Superagent Arn Tellem had a proposition for his longtime friend, magazine writer Franz Lidz. If an active NBA player wanted to come out of the closet, would Lidz be interested in the story?
Lidz has been friends with Tellem for more than 50 years. They've known each other since they were kids playing wiffleball in a buddy's backyard. Lidz profiled Tellem—Robert Wuhl's titular character on Arli$$ is partly based on him—for Sports Illustrated 11 years ago. So, sure, Lidz was plenty interested. Tellem happened to be Jason Collins's agent. And this was how Lidz landed one of the biggest scoops a sportswriter could ever dream of.
But there were a few conditions. From the agent's side: The player wouldn't come out until the season was over. From the writer's side: Lidz didn't want to know who the gay athlete was. He didn't want to be trapped in a fraught embargo. What if it leaked? How would he sit on it?
"We kind of trust each other because we've known each other for more than 50 years," Lidz told me. "It seemed like it was more fun if I I didn't know."
Lidz also had to figure out where to place it. In 2007, Lidz took a buyout from the buyout-happy Sports Illustrated. He headed over to Portfolio and wrote the first piece that declared unambiguously—with first-hand evidence—that George Steinbrenner was suffering from dementia. Over the last few years, he's written only a piece or two a year for SI. He's written some movie reviews for The New York Times and he contributes features to Smithsonian.
So where to go with an undeniably huge scoop?
Tellem thought the Times might make a good home. But Lidz knew only the culture editors over there, and he had a special connection with SI's sorta new managing editor. Chris Stone used to be Lidz's assistant when he was writing Scorecard, the magazine's front-of-the-book section.
So, Lidz called Stone at home on March 31, Easter morning, and asked if he'd be interested.
"I knew he'd want it,” Lidz said. “How could you not want this story?"
It wasn't long before he realized the story—whoever the athlete was, and however articulate he may be—should be a first-person account.
"I came up with it," Lidz said. "I was thinking about it: What's the best way to do this story? I thought it would be much more powerful if it was in his voice. It might as well be in The New York Times if it's a third-person story."
It was SI's piece. They waited, and then instructions came. Lidz traveled to L.A. last Tuesday, April 23. Joining him was SI's No. 2, Jon Wertheim. Lidz was told Tuesday night that he’d be speaking with 34-year-old center Jason Collins.
And why did Wertheim tag along?
"He came basically because he was very concerned it would leak out in social media in some way and wanted to edit it on the spot if there was a leak," Lidz said. "We just wanted to be able to press a button and put this online if we had to."
There was a photo shoot to be done, too. Everything had to be kept incredibly quiet. According to Lidz, no one else at SI was informed of the story until last weekend. An SI source told us yesterday that no one mentioned it in last Thursday's editorial meeting.
The pair arrived at Collins's house last Wednesday. Lidz had never met Collins and barely knew anything about him.
"I am a quick study and did a lot of fast research," Lidz said. "He had never been on a team that I was following, really. I hadn't done much NBA stuff at the end of my career at Sports Illustrated. I was aware of him but I didn't have many insights or knew his story even beforehand."
They had a four-hour conversation, from which Collins's first-person story would eventually emerge. And he was an easy interview.
"When we got to the house on Wednesday, he was awesome," Wertheim, SI’s executive editor, told me. "When you talk to him you realize that he's one of us."
But why, exactly, did Collins come out this way? Where's Oprah? Where's Matt Lauer? Where's the big ESPN TV special?
"It was my sense that Jason wanted to own this thing," Wertheim said. "He didn't want it to be filtered. He didn't want to do a TV segment that was going to be edited or have to think, 'What are they going to use?'"
Oddly enough, Lidz was accompanied by his daughter, Daisy, as well. He told me that she was an excellent typist and he didn't want to be bothered with transcribing the four hours of tape.
“She's smarter than me and she has great insights into people,” he said. “She's married and she went to Sarah Lawrence and [she's] an outspoken speaker on gender equality.”
They had a working transcript by the end of the night. By Thursday, Lidz and his daughter had a working piece for Collins, and Wertheim had his third-person account too.
Lidz and Daisy showed up at the Collins's house on Friday. Collins was the lead writer on the piece, so he had final approval. He was accompanied by his parents. Lidz asked Daisy—since she works in theater—to read the piece aloud. She suggested that Collins do it. He read it and cried a few times. His family adored it. And it turns out—as these things sometimes do—that the line heard 'round the country wasn't Collins's flourish.
"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay,” reads the lede to the piece.
That was written by Franz Lidz.
"That was me," he said. "I was trying to condense the story in three lines. I think this story should tell itself right at the beginning."
On Monday morning, a little before 11 a.m., Jason Collins walked out of the closet, under the Sports Illustrated banner.