Blogger Interviews: Bethlehem Shoals

We’re running a segment here at The Big Picture where we’ll interview some of the biggest names in the sports blogosphere. What’s the point? Well, these guys spend countless, thankless hours writing, so a little recognition from time to time is well warranted. Think of this as the blogger’s version of a reach-around or something.

Tonight’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals, so who better to join us today than Bethlehem Shoals? Shoals is the brilliant mind behind FreeDarko and also blogs at The FanHouse. His recently-launched Longform Shoals columns are a must-read. Let’s get in the mood of the Championship series and have some NBA fun today. The comment section is the Detroit Pistons defense. You are Bron Bron. Play ball.

1. The rundown:

Name: Bethlehem Shoals
Age: 29
Location: Houston, TX
Occupation: Blogger
Favorite team: Washington Wizards
Links to your favorite all-time posts you’ve written. (3-5)

He Broke the Book on Knights
The Crown Is Dead, Long Live the King
What Dads Are Like
222 Full Clips

Time per day spent blogging and perusing the blogosphere:
6-7 hours

2. Take us through a typical day of blogging.

Wake up around 7:15 CST (being one hour behind is an occupational hazard), make coffee. Wait for my girlfriend to leave so I can turn on A&E’s acclaimed daytime true crime line-up. Check my RSS feeds and skim the rumor pages. Then, it depends on whether I’m doing a Longform or messing with short items for the Haus. If it’s a column, I hammer out a draft, then build with John Ness to get a final edit worked out. By the time the Law and Order shows up on TNT, I’m usually freed up to put some serious elbow grease into a FreeDarko post.

Otherwise, I’m frantically trying to get a decent number of small posts together while finding time to do my FD duty. That usually involves re-reading the rumor pages, getting a little deeper into the blogosphere, and scouring YouTube for worthy material.

For some reason, I don’t take a shower until all my writing is done. This despite the fact that showering wakes me up more than caffeine, and being grimy demoralizes me more than anything.

3. After LeBron more or less saved the playoffs, this might be a moot point. But before Game Five, the playoffs were considered a dud. In one of the best posts we’ve read in a while, you said how even the Lottery was more exciting than most games. This year’s playoffs had the thrill of the Warriors, the upset factor and plenty of stars (early on anyway). Three-parter: 1.) Why exactly then are these playoffs — even with LeBron’s gem — such a failure? 2.) Haven’t then most NBA Playoffs post Jordan been weak? 3.) How can the playoffs, in future years, be improved?

Well, for one, few of the stars had a chance of advancing. T-Mac’s loss sucked because of all the underlying sadness, but it also was a sign for the playoffs: if McGrady and Yao can’t advance, the megastar model might be dead. Or at least on hold for these playoffs. I know that this all sound ridiculous, seeing as LeBron just made the Finals. But he had an eh season, cruised into the Conference Finals, and really only felt like a traditional star for one game and a few quarters. While part of me thinks that this is proof of how unique a player James is, it doesn’t exactly satisfy my viewer-lust for commanding figures.

The Warriors fucked everything up, in the same way that the Suns have, at times, made the rest of the league look bad. I said this in a Longform already: they brought the playoffs to an early climax. I don’t think this postseason has objectively been absolutely terrible, but only LeBron’s GAME had anything on that entire Golden State/Mavs series. Utah is neat, the Suns remained the Suns…I don’t know, it just felt like we’d been conditioned to expect too much.

Then again, hindsight is quite different from living through it. Between the Warriors’ upset and LeBron self-creation, ’07 has given us two super-memorable headlines. That’s what we’ll remember about it a decade down the road–how much we thrilled at these, not all that disappointed or suffered by comparison. I don’t know which vantage point is “right,” so let’s assume it’s something between the two. Or what it means that I think there have been some quality playoffs since Jordan split the second time.

4. FreeDarko has carved out a niche for itself with a much different style: longer posts, more philosophical writing and bizarre fucking pictures! Was the point of doing this initially, to, like we said, carve out a niche? A way to help the site stand out in this cluttered sports blogosphere? Or was the style and writing on FreeDarko more just a reflection of the authors’ personalities and thoughts?

FreeDarko began as a fantasy league message board and thusly reflected the sensibility of my circle of friends. Although I think we knew it was different, we started a blog for all the usual reasons: our writing on there was interesting, fairly funny, and worth discussing with a wider audience. The longer the blog went on, and the more readers we got, the more I started thinking about what did and didn’t make sense long-term, what the audience might care about, etc.

I’ve definitely spent a lot time trying to figure out how obscure or abstract things should be, and whether deliberately vague writing might not do more harm than good. Oh, and the whole issue of whether I need to respond immediately to breaking news, or not feel obligated to address the big stories.

So basically it began as a totally uncompromising artistic statement, and then sold the fuck out when we got readers.

5. Dream job? Go.

Getting paid to do FreeDarko. The Longforms at AOL are a huge step in this direction, but I can’t lie: I really enjoy cursing, mixing in photos of jihadists, making dorky rap references, and using my B.A. in Philosophy for something.

6. Talks of “voice” have been infiltrating inboxes lately. How’d you initially find your voice? Was it an instant thing, or was FreeDarko a few months old before you really found it? And you recently started the Longform Shoals columns at The ‘House, which have been great reads thus far. What is Longform Shoals all about and what was the motivation for starting it?

I kind of accidentally answered this already, didn’t I? Maybe not. I started out writing about basketball in a style that deliberately aped Babelfish and bad translations of Russian literature. Big surprise, that didn’t always come that naturally, and could really get in the way of the ideas staying on track. I guess the longer I’ve been doing this, the more I’ve just stopped trying, so to speak. Whatever comes out, comes out. Sometimes it’s more in line with the FD “voice”, but then the next day it might be fairly normal sportswriting. Like after LeBron’s 48, I sounded like the Bible, and then after Game Six, sober as can be.

The saga of Longform Shoals goes something like this: MJD and myself decide to approach Jamie about writing columns. They reveal that they’ve been discussing this option. The rest is history. Well, actually, it’s a still a work-in-progress, since we’re still trying to get the right balance between Shoalsian bombast and AOL-friendly material. John is a tremendous editor, and really does want these to read as much like FreeDarko posts as is practically possible. That said, I am super-jealous of MJD, whose Debriefing is already as perfect as blogging gets.

7. There are all sorts of wonderful blogs out there. A few you’d recommend?

I bleed like any other man, put on my pants on leg at time like everyone else, and have the same essential reading habits. Blogs by people The Big Picture hasn’t interviewed?

Straight Bangin’, Gabe Said, YBF, Matthew Yglesias, Just Sayin’ 2000 and Pizzawhale.

8. Most rewarding parts of blogging? Most frustrating?

It’s incredibly rewarding to realize that people find my basketball writing useful. It’s frustrating to remember how little I actually know about basketball.

9. What’s the ultimate goal of your site/your writing?

A salary and health insurance. I’d also like to write some books and land a piece in The New Yorker.

10. FreeDarko gets a great readership now. The content speaks for itself, but it needs to get out there somehow — especially at first. How’d the initial promotion of FD go? Message boards? Email strings? And a piece of advice, if you will, for some smaller sites how to build a steady readership?

Deadspin. All Deadspin. We got a major boost in traffic when Billups put us in his blogroll early on, and Peter Schrager’s piece on FOX Sports gave us our first huge numbers day. Getting mentioned by Simmons was pretty rad, and Henry’s stamp of approval has meant a lot. But it was last year’s playoffs, during which Will linked to us something like ten days in a row, that our traffic (relatively) boomed and stayed there. I guess it was a perfect storm of his cred and enough of an audience overlap between Deadspin and FreeDarko.

That’s the main thing I’ve come to realize: getting linked to once by a major site won’t establish you. It’s great for getting your name out there, but a lot of people only read smaller blogs when directed to by the heavy hitters. They might not even remember the name unless they find themselves clicking to it on a regular basis. That’s why posting links is a viable form of content. What you’ve got to do is get yourself lifted up from out of the pack, which probably works differently for every blog and is a combination of circumstance, luck, and hustle. Not sucking helps, even though there are plenty of crap blogs out there that do well.

I’m also probably a bad person to ask about this — I was floored when FreeDarko started averaging a thousand uniques a day. I couldn’t believe that many people actually wanted to read it.

11. This might be a loaded question, but, in your opinion, what’s the future of sports blogs? Enlighten us.

There are so many different kinds of sports blogs out there, it’s hard to generalize. The real question is, what happens if the mainstream media chokes on its own tail? Blogs are still fairly dependent on other people’s access, but most of those people don’t understand what readers actually find interesting. Even the FanHouse or True Hoop, which are tied into major sports news operations, are still often waiting for someone else to harvest anecdotes or rumors.

That’s why Dan Steinberg is the future. He’s the only way the mainstream media will save itself, and the position I think a lot of bloggers would like to find themselves in. Steinz has access, but he does things with it that appeal to a blog-reading demographic. He’s comfortable in both worlds, and can both dredge up and package his own content.

On the other hand, maybe all the squandered access of big papers and web operations is telling us that it’s just not that important. I’m not saying that you can learn everything important about basketball from a telecast with the sound off, but thoughtful or funny commentary can sell itself. That’s why blogs can work the way they do, and why corporations will dump money into them even though it’s still a “parasitic” medium. I know that most msm columnists have access, but their columns often read as if they didn’t. These dead weight columnists are being replaced by the “voice” blogger. And in a perfect world, something like The Basketball Jones would be sending scarewaves throughout sports radio.

12. Spurs. Cavs. On one side you have a well-oiled, emotionless machine. On the other, a superhuman and four statues. While San Antonio will be the clear favorite, can we expect LeBron to carry his team that one extra step and get an NBA crown? And if Bron really wins this thing, will we start hearing Jordan comparisons? Now your pick please.

LeBron James is in the NBA Finals at age twenty-two, with a questionable coach and a team that can’t score, even from the free throw line. That’s better than Jordan managed at the same age. No one wants to call him “better than Jordan,” so let’s settle for this: if no one really compares MJ and Magic, can’t we grant LeBron his own path to forge?

The Cavs have to win at least one game, right? And then the genius of LeBron will snatch away they have no business taking–you just don’t put up a game like his 48 and then show nothing like that in the Finals. Spurs in six, with just enough tension to make it worth watching.

Oh, and I fully expect an over-reaction on the part of Spurs fan and certain media members when this comes true. About how one guy can’t do it all, a team is an army, and LeBron’s overrated. Right, because Tim Duncan could get to the Finals by himself.

(Past interviews; also found on right sidebar: Dawizofodds; Matt Ufford; The Mighty MJD; Jamie Mottram; The Big Lead; The Cavalier; Will Leitch; Dan Shanoff; Dan Steinberg; Brooks; Unsilent Majority; J.E. Skeets; Henry Abbott; The Dugout; NFL Adam).

9 Responses

  1. But where does he get all the crazy photos?

  2. Shoals is the man and Longform is a blessing sent down from God himself. Excellent interview, Zach.

  3. Is his name really Bethlehem???

    Another excellent piece, Zach.

  4. Great interview~

  5. Yeah, we’ve noticed that also. Nobody wants to call LeBron “better thank Jordan.”

    Great reasons and analysis. Our analysis approaches this from a monetary perspective. Let us know your thoughts! Thanks.

    The accelerated growth curve of LeBron is amazing.

    Michael Jordon, Warren Buffett and half the world want to hang and praise LeBron.

    It’s going to be an amazing NBA Championship and next couple of years for him.

  6. A great interview with Bethlehem. He seems to really know his stuff so no surprise his site (and this site) are really picking up steam.

    I like his advice about getting your link out there.

    Ahem…speaking of which:

    Great article guys.

  7. Good stuff. I did want to read more about the wacky photos, though.

  8. As always, fantastic work!

  9. Well done, more of these need to be out there. There are some fascinating stories behind the blogs themselves.

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