An Interview with Geoff Calkins

An Interview with Geoff Calkins

An Interview with Geoff Calkins

“You rise and fall on the strength of your work – that’s the beauty of this job – it doesn’t matter if you have a college degree. It only matters if you can relate to your readers, inform, entertain and outrage, and break news and tell stories – it doesn’t make a flip of difference where you went to school.”

“There’s a rhythm to the way anyone writes and when I’m writing I just hear it in my head. Some people hear it with a lot of commas, I don’t hear with a lot of commas…Why do I talk the way I talk or write the way I write – it’s just who you are. I write short sentences, period.”

“In Memphis there’s no universal language. In Boston there’s the Red Sox, in Buffalo the Bills, in Green Bay the Packers…there’s no one sport you can write about and know all the readers will be interested. So I try to reach for the universal that people can relate to outside of sports…I’m not burdened here by too many darn pro sports hiring and firings, transactions and draft picks.”

Geoff Calkins: Interviewed on February 9, 2007

Position: Columnist, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Born: 1961, Buffalo

Education: Harvard, 1983, history; Harvard Law, 1987; Columbia, 1992, MJ

Career: Anniston Star 1992-94; Sun-Sentinel of South Florida ‘94-96; Commercial Appeal 96 –

Personal: married, three children

Favorite restaurant (home): Gus’s Fried Chicken, Memphis “it’s impossible to pick the best barbecue place in Memphis but the best fried chicken is easy. Memphis is on everyone’s list of fattest/unhealthiest/greasiest/most profoundly deep fried cities in America and Gus’s is one of the reasons.”

Favorite restaurant (road): Charlie’s Kitchen, Cambridge, Mass. “the double cheeseburger special, which is all I could afford as a college student – I go back for pure nostalgia – in an ideal world, I’d be able to bring along a Sunday edition of the Boston Globe, circa 1980”

Favorite hotel: Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island. Mi.

Geoff Calkins excerpted from the Commercial Appeal, January 24, 2007:

To clear up any confusion, I would like to say to the media that, no, I have not asked The Commercial Appeal to trade me to the Chicago Tribune or any other paper. I love Memphis. I will continue to defend the CA shirt until the last of my …

Uh, did you say your CA shirt?

Right.

Is there a CA shirt?

There used to be. It said, “It’s all about you.”

And you defend this shirt?

OK, not so much. But I liked it when Pau Gasol said he’s going to continue to “defend the Grizzlies shirt until the last of my days.”

The last of his days? He’s gone from wanting to be traded to wanting to die as a Grizzly?

No, he still wants to be traded.

Then why did he say “the last of his days?”

I don’t know. Why did he say “I love being in Memphis?” If he loves it so darn much, why did he and his parents have a meeting with Michael Heisley to request a trade?

Good point. So, you’re saying Gasol is fibbing?

I’m saying that he’s made a hash of the whole thing. I don’t think Pau is a bad guy, either. He’s one of the most gracious players I’ve ever covered, a player who has been vastly under- appreciated during the course of his time in Memphis. But to ask for a trade this year, after his injury, was a serious mistake. He should have come out and admitted this.

What did he do instead?

He blamed the media.

Nooooooooooooo.

Yes. Can you believe it?

Q. Have you been traded to the Chicago Tribune?

A. I have not been traded to the Chicago Tribune. I don’t have a no-trade clause in my contract, either. I like Chicago – it’s one city I would consider being traded to. When I came to Memphis 11 years ago it wasn’t with the idea this would be my last stop but increasingly I think it will be. I’m dug in here – all three of my kids were born here – and it works. At what point do you trade happiness for the prospect of happiness at another job down the road?

Q. Do readers think of writers as tradable as players?

A. Clearly not. I don’t think people relate to us as they do players. I hope people in Memphis think of me as more a part of the community than any athlete. I have a stake in this place. I don’t think most athletes who come through have a particular stake in Memphis. To the extent that my column is effective, part of the reason is that people understand I’m here as a neighbor.

Readers don’t particularly notice bylines. I did, but that was because since I was twelve I wanted to do what I am doing. I tend to think readers notice column mugs just because they can’t miss them.

Q. Do you think readers are interested in you as a person?

A. I don’t think I write more than a column or two a year that has personal stuff in it. No question as a columnist you are not just the person who is relating the story. You are yourself a personality – you’re Katie Couric a bit – you just are. I don’t think I am indulging myself when I write about something that has to do with my life. For example, I had leukemia as a kid and I once wrote a column about that. Honestly, I think people relate to you as a human being. They turn to you for what feels like a morning conversation, though it’s obviously one-way. My voice is telling them about the world – through my eyes. So to know something about the experience of my life is probably useful. Honestly, the one place where radio helps is it gives a sense of you as a three-dimensional human being. I think it’s useful to occasionally let people into what you’re about.

Q. How many sports columnists went to Harvard and Harvard Law?

A. There’s a small fraternity of Harvard people – John Powers (Boston Globe), Gwen Knapp (SF Chronicle) – writing sports. But Harvard Law is a little wackier. A guy named Paul Attanasio went through Harvard Law and then became a screenwriter and TV producer. It’s always been my view that if you go to a liberal arts school and you’re good at school and you get out and think the world will embrace you and shower you with money and a wonderful position of responsibility and then you find it’s a lot harder than you thought – a lot of those people go to law school because it’s a path. They’re told they can do things with a law degree, and unlike medical school you don’t need organic chemistry to go.

I was good at school and I applied to see if I could get in, and then you get in and you think “Omigosh I can do anything with a law degree”. The truth is, you can do anything in spite of a law degree. It’s awfully expensive general education. I went out of a sense of need for a path in my life and found myself at age 30 quite unhappy working at a big DC law firm.

Q. How did you get from law to writing a column in Memphis?

A. When I went to school in Boston I knew it was a privilege to be reading the great Boston Globe, with Bob Ryan and Leigh Montville and Peter Gammons. I graduated from Harvard in 1983 and from the Law School in 1987 – so I was in Boston for 7 years with one year off – and for the Globe to arrive at my door every morning was a gift. I knew then I was reading a great sports section.

As an undergrad I had done a newspaper internship at Time-Life and the Miami Herald. Doing the summer internship after my senior year in Miami I was going to city council meetings – it wasn’t fun, and I honestly didn’t think I would like it. And even though I knew I wanted to be a sportswriter I thought it wasn’t respectable. I took the news internship because a guy from Harvard should be serious enough to do news and I didn’t like it.

I clerked for James Buckley on the U.S. Court of Appeals in DC. Then I went to a law firm called Hogan & Hartson and was there for 2 1/2 years before I took a leave of absence to go back to J-School at Columbia. It was a way of putting my toe in the water – I didn’t have to quit the law firm. People say I was courageous but I wasn’t that courageous. I started looking for jobs and the only one was in Anniston, Alabama, a 12-week internship for $225 a week. The Star was a good paper better known for its news side – I spent two years there.

I got a great break when Fred Turner, the SE in Fort Lauderdale – he took pride in finding talent off the beaten path – saw my resume on his desk. Gordon Edes was the baseball writer, a good friend, and he had just covered the inaugural season of the Marlins and wanted to be the national baseball guy for the Sun-Sentinel. I was 32 and all I had done was a year-and-a-half at Anniston – I wasn’t steeped in baseball and didn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was doing. Fred hired me – I went from making $15,000 to $50,000. Fred is responsible for my career – he also hired Gene Wojciechowski, Mitch Albom, Gordon, Bill Plaschke, Dave Hyde, Randy Mell and probably Steve Hummer.

So that was a great opportunity and he took a huge chance on me. After two years there I got this column, in January ’96. At the time it was less than four years after I finished at Columbia.

Q. Did your resume, with Harvard Law, make you stand out?

A. It probably made me stand out in this great sea of people applying. You notice. Honestly, there were times early on I felt some resentment that I got this job because of my bizarre background. But I did those things – I accomplished those things and they are a part of who I am. If in the end it helped me get the job I’m not ashamed of that. I don’t think it has anything to do with how effective or ineffective a columnist I am. Very few times have I been called upon to use legal knowledge.

You rise and fall on the strength of your work – that’s the beauty of this job – it doesn’t matter if you have a college degree. It only matters if you can relate to your readers, inform, entertain and outrage, and break news and tell stories – it doesn’t make a flip of difference where you went to school. No question I leveraged a law degree to get people to notice me early on but in the end you’ve got to do the work.

Q. Anything from your legal training applicable in writing a sports column?

A. In “The Paper Chase” the professor says, “you come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer”. I don’t think lawyers think any different than any other group of human beings. In law school you have to present an argument in a logical fashion and write – same for a columnist. From that perspective there is some overlap in terms of the skills, but honestly, it took a lot more discipline to be a lawyer. There were times I would will myself through the day – take a deep breath and say ‘three more hours of working on this brief or interrogatory’. The idea of willing myself hour-by-hour was so repugnant – that’s why I stopped.

Here, in the act of writing a column I take the same breath – okay I have to address the task at hand – but the talking to people and making phone calls and finding stories doesn’t feel like work to me. Putting my brain to paper feels like the sort of work I did as a lawyer, but the rest of it is mostly an outgrowth of who I am: sit next to me on an airplane and I’ll probably know your life story by the end of the flight. You have to be naturally curious and interested in people’s stories and people’s lives. The writing is the real labor – that’s the same as being a lawyer.

I’m one of nine kids – I was the eighth of nine. Three are doctors – I was the third lawyer. Every one of us is hyper-professional – my parents thought they created a bunch of monsters. They were happy to see me do what I wanted to do – they knew I was ill-suited for the law before I knew it.

Q. You write with frequent one-sentence grafs – Bob Ryan’s pet peeve – any reason?

A. I think I overdo it at times. There’s a rhythm to the way anyone writes and when I’m writing I just hear it in my head. Some people hear it with a lot of commas, I don’t hear with a lot of commas. I did it more early in my career, but at times I think it’s a bit of a rut I fall into. Basically I write the way I hear it – it’s not for effect or anything else. Why do I talk the way I talk or write the way I write – it’s just who you are. I write short sentences, period. I would never voluntarily put myself into the same graf as Hemingway or Faulkner who each had different styles, but I don’t know that there’s controversy if you like one over the other. Do you like the way I do it or do you like the way someone else does it?

Bob Ryan writes very differently than I do – I liked Bob Ryan but when I was reading the Globe every day but I loved Leigh Montville. I’m not comparing myself to Leigh Montville but he doesn’t write like Bob Ryan – and I thought Leigh Montville was it. Different strokes. I related to Leigh Montville. People will ridicule Mitch Albom (Detroit Free Press) now because of jealousy and other things but I loved him coming up – I thought he was a different kind of sportswriter – he wrote with different rhythms. He wrote about people in a way Bob Ryan doesn’t. I think I write about people differently than Bob Ryan.

Geoff Caulkins excerpted from the Commercial Appeal, February 1, 2007:

DAVIE, Fla. – Each night, at slightly before midnight, Betty Jones would strap on her head lamp, and her battery, and then she would say a small prayer.

She would pray for her seven children, back sleeping in their beds. She would pray for her husband. She would pray that she would see them all again when her shift was done.

Then she would get in a small cart, smaller than a golf cart. And the cart would jolt to a start, and enter the yawning mouth of the cave, and begin its long trip through the tunnels and into the mountain.

Sometimes the trip would take 10 minutes. Sometimes, half an hour. And then the small cart would stop, and Betty Jones would step out, and work in the darkness for eight hours.

She would cut coal from the wall of the mountain. She would shovel it onto the endless conveyer belts. She would stop for 30 minutes, and try to find a place to eat her meal, and then she would cut and shovel until her shift was finished.

Q. Your Betty Jones (mother of Bears RB Thomas Jones) story was touching – how did that come about?

A. At the Super Bowl anytime you can talk to someone – as opposed to talking to Thomas Jones with 700 other people – you do it. I talked to the mama who went down to the coalmines – her story is an unbelievably compelling American story. She didn’t go to college, and her husband didn’t, but she went to the coalmines for 21 years. They have seven kids and everyone goes to college – it’s an American saga. I’m not the sort to write about Thomas Jones and whether he has the cutback ability against the Colts defense – but the saga of Thomas Jones is universal and compelling. The hard-core sports fan will relate to it but the person not particularly into sports will relate to it too.

In Memphis there’s no universal language. In Boston there’s the Red Sox, in Buffalo the Bills, in Green Bay the Packers. I guess the Memphis Tigers basketball team could be – but there’s no one sport you can write about and know all the readers will be interested. So I try to reach for the universal that people can relate to outside of sports – that becomes the column language. Talking about the American Dream in front of you at the Super Bowl – that strikes a chord. In Boston I couldn’t write about Jack Williams, an 11-year-old kid who hit a foul shot on the day of his mother’s (pre-funeral) visitation. In Memphis I can. That’s part of the privilege of writing here. I was thinking about going to the NBA All-Star Game this year and I realized there is nothing I can find there that will be among the memorable columns I write – Jack Williams was. I’m not burdened here by too many darn pro sports hiring and firings, transactions and draft picks. I have enough to keep me entertained.

Q. My impression is that your arsenal does not include vitriol.

A. John Calipari will tell you I have vitriol in my arsenal. Mike Fratello will tell you I do.

Brian Davis thinks I have vitriol – I wrote about his clownish effort to buy the Grizzlies. When Michael Heisley put the team on the market a year ago he had a bid to buy the team from two people, Brian Davis and Christian Laettner. Everybody knew it wouldn’t come through, but in the meantime Jerry West’s hands were tied, he couldn’t trade or fire anybody. The whole thing has gone into the toilet, and I blame ownership as much as anything else.

I hope I don’t have vitriol in my arsenal. It is odd, if you separate columnists into categories, I am probably one of the kinder and gentler. I write human issues as they come up. I had a conversation with Bob Kravitz (Indianapolis Star) – we were talking about Joe Posnanski (KC Star) and he said, “Yeah, he’s too soft for me – my job is to make arguments four times a week.” Well, mine isn’t. I don’t.

I cover college sports. In college sports the vitriol can only be directed at the coaches and what college sports have become. Unless an athlete has dragged his girlfriend down the stairs I don’t think it’s appropriate to hammer a kid. When it comes to civic issues – whether to build a stadium or not – I can get fairly worked up. I like to think I have three pitches – humor, feel-good or human stories, and hard-hitting on issues when I have to be. But I don’t do humor like Tony Kornheiser, I don’t do human stories like Mitch Albom and I don’t do hard-hitting like Michael Wilbon.

So I try to mix it up. Some of it is who you are writing to. If I were Chicago I don’t know that it would work next to Jay Mariotti – I don’t know if it would be effective there, but I would write a little differently because people are more quick to perceive you as being unfair in Memphis than in Chicago.

Oddly, in Memphis I am considered a hatchet man by many – my first two weeks here a guy wrote me and said I shouldn’t buy a house because of the way I wrote – I would be run out of town. Coming from South Florida, which was so competitive, I was astonished.

Calipari made a big deal that the only time he sees the Commercial Appeal is when he backs over it on his way out the driveway. So I’m Calipari Enemy No. 1 – some of it is just because of where I write – there’s a different sensibility down here.

Q. How is the Commercial Appeal business-wise?

A. We have had some reduction in staff – some layoffs and some vacancies not filled. I find the whole thing to be incredibly discouraging, looking around the industry. From my perspective the impact has been on deadline – we’ve zoned our paper so that in suburban Memphis it’s not called the Memphis Commercial Appeal, it’s called by the name of each suburban town. We do each zone edition separately. The consequence is that the sports deadline has moved from 11:30-11:45 to 10:30-10:45. That hour makes a huge difference. I write fewer gamers than when I first got here. You have to make a choice between writing a cogent column with complete sentences and talking to people in the lockerroom. Increasingly I find I can’t get to the lockerroom.

Q. And yet lockerroom access is what distinguishes newspapers from blogs.

A. Gary Parrish covered Memphis basketball for this paper and is now the national writer for CBS Sportsline. He is able to go to the games, watch, go into the lockerroom, think and write. I am jealous. The idea of watching a game without having three different versions of a column going seems like some kind of dream.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to read 5,000 words online. Breaking news is great online. But it’s hard to believe a lot of readers will read 5,000 words online, whereas if you pick up a magazine you will. Some things seem to fit in one medium better than another.

Q. How much radio do you do?

A. Two hours every morning, Sports 56, WHBQ. It’s a call-in show with George Lapidus – he does the heavy lifting. Gordon Edes is our regular baseball expert during the baseball season; Sam Smith does basketball. I do it to put a little extra bread on the table. If I won Powerball tomorrow I think I’d keep writing a column but I’d probably stop doing radio. I’ve got three boy, 9, 6, and 5. One of the payoffs of this job is that days generally are flexible. I used to make breakfast and take the boys to school but with the radio show it’s harder.

Q. Writers you admire?

A. Gary Shelton (St. Petersburg Times). Bill Plaschke (LA Times), Joe Posnanski (KC Star), Dave Hyde (Sun-Sentinel), Martin Fennelly (Tampa Tribune) – I’m stunned by how many good ones there are, honestly. Mike Vaccaro (NY Post). My dream staff would be Plaschke, Posnanski and Shelton. A guy who is underrated is Mike LoPresti (USA Today). He always sets himself up to write the right column and he works incredibly hard at finding interesting slightly offbeat columns.

Q. How do you stay informed?

A. I get the New York Times delivered. The Commercial Appeal. Sportspages.com – I am a subscriber – I actually expense it to the Commercial Appeal. I’m all over the Internet basically. My best friend in the world is Charles Fishman – a Harvard classmate – he wrote “The Wal-Mart Effect”. He doesn’t know a damn thing about sports but I talk to him five times a week about the art and craft of storytelling. He read me every chapter of that book aloud before it was published. Every important column I write I read to him aloud. At any paper you’re lucky if you get great guidance from editors, though it’s not inconceivable. You have to go to people you can rely on and trust. In Fort Lauderdale it was Gordon Edes. Here it was Geoff Grant, who is now a mucky-muck at mlb.com. He was an assistant editor here and he was that kind of guy.

Once you find someone you can talk with about writing and storytelling you keep him forever. I still call Gordon and ask him what he thinks of this or that – you have to assemble your own staff of editors. I’m not so confident that I think every idea I have is a good one. I like to bounce things off people. You have to find people whose judgment you trust. When I got here Geoff Grant said my column didn’t do it for him – I trusted him enough that I’d take another run at it. I don’t trust everyone. I take it to my kitchen cabinet and ask them about it. Editors can be great editors but not invariably so. Even if they are they may not relate to your style.

Discussions such as you have on your site don’t happen in the newsroom anymore – there’s very little discussion about writing newspapers, or how you do the job. It’s just ‘please do the job’.

Given the customs of today you don’t have to come into the office, and you can’t ask the writers to come in – there would be rebellions if you did. But there’s definitely something lost by not having a community of writers and reporters kicking things around.

Q. Do you blog?

A. I’m supposed to, but I’ve resisted it. I find I’m busy enough writing four columns a week and the radio show. I admire people who pull it off – John Canzano (Oregonian) does a good one.

Q. Worst team – Celtics or Grizzlies?

A. Celtics. The Celtics are 4 1/2 point underdogs tonight at home to the Nets. The Grizzlies are 2 1/2 point underdogs at home to the Timber Wolves. The advantage the Grizzlies have is they play in the west. Boston has to play Atlanta and Charlotte – teams they might beat by mistake. The Grizzlies will have an easier road to being the worst team, but I admit I am dazzled by what the Celtics have done in their losing streak. Their last win was here. I hate to say the future of the Grizzlies in Memphis could be at stake in this draft lottery, but it might be. Right now the franchise is in dismal condition from the ownership on down and it might take Greg Oden or Kevin Durant to save them.

Q. Who loses in a playoff for worst team – Celts or Grizzlies?

A. I think they split. Memphis beats them in Boston and Boston beats them here.

(SMG thanks Geoff Caulkins for his cooperation)

One-sentenc

Phone 901 488 9055

About Geoff Calkins

Some people say Geoff Calkins is brave. Could be he’s just nuts. Ten years ago, Calkins worked as a labor and employment attorney at a 500-lawyer firm in Washington, D.C. He had an undergraduate degree from Harvard College, a law degree from Harvard Law School and a future paved with . . . “Interrogatories,” Calkins says. “Billable hours, too.” This did not please him. Besides, Calkins really wanted to be a sports columnist. So at age 30, he junked it all — “came to my senses,” is how he puts it — and found a job covering high school sports in Alabama. Five years later, after a stop in Ft. Lauderdale, Calkins found his way to Memphis. He writes four columns a week and still doesn’t make as much as he did as a first-year associate at the law firm. “On the bright side,” he says. “I also don’t have to wear socks.” Calkins can be reached by e-mail
or by telephone at 901-529-2364.

Sports

Pau asked to be traded, and all I got was this stupid shirt —

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins

919 words

24 January 2007

The Commercial Appeal

Final

D1

English

Copyright (c) 2007 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

To clear up any confusion, I would like to say to the media that, no, I have not asked The Commercial Appeal to trade me to the Chicago Tribune or any other paper. I love Memphis. I will continue to defend the CA shirt until the last of my …

Uh, did you say your CA shirt?

Right.

Is there a CA shirt?

There used to be. It said, “It’s all about you.”

And you defend this shirt?

OK, not so much. But I liked it when Pau Gasol said he’s going to continue to “defend the Grizzlies shirt until the last of my days.”

The last of his days? He’s gone from wanting to be traded to wanting to die as a Grizzly?

No, he still wants to be traded.

Then why did he say “the last of his days?”

I don’t know. Why did he say “I love being in Memphis?” If he loves it so darn much, why did he and his parents have a meeting with Michael Heisley to request a trade?

Good point. So, you’re saying Gasol is fibbing?

I’m saying that he’s made a hash of the whole thing. I don’t think Pau is a bad guy, either. He’s one of the most gracious players I’ve ever covered, a player who has been vastly under- appreciated during the course of his time in Memphis. But to ask for a trade this year, after his injury, was a serious mistake. He should have come out and admitted this.

What did he do instead?

He blamed the media.

Nooooooooooooo.

Yes. Can you believe it?

Sports

Don’t boo Pau; this ain’t the opera

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins

1174 words

27 January 2007

The Commercial Appeal

Final

D1

English

Copyright (c) 2007 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

To boo or not to boo, that is the question.

Or maybe you think that lead is hopelessly weary and cliche.

In which case you might already be booing over your breakfast cereal.

Boooooooo!

What a hack!

Can’t you do any better than that, writer boy?

So at least you’re in the proper frame of mind. Because booing really is the issue of the moment.

Do you boo Pau Gasol when he makes his first appearance at home since asking to be traded away from Memphis?

Do you boo him whenever he touches the ball? Do you limit your booing to the introductions? Do you stay silent?

On the Grizzlies message board, there is a long thread about all this.

From a poster named Al: “I know everyone is PO’d at Pau right now, and rightfully so, but let’s take the high road and not boo him on Saturday.”

From a poster named DaBobs: “Boooooooooooooo!”

So which is it, sports fans? To boo or not to boo? Is it better to offer the slings and arrows …

There you go, with that weak stuff again, writer boy.

Boo! Hiss! Boo!

umps of coal were Bear RB’s great gift

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins

1305 words

1 February 2007

The Commercial Appeal

Final

D1

English

Copyright (c) 2007 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

DAVIE, Fla. – Each night, at slightly before midnight, Betty Jones would strap on her head lamp, and her battery, and then she would say a small prayer.

She would pray for her seven children, back sleeping in their beds. She would pray for her husband. She would pray that she would see them all again when her shift was done.

Then she would get in a small cart, smaller than a golf cart. And the cart would jolt to a start, and enter the yawning mouth of the cave, and begin its long trip through the tunnels and into the mountain.

Sometimes the trip would take 10 minutes. Sometimes, half an hour. And then the small cart would stop, and Betty Jones would step out, and work in the darkness for eight hours.

She would cut coal from the wall of the mountain. She would shovel it onto the endless conveyer belts. She would stop for 30 minutes, and try to find a place to eat her meal, and then she would cut and shovel until her shift was finished.

At which point, she would climb in the small cart again, and begin the trip back up through the tunnels, out of the yawning mouth of the cave, and into the morning sunlight.

She would shower. She would try, in vain, to wash away the coal dust.

And before she went to sleep, she would drive home and make breakfast for her seven kids.

Usually, she made pancakes.

What would you do for your children?

Anything, of course. All of us would.

But would you do what Betty Jones did? Would you spend the equivalent of 1,667 full days – or 4 1/2 years – living underground, in the darkness, breathing black dust, wondering if the next groan of lumber would bring a mountain down on top of you?

Would you do this so your seven children could go to college? So two of your sons could grow up strong and fast and play running back in the NFL? So one of them could play in the Super Bowl?

December 24, 2006

The kid stepped out of the crowd, grabbed the basketball and the cheer began to fill the gym.

“We want Jack! We want Jack!”

Jack tried to keep a straight face.

“If Jack hits this shot,” said the guy with the microphone, before stopping himself.

When Jack hits this shot,” he corrected, “please don’t rush the court and mob him.”

It seemed a sensible precaution, given the stakes. Jack, who was then a fourth-grader at Presbyterian Day School, measured the distance to the basket.

“I’m a terrible free-throw shooter,” he said. “I usually hit, like, 4 out of 10.”

This was one shot. This was a shot he would remember all his life, whether it bounced out or fell true.

“I was a little bit nervous, but I tried to put that in the back of my head,” Jack said. “I knew if nervous took over my body I wouldn’t make it.”

Jack balanced the ball on his fingers, the way his mother had taught him. He bent his knees and extended his arm and the crowd had fallen silent by now.

The ball spun toward the rim.

“Even today, thinking about it gives me goose bumps,” said Lee Burns, the headmaster of the school.

Except, the shot looked to be short. Everyone who saw it said so.

“I thought it was short,” Jack said. “And then…”

Sports Illustrated picked Dwyane Wade as its Sportsman of the Year, and I suppose that’s a reasonable choice. He won a championship with the Miami Heat. He seems to be a decent enough guy.

Also, the people at Sports Illustrated probably never heard the story of Jack Williams. He’s only 11, after all.

Jack didn’t win an NBA title. He wasn’t on network TV.

But for the several hundred who crowded into the PDS gym on March 9 of this past year, Jack became the freckled embodiment of everything good and pure about sports.

“Nobody planned it,” said Burns, 38, the headmaster. “It just unfolded the way it did. And I don’t think anyone in that gym will ever forget what they saw that day.”

They saw a boy in pain, at first, grieving the death of his mother two days before.

Michelle Williams, 44, died after a nearly two-year struggle with acute lymphocytic leukemia. She left her husband, David, and three children, Chip, Jack and Mary Margaret.

You can imagine the darkness of those hours, the quiet planning of the funeral, the somber gathering of family and friends.

As it happens, the student-faculty basketball game at PDS was scheduled for the same day as the visitation. A friend offered to take Jack to the event, just to take his mind off things.

Basketball had always been a happy distraction in the Williams household. David, Jack’s father, was crazy about the game.

But Michelle had the touch. According to family legend, she hit 21 consecutive free throws on the hoop in the driveway when she was seven months pregnant with Chip.

“We believe that’s a family record that will never be broken,” David said. “Whatever ability the children have, they got it from her.”

At PDS, the student-faculty game is a raucous affair, pitting the sixth-graders who are about to graduate against their teachers. The whole school shows up to watch.

“We had no idea Jack would be there,” Burns said. “But we looked up shortly before halftime and there he was. So we started thinking, ‘Is there something special we can do for Jack?’ We had been bringing students out to hit foul shots for pizza or some little prize. We decided, when the game was over, we’d bring Jack out for something bigger.”

Ahhhh, but what?

“What’s bigger for boys than two nights with no homework?” Burns said.

So that was the answer. They would have Jack shoot to win the school a two-night homework reprieve.

“I had no idea it was coming,” Jack said. “They just announced it and the crowd pretty much went crazy.”

What a great idea, eh? No homework! All Jack had to do was …

Then it occurred to some of the plotters: What if Jack missed?

“He won’t miss,” Burns said.

No?

“It’s one of those things I just knew,” Burns said. “Every once in a while, God whispers something to you. He was going to use this moment to help this boy get through a difficult, difficult time in his life.”

Jack stood at the foul line and bounced the ball. He looked brave and confident and all alone.

“I remember thinking, in roughly an hour and a half, this boy will be standing next to a casket with his mom’s body in it,” Burns said. “How do you block out that?”

Jack released the shot.

“Everyone who was there told me they thought it was going to be short,” said David Williams.

“And then my mom carried it into the hoop,” said Jack.

Just like that.

She always did have the touch.

“It hit nothing but net, no rim, no backboard,” said Burns. “It was the cleanest swish I have ever seen.”

Naturally, the PDS kids ignored everything they’d been told about not rushing the court. It was boy bedlam and it was headed straight for Jack.

“I had to run away from them,” Jack said.

The kids caught him, of course. And pounded him on the back and and gave him triumphant piggy-back rides.

“I’ve never been so happy to have boys disobey me,” said Burns. “The school was looking for a way to shower Jack with love and that was their chance.”

And then, it was back home for Jack, and into his dark suit, and off to the visitation and a lifetime without his mom.

The shot didn’t change any of that. There’s a limit to what games can do.

But the shot helped Jack through one of his darkest days. It gave him a reason to smile and to believe that, yes, his mother is watching over him still.

“A sporting event was able to uplift the spirit of a boy,” said Burns. “What’s more powerful than that?”

To reach Geoff Calkins, call him at 529

One of the great fallacies of the law is that you think you’re out there standing up in court with your clients. The law as I practiced it was not a social endeavor – it was being at the library grinding through documents. You have all these social people and they become lawyers so they can put their talent to use and they find themselves for five years grinding away. A good day for me as a lawyer was a 14-hour stretch looking through documents or looking for precedents for this brief or that brief. Oddly, at its highest levels it can be a lonely profession. When I clerked for James Buckley it was the judge and three clerks wrestling with intellectual problems of the law. I’m not an intellectual. It takes a true intellectual to love that job.

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