Saturday, February 9, 2008

Indiana tops Illinois down stretch in sportswriting showdown

photo/Brad Vest (Daily Illini)

Indiana won an exciting double overtime basketball game last week, beating Illinois thanks to some missed free throws. It is unfair to say Shaun Pruitt lost the game for the Illini, even if his actions were crucial. Still, most fans will focus on the final plays – and so will sportswriters in most cases, which is fine in games like this. But we also need to offer analysis of other key points in the game to reveal how others also affected the outcome. In the Super Bowl last week, it would have been equally easy to say Eli Manning won the game for the Giants or that the Patriots defensive line lost it. We need to look beyond the easy to discover other reasons for results. That means learning as much as possible about game strategy. That means talking with those immersed in the game. I cannot emphasize this aspect enough. Sport writers need to speak with coaches and players before and after games to understand what happens in the games – even if you are on a tight deadline. We need to gain as much information before we write.

Let’s see how these stories compare in this week’s sports writing showdown. I want to again acknowledge that this assessment is intended for education and fun – NOT to demean the work of college journalists who work hard learning their profession. Unlike other college students, journalists have their homework graded by the public. As a newspaper adviser, I understand how challenging this can be. Still, let’s have a little fun with this exercise in the spirit of friendly competition. Please, feel free to offer your own comments below these stories as well.

Observation is an essential element for any reporter. This allow writers to capture moments before, during and after games that can help show key moments. That’s what Jason Grodsky did in his story published in the Daily Illini. Grodsky describes Pruitt, the Illini’s senior center who had twice failed to make crucial free throws. Pruitt failed to convert on a one-on-one opportunity with four seconds left in regulation. He also missed both free-throw attempts with two seconds left in the first overtime. Both would have given Illinois the victory. Grodsky does a good job showing this:

Shaun Pruitt's head hung lower than anybody's at the Assembly Hall on Thursday night.

Illinois' senior center had three opportunities from the free-throw line to give Illinois the lead in the final minutes of Illinois' game against Indiana, but the ball couldn't find the bottom of the net.

After missing the front end of a one-and-one from the line with four seconds left in regulation, the senior center was unable to convert two more from the line with two seconds left in overtime.

In a game that saw eight lead changes and nine ties, the No. 14-ranked Hoosiers were able to pull ahead for the final time in the second overtime, outscoring Illinois 14-10 in the final period to escape with an 83-79 victory.

Normally, you do not want to delay the nut graph more than a few graphs. In this case, the score works fine in the fourth graph because the writer smoothly moved from an observation off the court to two key moments on the court. Still, this lead could have been improved had the writer described a little more of Pruitt walking, head hung low, as he sat as his locker, on the bench or as he walked off the court. Plus, he could have also asked some questions afterwards to learn more what Pruitt (and others) was thinking at this moment. More on this later.

Michael Sanserino, who writes for the Indiana Daily Student, offers a straight summary lead that offers a general assessment that also leads into a reference to Pruitt, clearly the focus of most any game story, before leading into the score in the third graph. This also works well – especially when one is probably faced with a tight deadline. EDGE: Illinois (slight).

These two writers focused on the key free throws, but they did not address other significant plays in much detail. Even though I watched some of this game, I would have liked more insights into how the game ended so tightly and why Indiana won the second overtime. Terry Bannon of the Chicago Tribune notes that other Illinois players also shot poorly from the free-throw line: “A major part of the story, especially at the end, was that the Illini made only 8 of 17 free throws, with senior center Shaun Pruitt making only 1 of 7.” And Bannon accurately notes that two players on the bench had an impact in the second overtime: “Illinois played the second overtime without Chester Frazier, who injured an ankle, and Brian Randle, who had fouled out.” Grodsky notes that Illinois guard Demetri McCamey scored nine points at the start of the second half, which is a good observation, but I would like to know how he scored – on short jumpers, three-pointers, lay ups, off high screens? And Sanserino writes that Indiana guard Armon Bassett took over in the second overtime by scoring nine points. This story should have also shown how he took over. Grodsky does a fine job offering an overview of trends (noting there were eight lead changes and that Illinois has lost all three overtime games this season), but the story could use more analysis. The same could be said for Sanserino’s story, even though he focused on more key moments – including the time Eric Gordon turned over the ball because of a ten-second violation.

But Gordon made mistakes as well. With IU up three and 25 seconds remaining, Gordon turned the ball over with a 10-second violation after he failed to dribble the ball past the half-court line. He responded by forcing a turnover on the next possession by pressuring Illinois guard Demetri McCamey, who botched a handoff to teammate Trent Meacham.
EDGE: Indiana.

Grodsky writes tightly. And he varies sentences, juxtaposing simple with complex. He twice uses dashes, though, when commas are more appropriate. Reserve dashes for when you want to change directions, deliver punch lines and shock and humor readers. They add flair and style to a story’s telling. But they should not be used just to replace commas as they do below:

McCamey - who became Illinois' premier recruit after Gordon backed out of his verbal commitment to Illinois - outplayed Gordon, hitting a career high seven three pointers.

Sanserino offers a pretty good mix of sentences, too. But some could use trimming, like the following (deleted words in orange):

Gordon shot just 3-of-13 from the field, but he made 10-of-12 free-throw attempts to finish with a team-high 19 points, which was tops for the Hoosiers. But none of Gordon’s no points were more important than the 3-pointer he banked in with less than 30 seconds left to tie that tied the score at 63-63.

He also uses several clichés, saying a shooter ‘bricked’ two free throws, calling the free-throw line the ‘charity stripe,’ and writing that the second half was a ‘frame.’ Also, games are not 'contests.' Save that word for pageants and figure skating. Plus, we should avoid tossing expletives in stories unless they are essential. In a game story, rarely would you state that fans yelled 'fuck you' to a player. Instead, say these (moronic) fans cursed or yelled expletives. That gets the point across just fine. Now, if a player like Chester Frazier were to get suspended for saying ‘fuck you’ when he bumped into Gordon, then that might be significant to add in a follow-up or analysis piece. EDGE: Illinois.

This category was a slam dunk. The Illinois story did not include a single quote, whereas Indiana’s offered comments from both coaches. There are really two issues here – deadline and web content. On deadline, it can be difficult to get as many sources as you would like, especially when the game goes into double overtime. But we must try. The players and coaches offer perspectives that we cannot offer in the press box or at a table behind the official scorer. For instance, what was Pruitt thinking when he hung his head after the game and what went through his mind before, during, and after his crucial free throws? What were his teammates thinking as he attempted these shots? How was Gordon able to bank that really long three-pointer in the first overtime? And why in the heck did Frazier bump Gordon, a classless act that should have merited some bench time. Ask the follow-up questions. If you can’t interview coaches before deadline, get someone else to grab some quotes. Or you can quickly file your story before heading to the locker rooms for comments you can insert later. Update stories on the web as you get new information. That’s one of the advantages of the web.

Sanserino includes a few quotes in his story, which is a good first step. But he, like many other sport writers, needs to ask sources to expand on their thoughts by asking follow-up questions. Journalists interview to get information, not to record quotes. For example, Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson says: “In the second half, our defense got better.” I would then ask, in what specific ways did the team improve – and I would keep posing similar questions until I received a specific answer that I could explain to my readers. Sampson says of Gordon: “He probably was pressing a little bit.” How could Sampson tell? And how specifically did Gordon press? These insights would be great for readers. Still, Sanserino did chase down these coaches to offer some insights. EDGE: Indiana.

Grodsky did a fine job of focusing on Pruitt, but Sanserino kept looking for ways to reveal the game by revealing key moments, offering comments from coaches, and describing trends in the game. EDGE: Indiana.

Overall, Indiana takes this close 'contest' (yes, this is not a game.) Writing on deadline can be a challenge, but that does not mean we should use this as an excuse. Speak with more sources, offer analysis, avoid clichés like the plague, and read other writers to learn structure. Check out the book review section on this blog for some terrific sports books as well. Sports editors are looking for stories (clips) that include these elements. Keep working hard.

Both schools did a fine job with multimedia packages. Keep working in new media if you want a job in the future. Click here to see the Daily Illini's package and here to see the Indiana Daily Student's.



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