Q&A with Sports Illustrated senior writer Lee Jenkins

Growing up I loved to read two magazines every month; SLAM and Sports Illustrated. Now Lee Jenkins wasn’t writing at SI when I was growing up but since he joined them in 2007 they have became a must-read publication once again for me.

Whether it’s LeBron chasing the ghost of Chicago, a profile on Draymond Green, or how Andre Drummond has turned from project to pillar, his work resonates with NBA fans everywhere.

Perhaps even more important is that it seems there isn’t a person in the industry with a negative word regarding Mr. Jenkins. He’s always gracious and thanks everyone who compliments him and his true passion for the work he does shines through when you speak to him. For some reason, he agreed to talk to this lowly blogger and I will be forever grateful for it.

Upside & Motor: You attended Vanderbilt after earning the prestigious Grantland Rice-Fred Russell Sportswriting Scholarship. How old were you when you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a sportswriter?

Lee Jenkins: Probably around 15. My dad wrote for the local newspaper; the San Diego News Tribune. It’s funny, I didn’t want to do what he did (laughs). I wanted to be on TV, I wanted to be the next Bob Costas. I wrote for my hometown newspaper covering high school sports and I really enjoyed it. I got pretty lucky because the Chargers trained in my hometown and I got an opportunity to cover them. Suddenly I was known for this and it became my identity during high school. So I went for the scholarship and then when I got it, it was a sign for me. So I’ve only been a sportswriter my whole life; it’s all I’ve done as far as work. I look at it very simply in the sense that I liked sports and I liked writing so it was kind of an obvious choice for me. In high school my teachers saw how much I enjoyed it (and how good at it I was) and they would let me write about sports when other kids were writing about literature; it was pretty cool.

U&M: You’ve been at Sports Illustrated since 2007 and prior to that you were with The New York Times, OC Register and Colorado Springs Gazette. Is it still surreal to see your features on the cover of SI magazine?

Jenkins: I’ve never totally gotten used to it. I was originally hired by SI to cover the NFL and honestly it wasn’t going very well. My first spring at SI, Chris Stone gave me a story on Johan Santana going to the Mets. It was like a pitch in my sweet spot since I covered the Mets when I was with the NYT. That assignment changed everything for me; it was my first cover story for SI. I still remember the photo shoot — the photographer didn’t like the original cover so he imported palm trees, brought a pretty assistant to keep Santana’s attention (laughs), and I just had a moment and I’ll never forget that. I still don’t know why they put writer’s names on the cover, but I’m pretty sure it’s so my Mom can buy more copies. I definitely never take any of this for granted.

U&M: I want to get into your writing process a little bit — from the point you decide on a story, what’s the standard time duration you need/want for research, gathering quotes/stories and ultimately writing the piece?

Jenkins: It really depends. How much do I get from the primary subject? That really tells the story. If you have someone like Kobe or LeBron it helps because they are excellent historians regarding the game and their own careers. Once I did a story on JaVale McGee and that was different. He was in the media and getting killed for doing all these stupid things so I wanted to know: who is this guy? We set up the interview and it was the most painful interview I’ve ever done. It was maybe three minutes long. He said maybe 1-2 words for every answer, so sometimes the primary subject doesn’t give the story. His Mother was incredible however. I talked to her for maybe 1-2 hours and she made the story. So, you have to find that strong voice. I don’t care much about quotes — I want the story. Start with a broad canvas and narrow it down as you go.

U&M: When I’ve talked to writing professionals they seem to always give the advice to just write, write, write. How often do you write? Is it always about sports?

Jenkins: First, I don’t say that. I don’t tell people to write all the time. I don’t think it’s healthy to write all the time. I think it’s important to read. I read a lot. I’ll read the same book multiple times if I really like it. I love Esquire Magazine and for the last two years it’s been my favorite thing to read. When I read it helps me write because I hope their voice gets in my head; guys like Chris Jones at Esquire Magazine are so good you just hope you can get something from reading their work. Like with this most recent LeBron story; I hadn’t written in a while. Ideally a piece takes me three days to hash out but the whole first day I was staring at a blank screen, so I went and read a bit and it just opened up my mind. But I don’t journal or anything like that; I’m really only good at writing about sports (laughs).

U&M: How are you able to so easily encapsulate any story you write so that anyone reading can relate?

Jenkins: I actually don’t know the NBA that well. I grew up in a baseball and football town. My first job ever was covering the NHL and the Colorado Avalanche and it really helped me in the long run. Because I realized that readers are naïve to the fact that you aren’t an expert in the sport, so if you write that way then you can meet your readers on the same plane. When I started on NBA I covered the New Jersey Nets. I’ve again tried to learn by reading guys like Zach Lowe and Matt Moore and other bloggers. When I interview people I ask questions regular readers would ask. It’s funny because these guys — for the most part — act in real life the way they do on the court. Kobe is the way he plays; very intense, very focused. I try to hit both of those things when I write. Some things still go over my head and if you go to people with a genuine question in this industry, then people will help you when you need it.

U&M: My favorite piece you’ve written was called “10 Days to Live” and it was on the life of a player on a 10-day contract. What is one or even a couple of your personal favorites?

Jenkins: Thanks so much for saying that; that story is from a while back so I appreciate that. My favorites aren’t the big ones honestly. Probably my feature on Patrick Beverley and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — those are stories I’m really proud of. Those guys aren’t stars so when I pitched the story to my editor/s, I really had to fight for them. The MKG story might be my favorite. It stands out because it was at a time when his shot was an abomination and I found out he had struggled with a bit of a speech impediment. I was curious, could there be a link between the two? He doesn’t do a lot of TV because of the challenges with his speech, but he had a lot to say and it was really cool to see him realize that the two were linked.

U&M: What was it like being one of a handful of people to know that LeBron was going to return to Cleveland in 2014? And how was it to have the opportunity to articulate the “I’m Coming Home” message for him?

Jenkins: It was weird ya know. It goes against instinct to sit on that kind of information and I never thought it would come out that way. I was more after the “why” and how he was feeling about the move. It was different for me; I’ve only written one other story in a player’s voice and in many ways it became the easiest story I’ve ever done. I wrote what he said and fixed the order, then he edited some things, and ultimately I was proud to see the emotion come out in the narrative.

U&M: You’ve been around LBJ a lot — did you get the sense that he’s ramping things up for next season after Golden State added Durant?

Jenkins: You know, I was expecting a different sense about him when we met up, because I figured there shouldn’t be as much pressure on him now that he’s accomplished the impossible. But he seems just as driven as if he hadn’t just won an NBA championship for Cleveland. He’s so accustomed and comfortable with pressure; he just thrives off that pressure. He’s definitely working harder in the gym, earlier this offseason and people around him will tell you that. The pressure just never stops for him and the stakes are always rising. He beats a 73-win team after coming back from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and now he has to try to beat them again, after they’ve added Durant. It’s never static with LeBron.

U&M: Alright man I had to get this question in here — pizza is always a hot topic on basketball Twitter so I’ll end on a fun question — do you like pineapple on your pizza? Yes or no?

Jenkins: (Laughs) No, I do not. Honestly I’ve never had it. Basketball Twitter is really the best. Honestly you guys let some us in the industry know what the trending topics are. When basketball Twitter gets excited about a guy, I get interested and I want to know more. Honestly the Beverley piece was written because of basketball Twitter’s obsession over his hard fouls and questionable plays. It’s funny how that works.