Justin Heckert had a great late 2012 with stories in Esquire and the New York Times magazine, and then this piece in Sports Illustrated, “The Loneliest Number,” which is about Jack Taylor. Kind of. Remember Jack Taylor? He’s the kid from Grinnell College in Iowa who in a basketball game in November scored 138 points. That tally, remarkable to some, obscene to others, sparked a few days of a predictable sort of knee-jerk, good-or-bad sports talk. I wanted to know what made Justin’s mind shift instead to this idea of a broader story that starts with … Frank Selvy and his mother … in a South Carolina gym called Textile Hall. So I asked him. And he said:
When Jack Taylor scored 138 points, I was in South Carolina, spending Thanksgiving with my in-laws. My father-in-law, Lee Brown, is assistant news director at WYFF, the NBC affiliate in Greenville. When Jack scored 138, Lee brought up Frank Selvy. Lee’s mind is a repository of South Carolina historical information. He said, from memory, Selvy was the first – and only – player ever to score 100 in an NCAA Division I game. And that it was the first sporting event broadcast on TV in the state. I told Lee I was intrigued. The next day, while at work, my father-in-law visited a wall in the WYFF offices where they put up pictures and text of old and important stories from “the Upstate,” so those stories can live on – a type of newsroom memory wall. There was an entry devoted to Selvy. I learned he scored his 99th and 100th points on a near-mid-court shot at the buzzer. I decided that Frank Selvy must have really wanted to score 100 points. If you take a mid-court shot at the buzzer, while crushing the other team, while already having 98 points … you want it. Who wouldn’t want to get 100, if they had 98? So I figured Jack Taylor must’ve really wanted it. I figured Bevo Francis must’ve wanted it. I just didn’t know the reasons.
I figured that Kobe (who I couldn’t get for the story) must’ve surely wanted 100 when he got decently close in 2006. It’s such a rare number. It’s the unreachable NBA number of Wilt Chamberlain, who is a basketball immortal. So I pitched the story to SI. My pitch, which was brief, focused on what Jack had just done, using it to contextualize the feats of Selvy, and Bevo, men who had lived long lives. I stated that I wanted to find out why they wanted 100. And how they got it. And the story was green-lit, right on Thanksgiving. I first interviewed Selvy, because he was in Greenville. I sat with him in his kitchen and asked him why he scored 100 points. He is an old man, but he remembered that game as well as he must’ve remembered anything in his entire life. He didn’t have to sit back and search his memory about anything he was telling me. He told me he wanted to impress his mother, that he wanted to show her how good he was. He had clearly spent much of his life thinking about this.
“His mother.” That very short explanation is thus the lede to my story. Because I think it’s a very relatable reason to want to achieve something great – to impress your mom. This piece’s goal was to be much deeper than just a story about scoring, of course. Everyone was talking about how much Jack had scored. That taking so many shots was a type of sacrilege, or something. All the sports pundits seemed pissed that he’d disgraced the game. The truth is that what he’d done was not much different than what the two 80-year-olds had done so long ago. Their coaches wanted them to score as many points as they could. They all took almost every shot. Their teams stopped playing defense. And all three of them got what they wanted.
Michael Kruse is an award-winning staff writer on the enterprise team at the Tampa Bay Times. He recently gave a TEDx talk and had a story make the anthology Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. This is his inaugural “Just One Question,” an occasional column for Storyboard.