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Saturday, April 07, 2012

"There Was" a Time When Writers Could Write

I have never received formal training as a writer, so I have no idea what used to be taught in journalism schools and I have no idea what is being taught in such institutions now but I have noticed a strange trend in sports writing: deploying the phrase "There was" more frequently than "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" appear in the Bible. If I wrote an article about Kentucky's recent 67-59 victory over Kansas in the NCAA Championship Game the first paragraph of my story might read something like this:

Someone once asked the recently retired Bill Russell how he would have fared against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's newest superstar, and Russell replied, "Young man, you have the question backward." There is a natural tendency to break down a previous generation's sports heroes "to the death" (to borrow a phrase from Goldman and Lupica's classic book Wait Till Next Year) and conclude that there is no way that a superstar from the era of black and white television (or even one from the era of VHS) could compete with, let alone dominate, the athletes who we now watch in stunning HD--but Kentucky's Anthony Davis, the consensus NCAA Player of the Year who just earned Final Four MOP honors by leading the Wildcats to a 67-59 triumph over Kansas in the National Championship Game, proved that a slender, offensively limited big man can be just as dominant now as Russell was for USF in the 1950s. Davis only scored six points on 1-10 field goal shooting versus Kansas but he controlled the game with 16 rebounds, six blocked shots, five assists and three steals, a very Russell-esque stat line. This does not mean that Davis will go on to win 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons like Russell did but it does mean that facile, throwaway comments like "Russell would be eaten alive by big, modern day centers" should not be uttered by intelligent basketball observers.

That paragraph provides the reader with a ton of facts about Kentucky's win and it places Davis' prowess in proper historical context; it is written in an active voice and even though the sentences are complex the appropriate use of commas, parentheses and one dash enable the reader to "take a breath" (read the paragraph out loud, paying attention to the punctuation, if you don't understand what I mean).

Sports Illustrated is one of the last mainstream outlets where top notch sports writing can still be found but SI's cover story about the NCAA Championship Game overdoses on "There was," an introductory phrase that has become very trendy but is actually just a lazy, passive way to express an idea; five different sentences in that story begin "There was":

"There was Doron Lamb, one of two key holdovers from last year's vaunted freshman class and the team's best shooter, hitting two straight three-pointers to kill a Jayhawks rally midway through the second half and finishing with a game-high 22 points."

"There was 6'10" freshman Anthony Davis, the elastic-limbed 19-year-old national player of the year, who displayed athletic gifts so otherworldly that he seemed to lack only a cape as he soared above the rim."

"There was Davis' roommate, fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, still six months shy of his 19th birthday, a player whose struggles with a stutter off the court belie his fluency on it."

"There was 6'9" sophomore Terrence Jones, who skipped the NBA draft last year after Kentucky was ousted by Connecticut in the Final Four because, he says, 'I wanted to play in the final game of the season,' adding nine points, seven rebounds and a defensive presence that made Kansas star Thomas Robinson struggle for each of his 18 points and 17 rebounds."

"There was freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who helped ensure that Calipari didn't relive the nightmare ending of his last appearance in the title game."

What purpose does the phrase "There was" serve in these sentences? The writer could have simply gone straight to the point, describing these players' accomplishments in an active voice instead of numbing the reader's ears and dulling the reader's mind by repeatedly declaring "There was."

I don't mean to pick on SI or Kelli Anderson; this is just the latest example (and perhaps the most prominent, considering the source) of a strange trend in sports writing: I have seen entire articles that largely consist of a series of sentences beginning "There was." I don't know the source for this trend but I do know that "there was" a time when professional writers could actually write lively, interesting sentences and when you immediately knew who wrote an article just by reading the opening sentence (you would never confuse Dick Schaap with William Goldman or Tom Callahan or Ralph Wiley but you would be instantly engaged by anything any of them wrote). Anderson's "there was" story could have been written in similar style by any one of the thousands of other faceless drones whose words skitter discordantly across the print and/or digital landscape only to be forgotten soon after they are read.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:29 PM



At Saturday, April 07, 2012 8:21:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Given that good writing is an extension of good thinking, this is not an encouraging sign : http://ethelbert-miller.blogspot.com/2011/11/writing-is-thinking.html


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