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Author Archive: "Chris Ballard"

Point Guards and Wall-Climbers in the Sunshine State

Miami, FL — Sticky weather, thunderstorm warnings, and fans of the Heat (the basketball team, not the climate) greet visitors on this Friday. I'm here to cover Game 6 of the Miami-Detroit playoff series. If the Pistons win, I fly to Detroit tomorrow morning. If Miami wins, I stick around to write an ode to the Heat. I've learned at SI to always root for the story, so I'd like to see Miami win. That way it's cleaner.

The last time I was in these parts for work, it was to tag along with Spiderman Mulholland, one of the characters in my book. It was the fall of 2004, just after Hurricane Ivan came through, and Mulholland had plenty of work. I followed him around for a few days as he went from condo to high-rise to apartment building. A former Marine, Mulholland began his career washing windows. Then he realized he could make more money if he also made repairs. Then it occurred to him he could save time, and cut costs, by rappelling down the sides of the buildings, or wall-walking up them with specially-designed gear. Then… well, you get the idea. Now he ...

Tennis Balls and Carpal Tunnel

When I work from home, the soundtrack to my day goes something like this:

Dum!… Dum...dum-dum-dumdumdum…
(pause of thirty seconds or so)
Dum!… Dum...dum-dum-dumdumdum…

These noises emanate from the left of my desk — though sometimes beneath it — where my golden retriever, Riley, is picking up a tennis ball and dropping it, repeatedly. After each drop, she watches the (slobbery, dirty) ball intently, just in case it might start to roll away on its own or — joy of joys! — I decide to pick it up and toss it. Eventually, inevitably, I give in, grab the ball, and head out into the backyard, where if I aim it just right, I can get a big looping bounce off the back wall (Riley has learned to judge it like an outfielder tracking a drive off the Green Monster). As you can imagine, this is not the most effective way to get work done.

So, like ...

Of Hot Dogs, Hangovers, and Hubie

A few years ago, I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine about a man named Carson Hughes. A garrulous, hopeful sort, Hughes went by the nickname "Collard Green" because he had a particular talent for ingesting large quantities of the leafy vegetable, and quite rapidly. At the time I wrote about him, Hughes was an up-and-comer in the world of competitive eating which, for those not familiar, is exactly what it sounds like: a "sport" in which "competitors" vie to see who can force down more of an particular food in a set amount of time, usually 12 minutes. Anything edible is fair game, but the most popular items are hot dogs and chicken wings. By focusing on a fringe foodstuff like collard greens — he could eat 2.5 pounds in 17 seconds — Hughes found a way to set himself apart. Though, of course, what he really wanted was to make a big splash eating the dogs at the Super Bowl of competitive eating, Nathan's 4th of July contest.

I accompanied Hughes for a night of his "training," during which we hit three buffets in his hometown of Newport News, VA. Over the course of the evening, Hughes ate, among other things, 140 shrimp, a small steak, a plate of chicken, 10 pieces of sushi, 10 softshell crabs and, of course, a mound of collard greens. At one point, while driving from one neon-lit, all-you-can-eat joint to the next, he told me he felt underappreciated. Allen Iverson was also from Newport News, Hughes pointed out, and he got a free meal whenever he went out. But Hughes was 17th in the world and didn't get noticed. "I'm famous and nobody knows it," he told me ruefully.

I bring up this story because, while I found Hughes a compelling character and the speed-eating subculture surreal, it never occurred to me that there might be a book in there amid all that stomach acid. As it turns out, there wasn't: there were two, Eat this Book by Ryan Nerz and Horsemen of the Esophagus (love that title) by Jason Fagone, both of which came out this past spring. I haven't read either yet, but I did see Nerz on the Daily Show — the bookselling equivalent of Oprah for hipsters and grad students — and he was quite good, playing the straight man to Stewart's incredulous host.

It got me thinking about how book ideas are birthed. I wrote my first book, Hoops Nation, in 1996 (it was published in '98) and, for the next eight years or so, people kept asking me when I was going to write another (always phrased as if it were merely something I hadn't gotten around to, like changing the oil in my car). Sometimes, people would suggest a topic. One friend thought the natural follow-up to a tour of playground basketball courts would be a tour of sports bars (Hops Nation?). My agent suggested a book on the quarterbacks of Pennsylvania (a disproportionate amount of great ones, including Marino and Montana, grew up there). It was a fine idea; the only problem was that it didn't interest me that much. And that's death for a book.

One author I know, who shall remain nameless, got his idea for a best-selling work of narrative nonfiction while Googling late one night (he admits this with a certain amount of shame, but I think it's rather inspiring, in an American Idol, anyone-can-do-it kind of way). For magazine writers, books often arise out of articles — Krakauer's Into the Wild is a great example — though occasionally they end up feeling like a sitcom stretched to movie length. Some writers work backwards, allowing life to provide the material, almost like a planned memoir. My brother and his wife, for example, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail together while still dating, then got a book contract (A Blistered Kind of Love). Then there are the pseudo-memoirs. I can only imagine how many books we'll see about lovable, irascible dogs after the success of Marley and Me. Or perhaps a best-selling cat memoir is next, though I suspect that's a tougher trick.

The Cosmic Significance of Keith Van Horn and Other Assorted Thoughts

A couple weeks ago, I was on a radio show in Texas to talk about my book. The book is about a lot of things, though basketball is not one of them. Regardless, the host's first question was, "How you like them Mavs?"

I liked them a fair amount, I said. Well-coached, deep bench, tough defensively. Next, the host asked whether I thought them Mavs could knock off them Spurs. Ten minutes later, he was still asking about Texas basketball. Finally, as my appearance drew to a close, he noted we had time for one more question. Tell us about your book, he said. It looks real neat!

There was nothing to do but pretend he hadn't just said "real neat" and give the movie pitch version — "It's about people who are really passionate about weird jobs and what they can tell us about the idea of a 'true calling'" — and then try to cram in one interesting anecdote.

It wasn't the first time I'd run into this, nor will it be the last. It's part of the deal when you work for Sports Illustrated (a blessing and a curse when you write a book that's not about sports). ...

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