Hours after my cover story on Jabari Parker hit newsstands last week, my younger brother Ben texted me from Seattle: “Your name is ON THE COVER OF SI!!!”
“Yes, I know,” I texted back.
My kid brother is a crack up. I’m 11 years older. When he was little I taught him to play sports. I also converted our backyard to a miniature Fenway Park, complete with white baselines, perfectly trimmed infield grass and our own version of the Green Monster. I wrapped our whiffle balls in black electrical tape to give them more lift.
In those days I would race home from school every Thursday afternoon to retrieve Sports Illustrated from our mailbox. The thrill of seeing the new cover each week never got old.
Back then I never dreamed I’d end up writing for my favorite magazine. Fact is I never dreamed of writing at all. That’s one reason I never studied journalism or bothered to take a writing class. I reflected on that as I passed through airports this week and saw the Jabari cover everywhere. Charlotte. Indianapolis. New York. You name it.
Magazine rack at Charlotte airport newsstand.
For me, writing non-fiction is a lot like running to the mailbox every Thursday. Every time I start a new story project I never know what I’m going to find. The thrill of discovery never gets old.
Plus, I’m addicted to publishing. Even after 17 years of writing books and magazine stories, I still get a rush when I board a plane and people are reading something I wrote. I still pinch myself.
And there’s nothing like entering a hotel in New York and seeing the bellman studying the Jabari cover of SI. Then I give him my name for the luggage claim ticket. His eyes go from me to the magazine cover, and then back to me. I smile.
“You wrote this story?” he says.
“Then I will definitely read this,” he said. “I mean, definitely.”
I still remember what it felt like the first time I had an op-ed published in the New York Times. I was a first-year law student in Boston at the time. My book editor called from New York to tell me how thrilled he was that morning when he got on the subway to discover so many New Yorkers with their heads buried in the opinion page, reading my essay about criminals playing in the NFL. “This is outrageous,” he overheard one woman saying to another after finishing my piece.
One reason I love writing so much is that I’m an experience junkie. I live the stories I write. And when I pray before going to bed I almost never ask for anything. I stopped that a long time ago. Instead I usually just say thank you for my family, for my friends and for my career.
Most of my closest friends I’ve met through work. That’s another reason I adore writing. Yes, my name is on the cover. But it takes a team to produce a cover story. And I’m just honored to be on the roster.
One of my favorite teammates is my editor B.J. Schecter. When I have a story idea that I think is a good fit for SI, I take it to him. He has a great eye for great stories. When he and I are working on a story, we become like soul mates and there are weeks when he and I talk to each other more than our wives, especially as we approach deadline.
In the case of the Jabari Parker story, B.J. and I took our idea to Terry McDonell, the editor-in-chief at SI. Recently inducted into the Magazine Hall of Fame, Terry ran Esquire and Rolling Stone before taking the helm at SI. Nobody knows magazines like Terry and he immediately loved the idea of us profiling Jabari Parker and gave us the green light to proceed.
(Left to Right) Terry McDonell, Jabari Parker, and B.J. Schecter
Photo by Jeff Benedict
But even a great story doesn’t make the cover of SI without great photography. Enter Deanne Fitzmaurice. Like me, she is a special assignment contributor for the magazine. Based in San Francisco, she teamed with me on my last feature on Kitam Hamm called “Straight Outta Compton.” There’s nothing Deanne can’t do with a camera.
photo by Matt Mendelsohn
After I spent a few months shadowing Jabari and his family, Deanne and I talked extensively about what to photograph. Then she went in behind me and took hundreds of pictures to illustrate the words. Her iconic shot of Parker dribbling a basketball on Lake Michigan with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop was an obvious choice for the cover.
Here are two shots that didn’t make it in the magazine.
Jabari and Christen Parker At Hyde Park Chapel In Chicago
photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice
Jabari and Christian hugging mother Lola
Whenever I do a feature story I like it to find a television component, too. In this case, I had the privilege of working with Good Morning America producer Gary Wynn and Katie Couric. This past week I was in New York with Jabari and his parents to film interviews with Katie
Katie Couric, Jabari Parker and Jeff Benedict
photo by Maggie May Benedict
Katie’s story will air on GMA during the NBA Finals. But that's another story. I'll save that one for my next blog post