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Apr 30 / King Kaufman

Rick Reilly’s “five decades” of wisdom, some of it actually wise

Rick Reilly has announced he’s giving up his ESPN column in June, but he published a piece last week that reads like a valedictory.

I confess I’m not a fan of Reilly, who I find is often sentimental, lazy and out of touch. Even in this piece, he refers to “my five decades of sports writing.” That sounds like he’s been at it for 50 years or so, doesn’t it? Well, according to Wikipedia, Reilly is 56. He began writing for his college newspaper when he was 21, so it’s three and a half decades, but because of the accident of that year being 1979, he gets to write “five decades” and have it be sort of true. Reilly in a nutshell.

But he’s a giant in the business, and I did like his writing a few decades ago, when both of us were younger. And whether you’re a fan or not, if you can’t learn something from someone who’s telling you what he’s learned in “five decades of sports writing”—or even three and a half—you’re probably missing something.

Here are the nuggets of good advice for writers:

  • A good sports column is like a good movie. You have to introduce them to a person they like, set that person’s house on fire, and get them out.
  • If you’re not sure you need it, you don’t need it. That goes for cars, clothes and paragraphs.
  • Screw writer’s block. Take a shower, go write at a deli, write standing up, switch to a legal pad, write the ending, write the middle, run around the block, chug a Red Bull. Just don’t quit. Quitting is the express lane to the restaurant industry.
  • The best stories aren’t on the cover. They’re the kid at the end of the bench, the fan who snuck into the game, the coach who shouldn’t be alive. They’re the ones that are hardest to find, and hardest to forget.
  • A lie has to be tended, watched and guarded. A truth you send out on its own.
  • If you’re trying to start your career, you can’t wait for the phone to ring. You have to make it ring.

I would add that sometimes, the best stories are “on the cover.” But remembering that the kid on the end of the bench—not to mention the kid two spots up the bench from there—has a story is a great way to stand out from the crowd. As a 50-year-old who started writing for his high school paper in 1978, I’m happy to share one of the things I’ve learned in my five decades of sportswriting.