The Oregonian’s Anna Griffin wrote a story last Sunday about a small but rare and memorable moment in high school sports. Deadspin set it up this way:

A young man named Davan Overton in unincorporated Oregon plays on his high school basketball team despite a tumor on his spine that has, since he was a toddler, hampered his motor skills and speech. If he takes a hard shot to the head, he may die, so basketball, a limited-contact sport, is Davan’s only outlet, and very important to him. His coach believes in giving Davan regular playing time, and Davan gets to shoot, though he’s painfully aware of how bad he is at it.

Here are the first two grafs of Griffin’s story:

In a small gym in the middle of nowhere, two boys locked eyes last fall in the final seconds of a meaningless, one-sided high school basketball game.

ESPN and the big broadcast networks never make it to Mapleton, a tiny unincorporated community situated on the Siuslaw River 45 minutes west of Eugene. The only video of the Mapleton High Sailors’ first game of the 2012-13 season was grainy and out of focus even before the shocked cheers of the gymnasium crowd shook the walls at the very end.

Soon, we meet a kid from the other team, named Ethan McConnell, whose nature led him to do something selfless, even inspiring as Davan kept shooting and missing.

If you hate spoilers, please pause now to read the piece and watch the accompanying video

What Ethan did was rebound — and then pass Davan the ball. Davan’s buzzer shot went in, and the place went crazy. Even the refs were cheering. The package – video, story and slideshow – drew a wide and positive response and, lucky for storytellers who like talking craft, also prompted at least one journalistic discussion, on Facebook, about the hard job of writing emotional stories without being exploitative or mawkish. One reader wrote that he thought the piece missed an opportunity “to explore the more complex emotions touched upon toward the end, about condescension versus generosity.” He continued:

Feels like that issue could have been the crux of the story and would have given a more profound insight into something that feels trivialized here purely for the “feel-good” factor. (The video almost explores this in more detail with Davan’s comments, but the sentimentality of the supporting material and music spoils it for me). Call me cold-hearted, but we’ve read these kinds of stories before and my sense is (the characters are) exploited somehow for entertainment, leaving me with the uncomfortable feeling that this kid is being subjected to further ridicule rather than being given a genuine degree of respect.   

Another reader argued:

I think that line between condescension and generosity WAS the crux of the story. The fact that the idea is introduced at the end – when we’ve gotten to know the characters, when we think we know what the story is about – is what makes it so powerful. Had the piece focused on (Davan’s) discomfort from the beginning, it would have been the story of a kid who is different wanting to be perceived as normal, and that’s as much a cliche as the feeling-good-through-sports story. But when you read at the end how this kind of thing happens to (Davan) all the time, that it has happened twenty times in a single game, you are forced to examine your own reactions; what looked beautiful now seems painful, and it’s hard not to feel complicit, because just a few paragraphs earlier, you had experienced the moment as uplifting. Could another approach involve the reader as much?

Now, three points of disclosure here: Reader No. 2 is Griffin’s wife, multimedia journalist and photographer Judy Siviglia, and Siviglia acknowledged as much in the comments thread. Griffin is a former Nieman Fellow and narrative student. Reader No. 1, who raised the point about sentimentality, is Finbarr O’Reilly, a current Nieman Fellow who is both a photojournalist and a skilled writer.

Together, O’Reilly and Siviglia raised interesting issues about decision-making in storytelling. With Griffin’s generous permission, we convened an Editors’ Roundtable for a critique and to see what a range of insights might add to the conversation. Today’s panel: Chris Hunt, a contributing editor at Sports IllustratedBeth Macy, an award-winning features writer for the Roanoke Times, and a former Nieman Fellow; Ben Montgomery, a Tampa Bay Times reporter who runs the feature-writing archive Gangrey.com; and Tom Shroder, the former editor of the Washington Post magazine and founder of storysurgeons.com.

But first, the backstory, from Griffin, who writes:

Griffin

The story was the brainchild of multimedia journalist Rob Finch, who saw a short Sports Illustrated item on Ethan’s pass and saw the potential for a powerful video. He approached me to write a story to go along with the video. I was very much, and very happily, the sidekick to Rob and photographer Jamie Francis in the reporting process.

I went down to Mapleton planning on writing something reasonably short – 25 inches, maybe, rather than the 75 inches we wound up running. The story as we all initially saw it: A special-needs kid experiences a kindness from another student. That kind of piece can warm your heart, but it’s also something you’ve seen and read many times.

We interviewed Davan’s mother first, and she mentioned that he wanted to play football. When the three of us sat down with Davan, after Rob had him recount that game and that shot, I asked him in an almost offhand way about not being able to play football. He’d already talked a bit about his physical condition (and I’d already watched him get picked last for a kickball game in gym class), but something about that particular question took him in a different direction. He paused for what felt like a full minute and then described all the things he can’t do and all the ways he feels frustrated with his body and what his disability means to his life. Davan’s answer to the football question prompted me to probe deeper than I might have, on what that pass had meant to him. My writing goal was to give the moment its due. Cynical though I am, I could not deny that everyone who witnessed the pass and the shot felt something magical that night. Yet I also hoped to provide enough of Davan’s conflicted perspective to leave readers thinking about why these kinds of feel-good stories resonate. Is our enthusiasm about Davan, or is it about us, and how great we all are for wanting this kid to do well?

I initially tried writing this as an oral history, to introduce the scene and then step out of the way. Once I had a draft, I recognized (with a healthy nudge from my editor, Susan Gage) that the story needed narration, both to help you see the action on the court and understand what it all meant. I was hoping, without being too heavy handed or obvious, to structure the story in a way that would both drive readers through with some natural tension about what happened that night and also surprise them a bit at the end: I set it up as a story about a meaningful moment between two boys from two small towns. When the moment eventually comes, it turns out to mean something different, something maybe sadder and more emotionally nuanced than the reader might have expected.

That was the hope at least. I understand criticism that maybe I didn’t hit that point hard enough, or that I should have hit it harder earlier. I’m not sure how you write that piece for a metro newspaper such as the Oregonian. My goal was to tell this in a way that worked for two kinds of readers: those who simply wanted a heart-warming story about small-town sports in their Sunday paper and those who instinctively roll their eyes at heart-warming stories about small-town sports in their Sunday paper.

O'Reilly

O’Reilly’s response:

This is a discussion really worth having. Anna’s context reveals the thought process behind such a story and in light of her comments I’m far more impressed with her handling of the material – not an easy task, especially given the publication and readership.

Another thing that strikes me about these kinds of reactions to such sporting gestures is how culturally “American” they feel. Having grown up playing sports in Britain and Canada, good sportsmanship and fair play was always far more important than winning, and very much part of the broader social contract. Whenever we played American basketball teams in high school and college, they were always far more aggressive and “win at all costs,” which I suspect in some way reflects the American psyche.

We were always taught to make the sporting gesture, such as not running up the score against weaker teams or throwing the ball out of bounds rather than score if another team’s player was hurt and on the ground. If we tipped a ball out of bounds and the referee was unsure of the call, we would admit it was the other team’s ball rather than take advantage of the situation, even in a close game when it might mean losing. It would be considered lacking in good character to do otherwise.

The importance of sports and winning in American society is so great, and the amounts of money involved so vast, that reactions to simple, human gestures that non-Americans might consider normal feel somehow exaggerated. It would be interesting to see a piece that explores this issue on some level as well – why are we so moved by gestures that should be far more commonplace? What does this say about society as a whole?

The roundtable: 

hunt-c1Chris Hunt

I found the story well written and affecting. The structure works fine: the foreshadowing at the start; the short profiles of Davan and Ethan; the game and its aftermath. And I agree with Judy Siviglia that the story’s ultimate theme – the line between generosity and condescension – is in the right place and is sufficiently explored. What more, really, could the author have said about it? The idea is there for us to think about (we all have associations with it), and that’s enough. A danger in these pieces is excessive intrusion by the writer. Yes, it’s a sentimental story, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The quotes from Davan make it clear that he’s uncomfortable with the passes he gets from some opponents, and when he can’t quite say why he was not offended by Ethan’s assist, the author gives a plausible answer without overdoing it and without seeming to put thoughts in Davan’s head. Nice ending. Nice job overall.

Macy mugBeth Macy

I was thoroughly enjoying Anna Griffin’s column about an unexpected kindness on an Oregon basketball court, especially her use of universal details – ”in the middle of nowhere,” “nothing but net,” “even teenaged boys” and their justifiably proud parents. I’m from a small town like the ones featured here, and the observers in the stands were people I felt I knew through Griffin’s keen eye and deft shorthand for detail.

The piece took on a welcomed depth, too, when I got to Davan’s “plastic smile” and we learn that this had all happened before, though not quite with such dramatic aplomb. I cheered for Griffin here, knowing that a lesser reporter would have left the complicated element out. As she writes:

But there’s a fine line, far thinner and harder to locate than the arc that separates two points from three, between generosity and condescension. Those of us on the giving end don’t always recognize it as quickly or as clearly as those who receive.

So true and so beautifully put. Then came an extended, six-sentence quote from Davan, though, that took me out of the narrative, the way most looking-back quotes do. A paraphrase in Griffin’s authoritative voice would have been tighter and stronger.

I wanted Griffin to own the narrative a little more throughout the story, especially in places where she relied on four- to six-sentence observer quotes from parents and school employees, some redundant and most too long. (Davan says the same thing more succinctly four paragraphs earlier, for instance, something a diligent editor might have caught.)

I appreciate that she gives Davan a voice in the story, but I wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted the reader to think about her quote choices, especially near the end: Was she uncomfortable herself with his discomfort and thought it best to let him try to articulate it? Was she intentionally passing that discomfort along to the reader?

While I admire that she delved into the complexities of the event, I wonder if a hint of it in the intro would have made for a more seamless read, elevating the sense of tension for the reader and giving her powerful kicker even more punch.

In the video, Davan’s mom said he “doesn’t understand how he touches people.” This story shows that in fact he does. That dichotomy, dropped in as a signpost earlier in the piece, could have been used to tease out the theme and build suspense, making an already moving story even truer and more complex.

UnknownBen Montgomery

I think this came close to the perfect way to handle a story like this. Griffin gave us the  Good Morning, America version in the first three-quarters of the story – and I felt the right emotion in the right spots – then left us with something deeper to think about. To learn late in the story that this kind of here-you-go-buddy generosity happens occasionally and appalls Davan throws a blanket on the whole system. On the mom in the stands who negotiates backhandedly about him moving out and, between the lines, so much more. On the coach who approaches the opposing coaches before each game to make his case. On the town so excited to see their special boy score. On the players on his team who keep feeding him passes. It’s all a farce (if farce is too strong, then it certainly challenges the idea of competition) and it calls into question the whole operation. But what it doesn’t change is that very specific moment. Stop the tape. Let’s watch it in slow motion.

Davan’s not objecting. He catches the pass (yes, all of them, even the 20 from the kid on another team) and fires. He’s being generous himself, and selfish. He’s not dishing the ball to a better shooter. And Ethan’s moment? He scrambles for the rebound and appears to make a split decision and his parents have every right to be proud.

And there you have a legitimate moment. A climax. The falling action is how those actions fit into context, and Griffin gave us the complicated truth. To go any deeper – where else would you go? – would muck up a fine story.

It strikes me that this story isn’t about Davan and Ethan. It’s about the people around them, and what they made of it, and it leaves you wondering if anybody there ever thought about how Davan felt about so much patronage. Now they do. We all do. That’s what good stories do.

shroder-t1Tom Shroder

The story’s not perfect (on the critical issue of how Davan reacted to the gift throw from Ethan, the writer tells us “he reveled in the moment” instead of showing us), but on the larger issue of structure I like what she’s done. I like it that after the apparently triumphant moment (“Get ready for Good Morning America to call”) she comes back to Davan and we discover that this was a very mixed blessing for him. His discussion of the past instances, and how they felt, is powerful and revealing and seem completely honest and even eloquent. Then coming back to this instance, Griffin does a good job of defining how it was different – and better than the other ones. And aside from the aforementioned “reveled in the moment” loss of opportunity, the end is well handled, bringing us to a satisfying conclusion that feels neither saccharine nor clichéd.

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