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THIS IS a magazine story, so by definition it is finite, static and, if you drop a big gob of mayonnaise on it, smearable. It was subject to certain standards--of accuracy, grammar and relevance, to name a few--and its production required a fair amount of time, reporting and thought. Once it went to print, it could no longer be edited or updated. � Were this story being written for the Web, however, none of that would apply, and it would begin much differently, perhaps under the heading SI's Feature Creature. � Thursday, 6:30 p.m. PST: I should be writing my SI story about online sports, but Duke is about to tip off against Southern in the first round of the NCAAs. So Mrs. Creature is cooking paella, and I'm recliner-bound with the sportswriter's black-and-tan--a giant mochaccino and a pale ale. � Then again, were this not a website column but a blog, the above post might be followed by another from the author at 7:55 p.m., noting that Blue Devils guard J.J. Redick was "launching more jumpers than the Golden Gate Bridge" and that the paella was exquisite. Not long after, anyone on the Internet could post a comment, perhaps as follows:
TarHeels4Ever: YOu are an IDIOT!!! Redick is an overrated PUNK! AND why do I CARE about your Wife and her Cooking?
FeatureFan#1: What's up with TarHeels4Eever--get a life man. Love the joke about J.J.! Haha, but I bet some people are offended. Helpful tip for Mrs. Creature: simmer paella with mushrooms for an extra five minutes and it retains a wonderful nutty flavor.
Soon an Internet message board might post a critique of the blog, complaining about the author's self-absorption and questioning whether he knows the first thing about basketball, let alone knows his head from other, more southerly body parts. More readers might pile on, one perhaps anonymously contributing the news that the author, cheapskate that he is, once ordered Chinese food and did not give the delivery man a tip.
But this is a magazine story--at least until it gets posted on a blog by some enterprising typist--so we shall begin our discussion of sports on the Web with an anecdote, some reporting and a few facts. Kobe Bryant is as good a place as any to start.
A couple of months ago, when Bryant scored 81 points for the Los Angeles Lakers in a 122-104 win over the Toronto Raptors, it took a full news cycle for many print outlets to weigh in, but who wanted to wait that long? Bryant's postgame press conference was available live on ESPNEWS, and within minutes of the final buzzer, websites around the world had reacted. Their postings included expressions of astonishment, references to other historic basketball feats and this nugget from nba.com columnist Michael Balzary: "that is [ Kobe's] way to let us know he loves us." And who is Balzary? He is better known as Flea, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If you don't know why this qualifies him to write a basketball column, well, you are not alone.
Amid all this electronic blather, it was easy to forget that newspaper reporters at the game spoke to Bryant afterward; as recently as a decade ago they would have been the voices of record. In this digital age, however, we can all be real-time observers, and opinion ( Kobe loves us?) often trumps fact. Which is to say, for those uninterested in actual reporting, the print media have almost become an afterthought.
To wit: One of the most read accounts of Bryant's scoring spree was not in the Los Angeles Times or L.A.'s Daily News, but by Bill Simmons, who writes the popular Sports Guy column for espn.com. Simmons wasn't at Staples Center for Bryant's historic feat and had not interviewed anyone (unless you count his father, who happened to be sitting beside him on his couch, watching the game on TV). Still, Simmons's column two days after the game, which was headlined KOBE, MEET DESTINY and included references to the movies Teen Wolf and Monster's Ball and to the troubled union of Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe, was read by nearly 400,000 people. Loved by many, tolerated by others, the 36-year-old Simmons writes sprawling, often funny, often insightful rants that include everything from comments on Boston sports to gambling manifestos to NBA draft analyses to, well, more Boston sports. A pioneer in the online sports community, Simmons is also the embodiment of its prevailing ethos: the empowerment of the fan.
Three nights after Bryant's monumental game, Simmons is at Staples Center, watching not from the press box but from his Clippers season-ticket seat, 10 rows from the court. He is 6'1", with pale blue eyes and short hair that is beginning to go gray, and he speaks in a nasal tenor. "I have more heckling talent than anybody, but I have the worst voice for it," he laments. As the Clippers demolish the listless New Jersey Nets, Simmons stands up to cheer for L.A. reserve forward James Singleton ("I could never do this in the press box!" Simmons says gleefully), scarfs down chicken fingers with fries and works out riffs for his column. "Violet Palmer might be the fattest ref in the league," he says, pointing to her as she hustles down court. "She looks like she should have a saddle on her!" Then, not long after: "Why is it that these European players all look like they just spent 30 days in the hole? Couldn't they get out in the sun occasionally? And what's with the half-beards?"
Simmons grew up in the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill worshipping at the altar of the vaunted Boston Globe sports section. For three years he covered high school sports for the Boston Herald, but he quit when he sensed that he wasn't going to get ahead. While tending bar he began an online column in 1997 for AOL's Digital City site (which had a columnist called the Entertainment Guy, from whom Simmons adapted his handle). He churned out columns--initially for $50 a pop--on what he and his friends thought was interesting or funny. All anyone needed to read them was access to AOL and the patience to wait out the busy signals. It was novel stuff: the sports world filtered through the eyes of the sarcastic frat guy next door, one who played fantasy sports (just like his readers), who hit the bars when his teams won and became despondent when they lost (just like his readers). Slowly his popularity grew, spurred by a burgeoning list of devotees to whom he e-mailed his columns. In 2001, ESPN vice president John Walsh read Simmons's rip job on the ESPYs awards show, loved it and, after giving him some freelance work, hired him full time.