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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Deconstructing Bad Writing: Krolik's Slam Job on Kobe Bryant, Part I

I recently explained specifically why the "New and Improved Slam 2009 Top 50" is a subpar product. Writing is a craft and it is disappointing when people who are allegedly professionals do not take that craft seriously. I'm not trying to call out people by name--the only writer I mentioned in my Slam post is one who did an above average job--but sometimes an article is so egregiously poor that there is just no way around mentioning who exactly created it.

A while ago I indicated in passing that someone had thrown together a hideous article for SlamOnline in which he declared that the upcoming Lakers-Rockets game seven would be the defining moment of Kobe Bryant's career. I did not initially say who wrote this nonsense, because it is more important to correct faulty reasoning/poor writing than to just bash a particular writer. I also did not want to give the article more attention that it deserved; admittedly, this is a difficult, fine line to walk: how does one correct falsehood without at the same time publicizing it? Eventually, one of my regular readers wrote a comment asking me who wrote the offending article and I told him that it was John Krolik. I was not trying to make a big deal about "who," because to me it is more important to focus on "what," namely the poor reasoning involved in even thinking up such a piece in the first place. However, Krolik decided to attempt to refute in detail my take on his piece, which is funny on three levels:

1) His original article is poorly thought out and even more poorly written.
2) He is attacking a ghost, because I never wrote a formal refutation of his piece but merely mentioned it parenthetically a few times and I only brought up his name after somebody specifically asked me who I am talking about.
3) His attempted refutation of my point of view merely provides additional examples of the limitations of his critical reasoning skills and writing abilities.

Naturally, since Krolik attempted to refute a critique that I did not bother to write, I feel duty bound to provide an in depth analysis of both his original article and his subsequent article directed toward me. This post will discuss the original article, while Part II will address his second article.

Part I: Krolik's Original Article

Krolik begins the first piece by declaring, "On Saturday, ESPN will air, commercial-free, a highly positive documentary about the man who, despite what people will tell you about some kid from Akron who people are starting to notice, is still the NBA’s marquee name, and maybe the biggest name in team sports."

How many times did you have to read that sentence to decipher what Krolik actually said? He is trying to be cutesy or cutting edge but instead all he does is confuse the reader. Who is the documentary about? Krolik's awkward style forces you to double back to confirm that the documentary is not about the player from Akron but rather "the NBA's marquee name." Once you understand what Krolik means you have to ask yourself if it is really true that people are only "starting to notice" LeBron James, who has been a public figure since his high school days. In just one sentence, Krolik manages to make the reader wonder--and not in a good way--what his article is about and Krolik makes an assertion that is clearly false.

Krolik then says that the day after the documentary airs, "
Kobe Bryant will suit up for the game with the highest stakes in any game of what is already a sure-fire Hall Of Fame Career." At some level, Krolik realizes that this is nonsensical. In fact, his next sentence reads, "Now, I realize this sounds crazy." Yes, it does. Krolik suggests that Bryant never faced do or die pressure until this year's game seven against Houston. As only Krolik can so awkwardly phrase it, "He got his first ring, the monkey that took so many great players so many years to get off their back, if they ever did, at 22 years old, the clear beta dog on a team carried to the championship by Shaq averaging 30/15/3 throughout the entire playoffs while Kobe averaged a clean, complimentary 22."

Note the incorrect word usage; the correct word is "complementary." Again, how many times did you have to read that sentence to really understand what Krolik said? Note how he mixes the plural "great players" and singular "off their back" (instead of "backs") and that the sentence has no rhythm or flow to it whatsoever. If I were trying to express Krolik's apparent sentiments I would perhaps write: "
At just 22 years old Kobe Bryant averaged 22 ppg and won his first ring while playing a complementary role to Shaquille O'Neal's dominating 30 ppg/15 rpg/3 bpg; Bryant had his whole career in front of him and yet he had already achieved a lofty goal that proved elusive to great stars such as Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing." Note the difference between a crisply written passage citing specific examples and Krolik's meandering, vague mess.

Krolik then goes through a slipshod version of Bryant's playoff career, apparently oblivious to the fact that people did in fact expect O'Neal and Bryant to win championships and that Bryant received plenty of criticism--much of it unwarranted--when the Lakers failed to do so. Heck, Bryant received criticism even when the Lakers succeeded, because the love affair between O'Neal and the media runs very deep. Krolik neglects to mention that the Lakers' championship run began with Bryant's great performance in the Lakers' 89-84 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals; Bryant led the Lakers in scoring (25 points), rebounds (11), assists (seven) and blocked shots (four). Many great players never make it to the Finals even once, so how foolish is it for Krolik to contend that Bryant did not face do or die pressure in that game seven? That could have been Bryant's one and only chance to play in the NBA Finals; Dan Marino went to the Super Bowl at a similarly tender age and then never made it back to the NFL's title game. Yet Krolik does not even mention how well Bryant performed in that situation.

Then, in the pivotal game four of the 2000 NBA Finals--when the Pacers could either tie the Lakers 2-2 or fall into a 3-1 hole--Bryant took over in overtime after O'Neal fouled out, carrying the Lakers to a 120-118 win. Bryant finished with 28 points on 14-27 field goal shooting despite a severely sprained ankle that caused him to miss game three (the Lakers lost by nine points sans Bryant).

Although Krolik is focused on the drama of one game or one moment, the truth is that players demonstrate their ability to perform under pressure by being consistent for a sustained period of time. Bryant was the leading playmaker for the Lakers' 2000-02 championship teams. During that time, he made the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams and progressed from 12th to ninth to fifth in MVP voting. In the 2001 playoffs he dropped 48 points and 16 rebounds on the Kings in a closeout game on the road and then in his next game--the series opener on the road versus the Spurs--he had 45 points and 10 rebounds. Bryant shot 15-29 from the field (.517) in the first game and 19-35 (.543) in the second one.

The Portland game, the Indiana game and those back to back 40-plus point efforts are defining moments in Bryant's playoff career but Krolik does not mention any of these games. Does he know anything about basketball history? Is such knowledge a requirement to write for SlamOnline?

The Lakers were considered by many people to be the favorites in last year's NBA Finals, even though the Celtics enjoyed homecourt advantage. When the Lakers lost game four after leading by 24 points it seemingly only took about 10 minutes for every sportswriter in America to declare that this result forever proved that Kobe Bryant should never be compared to Michael Jordan; much like Krolik tried to do before game seven, these writers attempted to define Bryant's whole career by one game, a falsehood that I summarily rejected.
It is absurd for Krolik to say that Bryant did not face pressure in the 2008 Finals.

After providing this flawed, incomplete account of Bryant's career to date, Krolik hems and haws about what game seven will mean, even though he told the reader in his first paragraph
that game seven will involve "the highest stakes" of any game in Bryant's career. Krolik backs away from his original premise and spends the second part of his article searching in vain for a unifying theme, thrashing around desperately like a drowning man looking for a life preserver.

On the one hand, Krolik says, "
If the Lakers win, there’s a lot still to be written, but there’s a lot that changes." He then argues that the Lakers face favorable matchups the rest of the way and concludes, "Make no mistake—the Kobe Bryant that’s struggling to beat this depleted Rockets team is the same man who could easily be hoisting the Bill Russell trophy in a few weeks’ time."

However, he starts the next paragraph with these ominous words: "
But if these Lakers somehow lose, history changes." Krolik notes that Lamar Odom might leave the Lakers, Pau Gasol might not continue to play at a high level--naturally, Krolik offers no reason to believe that a player in his prime will suddenly drop off--Andrew Bynum may never reach his potential and Bryant may finally show the signs of age. Krolik declares, "The slow path Kobe’s taken to escape from Shaq’s shadow and lead a team to the promised land by himself turns into a cautionary tale, a journey began by ego and ending in misery."

First, Bryant did not try to "lead a team to the promised land by himself." That is nonsense; the Lakers decided not to give O'Neal a max deal for max years because he refused to get in shape and then the Lakers re-signed Bryant and built the team around him, resulting in two Western Conference titles and an NBA championship in 2009. Meanwhile, O'Neal won a championship in Miami but also presided over perhaps the quickest fall from grace ever by a champion that retained its key players. Then, he found an escape hatch to Phoenix, a team that also rapidly became a non-contender upon his arrival. Now O'Neal is looking for a new escape hatch, angling to hook up with LeBron James or--irony of ironies--Kobe Bryant. Second, how is this a "slow path"? Some teams struggle to make the playoffs but meanwhile the Lakers went from the lottery in 2005 to the Finals in 2008. If that is "slow" then how would Krolik describe what the Clippers and Wizards are doing? Third, what is the "cautionary" element in this story? Bryant is regarded as the hardest working and most fundamentally sound player in the game. If the Lakers lost to the Rockets in game seven would such a setback invalidate the worth of those traits? Krolik is trying to make profound declarations but upon careful consideration nothing that he says actually makes sense! His writing lacks a sense of history/perspective, it is difficult to read because of his poor craftsmanship and he does not consistently maintain his stated theme.

In the final paragraph, Krolik references David Foster Wallace, the great writer who recently committed suicide. Krolik tries to tie together this rambling mess of an article by quoting a commencement speech that Wallace gave: "The old fish says 'Boy, the water sure is nice today.' The young one responds 'What the heck is water?'" Krolik then writes a giant run-on sentence: "The 81 points, the playoff defeats, the beautiful jumpers, the impossible passes, the taunts, the arrogance, the brilliance, the 4th quarter takeovers, the aloofness, the games where forced jumper after forced jumper falls short, the player who elevated scoring into art and turned the art of a 10-man game into nothing more than scoring." After some more bleatings, Krolik finally ends the article with these lines: "This is Kobe. This is water. Beneath all of what we need him to be, want him to be, say he is, this is a man. A man who has played some of the best basketball ever played, but a man, and for the next 48 hours he will be allowed to exist as one in all of our eyes. OK, I’ll be a little disappointed if Game 7 ends up being a blowout."

What did we supposedly learn from Krolik's article? We learned that people are only just now figuring out that LeBron James is great. We learned that Kobe Bryant has hit many game winning shots and won three championships but never faced real pressure until Krolik says that Bryant faced pressure. We learned that if the Lakers beat the Rockets they may cruise to the championship but if the Lakers lose to the Rockets we may never hear from them again. We learned that Krolik feels brilliant when he quotes David Foster Wallace. We learned that Kobe Bryant is water. I am still waiting to learn from Krolik what kind of tree Bryant would be if he were a tree.

This is what SlamOnline presents as top notch basketball writing--and I am supposedly a bad guy for saying that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.

As a counterpoint to Krolik's bizarre take on this series, here are links to my recaps of game six and game seven:

Recap of Houston's game six victory over the Lakers

Recap of the Lakers's 89-70 game seven win

Do you prefer basketball writing that is awkward and indecipherable or basketball writing that actually explains the nuances of the game?

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM

19 comments

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19 Comments:

At Sunday, June 21, 2009 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Codysseus said...

I prefer basketball writing without hostility and arrogance, personally.

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 3:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Codysseus:

Good points. If someone critiqued my work validly in terms of content and structure I would not respond by saying that no one should take that person seriously because he has a lot of "enemies." That was indeed a very hostile--and off topic--response by Krolik.

I also agree with you that it is arrogant for someone who knows very little about basketball history--and has an admitted bias for a particular team and that team's star player--to write an ostensibly objective article declaring that a second round playoff game will be the biggest game of a three-time--now four-time--NBA champion's career. Is Magic Johnson's career defined by a first round loss to the Rockets when the Lakers were the defending champions? Is Magic Johnson's career defined by a playoff series versus the Celtics in which he committed so many late game gaffes that Kevin McHale mockingly called him "Tragic"? Is Larry Bird's career defined by being swept by the Bucks in 1983? Obviously, the answer to each of those questions is "No" and it is likewise incorrect to suggest that Kobe Bryant's career would have been defined by a game seven loss to Houston. If anything, Bryant added a couple defining moments to his career after that series with his signature performances in game six versus Denver and game one versus Orlando, mirroring his twin 40-point efforts versus Sacramento and San Antonio that I mentioned in the post.

Not that Bryant needed to win another championship to prove anything to people who understand basketball but, in terms of a great many people who do not understand the sport, Bryant "redefined" himself by leading the Lakers to a Finals victory this year--and that "redefinition" is much more significant than a loss to Houston would have been; just as Magic and Bird bounced back from the aforementioned setbacks, even if the Lakers had lost to Houston they could have still won a championship next year--but Bryant's Finals MVP performance is a watershed historical moment for anyone who insisted that Bryant could not win a championship as the "lead" player.

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 3:50:00 PM, Blogger flyE said...

The DFW-quoting metaphorical device used by Krolik is a prime example of the most frustrating aspect of FreeDarko writing, namely that the pretentiousness is so deep that the reader cannot tell the difference between sincerity and satire. And, I suspect the same holds true for the writer.

So I guess you have to just accept Krolik's articles for what they are: creative writing exercises centered around the NBA, as opposed to solid NBA analyses written creatively. Which is fine if that's what you're into, but don't expect much more insight than declaring the outcome of the tomorrow's game momentous, while relegating the result of the yesterday's game as inevitable.

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 4:19:00 PM, Anonymous JaCk B. said...

David,
I just don't like writing who tend to get personal and goes away from the story. I've seen it countless times.

on bad writing: I blame the newspapers for it. Their refusal to change the way they operate is what made sports blogs popular. As a result, major sports websites are hiring bloggers instead of sports writers.

On Hollinger: Did you see the passage that i pointed out? It was about Hollinger's Draft Rater which had rated Randolph, mayo and Gordon(Eric) ass Busts. A user pointed this out to him, he says that it was just "plain misses". he never said that something might be wrong with his Draft Rater.

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 5:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article, Friedman. Top notch writing really is becoming increasingly harder to find these days. Looking forward to Part II...

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 5:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

flyE:

I agree that you cannot tell the difference between satire and sincerity at times in FD-style writing but that reflects more on the quality of the writing than the style per se. Most people cannot write like DFW did--and even DFW had sufficient self-awareness to wonder if some of his work went over the top at times. Most of the writers who are trying to emulate him lack both his talent and his self-awareness.

What mystifies me is why ESPN, Slam and so many mainstream platforms have recently decided to promote such "creative writing exercises" as opposed to hiring competent writers. I have nothing against hiring bloggers, obviously, since I have been running a blog for years, but bloggers range in quality from top notch to amateur hour. Henry Abbott had a brilliant idea to create an ESPN basketball blogging network but he ruined the whole thing by overloading the network with low quality blogs--and he received quite a backlash from his readers as a result of this decision. The Painted Area is a good blog, as are some others in Abbott's network, but a lot of them are at about the same level as Krolik's. That is fine for a fan blog that has a small audience of "true believers" but it is strange that ESPN decided to feature some of these bloggers so prominently.

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 6:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack B:

The quality of professional writing today is bad in general, both in newspapers and online.

I did not read Hollinger's draft article. In general I think that Hollinger does a decent job of explaining what his numbers do and don't measure but that does not mean that I agree with all of his conclusions. Still, I distinguish between Hollinger and someone like David Berri, who generally refuses to admit that anything could possibly be wrong with his WoW system. Hollinger will say that his formula measured X, did not measure Y and this is why it came up with result Z. You can agree or disagree but Hollinger does not profess that he has all of the answers.

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 6:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Top notch writing is largely extinct, because many of the most prominent and best paying markets are not seeking it out.

I did not originally intend to write an in depth analysis of Krolik's article; I merely mentioned in passing a few times just how absurd his premise was and what a poor job he did of expressing it. When I realized that he had written a diatribe in response and that most of his diatribe had more to do with me than with the low quality of his own work, I decided to provide some concrete, specific examples of exactly what I mean when I say that Krolik writes poorly.

There really is no objective way to defend what Krolik wrote or the awkward way that he wrote it but he has a lot of buddies in the business so I fully realize that the ad hominem attacks will likely soon be flying at me from all directions. I let the quality of my work speak for itself and could not care less about the opinions of people who are producing low quality work and have to resort to schoolyard name-calling because of their personal and professional inadequacies.

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 7:26:00 PM, Blogger Codysseus said...

Go easy on those FDers, Bethlehem Shoals is a quality writer. "The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac" is, in my opinion, an essential book for basketball fans.

 
At Monday, June 22, 2009 5:56:00 PM, Blogger wondahbap said...

Good stuff Dave. I'll link on Silver Screen and Roll for sure. I always do.

 
At Monday, June 22, 2009 7:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wondahbap:

I know that you have linked to many of my posts and, based on some of the comments posted at your site, I realize that your readers appreciate my work.

 
At Monday, June 22, 2009 8:55:00 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

There actually a few factual errors in addition to all the grammatical issues and shaky logic. He names '01/02 as the season the Lakers went 15-1 in the playoffs (it was '00/01) and '02/03 as the season they were pushed to 7 games by the Kings (it was '01/02), while completely forgetting about what actually happened in '02/03 (the Lakers lost to the Spurs in the second round). How exactly does something like that get past the editors? It wasn't that long ago was it?

I am by no means a professional writer, but I have posted a few articles online and even I wouldn't have allowed something like that to slip through the cracks.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 12:30:00 AM, OpenID sag86britt13 said...

I personally don't read Krolik's crap because of his bias against Kobe. Or any writers crap who just don't like Kobe and uses their writing to bash his accomplishments for no reason. Other then that great break down of Krolik's article and I love it when great writer call out bad writers.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 6:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

Thank you for pointing out those additional mistakes that Krolik made and that the editors failed to correct.

I primarily focused on Krolik's poor writing skills and the inherent absurdity of his basic premise--and it took thousands of words in a two part series to just scratch the surface regarding those two issues. Those basic factual errors that you mentioned just reinforce my overall points about Krolik's lack of knowledge of NBA history and about how woefully unqualified the editors at Slam and SlamOnline are.

I don't mean to suggest that writers and/or editors should be perfect but what is important to look at here is the totality of the article: it fails grammatically, structurally, factually and logically, so this is not just a matter of nitpicking one or two minor faults.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 6:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

sag86britt13:

Krolik's problem is not merely that he is biased--which is bad enough--but also that he writes very poorly from a technical standpoint.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 3:03:00 PM, Blogger mattatouille said...

Just curious, who are some past and curernt basketball writers that you respect?

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 5:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mattatouille:

Here are a few writers who I respect, in no particular order:

David Halberstam.

Ralph Wiley.

Dick Schaap.

Leonard Koppett.

Roland Lazenby.

Dick DeVenzio (author of a book titled Stuff Good Players Should Know).

Jack McCallum.

Tom Callahan (used to write for Time, author of the book The Bases Were Loaded and So Was I).

Pete Axthelm.

Rick Telander.

Marty Bell (author of the Legend of Dr. J).

Merv Harris (author of the Lonely Heroes, a book about the NBA's great big men).

You will note that unfortunately many of the people on the list are deceased. There are very few great basketball writers around now and there certainly is a dearth of great young basketball writers.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 6:32:00 PM, Blogger pelligreen said...

it's just a preference over a style of writing: hemingway or faulkner; stendhal or balzac; chekov or kafka; hegel/derrida/heidegger or russell/james [and yes i realize they are not mutually exclusive]. this sort of competition exists on every intellectual level, and is only different from qoutidian, venial conflicts by the attempts at thorough refutation. i prefer this type of response to those vulgar rejoinders or 'get a life' or 'who cares'.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 11:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Pelligreen:

A writer cannot be said to have a style until he masters the fundamentals, so it is not correct to suggest that I prefer the writers I listed over Krolik for stylistic reasons. The writers I listed in my previous comment are great writers; comparing Krolik to them is like comparing Bobby Fischer to someone who just learned how the chess pieces move.

Krolik simply does not write at the minimum proficiency level that should be expected of a professional; he does not write well enough to have a style. A weak chess player who makes four mistakes in the first 10 moves of a game is not an "attacking" player or a "defensive specialist"; he is just a weak player.

 

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