The B/R Interview: LZ Granderson
This week, I sat down with ESPN.com’s Page 2 columnist LZ Granderson. Granderson is also a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and host of Game Night, a talk show on ESPN360. As a regular contributor to Page 2, Granderson’s columns cover a variety of topics ranging from NBA commentary to editorials discussing sports and society in the United States. He has worked in print, online and television journalism, bringing his unique perspective on sports and culture to all three mediums.
Enjoy the interview!
MT: Hi LZ, it's Max from Bleacher Report.
LZ: Hey Max. How are you?
MT: Good, thanks. How are you? Are you hanging in there? (LZ was a bit under the weather when we did this interview.)
LZ: I'm doing okay. Doctor's orders were to not leave the house so I'm resting, watching Casino Royale for about the twentieth time and taking antibiotics and Vicodin.
MT: Well, thanks for toughing this one out and chatting with me.
LZ: Thank you for thinking of me to be a part of the series.
MT: So let's start with your background, where you grew up, went to college, your major and how you started on a path to a career in the sportswriting industry?
LZ: I'm originally from Detroit and I went to Western Michigan for undergrad, where I majored in Interpersonal Communications with a minor in Journalism. I worked for the student newspaper in college as well as radio and I interned at a newspaper called the Kalamazoo Gazette while in school.
And that was basically what I think is probably the last generation who studied journalism being taught that you only specialized in one medium.
MT: What do you mean by that exactly?
LZ: Well, I mean that was the last generation in which crossover was discouraged in terms of the different mediums in which you were a journalist. So if you were into print, TV journalists were vilified and online journalism wasn’t even considered at the time. And when I took my first job, I was told that if you wrote for a newspaper, you could never be a TV person because there was a different kind of mentality involved and if you were a TV person, you shouldn’t write.
MT: But in your work, you’ve done a fair amount of crossover.
LZ: Yeah, because I never believed in all that. I thought it was all bullsh*t.
MT: Yeah, I don’t see why there should be a restriction on that.
LZ: Well, you know, it’s an old school mentality and it’s part of the reason why the industries - both television and print - had a difficult time being prepared for what online media did to the industry.
MT: That’s a very interesting point that I think makes a lot of sense. So with your internships, were you able to get a job right out of school?
LZ: No, I was still trying to figure out what I was going to be when I grow up. [laughs] So I did a few things and I’m sure I should be ashamed to say this [laughs], but I used to work as an actor and a model. So once I got done with college, I went back into acting and modeling for a while. Then once I got tired of picking up jobs once every few months and getting rejected most of the time, I decided to go to graduate school.
MT: Where did you go for that? Was it for Journalism?
LZ: Oh no, I thought I was going to be a University President. I went to Grand Valley and studied in their College Administration Program with the hopes of being a University Administrator and one day becoming a College President. But I was a little behind the curve. By the time I started there, I realized that Academic Board Members were no longer looking within Academia for University Presidents, but instead were hiring from the business world as they were looking to grow their school’s resources.
So as I was going through the program, I just realized that studying education would not help me reach my goals and that I needed to be a businessman with an affinity towards education.
So that was a little discouraging, actually a lot discouraging. But I realized that I decided to go into a field that combined the best of both worlds and I became a higher education reporter and I ended up covering the university I had just attended for the newspaper. So with my higher education background and my journalism background, I was a perfect candidate for the job.
MT: Did that then lead to a transition to the sports journalist world?
LZ: I had kind of a weird path. I had always been a tremendous sports fan and when I was in college, I helped cover the football team and I was on the basketball beat, so I started doing official sports reporting when I was in undergrad.
But by the time I got to The Grand Rapids Press, I was openly gay. And I’m not saying that’s why necessarily I wasn’t considered for a sports writing job, but let’s just say it took a while to convince newspapers that I could do that particular job.
In the meantime, I tried out everything else. I wrote religion columns...I was a food critic...I did movie reviews...I was a pop-culture critic...I covered murders.
MT: So you just kept writing.
LZ: I just kept writing. Every now and again, I would sniff out a sports story. I remember one summer, when Shawn Respert had graduated from [Michigan] State and was getting drafted, I ended up playing pickup basketball with him. I convinced him to sit down with me for a couple of minutes to do an interview before he was drafted.
So the paper was kind of forced to run the interview because I was the only one that had one. It wasn’t assigned, but they were at least appreciative of my ingenuity and me taking advantage of the situation. I really think they begrudgingly ran my Shawn Respert story because I wasn’t being assigned any sports stories at the time.
MT: Do you think being openly gay made it more difficult for you to become a professional sportswriter?
LZ: Well, I mean it still is a profession that is dominated by straight, white males. So again, I don’t want to make excuses, but certainly being a gay, black male in a straight, white male environment can be seen as an obstacle for some people who have pre-conceived notions about people who are different.
I remember applying for a job to help cover the Pistons. And you have to understand, I grew up watching the Pistons, I grew up reading everything about the Pistons. When they won their first championship, I remember camping out in Detroit outside to make sure I had the perfect parade spot. And I did it both years because they repeated. So you talk about someone who knew the history and knew the Pistons and had known them for a number of years and I remember applying for the job to cover the Pistons, and the sports editor at the time looked at me and said, “What does a gay guy know about the Pistons?”
MT: I’m a little surprised by that and maybe I’m a bit naïve to the time period, but I’ve always thought of the writing profession as almost a faceless industry where you are judged on your words, but I guess that was the reality at the time.
LZ: Yeah, it was the reality. I mean, I got a job as a home design lighter and I had absolutely no background in home design lighting whatsoever. But because I was gay, it was kind of assumed that I could figure it out. But it was not assumed that as a die-hard sports fan - as a complete diehard Pistons fan - I could figure out whatever you needed to know about the NBA. I mean that was sh*t.
And I still can’t decorate to save my f*cking life by the way.
MT: [laughs] Then did you move to ESPN from The Grand Rapids Press?
LZ: No, after The Grand Rapids Press, I went to the AJC (Atlanta Journal Constitution) where I was offered a job to be the home design writer. So I took that job and I did the home design thing for a while. Then I moved over to help start the entertainment section and from there, I kind of made the transition to sports.
There were a couple of people who believed in me as a sportswriter in Atlanta and that helped me to start making that crossover. So one of the things I developed as part of the entertainment section was a sports tab which I justified by saying that people go to sporting events as a source of entertainment. So I could write for that tab, which was considered a feature, and that way the sports department couldn’t do anything about it. And eventually that led to me becoming a columnist for the sports department.
So it was sneaky, it was definitely sneaky, but I knew what I wanted.
MT: That showed some real persistence on your part.
LZ: Dedicated, persistent, a d*ck; you could use any of those phrases. [laughs]
MT: So at that point, you’re in sports and you have this writing pedigree. What took you from the AJC to that next level of being an ESPN writer?
LZ: I did a couple things in Atlanta. One, I created a home decorating contest and two, I was very active in finding ways to incorporate the internet and our website with the entertainment section. So I ran a contest where people could vote online and the results would come out in the paper the following week. So I created ways in which the website and the print were able to interact with each other. That, along with my strength as a writer and editor, helped me to get a job at ESPN The Magazine in the NBA department.
MT: Along your way to ESPN, were there writers who you consistently read who influenced your own writing?
LZ: There were two writers who were very influential for me. The first was Mitch Albom from the Detroit Free Press. I grew up really poor and I can remember gathering pop bottles and turning them in for ten cents a piece so I would have enough money to buy a paper so I could read his column. He just kind of has this amazing way of putting you there.
And then the second was Nathan McCall, and he wrote his autobiography Makes Me Wanna Holler and used to write for the Washington Post. When I was in college, he released his autobiography and it documented his life up until the point where he was working for the Washington Post. And his life was so similar to my own, and it gave me so much hope and belief in myself. You know he made some mistakes with the law and he talked about racism and the emotions you have to control as a black man when you see injustices and things like that. I was really able to identify with all the things he was talking about and how he was able to persevere through all those obstacles whether they be self-imposed or not. That really helped me see my potential as a writer.
Before, it was like I was doing it, but you know people who weren’t like me were setting the bar. So you kind of wonder if you could actually ever get to that level.
MT: That’s similar to what we’ve seen with the past election, because everyone is told that they can grow up to be President. But now that Obama has been elected, I think a lot of African-Americans in particular have expressed that now it really IS possible.
LZ: Exactly. You know my son is eleven and he has no excuses now.
And Obama grew up a lot like most of America. I mean, half the damn country is divorced and there are a lot of single parent homes out there. It’s no longer that perfect, elitist background defines who can make a difference anymore.
And you’re right. He’s given a lot more people hope. Not just blacks, everyone. And many years ago, McCall’s autobiography did the same for me, it gave me hope. It showed me that I could write and that I could write for somewhere big and make a difference.
MT: That’s powerful and I think it’s the same relatable-ness that has garnered so much support for Obama, no matter your background. Now to switch gears a little bit and learn more about your writing, do you have a particular process you go through with your writing?
LZ: Well, I certainly have a formula. My goal whenever I write is to try not to go over 800 words when I’m writing a column. Every now and then I go over, but I try. If I can’t say what I need to say in 800 words, then I’m trying to say too much and I need to focus it more.
MT: And what advice could you give to the members of the Bleacher Report community for their own writing?
LZ: I would say the first piece of advice I have, when I think of myself, is stay humble to the craft. It took me a long time to respect writing, probably because it came so natural for me. I assumed that it was easy and I didn’t respect it enough. I didn’t respect the gift that God had given me. And because it came so naturally, I just assumed that it wasn’t that difficult of a thing to accomplish to be able to write something.
But once I started interacting with people in college and graduate school, I came to see the hesitation and the fear from people’s faces at the thought of having to write something, that’s when I realized that this was something special.
So I think first is if you truly have a gift, respect it and stay humble to it, because it is a gift. Writing is a very special talent, and just because it’s been bastardized by corporate America, doesn’t take away from its value.
And then two - and this is definitely true of myself - if you’re not uncomfortable with what you’re saying so far, maybe you’re not digging deep enough. I would say that about in three fourths of the pieces I write, certainly over the past year, there’s a line or a passage or theme that makes me uncomfortable. And that’s when I know I’m on the right path.
MT: Well, LZ, this has been very insightful and I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. I appreciate you lending your time to me and to Bleacher Report.
LZ: I definitely appreciate the opportunity and thank you for thinking of me.
MT: Thanks LZ and feel better. Chicken soup and bed rest…
LZ: And Vicodin, woohoo! [laughs] Thanks Max.
Guess what B/R Members…
LZ Granderson has joined B/R! You can find links to his weekly column as well as other content on his member page. If you have any questions or comments about his writing, become his fan and ask him!
Hope you enjoyed the interview and stay tuned for next week’s B/R Interview with NBC Broadcaster Ted Robinson…
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