What An Opportunity

Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

A blast-off of creativity

In Sports on October 30, 2013 at 11:18 pm

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Writing columns isn’t easy. Not only is your name attached to the story, your picture is, too. Readers’ comments can get personal, and their attacks can get vicious.

And columns are opinionated by nature. While an article states, “this is what happened,” a column opines, “this is how I feel about what happened.” So when people disagree with your opinion, they’re sure to be unhappy. And when people hide behind a keyboard, they don’t have any problem hurling insults.

That’s why I have a lot of respect for columnists. They get glory when people like them (they’re the “celebrities,” so to speak, among print journalists), but they also get plenty of hate. As I have stated on this blog before, my favorite sports columnist is The Buffalo News’ Jerry Sullivan (what can I say, I’m partial to my hometown and the teams there). There are quite a few other great ones at newspapers in America, though. One of those tremendous columnists is The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke – whom you might know from “Around The Horn.”

Plaschke’s column on the Los Angeles Lakers’ 116-103 victory over the Clippers Tuesday wins The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week.

Here is the link: What a blast-off by the Lakers’ castoffs

Let’s start with the title. I realize a copy editor back at The Times’ office probably wrote it, but it’s terrific. Rarely can you create an applicable title that rhymes and doesn’t sound cheesy. I love it. Shout out to that editor.

I also enjoy the lede, which lasts five paragraphs. The “never…” start to every sentence creates a structure and rhythm that got me hooked on the story. Additionally, the two-word sentence – “Believe it” – that ends the sequence is short but smooth. Plaschke was clearly setting it up with all the “never thoughts.” He also keeps the rhythm by ending the next three sentences with “it.” (Believe it. The building is still rocking from it. The NBA experts are still reeling from it.)

This column reads like a poem. The writing is outside the box. That’s why I like it. Traditional is boring. Creativity is enticing. In this 30-second-attention-span day and age, writers need to break the mold to maintain an audience’s focus. Plaschke routinely breaks the mold. That’s why he’s great.

A couple examples of sentences that could have been worded literally and straightforwardly but are more effective because they read like well-crafted prose:

The Lakers hit them over the head with a bench, kicked them in the gut with energy…

It was Showtime from a team expected to spend the season in down time. 

It was skips and struts from reserve Jodie Meeks.

This is another part of the column I enjoyed that isn’t a credit to Plaschke but to The Times, but I enjoy all the related content listed alongside this story. There are four related stories and one photo gallery – all five items listed with terrific pictures – to complement Plaschke’s piece. That adds aesthetic value and also tells me The Times put some serious effort into covering this game. Small things make a big difference to readers.

There is something I don’t like about the column: I think he overhypes the Clippers. They’re expected to be good, sure, but I haven’t seen any pundits predicting they’ll go to the NBA Finals. But Plaschke consistently says things like, “ The Clippers aren’t supposed to be knocked out until at least the NBA Finals.” I know this is his opinion, but I think he’s exaggerating how good people expect the Clips to be this year.

In all, I like this column because the writing is terrific and because Plaschke captures the spirit of the night. I felt like I attended the Lakers-Clippers game Tuesday night because he makes it seem so real. He’s not getting carried away, saying the Lakers are terrific and Clippers are terrible. He is merely reporting on one game and telling the reader how he felt about what happened.

He does a fine job getting that across – capturing the spirit of the night.

Recent entries of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week:

Oct. 27, 2013: Reflections on a cold-blooded feature

Oct. 11, 2013: The Times profiles Mills, and Cacciola’s writing thrills

Oct. 8, 2013: Simmons’ comedy, research make column a winner

Sept. 29, 2013: Grantland Flexed: Giraldi’s piece on Heath is astounding

Sept. 23, 2013: Jets best Bills, and Times’ reporting, as always, impresses

Sept. 15, 2013: Emotions flow freely, and so does Sullivan’s quality writing

Sept. 8, 2013: The Buffalo News’ Canisius football preview: Why it worked

For the love of beautiful writing

In Sports on October 30, 2013 at 7:28 pm

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Dave Sheinin, The Washington Post sportswriter probably most well known for his book on Robert Griffin III and extensive coverage of Stephen Strasburg, spoke to my sports journalism class on Monday. To be specific, he spoke to us via Skype – which should come as no surprise, considering he is seemingly always on the move and is a platinum member at one hotel chain and a gold member at another. He was about to be on the road (again); he estimates he has spent over five years of his life in hotel rooms.

First, I should note that I think Sheinin wrote the finest, most beautiful sports feature story I have ever read. It was titled  “The Phenomenal Son” in print, “For the love of Bryce Harper” online. It might take you 15-20 minutes to read the piece, but believe me, it’s worth every second.

I had about 50 questions to ask Sheinin. I see him as someone who has accomplished many of the things I dream of – writing longform pieces for a living, occasionally taking a year to write a book about a fascinating athlete, merging art and creativity into literature all in the scope of sports journalism. He was incredibly helpful (and humble) and provided some stellar advice for young writers.

There were a few things I found most interesting.

As for his most practical advice? “Make yourself an essential voice on the topic you want to cover.” That means, if you want to write about football for the rest of your life, then you had better make yourself an integral reporter when it comes to getting news on football.

As for his advice that I’ll apply the most to my writing? “Get to a quiet spot right away” after you interview a source. I often take notes during an interview but then don’t quite grasp the emotions I was feeling during our conversation when I readdress my notes a few days or a week later. Sheinin says write how the interview went, and how you were feeling during it, right after. Valuable advice.

But as for the most captivating thing he said? That’s easy.

Many of the students’ questions had to do with his style of writing and reporting and selecting what fits into a story – essentially, how do you do what you do? “There is a mysterious quality to how we do what we do sometimes,” Sheinin said. “I can’t explain half of what I write.”

It wasn’t an answer we, as young writers, could apply to our own writing, but I appreciated it. It was honest. He wasn’t trying to hide some grand secret from us. He, like many of the other great sports writers today, is an artist. He is a wordsmith, molding sentences and paragraphs strategically, emphasizing certain factions of the story at certain times, all to make the reader feel a specific emotion. As Isaac Babel once said, “No iron spike can pierce the human heart as icily as a period in the right place.” Most artists can’t explain their thought process simply – they’re just doing what feels write. They’re letting their creativity flow. That’s what Sheinin does.

Sheinin discussed the feeling he had when he learned he would be given a 4,000-word canvas to create his Phenomenal Son feature. He was thrilled. He wanted to make some art. “I can really take a chance and make this thing sing,” he said.

And, well – listen to the music.

What has made this University at Buffalo football team so good?

In Sports on October 27, 2013 at 10:00 pm

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It has not been that enjoyable covering the University at Buffalo football team since I’ve been in college. Losing just isn’t fun in any way, and writing about losing is no different.

But this year has been fun. There hasn’t been much losing.

I just returned from a weekend in Kent, Ohio, where UB defeated Kent State, 41-21, on Saturday to claim sole possession of first place in the Mid-American Conference East division. The Bulls are 6-2 (4-0 in the MAC) and are bowl eligible for the first time since the 2008 season, which people around Western New York reflect on as the greatest year in UB history.

It is an exciting time to cover the team, and I’m thankful it’s happening my senior year – likely the final year I’ll be able to cover the Bulls. Having spent a good deal of time around the squad the past three years, I can give two key reasons this year has been different.

1. Two words: Khalil Mack

This is an incredibly obvious point if you’ve watched any UB games this year, but if you haven’t, listen up: This guy is really good at football.

Mack is the Bulls’ best player and without a doubt the finest athlete in school history. UB has never had a player selected higher than the fourth round in the NFL Draft; Mack is projected to go in the top 10 of the first round.

To put it simply, the senior linebacker/defensive end is an animal. He gets in the backfield at will, can snag passes out of the air like a receiver, runs like a tailback and tosses quarterbacks around like rag dolls.

He’s on the verge of setting two all-time NCAA records – for tackles for loss and fumbles forced – and is genuinely fun to watch. There have been many NFL scouts at Bulls games this year (that never happens).

This is uncharted territory for a UB athlete, and it’s a big part of the reason this year has been so enjoyable to observe.

Khalil is also just a great guy. Want to know more about him? Check out this feature I wrote about him for our football preview in August.

2. The well-balanced offense

In the past, it’s seemed the Bulls could only get one facet of their offense – either passing or running – going at one time. It’s been that way since 2008, when the passing game (with Drew Willy at QB and Naaman Roosevelt at WR) and running game (with the Green Bay Packers’ James Starks at RB) were both proficient. To win the MAC, you’ve got to have a formidable and balanced offense.

Buffalo finally has that this year. Bo Oliver, a compact tank of a running back whom some have likened to Maurice Jones-Drew, is setting records left and right – he’s now UB’s all-time leader in rushing yards in a career. He had 185 yards and four touchdowns Saturday against Kent State and made two plays that had me laughing at how ridiculous they were: 1. He literally threw a defender off of him two yards into the air when they collided near the goal line (Bo made it in). 2. He pulled off the craziest stutter-step (also known as an “okie dok”) you’ll ever see; the defender looked completely frozen. Oliver has returned to the form Bulls fans saw in 2011, before an MCL tear derailed his 2012 season.

But it hasn’t just been Bo. The passing game is respectable, too. Sophomore quarterback Joe Licata is developing more confidence every week, and his favorite target – senior Alex Neutz – will play on Sundays next year. Neutz has remarkable ball skills in the air and an extraordinary vertical leap (which is why volleyball was his first love). Senior Fred Lee, an excellent blocker and possession receiver, has emerged as a legitimate No. 2 threat, too, which has helped keep double coverage away from Neutz.

With this balanced offense, defenses haven’t figured out who to key in on.

I’m not sure if the Bulls will win their conference championship or even get a bowl invitation, but it has sure been fun to cover a winning team this year.

Reflections on a cold-blooded feature

In Sports on October 27, 2013 at 8:39 pm

I had the opportunity to learn from Lee Jenkins (right) at a conference in New York City last spring.

Sometimes it’s tough for me to settle on The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week. Not this week.

I always enjoy Lee Jenkins’ work for Sports Illustrated – I have taken particular pleasure in his pieces on LeBron James – but I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with something he has written than this piece: Kobe Bryant: Reflections on a cold-blooded career.

It’s a tremendous story. How do you write about someone who has been written about so many times before and still piece together a compelling story? By being really good at your job, that’s how.

Jenkins goes to breakfast with Bryant (whose breakfast sounds really delicious, by the way) and takes us through the mealtime conversation but tells Kobe’s life story in the process (it reminds me of this stellar piece on Ron Washington, in which the writer visits Washington at his house but rehashes his managing highs and lows in the process of the day).

In addition to revealing some anecdotes we don’t know, Jenkins touches on parts of Kobe’s career we all know but provides details we have never heard; he tells the story – the Legacy of Kobe Bean Bryant – better than I have ever seen it told.

It doesn’t hurt that the writing is exquisite. Where to begin? Let’s take it from the top.

The lede

Oh, no, here comes another office-park all-star with a retreating hairline and a softening middle who wants to take his pants off in front of Kobe Bryant.

As I’ve mentioned before, you want your lede to grab the readers’ attention. Simply introducing the breakfast would be boring and far too easy; telling one of those hilarious anecdotes I mentioned – and I’ll get to those – would hook the reader, but you also want your lede to apply to the whole story and introduce it.

The perfect medium? Finding a way to introduce the breakfast while telling a hilarious story. This moment also captures the scene and makes us feel like we’re there.

OK, so why does this lede matter, and why does it tie in to the story? We find that answer immediately. Kobe is returning from a serious Achilles tear and his future as a ballplayer is in question.

Part of rehab from a ruptured Achilles tendon is a hundred run-ins with Baby Boomers who underwent similar procedures after fateful pickup games and racquetball matches. They are eager to reveal the flesh evidence, regardless of what layers they must lift, unbutton or discard. “Been 10 years,” the man crows, pointing down at his own heel, “and it’s never felt stronger.”

So, we got why this anecdote matters, but just in case we needed a little more evidence:

Even the toughest s.o.b. on hardwood can use the occasional reminder that everything is going to be O.K. 

Jenkins developed this scene – just a casual conversation – fully and tied it into the big picture of the story. I’m not sure the average reader will grasp just how tough that is, but it is quite impressive that he pulled it off.

The descriptions

As I mentioned, this story is covered with beautiful short sequences. Here are a few of my favorites:

They blush in response, turning redder than a Clippers road jersey.

Clippers road jerseys are really red.

More than the 31,000 points, 15 All-Star selections and five championships, more than the silky turnaround jumpers, effortless baseline drives and feverish scoring binges, Bryant will forever be remembered for a belief in himself that you couldn’t strip with a dozen Bruce Bowens.

Bruce Bowen is known as the strongest modern-day defensive player – sorry, Glove – and he squared off with Bryant many times. These days, you can find Bowen wearing a bow tie on ESPN.

There it is, one more brushstroke applied to the intricately drawn image of Kobe Bean Bryant.

This is just a great line. A two-part developed metaphor – simple in theory, flawless in execution.

He doesn’t flinch when an inbounds passer pretends to throw a ball at his nose. He doesn’t glance down after he turns an ankle. He doesn’t sleep much, content to lie with a towel over his eyes, his brain leading a fast break. 

Here we have two examples of just how tough he is – remember, showing is much more powerful than telling – and then a look into his life. “His brain leading a fast break” – I was a point guard throughout my basketball career, and I’ve done this many times in my life (when you’re a floor general, you do it subconsciously), but I never thought of that way of phrasing it – and it’s also an important line because Bryant is no PG; he’s a 2 or 3. This paragraph gives us a look into Bryant’s psyche and crazy dedication to the game of basketball.

He sips his latte. Housewives flit around the courtyard in yoga pants. 

I found this line hilarious. It’s essential because it takes us back to the scene and reminds us that we’re having breakfast with Kobe Bryant. It’s also descriptive – not only are there people walking about at the scene, but those people are housewives and they’re wearing yoga pants. Now you see what Jenkins sees. Now you feel even more like you’re there at the time of the interview. I loved this moment.

And he sticks that gold Lakers jersey back in his teeth

Jenkins could have said, “and he gets back on the court.” Too easy. Bryant often bites his jersey. This is a simple but effective way to enhance jargon and give a fuller picture of Kobe’s persona.

The small in-story stories

Jenkins provides a few on-point anecdotes.

I thought this was the best part of the whole story: Bryant telling his trainer he could get a key from, well, behind his eye. It’s a tough movie moment to describe, but Jenkins nails it. Here’s the whole scene:

Years ago, upon returning from the horror flick Saw II, Bryant described for Lakers trainer Gary Vitti a scene in which a victim awakens to find a contraption locked around his neck lined with nails pointed at his head. A videotape explains that the victim can unlock the device with a key, but it has been surgically implanted behind his right eye, and he can only extract it with a scalpel. He has a minute before it closes over his face and kills him. “I think I could get that key,” Bryant said.

“I believe you,” Vitti replied.

But, oh, that outstanding story is just one of many. How about the time Kobe chucked his mask and went to war?

We spent a couple days frantically trying to find a mask that would fit him. The day of the game, at the Palestra, he warmed up with the mask on. But in the locker room, right before we went out on the court, he ripped it off in front of everybody. He threw it against the wall and yelled, ‘I’m not wearing this thing! Let’s go to war!’ He scored 39 points. We won.”

And that time he turned down a role in one of the best basketball movies of all-time?

That summer Spike Lee begins filming He Got Game, a movie with Denzel Washington about a basketball prodigy named Jesus Shuttlesworth. “I want you to be part of it,” Lee tells Bryant. “Thank you but no thank you,” Bryant says. “This summer is too big for me.” Ray Allen lands the role as Shuttlesworth.

The language

I don’t curse verse often, and I never do it in writing. But Kobe loves swearing. I’m not sure why. It’s just who he is, and it’s part of the reason we love him. Jenkins doesn’t try to hide that. This story is supposed to give a full picture of who Kobe is, after all. Why not embrace all of who he is? Here are a few examples:

“I was lucky to grow up in Italy at a time when basketball in America was getting f—– up with AAU shuffling players through on strength and athleticism,” Bryant says.

Bryant tries not to roll his eyes. You’re grown-ass men, he thinks. And you’re right: I don’t f—— need you

“Then everything sinks in, and it’s like, Oh, no, now you better win or your whole career is basically bulls—,” Bryant says. “Those last three championships you won will be meaningless.”

And, of course, the Kobe-being-Kobe quote

There were so many parts of this story I loved. But as for my favorite quote? That’s easy:

“I can’t relate to lazy people,” Bryant says, speaking generally, not about Mayo. “We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you. Go over there.

Recent entries of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week:

Oct. 11, 2013: The Times profiles Mills, and Cacciola’s writing thrills

Oct. 8, 2013: Simmons’ comedy, research make column a winner

Sept. 29, 2013: Grantland Flexed: Giraldi’s piece on Heath is astounding

Sept. 23, 2013: Jets best Bills, and Times’ reporting, as always, impresses

Sept. 15, 2013: Emotions flow freely, and so does Sullivan’s quality writing

Sept. 8, 2013: The Buffalo News’ Canisius football preview: Why it worked

Answering life’s Question as a senior in college

In Life, Sports on October 12, 2013 at 8:56 pm

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Being a senior in college is great. You know your way around the campus that looked like a new world when you were a freshman; you’ve discovered your niche and stopped trying so hard to be someone you’re not; you have (pretty much) figured out how to balance your time between work and fun; and you’ve developed a circle of close friends at school. There is one part about being a senior, however, that isn’t very fun: Answering The Question.

The Question is the one everyone asks when they hear you’ll be finishing college soon. “So, what are your plans for after graduation?” I know people mean well, and I know they’re genuinely curious, but the concept just makes me uncomfortable. Am I really supposed to have my future figured out right now?

It’s October. I won’t be graduating for seven months, and then I’ll have to embrace full-on adulthood for the rest of my life. I feel ready for it; I truly do. I am also not panicking about landing a job.

But for some reason, The Question still makes me anxious. I think it irritates me because it forces me to think about life without my university, without my friends at school, without my hometown (as I will likely be moving wherever I am hired). But it also bothers me for another reason: more than half the time I respond to people and tell them that yes, I am going to continue pursuing sports journalism, they admonish me against it.

They tell me how little money journalists make, and how I should go into business and become wealthy. They tell me journalism is a dying industry, and I’d be wise to avoid it. This is what I say to everyone who has told me to avoid sports journalism: It’s my passion, and I’m going to chase that regardless of what you say. Truth be told, I have considered alternative careers – law school was a very real possibility for some time – but I’m not ready to give up on my dream.

I have wanted to work in sports journalism since I was 5. I know I’ll work for peanuts, and I know the industry is changing – but let’s make that distinction. Journalism isn’t dying; it’s changing. Newspapers and other print outlets are producing video content every day and interactive multimedia “parallax” pieces like The New York Times’ “Snow Fall” and Complex’s “Danny Brown/Sky High” on a regular basis.

I don’t see newspapers as the past; I see them as the future.

I am prepared to be a part of the change in journalism, and I’m going to love every minute I work in this industry – even though that means I’ll have to deal with seven more months of eye-rolling and The Question. I love what I do, and I’m going to keep doing it. If that doesn’t fit your definition of success, I question your definition.

The Times profiles Mills, and Cacciola’s writing thrills

In Sports on October 11, 2013 at 8:36 pm

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If you’re a sports fan who does not read The New York Times, you’re messing up. And if you’re an NBA fan who has not read Scott Cacciola’s “Completely Ready or Not, Steve Mills Takes Charge of Knicks,” you should do so immediately.

Cacciola’s story for The Times wins the distinction of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week.

It is a profile – but, somehow, also not a profile – of Steve Mills, the New York Knicks’ new president and general manager. I say it is not a profile because the story does not go too in-depth into the details of Mills’ life. It details his post-college career, sure, but there is no mention of his hometown or family. The piece is more of a résumé, and it serves to answer the question, “What makes this guy qualified to run the Knicks organization?”

There’s a whole bunch I like about it. Let’s get into it.

The simple but oh-so-effective descriptions

James Dolan, the owner of the Knicks franchise, is a very powerful fellow with many quirks and at least as many haters. I’m sure Cacciola could list Dolan’s idiosyncrasies and mishaps without much effort, but he realizes this story is about Steve Mills, not Dolan – so he describes Dolan as simply “capricious.” It’s one word. It doesn’t take up much space. But it’s effective. It gets his point across.

This piece includes one more simple-but-solid description, this one perhaps even stronger. Take a gander: “With his wispy shock of white hair and the glum demeanor of a meter reader, [Pete] Carril was particularly effective at smothering his players’ egos.” I’ve never heard the phrase “wispy shock of white hair” before, but it’s catchy, and it projects an image into my head. That’s impressive writing. Let’s not forget “glum demeanor of a meter reader,” either. How about that? That’s assonance – and it’s not forced – in a sports story! That’s creative writing. Beautifully done.

The ‘what’s he going to do?’ portion of the story

This piece not only lists Mills’ accomplishments; it also discusses his plans. It points out that Mills desperately wants star Carmelo Anthony to stick around (he can opt out of his contract next summer), and it also touches on Mills’ unique affinity for numbers. He has more than a basketball mind; he has worked in management and education and has a questioning mind, too. “He believes in the power of numbers,” Cacciola writes before explaining Mills’ fondness for referencing numbers and taking advantage of the new sports craze ‘analytics.’ It’s an indirect way of saying, “Hey, this guy has a plan for doing things differently” – it’s showing, not telling. That’s one key principle in sportswriting. Speaking of which…

More showing but not telling – in anecdotal form

Oftentimes, the best writing does not require much writing at all; it involves only telling a secondhand story. For instance, examine this quote: “He said, ‘I don’t know how you played in that system; I could never play in that system,’ ” Mills said. “I said, ‘I played in it because we won.’ ” Boom. That’s a secondhand story. It might seem irrelevant, but think about it: Cacciola inserts this quote to show the kind of person Mills is. He didn’t care about his stats at Princeton; he cared about winning. Cacciola seems to be implying that’s the kind of character the Knicks need at the top of their team: a person who cares not about personal glory but only about one day clasping The Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The short quote

I’ve become a fan in the past year of sports writers who use few quotes and more of their own words. Cacciola does that. After he explains Carril – remember the old coach with the “glum demeanor of a meter reader?” – Cacciola uses 11 words from Mills, Carril’s former player: “It took a certain type of player to play for him,” Mills said. That principle is implied, but it’s necessary for Cacciola to not make unfounded inferences. The reader needs to hear it from a player, and we do.

The ‘why this story matters’ section

This story is a big deal to me because I’m a diehard basketball scholar – I like to think my lifelong dedication to the sport has eclipsed the level of “fan” – but also because this is a tumultuous time with the Knicks. This isn’t just any point in time for a new general manager; it’s a time when few thought there should be a new man in charge at all. The Knicks were thoroughly impressive last year for the first time in a long time; they seemed poised to make a run at a championship this year.

Cacciola did not ignore that fact; he realized it was vitally important to include.

“Dolan tapped Mills for the job after removing Glen Grunwald, who had played a significant part in reshaping a roster that was 54-28 last season and won its first playoff series since 2000,” Cacciola writes.

***

Among the other best sportswriting I read this week: Kirk Goldsberry, a Harvard whiz at easy-to-read-but-thorough basketball graphs and a stellar writer, introduces a new way to understand the NBA’s best scorers. It’s an enjoyable, informative read.

Synopsis, straight from the article: When it comes to shooting stats, one would think there would be a spreadsheet somewhere on the Internet that delineates “great shooters” like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant near its top, and “bad shooters” like Monta Ellis and Josh Smith at the bottom. But there’s not. We still rely on hunches and vague reputations to make our assertions about “pure shooting” skill in the NBA.

***

Recent entries of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week:

Oct. 8, 2013: Simmons’ comedy, research make column a winner

Sept. 29, 2013: Grantland Flexed: Giraldi’s piece on Heath is astounding

Sept. 23, 2013: Jets best Bills, and Times’ reporting, as always, impresses

Sept. 15, 2013: Emotions flow freely, and so does Sullivan’s quality writing

Sept. 8, 2013: The Buffalo News’ Canisius football preview: Why it worked

Simmons’ comedy, research make column a winner

In Sports on October 8, 2013 at 12:17 am

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For the second straight week, it is a Grantland article that earns the nod for the most sought-after prize in journalism: this college student’s prestigious presentation of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week. This week’s recipient is quite different from previous selections; I don’t actually think the writing is that beautiful – it’s rather straightforward, in fact. But the thing that makes this column exceptional is humor, a component I absolutely love in sportswriting. Who doesn’t like to laugh, especially while reading about something they care about?

And nobody knows how to execute athletic humor better than Bill Simmons, the “Sports Guy.” He wrote his Week Five NFL column on the miserable, winless Jacksonville Jaguars, and hilarity ensued. Here is a link to it: Bottoming Out in Jacksonville. 

OK, the Jags are pretty awful, so there are a lot of easy jokes there. But what I love about Simmons’ piece is that it is actually composed of research (visiting the Jags store, examining analytics) and significant background knowledge. It reads like he has followed this team closely for years.

This is what makes Simmons great: In everything he writes, whether it’s on fixing the dysfunctional 2013 Lakers, the Trent Richardson trade from Cleveland to Indianapolis or performance-enhancing drugs, you’d think he spent all his time following the topic. Obviously he doesn’t; he’s the editor in chief of Grantland, the most widely read sportswriter in the world, an ESPN on-air personality and generally, presumably, a busy man. So, how does he do it? How does he write like a guru on a team he probably doesn’t follow all that much? My only guess is homework, unless he has minions at Grantland running around and compiling jokes for him (that might be true). I’m willing to wager Simmons didn’t whip out this Jaguars column in a day; I’ll bet it took him up to a week. Unless he just did it all in hyper speed, which I wouldn’t doubt – he is Bill Simmons, after all, and we’ve already established there’s a good chance he has Grantland Minions.

Aside: This doesn’t relate to Simmons’ writing, but I love it when Grantland includes artwork with its pieces. Dustin Parker did a great job depicting Blaine Gabbert (photo above) this week, and the feature I discussed last week (Grantland Flexed: Giraldi’s piece on Heath is astounding) included a stellar drawing of Phil Heath.

Back to Simmons: The intelligent jokes, all implemented with exquisite timing, are what make this piece superb. A few that come to mind (all of which had me essentially cackling): 1. KEENAN MCCARDELL??? (I remember Keenan McCardell! He was the man!) 2. Wait, Shad — could you pose with a fake Jaguar statue for me? (This picture is great.) 3. Even Don Jon isn’t into mascot-abuse porn. (This movie was weird.) 4. Somehow there’s only one choice: a David Garrard replica for $49.99. (David Garrard, Jaguars legend.)

So thank you, Sports Guy, for making me laugh on a weekly basis. Thank you for writing like you speak (it’s refreshing) and balancing intelligent opinions with well thought-out jokes. Thank you for spending time doing research, and for educating me while entertaining me. You, sir, are good at what you do.

Lunch with a Pulitzer Prize winner

In Life on October 7, 2013 at 2:21 pm

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John Pope owns 400 bow ties.

His exceptional tie – it’s his lucky one – was the first thing to catch my eye when I met Pope on Thursday, but his quirky affinity for the accessory was far from the only thing I wound up learning about him, and about life, that day.

I am thankful to have had a unique opportunity – Pope, an integral part of the New Orleans Times-Picayune team that won two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, visited my school, the University at Buffalo. He spoke on Thursday to a lecture hall of students and on Friday to the editorial board of The Spectrum, the school’s student newspaper, about the changing times in journalism.

It was a great two days.

An acclaimed English professor at my school, Dr. Barbara Bono, planned and organized Pope’s trip. She arranged for him and I to have lunch together Thursday. We spent an hour and a half talking about journalism – a conversation between an accomplished, seasoned vet in the industry and a young gun not quite sure what he’s getting into – and his life trajectory.

I learned a lot from the bow-tie-loving man who won the Pulitzer, the most esteemed prize in journalism.

He sports a black wristband that reads, “IGBOK.” I asked what it meant. He said, “it’s gonna be OK,” and then explained how the motto has helped him stay at peace throughout the past year; his wife died one year ago. The pain in his voice when he talks about her is clear, and he does so frequently. The wristband keeps him calm. It puts things in perspective.

I immediately felt a connection with Pope after he shared that emotional detail. The conversation flowed.

As I mentioned, Pope was at UB to talk about the changing times in journalism. He is approaching 65 years old, and he has worked in the industry since he was 22. He is no curmudgeon, though; he is adapting with the times, tweeting and working on videos like a 20-something. “I have no choice,” he explained, saying he can’t fight what is happening in journalism so he might as well embrace it. IGBOK, right? He likes the many young folks who have infiltrated his newsroom, and they like him. They’re learning from each other.

He offers young journalists some rudimentary advice – “think before pushing send.” In other words, don’t fire off a tweet or status or email without putting significant thought into it. He explained how one mistake online can ruin a career or just make your life a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Avoiding this quandary is simple: Just think.

He was gracious in talking about covering the hurricane even though he admitted he has done so countless times. He said the night before the storm hit, there was a small get-together in his newsroom. The reporters were enjoying wine and snacks. They were talking about coffee makers. It was an enjoyable evening.

The storm hit around 5 a.m., and his life was never the same. Weather forecasters had indicated the storm would not be that big of a deal; the newsroom thought it would all be over by 2:30 p.m. They soon realized just how big of a deal Hurricane Katrina was. “Waves of anger and fear were palpable in the newsroom,” Pope said.

He slept under a desk that first night, then the staff evacuated into delivery trucks. He bought a house in Baton Rouge – seriously – for all the journalists who had been forced out of their homes. Eight or nine stayed in that house every night for six weeks.

It still hurts him to think back on the storm, though he has traveled across the country speaking on “the stress of covering stress.” He first spoke on the topic at Harvard; he broke down three times during his address. Pope received a standing ovation at its conclusion.

The Times-Picayune’s coverage received so much attention because it was meticulous and trustworthy. Pope sorted through the rumors and only reported what was true (as a local medical reporter, he had a network of sources), unlike many other outlets that had traveled in to cover the disaster.

“I compare what I did to the man in the circus who cleans up after elephants,” he said between bites of a salad. (When I asked where he wanted to eat, he excitedly said, “somewhere healthful.”)

Pope also got emotional, even teary-eyed, describing the New Orleans Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl win and what that event meant to the city. It meant, in many ways, New Orleans had made it back; it had faced a disaster and had finally overcome it. He blogged from bars around the city that night and eventually covered the championship parade. His only regret from that day, such a beautiful day, is working so hard that he missed the Ying Yang Twins’ rendition of “Stand Up And Get Crunk,” an anthem in the city.

In all, I truly enjoyed my time with John Pope. He’s an incredibly articulate, successful and educated man, but he had no problem sitting down with a college kid for an extended period and simply talking about life. He said his favorite part of his job is spending time with people who make him think.

That’s mine, too.

Mama, there goes that man

In Life on October 1, 2013 at 10:09 pm

 

“Mama, there goes that man”: Former ABC NBA Commentator Marc Jackson’s confident and poignant analysis of basketball. It’s such a simple statement to highlight a play that simply has no better response. “Mama, there goes that man”. I can’t remember how many times he said that during the Lakers playoff runs from 2008-2010 but to be perfectly honest with you, the phrase doesn’t hearken to back-to-back championships. No, it’s something so much simpler than that. Something that makes more sense to me now.

“Mama, there goes that man” takes me to a little boy sitting next to his mother on a park bench when he sees his favorite ball player walk by. The ball player gives him a smile and the little boy ducks into that safe spot in his mother’s side. She knowingly smiles as the little boy doesn’t have the courage to say hello. Not yet, anyway. Once the ball player rounds the corner, the little boy looks up to his mother and says calmly, “Mama, there goes that man.”

There’s an emphasis on the “Mama”. Something about how what the little boy saw was so important that he needed Mama to know. I like to think that Mama turned to him, expecting to see him really excited, and was surprised how calm he was in that moment. Then the rest of the phrase kind of tumbles out: “there goes that man”.

There’s an antiquated notion in the little boy’s use of “that man”. It’s not just any man, it’s “that man”. The idea that we can emulate those we find significant to our dreams. It’s not an embodiment of perfection, but rather a naive comfort in the assumption that we can aspire to be like those who inspire us. “Mama, there goes that man”.

We’re getting to an age where “I hope”, “I want to be”, and “I pray” are turning into “I’m trying to”, “I’m working towards”, and “I am”.  We have fond memories and deep regrets. The paths we take are more and more our own. The little boy is growing up.

I like to think that some years pass and the smile and endless hope are the clearest measurements in the man visiting his mother. He walks past the home of ‘that man’ and ‘that man’ is sitting on the porch with his grandson; comfort in his rocking chair, peace in a life fulfilled. The grandson looks on with grandpa and wonders what’s so intriguing about this particular person walking by the house. The man walks by on the way to his childhood home as ‘that man’ looks on from his chair.

He turns to his grandson and says, “Sonny, there goes that boy.”