Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Why I write about sports for a living
By J.A. Adande ESPN.com
The woman glanced at my business card -- the one that said "J.A. Adande, Sports Writer" -- and she looked completely indifferent, like Bud Selig watching Barry Bonds' 755th home run.
"Is that all you do?" she asked with disdain. "Write about sports?"
It's not all I do, but it's primarily what I do. I write about sports because they somehow manage to incorporate every aspect of our world: life, death, hope, disappointment, victories, losses, politics, rules, crimes, fair play, cheating, health, drugs, love, hate. I write about sports because you never know how the story will end (unless Tiger Woods holds the lead on Sunday). I write about sports because, for better or worse, that's where most of the country gets its look at African-Americans and I want to do my part to keep the lens clear.
It was hard not to fall in love with Magic's game.
I write about sports because when I was a fourth-grader a rookie guard named Magic Johnson made me fall in love with basketball and the Lakers, and I decided I wanted to play for them. I write about sports because as an eighth-grader I realized that wasn't going to happen.
I write about sports because my ninth-grade English teacher, Ann Colburn, all but drafted me onto the school paper. I write about sports the way I do because I grew up reading Jim Murray, and because I got tips from Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Roy S. Johnson, Bill Plaschke, Shaun Powell, Jay Mariotti and Ralph Wiley. I write about sports because Sam Lacy and Larry Whiteside cleared the way like Pro Bowl left tackles.
I write about sports because it has introduced me to great people and personalities such as Charles Barkley, Tony Gwynn, Elton Brand, Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal, Robert Horry, Dave Roberts and Tony Dungy. Working in the sports world makes you care more about the participants and less about the results.
I'm much more fascinated by the how and why a team wins rather than who wins. That's why I love ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski's NFL game-tape breakdowns (and, yes, I have Jaws' approval for my imitations of him on "Around the Horn").
I write about sports because as much fun as it is to talk about sports on TV, there's more on my mind than 30 seconds' worth of thoughts.
I want to examine people, especially those who are changing things. Changing the way the game is played. Changing perceptions about themselves. Changing their community for the better. That's what I want to explore now that I'm here at the biggest sports site.
I know the questions you have. They're along the lines of what the stranger asked me while I was walking my dog on Monday: "Who's going to win the Super Bowl, Adande?" As sportswriters, the questions we hear the most are the ones we can't answer with certainty. But it's why you watch in the first place: You wonder who's going to win.
Since it's my policy to quote from "A Few Good Men" whenever possible, let me do my best Jack Nicholson: "You want answers?"
The Patriots will win the Super Bowl. The Tigers will get things together, get their full complement of pitchers back in the bullpen and win the World Series. USC won't stay at the top of the rankings the entire season, but will be No. 1 in the final college football poll. The San Antonio Spurs will repeat as NBA champions.
And not that you asked, but...
I become eligible to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, and as much as I loathe Barry Bonds, I'll vote for him when his name comes up. If I could I'd vote for Pete Rose, too. It's easier to put them in than to go through the corridors and yank out the plaques of the cheaters and scoundrels who are already there. Besides, how can a Hall of Fame not have the all-time home run and hit leaders?
I would wait for guilty verdicts before I suspended NFL players. When you set the standard at merely "bad decisions" for a league filled with young, rich men, you might reach the point that it's hard to field teams for a game on Sunday.
That said, I wouldn't waste my time wearing a No. 7 jersey and defending the likes of Michael Vick. Save it for someone who, oh, hasn't flipped off the fans or turned the simple act of carrying a water bottle into an embarrassing moment for the franchise.
I like how Tiger Woods is responding to the golf equivalent of trash talk ("he's more beatable than ever") by performing the golf equivalent of end zone dances (hold the follow-through and twirl the club on big drives, point at the cup after clutch putts).
I love covering the NBA more than anything. At its peak -- Warriors-Mavericks and LeBron's 48, to use two recent examples -- it provides the best athletic drama. And on a regular basis it provides the greatest collection of characters. Ever notice how the NBA generates as much news as the other leagues despite having fewer players? And name another sport in which an owner's getting arrested on a DUI charge while driving with a woman 50 years younger than him isn't even the biggest story about that team that day.
There's probably one last thing you're wondering: Who is this guy?
I grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., back when it was a place for ex-hippies (not newly minted yuppies) and you saw more Volkswagen Beetles than Range Rovers parked on the streets.
I'm a true member of the hip-hop and MTV generation, meaning I'm old enough to remember when rap songs had something to say and the television channel showed music videos. Now we have lyrics like "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe" and reality shows about spoiled kids.
Somehow my tiny high school produced more current NBA players than my Big Ten college. The tally: Crossroads School 2 (Baron Davis and Austin Croshere), Northwestern University 0.
While at the Chicago Sun-Times, I covered the Chicago Bulls during the one season between 1984 and 1998 that Michael Jordan didn't play for them. But at the Washington Post I covered the Washington Bullets in their only playoff appearance between 1989 and 2004, so that made up for it. Actually, it didn't. I'm just trying to make myself feel better.
I got to the L.A. Times to catch the rise and fall of the new millennium Lakers, the Dodgers' being sold twice and the restoration of the USC football and UCLA basketball programs. And somehow I've managed to survive in a city without an NFL team.
Thanks to work trips and/or the mileage I racked up on them, I have been to 48 states and four other continents. Back in the mid-1990s, when I was working at The Washington Post, I never bothered to ask that unimpressed woman what it was that she did for a living. I know it doesn't beat writing about sports.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to email J.A.