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WMTPG, Vol. 5: Rick Reilly on Patrick Ewing (AKA, the art of the write around)

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Jul 1, 2014.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Welcome back to SJ University's: "What Makes This Piece Good?" (which we are now turning into an acronym!). We know that making your way in the sports journalism world today takes everything you'e got. And taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. We're always glad you came.

    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.
    4. Selena Roberts' Knicks/Heat playoff gamer

    This week's example comes, in a round about way, at the suggestion of one of our posters, Evil ... Thy Name is Orville Redenbacher. Evil pointed out what a good idea it would be to discuss a story where the reporter did not have the cooperation of the subject. I couldn't agree more, in part because I think it's a skill (and I do believe it's a skill, meaning it can be learned) you almost have to have in this day in age. Especially if you're going to write about someone who doesn't really want to be written about. The first magazine story I wrote was a write-around. So was the second. (In the fourth, my subject was dead.) I learned quickly that if I expected to sit in a room with my subjects and get all kinds of access/time with them, I was going to get creamed. Even at the highest level, access often sucks. It might take months to talk an athlete (more likely his agent or a PR person) into giving it to you, and you may have days or weeks to file instead.

    For the most part, access is ideal, obviously. But if you can't get it, either because the subject doesn't want to give it or because he/she doesn't want to give it to your publication, you're often still going to have to make the story work. The writers who can make the write-around work are ones who are going to keep getting assignments. Most of us aren't Gay Talese, which is why I think it's not particularly helpful every time we throw "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" as an example of what to do when the subject won't talk.

    Which brings us to Rick Reilly. However you feel about Reilly these days, in the late 80s and mid-90s, he was doing all kind of interesting things with just about every assignment at SI. It's almost like he was playing around — or experimenting — with the form of sports feature writing. Maybe his style was never for you, but you probably still have to admit, the guy was pretty damn creative in the way he approached stuff. He reported his ass off on stories.

    In late 1993, Reilly was tasked with the difficult assignment of writing an in-depth profile of Patrick Ewing, who, despite playing his college basketball in the shadow of the Washington Post and his professional career in New York (and its many fine papers), had never really been the subject of a great profile. Ewing valued his privacy too much, and didn't really give a hoot about giving up a piece of himself to writers, even to Sports Illustrated when the magazine was at the height of its power and influence.

    So Reilly decided to do something different. The result has always been one of my favorite of his pieces. It's not one that comes up often when people talk about the great Reilly stories (I didn't see it get a single mention in his retirement). But it is one I think every young journalist ought to read. I know he can be polarizing, some day you might be tasked with writing about someone who simply won't talk to you, and what Reilly showed in this piece is that the easiest way to combat that is to, quite literally, talk to anyone you can think of related to that person.


    Is this piece good? I'm happy to argue the reasons why I think it is, but you're certainly allowed to feel differently. If you agree that it is good, what stands out? Why does its gimmick ultimately help you know Ewing in a way you otherwise didn't before reading it?

    [sub]As always, feel free to PM suggestions of stories, or topics, you'd like to see discussed. Just know that I'm trying to select pieces that haven't been picked over hundreds of times, and have some value as a teaching tool.
  2. Mauve_Avenger

    Mauve_Avenger Member

    This type of story telling would not have crossed my mind if I was given an assignment like this. I like the creativity to allow people close to Ewing tell the story.
  3. YankeeFan

    YankeeFan Well-Known Member

    Still got a very good sense of who Patrick Ewing is/was. Too often, we get a blow by blow of the journalists attempts to reach the subject, and come away with nothing.

    Seemed like a lot of people in Patrick's life were eager to set the record straight. He's not shy, just private. And, with his friends and family, he's generous, talkative, and fun.

    That eagerness had to help, but Reilly still did a good job with it, and made sure to talk to a good cross section of people who knew Patrick over the years.
  4. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    The whole time I had Patrick's face in the forefront of my mind as I read each quote.

    Want to know who Patrick Ewing is? Reilly explains, in-depth, who Patrick Ewing is here.

    Very good.
  5. EStoess

    EStoess Member

    Didn't mean to read that, but started and couldn't stop. Really good. Don't remember it.
  6. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    One thing I really like about the piece is the stylistic choice to not name anyone in the quotes, which I'm not sure you could get away with in too many places. I think it actually keeps the focus on Ewing more instead of forcing you to pause very long and consider the source. Some of the people, you might know who they are. John Thompson, for example. But I just think it's a nice touch in that it's never about anyone else other than Ewing, only the slight modifier explaining how they might be connected. Beat guy. Columnist. Trainer. College teammate. High school friend. Ex-teammate. And including the views of sports writers, columnists, play-by-play guys actually works because it taps into what the overall feeling is about Ewing, about what kind of expectations there are for him, the pressure he's under, some of the misconceptions about him. I don't think quoting other media people is something you'd ever do writing, say, a story about a high school phenom, but here it works because it fits in with the overall, unspoken "journey" of trying to figure out who Ewing is.

    This might be the first ever "Oral History" to appear in a major sports magazine, now that I think about it.
  7. This.
    You beat me to it.
    The un-named, but sourced quotes .. that's the part of the strength of this piece. It's not Jordan, or John Starks, or Horace Broadnax being quoted and that keeps the overall focus on Ewing as he seen and known by others.

    Some of it was unnecessary ... like the Ziploc bags, the opened package of wristbands ... I don't think that really adds anything to the story. Reading it now, I nearly groaned, because I think its cliche crap.

    I saw Ewing a few years ago at Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. He was walking through the casino. He had a small group of people around him wanting photos and autographs.
  8. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    I thought Patrick's idiosyncrasies (Ziplock bags, wristbands) added another layer of depth.

    We all have our weird little attributes about us, as do well-known athletes -- Boggs and his fried chicken, for example -- so it was cool to see what his were.
  9. YankeeFan

    YankeeFan Well-Known Member

    How the fuck has he never tried chicken? Do we think that's still the case?

    Dude's from Jamaica, and he's never had Jerk Chicken?
  10. dirtybird

    dirtybird Active Member

    It's an interesting perspective on him, taking a workaround and imbuing some of the Reilly flair to play with form. But it works for the most part and provides something interesting. It leaves out some true fleshing out, but I think that provides a lightness to the whole thing.
  11. HejiraHenry

    HejiraHenry Well-Known Member

    It's just me, but the quotes seems to have a certain quality - eh, flatness of effect is the phrase I want to use - that suggests to me that Reilly is filtering the quotes a bit through his own voice. In the era of hand-written notes, I suppose we all did that. Now, too many reporters are just transcribing and quotes can wander all to hell and back.
  12. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    I don't trust Rick Reilly's integrity enough to buy him not naming names. In 1993, I probably would have.
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