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Nathaniel Friedman '00 (aka Bethleham Shoals)
Nathaniel Friedman '00 (aka Bethleham Shoals)

Basketball Blogger Goes "Classical"

In honor of the ongoing NBA Finals, in which the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder are battling it out, we are reprinting this story, originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Haverford magazine, about basketball blogger Nathaniel Friedman '00.  Friedman, who writes under the name  Bethleham Shoals, shuttered his FreeDarko blog last year to reemerge with The Classical, a daily online sports publication funded by its fans.

For a certain sort of basketball fan—erudite, obsessive, interested in the broader story beyond the wins and losses—FreeDarko was a must-read. The blog, with its irreverent, quirky long-form posts celebrating playing style and a macro view of the sport, and the two stylishly illustrated, conceptual books it spawned (2008’s The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac and 2010’s The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History) spoke to an underserved niche of readers: aesthetes more interested in the lore of the game than the match-recap approach of mainstream sports journalism. And though you probably never knew it, because the members of the collective that maintained FreeDarko all wrote under pseudonyms, it was created by a Ford. The site’s main writer, Bethlehem Shoals, was actually Nathaniel Friedman ’00.

“I always forget that I’m conducting a career under a stupid made-up name,” says Friedman, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, McSweeney’s and The Nation, among other publications.

Despite FreeDarko’s popularity, Friedman, who now lives in Seattle with his wife and baby daughter, shut the site in April of 2011, believing it had run its course as a blog.

“There was a deliberate obscurity about it that seemed funny at the time,” he says of his former blog, “but at the end of the day, a lot of what was amateurish about FreeDarko was very much the style of it and its affect.”

Now, he says, he’s ready to run a more “professional” site. So Friedman, along with a host of other interesting, left-of-center names in sports and pop culture writing—from WFMU’s The Best Show host Tom Scharpling to writers for Vice, GQ, Pitchfork, Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal—dreamed up a new site that is decidedly un-bloggy. The Classical, which takes its name from a song by the British postpunk group The Fall, is a daily web publication that launched in December and covers  a broad range of sports beyond just basketball (soccer, college football, baseball, Ultimate Fighting, etc.).

To keep it from being yet another blog, Friedman and his collaborators raised more than $55,000 via the online fundraising platform Kickstarter to support their business model (which includes paid writers and a small editing staff) before anyone had even written a single word. Friedman hopes that audiences paying into the process of starting The Classical will feel a commitment to the final product, which means a built-in community of readers.

“That sense at FreeDarko that we were trying to start some kind of secret club, that is what I really want to leave behind,” Friedman says of his new project. “And getting readers to fund the start-up of a new site, what better way to say, ‘This is not a secret club’?”

In many respects, the writing style for which Friedman has become famous—metaphorical yet tactical, influenced by an omnivorous intellectual curiosity that goes beyond the world of sports—is a product of his time at Haverford.

“There are books that I read in college that I still have my copies of that were huge influences on me,” he says, noting that his broad knowledge of many different fields, which is evident in his prose, is a result of a liberal arts education. “It’s sort of funny that I still know enough about contemporary Jewish theology to every once in a while insert a reference into a piece of basketball writing. But I also think it says a lot about the way I’ve come to think about sports, and the role Haverford may have played in that.”

—Rebecca Raber

Founders Green on a warm spring day.

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