January 30, 2006

Double Team

Two Sports Illustrated writers talk to Gelf about their book Foul Lines, an NBA satire with some juicy material that doesn't always fit in the magazine.

Carl Bialik

In the new pro-basketball fiction 'Foul Lines,' Sports Illustrated NBA writers Jack McCallum and Jon Wertheim shift the milieu to the nonexistent NBF. It's not the Los Angeles Lakers whose aloof star player struggles en route to a losing season, but the Los Angeles Lasers. And the book is hardly about basketball, but about the players' lives off the court. In particular, it's about how those lives intersect with the work of wunderkind team PR chief Jamal Kelly, an African-American Yale student and hoops junkie plucked by the team during his senior year, and dogged Los Angeles Times beat reporter Jilly Forrester. The world of strip clubs, drug use, publicist spin, scandal cover-up, and bling won't be unfamiliar to NBA fans, though the screenplay-ready prose is a long way from the typical SI article. (Disclosure: I'm friendly with Jon, and in 2000 I interned at Sports Illustrated's website.)

McCallum and Wertheim emailed with Gelf about why writing fiction is "exhilarating," why they don't expect NBA players to read their work, how email is an indispensable tool for co-authored books, and how they fell in love with one of their main characters. Here's an edited version of the interview:

Gelf Magazine: How did the idea for the book come about? How long did it take from idea to publication?

Jack McCallum: Jon gets the credit. He thought a joint project with all the R-rated NBA stuff we had left over at the end of the season would be a good idea. Our original idea was to pitch it as a TV series, probably with a cable network. But we couldn't get anywhere in Hollywood. We'd hear, "Oh, George Clooney is working on something," and that would be it for Jon and Jack. Jon's agent, Scott Waxman, then talked about a novel. We had our doubts but we went ahead. Jon—do you remember when we started?
Jon Wertheim: I suppose it's the nature of any type of journalism in which there are space constraints, but when you write a story for Sports Illustrated, invariably you have far more material and color and observation than you can possibly cram in the allotted space. This was a way of taking that material and those themes, putting it together in a (hopefully) coherent way, and creating the composite picture of the NBA, circa 2006. We had worked on this, on and off, for a few years. It was always a side-project, an exercise that was enabling us to stretch our abilities, such as they are.

GM: How did you two divvy up the work? Was it tough to find a coherent voice and focus for the story?

McCallum: Strangely, finding a coherent voice was the easiest thing. I'm not sure why. We assigned chapters to each other. We didn't write together. But we edited the hell out of each other via email and on our three-times-a-month face to faces. I'm not sure there are more than a dozen paragraphs in the book that were not, at the end of the day, jointly written.
Wertheim: At one point we came across an Evelyn Waugh quote that said something to the effect of, "Two people trying to write a book is like three people trying to have a baby." I thought this experience was totally contrary to that: It was really enjoyable having a partner to navigate plot or decapitate cringe-inducing lines. If the voice sounds coherent, it's because we were so hands-on with each other's work. That said, how the "co-author" concept could have existed before email is an enduring mystery to me.

Jack McCallum and Jon Wertheim
Courtesy Sports Illustrated
Jack McCallum and Jon Wertheim
GM: You've both written nonfiction books, and of course nonfiction is your typical genre for Sports Illustrated. What are the pros and cons of writing fiction vs. nonfiction books? Was it liberating to be able to write a book inspired by reality without having to nail every detail?

McCallum: Liberating isn't the word. Exhilarating would be more like it. The average reader would never understand how your work is vetted, by editors and fact-checkers, at Sports Illustrated. To be able to say, "Hey, let's have Jilly and Jamal make out in Jamal's office," was fantastic.
Wertheim: On a practical level there was something liberating about just writing: no waiting for someone to return a phone call or enduring a publicist trying to spin you or transcribing tape or making sure everyone had adequate opportunity to respond. It was also—"exhilarating" is a good word—to try and make your point and convey your observations in a voice and style different from what you use in your day job.

GM: Your pro basketball league is called the NBF and the prominent team is the Los Angeles Lasers. Were lawsuits a big concern? In that case, why use the real names of ESPN and Fox News, for instance?

McCallum: We went back and forth on this. We knew we'd get in way too much trouble using the NBA name and the correct names for all the teams. It would suggest that we were writing literally about real characters. But it also seemed silly to change EVERYTHING. How would we even identify, say, the Fox Network? Call it the Wolf Network? Along those same lines, we went back and forth on whether we should use real names of ex-players. There are references to Michael Jordan and Latrell Sprewell, for example. We decided we couldn't identify them any other way.
Wertheim: I don't think there was a fear of lawsuits. We just thought all along that, for a variety of reasons, this would work better as satire than non-fiction. At the same time, as Jack says, it just seemed silly to give Jordan a pseudonym.

GM: Your three main characters are two black men and a white woman. Was it challenging to write their dialogue and get inside their heads? Did you have help?

McCallum: After we were all finished, Jon and I both said: "Do you think we should've had an African-American vet this?" I guess that remains our chief worry: Does it sound like two white guys writing about black guys? As an NBA writer, I spend so much of my time around black players and coaches that I think I have the world, including the dialogue, down. But ... we'll see what they say.
Wertheim: This was a constant concern and we tried to be sensitive throughout. At the same time, we didn't want to sacrifice authenticity at the altar of political correctness. Re-creating the dialogue wasn't, maybe surprisingly, all that difficult. Spend enough time around players—and transcribe hours of interview tape! —and you pick up on the elocution/locution.

GM: You've written a basketball book with very little actual basketball played. Why'd you choose to focus so heavily off the court?

McCallum: Nothing is more boring than describing sports action. We should know.
Wertheim: Yeah, this was intended as a take on the NBA subphylum, this bizarre world that encompasses so much more than the 48-minute games. As boring as it is describing sports action, it has to be doubly brutal doing so for a fictitious team.

GM: The book jacket says 'Foul Lines' "exposes ... this parallel universe" of pro basketball. With so much press in recent years about the misdeeds of pro-hoops players, was it tough to find new angles about the sport to expose? What do you think would be the biggest revelations about the sport for readers who are already big fans of pro basketball?

McCallum: We resisted the urge to rip this totally from the headlines. There is no player, for example, who has a rape charge from an incident in Colorado. Once we decided on the central plot—a car accident that produces a fatality, an event for which there is no exact parallel in the sports world (that we can think of)—we just picked and chose from experience. There really isn't a lot of other legal repercussions. A pot bust might be about it, right, Jon?
Wertheim: Part of the goal, too, was to give the reader a sense of the rhythms of the season. Fans see a lot of off-court headlines, good and bad—from today alone: "Isiah Thomas reacts angrily to harassment lawsuit," "Parker, Longoria to be on Oprah"—but it's isolated. This book was a means of stringing it all together and trying to take inventory of the culture. Revelations? Hmm, I hope they think it's a fun read. "Lighter than Chomsky" would be my review of it. For all of the many virtues of this book (starting with entertainment), I'm not sure "revelation" makes the roster cut.

David Stern
The real commish, since 'I like Ike'
GM: You mention below how nothing in the book is obviously identifiable from the NBA. Are there any characters who *are* directly modeled on specific people? The league commish seems like the most obvious one to me.

McCallum: David Stern has been running the NBA since, it seems anyway, the Eisenhower Administration. It was impossible to cover him up in any meaningful way. Jon and I definitely had some "types" in mind when we designed certain characters, Lo Mayne and Litanium [two of the Lasers players], for sure.

GM: Just about everything is a satirical target in this book, except print journalism, which comes out smelling like roses. Will there be a follow-up book exposing the seamy underside of sportswriting?

McCallum: Well, they take a couple hits. There's a spot in the beginning when, through the eyes of a P.R. person, some of their (our?) hypocrisy is exposed. Sports writers frequent strip bars (I don't; neither does Jon, for the record), then wail about athletes who do the same. Also, they get burned by the Litanium "dog bite" story. But, yes, considering the skewering everybody else gets, maybe we were light. Frankly, I fell in love with Jilly. That was the problem.

GM: A hoops player's personal failings are exposed by a journalist. The player calls up the journalist and says he wishes the news hadn't come out but he respects the journalist and knows she was just doing her job. Does that ever really happen? Wishful thinking?

Kobe Bryant
Any similarity to Kobe Bryant is coincidental.
McCallum: Absolutely not. There are totally legit professionals in this league. At one time or another, I had contretemps with Jordan, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, on and on. All of them forgot it. I'm not saying it's universal but it is not unrealistic.

GM: Do the players you cover read many books? Do you expect them/coaches/owners to read 'Foul Lines'? And if they do, will there be any backlash?

McCallum: Players don't read much fiction. neither does most of America if you look at the statistics. My guess is, most of them won't read it. Steve Nash asked to read a book I did many years ago about the Celtics. He read it because he is fascinated with Larry Bird. But fiction? I don't think so.

GM: In blurbs on the book jacket, Bill Walton and Rick Reilly both forecast a film treatment of the novel. Is this going to happen? Did you have this in mind when writing?

McCallum: We'd be lying if we said we didn't think about a film. Jon should talk to this point. In the middle of writing this, he got a screenplay deal [Dark Horizons]. As yet, though, no one has come forward with a solid offer. You want to make us one?
Wertheim: The more we wrote and developed the plot and characters, the more we thought this would be ideal for film or TV. To a person, everyone who's read this has also said the same thing: this is a movie waiting to be made. Not sure if we should be flattered or insulted. I think it's the case with most journalists, but Hollywood is this weird sort of wilderness where promising projects often seem to disappear. As Jack mentioned, I recently wrote a screenplay—a completely separate project—and while I thought it was great fun, who knows if anything will materialize. With a book deal, at least you're assured that someone will bracket your 100,000 words with covers and put it out there for mass consumption. We figured we'd stick to what we do best—write prose—and if we're approached about options or adaptations we'll have someone decode the terms and go from there.

GM: Off topic, but could you shed some light for us on how the book-blurbing process works? Do you, or the publishers, select an A-list of hoops figures to read the book, and then ask them for a blurb? Anyone refuse? (The book got rave blurbs from fellow Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly, Hoosiers screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, and NBA Hall of Famer and commentator Bill Walton.)

McCallum: You pick people you think would do the book some good. I know Walton well. Both Jon and I know Riles, obviously, and we both know Angelo. We send them the book. We hope they are enthusiastic about it. They were. Fortunately, they were our first three choices. We thought about Noam Chomsky but ...
Wertheim: Spy Magazine, I think it was, used to run a "mutual backrub" column based on book blurbs. [] Author X called author Y's memoir "chilling and courageously honest!" and—wouldn't you know it—author Y later enthused that author X's novel was, "breathtakingly original!" You grovel and there's a tacit understanding that you'll return the favor one day. I suppose it's a necessarily evil, but it's not the most pleasant part of the process. In this case, neither of us felt comfortable approaching a figure we cover professionally. Asking an active player or coach, for instance, would obviously create a potential conflict.

GM: Was it hard to remember to write Lasers and NBF? Did you write the draft with NBA and Lakers, and then do a big find-and-replace at the end?

McCallum: Oddly, the Lasers-Lakers wasn't hard, as I recall, right, Jon? But we did do a lot of searches for NBA and found it needed to be replaced.

Related in Gelf:

Warren St. John and Neal Pollack talked about their sportswriting.
•Gelf writes each week about the blurb racket in movies.

Related on the Web:

•Read an excerpt of Foul Lines at

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Article by Carl Bialik

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