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Fantastic profile of ESPN’s Bill Simmons

Rolling Stone profiles Grantland founder Bill Simmons

Simmons was raised mostly in Boston, where every loss is like a death in the family, and even at 44, he watches sports with the delight of a kid — albeit a kid who’s a multimedia mogul. During the NBA playoffs, which last nearly two months and end in June, he’ll be a fixture on ESPN and ABC, via NBA Countdown. His 700-page Book of Basketball, despite being fatter than Eddy Curry in the off-season, debuted at Number One on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list. He goaded ESPN into making documentaries, which yielded 30 for 30, an excellent, Emmy-nominated series he executive-produces. His lively B.S. Report podcast, where he interviews jocks, actors, comedians college buddies, his dad, and Barack Obama, was downloaded 32 million times last year, and to keep him from bolting in 2011, ESPN gave him his own well-staffed website, Grantland. TV, books, documentaries, digital — it’s the sportswriter version of the EGOT.

“We have similarly thorough backgrounds when it comes to movies, TV, sports and other worthless things,” says his friend Jimmy Kimmel, who hired Simmons as a joke writer on Jimmy Kimmel Live! “Bill’s very funny, he’s married pop culture and sports more than anyone else, and he built his own media empire from a little blog.”

That’s not just tickle-tickle buddy talk. Simmons started to accrue a huge following in 1997, when he began blogging on AOL’s Boston website in the role of an irritant and smart aleck, under the name Boston Sports Guy. Last summer, a Canadian columnist called him “an honest-to-God magnate” and “one of the defining figures” in digital media. All magnates have haters; Simmons makes it easy by frequently getting into feuds.

On NBA Countdown, Simmons plays a slightly exaggerated version of himself: a comedic troublemaker, “the wild card who doesn’t give a shit,” he tells me. “I’m part historian, part know-it-all, and part shit-stirrer. I don’t hold back – that’s the key.”

During a recent Countdown, he denounced Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Joe Johnson, whom Simmons has tagged as the most overpaid player in the NBA. “Joe Johnson did not deserve to be on the all-star team,” he says, so outraged and high-pitched he’s nearly yelping. “Even he had to be shocked he made it.” After the show goes off the air, Countdown host Sage Steele turns to him, shaking her head. “You,” she tells him, “are a psycho.”

The shit has been successfully stirred: Within minutes, Twitter is in flames. “Never hated a sports analyst as much as I hate Bill Simmons,” I read as I scroll through his mentions, followed by “I want to punch him in the face,” “He is such a douche” and “If Bill Simmons ever got in a car accident, I would be happy.” There are compliments, too, but, let’s face it, those are boring.

Simmons has 2.6 million followers on Twitter. Many can’t wait to tell him what an idiot he is. (The Simmons brand has a strong ripple effect: Even his wife, known as the Sports Gal, has 25,000 followers, despite not having tweeted in almost a year.) Sports Twitter is a mire of stupidity, homophobia, and violent threats. It’s probably the most inane culture on Twitter; at least on Politics Twitter, you occasionally come across a fact.

Simmons uses Twitter almost exclusively to promote and link to Grantland material. He doesn’t reply to people who think he’s a douche, or want to punch his face. He also writes fewer sports columns than he used to, partly because TV and movies occupy more of his time. The Internet gave him a career, an audience, wealth, influence, and fourth-row seats for the Clippers. But lately, Bill Simmons is kind of over the Internet.

And this is how it happened.

Once Simmons got an ESPN assignment, he quickly found an audience. But just as immediately, his relationship with the Worldwide Leader in Sports was full of conflict. “ESPN was idiotic,” says Simmons, who can match any athlete for self-confidence. “They fucked with my column for the first year, taking out jokes, and I was pissed off. They were rebuilding their site around me, but they were paying me nothing. So I had a meltdown: I didn’t turn in a column. I was like, ‘Attica! Attica!’ ” He laughs. “I was probably smoking too much pot.”

ESPN rewarded his work strike with a raise. “Bill likes to be in control,” an insider says. “In the early days, he was very upset about where they placed his column, versus where other columnists were. He’s a great advocate for himself and his brand.”

It wasn’t Simmons’ last fight with his bosses. They’ve suspended him from Twitter twice for tweets: for referring to Boston sports-radio hosts who worked for an ESPN affiliate as “deceitful scumbags,” and also for saying an interview that aired on ESPN was “awful and embarrassing.” Does he think they were right to suspend him? “No, I don’t.”

ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Company, and some of Simmons’ behavior — like, say, calling soccer “gay” or mocking people for being fat — makes him a far more troublesome employee than Mickey Mouse. Periodically, the two parties get annoyed at one another. ESPN president John Skipper once said working with Simmons was “about 99.8 percent great.” (“Working with ESPN is 99.1 percent great,” Simmons counters.) Convincing the network to do 30 For 30 required “a year of arm-twisting,” he says. When it was a success, and his basketball book had been a big hit, his contract was up for renewal. “I had a little leverage.” He told ESPN that he wanted his own site, or he’d leave and do it elsewhere.

Grantland’s success, like Simmons’, has resulted from good fortune as well as talent. Since 2002, Boston teams have dominated pro sports, tallying eight titles in twelve calendar years, including baseball, basketball, hockey, and football. No other city has ever had that kind of success, and it brought a lot of attention to Simmons. No wonder he loves Tom Brady so much.

“When we were launching, we didn’t realize technology advances would help us so much.” GIFs, Instapaper, wi-fi, embeddable links — all foster the ease of promoting a digital magazine. “The iPad has been a godsend — it’s probably the greatest thing that’s’ happened to Grantland. Nobody knew the fucking iPad was coming. I didn’t. We hit at the right time.”

In a recent month, Grantland, according to comScore, had 4.7 million unique visitors, which represents just a sliver of ESPN’s 62 million unique visitors and pales compared to Yahoo Sports’ 57.9 million. (Even Deadspin, the Johnny Lawrence to Simmons’ Daniel LaRusso, had 13.8 million.) But the site’s balance sheet isn’t the point. ESPN likely pays him more than $5 million a year, the insider estimates — not because of Grantland, but because Simmons is a guy with big ideas, a one-man vertical-integration engine.

Now that he oversees an empire, Simmons says he doesn’t care as much about Boston teams. “It’s not life-or-death anymore,” he says with a shrug. But that might not be true. His daughter loves L.A.’s hockey team, the Kings, so he took her to see them play his team, the Bruins. “Boston won, and I taunted her on the way home. She started crying. She was, like, six years old.” A few years later, they went to another Kings-Bruins game, and this time her team won. “She was yelling and high-fiving everyone,” Simmons says, “and she taunted me.” Of course she did. It’s in the bloodline.

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