Memories of a sports writer

I was thinking today about what makes newspaper people different.

So many things, really, but what are the characteristics that set us apart from the rest? Let’s be honest here, nobody gets into journalism to make money. Some – very few – get rich in this business. But for the most part, the hours are long and all over the place and the money is just OK.

So what is it about us? Why, for instance, is the pull of newspapers so strong for me, personally?

I’m inquisitive. I like trying to understand people. Interesting people, at least.

I like to know what people are thinking and how their life experiences shaped them. Don’t just tell me you like baseball, tell me why you like baseball. That’s an example.

I’m intrigued by greatness. On Wednesday night, after Tekele Cotton’s amazing dunk in Wichita State’s game against Illinois State, I couldn’t wait to ask Cotton about the dunk. In my mind, I had conjured up a scenario in which he was going to become entertainingly analytical about his incredible athletic achievement. I was hoping he would break it down for me – and for readers – in an entertaining way.

But Cotton didn’t do that. He was polite when he answered my questions about the dunk. He’s always polite and there’s nobody I’d rather have on my side than Cotton.

To expect a 21-year-old to be analytical about something like that was, though, unrealistic. So I got the standard quotes and did my best to add color and ambiance to the dunk.

That’s my job as a writer. But my job as a writer is made easier when the people I’m writing about have similar introspective desires.

Most don’t.

Because I’m introspective and wish for others to be doesn’t mean I’m smarter than those who aren’t. It just means I’m constantly looking for the whys and hows. I’ve learned over time that most people, at least outwardly, aren’t as inquisitive as I am.

And I think being inquisitive is a trait most good journalists and newspaper people share. We like telling stories and the more interesting the people we write about, the better the story.

Last year, just before the Final Four, The Eagle’s Rick Plumlee was assigned to write a profile story about Cotton. And he pulled it off masterfully by talking to the people who know Cotton best: his family, friends and coaches.

Introspection comes with age. It’s rare for Cotton and others his age to reach for introspection because they’re living their lives in the moment. They – and I hate being too general here – haven’t taken the time to inspect their feelings and thoughts because there’s no reason to, really.

In 20 years, Cotton will have much more to say about the experience he’s living now. Time will lead to reflection, which will lead to an ability to assess the experience.

Our job as journalists, really, is to get people to share their thoughts, experiences, ideas, etc. And it’s not an easy job because most people are uncomfortable sharing those things. Trust has to be established, and sometimes there’s just not enough time.

I’ll use the Shocker basketball team as an example. As a columnist, I’m around these players some, but not a lot. I see them usually after games or occasionally after a practice. Occasionally, when I do something more in depth about a player, I’ll get to spend 20 or 30 minutes doing an interview.

I’ve been able to build some trust with some of the players. I’ve been able to learn quite a bit, for instance, about point guard Fred VanVleet, who is always willing to talk. He’s forthcoming and mature beyond his years. VanVleet and teammates Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early are all interesting guys. And young guys who haven’t totally grasped the notion of introspection.

While most people are most interested in their ability to shoot, pass, dribble and defend, I’m drawn to them as people. Who are they when they’re not being a Shocker basketball standout?

If I had to define what being a newspaper guy is, that’s probably the best description I can give. We like to dig beneath the surface. It’s why we’re so irritating.