Kobe

For a long time, I was not much a fan of Kobe Bryant, who died yesterday at age 41 in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter Gianna and seven others en route to a youth basketball tournament. Early in his NBA career, he was a wannabe Michael Jordan. He conducted an unseemly feud with Shaquille O’Neal for alpha status that helped unravel a Lakers dynasty.

Most importantly, at the end of a felony sexual assault case against him, he confessed to non-consensual sex with his accuser. There is no getting around that.

Later in his career, however, especially outside the media, in more intimate settings, I began to appreciate him. The first time was at the Lakers’ shoot-around the afternoon of Game 3 in the 2007 playoff series against the Phoenix Suns.

I attended by invitation of Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson, a professional acquaintance back then, to interview Assistant Coach Tex Winter and raise Tex’s profile as a Hall of Fame candidate. Kobe arrived late to that shoot-around, perhaps due to receiving treatment for injury or illness.

But when he arrived, the energy in the gym changed. He watched the walk-through like a hawk. Players became much more intentional and attentive, even though Kobe was just watching. Because Kobe was watching.

That energy reminded me of attending a press conference for the presentation of one of Michael Jordan’s MVP awards. He entered from the back of the room, and the feeling in that space changed even before I saw him. By 2007, even if Kobe was not on Jordan’s level as a legend – with two more NBA titles yet to come – he was way past a wannabe.

Near the end of the team’s practice, Kobe hoisted a few jump shots. He couldn’t help himself, his love of the game ran so deep. Then Kobe swaggered out of the gym, and his teammates followed with a swagger unseen earlier. He dropped 45 on the Suns that night.

The next time I saw Kobe outside of the media was at the October 2018 Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program’s Project Play Summit. He’d retired from the NBA as an elder statesman, one of the all-time greats, known for his five championships and as many individual accolades as anyone who ever played, known for his work ethic and his fierce competitiveness.

Now, Kobe was onto using the platform of his fame to change the world for good. He’d started coaching Gianna’s team and was concerned enough with the state of youth sports to spend an afternoon with a few hundred like-minded folks.

The Summit included Kobe leading a panel discussion with four athletes ages 11-13, titled “What if Youth Designed Youth Sports?” and another session on “The Meaning of Play” with his childhood friend, Kevin Carroll, the author and former Philadelphia 76ers athletic trainer.

Kobe’s roles in these events were not ceremonial. They were hard, earnest, honest work with much more payoff for everyone else in the room than for Kobe himself. This work required Kobe to be humble and genuine, especially with the kids.

He was as prepared as he had ever been on-court and performed with the same aplomb. If you didn’t know better, you would never have thought he was any kind of celebrity, let alone one of the world’s most famous athletes, a global icon, Oscar winner, and multi-lingual budding Renaissance man.

Ferocious, competitive, mean-mugging Mamba — in this new venue — channeled all the same intensity that fueled his basketball career into an equal measure of kindness, gentleness, and playfulness. He had become a man in full and stayed that way until yesterday.

St. Thomas Academy and the Spirit of Minnesota

I love the smell of free coconut shrimp at Outback Steakhouse in the morning after the Minnesota Golden Gophers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It smells like…victory.

Like crazy Colonel Kilgore, zealotry infused this historic Minnesota football season. For me that stemmed from an unusually spiritual visit with clients at Saint Thomas Academy.

My travel to the Catholic, boys, military, college-prep school was timed for the final home football game of the season. The purpose was to gather material for future alumni magazine and website stories from, among others, Coach Dan O’Brien, whom I had interviewed by phone for an oral history of the football program.

That phone call with the former University of Minnesota assistant coach resonated. He’s old school, so we spoke of Vikings legend Dave Osborn and some of the Gophers we knew in common going back to my time at “the U” as sports editor of the Minnesota Daily. We also touched on the story of his son, Casey, who plays for the Gophers even as he fights cancer.

But before meeting O’Brien, there was other business and pleasure to pursue during this homecoming. First was a fantastic walleye dinner at Hazelwood with my friend Mary Hickey, who provided a primer in Catholicism during our childhood in a way that feeds my work with Saint Thomas Academy.

Life doesn’t get more Minnesota than a meal of the local lake delicacy and conversation spiced with Mary’s soulful, rooted values. That talk left me even more prepared for the next morning to finally set foot on the gorgeous grounds of the Academy.

Deborah Edwards — my direct client, and herself a former Gopher Sports marketer — had a full day of interviews and campus touring planned. Walking the halls of this institution, albeit in newer buildings on a different site than its 1885 founding, a sense of history and honor pervaded. You could see how kids would want to live out the Cadet Creed.

That also reflected in the “formation” ceremony, which the Cadets run with precision, formality and fun. They report their news, make announcements, present colors, pledge allegiance, accept competitive honors, receive the daily Senior Speech required of all graduating students, and exhibit the spirit expected on a Football Friday.

Interviews with Norma Gutierrez and Casey Erickson for a website feature article and with several young men for these Meet Our Students profiles led me to understand what distinguishes Saint Thomas Academy from so many other schools. The boys make their own beds and lie in them.

Even within the constraints of both the Catholic church and military hierarchy, many aspects of the Academy’s curriculum and social structure are very much of, by and for the students. Whatever else they learn, and that’s a lot, they learn how to make decisions and live with them.

Impressed by the History Room, with its century’s worth of medals and badges, the Innovation Center, with its student-built electric vehicles, the pool, the gym, the ceramics studio, the chapel, and most of all the people, I still welcomed the end of the school day. I wanted to roam the Academy’s acres in solitude and soak in more of its spirit, including a trail that contained the Stations of the Cross and led down to Rogers Lake.

Soon the sun set. The air chilled. The wind picked up. It started snowing sideways. It was a perfect night for football in Minnesota.

Mercifully, Deborah had arranged for a seat in the press box. That added yet another layer to my sense of homecoming and made the Cadets’ 40-3 defeat of Hill-Murray School even more enjoyable.

On my Lyft ride to campus Saturday morning to meet with Coach O’Brien, the driver’s chatter turned to football. Hearing of my years at the U, he asked if I knew Darrell Thompson, who still holds most of the major Gopher rushing records. Assured I’d interviewed Darrell several times back in the ’80s, the driver unspooled a string of his own memories about what a great guy Darrell was and still is and how they used to do non-profit work together to benefit youth in Minnesota.

That driver put me in the way-back machine, which may have been the best place for me, because the chat with Coach O’Brien (not to be revealed until the next article comes out), was even more old-school than the first. We concentrated on quality of character, covering every throwback value imaginable. Given that he was not quite two years removed from coaching for the Gophers, I came away confident that they would do what they did yesterday.

The rest of that day and night, I was walking on air, from hiking Minnehaha Falls to visiting David and Lori Fhima (a past partner in crime around the 1980s Gophers football scene) at their restaurant. It was October-in-Minnesota brisk outside, just as invigorating in the present as it was in the past.

New England

New England is a tease. Hopeful leaf-peepers on the opposite coast — watching webcams and reading reports to help schedule the right flights — learn that a long-lingering New England summer delays the fall colors, and a too-early cold and wind strips the trees bare before we can get there.

Sometimes, the not knowing spices travel just right. You can plan perfectly for the Vatican or Taj Mahal, less so for a natural religious experience like the agony and the ecstasy of a New England autumn.

This fall, our schedule was set by Val’s conference attendance in Boston and the travel plans of our friends, Winky and Peter. As to leaf-peeping, in keeping with the stiff-upper-lip Calvinism that has ruled the region for four hundred years, we might get nothing and like it.

A surer thing was our first pilgrimage to Fenway Park. On the afternoon of a night game against the San Francisco Giants, Val finished her conference while I lunched with my childhood friend, Ross Bresler, at Summer Shack. We feasted on oysters and lobster roll, the first in a binge of which no Calvinist would approve.

Walking that meal off on Commonwealth Ave., Ross gave me the neighborhood download and listed his favorite Fenway haunts. I took in the art history class he teaches at Berklee College of Music and later met Val, Winky and Peter to hit the streets for a different kind of “cultchah” on the walk to Fenway.

The pre-game bar scene, especially Lansdowne Pub, heightened my decades-in-the-making anticipation. But nothing could have prepared me for the heart-skip upon entering the ballpark and then the bucket list first glimpse of the “Monstah.”

My physical reaction to the emotion of the moment shocked me. It took an hour to fully regain my breath. Head-swiveling and eye-scanning all the sights from our seats about twenty rows up from the Pesky Pole, I wondered whether it was the world’s most famous foul pole and suddenly realized its twin, struck by Carlton Fisk’s twelfth-inning homerun in game six of the 1975 World Series, might be even more famous.

What are the odds, I considered, of the two most famous foul poles standing in the same park? I both feared and embraced these mental meanderings. I worried about devoting brainspace to such minutiae and still congratulated myself on completing the pilgrimage that allowed for this foul pole epiphany.

That reverie ended at the start of a pre-game ceremonial handshake between Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and his grandfather, Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski. The sky purpled over that famous Green Monster of a leftfield wall that shadowed Yaz’s career.

The next major sensation amid so many — Italian sausage scents, “R”s-beome-“Ah”s in the local dialect, the spinal twist needed in a hard narrow wooden seat for the forty-five-degree view of home plate — was the clang of Steven Vogt’s homerun off the Pesky Pole. In fifty years of watching baseball, I’d never heard anything like it. It never occurred to me that a foul pole would clang. Whatever sound Pudge Fisk’s homerun off the leftfield foul pole might have made in 1975 was drowned out by the crowd roar.

And it was again in 2019 when the outfield video board played a Chevrolet ad showing a montage of Fisk highlights set to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” Whatever else happens at Fenway, they honor their history.

And their tradition.

Pondering tradition, I asked Peter what he’d missed most about New England in the decades since he’d left. “The stoicism,” he answered with all the elan of Calvin Coolidge. Then the Giants’ bats got hot and the night got cold, and we shivered stoically through a five-run Giants’ ninth and a quiet last three outs for the Sox.

The next day, Winky and Peter left for their country house in Norwich, Vermont. Val and I started toward Portland, Maine, stopping in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to eat at Surf, on the recommendation of a Bay Area colleague, who had waited tables there. The view was spectacular.

So was the lobster roll, washed down by a bottle of Lord Hobo Brewing Co. Boomsauce, which tasted as irresistible as its name. That lobster roll, though. The bread was so soft and buttery with just the right give, and the meat so fresh and sweet and juicy, that Val showed discomfort at my deep sighs and closed eyes. It was a “When Harry Met Sally” scene, but I was not faking.

In Portland that night, my high school friend, Daphne, took us to Duckfat, where you can guess what I ordered. Then we hit Blyth and Burrows, where we had a little downstairs speakeasy room to ourselves. We talked baseball and journalism and how both could help solve the world’s problems, just as we had since our teens, and we laughed a lot of the same laughs as we had then, plus some new ones until the night faded and so did we.

Daphne toured us around the Portland waterfront the next day, explaining its history and socio-economics, and leading us into mom-and-pop shops.

We stopped at The Porthole for a lunch of you know.

After the rest of Daphne’s tour of Portland, Val and I left for Norwich. We took the straight rural backroads route across New Hampshire, over the river and through the woods, which were just starting to turn red and yellow. Dusk brought us to Winky and Peter’s farmhouse, which was built in 1792 and was somehow historically significant in the westward migration of the Mormons.

For each of the next three syrup-slow day days, we enjoyed home-cooked meals and cozy hardwood smoke smells around the fireplace. We stared at the trees in their yard and beyond and thought we could see them changing by the hour. On long walks through the hillsides, we glimpsed flurries of color here and there.

One afternoon, Peter and I golfed at a Donald Ross-designed nine-hole gem called Carter Country Club, which charged a near-criminal ten dollars for the privilege. The trees lining the fairways whispered autumn glory.

Too soon, it was time to fly back across the country. On our hurried interstate drive back to Boston, we saw this last little promise.

According to the webcams, we missed the peak by three weeks. Tantalized, we will return.

Telling Your Story

Telling Your Story was the title of the panel discussion in the video below, shot at the inaugural Sports Philanthropy World event in Chicago. More than 100 delegates gained information and inspiration from the panel, including:

You can scroll below the video for highlights of the panel with a guide to timestamps.

In the first two minutes, Nicole explains the importance of story to non-profits as a means of achieving a mission and raising funds: thus the panel’s focus on providing concrete takeaways for our audience to enact.

Three minutes in, Katie addresses how critical it is to define a non-profit’s audience. “You can’t target ‘everyone in the world.’ You can’t make the most impact if you don’t know your target audience.”

At the 10-minute mark, David answers Nicole’s question about storytelling as art and science: “Every person in the organization and every person the organization impacts is potentially a story. If you impact 500 people, you have 500 stories. If you impact a million people, you have a million stories. The science is in having systems in place to get those stories. One thing I advise is to embed a marketing person as a journalist within your organization and charge them with seeking out stories. Create systems that make it as easy as possible for people to share their stories and incentivize them to do so. Use YouTube, email, social media, etc. as an intake for them to invest their hearts and souls into your organization, your brand your mission. That’s the science part. The art part is the journalist understanding what will trip the wires of whichever audience you’re targeting.”

At 12:15, Nicole asks what types of stories are most effective, and David answers: “Emotion. A natural story, focused on an individual person, who is on a journey that is immediately understandable. Anything that is simple, emotional and can be digested into a soundbite that is ready for social media.”

At 12:42, Katie adds “Emotion is incredibly important, but it’s so hard to define, it can be overwhelming. What you think may bring an audience to tears may fall flat. There’s this rule of thumb if you’re creating a story, and in the process you don’t feel anything, then don’t use it. You have to bring out one specific emotion in your audience.”

At 14:30, Marianna explains, “I want to make people identify. If I can’t make them want to feel included, and look at it, and say, ‘You know what, I see myself in that,’ then forget it, we did a bad job. Start over.”

Starting at 15:24, the panel discusses the storytelling tactics of using statistics to generate what Nicole calls the audience’s “Holy Shit moment” in realizing a story’s importance vs. focusing on an individual. Nicole on the “Holy shit” moment with stats.

About 20 minutes in, Nicole asks about a non-profit’s story “not getting lost in the noise” of constant messaging. Katie offers perspective on understanding the target audience rather than focusing just on the number of “likes” and advises to keep in mind that “we are wired to pay attention to bad news, wired to detect a threat.” At 22:04, David hails Solutions Journalism for going against that grain and serving as an outlet for positive storytelling

At 24:43, Katie tells a terrific story about storytelling, using an example of a gala video that raised thousands of dollars, but then fell flat in the organization’s newsletter. The next five minutes covers tactics in collecting and curating content to allow for re-purposing in multiple channels to a variety of audiences, including traditional news media outlets. At 31:52, Marianna suggests highlighting volunteers’ activities to share on LinkedIn to reach the volunteers’ professional networks and generate interest from new audiences.

Much of the remaining discussion is Q&A covering such topics as decisions on using internal vs. external resources for storytelling, how to tackle a story subject’s camera anxiety (even if that subject is you!), and whether/when/how to try to control your brand’s story in balance with the desire for it to go viral.

Thanks to Roy Kessel and Sports Philanthropy Network for the opportunity to tell our stories!

A Day in the Park with Wolf Pack Ninjas and KaBOOM!

It was still dark when the Lyft driver dropped off me and Snowman at Pearsall Park and sped away. The driver hadn’t wanted to go there and looked at us funny when we climbed into his car with ten thousand dollars’ worth of video gear.

Although Pearsall Park transformed “from dump to destination” about three years ago, it still is in one of San Antonio’s poorer neighborhoods. With the Lyft car vanished, the only light came from an electric sign explaining why we were there.

Snowman and I were there not to volunteer but to gather storytelling material for our mutual client, Wolf Pack Ninjas, who would help KaBOOM! build an adventure course playground that would offer a Ninja Warrior-like experience.

Wolf Pack – a group of American Ninja Warrior competitors committed to “making the world healthier one kid at a time” – and KaBOOM!, the renowned non-profit playground developer, were joining forces to provide fun and fitness opportunities to youth in underserved communities.

Soon after meeting KaBOOM! teammates who had arrived even earlier than 0-dark-hundred, the San Antonio sunrise crept over the massive mulch-pile that would gradually diminish during the day as hundreds of volunteers raked, shoveled and wheelbarrowed it into the build.

Before the event kicked off, we already were interviewing participants on camera, including extraordinary, community-minded students from the JROTC program at Southwest High School and the basketball team at East Central High School.

When the volunteers started working, it was 91 degrees. The sun was grilling, and the work was grueling, from assembling the heavy playground equipment to moving mulch to mixing cement.

But the spirit of the volunteers was remarkable. The adult leaders gave their all with great patience, and every child out there defied the stereotype of screen-addicted teen slacker. They showed pride in their community, willing to work for its improvement. They worked longer, harder and more joyously than many paid employees in much more comfortable environments, undaunted by dust and dirt, unfazed by fatigue.

The KaBOOM! crew orchestrated the volunteers with an expertise borne of building or improving 17,000 playspaces. Their concern with safety meant frequent public address reminders about hydration and sunscreen. The only other interruptions in the motivational music came during an announcement that lunch was available or when Snowman and I were conducting our on-camera interviews atop the mulch pile. Wolf Pack Co-Founder and Ninja Warrior star Ian Dory was so happy with his that he flipped.

At lunch, Ian posed for photos and signed autographs for volunteers, then went back to work right alongside them. By about 3 p.m., pieces of adventure course equipment that took six people to carry were stood in place, the 22 tons of concrete were poured, and the dust began to settle. The build was finished.

The concrete had to cure, so the course was not immediately accessible. But Ian made a great offer to the crowd to come back and play when Wolf Pack and KaBOOM! reunite in San Antonio on November 16.

Inkflow’s Cool Summer

Summer – which I have defined not by solstice and equinox but by “school’s out” ever since attending kindergarten in 1969 – was cool this year. Inkflow’s workflow made it so.

Summer started with a Fit Kids event at Levi’s Stadium on the last day of school for the students we serve in East Palo Alto, continued with gaining new Inkflow clients, and ended with amazing back-to-school initiatives. As usual, returning to my roots in Chicago and Milwaukee nourished the blooms and fruits of these labors.

In early July, The 82 Project Foundation’s annual Swine Social pig roast and fundraiser reminded me why I love serving on the non-profit’s board. Named “82” for the year our board members graduated from Whitefish Bay High School, the organization funds a scholarship for a senior graduating from our alma mater and aids community members in need of financial and emotional support.

During that visit, Inkflow linked with the Milwaukee area’s Concord Chamber Orchestra and contracted to advise the non-profit classical musical group on marketing communications strategy. A slew of stakeholder interviews, an online survey, and observations in and around CCO’s community will inform Inkflow documents that provide the organization a map for its future outreach efforts.

Also while in Milwaukee, preliminary talks from earlier weeks with San Francisco-based real estate concern Andersen, Jung & Co. turned into a short-deadline assignment to write a 90-second speech that Principal Broker Monica Chung delivered to a group of business executives.

Back in the Bay, Inkflow sealed a deal to deliver writing coaching and marketing/business development consulting for Ferox Yoga, the brain-child of yoga instructor Claire Ngoon.

Soon after, the latest issue of Saint Thomas Academy’s Saber Magazine dropped, with several of my articles, including the cover story, “Profiles in Service.”

July closed out with the launch of a new promotional video for Fit Kids, including my first voice-over work…

…and August started with a return to Chicago as a panelist on the topic of “Telling Your Story: How to Engage Your Donor Base” at the inaugural Sports Philanthropy World Congress.

About 100 delegates gained information and inspiration from the panel, including moderator Nicole Fisher (Founder of Health & Human Rights Strategies, Co-Founder of Brain Treatment Foundation and a Forbes contributor), Katie Wilkes (Freeheart Creative), and Marianna Whitehurst (Board Member for Georgia Playworks, Foundation Board of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Chick Fil A Peach Bowl Advisory Board).

Back in the Bay, Inkflow forged an alliance between Fit Kids and Citizen Schools, which will have me leading Fit Kids classes for underserved middle-school students at Redwood City’s McKinley Institute of Technology. The chance to merge my passion for both non-profits into a single project that directly impacts youth and advances both organizations’ goals is a dream come true.

Then this other dream came true:

Minda, whom I informally and occasionally advised in the last several years, read from The Memo, sold and signed scores of copies, and led a rousing panel discussion with several other women of color that infused the packed room with equal parts anger and hope.

Twenty-four hours later, some of Minda’s “Memo” continued to hit home in another room of multi-culturalists, as “summer” ended with students back in school, including those who last night completed the class I teach at The Writing Salon, aptly titled — in light of Minda’s message — “On Point.”

Fit Kids on the Last Day of School

Remember the last day of elementary school before summer vacation? Your weather may have been spectacular, tantalizing you outside the classroom window, promising the freedom to run, jump, skip, throw, catch, and finally, comfortably collapse into sleep as your pent-up energy dwindles with the daylight.

There is nothing better than that mad dash out the door to the sound of the school year’s last bell. Unless you’re an East Palo Alto public school student participating in Fit Kids. Then, it does get better.

You board a bus headed to Levi’s Stadium. There, you get a t-shirt and run out the same tunnel as your football heroes, all courtesy of investment firm HGGC, the Forever Young Foundation, and the San Francisco 49ers, and then you meet Steve Young, who has led all three organizations.  

There are lessons in football and life from 49ers Youth Football head Jared Muela.


There are football drills, agility tests, music and dancing.


There are flying touchdown flops into foam endzones.

There is food and beverage and a gift bag. The ride home is much quieter. Many of the Fit Kids are fast asleep…and dreaming.