Discover more from Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang
The Yang Slinger: Vol. LVIII
For one day, I set aside my pedestrian life as a hack writer and acted in the HBO series, "Winning Time." It was terrifying, exhausting, riveting—and memorable.
To start with.
No, I will not sign an autograph for your kid.
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.
No, I will not read your script.
No, I will not endorse your product.
And, seriously, stop sending me your scented panties.
I am not having sex with you.
On second thought—I will have sex with you.
But, the rest of you wanna-bes and hangers-on, bug off. Leave me alone. Let me tan on the patio of my mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Let me have Josefina bring me my peeled grapes and fresh-squeezed orange-mango-papaya smoothie. Let me choose between the De Tomaso P72 and the Ferrari LaFerrari. Let me enjoy my sponge bath and the happy ending.
Just let me be.
I am, after all, a blossoming Hollywood Heartthrob. Within the next few weeks, you will no longer think of me as schlub sports writer; as the John Rocker guy in the backward T.J. Maxx-purchased knock-off Kangol. Nope, I am forever changed. From now through eternity, the world will know me as “Jeff”—the sexy, charismatic reporter who asks three (yes, three!) questions at a press conference in episode 6 of Winning Time’s second season.
I need my pedicure!
In case you don’t know, the HBO show “Winning Time” is based upon a book I once wrote called, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.” Back in December 2021, as season one was about to premiere, I devoted a Substack to explaining the process of having a show optioned, as well as the ensuing awesomeness. And, as Season 2 approaches (the first episode airs this Sunday), everything about this experience has been ludicrously, preposterously, amazingly awesome.
There’s the money, which has helped put my daughter through college.
There’s the launch party, which included this moment (which unfolded as I was seated alongside my daughter and son) and so, so, so much fun.
There’s the Hollywood education. Unlike many film and TV projects, where the source material authors are kicked to the curb, I’ve been allowed to be involved. I read all the scripts. I fact check. I was even asked for casting input. I speak weekly with Kevin Messick, the show’s executive producer. The three main writers—Max Borenstein, Rodney Barnes and Jim Hecht (see below)—have become friends and colleague.
There’s my courtship of Halle Berry.
There’s the joy it’s brought my family and friends. The excitement. The highs. Through Covid. Through my father’s cancer treatment. It’s mattered. My mom cried during episode one. My mom never cries. Again—it’s mattered.
But through it all, nothing prepared me for Nov. 16, 2022, when I woke at 6 am and drove up to the Warner lot in Los Angeles, where I was locked in to play a 1980s reporter at a Forum press conference.
Now, if you’re a “Winning Time” nerd, and know what’s going on, there are a shitload of cameos from a shitload of people. Both Max and Jim have appeared. Jim’s wife, the veteran news reporter Courtney Friel, plays … a news reporter. Rodney has a recurring role as a beefy security guard. My wife, Catherine Pearlman, was “Donna—Chicago Bulls administrative assistant.” Why, this season even includes Jay Mohr, the comedian who’s engaged (IRL) to Jeanie Buss, the Laker owner. So it’s not unusual for the show to throw bones to folks like (cough) me.
That said, I don’t know how to act. Like, at all. As a University of Delaware freshman, I auditioned for a student production of “The Browning Version,” got the lead—then quit two days before opening when I failed to nail down a British accent.Since then, I haven’t set foot on a stage.
And yet …
I couldn’t turn this down, right? I mean, if you’re allowed to be a character in an HBO show based upon a book you wrote—you jump at it, dammit! So, in the early days of November, I practiced my three lines and practiced my three lines and practiced my three lines. I said them to my wife, my son, my dog, my laptop, my couch, my bed. I said them emotionally, I said them dryly. I thought of myself as Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men,” as Patrick Fugit in “Almost Famous.”
And then, on the day of shooting, I arrived preposterously early.
I think call time was 10 am. I got there at 8:30. Cliche be damned, my hands were coated in sweat. My fingers were twitchy. My head pounded. I don’t get nervous interviewing athletes, or walking through Tupac’s old neighborhoods. I don’t mind knocking on strange doors, or entering prison’s for sit-downs. But this—this felt different.
I was terrified.
But suddenly—out of nowhere—it appeared to me.
A glorious vision.
A vision of love and compassion.
The motherfucking craft services tent.
They had eggs! All types of eggs! Hash browns and potatoes, too. They had fruit (meh) and donuts (yes!) and people who created your perfect coffee drinks. They had miniature boxes of cereal and … and …
It was all free!
So I ate and ate and ate. And as I ate, I walked around the Warner lot. We were filming, oh, 20 yards from the set of “Abbott Elementary,” so as I egged and hash browned I stared at stuff like this …
… and thought, “How did my life come to this?” I mean that sincerely: How did my life come to this? I’m from a tiny town in upstate New York. Just yesterday I was writing for my high school newspaper, for my college newspaper, for The Tennessean. I was dreaming of Sports Illustrated. I just wanted to carve out a career. That was all. And now, I was on a Hollywood lot.
Before long, I was summoned to my trailer. Yes, my trailer. With my name on it. Spelled correctly—in black ink atop blue tape. The trailer had a bathroom and a couch and, dangling from hangers in a closet, my wardrobe for the day. My scene takes place in 1981, so I was outfitted in a groovy blue polyester shirt, beige slacks and a leather jacket that weighed about 12 Fluties. I changed, then shuffled over to the makeup trailer, where I assumed they’d look at my high cheek bones, my sparkling blue eyes, my iridescent skin tones and bellow, for all to hear, “Perfection!”
Instead, they gave me a wig.
You can see it in the leading-this-Substack photo. It’s dirty blonde and regrettably MacGyver-ish. One would think, back in 1981, there were a fair share of balding reporters (a rare species, we are not), but—for reasons unknown—they wanted a dead ferret glued to my skull. So they glued a dead ferret to my skull. Then, adding to the follicly challenged indignity, they created matching sideburns and pasted them on as well.
Here, I was presented this at day’s end. It’s framed in my office …
With my dope-ass dead ferret MacGyver-ish haircut and my 1975 Joe Namath ‘burns, I was ushered to the set. It was located in a room made to look like the old Forum Club, so there was a pretend bar with pretend floors and an aura of vintage Laker throwback. That’s one thing about “Winning Time” that, from jump, has blown me away. Details, details, details, details. I figured this show would be legit early on, when someone from the design department asked whether I knew what material was used to create the 1979 NBA summer league jerseys.
“Um, no,” I said.
Can you find out?
“I can try.”
The scene I was involved in concerned the press conference when Pat Riley and Jerry West are named co-head coaches in a moment of batshit crazy insanity from Jerry Buss. This is what it looked like in real life …
… and … hmm. I wanna explain this well: Of all the things I’ve experienced via this TV show, the most jarring (in a good way) has been the one-of-a-kind feeling of literally walking into the pages of your own book. I don’t think I can do this justice, but I’ll try. In the course of researching “Showtime,” I sought out every single detail from that press conference. Yes, the mood and feel. But also the colors, the smells, the perceptions, the textures. I studied it and studied it and studied it. And now, my body encased in dead cow and roadside ferret, I was in it. Standing there. Looking left, looking right and thinking, “Hoooooly shit! Is this what acid feels like?”
Before long, I was seated alongside, oh, 30 other extras—all of us situated in chairs before a podium, all of us playing media members of one kind or another. In my pocket I had my three lines written out on a scrap of paper, and I also jotted some of the key words via blue ink on my hand.
Again, I was really nervous.
The big guns entered. John C. Reilly, who plays Buss. Jason Clarke, who plays West. Adrien Brody, who plays Riley. The episode was being directed by Tanya Hamilton, whose past work includes “Snowfall” and “Greenleaf.” I had never met Tanya, and—sitting here on Aug. 4—I still have never met Tanya. She was businesslike and focused and (in all likelihood) had no idea that ferret guy wrote the book.
The scene is fairly straightforward: An awkward press conference where, at some point, Buss takes questions. He looks at all the reporters calling out, then points my way and says, “Jeff …”
[I want to take a moment to add here: Max Borenstein named the reporter I’m playing “Jeff”—and it’s the coolest shit ever. I don’t even like my first name. But being Jeff, playing “Jeff” was a legit high]
The first take happened, at, oh, 11:15 am.
The main characters walk in.
Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.
Buss says he’ll take questions.
I caught a quick glimpse at my hand and stated my lines. A bit wooden, a bit clumsily—but fine. Nobody screamed CUT! and the scene continued.
And, sincerely, I thought, “OK—let’s go back to craft services. I hear they’re serving enchiladas for lun—”
There was a take two.
Then a take three.
Then a take four.
Then a take five.
Then a take six.
Then a take 56.
Then a take 73.
Then a take 98.
Then a take 103.
And, lastly, a take 104.
I am neither joking nor exaggerating. That scene—that single, five-minute scene—was shot one hundred and four times. Over NINE FUCKING HOURS. They used this camera. Then they used that camera. They focused on Buss. They focused on the reporters. They had some of us smoke (clove) cigarettes for effect. They adjusted this guy. They moved that woman. A bit to the left. A bit to the right. Try saying the line without pausing. Don’t have your chin so low. I believe there was a break for lunch, but I don’t actually remember it. Probably because the clove residue was laced with some sort of PCP/Tide Pods additive. At one point I had a nice 10-minute chat with Reilly, who sat to the side during a quick break. We discussed the Chicago Bears and weather.
As my mind drifted, I started thinking back to a freelance piece I wrote, oh, 20 years ago, when the actor Jason Priestley was starring on a show called, “Love Monkey.” It was my first time on a set, and my excitement died down as I was overcome by the drugged-out feeling of seeing one painfully dull thing happen on an ceaseless loop. Afterward, I told Brandon Walsh that it all seemed sorta, cough, boring. “Brother,” he replied,” you have no idea.”
Now I had an idea.
By the time we wrapped, I was exhausted and beaten down and reeking of clove and wig glue. With the sky dark and the hour late, all the extras were placed on vans and shuttled back to the parking lot. There was a raw, infectious energy to the others—this had been an amazing day of work on an HBO show. They were in the presence of stars, and might even land a second or two of screen time. Certainly no one was getting rich off the experience.
“Have you done this a lot?” one asked me.
“First time,” I replied.
“Wow,” he said. “And they gave you three lines?”
At that moment, perhaps he rightly figured he was in the presence of acting greatness. Perhaps he knew that the star before him was heading toward bigger things. Perhaps he knew …
“Eh,” I said, “I wrote the book the show is based on.”
“Oh,” he replied. “That explains it.”
I woke up the following morning.
I entered the shower.
I rubbed shampoo into my two heads.
By “two heads,” I mean my forehead, and the enormous red lump protruding from my forehead. I turned off the water and stared into the mirror.
“Holy shit!” I said.
Everything was swollen. My eyes were slits. I called someone from the production. “Wig glue,” he told me. “You’re probably having an allergic reaction.”
I bolted to urgent care, popped some pills, watched my head slowly shrink down to its normal size.
Alas, that lasted for but a minute or two.
I, Jeff Pearlman, am a Hollywood Heartthrob.
Our heads be big.
The Quaz Five with … Jim Hecht
Jim Hecht is the co-creator and executive producer of HBO’s “Winning Time.” You can follow him on Instagram here.
1. What made you become a writer? Like, was there a moment? A buzz? A jolt?: I wasn't planning on it. I was an international relations major. College debater. I was going to go to law school and get a masters in IR. Summer before my senior year I interned at Nickelodeon in Orlando. GUTS! "Do you have it?!" And I had a long talk with my uncle, Albie Hecht, who's a producer. We were sitting on the beach, drinking a beer at night. He had planned to go to law school and he talked about how he chose media because he thought it was the best way to change the world. It made me think back to the ways TV and movies had shaped who I was. My value structure. Star Wars. The Force. And I felt a shift in the way I saw things. I suddenly saw that making stories could accomplish more than the law and politics and stuff like that. So ... yes, I had an uncle in the business. Sorry.
2. In 2006 you wrote “Ice Age: the Meltdown.” And I guess there are some laughs to come from that, but I find it REALLY impressive. What goes into animated writing: I love working in animation because there are really no limits. But it does take forever. Because you don't have to reshoot things. You can just redraw them. New storyboards. So you can write hundreds of versions of a scene and keep writing and rewriting. For years. That said, it really is no different from a work perspective than writing live action. And it seems criminal almost that it's not subject to the WGA. For instance, I worked on IA2 for a year and a half straight and exclusively. I think the movie made almost a billion dollars worldwide. I got zero in residuals and royalties. I'm not complaining. It gave me a career. I'm grateful. But had I written anything live action during that time with similar success I'd probably have a much different life today.
3. You first came to my house to option my Lakers book nine years ago. So what did it feel like for you, the first time you saw the show actually exist?: OMG it was surreal. On two levels. For one, it's just wild seeing something that came from your mind become physically real. It's a unique experience in life. To see something from your imagination in the real world. Think about that. How often do our thoughts become reality like that? The other level was—we were standing on the floor of the Forum in 1980!!! There was Magic! Kareem! Jerry Buss! Jack and Dyan Cannon. The Laker Girls. It was like walking into my greatest childhood fantasy!
4. What’s your lowest moment as a writer?: The last strike. I had gotten what I thought was the job of a lifetime. Writing an adaptation of The Incredible Mr Limpet for Warners. Will Smith was attached to star. Chris Columbus was directing. Akiva Goldsman producing. It was like Joe Pesci when he got whacked in Goodfellas. I was almost made. Then I walked into a room and ... “Oh, shit.” Welcome to Hollywood. It turned out that Greg Silverman had hired another writer and director to write an entirely different version of the script at the same time. Chris was upset. His last movie for Warners had been a little thing called Harry Potter. So he'd made them a mint. And they basically showed him the door. It was painful. Chris was a hero of mine. And a very good man. It was horrible (and eye opening) to see him treated that way. As for me? I had just bought my first house with the money. I hadn't planned well for a strike. And I went flat broke. By the end, I was taking change to coinstar so I could eat. BUT... that lead indirectly to Winning Time. Because as much as I loved the job, I was not completely in love with the material. It was not the story I was born to tell. And it lead to the realization that I needed to stop writing stuff I like. And only write stuff I love. Because there's a lot of bullshit in getting something from Fade IN to the screen. And loving it is the only way I'm gonna get it there. Other people can make great stuff with material they only “like a lot.” I'm just not that kind of talent. And that's when Jeff Pearlman walked in ... or the other way around.
5. Why are there so many self-indulgent douches in Hollywood? And how have you avoided becoming one?: I'm not sure I have. Read the above. I think there's actually an answer in telling that joke. Because I've had enough experience acting douchey or saying douchey things and then cringing when I see or hear it played back. So it has humbled me. If I have avoided being that person it's been because of a daily process of spiritual work and a wife who's far superior in almost every way. And having pre-teen step kids who are quick to humiliate.
Bonus [rank in order—favorite to least]: Nick Van Exel, pirate ships, deep-fried Oreos, Dominique Jennings, your Bar Mitzvah, a large iced coffee, Shohei Ohtani, Sean Patrick Small, Green Bay Packer helmets: Ooooo... I like a lot of that stuff! 1. Sean Patrick—That's the easy one; 2. Nick the quick; 3. Shohei; 4. Dominique; 5. A larged ice coffee (and that's saying something for everybody above because I start every day with this); 6. Pirate ships. I would love to do a pirate project. I loved Black Sails; 7. Deep-fried Oreos. Love the taste. Hate what it does to me after; 8. Packer helmets. I don't watch pro football. Except USC.
Ask Jeff Pearlman a fucking question(s)
Here’s a wacky idea—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 Lionsoog: I’m a college journalist and I write for our student newspaper. Does it still make sense to print it when no one reads the print issues?: This is a really good question—and a really tough question. On the one hand, as a guy who came up in print, there is something incredibly important and educational in piecing together a print edition. You learn about design, about production. You think about spacing, about balance. All sorts of stuff that—I think—continues to matter.
That said, I do wonder whether I’m just an increasingly old and out-of-touch grandpa grasping for something that no longer exists. For example, I haven’t subscribed to a print newspaper in four or five years. Few of my peers do, either. It’s on the quick fade, and I’m starting to question why we keep training student journalists in 2023 to act as if it’ll always be 1985.
So—to be honest—I just don’t know.
Via Scoot: Who’s going to have a better season, Geno Smith or Daniel Jones?: On the bright side, I’m pretty sure I’d recognize both quarterbacks in a shopping mall. On the negative side, I have no fucking idea [But I do believe Sam Darnold is starting for the 49ers by mid-season]. But, because Geno Smith escaped my beloved Jets, I can only assume he’ll throw 45 touchdowns en route to the Super Bowl while Aaron Rodgers busts open his spleen in week 2.
A random old article worth revisiting …
On. Aug. 10, 1983, the Houston Astros traded outfielder Omar Moreno to the New York Yankees in exchange for Jerry Mumphrey, also an outfielder. The deal exploded my 11-year-old head—and apparently infuriated Yankee manager Billy Martin. Steve Marcus of Newsday broke it down …
This week’s college writer you should follow on Linkedin …
Vanessa Tran, writer for the Spartan, San Jose State’s student newspaper.
So I was just goobering around the Internet, seeking out this week’s student journalist, when I came upon Vanessa’s piece, $SUICIDEBOY$ EP IS A MASSIVE FAILURE. The article was written several months ago, and I couldn’t find Vanessa on Facebook, Twitter or IG. But … I’m 100-percent here for the bluntness of your prototypically awesome this-shit-sucks college newspaper music review.
One can follow Vanessa on Linkedin here.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: What a piece of writing/reporting from the Washington Post’s Reis Thebault with his latest piece, HIS HOLLYWOOD STAR WAS FINALLY RISING. NOW HE CLEANS APARTMENTS. I’ve witnessed up close the impact the parallel Hollywood strikes are having on actors and writers, and it’s downright heartbreaking. For every George Clooney and Julia Roberts, there are 5,000 Josh Hooks, scrapping to make it while chasing a dream. Trust me—read.
Musing 2: While we’re talking phenomenal writing/reporting, Amie Just of the Lincoln Journal Star brings the heat with, ‘THERE’S NO FREAKING WAY’: INSIDE JACK HOFFMAN’S WORLD, 10 YEARS AFTER SPRING GAME FAME. Amie is a rising supernova in the biz, and this is the best thing she’s written.
Musing 3: I hate media assholes, and there are apparently few greater media assholes than Wendy McCaw, the woman who decided to purchase, then destroy, the Santa Barbara News-Press. This Washington Post story from Paul Farhi will break your heart.
Musing 4: A bit self-indulgent of me, but wanna thank The Ringer’s (always spectacular) Katie Baker for her write-up on Season 2 of “Winning Time.” You can tell when folks put the work in. Katie always does.
Musing 5: I’ve been really dispirited by conservative media’s unwillingness to take on the grifter, and in particular I consider the people on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board to be especially guilty. These are smart folks. Trained folks. And yet, time after time, they find a way to kneel before Donald Trump. To excuse him. Always. This was no exception.
Musing 6: Along those lines, the Trump indictment reads like a political thriller. The Bulwark Podcast, hosted by Charlie Sykes, recently devoted an episode to having the entire document read aloud. I listened on a recent walk, and it was beyond absorbing.
Musing 7: Rolling Stone’s Andre Gee slammed Travis Scott’s new album, “Utopia,” by complaining that, “he doesn't have anything interesting to say.” I disagree—strongly. My son is a big Scott fan, and we’ve been listening on every car ride for the past week. And the album is sizzlingly great. So, hey.
Musing 8: The son, nephew and I attended Thursday night’s Mariners-Angels game. And despite Shohei Ohtani doing everything to carry his team, the crap lineup and crappier bullpen are too much to overcome—and Los Angeles lost yet again. Seriously, I can’t think of a single reason for Ohtani to not leave as a free agent.
Musing 9: Worth your minutes.
Musing 10: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast stars Tim Brown, former Los Angeles Times and Yahoo! Sports columnist and author of, “The Tao of the Backup Catcher.”
Quote of the week …
This is one of the shameful moments of my life. I think back and can’t believe I ruined a play 48 hours before it was scheduled to open.
The sportswriter’s favorite word.