Few people are aware of the king of Bhutan’s fancy for basketball. Even fewer have challenged him to a game of one-on-one. Alexander Wolff can count himself in both categories.
Though his request for a shoot around with His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck was declined, Wolff succeeded in entertaining at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea Thursday afternoon. The tables were turned on the Sports Illustrated journalist, who had to answer (instead of ask) a barrage of tough questions yesterday:
— Why can sports franchises so effectively hold cities hostage for new stadiums worth hundreds of millions of dollars?
— Can we believe athletes when they say it’s not about the money?
— How come, in 2002, women’s sports still receive such little attention?
— Can anyone beat Duke this year?
Wolff, whose primary beat is college basketball, was also in New Haven to partake in a signing of his new book, “Big Game, Small World, A Basketball Adventure,” last night at the Yale Bookstore. The book, Wolff’s sixth, details a yearlong trip around the globe in search of basketball in all its forms.
“We spent a year going around the world looking for basketball in places — exotic — and less exotic,” Wolff said. “It was to look at the world through the prism of basketball and to look at basketball through information gathered from rummaging around the world.”
With the increase in headlines about such topics as scandals in college recruiting and athletes’ abusing drugs, Wolff said the project of writing his latest book offered him a different perspective.
“This book was an anecdote,” Wolff said. “It made me feel a lot better about basketball.”
The crowd of about 30 in the Calhoun Master’s House got a taste of the new book, but Wolff devoted nearly all of the hourlong discussion to answering questions, such as “should college athletes be paid?”
“After a lot of thought, yeah, they should — if you are not getting an education,” Wolff said, commenting that, although the NCAA goes to lengths to promote the term “student-athletes,” it does not always apply. “If you are going to college, you better leave with something.”
Wolff, a graduate of Princeton who will be teaching a course on sports journalism there this semester, also offered thoughts about his employer. Sports Illustrated, started in the 1950s, is known for its in-depth features, quality writing and novel reporting.
With more options than ever in the sports media market and the entry of cable television station ESPN into the magazine business, Wolff said Sports Illustrated has had “to look over its shoulder” in recent years, sometimes generating, in his opinion, a negative result.
“Our magazine is now driven by focus groups,” Wolff said. “The way we became the pre-eminent sports magazine was not by giving people what they wanted, but by grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and saying ‘this is interesting.'”
This week’s issue features a story of interest to followers of the popular sports magazine — an in-depth look at the Sports Illustrated jinx, written by Wolff.
Sports lore says appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated is a bad omen for any athlete or team. After months of research, Wolff said it was determined that 37 percent of the subjects of Sports Illustrated’s approximately 2,400 covers failed to meet expectations or experienced a decline in performance after being featured.
“We originally asked Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams to pose with [a black] cat,” Wolff said. “He wanted no part of that.”