This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in September 2001.
Wizards plus Jordan still doesn’t equal playoffs
By Ed Odeven
OK, you can stop holding your breath. His Airness will play for the Washington Wizards this season.
That’s right. It’s official. Michael Jordan has announced he will play for the Eastern Conference’s most pathetic team. Wait a minute, haven’t the New Jersey Nets held exclusive rights to that title for years? That’s a debate that could go on and on until Pascual Coco becomes a household name or until Chris Berman runs out of nicknames.
After getting rid of underachieving malcontents Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Mitch Richmond, the Wizards have gone from pathetic to awful. They are certainly the laughingstock of Washington, D.C., — and remember, there’s normally plenty to mock in a city of perennial political-related scandals.
Even the Los Angeles Clippers have shown signs of improvement over the past few seasons.
Just what will MJ’s Second Comeback Tour mean for basketball? Surely, there will be a dramatic rise in the sale of Wizards memorabilia. (Last time I checked, there were 14 people west of Hagerstown, Md. with Wizards jersey).
Nostalgic banter will clog the airwaves and give sports scribes something to write about. The big question will be: Has MJ lost a step?
The NBA will have to revamp its television schedule to please commish David Stern. Wizards games will be shown constantly, certainly irritating the usually spoiled L.A. Laker lovers.
In short, basketball fans will get the privilege to watch Jordan and a bunch of nobodies do nothing.
That’s right. A 38-year-old shooting guard might be able to score 30 points a game, but can he effectively defend quicker guards on a consistent basis. I doubt it.
Jordan’s new teammates are not exactly a collection of stellar role players like the Bulls had in Chicago for his final few seasons. None of the Wizards has the defensive presence of Dennis Rodman or Scottie Pippen. Nobody on the Wizards has the veteran savvy and clutch shooting ability of Steve Kerr. Nobody on the Wizards is a proven winner save one legendary superstar.
The Wizards’ roster currently consists of Courtney Alexander, Kwame Brown, Hubert Davis, Richard Hamilton, Brendan Haywood, Popeye Jones, Christian Laettner, Tyronn Lue, Tyrone Nesby, Bobby Simmons, Mike Smith, Etan Thomas, David Vanterpool, Loy Vaught, Jahidi White and Chris Whitney.
The roster features a couple of solid players (Alexander and Hamilton), promising rookies (Brown, Haywood and Thomas) and a bunch of players no other team wants.
Jordan says he’s going to play strictly “for the love of the game.” It’s an admirable reason. But isn’t it better to go out on top? Jordan’s last shot clinched the Bulls’ sixth NBA championship — a storybook finish to a magical career.
It’s going to take a miracle for the Wizards to even contend for the Atlantic Division title. Even with Jordan, there’s hardly a rational thinker who believes the Wizards will be better than the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat or Philadelphia 76ers. The Wizards won 19 last season. The Knicks lost 11 home games all season; Allen Iverson’s hustle and dominance is worthy of least 20 wins a year to Philly.
The best-case scenario? The Wizards go 41-41 and get swept in the first round of the playoffs. The worst-case scenario? Is that really necessary? The Wizards haven’t been respectable since underrated scoring machine Bernard King hobbled down the court with two bad knees in the early 1990s.
TOKYO (Oct. 2, 2014) — Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and David Stern are all names synonymous with the NBA’s rise in popularity during the 1980s. But there were, of course, key personnel in the league office building the foundation for success in the decades to come.
Terry Lyons was one of those individuals. In fact, he filled some of the most important roles behind the scenes.
“Terry Lyons’ enormous contributions to our media relations efforts for almost three decades have been a key driver to our growth, domestically and internationally,” Stern was quoted as saying in a statement posted on Lyons’ website. ” He has grown up with the NBA and the NBA has grown up with him. Terry has traveled the world on behalf of the NBA and Team USA, spreading the basketball gospel. He has worked arduously to enhance international media coverage of our teams and our games and he has made the NBA office a welcoming center for the global basketball community and international media. We will miss him greatly, and wish him continued professional success and much personal happiness.”
So how does a man summarize his life’s work? That was a task Terry Lyons handled with precision this week, writing in the third person.
“Terry Lyons was best known to the NBA basketball fans of Japan when he ran the NBA’s international communications department and frequently worked with the many Japanese reporters who covered the league,” he wrote. “Lyons made over a dozen trips to Japan, many to help organize and stage the NBA Japan Games, the series of regular season games the league staged in Tokyo, Yokohama and Saitama. Lyons also work with USA Basketball for the men’s and women’s Olympic teams and that included the 2006 FIBA World Championship when the USA played its games in Sapporo and Saitama.
“Lyons’ career with the NBA spanned from 1981 to 2008. He worked at a record 135 consecutive NBA Finals games dating from 1983 until 2007. Since stepping down from his executive post, Lyons relocated to New England with his family and is enjoying his entrepreneurial projects of launching a sports news site – http://www.DigitalSportsDesk.com – voted by the WGBH “Boston A-List” as a Top 5 sports site. Lyons spends the majority of his time working as Chief Marketing Officer for a technology-based Fantasy Sports company, Hotbox Sports Ventures (http://www,hotboxsports.com). Lyons is also an investor in a popular, casual restaurant and lounge, West End Johnnie’s which is located a block from the TD Garden in Boston.”
The following interview was conducted by email.
Can you give a general overview of your current work projects at Hotbox Sports, Terry Lyons Sports Marketing LLC, Digital Sports Desk and other ventures you are involved in and some short-term and long-term goals? And what’s a typical week for you like – can you provide a basic rundown?
One of the things I enjoy most about my work and the way I can live now, is that there is no such thing as a typical week. I dedicate a significant amount of time as we continue to build Hotbox Sports Ventures, which is a very interesting company that is coming of age in front of my eyes after years of hard work. Hotbox Sports is more of a Business-to-Business technology company than a “typical” Fantasy sports company. We work with sports teams, sports leagues, State and Govt. lotteries, media companies and others to build custom sports fantasy games. We’re doing a lot with the international fubol space and, of course, have great offerings for basketball, baseball and ice hockey – more so that the space everyone else seems to be working in and that being NFL American football. Aside from Hotbox Sports, where I’ve been overseeing Business Development and now some Marketing efforts, I work with some select and very highly regarded clients with Communications plans and projects. In the past few years, I’ve enjoyed working with the AND1 Basketball company, Runner’s World – mainly surrounding the Boston Marathon – the Basketball Hall of Fame (for Michael Jordan’s induction and that of the USA Basketball Dream Team). And, when I can find some time, I love to write and create content for my sports site, DigitalSportsDesk – which is a one-man creation with the help from video provider, CineSport, sports images from Getty Images and my good friends at SportsDirect Inc to keep all the scores and stats up-to-the-minute. It keeps me busy seven days a week which is good, but I can keep pretty flexible hours and can work from anywhere. And, I get to see my kids continue to grow and learn. I see them so much more than when I was at the NBA.
Who are in your view, a few unsung heroes at the NBA league office(s), who have been an integral part of the league’s rise in popularity and global prominence? Can you sum up how they’ve been instrumental in key ways that don’t grab the headlines on a regular basis?
That’s a great question and one I’ve never been asked before. I could name 20 or 30 people for sure, but I’ll pick two. Ski Austin, the head of the NBA Events & Attractions department is retiring this week and he might be one of the league’s all-time most unsung heroes. Like me, he sort of “grew up” at the NBA over the past 25 years or so. He is in charge of every event the NBA conducts, and that includes organizing the NBA All-Star Game, the many preseason international events around the world, the International series of regular season games, this year in Mexico and Britain, all WNBA events, D-League, USA Basketball and the many league functions, like Board of Governors meetings. You name it, Ski’s done it. His staff are all a bunch of hard-working miracle workers with an amazing scope of talent and an equally amazing ability to pay attention to details. He is very well liked and very, very well respected by everyone he’s ever come in contact with via the NBA. The league will miss him a lot.
The other is Matt Winick, the NBA’s Senior VP for Basketball Operations who oversees both the NBA schedule and the scheduling of the officials. Talk about a thankless job. But Matt gets it done, largely by himself. He needs a ton of input from the teams, of course and the team people, while they might like to complain about their game schedules, it’s usually Matt that saves them from themselves when they book other non-NBA events and then fall into the trap of placing their own tenant/team in a bad situation, especially at playoff time and when the building is booked with both NBA and NHL teams. Then, the refs’ schedule is equally important and just as hard to deal with, especially when a handful (or even 1 or 2) refs are injured. Matt is a wonderful colleague, as honest and sincere and hard working as they come. And, full disclosure — he gave me my start at the NBA when I interned for him when he was the Media Relations and Information director in 1980-81. I owe a lot to Matt and he’s now a dear friend and a true unsung hero at the NBA.
Looking back on your 25 years of work at the NBA, and related duties for USA Basketball, what do you consider a handful of top achievements you had an active role in successfully implementing? (Examples: media policies that increased public consumption of the sport, working with the teams’ PR guys in better, smarter ways, etc.)
That’s a tough one. In the 25+ years, we really worked hard to create the entire PR/Press/Media/TV operation at the NBA, from working with the teams and players on policies that guide game-related access and media operations to the digital stat system, to the modern-day analytics that are so prominent now. We were in the pioneering role for that. It really doesn’t seem all that long ago when they were doing it all by hand, hand writing the final boxscore and faxing the paper back to the news papers and to Elias to compile league stats. It was a very steadfast, gradual climb to get it all together as the technology changed for the better. One of the things I’m most proud of was the creation of NBA Photos. I pushed for it, framed it, planned it, staffed it and really enjoyed launching NBA Photos in about 1986. It was all on color slides back then, and the digital world was about to explode, making the vast infrastructure of the league’s images a vital cog for the league. After it launched and grew rapidly – from just two photographers (Andrew D. Bernstein in L.A. and Nat Butler in N.Y./N.J.) – we slid it to NBA Entertainment where the function was much better suited. I’m also proud of NBA.com and the fact the “Global Game” sections still play a vital role for the NBA today. That was my baby! It was great. Now, NBA Photos is part of Getty Images and its a million-dollar business. Sometimes, I think back and just say, “Another brick in the Wall!”
You cite the 1984 Finals, Game 7, Celtics-Lakers showdown on your website as a favorite game? Why did you chose that one?
That was just a very memorable night at the old Boston Garden and the decisive game in an amazing seven-game series. As much as I appreciated every game and what every team brought to the table, and that includes Michael Jordan’s run with the Chicago Bulls, of course. But, those LA Lakers vs Boston Celtics series were the best. Magic was the best player I’d ever, ever seen in person. James Worthy was a SUPERSTAR. Big Game JAMES. Kareem? Cooper. And, the Celtics – with Larry Bird-Robert Parish-Kevin McHale, then DJ, Walton (in ’86) – they were just a team for the ages. Those memories go very deep, the hot nights in the Garden, some 12:30 p.m. L.A. starts, the crowds packed in. Two great, great teams. I could go on and on!
What are the best nicknames bestowed upon NBA players? Teams? Coaches?
Wow. It’s fun to think about some of these and again, I’ve never been asked that question! I have to say the best nickname of all-time is bestowed upon Julius “Dr. J” Erving, also known as “The Doctor,” or my favorite was to just call him “Doc.” Think about it? Is there a better name in sports? Dr. J! He was a guy that was so media friendly and was held in such high esteem, but, forget all that – When he was on the court, he just dominated. His “In-Game” dunks were the best ever. He changed the game but he was always so courteous and gave the props to Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins and some others. I had the great fortune to watch Dr. J play in the old ABA when I was growing up, not far from where he grew up. I never saw him in high school, but I did see him play when he was at UMass and then with the Virginia Squires and NY Nets, before he went to the 76ers. — My No. 2 might go the the great Seattle Sonics guard “Slick Watts.”
Based on what you observed and heard about, which writer(s) and/or broadcasters asked the toughest questions and best questions after games to players and coaches?
The best questions always came from the crew of team beat writers who traveled with the clubs and saw all 82 games. They knew the teams they covered and had to be critical when needed. For the most part, the NBA had a legion of very good reporters and broadcasters covering the sport in those key years – call it 1970-2000 or so. Then, the budgets crushed the newspapers, so many folded, fewer were assigned to travel the beat and it all went downhill fast.It is too hard to name just a few, but, I’ll try: Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated comes right to mind. Peter Vecsey of the NY Post really created a niche as the NBA league-wide notes columnist and he wrote massive columns three or for times per week. All good stuff, unless he ripped you! David Aldridge did (and still does) a great job, Ron Thomas, Greg Boeck and David Dupree at Washington, then the USA Today paper, Ian Thomsen of the Boston Globe, then the International Herald Tribune, then SI.com was brilliant. Philly’s Phil Jasner, Dallas Ed Sefko, Denver/SA reporter Mike Monroe, Boston’s Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullen and Leigh Montville all deserve mention. Montville is the best writer in the land. Nowadays it’s so different and harder, as everything is condensed and it’s a 24/7 news cycle. Adrian Woj (Wojnarowski) of Yahoo just kicks ass now. He’s alone as the top guy.
People saw David Stern on TV for years, doing the NBA Draft presentation with the lottery picks, for instance. What’s similar, and different, about his personality in the big boardroom with the league’s head honchos compared to, say, when he’s at a local diner at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday in Anytown USA?
David’s persona and ever-lasting image and legacy of being the hard-charging Commissioner/CEO of the NBA will live on forever. I think he’s the same in the board room as he is if he’s ordering breakfast. He expects and demands competency. Period. That’s all. He prefers perfection, but simply demands getting the best from a person, whether they be an NBA employee who was cashing a check with his name at the bottom, or from anyone. He has tremendous compassion and he’ll – LITERALLY – drop everything to help someone in need. That’s the stuff no one ever hears about, but that’s the way he wants it, and I respect that. I was able to, errr, SURVIVE, or make it THRIVE, really, because of that high expectation. And, what do I say to my kids? We have one golden rule… “Try your very best.” – Thankfully, they abide by that rule. And, it works. On everything.
If you were stranded on a deserted island with only three books about the NBA (such as biographies, history, etc.), which three would you want to have close by?
I’ve been asked the Desert Island Albums/Discs but never NBA books! You’d have to have the NBA Encyclopedia, although its getting a little dated. It’s a great resource. I’d cheat and get an official NBA Guide and Register delivered every year! That’s three. For fun? “Breaks of the Game” by (David) Halberstam.
What do you miss most about the demanding workload of the NBA? What do you miss least about the job?
I think I miss the work with USA Basketball the most. It was an amazing ride. I worked on the NBA’s interaction with the ’84 and ’88 teams when the NBA threw together some summer-time all-star teams to scrimmage the Olympic team as they prepped for L.A. and Seoul. Then, of course, I was intimately involved in the ’89-92 formation of the Dream Team, then every event from ’92 to the 2008 Olympics. Wow, it was an amazing ride. Best memory? Antonio McDyess’ put-back at Sydney 2000 when we were in that tough game against Lithuania. That locker room celebration was unreal. What passion. Vince Carter was the man! KG (Kevin Garnett), Ray Allen might’ve been one of the best USA international players ever, together with Jason Kidd and David Robinson. Of course the 1956 team had Bill Russell who was THE BEST player ever, NBA and Globally.
Miss least? The travel and the LONG travel, not in distance but the sheer number of days away from home. Sometimes 30+ days away from the wife and kids. In Sydney 2000, that was tough, as my youngest was 1 or so … But then we did it again to Brisbane for the Goodwill Games in 2001. Then, you’d barely get home and head out for another month on the NBA’s busy October preseason tilt. It was just too much and it was magnified when I had the kids at home. I think the USA and NBA PR guys were gone for about 45-50 days this summer.
Can you cite five players and five coaches who would immediately come to mind as top candidates for the NBA’s all-time all-interview team? And what makes each of them a worthy part of the list?
Players: 1-through-5 – All Charles Barkley! He’s the best – All time.
Seriously, I’ll list them.
PLAYERS 1. Charles 2. Julius Erving 3. David Robinson 4. Magic Johnson 5. Yao Ming (he was unreal and I name him to represent another 50-75 international greats)
COACHES: 1. Jerry Sloan 2. Rudy Tomjanovich 3. Pat Riley 4. Hubie Brown 5. Jack Ramsay
The late Dr. Jack Ramsay had an infectious love for the game and a gift for sharing it with others in so many ways — through broadcasts, through books, through clinics, through conversations, for instance. The same could be said for Sixers stat man and info guru Harvey Pollack, who in his own right is an institution within the NBA. In a nutshell, what have guys like these two done to put their stamp on the sport within the larger framework of American society?
Funny, as I named Dr Jack and then saw the next question right as I did it! Let me say this, In all of the years at all of the events, the NBA Finals were always the best, the most competitive, the best basketball in the world. After a Finals game, even though the game ended at Midnight and we worked until 2 a.m. or later, there was NOTHING better than to go back to the hotel to unwind a bit, and sit and listen to Jack Ramsay holding court at a small table, usually with his ESPN crew or the NBA/ESPN Radio guys and gals. It was heaven. Jack and Hubie taught me a lot about the game and I was a sponge for that insight. Thankfully, I grew up in a “basketball family” so I had a pretty good foundation and a real appreciation of the game.
Harvey is one of a kind. Super Stats. I always enjoyed his company in Philly and he is a good friend. He belongs in the Hall, right where he is as a Bunn Award honoree, just like my old boss, Brian McIntyre.
Based on your experiences, what’s the most important advice you could dish out to any pro team’s or pro league’s PR department to build a foundation for success?
Build relationships. Period. Honor those relationships with credibility. Do what you say you are going to do. Be reliable. Case closed.
To the PRs, all of the above, but to add advice to not be afraid to say, I don’t know but I can try to find out for you.
Return calls and messages promptly. Pick up the phone and don’t rely on email.
From your point of view, are players too media savvy these days, what with the ability to deliver their own message in so many ways via Facebook, Twiter, YouTube, Instagram, social media and other means? Does that take away from some of the spontaneity of interviews that help generate good stories?
No. I think the players are evolving alongside of the media. That’s fine. And face it, the leagues, teams and players can take an unfiltered message right to the masses. That’s the way it is. The “traditional” media have to “get over it” and move on, build a new model, It’s a whole new world and it starts tomorrow.
Similarly, what are the biggest changes and job demands that team and league PR staff face nowadays compared to when you joined the league office in the early 1980s?
The massive changes in technology are a blessing and a curse. We were typing the news on IBM selectric typewriters with broken ribbons. The amount of time saved by better tech is mind-boggling. The Internet changed EVERYTHING for PR, especially when you think that I had to budget and spend a fortune to fax stuff around on long distance phone lines to put a piece of paper in a broadcasters or newspaper reporters hands. The challenges are all still time management, managing up and down and sideways, when it comes to your bosses, staffs, players, coaches, fans, media, wanna-be-media, so on and so on. 24 hours a day is simply not enough for a good PR guy, but you’ve got to manage the time and your life, too.
Of your favorite league stories – quirky, funny, candid tales — beyond the headlines and/or games, which ones bring you the most amusement when something reminds you of them?
Walking the Barcelona Ramblas with Charles and somehow, finding a quiet place to enjoy a few cold refreshments stands out as a pretty good story. And, I always say, when the game was done, the last writer finished and the game was in the books, so to say, Brian McIntyre would ALWAYS hand me a cold beer and say, “T, We Fooled Them Again! – Good job” – Til this day, just typing that phrase brings tears to my eyes – Laughter, and joy!
Can you pinpoint a childhood memory or influential figure that sparked your desire to pursue a career in sports and specifically NBA PR? Can it be narrowed down to one thing or a confluence of events and mentors?
From childhood, I can vividly remember watching the NBA on ABC and the parquet floor of the Boston Garden – on a BLACK and WHITE TV. When I saw it in color when we finally got a color TV, it was amazing. Then, in ’81 to be working there and being ALLOWED to actually step on that floor pregame? To be in RED AUERBACH’s office? It was a dream come true.
An influential person was certainly Matt Winick, noted above. But, thinking back, I’d also add Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s and his longtime asst coach John Kresse – who went on to a fantastic career at College of Charleston – they named the building after him! Coach Kresse gave me a tour of St. John’s and told me about a “new” major “Sports/Athletic Administration” – a business in sports degree. That was a key moment! Another, was Bob McKillop of Davidson. He was the coach at Trinity and he helped me a lot and we’ve kept in touch all of these years, ’77 on. He is the best coach in the NCAAs. No doubt.
Which compliments you received from your time at the NBA bring you the most satisfaction? (And if you recall who said or wrote them, that’s good info.)
It’s a funny question, when the game was done and you were monitoring the post game and the writers were all tapping/typing away. That clatter was like fine music to my ears. They had enough info, good service, accurate stats, working electricity, decent light, access, access to the players and coaches.I think I was my toughest judge and critic, so, I looked for those moments. And yes, when I decided to step down, the compliments were plenty. The best? All the writers chipped in and bought me every single Rolling Stones CD ever made. All of them. I was speechless. Seriously, I opened that present and was in a daze for about 10-15 minutes.
Is the NBA effectively using its Hall of Famers, top 50 players and past icons enough to promote the game, in the U.S. and abroad, and share its rich history with younger generations?
Yes. very effectively and ever-growing. Since the NBA at 50, the league has done a GREAT job on that. Ask guys like Clyde Drexler, Darryl Dawkins, Doc, Dikembe (Mutombo), Bob Lanier to mention a few.
The NBA’s global growth is a fascinating thing to learn about. During your travels for Team USA exhibitions, Olympic games, promotional events, etc., which locales outside the U.S. made the biggest impression on you for the fans’ enthusiasm and love for the game?
In no particular order …
Japan, for sure. 34-35,000 in the Tokyo Dome was a pretty serious statement. And, we had great games there. Mexico – Great, passionate NBA fans. Lithuania – Small country – GREAT players. Medals to prove it. Australia – A country where SPORTS matter. Brazil – They gave us OSCAR! Spain and Italy and France – The cornerstone of the NBA’s international footprint in 1980. Look how it’s grown.
For you, what was most memorable, most special, about the Atlanta Hawks’ 1988 journey to the Soviet Union? (And since I’m writing these questions … what’s most memorable and special about NBA games and events over the years in Japan and Asia?)
On Japan, I did a small variation of the story I mentioned about me and Brian sharing a beer. Most of the time, Brian was not on site for the NBA international games. I was running them, and Brian was dealing with the ring ceremony or whatever. I took it upon myself to take a first-time Japan Games staffer and to walk them back out to the empty court when the game was long over. I’d remind them that a few hours ago, there were 34,000 people in those seats and they all enjoyed their experience. Chances are they would tell the story about that game for the rest of their lives. I would remind each NBA employee that they had played a HUGE part in that experience. They made some fans in Japan happy that day and they probably helped create a ton of new fans. That was a pretty powerful message and it was never lost on anyone.
Yao Ming’s time in the NBA and the impact it had on building China’s fan base and Chinese media coverage of the game cannot be overstated. So would a breakout NBA star from India have the same impact there?
The Yao Ming story was unimaginable. I always admired the way he dealt with it all, and let me tell ya, we put him through the old NBA PR machine! His grace, humor, professionalism was second to none and he did it bi-lingual style! A great page in the NBA’s history and a sure Hall-of-Famer.
On India, I have to simply state – “I don’t know.” – I would love to assume the impact would be as big, but I’m just not sure if it is possible. The player would have to be as good as MJ or Yao or Dirk (Nowitzki) or Pau (Gasol) or Manu (Ginobili) or Tony Parker or Steve Nash! (many others could be added!)
From a PR standpoint and the public’s perception that goes with it, how have the NFL and Roger Goodell handled the Ray Rice case? Would David Stern have managed the situation in a much different way? And how would you have suggested the NFL respond to press inquiries and public scrutiny of the case in recent weeks?
Out of respect to my colleagues at the NFL, I’ll take a pass on this one. It’s a mess and we all know it. Let’s just leave it and hope something good comes in the future.
What are your regular must-read and must-listen sources of NBA news and commentary these days?
I like the NBA on TNT coverage the best. Ernie, Kenny (Smith) and Charles. Everyone else does a very good job, but Ernie Johnson is the MAN. Mike Breen does a great job on play-by-play for the big NBA games. I like him alot, as a broadcaster and as a person. He’s the real deal. Doug Collins does a great job, too. On ESPN, their best guy, Jay Bilas, does the NCAA games. The all-time best, Marv Albert, is just that – THE BEST! Up here in Boston, Mike Gorman does a very good job on the local Comcast SportsNet and his longtime sidekick, Tommy Heinsohn makes me laugh every night. If every single call went the Celtics’ way, Heinsohn would still be claiming the refs were against the Celtics. He sort of mocks the game but it’s pretty funny. The problem is the fans actually believe him and they don;t realize he’s a cartoon. I enjoy Tommy’s banter and he always has a smile and a story for us, and I admire him greatly. Same with Satch Sanders – who frequently does analysis and functions for the Celtics. Talk about class. That is Satch. He is what the NBA is all about.
March 2018 update: Marc Stein is the high-profile NBA national writer/pundit for The New York Times after joining the paper last fall.
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.
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, Bob Ford 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.
This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun 10 years ago.
Headline: Ex-NBA star giving back to Denver community
By Ed Odeven
April 17, 2004
His story is better than any buzzer-beating basket. His reality beats any fantasy.
Micheal Ray Richardson overcame the path of self-destruction and now does all he can to keep others away from the perils of drugs.
As the community ambassador of the Denver Nuggets, Richardson is a visible figure in his home state, a tireless spokesman for one of the most important topics of our time: drugs.
“I speak to kids every day about how important it is to stay in school, to carefully choose your friends and beware of the dangers about being around the wrong people since they are always getting involved with drugs,” Richardson was saying Saturday during a phone conversation.
“My speech is really from my history. I think that a person like me has a lot to offer young kids.”
A former first-round draft pick of the New York Knicks (fourth overall in 1978, two spots ahead of a guy from French Lick, Ind., named Larry Bird), Richardson quickly established himself as one of the league’s top point guards in the early ’80s. He was a brilliant defender — Sugar Ray, as the fans would say, led the NBA in steals three times — an exceptional passer and a first-rate scorer. (His name was one I’d repeat over and over again, consciously and unconsciously, after watching a game. While playing ball on NYC-area playgrounds, kids and adults used to say they were doing their best “Sugar” impersonations.)
The former University of Montana guard appeared destined for superstardom. Knickerbocker fans proclaimed that he was the second coming of Walt “Clyde” Frazier.
It seemed he had everything going for him.
But Richardson fell into a trap that befell many: he became addicted to cocaine.
“If you go looking for trouble, you’re going to find it,” he told Jet Magazine in an October 2003 interview.
Which is exactly what happened.
In 1986, Richardson was banned from the NBA after testing positive for cocaine for a third time, as ordered by NBA commissioner David Stern. At the time, he was playing for the New Jersey Nets, his third NBA team.
But wait, the story gets better.
Richardson got clean, put his life back in order and began a 14-year professional career overseas, playing in France and Italy and Yugoslavia and Israel. He retired in 2001 at the age of 46. He says he loved every minute of the experiences he had playing in Europe.
No doubt 22 years as a pro left Richardson with a gold mine of memories. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time on Saturday to ask him about all of them. So I decided to ask him two simple questions: Who was the best player you ever played against in Europe? And who was the best player you ever played with in the U.S.?
“The best I ever played against over there was Bob McAdoo,” Richardson says of the Hall of Fame forward who averaged 30-plus points a game for three successive seasons with the Buffalo Braves in the early ’70s. “He was 41 when I got over there and he was still putting the ball in the basket.”
Richardson says Otis Birdsong, the vastly underrated Nets guard, was the best teammate he ever had.
Reflecting on his life, Richardson says Stern is, and always will be, a special person to him.
“He’s not only the NBA commissioner (to me), he’s a man,” Richardson says. “He has feelings. He has a heart. I know what happened to me, but he didn’t really have a choice. But I respect that and I dealt with it because I put myself in that predicament. So I had to get myself out. I have a lot of respect for what he’s done for me.”
Nowadays, people are gaining the same respect for Richardson. His week-to-week schedule is filled with activities that make a difference in the lives of countless people. Some days he speaks at schools, other days he’s busy helping out at a charity fund-raiser.
On May 5, in Bologna, Italy, where he used to play, he’ll participate in a charity basketball game to raise money for children with leukemia. And yes, Richardson will lace up his high-tops for the game.
After retiring in 2001, Richardson began running clinics for the NBA in Europe. He took his current job with the Nuggets last year.
“It’s been great. It gives me an opportunity to get back into the NBA family,” says Richardson, who lives in Aurora, Colo., with his wife and two young children. “It gives me the chance to work for a great franchise and a great guy like Kiki (Nuggets general manger Kiki Vandeweghe), plus the team is winning. So this has been a real good year.”
Our conversation abruptly turned to the Nuggets’ first-round playoff series against the Western Conference’s top-seeded team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, which starts today.
And what do you think of the Nuggets’ chances against the Wolves? I asked him.
“I think it goes seven (games),” he says, “because I think that we can beat them. In basketball anything can happen.”
The same is true in life. Micheal Ray Richardson is living proof.
David Stern wouldn’t allow Chris Paul to go work for the Lakers for the 2011-12 season, the proposed trade rejected by the commissioner because it was perceived to be a “steal” for Los Angeles.
Instead, as you know, the New Orleans Hornets sent the point guard to the Clippers. That was OK’d by the league czar.
Paul had the same home arena, Staples Center, but a different cast of teammates and a franchise with a history of failure and an unbelievable amount of instability in the past few decades. The Lakers have built dynasty after dynasty, decade after decade, starting in the franchise’s Minneapolis days…
Now what makes the Lakers’ pursuit of Paul and the Clippers’ pursuit of head coach Doc Rivers an interesting comparison is the fact that the commissioner has a say in the decision. (According to the collective bargaining agreement, coaches are not permitted to be traded for players.)
But should the Clippers be able to trade a draft pick(s) to the Celtics to land Rivers? Should Stern demand that the Celtics sever ties with Rivers as step one, followed by a normal hiring process in which a proposed player trade has nothing to do with the possibility of Rivers leaving Boston to go work in L.A.?
Interesting that the Lakers and Celtics, the league’s most successful teams, both find themselves at opposite ends of the trade spectrum in back-to-back seasons.