Jeff Pearlman talks writing with The Big Lead: Books and Bleacher Report
It’s a good read because Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated writer who has also written books about Walter Payton, the ’90s Dallas Cowboys, Roger Clemons, Barry Bonds and the 1986 New York Mets, talks about his process of conceiving, researching and writing a book.
I tend to stroll through book stores, look online, see what’s out there, what’s not out there. I jot ideas, throw some by my friends, some by my agent, all by my wife. I have three considerations, and I’m pretty religious about them. 1. Is the subject something I’d enjoy obsessing over for the next 2-3 years? 2. Is there a reason for a book on the subject? 3. Does it at least have a chance of being a big seller? All the factors are equally important …
I wrote a proposal, gave it to Gotham—very quick agreement. I guess I had about 1 ½ years to work on the book. I spent the first year researching. Which means finding every imaginable clip about the team, the players, the coaches, the time period. Buying every book written by anyone associated with the era. Then tracking everyone down. By everyone, I mean everyone. I traveled to Canada to hang with Mike Smrek, to Miami to lunch with Billy Thompson, to LA to chill with Larry Spriggs. The Lakers had a backup point guard named Ronnie Lester, and I ran into him completely by accident. He must have thought I was insane, because I screamed, “Ronnie Lester!” Nobody had ever been happier to see him.
Pearlman makes the interesting point that he thinks of books about teams like the Lakers as not being “about the stars.” He focuses on figures who are less well known, because they tend to have tales that have not been told.
Magic, Kareem and Riley have combined to write nine or 10 books. They’ve said all they have to say, and even if I’m interviewing at my absolute best, there’s only so much juice left to squeeze. But I sat with Wes Matthews inside a Bridgeport diner and had a PhD-level course on Showtime. I watched Bill Bertka—a former assistant coach—break down the offense like nobody’s business. The team was originally coached by Jack McKinney, and we sat on his patio in Florida and chatted away about what could have been. Just great, great times. Great.
So I report and report and report, and with six months left I say, “Time to write.” And I spend the remaining time roaming from coffee shop to coffee shop with these ludicrously large duffle bags stuffed with paper. If I saw me coming, I’d walk the other way.
So now you know the process of writing a sports history book. What’s keeping you? I think the world wants to know a lot more than it does about the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, for one thing.
A couple of months ago I was approached by Bleacher Report about writing one lengthy piece per month for nice compensation. I was flattered and, truthfully, intrigued. The site has hired some great writers; clearly, it’s working to establish itself as a player. So … why not? I’ve had a nice career, but it’s not like I get 1,000 offers a day to write 7,000-word pieces for good money for a site with great visibility. And, to be honest, the [Willie] Williams story idea was theirs, not mine. It was a fantastic idea, too.
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Correction: Pearlman’s name was misspelled in the headline on publication. Apologies for the error.