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A Q&A with San Jose Mercury News Columnist Tim Kawakami

We first stumbled upon Tim Kawakami’s work about 10 years ago when the Shaq and Kobe era was beginning, and Kawakami was on the Lakers’ beat for the LA Times. (So naturally, we’ll ask about everyone’s favorite topic: Kobe forcing out Shaq.) If you think his name sounds familiar, it might be because of an incident at an Oakland Raiders press conference last Fall. Better than that dust-up and his days covering the Lakers? One of the best Al Davis stories we’ve ever heard.

Q: Your work first caught our eye when you were at the LA Times about a decade ago. Can you fill in the blanks on the rest of your career, starting with when you became interested in journalism, and how you ascended columnist in San Jose?

I’m going to go long on this answer. A warning.

Somebody wise–probably my mom–gave me “All the Presidents’ Men” when I was in fifth or sixth grade and I have no idea why, but at 11 or 12 years old I devoured that book, every word. I am fairly certain I didn’t really know who Nixon was or had ever thought of journalism as a profession, humble or proud, before that first page turned. But I knew soon afterwards.

Put that together with reading Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle every day growing up (Caen would’ve KILLED as a blogger), and with my older brother in law school telling me that getting paid to write would certainly be wiser than grinding through the legal books and paperwork, and with the fun I had on the high school paper…

I went to Northwestern for the journalism school, Evanston was damn cold, I wrote a lot of crap, I picked up the pace alongside so many motivated young journalists, I gave sportswriting a little test drive at the Daily after Fainaru-Wada showed me how, and I really can say that it was so simple from there.

You mean the stuff my buddies and I talk about all day–the Bears vs. 49ers, Michael Jordan, ERAs, Bill James, Bobby Knight yelling that “I forgotten more about this f– game than you’ll ever know!”–I can do that for WORK? Until I don’t want to do it any more? And NO GRAD SCHOOL! Hallelujah.

From there, an internship at the Philadelphia Daily News. Took over the Eagles beat when Rich Hofmann was elevated to columnist back in the late-1980s. I wasn’t 23 yet. Thank goodness for Hofmann and everybody else on that beat–everything I’ve learned about working a beat, about the locker room, about beat credibility, about dealing with mistakes, about writing large and taking the heat for it, I learned on that beat. Also thank God for Buddy Ryan, Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Seth Joyner, Ron Heller and Mike Quick. I’ll even thank Cris Carter and Norman Braman for yelling at me–and accepting it when I yelled back.

It’s not fun when 37-year-olds come up to me and say they were in high school or college reading my Eagles coverage in the Daily News… but it’s not terrible either. It was quite a time. It always is in Philly.

Left for the LA Times in 1990, covered the Rams right as the Jim Everett-John Robinson ship started to sink and JR still blames me, I think. Moved to boxing in 1993, just as Oscar De La Hoya was transforming himself from gold medalist to superstar pro, with lots of money, women and other things in between. Loved covering it. Loved, loved, loved it. “Fan Man” flew into the ring during my first Vegas fight. Got to hang out with Murray and Malamud. Wrote a book on De La Hoya. Got him mad at me. Ripped Tyson repeatedly. Can’t beat this stuff.

Alternated between boxing and UCLA hoops starting in 1994-’95, which happened to be a national-title season–still the most enjoyable writing/reporting ride I’ve ever covered. Edney vs. Missouri, just try and write a bad gamer on that one.

Moved to the Lakers beat in 1998-’99, lockout-shortened, Dennis Rodman signed on the same day Del Harris is fired, lose in the playoffs, Kobe vs. Shaq, Phil Jackson hired in June ’99, win the title in 2000… It just never stopped.

Had another moment of clarity: Either I do the Lakers for many years, and perhaps collapse in the process, or I try to convince somebody to hire me as a columnist, which is what I always wanted to do. The Times was not too interested in that idea. You know what? T.J. Simers got the gig, he deserved it, he is perfect for them and I would not have been as good. (If T.J., Dwyre and Jaffe ever read this, I’ll deny saying it.)

Things turned out just fine. Went back to the Bay Area in mid-2000, to the Merc, which was interested in me writing a column. Page 2 and media stuff at first, then a regular column. Now I also blog a lot. The end. (Literally?)

Q: Back in high school, our journalistic dream was to cover the Los Angeles Lakers. You had the pleasure of doing so. What was it like? Because you covered the Shaq-Kobe era, was it actually fun and less of a daily grind?

In deep retrospect, far, far removed from that all-encompassing bright-lights, hallucinatory-city experience… it was less of a regular beat than it was like being a bit player in a huge comic-book movie. Nothing made sense in the whole scene unless you pulled the camera back, tried to ignore the special effects, and just focus in on the characters. I think it’s still that way there.

I figured it out about half-way through my first season: They really are comic-book characters. Shaq and Kobe see themselves as the heros of their own stories, who occasionally had to interact with each other to drive the plot but just as often tried to ignore each other. If you wrote and reported it that way… things made sense.

It was exhausting to cover. The whole internet swarm coverage was just starting, and IT WAS SHAQ AND KOBE, so you never knew where you might get hit with a mini-scoop, but it was SHAQ AND KOBE so there was no such thing as a mini-scoop. Everything was full-bore.

Hey, are there times when I miss being at Staples and writing about the most important story in sports on any particular night and figuring that Denzel, Jack and Whoever Else might be reading it on-line at midnight? A little. Especially on those cold Warriors nights, you bet.

But I get over it, every time.

Q: Since you had an up-close view for much of their relationship, please help clarify a debate that always gets heated on this site: Regardless of what has been said in public, do you get the sense that Kobe pushed Shaq out?

I was up here by the time that came down, but there’s no doubt that Kobe never had to say the words “get Shaq outta my face.” Kobe had communicated that long and repeatedly for years. He had the opt-out situation. And Kobe is not somebody to mess around with in any situation–even when I got along with Kobe, before the craziness of the last five or six years, he was a cold, cold guy. I mean, the things he used to do to poor John Celestand in one-on-one games after practice? I never felt sorry for a pro player… until I saw what Kobe did to Celestand. Every day.

So it never had to be said. Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak knew: To keep Kobe (from signing with the Clippers), they had to move Shaq. Kobe was fine with Shaq as long as Kobe thought he needed the Big Fellah to win a title. Period. And Kobe stopped thinking Shaq was a mandatory piece about a year before the trade.

Kobe can say he never told the Lakers anything about moving Shaq. Not in those words. But I was writing two years before it happened that Kobe would force a break up and when it happened it would be terribly ugly. And I was up here, not in LA, when I wrote it. It was that obvious.

Q: If we could squeeze in one more NBA question: How much of a stat guy are you? Are you buying into all of these new-fangled statistical metrics that have become all the rage in cities like Houston and Boston?

Many Warriors fans accuse me of going overboard on the plus/minus, which I must say is the best thing to come into common NBA parlance in years. I can’t tell you what my thoughts are on most of the more complicated formulas because I just haven’t seen that many that I trust or that I can get my head around.

I’ve told John Hollinger–an incredibly smart guy, and a great writer–that I’m not so sure about the over-arching value of the PER formula because it doesn’t include any defensive categories, at least it didn’t last time I checked. If he’s found a way to add defense, I apologize profusely. But I realize it’s almost impossible to put defensive stuff on the same level of the easy offensive stats, because the defensive stats just aren’t there.

But this ain’t baseball batter vs. pitcher–basketball is immensely about team defense, help defense, transition defense, the whole shebang. The match-ups, the ability to stop somebody man-to-man, if you score 34 on 45% shooting but your main defensive assignment scores 40 on 51% shooting… That’s the game, right there.

I’ve searched for my own stat groupings. I obviously like the plus/minus (Don Nelson is mad he turned me on to that stat), because it tells you about the flow of the game, not just the single-person scoring. If you repeatedly are on the floor when your team under-performs, that’s very telling to me.

I also like the tallies of on-floor/off-floor scoring and shooting percentages for a lot of the same reasons. You find some amazing things in there. I’m sure there’s more stuff. I just don’t know or trust any of them yet.

Q: Perhaps your biggest national media moment happened last season with the Raiders, when an employee lashed out at you for something you had written. When it was going down, did you have any idea it would get the national play that it did? Did you hear from the organization afterward? Or any other journalists?

I think I’ll do an annoying thing and quote myself, speaking on my cellphone to my boss Bud Geracie about 4 minutes after John Herrera went bonkers at that press conference: “Bud, something happened to me at the Raiders just now, and I think it’s going to be a big deal.” Bud and I laugh about it now–he brushed me off at the time, figuring it was just a typical Raiders-media scrap, of which there are many every year, involving any number of media people. This was not a typical one, however, and Bud realized it as soon as he saw it on TV.

10 minutes after the incident a TV guy showed me his video and then there was no doubt. This was going viral. I just wanted to check to make sure I acted as professionally as could be expected, and I’ve never looked at it again.

But yep, I knew it was going to be a big deal WHILE it was happening. Herrera had been yelling at me during the Lane Kiffin press conference, then it ended, and Herrera charged at me from behind. I got up, turned around, and stared into five TV cameras, all rolling, and Herrera was in my face. While Kiffin was walking five feet away, smiling wearily.

I’ve described it before and I feel the same way now: I felt like I was staring into the true madness of the Raiders, right there, and the cameras were just part of it.

Hey, Herrera and I had been fairly friendly up to that point. Not now, which is fine. He did what he thought he had to. He was performing for Al or he was temporarily bonkers, I don’t know. Just weird. Just the Raiders. I wasn’t complaining about it when it happened, won’t complain about it now. But it was caught on camera, so I won’t erase it, either.

The only person from the organization who called me was Kiffin, who said it this way: Go ahead and write that the only person from the Raiders who called you to apologize was the head coach, who had nothing to do with it.

I had many other writers send an e-mail or get in touch, but a lot of my friends knew there was no need. The only person I called for commiseration was my pal Chris Dufresne, who covered the Raiders for the LA Times for several years. Figured he’d want to hear this one personally. Beyond that, what was there to say? It’s the Raiders. I wasn’t surprised. It’s the Raiders. That says it all.

Gotta relate the funniest reaction, however. I was in the Warriors locker room maybe a few weeks later, talking to Stephen Jackson, when Al Harrington started joking with me about the Raiders incident. Stephen got serious, as he tends to do, and said he saw the video, he couldn’t believe that a team official would do that.

“You kept your cool, and that’s what a man does,” Jackson said. Of course, Stephen’s a guy who has famously not kept his cool a few times. Maybe you have to have been through the NBA grind a time or 1,000 to fully appreciate what he was communicating there. I appreciated it, more than any response I got from anybody, and kept laughing along with Al, too.

Q: Despite said incident, you told John Canzano you get along swimmingly with Al Davis. Got any great untold Al Davis stories? How much a driving force will he be with their draft this weekend, and do you think the franchise can get back to its winning ways with him in control?

It’s always entertaining when Al and I get together, no question. Maybe some of it is because we knew each other a little bit when we both were in LA, and Al always remembers stuff like that. I also talk to a lot of people he talks to, and have studied him intensely for years, and I think he sort of respects that and more than sort of very much dislikes that.

I also like the conversation. I don’t mind the ribbing and the jousting. I don’t think Al minds it, either.

I used to tease Raiders fans: Why do two of the people you hate the most, Adam Schefter and me, seem to know so much about what the Raiders are about to do? Schefter has since bypassed me so thoroughly that I shouldn’t even bring up his name.

Best Al story, which I’ve told before, but it’s so good I will again: A couple of coach-hirings ago, at one of the press conferences, Al was doing his typical fun post-presser session with 15 or so of us gathered around him. That’s always the best of Al–he loves the give and take and will address just about anything, although always on his own terms. He doesn’t get as imperious as he does on the podium. He’s more casual. And Casual Al is Great Al. If you can stay in there with him, and I always try to, he gives incredibly meaningful answers, and lots of loopy ones, too.

I was asking him about all the coaches who had spurned him over the previous few years–Bobby Petrino, Sean Payton, heck, even Steve Sarkisian, and many others–and what that meant about the state of the franchise. Al, not surprisingly, was not thrilled with that line of questioning. He turned off my recorder. He looked away. I asked one more question, then Al snapped:

“Do you even know who Deng Xiaoping is?” Literally, those exact words, right after I asked him about Sean Payton. Not the usual here.

Uhh, Al, wasn’t he the Chinese Communist leader? (I was eager to figure out where this was going.)

“That’s right,” Al said, “but I’ll bet you really don’t know who he is. You don’t even know your own culture.”

My response: Well, Al, other than the fact that I’m Japanese-American, and not Chinese… (Al’s face drops)… I think I can tell you that Deng was the Chinese leader during the Tiananmen Square uprising and squashing.

Now I have to estimate his last response, because truthfully I was too busy choking off laughter to scribble–and all the other reporters around me had the eye-ball-popping thing going on–but it was something like: “Oh, OK. Now I’m really going to get nailed. But you’re right.€

Important point to always make: I thought it was funny, because Al is in no way a racist, provably not a racist. From Tom Flores to Art Shell and many quieter things he has done. Al is a football-ist. He only thinks football. He wanted to attack me, and he thought he’d attack my lack of knowledge about Chinese culture, which he thought was my heritage.

Oops. But soooo Al. Unlike he predicted, I didn’t try to kill him for that comment. He was jousting at me, not any particular race of people. He’s a goof. I still like the guy. We’re funny together. (I won’t even get into the time I somehow drew him into a soliloquy about how he likes strong-armed quarterbacks and beautiful women, “nothing against the non-beautiful women,” as he gallantly put it.)

Quick answer: Is Al running the Raiders draft? Yes. There’s nobody else in there. It’s all him. Anybody else with credibility has gotten the hell out of there.

Can he get them back into contention? Al has talent. He still knows talent. He just goes nutty here and there by signing ridiculous contracts and over-reaching for speed or bulk. This Raiders team right now has decent talent, presuming JaMarcus Russell picks up his game.

But I don’t think you can win in the current NFL if your coach can be undermined at the first blink of a three-game losing streak, and that’s exactly where Tom Cable is situated, just like every Raiders coach since Gruden.

Q: The other awful Bay Area football team is the 49ers, which can’t seem to shake the Mike Nolan stench. How can they not be considering a QB in the draft? How can this team accomplish anything with Alex Smith under center?

Not surprising for the leaders of this franchise, the 49ers seem to have re-routed their thinking on the QB situation, after initially trying to sell us on the idea that they were pleased with the Shaun Hill/Alex Smith prospects for 2009. But oops: They went after Kurt Warner, made a few calls on Jay Cutler, and in the unlikely event that either Stafford or Sanchez are available at the 10 pick, it’s pretty clear that the 49ers would be all over either guy.

They know they need a QB who is not named Alex Smith or Shaun Hill and the longer it takes to get him, the more they delay their potential next leap up. At least I believe the owner, Jed York, believes that, and he gets the deciding vote over Singletary and GM Scot McCloughan.

Doesn’t mean they’ll get a QB, though. They failed on Warner, wisely didn’t top the Bears’ offer for Cutler, and probably won’t get Stafford or Sanchez at 10. So they’ll draft a QB on the second day, pray for the next Cassel, Hasselbeck or Romo, and roll the dice with Hill–it really probably will be him to start 2009, I know it’s hard to believe–for a little while and maybe Smith gives them something at some point.

Q: Minority newspapers columnists used to always be an issue that plagued the industry, and more and more folks are saying that the same issue is already starting to impact sports blogs and/or sports websites. About a decade ago, the newspaper argument was that all the columnists were over 40 years old and white. And now the web is being touted as the land of 25-35 year-old white kids. Do you see this as an issue in the coming years? Or because there are thousands of independent sports blogs, is this not as big of a problem?

I’ve taken no measurement on the demographics of sports bloggery. I actually know several sports bloggers who are not white males (the Golden State of Mind fan site for the Warriors, for great instance), and I know many well established white male sports writers who don’t blog, so I don’t know how much I can expound on this one.

My thinking all along about the web is that it’s about as democratic as we’re ever going to get. A lot of that is good–people click to whatever attracts them, not just the local paper thrown on your porch–and a mega-ton of that is bad financially, obviously, for newspapers, and that is how I get paid.

I got a sports column right as this thing was turning, so it’s not like I’m an aggrieved bitter non-columnist. I got hired the old way, by good people, thoughought my 120-year career.

However… Not terribly long ago, I had one minority sports editor tell me that, unless he knew me, he would probably never contemplate hiring an Asian sports columnist because he figured most Asians weren’t opinionated enough to write a good column.

Hard to say if the dissolution of the newspaper industry is truly going to change that. Probably not. I also realize that many minorities–and I’m Asian-American, so Al Davis and I can speak directly to my demographic–do not have millions of young students dreaming of being sports columnists, or bloggers, or whatever. It’s in the numbers. I just hope nobody is ever denied the chance to do something he or she loves or would be great at, and I think there’s a better shot at that on the web than seeking the blessings of nervous sports editors.

Q: You had a great quote once about blogs: “I love the energy of the blog world.” That’s not a phrase often heard from a mainstream media member about the unruly blog world. Care to expand on it?

Easy answer: I stepped into the blog world because I’m a guy who constantly looks for that stuff–if there’s a big Yankees move, I’m checking ESPN.com for Buster Olney’s analysis 7 seconds after it happens and if it takes 7 minutes, I’m pissed and frustrated waiting. And if I can find somebody else–anybody else, on any other site–with a cogent analysis and explanation, on any good subject, I’ll go find it.

If Bill Simmons would write 110 times I day, I’d click to him 110 times. Same with Posnanski. If that crazy site The Big Lead (oh wait) links to some fascinating item and I like it, I’ll keep going back… Same with Deadspin… Same with a lot of other non-sports sites…

If there’s a big argument in blog world, I want to hear about it. I want to know. There’s more force than we can offer in newspapers, and 100 times the velocity, and one billion times the democracy–anybody can chime in, and the deal is anybody WILL chime in, and, to my thinking, that only strengthens the whole operation, as long as the initial writing can withstand the heat.

I don’t read the reader comments on many other writers’ blogs, I’d guess some get ripped often and some do not. I know I get blasted by commenters all the time, and often by commenters with different screen names but with ip addresses that are strangely similar. But that is the deal. I often write on the blog that it’s the items that generate the most personal venom that draw the largest viewership. Is that cause and effect? I have no idea. It just happens.

I’m happy to have my stuff held up to the weirdest and toughest scrutiny. I’m happy to contribute to the conversation and to be battered around amid the conversation. Right now, the main conversation (as the Sharks have proven once again this week) is in the the blog world. That’s where the energy, if not the money, is directed.

QUICK HITTERS:

Q: Google’s legendary HQ is in San Jose. Been on a tour yet? Know anyone who has? Never been. I have eaten lunch at Yahoo HQ in Santa Clara and… my goodness. I live near the Oracle campus and hear wonderful stories. Too bad Larry E. has never invited me over.

Q: The best sideline reporter in sports is …. As reluctant as I am to admit it, I almost always get a laugh when I listen to what Siragusa has to say when he’s doing a game on Fox. Horrible admission. And not a reporter. Otherwise, I’ll point to Michele Tafoya, Lindsay Soto, Ric Bucher and everybody else who makes a brutal job seem like normal journalism.

Q: The Elements of Style turns 50 this year. Everyone has a copy. Where do you keep yours? That little beige book scared me me when I was a college freshman–I can’t write like that!–until I got to the E.B. White parts. I can’t write like that, either, but at least it wasn’t as intimidating. I’ve got the book around somewhere, hidden, so Mr. Strunk can’t tsk-tsk me in front of company.

Q: Of the web’s “Big 4″ – ESPN, Yahoo, Fox Sports and CBS Sports – which do you find yourself reading most? I once boycotted the entire ESPN landscape for a month (and coined the Screamin’ A moniker), possibly not a wise career move, so maybe it’s a surprise to say that ESPN.com is, by far, my most frequent destination. But it is.

Q: When and where did you take your last real vacation – no computer, no cell phone? Does it count if I was planning one–to Scotland to fire golf balls all over the gorseland–and had to cancel? No, it doesn’t. Went to Hawaii a few Christmases ago, no laptop, but took the cellphone. I do not forsee a cellphone-free trip for a long, long time.

Q: Will Don Nelson still be coaching the Warriors by the All-Star break in 2010? No. He’ll manage a way to get himself fired before that–so he can fly back to Maui with a year-and-a-half’s worth of unworked salary owed him. I’m sure it’s a bit of a disappointment that he couldn’t get the full two years’ worth, or more, but the Warriors front office is so screwed up they can’t even get that right.

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