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San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins a ‘purist’ when it comes to sports coverage

By Alicia Kapjian-Pitt | 4 May 2014

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Chronicle sports columnist Bruce Jenkins. (Courtesy of Bruce Jenkins / Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice)

Chronicle sports columnist Bruce Jenkins. (Courtesy of Bruce Jenkins / Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice)

The wind splashes sea-spray into his face as Bruce Jenkins knifes his way into the pocket and rides through the wave. With a burst of acceleration from a powerful kick and his left arm outstretched, he moves laterally with the ocean, being sure not to steal a wave somebody else has already claimed.

Jenkins, a San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist, has been bodysurfing his entire life. Bodysurfing is often thought of as the purest form of surfing, requiring only a set of fins, and other times nothing, to maximize the sensation of the wave. Waiting past the break with all the surfers, Jenkins’ head can be seen, bobbing along – seal-like – while he arches his back, contouring himself to match the wave and ride it for “what seems like forever.”

Jenkins has brought this same sense of purity to his coverage of sports for the past 40-plus years. “I’m a purist in the sense that I wish there was more of the old style,” said Jenkins, “I’m in favor of restraint and class and team play.”

Jenkins began writing recreationally when he was 10 and more seriously from eighth grade on. Growing up in Malibu, he lived close to Los Angeles Times sports reporter Jim Murray and developed a close relationship with Murray’s children. Jenkins recalls a childhood filled with attending baseball games with the Murray family. When the games were finished, the children would follow Jim up to the press box where the young and impressionable Jenkins remembers thinking that writing about sports seemed like “the coolest thing.” Jenkins credits Murray with shaping his view of sports and how he writes about them now. The sarcasm and humor Murray injected into his writing can also be found in Jenkins’ work today.

His father, Gordon Jenkins, was a prominent composer, arranger and pianist in Hollywood who worked with Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong. Jenkins says that he dropped music at 12, realizing his father’s talent in the music world would always be greater than his own. Jenkins found that sports reporting was something he could do as well as his father could make music. Watching his father pursue his passion served as a model for Jenkins to pursue his own art.

Malibu is also where Jenkins began his love affair with water. “We grew up in the ocean,” said Lon Porter, Jenkins’ longtime friend and son of the man who taught Jenkins how to swim. Porter describes Jenkins as the only man he knows who grew up to realize his dreams. While Porter remembers Jenkins as a sports nut, he says their friendship was based on the time they spent in the water. Porter says that, to this day, they always hop in the water when they get together.

After realizing that baseball, not music, was in the cards for him, Jenkins continued his career by working for the Hollywood Citizen during his senior year of high school. While attending the University of California, Berkeley, Jenkins worked for The Daily Californian (1966 – 1970). Upon graduation, Jenkins worked for The Santa Monica Evening Outlook for a year and was then called in to work for The San Francisco Chronicle in 1973. April marks his 41st year at the publication. While at The Chronicle, Jenkins has covered nearly every major sporting event including one of the foremost surf competitions — Mavericks.

Jenkins began his career at The Chronicle as a beat writer covering baseball. After 11 years on the job, Jenkins had built a reputation and a following.

Steve Fainaru, an accomplished sportswriter in his own right, who later won a Pulitzer Prize at The Washington Post for international reporting, says that he was a huge admirer of Jenkins’ work and even an imitator when he was first trying to find his own voice. Humor and authenticity were the two defining features Fainaru remembers about Jenkins when Fainaru was starting out in 1984. Fainaru also recalls Jenkins’ speed. “To this day, in all my years in journalism, I’ve never seen anybody write as fast as Bruce,” said Fainaru, “or as well on deadline.”

Fainaru remembers covering his first MLB game with Jenkins. All of the journalists returned to the press box from the Oakland A’s locker room to write their stories. While Fainaru had just begun typing his byline, he remembers hearing an explosion of keys next to him. Looking up he saw Jenkins folding up his TeleRam Portabubble and heading out, already finished with his piece.

Fainaru believes that the changing landscape of American journalism has left Jenkins’ writing unaffected. “At all costs he wants the purity of sports preserved,” said Fainaru. Fainaru also believes that Jenkins’ involvement in the world of surfing and surf presorting has given him a perspective on other sports and on life that other reporters do not have.

Jenkins also attributes surfing, more specifically his time spent in Hawaii, with his transition from beat to column writing. In 1986, on the north shore of Hawaii, a rogue wave shattered to splinters the house Jenkins was renting while he and a friend slept inside. Jenkins woke up with sand in his hair, feeling as if he had been spared. He then made the decision to leave the baseball beat in order to do something new with the life he had been given. His trajectory did not move him too far as he began feature writing and picked up his own column in 1989, which he has had ever since.

Jenkins’ experience with the rogue wave also proved useful when completing reporting for one of his books, “North Shore Chronicles: Big Wave Surfing in Hawaii.” Jenkins says it earned him respect from many of the Hawaiian surfers who knew of him as, “the guy in that house.” This insight is supported by Lon Porter who says that Jenkins has an uncanny ability to make people want to talk to him and share their life stories.

Jenkins utilized this skill while writing another book about his father, “Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins.” Although Jenkins’ father was big in Hollywood, he hung out with a more down-to-earth crowd. Jenkins remembers his father as always having light-hearted but incredibly talented musicians around the family home. Jenkins said that writing this biography was far more personal than anything he had ever written but was more rewarding. His interview subjects, much like the surfers, were humble and easy to speak with, he said.

Save for his books, Jenkins has begun to shy away from interviewing. He credits this to Twitter and the immediate access it allows the public to athletes and coaches but also says he has never been much of a locker room fanatic. “I’ve always tried to concentrate on what’s happening on the field and what the public is able to judge for themselves.”

Once off the baseball beat, Jenkins saw little need for his presence in the locker room, keeping his focus on the field. Jenkins’ skill in bringing the game to life is a result of a childhood of reading sportswriters like Murray, Roger Angell and Peter Gammons, who all kept their writing on the game and out of the locker room.

Jenkins’ favorite sporting events are reflective of his love for the no-frills action of the game being played. Of the events he has covered, three stand out: The Barcelona 1992 Olympics, for which his coverage was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; Wimbledon, which Jenkins referred to as “The Cathedral” of tennis; and the British Open in St. Andrews, Scotland — the birthplace of golf. For an athlete, success at any one of these events would be untainted and everlasting.

Bodysurfing ties together Jenkins’ love of sports with his commitment to purity. He defines catching a wave as the greatest feeling in the world. Whilst in that wave, Jenkins says the feeling of his own human ability is seemingly magical.

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