A Requiem for Grantland

“I am going to write for Grantland. I am going to be very fucking good”
Four years ago, that was my mindset. I was going to write for Grantland. And I was going to be very fucking good.
In mid-2011, I was still wondering what to do with my life. I had just joined a company in the marketing wing, signing up to be a lowly executive assistant and holding out hope every day that my betters would throw me a scrap of real work. In between my long days of answering phones, creating meeting invites but generally doing a whole lot of nothing, I would write. And then I would write. And then I would write some more.
I’d write about my hatred for Adrian Beltre, the inevitably unpredictable nature of the baseball playoffs, how unstoppable Albert Pujols was, the frustrating nature of Lamar Odom’s being and of course, the top 10 ugliest players in the NBA. Starting as a mortal Blogspot site, thegreatmambino.blogspot.com was a place where we cut our collective teeth. Along with some of my idiot friends, we increased our output and tried to get content flowing nearly every day. Some of the posts were great–I would hold up this Jeremy Lin article up against anything I’ve ever written–and some of them weren’t. I mean, some of them really weren’t. But either way, we were writing with purpose. At least, I was. I was trying to get better. To be great. To be good enough to be a staff writer for Grantland.

Truly though, how could I know if I was good enough? Of course my friends and family loved my work–but they also loved me and I’ve always known my writing to be a natural extension of my speech, albeit a longer, more sophisticated version of it. I had made some connections in the writing world, but asking near strangers to review your work was, well, a galling proposition. It took balls. Balls I didn’t have. Yet. (What?)

Months later, the sign I had hoped for came out of nowhere. Perusing our stats for the blog, I saw a sudden spike in traffic. Dozens of hits started coming almost per second, with unique page views filling it up like Steph playing the Lakers. After an hour, thousands of people had clicked on an article I’d written. Thousands. We got more readers in an hour than we had gotten all month.

An article of mine had been picked up by the great czar of the G himself, Bill Simmons. The Sports Guy had linked to an Andrew Bynum article I had written for MAMBINO in his monthly Grantland mailbag and the click-through was enormous. In life to date, over 22,000 people have come to our rudimentary blogspot site and peeped the post. I later e-mailed Simmons through a comment box at the bottom of his bio on Grantland, hoping to get some answers as to how the most powerful sportswriter in America had gotten to my article. I knew the attempt would be in vain, but I had to try to get some answers, some clarity.

To my shock, he responded the next day:

Hey Blake – I googled “Bynum maturity issues” and you were one of the sites that came up first so you must be doing something right! Keep plugging away – good luck with everything.

It was that simple. He randomly googled what he was writing about, quickly perused my post and bam, threw up the link. The logo at the header of the blog reads “Trick Tested, Simmons Approved”. It isn’t just a slogan. For me, that was the approval I needed. It was such a small step and conversely, such a large leap in logic. But it was enough to keep me going. No matter how little he actual read my writing, it was deemed just good enough by New York Times bestselling author Bill Simmons to include it in his article.

And so went my pursuit. My writing kicked into high gear, as I continued to keep this blog going, as well as increasing my output on a weekly basis. The Simmons link even helped me get another gig, which was writing for Silver Screen & Roll, a highly respected Lakers blog by SBNation that I still contribute to to this day. My goal remained the same–just wait to get my break and shoot for a job with the almighty Grantland.

The site had a little of everything I’d ever want to write about. They employed the incredible David Shoemaker, a professional wrestling writer who was revolutionizing the way that people could even postulate about the business. They had Jonah Keri, the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of The Extra 2%, a baseball book about the Tampa Bay Rays that was the next great literary successor to Moneyball. They had Jonathan Abrams, a young writer from the New York Times that wrote longform pieces on the NBA packed with so much power, emotion and expressive worldplay that they often undercut his otherworldly ability to report and interview. They soon grabbed guys like Zach Lowe, just the best NBA writer in the world, and Steven Hyden, a music writer whose skills cannot be contained by the superficial label of “rock critic”. This isn’t even to mention Simmons, the creative force behind the site who served as its Editor-In-Chief as well as their most widely read writer.

I could go on. But in my eyes, Grantland seemed to exist to welcome me to fold. Their interests, their voices, their accessibility all seemed to inviting to me. As disparate as my connections were there, I felt like it was a place I was supposed to be. Grantland wasn’t just a place for a young writer to flex his creative muscles–it felt like the most sensible progression in sports journalism. Informal but substantive, focused yet diverse, the site brought a blogger’s sensibility to the front page of an ESPN-funded website. The World Wide Leader had finally caught up with the frequency by which many of its readers were vibrating. They had found a way to speak to and for its viewers, a voice that could simultaneously inform and project. Jonah didn’t just tell us the statistics and the facts–he did so in a way that you felt could have been your voice, or your buddy’s voice, laid out with humor, humility and a little soul.

What Grantland did best was that it never felt smarter than you. It was never better than you. There was a grace to its pieces, a sense that while well-researched and reported, there was a certain level of vulnerability. They could be wrong. But its just what was written that day. Feel free to disagree.

But overall, there was a sense of excitement behind the pieces. You just felt that the staff was excited and honored to be there. They were thrilled to be writing for a living and you felt that in every world. It was that human touch that sports writing had so often been missing. The staff was young and hungry and wanted you to believe in them, to believe in Grantland.

And I did. Hook, line and sinker.

I won’t try and dig up some metaphor for why it’s appropriate that Grantland rose, shined and burned out so quickly. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel good. It feels like the sports writing community at large has lost such a huge outlet for creativity, new voices and inspiration. Amidst a sea of great blogs and unbelievable writers, Grantland gave so many amazing people such a vast canvas in which to paint. Ideas could sprout and flourish, with an easy to navigate layout and graphical focus on the articles and writers. Shea Serrano and Dave Schilling and Jason Concepcion could nimbly shift from field to field, throwing around their artistic sticks from music to film to sports to television. No longer was your favorite writer confined to one topic–the scribes you loved best could love all the things you loved. There was a lot of love going around. And it felt like it in the pieces I reading.

The passion in every sentence felt like the passion I threw into every single one of mine. It’s what sports writing should be. Passionate and uncompromising. Is it surprising to anyone out there that the sports blogging community is lamenting so hard at the loss of what should be just a website? Its because it wasn’t just a website. For a very long time, Grantland was the epitome of what we all wanted writing to be. It was the lofty, idealistic goal that had somehow been willed into reality. It was unreal. And it made all of us writers who read it, not just me, want to be very fucking good. Good enough to write for Grantland.

It’s years later and I’m not a writer for Grantland. I’ve been on a couple podcasts (one deleted, lost in the sands of time and Ryan’s fucking hard drive), had a couple ideas blown up into features and met a dozen staff writers and editors who were even nicer people than they were great talents. Life got in the way, my job got too good and I made a choice to not try and pursue a life as a Grantlander. However, this isn’t to say that my pursuit of a dream didn’t benefit me in my every day life and occupation. I got to be a stronger writer and a more nimble speaker, all skills fortified by blogging. They have taken me far and hopefully, will continue to float me unnoticed as I gloriously fail upwards.

The demise of the site means a lot of things. Most pragmatically, it means that dozens of people are out of work, starting today. That’s a horrible reality for a lot of them to face. It also means that guys like Keri, Lowe, Barnwell, Shoemaker and Goldsberry won’t have an outlet for their unbelievable creativity and thus, we won’t get to witness it.

But it also takes away a very unique place where creativity often overruled commercialism and the content was almost always stronger than the subject of the writing itself. Again, it seems, we’re in an ocean without an island getaway.

Grantland didn’t just provide folks with hundreds of hours of free entertainment (though it did that, and did it very, very well). What it did for me was push me towards an ideal that all writers should strive for, but ultimately have to compromise when they get to that next level. Except in this twisted video game, the next level was that same idealistic playground. It was strange, it was weird, it was glorious.

Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Grantland. Thank you for making us all want to be very fucking good.


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