Yesterday once more

ROGER Federer has closed out the first set 6-4 with a surgically precise service game. Rafael Nadal, serving 15-0 in the first game of the second set, swings one into Federer’s body, the ball kicking and swerving away from the right hander.

Federer plays a checked, looping backhand down the middle, a defensive response calculated to buy some time to get back into the point. Nadal sets himself up on the baseline and hammers a piledriver of a forehand back at his rival.

Nadal’s relentless strafing of his weaker side pushes Federer further onto the defensive. He tries to change the angle of play with a blocked backhand cross court. Rafa runs onto the ball, his momentum giving his forehand added venom.

Rafa’s cross-court forehand has been Federer’s bugbear ever since the two first met in Miami in 2004. Thanks to a combination of venomous topspin and high bounce, Federer is forced to play his backhand at about the level of his shoulder or even higher.

This Rafa shot is a replica of all the shots he has tormented Federer with over the last 13 years – loaded with spin and bounce, swerving out wide and jerking Federer off-court as if on a string. Federer’s response, an attempted pass down the line, is weak; Rafa runs across to cut off the angle and volleys it deep into the untenanted desert that is Federer’s forehand side.

Vamos! The Rafa battle-cry echoes around the stands; the answering call of ‘Come onnnnnn Roger’ is equally fervent. And sometimes – possibly a trick of the acoustics, probably wishful thinking, or maybe a very real comment on the nature of the most remarkable rivalry in contemporary sport — it feels like the same people are rooting for both players.

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Muhammad Ali: A Reading List

No other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing. To write about boxing is to write about oneself — however elliptically, and unintentionally. And to write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization — what it is, or should be, to be “human.”

That’s Joyce Carol Oates, in the preface to her book On Boxing. Replace ‘write’ with ‘read’, and it sums up the reason I’ve been obsessed with boxing literature since my teens. What follows is a somewhat ordered reading list on Ali, as accompaniment to a tribute that will be published on Rediff Monday.

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The champ

They all fall

In the round I call

Fifty years ago today, Cassius Marcellus Clay motor-mouthed himself, quite literally, into the world heavyweight boxing title — or at the least, into the storied title fight, February 25, 1964, against reigning champion Sonny Liston in Miami.

A good two years before his dancing feet and blinding jabs propelled him to boxing glory, the ‘Louisville Lip’s’ mouthy ways had already drawn the attention of the game’s premier writers. AJ Liebling, who after making his bones as a war correspondent wrote brilliantly of boxing in his later years, watched a young Clay, by then an Olympic champion, train for his debut as a professional. “Clay has a skittering style, like a pebble scaled over water,” Liebling wrote in a piece for the New Yorker (March 3, 1962; subscription required).

Liebling was ringside, watching Clay train at the Department of Parks gymnasium on West 28th Street, NY, when Clay first game him a glimpse of his motor-mouth skills. The young boxer was doing sit ups when his trainer, the legendary Angelo Dundee, mentioned that Clay wrote poems, and had just done one on Floyd Patterson. Here is what happened next:

“I’ll say it for you,” the poet [Clay] announced, without waiting to be wheedled or breaking cadence. He began on a rise:

You may talk about Sweden

[Down and up again]

You may talk about Rome

[Down and up again]

But Rockville Center is Floyd Patterson’s home

[Down]

And so on, Clay’s verse and the rhythm of his sit-ups in perfect sync, till he gets to the punch line:

“He cut up his eyes and mussed up his face

And that last left hook knocked his head out of place!”

As the title fight neared, Clay’s lippy style shifted in tone from the playfully admiring to the abusive, and its focus from the once-great Patterson to the reigning champion, Liston.

This is the legend of Cassius Clay

The most beautiful fighter in the world today.

He talks a great deal and brags indeedy

Of a muscular punch that is incredibly speedy

The fistic world was dull and weary

With a champ like Liston things had to be dreary

Then someone with color, someone with dash

Brought fight fans a-running with cash

This brash young boxer is something to see

The heavyweight championship is his destiny.

From thus brashly announcing himself to the world, well before the world was ready for him, Clay began to escalate the venom of his taunts as the fight grew closer. His preferred epithet for Liston was ‘the ugly bear’; his carefully-scripted ‘impromptu’ riffs  including lines like “You so ugly, when you cry the tears run down the back of your head. You so ugly, you have to sneak up on the mirror so it won’t run off the wall. ” (Part of an extended monologue, quoted by Tom Wolfe in his superb 1963 Esquire piece The Marvelous Mouth).

“He even smells like a bear,” Clay told reporters. “When I beat him, I am going to donate him to the zoo.”

Some interpreted his rants as the product of fear; others, as unbridled arrogance. Clay knew precisely what he was up to. While the media, shocked by his brashness, eagerly awaited the young pretender’s moment of hubris (43 of 46 boxing reporters at ringside, in pre-match predictions, said Liston would win with humiliating ease), Clay continued with his clear-eyed strategy — and explained why, in a first person piece in Sports Illustrated, one day before the fight that was to change boxing history:

Where do you think I would be next week if I didn’t know how to shout and holler and make the public sit up and take notice? I would be poor, for one thing, and I would probably be down in Louisville, Ky., my home town, washing windows or running an elevator and saying “yes suh” and “no suh” and knowing my place. Instead of that, I’m saying I’m one of the highest-paid athletes in the world, which is true, and that I’m the greatest fighter in the world, which I hope and pray is true. Now the public has heard me talk enough and they’re saying to me, “Put up or shut up.” This fight with Liston is truly a command performance. And that’s exactly the way I planned it.

Part of my plan to get the fight has made me say some pretty insulting things about Sonny Liston, but I might as well tell you I’ve done that mostly to get people to talking about the fight and to build up the gate. I actually have a certain amount of respect for Liston; he’s the champion, isn’t he? That doesn’t mean I think he’s going to stay champion. I have too much confidence in my own ability to think I’m beaten before we start. I do mean he is a strong, hard puncher, and he’s not a fighter anybody can laugh at. When I walk into a room where he is and see him staring at me with that mean, hateful look, I want to laugh, but then I think maybe it’s not so funny. I’m pretty sure the way he acts is just a pose, the same way I have a pose, but that look of his still shakes me. I wonder what’s really going on in that head of his, and I wonder what poor, humble Floyd Patterson was thinking when he had to climb into the ring with Liston.

But I am not fooled by what Liston did to Patterson once they started to fight. Liston didn’t do anything except hit Floyd while he stood there and took it. Now don’t think for even a little bit I’m going to stand around for Liston to do with as he pleases. The way I plan for things to go is to stay out of his way during the early rounds, and I count on him to wear himself out chasing me. I’ll circle him and jab him and stick and fake, dogging him most of the time and tying him up when he gets too close. He won’t be able to hurt what he can’t even hit.

Liston had decimated former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, via two first-round knockouts, in the run-up to the Miami bout, while Clay’s own preparation included underwhelming wins against two never-will-be heavyweights (Doug Jones and Henry Cooper). Veteran fight reporters previewed the February 25 title fight as a match up between Liston’s brutal punching power and Clay’s penchant for back-pedaling and relying more on foot speed than his fists.

Clay agreed — only, he had a characteristically pithy turn of phrase to describe his strategy: “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”

On the day of the fight, Clay and his team strutted to the ringside, premiering a chant that was to redefine a sport:

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!

The slogan, now inextricably linked with the Clay/Ali mythos, was the creation of Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, the assistant trainer Sugar Ray Robinson recommended to Clay. Bundini (here’s a cute story of how Drew Brown became Bundini Brown — in India), who went on to become one of Clay’s best friends, and who came up with that exhortation to gee up the fighter during his progress to the ring, died broken, and broke — just another of the sad footnotes the history of the sport is littered with.

The fight itself has by now acquired the panoply of legend; here is a typical Wiki description, long on detail, short on drama. And from among contemporaneous chronicles, here is Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, one of the correspondents who had written Clay off as a blow-hard before the fight and predicted a brutal comeuppance, wonderingly recanting.

A more poignant description, one that sums up all that Clay/Ali was, and continues to be, is contained in David Remnick’s King of the World. Remnick and Ali, the latter by then in the quivering, debilitating grasp of full-blown Parkinson’s, are in the latter’s home, reviewing his life and watching the iconic fight on videotape. Excerpt:

“SEE THAT? SEE ME?”

Muhammad Ali sat in an overstuffed chair watching himself on the television screen. The voice came in a swallowed whisper and his finger waggled as it pointed toward his younger self, his self preserved on videotape: twenty-two years old, getting warm in his corner, his gloved hands dangling at his hips. Ali lives in a farmhouse in southern Michigan. The rumor has always been that Al Capone owned the farm in the twenties. One of Ali’s dearest friends, his cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown, had once searched the property hoping to find Capone’s buried treasure. In 1987, while living in a cheap motel on Olympia Avenue in Los Angeles, Bundini fell down a flight of stairs. A maid finally found him, paralyzed, on the floor; he died three weeks later.

Now Ali was whispering again, “See me? You see me?” And there he was, surrounded by his trainer, Angelo Dundee, and Bundini, moon-faced and young and whispering hoodoo inspiration in Ali’s ears: “All night! All night! Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!” “That’s the only time I was ever scared in the ring,” Ali said. “Sonny Liston. First time. First round. Said he was gonna kill me.”

The fight began. In black and white, Cassius Clay came bounding out of his corner and right away started circling the square, dancing, moving around and around the ring, moving in and out, his head twitching side to side, as if freeing himself from a neck crick early in the morning, easy and fluid—and then Liston, a great bull whose shoulders seemed to cut off access to half the ring, lunged with a left jab. Liston missed by two feet.

At that moment, Clay hinted not only at what was to come that night in Miami, but at what he was about to introduce to boxing and to sports in general—the marriage of mass and velocity. A big man no longer had to lumber along and slug, he could punch like a heavyweight and move like Ray Robinson.

“It’s sweet, isn’t it?” Ali smiled. With great effort, he smiled. Parkinson’s is a disease of the nervous system that stiffens the muscles and freezes the face into a stolid mask. Motor control degenerates. Speech degenerates. Some people hallucinate or suffer nightmares. As the disease progresses, even swallowing can become a terrible trial. Parkinson’s comes on the victim erratically. Ali still walked well. He was still powerful in the arms and across the chest; it was obvious, just from shaking his hand, that he still possessed a knockout punch. No, for him the special torture was speech and expression, as if the disease had intended to strike first at what had once pleased him, and pleased (or annoyed) the world, most. He hated the effort that speech now cost him. (“Sometimes you won’t understand me,” he said when we first met. “But that’s okay. I’ll say it again.”) He rarely risked a word in front of a camera. And usually it was an enormous effort to show a smile. I said I knew what he was talking about. My father has Parkinson’s. He can no longer walk more than a few steps, and his speech, depending on the time of day, can be a trial. So I knew. What I couldn’t tell him was that my father is over seventy. His speech is better than Ali’s. But my father had not spent decades getting hit hundreds, thousands of times, by the best heavyweight fighters of his era.

Ali was smiling now as his younger self, Cassius Clay, flicked a nasty left jab into Liston’s brow. “You watchin’ this? Sooo fast! Sooo pretty!” Liston seemed hurt and confused. He had no answer to this new species of athlete.

This “new species of athlete” would go on to define the tumultuous sixties become its lightning rod and standard-bearer, as Jimmy Cannon said:

He is all that the sixties were. It is as though he were created to represent them. In him is the trouble and the wildness and the hysterical gladness and the nonsense and the rebellion and the conflicts of race and the yearning for bizarre religions and the cult of the put-on ad the changed values that altered the world and the feeling about Vietnam in the generation that ridicules what their parents cherish.

Having defined his sport and through it his decade, he would go on to be enshrined Sportsman of the Century by both Sports Illustrated and the BBC. The man who was once vilified for his religious and political beliefs and had his gloves, and his livelihood, snatched from him now lives on to see the gloves he wore in that storied fight against Liston go under the auctioneer’s hammer — and fetch a fortune. And it all began fifty years ago, when a brash young man with a quick mouth and quicker fists announced himself to the world.

Gary Smith Redux

His narrative voice was an empathic, whispering lyricism, and he wrote with a dazzling omniscience that in his finest work was earned through many, many months of intensive reporting. It was impossible to imitate him. And it was impossible not to try.

It’s almost like a wake, the reaction to Gary Smith’s retirement. Alan Siegel joins the chorus of quality writers weighing in on the impossible standards the premium sportswriter of our times set.

But the trick of Smith’s technique was that he made it seem possible for relatively inexperienced writers who’d yet to have a Gary Smith moment. His work seemed less like an exercise in high-velocity writing than it did a feat of sustained attention—to his sources, to their anecdotes, to the minute but revealing details that accumulate throughout a life. It was of course much more than that, but when you’re 21 and the extra-inning, lightning-delayed American Legion baseball game you’re covering has you questioning your career choices, it’s nice knowing there are more ambitious and yet still doable varieties of sportswriting out there. Maybe with the right subject, you start to think …

“The imitation of Gary Smith has been the cause of reams and reams of very bad writing,” Lake said. “That is not his fault. People want to be like him. I say that as someone who’s done it himself.

“You’re playing with fire when you try to do what Gary does.”

And if hadn’t caught it already, here, a comprehensive round-up of Smith’s work, and lots of links: In the Furnace of the Sporting Psyche.

 

In the furnace of the sporting psyche

Last week, while I was away marking the first anniversary of my mom’s passing, Gary Smith retired from active feature-writing for/with Sports Illustrated.

Journalists (who wish they could write like Gary while knowing they never can) and readers (who wish we could look forward to a life-long supply of sportswriting with the Gary seal of quality) mourned the news.

Why is the retirement of a sportswriter that big a deal? Here is an earliest post (November 9, 2009) that attempts to capture some small part of the man’s magic:

Sport comes to us in boxes – the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to bust out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game – before it, after it, above it or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche. Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down to those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes as well.

That clip is from one of my favorite sports writers of all time; specifically, it is taken from the preface to Gary Smith’s Beyond the Game.

Beyond the game

Sports journalism, done right

For a flavor of how Smith writes, try these stories: The Chosen One, a December 1996 profile of Tiger Woods; Damned Yankee, the story of the man who was widely regarded as the heir to the Yogi Berra mantle until a photographer clicked a picture that changed his life forever;  Coming Into Focus, his 2006 profile of Andre Agassi;  Moment of Truth, a story written around a camera verite moment in a locker room; Blindsided by History, the tragic tale of unintended consequences arising out of segregationists’ attempts to keep black students out of an Arkansas school; and Remember his Name, the story of Pat Tillman, who turned his back on a multi-million NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals and, in the aftermath of 9/11, enlisted in the United States army in 2002 and died in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. [One of my personal favorites, though it appears to be unavailable online, is Rapture in the Deep — the story of competitive free-diving ace Pipin Ferreras and of Audrey Mestre, the woman who fell in love with him, bought into his passion for the incredibly dangerous sport, and died in 2002 while attempting to break a world record.]

The prompt for this post comes from a Joel Achenbach article I just read in the Washington Post where, against the backdrop of the internet, blogs and social media, he celebrates the craft of the extended narrative in general, and Smith’s work with Sports Illustrated in particular. From his article:

There’s endless talk in the news media about the next killer app. Maybe Twitter really will change the world. Maybe the next big thing will be just an algorithm, like Google’s citation-ranking equation. But Smith is betting that there will still be a market, somehow, for what he does. Narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this.

They know that the story is the original killer app.

When Smith won his third National Magazine Award, Slate celebrated with an article on the man and his craft. An extended clip:

As for complexity: It is always easier, and generally more profitable, to sketch the world in blacks and whites rather than grays. As much as this calculus reigns on newspapers’ Op-Ed pages and in thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews, it is an iron law in sports sections. From reading them, you’d think that every athlete, coach, or executive is either a saint or a blackguard.

That’s not Smith’s way. The only profile of him I have been able to locate appeared in a

Gary Smith

Gary Smith, courtesy ‘Talk on Tap’

magazine called PhillySport in 1989. (Smith made his name as a young sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News.) In it he explained his approach to the writer, Bruce E. Beans: “I’m looking at it not so much as ‘this is good, this is bad,’ as much as ‘this is just life’ and trying to understand it.”

That’s of a piece with the totally self-effacing way Smith writes. Today, most journalism that anybody pays attention to gives pride of place to the writer: his or her attitude, opinions, and/or experiences. Smith, by contrast, subjugates himself to his subjects, winning their trust and spending hour after hour with them, until he has the understanding and facts needed to write long, richly psychological pieces in which the word “I” never appears.

The O’Leary article, “Lying in Wait,” is a typical production. (Along with most of Smith’s work, it can be read as part of a seven-day free trial at elibrary.com.) First of all, it’s more than 8,600 words long, a positively anachronistic bulk in today’s streamlined, dumbed-down magazine cosmos. (Smith is now an anomaly even at SI, a magazine with a noble lineage of long-form journalism. Flip the page after reading one of his engrossing sagas—it’s like you’ve wandered into People.) But room to ruminate is necessary, assuming you’re trying to do justice to the tragic story of a human being’s fall from grace. Second, the article starts from an assumption of moral ambiguity. It’s a given that O’Leary did something very wrong, but for Smith, exploring the roots of that action is much more interesting than condemning it or excusing it.

Finally, it reads like a rich short story: not a minimalist piece a là Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, but a pull-out-all-the stops production, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez. (In the light of recent scandals, it seems important to say that Smith has never been accused of fabrication or other journalistic sins.)

Journalism that goes inside people’s heads is a tricky proposition. In the heyday of the New Journalism, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote wrote from the points of view of Joe DiMaggio, stock car driver Junior Johnson, and murderer Perry Smith, respectively, with the assurance of Virginia Woolf describing London streets through the eyes of Clarissa Dalloway. But pulling that off requires prodigious reportorial stamina, capacious insight, and darned good literary chops. It’s much easier to take your subject’s description of what he or she was thinking and just drop it in the piece, surrounded by quotation marks. In a Smith piece, you rarely see a quote until the backstretch, when he’s got his narrative hooks into you and can afford to plunk in some background info via direct testimony.

It’s a great act, if you can pull it off — but can you? Smith spends the best part of three months working on a single story — a luxury that is increasingly rare in today’s world, where journalists are lucky if they get three hours. In his piece, Achenbach underlines the conundrum:

The sages say that we’ve reached a situation where “content creation” no longer pays. Only “aggregation” is profitable. It’s a freak variant of Darwinism — the survival of the parasitic. But obviously there will be little of value to aggregate if only rich people and dilettantes can afford to type up their thoughts.

Even the TV industry faces a serious story deficit. Those prime-time police and hospital dramas cost a lot of money to make. Not so expensive, however, is Jay Leno walking out and doing a monologue. That’s one reason he’s moved to 10 p.m., five nights a week. (The most compelling stories on TV are now those crafted by reality-show producers who stitch together a narrative of who’s backstabbing whom in pursuit of a prize. It’s all in the editing.)

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

Very expensive — but someone needs to have the vision to foot this bill, if narrative journalism of the highest class is not to die out altogether. Somewhere in the rush of ‘deadlines’ and ‘instant news’, we seem to have forgotten the journalist’s real job description — the best definition of which I once found in the preface to the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics [at a Poynter seminar on journalism in 2003, Pulitzer winner Tom French recommended this to me as one of the best how-to books on journalism I’d ever find — and it turned out he was right]:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

Update (May 6, 2014):

This is how SL Price, no slouch in the sportswriting business, greeted the news of Smith’s retirement:

It’s no exaggeration to say that every sportswriter of a certain ambition and age — let’s say from 20 to 70 — has had a Gary Smith moment. This is not fun. What starts as excitement soon becomes a swirl of puzzlement, awe and surprise; the frantic fluttering of pages forward and back; the parsing of sentences like so much Kremlinalia; some involuntary, half-baked blurts like, “How did he…?” and “Why did no one else…?” — and all of it leads back to you, you sorry bastard, and how you’re never, ever going to write a story like that, so what were you thinking getting into this business in the first place?

Yeah, exactly. Journalists — including but not confined to those who scribble on sport — go through that cycle, that starts with wanting to be Gary Smith, to knowing you can inhabit the same planet as him and, from that point of self-awareness, contenting ourselves with reading each successive story of his with slack-jawed admiration.

Price, in his post quoted from above, links to many of Price’s greatest hits; the one you find referenced most often is Lying In Wait, Smith’s 2002 profile of American football coach George O’Leary.

Why is this piece so good? James Ross Gardner, whose byline has starred in Esquire and GQ among others, and who works for the Seattle Met magazine, attempted to answer this question on behalf of Neiman Storyboard — and inter alia, points at the secret sauce that makes Smith primus inter pares among non-fiction writers:

We may as well begin the way Gary Smith begins – with a question, and near the end. Why is it that when you finish reading “Lying in Wait,” Smith’s 2002 profile of coach George O’Leary, you feel the impact so strongly? And by feel I mean physically feel. It will be different for everyone, but it hits me somewhere in the throat.

I do know that sensation is why, when asked about my favorite nonfiction writers, I rarely mention Gary Smith. I suspect I’m not alone. Listing Gary Smith comes with the obligation of explaining why Gary Smith. And anyone who’s been affected by his stories in Sports Illustrated – about coaches flattened by cancer, say, or an integrated high school team during segregation – knows that the pieces are hard to describe, that by the time you reach the end you’re emotionally drained but unable to articulate why. So I’ll talk about Tom Wolfe’s explosive sentences or David Grann’s knack for plot twists or John Hersey’s masterful pacing. But I’ll hardly ever refer to the guy at the top of my list, and that, I suppose, is a lie of omission.

Yeah. We often omit Smith’s name when listing our favorite writers, because it is beyond our ability to articulate just what it is about his writing that is par excellence. So we are content to toss in a few links to a subjective selection of his best work, season those links with a few superlatives, and leave it at that. This is what Ben Yagoda did in 2003, when Smith won the National Magazine Award for non-fiction. (Correction: …when Smith won one of his many NMA awards, I should have said: He has won it four times, which is a record; he was finalist a further 10 times, which is another record.) Here is Yagoda (Emphasis mine):

Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he’s the best magazine writer in America. The only injustice is that, outside the small world of editors who vote for the National Magazine Awards and the even smaller subset ofSports Illustrated readers who pay attention to bylines, he is a nobody.

Part of Smith’s obscurity is explained by his subject matter, which some view as having negligible importance. Yet such sports scribes as John Feinstein and Smith’s SIcolleagues Frank Deford and Rick Reilly have spectacularly higher profiles. (Reilly’s new monograph Who’s Your Caddy? was No. 3 last week on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; Smith’s only book, a collection of articles called Beyond the Game, ranks 280,343 on Amazon’s list.) No, the real reason lies in his attributes as a writer, all of which go counter to powerful prevailing trends in journalistic writing: He favors obscurity over fame, complexity over simplicity, and humility over literary showmanship.

The New York Times headlined a 2008 piece on him The Sports Whisperer; Jon Friedman called him, simply, America’s Best Magazine Writer (and that is fair enough — after all, that simple declarative headline says all that needs saying).

Here is Gary Smith himself, on empathy and getting inside the skin of his subjects — and this should be mandatory reading for every person aspiring to be a journalist:

To become a longform writer and to kind of immerse yourself in different worlds, it’s almost like a double-railed track. Not only do you grow as a writer, but that other rail of the track is huge. Part of it is something you’re developing – some sense of self, getting a little more at ease in your own flesh and bones. So much of what happens in the interactions between you as the writer and the subject hinges on their trust in you, their confidence in you. And so much of that hinges on how comfortable you are. Any uneasiness you bring is going to cost you dearly.

….

As you’re walking as an outsider into these worlds all the time, how comfortable are you in doing that? If they feel your uneasiness, how easy are they going to feel about handing you their most intimate stuff to write about?

There’s almost an equivalence to that interaction, so the more they sense that you’re really there just to understand rather than judge is huge in how much they’re going to start giving … When you’re more relaxed, you listen, and you’re ready to flow with what’s being said and to hear something that’s sparking off three or four other questions in your mind. It’s because your mind is more relaxed; it’s not tense and tight and worried about getting that next question on your checklist.

Smith was once asked what he wanted his stories to do. This is what he said:

To make readers think about life and about themselves and why human beings do what they do.

PS: All these laudatory pieces I linked to above? Their real worth is in the embedded links to some of Gary Smith’s greatest work — discover, and enjoy. And while on that, editors and writers pick their favorites from the Smith oeuvre — and the result is writing gold.

 

‘Hard work is a talent’: Abhinav Bindra

TO me it is not just amazing — it is intimidating,” said Rahul Dravid, in a revealingly candid moment.

He was referring to Olympian athletes in general, and more particularly to Abhinav Bindra who, at age 26, became the first Indian to win an individual gold (10 m Air Rifle, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics), ending a gold drought that had lasted since 1980.

It was not the act of winning gold that had Dravid waxing superlative, but the scarcely credible circadian rhythms of an Olympian’s life. Here is how Abhinav explains it in his book:

The cricketer has Test matches through the year, the tennis player has four Grand Slam events in twelve months, the golfer has the same number of majors annually. Constantly, there is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to stake a claim for greatness. Not for me. My only chance comes every four years. My only chance is seventy shots in 125 minutes every four years (the first 60 shots have to be fired in 105 minutes, each of the final ten shots within 75 seconds.

We have to be a little insane to do this, a trifle obsessive, almost as single-minded as shaven monks who sit for years meditating under trees in search of distant nirvana… Let’s be clear: we are not you. We are not better than you, or other athletes, just caught in lives weirder than most.

‘Intimidating’ — a word well chosen by a sportsman, monkish in his own way, who could only marvel at the enormous discipline, the focus, the drive and desire that could impel a teenager to dedicate his life towards producing that one perfect shot at that one moment that only comes once in four years — knowing as he pulls the trigger on that day that even absolute perfection isn’t enough.

(No, seriously — a series of perfect tens merely puts you in the final — to win gold, you have to better perfection. In the 2004 Games in Athens, Abhinav set an Olympic record with a score of 597/600 across his first 60 shots — and ended up seventh!).

“It is awesome to think that he can invest four years of his life towards that one moment, towards producing that perfect shot when he needs it most – because that one moment is all he gets. Us cricketers, we can fail in a game or a series, and know that there is another game around the corner, another shot at redemption. But for Abhinav, that moment is it — nothing before that matters, nothing that comes after will matter. Investing an entire life for one hour, one shot — that is intimidating.”

Rahul was speaking at the launch, last evening in Bangalore, of A Shot At History, the autobiography Abhinav co-authored with arguably India’s best sportswriter, Rohit Brijnath.

BOOK launches can be incredibly boring affairs. Some random VIP, often bearing no connection to the theme of the book, “launches” a copy most members of the audience are already clutching in their hands; an author untrained in public performance reads a random passage that means nothing to the lone member of the audience who is actually listening to him/her; several members of the audience pose “questions” designed more to show off their own erudition than to showcase the author and his book; cue clumsy vote of thanks by the organizer and a general stampede for the bar.

This one, at the Mysore Hall of the ITC Gardenia, in Bangalore, was the exception proving the rule (obligatory idiot question notwithstanding). Two sportsmen, brilliant in their own right, discussed the mental mechanics of their respective arts with some gentle shepherding by Rohit — and what came through was a passion shared across sporting disciplines that could not be more dissimilar.

Abhinav and Rahul are the high priests of hard work, and it was the shooter who settled the work-versus-talent debate when he said:

“Practice is a talent. Perseverance is a talent. Hard work is a talent.”

Champions are made in those moments no one else sees — those moments when, insulated from the pressures of competition and the adulation of fans alike, they sweat the tiny details of their craft through relentless repetition, each iteration a baby step towards an ideal of perfection few others can even comprehend. Rahul and Abhinav were unanimous that it was those moments — and not the competition, the glory, the applause — they truly lived for.

“Practice,” said Rahul, “is all about the pursuit of excellence without the stress of competition — and it is those moments, when you are hitting a ball just because you can, that brings you back to the joy of sport and reminds you of why you took it up in the first place.”

Abhinav concurs. “It is when I am in my shooting range, just me, the rifle and the target, that I am truly myself. That is when I am shooting for the pure pleasure of producing the perfect shot, with nothing on the line, with no one watching you. Put 25 pence on the line, and everything changes.”

Abhinav calls it a “meditative experience,” and Rahul latches on to that descriptor. “That is where I see similarities with Abhinav,” he says. “That single minded pursuit of excellence that he talks about, it resonates with me. It is not about the gold medal, but about the quest for the perfect shot, the quest to be the best shooter he possibly can be — that for me is the essence of sport.”

The two spend some time discussing the nature of ‘The Zone’, that Holy Grail of all sportsmen everywhere, and they agree that they cannot put a finger on what it is. At best, says Rahul, what he can say is that there are times, days, when he feels so perfectly at ease with himself, so focused on the moment, that he just knows he will play well, that he will make runs.

“Is that the zone? I don’t know — I only know that it comes rarely, and it comes on its own, and there is no way I have yet found to switch it on and off at will.”

It is, says Abhinav, about “living in the moment” — a phrase so often used in sporting conversations as to have become cliche, but one that is clearly an article of faith for the Olympian. “You only have that one moment, that one brief window of time that comes along once every four years — and you try to put yourself entirely in that moment, oblivious to everything, to the past, the future, the competition lined up alongside, everything. That is why, when I win I feel exhausted, dazed, unable to even comprehend the fact of having won. But when I lose, I am not as tired — because when I lose is when I have not managed to invest everything of me into that one moment, that one perfect shot.”

Two things stood out in that response. The first, most obvious, was the unshakeable conviction; the second, more important, was ‘voice’.

When reading a particularly fine passage in a co-authored autobiography, the almost inevitable question in the mind is, how much of this is the voice of the subject, and how much the voice and skill of his amanuensis. I was at the time a little less than halfway through a book studded with passages of stunning eloquence, and already that question had occurred to me multiple times.

Now, after an evening of listening to the ace shooter speak, at ease extempore, I know: the skill, the craft, is Rohit’s, but the voice is indisputably Abhinav’s.

It is a certain, sure voice; the voice of a man confident in his chosen sphere and comfortable in the knowledge that he has chosen a life of hardship and pain that may — or may not — bring him fleeting glory once in four years (“I know that when I win, it is not going to last too long. So I have no choice but to be humble,” was Abhinav’s matter of fact response when asked about the perils and pleasures of fame).

And that voice comes laced with a top-note of delightfully wry humor (“Like Gordon’s gin,” Rohit said later when I commented on it). Sample these exchanges:

Rohit talks about how fame can affect the balance of even the most level-headed sportsman. “Oh, I am very lucky,” chips in Abhinav. “People read about me only once in four years.”

When asked the inevitable ‘If not shooting, what sport would you have chosen’, Abhinav’s dry response: ‘I would love to captain an IPL team.’ (Rahul, predictably, picks golf. It is, he says, a golf where your quest for excellence is private and personal; you practice on your own; you are focused on finding the perfect balance to play the perfect shot..’)

When a member of the audience talks of the wealth of technical detail in the book and asks Abhinav if he is not worried about revealing the secrets of his craft, just ahead of next year’s London Olympics where he will defend his gold: ‘The only secret I know is that there are no secrets in shooting. But yes, I hope my opponents might get confused.’

There are few purer pleasures than to be able to eavesdrop on two sportsmen of the highest calibre delve into their own minds, almost oblivious to the surrounding public as they seek validation for the monkish existence they have willingly assumed in the pursuit of excellence. That pleasure was ours last night — and it was just the appetizer to the book that was the reason for the evening (Review follows, in a day or two).

Lights! Camera! Animals!

Got a box of tissues handy? Here you go:

Done sniffling yet? Jai Arjun Singh [if you are into books and cinema, you really need to be following his blog] in his latest Yahoo! column riffs off Moti the almost-human canine of Teri Meherbaniyaan, and contrasts the kitschy with the artlessly artistic use of animals in films. Lovely read. And while on lovely reads, haven’t had much time these last few days to point at other good reading material — so here’s a portmanteau link, to the Yahoo Opinions home page — considerable good stuff has gone up there since we spoke last.

Staying with animals for a beat longer — and reprising something I had posted earlier — here’s Joel and Ethan Coen, in a clip from a *roflmao* interview to Playboy magazine some years back. This part relates to the Coen brothers’ experience of filming with animals, in context of Raising Arizona:

Playboy: Was it challenging to direct all the babies you had in that movie?

Joel: It was bizarre. Whenever you have an infant, you have to triple or quadruple them. When we had five kids in the movie, we had to have 15 babies on the set.

Ethan: The picture babies and the standby babies. Cacophonous, nightmarish.

Joel: We had the baby pit—a big padded pit they were tossed into when we weren’t using them. The mothers all sat around the perimeter knitting.

Ethan: Whenever we needed a baby we reached into the pit and grabbed one. It was kind of like a barbecue pit.

Joel: You can’t really direct a baby, which is the problem. You take one out of the pit, put it in front of the camera and see if it behaves. If not, you toss it back into the pit and get another. It’s a lot like working with animals, actually.

Ethan: Yeah, if an animal doesn’t do what you want it to do, you just grab another one. But the rules for working with animals are a lot more stringent than those for working with babies.

Joel: There is definitely no comparison.

Playboy: What can you do with a baby that you can’t do with an animal?

Ethan: A million things.

Joel: The pit. You can’t do that with animals.

Ethan: Believe me, it is remarkable thing to see how animals are monitored. You cannot kill a mosquito on screen.

Joel: When you do a Screen Actors Guild movie that uses animals in any way you have to get the American Humane Society to sign off on it. We blew up a cow in O Brother, which meant we had to send the Humane Society work tapes while the film was being shot. When they saw the cow scene they didn’t believe it was computer generated, but I assure you it was.

Ethan: There is a rule that you can’t get a cow anywhere near a moving car.

Joel: It might cause the cow stress.

Ethan: You can’t upset the animals.

Joel: We had to have a lizard crash pad for Raising Arizona.

Playboy: What’s a lizard crash pad?

Ethan: A lizard shoots off a rock in the movie, and we had to have a preapproved soft place for it to land.

Joel: Yeah. With babies, you don’t have to bother about all that stuff.

Unrelated, except perhaps tangentially — a while ago I’d done a post on Psycho; here’s Kim Morgan in fine form, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the seminal film.

Browsing time has been somewhat rare these last few days, but two resources, and one good read, for you relating to soccer: ZonalMarking, for impeccable analysis of the World Cup games, and Supriya Nair’s Treasons, Strategems and Spoils for more general, equally compelling reading on the game. Any personal favorites among soccer blogs? Links, please?

On my way out the door, the Bangalore-based Joe Christy treated me to this lovely link: Henry Kissinger on soccer.

Got to run… have a good weekend.