You are who you read.
It is the voices that a writer is exposed to early in life that ultimately help influence the voice which that writer develops as an adult. That isn't to say that someone who goes through a lengthy Hemingway phase as an adolescent is going to focus on concise dialog and simple declarative sentences any more than someone who reads too much Salinger is going to feel drawn to spend pages describing the contents of purses, cupboards and medicine cabinets in excruciating detail. Unless you limit yourself to one or two influences or blatantly plagerize the style of some author you admire, your voice is going to develop as a varied amalgamation of those thousands of little "a ha" moments you had leafing through books as a kid, when some phrase or idea just sounded right and stuck in the back of your head.
Now, I'm not much of a writer. This much I will freely admit. That isn't to say I am incapable of producing something transcendent on occasion -- I have a few pieces of writing from the last year that I am very proud of and wouldn't change one bit. I am simply not as consistent as I would like (is anyone?). The more I immerse myself in the art and science of great writing, the more I begin to realize that truly great writers aren't the ones who hit the highest peaks, but the ones who produce consistently good writing on a regular basis. Who is more valuable to a baseball team, the guy who hits .325 for his entire career on mostly singles and doubles, or the guy batting .200 that wallops a few homers but all too often shows only warning track power? Sure, everybody wants to be Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, but there is a reason why the hall of fame is so hard to get into. You don't find a lot of guys who are routinely knocking them out of the park.
All of this leads me in a round-a-bout way to Bill Simmons. There is no other sportswriter out there who I attached myself to as early as Bill (with the exception of the late Ralph Wiley, but that tragedy is another column entirely). I started reading Simmons' work as a Senior in high school. I was a student aide for one of my high school teachers which often meant a great deal of downtime. That left me alone in the back of the classroom with nothing much to do by surf the internet. From there I naturally gravitated to ESPN.com, and it's cultural/sports hybrid: Page 2. I have been reading Bill Simmons regularly ever since.
While I did a lot of reading during and after college, I wasn't as much a fan of particular writers as I was websites. Only in the last couple years has that shifted. Once I began to immerse myself deeper into the world of college football did I begin to seek out particular voices which I valued. It started with guys like Brian Cook at mgoblog and Dave at Maize n Brew -- Michigan football sites, obviously -- and soon spread to phenomenal writers such as Spencer Hall of EDSBS, Matt Hinton of Dr. Saturday, Bethlehem Shoals of Freedarko, William Saleton of Slate, and Ty Duffy and Jason Lisk of The Big Lead (a very honorable mention goes to Chuck Klosterman, whose web profile is much lower) to name a few. These were the guys I would search out on a daily basis. The people whose insights I could count on when a trade happened or a scandal arose.
The thing about it was that the bigger the club got, and the more passionate I became about some of the writers in it, the more someone like Bill Simmons got marginalized. It isn't that I've outgrown Bill (I tore through TBofB like it was only half of its 700+ page length) it is simply that the draw isn't as strong. I still tune in for columns on certain subjects, but there is only so much discussion I can handle of the Red Sox or pro football gambling, no matter how many pop culture references are littered on the page. What's more, I find myself searching for the soul behind some of Simmons work these days. Maybe I have become spoiled that his wit and sarcasm work much better in podcast form (and I am a huge fan of his podcasts), or maybe there are just too many mailbags, but often I find his writing these days to be formulaic. This player/coach/team did this, and according to this theory, person X will act in one of ___ ways (insert list), drop an 80's movie reference, and finish with a joke. The humor is still there, but the passion of the fan isn't. I can remember reading a piece either on Freedarko or by Shoals that essentially boiled Simmons' problem these days down to an overuse of the fratish, crude humor that originally vaulted him above the rest of the internet's unwashed masses, while ignoring of the kind of deeply personal fan "for the love of the game" nostalgia that shows just how wonderful and expressive a writer Simmons can be when he gets past himself and just writes*.
* (I am almost certain that this point comes from Shoals review of TBofB and contrasts the first chapter -- Simmons' personal account of growing to love the NBA and the Boston Celtics (not in that order) -- with the final chapter -- Simmons attempt to shoehorn a reference to Tupac's "Picture Me Rollin'" into his final interview with Bill Walton. While I am a sucker for Tupac, after judging the two chapters I have to agree with Shoals).
And that "vintage Simmons" is what brought me here to write when I have like five other things I should be doing right now. I read Simmons' latest column this morning and was mildly amused. Lots of lists, lots of theories, lots of name drops. Basically what you expect from Simmons in 2011. However, the end of the second part stuck with me. No surprise it comes from Simmons examining, of all things, the Boston Celtics. Specifically the part of him that isn't impressed with the trade of Kendrick Perkins. I'll quote the whole damn thing below:
"And there's the rub. We don't play basketball on paper. I cared about this particular Celtics team more than any Celtics squad since Reggie Lewis was alive -- and that includes the 2008 title team -- mainly because the players enjoyed one another so much. I wasn't surprised to hear that Perkins cried for most of the day Thursday, that Boston's veterans were infuriated by the trade, that Rondo (Perk's best friend) was practically catatonic heading into Thursday night's game in Denver. These guys loved one another. As recently as last season, you couldn't have said that. But Shaq loosened everyone up; so did four full years of the core guys being together; so did Doc's belated maturation into an impactful coach (believe me, I'm as shocked as anyone); so did the contract extensions (Boston's four All-Stars are signed through at least 2012); so did the bonding experience of blowing Game 7 and having that purple confetti fall on their heads; so did the enduring belief that nobody had ever beaten them when they were healthy.After I finished reading that I left the tab open in google chrome for around two hours. I didn't even know what I was going to do with it. I wanted to link to it somewhere. Send it to a friend and say "Isn't this great? Doesn't it just get to the heart of the complex love we have for players on our favorite teams?" I finally closed the tab, but quickly came over here and started writing.
I attended Tuesday's game in Oakland and saw exactly what I expected to see: a well-rested, veteran team that knew it hadn't won there in six years and took care of business accordingly. In the first half, David Lee didn't like the way Perkins fouled him on a drive, whirled around and bumped Garnett and Perkins (standing next to each other) on his way to the line. Double technicals. I remember thinking, "Uh-oh -- no way we're losing now." Something like that happened frequently with these Celtics. They had become the modern-day version of the Bad Boy Pistons -- not the fighting, just the barking, woofing, shoving and general villainy -- with Perk and Garnett as Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. That was the team's identity, for better and worse. They knew who they were. I left Oakland thinking that we were headed for the Finals. We had "The Look," as Mike Lombardi calls it.
Less than 48 hours later, I found myself staring at an "FYI: Perk for Jeff Green" e-mail for two solid minutes. What???????? I remember drafting Perk out of high school. I remember his being fat and awkward. I remember liking his mean streak that surfaced at the strangest times. I remember those flashes of potential as Perk banged the boards with Al Jefferson. I remember thinking we could count on him after the Garnett trade and not really knowing why. I remember watching that same ugly jump hook over and over again, hoping beyond hope that it might get better. I remember winning a title with him, and I remember losing a title without him. I remember seeing him warm up before opening night, a good two hours before the game, almost as though he didn't want the team to forget that he was coming back. Like every other Celtics fan, I watched him go from nothing to something. I certainly never imagined watching Perk play for another team.
My father was more crushed than me. He's been a season-ticket holder since 1973 and still attends 25 Celtics games per season. As he explained Thursday night, "I was invested in Perkins. I sit 15 feet from their bench -- I watched him grow up. I don't think sports is always about winning and losing. We might be better, but right now, I don't care. I liked the team we had. It doesn't feel right that he's not on this team."
See, you can't truly love a team until you've suffered with it. The 2008 title team always felt like a fantasy team that had been thrown together in some sort of euphoric basketball dream that wasn't quite real. Losing Garnett in 2009 (and eventually, the Orlando series) definitely hurt; blowing the 2010 title was 100 times worse. The agony of those last two games pushed our relationship with the team to an entirely different level. I still remember seeing Perkins rolling around in pain during Game 6 -- it happened about 20 feet away from me -- then the veterans watching him get helped off, his right leg dangling in the air, the life sinking from their bodies like Apollo watching Rocky wave him back to the corner. With a healthy 2011 Garnett in that Game 7, maybe we could have survived. Banged-up 2010 Garnett couldn't get it done. The trophy was sitting there, and we couldn't take it. A crestfallen Perkins spent the summer blaming himself, busted his butt to come back … and the Celtics dumped him a month after he returned. Claiming they couldn't afford him only made it worse: The kid signed a discount extension four years ago and outperformed it. They owed him.
Selfishly, I wanted one more chance with them: Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Perkins, Baby and Doc, the only seven guys who mattered here. But that's the thing about sports -- "them" always seems to change when you least expect it. We traded Charlie Scott when I was in the second grade. We traded Danny Ainge when I was in college. Now Perkins. Those were the three most brutal Celtics deals of my lifetime. Each one hurt the same. Doesn't matter how old you are, where you are in your life, where you're living … there's no feeling quite like your favorite team trading someone you genuinely liked.
You might remember LeBron and Carmelo getting excoriated for stabbing their respective teams in the back. You want to know why they didn't care? Because, deep down, they know that teams don't care about players, either. They probably witnessed 20 variations of the Perkins trade during their first few years in the league. Hey, it's a business. Hey, that's just sports. Hey, trades come with the territory. Isn't loyalty a two-way street? When a team does what's best for itself, we call it smart. When a player does the same, we call him selfish. We never think about what a double standard it is.
I thought Perk deserved better than getting blindsided in Denver, then having to limp around with a sprained knee and pack his stuff with tears rolling down his face. Maybe I'm a sap. But that was our guy. Family. On the phone, my dad decided -- completely seriously -- that he would rather have lost the 2011 title with Perkins than have tried to win it without him. Why?
"Because he was truly part of our team," Dad said. "I don't want to root for laundry. I watched that guy for eight years. That should mean something. Continuity should mean something."
Within a few weeks, both of us will have talked ourselves into the Jeff Green era. That's what fans do. We take the hits, shake them off, keep coming back. The Celtics will morph into something slightly different: a little more athletic, a little more flexible, a little younger and, hopefully, almost as tough. Perkins will fly to Oklahoma City, live out of a hotel room, make new friends and try to help Durant and Russell Westbrook make the Finals. Maybe the Celtics will see him there. It won't feel weird at all, because that's the way professional sports work. We are rooting for laundry. Whether we want to admit it or not."
It would be foolish of me to say that Bill isn't still the kind of writer that is absolutely worth following. To extend the baseball analogy a bit further, he is consistently productive enough that ESPN has decided to build a whole team around him, he has reached a point in podcasting that makes them almost more essential than his columns, and his work in bringing about the 30 for 30 project from a dream to reality might be one of the most important and relevant areas of growth that ESPN has seen in the last decade.
However, it still put a smile on my face as I read Simmons talk about the Perkins trade from such a personal standpoint. I may be wrong when I say that his writing has been growing complacent over the past couple years. Certainly the jobless hack writing on a blog for essentially his friends and family is in a precarious position to throw stones at the most successful sports writer of the internet age (and I don't think I am throwing stones as much as gently critiquing. With love, of course). As a fan and someone who thinks he might be able to make some waves as an occasional writer, I'll be damned if it wasn't great to see Simmons definitively hit one out of the park, just like I remember him doing when I was a high school kid looking to kill some time before the bell. After all, it is this kind of writing that made me want to get into the game in the first place.