Excerpts from a July 2009 interview with Tom Friend on his story “The Disposable Superstar”:
How long did you take on the Chauncey Billups story?
I spent a week in Denver and I interviewed Chauncey and his parents. I also talked with his brother, his wife, his head coach, and some people in the Denver Nuggets’ front office. I talked with a high school acquaintance and some teammates. So I talked to maybe a dozen people. I spent a week in Denver, and then took three days to write it.
Transcribing is the most mundane part of the whole thing. But you don’t want to rush it. You want to feed a story. Listening to the interviews of everybody all in a row, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. You can feel, “Oh, there’s my ending.” But it’s a hassle. It takes forever.
In your mind, were you pitching the language of the piece to someone who already knows Billups, someone who knows basketball, or were you trying to write more broadly than that?
ESPN inherently serves a sports fan audience. If I were writing this piece for a mainstream audience, I would have done it a little differently.
The sports audience got it. I think it reached them because Billups is a mainstream guy who a lot of people thought they knew, but there was another story they didn’t know. Here’s a guy who was considered a prima donna, a surefire star who didn’t pan out, and then he reinvented himself as a hardworking blue-collar player.
That’s why I think it also hit home with people who weren’t hardcore basketball fans. Even non-sports fans were able to see it as a story of how the low man on the totem pole got back on top.
Can you talk a little about how you structured your story?
After I open the piece with a scene of him in the huddle in the present, I basically go chronologically through his life. I bounce back and forth, jazzing it up with subheads that were snapshots of powerful moments. I made little chapters—“His father’s car,” “Kevin Garnett’s basement,” “A team charter”—putting a place and time on each point and bringing the reader inside. No one knew that that Garnett had a room in his basement he called the “Billups Suite.”
Given how many disaster stories exist in professional athletics, Billups as a character is fairly tame. Did you look hard for other material—some kind of counter-narrative—in his personal life?
There wasn’t drama in the sense of death and destruction, but it’s a basketball tragedy. He was the number three pick in the first round and then ended up getting traded as a throw-in to Orlando—they didn’t even try to re-sign him.
Through his upbringing, though, he’d had to deal with all this stuff as a kid. His father battled alcoholism. His Grandma was mad at him for this great play he made as a kid, because they didn’t like him to be fancy. While everyone thought he was a loose cannon, the way he’d been raised, he’d actually learned his lessons. My whole thing was to show that underneath this façade, there was the kid who had been taught to play the right way. He had to go on this journey to find that out.
What went into deciding how to characterize Billups’ father Ray? On the one hand, he worked in the Safeway warehouse for 32 years and fully supported his son. On the other hand, Ray had alcohol issues.
I sat there and listened to the father and the mom talking to me. They brought the drinking up. I didn’t know about it before. We were talking about Chauncey as a child, how he never really drank. “I used to dabble,” Chauncey’s dad said, “I used to do this and that.” I didn’t get the sense he was going to say, “I was an alcoholic.” I was worried that they didn’t understand that when you tell a reporter something, it’s on the record. But I asked them about it over and over.
I didn’t want to overdo the alcohol part. The reason to include it was to show how it affected Chauncey. And it showed how his father was a flawed person as well, and how he pulled himself together. I felt like it was important to show the reader Chauncey had a role model for doing that. His father was a big part of this piece. When Chauncey was winning a championship, his father had to change shifts at Safeway to make the game.
When there’s a celebrity story without a car crash or an arrest, how do you generate tension and keep people reading until the end?
To me the tension in the story isn’t a crash or a tragic event; the tension is a person’s career. A lot of people see Chauncey Billups as a great player, but they don’t know the depths of where he fell to. I’ve written about a shark attack in San Diego. This piece didn’t have that kind of drama. Instead, you see a guy’s basketball career, and you wonder, “Can he keep it?”
Is there anything else you want to say about the story?
Here’s the thing: you don’t write a piece to please the person. You write a piece to be true to that person and to yourself as a writer. But I thought Chauncey had bared his soul to me. I ran into him later, and he liked it. It’s hard to see your life on paper, and so that meant a lot.
But the funny thing is—if you remember that scene where he bumps the ball off the defender’s rear end—he did the same thing in May during the Lakers playoff series. For the first time since high school. And they won the game. He threw a ball off of Kobe Bryant’s rear end.
I had already reminded him of that scene. And my piece had already run. And then he goes and does it again. I had a Nuggets coach come up to me and say, “You helped us win the game.” People noticed it and commented. I do enough stories that are hard on people—it’s nice to have a story where I don’t have to be a bum. Sometimes you can tell a story that’s true, and people like it.