April 10, 2010

Crossed Over, I

That is what I am going to do in the coming months, with one big variation: My basketball-based project will be taking place in the Far East, not the East Coast.

The sentence Too much vomit. was written on the board and a puddle of puke pooled on the floor. It was the low-point of my time in China, and probably the furthest I’d ever been from where I wanted to be.

An already rowdy group of six-years-olds had erupted into absolute bedlam when one of them leaned over her desk and proceeded to empty her stomach. There were 20-or-so minutes left of this two-hour class, which revolved around the difference between “too much” and “too many.” Grasping at straws, I tried to work that girl’s sick into the lesson.

“Too many vomit? Noooo,” I said, shaking my head. “Too much vomit.”

The kids were having none of it.

This was like, back when I myself was about six, my class went on a field trip to a production of The Nutcracker. The Sugar Plum Fairy, who was on stilts, suddenly toppled to the ground; the dark red curtain came crashing down after her. The crowd was chock-full of grade-schoolers – the whole city, apparently, was on a field trip – and after a split second of muted disbelief, we went ape. A deafening roar of clapping, laughing and yelling ensued. The fragile cordialness and etiquette of the ballet had been shattered.

The show resumed shortly thereafter, but really, it was all over. After that tumble, the grace of the dancers and brilliance of the music were rendered irrelevant. You don’t have a mishap like that in front of a roomful of kids and get the crowd back.

Similarly, if a little girl vomits in front of an entire class, things invariably devolve – and quickly. Yet in an act of utter futility, I attempted to turn the occasion into a teaching tool. I quickly tried to teach the children the word “vomit,” and then tried to fold the new vocab into a grammar point. I was like those ballerinas who went on stage even after the Fairy had set the room on fire.

And with that, the climax of my Chinese despair: When I stepped back from the board and saw Too much vomit. written in big black letters.

After all, I’m supposed to be a sportswriter. I’m supposed to be sitting courtside at some high school or college basketball game, jotting down notes and concocting an attention-grabbing lead for tomorrow morning’s game story. Maybe I’d even be eavesdropping on some fans or parents in the stands to get an idea for a feature article. Basically, I’m supposed to feel like an extra on the set of Hoosiers, not an extra on the set of Kindergarten Cop.

No, this isn’t where I thought I’d be. But it’s where I am, so let me explain.


I am an English teacher in Jinan, China. There is nothing exceptional, by Chinese standards, about Jinan. Like any provincial capital, it is crowded, dirty and loud. There is nary a day that passes where I don’t see something that would make my mother’s skin crawl, be it men hocking loogies inside a restaurant, children peeing on the sidewalk or people – myself included – buying sketchy-looking food along foul-smelling alleys from vendors whose hands are coated with God-knows-what.

But to be fair, it’s not all that bad. After a bout of what us foreign teachers like to call “Jinan Lung” – really, you describe any pollution-induced cough as “Chinese City X Lung” – I have settled into a routine here. I only teach on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, so every week I have four days to do basically whatever I want. (Save get on Facebook, YouTube and some of my favorites blogs, which, per government policy, have been banned. This blog is among the banned.) And because I’m a native English speaker with milky white skin, I get paid on par with some Chinese doctors. Indeed, my life here is indulgent financially and easy professionally.

Still, though, despite the cushy schedule and my unlimited access to rice and fireworks, this isn’t what I saw myself doing with my life after college. Nor, for that matter, is it really what Iwant to be doing. Coming out of college, I was hell-bent on being a sportswriter. And not the way that some sports nut might think, “Man, it’d be fun to watch sports and get paid for it!” I was serious about it. Between my high school and college newspapers, a pair of journalism internships and post-college freelancing for papers like the Kansas City Star, I have the chops to be a sportswriter. I’ve won awards. I can write features, profiles, game stories, blog entries, the whole thing.

Turned out, though, that the journalism industry didn’t have a spot for me. Hence, China.

But before we get to my tear-jerking post-college tour of the world of underemployment, let me explain what’s up with this blog. Because I have all this free time – free time I fought vigorously not to have – I have had to find ways to fill my days. Four days off each week might sound cool, and I guess it is. But I’m not that hot on teaching. So to keep my sanity, I have to find various ways to stay active. After all, it’s hard to justify spending too many hours watching my pirated Rambo box set or tearing through seasons of Mad Men and Seinfeld on DVD.

Reading, however, is one pastime that’s easy to justify. And on account of the free time, I’ve taken to reading like never before, particularly books about sports. It started with David Halberstam’s ridiculously in-depth biography of Michael Jordan, Playing For Keeps; then I moved onto Michael Lewis’ book-turned-movie The Blind Side; next up was Bill Simmons’ treatise The Book of Basketball; and, finally, Rick Tealander’s Heaven is a Playground.

That last book is why this blog exists.

Heaven is a Playground, published in 1976, is Tealander’s chronicle of a summer’s worth of playground basketball in New York City. He spent months on the blacktops of Harlem, unearthing what the game means to locals, getting know some of the characters – be it players or bystanders – and detailing his time there. The resulting book is an outsider’s study of how a certain subculture plays the game, how they enjoy the game, how they’ve come to treat basketball as more than a game.

That is what I am going to do in the coming months, with one big variation: My basketball-based project will be taking place in the Far East, not the East Coast.

I am not trying to rewrite Tealander’s book, nor could I. Indeed, with prose like Tealander’s, trying to replicate his work would be futile. (Seriously: “It is nighttime at Foster Park and the younger players are lazily shooting baskets in the weak glow of a street light, softly, gently, the way resting campers will toss chinks of bark into a campfire.” Guy’s good.)

But I can write. I love basketball. And I will have the time – what with my three-day work week – to tackle this endeavor, an endeavor predicated on these questions: What would it be like if a Kansan spent a spring and summer playing basketball on the courts of Jinan, China? What would I learn about China from Chinese basketball? What differences will emerge between American basketball culture – which I know well – and Chinese basketball culture – which even the most ardent basketball fans Stateside don’t understand?

Crossed Over, II

There we were, buried in a lush jungle, surrounded by every conceivable shade of green, trees towering all around, and we were playing basketball.

It’s a subject that will no doubt be explored further, but basketball here is big. For instance, the nation’s eminent beer, Tsingtao, has the NBA logo wrapping around the neck of every bottle. Actually, you see the famed silhouette of Jerry West on a lot of things around China: socks, billboards, even milk cartons. Every morning you can find live NBA games airing on Chinese television (the 13-hour time difference making it the perfect roll-out-of-bed activity), and if taxi drivers aren’t blaring Chinese techno or Michael Jackson on the radio, there’s a good chance they will be tuned into a Chinese Basketball Association game.

Basketball’s popularity in China shouldn’t be a stunner. According to NBA.com, Chinese people have been playing basketball since the 19th century, not long after James Naismith created the game. Missionaries who came here to evangelize brought basketball with them, and it was played at YMCAs across the nation. History has it that the first basketball game ever played in China was on December 5, 1895, at a YMCA set up by Dr. Willard Lyon. In 1910, the YMCA organized the first-ever national athletic competition in China – at least the first on record – and basketball was one of the events. Basketball was also present at the 1915 Far Eastern Championship games, held in Shanghai. China won the gold medal in basketball at the Far Eastern Games in 1921, and 15 years later, China fielded a basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

B-ball always played second fiddle to table tennis, but its popularity continued to rise. China’s first professional basketball league – the Chinese Basketball Association – was founded in 1956. It disappeared in 1974 – for reasons I hope to uncover – but was reborn in 1995 and is still going strong. Basketball became all the more popular when 7-foot-6 China native Yao Ming was selected as the No. 1 pick of the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets (whose logo, incidentally, morphed into a pseudo-Chinese character shortly thereafter). Today, Yao is arguably the most recognizable person in the country. Another Chinese basketball player, Yi Jianlian, was drafted No. 6 overall in the NBA Draft in 2007, further solidifying both China’s presence in the NBA, and the NBA’s presence in China. According to basketball.org, “NBA” is the most searched-for item on China’s main search engine, Baidu, and according to NBA.com, “NBA.com/China has become the most popular sports Web site in China.”

So, the stats and the history are there. But more than that, there are courts everywhere. To borrow a phrase from Tealander, you can hear a ball “whack-whacking” the pavement all over China. When on vacation in Lijiang, which is buried in the southwest of China, I rented a bike and headed toward a giant peak looming over the city called Snow Mountain (clever name, huh?). Snow Mountain dominates the horizon to the west, and I used it as my compass. After a while, I was weaving through small villages in the distant outskirts of Lijiang, divorced from the noise and bustle and dense population of the city. In one of these villages, there was a small common area facing the road; it was emitting that unmistakable whack-whack. As I approached, I noticed that a basketball hoop loomed over the square, not unlike Snow Mountain looms over Lijiang. I instinctively slowed to a crawl so I could gaze in at the people playing, at which point in noticed that the five guys on the court had to be older than 70.

Another bizarre basketball moment came in the jungly mountains of south-central China. My brother and I went on a seven-hour hike that started at the foot of Emei Shan, one of China’s four holy mountains. That particular mountain is buried amid a range of other ones, and you navigated your way via an endless maze of stairs. Along the path we saw Buddhist monks making the pilgrimage through the forests, as well as more than a few monkeys in the trees overhead. (One of the little suckers even swooped in and stole my water bottle. What a punk.) After the all-day hike my brother and I decided to shack up at a Buddhist monastery deep in the jungle. One of the first things I noticed at the monastery – along with the pungent smell of incense – was a basketball court resting about 50 feet from the entrance. My brother and I were exhausted, but the idea of playing hoops on this court invigorated us. We dropped off our bags, asked for a ball and headed over to the court to shoot around. There we were, buried in a lush jungle, surrounded by every conceivable shade of green, trees towering all around, and we were playing basketball.

There is a lot that I don’t understand about China – why some people drive at night without their lights on, why they don’t appreciate line etiquette, why a cab driver once literally stopped me from putting on my seatbelt. But this much I know: The Chinese love basketball. They play it the way I play it, with seemingly unbridled (and possibly irrational) affection. Why, though? Why is it such a big deal? That’s what I want to know, and that’s what I intend to find out this spring and summer.

One potential problem is language. Conspicuously absent from my aforementioned list of day-off-filling hobbies was learning Chinese; that’s not an oversight. Basically, once I figured out some good foods I got lax. But luckily my girlfriend, who is from England, is studying vivaciously in hopes of fostering a career where she uses Chinese. Chinese, after all, is a burgeoning language for international business and political communication (which makes learning it about 2,784 times more practical than keeping a blog about playground basketball in China in hopes of kick-starting a floundering journalism career). Luckily, she says that helping me talk with Chinese people who hang out at basketball courts could be a fruitful medium through which she can practice; I’m not about to argue with that sentiment. Sure, there will be communication issues even with her help. But I’ll still be able to play and watch, and besides, some communications snafus could make for some good blog fodder.

So that’s what this blog is about. It’s a basketball nut/freelance journalist from Kansas spending months on end on the basketball courts of Jinan, China. I will play with Chinese basketball players who seem to have much of the same passion about the game that millions of Americans, myself included, have as well. I will use certain areas of expertise – namely basketball, writing and journalism – as tools to better understand what I feel is an underappreciated (or at least under-understood) phenomenon of basketball in China.

Just yesterday, while traipsing down an alley lined with food vendors – Eat Street, as we call it; Disease Street, as my parents might call it – I ordered a bowl of noodles that ended up being bigger than my head. The operation was pretty fun to watch: an old woman, presumably the wife, fields orders and takes money. To her right an old man, presumably hubby, controls a piping-hot wok. He cooks at warp speed, sending mounds of bean curd and eggs and vegetables skyward with a subtle, effortless flip of his wrist, calmly cradling the bounty of food as it descends wokward. The fire below the wok angrily flares up every so often, but he is impervious – or at least unfazed.

While momentarily not transfixed by the chef, I peered behind this makeshift kitchen. And there, looming over the heads of the mom-and-pop duo, was a huge poster of LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady, all mid-flight on their way to monstrous dunks. For LeBron, it’s an infamously violent slam on Tim Duncan a few years back; for MJ, it’s the free-throw-line dunk from the 80s, with his gold chain and tongue flopping about; and for McGrady, it’s a tomahawk during an All-Star game, his head parallel with the rim, the ball down by his waist moments before it is smashed through the hoop.

Right in front of me is quintessential China: old man and old woman furiously cooking up some sorts of veggie-noodle combo. And right behind them is a basketball poster. People think of woks and little old ladies when they think of China, but they don’t always think of basketball. After you read this, maybe you will.

Crossed Over, III

From card-carrying member of the doghouse to assistant coach in three years – almost as good as a bunch of drunken cheerleaders.

The road that led me to Jinan can be traced back to Oct. 3, 2008. There were events before and after that also helped land me here, but early October in the Year of the Rat is a good place to start.

I was inhaling barbeque and sipping beers at the American Royal Festival. The American Royal is a Kansas City tradition – an institution, really – dating back to 1899. My 62-year-old mom and her sister used to go when they were kids, and at 23, I was going myself.

At the Royal, people from across the city (and region) bring their barbeque pits to a swath of ground that used to be a livestock trading yard near downtown KC. You can smell the festivities from blocks away – a rich, palpable aroma that makes you wonder if you might gain weight simply by breathing in the air. Along with the barbeque-induced haze, the American Royal is rife with live music. There is blues, rock ‘n roll and jazz competing with the barbeque for real estate in the sky.

Attending the American Royal, some things become clear. Like, say, why the jazz tune “Goin’ to Kansas City” isn’t titled “Goin’ to St. Louis.” Or why KC is perennially one of the fattest cities in the nation. Or why Missouri ranks in the top-third in the nation in beer consumption per capita, according to the Beer Institute. Indeed, it’s an orgy for the senses: Some of the very best barbeque in the world, fun music and an eyeful of girls who know that, because it’s early October, their window for wearing warm-weather (read: scanty) clothes is closing.

So, what does the American Royal have to do with me being in China? Well, let’s pick up the action when my cell phone started buzzing in my left pants pocket. I plucked out the skinny black rectangle and checked the number. It was a 785 area code – Lawrence, Kansas – and I knew who it must be: Tom, the sports editor for the Lawrence Journal-World.

The previous summer, I had mailed manila folders to sports editors around the country, each containing a résumé and packet of writing samples. When the editors opened the bundle – assuming they bothered to open the bundle – they would be greeted with a cover letter saying that a zealous, hard-working, wannabe sportswriter had just graduated college and was looking for work. Being from Kansas City, it only made sense that I would mail a packet to Tom since Lawrence is just down the road. But I didn’t discriminate geographically. I mailed newspapers and Web sites in California, Washington, Florida, Wisconsin, Alabama, New York – anywhere and everywhere that I could see myself working. (And a few places that, frankly, I couldn’t see myself working but would have jumped at regardless. Proof: I aggressively pursued a job in Garden City, Kansas.)

Well, Tom was one of the editors who got back with me. He sent me an email saying that he liked my clips and liked the fact that I had the gumption to seek a job, unprompted, at a paper where no openings were listed. He said that he would carve out a spot for my at the LJ-World, where I could continue a newspaper career that began with a few-times-a-year student paper back in the sixth grade.

I picked up journalism for real a few years later, in high school. My four-year high school newspaper career culminated with a pair of awards after an incredible series of events unfolded at our school. One day, the classroom speakers inexplicably summoned the entire varsity cheerleading team to the office. Such a request was highly unusual; it just didn’t sound right. And indeed, something was amiss. The circumstances: our 15-member cheerleading squad got wasted at one of the girls’ houses, that girl’s mother ratted out the cheerleaders to the administration, the other cheerleaders (and their parents) got super-ticked at the mom, Kansas City-area TV and radio stations picked it up, speculation galore. It was a crazy story that I retold well enough to garner some statewide honors. I still remember the lead:

Before it was on Fox 4, wdaftv.com or 980 KMBZ, it was on the classroom intercoms. It wasn’t spelled out for the 2,200 students who heard it, but when an announcement called the entire cheerleading team to the office, stories and suspicions began to swirl.

I had a two-year writing hiatus in college, what some may call my Finding Myself Period. I hastily decided to end my semi-retirement while studying abroad. See, my roommate’s mom slipped a Sports Illustrated into a care package, and having been divorced from American sports for about two months – in the heart of college football season, no less – I hijacked the SI and engulfed it. I read all the features. Then I read all the smaller articles. Then I read the blurbs. Then I read all the crud that they slip into the nooks and crannies of the pages. I basically devoured every inch of it, loved every inch of it. It was incredible the way that magazine transfixed me. This, I thought, is what I have to do with my life. So when I got back, my first priority – after scarfing down eight pounds of barbeque and Mexican food – was to find the editor of my college paper, tell her how eager I was, and get back in the mix. And that’s what I did.

I wrote some decent stuff in college and even won another award when I again unearthed a killer story. A few years earlier, our basketball team had this hotheaded player who was nearly kicked off the team as soon as he got there. Things reached a boiling point when, while getting chewed out during a game, the player sent a flippant, don’t-bother-me flip of his wrist toward the coach. The coach yanked him, looked at him on the bench and softly said, “If you ever do anything like that again I’ll have you on the first thing smoking out of here.” Basically they hated each other. But instead of transferring – which he almost did – the kid stuck it out and eventually became an ally of the once-tyrannical coach. A few years later he wound up as that coach’s assistant. From card-carrying member of the doghouse to assistant coach in three years – almost as good as a bunch of drunken cheerleaders.

Knowing, however, that high school and small-time college papers probably wouldn’t land me a job, I sought out internships. After sending clips to papers and magazines and Web sites all over the Denver area, I secured a pair of internships for the spring of my senior year, one with the Colorado Daily and one with Rocky Mountain Sports Magazine, both based in Boulder, Colorado.

The internships were fruitful – good clips, good references, good experience. I learned how to write a warp-speed game story; in fact, the first Colorado Buffaloes basketball game I covered for the Daily went into double-overtime, tightening the deadline that much more and making for my most nerve-racking newspaper experience since I interviewed that tattletale mom back in high school. I also wrote a few cool features, including one that I especially liked for the magazine. While working on different story, I learned about this town, Leadville, which is nestled deep in the Colorado Rockies. Turned out the town nearly disappeared back in the 1980s when the nearby molybdenum mine closed; literally overnight, Leadville had the highest unemployment rate in the nation. But this wacky guy – who himself worked at the mine – decided that Leadville should boost its floundering economy by hosting a 100-mile race. That’s like four marathons…at once…in the height of the Rockies. I went up there and talked with the brains of the operation, a delightfully crazy gentleman named Ken, to ask what in God’s name he was thinking, and how in God’s name this race has been running at maximum capacity for about 20 years.

With untamed, frizzy gray locks framing his wrinkly but vibrant face, he told me that he was confident people would come stay in Leadville and pay for lodging and groceries and the race itself. He couldn’t say where this confidence came from, but he was also confident people would come back the next year and the next, propping up the Leadville economy en lieu of mining. It was a desperate ploy, and it almost never got off the ground. But two decades later, it was definitely off the ground. The mayor of Leadville, some local business owners and a few nuts who actually ran in thing corroborated the tale. I loved the story almost as much as I loved reporting on it.

By the time I finished college in May of 2008, I thought I was in pretty good shape: I had another award in tow, I accrued some good clips at those internships, I had just graduated Magna Cum Laude with an Honors Degree (and the illustrious red sash that goes with it at graduation). I was surely on my way to a small-time job, ready to work my way up the journalistic ladder. I knew I had to cut my teeth somewhere, that I wouldn’t just hop on at the Denver Post or something. But I also knew that I was good enough to get a job, and that if I took care of business at that first job then I’d be on a collision course with a fruitful profession in journalism.

I didn’t have anything lined up when I graduated, so that summer I had an internship with the Democratic National Convention Host Committee in Denver. The Host Committee was a non-partisan organization charged with planning and organizing events in and around Denver, where the 2008 DNC was to be held. I worked in the communications office, drafting press releases and talking with various media folks who were covering the lead-up to the convention. It wasn’t sports journalism, but I was writing a lot and working on what turned out to be a pretty historic Democratic nomination process.

With Tom already having told me that I could hop on in some capacity at the LJ-World at the end of the summer, things got even better in August when I got a call from the sports editor at the Colorado Daily, a guy named Eliot, who had overseen my internship.

“I just was calling to see what was up with you,” he said before asking what my plans were. I told him that I was going to finish out this internship, which would be over in about a month, that I still wanted to be a sportswriter and that I had something lined up in Lawrence.

“Well, I’m actually going to be leaving the Daily,” he said, pausing for a moment as though he knew that the news would be music to my ears. “You should write the main editor there and tell him that you want the job.”

Perfect – a heads up about a job opening that wasn’t even open yet; there literally wasn’t a person in the world besides Eliot and me who knew that this vacancy. I thanked Eliot profusely, waited a week until he had told his boss that he was leaving and then emailed the editor-in-chief. I attached some clips, talked myself up and announced my candidacy for the spot.

Eliot was a cool guy, a 25-year-old from Georgia who took me on as an intern and even finagled the Scripps Company to pay me a few hundred dollars a month. During warm-ups for a Colorado women’s basketball game in early April, with graduation looming large on my mind, I peppered Eliot with some questions about how he became the editor at the Colorado Daily. He was doing what I wanted to, so I asked him how he did it.

“A few years ago I was working in real estate and I decided I wanted to be a sportswriter,” he said matter-of-factly. “I saw a Gonzaga game on TV and then wrote a column comparing Adam Morrison” – then an All-American forward for Gonzaga – “to Larry Bird. I sent it to a bunch of papers, and there was one in Arizona that thought it was good, and they hired me to cover high school football for them. I did that for about six months and then saw this job opening listed online and applied.”

Wow, I thought. Is it really that simple? Eliot didn’t study journalism, hadn’t had internships, didn’t have any experience as a reporter, and he shoots off a column to some papers and gets a job? And here I was, having already been the sports editor for my college paper, having recently won another award, having completed a pair of internships, having covered Colorado University athletics, having written features and game stories and all the rest. And all Eliot – a real estate agent – did to crack into the industry was write that Adam Morrison is kind of like Larry Bird?

I will definitely get a job, I thought. And in a fortuitous twist, it turned out that, hey, I might even get Eliot’s job.

So on a hot Sunday afternoon in late August I drove from Denver to Boulder and interviewed with the Colorado Daily. I was eager, I told them, to stay in Colorado, and more than capable of thriving as a writer for the paper. (Turns our the features editor would be doubling as the sports editor, and the opening was simply to be a writer. That, I thought, made me even more qualified for the job.) The interview went fine, and I had the added bonus – well, at least what I took to be a bonus – of handing over some clips that had Colorado Daily written along the masthead. Hell, I’d pretty much already had the job that I was applying for. I shook the editor’s hand, and he said he’d be in touch.

The Daily was my first choice. My second choice, my backup, was with Tom at the Lawrence Journal-World. Tom had emailed me on Aug. 11 to see what I was up to. The email read:

Just touching base with you to make sure you still are interested in talking about coming to work for us part-time, as many as 30 hours a week every week. Good luck at the convention. Thanks.

I replied:

I am definitely still interested in helping you out in whatever capacity possible; I'll work as much as you'll let me. I will be out here until the end of the month working on the DNC, but I should be back in Kansas by the first of September.

So again, I would love to work for you come September. I will be in touch as the month winds to an end. Please let me know if there is anything you need from me in the meantime.

I didn’t mention the Colorado Daily thing to Tom because, really, there was no point. If I got the full-time gig at the Daily then I would take it and wouldn’t be working for Tom anyway. And if I wasn’t hired at the Daily then there would be nothing gained by having mentioned that I was gunning for another job. That’s maybe a selfish way to go about things, and if you believe in karmic retribution then maybe I’ve been relegated to China because of moves like that. I don’t really consider it that bad though.

Tom and I exchanged a few more emails, the Convention went well, I went to a few DNC-related parties and events I had no business being at, and I rolled into Kansas City on the evening of Aug. 31. On Sept. 3, I made the 40-minute drive to Lawrence to meet with Tom about a job with the Journal-World. Tom is about 55-years-old and shaped a bit like Homer Simpson. He is a hair on the short side with a waistband that almost reaches his fingers when he shakes your hand. When we met, his short-sleeved button-up shirt was about 22 percent tucked in.

He and another one of the editors took me to a local coffee shop. I instinctively ordered coffee that was way too hot for the blazing late-afternoon meeting, and true to his build, Tom ordered a chocolate muffin. I brought a packet of clips that I offered to show the gentlemen, but they assured me that they had already read everything I sent. So they asked me some questions.

“Why,” asked Tom, leaning forward with his belly up against the table, “do you want to work at the Journal-World?”

“Well,” I said with the confidence of someone who was interviewing for a job that wasn’t even his first choice, “I’ve been a Kansas Jayhawks fan all my life, and I’ve been reading the Journal-World for years to keep tabs on KU. I grew up reading it and read it all through college. It’s one of my favorites papers and maybe my favorite sports section.” This wasn’t a fabrication. “Plus, even if I was just fielding phone calls or jotting down stats or covering high school volleyball, I want to get into a newsroom, I want to work in a sports department. I just want to get into the newspaper environment.”

Tom liked this answer – he said so – and I seemed to have quickly confirmed his suspicion that I was a worthy hire. After more than a half-hour of chatting at the coffee shop, and after Tom ordered another muffin, we lazily strolled a few blocks along the sun-baked sidewalk back to the Journal-World office. I met some of the writers and editors and headed home.

During our meeting, I told Tom about the Daily job. He seemed excited for me. He has a son a few years my senior who went through the trying-to-get-into-the-newspaper-business process himself, and I think in me he saw some of his son. He understood that if I were offered that job then I would (and should) jump at it. He told me, though, that he wanted me at the LJ-World if I didn’t get the job. I told him the feeling was mutual, which it was.

The next day, Sept. 4, I sent Tom an email thanking him for meeting with me. He replied:

Thanks, David. I should get approval for the position by late Friday afternoon. I'll let you know. I don't know if I remembered to mention to you that all potential employees must take a drug test. – Tom

I can’t prove to you that Tom wasn’t yanking my chain about the job. But I’d bet anything he wasn’t. After I sent him my packet that June, he emailed me before I even had a chance to follow up with the “wanted to make sure you got me stuff” email. In August, he emailed me before I had a chance to send the “wanted to see if you still think it’s possible for me to come work for you” email. Heck, he was talking drug tests. Plus, on an intangible level, he’s a genuine dude. Again, I can’t prove anything, but I would bet all $597 that I have to my name that he was serious.

Then things got tangled. On Sept. 6, the editor from the Daily sent me an unprompted email that read:

Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about you. We haven’t made much progress yet in the job searches, and definitely haven’t hired anybody.

I am now caught between a job that I really covet (the Daily) but don’t know if I get, and a job that I’m not as hot on (the Journal-World) but could probably have. This was exceptionally foreign territory for me; I deliberated endlessly about what to do. Should I just jump at the Lawrence job? Should I hedge my bets and wait for the Boulder job? Here’s what transpired, retold through emails. From Tom, on Sept. 11:

I haven't told the guy who has to approve the position, which I'm anticipating won't be a problem whatsoever. If you don't get the job, I'm going to tell him that second, bring you in the next day to fill out an application and make a drug screen appointment. We can stay in a holding pattern another week or two, if necessary. Good luck and be confident when you talk to the guy. – Tom

From the Daily, on Sept. 19:

Just finished interviewing several more candidates this week after a long delay, and we’ll be making a decision within the next week.

From me, to Tom, on Sept. 19:

Hey, Tom. I got in touch with the editor at the Boulder paper and he said that they “would know within the next week.” So I have what seems to be a definitive time-frame, but alas it still could be into late next week.

Sorry again to keep you waiting. I hope this is OK.


From Tom, Sept. 19:

No problem, I'm getting stalled on this end, too so it's actually working out perfectly.

The words “getting stalled” raised my eyebrows, but I was still confident. After all, I had irons in two different fires, so to speak, and both of those fires were blazing. I had already written for the Colorado Daily and had an endorsement from the former sports editor, Eliot. And if things didn’t work out with them, then oh well, because I still had the LJ-World and Tom, who had been an ally of mine for months. Tom knew what I was up against, he liked my eagerness, he wanted to help. Besides, even if he was getting stalled, things were still “working out perfectly.”

Two weeks passed, and I finally heard back from the Colorado Daily. Didn’t get the job. I immediately emailed Tom, and on Oct. 1 he replied:

I'll get back to lobbying to spring open that position and when I get approval, we'll have you in for a drug screen and to fill out paper work.

I thanked him, and he said that he would give me a call within a couple days to tell me exactly what was happening. My phone rang at the American Royal.

Crossed Over, IV

But I didn’t give up. This, after all, was before my soul was crushed, before my ambition had been reduced to figuring out ways to use the word “vomit” in my English lessons.

As tempting as it was to sit around and sulk about the Daily and fret about the LJ-World, I wasn’t going to turn down a chance to imbibe in the Royal. It really is a spectacle, a food/drink/music/fun orgy. Moreover, even though I wasn’t heading to Boulder, my journalism career would surely whisk me away to some far away city before long – you know, after my stint in Lawrence – and I felt that I should celebrate my numbered days in KC with this KC tradition.

But I wasn’t so caught up in the festivities that I failed to feel Tom buzzing in my pocket. I set down my overflowing plate – piled high with brisket, ribs, potatoes and, knowing my eating habits, probably some third animal – and found a place that wasn’t too loud to talk. I ended up wedged between a pair of moving vans which acted as a sort of sound barrier against the deafening music and chatter that was all around. Noise was still seeping through the cracks, but there were few quieter places within a 10-minute radius.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi, David. This is Tom Keegan from the Lawrence Journal-World.” His voice was neutral, devoid of both “Welcome aboard!” giddiness and “We’re sorry, but…” contrition.

“Hey, Tom! How’s is going?”

“Fine, fine,” he said before moving on to what must have been an awkward explanation. “Hey, I’m sorry but the payroll department isn’t letting me bring on anyone.” My face was probably some grim combination of appalled and defeated. “I lobbied for them to give me 20 or 30 hours a week but they just wouldn’t budge. The entire company has a hiring freeze.”

Almost in the same breath he told me that his sports-editor friend at a Las Vegas newspaper was about to have an opening, and that he had just emailed me the guy’s address and contact information. I thanked him for that, not wanting to sound too downtrodden.

“I’m sorry again,” Tom said. “I really thought this would work out, and we really wanted to have you work here, but it’s out of my hands.”

I understand…thanks for everything…be in touch…

I was shaken and somewhat shocked. Mere days ago I had a pair of legitimate avenues through which I could enter the journalism world, and both had absolutely disintegrated. Now I was back where I was when I graduated last May, with one caveat: The United States economy in general – and newspaper industry in particular – was in a free fall. I was looking for work during the worst time to look for work in decades, and the newspaper industry was absolutely on fire. Papers everywhere were doing one of three things: If they were lucky, they simply weren’t filling vacancies and were shedding payroll via attrition. If they weren’t so lucky – which the majority of them weren’t – then they were trimming people from the staff. And if they were in real trouble, like the Rocky Mountain News or Seattle Post-Intelligencer – both of which shut down by March of 2009 – then they were simply going out of business. I know that there were very, very few good professions to be pursuing in late 2008 and early 2009, but the media/newspaper business was one of the very worst.

It would be virtually impossible to give a proper recap of the 2008-09 layoffs taking place at newspapers around the country, and difficult still to account for what was happening within sports departments alone. But because it hit close to home, I was able to keep pretty close tabs on the myriad layoffs happening at the Kansas City Star. A look at those cuts – while merely a small slice of the much larger shit pie affecting the entire industry – will give you an idea of the odds/futility of my plight.

The Star’s first big round of layoffs were in June of 2008, one month after I graduated, when 120 jobs were nixed. Among those let go was Howard Richman, a sportswriter who had been at the Star for 24 years. At the time, Richman was the paper’s Kansas State University beat writer, and he was pretty good at what he did. That someone so tenured and proficient was laid off was startling. But what made that his ouster transcend the realm of simply being a shame, thrusting it into the semi-depressing stratosphere, was that Howard had written me a really nice email the previous spring.

Being the beat writer for a major college at a major metro paper like Howard was my dream job; it still is, really. So I penned an email telling him who I was, that I ultimately wanted to do something along the lines of what he did, and asking if he had any ideas or advice for how I should go about cracking into the industry. His email began with the sentence “Thanks for thinking of me” and ended with the sentences, “Hope that helps. If there’s anything else, feel free to ask. Good luck.” I know that businesses can’t hang on to employees just because they’re nice – nor should they – and I know that responding to wannabe sportswriters’ emails doesn’t do anything for the Star’s bottom line. Howard wasn’t just a nice guy, though. He was an experienced writer who had been at the paper for longer than I’d been alive, and all of a sudden he was unemployed.

What’s even more telling about the state of the newspaper biz is that Richman’s spot wasn’t and never has been filled. Instead, the Star is now sharing a Kansas State beat writer with the Wichita Eagle, which, like the Star, is owned by the McClatchy Company. McClatchy did the inverse for the University of Kansas beat: the Eagle writer was let go, and the Star writer’s stories are published in both spots. If only that was all the turnover at the Star.

A few months later, in August, the Star instituted a furlough program for most of its employees, and one month after that, in mid-September, about 30 more Star employees were let go. An internal email from publisher Mark Zeiman said that the layoffs were “especially disappointing because we all believed the steps we took two months ago” – when Richman and others were cut – “would be sufficient to see us through the sharp revenue declines that have beset our industry during this current recession.” These cuts came one day after McClatchy announced that it would cut 10 percent of its workforce, which, according to the Kansas City Business Journal, was equivalent to 1,150 full-time positions. Fifty more Star employees were laid off in November of 2008, including Jeffrey Flanagan, another long-time sportswriter for the paper.

Think of the evolving logistics of the newspaper business: writers like Richman and Flanagan, who each had decades of experience, lost their jobs not because of their performance, but because the positions were simply being abolished. Moreover, they, like myself, were among the ranks of those looking for work in the industry. Therefore, the pool of unemployed writers was increasingly cluttered, and the number of jobs constantly shrinking.

I know that people like Richman and Flanagan weren’t necessarily gunning for the same jobs as I was, but the cumulative effect was nonetheless damning. People at small papers – papers where I could feasibly get work – would have more trouble taking that next step because (a) bigger papers weren’t hiring, and (b) there were oodles of qualified applicants. And since those people at small papers were stuck, the people at no papers (like me) were stuck as well. (The Lawrence Journal-World, by the way, had its own round of layoffs in November.) Some papers surely had it worse, some better. But that the axe was falling so hard and so frequently at a big-time paper like the Star speaks to the abyss the industry was slipping into. As you’ll see in a moment, the Star would keep slipping.

But I didn’t give up. This, after all, was before my soul was crushed, before my ambition had been reduced to figuring out ways to use the word “vomit” in my English lessons. I kept trying, opting to repeat the strategy that had come oh-so-close to working last summer: sending my work to newspapers all over America. I hit up every paper and Web site within 100 miles of Kansas City and scoured the Internet for job openings across the country (and world). In the meantime, I freelanced.

Crossed Over, V

They were going in a different direction, they said, which meant that I was going in a different direction, too: China.

The freelancing started with a pair of small weeklies between Lawrence and Kansas City – the De Soto Explorer and Eudora News. They were owned by the same company, put together at the same little office and run by the same editors. I got that gig the same way I thought I was going to get the Lawrence job – by contacting the editors and asking for the chance to write.

I first met the sports editor and head editor before covering a high school soccer game. They had told me to stop by so we could meet and talk about what exactly they expected of me. The head editor, a nice guy, probably about 55-60, was named Elvyn. He had a husky build and a throwback mustache that was so full and thick that it looked like a comb could get stuck in it. He was the one who had first corresponded with me about helping out at the papers, talking to me on the phone in his slow, rich Kansas drawl. His voice had an easy way of rolling off his tongue, and his sentences were occasionally punctuated with a gravelly “ggh” – like, “Well-ggh, we’d love for you to-ggh freelance for us.” He talked like he was transported to 2008 from a different century. I liked him before I met him.

The sports editor, Jeff, was in many ways the antithesis of Elvyn. He was about the same age as me, fresh out of KU, with scraggly facial hair and a young voice. He was nice enough, and he said numerous times that he really appreciated having another writer to help out. The appreciation, I assured him, was mutual.

When we met before that soccer game, Jeff and Elvyn explained that I’d get $30 per story and $0.00 per gallon for gas, which was a bitch because, if you remember, the fall of 2008 was when gas was hovering at around $3.50-$4.00 per gallon. And these papers were only “close” in the relative sense; it still took about 30 minutes to get to the offices. Our meeting ended about 45 minutes before the soccer game was set to kick off, so I killed a few minutes reading that week’s paper, copies of which were scattered about the office. I flipped to the sports section to get a sense of what they expected. There were two stories of the front page. These were the two leads, which ran side-by-side:

It took about 30 minutes for De Soto to utilize its team speed to score a goal Tuesday night.


It took five weeks but De Soto finally got its first win of the year Friday night at Paola.

It took about five minutes to get to the high school where the soccer game was being played. I covered it dutifully, with as much zest as anyone could possibly summon for 5-0 blowout on a dreary mid-October day. In fact, I was full-bore about everything I covered for Jeff. Again, I viewed the De Soto Explorer and Eudora News as stepping stones, pit stops on my way to bigger and better. I took them seriously because I thought that they could very well lead to job – be it through connections or good clips or chance encounters. Whatever ended up happening, I was sure that in a few months I’d look back on those soccer games that I was covering for $30 and think, “Man, that’s funny.”

About a month later, I also started freelancing for the Kansas City Star. I was covering a volleyball tournament for the News/Explorer, and there were going to be some Kansas City-area teams there. So I contacted the Star, told them I was going to be at the tourney and asked if they wanted a few inches of copy. They did, they liked what I wrote (all 200 words) and they asked me to cover a few more things. Then a few more. Eventually, by late November, I found myself covering a University of Missouri-Kansas City basketball game. (Yeah, that’s Division I, baby!) I became a regular contributor to the Star and continued writing for the Explorer/News combo; I freelanced a bit for the Independence (Mo.) Examiner; I became a featured (although unpaid) columnist for Lindy’s Sports Magazine’s Web site. My path toward getting a full-time job had been stalled, but I felt that I was at least still on the path.

The Explorer/News thing came to an exasperating end – a conclusion that, in hindsight, speaks to my exasperating journalistic endeavors as a whole. As much as this may sound like bitter bitching, there is a point to the next few hundred words. Promise.

Like I said, I was looking at these papers as stepping stones, as a chance to get better, maybe get a few clips, maybe get called up to another paper within the company. As much of a drag as it was at times to cover high school soccer, I always kept my ears open for that feature story down the road. And one time, I heard some parents opining about the team’s soft schedule: they were frustrated that De Soto’s team always did really well in the regular season and always floundered early in the postseason. The culprit, they said, was a cushy schedule.

On cue, De Soto, which was 13-2, lost to St. James Academy, which was 4-11, in its first postseason game. St. James may have been but 4-11, but the record lied: it had played a murderous schedule. So when I was tasked with writing a season recap after a heartbreaking first-round playoff exit, I asked the De Soto coach about that schedule.

The soft schedule, he said, really bothered him too. In fact, he had pressured administrators from high schools around the league to change the format of the regular season so that, like St. James, his team could schedule tougher teams. Thinking this was pretty interesting – at least interesting on the small-town-soccer scale – I kept digging. I talked with St. James’ coach, with De Soto’s activities director, with another area coach whose team always had bad regular seasons and great postseasons. I triangulated my sources, had a solid angle and produced a nice, clean story, even uncovering an interesting bit about some league-wide scheduling rule changes that were spearheaded by the De Soto coach. Keep in mind I was getting $30 per story.

Losing now to win later

With eye to postseason, De Soto will take advantage of rule change and beef up regular season schedule

De Soto soccer coach Darren Erpelding likes winning, but not like this.

After posting a school-record 13 regular season wins and claiming De Soto’s first Frontier League title, Erpelding is going out of his way to make sure that the wins don’t come so easily next season.

Ironically, the fourth-year head coach wouldn’t mind seeing a few more losses.

“We could only have 10 wins in the regular season next year, but we’ll be a completely better team than we were this year,” Erpelding said.

Erpelding’s contentment with fewer wins in 2009 stems from his team’s postseason flame-out in 2008. After running away with the Frontier League championship – the Wildcats outscored their league competition by a combined 47-9 – Erpelding’s team hit an unlikely road block in first round of the playoffs: St. James Academy, which entered the game with a measly 4-11 record.

But the regular season records proved irrelevant. St. James beat De Soto 1-0 in an apparent upset – the four-win team downing the 13-win team.

The wins and losses, however, don’t tell the whole story. St. James played a murderous regular season schedule, including 6A powers Blue Valley North and Blue Valley West, as well as five-time defending Kansas 5A state champ St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas blasted St. James 6-0, but St. James head coach Rick Enna hailed the game as a success.

“They (Aquinas) were a big help to us,” Enna said. “They were the first game of the year and they crushed us. But they helped us.”

Enna chalked up his team’s postseason success to its regular season trials.

“It’s good for the boys, not necessarily their record, but it’s good for them to see the standard of play that they need to aspire to,” Enna said. “I think if you get a taste of that standard of play...you’re much more prepared when the postseason arrives.”

“When your job is to put together your best team in 10 weeks,” Enna added, “ I think what you want to do is try to put together the best game plan to prepare for postseason. And if you can give them that look at a higher level opponent early on, it’s a big benefit.”

St. James’ fourth-place finish at state – despite their pedestrian regular season record – inspired Erpelding to propose changes to the Frontier League schedule at the league’s postseason coaches’ meeting last month.

Traditionally, each Frontier League team played every league opponent twice – once at home, once of the road. With eight teams in the league, the home-and-away format accounted for 14 games. Most teams, including De Soto, play a 15- or 16-game season, meaning close to 90 percent of a team’s competition came from within the league.

This was a problem for Erpelding because some Frontier League teams provided little resistance last season, which allowed De Soto to breeze by without having to play quality soccer.

Eudora, for example, went 0-15 last season; De Soto won each of their meetings with the Cardinals 5-0. And Eudora wasn’t the only doormat. De Soto plastered 3-12-1 Spring Hill by a combined 12-0 and bullied 5-10 Baldwin 2-0 and 4-0.

“There were eight games on the schedule that I knew we were going to win,” Erpelding said. “When you know that you are by far better than your opponent, it’s hard for you to get excited for that game and to work on getting better. This isn’t a knock on Eudora or Baldwin, but it’s just not the same...

“There were a lot of times playing some of those league games where the kids were literally going through the motions. And I don’t like coaching those games. Those six or seven to nothing blowouts may look good, but they don’t necessarily prepare you for the playoffs.”

So on the heels of Erpelding’s proposal, Frontier League coaches and administrators approved a big change: league teams will only play each other once in 2009. In addition, there will be a single-elimination league tournament at the beginning of the season.

With those tweaks to the schedule, each squad will have about six games against opponents of their choosing instead of just two. De Soto activities director Steve Deghand was one of the administrators who endorsed changing the scheduling policies.

“I think the more often you play the better competition, the better you can become,” Deghand said. “So I think it’s a great opportunity to go up against other good schools.

“I think that everybody likes to win, but you also want to do good in the postseason. And if you think you need some stiffer competition in the regular season to do better in postseason then that’s fine.”

Erpelding plans on taking full advantage of the open dates. Perennial 4A power Kansas City Christian – winner of four of the last seven state titles – will be on the slate. Erpelding is also looking to add 5A Lansing as well as 6A Lawrence Free State, Lawrence and Olathe Northwest.

KC Christian does not belong to a league, which allows them to play an array of different opponents. And instead of packing their schedule with cupcakes, coach Joe Hirleman said that it is their policy to schedule the best teams around.

“We’ve been pretty intentional in trying to track the bigger schools to play,” Hirleman said. “For us, and I think most coaches would agree, your record doesn’t really matter when you head into the playoffs. Generally, if you get through the first couple games you’re going to see one of the better teams anyway, so seeds don’t really matter.”

De Soto is evidence of the irrelevance of seeding. Their No. 1 seed in regionals earned them the right to play St. James, a team whose record belied their potential.

Next season, Erpelding will gladly trade some lumps in the regular season for wins in the postseason. After all, he got to see up close how well it worked for St. James.

Pretty good, right? Well, Jeff didn’t see it that way. And when my story was published, all but the De Soto coach’s quotes were removed. The story went from about 950 words to about 400. Now, you might be thinking, “Well of course the story didn’t run as it was – it was way too long.” Fair enough, but this is the kicker: that same week, Jeff published a story that was 950 words long himself. And here’s the double-kicker: 660 of those 950 words – well over two-thirds – were simply quotes. And here’s the part that makes me want to vomit like that little girl in class: of those 660 quoted words, there was only ONE source. At one points in Jeff’s story, there is a 276-word segment of which 238 words are quotes.

I was despondent – a quality clip and about 10 hours had been stolen from me. But I was still unfazed. I took a part-time job at a local library and continued to freelance for anyone who would let me. I knew I was a writer, and I knew if I simply kept writing then I’d get my break.

But by February, 2009, I was beginning to break. There was simply nowhere for me to go. No one was hiring. I was working part-time at a library. I was living at home, fielding questions like, “Have you thought of maybe trying to do something else?” with increasing frequency.

It was around this time that I sat down for coffee with one of the Star’s Kansas City Chiefs beat writers, Adam Teicher. We met up at a coffee joint not far from where he had just dropped his daughter off for some sort of sports practice – fencing, if memory serves. He was sitting lazily against at a table when I arrived, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, one hand on his cup of joe, the other resting in his lap. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I remember him sporting a look of contentment, enjoying some coffee and avoiding the cold in what seemed like total comfort. Of course the Chiefs beat writer is happy, I thought. Why wouldn’t he be – he’s got it made.

I ordered some coffee myself and joined him. He had told me to bring some clips and a résumé; his interest in me didn’t seem feigned as I laid my things in front of him. He scanned quickly but knowingly and made a few comments about my résumé (there probably was no point in listing my high school newspaper, he said). He set my things down, grabbed his coffee and leaned back.

“Man, I just don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “With these clips and your experience – if this were 10 years ago you’d have a job by now. How long until you need to move out of your parents’ house?”

“Four months ago,” I replied, inducing a chuckle.

“I would say to just keep doing what you’re doing, keep freelancing and making contacts, but I just don’t know. I mean, I could lose my job next week. I wish I could be more optimistic. I don’t want to sound so negative, but there just isn’t a lot to be optimistic about right now. The newspaper industry is just so bad.”

There was tangible support for that claim. The flames engulfing the newspaper world, a world that I was hell-bent on joining, were burning stronger than ever. In March, the high school sports editor who gave me my first chance at the Star – a genuinely nice guy who had been there for ages – was let go amid yet another round of staff cuts. He was one of a few editors who got axed, along with some writers. More: the Chronicle and Rocky Mountain News shut their doors, and an Associated Press writer who I met at a CU basketball game told me in an email that the AP would be cutting 10 percent of its writers within the year.

Bottom line: there were fewer jobs available, and – per the layoffs – more qualified unemployed writers out there than at any point in recent history. The math wasn’t working in my favor. I applied for and didn’t get about 638 more jobs, and realized that I was approaching the one-year anniversary of my graduation and still wasn’t gainfully employed.

Just in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t too naïve or too principled to try my hand at the online journalism world. I contacted countless Web-based media outlets couldn’t get even a nibble. They weren’t immune to the economic meltdown, either, and if they weren’t shedding people, they at least weren’t bringing any on – at least not me. Plus, take a look at online-only sportswriters, and see where they got their starts. It’s newspapers. Sites like Yahoo! Sports and ESPN.com and SI.com do indeed have a bevy of writers, but almost without exception those writers cut their teeth at newspapers. An insightful (albeit depressing) article in Business Week felt all too biographical:

Bright, eager—and unwanted. While unemployment is ravaging just about every part of the global workforce, the most enduring harm is being done to young people who can't grab onto the first rung of the career ladder….

For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of “lost generation.” Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.

I started having nightmares about the term “hiring freeze” and eventually became resigned to the fact that my first job after college – save part-time librarian – would be as an English teacher in China. The hiring process was brow-furrowingly easy; from the time I applied to the time I got hired was maybe two weeks. But even after I decided that having a job I didn’t like in China would be better (or at least more interesting) than having a job I didn’t like in Kansas City, I couldn’t in good conscience stop trying for the journalism biz. I figured until I bought a plane ticket, I could still renege on the commitment to China. So I kept up with the same old routine: writing a ton, sending out clips and résumés, hoping.

I thought I caught my break in early June with the Idaho State Journal, in Pocatello, Idaho, which is home to Idaho State University. I asked the sports editor at the Star if she had any ideas, and a few days later she wrote back that she was privy to an opening at the State Journal. So I sent them my things and dropped that Star editor’s name. About a week later I heard back that I was a candidate for the job, and that they wanted to have a phone interview. This was euphoric news.

I had a good, long interview with the State Journal sports editor, pacing around my bedroom for the entirety of our 60-minute chat. Even though my optimism had long since eroded, I couldn’t help but think that things were fortuitously arranged: The writer who had the job for which I was interviewing was from Kansas City. There would be some outdoor coverage involved and, hey, I wrote for an outdoor sports magazine. The sports editor wasn’t turned off by my philosophy degree because he was an English major and hailed the value of a liberal arts education. He said that the piece about the player-turned-assistant was one of the better things he had read from any applicant. I got an email a few days later saying that I was a finalist – a finalist!!! – for the job. I hadn’t bought that Chinese plane ticket yet, and it looked like I might not have to.

The final step was to interview one of the sports writers over the phone and write a story about him on a two-hour deadline. Having reread it a million times, I have no regrets about what I wrote. I researched the person who I was going to interview, read his bio on the paper’s Web site, peeked at his Facebook page and had an angle before the interview even started. I pursued that angle with my questions and churned out a totally serviceable story for the two hours which I was given.

A week later, that Pocatello area code popped up on my phone. They were going in a different direction, they said, which meant that I was going in a different direction, too: China.

(Dastardly, salt-in-the-wound footnotes: The writer whose job I thought I’d get in Pocatello was later hired by the Star to cover the Kansas State University beat. Also, the Star also recently promoted a former Journal-World writer as a lead columnist. Kill me.)

Crossed Over, VI

Typically, it’s high school when kids are militant about getting in great shape and working on their jump shot, and by the time they get to college it’s some combination of beer, girls and 10-15 pounds.
Not me.

OK, so that’s why I’m in China, and why I’m doing this blog: I’m a journalist by nature, but not by trade, and maintaining a basketball-based blog while teaching English is a way for me to keep my sanity, keep my pen sharp and keep my dreams of one day becoming a writer – you know, one that gets paid – alive. But what makes me uniquely qualified in terms of basketball?

The answer lies on the slopes of the Colorado Rockies. Every winter, people from around the globe descend upon Colorado to ski. With the state’s bounty of powder-covered venues, it’s no stretch to say that it is home to some of world’s best skiing. Spend enough time on a Colorado ski slope, and you’ll hear the guttural sounds of Western Europe, the varying tones of the Far East and the endearing twang of the American South. Word’s out on Colorado.

While people the world over appreciate Colorado’s mountains, it’s nothing compared to the way Coloradoans themselves relish them. They flock to the slopes on their days off. Roof-top ski rack are ubiquitous. Weather reports are tailored to skiers – in cities along the Front Range, for instance, meteorologists tell you not only what to expect in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs, but also what kind of conditions you’ll see at Breckenridge, Vail and Copper.

Nowhere is the Colorado ski-and-snowboard culture stronger than at the state’s numerous universities. From Colorado State up in Fort Collins right on down through Boulder and the various schools in Denver, college students in Colorado find themselves a few hours – or less – from the epic resorts of the Rockies. Not a few of those students chose to attend college in Colorado for the very purpose of recreating their childhood spring breaks for four whole years. (Or, because the ski-school combo doesn’t always mesh, five years.) I saw it first-hand. Students would tailor their schedules to secure weekdays off, overloading, say, on Tuesday and Thursday but freeing up the less-crowded Wednesday to scurry off to the slopes. Now, kids may finagle days off at universities all over the country, but there are few places with the day-off options of Colorado.

I had no intention of becoming such a student, yet before long I was infected by the lifestyle. The uni’s Colorado address allowed for the purchase of resident-only ski passes – you pay a one-time fee of $350 and have nearly unfettered access to the slopes. Having that pass in hand, and having those mountains a short ride away, was like letting an art major loose inside the Louvre.

During my freshman year, my friends and I started skipping class to go to the mountains. Or, if we were feeling studious, we’d pile into a car the moment our late-morning lectures let out – knowing we wouldn’t get on a lift until 2:00 – just to ski until the joint closed down at 4:00. We’d get giddy when we looked westward at the mountains and see ominous-looking clouds; they meant snow. I remember during a Spanish class, we had a perfect view of the mountains out the window. They were shrouded with dark grey clouds. In the middle of class, a student said to no one in particular, “Man, I bet the mountains are getting shit on right now. Sweet!” No one paid him any matter because that’s just kind of how it was: people were thinking about fresh powder during Spanish class. Sure, not everybody was a ski nut. Some people didn’t care at all. But there was a strong contingent of students at my college – and at colleges across Colorado – who got off on this stuff. I was one of those students.

I was the same way during my sophomore year. I had visited each of those five mountains vigorously as a freshman, but it didn’t get old. For a second consecutive year, I skied at least once a week, often more than that. For me, and for many of my friends, it was just what you did. I don’t know if I would have qualified as ski bum those first couple years at school, but I was definitely snowboarding my ass off. And loving it.


Along with snowboarding, my first few years of college saw a marked increase in how much I played basketball. Maybe I had a lot of time on my hands, or maybe I just had to be utterly exhausted to sleep through my freshman roommate’s prodigious snoring. But I was pretty active at that point in my life. Indeed, basketball didn’t take a backseat to snowboarding. There was room carved out for both.

Playing a bunch of ball was much less of a change in the status quo than all the mountain-hopping. I’ve been a basketball fanatic as long as I can remember. My older brother and I had a hoop in the driveway by the time we were old enough to heave a ball ten feet in the air; I played organized basketball as soon as I could; I used to cry whenever the Kansas Jayhawks got knocked out of the NCAA Tournament; I would play at night, in the freezing cold, because even if I couldn’t feel my hands, there was still nothing I’d rather be doing.

Though I’d played since I was a tyke, my affinity for basketball – and my quest to get better – for some reason intensified in college. Typically, it’s high school when kids are militant about getting in great shape and working on their jump shot, and by the time they get to college it’s some combination of beer, girls and 10-15 pounds. Not me, though. After I finished my homework I’d head over to this on-campus dome/basketball court and shoot, by myself, for hours. Sometimes the doors to the dome were locked, but if you yanked just right, you could rip them open anyway.

There were multiple times when campus security, which always traveled in twos, would quizzically peer inside to see me shooting jump shots by myself. They’d unlock the doors, waltz over to me and, with confusion written on their faces, ask me how I got in. “There,” I’d say, sweating and pointing to the locked set of double-doors. “They were open.” After this happened a few times, the security personnel got suspicious, but I was always really nice to them and would leave without a fight. I was so nice, in fact, that one time they let me stay even though it was their asses if something happened. “Please,” I said pleadingly. “I had a root canal earlier today” – which was true – “ and I’m just trying to blow some steam before I go home.” Yeah, I was playing basketball a few hours removed from a root canal.

My silly affection for basketball had strengthened with age. I’d give myself assignments, like learning how to shoot an off-the-dribble turnaround jump shot, or how to shoot a baseline fadeaway, or how to shoot a pull-up three-pointer. These are things I should have been doing in high school, you know, when I was on a team. My skill set and my social life had somewhat of an inverse relationship. I’d have friends who were getting high and drinking beers on some beautiful April afternoon, and I was shooting baskets by myself inside a crummy gym, seeing if I could drive baseline, jump to shoot, release and land out of bounds. I was a gym rat who didn’t really play basketball.

One afternoon, during the winter of my sophomore year, I was doing the old shoot-by-myself-until-I’m-exhausted routine. This time, though, I was in the university’s main gym – not the neighboring dome – where the coaches’ offices are located. The offices are upstairs, encasing the court and bleachers below. One of the assistants was up there watching film or something, and he shouted at me to come up to his office. I walked in. He told me to sit down. I did, not knowing what was going on.

He asked me my name, and then told me that he wanted me to walk on to the basketball team. (A walk-on, if you’re unfamiliar with college athletics, is a player who is on the team but not on scholarship, generally buried at the end of the bench.) He said that he’d seen me shoot a ton and that he had a spot for me on the squad. I’d get a jersey, he assured me, and travel with the team and be an actual player – not some token marksman who did drills and chores at practice.

I was flattered, to be sure, but I didn’t really want to play. The coach was a bit of a dictator. I had a job. I wanted to kill in the classroom. I was going to study abroad the next fall, and even if I got on the court and had a good end-of-season run, there seemed little chance to pick up steam and, say, earn a scholarship. Plus, I had a few habits that wouldn’t have jelled too well with collegiate athletics. (Come on, I had some social life).

So I told the coach thanks but no thanks and, for the remainder of my sophomore year, went back to doing what I had been doing: breaking into the dome late at night, treating the school’s intramural league like the NBA, obsessing, basically, about basketball.


Something strange happened my junior year: when it came time to buy that ski pass, I just didn’t care. My friends told me I was crazy, and I felt crazy. But when I scoured my psyche for that snowboarding fanatic – that kid who had spent much of the last two winters learning the language of powder and tree runs and carving and all the rest of it – well, he was gone. I couldn’t be bothered. I went snowboarding a few times, half expecting to be hit with a wave of remorse over not having bought a pass and a wave of excitement that, phew, I still had my senior year to board. But those sentiments never came. All the things that never bothered me about snowboarding – the lift lines, the cold, the drive – suddenly seemed excessively annoying. The part of me that was so enamored with snowboarding, and so gung-ho about living it up on the slopes, had apparently melted away.

This never happened with basketball. Not even close. I still played intramural ball with a dorky zest. I still broke into the dome when the main court was inaccessible. I still gave myself stupid challenges – after all, why couldn’t I shoot fadeaway a three-pointer? And it wasn’t just playing basketball that infatuated me. I was also writing about it and watching a borderline-unhealthy amount of it. Over my final two years of college, I covered basketball for the school paper and for the Colorado Daily, and I watched games habitually before I would go out, pre-gaming not with cards or drinking games, but with the NBA’s vaunted lineup on Friday and College GameNight on Saturday. While my love for basketball had existed for years, it wasn’t until college that it manifested itself so vehemently. And unlike my fling with snowboarding, this love was real. It was getting stronger with age.

I’m not recapping my basketball escapades as evidence of some on-court brilliance. Instead, I’ve laid out my basketball obsession to illustrate the lose screw that I have for the game. Think: I lived within two hours of ski slopes that lure people from all over the world. I had the option of going skiing any time I wanted. But I was burned out on the whole thing after two years. Meanwhile, after about 20 years of being obsessed with basketball, the intensity with which I indulged in the game – playing it, watching it, writing about it, studying it – had only increased. By the time I was a junior, after two years of tearing up the slopes, I was again a one-trick pony. I couldn’t conceive of a Saturday during my freshman year that consisted of anything but waking up early and snowboarding until I could barely walk. It didn’t take long, however, until I was opting for that rickety old dome over world-class ski slopes.

How many people do you know who made a habit of breaking into gyms to play basketball by themselves? And how many people do you know who preferred that over easy access to Vail and Breck and Keystone? And how many people do you know who are going to spend the spring and summer of 2010 playing basketball with locals in China, recapping the events on a blog?