Today we bring you an interview with a young writer from the stable at Sports Illustrated. Arash Markazi is a 2004 graduate of the the Print Journalism program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. Prior to working for SI, he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Associated Press, SLAM Magazine, and more. He’s been busy lately and just recently covered the Stanley Cup Finals for SI, but he had some time to talk with The Pyle of List for an interview. He’s got some great experiences to share. The more he told me, the more jealous I became.
Joe King (Lunchbox): Arash, first of all, thank you for the interview. We love getting the chance to talk with any writers more experienced than ourselves. Up until this point, we’ve only interviewed mid-major bloggers. You have the honor of being our first sports columnist on the Pyle of List.
Arash Markazi: Well, thanks for having me, this is indeed an honor.
JK: In your short time with SI, you really have covered a broad spectrum of topics, exhibiting your range as a writer. Which sport do you get the most satisfaction covering and (if you’re allowed to answer without wrath from your employer) which sports do you dread writing about?
AM: I’m not sure if I would call it satisfaction but I certainly enjoy covering college sports. I broke into Sports Illustrated working on SI on Campus where I primarily covered college sports and I still say there’s nothing better than covering a big-time college football game on a Saturday afternoon or the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The passion that those games elicit from the fans is contagious. You don’t get many Boise State or George Mason moments covering the NFL or the NBA.
There’s no sport that I dread covering although I certainly gravitate towards some more than others. For example, I was assigned to cover the Stanley Cup Finals this year after not covering a hockey game all season. It’s not that I don’t like hockey, I actually enjoy going to games and know a couple players quite well it’s just not a sport that I’m as comfortable covering as say football or basketball. Although I’m guessing that will change going into next season after the experience I had covering the Finals.
JK: Can you recall when it has been toughest for you to be an objective sports writer and not an irrational sports homer?
AM: I’ve never really been an irrational sports homer. Even when I’m not covering a game, I’m not a do-or-die fan when it comes to my teams. You’ll never find me at a sports bar wearing a personalized jersey and screaming at the TV. I’m not sure why that is. I grew up loving the Lakers and Cowboys but I never really got depressed when they lost or got too high when they won. Maybe because I had bigger things to worry about and had other interests outside of sports but it never really consumed my life like it does others. I have a 15-year old brother and he’s the complete opposite. When the Cowboys or Lakers lose he’s miserable until their next game. I love his passion, but I could never imagine having a week of my life ruined because my team lost.
It’s funny because whenever I go back to USC to talk to a journalism class I’ll usually get this question from some student wearing a cardinal and gold jersey. They want to know how I can objectively cover the Trojans as a USC graduate. The truth is even though I went to USC I feel no attachment towards the Trojans when I’m covering one of their games. I’ve never actually watched a game in the Coliseum from the student section or a seat in the stadium. Every game I’ve every gone to has been as a reporter. I really could care less if they won or lost as long as the games end on time and make for a good story. That being said, I do find myself pulling for certain players and coaches I’ve gotten to know personally. I couldn’t help but pull for Boise State during the Fiesta Bowl when I was embedded with the Broncos the week leading up their game.
JK: I know you wrote as an undergrad for USC’s Daily Trojan as well as some other more professional publications (SLAM Magazine, LA Times, LA Daily News, AP, and more). First…WOW. Second, I just have to ask how you pulled that off and still had time for class assignments.
AM: Some of my professors would probably tell you that I didn’t have time for class assignments but I like to think I did a good job of balancing a professional career while going to school at the same time. I basically strung preps and did agate work at the LA Times and LA Daily News and wrote short game stories for the AP. It looks great on a resume but it was the kind of work that could be done by any competent high school student able to keep stats and string together complete sentences. My major break really came when I connected with SLAM Magazine in the summer of 2001. Ryan Jones, who was the senior editor at the time, was looking for someone on the West Coast who could help out their website and maybe file a few stories for the magazine. I jumped at the opportunity and ended up covering Clippers and Lakers games for Lang Whitaker at SLAMonline.com and writing occasional stories for the magazine as well. My biggest story actually came when Ben Osborne, who’s currently the editor-in-chief at SLAM but was the senior editor of King Magazine at the time, assigned me to spend a day with Mike Bibby at his home in Phoenix for a feature story. It ended up being the largest magazine piece I’ve done and I even got my picture and bio on the contributor’s page in the front of the book. If I am allowed to have a “turning point” as a writer than that was certainly it.
JK: I’m jealous. Mike Bibby is my favorite NBA player. Can you tell me a few interesting things about him?
AM: I remember being taken aback by the simplicity of his home. It was a brown and beige tract house in Phoenix that didn’t look like it would belong to a player who had just signed a seven-year, $80 million contract. Then again that’s Mike Bibby. He only splurges on a couple things, shoes, his closet is always overflowing with Nikes, and cars, he was still salivating over his newly purchased Maybach when I saw him. He’s a real soft spoken guy and doesn’t easily open up until he gets to know you which happened about midway through our time together. After you’ve proven yourself to him you’re essentially a part of “Team Dime,” as he refers to his family and friends, and he breaks out of his protective shell and begins to open up. He’s real close with his family. I remember the day I was with him; he was playing around with his kids, Mike and Janae, and chatting with his mother, Virginia, longtime girlfriend Darcy and sister, Charlise. I’ll never forget asking him if he was planning on marrying Darcy and he looked at her and then looked at me and said, “I’m not going to lie, I didn’t think we would last as long as we have. It just kept going and going and she’s here and we have two kids.”
JK: You made the jump from journalism student to SI writer in record time it seems like. Did you have connections or was it just your ample portfolio that worked for you?
AM: Well, I was an intern at Sports Illustrated for Kids during the summer of 2003 and that’s where I met the editors who would ultimately hire me after I graduated from USC in 2004. That summer was easily the best summer of my life. I remember being disappointed because I wanted to intern at SI or “the big magazine” as most of their Ivy League interns would remind it was called but working at SIFK was amazing. I’m not sure if the program is run the same way, but I would strongly encourage any college students interested in journalism to apply for the Time Inc. Editorial Internship Program. Not only do they put you to work at one of their magazines during the summer but they put you up in a dorm at Columbia University and pay you a fair stipend. I roomed with my co-worker Kevin Granato (of the famed Granato hockey family) and after we were done with work we would take some of our stipend each night and head to whatever club Page Six was writing about that day. It wasn’t long before we became the envy of the other SI interns who wanted to tag along. While they were feverishly fact-checking stories until the wee hours of the morning we were playing video games, doing goofy interviews with athletes and racing down the hallways in toy motorcycles. I still think my ability to turn those tight corners around the cubicles was the reason they brought me back.
JK: Is your home your workplace now or do you still go into the office for toy motorcycle races?
AM: After working out of the SI offices in New York for a year I moved back to Los Angeles as a staff writer for SI.com. So my home is my workplace at the moment. It’s really a great situation for me and SI since I’m the only writer who lives in Los Angeles, as amazing as that sounds. We have a ton of writers who live in San Francisco, but I’m the only one who lives south of Santa Barbara at the moment. I do miss the New York office though. Not so much for the killer toy motorcycle races, but being able to sit down with all the great writers and editors who work there. Getting feedback over the phone just isn’t the same as doing it over a cup of coffee in a boardroom.
JK: As a legit sports writer, you’ve had the chance to interview some big sports figures. Can you tell us who you most enjoyed interviewing? Also, what’s something quirky or unique we might not expect from someone who you have interviewed?
AM: There are a lot of guys I’ve really enjoyed interviewing but if I had to pick one guy I guess it would be Lamar Odom. I actually love talking to all the guys who were on that 2001-02 Los Angeles Clippers team, which was the first pro team I ever covered. Elton Brand, Darius Miles, even Michael Olowakandi. Anytime I see those guys and sit down and chat with them, it seems like they open up and cut through all the usual clichéd answers. Odom, however, is a real straight shooter and he doesn’t mince words, which is always appreciated as a journalist. I sat down with him for an interview after he lost his son last year and it was easily the best interview I’ve ever done because he opened himself up and didn’t hold anything back.
This probably won’t come as a surprise but the quirkiest guy I ever interviewed was Mike Williams when he was at USC. I never knew where he was coming from. I won’t call him bi-polar, but there were certainly two sides to him. Ask him the same question three times in a day and you’d probably get three different answers. He ended up giving me my most infamous story while I was at USC. I called him up and simply asked him if he was planning on staying at USC or entering the NFL Draft. After saying he had made up his mind he went on to berate the school and call out his coaches and his teammates. His tirade came out of nowhere and when I reminded him I was quoting him for my story he said he knew. Not surprisingly he said his comments were taken out of context the next day. I don’t think anyone ever knew what context to put his comments in.
JK: Yeah, I remember that situation being pretty hectic. How was the story received by USC fans?
AM: That was my first introduction to the dark side of “The Trojan Family.” Instead of congratulating a student reporter for writing an unbiased news story and basically scooping the major dailies on Mike Williams’ intention to turn pro I received hundreds of pieces of hate mail and was lambasted on USC Football message boards for being a traitor and not a true Trojan and all this other nonsense. Forget the fact that I was simply reporting what Mike had told me; many USC fans were acting as if I made Mike say these things and even if he did say them that as a USC student I shouldn’t have reported it because it wouldn’t be in the team’s best interest. It was the most absurd thing I had ever heard. I will always be proud to call myself a USC graduate but that incident made me understand why so many people despise the Trojans and their holier than thou attitude.
JK: This is a two-part question: First, what advice can you give to someone still in school that wants to make a career out of sports writing? Was that the same advice you received as a student? Second, We here at the Pyle of List are always looking to writers more successful than ourselves (there’s a lot of them) for inspiration and advice. I know you didn’t start out as a blogger, but what is the best advice you can impart on bloggers like us who want to perhaps get paid one day to write about sports?
AM: I would advise anyone in school interested in a career in sports writing to get a job at their local newspaper working on the agate page and stringing prep games. It’s not glamorous but it’s a way to get your foot in the door, get your name in the paper and learn from professionals. I would also advise them to work for their school paper. I know some kids who start working at their local daily paper think they’re too big for their campus paper and that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You develop your skills as a feature writer, columnist, beat writer, etc. at the campus newspaper not dictating football stats back to the major daily. It’s really a mixture of both. I would always get advice from the writers at the LA Times and Daily News and ask them to critique the stories I did for the campus paper. After awhile they could see I was actually capable of writing a story longer than a couple paragraphs and I got to do a few features in the newspaper.
As bloggers I would first tell you to enjoy yourself, which seems redundant because it’s clear that you already do. I actually envy the freedom bloggers have. I appreciate the job editors do but there is a certain purity in what you guys do that you won’t have once you start getting a paycheck from a company. It’s like that indy rock group that creates their own music and starts getting a following and then they sign with a big record label and the next thing you know they’re not writing the same kind of music that they used to because the suits think it’s too edgy and won’t sell to the mainstream. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my job for anything in the world. I consider myself one of the lucky ones who’s been blessed with good editors who are always understanding, but I would certainly tell you to enjoy yourself and don’t always think the grass is greener on the other side. I actually think it’s only a matter of time before bloggers get hired by mainstream outlets trying to make their mark on the web. It makes more sense to hire bloggers to do what they do best on the web instead of forcing writers to do “blogs” in addition to their duties as a print journalist.
JK: Please tell us about the three greatest sporting events you’ve ever seen in person or on live TV.
AM: A couple years ago I was on the sideline next to the yard marker during the infamous “Bush Push” game between USC and Notre Dame. I was actually pictured in the Leading Off section of SI that week when they showed Matt Leinart fumbling the ball out of bounds and it actually hit my leg on the way out. I remember looking down at the ball at my feet and looking up and watching the clock tick down, wondering how that could be possible if the ball was laying out of bounds. The atmosphere at that game was easily the best I’ve ever experienced at a regular season football game.
I was also on the sidelines, standing near the end zone when Vince Young ran in for the game-winning touchdown at the Rose Bowl when Texas beat USC to win the national championship. That was easily the most hyped and star-studded college game I’ve ever covered. For Vince Young to have the game he had that night and end USC’s 34-game winning streak in their backyard, I just remember thinking at the time that it was probably the greatest moment and the greatest college bowl game I’d ever see in my career. It didn’t take long to prove me wrong.
The following season, SI sent me to Phoenix to follow Boise State before the Fiesta Bowl. It was one of those all-access pieces and I ended up basically becoming a part of the team. I would go to the practices, meetings and team functions around the game with Boise State. As amazing as the entire experience was I remember being a bit bummed that week because I wanted to be with my friends and family back in Los Angeles during the holidays. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just cover the Rose Bowl like I did the previous season. I was also confused because I didn’t have a photographer with me and I was told that I’d be the only SI staffer at the game since the magazine wasn’t planning to cover the Fiesta Bowl due to its late start. I was really beginning to wonder what I was even doing there. Anyway, as we all know it turned out to be arguably the greatest college football game ever played. I think that will go down as the best assignment I’ll ever get in my career and one of the best stories I’ll ever write mainly because it was just so damn fun to write, which is saying a lot because I don’t usually have a whole lot of fun when I’m in front of the computer. As Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once said, “I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.”
JK: Those were some great games. It’s hard to find the words to describe how great the Fiesta Bowl was last year. What were the reactions of the Sooner fans like? Were they walking zombies or do you think they were able to appreciate the event they were just witness to?
AM: Well, that was a unique game and a unique week because I never really got to see the Oklahoma side of things. From the moment I touched down in Phoenix the day after Christmas to the day I left the morning after the game, I was with the Boise State football team. Even though I had a press credential for the game I spent all my time with the Broncos. When I arrived at the stadium on the team bus before the game the coaches insisted that I watch the game with the rest of the team on the sidelines instead of going up to the press box as I had initially planned. “Why would you go up there?” long snapper Mike Dominguez asked me. “You’re part of the team now. You have to watch it here with us. Good or bad.” So I ended up watching the game behind Coach Chris Peterson, listening as he made the most famous trio of calls to ever finish a college football game: Circus, HB Pass, Statue. After the game, I rode back to the team hotel with the offensive players and ate dinner with Ian Johnson and his family. Although I didn’t get to see Oklahoma’s reaction, my father graduated from OU and if his demeanor after the game was any indication, they weren’t appreciating much of anything after that heartbreaking loss. Although I think with time they learned to appreciate the game for what it was and it’s place in history.
Interestingly enough, six days later I was standing on the one-yard line in Seattle, watching Tony Romo famously fumble that field goal snap and get tackled just short of the end zone as the Cowboys lost to the Seahawks in the NFL Playoffs. I’ve never fact checked this but I’m going to go out on a limb and say I might be the only reporter who was on the sidelines for those two games, which for my money are two of the most memorable moments of 2007.
JK: We ask all the folks we interview to give us their picks for the World Series, Super Bowl, and BCS Championship. On the spot, who are your picks?
AM: Let’s see here, OK, in the World Series I’m going with the Anaheim Angels. I’m sorry I can’t call them the Los Angeles Angels when it takes me an hour to drive there from my home in Los Angeles. In the Super Bowl, I’m going with the New England Patriots. I really think Randy Moss will be a model citizen and have a breakout season this year. And I’m going to have to pick the USC Trojans to win the BCS Championship. I think they were a UCLA upset away from winning it last year when they were “rebuilding” and they return much of the same team intact this year.
JK: Another standard question we have…what is your greatest athletic achievement?
AM: This one is easy. I was 10 years old and at Magic Johnson’s Summer Basketball Camp. Now this is back in 1990 when Magic Johnson had just won his second straight MVP and the Lakers were dominating the NBA. Growing up in LA, Magic was my hero and the Lakers were my favorite team so it was always my dream to go to this basketball camp. So, I get there and it’s a big letdown. There were hundreds of others kids there who were bigger, taller and better than me and I hardly got to see Magic. As the four-day camp began to wind down I finally got to see Magic as he was making the rounds and checking in on all the kids. He finally stopped to talk to my age group and then challenged one of us to a quick game of one-on-one, first to three. I immediately jumped in front him and took on the challenge. He checked the ball to me first and since I was no taller than his waist line, I bounced the ball between his legs, ran around him, caught it on the way up and layed it in. I can still picture the look on his face after the move. I started celebrating like I had won the championship. He quickly put me in my place though. He swatted away my next shot and proceeded to dunk the ball on me three straight times to win. I don’t even think I’d seen Magic dunk before that day. Either way, I’ll always have that one moment where I put the moves on Magic.
JK: I think that may be the best response we’ve received from anyone for that question. If I were in your shoes, my friends in school would never have been able to get me to shut up about the time I clowned Magic.
A HUGE thanks to Arash Markazi of Sports Illustrated for the interview!