More thoughts about sportswriting:
I remember once having a discussion with a guy who knew a lot about professional basketball. He said he had asked a big sample of NBA players who they felt would be the most formidable one-on-one opponent in the league. The answer was fairly unanimous: Vince Carter. Now that's surprising. Why Carter and not Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or any number of other, far more accomplished, offensive players? The answer, this guy told me, was the same in nearly every case: "you have no idea how hard it is to do the things that Carter does."
I've always remembered that story, because it strikes me that applies to nearly every case where an outsider tries to make sense of an insider's perspective. We can see all the things that someone, in a different profession than us, does. What we cannot know is the relative difficulty of those tasks. I know a reverse slam is harder than a simple dunk. But how much harder? And how much harder again would a slam be if you had a defender drapped all over you?
This is a huge issue in the appreciation of sports. I remember watching Phil Mickelson at the PGA (or was it the U.S Open?). He was in the rough, just off the green, and chipped within a few feet of the hole. Ho-hum, I thought. He bogeyed the hole. But the color man was incredulous. Mickelson, he pointed out, had taken a FULL swing at a ball in an impossible lie and sent it 20 feet, to within an easy putt of the hole. I've never played golf, so I had no idea how hard that was, or why that was anything special. The announcer, though, had a completely different perspective.
One more example. My sister-in-law works as a chaplain in a nursing home. Every few weeks, someone who she has gotten to know dies. Can anyone who has never been in the situation of experiencing death with that regularity possible know what that feels like? My sister-in-law doesn't work long hours. She's doesn't get paid a lot of money. And she doesn't have a fancy doctorate. But I venture to say that only one in a 1000 people could do her job with any degree of diligence or sensitivity. In a way that you would have to do that job to appreciate, it's really really hard.
I think that misunderstanding over degree of difficulty issues is one of the major reasons for conflict between insiders and outsiders. We bridle at the school teacher who asks for a raise, because we don't realize--and we can never realize unless we've been a teacher ourselves--how hard being a school teacher is. Mickelson shoots 75 and says, afterward, he thought he had a great round and we scoff, but only because we don't know golf the way he does and we don't understand how insanely difficult that chip shot was.
I thought of this in trying to explain my prickliness a few weeks back over some of the criticisms directed at my "Risk Pool" article. I'm not usually thin-skinned in the face of critics. So why did I react the way I did? I think it was a degree of difficulty question. What I was saying, unconsciously, was not--"you don't understand how good that story was." It was, rather--"you don't understand how HARD that story was." Because, in truth, it was a really, really hard story. How on earth do you write 5000 words on pensions without putting your audience to sleep? It's pretty tricky, and what I wanted in my heart of hearts, I suppose, was for at least some appreciation of that effort. Even if it was a bogey, I wanted the announcer to point out what a great bogey it was.
I thought of this as well the other day when I read a long post on a sportsblog ripping into Bill Simmons. I know, I know, I'm totally in the tank for Simmons. But here's why: because the degree of difficulty of the kinds of columns he writes is sometimes off the charts. He recently did a really long account of a trip that he and two friends took to Green Bay. It was a kind of running diary. Was it the best thing he has ever done? No. Was it perfect? No. But here's the thing. As someone who writes for a living, I know something that a non-writer can't know, namely how hard a running diary like that is to write. Try it sometime. Getting the tone right, and making the prosaic interactions of a group of friends interesting and funny to an outsider audience is really really difficult. That's what I wanted to scream at the bloggers going after Simmons. You don't like that? Try pulling that off yourself sometime!
Anyway, back to sportswriters. (And I realize this has been a long digression.) Here's why I really really loved Michael Lewis's book. The degree of difficulty on telling the story of Michael Oher was really really high. Trust me. It was. It was all that I could think of when I was reading the book. I was like the announcer amazed at Mickelson's chip. And if you don't believe me, just try writing an emotionally moving. full-length account of an essentially pathologically shy, inarticulate teenager.