This week’s interview subject, Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer, might seem like a veteran in the newspaper business because he’s already written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Orlando Sentinel, and Louisville Courier-Journal. But he’s only 31. That kind of early success breeds contempt. He talks about that as well as the ESPN-Ben Roethlisberger quagmire, hoops in Seattle, and standing tall when Andruw Jones of the Rangers tried to scoop a girl he was hanging out with.
Q: Let’s start with your rise to major market columnist. Did your journalism dreams begin in high school? College? Were you always a sports guy?
You could say my dreams began in college, but I was developing into a journalist even as early as 10 or 11. I used to play imaginary baseball games in the backyard, remember the stats and then write a box score and game summary as soon as I was finished. I didn’t really know what I was doing then. I barely read the paper, but I loved the agate.
Later, when I was a sophomore at Paducah Tilghman High School in Paducah, Ky., a New York Times national NFL writer named Thomas George (later became a columnist at The Denver Post, now works at NFL.com) spoke to our media class. He was a Paducah native. He was charismatic. And he had the coolest job ever to me because, back then, newspapers had enough money to allow him to be on the road five days a week.
From that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Thomas was so kind that he met with me after class ended, and I told him my dream was to be a national NBA writer. Over the course of that class, I somehow figured it all out. Then he told me exactly what I needed to do to fulfill my dreams, starting with attending a journalism camp that summer. I listened to him. He remains a trusted friend. Really, Thomas is like family to me. We’re the Paducah boys — along with my little brother, Kyle Hightower, who works at The Orlando Sentinel — who made it big as sports journalists.
Q: You became a columnist at 25, which is awfully young. Surely you ran into some folks who felt that nobody should be a columnist that early (paying dues, all that). How much static did you get from colleagues? And how much more challenging was being a columnist than a features guy or reporter?
Nobody expressed their beef, at least to my face. At the beginning, I heard whispers from time to time. Or people would tell me what someone had written on sportsjournalists.com or on the old sportspages.com when it had a message board. I wasn’t oblivious to it all, but I just let people say what they wanted to say, and I stayed focused on what I was trying to do.
The funniest story about that topic: My favorite college professor was at a journalism convention shortly after I got promoted to columnist at The Orlando Sentinel, and Michael Wilbon was speaking. He said he’d heard that some kid in Orlando had gotten a column job and that he thought it was a ridiculously young age to be a columnist. Of course, the professor was like, “I taught that kid!” and called to tell me what Wilbon said. I wasn’t mad at Mike, though. What can I say to Mike Wilbon? In many ways, he was right, which gets me to the second part of your question.
I think being a columnist is the ultimate challenge, regardless of your age. It’s tough for 45-year-olds who’ve all but mastered the craft of opinion writing. I used to say being a columnist at 25 was like jumping from high school to the pros. Actually, it was more like jumping from middle school to the pros. Also, my career being just a reporter was so short (three years) that I missed out on some development in favor of a meteoric rise.
When you’re that young, you don’t know crap, but you think you know everything. And I didn’t get into the business to be a columnist ASAP. I wanted to be a national NBA guy at first, and then I wanted to be like Gary Smith. To be perfectly honest, I still want to be like Gary Smith. But I love column writing, too. I’m 31 now, with six years of experience writing opinions. So I still have a young perspective, and I’ve learned a lot.
I used to file columns and nearly start crying because I thought they were so bad. I’d go out and drink the rest of the night, hoping to forget what I wrote. I don’t do that anymore.
Q: You’ve spent time on opposite ends of the country: Orlando and Seattle. Can you compare and contrast the fan bases in each city? Where were you more likely to get inundated with emails after you’ve written a column? Where were you more likely to get noticed in a public setting in one city over the other? Or do Louisville and Philly enter the equation?
I worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer for a year right out of college and wound up being promoted to Eagles beat writer soon after being hired. Those fans are as passionate as any you’ll find. I’d write stories and get ripped because I wasn’t hard enough on the team.
Then I went to Orlando, and fans were all over the place. The only great, consistent passion was for college football, but fans in Orlando were divided between Florida and Florida State, with a little Miami sprinkled in there. Orlando is such a transient city. People are from everywhere, so the brilliant philosophy of our top editors, Lynn Hoppes and the late, great Van McKenzie, was to use that as an opportunity to write about anything we wanted to. Orlando was, I guess, the least passionate sports town I’ve worked in, but the sports section was the most fun. And we had an insanely talented staff. We pushed each other without turning jealous.
When I worked at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, it was the first time that I left a job as a columnist to take another job as a columnist. So there were more expectations, I think, and I was coming back to my home state. I think those fans are the best, the craziest and the most challenging I’ve ever dealt with. They’re all huge college fans because of the presence of the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky, which means they have a blind obsession for the Cards and Cats. If you write too much Cards, the Cats fans rip you. If you write too much Cats, the Cards fans rip you. But that job meant more to me than any job I’ve had.
Seattle? The fans don’t have the passion of Philly fans, obviously, but don’t sleep on this city. People care here. And Seattle has such a knowledgeable, intellectual fan base, so my columns can be a little more high-brow, for lack of a better word, at times. I really love this community. It’s quirky. The natives can be very parochial. They do strange — yet touching — things like giving Ken Griffey Jr. a standing ovation every time he comes to bat even though he’s hitting only .215. Of all the places I’ve been, I might have the most chemistry with Seattle readers, which is nuts because the place so different from where I grew up.
Q: Washington has a very strong AAU basketball talent pool, but surprisingly, no pro team. Ultimately, do you think this will hurt basketball in the state? Bring a pro team back to the city? Or have no impact at all?
And here I was thinking that I could get through this interview without answering a Sonics question.
I don’t think the Sonics departure will hurt prep hoops in this state. I’ve asked that question to many hoop gurus around here, and they all agree: Basketball is so big here now that it won’t collapse. It’ll likely get even better. There are even more amazing young talents who are about to make it big, most notably big man Josh Smith from the Class of 2010 and guard Tony Wroten (2011).
Now, to answer the flip side of your question, I do think the fact that Seattle is now such a hoops hotbed could help bring NBA basketball back. David Stern can’t blacklist a market this large and this interested in basketball and with this much basketball talent, can he? Well, we’ll see.
It’s a political issue right now. It’s about doing what residents here clearly don’t want to do: Spend mega-millions to fund a new or renovated arena. So I think NBA basketball will return here, but only after a long dark period.
Q: What was your take on ESPN not reporting the alleged rape charges against Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger? Most major outlets were reporting the news, but ESPN refused to do so for the first 48 hours. Do you feel it was consistent with how the network has reported similar incidents in the past?
We’re all very hard on ESPN, sometimes rightfully so, because it has become the giant that shapes sports coverage. In this case, however, I don’t blame ESPN for being so conservative with Big Ben.
This was a tough one. You’re talking about a lawsuit — and a sketchy one. It would be different if it were a criminal complaint. So this isn’t like the Kobe Bryant allegations. I really do think ESPN was trying to be fair to Big Ben in this case. I find no fault in that. There have been other times when ESPN rushed to get certain stories out there, so critics are punishing the network as much for those as they are for Roethlisberger. This situation may have seemed inconsistent, but based on what I’ve heard thus far, I don’t have a big problem with what the Worldwide Leader decided to do.
At first, it struck me as weird, but sometimes weird can be right.
Q: We haven’t heard a good athlete-reporter scuffle in quite some time. Ever witness one? Or be part of one?
No, not really. I was in the Tampa Bay Bucs locker room once after they lost a playoff game in Philly (Tony Dungy’s farewell as the TB coach), and Jason Whitlock and Keyshawn Johnson nearly got into it because Whitlock wanted to know if Keyshawn was referring to Warren Sapp in some critical comments Key had made. I’ve been around for other arguments and confrontations but nothing out of the ordinary.
The closest I ever came to a scuffle was when I was an intern. Actually, there were two, both in Philly.
Summer of 1998: I was assigned to report a story on what local NBA players were doing during the lockout. I went to a camp that Rasheed Wallace was hosting. He didn’t want to talk. He kept mumbling answers to my questions. So I told him, “Look, I know you don’t want to answer these questions, and quietly honestly, I don’t want to talk to you because you’re boring and wasting my time. So let’s make this easy. Give me five minutes, and then I can leave and talk about what a terrible interview you are behind your back.”
‘Sheed was shocked. I braced for every possible reaction: yelling, punching, calling security. Instead, he smiled and said, “What you got?” We talked for 10 minutes.
Second incident, summer of 1999: I was an intern at The New York Times that summer, but I went to Philly for a party. That weekend, we wound up going to a club in Old City, and a guy was trying to mack on this girl in our group. She didn’t give him the time of day. When we left, the guy followed her, and he employed two of his friends to stand between me and the girl so he could ‘holla.’ I was kind of buzzed, so I didn’t recognize them.
After she blew the dude off again, we were waiting for a cab and the guys pull up in an SUV. The ‘Mack’ told the girl he and his buddies played for the Atlanta Braves, and they could get her free tickets if she wanted. Then I looked into the SUV and realized who they were. The ‘Mack’ was Andruw Jones. The two guards (who I cursed at earlier, by the way) were Javy Lopez and John Freakin’ Rocker!
The girl didn’t leave with them. She hopped in the cab with me. I felt like a big dog.
Q: An interesting situation arose this week – a reporter at the NY Daily News was accused by the Mets GM of writing stories to get rid of a front office guy while at the same time lobbying for a job with the team. The accusations were unfounded and false, but the writer admitted to talking with the team’s owner how he would go about getting a front-office baseball job. How do you feel about a reporter talking with front-office folks of a team they cover about a career working for a baseball (or football or basketball) team?
It’s dangerous territory, for sure, but we don’t know exactly what those conversations were like. I don’t think it’s wrong to learn about what it’ll take to reach a goal. You don’t stop being human just because you’re a reporter. If you’re asking for advice as a way to hint that you want a source to help you get a job, then we have a serious problem. I don’t know how to categorize the conversations the reporter and owner had, so I’ll give the reporter the benefit of the doubt for now. I’m a big believer that, as journalists, we’re all in the same family, especially in these rough times, so I don’t like criticizing other journalists. Who made me the czar of media ethics?
One lesson from that drama: No conversation is ever private. So you better watch what you say, especially around sources.
Athlete that has impressed you most in person. Physically, Shaq during his dominant years. Personally, Grant Hill and Matt Hasselbeck. Great pros. Great people. Always interesting, engaging and self-deprecating.
Sideline reporters: Are they useful? And if so, how? The good ones are usual because they can take you inside the game you’re watching. If they’re just on the tube for eye candy, no, not interesting. If you’re asking me about Erin Andrews, I think she does worthwhile work, and I feel sorry for her right now.
Is the Seattle weather as horrible as advertised? We spent a week there some time ago and it only rained one day. You get used to it. You really do. But if you have any sense of style, you basically have to throw that out the window.
Sporting event you’ve never covered, but want to. Wimbledon, World Cup.
TV show that you’re a fan of, but your friends laugh at you for watching. Damn, man, why you gotta ask that? Have you been researching me or something? Honestly, it’s the soap opera “All My Children.” Hey, Stephen A. watches “General Hospital,” so whatever. So that’s probably why my writing can be a little, um, emotional. At one time, I had this weird combo of TV faves: All My Children, Pimp My Ride, SportsCenter, The Sopranos, Chappelle’s Show and Girlfriends (because I had a crush on Diane Ross’ daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross). I dare somebody to beat that combination. I have the most diverse diversions ever.