What An Opportunity

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

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

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