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From ‘Paterno’ to techno-bumbling to plagiarism: A top ten list for sports writing today

1. Somebody at the Simon & Schuster publishing house should have told Joe Posnanski, “We’ve changed our minds. The ‘Paterno’ biography doesn’t work now. You keep the advance. But do a different book. Write your time with Paterno, the inside-the-house scenes no one else has. Then keep reporting the story. Go to Sandusky in jail. Get McQueary, Emmert, and any of the abused. Spanier and his lawyers are talking. Go to the perjury trials for Curley and Schultz. Tell us how Happy Valley is after the statue came down. How it is with the new coach, with Paterno’s players who stayed. We’ll publish it next spring.”

2. Technology has long since outstripped my ability to use it. There have been moments when I could not cause my own television to produce a picture. I recently showed my BlackBerry to a friend. She said, “That’s soooo 2005. In September, you must get the new iPhone.” Oh, the joy of being baffled again. In replacing my also-ancient mini-tape recorder with a digital recorder, I have spent two days Making The Damned Thing Work. I even looked at the instruction book. It was 125 pages. I didn’t want bells and whistles. I wanted only to record and play. Until I practice more, I will depend on the sportswriter’s time-tested tools: a pen pilfered from a Marriott and a Reporter’s Notebook.

3. Bob Ryan is “the quintessential American sportswriter.” That’s how my old pal Tony Kornheiser introduces Ryan on his radio shows. No reason to limit Ryan to America, but the rest of the line was perfect. At the end of the Olympics, Ryan traded the daily column for the occasional column at the Boston Globe. He didn’t call it retirement, and that’s good, because for all the snark and smarm that passes for sports writing today, there needs be the Ryanesque antidote. He brought intelligence, enthusiasm, and command of his craft to his readers. When he liked something – he liked a lot more than he disliked — they shared in the fun. And when he had a beef, he explained in plain English why he’d come to that opinion. Beautiful.

4. Do I buy the new LeBron sneakers? Or make a car payment?

5. If you pay attention at any sports event, you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. At the PGA Championship, working for Golf Digest, I walked with Rory McIlroy’s group. On the first hole, I saw Carl Pettersson ready to play a shot from three inches inside a red hazard line. As he moved his club away from the ball on the backswing, he inadvertently moved a leaf. A rules official was there. Moving the “loose impediment” in a hazard resulted in a two-shot penalty. I heard Pettersson’s muttered reaction coming off the fourth tee: “F—.” The two shots didn’t cause him to lose the tournament (McIlroy in a runaway). But they made the difference in Pettersson finishing second alone or tied for third – a difference of $485,000 in prize money. I’d never seen a leaf cost a man that much money.

6. I’m not sure what dreck is, but I’m sure ESPN’s “First Take” is dreck.

7. Ever had your work stolen? Best plagiarism story is about the New York Times reporter who plagiarized a report of a speech on plagiarism. The crime is again in the journalistic news, the latest reported violation committed by Time/CNN/Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria. He might have read Jill Lepore’s piece in The New Yorker and been moved to do his own reporting, thinking, and writing. Instead, he seemed to have cut-and-pasted it. A thief, and a lazy one.

It happened to me once. I was reading a book about basketball fixes. It had a chapter about Ralph Beard, the great University of Kentucky player caught up in the fixes of the early 1950s. I wrote the author, “I liked your Ralph Beard chapter. I liked it so much that I wished I had written it. Then, I realized I did write it.” I was young and inexperienced in these crimes. I wrote the author a letter, citing the Beard chapter in my book, “Basketball: The Dream Game in Kentucky.” The thief wrote me a letter of abject apology. He offered no explanation. He just acknowledged the theft. I thought then, it must happen more often than we know. Though more easily discovered today, it still happens.

For each of my sports writing classes at Bradley University and Illinois Wesleyan University, the syllabus includes this note: “In journalism, plagiarism is a cardinal sin. To plagiarize is to use another writer’s words as your own. Plagiarism is easy, it is stupid, it is always found out, and it kills careers. To plagiarize is to admit incompetence compounded by sloth. Plagiarism will be punished to the full extent of the instructor’s authority.”

8. In Stephen King’s book on writing (a must-read revelation), he says his first job was writing sports for the Lisbon, Maine “Weekly Enterprise.” He had confessed to the editor that he didn’t know much about sports. The boss, John Gould, offered assurance: “These are games people understand when they’re watching them drunk in bars. You’ll learn if you try.” As King remembered his first report – on a high school basketball game in which a player set a scoring record – it began:

“Last night, in the well-loved gymnasium of Lisbon High School, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequalled in school history. Bob Ransom, known as ‘Bullet Bob,’ for both his size and accuracy, scored thirty-seven points. Yes, you heard me right. . . .”

Well. He got better.

Now we know King as the famous novelist. It turns out there’s still a touch of the sportswriter in him. Evidence comes in his “11/22/63.” The novel’s protagonist is a time-traveling schoolteacher who leaves 2011 and arrives in 1958. When the teacher needs money, he makes bets on sports events the results of which he has long known – such as the Pirates’ 1960 World Series victory over the Yankees. He also won big picking journeyman boxer Tom Case to knock out the formidable Dick Tiger, even daring to choose the round (the fifth).

9. I used a reunion of the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team as my first piece for the new website, SportsonEarth.com. As always, something just didn’t fit. It was this: Doug Collins ought to be the next Olympics coach. He’s an active NBA coach with the 76ers, a key factor in having the respect of the game’s top players. Also, his Olympic experience is unique. After ‘72, he was a “host” for the U.S. team in ‘84 and has worked as an NBC broadcaster at each Olympics since 2004. “If Jerry Colangelo comes to me and asks me,” Collins said, naming the USA Basketball chief executive, “I’d be honored.”

10. The reunion of that ‘72 team, which took place at Georgetown, Ky., was the brainchild of the team’s captain, Kenny Davis, working for 14 months with my old sports writing pal, Billy Reed, a Kentuckian who has believed from the start that this is a better world because Kentucky invented bourbon, burgoo, and basketball.

Dave Kindred’s latest book, “Morning Miracle,” is 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 by email at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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