My Favorite Grantland Pieces

October 31 2015

Grantland is dead. Long live Grantland. Like many others, I was shocked and saddened to see the sudden shutdown of grantland.com yesterday by ESPN. Grantland had become a habit, a way of life and thinking for me. I think the best way to move on is to remember what made this site so special.

But first, a little background on my relationship with Grantland. I started reading Bill Simmons (aka “The Sports Guy”) on ESPN’s page 2 section during the summer internship after my freshman year of college. My summer internship consisted mostly of learning Perl (I completely faked my way through the interview, and on my first day of work, my colleague gave me the Perl O’Reilly book and said I should just read for a week). I can’t remember the exact first Bill Simmons article I read that hooked me (I think it’s probably this NBA running draft diary), but soon I had read his entire archives, including the infamous Roger Clemens Antichrist and Gold Club Trial pieces.

Like probably many people my age, I was drawn toward Simmons’ obvious passion for sports (and particularly the NBA, which would become my favorite), his humor, and his willingness to engage pop culture. Of course, Simmons eventually became a superstar sports personality, launching a series of podcasts, the 30 for 30 documentary series, and two books (both of which I own and devoured).

But also like many others, I noticed Simmons starting to slip. He banged the same few pop culture references (another Boogie Nights joke! body language doctor! some wrestling joke!) and used the same few vehicles over and over again as crutches (running diary, mailbag, trade value column, etc.). I still consumed nearly everything he put out, but it wasn’t quite the same.

When Simmons announced the founding of Grantland, I first viewed it as just the new place to get his content. But then an interesting thing happened - I started noticing how much talent the young Grantland writers and contributors all had. It’s been noted by many, but it’s remarkable in the end how little of Grantland’s memorable content actually belongs to Simmons. However, his influence was undeniable.

Now fast forward to present day. I’d estimate that nearly 50% of the content I consume in my spare time is sourced from Grantland. This includes the podcasts and videos that they put out, in addition to the longform writing.

Losing Grantland is saddening. So let me celebrate by remembering my favorite Grantland pieces.

The Regular Columns

Zach Lowe
I’ll start with the writers that I consumed on a regular basis, and that means starting with Zach Lowe. “Professor” Lowe is the pre-eminent NBA writer working today. He is insightful, analytical, humble, and goofy (LARRY SANDERS). He has the rare gift of connecting with people within the NBA, and his articles always teach me something I didn’t know before. I started reading Lowe at si.com before Grantland and I’m sure I’ll keep reading him wherever he goes next. I am secretly fearful that Lowe will find an NBA front office position and therefore no longer make his opinions public. PS. no breakdown of Zach Lowe would be complete without mentioning his obsession of mascots and court designs.

Bill Barnwell
Barnwell is the smartest person writing about football today. He blends analytics with a feel for the game. He might be a little heavy handed at times (I just learned about Pythagorean expectations from one of his articles again), but like many other Grantlanders, his enthusiasm for what he writes about shines through. Amazingly, I dropped Peter King’s Monday MMQB article in favor of Barnwell’s because I found I only had time to read one.

Andy Greenwald
For some reason, I came to trust Greenwald’s opinion on TV. His reviews of Mr. Robot and Sherlock directly lead to me trying out and subsequently loving those shows. And of course, I enjoyed every single Game of Thrones recap he wrote, despite his fighting the good fight of not reading the books.

Ask the Maester
Speaking of Game of Thrones, I absolutely devoured every Ask the Maester column by Jason Concepcion. He managed to be informative, funny, and non-spoiler-revealing all in one column.

Kirk Goldsberry
Similar to Zach Lowe, Goldsberry simply taught me something new every time. His shtick of showing the shot chart never managed to get old both because of what it revealed and because he always provided some deeper level qualitative analysis within his pieces.

Jonathan Abrams
I loved the “Abrams alert” tweets that all the NBA writers would send out when a new Abrams article was revealed. Abrams is the master storyteller in the NBA. He wrote some amazing oral histories (one of which I mention below) and player profiles.

The Oral Histories

The Oral History on The National by Alex French and Howie Kahn
This was obviously part of the announcement of Grantland to the world. They celebrated Grantland’s uniqueness by dissecting the failed experiment that was The National. Grantland lasted longer than The National, but it took 20 years before someone wrote an exhaustive oral history on the project. Will we have to wait 20 years for the oral history of Grantland? I really hope not. PS. This article had one of the greatest quotes I’ve ever read, as relayed by Norman Chad: “Frank Deford called me at The Washington Post. He wanted to have lunch. We went to Rusty Staub’s, in New York. Frank is striking. I realized the first time I met him how tall he is, how debonair. He’s like the Clark Gable of sports writing. Plus, he’s the greatest feature sports writer in history, and he just looks immaculate. He had barbecue ribs. I’ve had barbecue ribs 500 times in my life. He did not get a drip of sauce anywhere on his face, suit, tie. The guy is carved out of stone. I don’t even know how he ate the ribs. He was like a god. He didn’t even need a napkin.”

The Oral History on “The Malice at the Palace” by Jonathan Abrams
The “Ron Artest” brawl is one of those events that I’ll never forget where I was (Friday night, we were bored, went bowling at the student center, then saw the brawl on one of the TV’s in the bar). Abrams wrote the definitive oral history of the event. Amazingly, nobody ever asked Stephen Jackson for his thoughts on the night until this piece.

The Oral History on Boogie Nights by Alex French and Howie Kahn
Boogie Nights is one of my all-time favorite movies. This oral history went way behind the scenes. Interesting things I learned: Nina Hartley (the real-life pornstar playing William H. Macy’s wife) regularly walked naked on set, Burt Reynolds was a total weirdo by this point (he legitimately thought he would play the role of Dirk Diggler), and the Alfred Molina firecrackers scene had real terror to it.

The Serious Thought Pieces

A breakdown of Breaking Bad relative to The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, by Chuck Klosterman
Klosterman had a major role in the creation of Grantland. He was always a good sparring partner for Simmons, often as the only person that would call Simmons on his BS. I remember this piece fondly because it turned me on to Breaking Bad, which of course ended up being one of the most thrilling TV experiences of all time. The amazon thing about this piece is the clarity of thought and logical argument that Klosterman makes on just why Breaking Bad is better than the other three.

Jeremy Lin’s “Chink in the Armor” by Jay Caspian Kang
This was the first time that Grantland convinced me it could be about more than just sports and entertainment. Here was an Asian American (Kang) writing on a major national property just why it was so wrong what its own company (espn.com) said about Jeremy Lin. It was thoughtful, it was nuanced, and it was persuasive.

The Genius of Phil Hartman by Bryan Curtis
This was written after Hartman surprisingly (in my opinion) made it to the finals of the Best SNL Cast Member Bracket before losing out to Will Ferrell. Hartman is a true genius. Of course, I love him most as Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure in The Simpsons. Curtis does a great job of analyzing why you never noticed Hartman in those SNL sketches, and yet he’s involved in seemingly every favorite SNL sketch.

Obama’s Speech for Selma’s 50th Anniversary by Rembert Browne
Rembert Browne is a prodigy. He’ll show up again later in the Goofy section, but it’s remarkable how heartfelt and personal his writing is. Browne got access to Obama during the President’s visit to Selma for the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s march there. I love that Browne turned this piece into a mostly autobiographical reflection of his own evolution and involvement with politics.

The Goofy Stuff

The Game of Thrones to NBA Playoffs Translator by Steve McPherson and Jason Concepcion
Probably nothing can represent Grantland’s intersection of sports, pop culture, and in-the-moment relevancy than this absurd and delightful piece. As a bonus, this caused me to find Steve McPherson, now one of my favorite follows on Twitter (@steventurous).

The Hollywood Prospectus Podcast Explodes Over Jeremy Renner in Playboy Magazine
The title should be self-explanatory, but this is so delightful. Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan are long-time friends since before Grantland, and it really shows.

The Grantland NFL Podcast Spends an Hour on Under Siege 2: Dark Territory
This was so surprising and welcome. Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays hosted one of the most hardcore football podcasts, with extensive discussion on roster construction, offensive line play, and play breakdowns. In the summer, they randomly did an entire episode to break down Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, which to be fair, is an awful movie. But their description of the movie was so exuberant and ridiculous, I actually went and saw the movie (no regrets).

Rembert Explains Lionel Richie’s “Hello”
I had a parody version of “Hello” as the ringtone for text messages for a really long time (the parody was “Melo”), so I have a special kinship with this song. Rembert is so delightful and absurd in this breakdown, and his youthful energy just jumps off screen. And of course, the song is amazing and creepy. Unfortunately, I think this video is no longer in the US.

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