It’s hard to keep up with Will Leitch. As a contributing editor to New York Magazine, a columnist for Sporting News, a movie reviewer for Gawker and Deadspin, a book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, a contributor to SportsonEarth.com, and an author of four books he can barely get a spare moment to talk about the professional athletes he is constantly writing about. But Leitch says that he actually likes it that way: “I spent a really long time writing for free and being read by no one so I’m pretty firm that if somebody asks me to do something I say yes because you never know when it’s all going to go away.”
Leitch has always been a self-starter ever since his days as a print journalism student at the University of Illinois. After graduating from college, Leitch and his friends grew disgruntled with trying to find full-time writing gigs and started their own culture Web site, The Black Table, that allowed them to have creative control over the daily content filled with gossip, humor, and trivia. Two years later, Leitch became the founding editor-in-chief of Deadspin, a sports blog that quickly amassed a large following and has attracted over 462 million unique visitors and 573 million page views since it began in September 2005.
Last month, Leitch interviewed Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American point guard who wowed NBA audiences this year and will be one of the most watched players in the league this season. The undrafted Harvard standout came off the Knicks bench in February and quickly emerged as the team’s problem solver. He scored more points in his first five starts than any other player in NBA history while leading the Knicks to seven straight victories. He became the first player in more than 30 years to record at least 28 points and 8 assists in his first NBA start. Lin became an international star and Linsanity was born. However, on March 24 he suffered a small meniscus tear in his left knee and opted to have season-ending surgery. Knicks fans were assured by head coach Mike Woodson that their star point guard would return for the following season even though he was a restricted free agent. The team was prepared to match an initial three-year $19 million offer from the Houston Rockets. However, when that offer increased to $25 million over three years the Knicks refused to match the deal that would have paid Lin $14.9 million in the contract’s final year and cost the team an estimated $35 million in luxury tax in 2014-15.
Whatever the reason, Lin now has a new team and all eyes will be on him this season to see if Houston was right in their decision or if the Knicks were ultimately wrong in making what writer Drew Magary called one of the worst decisions in sports history. This time around Leitch covered Lin as a contributor to GQ magazine and opened up about his discussion with the new focal point of the Rockets’ offense.
GQ came to me. I’ve written for them before. My first piece for them was about Michael Vick and then I wrote one about Bryce Harper. I also wrote on Derrick Rose. The nice thing about GQ is that they actually have a full-time staffer that is like a celebrity wrangler. They negotiate everything and tell me, “You’re meeting him here and this is how much time you have. Go!” You don’t have to do any of the ugly horse-trading and all the other stuff you have to deal with. I just sit in the room with these guys for an extended period of time and ask them whatever I want. That’s really all anyone could possibly hope for.
Is there ever a clash where New York Magazine sees a story you did in GQ and wishes they had it? Jeremy Lin could have easily been on the cover of New York Magazine.
It wouldn’t be a New York Magazine story because he plays for Houston. If Jeremy Lin would have stayed a Knick I would have not done that story. If GQ asked me to do it I would have had to say no. They know I am not trying to screw them. They know they are my home. For example, GQ did something on Tim Tebow in the beginning of the football season. They didn’t officially ask me to do it but I made it very clear to them from the beginning that I can’t do it. I wrote a long feature for New York Magazine about Tebow.
Tell me about the Jeremy Lin piece. There was a photo shoot and a video taken from the photo shoot that accompanies the article on GQ.com. Where did your conversation with him fit in?
I didn’t have anything to do with the photo shoot fortunately. I went to a photo shoot before and I won’t do that again. [He laughs.] It’s hard. I went to the Vick photo shoot and they are asking him questions as he’s posing and that sort of thing. It’s a casual, Webby kind of thing and I think that it’s valuable but it’s awkward. When I sit down with these guys it needs to be a conversation between the two of us. There needs to be a discussion out of the photo shoot or the celebrity aspect of it. To me, the ideal thing is for me to be able to sit down with this person one-on-one outside of handlers and photo stuff.
I watched Jeremy play basketball and work out in the afternoon and I met him. Then that night he went out with his brother and his sister-in-law. After dinner, he had a car ride up to Bristol, Connecticut for a “This is SportsCenter” commercial and I talked to him in the car. That is how long I had. It was roughly a two-hour drive. With traffic it became about three which is why he fell asleep on me in the end. He was clearly getting tired so I told him to take a break. Frankly, we ended up having two and a half hours of conversation. I’d like to have more that. With Derrick Rose, which is probably the story I think turned out the best out of all the GQ stories I’ve done it’s because I had a ton of time. I met him on three different occasions and that was a gift. Whenever I’ve done stories on Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, or Derek Jeter to have the time to sit down with them makes all the difference in the world. In a lot of ways, I feel like I can’t screw it up that bad. If I sat down and talked to anyone on earth for two and a half hours they are going to tell me something. When was the last time you sat and talked to anyone for two and a half hours in your life? In a lot of ways to have that much time with someone I feel like that’s enough time where they have to say something eventually.
Did you get everything accomplished from the conversation in the car?
They did give me a half an hour on the phone the next day to follow-up. Frankly, I felt like I got most of it to be honest. It’s always nice to clarify things or if I was confused about something. But I got to all of my questions. It was more just clean-up.
You spoke about the three-year deal for $25 million that Lin ultimately signed with the Rockets but didn’t mention the previous offer sheet for three years worth $19 million that it appeared the Knicks would match. Did you feel that it wasn’t relevant?
You may be right but it doesn’t help if the Knicks won’t talk about it. I cover them for New York [Magazine] all the time and they are a quiet organization to say the least. On a certain level there are a lot of things we couldn’t confirm with them. We obviously went to them for a comment on the story and they said they would not make any public comments just like they have continued to not make any public comment about Lin. It’s funny. We were actually having a debate when we were putting the story together of how arcane and detailed did we want to get into the contract and the negotiation on one hand while not having a lot of on the record detail. To really explain that whole thing would require half the story. Larry Coon, who is like the NBA salary cap expert, has pages and pages of Internet space full of trying to explain this Lin thing. Ultimately, the Knicks decided not to match the offer the Rockets gave no matter what it was. We got into the idea of the “poison pill” but we didn’t really feel it was necessary to talk about how the Lin negotiations went.
I know there are people who feel that Jeremy may have had a hand in renegotiating the contract with Houston. Were you able to get any additional info or a sense from him during the car ride?
I don’t know if there is a perception of that or not. I know that there’s a little part for him that regrets how this turned out. He clearly says in the story that he wanted to stay in New York badly. I don’t think it occurred to him or even me as someone who follows the Knicks closely that he would ever leave. From every angle and common sense it made you think they were going to hang onto him. He talks in the story about how he wonders if he had an idea that they weren’t going to match if he might have handled it different. On the other hand, the idea that an athlete would somehow have done something wrong by trying to get paid what he is owed and earned, I personally don’t see anything wrong with that, especially when you had every indication from everyone that you were going to stay in New York. In the piece his sister-in-law, who is his business manager, says she left town because she didn’t think it would be a problem. I think the whole thing took him by surprise.
Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith’s statements about his contract gave the impression that if he returned to the team they may not be welcoming him with open arms?
That was certainly strange that they did that. J.R. Smith is just having fun. I don’t think that was that big of a deal. Certainly Carmelo saying that was a “ridiculous contract” was very strange for an athlete to say about any other athlete. Right after that Carmelo did say he’d like to have that back. Certainly it fueled into the notion that Carmelo did not want Lin back and did not consider him one of his approved teammates. It fed into that perception a lot but the story is not about Carmelo. We didn’t want it to be too bogged down with Carmelo and Knicks stuff.
Lin did confirm with you that he wasn’t really 85 percent ready to return to the Knicks after his knee surgery even though he stated that. People began to think differently about him when he didn’t make an effort come back during the playoffs.
He was trying to say is that, “My knee is 85 percent heeled. I can’t play until my knee is heeled.” But people took that as him being 85 percent ready. Then they made it seem that if he’s not going to play when he is 85 percent he is not a gamer. What he was saying there was a lesson he learned about talking to the press because you have to be careful with your words. The way he intended that and the way he came across are two different things.
I also found it interesting that he was hesitant to accept Linsanity and he later trademarked it. Were you shocked to see him tearing open his sweater with a Linsanity t-shirt on?
I wasn’t there for the photo shoot. I saw that when everybody else saw that. For crying out loud, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him trademarking that. I think you look at any athlete or any other American and in a lot of ways I think they would all do the same thing and I think they should. I think they would almost be fools not to.
Who else did you speak to besides Jeremy for this piece?
We talked to Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Rockets. I talked to Lin’s sister-in-law. I had actually done a long interview with Spike Lee for New York Magazine a couple of months beforehand. I liked being able to quote him from that story saying he’d never seen the Garden louder than Linsanity. I was happy to be able to have that.
Did Jeremy talk about the overall reaction to his latest visit to New York? How was he greeted?
I don’t know if he was swarmed. The only time I saw him, he was playing at an open court in Chelsea Piers and he was not swarmed. People took pictures of him with the cell phones but other than that he was generally left alone. After they went to China where it was just a madhouse and he couldn’t go anywhere without being pretty much attacked, I think they have him pretty protected. I think in China they saw what could happen if you don’t keep him pretty contained.
GQ has all of their past Jeremy Lin stories accompanying your online piece and one of them calls the Knicks decision one of the worst in sports history. What’s considered success for him now?
Well, that was Devin Gordon’s column on that. That’s not something that was in my story. That was in the column that came along with it. I don’t necessarily think it’s the worst decision that sports has ever made. Frankly, I don’t think it’s the worst decision the Knicks made in the last 10 years. [He laughs.] That’s not really saying much. He doesn’t need to put up the numbers he put up during that run last year but he needs to be one of the top ten point guards in the NBA. I think he can be successful without being that but for this to not feel like a fad I think he has to be one of the top ten point guards in the NBA. I think it’s a success no matter what. He is going to be a good player. The question is whether he is a next level player and I think we’ll find that out. I think we forget that he’s 23-years old. There’s rookie starting quarterbacks that are six years older. He’s got a lot of time to grow. He’s certainly proven he belongs in the NBA. Now I think it’s a question of what level that he can rise to and really sustain. Can he do it every night for 82 games? He’s now the high-profile guy. There’s no Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler to help him out. It’s him and that’s pretty much it.
His PR woman texted me and said they were happy with the story which is fine. I’ve gotten texts from PR people who were a lot angrier than that. It makes my life easier if they are not getting angry about it. I think people generally liked it. I had a short amount of time to put this together. The night that I talked to him was on September 11 and that was a Tuesday and the story was due on a Sunday. It was a very short turnaround and we had to close within a week. For a 4,000 word piece like that, that’s really fast. Because of that I think it became a little more quote-heavy. Ordinarily I put a little bit more of myself into these stories and my perception of things. Because of the short amount of time we kind of skipped a lot of that. I was happy with how it turned out but to be honest I liked Derrick Rose a little bit more. I think that one was a little better just because we had more time and I had more time with him.
It’s tough to get great detail from a two-hour car ride. What did you see that readers weren’t able to?
One, he’s a lot bigger than people realize man. [He laughs.] You don’t realize it because you see him next to other NBA players who are so huge. He’s a big dude. He’s like 6-3 and 220 pounds and he’s a big guy. If you saw him in the street you’d see that he’s enormous. Two, he’s a kid. It was strange to hear the sister-in-law talk about how her husband’s little brother would stay with them when he was in town and all of a sudden is on the front of The New York Times in the span of a week. He’s very young and he’s got a lot of basketball to do.