Biographical Brief – Jackie MacMullan
Jackie MacMullan `82 was there when it happened. A moment so devastating that Red Sox fans still wince at the mere mention of it. 1986. Shea Stadium. Game 6. Bottom of the 10th. Twice the Sox came within a single strike of winning their first World Series in 75 years, but they had already squandered their lead when Mets left fielder Mookie Wilson hit a weak ground ball. It bounced beneath the mitt of first baseman Bill Buckner, scooted between his legs, and dribbled away. The Red Sox had lost the game, and Shea Stadium erupted.
Up in the press box, MacMulllan got her orders: Wait on Buckner. The 26-year-old reporter wasn`t the most seasoned of the 10 Boston Globe sportswriters at the game. But she was fast, and the paper`s 1 a.m. deadline loomed, less than an hour away. Down in the Red Sox clubhouse, she watched as cartloads of champagne and T-shirts were hastily wheeled out. Then a grim calm settled on the room; Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd sobbed in the corner. A full 45 minutes passed before Buckner emerged from the showers to face a phalanx of TV cameras. Speaking so softly that MacMullan had to strain to catch his words, he described the ground ball as if in slow motion: "It was bouncing, bouncing, bouncing . . . then it went under."
MacMullan raced back up to the press box to patch together her quotes as best she could. Adrenaline threatened to curdle into panic as her boss, sports editor Vince Doria, hovered at her shoulder. "You`ve gotta get it in," he kept saying. "You`ve gotta get it in."
"It was the saddest story in Boston sports history," she says, "and I had nine minutes to write it." But write it she did, and the next morning her story gave Globe readers a glimpse of Buckner quietly trying to explain himself in the glare of television lights.
Since then MacMullan has interviewed many a famous athlete for the Globe, Sports Illustrated or one of her three books. Stars like Tedy Bruschi, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley don`t just talk games and stats with her, however. They have all given her compelling stories they wouldn`t share with any other writer. "I write about sports," she says. "But I write about people in sports."
Before MacMullan began to write about athletes, she was an athlete herself. At five feet 11 inches, she stood out in the corridors of Westwood (Mass.) High School, and girls` basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who suspected MacMullan could become a great low-post player, invited her to try out. "She`d make fun of herself because she`s one of those tall, lanky girls," says Delaney-Smith, now head coach of the women`s varsity basketball team at Harvard. "You wouldn`t look at the way she played and think she was that good." But that didn`t matter to the coach, as long as she kept scoring.
Meanwhile, MacMullan had become frustrated by the lack of coverage given to girls` sports in the local newspaper. She complained to her father, who urged her to call up the paper. The sports editor tossed her a challenge: "Why don`t you write something and I`ll put it in the paper?"
"I`m a kid," protested the 15-year-old. But before she knew it, the kid had her own column. Her subject: girls who were exceptional athletes.
By the time she got to UNH, MacMullan knew she wanted to be a sportswriter, and the late Don Murray `48, director of the journalism program, encouraged her. Twice he urged her to take one of her stories over to the editors of the New Hampshire, UNH`s student newspaper. She recalls being too scared to take his advice. Finally, he said, "Look, either you want to do this or you don`t."
Journalism professor Andrew Merton `67 played a different role in MacMullan`s development as a budding journalist. "What have I learned from this?" he would ask, waving her homework assignment in the air. "Nothing! Teach me something I don`t already know." At the end of the semester, she wrote a story about Mary Brady Legere `82, now a lieutenant colonel in the Army, showing how the 19-year-old ROTC student overcame her terror of jumping out of an airplane. MacMullan had at last succeeded in teaching Merton something he didn`t already know.
At UNH, MacMullan also played basketball, walking onto the varsity team as a freshman. She led the squad in scoring her sophomore season and as a senior became a co-captain. She excelled, she believes, not because she had exceptional ability, but because she had a willingness to work hard. She applied the same work ethic to preparing for her career, completing not one but two newspaper internships--at the Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times and the Boston Globe. The Globe hired her as a sportswriter in 1983.
From the beginning, her experience as an athlete helped MacMullan understand the players, and the extra stamina came in handy for dashing from press box to locker room. Once she got there, however, she was hardly made to feel welcome. In the early years of her career, she was bounced from a locker room by UMass security guards and told "You don`t belong in there," by Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach. She narrowly avoided injury when Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants threw a hair dryer at her. "In the beginning, probably 90 percent of the time I was the only woman in there," she says. "It was a huge issue--one that made you wonder whether you wanted to do the job or not."
Not one to bear a grudge, MacMullan went on to establish good working relationships with some of the athletes who initially resented her presence, like former Red Sox pitcher Bruce Hurst, and she developed not only great respect but great affection for Auerbach. (She still wonders, though, if New England Patriots coach Bill Belichik will ever take her seriously.) Today she finds that the younger male athletes think nothing of seeing a woman in the locker room.
Just as MacMullan had prided herself on working harder than other players on the basketball court, she was determined to do the same on the job. When she started covering the Celtics in 1988, she was the only reporter who attended both morning and evening practices during preseason training camp. When Larry Bird failed to appear for the annual Celtics media day, she found him at an evening practice, ready to vent. Angry about contract negotiations and convinced that the general manager was treating him like a rookie, the 32-year-old star vowed to negotiate only with Red Auerbach, then president of the team. MacMullan`s story on Bird`s discontent sparked a new, and successful, round of negotiations.
Competition was a powerful motivator for the young reporter. "There was nothing worse than getting up in the morning, looking at the other paper--and they had something that you didn`t have," she says. "I just hated it." In 1989, she got permission from her boss to stay home for Christmas and meet the Celtics on the West Coast the next day. A Boston Herald reporter, on the other hand, flew with them and got the scoop on the contract extension guard Dennis Johnson was about to sign. "I got beat because I spent Christmas with my family," she says. "I didn`t have any children then. I did the wrong thing."
At the time, MacMullan was on the road perhaps 250 days a year, and she eventually traveled to 48 states, South Korea, China, and several other countries. Although she missed countless weddings and ski weekends, she didn`t mind the travel--until the birth of her daughter, Alyson, in 1992. She hit a low point the following spring during the NBA quarterfinals. When the Bulls failed to clinch the series against the Suns in Chicago, she found herself flying west for Game 7 instead of east to husband Michael Boyle `82 and 1-year-old Alyson in Westford, Mass.
When she got to Phoenix, MacMullan was so distraught that she left her bags at the airport and boarded the next flight home. She didn`t talk to her boss, sports editor Don Skwar, for five days. When she finally did, she was convinced that she had to quit. But Skwar urged her to stay on and travel less.
From Skwar`s point of view, MacMullan was definitely worth keeping. To be a good journalist, one must a good reporter, a good interviewer and a good writer, he says, "and she`s off the charts in all three categories." Her current boss, Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan, adds that MacMullan has a singular ability to get people to share their innermost secrets. "They want to tell her their life`s story."
In January 2005, Tedy Bruschi, a New England Patriots linebacker and two-time Super Bowl winner, talked with MacMullan about his early years as a pro. "I was crazy on the field, and I was crazy off it," he confided. "I had a chip on my shoulder the size of a boulder." He traced his struggles with aggression and anger back his parents` divorce and the class warfare in his hometown. "Did you ever see the movie `The Outsiders`?" he asked. "Well, the Oakmont kids were the socs [socialites]. We were the greasers." For the first time in print, he also revealed that he had licked a drinking problem for the sake of his wife and kids.
Shortly after MacMullan`s story came out, Bruschi suffered a mild stroke at the age of 31. He turned away hundreds of requests for interviews. When he decided to break his silence six months later, however, he dialed MacMullan`s cell phone.
Another player who shared his life story with MacMullan was NBA All-Star Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks, a shy Jamaican who had immigrated to the Boston area as a super-tall 11-year-old. Her April 1993 Globe story on Ewing explained why he always seemed so sullen when he returned to his hometown:
You don`t smile when people scream obscenities at you, or draw pictures of apes hanging from trees with your name spelled out underneath. Why should he be friendly to these people? They threw bricks through the window of his school bus, spraying glass into the eyes of his teammates. They called him a freak. They called him a nigger
The story gave a new dimension to an athlete who, she wrote, had been looked upon as a "surly, angry, nasty player with boundless talent but no mercy." When the piece brought MacMullan an award for feature writing from the Associated Press Sports Editors--one of a number of national awards she has received--she remembered her journalism professor`s words and thought, Hey, Andy, read this one!
Why do athletes talk so openly with MacMullan? There are certain tricks of the trade, she says, like coming prepared with background information from an athlete`s high school coach and hometown buddies. (Thus she learned how a 15-year-old Bruschi corrected a mispronunciation of his name: "No, Coach, that`s Tedy Brew-ski. As in, have another.") And she tries to see things from the athlete`s point of view. "I remember how scared I was the first time I showed up to practice and there were all these older players," she might say.
Still, much of her success comes simply from her natural ease and warmth. She loves talking with people, hearing stories and telling stories. Sullivan says she`s "an incredible conversationalist."
"She`s just a nice lady," says retired NBA superstar Charles Barkley. He was drawn to MacMullan from the beginning: "I looked at her as being a minority. I got into [professional basketball] in `84, and back then, 99 percent of the reporters I talked to were men. I wanted to make her feel comfortable. I knew what that would feel like, being the only black guy in the room."
Over the years, Barkley has talked with MacMullan about the agony of a back injury: "Eating a Big Mac hurts." About the ability of young athletes, including himself, to squander millions. And even about his true height: "OK, so maybe I`m 6 foot 5."
MacMullan`s career has continued to evolve since that day in 1993 when Don Skwar told her she could keep her job without having to be on the road all the time. Two years later, she started covering the NBA for Sports Illustrated. While she was there, Larry Bird invited her to collaborate on his 1999 memoir, Bird Watching. After leaving the magazine in 2000, she took two years off to be home with her family before returning to the Globe to take her current job as a sports columnist and executive editor. She also makes regular appearances on television as a correspondent for ESPN, NESN and Boston`s WHDH-TV. From time to time, she`s a panelist on two ESPN sports talk shows, "Cold Pizza" and "Around the Horn." But she thoroughly enjoyed a weeklong stint at UNH as a visiting journalist last year and may try teaching full time in the future.
The television work has earned MacMullan a status her niece jokingly describes as "marginally famous." MacMullan downplays the glamorous aspects of her job, though, and she`s careful to keep her family and professional lives separate, going by Jackie Boyle outside of work. "My kids didn`t sign up for this," she says.
MacMullan knew early on that she wanted to have a family, and she wanted to be part of that family--not the kind of parent who could never make it to her children`s events. There weren`t many role models for her to emulate at work. "You don`t find too many well-rounded people in the sports department," acknowledges Skwar. "People are extremely dedicated to one aspect of their lives and become consumed with that aspect. She`s able to balance a lot of aspects of her life."
The Boyles live in an old white farmhouse with low ceilings and exposed beams. MacMullan is up before her children to get a head start on her work. When she can, she conducts interviews and writes during the day, finishing in time to meet their afternoon bus. Her office is the kitchen table, where two portable phones sit next to her laptop, and school projects hang on the refrigerator. Since she only needs to travel when a Boston team makes it into major playoffs or a national series, she can usually attend the events that are important to Alyson, now 15, who plays basketball and field hockey and runs track, and 10-year-old Doug, who has more of a theatrical and musical bent.
Still there is no escaping the "on call" aspect of her job. In the middle of a dinner party at a friend`s house last December, she got word that Red Auerbach had died. She sequestered herself in a bedroom for more than an hour in order to write a tribute to the legendary basketball coach and give ESPN a live telephone interview.
Through all the night and weekend games, the years of extensive travel, and the need to be on call day and night, husband Michael Boyle has been, in MacMullan`s words, a "very important, quiet background guy." So much in the background, in fact, that when she was pregnant, Charles Barkley used to tease her about her imaginary husband--Sasquatch, he called him. (Last fall, when Barkley was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the two finally met, and Barkley gave the elusive Bigfoot a bear hug.)
MacMullan particularly appreciates her husband`s ability to remain unfazed by her semi-celebrity and her interaction with some of the most famous athletes in the country. Which is not to say that he`s immune to the gravitational pull of sports. After Buckner`s error in 1986, he vowed never to root for the Red Sox again. Nevertheless, there he was back on the couch on Oct. 27, 2004, watching the World Series as MacMullan covered it out in St. Louis.
The game ends at 11:40 p.m. and the Red Sox have won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Down in the clubhouse the athletes are dousing each other in champagne, beer and tears of joy. Up on the field the fans are dancing in full Red Sox regalia beneath a moon tinged, yes, red by a lunar eclipse. MacMullan`s fingers are dancing on her laptop.
It`s the happiest story in Boston sports history--and she has 18 minutes to write it.
By Patrick McClary and Virginia Stuart