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What Makes This Piece Good, Vol. 4: Selena Roberts' gamer on Knicks/Heat

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Jun 28, 2014.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Welcome back to SJ University. If you missed previous editions, you can check them out here:

    1. Buster Olney on Mariano Rivera's cutter.

    2. Mike Bianchi on Dale Earnhardt's funeral.

    3. Sally Jenkins on Kwame's Brown's rookie year.

    Moving on, let's talk about game stories. I know we've had some discussions here about whether or not game stories are even necessary anymore. I believe that they are, but in order for them to be good, they have to do certain things, and give me stuff, I can't get elsewhere. It's pretty obvious that great beat reporting grows out of being there every day, sharpening your observational skills, asking questions that help expand your depth of knowledge, and finding ways to explain what happened to readers. Often under the pressure of deadline.

    But even if you're against game stories, conceptually, if you're young, you're likely going to have to keep writing them. We haven't evolved to the point where they're getting phased out entirely. Certainly not in small markets. And frankly, I still think baseball and basketball gamers remain an important part of any section. I might watch ever NFL game of my favorite time, or ever college football game of my favorite team, but I'm certainly not watching 162 baseball games or 82 basketball games.

    Which brings us to Selena Roberts game story on Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Playoff series between the Knicks and Heat. I picked this based on the private recommendation from a poster here, someone widely respected, who has revered it for years. The great Van McKenzie supposedly considered this one of the best deadline gamers a newspaper ever ran. It won 1st place honors for APSE gamers that year.

    I have a lot of great gamers in my back pocket, so if this isn't your cup of tea, no big deal. We'll get to other good examples. But what makes this piece good? What made it revered 15 years ago? Does it still hold up?


    FYI: This is the shot Roberts was writing about.


    In general, what makes some people great deadline game story writers? How does one get better if they're not great at writing deadline gamers?

    As always, PM stories you'd like to see discussed in the future.

    P.S. This thread isn't about her coverage of the Duke lacrosse bogus rape allegations while with the Times. Fair to discuss that — or Alex Rodriguez — elsewhere, just not as the primary subject of this thread, plz.
  2. JayFarrar

    JayFarrar Well-Known Member

    The candy stripe line has stuck with me since I first read it

    Can't say that about many lines. Even in stories I wrote.

    I suppose what makes it is the first few grafs. Sets the scene using the language in way that isn't typical in sports section fare.
  3. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    It's beautiful. Her descriptions are fantastic. The way she brings in all the factors and the people, and their fates, on that single shot is magnificent. She uses words like Ali used his gloves. Everyone can put them on and use them, but only a few can use them so well. Sort of expected when you file for the NYT. :)


    How many writers have the liberty to use two sentences and more than 31 words in a lede. That was also written in 1999, before the internet really exploded. How much time did she have to file? Is this story so much harder to write today because of current circumstances?

    I would like to know how much time expired between Houston bouncing that in and her sending the story.
  4. jr/shotglass

    jr/shotglass Well-Known Member

    The musings of an old guy who remembers seeing an older guy shoot a football game with a box camera ...

    The de-emphasis on the game story, to me, is one of the greater losses in our profession. There are few things that said you're a sportswriter more than turning out a tight, eloquent gamer in 45 minutes. I've got to think that's what Selena Roberts did here 15 years ago, dealing with concrete edition times. I applaud her.

    Do we have deadlines today for game material? You tell me. You want to get the story online as fast as possible, of course. But is it the writer's decision to take an extra 15-20 minutes to make his/her story just right?

    One thing separates a mediocre gamer from a good or great one -- you have to tell the reader what it all meant. There are few better examples than this, with Roberts breaking it down to Houston's shot essentially saving Van Gundy's job.

    Just enough background from early in the game, but dominated by the part that meant everything. Perfectly weighted. The quotes sound as if Roberts was writing the story, then turning around after a paragraph and asking, "Allan, say something that's going to bring this together."

    I would take this to J-schools and show it to young writers -- if they still want to know how a great game story is crafted.
  5. 3_Octave_Fart

    3_Octave_Fart Well-Known Member

    I agree a tight gamer is the mark of professionalism. Just not sure readers care anymore.
  6. jr/shotglass

    jr/shotglass Well-Known Member

    Question is, are they looking for that gamer online, or do they simply not care about reading a game story?
  7. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    I do think they care, but some of the people who are the most obsessed with the team don't care, and they often speak the loudest, so their voices are amplified. This is how you get the sabermetrics crowd declaring that the newspaper baseball beat guy is totally irrelevant, they never read his/her stories, etc. Well, not every fan of the Phillies or Mets or Braves is staying up till 1 am to watch the conclusion of that west coast gamer against the D-Backs. This is where the mentality of people assuming everyone is as obsessive as the most obsessive fan is a fallacy. I wake up in the morning, I still want to know what happened in the Orioles/A's game beyond 6-5 in 10 innings, I'm going to read the game story.

    A great game story should strive to:

    1. Put me there.
    2. Help me understand the tension
    3. Tell me what it means, in a larger context (within reason; a playoff loss is going to *mean* a great deal more than game 98)
    4. Give me information, or scenes, or personality, that I cannot get simply by watching on TV.
    5. Be an easy, yet interesting read.

    I think losing gamers entirely would be bad for a lot of reasons, among them:

    1. Too much analysis is ponderous. I see this a lot in television recapping, actually, where critics are writing 2,500 words to describe what happened in a 22 minute episode of Community or a 44-minute episode of Game of Thrones or Mad Men. Do this once, about something I'm interested in (but don't obsess over the way the critic does) and I'll probably read to the end. Do it every single time, and I'm not coming back. I see this sometimes on baseball blogs, by writers who are smart as shit, but have never been edited in their lives. A lot of people just want to know what happened with a little insight, not see theories spun out another 1,000 words.

    2. Writing gamers on tight deadlines forces you to think about the economy of language. You can't get too cute, or longwinded, if you have to file right at the gun, then again in 30 minutes for the final. (In addition to getting down to the locker room/clubhouse and back.) I'm a big believer that it helps to learn various "rules" of writing before you decide which ones you should break as you get better and wiser.

    Here is an example of a gamer I thought was pretty darn good, and one that must have been turned on an absolutely brutal deadline, under circumstances where you'd essentially have to toss out everything you'd written in the previous hour as the game was winding to a close.

    Joe Strauss on Game 6 of the Cards/Rangers World Series.

  8. 3_Octave_Fart

    3_Octave_Fart Well-Known Member

    I mean this respectfully- this morning I didn't need any outlet to know what happened in last night's 15 MLB games, thanks to the video tab on MLB.com.
    No reason to bother with a game report when I can watch comprehensive highlight packages for any and all games, whether I'm on the pot or on a coffee house line.
    Ten-hour-old news content is the equivalent of four-weeks-old Chinese takeout at this point.
    It is just not meant to survive in the new media environment.
    Fart has teenaged nephews; i will ask the last time they read a game story.
    Guessing ca. 2006.
  9. jr/shotglass

    jr/shotglass Well-Known Member

    I know we're losing them by generations. What I don't know is how fast the trickle is occurring.

    It's one thing to see advertisers have changed their spending habits. It's another to see how many, or how few, people in the household are scouring the sports section.
  10. 3_Octave_Fart

    3_Octave_Fart Well-Known Member

    A few shops ago, to stanch the bleeding, we were directed to write "featurized" gamers.
    I thought it was a good idea in a 2005 kind of way.
    It did not correct the problems, obviously, but led to more creative processes.
    At least they were trying something different.
  11. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Nothing about what you say is incorrect, Fart, and I appreciate the respectful thoughts. I wish I had an answer or an idea about where we should go. I suppose what could emerge is some sort of highlights package/game story/column hybrid. Four paragraph bursts interspersed with embedded highlights from MLB.com and NBA.com. I think the traditional football gamer is already essentially dead, because anyone who cares about an NFL or college team can likely find the time to tun in 16 or 14 times a year.

    I still think it's a good teaching tool, as long as "covering preps or small colleges in some capacity" is a thing at newspapers and websites that cover communities. Even a featurized gamer can help develop disciplined writing.
  12. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member

    This was a fantastic sentence:

    As his 10-foot jumper licked the front of the rim, bounced up and hung as if filled with helium, there dangled Jeff Van Gundy's job as the Knicks' head coach, Patrick Ewing's future and the path of the franchise.

    Beyond that, I loved all the irony both suggested and pointedly cited for purposes of perspective that was in this story.

    The story is ALL about The Shot, and yet, Houston's quote makes a valid point that "You can only put so much into a shot," as if it could have/would have meant nothing without the bounce-in. And he'd have been right.

    I loved the irony pointed out not just by Roberts' breakdown/history from the teams' series-deciding game two years earlier but of the breakdown/history of the similar first quarter of the deciding game from that season.

    The reminder that both Ewing and the younger rival Mourning are products of Georgetown.

    Roberts' usage of the same or similar words to describe unrelated things makes the writing beautifully descriptive and ties everything together. To wit: the description of Houston being hugged by teammates and embraced by destiny.

    It's a wonderful weaving job that makes quilted squares of the key seconds/events by picking each of the them out for a paragraph. That allows her, and you, to just throw out the rest of the game/story, which, also ironically, mirrors what I'm sure the reporters at this game had to do, too.

    Can't you just practically hear them all cursing Houston?
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