sports illustrated

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Amazon, Isaiah Austin, & insurance

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 War of the Words (December 2014, Vanity Fair): It lasts six web pages and covers so much, but this story impresses me most because of its restraint.

Writing for Vanity Fair, Keith Gessen discusses the landscape surrounding the current battle between Amazon and book publishers, who feel they are being squashed by a behemoth. He gives a great summary of the current disputes; more importantly, he provides powerful context.

Isn’t it funny how Amazon was initially seen as a force of good for the publishing industry, a counterpoint to the giant chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders? Now Amazon is the giant, and in many ways, Gessen writes, its ascendance represents the more cyclical nature of business rather than a sea change. This poignant paragraph sums it up:

The dispute between Amazon and the publishers is a dispute between an e-commerce giant and companies that have for generations been printing text on paper. In some respects it is also a dispute between the East Coast and the West Coast. It is definitely a dispute between hyper-capitalism and cultural conservation. But in the end it is a dispute that comes down to different visions of the future of the written word.

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3 GREAT STORIES: The all-Grantland edition

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 web site Grantland.com covers a lot of ground … with various degrees of success.

An off-shoot of ESPN’s web site, helmed by its most popular writer, Bill Simmons, the Grantland site is a hub for creative writing on sports and entertainment. At its best, it features some of the sports world’s most perceptive and insightful writers (particularly Zach Lowe, who runs circles around most basketball analysts) and does as good a job as anyone in joyfully tackling the frivolity of show business. At its worst, it often seems hypocritical, transparently searching for the type of clickbait (promoting “‘hot takes’ … dunks, GIFs and more” in its sports coverage) it elsewhere claims to disavow (regularly parodying those same knee-jerk hot sports takes).

But Grantland’s contributors do one thing particularly well: analyze themselves.

Many of the site’s columns involve turning the lens inward, performing the classic storytelling trick of exposing the process of journalism. The writers often insert themselves into stories and discuss their thought process about the very story they are covering. Again, sometimes this comes off as stale and self-promoting. But often it provides a great window into how the media works — especially in the highly-scrutinized worlds of sports and entertainment.

This past week showed three examples of Grantland at its best:

At least one real, authentic moment of humanity with Cameron Diaz (7/23/14, Grantland): Take this story, in which writer Alex Pappademas covers the site’s “Rom-Com Week” — yes, a week devoted to romantic comedies in the movies — by chatting with one of the genre’s more notable actresses, Cameron Diaz.

The problem for Pappademas? His interview with Diaz is a bit of an awkward mess, patrolled by PR folks and unable to produce the kind of honest insight he had desired.

So he focuses his article on just that: the awkwardness.

He sets the tone by sprinkling his first few paragraphs with sentences that read like mental note-jotting, treating himself almost like a detective going to interview a key witness. Throughout the description of his allotted time with Diaz, he documents numerous moments of ridiculousness, exposing more about the process than about Diaz.

It’s an enjoyable — and informative — ride. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring LeBron, Seinfeld, & a special friendship

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.

LeBron: I’m coming back to Cleveland (7/11/14, Sports Illustrated): Sometimes telling a great story is simply about having the thing that everyone wants.

For two weeks, LeBron James had it.

Every sports fan — and plenty of non-sports fans, too — wanted to learn where the NBA’s greatest player would spend the rest of his career. Would he stay with the Miami Heat, the team with which he won two championships over the last four years? Or would he take his talents elsewhere?

James decided to go to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, and he announced his decision with a poignant, well-thought article on SI.com. He gave the scoop to Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins, who transcribed James’ comments and turned them into a cogent work of writing.

The web site will likely draw record traffic this weekend, and it should. LeBron James gave everyone a reason to click. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the NBA Finals and Iraq

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.

It’s no secret: I love professional basketball.

And I soak in the NBA Finals.

I continue to be heartened by the amount of quality coverage that results from the world’s greatest sporting events. Here are two examples from last week, as well as a shattering photo gallery from the Big Picture:

Spurs make Heat’s Big Three look obsolete in Finals rout (6/16/14, SI.com): Sports commentators and writers are nothing if not prolific.

They can create storylines, react (and often overreact) to results, and draw larger themes from individual examples.

But so few actually do it very well.

Michael Rosenberg has penned some of the strongest analysis of this year’s NBA playoffs, and he does so again here following Game 5 of the Finals, where the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat to win this year’s championship, 4 games to 1.

Rosenberg wisely chooses to look ahead as much as he looks back, comparing the impending free agency of Miami’s star players with their similar summer of 2010, when LeBron James first joined the team. He adds personality and flair but never oversells his points. He simply provides proper analysis of an oft-analyzed franchise. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #18: Thomas Lake, senior writer, Sports Illustrated

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Last week I wrote a tribute to the amazing — and newly retired — Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith. I mentioned how I first read one of Smith’s famous long-form, back-of-the-magazine epics as a teenager; I then rediscovered him as a young journalist.

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

One of Smith’s successors at Sports Illustrated — and one of the finest heirs to his long-form legacy — had a similar experience and has reaped the benefits of a rewarding relationship with this sportswriting icon.

That young journalist is Thomas Lake.

His career has taken him from daily newspapers to regional magazines to, currently, the most prestigious sports magazine in the world. And roughly midway through that journey, Lake got a major assist from his future SI colleague.

Lake discusses Smith’s influence, his own work, and advice for young journalists on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast. (more…)

Saying goodbye to Gary Smith, this era’s greatest sportswriter

I think of it as a rite of passage.

When I turned 13 years old, I achieved a religious milestone: my bar-mitzvah, in which a Jewish boy, upon that pivotal birthday, becomes a man. And I cherished it.

But unbeknownst to most of my loved ones – and, to be sure, my rabbi – I had experienced, earlier that year, another giant leap forward that represented, to me, a sign of growth and maturity.

I subscribed to Sports Illustrated.

And, in the process, I cancelled my subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids.

(Technically, my parents paid for these subscriptions, but let’s not worry about that.)

I could not contain my excitement. An aspiring sportscaster and avid sports fan, I could not wait to start reading a grown-up sports magazine. Like any teenager, grasping at adulthood before reaching it, I wanted to spread my wings in every avenue possible, even in the seemingly frivolous category of magazine readership.

My enthusiasm for the sports themselves, however, was still childlike. When I opened Sports Illustrated each week, I zoomed to the quick hits, short articles, and entertaining pieces that focused on the games and players, as opposed than the stories that surrounded them.

Then I found Gary Smith.

And I read the article that altered my view on sports, sports journalism, and writing – permanently. (more…)

5 lessons from the Best American Sports Writing stories of 2013

Eleven years ago, a book about journalism, writing, and storytelling blew my mind.

I was, at the time, a senior in the journalism school at Northwestern University. I loved to read, and I loved to write, so naturally I found my interest piqued when I noticed a certain anthology at the bookstore: the 2002 edition of Best American Sports Writing.

Upon reading the first two articles, I had received enough inspiration to fuel me for the rest of college.

The Best American Sports Writing anthology is a collection of the top written sports stories of a given year, selected by a guest editor noted as a prominent sports journalist. In 2002, that editor was Rick Reilly, and he wrote in his introduction a 10-step advice column for how to become a better writer. I still look at it today when I am in a rut, and I even referenced it this past week in my “3 Great Stories” column.

Following Reilly’s intro was the book’s first selection, an article by Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke entitled “Her Blue Haven”. You can still find it online today.

The article details Plaschke’s correspondence with an LA Dodgers blogger who has cerebral palsy; she writes her blog entries with a head pointer because she cannot harness her hands well enough to type with her fingers.

It is, to this day, one of my all-time favorite stories.

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