A bunch of months ago I served as a groomsman in my sister-in-law’s wedding.
It was good stuff—lovely people, family, excellent food, killer band—and I walked away feeling … well … hmmm. How did I feel? Happy, certainly. Stuffed? Without a doubt. Hung over? A tad. But mainly exhausted. The whole thing was tiring, and that night I collapsed into bed and didn’t wake for another 12 hours.
The point: While weddings are terrific, they can also beat the crap out of a person.
Enter: Jen Glantz.
Today’s 296th Quaz Q&A is the world’s best (and first) professional bridesmaid, which means she specializes in making a woman’s wedding go as smoothly as possible. If you’re thinking, “Um, what the hell qualifies one to become a professional bridesmaid,” the answer is, among other things, compassion, devotion, empathy … and the experience of appearing in a shitload of wedding parties. That’s Jen’s calling card, and along with reading about her adventures in the Quaz, and on her website, you can purchase her debut book, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire). (PS: Because it’s Valentine’s Day, check out her excellent blogpost on surviving the day).
Today, Jen breaks down wedding highs and lows, the best songs to play at an event and how she’s been able to cope with the breakup of Jordan Sparks and Jason Derulo.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Jen, I’m gonna start with a question sorta unrelated to anything. I just watched a very touching video of you seeing your book for the first time. You take the viewer through the experience—envelope on your lap, ripping it open, etc. Euphoria, giddiness, etc. But I wonder—and this isn’t a criticism, but a serious question—why would you share such a personal, individual moment? It just seems like nowadays we feel compelled to share everything with everyone—and I’m probably as guilty as the next guy. Why do you think that is? Is it ego? Is it PR? Is it a mental adjustment to social media? Simply a need to connect?
JEN GLANTZ: I’m glad you asked. I have been waiting for the moment when I’d be able to hold a book with my name on it since I was probably 6. I was obsessed with going to the library, reading books, and writing my own mini-stories in the margins. At a very early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was the only thing I got excited about doing. When I was forced to play organized sports, like softball and basketball, the coaches would have to rip a book out of my hand and pep-talk me onto the field or the court. I share a lot on the internet, mostly funny stories and my most embarrassing mistakes, but this was the first time I shared such raw emotions, in a video, for complete strangers to watch. I did it as a way of explaining my story, my struggles, in hopes of inspiring others to never give up, even when it seems easier to just do that.
J.P.:You have a business, Bridesmaid for Hire, that seems really funky, really cool—and a little perplexing. So, as you write, “weddings can be stressful and sometimes it takes an outside perspective to provide decisiveness, problem solving and support in chaotic situations. I’m not here to replace your BFF’s, I’m here to make your wedding adventure stress free.” Jen, isn’t that what the bridesmaids are actually for? Isn’t that what they do?
J.G.: If you’re lucky—yes. But not everyone has friends who they can rely on or even friends who know what to do for you on your wedding day. Relationships are complicated and here you are, about to get married, asking your closest friends to stand by your side, spend a lot of money, and do a lot of tasks they may not have time or energy to do, and expecting it to go flawlessly. That’s mistake number one.
J.P.:Along those lines, can you explain—in as much detail as possible—why so many brides get so nutjob insane when it comes to the wedding? My wife was terrific—chill, calm, relaxed. So when I see women freaking out, yelling, snapping … I’m a bit perplexed. I mean, it’s just an event, no? And, along those lines, do you think people tend to build weddings up too much?
J.G.: Weddings have gotten out of control. A lot of that has to do with people trying to maintain traditions from years ago that have no meaning anymore and are heavy on their wallets. You don’t have to wear a white dress, walk down an aisle, even toss a bouquet. You do that because that’s what everyone else has done before you. I also blame this on social media. We see what everyone in the world is doing for their wedding and we want bigger, better, more like-worthy on Instagram. Because of that, people go bonkers when planning their wedding. They are throwing themselves the most expensive party of their lifetime. That’s a headache Advil can’t cure and your BFF’s don’t want to hear about on repeat.
J.P.:Serious question—do most people want to be in weddings? Because, if I’m being honest, I cringe when asked. It means time, it means money, it means events I don’t really want to attend. I know I sound like the world’s biggest dick … but does that make me unique?
J.G.: I think they do, the first time. But after the second, third, fifteenth time, I think most people would prefer to be a guest. Being a part of the wedding party is expensive, takes a ton of time, and can be a very stressful process. Being a wedding guest, can still be expensive, but at least nobody will bother you when you spend 95% of the wedding at the open bar.
J.P.:Gimme the craziest story from your career.
J.G.: Five minutes before the wedding is supposed to begin, the bride pulls me into an empty room, locks the door, and says: I hate the groom. I don’t want to get married. Meanwhile, she had 150 guests sitting in chairs waiting for her to take her first steps down the aisle.
J.P.: In December you wrote a great blog post on wedding toasts—and what to do and not to do. What’s the absolute, 100-percent awful disaster thing one can do while giving a toast? Like, if you were saying to someone, “Here’s exactly what your speech should not do …” what would you include?
J.G.: Use inside jokes. Remember, you are reading the speech in front of a group of people, not just one on one with the bride. If even 1/3 of your speech are memories and laugh out loud moments that will only have you and the bride laughing – you need to reconsider what you’re saying to include the whole audience.
J.P.:How should one handle the overly intrusive parent when it comes to the wedding? You know who I mean—1,000 opinions a second, wants it her way (and she’s paying), etc …
J.G.: You can fight the “It’s my wedding and I’ll do what I want” fight – but then the funds for the wedding should come from your pockets – and your fiance’s too. If you’re letting a parent pay for the wedding, they’ll feel like they can jump on the decision making bandwagon and then the headaches will occur.
J.P.:Someone hires you. You know—100% know—this person should not be getting married. The guy is an abusive dick. Or she’s clearly immature. Or … whatever. How do you handle it? Would you ever say anything? Have you ever said anything?
J.G.: It’s not my place to question the love between two people – unless i’m asked. In that case, yes I will be honest. I’m no good at keeping my mouth shut.
J.P.:How did this happen for you? What I mean is, what’s your path—birth to now, as far as this career and this movement? Did you have a lightbulb moment?
J.G.: I always wanted to be a writer. I majored in English. Worked for a sorority as a consultant my first year out of college (plot twist #1), then I worked for a magazine as an assistant, followed by a job in PR, and then a job as a tech start-up copywriter. During this time, all of my friends got engaged. Not exaggerating. All of them. I was a bridesmaid more than half a dozen times when one night in particular, two of my “distant” friends asked me to be a bridesmaid. I went home and told my roommate and she said to me, “You’ve become a professional bridesmaid.” That’s when It hit me – maybe I could do this for complete strangers. Maybe I could be a bridesmaid for hire.
J.P.:You specialize in helping people chill. I’m asking this seriously—right now many of us are losing our shit over Donald Trump and all the stuff he’s about to fuck up. How should we chill? Should we?
J.G.: We have to stop taking every single thing so seriously. Really, we’re upping our blood pressure far too much. Don’t believe everything you read. Don’t spend every single second of the day reading your Facebook newsfeed either. Live your life because every second you’re not and you’re losing your cool, you’re wasting your own precious time.
• Awkward, but will you marry me?: Role reversal! Will you marry me?
• One question you would ask Will Smith were he here right now?: Do you believe in aliens?
• Tell me about the coolest wedding you’ve ever attended: They had a french fry bar—which may seem underwhelming, but what else would you want to eat at 11:30pm, after a couple of drinks, and too much dancing, than unlimited french fries? I guess pizza would have been a great option, too.
• Celine Dion calls. She wants to cast you in her new made-for-TV film: Celine Dion and the Dragon of Fire. You’ll be paid $5 million to play the dragon, but you have to live in Celine’s guest bedroom, wake every morning at 4 to bake her dog cookies and you have to wear the same T-shirt for the entire six months of shooting, one that reads, WESLEY WALKER IS MY SAVIOR. You in?: I’ve always wanted to play the dragon, so yes, of course I am in!
• Three memories from your first date: 1. We were supposed to meet at the movie theatre to see the movie “50 First Dates”; 2. We both got the location wrong and ended up at different movie theaters; 3. We called the whole date off.
• Are you comfortable with death as an ending? Why or why not?: We can hardly choose how or when our story ends. We can just write our living hearts out during the beginning and the middle—which is to say live like a freaking superhero and try to have little regrets.
Sometimes it feels as if we focus our attentions upon the wrong people.
We talk about Donald Trump and Tom Brady and Lady Gaga. We talk about Kim Kardashian and the Real Housewives and whoever’s getting a rose on The Bachelor. We talk about famous people and infamous people and infamously famous people. But when, if you think about it, do we talk about the truly good people?
Regina Jackson, today’s magical 295th Quaz Q&A, is truly good. As president of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, she devotes her life to empowering the young people of Oakland to seek out service-oriented careers. Which is a task that, truly, can’t be simplified into a couple of words. Regina is all about character building, confidence building, understanding (and teaching) what it takes to rise above. Her accomplishments are infinite, her energy boundless, her devotion to decency inspiring.
She’s no Trump or Gaga.
She’s 100 million times better.
Regina Jackson, you are today’s Quaz.
JEFF PEARLMAN:You are the president of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, which—to be brief—empowers thousands of youth to seek and succeed in service-oriented careers. But that’s a pretty limited description. So I ask, Regina, what are you trying to do?
REGINA JACKSON: We are trying to increase the odds of success for our youth by teaching them to dream, exposing them to a vision of something bigger than they have imagined, training them and putting them in positions to succeed (character-based leadership; work-based learning) and identifying a network of other students with whom they can achieve together with. We increase the odds through social and emotional support, giving them a strong platform of compassion and courtesy. EOYDC’s echo system is a like a bubble which protects them as they hone skills and work to achieve their own brand of success which includes a strong support for character, education, arts, wellness and career development.
J.P.: I recently watched a pretty riveting interview with Marshawn Lynch, where he discussed—with mixed emotions—the development of Oakland. At one point, while he was speaking, a yuppie-looking guy rode past on a Hoverboard, and you could hear Lynch sigh audibly. I totally get it—because too often “gentrification” is a synonym for “build overpriced housing and force everyone who can’t afford it out.” So how do you feel about Oakland’s growth, development? Thrilled, or cringing? Or both?
R.J.: The pain of our prosperity is choking the life out of our most vulnerable population. Families who have been her forever are having to leave their homes because the value of property is simply too high. There is no priority for helping the little guy, so much of the attraction of Oakland is lost on our success/ transition. The beauty of Oakland is its art galleries, small businesses and hometown feel. Unfortunately, these unique spots are packing up one by one because they cannot afford to stay and there are no supports for them to stay. We are losing what is so special about Oakland.
J.P.:Can you tell me about Killer Corridor? The name? The place? And how does one combat a location with such a moniker?
R.J.: The Killer Corridor is an area where the highest rate of homicide is centered. It is located in deep East Oakland and EOYDC is smack dab in the middle of this area. We combat primarily with prevention-based programs. Much of the killing is kind of Hatfield and McCoy. Someone from one camp kills another and then there is payback and so on. We must teach children that they have something to live for. That way they are not so willing to just “smoke” someone.
J.P.:What’s the greatest success story from your career in public service?
R.J.: The success stories keep coming, but I guess the greatest thus far is Lanikque. She was the eldest of her siblings. When she graduated from high school she was the first in her entire family—ahead of Mom, etc. She had little exposure during high school; never having slept away from home, gone to the mountains, college campuses. We trained, exposed, encouraged her. She applied for 107 scholarships and received 37. She wanted to be a pediatrician. She attended UC-Berkeley and completed on time.
We encouraged her to study abroad. During that study she decided to get a PhD in social welfare instead. She wanted to change the system that supports children and families—especially those with mental illness. She was accepted to all the schools she applied to. She left the University of Wisconsin after two years to join the Obama Administration in the Office of Children and Families. She was named to the President Political Appointee Leadership Program. She has now returned to her PhD program and will finish in two years. She is 27-years old.
J.P.:What’s the greatest tragedy from your career in public service?
R.J.: There are many. But I think the greatest tragedy is the failure of our public education system to truly educate. Based upon our students’ academic achievement or lack thereof (we try to teach technology and then realize that our kids don’t know the alphabet), we totally shifted programming to lift education as a support program after school. We partner with schools and families to teach character, leadership and encourage literacy, math, technology, etc, We provide support, homework assistance, literacy in our after-school leadership program. We are piloting a new literacy and social and emotional learning program for our middle school students because of their inability to get through high school without strong skills (there is also a spike in middle school dropout and suicide rates). We have intensive support for our pathway-to-college students, which includes college tours, scholarship and college mentoring support. We have a 100 percent college admission rate with an 86 percent graduation rate within four years. We have had GED or high school equivalency programing from the beginning—the dropout rate has been consistently high in the neighborhoods we serve. Approximately 50 percent of our GED graduates go on to junior college and the other half go straight to the workforce.
J.P.:A mutual friend wrote this about you: “She could totally be working at the White House. Instead she works on a strip called ‘Killer Corridor’ saving kids.” So, Regina, why do this? The money can’t be great. There’s minimal fame, ego boost, etc. So … why?
R.J.: I appreciate the compliment. I guess its because I come from a service-oriented family. Dad created the first race relations program for the United States Armed Forces. Mom was a social worker and worked in prisons before going to law school. She recently retired as a deputy city attorney.
My passion is to help youth succeed. I found my purpose early in my career. I had previously worked in areas where what you did did not show impact. Now I see impact every day. I see how what i do impacts families in a positive way. There is no greater feeling than pursuing your passion. No amount of money can replace that ” feel good.” I am affirmed through giving, by my kids and families.
J.P.:One often hears politicians say, in some form, “Everyone in America has a fair shot”—then defend the end of Affirmative Action, of social programs, etc. You once said, ““I’ve had kids who were pulled out of their homes [by child protective services] and put in temporary shelters. They are being raised by grandmothers and aunties, by alcoholics and guardians with significant challenges, economic and otherwise. These are children who, by and large, haven’t done anything wrong.” So how do we balance these two views? Does America give everyone a shot? Is that total nonsense?
R.J.: Unfortunately, America does not give everyone a fair shot. It is easier now (seeing the way that President Obama’s power was compromised) to see that most systems are not designed to support the least of these/have nots. There are different rules for different people and rarely does anyone look out for the little guy. I work hard for the underdog because the odds are stacked against them, but when given a real chance for success they often achieve in extraordinary ways. They understand the importance of emotional intelligence and compassion—because they have needed it so much in their lives. When i think about our Hiset students (high school equivalency; the program is called Education Empowerment), they struggle to return to a system that failed them. They have so many challenges and they knock them down one by one. When they finally participate in our cap and gown ceremony, they are so proud of themselves for having accomplished often without family support. They begin to be fearless about other challenges and it is the most empowering thing to watch. A fighter spirit!
J.P.:I’m going to throw a very random one your way. Yesterday I attended the funeral of my wife’s aunt, and now I can’t stop picturing her in a coffin beneath the earth. And I am terrified—absolutely terrified—of death; of eternal nothingness; of not existing. How do you feel about it? About the inevitability?
R.J.: I have buried more children than I care to count. After a while I stopped going to funerals—they depleted me so that I felt I had to reserve and preserve energy for those who were among the living. I know that there is a circle of life. I don’t think about death because I am too busy living my best life. I prefer to be in the now. I have a cup-half-full type of perspective—always hopeful. I am Catholic so we believe in the afterlife. But I still believe that I should live my legacy
J.P.:How are you able to keep going after the death of a child?
R.J.: It stops you in your tracks. You must take time to mourn, but because our kids see far too much death and lose too many friends, I force myself to be in a positive space. I push them past depression and grief with positive thoughts of their friends and the strength of their memories. I tell them that now they must succeed for the both of them. Through counseling, journaling and creating positive circles of support you hope to encourage people to want to live.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH REGINA JACKSON:
• Five reasons one should make Oakland his/her next vacation destination?: 1. Fantastic sunsets; 2. Great food; 3. Kind people; 4. Outstanding places of interest; 5. Powerful History
• Celine Dion calls. She wants to donate money to the cause. She’ll give $10 million, but you have to change your name to Morris Chestnut and get a tattoo of Gary Coleman across your forehead. You in?: Absolutely not.
• Five greatest singers of your lifetime?: Phyllis Hyman, Minnie Riperton, Michael Jackson, Regina Belle, Stevie Wonder.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ohio State University, Mario Lemieux, Kim Fields, Fiddler on the Roof, San Diego Zoo, Meg Ryan, church on Sunday, Fox News, Kyrie Irving, Little Shop of Horrors: San Diego Zoo, church on Sunday, Fiddler on the Roof, Ohio State University, Kim Fields, Meg Ryan, Mario Lemieux, Kyrie Irving, Little Shop of Horrors, Fox News.
• What’s your hidden talent?: I sing.
• One question you would ask Phil Donahue were he here right now?: Was never much of a talk show fan. Maybe, Why did you do “The men are cheaters” shows?
• In exactly 19 words, make a case for the music of Sheryl Crow: Her legacy is an ongoing storytelling version of lovely country music with depth, insight, compassion, warmth, love and soul.
• This is a song I absolutely love. Wondering what you think: I am not a big fan of rap. I think that Tupac was prophetic and poetic. I do like the Elton John mix. The song is definitely creative.
• Why didn’t you take a more of a public stance back when the Yankees acquired Ike Davis to play first base?: Huh?
• Who was your favorite Eight is Enough kid? Why?:Willie Aames. He was my age at the time. Don’t remember much of the storylines.
There’s obviously debate to be had over stuff like this, but for my money Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle is America’s best sports columnist.
I want to be clear. I’m not saying she’s America’s best female sports columnist. Or America’s best daily newspaper columnist. Or America’s best Bay Area-based sports columnist. Nope. If I needed a column written, and it had to be top-shelf, I’d turn first to Ann.
Why? Because she’s fearless. Because she’s fast. Because she’s quick with a phrase and original with thoughts. I had the chance to read a ton of her work while researching and writing a Barry Bonds biography, and I always re-folded the paper feeling smarter and better informed (as well as a bit jealous of her talent). Having been raised in Mill Valley, she’s the rare sports columnist able to write about the teams she grew up watching and rooting for. That, without questions, adds a level of depth and understanding.
Anyhow, Ann Killion is here today as the magical 294th Quaz Q&A, which means a huge helping of San Francisco sports, as well as an explanation of what women often face to make it in the biz.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Ann, I’m gonna start with something I like asking people who’ve worked in sports media in the Bay Area. Namely, how would you describe your experiences with Barry Bonds? Did you feel like you had him figured out? Understood? Why do you think he was so moody and ornery? Was it an act? A mechanism? Real?
ANN KILLION: I always found Bonds fascinating. People think everyone in our business hates him because he was such a dick to deal with. But I didn’t hate him—I loved observing him because he was really strange. Someone who was such a phenomenal athlete yet so awkward in social interactions. No, I don’t think I had him figured out. As you know there are a lot of layers to his personality: he grew up a prince, with a star baseball player for a father who was also an alcoholic. He liked having his own kids around but then seemed to mistreat them in the most public situations. I think he didn’t know how to have real friends or how to be a really good teammate, yet at times he could show flashes of humanity. Adrian Wojnarowski recently told me that the only time he saw Bonds be human was when he asked me how I was when I was pregnant. At times he could be almost charming. I think “mechanism” is a good word – his act or behavior was his way of getting through life as Barry Bonds. I think he thought he needed to act that way. I imagine it would be easier to just be a normal guy. But I don’t think Barry ever learned how to be a “normal guy.”
J.P.:You’re the rare person who gets to become a media star in an area where she/he grew up. And I wonder—how does that impact your work? Having the local background? Growing up with the sports scene?
A.K.: I don’t know about being a “media star” but I do know that being a native, growing up with these teams, informs everything I do. I know their history and the arc of their storylines, so I know when owners are full of B.S. and when teams don’t reflect the community. The Bay Area is an interesting place. We don’t have much time for teams that are incompetent. While fans’ loyalty runs deep, they don’t suffer fools gladly.
With John Reid.
J.P.:We all heard so much about Colin Kaepernick this past year, yet few of us have ever dealt with him. So, Ann, who is this guy? I don’t mean biographically—I mean, is he a deep thinker? A leader? Was the whole kneeling thing an intentional movement? An accidental happenstance? Is he admirable? Deplorable? Do you like him?
A.K.: Kap is an interesting guy. When I first met him, he was at Nevada, very shy but smart and well-spoken. After he was drafted I spent an hour with him during the NFL lockout and he was the same way. Then, when he became the starter, he totally changed and was rude and a total jerk. He was channeling Harbaugh’s way of behaving and also I believe felt burned by things like the media looking into his adoption. He was not a leader at the time – in fact a lot of the team didn’t like him (there were some internal issues). But everyone evolves on their own schedule and I think he grew up. He felt burned by the organization, which leaked a lot of unflattering things about him. He realized he wasn’t doing himself any favors by alienating the media. And he got political. I support his right to protest, which was a very intentional act. However, he lost me when he said he didn’t vote, because there were so many things on the California ballot that were directly applicable to BLM issues. But I think he did get people talking, including inside his own locker room. At the end of the season, his teammates voted him the highest internal award a player can get, the Len Eshmont award, which is proof he didn’t divide the locker room. I don’t know if history will view him as a footnote or possibly as the start of a new phase for athlete activism.
J.P.:So I know you attended Tamalpais High, know you were the sports editor of the Tam News, know you went to UCLA and Columbia. But how and why did this happen to you? Was there a moment when you knew, “Yes, this is what I want to do!”? Was there a moment when you knew you were genuinely good at it?
A.K.: Well, it certainly wasn’t when I was in high school. I was the sports editor because no one else really wanted to do it. I went to UCLA thinking I would try to get into the film school, though I never applied. After graduation I worked in PR, and one of our clients sponsored a sporting event where I met a lot of sports journalists and they seemed a) cool and b) like they really, really loved their job. While I was at Columbia I decided to pursue sports writing, and ended up with an internship at the Los Angeles Times. It was probably during that time, in San Diego, that I said “Yes! This is what I want to do.” I covered Tony Gwynn, Larry Bowa yelled at me, some male reporters were really mean to me, but I loved the writing, the press box, the chance to be in a different place every day and tell interesting stories. Really, it’s one of the greatest careers you could have.
J.P.:In 2012 you co-authored Hope Solo’s autobiography. From afar I find her terribly unlikable. What am I missing? Or not missing? And what was that process like for you?
A.K.: No matter what you feel about her, nobody could deny that Hope is a fascinating, controversial person who is worthy of attention. That’s what attracted me to the project and as we worked together I really came to like her. I got exasperated by her at times, but I think she really has a good heart and has put up so many walls because of her difficult background (read the book!). That defensiveness comes across in her public demeanor, which people find off-putting. She’s very much an introvert and somewhat uncomfortable in the public eye. And if someone tells her to do something, she’ll likely do the opposite, which is why you don’t hear a lot of public backtracking or p.c. comments from her. She is strong and defiant and controversial and I love that women’s sports has room for someone like her and not just the girls you want to have as your BFF.
J.P.: I’m gonna take a question I was going to ask you, and then twist it. I was going to ask you something about being a female sports writer in 2017. But, instead, I’m going to ask you about asking you about being a female sportswriter. Because the subject comes up in EVERY interview I found with you. So, Ann, do you get sick of the question? Is it at all tiring sometimes being thought of as “a female sportswriter,” as opposed to, simply, “a sportswriter”?
A.K.: There are still very few of us in the business, so I understand why I get asked about my experience and I know that I have a responsibility to be a role model to other young women and to hold the door open for others to follow, so I don’t really mind being labeled a “Female sportswriter.” I’ve won awards, like California Sportswriter of the Year, and they’re not qualified by gender, so I like that. I try to keep it real though—for example, there has been a lot of focus on how we as female sportswriters get trolled on the internet. And while it’s true, I have good friends in the business who are black or Asian or Jewish and they get trolled too. I try not to look at everything through the female lens. But, like being a Bay Area native, it gives me a different perspective on things, and makes some issues more important to me.
J.P.:You have the ability to be absolutely blistering with your words. For example: “Trent Baalke confirmed that he is out as the 49ers’ general manager after seven years. The calendar said that Sunday was a fresh new year, but the atmosphere at Levi’s Stadium felt like the same old stale garbage.” And I wonder, Ann, what sort of awkwardness/discomfort does that lead to? For example, you’re going to run into Jed York 1,000 times. And he knows you find him incompetent and bumbling. So … how does that go? Will it be awkward/weird? Is it simply business, and all sides understand?
A.K.: It’s business. I’m not trying to be friends with the people I cover and I try to write the truth. York has run the 49ers into the ground in the past couple of years with some really insane decisions. I get yelled at sometimes by the people I cover and I’m sure a lot of them hate me, but I try to be fair. Again, I’ve watched the 49ers do business for a long, long time so my opinion is very informed. When you do something smart—like hiring Jim Harbaugh—I give you credit. When you do something dumb—like fire him without a better replacement and then keep impounding the mistake—I criticize. Al Davis used to get mad at me all the time, though we could have a conversation after. I ran into Jed the other day at an event and we were cordial (and I actually gave him credit in print for financially supporting the place we were—the opening of the San Jose State Institute on Sport and Social Change).
J.P.:What’s your basic process? When do you decide what you’re going to write? How does it come to you? Are you a verbal mumbler? Do you go through 1,000 ledes? Do you love most of what you write? Hate most of what you write?
A.K.: Argh. The process. Are any of us comfortable with it? I’m a daily (4xaweek) columnist so I don’t have a lot of chin-stroking time. I react to the days’ news and try to think ahead for a day that’s likely not going to be busy with news. In our market, with seven pro teams and major college programs there’s always something happening, so I don’t get a lot of time to ponder the bigger vision, though I do like to keep working on a feature or big-issue project. No, I do not go through 1,000 ledes. I am a very fast writer. I usually go with my first instinct unless I get a few paragraphs in and realize I just wrote my lede. I am not someone who hates what I writes (though I would hate to read it aloud, which bums out my mother who has lost a lot of her eyesight). Sometimes I do and am loathe to reread it. But I am very honest in my writing and with my opinion so I’m usually very comfortable going back and reading what I wrote. I don’t always love it but I usually agree with my opinion. And when I’ve been wrong, I admit it.
J.P.:I feel like we all have a money story from the business. I mean, that experience that makes a good party tale for the next 30 years. Mine is probably John Rocker. Tell us yours, Ann …
A.K.: Oh, mine is probably when Charles Haley harassed me in the locker room. I was new on the 49ers beat and they were two-time defending Super Bowl champions and Haley, who had held out of training camp, saw me as a new victim. He followed me around the locker room, without any clothes on, basically masturbating behind my back and saying, “Is this why you’re here.” I tried to do my job but basically went outside so I wouldn’t cry in front of the other players. Keena Turner came out and was nice to me. There was only a PR intern in the locker room and he didn’t do anything. That happened to be the same week that Lisa Olson got harassed in New England. Two different outcomes. That made headline news, I basically went under cover. George Seifert reportedly was livid at Haley and asked him to apologize and so the next time I saw him, he came up and apologized and shook my hand and that was kind of the end of it. I had a decent relationship with him after that. As you know, he was pretty crazy and hassled everyone—reporters, teammates, coaches. The other thing I remember about that day was that I was a newlywed and I went home and took a pregnancy test and it was positive so I always blamed hormones for my inability to control my tears. Now, after all these years in the business, I would be way more vocal and angry about such treatment but I was just a kid.
J.P.:This is sorta random, but I just showed my kids the film “Moneyball”—and, Ann, I just can’t enjoy it. Like you, I was around the A’s a lot back then. And the non-mentions of, oh, THREE phenomenal aces, two MVP candidates (Tejada and Chavez), one of baseball’s top closers (Billy Koch). It just feels really contrived and simple. So what do you think of the film? And of the whole Moneyball phenomenon?
A.K.: I loved that movie. It was totally phony to what I witnessed with the A’s but I thought it was a good baseball movie and pretty interesting and I thought it was one of Brad Pitt’s best performances. Of course, I objected to the distortion of reality and particularly the way Art Howe was portrayed—one of the nicest men I’ve ever dealt with. I have always thought the Moneyball phenomenon was overrated. Yes analytics are a useful tool, but they’re just one tool. It was fascinating to watch the way more old-school Giants (who do use analytics) win three world titles, basically doing it the old-fashioned way, while the A’s have never had sustained success.
Unless you’ve spent the past 2 1/2 decades avoiding television and cinema at all costs, it’s all but impossible to say Nick Turturro has never crossed your ocular path.
I could list every project the native New Yorker has worked on, but that would take up about 17 pages. So I’ll just list a few: “NYPD Blue,” “Jungle Fever,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Touched by an Angel,” “Malcolm X,” “Freefall: Flight 174,” “The Longest Yard.” Even if you don’t recognize Nick by name, you’d certainly know his voice, his laugh, his face, his mannerisms (you’d also know his brother, John Turturro).
Anyhow, today Nick joins the Quaz ranks by answering myriad questions about Hollywood, Spike, stewardess wives and the 986,543 Yankee games he’s somehow attended.
Nick Turturro, fuck the Oscars. You’re Quaz No. 293.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Nick, you seem like a guy who gets quirky and weird, which A. Makes you a perfect Quaz; B. Allows me to lead with this question: In 2000 you played Detective Tony Nenonen in the straight-to-video film, “Hellraiser: Inferno.” And I want to ask two things about this: A. Having been in many truly great films and TV shows, do you approach something like “Hellraiser: Inferno” with the same intensity, determination, doggedness as, say, “Mo’ Better Blues” or “Malcom X”? And, B. does a film going straight to video hurt? Sting? Or not particularly matter?
NICK TURTURRO: As far playing a role like Tony Nenonen in “Helllraiser,” I approached it with my best effort. But I would be lying if I told you that it has the same juice as other movies I did. For example, films like “Jungle Fever” or the independent gem “Federal Hill” or early “NYPD Blue,” which was a game-changer, I mean, I try to never phone it in, because you never know who’s watching. I mean, it’s who you’re working with—the script, the director or maybe an actor you have great chemistry with. I can’t explain it fully. Sometimes you can have something special with someone, sort of like I had with David Caruso.
J.P.:Spike Lee is my all-time favorite, which—by extension and practice—makes you one of my all-time favorites. So how did your relationship with Spike begin? What is he like to work for? What do you think he sees and grasps and understands that many in the business do not?
N.T.: Well, Spike Lee gave me my chance in showbiz and jump started the whole dream for me. He had a really good idea for raw talent and encouraged a lot young talented actors—like Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, Sam Jackson—to pursue this. I think what he saw in people was the passion of young performers. He was very quick to encourage you and to let you improvise. He gave you time to rehearse and even let you watch dailies—which was very exciting and unheard-of in the business. I was discovered by him to do voice-overs for “Do the Right Thing”—he made me scream racist comments for, like, two or three hours and the next thing I know he was so impressed with my energy that he hired to be in “Mo Better Blues” with my brother when I was still a doorman at the St. Moritz, a New York City hotel on Park Avenue. It was a very exciting time.
Nick, right, with John in “Mo Better Blues.”
J.P.:You’re like a Manning, only in acting. Your brother John has had this amazing career, you’ve had this amazing career, your brother Ralph is an actor your cousin Aida is an actress. How did this happen? Is there any level of coincidence? Is it something in the blood?
N.T.: As far my family, my brother John was a great mentor and was also a very cerebral guy. I, on the other hand, was probably more of a natural at things. We came from a family that wasn’t in show business, but was filled with bigger-than-life characters. My father and my uncles were so naturally charismatic. Watching them was like watching love theater, and that was probably the best training I ever had. You had to see these people in action. They were intense, volatile, funny and, at times, scary. I mean, my father was like my best friend, but on the construction job site he was a fanatic.
Anyhow, you had these Turturros in action, and they were funny as hell. I think that spurred artistic creativity in all of us.
J.P.:You’re almost 54. For women, acting gigs become harder and harder to land with age. But what about men? Do you find it more difficult to navigate, manage, excel as you get older? Do parts at all dry up, or do they just change? And how does aging change your skill set as an actor?
N.T.: I would certainly agree that as you get older it becomes harder. The parts just become more limiting, and—unless you’ve had a career like John, where you’re so versatile–you get typecast. I think it’s even more difficult for women. I believe, in this business, you need to reinvent yourself at times. The business doesn’t always care about your body of work or what you’ve done. Because it’s all about being young and pretty. That aggravates me.
J.P.:I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but as a New Yorker I was sorta conflicted when a couple of 9.11-related movies came out in the years following the attack. You were in one of them, “World Trade Center,” in 2006. You’re also a New Yorker. Were there any conflicts? Emotions? Did you debate whether to do it? And were you OK with the finished product?
N.T.: The World Trade movie was a very weird experience for me as New Yorker. I had been down by the Jersey Shore when it happened and I was supposed to fly back that week. It was probably the most the surreal thing I ever felt—being there on my home soil.
That movie was a strange experience. My mother had passed away and Oliver Stone was a bit of a bully as a director. I just didn’t feel like it was authentic enough to me and I guess you can’t just recreate something that horrific. Which, again, I lived through. It was a really strange time. I remember driving cross country and some crazy lady in Walmart thought me and my wife’s cousin were terrorists.
J.P.: I consider “Jungle Fever” to be one of the great underrated films of the past 30 years. What do you remember from the experience? How did you land it? What was it like? Is it at all offputting or difficult playing a character who, in real life, you’d abhor?
N.T.: “Jungle Fever” was a role that really convinced me I could do this acting thing for a living. Why? Because I was so hungry and focused, even my brother John was impressed. When I look back at some of those days I actually wonder how I was able to do that, and question where, exactly, was my frame of mind. It’s fascinating—and really hard—to get that edge back.
J.P.:Totally random, weird and dated question, but you were a longtime cast member of the amazing, “NYPD Blue.” I remember when Jimmy Smits left and Rick Schroeder arrived, and it was this HUGE thing in public. Like, can the show last? Will it survive? Did you feel that, too? Was it an easy transition? As an actor, does it even matter? Like, do you just show up and work, co-workers be damned?
N.T.: When Jimmy Smits died on “NYPD Blue” it was very emotional because with TV series you spend years together and become like a family. You spend way more time together than when you work on a movie. And Jimmy was great quiet leader who I loved. He gave me some amazing advice. He was a very sweet man; a very giving man. I have nothing bad to say about Rock Schroeder. He was a great guy and we actually liked each other. But the dynamics for the show started to change. The show was, to me, never the same after Jimmy was done.
From the glorious NYPD days.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
N.T.: The greatest moment of my career was when I was nominated for an Emmy after the first season of “NYPD Blue.” I was so shocked and excited—my mother called and told me, “Nicholas, you were nominated for an Emmy!” I went to ger house in the Rosedale section of Queens, and Entertainment Tonight came on. It was amazing.
The lowest? I wrote a pilot for CBS that was called “Nicky Life.” This was after “NYPD Blue” and I co-wrote it. Vic Levin gave me a chance to write the pilot. They picked it up to shoot, but the process was so stressful and draining; it got watered down, and in the end they said it was “cute.” That’s a bad word. I wound up physically ill with pneumonia, and I also suffered major depression. That entire experience really spoke to the highs and lows of show business.
J.P.:Have you ever had to promote a film that you know, deep down, sucks? And what does that feel like? Is it just an accepted part of the gig?
N.T.: I mean, I won’t name them but I have been in few stinkers. I still worked hard on them, but they were disasters for various reasons. It usually comes down to material. No matter how hard you try to save the project, you can’t. It’s a helpless feeling. But, in the long run, you learn from the bas movies, just as you learn from the new. It’s incredibly hard to move a movie—even a bad one.
J.P.:You’re in the process of writing a book about your 40 years as a die-hard baseball fan. Where does that love come from? Why baseball? And who are you all-time favorite players, teams? Favorite moments?
N.T.: Baseball is a huge part of my life, and has been since 1973 when I stepped into the original Yankee Stadium when I was a member of the Boys Scout of America. Something just came over me, like a guy’s first make-out kiss. I can’t explain it—the smell, the aura. It was just incredible. I knew very little about the Yankees or the game, but I became a student of baseball. I just fell in love, and I don’t think people understand how baseball resonates with history. They don’t get the history, the romanticism, the drama. The moments aren’t temporary pieces of time. They last for life.
Obviously, I’m a true diehard Yankee fan. I’ve paid much more attention to the team than the average spectator. My investment had taken a lot out of me, but I’ve loved every minute.
As for great games … in 1976 I was at ALCS Game 5 between the Yankees and Royals. That’s when Chris Chambliss hit the home run. I was one of the fans who ran onto the field, ripped out the Yankee Stadium grass and planted it in my mother’s backyard. A year later I was at the stadium when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs against the Dodgers in the World Series, and in 1978 I attended the game when Graig Nettles robbed the Dodgers of, like, five runs. I was there for Bucky Dent’s home run at Fenway, and Game 4 in 1978 when Reggie stuck out his ass to block the ball. In 1981, I watched the Game 5 divisional game against Milwaukee, when Reggie and Oscar Gamble went deep off Moose Haas. And, of course, the 1996 World Series clincher vs. the Braves. It was surreal. They brought me into the locker room. Amazing.
I can go on and on. I was in Oakland for the Derek Jeter flip game …
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NICK TURTURRO:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Art Howe, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, gingerbread houses, Los Angeles Rams helmets, “The Drew Carey Show,” almond milk, Kansas City, Joe Pepitone, R. Kelly’s music, Christmas morning, the number 876:Joe Pepitone, Christmas morning, Rams helmets, Art Howe, Kansas City, Drew Carey, Mark Paul Gosselaar, almond milk, R. Kelly’s music, gingerbread houses, 876.
• You met your wife Lissa on a plane. What happened?: It was 1994, on a Continental Airlines flight from Newark to LA. She was really something to look at. I was taken by her immediately, and not just because she was a pretty flight attendance in first class. As the flight progressed she was serving me, and she was nice and classy in a very erotic way. And I noticed other males were giving her attention as the flight was nearing the end. I got up yo ho to the galley where the girls hung out and I introduced myself. I felt an immediate connection. I didn’t know where it would lead. She was going to give me a company number at first, but I convinced her to give me to number to her crash pad. We had a date on Memorial Day in 1994 when she told me she would be in LA. I took her to the Fox lot but it was closed. I got on with a pass and we sat on a bench in front of the old commissary. It felt very romantic, and I dropped her off like a gentleman and went to a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. I called to tell her I really liked her, and she said she really liked me, too. It was exciting for me—a different feeling that I’d ever had before.
• Ten all-time greatest sports uniforms?: New York Yankee pinstripes; Brooklyn Dodgers; New York Giants’ Polo Grounds uniforms; Oakland A’s swingin’ A’s unis; the Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 Roberto Clemente unis; the old-school 1973 New York Knicks uniforms; Lakers and Celtics; the old-school New York football Giants and the Joe Namath Jets; the Frank Tarkenton Viking uniforms; the Bruins, Rangers, Blackhawks—so many cool ones it’s impossible to name them all.
• One question you would ask Tommy Herr were he here right now?: Why did you play for the New York Mets?
• What’s the athletic scouting report on Nick Turturro?: Line drive hitter who hits the ball up the middle with occasional pop; good speed and knows how to take the extra base; good outfielder with a non arm reminiscent of the the great Roy White; a clutch smart hitter who knows how to work the count.
• What happens when we die?: I believe and hope there is something higher than us. Otherwise, what’s the point of this life?
• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay you $50 million to move to Las Vegas and work as her private acting coach for a year. The conditions: For 365 days she gets to call you “Shit Boy No. 28” and you have to have your left arm glued to a hunk of very large cheddar cheese. You in?: Fuck it! I am in, baby!
• What did your childhood home smell like?: The house smelled pretty good. We weren’t a smelly family and we made good food.
He placed sixth in the 20K at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
He’s openly gay.
He proposed to his boyfriend on the beach.
But, while all those things are riveting, here’s the kicker: Tom Bosworth once ate 22 Chicken McNuggets in a single sitting—and lived to tell about it. Why? You’ll have to read below. How? You’ll have to read below. When? You’ll have to read below.
Regardless, meet the Quaz with fire behind his shoes and processed meat in his stomach.
Tom Bosworth, you are Quaz No. 292 …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Tom, I ran track at the University of Delaware back in the day, and I’ve always been riveted by race walking. Specifically, how one becomes a race walker. I mean, you don’t hear many kids screaming, “Let’s walk! Really fast!” So how did this happen for you?
TOM BOSWORTH: When I was 11 I joined my local athletic’s club, where my sister tried race walking through a friend. So I tried it as well at the age of 12. It was just another athletic’s event to me at this age, which I think if more clubs included race walking this view would become more common. Most people forget that race walking is part of Athletics …
J.P.:During the Olympics you Tweeted, “52 days on the road … and still loving every second of it. I don’t want this experience to end, end!!” Wife and I talking about this at the time, so you’re the perfect guy to ask: When one is done with his/her Olympic events, does he leave the Village? Like, do most athletes hang around until the Games are over? Hang around a few days? Bolt ASAP? Does it feel anticlimactic after your event is completed? Or is it a chance to lather in the joy?
T.B.: Some people head home, due to competitions coming up, or family they want to get back to. Most stay in the village and enjoy the Olympic Games and take the time to relax. I did! I watched some sport, partied with friends and just soaked in the atmosphere. There’s nothing like the Olympics, after all.
J.P.:So while you were at the Olympics you asked your boyfriend to marry you on a beach in Rio. Questions: How long were you planning the proposal? How nervous were you? Did you have some doubt to whether he’d say yes?
T.B.: I planned it for well over a year, I’d been looking at finding the right ring for a long time, as he was very specific over what he wanted. I finally found the right ring and asked Tiffany’s in Heathrow to reserve the ring for me to collect after I flew down from altitude training in Font Romeu in France on my way to Rio. I wasn’t nervous until that very moment and I knew he would say yes as we spoke about moving our lives on together for a while.
J.P.:Last year an American basketball star, Elena Delle Donne, came out—and the news was greeted with an indifferent shrug. You came out publicly a year ago, and you expressed how nerve-wracking it was at the time. I’m wondering: How was the news received in England? Was it what you expected?
T.B.: Here it was a bigger deal than I expected, however, it still was totally positive. A few said that, “This isn’t news,” and I agree it shouldn’t be. However, for those few days it still was in the news. So it shows out sportsmen and women are still a new thing. However, with time I’d hope to see more and more athletes just living openly rather than having to come out.
J.P.:Maybe this is dumb, but are race walkers great runners? What I mean is … could you—if you devoted all your energies to it—run a really kick-ass mile? Could you run a 2:40 marathon? Is there a direct correlation between one’s walking speed and running speed?
T.B.: I think the marathon would be more my thing than the mile. We are incredibly fit athletes, however, the body is trained for race walking so the muscles would be different but the aerobic side of things would be fine. I’d like to run a few 5ks or 10ks in my off season just to see how fast I can go,—after all I can walk 5k in 18:54!
J.P.:You placed sixth in Rio—and I am fascinated by this. Like, on the one hand, you’re an Olympian! You placed sixth among the best of the best, on the biggest stage. That’s amazing. On the other hand, you didn’t medal. And I ask—does that matter? Is the Olympics about being there, more than placing? Were you thrilled? Disappointed? Both? Neither?
T.B.: Firstly, let’s never forget that being an Olympian is the pinnacle of sport. What people don’t realize is that I was ranked 37th. So many have said, “You must be disappointed with sixth.” I said, “Are you crazy? I set a new British 20k record and finished 31 places higher than expected!” In the UK we are used to winning medals but we need to travel along the journey to get there. I’ve done that and now at future world championships and Olympics I can be competing for medals as a favorite.”
J.P.:Right now things are super weird in America with the rise of our own nutjob, Donald Trump. You’re British, and you’re surrounded right now by the world’s community. How is this whole Trump thing playing elsewhere. Because—Jesus Christ—it’s terrifying.
T.B.: It seems to have become more of a joke for many watching this man conduct himself. Not a single person takes him seriously.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
T.B.: Greatest—sixth at the Olympics with a new British record. Lowest—missing out on London 2012. I needed to walk 1:24:30 over 20k and I walked 1:24:49 in Spain in June 2012. This has since become a turning point for my career. It drove me on to become a greater walker, and since then I have walked 1:20:13 for 20k and own every British record from 3k-to-20k. I never dreamed of achieving what I have.”
J.P.:Do the Olympics meet the hype? You work four years to get there; sweat, blood, toil, etc. And then it happens. And then it ends very quickly. Is it all worth it? And why or why not?
T.B.: Yes it’s worth it. I can’t explain the buzz around it because there is nothing like it in this world. It can’t last forever because otherwise the buzz would die. I already miss every moment of it. I’m inspired by Team Great Britain’s incredible performance to go out there and smash the next four years once again.
J.P.:You ate 22 Chicken McNuggets in one night. Um … what were you thinking?
T.B.: I’m really not a fan of McDonalds, but after two years without a break or without the chance to just be a normal person and enjoy myself I treated myself to lots of McDonalds in the village, just to eat something different. After all, I knew I’d be back on my strict schedule of maximizing training, eating and sleeping soon enough.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TOM BOSWORTH:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Adam Sandler, Ginger Spice, iPhone 6, Kid Rock, Starbucks, 22 Chicken McNuggets, Holland, your left ear: My left ear, iPhone 6, Starbucks, Holland, Adam Sandler, 22 Chicken McNuggets, Kid Rock, Ginger Spice.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. Leeds Bradford airport is placed in a very high and exposed to part of the country where winds get incredibly strong. When I looked out the window as we came into land I could see the runway out in front of me and I realized we were coming into land sideways to counter the wind. It was the only time I grabbed the front of the seat in front of me. There were plenty of sighs of relief once we had landed.
• Three memories from your first date?: 1. Being very late—the motorway was closed due to an accident meaning I was nearly 90 minutes late; 2. Pizza—asking questions about one another over a pizza; 3. The hug—at the end of the date, Harry went to shake my hand and I smiled at him and went in for the hug and gave him a kiss. He was such a shy and nervous guy when I first met him.
• Who wins in a boxing match between you and Harry from One Direction? How many rounds does it go?: Harry wins, and it wouldn’t make it past round one. I’m not a fighter at all.
•Three reasons one should make Sevenoaks his/her next vacation destination? Easy—stunning countryside, great pubs and some stunning old houses and beautiful buildings.
• One question you would ask Jay-Z were he here right now?: Can you race walk? Give it a go, this could make a hilarious video!
• Five all-time favorite athletes?: Paula Radcliffe (track/marathon), Paul Scholes (football) , Jared Tallent (50k race walker), Lizzy Yarnold (skeleton), Jenson Button (F1)
• Best joke you know?: Most of my jokes between friends are quite crude, so it’s best I leave it between me and them!
• You do freelance massage work. My lower back is destroyed by disc decay. Can you help?: I could help you to a certain point, but you’d require far more specialized support for it.
About a week ago I was resting in one of America’s, oh, six wifi-free coffee shops. It was in Newport Beach, and nearby sat a copy of OC Weekly. I picked it up, flipped around and stumbled upon a piece about Lit, the well-known, well-regarded rock band made uber-famous by its 1999 smash hit, “My Own Worst Enemy.”
Anyhow, the article concerned Lit’s recent transition to country music, and its new release, “Fast.” I’m a fan of switches and changes and transformations, so I downloaded “Fast,” and listened. And listened. And listened. And listened. I absolutely love the song, and wanted to know more. Hence, I Googled the band, found the names of the members and hit up Jeremy Popoff, the guitarist, on Twitter.
And here we are.
To be blunt, Jeremy Popoff kicks ass. Yeah, he’s an amazing guitarist. But he’s also raw, honest, real, insightful. Here, he discusses—in great detail—the path of a rock band going country, as well as how he feels about the inevitable criticism that comes with change. He also breaks down Lit’s survival, as well as what it is to age in the business.
Jeremy Popoff, lead guitarist of Stan Pearlman’s Door Lit, you are the 291st Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:I’m gonna start with an obvious one. Lit is known—and has been known for 25 years—as a rock band. Now you have a country song, “Fast,” that’s all over the place. It’s a … weird/unusual musical move. I was trying to think of something comparable, and could only come up with Nelly doing that “Over and Over” song with Tim McGraw. So, Jeremy, how the hell did this happen? And why?
JEREMY POPOFF: Man, I don’t know where the line is any longer. More stuff that is considered country sounds like rock to me and stuff that is played on rock radio doesn’t sound like rock at all. Maybe that’s a good thing. And I don’t know that it’s an unusual musical move for us because, honestly, it’s how we write songs. We write on acoustic guitars and then we take it to the band. We’ve always had ballads and different vibes on our records. This one we left sparse because it felt good. When A.Jay and I were little kids, our dad was a radio DJ first on country stations, then he moved to Top 40. That’s when Top 40, or pop, meant the top 40 songs or most popular songs in the country. So we listened to everything.
But to your question—I started writing songs in Nashville several years ago, around 2005, shortly after we released our self-titled “Black” album. I was bored of the stuff I was hearing on the radio and was becoming disenchanted with the industry. I was also in a dark place in my life personally, between my divorce and a tragic accident that mom and step dad were in. So I was looking for inspiration and to challenge myself as a songwriter. Nashville saved my life creatively. I bought a house there in 2007. I fell in love with the community. I’ve made some lifelong friendships there and it really became my second home. I also fell in love with country music. A couple years later I started bringing my brother A.Jay, as well as [on-again, off-again Lit member] Ryan Gillmor, out there with me to write. We actually wrote most of “The View From The Bottom” record out there with some of my country songwriter buddies.
I think what finally happened is that the stuff we were writing over the last couple years just felt more like who we are today. We wanted to play them ourselves instead of just turning them in to be pitched to other artists. So we tested a few out on the road last summer and the songs went over great. The feedback was all positive and it was a seamless transition. It was never like, “OK kids, that was our old rock stuff—now bring out the banjos and cowboy hats and let’s introduce to you Lit Mach 2!” It’s really just us same dudes from Southern California playing songs about what we’re living, which is what we have always done.
We love country music and it’s not strange to us at all that it has an influence on our music. Everything that influenced us growing up still influences us today. I’ll tell you what hasn’t influenced us in a very long time is modern rock radio. My kid is 15 and my wife is 28, and they don’t listen to it either so I know it’s not just me getting old. I mean, other than Twenty One Pilots, it’s been pretty slim pickings for a while. I listen to the shit out of classic rock, but the only thing I have in common with modern rock radio anymore is that they still play our old stuff and our old friends from back in the day. I don’t know what the hell happened. Maybe that will change. I hope so. I can’t tell the song title from the band name half the time. Shit I don’t know if they would even play “My Own Worst Enemy” now if it were a brand new song today. Crazy.
I think a lot of people we grew up with, who were in high school or their early 20s when Lit came out, are now in their mid-to-late 30s and many of them listen to country. We played “Enemy” with Dustin Lynch at Stagecoach last year and 50,000 or so country fans went absolutely bananas! You can’t walk into a honky-tonk on Broadway in Nashville and not hear the band play a Lit song. Most people don’t give a shit about genres, they like what they like. A good song is a good song. That’s what I think.
Lit in action last year.
JEFF PEARLMAN: I wanna stick with this for a minute. When it comes to music, people like their comforts and met expectations. I always think about it in relation to Hall & Oates. Those two sell millions of albums. Hall does a few solo records—they sound exactly the same—but they don’t sell, because people want Oates. It’s what they’re used to; what they expect. But going country, especially after being known as a rock band, do you risk alienating/losing fans? Do you risk having people say, “Ugh, another band that sold out”? And have you felt those reactions at all?
JEREMY POPOFF.: I think that might be the first time I’ve ever heard the phrase, “People want Oates.” That’d be a great shirt idea for Hall & Oates merch.
It’s just not that easy, selling out, or everyone would be doing it. Can you imagine if all you had to do was change your format or copy an old hit and you could make way more money? That would be insane. We are playing some country festivals this year and are playing way earlier in the day for a lot less money than normal, so I don’t know how that is selling out. We have a lot of work to do. We’re lucky that we can still go out and play the rock festivals too, and honestly we have been playing the new stuff at those and nobody reacts weird—because it’s not. It wasn’t weird when I saw Kid Rock live a couple years ago. Or ZZ Top. Or when one my heroes, Elvis Costello, made a great country record a while back. Or when Robert Plant and Alison Krauss made that amazing record together 10 years ago. I love that. We took A Thousand Horses on tour with us fove years ago. We had Parmalee open for us in North Carolina a few years ago. And we brought Jamey Johnson on stage with us in Houston before anybody knew who he was as an artist, like 10 years ago, and the crowd loved him. Afterward we probably got drunk as hell and celebrated how rad it was to do what we do.
It’s just all about music and friends and life—and we love it. I think for Lit, selling out would be to try and write a bunch more of “My Own Worst Enemys” and “Miserables” or trying to go back and recreate our mindset when we were broke, single and in our 20s. We are making music that feels good to us, which is what we’ve always done. We are very grateful and feel encouraged that CMT would step up and embrace our “Fast” video, and that it would be voted in the Top 10, week after week by fans. That feels awesome.
When I see 50-yearold multi-millionaires on TV pretending to still be angry and rebellious punk rockers and pandering—that’s selling out in my opinion. I don’t want to do that. In this day and age, we risk alienating or losing fans by posting the wrong picture or Tweet. You could piss off a fan for not responding to a DM. So I mean, all we can do is what feels right for right now and hope people dig it. If a heartfelt song about life and family like “Fast” makes anybody stop listening to Lit, I don’t know what to tell them. That’s one of the best songs we’ve ever written.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Random question—you and your brother have shitloads of tattoos. I always find it interesting how the professions that most lend themselves to tatts are music and sports. Why do you think that is? When did you get your first? How many do you have? Do you have any you regret?
JEREMY POPOFF: When we were 18, it was a big deal to go below where your short sleeve would cover. If you couldn’t hide them, you couldn’t get a lot of jobs. And the neck or the hands, forget it! Those were called “job stoppers.” Nowadays there are CEOs, cops, teachers and very successful people who are pretty covered up with tattoos. And 18-year olds getting their first tattoo on their throats and knuckles. It’s crazy. I don’t even know how many I have. I only regret not getting a big-ass back piece about 15 years ago when I was way more interested in enduring that many hours and that kind of pain.
With a young Lit fan.
JEFF PEARLMAN:The song “Fast” is sorta heartbreaking, in the way it handles life moving by at the speed of light. A musical career seems that way, too. You and I are the same age, and as a writer I feel engaged in this very powerful fight to stay relevant as I get older and older. What about you? How does aging/mortality impact your approach to music, your career?
JEREMY POPOFF: “Fast” was a song that A.Jay and I wrote with Jeffrey Steele, who is one of my favorite songwriters ever. We were actually finishing a different song and were an hour late for a dinner meeting with a rep from Sony. We had this idea for “Fast” that we had talked about that morning and as I was putting my guitar in the case to pack up, Steele kinda strummed a chord progression and mumbled a lyric that ended with … Fast.
I was like, “Oh shit, it’s on!” I pulled my guitar back out and told our manager that we might not be making that dinner meeting. We just started pouring out these words which were all connected to things that had happened in our lives. A couple times the three of us got choked up while trying to sing it down. We wrote way more lyrics for that song than we ended up using and we wrote it in about 45 minutes. It was just one of those special times we live for as songwriters. I think if we’re writing what’s relevant to us, then it’s relevant, unless you’re some kind of way-out-there person that’s just into weird shit. I mean, I like things that a lot of people like. I’m pretty normal and mainstream when it comes to life. So if I’m writing a song, it’s probably going to be about something other people can relate to, because I’m just not really an obscure kind of guy.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Another totally random one—your birthday is Sept. 11, 1971. What is it, in modern America, to have Sept. 11 as a birthday? And what do you remember of 9.11.01?
JEREMY POPOFF: I was there. We were about to start the Atomic tour on my 30th birthday in New Jersey. We partied in NYC till about 3 am. I remember being woken up early in the morning by Kevin [Baldes, the Lit bassist]—he called my room to tell me to turn on the TV … that a plane just crashed into the Trade Center. I actually opened my curtains first because we were right across the river and I could see the smoke. Then I saw the second plane crash in real time. It was the most helpless feeling, being stranded and being huddled around TVs with strangers. Cell phones weren’t connecting. It was scary. My son was about to be born in a few weeks and I just remember being so worried about the world I was bringing him into and I was paranoid about my wife driving to the doctor or anywhere with me being on the other side of the country.
We obviously didn’t play that night in Jersey, but we did play the next night in DC. We went on the radio station HFS and we told people that we didn’t mean any disrespect, but we had nowhere else to go and we were gonna play our show at the 930 Club that night if anybody felt like hanging’ out, but we understood if they didn’t want to go out and that we’d come back soon regardless. The crowd was amazing. Everybody needed to blow off some steam and get away from their TVs. I remember that time as the most united I have ever felt our country. For the next few days and weeks, America was one team and it felt amazing.
JEFF PEARLMAN:You’re from Anaheim. Your mom was a hairdresser, your dad a radio DJ. Your brother, A. Jay, is Lit’s lead singer. But how did this happen for you guys? What I mean is—there are 1,000,000 aspiring kids playing guitar and singing in their garage. How did you make it?
JEREMY POPOFF: I hope you’re right about the million kids playing guitar and singing. All my kid wants to do is rap and make loops. Haha. From the time I was nine and A.Jay was seven, it’s all we wanted to do. Our dad took us to see UFO & Iron Maiden at the Long Beach Arena and it blew our minds. From the next day on, it’s all we cared about. When A.Jay, Kevin, Allen and I decided to be a band, it was literally 10 years of living, breathing, eating, sleeping and shitting the band. If we weren’t practicing or writing, we were promoting, passing out flyers and stickers. We never stopped working. We were young, naive dreamers with no back up plan. We just never gave up and I think the thing that kept us going was that we loved what we were doing so much. We would sell out these clubs and even though record labels kept passing on us, we just knew they were wrong and that we would get there eventually. Tunnel vision, work ethic, discipline and ultimately luck—that’s how we made it. Luck is how anybody makes it. Like getting a hole in one, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot, but you have to be able to swing a golf club.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Your band was originally “Razzle.” Then “Stain.” Then “Lit.” Two things: A. Why Lit? B. Does a band name matter when it comes to success? Do you think the image, sound, impact of a name plays a role in success/failure? Could you guys have been “The Car Keys” or “Stan Pearlman’s Door” and still have had the same run?
JEREMY POPOFF: The Car Keys, maybe. Stan Perlman’s Door, probably not.
We were teenagers as Razzle. Named after the candy that turns into gum, for some fucking reason! Haha! We actually got signed a few years later as Stain and the “Tripping The Light Fantastic” album was originally titled “Lit.” The cover had an old antique oil lamp that used to hang in our grandparents’ living room, where A.Jay and I first started learning how to play music. There was a guy, Ron Krauss, who was a director and wanted to make a video for us. He said that watching us live was like watching a bomb go off in a building. We liked that description, so we were like, Bomb=Fuse=Lit= Lit! Plus the picture of the lamp=Lit. Fucking perfect! Then we found out that some dude in Ohio had the name Stain. He wanted something like 5 grand for the rights to it and we were like, “Fuck that!” So we took Lit from the title, changed it to “Tripping The Light Fantastic,” and that was that.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Everyone on the planet knows “My Own Worst Enemy.” The riff is ubiquitous, the lyrics oft-repeated. A few things: A. How did that song come to be? B. Is it a great song, a good song, a random song that happened to hit? Like, how do you view it?
JEREMY POPOFF: “My Own Worst Enemy” was written just like all the others up to that point. We had a rented warehouse space in an industrial park in Anaheim and we turned it into a rock n’ roll man cave clubhouse. We would take turns buying 12 packs of Natural Light and we’d write and practice all night. We wrote it pretty fast. We liked it but we were unsure and kind of self conscious about it because our buddy T-Bone didn’t think it was cool. So we actually didn’t play it for a couple months live.
Then one night at the Troubadour in Hollywood, we tried it out and everybody freaked out. We felt like it was the one. But, like, three labels were there that night and passed on us. So we went in and recorded “Enemy,” “Miserable,” and “Four.” Every label said they didn’t hear a single. So at that point, we were like, Shit! What are we missing? Every show is sold out. People like what we’re doing. We like it. Then, randomly, a radio promotions guy at RCA in LA happened to see our CD on someone’s desk and recognized our manager’s name on the cover from college in Michigan. So he took the CD into his office to look her up and he put the disc in to check it out. He flipped when he heard it and ran it into Ron Fair‘s office. Ron knew of us from one of his other artists, Stacy Ferguson (aka “Fergie”), who was a Lit fan. Anyway, he took it with him and Bruce Flohr that day into a meeting with KROQ and that was that.
We were in the studio, on the radio and on the road within a few weeks, before the record deal had even been signed. We didn’t come home for almost two years. It was a long 10 years in the making—overnight success story. So, yeah, we fucking love that song! It blows us away how much it still gets played, covered, used on TV, in movies, during sports games. We are so lucky to have been in our warehouse together that night when that riff fell out of the rafters! When I think of those iconic intro riffs like “Start Me Up,” “Back In Black,” “Money For Nothing,” “Smoke On The Water,” “Walk This Way”—it’s crazy to know that we are members of that club.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
JEREMY POPOFF: Man. So many “greatest” moments. Playing Woodstock. Playing Reading Festival. Madison Square Garden. Angel Stadium in 2000. First time on The Tonight Show. Our first tour bus. Handing platinum plaques to our parents and grandparents. Buying a house. Opening The Slidebar. Still doing it.
JEFF PEARLMAN:This interview is happening because I was sitting in a coffee shop yesterday. I pick up an OC Weekly because there’s no wifi and I’m bored. I read about you guys, and “Fast.” I go to Apple Music and download it. And I wonder—do you like how the music business works now more than in the 1990s? I mean, there are almost no CDs, few people download an entire album, you have to tour your asses off to get paid. So … is it good? Or awful?
JEREMY POPOFF: Yes, it is hard work to make money in this business or any other business. In the 1990s, everybody listened to the radio and bought CDs. FM radio paid. You could get checks in the mail for tens of thousands of dollars for having a song on the radio. Now everybody has satellite radio or streams from their phone, which doesn’t pay at all. As a music fan, I love having options. I like having my Pandora blaring through every room in my house on my Sonos. But I miss Tower Records. I miss artwork and the smell of a new record. I also like the freedom as an independent artist to be doing things like Pledge Music and involving our fans in the process. I like being able to get songs out to the people without necessarily having to wait for release dates and stuff. But artists will always have to get out there on the road and hustle to make any money and “The Music Business” will never pay artists what’s fair. It is what it is. The music business is still the music business. But shit, I can’t complain. Yeah, It’s good. I work my ass off but I haven’t had to punch a time clock anywhere in 20 years and I sign my own checks. That’s pretty cool.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JEREMY POPOFF:
• My daughter’s good friend shares your last name. She’s only 13. What does her future hold, as far as nicknames?: Well, hopefully A.Jay and I having some popularity over the years makes it a little cooler for her and other young Popoffs than it was when we were kids.
• This is my all-time favorite song. Your thoughts?: I love Blind Melon. I used to play Galaxy over and over and just obsess on that song when it came out. And I just watched the video three times after checking out your link. Damn, what an amazing voice!
• Ten years from now what are we saying about Jared Goff’s career?: He had a rough first year but went on to be the best in the game and took us all the way to a Rams’ Super Bowl victory!
• One question you would ask Carmen Electra were she here right now?: Um. Remember that one time in Cancun? That was awesome.
• Four memories from appearing on Cribs?: They burned a hole in my kitchen ceiling with one of the lights. I was drinking the whole time we were filming. Neighborhood kids would hang out in front of my house after it aired. Lenny Kravitz and Gene Simmons both complimented me on my style in furniture.
• In exactly 17 words, describe your feelings on crushed pineapple: I’m not really sure why we would ever need to have our pineapple crushed for any reason.
• Renée Fleming calls. She wants you to hit the road with her and play guitar in her rock opera. It’s called, “Poodles Shit on My Guitarist,” and it involves you wearing a large purple bunny suit and having poodles shit on you as you play. You have to be on the road for 360-straight days in 2018, but you’ll get paid $10 million. You in?: Absolutely!
• The world needs to know, what does Pamela Anderson’s hair smell like?: Sunshine and cinnamon.
Here’s a compliment I’ve never before paid to a Quazer: I struggled to find pictures of Reggie Williams.
That’s a rare thing in 2017, when everyone and their mothers are on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat. Hell, I can dig up photos of my great grandfather; of your great grandfather; of your great grandfather’s great grandfather. But Reggie Williams, head of one of America’s top hip-hop websites? Well, the pickings were slim.
But, if you think about it, that’s an insanely cool thing. I’ve known Reggie for nearly two decades, and it’s always been about the dream, not the celebrity. His dual loves of hip-hop and entrepreneurism are the driving forces of his career, and the reason why—after lengthy stints at MTV and BET—he now runs the fantastic (and funkily named) Ambrosia for Heads.
Here, in the magical 290th Quaz, I talk with Reggie about the beauty of hip-hop and the pursuit of greatness; about a very short Phife Dawg and a very old Jay-Z and Eminem. One can visit the site here, and follow its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram existences here.
Reggie Williams, man of, oh, six images, you are the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:I’m gonna throw a weird one at you. So I’m a longtime Tribe Called Quest diehard. Love them, love the music, love the inventiveness. I did not, however, love the recent album. In fact, I initially hated it. Then I kept listening—over and over. Before long I couldn’t get enough. I wonder, as a guy in music, why you think this happens? And can we properly judge the greatness or shittiness of music after one listen? Is it even possible?
REGGIE WILLIAMS: I love that question. I think the answer is “Yes” and “No.” There are lots of songs that are instant hits. I felt that way about Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us Down,” a song I heard and posted 18 months before it broke, Pharrell’s “Happy,” another one that I loved several months before it caught fire, The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” an instant smash, and several other songs. I think the songs we instantly like tend to be more simplistic. That’s not a bad or a good thing. It’s just a thing. I’ve found that the music I go back to for years and decades, however, tends to be more complicated and does require more time to properly process. I believe, in those instances, the artists are creating work that goes against the grain of what is popular at the time, and it takes some time for the ears to adjust. One of the best examples of this, for me, is D’Angelo’s Voodoo album. His Brown Sugar album was one of my favorites of all-time, so I had incredibly high expectations when it was released. It was wildly different than what I expected when I first heard it—dirty and dissonant—and I was not enthralled, immediately. Like a fine wine, however, it opened up, and, to this day is always the first album I play when I get new speakers, headphones, etc., to test how good they are.
J.P.:You’ve worked for MTV, for BET. You’ve had a long and successful career being employed by big outfits, knowing a good check would come regularly, knowing there’d be perks and a company holiday party and flights to here and there and there and here. So why did you decide to start your own site? Was there a moment of definitiveness? And how terrifying was the move?
R.W.: I’ve been working toward having my own company since 1992. I had a picture of Russell Simmons on my dorm wall during my first year in law school, with a quote from him about owning your own business. I knew I wanted to run a multimedia business–music, film, television–and the question was whether it would be via climbing the corporate ladder to the top or starting my own. The people I admired, like Russell, David Geffen, Jay Z and Sean “Puffy” Combs all had their own, so I always suspected that would be the ultimate route. Even when I was in the corporate environment, I found myself in entrepreneurial roles, like doing MTV’s first ever digital video streaming deals and helping transform BET’s Music Programming department from videos to full lifestyle programming around music and comedy. In many ways, running my company, Ambrosia For Heads, is just the culmination of what has been a two-decade long journey. It’s been more of a progression than a specific moment of definitiveness. The move definitely requires a huge level of courage. Beyond the obvious financial sacrifices and implications, there’s the fear of public failure and the inability to recover. In time, however, you see that the difference between success and failure is often a matter of perspective.
J.P.:You started your first hip-hop site, nurules.com, right around the turn of the century. It didn’t last long. Why? What did you learn from the experience?
R.W.: They say “timing is everything.” In my case nuRules was both several years too early and some months too late. My belief back in 1999 was that the Internet would become the ultimate pipeline through which all media was delivered–audio, video and editorial. For audio and editorial, that’s already true and for video (TV, movies and short form), it’s well on its way. Back then, however, only 10 percent of US homes had broadband penetration, so it was way too early for an entire business to be built on that distribution pipeline. At the same time, a lot of the money that was invested in that digital entertainment space was funded a year or so before I got nuRules up and running that November 1999. By the time 2000 hit, the first Internet bubble was bursting and we were about to get hit with a massive crash, compounded by the attacks of 9/11. The biggest thing I learned, however, was that we have far more control over “timing” than I knew then. The key to any business is to stay up and running. Whether you do that by hook or crook, grit or guile, if you’re able to stay in business long enough and have a sound idea and strong team, you can wildly increase your chances of getting to a point where the timing aligns with you. With AFH, we’re able to do an amazing amount with an incredibly lean team and we’re currently self-sustaining. We’d like to grow and will need additional resources to do so, but we’re built for the long haul.
J.P.:I have a theory, and it comes from my observatory and participatory viewpoint as a white person in 2016. Namely, I think a large percentage of whites interact with blacks while thinking, “How am I supposed to do this? Are there things I should say to sound informed and empathetic? Is there a way I need to be? To come off?” Not all of us (I truly don’t have this in my head), but a good number. My question for you—are you aware of this? Are most of your non-white friends? When you’re talking with a white guy who’s overthinking interaction with a black guy, are you overthinking what the white guy is overthinking about what you’re thinking? (that was a fun sentence)
R.W.: I actually think we all have far more in common than we do differences. I believe the basis of any relationship is finding commonalities upon which we can build a rapport and from there the interactions can take many twists and turns. We get caught up in beliefs about groups of people, but those beliefs often fade, or are at least subordinated, when two individuals come face to face. There’s a reason why common ice breakers when people first meet are conversations about the weather, sports, kids, jobs and, sometimes politics. Those are things to which, whether we agree or disagree, many of us can relate. Maybe there’s an added layer of discomfort initially when the interaction is between members of different races, but, as long as the two people are relatively open-minded about people from other races, I don’t think the interaction is any more stilted than it would be with two strangers of the same race meeting for the first time at a cocktail party. I think that’s a roundabout way of me saying I think you’re overthinking it.
J.P.:I have a weird, untested theory, and it’s this: Hip-hop allows its artist to hang around far longer in the mainstream than pop, rock, country. I mean, Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye, even Nelly—guys in their late-30s/early-to-mid 40s who are still commercially viable. Am I wrong? Right? And why?
R.W.: I think the people you named above are outliers. Generally, in all genres of music, most artists have a very short shelf-life. Stars have 1-2 years, if that, of being hot and then they never reach that level again. I’m immersed in hip-hop, so I see how vast the turnover is from year to year. For every Kanye West, there are a hundred artists who had a hit song or two and then are nowhere to be found. If you look at the charts from five years ago, you’d be amazed at how few of those acts charted this year. There are even less so from 10 years ago. Every genre has its titans, though. In pop, for example, there’s Rihanna, Beyonce, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Adele, Taylor Swift and the two Justins. Even Britney Spears remains relevant 15 years later.
J.P.:How do you think hip-hop is embracing homosexuality? Can a rapper still use “faggot” or “homo” in a song and be commercially embraced?
R.W.: Like with the country overall, hip-hop’s acceptance of the LGBTQ community and understanding of related issues is layered. On the one hand, there are most certainly a number of hit songs with derogatory terms in the lyrics, and it’s disproportional. On the other hand, you have an increasing amount of gender-fluid artists like Young Thug, Young M.A. and Jaden Smith. Perhaps the greatest example of the complexities and nuances is Tyler, The Creator. He is a staunch supporter of openly gay members of his Odd Future collective, like Frank Ocean and Syd Tha Kyd. Yet, he’s also quick to drop the “F” word and say other things many would think are derogatory in his music and conversations. It’s complicated.
Reggie with, oh, someone.
J.P.:What’s your work day like, soup to nuts?
R.W.: My work day never stops. The Internet is a 24/7, 365 day cycle, so most of my waking day, I’m typically working on something AFH-related, or thinking about it. I usually wake up between 7:30 and 8, check my phone and then do a cardio workout. Even while I shower, I’m listening to hip-hop news, to get the latest and greatest. From there, my team and I have a virtual writers room where we are constantly vetting content, stories and angles throughout the day. I intermittently check emails, but I try to avoid having those control my day. I deal with way too many of our tech issues than I’d like, so that takes up a fair amount of time, and I’m constantly scouring the web, social media, YouTube, etc. for stories. Generally, I’ll have a few calls and, on a fair amount of days, I’ll have meetings, interview an artist or producer, attend a showcase or something like that. I often do a quick workout with weights in the late afternoon/early evening to clear my head and re-charge, but typically I’ll watch an interview or listen to a podcast during that time, looking for stories. At night, it’s similar, though things settle down a bit. I typically go to bed between 1 and 2 am.
J.P.:You’re closer to 50 than 40, and I always find the aging thing fascinating with people like us, who work in funky fields that often cater toward youth. Do you have any internal fight to stay young? To remain relevant? Is it increasingly hard to care about the same things, say, a 17-year-old hiphop head cares about?
R.W.: You know, I just heard a quote by Quincy Jones, as relayed by producer Terry Lewis. It goes, “You’re only as old as your ability to accept and process new things.” I fully subscribe to that. I’ve worked with some people in their 50s who would absolutely exhaust most people half their age, and I know some people in their 20s who seem ready for retirement. It may sound cliche, but I truly do believe that age is a mindset. I bet you no one under 40 ever said that…:) In terms of the music, some of my favorite artists of all-time became popular in the last five years, and I have a saying that the “Golden Age” of hip-hop is from 1978-present. I think it’s all a continuum. There’s terrible hip-hop from the 90s, great hip-hop in the 2010s and vice versa.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
R.W.: I’ve been truly fortunate to have more magical moments than I can remember. I think that’s common when you love what you do. Right now, I’m literally working the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life, and it’s for no pay to me. I feel lucky everyday though. One highlight is seeing Prince perform in a room of about 25 people and then speaking to him for a bit, after. That said, I’m hopeful the greatest moment is still yet to come. The lowest was definitely when I realized that we had to close down nuRules. That day actually led to a tattoo …
J.P.: I just watched an interview with Q-Tip on the Daily Show—and he was wearing sunglasses indoors. You’ve dealt with many celebrities. I’ve never, ever, ever understood this. Are people trying to look cool? Do most people think it is cool?
R.W.: That’s funny. I think people do it for many reasons. For some it’s a fashion statement, for others it’s shield. Sometimes people just had a rough day … I’ve learned not to read too much into it.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH REGGIE WILLIAMS:
• Number of times in your life you’ve been compared to/asked about former Clipper Reggie Williams or former Dodger Reggie Williams?: Hilarious. Only a couple of times for Clippers’ Reggie Williams. As a kid, people used to ask me often if I was related to Reggie Jackson … go figure. The best is I once attended a conference with Bengals’ Reggie Williams. That created ALL SORTS of confusion. Nice guy, though.
• Five reasons one should make Indiana his next vacation destination: 1. Donut Bank—Best donuts I’ve ever had in my life, to this day; 2. Nice is the default attitude for most people; 3. Holiday World—One of the greatest amusement parks in the world–the largest wooden coaster and the largest water slide–with the shortest lines you’ll ever experience at a park of that scale; 4. My mom and dad; 5. Did I mention Donut Bank?
• Celine Dion calls. She wants to invest $100 million into the site, but you have to change your name to Al B. Sure and get a tattoo of Gary Coleman across your forehead. You in?: What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?
• Rank in order (favorite to least): bluebirds, Pointer Sisters, Real Housewives of Orange County, Mookie Wilson, Bronx Zoo, Keith Van Horn, Jewish brother in laws, Amelia Earhart, Stacey Dash, Kyrie Irving, Little Shop of Horrors: I’m so excited to start with Pointer Sisters that it stops there.
• Why ‘Ambrosia’?:Ambrosia was the food for the Greek Gods. We try to serve up the best for Hip-Hop Heads and the best food for thought. Ambrosia for Heads.
• One question you would ask Vince Ferragamo were he here right now?: Does he think he’d be on Fox NFL if he’d won Super Bowl XIV instead of Terry Bradshaw?
• In exactly 19 words, make a case for the music of Carrie Underwood: After thinking about this, I don’t think I would be able to do that even if I tried hard.
• This is a song I absolutely love. Wondering what you think: I’m a bit of a Tupac purist. He’s one of my favorite MCs of all-time, so, for me, his catalog stops after Makaveli.
• Why haven’t you taken more of a public stance on the Braves signing Bartolo Colon?: Googles Bartolo Colon with the left hand* *Tweets about him with the right*
• Who was your favorite Brady kid? Why?: Sadly, I can’t remember a single episode of The Brady Bunch. What was that question about age, again?
Way back in 1989-90, I sat in front of Lou Hanner in science class.
We were both seniors at Mahopac High School, and Lou would … not … shut … up. He had opinions on the Jets, the Giants, the girl I liked, the T-shirt I wore, the T-shirt he wore. He was a wonderfully funny and sharp kid; never mean, but often a fire starter. He used to ask me (on what I recall to be a weekly basis) whether I was ready to ask out Lisa Frieman—loudly, with Lisa sitting two seats away. I later learned that Lou also urged the boys’ basketball coach to keep me on the team, an act of uncommon adolescent kindness that still touches me.
Anyhow, Lou was a phenomenal athlete, and he went on to play college soccer, then devote his life to teaching and coaching at Elwood-John H. Glenn High School on Long Island, N.Y. He was recently named the New York State Large School Soccer Coach of the Year, and I felt inspired to bring him here, to the Quaz. Yes, like all Q&A subjects, I was curious of his path. But, truly, I wanted to know how a modern coach deals with the crap-a-palooza that is today’s obsessive, parent-driven need to have Junior become the next Mike Trout, the next LeBron, the next Eli Manning.
So here’s Lou Hanner—a man I am thrilled to host as the 289th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Lou, I’m gonna start with something you probably hear quite a bit—the nonstop refrain of “Kids today just don’t [fill in the blank] …” And it always ends with something like “respect authority” or “work hard” or “appreciate what they have.” You’ve been coaching and teaching for two decades. Are kids today different than when we were growing up? Or is that just something every past generation is required to whine about?
LOU HANNER: The kids are not different. What is very different is the culture we live in. When we were kids if we got in trouble in school you were less concerned about the school administration, you feared going home to your parents. Today, the parents run to the rescue of their kids as if it is not their fault, but that of the teacher or the coach. Parents hover over every aspect of the kid’s education and athletic programs. They want complete control over their grades and assignments. We have apps on our phone to get immediate feedback. We have moved away from accountability. If I had a bad game, or wasn’t performing to ability in school, I was going to hear it from my family much worse than I would from my coaches.
L.H.: Actually, that is what motivates me. This is a profession that is always changing and evolving. Every single day is a challenge and an adventure. I have had many great mentors in my life and career. One was Joe McAvoy—the longtime teacher and coach at White Plains High School. He always said, “Teaching is coaching, coaching is teaching.” I never forgot that. I get to do it every day for a living. I feel blessed because of it, and I enjoy going to work every day. Many educators don’t. They should step down and move on.
J.P.:I feel like something has changed in our national approach to kids and sports—namely, we intrude far too much. Back when you and I were growing up in Mahopac, it was a ton of games in the yard, games in the street, games on some nearby field. And now, everything seems very structured, organized, programed. A. Do you agree? B. How does this impact the athletes you receive on the high school level?
L.H.: I totally agree. Most kids today only participate in structured teams, clubs, and leagues. We coached ourselves in the neighborhood. Or our dads coached us in little league, CYO and club soccer. Now we pay a lot of money for trainers and “professional” coaches with a license to provide these services. I do as well for my own kids. It is the sports culture we live in now. However, I am proud of the fact that my kids also love playing games in the yard and neighborhood like we did as well.
That said, because so many kids are playing organized athletics today at such a young age, it has certainly raised the level of talent and ability of the high school athlete. When I began coaching here at John Glenn in 1998, a handful of kids played on a club soccer team. This year most of our starting lineup plays at a high level all year round. The three-sport athlete is a thing of the past. And honestly, because of the youth sports structure, specialization has almost become mandatory if one wishes to play most sports at the next level. This concerns me, but I am witnessing it firsthand with my own kids. The time and monetary commitment for youth sports programs has most parents handcuffed.
Hanner, No. 23, teamed up with star center Larry Glover (No. 5) as Mahopac High seniors in 1990.
J.P.:You were an excellent high school athlete; an excellent college athlete. How does that impact the way you coach kids who aren’t particularly talented? I mean, you were always skilled. Is it hard to relate with and work with those who aren’t?
L.H.: Not at all. That is what coaching is all about. I really enjoy working with the low-level skilled players. But youth sports have advanced so far since we were kids. Those who do not play club sports outside of school have a very difficult time making most varsity teams. What frustrates me most is when an athlete doesn’t work hard on the field or in the classroom.
J.P.:We just got through a very bitter, heated presidential election. I wonder how much of a topic this was among your students? Your players? And do you feel comfortable discussing politics with kids? Is that an OK role for a teacher and coach?
L.H.: The election was very interesting to observe. Never before did we see the students get very involved or engaged with a presidential election like this one. You would hear kids making comments to each other in class and even inside the locker room. I did not observe any hostility like we did on TV or social media. I think it was great to see high school students involved and concerned about our government. Discussing politics can be very touchy for a teacher and coach. Keeping the conversation healthy and not biased is imperative.
J.P.: Why did you become a teacher and coach? Like, what was your path? When did you realize it was what you wanted to do?
L.H.: If you told me in our senior year of high school in 1990 that I would one day be a teacher and coach, I would not have believed you. I was going to Oneonta State, playing soccer and studying business. In my sophomore year I realized business wasn’t what I was passionate about. I was passionate about working with kids. Our college team would put on clinics for kids and youth coaches in the community and I worked soccer camps in the summer. My mom said to me one day, “You can’t sit behind a desk. You should be a PE teacher.” The rest is history.
I transferred to Cortland State as a senior and finished my undergraduate degree while playing soccer my senior year there. I was blessed to play for two great programs and my experiences could not have been better. I was fortunate to be hired right out of Cortland as the head boys’ soccer coach and high school PE teacher at White Plains High School in 1995.
With wife, Kerry.
J.P.:I love asking this of people I grew up with—so … who were you? What I mean is, I remember you as a pretty cocky, affable, confident kid. Your nickname was Lip, you talked a lot of fun trash. But who were you, inside? Were you confident or insecure? What were you thinking about? What were your worries?
L.H.: The Lip thing was something my uncles used to call me because I was named after a great uncle and that is what they called him. Nobody in school really used it. When we grew up all we did was compete. On the fields, yards, driveways, streets, parks, woods, garages, basements. Wherever. All we wanted to do was play, play anything, anywhere.
During those times, we would all like to talk a lot of back yard banter. Challenging one another and talking trash was what we did. Looking back, that played a big part of my development and fostered my competitive nature. One that I still have today. I compete against the students and athletes in class and at practice all the time. Therefore, I would consider myself more confident than insecure. I was only thinking about playing sports.
Looking back I wish I had put more effort into school. I mean, I did OK, but it wasn’t until I went to college that I put the right amount of time into it.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
L.H.: Greatest—The relationships and bonds built with all of the kids who have played for you. Seeing them grow up into men, get married, being successful, and starting families of their own. Having many want to come back and coach on my staff has also been very special to me. Others have become teachers and coaches as well. When they come back to our annual alumni game it is always one of my favorite days of the year.
Lowest—In January 2014 we lost a player in his senior year. He was killed in a tragic sledding accident. Attending the wake and funeral with your program and coaches is horrible. Words cannot describe the hurt and sorrow you feel for the family, your players and the entire school community.
Receiving Coach of the Year honors.
J.P.:There are many clichés about the American gym teacher. You’ve heard them—mindless task, roll out a bunch of balls, blow a whistle, make kids run two laps. But does teaching phys ed rule, or is it awful? Fun or challenging? How do you deal with the kid who has no interest whatsoever?
L.H.: We live in the Game Boy Generation. When we were kids we spent every second of free time outside playing sports, riding bikes or motorcycles. Today’s kids are much less active than we were. They live on their devices. We need health and PE now more than ever. We don’t respect it whatsoever in our culture. We talk a big game but we don’t support it. Only six states in the entire country mandate PE. Most only mandate health for one semester in middle school and high school. Maybe if we were to respect it like every other subject our country would be in a much better place …
Most of the kids at John Glenn High School enjoy and respect PE. I think it is because of the culture we have created. We ask the kids to work hard within a fun learning environment. Education needs to be fun. That’s something that we have moved away from with all these standards and common core requirements. I remember genuinely enjoying going to school and class every day at Mahopac High School. Teaching health and PE is one the greatest jobs in America. I feel blessed to go to work every day and have the opportunity to influence the lives of our youth.
J.P.:I’m gonna throw a weird one at you. When we were at Mahopac High, there was a smoking section. And I remember we’d have an annual SAY NO TO SMOKING day, or something like that. And I wonder, 26 years later, is smoking even the slightest of slightest of concern with high school kids? Like, do you think most even ponder it? Hell, packs cost $10, CVS stopped selling, etc. In short, is it a dead issue?
L.H.: Dead issue. The kids today do not smoke cigarettes. They smoke pot. When I began teaching we would catch kids smoking in the locker rooms and around campus all the time. I can’t remember the last time I saw one of our students smoking. I survey my health classes every semester and they confirm this. Marijuana is the drug of choice with the kids today. The legalization has created the perception that it is not bad for you; that it’s actually healthy.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LOU HANNER:
• In exactly 12 words, describe the emotions after being named the first, and last, Chieftain Mahopac High Athlete of the Year: Was honored, humbled, proud. Never felt comfortable wearing the jacket in public.
• One question you would ask Tom Paciorek were he here right now?: What was the guiding force in your 18-year career?
• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: Lake Mahopac, Mahopac Golf Club, Rodak’s, Mahopac Inn, Mom’s cooking
• Who are the five professional coaches you most admire?: Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden, Sir Alex Ferguson, Bob Knight, Herman Boone.
• Three memories from the senior prom: Friends, van, and Piano Man.
• How did you propose to your wife, Kerry?: On a balcony overlooking Virginia Beach.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember?: Slightly. We were about to land at Newark International airport in New Jersey. The pilot pulls us directly straight up from the runway as we are about to touch ground. We begin to circle Manhattan for what seemed forever. Nobody came on the loudspeaker to give any information. The passengers began to anxiously worry. Finally, the pilot comes on and apologizes for the aborted landing because a plane was stranded on the runway that we would have hit it had we continued.
• What happens in the third Balboa-Clubber Lang fight?: Split Decision
• Self-indulgent, what do you remember about me from high school?: Great kid, sports nut, fun to hang with, quitting varsity basketball after I convinced coach DeMarzo to keep you on the team!
For those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up reading Sports Illustrated, then write for the magazine, there’s this oft-unspoken ranking thing that happens inside our heads.
Without fail, we all have our, “Top 5 All-Time Sports Illustrated greats” lists. The names tend to vary from person to person. My Frank Deford is your Dan Jenkins is your Steve Rushin is your Rick Reilly is your Bill Nack. One person, however, who seems to cross the lines of age, gender, race, area of specialty is Alexander Wolff.
Beginning in 1980, shortly after his graduation from Princeton, Alex joined the staff of Sports Illustrated. He then spent the next three decades writing some of the most beautiful, most comprehensive, most intelligent pieces in modern sports journalism. He’s covered everything, from the Olympics to the World Series, but is best known for his devotion to chronicling basketball. Of John Wooden’s 2010 passing, for example, Alex wrote: “If death had granted him a moment to convey the sentiment, John Wooden would have declared his passing last week at age 99 a happy transit.” Of the 1982 Dallas Mavericks, he observed, “To paraphrase that great Irish hoop maven, Willie B. Yeats, things can fall apart if your center’s no good. That summarizes the prospects of the Dallas Mavericks in their third season.” Seriously, tale a moment and check out the scope of his work on the SI Vault. It’s gold.
Though he’s officially listed as retired on the scouting report, Alex still contributes to SI. He’s also the author of a wonderful new book, “The Audacity of Hoop,” on Barack Obama’s devotion to basketball.
Alexander Wolff, you are the Lancaster Gordon of writers, and the 288th of Quazes …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Alex, I’m gonna kick this off with a depressing one. Yesterday Sports Illustrated laid off more employees. Inevitably they were lay off more, and more and more. It strikes me that this can’t end well; that maybe there’s just no saving print and the magazine is a dinosaur scheduled for inevitable extinction. You worked at the magazine for decades. You were there through some glorious years. Do you have any hope? How does it all make you feel?
ALEXANDER WOLFF: I was an SI fact-checker in the Bright Lights, Big City days, and then a writer on staff into the early 2000s, when the magazine and travel budgets were fat and if you threw out a story idea you’d hear back, “When can we have it?” And then I spent the last decade or so until retirement just trying to breast the tape as bodies collapsed around me. So this is a painful subject.
But even as this agonizing transition from print to digital takes place, I have to believe there’ll still be an appetite for the mag. It may be a mag that appears less often than every week. It may be one produced with contributing rather than staff writers; some of the photographers who lost staff gigs a few years ago are now getting even more SI work as freelancers. The people who are still on staff are top-of-the-craft. Just from a hoops perspective, it doesn’t get better than Lee Jenkins and Chris Ballard on the pros, and Luke Winn and Seth Davis on the colleges. With a little help from my son, Grant Wahl has turned me into a soccer fan. Tom Verducci and Peter King are the voices of their respective sports. And guys like Tim Layden and Scott Price and Jon Wertheim and Mike Rosenberg are just absurdly versatile.
Which is why it hurts so much. No one let go over the past dozen years or so was sacrificed at the altar of anything but Forces We Can’t Control. They were universally smart, gifted, productive people. Many—I wish I could confidently say “most”—have found other places to commit journalism. That’s our loss and others’ gain, but at least the same forces threatening the SI so many people grew up with are creating all these new soapboxes in the public square that people can mount and speak from.
My hope rests in technology and new norms it may set. In 10 or 15 years we may all keep rolled up in our pocket a paper-thin device that captures and displays words and pictures instantaneously, a kind of turbo-charged iPad, and if so SI will be right there, delivering first-rate content by talented people, and the brand will endure—not because people have accommodated themselves to us, but because we’ve been nimble enough to go where the consumption is, whether it’s on a Web-enabled fruit rollup or whatever.
Just last week I had a feature in the mag about cord-cutting and “over-the-top” delivery options, and how leagues and networks are being forced to move to the platforms people choose to spend time on. The challenge facing print is pretty much the same. People will always want a good story well-told, and I’m never going to doubt SI’s ability to deliver that regardless of the platform. My fear is the same one I and many others expressed in last week’s piece, for rights holders and their broadcast partners: all the dislocation along the way.
A.W.: I’m as susceptible as you to romanticizing those days, because I was young and impressionable and just breaking in. I had a chance to take stock a few years ago while working on a piece about the demise of the Big East, and it was a stitch to collect stories like the one about God Shammgod as a freshman at Providence, walking into a religion class and, asked to introduce himself, saying, “My name is God Shammgod and I’m here to take Providence to the Promised Land.” Which led the priest teaching the class to call the college president to find out what in Jesus, Mary and Joseph was going on.
But the sport was great everywhere during the Eighties. It was growing with ESPN and worming its way into every corner of the country. For you it might have been the Big East, but I was even more smitten by the SEC of that era, maybe because the South seemed so exotic to a kid from the Northeast, and maybe because the basketball coaches had to work extra-hard to catch anyone’s attention what with the football emphasis. You had big, bad Kentucky, the team everyone was shooting for. At Auburn you had Charles Barkley, and Tennessee students delivering a pizza to him in the pregame layup line. LSU started at forward a guy named Nikita Wilson, whose middle name was Francisco, which led Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to call him “a trilateral summit conference.” And the coaches had this honor-among-thieves camaraderie. I loved the wit of Georgia’s Hugh Durham and Auburn’s Sonny Smith. Alabama’s Wimp Sanderson was, in his words, “named after a cousin who blocked a punt and died shortly thereafter.” At one SEC tournament LSU’s Dale Brown pledged not to sleep for the entirety of the four-day weekend and then phoned writers at all hours to prove that he was keeping his word. It was the cheating-est league in America. Probably still is. But in terms of pure entertainment value, every dollar was well-spent.
From a 1980 Asbury Park Press profile.
J.P.:You were the owner of the Vermont Frost Heaves of the ABA. It started as a magazine idea, then just got really interesting. I’m gonna be vague and wide open here. How did the idea begin? Why? And what did you learn/gain from the experience?
A.W.: One of my professional vices has always been a certain restlessness. By the mid-2000s the basketball beat had begun to seem a little like Groundhog Day. I heard from NBA scouting director Marty Blake about the reconstituted ABA, where franchises went for $5,000. My wife and I had just moved to Vermont, and the Web was creating this limitless place for content. So the idea of starting a team and writing about it became hard to resist. And when I saw two great old Palestra-like venues in the Vermont cities of Burlington and Barre, I got sucked deep into the vortex. The hardest part was conceiving the project—and pitching it to editors—as this light romp through the theme park of pro team ownership, and discovering very quickly that there were real people with real stakes depending on the whole experiment working out.
I learned a lot about the goodwill of my Vermont neighbors, and how quickly money can disappear, and the incredible amount of work that goes on before a sportswriter sits down courtside in front of that little welcome card with your name on it. We rented the hall and paid the entertainment and basically threw parties for more than 1,000 people 18 times a year for three years. It wasn’t a sustainable financial success, but with two ABA titles and memories that people up here still talk about, it was an artistic one. The young Vermont guy our fans picked to be the coach, Will Voigt, just led Nigeria to the Rio Olympics. And Ken Squier, the old CBS motorsports analyst who runs the Thunder Road racetrack in central Vermont, so loved our mascot that after we folded he took Bump the Moose in like a stray. Bump is now Speed Bump the Racing Moose.
I wrote up 15,000 words for the SI.com longform site about the whole experience, but have another 50,000 or so stashed away. Even if that overset never gets published, writing it all up was therapy.
A.W.: Hoop had become such a big theme during Obama’s 2008 campaign that, after his election, I asked editors at SI whether they wanted a sort of basketball biography of him to run before the inauguration. After filing the story, I asked myself whether hoop would continue to figure in his life as president. And when it did—and all these great images from White House photographer Pete Souza began surfacing that featured POTUS around the game and NBA players—I began to think there might be a book. Of course, he needed to get re-elected for it to have any chance in the marketplace. But after he was, I threw myself into the project.
There’s no way to badger the President of the United States for an interview without bringing yourself to the attention of the authorities. So I put in my request, hoped for the best, and got on with the project. A little part of me died each time he’d sit down with Bill Simmons for the umpteenth time, or make a sidetrip to Marc Maron’s garage for a podcast, and my own phone wouldn’t ring. But Obama has left a long trail of commentary about the game, none better than those pages in his memoir Dreams from My Father, so there was that to work with.
And as you know from your Favre experience, even with the hole, there’s something to the donut. Not getting your main subject forces you to work the edges that much more. And like you with Favre, I benefited from there being no active effort to keep me from doing the book. People in the Obama hoop circle spoke openly and freely. And I did feel I got cooperation from the White House to the extent that Pete Souza chased down images we were looking for. One of my favorites has POTUS dribbling toward the camera with his daughters on either side of him. He’s dribbling with his weak-ass right hand, as are Malia and Sasha, and it’s an incredibly poignant photo if you know the Obama backstory: POTUS has said that he might have been a better player if he’d had a father around to take him out to work on his off hand. I have no idea whether his girls are right- or left-handed, but here Obama is discharging his paternal duty with them both, taking care of business his own dad never tended to.
And in one respect I got the ultimate cooperation: Throughout the Obamas’ time in Washington, the White House has been loath to release photos of the girls. But Souza said he’d try to get authorization for us to use that shot, and came back with a green light. You can take it to the bank that either POTUS or FLOTUS signed off on it.
J.P.:How did this happen to you? I mean, I know you grew up in Princeton until age 12, then moved to Rochester; know you had your first byline taste in the Trenton Times, know you attended Princeton, graduated in 1979, joined SI a year later. But when did you know writing was for you? Was there a moment? An event?
A.W.: I grew up around words and just learned to love them. My grandparents were book publishers, and even my dad, an English-as-a-second-language immigrant who was 28 when he arrived from Europe, lit up when he saw a Puns & Anagrams puzzle in the New York Times. I consumed any newspaper or magazine that made it into our house. But I was indiscriminate with language, and it took a ruthless English teacher to shake some of the lassitude out of me during my sophomore year in high school.
But it was four years later, in a writing course at Princeton, that I really got excited about journalism. It’s the course that John McPhee still teaches today, though he didn’t teach it that semester because he was off working on his Alaska book, Coming Into the Country. Robert Massie, the old Newsweek and Saturday Evening Post staffer who had gone on to write Nicholas and Alexandra, took his place, and he was a great fit for a kid who was about to be a history major. The 16 of us in the class would get our one-on-one time with him, going over what we wrote, but the real value was in reading and critiquing what others produced. I went back to campus 20 years later to teach a similar course, and the magic around that seminar table—a gentle peer pressure, but of the pressure-makes-diamonds kind—was still an animating force.
Meantime I’d joined a group of campus stringers and begun filing for the Trenton Times, which was 12 miles down Route 1. Because it was so close to campus, editors would take just about anything. And because it was a p.m., I could stay up fiddling with my copy all night if I wanted, as long as I filed by the time the editors came in at 6. So I wrote a lot—some sports, but mostly news, arts and features. My stuff got professionally edited, and I could cross Nassau Street in the afternoon and pick up a copy of the paper and see exactly what had been changed. I even got a check every month. Princeton had no journalism major or school, but those opportunities were in place, and by taking advantage of them I got a glimpse of how I might make a living—and I quickly learned to like the variety and rhythm and satisfaction of it.
With Bryan Byrdlong, DeAntre Harleston and Elizabeth Ea in Nashville.
A.W.: I’m not sure I accept the premise. By the time of that ’84 cover story, Jordan was the buzz of the league. Certainly Nike had already made the bet that he was on his way.
I remember the exact moment I knew. It was in Cole Field House his junior year. Carolina was playing that Maryland team with Len Bias, nothing close to an easy out. But the Tar Heels were in control from the jump, and Jordan seemed to elevate just an inch or two higher and hang for a quarter- or half-second longer than anyone else on the floor. He did just about anything he wanted. Late in the second half some Terp threw a lazy pass to the wing, and Jordan jumped all over it and turned it into an exclamation point slam at the other end. I still remember being gathered around his locker afterward, when someone asked, “Were you trying to send a message with that dunk?”
“No messages,” he replied. He sounded all business, like an efficient secretary. That day, that’s when I knew.
I make no claim to being a great judge of talent. I thought Lancaster Gordon was can’t-miss. But from watching Jordan in college, even in that supposed straitjacket Dean Smith cloaked his guys in, I knew Jordan would have his way with the league. I even shook my head when two big guys went ahead of him in the draft.
J.P.:I have a thing in my head, and it’s this: Most Division I men’s college basketball coaches are slime. Happy to break rules, happy to use kids until they can no longer be used, much more concerned with the next job than developing men. Am I off on this? On? Are there more exceptions than I think?
A.W.: Actually, if we’re going to slander entire professions, let’s go after college football coaches. They’re imperious and self-important and even more extravagantly overpaid, with no more refined sense of loyalty than basketball coaches. At least basketball coaches know their guys—three to five in a typical class. Woody Hayes had a starting quarterback hurt in the middle of one game and famously sent in a backup whose name he didn’t know.
I don’t see how you can care about a player if you don’t have more than a nodding relationship with him. And how can you really know a kid if he’s one of a hundred, and there are layers of middle-management (this coordinator, that coordinator, outside linebackers coach, inside linebackers coach) between you and them? Yes, there are on-the-make college basketball coaches, and plenty who’ll light out for a better situation without a care for who’s left in the lurch. But the haughtiness that permeates big-time college football right now is breathtaking.
Remember Dabo Swinney on that John Oliver segment, grumbling about the “attitude of entitlement” he thinks infects kids these days? You want to see entitlement, take a look in the mirror, my man. And if Title IX or some other nefarious equity ethic steers any bowl money to the women or non-revenue men, the tantrums these guys throw. Give me John McKay, the old Southern Cal football coach. He said he only needed three platoons: an offensive team, a defensive team, and a team “to carry me off the field after we win.” A-friggin’-men.
Back in the day.
J.P.:You left Princeton after your sophomore year to spend a season playing for a third-division team in Lucerne, Switzerland. You had been merely an OK high school player. Um, how did this happen? And what do you remember from the experience?
A.W.: I was ready to “stop out” of college after two years, probably from some of the same restlessness that led to the Frost Heaves. This was back before even middle-schoolers talked about taking a “gap year,” and the concept was kind of revolutionary. A childhood friend, a Swiss-American, had played for the national junior team over there and was in college himself, in Fribourg, which happened to be where the Swiss Basketball Federation was based. The president of the federation wanted to develop hoop in the German-speaking part of the country, so my buddy passed along my name. I’d been the fifth option on my high school team, 6 feet tall and maybe 150 pounds, but I was American. When I got off the train in Lucerne, Andre, the G.M. who met me, must have been mortified. But third division club ball in Switzerland in the late Seventies was pretty crude, and I was as much a development worker as a ringer.
The club got me a nonverbal job working for an agricultural consulting firm, coloring maps to indicate soil aptitudes. I reffed rec league games around the canton and picked up a little more money that way. I read a lot. And I taught myself German, though I would have picked up a lot more if they didn’t speak that bizarre Swiss dialect.
When I returned to college the following fall I was much more mature and worldly. I’d like to say I caught a glimpse of the Euro-revolution that would remake the NBA. But mostly I was explaining to people who were conditioned to think of basketball as “not soccer” that it’s only a violation if you intentionally gain some advantage by striking the ball with your feet.
J.P.:What are the keys to reporting a great story? I know that’s a wide-open question, but … for you … what are you trying to do?
A.W.: It starts with the idea. If you have a notion for a story but struggle finding an entry point, or people to talk to, or simply what would go into a nut graf, heed those warning signs. There may be no there there. The last couple of decades I’ve done a lot of historical and issues-based pieces, and for both I’ll try to read widely before I do any interviewing—books and what I can find online, deadlines permitting. That helps with the inevitable passages where you set context, and it wins you goodwill when you go out to report because people know right away that you’ve done your homework and reached some threshold of giving a damn. For similar reasons, I try to swing by a library or historical society or archive once I’m out in the field. It’s amazing what gets stashed in those places, and how much the people who staff them know. Even if you only find one little fact, sometimes you can spin it into gold.
Another strategy that has worked well for me is to make sure to speak to the women around a male athlete or coach. It’s just the nature of things that most of our profile subjects are men, and male athletes are conditioned to put up a shield and resist being introspective or showing vulnerability. Wife, girlfriend, sister, aunt, grandmother—they’re the proxies who can speak to that stuff, the ones who kept the scrapbooks and dressed the skinned knees and remember every little setback along the way. And I think male and female readers alike kindle to something emotional, like a story out of childhood, or proof that even today’s hero was once a goat.
The test around the SI offices after someone filed a profile was simple: Does the story answer the question, “What’s he like?” Understanding that you can never flesh out someone’s whole bio in one magazine story, that’s still the test.
J.P.:I feel like all of us who do this long enough have a money story—that one thing we can tell at parties for years to come. For example, I’ve gotten tons of mileage out of the whole John Rocker saga. So what’s your money story? Craziest, weirdest, most-memorable experience from your life? Do tell …
A.W.: Actually, that Miami story might have been my Rocker moment. It hits, and all of Canes Land is in an uproar. I’m this bogeyman for Miami fans and an easy target for harassment. A drive-time radio jock cold calls my apartment early in the morning, live. I’d gotten smart enough not to pick up, but my answering machine greeting was “You’ve reached 212-blah-blah-blah. I’m sorry I’m not here to take your call . . ..” Which meant that my home number was broadcast all over South Florida, which touched off another round of abusive calls. The weirdest thing is that, in an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend twist, years later Nevin Shapiro decides to write me from prison because he wants to dish on his adventures in unrestrained Miami boosterdom and figures I can be trusted. I really bear no ill will toward Miami. Sometimes assignments just break a certain way.
For entertainment value at a party, though, I’ll default to something that happened while covering the Bulls during a late-Nineties playoff series. I find myself in the back seat of a car leaving a downtown Chicago club at 3 in the morning. Dennis Rodman is at the wheel. Carmen Electra is riding shotgun. He patches out, backward, down three city blocks, oblivious to the lights, then hits 90 on the Dan Ryan. She’s egging him on the whole way. I’m terrified, envisioning the headline: RODMAN, ELECTRA, ONE OTHER, DEAD IN CRASH.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ALEXANDER WOLFF:
• Rank in order (most desirable to least desirable), guys you can start a team with (from their primes): Fennis Dembo, Yinka Dare, Gerry McNamara, David Wingate, Lancaster Gordon, Laron Profit, Kit Mueller, Shawn Respert, Adam Keefe, Vin Baker: Baker, Respert, Gordon, Keefe, Profit, Dembo, Wingate, Dare, McNamara, Mueller (My head’s spinning from two Lancaster Gordon refs in one Quaz).
• Why wasn’t Reggie Williams a great NBA player?: He was a stick. George Gervin was the last real bag of bones to make it big, and Ice had that one signature shot. Great NBA players all have some signature shot or move, a little film clip that plays on your frontal lobe when his name is mentioned. Reggie didn’t really have that. (That little flip from along the baseline doesn’t count.)
If Reggie had come from some compass-point school in Michigan the way Gervin did, he might have developed a signature weapon. But at Georgetown he was a cog in a machine.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Leaving Denver on American, sitting in the back of the plane, there’s a loud pop from one of the two side rear engines just as we’ve taken off. Gulps all around the cabin, and the captain comes on, in that Chuck Yeager voice that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff: “Looks like we’ve had a little engine stall, so we’re going to circle back to the airport just to be on the safe side.” I’m no aeronautics whiz, but “engine stall” and “takeoff” would not seem to be an ideal combination. We make it safely back to DIA—I’ve always been grateful they didn’t name the place Denver Overseas Airport—and they subbed out the aircraft.
I do remember getting upgraded on that next flight.
• Our former SI colleague, Merrell Noden, died last year at 59. What can you tell me about him?: Merrell was an endlessly curious guy and a lovely writer who put up on a pedestal every one of the many people he counted as friends. There’s that Billy Collins line that “experience holds its graduation at the grave,” and Merrell was a great example. All the things you and I might have tried out through college, he was doing until the end. Taking piano lessons. Auditing math classes. Tutoring prisoners. Acting in a Shakespeare production. All while raising two magnificent kids and being a proud and supportive companion of his artist wife Eva.
• What’s the scouting report on Alexander Wolff, basketball player, 2016?: Can’t play without at least two days’ rest, ideally three. Only real shot is a square-up mid-range jumper. Beyond-the-arc range disappeared a dozen years ago, along with my core. Trying to backfill with “old man game,” but a guy needs more girth and better peripheral vision to really unlock OMG. Basically, more than 40 years after turning the age Janis Ian sang about inAtSeventeen, now one of “those whose names are never called/when choosing sides for basketball.”
• Christian Laettner—misunderstood lug or legitimate cocky asshole?: Legitimate cocky asshole. He’d tell you as much himself, which was a big part of his success.
• One question you would ask Soulja Boy were he here right now?: “You any relation to Arn Tellem, the Detroit Pistons executive, former player agent, and erstwhile Cheltenham (Pa.) High School classmate of ex-SI staffer Franz Lidz?”
• Elena Delle Donne as a serviceable low-level Division I shooting guard … possible? Ridiculous? Both? Neither?: I adore her game, and I’d love to see what she’d do dropped in among guys—but if you want real serviceability, probably best to try her at D-II or III.
• What are the most overused words in the Alex Wolff writing catalogue?: Maybe it’s my German heritage, but I love words that result from two other words getting scrunched together. Words like gainsay and woodsmoke and hardscrabble. Love them too much, probably.
My wife is my first reader, and she’s genuinely surprised when I write something that doesn’t have hardscrabble in it. Or hard by, as in, “a cabin that sits hard by a silo.” That’s a lot of hard. Guess you could say I take Viagra for my vocabulary.