Dwyane Wade's numbers in the NBA Finals were one of the principal reasons he was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 2006. He was everywhere, averaging 39.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 steals per game. You could say S.L. Price (the "S" is short for Scott) was assigned the article due to his similar role as jack of all trades for SI. Price has written for the magazine about baseball, football, the Olympics (winter and summer), tennis, basketball, lacrosse, and even Iraq war veterans.
Say what you will of Wade's selection as Sportsman of the Year (Price had little say in the matter), but the profile itself is a how-to in feature sports journalism, revealing new insights and defying conventional wisdom about a well-known sports figure. Price, the author of Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports, talked to Gelf about Wade, layoffs at SI, his favorite sportswriters, and the Duke lacrosse case. The following interview has been edited for clarity. (Also, you can hear Price and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, February 7, in New York's Lower East Side.)
Writing about a sport is interesting because it helps you figure out what you saw, and gives you an opportunity to bottle time, to capture that one moment if you're able to marshall all the material and make it sing.
Gelf Magazine: You wrote, "Wade made it safe, for perhaps the first time since number 23 retired, to compare a guard with Michael and not risk embarrassment." I understand the Harold Miner/Penny Hardaway part of this, but here's the obvious question: What about Kobe Bryant?
S.L. Price: As a pure talent, Kobe is unassailable. My point was two-fold. One, no matter how well Kobe played, it was Shaq's team; he was the focus and psychic base of every team he's played for until now. Second, it's rare for many reasons to have a championship team built around a scoring guardhe needs to get his to be who he is, after all, and that doesn't exactly lend itself to keeping other guys happy. Jordan pulled it off, and the negatives in his personality were not large enough to undermine him. The negatives in Kobe's personality, public and private, have kept him from reaching Jordan's level on and off the court. Wade, not only with his heroics, but with his ability to get his teammates within the flowexactly like Jordanand keep his teammates overjoyed is the first since Jordan to have the heft and will to pull that off. To me, anyway.
GM: Why are people so drawn to athletes who have had a rough family life? Is one reason people like Wade more than Kobe because Kobe comes from a privileged background?
SP: No. This is why people like sports: Because the game reveals people in spite of themselves, their marketing, etc. I don't think people dislike Kobe because of his background; his background, Italy and all, son of a player, is quite intriguing. It's that he plays like a selfish assassin most of the time, seems to be all about Kobe in the end, and his team-breaking tiff with Shaqseemingly putting himself above the idea of more championshipsran contrary to everything we think pro sports should be about: winning. The court case in Colorado, of course, for some only seemed to confirm what Kobe had already revealed about himself on the basketball court.
GM: SI received a fair amount of criticism for its selection of Wade as "Sportsman of the Year." What role did you, as the writer, have in the decision? How does SI usually make its pick?
SP: I was told Wade was Sportsman and to go write a story about him. I wasn't even told why he was chosen, i.e. no one told me to list in the story some on-high reasons for why he should be Sportsman. So I went out intending to write the best Wade story I could, to try and advance what we know about him, and for me, anyway, the Sportsman choice was incidental. I'm not in the office, so this is second-hand, but I think they spend about two months mulling names and ideas, and then the managing editor, Terry McDonell, makes a decision.
GM: I agreed with those who said it should have been Roger Federer.
SP: I've been covering tennis for SI since 1994. It's the one sport I play regularly. Federer is the most dominant athlete alive, and to me he had the most dominant year of any athlete in 2006. I also think that as a sportsman, ambassador for the game, he can match anyone in any sport. However, it's SI's choice, and I suspect that, from at least the American perspective, that snubbing of Federer was a commentary on the place of tennis in the US hierarchy. Ratings are bad here, the US Open sells itself more as spectacle/social event than tennis tournament, and I've been told our readers have little interest in the sport. Believe me, I wish it were otherwise. But just as we used to cover sailing and outdoor recreation and now no longer do, it may well be that tennis is no longer considered major. Federer may well be the best billiards player in the world, untouchable, but he's just not big enough in the US I've never been told that by anyone at SI, but it's a theory that's been rolling around in my head ever since. But you know what? If he wins the Grand Slam this year, I can see SI giving it to him for 2007. Easily.
GM: What about cycling? No one follows cycling in the US, yet people were obsessed with Lance Armstrong. And he was Sportsman of the Year in 2002.
SP: Lance is the great anomaly, made so by his personal triumph over cancer. The incongruity of an American winning the Frenchlike an American in goal for Manchester Unitedinstantly makes cycling, or soccer, more interesting to an American fan. Add in Lance's personal story, and it becomes universal. The surge in interest in Lancenot cyclingis what made cycling interesting for the time he rode the Tour. There's a residue of that now; Americans drawn in by Lance are still more interested in cycling now. But I suspect we'll see it drop off until another American breaks through there.
SP: It's happening everywhere, obviously. No one is sure how the cuts will affect us yet. But all the writers are concerned with how the cuts will affect the quality of the magazine and our ability to do high-quality work. Just as the rise of The National helped the business by providing more outlets for in-depth sports journalism, this can only hurt.
GM: Do you think blogs have contributed to this decline? Or strictly magazines looking for multiplatform content?
SP: The internetas you guys are demonstratinghas created all sorts of opportunities. The industry is structurally more in flux than it ever has been in my 22 years; and the cracks we're seeing are both openings for those willing to take them and signs of decay for those who are not. I think content is still king, but I've noticed that the speed of the internet lessens the impact of stories (not breaking news stories, mind you, but feature stuff); there's still less stickiness in the public mind when you write a piece on the net as opposed to when you write it in a magazine. That, too, will change. I think.
GM: Which sportswriters do you read?
SP: Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald is the most underrated sportswriter in the country. She writes one or two lengthy pieces a year, and is constantly anthologized in Best American Sportswriting. Ditto with columnist Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle, who may well be the best baseball writer there is. He's also one of the few people I know who can see his column whole in his head, and pour it into the keyboard without angst. Ian Thomsen [of Sports Illustrated] and Christopher Clarey [of the International Herald Tribune]. [The Washington Post's] Michael Wilbon and Sally Jenkins. [Sports Illustrated's] Richard Hoffer and Franz Lidz: I'd read their to-do lists if I could.
SP: The whole TV thing is understandable: with print so much under siege, writers are trying to diversify so their "multiplatform content providers" will find them valuable. But we were trained as writers first, so that's where the strain shows. On the other hand, there's a quality of genuine-ness when a writer goes on TV and simply tells what he knows on his terms. William Nack, the great horseracing and features writer, is one of the most compelling people I've ever seen on TV: warm, compelling, a master storyteller. The fact that he's not TV-ready makes him even more watchable to me.
GM: In June, you wrote about the Duke lacrosse rape indictments, documenting deep uncertainty in almost every aspect of the case. What are your thoughts given recent events (i.e. District Attorney Mike Nifong asking to be taken off the case)?
SP: Duke lacrosse was a trainwreck happening when we reported that story and now it's crashed into the wall. Our take was "the damage done," and I don't think much would change if we did it today.
GM: If it eventually comes out that the alleged victim's allegations are untrue, how do you think the media will respond? Do journalists have a duty to apologize and/or try to rectify the situation?
SP: If mistakes were made, they should be corrected and responsibility should be taken. But the coverageand the apologywill never be as spectacular as it was last spring. Some outlets leaped to conclusions, but let's face it: They were following the DA's lead in many cases. If the DA says something, especially publicly, it's hard not to report it.
GM: You also wrote an article entitled "The Gospel According to Ray Lewis" in November, recounting how Lewis has changed in the years following the 2000 murder trial. Why does it often take great tragedy for athletes and sports teams/programs to finally change their ways? You don't see Duke being proactive about student-athlete drinking, or teams regulating off-the-field/court behaviour, even though they know what's generally going on.
SP: Nature of the human and organizational beast. If you're successful and making money and everybody says you're great, it takes a personand an institutionof great character to recognize everyone's wrong and to change pro-actively. Ray Lewis is one of football's great linebackers and praised accordingly. Duke is one of the nation's great sports-educational universities. Until they hit crisis, it's almost impossible to understand how they could wake up to the idea of change.
GM: But it seems like the evidence was overwhelming that the university knew that the drinking and partying among athletes may have been out of control. I mean, shouldn't the Cincinnati Bengals have "woken up" to the idea of change after the third team arrest?
SP: Actually, what I was told was that, on campus, fraternities were/are far more of a problem than the lacrosse team. And the universityby buying up the properties in that neighborhood, including the ill-fated lacrosse house just a month before the alleged rapewere taking pro-active steps. But don't take this as an apologia for Duke: I think the administration and faculty acted disgracefully at times during the whole episode.
If mistakes were made, they should be corrected and responsibility should be taken. But the coverage [of the Duke Lacrosse case]—and the apology—will never be as spectacular as it was last spring.GM: You're a sportswriter. Tell me why I'm supposed to be interested in the story of Barbaro being euthanized.
SP: There's often a disconnect between what we think is important and what the reader does. As for Barbaro, all I can tell you is that throughout that saga many people with no other interest in sports were suddenly obsessed with a racehorse. Helike Secretariattouched a lot of people for reasons it's hard to put a finger on; but he did.
GM: There are often sports stories that I feel like, as a sports fan, the media is constantly trying to sell to me. Barbaro was one. Bonds' chase of Hank Aaron is another. So is the all constant coverage of T.O.
SP: The universal reaction I got to Terrell Owens's suicide press conference [ESPN.com] was, "Who cares? Go away now." But as a reporter, are you going to skip that press conference? No. And you know what? The bizarre nature of that day made it a far better read than the usual NFL off-day about blocking schemes. We are talking about the NFL here. It's the No. 1 sport in America.
GM: You wrote Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports. How do you think Castro's eventual death will affect Cuban baseball? Does it hurt their national team? Will more athletes come to the US?
SP: Castro's death will affect Cuban baseball only in the way it affects the opening of Cuba to the US market. If Cuba becomes like Russia, say, after the fall of the Soviet Union, you will find baseball players eventually affected by all the distractions that prosperity and the market economy foist upon athletes in this country: more choices, more reasons not to devote yourself wholly to baseball. Baseball in Cuba is, like boxing has historically been in the US, an avenue up and out. When there are more avenues, there will be a less abundant talent pool. Cubans will always love baseball, and their national team will long be a force. But you'll also see more of those players in the US.
GM: What's your favorite sport to cover? Favorite sport to watch? What makes a sport interesting to write about that can't be derived from watching it?
SP: My favorite sports to watch are basketball, tennis, soccer, and baseball. Boxing is the best sport to write about because it's elemental, easy to figure out on one level, and filled with crazy characters who don't mind showing and telling you how compelling, heartbreaking, vivid and crazy they are. Writing about a sport is interesting because it helps you figure out what you saw, and gives you an opportunity to bottle time, to capture that one moment if you're able to marshall all the material and make it sing. But that's secondary to the moment itself. The best writing takes you back to that moment and allows the reader to relive it one more time.
You can hear Price and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, February 7, in New York's Lower East Side.