The traits that I admire most in great athletes," says SI staff writer Ralph Wiley, "are versatility, flexibility and relentlessness."
Over the past five years, Wiley has demonstrated his own mastery of those virtues in stories for SI on subjects ranging from Patrick Ewing to John Elway to the fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim that ended in tragedy. In this week's issue Wiley writes about Alabama's basketball team (page 32) and paints a sensitive portrait of struggling NBA rookie Chris Washburn (page 42), who has yet to understand the qualities that could someday make him great. "Chris has transcendent ability," says Wiley, "but he knows nothing of relentlessness."
Wiley, 34, comes by his feel for sports as participant as well as observer. He was a wide receiver for Knoxville ( Tenn.) College in the early '70s and at the same time was the sports columnist for the now defunct weekly The Knoxville Spectrum. As a result, says Wiley, "I have eyes for all seasons, but I have a third eye for football."
Case in point: After Denver defeated the Los Angeles Raiders 21-10 in the ninth week of the season, Wiley wrote (SI, Nov. 10) that the Broncos quarterback had reached "the pinnacle of his profession.... It's Elway's turn now...." Wiley's words were not echoed by such notables as Don Shula and Terry Bradshaw, who expressed doubts on national television about the 26-year-old Elway's maturity. Then Elway led that spectacular 98-yard drive against Cleveland in the AFC championship game, looking mature indeed. "I had asked some All-Pros what they thought of John, and they just shook their heads in awe," Wiley says of his November judgment. "I wasn't going out on a limb."
Wiley has, however, spent some time out on limbs. In 1980, as a columnist for the Oakland Tribune, he picked the Raiders in preseason to reach the Super Bowl, and a year later he chose the 49ers. After his long shots advanced as predicted, Wiley proceeded to nail the winning team and the margins in both games.
Wiley also covered 12 world championship fights while in Oakland. And it is to him we owe the term Billy Ball. He coined it while covering the Billy Martin—managed Oakland A's, to the subsequent delight of the team's advertising agency.
These days Wiley divides his time between his house near Washington, D.C., and his apartment—and SI's offices—in Manhattan. He recently completed a nonfiction manuscript called Serenity: A Boxing Memoir, and is currently working on a screen adaptation of the work for filmmaker Spike Lee. Wiley is also about to embark on his first novel, about pro football. "I'm still 98 yards from my goal," he says, "but if I work hard, good things will happen. I learned that from John Elway."