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The Wire, Detroit Sports and Michael Jordan: An Interview with LZ Granderson of ESPN the Magazine

It’s a rare treat when anyone from ESPN will talk to us, but we’ve got a good one today – an interview with LZ Granderson, of Page 2 and ESPN the Magazine fame. Well-known for writing columns about Greg Oden and John Amaechi, calling out Michael Jordan, and this column, Granderson was willing to talk to us about everything, from the media’s rush to be first to how he’s been treated as an openly gay sportswriter.

Q: You made the leap from the AJC to ESPN. How’d you get to Atlanta? And how’d you make the move to ESPN?

I started off pretty much as any other journalist. I did radio and the student paper in college, got an internship, that whole thing. Eventually I started writing for the South Bend Tribune covering school board meetings and doing the occasional feature. After the Trib, I went to grad school and then landed at the Grand Rapids Press. I did everything from house fires and murders to concert reviews to sports and religion columns. The day after Bush’s DUI became public, he was campaigning at a university in Grand Rapids and I did the front page story because I was the higher education reporter at the time. That was pretty cool. The EIC there, Mike Lloyd, really allowed me to find my voice and pushed me to become a better journalist and writer through his example. I was breaking a big story one night and I was in the office late trying to get this source on the phone. Mike comes into the office, not really riding me to get the guy, but just reminding me how a quote from him was key. To see him care so much fired me up even more. It was a really hard decision for me to leave the Press. The staff there was like my family. But I wanted to know if I was good enough to run with the big boys so I left and joined the AJC’s features department. While there, I was chosen to help create and launch the paper’s entertainment tab and then I was named its lead writer. I made sure sports were a big part of what we covered. I didn’t want to duplicate what was in the Sports section so I concentrated on off the field stuff and the intersection of sports and pop culture. I did pieces with Dwight Howard when he was a senior down in Atlanta, and LeBron during in his first year; fun stuff with Dale Jr., dogged the Hawks, talked up the Thrashers, everything. Some of the more traditional sports guys weren’t too thrilled about what I was doing, but I had a great mentor and friend in a longtime editor there, Prentis Rogers. He and I would spend hours each day talking about sports and life and what it meant to be a man and a black man in this country. He used to always tell me I was just a sportswriter working in the wrong department and to let him know when I was done “goofing off in features”. When he passed away, I had a very difficult time and had actually left journalism for a short time. I came to ESPN through my friend Luke Cyphers, who was an editor at The Magazine at the time. We met at a sports conference in Boston. I was a huge fan of Luke’s—he wrote Esera Tuaolo’s coming out story—and I tried to incorporate a lot of The Mag’s attitude into the tab in Atlanta. Luke asked if I’d be interested in freelancing and I jumped at the opportunity. A couple of years later, the NBA editor at the time, David Cummings, brought me in to be his No. 2. The rest is history.

Q: You’ve seemingly done it all over at Page 2, from interviews to thought-provoking columns. How would you describe your role at Page 2?

My role is the same role every writer has and that is to have the courage to be ourselves. Each of us has a story to tell, experiences that shape and define us.
One of my favorite songs by Kenny Chesney is “Be As You Are.€ As the title suggests, it’s a piece about living your life without the restraints of other people’s expectations of you. Only you know what’s in your heart and on Page 2, I just try to open up and share what’s on mine. I’m fortunate because they don’t tell me what to write per se, they trust my abilities and my instincts. Sometimes they love what I do, sometimes I get push back. But they know whatever I write is coming from my authentic self.

Q: You’ve done some television (Game Night), and it seems logical to think you’ll do more. That can be a juggling act, and it has ended the newspaper writing careers of Tony Kornheiser, Stephen A. Smith and surely others. Everyone has to do what is best for their career … but have you thought of how you may handle this?

Not really. I mean, I don’t have all of the answers, but the one thing I do know is the only thing in life that is constant is change. I think it’s only healthy to be open to the possibilities of life. There are really good actors who have become directors, dancers become choreographers, great teachers become principals, and so on. I don’t see shifting from print to electronic media as an ending as much as a natural progression for some people. We’re journalists and so we are only married to storytelling, not the medium in which the story’s being told.

Q: Moreso now than possibly ever, when news happens, columnists and bloggers and TV talking heads want to weigh in immediately, even if all the facts have yet to trickle out, or before the court case is finished. From the Mitchell Report to Duke Lacrosse to Sean Taylor, any ideas on how everyone can handle these situations in the future? Do we even need a solution?

When I was a cub reporter I did this news brief about this head-on car accident that left one person dead. I wasn’t careful in my reporting and falsely blamed the victim for the cause of the accident. The next day I found out I made the mistake and I just wanted to vomit. My boss, John Barnes, made my drive almost an hour south to apologize face-to-face to the victim’s family. They were hurt and tearful but still very kind to me. On the way back I pulled over and cried for about 10 minutes. From that day on, I knew the most important thing in this business it to be right. Not first. Not loudest. But right. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes, but obviously that experience had a profound affect on my reporting and writing habits. So to answer your question, as an industry I believe we have to get back to putting the priority on accuracy above all else. That’s not just for sports. Remember Gore won Florida for like an hour.

Q: Your column calling for Michael Jordan to ‘Do More’ is something we should have seen from journalists in the 90s, but by all accounts, Jordan had the media in his back pocket. Did you take heat for the column? Are you surprised this topic wasn’t written about more frequently while he was still playing (pre-baseball)?

I took some heat for writing this piece from a variety of angles. Some thought it was racist because they thought I was saying MJ should only help the black community, which I wasn’t. Some wondered what was I doing in my own life to help, which is a fair question and one I answered honestly. I wrote the piece because the black community is in a crisis and I believe we need our most visible members to help rally us. The black on black crime, the number of black men behind bars, the horrific drop off in college education, it’s not good. When the gay community was being ravished by AIDS you saw an amazing show of strength and survival by those whose lives were affected, either directly or indirectly. We educated each other about the disease, took care of those who were hurting and visible leaders such as Elton John made a commitment to stop the bleeding. I’m just of the mind that the black community needs something similar because of how the gangsta mentality has crippled us. I wrote about Michael because his image is still very much used in marketing to those who are perpetuating this destructive mentality and he carries such respect among others who too could speak out. Why wasn’t he “called out” more? Probably because he was the single most important athlete in the world for a decade and who wanted to be the beat writer on his shit list? Your rival newspaper gets all of these great, one-on-one interviews with him and you have nada because you called out Mike? Why severe your relationship with a public figure who is going to matter for many, many years to come for one opinion column? And as he has demonstrated through his boycott of Sports Illustrated, MJ knows how to hold a grudge. I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand. I don’t need anything from Mike so I’m more free to say something he may not like. I’m not a hater but as I said, we’re in a crisis.

Q: You have referenced The Wire many times. Presumably, you’re a fan. How has this show not caught on with the general viewing public?

I haven’t the slightest idea. I’ve been a pop culture critic and I am simply amazed by what becomes a hit and what doesn’t sometimes. I’m such a wuss, the first time I heard Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This” I couldn’t write for a week because I was so intimidated by the power of the lyrics and felt I could never pen anything worth saying by comparison. Meanwhile Soulja Boy’s going platinum and Rush Hour 3 opens at No.1. I don’t get it but it is what it is. Maybe it’s because The Wire explores the kind of nuances that makes people uncomfortable. It’s not easy to see good vs evil on the show and most people prefer to be spoon fed.

Q: You’ve written for Out Sports and mentioned your sexuality in a column before. Can you talk us through the process of “coming out” or has this been public information all along, and we’re just late to the game?

I’ve been out my entire professional career. I only bring it up when I think it’s relevant to what I’m writing about, which is rare. I’m not proud or ashamed of my sexual orientation. It is what it is. I had nothing to do with it.

Q: Do athletes know that you are gay, and due to the nature of sports – bawdy locker rooms, excessive machismo, etc – has it helped or hurt your chances for interviews at all?

Some athletes know I’m gay, some athletes don’t know I’m gay and most don’t know who the hell I am. In any case, I let my work speak for itself. If someone has a problem with me, that’s their problem. There is this song by Eric Church that goes “I know where I come from, how ’bout you?” Basically Eric’s asking, are you secure in yourself? It’s a great question because if you are secure, then the presence of someone who is different from you shouldn’t be a threat. Again, it goes back to those who are cool being critical thinkers and those who prefer to be spoon fed. I will say I’ve had a number of pro athletes tell me they admire the fact that I’m openly gay and work in sports, and that’s cool. I hope in some way I’m helping to make things easier for those who follow me, just as people such as Dave Kopay and Thomas Morgan III, the first openly gay president for the NABJ, made it easier for me.

QUICK HITTERS
Best sports movie - I detest Notre Dame but I am a “Rudy” guy.
Favorite big sporting event to attend – The U.S. Open because no city throws a party like New York.
Your Favorite athlete when you were a teenager - It’s a toss up between Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Go Pistons.
Best job of an actor portraying an athlete in film – Denzel Washington’s boxing sequences in “The Hurricane” were phenomenal.
Biggest writing influence – For better or for worse, I would not be a columnist if it wasn’t for Mitch Albom.

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