If you haven’t heard about or met Jeff Pearlman, noted sportswriter, author and UD alum, get comfy.
Pearlman, author of nine books (the tenth is coming out this fall), sat down with me to wax poetically about all things journalism, University of Delaware’s student newspaper, The Review, life as a writer and what it felt like when Winning Time, a series based on his book, Showtime, launched on HBO.
“I grew up in Mahopac, New York, graduating high school in 1990. I always enjoyed sports and covered them for the high school paper. When it came time for college, I was looking at two colleges. I really wanted to go to Penn State, but I didn’t get in. So, it was down to SUNY at Albany or University of Delaware. When it came time to decide, I wanted to look at each brochure one more time. I couldn’t find the Albany brochure, so I decided to go to Delaware. A side note: Years later, I found the Albany brochure stuck behind my desk drawer.”
“I should start by saying I was a cocky, arrogant young guy when I landed at University of Delaware. I got there and had this meeting with a counselor who asked me what I was interested in doing while I was at college. I told her I was going to be editor of The Review one day.
It turns out she was dating Mark Nardone, who was one of the editors of The Review. She went and told them about this cocky young guy, so when I showed up to ask to write, they all knew about me and basically laughed me out of there.
They were not pleasant. I can’t blame them. But I did eventually become editor. I was a history major, but I pretty much spent all of my time at The Review.
(Editor’s Note: Mark Nardone went on to serve as Editor of Delaware Today for a number of years. He currently works in public relations for Winterthur.)
I wrote a story about how University of Delaware and Delaware State University were right down the road from each other and never played in sports. I called it the greatest sports rivalry that never was. I don’t know what motivated me to write this story, but I got really into it. I interviewed everyone. It ended up running on the front page, above the fold. I was even mentioned in The News Journal in their sports column. A few weeks later, the schools came together and agreed to play in sports.
I think that moment really set me on my way a little bit. It was enormous for me.
The dream was always to write for Sports Illustrated. During college, I got an internship at The Tennessean and it went really well, so they offered me a job after graduation. I was still a cocky kid and thought I was great. Looking back…maybe not so much. I started as a food and fashion writer and eventually worked my way up to covering sports. It was a great job.
Pretty much since college I had been applying to Sports Illustrated. After several applications, they invited me to pitch a story that I would freelance for them as a way to test me out. I pitched several stories, and none really landed for them. Then, I thought about this story I did at The Review.
Basically, a writer at The Review had this idea of applying early for the NBA draft. He graduated and never did the story, so I ran with it. I was a junior and I didn’t play basketball, but I thought it would be funny to write a story about the experience of applying for the NBA draft.
I pitched the story to Sports Illustrated and they said, ‘OK, write that.’ That got me hired and a few months later, in 1996, I moved to New York to work for Sports Illustrated.
It was the greatest; I mean, I got paid to write about sports all day. I could use an expense account and fly all over the country covering sports, going out to dinner and meeting players. It really was the dream.
I was hired as a fact checker basically and the idea is that you work your way up. I did work my way up pretty quickly and ended up covering baseball. I worked there from 1996 to 2003.
My biggest story was probably about John Rocker, a racist baseball player who went viral before there really was such a thing. He was suspended, but it was a pre-Twitter viral story that was everywhere.
I got to cover All-Star games and several World Series games.
I did get tired of the beat after awhile and decided to leave in 2003 to take some time off from sports. I got this cool job with Newsday where my job was basically to go around the city and talk to people and write magazine-length stories about whatever I wanted. I worked there for a year, but I could see it was a sinking ship.
I remembered talking to this agent back when I was at Sports Illustrated. She had this idea for a book about the Mets, so I thought I could look into writing something like that. I never thought I would write books… it really wasn’t something I was interested in doing. I got into the project, though, and really enjoyed it. And then, my book hit The New York Times bestseller list and it just went from there.
Showtime is about the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team of the 1980s. It came out in 2014. There was a screenwriter, Jim Hecht, who came to my house. I was living in New York and he told me he loved the book and wanted to see it as a series. I gave him permission to try for it.
Honestly, I was skeptical and never believed anything would come of it. These things happen that someone says they want to turn the book into something, but usually it doesn’t end up happening.
In 2014, I moved to the Los Angeles area. One day, Jim calls me up and says Adam McKay wants to meet with us.
I Googled Adam McKay.
We got to his house and he’s telling me he loves the book. It was a great meeting, but I still walked away skeptical that anything was going to come of it.
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Some time goes by and a friend of mine in Delaware, sends me a link that reads: “John C. Reilly Cast.” Then another link that says, “Sally Field Cast.”
(John C. Reilly plays 1980s Lakers owner, Dr. Buss. Sally Field plays his hilarious mother. Soon, filming was underway and HBO released the first episode of Winning Time on March 6, 2022.)
My wife, Catherine, and my kids, Casey, 18, and Emmett, 15, are all thrilled. We each got to have a cameo in the show. You can see me during the coin flip scene in episode one where I am portraying a reporter. I do my signature reporter move of pulling the pen from behind my ear to take notes—something I actually did as a reporter.
We walked the purple carpet (purple for the Lakers colors) during the premier and went to the after party. It’s all pretty surreal. We moved to California, and it feels like we entered a contest and won some sort of movie experience. I mean, we met Sally Field.
Catch Winning Time on HBO. Purchase Pearlman’s books and learn more at jeffpearlman.com. Books are available in bookstores nationwide and on Amazon.