Enjoy Basketball Talks To Mirin Fader

The author of "Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA Champion" joins EB for a chat about her best-selling book, her favorite time to write a profile, and more!

Every athlete has a story to tell. Mirin Fader tells those stories with a depth that very few sportswriters are able to capture. Her profiles–like this one on Greg Oden, the former top NBA Draft pick– aren’t merely objective glances into the lives, processes, and routines of athletes. They’re layered, substantial works, laden with themes commonly reserved for fiction writing. And that’s not necessarily an accident, as we’ll learn a bit later on.

Mirin Fader

Redemption is a common thread throughout Fader’s piece on Oden. But not redemption for Oden in the eyes of a public that expected so much of him. Rather, she explores Oden’s redemption in his own eyes, discovering how a man found the self-forgiveness that long evaded him.

That fundamentally human aspect is evident in each of Fader’s pieces, and sticks with a reader long after they’ve finished reading. Her book Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA Champion (which can be purchased here) departs from the tropes of typical sports biography; the conversion of identity, race, class, self-doubt, maturity, and family–all aspects that are just as important to the story of the Antetokounmpo family as basketball itself– are elegantly analyzed, and lead to a truly affecting biography.

But as many writers know, the best stories seldom begin where you expect. For Fader, that was certainly the case of her book, which didn’t begin as a book about the NBA champion and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. In fact, it didn’t begin as a book at all–it started as a profile of Giannis’ youngest brother, Alex, but soon transformed into a massive project spanning multiple years, hundreds of interviews, and culminating in a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Mirin was kind enough to join Enjoy Basketball for a conversation about finding pockets of joy in grief, the importance of character development in nonfiction writing, and what draws her to a potential profile subject.

EB: Is there a player, team, or moment that made you fall in love with basketball?

MF: I fell in love with basketball in fifth grade. I just saw all these boys running to the basketball court, and I had no idea where they were headed or why. I didn’t know anything about basketball, but they seemed so excited, and so something just pulled me along with them. It sounds corny, but the second I picked up a ball and shot it I just fell in love with it, then and there. I joined the team as the first girl, and they never let me forget it. But it made me tough and made me fall more in love with the game. I was a Lakers fan growing up and a Sparks fan. This was the era of Kobe Bryant in his prime and Lisa Leslie in her prime, and I rarely missed a game. I always read the L.A. Times at school the next day after the game.

EB: You’ve spoken to players– and the people around them– during all different stages of their basketball journeys. You profiled Keegan Murray before he was drafted, wrote a book about Giannis as he was ascending to improbable greatness, and talked with former teammates and coaches of LeBron and Kareem while one is on the tailend of a career, and one long retired. How does your approach to writing a profile change depending on where the subject of the piece is in their career?

MF: I think the most exciting time to profile someone is at the beginning or end of the career. At the beginning, the player is really excited, doesn’t know what to expect, is very green, and has everything to look forward to ahead of him. That’s both thrilling and daunting, which makes for an interesting profile. Toward the end of one’s career, there’s a wisdom and introspection there that just isn’t possible when one is a rookie or even in high school or college, so I enjoy that perspective as well. It’s compelling and it’s reflective. I keep in mind these things as I’m profiling people at different ends of the spectrum in terms of age, but the approach is still the same: I want to get the human story of why this person is the way they are and how they got to where they are. I’m looking to show the reader the internal. We focus so much as a culture on the physical nature of players; how high they jump, how tall they are, how fast they are. I’m more interested in the head and the heart. What motivates the person, what is the person like off the court, what off the court things maybe influenced the way they are on the court. I’m looking to write more about the person than the player, and I take that approach with every story.

EB: Your profiles flow extremely well, often reading like excerpts from novels. Do you surround yourself with a lot of fiction? If so, do you consciously mix in elements of narrative storytelling into your pieces, even though they’re all real-life experiences?

MF: Thank you! Yes, I love fiction. I would say 80 percent of what I read is fiction. I have a book addiction problem and every time I say no more books, I go and buy more. Fiction taught me pacing, character development, plot, scenes, and how to play with language and rhythm for rhetorical effect. Those are things near and dear to my heart. Word play, sentence structure, things of that nature, and so I try to bring all of that to play in my stories. The challenge with every piece isn’t just what the story is about, but how it’s written. I have to sustain attention and keep someone engaged for 4,000 words–so I make sure that I focus on each sentence. Every sentence has an exact purpose and place– that’s why writing is so hard! I think you can bring these aspects of creative writing into non-fiction pieces like the ones I write, because you’re not adding or changing their experiences or anything of that sort. That would be wrong/journalistic malpractice. To me, creative non-fiction is just presenting the true facts and experiences of someone’s story, but writing it in a way that is hopefully unique and engaging.

EB: Your book begins with a story of Giannis and his brothers in Greece pushing a fridge down the road. At first, the scene may read as solemn, desperate. But later in the book, you write how the boys were laughing at the absurdity of their situation, a feeling of togetherness between them. To you, what does that moment say about the Antetokounmpo family, and even the human spirit as a whole?

MF: Thank you for this question, because it truly underscores why I chose it as the lead scene of the book. It was precisely as you say–both pain and joy–all in one moment. That is the epitome of their experience, and that’s why I knew I had to start the book this way. Before I wrote this book, not much was written about Giannis’ upbringing. It seemed to be a one-line sentence: he sold trinkets in the street. Things were very, very hard. And while that is true, there was so much joy and love and laughter and true happiness, but that wasn’t necessarily portrayed when sometimes media overemphasized tragedy and trauma. I wanted to make sure that for every difficult moment, I also showed another truth: there were lots of happy moments, too. It shows that they are a loving, resilient family, like any of us. We have dark times, we have light times. Nothing is all or the other. Everyone is trying their best to live each day.

EB: What characteristics draw you to a possible interview subject? Do you notice any commonalities in the personality types of athletes you speak with, or do you find yourself intrigued by all different sorts of people?

MF: I think I am drawn to a kind of person in particular. I’m intrigued by people that work hard. I like shy, yet confident with an edge, humble personalities. People that don’t think they are incredible–but people that play like they know they are incredible. People that had to really fight and claw to get somewhere. People that maybe are misunderstood, but might have other dimensions to them that others aren’t seeing. I like to cover thoughtful people who see themselves as more than just what they do on the court. That’s why in many of my interviews, I don’t bring up basketball until well into the interview. I want to get to know them as people first. I also cover athletes that are vocal about mental health, like my DeMar DeRozan profile. That story meant a lot to me. I still think about some of the things he said to me in that interview, and I really feel like he is exactly the kind of person that I really enjoy speaking with/profiling.

EB: If you could add or remove a rule to the NBA, what would you change? (Personally, I’m letting each team pick a five minute stretch of every game where they don’t have to dribble. They can just run up and down the court with the ball like running backs.)

MF: Ha! That’s great. I’d add the four-point shot like they did in the Big 3. That was fun!

EB: What’s next for you?

MF: I’m working on my second book, a biography of Hakeem Olajuwon. I’m also looking for ideas for my third book.