‘The perfect life’ (Claire Robertson, volleyball player)

This feature story on volleyball player Claire Robertson appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in June 2004.

‘THE PERFECT LIFE’
By ED ODEVEN

She lives a block from a southern California beach with her grandma. She bicycles two blocks to work at her uncle’s coffee shop in the mornings. She travels 10 minutes by bike to Hermosa Beach, where she plays volleyball in the afternoons.

Sounds like a dream routine, doesn’t it?

It is. And it’s Claire Robertson’s reality.

“It’s the perfect life for me,” said Robertson, the former Northern Arizona volleyball standout. “It’s what I’ve always dreamed of. And now I’m getting it.”

Robertson is a volleyball player on the AVP Pro Beach Tour. She’ll next compete in the Hermosa Beach Open, to be held July 22-25.

Growing up in Torrance, Calif., Robertson was a beach bum by day, beach bum by night. Thus, it’s only natural for her to continue this lifestyle.

“I’m so used to it,” she said. “I’m there every single day in the summertime. That’s why it was very hard for me to make the decision to go to NAU. But I know now I could never live in the snow. I have to live by the beach.”

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

During her four years at NAU, Robertson made a name for herself as one of the top all-around players in the program’s history. She became the first Lumberjack to finish her career with more than 500 kills, 2,000 assists and 2,000 digs, and was the first setter in team history to record a triple-double.

The 22-year-old, who finished her collegiate career last fall, is now trying to establish herself as one of the top young players on the AVP Tour.

It’s a big adjustment, as beach volleyball is a stark contrast from the indoor game. For starters, there are only two players on the sand, as opposed to the six that play together indoors on the hardcourt.

“Beach volleyball is completely different than indoor because you have to have all of the skills — pass, serve, set, spike, all of it,” said Robertson, who split time at outside hitter, right-side hitter and setter at NAU. “You have to know how to see the whole court while you’re jumping to swing.

“There’s so much you have to change, from your approach, to your arm swing, to your quickness on the sand,” she added, “because you don’t really move well in the sand. You have to get your sand legs developed first before you even play in the tournament. I sort of learned that when I played in Tempe (in late April).”

In the Tempe Open, Robertson and then-partner Patti Scofield finished 37th overall. They won a first-round match in three games over Michelle Moore and Suzanne Stonebarger, but dropped their next one to Kimberly Coleman and Julie Sprague.

Robertson teamed up with Alyssa Rylander for the Manhattan Beach (Calif.) Open the first weekend of June. They placed 41st, winning their first-round match and dropping the next, which eliminated them from the tourney.

A NEW PARTNER

Since the Manhattan Beach Open, Robertson has been playing with Keao (KAY-ow) Burdine, a senior-to-be at the University of Southern California and a two-time NCAA championship MVP.

In case you’re wondering, there were no 11th-hour negotiations at a secret location, no heated discussions between agents before the change. The partnership, in fact, is quite informal.

“I get to pick who I want to play with,” was how Robertson described the agreement.

Burdine watched Robertson play in the Manhattan Beach tournament and called to inquire about forming a team.

The two said OK and that was the end of the discussion.

They trained three days together before competing in the San Diego Open, which was held June 11-13, placing 25th, the highest finish of Robertson’s young career (she made her pro debut at the 2003 San Diego Open).

“We just play well together,” Robertson said of she and Burdine. “…But one thing we have to work on is communication. She tends to be the more quiet player on the court and I tend to be the more loud one. But she’s definitely the more powerful hitter. She can pound the ball. It’s good. It fires me up.”

Burdine said that Robertson’s “been the best partner I’ve had so far playing on the beach. It’s been fun. She’s very feisty and really wants to win. She’s really competitive. She has really good ball-control skills.”

The 5-foot-9 Robertson and the 6-1 Burdine complement each other with their varied skills. While Burdine is wreaking havoc at the net, Robertson is the steady defensive force in the background.

Robertson and Burdine will next play in the aforementioned Hermosa Beach Open. “That’s the big one,” Robertson said.

In the meantime, they’ll continue to work on getting better by playing in AVP Next events, the association’s semi-pro circuit, like they did last weekend in Santa Barbara, Calif.

ON THE BEACH

As a teen-ager, Robertson began competing on the amateur beach volleyball circuit, working her way up the ladder from the unrated classification to B, AA, AAA, and, finally, the semi-pro level.

In 2001, Robertson and Tawny Schulte, who starred for Wake Forest, competed in the Junior Olympics in Australia. They earned one of the two coveted women’s berths to the international tournament — two U.S. men’s teams also went.

Robertson and Schulte placed fifth overall behind a pair of Mexican teams, the other U.S. team and the Chinese champions. They had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend the week in an Australian monastery in Manley Beach.

All in all, Robertson said the trip was an eye-opener for her, a reminder that she was indeed a talented player.

“It was an amazing experience. After that, I knew I could do it,” she said.

Now that she’s doing it, Robertson is eager to become one of the best, but the financial constraints of not yet earning prize money on the tour limit how many tournaments she can compete in.

In the future, Robertson said she’ll need to get a sponsor to help pay for “my plane tickets, all my bathing suits and stuff like that.”

Advancing out of the qualifying round will be key to attracting sponsors. Currently, Robertson cannot afford a personal coach, but she said it’ll be beneficial in the future.

For now, she soaks up all the knowledge offered by her many friends who play on the tour, including Sean Rosenthal and Larry Litt, who are currently ranked No. 3 on the AVP men’s tour.

And she’s on the beach as much as possible. Besides serious training “three hours a day, four days a week,” there are plenty of impromptu games at Hermosa Beach. All it takes is a simple phone call.

“We’ll call up a team and say, ‘We’re meeting down at the pier at four o’clock, can you come play? ‘Yes, we’ll bring our balls, our lines and our antennas,'” Robertson said, recounting countless conversations. “And we’ll just play a couple games. It’s pretty cool, because everyone on the tour is really young and everyone knows each other, so if they want to train you can just call them up and play.”

Robertson will fulfill her educational obligations to NAU — she’s a health promotion/secondary education major — by student-teaching at a Flagstaff school, starting Aug. 30. After that, she said the goal is to become one of the top 32 players on the ultra-competitive tour.

“I haven’t played anyone really good yet,” she said, sounding clearly motivated to erase that fact from her resume. “Playing top 25 teams will be really exciting.”

That said, Robertson enjoys the competitive nature of the tour.

“These girls are so competitive because they are playing for money. … It’s like hard-core money. It’s so serious,” she said, referring to tandems like Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who split $14,500 for winning the Tempe Open.

She was asked if she can make a good living playing on the beach.

“That’s been my goal since I was young,” she said. “You can make a decent amount of money. You’ve just got to win.”

Then you take a break and relax. After all, you’re already at the beach.

If you’re Claire Robertson, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

An appreciation for Cohey Aoki’s game

Cohey Aoki’s shooting skills and consistency have been hallmarks of his game since the bj-league (Basketball Japan League) tipped off in the fall of 2005. Now, as the league enters its 10th season, it’s as good a time as any for a look back at how longtime NBA coach Bob Hill, his former Tokyo Apache bench boss, thought Aoki, the only eight-time All-Star in bj-league history, stacked up with the skill set of other great players he coached and coached against in years past. This Hoop Scoop column appeared in The Japan Times on Jan. 12, 2011.

Headline: Aoki’s game, guts impress Hill, Tyler

By Ed Odeven

There are a number of new faces on this season’s Tokyo Apache squad — players, coaches, front office personnel and even a new owner.

The four-game, four-day homestand that wrapped up Sunday, though, was a telling reminder that some things remain the same.

Guard Cohey Aoki, whom you could simply call Old Reliable, was the team’s most consistent offensive performer against the Oita HeatDevils and Shimane Susanoo Magic.

Think of it this way: The team’s smallest player (167 cm) made as big an impact as anyone in helping the Apache post a 2-2 record at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.

“I’ve had the privilege of coaching some awfully greater shooters, (future Hall of Famer) Ray Allen and (all-time great) Reggie Miller are two of them,” said Tokyo’s new coach, Bob Hill, reflecting on his days in the NBA during a Sunday news conference. “I don’t know if they could play four games in a row and shoot as well as Cohey did. Obviously it’s the NBA and it’s the bj-league, but that’s where they play, and Cohey goes 6-for-9 (from the field) today.

“His percentage is just incredible every day, and he plays very, very good team defense, so he, too, has to be given credit.”

Here’s a recap of Aoki’s play in those four games:

• He scored 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting on Thursday in Tokyo’s long-awaited home opener against Oita, a victory for the Apache. He also made two steals.

• He had 19 points, including 5-for-5 on 3-point shots (7-for-9 overall), in the rematch.

• He put 16 points on the board and made 6 of 12 shots on Saturday against Shimane.

• He finished with 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting against the Susanoo Magic in the series finale and had a steal to finish the week with five takeaways.

Aoki, who will play in his fifth All-Star Game on Jan. 23, is averaging 10.6 points per game, no easy task when you consider the depth and talent on this Tokyo team, featuring ex-NBA center Robert Swift, rising star Jeremy Tyler, former NBA Development League players Byron Eaton and Kendall Dartez and much-improved sharpshooter Jumpei Nakama, among others.

Humor can help reveal astounding facts in new, refreshing ways. For instance, every coach who has collected a paycheck in the bj-league has remarked about Aoki’s terrific free-throw shooting since the upstart circuit’s inception. (He entered the season with an 89.9 career shooting percentage at the charity stripe.)

Hill knows this is true, too, and doesn’t need to call up Jerry Seinfeld to ask him to concoct a few silly lines about Aoki’s shooting.

“He hit one (big) 3-pointer, but he missed a free, though, so maybe I should make him run suicides,” the coach joked on Sunday.

The 30-year-old Fukuoka native considers this season a blessing for him on a personal level.

“It’s a great opportunity to play under a coach with NBA experience,” Aoki was quoted as saying on a poster bearing his photo that was given to fans during the homestand. “Every day is a learning opportunity, and I’m grateful for it. I would like to continue to absorb as much knowledge as I can.”

How valuable was Aoki’s consistent play during the four games?

Listen to big man Tyler’s assessment of the situation:

“Cohey brings a lot of intensity. (For example), when we are down by a lot, and Cohey does something, he is going to do it back-to-back, he’s going to do it maybe three times in a row.”

This includes pull-up 3-pointers, catch-and-shoot jumpers, backdoor layups, runners, off-balance reverse layups, and a tantalizing assortment of moves for the Senshu University product.

“That kind of wakes their team up and wakes us up, too, like mentally, and he brings a lot of energy to us,” Tyler added. “He doesn’t really talk too much but he lets his game speak for everything that he does.

“We respect him a lot.”

Aoki has developed a loyal following around this league. His name is synonymous with the circuit as much as any player. This season, he’s been featured in a Spalding promotional campaign with Osaka Evessa star Lynn Washington, a two-time MVP and three-time title winner.

In short, Aoki commands respect. He is a smart player who understands his strengths and maximizes those skills to produce tangible results for his team.

Working under Hill, Aoki has not tried to force the issue, not tried to over-impress the veteran coach, in terms of offensive play.

Sure, he has a knack for the razzle-dazzle pass from time to time, but he tends to stay within his game and will find his spots to slip in the high lob for high-flying Tyler, Swift or Dartez to jam home, or the no-look dish on the fast break to an open teammate.

The fact that Aoki hasn’t had more than two turnovers in any game this season is a testament to his professionalism.

“He’s just a terrific person, a great teammate and a whale of a basketball player, he just really is,” Hill concluded in a Friday interview. “He’s got a great sense of humor, he’s funny. Everybody loves him. Watching last night’s tape, he probably played the best game on our team defensively in terms of knowing the game plan and being in position all the time.

“He’s a very good basketball player. It’s just so unfortunate he’s so small. It’s tough for him, but he does as good a job as you can do for a guy 5-(foot)-5 in the game of basketball.”

Masashi Joho: One of the league’s enduring standouts

This Hoop Scoop column appeared in The Japan Times on March 21, 2010. Since then, guard Masashi Joho has helped the Toyama Grouses rise from perennial mediocrity to become one of the Basketball Japan League’s elite teams. A go-to scorer, he earned the bj-league regular-season MVP honor in May (the first Japanese player to receive the honor), helping lead the Grouses to their first appearance in the Final Four. Toyama went 42-10 last season, won the Eastern Conference regular-season title and – as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the league on a weekly basis – increased their win total for the third straight season that Joho has been with the club.

The aim of this column was to capture the essence of Joho’s value to all of his pro teams. (And he’s only gotten better since this story was written.)

***

Headline: Joho’s passion gives Lakestars a real boost

By Ed Odeven
The Japan Times

His familiar face has been a part of some of the bj-league’s brightest moments.

He appeared in four bj-league title games and won a pair of championships with the Osaka Evessa.

As a member of the Tokyo Apache, he helped the team reach the final in each of the past two seasons.

Now, in the league’s fifth season, Masashi Joho is an integral part of the Shiga Lakestars, who are making a push for their first playoff appearance as a second-year club under the steady leadership of coach Bob Pierce.

The shooting guard has elevated his game to the next level this season, becoming a go-to player. He’s averaging a career-high 15.0 points per game (through March 14), can score in bunches, but has grown as a player to the point where he doesn’t think he’s the team’s only option.

“Now I’m really confident that I can play in this league,” said Joho, who hails from Sapporo.

You always see him moving, with or without the ball, and when he bring his A-game, he’s one of the most electrifying basketball players around.

Joho has a fiery, competitive side, but his performances also provide wholesome entertainment.

Yes, it’s work.

But Joho makes it look fun, and that makes it fun for his teammates and the fans.

At times, his play has been erratic or scorching hot in terms of energy spent and the decisions he’s made with the ball — 78 assists, 92 turnovers. But he has taken better care of the ball in recent weeks, though, with three or fewer turnovers in each of the last 12 games.

Yet when Joho recognizes he has the opportunity to be the featured scorer and he’s scoring effectively, his team becomes more difficult to compete against.

(The Lakestars are 5-2 when Joho scores 20 or more points).

Shiga entered the weekend with a 21-19 record and Joho is a major part of the team’s success story this season.

“At Shiga, Coach Pierce has done a good job of saying, ‘Look, I want you to be a scorer,’ and Joho’s taken that (challenge),” Oita HeatDevils guard Matt Lottich said in a recent interview. “He shoots shots that when I played with him (2005-07) he wouldn’t have shot.

“He’s much more aggressive (now) and he definitely has the ability, so you can combine confidence with aggressiveness and ability and you are going to have a good player.”

* * * * *

Joho averaged 8.4 ppg in his first season with Osaka and 6.7 in 2006-07 when the Kensaku Tennichi-coached club repeated as champions.

In his first season with the Apache, he had his share of ups and downs while adjusting to then-coach Joe Bryant’s free-flowing offense. But last season he improved his output to 10.0 ppg to go along with a career-high 71 steals.

Bryant always spoke passionately about the need to “let Joho be Joho,” recognizing that the guard often thrives in the open court and makes things happen on defense when he takes gambles, too, and goes for the steal.

The fleet-footed guard is now entering his prime. He turns 28 next month and understands the need to be a leader at this stage of his career.

“I always try to work hard for every game and practice,” he said.

And this leads to greater opportunities for success, at the start of games and in the closing minutes of down-to-the-wire contests.

“My role on this team is to score and lead the team by my play,” said Joho, who gave Shiga fans a treat in his Lakestars debut — 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals in a win on Oct. 3.

Since Joho was acquired in a trade for Lakestars draft pick Reina Itakura before the season started, Pierce has challenged Joho to become a smarter player. Shot selection is a big part of that.

“The big key for us all year has been getting Joho to recognize the difference between good shots and bad shots,” Pierce said. “For example, shooting a 3-point shot on the fast break when we have a big guy underneath for the rebound is a good shot. Shooting it one-on-three with no one under the basket is a bad shot. Earlier in the year his defense would be almost non-existent if he wasn’t scoring, or he would get caught up in a personal battle if his man was scoring on him.

“But now he has been showing much more maturity.”

The coach illustrated this point by talking about Joho’s zero-point outing on Feb. 14 against Oita, a game in which he was 0-for-7 from the field.

Joho bounced back with 17 points, five assists and two steals in Shiga’s next game, and has scored 14, 25, 17, 18 and 13 points in succession over the past five games as the Lakestars solidify their playoff aspirations.

Joho has also learned he doesn’t always need to be in a hurry during a game.

“Scorers must have supreme confidence, always believing that the next shot will go in, but they also need to learn patience, waiting for the right time to strike,” Pierce said.

“Patience has never been one of Joho’s strong points, but he showed a lot against Saitama (on Feb. 27-28). He only had four points at halftime on Saturday, but finished with 17, the leading scorer for our team. On Sunday, he had zero points at halftime, sitting out most of the first half with foul trouble, but bounced back and had 14 points in the second half.”

Shiga power forward Gary Hamilton, the league’s top rebounder, recognizes the impact Joho can have on a game, noting that his play can be the difference between a win or a loss.

“When he’s on, you can’t get comfortable,” said Hamilton, describing the viewpoint of Shiga foes. “He’s definitely a sparkplug for our team.”

Joho is Shiga’s second-leading scorer. Newcomer Mikey Marshall, who has played four games, is statistically atop the charts with 17.3 ppg, followed by Hamilton’s 13.9, Ray Schaefer’s 13.8 and Chris Schlatter’s 10.3.

“We usually have fairly balanced scoring, and having five players in double figures isn’t uncommon, so there’s really no focus on who is the leading scorer,” Pierce noted. “But I’m very proud that Joho is having his best year in terms of scoring. In four years of coaching in the JBL and now in my second year in the bj-league, I’ve always thought that having a Japanese player who could average at least double figures was one of the keys to being a top team. And this is the first year that I’ve had one.”

There are many ways to score points, and Joho is one of the most stylish, creative marksman in the bj-league. His improvisational skills are a sight to behold, as are his repertoire of shots that register at the upper echelon on any chart that measures difficulty.

Certain players have a flare for the game. Their shots, passes, rebounds, blocks, steals, and even the way they move without the ball earn style points with fans. Joho possesses a showman’s feel for the game — alley-oop passes, tough-angle bank shots, for instance — but he’s at his best when he doesn’t try to force the issue.

Or as he put it: “So far this season, when I tried to score or play (by) myself, I didn’t play well, so I should think about timing. I will do what the coach and the team expect. That’s it.”

And that’s an attitude that underscores his mental development as a player.

“I like the fact that Joho wants to score and is very aggressive,” said Pierce, who has worked as a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers. “He spends time working on shots that most players don’t have, like the floater down the middle, or running hooks off the glass with either the right or left hand. When he makes those shots in a game it’s not an accident, but the result of hours of working on those difficult shots.”

* * * * *

Takamatsu Five Arrows guard Yu Okada is the league’s leading Japanese scorer (18.5) and Tokyo Apache standout Cohey Aoki is a go-to scorer (15.9). Neither play is their respective team’s No. 1 scorer, though.

Joho, on the other hand, has been on pace to be his team’s leading scorer at the season’s end. If that happens, he would be the first Japanese to accomplish the feat in the league’s five-year history.

Joho entered the season as a career 33.3 percent shooter from 3-point range and 38.7 on shots from inside the arc. While his 3-point shooting has dipped to 30.2 percent, this is the first season he’s been challenged to be a major scorer rather than a complementary scorer.

His 2-point shooting percentage has improved to 42.2 through March 14. And his free-throw shooting is at 74.6 percent (slightly better than his career percentage of 73.7).

“Joho is third on our team in assists, and as he learns to pass the ball to the open man, take good shots when the time is right, his teammates are learning to trust him more and more,” Pierce said. “In fact, learning to be more of team player, and to be be more patient, hasn’t hurt his scoring, as evidenced by his season-high 25 points (on March 6) against Tokyo.”

We’ve witnessed brilliant games by Joho in seasons past. In this campaign, however, he’s clearly become one of the league’s bona-fide impact players.

Without a doubt, Pierce feels blessed to have the opportunity to coach Joho and help him harness his special talents.

“One of the things I really like about the bj-league is that with three import players on the court, the Japanese players who play have to really bring their best every time out,” Pierce said. “If you don’t make strong plays, you will get the ball stolen or shots blocked. But it creates a situation that can bring out the best in players with strong personalities and the desire to get better, players like Joho, Cohey Aoki, (Ryukyu Golden Kings guard Shigeyuki) Kinjo, Yu Okada, etc.

“So I think you are going to see more and more Japanese players raise the level of their game in the seasons to come.”

In only a few months playing with Joho, Lakestars center Ray Schaefer has seen his teammate’s shooting skills on display game after game. And without hesitation the big fellow praised Joho’s scoring touch, but chose to focus on his play-making skills during our courtside interview on March 6 in Yokohama.

“He has that NBA-level passing game — to visualize what a guy’s going to do (beforehand) . . . to jump and stop and get him the ball. He’ll get you with the alley-oop,” Schaefer said with a smile. “He has that in his game.”

Foreign players, too, have learned to appreciate Joho’s entertaining brand of basketball. And many of them have come to understand the need for present and future Japanese players to assert themselves as quality scorers.

“This is a very foreign player-dominated league,” Lottich concluded. “And to have success like Joho is having right now is great. Hopefully he’ll get more fans coming to the games.”

David Benoit’s final playing days

This feature story was filed before the last season of former NBA forward David Benoit’s playing career, when he suited up for the Saitama Broncos, and appeared in The Japan Times on Nov. 3, 2006.

Headline: Benoit happy to impart wisdom from NBA days to Broncos

By Ed Odeven
TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — He played in arenas with 20,000 people rooting against him and his teammates.

He stayed in big cities, played a game, hopped on a plane and traveled to another big city for the next one.

He lived the life of luxury, fulfilling a childhood dream by playing in the NBA.

David Benoit is still a basketball player.

But now, thousands of kilometers away, his adoring fans call him Ben-chan.

This term of endearment goes a long way in explaining how the Saitama Broncos’ rowdy supporters have embraced the 38-year-old Benoit and the bj-league.

After a recent evening practice at Mihara Junior High School, Benoit, a gregarious 203-cm forward, and his teammates shook hands with the 20-plus fans who sat in folding chairs to watch their team train for the 2006-07 season, which tips off Saturday.

Benoit smiled as he saw familiar faces. He asked little kids, teenagers, parents and grandmothers how they were doing.

They responded with cheerful replies and a few words Benoit didn’t understand.

But, hey, a smile translates into any language.

“I think that the fans are very enthusiastic,” Benoit said.

“It’s growing right now,” he added, discussing fan interest in the bj-league. “Especially in Tokorozawa, the fans have really been very responsive.”

“Because this is only the second season, they started to get used to saying this is our team and our city, and hopefully it will catch on to where they have that feeling that it is our team. And we are doing our best to represent our city, our prefecture.

“I think we got off to a pretty good start.”

He isn’t referring specifically to the team’s won-loss record — the Broncos went 7-33 in the league’s inaugural season to place last among six teams — but has observed that the squad created a buzz last year in Saitama Prefecture.

“Last season was a very tough year for us, but the team is looking very good right now early on,” Benoit said, adding the team’s goal is to qualify for the playoffs this season and put itself in a position to compete for the championship. (The Osaka Evessa won the bj-league’s first title last April.)

Benoit, the league’s oldest player, is one of four Americans on the squad, which is under the leadership of first-year coach Kenji Yamane, a former point guard for the Tokorozawa Broncos, this team’s predecessor.

The others are forwards Gordon James and Marcus Toney-El, a returning Bronco, and power forward/center Andrew Feeley.

For Benoit, whose pro basketball career began when many of the bj-league’s players had just finished mastering hiragana and katakana, his role on the Broncos is akin to what Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez provided for the New York Mets pitching staff last season — a valuable veteran mentor who can still help the team win games.

“My experience definitely helps,” Benoit said, “and for me, I’ve slowed down a lot the last couple of years so I’ve just been really motivating the younger guys, helping them with their skills.”

You watch Benoit practice and notice he still has the basic skill set of someone who toiled in the NBA in 492 regular-season games and 57 more playoff contests for the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and New Jersey Nets between 1991 and 2001.

Benoit played for Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli League in 1998-99. He started his career in the Spanish League in 1990 after not being drafted out of the University of Alabama.

Those years of all-out competition, including major court time against Michael Jordan, have taught Benoit what it takes to be successful. And those are lessons he’s trying to pass on to his Bronco teammates.

“The biggest part about (excelling as) basketball players, especially young basketball players, is (learning) the skills of the game, the basic fundamentals,” said Benoit, who was limited to 10 games last season due to injuries.

“I try to always reinforce them to (the players). If you have skills and fundamentals, you have a chance to build yourself into a very good basketball team.”

Benoit’s wide array of inside moves, smooth outside shooting touch and interior presence could be key ingredients for the Broncos this season.

But he doesn’t expect to play major minutes right away. Instead, he’s been recovering from an Achilles injury, which, fortunately, hasn’t hindered him from practicing.

“I’m able to move again and get my lateral movement back,” he said.

He added: “The team is being real patient and allowing me to get myself not only 100 percent but 110 percent so I can be real strong, not just to be a force on the team but . . . (also) be able to help.

“If I’m on the floor, I want to be able to help, I want to be able to relate with what these young guys are trying to do.”

The Broncos open their season on Saturday against the visiting Toyama Grouses, one of the league’s two expansion teams, at 6:30 p.m.

Will Ben-chan, who wears Saitama’s No. 8 jersey, be on the court on Opening Day?

“Coach may play me sparingly . . . but I look forward to seeing how everything comes back,” Benoit said.

But if he’s relegated to being a cheerleader/bench sage, that’s OK, too, if only for a few days. Then Benoit will get a little antsy to be at least a part-time contributor during games.

At practice, he isn’t afraid to shoot out advice to his teammates or take the clipboard from Yamane-san and draw up a few plays.

“I give a lot of credit to these guys,” he said without naming each teammate individually. “They’ve really been playing well. That makes it a lot easier for me. So at the same time I’m just helping them come along. If I can play 10 or 15 minutes and we are still winning games, that’s great.”

In his time with the Utah Jazz, during the John-Stockton-Karl Malone heyday in the 1990s, Benoit’s clubs routinely won 50-plus games a season.

Win after win had a profound impact on Benoit.

“Being around those guys with all the experience really helped me out even to this day,” he said. “That’s just something so valuable you can’t even put a price on it.”

“I love finding folks other people say can’t be found” (an interview with Jeff Pearlman)

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 18, 2014) — Jeff Pearlman’s six books provide a small sample of insight into what interests the accomplished author and journalist.

Indeed, reading a stack of Pearlman’s long, varied features — an SB Nation piece in February 2014 (“84 USA Hockey Team … A Miracle Put on Ice: Four years after the ‘Miracle on Ice,’ the 1984 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team never had a chance.”), a December 1999 feature for Sports Illustrated (“At Full Blast: Shooting outrageously from the lip, Braves closer John Rocker bangs away at his favorite targets: the Mets, their fans, their city and just about everyone in it”), an ESPN.com article from September 2008 (“Fifth and Jackson: Thirty years ago at an intersection in Gary, Ind., budding major league star Lyman Bostock got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”) — helps paint a broader picture of what makes Pearlman, a New York native, tick.

But it’s only a start.

In short, the former Sports Illustrated reporter likes finding compelling stories.

His latest book is “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and The Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” He’s also written “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,” “The Rocket That Fell To The Ground” about Roger Clemens, “Love Me, Hate Me” about Barry Bonds, “Boys Will Be Boys” about the 1990s Dallas Cowboys dynasty and “The Bad Guys Won” about the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets.

He has also had a prolific online presence on his own website, featuring the popular Quaz interview, which as of today features 174 individuals, including a splendid Q&A with former Sports Illustrated executive editor Peter Cary (http://www.jeffpearlman.com/peter-carry/)

An email interview with Pearlman follows.

***

What’s your next on-deadline assignment if one’s in the works?

That, I can’t say. It’s a book and I’m crazy paranoid about book leakage.

Are you pleased with the overall response from the public to your latest book, “Showtime,” about the 1980s Lakers?

I am. I guess I am. I mean, what does that really mean? Hard to say. You want your book to sell well, you also want people to enjoy it. But, most important, you have to feel good about the finished product. And I pretty much do. I guess I just really love writing books. So being able to do it for a living still blows me away.

What did you enjoy most about putting that book together? What was most challenging?

Well, I always love the digging. Tracking people down, going through yellowed newspapers and uncovering little details that ultimately matter. I love finding folks others say can’t be found. Stuff like that. With this book, there are many snapshots of joy. Sitting with Mike Smrek on his farm in Canada. Eating with Wes Matthews at a coffee shop in Bridgeport. Locating Earl Jones, long lost center.

What was your reaction to Mike Ditka saying he wanted to spit on you because of the Walter Payton book?

I was initially surprised. Then irked. Then really annoyed. Mike Ditka hadn’t read the book. Hadn’t read a single page. The same went for Steve McMichael, who ripped me. And Mike Wilbon, the writer. They all slaughtered Sweetness without having read a page; all presumed I was a greedy Kitty Kelly wanna-be looking for … something. It hurt. It stung. The Wilbon stuff stung the most, because I respect him. Ditka’s just a dumb man clinging to a tough-guy image.

Who are a few of your favorite sports columnists and writers today, and what sets their work apart from the masses? Are there a few you’d consider unheralded or unknown for folks who consume sports articles in large quantities?

I feel a real kinships with a small number of fellow sports biographers — women and men who feel the same way I do about research and detail. People like Jonathan Eig, Mark Kriegel, Jane Leavy, Jon Wertheim, Leigh Montville and Seth Davis. Those are my peeps. As for unheralded … two come to mind. I’m pretty sure Yaron Weitzman is going to be a superstar. And there’s a writer named Michael J. Lewis — not to be confused with Moneyball’s Michael Lewis, whose blog is must-read for me. http://michaeljlewis.wordpress.com/

What’s been Bud Selig’s biggest misstep as commissioner? His biggest accomplishment?

Misstep was clearly PED-related, and the general indifference toward cheating for too long of a time.

Biggest accomplishment? I’ve always thought his ties were nice.

Tom Verducci’s 2002 Sports Illustrated report on baseball’s drug epidemic, featuring Ken Caminiti’s comments, is one of the most important pieces of sports journalism in the past 20 years. That said, From a societal standpoint, what are three or four other subjects that transcend sports that have been written or showcased in a broadcast in that time?

Well, I’ll start with Michael Sam, Jason Collins and gays in sports. Then I’d say the Duke lacrosse scandal and the role of money, status in sports. Certainly what we’re seeing now with Ray Rice and domestic violence among athletes.

Do you agree that your skills as a listener and observer are as important and as strong as your ability to research compelling topics?

I don’t know. It’d be pretty self-indulgent to agree with that. Truth is, I like listening to people tell stories much more than I enjoy talking. So I don’t know if they even count as skills. I simply like listening. I had a college roommate named Paul Duer who used to say, “It’s all about the stories.” Meaning, if we went out and got wasted, for example, the experiences were important, but the stories of those experiences are sort of eternal. I love that thinking, and have tried to use it.

I think what has attracted readers to your article and books is that you don’t shy away from difficult questions or subjects that aren’t highlighted by omnipresent sunshine or glowing cheerfulness. For instance, a random mix of Quaz subjects, including Paul Ercolino (“His brother was shot and killed by a deranged former co-worker outside the Empire State Building. Don’t tell this man that gun control doesn’t matter.”), Jim Fischer (“My former cross country coach at the University of Delaware gave nearly three decades to the college. Then he was ruthlessly dumped. A story of love and greed.”) provide compelling conversations that resonate with people. How would you respond to that general assessment?

It’s nice to hear. I think one thing I have going for me is editorial independence. Namely, I don’t have a job, so ESPN, for example, can’t limit my Tweets or suspend me for making a statement the company doesn’t agree with. I don’t mind stating my mind, and I also don’t mind apologizing, admitting I’m wrong. Honestly, I’m truly just a guy who loves writing and is lucky enough to have a platform to a certain degree. It’s cool.

Do you usually have 5-10 of these interviews in the works? And which of the suggested Quaz interview subjects surprised you the most?

Yeah, I try and have at least five in the hopper so I don’t run short or miss a week. Surprising — Oh, I know. Rocky Suhayda, chairman of the American Nazi Party. I actually sorta liked the guy, and I’m a liberal Jew from New York.

You’ve featured some of the biggest names in sports media — Verducci, Ross Newhan, Peter Vecsey, Chuck Culpepper, Seth Davis, Jack McCallum and Adam Schefter — on your Quaz feature at jeffpearlman.com, which began three years ago. Can you pinpoint a few others who you’d really like to have as Q&A guests, who you’d consider must-reads?

The first Quaz (featured) an actress named Wendy Hagen, who played Kevin’s girlfriend on the “Wonder Years.” I started the whole series because I wanted to track down old Wonder Year girlfriends—not sure why, except I love that show. As for Quazes I’d love in the future, No. 1 is Michelle Branch, the singer. Then Chuck D. Then Ken O’Brien, the former Jets quarterback. Oh, and Emmanuel Lewis. He’s a must.

Time for a hypothetical… If you were hired as an editor of a newly created 2014 version of The National and given no limit for payroll or budget, who would be five journalists you’d immediately reach out to and offer them jobs?

Jon Wertheim, Elizabeth Newman, Steve Rushin, William Nack, Howard Bryant.

And one more: If he were alive and on the air today, how do you think Howard Cosell would opine on the current Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Washington Redskins stories that are defining issues for the NFL?

Um … I truly have no idea. But he’d be entertaining.

In your own words, how would you sum up your writing style; are there a few descriptive words or phrases that immediately come to mind?

I don’t really have a style, per se. I guess I sorta write how I speak. Choppy, short sentences, blah blah and meh and um and eh and stuff like that. The greatest compliment is when people say, “I hear your voice when you write.”

***
Follow Jeff Pearlman online at http://www.jeffpearlman.com/

‘Superman don’t need no seat belt’ (and many more tales from inside and outside the boxing ring)

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 8, 2014) — It may seem that Thomas Hauser has always been consumed with boxing, every hour of every day. That’s not the reality, though. Really.

In a wide-ranging email interview, Hauser reveals how his decades-long fascination with the sport began, some unforgettable moments along the way as a chronicler of the sweet science and opinions on a number of topics, including Mike Tyson’s challenges as a promoter.

The 68-year-old Hauser, who has has completed more than 20 published books on boxing, received the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award in 2004, an annual honor that recognizes excellence in boxing journalism.

In 1991, Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” was selected as the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, an annual British honor for sports literature

* * *

Can you pinpoint a moment or a memory that sparked your desire to write about boxing?

In 1983, I had just finished writing a novel about Beethoven and wanted to write a book about sports. At that point in time, my favorite sports were baseball and football. You can’t just walk into Yankee Stadium and talk with the New York Yankees. But you can walk into a gym in any city in the world and talk with fighters who are training there. So I wrote a book about the sport and business of boxing entitled “The Black Lights.” And I got hooked. Everything else flowed from there.

What’s the best thing professional boxing has going for it today? And what do you consider its biggest problem?

The best thing boxing has going for it is the nature of the sport. At its best, boxing is the greatest sport of all. The biggest problems it has are (1) multiple champions in each weight division; (2) the lack of an effective oversight body that cares about the sport; and (3) an economic model that cuts fans off from the biggest events.

Of all the stories in books and articles about Muhammad Ali, all of the fights, all of the quotes from him and about him, are there a few favorite that you love repeating or simply find yourself amused by whenever you think about them?

When Ali was in his glory years, he took a shuttle flight from Washington, D.C. to New York. As the flight crew readied for take-off, an attendant instructed, “Mr. Ali, please buckle your seat belt.”

“Superman don’t need no seat belt,” Ali informed her.

“Mr. Ali,” the flight attendant said sweetly, “Superman don’t need no plane.”

Ali loves that story, and I do, too.

For the casual observer of boxing or someone who hasn’t read dozens of books on the sport, who are some of the living, under-appreciated sources of knowledge about the sweet science’s ins and outs and rich history? Can you shed some light on the important role they serve for your own research and helping to, well, make sense of it all?

I’ve learned an enormous amount over the years by talking with people in the trenches. People like Bruce Trampler, Al Bernstein, Lou DiBella, Don Elbaum, Pat English, Steve Farhood, Brad Goodman, Margaret Goodman, Craig Hamilton, Jerry Izenberg, Ron Katz, Russell Peltz, Don Turner. That’s just a few of the people I’ve learned from over the years.

If Congress in the near future were to establish a governing body to regulate boxing – and maybe mixed martial arts as well – could you recommend a person or two who would be at the top of the list as ideal candidates?

Flip Homansky, Pat English.

How would you evaluate Mike Tyson’s business acumen and the work he’s done so far as a boxing promoter?

Mike is not a businessman. His success or failure as a promoter will rest almost entirely on the people he chooses to run the business for him.

Who do you consider the most unheralded, or perhaps underrated, trainer of the past 50 fighters? And what accomplishment(s) he’s had have received modest publicity compared to other boxing headlines?

I don’t think that there are any unheralded geniuses out there. To the contrary, I think some “name” trainers get far more credit than they deserve. The fighters make the trainer more than the other way around. But I do think that trainers who did a great job with one fighter (e.g. Pat Burns with Jermain Taylor, Jack Loew with Kelly Pavlik, Brian McIntyre and Esau Diegez with Terence Crawford) should get a little more credit for their work.

Interviews with boxers after a title bout have their own challenges. From your own experience, at the most basic level, what are the keys to getting an effective interview after the bout, especially when the stakes are highest?

It helps if you’ve had a rapport with the fighter before the fight. Other than that, ask creative questions, don’t start the interview with a pre-conceived notion of where it should go, and remember that the answer is more important than the question.

If you were to rank your work, especially columns, articles and books, could you decide on five that would be at the top based on quality and how they stand the test of time?

I’ve been fortunate in that, each year, the University of Arkansas Press publishes a book that contains all of the articles I’ve written about boxing during the previous year. That preserves the columns for history.

I’d say that my work falls into three categories:

(1) Chronicling the contemporary boxing scene — “The Black Lights” and University of Arkansas Press books;

(2) Two novels — “Waiting For Carver Boyd” and “Mark Twain Remembers” (which has a boxing sub-plot); and

(3) My writing about Muhammad Ali

What compliment(s) about your boxing coverage have you most appreciated over the years? And if you can recall the context of how and when you received the compliment, please share those details.

The thing that I most appreciate is when fighters tell me that they like my writing. It’s particularly gratifying when a fighter invites me into his dressing room to chronicle the hours before and after a fight.

For your own leisure reading and continued education, who are three or four boxing writers you consider must reads? And what stands out about their work?

Bart Barry, Carlos Acevedo and Jimmy Tobin are Internet columnists — all three are relatively unknown. But they write very well and understand both the sport and business of boxing.

What’s been your most challenging column to write? Why?

I’d say that the investigative articles that I’ve written over the years about the New York State Athletic Commission, HBO, Shelly Finkel, and Al Haymon have been the most challenging to write and also the most rewarding.

Which of your boxing books was the most difficult to write? Why?

“Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times” because there was so much archival research involved and 200 people to interview. But I don’t think I’ll ever have a work project that brings me as much joy in the undertaking.

Can you provide an update on what your next book will be about? Will it be about boxing? And when will it be released?

My next book has nothing to do with boxing. It’s a novel about Charles Dickens entitled “The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens” that will be published by Counterpoint in November.

I think that “The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens” and “Mark Twain Remembers” (a novel I wrote 15 years ago) are the two best books I’ve written.

Word association time – what first comes to mind as the right word or a few descriptive words for … ?

Don King – Brilliant, charismatic, conniving

Bob Arum – Smart, manipulative, complex

Larry Holmes – champion

Larry Merchant – thoughtful

Oscar De La Hoya – unhappy

Bernard Hopkins – intense

Wladimir Klitschko – intelligent, powerful, PEDs

Vitali Klitschko – commitment, nobility, strength

Manny Pacquiao – Filipino people

Floyd Mayweather Jr. — Gifted, phony

***

Thomas Hauser’s online columns archive can be found here:
http://www.secondsout.com/columns/thomas-hauser
http://www.thesweetscience.com/columnists/thomas-hauser

Recollections of Bill Bradley’s 1970 visit to Afghanistan

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 7, 2014) — I recently wrote an article on Bill Bradley’s reflections on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for The Japan Times.

Six years later, the future Senator visited Afghanistan after capturing his first NBA title as a New York Knick. That visit was touched upon briefly in the following article: (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2014/08/28/olympics/nearly-50-years-bradley-recalls-1964-tokyo-games/).

Here’s a bit more about that trip.

Before and after the 1964 Summer Olympics, Bradley made lasting impressions with individuals from all walks of life. Venturing far from Tokyo can provide a glimpse of that.

In a recent phone interview, Tom Gouttierre, director of The Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, recalled his first meeting with Bradley — in Kabul — in the summer of 1970. And he remembers what Bradley and his U.S. teammates accomplished on the basketball court in Tokyo. “The Americans were invincible,” was his apt description.

He distinctly recalls Bradley revealing that “winning that medal for one’s nation is something that no other particular achievement in the sport could at least surpass.”

“I know that was great sense of pride for him,” Gouttierre said, and he should know. After all, he’s followed Bradley’s life and career for parts of six decades

Bradley’s visit to Afghanistan came just weeks after the Knicks captured the NBA title in May 1970. That expedition was included as a minor topic in Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard’s feature story on Gouttierre (“The Wizard of Kabul”) in July 2013. Gouttierre has held his current post at the University of Nebraska at Omaha since 1974 along with additional duties nowadays as dean of international studies. Before that, he also coached basketball in Afghanistan as
part of his Peace Corps duties.

Gouttierre and his wife, Mary, newlyweds, arrived in Afghanistan as Peace Corp volunteers in 1965, and his involvement in teaching basketball to the nation’s students began shortly thereafter. While there, he also developed a strong rapport with Robert Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, whom he referred to as a mentor.

Fast forward to the summer of ‘70, when Neumann reach Gouttierre by telephone and said, “Do you know who Bill Bradley is?” recalled Gouttierre. “Of course I did, obviously, and I said, ‘yes,’ ” he recalled.

Then, Gouttierre recalled, Neumann said: “Well, how would you like to manage his visit to Afghanistan?” He accepted the assignment with enthusiasm. (Neumann said this assignment would routinely go to the cultural affairs officers, Goutierre remembered, “but I know you coached basketball and I thought you might enjoy this opportunity…”)

And why did Bradley travel to Afghanistan after reaching the pinnacle of pro basketball in his third seaon with the Knickerbockers?

“Bradley was rewarding himself for having won the NBA championship … and he wanted to do take an around-the-world trip with the primary objective of getting to Afghanistan to the site of the Rudyard Kipling short novel called ‘The Man Who Would Be King,’ which was later made into a movie starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer,” Gouttierre recalled. “”He wanted to go to that region because it was a story that really fascinated him.”

Bradley and the script writer and author Jeremy Larner, who later won and Oscar for writing the script for “The Candidate,” traveled to the Kabul airport,and Gouttierre picked them up in a VW Bug. For the 195-cm Bradley and Larner, who’s just a few centimeters shorter, it was a crammed ride.

They traveled to a village in the foothills of Kamdesh, Nuristan province, along with another Peace Corps volunteer and a future member of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration.

During the treacherous journey, music provided entertainment. “We got along famously during the whole trip. Bradley had a great recall, as did I for the old rock ‘n’ roll tunes,” Gouttierre said. “This was in 1970, so of course we were singing things from the ‘50s and ‘60s primarily. I would think of one and we would all sing it together, and then he’d think of one and we’d all sing it together. This was how we spent our time driving all the way from Kabul to Kamdesh. Plus (Bradley) played harmonica…”

The fun times continued in the high-elevation village of Kamdesh, where Bradley and his traveling companions entertained and educated the locals through music and basketball in front of an audience of about 100.

Said Gouttierre: “Singing rock ‘n’ roll tunes and playing the harmonica, these people loved it … (and) there was almost no communication of an real consistent nature with the rest of the world, right? So here we were four Americans, two Peace Corps volunteers and  Bradley and they just loved it, they wanted more … they didn’t want it to stop.”

As a standout player on the world champion Knicks, Bradley was a natural hit with the Afghans for his basketball-playing tips, including the fundamentals of the hook shot.

“He was gracious (with his time),” Gouttierre said. “I think they never expected him to miss a shot. … They were just overwhelmed.”

For Bradley, “it was an intense, immerson experison to Afghanistan,” said Gouttierre.

Gouttierre’s first encounter with Bradley occurred decades before both men’s professional lives had reached their current status. They remained friendly over the years — they’ve shared similar political views as Democrats, with the former suporting the latter’s run for president in 2000 — and worked together during the latter’s time in the U.S. Senate after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979; Gouttierre gave testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Bradley served on, about the war).

Reflecting on Bradley’s accomplishments as a basketball star, politician, author and intellectual, Gouttierre said the accolades and public admiration aren’t things the former senator brags about or constantly dwells on.

“He has a certain innate humbleness about him, although he’s fully aware of his presence and achievements and how he stacks up against people,” Gouttierre said. “He’s not disingenuous at all about it, but he doesn’t push it. Buf if you ask him, he’ll tell you, and if he’s trusting of you, he’ll reveal how he feels about things.”