Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

March 2, 2009

A Winn-Win for College Basketball

Sports Illustrated's young beat writer straddles the print-online divide, saving his best and biggest output for March Madness.

Mickey Lambert

The college-basketball preseason is rife with the kind of hype that can only be generated by a seemingly endless number of pundits playing to the championship dreams of ardent fan bases across the country. Student villages spring up in the days, weeks, and even months before tickets go on sale, with fans sometimes risking their lives to nab seats at the big-ticket games.

Luke Winn. Photo by Michael Berger.
"You're neglecting sleep, neglecting health, neglecting relationships. But it's hard not to enjoy being in the middle of the best event in sports."

Luke Winn. Photo by Michael Berger.

No doubt, the hardcore fans shivering in their tents in Storrs, Connecticut, or clutching beer cans in Durham, North Carolina, are passing the time endlessly refreshing their mobile browsers for the latest news on their beloved teams. They're not just passively digesting the predictions, team profiles, and preseason rankings, either—fans are engaging in their own prognostications and analysis, sometimes in direct dialogue with the journalists to whose work they are responding. The ubiquity of web-based sports journalism has not only endowed writers with a virtual podium on which to broadcast their particular takes to the world; it's also given fans the kind of Q&A time that they never had when sports news still meant flipping to the back pages of the local paper. In addition, the kind of following that writers themselves develop as a result of this interchange means that they can no longer hide behind their bylines. The kind of feedback that used to be saved for the monthly Letters to the Editor column is now coming directly to their inboxes, sometimes hundreds of letters a day.

Luke Winn is more than familiar with this phenomenon; he's a prime example of a young sportswriter who has made his name primarily on the web. Winn, though only 28, is in his sixth season writing about college hoops for Sports Illustrated and SI.com, having joined them as an intern while still at the Medill School at Northwestern. After graduating in 2002, he became SI.com's college football editor, and also began compiling his highly popular College Hoops Power Rankings, which track the ups and downs of the elite college basketball teams, monitoring their ebb and flow over the course of the season. While he acknowledges the venom of the occasional rabid fan, Winn is much more excited than you might expect about the newly evolving relationship between fans and writers—and is building additional inroads to deepen that relationship. "I have a (professional) Facebook page with 500-plus fans, and I genuinely enjoy hearing from fans who read my work," he notes. "The good parts of the fan interaction, in my experience, far outweigh the bad."

In addition to the Power Rankings, Winn also writes regular columns for SI.com and its college-hoops blog on FanNation, In the Paint, and pens an occasional feature for the magazine. To top it off, he is currently steeling himself for the fourth installment of the SI Tourney Blog, a marathon chronicling of the NCAA tournament that begins at the conference tournaments and rolls right to the championship game.

In this interview, which was conducted by email and edited for length and clarity, Winn talks about his development as a young sportswriter, his early passion for college hoops, and why sports fans love lists so much. You can hear Winn and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work (and you may be able to pry some insider information about tourney brackets) at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, March 5, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: To begin, let's talk about your work at SI, where you started in 2002. Can you talk about how your writing responsibilities have evolved over the years, and how they have been affected by the changes at SI and SI.com?

Luke Winn: It's easiest to divide my work along the lines of magazine and web. This year, as some of our readers have probably noticed, Grant Wahl, who's the lead college-hoops features guy for the magazine (and pretty much annual winner of the USBWA's award for best feature), is out of the rotation. He didn't get laid off—he's just on sabbatical in South Africa, and that created some opportunities for me to write more magazine stories. Whereas last season, I only wrote two features (profiles of Kansas's Darnell Jackson and Notre Dame's Luke Harangody), this season I'm probably going to end up doing five (on UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, Arizona State's Artesia High Gang, Wake Forest's James Johnson, and two more to be determined). These types of pieces take a ton more time to develop—a few weeks, on average, compared to a day for a web column.
Even with the greater load of magazine stories that I'm taking on this year, though, SI.com is still my main gig. That's where I started—at first, just working on the College Hoops Power Rankings and serving as the college-football editor. I do a few pieces a week for SI.com, but I put the most effort into the Power Rankings, because they get read the most. SI.com keeps detailed traffic stats, and people are drawn to ranked or listed things at something like 20 times the rate they are to more traditional columns. You could view that as a sad reality of the modern-day web readership, or as an invitation to put some of your best stuff into a piece that has the framework of rankings, so it gets read. I might write 3,000 words in the 16-team blurbs, and very rarely is any of it actually about the way in which I have ordered the teams.
As for the changes to the magazine and website over the years, when I started at SI.com (then CNNSI.com) in 2002, there was very little interaction between the staffs of the website and the magazine. The main web office was in Atlanta and the magazine was in New York. Now all of SI's entities are on the same two floors of the Time-Life building in New York, plenty of former magazine staffers work for the website, and there's a lot of healthy overlap amongst writers that leaves both entities both better off. You don't just write for one thing or the other now; if you go on a trip for a magazine story you might get asked to write for the web, too; and if you're on assignment for the web you might get asked to contribute some reporting for the magazine.

Gelf Magazine: Have you always wanted to write about college basketball? How does it compare to covering other sports?

Luke Winn: I didn't even grow up following a great team (my dad was a Wisconsin season-ticket holder in the '90s) or go to a college with even a mediocre team (my alma mater is Northwestern, which has never even been to an NCAA tournament), but I was always obsessed with college hoops, especially Larry Brown's and Roy Williams's old Kansas teams, whom I only ever saw on TV.
Over time, I've gained an appreciation for covering the sport. You go into a MLB clubhouse, and it can be kind of uncomfortable (at least to me). Frequently, you'll get the same treatment as say, a door-to-door missionary; you're a nuisance your subjects might be willing to tolerate for a few minutes, but they'd prefer you just go away, and sometimes they're not afraid to tell you so. On the other hand, most college-hoops players tend to be genuinely excited to be appearing in SI, and you get the kind of access that you need to do quality features. I also consider the games themselves—from the big regular-season matchups that kids camp out to see all the way up to the NCAA tournament—to be more exciting than those in any other sport.

Gelf Magazine: In your interview last year with your fellow Varsity Letters guests from Storming the Floor, you talked about the guidance you got from writers like Stew Mandel, both during your college years at Northwestern and afterward when you began writing for SI. Do you think it is typical to get that kind of mentorship from more seasoned pros? How do young sportswriters seeking to break in make those kinds of connections?

Luke Winn: I don't know if it was mentoring as much as people having faith to hire me when I didn't have much experience. Stew did some recruiting at Northwestern and recommended me for an internship at CNNSI when all I had was a few clips from the Wisconsin State Journal and a bunch of experience doing web design. And he vouched for me to replace him as college-football editor for the site when he became a full-time writer. SI has made somewhat of a practice of this; we did the same thing with Gennaro Filice, who started as an intern from Michigan and eventually moved up to be our college-football editor when I was freed up to write full-time. Our college-hoops editor, Nina Mandell, is another younger NU grad who also was a former intern.
On the basketball-writing front, Seth Davis and Grant Wahl have always been good about sharing sources, advice, opinions, etc., when I ask. Writers are generally so busy in-season that they're not going to do any mentoring in a classic sense. But you can help yourself, as a young writer, by just paying close attention to writers you respect—how they file off of a game, how they report—and learning from them. It's best, early on, to acknowledge that you don't really know what you're doing, and try to emulate those who do.

Gelf Magazine: How is the experience of writing for SI? How do you think the brand compares to other major sports journalism sites?

Luke Winn: I know we're not No. 1 in traffic amongst sports sites, but I once saw a PowerPoint from our marketing people that said our readers are wealthier and better-educated than other sites' readers. I thought that was nice. It's not always evident from some of the emails I get, but I hope it helps us sell ads. As for working for the site itself, I think we do a pretty good job of giving our writers the freedom to do what they do best (something that varies from person to person) and also playing them up as brands by putting their faces on the front page. Far more often than I get asked about meeting Greg Oden or Mike Krzyzewski, people want to know if I hang out with Peter King, Tom Verducci, or Seth Davis. (No, no and yes—we sat next to each other at the Pitt-UConn game the other night.) So, that branding has impact on how fans recognize and respond to our work—they recognize our bylines and mugshots. Also, being associated with SI carries a decent amount of weight when asking for interviews or access.

Gelf Magazine: The feature on Thabeet focused on his unlikely rise from relative basketball anonymity in Tanzania—a country that has heretofore not produced a single NBA player—to a guy that (the admittedly biased) Jim Calhoun recently dubbed "the most powerful force in the country." Do you see his breakout as an isolated incident in terms of him being in the right place at the right time, or is this a portent of things to come, with raw talent being identified overseas and developed on the college level in the US?

Luke Winn: The international crowd in college hoops is going to keep growing, both because of expanded recruiting, and the efforts of investments in African hoops infrastructure by groups such as Basketball Without Borders. The process of getting the kids from a place like Tanzania to the US needs to get streamlined, though: You see two kids like Hasheem and Ater Majok, at UConn, who seem to be really intelligent and capable of handling college, and both of them had to deal with major transcript issues because they bounced around from country to country and school to school before landing at college. Their transcripts were a mess, and it was hard to get them through the NCAA's rigid clearinghouse. You have to hope, five or ten years from now, that these kids will be able to get NCAA eligibility without a small army of lawyers behind them slugging it out.

Gelf Magazine: There are other unorthodox trends emerging in terms of identifying basketball talent: One of your features this year focused on James Johnson, the rising star at Wake Forest, who came out of the MMA ranks. How did he end up with the Deacs and not as fodder for your colleague Jon Wertheim's book? What about his MMA experience has prepared him to take the court?

Luke Winn: I think you don't see many 6'9" players with the balance and agility that he has, and most of that comes from all the kickboxing and karate training—landing roundhouse kicks and doing backflips and mastering footwork. He doesn't play as outwardly tough, on the floor, as guys like Tyler Hansbrough or DeJuan Blair, but I don't doubt Johnson when he says that he fears no opponent. Stepping into an MMA or kickboxing ring one-on-one against someone has to be far scarier than merely guarding him on the basketball court.

"It's best, early on, to acknowledge that you don't really know what you're doing, and try to emulate those who do."
Gelf Magazine: What have been the top three stories of this season for you? (They don't need to be ones you've specifically covered, though it's great if they are.)

Luke Winn: 1. The constant question of whether Carolina can win the title. Some Tar Heels fans consider a lot of this nitpicking or nagging, because they do have a really good team. But the fact that they've lost a few key guys to injuries (Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Zeller) and don't play exceptionally good defense means that they're not a lock, and that will make the NCAA tournament intriguing.
2. Thabeet's breakout at UConn. When I wrote that story on him in SI's preview issue, there were people who questioned his relevance entirely. And maybe for a while at the start of the season, I worried that we might have overestimated him—but not now. He's been college hoops' clear defensive player of the year and has been talked about quite a bit in the past few weeks.
3. Gary Williams's demise (or impending demise) at Maryland. I played a part in starting that problem with the Tyree Evans story back in April, and it's turned into a full-blown examination of his recruiting struggles and public spats with the administration.

Gelf Magazine: What is your current favorite place to watch a college-basketball game?

Luke Winn: Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler. I'm a sucker for nostalgia even though I'm only 28. The NCAA tournament needs to go all-retro for a year and make Hinkle a regional site. I don't care about how much money they'd lose—it would be the greatest tourney site ever.

Gelf Magazine: What is your favorite college-basketball memory? (I'm pretty partial to the Big East representation in the 1985 Final Four, though I was pulling for St. John's—both my parents went there.)

Luke Winn: Mine is just my first NCAA tournament: 1994, for the first and second rounds at Weber State in Ogden, Utah. Wisconsin finally earned a bid and my dad wanted to travel out there to see the games. I had obsessed over the tourney for so long—running pools in middle school, missing school to watch it on TV—that it was almost this magical event to finally see it in person. It didn't hurt that the first game I saw was Wisconsin-Green Bay upsetting Cal (which had Jason Kidd). I stole one of those long white NCAA signs at the end of the thing and kept it up in our basement for years.

Gelf Magazine: I have to agree with the guys at Storming the Floor—I love the Style Archive feature that you've done four installments of this season. Any more volumes coming this season? There's got to be another facial hair-themed one waiting in the wings somewhere, right?

Luke Winn: There are more coming. I've slacked on the Style Archive during the regular season due to the aforementioned magazine work. I'll make up for that by doing a bunch of them during the NCAA tournament, when everyone is reading the site and I'm blogging for about 30 straight days.

Gelf Magazine: For sportswriters covering college basketball, March Madness is the equivalent of tax season for accountants. Heading into the tourney, what are the expectations placed upon you for daily news coverage, blogging, and feature stories? Can you talk about the experience of covering it?

Luke Winn: For the past three seasons I've been doing what's probably my favorite project at SI, the Tourney Blog, where almost all of my writing goes during March Madness. When it started, in 2006, it was the first large-scale NCAA tourney blog amongst the mainstream press (or at least that's my claim), and it was sort of an experiment that turned out to be pretty popular on the site. Covering the tourney itself is a rush and a test of stamina. You might be on the road for most of three to four weeks, neglecting sleep, neglecting health, neglecting relationships. But it's the NCAA tournament! It's hard not to enjoy being in the middle of the best event in sports. The teams are killing themselves just like you are, too: A few years ago I was with Virginia Commonwealth on the night after they upset Duke, and their coaches and video guys essentially pulled an all-nighter in the hotel studying up on Pitt so they could present the team with a plan the next day. I showed up at their practice on about four hours sleep, just dragging and yawning, and Anthony Grant is up there lecturing them like he'd had eight hours of rest. I figured I should suck it up and avoid complaining.

Gelf Magazine: In addition to the yeoman task of that level of coverage, you also added a unique feature to the blog last year—a daily playlist curated by your friends at Gorilla vs. Bear, a popular music site. Is the playlist coming back this year?

Luke Winn: I'm not sure if the playlist is coming back; I never got any feedback on it, so I worried that people considered it a nuisance. The way it worked last year is that Chris and David from GvB gave me a ton of songs to pick from—I chose the ones I wanted and created the order. David was one of my good friends at Northwestern, and we worked on a magazine together there. So that's my connection to the blog. We have similar music tastes and I (mostly) trust his judgment.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have a favorite independent blog covering college basketball? Any team blogs that you think do a particularly good job of covering their respective squads?

Luke Winn: I read a lot of blogs, so my biggest worry here is not name-checking all of them. I'm going to forget some of them, and I'm sorry for that. Yahoo's The Dagger, although it isn't independent, has been really good this year. Storming the Floor and Rush The Court are the two other national ones I monitor the most. I like the team blogs that get into all the minutiae, because as a national reporter you tend to always be caught up in the big picture. In particular, Kentucky's A Sea of Blue, Syracuse's Troy Nunes is An Absolute Magician, Card Chronicle (for Louisville), and The Slipper Still Fits (for Gonzaga) get really into the detail of the teams they cover—there are too many more to mention here. Fans are lucky to have dedicated blogs like those.

Gelf Magazine: How's your bracket luck been over the years? Does your insider status help you at all in this arena, or is it more of a thorn in your side in this case? Any early predictions for this year, or has it been too topsy-turvy to make any solid picks?

Luke Winn: About a week ago, I was set on UConn as my champ. Then the Huskies lost Jerome Dyson, and looked kind of average against Pitt, and I'm not so sure anymore. I've found that getting closer to the scene hasn't helped my brackets. I won a few pools in college, but since taking this job I've been mediocre with my picks. Not so bad that I'm completely out of the running in the SI pool—I've been in contention a few times, and picked the wrong champ—but never in the money. I have finished first in one pool: my girlfriend's, which consisted of a bunch of friends and family last season. She considered the victory to be bullshit, because I was a ringer, and didn't make anyone pay me. So even when I won, I didn't win.

Mickey Lambert

Mickey Lambert is a sports fan and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.







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Article by Mickey Lambert

Mickey Lambert is a sports fan and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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