Q&A with SportsIllustrated.com’s Ben Golliver

Ben Golliver is a sports writer from Portland, Oregon. After the Portland Trail Blazers landed the first pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, Golliver began his blog called Draft Kevin Durant. From there he carved out a spot as editor of BlazersEdge.com, one of the many sports blogs affiliated with the SBNation network. He wrote for CBSSports.com until accepting a position with SportsIllustrated.com’s The Point Forward in last Fall. I talked to him via dixie cup on Monday.

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Troy Brynelson: How did you  decide to become a sports writer? And how did you break into the business?

Ben Golliver: Well, I took an unconventional path. Went to college in Baltimore, Maryland at John Hopkins University. Didn’t study journalism, but I studied writing, mostly poetry and creative writing. I actually still haven’t taken a journalism class, probably a black mark on my record, but oh well. But when the 2007 NBA Draft happened, I was back in Portland and totally consumed by the idea that the Blazers should take Kevin Durant. So I started a blogspot called Draft Kevin Durant, which wasn’t a journalism site. It was just funny riffs, where I tossed in my two cents — that was back in the good ol’ days when it was a lot easier to get on Deadspin — and that just started the ball rolling. Obviously I wasn’t being paid for any of my writing. Then I connected with BlazersEdge just as Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge were coming up, and was writing about those guys until a spot on CBS.com opened up. Then did that until this past fall when I joined SportsIllustrated.com, while still working at BlazersEdge.

What’s a typical game day like for you?

Ah, well, I don’t really sleep that much. Usually I’m writing late and waking up early. A typical game day, most likely I’m waking up at 8:00 AM, cranking out multiple articles for SI before I can even focus on the game day portion. Then I’ll get to the Rose Garden a couple hours early to get some quotes that I might want to use later, and check the moods of the players. Generally after the game I try to be as thorough as possible, trying to put together as much audio as I can, but sometimes something happens and having those pregame quotes can be useful.  Any of the monster quotes make the headline, like LaMarcus Aldridge calling the upcoming road trip “make or break,” — that’s going to be everywhere. Anyway, I’ll finish around 1:00 AM, 1:30 in the morning. It can be a twenty-hour day sometimes.

How do you try to write during games?

The whole process from start to finish is like an 8 hour process. I’ll start at about 4 or 5 p.m. and don’t finish til 1 o’clock, but a lot of that is jotting down notes then assembling it afterward. One of the nice things about the NBA is all the dead time for commercial breaks and timeouts. You learn to make the most of your time. And check twitter. It helps to follow great sports writers on Twitter. Zach Lowe I like talking to, ’cause he’s a lot smarter than me. Ken Berger who I used to work with at CBS, he’s a really smart guy, too. Marc Stein on ESPN is great.

What are your usual duties as a sports writer for two separate blogs?

My main responsibility at BlazersEdge these days is mostly to aggregate: headlines, stories, whatever. We consider ourselves basically encyclopedia Blazers, if anything is going on we want to have it. We’re doing a lot more aggregating. For SI I’m writing a lot more original things. Not sure I’ve really had a day off yet, but I think on average I’m probably writing or reading 12-14 hours a day, I don’t really have a social life because I’m all locked-in with sports. You’ve got to love to do it. And we’re not making tons of money either.

How much sleep do you lose over post tags and Search Engine Optimization?

I got lucky because of my previous marketing gig. If you’re selling things online you have to know all the SEO language inside and out. You find it’s a pretty repeatable process, and SBNation does a lot of the heavy lifting for us and they give us tips. If I’m losing sleep about anything it’s because I’m self-editing a lot of the times. Like maybe that second set of eyeballs hasn’t seen that post, so maybe so-and-so averaged this amount of points and I got that wrong.

How do you feel about the spike in interest of long-form journalism, especially on sports sites like Deadspin and Grantland, versus churning out recaps and previews?

I think it’s a balance. One of the things that people know me for is a long investigative piece about this con man who was being able to test Greg Oden, and he ended up getting all these fraud charges [Ben’s piece on kinesiologist Zig Ziegler can be read here]. Writing that piece, I talked to the lawyers, talked to the judge, basically did all the legwork you would expect an enterprise reporter to do. But, with the internet, I’m driven a lot by the analytics, the stats being gathered online to know what people are really reading. What can I do to reach those readers out there? People seem to like the quick stuff, but if I push against that, I’ll write 3,500 words a game. Maybe that’s not what everyone wants to read.

How do you like covering the Blazers? Do you enjoy following the organization itself, or maybe the city’s relationship with the organization? Which is, for better or worse, usually interesting.

Definitely, yeah, the Blazers are their own animal and you get that when you circuit travel around the NBA. Every team is different, but the Blazers are in their own class. Even though they haven’t had any post season success lately, the level of commitment is amazing — [the fans] make cookies for the players. That’s not necessarily my favorite part, and I think the answer to this question has changed a lot of the years, but at the end of the day being able to watch the game, being able to go and talk to the players. You’re hoping for a big story, a superstar player, a transcendant person like Brandon Roy a couple years ago.

What’s maybe the biggest misconception of sports writing? Of being a sports writer?

I think the number one thing is “What’s happening? What’s the buzz? Give me the inside scoop!” I don’t mind it, but it does get tiring. I think a lot has changed in the game, a lot has changed in the news, you get all sorts of dirt off Twitter for instance. Some think there’s this sort of glorified life of sports writers where they’re keeping these secrets about players, but that’s not the case.

Suggestions for starting a sports writing career?

Number one: if you have any ability to get in the door, to pull any string, do it. If you have an opportunity to cover Oregon Ducks basketball or whatever it may be, getting your reps is really important. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s said about needing a thousand hours of experience. I don’t think I ever really got good about writing about games until my third year doing it. There’s no shortcut, unless you’re a genius. Try to get in the door however you can. I wrote on Draft Kevin Durant basically every day for weeks. You have to have that discipline. So it doesn’t really matter that you’re writing something that is getting read as long as you’re writing. Because there’s always readers. Christmas, Fourth of July, any day, all day. If you’re not writing they’re going to read somebody else.

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