This week’s interview subject is Sports Illustrated NBA writer Chris Ballard, an acclaimed author, athlete, and reporter. For his latest book, The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan’s Tour of the NBA, a few basketball scribes got together to play pick-up hoops, which is where this photo is from. After the jump: Which writers can actually ball, being at hoops camp with Chris Webber, arguing the value of a dunk, and being David Stern for a day.
Q: We’ll start with the hoops game we played a couple weeks back. You’re pretty good and have a basketball background. Tell us about your high school and college stardom. Give us your starting five among basketball writers – actually, make that 4, we’ll take the shooting guard position. Ever play pickup with any NBA players?
A. The game was for the release of my book, which of course everyone should check out, buy for their dad/brother for Christmas, etc. and so on. (Okay, plug over).
As for hoops background, I was a two-guard for Marin Academy in the Bay Area and then played for a year at Pomona College, a liberal arts school outside LA. My time there fell precipitously short of stardom; I was low on the depth chart and my only dunk came in a JV game against Cal Tech (and I traveled on the play). I quickly realized that my best-case scenario would be as a 5th or 6th man by the time I was a senior. We had a stacked team and since it was a serious program for a DIII school – “chalk talk” at 7 AM during the week – it didn’t seem like it was worth the tradeoff. So I did what college kids do: I drank beer, played IM ball, spent a summer working at Yellowstone and wrote snarky sports columns for the school paper. Never regretted the decision. I’ve spent the ensuing 15 years playing in rec leagues, tournaments and anywhere else I can find a game (I’m the type of guy who allots 25% of his carry-on luggage space to hoops gear).
That said, the Pomona connection still pops up in ways I never could have imagined. For starters, I was there three years after Gregg Popovich was the coach. So when I first joined the NBA beat, Pop – who is tremendously loyal to Pomona – was always calling me “the Pomona kid” and messing with me (he got excited when I once gratuitously mentioned the school while on Charlie Rose). Then one of my Pomona teammates, Mike Budenholzer, ended up getting a job with the Spurs as a video coordinator. Mike was the kind of guy who had a coaching mentality even when he was in college – he used to pick me up full-court during preseason pick-up games – so it wasn’t a huge surprise when he worked his way up to become the lead assistant to Pop. Last year, his name came up when Phoenix was looking for a head coach, and down the road I think he might get a shot. Obviously I’m biased but I think he’d do a tremendous job.
It’s unlikely enough that one DIII teammate would work in the NBA but Jason Levien was also on that team and was one of the first people I met at school (we were workout partners). Jason is an exceedingly smart dude who was a Harvard Law fellow, worked as a speechwriter for Harold Ford Jr. and ended up as an agent – repping Kevin Martin and Udonis Haslem, among others. Earlier this year he joined the Sacramento Kings as their assistant GM. Clearly, he’s got his work cut out for him, but Tyreke Evans is a pretty good piece to build around.
Okay, Pomona digression over … To answer the starting five question: If this were back in the day you’d have to include Rick Telander, Jack McCallum (who played at Muhlenberg College and came out of 13 years of hoops retirement for that book-launch game), Alexander Wolff and Dan Patrick (who once shattered a backboard, then brought a cup of the glass into work and dumped it on the desk as proof). If we’re talking right now, based on guys I’ve played with, I’d have to include Chris Broussard of ESPN, Sean Gregory of Time Magazine and KC Johnson in Chicago. Any number of guys – you, Bucher, Ivan Carter, Wise, Abrams, Mannix, Abbott, Peterson – could fill out the roster from there.
As for NBA guys, I played at a camp in high school with Chris Webber, and Darnell Robinson set the California high school scoring record by posting up 6’4 guys in our small-school league. In pick-up/league games since then, the list would include Mo Cheeks, Lindsey Hunter and tons of cup-o-coffee/fringe guys like Steve Goodrich (former Princeton center who was still looking to feed guys from the high post at the Philly Y), Rod Benson, Sean Lampley, Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell (Oakland playground legend who was on my league team and could still unleash nasty dunks at 40) and Jason Cipolla. And for the book I engaged in a three-point shootout and played H-O-R-S-E with Steve Kerr, which went about as well you’d imagine it might.
Q: How’d you end up at SI?
A. Not the usual route (my only newspaper experience was interning at the Courier-Post in Camden, New Jersey). The year after graduating from college, I wrote a book called Hoops Nation: A Guide to America’s Best Pick-up Basketball that was inspired by Alex Wolff’s classic In-Your-Face Guide to Pick-up Basketball (and its less-heralded but also excellent sequel, The Back-in-Your-Face Guide to Pick-up Basketball).
It was one of those so-crazy-it-might-just-work ideas, and a publisher gave me the equivalent of pocket change to do it. I spent seven months driving around the country in a used Chevy van with my brother and two college teammates. We hit 48 states and visited over 1,000 courts, playing at the majority of them. It was no-frills stuff; we ate microwave meals and stayed at KOA campgrounds (once a week, to “splurge”, we all shared a room at a Motel 6).
We even had a very early version of a blog – this being 1996 – where I posted stories and photos from the road using a super-slow dial-up connection. Highlights included filming a segment with Dick Schaap at Venice Beach. Lowlights included having an opponent leave a game in Chicago to “go get my gun.”
The book sold about a dozen copies but received good reviews and jumpstarted my writing career. For a few years afterward I worked as a freelancer, writing for everyone from the New York Times to, ahem, Maxim (the mag funded a story called “24 Crazy Hours in Moscow”). In 1999, concerned I wasn’t evolving as a writer – as a freelancer you work in a vacuum – I headed to Columbia Journalism School and, from there, on the basis of a recommendation from former SI editor/mentor Sandy Padwe, to Sports Illustrated.
I was fortunate enough to join the mag in 2000, just before a series of hiring freezes, and a year after Josh Elliott, an old friend who gave me the lay of the land (he’d been my sports editor at UCSB, where I spent my freshman year, and had attended Columbia the year before me). You could tell, even back then, that Josh had a future on TV. On a moment’s notice he could generate a cogent argument on just about any topic and deliver it eloquently and convincingly.
Once at SI, I started on the NBA beat before gravitating toward longer features. Two years ago, I was asked to become part of a three-writer back-page rotation when Rick Reilly left. I grew up idolizing Rick, especially his long-form stuff, so I was honored/flattered/scared shitless. And I know Rick takes his lumps on the web these days but I can tell you that what he did at SI – writing that column every week, in a magazine format, with a readership as broad as SI’s and making it seem easy – required a staggering combination of skill and hard work.
Q: When was the last time you got into a discussion with someone about a dunk? In your book, you argue that sometimes a dunk is more than a dunk, and I agree with that. Non-basketball fans will counter with “a dunk is just worth two points.” Ever change anyone’s mind on dunking? Care to try now?
A. What I love about dunks today is that, by and large, the ones we care about are functional. There was a period of about 20 years when NBA fans went to games hoping to see dunks, usually something elaborate on a wide-open breakaway. And to me those are the most boring dunks in the game. If Vince Carter goes up for a 360 when there’s no one within 30 feet of him, it’s showboating. Really, that’s all it is. But when Carter used to drive the lane and dunk on a big man, it mattered.
And what’s happened is I think NBA fans have become, on the whole, much smarter about the game. As a result, they don’t care as much about those breakaway dunks – or, for the most part, the dunk contest – while valuing the meaningful ones even more. Let’s be honest: there remains no more electrifying play in sports than a nasty jam in traffic. Just in the last couple weeks, we’ve had Ty Lawson disgracing DJ Mbenga and Dwyane Wade with that ride-the-elevator one-hander on Varejao and Shannon Brown being Shannon Brown. I defy any sports fan to watch those plays and not immediately want to see a replay, or seven, from every angle. You can say that’s just another two points…. but I won’t believe you.
Q: The casual sports fan will turn on a basketball game and invariably see … tattoos. Lots of them. Sometimes, jarring tattoos, like on players such as Delonte West, Chris Anderson and Kenyon Martin. And the casual sports fan – at least the ones we talk to – are usually turned off. Despite David Stern’s best efforts at an image overhaul, the “thuggish” look persists. Do you feel that this is an image problem needs to cleaned up to lure in on-the-fence fans?
A. Personally, not at all. My feeling is that if you care what basketball players look like then you’re probably not a fan of the game to begin with. Bill Walton looked like some Sasquatch Woodstock dropout. Dennis Rodman looked like a carnival freak on X. And Mike Miller has some atrocious basketball hair going on these days that calls to mind a 13-year-old girls soccer team. But that’s not what I associate with each. I loved the way Walton played, Rodman is one of my favorite players ever and I’d take Miller on my squad any day, as he’s unselfish and can really shoot it.
Plus, tattoos have become so commonplace now that I wonder how much of a “thug” connotation remains. I live in Berkeley and two out of every three white, bespectacled hipsters here has a tattoo.
Q: David Stern gives you the power to change one thing about the NBA. Three-point line, hand-checking, illegal defense, fouls … what’s your move?
A. Well, if it’s ultimate power I’m going to contract the league – see ya, Memphis, Charlotte, New Orleans, Toronto, New Jersey and Oklahoma City – and shorten the season to, say, 60 games. Next, bring back the best-of-five first round series, embrace the Warkentien/Simmons model of a playoff for the final spot and aim for transparency when it comes to refs.
If we’re talking solely game rules I’d probably address stops in the action. The reason basketball is more fun to watch (most of the time) than other sports is because of the flow, but casual fans often become frustrated when games bog down, and understandably so. There are a lot of ways to do this but a small, easy one would be to get rid of the technical free throw and just award a point. Illegal defense? Give em a point and inbound the ball. Guy gets T’d up? Chalk it up and let’s start playing again. I’d also eliminate jump balls, which are ridiculously antiquated.
Q: Can you remember the last rookie to have a better three weeks to open the season than Brandon Jennings? He’s seemingly turned the Bucks’ fortunes around, he’s got Knicks fans pulling their hair out, and he’s made everyone forget about Ricky Rubio (and, for the time being, Blake Griffin). He obviously won’t keep this up, but how’d he fall this far? And how’d a team that bricked so badly in the 2008 draft (Joe Alexander), get this draft right?
A. You’re right; a surreal start to the season but it might not benefit him in the long run. After all, expectations have soared, Milwaukee is being labeled a playoff team and Jennings dubbed an All-Star. And it’s way too early for that. The Bucks still have to figure out how to integrate Michael Redd when he comes back, they just lost Bogut and there’s no way Jennings will continue to shoot this well. One just hopes his head doesn’t get too big, and fans don’t feel let down when he inevitably comes back to earth.
As for why he fell so far in the draft, my guess is because of his lackluster performance overseas. Which makes me wonder if there will be an overcorrection (like when Dirk and Pau became studs so everyone started drafting guys like Darko and Maciej Lampe). Because of the Jennings model, will GMs assume that Jeremy Tyler is worth a high draft pick even if he continues to flounder? Be interesting to see.
Q: Is is actually possible that Chris Kaman and Roy Hibbert could have better NBA careers than Greg Oden? I know Oden’s two months shy of 22, and Kaman and Hibbert don’t possess his upside … but how much longer should we wait for him? It almost feels like everyone wants him to fail.
A. First off, I like both those guys. I saw Hibbert play recently and was impressed. Soft right block jump hook, better passer than I expected and an aggressive, if methodical rebounder. And Kaman has the best off-hand of any big man in the NBA.
That said, I think Oden will end up being better, barring further injury (and that’s a big caveat, obviously). To me, the tipoff is that he has occasional monster games. And I’m talking impactful monster games, where he changes the defensive and/or offensive tone. Only a handful of big men in the league are capable of that and he’s already one of them. He’ll need to learn how to stay out of foul trouble, and refine his offense, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t be one of the top three defensive centers for the next ten years – it’s up to him.
Q: Obligatory Lebron in 2010 question … how annoyed are you with scribes churning out so many silly potential landing spots? How long before some clown writes that Sacramento is in the mix? Or Memphis? Oh, and where’s he headed?
A. Well, you’re talking to the guy who wrote for SI last week that James should sign for the minimum, so I’m guilty on that count. That said, my advice was he do so in Cleveland – based on a Steve Jobs analogy – and that’s where I think he’ll end up. Though I bet Levien would love to hear that Sacto theory.
Q: The last player-scribe locker room incident/argument you’ve seen? The best?
A. Can’t say that I’ve witnessed many, to be honest. Though I once had Mark Madsen run after me and grab me to say that, hey, he knew I was working on a Kobe Bryant story and if I needed anyone to say anything nice about Kobe, he was my guy! (He was being sincere too).
That said, TJ Simers is consistently entertaining to be around. I’ll sometimes attend press conferences – which are often useless for the purposes of a mag writer – just to hear TJ pepper the coach/player/prima donna with brutally honest questions. I’ve never seen anyone snap – Phil Jackson seems to actually enjoy the repartee – but there can be some uncomfortable moments.
Q: Favorite basketball movie of all-time. Hoosiers followed by Hoosiers.
Q: Basketball player’s reality show you’d watch, and Ron Artest is not an
acceptable answer because everyone would watch Ron Artest’s reality
I’m not a reality show guy – I’d rather watch the first season of Deadwood again – so maybe I’m not the best person to answer this. That said, I might go with Damon Jones (who is very, very funny and has a totally inappropriate view of his own talent), Kobe (though only if he didn’t know he was being taped, so he wouldn’t manage his image like he did for Spike) or Tim Duncan (because it might be boring but I’m fascinated by Tim).
Q: Team that could actually use Allen Iverson right now.
A. That presupposes there are any, and I don’t think there are unless Iverson comes to grips with the fact that he’s not a star anymore. Adrian Wojnarowski had a great piece recently in which he quoted Iverson telling Detroit teammates last year that he felt he was still one of the top three players in the league alongside Kobe and LeBron “and not necessarily in that order.” I’m all for self-confidence, but that is amazing. Is there any team where that attitude could help? Can you imagine any business where you’d hire a guy who had that kind of warped self-image?
Q: Chris Bosh will be playing for _____ in 2010. No idea. Could be Toronto, could be Miami. Way too early on all the free agency talk.
Q: The best player in the league who is also the biggest punk?
A. Ah, now this is one I probably shouldn’t answer, seeing as I cover the league, but rest assured there are good stories to be told. Instead I’ll give you my list of eight guys in the NBA who could hang out with anyone, from your mom to your little brother to an IRS agent, and have a great conversation: Malik Rose, Adonal Foyle, Ron Artest (seriously), Shane Battier, Tyson Chandler, Matt Bonner, Ray Allen and Derek Fisher.
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