An Unwavering Love of Sport: Frank Isola’s Journey

(Photo Courtesy of New York Daily News.)

On Dec. 23, 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders battled in the AFC Divisional game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Trailing 7-6 on 4th and 10 with 22 seconds left, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back and evaded pressure. 

He then fired a pass downfield to running back John Fuqua, who was leveled by Raiders safety Jack Tatum. The ball caromed off Tatum and landed in the arms of Steelers fullback Franco Harris who took it all the way for a game-winning Steelers touchdown. Several hundred miles away in Long Island, a young Frank Isola marveled at the play cementing an early sports memory in a childhood filled with them.

“I remember being really young and just thinking how crazy it was that they won that game,” Isola said. “I remember there being a lot more games like that when I was younger with crazy finishes.”

Growing up on Long Island, sports were everything for Isola, whether he was watching them on television or playing them with friends. Isola and his younger brother Billy began sharing a common love of sport once Billy was older. For Isola and Billy there was no cable television growing up, which meant there were only three NFL games on TV. Each of the two local teams were on and there was one nationally televised game. College football also only aired three games on a given weekend, meaning the viewing options were limited.

“It was a lot of TV watching, I basically grew up on television,” Isola joked.

Not far from North Babylon where Isola grew up, Boomer Esiasion was quickly becoming a touted quarterback recruit. Esiasion went on to play at the University of Maryland, a reason for Isola to follow the Terps. However, he was already familiar with Maryland for their distinct uniforms and competition against ACC powerhouses like Duke and North Carolina.

“To be a student at Maryland and for them to win that game was awesome.”

As a kid, Isola played soccer and decided–with nothing to lose–he would try out for the University of Maryland soccer team. After a strong performance during the tryout, Isola was one of three people selected for the team. He only played for one season but gained an appreciation for the difficulty that balancing full-time sports and academics presents. 

While Isola played soccer for a year, he also worked for The Diamondback during his time in College Park. Throughout his time at Maryland, Isola received invaluable on the job training covering several sports. Covering major sports at Maryland offered a unique opportunity for Isola. He covered games alongside some of the industry’s best including; Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun and Michael Wilbon. 

However, of all the Maryland sporting events Isola covered as a student, one stands out above the rest. On Feb. 20, 1986, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Maryland men’s basketball team faced off against North Carolina. The Tar Heels, No. 1 in the country at the time, were undefeated at their new home–the Dean Dome.

Led by Len Bias’s 35 points, the Terps took down the Tar Heels 77-72 in overtime. During that game, Isola witnessed Bias’s greatness including a highlight reel play where the Maryland legend knocked down a three pointer, stole the ensuing inbounds pass from Kenny Smith and finished the reverse dunk with authority.

“Being there for that game was really cool because UNC at the time was the biggest thing in college basketball, bigger than Duke,” Isola said. “To be a student at Maryland and for them to win that game was awesome.”

“If you don’t have people that you’re covering mad at you, you’re probably not doing a good job.”

Upon graduation from Maryland, Isola accepted a job with the New York Post as a clerk in their sports department. Having spent time in college working at the Post, Isola received more opportunities after graduation covering both high school and college basketball in New York.

Isola received his first big opportunity landing a job with the New York Daily News covering the New York Mets. Shortly after, he was assigned to cover the New York Knicks in November of 1995, which proved challenging. During that time, the Knicks were one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference led by Patrick Ewing.

Beginning the day before Thanksgiving, Isola flew out to Cleveland as the Knicks were playing the Cavaliers that night. Flying back home for Thanksgiving, Isola attended Knicks practice on Friday and then covered a Saturday night game against the Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden.

“Those three or four days were like a whirlwind,” Isola said. “They throw you into it, there’s no easing into any beat. You have to hit the ground running.”

Just like that, Isola was fully enthralled in covering one of the most storied franchises in professional sports. During his time covering the Knicks, Isola broke several important stories. 

He was first with the news that the team was pursuing Donnie Walsh to be the team’s next president. He also broke the story of a screaming match that took place between Knick guards Isiah Thomas and Stephon Marbury on a team flight to Phoenix. These stories angered the team, which brought Isola to an important lesson he learned early in his career from long-time friend Joe Sexton–who currently works at ProPublica.

“[Joe] had told me if you don’t have people that you’re covering mad at you, you’re probably not doing a good job,” Isola said.

Covering the Knicks involves other challenges as well. Knicks owner James Dolan is known for having a contentious relationship with many in the media, making it difficult for them to do their job. Although this posed an added challenge for Isola, he used this difficulty to grow as a journalist knowing he’d never be able to receive the access he desired.

“Jim Dolan in many ways made me a lot better at my job because I had to work a little bit harder,” Isola said. “I had to make more phone calls. They just weren’t handing you stuff, and it could be difficult at times.”

(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

“I always say the coverage reflects the results, that’s the way it works.”

During his 22 years at the Daily News, Isola also traveled to cover both the 2004 and 2012 games in Athens and London. The Olympics offered a unique experience as Isola wasn’t solely focused on covering basketball. He was on hand for all of the U.S. men’s national basketball team practices and games, as well as many women’s soccer and beach volleyball matches. One particular sport that brought Isola out of his writing comfort zone focused on weightlifting. At the 2012 Olympics, Isola wrote a story about Holley Mangold— an Olympic weightlifter who is the sister of former New York Jets center Nick Mangold.

Isola also covered gold medal performances from both the men’s basketball team and national women’s soccer team with stars like Kobe Bryant and Megan Rapinoe. However, the greatest sporting spectacle Isola ever witnessed happened during the 2012 Olympic games. After filing a story, Isola–as a fan– watched Usain Bolt run the 100 m dash, leaving his competition in the dust. 

“Right before they shoot off the gun, you could hear a pin drop,” Isola said. “The minute that gun goes off, there’s just an explosion in the stadium of noise. I was just blown away by how cool it was.”

Spending over two decades at the Daily News, along with many others, Isola was laid off in July 2018. Although his time at the Daily News ended, Isola was also balancing two other jobs at Sirius XM and ESPN. He was the host of the Starting Lineup on Sirius and appeared on Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. 

In 2007, Isola began his radio career hosting a show from 6-9 a.m. for NBA Radio, which wasn’t easy to balance while covering the Knicks. About seven years after that, Isola was approached to instead do a show from 7-10 a.m., which gave him more time to rest and recover particularly during basketball season. Today, Isola still hosts the Starting Lineup, which airs Monday-Friday on Sirius XM, while also working full-time at ESPN.

Reflecting back on over 20 years covering the NBA, Isola was named the 2015 New York Sportswriter of the Year and always aimed to be fair. Working as the Knicks beat writer for 22 years, Isola covered legends such as Ewing and Carmelo Anthony. Whether praising or criticizing a coach or player, Isola always strived for fairness and professionalism. These stars and strong personalities may not have always liked what Isola wrote, but he remains confident that the coverage was both fair and dictated by the team’s level of success.

“I always say the coverage reflects the results, that’s the way it works,” Isola said. “I think most of the people I covered would say that I was fair, they might not have liked what I’ve written but they’d say I was fair.”

Watching and playing sports as a kid, Isola has worked diligently to cover athletes and moments that younger generations of sports fans will never forget; the same way he will never forget about the Immaculate Reception in 1972.