Saturday, February 28, 2015

Catching Up With: Jeff Pearlman, Author OF Showtime

ZS: A lot of different, intriguing characters throughout these pages Jeff. Surely made for some enjoyable interviews with plenty of entertainment value. How many sources total and which interviews were most enjoyable?

JP: I interviewed about 300 people for the book, I think. I get confused at times. And there were tons of great people. Loved Jeanie Buss, loved Linda Rambis, Earl Jones, Spencer Haywood.

But my favorite was probably Wes Matthews, the backup point guard. We met at a diner in Bridgeport, Conn., and he was just this feisty, fast-talking, smart, endearing guy who still probably thinks he could drop 40 on the Knicks. Just a joy.

ZS: As you've explained, writing a book is a BEAR. With Magic not talking and Kareem being well, a bit of a curmudgeon and rough around the edges socially, what were the toughest aspects you labored through in this entire process?

JP: The toughest thing really has nothing to do with guys refusing to talk. No, with biographies on teams and decades, the challenge is avoiding repetition.

I don't usually think of these projects as sports books per se (I try to imagine them as human books, but the humans happen to play athletics), but the reality is, you are chronicling these men with the understanding that there are seasons, and the seasons are important. So how do you do that without covering the same material repeatedly? I mean, how often can you write Magic v. Bird, or Kareem skyhooking over the 76ers? So the challenge--and it's hard--is finding interesting stuff from every season.

ZS: So much history with these teams and this era of the NBA. Through which methods do you compile research and get the rich detail of the times beyond the interviews?

JP: Well, I try to find every article ever written on the subject. I buy every book I can that relates to to the team, the players, the city, the time period. I travel to locations, try to get a physical sense of what it was like at that time. Really you dive in, look under every rock, hope you uncover interesting stuff.

ZS: Kurt Rambis or Mark Landsberger, which guy had better situational awareness (off the court that is) and why?

JP: Oh, Rambis. He's very intelligent, very aware. He just didn't care about the wardrobe and stuff like that. He was funny, and knew he was funny.

 Landsberger was just sorta dumb. In an endearing way.

ZS: The journey has been a long one Jeff and from reading your blog it is clear you've evolved. What's been key to growing from a cocky kid at the Tennessean learning the niceties of the trade to penning NYT best sellers? What were some of the adjustments along the way and was there ever an "IT" moment where you really turned a corner and never looked back?

JP: Well, when I arrived in Nashville, I thought I was God's gift to the pen--not realizing that A. I sure as hell wasn't; B. There is no such thing.

That was just a project coming out of college, having been the editor of the student newspaper and wrongly thinking nonsense like that mattered. So I came to Tennessee with unjustified swagger. Or, put it different, I was an insufferable asswipe.

What changed? In 1995, Catherine Mayhew--the features editor--demoted me to the cops beat. She insisted I forget about style and just get shit right. Who, what, where, when, how, why. It changed me in major ways. The other biggie: After cops, they took me away from features desk and gave me the high school wrestling beat. I learned so much in that position.

ZS: Is there a next project in the works and should we expect an encore?

JP: There is.

ZS: Who have been the biggest influences on your career and how have they helped nurture your production?

JP: Shit, so many people. I've been fortunate to know and work with and learn from some true greats. Back at Delaware, on the student newspaper, there was a kid named Greg Orlando. He was a few years older, and just a masterful wordsmith.

I stole so many things from him, really learned about nuance with wording. Also, after my senior year of high school, a guy named Joe Lombardi allowed me to write sports for the Patent Trader, the local weekly out of Cross River, N.Y. Joe showed me so much about covering events, flow, rhythm.

Catherine Mayhew, the features editor in Nashville, was my newspaper mother, and stressed the humility I need. There were tons more.

ZS: Given the personalities and characters in Showtime, would you say this was the most fun you've had with a book?

JP: Nah. A secret: Books are torture. Pure torture. They kill me, drive me to drink, kill me again. They're rewarding and enriching and educational and exciting. But "fun" isn't the right adjective. And, if I were ranking the books for pure fun, I probably go Sweetness No.1.

ZS: There was so much about this team and era that was unique. The cocaine culture of the NBA. The glamor and glitz of Hollywood that followed this team. Spencer Haywood attempting to put a hit out on Paul Westhead.

The promiscuous, bang-and-run lifestyle of the characters. When di it occur to you that this story needs to be brought to life? How did it occur to you that this was a locker room full of wide-ranging personalities whose stories needed to be heard?

JP: Honestly, I think the world could have survived without "Showtime," so I wouldn't say it needed to be told. I'm not one of these writers who thinks what he does is particularly important. It's entertainment; a break from reality; a nostalgic look back, a chance to see behind the curtain. But did anyone need to tell this story? Meh, probably not.

The big names, the location, the owner. I mean, it didn't take a genius to see there was a great sports book here. So I went for it, and I'm thrilled you enjoyed it. Because these things mean so much to me.