Writing Lessons from the Book of Isiah

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October 1, 2015
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Every year when basketball season starts, I remember something I learned from the Book of Isiah. By that, I mean Isiah Thomas, NBA All-Star and point guard for the Detroit Pistons, not the biblical prophet. I’m sure there’s much to be learned from him also, but this particular lesson comes from the days when Isiah Thomas was indisputably one of the best point guards in the game – the kind of player who could take you all the way to the championships.

The problem for the Pistons, in that regard, was simple: To get to the Finals, they had to get past Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. But that was an impossible quest. Year after year, no matter how well they played, Detroit’s dreams ended in defeat at the Boston Garden.

Finally, in 1987, they had a chance. The best-of-seven semifinals were about to turn in Detroit’s favor. Isiah and the Pistons had a one-point lead with five seconds left. To beat Boston, all Detroit had to do was throw the ball in bounds and hold on while time ran out. It’s the most routine play in basketball – as close to a lock as you can get.

And then things went terribly wrong. Isiah, a brilliant passer, lofted the ball toward his teammate, Bill Laimbeer. Instead of moving forward, Laimbeer waited for the pass to reach him.

It never did. What actually happened will be on the Boston Celtics highlight reel forever. The NBA has called it the fourth greatest playoff moment of all time. Twenty years later, the league made it into a television commercial for the NBA.

You can watch it below if you haven’t already seen it. Like most Piston fans, I know it by heart. Larry Bird steals the in-bounds pass. He gets the ball to his teammate, Dennis Johnson, who scores. Boston wins.

And just like that, everything Detroit has worked for – everything – evaporates. The whole season, thrown away in one play. For Detroit fans, the play is not amazing. It’s heartbreaking.

*     *   *

After the game, the athletes came out to talk to reporters. The first question to Isiah was, “What about that pass?“ At that point, I figured he had three options:

But Isiah didn’t say any of those things. What he actually said was this:

The fact that the pass didn’t get there means it was a bad pass.

His answer stunned me. He offered no excuses, no explanations, no extenuating circumstances. What he said instead was simple and honest. The ball didn’t get there. And so, de facto, it was a bad pass.

With that answer, Isiah became more my hero in defeat than he ever could have been in victory.

*       *       *

As a writer I’ve tried, not always successfully, to judge my work by Isiah’s standard.

The temptation to do otherwise is strong. You write a headline, or piece of copy, or a sentence in a white paper, and you feel certain that it works. It’s not just good, it’s brilliant.

But then someone doesn’t get it. It doesn’t work, they say, because of this or that reason. They want you to change the brilliant sentence. Listening to them, you start to think, Maybe it’s their fault. Maybe they just don’t understand good writing.

That’s when I try to remember Isiah’s answer. If the headline doesn’t get there, it’s a bad headline. If the copy doesn’t connect, it’s not the reader’s fault.

That can be a hard standard to keep in mind, sometimes. But what’s the point of having standards if they aren’t high? In the end, the job of a sentence is to communicate. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad sentence. No excuses, no explanations, no extenuating circumstances.

That’s the first lesson of Isiah. Here’s the second. You’re allowed to try again. Rewriting is not a punishment. It’s an opportunity. After throwing the season away, the Pistons came back the next year and blew past Boston and Larry Bird. They blew past Chicago and Michael Jordan.

The next two years, they won back-to-back championships. The Most Valuable Player in their 1990 victory was Isiah Thomas.

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