Staff writer Alex Wolff is a world-class aficionado of the grilled-cheese sandwich. And he's practically apoplectic over the one he's being served at Fritzl's, his favorite Swiss coffee shop in Manhattan. "I'm furious," he says. It seems that Fritzl's standard issue—a blend of two imported cheeses—has been expunged from the menu. And Wolff must set knife and fork to a sandwich slapped together with a slice of processed domestic. "It's the simplest thing in the world to make," Wolff says, "and for that reason a bad one can be so ghastly and a good one so sublime."
He brings the same critical rigor to pro basketball, where he's now our Big Cheese, as his story on the Milwaukee Bucks, beginning on page 22, attests. It's hard to tell whether he prefers Brie to Bird, or Ervy to Erving. But according to Wolff, the ingredients of a bad sandwich may be those of a good NBA forward. "I'm waiting for a player so smooth," he says, "that he deserves the nickname Velveeta."
Wolff's name resonates in literature: The Specter of Alexander Wolf, for instance, Gaito Gazdanov's mystery about a haunted Parisian journalist. Or Ken Follett's The Key to Rebecca, in which a Nazi spy named Alex Wolff infiltrates British-held Cairo with the help of a depraved belly dancer named Sonja. Our Wolff, who has read neither, is now gathering data on playgrounds and gyms for The Back-in-Your-Face Basketball Book, a Michelin-style guide sequel to the 1980 book on pickup hoops he wrote with Chuck Wielgus. Wolff took up basketball at eight, about when his mother, Mary, fixed Alex his first grilled cheese in a General Electric waffle iron. It still reposes in the cupboard of the Wolffs' Vermont home—the waffle iron, not the sandwich.
"It was your basic Vermont Cheddar on Arnold Brick Oven White," he says. Sister Stephanie disagrees. "Alex may be right about the Cheddar," she says, "but the bread was definitely Pepperidge Farm." In any case, Stephanie adds, "He's developed an extreme fetish."
Five years later Alex met his first NBA player, the Buffalo Braves' Dick Garrett, at Lyle Brown's Yellowjacket basketball camp in Rochester, N.Y. Garrett was a late replacement for Billy Cunningham of the 76ers. "I was crushed," Wolff recalls. "I think Cunningham went to Europe. At least that's what they told us."
In 1977, Wolff went to Europe himself: He left Princeton for a year to play basketball in Switzerland. At least that's what he tells us. It may have been for the Gruy�re, Emmentaler and Vacherin—which are cheeses—and the raclette, a kind of fondue made by holding a big hunk of cheese to a fire and scraping off the softened outer layer as it melts. On this continent, Wolff insists, only the raclette of Montreal compares. "That's why I'm waiting for the league to expand to Canada," he says. "The only cheese on my beat is the ersatz 'cheez' that's spooned over tortilla chips at NBA arenas."