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Friday, June 19, 2009

Slam Top 50 is a Typically Sloppy Production

Someone who is affiliated with Slam/Slam Online recently emailed me and very cordially asked me to explain why I have made derogatory references to Slam/Slam Online. I responded by citing several specific examples that demonstrate what I call the "amateur hour" quality of a lot of the work being published at both places; this is a theme that I initially explored in December 2007 and although I hoped that editorial staff changes at the magazine and the website would result in improvements that has not been the case.

Consider the "New and Improved Slam 2009 Top 50," a feature story--consisting of Slam's ranking of the NBA's 50 all-time greatest players plus thumbnail articles about each player--that appears in the issue of Slam cover dated August 2009. Making such a list is a difficult and somewhat subjective task but Slam's rankings are not terribly off base; Shaquille O'Neal is too high (fourth) and Julius Erving is too low (15th) but Slam's rankings for Kobe Bryant (12th) and Scottie Pippen (27th) are solid and the overall list is not bad. However, for such a list to have credibility it has to be made by people who know basketball history and possess above average writing skills. Otherwise, even if most of the rankings are unobjectionable the final product still comes across as something out of "amateur hour."

It is more than a little distracting to read player rankings that contain factual errors. The Bill Russell thumbnail article declares that Russell "led the L in rpg" four times. Of course, "the L" did not rank statistical leaders by per game averages until the 1969-70 season, one year after Russell retired. Russell led the NBA in total rebounds four times and posted the highest rpg average five times--it is not clear whether the Slam writer meant to indicate how many times Russell officially led the league in rebounding or how many times Russell had the top rpg average but saying that Russell "led the L in rpg" four times is vague at best.

The Larry Bird thumbnail declares "You don't average 6.3 apg and 1.7 spg as a forward but Larry did." LeBron James is the only forward who has a higher career apg average than Bird, but Julius Erving, Scottie Pippen and Shawn Marion are three forwards who averaged more than 1.7 spg during their careers--and you can add George McGinnis to that list if you include McGinnis' ABA numbers.

In certain situations it may be considered stylish to use slang words or write in sentence fragments to achieve a particular effect but basic rules of grammar should not simply be flouted for no reason; it is one thing for a songwriter to use poetic license to make lyrics rhyme and/or to sound more colloquial but one should be much more judicious about such things when writing an article for publication, let alone an article that is part of a purportedly serious listing of the 50 greatest NBA players of all-time. Yet, the thumbnail article about Erving begins, "If it wasn't for Dr. J, there is no Slam." Of course, this should read, "If it weren't for Dr. J, there is no Slam." The rest of the piece is written in the passive voice ("Wilt Chamberlain...was dunking" instead of "Wilt Chamberlain dunked", "What Erving did was turn the dunk into an offensive weapon" instead of "Erving turned the dunk into an offensive weapon," etc.). The author has a solid, if not exceptional, understanding of Erving's impact--though Erving's otherworldly performance in the 1976 ABA Finals should have been mentioned--but any literate person reading the piece cannot help but notice the many obvious ways that the writing could have been sharper; the article reads like a first draft at best, not a final draft for publication. The writer deserves blame in that regard but the person who is primarily responsible for what appears in print is the editor; a solid editor would never let such writing see the light of day.

The Patrick Ewing thumbnail asserts that Ewing "was the League's first true warrior." Ewing was certainly a great player but that statement is so vague that it is meaningless. Was Ewing a greater "warrior" than Chuck Cooper, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton and Earl Lloyd, the players who helped to break the league's color barrier? Was Ewing a greater "warrior" than Elgin Baylor, who played the second half of his career sans knee cartilage? Was Ewing a greater "warrior" than Maurice Lucas, the prototype enforcer? Saying that Ewing "was the League's first true warrior" is intellectual laziness; instead of spouting a cliche, the author should have cited a specific example of why Ewing should be lauded for his "warrior" qualities.

One author declares that Gary Payton "intimidated 95 percent of the guards in the League." That sounds superficially authoritative but what does it really mean? Were players afraid to fight Payton or were they afraid of being outplayed by him? There is no doubt that some guards may have been intimidated by Payton but you do not last long in professional sports by being timid or soft, so that "95 percent" number seems more than a bit high. Payton was a better player than 95 percent of the guards in the NBA but that does not mean that all of the lesser players were "intimidated" by him. Kobe Bryant is obviously a much better player than guys like Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen and Shane Battier but it would be disrespectful to say that those three strong defenders are "intimidated" by Bryant.

The Dave Cowens thumbnail praises Cowens for being the "most unique" Celtic in the Top 50 list, citing Cowens' mid-season retirement during the middle of his career (he soon returned to the league) and the offseason that he spent as a taxicab driver as "a testament to his greatness." I could make a strong argument that Bill Russell was the "most unique" Celtic in the Top 50 list: Russell revolutionized pivot play--and the sport itself--with his emphasis on blocking shots and rebounding. I am completely baffled by the suggestion that retiring and/or driving a taxicab have anything to do with being a great basketball player. It is much more relevant and meaningful to note that Cowens was an undersized but extremely mobile center who successfully battled against taller and heavier opponents.

One Slam writer says that George Gervin "is the only guy to be teammates of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan." First, for Gervin to be "teammates" he would have to be two people; the writer meant to say that Gervin "is the only guy who played with both Julius Erving and Michael Jordan" (note that this sentence is not in the passive voice and does not confuse the singular with the plural; a good editor could have very quickly fixed the original writer's mess). Second, the writer is wrong: Steve Colter, Earl Cureton, Caldwell Jones, Wes Matthews and Sedale Threatt all played with both Erving and Jordan. In fact, Colter played with Erving and Jordan in the same season (1986-87, Erving's final campaign) and started games for both the 76ers and Bulls that year. I knew this information without even looking it up because I am a student of NBA history; I don't expect everyone to have encyclopedic knowledge of the sport but if you do not know the subject matter then you should do thorough research before writing or editing an article.

I will not waste my time going into every example of slipshod writing/poor editing found in the "New and Improved Slam 2009 Top 50" but suffice it to say that the examples cited above were not the only subpar articles; it should also be noted that a few of the articles, including the one by Konate Primus about Kobe Bryant, are above average in quality.

Slam is hardly the only lackluster magazine; the overall quality of contemporary professional sportswriting is shockingly bad, as I lamented a few months ago in a post about Rick Reilly, one of the few people left in the business whose fastball still hums.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:28 AM

7 comments

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7 Comments:

At Friday, June 19, 2009 2:01:00 AM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Slam just got slammed! Zing. Every day my respect for you, this blog, your insight and your writing increases. Thank you for continuing to be a place where people who want to get informed information on the NBA can come and soak up a bunch of knowledge.

 
At Friday, June 19, 2009 12:52:00 PM, Anonymous DHSmd said...

I admire your willingness to go this far with constructive criticism of yet another publication that appears to lack enough professionalism and/or pride to critique itself.

I rarely bother anymore, particularly since I can't get past the ubiquitous misuse of "different than" instead of "different from"

I'm not sure I agree with your alternate, "If it weren't for Dr. J, there is no Slam." That does not seem much better to me. Maybe, "If there was no Dr. J, there would be no SLAM," or even better, "Without Dr. J, there would be no SLAM."

Aside from structural grammar, the key to good writing is economy, which is why things have to be re-written. If they do it right, they end up cutting out more than they leave in. At least, that has been my experience.

 
At Friday, June 19, 2009 3:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DHSmd:

My point is that in the subjunctive mood (i.e., expressing a wish) it is incorrect to say "If there was no..." That should be written, "If there were no..." As indicated in the post, I understand that sometimes writers violate grammatical rules for stylistic intent but in this case the Slam writer is simply incorrect--and since he wrote the rest of his Dr. J article in the passive voice it is apparent that the editor should have heavily used his red pencil--or the digital equivalent of the red pencil.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 8:58:00 AM, Blogger D said...

"The Larry Bird thumbnail declares "You don't average 6.3 apg and 1.7 spg as a forward but Larry did." LeBron James is the only forward who has a higher career apg average than Bird, but Julius Erving, Scottie Pippen and Shawn Marion are three forwards who averaged more than 1.7 spg during their careers--and you can add George McGinnis to that list if you include McGinnis' ABA numbers."

in the sentence for larry, slam mentions both the apg and spg. your rebuttal of scottie, marion, and dr. j, indicates they averaged more than 1.7 spg in their careers, but says nothing about their assists. regarding lebron, you mention he has a higher career average in apg, but you say nothing about his career average in steals. why did you skip out on mentioning both stats? what were you trying to prove in mentioning those players if you didn't match up the criteria slam established?

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

D:

The Slam writer did not clearly "establish" his criteria. The way that he phrased the sentence is ambiguous. You interpret it to mean that no forward other than Bird has averaged BOTH 6.3 apg and 1.7 spg but the sentence could just as easily be read to mean that no other forward has ever averaged EITHER 6.3 apg or 1.7 spg, which is how I understood the sentence. If the writer meant what you think he means then he should have said, "No forward other than Larry Bird has ever averaged at least 6.3 apg and at least 1.7 spg for an entire career." So, depending on how you want to look at it, the writer either constructed his sentence poorly--a Slam specialty, as my article makes clear--and/or the writer did not check his facts. Based on Slam's content, either possibility is quite plausible.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 6:42:00 PM, Blogger D said...

David,

i figure anytime "and" is thrown into a sentence, both criteria must be satisfied to make the sentence true. in other words, it can't mean either, because "or" means either. if the writer were to put, "you don't average 6.3 apg OR 1.7 spg as a forward but Larry did," then it's understandable to mention that marion, scottie, and the doctor have indeed averaged more than 1.7 spg as forwards.

i do agree the sentence is a little ambiguous. sure, readers who are up on the stats game can assume the writer is referring to larry's career averages, but the clueless reader probably won't know that. adding the "for an entire career" at the end would clear any confusion.

 
At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 11:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

D:

I understand what you are saying but you are not really making a good case for the author. I would be willing to bet that the author of the Bird thumbnail has no idea how many forwards have averaged 6 apg and/or 1.7 spg and that he just assumed that no forward could match either standard. You can either choose to believe that the sentence is ambiguous or that the author does not know his NBA stats-- but either way the work is sloppy, which is my main point about the Slam Top 50.

 

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