Jeff Pearlman knows journalism. With stops at Sports Illustrated, Newsday, and ESPN, along with penning five books, there isn’t much that he hasn’t formed a strong opinion on. No stranger to controversy, you may remember him from the infamous John Rocker article from late 1999 in Sports Illustrated. More recently, his 2011 book, “Sweetness,” portraying the life of Walter Payton, drew rage from many within NFL circles that took offense to new details uncovered about the Hall of Famer, including Mike Ditka, who threaten to spit on the author if they ever crossed paths.
Pearlman was kind enough to take time out of day to answer some questions about sports, virginity, PEDs and death for Heading for the Exits.
OK, we’ll get this out of the way quick. Where did you learn the dynamite crossover on display in this video at the 1:04 mark? It’s Hardaway-esque. Do you still play basketball, or any other sports?
I learned it from my dad, Stanley Pearlman, who is incredibly unathletic and never played organized basketball (or any basketball) in his life. Which is to say, my crossover was pretty awful.
I actually have a pretty odd basketball history. Attended Mahopac High School. Cut from freshman team, cut from JV, as a senior tried out for varsity—made it. Euphoric. Quit a week later. Long story—once wrote this about it.
I was playing basketball every Thursday night at the Boys & Girls Club, and loving it. Then my back started killing me turns out I have disc damage, blah, blah, blah. I’ve run 11 marathons, and I was always warned it’d come back to bite me. It’s come back.
If “being able to whip out your penis (heh heh) and do the nasty thing” isn’t a sign of manhood, what, in your opinion, is? And have you fully reached adulthood yet?
I will never live that line down among my friends from that time-period—and I shouldn’t. I’ll tell you the funny thing about that. So I was dating a girl at the time, and we were about to have sex. I’d always wanted to write a Virgin column for the paper, because it was a funny topic, and I’ve always felt the best way not to be embarrassed is to have your shit out there. Anyhow, I know I’m about to get laid—so I write the column. A few days later … done. I’ve got experience. Well, a local TV station was doing some nonsense report about virginity being in and cool (which it wasn’t, obviously), saw the column and wanted to interview me. I was nothing if not a media whore, so I agreed. In other words, I wasn’t even a virgin during the segment on being a virgin. So I’d already (heh heh) done the nasty thing.
In following you on Twitter, I notice you have a crazy wide range of musical taste. Who are some of your all time artists you wouldn’t want to live without? And who have you come across in the last year or so that we should know about?
Well, my all-time top five is:
1. Hall & Oates (not the Maneater crap; I’m talking old-school early 70s stuff; dazzling); 2. Blind Melon (same thing—not No Rain. Shannon Hoon was a genius); A Tribe Called Quest; Tupac; 5. Dixie Chicks.
My latest obsession is with Rodriguez, the guy from the documentary “Searching for Sugarman.” The film is amazing, and the guy is like Dylan with a better voice. I’m also starting to feel Kendrick Lamar. New hip hop hasn’t done it for me in a while, but I love the Dre influence there. Oh, and Darius Rucker has become a really, really great country singer. One more—best song I’ve heard in some time is Nas’s “Daughters.” I have a 9-year-old girl—speaks to me.
You also use your Twitter account, on an almost daily basis, to offer advice and answer questions for aspiring writers. Who did you lean on or learn the most from in your formative years as a writer?
A couple of folks. First, when I was in high school I interned at a local weekly newspaper, The Patent Trader, in Cross River, N.Y. The sports editor there was a guy named Joe Lombardi. He was probably, oh, 25 … 26 at the time, but his help was invaluable. How to craft a lede, how to interview, how to write on deadline. He really took me from pecking nonsense for my high school paper to showing me what it is to write professionally. Also, when I was in college there was a kid named Greg Orlando who wrote for the school newspaper. Greg, to me, remains one of the all-time great college newspaper writers. What I mean is, his stuff was insanely ahead of its time; winding ledes that incorporated Greek mythology and obscure wrestlers. He understood creativity, and weaving themes together. I absorbed his stuff, and probably copied much of his philosophy. Another guy was Mike Freeman, who’s now a well-known CBS Sports columnist. Mike came a few years before me at Delaware. He was covering the Giants for the New York Times at the time—and was a beacon of what we could accomplish, even coming from a college with a small journalism program. I would sit in the newspaper office and read everything Mike had written; try and figure out his transitions and ledes. He came back to speak a few times, and it was magic.
How low, and how lazy, can Super Bowl coverage get? If you were assigned to the game by a news outlet, what angle or story do you think you’d pick up?
Ugh. I can think of no worse assignment. I love New Orleans, love football. But it’s really become a joke—media covering media. It’s a lot of, “Wow, we’re all here! What kind of wacky questions will we ask!” Not my thing.
That said, if I’m there this week, I’m looking for … different. Everyone talks about the recovery and how the NFL helped save New Orleans. I have a hard time 100% buying that. I’m looking for the poor families who wonder how all this money can be devoted to a game when they’re living in poverty. Also, I would love to write a REALLY good profile on Alex Smith. Look, he says the same things in soundbites, “I’m happy … the team … etc.” But the conflicting emotions are riveting. Here’s a guy, one year ago his career was revived. And now … this. Waiting for someone to do it well.
You’ve become a very outspoken opponent of inducting PED users into the Baseball Hall of Fame, even going so far as to include any player with even a hint of suspicion in your line of fire. Some take the opinion that it was just a sign of the times, and that the players in question should be admitted because they still excelled while so many were using. Why do you take the line you do on this subject? And who would have received votes from you this year, in a year where no one was elected?
Because I think cheating is bullshit. Period. I think cheating is bullshit. As I mentioned—I have a 9-year-old daughter. If most of the kids in her fourth grade class cheat on a math test, is it therefore OK for her to cheat, too? Fuck no. But we keep making these allowances and excuses for these people because … well, I don’t know why.
As for suspicion, I truly believe the burden of proof belongs to the players now, not the voters or media. Look, YOUR union fought not to have testing and, then, to have shit testing. So—mazel tov. Testing was a joke. You won. But that also means you can’t now hide behind the “I never failed a test” bullshit. Because of course you never failed. You’d have to be a really dumb person to have failed. Also, it’s clear now sooooo many guys used. Forget what I’ve been told off the record, while reporting books on PED players. Just look at it as a smart human. Mike Piazza was a nothing amateur player who was drafted as a friggin’ favor to Tommy Lasorda. As a favor. Then he gets huge, gets zits ALL over his back, plays in places where PED usage was prevalent, becomes an all-time, all-time great power hitter during the hot era … and I’m supposed to believe he’s clean? Because he never failed a test? C’mon.
More likely to get a street named after them in Mahopac – you, Dave Fleming, or Henry Winkler?
Fleming—easy. I never saw Winkler; not 100% sure he lived there. Met his mom at Carvel once. Dave is a legend, as he should be.
While we’re on the subject, are you cool with Mahopac High still sporting the “Indians” mascot, or are you in favor of moving away from any nicknames that could be interpreted as racially insensitive?
Don’t like it at all. No reason for it. I know there’s a Native American history in the region, but I just don’t see the value or lesson.
You’ve penned five sports books in your career. Which one was the most difficult to write, and why? And which one did you enjoy working on the most?
Sweetness was the hardest. Put soooo much into it; time, money, angst, pain. He lived a long, complicated, riveting life, and I was determined to capture it. I mean, I was losing my mind—all Sweetness, all the time. Starting having Walter Payton dreams; starting having health anxiety issues (my weakness). Also, interviewed nearly 700 people. Which is a shitload to sort through. That said, it was also the most enjoyable. I love Walter Payton. I loved going to Mississippi, sitting with Bud Holmes, his agent, on a porch drinking sweet tea. I love how rich his life was; how he was so much beyond football. Really, he was a biographer’s dream. I worry I’ll never find a better subject.
Your biography of Walter Payton, “Sweetness,” caught a whole lot of backlash from the football community for the way Payton was portrayed, admittedly by most who hadn’t read the book. Were you every confronted in person by someone who took offense to your book? Or did any critics reach out to you after reading the book to apologize or try to rectify the situation?
Never in person. Almost always by people who never read it. Received many apologies via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail. Ryan, it was—easily—the most painful experience of my life. Maybe I was naive (scratch maybe, actually), but I didn’t see the SI excerpt resulting in the backlash. Then—BAM! No joke—I lost about 12 pounds. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. Just hurt. A. Because the book meant so much to me; B. Because, as I said, I came to love Walter Payton; C. People hadn’t read the book. I mean, some radio station held a book burning. Asked the dude, “Did you read it?” Uh …
Mike Wilbon slammed it. “Did you read it?” Uh. Ditka said he’d spit on me. “Did you read it?” Uh. Over and over. I felt very helpless.
On your website, jeffpearlman.com, you’re rolling 87 deep in your “Quaz” interviews. They range anywhere from athletes and other journalists, to incredibly random people, such as the national leader of the KKK and message board hookers. Which one were you most excited for going in, and which one left you the most impressed after the interview concluded?
John Oates—easily the most excited. I mean, hell, I love Hall and Oates. So that was cool. But the most impressive was probably an early one I did with a guy named Frank Zaccheo, who’s battling MS. I like to mix the Quazes up, and I thought it’d be important and informative for someone to bluntly explain what he was going through. Frank is a dear friend, and one of my real heroes. I thought his Quaz was terrific. Oh, and also Tom Verducci’s. That one got the most attention. I’ve known Tom for years. he’s very quiet, guarded—wasn’t sure he’d do it. Then—Bam. A great one.
Recently, you’ve seemed to be voicing a lot of your existential thought, with tweets and blog entries regarding religion, death, etc. I personally think it’s something that everyone has in the back of their mind, yet some are better at ignoring it. Have you always been intrigued with these ideas, or is it something that becomes more prevalent with age?
I’ve been obsessed with death for years. Not death, but eternal nothingness. Shit haunts me; sometimes wake up at night thinking, “Oh, my God. I’m really going to be dead.” I envy my sister in law, who always replies, “So? You’re dead. You feel nothing.” I lack that. And, really, age hasn’t impacted it. Just my own mental wart.
Well, let’s not end of thoughts of death and despair. I’ll take a page out of the Quaz – tell us a joke, please.
My son Emmett and I do this one all the time. He’s 6.
Me: Six guys walk into a bar …
Hilarious, and adorable. A huge thanks to Jeff Pearlman for stopping by HFTE headquarters, and even bringing bagels for the staff. Readers, follow this man on Twitter, buy his books, and check out all of the fantastic “Quaz” interviews on his website.