I became a “sportswriter” — with heavy quote marks around that word — during basketball season in the winter of 1986. I was a sophomore in college, I had just turned 19 and to say I was entirely clueless would be to understate things. For my first story for The Charlotte Observer — a Charlotte high school basketball game between West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg — I was told to send in “eight or 10 grafs,” which is common newspaper slang for “eight or 10 paragraphs.”
I did not know any newspaper slag — common or uncommon — so I heard that I would have to send in eight or 10 GRAPHS, and I panicked. No kidding. I panicked. Graphs? What kind of graphs? Scoring graphs? Rebounding graphs? I didn’t know how to do graphs; I had never even taken a stats class. I spent much, much too long building up the courage to call the editor back and ask him what sort of graphs they needed — he explained the term, and all was well.
I never told him — in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone before this — that I had gone out and bought graph paper.
I had my first story printed in The Charlotte Observer on January 18, 1986, less than two weeks before the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and when Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Were For,” was the No. 1 song in the land. Under my name (spelled correctly) it said “Special Correspondent!” I wasn’t just any correspondent, no. I was special.
“It took a few quick steals, some timely free throws and two overtimes to give West Charlotte a 57-54 victory over West Mecklenburg in girls Tri-County action.”
*I should say that the leading scorer in that game was Aimee Sockwell. She would go on to marry Mark Maye, the star quarterback at the University of North Carolina, and their son is North Carolina basketball star Luke Maye, who hit the game-winning shot against Kentucky in an NCAA Elite Eight Game two years ago. What a world.
Afterward, I remember asking my mother how she liked my story. My mother, as I’ve written before, was (and mostly still is) entirely uninterested most sports. When we played Trivial Pursuit and she was given a sports question, unless it was something in her wheelhouse — Olympic sports, especially Winter Olympics — she would always guess “Babe Ruth.”
She told me that time she was very proud and it was a very good story.
This meant quite a lot to me — my mother is not easily impressed. To say the least. She introduced me at a young age to a saying that I still think about all the time: “That and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee.” This saying, which obviously goes back to when you could get a cup of coffee for a quarter, has echoed in my head every time I’ve accomplished anything, and I’m glad to have it there. It keeps your feet on the ground.
Every time I had a story appear in the paper, I would ask Mom what she thought and she would always say: She was proud of me. It was a very good story. She was proud of me. It was a very good story. I soon came to appreciate that she WAS proud of me — it was cool to see our name in the newspaper — but the very good story part began to lose some steam. I mean, realistically, how good could those stories have been? In truth, they weren’t stories — they were formulas. I was much too frightened to try anything else.
— Lede — Tell who won and lost. Put in high scorer if you can.
— Middle. Give the team’s records. Talk about any special moment in the game like a 13-0 run or a key basket when the other team was coming back.
— Quote. “They played an excellent first half and matched us point for point. We really had to dig in.”
— A little more game action.
— Another quote: “Proud of the girls/boys. All credit to the other team.”
— Box score.
When Mom said those were very good stories, she undoubtedly meant that I had spelled all the words right, which I might not have — the paper had editors.
In any event, my special correspondent days at the Observer featured a long and perpetually-surprising series of triumphs. I had my first front-page story on February 1, 1986 (“Streaking Independence Wins Again,”), my first story with a dateline (ROCK HILL, S.C. — With some strong second-half play, Dorman held off Rock Hill 78-72 in Region 2 4A boys high school basketball action Tuesday night and then my second story with a dateline (CLOVER, S.C.) and my third (ICARD, N.C.). I expanded my reach writing about track and field (“South Meck Wins Metrolina Relays”) and, inexplicably, golf (“Favorites Deadlocked at Carolina’s Women’s Futures Event”). That golf story is a doozy.
And then, finally, I got to write my first baseball story, an American Legion story about a game between Lenoir and Kernersville.
That was a big day for me; baseball was my thing. Baseball was the sport I had played (terribly but enthusiastically). My room was still a mess of baseball cards. My school notebooks were filled with baseball thoughts where calculus and biology notes were supposed to be. This was a big deal to write my first baseball story.
And as you can see, I rose to the occasion with Shakespearean prose.
SALISBURY — Lenoir Post 29 first baseman Brian Shehan had two home runs and five RBIs, and pitcher Scott Teague struck out 13 to lead Lenoir to an 8-4 victory over Kernersville Post 36 in American Legion baseball Thursday at Newman Park.
I mean you just HAVE to keep reading, don’t you?
The game only merited seven-grafs — by now I was an expert on grafs — but it meant a lot to me, and obviously, I asked Mom for the usual proud-of-you-it-was-a-very-good-story bit. But this time she sounded a little bit less convinced. She began saying it was a good story, but I could hear in her voice that there was something amiss.
“Yes?” I said.
“Well,” Mom said, “you write in here, “Five of Lenoir’s eight runs were unearned.”
“Who are you to decide if a run is earned or unearned?”
I’ve told that story before, but I think about it now because now my Mom IS something of a sports expert. She has spent the last 30-plus years reading my sports stories, my sports books, the endless blog posts, listening to the PosCasts, and at this point, she knows all about earned and unearned runs.
I don’t ask her what she thinks of every story now, but I still think about it. Years ago, a terrific sportswriter named Ron Green told me that when you write something, anything, you should think of an audience of one. It could be someone you know or it could be an imaginary person. You might think about a construction worker or a coffee barista or a farmer in the field or a grandparent who sits daily by the radio listening to the game. It doesn’t matter as long as you have that person clearly visible in your mind.
That one person, for me, has always been my mother. She has been my compass. She has been the one who for all these years has told me whether the story was earned or unearned. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.