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Story on basketball team's first game after death of teammate

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by RichSuburbNews, Feb 23, 2007.

  1. RichSuburbNews

    RichSuburbNews New Member

    First off, thanks to everyone who made comments on the first two stories I posted here. I could probably flood the board with fair-to-middling stories to be dissected, but I'd rather have what I think is my best work be put under the microscope -- it helps keep me humble.

    So here's a story that sort of dropped into my lap. I was set to cover a regional basketball tournament for one of my three weekly papers when I discovered, a day before the event, that one of the players on a team that competed in my team's district was killed in a car accident. Now I feel like doing a story on what's sure to be an incredibly emotional game for this team, even though they're nearly 100 miles from my paper's circulation zone and only tangically connected to the school I cover. Sort of like a firehouse dog who barks when the alarm goes off.

    Go there, the mourning team wins, a lot of emotion. I don't know who I'm writing for yet, but it's got to be written. Pitch the story the next morning to the Richmond Times-Dispatch (we're both Media General brethern), and their sports editor bites and finds a spot in today's editon for it. Obviously I'm happy to be published at a big-time paper, but now I want to see if I could have done this better. My big regret thus far: I didn't get a chance to talk to the mom.

    Spare nothing: I'm not going to get any better unless I know where I did well AND where I strayed from the path.

    (story follows)
  2. RichSuburbNews

    RichSuburbNews New Member


    Friday, February 23, 2007

    FARMVILLE -- Randolph-Henry defeated Chatham 76-66 at Prince Edward Middle School on Wednesday, advancing to tonight's Region B semifinals with a berth in the Group A state tournament on the line.

    Like that mattered.

    The Statesmen played their quarterfinal game hoping to recover from a loss, one that had nothing to do with their defeat against Goochland in last Saturday's James River District title game.

    Adrian Roberts, a reserve guard who also was a two-year starter at quarterback and played on the baseball team, died Monday after his car veered into the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer on U.S. Route 15 in Charlotte County.

    "We did it for him," Justin Ferrell said afterward. "Plain and simple."

    All Randolph-Henry players donned white T-shirts with Roberts' picture on it for warm-ups, and they and many of the boisterous students in attendance donned white headbands in honor of him. Roberts' jersey was draped over his chair, and cheerleaders wrote his nickname (A-Rob) on their cheeks.

    And the already emotional night got much more so near the end of the first quarter when Adrian's mother, Karen, walked into the gym. She was keeping a promise to Adrian, who told her that she didn't have to watch him play last Saturday against Goochland because they'd be playing again Wednesday.

    The Goochland game was his final game.

    "Adrian's mother being here was tremendous," Athletic Director Joe Freeland said.

    The Statesmen may have been playing with too much emotion early, trailing most of the first half before settling down against the Dogwood District runner-up Cavaliers.

    "It didn't feel like us out there without him," admitted Ferrell, who finished with 26 points.

    Once they did, the James River regular-season champions started to pull away. Michael Heintzleman shook off a diving Chatham defender and hit a 3-pointer at the horn to put the Statesmen up 59-52, and his putback shot with 2:33 left gave them an 11-point lead.

    But it wasn't until Matthew Haskins hit a pair of wide-open layups in the final 1:10 that Randolph-Henry was assured its win.

    With 21.6 seconds left, Michael Wade held up Roberts' jersey to the fans, who chanted "A-Rob."

    When the final horn went off, Daylan Brodgon and Thomas Rogers immediately thrust their fingers skyward and looked up as teammates and fans mobbed them. After two of the longest days of their lives, they finally had reason to rejoice.

    "We knew he was looking down on us," Wade said. "I feel a lot better now. We wanted to do this for A-Rob so badly."

    And it almost didn't happen. The team was ready to forfeit the game and their season -- when they talked Tuesday morning. That changed after a pep talk from coach Jay Graves, not a man known for long speeches.

    "I told them, 'He wants you to play. If you can't play well, don't worry,'" Graves said.

    Freeland, who doubles as the football team's coach, said he knew something was wrong when someone called asking where Roberts was Monday, and he wasn't at the baseball field. By Tuesday morning, most of the small but tight-knit Charlotte Court House community knew.

    Freeland and others lined up faculty, ministers and counselors to assist the grief-stricken. Many of the athletes got together with coaches, and a number of them visited the family Tuesday.

    Postponing the game was considered, Freeland said, but the logistics made it a chore. Had they moved the game to Thursday, it could have forced the Statesmen to play three times in three days.

    "We thought it was best to just play it" Wednesday night, Freeland said.

    Randolph-Henry plays Clarke County tonight at Monticello High School outside Charlottesville. If the Statesmen win, they'll advance to tomorrow night's title game.

    In between is Roberts' memorial service at noon.

    "That should allow them time to get out there and get into a game mind-set," Freeland said.

    Wednesday's victory won't bring Roberts back or make everything better for his teammates and friends.

    But for one night, life felt a little more normal for them.

    "We knew he was there," Ferrell said. "We wanted to do this for him. Everything we did tonight was for him."
  3. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Mr French,

    I'm trying to improve on:

    Like that mattered.

    And I can't. For a game story (and more) it is really well done. You won't be in Farmville for long.

    YHS, etc
  4. m2spts

    m2spts Member

    Nice piece.
    These are tough to write.
    "Like that mattered" was a good twist.
    If I can make a recommendation: Find 3-4 more experienced sports guys to help you, once or twice a week. I know I've mentored quite a few through the years, and have thoroughly enjoyed the rapport between us.
    I'm not sure where you are in your career, but try to write as much as you can before taking that next step. Get accustomed to doing the "grunt" assignments, too, because editors at medium to larger papers appreciate professionals who aren't afraid to step in.
  5. J.C. Wolf

    J.C. Wolf Member


    The story is fairly well-written. You are clearly literate, which is a plus in this business. ;D

    But in all honesty, I think you really missed the boat on a chance to write a truly extraordinary, emotional story. You came at this more as a reporter, rather than a writer. And while thorough reporting is extremely important, it's the writing that ultimately will stick with a reader.

    Words are powerful. Learn to use them as such.

    I'm a young guy. I've only been in this business for a handful of years. But in that short span of time I've written a couple of these stories where death intrudes on the high school sports scene.

    I think there is one point that really needs to be hammered home: A child is dead.

    On the rare occassion that I've written something of this nature, I've always felt the need to "do the story justice." I'm not sure I've ever actually managed to, though.

    The only real emotion I get out of your story is this feeling of unbridled joy stemming from the crowd and the team. (And if the crowd really was chanting the dead kid's name, I think that's kinda creepy). You write:

    Randolph-Henry defeated Chatham 76-66 at Prince Edward Middle School on Wednesday, advancing to tonight's Region B semifinals with a berth in the Group A state tournament on the line.

    Like that mattered.

    You know the game's result doesn't matter. You say so in your lede. So then why kick off the story that way? Sure, the final score and what the result means in the grand scheme of the playoffs needs to get in there, but there's a better way to begin.

    Paint a picture. Start with some jabs. Then land a haymaker.

    For instance:

    FARMVILLE -- Karen Roberts walked into the Prince Edward Middle School gymnasium near the end of the first quarter.

    The mother of Adrian Roberts, a reserve guard on the Randolph-Henry High basketball team, had missed her son's previous game on Saturday, a loss to Goochland with the James River District title on the line.

    She had promised Adrian that she'd be at the Statesmen's Region B quarterfinal game on Wednesday, a game guaranteed before the team's most recent loss, a game Randolph-Henry eventually won, 76-66, over Chatham. She somehow found the stregnth to honor her promise.

    Adrian died on Monday.

    His car veered into the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer on U.S. Route 15 in Charlotte County.

    .... and so on.

    I think the image of Adrian's jersey draped over his spot on the bench is a powerful one. I think the premise of his memorial service being held between the semis and the title game is powerful, too.

    I also think you needed to talk to the kid's mother. You already realized this. Any comments from her would have been extremely powerful, not to mention a description of the woman's emotional state. Imagine:

    "Adrian told me that I didn't have to watch him play last Saturday, because he said he'd be playing again on Wednesday," the grief-stricken woman said, with tears welling in her eyes.

    It's a really tough situation. I know. But it needs to be done.

    A few years back, two kids from one of my major high schools died in a car crash during the state wrestling championships. One kid was a wrestler. The other was his girlfriend. Both 15-, 16-year-old kids. It was a very tight-knit community. The wrestler's good friend, a senior, was competing for a state wrestling title the very next morning. He found out just hours before his match. And he lost.

    The coaches were crying, but they spoke with me. They embraced me as a member of the community, even though I was from out of the area. The one told me that he wasn't mad at God, but wondered why on Earth it had to happen. I used the quote. The kid had worked his whole life to win a state title, and was a mess. He wouldn't talk. I wrote that, too.

    I started the story something along the lines of:

    John Doe awoke on the biggest day of his life to news that a close friend and teammate had lost his.

    Suddenly, with the opportunity to capitalize on a life's worth of training, expectations and dreams, his gold-medal matchup with one of the country's toughest high school wrestlers at the such-and-such Wrestling Championships took a back seat in both the minds of the Podunk High star and the entire Greater Podunk community.

    That was my first year as a full-time sportswriter. And it was brutal. I covered that team from the start of its season, and I can still see that dead kid's face in my head. Clear as day. I felt really guilty using the clip in my portfolio when I eventually tried to find another job ... like I was using this kid's death for my benefit or something.

    It was an extraordinary experience for a young writer, one I learned a great deal from, and that experience was priceless when I wrote a similar story just last year.

    You might have to do something like this again. I'm not trying to be too critical; just trying to share my thoughts and experiences. After all, you asked for it.

    You did a good job, but I think you could have done better. I get the feeling from your post that you also think you could have done better. I always feel that way about my work, too. Guess it just goes with the territory, huh?

    As you grow as a writer and reporter, keep one thing in mind ...

    Do the story justice.

    - Jason
  6. RichSuburbNews

    RichSuburbNews New Member

    As always, thanks to one and everyone for the comments.

    I bounced back and forth between using the "relative meaningless of the final score" angle with the "mama comes to the gym to keep her promise days after her son's death" angle. I considered trying something shocking with the lead, except I realized that by the time people got through reading the head and subhead, they'd have a pretty good idea of what the topic was about and wouldn't be terribly shocked.

    I also thought about being a little more loose with the words, but I knew I was writing this version of the story for one of the state's big two papers and the paper of record for a good chunk of this state. So I erred on the side of careful. I'm doing a different version of the story for my own paper on Tuesday, and if it evolves into a column, then obviously I can be more liberal with the way I construct it.

    I do wish I had talked to the mom, but the problem I had was that I had about 20 minutes between the end of that game and the start of the second game, the game that brought me out there in the first place. I went out onto the court to talk to the kids that I did knowing they wouldn't be around, since their next opponent was playing in a different part of the state (long, boring story about how this region does their postseason skipped). By the time I got the kids, she was gone.

    The real reason I put this out here is connected to a brief e-mail chat I had with the Times-Dispatch SE yesterday. For as much positive feedback as these kind of stories generate with the community, it's really hard to not do a good job with it. You almost have to go out of your way, with malice intent, to blow the story. I knew I did a good job, but I also know that everyone in their newsroom would have done a good job. All you really have to do is stay the hell out of the way of the story to hit the high notes.

    m2: I'd like to find some people who can help me along. I'm 32 and was full time at three daily papers before this, so I'm in that weird spot where I can neither use experience as an advanage nor inexperience as a crutch. I've not been fortunate enough to have a hands-on mentor, though I have used a lot of the writers with whom I've come in contact as a measuring stick.
  7. Taylee

    Taylee Member

    Well-written story, but in agreement with JC Wolf, these are the kinds of stories that should pull on the heart strings a little more.
    The "Like that mattered." line bothered me.
    In the one case that I covered a game with the same situation, winning did matter to those kids. They were playing for their teammate and all I spoke with make sure to tell me how much it mattered that they did win.
    Even in your story you quoted a kid as saying: "We did it for him. Plain and simple."
    That tells me the game -- and the outcome -- mattered a whole lot to those kids as well as everyone else in the community.
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