Interview: Bill Simmons, ESPN's 'The Sports Guy'/Author of The Book of Basketball
The Book of Basketball, the latest from ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons hits shelves today. Bill, who is also known simply as "The Sports Guy" will be in town November 9th signing copies of the book at LA Live. | Photo by Steven Barry courtesy of ESPN Books
Bill's ability to be more than just a sports guy earned him a job as a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, causing him to leave Boston for Los Angeles in 2002. While he no longer works for the show, Simmons stayed here in LA. He's currently the executive producer of the highly-praised ESPN documentary series 30 For 30.
Previously known as "The Boston Sports Guy" for his column that he began in 1997 on the now defunct Digital City Boston (what Bill has described as "AOL's Digital Newspaper"), Simmons loves the NBA. He loves the NBA so much, he's written a 700 page book dedicated to it, The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy, which hit shelves today.
The man who was recently called "probably the most popular sports columnist in the country" by Huffington Post took some time to talk to LAist. Bill talked to us about meeting long time nemesis Isaiah Thomas at a topless pool in Vegas, his writing style, sports blogs, dropping F-bombs in his book and meeting readers on his book tour which hits ESPN Zone at LA on November 9th.
How much do you think the location of the meeting with Isaiah Thomas helped the situation? Do you think we’ll see more meetings with nemeses at topless pools?
I really think it’s a solid blueprint. I think when you have exposed breasts around I think everyone eases up a little bit and your concentration isn’t as intense as maybe it would normally be. Also it was about 110 degrees so everyone was a little woozy anyways. It was a great atmosphere for what transpired.
It’s funny, I was getting emails from people like, ‘I can’t believe you sucked up to Isaiah.’ First of all, I don’t think the excerpt made it seem like this, but we really did have a back-and-forth for about 15 minutes that I wouldn’t call totally heated but it definitely was a little tense. I didn’t back down. I was like ‘I think the two biggest mistakes you made were Jalen Rose and Steve Francis. I think those were horrible trades.’ And he explained what happened.
It’s weird hearing someone really intelligently explain terrible decisions to you. When you’re in the moment, as I wrote you’re like ‘Oh yeah, that does make sense.’ Within 15 minutes from walking away I was thinking about it and I was like ‘Wait a minute! That doesn’t make any sense!’ When someone’s explaining it to you with a big smile on their face and looking you in the eye, you just have a way of kind of getting sucked in.
There are other people besides Isaiah Thomas who have been targets in your column. Is there anyone you’ve been worried about meeting because of something you’ve written about them?
I’m never worried about meeting anybody. What’s going to happen? We’re going to get into a fistfight? I mean, it’s always awkward.
I guess the most uncomfortable person to meet now would be Mike Dunleavy because we’ve kind of had this back-and-forth going. I think he’s a horrible coach. In my NBA preview column, I actually praised him -- He’s been a good GM for two years now. I just wish the GM could fire the coach. I know he doesn’t like me but I don’t like him so we wouldn’t have any common ground to talk about.
Other than that, I guess it would be weird to meet Kobe just because I’ve written so much about him, good and bad. He probably has no idea. I bet he hasn’t read one word of it. It would just be weird for me, personally, to meet someone who I’ve watching from distance this whole time and trying to figure out. I don’t know, it would just be strange to me.
I notice in the excerpts that ESPN censored some of the language. Did it feel liberating to write without having to worry about that for the book?
Totally. In fact, when I handed in the rough draft of the manuscript it had so many F-bombs. I was like ‘Fuck it! I just want to write it this way. Fuck it! I want to be R-rated.'
Eventually I realized that I wanted it to be a big book and a book that someone under 16, someone in that 10-16 range could read. I have a few F-bombs in there but it’s basically like a soft R-rated movie. You can take your son to it, maybe mom will give you some trouble but ultimately it’s ok he’s not going to be damaged.
I do have a couple dick jokes. A couple dick stories. There’s an all dick team. There’s a one page analogy comparing Karl Malone’s 1997 MVP to a strip joint story. I’m excited about that. Anyone who reads the book will be excited about the concept of the ‘Tipping Point Friend’ which is something that I don’t think they’d run on ESPN.com. There’s enough stuff in there for people to get their R-rated fix.
You've got a pretty extensive book tour lined up. I've been to one of your book signings. I saw fans bring you gifts. I remember a guy asked you to pose for a photo of you crushing a Rocky V DVD. You spend a few minutes talking to everyone. Are these fan interactions the reason why you do such a long book tour?
I loved it the last time. I’m in front of my computer all day. Writing is a solitary act. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do 30 For 30 and really pushed for it because I wanted to be involved in a group effort - doing conference calls, and going to meetings. That’s what I loved about working for Jimmy’s show.
I like being around people. I don’t like being alone. When you’re a writer you’re alone. The chance for me to meet readers, and get their takes on things and see who the readers are is fascinating to me. I could have gotten away with doing like one week, but I’m going to end up doing five in all because I like going to different parts of the country.
A common compliment of your writing, whether it’s from my friends who are fans or your former colleague the late Ralph Wiley, is that you write in a style that makes readers want to hang out with you. When you were coming up and developing your voice, was that something you were aiming for or was that something you felt like was missing from the sports writing you were reading?
Both things are true. The writers that I seemed to like the most when I was growing up were writers that I felt like I knew them and they were my friends. And they were people that wrote in the first person. I just felt like I knew them. They put enough of themselves into their writing that they became a real person to me. Roger Angell, William Goldman, Ray Fitzgerald who was a great Boston Globe sports columnist at the time, even Mike Lupica in the 80s, Raymond Carver - a lot of his short stories were in first person. Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game, even though it was a third person book I still felt like he was in it the whole time.
I think as I was developing a style, that’s just the way it kind of happened. It wasn’t intentional. It was an aftereffect of it.
In the Mark Cuban episode of your podcast, you both talked about how self-publishing and social networking has impacted journalism. You talked a lot about how players can get their message out without having to talk to a reporter. Where do you see players on Twitter and social networking going?
We’re already seeing what can happen. Players are breaking stories and getting their points across and bypassing the media completely which is something that has never happened before.
I honestly don’t think people are making it a big enough deal. It’s a much bigger deal than people realize. I don’t think enough people have been talking about it. This NBA season is going to be fascinating because the NBA seems to have the highest percentage of players who just have no edit system. Right after a game, we’ll see guys go online and talk about how they dunked on somebody. We’re going to see more feuding and fights through Twitter. It’s such a long season and there’s so many chances to get upset with a player or teammate. We’re going to see guys like take a shot at somebody in the heat of the moment after the game on Twitter and then an hour later say, ‘Oh shit! Why did I say that?’ I think it’s going to be fascinating. It’s already has been fascinating.
The NBA for whatever reason has always been the funniest sport. It’s always been funnier than all of the other sports combined. The social networking thing seems to propel it to another level.
Also, on your podcast you mentioned that you’ve seen sports blog evolve to the point where now the bigger sports blogs are contacting you for a comment, when maybe they wouldn’t do that in the beginning. What do you think of the evolution of the sports blogs?
I really don’t think about it. It seems that they spend more time thinking about what their place is in the whole landscape than just writing. Whatever. Everybody’s been a struggling writer at some point. Everybody’s trying to break through. This isn’t a civil rights movement. Just write good stuff and people will find you. I don’t think there’s some magic elixir or some magic secret.
I started my site in 1997 and it was a little different because there wasn’t this same linking back and forth and all that stuff. I was on my own just like everybody else.
If you’re good, people are going to find you. You can twist it around every way you can and say ‘What does this mean? Where’s this going? Is this a movement?’ But it comes down to ‘Are you a good writer? Do you have good information? Do your readers trust you? Do you have an interesting spin on things that people haven’t seen? Are you funny?’ That’s the stuff that’s going to get you read. I don’t think that’s changed. That was the same case in 1980 as it is in 2009.
Beyond that, I think if you’re a young writer you want to be a young writer in 2009. I said this in the Huffington Post, in 1994 I might have been the best young sports columnist ever or maybe not, I don’t know. But I never had the chance to learn what the answer was to that question. Now I would have the chance to find out because I’d be able to start my own site and I would have been able to throw myself into all the things that I wanted to do.
Instead of constantly wondering ‘What are we? What’s our identity?’ just go out and kick ass.
How involved were you with selecting the directors for 30 For 30?
Well there were three stages. The first stage was just me and Conor Schell, we had the idea, developed it, figured out what we wanted to do, figured out what topics we wanted to do and figured out what directors we definitely wanted to work with.
Then we just started sending people out to meet them. I only went out on a few meet and greets because it’s a pain in the ass for me during the day to fly to different cities to meet people.
We had a general idea in mind. 'Maybe this guy would be great for this,' and a lot of times the filmmakers would surprise us. When we met Peter Berg, he told us ‘I was here when Gretzky came to town, I always wanted to do something,’ and I was like ‘Wow! That could be interesting.’ You’re kind of counting on the people to give you the energy for whatever idea they had.
We also developed a really good shit detector with who likes sports and who didn’t because a lot of people pose out here. They tell you they’re huge Lakers fans and they’re really not. You can tell who the real sports fans are, at least I can. It’s one of my rare talents. I can talk to someone for two minutes and know whether they’re full of shit about if they like sports or not. We wanted to find people who genuinely liked sports and were really attached to whatever they were doing.
The trailer for ESPN's 30 For 30 series, executive produced by Bill Simmons
When you have somebody visiting LA for the first time from the east coast, what are some things that are on the agenda?
Depends on the friend. I have a friend who when they're in town, we’ll just take my dogs up Runyon Canyon. I have other friends who I'll take to Manhattan Beach and eat at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House like I just did with my friend House, and then after that maybe go to the beach and go to that Starbucks that’s up on the hill in Manhattan.
I have friends that would have fun if I took them Beverly Hills to one of the hotel bars and catch how fucking strange that whole scene is. That’s one of the most underrated things about LA is that there’s something for everybody. Even if you just said, ‘Get in my car with the top down and let’s drive around for an hour. Let me show you Mulholland Drive.’ People are flabbergasted by Mulholland Drive.
LA gets a bad rap sometimes because I don’t think the average person realizes how many cool things there are out here. On top of everything, if you want to go for the home run you go to Malibu. Everyone who doesn’t live here is absolutely flabbergasted by Malibu.
For more with Bill, check out Bostonist's interview.