On the eve of the biggest game of the NBA season to date, we fired over a few questions to one of Sports Illustrated’s NBA writers, Lee Jenkins. He grew up in San Diego, but I passed on the Anchorman jokes. Instead, Jenkins talked about the Lebron and Dirk and the NBA Finals, his rapid rise to SI, nearly watching Kenyon Martin beat up a reporter in the locker room, and the early 1990s tears shed over Gary Sheffield.
Q: Well, the NBA Finals suddenly got interesting. Let’s begin with LeBron. We’ve all seen that he’s capable of physically taking over games, because nobody can stop him … why isn’t he doing that in this series? Is it something Dallas is doing? Is he just being passive? A combination of the two? If he’s being so passive, why now, after he dominated late against Boston and Chicago?
We’re accustomed to basketball stars yearning to take over in these situations – Kobe, Jordan, Bird – but one thing we learned about LeBron last summer is that he’s wired a little differently. If he was the kind of guy who wanted the burden on his shoulders every night, he would have stayed in Cleveland. He wanted the luxury of deferring and still winning.
The problem, as LeBron readily admits, is that it’s hard to jump back and forth from facilitator to attacker. You watch Kobe, Rose, even Durant, they rarely turn it off. They aren’t allowed. Their teams are built in a way that they have to be engaged the whole time. With two stars, each of them has leeway to lay back for stretches. In the Chicago series, it was Wade. Now, it’s LeBron. I don’t think that’s coincidence. Wade has an easier matchup against Dallas (Kidd) than LeBron does (Marion). The Mavs are picking up LeBron full-court, doubling him in the post, clogging the lane in a way that might be easier for Wade to slither through. LeBron prides himself on his playmaking, but when he tries to re-engage, he acknowledges he can’t always find his rhythm. For Kobe and Rose, I don’t think rhythm comes and goes as easily, because they’ve always got the ball in their hands and are under constant pressure to create offense. They have no choice. LeBron has given himself the option.
It’s funny how long we have been psycho-analyzing this guy — eleven months and counting….
Q: In the knee-jerk world of sports journalism these days, LeBron is compared to Jordan one week, and then he’s looking like Scottie Pippen the next. But since LeBron’s only 26, and has plenty of time left, could the argument be made that this title would mean more to Dirk, who is 33? With his clutch play in the series, Dirk seems to have locked down a Hall of Fame spot, and now the only question is where he’ll be remembered. Can you enhance your “legend” in one postseason?
Thank you for not using the word “legacy.” I’m not sure what it is about the NBA Finals that brings out the affection for that term. If I weren’t covering this, I’d make it a drinking game.
Dirk is in a win-win situation. It’s been Dirk Nowitzki appreciation day for six weeks, with no signs of letting up. I think people in Dallas are kind of amused, because they’ve seen Dirk do this for about a decade, but he obviously needed these playoffs to make the rest of the country notice. If he can win it all, with a supporting cast that isn’t much better than LeBron’s was in Cleveland, he is going to experience an outpouring of affection this country has rarely afforded a foreign athlete. Even if he loses, he will go down as the sympathetic figure, because he didn’t have Dwyane Wade on his team. In fact, I still can’t figure out the Mavs second-best player.
If LeBron loses, he will take the predictable public flogging, but eventually he’s going to win a championship, and probably a bunch of them. This is arguably going to be the worst Heat team of the era. Dirk cannot say the same. He has enough left to get back to the Finals, but his supporting cast may not. Most of them are in their mid-30s. Even Dirk calls Kidd “a fossil.” As committed as the Mavs are, it could be impossible to recast their roster in time to take advantage of Dirk’s remaining years.
Q: I’m guessing your Derrick Rose feature was the most popular story you wrote this year? I thought it was fantastic. Can you walk us through how that story happens? How many times did you interview Rose for the story? Historically, he hasn’t been chatty. Did you have to go through five layers of representatives to get to Rose? Did you have weeks to craft it?
Thanks. I think they needed that story in 10 days, which is about average. I’m from a newspaper background, which fosters a journalistic ADD, so if I have more than two weeks on anything I start to break out.
Rose is the rare athlete who is extremely quiet, and not very quotable, but a writer favorite anyway. You could hire an army of image-makers and PR experts and they couldn’t replicate that formula. I actually looked for his handlers and couldn’t find them. I just showed up in New Orleans when the Bulls had a couple off days there – it’s usually easier to get time with players on the road, plus I already did the hometown angle with him a couple years ago – and talked to him after practice. After 20 minutes, the coaches told him to get on the bus and I asked if I could meet him back at the hotel. I know the guys at Esquire and GQ get two or three separate interviews with a subject, and maybe some at SI do as well, but that doesn’t happen for me. I was just relieved Rose met me back in the lobby. I talked to him for another 45 minutes, and every time a tourist stopped and looked over, he seemed genuinely surprised they recognized him. I’ll never forget the image of him shuffling through that lobby, sneakers slung over his shoulder, like he was coming back from an AAU tournament. At one point I asked him a really hard hitting question – I think it was, “So you’re playing great,” which isn’t even a question – and he said, “Yeah, I wish.” That’s the appeal of Derrick Rose. His humility stands out because there’s so little of it anywhere else.
Q: It’s a nettlesome topic to discuss, especially in the middle of the Finals, but what’s your take on the lockout? Isn’t that something David Stern should be immensely worried about? Depending on what metrics you look at, the NBA has surpassed MLB in popularity in this country, and a lockout would certainly be a step back. Can’t they just contract two teams and get it over with?
I haven’t covered a lot of this, but having just returned from a press conference on the subject, I think you hit on the sticking point. The NBA is desperate to save its struggling franchises and ensure their profitability. To do that, owners are demanding a hard salary cap, and players are balking. They don’t know why it’s their responsibility to make the small-market teams viable. I tend to side with players in these situations and not only because I write more stories about players than owners.
A lockout is inevitable and staggeringly shortsighted. The NBA has battled perception problems for almost 15 years. Just as the league starts to regain popularity – thanks to players like Rose and Durant and even the three in Miami – they are all about to take a blowtorch to their product. I love baseball and it’s probably what I will cover if there is no NBA next season. But baseball looks vulnerable right now. A lot of stadiums are half-empty. There are only a handful of offensive stars. I can appreciate a pitcher’s duel, but not every night. The NBA is never going to catch the NFL. But you’re right. MLB is in its sights. A lockout is a massive step back.
Q: Let’s move on to your career. You’ve climbed the career ladder awfully quickly since graduating Vanderbilt. In eight years you went to the NYT & SI. How’d you pull that off so quickly?
It wasn’t that long ago, but it was a different time in journalism. The internet boom created job openings at smaller papers and room to move. I spent a winter break working for free at the Colorado Springs Gazette and the sports editor there, Geoff Grant, took pity on me and held an opening. On my first day, the Rockies beat writer stormed out of the press box and quit. I was the only one with nothing to do, so I ended up covering the team part-time. I got beat every other morning, but I liked writing features, and Geoff was the kind of editor who let you go for 60 inches and cut the box scores to make room. I covered the Avalanche, too, once referring to the Carolina Hurricanes as the Carolina Panthers, and the next night the Florida Panthers as the Florida Hurricanes. My next job was covering UCLA for the Orange County Register, which I could have done forever. When I started on the beat, Steve Lavin insisted that I join for him dinner, and bring my then-girlfriend (now wife). She spilled a bottle of red wine all over his beige sport-coat and he thanked her profusely for letting him get rid of a jacket he never wanted in the first place. His teams were wildly inconsistent, but they made for entertaining copy. The only problem with covering UCLA for a paper in Orange County is the dearth of UCLA fans there. It’s a USC stronghold. The voice mails were interesting and the first round of layoffs could have been dicey.
The Times hired me to cover the Nets, which is the beat they give you when they don’t trust you yet. They eventually moved me to the Mets, then Barry Bonds’s personal detail. An editor once said, “Pack for two weeks, fly to San Francisco, check in on Bonds, and we’ll tell you where to go from there.” But when I got home, a bottle of wine was waiting at the door. That’s the New York Times. They drive you but they support you. Leaving the editors there – Tom Jolly, Kristin Huckshorn, Jay Schreiber – was like leaving home. But I grew up wanting to work for SI. The chance to write in the same pages as so many people I idolize – Tom Verducci, Tim Layden, Michael Farber, and a couple dozen others – doesn’t get old.
Q: How tight are you with the other prominent writers who graduated from Vanderbilt (Tyler Kepner, Buster Olney, Skip Bayless, Dave Shenin, Dan Wolken)?
Tyler was my editor in college and I was Dan’s. Both were in my wedding. Buster and Skip I watch on TV. Dave I read to see what a feature should be. He also counsels me through Vanderbilt’s first-round tournament losses, of which there have been too many lately.
With Grantland Rice getting so much run these days, it’s probably worth noting that he is the main reason we went to Vanderbilt. Rice also went there, and well after he graduated, a sportswriting scholarship was endowed in his honor. VU has no journalism school, just a paper called The Hustler (we had the name before Larry Flynt), and a bunch of old columns that Dave and Buster and Skip left around the newsroom in bound volumes. That might have been as good as J-school.
Q: John Canzano’s locker room madness with the Jailblazers was quite legendary. Ever encounter anything remotely similar in your years covering sports? If you haven’t seen scuffling among journalists, what’s the best athlete-athlete or athlete-journalist encounter you’ve witnessed?
Kenyon Martin did not like one of the writers on the Nets beat. Several incidents had taken place that preceded me. But I remember the Nets were playing the Knicks one night at Madison Square Garden, and before the game, the writer was venting to Richard Jefferson about his relationship with Kenyon. The writer said to Jefferson: “Kenyon acts tough. But really he’s just a big softie. I think I should give him a little peck on the cheek.” Jefferson sat in his chair, nodding, with a grin on his face. The writer turned around and Kenyon was standing behind him, arms crossed, glowering down. No one got kissed, or punched, but I thought I might be reporting that night on the death of a beat writer.
Q: In baseball there’s great friction between the “stat guys” and everyone else who follows the sport. There’s much less of it in the NFL because it’s a team sport. That’s kind of the case in the NBA, except a handful of “stat guys” seem to be trying to exert their influence on everyone else. Where do you fall in the stat department? What’s the first stat you look at after the game? Is there a popular one that you can’t stand?
I’ve been surprised how much the sabermetric revolution has seeped into the NBA. I’m still learning what advanced stats are most relevant to each story. I’m fascinated by players’ sweet spots – Ric Bucher did a really cool story about that for ESPN the Magazine last year – and the origins of them, why a guy shoots so much better from the left elbow than the right. Synergy Sports helped me with a story last year about what plays teams call out of timeouts and the success rate they have. With that kind of topic, advanced stats are crucial. In general, though, there are a lot of writers who are much better at finding and interpreting them than I am. I prefer to rely on scenes and anecdotes. The hope is for a reader to see a player on TV and say, “That’s the guy who…” and have it be something we wrote about him.
Q: Who are the three best interviews in the NBA?
1) Tyson Chandler: He was on 60 Minutes in eighth grade and was the subject of an SI expose before he graduated high school. Somehow, he was never jaded.
2) Joakim Noah: I went to his house early this season and found him sitting outside in the dark, illuminated by a raging bonfire, sipping a beer. He said he builds the bonfire when he wants to have a deep conversation. That’s a good start.
3) George Karl: After the trade, I flew to Denver and asked him if there was anything he wanted to take back that he said about Carmelo. There was nothing. He’s one of those few people who can’t lie.
Q: Surely at some point you covered high school sports. Biggest can’t-miss athlete at the high school level you ever covered?
I worked for my hometown weekly in high school and wrote about two of the local football teams. One had a player named E.J. Watson, who I argued was the best running back in the city, and would someday contend for the Heisman Trophy. The other had Rashaan Salaam.
Q: Your favorite San Diego athlete of all-time?
Tough one. I sat in the bleachers for every home game Marshall Faulk played in college. Tony Gwynn approached me once at a baseball camp and insisted I use his bat because it was lighter. LaDainian Tomlinson was Derrick Rose with a football. For a town with no championships – I’m not counting the 1963 AFL title – we’ve had some great players. As strange as it sounds, I’m going with Gary Sheffield, who was only in San Diego for a year-and-a-half. But it was 1992, one of my best friends had just learned to drive, and we probably went to 60 games. Sheffield made a run at the Triple Crown — .330, 33 home runs, 100 RBI (pre-steroid era, I pray) – whipping that bat around like a machete. When Tom Werner and his cronies traded him the following summer, probably to buy another beach house, Sheffield said he cried in the stadium parking lot. Me, too.
Q: Taking age and injury history into account, the point guard you’d rather have to lead your team, Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul?
Chris Paul. After the regular season, I would have gone with Westbrook. But I was in L.A. for the first round and Paul set up teammates in ways that none of the young point guards do. That can change. The question is how much Westbrook wants it to change. I did a story last week about Jason Kidd, and after talking to him for a while, I realized that true point guards are born more often than they’re made. Kevin Durant deserves a true point guard.