A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times magazine. Sitting by the glass windows in the cafeteria of the Times building in Midtown, we discussed Sam’s cover story about the Oklahoma City Thunder and the magic surrounding it and its community. It was a great conversation about journalism today, sports, being a reporter, and the struggles and tremendous payoffs associated with the career.
“A Basketball Fairy Tale in Middle America” by Sam Anderson. It was the cover story of The New York Times magazine during the week of Nov. 8, 2012.
Sam writes about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA team that competed against the Miami Heat in the Championship last summer. The OCT lost in Game 5, but its rise to fame was mysterious and marvelous nonetheless, and Sam went to Oklahoma to find the potion behind the magic. His story was both broad, decrypting the melting pot of Oklahoma’s citizens and its history as a state, as well as specific, zeroing in on such specifics as the personality of star Kevin Durant and even his teammate’s beard.
Originally from Oregon, Sam earned his bachelor’s degree at Louisiana State University. He stayed there to obtain his Master’s degree in English, and then moved to New York after being accepted to the PhD program in English at New York University—which he left when offered his first writing job toward the end of the program. Sam has written for various publications, including Slate and New York magazine. He is currently the critic at large for The New York Times magazine.
Sam says he thinks of himself as more of an essayist than a journalist.
The idea and pitch:
Sam says his editors at the magazine came up with the pitch. His editor, Lauren Kern, wrote him a one-line email that said, “Do you have any interest in writing about the Oklahoma City Thunder?”
The assignment was a bit of a departure from Sam’s usual work as critic at large.
“Left to my own devices, I tend to choose really weird and obscure subjects that no one reading a national magazine is really interested in,” he says. His piece prior to the Oklahoma City Thunder profile was on buffalo mozzarella.
He usually focuses on essays, which often are not source-dependent and require little interstate traveling.
But he knew immediately that the Oklahoma City Thunder was something he wanted to write about.
He said the only guidance he got on the OCT story came from Hugo Lindgren, editor of the magazine, who said, “There seems to be something strange and amazing happening in Oklahoma City. Why don’t you go down and see what it is.”
Sam has been a fan of the NBA since he was 10. Growing up in Oregon, his team was the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I waste a lot of time reading about basketball, watching highlights and stuff,” he says. “So, one great thing about a story like this is, suddenly all that wasted time is kind of justified because it gives you this vast background knowledge.”
Sam remembers watching Kevin Durant in college and being blown away by him. He followed him through the NBA draft—even as Sam’s Trail Blazers picked another rookie over him. Sam forgave Portland for its decision to pass on Durant, ultimately: “Eventually, he sort of won me over. If you watch basketball at all, it’s hard not to love the Thunder.”
He also rewatched a bunch of the Thunder’s games before he flew out, so he’d have better detail to draw from in his story. He also used his knowledge to prove to the players, when he interviewed them later, that he really understood the nuances of the game and had done his due diligence.
Sam took two trips to Oklahoma for the story. The biggest hurdle, he quickly discovered, was earning the trust of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s management and public relations team.
“It was a little like pulling teeth to arrange this with the team, to arrange access,” he recalls. “I called up and I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a hotshot New York Times magazine guy, and this is this small town basketball team, they’re gong to open their arms and welcome me in, give me access to everything.’
“And it was kind of the opposite.”
The OCT’s public relations point person was very skeptical of Sam’s intentions. When Sam said he wanted to write a portrait of the team and act as a fly on the wall, the PR person was not receptive to it at all. He gave Sam resistance every step of the way. When the team finally OK’d his story, accepting that Sam wanted to mirror the state’s history with the Thunder’s rise, the PR guy tried to put off Sam’s visit to the city. Finally, after having his trip pushed back multiple times, Sam booked a flight and told them determinedly, “All right, I’m coming. I’ll be there next week.”
Not that touching down on the tarmac in Oklahoma solved all his problems. His whole access to the team hinged on convincing the PR guy that his intentions were benign.
“When I met that PR guy the first time, he was so nervous,” Sam says. “He was so obviously nervous that I was going to write, like, a hatchet job, that I was this cynical, East Coast guy coming in to pop the bubble of the fairy tale of the Thunder.
“Finally, I was getting this vibe from him, finally I just said to him, ‘Listen. I’m not here to write a hatchet job. That’s not the kind of writing I do. That’s not my interest in this case. It’s not my personality. You know, relax.’ I don’t know if that helped or not; I don’t think it did,” he adds with a laugh.
But the initial visit broke the ice enough so that when Sam made his second trip, the Thunder were willing to arrange interviews for him with the players, the coach, and the general manager, becoming more generous with their time.
He understands the team’s reasoning for being so guarded, especially around a journalist.
“They were very, very, very wary. Which I guess makes a certain amount of sense. They have a lot to lose in a situation like that. Like I said, they are extremely conscious of their image. And I think because they’re so closely identified with the city, because their image is so wholesome, you kind of have to constantly be aware of threats to that,” Sam says.
Sam also had to break through with the general manager, Sam Presti, who upon their first meeting turned into what Sam called the least comfortable human being he’s ever seen from the moment he flipped on the recorder.
As Presti weighed each word in his mind and gave Sam quotes too fluffy or meaningless to use, Sam decided to turn off the recorder.
“And he breathed a literal sigh of relief,” Sam says. “And then we went on to have an actual conversation.”
The men talked for four hours, on background. Upon his second meeting with Presti, Sam didn’t bother to bring his recorder in. Presti grew so comfortable with Sam, that he called him out of the blue a couple days later, and the two had another hour-and-a-half-long conversation.
“That was my first experience with something like that,” he says. “You just have to feel out what makes the person comfortable. I think if I had insisted that we were on record the whole time, I would’ve gotten nothing from him, and he’s so in control of that organization, such a meticulous guy, that if I hadn’t broken through with him, I think, it would’ve been a very different reporting experience for me.”
As for his interviews with the players, Sam—who describes himself as a star-struck fanboy getting to sit down with professional athletes, who to him were almost “these mythological figures, like heroes out of Greek legend”—said his interviews ran the gamut from friendly and forthcoming to closed and unreceptive.
“One guy, Nick Collison (the Thunder’s power forward), was just kind of this blue collar, unglamorous role player, who was really open from the start,” Sam says. “You can just feel it, like, ‘Oh, this is a human sitting next to me. Not just thinking of me as a sport’s reporter who’s trying to get a few quotes, but as just another guy sitting next to him who he’s going to speak with really openly.’ That was an incredible conversation.”
Russell Westbrook (the Thunder’s point guard), on the other hand, has a public dislike of the media, and was appropriately short with Sam. He kept Sam waiting for an hour for the interview, and then took a call at the beginning. Their conversation lasted about 10 minutes.
Sam says it’s interesting to feel out the moment in the interview, regardless of whether it goes well. “It’s always an adventure when I go out into the real world and have conversations,” he says, adding, “It was just an extra weirdness that they were professional basketball players.”
Sam’s writing process is always nerve-wracking, hard, long, and frustrating—although this time, it was better than usual, he says.
His newest process is to write a vomit blurt of an email to his editor, this time about various aspects of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I’d literally start with something conversational, like, ‘Do you know about Kevin Durant? Here’s the deal about Kevin Durant!’ And then I’d just start having to articulate the most basic stuff in a way that directly communicates with someone.”
In this patchwork method, Sam wrote the portrait of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It came out to about 12,000 words—he hadn’t been given a word limit by his editor and purposely had not asked for one.
“One of my bugaboos lately that I love to complain about is word limits,” he says. “I feel like magazines are so squished these days, all of the writing that I really love and that I read to train myself to do long-form journalism is so long by today’s standards.”
He says the Thunder profile felt like a big piece to him, so he emailed a note to his editors along with the finished product: “I know this is obscenely long by magazine standards, but I feel like it’s good, I feel like there’s enough here to justify it, and if you’re ever going to let me go crazy and do a 10,000-word-piece, I think this should be the one.”
The final version that went in the magazine was close to 8,000 words.
The PR guy who initially gave Sam so much trouble called him the day the story came out, gushing with happiness, “Which immediately made me be like, ‘Oh man, did I write this like a puff piece?’” he says with a laugh.
He says the Thunder speaks with one instutional voice, so if the PR guy loved it, general manager Sam Presti also likely did, too.
Response from readers was overwhelmingly positive, too. He received many long, touching emails from Oklahomans telling him how validating it was that the national media, for once, treated the state as if it was an actual, complex place with people who deserve serious attention.
For example, some people wrote saying, “I have family on the East Coast, but I like in Oklahoma. They’re always making fun of me and saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’ And I’m just going to print out your article and carry it with me and I’ll show it to people who ask that.”
He also felt a resonance to their validation; being from Oregon, he’s been asked before by serious adults whether the state has electricity.
“I do feel like there’s a provincialism to the New York media bubble world that I’ve always felt like an outsider to,” Sam says. “So, I do feel a kind of outsider pride or solidarity with the people of Oklahoma. So, when they feel validated to that, it makes me feel really good because I can identify with that feeling of feeling like you’re really far from the center of culture, like nobody really sees you.”