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Jackie MacMullan, Who Paved The Way For Women Sportswriters, Retires After 4 Decades

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Careers that span four decades are rare in sports journalism, even more rare for women. So take a moment to consider the career of Jackie MacMullan. She's been covering sports for The Boston Globe starting in 1982, then Sports Illustrated, then on to ESPN. She's covered the New England Patriots, the Boston Celtics. She is especially known for her reporting and her columns on the NBA. Well, this week she is retiring. Here's part of what she said on Tuesday.

JACKIE MACMULLAN: Brett Dennen has a song called "See The World," and in it, in that song, he says, I'm planting trees that I won't climb. And, you know, that's me. That's me.

KELLY: Well, Jackie MacMullan - Jackie Mac, as her colleagues call her - joins us now. Welcome. And may I say congratulations?

MACMULLAN: Thank you, Mary Louise. I'm happy to be here.

KELLY: Tell me what you meant there - planting trees that I won't climb.

MACMULLAN: Well, it's funny. I heard the song on the way down. I've heard it before. And I always keyed in on that line because I thought it was sort of interesting. And as I was driving down from my last day, I thought, well, I guess that's what I've done. I've laid the groundwork for some things that I'm just not going to see through now. And some of that are story ideas. Some of that is working with young writers and journalists and television personalities that I will no longer be working with so I won't see the fruits of all of their labor. And so to me, it just meant I've - hope I've planted a lot of trees. I hope I've planted some ideas and some thoughts that got people to sit up and listen.

KELLY: I will say it struck me reading the many tributes that are pouring into you everybody talks about what a great sports journalist you are. And then, if not before, they say what a great mentor you've been, how much it has mattered to you to bring people along with you to pave that trail.

MACMULLAN: Well, I think it's because, you know, when I started out in the business, there were just so few women. And so my mentors were all men at The Boston Globe when I worked there. But then, as I went along in my career, there were all these incredibly talented young women that were just looking for a little guidance. And it was my pleasure to provide that guidance. It was a joy for me to provide that guidance. It was something I did at The Globe. I was an associate editor there by the time I left, and I think I enjoyed it almost as much as writing my own stories in time.

KELLY: Yeah. Do you have women or girls who come up to you and say, you know, I saw you were doing it, and it made me think, hey, maybe I could do that, too?

MACMULLAN: Well, it's funny. They never said it to me till yesterday, when I retired.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MACMULLAN: You know, one of them is just a fantastic young woman who's so incredibly talented. Her name is Monica McNutt. She was a basketball player at Georgetown. I knew of her. I knew of her game, followed her a bit. And she told me a story about watching "Around The Horn" with her dad, and she'd say, wow, that's pretty cool. Who's that? And he said, well, come on. That's Jackie MacMullan. If you're going to do that, you've got to figure out who she is. You know, it was kind of a fun story.

So I - but I think there are so many great young women that are in our industry today. Their role models are each other. And that - you know, when I was growing up through the business, there was a young woman named Karen Guregian at The Boston Herald at the same time I was at The Boston Globe. And it was wonderful when I ran into her because we were the same age, and so - but those kinships were few and far between just because there weren't that many of us.

KELLY: Before we move on from this, did being a woman change how you covered sports, how you covered the NBA?

MACMULLAN: No. I don't think so. One of the great - I always joke one of the great advantages I had was I was working a very, very tough sports market. Boston's a really tough city. And, well, my name was Jackie MacMullan. So everybody thought I was an Irish Catholic guy from Southie when, in fact, I was actually, you know, a Protestant woman who was born in Manhasset. So you know, I wrote under this name. It's my name. I wasn't a pseudonym, but, yeah, I think it gave me the benefit of people deciding, well, this guy really stinks, or, this guy's not bad. He knows what he's talking about. If my name was Linda MacMullan, you know, maybe my journey would've been a little different. We'll never know.

KELLY: Yeah. You obviously made an impression. And the other thing that I keep reading in every tribute that people are paying to you this week is that you earned the respect of the athletes you covered not because you were a woman, not despite of being a woman but just because you wrote well. You met your deadline. You told the story straight. You know, NBA legends weighing in about you this week - that must feel good after all those years.

MACMULLAN: Well, you never knew what people were thinking - right? - when you're interviewing them or trying to do your job. So I really just stuck to the job, especially when I was younger. I didn't make a lot of small talk. I certainly never lingered in the locker room. I never thought that would be a good look. I just never wanted to put myself in a position where I - people could even suggest that I was being compromised. So it took me a bit longer to develop personal relationships with some of the people I covered, but I think, in a way, it benefited me.

You know, I remember asking Larry Bird once years and years and years later, after I was on my second book with him - I said, why did you choose me to do this book? Because I couldn't believe it. And he said, well, you came early, and you stayed late. And I could relate to that. And you knew basketball, and that was good enough for me. I didn't really care if you were a man or a guy or what. I didn't care. And I think that's probably just how most of them felt. Look, I could be tough on them. Just because I was a woman didn't mean I was not going to be tough on them. And they grew to knew that pretty quickly.

KELLY: So why retire now?

MACMULLAN: You know, this job is - it takes a lot. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of concentration. And I found that I just didn't have the enthusiasm that I knew I would need to keep going. And then I started thinking, OK, well, what else is it that I'm really trying to do? What other story do I need to do for ESPN? How many more "Around The Horn" appearances do I really need? And, you know, I have elderly parents - 90 and 96. They moved up here from Florida, and I wasn't able to ever see them. And that was a lousy feeling. You know, and I have a daughter who lives in Denver, and she calls me up and says, Mom, you know, Lake Street Dive's playing at Red Rocks, and I want to go. And my husband's semiretired, and I just want to step back and enjoy life a little bit.

KELLY: I don't know. I mean, I don't know if you've thought about it this way, but I suppose the athletes you cover, you know, they are all in as long as they are able to be all in in their career. And then they step back and figure out the next chapter. And it sounds like, in a way, you're following that arc yourself.

MACMULLAN: I think that's entirely accurate. And I do find as I get older - when I first started in this business, I was young enough to be the athletes. And then I got to be a point where I could be their mom. And now I'm up to their grandmother, and that just feels like it's time to go out on my own terms.

KELLY: Time to rest the news.

MACMULLAN: Yeah - before someone tries to put me in a wheelchair and wheel me out.

KELLY: (Laughter) Last question - if you could sit down and have an interview with 15-year-old Jackie Mac, what would you ask? What would you tell her?

MACMULLAN: Oh, I would tell her to be a lot more fearless. You know, when I was 15 years old, I went to Westwood High School in Westwood, Mass., and they had an amazing girls' basketball team that never lost. They just won game after game. And every year, I went to the doorway in my Chuck Taylors to go try out for the team, and every year, I was too nervous to go in and do it. So I finally did at the end of my high school career, but I wasted a lot of good years. I grew to be someone that was confident and willing to take chances, but I had to grow into that. So if I was talking to my 15-year-old self, I would say, don't wait. Just jump right in.

KELLY: Go get them.

MACMULLAN: Exactly.

KELLY: Jackie MacMullan, aka Jackie Mac - she is retiring this week after nearly four decades covering sports for The Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. This has been such a pleasure. Thank you.

MACMULLAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRETT DENNEN'S "SEE THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.