Like Lost Islands Reemerging From The Sea

According to Frank Deford, the best story to appear in 61 years of Sports Illustrated is a deadline boxing piece from 1975 called ‘Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great,’ by the late Mark Kram.

I recently read the piece for the first time, and I was struck by Kram’s vivid eloquence. Read this brief passage:

“At ringside, even though the arena was air-conditioned, the heat wrapped around the body like a heavy wet rope. By now, President Ferdinand Marcos, a small brown derringer of a man, and Imelda, beautiful and cool as if she were relaxed on a palace balcony taking tea, had been seated.”

And this one:

“Came the sixth, and here it was, that one special moment that you always look for when Joe Frazier is in a fight. Most of his fights have shown this: you can go so far into that desolate and dark place where the heart of Frazier pounds, you can waste his perimeters, you can see his head hanging in the public square, may even believe that you have him, but then suddenly you learn that you have not. Once more the pattern emerged as Frazier loosed all of the fury, all that has made him a brilliant heavyweight. He was in close now, fighting off Ali’s chest, the place where he has to be. His old calling card — that sudden evil, his left hook — was working the head of Ali. Two hooks ripped with slaughterhouse finality at Ali’s jaw, causing Imelda Marcos to look down at her feet, and the President to wince as if a knife had been stuck in his back. Ali’s legs seemed to search for the floor. He was in serious trouble, and he knew that he was in no-man’s-land.”

And finally this one:

“He began to catch Frazier with long right hands, and blood trickled from Frazier’s mouth. Now, Frazier’s face began to lose definition; like lost islands reemerging from the sea, massive bumps rose suddenly around each eye…”

Who writes like this anymore? If you can find brief examples in contemporary journalism (or even in fiction, for that matter), please post them. Or have most of us been convinced that “pretty writing” has no place in the craft?

Subquestion: Do you disagree with Ford? What’s your favorite piece in the history of Sports Illustrated?

44 thoughts on “Like Lost Islands Reemerging From The Sea

  1. My favorite piece might be this story on Randy Moss by S.L. Price. Tremendous reporting.

    “So Moss is a star, alone and wrestling with his mistakes, and the shame of it is all in the timing. For although every college football fan will tell you that his school’s program is special, that “it’s about more than just football here,” Marshall may well be the only place where this is true. No program in America has been beaten down so far and risen again, and this season promises to be the cathartic first step into a new era. Moss is 20 and has no idea what kind of horse he’s riding.

    ‘The plane crash was before my time,” he says. “I don’t try to go back in the past and say this football game is for the people in the plane crash. I’ve seen the burial ground. I went up there and looked at the names. It was a tragedy, but it really wasn’t nothing big.’

    “Up on the hill overlooking Huntington, a flame of stone burns in a downpour. The flame does not flicker, it gives no heat. It sits atop the monument with the 75 names like a lightless beacon, sending a beam no one sees. But everyone can feel it—everyone in town of a certain age, everyone connected to the university, and almost everyone who has anything to do with the modern stadium down the hill.”

  2. So many good ones, not sure I could rank them but these came to mind:

    TK on Rick Barry –

    Reilly on Bryant Gumbel –

    Deford on Jimmy Connors –

    Nack on Secretariat –

    Deford again with The Boxer And The Blonde -

  3. An impossible question but what the hell:

    Candidates for me:
    -Reilly on the ref who attempted suicide.
    -MacGregor on Friar’s Roast of Don King.
    -Gary Smith on former Yankees prospect John Malangone.
    -Rushin on 1991 World Series (probably my favorite deadline piece).
    -Deford on Robert Sullivan.

    I’ve probably read the Friar’s Club piece the most, so maybe that is at the top of my list. Actually, probably Smith on Malangone. Actually…

  4. Ralph Wiley on Ray Mancini and Duk-Koo Kim’s bout from 1982 that left Kim dead. It’s been said by others, but this is as good as it gets for me as well:

    “Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini held his swollen left hand in front of him like a jewel while shading his battered brow with his right. The bright lights were harsh and unwelcome. There were questions in Mancini’s heart about what had just happened in the ring, though he didn’t yet know the full horror of what had occurred. Was the WBA lightweight title he had just defended successfully against South Korea’s Duk Koo Kim worth this? Was anything? “Why do I do it?” Mancini asked himself. “Why do I do this? I’m the one who has to wake up tomorrow and look at myself.” He fingered the purple, misshapen area around his left eye. “A badge of honor,” he said in a morbid tone.”

  5. Smith on Tiger was one of the first articles I actually sat down and read, and was wowed by, and didn’t even realize why. I was 16 or 17 when that happened, still a few years away from realizing I wanted to write for a living. This might’ve been the first crank toward that. I don’t know if it’s one of the best (I haven’t read half the suggestions listed above) but like the song/album/band that finds you when you’re 15 and fuses your synapses, this story’s stuck with me.

  6. I couldn’t even begin to choose a best SI piece. I’m too young and I simply haven’t read old enough stories to speak to that.

    I would like to hear more about the place of pretty writing in our craft, though. What does everyone think?

    My take is this, and this is just based off my experience and this will probably come off as nothing more than a pointless self-reflection, but: I almost get scared to try to write like that. This may be because I am so young, and I’m still on the outer bubble of a few places that I’m trying to get further invested in, but it’s like something in me doesn’t want to go for it with those really great paragraphs and sentences because I don’t want to come off as a fraud, or something. Does that make any sense? I think it’s because I simply have so much growing and learning to do as a journalist and a writer, but I also have phenomenal opportunities at hand, and so I’m trying to find a delicate balance between trying to impress and trying not to come off as a clueless kid just trying to act like he knows what he’s doing.

    Still not sure if all that will make sense. If not, just ignore me. But I would like to hear others’ take on writing “fancy.” My final thought on that: It’s really hard to do it well, and we only have so much time to invest in these stories before we have to file and then move on to the next one. But yeah … what does everyone else think?

    • I, too, get scared to write like that at times especially for a paper in a smaller coverage area because I feel as though people will think the attempt is foolish. But I stopped caring about that a few months ago when, in looking for critique of my work (I don’t get much at my paper), I went to a friend, an editor of a major sports magazine. He told me my work was solid, fine but that there was nothing special or notable in my prose, which was weird because he said I seemed special and notable in person.
      “It’s like your writing stye is muted, constrained, cautious, predictable. I’d like to see you write drunk or mad or something. It’s all fairly bloodless,” he told me.
      He even told me to find another profession because maybe I wasn’t fit to be a storyteller.
      Of course, I said “F that.” I’ve become a little looser with my approach since then – about five months now – and I’m working to do that even more.
      So I say go for it.
      Always take chances, don’t feel stupid for writing certain things.

      • Thank you for sharing that, Solange.

        There’s no spectrum you can draw between good writing and bad writing, just as there’s no spectrum you can draw between love and hate. As the intensity of feeling increases, so does the possibility for all of them.

        We’ve talked a lot about this on the site, especially regarding narrative journalism and its likeness to the Girl With The Curl. (“When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.”)

        Beauty walks a razor’s edge, as Bob Dylan wrote. I have to believe Mark Kram wrote a fair amount of spectacular trash before he got the skill to write what he wrote about Ali and Frazier. I’d be willing to bet he even failed once or twice afterwards, because there’s no margin for error on the razor’s edge.

        Let’s say 100 people tried to write what Mark Kram wrote. Ninety-nine of them probably failed. Well, one succeeded, and that’s who we all remember.

        Where does that leave the rest of us? I don’t know. If I’d been an editor at the St. Petersburg Times and a punk kid had come along to cover the cops beat and tried the same weird things I tried with nearly every story, well, I might have been tempted to fire him. Probably some editors were. Well, I’m grateful for their forbearance.

    • A paraphrase of Peter Shankman:

      Get out of your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is boring.

      I’m a bit out of the game now, as I write occasional freelance pieces and otherwise am hacking away in more corporate writing, but this is 1000% true. I always pushed the envelope at every publication I was working at. And I held way back when I moved to a corporate job. My boss told me the other day that I need to let loose a bit more and push it. I’ve never in my life been told to push it more. What a wake-up call.

      I hope to be reined in soon. I’m much more comfortable out on the fringe.

      Don’t worry if you’re not good enough to do it. You have bosses who will temper you. But you’ll never learn unless you’re trying. If you don’t push, you’ll never grow. You’ll never write anything that makes anyone pause midway through and say “Damn.”

  7. I think writing gets plainer as you get older. At least that’s been true for me. But when I’m reading it’s not just the story I’m after. It’s the song. It’s the rhythm and poetry of the words, they way they come across in books like “The Tiger’s Wife,” by Tea Obreht, or “Tuck Everlasting,” by Natalie Babbitt, or even “The Corrections,” by Jonathan Franzen.

    If you don’t experiment as a young writer, you might never.

    Look at what Justin Heckert wrote several years ago in a profile of Evander Holyfield:

    The old man was the gym’s owner, a former champion, as well, who also had a graying mustache, and a shaved head, and a flattened nose. Curtis Cokes wore glasses and a black baseball cap and tapped his foot up and down and watched water slide off the face of Evander Holyfield, who was in the ring. This gym was past its better days, though still filled with the sounds of the screeching air horns which announced the end of the rounds and the humming of fans and the music and the steady, toneless thump of the punching bags, which were anchored to the white ceiling; and the ring was speckled with stains from all the nameless young men who had come to this place wearing their tank tops and skull caps and shorts and sweatpants and boxing shoes and who stretched by the Dr Pepper soda machines before sparring and who rubbed oil onto their arms and looked up to the paintings of a younger Curtis Cokes on the walls and who had sweated and spat and bled upon the mat, and one could no more count these stains in the ring and imagine the stories behind them than he could count all the cracks in the ceiling or the dents on the concrete floor or the ants that marched upon the equipment, or know where they were going.

    • Very true. But don’t settle. Don’t let yourself skip mistakes later in your career.

      You’ll be smarter about the risks you take. But you should still be failing a certain percentage of the time or else you’re not doing your job.

  8. I think there’s a way in which a writer imposes their voice and language on a particular story, and also a way in which the same story imposes voice and language on a writer.

    You shape the clay, and the clay ends up shaping you, I guess.

  9. Hey Brandon, we’re probably about the same age, so keep that fact in mind when I start offering sage advice, but I think it’s to your advantage that you just can’t bring yourself to write fancy.

    Rhythm and poetry in non-fiction can be wonderful, but too often they seem to serve as a placeholder for story. I’m an inveterate non-finisher of books. And I’ve watched the way other people, normal people who don’t use the word “craft” when they talk about writing, read when they’re on their lunch breaks or sitting in the waiting room at a dentist’s office.

    You say you only have so much time to devote to each story. Well, that might not be a bad thing, because these people, our readers, don’t have a lot of time to give you. No offense to Heckert, but though all of us here commenting at Gangrey might make it through that paragraph and marvel at how he keeps all those plates spinning at once, I guarantee you that many readers, maybe most, would not.

    Again, one man’s opinion, and probably the wrong one if you’ve got the talent of a Gary Smith. And there are, of course, exceptions. Like if you make me laugh. Wells Tower once wrote that smoking weed gives him “ebola of the superego.” Drop a line like that just once and I’ll follow you anywhere.

  10. I never read SI much, but here’s why this one stands out for me: 1. You read this, without a single photo, and you get a better picture of the main character and what time has done to his body, than you would if you saw a jpg or a Youtube video of the guy. Try the comparison for yourself.

    2. The writer revisits one of the best-documented plays in football and tells you something you might not know: That it wasn’t the hit that KO’d the hit-ee. It was the impact of his head bouncing off the turf. Well, it reads convincingly, anyway. More convincingly than anything the character said later about a silly “scandal” involving misuse of wand.

    3. The writer, John Schulian, wrote a regular column for the Philadelphia Daily News when I was going to college in Philly in the mid-1980s. OK, so the Inquirer was the world-class paper putting money into stringers’ pockets back then, and lots of it. The Daily News had a stable of columnists and editors that included the aforementioned Mr. Schulian, Chuck Stone, Pete Dexter and one Mark Kram. And if you jump on Lexis-Nexis and poke around a bit, you’ll find some writing that holds up pretty well after all these years.

  11. “The Boxer and the Blonde,” by Frank Deford.
    “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was,” by Deford.
    “Pure Heart,” by William Nack.

  12. How has nobody mentioned “Shadow of a Nation”? To me, it epitomizes the impossibly good.

    As for “pretty” writing, for some reason a lot of my favorite writers seem highly stylized (think Paterniti, Smith, Junod), but in my own writing I purposely try to avoid it. Not just because that kind of poetic prose is so hard – it is, at least for me – but also because when it comes time to make those decisions, going with the straight facts of a story revealed in the order I think will have the biggest impact on readers just always seems like the right choice. But it makes me wonder: maybe one writer’s straight forward can be another writer’s poetic song. Maybe what is, in my mind, creative and hypnotic, is just a series of plain thoughts to the guy who wrote it. Does that sound idiotic?

  13. Two more from the Smith library:

    “The Ripples On Little Lake Nellie.” And perhaps my favorite of all time: “Higher Education,” the story on the Amish basketball coach.

    Also, it’s kind of interesting to note that so many of the “best of” picks above are on boxing and boxers. I’m sure that’s in some way reflective of the sport’s popularity in SI’s heyday, but feel like it’s not the whole reason.

  14. Pete, I’m with you. If I had to pick a single story it probably would be Gary Smith’s “Higher Education.” That thing hit me so hard when I saw it in Best American Sports Writing about ten years ago that I had to read the whole thing out loud to my roommate and my girlfriend. And they actually sat there and listened. Here’s the opening:

    This is a story about a man, and a place where magic happened. It was magic so powerful that the people there can’t stop going back over it, trying to figure out who the man was and what happened right in front of their eyes, and how it’ll change the time left to them on earth.

    See them coming into town to work, or for their cup of coffee at Boyd & Wurthmann, or to make a deposit at Killbuck Savings? One mention of his name is all it takes for everything else to stop, for it all to begin tumbling out….

    “I’m afraid we can’t explain what he meant to us. I’m afraid it’s so deep we can’t bring it into words.”

    “It was almost like he was an angel.”

    “He was looked on as God.”

    There’s Willie Mast. He’s the one to start with. It’s funny, he’ll tell you, his eyes misting, he was so sure they’d all been hoodwinked that he almost did what’s unthinkable now—run that man out of town before the magic had a chance.

  15. Seems like a good string to post this story on. “After the Best Race of his Life, a Horse’s Death” by Joe Clancy was in the New York Times on Monday, in the sports section. The writing, in places, is beautiful.

    “Arcadius seized the day, winning with the biggest, best effort of his life. The humans lined up, the horse was led in to the winner’s circle. Catching his breath now, he stood for the brief ceremony — a sweaty, dirty, hot, victorious athlete. It was as if he knew he had won. Arcadius stared regally to the distance, ears at attention, and everyone else paused, soaking in the victory. The cameras buzzed. Crowley jumped down, unbuckled the elastic girths, removed the leather saddle, breastplate, black and red cloth with the white 3 on it. The jockey folded it all up on his arm, patted his horse on the back, one more reward for the effort.

    “Two minutes later, Arcadius was dead — steps from the finish line he had crossed with so much power, so much life.”

  16. That Kram story is what made SI so great, and what I wish that SI and ESPN Mag and etc did. Those great game stories, that made you see it and feel it more than even a television broadcast, those seem a thing of the past, which is a shame. We’ve ceded games to television, with the mantra that people already know what happened, and tend to lean toward analyzing why these things happened now as a hope of planting a flag in some new island. but i think stories like this — or nack from a horse race, or telander from a super bowl, or even mile silver in elway’s hotel room after the game — are more vivid than television. I wish SI still did these.

    • I think a big part of this has to do with what Patrick addresses in his comment. Audience attention and expectation for this type of content. The need for a game story isn’t so much to fill in what happened the day before as it is to give people updates on how their fantasy team did.

      Highlight packs are just as accessible and do the job for people. The tale is in the numbers, not the people, not the events which is why, in my opinion at least, many attempts to write in this style are laughed off as amateur.

  17. The Boxer and the Blonde is high up there with Nack’s piece on Secretariat. A couple others that haven’t been mentioned:

    Rick Reilly’s Heaven Help Marge Schott:

    Bil Gilbert’s Mirror of my Mood:

    Two other Gary Smith stories that I like a lot. Crime and Punishment:

    And this one on Mike Tyson, which has one of the most intense ledes I can remember:

    And this one by Reilly has one of my all-time favorite kickers:

  18. I think part of the reason why this kind of writing is disappearing is because it’s no longer accepted. People are not the romantics that used to fall in love with the Eliot’s, Faulkner’s and Hemingway’s. In today’s journalism, everything is fast paced; if you aren’t first, you aren’t there.

    I am a college student and find it challenging to write in such a manor because the people teaching me how to “write” are telling me to cut the bullshit and get to the point. According to the professors, there’s no need to paint the scene and use similes and metaphors to make the writing vibrant. Get to the point and move on.

    It’s a shame, though.

    One of my favorite writers to read is Roger Angell of The New Yorker. He’s written fantastic pieces of Bob Gibson and Steve Blass. I suggest checking them out if you have a New Yorker account.

  19. Wetzel is absolutely the best sports columnist in the country. He does this week after week, year after year. He and I share a house at the Masters and I see how much he grinds. Tells people a story. Just over and over again.

  20. That’s the thing – the best gamers – and the best columns, too – tell a STORY with some style. As Wright notes, too many ceded the reins to TV, which delivers only the image, but never those thousand words.

  21. Ben, that gets me thinking:

    Does anyone have any examples of a great story spun out of a council meeting, or out of something similar, on deadline?

    I suspect most of us have tried injecting drama into these routine affairs, and for those of us still covering them regularly, it’d be fun to see everyone’s favorite meeting coverage.

    To get the ball rolling, I’ll post my favorite one that I’ve written:

  22. I haven’t had my laptop until now, but I’ve been dying to post my favorite SI story:
    TLake’s Boy Who Died of Football. I’ve read it more than a dozen times now, and I haven’t yet made it through the story without hearing my heart beat louder with the line about the vanilla perfume or feeling the hairs raise on my arms when we learn he had a fever that morning and what that must’ve meant about the pain he suffered. When Tom describes that “last mile” of Max’s, my heart is racing, my foot is tapping and I have to stand.
    Read that first paragraph, and that second one, and that third one, too. Then read the rest of the story. This story is so jam-packed with details that develop the characters (his mom struggled with putting on his pads. the coach’s bible is called “God’s Game Plan.” the dad remembers him as “best friend,” others remember dad as “bully”.)

    Smith’s Higher Education is great, so is Crime and Punishment, so is The House of Hockey. But I’ve recommended Boy Who Died of Football to more non-journalism friends than any other magazine story. My friends always read it and come to me desperate to talk about how the story made them FEEL.

  23. I didn’t see TLoh’s comment. Here’s Anne Hull:
    hen the founding fathers penned the Constitution by the light of their whale oil lamps, were they considering a nude dancer named Carmen Roman?

    Were they even vaguely aware of a future phenomenon known as lap dancing?

    And would they seek to protect Carmen Roman’s right to give one?

    At Thursday’s public hearing to ban all body contact in Tampa’s adult clubs, Roman took in the flow charts and flip charts of economic studies. She listened to invocations of God and Voltaire.

  24. I also think the boy who died of football is in the top 10 stories ever to run in SI. I have a hard time ordering those 10.

  25. So many Gary Smith stories, including the ones already mentioned here, stand out. One of my all-time favorites of his is Ali and His Entourage. “Mildewed tongues of insulation poked through gaps in the ceiling; flaking cankers pocked the painted walls.” That’s just sick.

    But I think I’ll also have to go with The Boy Who Died of Football. The first time I read that story—as soon as I finished that devastating ending—I dropped to my desk. I mean, I physically collapsed. I’ve never reacted to a story like that before or since.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *