Former Boston Globe columnist and senior writer at Sports Illustrated, Leigh Montville, shares his insight on how he became a sports writer and the details on his book, “Tall Men, Short Shorts ‘The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, And A Very Young Sports Reporter’.”
Leigh recalls the first time he thought about being a writer. In fifth grade, he handed in a book report and the teacher asked him to meet about it after school.
“I could see my book report was sitting on her desk and she’d written stuff in red. I said, ‘this is going to be terrible.’ And instead, she said, ‘You’re a very good writer and you should think about being a writer.’ I had never thought really about being a writer but then I kind of took that ticket, and I put it in my pocket. I said, ‘I can be a writer and no matter what happens, I can be a writer.’ And through like, 14 different years of high school, I said, ‘Well, I could be a writer.’”
While at the University of Connecticut, Leigh worked at the school newspaper and became the sports editor. Leigh was later described as, “the ultimate newspaper columnist” by Jack McCallum and has published over ten books.
“My favorite column would be the old veteran sitting by his locker, peeling the tape off after the game, his broken nose and all of that. I mean, that was my favorite kind of thing, as opposed to ‘fire the manager’ or ‘replace the quarterback next Thursday’ or something like that. If you’re a columnist, you have to do some of that’ fire the manager,’ but I would kind of hold my punches back…I was more of a descriptive guy and my idea of a column was that it was just what this one guy is seeing through his eyes, rather than to really have a big opinion on something,” said Leigh.
Andy and Leigh dive into the specifics of “Tall Men, Short Shorts.” The book follows the Lakers, with the newly acquired Wilt Chamberlain, as they compete against the dominant 1969 Celtics.
“The truest thing I say in the whole book, is that since Wilt Chamberlain played, nobody has ever said about a guy coming in and said, ‘this looks like he’s gonna be the next Wilt Chamberlain.’ Nobody has been as physically gifted as Wilt Chamberlain was,” Leigh said. “But he had a 10 cent head. He didn’t like to practice. And when he did practice, he was disruptive. He didn’t like to listen to what the coach had to say, he was all of those things. And he had one of those cartoon lightbulbs over his head. The light bulb would go on, and he’d say,’ tonight, I’m gonna score and score 100 points.’”
Leigh calls the 1969 Los Angeles Lakers the first “Super Team” and describes how players have shaped modern NBA dynasties.
“Speaking of Wilt, you talk about the ‘69 Lakers as the first dream team, which we’re seeing now across the NBA,” said Andy. “What’s your opinion of super teams now? Because it seems like the only way you can win the NBA is if you got three superstars?”
“Wilt was the first guy to kind of engineer his own trades. He said, ‘I want out of Philadelphia, and I want to go to join these two other guys in L.A.and we will have a great team.’ I mean, that’s what they’re all doing now. The players have all the control and he was the first, he was the Thomas Edison of this all business,” said Leigh.
The digital revolution has changed the reporting and writing landscape. As a veteran journalist, Leigh got in on the ground floor and had unparalleled access to athletes.
Andy said: “I was lucky that I got my start in the era where, as Gary Vitti, the great trainer of the Lakers used to say, ‘12 plus two plus one.’ 12 players, two coaches and a trainer.” Leigh agreed, adding, “I was lucky to be allowed into that inner sanctum, to be able to get into the Celtics locker room and be close to Bill Russell.”
“That that is pretty much gone away, the layers between us as journalists and them, it’s like the Berlin Wall, you can’t get to anybody these days…When I went, went from being a newspaper guy to being at Sports Illustrated, I would wind up going to guys’ houses and kind of getting in with their families. I think that’s a very rare thing now.”
In addition to his experience up-close-and-personal with NBA greats, Leigh has covered some of the most recognized athletes in baseball and boxing. He’s written about his hometeam, the Boston Red Socks, and shares what makes the city so special.
“Los Angeles is such a diffused place…it’s hard to get people all together in the same building because they’re all going to the beach or playing golf or doing something. Boston, it’s a provincial city. And it’s a city that always has a little chip on its shoulder against New York. New York is such a big-time place. What we just can’t stand is the fate of the Red Sox for all those years being downtrodden and the Yankees beating them up. That was just a tremendous string of years. Then 2004 [Red Sox World Championship] came right after that.
“Baseball is just baseball. You win, you win, or you lose. But it was just a crusade for all those years, and when the Red Sox did win people were going to the gravesites and talking to dad and uncle Mike, and it was just spectacular.”
Leigh tells a few stories about legendary broadcasters Johnny Most and Chick Hearn plus what he’s working on next.
Listen to the full podcast here.