Nieman Class of 2011
Frey wrote the 1994 book The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, about inner-city basketball players hoping for athletic scholarships to college, and is a contributing writer at the New York Times magazine. He has also contributed to Harper’s and Rolling Stone. The Harper’s story that preceded the basketball book won a National Magazine Award for feature writing and was anthologized in The Best American Essays (1994). His New York Times magazine piece about air traffic controllers inspired the movie Pushing Tin. (You can find a nice Laurie Hertzel analysis of the piece in our “Why’s this so good?” series.) In the spring of 2004, Frey was the Robert Vare Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence at the University of Chicago, Vare of course being the former Nieman Fellow (Class of 1997) who led the Nieman Foundation’s first narrative writing workshop, under former curator Bill Kovach. Editors of The Best American Science Writing anthologized Frey’s 2002 story “George Divorky’s Planet,” about a scientist studying global warming in the Alaskan Arctic. Frey is working on a book based on the Divorky piece, and is a Harvard visiting lecturer in creative nonfiction.
—“George Divoky’s Planet,” from the New York Times magazine. Excerpt:
1. IN WHICH GEORGE TRIES TO BUILD A FENCE
This is a story about global warming and a scientist named George Divoky, who studies a colony of Arctic seabirds on a remote barrier island off the northern coast of Alaska. I mention all this at the start because a reader might like to come to the point, and what could be more urgent than the very health and durability of this planet we call Earth? However, before George can pursue his inquiry into worldwide climate change; before he can puzzle out the connections between a bunch of penguinesque birds on a flat, snow-covered, icebound island and the escalating threat of droughts, floods and rising global temperatures, he must first mount a defense — his only defense in this frozen, godforsaken place — against the possibility of being consumed, down to the last toenail, by a polar bear while he sleeps. He must first build a fence.
Cooper Island, June 4, 2 o’clock in the morning. The sky is a cold slab of gray, the air temperature hovers in the upper 20’s and the wind — always the wind — howls across hundreds of miles of sea ice with such unremitting force that George has disappeared beneath a hat, two hoods and a thick fleece face mask covering all but his bespectacled eyes. Standing near the three small dome tents that make up his field camp on Cooper, George raises a pair of binoculars and begins to scan for bears. Past the island’s north beach, a wind-scarred plain of sea ice stretches uninterrupted to the pole. To the south, the nearest tree stands 200 miles away on the far side of the Brooks Range. Here, some 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, with the sun making a constant parabolic journey around the sky, George surveys a view that replicates in all directions: the snow-covered island merges with the sea ice at its shores, the dazzling sheets of sea ice stretch to meet a pale gray dome of sky. Surrounded by a vast, undulating whiteness, he appears to be standing in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. He appears to be standing on the tops of cirrus clouds.
—“The Last Shot,” from Harper’s, about inner-city basketball players dreaming of winning a scholarship. Excerpt:
Russell Thomas places his right sneaker one inch behind the three-point line, considers the basket with a level gaze, cocks his wrist to shoot, then suddenly looks around. Has he spotted me, watching from the corner of the playground? No, something else is up: he is lifting his nose to the wind like a spaniel, he is gauging air currents. He waits until the wind settles, bits of trash feathering lightly to the ground. Then he sends a twenty-five-foot jump shot arcing through the soft summer twilight. It drops without a sound through the dead center of the bare iron rim. So does the next one. So does the one after that. Alone in the gathering dusk, Russell works the perimeter against imaginary defenders, unspooling jump shots from all points. Few sights on Brooklyn playgrounds stir the hearts and minds of the coaches and scouts who recruit young men for college basketball teams quite like Russell’s jumper; they have followed its graceful trajectory ever since he made varsity at Abraham Lincoln High School, in Coney Island, two years ago. But the shot is merely the final gesture, the public flourish of a private regimen that brings Russell to this court day and night. Avoiding pickup games, he gets down to work: an hour of three-point shooting, then wind sprints up the fourteen flights in his project stairwell, then back to the court, where (much to his friends’ amusement) he shoots one-handers ten feet from the basket while sitting in a chair.
“Something’s Got to Give,” from the New York Times magazine, about air traffic controllers. Excerpt:
All the way down the bank of radar scopes, the air traffic controllers have that savage, bug-eyed look, like men on the verge of drowning, as they watch the computer blips proliferate and speak in frantic bursts of techno-chatter to the pilots: “Continental 1528, turn right heading 280 immediately! Traffic at your 12 o’clock!” A tightly wound Tom Zaccheo, one of the control-room veterans, sinks his teeth into his cuticles and turns, glowering, to the controller by his side: “Hey, watch your goddamned planes — you’re in my airspace!” Two scopes away, the normally unflappable Jim Hunter, his right leg pumping like a pneumatic drill, sucks down coffee and squints as blips representing 747’s with 200 passengers on board simply vanish from his radar screen. “If the F.A.A. doesn’t fix this goddamned equipment,” he fumes, retrieving the blips with his key pad, “it’s only a matter of time before there’s a catastrophe.” And Joe Jorge, a new trainee, scrambling to keep his jets safely separated in the crowded sky, is actually panting down at the end as he orders pilots to turn, climb, descend, speed up, slow down and look out the cockpit window, captain!
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.