Bill Simmons: He Writes, He Scores
Bill Simmons has lost 15 pounds. He's sleeping less. His hair has gone gray. All for a website. "It's more work than I thought it was going to be," he says.
Last June, Simmons raised eyebrows by starting Grantland, an ambitious sports and pop culture site, named for legendary sports reporter Grantland Rice. It's a literary, experimental subdivision of ESPN.com, with a quarterly print journal and contributions from such nonfiction-writing hiperati as Chuck Klosterman and Malcolm Gladwell.
The 42-year-old Simmons is in jeans and a dark blue polo, sitting in his new office in the L.A. Live complex, which looks like a dorm room on move-in day -- a phone on the ground here, a Boston Celtics hat there. The place is meant as a staff hangout -- Simmons writes his column from coffee shops. That column, often topping 6,000 words, made him the definitive sportswriter of the Internet age. It's written not as a fly on the wall but with the subjective passion of a fan, often answering reader questions and drawing meaning from a single free throw in a Celtics-Lakers Game 5 with a kind of Talmudic fervor.
Simmons built a following writing as "The Boston Sports Guy" for AOL in the 1990s before jumping to ESPN.com. He came to L.A. in 2002 to write for Jimmy Kimmel's then-brand-new ABC late-night show, which, he says, "was kind of like going to the pros" (yes, he talks in sports metaphors).
His favorite contribution to JKL was when John Kerry was asked if he'd googled himself, and Simmons suggested they run the clip with "googled" bleeped out, leading to Kimmel's still-recurring "unnecessary censorship" bit. "I always bust his balls saying I came up with it, and he says it's his idea because I worked for him," Simmons says.
But he was doing 14-hour days while still writing his column, and he found it hard to keep up on sports. "I just could feel it slipping," he says. "It felt like I was going to start faking it soon."
He had to choose, and he chose the column.
He likes watching sports three hours earlier here, though he notices how "bandwagon-y it is, with stuff like when Manny Ramirez took off in 2008," he says, or when the Clippers got hot in January. That's typical of cities with warm weather as a distraction but especially true in mercurial Hollywood.
Still, the entertainment industry makes L.A. an ideal place for Grantland's merging of sports and pop culture, in pieces like a March Madness-style bracket to find the greatest character from The Wire.
While ad sales and human resources are distractions, Simmons likes his new role as a coach, helping a young writer like Katie Baker shape what he thinks is the best hockey column around. He recently scored an interview with President Obama for his wildly popular podcast, The B.S. Report.
Simmons doesn't monitor Grantland's web traffic much, preferring to trust that people want to read something good. "Something that I finish," he says. "It's really hard to get people to finish stuff on the Internet."