In ESPN The Magazine’s NFL Draft issue on newsstands Friday, April 17, senior writer Wright Thompson tells the story of Jason Rabedeaux, once one of college basketball’s brightest young coaches, whose life ended, as Thompson writes in the story’s opening paragraph: “. . . without shoes in the back seat of a Saigon taxicab.”
– Wright Thompson on his descriptions of Vietnam’s plant/flora in his feature on Jason Rabedeaux
Front Row followed up its reading of the story with four questions for Thompson, whose seminal Masters masterpiece, “Holy Ground,” is required reading this time of year.
How did you discover the story idea?
I was just reading about Vietnam in general, because I’m fascinated by the place, and during my research, I saw a wire service story about Jason dying. I began talking to his friends and realized there was a powerful story about someone unable to escape themselves, no matter how far they traveled.
How long did you spend in Vietnam reporting the story?
Little more than a week, I think.
You often include plant/flora description in your stories. “. . . fields of camphorweed and Madras thorn tree. . . ” – how do you ID these species? Do you have a botany background of any type?
I do not, but I often think of taking a college class in botany for exactly that reason. I wish I could ID trees and plants on my own. Sometimes I take pictures of plants and have them ID’d later. In this case, we sent a stringer back to the place to identify correctly the plants so it would be accurate.
What was the research involved in finding out Saigon’s history?
I hired as my “fixer” and translator the person widely considered to be the best at helping journalists navigate Vietnam, someone with deep connections and contacts, and so in addition to interviews, he made sure I saw more of Saigon than the shiny modern city of District 1. He really knows the place and the players and without that kind of local knowledge, I think I would have had a much different experience. I also read a half dozen or so books, mostly fiction, and several research papers about everything from the founding of Saigon to an exploration of the supernatural in modern Vietnam.