Tim Kawakami

...in his own words
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About
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From the time I was growing up with four boys in the family, we played sports, talk about sports, both our parents loved sports. It was always at the forefront.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Zach Selby.

About Tim Kawakami
HOMETOWN: San Francisco, California
EDUCATION: Northwestern University
OCCUPATION: Editor-in-Chief, San Francisco Bay Area Athletic
TWITTER: @timkawakami

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I didn’t always know I was going to get into this business, but I always talked about sports with my friends. We made trades, all that stuff. We played it. So, it was always part of my life, always a big part of my life. When I went into journalism, I thought I was not going to be a sportswriter. I thought I was going to be a political writer or some other thing. A rock and roll critic, whatever I thought back then. But an interesting moment in my career was the Northwestern journalism school and started writing for the newspaper’s sports department. I had been doing other stuff, and it was so natural, it was so simple. It was just, “I can do this. I can do this for a long time, and I don’t want to do anything else.” So, it just kind of happened in stages. But once I started writing about Northwestern baseball, basketball, football, all the elements of collegiate sports, it just made it so simple for me because it was something I was going to pay attention to anyway. It was something I was going to care about. So, why not just keep doing it?

I’ve said this before, and it’s just as true. I was probably 19 years old and it just hit me. I said, “I can do this for the rest of my professional life.” I just knew it. I knew I could I didn’t know exactly what I would do. I didn’t know exactly what levels. I didn’t know what the pay would be, but I knew I could do this, and I was not wrong. And it’s just basically been following that path ever since that moment.

I knew I liked to write. As a kid, my oldest brother was in law school when I really started thinking about what I wanted to do. He really liked to write, too, and I was pretty young then, probably 12 or 13. I thought law school sounds kind of interesting. He said, “Nope. Don’t do that. If you can write, just write. Be a writer.” Of course, he’s the one making hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but that’s OK.

He said if you love it, try it. Try journalism. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, so Northwestern was a long reach for me. I had never really been east of Lake Tahoe. I didn’t know Chicago, I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t know any of that. I hadn’t been in the cold weather. But I thought I would give it a shot. I thought I would probably go to Cal. All my friends were going to Cal. Some were going to UCLA, others were going to Oregon. The west coast is full of really good schools. But I thought I would throw Northwestern out there to see. I am not going to Stanford, so let’s see about Northwestern. And they let me in.

At that point it became, “Well, am I going to be scared to do this? And no, I kept saying, “let’s see.” It was an adjustment socially and culturally for sure, but that’s kind of fun, too. I was thrown into the middle of all these journalism students who were way more advanced than I was with advanced placements and internship. I had none of that. My high school was not into that kind of stuff. I had to get going, and that was good for me, too. I was in this new place, it was cold, all these kids were ahead of me. I knew I had better start moving. And that’s why the journalism school was great for me. That’s what I tell people. The classes, whatever, the whole litany of what we did, whatever, but it was being around in amid these great, smart kids who were my age and were going faster.

I either had to catch up or figure out some other way. I decided to catch up and these guys and women who I knew were doing great things. There’s a great line of people from just my class doing great things. We kind of knew it. We kind of looked around and knew it was a pretty amazing class. If anything, that’s what pushed me forward and kind of got me at the ambition to do things. I was always ambitious, but I didn’t know practically what that meant, where to go. But that pushed me, and I got an internship at the New York Times. I just kind of talked my way into it. That helped, and that was right as I was deciding to go into sports. It was a weird place to decide to go into sports. The New York Times, at that point, was not a good sports operation. It’s really good now, though. It just helped clarify some things and talk to a lot of people. I literally sat in a desk next to Maureen Dowd, the great op-ed columnist. She wasn’t the op-ed columnist then. She was a cityside writer. But I had a desk next to her for two weeks. Northwestern is what got me into this and being around these people was got me thinking about these things. It just kind of went from there. That was the start for me. I could have gone to Cal and maybe gone down a similar path. But I don’t think so.

I got an internship after my senior year with the Philadelphia Daily News. Those are kind of tryouts to try to get the job. The industry is so different now, but now it’s still sort of that way. You hope they hire you. And Philadelphia was another massive culture shock for me. It was pure east coast. I kind of knew New York a little bit, but Philly is not New York. That was different, but they brought me on to try and look at me as a full-time hire. I made very little. They didn’t make me guess about that.

They threw me basically right into the Eagles. They had Buddy Ryan and Randall Cunningham. It was a huge time for that football team. It was interesting because at Northwestern I had covered some things. I had been around Bobby Knight when Indiana was on its way to win a championship. You’re kind of in the middle of it. You’re not really there, but you’re there. I jumped to the Eagles as the backup writer. For some reason, Buddy liked me. He was feuding with some other writers, but I was this kid from Northwestern. He liked Northwestern because the Bears would practice there occasionally when he was the defensive coordinator. And for some reason, we had a good energy together. And with that guy as the central focus of Philadelphia and he’s answering my questions and he’s chatting with me, that’s a little bit of a start for me.

My general feeling from then on, and it still is many, many years later, is that these are just people. These are huge events, these are huge moments, but they’re people. Whether it’s Buddy Ryan or Reggie White or Kobe or Kevin Durant, they all have their things. They all have their big, big moments and their big egos and things that are hard for most of us to comprehend, but mostly, they’re just humans. And you have to see them as humans. You can’t ask them questions as if they’re demigods. They’re just people. You can get mad at them and they can get mad at you. They can be happy with you and you can be happy with them. That’s just part of this. I’ve never felt like, “Oh my god, I’m in this big moment.”

Sometimes I just think back at the things I did at Northwestern and I think back to things like the football team firing its coach and Dick Vermeil might be interested. I literally called around, got his home phone number and called Dick Vermeil. His wife picked up the phone and she was just charmed about it. She said he’s not coming, but she’s just giggling that this kid from Northwestern is calling. I don’t even remember how I got his number, but I got it. My buddy and I went to Arizona for spring training during spring break one year. I didn’t have any credentials and I was sure it could never happen, but I just walked onto the field during batting practice for a Cubs game and just started talking to Don Zimmer, the assistant coach. There were just stuff I thought I could and should do. I can’t imagine why I did them but did it. If you feel you’re OK in the moment, maybe you’re arrogant, maybe you’re obnoxious. You’re just in the moment. I’ve never been different than that. Again, I can’t exactly tell you why I did those things, other than they were just there to be done.

It was different working for the LA Times, because I had spent those four years at Northwestern and then the two-plus in Philadelphia. It was big sports tabloids, which I loved, screaming headlines and talking on the radio. Everything was pushed and pushed and pushed. The sports editor was on top of you. You had to live and breathe Eagles, Eagles, Eagles. People know you on the street, which was bizarre for a 22-year-old from the Bay area. Then I go to cover the Rams in L.A. And they’re coming off an NFC championship berth, so this is a pretty good team. They had Jim Everett, Flipper Anderson and some really good players. Henry Ellard and John Robinson. And they just blew apart from the moment I got there. It just didn’t work out, so that was weird.

And then it was just such a low key, Orange County atmosphere. There were a lot of writers there, but nobody was really pressing the issue. It wasn’t anything close to, nor should I have expected to be, like Philly. I just had that mentality. Let’s write the big story. Let’s ask the big questions and not be intimidated by it. Not that anybody was timid, it was just a different approach. I didn’t really know L.A. at the time. I was from the Bay area. I’ve kind of developed my own style somewhere in the middle, and it happened to be the right style while the Rams were terrible and were making massive changes and going through all these disruptions. I didn’t cover them when they moved, but obviously, you could tell they were kind of making the mental steps to move to St. Louis. Even now, I did 10 years in L.A. and 18 years with the San Jose Mercury News, I still feel like L.A. was the real center of what I was. Those moments, that was the heart of my professional career. I’ve done a lot of things since and I’m doing another thing now, but those years and those writer with pretty good editors were defining parts for me. That is what made me good, I would say, or as good as I am now.

I think boxing really, really shaped who I am as a columnist because I didn’t know anything about it. I followed it, I watched pay-per-views, I knew the Tyson story and all that, but I didn’t know the details. I was thrown in the middle of it when De La Hoya was the rising star, and I said I’m going to make sure that no one is betting at covering De La Hoya than me. And I’m going to cover everything else. It was D La Hoya, it was the Tyson comeback from jail. Also, in boxing, you have to write from a point of view. Because everyone is pulling at you. Promoters are lying to you, the trainers are lying to you, the boxers are lying to you. It was fascinating to cut through all that because you have to write with a voice. You have to write with an opinion or else you’re going to get taken. And everybody on that beat did. That was really great for me.

It was scary for a little while, but I just said if I’m going to be the De La Hoya person, I have to write what’s happening. I wrote these stories that pissed him off, I wrote stories that he liked, and I wrote stories about all the people around him. I eventually wrote a book about him, which he hated. But just that idea that you got to have a voice, you have to pick a line here. Because there’s a lot of them being told to you and only one of them is true. It was a tremendous, tremendous way to learn how to be a columnist. I’ll always remember those stories as me finding a voice.

Working for The Athletic is a whole different thing, which is great about it. We’re all still figuring stuff out, so that’s fun, but sometimes you have to recalibrate yourself. When I came aboard, I was maybe the 20th editorial hire. Now, it’s at 350. As a startup and turns into something beyond a startup, you go through things. You have jolts and you have to rethink everything and change how we do this. So, you go through that, but that’s fun, too.

When I was at the Mercury News, I was in Silicon Valley, so I knew people in startups and around startups. We are the last thing that can be compared to that at the Mercury News. It was really the other way. We were a closeup. It was shutting down as I was there. From 2005 on, it’s just been a retrenchment every step of the way. As you’re there, you’re not loving this. And you’re in the startup culture, you know the energy and the money that’s going in there. I didn’t think I was going to do this, and I had been approached by other startup companies that didn’t make much sense. But this one did immediately. And that’s what’s enjoyable about it. The limits are nowhere. You don’t know where this can go. We have great expectations in the Bay area. I’ll put it that way.

We have a lot of responsibility because this is where the company is. I’m going to see the founders later today. People in other cities don’t have that. That’s great for us, but it also puts a lot of pressure on us. If we stink, that’s going to be a problem in a way that another city doesn’t have. But that’s great. I want that pressure. The way this worked out with the founders right there, with the Warriors getting hot and the other teams being so important, with the talent I identified that could possibly come on board with me, it wasn’t even a question that I was going to do this.

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