Jeff Pearlman

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L. Jon Wertheim

#244
The longtime Sports Illustrated writer and editor talks the art of interviewing, the love of tennis, the survival of magazines, the awesomeness of Dairy Queen—and his new book, "This is Your Brain on Sports." POSTED February 2, 2016

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In many regards, I owe the subject of today’s 244th Quaz my happiness.

Back in 1999, when we were co-workers moving up the ladder at Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim invited me to his wedding. I was, truly, a fringe guest; an office chum and probably the 199th of 200 invitees. Not only had I known Jon for just three years, but I’d never met Ellie, his fiance.

Anyhow, that night—standing alongside Grant Wahl (another SI pro)—I watched as this angelic little creature (Ellie’s best friend) gave a toast as the maid of honor. She was beautiful and energetic and, it seemed, a bit nervous …

Seventeen years later, she’s my wife and the mother of our two kids.

All because of Jon Wertheim.

That said, he’s not this week’s Quaz because of any sort of payback. Nope, Jon happens to be one of America’s best sports journalists; a dazzling writer and storyteller who has mastered the art of turning spoken words into timeless features. He also happens to be the author of an excellent new book, “This is Your Brain on Sports,” which lands everywhere today. I’ve known Jon for two decades, and he’s one of the most decent and compassionate people in the business. He also loves Dean Garrett and Dairy Queen (but no one’s perfect). One can follow Jon on Twitter here, and read much of his work here.

Jon Wertheim, welcome to the land of the Quaz …

J.P.: Jon, I’m gonna start randomly joyful. A decade ago you wrote an excellent book about Indiana basketball called, “Transition Game.” During the promotional period, you were sent to a bookstore that didn’t exist. Details, please …

J.W.: First off, there is a vast gulf between the perception and reality of a “book tour,” a concept that sounds infinitely more glamorous than it, in fact, is. This was a decade ago or so. I don’t want to pick on the publicist because I’m sure he was overworked, undercompensated and given limited resources. I was sent to a Fort Wayne Barnes & Noble for a signing—which consisted mostly of me sitting idly behind a table alongside a stack of unsold books and explaining to passers-by that, no, I didn’t know where the diet books were located or whether gift-wrapping was free. (Every author has stories like this.)

On my itinerary, I was told that I should make time to visit another Fort Wayne store in the afternoon. The Coffee-Stained Cover, or whatever it was called. So after this B&N debacle, I drive to the strip mall, do a cursory check in the rearview mirror of my rental car to make sure I don’t have remnants of my Chipotle lunch in my teeth, optimistically grab my Sharpie and get out of the car … only to see that the store is vacant. I ask someone at the neighboring establishment whether the store has moved or I have the wrong address. “Nah, they shut down a few months back.” O-kay.

I call my publicist and ask how exactly this shuttered store ended up on my schedule. He mumbled something to the effect of, “Well, I know we had a good relationship with them in the past.”

“Yeah, but did you actually contact someone at the store in advance of my visit?”

“Well, not necessarily. But, again, that store had been good to our authors in the past.”

J.P.: You’re the executive editor of Sports Illustrated, which means you’ve seen this whole journalism thing from a writer’s perspective and an editor’s perspective. So, having that vision, what becomes of print journalism? Is there a physical magazine on paper a decade from now? Two decades from now? Do you think the decline of print has hurt the business? Quality and such? Helped? Does it bother you? Not concern you? Both? Neither?

J.W.: I feel like there’s this great irony in media. Many of us got into this profession, yes, because it allowed us to write and travel and meet interesting people and tell our stories and offer our commentary; but also because it was an alternative to spending days working under fluorescent lights, consumed with quarterly revenue reports, P/L statements, spreadsheets, focus group data and the like. Because of the—I think this year’s euphemism is precarious–state of media, we’ve all turned into management consultants. Without irony, we spend half of our time discussing whether gains in digital can offset the decline in print or how an a la carte pricing model for cable might impact ESPN’s cash flow in the era of cord-cutting.

As for SI, I don’t think I’m trafficking in industrial secrets when I say that the print magazine is still profitable. (And, immodestly, I would assert that the quality on the pages is still, consistently, high.) I’d like to think that, so long as that’s the case, there will be a place for the print product. But, honestly, I’m indifferent to platform and think most of my colleagues are as well. It’s like Willie Sutton and the banks—you’re happy to go where the audience is.

I have two optimistic riffs. 1) if no one gave a shit about sports, we’d be in trouble. But people are more engaged than ever. So long as that’s the case, this is a solvable riddle and we should proceed on the assumption that there will always be a place for well-told stories, incisive columns, enterprising ideas, investigations etc. I will always want to read Steve Rushin and Tom Verducci and Scott Price, whether it’s on my phone or in hieroglyphics on my cave wall.)  2) The dirty secret is that this uncertain, multi-platform world is a lot of fun. You write one day and do t.v. on another day and try not to embarrass yourself podcasting on the third. It’s like MMA versus boxing The notion of only being a writer (or commentator or radio host) and not doing the other disciplines, sort of seems as limiting as only using your fists in combat.

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J.P.: You have a book coming out today called “This is Your Brain on Sports.” I was riveted by the chapter on quarterbacks and looks, and whether the position truly draws handsome men. And I wonder—what even made you think to explore the subject? I mean, where did the idea come from? How do you go about pursuing it? Is the a result you’re anticipating, or hoping for?

J.W.: My co-conspirator, Sam Sommers, is a social psychologist. At the early stages of this book, we brainstormed—to use a cringe-inducing word—and came up with a list of topics to explore. The whole idea of the book is to try and explain and/or explore some of the quirks of sports. Why do we root for cheaters when they play for our team but boo like crazy when Ryan Braun comes to town? Why do athletes choke? Why do athletes play so well in the immediate aftermath of tragedy? (You know better than anyone about the game Brett Favre had the weekend his dad died.)  Why do we go nuts for that stupid t-shirt cannon? “Why are quarterbacks so good looking?” was high on the list. When we tested this, the results were really interesting.

J.P.: You may well disagree with this, but I feel like when we were coming up at SI, we all had our little breakout moments. I guess mine would be John Rocker, and yours, perhaps, would be Paternity Ward, the 1998 piece you co-authored with Grant Wahl on pro athletes and out-of-wedlock children. The story was doggedly reported, deftly written—and included a cover featuring the young son of Celtics guard Greg Minor. I remember, at the time, feeling conflicted. Was this right, or was it taking it too far? I don’t think I ever had an answer. But looking back almost 18 years—do you? Was the magazine wrong, right, journalistic? And what do you, specifically, recall from the reporting?

J.W.: You mean the story itself or the cover? I think the story was—and is—fair. I would sign off on it today if the idea crossed my desk. The cover … yeah, now that the statute of limitations has lapsed, I would probably be inclined do it differently today. It was an arresting image, no doubt. But that poor guy—no longer a kid—had no agency, no say in what was a pretty major decision. He could perfect the self-driving car or win the Heisman trophy and Google might still identify him as the poster child (literally) for athletes having children out-of-wedlock. At least once a year a colleague or reader will encourage me to write a “Where are They Now?” piece on the kid—notice that I’m taking pains not to mention him by name–who’s now in his 20s. I have no interest. Give the guy his privacy.

With the legendary Bud Collins.

With the legendary Bud Collins.

J.P.: I know you’re an Indiana kid, I know you attended Yale, I know you have a law degree. So … why journalism? Why (and how) this path?

J.W.: I get this a lot and always feel like I should have a better answer than I do. I guess it ultimately redounds to this: I care about (and like) writing and reporting and being in media, more than anything else.

Like so many people in media (and this is a real virtue of the profession), my path was random. After my first year of law school, I worked as a summer associate in a big firm. I was well-paid, met important people, ate fabulous lunches…and almost got carpel tunnel syndrome looking at my watch, hoping the days would end. There was no way in hell I had the constitution to do that for the next 40 years. That next summer I applied for an internship at Sports Illustrated. This was (gulp) 1996, after O.J. and Mike Tyson and at a time when there was a realization that the intersection between sports and the law was only getting busier. I was told, “Go be a junior Lester Munson.” I had a great time and, cheesy as this sounds, felt like I’d found my tribe. I stayed on staff for my third year of law school, graduated, took the New York bar and started at SI the next day. Grant Wahl and I shared an office. You were a few doors down. Been here ever since; and am hopelessly behind in my NY State bar dues.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

J.W.: Lowest moment? I don’t know. We’ve all stories had we wish we could do-over. Phrases and conceits (and entire pieces) that now make us cringe. Times we could have and should have reported more vigorously or creatively. Times when we were sloppy or lazy. I remember being pretty down after covering Penn State and Sandusky. I spent a week there and I remember coming back and thinking, “This sports industrialist complex created this climate. The hero worship. The absence of accountability. These insulated athletic departments that are mere outgrowths of the university. And much as we like to think of ourselves as these watchdogs, we’re all part of the machine.”

Greatest moment? I don’t know. Here’s one and I hope this doesn’t come across as self-serving: I’m really proud of Sports Illustrated in 2016. What do I mean by this? When you and I started at SI in the mid/late 90s, it was the tail end of the golden age of magazines. We had off-site junkets and fancy parties with ice sculptures and lines of black town cars to take us home in our intoxicated states. No expense was spared in pursuing a story. Resources were abundant. Today it’s obviously a much different media climate. And with a much smaller staff and in this do-more-with-less era, we still crank out a magazine every week, break news, win awards, have an editing process that improves the quality, run a 24/7 website, feature some dazzlingly good writing. We do podcasts and launch SI Films and projects like Peter King’s MMQB site. We have more diverse staff—gender, ethnicity, age, but also sensibility and writing styles—than when you and I started. Sure, there are swings and misses. And of course there are times when it’s a pity we don’t have the resources that we had in the 90s. And, still, we’re doing independent journalism we can be proud of. In a weird way, to me, the job is as gratifying now as it was in the flush times.

J.P.: I’ve always admired your ability to get people to open up. Seriously—you’re really good at it. So … how? What are the keys to interviewing people? How do you make subjects feel comfortable and relaxed?

J.W.: Hey thanks. Seriously. I believe Verducci once made a similar point to you and I think it’s really instructive. Sometimes just making small talk—without scribbling notes or thrusting a recording device against an athlete’s chin—goes a long way. Same for asking a question you know they’ve never been asked before. It’s a luxury, I realize. For a Sports Illustrated feature you might have a few days in town and a chance to build rapport that others may not. But these post-game scrums are so unappealing and so not conducive to rapport

J.P.: Your main sport has been tennis, and you’ve probably covered Venus and Serena as much as anyone out there. This might sound naïve and will definitely sound simplistic—but are they likeable? Are they nice? Has fame changed them, in the way you and I have seen so many athletes go from modest to dickish? Or are they basically the same women they were when you met them X years ago?

J.W.: Tennis is my guilty pleasure. I have no delusions about its status as a niche sport—Wimbledon ratings will pale in comparison to an NFL preseason game—but the flip side is that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to cover a sport that’s close-knit (and so congenitally crazy). Maybe 18 months ago, I wanted to do a long sit-down with Roger Federer, the greatest player of all time. The response: “Okay, sure, what time’s good for you?” No ground rules. No demands to reference a charitable foundation. No minder sitting in on the interview. Maybe because there are no home teams, it’s this global sport with this family environment.

All that said … well, where to begin with the Williams sisters? For one, my time covering tennis corresponds almost exactly with their emergence, so I feel this real kinship. I covered them when they were this curiosity with an outrageous dad. When they became No.1. When they had their assorted setbacks. When they became these dignified figures playing deep into their 30s. In different ways, they’ve both chosen to be fairly opaque and not put themselves up for public dissection. I totally respect that. We’ve always been cordial. Venus once kindly agreed to be a guest for a writing class I taught. But even after all these years, I wouldn’t say I know them particularly well. Are they the same as they were as teenagers? No. But we all evolve. Three random points: A) I maintain this is still one of the great underrated stories in sports. This is the equivalent of LeBron James having a brother who is the second-best NBA player of the last 20 years. B) Close as they are, they are strikingly, determinedly different people. Once, they were conflated as the Williams sisters. No more. C) Their pressures and burdens and expectations are so different from those of other tennis players they must be held to a different standard.

With Tommy Hearns and the late Emanuel Steward

With Tommy Hearns and the late Emanuel Steward

J.P.: Is it OK to be a sports journalist and a fan? Can you root for the Mets? Can, say, Lee Jenkins root for the Chargers? Is that allowed? Are there limits? And have the expectations changed through the years?

J.W.: There is of course the no-cheering-in-the-press-box dictum. We root for the stories, not for teams/players. But I feel like A) objectivity is a false god. B) There’s an unofficial rule that you get you one team you can hang onto and call your own. It has the effect of keeping your fan sensibilities intact and acting as a safeguard to keep the sports media type from becoming entirely jaded and neutral.

It helps to be up front about it. It helps if the team is not from a sport you cover regularly. If it is a long-suffering franchise (my Indiana Pacers; Lee’s Chargers; Grant’s Royals—at least before 2014) so much the better. But put it this way: for all that plagues sports media and for all the ethical questions and challenging, this one doesn’t rank high with me.

J.P.: What’s the book-writing process for you? I know you dig writing in the local YMCA. But, soup to nuts, how do you go about it? What’s the process?

J.W.: Now that I’m no longer writing full-time, sadly, it’s less a process than just a matter of banging away when I have a block of free time. I do love writing at my local YMCA—the most populist place you’ll find in Greenwich Village. (The wifi is dodgy which, of course, is a disguised blessing.) Macro process? I get an idea. Then I use an old trick Scott Price once taught me and ask myself: “If I saw this book out there and it was written by someone else, would it upset me?” If the answer is yes, I poke around with some reporting, make sure it can sustain itself for 90,000 words (or double that if I am Jeff Pearlman) and then crank out a proposal.

I tend to work pretty fast and one reason is that I write as I go. For my first book, I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. I figured I’d spend X months on the reporting phase and block off three months to write 1,000 words each day. What you realize is that the memory fades and trying to recreate interviews and reread notes months later is a fools errand. So when I have an interview or witness a scene or just have an idea, I try to force myself to stay up late and put pen to paper. You can always go back and sharpen the prose. But waiting months to try to write about a conversation/event is a mistake. “Pen to paper” is a horrible cliché, but I mean it literally. Another one of mine habits is to write out every paragraph by hand in a notebook—each graf gets its own page—and then when I fire up the laptop, I at least have a plan and am not staring at the blank screen.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH L. JON WERTHEIM:

• Why don’t you use Lewis Wertheim as a byline?: Never liked my name, Lewis. All the more so when I’m about to start middle school (in the sensitivity hotbed that is southern Indiana), “Revenge of the Nerds” comes out and the lead character’s name is Lewis. Even spelled the same way.

Me: “I hate my name.”

Parents: “Too bad. When you leave home and get to college, call yourself whatever you want. Use your middle name. See if we care.”

Me, first day of college: “Hi, I’m Jon Wertheim.”

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Keith Smart, Peter Cetera, Dairy Queen, Finland, Jeb Bush, lamb kabob, Steve DeBerg, “Word Freak,” Plato, Olive Garden, Mo Cheeks: Dairy Queen, hands down. Then? Keith Smart, lamb kabob, Word Freak, Finland, Mo Cheeks (underrated player; overrated coach), Steve DeBerg, Olive Garden, Peter Cetera. (Jeb Bush, I find deeply sympathetic these days. You see him saying to himself, “Wait, I was governor of a state with a GNP bigger than Saudi Arabia’s; and I’ve been rendered irrelevant by this carnival barker?”)

• Three memories from your first date with your wife: Philadelphia, fall of 1994. Nothing says “romance” like the 76ers’ home opener at The Spectrum. Three things? Shawn Bradley. Zero points. Six fouls. The rest, as they say …

• One question you would ask Taylor Dayne were she here right now?: To what extent do feel responsible for the fact that two of every five friends my kids bring home appear to be named Taylor?

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never. But I was flying back from Atlanta recently and the woman next me announced that she hates flying. Fair enough. We hit minor turbulence. She closes her eyes, bites her tongue and grasps my hand. For a solid twenty minutes, I am holding hands with a stranger. Eventually she releases. No “thanks” or sheepish “sorry” much less “let me buy you a gift from Skymall.” Plane lands and she departs as if we’ve never had an interaction.

• You could make the argument my kids don’t exist if we never meet. So, eh, what do I owe you?: Dairy Queen.

• Best joke you know: “I like foosball. It’s the perfect combination of soccer and shish kabob.” — Mitch Hedberg.

• Five greatest female Jewish sports journalists of your lifetime: My inner pr department is telling me to duck this one for fear I’ll omit someone obvious, make a false assumption, etc. Jane Leavy, Andrea Kremer, Maggie Gray, Emily Kaplan, Mary Carillo Stein.

• If you played John McEnroe in tennis right now, and he has a patch over his left eye, what’s the final score?: 0-6, 0-6

• Your all-time favorite book …: Fiction: “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan. Non-fiction: “Breaks of the Game” by David Halberstam.

  • Joe Schackman

    A few years ago as a young buck I went to Gelf Varsity Letters in NYC when Jeff was speaking about Sweetness. At one point he pointed out Jon Wertheim. I had read Scorecasting and subscribed to SI so it grabbed my attention. As I was waiting to get my book signed by Jeff (and hound him about a sports blog I had started) I went over to Jon and said, probably a little too excited, said “You’re L. Jon Wertheim!?” He looked at me like I was nuts, to the point that I thought I had the wrong guy. I corrected myself and said Jon Wertheim and he said ya. Then we talked about Scorecasting for a minute. Good times!

    Cool Quaz!

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Jon is such a great writer with a genius combination of humility and humor. Thanks for featuring him!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life