Steve Aschburner has covered some of the most famous athletes and high-profile sporting events in the country in a sports writing career that spans almost four decades.
It all began during a boyhood spent playing sports on the playgrounds and driveways of Brookfield with friends Lou Kucera and Tom Muelling.
“I didn’t play any extra-curricular sports, but we played pickup sports all year,” Aschburner said. “It would change with the seasons. We played baseball, tackle football without pads, stupidly, in the fall, and basketball.
“In the winter we’d play ice hockey on the tennis courts at Ehlert Park. We also played a lot of street hockey. It was fun.”
It was good preparation for a career in sports. Aschburner spent 29 years in the newspaper business in Milwaukee and Minneapolis before moving back to the area in 2010 when he took a job as senior writer at NBA.com.
Kucera, a former Lyons Township High School baseball player who works at Riverside-Brookfield High School, and Aschburner have been friends since kindergarten, when both of their mothers served as room mothers. Though Aschburner wasn’t a great athlete, Kucera always knew his friend was destined to be a prominent writer.
“Absolutely,” Kucera said. “You can put that in capital letters. There was never a doubt in my mind. His knowledge of sports is unbelievable. He’s a sports junkie, just like me.”
Aschburner was a fan of all the Chicago pro teams. He and his friends would take the train to Wrigley Field and collect autographs. Kucera’s dad had access to White Sox season tickets, so he took in a lot of games at Comiskey Park during Dick Allen’s MVP season in 1972.
The Bulls were good back then under coach Dick Motta and stars like Bob Love, Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker and Norm Van Lier, while the Blackhawks went to the Stanley Cup Finals twice in the early 1970s behind goalie Tony Esposito, who remains Aschburner’s favorite athlete of all time.
“I tell people in the NBA I was a Bulls fan before it was cool to be a Bulls fan,” Aschburner said. “But I was a big hockey fan. Blackhawks tickets were really hard to come by.
Aschburner’s father indirectly played a role in igniting an interest in sports writing.
“Back then Chicago had four papers,” Aschburner said. “My dad took the train to Chicago every day and picked up a paper. He’d come home and throw it on a pile and I’d pick up the sports section and read the bylines. That interested me a lot.”
Journalism proved to be a good fit for Aschburner as it forced him to come out of his shell.
“I was always kind of a shy kid, so writing kind of appealed to me so I could get my ideas and views out without getting up in front of people,” he said. “I was blessed, because I knew what I wanted to do when I was a sophomore and I went after it and it worked out.”
Aschburner was blessed to be in the right place at the right time several times in his career, beginning with his junior year at LTHS.
“The neat thing at LT is they had a journalism track for juniors and seniors,” Aschburner said. “We’d do new journalism and read contemporary books by Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson.
“We had a teacher, John Wheeler, who was very inspirational. He was a motivating, relatively young guy. He got us out on the street to compile man-on-the-street interviews with people about Nixon and Watergate. The school paper covered a lot of stuff in the community.”
But nothing captured Aschburner’s imagination more than covering sports, which he did for the school paper as well as two local papers, the Citizen and the Suburban Life.
“I’d cover LT football and hockey and two days later I’d see my byline in the newspaper, so that was pretty intoxicating,” he said. “It was a neat experience to have at a young age.”
After graduating in 1974, Aschburner enrolled at Marquette, which had reached the NCAA basketball title game that year with a team that included Marcus Washington, who led LTHS to the 1970 state championship.
“I got incredibly lucky at Marquette,” Aschburner said. “The tradition was the sports editor had the basketball beat. Junior year I became the sports editor and Marquette won the national title that year in Al McGuire’s last year coaching. Al McGuire is still the most interesting guy I ever met.”
It was the start of a remarkable journalism career. After a brief stay at a paper in Beloit and two years of part-time work with the Milwaukee Journal, Aschburner got his first full-time gig at the Lexington Herald, where he covered Kentucky basketball.
“That was an experience,” Aschburner said. “It was the farthest away from home I’ve lived. Basketball is a religion down there. The passion was unbelievable.”
After a year there, Aschburner was hired full-time by the Journal in 1981 and covered the Brewers in the 1982 World Series. He moved on to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1986 and spent 21 years there, covering the Twins’ World Series titles in 1987 and 1991 and the first 12 years of Kevin Garnett’s career with the Timberwolves.
Aschburner describes the 1990s as the heyday of journalism, which began to change for the worse after that. In 2007 he took a buyout and left newspapers.
“I had my fill of newspapers,” he said. “They were cutting back but giving everybody more work. That didn’t make sense to me.”
So Aschburner became a freelancer, covering the NBA for SportsIllustrated.com for two years, then was hired by the NBA in 2009. He moved back to Chicago in 2010 and resides in Lisle with his wife, Wendy. Their daughter, Gretchen, lives in Chicago.
“The NBA was looking to bulk up their writing staff and have some real coverage of the league,” Aschburner said. “They wanted to cover themselves and get credibility and the best way to do that is to get guys with credentials.”
In a career that has spanned typewriters to Twitter, Aschburner has seen the newspaper industry change drastically in the face of competition from the Internet, cable TV and sports radio.
“I grew up in Brookfield wanting nothing more than to be a sportswriter for a Chicago paper,” he said. “Now I don’t know whether I want to subscribe to one.
“Their credibility is falling a little short. The standards have been so lowered for what passes for journalism. That’s a concern for the industry. There’s more information, but it’s speculation, not fact.”
Still, Aschburner has no complaints about a career that has seen him author four books, including a 2012 biography of baseball Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, and interview athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Joe Montana, Jack Nicklaus, Pete Rose, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. He’s covered four Super Bowls, four Final Fours, three World Series and 18 NBA Finals.
While Aschburner gets a kick out getting to know people who signed autographs for him decades ago, he now has a more realistic view of pro sports.
“When you do this for a living you end up not being a big fan of everything, because you see how the sausage is made,” Aschburner said. “But it is still fun. I hope I can milk another 7-10 years out of it.”