Small wonder that you so often make sportswriting’s most common mistake.
Every game, you see only one team out there.
You have become a homer.
I’ve been there, done that.
Now trying to quit.
I come today to admit my guilt – and at the same time plead not guilty. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll try to make this make sense.
The latest evidence of my one-team myopia came early in the Kansas-Northern Iowa game. I had no intimate knowledge of the Kansas team. I knew it had been ranked No. l in the nation and had one of America’s great college players, the guard Sherron Collins. As for Northern Iowa, I knew the university was set among frozen-tundra cornfields where polar bears romp all winter. (Don’t they?) Then the television showed Northern Iowa leading Kansas late in the first half. So I hung around, waiting for Kansas to assert its primacy, as surely it would.
That’s when I saw a Northern Iowa kid with a Middle Eastern name throw one in from halfway across the Atlantic. And I saw a beefy brute with muttonchops throw body blocks from one end to the other. Meanwhile, the team’s coach looked remarkably calm, even sane.
Such is the magic of March that I soon fell for Northern Iowa’s Panthers. They were giving Kansas no room to breathe. This was not Cinderella on a glass-slippered high; these were athletes moving with certainty of purpose. Suddenly, they were the only team I saw. They had rendered the Jayhawks all but invisible, holograms pale against the starshine of the shooter Ali Farokhmanesh, the bruiser Lucas O’Rear, and the coach Ben Jacobson. Midway through the second half, win or lose, this was Northern Iowa’s story.
Had I found new heroes?
Had I become a homer?
On that day, writing from the Northern Iowa point of view would have proved only one thing: You were fully awake. There is a distinction between rooting for the locals and recognizing the core of truth that is in every story. The distinction is fine but real. It begins with voice. The great sports editor, Stanley Woodward, once advised his young columnist, Red Smith, to stop "godding-up" the players. It’s enough that the players have rare athletic skills that have made them professional workers; no need to endow them with character traits unproven anywhere except between the white lines. No need, for instance, to speak of Ali Farokhmanesh’s "courage" on that three-pointer in the last minute. (I, in fact, instantly thought of Louie Dampier, the great Kentucky guard of the 1960s, the best open-court, take-no-dribble, just-go-up-with-it three-point shooter of all time. His college coach, Adolph Rupp, once said, "God taught Louie to shoot. I just took credit for it.")
Not courage. No one needs "courage" to shoot a freakin’ basketball. Confidence does it. The three-pointer gave Northern Iowa a four-point lead in the last 30 seconds of a second-round NCAA tournament game. It did not punch Farokhmanesh’s ticket to immortality. So there was no need to call it, as one sportswriter did, a "shot for the ages."
But adrenaline runs high even at the keyboard. The ambition always is to rise to the level of the game’s drama. If Farokhmanesh can risk a last-minute three-point shot when he’s 0-for-5 from out there in the second half, the sportswriter can risk an overcooked sentence on the premise that sometimes too much emotion is just the right amount. In any case, don’t think of either the shooter or the scribbler doing something brave; they’re just boys and girls having fun.
The night I first realized I saw only one side of an event was March 7, 1971, Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier for boxing’s heavyweight championship. As a columnist for Ali’s hometown newspaper, I’d written about him for five years, spent time with him at home, time in the gym, time at his training camp. It’s always hard to see both fighters, so much happens simultaneously. It was impossible – for me, anyway – to see the other guy in the ring with Ali. By the beauty of his movements, by the wonder of his skills, by our hometown connection, Ali commanded all my attention. We’re talking homer squared here.
Frazier was just the other guy.
Until he wasn’t.
By irresistible force, Frazier inserted himself into my consciousness. In the 15th and final round, when he knocked Ali down, I saw Frazier clearly. Yet my focus had been so committed to Ali that I believed he had won the fight; I scored it for him 9-6. But the three officials, with the advantage of having seen both fighters, decided differently. They had it 8-6-1, 9-6, and 11-4, Frazier.
The lesson that night: Know the other guy in the ring.
And from then on: See both teams on the court.
Serve your audience by telling the story through your locals’ point of view while knowing that the other guy has a story, too. It’s not always your team’s failures, it’s sometimes the other team’s successes. In their post-game remarks to reporters, losing coaches traditionally praise the other team; it’s a way of salving your guys’ wounds while reminding fans that it wasn’t all your fault. Chuck Tanner, the old Pirates and Braves baseball manager, once said, "This game ain’t easy. The other dugout is full of major leaguers, too." After losing to Northern Iowa, the Kansas coach, Bill Self, said everything you’d expect, but I believe he was more honest than self-serving.
"There were things happening during the game that I felt like wasn’t poor play by us," he said, "but more Northern Iowa really making plays."
Unlike some of us, he had seen the other guys.
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