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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell is Jake Plummer?

ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons is running a two-part interview with Malcolm Gladwell this week, and it's pretty cool. I like Gladwell is small doses, and his method works really well for discussing sports phenomena, like why players phone it in on non-contract years:
The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why [Phil] Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.

I believe someone's made a similar diagnosis about Paul Westerberg, but I don't really care enough to finish that idea...

I've said before that the limited number of moves Simmons has in his sportswriting playbook become really obvious when he's talking to a better writer (cf. Chuck Klosterman, who I tolerate in really, really small doses and who did a good job on the Super Bowl blog this year), and Simmons gets very anxious about it in the interview.
When I started reading you back in the mid-'90s, I remember being discouraged because you made writing seem so easy -- technically, you were almost flawless, and since I knew I couldn't write that well, you were one of those visible writers who made me feel like I was going to be bartending my whole life. You never waste a word. You come up with cool arguments and angles for your pieces, then you systematically prove/dismantle those same arguments and angles, and you do it in an entertaining, thoughtful, logical way. You never allow your biases to get in the way. You're better at writing than me in every way. Basically, I hate you.

My favorite Simmons columns are the ones where his friends make appearances because he's great at telling stories--except when they involve women, because I always feel like the women are cariacatures, even his wife--and he sounds less like a runner-up Klosterman (or Gladwell).


Blogger Ben on Sat Mar 04, 02:41:00 AM:
Women are definitely caricatures in Bill Simmons' writing, though so are men. In particular, he builds solidarity with his readers the same way the big Jewish stand-up comics did--by complaining about his wife. He tells frequent stories about him having to attend shopping trips or watch sappy movies or risk her withholding sex. This somehow fits right with the atmosphere of talking about sports, which is another way that men who don't know each other well can quickly form camaraderie.

Example: Simmons on being at a bar where Michael Jordan is playing cards in Houston on All-Star Weekend:

[Michael Jordan and Charles Oakley and friends] started playing a game called "Bid Wist," [sic] a form of spades that's popular among NBA players, with Oakley and MJ teaming up against two of their friends. We got to see MJ's legendary competitive streak in action. He was trash-talking nonstop, snickering sarcastically, cackling with every good card, badgering his opponents to the point that I actually thought one of them would start crying. This wasn't Corporate MJ, the one you and I know. This was Urban MJ, the one that comes out for the black Super Bowl. We never get to see this one.
And MJ kept getting louder and louder, and he and Oakley were cleaning up, and we're all watching them while pretending not to watch, and then suddenly ...

MJ's wife shows up.


Everyone makes room for her. She sneaks in and sits down right next to him. And poor MJ looks like somebody who took a no-hitter into the ninth, then gave up a triple off the left-field wall. The trash-talking stops. He slumps in his seat like a little kid. The cigar goes out. No more hangin' with the boys. Time to be a husband again. Watching the whole thing unfold, I lean over to Sully just to say, "Look at that, he's just like us."

And he was. Just your average guy getting derailed by his wife. For once in my life, I didn't want to be like Mike.