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The Agony of Victory: Talking to Steve Friedman

Steve Friedman is the kind of journalist who can write with such stark honesty, lyricism, and intelligence that he could win awards writing about whatever he wanted. But, much of the time, he chooses to write about sports, and for that I am most thankful.

His work has been featured in the Best American Sports Writing collection a half-dozen times. He was once senior editor at GQ, and he has written for Esquire and others. His books include serious sounding titles like "The Gentleman's Guide to Life."

But I have to be honest: for me Friedman's career will always revolve around the zany "Loose Balls" (not the Terry Pluto tome about the ABA with the same name) that he co-wrote with Jayson Williams. Something about Williams running around the team hotel late at night, knocking on doors, and ultimately asking Nets coach Don Casey if he can lend Williams some condoms -- that's just hard to supplant in my brain.

Friedman is making an honest attempt, though. His new book is called The Agony of Victory. To quote Friedman's website, it's the story of "fourteen ravaged champions and their painful journeys to grace."

He was nice enough to talk to me about it my instant message this afternoon.

First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk. Your new book is called "The Agony of Victory" but it could called "a lot of athletes are pretty messed up." How did you find this topic, and how did the book come about?
About a year ago, one of my best friends, a guy named Jeff Leen who is an editor at the Washington Post, who I have been friends with since grad school at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and who has always been a very good and generous reader of my work, said "Hey, you know, some of your very best stories are profiles of these tortured athletes and descriptions of how they navigate through really soul-trying times (or something like that). You should put them together as a book."

I said, "great idea!" I mentioned it to my agent, she agreed, I selected my favorite stories, wrote an introduction tying them together, rewrote it a number of times, reported an "afterward," tweaked some of the pieces, and ta-dah. Book.

As to how I came to be writing these particular stories, I have long been attracted to the wounded hero, the struggling athlete, the man (or woman) strugglng as much with his/her inner demons as he is with any kind of physical barrier.

I think those make for great narratives. I also think wounded heros are more interesting. Ali was never greater than when he beat Foreman. Kirk Gibson's gimpy homer in the World Series made me weep -- I remember the moment. Even, on a fictional note, Bernard Malamud, "The Natural" only achieved real greatness after he confronted his greatest fears and weaknesses. Plus, I'm drawn to sufferers. I'm not sure why.

I guess struggle is at the heart of every good story, right?
Amen, brother. I mean, yes. Really, it is. I think most people know that, but then sometimes writers are assigned these stories where they can't find the struggle, or there isn't any, and those are tough stories to write. And often, to read. I'm fortunate in that with these stories, the struggle was right there.

Now, 30 years ago, basketball player Marshall Rogers was one of the happiest stories in sports. A bachelor's degree in history. Scores like a maniac. One of the newest members of the Golden State Warriors, tooling around town in nice cars. No struggle there at all -- at first.
Right. But I didn't find out about the Marshall Rogers story until I was looking through the Crime Roundup in the Post-Dispatch one day about 20 years ago and I saw he had been arrested for shoplifting, had been living with his mom for two years and hadn't worked in that time.

I knew about his past glory, and here I was reading about his troubles, and I had two thoughts -- what happened? And, what a great story.

Wow, did you ever uncover a struggle. My friend is a psychologist. She addresses mental conditions in very specific terms. But once in a while, she'll allow that someone is just plain ol' "crazy." Rogers fits that description in my mind.
There was actually some criticism of the story I remember kind of along that line. Some people said, "why didn't you just say he was schizophrenic?" Others said "Why didn't you present his symptoms to a psychiatrist and quote some experts?"

That's a pretty standard thing to do in journalism, but I resisted, because I thought an unvarnished presentation of who Marshall Rogers was, and had been, was more compelling than any doctor's opinion. A writer I know told me something -- many years after the fact -- that I think applies here. "Character is much more interesting than a medical diagnosis." Or something like that.

I have a weird story about how I discovered Marshall's mental illness. You want to hear it?

But of course.
Okay ... It took me a long time to connect with Marshall. He was never home when I called, his mom either wasn't giving him messages or he wasn't returning them. So finally, I just drove to their house. He showed me his scrapbooks, his trophies. We hung out, we went to some of his childhood haunts, we shot hoops together, we ate lunch.

He's a little odd, but mostly it just seems kind of sad, and I can't figure out how someone who had ascended to such heights had fallen so far. Then we're at lunch, at a cafeteria in St. Louis. I'm asking if he's ever been married, and he says (I think I quote him in the story), "Yeah, and at KU (he played freshman ball there), I had five white girlfriends, and they each had my kid, but the regime took care of 'em all, gave 'em money, and houses, and cars."

That is in the story. Amazing moment.
I'm sitting there thinking, "The regime. Of course he's talking about the KU athletic department, and alumni boosters, and various nefarious big money Division One college basketball titans who plucked this kid from the inner city of St. Louis, covered up his indiscretions as long as he could score 20 points a game, then when they soured on him, cut him loose, without even the skills to make it as a citizen without shoplifting."

I thought, and I remember this, "my journalism career is going to take off here. I have landed a BIG fish. I'm gonna bring down a division one basketball program!"

So I said, "oh, the regime? You mean the athletic department, and the athletic boosters, and the alumni?"

And he said, "NO! The regime. King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth and The Pope."

And it was horrifying and I got choked up. To see a man that ill was moving and very saddening.

And then, I swear I remember it being less than a second, I thought, "Great story. I've got a great story here."

One of the occupational hazards of being a journalist, I think. But I've learned you can have that thought and still try to be decent.

As your story unfolds, we hear many references to the regime. When he can't find his tank top, for instance, "the pope or the queen" probably called his mom and told her to steal it so Marshall wouldn't look too good. It's an integral part of his illness. I salute, you by the way, for omitting the diagnosis. This is much more powerful for me, as a reader, when I'm trying to place this on the spectrum of normal human behavior. ... This story, honestly, leaves plenty to worry about. For instance, is he really not in the care of any kind of doctor?
He wasn't at the time. I wanted to address that, and trie
d to at the end of the piece where I bring it up with him. Maybe I wanted to alleviate some guilt I felt, too, for writing about him and not doing anything to help him. Did you read the afterward? I found a guy in St. Louis to track him down -- it sounds very sad, what he's going through now. I'm going to St. Louis the first week in December to flog the book, and I'm hoping to visit him.

Oh goodness, both legs amputated to diabetes.
I know. Can you believe it?

Hard to know how it could get any worse. I am under the impression that for some schizophrenia, medication can make a big difference. That's the other big tension I have -- could he have really been in the NBA all this time, under different circumstances? Then I start wondering who might be obligated to help him -- the colleges where he presumably filled the stadiums? The NBA? The Retired Players Association? The state?
Well, I'm no doctor, but I would guess that there are other people who have the same medical condition he has, but who have more resources, and they're not wards of the state, they haven't slipped though the cracks like he has. If he is as bad off now as he appears to be, I think it's in some way an indictment of all the organizations you mentioned, and an indictment of all of us.

Never know what to do about the fact that terrible things happen. All around, you know? Is it all someone's fault? Let's not get stuck solving that one. [Naked attempt to segue from the impossible, and back to sports.]

Looking at the rest of the book -- I'm getting a strong whiff of the notion that the singular-mindedness that leads to the highest levels of athletic success might not be congruent with the most balanced and happy life.
I would suspect that it's not just athletic success.

I think any kind of singular achievement requires a certain level of obsession. And I think obsessiveness probably works against balance. It's an interesting question -- does greatness require sacrificing balance? Probably Tony Dungy -- at least the popular image of Tony Dungy -- would argue against that. Like I said, I don't know. But I am attracted to obsessives, particularly as story subjects.

Do you ever find yourself doing those kinds of obsessive things? I know I do.
Absolutely, and then worrying whether I'm being too obsessive, or not obsessive enough. I'm sure I'm attracted to a lot of these stories because the characters -- or at least certain aspects of them -- remind me of myself.

Certainly.

You have had all kinds of important jobs, like senior editor at GQ, but I will always see you as the guy who co-wrote the fabulous book "Loose Balls" with Jayson Williams.
I guess that's better than always being seen as the guy who wrote "The Gentleman's Guide to Life."

My hope is I'll be the guy who wrote "The Agony of Victory" or "the guy who's been in the Best American Sports Writing" six times, or something. But hey, I'll take what I can get. And yeah, Jayson is interesting. Tragic what happened. And thank you for the compliment on Loose Balls!

I love Jayson Williams. He was one of the first NBA players I ever interviewed, and I drove home thinking: this job is EASY! Fascinating stuff comes out of that man's mouth. And then I came to realize that few players are as interesting as him.
That's funny. ... Yeah, he's an incredible interview. Funny, bright, spontaneous, frank. He'd be a dangerous guy for a young sportswriter to interview early on, because, as you said, he's pretty singular in his candor and articulateness.

Are you still in touch with him at all?
No. After the shooting, I called him and wrote him and faxed him -- basically to express my sympathy and tell him how I appreciated the kindness he had shown to me -- but he didn't reply. So I've left him alone.