An Interview with Ian Thomsen
“It’s always a ‘person’ story in sports. If a story has any merit it’s anecdotal. You have to find out a way to find the information you’re looking for. It’s always a matter of getting somebody to tell you. Nobody can teach you how. It’s about relating to people.”
“I go to SI.com a lot because of my affiliation. But I really don’t go to websites to get a fix the way a lot of people do… I find a lot of what you read on bigger sports websites is distracting from what I want to know. A lot of people writing on the web don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re sort of wasting everybody’s time.”
“The sportswriting business would be better if they hired somebody who actually hung out in bar and knew the bookies and saw things the way Will McDonough used to see them.”
Ian Thomsen. Interviewed on August 18, 2006.
Position: NBA reporter, Sports Illustrated.
Born: 1961, Montreal, Canada.
Education: Northwestern, BS, 1983.
Career: Boston Globe 1983-89, The National 90-91, International Herald Tribune 92-97, Sports Illustrated 98- present.
Personal: married, two children.
Favorite restaurant (home): Caffe Paolina, Swampscott, MA
Favorite restaurant (road): Mandarin House, Evanston, IL
Favorite hotel: The Standard, Miami
Ian Thomsen excerpted, with Luis Fernando Llosa, from Sports Illustrated, September 3, 2001:
The Little League World Series final at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pa., on Sunday had a thrilling finish that in other years would have served as the tournament’s most unforgettable image. For the second time in three years the series was won by a team from Japan, as Tokyo Kitasuna scored both runs in its 2-1 victory over Apopka, Fla., on a bottom-of-the-sixth single by Nobuhisa Baba, a 5’1″ third baseman…
But Sunday’s events seemed almost anticlimactic after the show put on earlier in the series by Danny Almonte, a remarkably poised lefthander from the Rolando Paulino All-Stars of the Bronx. As his team advanced to last Saturday’s U.S. championship game, in which it lost 8-2 to Apopka, Danny, a native of Moca in the Dominican Republic, seemed like a man among boys, using his lanky leg kick and effortless release to blind his overmatched foes with 70-mph-plus two- and four-seam fastballs–the equivalent, given that Little League pitchers throw from a mound just 46 feet from home plate, of 92-mph major league heat–and bamboozle them with sharp curves and changeups…
Such was Danny’s celebrity that during the tournament he received a good-luck call from his idol, Cincinnati Reds centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., and as a child version of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ towering lefty Randy (the Big Unit) Johnson, the 5’8″ Danny earned the nickname the Little Unit. Even before the tournament his physical and mound maturity had caused some to wonder if he was, as the Paulino All-Stars claimed, 12 years old -the maximum age for Little League eligibility…
According to birth ledgers in Moca examined by SI, Danny’s birth date was registered with the Dominican government in December 1994 by his father, Felipe, as April 7, 1987. (In the Dominican Republic it is not uncommon for parents to wait years before officially declaring the birth of a child.) That means that when Danny Almonte was blowing away batters in Williamsport last week, he was officially 14 years old.
Q. Which of your stories had the biggest impact on readers?
A. When I was at the Globe, two football-playing twins in small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania were in a car accident and one died. Very tragic. That was the one I heard most about.
Q. What about the Danny Almonte story for SI?
A. That one probably got the most attention. But the real work on that was done by Luis Llosa at SI, he was in the Dominican researching another story and he discovered Daniel Almonte’s birth certificate, which proved he was two years older than he claimed he was. I always thought that was his story more than mine. My own feeling is people pay way too much attention to the Little League World Series. It puts a lot of pressure on kids. It’s mind-boggling that the President of the United States goes to watch the final. It only puts more pressure on these kids to perform. It’s just all wrong, I think.
Q. Do fans want investigative exposes?
A. On interesting subjects, which almost never get written, because they’re impossible to gather up. They wanted to know if Daniel Almonte was 12 or 14. I don’t think they want to know if some minor infraction of NCAA rules takes place. I don’t think they care if NFL players are on steroids. It’s almost accepted they want them on steroids because they want them as big and fast as possible. They do want to know about Barry Bonds on steroids. So it’s a very narrow frame of investigation. Ultimately they want to be entertained. They don’t want to take it seriously to the point they have to approach it like reading a tax manual.
Q. Aren’t sports supposed to be an escape from life’s grimness?
A. I never bought the idea that it’s an escape. If you’re a sports fan that’s just part of your life. People get awfully upset about sports. You hear all these people who call in to talk radio – they’re not escaping anything. They’re getting more upset about sports than other things in their lives.
Q. How does someone become an informed sports fan?
A. To me it all depends on how much common sense you have personally. You have to read in between the lines to know what’s going on. You rarely get the full story out of any one newspaper article or magazine article. And then because it’s such a subjective avocation it’s all a matter of opinion anyway apart from the hard stats. A lot of it in a larger sense doesn’t matter anyway. It’s for fun. To me people should get out of it whatever they put into it. If you want to be a hard-core junkie you can figure out your own route to learning. It’s like my business. You figure out your own way to what a story is. You come to your own opinion and conclusions.
Q. Where do you get your sports information?
I focus mainly now on the NBA. For NBA information I use a couple of websites that provide daily news compendium: Insidehoops.com and hoopshype.com. Both give a good roundup of what newspapers are reporting everyday. I read SI every week. I read the Boston Globe. I get very little from TV. I don’t watch a lot of SportsCenter. Almost all is from print.
Q. What about the major sports websites?
A. Only when I’m really looking for something. I go to SI.com a lot because of my affiliation. But I really don’t go to websites to get a fix the way a lot of people do. Don’t feel the need for it. Everything I need I still get through the traditional vehicles. I’m a dinosaur. When I try to go to espn.com I feel like I can just get lost in there.
I find that there’s just so much drek on the web I don’t’ want to waste my time sifting through to get to what I’m looking for. The conventional sources get right to the point of what I’m looking for. I find a lot of what you read on bigger sports websites is distracting from what I want to know. A lot of people writing on the web don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re sort of wasting everybody’s time.
Q. Writers you admire?
A. The Globe writers – Jackie MacMullen, Bob Ryan, Ron Borges, Dan Shaughnessy – all are very reliable – you don’t miss much reading the Globe every day. That will fill me in on what’s going on in Boston and around the country. Everybody who writes for SI is reliable and gives you a deeper perspective.
When I first got into the business sportswriting was in a golden era – there were so many terrific writers writing about sports. That era in my mind has passed. It’s hard for me to find many people who live up to that standard. Hard for me to read this stuff knowing how good it should be. Same complaint I hear from people talking about the NBA. They remember the 80s with Bird and Magic and now it’s hard to watch it knowing how it should be.
Q. NBA reporters you admire?
A. A lot of good ones. But I’m competing with them so I don’t want to give them any ink. Mention that I laughed when I said that.
Q. How useful are insidehoops.com and hoopshype.com?
A. All the people who work in the NBA look at those websites to get a roundup. They don’t catch all the news but they cast a wide net. So you get a roundup. They don’t just go to the bigger papers. They miss the point sometimes but do a pretty good job. It’s a good starting place.
Q. What is your work schedule?
A. Out of four weeks I probably travel parts of three weeks to NBA cities. When I’m working at home on a typical day I’ll start online to see what the news is. Depending on what my assignment is I’ll start making my calls. And fish around to see what I can find to write about. I go online to find out what not to do. If something is already written I’ll cross it off my list and try to find another direction to go. The magazine comes out five days after I file a story. It has to hold up. That’s the hard part of working for SI but when it works out it’s the rewarding part, too.
Q. How is your job on family life?
A. No harder than other jobs. Lawyers work 70 hours a week. Salesmen travel all the time. Every job requires balance.
Q. Can sportswriting be taught in a textbook?
A. No. It’s all common sense. It’s always a ‘person’ story in sports. If a story has any merit it’s anecdotal. You have to find out a way to find the information you’re looking for. It’s always a matter of getting somebody to tell you. Nobody can teach you how. It’s about relating to people. Which is exactly how fans relate to sports. It’s a personal process. That’s why to be a sportswriter you really don’t have to go to college. You just have to have street smarts and be able to figure out how things work.
The sportswriting business would be better if they hired somebody who actually hung out in bar and knew the bookies and saw things the way Will McDonough used to see them. It’s become very academic now. We don’t hire people in bars. There’s nobody like Willie around. There never was. If Willie tried to get a job today at the Globe I’m convinced they wouldn’t hire him. Because the qualities that used to be so obvious to newspapers are now almost shunned.
Q. What’s your advice for young sports media?
A. If somebody wants to be a big star as a sportswriter they should try to be a very good stylish writer and develop a voice. There is so little of that going on anymore that’s how you really stand out today and you’d provide a service. More people than ever are reading sports news and yet the quality of writing has suffered in spite of a growing audience. If somebody would take a 1960s or 1970s approach they’d be a big star in the business.
Everybody talks about the Sopranos as cutting edge TV. What is it except old-fashioned story telling? The producer didn’t go into the future – he went into the past and conjured up all traditional themes of storytelling. That’s what people should be doing if they want to set themselves apart. Be like Leigh Montville or Jim Murray. Don’t worry about breaking news so much but worry about how to tell a story.
(SMG thanks Ian Thomsen for his cooperation)