A friend once told me that I pee more than anyone he’s ever known, but that’s just because I like to stay hydrated — taking frequent trips to the bathroom is a small price to pay. Maybe that’s why I have so much energy and he’s always tired verging on grumpy, though perhaps we’ll never know for sure. Back when I lived in the dorms, I’d take trip after trip to the water fountain — even if my dogs’ bowls are cleaner, there’s something uniquely refreshing about a public fountain. Maybe it’s the water’s perfectly cold temperature, or maybe it has just the right amount of aeration, though I suppose it doesn’t really matter. If it tastes good, it’s probably best not to overthink it.
One day at the water fountain, I bumped into Matt Jones, who was then the CT’s editor in chief. During our beginning-of-the-year hall meeting, he said that if there were any aspiring writers and journalists in the room, we should let him know. I hadn’t to that point, though — Matt was an interesting kind of guy. I can’t say he was unapproachable, but he was wired differently. He seemed like one of those people who had it all figured out, who was mature beyond his years. I wasn’t on his level — at least not yet.
Though everyone — even those on a higher plane — drinks from the water fountain; water is essential, after all. But since we were both there, I figured that if I wanted to join the CT, it was now or never. We got to talking about my background, the paper and what sections I was interested in — opinions, I told him, partially because my mom told me it’d be a good fit — apparently, I have a lot to say — but mostly because I couldn’t make the other meeting times. After talking a little bit more, I gave him my email and joined on the spot.
The first few meetings were dry — no one really knew each other. The editor, Neha, who has since become a dear friend of mine, even seemed a bit … intimidating — to this day she’s given me grief for thinking that. It took awhile for everyone to gel, but eventually we became great friends — our section meetings became a highlight of my weeks. Often, we’d finish pitching our stories in the first 10 minutes, and let the conversation spin off into oblivion for the remainder of our time together. Whether it be placing moneyline bets on the presidential candidates or talking about Donya’s crazy friends, nothing was off limits and everything was welcomed. Some people merely came and went, but for those of us who stayed, the section was like an amazing, tight-knit, slightly dysfunctional family. In other words, even if it wasn’t “perfect,” it was still perfect.
As a columnist, I was always empowered to be creative and try new things — I never once felt limited. I wrote a longform about everything. I wrote a memoir, of sorts, of my time at a magnet high school. I compiled my own journal entries to document the March for Our Lives. I wrote pieces about movies, politics — that didn’t always age well — vaping, dating and Toys “R” Us. I was allowed to both fall flat on my face, and redeem myself thereafter. Day by day, my command of prose improved, and my ideas and pieces matured. I grew into a style of writing that was genuine, rather than contrived — nothing felt forced anymore; it all just came naturally.
When I finally became an editor, I fell right into the role — I was editing pieces left and right. I even handled Triple Ds — our weekly progress editors meeting — alone, when I didn’t even know what the “Ds” stood for — they’re done, doing and difficulties, for reference. For the final months of last spring semester, I was on my laptop 24/7, frantically switching between Canvas and Google Docs — a perfect work-work balance, so to speak. I enjoyed being busy, though. I loved the grind.
At this year’s interest meeting, Neha — quite the introvert — made me pitch our section to the 50-some people in attendance. I don’t remember my exact words, but I think they went something like this: “If you join the opinions section, and I hope you do, you’ll be able to spread your creative wings. As a columnist, you have more agency over your writing than anyone else on the staff. You can push boundaries, play around with different styles and, most importantly, just write, without constraints.” It probably wasn’t that eloquent — Neha gave me very short notice — but you get the idea.
Afterward, I talked to many of the people in attendance, telling them how fun our section was and pleading with them to join us — I must’ve spoken to at least 30 people one-on-one. At our next meeting, it felt like nearly all of them showed up, ready to write something new and unique, just like I said they would. I remember sitting with Neha in front of everyone looking back at us and thinking, “Wow, this is going to be a great year.”
It was mostly that — great — but I’d be lying if I said it was perfect. Early in the year, Neha and I both fell victims to the Hokie plague — you all know the feeling — and the section went on life support for the better part of a month. When we were supposed to publish one story a day, we were lucky to get one piece up in a week. By the time we were both healthy, the section was a shadow of its former self.
We kept chugging along, getting pieces into managing as best we could — though by this time, we were both playing catch-up with our studies and my grad school application due dates were fast approaching. In a word, we were toast, but the show had to go on.
There were times where — even when we produced great content — we felt like we had targets on our backs. If people were angry at the CT, it was often because of the opinions section, and because we had the most content freedom, we also had the most room to change. If the paper was having trouble, we were often singled out. Just a few weeks ago, we had a meeting to discuss how to better the paper next year, and sure enough, opinion content was brought up.
That feeling wears on you, to put it lightly — especially when we’ve been so committed to our columnists, pushing them to write on topics they’re most passionate about. Our section, where writers were meant to be rulebreakers, didn’t always feel that free.
When I first came up with the idea for this piece, I wasn’t sure how I’d pen my experience. There were times when I thought I’d write a love letter to student journalism. Other times I thought I might be more critical toward the organization. I even considered writing about my time at the CT as a breakfast food analogy — a Waffle House cheesesteak melt and peppered hash browns, to be exact. I cycled through so many ideas, because there was so much to say — both good and bad. Getting to the heart of my time here was no easy feat.
Towards the end of April, we had our end-of-the-year celebration, where all the seniors received their paper plate awards and gave final speeches in front of the staff. As I listened to everyone speak, I remembered my first Sunday production as an editor. I woke up to my phone ringing and saw a number I didn’t recognize — it was Jess, our current editor in chief, congratulating me on my new editorial position, and asking me to come into the newsroom in 45 minutes. My March for Our Lives piece was going in print that week, and for my first taste of CT production, Jess wanted me to have some input on the final cut.
When I arrived, I quietly walked past everyone and found a seat close to the back of the room, not knowing when I should introduce myself, let alone assert myself — I barely knew anyone there. Then, perhaps sensing I wasn’t at ease, Jess came up to me to see if I was alright. From that point on, even if I didn’t always enjoy being in the newsroom, I was comfortable there. I loved the people, even if I didn’t always like working with them. In that moment, watching my friends give their goodbye speeches, I realized that when you work with people, and you spend most of your time with them, it’s easy to take them for granted.
To sum it all up: I’ve fallen in love with the CT these past two years, but love isn’t always easy. There are trials and tribulations. It’s never perfect, no matter how bad you want it to be. It’s complicated, but that’s okay — life is always complicated.
“I’m telling y’all,” Drew said in a piece for The Players Tribune. “The fundamentals will set you free. It’s like the jazz records my pops used to play on Sunday afternoons. First you master the fundamentals. Then you get to forget about ‘em. You’re improvising. That’s why I always say: streetball is an art form.
“You feel me, youngbloods? I need to see more jazz in your game.”
He lamented today’s hoop culture, concerning itself with appearances more than just “getting buckets.” A billion dollar move means nothing with a $0.50 finish. It’s not about the shoes you wear, it’s just about the ball going into the hoop — it’s about two points, and nothing else.
But once you’re there — and you’re a real baller, then you can improvise. You can add in some handles, a little step back, even a spin-move. You can craft your game around your personality, around the idea of the player you want to be. But — and I can’t stress this enough — you’ve got to get buckets first.
Friends have asked me before: “Justin, why do you like longform journalism so much? More people would read your pieces if they were 400 words, rather than 4000.” It’s true, I love that in-depth style of writing, and while I’ve only written two longform pieces myself, I’ve encouraged — and hopefully inspired — my writers to push themselves, to go deeper than they’ve ever gone before. Most importantly, to not feel constrained by the space on a page, only by the extent of their ideas — for which there is often no ceiling.
To answer the original question, I have to go back a few years, to Grantland — one of the last beacons for true longform journalism. It was a pop culture and sports website that dared to be different — that gave its readers truly special content without regard to word counts or hits — only love, having faith that everything else would follow. The site helped make writers like Rembert Browne, Wesley Morris and Zach Lowe into household names. But within five years after the site launched, conflicts between Bill Simmons, Grantland’s editor in chief, and its parent company, ESPN, led to the website’s demise in 2015. Though that hasn’t stopped the site from having a meaningful legacy, or from inspiring writers — like me — to write passionately, think creatively and set no limits.
From “A Eulogy for Grantland,” in The New Republic: “Grantland, after all, was something special — it was nothing short of an alternate path for the internet, where pageviews were less important than rigorous passion. Which may sound hokey, but, well, it was true.”
I suppose I don’t have much more to say. Finality is strange — even when you’re excited for the next phase of life, to grow up and move on to new challenges, there’s this inescapable longing for more time in the present. But even though I’m getting older — and I won’t be part of the CT anymore — that won’t stop me from continuing to write, to push creative boundaries.
So, in that spirit, from Uncle Drew himself, I’ll leave you with this:
“Now that I’m an old man, people ask me when I’m gonna hang it up. This is what I tell ‘em: You don’t stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing.
“Look at it this way — I’ve been driving the same van since 1968. It’s beat up. The paint job’s fading. But you know what? That van still purrs like a cat. It’s what’s under the hood that matters.
“So, please. I’ll quit the day you can check me.
“But until then, youngbloods … Get Buckets.”