A Small Town’s Shot at Forever

In One Shot at Forever, Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard tells the improbable story of a small-town high school baseball team from rural Illinois that defied convention, inspired by its coach, Lynn Sweet, an English teacher with no coaching experience.

What brought this story to your attention in the first place? When did you decide to write the book?

Basically, I got lucky. Two and a half years ago I received an email from a Sports Illustrated reader named Chris Collins. He told me the story of a small town high school baseball team and its unusual coach. He mentioned a Cinderella run, and kids wearing peace signs on their hats, and players who went on to be drafted into the majors. I was intrigued enough to talk to Chris on the phone and, when that went well, fly out to meet the coach, Lynn Sweet. All it took was an afternoon with Sweet for me to fall in love with the story. Here was a man—complicated, charismatic, controversial, kind, good-hearted—that I knew readers could root for. Then there was the tale itself, redolent of Hoosiers and full of natural drama.

The resulting SI story was titled “The Magical Season of the Macon Ironmen” and it ran in June of 2010. We were blown away by the response. Something about that team, and Sweet, really struck a nerve. For weeks, the letters poured in—more than I can remember for any feature story at SI in a long time. People nominated Sweet for “Sportsman of the Year,” and wrote of re-reading the story on tear-stained pages. Many wanted to share their own stories of coaches and small towns and long-forgotten teams. Within weeks, a half a dozen film producers had called. It was overwhelming.

It was about two months later that I decided to write the book. It just felt like there was so much more to the story than I was able to get into the 10,000-word magazine story: themes of loss and hope and coming of age. Plus, I genuinely liked the people I was writing about, which is crucial with a book like this that is so tied to the main characters.

Coach Sweet somewhat unexpectedly arrives in Macon, Illinois. He sweeps into town and is a completely different type of person. What was he like and how did the town react?

Sweet was the son of an Army Sergeant who had, in his words, “broke the other way.” He’s this 22-year-old liberal-minded English teacher who’s exploring life and embracing the changing times. Macon, on the other hand, is a town of 1,200 in the middle of Illinois that remains stuck in the Eisenhower era. Short hair, unquestioned patriotism, conservative values. The clash was almost immediate. In particular, the principal and school board had no idea what to make of Sweet, who arrived in town in a red Mustang. He frequented the local bars, threw out the entire English curriculum, refused to engage in corporal punishment and grew out his hair to complement a killer Fu Manchu mustache. If it weren’t for the fact that the students loved him – and for baseball – he would have been fired within a matter of years. 

Senator Bill Bradley on How We Can All Do Better

Record of Achievement

He has a record of achievement few can match:

  • Rhodes Scholar
  • Graduate of Princeton and Oxford
  • Olympic Gold Medalist
  • 2-time NBA Champion with the New York Knicks
  • Basketball Hall of Famer
  • Senator from New Jersey for 18 years
  • Presidential Candidate
  • Managing Director, Allen & Company
  • Host of American Voices on Satellite Radio
  • Author of seven books
  • Director serving on numerous charitable boards
  • And the list could go on and on.

I’m talking, of course, about Senator Bill Bradley.  Senator Bradley recently sat down with me to talk about a range of topics from his life growing up, his experiences as a pro basketball player, his life as a Senator, and the current issues facing our country. 

Senator Bradley’s latest book is titled We Can All Do Better.

Five words came to mind as I read the book, and we talked about them in the interview:

  1. Citizens.  It takes all of us to make a better country.  Citizen involvement is what spurred the greatest movements.  From abolitionists fighting to end slavery all the way to environmentalists cleaning up our air and water, the greatest changes occur when individuals get involved to make a difference.  These societal changes were not driven by the government.  They were driven by citizens.
  2. Compromise.  Compromise and negotiation is important.  Senator Bradley says, “It begins by giving respect to the other side.”

What if your closest friend is someone you haven’t met?

Image courtesy of istockphoto/Greensquared

There’s an old story I want to share.  Like most old tales, I’ve heard it told in various forms.  True or not, the point is a good one.

There was once a university professor who visited a Japanese Zen master (I’ve also heard this was a Buddhist monk, but you get the point).  The professor wanted to learn more about Zen.

After welcoming his visitor, the Zen master asked if he would enjoy some tea.

Knowing he should accept, the professor smiled and thanked the Zen master for his generosity.

The Zen master disappeared and then quickly reappeared with two cups and some steaming tea.  The master smiled back as he poured tea into the cup.  The professor watched the cup fill, and continued to watch as it overflowed.  He put his hand up and exclaimed, “Stop!  It’s overflowing.  You’re wasting the tea and no more can fit in the cup!”

The Zen master nodded and calmly explained.  “You are here to ask questions.  Yet you come full.  You have your own ideas and have no space.  Until you have room for more, you will not accept new information.”

How Full is Your Cup?

It’s a powerful reminder about preconceptions.  We all too often have such strongly held opinions that we are not really able to take in all of the new information.  That part is obvious.

But today I thought about the story in a different way.  What if, instead of ideas, we thought about our relationships?  How many of us think, “I have enough friends.  I have no room for any more.”  We hit a certain age and we are comfortable with the people around us.  What do we lose by not making room for new people in our lives? 

Learn How to Enhance Your Own Creative Genius

Image courtesy of istockphoto/HowardOates

When the advance copy of Tina Seelig’s inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity came across my desk, I couldn’t wait to read it.  Read her book and you will find yourself on the front row of her always-filled class on innovation.  It’s a practical guide helping anyone improve his or her creativity.  Tina Seelig is the director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation and the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.  In addition, she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University Medical School.

Dr. Seelig recently answered a few questions for me about her work.

Are we born with a creative gene or are we able to learn it as a skill?

Our brains are built for creative problem solving, and it is easy to both uncover and enhance our natural inventiveness. The human brain evolved over millions of years from a small collection of nerve cells with limited functionality to a fabulously complex organ that is optimized for innovation. Our highly evolved brains are always assessing our ever-changing environment, mixing and matching our responses to fit each situation. Every sentence we craft is unique, each interaction we have is distinctive, and every decision we make is done with our own free will. That we have the ability to come up with an endless set of novel responses to the world around us is a constant reminder that we are naturally inventive.