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Sportswriter in the Zone: The Day I Met Bill Simmons

ESPN's Bill Simmons

“This isn’t going to be worth it.”

I grumbled to my roommate as we sat in our apartment. He, an Italian, is unfamiliar with Bill Simmons and has little interest in American sports. I, on the other hand, am an aspiring sportswriter and a hot-dog-eating, apple-pie-munching, red-blooded American sports fan.

Simmons, a nationally recognized member of ESPN.com‘s writing staff, recently began a book tour to support his latest effort, The Book of Basketball, a monstrous undertaking weighing in at a hefty 700 pages.

It’s not that meeting Simmons would be a big hassle. In fact, he is a major reason why I decided to switch my major to journalism and move to Chicago in the first place. Big dreams require big places, and a great sports town like the Windy City fits the bill. Still, I asked the question: Would it be worth it?

I asked my roommate repeatedly if I should reconsider going to his book signing in the city’s near North Side. A pile of homework and readings awaited me on the table as I held my head in my hands.

How would I make this decision? What could I possibly say to him to make it worth my while? Was there something I needed to get off my chest? Or did I think myself so important that he should be honored to meet one fan from a sea of hundreds?

So I flipped a coin.

I grumbled to myself some more as I strode to the nearest book store to pick up my copy. I grumbled again as I shelled out $30 for his cinder block of a book. I grumbled more as I arrived at Ohio St. and saw the line stretching around the entire city block containing the ESPNZone.

As I stood in line and made my way inside, however, I began to think: Why wouldn’t this be worth it? Why would I ever want to pass on a chance to thank one of my heroes in person? Isn’t this the kind of thing I moved here to do?

I made my way through the line. Two and a half hours in and I finally could see Simmons himself. He had spotlights on him that shone brighter than those on the face of Chase Utley on the screen behind him, facing a pitcher’s count against A.J. Burnett.

The usher brushed me forward with a sweep of her hand. I gave my book to the usher next to Simmons, and she gave it to him.

I stood there, unsure of what to say. How do you go about something like this? After all, this man is responsible for my wanting to become a sportswriter in the first place.

Do I thank him? Do I shake his hand and smile without a word? Do I leap across the table and slap him on the back?

He stood up to stretch his back. I asked him if he was feeling alright, noticing the discomfort on his face. “It’s killing me,” he responded with a grimace.

Simmons took his seat again and put his pen to my book, scrawling a simple message and a signature. However, he paused for a moment and looked up excitedly as the crack of Jason Werth‘s bat seemed to startle him. The Phillies had just taken the lead.

He had not made eye contact with me, which made me nervous and uncertain of my next action. I didn’t want to bother him if he was uncomfortable or tired. All of the things I had thought to say as I stood in the brisk Chicago night just sat in a stiff lump in my mind.

I couldn’t come up here, ignoring all of my prior committments and standing in line for hours to say nothing at all.

So I was honest.

I leaned across the table, across the booming commentary of Joe Buck on the glittering HD screens around me and I put out my hand.

“Thank you for making me want to become a sportswriter.”

Simmons looked up from the book and accepted my handshake firmly.

“Oh, thank you. Good luck,” he said with a nod, seemingly in surprise. After all, from what I could tell from the line, I was the only fan under the age of 25 there. Lots of fantasy football fathers and aging baseball bachelors. I nodded a thank you back to him, I took my book and I left.

As I sat on the southbound El train, I felt my cheeks growing hot. Was I blushing? Was I really that nervous to meet him?

I think I felt relieved that he was genuinely happy to hear a genuine thanks. I think I felt relieved he didn’t dismiss me as just another fan.

Not to say I think I hit some sentimental, deeply personal note with Bill Simmons. To keep it in perspective, he receives thousands of e-mails and millions of hits on his articles every day. I am no more important than the next reader under the scrutinous eye of the ESPN machine.

But in meeting him and thanking him, I felt reassured that this is what I want to do. This is what sports do, actually. They bring people together in ways that other forms of entertainment cannot. To have a personal hero like Simmons is, to me, as natural as having a favorite player, except I will never be able to run a 4.3 40-yard dash.

But I can sure learn how to write a story.

As I returned to my apartment, my phone began buzzing. It was my roommate. “How was it,” he asked. I replied promptly.

“Worth it.”

Bill Simmons’ ESPN page (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/simmons/)

Excerpt from The Book of Basketball (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/book/091027)

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Posted by on November 8, 2009. Filed under What's Up. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.