San Jose Mercury News Sports Columnist Tim Kawakami

I interviewed him by phone Friday, Nov. 14.

Here’s his blog.

Luke: "Tim, what are the differences in the sports cultures between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area?"

Tim: "I grew up in the Bay Area. It was more me getting used to the LA sports culture and getting right back into it when I moved here. LA is more personality oriented, more celebrity oriented. Kobe, Shaq, Oscar De La Hoya. Those were the guys I was around. Their stories were everything. We’ve got that here but there’s a little bit more longer storylines. We have huge personalities such as Al Davis. In LA, it was more impact. Kobe! Boom! Do something on Kobe. Barry Bonds was like that but it was tougher to do just Barry. We have more deeper entrenched storylines that date back years and years. In LA, you just go from hot story to hot story to hot story. I like doing both things. In LA, it was more De La Hoya! What’s he doing now! What’s he thinking now! Rather than, where does he stand in the world of boxing?"

Luke: "I remember at Candlestick Park, there used to be chants, ‘Dodgers suck! Dodgers suck!’ I don’t remember such chants in Los Angeles [about the Giants]."

Tim: "People in San Francisco care much more about hating LA than people in LA care about anything. There’s more passion. It’s a smaller city. In LA, it’s about getting to the next thing. It’s about being part of the next thing. It’s about being a part of the cool thing. In the Bay Area, it’s about hating people who just want to be part of the cool thing. In the Bay Area, it’s more about sticking with who you are with and hoping and praying they win at some point, even though there are less and less championships in the Bay Area.

"When I was growing up, I recall the Rams were winning, the Lakers were winning, USC was winning at football, UCLA was winning at basketball, the Dodgers were winning at baseball. It was a pain. The Giants were terrible. The 49ers were just getting good when I was in junior high. The Warriors had won in 1974-75 and then had not been good after that. It was torture, but that’s part of the psyche. That’s part of the fabric. I wouldn’t say that in the Bay Area we’re like Chicago Cubs fans, but it is a litte more appreciated that you have to suffer through some things. In LA, you don’t suffer. You just move on to the next thing if you can’t get a championship with one of the teams you’re following. You move on. You go to ‘SC football. There are all of a sudden millions of fans of ‘SC football. You can’t get a ticket to 94,000 seat LA Coliseum. That wasn’t the case seven years ago."

Luke: "Do you think there’s something pathological about this hatred?"

Tim: "I don’t know. Having grown up in the middle of it, I think it’s the way you cheer sports, the way you see things, it’s not pathological, it’s just the way it works. You have the large populace of LA and the slightly less populace of the San Francisco Bay Area. I think it’s just natural. When you’re in a city that doesn’t win as much as the other city, I think it is even now if you count all the 49er titles, you are slightly jealous of the other city and you grow to dislike its excesses. Certainly LA is all about excess. It’s a great contrast. LA people can look over at San Francisco and say, ‘What are you bothering us for?’ San Francisco can say, ‘We can’t stand Tom Lasorda and the Laker girls and all the things that LA stands for.’"

Luke: "Do you think the people who scream ‘Dodgers suck’ and the like and paint themselves up on a Sunday are fundamentally happy people?"

Tim: "Large percentages of them, probably. A small percentage aren’t going to be happy in any endeavor. Anybody who’s passionate about anything can be unhappy about a lot of things. At that point in time, they’re just doing it to entertain themselves. It’s just part of the passion. I know they hate me at times. That’s all good for me. If people didn’t love and hate the stuff we do, it wouldn’t be that interesting. It wouldn’t be that many people buying the paper or clicking the internet.

"I had to laugh. I was covering Kurt Rambis’s intern season with the Lakers. He was clearly not going to be brought back. It was borderline. At the press conference, he said, ‘Oh, this unbelievable pressure you put upon the Lakers. It’s just not fair.’ At that point, I just had to say, ‘Isn’t that why it’s a good job? Because people expect a lot? The Clipper job, no one expects much. It’s a bad job. The Laker job, where people hold you to these high expectations, is a great job because you can get to be great.’ The more people care about what you do, you’re going to get the highs, you’re going to get the lows, but it’s just more people, it’s more important."

Luke: "Aside from sports being your profession, what role has sports played in your life?"

Tim: "I grew up with four boys in my family. Two parents who loved sports. We just played and talked sports. The family got together and we went to Giants games, 49er games. It was just part of what we did. It was a family of all boys and that’s what we did. We had other events in the family but most of the time we’d be watching a Giants game or watching an A’s game or talking about the Warriors. I’m the only one doing it for a profession. We still talk sports. We still do sports. At family events, when the TV goes on, it normally goes to a football game and a baseball game."

Luke: "How many generations has your family been in America?"

Tim: "I’m third generation. My grandparents on both sides came over from Japan in the late 1800s."

Luke: "Does sports play a different role in Japanese-American culture than general American culture?"

Tim: "I think sports plays a huge part in Japanese-American culture. I imagine it’s very similar. It’s hard to say it’s any different. The Japanese-Americans I know are crazy about sports. Japanese-American basketball leagues are huge throughout the state. Incredibly competitive. Incredible well-organized. I didn’t know this until I started blogging a lot about the Warriors about two years ago. A huge percentage of my audience is Asian-American. There’s an internet savvy Asian basketball crowd that I had not known about. When you see the internet websites devoted to the Warriors, it’s largely Asian."

Luke: "How many professional athletes, in the three major sports, are Japanese-Americans?"

Tim: "There’s more than you think. It’s not always full Japanese blood."

Luke: "How did your family react to your being a sportswriter?"

Tim: "I played youth sports all the way through high school. My oldest brother is a lawyer now. When he was in law school and I was in high school and he was listening to me say I wanted to be a lawyer, he said, ‘I’m not sure you want to do that. You’re like me. Why don’t you try something else?’ If you can write, why don’t you try to find yourself a job there? And if you can write sports, that would be incredible.

"Once I got to college and I saw the other choices and I was in journalism school [at Northwestern], I made a decision. Am I going to be a rock n’ roll critic or am I going to be a sportswriter? Let’s try sportswriter. It took off from there. I still credit and blame my brother for that.

"There’s never been a moment of hesitation that this is what I ought to be doing."

Luke: "Why are you a sportswriter?"

Tim: "Because it came relatively, I don’t want to say easy, that’s a bad buzz word there, but it came naturally to me, even in college. I didn’t have to go far to figure out how to do it. I didn’t need to tap ridiculous resources that I didn’t know I had.

"Once I realized I could be a sportswriter, it was my junior year in college, I realized I could do this for another 20 years. It’s been about 20 years.

"I went to Philly right out of college. I didn’t even think about anything else. The jobs seem to come to me. I didn’t have to scramble. It was hellaciously hard work but it was fun work. It was entertaining to me. It hasn’t ceased to be entertaining. It has only become more entertaining."

"When I figured out I didn’t need to pay another $20,000 for graduate school was one of the greatest days of my life. No longer would I worry about getting C+s on the science project.

"I finished Northwestern in four years. You better finish Northwestern in four years or you’ll be paying more money."

Tim graduated in the summer of 1987. He went to the Philadelphia Daily News, "the punchy tabloid. It had a history of hiring young writers. They sent me the sections. Incredible stuff. Gary Smith had left by then. John Schulian had been there and gone. Mark Wicker was there. There was some incredible writing. Page after page of stories about the Flyers and the Sixers and the Eagles. It was the full-throat of East Coast passionate sports. It was a tremendous place to start. A scary place to start."

"That was the beginning of sports talk. WIP. Getting on WIP. Having to go on WIP. Having to talk about the Eagles. I took Rich Hoffman’s place on the Eagles when he bumped up to columnist. I was 23. That was heady stuff."

"The Philly thing was a complete sprint. I don’t remember a day off. It was the Eagles at their Buddy Ryan most raging. They’ve been better since then. I don’t think they’ve ever been more chaotic. It was pedal to the medal. Back page. Screaming headlines. Rambunctious. Get on the radio. People would yell. It was really intense.

"I got to the LA Times in 1990. The LA Times then covered the Rams out of the Orange County edition.

"It couldn’t have been a greater step off the cliff [going to Philly]. Ultra-intense. Ultra-interested. You couldn’t write a word about the back-up quarterback that 50,000 people wouldn’t be talking about.

"The Rams had just been beaten by the 49ers in the NFC championship game. They looked like they were going to be on the rise and they just dropped like a stone when I started covering them.

"It just was a quieter, dude, certainly not intense. The Rams in Orange County were a settled situation. Six or seven years later, they moved. It was not nearly passionate enough. I covered them for three years. It was almost by apathy that it felt apart. There was no rhthym to it.

"I was in LA for seven more years, covering a bunch of different things. The Lakers at the end, which was more intense, but not quite like Philly. Up here, I’ve been a columnist. Because of the internet and because of ESPN, everything is more the same across America.

"If Philly was the most intense, LA was the most laid back. The Lakers were not laid back. San Francisco is in between. There’s more perspective than Philly."

Luke: "When did you first realize that the newspaper business model was in big trouble?"

Tim: "It might have been at some point in my LA Times experience, maybe mid-nineties and I looked around and not that many people on my block in Long Beach were getting the newspaper. They talked about the paper. They knew what was in it. I didn’t see it being delivered to that many people. Now it’s getting to the point where I’m the only one in my sub-division, about 150 homes, getting the Mercury News. That scares you. This is the delivery system. This is what funds the newspaper. You can talk all about numbers and ad revenue and classifieds, but when people aren’t buying the newspaper, that’s the reason it’s going away.

"It’s still on the internet. It’s still important. I write a story. People seem to know about it. I don’t see it get delivered. I want to go out at 5 a.m. with one of these delivery drivers. How many do they actually deliver? There aren’t that many in my area. There are more Wall Street Journals and New York Timeses than their are Mercury Newses. That hits you in the face. I began to see that at the LA Times.

"When my nephews and nieces were growing up, 14 and 15 year olds, they weren’t reading the paper. They are smart kids going to college and they are not reading the newspaper. They seem to know about the paper. They seem to talk about the stories we’re all talking about, but they’re not thumbing through the paper like I was.

"When I was at Northwestern, we got the Chicago Tribune in our suite and we went through it section by section. I think I might’ve been the last generation. One time I met with the publisher of the LA Times, Mark Willes, when he first took over, about 1996, and he met with a group of reporters one at a time, about eight of us, David Shaw was one of them, and he asked us around the table what our concern was, and my concern was that I am afraid I am part of the last generation that takes newspapers seriously.

"I didn’t think it was going to happen this fast. It became pretty clear that I didn’t know what the end game was if people who were five years younger than me, eight years younger than me, did not buy the newspaper, well, they’re never going to buy the newspaper. If they’re not buying it at 30, they’re not going to buy it at 35 and 40. Our audience is dying."

Luke: "Do you have any theory why the newspaper lost its hold on the younger generation?"

Tim: "I think it’s the delivery system. The information is just as in demand. You go to the presidential election, people couldn’t get enough information and analysis…

"I get up in the morning and click on my laptop. I get the paper, but it’s at 10:30 a.m. after I’ve wandered around a little bit."

Luke: "What do you love and hate about your job?"

Tim: "I love that if keeps me busy. I’m an active mind. I go from thing to thing. The more I can write, the more I will write. The internet has just got it out of me. What I dislike is that the thing I’m doing which is going well for me will never go away. It’s not like I could invent something, make two billion dollars and retire. I will do this for the rest of my life, which is a little scary. I don’t know that I want to do it for the rest of my life.

"It’s not just the three columns a week, which seems a little antiquated now, but if something happens in the sports world in the Bay Area, I want people to know there’s going to be something up on my blog. If they are to know there’s something on my blog, there has to be something on my blog. It can’t get there by magic. I’m on vacation now and I’ve probably blogged three times. That was not the case when we were pre-internet. If something happens and I can give a unique spin, I want that up. If it’s not up, it’s a loss for me. I’ve lost the audience for that day.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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