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What Makes This Piece Good, Vol. 3: Sally Jenkins on Kwame Brown's Growing Pains

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Jun 23, 2014.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    So I've been excited by the turnout on the previous threads, and the nature of the discussion. Let's continue to solider on with at least one of these entries per week. Perhaps we can bump it to two entries (one long; one short) if there is enough interest.

    Today's entry is our first magazine-length profile, a piece that Sally Jenkins penned for the Washington Post Magazine about then Wizards rookie Kwame Brown. It's about 8,000 words, and it ran right after the 2002 season ended.

    There is a lot to love about this piece, and over the years, it's reputation has grown to the point where it's one of the most memorable sports profiles the Washington Post has ever published. One particular detail in here is repeated often, and I can bet for those of you who read it back in 2002, but haven't thought of it much since, that detail is the one thing you remember most about the piece. (And we'll talk about why it's so memorable later in the thread.)


    I've always thought this piece was a clinic on how to use great anecdotes to reveal something bigger about a subject. What are the best anecdotes in the story? How did she go about getting stuff that others seemed to have missed?

    I'll weigh in with bigger thoughts at some point, but for now: What say you? What makes this piece good?

    As always, feel free to PM me with stories you'd like to see discussed: longform, medium form, game story, breaking news, etc.

    P.S. While I would say that Jenkins' work on — and her defense of — Lance Armstrong is fair game when it comes to her, I don't see much a point in bringing it up on this thread. It's a teaching exercise, not a referendum on her career. So please leave that out of this discussion. I certainly can't tell you not to bring it up, but if that's what you'd like to do, might be best to start another thread on that topic.
  2. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    This is very easy to read. It has an amazingly smooth flow as it transitions from point to point. She knows when the point has been made, and then she moves on, almost perfectly.

    That is the first thing that struck me.
  3. SP7988

    SP7988 Member

    As always, good stuff DD.
  4. SEC Guy

    SEC Guy Member

    I remember this one when it came out. There was such detail. I covered Kwame at the McDonald's game, but it was truly amazing how over his head he was when he got to the NBA. This was an instance where going to college could not have improved his draft stock, but he could have benefited greatly from a year or two at Florida.
  5. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    So, not a lot of interest in this one, which is ok. It's 8,000 words, and I realize some of these threads are going to die on the vine. No biggie.

    Before we depart, I'll just run through much of what I love about it, though.

    For starters, the French dressing. That's the detail that I alluded to in my initial post, the one that I'll *always* think about whenever I hear Kwame Brown's name. (Even now, when this piece gurgles to the surface of Twitter randomly, you'll see people laugh and mention remembering the French dressing anecdote, and it ran 12 years ago.) It's such a rich detail because of what it says without Jenkins having to say: Brown was so young, so emotionally immature, he viewed the world through the eyes of a 12-year-old millionaire, someone whose way of dealing with his fear of change was to bring French dressing to ever restaurant he entered.

    The magic of this story is that it gets behind the curtain to a place we rarely see with professional athletes. You get to see Brown's wrinkled designer suits balled up in the corner of his room, you sense the fear when you learn he's never spent a night alone before, that he was overwhelmed by every aspect of NBA life.

    I guess what I like most about this story is that I can tell Jenkins pieced it together slowly, over time, slowly gaining the trust of so many different people to bring out the scenes that make it real, not a puff piece about how everything was going to be ok for him. It's the kind of thing that you could do, sure, if you were afforded three months (plus) to work on a story, but also the kind of thing you could do as a beat writer — slowly gather string over the course of the season, saving your best anecdotes for a broader look at one person at the very end of the year. It's possible (I'd say likely) that Jenkins had a lot of off-the-record conversations with Collins (among others) and was able to then convince him over time to go on the record with some of those things once the season was over. It's like we discussed during the Olney piece on Rivera. You get great stuff by learning to have conversations when your notebook (or digital recorder) isn't out.

    I also love the fact that, like any good long piece, the main character changes throughout the story. Whether these lessons stuck with Kwame or not, I suppose history is the ultimate judge. But over the course of the year, you can see how he goes from scared, broken, out-of-shape little boy and gradually becomes a man. If you want people to read 8,000 words about someone, one of the ways (not the only way, but one of them) to do that is that your character needs to have some kind of arc. In this case, it's a fairly simple one (learning to grow up) but it's still really effective.

    One of my editors, Megan Greenwell, is also a huge fan of this piece, and addressed a lot of what she loves about it on Neiman's Storyboard series. Worth your time.


    We'll get back to something shorter by week's end. A game story, I think.
  6. JayFarrar

    JayFarrar Well-Known Member

    For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, I hadn't read this piece until it was posted here.

    Two things struck me, despite being 8,000 words, it read fast. I cruised through it on my phone, in what felt like 10 minutes, even though I suspect I didn't really read it that quickly.

    The other was that in no way was this a story that could have ran in a newspaper. It had to be in a magazine and it couldn't be done by a beat writer. It had to be a columnist or takeout person.

    Also, as DD has already said, the detail, the look behind the curtain is very good. It makes me wonder if Kwame, who I had sort of forgotten about and didn't know was still floating around the NBA, has any feelings or thoughts about the story.

    My guess is he'd shake his head and say something along the lines that he isn't the same person he was in his teens, and that he wouldn't agree to such a thing now.
  7. dirtybird

    dirtybird Well-Known Member

    It's a reminder of the power of anecdotes. Because structurally it's not blowing you away, and it has that upturn at the end that now feels sort of dated.

    But it just pounds you with those emotional moments, Brown's discomfort, background, the gap between where he was and what he was expected to be. There's Collins trying to reconcile the only way he knows how to be with the complete inability to deal with this sort of individual. The agent's surprisingly tender responsibility and Jordan's well-known hot-and-cold nature.

    It's a great piece of reporting and being around in a big way, and a lot is handled with care. Some might hammer the point Brown hadn't seen his dad since 6 or 7 (and that he doesn't remember). She just drops it in there because there are bigger fish to fry.
  8. SEC Guy

    SEC Guy Member

    For some reason, I thought it was this piece where it was revealed that Jordan had called Kwame "a fag"

    Maybe that was the Leahy book.
  9. I think this is a thorough profile for a number of reasons, but primarily because of access and effort.
    Jenkins was given access to Brown, which is important, but she also took time to talk many, many others.
    A lot of reporters - maybe because they lack of time or space or just laziness - talk to Brown, maybe his coach and a teammate and call it a day.
    I counted at least a dozen other people quoted in the story. The devil is in details and the details are usually found in talking to as many people as time allows.

    I also think there's a level of trust by the people in charge with Jenkins; trusting her not to burn them or Brown, at the time a 19-year-old rookie in there care. How many agents, coaches and GMs, would say these things about a present-day rookie trying to fit in?

    It reads well, and its entertaining. I think its serves a great example of being a good reporter. Not a writer, but a reporter; getting sources to trust you with access, fleshing out details through multiple sources and extensive interviews and using those details (the french dressing) to fill the story out.

    If I could offer a suggestion for this series: perhaps an investigative piece or story where access to the subject isn't there (not Frank Sinatra Has a Cold).
  10. SEC Guy

    SEC Guy Member

    She really didn't interview anyone who other people hadn't or couldn't talk to. But she extracted information from them that, for whatever reason, nobody else had written about. The stuff about the French dressing and the suits were just gold.

    I don't think "access" is what makes this story great. You could argue that the Wizards had a vested interest in getting this story out there. When it looks like you just wasted the No. 1 pick, it's in the team's best interest to let people know how much they had to deal with with this guy. The only negative would be that the Wizards could be accused of not doing their homework before taking him. I don't think they were that worried about that aspect of it.

    She also did not talk to Jordan. Not that he would have offered much, but it would have been interesting to see his comments on the kid. I don't fault her for that, but the notion that she had "great access" granted to get this story seems inaccurate.
  11. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Sure. And I would agree on Talese/Sinatra. I'm trying to pick stories that are realistic in terms of what can be applied to work of people striving to get better.
  12. jr/shotglass

    jr/shotglass Well-Known Member

    She had a picture she thought she could paint, and she painted it. Beautifully.

    The description is sublime. So is the "amateur psychoanalysis," because it's so obviously accurate. You could see in your mind's eye a kid thrown into a life of wealth where he had known nothing like it.

    I'd love to see her return to Brown now that it all appears to be over.
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