Paul Flannery is another one of the good guys in the sports media (there's a lot of them). He knows what he's talking about (he's a professor after all) but doesn't act like he's smarter than you. I've always enjoyed his writing and his perspective and I was thrilled when he was hired by SBNation and told that I could drop his columns right into my blog layout. So I thought I'd catch up with him and pick his brain for the latest installment of the CelticsBlog High Five series. Hope you are enjoying these even half as much as I am.
1. You've made the transition from covering the Celtics beat to writing about the NBA as a whole. A couple of other pretty good writers currently working for Grantland (Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe) have their roots in Boston. Both claim to have become a fan of basketball as a whole instead of the Celtics (though I think Lowe is more sincere about it than Simmons is). Is there a point where a journalist shouldn't be a fan? Or is it different for everyone?
I've never felt comfortable telling other people how they should do their job or enjoy sports. For me, this was a long gradual evolution that really took shape when I wound up working in Philadelphia in my early 20s. I had no connection to the teams I was covering, other than I really disliked the Eagles when I was a kid. That goes away once you form relationships with the players, coaches and front office people. Some are good relationships, others not so much. You just try to be fair and beat writers need to be really mindful of those relationships, because that's the nature of the job.
There are people who write incredibly well from a fan perspective and others who do just as well with no allegiances. There is no right way to cover sports and I think most readers are intelligent enough to understand the different approaches and judge the work on its merits. I identify with people and individuals more than specific teams, but I also think it's important to make an honest effort to understand fan dynamics. For example, Philly cares about its teams as much as Bostonians do, but it relates to its teams much differently. That's interesting to me.
All that said, I really do like basketball and the NBA as a whole. I think that's important. You have to really like basketball to work your way through an 82-game season and a postseason and an offseason. I have no problem marveling at LeBron James or enjoying Kevin Durant. The Warriors evolution is fascinating and I've watched more Raptor games this year than I ever have in my life. Every team has a story. Every player has a story. The wins and losses don't matter to me as much. I just try to tell interesting stories, but there's room for all kinds of approaches.
2. Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo once dubbed themselves "Divos," which I think is highly appropriate. They have that kind of split personality where they can be charming and lovable but if you are on the outside or pose any kind of threat, they can turn on you in a flash. To put it bluntly, sometimes they can act like jerks. Do you think fans, teammates, and even some of the media put up with that simply because they are so talented with a basketball? Or is there a respect that comes from being individuals ...who happen to be really talented with a basketball?
Such a loaded question! My thing is that I try not to take it personally when guys blow me off or don't give me good quotes. If that's who they are, then that's part of their story. Rondo doesn't play the media game because he thinks it's fake. KG doesn't because he's an intensely private person. That's part of their personalities. Put it this way: I'd rather get the Rondo deathstare to a question than some canned cliche response.
Beat writers put up with stuff because they have to. They don't have the luxury of saying, "Screw this guy. I'm not talking to him." Because the moment they do, they might miss something important. Whether fans care or not is up to them, but being a jerk tends to be pretty low on their list of concerns as long as they're winning. In terms of team dynamics, the more talent a player has and the more they produce, the more they are allowed to do whatever they want. That's true in all sports and life, really. Honestly, I think talent should be indulged and given a wide berth.
Look at Bill Russell. Red let Russell be Russell and that was the key to those teams because when they put the ball in play, Russell did everything he could to try and win the game. That's really all you can ask of an athlete. The fact that Russell is a transcendent personality and one of the most important athletes who ever lived makes his story all the more compelling. KG and Rondo aren't Russell. Who is? But I'd rather cover them than a bunch of "good guys" who say the right things all the time and don't make waves.
They're both neurotic as hell and weird, but that makes them interesting to write about. There's reasons for everything they do. I just try to figure out what those reasons are and make sense of them as basketball players because we really don't know what they're like when they're home with their families.
(Editor's note: I wouldn't have given such a loaded question if I didn't think Paul could handle it as well as I knew he would.)
3. I know you are a big music fan. In fact, I know you like a lot of music from bands/artists I've never heard of. So introduce us to some music by comparing them to basketball players. Example: I've always thought Paul Pierce's game was like Smashing Pumpkins. Slow buildup that leads to an explosion of energy. I think Carmelo Anthony reminds me of Stevie Ray Vaughn with his persistent and deliberate movement. Garnett is DMX in my head and Gerald Wallace is Living Colour. Rondo has to be some Jazz musician but I don't really know Jazz. Your turn (think of it as a creative writing assignment).
Oh man. I don't know if I can do this topic justice but I was bored on a train back from Philly a few years ago and put together a Rondo playlist for my own amusement. It was full of really heavy stuff like the Stooges' "Search and Destroy" mixed with lots of arty, nervous bands like Wire, Sonic Youth and the Feelies. If Rondo had a theme song for me it would probably be "Seen and Not Seen" or "Born Under Punches" by Talking Heads. Basically the whole "Remain in Light" album.
Paul Pierce is Neil Young and Crazy Horse. He's a great solo act, but he's much better as the leader of a raggedy ensemble. KG is definitely "The Payback" by James Brown. That's how I viewed his latter years: Dude was out for revenge and it was him against the world with only his band backing him up. Ray is Fleetwood Mac. Everything was polished and perfected after long hours in the studio, but the end result was immaculate and worth the effort. I'd like to equate Big Baby with a Ween album like "The Mollusk," but that's beyond my abilities.
I generally think about music as atmosphere more than the context of specific people. I just came back from LA where I listened to the Byrds circa "Notorious Byrd Bothers," and Gram Parsons because I wanted to get into that worn out LA in the 70s headspace. When I was on the beat I listened to things like Explosions in the Sky, My Bloody Valentine and anything with a funk groove that would go so deep you'd just get lost in it. I have a hard time listening to anything that's lyrically focused when I'm writing because it gets in the way of the words I'm trying to come up with in my head.
That doesn't answer your question all that well, but everyone should listen to more Black Sabbath.
4. Some people might not know this, but you are a journalism professor by day. What are the most common mistakes your students (and probably many bloggers like myself) make when they write?
Besides rampant style errors? The biggest thing I see today is a failure to get to the point. Time is short and words are precious. The Internet is amazing. We can do things that you couldn't even dream of doing at a newspaper, but I think having unlimited space leads to way too many indulgences for young writers. Just because it's long doesn't mean it's good and not everything deserves the "longform" treatment. Self-editing is tremendously important.
I spent 10 years working in newspapers and to this day if you ask me to write 800 or 1,200 words I'll give it you on the number and on time. That's a skill that took years to develop, but I didn't really learn how to write until I got to Boston magazine and worked with editors who obsessed over every word and phrase. Blogging is a skill in and of itself. Good blogging looks easy, but it's actually really difficult. There's a feel and a tone to it that connects with readers in a way a game story or a column never will.
Ultimately, writing is a craft and you have to practice and develop that craft in whatever form it takes. There are techniques you can learn, but there are no shortcuts.
5. The best advice I got about writing was to write every day (and if you think you are a "good writer" to write twice a day). I think the logical follow on is to read, ...a lot. What other great habits do you like to instill in your students? Anything specific to those that want to write about sports?
That's it. Write and read. Specifically, read things that have nothing to do with sports. I read a lot of magazines during the season because I don't have time to indulge in books. During the summer I'll read everything from trashy rock memoirs to noirish crime novels. A friend of mine gave me a book called "Outerbridge Reach," by Robert Stone that I'm saving for August when things finally slow down.
In terms of habits, I always keep a pen and a notebook handy. I've got them stashed all over the house and in my car. You never know when you're going to get a good idea and I've lost enough to know that you won't remember them when it's convenient. I need peace and quiet but everyone works differently, so find a routine that works for you. I also run a lot and I find that helps clear my head and helps me focus. When it's time to work: work. Tweet less, write more.
The best sportswriting education was covering high school football games. It's cold and probably raining. You have to keep your own stats and talk to kids who don't want to talk to you. Then you have to race back to the office and crank out a story in half an hour that only about 100 people care about, but all hundred of them will read every word and you will hear from them if you misspell Johnny's name or cheat him out of five rushing yards. Do that every week for about five years and I guarantee you can go out and find a story anywhere. You'll also appreciate being in an arena with a working wi-fi connection.
The best advice I ever got was from the late, great Phil Jasner. I was complaining about something and he looked at me and said, "No one cares. No one cares that your flight was late or their airline lost your luggage or that your editor is being a pain in the neck. Just do the work."
What else ... Develop your voice, don't be afraid to take criticism and have fun. Writing is the only time when you can say whatever you want and no one can interrupt you.
Thanks again Paul!