The Fynal Say: Josh Levin

Slate front pageHere at the Cut, we always like to bring you fresh content.

At least when it doesn’t get in the way of our real jobs. Or playing Wii. Or drinking.

But other than that, we always want to give you as many perspectives from as many people as possible. That being said, I’m proud to introduce a new FynalCut feature – The Fynal Say.

And boy, have we started off with a bang for our inaugural piece.

Josh Levin, an associate editor at Slate, was kind enough to be our first. If you don’t read Slate, you’re probably leading an aimless life, destined to die young. If you do, join us we discuss insanely tall basketball players, John Kruk’s hair and Coach K on the scoreboard at a Wizards game…

—Let’s start off insanely broad. What’s the biggest flaw in the way we cover sports right now? Or, in what facet is sports media most in need of improvement?

I’m not sure this quite answers your question, but one problem the sports media has to face these days is that athletes really don’t have any need to talk to the press these days. Back in the day, a newspaper story or a Sports Illustrated profile was a big deal. People got to know their heroes through the papers and magazines, so star athletes had a strong incentive to talk to the press. Now, everyone gets their news from TV and the Web. LeBron James can get famous and rich by doing commercials and hosting the ESPYs without ever talking to a newspaper reporter. Also, guys like Barry Bonds and Curt Schilling use the Web to bypass the media and take their messages straight to the fans. There will always be great stories in sports, and there will always be plenty of fascinating people to write about, but it’s probably never been harder for writers to get an unguarded look at a superstar at the top of his game — maybe I’m forgetting something, but I can’t remember reading any great profiles of Tiger Woods or LeBron or Kobe Bryant recently.* Of course, it’s possible to write a great, insightful piece about an athlete without getting any access — see Pat Jordan’s hilarious incisive takedown of Jose Canseco on Deadspin — but it’s a lot harder.

*There was a pretty stellar profile of Kobe in Esquire awhile back, but the pouty image Bryant portrayed just furthers Levin’s assessment.

—“Freshness” is a big key in journalism these days, what with the invention of and complete/utter dominance by the Internet. It seems as though maybe this hinders creative, well thought-out stories because they aren’t “first on the scene.” How do you balance Web freshness, with also being the first to have a particular story.

Well, I’m at an advantage because I’m the sports editor for a site where sports isn’t the top priority. Since we don’t have to cover every game, I can pick my spots and write or assign whatever I think is interesting. If I do have a writer with a great idea, I don’t want some other magazine or Web site to beat us to the punch. But it is liberating not to have to post an instant take five minutes after Jason Kidd gets traded.

As far as your larger question, you’re right that there’s more pressure on everyone in the media (and especially on the Web) to write and opine at a faster pace, and that sometimes writing faster can mean writing less conherently. I’m not sure how exactly to achieve the proper balance, but I do know that Slate depends on a stable of staffers and freelancers who can both write fast and write well.

—More specifically, what’s Slate’s approach to covering sports? It’s not your main priority, yet you seem to take such a unique approach as compared to other newspapers or magazines that aren’t sport-centric publications or Web sites.

Some folks around the Web and on Slate’s message boards have made fun of our sports coverage by saying that the formula of a typical Sports Nut piece is: “Why the team/player that you love actually sucks. Also: You’re a moron for liking them.” In my defense, I’d say that we also run the occasional piece like “Will Michael Vick be able to play prison football?” and “Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis, the worst football coach in the universe.” Well, maybe that Charlie Weis one isn’t the best counter-example. But in the past year, we’ve run stories on why Eastern European tennis players are so good-looking, the internal politics of a fantasy baseball league, the wonders of online sports wagering and Bob Knight’s love of bass fishing. So, maybe the link there is that I try to run stuff that’s interesting to sports fans that you might not read elsewhere. That mission has gotten a lot harder in the last few years, by the way. While I think we still publish stuff that you wouldn’t ever find in a conventional sports page or in SI, the explosion of the sports blogosphere has meant there are tons more people doing smart, creative, snarky sports coverage than even two or three years ago (we assume he’s talking about us here…). That’s a great thing for me as a huge consumer of sports media, but it also means it’s harder to be unique.

—Would you ever consider working for a sports-specific outlet like ESPN or Sports Illustrated?

Sure, though I do like to write about things over than sports. And it depends on the circumstances. I wouldn’t want to have to argue with Skip Bayless or style John Kruk’s hair.

—In one of your stories this year, you detail watching the almost-upset of Duke by Belmont — one of the closer first-round games. All-in-all, was it the most exciting live even you’ve ever covered? Does anything beat the March Madness atmosphere?

March Madness is kind of a strange case, especially in the first round. The games are on neutral courts, so you’ve got a bunch of locals who don’t really care who wins and fans of other teams who are waiting for their game to start. The Duke-Belmont game was so great because it was a rare occasion where you had the tension of a down-to-the-wire tournament game along with the buzz of a jacked-up home-court crowd. That’s the power of Duke — that’s the only team in the country that could turn a game in D.C. into a de facto home game for a tiny school from Nashville.

I went to a Wizards game the other night, and despite the fact that Gilbert Arenas made a surprise return to the lineup, the crowd was comatose for pretty much the whole night. When the Bucks shot free throws, the Verizon Center crew put up a collage of Duke images — Paulus, Coack K, etc. — on the scoreboard to get the crowd to boo, and it worked like magic. I’m not kidding. That really happened.

—On the topic of annoying personalities, who’s the most insightful person you’ve interviewed in the sports world? The most entertaining? Who was the least insightful/entertaining?

I still have the tourney on the brain, so I’d have to say Belmont coach Rick Byrd was very thoughtful and generous with his time after his team’s loss. The most fun I’ve had working on a story was probably when I got a basketball lesson from Gheorghe Muresan. Gheorghe is an incredibly genial, funny guy, just a lot of fun to be around. Least insightful? Hmmm. Maybe Sun Ming Ming, another extremely tall basketball player. Well, it’s not that he wasn’t insightful. He just didn’t want to talk to me.

—Speaking of Madness, who do you think has the goods to win it all?

This is going to be a great Final Four because every team has the goods to win it all, right? My only prediction is that UCLA’s going to make Memphis look bad. Ben Howland’s teams have always been good at imposing their pace on other teams, and the Memphis teams of recent vintage have tended to bog down when forced to operate in the half court. Recall that UCLA beat a talented, athletic Memphis team 50-45 in the 2006 Elite Eight.

—Lastly, after reading that insane Lenny Dykstra story in the New Yorker, would you be interested in co-writing a movie about this “Players Club” magazine? I’m thinking a mix of “Boiler Room,” “Major League” and “Blow.”

Sure thing, though I’m already in negotiations to write The Mitchell Report: The Movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman has signed on to play both Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee. What an amazing actor.

Josh Levin is an associate editor at Slate, where he edits the sports and technology sections. Before coming to Slate, he wrote for the Washington City Paper. He’s a native of New Orleans and has lived in Washington, D.C., for the last five years.


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