I wonder what Ralph Wiley would think of the how the Lakers are playing right now. I think that as I watch this team, down by 15 with 9:00 left to play, that should have been better. I don’t think he’d criticize them. Not Ralph. He wasn’t a sports writer who jumped on the effort of those who lost; he was someone that looked at the heart and ability of those who won. You weren't beaten because you didn't deserve to in Ralph's world, you were beaten because the man across from you beat you. Ralph just got beaten like we all eventually will. He just ran out of time.
I remember the first time I read a Ralph Wiley piece. In high school. A cover story in Sports Illustrated about former Cincinnati Red, and unbelievable baseball player in his prime, Eric Davis. He didn’t just write sports profiles, he talked about who these people were as people, and always connected it to something much larger. What made them human.
Ralph Wiley passed away Monday morning from a heart attack at age 52. That’s 24 years older than me. He was someone I read on a regular basis, someone I admired. I always thought if I became a journalist I would want to write like he did. Hell, if I ever became a writer, I would want to write like he did. He was a fan of the underdog, of the beaten man, of the little devil that hides in all of us. As long as we fight it, get off the mat, fight back, struggle for what we believe in. He talked honestly about what it was like to be a black man in America. As odd as this may seem to those who never read him, he may have chronicled as well as anyone what it was like to be black in the late 90s and early 00 in the United States. Its better, yes, but there’s still some fucked up shit that goes on—me not being black, this is something I would know about, right? But he did. Even for a white kid with a chip on his shoulder who had every opportunity, he talked about things that mattered to me, and gave me an understanding of what it was like to live as he did. As a writer, you can never ask to do anything more. He was a lion, an Aslan of the writing world.
It’s strange to say, but I feel like I have lost a friend. In a way, I have. Wiley the Wiz’s words were my friends. I read them regularly, I drank them in like lemonade on a hot day, I soaked them up like the sun, I put my arms out and let them breeze past me like the wind. If you don’t know his writing, it’s good to start with Why Black People Tend to Shout, or perhaps with his Page 2 profile on Ricky Henderson. He was an interesting man. I’m glad to have his words to keep with me, but I do so wish that there were many more to come. I did not know him, but I wish I did.