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Bob Kravitz Knows You Hate Him
Did you read him today? Iconoclast. Idiot. Heretic. Horse’s ass. Call him what you will—he doesn’t care.
Photo by Tony Valainis
Editor’s Note, August 14, 2014: The Indianapolis Star announced that noted sports columnist Bob Kravitz would be leaving the paper after 14 years to work at television station WTHR-13. The following profile appeared in IM’s August 2008 issue.
You’ve hated him from the moment he strode into town eight years ago—a neurotic, hockey-loving New Yorker who didn’t know gear one about racing, with his face plastered on billboards announcing the paper’s new hotshot sports columnist. Bob Kravitz may have gone to IU, you said, but he could never be a Hoosier. And as if to prove it, within his first month of being here, pen still cold in his hand, he slammed coach Bob Knight for “acting like an arrogant, unrepentant jerk and treating people like dirt.” Since then, you’ve screamed indignity when he called St. Dungy a hypocrite, thrown up your hands when he noted that Kelvin Sampson came with too much baggage, and rolled your eyes when, two years later, he crowed as Sampson was booted in disgrace.
He knows you hate him.
He reads his mail. He takes your calls. He looks at almost every single sarcastic and anonymous comment you leave beneath his stories on the Star’s website. The ones calling him “Krapitz” and “Captain Obvious.” The ones pleading, “Can we please trade Bob Kravitz to The Detroit Free Press for a future high school journalism student to be named later?”
He knows you hate him.
And he loves it.
He’s worked his entire life to get here. To be the man. He’s got the bald spots, the bulging gut, the zipper scar on his chest, the ego beaten to callus, and the ever-nagging self-doubt to prove it. And now that this city, his city, is a Super Bowl city, Kravitz sits poised to tackle bigger, tougher, and more controversial subjects. To make you madder than ever. His columns are at the height of their (un)popularity. When ESPN looks to Indy for news, they look to him. Each evening, on your drive home, he can beam opinion after opinion into your car, right in your ear for three hours on the radio.
So you think you hate Bob Kravitz now? Just wait.
He is nervous, pacing in place beside his parked golf cart, his eyes can’t focus on a target. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. His tee time is looming, and he hasn’t played golf in months. He’s one of the so-called celebrities at this charity tournament, but he doesn’t feel famous. Or even comfortable. His mouth is dry. “I don’t handle stress well,” says Kravitz.
Khaki-clad, short and stocky, balding beneath a tattered III Hockey Club ball cap, he looks wholly out of place amid the tall and tan corporate execs who dished out $500 to pair up with the likes of Bobby Rahal, Tony George, and … Bob Kravitz, here on this crisp morning at Brickyard Crossing. “The worst thing about these tournaments is that you’re the celebrity, and they don’t know who you are, and they don’t care,” he says. “And then on top of that, you suck.”
He resolves to walk into the clubhouse, winding around the empty tables toward the Tommy Bahama Rum stand in the back. He looks at two fountains, the one on the left holding a pink citrus rum punch, the one on the right, silver mojito. He points at the punch: “This one looks more breakfast-y.” He sips and grimaces.
Kravitz finds a seat at a table of other sportswriters, fellow celebrities who look as unaccustomed to 9 a.m. as he does. He takes a few more sips, enough to calm the nerves, and sets the sweating glass aside.
Although he has been something of a local celebrity since he arrived, 2008 has been a big year for Bob Kravitz. In January he hit the airwaves with No Experience Necessary with Kravitz and Eddie, a sports talk-radio show on the new local ESPN affiliate WFNI-AM 1070 (a station owned by Emmis Communications, parent company of this magazine). That month, when Tony Dungy announced he was staying on as coach of the Colts despite having already moved his wife and four kids—three of whom are in grade school or younger—to Florida, one of his columns set the switchboards ablaze. Kravitz had criticized Dungy, a chief spokesperson for the All Pro Dad program designed to make men better fathers, and questioned his priorities. “I am uncomfortable,” Kravitz wrote, “because I can’t talk myself out of writing the following words, words that will incur the near-universal wrath of a city … Dungy has revealed himself as something of a hypocrite.” The wrath came by way of mail and call-ins to the radio show, sone crying for Kravitz’s immediate termination. The Star’s editor, Dennis Ryerson, felt compelled to write a letter in support of his columnist.
Then in February, when reports emerged that IU head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson had again violated NCAA recruiting regulations. Kravitz leaped into the melee. He had vehemently opposed Sampson’s hiring two years before and now demanded the coach’s head in a series of columns that ran as the drama played out. Feb. 14: “This is what happens when you hire sleaze”; Feb. 16: “So now, we wait. We wait for this joke of an investigation … to recommend Sampson’s firing”; Feb. 20: “IU has to … cut ties with Sampson and move on”; and Feb. 23, the day after Sampson was finally sacked: “From start to finish, it was an unholy mess that the people at IU brought upon themselves.”
Kravitz drew fire not only from readers but from fellow journalists, who accused him of using an off-the-record conversation he had had with Sampson when the coach first got to Bloomington.
Regardless of how sacred the cow is, be it Dungy, Knight, or IU’s hallowed hoops program, Kravitz has shown the willingness, if not outright eagerness, to attack people’s perceptions and stir up controversy. That upstart mindset has brought fortune, glory, and invites to celebrity golf tournaments. But it has also come with a measure of woe. At age 48, Kravitz’s body is a collection of pinched nerves and backaches—part pressures of deadlines past, part recreational hockey. For decades, he has led the junk-food-eating, adrenaline-fueled life of a sportswriter, which ultimately resulted in a 2006 heart attack. He had four stents implanted in the arteries near his heart.
When he looks at the columns he submitted to last year’s Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest—where he garnered honorable mention among the top columnists in the country—the five that stood out among the 200-plus he wrote that year were written on days when he felt well. Five days out of 200. “I haven’t come close to doing my best work,” he says. “I don’t think Indianapolis has seen the best of me.”
There was always something magical about the newspaper. When he was growing up on Long Island, Kravitz remembers, his father would come home on the train from work, a bundle of newspapers under his arm, and growl at his son: “Did you see what that asshole Dick Young wrote today?”
Young was a legendary, brash sports columnist for the New York Daily News, a man who was always able to stir reaction from his readers—an early model for young Kravitz. Whether poring over Young’s columns or following the coverage of his beloved New York Islanders, Kravitz wrapped himself in the sports pages. His father was always a handy sounding board for discussion. “It was a big thing,” Kravitz says. “We’d always talk about whatever column. It was always something I kind of wanted to do.”
While he says he lacked “inherent athleticism,” that did not deter him from playing sports. His passion was hockey, and he closely followed the NHL’s Islanders, led by defenseman Denis Potvin and forward Bob Nystrom, the Islanders rapidly became competitive in the league, and inspired young Kravitz to take to the ice as a goalie. His family moved to Chicago when he was a junior in high school, but when it came time to choose a journalism school, he didn’t want Northwestern. Nor Michigan State. Nor Missouri. It was a visit to Bloomington that won his heart. “I thought it would be cool to cover Bob Knight and Division I sports,” he says. “They also had a hockey club, which allowed me to keep playing.”
At IU, when Kravitz wasn’t on the ice, he was chasing down leads for the Indiana Daily Student, where he quickly became a stalwart respected by his peers for his eagerness and reporting skill. But while he had the admiration of his classmates, Kravitz didn’t fare as well in his relationship with Coach Knight. Kravitz first met Knight in the coach’s office after practice. “I walk in, and Knight just comes out of the shower and sits in this big chair, buck naked,” Kravitz remembers. “He said, ‘If you’ve got something that involves me and you need my quote, don’t be a pussy. You come in and ask me,’” says Kravitz.
Sound advice. Until Kravitz actually tried it. He was working on a story about three IU players who had been kicked off the team the previous year for allegedly smoking marijuana. He had talked to two of the players. Now he needed Knight’s response. “Everyone at the paper was telling me, ‘Don’t go down there. Don’t do it. Don’t ask. Don’t. Don’t,’” Kravitz says. “But I didn’t think it was a negative story.” So he went. But before he could finish his first question, Knight blew up in a spray of screaming and spit five inches from the young reporter’s face. After the next game, Kravitz was forbidden entrance to the locker room, and when he tried to ask Knight a question at the postgame press conference, the coach just looked over his head and asked rhetorically if anyone else had a question. “I was completely on the outs with Knight,” Kravitz says. “But it was good. It taught me to always be ready to back up what you’re saying. Confrontation is part of the business.”
Even at that early stage, Kravitz was all about confrontation. Tim Franklin was editor of the Daily Student when Kravitz worked there, and the two became friends and later roommates. “Here was this swaggering, swashbuckling, supremely confident and talented, and, dare I say, somewhat brash kid,” Franklin says. He remembers the paper receiving plenty of hostile calls and letters to the editor in response to things Kravitz wrote. “He never hesitated to tell it like it was,” says Franklin, now editor of the Baltimore Sun. “He was always provocative, but he reported hard.” Franklin says Kravitz did everything full tilt, belly-flopping into the life of the Oscar Madison style of sportswriter. “There was moldy food in the fridge, clothes on the floor, and he was never there, always at the paper, on the road covering events, or playing hockey.” And when he wasn’t doing those things, he was holding court at Nick’s English Hut. “He could pound ’em back,” Franklin says. “He had all the inside information about Indiana basketball. You were always lucky to be at the table with Kravitz.”
While at IU, Kravitz interned at the Knoxville News-Sentinel and the Boston Globe. After graduating in 1982, he did turns in Cincinnati, New Jersey, and San Diego before landing at the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press. There he got to travel with the teams, write what he wanted and as long as he wanted. It was also where, in 1986, a 26-year-old Kravitz got the call-up to Sports Illustrated, every sportswriter’s dream job.
It should have been so perfect. Here was Bob Kravitz, young, hungry, and talented, returning to New York, the place he was born, to work for the most important sports publication in the world. On top of that, he was writing about hockey, the sport he knew, he played, he adored.
But hockey was Kravitz’s curse. His boss at SI was Mark Mulvoy, a Bostonian who had been the magazine’s NHL beat writer. “Kravitz was one of what seemed like a half-dozen people during the Mulvoy era who tried in vain to cover hockey in a manner that pleased the boss,” says one of Kravitz’s former SI co-workers. “An impossible task, sort of like being Martha Stewart’s housekeeper.”
For his part, Mulvoy remembers Kravitz as a newspaper writer who struggled to translate to magazines. “He was trying to figure out who he was as a writer,” Mulvoy says. “A lot of guys came to Sports Illustrated and wanted to write like (Frank) Deford and (Dan) Jenkins. Kravitz was not without talent. But he was fighting himself, trying too hard to be something he wasn’t.”
The editing, Kravitz says, was so heavy-handed that he didn’t read his stories for months so he could forget what he had originally written, lessening the hurt. He went weeks without sleep. “When you are 26 and single, your whole self-image is tied into what you are doing at work,” says Kravitz. “So when that crumbled, I was a bit of a mess.”
Finally, after two hard years, Kravitz left SI. “I always think of it as a firing,” he says. “But it was really kind of a mutual thing because I wasn’t happy there.”
He wasn’t happy in the weeks following his departure, either. He fell into a self-destructive pattern, staying out too late, drinking and hanging out and partying all night. “It was an empty, shitty time,” he says. “I remember standing in an unemployment line when my checks ran out. I was in Brooklyn or the Bronx or somewhere and I was like, ‘Holy shit, what happened?’”
One good thing that happened during Kravitz’s troubled tenure at SI was that he met his future wife, Cathy, in a Mexican restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He asked her out. She said no. Her roommate talked her into saying yes. He took her to some hockey games. Both rabid Mets fans, they watched Game 6 of the 1986 World Series—the famous Buckner E3 game—together. When he left the magazine and eventually New York to work as a backup sports columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and get his professional life back together, Cathy followed, and soon the two were married.
As soon as they returned from their honeymoon in 1990, they left for Denver, where Kravitz had accepted a job as a columnist at the Rocky Mountain News.
Denver in the 1990s was the Wild West for sportswriters. The city’s two existing big-league teams (the NBA Nuggets and the NFL Broncos) were soon joined by baseball’s Rockies in 1994 and hockey’s Avalanche in 1996. And fighting over every scrap, lead, and scoop from these teams were reporters and columnists from two prominent newspapers: the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. “Aside from maybe Chicago and New York, that was the last great newspaper war,” Kravitz says. “It was just really fun getting up every morning to see what the other guy had. It was a fight to the death.” Kravitz remembers that he’d routinely make himself be seen in the locker room talking to players and coaches he had no intention of writing about just to throw other reporters off scent. “They did the same to me,” he says. “It was very cutthroat, but it was very fun. There was nothing like beating the other guy.”
That competitive atmosphere fueled a train of reporters who came and went throughout the decade. But it didn’t take long for those on the scene to realize Kravitz had staying power. “There are a lot of columnists who just offer opinions,” says Woody Paige, sports columnist at the Post since 1981. “But Bob had a solid reporting background, and he was able to provide scoops in his columns.”
Though the fast pace wore on him, Kravitz came into his own in Denver. He wrote his first book, Mile High Madness (Crown Publishing, 1994), which followed the Rockies through their inaugural season. In 1999, he took third in the APSE awards in column writing, beating out perennial winner Mitch Albom. Along the way, he and Cathy had two daughters. But by the end of the decade, Kravitz saw signs that it might be time to move on. His health was declining, and he was suffering from fatigue—so much so that he actually considered moving to news to escape the extensive travel and late-night deadlines of the sports beat.
Another ailing part of Kravitz was his pride. Even though he was a respected veteran writer, and he had a national deal with ESPN The Magazine to write five hockey stories a year, he felt overshadowed by others like Paige who had their own local radio shows and TV segments. “I felt like I wanted to be the guy,” Kravitz says. That’s about the time Kravitz got a call from an old friend who would offer him a chance to be just that.
Tim Franklin was looking for a new face for the Star. In 2000, Franklin returned to Indiana to take the top editorial position at his home-state paper, and one of his first moves was to look for a sports columnist, a headliner. His attention turned to his old odd-couple roommate from college. By that time, “Kravitz was an unquestioned star,” Franklin says. “He was one of the top five sports columnists in the nation.”
Kravitz got the call from Franklin just before he came to Indy for the Final Four that April. “I was a medium-sized fish in a big pond in Denver,” Kravitz says. “They wanted me to be on a billboard in Indy. And I liked the paycheck. I’m like everybody else, you know—we all want to be stroked a little bit.”
He took the deal. But before Kravitz could even load up the truck to leave Denver, Franklin called him again with word that his new employers, the Pulliams, had sold the paper to Gannett. “I remember making myself a vodka tonic that was 99 percent vodka,” Kravitz says. “I just sat out in my backyard thinking, ‘Now what?’” He decided to follow through and take his chances.
The Bob Kravitz billboards reading “No rules, just write” went up in Indy. His first column ran on August 6, 2000. And another old friend was waiting for him. A little over a month after Kravitz’s arrival, Bob Knight was fired from IU. “How fitting that Knight’s final victim was himself,” was the title of Kravitz’s column, in which he declared, “And now the reign of terror is over.” While surely cathartic for Kravitz, his writing on the ouster of his old nemesis drew the ire of the legions of Knight fans. In other words, Kravitz was off to the right start. “He was a cold glass of water in the face to a lot of readers,” Franklin says.
The same might have been said for Kravitz’s reception by some at the paper. While Franklin remembers that generally, people at the Star were happy that management was investing in the sports section, Kravitz recalls some friction with many staffers, including the paper’s long-time sports columnist, Bill Benner. After all, now it was Kravitz on the billboards; Kravitz coming in with the big salary (rumored to be six figures); and Kravitz who was now off to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Olympics. “I was hoping we could work together,” Kravitz says of Benner. “But he didn’t feel that way. I think he felt that he would be the number two, and I can understand his frustration.” Benner, who declined to comment for this story, left the paper before the end of the year, and though the paper has hired two replacements, no one has ever stuck.
Kravitz is the man, though he has seen the downside of that title. He’s always on call for breaking news, for instance, which has allowed him little time to show his breadth and write softer, more feature-esque columns like most of his colleagues. From 2003 to 2006, Kravitz was left off of the APSE list of award winners.
And the stress has been considerable. In 2006, while scouring downtown Torino, Italy, for souvenirs for his two girls from the Winter Olympics, Kravitz broke down. Despite the cold weather, he was sweating incessantly. His chest was tight, he couldn’t sleep. During a layover in Paris, several strangers commented that he looked pale. He got home and tried to work through it, but he finally called his doctor and was summoned to the hospital. He underwent surgery to insert stents to clear blockages in his arteries. Doctors told him he was very close to a catastrophic heart attack. He was 46 years old.
Less than three weeks later, he wrote a column about his scare and his surgery: “I was sitting in a room at the Indiana Heart Hospital,” he wrote, “And the nurse who was preparing to shave an area I never intended to shave in this lifetime said, ‘Why are you always dissing Purdue football?’”
Recovery was slow. Though he went back to work less than three weeks later, he had no energy. His head was cloudy. People would talk to him, but he just couldn’t hear, couldn’t process the words, like he was swimming in the conversation. “Every day was a challenge to get out of bed,” Kravitz says. “It was a challenge to make a couple of phone calls.” He repeatedly turned down interview requests from sports radio, suffered panic attacks when he was asked to appear on national TV. “I was virtually, socially, in hiding for a couple of years,” he says. “It was just me and my wife and my kids, and there were a lot of days I had a hard time leaving the house.”
But with the support of his family, Kravitz has emerged. He got his doctor’s clearance to work out harder—still no hockey, though that’s the goal. He returned to the ranks of the APSE award winners with an honorable mention in 2007. And in 2008, amid the Dungy and Sampson controversies, as his city was finally named Super Bowl host, Kravitz appears to be sharper and hungrier than ever. So much so, that he decided dedicating 15 more hours a week to pissing people off with his unconventional opinions on his own radio show was a good idea. “It was the money,” he jokes. “It was all about the money.”
Thus far, the show has proven a lively pairing of the affable Eddie White, a former sports-marketing executive, and the expert Kravitz, but overall No Experience Necessary is still a work in progress. In May, ratings showed that a competing drive-time show on WNDE-AM 1260 still led the time slot among the target demographic. Nevertheless, Kravitz as a commodity has never been stronger or more recognizable. He’s getting stopped on the street more and more—and people are actually nice to him. “They tell me, ‘I listen to the show. You’re not as big of an asshole as I thought you were,’” he says.
Eddie White has been at his desk for two hours when Kravitz walks in, dragging his laptop case on wheels behind him. It’s 2:15 p.m. They’re on the air in 45 minutes.
Their cubicles on the sixth floor of the Emmis building are side-by-side. White’s looks like the desk of someone who works there—pictures in frames and pinned to the wall, stacks of papers and magazines, a collection of bobble-head dolls taking up any spare real estate. Kravitz’s is practically bare. Just a desktop computer, some scattered papers, a hockey puck, and a borrowed stapler labeled “Nancy.” Kravitz doesn’t even have a desk at the Star. He drags his office along with him in that black leather laptop case, the one he is terrified of leaving somewhere, like he’s left his BlackBerry, his wallet, his tape recorder so many times before. “Don’t let me forget my computer,” he says constantly to others and to himself. “Don’t let me forget it.”
Kravitz sits down and kicks his feet up on the desk, revealing ankle socks that are only slightly whiter than the hairy legs above. “I worked out, drove down to Bloomington, went to the Colts complex, now I’ve gotta do the show, and then write a column,” he says, exasperated.
White doesn’t even look over. “Let me hum the theme to Brian’s Song,” he says.
Pursing his lips, he goes into a dramatic mock trumpet solo and periodically breaks in with a high whiny voice. “I have to write a column.”
“I have to talk to Bill Polian.”
“I have to watch the Colts.”
“Jumping Mary and Joseph, you’d think he was dying of cancer.”
Kravitz laughs, as he clicks on his computer and offers his first official opinion of the day: “Mark Cuban is an idiot,” he says. “How do you fire Avery Johnson?”
Before White can respond, a saleswoman barges in to grab Kravitz’s attention.
“I just talked with a man who said he refused to buy a BMW because the dealership ran ads during your show,” she says, delighted with the story.
“They hate us that much,” Kravitz muses. “Or is it just me?”
This article appeared in the August 2008 issue.