A hopeless optimist: Paola Boivin, distinguished sports columnist

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (July 11, 2015) — For two-plus decades, Paola Boivin has been a fixture in Phoenix-area sports, reporting  and crafting columns on Pac-10 (now Pac-12) sports and the growing pro scene, including the arrival of the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This is what I know: She writes thought-provoking, well-organized columns. She does her homework. She asks good questions. She has a good handle on how to structure stories and how to pack them with quality anecdotes, important facts and opinions that resonate with readers. She’s a personable journalist, a good interviewer and a pro’s pro with empathy for those she writes about.

Over the years, she has written about everything and everybody, ranging from Pat Tillman’s death to Super Bowls, Olympics, NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament title games, NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL playoff contests to current players and coaches’ perspectives on the Confederate flag. Boivin has worked at The Arizona Republic since September 1995 after a six-year stint at the Los Angeles Daily News. Before that, she served as a sportswriter and then sports editor at the Camarillo (California) Daily News (1984-1988).

In an April interview with Illinois Alumni Magazine, Boivin said, “I’m drawn to the human stories—the underdog, the long shot, the forgotten person.”

I interviewed Boivin recently to learn more about her career, her influences, what motivates her on the job and other reflections on her life and work.

***

What’s the best way to describe your style as a journalist and as a columnist? Of course it can differ from day to day and sport to sport, but how would you summarize your basic approach to this work and the way you do your job?

It took me forever to find my voice as a columnist. For a long time I tried to be something I wasn’t: a screamer and finger-pointer, the print version of some sports talk radio hosts. I’m not that. I would wake up the next day, read my work and cringe because it felt unauthentic.

The reality is I’m a hopeless optimist. A listener. And someone who loves a good story. I think (hope) interview subjects pick up on those traits and realize their story will receive fair treatment. It doesn’t mean I can’t be skeptical or outraged or anything of those things that are at the heart of good journalism, it just means I lead with an optimistic foot. And sleep better at night.

How has being a mother shaped the way you view sports and their role in society at large? And do you think motherhood changed your perspective on sports somewhat?

Both of my children are athletes: my daughter a runner and my son a basketball player. To have a front-row view of how athletics has impacted their lives has been a game-changer. Young girls are bombarded with air-brushed magazine covers and unrealistic expectations. How can they not grow up with body-image issues? Feeling strong and athletic is empowering. And the lessons my children learned about discipline and commitment and teamwork were better than any of the words of advice that I would spew out at home, which they probably tuned out anyway!

Motherhood has many me appreciate sports even more.

Of the biggest compliments received over the years from journalist peers and readers for something you’ve written, can you share a few details of two or three of them that really meant something to you?

Without question it’s the feedback I received following an article I wrote about a transgender golfer who dreamed of playing in the LPGA. I received emails from parents who said the story made them better understand their children who were battling identity issues, and from a man who found comfort reading the piece because his journey, that was almost halted by suicide, was about to take a similar turn. It was all because my subject, Bobbi Lancaster, a well-respected doctor in the Phoenix area, was so open about her life. I was so grateful for that.

Journalism should never be about the praise but it felt good to know the article impacted lives. I love, too, how my voicemails have changed over the years in Phoenix. They used to be “you’re an idiot woman who knows nothing about sports.” Now they’re “you’re an idiot who knows nothing about sports.” Progress!

What did receiving APSE Top 10 columnist recognition in 2011 mean to you? Did that inspire you, fire you up for the coming years, too? What do you think was your best column for 2010? And do you have an all-time No. 1 favorite?

I guess it was my Sally Field “You like me, you really like me” moment. It is hard to grow up as a female sports journalist in the era I did and swell with confidence. From the early locker room battles to peers (in my past) suggesting I was the product of equal-opportunity hiring and not talent stings, especially for a ball of insecurity like me. It absolutely did inspire me and shifted my motivation into a higher gear. Ha. I guess I’m supposed to say awards are meaningless but I would be lying.

My favorite column from 2010 was one I wrote about Steve Nash. I was in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics and took a side trip to Victoria to visit the home in which he grew up. If you hopped over the fence in his backyard, you would find a basketball hoop that belonged to an elementary school. He would shoots hundreds of free throws a day there as a kid, trying to improve his percentage each time. I couldn’t stop staring at that hoop. It was the symbol of how hard work can shape an athlete. I also had the opportunity to talk to childhood friends, family members and coaches and to visit his high school. It was the closest I ever came to truly understanding how an athlete at his high level achieved greatness.

That one (http://archive.azcentral.com/sports/suns/articles/2010/02/28/20100228suns-steve-nash-vancouver-CP.html) and the transgender one are probably my all-time favorites.

How did your time at the Camarillo Daily News and Los Angeles Daily News – 10  important years – shape your approach to journalism and give you the foundation for all the reporting, column writing, talk-show work you’ve done since? Can you think of a couple important lessons, including the biggest one, you learned early in your career?

Both jobs were amazing and I remain grateful for the people who gave me the opportunities  there. The Camarillo Daily News, which, sniff, is no longer around, was my first full-time job. I started as a sportswriter and later became sports editor of a three-person staff. I had to do everything: report, write, edit, design. I stumbled plenty of times along the way, including once, when running a story about a USC running back named Aaron Emmanuel. I used a photo of actor Emmanuel Lewis instead. Anyone who ever watched the TV show “Webster” knows these two look nothing alike. Fortunately, I caught my mistake right before the story went to print.

Having to do a little bit of everything helped prepare me for the variety of assignments that came my way in the future. I think my willingness to say yes to any assignment, to always being a team player, made me more hireable down the road.

(Side note: I pride myself in having a good eye for talent. While at Camarillo, I hired several terrific writers early in their careers including two still doing great work: Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports and Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune.)

The Los Angeles Daily News was incredible, too. I was in a great sports market surrounded by terrific talent at the paper. My first beat was covering UCLA football and basketball. It didn’t get much better than meeting John Wooden at his favorite breakfast spot and talking hoops.

While I was at the Daily News, I sometimes covered Dodgers game. It was at a time when women in the locker room was still a hot topic. I would walk into the clubhouse and stare at the ground. One day, the great Orel Hershiser pulled me aside and said, “Keep your head up and look like you belong here. Because you do.” I always think of that when I walk in a clubhouse now. I am forever grateful for that moment.

For you, who are a few must-read journalists in print and online? What makes their work something you return to again and again?

Karen Crouse, one of my best friends, of The New York Times is at the top of my list. I don’t think there is anyone in the country better at finding a fresh way to look at a story and the depth of her reporting is second to none. Subjects trust her. Read her story on Laveranues Coles from 2005 (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/sports/football/new-trust-lets-coles-share-secret.html) if you need proof. I also find Gregg Doyel, now with the Indianapolis Star, and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports must reads.

I am surrounded by great talent at The Arizona Republic, too. They make me better every day.

How much influence did the late Jim Murray and other L.A. media giants have on your career? Where there individuals in the Chicago area/sports media market who had a similar or bigger influence on you?

Huge. Murray wasn’t only a great writer – it doesn’t get any better for an auto racing story than “Gentlemen, start your coffins” – but he was a gentleman. You could learn a lot from watching how he conducted himself.

There was also a young hotshot at the L.A. Times when I starting out that was creating a lot of buzz among my peers. For good reason. It was Rick Reilly. He was only there a few years before Sports Illustrated grabbed him.

I think my biggest influence in the Chicago area, quite honestly, was the sports editor of my local paper, the Chicago Heights Star, the late John Meyers. I read his work religiously in high school. He gave me my first professional opportunity, writing during my summers home from college. And when I grew up, Chicago had three daily papers: the Sun-Times, Tribune and Daily News. Three! It was a sports lover’s dream. I ate it up.

Bob Moran at the East  Valley Tribune (who died of cancer at age 55 in 2008) and Steve Schoenfeld at the Republic and then CBS SportsLine (killed at age 45 by a hit-and-run driver in 2000) were among the most gifted and well-respected sports journalists who covered the Pac-10 and the NFL, respectively, who’ve ever worked in Arizona. What is their legacy, individually and/or collectively, as it’s carried on and remembered by those who worked with him and grew as journalists in that time?

Both were amazing men.

Bob Moran was a consummate pro who loved his work. Everybody respected him because he was defined by his knowledge and integrity. He was my “competitor” during my first beat in Phoenix covering Arizona State. I learned a ton from him.

From Steve Schoenfeld, we all better understood the art of reporting and the value of relationships. He knew everybody! It served him well in his job. His funeral service was so large they held it in a concert hall. That showed just how popular and respected he was.

Both left us way too soon.

Have sports become too serious, too analytical, too high school calculus-like because of the explosion in metrics over the past decade? Is this more of a good thing or bad thing? Or is it just a different era?

Like chocolate, metrics are fine in moderation. They have great value but it’s important to remember, too, metrics can’t measure heart. And heart is a big part of sports.

With a respected, successful tenure at The Arizona Republic, writing for the paper (and also along the way its website) since 1995, how much more does your voice, your ideas, carry weight when it comes to pinpointing story angles, assignments and your schedule than it did when you arrived to work there in Phoenix?

I’m blessed to have a sports editor, Mark Faller, who trusts my instincts. We will bounce ideas off one another but I can dictate much of my writing path. I think early in my career I sought more guidance in that regard than I do now.

As someone who observed the growth and history of the Arizona Diamondbacks since their inception, how important was Joe Garagiola Sr. as a behind-the-scenes guy within the organization and as a connection to the fans and the game’s rich history during his work as a TV analyst through 2013? 

I think what Joe Sr. has done for baseball in general has been spectacular. He founded two important organizations: the Baseball Assistance Team, to help the needy with connections to the game, and the National Spit Tobacco Education Program. Talk about impacting a lot of lives.

As a broadcaster, few have as many anecdotes as Joe Sr. His willingness to share them are not only entertaining but educational in terms of history of the game. And his sense of humor is a great example of what sports broadcasting should be.

Of all the athletes who hail from Arizona and who call or have called Arizona home, who are three you’d put at the top of any list?

That’s a tough one. I guess it depends on the criteria. I’ll make mine the top three who have impacted the landscape since I’ve lived here.

  1. Jerry Colangelo. I’m going to cheat a bit. He wasn’t an athlete here but he changed the sports scene in Arizona like no other. He is gave us an MLB franchise and great memories with an NBA one. He also gets an assist for helping our NHL team arrive.
  1. Kurt Warner. What he did for the Cardinals — leading a franchise that was long a laughing stock to a Super Bowl — was remarkable.
  2. Charles Barkley. His popularity with Suns fans and his national visibility today are hard to top. He still lives here and people very much think of him as one of their own.

Similarly …. same questions but for coaches?

Lute Olson. Lute Olson. And Lute Olson.

If you were granted a one-on-one interview without any restrictions ASAP with Sepp Blatter, what’s the first question you’d ask him?

How do you sleep at night?

***

Follow Paola Boivin on Twitter: @PaolaBoivin

Read her journalism work here: http://www.azcentral.com/staff/10465/paola-boivin/

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