Stories' Stories: Sports Illustrated's Thomas Lake on Pop Herring, Making It In Journalism, and More
Today I am totally stoked to bring you this interview with Thomas Lake. Lake is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He is 31 years old. He wrote a good story in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. ("Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?") Only by "good" I mean "phenomenal" and other such over-the-top adjectives. I asked him some questions about it over email. Which was great, because it let Lake do what Lake does best, which is write, and he writes—as always—really, really well down there. Lots of smart thoughts, lots of good sentences. Just good stuff all around.
Since it's pretty long, I'll shut up now and just let the interview go. So ladies and gentlemen, Lake on making it as a journalist, coffee, how and why to get yourself good at what you do, and, of course, Pop Herring. I'd say "enjoy," but I know you will anyway, because Lake responded to everything just amazingly, so I'll just stop saying things and let you finally get to reading.
* * *
Pop Herring sitting on his porch. Photo from SI.com.
So when did you first hear about Pop Herring?
It was that Jordan Hall of Fame speech in 2009, when he said, “You made a mistake, dude.” I felt compelled to find out the rest of the story. That’s why I love this job so much: I get paid for satisfying my curiosity.
How did this story come to be, from that first moment to the final, published product?
First I read everything on Nexis that mentioned Leroy Smith or Pop Herring. Then I called some people up in Wilmington to get a sense of where Pop was. A big break came when I was going through some of Pop’s old college yearbooks online and I happened on the name of Dwight Pettiford, an old football teammate. In a phone interview, he told me he’d recently seen Pop, and he gave me a rough idea of how to find him. So I drove up there hoping it would work, and it did, surprisingly fast. I took two trips to Wilmington that lasted a total of about a week.
How difficult was it? I know that from my experience, getting up with Pop alone isn’t easy, much less getting him to talk. Then there’s that MJ refuses to talk about him. That’s as far as I ever got. How did you make this into something Sports Illustrated would print?
I guess the trick for me was getting the right introductions. It all fell together in a way I couldn’t have planned. I was just standing on the corner taking notes when a guy yelled to me from his porch. I went over and had a friendly chat with him, mentioning Pop, and he happened to know Pop’s old landlady. Called her on his cell phone right there. So right away I was coming to her not as a stranger, but through an introduction, and then she was willing to introduce me to Pop. Believe me, I’ve struck out many times on searches like these. Seven years in newspapers, much of that time as a crime reporter. Doors slam in your face all the time.
Tell us a little about yourself and your career. You’re a younger guy, right? How old? When did you start writing for Sports Illustrated, how did you end up becoming a senior writer? What was that process for you?
Born in 1980, grew up a home-schooled kid in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Lived in upstate New York for a while. Dreamed of being a basketball star. Always one or two inches from a clean dunk. Cut from two college teams. Yes, cut. The real thing. Nothing to fall back on but streetball. Played with a fury in the gym at Gordon College, in Wenham, Massachusetts, challenging the guys on the team to 1-on-1. Trying to prove I’m not exactly sure what.
No fast start after college, no big-name internships. My hometown paper wouldn’t give me a look. Went begging to the Savannah Morning News. Showed up in the office, wouldn’t leave until managing editor came down to see me. Handed him a rewritten version of a story from his front page. Got a little freelance work out of that, but no job. Finally landed at The Press-Sentinel, in Jesup, Georgia, a twice-weekly, making 21 grand a year and living with my parents. Covered about six beats and learned to be a reporter.
You know, I think this is why Gary Smith got me my first freelance assignment at Sports Illustrated. He’s about the best man in the world, but that’s not why. Here’s why he called up Terry McDonell and asked Terry to open the door. Because I didn’t reach out to Gary Smith until I actually had something good for him to read. And you know how long that took me, after college? Six years, that’s how long. Four newspapers in three states. Easily more than a thousand stories. It took me more than a thousand stories to write something worth showing to Gary Smith. That’s something young reporters should think about. Networking is fantastic, opportunities are valuable. But you have to get yourself good. You make yourself. Those first impressions are hard to shake. I know someone at a national magazine who took the opposite path I did. This person is about as old as me, got out of college about the same time I did, and had much better luck than I did at first, or so it seemed. Started right away at this national magazine, in an entry-level position, and has how been there nearly ten years, and the editors have trouble seeing this person as better than entry-level, even though this person has become very good. And now this person wishes this person had taken a path more like mine. I didn’t show up to Sports Illustrated asking to write half a column. Gary talked to me about this. He said you have to show them who you are right away. Show them you’re going to write the bonus pieces. That’s just what you do. That’s how they’ll see you. As someone who writes bonus pieces. And that’s exactly what happened. I did that for two years, working on freelance stories for SI on nights and weekends on top of my regular full-time job. It was torture sometimes, for me and my wife, especially when the baby came along. My kid was born on May 18 and I had a deadline of July 1, and we really needed the money. So I missed a major chunk of the first six weeks of her life. I’ve been trying really hard to catch up since. But after two years, I asked Terry to bring me on staff, because what I was doing was unsustainable. And he somehow found a way to do it. I started at the bottom after college. But I started at the top at Sports Illustrated, as a senior writer, because I followed Gary Smith’s advice and defined myself that way. I’m not saying this advice is applicable for everyone. It’s totally possible to rise through the ranks; in fact I know someone else who did just that. But that’s how it worked for me, and I thank God for it. It’s the reason I can pay my mortgage, and the reason my wife could quit her job and stay at home with the baby, which is what she wanted.
Do you write for anybody else right now?
No, it’s just SI. There’s a company-wide policy about getting special permission to write for anyone else, and I have yet to ask.
One of my favorite stories of yours, tragic as it is, is The Boy Who Died of Football. It’s one of those that I’ve filed away and read over from time to time, just trying to absorb how well told it is. What’s one of the favorite stories you’ve ever read? And how about one that you’ve written?
There are a lot of stories I go back to. Certainly Gary’s work has been a powerful influence on me. Tom Junod is another tremendous influence. Go read his story “Gone,” if you haven’t. That thing opened my eyes to what was possible. Other stories? I sure do read a lot of fiction. Just this morning I had to go back and read the ending to James Joyce’s “The Dead,” again, because of its impossible beauty. Plus I was finishing a story of my own, and I wanted to set a similar mood. I dare you to find two paragraphs in all the English language better than these.
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Stories of my own? Well, a personal favorite is “The Last Heavy Footfalls of Doc Hullender,” about a kid I grew up with who gave his life in Iraq. I entered that thing in some contests and hoped it would win something, which it didn’t. Maybe it was too daring, or too emotional. More likely it just wasn’t quite good enough. But I gave it all I had.
What did working on this story make you feel? About Pop? About the story itself? About Jordan?
I felt endless sorrow for Pop, such a decent man who lost so much. Jordan is Jordan. He wouldn’t have become the greatest player of all time if it weren’t for his ferocity.
How long had you known about the Pop Herring Cutting Michael Jordan story? And when did you come to learn it was a myth?
Like most Americans, I had heard the basic outline of it many times. You know, it’s a classic inspirational tale. I’ll bet several million people have used it to make themselves feel better. “Well, even Michael Jordan got cut from his high school team.” It’s the fairy tale for the unrecognized genius, or something. To be fair, several other people reported the truth about that tryout before I did. But none of those reports ever got as much traction as the Come Fly With Me video did. That became the accepted truth.
I didn’t see this as a story about debunking a myth so much as a story about what happens when a man is written out of existence. I wanted this story to somehow repair that damage, inasmuch as mere writing can do such a thing.
I know that you probably had extra material that didn’t end up in the story. If you want to share any of it here, that’d be awesome. Feel free to send along whatever you’d like. “Deleted scenes” and the like, or just other details that maybe didn’t find their way into the story.
Sure. Here’s a part of my conversation with Pop that gives you an idea of the abandonment he’s felt over the years.
Pop: I have no best friend now.
Me: No best friend.
Pop: No, I have no best friend now. No no no no no, ain’t no need to keep wasting, what you may need, in terms of your future hopeful development. Listen. When I was, as we discussed, of your hopeful development, when I was comin’ up, I didn’t have a whole lot of disturbances, about my goals, including ambitions. Of what I desired to have a future of myself and be of someone, then I had the proper environment around me, of the elderly, of teaching me, the ways in which I should have gone. But see, of the same token, if you reach a stage, of your development of life, when you are not gonna receive the port, the support when it’s needed, it becomes a very disturbing thing. Particularly after obtainment and had accomplished something. You know what I’m saying? Particularly after of obtainment, and had accomplished something. I mean, it’s a possibility you’re gonna confront that one day.
Me: It is a possibility.
Pop: Yeah, it certainly is. And you be, like, uh, lookin’ around for support, you know what I’m sayin’, and then particularly when you need it? After you have had some success of your life. In settin’ goals and examples of yourself. Or inspirations and goals and having settin’ ambitions of yourself.
How much time did you spend in Wilmington? Did you go there knowing you would get up with Pop? Or did you just go there sort of hoping to find him?
I made two trips that lasted a total of about a week. Now, that may not sound like very much for a story this long, but when I’m on a reporting trip I’m working 12 to 16 hours a day. Other traveling writers have found an effective way to mix business with pleasure, but I’ve never been very good at that. When I’m working I’m working. And with a wife and baby at home, I try to be gone as few nights as possible. So I cram everything into a short time.
I went to Wilmington hoping to find Pop. There were no guarantees. I parked the car and got out with my notebook and four pens and digital recorder and I walked. It was positively thrilling. There’s nothing I like better than going on a quest.
How much of your time there did you spend with Pop? What did you do the rest of the time?
I might have spent a total of seven or eight hours with him on three or four occasions. Besides that I was meeting with his former assistant coaches, his current and former landlords, the men who played for him, his surviving relatives, and so on. I knew I couldn’t rely on him for factual information, so I had to get that from everywhere else. Lots of time at the library, going through old newspaper clippings. Also: Hours upon hours at the New Hanover County courthouse. I basically never do a story without visiting the courthouse and the police station. It goes back to my newspaper days on the crime beat. Those files help you pin down facts you can’t get anywhere else. Here I wanted to know about Pop’s criminal record, which, as it turns out, wasn’t much, but I found out quite a lot about his family by looking at the court files of his mother and sister, who by then were both dead.
I also visited Pop’s daughter in the Raleigh-Durham area, along with two of her deceased mother’s sisters. That really helped the story. They were the ones who told me about the time she nearly crippled Jordan with a baton as a child.
How did you go about reporting this? Drive around with Pop with a recorder running? Jot notes down as you could?
Yes, that was the main thing. He doesn’t have a car, and it was very hot outside, so he wanted me to drive him around town with the air-conditioning on. Now, I do have one friend who’s very good at taking notes while driving, but this could have very quickly put my car in the Cape Fear River. So I flipped on the recorder and set it in the cupholder. Pop saw what I was doing, and it was fine with him. From time to time he was worried that the battery would run out, and I had to reassure him. He really did enjoy the attention.
You said in your story that Pop didn’t really respond to your questions the way one might in a more typical interview. What would you ask him, and how would he respond?
Okay, this snippet will give you an idea. I kept trying to relate certain stories that other people had told me, asking for his take on them, and he wouldn’t let me finish. But it was always entertaining, and surprising, and actually delightful. I loved spending time with him, except when he opened a beer while I was driving.
Pop: Let’s go head on a head around where you like to, uh, have your little noise and stuff, man, while we ride.
Me: My little noise?
Pop: Yeah! Your—well, very loud noise.
Me: Are you—are you talking about music on the radio?
Me: Or what are you talking about.
Pop: Yeah, well let’s crank up the volume and see what you got. (We both burst out laughing.) Let’s see what you….(He trails off, chuckling again.)
Pop: Oh, you ain’t gonna do that right now ‘cause you have your recorder on.
Me: Well, if you want me to, I can.
Pop: Well, what you wanna do with your recorder? That’s too much interference.
Me: Yeah, you’re right. Well—
Pop: I RIGHT—
Me:—can I tell you something about—
Pop: No, let me tell you this thing first.
Pop: Without education, if one more smart, and no pre-education, how it gonna be, with not so being so smart, how is that gonna be? I mean, well, you ain’t got to worry about that. Receiving of, not as smart as you think, like we, like we spoke of yesterday?
Pop: Save it for yourself for a small while. While, while the tape is on, or, or, while you got that noise all cranked up now and then. When you get ready to crank up the volume? How ‘bout lettin’ me hear a little music. Doesn’t make any difference what it is. Just leave orchestra out of it. He-he-he-he. Leave orchestra out of it.
Me: I can put some on right now. Last night, um, uh, Ron Coley—
Me:—I was talkin’ to him—
Pop: What’d he say?
Me:—and he said—
Pop: Lemmesaysomething, lemmesaysomething.
(And so on. After a while I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.)
What’s your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Where do you like to write? Do you outline and then write? Do you write as you research or do you like to get all the information you can first? Do you drink lots of coffee while you write, or, perhaps, other things? Do you write things out longhand ever, or is it all on a computer?
Once most of the reporting is done, I take a blank sheet of letter-sized paper and write an outline by hand. Usually that outline has a single word at the top, a theme around which I can build the story. For the Max Gilpin story you mentioned above, the word was “Compulsion,” which later became “Obedience."
I’ve forgotten what the word was for this outline. I just went to look for the outline and couldn’t find it. But I did find two audio files that serve a similar purpose. In the car on the way back to Atlanta from my second trip to Wilmington, I got to thinking about the story. I didn’t want to lose my thoughts, so I turned on my audio recorder and basically dictated a thematic outline. ... In essence I decided this was a story about a story – about the way Jordan told his story to the world and the way Pop Herring was wiped away.
I don’t listen to music while writing as often as I used to. Not sure why. Maybe my brain is changing, but it’s harder to concentrate than it used to be. When I do, it’s very often the Bachelor No. 2 album by Aimee Mann, or some kind of iPod playlist that includes the live version of “Amsterdam,” by Coldplay, which I could listen to 100 times in a row. The music has to be very familiar so it can fade into the background of my mind. Another favorite is the instrumental soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. That movie is high art, and the music is a big part of it.
I resisted coffee for many years, and then the baby came along and I gave in. I have this strange habit, though: I only drink it on days when I’m writing a lot. So I’ll go a few weeks without it, during the reporting, and then I’ll start drinking when it comes to the writing. The caffeine has a stronger impact that way. Lots of sugar, lots of milk. And a Coke at lunchtime.
How many different drafts of the story did you go through? What was the back-and-forth like with your editors? What are some of the things you remember discussing about the story along the way?
This one was easier than most. What you read is very similar to what I turned in. There were plenty of tweaks throughout, but no structural changes. I’m finishing a story now that had to be restructured, twice, and it nearly drove me crazy. It was awfully hard to stay excited about it.
Anything you’ll take away from this story? What I mean is, I seem to find myself leaving the characters from my stories—such as Mike—feeling like I’m becoming a better person for having known them. It feels like a privilege, really, to get to know their lives so well. But then, I might be weird—and of course, it’s borderline stalkerish, but that’s another discussion for another time—so maybe other journalists don’t feel the same way. So to bring this back: How did working on Pop Herring’s story impact you, if at all?
Well, at the Pizza Hut he asked me if he could ride home with me to Atlanta and meet my wife and baby. I really didn’t want to leave him behind, but I had to. There was no way that would have worked. So I’m just one person who’s left him behind.
Just as the story was coming out, a horrible thing happened at his house. A guy who’d been living with him apparently murdered a young woman and buried her in the yard. Pop wasn’t implicated in the killing, but he was arrested because he was drunk and belligerent when the police got there. The media ran with it. Jordan’s Coach Arrested After Murder Takes Place At His House. You know how it goes. I’d argue that this is one more example of the awful plight he’s in. He wasn’t strong enough to keep this scary man away.
I mean, what does society do with a guy like this? His wife is dead, his daughter won’t help him. His niece and landlord do their best, but this guy is vulnerable on the streets. Sure, it’s great that he has his freedom, but he’s not capable of taking care of himself out there. Especially with these shady characters around. Nobody wants to see him locked away somewhere. So he needs a safe place to be. I hoped the story would persuade someone to intervene on his behalf, but I have yet to hear about it. Maybe there’s more I could personally do
I can think of someone in North Carolina with basically unlimited resources who might be able to work something out.
Anything you’d like to plug?
You know, I wish I did. Books have been on my mind lately, but I haven’t started one yet. Soon, I hope.
Last October I gave a speech at my alma mater, Gordon College, that was something like the story of my life. You can see it here:
Any other thoughts you’d like to share, about Pop or Jordan or this story or something else entirely?
Yes. There’s a lawyer in China named Gao Zhisheng who’s being cruelly persecuted by the government because of his ongoing fight for human rights. A lot of good journalists do a lot of good work for justice here in the United States, but in countries like China the crusaders have to risk their lives for the truth.
Let’s not forget about Gao Zhisheng, or brave people like him all around the world. They’re my heroes.