Thomas Lake is a Sports Illustrated senior writer. A recent Gospel Coalition article on him began, “It may surprise you to learn the finest young sportswriter—perhaps the finest young writer period—in America is a Christian.”
Your mom and your dad, a pastor, homeschooled you and your five siblings—how did that prepare you for your job as a writer? It was pretty free-form. A lot of going to the library—the whole pack of us in the station wagon—and we would check out 40 or 50 books at a time and sit around reading them.
We had lesson plans for learning math and all that, but a lot of it was pursuing our intellectual curiosity, and that’s what I get paid to do: Think of something I’m curious about, and go find out the rest of the story. It’s a privilege to be able to do that.
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Thomas Lake:
You had no television until age 14, which today would be considered cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Constitution. We thought it was [laughter], but it wasn’t up to us. I think about that now and am grateful for it. Time that would have been spent watching TV we spent playing outside or reading. That had a major effect on my development and helped me get the chance to become a better writer because all those hours weren’t spent passively watching television.
Do you think you’re more introverted or extroverted? Definitely more introverted. I was a very shy kid growing up. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do this work because the foundation of reporting is being able to go knock on a stranger’s door and ask for their story. I’m still sometimes terrified when I have to do that, but the work has forced me to give it a try so it gets a little bit easier. For some reason a lot of journalists are shy, and doing this work helps them overcome that.
You concentrated in journalism at Gordon College in Massachusetts—graduating in 2001— and then spent seven years mostly at small newspapers. In college, I worked at The Salem News, which had every day a little graphic of a little red witch riding a broom. Then Georgia, then back up to eastern Massachusetts, then down to Jacksonville, then Pasco County (Fla.), then back up to Atlanta.
Your big break came in 2008 with the writing of your first Sports Illustrated story, “Two on Five.” As you labored on that, what difference did your familiarity with the Bible make? I had written a draft of it already and shown it to my wife. She said, that’s not very good—a lot of times she likes what I do and this time it just wasn’t right. So one Saturday I locked myself in the spare bedroom and thought, how can I make this story feel the way it should feel? The story was about a moment of glory for two boys who had won a basketball game they had no business winning—miraculous, but that glory was fleeting and it just faded away. I thought, how can I give that feeling to this story? I remembered my favorite chapter from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 12. I opened to that chapter, read it over and over again, finally got the inspiration that I needed, and wrote the first sentence of the story, which was probably one of the best I’d ever done.
(The first sentence: “If you could unbreak the bones and erase the scars, recall the bullets and sever the chains, recap the bottles and catch all the smoke, if you could swim 16 years up the river of time and find a town called Stevenson, you just might see something glorious.”)
At Sports Illustrated you often come up with your own story ideas—do you gravitate toward particular kinds of stories because of your worldview? It does seem that I go after stories where people do something heroic at a certain cost to themselves. That element comes up again and again, often when I’m not even looking for it.
Tell us about your tornado story. About four years ago a tornado came through downtown Atlanta, Ga., right as the SEC basketball tournament was being played. A college basketball game was going on, Alabama against Mississippi State, and Mississippi State was winning. Alabama had the ball and a chance to tie the game. The team’s best shooter, Mykal Riley, took the shot from about 28 feet: He throws it up, it hits the rim, bounces around, hits the backboard, goes in right at the buzzer, and ties the game. Sends it into overtime. Eight minutes later, when the tornado came roaring past the Georgia Dome, thousands of people who would have been walking outside in the path of the tornado were instead safely inside the dome. It literally was a shot that saved people’s lives.
And as you dug into the story... It was even more amazing than that. It turned out that Mykal Riley learned to shoot on a special basketball court that his grandmother had installed with overhead lighting in her backyard. The only reason she was able to afford to install that court is because of a life insurance payout she had received when a crazy man something like 15 years earlier had shot to death her daughter along with three other people. It was hard to know what to make of the whole thing, but the bottom line was that this very, very bad thing had started a chain of events over 15 years ago that led to something wonderful happening. The challenge was to piece it all together, to find that cause and effect from A to Z.
Most reporters looking at this would see a chance collection of circumstances. Did you think about this in terms of Providence? It made it easier that Mykal Riley and his parents certainly looked at it that way, and Riley would pray as he was taking every shot. There could be a danger sometimes in imposing a certain sensibility on a story when the facts don’t call for it, but in this case it all fit together because the main characters all believed this is how it went.
And you took those beliefs seriously. Another reporter would think that Riley and his parents were talking nonsense, and he might go in an entirely different direction. It’s true. There’s a lot of talk about being unbiased, being objective, not letting your own preconceptions get in the way of the story. But that’s impossible. Each of us has a way we see the world and a lens through which we view things, so we’re all going to bring a different perspective to the story.
Watch Marvin Olasky’s complete interview with Thomas Lake: