An Interview with Michael Weinreb
“The worst thing about freelancing is that I can no longer steal office supplies. Also, it is impossible to know how much money to save at any given time, and I pay several thousand dollars a year for my health insurance – then again, who doesn’t – and I’m still not great at being pro-active and pitching ideas all the time, but I cannot say the lifestyle disagrees with me.
I do not like mornings very much. I’d rather work into the evening, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the morning, and I tend to write in great bursts and then spend a few days or weeks thinking about where I’m going next.”
Position: Freelance writer/author
Born: 1972, Bronxville, New York
Education: Penn State, 1994, B.A. Journalism; Boston University, 2001, M.A. Creative Writing
Career: Akron Beacon Journal, 1995-2000; Freelanced for Boston Globe, Boston Magazine 2000-01; Sales and Marketing Management Magazine “no, I am not making that up” 2002-03; Newsday, 2003-2006; published Girl Boy Etc., a short-story collection, in 2004; freelancer, New York Times, ESPN.com, others, 2006-present
Personal: Lives with girlfriend (Cheryl)
Favorite restaurant (home): Bar Tabac, Brooklyn. “Perpetually crowded French place a few blocks from our apartment; if you can wade through the cloud of hipsters, the mussels are excellent”
Favorite restaurant (road): Golden Wok, State College, Pa. “Still the best Chinese food I’ve ever had anywhere in this country, including New York. I cannot explain why this is the case.”
Favorite hotel (non-Marriott division): Imperial 400 Motor Inn, State College, Pa. “Actually one of the most disgusting hotels I’ve ever stayed in, but I have fond memories of doing unspeakably stupid things here in my twenties.”
Michael Weinreb, excerpted from espn.com, June 2008:
…I do not know whether Len Bias was a martyr, or whether in death, as his mother often says, he has brought life. I do not know whether, as Jesse Jackson claimed in eulogizing Bias — likening him to Martin Luther King Jr., Mozart, Gandhi and Jesus — that the Lord “sometimes uses our best people to get our attention.” I do not know whether Len Bias died for any reason at all, divine or otherwise, beyond the fact he ingested a massive amount of dangerously pure cocaine in a brief period of time, short-circuiting the electrical impulses to his heart muscle. I do not know whether, as many claim, the Boston Celtics would have extended the Bird-McHale-Parish dynasty by several seasons if Len Bias had lived. I do not know if he was the catalyst for another decades-long New England curse. I do not know whether he would have been better/as good as/in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan if he had lived to play in the National Basketball Association. We can argue these issues all we like, but I believe that, because the answers to such questions can never be determined, the questions have become irrelevant, obscured by the mythology that Autopsy No. 86-999 has engendered.
I do know death — especially sudden and premature death — has a way of obscuring many truths (see: Dean, James; Cobain, Kurt; et al.).
I do know I was 13 when Len Bias died, and it scared the hell out of me. It was supposed to scare the hell out of me; this was a moralistic passion play, an after-school special come to life.
I do know the public narrative was deceptively simple: Len Bias had just experienced the most euphoric moment of his life, and he had an unquestionably bright future, and he had chosen to experiment with illicit substances for the first time — perhaps, some errant rumors went, it was crack cocaine — and in a freak occurrence of bad karma, his heart had stopped.
And I do believe that because of this public narrative and the consequences of this narrative, the death of Len Bias can be classified as the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports…
Q. Tell us about the Bias piece – soup to nuts. Why do it? How did you report it? How did it affect you emotionally? Describe the writing and editing process.
A. This was something I’d been thinking about for quite some time, actually—since the spring of ’07, when I started contemplating what my next book might be. I wanted to write about the ‘80’s as kind of the gateway to the modern era of sports, as viewed through the lens of what was happening societally – I really enjoyed the concept and execution of Jonathan Mahler’s “The Bronx is Burning”. I narrowed it down to 1986 for several reasons–I wrote a profile of Bo Jackson last fall that is also a piece of that puzzle–but in part I chose ’86 because of the scope and impact of Bias’ death.
I always think, as journalists, that we don’t look back at things as much or as comprehensively as we should, largely because in daily newspapers, you don’t have much time to do it. So I’d been thinking about it for quite some time, and then with my editors’ approval, I just dove in.
I spent three days at the University of Maryland library, digging through the university archives, watching old Betamax tapes in a dark room – which was truly haunting – and reading books and trying to get as much of a feel for that time and place as I could. I went to see Lonise Bias speak in South Carolina, then went to see her again in Maryland, and I contacted as many people as I could find. A lot of them either didn’t return my messages or declined to speak to me, and I spent several weeks trying to figure out what I had and what it all meant, and then I spent another few weeks trying to write the first paragraph. I don’t normally work this slowly, but I had the luxury of time and space here, something I’m still not accustomed to coming from a background in newspapers. The editors of the E-Ticket pieces, Jay Lovinger and Kevin Jackson, give us so much freedom to explore our creative notions that it actually scares the crap out of me.
This was definitely the most difficult and complex story I’ve ever had to write – also the longest—sorry about that. I didn’t want to merely rehash what had already been written. I wanted to explore the mythology, from the inside-out, and it took a long time to figure out how to even begin to approach that, or what the voice would be. Fortunately, in the midst of this, my girlfriend and I went on vacation, and the day we came back, I wrote what became the first sentence. I often can’t go much further until I have a lead. Then, at the suggestion of a friend of mine, I requested a copy of the autopsy report, and the structure started to adhere a little. I was never more nervous than when I sent that story off to Jay, and I was never happier than when he wrote back and assured me that it wasn’t an incoherent mess.
Q. Reaction to the Bias piece?
A. A lot. Mostly positive, people sharing their memories of where they were that day and how it affected them. I think that’s why I included my own memories in there—because I was 13 at the time, and because for our generation, and especially for nerdy kids like me who always read SI cover to cover every week, that was one of the first shared tragedies we’d ever known, along with the Challenger explosion that same year.
Some people accused me of glorifying the legacy of a drug user, which I don’t think was the point of the story at all. One guy wrote me and blamed everything on hippies. Some people accused me of engaging in hyperbole for declaring it the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports, and they make a fair point. I should have clarified that I consider the “modern era,” in my own deeply confused mind, to be the 80’s and beyond.
I know that there are also people who think that the modern era began with the retirement of Three-Finger Brown, so that’s my fault.
But I also think a lot of people—including me—weren’t aware of the implications of the mandatory minimum sentences evoked in Bias’ name, and the thousands of people jailed for an disproportionately long time because of what happened in ’86, and the panic that ensued. And that’s a pretty heavy legacy.
Q. What are the best and worst aspects of freelancing? Are you tempted to go for a regular paycheck?
A. The worst thing about freelancing is that I can no longer steal office supplies. Also, it is impossible to know how much money to save at any given time, and I pay several thousand dollars a year for my health insurance – then again, who doesn’t – and I’m still not great at being pro-active and pitching ideas all the time, but I cannot say the lifestyle disagrees with me.
I do not like mornings very much. I’d rather work into the evening, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the morning, and I tend to write in great bursts and then spend a few days or weeks thinking about where I’m going next. I spent nine months in 2002-03 working a day job at a magazine geared toward sales professionals, and I felt like I’d been sent to a Turkish prison.
Certainly, if the right opportunity came along, I would consider it, but I’ve been incredibly lucky the past couple of years to have made enough money to support myself and live in New York City and write on my own schedule, and my primary motivation at this point is to do that for as long as I can, however I can.
In the meantime, I’m happy doing what I’ve been able to do for ESPN.com, and to share ideas with ridiculously talented writers like Wright Thompson and Eric Neel and Patrick Hruby. I love working for Jay Lovinger, as does every writer who’s had a chance to work with him, as far as I can tell. He’s the only editor I’ve ever known who’s told me, in discussing the structure and formation and reporting of a story, “You don’t have to do anything.”
Q. Did writing ‘Game of Kings’ improve your chess game?
A. My chess game was terrible when I began, and it was terrible when I finished. For several months in-between, I suffered a colossal string of losses to a trash-talking chessbot on the web, which reminded me why I attended a state school in the first place. Fortunately, there is not a lot of technical detail in the book—it is the stories of the lives and personalities and obsessions of these kids with such incredibly diverse backgrounds, who were all drawn toward chess. And they were willing to explain things, and then explain them again, until they gave up and began throwing pieces at me.
Q. Is chess a sport? Is it a metaphor for everything? If there were a professional chess league, what would it be like to cover on a regular basis?
A. Chess is probably not a sport, but golf is not really a sport, either, and it is covered on the sports page. As is bowling. There is a component of physical exhaustion in chess, but more important, it is perhaps the most purely competitive pursuit on the planet, which is why it is evoked as a metaphor for everything. And for that reason, I think “Kings” is probably as much a book about sports as is “Friday Night Lights” or Darcy Frey’s “The Last Shot.”
And, in fact, there is (well, sort of) a professional chess league. (See http://www.uschessleague.com/
) There are no beat writers that I know of, but if there were, they’d probably sit around and argue incessantly about whether Fischer could have beaten Capablanca, and then complain about the lack of a buffet.
Q. How do you keep up with sports? What and who do you read?
A. The only sport that I follow with what you might call “religious fervor” is college football. I grew up in a college town – State College, Pa. – and went to school in that same town, and so this is my obsession. Other than that, I mostly read to find interesting stories done by interesting writers who explore interesting ideas, in any genre. Sometimes I find stuff on blogs, or in places like the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix column.
I’ve always read a lot of magazine journalism—when I first started working in Akron straight out of college, I would try to write 400-word game stories that sounded like Gary Smith, and they were predictably terrible. I’ve long been unhealthily obsessed with both Charlie Pierce and Tom Junod of Esquire – Junod’s recent piece on the Iraq sniper was probably the best thing I’ve read all year not written by Cormac McCarthy or Richard Price. At SI: S.L. Price, Jon Wertheim, Jeff MacGregor, et. al. At the New Yorker: Everything, but especially Susan Orlean, Malcolm Gladwell, Ben McGrath, Larissa MacFarquhar. Vanessa Grigoriadis (Rolling Stone). When I was working on the Bias piece, I was in the midst of a David Foster Wallace obsession, which was both energizing and annoying.
Mike Vaccaro forces me to read the NY Post. Greg Couch (Chicago Sun-Times). Adrian Wojnarowski (Yahoo!). Jason Whitlock (KC Star). Joe Posnanski (KC Star) could spin – and probably has spun – a compelling 12,000-word yarn about sanitary socks. In fact, it’s kind of amazing how the KC Star has become perhaps the most well-written sports section in the country, right up there with the NY Times and the Washington Post. I wish more papers would follow their lead.
Beyond that, I’ve been trying to read historical tomes, like those of Halberstam and David Maraniss, to attempt to figure out what the hell I’m doing with this book. What I’ve learned so far is that I’m a terrible reporter.
Q. What did your interview with The Big Lead do for your career?
A. I don’t think anyone read it, simply because I am not feuding with anyone in the business and I do not appear on Around the Horn and I was not wearing a bikini and cowboy boots in my photo. But even if they did, I would hope that an interview on a blog would not hurt/help my career any more than any single story I’ve written. I certainly have no beef with anyone—including a blogger—who is able to carve out a niche for him/herself by working hard, as TBL seems to have done.
But I do fear, as my friend and colleague Chuck Klosterman wrote, that “the future of media is an ever-increasing number of people sardonically commenting on an ever-decreasing amount of information.” It takes time and space to do good work, and a lot of great journalists don’t have either one anymore, and bloggers, instead of mocking the decline of traditional media, should be as freaked out about that as we are, since we are often their content providers.
Michael Weinreb, excerpted from espn.com, June 2008:
…So perhaps this is one of those wishful notions — perpetuated by Len Bias’ negative drug-test results (easily manipulated), and by the claims of friends and family, and by the medical examiner’s initial opinion (later revised) that this might have, indeed, been Bias’ first experience with cocaine — that benefits everyone and harms no one. Perhaps, in burnishing a legend, the claims of Driesell and Lonise Bias (who still believes her son had never tried cocaine before, and might, in fact, have tried it accidentally, or even been poisoned that night) actually proved far more positive for society than the truth might have.
As evidence, I return to myself, at age 13, and all the other children of my generation, products of the skewed value system of the ’80s, for whom the most potent advertisement for the “Just Say No” campaign might have been the notion that a single splotch of cocaine — and this is how I imagined it as a child, that Bias had simply touched several stray crystals of processed coca leaves to his nostrils, and shortly thereafter departed this mortal coil — could kill us without prejudice, if our bodies were so genetically inclined. This is no doubt a major reason why I have never touched cocaine myself, and why, several years ago, when an acquaintance of mine who was a product of the same generation tried cocaine for the first time, he thought immediately of Len Bias, as I’m sure hundreds or thousands of others did, too.
“All of us like to generalize our experience,” says Eric Sterling, an expert on drug policy. “But it’s a big country, with a lot of different kids. I wouldn’t say that it ‘worked.'”
Still, I ask: Would Bias’ story have achieved the same status as a cultural touchstone if we had known he — while probably not a habitual user — had dabbled in cocaine for months, or that his close friend was apparently dealing cocaine, or that the truth was far more nuanced than the mythology? Is there then something to be said, at least in this case, for a (seeming) lie proving far more powerful than the truth?…
(SMG thanks Michael Weinreb for his cooperation)