Was it an easier time back then or just different?
This is what quietly drifted across my mind today when a mid-morning chat with my brother-in-law Jeff Burdick turned to the topic of Muhammad Ali and more particularly, George Plimpton.
The conversation jumped from a book Jeff’s currently reading on Ali (the title escapes me) to Leon Gast’s 1990 documentary When We Were Kings to Plimpton (a second string boxing writer for Sports Illustrated at the time) covering the “Rumble In The Jungle” fight in Zaire between Ali and then heavyweight boxing champ George Foreman on October 30, 1974. And if you haven’t read Plimpton’s Shadow Box, please stop reading this entry and go pick up a copy.
You won’t regret it.
Simply for this: Plimpton coined participatory journalism – or at least that’s the way I’ve always understood it. Genius; it’s really the only word I can use to describe Plimpton and his writing style and genre he masterly created. It wasn’t enough for him to just write about the athletes of his choice. Nope. He experienced them by nearly becoming them, or at least embracing their first hand experience the best he could. Plimpton didn’t let his inability as an athlete prevent his abilities as a writer.
In Shadow Box, Plimpton stepped into the ring against the light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. (that’s boy George and Archie in 1956 above)
In Paper Lion, he took snaps as a member of the Detroit Lions with confessions of a last string quarterback.
In Bogey Man, George spent a month on the PGA tour.
He hit the baseball diamond in Out Of My League and skated on thin ice slapping pucks with Open Net.
Plimpton may have casually used the “amateur” when participating and writing sports books, but he was by all means and measures a profound “professional”.
You don’t find Plimpton today. Don’t bother looking. The closest you’ll get is only by reading Plimpton yourself.
No writer is stepping in the ring with Mike Tyson (when he was even in the ring) or Bernard Hopkins and taking punches. No writer is feeling the rush of a rush behind Tom Brady. No writer is standing in against Randy Johnson’s heater coming at your head, getting checked against the boards by Sidney Crosby or posting up with Dwight Howard’s bicep in your grill.
Our today is not yesterday.
Was it easier back then or just different?
Earlier this week I swapped emails with an unnamed long time sportswriter who has three decades under his belt. We filled up each others inbox with stories of our own experiences. This is where veteran and novice spit game. Him – rooted in a rich journalism foundation from days when newspaper was king. Me – five years covering the NBA for a website, freelancing on the side recently with a monthly newspaper, while holding firm to the fact that the road to where we are is paved with the slippery steps of dreamland.
I’m not a newspaper guy. But does this mean I can’t report or prescribe to the pillars of journalism?
Now both myself and said newspaper man find ourselves toiling with our own blogs. This is what it has come to. I’m thankful for that.
It goes to show we are as much different as we are the same.
And while I contemplate the lives of great writers who have gone before me, I can’t help but wonder if life was any easier when they worked at their craft, slaved away with words or just merely different. I don’t have that answer. Probably never will.
So I’ll just keep writing…..and wondering what George Plimpton’s blog would read like today if he were still with us.