When Shea Serrano taught middle-school science in the Houston area, the notion of becoming an acclaimed author was not on his radar. Life, however, has a funny way of pointing you in the right direction — like seeking writing gigs for some extra cash to support a pregnant wife.
From his humble scribe beginnings to his runaway success with The New York Times bestseller The Rap Year Book, Serrano has developed a distinctive voice that highlights the humor and passion he gives his subjects — be it his irrational dislike of rapper J. Cole or his profound love of the movie Blood In, Blood Out.
Currently a writer at the The Ringer — the sports and pop-culture website founded by former ESPN personality Bill Simmons — Serrano released his latest book on October 10, Basketball (And Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated, turning his eye to hoops with hilarious and insightful results. In the book, he poses a series of both thoughtful (What season of Michael Jordan’s was the best?) and ridiculous (Who is in the Disrespectful Dunk Hall of Fame?) questions, answering them with knowledge, humor, and quite a few tangential asides.
Men’s Journal caught up with Serrano while he was waiting at the airport to find out more about his career, his loyal fans, and his surprising acts of largesse—like donating $100 bills to random fast-food employees at the holidays.
Did something particular inspire you to begin writing Basketball (And Other Things)?
Not really. I knew I wanted to do another book, and I knew I didn’t want it to be rap. I also knew I wanted it to be something I liked. By process of elimination, I ended up on basketball. There’s so much research in writing a book, you don’t want to end up in a spot where you’re researching a bunch of shit that you have zero interest in. I knew even the stuffiest part of writing the book was probably just going to involve me watching basketball highlights.
Why, in your opinion, is basketball the best sport?
It’s the fastest, the one that’s got perpetual action. Also, there are very interesting personalities among the players that you can get attached to very easily. It’s just more accessible. Stuff that you can do is always more fun to watch. None of my friends were ever like, “Hey, let’s get 26 people and go play a game of baseball.” But you can get four people and play 2-on-2 in the front yard. To me, basketball just made the most sense.
Who are the three most interesting players in the NBA right now?
Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. In any situation, I’m curious to see what they do and how they respond. That’s what makes a person interesting to me. Do I want to see them outside of the arena that they are known for? Those three? Yes, definitely.
How did you get started on your career path?
I was teaching at the time — nine or 10 years ago — and my wife was pregnant. She had some complications which forced her into bed rest, so she couldn’t work and we needed extra money. I was trying to figure out a way to make some, and I was straight up Googling [part-time] work and writing was one of [the options], so I was like, “Fuck it, I’m a writer now.” I started calling places and emailing places, and eventually I was able to talk my way into an assignment or two at a local newsletter-type situation. This woman was printing a newsletter out of her garage and she let me write about the [Houston] Texans and [former MLB star] Craig Biggio. I took that and was able to go to the Houston Press, which is our big alt-weekly paper, and then I just kept trying to learn some shit and slip it into whatever the next biggest thing was. That process took five years, where I was able to get national recognition. That’s the story.
Do you reflect on what a ride this has been to this point?
I think about it all the time. Before I was writing, I never flew anywhere. That wasn’t a thing that I did. And now it’s a situation where people will fly me across the country to give a talk about a thing that I wrote. That doesn’t make much sense to me. My whole life before, all that I ever saw growing up in San Antonio, everybody that I knew—like my family—was doing manual-labor type jobs. I didn’t know you could get paid making jokes on the internet. I think about it literally every single day when I wake up to go to work, which is mostly just me going to sit in front of a computer and playing on the internet.
When you see fans respond to you the way they have, what does that mean to you?
You know what it is? It’s validation, which is a remarkably rewarding feeling. To know that the stuff you like and the stuff you’re doing is stuff that other people are enjoying. And they are enjoying it so much so that when you ask people to donate money and don’t tell them anything else, they’ll send you tens of thousands of dollars, just off the strength of what you’ve done in the past. [Serrano’s Twitter followers have dubbed themselves the FOH (Fuck Outta Here) Army, and have mobilized for a series of both quixotic — like $3,000 to the airport employee who helped Serrano find his car — and serious causes, including donations to Planned Parenthood, homeless shelters, and teachers in need.]
The FOH Army helped raised more than $130,000 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Did that show what kind of pull your fans have?
When all that stuff was happening, I felt intimidated more than anything else. It took off and it was like more money than I had ever seen in my life, all of a sudden, was in my PayPal and Venmo. Now, I’m thinking I’m going to go to prison for tax evasion. It was intimidating. I turned the fundraiser off a few hours into it. If I had left it on, I’m sure we would have gone over $250,000 because donations were just coming so fast. More than anything, it was terrifying. And after that, I got to feel good about it. [Serrano spread the money around different local charities]
How proud are you of being a New York Times bestselling author?
I carry a sign around, a billboard that says it when I walk through airports. I tell everybody that I can. I’m incredibly proud of that accomplishment. It’s not something that a lot of people get to do. It’s certainly not a thing that a lot of Mexicans get to do, and it’s super certainly not a thing that a lot of Southside Mexicans from San Antonio get to do. I get to feel all the time like I’m the guy who made it out of that environment. I’m going to tell people whenever I can. I’m pumped about it and I hope it happens again.
How much has Bill Simmons been an influence on your career?
I talk to him all the time. Bill is the kind of the guy who you dream that you end up working for, not because he’s a famous cool guy, but because all he cares about is you making cool shit, too. So, that’s the only thing he worries about. Never in any of the times we’ve talked has he mentioned website traffic or whatever. Here’s one of the most successful writers of all time in this space in your ear saying, ‘You can do it, keep going.’ He’s the first guy who told me to ‘Bet on yourself.’ That stuck with me and that’s my whole thing now. The relationship with Bill was legit a life-changing thing.
What advice do you have for writers, especially those of color, who are looking to make a mark?
Your voice is valuable. Don’t let anyone take that for free. The stuff that you have to say, the stuff that you are thinking about, the stuff you are considering intellectually, those are important things that people want to read. We need more black writers, we need more Asian writers, we need more Mexican writers. That’s valuable. For the first time, maybe ever, if you are a writer of color you are at an advantage, even if it’s a tiny amount. But I don’t want to be the guy that every time a Latino thing happens, I’m the one who writes about it. If I feel like I should write about it, then definitely. But I don’t want to only be that. I don’t want it to be like, “How does basketball look through the Mexican lens?” No, I’m just going to talk about basketball like a normal person, and if I happen to mention Selena or whatever, that’s just a thing that happened and we’re going to keep it moving. It’s easy for a writer of color to look at a picture of a writer’s room and see 10 out of 12 white faces and be nervous and intimidated and scared, like you don’t belong. But you do as much as anyone else, and they’re looking for you to be in that room, so just bet on yourself, bro.