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Miscellany

An Interview with Howard Beck of the New York Times

How better to get excited for Game 3 of the NBA Finals than an interview with Howard Beck of the New York Times? The Heat/Thunder discussion veered off into journalism, twitter, and the worst interview in the NBA.

Q: Game 1, Kevin Durant is clutch, scoring 16 points in the 4th quarter. Game 2, LeBron makes a tough bank shot – after OKC had cut the deficit to three – and then two free throws – with the Heat leading by 2 – in the final 90 seconds. Two heroes, two wholly different reactions from the media. Why is that?

Beck: Context and expectations are everything. Although the Thunder were favored in this series, I think people generally still view the Heat as the team that should win (and to an extent, the team that has to win). So when Durant, in his first Finals game ever, leads a fantastic fourth-quarter comeback, against a veteran team with Finals experience, that’s a pretty huge deal. I think the coverage reflected that.

Obviously, James’ fourth-quarter efforts in Game 2 – the critical bank shot, the free throws, the defensive stop (i.e. uncalled foul) against Durant – was also huge. In fact, I wrote an entire column praising James’ clutch efforts for Saturday’s paper. But there’s a qualitative difference between what Durant did (16-point quarter, big comeback) versus what James did (6-point quarter, Miami held its lead). Durant’s fourth quarter was objectively more impressive. Also, I think the non-call on James distracted everyone from the rest of his performance.

We’re still learning about Durant – what he’s capable of doing at this age, on this stage, whether he’s up for the task of beating James and winning his first title. Everything Durant accomplishes is magnified and celebrated, because this is all new. James is in his third Finals, his second with the Heat, and we all know what happened the first two times. Fair or not, he’s viewed through a different prism. He’s not battling the Thunder as much as he is battling his own playoff demons and his own reputation.

Q: The overwhelming negativity toward LeBron this postseason – when he’s been incredible – has gotten so grating and annoying that it almost feels some fans are becoming sympathetic to him. It seems amazing that fans can quickly get over athletes who are arrested, but “The Decision” lingers. Why is that?

Beck: There is certainly a lingering resentment over “The Decision” and all that came with it – the spurning of Cleveland, the utter lack of self-awareness, that self-glorifying rally with Wade and Bosh. I still get some grumpy e-mails from friends and readers anytime I write a complimentary appraisal of James. But I don’t think the anti-LeBron sentiment is as strong as it was a year ago. Look at the coverage and reactions to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals — fans and media alike were buzzing, in awe, of what LeBron James did that night. The only negative sentiment, if you could call it that, was, “Why doesn’t he do this all the time?” Which is, frankly, a fair question.

I do think that James has been far more reflective and thoughtful this season. He is clearly on a mission to change his image – a prime example being the access he granted to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins and the openness he showed in that interview. Brian Windhorst’s excellent story about James’ decision to get married provided some real insight into LeBron’s personal growth. We too often forget how young these guys are. They are literally growing up before our eyes, and making all the mistakes that people in their 20s do, but with the added stress of 24-7 news coverage. Every so often, we should all take a deep breath and remember that.

LeBron James is one of the most gifted players ever to step foot on a basketball court. For whatever personal flaws he may have (or is perceived to have), I would hope we can all appreciate that we’re seeing a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Ultimately, I think he will be remembered more for his on-court greatness – the sheer power, grace and beauty of his game — than anything else.

Q: As someone who is often known for churning out quality work on deadline, what advice do you have on the subject for young journalists? You’re active on twitter during the day, but seem to go radio silent at night. Are you monitoring it, or do you completely tune it out and focus on the game?

Beck: Regarding Twitter: It’s a great tool, a fun distraction and a terrific way to get instant feedback from readers and colleagues. But it represents a tiny fraction of the viewing/reading public. And only a fraction of that fraction is online and reading tweets at any given hour. The idea of live-tweeting a game (or live-blogging, for that matter) never appealed to me, or seemed particularly useful. How many people are actually paying attention? Do they care if I liked that last dunk? Are they so obsessed that they need to know that Jared Jeffries just checked into the game in the first quarter of a January game in Milwaukee? Seems unlikely. (That said, I’ve tweeted my fair share of trivial detritus over the last couple years.)

As for game nights: I usually file an 850-900-word story at the buzzer. That means I have a lot of writing to do during the game. I’d rather focus on crafting a compelling story for the hundreds of thousands who buy the Times or read it online than waste time tweeting random observations that just a few thousand people might see. Twitter is also my primary news feed. So I do check it sporadically on game nights, just to see if there’s news breaking anywhere, or what others might be saying about the game.

Q: How’d you end up on the NBA beat at the Times?

Beck: My first pro sports beat was the Lakers, who I covered for the Los Angeles Daily News from 1997-2004. It was a fantastic run and an amazing learning experience. Eventually, I started getting antsy for a new challenge and a change of scenery. I was friends with several people at the Times, so I knew the Knicks beat was coming open. My wife and I are California natives, so I wasn’t going to leave for just any job. The opportunity to live in New York and work for the greatest newspaper in the country was too good to pass up. I jumped at the chance.

I interviewed with Tom Jolly, the sports editor at the time, in the middle of the 2003-4 season. Just before the playoffs, Tom called and said he wanted me to come in and interview with the masthead (basically, every top editor at the paper) and with the rest of the management team in sports. That’s usually a sign that they intend to offer the job. But it’s a two-day process. And I couldn’t exactly fly to New York during the Lakers’ playoff run. Tom agreed to wait until they were out. I was nervous as all heck. As a general rule, sportswriters never root, except out of self-interest (quick games, no overtime, good storylines). For my own peace of mind, I needed the Lakers to lose as quickly as possible. When they were down 2-0 to San Antonio in the conference semis, I started planning my trip to New York. Then Derek Fisher decided to do the 0.4 thing. The Lakers came back, won the series and went to the Finals, delaying my big interview by another month. Since I love a great story, I forgave the Lakers for the comeback.

Q: Your interest in wanting to be a sports writer dates back to high school. Were you an athlete as well? Were your parents athletes or writers? How long did it take you to climb the proverbial ladder on the college newspaper and then after you got out of school?

Beck: I’m the oddball in my family. My dad is a very casual sports fan. My mom is interested only in what I write. Neither of my brothers has much interest in organized sports. Growing up in San Jose, I played a few years of AYSO soccer and two years of Little League, but spent more time playing touch football in the street than anything else. I ran cross country and track at Santa Teresa High School (a public school, despite the name). Proudest athletic achievement: a 5:20 mile my junior year. Football was always my first love. I actually snuck into double-days (without my parents’ permission) before my senior year and worked out with some friends on the team for two weeks. (I figured if Renaldo Nehemiah and Willie Gault could do it, so could I.) I was fast enough to keep up with the receivers and defensive backs, but I was about 5-8 and 125 pounds. Eventually, someone would have snapped me in two. On the day they were issuing pads and asking for parental consent forms, I wised up and went back to cross country.

I can literally trace my career back to a single moment. I was 13 years old when Joe Montana hit Dwight Clark for “The Catch” in the NFC title game. Most exciting sports moment of my youth. I was hooked. I started devouring the San Jose Mercury News sports section that season. I can still remember nearly every byline from the 1980s – Charles Bricker, Jeff Schultz, Dan Hruby, Phil Taylor, among others. Mark Purdy, who became the lead columnist there around that time, was my first sportswriting hero. (It was a beautifully awkward moment when I told him this years later.)

The Mercury News and the Wall Street Journal were always on our breakfast table. So while my parents weren’t sports fans, they really gave me that love of reading (and by extension, writing) from a young age. At some point in my teens, it struck me that some people actually got paid to watch games and write about them. This seemed like a ridiculously cool way to make a living. I attended UC Davis, which doesn’t have a journalism program but does have a great daily (five days) student newspaper, The California Aggie. I spent about 90 percent of my waking hours in the Aggie newsroom, writing about everything from sports to city politics. It was a blast.

After graduating, I worked for the Davis Enterprise, an 11,000-circulation paper in Davis, Calif. (about 15 miles from Sacramento). I spent about a year-and-a-half in sports before moving over to the city hall beat, and I stuck with news for the next few years, eventually moving to the Ventura County Star in Southern California. I made the leap back to sports when I got the Lakers job at the Daily News. (By the way, this has all gone by much faster than it sounds. It’s been a pretty great ride.)

Quick Hits:
Q: Should Scott Brooks shake up his starting lineup to avoid another slow start in Game 3? I’m a big believer in consistency. That team has an identity, and it’s worked for them for two years. It might be a bigger risk to mess with the formula than it is to figure out another way to improve their first quarters. That said, I’m sure Scott Brooks will make a quicker move to the bench if they stumble again.

Q: Your guess on what happens with James Harden. A) Stays with the Thunder. B) Takes highest offer from a bad team. C) Gets traded by the Thunder. If your answer is B or C, where do you see him ending up? Best guess: A. Because Sam Presti is smarter than we are. He’ll find a way to keep Harden.

Q: Gun to head, Deron Williams signs with … Dallas. (That’s just a guess, not based on any inside knowledge.) Personally, I’d love to see him stay in Brooklyn, get Dwight Howard to join him and create a true rivalry with the Knicks. New York would explode.

Q: Your favorite athlete growing up was … Ricky Henderson, Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon (RIP), Jerry Rice.

Q: NBA team with the best pregame food selection. Phoenix, Utah, Detroit and Milwaukee have been consistently excellent over the years.

Q: Best current NBA interview: Way too many to name just one, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick with this series. Shane Battier. is always thoughtful, engaging and patient. (I’d also give a lifetime achievement award to Derek Fisher, who has been great with the media for his entire career, no matter the circumstances.)

Q: Worst current NBA interview: Kevin Garnett. He doesn’t even try to hide his contempt for the media, and that disdain has rubbed off on younger teammates.

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