Ralph Novak is a hard man to keep pinned down in an office. A compulsive sports fan who has lived and died with his hometown Chicago Cubs for most of his 41 years, he is also—probably for therapeutic reasons—a hardworking everyday athlete. A-gile, mo-bile and occasionally, on the basketball court, hos-tile, he is—by default, he insists—the unofficial captain of PEOPLE’s softball, basketball and bowling teams. “I just seem to be the one cajoling, or is it harassing, staff members to play,” he says.
Novak came to PEOPLE in December 1973 after working on our second prepublication test issue. A graduate of Northwestern University, he had spent a year and a half as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African nation of Togo before being drafted and sent to Vietnam with the U.S. Infantry. There, as a spec 5, he became a photographer and battalion correspondent. Some of his reports ran in Stars and Stripes.
After Vietnam Novak returned to Northwestern for a graduate degree in journalism, then worked as an editor/writer at Newspaper Enterprise Association before being hired as an assistant editor at PEOPLE. Divorced and the father of a son, Thaddeus, 4, Novak is the magazine’s New York bureau chief as well as senior editor for the magazine’s PICKS & PANS. A prolific and demanding movie and music critic, he has become inured to readers’ letters questioning his taste, hearing and intelligence. In fact, says Ralph, his hearing is excellent.
Over the years Novak has kept his interest in sports and its heroes alive, in part through his interviews for PEOPLE with the likes of Tom Seaver, Walt Frazier, Nolan Ryan and Larry Csonka. Recently he headed for California to talk with basketball-great-turned-actor Wilt Chamberlain (see Bio, page 43). “The press has always portrayed Wilt as being terribly arrogant, but I found him quite likable,” says Ralph. “He was a superlative athlete, and to say he stands head and shoulders above the rest is really both overstating and understating the obvious.”
Chamberlain, it seems, still has a competitive streak, turning a trip from his Bel Air home to a nearby gym into a mini Grand Prix—which he won handily. But as Ralph points out, the competition was handicapped. Wilt was driving his Lamborghini; Ralph, a rented Mustang.