JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

A journalist at the wrong time?

On the night of last week’s NBA Draft, I found myself watching from an elliptical machine at the local gym.

Throughout my life, I’ve loved the NBA Draft. That’s no exaggeration—it’s one of my favorite televised events of the year, because it combines two of my loves. Basketball is one. Sports speculation is the other.

I dig trying to figure out whether Yinka Dare is a better pick than Wesley Person. I love imagining Pearl Washington in a Nets jersey. I remember believing—truly believing—the Knicks should have plucked Oklahoma’s Wayman Tisdale over Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing. Beginning in the early 1980s, the NBA Draft has been one of my things. A sports staple that brings out the inner geek.

That said, rolling along on the exercise machine, sweat dripping off my head, I found myself absolutely miserable. And angry.

In short, I hated ESPN’s Draft coverage. Hated it.

Yeah, I thought Jay Bilas was stiff, and Jay Williams a pretty poor interviewer, and Jalen Rose incapable of making anything approaching insightful points. Yet the guy who did it to me—who really, really did it to me—was fist-pumping Bill Simmons. It was a strange feeling, because I’ve long admired and enjoyed Bill’s work. Grantland is a great site. The Sports Guy was revolutionary. He’s an excellent writer who has authored some fantastic books. A few people asked, “What’s your beef with Simmons?”—and the answer is, “I have, literally, none.”

What I do have, however, is an increasingly out-of-touch and outdated belief in journalists (writers, reporters, even announcers) presenting an unbiased, above-the-fray take on happenings. I know … I know—I’m old. I’m yellowed. This is how it works nowadays. Blah, blah, blah. But when people say, “At least Simmons is telling us upfront that he loves the Celtics …” I can’t help but think, “Um, what the fuck are you talking about?” There’s this belief, among many sports fans and viewers, that reporters have these secret alliances; that, beneath our stoic exteriors, we’re rooting for teams to win and teams to lose; for athletes to soar and other athletes to stumble. They believe that, in Bill Simmons, the world finally has a man being honest with you. He’s saying, “This is who I am—a Celtics fan. And I’ll root loudly and clearly for my team, because I’m honest.”

And maybe, just maybe, they’re right.

But I don’t think so.

From my vantage point, if Simmons—who works as an on-air NBA personality—is openly rooting for the Celtics, he’s equally also rooting against other teams. What other way is there to view this? If the Celtics are playing the Heat, he wants the Heat to lose. If they’re playing the Nuggets, he wants the Nuggets to lose. Again, I’m old-fashioned and old … but … well, no. No, no, no. It’s wrong. Just wrong. I don’t understand how a guy can properly—and wisely—offer fair and straight-forward analysis when he’s not a fair and straight-forward thinker on the subject.

One more thing: Despite what fans seem to think, most journalists I know truly don’t care which team wins. Some would say, “Well, that’s horrible, because you’re not passionate about the sport”—and they would be incorrect. It’s not about passion. It’s about being an adult, and setting aside allegiances in the name of professionalism. I grew up a Mets fans. I loved the Mets. However, when SI hired me to cover baseball, I made a conscious decision not to root for the team. It wasn’t hard, it wasn’t weird, it wasn’t awkward. I just … stopped.

Bill clearly doesn’t want to stop. He loves the Celtics, and I’m cool with that.

But do I feel comfortable with his take on the entire league? Not really.