Mondays With Grantland

“Grantland East” – Rembert Browne

“Happy Thanksgiving!”

Decked out in a red flannel shirt, the kind that suggests a casual work environment, Juliet Litman enthusiastically welcomed her congregation, a throng of young dudes, mostly white, with a few willing and able women scattered about. These parishioners had come to Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, site of the Madden lectures a little over a month prior, to pay final respects to the most important sports blog ever, the recently-deceased standard for longform pop journalism and the sort of offbeat topics you concoct in your dorm lounge late one night after several too many adult beverages. This was the Grantland wake.

The evening started innocently enough: after dodging the crowds headed in either direction on public transit and eating a burrito in the time it’ll take you to read this sentence, I met fellow TwH comrade-in-arms Tyler Lauletta, probably fresh off collecting his massive winnings from this past weekend’s NFL contests, and we headed to the venue together.

LPR handed out wristbands and stamps – I guess it pays to be thorough – to the people standing in line before allowing us in a full hour and a half before the event was to start. Due to the immense popularity of the site, something which ESPN dismissed with a casual nod and a wave of the iron fist, LPR opened both of its basement rooms, the larger of which had a stage complete with stools. It was dark and chilly, giving the event the feel of a concert, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought that was the occasion.

It is a somewhat surreal experience to wait to hear people talk about their writing, but no one seemed phased by the meta nature of it in the moment. People stood around hobnobbing and drinking overpriced swill, killing time and catching glimpses of the evening’s main players at coat check, themselves sporting looks of bewilderment and awe. It makes perfect sense, of course. If you had just lost your job due to an ostensible lack of popularity, you would probably react as many of them did upon seeing the crowd waiting to shake your hand.

After quite some time, and several trips to what in the moment feels like the creepiest bathroom in lower Manhattan even though you damn well know it isn’t, Grantland Appreciation Night began after a woman cherry-picked the special guests from the audience. Several of Grantland’s best writers and editors gathered offstage. The format, as Rembert Browne was to note later, was supposed to be that each speaker picked a piece of his or her favorite writing from the site and read a selection from it; as with Grantland itself, format is a free-flowing concept, and for the most part we were treated instead to stories, recollections and tales of gratitude.

What follows are some of the highlights, bulleted by presenter, as taken from memory and a note in my phone that I was not-so-casually typing as the night progressed:

  • Rafe Bartholomew, editor, read 23 headlines he randomly pulled from Grantland that morning.
  • Brian Phillips, staff writer, read an excerpt from a piece by New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir on the end of Grantland, specifically in reference to Holly Anderson: “Grantland established itself as a community of writers who were inclined to write exceptionally long pieces, often making themselves part of the story. Holly Anderson, a Grantland writer, said on Twitter on Friday that she once filed 1,000 words of fiction on Roger Federer’s deviled egg recipe, ‘and it went up without a comma changed.'” He gave thanks to Grantland’s editorial staff – “the best in the business” – before, sure enough, reading Anderson’s fan fiction on Fed’s deviled eggs. Which was appropriate, because next was
  • Holly Anderson, staff writer, who greeted the crowd with an enthusiastic “Hey, Internet!” Anderson spoke on behalf of at least the sports and pop culture writing population of the crowd when she said, “Every advance I’ve made over the past two and a half years has been because I’m chasing them,” referring to her colleagues off-stage. She then dropped a delightful surprise: the Monday following Grantland’s demise, Phillips had emailed her an unpublished response to the deviled eggs fiction starring Fed’s foil, Rafael Nadal, which Anderson shared with the crowd. Among many other points, Phillips implies that a) Nadal believes in paprika as a deviled egg necessity, and b) his favorite film of all-time is War Horse. His description of the egg, in Anderson’s perfect cadence, featured this immortal line: “Fat round on one end and skinny round on the other, like the heroine in a rap music video.”
  • Jason Concepcion, staff writer, better known as netw3rk, whose contributor page on Grantland has already gone Error 404, related the tale of how he came to be at Grantland, which apparently traces back to this tweet:

  • Amos Barshad, staff writer, led with this: “Side notes were dope.” Not unlike Bartholomew’s headlines, Barshad plucked several non-sequitur footnotes, including: Jadakiss’ Juice Bar, dudes named Herb, Wu-Tang bodegas and this quote from Method Man: “We don’t deal with nobody with the name Clifford.” He signed off with a classic, “Grantland forever, Wu-Tang forever.”
  • Jordan Ritter Conn, staff writer, read the final paragraph from Grantland’s oral history on its own forerunner, The National Sports Daily, the piece that made him realize Grantland was his dream job. The final line of that quote, from Tony Kornheiser on that newspaper’s final issue, reads like this: “I thought someday, you know, I’d be able to stick this in a living room and somebody will say, ‘What’s that?’ And I’d say, “That was the great and noble experiment of sports writing in America.'” Fitting.
  • Zach Lowe, staff writer, discussed how he got to Grantland, from being a Sports Illustrated writer. Lowe described a time at an NBA All-Star Game when he waited to interview Kevin Love while a dunk contest he was supposed to be covering was happening away from the spot of the interview. His quotes alone deserve their own bullets:
    • “You can’t find my archives from SI, and THAT IS THE INTERNET.”
    • “Jason, you were a DOG on Twitter! You wouldn’t believe how many NBA coaches came up to me and asked me, ‘Who is the dog?'” – in reference to Concepcion’s Twitter avatar
    • “Do you know how insane it is that the guy who has to tell you why Kyle Korver is good wrote for the same site as a guy who won the Pulitzer Prize?” – referring to Wesley Morris
  • Ben Lindberg, staff writer, relayed this gem: “Bill Simmons has an AOL email, by the way, and he still built the best site on the Internet.” He then read a piece from Chris Ryan entitled “The Sea is Dope,” which refers to In the Heart of the Sea, which, by the way, still isn’t actually out yet. That piece debuted on the site in October 2014. Ben Lindberg is dope. Chris Ryan is dope.
  • Andy Greenwald, staff writer, performed perhaps the most impressive task of the evening, and better improv than I’ve seen since the last time I went to a Phish concert. In lieu of having reviewed anything recently – what with, you know, the whole Grantland ending thing – Greenwald took audience requests, giving knee-jerk opinions on whatever they asked. Among his thoughts:
    • Nathan For You? I don’t watch it. Apparently I look like him, and I’m furious.”
    • “Late night television? I have a child.”
    • First Take? Never heard of it.”
  • Rembert Browne, staff writer, came off as the most comfortable, almost as if he didn’t care whatsoever but in the cool, hip way that Fonzie(?) didn’t care. Browne pointed to the camera, set up for an Internet livestream, and said, “I don’t think my mom knows what a livestream is, which is totally chill. Also, hi Bill.” That last part was especially poignant; the most notable person of the evening, Bill Simmons, was celebrated in absentia, the space filled by those to whom he gave a platform¹. Browne jokingly referred to the talent of the staff, saying, “We had a lot of accomplished people here, and by ‘accomplished,’ I mean ‘worked at Spin,’ and I didn’t know where I fit in because I didn’t work at Spin in 1982.” A common theme of the night was how Grantland would publish completely random pieces, including Anderson’s Federer deviled eggs fan fiction. Browne made an astute observation: “Sean McIndoe, our hockey writer, writing about In Living Colour is the most Grantland article ever.”
  • Jonah Keri, staff writer, completed the evening. He bestowed upon us a story including, but not limited to: Pedro Martinez, the Baseball Hall of Fame, a black tie party for the Boston Red Sox at which Keri and several friends from his native Montréal arrived wearing Expos jerseys and flip-flops, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, selfies, shots, the Mayor of Montréal and Martinez speaking French. It’s a captivating, hilarious story, and I would do it no justice attempting to put those pieces together here, now, even though I’m already 1,400 words in, and you probably stopped reading after “Happy Thanksgiving!”

The group as a whole, including Morris, several editors and others who had not spoken individually, did the requisite Q+A period, which featured this extremely necessary discovery, courtesy of Rembert Browne:

“Who is Grantland’s Mario Chalmers?”

“Robert Mays.”

Afterward, several of those associated with Grantland stuck around for, essentially, a meet-and-greet. It is impossible to boil this down to a single line of thought or feeling, but to many, what made Grantland great was the fact that a lot of these writers seemed like they could be our friends. On the other hand, maybe not; for all we know, Bill Barnwell sacrifices livestock to the god of QBR in Dubai during his, apparently, $34 trips there (he missed this night because he was in Scotland).

But actually commiserating with some of them was truly remarkable, in the sense that it made me want to write this just so I could go back on it later and recall this feeling. Holly Anderson is incredibly gregarious; she held court over several men, not too far out of college if at all, and spun yarns about Mike Leach. Rembert Browne was like Brian Jones at Monterey Pop, seemingly a benevolent prince tending to his loyal serfs. Zach Lowe left quickly, a sick child awaiting him back home in Brooklyn, but not before dismissing Rajon Rondo at my inquiry on his way out the door.

A personal aside, as if this entire thing isn’t personal enough already: in my opinion, and I don’t say this with any degree of frivolity, Brian Phillips is unequivocally the finest Internet writer of the twenty-first century, which essentially means that he is the best writer of this generation. Others have a seat at the table – Ta-Nehisi Coates, certainly, and Bethlehem Shoals stick out to me – but Phillips’ consistency and ability to, as Holly Anderson put it, “write circles around everybody” never fails to strike a chord with me. His Grantland piece on sumo wrestling in Japan, which took him on a harrowing, multi-faceted odyssey and which he himself identifies as his favorite article that he’s ever written, came to me in a time of, how shall we say, personal reassessment, the kind he seems to experience throughout the course of the piece itself.

Have you ever met your hero? I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few of mine and, usually, unfortunate enough to crumble under the weight of fandom in front of them. It’s a give and take, I suppose. It’s also apparently really hard to try and tell someone what their work has meant to you to their face. After 1) apologizing for re-tweeting basically every article Phillips wrote at Grantland (but, I mean, you all should be reading everything he does too) and 2) stumbling through a few sentences lauding him for constructing pixels in such a way that elicits emotions from me that my own friends and family never see, I 3) gave him my business card, which features absolutely no helpful information at all, and anyway, what’s he going to do with it? I’m a 24-year-old guy that stares at Excel spreadsheets in Manhattan, trying to figure out how the price of oil is going to affect the demand for Heinz baked beans in the five years leading up to 2020; he learns how to fly planes in Alaska out of necessity and describes Russell Westbrook in ways which seem irrelevant before and intrinsic after. I should’ve been more composed, but then, where’s the fun in acting so morose all the time?

*     *     *

My older, not oldest, brother has a Thanksgiving tradition, and it fits: every year, he posts the introductory video from Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary on The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, in which The Band launches full-tilt into the final song the original lineup would ever play together, a re-imagined cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It.” That clip has Robbie Robertson greeting San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom the way Litman greeted Le Poisson Rouge Monday night: “Happy Thanksgiving!” Promoter Bill Graham ensured that attendees to that event had a full Thanksgiving dinner to go along with their rock and roll show, which was a celebration of a moment in time, never to be captured again, just as much as it was a celebration of four Canadians and a dude from Arkansas who were critically praised and immeasurably influential but never really as commercially popular as they should have been.

At one point, I texted a friend of mine, “This is The Last Waltz for Grantland. I’m here. I did it.” There was no Thanksgiving dinner to be served, nor was Bob Dylan going to spring up and do something familiarly chameleon-esque (although we did get The Masked Man). But to have the chance to thank those writers and editors for their last four years of service felt, for lack of a better term, required. It became apparent how much fun they all had, and how they had grown into a family over the time they had worked together.

Before, we all felt wronged by ESPN, that taking away our hallowed #content was an injustice, that we had the right, not the privilege, to read what these people were producing. Toward the end of the night at LPR, however, you started to feel badly for their sake, even beyond the simple fact of unemployment. It seemed like every speaker found a way to mention that this was the best job he or she had ever had and that there would never be anything like it again, and I believed them. They’re going to miss it, probably more than we will.

So today, we give thanks for the many blessings which have found their way into our lives. Family, turkey, football, the eternal winter holding its breath for a final moment before blowing a massive gust of the strongest, coldest wind you’ll ever experience; these speak to our freedom and the lives we can afford to live, God willing. If you’ve made it this far, I feel comfortable in issuing you a request: when you go around the table giving thanks, staring the cooked fowl in his hindquarters and ignoring the political undertones of a discussion which was seemingly about the Carolina Panthers’ “problematic quarterback,” spare a thought for Grantland, a place where anything was possible and where everything, no matter how ridiculous, had an audience.

¹A word on Simmons, because no piece about Grantland would be complete without a footnote, despite this having already casually strolled past 2500 words: He wasn’t the greatest writer, and his tendency to splinter away from the topic at hand and, as Browne noted, his homer attitude toward Boston made some of his work too dense to digest, at least in one sitting. His columns, power rankings on great TV villains from the 1980s and “WHO SAYS NO?”-type proposals to no one in particular could be exasperating at times (Not that, you know, this isn’t). Without him, however, Grantland wouldn’t have existed, and the freedom that the people mentioned above would similarly have remained a pipe dream. Tuesdays With Horry certainly owes a debt to the writers Simmons assembled and the public space he gave them in which to tinker. Nevermind the fact that co-founder James Vasiliou concocted the name for this site before we realized that, of course, Simmons had thought of it as a possible book title long before we did. So, thank you, Bill Simmons, for giving it your best shot and changing the game.

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