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The Yang Slinger: Vol. LXI
Every so often you write about someone—and the experience lets you down. Here's my saga of Bo Jackson, a beloved book project and the Heisman Trophy winner who tried having me banned from stores.
So the paperback version of my 10th book, “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson,” arrived in the mail the other day—and, as always, it’s a thrilling moment for an author.
Like most of my peers, I take time to hold the book, cuddle the book, swaddle the book, swoon over the book. I comb through its pages, admire the new accents (blurbs! fonts!), scan the passages for various moments that I particularly relish. I can’t overstate this: The arrival of a book is the three-way procreation of Bar Mitzvah, wedding and Crystal Gayle concert.
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And yet …
Something quite weird has happened with “The Last Folk Hero.” Something I’ve never experienced to this degree.
Namely, Bo Jackson has been a dick.
I don’t say that lightly. Fuck, I entered this project as a huge Bo Jackson fan. In fact, I wrapped this project an even greater Bo Jackson fan. The guy ran a 4.13 40 at Auburn. Ran a 4.17 40 in pads (in pads!) on grass (on grass!) with the Los Angeles Raiders. As a high schooler in Bessemer, Alabama, Bo Jackson set a national high school record for homers (20) while missing seven games to perform in track and field (in which he set three state records). He won the state decathlon title as a junior—without having to compete in the final event (the dreaded 1,500) because he was so far ahead. He won again as a senior—this time wearing sweats the entire time (once again, he was far enough ahead to not have to run the 1,500). Bo would have been the No. 1 pick in the 1982 Major League Baseball Draft had be not committed to Auburn. He was the No. 1 pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, but told the Buccaneers to fuck off in order to play with the Kansas City Royals.
I led off the book with a Paul Bunyan quote, and it still feels quite appropriate.
Again, I am a huge Bo Jackson fan.
I first spoke to Bo Jackson (for this project) on the afternoon of May 1, 20201.
I was sitting in the backyard of my Southern California home, chatting with my mom via phone, when a call came in, accompanied by a blocked number.
“Mom,” I said, “lemme take this.”
I clicked over.
“Hello?” I said.
“Mister Jeff Pearlman?” the voice replied.
“Yes,” I said.
“This is Bo Jackson.”
I honestly never knew whether I’d hear from Bo. Over the course of my book career, I’ve interviewed plenty of superstars, but I’ve also been blown off by plenty. Shaq gave me time. Kobe did not. Worthy gave me time. Magic did not. LeRoy Butler gave me time. Brett Favre did not. Really, it’s all a crapshoot. Five days before he called, I had FedExed Bo a package of my books, along with this note …
Dear Mr. Jackson:
My name is Jeff Pearlman. I’m a longtime journalist, as well as the author of nine books (two of which I’ve enclosed). You probably wouldn’t remember this, but I interviewed you three years ago for a lengthy Bleacher Report story about Kenny Gonzales and your decision to play for the Kansas City Royals.
Anyhow, I’m 48, and grew up an enormous Bo Jackson fan. That’s no exaggeration—the door of my University of Delaware dorm room was decorated with your iconic black-and-white shoulder pads/baseball bat poster. My son Emmett (age 13) wears a throwback Bo Jackson Memphis Chicks jersey (see enclosed photo). I consider you not merely the iconic sports figure of the mid/late-1980s and early 1990s, but (alongside Jim Thorpe) one of the two greatest American athletes of all time.
Which is why—as my 10th book—I am writing a biography of your life.
And also why I’ve sent you this letter, to request an interview.
I know it’s sorta weird, the idea of someone coming along and saying, “I’m writing about you.” But much of my adult life has been devoted to chronicling historic, iconic sports figures; to writing legacy biographies that people will hopefully read 50 … 60 … 70 … 100 years from now and say, “Oooooh, I get it. I understand why that person is legendary.” That’s what I aspire to do with this project—take readers back to Bessemer, back to Florence Bond’s three-room house, back to McAdory High and Auburn University and Memphis’ Tim McCarver Stadium. To Kansas City. To Los Angeles. I want them to understand how you achieved greatness. What it took. What you overcame.
I take these projects insanely seriously. If you saw my office right now, you’d basically see the compilation of a mini-Bo Jackson library—flush with media guides, books, thousands of articles and yellowed newspapers and old copies of Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports.
So, again, I am asking for your blessing on the project, as well as the chance to speak with you about your one-of-a-kind life. Which absolutely fascinates me.
This is a project of genuine admiration. I would be enormously grateful for any assistance.
Huge thanks, and I hope you and your family are safe during these, well, really weird and scary times.
We wound up conversing for, oh, 30 minutes. Bo was in his car, fetching his wife Linda a salad. He was kind and warm and explained—politely—why he wouldn’t be helping me with the project. He also, however, made it clear that he wasn’t mad or upset and had no real problems with me pursuing the task.
When I hung up I thought, “Well, that went OK.”
Over the next 18 (or so) months, I reported the fuck out of Bo Jackson’s existence. I combed through every old media guide and yearbook I could find. I bought every book that’s ever been published about Bo, about Auburn, about the Raiders and Royals and Memphis Chicks and … on and on. I interviewed a Pearlman-record 720 people. Every so often, if I found something cool from the deep Bo archives, I’d make a copy and send it to the Jackson household. A long, lost box score. A faded photo. Always with a note—“If you ever wanna talk …”
Never heard from him.
And, to be clear, that’s no biggie. Bo didn’t owe me another call. Plus, I lucked out into the gem of gem reporter finds: Dick Schaap, Bo’s late biographer, had donated the transcripts and tapes from all their 1990 interview sessions to the Auburn University library. For a couple of hundred bucks, I was able to have everything delivered to my house. Pure gold.
So I reported and reported and reported, pieced together the finished project and finally released it last October. The reviews were probably the best I’ve ever received. The Wall Street Journal gave me huge props. So did NPR. Peter King, my former SI colleague, wrote that “The Last Folk Hero” was … “one of the most well-reported books I ever remember reading.” I even wound up landing on The New York Times best-seller’s list (an increasingly hard task) and spent a good five terrifying moments across from Al Roker on the Today Show.
Even these Tweets didn’t particularly bother me …
The book tour was my idea.
My publicist, the sensational (albeit Buffalo Bills fan) Maureen Cole, wasn’t really feeling it, because—truth be told—unless you’re Michael Lewis or J.K. Rowling or Snooki, it’s hard to draw a crowd and make the expense worthwhile. Or, put different: One out of 10 million Americans know the name “Jeff Pearlman,” and the vast majority of those are fans of the Jeff Pearlman Band.
Still, books don’t come out all that often, and I wanted the moment to last. So, with the help of HarperCollins, I secured a four-store Alabama mini-tour. All independent shops, all located in the Yellowhammer State.
• Oct. 28, 2022: Auburn Oil Booksellers, Auburn, Alabama
• Oct. 31, 2022: The Little Professor, Homewood, Alabama
• Nov. 1, 2022: Downtown Books, Dothan, Alabama.
• Nov. 2, 2022: Page and Palette, Fairhope, Alabama
I packed my stuff, loaded up on free giveaways and headed down to Alabama, a state (politics be damned) I’ve always enjoyed.
Then (cough) shit got bonkers.
Like, super bonkers.
The e-mail arrived on Oct. 26. I read it. Then read it again. And again …
This had to be a hoax, right? A prank? Even if Bo Jackson wanted the book turned into apple sludge, there’s no way Alabama’s favorite son would call the various mom-and-pop stores and ask them to ban me. No way. No possible way.
The store owner asked whether I thought “the real” Bo Jackson had called her small shop. “Honestly,” I said, “I doubt it. That’d be really strange. Like, he’s Bo Jackson ...”
I flew to Alabama. One by one, I did my signings. And, lo and behold, Bo Jackson … MOTHERFUCKING CALLED ALL FOUR STORES. Not Bo Jackson’s manager. Not Bo Jackson’s PR person. Not Steve Balboni or Marcus Allen or Emmanuel Lewis. No—Bo Jackson took time out of his life to locate the phone numbers of the shops, then dial the numbers, then call the shops, then request to speak to whoever was in charge, then request (sternly) that I not be allowed to appear. Even writing this in paragraph form feels surreal. Bo Jackson—book banner?
“That,” one owner told me, “really rubbed me the wrong way.”
I’ll emphasize that: Me, too.
For two years, all I thought about was Bo Jackson,
blunts and brews. And for two years, I was obsessed with understanding Bo, understanding his purpose, understanding his meaning, understanding his status, understanding why he remains—without much debate—the greatest athlete to walk the earth. Like all my books, I took this task extraordinarily seriously. As I’ve said about 600 times throughout my life, “History matters.” What I mean is, we learn nothing without comprehending what preceded us. That applies to politics, to geography, to war, to film, to music. And, certainly, to sports. I wanted to grasp Bo Jackson because his legacy is important. It is a part of sports history.
So for Bo to not merely object to the book2, but call the stores and seek to have me (fuck, I’m gonna use the word) cancelled, well, it makes me think differently of the man. It makes me wonder whether a guy who spent his elementary school years bullying those around him is still a fucking bully3. It makes me wonder whether Bo Jackson is (gasp) a base-level nice guy.
I actually DMed this to Bo’s Xitter4 account, and wrote a letter stating much the same …
He never responded.
An important thing to add and emphasize: All four bookstore owners told Bo Jackson to fuck off.
They (likely) didn’t use that exact phrase, but they collectively told him that, no, you can’t tell us what to do. You can’t pick and choose our guests. You can’t ban authors from speaking. You may well have won the Heisman Trophy many moons ago, but that carries no weight here, where speech isn’t just protected, but cherished.
I take none of this lightly. Again, all four stores were Alabama based. Bo Jackson is a football god in Alabama. It would have been easy to acquiesce and tell the obscure writer from California to stay away. It’s not like I was selling hundreds of books for these people. Bo Jackson is a treasured piece of state history. I’m no one.
Instead, however, they mustered the courage to tell Bo, “Sorry, but no.” They stood up for books and authors and freedom of speech.
I will likely forget Bo Jackson acting like a baby.
I will never forget the store owners acting with conviction.
The Quaz Five with … Rich Cohen
1. So your new book, “When the Game Was War: The NBA's Greatest Season,” chronicles the 1987 NBA season. I’ll ask bluntly and lamely: why was 1987 the greatest NBA season? I’ll start with the qualifier that all this might all be a case of mistaken identity. I was 19 years at the start of that season, and, when I was 19, something was at its greatest, but it might’ve just been me. You do tend to remember that first love most vividly, and 1987-88 was the season I fell I love with the NBA. But I really do think there is an objective argument for it being the best ever. There were, by my count, more future Hall of Famers in the game that season than ever before. Among them, they spanned the entire history of the league, with Kareem, who was 40, having played with players who’d played before there was an NBA, and Reggie Miller, who was 22, who would play with players who retired the day before yesterday. And there were the four great dynasties, all-time great teams—I don’t think anyone would dispute this—in simultaneous action, each at a different stage of rise or fall. The Celtics, who had possibly the best team ever when Bill Walton was going strong, were suddenly old in the spring of 1988, on the wane, a quarter past midnight. The Lakers were atop the hill, though already peering over the other side. The Pistons, the Bad Boys were, I’d argue, already the best team in the league, though no one seemed to realize it. But of course the future belonged to the Bulls. Michael Jordan won his first MVP in 1987-88 and the Chicago team that would win and win and win was already there, only mostly on the bench. This was the rookie season for both Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. John Paxson was on the bench. Phil Jackson was an assistant coach. The team was really just one piece away, and that would come when GM Jerry Kraus traded Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright. It was all happening—the future in the NBA the year, past and future visible at once.
2. I feel like the big name that has been sorta erased from NBA lore is Isiah Thomas. He’s a big part of your book. Why does history do him so … ugly?: Agreed. In some ways, I see this book as a reclamation project. I want to return Isiah to his proper place in the pantheon. I grew up outside Chicago, and I’m just a few years younger than Isiah. My father, who had been a fairly serious basketball coach, used to bring me to tournaments to watch Isiah when he was still in high school. He was smaller than most of his opponents even then. Yet he dominated. He excelled. He was a rock star. Here’s what my old man told me: the NBA has seen the comings and goings of many mediocre 7 footers; every starter under six has been great by necessity. Isiah is the only player under six feet that ESPN or the Athletic ranked in the top 50. So, grading on the curve, Isiah might be the best player of all time. He was the best on the best team in the middle of the greatest NBA era, when, night after night, he had to battle future Hall of Famers who batted him out of the air like a rolled up newspaper. History has done him ugly because he was the leader of the Bad Boys. He took the rap for Laimbeer, Rodman, Mahorn and the rest. And because he occasionally played nasty as that was the way the Pistons found to win. If he’d been drafted by the Lakers instead, he would have played a different way. As he did when he played for Bobby Knight at Indiana. He sublimated his gifts—he probably could have scored 25 a night—for the good of the Pistons, who had one of the most balanced attacks in history. And because Isiah says a lot of things he should not say. And because there’s his post playing career as a coach and GM, neither of which were good, obscured his career. And because Jordan became a God, and, in the bible written by Jordan, Isiah was the devil, which is how too many people came to see him. But let’s remember Zeke as he was when he was going good, which was awesome.
3. This might sound dumb, but when you write about an era that was so heavily chronicled, how do you do so without just repeating the same stuff that others repeated and others repeated?: I try to see it all with new eyes, and write it that way. As if for the first time. Make the old new again; literature is news that stays new. I think the prevalence of highlights—online and TV—has destroyed some of the drama of the game. You only understand what might otherwise look like a perfectly average jumper if you have experienced the forty frustrating, grueling, impossible 42 minutes that led up to it and for which it served as a dam-breaking catharsis. That’s why you dropped to the floor and shed many happy tears. That’s why you ran into the street screaming “Yes! Yes! Yes! Eat it you Fuckers!” I want to restore that—the storylines and tension that explain why we lose our shit when we watch. I see this book as a nonfiction novel that seeks to return people to that time and that place and make them read it as if they watching, and watch as if they don’t t know the outcome. I pitched it as “Game of Thrones on the Hardcourt.”
4. Better player—Bird or Magic? And why?: That’s not fair. It’s like asking who I love more, my mom or my dad. Being coldly clinical, I guess I’d say Magic was better. But Bird … I knew this old man who told me it was his goal in life to get fifteen pounds into a ten pound sack. Bird did that.
5. What’s the story of the best interview you landed for this project? “Best” can be coolest or hardest or weirdest. Your call, Rich.: I interviewed maybe a hundred people for this book, but the best was probably with the Pistons Bad Boy of All Bad Boys—Bill Laimbeer. Because he was filthy dirty on the court, because I was a Bulls fan and he occupied so much of my fantasy life. I dreamed of punching Laimbeer in the face, which is also what Wayne Gretzky said he’d like to do. One summer, when I was working in D.C., I saw Laimbeer and the rest of the Pistons walking up the steps of the Capitol. They were on the way to visit their congressman, John Dingell, who was going to congratulate the team for winning either their first or second NBA title. I can’t remember. And there was a moment when I considered going over and taking a pop at Laimbeer. Of course, it would have ended badly for me. Laimbeer is like 7 feet tall and I am no taller, and possibly shorter, than Isiah. Plus there were all the capital cops. And all the other Pistons. But that is the madness of the fan whose team has been bullied and beaten. The interview was great because, while most pro athletes play a role and are so different off the court, Laimbeer was no different than I’d expect him to be, even all these years later. He was smart and funny and knowledgeable but also a bit of a jerk.
Bonus [rank in order favorite to least]: Fennis Dembo, cheese and crackers, the smell of lavender, Darius Rucker, mugs, Mike Pence, “Love Boat,” Todd Blackledge, 1980s Dallas Mavericks away jerseys, sweetened ice tea: Love Boat – the best, especially when followed by Fantasy Island; Darius Rucker (I hung out with him for Rolling Stone; good guy); Mugs – what sort of mugs? Mug shots would go high, coffee mugs higher, beer mugs higher still, Mugs Halas highest of all; Fennis Dembo; Todd Blackledge; the smell of lavender – it makes me feel like I’m back over there; 1980s Dallas Mavericks away jerseys; cheese and crackers; sweetened ice tea; Mike Pence. Quoting Frank Costanza who was quoting his girlfriend’s father: “This guy, this is not my kind of guy.”
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 GinaWetPuss1: Are you looking for some hot action? Click on this link for the pussy you need: So this one came via my spam box, but I think it’s an issue worth addressing. First, as a guy in his 50s with a bad back and soggy paper knees, I’m not looking for some hot action, so much as a clear pathway to my toilet. See, I now pee two-to-three-to-four times per night, and oftentimes I’m too lazy/tired to turn the light on. So I sorta wobble into the bathroom, hope I’m in the right spot and piss in the dark—which has a solid 68.7 percent effectiveness and a 15 percent chance of sprinkling my right kneecap. And while I suppose the pussy I need sounds promising, I’m leaning toward a nap. Sorry, girl. Be you.
A random old article worth revisiting …
On Aug. 9, 1974, this photo/caption appeared on page 41 of the Indianapolis Star. I am quite confident that we, the Pearlman Substack community, are the first to see it in nearly 50 years. And that’s good enough for me …
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Walker Livingston, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sophomore.
The Daily Tar Heel’s assistant city and state editor, Livingston was handed the unenviable task of covering the death of Zijie Yan, an associate professor in the department of applied physical sciences, who was murdered in the recent shooting.
These assignments are no piece of pie. Not for me, not for a young scribe in her (I’m guessing) 20th or 21st year. But Livingston did marvelous work, and ‘TRULY MISSED AND FOREVER REMEMBERED’: UNC MOURNS ZIJIE YAN AT CANDLELIGHT VIGIL is pitch-perfect. Writes Livingston: “Christopher Everett, the student body president, said he — like many UNC students — experienced Monday's three hour-long lockdown in a classroom. ‘This senseless act of violence that we experienced this past week, has left us all struggling to find a way to pick up the pieces,’ Everett said. ‘What I do know, however, is that we can pick up those pieces together.’ He said he had never seen a community come together like the University came together on Monday — with students and instructors alike holding doors shut for each other and checking in on one another.”
One can follow Walker on Twitter here.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: A really cool piece here, headlined THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, from Harvard Magazine’s Max Krupnick. I love when writers attempt to wedge into the margins, find little things most aren’t thinking about. Writes Krupnick: “Preceding this April’s annual debate between Harvard’s political parties, the Democrats provided the Republicans a list of subjects that they would refuse to discuss—including abortion, transgender rights, and immigration. (In response, the Republicans asked not to be labeled as racist, homophobic, or xenophobic.) Loren Brown, the former JAS chairman, argues that even if uncomfortable, no topic should be ‘non-debatable, because one day, someone is going to debate it with us [in the real world] and we’re going to be caught off guard and not know how to respond.’”
Musing 2: A top-shelf obituary is a symphonic merging of biography and flow, and the New York Times’ Clay Risen nails it with this obit for Isabel Crook—“educator, anthropologist and articulate advocate for the Communist state”—who died at 107.
Musing 3: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch absolutely brings the hammer and drill with his latest column, JOURNALISM FAILS MISERABLY AT EXPLAINING WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING TO AMERICA. Writes Bunch: “America is entering its most important, pivotal year since 1860, and the U.S. media is doing a terrible job explaining what is actually happening. Too many of us — with our highfalutin poli-sci degrees and our dog-eared copies of the late Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes — are still covering elections like it’s the 20th century, as if the old touchstones like debates or a 30-second spot still matter. What we are building toward on Nov. 5, 2024, might have the outward trappings of an election, but it is really a show of force. What we call the Republican Party is barely a political party in any sense of the word, but a dangerous antisocial movement that has embraced many of the tenets of fascism, from calls for violence to its dehumanizing of ‘others’ — from desperate refugees at the border to transgender youth.”
Musing 4: Crazy Axios piece from Alex Thompson, headlined, GOP DONERS FRET OVER SCOTT’S SINGLE STATUS. Writes Thompson: “Top GOP donors and their allies privately are pushing Sen. Tim Scott's team for more detail about his bachelor status before deciding how much to support him in the presidential campaign, according to two people familiar with the conversations.” This is, of course, insane, considering the GOP seems very willing to support a horndog 20-plus-time accused groper/rapist who—with near certainty—doesn’t know his kids’ birthdays. Or, as Jemele Hill Tweeted: “I don’t fuck with Tim Scott as a staff, record label or a crew, but this is some bullshit. They’re ‘wary’ of an unmarried candidate but had no problem backing a thrice-married, racist, adulterer. They keep showing Tim Scott who they are and it’s sad that he refuses to believe it.”
Musing 5: The Angels dumping the same players they acquired to make a playoff push/convince Shohei Ohtani to stick around is the most Angels thing ever. Steve Henson of the Los Angeles Times nails it in his epic Angel stomping, ANGELS TRY TO PUT THEIR CURSE ON WAIVERS WITH SHOHEI OHTANI AND MIKE TROUT ON THE SHELF.
Musing 6: If you’re not following the authoritarian bullshit going down in Tennessee, well, you should be. Big props to Katey, the one-name Vanderbilt student, for standing up and fighting back.
Musing 7: As I write this I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Orange, Cal., about to teach my first journalism class of the semester. I’m a Chapman University adjunct, and as I sit here at age 51, I find it all … weird. People say teaching keeps you young, but I see it otherwise. I have past students who are now in their 30s, working and raising kids. They feel like ghosts from a distant universe. I also have two children of my own (one in college, one in high school) who are—give or take—the same age as those listening to my rambling. Aging is a trip.
Musing 8: Ted Cruz is my favorite politician, because he’s satire galore. Clips don’t lie.
Musing 9: Amie Just’s latest for the Lincoln Journal Star, HOW VOLLEYBALL DAY IN NEBRASKA INSPIRES VOLLEYBALL PLAYERS OF ALL GENERATIONS, is fantastic. Not sure, over the past two or three years, any writer has jumped as far as Amie, who is one of the best young sports scribes out there.
Musing 10: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang stars Ava Wallace, the excellent Washington Post Wizards/tennis beat writer.
Quote of the week …
Weirdly, I literally first interviewed Bo in the mid-1990s, alongside Neil Diamond at a country music video shoot in Nashville.
These things happen. See: Clemens, Roger
One thing I’ve definitely learned in life: Bullies rarely lose 100 percent of the bully impulse.
Better than X, worse than Twitter. Xitter!