Journalist Marc Spears, the Athlete Whisperer

By Jesse Hamlin

 The ESPN correspondent interviews Golden State Warrior Steph Curry.

Marc Spears was a sports-mad San Jose seventh grader when he wrote a letter to the noted San Jose Mercury sports columnist Mark Purdy, asking how he might become a sportswriter, too.

Purdy, who’d been helped by elders along the way, took the time to write back and offer advice that Spears followed faithfully for decade: Write for the school paper, get internships, take typing classes.

“It was amazing advice. I kept his letter for years, had it in this drawer and read it from time to time,” recalls Spears, an affable presence who played all-league basketball in school — he’s 6-foot-6 — but now confines himself to writing about the sport, in-depth, with an insider’s knowledge and a priceless reputation as a straight shooter.

Spears covered pro basketball for The Boston Globe and The Denver Post and now has a plum job as senior NBA writer for ESPN’s incisive website The Undefeated, which focuses on the intersection of race, sports and culture. It gives him the freedom and space to stretch out and write substantial stories, like the major piece he’s been working on for more than a year about “what it’s like be black playing for the Boston Celtics,” he says. He got his first Mercury bylines in the ’90s while at San Jose State, and interned at the The Grand Rapids Press and The Dallas Morning News before landing the first of many newspaper jobs at the Tulsa World. There, a copyeditor named Bob Colvin helped him polish his craft.

Here Spears is on the court as a young man.

“He helped me with my writing tremendously. If Bob Colvin called me now and said he needed $1,000, I’d give it to him,” says Spears, 47, talking over breakfast at a cafe across from Lake Merritt in Oakland, now his hometown. He’s wearing a gray sweatshirt bearing the cannon of the Arsenal English soccer team, and a blue cap from LSU, where Spears, whose family is in New Orleans, recently earned a master’s degree in sports business management.

He honors what Colvin, Purdy and others did for him by helping those coming up. Spears gave Purdy a shout-out a few years ago when he received an award from the San Jose NAACP for his thoughtful coverage of the NBA and for helping aspiring young reporters through his work with the National Association of Black Journalists.

“I felt I had to pay it forward,” explains Spears, who chaired the association’s Sports Task Force for six years, raising scholarship money and mentoring aspiring journalists. He still talks to students and connects them with pros who care. (He recently arranged for a young woman at Fresno State to talk with ESPN reporter Malika Andrews.)

Spears was working at Yahoo Sports in 2016 when ESPN tapped him for its new multimedia platform The Undefeated. His recent work includes a moving interview with retired Warriors player and coach Al Attles, and a video he narrated about Chuck Cooper, the NBA’s first African American player (drafted by the Celtics in 1950). Spears, who travels the world for ESPN, will soon fly to India to cover Vivek Ranadivé, the tech entrepreneur who co-owns the Sacramento Kings.

Marc Spears (in plaid) on the sidelines as a reporter.

“I think our great stories are ones in which the uncomfortable is talked about,” says Spears, who has a gift for getting people to relax and lower their guard. Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs’ passionate coach, paid him what he considers one of the greatest compliments: “He said, ‘The one thing I like about you is you’re fair.’ The thing is, too, I’m not scared to ask the question that’s the elephant in the room. Not scared to talk about race, or the world.”

Spears, says ESPN’s Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, “gave us instant credibility with the NBA — among its players, coaches and everyone else in the hierarchy of the league. And his work has been wide-ranging and magnificent. … Walking around with him at Oracle Arena was like walking around with the mayor of Oakland.”

Purdy, who fondly recalls a shrimp boil at Spears’ folks’ home on a Raiders trip to New Orleans, says nobody works harder than Spears “at developing relationships and sources, then taking all that and turning it into something that after reading it, you say, ‘I’m really glad I read that. That was interesting.’”

Spears writes about athletes as people, he explains, “and the world loves to hear stories about who these guys and these women really are, to get to know them beyond the jersey.”

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