For the love of sports

Area native, Fenwick grad, makes career out of covering the pros

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By MARTY FARMER

It's probably safe to assume that Brian Hanley doesn't have a whole lot in common with Michael Jordan, but then again who does have anything in common with the NBA's global icon? Even the inimitable Magic Johnson once said about M.J., "There's Michael Jordan and then there is the rest of us."

For all their dissimilarities, Jordan and Hanley share two immutable truths: Both men were cut from high school sports teams, and yet both are enjoying long, successful careers in pro sports. The key number for both enduring sports personalities has been "23." Of course, it's Jordan's first jersey number (now hanging from the rafters at the United Center), but it's also the number of years Hanley has honed his craft as a sportswriter at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Like Jordan, Hanley transformed a life-long love of sports into a full-fledged, versatile profession. A native of the Oak Park and River Forest area, Hanley currently works as the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for the Sun-Times, along with co-hosting a sports radio talk show on The Score 670 with fellow Sun-Times scribe Mike Mulligan.

"Mike [Mulligan] and I are a lot alike in that we are both Irish Catholic," Hanley said. "He's a proud Southside Irishman who is a terrific talent and great storyteller. My approach toward sportswriting and hosting a sports talk radio show has always been to mesh the two, while staying grounded with my roots journalism background [from Marquette]. The radio format allows me to be a bit more loose and creative. No matter if its print journalism or radio, I never put myself in front of the story."

Of course, before he frequented palatial sports venues like the United Center and U.S. Cellular Field or even the old baseball shrine at Clark and Addison, Hanley cultivated his love of competition at considerably smaller sports spots like Keystone Park or The Bearcat Garden at St. Luke School, both in River Forest.

"I grew up a huge sports fan," Hanley said. "I did everything from Little League to sandlot baseball. I worked for the River Forest Park District mowing the lawns in the summer and freezing the parks to play hockey in the winter. Growing up in River Forest was great because you knew everyone within a four or five block radius. There would always be a pickup basketball game, or I could play baseball with my buddies at Keystone."

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Moving from Oak Park to River Forest when he was 2, Hanley learned along with his five brothers and three sisters the value of a Catholic education from his parents, Bernie and Sue Hanley, as well as the faculty at St. Luke and Fenwick High School.

"When I was in fifth grade at St. Luke, Sister Eleanor instilled in me the fundamentals of English," Hanley recalled. "Like all the nuns, I don't think she had a last name, but she sure taught me how to diagram sentences."

After St. Luke, Hanley enjoyed four enriching academic and athletic years at Fenwick.

"Fenwick is an outstanding school," he said. "You're taught discipline and receive a great education. I created a lot of bonds there and made friendships for a lifetime."

Hanley, who graduated from Fenwick in 1978, also witnessed some outstanding Friars football teams known as "the Junkyard Dogs," led by Marty Finan.

For Hanley, his break in the sports world came six years after life as a Friar.

Starting in 1984 at the Sun-Times as an editorial assistant, Hanley worked his way off the bench and earned promotions by tackling a diverse sports spectrum, including beat reporting gigs with the University of Illinois, De Paul, Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks, and Bulls.

"Back in the '80s, a friend of mine, Mike Nieto, called me and told me they might be hiring editorial assistants at the Sun-Times," Hanley said. "As an editorial assistant, I wrote about sports like horse-racing, auto-racing, triathlons, or really whatever they needed. It was grunt work but it was a foot in the door."

Armed with a strong work ethic and his journalism degree from Marquette, Hanley soon used the proverbial foot in the door to kick open a world of opportunity. In 1988, he covered the University of Illinois football team, and a year later he was chronicling the fast breaking exploits of the U of I "Flyin' Illini" hoops squad, featuring Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty and Kenny Battle.

"I covered the U of I football team under coach John Mackovic and their trip to the All-America Bowl, may it rest in peace," said Hanley with a chuckle. "Covering the Final Four run by Illinois [in 1989] was a pretty challenging, fun experience."

After ghostwriting Ray Meyer's column about DePaul basketball, Hanley took on brief stints covering the White Sox and Cubs during the mid-'90s.

Among myriad professional athletes, coaches, administrators, executives and media that he has interviewed or worked with, Hanley mentions Lou Henson, Bob Pulford, Jim De Maria, Tony Amonte, Chris Chelios, Steve Smith, Randy Walker, Bill Carmody, John Paxson, Scott Skiles, Randy Myers, Ozzie Guillen, Frank Thomas, Dan Plesac, Dan Jiggetts, Doug Buffone as some of the more affable, interesting subjects and colleagues he has known through the years.

"Guys like Tony Amonte, Chris Chelios and Steve Smith are really salt of the earth people," Hanley said. "I think the good people in sports far outweigh the bad guys."

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Entering his third season covering the Bulls this fall after seven years reporting on the Blackhawks, Hanley has earned the respect of many in the sports industry.

"As a beat reporter, Brian gives readers a daily inside look into Bulls basketball," said Bulls Senior Manager of Public & Media Relations Sebrina Brewster. "Brian is at nearly every practice and game, including road games, so he gets the opportunity to get to know the players and team personnel very well. During the season, I read Brian's stories and I sometimes find out things about the players that I didn't even know-being the PR person. He provides the fans with an inside perspective."

Due to the proliferation of sports blogs, web sites, and the entire 24/7/365 "instant scores" vibe permeating sports news, Hanley feels newspapers can counter by offering readers quality via insider's coverage, along with expeditious scores.

"I think we have to give our readers something extra whether its things like a look ahead, in-depth reporting or personality pieces regarding a team," Hanley said. "It can create challenges for a beat reporter. You have unique access to a team but you're not a columnist per se. You can give readers and your editor insights that perhaps only come from covering the team so closely."

Hanley feels the savvy Chicago sports scene is well stocked with several talented and compelling columnists like Jay Mariotti, Mike Downey and Morrissey. For his part, Hanley feels fortunate to contribute his verse to the unique Chicago sports story.

"I love every day of my job because you never know what you're going to do," Hanley said. "I mean you may have your assignment, but you don't know what story line will emerge. I've worked a lot of odd jobs and even sold cars at one point. No disrespect to people who sell cars, but to be able to cover teams like the Cubs and White Sox that I grew up watching as a kid, you can't beat it."

For Hanley, there's really no comparison at all.

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