Seven Questions for Rick Reilly

The award-winning ESPN columnist on the night Mike Tyson turned cannibal, the sadistic allure of golf and how today’s college basketball elite would’ve fared against the Rebels of yesteryear

Photo by Joe Faraoni/ESPN

Photo by Joe Faraoni/ESPN

You’ve covered numerous sporting events in Las Vegas over the years. What’s the most unforgettable? 

Well, I was in the second row when [Mike] Tyson bit [Evander] Holyfield’s ears—bit ’em both! And the first time, I’m like, “I think he just bit his ear!” And the guy next to me says, “No, no he didn’t.” “Yeah, I think he did!” And then [Tyson] bites the other one! And the guy next to me says, “Oh my God!” He was eating a man like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and I’m thinking, “Am I in some kind of Punk’d episode? There’s no way this is really happening.”

In those days, Tyson [fights] attracted the wildest, most fun group of people—guys in green zoot suits and bright orange suits with fedoras, and women in heels that had to have been a foot off the ground. One girl was wearing only chains—her whole outfit was chains. … That was also the night people took [betting] chips off the tables. It was just madness, absolute chaos. And I loved every minute of it.

Are you a big sports bettor when you come to town?

No, hell no. They call me the Walmart of betting. I’m betting $10 on games. Plus, I lack the gene that some guys have to bet thousands of dollars. I see my buddies at the sportsbook, and I know that I make more [money] than some of these guys, and they’re betting $1,000! Are you crazy? Don’t you ever want to redo your basement?

Of all the sports you’ve covered, you seem to be particularly partial to golf. What is it about that sport that appeals to you from a literary perspective?

Because it seems like it should be so easy! In baseball, OK, it wasn’t your fault [that you failed]; the pitcher threw the greatest curveball ever. In basketball, you had to try to shoot it over somebody who’s 7 feet tall. In football, the guy in front of you didn’t block. But in golf, [the ball] is just sitting there—and you’ve done it a million times.

You go to the driving range with Charles Barkley, he hits it beautifully. He hits it like a 7- or 8-[handicap]. But then he moves 100 feet to the first tee, and his brain literally won’t let him swing like that. To me, it’s just the most mind-screwing game ever invented.

And yet we all keep going out there.

[Laughs.] And I know why that is, too: Because there’s that one moment in a round where you hit like a 5-iron, and it’s perfect. That one moment, as the ball is flying, you’re like, “That’s as good as Tiger Woods can do it—that’s as good as anyone can do it.” You could never have that moment on a pitcher’s mound. You could never serve a tennis ball 140 mph. But in golf, for that one moment, you’re as good as anybody. And it’s just intoxicating.

Of all the college basketball teams that have cut down the nets over the past 30 years, where would you rank UNLV’s 1990 national championship team?

They’d have to be in the top 10. Can I tell you how much better a team like that was than the [top teams] today? These were men. These were grown, mature, schooled, skilled, seasoned men. Do you know what they would’ve done to a team with seven freshmen, like Kentucky had this season?

If you took any of these championship teams from the last, I don’t know, 10 years, and put them up against that Vegas team, it would literally be boys against men. It wouldn’t be close. It would be a 40-point blowout. I don’t think people realize how watered-down, discounted and crappy basketball is now compared to what we once had.

What’s the most important thing for aspiring sports writers to learn?

My No. 1 rule is something Oscar Wilde said, and I follow it every time I write: Never write a sentence you’ve already read. The problem is so many guys—especially young guys—they see sports writing, and they’re like, “Oh, I guess this is what sports writing sounds like,” so they write the same sentence they’ve already read: cooler heads prevailed, we’ll just have to see what develops, he’s a special player. … What you want is for the words to jump off the page and slap the reader around. But so many times, guys don’t take the time to get rid of all of their clichés. And it does take a lot of time. You just naturally write them sometimes if your brain is lazy.

You’ve been known to tackle the occasional death-defying challenge, be it facing a Nolan Ryan fastball or skydiving with the U.S. Army Parachute Team. What’s next on your adventure bucket list?

You forgot the most fun thing: I flew in an F-14. And I tend to get airsick. So I was throwing up, but then we went upside-down, and I became the first guy in history to throw down. It was like this new scientific wall I had broken through. … One thing I still want to do? I guess I’d like to be a porn stunt double. Can you work that out? They’d be like, “OK, bring in the body double!” And that’s when I’d come in.

Rick Reilly’s latest book, a collection of his best ESPN columns titled Tiger, Meet My Sister … and Other Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have Said (Blue Rider Press, $28) is due in bookstores May 13. 

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