A long line of "serious" writers have turned toward sports and leisure for inspiration — David Foster Wallace wrote a transcendent piece about Roger Federer that Grantland recently republished, Norman Mailer spilled gallons of ink on Muhammad Ali for Playboy, and Hunter S. Thompson even rode out the end of his career at espn.com. Kang sold his first novel (The Dead Do Not Improve, on the way next summer) about two years ago, and in the meantime, his nonfiction writing blew up, thanks to an online memoir about his own experience as a poker fiend and a New York Times Magazine feature on a 21-year-old online card shark millionaire he wrote last spring. The weekend Kang went back to Bowdoin for his friends' fantasy-baseball draft, Simmons e-mailed him with a job offer.
Simmons made his reputation by eschewing beat reporting and postgame locker-room interviews and covering sports as a fan — he's the dude watching everything from the same beat-up couch as you. His meandering pieces, which ran with the smart-ass tone established by old SportsCenter brats Craig Kilborn and Keith Olbermann, play to both sports fanatics and self-conscious bystanders. They're direct when they need to be, but just as often wander off into pro-wrestling feuds and scenes from Teen Wolf in Wallace-inspired footnotes. An easy criticism of Simmons is that he too often falls for the "It's just like The Godfather!" type of setup. Still, as a lot of online sports coverage congealed into a collection of polls and mind-numbing photo galleries, Simmons's mammoth lunch-break killers began to seem almost scholarly.
"The tactics of Internet sports can be pretty convoluted," says Kang. "We wouldn't even know how to create something that used a lot of slide shows or did 'Girls of the Week' or top 25 things to click through." Instead, their aim has been well-thought-out "ideas" pieces on such topics as how sports and nostalgia are connected, the true value of the end-of-game "icing the kicker" routine in the NFL, and analysis of Ashton Kutcher's tweets about Penn State.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF LEGWORK
The BostonGlobe's Bob Ryan, an elder statesman among today's over-the-top sports-writing personalities, counts himself as a Grantland fan, even though he says he can't get the site to load right on his Blackberry.
According to Ryan, if there's a sticking point with other scribes, it's in the armchair approach of new-school writers. "My guess is that in my business, among those of us that have been more orthodox, traditional writers, that there's a high percent of people who resent [Simmons] on that basis," says Ryan. "That he doesn't have to do the same kind of legwork, that all kinds of people like it, and that people can't tell the difference. He's much more popular than the next 10 sportswriters you could name put together."
The Grantland staff might not be standing around talking to half-naked players every night, but they're showing an earnest commitment to their work all the same. In the weeks following the end of pro basketball's lockout, Simmons has been on a no-bullshit data melee about NBA free agency, and several other writers with micro-expertise — like Rafe Bartholomew, who used a Fulbright scholarship to research and write about basketball in the Philippines — have proven pretty useful so far.