The most professionally rewarding experience of my journalism career came in 2010 as a sports reporter at the Flint Journal. I got my dream beat — covering city basketball in Flint, Mich. (or simply, ‘Hooptown, U.S.A.’ as Mott Community College public address announcer Tony Coggins appropriately dubs it).
Admittedly, I was about a decade late. The city’s last heyday for basketball came in the late 1990s and early 2000s or so, when each city team usually featured at least one Division I prospect and every city game was played in front of a packed house. There was certainly some talent still on city rosters during my lone season on the beat, but Division I recruiters have been a rarity in Flint city basketball in recent years as the population decline has eroded some of the talent base and the everyday struggles of Flint’s citizens in one of the hardest hit areas of the country when it comes to unemployment and violent crime have hurt both the academic and athletic reputations of the city schools. I wasn’t covering high-level basketball on a night-to-night basis the way someone on the beat a decade prior to me would’ve been, but it was almost more interesting that way.
Flint’s athletes still took great pride in that long tradition of producing great athletes, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone playing on a Flint court who doesn’t fancy himself the next Jeff Grayer or Morris Peterson or JaVale McGee. OK … so I’m exaggerating a bit … most Flint kids are probably way too young to have ever heard of Jeff Grayer (I kid, I kid). I don’t think I met a Flint athlete whose goal wasn’t to play Division I basketball. I don’t think I met a Flint athlete who didn’t believe with every fiber of his being that he’d make it — one athlete who shall remain nameless even went to the trouble of creating a fake e-mail account purporting to be a basketball observer with a keen eye for talent who had inside info that this particular player was destined to play high major basketball despite not even being the best player on his rather middling high school team. He prodded me to write a story, using these e-mails as my source, about all of this high major attention the kid was receiving. I definitely admired the effort.
What I always respected about those kids, even though the rational side of me knew that in most cases they were either listening to the wrong advice or just simply hearing what they wanted to hear when it came to their own abilities, was that any time I walked into a gym and watched a game between city schools, they went at each other. It mattered to them. The crowds may not have been as big, the talent on the court may not have been the same, the district may have been smaller, but every city game I watched felt like the most important game that was ever played in this city solely because the kids made it feel that way.
Covering that beat made me a better, more aware writer. It also woke me up a bit. I’ve covered sports for a long time, always with a bit of cynicism about how big we make sports in our lives. Prior to covering Flint sports, I usually had to battle this attitude that sports, and more accurately my profession of covering them, don’t matter all that much. To those kids, though, nothing was more important. Many believe sports are their only chance to escape the poverty, drugs, crime or whatever tragic circumstances their lives are surrounded by in a place like Flint. To be clear, I don’t agree that sports are the only avenue out. But I do now fully understand where that mentality comes from and why so many kids grow up believing sports are, literally, life and death. I always try to keep that in mind now when I cover high school and college basketball. If it’s that important to them, I owe it to them to take what I write about them with the utmost seriousness.
So what does any of that have to do with this site? As I mentioned above, I only spent one year on the Flint beat. Real life circumstances got me. I became a father, first of all, which obviously required my focus. But secondly, I was also caught up in the alleged ‘new model’ of corporate journalism, which is just a flowerier way of saying that modern journalists are asked to produce more content and work longer hours on bigger beats than their contemporaries in previous eras for much less pay. I had an opportunity to get out of the biz and into a field that is a little more stable and lets me come home for dinner with my family rather than hit the drive-thru at Rally’s on Saginaw Street at 11:30 p.m. four nights a week. I had to do right by my family and waistline, and the sacrifice was a job I mostly loved (aside from the ‘newsroom’ part of working in a newsroom), covering people I grew really attached to.
Now, about two years later, I’ve had a void because of leaving. I miss basketball. I miss telling great stories. And, due to the seemingly never-ending cutbacks at newspapers in this state, I think there is also a void in basketball coverage that BallinMichigan.com can help fill. I have some very simple goals for this site:
- Be compelling. There are great basketball stories all over Michigan at all levels of competition. We want to find those stories. Please, always feel free to send me story ideas either in the comments section on this site or via e-mail (patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com).
- Be engaging. I don’t want this site to produce content that no one cares about. The greatest thing basketball coverage (and sports coverage in general) can do is create conversations. I want to provide content that sparks an interest, that starts a conversation, whether that conversation is about specific X’s and O’s minutiae of the game itself or whether it is about a larger social issue only loosely related to basketball. Our comments section allows you to either register for a username on this site or simply log into your Facebook account if you prefer to use that as a means of commenting here. Our content will often be interactive and include polls and our aim is to communicate as effectively as possible with our readers. You won’t agree with or even like everything we produce here. What I hope is that, whether you agree with everything or not, BallinMichigan.com becomes a daily place for you to stop by and find smart, informative conversations about a myriad of topics.
- Be different. We’re not just going to be a newspaper online or provide the type of who won/who lost recapping that virtually any mediocre writer on the planet can produce. We’re going to bring a mix of long-form and short-form writing, we’re going to bring first-person accounts from athletes and coaches who have interesting experiences to share, we’re going to bring you well-argued and well-articulated opinion pieces, we’re going to bring you photos and video and we’re going to bring you unique analysis that you can’t find in any other publication in this state.
- (Eventually) Be self-sustaining. I have worked in journalism long enough to know that niche, independent startup publications are most likely not going to make anyone rich. BallinMichigan.com is a hobby for me and a passion project. I will always find a place to write about things I care about, paid or otherwise. But, once we’ve established an audience, once we’ve developed a strong reputation for providing great, unique content, I also will not be shy about asking for small donations for those who can afford to give or for approaching potential advertisers who may benefit from exposure to our audience. I probably won’t subject you to a NPR-style pledge drive, but there will definitely be times when I remind about that donation bar in the right sidebar. If we get to a point where my hosting costs are covered and I can offer a modest stipend to freelance writers or photographers who contribute here, I’ll consider BallinMichigan.com a financial success. For now, I’m content to simply prove to readers that we’re worthy of your time. Then, down the road, that might lead to a few occasional asks to help ensure that we continue to grow.
I truly believe that the state of Michigan has a basketball reputation that is only matched by a few other hotbeds around the country. Ultimately, I hope that this site becomes a reflection of that tradition. I hope you enjoy what we have to offer and welcome all input and feedback.
Patrick Hayes, Publisher