Shea Serrano doesn’t know who you are, but he’s got your back.
Serrano, 36, is a staff writer at The Ringer and the new king of a nebulous genre of writing pioneered by Bill Simmons and Drew Magary that’s part sports, part pop culture, and part humor. Case in point: His new book, Basketball And Other Things: A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, and Illustrated, poses queries like, “If 1997 Karl Malone and a bear swapped places for a season, who would be more successful?”
“These are conversations people are having anyway,” Serrano says. “It should feel like a thing you’d talk about with your buddies.”
In building his career, though, Serrano has become a bit of a guru, an unrelentingly supportive life coach to the young men who idolize him. He’s Tony Robbins for guys who think Tony Robbins is an empty shill. Jack Welch for guys who don’t care about business. Joel Osteen for guys who find more religion in sports than at church. In short, he’s fast becoming an Oprah-like oracle for men. In large part because he’s every fan’s biggest fan. His philosophy is simple: Shoot your shot. It’s basketball jargon for just go for it, man.
Thinking about asking someone out? Shoot your shot.
What about applying for that job you really want? Shoot your shot.
Got a dream to chase?
The Shea Serrano doctrine is predicated on the notion that any one of us could be doing what he’s doing — making cool stuff with his friends — if we’re willing to keep trying.
“There’s nothing different between me and you,” he tells me when I mention this piece is the first freelance work I’ve ever sold. “I’m not smarter than you or better than you. I’m just in a different spot because I got started before you.
“I didn’t mind getting kicked in the face every once in a while, which is what happens when you’re a writer.”
Serrano’s advice for handling rejection, which he says he still sometimes takes personally, is just as earnest: “Be upset. That’s part of the process. You need a few big yeses in your career and your whole career will be different. You let them hurt for a little while, and you just do it again.”
In a year (2017) marked by its steady supply of truly awful news and on a platform (Twitter) known for its vitriol, Serrano is the benevolent leader of a legion of 170,000 or so devoted fans. They call themselves the FOH Army, short for Fuck Outta Here, and their devotion is such that they don’t just buy a copy of his books. They buy two or three copies, shipping the extras to fans who can’t afford a new book at the moment. As a result, Serrano sold more than 31,000 copies of Basketball (And Other Things) in its first week, putting him at number two on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Serrano seems to see himself in his fans as much as they see themselves in him. Even after three books, a full-time gig with The Ringer and a recently announced TV deal with ABC, Serrano spends a few hours a week reading through copy and offering feedback to the aspiring writers who follow him.
“He’s very down-to-earth and accessible, even though he’s one of the biggest pop-culture writers in the world right now,” says Jay Papandreas, who began following Serrano while he was writing his first best-seller, The Rap Yearbook, in 2014. “He always frames it as ‘It’s the least I could do to support people who have supported me,’ so it makes all of us start supporting each other.”
Papandreas, now 26, is one of many young men who say Serrano’s message inspired them to take risks big and small to reach personal and professional goals. After getting laid off from his retail job, Papandreas knew he needed a change of scenery. The lifelong Indiana resident had a few friends in Denver, and one of them needed a roommate, so he packed his things and started fresh. Since then, he’s worked a steady job for 18 months and dropped nearly 40 pounds.
Like Serrano, Papandreas is vocally supportive of his guy friends, but they don’t always reciprocate. That’s where Serrano’s positive tweets, even directed at a giant crowd of 170,000 people, fill a void. “It’s kinda hard to cheer your friends on and get nothing in return, but getting encouragement even from strangers on the internet is helpful,” Papandreas says.
Serrano routinely scrolls through his Twitter mentions to see members of the FOH Army crediting him for their latest success. Some share photos of themselves with smiling fiancées showing off newly accepted engagement rings. Others gush about the new job they landed even though they didn’t think they had a chance. A handful will proudly announce they’ve been accepted to graduate school or passed the bar exam.
“I get to pretend like I had some sort of involvement in it or I was responsible for it,” Serrano tells me.
Twenty-two-year-old Ethan Lee was inspired to, in his words, “fall face-first into sports writing” after reading a GQ interview with Serrano. As an environmental conservation major, he’s not on the most obvious path to a career in sportswriting. But neither was Serrano, who taught middle school science in Houston full-time until 2015 and only took up writing in 2008 to make some extra cash.
“He just told people he was a writer and they believed him,” Lee explains. “I saw no reason why I couldn’t do the same.”
So Lee quit his part-time retail job and begin writing at For Whom the Cowbell Tolls, SB Nation’s Mississippi State blog. After he graduates from Mississippi State in December, Lee says he plans to pursue writing, even if it means driving for Uber on the side or piecing together freelance work to make ends meet. “I want to write, and Shea’s story makes me believe I can actually make this hobby into a career,” he says.
In Miami, Serrano’s maxims helped Enrique Alejandro build the courage to try stand-up comedy, one of the more public ways to risk a massive blow to the ego. “[Shea’s] commitment to writing and just shooting shots inspired me to finally write a couple sets worth of material, which I ended up performing at open mics and people actually laughed,” he says.
The 24-year-old still performs once a month at Artistic Vibes in Miami and says he looks up to Serrano as a reliably positive figure. “All the ways he’s helped people, from charity or career advice or just listening… To me, that seems like the best way to go about life. So every time Shea pops up on my timeline I get a reminder to be more like that.”
One of the most extreme examples of shooting your shot is that of Matt Westlake, who moved from Pittsburgh to New York with $10 in his bank account. He lived off a jar of peanut butter for at least three weeks as he pursued work in film. “But I had a dream, as did Shea,” Westlake says. “He’d always talk about why he never gave up when he wanted to, and even when he doubted his lifestyle choice, he didn’t give up.”
Two years after the move, Westlake, now 25, says he’s worked steadily for most of the year. “I actually paid off my student loans a couple months ago, and the first thing I bought was the pre-order of Basketball (And Other Things).”
And yet, on Serrano’s way home from a book signing at New York’s Strand Bookstore where the line snaked halfway down the block and people waited hours to meet him, he tells me he still gets a feeling in his chest that he’ll be exposed any minute as some kind of fraud.
“Ninety percent of the time I still feel like I’m an imposter,” he says.
His father, whom he describes as “very much a traditional Mexican dad,” hears the highlights of Serrano’s achievements but doesn’t really get how influential his son has become. And Serrano’s wife, Larami, is “more of a Facebook person,” he says. He goes about his daily life in Houston without ever being recognized, since much of his success is limited to Twitter and The Ringer.
So maybe his relentless cheerleading isn’t only for the FOH Army’s benefit: “A bunch of the motivational stuff, more often than not, I’m just doing to pump myself up.”