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'World Class' collects the work of late sports journalist Grant Wahl

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When Brandi Chastain scored her iconic penalty kick to win the Women's World Cup for the U.S. in 1999, Grant Wahl wrote the cover story for Sports Illustrated. When a then-17-year-old high school basketball player named LeBron James huddled and chatted with Michael Jordan in the bowels of a basketball arena, Grant Wahl was there, taking notes and turning it into the lead of a prophetic feature story on the soon-to-be-global superstar. And decades later, when he left Sports Illustrated and struck out on his own, Grant Wahl was there, asking hard questions many others wanted to ignore about the human rights and ethical quandaries surrounding the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Wahl died while covering that World Cup, suffering an aortic aneurysm in the press box during a quarterfinal match. Now, two years later, a new book titled "World Class" collects Wahl's best journalism. Wahl's widow, Dr. Celine Gounder, as well as his longtime editor Mark Mravic, helped put the book together and join me now to talk about it. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARK MRAVIC: Great to be here.

CELINE GOUNDER: It's great to be here.

DETROW: Celine, I wanted to just start - you know, you wrote in the foreword that it was hard to go back and read these pieces at times, that it would bring you back to specific moments in your life when he was reporting and writing them. Is there any particular story that that, you know, having helped put this book out there, sticks in your mind the most?

MRAVIC: You know, I think perhaps the night that the French won the 1998 World Cup. I was in Paris with Grant, and I knew he was going to be on deadline to write the story. And I was sitting at our apartment that we had in the (speaking French) in Paris at the time. And he was not getting home, not getting home and didn't have a cellphone. You know, this is pre-cellphone days. And I was so worried, you know, where was Grant? The streets were full of celebrating Parisians. You couldn't really get around.

And as it turned out, Grant ended up having to walk from the (speaking French) all the way back to where we were staying. He had left his laptop behind and had no other way to get back because, you know, again, there were so many people celebrating in the streets. And he gets back. And he had been composing the entire article in his head on his way back over several hours, and then just sat down and pounded it out. And it ended up being really an amazing piece. You know, to be able to do that was really quite astounding.

DETROW: That's really interesting because, Mark, I had actually singled out that article, and I was hoping you could read us the lede of that piece because there's such a theme throughout this collection and in the introduction to them about how lede writing was so important to him, how he put so much thought into it. And this one - just, first of all, it's an amazing lede. It's so evocative. And on top of that, he was - what? - I think 24 years old and writing on an incredibly tight deadline.

MRAVIC: Right, 24 years old. And, you know, the other two SI writers, the more senior writers, had left the tournament after the U.S. was eliminated. And it was really the editors in New York taking a big chance on a 24-year-old to file overnight. And when, you know, when the story lands on your desk and you read a lede like that, you're just like, all right, we're good, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

MRAVIC: And it really cemented him - you know, he cemented himself right then as, like, Sports Illustrated soccer writer. So yeah, I can read the lede if you'd like. (Reading) In Saint-Denis, the Paris suburb where the French once buried their kings, a new one ascended last week. Zinedine Zidane certainly doesn't look the part. He's quiet, usually gazing down at the ground. He's going prematurely bald. He can appear slow and sometimes clumsy. At one point, on his way through the interview room at the Stade de France after the World Cup final on Sunday, he stumbled on the carpet like a young girl wearing her first high heels. Give Zidane a ball and put him on a soccer field, though, and he becomes the Baryshnikov of the midfield - deftly toe-poking a pass in one direction, gamely looping a long ball on the other, holding his head regally erect all the while. It should be noted that Zizou, as he is known, never trips on grass.

DETROW: Mark, how - I mean, some of the articles in here are obvious, but there was a lot to choose from. How did you and Alexander Wolff, who also edited this, go about organizing this?

MRAVIC: Between the two of us, we kind of had an idea of what we wanted, but, you know, we really collected everything under his byline that he had ever published at Sports Illustrated. And Alex went back to his Princeton days to find sort of publishable gems from his time as a, you know, at The Daily Princetonian. And then I worked with him on his Substack site. So - and honestly, discovering things that we'd either forgotten about or just like, oh, yeah, I remember he became a celebrity in Korea during the 2002 World Cup because he wrote a love letter to the country, to the host country - those kinds of things. So it was, you know, it was as much an experience of discovery as it was knowing what we were looking for.

DETROW: You mentioned that a couple of the pieces in here go back to his college days. And, Celine, I wanted to ask you about one of them. This is a profile he wrote of a mentor of his, war correspondent Gloria Emerson. And the book talks about how, not only did he write this, but he would go back and reread it before every big assignment. Can you tell us about that article and why it was so important to him through the years?

GOUNDER: Yeah. This was the one piece Alex and Mark had approached me about doing the anthology, and this was the one piece I asked that they absolutely had to include. This was a profile of Gloria Emerson, one of the only female war correspondents for The New York Times in Vietnam. She was a very tough lady, had a very strong sense of moral outrage and, frankly, never recovered from her time in Vietnam. She was a visiting professor at Princeton, and she actually gave Grant his worst grade while at Princeton.

And, you know, I think he really took a lot away from her mentorship, learning how to write, the importance of ethics in your writing and what you stand for. And they became close friends. You know, Sundays he would go - and eventually, I would tag along - to bring her a carton of Marlboro cigarettes and coffee and jelly doughnuts. And we would hang out and just chat about whatever was in the news at the time. And, you know, it was really meaningful to Grant.

DETROW: There were other details in the various introductions to the pieces, just about how much he lobbied behind the scenes at Sports Illustrated for soccer. You're talking about standing up to big names, standing up to Frank Deford, who, of course, was also a longtime NPR commentator. We heard his soccer takes on our airwaves as well. Can you tell us about some of those behind-the-scenes battles?

MRAVIC: Yeah. I mean, you know, my first real experience with Grant was that World Cup piece in '98 that Celine was highlighting. It was not just, like, a championship game. It was, you know, France had been embroiled in an immigration crisis, and the right-wing nationalists were fighting against immigration. And this was a team - a French team made up, you know, of immigrants and sons of immigrants. So it had a sort of resonance beyond sports, and Grant wanted it on the cover of the magazine. And he on Monday is lobbying very hard to get that story on the cover of the magazine. And the editors put Mike Ditka - you know, in the middle of July, they put an NFL coach on the cover. And, you know, Grant was livid when that happened.

But, you know, over the years, I think Grant, you know, the editors came to trust Grant as a voice for soccer. It wasn't always easy, but he was able to convince the editors, finally, in late 2009, to make him a full-time soccer writer because the game had grown with Grant. And Grant was sort of fundamental in helping the game grow in the United States. So the game had grown with him. And that's really where his stature in the game really just expanded at that point.

DETROW: That's Mark Mravic, as well as Dr. Celine Gounder. Thank you so much for joining us.

GOUNDER: My pleasure.

MRAVIC: Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: The new book is called "World Class." It collects the best work of longtime sports journalist Grant Wahl. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.