I don’t remember exactly when I started reading Dan Wetzel. I just know that I was late to the party.
It must have been sometime in around 2007 when I came across Dan’s columns on Yahoo! Sports, and I recall instantly thinking, “Damn, this dude is good!” Dan was a good reporter, he worked hard, he built his columns on original thought, and he constantly delivered a story and an idea that I couldn’t find anywhere else. He didn’t just repackage the minutiae like many do.
I began to read him more and more, especially during college football season, and his disdain for the BCS put me in a chokehold and wouldn’t let me go. I was hooked long before I flew threw his (and Jeff Passan’s and Josh Peter’s) book “Death To The BCS” last fall. It may have been after the 2010 BCS National Championship game when I converted to a devout Wetzel reader.
I read most of his stuff before then, but I was prone to miss a column here and there. But then Dan wrote about the pain of two Texas quarterbacks under one of those majestic Pasadena nights at the Rose Bowl. Texas was playing Alabama for the title and, as you know, Colt McCoy got knocked out of the game and his backup, a true freshman from Austin, Texas, named Garrett Gilbert, had to replace him with the eyes of Texas glaring down. A terrible position for any freshman to be in. Gilbert produced a few thrills and perhaps a brief sense of false hope for Longhorns fan but, of course, the Crimson Tide won. It was too much to ask a young kid. And then up popped a column on my computer screen the next morning that captured ALL of it. It was a beautiful read and is, to this day, my favorite Wetzel column. Maybe even my favorite column from anyone. You have to read it here. After that, I said I would never miss another Wetzel piece. And, in 17 months, I haven’t.
Now that I have flattered Dan to the brink of embarrassment, it’s a pleasure to introduce him as Western Sideline’s third guest in our Q&A series. For Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Dan hung out at a Cleveland bar to write a column on the city and capture the feeling of a bar that laughed and clapped at any LeBron James miscue. (Read Here) I reached out to Dan to ask if he would answer a few questions about his column, and he was more than happy to. Please read Dan’s column before you read his answers below.
I sent Dan the Q&A we did with Wright Thompson just so he could have an idea of what I was asking him to do, and he responded, “I don’t think I’m as introspective as Wright.” I’ll disagree. As some of my Southern friends would say, Dan done good here.
Dan Wetzel, folks:
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Q: Whose idea was it to send you to Cleveland for Game 6 of the Finals, and what kind of story did you hope you would come away with? If the series went to a Game 7, were you going to stay in Cleveland or return to Miami?
Dan Wetzel: It was my idea. You put yourself in the right spot and a column will happen. This was an epic series for sportswriters; there were endless angles, stars, controversies. It was great. The whole series was great. So I knew Cleveland would work and that was before I realized I had something to say about the city. And since we had Adrian Wojnarowski, Marc Spears and Johnny Ludden in Miami, it was an easy decision. I was going to go for the first elimination game no matter who was leading the series unless there was too much happening on site. In this case if the series went seven, I was planning on returning to Miami, but who knows?
Q: What story were you rooting for: Dallas winning and writing about the jubilation of Cleveland, or Miami winning and writing about the continued anger/hate towards LeBron?
Dan Wetzel: It really didn’t matter. It was really a column about the city.
Q: What did you have with you at Flannery’s Pub, your notebook? A recorder? How many different people did you speak to? Was there one interview that stood above the rest?
Dan Wetzel: Just some folded pieces of scrap paper to jot notes and the interviews down on. I interviewed about six people at Flannery’s. I talked casually with some others. I think all the stuff I used came from a group of guys after the game. That’s when the story became concrete.
Q: How did you plan to attack this column before showing up at the bar? Did you have a specific angle in mind? Did the story change in your mind while you were at the bar watching the game unfold?
Dan Wetzel: I got to Cleveland late Sunday afternoon and walked around talking to people. I went to another bar on Ontario Street, more of a blue-collar place. I talked to some people on the street who were just hanging out by one of the statues. I hit up the guys working out front of my hotel, etc. Just to get some material and make sure I was on point. I had also called people I know from Northeast Ohio and ran things by them. And a good friend of mine lives there, so he came out to meet me.
I have been to Cleveland many times through the years. I really like Cleveland. I live in Detroit, so I think I understand the mindset. I’ve found places like these and the people who live there too often get put into an inaccurate box, everyone’s poor and desperate and bitter and we wish we could live somewhere else. It’s not reality.
I wrote a bunch before the game and during the first and second quarter. Most of the column had nothing to do with the game. I watched the second half at Flannery’s for the inevitable scene. I figured the fact you can see the Q from the bar gave it credibility. It was paint by numbers at that point.
I basically watched a playoff game at a bar with one of my best friends and got to call it work.
Q: What was it like trying to watch the game and presumably analyze the play while also watching people and trying to capture the mood of the bar? How did you balance the two?
Dan Wetzel: I didn’t analyze the play of the game. I almost never do that anyway. The mood was very easy to pick up. There weren’t any Heat fans there.
Q: Your column was up early Monday morning so you obviously had to leave and file your story at some point, but were you still at the bar when LeBron spoke in the postgame presser? How did the people in the bar respond to LeBron’s “people have to wake up with the same lives, same personal problems…” comment?
Dan Wetzel: I hung out for awhile after with some of the guys I interviewed, it was pretty relaxed. They were good guys, funny. You’re always looking for more but the column was obvious. LeBron’s comments only aided it.
Q: Last one: Do you have any regrets with the story? Something you didn’t do that you wish you would have?
Dan Wetzel: Well, you always wish you had a better character or ideal scene or perfect quote but you can only do what you can do. You’re one guy trying to report on an entire city, so you take your crack at being in one place and hope it pays off. Maybe I should’ve gone somewhere else. Maybe Akron. I’m sure there was something better at a different venue, but that’s always the case. This was good. People in Cleveland really responded positively to it and that’s who I was trying to represent.
Many, many thanks to Mr. Dan Wetzel.
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