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Chicago Tue Mar 09 2010

Rick Telander on the New Playground

A long time ago -- seriously, back in the 1990s -- before every Dick and Jane on the block had a Facebook account, a Twitter account, a Ushare account, a 4square account, their own YouTube channel and at least one blog [You ain't nobody unless you at least have one personal blog to espouse your opinions, natch. -Ed.], people ingested their sports news and information the old-fashioned way -- by reading the newspaper and maybe watching "Sportscenter." Checking the box scores and bemoaning another loss from their favorite team was a pleasure second only to flipping a few pages over and ridiculing their local sports columnist, muttering such comically antiquated phrases as "malarkey," or "claptrap," or "poseur," or "don't go there."

Now, of course, with the Internet everyone has their own vehicle for complaining about their team losing or the ineptitude of certain sports writers. One journalist who has survived this shift in medium and still happily garners plenty of pageviews (both digital and newsprint) for his employer, the Chicago Sun-Times, is Rick Telander.

heavenisaplayground_telander.jpgTelander has worked with the Sun-Times, ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated, the popular ESPN show "The Sports Reporters" and, oh, by the way, happens to be the author of one of the seminal sports books of the 20th Century, Heaven Is A Playground. Telander wrote Heaven Is a Playground more than 35 years ago about his experiences following around numerous New York City street ball legends through the course of a few summers in the hot, asphalt-laden courts of New York's basketball-rich 'hoods. For those who have not read it, this writer strongly suggests going to a library (20th Century method) or buying it on Amazon (21st Century method).

Telander recently took the time to chat with Tailgate about surviving and dispensing news as the mediums shift and shake beneath a writer's feet, Heaven Is A Playground and how difficult it is to discover an "unknown star" in this hyper-informed age we live in.

Heaven Is A Playground is very much a predecessor to Hoop Dreams and certainly ushered in a new style of sports writing, a style of covering sports for sports' sake and not merely for a specific athlete. What was your catalyst for doing a story like this?

It came about from three things. One, my love for competing in any sport, pickup, whatever... Particularly, I love basketball. And the pickup game was developing when I was in high school and college in the late '60s and early '70s. People realized what a great game it was to play outdoors, in the summer. Not just baseball and softball had to be played in the summer, you could play basketball too. Prior to that, it was an indoor game, meant to be played during the winter and was James Naismith's sport.

The second part, is I simply love adventure. I still do and always will. And going to New York City as a guy from Peoria who had attended Northwestern, it was like going to another continent or another planet; and the first time I went out there, I was just a kid. I was brand new and couldn't afford to do it myself so I had to convince Sports Illustrated to have me write about this. I had to figure out how to make streetball palatable to them [SI] and the way to do it was to find college stars that were coming back to their homes. So I found four players for the first story I wrote for Sports Illustrated, primary among them was Fly WIlliams, an Austin Peay basketball player from Brooklyn. You know, he was dazzling, he was weird, he was famous, he was controversial, he was who I wanted to cover.

When you were getting this story started, when you began covering them, you played basketball with them; you had an insane (unprecedented in this day and age) amount of accessibility.

The word accessibility didn't even exist. I was essentially the same age as these guys. I was a kid, just like they were and I was intimidated by authority/adults as much as they were. They [the players] didn't believe I was going to get a book out of this and of course the modern technology (cable television, ESPN, the Internet, Google, Twitter, etc) wasn't around. The guys didn't even worry about me, y'know, they thought: "When in the hell is this gonna run? What the f**k are you doing here?" I just said, "I'm writing a book." And they thought, "Yeah right." The accessibility came from the fact that nobody had a reason not to have me around. I liked them and they liked me and got along with most of the guys so I was just allowed.

When you were covering these guys, what did you see in terms of recruiting or "hype"? Today there's no such thing as "professional privacy" or just lack of knowledge on any player that is anybody, anywhere. What was different back then?

The difference between a Fly Williams and an Albert King was, I believe, a matter of only six years worth of time. So the difference between a street balling legend like Fly and a hyped big-time recruit like Albert was already there. You're right though, everyone today can produce their own image and their own information, so I don't think you'll ever discover an unknown superstar.

But if you go to a new "playground" for instance, I just read a manuscript about basketball in the Philippines, where everyone is crazy for the sport and, voila, it's a very similar situation to what I had when I first went to New York in the 1970s to discover what was going on over there, except I only had to travel across the country and not across the world...I mean, you can still do this. Everybody might have their own blog or whatever but you can find anything in the cracks and you just have to look, I mean, who the hell knows anything about basketball in the Philippines.

You as a journalist have remained relevant even with a certain self-imposed lack of Internet presence and new media, do you believe in those limitations? Do you ascribe to any sort of technological boundaries, I mean, you're no Luddite, so do you just do what you have always done with getting stories out?

Rick Morrissey just called me a "Luddite" the other day. [laughter] I believe in technology, but what I believe in more, is what I know how to do reasonably well and what I want to do and that is to focus on one single topic. And to do long-form, more reflective pieces. They don't transfer well over to the immediacy of Twitter or blogs; but I, way back in '96, I was doing a blog for MSNBC and I realized even way back then that blogs just drained me. There's no editorial limitations and I'm not against it, but I just find them counter-productive to what I prefer to do.The maintenance of those sorts of sites (constant demand for more information) and the Facebook "issues" of those sorts of sites, they're endless; I'm just waiting for everything to come back around to the classic form of communication. There's just something, an appeal, to the permanence of newspapers and books that the Internet cannot quantify or compete with. The Internet media (smart phones, laptops, etc) doesn't have an end and people are going to get sick of that and I think it's just a combination of things that will lead audiences back, not completely back, but just to the point where someone is excited to think, "Wow, I can't wait to get away from my cellphone or my laptop and just see a book or a paper."

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