Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Under Further Review No. 4: Josh Verlin

What started as a growing love for college hoops at the University of Pittsburgh then moved to across the state to Temple University has now grown into the posts, pages and profiles of City of Basketball Love. Josh Verlin is the driving force behind it all, and there's no stopping him. He has an unbridled love for college basketball and the sports journalism knowledge to keep building the already impressive site.

Josh spoke with the SMTSU about building the site, the beginnings of his basketball love and the kind of work that sets writers apart from others.

On Monday, April 28...
Kevin Rossi: So, I guess we'll start from the beginning...
Josh Verlin: I was born October... Sorry, sorry.
KR: I wouldn't expect anything less from you. You start CoBL and you're going into law school the summer you decide to start it up, what was your thought process?
JV: I was going into law school and I hadn't even been in law school when I started it. The thought process was I was writing for Aaron [Bracy], and all year long I wanted to cover some high school basketball. It was just a clash of viewpoints, and it's his site, I understand. I like to be in-charge of things, you know, group projects I was always the one who ended up being the leader. He wanted to keep it as more of an in-season site only and I wanted to write year-round. Honestly, really it was just sort of an invention out of necessity because I needed a place to write. So, I thought if I was going to do this, I didn't want to just start this little blog that covers basketball. I think if we covered high school and do other things it could be really good. So, I called up Andy Edwards, who was covering Villanova, and asked if he was ready to do this. He said "let's do it" and that night was June 1 two years ago and we came up with the name. The next day we actually registered everything and that was the start of it. Then with law school, I knew it was on the horizon. But at the time, I reached out to the SIDs to ask if they would give me credentials and they all said yes, so I figured the summer was going to be finding new writers and maybe write some preview stories. I really didn't expect for it to hit so quickly. As soon as started reaching out, I realized there were all of these things to cover. Pretty quickly I started adding more writers, and by the time law classes started, the site was not taking off but it was doing pretty well. It just sort of hit me pretty quickly how much basketball there was in the city.
KR: So, did the site grow a lot quicker than you expected it to?
JV: From a readership standpoint, not incredibly. It grew faster than I anticipated in terms of how many events there were and how much there was going on. When we began the season last year, we had 11 writers already on-staff, so it really started taking priority over law school. I think that kind of surprised me. I paid money to have it designed, so I wasn't expecting it to be a total throw-away project. But when I started it, I thought maybe I'll have a few writers, maybe we'll get to like half of the games in the city, and we'll see how much we can cover. Pretty quickly in the first three months, I realized it's going to be much bigger than that.
KR: One of the things that has really impressed me in the first two years of the site is the size of the staff you have for a site like this and the breadth of basketball you're been able to cover.
JV: First of all, I don't really turn down any writers. I just keep reaching out to people. A lot of the people I reach out to are college students writing for their school paper that are having a good time doing it. I think part of the reason I've been able to get a lot of writers is that I really try to help them. They know that I help them out with their writing, and it makes them want to keep writing. It's certainly more writers than I thought at the beginning, but I like it, obviously. I want to keep adding basketball people.
KR: To run an operation like this, you kind of have to be obsessed with basketball. How did this obsession start? I thought I saw on Twitter a couple weeks ago that you left Seder dinner to go to some games.
JV: We had an early Seder, and we were done. I mean, people were still there, but I didn't run out in the middle of dinner.
KR: Ok. Ok.
JV: It's funny, basketball was the only sport I didn't play growing up. I played for one year when I was nine or ten years old, I went and joined the local basketball team. It was one of those teams where the coach's son was the only player, and my position on offense was literally to stand at the top of the key and never touch the ball. That was my job. 80 percent of the season I hated it because I never really learned basketball. I would go to practice, and he would say, "Alright, Josh. You stand there, and if somebody passes you the ball, give it away." It wasn't even like learning to play against a zone defense, it was I was useless and he had to play me half of the time. That ruined basketball for me as a kid. I really got into it when I went to Pitt in 2007 as a freshman. I had watched the Temple teams with Pepe Sanchez and the Saint Joe's teams with Delonte West and Jameer Nelson and the Villanova teams with Allen Ray and Kyle Lowry. I've always enjoyed college basketball, but I was never really that into it because I didn't have a parent or a grandparent who was really into it and would take me to all of one team's games. I went to Pitt, and they happened to have a really good basketball team with Levance Fields and Ronald Ramon and Sam Young and DeJuan Blair and Tyrell Biggs. They were top five in the country, and I ended up with a roommate who was really into it. We would go like six hours before every game and sit front row, and I got really hooked on college basketball. That was the start of the obsession. When I transferred to Temple to study journalism, I had an idea that I liked college sports more than I liked professional sports. When I met Aaron, I was writing for a site called Buzz on Broad about Temple football. Temple football season is winding down and I'm getting ready to cover basketball. That site was becoming more of a blog, and at the first [basketball] game I covered for Buzz on Broad, I met Aaron who had Philahoops as a blog and he was launching it as a site, but within three games I was absolutely hooked on covering college basketball.
KR: Were your Pitt days post-Carl Krauser?
JV: Yea.
KR: I've had some interesting conversations with people from Pittsburgh who follow Pitt pretty closely, and they don't make it sound like Carl Krauser would have been too great for growing your basketball obsession.
JV: No, I had some great teams. DeJuan Blair was great. Ashton Gibbs I saw for a year. I had the good teams at Pitt.
KR: Probably helped a bit.
JV: The real moment for me, I guess, would be Pitt-Duke at Madison Square Garden in December of that year. Mike Cook, who is actually a Friends Central grad, tore his ACL. First of all, Pitt was down 18 in the first half. It was over. I was in a box because my friend's dad got box seats. So, it's a box with 18 Duke fans and then me, my friend, his younger brother and his dad rooting for Pitt. Duke's up like 35-18 at halftime or something like that, and Pitt came back. Two minutes into overtime, and Mike Cook tears his ACL. It was one of those that you knew it was bad. You knew instantly. He was on the ground rolling around in pain. It was bad. Levance Fields ends up hitting the game-winning 3-pointer on a step-back three. Then Jon Scheyer actually missed two shots and had good looks. It's on YouTube. Walking out of that building with 18,000 depressed-as-hell Duke fans and like 2,000 Pitt fans chanting "Let's Go Pitt," I think that would probably be the moment.
KR: Was that your first time at Madison Square Garden?
JV: No, I was there the year before that for some Knicks-Sixers game when both teams were not good at all. That was the first time I had been there for a big game, and it was awesome.
KR: This past November, the Drexel-Arizona game was the first time I had been there for a college basketball game and that was the game Damion Lee tore his ACL. I was going to say we have some pretty bad luck with first times there.
JV: Bad court for knee injuries.
KR: You've rolled this obsession into the site, and I think it really shows through in everything you guys do. It's hard to create something like that from scratch that also has a personality. What do you see as the future.
JV: Good question. We want to get more advertisers to make it more feasible to stay around for a while. I do think there is potential. There's clearly a need for it. People are starting to figure out who we are. Traffic is growing; every month we're setting a new best. I think we're finding our geographic boundaries, and they're right around where we expected them to be. Will it ever be 100,000 hits a day? Probably not.
KR: You can keep your sights set high.
JV: I think it has staying potential, I'll say that. I think back to when I started it as just kind of a side project, so sometimes it's hard for me to think of it as a really big thing. I don't see it growing drastically, but we'll just keep doing what we're doing and continue to get our name out there. What we do well is cover basketball.
KR: What's the piece of advice that you give to your writers who are looking to make it in sports journalism? Is there one go-to piece of advice you give?
JV: You get out of it what you put into it. You can't be a good sports writer and think "I'll write one article a week and it will be awesome and that will get me a job." First of all, nobody is the greatest writer in the world at 20 years old. The best thing you can do is write a lot. If you're only writing one piece a week, you're not challenging yourself. If you're writing everyday, you see more weaknesses in your writing. You realize when you keep writing the same sentences over and over again, and it forces you to write different things. You're working at your craft. The biggest piece of advice I can give is that if you really want to do it, then do it. You can't just half-ass it and think that because you're good somebody is going to just give you a job. You're much more likely to get a job if you work hard because people are going to notice that. If one of my writers is working hard, I'll recommend them to editors and tell the editor to hire them. If you're only writing once a week, I'm not going to recommend them because they don't have the passion. They don't even care about it. You either want it or you don't, and if you want it, you have to act like you want it.

Thank you to Josh Verlin to take some time to talk with us about the sports journalism field. For more from Josh and some of the most in-depth Philadelphia hoops coverage around, follow him on Twitter @jmverlin and check out I bet you already do.

Under Further Review:
No. 3 - Kami Mattioli

No. 2 - Aaron Bracy
No. 1 - Adam Hermann


Kevin Rossi is a senior Drexel Sport Management major with minors in Communications and Business Administration. Since joining the SMTSU, Kevin has worked his way up the ladder to President. Currently, Kevin is serving as the Sports Information Assistant for Drexel Athletics and will also intern at Comcast SportsNet in web production later in the spring. Kevin has writing experience with, The Triangle, Temple University, and various outlets in a freelance capacity. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_rossi.

Connect with Kevin Rossi on LinkedIn.

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