What An Opportunity

Archive for November, 2013|Monthly archive page

Educating the mind, and the heart

In Life, Sports on November 26, 2013 at 4:16 pm


I say this at the end of every semester, but it feels especially true this time: Man, this semester has flown by. I have a hard time believing it was June 30 when I wrote this blog post – Six reasons you should take sports journalism at the University at Buffalo this fall – in an effort to boost enrollment in a class that focused on a topic I was, and am, passionate about.

The class has now, sadly, reached its conclusion. It was a great experience learning from Keith McShea, a sportswriter at The Buffalo News, for three months. ENG 399: Sports Journalism will undoubtedly go down as one of my favorite classes I took at UB.

This class was a lot of work – more work than any other journalism class at my school – but it didn’t feel like work. It was pleasurable. When you’re doing, or studying, something you love, it all comes easy. As Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” This was, indeed, an educational experience.

If I had to select the one thing I liked the most about the class, I’d say it was the reading we were assigned. We had weekly assignments from The Best American Sportswriting 2012. Some of the stories in that book blew my mind. You know how you feel at the end of a great movie when it all comes together in one triumphant closing sequence? When it all makes sense? Think (500) Days of Summer or Inception. That’s how I felt at the end of some of the stories in that book. Dave Sheinin’s “The Phenomenal Son” was one of my favorites. Another was Robert Huber’s “Allen Iverson: Fallen Star.” I mean, these are stories I likely never would have discovered if it weren’t for this class, and they completely changed the way I look at sportswriting. I think that’s the fundamental purpose of education – to stimulate students’ brains and revolutionize their methods of thinking.

Supplementary to the book reading, students were also required to write one blog post per week on “The best thing I read this week” – as you have probably seen on Gentlemen of Sport quite a bit, with my weekly The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week section. If sportswriting isn’t your thing, I appreciate you tolerating my incessant posts.

Maintaining this section was quite fun for me. Similar to how I felt I grew from reading the book, I grew a lot from reading outside sports journalism. I’ve always read quite a bit of sportswriting, but this class forced me to make sure I did it every week – and to make sure I paid attention to the details, because once I found that piece that I’d dub The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week, I was going to have to write about what made it so good. Again, some of the pieces I studied – from Lee Jenkins’ “Kobe Bryant: Reflections on a cold-blooded career” to Jonathan Mahler’s “The Coach Who Exploded” – just sent my mind spinning. This is art expressed in sportswriting we’re talking about. I loved studying it.

I also enjoyed the structure of the class’ final assignment – a longform writing piece. I’m finishing mine up this Thanksgiving break. This part of the class leaves everyone with a solid clip to show employers, and it involves the students applying what they have studied all semester. The way I see it, what’s the sense of knowing everything about a topic if you never try applying that knowledge yourself? Of course, we college students are not going to twist clever phrases like Dave Sheinin or set scenes with ease like Lee Jenkins, but we can try.

And the more you try something, the better you get. You gain confidence with time and experience. Maybe one day one of the students in this class will wind up producing a piece students around the country will study. That wouldn’t surprise me.

Passion always starts somewhere. I thought I was passionate about sportswriting before this class. I did really like it. But I didn’t have that fervor to write something great, something legendary that will last forever. Now I do.

In this class, I learned a ton about the topic, gained practical experience, and developed a true zeal for the field of study. That’s what education is all about.


A sample platter of stories that matter

In Sports on November 22, 2013 at 10:51 pm


I sat on my couch and thought: I’ve read a lot of good sportswriting this week, but no single piece stands out as clearly the best.

Thus, I decided to change up the format this time around for The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week – a weekly column aimed at exposing the best piece of sports literary journalism I have perused each week. This time, it’s going to be a sample platter of sorts – a rundown of four of the most well-written, intriguing pieces I have read this week. And the spectrum varies – there are stories about both basketball and football, funny pieces and serious pieces, but it is all golden.

1. If you’ve read this section before, you know how much I love Bill Simmons. So it should come as no surprise that he made the list yet again this week. This time, though, it isn’t for one of his patented weekly NFL picks columns (though his picks are included in a sidebar). It is for this piece: All Hail Megatron.

I have to admit I was thoroughly excited to see Simmons had written something longform on one single topic, and he didn’t disappoint. His case for considering Calvin Johnson one of the greatest receivers of all-time – already!!! – is well-articulated and thoughtful. Here’s what I respect most about it: Simmons defends his argument with anecdotes and stats. He saw Jerry Rice play in his heyday, and he’s seeing Megatron play in his. But he doesn’t just talk about what it was like watching each of them play (though that does help, too). He provides stats. Lots of ’em. Enhanced stats. Prediction stats. That takes effort. Simmons may be a genius, and he may be a comic, but he grinds hard to be good at what he does. This piece is an example of the goodness of Bill Simmons.

2. Back to Grantland! Check this piece out – The NFL’s Modern Man.

If the artwork (at the top of this column) doesn’t hook you, the story will. Connor Barwin is a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s also a – well, as the story puts it, “bike-riding, socially conscious, Animal Collective–loving hipster.”

Author Robert Mays does a stellar job capturing Barwin’s essence – he’s a hipster, sure, but not in a pretentious way. He’s really just a down-to-earth dude who likes indie music and happens to be huge and play football. Mays clearly spent some time with Barwin for this piece – they even had pizza! – and he did a great job telling the eclectic story of an eclectic man. I highly recommend it.

3. From football to basketball! Women’s basketball…err, men’s basketball…err, both at the same time? That’s right: This New York Times story discusses the Mixed Gender Basketball Association, a professional basketball league incorporating male and female athletes into the same game.

Crazy, right? I thought so, too. But the more this piece went on, the more we got to hear from John Howard about the pros and cons and possibilities of implementing this kind of basketball association, the more I wanted to see it happen. This story probably happened in a day – Harvey Araton probably went to the New Jersey for the tryout and wrote the story shortly afterward (perhaps even the same day, on deadline). It’s impressive writing, but nothing glamorous. It’s just a tremendous topic, and it’s something I expect to hear more of in the future.

4. Last, but never least, Kyrie Irving’s handle. Last year, when he broke Brandon Knight’s ankles, I think America became aware of the greatness that is Irving’s ball-handling ability. I remember being in shock when he led Duke as a freshman over my Michigan State Spartans. He was 18 years old and he went off! Thirty-one points! It was so painful, but I knew Irving was something special.

But where did it all begin? How did this kid – remember, he’s still just 21 years old – get so darn good with the basketball? As a basketball apologist, I’ve asked myself that question many times since his emergence. Bleacher Report provides the comprehensive answer here: Kyrie Irving Reveals His Ball-Handling Secrets.

I have to say, Bleacher Report has truly improved as a sports journalism outlet since its addition of several big-name sportswriters – Bleacher Report adds Howard Beck; expected to go after more writers with big-money offers.

And if that topic doesn’t interest you, you should at least check out the greatest thing Kyrie Irving has ever done: the Uncle Drew commercials. Buckets.

Recent entries of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week:

Nov. 16, 2013: An explosion of color

Nov. 8, 2013: Is it time to rethink America’s game?

Oct. 30, 2013: A blast-off of creativity

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

A casual conversation with Malcolm Gladwell

In Culture, Life on November 16, 2013 at 7:32 pm


Sometimes, the coolest part of journalism is the people you get a chance to meet. I don’t mean just celebrities. I’ve been fortunate to interview some really, truly awesome people, people with attitudes that have sincerely altered my life, before – from well-known figures (Laura Bush, Tiger Woods, David Brooks) to not-as-well-known-but-equally-impressive people (Fred Lee, Louis Long, Mark Bortz).

I was never more excited for an interview than the one I completed this Wednesday. Malcolm Gladwell – the well-known author of books such as The Outliers, The Tipping Point, and Blink, also famous for his writing for The New Yorker and many public speaking engagements (from TED Talks to CNN to speaking at universities) – visited my school, the University at Buffalo.

UB has this thing called the Distinguished Speakers Series that brings popular figures to campus to deliver a speech. Some of them are gracious enough to sit down with a student or two before their speech.

That’s what happened with Gladwell. He was willing to chat with me and my colleague Eric, as we are editors for The Spectrum, UB’s student newspaper. It should have been a nerve-wracking interview, given Gladwell’s clout in our field of study, but it wasn’t – simply because he is so down to earth. That’s one thing I have noticed about him in watching videos of his talks before: He is unbelievably intellectual and yet full of bona fide humility.

But it never came across as clearly as it did in person.

If you want to know some details of our conversation, you can check out my column about the experience here: An intellectually fruitful evening with Malcolm Gladwell.

He made some tremendous points, as could be expected, but I really left the interview just thinking about his down-to-earth nature. His humor is self-deprecating, but not in a sense of disliking himself – in a sense that he realizes he is just another human on earth, just another person who puts his pants on one leg at a time and is going to die eventually. He doesn’t think he has any ideas that can change the world, but he does realize he has a skill for translating ideas to the average person. When we were talking, it was just three guys, not Malcolm Gladwell and two anxious college kids.

Sometimes you are disappointed in well-known people when you meet them in person. I have been surprised to find some beloved figures are in actuality, to put it plainly, jerks. Malcolm Gladwell not only fulfilled my vast expectation of him, he surpassed it.

I encourage you to read his books, the two best-selling of which are listed here: The Tipping Point and Blink. You will be a better person for having done so, and you’ll also be supporting a genuine person.

An explosion of color

In Sports on November 16, 2013 at 4:05 pm


Talk about an incredible character portrait: This New York Times Magazine profile of former Rutgers coach Mike Rice — The Coach Who Exploded — is The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week.

There is one thing I like about this story above all else: It feels like one cohesive narrative. It jumps between times – from Rice’s childhood to his coaching career to modern day – but feels like one story that flows seamlessly.

There are so many other, smaller things, though, that I also appreciate.

One, this is the first time Mike Rice has put his side of the story out to the public. He has been essentially mute since his famous firing from Rutgers after video surfaced of him berating his players (mostly verbally and in some cases physically). That means this writer has access.

When Dave Sheinin spoke to my class earlier this fall, he preached that access is everything. Without access to Rice, this story wouldn’t be nearly what it is. By “access,” I don’t mean that the writer, Jonathan Mahler, landed an interview with Rice. I mean he spent serious time with “The Coach Who Exploded.” We’re talking months. No one else has even gotten an interview with this guy, and Mahler followed him on-and-off for months. That’s access. That’s what makes this story what it is.

There are quite a few personal anecdotes from this story that stuck with me. Lee Jenkins once told me to imagine when I’m writing a story that I’m hooked up to a heart-rate monitor. Whenever something makes that thing beep and makes my heart rate jump, that’s something I need to capture in my story.

Mahler does just that when he relays the stories of Rice (accidentally or not) knocking his father in the mouth in a pick-up basketball game the day before Rice’s wedding, telling his players to “get ready for the chaos,” and hanging newspaper clippings on a punching bag in the locker room. There’s also a nice touch that shows a bit of Rice’s personality when the coach implores Mahler to have a beer. Again, these are all heart-rate moments.

Another thing I love about this story is its objectivity. Mahler doesn’t take an angle of, “Look how good Mike Rice is now!” He realizes that would be too easy. He realizes that would be predictable. It’d be unoriginal.

Instead, he gives exactly what we as readers deserve: a fuller picture of just who this guy is, an idea of which chemicals mixed together to lead to his explosion.

It results in one of the best character portraits I have read this year.

Recent entries of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week:

Nov. 8, 2013: Is it time to rethink America’s game?

Oct. 30, 2013: A blast-off of creativity

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

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

As a new coach, lessons are many

In Sports on November 8, 2013 at 10:55 pm


I have an assignment I cannot fulfill.

My sports journalism professor brought in a tremendous guest speaker this week – Buffalo News sports columnist Jerry Sullivan, whom I have written about before (Emotions flow freely, and so does Sullivan’s quality writing). He assigned the class to write a blog post about Sullivan’s visit and what they learned from the talk.

I cannot do that because I was not there. So, if he is my favorite sports columnist, why did I skip class? I promise I had a very good reason.

It was the first day of tryouts – tryouts for the junior varsity high school basketball team I am coaching. This is my first year as a coach, and I have just completed my first week in the position. So, instead of writing about Sullivan, I have decided to write about what I learned in my first official week as a high school basketball coach.

I chose to become a coach because my basketball coaches were some of the most influential people in determining who I became as a man. I looked up to them like nobody else. I was extremely fortunate to have respectable men in those positions, certifiable role models deserving of the adoration. I want to be that positive role model for young men now that I am older – attempting to teach them about life while I teach them the beautiful game of basketball, which I have come to adore.

The first week was surprisingly easy. I ran them hard, because I learned in my career that hard work is the best recipe for success. It is a small school, and they are still relatively young – 9th and 10th graders – so some of them minimal basketball experience. This season will test my patience, and I have already observed that I will learn more from them than they will learn from me. They have youthful exuberance for learning and vitality for life. It’s fun to be around. In the 9-to-5 grind, it’s easy to forget that we were once like that.

The big thing I learned from my first week as a high school basketball coach is that it’s easy to be a leader when you have been around great leaders. I was concerned I could never duplicate the type of passionate coaching and mentoring I received while I was in high school – that I would choke under pressure or forget my drills or just not have it as a coach – but it has come easily. From the first moment I addressed my team, I knew what I needed to do, because I have observed such great coaches in my career. This week taught me that leaders breed leaders.

That is just another reminder that we become the average of the people we surround ourselves with – which is why I want to surround myself with positive influences and purge the negative ones.

On the topic of life choices, I have also learned the importance of filtering my lifestyle more carefully now than ever before. My players are watching. If I want to be a positive influence on these young men, I need to be the best example I can. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I can already see how much high schoolers look up to their coaches and want to emulate them, just as I once wanted to emulate my high school coach.

The funny thing is, I still do.

Is it time to rethink America’s Game?

In Sports on November 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm


I decided to take a different angle on this week’s edition of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week. I spent more time mulling over this piece, determining how I truly felt about its conclusion, because the topic is something that has weighed heavily on my conscience and been on my mind quite a lot recently.

Here is the story I am referencing, the single best piece of sportswriting I read this week: Man Up: Declaring a war on warrior culture in the wake of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal

The motivation for the post is well-known news by now: One Miami Dolphins offensive lineman, Jonathan Martin, has decided to take time away from the team for personal issues. It has come to light that he was struggling because Richie Incognito, another lineman, was bullying, or “hazing,” him. There is a more thorough explanation of the situation in the link above.

But I’m not here to talk about what happened, which seems, from what has been reported, to be a simply disgusting case of bullying and prejudice. I’m here to talk about this Grantland piece and its premise that the “man up” culture in the NFL needs to go, among other things.

I have many conflicting feelings about this idea in general, so I’ll try to voice them all. First, I am a high school basketball coach – this whole “I am a man, I am indestructible and you can’t stop me” idea is not exclusive to football players; it is pervasive in many sports, including basketball. The difference is that football is the sport known for its concussion issues, known for causing brain problems among former and current players that could lead to suicide. I have written about the problems with contact in football on this blog before and explored my personal experience with the dilemma – On concussions, and why I’m not sure I’ll let my kids play football. 

First, let me make it clear that after mulling it over, I agree entirely with Brian Phillips’ conclusion – people are ridiculous, absolutely foolish and misled, for asserting Martin needs to “man up” or saying he is a coward. This paragraph sums it up:

The brain is a part of the body. It’s an organ. It’s a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football, and sometimes — because it’s unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option — it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. Your ability to chortle “boys will be boys” doesn’t mean that psychological abuse of the sort that Martin apparently endured can’t widen that kind of fracture. But then, does the cause even matter?

I really enjoy Phillips’ style of writing. He uses run-ons, and normally I do not support that incoherent, all-over-the-place style of writing. But it’s clear in this case that he is ranting. The run-ons help convey that tone. Phillips claims he is picking a fight with his reader, another unusual way to pen a column, but again it works because of his sheer emotion and strong, well-rounded argument. The run-ons help convey his passion.

It’s also important to point out that Grantland disabled comments on this piece. I took that as a powerful move. It makes this article more of a statement than a discussion – which a column ordinarily seeks to incite. But this is a battle – and it is a strong declaration from Grantland, almost making the piece seem like an editorial.

Now I will get to the question I’ve really been thinking about: Are we encouraging something preposterous by continuing to support – or perhaps even worship – this sport of football, which we have seen more and more can lead to devastating brain injuries that can ruin lives? Is this spectacle something people will look back at in 200 or 300 years and think was crazy?

Of course, we think everything is normal now, it’s all good – but it isn’t. We don’t have everything figured out in 2013. I’ll bet some of our current behavior will seem unimaginable in the future. They’ll ask, How could people have been so blind? Why didn’t anyone stop this? just like we do when we consider some of the tragedies of the past.

Are we supporting a modern-day gladiator situation? Are we encouraging brutes to bang their heads against each other, knowing it will lead to their detriment, in a coliseum? And is that comparison so far out?

I will have the distinct honor this Wednesday of interviewing Mr. Malcolm Gladwell, one of the foremost thinkers of my generation and a terrific journalist, writer and scholar. He has posited college football should be done away with entirely. View one video of him briefly expounding upon his argument here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9qBLb_QBQw

I can’t say I disagree with Mr. Gladwell. Watch the video and tell me his argument is invalid. I’ll bet you can’t.

It’s completely valid. If we have the slightest inkling that this game could ruin its participants’ brains, aren’t we a bit asinine to continue supporting it? Doesn’t that make us masochists?

It’s even more crazy than labeling Jonathan Martin a coward.

Recent entries of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week:

Oct. 30, 2013: A blast-off of creativity

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