Discover more from Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang
The Yang Slinger: Vol. LIII
Three decades ago I surrendered my senior year of eligibility at the University of Delaware to enter the NBA Draft. That singular decision changed the course of my career—and my life.
First, to be clear—the idea was not mine.
I acted on it. So give me some credit. But the spoken-into-existence concept came via a fellow undergrad named Alain Nana-Sinkam, who served as a sports editor of The Review, the University of Delaware’s student newspaper, back in the early 1990s.
Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
One day, while sitting around the office, Alain started talking about how cool it would be for a non-basketball player to apply early for the NBA Draft. He couldn’t have been referring to himself—Alain had been a member of the Blue Hens’ men’s team before finishing up his career at Wilmington College. So … I dunno. He put the idea out there, and maybe—just maybe—was hoping someone was listening.
I was listening.
Fast forward a couple of years. It was 1993. Alain was long gone. I was a Delaware junior who had spent his freshman season as a sub-mediocre distance runner on the cross country and track teams (my greatest moment: placing third in the 3,000 in a meet against Lehigh. Out of three). When my harrier career wrapped, I went all in on intramural basketball, starting at power forward for the Tools, two-time championship game (cough, cough) losers. I also happened to be an editor at The Review, with dreams of one day becoming a professional sports writer.
Along those lines, I was all about trying wacky shit and seeing what stuck. I dressed up as the Blue Hen mascot for a women’s basketball game. I spent a night on the University’s “drunk bus,” chronicling every upchuck and pass-out. I stole donuts from the Scrounge (the main dining hall). I wrote columns about being a virgin (I was), about coming out of the closet as a gay man (I was not). But no idea grabbed me quite like Alain’s bit of honey-coated genius: Why not apply for the NBA Draft?
So I did.
One might think entering a major sporting league’s amateur draft would be a complicated process. Surely, there are hoops to jump through, forms to fill out, officials to impress. You have to meet with that guy, then that guy, then those seven guys. They take your blood, your plasma, your temperature, your IQ. You have to name all seven Dwarves, all nine positions on a diamond, all 34 1/3 of Donald Trump’s out-of-wedlock children.
And it’s certainly possible that, in 2023, it is a pain to enter the NBA Draft, what with the league looming large as a gazillion-dollar entity. Thirty years ago, however, the Internet was a baby, websites sucked, cyber security wasn’t a thing—and I was a gangly college kid, sitting in my Christiana Towers dorm room, writing a letter on paper with (gasp) an actual pen.
Dear Commissioner Stern …
My name is Jeff Pearlman. I am a 6-foot-2 college junior, and I am writing to you to surrender my remaining eligibility to enter the 1993 NBA Draft. I have nothing more to gain from playing at the. I believe I have what it takes to make it in your league.
I don’t remember what else was added. Maybe some bullshit about seeing myself as a Gerald Wilkins-type. Maybe a request to have the California-based teams pay particular note, for I was intrigued by taking my talents out West. Truth be told, whatever I wrote entered my head, landed on the paper and then vanished into the abyss of the United States Postal Service. Because no matter how grand I considered Alain’s idea, I also knew the odds of a reply rested between slim and none.
Then, two months later, I entered my apartment to be greeted by Paul Hannsen, roommate/mail distributor. “Hey, Pearl,” he said. “You got a letter from the NBA.”
“It’s right over there.”
On the table sat a sealed envelope, with the red-and-blue NBA logo in the top left corner and my name and address neatly typed in the center. I ripped it open, unfolded the creases and read.
Dear Mr. Pearlman:
As you know, the NBA requires any undergraduate basketball player who desires to become eligible for the NBA draft to forego, completely and irreversibly, his remaining collegiate basketball eligibility.
This will confirm that, by letter dated March 24, 1993, you notified the NBA of your decision to renounce your remaining collegiate basketball eligibility with the intention of inducing an NBA team to select you in the NBA draft scheduled to take
place on June 30, 1993.
If the foregoing does not coincide with your understanding of the purpose and effect of your March 24, 1993 letter, please contact me in writing at the above address at least ten (10) days prior to the draft.
Joel M. Litvin
I couldn’t believe it. Someone in life was finally taking me seriously—and it was the National Basketball Association! I called my parents. Called my friends. Brought the letter to the Review offices, where it was passed around like a newborn Jesus. This was one of the most amazing moments of my life …
… and it got even better! A week later there was a message on my answering machine from Rod Thorn, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball operations. "Call me," he said. "We need to talk."
I immediately dialed the number, asked for Thorn but was connected to Larry Richardson, the league’s director of security. I don’t remember much, only that he wasn’t particularly happy to hear from me. “Mr. Pearlman,” he said, “we’d like to know if you’re for real.”
I, well, I … I … I stammered, then lied. Or, as George Santos might say, lied-ish. Of course I was for real.1 I played basketball.2 At Delaware.3 Literally. I was a rough edges guy who needed work.4 I believed I could hang with the big guys.5
"Nobody here has heard of you,” Richardson said. “Do you really think you're one of
the best players in the world?"
"Not yet, but I can be,” I replied. “I think with proper development and a few other things can be something special."
Richardson took a deep sigh, then told me my name would be given to all 27 franchises, and it was up to them. “Thank you,” I said, “I really app—”
Spoiler alert: I wasn’t drafted.
I was one of two University of Delaware players available, and when the Indiana Pacers went with our center, Spencer Dunkley, late in the second round, I had mixed feelings. I mean, on the one hand I enjoyed covering Spencer for the student paper, even when he infuriated his teammates by promising to walk home from the 1993 NCAA Tournament should the Hens fall to Louisville in the first round (Delaware lost. Dunkley flew back from Indianapolis). On the other hand, Dunkley was a stiff who wouldn’t last all of training camp before bolting for Europe. I, however, had heart, hustle, oomph, sharp elbows and a cocky strut. My pal Dan Monaghan taught me the greatest pump fake known to man, and I would bring it to the NBA come Day One.
Alas, it was not to be.
At the time of the draft I was interning for The Tennessean in Nashville. I watched much of it from the newsroom, moaning as the Pacers picked Dunkley over Pearlman. I wrote a piece for the sports section that ran the following day. Like much of what I penned at the time, it was unreadable diarrhea …
But that’s not where this ends.
Like, not even close.
Beginning in my late high school years, my dream was to one day work as a writer for Sports Illustrated. I actually vividly remember telling my mother, the great Joan Pearlman, that I would grow up to be an SI scribe.
“You have to be realistic,” Mom told me. “Why not a lawyer or doctor?”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m gonna work for Sports Illustrated.”
Throughout college, then my early days in Nashville, the Manhattan-based SI offices felt a million miles away. I didn’t know anyone who worked for the magazine, and its writers were gods to me. I remember, once, having to interview Jack McCallum via phone for a Tennessean piece about sports books and being absolutely terrified. He was WAY UP THERE. I was down here. “Um … eh … ah … Mr. McCallum …”
After, oh, 1 1/2 years in Nashville, however, I worked up the nerve to send my clips to the Sports Illustrated offices. Only, I didn’t merely send my clips. I created an accompanying cover letter that was designed to look exactly like the TO OUR READERS that sometimes appeared in the front of SI. If you don’t remember (or don’t know), every so often the managing editor wrote 500 (or so) words to the readers.6 It could be about a particular magazine employee, or a story, or something going down in the journalism universe. There would always be an accompanying photograph, and usually a vertical advertisement stretching up and down the side.
Here, like this …
Anyhow, I wrote my TO OUR READERS about … me. I wish I still had a copy somewhere, but—if I’m remembering correctly—it began, “When we first received a letter from Jeff Pearlman in the spring of 1996, we all thought, ‘Who’s this scrub?’” I went on to say that, 10 years later, Pearlman is a dogged writer/reporter and one of the gems of the SI universe. “Thank God we hired him,” I wrote. Etc, etc. I incorporated a photo of myself, then sent it off with some clips.
And, before I continue with the NBA Draft part of this, a message to you youngsters out there: Have your cover letters matter. Seriously. Don’t throw away the opportunity to make an immediate impression. Why write boring and conventional when a key to this gig is being anything but boring and conventional? That long-ago SI letter—while self-indulgent and risky—caught the eyes of decision makers at my dream magazine. It was wildly important.
Like my initial correspondence to the NBA, I sorta figured no one from Sports Illustrated would take note. But, also like my initial correspondence to the NBA, I was wrong. I remember being home at my Nashville pad when Stefanie Krasnow, the SI chief of reporters, called. She told me they liked my letter—and I was shocked. She told me they thought I had Sports Illustrated potential—and I was shocked. She told me my limited sports writing experience (most of my time at the Tennessean was doing features) forced some concerns—and I was shocked. “Here’s what we want you to do,” she said. “Pitch is some story ideas. If we like one, maybe we’ll assign you to write it.”
She didn’t have to ask twice. Within a few days I pitched my first story—a local swimmer who was setting all sorts of records and …
A week later I had another grand idea—in Nashville, a former NBA player was coaching the nearby college basketball team and …
I thought and thought and thought. I thought about being the Blue Hen. I thought about riding the drunk bus. I thought about stealing donuts. And then I thought about that time I (ho-hum) applied for the NBA Draft.
“So this might sound crazy,” I told Stefanie, “but back in 1993 I applied early for the NBA Draft—and I didn’t play college basketball.”
“Really?” she said.
“Have you written about it anywhere?”
“Um, eh, no.”7
“Let me check,” she said. “But that sounds promising.”
Within a few days, I had my first-ever Sports Illustrated writing assignment. The piece ran in the June 10, 1996 issue—featuring Gary Payton on the cover and this motherfucking bad boy inside …
The euphoria was immeasurable. This wasn’t merely a story in a magazine—it was the fruition of a dream. Eight years earlier I had guaranteed my mother I would one day write for Sports Illustrated, and now I was writing for Sports Illustrated. That was my byline atop my words.
Five months later I was back in my Nashville pad when Bambi Wulf,8 the newly appointed chief of reporters, called. “Jeff,” she said, “how would you feel about working for Sports Illustrated?”
I hung up the phone, called my parents and cried.
In case you’re missing the point here, I’ll spell it out: BE FUCKING CREATIVE!
Seriously, be creative. Takes risks. Take stabs. Be unconventional. Do things that make little sense. Write outside of the box. Way outside of the box. Do the stuff other writers aren’t thinking of. Use funky words. Try funky devices. Send a weird letter to a league.
When I applied for the draft, it was a goof. But it wasn’t 100-percent goof. I figured, somewhere along the line, I’d probably write about the experience. Ultimately, by doing so I set off on a dream path. Without the draft, I don’t get to SI. Without SI, I don’t get my first book deal. Without that first book deal, I don’t get the other book deals. Without the other book deals, there’s no “Winning Time,” no Tupac, no California.
Ultimately, my basketball career fizzled. Having forfeited my senior season at Delaware, I signed with the Connecticut Skyhawks of the USBL. I thought playing for Tiny Archibald would be a good thing, but after slugging our backup center Dan Cyrulik in a bar fight I was released.9 The Grand Rapids Hoops of the CBA called, and I averaged 1.6 ppg in limited time before Alfredrick Hughes was activated and my contract bought out. Thus began a whirlwind journey from European squad to European squad. Finally, sitting on the end of the BC Budivelnyk Kyiv bench, smoking a Newport and resisting the visual overtures of a three-fingered Boryspil call girl named Ekaterina, I decided enough was enough. It was 7 degrees outside and I was tired of borscht.
I resumed my journalism career, and set forth on a dream.
Thanks to the 1993 NBA Draft, I continue to live it.
The Quaz Five with … Bill Becker
1. You have a book out, "The Job Nobody Dreams Of: Inside The Greatest Career You Didn't Know About," about sales being this amazing gig. Color me skeptical. Why are sales amazing?: I totally understand your skepticism. But consider this. Sales offer almost anyone the opportunity to make a great deal of money and most organizations have at least one salesperson who makes more than the sales manager. Sales is also the one job you can get without entry barriers like experience or a degree, it offers job security, and you can get hired in sales even if the company isn’t hiring. I have done it multiple times in my career.
2. According to your bio, you "first started evangelizing about sales careers after spearheading the retraining of workers affected by the 9/11 layoffs." Why did the 9.11 layoffs serve as a catalyst?: After 9/11, our country saw a lot of layoffs. And as I looked around, one thing I noticed is that the salespeople were not the ones losing their jobs. At that point, sales is all I had ever really done, so I started wondering why more people didn’t go into sales. That’s when I realized that it’s not anyone’s dream job. It’s not the one you brag about or write essays about in grade school. That’s when I began coaching others on why it should be a dream job.
3. You have a website where you hope to crowd source ideas to alleviate homelessness. It's a beautiful idea that seems ... sorta impossible. Tell me why I'm wrong: Big things often feel impossible. That’s why we break them down into smaller things. Then they aren’t as impossible. It comes down to this. I think great ideas can always come from people who are not hamstrung by preconceived notions. I want to be careful here because my stance is in no way a reflection of all the amazing people who work tirelessly to help those who are unhoused. The reality is, we have to do something different. I am not looking to the government to help. Even if they did, funding could be taken away after the next election. As I wrote on my website, the concept is we need groups/organizations to become responsible for specific individuals. The federal government started a program called WelcomeCorps. This is a program where local groups can sponsor refugees in their city. Why can’t we do the same thing with people experiencing homelessness?
4. You were a speaker at the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals annual conference in Washington, D.C. What's your craziest, wildest story from the conference?: This is a great opportunity to make something up because it was so long ago … I remember flying into Reagan International in D.C. for that conference. About 25 minutes from landing, the pilot told us that if we needed to use the restroom, we should do it immediately. If anyone got up from their seat during the final approach, they would divert and land somewhere else (I assumed an Air Force base) and beat us up! It was funny to hear a pilot talk like that, but also a reminder of what happened months earlier.
5. How did you publish your book? Self? A smallish imprint? What was the process like? Is it worth it, for aspiring writers?: I self-published my book on Amazon. It’s only been out a few days, but I have plans to get it into physical bookstores in the future. The writing was the easy part; it was for me, at least. The famous line of, “write drunk—edit sober” really applies. Just get all your thoughts on paper and then find a good editor. I was so fortunate to find my editor, Chandi Lyn. I had a good message, but she helped turn it into a great book.
As an aspiring writer, is it worth it? It depends. Most of us are not going to make a lot of money with a book. If you are a non-fiction writer like me and hope to utilize it for another cause (in my case, consulting for organizations that retrain displaced workers), then it’s absolutely worth it. If you have a life experience that you feel would help others, you should share your story. Once you have a finished manuscript, it costs nothing to put it on Amazon.
Bonus [rank in order—favorite to least]: Jim Fregosi, "Easy Lover" by Phil Collins and Philip Bailey, mules, the smell of orange peel, Jesus Christ, red carpet, Suge Knight, recycling, the state of Illinois, the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals annual conference in Washington, D.C.: Well, now I have that damn song in my head! State of Illinois (my oldest son, his wife and my first grandchild just moved to Chicago), mules (because I am stubborn as hell!) National Association of Workforce Development Professionals Conference, “Easy Lover,” recycling, red carpet, Jim Fregosi, the smell of orange peel, Jesus Christ, Suge Knight.
Ask Jeff Pearlman a fucking question(s)
It finally hit me that the whole Jim Murray Q&A thing wasn’t particularly funny. So I’ve scrapped it with a new feature—namely, ask me any journalism question you like, and I’ll try and answer honestly and with the heart-of-a-champion power one can expect from a mediocre substack.
Hit me up in my Twitter DMs, or via e-mail at email@example.com or just use the comments section here …
Via Andrew: Hi, Jeff. I am a sportswriter, and there are a couple of music biographies I'd be interested in writing. You obviously made this transition with your current book, but not before writing 10 sports books. My concerns are (1) I know the right people to contact in the sports world (agents and coaches and teammates, etc.) and maybe don't know as much for music; (2) a publisher would wonder why a sportswriter is writing a music book. I did write album reviews and interview some artists as a college newspaper writer, 15 years ago, for what it's worth. What are your thoughts?
So, first, I never, ever, ever want to be the type of writer (or human) who discourages someone from pursuing a dream. That would be incredibly dickish. Plus, who am I to tell someone what to do/not do.
That said … if I’m you, and the idea can wait a bit, I might try getting a first book deal in the sports universe. A. Because publishers will feel much more comfortable taking a shot on you in the realm you’re known for; B. Publishers will almost certainly pay you more for a sports book (at this juncture in your career) than a music book; C. Having a publisher’s heft behind your book can only help sales. My career in books has lasted, in large part, because my first book (“The Bad Guys Won!”) sold a shitload of copies. It set expectations that, “Hey, this author might be on to something.” In a way, I played the long game. I actually had wanted to write a book about the band Kiss. But my agent suggested I wait. I think she was right.
Via Todd: I hate your political opinions and wish you’d shut the fuck up. That’s all. That’s the question.
Mom? Is that you?
A random old article worth revisiting …
On June 29, 1982, the Washington Bullets used their eight-round pick on Delaware forward Ken Luck. And while I’m aware none of my substack readers care much about the Hens or Ken Luck—well, I was curious what was written about the transaction. Here’s the following day piece from the Wilmington News Journal’s Tom Cobourn (Luck didn’t make the team) …
This week’s college writer you should follow on Instagram …
Christian Hince, sports editor, Albany Press
The University of Albany student scribe did a really lovely job on this piece, DION LEWIS BRINGS CHAMPION’S EXPERIENCE TO GREAT DANE COACHING STAFF. It’s smart, it’s informative, it fills in the gaps and breaks down precisely why a Super Bowl champion would aspire to freeze his ass off in Albany, N.Y.
Once can follow Christian on Instagram here.
Strong work, kid.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: Some of the hard-right loonies went crazy over Ruby Cramer’s Washington Post profile of Casey DeSantis, wife of the Florida governor. Only, eh, TRACING THE POWER OF CASEY DESANTIS is perfectly done. Detailed. Specific. Deftly reported. I suppose when you think the media is against you, you read everything in an antagonistic light. But this was awesome.
Musing 2: Bravo to ProPublica’s Justin Elliott, Joshua Kaplan and Alex Mierjeski for JUSTICE SAMUEL ALITO TOOK LUXURY FISHING VACATION WITH GOP BILLIONAIRE WHO LATER HAD CASES BEFORE THE COURT. And shame on the Wall Street Journal for allowing Alito the space to write an opinion piece savaging the three scribes … before even reading what they wrote. On a side-note: This shouldn’t be complicated. You’re a Supreme Court justice. Don’t take free fucking stuff. From anyone. Hard stop.
Musing 3: Elon Musk is an awful stain on humanity, and if you don’t believe me read RESEARCHER WHO COINED ‘CISGENDER’ REACTS TO ELON MUSK LABELING IT ‘A SLUR’ by HuffPost’s Sara Boboltz.
Musing 4: So BBC News’ nonstop coverage of the Titan sub disaster was nothing short of breathtaking. Smart, timely, precise—without any bullshit gossip. Big props to editor Brandon Livesay for leading a really impressive charge.
Musing 5: A rare sports take: I don’t understand how anyone thinks the Celtics blundered by sending Marcus Smart to Memphis and winding up with Kristaps Porziņģis and two first-round picks. Yes, Smart was the emotional heart of the team and a beloved piece of Boston. But, ruthlessly, guys like that come and go all the time. Pretty snazzy work from Boston’s Brad Stevens.
Musing 6: The Los Angeles Times’ Tyler Tynes is an excellent writer, and as guest editor of the 2018 Best American Sports Writing I included one of his pieces in the. book. That said, the dude—hired earlier this year as the paper’s sports culture critic—has written five (yes, five total) pieces since February. And I suppose that’d be kosher and dandy … had the newspaper not just chopped off a huge chunk of its staff in layoffs. Weird.
Musing 7: Yet another on-the-point column from the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie. In TRUMP, THE WORST BOSS YOU’VE EVER HAD, he writes: “Donald Trump did not — and does not — recognize any distinction between himself and the office of the presidency. He is it and it is him. This view is as close a fundamental rejection of American constitutionalism as you can imagine — and it helps explain much of the former president’s behavior in and out of office. It is why he could not abide any opposition to anything he tried to pursue, why he raged against the “deep state,” why he strained against every limit on his authority, why he rejected the very idea that he could lose the 2020 presidential election and why he decided he could simply take classified documents to his home in Florida. For Trump, he is the president. He is the government. The documents, in his mind, belonged to him.”
Musing 8: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang stars Laura Carney, author of “My Father’s List.”
Quote of the week …
I was alive.
Lots of work.
If we were hanging from something.
By “wrote,” I mean had a lowly reporter write it. Which was a golden opportunity for the reporter. So I’m not complaining.
Sometimes I long for the pre-Google days.
Bambi passed in 2017. She changed my life, and I miss her dearly.
Free lesson: Never refer to Toraino Walker as “that little bitch” in front of Dan Cyrulik. It doesn’t end well.