A special Friday lunchtime treat: a Q&A with a guy who’s written books on MMA and tennis, has a passion for Indiana basketball, really enjoys the work of Phil Hartman, and was once stood up by Anna Kornikova. Mr. Wertheim is probably in a small but elite group – he went to law school, passed the bar exam, and is now writing about sports, and doing so rather eloquently. Golf fans may want to skip the obligatory Federer-Tiger question.
Q: Start us off with the fun stuff – where you went to high school, when writing stole your heart, when you knew that writing about sports was what you wanted to do for a living, the college thing, and obviously, landing at Sports Illustrated.
I grew up southern Indiana, seduced by sports, basketball in particular. I enjoyed writing and in high school I worked at the local paper, The Bloomington Herald Times. I always assumed writing would be like air hockey or The Cure or mint Snappleâ€”a brief obsession I’d eventually outgrow. But I still had â€œthe feverâ€ in college; writing papers and essays never felt like work. After graduation, I was admitted to law school and had a few â€œrealâ€ job opportunities. But, still hooked on writing, I deferred law school, and moved to Portland so I could work for Rip City, the Portland Trail Blazers’ fan magazine. (R.I.P Kevin Duckworth.) I like to think of it as the Paris Review of the Pacific Northwest sports periodicals.
I ended up going to law school, but even there, I was doing some freelancing on the side. I worked in a law firm after my first summer and, while the pay was nice, I couldn’t envision myself doing that kind of work for the next forty years. On a lark, the following summer, I applied for a job at Sports Illustrated. This was in 1996, in the wake of the O.J. trial and the Mike Tyson trial and I think my legal background helped me get the job. One editor joked that I would be a â€œjunior Lester Munsonâ€ and get involved with legal affairs and investigative pieces. Loved the job, loved the magazine, loved the culture. I stayed on staff as I finished my third year of law school and had the opportunity to write on a variety of subjects. I took the bar exam in the summer of 1997 and started back up at SI the following Monday. Been there ever since.
Q: As the sports media is currently being gutted, what’s the behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt about how to survive? When you talk to your peers, do most people have a plan of action? Do they feel things will bounce back, or was Tony Kornheiser’s proclamation last summer that “print was dead” an accurate statement? If you had a son who wanted to follow in your journalistic footsteps, would you advise him to do so?
I’m not sure I have anything unique or insightful to add here. It’s been a grim season for everyone, but the sports media is/are really taking it on the proverbial chin. I’m almost agnostic re: print-digital. I’m happy to write online and it has a lot to offer: the immediacy, the flexible length, the different tone and pacing, the embedding of links, the interaction with readers. I suspect that if I’m lucky enough to stay in this business, I’ll be talking about print the way older colleagues talk about Remington portables. And I’m okay with that.
The big ironyâ€”and I’m hardly the first person to make this pointâ€”is that our work has never been more widely read. It’s not as though the content is irrelevant. Quite the opposite. It’s just a question of monetizing the digital side. (Aside: I think a lot of us gravitated to journalism because it was an alternative to a life of sales conferences and spreadsheets; this fall we’ve all gotten a crash course in economics and, sadly without irony, now use terms like â€œmonetizing the digital side.€)
I’m still optimistic that there will always be a demand/place for insightful, well-crafted stories and subjects. I’ll read a piece by Gary Smith or Scott Price or Jack McCallum and, invariably, I’ll think: I just don’t get this experience from my BlackBerry updates or a video clip. (And I sacrifice as much time as anyone else before the mighty altar of YouTube.)
As far as advice, I’d just say: be flexible v/v mediums. Frank Deford had always been my personal gold standard: he wrote these long, dignified pieces on a variety of topics and had a distinct voice, but got out of his own way. But even he is now on TV, radio, and digital as well as print. I’d look to someone like Peter King or Jeremy Schaap as examples of people able swing among platforms and still do journalism, not shtick.
Q: You’ve carved out quite a niche on the MMA beat, and our UFC-loving friends are excited for you new book. How did you “sell” the sport to friends and family? Tennis and college basketball are self-explanatory, but MMA isn’t for anyone over the age of say, 50. What was it like spending all that time in Mississippi watching grown men pound each other, day after day? And let’s say someone dies in the ring, and it happens to be televised … then what?
I don’t know how many people I’ve actually sold. I realize that the concept of two men fighting in a steel contraption might be an, um, acquired taste. But I try to make the point that it’s legitimate sport. It’s not Toughman. It’s not prison yard fighting. It’s not lions and Romans. It’s not as though guys are carried off on stretchers. These are elite athletes – martial arts black belts; NCAA wrestling champs – who know what they’re doing. You don’t have to like the sport. But should it be banned? No. Is it immoral? I don’t think so. I suppose that, on paper, I (a married father of small kids, on the north side of the 18-34 demographic) should be railing against MMA – and ashamed to have written a book titled â€œBlood in the Cage.€ But I’m a convert.
To your point about tennis and hoops being more conventional, here’s a quick story: In the past, I’ve done some t.v. work during the U.S. Open. Last summer, I got an email from the producer inquiring about my jacket size for the Brooks Brothers blazer I was to wear on air. At the exact time I got that email, I was at a mixed martial arts gym in Iowa, watching a fighter using Krazy Glue to seal up a cut over his eye. (Stitches, I learned, leave scars, which can cause unfavorable impressions with the examining doctors from the state athletic commissions.) So yeah, tennis and MMAâ€” not necessarily a busy cultural intersection.
Anyway, once I got past the violence, this book was so much fun. It’s all just so real. No one filters thoughts or emotions. No one hides. There’s drama. There’s social tragedy. Everyone has a backstory fit for a movie. The same way so many writers have gravitated to boxing, you have a lot of the same elements here.
You’re right to raise the â€œdeath issue.€ I don’t think we’ll see a death in the UFC: these guys are world-class athletes and the fights get stopped very quickly when someone is in trouble. Just look at the big heavyweight fight from last month: Randy Couture gets absolutely pummeled by Brock Lesnar, 275-pound leviathan; yet a minute later, Couture is walking around and giving interviews. It’s far safer than boxing, where you have these repeated cumulative blows to the head. The problem is that, trying to draft on the UFC’s success, there are now all these amateur shows popping up. And the fighters on these cards aren’t nearly as experienced or accustomed to absorbing punishment. Someone dies on some MMA card held at a strip club in Tulsa and I fear the whole jenga tower will collapse. There might be a world of difference between the skills and preparation level of a UFC fighter versus some amateur making his debut at an underground show. But one death, and I think lawmakers (and, frankly, the MSM) won’t necessarily draw the distinction and there will be calls to ban the entire sport.
Q: One of your books, Running the Table, was optioned by Lions Gate and presumably will one day become a film. How the heck did you pull that off? If you had to choose from all your accomplishments, would this be No. 1? Do you have an actor or two in mind for who’ll play Danny “Kid Delicious” Basavich?
It was flattering that someone thought the Kid Delicious book (which grew out of an SI article) might make for a movie. But this experience has given me a new appreciation for â€œEntourage.€ A lot of close calls and false starts and Hollywood buzzwords. (â€œVision!â€ â€œPassion!â€ â€œBack-end participation!â€) I’ve never been on speakerphone so much in my life. Danny (d/b/a Kid Delicious) is a hefty, bipolar, irresistibly likable pool hustler and the studios have talked about Jack Black, Kevin James and Dan Fogler. But again, right now it’s all â€œin development.€ As far as the accomplishment scale, I give a much higher ranking to teaching my wife and kids to appreciate the subtle charms of John Mellencamp.
Q: Indiana hoops has hit a nadir. Even though the school had one Final Four appearance under Mike Davis, it still hasn’t regained the national prominence it had under Knight in the 80s and 90s. Michigan State clearly rules the Big 10 roost, while IU has been embattled in turmoil for the better part of the last half-decade. Is Crean the guy to turn it around? How much of a honeymoon phase will he get from the passionate Bloomington fans if they’re not dancing next year?
First, I think Crean is in good shape. By accident or design, he’s created low expectations. And there’s still this unmistakable sense in Hoosier Nation that: â€œWe’d rather be mediocre the ‘right way,’ than win 25 games with a cheating coach and knucklehead players.€ Probably a discussion for another time, but I think there’s a huge (and fascinating) race/culture component to this whole saga that gets addressed only in code. Knight was a demigod because he won, but also because he was a familiar figure: the conservative hard-ass, raised in the Midwest, minted at West Point who, notionally anyway, recruited â€œgood kids,â€ who â€œrespected the program’s tradition.€ He â€œbroke them down as boys and built them up as men.€ Neither Mike Davis nor Kelvin Sampson fit this mold. They were â€œplayers’ coachesâ€ who recruited â€œhigh-risk athletesâ€ and â€œurban kids.€
Crean, I think, splits the difference. He’s a Midwest guy who will keep the base happy. But he’s hip to the reality of contemporary college basketball and has already shown himself to be a skilled/slick recruiter. It’s funny, but particularly since these recent NCAA sanctions, embarrassing as they were, were fairly lenient, I sense there’s as much enthusiasm for this Indiana teamâ€”which will be lucky to win half their gamesâ€”as for any since team Knight left.
Q: Being the resident tennis expert, surely you can answer this one: Is Federer’s reign over? It’s Nadal’s time, right? And you’ve probably been dragged into the no-win debate about Federer vs. Tiger at least 400 times, but indulge us. Assuming a “tie” is not suitable, who’s been more dominant in their respective sport? It’s got to be Federer and his 11 slams (out of 16) in four years, right?
No question it’s Federer. (And a tie is never suitable.) I always say that if Federer had grown up in, say, Omaha, gone to Stanford, endorsed Buick (insert joke here), and played 20 events in the U.S. each year instead of four, he’d be a national sports hero, right up there in the Tiger, Jordan, Ali suite. Instead he remains this Swiss oddity, who flits across the sports consciousness every now and then. We could debate Federer-Tiger until last call, but consider this: Federer has currently reached at least the semifinals of eighteenâ€”eighteen!â€”straight Major tournaments. Tiger’s equivalent streak of consecutive â€œtop fourâ€ finishes at Majors? Four.
Is Federer’s reign over? Yes, insofar as he’s unlikely to continue winning (ritually) three Majors a year. But he ought to break Pete Sampras’ record in 2009 and be a force for the next three or four years. His talent level is just so superior. Nadal is the new king and is great fun to watch, but I worry that with his style, he’s almost begging for injury. (Full disclosure: I’m writing a book about Federer, Nadal and last year’s Wimbledon final – so I have a bit of a rooting interest that some Nikolay Davydenko doesn’t ruin the Federer-Nadal axis anytime soon.)
Q: With the exception of a handful of tennis players (McEnroe, Connors, etc), most seem to be dull interviews. Some of the best players in the last few decades (Sampras, Lendl, Sharapova, Federer) were not big talkers. Since you’ve been covering the sport, who’s great to interview? How are the Williams sisters? And how big of a deal should everyone be making about up-and-comer Coco Vandeweghe?
I think tennis gets a bum rap here. Some of the problem is just a function of globalization and language barriers. Rafael Nadal could be the second coming of Charles Barkley; but until his English improves or my Spanish improves, his interviews tend to come across as bland. But also, I feel like a lot of sports media folks had a bad experience with some player (or, more likely, agent) in 1991 or so and made the decision that all tennis players are jackasses; the same way so many people have dismissed tennis as a boring “serve-a-thon” when, in truth, that bears no resemblance to the modern game. Assuming you get them on the right day, the Williams sisters are fine. Federer is great. James Blake is great. Andy Roddick is a world-class interview who actually enjoys verbal jousting with the press. Jelena Jankovic (the current WTA No.1) is this Uzi of candor. For all that ails tennisâ€”and plenty doesâ€”bland or unquotable players is not high on the list. And much as it pains me to resist hyping anyone named Coco Vandeweghe, she still needs a few years of seasoning.
Highlight of covering Anna Kournikova. For a second there – If for flimsy and vaguely creepy reasons – she sure made tennis popular.
Lowlight of covering Anna Kournikova. Get stood up by a sixteen year-old and you start to question your entire existence.
Favorite Indiana hoops player of all-time. Jay Edwards. What a tragedyâ€”though a largely self-inflicted oneâ€”that this guy didn’t have a ten-year NBA career.
Favorite MMA fighter to cover. I’ll say Pat Miletich, but pretty much pick ‘em. This is one sport yet to be infected by handlers, p.r obstructionists and the personality bleach known as “media training.” Also, these guys are straight shooters by nature. When you fight in a cage for a living, chances are, you’re a pretty direct person.
Ten years from now you’ll be … Hopefully telling sports-themed stories in some way, shape or form. (Maybe even about Coco Vandeweghe?)
Favorite comedian of all-time. Phil Hartman. Though Judah Friedlander has performed the single funniest live stand-up set I’ve ever seen.
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