The Dean Smith story

At this point I’ll never catch up with all the people who have said nice things in one place or another about my Dean Smith story. It’s a great problem to have. As a writer, the one thing you want more than anything is for people to read your work and respond to it. So to anyone I’ve missed, or I might miss as I try to get back to people: Thanks. Your thoughts mean the world to me.

It takes a village to do a story like this — design, layout, photos, video, editing and copyediting and factchecking. I was in the hands of some incredible people at ESPN — especially my longtime friend Jena Janovy, who pulled all this together, and my new friend Jay Lovinger, who pointed the story in the right direction. Thanks to everyone up in Bristol.

This next part is more for my personal archives than anything else, but if you’re interested, here are a few interviews I’ve done since the story came out:

Only a Game from NPR

The Paul Finebaum Show from ESPN Radio (I’m in hour 2 on March 6)

The David Glenn Show (I’m at the top of Hour 2)

Carolina Connection from the UNC J-school

The Mac Attack on WFNZ in Charlotte

Adam and Joe on 99.9 FM in Raleigh

Also: Thanks to Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated and the folks with The Atlantic for putting the story among their favorites of the week. And a special thanks to Mark Johnson, the brilliant journalist with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for highlighting the story on his blog.

There are so many great Dean stories that didn’t make the cut for this piece. While you’re here, let me share a couple.

Roy Williams told me this one: When Eddie Fogler, Dean’s longtime assistant, got his first head coaching job at Wichita State, Dean called a tailor in Wichita. (Yes, Dean somehow knew a tailor in Wichita.) Dean told the tailor to cut four or five new suits for Fogler so he’d look good on the sideline. But don’t tell him I’m paying for it, Dean said. Tell him you’re doing it as a welcome to Wichita. “I just happened to be in the room when he made the call,” Williams said. “Nobody would’ve ever known about it otherwise.”

One more quick one, from Barb Fordham, the widow of Dean’s close friend Chris Fordham: The Fordhams would sometimes drive Dean to games if they were close by. (He let the players be by themselves on the team bus.) One night they went to Raleigh to play N.C. State. The Wolfpack won. After the game, Dean got in the car, shrugged and said: “Well, at least we made some people happy tonight.”


The Truth of Time


Last weekend I spoke at an event called Dazzle Gradually, sponsored by the very cool people with the Friday Arts Project in Rock Hill. There were poets, musicians, visual artists, and the world’s greatest novelist/peach farmer, Dori Sanders.

Here’s the text of my talk — as always, I changed it around a little in the telling. The Friday Arts Project folks recorded the talk, and if they ever put it online, I’ll share it. The poem at the end is published with permission of the great David Tucker.


I want to tell you a story.

Several years ago I spent a few months working on a piece for the Charlotte Observer about an old photograph. It was a picture of a young girl, wearing a dress her grandmother made for her, walking up to her new school on the first day of class. There’s a crowd around her. They are screaming at her and throwing things and somebody has spit on that dress her grandmother made. The girl’s name is Dorothy Counts, and on that day in 1957, she helped integrate the Charlotte schools. A great photographer named Don Sturkey took that photo of Dorothy, surrounded by those angry white kids, and the photo ran all over the world.

In the piece I was writing, I set out to tell Dorothy’s story, but also the stories of some of the white kids in that photo. I wanted to know how they felt 50 years later about what they had done. It took a long time to get some of them to talk to me. It took longer still to get a couple of them to meet with Dorothy and talk about how they felt about how they’d treated her. And then after that it took even more time to write the story and try to draw out what it meant. I looked at that photo a thousand times if I looked at it once. And then one day I looked at it and saw something new. Years after I first saw the photo, and months after I started writing about it, I finally saw something that felt like the truth. This is what I wrote at the end of the story.

But surely Dot, and all those others, opened the eyes of white people, too — the ones who saw the pictures, and read the stories, and maybe, over time, were able to see a different image of the world around them.

One last thing about pictures. You know how, when you take a picture of a group of people, somebody’s always got their eyes closed?

Go back to the picture one more time. See if you don’t find every pair of eyes open. And nearly all of them locked in on Dorothy Counts.

This was the gift she gave to the world, and especially to the kids in the picture, the kids at Harding High on the first day of school 50 years ago.

She made them look.

That little bit of insight came to me only after looking at that photo, and thinking about it, for a very long time. That’s what I want to talk about today: the truth of time.

The title of this weekend is Dazzle Gradually – thank you for that, Emily Dickinson. I think everybody in our culture these days is fine with the Dazzle part. It’s the Gradually that gets people all twitchy. Doing anything gradually cuts against every impulse of the way we live now. We can write a tweet in 10 seconds and broadcast it to the globe instantaneously. I’m gonna confess right here this afternoon to being a serial tweeter. I looked it up the other day and I’ve sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 16,000 tweets. That’s a couple hundred thousand words – the length of a very long, and very weird, book.

And I’m in the slow lane. I hear complaints all the time that young people don’t write anymore. Actually, they write more than any young people have ever written – it’s just in the form of tweets and texts and Instagram captions. As a writer, this is all to the good. I’m in favor of writing, no matter the form. I love the fast-twitch muscles of the Internet. It’s like shooting an endless series of flares into the night sky.

But at some point you might want to take all that light and focus it. You might want to shine it on something in particular. You might want to angle it a certain way. You might want to be able to see something clearly. The great novelist E.L. Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night – you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

What he didn’t add was, that trip takes time.

For most of my working life I’ve been a columnist — what I heard someone refer to one time as a deadline poet. My job, many times, has been to plunge into a news story, talk to people, observe as much as I could, soak all that up, and make meaning of it – preferably by 5:30 or so. I did that for an execution in Raleigh and the shootings at Virginia Tech. I did that when the Panthers went to the Super Bowl and when Billy Graham made his last big speech. I did it for years and years, and the more I did it, the smaller my stories got – not in length, but in focus. Because I came to understand that a tiny bit of truth is all you can get in that short of time, and that even a tiny bit of truth is precious.

There’s an instinctive truth you can find when you parachute into a situation, same as how you can often size up a person by being around them 10 minutes. Through luck and experience, I’ve gotten to be pretty good at reading a room. But even as I grasped the surface truth, I often missed what was deeper. On those days, I always wished for the same thing: more time.

And the longer I thought about that, the more I realized I craved two types of time.

One is active time – the time you use to do things. In my line of work that’s doing a little more research, interviewing a few more people, following up on a few more leads. There’s a great journalist named Jon Franklin who says, “Meaning comes from reporting. The answer to every existential question in journalism is the same: Pick up the damn phone.”

But the other type of time is more important. That’s subconscious time. That’s the time when you might not be thinking directly about your art, but the back of your mind is working on it in the ways the front of your mind never could.

I think of my job as craft that can approach art on a good day. But whether you call it an art or a craft or whatever, I’ve come to realize that the creative life requires a two-way journey – from the conscious mind to the subconscious and back again. One of the best writing tips I got early in my career was this: If you’re struggling with a piece you’re writing, put it down for a minute. If you’re on a tight deadline, just walk away and go get a Coke or something. If you have more time, maybe set it aside for the night and go do something else. Make yourself not think about the work. When you do that, the work shifts to the subconscious. The back of your mind is like this amazing crock pot. You leave stuff back there long enough and it turns into something wonderful.

The problem is reconciling that crock-pot mind with a microwave world. For me, as a writer, I’ve decided it helps me to have two tracks going at once. One is the quick stuff, the tweetable stuff, that puts me in the regular flow and lets me play in the fast-twitch world I enjoy. But I also need to have a couple things simmering in crock pots, things with a faraway deadline or maybe no deadline at all, things that are ready when they’re ready.

I’ve come to think of it like looking out the side of the car while it’s moving. If you look straight down at the road, it feels like you’re going incredibly fast. But if you look way out at the horizon, the trees seem like they’re barely moving. You’re going the same speed either way. But your world moves faster or slower depending on where you’re looking. I think the creative mind works the same way, too. It needs the slow lane as much as the fast one.

Slowing down is hard. In this culture, it’s harder and harder to pick up your head and stare at the horizon. It’s hard to go the other way from where everybody else is going. It’s hard to do something different from what everybody else wants you to do. It’s hard to spend weeks and months on something that — let’s be honest — nobody might care about but you. But doing that seems to be the best way to make something that lasts. It seems like the best way to get at the truth. And the truth is what we’re here for. Truth is the long game.

So let’s be the ones to slow down. Let’s be the ones using the crock pots. Let’s be the ones to dazzle gradually.

I’d like to close with a poem. There’s a guy with the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey, David Tucker, who also writes poems about newsrooms — you talk about a niche. One of my favorite poems of his gets at the idea of seeing some of these slow things in a fast world. It’s called “And This Just In.”


By David Tucker

Those footfalls on the stairs when the night shift went home,
the sunlight fanning through the dinosaur’s rib cage,
the janitor’s sneeze – we’re asking questions,
we’d like to know more.

The moth in the clock tower at city hall,
the 200th generation to sleep there – we may banner the story
across page one. And in Metro we’re leading
with the yawn that traveled city council chambers
this morning, then slipped into the streets
and wound through the city. The editorial page
will decry the unaccountable boredom
that overtook everyone around three in the afternoon.
Features praises the slowness of moonlight
making its way around the house, staying
an hour in each chair, the inertia
of calendars not turned since winter.

A watchman humming in the parking lot
at Broad and Market – we have that –
with a sidebar on the bronze glass
of a whiskey bottle cracking into cheap jewels
under his boots. A boy walking across the ball field
an hour after the game – we’re covering that silence.
We have reporters working hard, we’re getting
to the bottom of all of it.

I hope all of you, no matter what you do, try your best to get to the bottom of all of it. Thanks for listening today.

Wake up, make tea, write songs, repeat

Last night I used an iTunes card I got for my birthday (thanks, Katie and Elizabeth!) to watch the first half of the documentary on the Eagles. It’s really good. I like them a lot, but even if you don’t, it’s fascinating to see how music brought them together and fame broke them apart. My favorite moment was Glenn Frey talking about his early days in Los Angeles, when he and roommate JD Souther lived above Jackson Browne. None of them had made it yet — Browne’s place wasn’t even an official apartment, just a cubbyhole in a basement in Echo Park. But he already knew the secret to success — not just at writing, but pretty much anything else.

Here’s Frey:

We slept late in those days, except around 9 in the morning, I’d hear Jackson Browne’s teapot going off with the whistle in the distance, and then I’d hear him playing piano. I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I WANTED to write songs, but I didn’t know exactly … you just wait around for inspiration, you know, what was the deal?

I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs. Because Jackson would get up and he’d play the first verse and first chorus, and he’d play it 20 times until he had it just the way he wanted, and then there’d be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot go off again. It’d be quiet for 10 or 20 minutes. Then I’d hear him start to play again, and there was a second verse, so then he’d work on the second verse — he’d play it 20 times — and then he’d go back to the top of the song and play the first verse, the first chorus and the second verse another 20 times, until he was really comfortable with it, and, you know, change a word here or there.

And I’m up there going, So that’s how you do it. Elbow grease. You know, time. Thought. Persistence.

After I wrote all that down, I remembered Bill Simmons wrote an opus on the documentary a few months back. It’s worth checking out, too.

Simmons is right, by the way: That’s a beautifully done scene — a little gem of storytelling. (It doesn’t hurt when Glenn Frey is your narrator.)

Anyway: Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence. If you want to write, that’ll get you a long way there.

The Four Questions

A couple of weeks ago, up in New York, I met the great editing guru Jay Lovinger. At dinner I told him the four questions I use in my writing workshops to help people figure out what to write about. “I’m stealing those questions,” Jay said. So I figured everybody else might as well steal them, too.

Here’s how this works. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into fourths — columns, rows, quadrants, whatever you want. Then take a few minutes to answer each question. Your answers will be in the form of lists. You don’t have to show your answers to anyone else. So be honest.

Here are the questions, with a bit of instruction for each one:

1. What do you know about?

(List everything you think you know more about than the average person. It can be tiny and specific — the block where you live — or big and abstract — grief, or love, or whatever. Don’t be modest. Set your ego free.)

2. What do you care about?

(List your passions … again, they should be small and large and everything in between. Don’t be ashamed of what you care about. I care about professional wrestling. Put it out there.)

3. What are you curious about?

(Things you want to learn — Spanish? — and things you already know about but have an insatiable desire to know more.)

4. What scares you?

(All your fears and worries … everything from spiders to dying alone.)

Now, look at your lists. These are the topics you ought to be writing about. I don’t mean you have to write about your own experiences, though it’s fine if you do. What I mean is, these are the topics that populate your mind and your heart. They’re the things that matter to you.

Even if you’re writing about another person in a different situation, these topics will sneak in as subtext. This is natural, because you are human, and even if you’re writing about strangers, you are there with them in the words.

If you can make connections between things on two or three of those lists, that’s your most fertile ground. Those connections are where writers make careers.

Keep that sheet handy when you’re stuck. Update it every year or so, maybe on your birthday. It’s useful, I think, as a way to look at your writing. And by now you’ve already figured that it’s also useful as a way to look at your life.



Elmore Leonard and leaving the boring stuff out

Elmore Leonard died. So I pulled one of his books off the shelf. Turned to a random page. This is “Riding the Rap,” page 94:

Reverend Dawn was saying, “You met this other woman.”

“That’s right, in Miami Beach.”

“You and she are close,” Reverend Dawn said. “I’ll go so far as to say intimate.”

Raylan wasn’t sure that was still true.

“You shared a frightening experience. …”

She waited, but Raylan didn’t help her.

“That part isn’t too clear, but there’s someone else, a man. He stands in the way of you and this woman planning a life together.”

Raylan said, “That’s pretty good.”

“He’s an older man.”

Raylan waited.

“But not her father.”

“You don’t see him, huh?”

“Not too clearly.”

“I’m surprised,” Raylan said. “He was here just the other day, Friday afternoon.”


The first thing about Elmore Leonard is, nobody wrote dialog better. His novels are full of people flirting, threatening, feeling each other out with words. This is real life. We spend more time talking than doing. Or the talking leads up to the doing. In Elmore Leonard books, every conversation has a point. But it doesn’t sound like characters talking. It sounds like people.

The second thing about Elmore Leonard is, everybody in his books has a certain charm. You get to know the bad guys, and sometimes you get to like them, right up until the moment they kill somebody else you liked better. The heroes are not always heroic. Some of them smoke weed and screw around and dance just this side of the law. But they always want a better life, and chasing after it puts them in the path of the bad guys.

The third thing about Elmore Leonard is, he would have been done with all this description long before now. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” he said. That is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.


Page 200:

Louis looked up. Three hundred yards away a foursome was teeing off. Time to leave. He said to the blindfolded man, “You coming with us. Hear? So don’t give us no trouble. Stand up.”

Bobby put his piece in the man’s face and cocked it. He said, “You give me any more shit, you dead.”

They brought him through the trees to the car, taped his hands behind him quick, put him in the trunk and got out of there.

Up to Royal Poinciana and across the bridge to West Palm.

Louis said, “We should’ve wore the ski masks.”

Bobby said it again, “Fuck the ski mask.” Like saying he didn’t care the man had seen them.

Louis had to ask himself what he thought about that. What it meant.


No other author had more good movies made out of his books. “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Jackie Brown,” “Mr. Majestyk,” “52 Pick-Up.” That doesn’t even include “Justified,” which to my mind is the best show on television. It’s based on a short story and two books featuring U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. (That’s the Raylan quoted up above.) The writers on “Justified” all have bracelets that say WWED. What Would Elmore Do?

What Elmore did, when “Justified” became a hit, was write another Raylan Givens novel. He was no dummy.

He wrote 45 books, dozens of short stories, plus screenplays and essays and magazine articles and book reviews. Millions of words. And you might read them for days before you find a flowery descriptive passage, a wandering adverb or a boring character. That’s not just skill. That’s the daily willpower, over 60-some years of professional writing, to rewrite and cut and rewrite and cut until the only parts left are the parts readers want to read.You can know all the writing tricks. But to make the tricks come alive takes more work than most writers are willing to do. Elmore Leonard always did the work.


Page 326:

“You’re not gonna testify against me?”

Sounding like she wanted to be sure about it.

Raylan shook his head. “Why put you in prison? This place is bad enough.”

“Then why can’t we go to bed?”

He said, “I’m getting out of here before I do something foolish.”

She said, “What’s wrong with being foolish sometimes?”

It was a good question.

Let go.

You might have seen my tweet the other day:

I don’t have a whole lot more to say about it right now, except for two things: one, it was unexpected, and two, I enjoyed every single day I worked at Sports on Earth  except for the last one. I wish the folks still there nothing but the best.

I’m not sure what’s next. I’ve heard from some people about some interesting possibilities, and I’m going to take a little time to sort things out. Plus, I have two very important fantasy football drafts coming up.

In the meantime, I’ll be posting here more often. I’m on Twitter pretty much every day, and my tweets cross-post to my Facebook account. Today I started a Tumblr about concerts I’ve been to over the years. And some other stories are coming out in various places soon — I’ll link to them when they do.

Everything’s fine. Thanks for all the kind words so far. See you on the next page.

Story shapes (and exercise tips?) from Kurt Vonnegut

My Twitter friend Baxter Holmes sent me this Kurt Vonnegut video the other day. He said my post on everything you need to know about storytelling in 5 minutes reminded him of this. Kurt pulls it off in 4:37.

Probably because of this, I had a dream a couple of nights ago that Vonnegut was showing me around a college campus. I kept hoping he’d dispense writing tips. But all he talked about was exercise. More walking, he said. Some light jogging is good, too.

I’m trying, Kurt.