Getting to know … ESPN’s Marc Stein, the consummate NBA insider

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 5, 2014) — From my distant outpost in Japan, I strive to learn as much as possible about the NBA. Communicating with league insiders and those who report on its daily operations provide a broader view of the league as a whole.

Marc Stein, senior NBA writer for ESPN.com, is a prolific reporter who chronicles the league from top to bottom and has his finger on the pulse of the league.

One of his latest articles, http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/10955188/gregg-popovich-tim-duncan-stories, is a revealing, in-depth look at the San Antonio Spurs during the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan years. It’s also one of the best pieces of sports journalism in recent times. I highly recommend this related story: http://espn.go.com/blog/marc-stein/post/_/id/2443/pops-one-of-a-kind-path)

Indeed, it’s been a busy past few months for Stein and his colleagues on the NBA daily beat, what with Phil Jackson joining the New York Knicks as team monarch, coaching vacancies left and right, the Donald Sterling saga in Los Angeles and, oh yeah, the playoffs.

I caught up with Stein via email and present this Q&A a day before the 2014 NBA Finals tips off.

* * *

Can you take me back to when your first regular beat reporting on the NBA began and recall the challenges of building a report with new sources at the team and league level?

STEIN: Will never forget the feeling of overmatched-ness when I started in February 1994. I know that’s not a word, but I’m searching for something to express how daunting it felt because A) I was 24 when I started traveling with the Clippers and pretty much as young as it gets and B) I got thrown onto the Clipper beat 10 days before the trade deadline. In other words, I was an NBA beat writer for all of 10 days when Danny Manning got traded to Atlanta. And I was by no means ready to cover a transaction of that magnitude, which was by far the biggest trade in the Clippers’ history to that point. But I look back on that time with incredible fondness, too, because the NBA beat is the one I desperately wanted. That was still a time that most aspiring sports writers dreamed of covering baseball, but my three favorite sports once I reached teenager status were tennis, soccer and NBA basketball. So I was literally pinching myself when I got to the hotel for that first Clipper road trip, which ironically started in my eventual adopted home city of Dallas.

In terms of building a base of sources, there is obviously no manual. It’s something you learn over time through trial and error and experience and just being around long enough for people around the league to get to know you and trust you. One of the keys, I think, is being yourself, but I also remember very well that it’s hard to strut around with a lot of confidence when you first step into a pro sports environment. You have to build up to it. I went to an amazing journalism school at Cal State Fullerton and had two peerless professors named Jay Berman and Rick Pullen who took incredibly good care of me. But you can’t learn the source-building stuff in a classroom from a lecture or textbook. Unfortunately.

In retrospect, though, I was incredibly fortunate to get the mid-1990s Clippers as a first beat. They were such a doormat/afterthought in those days, even with the Lakers in the midst of one of their rare title droughts, that I really had the chance to grow into the job — and, yes, screw up on occasion — in a climate complete different than today’s. No one was waiting to pounce within seconds if you had a comma in the wrong place like you get now with the Twitter police. Covering the Clippers for the Los Angeles Daily News, in the shadow of the L.A. Times, allowed me to stumble here and there. I had been working for major metropolitan papers as a young scribe for six or seven years by that point, but stepping up to do a major beat at that age … there’s going to be some stumbling.

Who do you consider your key mentors as a sports journalist, especially the NBA? What were the biggest lessons they taught you? Or what key advice did they give you?

STEIN: Oh, man. Even on the Internet, there isn’t enough space to list all my mentors. I always tell students when they ask me that one: No matter how good you are in any walk of life you have to get a few huge breaks along the way to help you get where you want to go. And one of the biggies for me is that so many established sportswriters of that era were so gracious with their time and advice when I showed up as a college-aged trying to learn every secret from them.

My journalism adviser at El Toro High in Southern California (Mike Gallups) had gone to high school with Orange County Register veteran NBA man Earl Bloom. So he convinced Earl to take me under his wing before I had even made it to college. It’s one of those lucky-stars connections that helped me score a part-time gig at the Register at the age of 18 that I wound up keeping throughout my four years at Fullerton, which was like winning the journalism lottery, because the writers and editors there all treated me like a staffer even though I was just a kid. The Register was in its heyday and locked in a circulation battle with the Orange County edition of the Times, so the staff was filled with stars and even the high school stories I was doing were routinely considered for the front page. I would have to list 20 people from that Register staff to answer this question properly. I was so damn lucky.

It didn’t stop with the Register, either. I won another journalism lottery in 1990 when I was granted the chance to spend a summer as a sports intern at the Washington Post, where I was introduced to another slew of sportswriting legends, including my future ESPN teammates Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser. I applied for about 15 internships and the only two I got were the two I wanted most: New York Newsday and The Post. The L.A. Times wouldn’t even look at me. Go figure.

Ken Daley, now an outstanding news reporter at the New Orleans Times Picayune, was like a brother to me at the Register and paved the way for me at both the Los Angeles Daily News and The Dallas Morning News; he got to both places before I did and talked me up to the bosses at both spots. There were actually several more mentors at both places, but one in particular at the LADN before I made it onto the Clipper beat was a high schools supervisor named Eric Sondheimer, who really taught me the value of newsgathering. He wanted to beat the Valley edition of the Times on local stories more than any NBA writer lusts to break where LeBron plans to go in free agency this summer. So he made a huge impression on me.

I also have to give special thanks to the late Mike Penner of the Times, who was a peerless and incredibly patient writing coach to me and numerous colleagues from a variety of publications who banded together to form an all-scribes soccer team after the 1994 World Cup. When it was time to talk about the craft of putting a story together, or simply getting better as a writer, it was usually John Strege from the Register or Mike for me.

I really could go on and on and on. I’ve received way more help and guidance than any writer deserves. But since I imagine you were mostly after the names of NBA writers who really helped me over the years, there were several seen-it-all vets who were kind enough to pass on their wisdom. Mitch Chortkoff, Scott Howard-Cooper, Mark Heisler, Peter May, Jackie MacMullan, Sam Smith, Mike Monroe, Buck Harvey, Fran Blinebury, Jack McCallum, Marty McNeal, Steve Luhm, Mark Whicker, Peter Vecsey and the late Phil Jasner … that’s just a sampling of the names that come to mind. And I apologize to anyone I forgot because I’m sure I left out someone worthy. I also have to mention that the chance to go work side-by-side with one of the best of that era — David Moore — was a big lure when I left L.A. in April 1997 to join The Morning News.

And please let me say one more thing in an answer that I know went on WAY too long: Chick Hearn was the absolute greatest!  When I started covering the Lakers at 26, he went out of his way to make me feel like I belonged on the beat. I loved that man dearly. He had a gruff exterior on occasion and could be tough on newcomers if he suspected for one second that you didn’t love the game — or love being around the Lakers — as much as he did. But for some reason Chick always looked out for me. I remember being SO scared to tell him that I was leaving the Laker beat to go cover the Mavericks, because I wrongly assumed that he’d never see it from my perspective that going to Dallas was an incredible opportunity with one of the best newspapers in the country. But he never stopped backing me. And I couldn’t wait for those four games every season when the Mavs played the Lakers and I got to see him. I owe him a ton.

What are three of your favorite non-basketball books? How about three hoops books?

STEIN: You’re about to expose how poorly read I am. Allow me to give you my three favorite sports books that aren’t basketball-related because my non-sports expertise is shamefully limited: Sparky Lyle’s “The Bronx Zoo,” Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” and George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion.”

Sparky’s book was the first “adult” sports book I really remember reading as a kid … and as a young Yankees fan I simply couldn’t put it down. (Still can’t forget how disappointed my Uncle Joseph in Israel was when he kept trying to convince me to read Dickens and I just kept reading Lyle.) Hornby’s book, of course, is considered almost biblical because it so beautifully captures the evolution of a soccer fan growing up in England, which is irresistible for an Anglophile like me. And Plimpton had a tremendous influence on me, going all the way back to my teens, because he’s the father of participatory journalism in sports and I’ve tried to copy his formula so many times. The best piece I wrote for my high school paper was a first-person story about playing for the varsity baseball team that I had no shot at making in real life. In the mid-1990s, I wrote a tennis column for the Daily News about trying to return Roscoe Tanner’s laser serves on three different surfaces. And in 1998, during the NBA lockout, I signed a one-week contract with Dallas Sidekicks of indoor soccer fame and wrote about masquerading as a pro in that sport, too, all because I so badly wanted to be Plimptonian.

For basketball books, I gotta go with Jack McCallum’s “Seven Seconds or Less,” Bill Simmons “Book of Basketball” and, as a thoroughly selfish choice, Tim Wendel’s “Home of the Braves.” I have a special fondness for Jack’s work because I covered Steve Nash and that Suns team very closely as well, so I have to applaud his efforts to go even deeper behind than the scenes and teach me more about a group that I thought I knew pretty well. Simmons is the most entertaining hoops writer of the Internet era and loves the game as much as anyone I know, which you can swiftly deduce just by trying to lift his 800-pager. And then the book on my Buffalo Braves means so much to me because it brings my favorite NBA team back to life by reprinting a bunch of newspaper stuff from the 1970s that I was a little bit too young to consume when it actually happened.

For work-related knowledge (and perhaps personal interest, too) what are must-read NBA-related websites, blogs, columns and notebooks for you?

STEIN: I’m probably too biased to answer this one, because I would say that ESPN.com — in conjunction with our Grantland brothers — pretty much has you covered on any and every possible NBA angle you could wish to read. But to show some semblance of neutrality, allow me to tip my hat to the guys at HoopsHype. Nobody in the business does a better job of collecting the zillions of pertinent links and tweets in circulation and amassing them all in one easy-to-navigate place. HH is my first stop every morning and I use the various tools there several times a day … to the point that my kids used to give me grief about it when they were just starting to be aware of my job. “Why are you always looking at that HoopsHype, Dad?” As for features, anything new from Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated is a drop-everything-you’re-doing sort of situation.

How many games do you attend in person during a “normal” month during the regular season? And how many hours would you estimate you spend watching live or taped footage of NBA games per month?

STEIN: I would estimate that I attend 8 to 10 games a month in person. Maybe more depending on the month and if you add in D-League games, which I have a huge fondness for as a former minor league baseball scribe who longs to see the NBA’s minor league reach the same status someday. In general, though, I’m more interested in the people of the NBA than trying to consume five games in one night. My nightly goal is to get a good grip on at least one game, but what invariably happens is that I end up engaged with various folks around the league either by phone, email, text, etc. So game-watching tends to get interrupted. That’s one of the beauties of Twitter; all your friends and colleagues and fellow lovers of hoop help keep you plugged in with highlights and video clips and warnings that YOU MUST TUNE IN RIGHT NOW to help the cause.

On a related note, can you pinpoint how many league sources you are in regular contact with via text, phone, email, etc. to stay in the know about what’s happening in all facets of the league?

STEIN: Between team executives, coaches, players, agents, league officials, owners, ESPN colleagues … it’s a lot. But I’d also say: Never enough. I want more! Because talking to people around the league is my favorite part of the job. As a younger sports writer, I had the chance to at least get a taste of covering all the major team sports in this country. And I’ve always said that the people in the NBA, from whichever part of the game you want to pinpoint, are the most accessible/engaging/interesting in North America. The NBA, quite simply, is the best league to cover because of the people as well as the game. Just talking hoops with folks is the best part of my job.

From 1993-94 until now, who are five coaches you have most enjoyed interacting with?

STEIN:  I’m incredibly blessed at ESPN, where I’ve had the chance to work closely with a bunch of great ones. Trying, again, to do this off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Hubie Brown, Rick Carlisle, Avery Johnson, Doug Collins, Mark Jackson, P.J. Carlesimo, Paul Silas, Jeff Van Gundy, George Karl and, of course, Dr. Jack Ramsay, who sadly passed away recently.

But I could just as easily focus on the three main coaches I covered as a beat writer, who were all so good to me. When it comes to the bulk of whatever I understand about the intricacies of this game, chances are I learned it from either Bill Fitch, Del Harris or Don Nelson. Only Nellie is in the Hall of Fame, but all three would be in Springfield if it were up to me. I learned a ton about the sport from all of them and was fortunate enough to be able to travel with their teams at a time when coaches weren’t nearly as guarded as they have to be now because things can go viral in second.

Fitch, that supposed authoritarian, used to let me watch entire Clipper practices … although maybe that was because I was the only one who wanted to. Del Harris, meanwhile, is an absolute walking X-and-O encyclopedia. When it comes to a technical explanation of what is actually going on out there, I don’t know that I’ve encountered anyone who can break down the game better than Del can. Or anyone who has seen more than he has. And Nellie, bless him, was the biggest open book I’ve ever covered on a daily basis. Couldn’t filter himself in good times or bad. Always said more than he should have, which is obviously beat writer gold.

What appear to be Adam Silver’s leadership strengths now that he is David Stern’s replacement?

STEIN: He is incredibly approachable and accessible. He’s clearly not afraid to consider tweaks of all kinds to the game and seems willing to put pretty much anything on the table at a time when the league is doing well and it would be easy to just push the status quo. He also strikes me as quite comfortable in the glare of the spotlight despite the size of the very big shoes he’s stepped into. I’ve said from the start that establishing the sort of authoritarian presence that I think a commissioner has to have is going to be his biggest challenge after the domineering way Stern lorded over the game for three decades. But you’d have to say Silver has quickly accumulated a lot of fans — and rightfully so — with the way he’s handled the Donald Sterling situation. He’s going to force Sterling out of the league and ultimately preside over a $2 billion sale of Sterling’s team to make all the other owners happy. He’s off to some start.

What stories or projects you have done rank as most important and/or satisfying to you?.

STEIN: Those who know me best, especially editors who’ve worked with me closest, would tell you that I’m a self-loather by nature who tends to fuel himself by never liking anything I just wrote or said. It’s a thoroughly unhealthy approach that I recommend to absolutely no one, but it’s the way I’m wired. It works for me … I think.

That said …

The access Vlade Divac gave me on the weekend his jersey was retired in Sacramento in 2009 was unforgettable because of the full-circle nature of the experience: Vlade was the first NBAer that I covered closely starting back when he made his summer-league debut in 1989. So the eventual story I wrote about Vlade’s career later that year meant a ton to me. And then just having the privilege to coverage Dirk Nowitzki from such close range, starting before he ever took a real dribble in the NBA, has been a huge, huge privilege. Along the way I hope I did decent job telling his story, starting with the incredible pick-and-roll partnership and friendship he built with another guy who has given me more access than I ever deserved — Nash — all the way to Game 6 of 2011 NBA Finals when Dirk climbed the mountain and won the championship that changed his legacy forever.

Having moved to Texas in April 1997, one month before the Spurs won the lottery that allowed them to draft Tim Duncan, I’ve also covered a lot of Gregg Popovich and Duncan for the last 17 years. Writing about Pop’s testy history with sideline reporters and then the history of Pop & Timmy as a tag team leading into last June’s Finals and then these 2014 Finals were great experiences that are going to stick with me.

I’ve enjoyed email contact with Peter Vecsey for several years, exchanging ideas about basketball in addition to reading his work. His Hoop Du Jour column ran as the NBA Report in The Japan Times, and previously in The Daily Yomiuri, for many years until 2012, when he retired from the New York Post. Asked to pinpoint the best in the business, Vecsey told me it’s his view that you and Howard Beck, who now works for Bleacher Report (http://bleacherreport.com/users/3065513-howard-beck), are the best all-around NBA reporters today. What does that assessment mean to you coming from Vecsey?

STEIN: It’s priceless to hear something like that. Because Pete has always been one of my all-time favorites, which he knows because I always try to squeeze some more “mentoring” out of him on the rare occasions we cross paths. He took the whole NBA Insider genre to new levels with his columns and as the first hoop scribe to really make it big on TV. To give you a glimpse of the sort of influence Pete had when I started during that 1993-94 season — which was obviously pre-Internet and ages before texting and Facebook and Twitter — one of the first things I felt I HAD to do when I got moved onto the Clipper beat was buy a fax machine. And that’s because you could subscribe to the three-times-a-week faxed version of Pete’s “Hoop Du Jour” column and get all of his stuff no matter where you lived. I’m pretty sure that the first anyone heard of the Danny Manning-for-Dominique Wilkins trade that I referenced way back at the beginning was in Pete’s column. And if he wants to put me in the same sentence as my dear friend Hojo Beck, who actually succeeded me on the Laker beat at the Daily News and ranks as one of the finest wordsmiths who has ever covered the NBA, I’m even prouder.

Follow Marc Stein’s NBA reporting here: http://search.espn.go.com/marc-stein/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s