FROM PLAYER TO REPORTER: In her new book, Chicagoan Missy Isaacson looks at how her love of sports began

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

“Missy” Isaacson got game.

Just 5-foot-1 in high school at Niles West, she was a Basketball Jane, having proudly worn the No. 4 of all-heart idol Jerry Sloan of the Bulls before switching to the No. 10 of Bob “Butterbean” Love.

“I was fast and I was a hustler. I understood the game,” said “Missy,” as she is known to all in her orbit, an affectionate nickname of Melissa.

“I was a really good dribbler and really good passer, and I could drive. Even though I was small in junior high, I would take the ball and drive up the lane all the time. I’d usually get smashed, so I’d get up and go to the free-throw line.

Missy Isaacson, as a member of the Niles West state championship team, showing her ball handling skills.

“We had a backyard hoop. In my mind, it was like a full court. In real life, it was a little patio.  All my brothers’ friends played. I was certainly dribbling around and they were always yelling at me to dribble with my non-dominant hand. And learn how to shoot layups with my left hand.”

Softball started out as Isaacson’s No. 1 sport.

“I’d be the one making diving catches in center field and pegging the runner home,” she said.

“I think I would have been a good soccer player if they had it for us. I was fast and would have loved it. I was sad I never got to play.”

Despite starting at guard as the shortest player on Niles West under coach Arlene Mulder – later longtime mayor of Arlington Heights — then-Lincolnwood resident Isaacson found herself on the bench and out of new coach Gene Earl’s core rotation for the 1978-79 season.  Earl’s only Jewish player thus had a front-row view for the school’s improbable, stirring run to the state girls basketball championship. Isaacson got to play only in the final minute of the title game in Champaign.

Isaacson could have sulked for the next 40 years. But, unbeknownst to her at the time, she was transitioning from jock to observer in that senior, championship season.  The fierce competitor on the court morphed into the gifted writer who’d chronicle Michael Jordan at his peak for the Chicago Tribune, then go back to the future with a 302-page remembrance of 1979, the preceding years and all the people involved on and off the court.

“Everything that I am,” said Northbrook resident Isaacson, “everything we did, the man I married, the way we raised our children, the profession that I chose, that I had the courage to pursue” stemmed from her status as a natural player at just the right, first time in society for girls to chase athletic dreams.

Isaacson, just behind first row (wearing No. 10) and teammates hoisting the state championship trophy in 1979.

“Did I love writing? Yes. Did I love sports? Yes. Would I have become a sportswriter (without playing)? I don’t think so.  The toughness it gave me. The confidence that basketball and team sports gave me. The idea that anything was possible was absolutely a product of the time that I was born and the fortunate circumstances that I matured into as a kid in the Seventies. No question.”

The title run seemed automatic for a book treatment when Isaacson recounted it to colleagues 15 or 20 years later. Eventually, she began fiddling with a manuscript, which took even more years and false starts to complete. Now the finished product, “State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation,” begs for a film or TV adaptation as the book came out as one of the most  praised literary efforts of the summer.

Isaacson focuses the book on her world at the time, a Niles West largely made up of “Wooders” (Lincolnwood residents) and “Grovers” (Morton Grove residents).  Jewish students in the bulk of Skokie had not yet moved over to the school with the original Niles East not closing until 1980.

So “State” is an honest memoir of Isaacson the teen-ager, her middle-class Jewish family on St. Louis Avenue, her friends, her teammates and her coaches. The theme is how a team of achievers coalesced into an unlikely champion while all parties adjusted to the mandated gender equality of Title IX, the federal law signed nearly a decade earlier by President Richard M. Nixon.

Isaacson would go on to write about women’s sports ranging from amateurs to the Olympics – she covered the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing – for the Tribune and ESPN.com. Now she is an instructor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, possessing a street-smarts PhD won in the locker rooms, press boxes and newsrooms of the country. Her Journalism 101 in effect took place in her Lincolnwood home and north suburban gyms.

Recounting family life and the characters of her parents and three much-older siblings was part of Isaacson’s base. Mom Francine Isaacson provided the first connection to sports at her hair salon in West Rogers Park, near the old Temple Beth-El.  Her stylist, Mary, had 10 children.

“My mother correctly predicted the gender of every one of them. She just had a thing,” Isaacson said. “One woman at the shop was the mother of Herb Rudoy, the agent for Artis Gilmore. So we’d get free Bulls tickets from time to time.

“I adored Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier – they were so gritty. I wore No. 4 in junior high. They didn’t have No. 4 in high school, so I became No. 10 – for Bob Love.”

Isaacson became self-motivated in sports with no older female role models. Sister Susie, 12 years older than Isaacson, was a “child of the Sixties” and loved the Beatles. “She didn’t happen to have an interest in sports,” Missy said. “She went to high school, dreamed of meeting a guy and getting married. She was just ensconced in this warm, loving Jewish home and neighborhood. She didn’t have any notions of being athletic or playing sports. She met her husband at 20, got married at 21.

“She would dress me up and put makeup on me. She was desperately trying to make me into a girl and send me on my way. I always had a short, pixie haircut. After she put makeup on me, I went into the kitchen, with my brothers sitting there. My mom takes one look at me and says, ‘She looks like a hooker.’ My brothers fall down laughing.”

Francine was the one-liner comic in the family, “totally hilarious.”  Brothers Barry and Richard were 10 and eight years older, respectively, and were more of Missy’s role models playing youth baseball.

“I was the accident,” Isaacson said. “My mother would spin a whole tale to say it was not an accident, that I was conceived during John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. I was a Sept. 1961 baby.”

Isaacson dreamed big dreams as she played basketball and softball as the runt-ish jock.  “My only goal was the Olympics,” she said. “I’m four-feet-nothing, probably 50 pounds and I dreamed of being on the U.S. Olympic team.”  But reality began to hit her in high school when she topped out at her present height. Big-time college athletics likely were out.

Instead, Isaacson concentrated on being the best high-school player possible while forging friendships. One was with top athlete Shirley Cohen, one year older.  She was the daughter of an Egyptian Jewish father and Lebanese Jewish mother.  Cohen and Isaacson both joined coach Mulder in watching the state girls’ tournament in Champaign in 1977 after Niles West lost in the super-sectionals.

“Shirley’s mom was not thrilled because it was the night of Seder,” Isaacson said. “But Shirley promised her she’d observe Passover.  Mrs. Mulder was horrified because she was always trying to please our parents and always worried what they thought of her. So she says we’ll have a Seder.

“So we stop at a truck stop, and Mrs. Mulder convinces them to give us wine. So we have this makeshift Seder and we’re singing ‘Dayenu.’”

On the team bus around holiday time, the players sang Christmas songs. For balance, Isaacson threw in a Chanukah song. But “State” gets serious when Isaacson reacted to her loss of playing time as a senior under first-year coach Earl.

“I had it in my head that my coach didn’t like me,” she said. “In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for a Lincolnwood kid to accuse a teacher of being anti-Semitic.  We kind of threw that around loosely. If you got a bad grade in class, he must be anti-Semitic.

“I told my best friend Peggy that Earl must not like Jews because I was not playing. I’m singing a Chanukah song, ‘Dreidel   Dreidel  Dreidel’ at the back of the bus. He gets up and screams ‘Shut up,’ just because he wanted to get our attention, not because I was singing.  I knew that in my heart, but Peggy whispered ‘Jew hater.’ I asked him (decades) later if he had heard it, and he said he didn’t.

“I remember feeling then that she was saying what I was thinking.  For a moment I thought, ‘Go Peg.’  But then I was filled with regret at how heavy that accusation was. I knew in my heart Gene Earl was no more anti-Semitic than Peggy was.  It was a turning point in the book, as I gave (Earl) a chance after that. I never threw around that accusation again.”

When she was covering the Bulls for the Tribune, Missy established good rapport with backup guard Steve Kerr and head coach Phil Jackson during the Bulls’ second threepeat in the Nineties.

“I loved reading ‘State,’” Kerr writes in an endorsement for the book. “We had many discussions about our love of basketball. The topic of her state title-winning team came up now and then, and I knew she was proud of it. But not until now, after reading her fantastic book, did I realize HOW much basketball meant to her. This is a beautiful story of basketball and life.”

Jackson wrote a “lovely e-mail, wishing he could write a blurb for the book,” Isaacson said. “But he had a fast rule from years ago, feeling he was misled by an author. But it was a really genuinely sweet, happy e-mail encouraging me. He said things to me he wouldn’t have said back in the day.”

Isaacson does not try to take advantage of her past rapport with Jordan, now majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. “He’s texted me back from time to time, but we don’t chit-chat,” Isaacson said. The pair hugged at a three-peat team reunion.

Despite her inside-out basketball knowledge, Isaacson felt she struck a careful balance between her competitive background and her status as a reporter in covering the Jordanaires.

“I never pretended like I knew more than them,” she said. “I think sometimes men would make that mistake. And Phil for one would sniff that out. If some radio guy – I won’t name names — would start spouting (expertise), Phil would turn his head slowly away from the guy and acted like ‘Don’t come here with that.’ He didn’t suffer fools and didn’t suffer know-it-alls. 

“I always came at it like I wanted to learn. They all liked talking about basketball. In Michael’s case, I had wonderful talks about his kids. You find common ground. He adored his kids.  Whenever someone is that talented, we underestimate his basketball IQ.  They had court vision. It’s a gift that transcends mental and physical.”

And so, as she counsels would-be journalists at Medill, Isaacson tells of a conversational style that puts the reporter on a human-to-human basis.  Again, she draws on a good base that began at Niles West.

“I have always prided myself on my interviewing,” she said. “My job was to get them to open up, to get them to tell you some truth they weren’t telling someone else.  Teaching interviewing is finding that common ground where they will open up to you.

“I played in high school and so interviewing a Bulls player, it was just two high school basketball kids, gym rats, not an annoying reporter and a multi-millionaire athlete. That’s what it’s all about.”

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