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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2016, written edition

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The tradition continues.

Every December, I look back at my “3 Great Stories” posts from the past year and decide on which stories, I feel, rose above the rest.

I often find I enjoy the stories the second time almost as much as the first.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year next week. This week, without further ado, I present my three favorite written pieces of 2016 — and an honorable mention — along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

HM) Brotherhood (3/23/16, Bleacher Report): Early on in “Brotherhood”, Howard Beck’s infinitely engrossing long-form story about the friendship between two basketball superstars, one of those stars makes a poignant statement.

“In our sport, or sports in general, everyone wants instant oatmeal,” says LeBron James. “Put it in the microwave, hit 30 seconds, you got a meal. Sometimes, no matter how great you are, it doesn’t happen like that.”

Now replace “sports” with “journalism”. In this era, many audiences — and news bosses — demand “instant oatmeal” from journalists, seeking and investing in clickbait and easy answers over more layered, complicated work.

Stories like this prove what one can get by waiting for a splendid meal.

Beck presents a fascinating portrait of two players — James and Carmelo Anthony — whose friendship and rivalry have provided a powerful undercurrent to the NBA’s past dozen years. This piece made headlines for a different “instant oatmeal” quote, where James muses how he would love to, one day, join forces with Anthony. But that quote comes at the end. The rest is a beautiful blend of smile-worthy memories, did-you-know-that stories, and revealing quotes from two of the league’s best.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Bill Kennedy, ethics, & hip-hop

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The official coming-out party (10/12/16, ESPN): Rarely have I seen a story whose tone is set immediately by its opening photo.

But upon clicking on the above link, you will be confronted with not words but a full-screen snapshot of a recent Pride Parade — with one figure on a float towering above the crowd, in both height and happiness.

He is Bill Kennedy, an NBA referee who came out last winter after a player described him with a homophobic slur.

As you scroll down, you will find 7,000+ words from versatile ESPN scribe Kevin Arnovitz, who provides some of the site’s best analysis and, in this case, a compelling portrait. He fills his profile of Kennedy with revealing anecdotes and morsels. He describes Kennedy’s complicated existence as a gay man in a high-profile job, constantly monitoring who among his colleagues and connections knew of his sexual orientation.

Arnovitz deserves credit for a masterful story. But it starts with that first photo, taken by David Dow, which displays Kennedy’s newfound comfort and happiness better than any word.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the NBA, Zach Lowe, & honks

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Trading places: Warriors’ Harrison Barnes investigates Marcus Thompson’s Oakland roots (5/22/16, The Mercury News): Amidst the sea of coverage of the NBA playoffs, this NBA story — which has zero to do with the playoffs — stands out.

Marcus Thompson II is a writer for the San Jose Mercury News. Harrison Barnes is a starting forward for the Golden State Warriors. For one afternoon, they switch roles … to poignant results.

The premise: Barnes wants to learn more about Thompson’s roots, specifically the neighborhood in Oakland where Thompson grew up. In those days, Thompson says, Sobrante Park was a rough neighborhood, and the writer recounts anecdotes from his childhood in a way that makes him feel emotionally vulnerable.

This article is all kinds of powerful. But so is the accompanying 10-minute video, made by Thompson and Courtney Cronin, that follows Thompson and Barnes on their tour of Sobrante Park. Kudos to all involved.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring violins, cheat codes, & Cuba

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Only in Indiana: The Awakening (4/6/16, WTHR-TV): One of the best storytelling tandems in local news just produced a gem.

Reporter Kevin Rader and photographer Steve Rhodes always craft powerful, joyous stories for WTHR-TV’s “Only in Indiana” segment. In this case, they turn their gaze to a young boy named Elias, blind and deaf since birth, and his “awakening” with a musical instrument.

To say much more would mean spoiling a truly beautiful piece. Rader offers tender narration while Rhodes provides his usual exquisite editing; I have profiled these two before, and I have no doubt I will mention them again in this space before too long.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring LeBron, Carmelo, & ice hockey

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Brotherhood (3/23/16, Bleacher Report): Early on in “Brotherhood”, Howard Beck’s infinitely engrossing long-form story about the friendship between two basketball superstars, one of those stars makes a poignant statement.

“In our sport, or sports in general, everyone wants instant oatmeal,” says LeBron James. “Put it in the microwave, hit 30 seconds, you got a meal. Sometimes, no matter how great you are, it doesn’t happen like that.”

Now replace “sports” with “journalism”. In this era, many audiences — and news bosses — demand “instant oatmeal” from journalists, seeking and investing in clickbait and easy answers over more layered, complicated work.

Stories like this prove what one can get by waiting for a splendid meal.

Beck presents a fascinating portrait of two players — James and Carmelo Anthony — whose friendship and rivalry have provided a powerful undercurrent to the NBA’s past dozen years. This piece made headlines for a different “instant oatmeal” quote, where James muses how he would love to, one day, join forces with Anthony. But that quote comes at the end. The rest is a beautiful blend of smile-worthy memories, did-you-know-that stories, and revealing quotes from two of the league’s best.

(more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Marvin Gaye, stocks, & Roanoke

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

How Marvin Gaye’s NFL tryout changed his career (8/21/15, ESPN.com): I cannot believe I had never heard this story.

Marvin Gaye, Motown legend and one of the great soul singers of all time, once tried out for the NFL? For the Detroit Lions?

Really???

Really. Apparently Gaye’s dalliance with pro football is a well known story of that era, but credit ESPN.com writer Justin Tinsley for re-telling it in a thorough, powerful way. It follows the artist through the torturous moments of his singing career that led him to a different avenue … albeit for a brief, one-tryout-long amount of time.

Like any great piece of this nature, Tinsley not only lands the necessary interviews but writes with both interest and compassion. He serves as a great conduit for this remarkable tale.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring DeAndre, Elsa, & Chattanooga

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

DeAndre Jordan’s round trip (7/14/15, ESPN.com): Last week I smothered praise upon Grantland NBA writer Zach Lowe for landing such a huge interview in the wake of DeAndre Jordan re-signing with the Clippers.

And while Lowe’s interview remains a great get, two of his colleagues at ESPN came through this week with what will go down as the definitive story behind Jordan’s big decision.

Ramona Shelburne and Tim McMahon, who cover the Clippers and Mavericks, respectively, used all their source-power to put together a day-by-day chronicle of what went on behind the scenes. Jordan signed with the Mavs, had second thoughts, met with coaches and teammates from the Clippers, and set off a frenzy of social media activity that had the whole basketball-following world ablaze. Shelburne and McMahon talk to nearly every key player in this story (with the notable exception of Jordan himself, who has yet to say much), and they produce a tremendous read.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Atkins, custard, & Stuart Scott

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Getting back with carbs (1/9/15, The Atlantic): Sometimes it all comes down to tone.

Strike the wrong tone for a story, and it will stick out like a cactus spine.

Strike the right tone, and it will flow like a waterfall.

In this case, The Atlantic strikes it right.

James Hamblin authors this piece about the redesigned Atkins diet — It limits protein! It allows for carbs! — and treats it with all the skepticism of a Daily Show correspondent. The wariness is warranted, as Hamblin chronicles the history of the diet and its several mutations.

The article is informative and entertaining, and it is accompanied by cartoon graphics and a musing sub-headline, all the underscore the curiosity of its subject:

“The reinvented Atkins diet flirts with reason.”

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2014, audio/video edition

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Having done the “3 Great Stories” segment all year long, I now face the challenge of picking my favorites.

But I have picked them, and here they are.

I posted my three favorite written stories of the year last week. This week, without further ado, I present my three favorite audio/video pieces of 2014, along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

#3) Knox County man builds backyard roller-coaster — again (10/29/14, WTHR-TV): I will say it simply: this story is one of the finest TV features I have seen in a long time.

The “plot” is simple, summed up in the above headline. A rural Indiana man has gained worldwide fame for a roller-coaster he built in his own backyard. Most stations might assign a reporting crew to tell the story in 90 seconds; it might make a nice feature but then fade from memory quickly afterwards.

Not this station, and not this story.

Reporter Kevin Rader and photographer Steve Rhodes put an extraordinary amount of care into this piece, and it shows in every loving touch. They reveal a new layer of the story every minute, and they present their subject, named John Ivers, in the context of both his creation (the roller-coaster) and his community.

I challenge you to watch this and not crack a smile. (more…)

5 lessons from the Best American Sports Writing Stories of 2014

I said it last year, and I’ll say it again:

One of my favorite fall traditions is opening the annual anthology of the Best American Sports Writing series.

In this space alone, I have spoken of its influence on my career, interviewed a writer whose work has been featured in the anthology, and thanked one columnist whose entry more than a decade ago touched my heart.

Now, the fall has arrived once again, and so has this year’s collection.

And, much as it did last year and every year, the 2014 edition of the Best American Sports Writing anthology provides both inspiration and valuable journalistic lessons.

Here are five such lessons from five stories that made this year’s cut: (more…)