Editor's note: You might remember Gladwell and Simmons carving out a few days to swap long-winded e-mails in 2006, 2009, and 2009 again. Just when it seemed like it might become a running thing, Gladwell said "no mas" like Roberto Duran in the Sugar Ray Leonard fight. We petitioned the Canadian embassy. We threatened to pull his green card. Now they're back. Simmons sent the first e-mail on Monday. We kept them going through Tuesday afternoon, right up until Game 5 of the Miami-Boston series tipped off. Here's what transpired.
SIMMONS: You ever read something that makes you mutter to yourself, "Man, I wish I thought of that one?" Last weekend, I read the following paragraph about LeBron James:
He sneezes and it's a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he's really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don't know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle.
You know who wrote that one?
GLADWELL: Stephen A No, wait a minute. If it were him it would be — "He. Sneezes. And. It's. A. Trending." I give up.
SIMMONS: That wasn't a guess. Here's the answer nobody! It's a quote in some random Newsday story from Shane Battier. Repeat: An off-the-cuff quote! Was Shane sitting in front of his locker thinking, I'm sitting on one of the best points anyone ever made about LeBron; the next reporter that waves a recorder in front of my face gets it? Did Shane say to the reporter, "Give me your e-mail address, I'd much rather type out this point on my iPhone and send it to you, it's that good"? Does Shane have surprisingly insightful points bubbling inside him at all times? Since he can't join the media yet, is there any way TNT can pay him under the table to feed wisdom to poor Shaq? Let's hope Shane has been jotting down notes during his inaugural swim in the LeBron/Wade fishbowl — even if it's half as good as that quote, it would become the best book by an NBA player since Life on the Run.
GLADWELL: He wants your job, Simmons. And by the way, did you notice that a few weeks ago Trevor Pryce (late of the Baltimore Ravens) had an article in the New York Times sports section? At what point did professional athletes decide that playing sports is less fun than writing about it in coffee shops?
SIMMONS: If any of them want to switch bodies with me, I'm here. It could be the plot for the next terrible body-switching movie. Move over Zac Efron, there's a new sheriff in town!
GLADWELL: Nothing beats the genuine two-sport star, by the way — where the two sports have absolutely nothing in common with each other. I was as impressed as anyone that Deion Sanders could play both football and baseball at the pro level. But a lot of what made him great at football was what made him great at baseball. I would have been more impressed if his second sport was chess or, like Pryce, he suddenly started getting published in the New York Times. (Pryce, incidentally, has also sold two screenplays.) I knew a guy like that in college. His name was Paul Kingston. He had a freakish level of athletic ability. Had he wanted to, I swear he could have played soccer in Europe, or baseball at the pro level or made the tour in tennis. You know how there's something about the way elite athletes move that makes you realize that they don't belong to the same species as the rest of us? That was Paul. He was really into Middle East politics. Now he's a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
SIMMONS: Ugh. I hate when people do that, even if it makes perfect sense to choose a 50-year professional career over an eight-year professional career. Anyone who doesn't take proper advantage of the "world-class athlete" gene should be forced to sell that gene on the open market. Yeah, I'm including you, Vince Carter.
GLADWELL: Here's my point. The sports world "missed" Kingston. He's someone who could have been a world-class athlete but ended up doing something entirely different. Same with Battier. If he hadn't been a basketball player, it sounds like there's a good chance he could have made a brilliant writer. The world of writing — up until now, at least, "missed" Battier
SIMMONS: Instead, he decided to make a living by taking phony offensive charges from players who were much better than him. (Sorry, I couldn't resist. I'm in major homer mode thanks to this hostile Celts-Heat series. Keep going.)
GLADWELL: So how many Battiers and Paul Kingstons are out there? How many people do elite professions miss? I think we assume that the talent-finding in the top occupations is pretty efficient. But what always strikes me is the amount of evidence in the opposite direction. There are huge numbers of people who clearly could play pro sports, but don't want to. (Kingston.) And an even greater number who could, but can't. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in recorded history, for example. (We have six times more people behind bars, on a per capita basis, than Europe does.) That works out to about 2 million people — the majority of whom are young men, and a disproportionate share of those young men are young black men. Surely there must be hundreds — if not thousands — of potential professional athletes in that number, not to mention scientists or entrepreneurs or poets. I'm sure you saw that great piece by Jonathan Abrams in Grantland this week where he quotes Stephen Jackson on growing up in Port Arthur, Texas: "There's been a million basketball players to come out of there and I'm the second one to make it to the NBA."
SIMMONS: An organic Grantland plug! Nice!
GLADWELL: And then there is my favorite moment in Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, when Michael Oher says that if everyone from his old neighborhood in inner-city Memphis who could play football got the chance to play professional football, they'd need two NFLs. What he was saying is that the efficiency rate of the football talent-search system in Memphis was less than 50 percent. This is the most popular and most lucrative sport in the United States — and Oher is saying that based on his experience we leave half of the available talent on the table. That's unbelievable!
SIMMONS: It's a little different than Canada — where they somehow utilize 147.3 percent of the available hockey talent.
GLADWELL: Exactly right. Not to mention the Kenyans in distance running, and the Dutch in soccer, and the Jamaicans in sprinting. It's the flip side of the same point. In theory, big countries should dominate all sports because they have the biggest talent pool. But they don't, because societies squander their talent. If you are a tiny country you can hold your own against someone 10 times your size just by being slightly more efficient in finding and developing the Battiers and Kingstons of the world. Could Battier have taken our jobs, if he wanted to? It wouldn't surprise me. If our talent spotting in basketball and football is so lousy — and those are two areas about which, arguably, we care more in this country than almost anything else — how lousy must it be in journalism? You and I owe our livelihoods to the fact that this country doesn't have its act together.
SIMMONS: Please don't call me a journalist — you make it seem like I'm credible. Speaking of not identifying talent, couldn't we blame the sports media for failing to identify which athletes have something to say? Are we provoking them with the right questions? Are we making excuses by falling into that "It's not like the old days, we don't have the same kind of access anymore, the leagues and agents and PR people are too savvy now, you can't get anything" trap?
Quick story: You mentioned that pesky Abrams kid — a few months ago, we assigned him an oral history of the Artest melee, which was an absolute bitch to report. A bunch of the principals weren't exactly eager to talk about what happened, including Reggie Miller, who would give an interview to a 15-year-old reporter from the Saskatoon Gazette if he was writing about those Knicks-Pacers wars from the 1990s, but hides under the scorer's table when he hears the words "Artest melee." Anyway, Abrams went to a Bucks game hoping to grab 10 minutes with Stephen Jackson, not knowing if Jackson would definitely speak about what happened. You know what Jackson told him? He had been waiting for someone to ask him about the melee! For years! Here's the most infamous night in recent NBA history, and here's one of the principals — one of the league's best quotes, by the way — and he's been waiting for years for someone to bring it up?????
GLADWELL: There's been a million sportswriters to come out of Boston and you're the second one to make it to ESPN.
SIMMONS: More like the 409th. Anyway, that Jackson story made me wonder if we (by "we," I mean the sports media) need to recalibrate everything we're doing. Do we really need 25 people crammed in baseball locker rooms fighting for the same mundane quotes? What's our game plan for the fact that — thanks to the Internet and 24-hour sports stations — a city like Boston suddenly has four times as many sports media members as it once had? Why are we covering teams the same way we covered them in 1981, just with more people and better equipment? If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven't we experimented at all? Any "improvements" in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them? It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of forgettable quotes, like the $7.99 prime rib extravaganzas at a Vegas casino or something. There's Russell Westbrook at the podium for $7.99! Feast away! We laugh every time Gregg Popovich curmudgeonly swats Craig Sager away with four-word answers, but really, he's performing a public service. He's one of the few people in sports who has the balls to say, "This couldn't be a dumber relationship right now."
I don't blame athletes for retreating into their little sports-cliché cocoons. We've pushed them there, especially because we (and by "we," I mean ESPN and every other media outlet, newspaper or sports blog that blows stuff out of proportion for eyeballs, page views, ratings or whatever) have a tendency to blow provocative quotes out of proportion. For instance, you might remember Larry Bird mentioning on my podcast that he'd rather play with Kobe than LeBron, if only because ESPN ran that answer across our ticker for 24 solid hours. If you listened to the podcast as a whole, his answer wasn't that simple — Bird was saying that, as a player, he gravitated toward other players who were obsessed with winning. That's what he valued most. Kobe seems similarly obsessed, so that's who Bird picked. It wasn't a pick against LeBron — in fact, he believed LeBron was the best current basketball player "by far." But Bird was an overcompetitive weirdo, and so is Kobe, so that's why he picked Kobe.
GLADWELL: Although surely Bird isn't telling the truth here. On the court, he fits much better with LeBron than Kobe. Kobe's ideal teammate is a ball boy. But go on
SIMMONS: Yeah, Kobe would have stolen one crunch-time shot from Bird, followed by them fighting to the death after the game. And Bird would have won that fight unless Moses Malone and Charles Barkley were holding him from behind. Anyway, was it fair that "BIRD WOULD RATHER PLAY WITH KOBE OVER LEBRON" got thrown into the talking head/sports radio cycle for 24 hours? Obviously not. We screw these guys over time and time again, then we wonder why they won't say anything interesting. You know what else doesn't help? It's a little disconcerting to talk to anyone recording your spoken word. Anytime I've been interviewed, I'm scared of saying something dumb that could come back to haunt me you know, like every single comment I made in the ESPN book. The best conversations happen without a tape recorder or a notebook, anyway, but especially with sports figures, who always become more candid when they're not worried about getting burned (or burning themselves). I actually think that's how the old days of sports media coverage may have worked — after games, you went out to dinner with these guys, or maybe even got sauced with them, and they spilled insights and trusted you wouldn't hang them.
Here's the story that sums it up: Halberstam released the greatest sports book ever, Breaks of the Game, in 1981. Everyone talked to him. Candidly. Without any fear of repercussions or backlash. They trusted him because he was one of the best reporters of his generation, and also because they didn't have much to lose because the NBA was really struggling back then. Fast-forward to 1998 Halberstam decided to write a Jordan book that was basically a sequel to Breaks (again, THE GREATEST SPORTS BOOK EVER). Did Jordan cooperate? Of course not! Jordan strung him along for a few months, promised an extended interview after the season ended, then canceled it on him. Good luck with your sequel, Pulitzer Prize winner. I'm sitting this one out. And with that, sports access was never quite the same.
GLADWELL: What did Halberstam think he was going to get from Jordan that Jordan hadn't said a thousand times already? I don't think there is any way to be interesting once you've been asked the same question over and again. The first time your daughter asked you why the stars shine so brightly, I bet you gave some intricate astronomical explanation. The second time, you talked about how they would look even brighter out in the desert, and the third time you said that stars always give 110 percent. It's human nature. How many times do you think Jordan fielded questions about how he "felt" during the flu game? Years ago, I did one of those mass press day interviews with — hold your breath — Alicia Silverstone, where they line up a million writers and give each of them 20 minutes with the "star." I think I was the 15th reporter to talk to her that day. The poor woman looked like she was in hell. There was nothing I could ask her that could possibly have yielded an interesting answer. How many times can one human being talk about kissing Paul Rudd?
SIMMONS: From what I can tell, the best way to learn something fresh about someone as picked-over as Jordan, LeBron or Kobe is to find one of their teammates (even if it's a benchwarmer), a veteran with a knack for putting things into perspective, one of those intelligent athletes who seem to have the perfect quote ready at all times. We need a name for these dudes. Locker room philosophers? Jockosophers? For example, I always thought Keyon Dooling was just another lousy free agent signing by Danny Ainge, and in many ways, he probably was. But Dooling can pressure point guards full-court and make open 3s (sometimes); he always plays hard; he's a superb chemist (a.k.a., the popular bench guy who doles out world-class chest bumps, creates special handshakes and makes everyone laugh); he's always willing to fill reporters' notebooks when nobody else feels like it; and he's one of the better quote machines in recent Boston sports history. Here's Dooling describing Kevin Garnett, The Teammate for Yahoo's Holly MacKenzie:
He's incredible. I guarantee you if you did a poll of everybody who has played with Kevin Garnett, I guarantee you he would probably be 98% of people's favorite teammate. He is that guy. He's the glue. If somebody is not going well, he's the guy to pick him up. If there's a problem, he's the one to address it. If somebody needs to be taken up for, he's the one to do that, if there's a question that needs to be asked and somebody doesn't want to ask it, he does that. He is amazing I guarantee you if you went around the locker room, everybody who has been around him, ask his former teammates, he is incredible, man. He is an incredible man. He should get awards every year for the man, the mentorship he gives to young guys, the work ethic that he shows them and instills in them. The camaraderie that he gives to the team. You know what I mean? The way he embraces everybody on the staff from the video coordinator to the masseuse. Kevin Garnett should be an ambassador. He is that kind of personality. He is amazing.
That took less than 200 words. ANYTHING IS POSSSSSSSSSSIBLE!!!!!!!! Everyone says Dooling wants to coach someday; since he's already mastered dealing with the media, he only needs to practice successfully holding a clipboard to surpass Vinny Del Negro. For now, he'll have to settle on being one of our foremost jockosophers.
GLADWELL: I can't believe we're discussing jockosophers without mention of Darryl Dawkins, he of the "Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am Jam." This is a man who said he was from planet Lovetron, where he engaged in "interplanetary funkmanship" with his girlfriend. There isn't any interplanetary funkmanship in today's NBA. I think the owners banned it during last year's lockout negotiations. The best we can do is Metta World Peace. If you are going to go to all of the trouble of changing your name to World Peace, can't you come up with a better first name than Metta?
SIMMONS: I wish he had gone with a simple first name, something like Gary World Peace. Would have been more effective. Speaking of effective, here's Dooling breaking down Rajon Rondo's relationship with the media in that same Yahoo piece.
There were a lot of people who didn't necessarily talk before the game. John Stockton was a guy who never talked before the game, never signed autographs or anything like that and he was known as a gentleman and a saint so the spin that Rondo has is definitely a misconception. If you ask the guys in the locker room, I'd tell you that everybody is with him. If I have to go down a dark alley, I want to go down there with him. As a matter of fact, behind him because he's a great leader I think he has pure passion for the game. He loves the game, he's a thinker of the game, he's a student of the game, he's a historian of the game. He wants to be special. He wants to quietly leave his mark on this league and he wants to kind of do it his way He's a reserved guy. Don't allow people to tell you that this guy is a jerk or an asshole because he's quiet and he doesn't want to talk before games or he doesn't have this superman personality, this Dwight Howard personality.
Whoa! Somehow, Boston's backup point guard easily broke down The Enigma That Is Rajon Rondo — someone who confounded Celtics fans these past six years and rarely talks to the press, someone I have spent more time figuring out (check that, trying to figure out) than just about anyone I ever dated, the single most confusing person I have ever not met, the inspiration for an entire 2011 paragraph in which I explained why following Rondo was like having a cat (and every Celtics fan knew exactly what I meant) — in 196 carefully crafted, off-the-cuff, refreshingly honest words. Have you ever heard a better description of Rondo?
GLADWELL: I haven't. And here's why it's so good: Because it is the simplest possible explanation. He's not locked in some blood feud with Doc Rivers, and he's not in the grip of some complex neurosis. He's just an introvert who takes his basketball seriously. Done. Why is it that in the face of unanswered questions, people always want to gravitate to the most convoluted — and least plausible — explanations?
Bill James does a brilliant riff on this very question in his new book Popular Crime.
James turns out to be not just the most important writer/thinker on baseball of our generation but also — completely unexpectedly — to have read more books in the true crime genre than maybe anyone else alive. In Popular Crime he works his way though every major true crime story of the last 200 years — from Lizzie Borden to JonBenet Ramsey — making (as one would expect) all kinds of brilliant, wildly entertaining and occasionally completely nutty Jamesian observations. Why Popular Crime wasn't a huge bestseller, I have no idea. OK. Maybe I do. It's 496 pages
SIMMONS: In retrospect, he probably blew it by not creating a Hall of Fame Serial Killer Pyramid. Although I would have been infuriated when he made Ted Bundy a Level 3 instead of a Level 5. I can't get over how much James marginalized Bundy; James didn't even treat Nolan Ryan that badly. How many serial killers could have pulled off a two-part miniseries starring Mark Harmon? Two parts, Malcolm! Two! And he just gets skipped over in the James book? I'm pissed all over again.
GLADWELL: The thing I never understood about Bundy is why all the descriptions of him take pains to mention his very high IQ. I'm surprised we also don't get his SAT scores, and copies of his college letters of recommendation. Only in America do people want to know if someone who killed young women for a living could have gotten into an Ivy League college.
SIMMONS: I heard Bundy got in early-admission to Princeton.
GLADWELL: In any case, one of James's best chapters is on the Kennedy assassination. James begins by systematically blowing away the conspiracy arguments. The idea that Oswald was in cahoots with the Soviets or the Mafia or that he had an accomplice somewhere or there was a second assassin or that he was under the control of some menacing force is just too complicated, James points out: It requires too many coincidences and leaps of logic and extravagant assumptions. And besides — and here is where James really shines — there's a much simpler explanation.
James loves the Kennedy book Mortal Error by Bonar Menninger, which is based on the work of a Baltimore ballistics expert named Howard Donahue. Donahue's focus is on the mysterious third bullet that hit Kennedy — and that ended up killing him. It didn't behave like the first two bullets. It disintegrated inside Kennedy's skull, for instance, which a bullet fired from Oswald's rifle should not have done. And from where Oswald was situated it is hard to see how the bullet could really have traveled in the trajectory that it did. The questions surrounding the third bullet are a big part of the reason so many people believe in a conspiracy. So what was Donahue's explanation? There was a second gunman. But it wasn't an assassin. It was a Secret Service man named George Hickey who heard the first two shots, panicked, and let off a shot that hit the president in the head. It was all a tragic accident. Hickey's AR-15 rifle matches the ballistics and trajectory of the fatal bullet perfectly. And numerous eyewitnesses reported seeing him grab his weapon and wave it about. I could go on. James describes in brilliant detail just how convincing this particular explanation is.