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How longtime NBA writer Jackie MacMullan brings a story to life


Jackie MacMullan still has dreams about playing basketball. 

While she sleeps, MacMullan has visions that she’s on the court, playing on the same team as Miami Heat president Pat Riley.

“How did I get stuck with you?” he yells. “You suck.” 

“You’re old,” she snaps back. 

MacMullan’s love affair with the sport started when she picked it up late as a junior at Westwood High School, continued at the University of New Hampshire, and stayed true even after she got married and had children. She still found herself on the court on Sundays to play with her younger sister, Sue, and other women. This was a time when she could enjoy the game herself, outside of her job and her writing. She loved those Sunday games.  

But then a year ago, she suffered a neck injury and had to undergo surgery. She says that she was unable to stand up for four months, and can no longer play.

“The basketball is over, no more jumping ever again,” she said. “I fell in love with it, I just loved it so much. I never found anything that is even remotely close to how much I love basketball. I played tennis, I’m taking up golf now, but there is nothing even remotely close.”

Not even in her dreams could Riley, or anyone, school her. While she can no longer play, basketball is still her life’s work and her passion, one she’s built a long, prolific career covering. A respected sports writers once deemed the “Great Chronicler of Basketball’s Golden Age” by The New Yorker, she tells the stories that are scuffed onto the hardwood and lived once the players leave the locker room.  She’s put her time in, serving as a sports columnist for more than 20 years, and now as a senior writer covering the NBA for ESPN, and has built a roster of stories that reveal who an athlete is outside of the stat sheet or a highlight reel. 

To understand what continues to fuel MacMullan’s fire, one must know that her passion and connection to the game is intertwined in every word she writes.

“I just love a good story,” she said over lunch back in March at The Local in West Newton (she ordered pork dumplings). “There’s so many good ones, every time I think about retiring I’m like, ‘Ah but I haven’t done that one yet.’ There’s always a good story, another story to tell.”

In the age of social media — which MacMullan does not have, nor does she want — it’s easy to follow a player’s every move. But there’s so much that is not shown on their Instagram stories, and there’s a lingering truth behind the eye emojis they tweet out. 

“My favorite part of the story is when I reveal something to you that you read and you go, ‘I didn’t know that,’” she says. “That’s what all of us should be doing in every story. It’s not always easy to do. If someone can do that then I feel like okay good, I’ve done my job. I told you something you didn’t know and hopefully I brought it to life in a way that you didn’t expect.” 

While MacMullan herself fell in love with the game like how many of her subjects did — right on a basketball court — she always had a passion for reading. Her favorites were books like Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War or J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, stories that made her feel something. 

“You’re like, ‘Wow that story made me feel happy or sad’ and when you get older you’re like, ‘Well how did they do that? How did they corral my emotions like that?’”

She read a lot of newspapers, too, thanks to her father who was a salesman. Originally born in New York City but raised in Massachusetts, her dad would travel often between cities and bring newspapers home such as the New York Daily News, the Post, and the Times. She really loved sports, but her father had a rule: the sports section must be read last. 

“I think he just thought, ‘It’s okay to enjoy sports but you should know what’s going on in the rest of the world. The world is important, sports is a pastime, you should learn to read the rest of the paper. I think it was actually good advice, there’s also a different style of news, opinion, politics’”. 

Even after being hired as a news intern at The Boston Globe in the summer of 1982, she found herself wanting to go cover sports, the Celtics in particular. She was surrounded by established reporters such as Leigh Montville, Bob Ryan, Will McDonough, Dan Shaughnessy, and Kevin DuPont — who took her under their wing. 

“Bob Ryan, every time I walked into an NBA arena, somebody would introduce themselves, and said, ‘Bob Ryan says to say hello,’” MacMullan said. “When I would go to games, I would walk into games with Bob, he knew everybody! Referees, scorers, every player, every coach. I was like, ‘How does that happen? How do you get to that point?’ Now, I’m the one walking in doing the same thing. It’s just time, it’s beating the pavement, it’s putting in the time, developing the relationships.” 

 

NESN’s Tom Caron interviews MacMullen on the field at Fenway Park during the pre game show. —Boston Globe

This is how she held her own early on in her career when covering greats such as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Although access to players in the 1980s was different than it is today, she said those players took notice of what reporters put the time in to show up. 

“It was valuable,” MacMullan said. “I didn’t know this until later but they paid attention to who got up at 6:30 the next morning that got on their flight instead of sleeping in. I would make sure that I always got on their flights, and there was downtime in airports. Some of the best conversations I had with Larry Bird and those guys were in down times in airports.

“I remember Larry once I said to him years, years later, ‘How come you talked to me?’ He said, ‘Because you knew the game.’ That was his answer. I didn’t even know he knew who I was until after he retired – some of the other guys like McHale, DJ, Danny Ainge, they were a little more friendly or forthcoming.”

The advice she’d give to young writers trying to break out into the industry is simply this: be there.

“Young people always say to me, ‘How do I get that?’ and I always say, ‘Show up, to everything. Before practice, stay late after practice, you think everybody is gone but somebody is in the training room and as they’re walking out, that’s how you get them alone. Show up to their charity events, community service events, show up to every-thing.’ That’s how you develop those relationships, but the thing you have to make clear though is you’re not friends. You’re in the same business, and that’s always the tricky part. You’re not going out for a beer.”

She also expressed how important it is to ask the right questions, even if they’re tough.

“The thing that my bosses always said was, I could get people to tell me stuff they wouldn’t tell anybody else,” she said later. “And that’s simply a matter of courage, being willing to ask the question. There’s nobody better at that than [the Globe’s] Dan Shaughnessy right? The most fearless guy I’ve ever been around. I won’t compare myself to him but I’m not afraid to ask things. When you do that, and you ask it in the proper manner, they’ll answer you.”

Listening to MacMullan reflect on her career, it’s clear that storytelling is not just her job, it’s who she is. She recounts memory after memory covering all sports, from football to basketball, as though they’re chapters in a novel that she’s reading out loud. There’s the time when she got McHale to do a Sunday special on ESPN, despite him originally not wanting to, just because he knew how much it meant to her. Or how Tom Brady used to call her at 6:30 a.m. on his way to Gillette Stadium. She does not just watch a game, she resonates with what it feels like to compete, having been an athlete herself.

“I think it helps to understand what losing a game feels like, losing at the buzzer [or] winning, what it’s like to take a charge, to know how much that hurts,” MacMullan said. “That’s a commitment, and so when someone takes a charge maybe you appreciate it. I would never ever say that people that haven’t played the game can’t write about, I think that’s ridiculous, but did it help me? I hope so, I hope that when I write about basketball and people read it, they can feel. I’ve written about a lot of sports – football, baseball, hockey, women’s marathons, tennis. But I just love basketball the most, that’s why here at the end of my career I’ve circled back around to it.”

Even now, with years spent mastering her craft, MacMullan is writing stories that go beyond just the game of basketball. Take her series on mental health in the NBA, which revealed the vulnerable experiences many players in the league went through mentally. 

“That’s probably one of the most important things I’ve done,” MacMullan said. “It was, again, getting people comfortable enough to believe that you are going to tell their story in a way that’s going to affect change, but also make them feel better about themselves.” 

She runs through how she built that story, and emphasizes the importance of relationships, comfort with her subjects, and asking the right questions.

After doing a story on Rockets assistant coach John Lucas, who runs a substance abuse clinic in Houston, MacMullan learned that players in the league were struggling. She began asking agents, and even the players directly, if they knew anything about it. 

“I would go [to people], ‘Do you know of anybody, and how about you?’ I did that with everybody,” MacMullan said. “Some of them I knew well. Paul Pierce I knew pretty well, I thought I knew everything about him and then he starts telling me that after a stabbing, he’s afraid to go out in public and he has a cop car outside of his house 24 hours a day. They used to have this Celtics promotion where they would have the stars greet fans before games and they were having him do it and he kept having a panic attack. He didn’t like being in crowds because of the stabbing.” 

Then, one day, she found herself talking to former Cavaliers forward Channing Frye about mental health while Kevin Love listened intently nearby.

“We all go through something,” Love said to her. 

Love has since become a huge advocate for mental health awareness, even writing about his battles in a piece published for The Players Tribune (titled, “Everybody is going through something”).  While MacMullan spoke with Love privately back then for 45 minutes, he was not at a point to publicly open up yet.

“He wasn’t ready,” she remembered. “He said to me, ‘ I wanted to tell my own story in a way I felt best.’ And that was fine, because now he said, “Whatever you need. He did that sit down interview with me, it was pretty traumatic and now he’s made it his life’s work.’ I give him so much credit.”

 Other players did open up to her, such as the Clippers’ Marcus Morris and his twin brother, Markieff, who plays on the Lakers. They revealed to her that they struggle with depression.

“It felt like every time I asked somebody, everybody had had an experience,” she said. “The one that shocked me the most of all was Marcus Morris, he’s one of those tough guys from Philly, no nonsense.” 

MacMullan has built a relationship with her subjects that allows them to open up to her about a number of topics. In her recent profile of Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, he told her about his sudden shock when Spurs head coach Greg Popovich called him out, then later compared him to NBA champion Kawhi Leonard.

“I really wanted to write about [Tatum’s] defense,” MacMullan said. “I asked [Popovich] a little bit about it [and] Pop’s like, ‘Yeah I told him he could be special.’ So then I’m like, ‘Okay but what exactly did you tell him?’ So I waited until I got Jayson alone and then he gave me this great story about him sitting him down by the elevator and saying, ‘You could be Kawhi Leonard, you could be Paul George.” 

Then she went to the other Celtics players who were in the room when the scene happened. 

[Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart] described the locker room scene of Pop chastising Tatum, putting him up on the screen because he had a defensive lapse,” MacMullan said. “Now you’re dealing with knowledge. Tatum is saying, “yeah he stopped me by the elevator” but Marcus Smart is like, ‘Yeah he went after him in our meeting and we’re all trying not to laugh. He wasn’t doing it to be mean, he’s trying to motivate him. That’s why Pop is so awesome. Jayson is saying, ‘Oh he did this to me’. And then, Kemba is like, ‘Oh this is how I remember it’.  Then all of a sudden you’ve pieced something together.”

Even after a long career, she wants to continue weaving stories together. As ESPN airs its highly anticipated docu-series about Bulls legend Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance,” MacMullan has even more stories to tell about him.

Having known Jordan for more than three decades, she was there at the Boston Garden when Jordan dropped 63 points against the Celtics. While Bird praised Jordan afterwards and compared him to God, Jordan later told MacMullan that he felt Bird had helped transcend him.

“Larry [Bird] catapulted me from an ‘Ordinary Joe’ to a ‘Somebody Joe,” he told her looking back.

After Jordan briefly retired from basketball in 1994 to play minor league baseball, he opened up to her about losing his enjoyment for the game. He even admitted why he left the NBA (“People got bored with my skills”) and shared some of his regrets.

“I couldn’t play hard for all 82 games. That’s when I knew it was time to stop,” he said.

 As MacMullan decides the next steps in her own career, she still cares about the game in a way that is so personal to her; it does not go away when a story is finished and filed. She feels like there are more stories to tell.

For the last six years or so, give or take, I really just write about basketball now, really just the NBA even. To me it felt like coming back home a little bit, I made my bones there – got to know all these amazing athletes who shared their confidences with me.

“That’s why I’m on ESPN — not because they thought, ‘She’d be awesome on TV.’ No they read my stories and thought, ‘She seems to know people, so maybe we could use her.’” 

 



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