"Well . . ." I said.
"The only thing that matters today is immediacy," he said. "Newspapers are so yesterday."
"Well . . ."
Then Kornheiser began a proof of his thesis. He said, "Do you know who the hottest sportswriter in America is?"
"Well . . ." (while vowing to work on my sound-bite technique).
"Bill Simmons," he said.
Once I regained consciousness, I understood some small part of Kornheiser’s logic. Simmons wrote for an outfit that reached tens of millions of sports fans, and his stuff was immediately available at the click of a mouse. Still, I thought, there had to be more to it than that. Few reporters and writers ever were as gifted as Kornheiser. For him to have called Simmons hot, the guy had to be writing something worth reading.
But damned if I could figure out what it was.
Still, there came that day when a Simmons book rose to No. 1 on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. He, to name one author, had sold more than 11 copies.
A man of lesser will than I might have climbed atop that 700-page mountain of a book and thrown himself into the dread darkness. Instead, I accepted the Kornheiser-pronounced truth: Bill Simmons is America’s hottest sportswriter. Fortunately, at the same time I came up with an explanation that enabled me to continue calling myself a sportswriter. Bill Simmons has succeeded because he is not, has never been, and will never be a sportswriter. He’s a fan.
Lord knows, there’s nothing wrong with being a fan. I love sports fans. Without the painted-face people, I’d be writing ad copy for weedeaters. But I have I ever been a sports fan. A fan of reporting, yes. Of journalism. Of newspapers. A fan of reading and writing, you bet. I am a fan of sports, which is different from being a sports fan of the Simmons stripe.
The art and craft of competition fascinates me. Sports gives us, on a daily basis, ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing unimagined things. I love it.
But I have never cared who wins. I am a disciple of the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Dave Anderson, whose gospel is: "I root for the column." We don’t care what happens as long as there’s a story.
My readings of Simmons now suggest he is past caring only about the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots winning (though if they all won championships in the same year, the book would be an Everest of Will Durant proportions). He now engages, however timidly, in actual reporting of actual events; he even has allowed that interviewing people might give him insights otherwise unavailable on his flat-screen TV. Clearly, though, he is most comfortable in his persona as just a guy talking sports with other guys between commercials – which is fine if, unlike me, you go for that guys-being-guys/beer-and-wings nonsense and have infinite patience for The Sports Guy’s bloviation, blather, and balderdash.
There is great value in the fan’s passion that once moved Bill Simmons to speak of Roger Clemens (before the steroids even!) as the anti-Christ. But a touch of that goes a long way with me. That said, I will pay attention to the hair-on-fire zealot whose uninterrupted study of his favorites yields information and insights that even a beat reporter cannot match. For example, I will read Brian Cook.
Once a writer and editor for his university’s satirical monthly – "The Michigan Every Three Weekly" – Cook is the boss of Mgoblog.com. His site is devoted to all things athletic at the University of Michigan. Thirty years old, a Michigan graduate with two engineering degrees, Cook has created a site that is intelligent, witty, well written, and absolutely essential to those who live to know everything about "Michigan football, basketball, hockey, and general what-have-you," to quote the site’s label. The first time I went to the site, I was astonished by individual play analysis done under freeze-frame photographs taken from game video. Cook’s long obsession with Michigan football enabled him to break down plays in a coachspeak way that actually made sense. Here I was, a stranger to whom Rich Rodriguez meant nothing, and I was fascinated by seeing why his plays worked or didn’t.
To be sure, the site is also absolutely partisan. Cook does not root for his column, as he told me. "Difference is, you want a good story," he said. "I want my team to win." Or, if Michigan isn’t playing, "The team that I want to lose — I want it to lose!" He doesn’t sit in the press box; he’s in the stands. He doesn’t write objectively; he writes about "my fandom." "I’m sort of an avatar for the Michigan fanbase," he said. "That’s the powerful thing that I do."
He praises Simmons for blazing a trail where no one else had thought to go, let alone dare to do it. Cook makes the journey along that trail worth taking. He once explained his site’s statistical and analytic appeal to an interviewer from The Big Picture blog. He said the mainstream press talked gibberish, that when the talking heads talked "the results are facile." Then he asked, "So how do you fix that? Making things not facile necessarily means putting some numbers behind them, or at least reviewing things systematically to see where the points of failure and success are. It means doing something other than parroting conventional wisdom. Conveniently, I appear well suited for this task. . . . While the analytic features of the site were not specifically designed to make the blog stand out from other Michigan blogs, they do because there aren’t many engineers – and I remain one of those at heart – who ditch the whole well-paid nine-to-five for this adventure."
He writes the adventure so well that, to my surprise, I’m okay with it – because his stuff comes with the ring of truth-telling. At Mgoblog this season, Dr. Cook performed an autopsy on Rich Rodriguez’s semi-live body every week. Here’s how far I’ve moved on this blog thing: If I ran a sports news operation, I’d want my own absolutely partisan Brian Cook writing about the biggest team we cover.
Because his stuff would appear alongside traditional news coverage, I would put a label on it that would leave no doubt what it was: "Brian Cook Believes, Thinks, and Truly Hopes . . ." After three or four pieces, readers/users would understood exactly what Cook did, which was report everything in answer to one question: "Is this good or bad for our team?"
I also would promise that as soon as he began to sound like a rah-rah face-painting sports guy droning on at the sports bar, I’d ship him back to Ann Arbor.
Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295