you just didn’t go. I was so afraid that someone else was going to go that I went.
That year, Bird had come in late for the media day and missed the media day, which was unusual. We were told by Bird’s people that something happened with his plane, but the GM indicated that Larry was unexcused. When Larry went to the morning session, he was fairly conciliatory and said, “No, I’m here and ready to go.” But between the morning and the night session he found out what the team had said about his absence and he was pissed. He was really mad.
So because I was this new, nervous reporter, I wanted to double check that I had quoted him properly on something he said. I stopped him on his way out and he went off. I had this exclusive story and it’s not like I was clever or enterprising, I was just scared to death. I got it strictly because I was terrified to screw up.
Do you think the era that you covered with Larry and Magic was the best era of the NBA?
I’m sure the young people covering the NBA don’t think that. Whenever you’re immersed in something, you think it’s the best. For me, it was just so incredible to be covering all of these Hall of Famers on a day-to-day basis. They were just such a fun bunch of guys. I mean, D.J., Ainge, Bird, Parish, McHale, Walton. All of them great personalities. They had fun at our expense. We had fun at their expense. It was a less adversarial relationship than it is today.
The other thing is that we used to travel with them. They didn’t have their own private planes and all that. They flew commercially. So if you were on the beat, and they were getting up at 5:30 in the morning to fly back home, you were up at 5:30 in the morning with them. If their flight was delayed, your flight was delayed. I do think it lent itself to a better chance to get to know these guys because you’re waiting in the airport with them, having breakfast in the morning and there was more time to interact with them on a more casual basis.
I always felt like I’m not going to be the journalist who goes out and has a couple of beers with the guys, although back then a lot of people did that. I’m not going to judge them one way or the other, but for me as a young female that wasn’t the best idea.
You wrote an excellent piece on Ray Allen and how he deals with OCD through a specific routine. Is it hard to dive into those types of stories while covering a beat or is it easier in that relationship?
Somehow you have to establish credibility to do a story like that, and I think the way you establish credibility is doing the beat, showing up every day, being true to the team, writing the good and the bad and all that.
But I haven’t covered a beat in many, many years and it’s nice to drop in and see these guys. You know what, you’re a fresh face, a fresh voice. They get tired of the same guy day-in and day-out, and those guys get tired of them, I’m sure. So there is an advantage once in a while to dropping in out of the sky and presenting a fresh perspective. But I loved the beat. My favorite job was covering not just the Celtics but the years I got to be the NBA writer. I loved that because the NBA is such a great league. The players are so accessible and interesting, that was just my favorite time.
Ray Allen seems like a close-to-the-vest guy. How did you come across the information that inspired that story?
I’ve known Ray for so long, I covered him back when he was at UConn. We had a bit of a history. I had noticed some of these things about him, these routines. And we had joked about him eating the chicken and the rice and all that, so I had a little inkling that that was part of his M.O. And, honestly, I didn’t go in there thinking that was what I was going to write about, but very quickly it kind of lent itself to that because he started telling me some of the things.
The one that really struck me was when he talked about going up the stairs and seeing the paper on the ground and saying, “Nope, I’m not going to pick that up.” But he can’t do it, he’s got to go pick it up.
Once I had that information, then it’s easy to go talk to his teammates, his ex-teammates, Jim Calhoun, his ex-coach, and Doc. I thought some of those folks really made the story. So it wasn’t that hard, to be honest. But, at that point, I had a really strong familiarity with everybody involved with that story and that made it a little easier.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry throughout your career?
It worries me. Newspapers are in trouble. We all know that. The other day, I was in Kansas City to do a story on Curt Schilling and his cancer from chewing tobacco. So I was in Kansas City because the World Series was about to start. I was only going to be there one night to do the Schilling story and then head home. I wasn’t covering the World Series.
I thought, “Oh, I’ll call [Bill] Plaschke.” You know, my friend from “Around the Horn.” “He should be here to cover the World Series, he’s a major metropolitan columnist. I’m sure he’s here at the World Series.”
And, you know what, he wasn’t because papers don’t send guys to things like that anymore. I always say that I was fortunate to work in the golden age of not only newspapers, but The Boston Globe. Money was no object. If there was a good story, it didn’t matter if it was three miles up the road or 3,000 miles away, we were going to cover it. As a result, the stories were tremendous. Also, the Globe was a writer’s paper. Unlike other newspapers, they gave us the space. If you wanted to write a 3,000-word story, and they decided those 3,000 words were worthy, they would give you the space. And they would also give you the time to write the story so you did it right.
In the industry now, they’re into analytics. And I get it, I think it’s fascinating. I’m in awe of people like Zach Lowe, who I think is really talented, from Grantland, and some of these guys who use analytics and use video within their column.
I’m in awe of those guys. I think it’s a really interesting way to approach the game, because let’s face it, writing a game story makes no sense anymore. Everybody knows five minutes after the game ends what happened and how many points everybody had. So you have to change with the times, and I think some of these young writers today have done an excellent job of that.
About the interviewer
Andy Zunz will graduate from the University of Central Florida in December.
During his time at UCF, he served as the sports editor and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Central Florida Future. He also interned at the Orlando Sentinel and Field & Stream.
He works full time at Golfweek as an assistant editor, and he also is working as the Professional Basketball Writers Association’s staff writer during the 2014-15 NBA season.