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 goes by the name Spiderman (he legally changed it) and makes repairs on what he calls "suicidal buildings," climbing or rappelling to areas that can otherwise be reached only by crane. He's jumped from helicopters onto the top of water towers, clambered up spires, gotten pinned against the surface of a skyscraper by heavy winds. And, as I learned, he treats it all like a commando mission (in fact, he treats everything — the mold inspections he performs, a trip to the mini-mart — like a do-or-die situation).
In the end, I felt that Mulholland used his work almost as a way to self-medicate. He didn't just want to work; he needed to. And his transition from the military lifestyle to a civilian one was incomplete until he found a (legal) release (if you've read the chapter, you understand why I include the 'legal' part). Of the people I spent time with, he was the most vocally passionate — he spoke in the equivalent of ALL CAPS — about what he did. Some of it may have been for show — a reporter following you around tends to have that effect — but if so, it was a good act.
Interviewing him is a far cry from what I'll be doing tonight. Enter into a postgame scrum at an NBA playoff game and you realize that "scrum" is not a hyperbolic descriptor. I've seen cameramen elbow each other like WWE combatants to get a good shot in the locker room, heard sideline reporters yelling histrionically, watched power forwards bob and weave so as not to be poked in the face with a microphone. Everyone is sweating because it's so hot, especially the players (I was once speaking to Donyell Marshall after a game when he reached into his pocket and grabbed something to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Until I pointed it out, he didn't realize that what he'd grabbed was a $20 bill).
This kind of work requires a totally different set of reporting tools. With a subject like Mulholland, I had days with him, and the luxury of watching him in his element and asking follow-up questions. If you can finagle two minutes alone with Shaquille O'Neal or Chauncey Billups after a game at this point in the season, it is a coup. Some people are built for this kind of work; my SI colleague Seth Davis can work a room unlike any one I've seen. Others, not so much. Personally, I have to steel myself before going in. I've also found it can be more productive to work around a subject — speaking to assistant coaches or teammates while the star player is mobbed. Of course, only a month ago, you could have sat down with this star player for 15 minutes of one-on-one time. But hit a game-winner and the world loves you.
It will be interesting to see who the world loves tonight. As good as Miami has played at home, I've got a feeling that the Pistons have another comeback in them, regardless of (in spite of?) Flip Saunders. The key will be Rasheed Wallace. If he gets on track and pulls the Miami big men out on the perimeter, Detroit has a shot. If not, South Beach will be rockin tonight. I'll try not to get Gilbert Arenas-ed while heading back to my hotel.
Well, that's my time. It's been a pleasure and an honor guest-blogging at Powell's. Thanks to Dave for hooking it up, and to those who checked out the site for reading.
Books mentioned in this post
Chris Ballard is the author of The Butterfly Hunter: Adventures of People Who Found Their True Calling Way Off the Beaten Path