Jeff Pearlman Exclusive Interview: Sports Journalist On New Book 'Showtime,' Journalism, Mike Lupica
Jeff Pearlman, the New York Times best-selling author and former ESPN contributor, has authored five books and his sixth, Showtime, is due out in March. After graduating from the University of Delaware, Pearlman began his career at The (Nashville) Tennessean, where he was the paper’s food and fashion writer.
In 1996, Sports Illustrated hired Pearlman. In 1999, he published perhaps his most famous story, a profile of Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker. In the piece, Rocker said he would retire before he would play for a New York team and made disparaging remarks about gays and foreigners. After leaving Sports Illustrated, Pearlman later returned to write columns for SI.com. He also pens a well-loved sports blog.
Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, comes out on March 4.
Jeff Pearlman Reflects On His Career So Far
Matt Castello: What is the best sentence you wrote?
JP: It’s not a sentence, just a name: Johnny Latham Mitchell.
MC: Best piece you wrote?
JP: I guess Lyman Bostock for ESPN.com.
MC: Most impactful piece you wrote? Which one do you think about most? The Tyler Ugolyn piece?
JP: Easily Tyler Ugolyn for both. Didn’t impact the most people or anything like that. But stuck with a family that lost its son.
MC: Which piece are you most proud of writing? Why?
JP: My first-ever published story appeared in the Mahopac High student paper, The Chieftain. It was about the girl’s track team. I remember seeing the story in print and floating away. So thrilling. So proud.
MC: Is there an athlete you've never interviewed that you would like to? Who?
JP: Well, Jackie Robinson would be great. But impossible.
MC: Who was your favorite interview ever? Who was the most honest athlete you've ever talked to? The meanest?
JP: My favorite interview would be Lynn Thompson, a woman who was dying of cancer in Nashville in 1995. Honest, painful, real. I was 23, and over my head. She introduced me to death with grace. Most honest athlete was John Rocker—he was honest about being a racist xenophobe. The meanest was Barry Bonds. Not mean to me. But treated so many so cruelly.
MC: What is your best interview advice?
JP: Don’t enter with pre-judgments. Have a completely open mind.
MC: Is there a favorite interview you’ve conducted on The Quaz? Which one? How do you select and find your interview subjects?
JP: Adrian Dessi—Quaz No. 100. He is the father of two friends, and he’s fighting ALS. Courageous and real. I randomly pick people who pop into my head and pop into my Twitter feed and seem interesting.
MC: Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?
JP: I do. Because I have an ego.
MC: What is a question that you wouldn’t want any journalist to ask you?
JP: Anything excessively personal about my wife and kids.
MC: What is a question that journalists don't ask often enough?
JP: What did [fill in the experience] feel like? Too often we capture the mechanics of the moments, while missing the emotion.
MC: “Two Carries, Six Yards” was one of my favorite of longer pieces you've written. How did that piece come to fruition?
JP: Thanks. I’d always been fascinated by Ricky Bell, and SB Nation allowed me the chance to chase it. No one else had ever been interested.
MC: Was Ricky Bell someone you wanted to write about for a long time? [The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Ricky Bell No. 1 overall in the 1977 NFL Draft after a storied career at the University of Southern California. In 1984, he died of a heart attack, just two years after his professional career ended.]
JP: Yes. Years and years.
MC: Are there other athletes like Bell and Bostock who you've wanted to write about/profile for some time?
JP: J.R. Richard is sitting there. I love the time period, and I’m riveted by the demises. I was just a kid. Things seem so big and untouchable when you’re a kid. I like to try and understand them.
Jeff Pearlman Talks 'Showtime'
MC: Showtime comes out on March 4. What led you to write this book?
JP: I’m a child of the 80s and a sucker for nostalgia. I also happen to love Los Angeles, and the subject seemed ripe.
MC: Who was the toughest person to get an interview with for the book?
JP: Magic. I’d interviewed him long ago, but he refused to talk now.
MC: Why should people buy it?
JP: Because I have two kids to feed [joking]. If you love basketball and you love the 1980s and you want to know the inner-workings of an amazing dynasty, it’s your book.
MC: Among your six books, which was the most challenging book to write? Report on?
JP: Sweetness—both. Emotional, gripping. I came to love Walter Payton, hurt for Walter Payton, sometimes question Walter Payton. Just an emotional coaster.
MC: Favorite book you wrote?
MC: Least favorite?
JP: The Rocket That Fell to Earth.
MC: Is there a book you regret writing?
MC: Not really. Probably could have done without Rocket, though
MC: Was it tougher writing a book about Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens?
JP: Clemens. Because he’s dumb and vapid. Bonds is evil, but he has introspection and intelligence.
MC: Who are you thinking about writing about in the future, if you can let us know?
JP: Not entirely sure. Shannon Hoon. [Hoon, the lead singer of Blind Melon, died in 1995.]
MC: Is it more difficult to write a book about a dead man like Walter Payton? Why or why not?
JP: Honestly, it’s easier, because there’s an end. It comes full circle—birth-life-death. So, while I’d prefer there were no book and he’s alive, it’s easier.
MC: What criticism of Sweetness bothered you the most?
JP: Mike Wilbon ripped me, suggested I’m some money hungry asshole … but never read it. Cheap shot. Never apologized.
Jeff Pearlman On Writing
MC: What do you prefer to write: books, long pieces or columns?
JP: Books. I love books. I love being left alone for two years to obsess over a subject.
MC: You can only write one of the three for the rest of your life, which do you pick?
MC: What makes a good column?
JP: Intense research and a unique perspective. And if it doesn’t have Mike Lupica’s byline.
MC: Which writers do you like to read? Who do you recommend?
JP: Jonathan Eig, Howard Bryant, Jon Wertheim, Chris Ballard, Gail Collins, Andrew Sullivan, Robert Caro.
MC: Were there any older writers who served as mentors when you were young? Who?
JP: Yes. Three biggies. When I was in high school I landed an internship at the local newspaper, The Patent Trader in Cross River, N.Y. The sports editor was Joe Lombardi—he taught me 1,000 tricks of the trade. When I was at the University of Delaware, my sports journalism teacher, Bill Fleischman, was a great writer for the Philly Daily News. He was smart and inspiring. Then, in Nashville at The Tennessean, an editor named Catherine Mayhew beat the s–t out of me and—when I sucked—moved me to the cops beat to teach me how to report.
Pearlman Weighs In On Baseball Hall Of Fame
MC: If you had a baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) vote, would you vote for Bonds? Clemens?
JP: No. No.
MC: Biggio and Bagwell?
JP: No. No.
MC: On Twitter you said you would not vote for Biggio and Bagwell due to off-the-record reporting, which you said was the only way to get info regarding their PED [Performance-Enhancement Drug] use. Are you really reporting the information if it’s off the record? You’re certainly gathering it, but you’re not conveying it to your readers. Do you think that it’s fair for baseball writers to not vote for players for the HOF based only on suspicions?
JP: I don’t know. I really don’t. It all confuses the hell out of me. Honestly, I sorta wish I’d never taken a stance on either guy, because it’s all nonsense anyway. Were those two guys clean? According to much reporting I’ve done on PED through the years, no. But can I provide the data and reveal my sources? No. Huge mistake, as a journalist, on my part. Should have just stayed quiet. I don’t vote, anyhow.
MC: What did you think about Dan Le Batard giving his HOF vote to Deadspin readers? Did you agree with his logic?
JP: I thought it was crap. Disrespectful beyond belief. He’s great, I’m an admirer. Didn’t like that, though.
Jeff Pearlman Gets Philosophical
MC: Do you still ponder death on a daily basis?
JP: Most days, yes.
MC: How has having kids changed your life? Your attitude?
JP: Well, it certainly makes one aware how fast time passes—because you see your kids grow in front of your eyes. But it’s brought me unspeakable joy and meaning. Cliché but true–have never cared for people as much as I do my kids.
MC: Meanest thing anyone has ever written to you online?
JP: I’ve seen them all. Bald. Jew. A–hole. Liar. F–ktard. Nothing sticks.
MC: Have you ever gotten online threats after publishing a book or column? If so, what happened?
JP: Well, some of the post-Sweetness things weren’t pretty. Then people read the book, and it faded.
MC: Did the reaction to Sweetness surprise you?
JP: Yes, but that’s on me. I was oddly naïve. The excerpt that ran in SI was about depression and infidelity, and ran before the book came out. I should have seen it coming, to some degree.
MC: Have you ever written something on your blog and then thought it was too personal?
JP: Many, many times. Posts have been removed. Family stuff, mainly.
MC: I’m sure you get this question daily, but what's your advice to young journalists and writers trying to break into the business?
JP: Be different. Make your shit leap off the page. Look for angles others ignore. When all the other writers are swarming Jeter, find the backup catcher.
MC: Lowest moment of your professional career?
JP: Many to choose from. Fired from my college newspaper freshman year. Demoted to cops beat at The Tennessean. Post-John Rocker attention at SI. Finding out “Game of Shadows” was coming out two weeks before my Bonds book. Immediate reaction to Sweetness.
MC: Best advice you ever received?
JP: My dad has often said it’s important to remember that people have bad days.
MC: Where do you go after you die?
JP: Not sure, but my kids think it’d be funny to be floating on a cloud with my grandma, Tupac, Walter Payton and Abe Lincoln. Sounds good to me.
MC: Why isn't Jason Collins on an NBA team? Why isn't Chris Kluwe punting for an NFL team?
JP: We both know the answer to that one.
MC: Rank in order (favorite to least): Breaking Bad, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, President Obama, BuzzFeed, Mia Farrow, Woody Allen, The Sopranos, Neil Young, Anchovies, Sushi
JP: Sushi, Obama, Taylor Swift, Neil Young, Kanye West, Mia Farrow, Woody Allen, Anchovies, BuzzFeed, Sopranos, Breaking Bad (don’t watch either)
MC: What is your best summer camp story?
JP: Not sure why this pops into my head. I spent one summer going to a travel camp. Every day we went somewhere different, and one week we went to Montreal. We had a counselor named Mike—cool guy, former baseball player, said, he caught Joe Hesketh in a summer league once. Anyhow, at the end of the summer everyone exchanged phone numbers. He told us he didn’t have a phone, just gave an address. One day—probably 15 years later—it occurred to me that he just didn’t want a bunch of camp kids calling his home.
MC: How long does it take you to run a 5K?
JP: I’ve got a bad back—would struggle to crack 20.
MC: Have you ever run a marathon? Any plans to do so in the future?
JP: I’ve run 11, and I’m done. My back can’t handle it.
MC: What is your greatest athletic achievement?
JP: I walked on to the University of Delaware track and cross-country teams as a freshman in 1990-91. I had NAIA skill (mid-level, at best), but busted my ass and hung around. An honor to run alongside so much talent.
MC: What do you think of the current state of journalism?
JP: I’m encouraged. Feel like everyone’s starting to grasp the digital thing.
MC: The next president of the U.S. is
JP: Hillary Clinton.
MC: Chris Christie is
JP: a thug.
MC: The state of the U.S. government is
MC: The NSA is
JP: watching me answer these questions.
MC: Best concert you ever saw?
JP: Blind Melon reunion gig a few years back. Only about 300 people there.
MC: Last good movie you saw?
JP: American Hustle
MC: Favorite current TV show? All-time favorite TV show?
JP: Current: The Good Wife. All-time: The Wonder Years
MC: Do you see your life divided into different stages? If so, what are they?
JP: I do. Childhood. College. Nashville. SI. Marriage/Kids/Books.
MC: Favorite politician?
JP: Jimmy Carter — awful president. But had integrity!