Back by popular demand, it’s The Fury Files, the seventh-most downloaded Q&A on Kindle. As always, I will shamelessly plug previous editions, so check out my interviews with Tom Linnemann, John Millea, David Brauer, Joe Posnanski, Pat Coleman, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Michael Kruse and Chris Jones.
This week’s guest is Chris Ballard, a Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated. Ballard joined SI in 2000 and has been a Senior Writer for about eight years. All he’s done during that time is become one of the best writers in the magazine, not to mention one of the most versatile. Ballard is best-known for his superb NBA writing. And while it’s a well-deserved reputation — as these stories on the dunk and Kevin Durant prove — it would be unfortunate if his skills as a hoops wordsmith overshadowed the fact he’s put together a series of features at SI that stack up against anyone’s.
This year, Ballard was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in profile writing for a November 2011 story about Dewayne Dedmon, a Jehovah’s Witness who went against his mother’s beliefs and eventually became a Division I basketball player. Twice Ballard has earned inclusion in the Best American Sports Writing series. The first time was for his 2006 story on an insane high school football game in Arkansas. The 2011 anthology honored Ballard’s story on Cal crew member Jill Costello and her inspiring fight against cancer. Some of Ballard’s other memorable features include his piece on retired quarterback Jake Plummer, the story of the kissing couple from the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots and a piece from this past February, which you very well might find in next year’s BASW book. The feature focused on Chicago-area high school wrestling coach Mike Powell and his fight against a draining, potentially deadly illness. Ballard did an interview with freelance writer Brandon Sneed and the pair dissected the story on Powell. Make sure to check it out. In the most recent Sports Illustrated — the May 14 issue — Ballard examines Kobe Bryant, his dad, Jellybean, and mom, Pam. The story is “Where Does Greatness Come From?” and is another superb piece by Ballard.
Ballard has also written four books, with the newest one hitting bookstores next week. His first, Hoops Nation, chronicled his half-year-long trip across the country playing pickup basketball. The Butterfly Hunter: Adventures of People Who Found Their True Calling Way Off The Beaten Path came out in 2006. And in 2009, he wrote one of my favorite basketball books ever, The Art of a Beautiful Game.
His latest effort, which is already receiving a lot of praise, is One Shot at Forever: A small town, an unlikely coach and a magical baseball season, the story of a high school baseball team in Illinois that accomplished great things back in the early 1970s. Hoosiers on the diamond. Ballard first told the story of the Macon Ironmen in a 2010 Sports Illustrated story. The book will be released on May 15.
Back to hoops. Ballard was a good high school player who played a year for Division III Pomona College in California. He’s still pretty tough and if you watch the video in this story Ballard wrote about some magical shoes, you can watch a sports writer dunk.
Below, Ballard talks about the inner editorial workings of Sports Illustrated, playing hoops with his dad, an interesting piece about a boring Tiger Woods, column writing vs. longform, finding your voice as a writer, writing about Kobe, his new book, Hoosiers, and a whole lot more. Thanks a lot for your time, Chris.
Do you ever feel added pressure when writing profiles because even today, in a media world that’s changed in so many ways, a Sports Illustrated feature is so often the defining piece on a person? Whether it’s Price on Mike Coolbaugh, Deford on Bobby Knight or Robert Sullivan, Reilly on Bryant Gumbel or you on Mike Powell and Jill Costello, an SI piece is often the one people remember. Do you feel an added sense of responsibility in writing those stories, perhaps especially if they’re on a person who’s not normally in the spotlight?
Certainly. I feel a responsibility to live up to stories like the ones you mention — or at least try my best. I feel a responsibility to the readers of SI, who rightfully have high expectations. And finally there’s a responsibility to myself, if that makes sense. We all know when we’ve done our best work and when we haven’t. Even if editors like a story I write, I’ll always know if it could have been better. That’s something it took me a while to learn: never cheat yourself.
What’s changed now is that no media entity is a must-read anymore. Sports fans don’t read SI stories just because they’re in SI. You have to earn readership, and that’s a good thing. But it can also be a daunting prospect.
As far as writing about people outside the public eye, that’s a tremendous responsibility. They are sharing their life with me. I’m putting it out there to an audience that likely knows nothing about them, and may never hear about them again. The story could change their life, in ways small and large. For that reason I try to explain it all up front: the depth of the story, what I’m going to require and the potential ramifications. With the Macon story that became my latest book — which I see you ask about later — that was a particular concern.
I’ve been fascinated with SI since I was about 5, and once I got older the inner workings of the magazine and the history of it became even more interesting to me. Michael MacCambridge’s The Franchise devotes a lot of space to the editing process at SI. But that came out more than a decade ago. What’s the editing like at Sports Illustrated, on both longform pieces and stories that are timely and on a tight deadline? Without getting yourself into trouble, are there many battles? Do writers get a lot of say in changes?
It varies. For a beat story — say a piece on an NBA playoff series — the process is relatively straightforward. Writer files story. Copydesk formats it and routes to NBA editor. That editor goes through it, inserting notes and questions along the way, then sends it to a top editor who does the same. The writer resolves the queries, the piece is fact-checked and copyedited and then it’s done.
As for battles, they aren’t all that common, at least in my experience. Most of the time it’s just a bunch of compromises. Sometimes, to my ear, these can hurt a piece. Other times, the editors save you from yourself. I’m fortunate enough as a longform writer to work with one of the best editors in the business, Chris Hunt. And before that it was the now-departed Bob Roe, who has a tremendous ear (he was MacGregor’s editor when Jeff was at the mag).
What are three pieces from SI’s history — and you can go back to the days when bridge players appeared on the cover — you wish you would have had the chance to write, whether it’s profiles on specific people or games and events?
That’s tough, because the stories I remember are often ones I know I couldn’t have written. Like MacGregor on Don King or Reilly on, well, so many things. Reilly had the capacity to live with his stories while working on them, becoming consumed by them for a month at a time, and it showed. When Patrick Ewing wouldn’t talk to him, he made the whole story a series of quotes from other people about Ewing. It was tremendous.
Back to your question, I think I’d choose three older stories, both for the chance to witness historic events and to experience journalism at a time when the access was so much greater. Read the excerpt from Frank Deford’s new book in our recent issue and you’ll get a sense of how it used to be. To ride trains with Bill Bradley and Debusschere would have been amazing. Think of the scenes. So I suppose I’d go with a piece on Bradley, one of the iconic Ali stories and one on Mantle from back in the day.
One of my favorite pieces of yours — which I know received a lot of positive feedback — was the Point After on hoops with your dad. That column was from two years ago and there was talk of a bum shoulder. Is he still playing?
Pleased to report that Phil is still going strong at 73, though he’s had to adapt. He tore up his shooting shoulder for good last summer. A lot of guys would take that as a sign that it’s time to hang it up. Phil? He switched to shooting left-handed. He’s now got a mean little lefty jump hook.
Last September, he joined my brother and I in an annual, four-on-four round robin outdoor tournament in San Anselmo, CA. Phil was the oldest in the tournament by a fair amount. He played five games, hit a couple midrange lefty shots and got a rousing ovation during the post-tourney ceremony. It was awesome.
How old were you when you beat your dad for the first time in a game of one-on-one? And when it happened, was he more bitter or proud?
We didn’t have the kind of relationship where we competed against each other. That wasn’t our family vibe. My brother and I competed if we had no other choice — backyard games, etc. — but always preferred to be on the same team. That’s true to this day, in rec leagues and pickup games. Same goes for my dad.
You talked in the interview with Brandon Sneed about fact-checking stories like Gary Smith’s Higher Education and Jeff MacGregor’s article on W.C. Heinz. While the experience taught you so much, when you eventually started writing your own takeout pieces, did you struggle to find your own voice? Did you have to fight from trying to write like Smith or MacGregor or any of the other classic writers the magazine has produced?
Oh yeah. I still do occasionally. I’ll be stuck for a lede and make the mistake of reading an old Smith story, or a Moehringer story or something by Price or John Jeremiah Sullivan and then hate myself for doing so because the next hour is wasted as I spew out low-grade mimicry.
It was much worse back then. I can go back and read stories I wrote that were basically homages (a nice way of putting it). For a while, every lead I wrote was a huge extended scene, full of observations, just like MacGregor or Tom Wolfe but not as clever. Sometimes it worked; often it didn’t. Here are a couple examples that aren’t totally embarrassing:
That said, I think that’s a necessary and valuable period for any writer to go through. Ben Folds recently wrote a blog post — which I saw linked on Twitter — in which he talked about that process of discovery. He was talking about music but it really holds true for writing.
One excerpt: “You will eventually find that it takes no effort to just be yourself, but the road to that place can be long and rough. The truth is that most artists would not want you to see the evolution of their Voice. It would be very embarrassing. Imitating your heroes, trying on ill-advised affectations. It’s all part of the trip. … While I couldn’t put my finger on why my singing sucked I found that I more easily identified the fake ass singer affectations in others and would encourage them to straighten up the delivery, as if they were sing speaking. As I heard myself coaching them on rehearsal tapes, I heard the Voice that would bring my songs to life. It took no real effort just to be me but it took some time and effort to realize that. We have to learn that we have no control over who we are musically but we do have the choice to be that or to try and be some other motherf*cker. The latter is a lot of work.”
In a Gelf interview, you spoke about the (wrong) perception that there aren’t a lot of great basketball books out there. Why do you think hoops books do seem like second-class citizens in the sports book world?
For one, there’s not as much history. Baseball’s been around forever and so has golf, which not coincidentally are two sports that often get that “mystical” or “literary” tag. There’s also the culture of it. Basketball is always compared to jazz, so there’s this assumption that everything is riffing and free-form. Why that would extend to writing about it I have no idea. Go read A Sense of Where You Are and tell me that isn’t one of the greatest, most disciplined pieces of sportswriting ever. Does it matter what sport it was about? Same for Heaven is a Playground and The Last Shot.
On a related note, when I asked Kevin Van Valkenburg who would be an ideal candidate to write a definitive biography on Kobe Bryant, he said you. I’m guessing you’re not going to announce a book deal for this in this spot, but…why do you think there hasn’t been a book along the lines of “The Jordan Rules” or “When Nothing Else Matters” when it comes to Kobe?
Two main reasons, to my mind. The first is that Bryant hasn’t decided to do one. Most players his age who’ve been that successful have already written an autobiography or cooperated on a book. He’s had lots of offers — or so he once told me — but he’s a guarded guy. I think he worries that it might steal some of his mojo. My guess is that once he retires he might. Then there’s his family, which is even more private. Pam doesn’t talk to the media (though she’s quite nice) and neither do his sisters. As for his father, like Kobe he’s guarding his stories. I get into this in the story I wrote about him and Kobe for this week’s SI.
The second reason is Colorado. Go back and read the court transcripts. It ain’t pretty. There’s no way to make him a sympathetic character if that’s part of the book.
Thus the only way to do it, as I see it, is to make it almost entirely about basketball. Which could work, I suppose. I think he’s perhaps the most fascinating player ever, on a purely technical level. Look at the way he’s maxed out his talent and at the ongoing internal conflict between what he wants to do on the court and what he knows he should do. When I wrote a chapter of Art of a Beautiful Game about him, it was the chapter that got the strongest response. I think that’s because it focused on his freakishness as a player – that competitive drive. That’s the part I find fascinating, not his personal life or deep thoughts, if he has them.
So, do I want to read (or write) 500 pages about Kobe’s life? Not really. Would I read 250 that were a case study of what makes him great? Probably.
Best video about an NBA legend? Jordan’s Come Fly With Me, Bird’s A Basketball Legend, Magic’s Always Showtime.
None of the above. For my money, it will always be NBA Superstars. Charles Barkley dunking to Scandal’s “The Warrior.” Larry Bird and John Mellencamp and “Small Town.” I must have watched that a thousand times growing up. I still get nostalgic tingles when I see it.
As someone who wrote a book on pickup basketball, what was your take on the playground efforts of the NBA guys this past summer? I was able to attend the night Durant and Beasley played at Dyckman — and Beasley mushed a dude in the face — and it was an incredibly entertaining evening. Did it surprise you at all how much guys like Durant and Brandon Jennings seemed to enjoy these outings?
On one hand, I love that the players got out there. That clip of Durant lighting it up at Rucker was viscerally thrilling to watch.
On the other hand, it made me sad. Once upon a time, the mythology of the playground derived from blacktop legends taking it to the pros, not the other way around. Now you see these NBA guys out there and they’re just so much better than the street players, and the street guys are so deferential. I suppose that change was inevitable, but it also feels like something valuable was lost that will never be recovered.
You’ve produced some of the best Point Afters in SI in the years since Reilly left. Very few can pull off the longform features and the column writing in a tight space like that. What are the challenges that are unique to both types of story? Which do you enjoy more?
Kind of you to say but I was in no way a natural in that spot. It’s in good hands now with Phil Taylor, who is such a smooth, natural writer at that length.
For me it was grueling. Writing a really tight, good 900 words is hard. Real hard (and I was fortunate enough to take Judith Crist at Columbia, who kicks your ass over every word choice). With the Point After you have to write something that holds up nationally and will do so a week later. That’s a tough combo. Personally, I preferred to write timeless pieces (like the one about my dad) but you can only do so many of those. The magazine rightly wanted big takes on big sports topics. The only way for me to do that was agonize for days over each word or, alternately, report the hell out of something — I didn’t feel comfortable relying on opinion alone. So I basically treated each column like a miniature longform piece. There was one PA I wrote about a high school basketball player whose father was murdered at one of her games. I reported that one on the ground for six days, driving around the Bay Area. I had enough for 5,000 words by the end. That’s probably not the best, or most efficient, way to approach that space.
As you’ve probably guessed, then, I prefer the longform. There’s room to let a story unfold, for it to breathe. You can use dialogue and scenes and all these literary devices. That doesn’t make it easy by any stretch, but it feels more natural for me.
Speaking of Point After…when I first read it in 2009, I loved your piece on Tiger Woods and how “because we get so little from Woods, we can focus solely on his performance.” Eight months later…a car accident, a golf club, Perkins, sexual addiction, etc. Did you think back to that column when all hell broke loose with Tiger?
Yeah, that was a bit weird. I think that’s how it is with a lot of the really great ones — most of what we learn about them as people can only disappoint us. Obviously, that was the case with Tiger. Same goes for Michael. To be that successful you have to make a lot of sacrifices and tradeoffs in your life, not always for the better (as it turns out, this is a theme of the Kobe & Jellybean story as well).
In the Sneed interview, you talked about how the actual writing process has changed since you had kids. No more all-night Diet Coke benders. But I’m curious if you’ve changed as a writer since having children. Does fatherhood affect your perspective when reporting or writing a story, especially an emotional one? Or is this question a stretch?
Not a stretch at all. I’m almost certain having children has made me a better writer and, when I’m in the field, a better reporter. Of course, it’s harder to do both those things when you have kids — the time crunch is a challenge, especially if you’re intent on being a part of their daily lives. But I’ve found that I’m more empathetic now. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, but I’ve also lost my taste for snark, both as a writer and a reader. Just seems life’s too short for that. That could just be getting older though.
Another effect, and I’m sure this happens to all writers when they become parents, is that I find myself writing about issues involving parenting because that’s what I care about, and am curious about. In the last couple years, two of the bonuses I’ve written — one on Dewayne Dedmon and the Jellybean Bryant piece — were primarily about how we’re raised and the effect it has on us. I’m sure in ten years, when my girls hit that age, I’ll suddenly be very interested in stories about high school sports. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not a bad thing.
When did you think the story of the 1971 Macon High baseball team could be expanded into a book? As you were writing the magazine article did you think it’d make a book or did some time pass after publication before it all came together? And did you have any difficulty expanding the narrative into a book or did the book structure form pretty easily?
Right away I knew it was going to be either a great story or a wild goose chase. The idea came when a guy named Chris Collins emailed me, pitching a story about some old high school team. I get a lot of emails like that — often about someone’s son or daughter and how talented they are — but this one was different (I write a little about it in this week’s Scorecard essay).
I talked to Collins on the phone and he told me about the team, its Cinderella run in the state playoffs and its coach, Lynn Sweet, who’s the kind of character writers dream about: charismatic, controversial, bright, iconoclastic (when there was movie interest, a lot of it was tied to the fact that young Hollywood actors would be excited to portray him).
What sold me, though, was a throw-away comment late in my conversation with Collins. I asked him what happened to the trophy from that year and he said it was in some gas station on the edge of town, on some dusty back shelf. That shocked me. A gas station? How does the greatest moment in a town’s sports history get relegated to a back shelf of a gas station? That’s when I knew there was more than a great sports story here, that there was potential for a great human one (and that gas station scene became both the lede of the story and intro to the book).
The big hurdle, of course, was selling the story to SI. Not every day can you convince the mag to spend 10-12 pages on an old high school baseball team no one’s heard of. Chris Hunt was instrumental in that. I think I also mentioned the word “Hoosiers” about three times in my email pitch.
As far as expanding it into a book, the narrative was all there. It had a defined three-act structure and an epilogue (which in the book became a 10,000-word section). Where I struggled was in learning how to pace the book. I’m accustomed to telling stories in 8,000 words. To tell them at 80,000 requires a steady, slow drip of story, rather than a big rush. That took a while, and I scrapped a lot of drafts. At one point I’d written the first 18,000 words and felt great about it. Then I showed it to my wife, a former magazine editor and English teacher. One of the reasons I love her is she never blows smoke up my ass. In this case, she told me it just wasn’t very good, that I wasn’t writing it like a book but rather like a big expository story. That was hard to hear but necessary. I scrapped it all, spent some time reading screenwriting books and deconstructing good narratives — Devil in the White City, Seabiscuit, Zeitoun, The Lost City of Z — and started again.
Slowly but surely, it came to me. I began relying on scenes and details rather than explaining everything. I went from 45 RPM to 33. The result is the kind of book I’d hoped to write.
Which story of yours generated the most feedback, whether it was letters or phone calls, emails or tweets?
Probably, in order, Jill Costello, Macon, Mike Powell, Jake Plummer and Kobe’s killer instinct. Coincidentally, those first three are also the ones that either got optioned or drew the most film interest. I’m told a story I did on the Vancouver riots was one of the most read bonuses at SI in the last ten years as well, but that may have been in part because there was a huge photo of that couple kissing as the opener. (By the way, apparently the most read bonus of the last ten years was Scott Price on Barry Sanders, which was a great read).
In an interview with The Big Lead a few years ago, you said your favorite basketball movie was “Hoosiers followed by Hoosiers.” As a committed Hoosiers groupie, I guess the only thing I found disappointing in that answer is that there wasn’t another “followed by Hoosiers” added on. So some Hickory High questions:
* Final verdict on Norman Dale: Genius or a bit lucky? He’s gone if Jimmy doesn’t come back, but then again, Jimmy only came back because of what he’d seen coach Dale do with the team. His in-game skills could be shaky. He has the difficult past. If you’re the Hickory school board, do you renew his contract for one more year or say thank you and bring in someone new?
Well, as we all know, school boards are by definition conservative and reactionary in all such stories so of course they’re kicking him out. Of course in real life the head coach of that Milan team was 26 years old and the previous coach was fired for, of all things, ordering new uniforms against the superintendent’s orders. Gotta think if they’d interviewed Norman Dale he’d never have gotten the job. At my school, though? I’m taking Jimmy’s word. If he likes Dale, Dale stays.
* You’re a Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated covering the 1952 Indiana State Tournament. You’ve spent the last two weeks embedded with Hickory. You’ve been there for the practices, the games, and the road trips. You talked to the locals at the barber shop and had off-the-record chats with a slightly intoxicated Myra Fleener. You visited Shooter in the hospital. You went to the movies with Ollie because he couldn’t land a date and shot hoops with Jimmy on the snow-covered playground one cold Indiana night. Hickory just won the state title on Jimmy’s shot.
1. Who’s on the cover of that week’s SI? Jimmy smiling for the first time? Coach Dale? A shot of Jimmy going up for his game-winner? Rade sitting up on the rim after cutting the net down?
Playing along with the hypothetical here, which would require me to convince the SI editors to run a cover story on Indiana high school ball, I’m going with Jimmy shooting the jumper. The photo is taken when he’s at the height of his leap, from a low angle, and you can see the crowd in the background, all watching in anticipation.
2. What are your first three paragraphs in your story for that week’s issue?
Oh man, I don’t know. I think you want to start in medias res — maybe freeze Jimmy there in that moment, at the top of his jump shot — and then flash back and tell the story all the way through so you can hit the big moment, then line break and a short coda to bring it all home.
If you go that route then those first three grafs would be, roughly: 1) Scene showing how big this all is and how small Milan is and enumerating the stakes as Jimmy is dribbling before you freeze him. Then 2) Pull the camera back and pan across the arena and the bench and the faces on it, hinting at all that’s transpired and what this means while introducing some of the other characters — the coach and the boy whose father is in the hospital and the opponents. Maybe you keep them nameless, just using descriptors. And finally 3) A segue back to how this all began and a line that freights the story with meaning, to keep readers going.
That’s off the top of my head, though. I’m sure if I were actually doing it I’d try out about six ledes, end up hating them all and then start again. Part of it would depend on whether we assume readers already know the outcome. If they don’t, you could start the story further back, or make the opener more vague, allowing you to build to the big run without giving away how far they make it.