Writing for 23 Million

By Alex Kantor

Rick Reilly made the inside back cover of Sports Illustrated into what is arguably the most popular sports column in the world. With more than 23 million readers each week, SI is the platform that sports journalists dream about, and now that Reilly has left the magazine, Phil Taylor ’82 is filling his shoes as part of a small, rotating group of senior columnists who write the admired essay “The Point After.”

After playing junior varsity basketball as a first-year student at Amherst, Taylor was dealt a discouraging but career-defining blow by basketball coach David Hixon ’75. During varsity try-outs in 1979, Hixon told Taylor he was unlikely to see much playing time on varsity, so Taylor decided his time would be better spent writing for The Amherst Student. His first assignment: covering an Amherst-Williams basketball game.

“I remember seeing my byline when the paper came out, and the way that my words seemed so much more impressive when they were accompanied by a headline and photos,” Taylor says.  “I was pretty much hooked on journalism after that.”

Taylor went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism at Stanford before working at the Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News, where he spent the 1989 season as a San Francisco Giants beat writer. That was the year the Giants met the Oakland Athletics in a “Battle of the Bay Bridge” World Series. That was also the year that an earthquake shook Candlestick Park minutes before the scheduled start of game three.

Taylor recalls “being in the press box and seeing the stadium actually swaying in front of my eyes.” With the series postponed, Taylor covered the earthquake from the stadium—with the power out. “All of the reporters were writing stories by the glow of our headlights in the parking lot,” Taylor says.

It was his unique coverage of the 1989 series that grabbed the attention of Frank Deford, a legendary sportswriter who was starting an all-sports newspaper called The National. Taylor went to work for Deford in 1990 as the national college basketball writer, and while the venture lasted only a year, it was long enough for the SI editors to take notice and offer him a job.

Nearly two decades later, Taylor writes for the intelligent reader. “Whether I’m writing about the clash of egos between Kobe Bryant and Shaquillle O’Neal or a 75-year-old former Olympian who’s now struggling with Alzheimer’s, I almost always find myself writing about themes that are simply human, that aren’t restricted solely to sports,” he says.