Several weeks back, while listening to a podcast of Tony Kornheiser‘s radio show on ESPN 980 , I heard Kornheiser talk to Washington Post sports reporter Kathy Orton discussing her new book, Outside the Limelight: Basketball in the Ivy League. Two topics like academics and sports intersecting caught my attention immediately. I was fortunate enough to get in contact with Orton and email interview her about the book. Before jumping into the interview, here’s the basic info on the book: “The Ivy League is a place where basketball is neither a pastime nor a profession. Instead, it inspires true passion among players, coaches, and fans who share in its every success and setback. Outside the Limelight is the first book to look inside Ivy League basketball at what makes it unique.”
Tim O’Shea: How different is the recruiting process for players in the Ivy League–do the coaches find themselves needing to focus more upon the academics of their students in terms of finding good recruits?
Kathy Orton: While it is a challenge for Ivy League coaches to find good students with equally good jump shots, I believe the more difficult hurdle for the coaches is finding players with those attributes who also can afford an Ivy League school. It can cost upward of $50,000 a year to attend one of these schools. Because of the costs associated with these schools – remember there is no athletic scholarships in the Ivy League – many middle class kids (and their parents) just can’t justify paying that much money to play basketball when they can go for free to another school. The economic aspects limit the recruiting pool far more than the academic standards.
O’Shea: Given that these Ivy League athletes feel the need to excel as much in the classroom as well much as on the court, what kind of stress level are they under during the season?
Orton: I didn’t fully appreciate the demands on an Ivy League basketball player until I started reporting the book. To begin with, Ivy League schools are extremely competitive, pressure-filled environments for all students. Throw in a Division I sport such as basketball, where you spend close to five hours a day in a gym practicing, watch game film and lifting weights, not to mention the travel to away games (on busses, not charter airplanes), and there’s not a lot of time left over for sleep. I find these kids amazing, and studies have shown because of how they have to excel at time management during college they tend to do better than their peers once they leave school.
O’Shea: You wanted to coincide this book with the 50th anniversary of the league, but the league itself opted to celebrate that the season after. How disappointed were you when you found out they had opted to go that route–or had you already found another main theme to your book by then?
Orton: I spoke with the then-executive director of the Ivy League, Jeff Orleans, before I started reporting on the book and knew then that the league was reluctant to do anything surrounding the 50 th anniversary. In fact, I was surprised the league did as much as it did the following year. Though anniversaries are important, I always thought it would be something my publisher and I could use to market the book rather than a central theme. All along, I knew this book was going to be about the players and the coaches and their stories.
O’Shea: In a recent USA Today interview about the book, you mentioned you had a wealth of information to include in the book, but had to trim some of it out for space. In the whole “leave this out, keep this in” what aspect of the book did you most champion to keep in and you’re glad that you did?
Orton: Everyone wanted me to cut the stories about the games down to almost nothing. I didn’t necessarily disagree with that criticism, but having attended many of the games in person and knowing how dramatic some of them were, it was hard to cut those down to one or two sentences. In this book, basketball was always the vehicle to tell the stories of the players and coaches. I didn’t want the reader to get bogged down reading about who did what with how many minutes left in the game. Yet, I love college basketball and it was hard for me not to go into detail with some of the games. I did fight to keep most of the Harvard game at Cornell and the Princeton game at Cornell because those were such dramatic games.
O’Shea: Speaking of the editing on the book, who was your editor on this book and how did their involvement help you to strengthen the book–and did you have beta readers along the way to give you feedback–helping you to make sure you were on the right track with what you were trying to convey?
Orton: Because I didn’t have a publisher when I started writing this book, just an amazing agent, Andrew Blauner, who believed in me and the project, I didn’t have an editor to shape the book from the start. That was really difficult. There were times I needed guidance and didn’t have an editor to turn to. Fortunately, I have many good friends and colleagues at The Washington Post who generously worked with me and gave me wonderful advice. William Gildea and Karl Hente were invaluable to me. When Rutgers acquired the manuscript, Beth Kressel did a fabulous job putting the finishing touches on it.
O’Shea: Of the reactions you’ve heard back from the coaches and players featured in the book, were there one or two that really stuck out in your mind–made you feel like you had succeeded at what you wanted to achieve with the book?
Orton: From the start I have said the only critics that mattered to me were the players and coaches in the book. If I didn’t portray them fairly or accurately, I have failed. The other day I received an email from one of the players featured prominently in the book, Princeton’s Scott Greenman who is now an assistant coach at his alma mater. He wrote that he thought the book was “insightful.” I couldn’t have asked for a better compliment.
O’Shea: Looking at Dana Gant’s reaction to your chapter on Khaliq Gant’s serious injury–I’m struck at how tough a chapter that must have been to write. You have a coach who almost wants to quit basketball because of the incident, you have a person whose life is drastically affected. How concerned were you with capturing the severity of the situation, without coming across as being exploitative or sensationalistic in covering it.
Orton: I always try to be sensitive to every person I write about, whether it is involving a tragedy such as Khaliq’s or a basketball game where a player’s missed shot costs his team the game. These people trust me to tell their stories for them. That’s an awesome responsibility. It never occurred to me that I might be sensationalizing Khaliq’s story. I was so inspired by him and his parents as well as by Coach Steve Donahue that I wanted to let the world know what incredible people they are. I am extremely grateful how open and trusting everyone involved was. They told me things I never expected to hear.
O’Shea: Would you say Ivy League parents are more involved with their children’s athletic pursuits versus parents and students in other college leagues?
Orton: In my opinion, yes, they are. It seems to me that they feel that since they are paying the bill they have a right to become more involved in their child’s athletic career. I don’t agree with that. There are always exceptions, of course, but I feel everyone is better served – child and parent – if the parent stays out of his or her child’s athletic career.
O’Shea: At a recent book signing, one of your childhood friends noted the hardships you had overcome to get the book published. How close did you come to quitting on the book when it hit a few snags along the path to being published?
Orton: Anyone who has written a book knows there are always moments of doubt. I certainly had more than my fair share of them. I am fortunate to have many wonderful friends who believe in me and encouraged me throughout this process. I couldn’t have done it without them. I also am too stubborn to quit. Even during my lowest moments with the book, I never completely walked away from it.
O’Shea: Goofy question, I found out about the book through Tony Kornheiser’s radio show. In his interview with you, he was (tongue in cheek) offended that you had John Feinstein Jr write the foreword, while he was relegated to a blurb. How much grief would John Jr. have given you had you gotten Tony to write the intro?
Orton: That’s just Tony being Tony. As much as I love Tony, he knows as well as I do that having John’s name attached to my book brings a college basketball audience that Tony couldn’t deliver. Besides that, Tony hasn’t written more than a couple sentences for publication in several years. As he likes to put it, he’s a full-time yodeler. Tony is one of the best writers I have ever known. (The essay he wrote on Bill Russell for ESPN’s SportsCentury book is well worth reading.) I was incredibly grateful he gave me a blurb. I wasn’t going to ask him for more than that. I don’t think John would have been offended or given me grief if Tony had written the foreword.
O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Orton: I would only add that I think people have a stereotype in their minds about Ivy League basketball players. I hope this book debunks that myth. They are much more diverse and interesting than most people realize. Several people have told me that even though they are not basketball fans they’ve enjoyed reading the book because of the stories of these players and coaches. That pleases me enormously.
Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your questions. I enjoyed the interview!
O’Shea: Thank you!