First of all, I'd like to note that Bill Simmons is not dead. I've seen a few tweets and comments online that make it sound like he ceased to exist as of this morning. No, he's just not working for ESPN anymore. He'll be aight.
Whenever I tell the story of how Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician started, I always end up using the same schpiel to explain my influences.
"I know it seems super-lame and cliche in 2015, but, back in the early part of the 2000's, Deadspin and Bill Simmons seemed groundbreaking. You really can't understand now how refreshing it was to be able to get the sports news of the day in a digestible, funny format that also expanded on the cultural touchstones and references that we all shared but no one ever delved into out loud."
Nowadays, that's literally what every single blog does, or tries to do, including this one. It doesn't sound impressive at all. And yet, I swear, it was amazing to read. If you weren't there, you don't understand. I feel silly even saying it now. If you didn't grow up with newspapers and Sports Illustrated as your only written connections to the world of sports, you can't truly grasp the awe that happened the first time you read a Sports Guy column and found him combining the NBA Playoffs and references to Melrose Place.
It's a bit like the four-minute mile. Before anyone did it, it seemed ludicrous. Now, you run a four minute mile and people are like, "And?"
I was working at Lionsgate in Los Angeles back in Simmons' Page 2 heyday of 2002/2003. He had blown up and built a massive audience but he still felt somewhat edgy, tucked away in this online crevasse. He was still years away from someone at ESPN daring to considering him a legitimate TV personality. He was usually writing two-to-three columns a week (which, at the time, seemed like a lot) and realizing he had written something new was one of the highlights of my day (other than working on Shark Attack 3).
In 2003, Simmons moved out to LA to become a writer for the Jimmy Kimmel Show. At the same time, Lionsgate got the rights to Saved By The Bell and SNL and started releasing them on DVD. Simmons' obsessive pop culture referencing often included nods to both of those things and, in a move right out of the I'm Your Biggest Fan Please RT Me handbook, I looked up the show's address, dropped a bunch of DVDs (SBTB Seasons 1 & 2, Best of Will Ferrell) in an envelope and sent it ATTN: Bill Simmons. Along with my card, of course.
A week later, I got an email back from Simmons, thanking me for the DVDs while also demanding to know why the epic Neil Diamond Storytellers sketch wasn't included in the Best of Will Ferrell. It was a fair question, and one I had thought myself (We're so alike!!!). He probably knows by now he can blame music rights for the omission.
I had gotten my Life RT.
After that, Sports Guy slowly but surely became "Bill Simmons" we all know today. He became what was inevitable and eventual. Love or hate what he accomplished at ESPN, and you can probably pick out things that meet both criteria, it's still damn impressive given where he started (A lowly blogger! In the 90's!).
I'm very curious to see what Simmons does next. He's got the clout, the experience and the connections to make a lot of interesting things happen. He's also still going to be "Bill Simmons" and however you feel about "Bill Simmons" isn't going to change. I do miss the old Sports Guy, much like the way a local fan feels about an indie rock band they loved before it blew up and went commercial.
I guess in reality I miss the feeling I had when I'd read those ESPN Page 2 columns, with it's ugly yellow background and rough-around-the-edges feeling. That feeling that I was reading something slightly dangerous, even if it was coming from ESPN. Something only some of us understood and appreciated while the rest of the plebs watched SportsCenter and read Rick Reilly. The feeling of being part of a club.
Life moves on. We all did. And now Simmons will too.