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On Mark Heisler's Departure From The Los Angeles Times

The paper's longtime NBA scribe was let go this week in a round of cutbacks. We reflect on his time atop the sportswriting world and his strange obsession with Bill Simmons.

via <a href="http://media.scpr.org/images/news/2010/05/13/times-pan.jpg">media.scpr.org</a>
via media.scpr.org

This week my Wednesday morning began, as they all do, with a read of the Los Angeles Times sports section. On page C3 was an article about the NBA lockout. It offered a thorough, substantive look at the disagreements between the owners and the players' union, the economic issues facing the league and how the dispute might unfold in the coming weeks. Straightforward stuff, and nothing unusual about it except for one thing: the byline. To that point, the Times' lockout coverage had been anchored by Mark Heisler, the paper's longtime authority on matters NBA-related and an institution in the LA sportswriting community. This piece, though, was by Lance Pugmire, who normally covers boxing and mixed martial arts. Odd.

Around 1:30 on Wednesday afternoon, a startling explanation emerged. The site LA Observed broke the news that as part of a dozen or so staff cuts at the Times, Heisler had been laid off. Word began to circulate last weekend that the axe was about to swing in the Times newsroom, but it was still shocking to see Heisler's name on the list of casualties. He'd been at the Times for decades. He's a writer of national prominence, the author of several books, the winner of sportswriting awards and just generally the kind of high-profile figure who one assumes enjoys something close to lifetime tenure.

I recall reading Heisler's work in the early 1990s, when I first moved to Los Angeles. His columns were a revelation. They were smart, meaty pieces brimming with behind-the-scenes scoops. They were written for NBA junkies by an NBA junkie. He didn't take the league too seriously, but neither did he condescend to it. For hardcore hoops fans, his work demanded to be read. Along with the great Jim Murray and many other talented writers, Heisler helped to make the LAT sports section the best in the world.

He continued to pound out quality pieces well into the aughts. He was the essential chronicler of every major event in modern Laker history. From the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 1996, through their championship run and astonishing collapse to Kobe's "summer of rage" in 2007, Heisler was the guy every Lakers fan had to read. His coverage of the Clippers was just as good. He was among the first to recognize Donald Sterling as a noxious, destructive presence. His long-running series of open letters to Sterling and Elgin Baylor was a withering assault that exposed the institutional rot inside Clipperdom.

In recent years, though, Heisler let the quality of his work slip considerably. His columns became glib, rambling affairs that offered little in the way of insight or reportage. His prose became increasingly slipshod. Whole articles comprised not much more than sentence fragments strung together by ellipses. In place of critical thought, he'd take banal quotes from Derek Fisher and present them as analysis. The overwhelming impression one got was of a man succumbing to complacency. I don't know if that's why the Times cut him loose, but for at least a couple years his output was beneath both his own talents and what readers deserve.

In the late stages of his Times career, Heisler's obsession wasn't basketball, but the Internet. The rise of blogs and their demolition of newspapers' monopoly on hoops coverage drove him to a state of apoplexy that infected his columns ever more often. In this he took up arms alongside Buzz Bissinger and Murray Chass in a kind of doomed rearguard action. So readers who opened the sports section hoping to enjoy some insidery dish about the Lakers instead found off-topic griping about ESPN, the spuriousness of online trade chatter and, bizarrely, former LA Times interns.

I'm not kidding about that last part. In a column written after Game Five of the Heat-Mavericks Finals, Heisler included this less-than-captivating, non sequitur anecdote:

The shrank-at-the-end standard is the point of the spear of the New Madness in NBA coverage as all media platforms clash on one battlefield, the Internet.

We used to wait until the season ended to make our stupid global judgments.

Now there's a new one every day, across journalism. That's why our political process, as Jon Stewart put it, is "us through a fun house mirror."

My favorite assault was Huffington Post's "LeBron James Shows True Colors in Game 4 Disappearance."

"Before I began my crucifixion of LeBron James, I decided it was only fair to go back and watch the tape," wrote Jordan Schultz.

From Schultz's bio, I learned he started "with the Los Angeles Times, leading their 2008 NBA Draft coverage."

Imagine my surprise. I thought I led our coverage.

I emailed Jordan, who said he was an intern who did the live blogging and would adjust his bio.

Mind you, this appeared in the print edition. Given precious column space and an audience of millions, in the middle of an NBA Finals series bursting with storylines and electric drama, Heisler chose to waste his readers' time with a tale of petty points-scoring at the expense of an anonymous blogger. What possible thought process led him to conclude that Times subscribers, those increasingly rare creatures willing to pay for news, would care about such a thing even a little? And how did his editors allow it to see the light of day? The story's not funny, it's not interesting, and it's not germane to the mission of the paper. It was actively insulting to the Times readership and utterly without value except as a window into Heisler's insecurity.

But compared to Bill Simmons, little Jordan Schulz got off easy. Simmons is Heisler's personal bête noire. I have no idea what, if anything, Simmons ever did to the guy - and best I can tell, neither does Simmons - but at some point Heisler identified him as a proxy for all that's corrupt about modern sportswriting. In column after column he's taken gratuitous shots at Simmons, for instance here and here and here. Either it didn't occur to Heisler that no one reading the Times cared about his Simmons vendetta, or it did occur to him but he was unmoved.

His unnatural Sports Guy fixation reached full flower in this 2010 manifesto:

If bloggers have overrun the palace, one of the landmarks was ESPN's 2002 hiring of Bill Simmons, an underground icon in the Dodge-City-on-a-Saturday-night world of Boston sports blogs.

Mainstream writers hated the word blog from the moment they learned it stood for "web log" -whatever that meant - before they were told they too would have to do it. . . .

It's strictly generational, with the young seeking spokesmen of their own with standards of their own, or no standards. . . .

In a sign of the times, Rick Reilly, the most gifted sports writer of his generation (Ed. note: !!), whom ESPN hired away from Sports Illustrated with a $17 million five-year deal, now bobs in the wake of Simmons, who sits in the stands and rarely meets the people he writes about, much less interviews any of them.

If Simmons is actually an essayist writing about sports, it doesn't disqualify him from being taken seriously, like Roger Angell.

Simmons can't be taken seriously because he isn't serious, only occasionally acknowledging his bold pronouncements that turn out wrong or, as is often the case, embarrassing, in a stream-of-consciousness chronicle of his mood swings from trash-talking jubilation to nothing-to-live-for despair.

To this day, Heisler is fighting the old-versus-new-media battle that the rest of the world left behind in 2008. He's like one of those Japanese soldiers found on a remote island in the Philippines who doesn't realize that the war's been over for years. The fight between pixels and print was fought, and the winner was: no one cares. Content is content.

An irony here is that while Heisler was busy fulminating against the online menace, the Times itself became home to a number of excellent sports blogs. Before moving to ESPN, Jon Weisman did splendid work blogging about the Dodgers for the Times. Mark Medina's online coverage of the Lakers is consistently strong and often superior to what shows up in the print edition. There's nothing too complicated about this. Readers want smart, provocative writing, and they're just as happy to find it on their laptops as they are on their doorsteps.

It's instructive to compare Heisler with Jonathan Abrams, a fellow hoops reporter formerly of the LA Times. Abrams has spent the past several years covering the Knicks at the New York Times but recently left to join Grantland, the new Bill Simmons-led project at ESPN. Tuesday night, he took to Twitter to discuss why he made the jump:

Grantland is great b/c 99.99 percent of people would have rested and chilled if they were Simmons and rested on their resumes.... Simmons is still hungry, being innovative and pushing journalism forward. Couldn't say no to that.

His point is a great one. Whatever you think of Simmons, you can't accuse him of taking his audience for granted. He's not satisfied with what he's built. Despite his enormous success, his writing doesn't come with an odor of entitlement. He got to where he is by overtaking industry dinosaurs, and he seems to appreciate that if he doesn't stay sharp and aggressive, if he doesn't keep pushing to give readers something bigger and better, he could easily become a dinosaur himself.

Heisler's firing by the LAT tells us something about how the business has changed since Simmons arrived on the scene. If you're at all familiar with the Simmons origin myth, you know that he wanted nothing more than to work as a columnist for the Boston Herald. As the story goes, he launched his Boston Sports Guy website out of frustration with papers' sclerotic hiring practices. Once a columnist had a regular gig, he kept it until he retired or died. Tenure triumphed over quality, and why wouldn't it? Until the Internet came along, readers unimpressed with sports coverage in their local metro rag had nowhere else to turn.

Happily, the ramparts the traditionalists have been hiding behind are now in rubble. To be perfectly clear, no one's unemployment should be celebrated. That Heisler and other staffers were let go is both a human trauma and a symptom of continued illness at the Times, a newspaper I love and can't imagine doing without. But Heisler's column became too little about basketball and too much a vehicle for his retrograde worldview and petty resentments. A great paper should stand for something better than that.

Let's hope that Heisler isn't done. When he was good, he was awesome, and no one has better connections within the Laker organization. His command of NBA and Laker history is second to none. It's not hard to imagine him getting his fastball back and reemerging as an important voice (instead of just a famous one) in the NBA milieu. Come to think of it, he could write a hell of a blog.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.