You know the wish can’t come true, but people say it all the time to hide their own fears, so you’ll open with it, too: You wish he could just be happy. It would be easier that way. You could just hang curtains around everything else — the past, the future, the end — and you could look down through a tunnel at him and say, Freeze. Stay right there. And he’d remain locked in this memory, the little guy with the big heart playing in the final minute of the final game of a storied arena.
The piece, edited by Best American Sports Writing boss Glenn Stout, managed to resonate in spite of—because of?—almost no access to, or cooperation from, Badu’s family and friends. So from Graff, who lives in Greensboro, N.C., and also writes for Our State magazine, I wanted to know: How’d he do that?
Here’s what he said:
I was in my office in September writing about the symphony, of all things, when I read a brief on the Washington Post’s website that said Earl Badu committed suicide. The report showed that he jumped off an overpass and “onto Interstate 695.” I couldn’t believe it. Anybody who knew about Maryland’s 2002 national championship team remembered Earl. He was the Terps’ all-time Rudy. I remembered the basket he scored late in the last game at Cole, and I remembered just how loved he was by the fans. And now all I could picture was this scene with cars swerving around his body.
I waited. In mid-November I sent a half-hearted pitch to my editor, Glenn Stout, and said, basically, “Here’s an idea. I don’t know if I can get it. But if you think you’d want it, I’ll try.” Glenn said go.
I knew I had these two moments in time, moments that most humans never experience—a big shot, and a suicide. All I had to do, I figured, was fill up the 10 years in between.
Throughout December, I struggled with access. I live in North Carolina. And coaches and athletes from big places like Maryland have a lot going on. So it’s easier for them to work with writers they know, especially on hard stories like this. I was way behind. But I figured I had one thing going for me: I cared about it.
I started in the athletic department. I was honest in my requests. I told everybody up front that I was going to write about the suicide. Then I let them decide whether they wanted to participate. I didn’t want to mislead anyone.
I requested public records. The incident report showed that the suicide took place in two locations—the house and the top of the bridge. His parents were involved; other people were involved. Also, he didn’t jump onto the road. He jumped into a ditch.
The biggest blows came when Badu’s parents and Juan Dixon, his best friend on the team, decided not to participate. I contacted an old friend of mine who knows Juan and his brother Phil personally. That friend called the Dixons, and they said they wanted to be respectful of Earl’s family. I had Earl’s parents’ address from the police report. I called them twice. I left two messages. Then I mailed them a letter. When their attorney called me on Jan. 7, I was actually in my truck and on my way to their house. I decided to leave them alone, at his request.
I talked to Glenn throughout the process. I told him I was having a hard time filling up the middle. He said, “The unknown is part of the story.” That stuck. (Ed. note: The unknown, in fact, can serve as the theme of a story, as Alan Huffman showed in his recent “Why’s this so good?” breakdown of a Carol Smith piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.) The lack of access forced the story to become deeper than the space between two moments in time; it became a story about the space between life and death.
In a way, the main character became suicide, not Earl.
I put myself in every place I could see him. I drove to the courthouse. Basic Internet court-record searches showed his legal trouble, $300,000 in debt to Alan Cornfield. Those troubles came to life in scenes in court documents. One of them was the scene of Earl on a cell phone in court, telling the judge to let him finish the call.
I drove to the house. I wrote what I saw and felt, turned around, and got the heck out of there. At the edge of the neighborhood, I started recording more notes. I recorded them all the way to the top of the bridge, where I stopped. I got out, walked around, put my hands on the wall and looked down. I hurried back to my truck. I put a notebook on the armrest and, with my hand shaking, I wrote this: “Jumping takes courage.”
I kept calling people. I found some of his old high school coaches and teammates. The farther out I got, the more people talked. They told me about the Earl they knew. They loved him.
I spent three months with this story, off and on and between other things. I went to bed with it and woke up with it. After a while, the question changed from “How do I get the story?” to “Why am I doing it? What’s the greater good?”
I guess in a small way, I wanted to change the way readers saw the next person they passed. Obviously, we enter every situation carrying our own life experiences. It’s easy to look at every end-of-the-bench player and think of him in a Rudy type of way. If he’s not great at basketball or football, we think, he must be a “good student,” or a “hard worker.” I’ve seen sportswriters lead players into those answers for years, and I’ve watched how they’ve shaped those humans. It’s not fair; we’re more complicated than that.
Suicide as a character, then, is a tornado that spins all over the place. It isn’t a solitary act. It spins onto a basketball floor. Into the eyes of fans. Into the words of sportscasters and writers. Into the pressure to make money. Into a courtroom. Onto a bridge. It makes teachers and friends and family and bosses and everybody who’s ever been in contact with the victim feel connected in a really bad way.
That’s why I waited until the end to introduce the other people in the story. Not many people cared that Andre Collins hit that last shot. But he did. It wasn’t Earl.
Nobody even knew about Rodney Welsh and Janet Stout, two people whose names were sort of hidden in the police report. But Earl changed their lives that day. Rodney, especially, still can’t sleep at night because of it. I thought that made it important to write about them, and to do it at the bottom—as real endings to those two stories that I introduced at the top.
One night in February, about a week before the deadline, I dreamed about Earl. I dreamed he was in a room, something like a dressing room inside an arena. He was leaning against a pillar, talking to his mom. And out of nowhere, Earl turned to me and he said, “This is all about a girl.”
I woke up stunned. Had I gone wrong? I was one week away from turning in the story, and I didn’t have a girl anywhere. All I had was money. That actually helped me let go of some blocks and turn this in.
Reporters believe we need to know everything about a story before writing it. We hold stories or never publish them because a source won’t call back. But sometimes not knowing is just part of it. Especially with suicide. And I know this from personal experience: It didn’t matter if I talked to every person who came into contact with Earl in his life, I’d still have one source missing—the main one, the only one who knew what it was like to live with that despair.
I wrote the first draft in first person. A friend who’s an editor read it and had hesitations with my character that way. That’s when I decided to try the whole thing in second person. I think I was able to be more honest that way. The global “you” made it easier to talk about, which I guess is sort of telling. I turned it in at 2 a.m. the day of the deadline. Glenn wrote me three emails before 9 a.m., and we were on the phone working through revision notes by 10. The first version ended with Janet Stout. Glenn liked that, but he said he wanted me to try a few others. If they didn’t work, we’d stay with Janet.
A few days later, I sat down in my chair in a corner of the living room with a cup of coffee. My neighbor is a single mother. Her two boys were in their driveway playing basketball. They’re about 10 and 12. They call me “Mr. Mike.” They don’t have a goal. They make hoops with their arms. The one making the hoop counted down the seconds: “5-4-3-2-1.” The other one shoots. Then they switch. I got my laptop, sat in the chair, turned around, closed my eyes, listened to their shoes and voices, and wrote the ending.
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. His “Just One Question,” an occasional column, has covered stories by Lane DeGregory, Gene Weingarten, and others.