Henry Abbott is a journalist who blogs. ESPN.com has given many of its journalists blogs lately. So it was a logical move for the sports behemoth to buy Abbott's TrueHoop blog, one of the best spots to keep track of the NBA, and put the longtime hoops writer (who's interviewed most of the league's players and coaches) on its full-time payroll a couple of weeks ago. Abbott does want his longtime readers to know that he's not quite "bathing in Goldschläger and eating only the choicest roe of wild sturgeon."
On a typical day of blogging, Abbott will highlight a cool video, an interesting blog post, and an NBA article in the mainstream media, offering his own commentary on each. But he also does longer-form writing on his site, with an online twist: Last year he made it his mission to investigate William Wesley. What Abbott knew when he started was that Wesley had no official role in the NBA but was reputed to be extremely powerful in the league. Abbott's collaborative journalism experiment has continued into this year, with fascinating results about a man closely associated with Allen Iverson, LeBron James, and Dajuan Wagner.
"In all sports media, I'm in favor of more depth, more investigative pieces, more nuance, wit, and the idea that every human is human. I'm less interested in rankings, fantasy, and celebrity worship."
In the interview below, edited for clarity, Abbott explains why he finds reading Sports Illustrated to be a little "schizo," how he mistakenly outed a WNBA player, and why the best sportswriters have to impress his Mom. (Also, you can hear Abbott and other online sports writers read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, March 7, in New York's Lower East Side.)
Gelf Magazine: If you were running ESPN, what are the two things you'd do first? (Or would you just blow the whole thing up and start over?) Explain why.
Henry Abbott: I have to say, almost all of my ESPN consumption is from my new employer, the NBA section of ESPN.com, and I think it's great. Whatever beefs people have with ESPN, I don't think they're talking so much about what's happening there recently.
To answer the question, though, in all sports media, I'm in favor of more depth, more investigative pieces, more nuance, wit, and the idea that every human is human (as opposed to superhuman, caricature, or LeBron James). I'm less interested in rankings, fantasy, and celebrity worship.
GM: Same question, different media company: Sports Illustrated.
HA: The gold here, of course, is in the incredible long-form writing of Gary Smith, S.L. Price, Jack McCallum, and the like. The meta-message of all that, to me, is: "The story of sports is the story of human struggle. It's complicated, it's nuanced, it's thick. It might make you cry sometimes." Then you get 180 pages of bikinis and fantasy football, and the meta message of all that is, I guess, something to do with tits and running backs. Makes me feel a little schizo.
GM: Bloggers are known for writing in their pajamas. What's your preferred workwear?
HA: I have an office. I wear pants to work. Most days I even shave.
"I made a post about a certain WNBA player parading around being affectionate with a man, even though she had recently held a coming out party. I blogged about it, and then learned from a torrent of phone calls and e-mails that I was simply mistaken. That was a bit of a nightmare."GM: How much do you make from your blog? (Hey, we had to ask.)
HA: I am becoming aware that there is the perception in certain circles that, since ESPN bought my blog, I am bathing in Goldschläger and eating only the choicest roe of wild sturgeon. While ESPN has been fair throughout this whole thing, and I do have a salary that will support my family of four, let me assure you that perception is patently false. I mean, who would bathe in a gimmicky liqueur like Goldschläger when there's $500 champagne to be had?
GM: Which athlete has provided you with the most material?
HA: Probably the four-headed monster known as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan.
GM: Are there any people or topics you won't make fun of? Why are they off limits?
HA: Death and any illness that does not result from getting nailed in the crotch. For a while there, everyone was getting nailed in the crotch, and it was hilarious.
GM: Which post of yours do you regret the most, and why's that?
HA: Sometimes I just get things wrong. Like, you know, facts. And that always hurts. For instance, just the other day I made a post about a certain WNBA player parading around being affectionate with a man, even though she had recently held a coming out party (that was sponsored by a gay-friendly cruise line). I blogged about it, and then learned from a torrent of phone calls and e-mails that I was simply mistaken. The player who came out was Sheryl Swoopes. The player I had seen was a different one. It was an hour or so before I could make the edit, and I had to obliterate all mention of the other player, who I imagine didn't really want to be outed. That was a bit of a nightmare.
"The best sportswriters have the training wheels off and make sense outside of sports. That's the real test. Would my mom like it?"GM: Would you rather cover the big game from the press box or your couch? Why?
HA: I'm a dad, so it's a pain for me to travel. So, couch, while my kids are young. But in the big picture, I think the content is better, for the kind of work I do, if I am there talking to people. I want to know what's really going on, and there's no substitute for the face-to-face to find that out.
GM: What's your favorite sports blog not among those featured at the next Varsity Letters? Why?
HA: The D.C. Sports Bog ROCKS! Dan Steinberg works his ass off, and is incredibly professional about it, but that doesn't mean he lacks a wild sense of fun.
GM: Who's your favorite mainstream sportswriter? Least favorite? Why?
HA: Gary Smith is up there. John McPhee. Ernest Hemingway, blah blah blah you know the list. The best sportswriters have the training wheels off and make sense outside of sports. That's the real test. Would my mom like it?
GM: Has a mainstream journalist ever ripped your stuff off without acknowledgment?
HA: I think there are often topics that NBA journalists first become aware of on TrueHoop. They tell me this sometimes. I try not to get bitter about it. They do it to each other, too. In most cases they just don't know any better. I used to work at CBS. I know they are not used to the idea that you give people shout-outs like that.
GM: Where does your blog strike the balance between sincere and snarky? Do you worry about being judged by readers based on your tone rather than content?
HA: My default setting is sincere. If anything, I'm trying to be snarkier.