Ben Golliver covers the NBA for CBSSports.com‘s Eye On Basketball blog and writes about the Portland Trail Blazers for Blazersedge.com. He’s covered the Blazers since December of 2007 and started with CBS in October 2010.
Q: What made you go into journalism? Why’d you go into sports writing? How did you get your start?
Golliver:I took an untraditional route. I majored in Writing — fiction, nonfiction, poetry — at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore but never wrote for the student paper and didn’t really know what I wanted to do after I graduated. I just knew I liked to write. I worked in a marketing position here in the Portland-area after college and then the 2007 NBA Draft came along and changed everything. The Blazers received the No. 1 pick and a debate instantly broke out about who they should select: Greg Oden or Kevin Durant.
I’ve been a basketball nut my whole life. I was a real hoops degenerate as a child, spending every dollar of my allowance on basketball cards, memorabilia, posters, etc. and listening to sports radio from sun up to sun down. So on the night of the 2007 Draft lottery I started a blog at the spur of the moment titled “Draft Kevin Durant” in which I — obviously — advocated for the Blazers to select Durant, then a stance that ran contrary to conventional thinking. I updated the site diligently with responses to the news that unfolded during the draft process and got some nice publicity for the site online and in various newspapers. Once the draft was over, I wasn’t sure how to proceed, so I stopped writing for a while and then decided to see if I could pursue a media credential to cover the team’s games. Pretty soon I linked up with Dave, who was running the biggest independent Blazers website at the time, Blazersedge, and we talked for a few months about whether his site would like someone to cover the game in-person. Back in the 2007-2008 season, there were very few independent, online media sources covering NBA games in person and in the locker room. The Blazers are a forward-thinking organization when it comes to understanding the Internet and were receptive to our ideas.
That December, I started covering games at nights while working my day job. Things just evolved from there. I really enjoyed writing about the team, I was getting good feedback from readers and peers and I started to set it in my mind that this was a career path I wanted to take. It took awhile to make it a reality but I was very fortunate because interest in the team was skyrocketing with the selection of Oden and the strong play of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Things eventually came together nicely; I was (am) really lucky.
Q: Are you a Blazer fan yourself? (If so, who is/was your favorite player?)
Golliver: I was born in Portland and raised in Beaverton so the Blazers have always been a major part of my life. We had the Dairy Queen cups in the cupboards as a kid, the Clyde Drexler Avias, the Bustabucket mixtapes, etc.
But there’s a real, constant responsibility to provide accurate and honest accounts of games, people and the organization as a whole that winds up trumping those memories and feelings pretty immediately and thoroughly. If you can believe it, I never took a single journalism class. During my first year or two writing I approached things from a “fly on the wall” perspective — I thought it was better to describe the action during and after the games without interacting with the key people because it would remove bias or personal feelings from the equation and provide a straighter nonfiction account. At some point, that ideal becomes less important than seeking out compelling, new stories and that requires active interaction. It would get boring otherwise. But the goal is the same: be accurate, fair, thorough and tell the story, don’t become the story. (There are always exceptions and first person can be a useful tool.)
In terms of favorite athletes to write about, Roy is far and away No. 1 on the list and I think those covering the team over the last few years would pretty much unanimously agree on that. He was incredibly honest, open and patient and very thoughtful in his responses. He wore his emotions on his sleeve and went through some amazing highs and lows just over the last 2-3 years that you rarely if ever see in the NBA. There was always a story to be written about him no matter the circumstances. I’m not sure I will ever care more about writing a specific story than I did about writing the piece that went up after the Blazers announced their decision to use the amnesty clause on him. Nicolas Batum is another great current Blazers player to cover because we’ve seen him grow up since he was a teenager from from home.
Q: Why did you want to cover the Blazers?
Golliver: Aside from loving basketball and the NBA game, plus growing up with the team since birth, a major motivation was simply a desire for more content. I wanted to know more! The media landscape has changed a lot in the last 4-5 years. For people who consume their information online-first, there is so, so much more information available now than there was back then. The media corps then simply wasn’t as big, didn’t care as much about the team (because it wasn’t as good back then) and they weren’t as engaged online, because online wasn’t as important in 2007 as it is in 2012. So a major motivation was to be a new voice and source of information for people — maybe a younger audience or those not living in the Portland area — who consume information online. Now we have a different challenge. The trick is not creating more information but better information. Sifting through everything that is out there to highlight the most interesting and useful bits.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
Golliver: I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for anything. The fact that I can wake up every single day knowing that the day will be spent on basketball sun up to sun down is a dream. Working from home really suits my personality.
The most gratifying part of the job is when I write something that I personally feel is strong and get to see it received by a large group of people in real time. Coming from a writing educational background, most of my training was in the workshop environment. That can be daunting — people are free (and encouraged) to love or hate your work right to your face. That’s pretty much what happens online too. To paint a scene or a conversation or a player’s season in a painstaking manner and then have people appreciate the product and the work that went into it is all that a writer can really ask for. That’s what it’s all about.
Another one of the best parts of my job with CBS is travelling to cover the big NBA events: the Draft, the Finals, the All-Star Weekend. I have loved covering the Las Vegas Summer League for years too. We traveled a lot as a family when I was a child and I always loved it. Pretty much the only travel I’ve done recently is work travel but there’s the same excitement and thrill of seeing new things and new people and just breaking the routine. Watching the LeBron James soap opera play out during the Finals last year was incredible and being in-house for the Blake Griffin Kia dunk was surreal. Those are the kind of “you had to be there” experiences I know I will remember 50 years from now.
Q: What’s a typical day on the job like for you?
Golliver: The short answer is that I work (or expect to work) pretty much all day every day. I usually wake up around 8 AM and head straight to the computer to put up the morning news items, answer emails, make calls, return calls and the like. Sometimes there are morning practices or shootarounds I will cover if there’s a high-interest story and my schedule allows. On a busy day I will write 5-8 posts for CBS and maybe 3-4 posts on Blazersedge. A good chunk of those will simply be aggregating information from other sites, which is a huge part of doing a thorough job online these days (whether we like it or not). I probably transcribe quotes for nearly an hour every day, whether those are quotes I received at practices/games or those from other video/audio interviews around the web. I try to space out my posts throughout the day but obviously make a priority of writing on things ASAP if it’s big news. The workflow from day-to-day is never the same!
My desk is set up with two computer monitors and a television and I leave one of the monitors up with Twitter running all day. I usually eat lunch at my desk and then continue working through the afternoon. I do try to get away from a computer for an hour or so in the afternoon to get some exercise. From there, the NBA’s evening schedule is pretty routine — games from 4 PM to 1030 PM every night — so if the Blazers aren’t playing at home I’m watching games throughout that time period and writing on whatever is happening, if warranted/needed. I usually eat dinner at my desk while watching games. I like to watch as much of each game as possible without flipping too much. So I’ll get to 2-3 full games per night plus highlights, thanks to DVR.
On home game nights, I leave for the Rose Garden at about 4:30, cover the pre-game, watch the game, cover the post-game and then drive home at around 1030 PM to put together my full recap (no newspaper deadline to force me to rush). Usually I’ll finish those around 1 AM. Throughout the day, I’m searching for interesting, funny or newsworthy quotes to send out on Twitter, as that’s been a key tool for increasing our readership and engagement. There are regularly days during the free agency period, draft season or trade deadline period where I’m on a computer for 18 hours straight. I think my record was 22.5 hours (5 AM to 3:30 AM). I do try to take Sunday off as often as possible to recharge.
Q: What’s the toughest part of your job?
Golliver: I think from the previous answer you can guess that the toughest part is the level of commitment and the stress involved with long hours. I think if you ask online writers who do it full-time across a lot of different industries they will all cite burnout as an occupational hazard. After you do it for a while, you start to realize that it’s a much worse feeling to be away from covering the news than it is to be working the long hours. To know that a story is evolving without you or while you sleep is just a terrible, sick feeling. Doing the job at a high standard definitely involves a certain level of addiction and an absence of other distractions from life. It’s a very competitive business because there are so many aspiring writers and so many people who love sports. To truly succeed requires a lot of sacrifice.
Q: What’s your process for writing an article?
Golliver: That depends on the type of article. I write everything from one-sentence news summaries to 4,000 word recaps.
Here’s sort of an ideal situation on a longer-form piece. Generally I have the idea or angle in mind going in prior to doing the interviews and will ask questions that will further that story or angle. Ideas can really come from anywhere. I do a lot of statistical analysis of the Blazers and the NBA so often the angles will arise from that analysis. I try to read as much as I possibly can about the NBA so sometimes an idea will be triggered by a column or article written about a different team across the country or even a one-line quote someone puts on Twitter. It could even be a particular play that struck me as important or funny (dunk, turnover, etc.).
Once I go and do the interview(s) I generally transcribe them in full and do a re-assessment process where I ask myself 1) are the quotes strong (interesting, timely, newsworthy, etc.) and 2) do they fit the angle I came in with or was my angle weak or misguided. I adjust if necessary. Often I will write entire paragraphs in my head or formulate the flow and layout of the story while working out or driving home from the interview. I’m lucky to have a state park near where I live and also a lot of wooded areas in my neighborhood so I will put music on and walk for an hour or so to flesh out the important ideas/stories in my head.
When it comes time to do the physical writing part it is almost always a very, very quick process. I type quickly and usually it’s simply a matter of transcribing my assembled mental thoughts and then mixing in the quotes. Once that’s done, I tinker a lot. I focus most of my attention on the note that the story ends on. I want to leave people with the same feeling that I left the interview or with the takeaway point that I feel is important. I also spend a good deal of time making sure the quotes are worked in so it’s not choppy. I do a final double-check to make sure the story’s attention overall is on the important stuff. I then post it and read it like a reader would on the site, checking for final errors and typos.
But the clock is always ticking. This is a quick and dirty business and we crank a lot of content very quickly. Once a story is up it’s on to the next one, no matter how important or big the last one was. That’s just how it goes.
Q: Did you have a favorite sports writer before becoming one yourself? If so, who is it and why do you like their work?
Golliver: It’s hard to remember but I think my favorites were David Halberstam (best known for his history stuff more, of course) and Bill Simmons. I really enjoyed Henry Abbott’s TrueHoop and Ryan White’s Tailgate blog (he’s now a music writer). I like sports writing that has humor, perspective, wit and gravity.
Q: Who are the most interesting people you have ever interviewed and why?
Golliver: Aside from Roy, mentioned above, I enjoy interviewing players who are on the verge of becoming stars. I interviewed John Wall when he was a high schooler and got lucky enough to have good conversations with Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin during their rookie years. At that point, players are less polished, more honest and, a lot of times, quite happy to be talking to reporters who seem interested in them. That authenticity almost always fades away as stars emerge. There are just too many demands on their time and too many interviews for them to take a second to breathe and to think past clichés. There’s an incredible thrill in having a first-hand view of someone on the verge of realizing significant potential. That’s probably the same sensation that motivated the gold prospectors.
I enjoy interviewing basketball executives as well. Their job is incredibly high-stress job and it requires a distinct philosophy to be successful. Hearing Portland’s GMs express their thoughts is always interesting, especially because every person following the team has an opinion on every move and decision that they make.
Q: Do you have any advice for an aspiring sports journalist?
Golliver: Do something else unless you’re ready to commit your life to it. That’s what multiple writers told me 4-5 years ago and they were completely right. If you don’t feel yourself being pulled magnetically to this job and if you don’t feel like your voice is unique, then don’t bother. The odds at making it are too long, the hours are too long and the stress involved with fast-moving stories and the need to put up information quickly is too high. Some people are built for it and others are not.
If you’re still reading after that warning, my advice would be to begin writing a blog immediately if you don’t already have one. Commit to writing at least one item every single day, no excuses, and preferably more as time allows. Get in the habit of doing the things you want to do. If you want to cover a certain team and its news, start covering it on your blog immediately. Be active on social media networks and make connections with the writers and publications you enjoy reading or the ones you potentially want to write for. Just write a lot, in volume, and constantly hone your voice. Attend as many events as you possibly can in your subject matter. I go to probably 5 high school basketball tournaments a year just to stay up on the next generation and take a look at the trends, even though I don’t really write about high school basketball anywhere. Storing away those first impressions can be valuable. Track your site analytics to see what people respond to and what they don’t. Strive to continually improve your writing process and decisions so that you are writing about high-interest subjects rather than lower-interest ones.
A huge part of writing is being in the right place at the right time with your eyes open and mind working. That means putting the writing before everything else.