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How the story of ESPN’s Pin Kings came to life

Brett Forrest (second from right) with Jon Fish in Colombia. (Courtesy of Brett Forrest)
Brett Forrest (white shirt) with Jon Fish in Colombia. (Brett Forrest/ESPN)

Pin Kings, a story written by The Mag’s Brett Forrest with an extension of his documentary and podcast co-produced with producer Jon Fish, is a 5,000-word feature published online today and appearing in the NFL Preview Issue of ESPN The Magazine on newsstands Aug. 26. Longtime friends from the University of Michigan, Forrest and Fish take Front Row along their journey:

How did the concept of the story come about?
Brett Forrest: I was in the Middle East on assignment for The Magazine — a totally unrelated story — when a source in South Florida got in contact with me. This guy started outlining the bare bones of what I immediately recognized as a story with serious potential for us. Right away, you could tell that the story of these two guys had many elements of a classic narrative. And I thought of Jon right away.

Five things to know about Pin Kings

In addition to the 5,000-word main feature, ESPN.com provides this guide to how two wrestling teammates from Miami came to oppose each other in the cocaine wars.

Jon and I have been friends since our freshman year of college. When I started working at ESPN, we began discussing ideas that might work for both print and TV. We had tossed around a bunch of different stories, but nothing seemed to fit. Until this one. Pretty soon after we first spoke about it, we made it down to Miami to start interviewing subjects for this story.

Jon Fish: For me, it was a natural fit as The Magazine and our unit often work together. We are both reporters, in different mediums. After we spoke, Brett sent me an email describing the story and next thing I knew it was, “How soon can you get to Florida?”

Why were you so compelled to share this story?
BF: As a reporter, you’re always hunting for just this sort of story. There’s built-in conflict. Confused allegiances. Big stakes, big money. People’s lives are on the line. The story is set against the backdrop of an important historical era and issue, and it brings you inside of this world in a way you haven’t been before. You gain access to the inner workings of the DEA, while at the same time getting to see things from the drug trafficker’s point of view. Alex DeCubas worked with the biggest names in the history of the cocaine trade, and he was very open about his experiences. It’s not often that you get to build a relationship with a criminal figure who was as critical to the trade as Alex was in the 1980s and 1990s.

JF: It truly is an amazing story. This is a story about friendship, about sports and the world that changes and brings the main characters along with us. From the DEA to the world of big-time smuggling – everything we learned was fascinating. Kevin Pederson was a decorated DEA agent. DeCubas was a huge figure in drug trafficking in America.

Narrated a very cool doc for @espn yesterday. Incredible true story! #PinKings

A photo posted by Michael Chiklis (@michaelchiklis) on

The reporting was the most challenging aspect on every level. . . My desk was filled with hundreds of pages of transcripts and massive binders of interviews. It was truly a work in progress. – Jon Fish

What was most challenging about this process?
BF: The most challenging aspect of this story was that we were shooting it as we were learning it. This was genuine reporting, from the ground up. But this is also a complicated story that spans almost 60 years, and it has dozens of players, many of whom have conflicting memories of the same events. So it was a challenge to piece things together not only in a way that we could understand, but in a way that we could relate to our audience in the end.

JF: This was challenging on many levels. From a purely technical TV standpoint, my greatest production concern was “How do we make a very detailed, nuanced story, a TV story?” The visuals of TV can make telling a story of this nature very challenging and the time constraint adds another layer. With every story point in my head, I was thinking, “Where is the video? What is the video? How do I convey this to the eventual viewers?”

The reporting was the most challenging aspect on every level. As we reported the story, read over transcripts and any other information that was out there, more names would start to pop up. My desk was filled with hundreds of pages of transcripts and massive binders of interviews. It was truly a work in progress.

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