A Sense of Where We Are
“When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.”
Those are the words of Bill Bradley, the subject of “A Sense of Where You Are”, a 1965 New Yorker profile written by John McPhee and later expanded into a book of the same name.
McPhee writes of the Princeton forward and Rhodes scholar who would later win two NBA championships with the New York Knicks and serve three terms as a U.S. Senator from New Jersey as a beloved figure and an exemplary player, student, and citizen.
His game is perfectly tuned. Each type of shot has been perfected from each distance through thousands of hours of practice, with his skills on display in warmups described as a “gradual crescendo of activity…more interesting to watch before a game than most players are in play.” This level of mastery came as the result of a meticulous study of the forms of the great shooters, a dedicated approach that sets Bradley apart.
However, despite his excellence shooting the ball, Bradley is more interested in passing the ball to earn a closer look at the basket, regardless of whether that player had a better chance of making the open shot. He sees the game a step ahead of everyone else on the floor, regularly wowing audiences with his setups. In clutch time, he takes over the game completely, all while shutting down the other team’s best player.
He is handsome, known to spend extraordinary amounts of time studying and working on papers, and serves as an inspiration to his peers. After winning a gold medal at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, “he stayed in the Far East an extra week to make a series of speeches at universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong.” Bradley can tell when a basketball rim is an inch too low and recalibrate perfectly. Opposing teams’ fans give him rounds of applause.
Bradley never does anything to be flashy, and “is painfully aware of his celebrity.” He remembers everyone’s name and does his best to help them understand the world clearly. His career aspirations go far beyond basketball. People wager that he will either become governor of Missouri or president of the United States, guesses that weren’t far off.
The piece as a whole flirts with idolatry as McPhee’s admiration for his muse, someone whom for “a spectator cannot help feeling a considerable admiration” is evident (the two remain friends to this day). But with the superb quality of writing, interesting and humorous anecdotes, and level of detail into Bradley’s personality, that can easily be forgiven.
I greatly enjoy “A Sense of Where You Are”, but I come back to the profile not for the story itself, but rather as an explorer opening up a time capsule to see how sportswriting once looked.
The title of McPhee’s work conveys an understanding of space. While Bradley’s quote was in reference to the basketball court, there is much that can be learned about shifts in the sports media space from seeing how the piece reads more than 50 years later.
To get this out of the way, “A Sense of Where You Are” would never and could never be written today. For starters, it clocks in at just over 16,000 words, an unpublishable length in a time where magazines and long-form writing are suffering and bite-sized content is created and consumed en-masse.
We have more options than ever before and social media has taught us to think a headline can convey all the important information from an article. Places like Instagram and TikTok have sacrificed language altogether in favor of images or short videos that provide just enough satisfaction to keep users scrolling but never enough substance to generate real meaning.
Reading takes work, and people seem increasingly unwilling to put in that effort. Brevity is emphasized in a world of quick news blurbs and hot takes. Nuance is complicated. We don’t have time for that. 1,000 words is a long article. This is very troubling to someone who writes 500-word intros. Now, I’m far from perfect and definitely could be more concise at times, but it’s troubling when you feel proud of a piece while simultaneously understanding other people are unwilling to come along for the ride. Although ultimately, that’s just a challenge to create better content.
Beyond pure length, though, there are two main stylistic differences in writing from the past and present-day, and these are somewhat linked to each other. Past sportswriting had a certain artistry and elegance likening it more to creative nonfiction appeal whereas today’s writing is more argument-based and scientific in nature. Similarly, past sportswriting featured more idolization of players, almost seeing them as gods on pedestals. That level of adulation is seldom used anymore. Think of Grantland Rice writing of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen”. Nowadays, an objectively great player is written off as a bum for a lackluster performance. This is strongly connected to rises in social media usage, player-owned media, and social activism that have made players seem like regular people.
The result of these changes, in my opinion, is a sports media that lacks widespread appeal, taking itself too seriously and coming across as a club with too high a barrier to entry for any casual or potential fan to feel at home.
Interestingly, despite how difficult the transition to the internet age has been for many traditional media outlets and the changes in how people consume information, the way people talk about sports is actually more intelligent than ever before.
Sports are in the midst of an analytics revolution as advancements in technology and available data have combined with increased revenues that raised the stakes and made finding an edge even more valuable. Teams now employ analytics teams and many advanced metrics have made their way into everyday use by writers, broadcasters, and fans alike.
People now pay more attention to the salary cap and are smarter in the way they think concepts like team structure and “fit”. Elsewhere, the internet and modeling have aided rises in fantasy sports and sports betting that are similarly predicated on using research and data to find edges over the competition.
The business of sports is absolutely massive, and the recruiting of players along with the brand-building of those players begins earlier and earlier. Compare the current AAU environment to this quote about Princeton’s players being unable to practice at their own gym in the offseason.
“The players themselves are a little slow getting started each year, because if they try to do some practicing on their own during the autumn they find the gymnasium full of graduate students who know their rights and won’t move over.”
What this boils down to is a world where information is so readily available that the traditional game recaps that people looked forward to in newspapers for decades are just about obsolete, and most everything else is either talking heads or focused, in-depth, technical content that’s great for people who care deeply about sports but is unlikely to move the needle for the majority.
Sportswriting is in need of uniqueness. There needs to be more content that can bring people in without being overly technical. We need more interesting and innovative storytelling. That’s something I try to put a major focus on.
There can and should still be data-driven content, but it needs to be written accessibly and find unique angles rather than overdone stories and debates that do little to further the overall conversation. It is my belief that there is a large population of people who do not consider themselves sports fans and do not consume sports content that would be open to doing so and could become more interested if content makers focused more on being engaging and writing things anyone could read and less on trying to seem like the smartest person in the room.
I additionally believe that the future for much of this content will come from worker-owned publications and platforms. It has become extremely apparent in recent years that the “old guard” of media is woefully unequipped to handle the challenges of growing a platform in the current environment and is focused solely on profit while taking actions that serve to take freedoms away from workers without actually achieving financial success.
These people fail to realize that the person writing the content is more valuable to the reader than the source of the content and that writers with strong personalities and followings can take their audience with them to new platforms. With the rise of Patreon, subscription newsletters, and companies like Defector Media forming from the old Deadspin team and using a subscription platform, it’s becoming very easy for people to support their favorite writers and creators, and it will be interesting to see how these models evolve moving forward.
Sports media is rapidly evolving, but the future presents exciting opportunities for a variety of innovative, multimedia content. Those who are able to differentiate themselves by writing well, establishing a personality and a niche, and figuring out how to make their work accessible to diverse audiences should be very successful. It won’t be easy, but I can’t wait to see the people that pull it off.
Connor Groel is currently enrolled in the Northwestern University MSJ Program at the Medill School of Journalism. He additionally holds a Bachelor’s degree in sport management from the University of Texas at Austin. Connor serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium. His book, “Sports, Technology, and Madness,” is available now. You can follow Connor on Medium, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.