Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her, you would not have set out.
I realize now that when I was little, when I thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up, it wasn’t a role or a set of tasks that I envisioned. I thought about it more in the way we think about a place we want to go, a landscape, a location we want to be. When I thought about being a paleontologist, I thought about being on a dig or in a museum, without much thought for what the work was. When I thought about being a professional baseball player, I didn’t think about the work to get there, or the work of being there — I thought about being in a stadium or on a team. If I made it there, the work was done. I had made it. What you were going to be when you grew up was a way of being in the world, a place from which to view it with a particular lens.
Growing up to become something, it turned out, was a bit more complicated. I have now been, in my adult life: a musician, an assistant at a record label, an IT professional, a graphic designer, a bookseller, a record slinger, a music journalist, a college professor, a publicist, a sportswriter, a freelance journalist, a podcaster and now a copywriter. This is, more or less, everything I have been paid to do at one time or another. One of the benefits and ultimate downsides of starting over again and again is you get to dream a little bit about what you might become every time you start, a little like a kid. It’s one of the reasons that the recent round of layoffs at ESPN feels so personal and is so difficult to take.
People I would consider friends or at least colleagues have lost their jobs. That’s always a bit hard to take, but I want to talk in particular about Henry Abbott, the man responsible for starting and nurturing TrueHoop at ESPN and a mentor and cheerleader for dozens and dozens of writers.
In 2007, I had no notion of ever becoming a sportswriter. At the time, I was a music journalist who just happened to like basketball. Over the previous five years, my interest had grown into a real passion for the game thanks in large part to four things: FreeDarko, King Kaufman’s writing at Salon, NBA 2K and TrueHoop. It was a revelation to discover that there was genuinely thoughtful and insightful writing about sports in the world, but I didn’t have any sense that it was something I could do. I was a reader, an appreciator. But after a trip to Mexico, I sent Henry an email with a photo of a plaque from a museum exhibit about the Aztec ball game that resembled basketball, except with beheadings. He put it in the TrueHoop Bullets the next day, and I felt cool.
Over the next five years, I would occasionally email him interesting basketball tidbits I’d find or responses to things he wrote and sometimes he would write back, just a note to say thanks or to let me know he was going to use something. In early 2012, nearly done with an MFA in fiction and looking for ways to stretch my writing muscles, I started a blog about basketball and within a few months, I joined Hardwood Paroxysm, a part of the TrueHoop network.
Just about a year later, I finally met Henry in person at the Sloan Sports Conference when TrueHoop put on a first-night dinner for everyone from the TrueHoop Network. It was well over 20 people and we felt like an army, a force for better basketball understanding. We all worked in different markets and often with vastly different approaches, but it seemed like we might be on the cusp of running this thing, whatever that meant. We had talent and drive and in Henry — and Kevin Arnovitz — we had a power structure that had vision and was nurturing. Henry and I talked about running and parenting and, of course, basketball.
Although I had a long way to go yet, that night at the Friendly Toast in Cambridge had that kid-like sense of wonder at what it would mean to grow up to be something. Without making any concrete decision that this was what I wanted to do — I still taught writing and worked as a publicist at the time — I had somehow ended up elbow to elbow with writers I’d been reading for years, with writers I admired, respected and even envied. I made friends with them, and in turn they helped me to write for new places like the New York Times and Grantland. I did my best to help them out, too, and anyone else who I thought I could. From my perspective, at least for a few years, this basketball writing community felt like a collective dream. The job of it was less important than the work of it. After all, no one asks kids what job they want to have. They ask them what they want to be. All these writers doing the work because they believed in it? That’s what I wanted to be.
Years later, as I began to feel like I was hitting a dead-end as a freelance basketball writer — with a lot of decent to good regular opportunities for being published but little prospect of full-time employment and fewer and fewer publications to pitch to — I decided to take a step away from freelance writing for a full-time job copywriting. I’d had a good amount of success, but ultimately felt I was at the end of the road, at least as far as having an idea about making it a career. Through some combination of luck, timing and maybe just not being good enough, I was done with it. It might seem counterintuitive, but I took comfort in the idea that I wasn’t good enough because at least that meant there was something bigger and better than me out in the world.
I think that idea or belief is what’s made it’s so hard to take all the layoffs at ESPN, but Henry’s especially. I went to Sloan again the next year, but by that point, the TrueHoop Network had started to fray at the edges. There were fewer of us. Some of the network’s sites had shut down or moved to other platforms. It felt like there was less support, felt like we were no longer a priority. Frankly, I resented it, at least a bit, even if I had started writing for plenty of other places by then. I was at least a little angry with Henry, but I also knew much of it was beyond his control and that he was doing his best with what he was being given as far as directives from whoever his superiors were at ESPN. I left Sloan that second time feeling a little more beaten down, but at least comforted by the sense that there were good people being given the platform to do good work.
I worry that’s no longer the case. I’m optimistic that all the people who were laid off this week will find better gigs at new places and that it will ultimately lead to more great writing on more different platforms. But this also feels like a kind of death knell for what I once wanted to be a part of.
There’s a video game called Journey where you’re shown, right at the very start, your goal: a mountain with a ray of light coming from the peak. Throughout the game, it’s there in the background, but most of the time you just put your head down and work on what’s in front of you. What you find when you reach it at last is actually a new beginning. The process, of course, matters more than the result — it’s a thing that writers in the basketball blogosphere have been arguing forever.
But you need the mountain to begin. You need a place to drive toward, even if you’re keeping your head down along the way. I began writing without any sense that I would make it into the company of people I’d been reading for so long, but I did, and I now know I started because they were there. Without those people, without that sense of what you can become, I’m worried that fewer young writers will start the journey. That, to me, is the biggest loss in all of this.